Togs & Tales

Michael McGillycuddy

Michael McGillycuddy

Landscape Photographer

My name is Michael McGillycuddy. I’m originally from Killarney, Co. Kerry and now living between there and Killorglin, on the Ring of Kerry road, married to the beautiful Eileen Christina and dad to three live-wire boys. If you can imagine Homer with three Bart Simpsons at home, that’s me! I work as chemist for a pharmaceutical company and would be a self confessed geek for anything with technology or sci-fi. 

Typical family life of school runs, after school activities, soccer, rugby. Thankfully we are situated in a part of Kerry that has easy access to so many beautiful locations without too much effort, giving opportunities for some photography outings. I am usually found out of breath up a mountain, lost in a forest or about to fall in to a lake while walking along the shoreline. I have a terrible sense of direction so if found please return to Mrs McGillycuddy, Killorglin.

What was your path to becoming a Landscape Photographer & What was your first camera?

A rocky one. Way back in the 80s the family camera was a Kodak Instamatic. I’d say most households had something similar, usually only brought out for birthdays, trips to the sea side or if relations called. It wasn’t what you’d describe as a landscape camera by any means. The camera was for recording special events and so every photo mattered. I can still remember on one occasion my mother telling my dad not to give the camera to me as I’d cut the heads off everyone in the frame. I protested and got to take a picture. Every child in the photo was captured perfectly, head intact…but the adults weren’t as lucky. I still blame faulty frame lines in the viewfinder!! Despite that, I was always fascinated by the pros with those big SLRs and the lenses with all the funny numbers and symbols engraved on the barrels. My dad worked in the Great Southern Hotel and was good friends with many of the photographers who would be hired to take photos of the tourists about to head out on the jaunting cars so I would often meet them and I’d get to see their cameras and lenses up close. But it was only in my late twenties, and the advent of more affordable digital cameras, that I decided to make a purchase. It would also have the added bonus of me being behind the camera rather than in front of it. First camera was a Fujifilm S3000 with a monstrous 3.2 megapixels. The lens was pretty decent though and it gave good images without much hassle. RAW modes were still the preserve of the big boy cameras and the amount of controls on the camera were fairly limited but I found myself really enjoying getting out and taking photos of anything and everything.
Most of the time I didn’t have a clue what I was doing so I found a few books and magazines and tried to figure out what were the kind of shots I liked and how to get them. At the start I had this notion that a digital image would simply be better than one from film as it would just look better overall and if it wasn’t perfect, sure a bit of Photoshop Elements 2.0 would sort it out. The least said about the early days of my editing the better but it slowly began to dawn on me that good photographs were more to do with lighting, timing and framing than the camera and digital editing.
As time progressed so too did my understanding of differing modes, control of shutter speed and aperture and I moved on to a more advance bridge camera (Fuji S9500). I didn’t jump over to DSLRs for a good while though. I was still finding my way and I tried to make a conscious effort to have a good grounding in the fundamentals before investing further. I can still remember being in Florence at a family wedding and lining up an image of the archways down by the river. I could pre-visualise the type of image I wanted and when it worked out, I knew that a lot of things had finally began to click (no pun intended!)
I guess realising that I could start taking the kind of images that I had in my head gave me extra encouragement and I started taking photography more seriously as a hobby, investing in a system, shooting in RAW, getting a workflow together from shoot to final image. Trial and error with a lot of it but I enjoyed the learning process and I could see incremental progress so this spurred me on even further. Key for me was to enjoy myself. Too many other things in life come with their own pressures but this was an outlet where I could let all those things to one side and have fun.

What was your favourite Landscape Adventure Story since becoming a Photographer?

A lot of my progression and attaining some level of proficiency coincided with the beginning of starting a family and in that regard, adventure is quite relative with a young family. I’m not in that situation where I can drop everything at a moments notice, nor can I indulge myself with photography holidays or workshops in far flung places. Holidays are family time, with some photography rather than the other way around. That’s not any complaint on my part but rather leading ye up to a rather tame adventure story!
But if I had to pick one though, it would have been from last year and Comet Neowise. I had been reading about the comet and when it would become visible. I mentioned it to our boys who loved the idea of a late night trek to see it. I started to do a bit of research on timings and scouting possible locations. I also got some great information from Alistair Hamill, a wonderful photographer based in Northern Ireland. In the end I had a spot in mind at the base of the McGillycuddy Reeks on the Glencar side, looking towards Killorglin. Our youngest lad was the sanest and he said he’d stay with his granny that night but the rest of us ventured up whats called the Hydro road. It’s a lung buster of a walk up a rough concrete path for about 15 to 20 minutes but once it levelled out we had a great view of Killorglin town in the distance, of Glencar surroundings and even the Dingle Peninsula, way in the distance. The boys had their own cameras and were taking photos of the sheep and the mountains and generally having a fun evening together. It was a beautiful clear night and right above us we could see the Galactic core, along with some shooting stars and even the international space station. Watching the boys enjoy this spectacle was a real joy for me. If there is one thing I want to instil in our lads is a love and appreciation of what we have around us and this was a night where the lesson was very easy to learn. Thankfully the comet came in to view over Killorglin town and while the photos weren’t the best I still managed a few half decent ones. I think part of me not getting the best out of the photos was the sheer excitement we all had at being there to witness it and how it all worked out as planned. The guys still talk about it and that makes it even better. A few days later I managed a better shot of the comet in Killarney with St Mary’s Cathedral in the foreground but the night half way up the Reeks was more fun. It has also sparked more of an interest in astrophotography so my plan for the year ahead is the give this more of a go and try to learn some of the key elements around this genre.

What was your worst in-the-field experience as a landscape Photographer?

I’ve had plenty of disastrous excursions, from getting stuck talking to strangers standing in front of my camera wanting to tell me about their dodgy foot, to getting hopelessly out of position for the right conditions, losing bits of gear and everything in between. Most bad experiences can be looked back on now with a smile or a laugh. Once we all get home safely that’s the main thing and time out in the field is a form of therapy in and of itself.
One that stands out though is from a good few years back, standing on the bridge at Blennerville outside Tralee, setting up for a series of long exposures of the windmill at sunset. Conditions were gorgeous and my main composition was set up in lots of time, filters on the camera and now all I needed was the sun to drop below the small patches of cloud and there would be some lovely golden side light pouring all over the scene. Behind me, I started to hear a bit of a racket coming from the wetlands. It sounded like a few ducks fighting but the noise got louder and louder and seemed to be more than just a few angry ducks at this stage. I looked up and the entire sky was filled with a massive flock of Brent geese flying out toward Fenit. It was an absolutely amazing sight and I just stood there with my mouth wide open realising that there was no point trying to take all the ND and grad filters off my camera so just enjoy this spectacle. It was only when they had disappeared that I realised I had another camera around my neck, filter free and plenty room on the SD card!! Missing a shot isn’t exactly a big disaster in the long run though and thankfully I managed to rectify it last year. I spoke to a friend who is a bird watcher and he gave me some info on the habits of these geese, when its best to capture them, etc. so just prior to the first lockdown I got back there on a similar evening and the geese obliged with a great flyby.

Sunrise or Sunset & Why?

Sunrise. I prefer the blue hour in the morning and love those sharp conditions of a cold landscape warming up in the first light of the day. I find there is more of an urgency in getting those images. I have to work faster and also have to keep on top of settings. The conditions change more dramatically at sunrise and new opportunities tend to reveal themselves as the light gets brighter. Sometimes there’s the added bonus of mist or fog only appearing a little later so I can grab a second round of images from the same general location. It has its drawbacks in having to set a ridiculous time on the alarm clock but I have never arrived back from a morning shoot not in good form. I love being out while everyone else is still asleep; it kind of feels like you’re part of a secret that only few people know about. Plus, breakfast always tastes way better after a good mornings shoot.

Where is your favourite Location in Ireland to Photograph & Why?

That’s a bit like asking who is my favourite child! Spoilt for choice really and even within Kerry alone there are so many differing landscapes: Dingle’s Sea Head and Killarney National Park to name but two. If I had to pick one though it would probably be Glencar and the surrounding area. My father was from around there and even though we didn’t really visit the area very much when I was young I always knew it was a beautiful spot. In some ways I’ve explored the area to reconnect with his memory and in finding places that he would have known as a boy himself. Having a connection to a place makes these adventures a bit more meaningful for me. I like to know the names of the townlands and waterways. The variety of scenery is right up there with anything else Kerry has to offer. There’s the McGillycuddy Reeks themselves, numerous lakes, woodland and some surprises down narrow roads that make it worth the exploration.

What is your favourite photograph, that you’ve taken to date, & Why?

I think this is where every photographer is meant to say “The next one” but I’ll say it’s a shot I got of the wreck of the schooner “The Sunbeam” that was a familiar sight on Rossbeigh beach for many years. It was one of the first things I photographed with my camera and I used it as a type of standard I could measure myself against as I progressed. First few shots were taken in glaring midday sun and as the years went by I could see better composition and better understanding of the type of light. A shot that I had wanted for a great many years though was when various elements would all come together: a decent sky, the sun setting on the horizon rather than behind the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula, waves lapping up against the wreck itself but still enough of it to be visible. I had been keeping track of weather and tide forecasts and on an evening in September 2013 they all came together. I got the shot I had been after for ages so I left the beach very happy. What probably makes it more special is the fact that a few months later the wreck was uprooted during a bad storm, broke in two and over the intervening years slowly broke up. So it was my last chance to get that shot. It’s also one of only a few of my images I have hanging on the wall at home.

What equipment / Setup are you currently using?

I’ve changed systems a bit down through the years, mainly as my own personal needs have dictated and currently a Sony A7Riii is my main landscape camera along with the typical mainstays of landscapes lenses, wide-angle (Sony 16-35mm f4), standard zoom (Tamron 28-75mm f2.8) and telephoto (Sony 70-200mm). I have recently purchased the Sony 20mm f1.8 as I want to do more astrophotography and wanted something a little faster for low light. It’s all a combination of new and second hand. I use a mix of Formatt Hi-Tech and NiSi ND, ND grad and polarising filters. A 3 Legged Thing “Winston” tripod and L-Bracket keeps everything nice and steady.

I also have a Sigma DP1 Quattro. It’s a strange camera that uses a Foveon sensor that captures colour in a different way to the normal Bayer sensor cameras. It has an APS-C sensor and a fixed 19mm lens. The files that is produces can be very beautiful with rich, accurate colours but its not a “take everywhere” camera. It can be slow and working with the files needs its own proprietary software before importing the TIFF files into Lightroom so its a little cumbersome. But it was something that I had wanted to try and learn for a while and I came across a good deal on one a little over a year and a half ago and it has kept my inner geek quite happy.

What is your Style of Photography and Editing

There’s a lovely softness to the light in Ireland. I’ve found that digital images are often so crisp ands so sharp that the image loses something compared to what we may have seen with our eyes so what I try to do is bring some of that back into the image. It’s not really to try to introduce something that is not already there but rather enhance aspects that are maybe not as apparent in the unedited image. I tend to shoot less images and spend more time editing the best ones from any particular shoot. Once I get the image I am after in a scene I’ll tend to move on to something else. While I certainly prefer to be out photographing, there can be something very satisfying editing an image to match what was seen out in the field. I’ll import the images into Lightroom, where I’ll perform basic editing like colour correction, spot removal, apply lens profile and a basic bump in contrast.
Once that is done, it’s on to Photoshop. Most of the editing revolves around adding contrast to the image so first off its layers for dodging and burning. I use a soft brush at maybe 3% opacity and build up the effect in stages rather than using a stronger brush. I’ll keep an eye on how the edit works with the entirety of the image. I’ve sometimes got lost working on one part of an image only to zoom out and realise its too strong an effect. I will sometimes soften parts of the picture with a subtle Orton effect while contrasting this softness against other areas with some added texture or clarity (again subtle is best). Both are worked on in their own layers with the Orton effect being applied globally and then selectively removed via a layer mask whereas the clarity/texture bump is added locally via a separate layer. I tend to avoid a lot of colour modifications except maybe for some autumnal scenes. At the end of the process I’ll look back at an original, unedited layer to make sure I haven’t overcooked it and modify accordingly. Once saved and back in Lightroom I’ll add a vignette, crop or finalise sharpening. I don’t tend to do these until later on and by keeping these within Lightroom I can always tweak them later on if needed.
I will usually leave a long time between editing any any potential post. I guess many of us can relate to think our most recent edit is the best one yet only to later realise it’s not quite right. I prefer to wait and live with an image for a bit before I do anything further with it.

Top Tip for anyone starting out?

Please be patient with yourself. Have fun. Experiment with settings and make lots of mistakes. Photography should be enjoyable. It should open us up to more experiences and if we get some half decent images at the start then that’s a bonus. Look at social media for some inspiration if you want but not as a means of comparing yourself to anyone. If you have a favourite photographer on Instagram or Facebook treat their feed like a musician’s greatest hits album. You are only seeing a carefully curated selection of what they want you to see. You’ll never see the blurry images, the experimental compositions, the half-assed edits and all the other less than perfect images clogging up their hard drives. Don’t try to compare yourself to anyone but you. Develop your own style, your own look and in your own time. Accept any advice or positive critique but don’t let it deter you from your own goals. Advice will always be skewed by a persons own personal tastes no matter how helpful they are trying to be.

Best Advise you’ve personally been given?

Slow down taking your images. Consider each shot before taking it and try to make it count. When I got my first DSLR, that could shoot at something like 6 or 8 frames per second, I could rattle off as many images as could fit on to the memory card. But heeding that advice was the best thing I needed to hear at the time.

Who is your biggest inspiration as a Landscape Photographer?

I guess it is difficult to look past a master such as Ansel Adams. It might sound a little cliched in this day and age to list such an obvious photographer as an inspiration but in terms of what he achieved, a lifetime body of work and techniques that are still used to this day, it is hard to find a greater inspiration. His black and white images are perfection and I’d be a very happy person to produce something as technically and artistically perfect as he did time and time again. Moon & Half Dome and The Tetons & Snake River are two personal favourites.

Who is your favourite Irish photographer at the moment?

I’m going to cheat a little bit here and mention two:

Valerie O’Sullivan – An amazing photographer with a special love of the mountains and also of the people of the area. She is a dab hand at so many genres from press/reporting, portraiture and landscape and has an amazing eye for the perfect photo every time. Valerie is also such a lovely person who can put people at ease before getting a great photo.

Norman McCloskey – It is clear he has such a great love and knowledge of the landscape of Kerry and it comes across in so many of his images. Not only that but his perseverance in capturing the shot at the perfect time always amazes me. He is based in Kenmare, where his gallery is a joy to visit and is a pure gentleman.

Where can we find you?

Website is in bad need of a major overhaul. I had great ideas for it but have not invested the time into this so it is still very much a work in progress. Facebook is where I tend to give a little bit of a background into the photo I’ve just posted and in some respects has become what I had initially planned for the website. I started these little paragraphs a number of years ago when feeling in a bit nostalgic and it seemed to get a positive reaction. I also found it was a a useful outlet for a little bit more creative writing rather than technical writing of my day-to-day. I’ve only started taking Instagram more seriously in recent times and at present it is where I will first post an image. Like a lot of things I am a late adopter so my following on any of these is not huge but I am grateful to those who have taken the time to follow, like or comment. It’s a very different way of showcasing work compared to when I started out
© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Michael McGillycuddy
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