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Am I an Artist?

Copyright 2005 Andy Richards

Copyright 2005 Andy Richards

The title, to photographers and probably most “other medium” artists, should be pretty clearly “tongue-in-cheek.” After all, photography IS art. Isn’t it? The idea for this blog was partly fueled by comments by two of my friends, on last week’s topic about digital medium, Kerry and Stewart. It may just be a logical extension of that topic. But coincidentally, I saw, and clicked on Canadian outdoor photographer, Darwin Wiggett’s Oopoomoo blog, “Photographers – Artists in Denial?” I have heard a number of times, recently, from numerous observers, that the general public does not think photography is “art.” Yet, many of us as photographers take for granted that what we do is “art.”

Let’s look at an ostensibly authoritative source. The Oxford Dictionary defines “art” as: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Photography is most certainly a visual expression and most certainly involves human skill. But does it involve “creative skill and imagination?” Sometimes. But is photography real art?

Many of us as photographers take for granted that what we do is “art.”

My take-away from Darwin’s blog (he is a “friend” on Facebook, so I will take the liberty of calling him by his first name, in the spirit of my own blog, which tends to be very informal – hope he won’t take offense) was that many photographers are attracted to the gear and technical aspects of the “craft” of photography, but that they often hide behind it, rendering their photography, eventually, ultimately unfulfilling. He suggests that what most photographers are really seeking (but may not admit or recognize it) is a creative outlet. I inferred from the blog that some men may think “art” is not “manly.” J I believe we observe, think, and write from our own experiences and that those experiences are probably paralleled by many of our contemporaries. So, I will follow that lead, and suggest a different view, based on my own experience over the last nearly 40 years (not to challenge Darwin’s thesis – I believe he is correct – but to suggest another view).

Leaves Floating on Water Copyright 2007  Andy Richards

Leaves Floating on Water
Copyright 2007 Andy Richards

Painting, drawing and sculpting all have things in common. They are visual representations. They take skills beyond just having a creative imagination. There is as much “craft” to these arts, as there is to photography, albeit perhaps less mechanical and scientific in most instances.

Darwin is, I am sure, right about many men (and maybe a few women, though I really don’t want to go down the “Mars vs. Venus” road here). J By my reading, the main point of his blog (and indeed perhaps of the Oopoomoo site), is that photography is really about creative art and that the technical stuff, once mastered, will not satisfy the “artist” in us. It’s hard not to agree with that.

It is one thing to call yourself an “artist.” It is another thing altogether to be an “artist.”

But one of his sub-themes was almost a generalization about how some of us come to photography from other serious (“professional”?) endeavors like science, medicine, technology and IT; are attracted by the science and technology of photography as a “craft;” and try to become photography “craftsmen.” He suggests that we shy away from being an “artist,” because our view of “artists” because of our perception their unique “personality.” Note that I emphasize “our perception.” I don’t think for a minute that Wiggett is suggesting that those “traits” he lists are accurate – just that many have the perception that they are (I won’t quote him here – instead, I highly recommend you read the well-written blog). I have no doubt that what he writes is true of many photographers – but not all.

I have no problem calling myself an “artist” – not for the reasons posited in the blog, anyway

I am a self-avowed “gearhead.” My dad, and his dad were engineers (electrical and civil) and both were skilled with the use of tools for mechanics and woodworking. I inherited some of their aptitude and certainly their love for the work and perhaps more to the point – fine tools and skills. But I was not attracted to photography by “gear” or scientific technique. I was attracted by fine photographs made by other photographers. I wanted to do that – but I wanted to do it by bringing my own vision to images. So, while I agree with his end conclusion – that we need to focus on the creative process of photography in order for it to be a sustaining thing for us, In my own case, I don’t think it is a lack of attention to, or any reticence about the “art” side of photography. I have no problem calling myself an “artist” – not for the reasons posited in the blog, anyway.

Zoomed Colored Lights Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Zoomed Colored Lights
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

It is one thing to call yourself an “artist.” It is another thing altogether to be an “artist.” I think many of us who came to photography rather than being attracted by the craft, were art appreciators. I played in the band and orchestra in high school, sang in the choir and chorale in college, and took piano lessons as a kid. I love music. But I was never talented enough to call myself an artist or musician. I could play, but I couldn’t “make music.” I have always been in awe of those who can sit down with a piano or a guitar and “make” a new song. Art it very similar and one of the deep-seated fears of many of us is that we can master the “craft” and we can mimic the best. But can we create our own art? That is an area where, in my view, resources like the Oopoomoo site (which is dedicated to the creative side of photography) can be invaluable.

I think many of us who came to photography rather than being attracted by the craft, were art appreciators.

I have images that I am pretty happy with. Some of them have been purchased by others. Some of them have “won” juried selections in art galleries. Some of them hang on walls in offices and living rooms (not just my own J ). Many of my images get lots of “oohs and ahs” from my friends and acquaintances and the occasional complete stranger. But I will probably always have the nagging thought that someone else has done it and mine is just mimicking what has already been done. That it is not creative and is not art. I’ll bet this resonates with some other photographers.

Fall Color Reflection Copyright 2012  Andy Richards

Fall Color Reflection
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I have no formal art or photographic training. I took an art appreciation course in college. I have read about art, and especially about classic composition. My brother has a college degree in art and he definitely “creates” imagery as a painter, drawing, and with computer graphics. They are unique and from within. We have both sold images and had our work “win” things (him perhaps substantially more than me – but that is what he does). Is he an artist? I think so. Am I an artist? A wise friend and talented and creative photographer recently said something like this to me (paraphrase), whether something is art is determined not by the creator, but by the appreciative viewer. In that case, I have made many a photographer an “artist.” I definitely can appreciate art. But can I create it? I guess that is up to the viewer.

Has the Digital Medium Changed Everything?

Shops in Jackson, Wyoming Copyright  2012  Rich Pomeroy (taken with my Canon G11)

Shops in Jackson, Wyoming
Copyright 2012 Rich Pomeroy (taken with my Canon G11)

38 years ago, I became fascinated with photography, as a hobby and art form. My inspiration at the time was a college professor who was an accomplished landscape and nature photographer. I lived in Vermont, which is pretty much a nature studio, so it seemed pretty natural that I pursued outdoor and nature subjects, and in particular, “landscape.”

The “medium” of photography back then would seem much like “alchemy” to the youth of today. We used strange, cellular strips of stuff called “film,” which had silver crystals which changed from light to dark when exposed to light, to create 2-dimensional “images.” After exposing them to light, we immersed them in a smelly, chemical bath and then after drying them out, we had images that could either be projected with a beam of light, or printed (with yet another silver crystal, light-exposure, chemical bath process).

“Not everybody trusts paintings, but people believe photographs”

Today, most of us have moved on to a digital capture, digital presentation, or printing process which is much more “behind-the-scenes” mathematical, but much easier for most of us to accomplish, because it uses computer technology that today, most of us take for granted and most of us own. The “math,” as I noted is behind the scenes for the most part, with relatively user-friendly, graphical user interfaces (like sliders, circles, brushes, and drawing tools).

Tug Boat in Caribbean Waters Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Tug Boat in Caribbean Waters
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We are still making images and for the most part, as presented, they appear to be the same. But is it? “Old school” photography was “realistic.” The whole idea was to try to depict a photographic image that looked as “real” as the scene being “caputured.” Wasn’t it? As a relatively new medium, photography was very distinct from painting. One of our most famous American landscape photographers, Ansel Adams, was reputed to remark that: “not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.”

Today’s reality is that observers simply do not trust most photographs any more

That may have been true during his era, but alas, I doubt that is true today. Indeed, I often hear the remark, “that has obviously been ‘photoshopped.'” And, I frequently have people ask me about my own images: do you “enhance” them? A couple years back, a New York Times photographer was fired for “enhancing” his photographs, by moving some of the subjects around. Today’s reality is that observers simply do not trust most photographs any more.  Edit:  I was corrected, this morning, by a source of the highest integrity.  No New York Times photographer has, to my (or my source) knowledge ever been fired for “manipulating” images.  I was recalling an event about a Los Angeles Times photographer during the Iraq War.  It was widely publicized at the time and he apparently cloned-in persons rather than moving anything around.  There is enough misinformation around without me unnecessarily adding to the mix.  My point is/was that photographs do get “manipulated” by different persons for different reasons.  I might be a “bad” thing in some instances.  It is not always “bad” and “manipulate” very often takes on an unneeded pejorative slant in this context.

The real truth is that the photographic art form has never really depicted “reality.” You cannot hear, smell, or feel a photograph or its surroundings. It is, at best, a fleeting instance of time—frozen. It is a momentary image “captured” by whatever medium is currently the best suited for such capture (and, perhaps, best suited for the photographer’s intended result). It is up to the photographer to create in the viewer the reaction and emotion to the image that creates a “being there” kind of result (whatever and wherever the photographer intends that to be).

Photographic art form has never really depicted “reality.”

The reportage “branch” of photography (as in the New York Times example above), and photography intended for evidentiary or scientific use must, almost by definition approach “reality” as best the photographer can present it (and even then, it can only be that photographer’s best interpretation of reality. The shooter must persuasively depict the subject in a manner that supports the proposition being illustrated. And, since in news, scientific illustration, and evidence, the proposition is factual reality, the image must accurately portray that proposition. In my view, in virtually every other kind of photographic imagery (or in other words, artistic imagery), there is no need to be so realistically accurate.

Fall Color Abstract; Pete's Lake Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Fall Color Abstract; Pete’s Lake
Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I absolutely digitally enhance my images

So, in artistic photography, the photographer is free to create (or as Ansel Adams once also said, “make”) his imagery. I said above that I am frequently asked if I “enhance” my images before printing or displaying them. The answer is yes, absolutely! Why wouldn’t I? I generally have one of two (sometimes the result is a blend of both) objectives in my landscape imagery. I want to recreate on screen or print what I “saw” at the scene; and/or I want to enhance a scene that fits within my imagination of what could have been. Of course, sometimes, in post shooting review (and – rarely – during a shoot), I will envision something more surreal or unrealistic and think it may still be a cool art form. But mostly, I am looking for “realism.”

I keep using the word, “realism,” and perhaps it appears, somewhat inconsistently. Realism is one of the funny words that (in the words of a famous U.S. President), “depends on your definition of the word.” My definition is set out above (what I saw, or what could have been). I am not shooting evidentiary or reportage shots. In that genre, it seems important that we depict, as closely as possible, what “was.” But even then, it is not really possible to have a uniform, concrete definition of “real.” If 3 people come upon a scene and are asked to describe it afterward in their “minds-eye,” I guarantee you will get 3 different descriptions. We see arrangement of elements differently. We remember things that struck us and they are likely different than others saw and remembered. We perceive color, light and contrast differently. So, it’s very difficult to photographically represent factual realism – because that is a moving target.

Chili Ristra, New Mexico   copyright 2008  Andy Richards

Chili Ristra, New Mexico copyright 2008 Andy Richards

Realism depends on your definition of realism

Yes, I believe digital photography has “changed the world,” and is very different from film photography. But I don’t think the fundamental idea of what images represent have really changed at all. It may be easier for more of us to “manipulate” images. By and large that is at least a neutral thing, and in my view, a positive thing. And, “manipulation” of imagery is not a “new” result of the digital age. Alchemic photographers spent hours and hours in the darkroom, “manipulating” images. What digital has done is opened up a whole new world of manipulability, to a much larger set of users. In terms of my comment above about nowaday observers not “believing” images, I have no problem with having a healthy skepticism about what a photographer says the image depicts. But that doesn’t mean disbelief. And, as shooters and observers, we have – perhaps – a responsibility to view imagery in context. Art is art. I am not sure what real is or what is real. J

Sony α7R; a Second Look

In May, I did a brief “review” of my new, Sony α7R camera, after some limited use during my recent Ireland Trip. I noted there, that I have made a rather complete changeover from Nikon DSLR gear to the Sony mirrorless system. This is a bit like jumping off a cliff and I am still in “free fall, at the moment.” There were really two components to this change. I have, for years, carried at least 2 camera bodies, for different reasons. In the film days, it was common for me to carry both bodies, each loaded with a different film for different uses. I would also often have different lenses mounted on each so I could “react” to situations.

I am still in “Free Fall”

As my photography got more streamlined and deliberate, and as I moved into digital, I was less likely to carry the two “locked and loaded,” so-to-speak, and usually just had a “backup” along in case of an emergency. Because of the considerable cost of owning more than one DSLR body, I often had a “mix and match” of a DSLR and a Point and Shoot, or a FF DSLR and an APS backup, or something similar. And, I often found that the backup became a dust-gathering door stop (i.e., when I carried the D800 and a D7000 backup – the D7000 was a wonderful camera that, unfortunately, didn’t get much use). So part of the changeover involved the first step of acquiring (in lieu of the D7000) a Sony mirrorless camera that was nearly Point and Shoot size, but would – in a pinch – accommodate my Nikkor lenses (albeit without their AF capability). With that change, I was right at the edge of the cliff. I used it and loved it and before long, I was jumping.

I used it and loved it and before long, I was jumping

But back to the “free fall.” I sold the D800 and “pro” zoom lenses and “traded” for the Sony α7R “full frame” mirrorless, and a pair of “pro-quality” zooms to nearly match the Nikkor lenses. I don’t use “nearly” qualitatively – it is simply that there is no way to make the proverbial “apples—to—apples” comparison. I would expect the Zeiss designed 24-70 to be at least the equivalent of the Nikkor in terms of image quality.  I don’t have enough experience with the Sony “pro” quality lenses to know, but one would hope that they have gained from their experience working with Zeiss.  My comparison was more the “range” of these lenses.  And, of courses, it is difficult to favorably compare f4 lenses with f2.8 lenses.

At the time of this writing, I still haven’t really had a chance to give the α7R an intensive “workout.” That happens, more often than not, when I make a dedicated trip to one of my favorite, and familiar photo destinations and have a little “alone time,” with the gear. But in the meantime, I continue to study and experiment with the camera. One of the things I really miss in our “digital” world is the ability to go to a bookstore camera section and browse the “about” books. I really miss the Magic Lantern Series. There are now 3 books on the α7/α7R series written in English (and 2 more – one each in German and Japanese). But they don’t really measure up to the old Magic Lantern books, which were kind of like an annotated and clarified “manual.” Of the current books, 2 are more of a photography “how to” series with the A7 model kind of “grafted” into the series. The detail about the camera is generally superficial – “same old, same old.” I recently reviewed the third one here. But from it, I did learn some new things, and have some of the unique advantages of the Sony mirrorless bodies underscored. I will also be reviewing the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom soon, so stay tuned for both of those future blogs.

I would love to have a “raw” only version of this camera, without a lot of the menu and processor “bloat” that comes with these “gee-whiz” features

I wanted to touch on a few things I am really growing to like about the α7 body here, however.

All of the new digital cameras are amazingly customizable. And most of them have added a lot of “computer” functions internally. They can be set to do traditional “post-processing” in-camera and do HDR, panoramic stitching, and many other impressive technological things. But there is a rub: This is, for the most part, only available if you choose to shoot in a format other than raw (even if you shoot raw+jpg, most of these “processing-like” features are disabled). I am sure it is as much my curmudgeonly personality as anything, but I have resolutely refused to capture anything other than raw images on my camera (unless by accident or by specific, limited design). So I don’t get much from them. While I am sure that incremental cost of adding in these features is small, and the demand for them is fairly high, I would love to have a “raw” only version of this camera, without a lot of the menu and processor “bloat” that comes with these “gee-whiz” features. But there are some new tech features I really love.

The EVF on the A7 series is impressive

EVF

The first is its rather remarkable Electronic Viewfinder (“EVF”). My first serious point and shoot digital camera was the Canon G-series. I owned 2 of them over time, with the last being the G-12. They had optical viewfinders, much like the rangefinder cameras of old, replete with parallax issues and frame coverage calculations. I did have an opportunity to play around with a couple of the early-issue electronic viewfinders, however. They were often black and white, sluggish to respond and just not really receptive to my style of photography. I have always been an SLR/DSLR user, and my innate shooting style involves an eye-level viewfinder. It may be a “rut” that I need to get myself out of (my friend, mentor and consummate pro photographer, James Moore, commented to me once that a large percentage – perhaps majority – of great landscape images were taken from a waist-level point of view. Based on that observation, before I sold my DSLR gear, I had begun working with a waist-level finder. But it still was attached to the optical viewfinder on the camera). These days I have been to experiment more with the rear LCD as a compositional tool.

On this model, I actually prefer it to my old, bright, DSLR optical finder

The EVF on these modern cameras (and particularly on the A7) are pretty impressive. On this model, I actually prefer it to my old, bright, optical finder on the D800. The technology has advanced to the point that I am unable to discern a difference between the optical and electronic view finder, in terms of its “real time” presentation of the scene in front of me.

One of the most impressive features is the viewfinder’s ability to tell me what the lens is “seeing.” By setting the camera to its “Aperture Priority” setting, as I open and close the aperture, the viewfinder brightens and darkens as the lens will see. But maybe more importantly, it also gives you a very accurate approximation of the depth of field of a given aperture. It is – in effect – a “real time” DOF preview! If you don’t like that, it is possible to override that and the A7 cameras’ have a traditional DOF preview button. The same behavior gives you a great indication of the brightness of the resulting capture. It is – in my view – an intuitive way of shooting—especially in a more active, handheld shooting situation.

It is – in effect – a “real time” DOF preview

Another thing the “digital” nature of the EVF does, is allows you to customize what you see in that viewfinder. Unlike the Optical view finder, which can have certain fixed items (such as the aperture, etc.), you can have a superimposed item, such as a real-time histogram, or the electronic level indicator in the EFV. I use the level indicator all the time (and, like the bubble levels I use when tripod mounted—it is a constant reminder that I have a “cockeyed” natural view of things :-) ).

Finally, these viewfinders make 100% viewfinder coverage possible with a much smaller footprint and cost. The α7R is 100%, which makes composition easier, in my view.

The A7r viewfinder is 100%

Sony 36mp Sensor

An update on the Sensor. Although I had read some “rumors” about the sensor, it has been widely speculated that (since Sony manufactures the sensors for many Nikon cameras, including the D800/800e) that the 36 megapixel, sans low pass filter, sensor in this camera was the identical sensor Nikon puts in the D800e. I have recently read that although there can be some expected similarities, this sensor was actually newly developed by Sony for the A7r and is purported to be slightly newer and therefore “better.” I am not sure anyone other than a very specialized user, or an extreme “pixel peeper,” is really going to be able to tell the difference in real life usage. I can only say that I have been pretty impressed with the IQ (particularly in low light and higher ISO examples) of all of the Sony Sensors in my recent experience (Nikon D700, D800 and D7000 and both the Sony NEX-6 and the α7R).

Customizable Settings

Third, there are some really thoughtful digital feature settings on these cameras. These digital wonders are amazingly customizable. One feature I use all the time is the electronic level (which I have set to show on both the rear LCD and the viewfinder). It is also possible to set a real-time histogram on either the viewfinder or the LCD or both (as customizable as they are, some of these features will be set to the exclusion of others – for example, I do not believe it is possible to have both the level and the histogram on at the same time). I find the histogram distracting, so I have it set as a “go to” feature that I can turn on and off as desired. But it is a matter of making some useful tools available for easy reference and making how you use them a matter of how you wish to shoot.

These digital wonders are amazingly customizable

Another really cool feature (which I have admittedly yet to use in the field – but have experimented with around the house), is the camera’s “shot-result preview” feature. This feature is a “preview” feature that will give you a preview of what blurring will look like in a slower exposure (remember, it is a digital approximation, and therefore cannot give you discerning results between say, a ½ second and a 2 second exposure). It is, admittedly, a bit of a gimmick, but it might give you the idea of whether intentional blurring is even a viable option.

α7R “shutter shake”

I cannot leave out this somewhat controversial issue. I haven’t had opportunity to test and observe yet. I do know that I was aware of it while using the α7R/Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 combo while in Ireland. I had not done any in-depth research and so, was trying to be careful to shoot with a relative fast shutter speed. I don’t like that because it puts a limit on my creativity in terms of my own style of shooting and seeing. I later learned that most do not perceive it to be a serious problem for that focal range, particularly when shooting hand-held. It apparently is not a serious problem with that focal range when the camera body itself is mounted on a tripod (though there are some differing opinions).

Where the problem apparently arises is with longer focal length (telephoto and telephoto zooms) lenses, mounted on a tripod, with a dedicated tripod-foot mount. I need to experiment with this.

The problem seems to be that the front curtain of the camera’s focal plane shutter is so “aggressive” when opening that it creates a vibration. At fast speeds (apparently faster than 1/125 second is safe) it is not noticeable, and very slow speeds (slower than 1/15), there is enough time for the vibration to dissipate.

The fixes seem to vary. Some shooters say just “hand-bracing” the lens works. While I have shot using that technique, it seems counter intuitive that the human body which moves constantly (it is biology 101) cannot translate movement into the setup. Another view is to hang something heavy on the tripod. However, the shutter shake phenomena is an internal issue, so some say that isn’t sufficient.

One fix that seems to have gotten some traction is to hang a counterweight on the camera. I am in the process of designing and building one that will clamp onto my L-bracket. More on that later.

It’s a Moving Target

As many readers know, I started seriously shooting in 1976. In those days, a camera was a “light-fast box” which had a film wind and transport mechanism, a shutter, and a lens. The SLR allowed for interchangeable lenses and an optical, “what you see is what you get,” (sort of – in all but the most expensive “pro” bodies, the coverage was less than 100% and you had to take that into consideration in composing the image – a phenomena that has continued with the DSLR bodies) viewfinder. The primary media was the film, and you could really affect the look and feel of your imagery by simply changing film. The 35mm roll film was standardized to virtually all SLR bodies, so you could use any number of “boxes” to obtain similar results. Of course we can argue that the glass was a huge influence – but that hasn’t really changed and is not really my point here. So where am I going with this?

film camera bodies tended to be enduring; digital cameras no longer endure

Because of the nature of things, the SLR mechanical camera bodies did not change as often. And, while innovation was estimable and often “sexy,” you could still shoot (particularly as a landscape and still shooter) with a very old body, but with newer film emulsions. So, film camera bodies tended to be enduring. I once carried a “whiz bang” electronically sophisticated (for its time) Nikon N6006 and an old Nikon F-2 as a primary backup. For the most part, in my style of shooting, either worked the same. When I sold it the F-2, I got exactly what I paid for it. Today, it would be a “doorstop.” But unfortunately, the same holds true for the newest digital body. Digital cameras no longer endure. They are now computers. They still work for a long time for the user, but the market demonstrates the difference. For fun, I looked on two popular places to buy and sell gear today (KEH and eBay). KEH will give me about 1/3 of what I paid for the α7R less than a year ago! Ebay looks to be a bit better, but it’s not a sure thing until “Pez-Boy” clicks the buy button.

At the same time, I find the choices made by the major manufacturers sometimes bewildering. The α7 series now has 3 U.S. iterations: The 24mp α7; the 36MP α7R; and the newest 12mp α7S. The α7S is the most expensive of the three!  Huh, Sony??? Personally, I would like to see Sony address some of the shortcomings of the α7R (like the shutter issue) before moving on to yet another offering.

It’s a moving target

Another bewildering choice: The newest “APS” offering from Sony is a “refresh” of my NEX-6, the new α6000 . There seem to be few differences. The primary ones are a larger, 24mp sensor, a new processor, and many more AF sites, and much faster AF and capture speeds. Presumably, as new sensors are developed they incorporate the advances Sony has made and I would expect it to do a better job of low light/high ISO capture (though the NEX-6’s 16mp sensor is pretty incredible already – in my view). All indicators are that this is a major improvement on the NEX-6.   But then, inexplicably, they decided to leave out the electronic level (how much can they have saved on this already proven technology; and go with a much lower-end viewfinder.  Again, huh, Sony?

Time will tell where we go with this stuff, and I’ll be sure to be here, reporting and ranting :-)

Book Review – “The Sony a7 and a7R; The Unofficial Quintessential Guide”

Suggested

I miss the Magic Lantern Series! I know that’s not a ringing endorsement from out of the blocks; but just sayin‘. There was something reassuring about their consistent format, with a lot of information about the particular camera and its features and just enough “how to” photography information without it being a “how to” book. In the nearly 40 years that I have been buying and using photographic gear, I have yet to see a “manual” shipped with the item that was detailed and understandable. So, third party writers had to step in, work with the gear, speak with manufacturers and users, and then give us that detailed, clear “manual” explanation. The best in the business were – in my opinion – the Magic Lantern Series. As print books have largely gone away, so have these useful books :-( .  The closest thing to this series that I have been able to find for the Sony α7 series cameras is “The Sony α7 and α7R,”  published by rockynook publishers and co-written by authors Brian Matsumoto and Carol Roullard.

I miss the Magic Lantern Series

There are still some print books out there that purport and attempt to do this job. Unfortunately, in my view, they are not as consistent, or as good. They tend to be a hodgepodge. They are often written by different authors and therefore reflect their style of writing and perhaps more than they should, sometimes their particular prejudices based on their own photography.

There are two “series” out there today that seem ubiquitous and I had hopes, would be something like the Magic Lantern Guides. But alas, they were not. The “From Snapshots to Great Shots” series is one. I have purchased a couple of them and they are frankly, disappointing – at least as they relate to the reason I bought them (see above). Their coverage of the equipment is superficial, and they all have the same, beginner “how to” stuff in every chapter. Many, if not most of us who buy the more sophisticated cameras, like the Sony α7 series, really do not need the “how to” stuff that is in every one of these books. The other series is the series by David Busch. There is no doubt that David is a knowledgeable, talented and accomplished photographer. But I can pick up any one of his series and 80% of content is virtually identical. It is “how to” photography (usually beginning to intermediate) stuff. The books are several hundred pages and $40 dollars. I just want the 20% about the camera. That is what the title and marketing says after all. Both of these series seem to me to be a set script in which the editors just go in and put in the 20% part about the cameras. And then, altogether too often, that coverage is superficial and nothing more than what is found in the not so good online pdf files available from the manufacturer.  Did I mention that I miss the Magic Lantern Series? :-)

I want to see a book that is about the camera – like the titles imply

I really don’t mean to be hypercritical (maybe just critical :-) ). I appreciate that the writers of all these series are talented, qualified photographers, and are trying, in many cases, to make a living. I am not saying there is not a place out there for these combination “how to” / “missing manual” books. There are certainly many shooters out there who have not read generic “how to” books and who have the camera and could benefit from the books. But if it is a “how to book,” tell it is a “how to “book and if it’s marketed as a book about the particular camera, then I want to see a book that is mainly about the camera – like the titles imply.

As best I can tell, at the time of writing this, there are 5 published books dedicated to the Sony α7 series. One is in German (Sony Alpha 7/7R) and one is in Japanese (Sony Alfa 7R & Alfa 7 Super Book). Until I brush up on those two languages, I won’t find much utility in them. I would be interested in comments from any readers out there who are conversant in these languages. The other 3 are the David Busch Guide, the Snapshots to Great Shots book, and the book reviewed here, published by rockynook photographic publishers.

The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the A7/A7r settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the A7 even better or easier

I have several of the rockynook books. I like them. I like the fact that they dedicate their publications to photography. There are some really good volumes of work in the rockynook library and I heartily endorse them. I gave this book my “suggested” rating. I did pick up some good stuff from the book and it will remain on my bookshelves. And, at the moment it is the only one among the English books that comes close to my criteria above. While I would not call it indispensable, it is a nice addition to my library.

The book delivers what its title implies, mostly. It is much more like the old Magic Lantern Guides and is about the α7 series of cameras, how they work, and what they can produce. It is clear from the book that they have both spent significant time shooting with both the α7 and α7R cameras. The authors definitely bring their own shooting style to the book. The book is laid out consistently, with each chapter having an introduction and a “recommendations” section. The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the α7/α7R settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the α7 even better or easier.

But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera

Chapter 1, “Getting Started,” discusses the camera and its layout and highlights the differences between the α7 and the α7r models. It also gives you enough information about how digital cameras work, in general, so if you were contemplating purchasing the α7, you can see the relative benefits and costs. There are nice photos and diagrams of the camera from front, back, and top, to show the control layout in the introductory section, and then a “walk” through the menu layout in Chapter 1.

If you were looking at the book either in a bookstore or online, based on the Chapter titles, you might be tempted to dismiss the book as just another “how to” book in the guise of a book about a specific model. But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera.

So, even though Chapter 2 is titled, “Basics of Digital Photography,” the subheadings are all camera-specific and relate to the concepts. Chapters on using the camera in its different shooting modes (automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) follow, along with specific examples of where the authors (an perhaps you) would use different features. Finally, there are chapters on additional customization, downloadable apps, flash, and lens (both Sony mount lenses, and adapted “legacy” lenses).  I thought the chapter on using flash was particularly good, in that it described the various Sony – branded flash units that work with the camera, and under what circumstances a user might purchase the different units.  I appreciate that the book is a “Sony” book.  However, I would like to have heard (and perhaps the authors just haven’t explored this) about third party branded flash units that might work with the camera.

Of course, a lot of the “features” are in-camera processing that can only be done if the user chooses to shoot in the camera’s jpg mode. They generally do not work if you choose to capture images in Sony’s native raw format, and most do not work if you choose the dual option of raw + jpeg. So, for you jpeg shooters, there is a lot of in-depth information.

have some personal “nits” about the book. A few specific examples:

In a couple of places in the text, the authors discuss mounting the camera on a tripod and being required to turn Sony’s OSS (“Optical Steady Shot”) off and to turn it back on when you take the camera off the tripod. But there is no place in the book that discusses OSS, how it works, and when and when not to use it. The Sony 70-200 f4 zoom lens for this camera has a button on the lens to turn OSS on and off. Are we to turn it off in both places or just one of them? To address the issue obliquely, but not directly, seem like a significant omission.

At times the recommendations sections almost imply that the authors’ recommendations are the only way to do things. In one point in the book, for example, they discuss the AF/MF button on the back of the camera. I have used an old John Gerlach technique for many years, programming the AF/MF button to activate AF and turning of AF activation on the shutter button. When you have the camera mounted on a tripod and have framed up a still shot and have focused on the point you want in sharpest focus, the last thing you want is for the lens to “hunt” when you activate the shutter button. This prevents that. The authors do not note this, but the α7/α7r can be programmed to do this. Instead, the authors note that it can be programmed so that it toggles between AF and MF. This is useful in instances like the microscopic images that the author shoots. I would like to have seen them drill down into these options a bit and mention the other potentially useful settings of these buttons.

There are times when I think the rockynook editing process could be better. There are occasions in the book where the authors use a slightly inconsistent approach which to a casual reader, could be confusing. In one place they may speak in terms of minimum and maximum aperture values, and in another they refer to the “smallest value” of the aperture ring, but mean the largest aperture.

“Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked”

And, there is on “nails on the blackboard,” pet peeve for me. I know, it is ridiculously nit-picky, but it annoys me. Throughout the text whenever the authors refer to raw capture, they use “RAW” in capital letters. Another prominent rockynook author, in his book, went to some trouble to point out that this is incorrect. When we see TIFF, or JPEG (or JPG), it is because they stand for a phrase (TIFF = Tagged Image File Format, and JPEG = “Joint Photographic Experts Group”). “Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked.” So it annoys me when people capitalize it. Why do I continue to bitch about it? Because this is my blog and because I CAN :-).  But funny thing ….. (“Pot, meet kettle”) ….. I have been consistently referring to the subject camera model as the “A7r” (capital “A” and lower case “R”).  As I was again pitching a fit about the capitalization of “raw,” I noted that the authors here (correctly) use the denomination a7R (just the reverse of my incorrect usage).  The “a” of course, is really the greek “alpha” symbol, and this exercise also forced me to figure out how to reproduce it here.  But I now stand corrected (and I have that going for me, and that’s a good thing :-) ).

The detailed, multi-page appendices section at the back of the book is a very nice feature with nicely explained, detailed menu settings and commands. It will be a valuable troubleshooting aid and quick reference.

The book delivers what it implies …. mostly

On balance, this is a good book and a good addition to the α7/α7R owner’s arsenal. At this stage, it is the only book I can suggest, as it is the only one that is really, in my view, an “about the α7 series book.” I have not read the David Busch book, and I will probably at least peruse it when I finally see it in a bookstore. I already own a couple of his books, so unless there is a lot of hidden secrets, I probably won’t buy it. But if I do, for the sake of fairness and consistency, I’ll review it.

Suggested

Review of Bruce Barnbaum’s “The Art of Photography”

Recommended

I haven’t reviewed a book here for a while. In the past, most of my reviews have been of “how to” or “equipment-oriented” books. Over the years, I have read a number of more inspirational, or “art-oriented” books, but this is the first one I have attempted to review here.

The Art of Photography is published by Rockynook™ publishers, and they have some pretty good, often provocative books for photographers. These days, I (like many purchasers, I am sure) purchase the majority of my books from online sources like Amazon. Photography Books are often the exception, because I like to browse them before I purchase. However, this book was indeed purchased from Amazon. I am not sure what about the promotional material or other reviews drew me to it, but I was looking for some “new inspiration” at the time. I purchased the book a couple years back, now, and read it slowly.

Photographic Fundamentals

The book is laid out nicely and logically, and Bruce gives us a good, solid basic underpinning for photographic composition and exposure. He begins with the fundamentally important stuff, in my view: Composition, light and color. There are 5 full chapters covering visualization, communication, composition, light and color as they relate to photographic art. Barnbaum imparts his considerable experience and knowledge about the art and science of these areas in a very readable format.

Sometimes a Photographer must decide whether to shoot – or not even bother to shoot a scene

He also brings his personal philosophy to bear in his coverage. In the introduction, for example, he emphasizes the importance of the photographer’s personal response to a photographic scene, even suggesting that there are many times when we should not even attempt to capture a scene. So many of us are prone to being “in the moment,” shooting everything in front of our lens (especially since with the advent of digital, we no longer are concerned about film and development costs). This is particularly true when we have spent significant dollars and time to visit a particular destination and may never be there again. I am not espousing not capturing “record” images of places you visit. But artistic shooting requires some thought about subject, place, composition and – frankly – whether it is even worthwhile to trip the shutter. It is, of course, going to depend on the circumstances. Barnbaum is primarily a landscape photographer, and that is a subject which – in my view – requires more circumspection.

I spent a week last fall with the very talented professional landscape photographer, James Moore, in the field. One of the things I brought back from that trip was a new application of the old phrase: “less is more.” I may have made a record in terms of the fewest shutter actuations of any photographic trip (including back in the film days); while at the same time, bringing back the highest percentage of “keeper” images!   That phenomena is directly related to the influence Jim’s thinking has had on me.  So reading Bruce’s comment in the introduction hit a chord for me. I think the upshot of his commentary is that for a photograph to meaningful, the photographer has to “say” something worthwhile with his image.

The chapters on composition include the topics of color, line, shape and form, and balance. Barnbaum artfully explains how to use the tools a photographer has, including light, exposure, direction, color, perspective, lens length, depth of field, cropping, and shutter speed, among other things, to present the image, taking these fundamental items into consideration. At the same time, he cautions against being limited by “rules.”

This is exactly the type of inspirational/informational book I was looking for. The first 6 chapters are, in my view, worth the proverbial price of admission.

The zone system may seem to be anachronistic

Film-Based Materials

Much of his treatment of exposure, however, is from a traditional standpoint. He spends a fair amount of time (2 full chapters) discussing film and the “zone system” of exposure. For many new photographers, and for most of us “older” shooters who have migrated 100% to digital, this may seem to be anachronistic. But although the way it is applied to and with technology has changed, the basic theory of exposure has really not changed over the years. So while it may not seem to apply to modern digital exposure techniques, the basic understanding of the zone system assists us in understanding exposure as it is used with our digital capture today.

Likewise, he spends a full chapter (45 pages) on wet darkroom techniques. Again, this material may be seen to be a bit “dated,” but I have always been of a view that historical context can give us a better understanding (and appreciation for) current-day techniques. It is not unusual, for example, for some of the Photoshop processes and tools to be modeled after and indeed named after a historical film-based process. And, while I believe them to be a decided minority, there are still photographers shooting with film and using wet darkrooms.

In fairness, Barnbaum brings it together in Chapter 11, “The Digital Zone System,” with 30 pages of in-depth and useful coverage of digital exposure and how it relates to the traditional concept. Again, I think knowing how the zone system was developed and works makes understanding the magic (and the limitations) of digital sensor technology just a bit more clear. Barnbaum gives useful detail here on how a digital sensor is made, how it captures images, and importantly, how to use and read the histogram, as a tool for exposure.  See my blog,  “Expose right to Expose Correctly“.   He also explains raw capture. I do have a small nit to pick with Barnbaum (or perhaps more correctly, his editor) here, though. Like so many writers, he mistakenly refers to raw capture using all capital letters (“RAW”). This is a convention for abbreviations of multiple word phrases. “Raw” does not stand for anything—other than just that: “raw” (as in uncooked). It should be correctly referred to as “raw.” Like I said, a nit, but nonetheless, a pet peeve of mine.  :-)

“Raw” is not be capitalized. It does not stand for anything other than just that: raw (as in uncooked)

Chapter 11 also has some very good coverage of blending raw captures to extend dynamic range (one of the wonders of digital capture and digital post-processing, in my view). Thus, as a technical chapter for digital photographers, this one is really very good!

I think the above materials have great educational and historical significance to the photographer interested in understanding the “craft” of photography. Having said that, I do have to confess that I resorted to a more “skimming” approach to the chapters on the zone system and wet darkroom prints. That is to say, I read them, but not with the intensity, or as in-depth as I read the remaining portions of the book.

Presentation

There is a brief, but very informative chapter on print presentation, which is still timely today. I purchased my dry mount press about the same time I was reading this book, so his commentary on the subject was very useful for me.

Art and Inspiration

The remaining chapters of the book deal with art, personal philosophy and approach, artistic integrity, and Barnbaum’s approach to some popular misconceptions which he refers to as “photographic myths.” The first 5 “myths,” perhaps unfortunately, relate back to his zone system/negative film discussion. But again, they certainly can be related to photography of all kinds. The remaining “myths,” (6-8) which are really 4 more (8 is actually 2 myths), are universal and deal with “rules” and an unreasonable adherence to them. Good stuff.

A favorite Chapter of mine (probably because I agree wholeheartedly J ), though, is Barnbaum’s coverage of “artistic integrity” in Chapter 14. He hits the nail on the head here, with his thoughtful (and thought-provoking) coverage of this sometimes controversial (though I am usually at a loss as to why it is so controversial) topic. I love the passage (important enough that it is an out quote in the text): “When photographers get away from thinking ‘This is what I can do‘ and get to “This is what I can say,’ photography becomes a more mature interpretive medium.”

Barnbaum also makes the point that as art, photography is more about perception than about reality: “One of the strengths of photography has been its perceived realism.

Finally, his final 2 chapters on creativity give the reader much food for thought and introspection about his or her own photographic endeavor. I was looking, in Barnbaum’s book, for some inspiration in my continuing quest to take my own photography to the “next level.” I was satisfied that it did that for me and will continue to do so. I recommend this book.

Recommended

O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; The Final Day

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Photographically, this may be a bit anti-climax. We spent the day first with a “tour” by our bus driver of the city, including a drive up into Phoenix Park, which may be the largest park in Europe, replete with an obelisk monument, the Dublin Zoo, and the American Ambassador’s residence. There are also numerous deer and other wildlife around the park (we had driven through here on our first day in Dublin on their “hop on – hop off” bus). We drove down into the city center (much of which we had also already seen). We did learn some interesting Dublin history.

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The “Heineken” sign has a funny back-story. At one time this building belonged to Guinness. After it was sold, Heineken bought the rights (they do not own the building or have or have any other connection to it) to the wall, and the sign.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Cathedral,
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

There are many “St. Patrick’s” cathedrals throughout the world. None are prettier than the Dublin version, particularly the grounds. This is a shot from our bus window and doesn’t really do it justice.

Pub Near Jameson Distillery, Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Pub Near Jameson Distillery, Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The River Liffey flows from west to east through the city, bisecting it roughly north and south. Much of what we saw, including Te Temple Bar area, Dublin Castle, Trinity College and St. Patrick’s cathedral, are south of the river. North of the river there is a significant amount of commerce, though, including the old complex of the Jameson Whiskey Distillery (which has long since moved its operations).

Sculpture, Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Sculpture, Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Our first “stop” was after lunch at the famed “Book of Kells” at Trinity College in the center of the city. Trinity College is an impressive, beautiful campus. The “Book of Kells” exhibit, however, is a hopelessly tourist and commercial setup that was – to me underwhelming in a significant degree. Except for the final part, where we walked into the actual library stacks. That iss impressive!

Book of Kells; Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Our last stop for the day was, of course, the Guinness Storehouse. The Heuston Train Station is just caddy-corner from the complex and is where our bus from Dublin Airport dropped us for our first night’s stay about a block from there at the Ashling Hotel.

Heuston Train Station; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Heuston Train Station;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The Guinness tour is, of course, very commercial – but still a fascinating experience. One interesting fact that I don’t recall being given by the Guinness tour guide, was that (according to our bus driver – how much of his knowledge was “local wisdom” is not crystal clear) the Guinness “stout” beer was a mistake. The barley was burned during the roasting process. Mistake or not, somebody decided to finish up the batch and (although I don’t particularly care for it), the rest is – as they say – “history.”

Guinness Storehouse Headquarters;  Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse Headquarters;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

There is not much interesting that you can photograph inside the commercial area of the storehouse, as it is full of hundreds of tourists, they move you through very fast, and the light is not great. I concentrated on a few small details.

Guinness Storehouse; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We will remember this trip all of our lives. We made some great new friends, got to see some old friends, and made some memories of an amazing and fascinating part of the world. The Irish people are every bit as friendly fun as their reputation, and we will most certainly be going back there in the not too distant future!

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; Day 8

Clontarf Castle Gatehouse; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clontarf Castle Gatehouse; Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The afternoon of the previous day was time for me to re-charge a bit. A brief nap, and then we walked to the downtown suburban area of Clontarf, a port for Dublin. We joined a few of the many “O’briens” on the trip at a restaurant for a nice dinner and then walked back to the Hotel.

An old castle, the Clontarf has been made into a magnificent looking hotel. But being a castle, there were limitations to work with. In Europe, we conspicuous consumption type Americans are often surprised by the small size of hotel accommodations. However, in our Ireland experience, all but one – this last one (which was ironically – I am sure – the most expensive of them all) were really quite spacious and comfortable. This one worked, but was by far the “tightest” we had. Still, a pretty cool experience to stay there.

Clontarf, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clontarf, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Clontarf appears to be a relatively affluent suburban area, and in the mornings, I walked the streets, looking for something of interest to shoot. One of the things we noticed (and it is a matter of common interest – note, for example, the cover of Rick Steves’ Ireland 2014 travel book) – particularly around Dublin, was the brightly colored doors in many of the row house buildings. Much of it is, of course, folklore and what they like to boast about, but Ireland seems to have a pretty strong cultural focus on drinking. We were told that the primary purpose of the different colored doors was so that you could get back to where you live after a lively night in the pubs. Good story – true or not. And even better, they make for wonderful photographic subjects. We found, for the most part, all of Ireland to be proud of the looks of their towns and buildings were well kept and well landscaped.

Colored Doors; Clontarf, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Colored Doors; Clontarf, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Today would be our last bus ride, and our only excursion into Northern Ireland. Again, we had a smaller group, with several electing to stay behind and see what Dublin had to offer. We had been in Dublin for a full day prior to the tour and had stayed near the City Center. We wanted to stay with the tour and especially, to go to Northern Ireland, so we boarded the bus for our final group trip.

Our destination that morning was Armagh, a small town in Northern Ireland just to the southwest of Belfast. Interestingly, as we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, the speed limit signs when from Kilometers to miles, and the currency (we found when we stopped for refreshment) to British pounds. There was also a subtle, but noticeable difference in architecture, particularly of the dwellings, to a less colorful and ornate look (more like U.S. suburban homes might look) – interesting. Most interesting was our driver and week-long guide’s description of trips up there just a few short years back (less than 10) when there was so much violent unrest in Northern Ireland. There were still heavily fortified police stations, and the few policemen we saw still resembled military more than what we are accustomed to seeing for civilian police.

St. Patrick's Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The primary purpose for the trip up, however, was to visit the 2 St. Patrick’s Cathedrals: One built before and the other after, The Reformation. The churches were impressive and the differences both remarkable and fascinating. The post reformation church is a huge, ornate and probably very expensive monument. I will leave the reader to his or her own thoughts as to what it was a monument to.

St. Patrick's Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The older, Anglican Cathedral was much less ornate and “in-your-face,” but nonetheless a marvel of architecture and art, particularly for the time it was built. From a photographic standpoint, I definitely liked the older church.

St. Patrick's Anglican Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Our ride back to Dublin was along the coast, along the Irish Sea between Ireland and England, and through the Portmarnock Golf Course, back to Clontarf Road and the Clontarf Castle. There were some beautiful roads and we even stopped at a cemetery where one of our members, a fan of the Dublin rock band, Thin Lizzy, searched and found the grave of one of the band founders, I believe, Phil Lynott. Of course the music on the bus, as we entered Clontarf, had to be “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We arrived back at the motel in time for our one “formal” evening (jackets required) banquet celebrating the O’Brien Clan Society (of which, of course, our gracious host, Bart, is a board member) and the Battle of Clontarf. We had some laughs and some good food that night and then got ready for our final day – all in Dublin, which was to culminate in a visit to – where else? Yup – the Guinness Storehouse. Next: “The O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland – 2014; The Final Day.”

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