A Touch Of Winter At Lugnaquilla

Happy New Year!

A long time since I posted – I’ve been a bit neglectful – I apologise about that. This post is also about a trip to Lugnaquilla I did back in November 2019 – I am quite far behind on my blogs because I have been up to Lug two more times since this visit!

It takes a long time to get a post ready and I just have not found the time! Usually the text portion takes a few hours but processing the photos (curating, focus stacking, fixing white balance etc) takes a lot of time. The photos I post here are not ‘instagram’ instant gratification photos where you fire and forget. A lot of time is spent on each individual shot, both in the field and in the digital darkroom.

That’s not to say I have not been hiking, I’ve been doing about 230 km a month for the last six months. That’s not just hiking, but also day – to day ‘steps’, mind.

So yeah, another post about Lugnaquilla today. The monarch of the east of Ireland.
And yep, there was snow, fog, leg pain and and a temperature inversion!

The last few weeks the weather here has overall been quite mild, but very wet. A few dry days here and there but the overall theme is of grey and wet.

The forecast for the day was high altitude clouds, low temperatures and light winds. 0°C at midday at Lugnaquilla, with a wind chill of -2°C. Not too bad. It was about -6°C at 9 am.
Given the frequency at which I visit the mountain, I am getting better at reading the weather forecasts and deducting exactly what sort of conditions might occur on the mountain. I had a strong suspicion that on this day there would be a temperature inversion. I was right! I’ve actually experienced five of these at the Lug now.
I always really enjoy the days at Lugnaquilla where there are high altitude clouds. I am not sure why but I think I like the mood of the place better than on sunny days.

Ascending Camara Hill in the dark, I look behind and observe a large bank of fog in the lowlands to the west, slowly inching it’s way towards my location.
I stopped for a shot of Keadeen, wide open with long exposure. It was still dark (the sun was not rising for another hour and a half). The fog had started to build on the valley floor and the lower slopes of Keadeen, but also the summit. The fog was also getting closer behind me, rising up the slopes of Camara hill.Keadeen copy.jpg

As I climbed higher, the fog grew thicker in the valley but cleared off the summit of Keadeen. This was interesting, and something I would consider later.
Keadeen 2 copy.jpg

This shot was a long exposure (30 seconds) shot wide open on my Zeiss Milvus 35mm (at f/1.4). Far from it’s optimal aperture for such a photograph but I was faced with a choice – stop down to f/8 and do a 16 minute exposure or use that 16 minutes to get (perhaps if I am lucky) one look at Lugnaquilla before the inevitable fog rolls in. I opted for the latter. Absolute image quality is nice to have of course but photography is all about compromises, and nice as the above image is, it’s not the reason I rolled out of bed at 3 am that morning.
Nevertheless, the light gathering capabilities of this equipment is amazing. All I could see with my eyes were the lights in the valley and a few stars blinking through the clouds – it was still pitch black.

I put the camera away and continued the ascent. Shortly after, I was completely engulfed in a thick blanket of fog. I had suspected this was going to happen.
As a glasses wearer, hiking in the dark with very thick fog can be quite tricky for me – there is a huge amount of glare from the head torch and this slowed me down.
I had suggested to myself that perhaps today I would just summit Camara Hill and then head back home, I was very tired (having only about 5 hours sleep the night prior) and the thought of hiking 20 km or more with only fog for views/company was not terribly enticing. Not when you carry a pack that weighs about 18 kg (due to photography equipment). I also had a sore hamstring and knee. I like to use the lemon system, 3 lemons and you go home. Sore hamstring/knee, one lemon, bad weather (the fog) half a lemon, fatigue (half a lemon). In my book, that was two lemons. The darkness was not a lemon, it was temporary because the sun would rise.
On I pressed, to the summit of Camara Hill. As I reached the top, it became clear that the fog here was very thick – I could see nothing. I sat on a rock for a while near the summit and zipped up my jacket. It was very cold. The sun was due in 30 minutes. I ate a sandwich, I was starving. I could see pretty much nothing outside of a 2 metre vicinity. I was looking forward to packing up and going back to bed, to be honest.
But then, something interesting happened.
Fog Bank Lugnaquilla copy.jpg

The fog broke, and I could see that Lugnaquilla itself was not in fog – and also, covered in snow! I wait all year round for the white stuff at the ‘quilla. Looks like I’ll be going to Lugnaquilla today after all!
Better watch that hamstring and knee.

Pressing on, the fog came and went, but each time it went – I could see that Lug was completely clear.
The sun was coming.
Fire in the sky 100 copy.jpg

Fire in the sky over Lugnaquilla.
This was a focus stack of 8 frames, quite a challenge – there was a bit of wind and the shutter speed was quite low (0.8 seconds per frame).Fire in the sky 35 copy.jpg
Another shot with a wider lens. Taken about ten minutes later, the colours are much softer here. You get much more sky with a wider lens, but also a lot more foreground.

18mm sunrise-2 copy.jpg

Moving up now, and looking over to the west, the inversion is clear to see as Keadeen and the slopes of Ballineddan rise above the fog.
Keadeen inv copy.jpg

As of writing this blog (1st January, 2020) – I had hit my self set target in 2019 of visiting Lugnaquilla at least once each month. I have never been up Lug every month for a whole year before, and last year (2019) I actually went on average twice a month!

I wanted to press on here, because I was very excited to get to the snowline.

Looking down to Slievemaan with Mount Leinster in the far distance. Lots of fog in the lowlands!
Mount Leinster copy.jpg

The following shot is quite a ‘deep’ focus stack. I shot this using a 35mm lens but with very close foreground and because I wanted everything sharp from close foreground to infinity, 22 frames were required. I have a fast PC but focus stacking large TIF files is CPU (and RAM) intensive and it can take some time. If there are stacking errors, they need to be manually fixed using brush tools. This is literally a manual brushing exercise and it really can take a lot of time. By ‘stacking errors’ I mean, if grass shoots have moved between frames (due to wind) then you can get duplicates. So you have to paint in manually the sharpest ones. The below image took about an hour of retouching due to such errors.
The result is totally worth it. The full 36 megapixel image looks amazing full screen on my PC. This would print to massive dimensions flawlessly. It would be literally impossible to get such a sharp and detailed photograph with this particular composition with only one shot/focal point. 22frames-2 copy.jpg

A long range shot now, of the Ow valley and river. Beautiful light at this time of year. Winter truly is my favourite season for photography. No focus stacking needed here, just a single frame. The joys of long lens distance shots!
Ow copy.jpg

Another long range shot, with the wind turbines on Ballycumber Hill rising above the fog (at right). The metallic look of the sky is very appealing. Heavy rain (snow in the higher ground) was forecast for the next day if I recall correctly.
Ballycumber Hill copy.jpg

Almost near the summit area now.
Another ambitious focus stack here. I didn’t think this would work out because of the extreme proximity of the boulder compared to the background. 15 frames worked a treat. Pretty cold here!
Dice-2 copy.jpg

A very snowy summit. High altitude clouds totally obscuring the sky, and low altitude clouds obscuring the low lands. Cool!summit-2 copy.jpg

A shot of the cliffs of the south prison, not far from the summit. What a day!
35SP-2 copy.jpg

A shot of Lugcoolmeen.
Lugcoolmeen copy.jpg

A different angle of the cliffs.
SP35 copy.jpg

Another optimistic focus stack here. Using a long lens I wanted to emphasise the cliffs but also I wanted the far background sharp. 10 frames was enough for perfect sharpness at 36 megapixels. This was not a problem with the light winds on Lug this day, but with even moderate winds – this sort of shot would be frustrating to capture.
SP100-2 copy.jpg

A couple of single shot long range shots now.
Croaghanmoira says Hello!
Croaghanmoira copy.jpg

A shot looking over to Mullaghcleevaun, Tonelagee and Turlough Hill. I was grateful for the lone hiker in the foreground!
Turlough copy.jpg

Heading back now, but I will descend near the north prison. It’s much steeper than the way I ascended the mountain but it’s very scenic and usually there is a lot of snow on the north side of Lug.
Looking over to Lobawn and the Sugar Loaf of Imaal.
Sugar Loaf copy.jpg

Above the clouds indeed on this day!
A view back to Camarahill, my descent route.
Camarahill copy.jpg

A view from the top of the north prison.
NP-2 copy.jpg

Another focus stack, down low to the ground this time. A lot of snow here.
jagged-2 copy.jpg

A shot of the route back.Route back-2 copy.jpg

The cold north prison cliffs. The sunlight never hits them at this time of year.
NP cliff-2 copy.jpg

Descending much further now, and below the snow line. I liked the colours of this scene, I think at the time I had been thinking that I had only seen a lot of white this day so far so the colours really popped out at me!Colour-2 copy.jpg

Almost at the descent of Camarahill section now. I took a look back at Lug. I’ve always thought it looked very impressive with a bit of snow.
Lug copy.jpg

Not long until sunset now, and I chose to descend Camarahill in the dark so I could capture this.
Sunset copy.jpg

Two days ago I witnessed a spectacular sunrise from above the south prison of Lugnaquilla. Maybe in a few months I might get time to write a post about that! It was truly spectacular though, one in a million.

Thank you for reading!

If you like what you see here please feel free to browse my other blog posts where you can see lots more of my work, or follow me on Facebook here! I am also on Instagram now, as phillipjwells.

The images presented here are my intellectual property and must not be distributed without my consent.

Focus Stacking In The Forest

Something a little bit different today, and no mention of Lugnaquilla in sight ;).
I’m also going to only talk about one image this time, so something very new for readers of my blog!
This is going to be quite a technical post I am afraid guys, so if you are not terribly interested in the pursuit of absolute image quality then this might not be for you.

One of the age old problems in photography, especially with landscape photography is getting sufficient depth of field in a photograph. The traditional method is to stop down your lens. Most photographers understand that if you stop a lens down to f/11, you will get a larger depth of field, or zone of focus than if you shot the same image at say f/4.
So why don’t we just stop the lens down to f/22?
Well, because of diffraction – on my full frame Nikon D810 – diffraction is evident at f/11 but at f/16 its really quite noticeable and the sharpness loss and contrast reduction is easily perceptible, especially when viewing on a large monitor.
This is why I don’t tend to shoot at a smaller aperture than f/16 (most of the time).
Basically, diffraction is an optical effect which will limit the resolution of a photograph – why buy a high resolution camera and then limit it by stopping down too far?
Diffraction occurs when light begins to disperse or “diffract” when passing through a small opening (i.e. a lens set to a small aperture).

Life is all about compromise, and so is photography. If you have a near subject that you want sharp and a far subject that you also want sharp – the usual advice is to stop the lens down. However, high resolution photography magnifies the negative effects of diffraction.
So, a compromise must be made (unless using a tilt shift lens – but they have their own issues). You have a choice to make:

A) Stop down and accept some diffraction that will limit the resolution of your photograph. Sometimes though, especially with a very close foreground and distant background, no amount of stopping down will achieve critical sharpness throughout the frame.

B) Accept a blurred background but a sharp foreground (or vice versa) – sometimes this is desirable for artistic effect. Usually though, in landscape photographs we really do want ‘everything sharp’ and in focus. For some scenes, that is simply impossible – without focus stacking.

What is focus stacking? According to wikipedia:
“Focus stacking (also known as focal plane merging and z-stacking or focus blending) is a digital image processing technique which combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a resulting image with a greater depth of field (DOF) than any of the individual source images.”

Lenses I use for focus stacking include Zeiss Milvus 18mm f/2.8, Zeiss Milvus 34mm f/1.4 and the Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2.

One of the many reasons I favour Zeiss glass is the power and control over exactly where the zone of focus can be placed. This, coupled with low aberrations (spherical, chromatic aberration and field curvature) means you have absolute control of where focus falls. There are no surprises.
The focus rings are extremely precise and have a long throw – most autofocus lenses have bad focus rings in my experience, with a short focus throw. It’s hard to describe but once you have used a Zeiss lens for landscape photography – there is simply no going back.
I’d like to add here, that all opinions posted on my blog (and my other content) are my own. Any conclusions I come to are after many hours testing various pieces of equipment. I am not affiliated with any camera/lens manufacturer and all of my gear is personally bought by myself (at my expense, great expense I might say!).

Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/1.4 at f/10, nikon D810 – 40 frame stack2019-04-01-10.56.44 ZS retouched.jpg

At this low resolution (I don’t think WordPress allows high resolution uploads) there is no difference between the above image (a stack of 40 images, shot at f/10 each) to the one below:

Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/1.4 at f/10, nikon D810 – focus was placed on the large tree at left
focus on tree copy.jpg

So, to demonstrate this I will have to show some crops.
The following are 100% (pixel level) crops from my 36 megapixel Nikon D810.

CENTRE :: 40 frame stack
stacked centre.jpg

CENTRE :: single shot at f/10 – focus on the tree trunkfocus on tree centre.jpg

What might be already apparent from the above two crops is that whilst the tree trunk is sharp in both crops, taking a cursory glance to the right shows the power of focus stacking. Strong blur (insufficient depth of field) on the non stacked crop but the stacked crop is very sharp. Remember this was shot at f/10! I did a test shot at f/16 (the minimum aperture of the Zeiss Milvus) with the same focus placement and still the background was blurred.

Let’s look at another couple of crops.
This sequence is taken from the far right.

FAR RIGHT :: 40 frame stack
stacked FR.jpg

FAR RIGHT :: single shot at f/10 – focus on the tree trunk
focus on tree FR.jpg

As you can see, absolutely nothing is in focus in the single shot crop. The focus stacked crop shows a very high level of detail. I think the benefits of focus stacking largely speaks for itself in this particular scene but let’s see some more crops.

This sequence is taken from the far left.

FAR LEFT :: 40 frame stack
stacked FL.jpg

FAR LEFT :: single shot at f/10 – focus on the tree trunk
focus on tree FL.jpg

Again, a similar pattern occurs. The area where focus was placed is sharp in the single shot but the background is blurred. Compare with the focus stack crop above. It’s not really a competition if absolute sharpness is required all over the frame is it?

I want to show another crop here, this time taken from the bottom left – this was very close to the camera (a couple of feet at most).

BOTTOM LEFT :: 40 frame stack
stacked BL.jpg

BOTTOM LEFT :: single shot at f/10 – focus on the tree trunk
focus on tree BL.jpg

No way was this area going to be sharp in a single frame. No amount of stopping down would give sufficient depth of field for an area of the image this close (when focus was placed on the tree). This area is simply too close to the camera.
However, focus stacking as seen in the above crop proves its worth.

One final crop, this time of the bottom right of the image.

BOTTOM RIGHT :: 40 frame stack
stacked BR.jpg

BOTTOM RIGHT :: single shot at f/10 – focus on the tree trunk
focus on tree BR.jpg

This area is too far away from the focus point for f/10 to cover it in the single shot (f/16 didn’t either). The advantages of stacking are pretty obvious I think.

So, what are the disadvantages?

Like everything in photography, focus stacking comes with compromises. Some limitations of focus stacking that I have discovered are listed below:

  • Wind and moving subjects pose a challenge for stacking. Any subject movement means extra time on the computer retouching ‘double images’ where the stacking software gets confused. For example, you may have two tree branches instead of one!
  • Time and effort both in the field and at the computer. Stacking in the field requires time and patience. I usually focus on the nearest object in the image and the slowly rotate the focus ring as required to ensure that the furthest objects will also be in focus. In fairness, it only really takes about five minutes but if you do that for 10 shots that’s nearly an hour! I use Zerene stacker (Zerene Systems) to automate the focus stack frames on the PC but usually it needs ‘touching up’ to varying degrees. It’s great software but not free, I bought the ‘prosumer edition’ ($189 USD at time of writing) I believe. It’s really worth it. For the image in this post, I think I spent an hour over several evenings (at a leisurely pace, I was unfamiliar with the software) retouching. It’s really not that bad when you consider how striking the image is when viewed on a large screen at full size. It all depends on how much you care about image quality at the end of the day. If you really care about quality then it’s a ‘no brainer’ investment in both time and money. 40 frames are a lot, but this scene required it because I had very close elements in the foreground – most scenes probably only require a handful of frames. This was quite an extreme example.
  • Storage – 40 images were used to stack the above. So that’s 40 images to obtain one! Of course, you can delete the ‘stack frames’ once you’ve finished building the stack to free up storage.
  • Blur can be beautiful – ‘bokeh’ is very popular these days! Smartphone software engineers are working overtime around the world to emulate background blur in smartphone cameras (software blur) – they are getting good (they are not great to a keen eye) but optical blur is, and will be for some time – king. You don’t always want ‘everything sharp’, it really comes down to intent in the photograph and what it is you are capturing.

I am sure there are other limitations I have not yet discovered but if you are serious about landscape photography (or still life/macro photography) then focus stacking is a skill that you really need to add to your arsenal, especially as camera sensor size and resolution is ever increasing (and depth of field decreasing with it).

Thank you for reading!

If you like what you see here please feel free to take a look at my portfolio site where you can see lots more of my work, or follow me on Twitter or Facebook here! I am also on Instagram now, as phillipjwells.

The images presented here are my intellectual property and must not be distributed without my consent.