Travel photography: Ireland 2017 - Part 1

August 12, 2017

Before we start

To get some inspiration for this little travel report I looked through some older articles of mine and to my surprise I noticed how much my photos and my approach to photography has changed over the years. My standards of what constitutes a good image have certainly increased and I'd like to believe that the quality of the images has too. This is a good thing, however it also means that the selection process of the pictures to keep has become stricter. Additionally I often forgo taking a picture in the first place when I see that the circumstances are not great and the result won't be either. That has the disadvantage that there are now way fewer images to choose from for my articles and it has become harder for me to tell a continuous story about the trip.

Therefore I'd like to try an approach that is a little different for this piece. I will present fewer pictures in a more loosely organized manner but I'll compensate by adding some short tutorials on how to take these pictures – what technique and gear is applied as well as what my thought process behind the image was.

So what you'll get from this little article series beside some impressions from Ireland are hints that you can apply to your own photography – regardless of your current skill level, as well as some insight on my own thought process and approach to the matter.

Along the Wild Atlantic Way

The 2500 km long Wild Atlantic Way is a coastal road that leads to most scenic and remarkable landscapes of western Ireland. I started my trip in County Mayo in the north, followed the Wild Atlantic Way loosely and ended it in County Cork to the south.

[Source: Irish National Tourism Development Authority:]

Ireland is with around 6.4 million inhabitants the second most populous island in Europe after Great Britain. It is split up into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland which is a part of the United Kingdom.

The Oceanic climate leads to mild winters and cool summers compared to other regions of similar latitude. Clouds, fog and rainfall are abundant as I also experienced first-hand.

Moyne Abbey was a Franciscan friary even some time after the reformation until it was burned down by the English in 1590.

How it's done: Never point the camera upward for anything that includes architecture to avoid receding lines. That will cause a lot of ground to be in the image which needs to be included in the composition. For maximum dynamic range (the dark parts and the light parts should be clearly visible) expose as much as possible without blowing highlights and make some adjustments in post processing. A circular polarizer is a must for daytime images to darken the sky a bit.

The well preserved ruins of the Gothic style friary has very little visitors and just radiates an eerie but also captivating aura.
Downpatrick Head is one of the key landmarks of the northern Atlantic coast. St. Patrick himself founded a church there whose ruins can still be seen today.

How it's done: Despite the great scenery it is surprisingly hard to get a good viewpoint of Downpatrick Head. I liked this one best. Again expose as much as possible and don't forget to use a polarizing filter.

That lonesome sheep just stayed in place when I approached while the rest of the herd disappeared anxiously.
Sunset at Rathlacken bay.

How it's done:

Technique: To remove the ripples of the ocean I used a 30s exposure in the last few minutes before sunset. This of course means that the camera is tripod mounted and a grey filter (ND1000) is in use to reduce the amount of light that enters the lens. I wanted the light to be as reddish as possible so I waited until the last possible moment when the disc of the sun was about to touch the horizon. If the sun starts disappearing under the horizon it's too late since the light levels grow too weak and the beautiful colors fade.

Composition: A landscape image needs a foreground. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you actually are standing at this spot your three dimensional vision will give you this amazing sense of depth automatically but this does not easily translate to a two dimensional image. If the viewer does not have the possibility to follow the landscape from right in front of him until up to the horizon he will not experience the same sense of depth. The stone wall acts as the near anchor point from where the viewer can let his eye wander into the distance via a left bound ark.


A unique cultural and geographical area can be found in Connemara. It is strongly associated with traditional Irish culture and is also home to a large Irish-speaking community. From a photographic point of view especially the landscape, which is dominated by hills and bogs, woodland, countless small bays and peninsulas is of great interest.

The jagged landscape is typical for the region.

How it's done: These are other important examples of how a landscape shot needs a foreground. Just a landscape in the distance fails to recreate the feeling of depth that the actual observer experiences -> see next image.

Taken at the same spot as the previous image but in the opposite direction.

How it's done: Due to the distance of the hills from my point of view it was not possible to include a foreground into the frame. Let this serve as illustration of how much weaker the impression due to the lack of near anchor points gets.

Kylemore Abbey

Kylemore Abbey is a beautifully situated building with a very interesting history. Originally built by a dentist in 1867, then - after a family tragedy - sold to rich aristocrats from Great Britain who underestimated the upkeep of the huge property and got into financial trouble. They had to sell again and the property ended up in the hands of Irish Benedictine Nuns.

The abbey at Pollacapall Lough.

How it's done: The Abbey has a great location directly at the water which should be used to get some nice reflections in good light. While I was there however there were two major problems: 1. The weather was constantly awful; 2. The abbey was undergoing some major renovation and there was ugly scaffolding covering the left side of the building.

I chose this point of view to get rid of as much of the scaffolding as possible – you can still see some on the left. The water lilies are supposed to fill up that empty space in the foreground. I prefer a black and white conversion when the colors don't add anything to the image. As I said the weather was bad and there was no nice light so to me it's better to concentrate on the essentials.

Kylemores Neo-Gothic church.

How it's done: Firstly the church has a front and a back side. The front is where everyone else took a picture. I chose this side because it creates a very secluded feel and an in general much more pleasing composition. If you see a nice subject but there are people in the way or it's not possible to get a pleasing composition, look around – there is very often a more suitable but less obvious spot to be found.

Again - do not tilt your camera upward for architectural shots! You will have to step farther away and there's going to be more foreground which you will have to work into the composition. I think that worked just nicely here.

Twelve Pines Island

Connemara was one of the focal points of the trip. Altogether I spent three days in the area but I was very unlucky since those three days contained only a few minutes of sunlight and had otherwise only fog and rain to offer.

One of my favorite shootings was at Derryclare Lough where I tried to get some images of Twelve Pines Island. When I arrived there in the morning it was completely overcast and I had little hope of getting some good images. I decided to wait and see if the situation would improve and naturally used the time for some location scouting and taking some mental pictures. After about an hour there were actually some holes forming in the cloud cover.

Not the image I wanted but the light broke through east of my location and forced me to move around the lake to get some light in the frame.

Suddenly a bigger opening formed and the light spilled all over the place. This came as a shock to me since I was at the wrong side of the island at this point. I immediately grabbed my stuff and ran to the spot I scouted earlier, but when I was there the light was gone. That was extremely frustrating since I had probably missed my only chance of getting the image I wanted. Regardless I set up my camera and got ready to take the picture.

Sure enough the sun came out a second time and I got the shot.

Twelve Pine Island at Derryclare Lough in morning light.

How it's done:

Technique: This is again a tripod mounted long exposure shot to get perfectly smooth water and dreamy clouds. A gray filter is used to reduce light levels and a polarizing filter to darken the sky a bit and to remove the reflections from the near water surface. Every stone shall be perfectly visible under water.

Composition: Do you remember what I said about foreground in landscape pictures? Yes, it's that important. The stones protruding from the water are the near anchor points, the position of the island follows pretty much the rule of thirds. I have made the experience that framing landscapes wider is often a bit better then framing them tighter, that's why the subject (the island) only takes up a rather small part of the frame.

As usual with photography, the light makes all the difference. Immediately after this one exposure was complete, the sun disappeared behind clouds, not to be seen again for three days. Hover the mouse over the previous image to see a comparison with the image taken a minute later without great light.

I took some more pictures from a higher viewpoint but the sun did not return so they're not great.

Dunguaire Castle

Dunguaire Castle is a medieval tower house situated at the bay of Galway. I was just passing through there in the afternoon so it wasn't really possible to pick a perfect time to take the pictures.

Dunguaire Castle

How it's done: Again, a long exposure shot with neutral density and polarizing filters. Additional to some smooth water the long exposure also does a great job of getting rid of the people walking around on the castle grounds. In this case, the circular polarizer is set up here to maximize the reflection of the stronghold in the water which is an important compositional element.

It's a decent shot but I wasn't quite satisfied with this scene so I looked around a bit for some less obvious but more interesting viewpoints.

Much better! The castle wasn't used for quite some time and fell into ruins but was restored at the beginning of the 20th century. The remnant wall in the foreground was most likely part of the original complex.

How it's done:

Technique: Same as before.

Composition: The surroundings get much greater attention as before. The castle itself is contextualized and shown as a part of its environment rather than on its own. I think it's a stronger picture because it tells a more complete story.

Some Birds

To conclude this first part of the Ireland series and provide some distraction from all these landscapes let's look at some wildlife images. Wildlife photography was really not a focus of this trip so there are only a few pictures to show here.

A common tern after a successful hunt.

How it's done: Birds usually have the bright sky as a background. That is a situation the cameras light senor just can't handle at all. It is necessary to use exposure compensation of at least +2 stops (four times the light the camera would like to use), sometimes more. Just check the histogram regularly to see if your exposure is good.

Other than that use a short shutter speed to freeze the action (1/1600s and shorter) and be sure to check out my article on how to properly focus for fast action.

The tern just after emerging from the water.

How it's done: The water as a background is not as light as the sky so the exposure compensation should also be reduced for these to about +1 1/3 stops.

Details about the hunting behavior of the tern can be found in my Estonia article.

Two starlings on a wire.
A male and female supposedly in some kind of relationship trouble.
Yes, there is definitely something wrong with these lovebirds.
Female starling on a bush.
Meadow pipit
Male [top] and female [bottom] European stonechat.

If you'd like to know how my journey continued here's part 2!

Thanks for reading!

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