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Ross Castle Killarney, Ireland - Working a Location
by Jim McGee

I arrived in Killarney late in the afternoon, restless and needing to get out and walk after a long day on the road.  My guide book showed Killarney National Forrest to the north of the hotel and it's 3D map told me the area closest to me was relatively flat.  A dot on the map with the title "Ross Castle" caught my attention.  The short paragraph in the guide book said simply "Ross Castle , built around 1420, was the last stronghold under Irish control to be taken by Cromwellian forces in 1653."  Of more interest was that the castle was sited on the near shore of Lough (lake) Leane with low mountains rising up from the opposite shore as a backdrop.  Though the light was lousy I grabbed my camera bag and started the three mile walk out to the castle.  Just a "good stretch of the legs."  I figured at worst I could scout out some good compositions for the following day.

Within a half mile of the hotel I was wondering if I should rethink my plan.  The skies had been threatening rain all day.  Now it was misting and the air felt heavy.  The smell of rain seemed to well up out of the forest.  And a forest it was.  It had a much different, much older feel that the woods of my native New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  

As I pondered the difference between forest and woods - and whether I should push my luck with the rain, I rounded a curve in the trail and found a girl who'd ridden her bike off the path.  She was more embarrassed than hurt, and while I was getting her handle bars pointed the same direction as her front wheel again she noticed my camera bag.  It was "definitely worth the walk out to see the castle" she told me; worth chancing the rain.  Oh what the hell, I've been wet before, so on to the castle I went.

About a mile from the castle I broke out of the trees and was rewarded with a beautiful view of the castle across the marsh.  The mountains rose up in the background as I had hoped and a finger of the lake jutted across the foreground inhabited by graceful white swans.  There was enough light through the broken clouds to snap off the shots you see here. But as I repacked my bag thick drops began to fall and the light shut down on me completely.  I turned around and started my damp stroll back to the hotel.  God bless waterproof hiking boots!

Many photographers would have been satisfied with those initial shots.  Especially when they noticed the hotel gift shop selling post cards of exactly the composition they had chosen.  But often the best shots, the ones that really convey a feeling of the place, are the ones that are off the beaten path.  If you're not willing to go beyond that postcard shot, you won't even know what you missed.

The next morning I walked back towards the park with several others and we hired a jaunting cart to take us the three miles out to the castle.  An Irish jaunting cart is a small two wheeled horse drawn cart that moves along at an easy jogging pace.  In our case it was piloted by a cheerful gentleman who had smooched the Blarney stone more than any man deserves to.  He kept us laughing with his jokes and ribald flirtations with the ladies all the way out to the castle. As the cart broke out of the trees, I had the camera up and ready, guessing at the shutter speed and f-stop combination that would be the right tradeoff of depth-of-field and shutter speed fast enough to cancel the bouncing of the cart.

Arriving at the castle I was taken by several boats tied up under a bridge on a little creek near the castle.  It just looked like an impressionist painting to me, so I played with several compositions before moving on to the castle. 

The castle itself offered a number of picture taking possibilities from the serious to the snap shot.  Again a small boat, this time tied at the ferry dock on the Lough caught my eye as fodder for my 20mm. Were all these great shots.  Nope. Not even close. But by moving around and really exploring an area, shots will suggest themselves to you that you'd never have seen otherwise.  Some simple rules to keep in mind when exploring an area photographically:

Think in different focal lengths.  We all tend to "see" in a given focal length.  With practice you can switch mental gears and see compositions in other focal lengths whether they be tightly cropped zooms or soaring wide angle vistas.

Try both vertical and horizontal compositions.  Just as we tend to "see" in a given focal length, we also have a tendency to favor either vertical or horizontal compositions.  After taking the shot that looks right, try flipping the camera and retake the shot.  When you get your images back you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.  

Explore.  Get your feet moving.  Get away from the velvet ropes and move around the area beyond the crowds.  This will give you different angles and perspectives and open up new possibilities.  Just don't walk past that "no trespassing" sign.  You're inviting trouble for yourself and poisoning the well for future photographers.

Look for unique details that speak to the character of the area.  While the jaunting cart and the boats don't communicate details about the castle directly, they're good images on their own and give a feel for the area.

Be aware of the light.  Train that little voice in the back of your mind to notice the light.  Would this good image be a great image in late afternoon or early morning light?  If so, and if time permits, come back and get that image.

Look for bored guides.  When you get away from the haggard folks dealing with the tourist crowds you'll often come across the bored guide or caretaker who'd love for someone to talk to them.  Since these folks live on the grounds for eight hours a day they can often suggest pictures that you'd not find otherwise.  If you express an interest they'll sometimes even take you into areas that aren't normally open to tourists.  Not to mention, these folks are often a font of information regarding the history area.

There's a part of me that just loves to explore and the camera has been a passport to get me into all kinds of places I'd not have seen otherwise.  If you're friendly and curious and are willing to move your feet a little, you'll be amazed at the shots you'll bring home.


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