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Ireland & Scotland: A Photographic Journey

Posted on 11/22/2016 12:47:00 PM in Traveler Insights

This image at a viewpoint outside of Killarney National Park, called Priest’s Leap, was made using a normal lens with polarizing filter, stopped down to maximize depth-of-field. Remember to include yourself and your travel companions in some of your photos.

By Kyle Adler, 8-time traveler from San Carlos, CA

Greetings, fellow OAT travelers! In a recent edition of The Inside Scoop, I introduced myself as a passionate travel photographer and I shared a photo narrative from O.A.T.’s Chile & Argentina: The Andes to Patagonia trip. (If you missed that article, you can find it here.) Now I’m excited to have the opportunity to share another personal travel story, this one focusing on Ireland and Scotland, once again illustrated with some of my favorite photos from the trip and accompanied by suggestions to help you make the best images possible while traveling.

I have a special interest in helping travelers improve their photography while learning to travel with greater cultural awareness and advocacy. Toward that end, I have recently launched a new project dedicated to improving and inspiring travel photography, “To Travel Hopefully,” at

My wife and I are just back from a two-week adventure in Ireland and Scotland. Our itinerary sandwiched a week of hiking in the glorious southwestern regions of Ireland (Counties Kerry and Cork) in between brief stays in the major cities of Dublin and Edinburgh. The photographic opportunities in these regions are remarkable, with lovely landscapes, historic architecture, and a generous friendly culture evident everywhere.

We began our rambles with a whirlwind two-day stay in Dublin. The capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin is well known as the home of Guinness beer and for its literary and historical legacy, but perhaps less known as a remarkable hub of live music and contemporary fine dining. It’s also a marvelous place to make images that highlight the old and the new elements of this vibrant city.

Perhaps the world’s grandest study hall, Trinity College’s Long Room (left) is a stately palace of higher learning. Located next to the vault housing the famous Book of Kells (where photography is not permitted), the Long Room is best photographed with a wide-angle lens using natural light.

Live trad (traditional Irish folk) music is a staple of Dublin nightlife, and nowhere is it better than at the famed O’Donoghue’s Pub, where in the 1960s bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival. Irish pubs are convivial and interactive places, where you can mingle with the performers and other locals.

To make portraits of the musicians (right), sit close to the “stage” (there’s rarely a true stage in the formal sense, but rather a performer’s area) and shoot with a fast normal or portrait lens using a high ISO setting. It helps to get to know a few of the players during their breaks.

Dublin Castle dates from early Anglo-Norman times, and a guided tour provides a sweeping history of Dublin from its origins through the present day.

To photograph the Castle and Dublin’s other architectural gems, use a wide-angle lens. Watch out for cluttered foregrounds and keep an eye on the lines at the edges of the frame, as it is tricky to avoid distortion when shooting up with a wide lens.

It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that Ireland’s biggest attraction is the Guinness Storehouse. While it’s easy to dismiss sites like this one—essentially a theme park dedicated to a beer brand—that would be a mistake. The self-guided tour is fascinating for its historical, cultural, and architectural facets, and the view from the top-floor Gravity Bar (with an included pint of Guinness) is the best in Dublin.

The Guinness Storehouse was converted into a museum and tourist attraction, but happily they have retained much of the old brewing machinery, which makes a great photographic subject. I used a touch of flash here to saturate the colors.

After visiting Dublin, we embarked on a week of hiking in Counties Cork and Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. I highly recommend a visit to the very remote Gougane Barra peninsula. There’s only one hotel, which offers outstanding food and views over a tiny island with a picturesque church and the ruins of a sixth-century monastery. A photographer’s paradise!

St. Finbarr’s Church stands on a tiny island on the Gougane Barra Peninsula. To make this image, I shot in the early morning when the quality of light was compelling, got down low to include the rushes in the lake, and used a polarizing filter to bring out the textures in the water and sky.

Don’t put away your gear when the sun sets! On a rare clear night in rural Ireland, the photography is stunning. Here’s an image of the Milky Way sprawling above the ruins of St. Finbarr’s Abbey, a sixth-century monastery.

To capture the Milky Way (left), use a sturdy tripod and a relatively fast lens with a high ISO setting. In most cases, a shutter speed of 20-25 seconds is best, but here I used a somewhat shorter exposure to avoid having the ancient cross appear washed out in the site’s artificial light.

We then hiked a portion of the long-distance Sheep’s Head Way. You’ll rarely encounter completely clear skies in Ireland, but the changeable conditions can create opportunities for glorious landscapes. This lovely image was made just as the rain let up and the sun poked out, generating a vivid rainbow that spanned the green fields and ancient walls.

Here I used a wide-angle lens, fitted with a circular polarizing filter. I adjusted the angle of the polarizer carefully to enhance the sky without weakening the refraction of the rainbow. I got down low to the ground to include the leading line from the old wall. Other compositional elements include the sheep in the field and the dramatic clouds in the sky.

At the end of the Sheep’s Head Way sits the lovely Bantry House, owned by the same family since 1750. Climb the hill behind the house to capture the mansion and its gardens with the harbor behind.

Ireland is filled with forests that exude a sense of mystery and magic. Look for the little things as you walk: a flower or shamrock, a moss-covered tree, a tiny stream. All that rain has the happy side-effect of making Ireland the greenest place I’ve ever seen.

Slow down and seek out the little natural details around you, like this moss-covered tree in Killarney National Park.

The legendary Gap of Dunloe outside of Killarney stretches for eight miles through mountains and valleys, along streams and by old farmhouses. It can be traversed by traditional Irish horse-drawn carriages called “jaunting cars,” but the intrepid photographer will want to hike it instead.

The Gap of Dunloe offers compelling photographic subjects like this stream flowing in a valley surrounded by mountains. A good wide-angle lens with a polarizing filter brings out the color and texture in such a landscape, even on a “soft day” like this one.

We spent every evening in Ireland visiting a pub or two. These pubs differ in character, but all reflect the generous and friendly local culture, and many offer live music.

At a pub in Killarney, I was chatting with this fiddler (right) during a break between sets, and made this portrait using natural light with a fast portrait lens, a wide aperture, and a high ISO.

We were fortunate to stay two nights in Killarney at the wonderful Lake Hotel. The hotel grounds include the ruins of an ancient castle situated on a lake with mountains behind. During breakfast on our second morning, I noticed the cloud cover had lifted but there was still mist hanging on the side of the hills around the lake. I ran up to our room, grabbed my thirty pounds of camera gear, and rushed outside to capture the ruins with the mist enshrouding the lake and mountains.

There was no time to set up a tripod as the warming sun was quickly burning away the magical mist on the lake, so I shot this image handheld.

Our final day’s hike was the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way from Ventry to Dunquin. The lovely views of the Atlantic are punctuated with green fields dotted with odd “beehive huts,” some dating back to the Neolithic Period.

To make this landscape incorporating ancient stone beehive huts and walls, I shot down across the fields to the sea, being sure to keep the horizon level.

The picturesque Blasket Islands were home to a community of Irish-speaking farmer-fishermen until they were forced to evacuate in 1953. This is one of Ireland’s most gorgeous stretches of coastline, captured here using a wide-angle lens with polarizer.

At the end of our hiking adventure in Ireland, we added a stop in Edinburgh to visit our younger daughter who is a student there. Ancient and modern at the same time, Scotland’s capital offers a wide range of experiences for the traveler, and a wide array of subjects for the travel photographer. From architecture to museums, castles to palaces, glorious views and creative contemporary cuisine, this city has become a world-class destination.

The main attraction, dominating the city from its high central vantage point, is Edinburgh Castle. It’s an easy walk from the center of town up the hill to tour the castle. On the way up, a variety of interesting views of the castle unfold. Try different lenses and compositions to take advantage of the many moods of this place.

Edinburgh Castle towers above the city center and offers a variety of different perspectives for the photographer. Here I’ve shot from halfway up the hill using a telephoto lens and polarizing filter to isolate this one portion of the edifice and to enhance the stonework and the sky.

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile stretches from the Castle down to the Palace of Holyrood House. It’s easy to see this street as a shopping mall jammed with tourists, but it would be a shame to overlook the stately old architecture and the little closes (alleyways) off the main street.

To make this image along the Royal Mile, I chose an unusual perspective and used a medium telephoto lens to align the different colors, textures, and angles of the statue in the foreground with the cathedral in the background.

Edinburgh is changing. During several visits over the decades, I’ve heard many a bagpiper playing in the center of the city, but this is the first time I’ve met a female piper (left). She was happy to pose for a portrait.

At the other end of the Royal Mile from the Castle lies the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is the Queen’s official residence when she’s in Scotland, and its tour is first-rate. While photography is not allowed inside the lovely palace, it is okay to photograph the stately and much older abbey adjacent to the palace.

Again here, I tried to seek out an unusual perspective in this shot of the abbey at Holyroodhouse (right). I shot upward with a wide-angle lens, using spot metering to expose for the stonework and a small aperture to provide broader depth-of-field.

Behind Holyroodhouse is a hill towering above the city. A short but fairly strenuous hike leads to Arthur’s Seat at the summit. From the summit there are glorious views over the whole city of Edinburgh.

A view of Holyroodhouse from the hike up to Arthur’s Seat. A polarizer helped bring out the drama in the sky and the saturated green of the lawns.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this narrative and that you will be inspired to travel more adventurously, capture images like a pro, and share your photos more powerfully. To see more of my images and to learn more about travel photography, please visit my new project, “To Travel Hopefully,” at

You can see many of the sites that so captivated Kyle—and set up your own photographic compositions—with Grand Circle Travel on Ireland in Depth. Get a different perspective of Ireland’s beauty in this short film:

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Ireland & Scotland: A Photographic Journey

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