Togs & Tales

Rory O'Donnell

Rory O'Donnell

Landscape Photographer

Hi, I’m Rory, an all-round, but mainly landscape photographer from the North West. By day, I’m currently a data analyst working for a US firm in the legal & financial sector. Day to day is spent on Excel spreadsheets, building dashboards and report writing. Yeah exciting stuff indeed. So for me photography is my escape and a chance to work out the creative side of my brain. It certainly does help me to get my mind away from work and to get out into nature and see all the beauty it has to offer.

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

It’s been a long path for me, very long. One of my earliest memories is being upstairs in my Dad’s darkroom developing photos. You never forget the smell of fix which is in one of the 3 baths that you use for the photographic paper when shooting film. My Dad was an amateur photographer and shot black and white, he processed his own film and had an enlarger for developing the prints. I spent a good few years in the darkroom before I got near a camera as film wasn’t cheap and you only had 36 shots per roll, also you had to wait a few hours to get home, develop the film and print before you seen the results, so learning photography was more challenging as you couldn’t shoot, check the image on screen, make changes and repeat till you got your exposure correct. Exposure was done the old way with a light meter.

During Transition Year I got a job working in a camera shop in Donegal Town, initially I was processing the film and doing camera sales. I started to learn about cameras and kept up the date on what was new in the camera market, after about a year processing film I started to get trained on the print machine. This was a machine about as long as a car and took drums of paper that had to be loaded with litres of chemicals similar to what I was used to in the dark room but on a larger scale. My first camera was a pentax, I quickly outgrew it and moved to an slr, it was an Minolta 505si and I was hooked. I made a deal at work where I got a discount on rolls of film, free development of the negatives and a discount on the printing. This really helped me get started into photography. About a year later I saved up as much as I could and decided to take a jump at the pro line that Minolta had, it was the 800si their top pro level camera, something similar to the Canon 1D range. I was broke but loved it and I still have the camera at home.

My Father also used to shoot weddings and I used to assist but now he was getting out of it. A neighbour rang to book him and when I heard him say he was no longer shooting I offered to shoot the wedding provided he assisted me. So at aged 16 I shot my first wedding on 4 rolls of Kodak Gold 200 36 exposure film. That was the start for me. I continued to shoot weddings and also branched into local press work. Digital came along many years later and I bought the Canon 350d. I used it as a second body as the film camera produced better results when printed and enlarged. It wasn’t until I got the Canon 50d that I slowly moved to digital and retired the film camera. By that time I was in college and had a part time job as a graphic designer with a newspaper and I was able to get the odd press shoot for them when their staff photographer was booked. I covered sports for them at weekend and got into motosports photography. I started at local events until I was able to build a published portfolio to apply for motorsport photography accreditation from the irish govern motorsports body. I was then able to attend motorsport events in an official context and shot many of the major rally’s throughout the country. About a year later I got accreditation to cover a few of the world rally championship events and travelled to Spain, Italy, Portugal and Wales as part of the world rally championship series. It was here I learned about shooting for press. There was no time for coming home and taking your time editing. Images needed to be sent to sites, magazines and papers that day so learning how to shoot, edit, caption and transfer fast was skills I had to learn.

Around 2010 I moved to the UK and got a job in a camera shop / studio. Because of my previous printing role and photography skills I was able to do two jobs for them, Studio photography and when quiet and not shooting / editing, I was able to print for them. I learned about studio photography and light. This was all new to me, I had experience of photographing people thanks to years of weddings but working with studio lighting and editing was another learning curve for me. I used to travel home to Donegal every now and again and it was only then that I started to appreciate the Irish landscape. Until then I had shot many genres of photography but landscape never interested me. I enjoyed shooting people as you could chat with them and give direction and pose, but I saw landscape being inanimate and unchanging and I was unable to connect with it. However, having gone away and been living in a flat featureless part of the UK, my eyes were open to the rugged beauty of home in west Donegal with the mountains and beaches so accessible and empty. My studio time gave me an appreciation of understanding light and viewing the landscape as a subject and the sun as your light source and this made sense to me. The real challenge is that, unlike the studio, you can’t control either of these, but therein lay the bait and hook. You often hear landscape photographers mention the phrase “chasing the light” and once you are hooked I dont think you ever get off the line. My landscape photography journey then started around 2015 and for me has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of all the genres of photography I have done.

Recently, I have taken the camera to sea. I started open water swimming about a year ago and swimming at various locations around the coast has given me a new perspective that is rarely seen. It’s a totally different way of shooting, much more difficult to operate a camera in a dive housing and trying to compose an image while remaining upright in the sea and getting knocked around with waves is challenging beyond belief. Just trying to control breathing, while treading water only using your legs as you need your hands to hold / operate the camera is a task in itself. I find it ridiculously challenging and the hit rate of even getting a shot in focus without a wave washing over the lens is really low. But still I enjoy it. The first few times I did it I was concentrating that hard that I wasn’t breathing, it’s hard to describe but you are so focused and your brain is on overdrive that you hold your breath without knowing, so you have to tell yourself to relax and remember to breath.

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

A shot of Errigal held my number one spot for a number of years until early Jan 2019, I couldn’t sleep one night and I had this idea of a black and white photograph of people rowing a currach. My problem was that I didn’t now anyone that owned one that I could borrow for the shoot.
The following week I saw a story on Instagram from a woman I follow and she was rowing a currach with a local club so I reached out to her and asked if I could come down to meet the club and ask them if I could arrange a shoot when conditions were good. So the following Sunday I met the club and I had a chat with them. They agreed to letting me shoot and I thought that’s it, ill come back in a few months when the conditions improve. But he then asked if I ever tried rowing. I had the basics as a kid from learning to row in my Fathers boat but it had been years I explained to him. Before I knew it, he handed me a life jacket and told me to hop in a boat for their next row. I really enjoyed it even though I struggled and I agreed I would come back the next week and row again.
9 months of rowing later, I finally had a day and time when conditions were ideal to get the shot I had imagined. We had rowed out to Gola island, I took one of the boat crews aside and explained to the them the shot I imagined and how I needed them placed in the scene. I felt that my time spent getting to know the club members, and joining the club and rowing with them gave me a better understanding or what was needed for the shot to work and they were overly helpful in cooperating and were as keen for me to get the shot as I was.
I don’t think this would have worked as well if I had just arrived out of the blue and asked to take a shot of them rowing. Getting to know the club members and sport greatly contributed to the success in the final image. I edited the image to black and white and in all fairness, it turned out much better than I initially thought. As it took me 9 months of rowing and training with the club before I got the shot, I feel I have invested a lot into it and that is what the image represents to me. Its also personal as it’s a reminder of my love of the sea and with the connection of the currach as an old means for seafaring in Irish history. Because of that personal connection with the image, I have only displayed and distributed this image in print. I have given a few copies to the club members that have helped make it possible but I have never posted it online and for now it will remain print only until something new takes its place above the fireplace.

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

While covering the World Rally Championship in Portugal, I set up a remote camera near the edge of the road on the other side of a river crossing. I was about 100m up the hill shooting a wider angle of the rally stage and had a remote shutter system to fire the on road camera. Mikko Hirvonen was setting some fast times on that stage and he was next on the road. He hit the river crossing at such speed that rather than splashing into the river he aqua planed across it. He hit a bump on exit that put him offline and his car landed on top of my camera. I still remember seeing this dark object fly up and into some trees. I knew it was gone. Unfortunately, I couldn’t run down and cross the road to look for the camera as the stage was still live for another hour. By the time the road was open and I could cross, I only found the lens that was sheared off the body. After a few moments a local told me that they saw someone walk down to the trees before I got there and leave with a camera. That was it, I was more annoyed that I didn’t get the card to see what was captured than the body being stolen, it could have been a cracker of a shot, who knows. I still have the broken lens and I got it signed by Mikko later at the weekend and now it’s a souvenir of a very expensive trip.

Sunrise or Sunset & Why?

Maybe because I live on the west coast I am biased to sunsets. I struggle with sunrise as I dont really have the light or time to find a composition and if its a new location you have to make your way there in the dark. With sunset you can get there an hour early, have a walk around to explore the location and find a composition to shoot for sunset.

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

I do like Donegal (sorry all the Kerry fans!) Around home within a 45min drive, I have everything from mountains, lakes, beaches, islands, caves, cliffs. I’m spoiled for choice and during the winter months I can shoot the northern lights from the lawn, really what more could I want!

What equipment / Setup are you currently using?

I have a Canon 5D mk3 & 1D mk3 DSLR’s and Fuji XT2 & XT4 for mirrorless. Initially when mirrorless came on the market, I wasnt sold on it, but now I love it and shoot around 90% on the Fuji XT4. For drone, it’s the DJI Mavic Pro 2.

Top Tip for anyone starting out?

I think social media can be fantastic for inspiration and getting in touch with other photographers. What I would say is be careful not to fall into using it to compare your work to others. Its easy to feel that you are not progressing if you are constantly using someone else as a measure, after all they are on their own journey.
Forget about likes and features etc. the best way to measure your progress as a photographer so to look back at your previous work and judge it honestly in comparison to your most recent shots. Quite often I use the filter function in lightroom to show me landscape images from the current month in the previous year and I ask myself if the shots I take today are better, worse or same. I found this to be most helpful in monitoring my progress.

Secondly, I would suggest shooting with other photographers that are better than you. I have found this to be very useful as you will learn so much from them and their tips, insight and honest feedback is invaluable. I often shoot along with Brian Maguire, Dermott Sweeney  and Michael Byrne  their work and opinions I respect and they keep me on my toes and don’t hold back when it comes to criticism.

Best Advise you’ve personally been given?

Invest in glass…. I can’t stress this enough. I might sound nuts spending €1k+ on a lens but you will have it for years. Some of mine are 8+ years old and I have no reason to sell them or change them. Camera bodies will come and go and you will change them but good lenses you will keep. Personally, I like 3 lenses, 10-20mm or 16-35mm a 24-105mm and a 70-200mm. For anyone starting out I would save to buy the best 24-105mm you can as you can cover a number of photography genres with that then move to wide or tele next depending on what the majority of your photography is. A fast 50mm prime Is also nice to have in the bag too for the odd portrait.

Who is your biggest inspiration as a Photographer.

This is hard as I follow so many different photography genres. In terms of outright photographers that I admire, it would be Robert Capa, Don McCullin and James Nachtwey. I have huge admiration for them and their work. I have read their books and watched interviews on their careers in war / conflict photography. War photography is an element of photography that is rarely discussed but there are some fantastic photographers in this field these days. Would suggest “War photographer”, “Only the dead” and “Hondros” as viewing for anyone interested in that area of photography, just note that some scenes may be difficult to watch, but the work that these men and women do is so important.

Outside of that I like the work of Sean Tucker and his philosophy on photography, its deep but worth watching his Youtube videos. Dillon Osborne, and Beki & Chris for mixed creative video and photography works, Eva zu Bek for travel and Elizabeth Gadd for beautiful self portraits.

Who is your favourite Irish photographer at the moment?

This could get me into trouble, outside of all previously mentioned, Sean O Riordan is someone who’s work I admire and the graft he puts into getting locations, rewards him with some lovely shots.

Where can we find you?

You can usually find me on a beach or on top of a mountain at sunset, if not there then try:

© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Rory O’Donnell
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