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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 🙂 . 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 🙂 ). 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.

 

 

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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 🙂

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

Cruising “The British Isles” – 2019

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our recent Celebrity Cruise was entitled “The British Isles.” So why did I lead with the Eiffel Tower? The cruise “title” is mostly accurate. One would generally think of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and perhaps a couple smaller islands as the British Isles. Our cruise included ports of call in LaHavre, France, Bruges, Belgium, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. But who is complaining? 🙂 . As I often do, I made several hundred images over a 2 1/2 week period. In coming weeks, I will give a more detailed accounting of each of the many new places we visited. Today, I wanted to give just an overview of what a huge territory, and vast subjects we covered.

Dublin Port
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I have mentioned a few times here, that my wife and I like to cruise. When we can find like minded companions, that just makes it all the more fun. There were 4 of us this time, and I am pretty sure I can vouch that we all enjoyed our time in Europe. When we go to a new destination, we like to arrive in the departing port city a few days ahead, to explore, enjoy, and get to know the city. Though my wife and I had been to Dublin before, we found many new things to see and do during  our 4 days there.

Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

When we were in Ireland back in 2014, we made a very brief trip into Northern Ireland, to see the Church where King Brian Boru was buried. This time we had a full (very full) day from our port of call in Belfast. Our driver and guide, Mark, was as good as we have ever had, and he had some surprises in store for us. As an “outdoor” photographer, I love a pretty scenic image. Northern Ireland did not disappoint. Indeed, as I have been processing images, it is “sneaking up on me,” that Northern Ireland may have been my favorite stop of this trip. I would definitely return and explore further, if given the opportunity.

Liverpool, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

The following day, we arrived in Liverpool, England, across the Irish Sea. We were scheduled for a Beatles Tour (what else would one do in Liverpool? – well; stay tuned, it turns out: a lot). For my Michigan friends, my quick research lead me to (wrongfully) conclude that Liverpool would be like Flint (maybe we need to organize a Grand Funk Railroad tour in Flint?) :-). Look for my upcoming post on Liverpool. It was eye-opening for me.

Cobh, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Next, we were back across the Irish Sea, and in the south of Ireland, at the tiny, but beautiful little port of Cobh. Cobh possibly rivals Northern Ireland in my view, for photographic potential. I made some nice images there, though at least one of them was one of those (perhaps hackneyed) “must do” shots that has already been done thousands of times. Known locally as “The Deck of Cards,” maybe I was able to make a unique “take” on the famous row of houses with the cathedral in the background. I will let you be the judge: again, in the weeks ahead. We overnighted in Cobh, and spent a day there, and a day touring Blarney Castle (site of the famed, “Blarney Stone”), and Cork City.

St. Pancras Train Station
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

By then, we had spent most of 8 days on our feet. Blessedly, the following day was an “at sea” day. It allowed for some much needed “R&R.” After our day of rest, we arrived in the British port of Dover. For reasons I will expound on when I get to Dover and London, a few weeks out, I might have planned this stop a little differently. But we took the train to London and had a day-long “Black Taxi” tour of London.

Champs – E’lysees
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Our next port of call was LeHavre, France. We again overnighted there (this was unprecedented for my wife and me – two full overnight stops). We took advantage of an early arrival and a late departure 2 days later, and again rode the train to Paris, where we stayed overnight. A huge city, we spent 2 very full days there. That barely scratches the surface, but we saw a lot during our time there and I thought it was not only very worthwhile, but one of the highlights of the cruise. I will note in upcoming blogs, that both London and Paris really need multiple-day visits to do them justice. Unless a cruise ends or originates there, it probably they don’t really lend themselves to cruising.

Bruges, Belgium
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Again, not really the “British Isles,” we ended our cruise with stops in Bruges, and Amsterdam. Known for its beer and chocolate, I sampled a little of both in Bruges. It is an impressive, historical, and very small city, which was well worth the visit. In Amsterdam, we rode the canals, did the obligatory walk through the “red light” and “cannabis” districts, and generally saw some impressive sites. Amsterdam is, again, a massive city. We only got a little taste of the more touristic (as they say in Europe) parts of the city.

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In the end, we were exhausted, but the trip served up many new places, and added to our list of places to explore in more detail in the years to come. The only “gear” I carried was the Sony small camera (RX100iv) and my small tripod (which did not see any use). On cruises, it is rare to be on location in early morning, late afternoon, or at night. The only possible “night” shot might have been the Eiffel Tower, but the timing and place were just wrong. If I were to make a longer stay, land based trip, I might rethink the gear. I love the lightness and portability of the small camera. But I find myself missing the versatility of the DSLR on some occasions. The coming weeks will cover each of the above – with images – in more detail.

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” 🙂 ) 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 🙂 ).

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.  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.  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.  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.  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

 

Part V; Fundamental Changes

As I write this, it is amazing to me that I have been shooting with my current Sony system now for 10 years! It seems like only yesterday that I made the momentous complete switch to a new system and brand.

Fundamental Changes – 2007 to Today

Cameras.        During the foregoing time period, I owned a handful of small, “Point & Shoot” digital cameras. At first, it was the only affordable alternative, and for some of our personal use (travel, family events, etc.) was convenient to be able to shoot digitally, and then upload, send, and post images. We started with a Canon < 2megapixel model we ordered on QVC. It didn’t have a viewfinder and I always found that awkward. We used it some, but it wasn’t my personal cup of tea. Not sure what ever happened to it.

Nikon Coolpix 5000

  • Nikon Coolpix E5000.  In 2001, I purchased a Nikon model that was more suited to my liking, the Nikon Coolpix E5000. With a 5 megapixel sensor, a 28-85mm equivalent lens, a viewfinder, and raw capability, I was able to do a lot of what I was trying to do with digital capture. And, as you can see from the image although it was smaller than an SLR body, it was substantial, and had somewhat familiar controls for a Nikon SLR-user. All non-DSLR digital cameras back then had an unfortunate “lag” from the time you depressed the shutter and the actual capture. This was frustrating, though I did learn to capture action by using the burst mode and starting before I thought it would happen and continuing until after. With a very small sensor, there were also some limits to the image quality, and significant noise in low light conditions or high ISO images. I traded this one in when I bought the D100 DSLR.
  • Canon G12.  During the time I was shooting DSLR equipment, I wanted a small camera for convenience, daily carry, and travel. But I was only interested in one that would meet certain demanding standards: namely, high image quality files and raw capture/save capability. My research indicated that in the point and shoot line, the one camera that continued to stand out was the Canon G series. In 2012, I purchased a 10 megapixel G12, and shot that for a number of years. But as the DSLR lineup – and my personal ability to own them – got better, the point and shoot cameras were relegated to only occasional use. What they did have was the convenience of small size. The G-series were truly pocketable cameras. And that, we will see, drove my next phase of gear in a huge way.Both the Coolpix and the G12 had electronic viewfinders. Unlike the old 35mm viewfinder cameras that folks like Alfred Steiglitz made famous, the electronic viewfinders were electronically “linked” to the lens, so that it mimicked the look of an SLR “through-the-lens” viewfinder. Sort of. The were grainy, black-and white-ish, and not really a great representation of the scene. But the still beat – in my view – the LCD screens on the backs of consumer point and shoot cameras (a feature that these days comes on all cameras, including DSLRs). They weren’t great and they didn’t give the user experience the DSLR did. But technology marches on.

Canon G12

  • Sony NEX-6 – The Segue.     By 2013, we had begun to do a fair amount of travel. When it was a “dedicated” photo trip, lugging a bunch of gear seemed to be part of the mystique of the experience. And other items were held to the minimum necessary. It was a given that we would be checking bags. Most often those trips were with my buddy, Rich and involved just the two of us and our gear.

    Sony NEX-6

But my wife and I had also begun to take more extended trips, including some cruises, and some trips to faraway places. Sometimes it would be just us, and other times, we would join friends and/or family. Lugging photographic equipment (and even finding time to shoot in the best light) became a challenge. And even when we did travel, lugging the DSLR body and zoom lens around started to become a bit of drudgery. And because I was with a group and traveling more socially, so to speak, the shooting was less planned, the excursions less photography dedicated, and the time to focus on shooting curtailed. So I started thinking about alternatives. I needed something small, portable and relatively non-intrusive, while at the same time, rendering the image quality and giving me the setup flexibility I was used to.

I “met” pro shooter Ray Laskowitz years back on the old Nikon Professional Message board sponsored at AOL. Ray was always generous with advice, very knowledgeable about his craft and the equipment surrounding it, and very factual in his approach. We remained friends over the years, long after the AOL boards became nostalgic history. We e-mailed from time to time, and I was expressing my thinking about a “lighter” travel rig. I had “stumbled” upon the Sony NEX “mirrorless” interchangeable lens cameras, and in particular the NEX-6 and 7 models. When I raised that with Ray, he told me had had been shooting with a couple of the NEX-7 models for some time and was very impressed. He encouraged me – for numerous reasons – to give the “small camera” a try. At the time, I owned Nikon’s estimable D7000 (arguably the best and most popular APS DSLR they ever made). The image quality, even in low light situations was excellent. The APS sensor in the NEX-6 was said to be the very same sensor as the D7000 sensor (or very close). So I traded the D7000 in for a used NEX. That camera was my first introduction to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras; and to Sony. I was dually (see what I did there?) impressed. In fact, I can say it is one of the few cameras I have owned, that I truly regret not keeping. It sold me on Sony and what they were doing in the photographic world.

Japanese Maple Leaves
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The NEX-6 generally sold as a kit with a Sony 15-50mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens. It was frequently discounted by writers and critiques as not a very good quality lens. I found it to be of very good quality and very versatile. And it was small! The entire rig was reminiscent of the old viewfinder cameras. Two other things got me excited about my new find. First, the new electronic viewfinders were (are) amazing. They are full color, and it is virtually indistinguishable from looking through the through-the-lens prism viewfinders I had grown so used to. And, because they were fully electronic, they could be programmed to work in what we might call “real time.” As you change the exposure solution (shutter speed or aperture) the viewfinder can actually darken and lighten, simulating what the exposure might really look like. I have now grown so accustomed to these electronic viewfinders, that when I pick up a DSLR, it often confuses me as I make changes and nothing seems to happen. The second think was that Sony entered into a partnership with the acclaimed Zeiss Optical Company. This meant that they were manufacturing lenses with Zeiss specs, under Zeiss supervision, and also that Zeiss was manufacturing lenses that were designed to mount on Sony Cameras. The 24mm f2.8 Zeiss lens I shot on this camera had the most amazing bokeh of any lens I have ever owned. The Japanese Maple was in my front yard and I took this image with the NEX-6 – Zeiss 24mm combo shortly after rain one morning. The daylilies were also shot in my front yard with this combo. Keep in mind that on the APS sensor, the 24mm appears more like a 35mm in terms of 35mm film/sensor size.

Sony NEX-6; Sony-Zeiss 24mm f1.8 lens

  • Sony A7 ILCE.  I probably should have been satisfied with the NEX-6. But I was hung up on the thought that I “needed” so-called “full frame.” So I shot with my Nikon D800 for a while as my primary camera. Having the pro Nikkor lenses was also partly a motivator. But I remember doing some side-by-side comparison shots at one point and not being able to say the Nikkor pro lens was any better than the Zeiss. I may have had my own bias by then, but I preferred the Zeiss look. But wanting the “full frame” for image quality, I waited until Sony introduced the first “full frame” mirrorless camera, the A7. I took a leap of faith, and traded my entire bag of Nikon gear in for the A7, the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom, and the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom. The entire setup is smaller and lighter. In 20/20 hindsight, I gave up an awful lot in those two stops of aperture – not so much in versatility – but in the loss of the really nice blurred backgrounds the wider apertures provide. And in 20/20 hindsight, I was also amazed at just what great bokeh a quite wide angle lens on a much smaller sensor size produced in the APS-matched 24mm Zeiss. Those extra stops of aperture on the wide end are truly enviable. I have never been able to reproduce that with my current gear (even with a 50mm 1.8 Sony lens on the A7 – its just not Zeiss optics). I am not saying I regretted the change. I did like the smaller, lighter setup, and the A7 (now a pretty old model) is a quality piece of equipment.But my buddy, Rich, a couple years later, asked about making the same switch and I told him for our shooting styles, I wouldn’t do it again. He had an identical setup to mine at that point (a D800, the same two pro Nikkor lenses, as well as my old Tokina ATX-AF 300 f2.8 and a nice Sigma 24-70 zoom).  This reflection was particularly in light of another shooting change I made shortly after buying the A7.

Sony A7

Over time, I have come to feel that in today’s world, with my presentation needs, I really didn’t need “full frame.” And, at the same time, the quality of every part of digital technology continues to improve. But APS would have been fine, and if I could turn back time, I would have kept the NEX-6 and concentrated on lenses.

Sony RX100-iv

  • Sony RX100.    I carried the A7, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 on the next 2 or 3 major trips we took. It packs nicely as the footprint is substantially smaller than the D800 and Nikkor 24-70. It is also much lighter. But not enough that it still seemed like an anchor much of the time. I started looking at the point and shoot cameras again. And they had come a long way. by 2015, Sony was, into its 4th iteration of its RX100 camera. Measuring 4″ x 2.25″ x 1.75,” it is a truly pocketable camera. It extreme quality build gives it some heft, but it is still a far cry from the bigger cameras. It sports a Zeiss f1.8-2.8 lens with optical image stabilization and a 24-70 35mm equivalent zoom. The smallish sensor was newly designed to improve the size of the exposure surface and reduce noise. It is fully capable of raw capture, as well as pretty much everything the A7 can do.  So, 24-70. Zeiss. Raw. Less than half the size body and miniscule lens. See where I am going with this?Of course, image quality would be the biggest test. Again, I sought Ray Laskowitz’s advice. Again, perhaps not coincidentally, he laughingly told me how he had just come home the day before to find a box for him holding the RX100. He had no hesitancy about the quality issues – so of course, I bought one. And never looked back. I have an Epson inkjet professional printer capable of making gorgeous 13″ x 19″ prints (longer in landscape with roll paper). I took a similar flower image to one above, and printed it on my inkjet, side by side with a print made from an A7 “full frame” file. I couldn’t see the difference. In a few weeks, I would be making the trip of a lifetime; to Japan for my son’s wedding. We spent 3 days in Kyoto and the balance in Tokyo, and I took just the RX100 and a small tripod. During the entire week I can think of only one instance where I wish I had my longer lens. The image quality on this little camera is amazing. On family travel, I haven’t carried any other camera since, and that includes a couple trips to Europe.I am not ready to fully give up the bigger gear, and still carry and use it on dedicated photo outings. So, you will see here and on my SmugMug site, that my primary camera is the A7, with the RX100 as my backup/travel camera. It has made my luggage needs much smaller and lighter. And, if the economics supported it, I wouldn’t hesitate to move to the NEX-6 or equivalent, along with some of the lenses, as my primary camera. My buddy, Rich did exactly that last year.

Lenses.  Lenses and size drove my current equipment lineup.  Though I have had the good fortune to have a couple really nice lenses in the lineup over the years, until I finally moved up to the Nikkor “pro” zooms, lenses had always been a bit of a compromise in my bag. The closest I came was probably the Tokina 300mm f2.8, which was arguably as good as the Nikkor equivalent. Piece for piece, high quality optics are the most expensive component of the system. And the larger the medium, the more costly it is to produce high quality optics with wide apertures. It is more difficult and expensive to produce a 35mm lens than the equivalent Point & Shoot size or even the equivalent APS size.

That all changed with the NEX-6. I had read and heard about two legendary optics: Leica and Zeiss. I wasn’t necessarily a believer. But I was able to purchase the 24mm Zeiss lens used for a pretty good price and after some research, wanted to give it a try. Even on the smaller sensor, it is/was amazing. I can say without a doubt that it was my favorite of any lens I have ever owned. It got lots of use, along with the 15-50 “kit” lens. Sadly, I no longer have it.

Sigma made a couple lenses for the Sony E-mount (the NEX mounting system) that were really inexpensive and some of the sharpest lenses ever made. At one time, B&H had a BOGO deal on the two of them – a 30mm f2.8 and a 19mm f2.8 and I picked them both up for $199. Needless to say, I had some fun shooting with the NEX-6 lens combinations.

When I bought the A7, I traded the Nikkor gear. I matched up as close as I could at that time, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 and the Sony 70-200. In terms of build quality, They are both as nice as any Nikon I ever owned. They both AF quickly and quietly. They are marginally smaller than the Nikkors. But they are also 2 stops slower which helps account for the size. As small and compact as the A7 body seems, the good lenses are all disappointingly large and heavy. For working photography, I have liked them fine and believe they render good, sharp images.

One of the “draws” of the Sony camera was the fact that Zeiss has a continued comittment to make their own proprietary lenses in the Sony mount (E for APS and EE for “full frame). There are a couple Zeiss lenses out there that I might like to own some day. But I just paid off all my mortgages and car loans, and am not sure I want to mortgage the house. As was historically the case, the Zeiss lenses are expensive! Time will tell.

I did purchase – more recently – two lenses. Each had a specific purpose. The first was a Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. It is fully mechanical and was purchased primarily to engage in some night time photography – particularly of stars and the Milky Way. I have not really dedicated the time and effort to that yet, but it is on my “to do” list.

The second, was the Sony 50mm f1.8 lens. That was done specifically to try to achieve some of the bokeh effect I had been able to create with some of my prior gear. Again that one needs some sorting out and use. Stay tuned on that one.

Medium.  This is an area where nothing really changed. Digital is obviously here to stay, and the change will come in capture technology and quality. Today, we are seeing iPhone images that probably weren’t possible with my D100. That is technology. That is good, in my view.

Doodads. The same factors that influence my gear changes effected this area. I happily shot with the Induro Carbon Fiber tripod for a few years. It was very rigid, light, and easy to use. My body height needed that length it offered. But it was really a bit of a travel hassle. Even in my checked bag, It would only fit with the head removed (not a huge deal). But for the type of travel I was becoming accustomed to, it was just too bulky. And with the RX100, it was massive overkill. With a smaller camera, in general, I was able to get by with a smaller tripod. And there were times and places I just could not go with the big legs.

Around 2010 – 2011, I began searching for a very small tripod that I could use in a pinch on any of my equipment. I ultimately found a carbon fiber legset with a very small ball head and a reasonable price tag. For a short time, I used an aluminum tripod from a company (owned by Induro) called MeFoto. It was – ironically – slightly larger than the carbon fiber model I now have – and not quite firm enough to do the job. I ultimately gave this to my daughter.  The model I purchased is the Sirui T-025. It is perfect for the RX100, and I have used it on a rig as big as my Nikon D700 full DSLR with a fairly heavy 28-300 lens, to shoot the San Francisco skyline on a windy night on Alcatraz (sounds like a song). The link is to my 2012 blog describing this great little tool. The folded length of this little ultralight gem is under 12 inches. Of course it is not going to extend up to my full 6’1″ of height. Life has its compromises. 🙂

Years back my decision was Bogen vs. Gitzo. Today there are 100’s of brands of carbon fiber tripods available and many of them are quality-built at reasonable prices. I was impress with the build and price point of the Sirui equipment, and so, in 2014, purchased a larger Sirui to replace the Induro. I was looking for a smaller folded size and was able to move to a slighlty smaller and lighter build model, because of the size and weight of equipment I was supporting. Many of these new tripod have a design in which the legs fold back over the main part of the tripod, making their folded height smaller. My regular tripod is the Sirui M3204X. There are 4 leg sections, which does compromise the stiffness a bit (though I often only use part of the lowest section). But it also makes for a shorter folded length. With the same folding design as my smaller model, this one is under 21 inches (with the ballhead attached). I changed my head recently, which may require removal for packing, but the 21 inch tripod legs will actually fit in a carry on bag (though I am not necessarily likely to do that). If you can sense a pattern here, I am trying to go smaller whenever possible.

Bogen Tripod with 3-way head

My first Bogen tripod had a 3-way adjusting head on it. Until ballheads became popular, that was the common configuration. That head itself weighed more than my bigger Sirui tripod. With long handles for adjustment, it was cumbersome, and of course it sported that clunky Bogen quick-release setup. The primary reason I moved to ball heads was to acquire the dovetail quick release system. But I always missed the 3 way head. For my kind of shooting, when I am using a tripod, I am almost always shooting stills. I usually have plenty of time to make adjustments. The ballheads have two drawbacks that annoyed and occasionally frustrated me. First, any vertical and horizontal adjustments were made completely by hand. There is no indexing mechanism and it can be difficult to make very small adjustments. Second, unless it was a fairly large and very well constructed head, ballheads are susceptible to “ball drop.” In the best case, it meant you would work hard to get your composition, tighten it down, and it would still move a fraction – especially with a heavy lens. In the worst case, if you didn’t get it tightened down, the entire lens could slam down against a leg (of course, possible with a 3 way also – but less likely in my experience).

Ball Head with Arca Swiss type QR

Three way heads are much more positive. This is especially true with geared heads. I have always coveted a geared head. But until very recently there were two alternatives. One was ungodly expensive (Arca Swiss manufactured – $1,100 to 1,500), or Manfrotto (Bogen) with its quirky QR mechanism. The only way I could see around that was to “Rube Goldberg” a dovetail mount on a Manfrotto, and I wasn’t really ready to try that. Too bad, because the Manfrotto Jr. model looks very well built and comes quite reasonable (the Manfrotto is about #450.00 and the Jr. about $200). I find it surprising that it took this long to see an Arca Swiss mount geared head come on the market. But over that last year or so the Benro company (same parent company as Induro/MeFoto), finally release a very nice, cast magnesium, dovetail mount 3-way geared head at a $200 price point. Of course, I now have one :-).

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

Finally, in the past couple years, I have been fiddling with electronics (Flash/controllers/remote controllers)

 

Photographing the Michigan U.P.; Update – Iron Mountain Area

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

As I noted in my recent blog about my quick U.P. trip this fall, I did have an opportunity to scout two new areas.  The first was the Escanaba Area, and particularly, the Garden and Stonington Peninsulas, which I covered in the previous blog.  My plan was to to shoot as much as possible around the good light, but if the weather was uncooperative, to make the approximately 1 hour drive to Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Perhaps unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative all weekend.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Perhaps best known these days for its provenance for nationally noted sports coaches, Iron Mountain’s welcome sign boasts of being “the “proud hometown of Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci.” But it certainly is also world-renowned for its namesake.  At one time, Iron Mountain held one of the largest iron ore producing and processing resources in the world.  There is still a mine there, which can be toured.  While I am not sure I would consider the area a photographer’s destination, a day trip would probably be filled with opportunities.  The color in Iron Mountain was still nice, but well past “peak” when I was there in the second week of October. Escanaba is approximately 50 miles further west (from Escanaba) on U.S. 2. Being inland and at a higher elevation, this area’s probable normal “peak” is late September to early October.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The area is blessed with some nice natural phenomena, including rivers, waterfalls, rocky foothills, and lakes.  Just east, and outside of town, there is a roadside stop for Fumee Falls.  Fumee is perhaps the most accessible of the numerous waterfalls in the Michigan U.P.  This was my first trip to these falls.  There are two drops visible from the roadside, with a small, photogenic footbridge across the stream at the bottom of the second and larger drop.  Many years of visitor traffic has resulted in significant erosion of the original falls area, and today, viewing is restricted to the boardwalks which border the falls.  While this perhaps limits the photographer’s access, it hopefully preserves the falls for the future.  Although the light was terrible, I was able to make a couple “record images.”

Lake Antoine
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Just to the Northeast of the downtown area, is a nice small lake, Lake Antoine.  The northern 1/2 of the city of Iron Mountain borders the west endo of the lake. There is a significant residential presence around the west side of the lake.  On the east end, is Antoine Park, a public beach, picnic and boat launch.  I found a small memorial park with a fishing pier on the way to the lake, and make a couple images.    Antione Lake Road loops around the lake and crosses U.S. 2 both to the east of and to the north of town.

Understory; Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

About 4 miiles east of downtown is the small community of Quinnesec.  In about 2 1/4 miles, you will come to County Road 10 (a/k/a “Upper Pine Creek Road), which goes north, to The Fumee Recreation Area. The entrance is marked, but it is a rustic sign, about 1 mile north of U.S. 2.  There is a parking lot and no motorized travel is allowed beyond. There are two lakes, “Little Fumee Lake,” and “Big Fumee Lake.”  The recreation area has several trails around both lakes, with a total of about 8 miles of trails, which are used by walkers, runners, bicyclists and horseback riders.  I walked the short trail around “Little Fumee.”  Again, the light was awful, but I could see the possibility of some nice imagery.

Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

On the county road in to the recreation area, I also found some nice farm scenery.  The shot here is on what appears to be a private road, called “Baclack Road.”

Farm near Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018