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The Irish Adventure Continues; Cobh

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our short, but eventful trip to Liverpool over, we headed back to Ireland for an overnight stay in County Cork. Cobh is the port nearest Cork City. Having now spent many days exploring parts of the Emerald Isle, in 2014 and on this trip, I have yet to find anyplace in this part of the world that isn’t simply remarkable. And as beautiful as we found Northern Ireland, Cobh may well have been its nearest rival.

I have yet to find anyplace in The Emerald Isle that isn’t simply remarkably photogenic

This was the second of three overnight stops on this cruise – an unusual event for us. Generally one overnight seems to be the norm, and it is often at the beginning or end of the cruise. So this was a bonus, allowing us to do some additional things. Our first day, we mostly walked around Cobh, taking in some local pubs, the Titanic Exhibit, the scenery, and a local restaurant for dinner.

Cork/Cobh Pilot Boat
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Cobh is at once, touristy and quaint and – much like Galway was in 2014 – very photogenic. It began with our sunrise entrance into the harbor, where from the ship deck, we got spectacular views of the bucolic Irish countryside. To our east, as we entered the harbor, I was treated to farms and a wonderful lighthouse at the head, in the early morning fog.

Light House
Cobh Port, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have often commented here that traveling by cruise ship has its pros and cons. One of the pros, is the vantage point we often get from the ship deck, both entering and departing harbors, and often while docked, as can be seen from the unique vantage point in the opening image. Cobh is a great example, and we were able to view it as the early morning sun did its thing.

Lighthouse
Cobh Port, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But once you go ashore, you see that there is a lot see and to photograph.

Tanker Dock
Cobh Port, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The little town of Cobh is barely two main streets, built into the side of the hills along the seaport. Catering to tourists and visitors, there is a train to Cork (the major city in County Cork, where Cobh lies), and restaurants along the quay.

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The downtown center has a few lively pubs, and the buildings lining the street are quaint, but colorful. Like any place relying on tourism, there are a number of closed up buildings, but all is well-kept.

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Like I almost always do, I did some pre-trip research and had at least one specific image I wanted to make. I know that an image like the row houses, which is basically the first image you will see if you “GOOGLE” “Cobh, Ireland,” is the hackneyed iconic image. I have many times been (correctly) urged to “make my own image.” Well, I kind of did :-). I looked at the row houses from many different viewpoints as I hiked up and down the steep hills.

“Deck of Cards”
Row Houses
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

“Deck of Cards” Row Houses
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I finally nearly gave up, but stopped a very friendly lady on the street, walking with her grandson and asked her about the spot the image is made. The people of Ireland are absolutely the most friendly people on earth, by the way. She told me it was right on the street in front of the houses. Well I thought I had tried that, but she told me I had not gone far enough and that there was a little (unmarked) park in the middle of the street. I went back, saw the entrance, walked in, and turn around. And, like so many of these iconic images, there it was! Local – or experienced knowledge counts. She also told me that the row houses are referred to as “The Deck of Cards.”

“Deck of Cards”
Row Houses
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

“Deck of Cards”
Row Houses
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Along the way, I found some other nice views of the area, including The Bishop’s Residence.

Bishop’s Residence
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Even though Cobh appears to be a busy little seaport town, and our cruise ship had just unloaded some 2,000 plus additional inhabitants, it was surprisingly quiet, once you ventured off the main square.

Cobh Waterfront
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

As is often the case, the showcase architecture of the town was the Roman Catholic Church up the hill; St. Colman’s Cathedral (a/k/a Cobh Cathedral). It can be photographed from several viewpoints. As most here know, I generally carry the diminutive little (redundant much? πŸ™‚ ) Sony x100iv as my travel camera.

St. Colman’s Cathedral
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

One of its shortcomings is that there is a limit at both ends (24 – 70 equivalent). Another is that it is really not made for architectural imagery, and I often find myself liberally applying perspective corrections in Photoshop. So though these may not be the “seen” images, they are still illustrative of some pretty impressive Gothic architecture.

St. Colman’s Cathedral
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

St. Colman’s Cathedral
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Benches outside of
St. Colman’s Cathedral
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Back in town, we had tickets to the Titanic Exhibit. Registered in Liverpool, built in Belfast, the reputed final stop of the RMS Titanic was Cobh. The exibit was short and interesting.

Titanic Exhibit
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The museum has a picture of the rear of the Titanic in the drydock we saw in Belfast. The 3 screws are massive.

RMS Titanic
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

There were 3 classes of passenger on all the White Star Line ships: First Class, Second Class and Third Class. Inside the museum, there were replicas of staterooms and the general room, occupied by third class passengers. The capacity for third class was about 1000 people, so you can see the rooms must have been pretty crowded.

Third Class Accommodations
Titanic
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

“General Room”
Titanic
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

First Class Accomodations
Titanic
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We used the Rob Roy Pub as our guide point and meeting place when we split our group a couple times. They were obviously ready to welcome us.

Rob Roy Pub
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Celebrity Reflection Welcome Sign;
Rob Roy Pub
Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Walking back to the ship, we were able to continue to see nice views of this great little town. Our cruise ship in the background gives some perspective of the approach.

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

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Liverpool; But it REALLY IS About The Beatles

Fab 4 Beatles Tour Car Liverpool, England Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In the previous post, I illustrated some of the normal parts of the impressive British City of Liverpool, and tried to set a historical context. While it was for a time, historically, considered the “New York” of Europe, Liverpool’s size is really more like Minneapolis, MN, or Kansas City, MO. It had – to me – a U.S. mid-western city “feel.” And I could envision the 4 young men who would turn the music world on end, as having grown up in Minneapolis, Kansas City, or even Detroit: small enough to know each other, but large enough to give it a city feel. Our visit to Liverpool began – fittingly enough – with a “Beatles Tour.” Since each of “The Fab 4” grew up in Liverpool, there is a lot of their history there. I have learned over the years that most songwriters get a wealth of material from their own natural surroundings and as we learned, The Beatles were no exception. So much of what influenced their music – and particularly Paul McCartney, the Beatles most prolific songwriter – was what happened around them on a daily basis, right where they grew up.

The band that was to turn popular music on end, “The Beatles,” was set and its members: “The Fab 4,” were John, Paul, George, and Ringo

John, Paul, George and Ringo were all heavily influenced by “Skiffle” music, a style of music comprised of jazz, blues and folk music, which had become wildly popular in Europe in the 1950s. Each were in some type of “Skiffle Band,” early on. Influenced by his

Our guide Eddie, met us just inside the port, in one of the little black “taxis” that seem to be the norm in Britain. Laying out this blog logically has been a bit of a challenge for me, as we did not necessarily visit each site in any logical order (I expect some of it was geographical and some of it was our guide’s local knowledge of when the best time to hit a spot was).

Liverpool University Student Housing
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

John Lennon; Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all grew up in Liverpool, we saw the boyhood homes of each of them. And while each had their own unique contribution to The Beatles, John and Paul had perhaps the most significant influence. The Beatles would likely never have been, had the two of them not met first, and begun making music. We began our day with a stop at what is now Liverpool University student housing, but was historically the maternity hospital where John Lennon was born.

Liverpool University
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

John’s parent’s split when he was a relatively young boy, and there was, it seems, some question by many, whether his mother, Julia, was capable of raising him. There was a fair amount of instability in John’s early upbringing, and he eventually went to stay – more or less permanently – with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith. They were stable, if not practical folk. Mimi had a considerable say and influence in John’s upbringing, but Julia maintained and influence, visiting John frequently at Mimi’s home, and John frequently visiting her. It was Julia who purchased John’s first guitar, knowing that Mimi would not approve of such foolishness and would urge John to do something more practical that would allow him to earn a living. Julia taught him about art and music, and encouraged that side of him. Tragically, Julia was killed by a car while walking home from the Smith home one evening following a visit with John in 1958. John was 16 at the time.

The Home Of Mimi and George Smith
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

By late 1956, John had formed his first band, The Quarrymen (named after his High School: Quarry Bank High School). They played skiffle and rock and roll, and were comprised, loosely of other boys who attended St. Peter Church and/or Quarry Bank High).

Brian Epstein Apartment
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

John’s first wife, Cynthia, was an art student at Liverpool College of Art. The two of them met there in the late 1960, and sometime in 1969, she moved in with him at his Aunt Mimi’s home. In 1962, she became pregnant with Julian and they were married shortly after the discovery. When they were married, the band was just getting some notoriety, and their agent did not want the world to know of the marriage, so he let John and Cynthia use the apartment shown here to live when they were in Liverpool.

Liverpool Institute High School For Boys
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We also visited the Liverpool Institute High School For Boys, where Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended for short periods and became friends. Not necessarily connected to The Beatles, the suitcase sculptures are unique and are a tourist attraction in this part of the city.

“Luggage” Sculpture
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During a performance, affiliated with John’s church, St. Peter’s Church, John was introduced by a mutual friend, to Paul, who was invited to play along with the band. Shortly afterward, he asked Paul to join the Quarrymen. The band took a turn in direction away from skiffle and country influence and more hard toward rock and roll, obtaining a manager (Brian Epstein) and a few of the old Quarrymen fell away from the band, preferring the prior music to the new direction. McCartney recommended his friend George Harrison to be the lead guitarist. Lennon thought that Harrison, only 14, was too young, but McCartney persuaded John to give him a chance. Sometime in 1959 – 1960, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe became “The Beatles”. In 1960, Pete Best joined them as their drummer. In the beginning, the band changed the name from the Quarrymen to “Johny and the Moondogs.” But the group was heavily influenced by Buddy Holly. At least one source suggests that they took on the name “The Beetles” (originally, the “Silver Beetles”) because of Buddy Holly’s band: “The Crickets.” Somewhere along the line, it is said that Lennon changed the spelling to incorporate the word “beat” into the name. At any rate, by the early 1960, the name of the band was “The Beatles” and its history was set.

Performance Hall
St. Peter’s Church
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The original Beatles group, a fivesome made up of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Sutcliffe and Best, went to Hamburg to play some gigs there. A couple times, another Liverpool native, Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr), filled in for Best because he was unavailable. The reason permanent changeover from Best to Starr is unclear, but during that period in Hamburg, and at the time they went to record their first album, Best was no longer with the band and Ringo was. Also during that time, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band and return to Liverpool School of Art, to finish his art education and pursue art as a career. Tragically, in 1962, Sutcliffe developed a brain tumor and died.

St. Peter’s Church
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The band that was to turn popular music on end, “The Beatles,” was set and its members: “The Fab 4,” were John Paul, George and Ringo. While already wildly popular in Europe, their seminal moment, and one of, if not the most important moment in the history or rock and roll music, was on February 9, 1964, when they made their first appearance on American Television on the extremely popular Ed Sullivan Show. They played 5 songs that night before a television audience estimated at 73 million and the rest is, as they say: “history.”

Penny Lane
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In keeping with my comment that surroundings influenced their work, here is a musical “earwig” that is bound to stay with you for a while after reading this. We visited the namesake for one of the most famous McCartney written songs: Penny Lane. As you can see, it is a rather unassuming, quiet suburban street.

Paul McCartney Signature
2018 – 2019?
Penny Lane
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But some of you might remember watching a James Corden “Carpool Karaoke” special a year or so back, where James and Paul take one of James’ semi-famous rides around Liverpool together, and stop at some of the same stops our tour did, including Paul’s boyhood home, and of course the street sign for Penny Lane. We watched it, not knowing at the time that we would be at that very place one day in the very near future. We watched Paul sign it, and I was able to capture that signature shortly after he did that. One funny passage from that was when Paul mentioned that he and John wrote “She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. They tried it out on Paul’s father, and his comment was couldn’t you say “She Loves You Yes, Yes, Yes.”? They said no. It makes you think about what one word can mean in a song. I commend you to see the movie, “Yesterday.” Not only was the music (and story) wonderful, but there is another similar “word” moment, involving the song “Hey Jude” ( I won’t give it away – but its awesome).

So. That Earwig? There was a commercial intersection near where Paul McCartney lived, that he frequented in his travels about the city. It isn’t Penny Lane, but its a much more interesting name. The rest is pretty real, though. “On Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs ……

On Penny Lane there is a Barber Shop
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The barbershop is right across from the “shelter on the roundabout” on the same street . . . . . . . (now a restaurant called St. Pepper Bistro,”). I looked but did not see the pretty nurse selling flowers. πŸ™‚

The Shelter in the middle of the Roundabout
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I am sure there was a busy banker or two there somewhere, as this was in a little corner off a very busy couple of city streets. The firehouse was a ways down the street, and though it was still there, it is closed and is no longer a firehouse so, alas, no clean fire engine to be seen! But after seeing these, you can’t help but have that song in your ear, and a context for the lyrics.

Paul McCartney’s boyhood home
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Paul was born a couple years after John Lennon, in Walton Hospital in Liverpool. One of three children, Paul was influenced by his father, Jim, who was a professional musician who played the trumpet and piano. He had his own jazz band (Jim Mac’s Jazz Band). What you hear about most journeymen musicians has some truth to it. They are not generally wealthy, and Paul’s nurse mother was said to be the family’s primary bread winner. Nonetheless, Jim encouraged all his children to play music and kept an upright piano in the living room of their family home. While it is difficult to get to see the inside of the home(s) (we were told that showings can be done through the Liverpool Trust), I once again, remembered, rather vividly, the James Corden show in which he and Paul went into the home and Paul sat at the piano and played. We got to see the outside.

Strawberry Field
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Another place Paul remembered rather vividly as a child was a youth home named Strawberry Field. His memories of the children and his longing to play with him partly inspired his “Strawberry Fields for Ever.” The red gate and fence is historically authentic. Currently, the Salvation Army has put many dollars into restoration and maintenance, but it is said that it is possible to buy bricks from the gate. Note the many signatures of Beatles fans.

Strawberry Field
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

George Harrison may have been the most private of the Beatles. It was a surprise to me to learn through my research that George was responsible for getting the band many of its performances and contracts and may have been the most businesslike of the 4 of them also. Born in Liverpool, George attended the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys for 4 years. He was always interested in guitars, and his father – though skeptical of its utility for George’s future – bought George his first guitar. George attributed his beginning interest in rock and roll to Elvis Presley. We saw his boyhood home, but it was neither remarkable, nor particularly well kept up by its current owners. For some reason, it does not seem to be the tourist attraction that the other 3 homes are. Not as prolific a writer as Paul, John or even Ringo, he was the author of their hit, “Here Comes The Sun.” Not much else was devoted to George during the tour.

George Harrison’s boyhood home
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Richard Starkey was the oldest of the group, born in Liverpool in 1940. Apparently, the Starkeys were avid dancers and spent a lot of time in ballrooms, prior to Richard’s birth. After his birth, his mother stopped dancing and spent her time raising Richard, who was afflicted with an illness. His father, however, apparently couldn’t get it out of his system and his many after hours of dancing and drinking probably were the prime contributor to the Starkey’s splitting in 1944. No longer able to afford the rent in their current home on Madryn Street, Elsie and Richard moved into what was Richard’s home for his remaining boyhood in a neighborhood known as Admiral Grove. Richard’s mom, Elsie lived there until the Beatles moved to London in 1963. The home was public housing owned by Liverpool. After Elsie and Richard moved out, another Admiral Grove Resident was moved into the house during a period of rehabilitation of the Admiral Groves Homes. Margaret Grose became a lifetime Beatles fan and instead of growing weary of the visitors daily outside the home, she invited them in – for a small fee – which she gave to charity. She also maintained the home as it was when the Starkeys lived there. Margaret died in 2016, and another fan purchased the home, which still stands, intact, today.

Ringo Starr’s Boyhood Neighborhood
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Ringo Starr’s Boyhood Home
Admiral Grove
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In 1954, when Richard was 13, Elsie married Harry Graves, who was a big fan of big band music, and introduced Richard to it. In 1957, Harry gave Richard a second-hand drum set for Christmas. I was intrigued to learn that, left-handed, Ringo had to learn a number of things “backward” including rolloff progressions, which later became notable as a unique style and added to Starr’s fame. He played in several bands, eventually finding his way to a Liverpool group called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes eventually accepted a “residency” in Hamburg and it was on the Hamburg music scene that Ringo met and eventually became the drummer for The Beatles.

Ringo was know for his quirky turn of a phrase, like: “It was a hard day’s night.”

Ringo, in addition to drumming, was lead singer in several Beatles Hits, including “With a little help from my Friends,” and “Yellow Submarine.” His own more prolific songwriting came perhaps later, after the band split up, in his own solo career, including hits such as “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Your 16,” and “Back Off Booglaloo.” But he was surely a contributor to some of the Beatles most memorable songs, particularly in names and lyrics. Ringo had a unique and often off-kilter turn of the phrase and is credited for the phrase “hard day’s night” which prompted Lennon to write the song, as well as becoming the Title of their 3rd record. He was also credited with helping fill in the lines in the famed “Eleanor Rigby” with Father McKenzie “darning his socks in the night.” And there is that “surroundings” thing again. We visited St. Peter’s Church, including the small graveyard inside the walls. Guess who we found?

Eleanor Rigby’s husband’s gravestone
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

As our tour came to an end, I found myself much more a fan of the Beatles music than I have been previously. My generation, of course, grew up with this music, but it was pretty interesting to put the development of the music and the early lives of the band members into a perspective. Like almost every successful band, they eventually came to an end. The stories are similar. The personalities – probably more John and Paul had differences in direction and leadership thoughts. They all had at least some aspirations for solo careers. McCartney and Starr especially, went on to have very successful secondary careers. Lennon and Harrison perhaps less so, but still very successful. Lennon and Harrison also unfortunately met with tragic endings. But I, for one, am glad to have had Wings and Ringo’s All Starr Bands, to entertain us into the foreseeable future. Obviously whole books have been written on this subject. My “musings” are just that. Probably mostly historically accurate – but not guaranteed to be so. I encourage you to do some digging on your own, if you are interested.

Meanwhile back on Penny Lane ……….. (I didn’t want you to lose the earwig) πŸ™‚

Whew. Long post – sorry. I know that the original idea of a Blog was short, punchy, regularly added material. Mine has never been that way. They are all long. This one may have been the longest ever. And I couldn’t even scratch the surface. I wanted it to reflect my own personal visit to Liverpool, illustrated by photos I felt motivated to make. I hope it succeeded.

There is so much that could have been touched on: the friendship and eventual friction between John and Paul; the reputed awful way John treated Cynthia and Julian, the dispute over who really wrote the songs – especially the early “Lennon/McCartney” signed ones; the drugs; Ringo’s real last name; George’s cancer; John’s activism and tragic death; but I wanted to leave that to the more serious writers and chroniclers.

I just watched the U-Tube James Corden piece again, and it was even better because I was there at those places. I encourage you to take a few minutes and watch it and it may even bring a tear or two (you can skip through the ads).

 

 

Liverpool; Not JUST the Birthplace of “The Beatles”

Liverpool Port
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Interestingly, our cruise was labeled a “British Isles” Cruise. Yet it was a 12 day cruise in which we really technically only spent 3 days in the UK. We also spent another 4 days in The Republic of Ireland. While it might be appropriate to call the Island of Ireland “The British Isles,” I think the majority of them would disagree.

The Vooo Lounge
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Be that as it may, with our pre-cruise days in and around Dublin, we certainly spent over half of our time in Europe in Ireland and Britain. The day following our Northern Ireland adventure, we sailed across the Irish Sea, to Liverpool, England. Perception often varies from reality, and my (admittedly ignorant) opinion of Liverpool was no exception. For my Michigander friends, I was thinking Flint (sorry to you Flintstones πŸ™‚ ); to a perhaps broader audience, Newark (no, not Ohio πŸ™‚ ). But I was wrong (as perhaps a visit to either Newark or Flint with one “in the know” might also prove).

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The primary focus of our day at shore was, not surprisingly, a several hour-long “Beatles” tour. But we were to also learn that Liverpool was an important seaport (particularly historically), and a rather thriving city, with some very impressive architecture, and an active pub and distillery culture.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Granted “borough” status by King John in 1207, it did not obtain its British City Charter 1880. Liverpool replaced nearby Chester, which was on the River Dee and further inland, as the major port for world trade with Britain, around 1207 ant thereafter was Britain’s primary northern port. During the Industrial Revolution, it served as a port and became a first-world manufacturing city. Liverpool also served as the point of departure for British and Irish Emmigrants – mostly to the U.S. In earlier times, Liverpool Port played a significant role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. While probably not among its prouder historical accomplishments, the result was a very diverse city, including not only influence from Ireland and Wales, but the largest black population, and oldest Chinese population in Europe. Trade with the West Indies eventually exceeded trade with Ireland and other parts of Europe, and in 171, the first commercial “wet” dock was built in Liverpool.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The ensuing growth and the industrial revolution soon made Liverpool one of the wealthiest communities in Europe, its wealth surpassing that of London a number of times during the early 19th century.Β  In the 180s the city was often referred to as “the New York of Europe,” and was a sought-after destination well into the early 20th century, attracting immigrants from across Europe. During the Second World War, Liverpool became a critical strategic point. The city was heavily bombed by the Germans, suffering a blitz second only to London’s. The “Battle of the Atlantic,” which proved to be a turning point in the war, was planned, fought and won from Liverpool. Most of the U.S. Troops brought into the European theatre were brought through Liverpool Port.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Sadly, in the 1970s, largely due to significant changes in the shipping of cargo world-wide, Liverpool began a decline, and for a period had one of the largest unemployment rates in the world. Resilient, however, in the late 20th century, the Liverpool economy began to improve and has been on the upward curve ever since. As you drive through the city, it impresses you as a very middle to upper middle class city in places. With a population nearing 1/2 million, it is hard to believe that its population was only around 500 in the 1700s.

Ma Edgerton’s Pub
Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our visit was focused heavily on The Beatles history. That deserves its own blog, which will come next time. After our tour, we spent some time in the very cool main Railroad Station, a couple of downtown pubs, including the Liverpool Gin Distillery, and The Alchemist (a unique UK chain originating in London, where food and mixology meet), before boarding our ship again in to return to the Island of Ireland.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Northern Ireland; Belfast, Bushmills and the Northern Ireland Seacoast

Coast of Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During our “Brian Boru pilgrimage” in 2014, we only made our way up to Northern Ireland briefly, to see the church where the high king was buried following his death at Clontarf. So, we looked forward to seeing this reputedly beautiful part of the island. It did not disappoint. And, though I already put in a good review for him on Tripadvisor, I want to put in a plug for our guide and driver, Mark and the Black Taxi Tours. In the space of a fairly long day, Mark got us to some of the highlights of Northern Ireland, with a fairly in-depth history lesson about the conflict over the past years. I highly recommend this tour, company and Mark!

Game of Thrones Studio
Belfast Port; Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Belfast became a substantial settlement in the 17th century after being established as a town by British administrator, Sir Arthur Chichester. It was initially settled by Protestant English and Scottish migrants. By the early 19th century, Belfast was a major port, paying a major part in the “Industrial Revolution.” Granted city “status” in 1888, Belfast was at one time, the biggest linen-producer in the world, as well as a major ship yard and rope-making center. The Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the RMS Titanic, was the world’s biggest shipyard. This all made Belfast Ireland’s biggest city for a brief time. Belfast was heavily bombarded during WWII. This growth and prosperity was not, however, without strife. Throughout Ireland’s history, there has been significant discord, much of it over the issues of home rule, and independence. In 1886 Belfast was rocked by rioting over the issue of home rule, which had divided much of Ireland and particularly, Belfast. The problems would continue through to present day.

Game of Thrones Set
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

While Belfast’s run as a global industrial power ended after WWI, in 1945, it remains a major port today, with commercial and industrial docks, including the Harland and Wolff shipyard, dominating the Belfast shoreline. In 1920–22, Belfast became the capital of the new entity of Northern Ireland as the island of Ireland was partitioned, as a result of the Irish War of Independence in which the Republic of Ireland gained its freedom from Britain. Northern Ireland remained a constituent country of the United Kingdom, along with Great Britain, Scottland and Wales.

Game of Thrones Set
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The next 30 years were filled with – often violent – conflict (perhaps euphemistically referred to in Ireland as “The Troubles.” Any attempt here to explain this conflict would be feeble. I commend you to do some research and reading on your own if you are not already familiar with this period of Northern Ireland’s history. We heard a fair amount about it, and it really puts some of what we saw and heard into context.

Dry Dock
RMS Titanic
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We started our tour with a brief drive through the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, and in particular, a visit to the dry dock where the RMS Titanic was build and originally floated. That part of the port has also become currently famous as the set for some of the scenes in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

Dry Dock Pump Station
RMS Titanic
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Because Belfast was one of our shortest stops, and because of the nature or our tour, which focused on the Northern Coastline, we spent very little time in Belfast City. This was unfortunate, and I hope to return there one day and get a better feel for the city. Mark showed us a small area which he compared with Dublin’s Temple Bar area. It was early in the morning and nothing was moving, but it looks like a place to visit during the evening hours.

Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During “The Troubles,” at some point, the British were called upon to intervene and British Troops were brought in. Each of the two factions lived in separate parts of the city. Among other things, walls were constructed to separate them and a curfew was imposed. There are doors and gates in the walls which were locked at night. They are still closed at night to this very day. Although the violence has pretty much subsided, it is still discomfiting to drive along those walls.

Signing the Wall
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our first stop out of town was an area of very old and majestic Beech Trees lining a short road between two farm fields. Known as “The Dark Hedges,” it is said to be the most photographed scene in Northern Ireland. I added to the tally πŸ™‚ . This scene is apparently attractive enough that the Game of Throne producers filmed a scene (The Kings Road; Season 2, Episode 1) there, perhaps adding to its already popular cache’.

The Dark Hedges
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The Dark Hedges
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We then headed up to another famous and popular scene at the northern tip of the island of Ireland; “The Giant’s Causeway.”

Mill/shop on the Bush River
Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The Dark Hedges were en route to our next destination, Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway. I may need to clarify a bit here. “Bushmills,” contrary to some peoples’ first thought, is not Irish Whiskey (well, not entirely anyway πŸ™‚ ). Situated on the Bush River, Bushmills is one of the prettiest little country villages I have ever seen. We stopped near the bridge into town, over the Bush River, to shoot this pretty little mill (today, I believe it is a gift shop/restaurant). Of course, we would be back later in the day, to visit the Bushmills Distillery.

The Giant’s Causeway
Northern Ireland Coast
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

My image of the Giant’s Causeway is not the typical shot seen on a Google Search. There were hundreds of people climbing around on the rocks, and I just didn’t get anything I liked up close. This shot is more distant, as you begin the walk down to the causeway. This has become a major tourist attraction and park, complete with museum, gift shop, and pay-trolleys. For all the hype, Mark promised us more spectacular views than the causeway, and I agree with him 100%. I think you will, too.

We had an “appointment” with the good folks at the Bushmills Distillery, so we headed back there to do a little tasting. I am pretty sure I had never had even a sip of Bushmills prior to this day.

Bushmills Distillery
Bushmills, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The history and science of making “whiskey” (“whisky” in Scotland), is fascinating. Enough so, that I will devote a post specifically to our tasting experiences (coming soon). For now, suffice it to say that although I found the “standard” Irish whiskey a bit difficult to drink, all of the distilleries have begun to make more “craft” style whiskey – generally meaning it is aged in prior-used barrels (bourbon, sherry, cognac, etc.,) and that imbues the drink with more (subjectively “better”) flavors and generally a sweetness and more full body, which I enjoyed.

Northern Ireland Coastline
seen from Dunluce Castle
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

 

On the way to our tasting, we followed the northeastern coast along the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, back to Belfast. In 2014, we visited the famed “Cliffs of Mohr” and I made many photos of that dramatic seacoast. I don’t think I believed Ireland could have anything more impressive to offer. I may have been wrong. The opening image here, just south of Royal Portrush golf course – where “The” (British) Open is being played as I write, is a scenic view that is a dramatic and beautiful as I have seen anywhere in the world. Slightly further south, Dunluce Castle stands as a medieval monument to early settlement of the region. It can be seen from the golf course and has been shown numerous times during the telecast. It is mostly ruins, but is one of the most dramatic castles we have seen – largely because of its setting.

Dunluce Castle
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Dunluce Castle
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Dunluce Castle
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Meandering further down the coastline, we stopped at a vantage point where we could see and photograph the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, now owned by the Irish National Trust. Our guide indicated that not only was there a fee to cross it, but generally a fairly long wait. We were content to photograph it from afar.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

All in, this was perhaps one of the best excursion days we have had in all the years of cruising, with a nice mix of sightseeing, whiskey tasting, and some Northern Ireland history. I hope to be back there one day soon.

 

 

Dublin, days 2 & 3

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

When I travel to a new place I try to do some research about it. That mostly entails contemporary goings on, things I wish to see, and of course to photograph. But in-country, I always learn so much. I was a dual-major business and history degree student in college. While I studied some medieval history and the obligatory “Western Civilization,” my focus was on the U.S. So traveling abroad is a learning and perspective-building experience. It is my observation that, possessing a sometimes fatalist sense of humor, the Irish people are self-deprecating, and at the same time fiercely proud of their heritage. They have much passion and perhaps not surprisingly, as their identity as a sovereign nation is much younger than our is. But their history is thousands of years longer, and full of hardship.

My observation is that, possessing a sometimes fatalist sense of humor, the Irish people are self-deprecating, and at the same time fiercely proud of their heritage

I wanted to put a small amount of Irish History perspective to these blogs. Popular wisdom has it that Ireland (and Scotland) were mainly of Celtic origin. History disputes that. There is evidence of humans from other parts of Europe well before the Celtic tribes began to migrate to Ireland. Nonethless, there is certainly a significant Celtic influence to the end-result. At the same time, the Vikings, primarily from Norway, invaded parts of Ireland, particularly along the seacoasts. Dublin, in fact, was founded and originally established by the Vikings, sailing up the River Liffey, perhaps around 800 A.D. Later around 900 A.D. the Vikings again sailed into the harbor at Waterford, and established Limerick and Cork. It was not until the Battle of Clontarf that Bart O’brien’s King Brian Boru defeated the Vikings and established perhaps the first independent Irish nation. It was, however, to be short-lived and there was much warfare during those time. In 1014. In the late 12th century, the Normans from England began a series of invasions and eventually conquered much, if not all of Ireland, making it part of the British Empire. This lasted until the majority of southern counties won their independence and became the Republic of Ireland in 1951! Sometimes you just have to be there to understand things, but for a bit of silliness, it dawned on me that maybe they thought Superman would save us all πŸ™‚

Superman in Dublin
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our second and third days were kind of broken up. We boarded our cruise ship in the late afternoon of the day 2 (we originally arrived in Dublin at about 10:00 a.m., so by now we were really on our 3rd day). We had tickets for the Guinness Storehouse tour that morning, so our plan was to do that, grab some lunch, and then collect our bags and head for the cruise port. My wife and I had already done this tour, so I didn’t take any photographs this time at all. This is a pretty interesting tour, and the ticket price traditionally included a pint of Guinness from their “Gravity Bar” at the top of the building. There is a panoramic view of the city from there. They have changed things up a bit now, though. Now they have a tasting area on one of the lower floors and you can elect to do that in lieu of the pint up at the top. It includes a flight of 3 of their beers of your choice, and short explanation about them. They also had a very talented group of Irish Dancers who put on a short show for us. Two for one. :-).

St. Catherine’s Church
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In keeping with my comment about the bounty of church architecture in Europe in general, and in particular in Ireland, we happened upon the very small and beautiful St. Catherine’s Church on our walk from our hotel to the Guinness Storehouse.

Dublin City Center Near Christ Church Cathedral
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We spent that night on the ship, as Dublin Port is a ways out from the city center. I was able to get a different perspective on the city from our ship, however. But in the morning, we headed back toward the Guinness Storehouse, and to a small whiskey distillery that our first night’s guide, Nimhb, had recommended: Pearse Lyons. The distillery is set up in an ancient Church, very near the Guinness Storehouse.

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The St. James (protestant) Church of Ireland dates back to medieval times. It is likely the the building currently standing was preceded by an earlier structure. My research suggests that the current building is at least 800 years old. Over its history, it fell into a state of disrepair apparently a couple times. last used as a church in 1956, it most recently served as a hardware store (Lighting World) until 2009.. In 2013, Dr. Pearse Lyons purchased the building and grounds (except for the adjacent – and ancient – 1.5 acre cemetery, which is owned by Dublin City Council). The distillery has done a wonderful job of preserving the historic integrity of the building, down to the amazing stained glass windows.

Pearse Lyons Distillery
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Pearse Lyons Distillery
St. James Church of Ireland Building
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have an upcoming blog dedicated to “whisky,” and our two significant distillery visits (Pearse Lyons and Bushmills) so I will not go into detail about the Pearse Lyons distillery tour until then. After a nice tour and tasting, we were ready to head back to the cruise ship and look forward to new venues and adventures. Next stop: Belfast and Northern Ireland.

St. James Cemetery
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Back to Dublin, Day 1

Temple Bar
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In 2014, my wife and I joined Bart and Barb Obrien, of The Obrien Estate vineyard in Napa California, and a group of about 40, members of their wine club, for weeklong trip to Ireland. A descendant of King Brian Boru, High King of Ireland who finally defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf, to set Ireland apart as an independent nation (temporarily), Bart has been deeply involved in The Obrien Clan Foundation, currently serving as the Chairman of the Board. That involvement has lead him to an annual pilgrimage to Ireland, with a group of (mainly) members of the club, following the life of Brian Boru. So, our first visit to Ireland was focused largely on that. We did get to see much of the central part of the country, with bases of operation in Galway on the west coast, to Limerick in the central part, finally to Dublin (Clontarf). But we had not seen any of the south coastal areas, nor really any of Northern Ireland.

Temple Bar
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

As we often do, we arrived a couple days early and spent some time touring around Dublin. When returned, we had an organized tour to see Trinity College and the Book of Kells, among other things. Each morning, I got out with my camera, and got a nice sampling of Dublin sights, from the River Liffey and its bridges, to the Temple Bar area, to the northern side of the river, and of course, Clontarf. Many of those images appear on my website, as well as in a series of 9 blogs about our Obrien Wine Trip.

Temple Bar
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

This time, our “British Iles” cruise originated out of Dublin Port in June, 2019. Again, we took advantage of the many things to do in around Dublin, and arrived a couple days early. We took a walking tour of the Temple Bar area our first night there, stopping in 4 local bar/eateries for a drink and a sample of their “tapas” style cuisine. We have found great success in doing these tours in other cities (notably Venice and Barcelona), learning a lot about the areas, and often about places to dine and drink. Our guide for the evening was Nimbh (Anglicized: “Neve”) and she did a great job, intermixing history and culture of Ireland – and in particular, Dublin – into our tour. It would come as no surprise to anyone who has traveled with us that we ended up another one of our nights in a local bar that she introduced us to, listening to live music and sampling Irish whiskeys. For us, fortunately, it was right around the corner from our motel.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I made only a few images of Dublin this trip, having done a lot of that during the 2014 visit. We stayed right in the Temple Bar area and the pictured establishments were all right across the street or around the block from us. Because we had a pretty busy schedule, I only got out one morning, and I headed over to a scene I had made a “drive-by” of in 2014, and wanted to get a better image of: St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What I remembered was the brilliant, red flowerbed in the foreground of the church.

Christ Church Cathedral
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

It was about a 15 minute walk from the motel, and in the early morning, things were quiet enough that I was able to make a couple other images. Churches and cathedrals are ubiquitous in Europe and nearly every one of them is impressive. On the way to St. Patrick’s, I passed Christ Church, which is impressive in its own right. I especially like the bridge building, connecting two parts of the massive cathedral over a main thoroughfare of Dublin.

Christ Church Cathedral
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Because we had seen much of Dublin, we decided to take a tour to one of its “suburbs,” the beachside resort of Howth, with a stop at the Malahide Castle on the way. These buildings, most of them medieval, are always impressive. Designed as either homes, fortifications, or both, their stoutness as well as craftsmanship, is remarkable, given the tools and materials they had to work with.

Malahide Castle
Howth, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

They often also have some very interesting details, like the brass railing going up the stairs. Our tour was booked through Gray Line Dublin and our guide, Nathan and drive Carlos were great. On the way out of Dublin City Center, we got a running commentary on the city, the suburbs, and much of its culture. We were astounded to learn that over 50% of the population of Dublin is under 25 years old. We were also surprised to learn that seemingly modest homes just outside the city center were selling for close to 1 million Euro. Shades of San Francisco! Our first stop was the Malahide Castle and Gardens. We had a 30 minute guided tour of the castle interior and then were free to roam the rest of the grounds.

Malahide Castle
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I also often find an image or two that isn’t distinctly, “castle,” but is nice just for its “landscape” value. The winding staircase here drew me to it.

Malahide Castle
Howth, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Most of the castles we have visited also have either been largely preserved as they might have appeared thousands of years ago (I will feature a castle like this in the Northern Ireland, upcoming blog), or they have been currently meticulously landscaped, as this one (which is actually named: “Malahide Castle and Gardens).

Malahide Castle
Howth, ,Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

We finished our day in the Seaport community of Howth. Our guide noted that this was where people went to escape Dublin City Center for weekends and vacations. Somewhere there, I think there must have been a more substantial beach. The area we stopped in – specifically for “Fish & Chips” at a noted establishment, was much more a commercial harbor, with what appeared to be a fishing fleet.

Howth Harbor
Howth, Ireland
Copyright, Andy Richards 2019

We did get our fish & chips, washed down with a Smythwick’s fresh from the tap. Fish & chips in the British Isles is like the proverbial hot dogs and apple pie in the states. So it stands to reason that it is a staple on nearly every menu in every restaurant in Ireland. But our guide, Nathan (a Dublin native) assured us that the two best places for fish & chips was a restaurant called Beschoff’s (apparently a multiple-location local restaurant) and Crabby Jo’s, on the Main street in Howth Harbor. We opted for Crabby Jo’s and were not dissapointed. I love fish, but prefer mine grilled, broiled or baked. So, fish & chips would not normally be my first choice. But we were in Ireland in a seaport. So, fish & chips it was. They were wonderful, and I would recommend this place. It appears to be a restaurant operated by the owners of Wrights’s of Howth, a seafood purveyor.

Crabby Jo’s
Howth, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Odds & Ends

My recent series on my “evolution” got me thinking a little more about “gear.” I have done this before, in perhaps a different way.

Sirui 3023 carbon fiber tripod

As photographers, we spend a fair amount of time on art and a fair amount of time on gear. But the gear tends to be heavily stilted toward cameras and sensors. And there certainly has been no shortage of new developments in camera and sensor technology to discuss. But there are some other “odds and ends” which I think are pretty essential toward our craft. There is a lot of shooting that I do these days with just a camera in hand – and in the end – that is the essence of photography: making images with a camera. But whenever possible, I use aids to assist in the craft. One item I have been pedantic about over the years has been tripods. I try to shoot from one when circumstances allow – or demand.

Surui 3021

Surui 3021 small tripod

I have two tripods I regularly use these days. The primary tripod is a medium large, carbon fiber tripod. I use a Sirui 3023, but there are many affordable and similar models available. I also use a very small (also Sirui – 3021)) tripod, which works not only wonderfully well for travel and for my very small Sony RX100-4 camera, but also for the larger gear, in a pinch (especially during travel). The beauty of the small tripod is that it folds to around 12 inches, and is very light, while still being reasonably stiff. It can require some bracing technique though, particularly with heavier equipment mounted. There are other, more affordable small setups (notably the MeFoto aluminum model, which is slightly larger, heavier, and pound for pound, not a rigid a base as my carbon fiber setup). Here are some of the items I consider essential aids to shooting from a tripod.

Heads

As I noted recently, the tripod head de-rigueur, for many years now, is the ball head. Again there are various models of ball head available. The heads were popularized by action shooters, as it is much easier to move the camera around to stay with any moving target. The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image. Generally, it is a function of the size of the ball, and the construction of the clamping mechanism. The larger the ball, generally, the more rigid and stable the operation. Particularly if you are shooting large bodies/lens combinations, if you don’t use a fairly large ball, you will experience “creep,” which makes it difficult to compose a still scene in which you are being picky about composition. I learned I had to almost anticipate that it would creep downward a bit and tighten the ball head above where I wanted it to end up. My former, Induro tripod had a very large ball and it worked better. But none of them – in my view – work as precisely and surely as the old 3-way heads.

The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image

Even better, is a “geared” 3-way head, which essentially allows micro-adjustment in each direction. The problem has been – until recently, the available solutions were limited. Bogen/Manfrotto has made a nice, lightweight geared head – the Manfrotto 405. There are two major problems with it for me. First, it costs about $560 dollars. That is a budget issue. Second, and the real deal-buster, is that it has the clunky and insecure (in my opinion) Manfrotto quick-release system cast onto the head. For the more budget conscious, they do also offer the “Jr” model, (the 410) at $299 – but still with the QR system. I couldn’t make that work for me.

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

To solve the QR issue, I could have purchased the very nice, well-built and sturdy Arca-Swiss geared head, with the dovetail QR system I prefer. Now we are in a range from about $1,500 to $850! Still couldn’t justify that cost. I have been perplexed for some time why other manufacturers haven’t produced a dovetail QR system geared head. Finally, in 2018, Benro introduced a 3-way geared head, at a comparatively reasonable, $200. After some research, I bought one. While I haven’t thoroughly field tested it yet, I have it on my large Sirui legs, and have used it enough to know it is what I had been waiting for. To each his own, but for landscape and architectural shooting, this is really a winner for me. I kept the Sirui Ball Head in the bag in case I wanted it for some action shooting – but not really being my shooting style, I doubt it will see much use. For portability, I will keep the ball head on the small legs and live with it for travel.

L-Brackets

The L-Bracket is an ingenious contraption that has become – for me – an indispensable item. It replaces the dovetail plate on all my cameras. The design is such that you can remove the camera from the tripod, rotate it 90 degrees, and re-attach it, keeping the image plane on the same axis. It makes shifting from landscape to portrait mode for the same scene very easy, with no adjustment necessary to the horizontal axis. I do that a lot, and wondered, after finally obtaining one, why I didn’t do so much sooner.

Dovetail L-Bracket

Like any equipment item, there are certainly disadvantages to L-Brackets. They add some bulk and weight to the outfit. These days, however, the extruded and cast aluminum and magnesium manufacturing and engineering processes have allowed for some very small and light pieces. I have a bracket on my Sony 7r that is barely noticeable.

Another major drawback to these brackets is that they tend to be expensive. They were, at first, produced as specialty items by companies like Kirk and Really Right Stuff. Both companies are small, U.S. based companies, and their costs – as well as the R&D for these items make them an expensive choice. Also, the majority of them are camera-specific, meaning each new body design begets another needed re-tooling and design of the brackets. Of course, this also means you have to add the cost of acquisition of one of these, each time you change camera bodies. And, for effective use, you really need to have one attached to each camera you carry. There are some universal brackets on the market, but in my experience (I have tried them) they are ineffective because they allow the camera to turn. An effective bracket must be physically married to the body in a way that it seems integral and doesn’t allow for even a fraction of movement.

All said and done, an L-bracket is an item I wouldn’t be without

Competition (and perhaps either the expiration of – or bypassing by unique design – of patents) means that today, there are dozens of these items available by different sellers (a quick Amazon search produced at least 20 pages of them there). While you have to do your research, many – if not most – of them are well made, lightweight, and much more reasonably priced. I have used the Sunway brand (I am sure, just an import name for a bracket line that is manufactured for many other sellers – most likely in China) and found them to be very good, effective and reasonably priced, for the most part. All said and done, this is an item I wouldn’t be without.

Level

I began photography in 1976-77. For the next approximately 30 years, I shot landscape images and more often than not, as time went on, did so from a tripod. And my eye for level was pretty good. At least that’s what I thought. :-). Here is the reality. They weren’t, and nobody else’s are either! Our eyes-brain interaction compensates for so much. It tells us what a level horizon in our view is. But the camera is mechanical. And because our eyes are so good, we trick ourselves into thinking our camera is level. Just look at the millions of “sunset” (very few “sunrise” πŸ™‚ ) images over water on Facebook and Instagram that have tilted horizons. See, The world is not Flat.

Hotshoe Bubble Level

My good friend and gifted photographer, Al Utzig, in critique of some of my images a few years back, remarked that a few of my horizons were not level. I was inclined to disagree, but there are some mechanical tests that are brutally honest. I opened a couple of them in Photoshop and pulled a horizontal “guide” down to the horizon. Damn! Al was right (and not for the first time πŸ™‚ ).

Before electronics became common in cameras, it was possible to change out the screen in the viewfinder of many of the higher-end cameras. I put an “architectural” screen in one of my cameras (cannot remember which one, but probably the N90s). It had horizontal and vertical lines etched onto it. When electronics did become common, “turning” these on became possible as an option – one I highly recommend for a number of reasons. But even with these aids, I frequently missed the boat with level horizons., more commonly with handheld images, but sometimes even with a tripod-mounted camera.Β  It was usually minuscule, but again, our eyes are good enough to sense something being not quite right about the image. The experienced eye recognizes it quickly as a tilted-horizon. Even with guidelines, it is possible for our own eyes to fool us.

3-axis Bubble Level

Shortly after our conversation, Al and I were shooting together, and he showed me an inexpensive little item that he religiously uses, and suggested I set up an image with my eyes and then we put it on my camera. It was a hotshoe-mounted bubble level. We did, and my eyes were wrong. The level is never wrong (assuming it has been manufactured to tight quality control). These plast gizmos should seem familiar to anyone who has ever used a carpenter’s level. The range in cost between about $4.00 and $15.00. My experience is that you may want to skip the $4.00 models, as they are often not manufactured to quality specs and may not – themselves – be level. Your mileage may vary. When I have purchased them, I have put them on a tripod on a level surface and actually done comparative testing with a carpenter’s level.

The level is never wrong

The two models pictured here are the most common. I have both. I prefer the cube myself, for a couple reasons. It is slightly bigger and harder to lose (they are easy to lose and having an extra is a good idea). I also like the way it reads and looks. All wildly subjective and aesthetic considerations. But here is a key point. These are known as 3-axis levels. Do not rely on the spirit level that it often part of modern tripod legs. While the might be helpful for setting up, they are essentially useless for the purposes here. There is a spirit level available, also, that mounts in the camera hotshoe. Again, in my opinion, do not waste the money.

Compass

While a compass is not an item one would think of as a photographic accessory, it is a very useful item. I always carry one in the field. As a one-time mentor said to me once, “the compass doesn’t lie” (though it can “fib” if you aren’t careful about how you use it. Because they are driven by the earth’s magnetic pull, you must be careful not to use it very near any magnets, or ferrous material). I use a software program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to do my pre-scouting and research. This mapping program gives an overlay of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset angles on the scene. When you arrive, it becomes pretty important to know at least the cardinal points (North, East, South and West) that the compass reading will give you. They are small, cheap, and an essential “carry” item.

Filters

There is a school of thought that after having spent $$$$ on expensive glass, you need to protect the front element by having a filter on the front of it. The most commonly used filter for this purpose is a UV or “Skylight” filter. Historically, these filters were designed to reduce the amount of ultra-violet light, rendering possibly better colors. Over the years, lens technology has included multi-coatings which integrally accomplish this purpose.

There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school. My gestalt view is that I never put anything in front of my expensive glass without a specific purpose. There are, of course some very good reasons. When I am around salt water and salt spray, I tend to have something on to protect my lens. If I am trying to achieve a particular effect, I use a filter. Usually, there are only two reasons I ever use a filter, and only two filters I use: a Polarizing Filter and a Neutral Density Filter.

I learned the virtue of a polarizing filter early on, probably because I had one and was able to play around with it. Polarizers mainly reduce “glare,” which is caused mostly by bright, blue light. Blue light rays are short and therefore often scattered. It is this scattering and omni-directional quality of the light that produces glare, and reduces the clarity of the image being captured. The polarizing effect creates a linear filter which only allows blue rays which are parallel to the filter to enter the lens.

There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school

There are some drawbacks to this filter, of course. The polarizer must be manipulated mechanically, by physically rotating it. This may be difficult in a handheld situation, and virtually impossible for “action” subjects. By its nature, it also reduces the light entering the lens, causing you to lose 1 to 2 effective stops of light. In tricky lighting conditions, this can be a handicap. However, with modern sensor technology, it is much easier to override this issue by bumping the ISO up with little penalty than it was back in my Kodachrome/25 ISO/ film days.

Another drawback is that they tend to be expensive. This is partly because of the technology needed to do them right. First, it requires dual rings in order allow the rotation. This can create a vignetting problem with wider angle lenses, and I always have purchased the thin ones, which are more expensive to manufacture. They also can create unnatural color casts, and the truly “neutral” polarizers just tend to be more costly.

To add to the issues, when auto-focus became more or less “the norm,” standard straight line polarizers interfered with the AF mechanism on most DSLR cameras, so circular polarizers, which were much more expensive, had to be purchased. The AF technology on the mirrorless cameras is different, and isn’t bothered by polarizers, and it was nice to be able to reduce my out-of-pocket for them once I shifted to my Sony mirrorless system. At the same time, some of this may be becoming moot. I shot with a polarizer on every lens probably 80% of the time for many years. However, with the software available today for post-processing, I use them significantly less than I did.

Neutral density filters are something I very seldom use, but almost always have with me. I generally use them in situations where I have too much light and am trying for a longer exposure – most notably water, and waterfalls. I use the square ones designed for a holder, and generally hand-hold them. There was a day when we used split-neutral density filters to try to bring high contrast scenes under control. The best example was a landscape in early light, where there was a bright sky, but shadows in the foreground. There was a line (it could be hard, or a gradient) halfway up the filter, with 1/2 being the ND filter and the other being clear. Because nature is rarely in perfectly straight lines, I found I had very little success with this technique, and once I learned how to blend images in Photoshop, stopped trying altogether.

Remotes

Popular wisdom has always had it that if you are going to go to the trouble of mounting your camera on a stock-still tripod, you should trip the shutter remotely. The theory is to avoid camera shake caused by our touching it. In fact there are many variables at play. There are times (e.g., a very windy day) when we must touch the tripod to brace it. Other times, I will admit to laziness, and have often triggered my camera with my hand resting on the tripod. Except in touchy situations such as, perhaps, a macro shot, I am not sure that – once everything is at rest – it truly makes that much difference.Β  Though generally, it is good advice, many shooters live life happily never having owned one.

There are various methods, from a mechanical cable release, to wireless, to using the self-timer on the camera. I don’t care for this latter method, mainly because of the degree of control you give up over the precise moment you want to trip the shutter. Most pre-electronic cameras had a mechanical, plunger wire type cable which screwed into the release on the camera, or around the housing of the release. Even my vintage Ashahiflex had one. Electronics in cameras, and particularly AF, changed all that. On most modern cameras, one or more electronic functions are actuated by a partial press of the release. This meant we had to go to electronic cable releases. Another cost, and something to screw into the camera body somewhere. I had the MC 30 release for my Nikons and they are still $65.00 at B&H. Of course, they were proprietary, though fortunately, the MC30 worked on all my cameras from the N6006 through the F800.

MC-30 remote

As great as their cameras are, Sony lags behind Nikon and Canon on accessories (especially flash). They just don’t have any elegant remote cable solution.Β  At some point, cameras began to be able to be remotely triggered wirelessly. Unfortunately, the built-in systems are just not very good. The wireless signal is not particularly strong and is very directional, meaning that you normally have to hold the wireless trigger close to either the front or back of the camera. In short, I have found wireless cables frustrating, and that wired cables interfere with my L-bracket. Plus, I like the idea of wondering away from the setup at times, while shooting.

Wireless remote

Having an affinity for gadgets, I recently purchased a Pixel Pro wireless remote apparatus that I am really enjoying. Part of what drove me to it was my flash setup. I needed to be able to trigger the camera and a flash setup with multiple flashes, and wanted to do it at night. The existing remotes weren’t up to the task. This unit only triggers the camera, but that sets the whole chain-reaction moving. This unit works even when I am a substantial distance away from the camera.

There is a downside, of course. It takes more batteries, more setup, and a learning curve to make sure everything will be working as expected when you are in the shooting situation. They work on channels and it is pretty important to make sure the sender and receiver are “married” at the same channel. And its just more moving parts to cart around. I will probably continue to play with it. But it may be more trouble than its worth. I will need to keep the focus on making good images and not having cool equipment.

Flash

My Asahiflex outfit had a large, bowl-shaped reflector which attached to a bakelite housing (holding 2 D cell batteries), which in turn attached to the side of the camera. When attached and turned on, triggering the shutter would also ignite a flash bulb. Some of us are old enough to have grown up with incandescent light bulbs and have experienced the pop when we turn on the light, and it burns out. Flash bulbs were light bulbs designed to do just that and to emit a certain color and intensity of light when they did. They were, unfortunately, one-time use, and relatively costly. They were also very hot to handle immediately after use. For those reasons, I seldom used flash.

Nikon SB600 Speedlight

In the ensuing years, electronic flash units became widely available, and were much easier (and perhaps safer) to use.Β  They are generally referred to as “Speedlights.” They only expended batteries. They were, in most cases, at least partially adjustable. And as camera manufacturers became more advanced, the electronics in the cameras controlled the flash, with properly dedicated units. None was better than Nikon, and it was pretty easy to set things more or less automatic and let the Nikon system do the work. Nikon’s TTL (“through-the-lens”) worked by reading the light measured at the film surface.

I have always thought and said that digital changed everything for the better. Well, it was not really everything. Digital really messed up electronic flash for a period. It could no longer read the light off the film plane and, at least in the beginning, unable to read it correctly off the sensor. Eventually, it has been resolved and, true to its reputation, Nikon probably did it best first. Today, they have their i-TTL system. The drawback is that it only really works well with certain newer cameras and flash units. And they are relatively expensive. The SB600 (guide number of 98/30) was $350. The SB600 is now discontinued, but it can be found used for around $100, which is a bargain. The upgraded model is the SB700 and is about $330. I am not sure it is worth buying against the 1/3 of the cost, used 600. It has a slightly higher guide number, slightly faster recycle, and built-in remote control (for what its worth, I have a third-party setup for this that works pretty well, on virtually any flash – more below). The SB600 worked perfectly well for my purposes, and I found it basically as good as I had experienced with my film based system. The SB800, was larger and over $500 new. It was eventually upgraded (replaced) by the SB900, which was upgraded to the SB910. All of these are now discontinued but can be found used at some pretty good bargains. The current big flash is the SB5000, at $600. Too rich for my blood. Again, these are tools, and if you make a living with flash, the $600 may well be worth it.

Nobody has really made a third-party flash that works as well as Nikon’s own system for Nikon. Once again, my switch to Sony threw me out of the “good flash” loop again. I have been a rare user of flash over the years. I have always carried a speedlight in the field when on a dedicated photography excursion. I have mostly done so because I will occasionally find a scene I wish to photograph where there are some deep shadows in daylight conditions. I use the flash to “fill” those shadows without blowing out the brighter parts of an image. Occasionally, I will use it for portraits in very sunny conditions, but I don’t do much with those. Part of the reason is that without a really good automatic system, proper use and understanding of flash involves math. “I was told there would be no math.” The very thought of math makes me quake with fear. I am one of those persons who cannot add double digit numbers without a calculator. :-).

Godox TT685 – Sony-dedicated Speedlight

Sony offers 6 dedicated flash units. One of them is small enough that I don’t consider it useful. One, the F60m, is still on Sony’s website, but it appears to be discontinued, as I only find it used on site like B&H. With a guide number of 60, it would work for me, but is a bit on the low power size for its $300 price tag. It also is reputed to have overheating issues, which shuts it down, apparently even during moderate use. The other 4 units range from $300 – $600. Sony also seems to have had some disorientation when it comes to their electronic shoe system. This means there are compatibility issues, and a given flash may only fit a given range of cameras – at least without an adaptor (another item, another cost). And none of them, frankly, are close to as good, or as turn-key, as the Nikon system.

Voking Speedlight

My current solution has been to buy a book, and try to learn the basic math (ugh), and go with third-party units. I bought a Godox (made in China and found and purchased on Amazon) unite compatible with my Sony A7. It has enough “automatic” features to work for my needs. I also wanted to experiment with multiple lighting and some night shooting, along with the ability to trigger the flash independently. So I later purchased a second, manual Voking branded light and a Godox TTL wireless flash trigger. Total cost to me for all of this stuff was under $200. The downside is it is more gear to lug, and more learning curve and setup and practice prior to going into the field.

Odds & Ends

It seems suitable to end with a connection to the blog title. There are a few items I keep in my bag, which (depending on the nature of the trip), I try to always consider:

  • Extra batteries and a couple chargers (you never know when one might fail)
  • Extra memory cards
  • Flashlight (and batteries) – (I also carry a headlamp with a red option, as red supposedly messes less with our night vision)
  • Proper clothing – especially rain gear (and covers for the camera and lens)
  • Towels and garbage bags (an assortment of large and small towels and large and kitchen size bags will be of great assistance in wet conditions)
  • Tools (small [jewelers] and medium phillips and regular screwdrivers, allen key/wrenches, small adjustable wrench, electrical and duct tape)
  • I keep a small spiral notebook and pen with me
  • First Aid Kit