After many weekends of grey skies and wet walks – finally; a break in the misery.
Saturday 25th March was set to be a fantastic day judging by the forecasts. And fantastic it was.
So….. Where did I go? Well, I think readers of this blog will know where I went!
Many kilometers to hike, lots of boot sucking bog to tackle, many views to see. Rock strewn slopes to dodge through, gullies to sit atop and a ‘loaner’ lens to test. A loaner lens because the brand new Zeiss Milvus 135mm lens I purchased revealed itself to have a very soft corner on one side. Even at f/8. Not acceptable really. So, back to the shop it went.
In the last couple of months I have been trying to obtain a decent 135mm prime lens for landscape work. I enjoy shooting longer lenses for landscapes, more so than wide angle lenses actually. I think photography can be an ‘art of exclusion’, so with a long lens, you can exclude easier!
Only a few simple criteria needed to be met by the lens I was searching for. The lens needed to be sharp, and it needed to sharp across the entire image frame. Not just sharp in the center – sharp across the entire image. Not an unreasonable expectation for a prime (non zoomable) lens I don’t think?
Well, after 3 different samples of 135mm lenses (2 Samyang/Rokinon and 1 Zeiss Milvus) – it would appear so. Buying new lenses for a high resolution camera is, well, a bit stressful if I am honest. I am quite experienced with testing lenses and I have very high demands/expectations of new equipment. New equipment is very expensive, so I have every right to be picky I believe.
High resolution imagery places large demands on glass (lenses) placed in front of the sensor and lens flaws will be revealed, certainly. Similarly, flaws that originate from behind the sensor will be revealed equally. By that – I mean photographer flaws. Nobody, and nothing is perfect.
I will talk about this more later.
But for now, the journey begins!
Up bright and early as per usual for me. I took this one at 7am whilst walking up the forest path toward good old Camara Hill. The mountain Keadeen looms beyond this row of trees. The lens I was borrowing from my favourite local camera shop (Conns Cameras – by the way, wonderful customer service guys.) was a 100mm Makro Planar f/2 Zeiss lens. This was my first shot with the lens, shot wide open at f/2, manually focussed in live view on the trees. What a delightful little lens, almost zero field curvature (nearly flat zone of focus/depth of field). This meant that if I was parallel with the row of trees, I could get all of the trees in the same zone of focus with f/2. So that’s what I did!
Now, I always manually focus my lenses for landscape photography. With the Zeiss 100mm, it has no autofocus, so there is no choice. But I am happy with this. Manual focus gives much better results than autofocus (unless I mess up – this is not unknown, I am human after all. Plus I do suffer from terrible short sightedness and astigmatism – like certain wide angle lenses I might add!). Besides, I also find manual focus is a much more intimate way to connect with and capture nature, it forces me to think about what the subject really is, in the above case – the trees. Everything else in the shot is ‘contextual background’.
As this is my favourite walk, I have become intimately familiar with it over the last 6 months or so. More than twenty five times I have done at least part of this walk in the past half year. It never gets old, it always looks different. Below is shown the final stretch of forest track that leads you up to the slopes of Camara Hill. From here the journey gets a little tougher. Up onto open hillside and the gradient steepens. My father describes the ascent of Camara as ‘Twenty minutes of purgatory’! Well, it was a humid day when I took him and my mother up there, so the description was warranted!
Well, winter is over now here in Ireland. Much to my dismay! I do enjoy clear days in winter, but with spring comes new opportunities. The gorse has already started it’s luminous and coconut-fragranced return! Bokeh!
Depth of field (zone of focus) is minimal in the above shot. Only the very tip of the gorse bud is in sharp focus. A tricky enough photograph to capture, by the time focus is spot on – the bud could have been moved by the wind, and thus thrown out of the zone of focus. I won’t lie, I did not get this focussed exactly how I wanted it first time (see note above about flaws behind the sensor!).
At the top of Camara now, and a familiar view to myself is revealed. Also a familiar view to Michael Dwyer (the United Irishmen leader in the 1798 rebellion against the English). I believe he was born near the foot of this hill and fought for freedom for Ireland from within these secluded glens.
The sky was like a painting at this time of day, not too long after sunrise with the sun beyond Lugnaquilla itself. The last patches of snow are resisting the slow thaw. But their time is coming to an end.
Looking at smaller views now, using the Macro lens I am borrowing. A lone grass blade shooting through the tortured and weathered surface of the peat.
A few rest breaks required, Camara Hill ascent was tough this day. Lack of sleep the night before and a hectic week at work. But these breaks offered the chance to try the macro capabilities of the Milvus 100mm. Added bonus : I got to lie down for a little rest taking these shots!
Another close up, this time further up the mountain. Hitting the snow patches now, probably the last of the snow until autumn/winter 2017. Spring breaks through!
Again, an admirable performance from the lens. Depth of field/zone of focus is so shallow at close range on a 36 megapixel camera. Only the little orange ‘knot’ almost halfway up the grass blade is in perfect focus at f/2.8.
A quick stroll to the summit now, with a snow patched Gravale, Carrigvore and Kippure mountain chain in the distance beyond.
Amazing weather and not a soul to be seen! Never have I experienced such beautiful and calm (almost no wind) conditions at my favourite place outdoors. Often it is foggy, cold, wet and windy! By the time I had got to the summit this day, I had taken all of my outer torso layers off and I was just in my thermal T-shirt. Amazing, only a month ago I was in my full winter gear (see A White Lugnaquilla).
A beautiful day indeed.
But don’t worry, I can always find something to complain about! There was some mild ‘atmospheric lensing’, or heat shimmer (temperature differential) occurring. This was hampering long range views. This will get worse as spring progresses to summer. Winter is the best season for a clear atmosphere, and it shall be missed by myself. Photographs are affected greatly by this mirage-like effect, and sharpness and resolution is reduced. Long lenses suffer more because they amplify the effect. There is little that can be done in this case, except shoot earlier in the morning or later in the day when the atmosphere is more stable. Also, it can help to be above your subject (such as, on a mountain). Anyway, I was having such a great day that I really didn’t care that much! Enjoy the moment, if the photographs come, they come – if they don’t then there is always next time!
As always, a short detour to the south prison cliffs was the next item on the agenda. I swore that I was not going to do this on this day, and instead do something else – but I lied to myself. I love it here. A quick stop for a shot and a small bite to eat (Lion bar, yum), then I planned to sit above the Great Gully of the south prison itself (also known as McAlpines Back Passage).
Descending sharply here to reach my resting spot above the Great Gully. Lunchtime!
I didn’t enjoy my sandwich much this day to be honest. I opted for chicken tikka, lettuce and sweetcorn. But, it sort of dawned on me here as I was chomping away that perhaps I’d have been better off with just plain chicken and that I did not enjoy tikka sandwich as much as I thought I would. However, I had some amazing raspberries for dessert. They were incredible!
Another shot at the head of the Great Gully, this time minus me.
I shot this image and the ‘selfie’ type image above it with my Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art lens. A wonderful wide angle lens, but not perfect. The lens can suffer from sharpness reducing lateral chromatic aberration (AKA transverse CA) in the edges of the image frame due to an inverted ‘V’ (think of ‘^’) shaped field curvature that favours the foreground so that peripheries in the background can become less sharp if not focussed appropriately (hence the use of manual focus!). Software (such as Lightroom, Raw Therapee) can help this effect to some degree, and the colour fringing but there is a small loss of sharpness as a result (but software cannot fix out of focus areas). So careful focus placement is required. Tripod a necessity. But I am looking at the image at pixel level size – even a very, very large print would not reveal this problem! Like I said, I am picky! But like I also said, nothing is perfect and as far as wide angle lenses go, this one is extraordinary.
From here, looking to the south (and shooting with the Milvus 100mm f/2), we can see (beyond the peat hags of Lybagh and Slievemaan mountains) the richly cultivated farmlands of South Wicklow, Carlow & Wexford and a hazy, though prominent Mount Leinster and his cohort of jumbled hills that form the Blackstairs Mountains range.
I was remarking to myself how quiet Lugnaquilla was on such a wonderful Saturday. It is a popular mountain to climb so this was a great surprise to me. But then as I detoured nearby the summit over towards the north prison, a glimpse of the summit cairn told me that the party was there, and I had not been invited! I thought the party was over at the gully! In all seriousness though, it’s amazing how many people climb this mountain, head straight for the summit then head back the same way. As I’ve often said, there is so much more to explore on the mountain – in the gullies, the prisons and on the quieter slopes. I enjoy the quieter areas personally, never really been one for crowds, or parties for that matter.
Another long range (ish) shot as I made my way across the summit from the south prison to the north prison. This shot showing the beautiful (and heavily forested) townland of Aughavannagh with Croghan Kinsella rearing above in the distance. Aughavannagh has been described in books I have read as ‘the last place God made’ – because it is so remote. Saving the best for last? Well, I am not sure it’s the best place on Earth, but the views up to Lugnaquilla and its imposing south prison from there are truly beautiful.
Just above the north prison corrie rim now, and I took a quick glance (and photograph) northwards over the Wicklow Mountain range. An assorted jumble of lumps and bumps:
The above was taken with the Milvus 100mm f/2, the loaner lens. Proving itself to be sharp edge to edge for distance work as well as a brilliant performance for close range work – an exemplary performance and what I was expecting from the Milvus 135mm (and also the Samyang 135mm, and all prime lenses for that matter). After evaluating the images from this walk and other test samples I shot and carefully examined, I decided that this lens was definitely a ‘keeper’. A truly wonderful little lens. The great guys over at Conns Cameras sorted me out and I did a simple exchange (and a small refund for me, this was slightly cheaper than the Zeiss 135mm I had originally bought from them) and I am keeping this lens. Brilliant customer service, and that’s one of the reasons I shop with them, not to mention the fact that they were willing to lend me the (very expensive) lens on a loan basis whilst my brand new 135mm (2 weeks old) lens went in for servicing. A bitter pill to swallow indeed after spending a large amount of money on it.
Whilst the 100mm is not exactly the focal length I wanted (it is 35mm shorter), the performance is so good, I simply could not bear to part with it. There are also no guarantees that a lens sent in for ‘servicing’ will come back better than when it went in. I’ve said it before, I do not like to gamble.
Anyway, enough of my techy/nerdy ramblings – here is the north prison.
More sun light illuminating the tumbling cliffs than the last time I was here, the sun’s transit through the sky has been revised and the seasons are indeed changing. What an amazing day.
Me again! Boy! Do I need a haircut! Resting above the north prison, contemplating the view and the return journey to my car. Time, as always, was pressing on at this point.
Hard to tear myself from the view I had here. I took a shot of it (below) but in my experience great views do not translate to great photographs a lot of the time. Looking down to the Sugar Loaf of West Wicklow, Glen Imaal and the artillery/anti tank range and the forested area of Stranahely. There is a tremendous view over to Lugnaquilla and the north prison to be had from a gentle stroll around the Stranahely forest tracks (in a freshly felled area of the plantations). One of the things I love about shooting with sharp lenses and a high resolution camera is the ability to zoom right in on an image and view details with high clarity that I (or anybody else, for that matter) could not have possibly seen with the eyes.
Descending my favourite slope now, views beyond the navigation aid cairn (for the track to Slievemaan) reveal a weather beaten labyrinth of peat hags on Lybagh/Slievemaan.
Contrasty light. Most landscapes are better during the ‘golden hours’ around sunrise and sunset but I do like to shoot landscapes at all times of the day. It’s representative of what people who might visit the area would likely see, so I suppose it’s more true to the scene.
Back at Camara Hill now, fittingly I took a shot showing the same view I had near the start of this day’s journey over to Lugnaquilla itself. Much more pleasing late afternoon light at this stage.
There is a memorial statue at the side of Fenton’s Pub of Micheal Dwyer, near where my car was parked. Being an Englishman myself, the history of this area is fascinating to me regarding the 1798 rebellion against the English. There is an excellent OPW (Office of Public Works) museum on the slopes of Keadeen mountain with a fascinating history of Dwyer himself (The Dwyer McAllister Cottage). I won’t tell the story here, but I most definitely recommend a visit and I class it as one of Wicklow’s many hidden gems.
Back at my car now, and what a great day. The sunset looked promising but I was just simply too tired this day! So here is one I caught one night after work the week before with the Milvus 100mm.
I actually visited Lugnaquilla again on the sunday just gone (2nd April). Another wonderful day and I found a great new route down besides the cliffs of the north prison (after checking in with the Army Warden Office of course). I might write a blog about that trip soon but for now the hamstring pain is too fresh! It’s too soon! I have to learn to walk a little less on the weekends and a little more in the week – try to balance it. I’ve become a bit of a ‘weekend warrior’ whereby in the week I am quite docile (I have a desk job as a software engineer) but on the weekend I end up doing about 20km or so. This causes pain!
After discovering the #VantagePoint project by Light.co, I wanted to join in on the conversation and share my favorite locations to shoot. And Lugnaquilla is most certainly one of my absolute favourite locations to shoot. It’s a challenging location and because I carry so much heavy gear, perhaps a smaller, more compact set-up might be beneficial for me! Something to think about!
Thank you for reading!
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