Thanks to Bellingham-based Southside Living for publishing my first article about travel photography!
If you were in a position to sell your home, car, and other possessions to finance a dream, where would you go? Last year, I quit my corporate job and booked a one-way ticket to Ireland. My dream was to rent a cottage by the sea and explore the rugged Wild Atlantic Way with my camera, building a portfolio that could one day lead to freelance opportunities. Giving up a steady paycheck to take pictures may seem foolish, but I contend that travel is an investment in the soul, gold in your life’s vault of experience.
Seeing the world through a viewfinder also taught me valuable lessons about travel photography. There is an art to it, and whether you’re a seasoned photographer trying to catch the eye of a National Geographic editor or a casual tourist with a selfie stick, there are several ways to make your travel photos more memorable.
First of all, you are not at a disadvantage without an expensive DSLR and a bag full of lenses. A friend of mine used to say, “The best camera is the one you have on you.” I wouldn’t trade the quality and clarity of the photos produced on my DSLR for landscapes, but I could go without the inconvenience of lugging that beast through the streets of big cities. Not only did it attract attention, it was heavy and I got tired of carrying it around. A good point-and-shoot or cellphone camera would have been a viable alternative, something I could have easily slipped in and out of a purse to snap stealthy pictures of buskers and Dublin street scenes.
Whatever your camera choice, I recommend taking a walk through your destination before the first shutter actuation. Explore, gather a sense of the local ethos. What emotion do you want to evoke with a photograph?
I lived in Sneem last summer, a village in southwest Ireland along the popular Ring of Kerry. Say it out loud: Sneem. It sounds like a fictitious place, a hobbit stop on the way to Mordor. Pastel buildings line what passes for a main street, the corner store sells duck eggs that bulge out of repurposed cartons, and tourists wander in and out of ice cream shops in a trance. A river thunders down from Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, bisecting the village with waters the color of a freshly poured Guinness. I could have taken pictures of everything! But, I wanted to photograph the right subjects at the right time.
This meant getting up early and staying up late. For example, a castle I was particularly fond of filled with tourists during the day, and the sun cast harsh shadows on it—elements unfavorable for a good travel photograph. Instead, I woke up early before the tourists and caught the gentle morning light. The same castle was far more dramatic with fog rolling through its hollow shells, peaceful in a sleepy meadow.
For serious photographers, I recommend taking a tripod and capturing the same scene in the evening. The magic begins when the sun drops, bathing the earth in gold. The sky following a storm is also quite dramatic as rainbows push back the darkness.
Understandably, there are times when you will be taking pictures during the harsh light of day. In this case, use your flash. This will fill out the shadows in the faces of your families and friends, capturing a far more flattering image.
Consider the composition of your photograph. Don’t just stand there—move! Try out different angles or put an object in the foreground to show scale.
Get off the beaten path! When going to Ireland, everyone wants to visit the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, and the Guinness Storehouse. The Ring of Kerry is often so clogged with tour busses you can hardly make your way through Killarney during the daytime. And while there is value in going to those places, ask the locals for advice. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to visit the Beara Peninsula. It’s one of the well-guarded secrets in southwest Ireland. Between megalithic sites, sandy beaches, and passes, it’s heaven on earth for the budding travel photographer…and none of the tourists seem to have discovered it yet!
Above all, don’t be afraid to put the camera down and savor the moment. Talk to the locals and listen to the lilt of an accent. Enjoy the fragrance of a peat fire lacing the air with its earthy sweetness. Feel the way your nose tingles after a few sips of Guinness. There’s so much that can’t be captured on camera.
Of all the lessons I learned in Ireland, the most important was this: dare to dream beyond the borders of your hometown. Travel, if you can. Have adventures, big and small. Fall in love with the world and your one precious life. That’s the real ticket we should all purchase.
There’s art all around us. Even the ocean draws pictures on the sand.
Derrynane Beach, Ireland
Long before Game of Thrones filmed in The Dark Hedges, I wanted to experience the ephemeral awe of walking beneath the imposing boughs. I also wanted to capture them like so many other photographers, hoping for that once in a lifetime shot. In October, I finally got my chance!
The sad thing about photographing The Dark Hedges, though, was that so many other people had already done it. I’d seen images of them at dusk and dawn, in the fog, and covered in snow; there was no way to top them without settling in Ballymoney for a season and waiting for the perfect shot. But it’s not a competition, is it? If it were, I might win for being the only photographer to post a tractor cruising through the famous canopy of beech trees.
The Stuart family planted the trees in the 18th century to delight visitors as they approached their mansion, Gracehill House. After nearly 300 years of growth, The Dark Hedges are far more impressive than they ever would have been in the Stuart’s lifetime. Their massive, interlocking branches have attracted photographers and film producers worldwide, and that attention has boosted their popularity among tourists. As I made my way back to the car, more and more of them were discovering the hedges and parking wherever they could find space instead of the designated parking area.
The Hedges Hotel provides free parking for visitors, and the walk to The Dark Hedges is short. Please do NOT park along the side of the road! I saw so many tourists ignoring the signs and tearing up the verge. Not only were they destroying the view and mood for everyone, they were – more importantly – slowly destroying the very thing they came to see.
Go in the off season if you can. Like everything else worth seeing in Ireland and Northern Ireland, it’s best enjoyed when the crowds have thinned. The quiet gives you the time and space to suspend reality for a few minutes, to give yourself over to another of Ireland’s enchantments without distraction. Whether you carry a point-and-shoot or DSLR, it doesn’t matter – you can still capture a little magic of your own.
On an island famous for its ubiquitous sheep, man’s best friend needs a little photo love too!
The Dingle Peninsula is one of several peninsulas in South West Ireland. Each one is memorable for different reasons – Beara for its winding passes and clusters of standing stones, the Ring of Kerry for its long stretches of sandy beaches and all the tour buses coming into Killarney, and Dingle for Slea Head and, of course, Dingle town itself.
What I love about Dingle town is all the colorful buildings. My friend Anna, who visited in July, was looking to capture a door of every color while in Ireland, so we went on a little photo walk. She completed her project, and I got a few shots for my own portfolio.
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it…
I have seen that Oscar Wilde quote scrawled across pub and cafe walls all over Ireland. I suppose it’s good for business; if you’re trying to decide between one more pint of Smithwicks and going home, those words might inspire you to buy the pint.
As for myself, I don’t spend a lot of time in pubs these days. (What was that? A collective gasp from my American friends?) It’s true. I spend more time driving around looking for the real Ireland, the one found on roads my GPS doesn’t recognize. And you know, temptation can even strike in the middle of nowhere!
Between Galway and Doolin on the Wild Atlantic Way, a Burren Chocolatier sign points down one of those lazy roads, coaxing you to take a quick detour. I have driven by it countless times since 2012, and every time I tell myself, “Nope. You are not going there. You’ll end up with a bag full of chocolates, and you’ll say they’re gifts, but that’s a lie. They’ll be gone before you make it back to the B&B. Don’t turn down that road!”
However, I can only drive by a sign pointing to chocolate so many times before turning my car in that direction. A few weeks ago, I finally did it. I turned, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it! I’d yield to Hazel Mountain Chocolate over and over and over again too… I even have some good reasons.
Hazel Mountain Chocolate has a cafe, shop, and factory. Whether you choose to eat in the cafe or simply snag a couple of truffles in the shop, you can enjoy it indoors to satisfy your frilly feminine sensibilities or head outdoors to admire the County Clare landscape.
Cake! And Everything is Gluten Free!
The cafe had a gluten and dairy free lime and blueberry cake. I couldn’t say no to that! Neither could you, even if you’re not on a restricted diet. Plus, all cakes and pastries are made in their kitchen with locally sourced ingredients, whenever possible. They taste especially good with a cup of tea.
Bean to Bar
When I finished my cake and tea, I visited the chocolate shop and had a little conversation about cocoa beans.
Hazel Mountain’s beans are imported directly from cacao farmers and then prepared on site. The process of converting beans into chocolate bars takes about one month, but it ensures consumers are getting some of the finest chocolate in Europe. I liked being able to watch employees make the truffles through the glass.
I resisted the temptation to buy one of everything and purchased ONE dark chocolate bar, which I opened as soon as I got in the car. After devouring one square, I packed the rest away. I would later enjoy it slowly, one square at a time, with a glass of wine back in Sneem.
I think Oscar Wilde would approve.
Last October, my sister Carole and I visited Ireland’s School of Falconry for an afternoon. I had been looking for a unique Irish experience, something Carole could go home and tell her children about, and this seemed perfect. Lilly (7) would love the pictures of a castle and Isaac (9) would be interested in the birds. Plus, having grown up in the farmlands of Minnesota, there’s nothing so dramatic as driving up to a place like Ashford Castle with its guarded front gate and perfectly manicured grounds. You feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a fairytale.
Located within the forested acres surrounding the castle, the school is enclosed by an ivy-covered stone wall, and its massive wood doors are like an entrance to another world. I half expected Dumbledore to open them instead of a young woman in a green pullover. The woman led us inside and to a weathering yard, where a dozen Harris hawks perched behind screens. Within minutes of arriving we were introduced to our instructor, who selected our bird for the private, hour-long Hawk Walk.
There was a long list of names on a board inside, and I really wanted Uisce because that’s the name of my favorite bar back home. However, Uisce wasn’t at a good flying weight that day, and hawks will only cooperate at this magical number. A few ounces over and they won’t be hungry enough to fly; the meat you are offering as a reward won’t interest them. A few ounces under and they may fly off and find something still alive to be hunted and preyed upon.
My memory being what it is, I can no longer recall the name of our hawk. I’ll call it Killary, as she seems to be popular among the other travel photographers who visited Ireland’s School of Falconry around the same time period, although I know it was a name more Irish and unpronounceable than that (probably Siobhan, Aoife, or Naimh).
I let Carole have the first go so I could take pictures. Neither of us were nervous about handling Killary. I don’t even remember being worried about if the talons would hurt or if she would land anywhere other than the glove. Mostly, we were excited to try something new.
Strips of leather were threaded through a ring around Killary’s legs. Carole held them to secure the hawk while we walked outside the gates and into the woods. To release Killary, Carole simply uncurled her fingers from around the jesses. She was a complete natural.
We walked through the grounds at a leisurely pace, and Killary flew from tree to tree, jingling the bells on her feet and giving away her position. Whenever Carole or I wanted her to land, we held up our gloved arm and Killary swooped down, taking the meat from our hands. I didn’t feel a thing, except for her weight and her strength as she gripped the glove. How could I not be in awe? There was something very alert, intelligent and even a little sly behind those eyes.
Hawks are impressive birds. Their eyesight is eight times better than humans, and unlike many animals, they see in color. During a hunt, they can dive at 150 miles per hour to catch their prey. That doesn’t bode well for a little field mouse, scurrying home at only 8 mph.
Some people believe there is a bond between bird and falconer, and maybe that’s true. I think it’s simply operant conditioning. The hawk trusts the falconer for food and shelter and the falconer trusts that the hawk will fly back. Our instructor said that if a falconer calls the bird without a reward (meat), soon the bird will quit returning.
The school also keeps an owl named Dingle and Peregrine falcons, formidable hunters that dive after prey at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. These beautiful creatures are worth a visit for anyone traveling through the village of Cong or staying at Ashford Castle. You can call yourself a Falconer!
I shouldn’t tell you any of this. If word gets out about how unbelievably cool the Beara Peninsula is, then everyone will go there. The roads will become clogged with buses and nervous tourists driving on the left for the first time, and I can’t have that. I like the quiet of the Beara Peninsuala, how I can park my car just about anywhere and hear nothing except for the wind and the livestock grazing in the fields. (I like not having to Photoshop people out of my otherwise perfect photographs…)
You really should know, though. I feel guilty about stumbling over this treasure and not sharing it. It’s more than I can possibly keep for myself! So, let me tell you what I love about Beara–but keep it quiet!
1. Healy Pass
Mein Gott in Himmell. I cried the first time I drove through Healy Pass and saw Glanmore Lake. If I live another 50 years and practice photography the entire time, I’ll still never capture its true beauty. It has a soul that can’t be stolen.
2. Priest’s Leap
If you’re feeling brave, take the Priest’s Leap route from Kenmare to Glengarriff. The road progressively narrows into two thin strips of crumbling asphalt divided by a line of trampled grass. There are no guard rails to protect you. If you meet a car coming from the opposite direction, one of you has to–gulp–back up and somehow not leap from the mountain yourself. It’s worth it for the view, though, and for the chorus of sheep that BAAAH at you like a bunch of pissed off old farmhands from Kerry.
3. Megalithic Sites Galore
I’ve hiked over the rivers and through the woods to find many of Beara’s sacred sites. Most require a climb over a stone wall and through someone’s field. Green ladders can be found all over Ireland to help keep gates closed and animals from running free. My sister and I had a lengthy discussion with a farmer up by Athlone last year about it. We didn’t understand a word he said, but we got the gist of it–don’t open the fecking gates!!
4. Children of Lir
After a 900 year journey as swans, the Children of Lir heard a monk’s bell in Allihies and came ashore, immediately transformed back to human form. The children were later buried on this spot, and now visitors leave offerings for them. (If you believe in that kind of thing…)
5. These Horses Guarding a Fecking Castle
I would have loved to have explored the Dunboy Castle estate. Unfortunately, the entire property is fenced (double fenced and triple fenced in places!) to keep trespassers out. Still, what an image!
6. Molly Gallivan’s Farm and the Black Sheep
Want to experience 5,000 years of history in one hour? Come to Molly Gallivan’s and take a walk through the cottage and farm. If you’re lucky, a little black lamb will greet you! He tried to escape when I opened the gate and then rubbed up against me like a cat. It’s the only sheep in Ireland that hasn’t run away from me.
7. Dursey Island Cable Car
The only cable car in Ireland happened to be on Dursey Island when I arrived, so I couldn’t check it out properly. Dolphins and whales seem to be regular visitors to the waters around the island, so I may need to make another trip.
8. White, sandy beaches
People never believe me when I tell them about the white sandy beaches in Ireland. They do exist! I took a short nap at this beach just south of Allihies.
9. The Scenery!
As previously mentioned, Healy Pass and Priest’s Leap are spectacular, but nothing beats a coastal drive around Beara.
There’s so much more too: colorful towns, nature reserves, art galleries, abandoned copper mines, and shopping. I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface with my three trips. And like I said—you’re sworn to secrecy. I may have told you, but shouldn’t we keep it all to ourselves?