Thursday, May 25, 2017

Castles and Distilleries

Today we stayed within a 10 -15 mile range of our hotel in Archiestown visiting distilleries, castles, and a woolen mill.  We started the day by stopping at the Craigellachie bridge which has round turrets and was built in the late 1800s. From the bridge we continued on to the Macallan distillery. We got there just when it opened at 9:30 AM, but could not get a tour because they were booked.  So Bill decided to just do a tasting, however they couldn’t do tastings till 10 AM, so we spent time just hanging around the visitor center and gift shop.  After the tasting, we continued on to Ballindall castle.

Ballindall castle is more of a large country estate than a castle.  The lord of the estate still lives in the estate and is apparently friends with the Queen since there were several signed pictures from her and pictures of her visiting.  It is a well appointed home with two nice gardens and a very soft lawn.  Sadly,  you could not take pictures inside the home,  but you could take pictures outside. The interesting thing about the castle is they recently found a letter from George Washington to the one of the previous lords in the attic/tower. From there we went to the wool mill for lunch.

Ballindall Castle (cell phone photo)

The wool mill is a working mill and co-op. The shop at the mill sell hanks of wool yarn and finished wool products made by volunteers. They also have guided and self guide tours of the mill itself, which we did not go on.  We mostly stopped there so Cristina could get yarn and we could have lunch.  They run a very nice yet simple cafe.  The sandwiches were tasty, and the cola I got seemed spiced.  I think it is what a chai cola might taste like.  From there it was off to another distillery which was basically across the road.

Hairy Coo named Fluffy (Cell Phone Picture)
We stopped at Cardhu distillery, which is owned by Diageo, which also owns Johnnie Walker.  Cardhu is used in the blending of Johnnie Walker  As a side note Cardhu is single malt scotch.  Since, we arrived there about 20 minutes before the next tour we did their distillery tour.  I would say I have been on better distillery tours, but I did like the initial nosing the different scents found in the scotch bouquet.  The tour did include a tasting of seven of their scotches.  Neither Jim,  Cristina, nor I were impressed with any of the scotches. The only highlight was that distillery was near a farm and the hairy coo (cows) were out, so we could get pictures. We also found out they like digestive biscuits.

From there we went to go see the Inveravon Pictish Stones.  The stones weren’t what I was expecting. I thought they were going to be in a circle.  Instead, they were carved stones in a church entryway.  From there we headed to Balvenie Castle. Balvenie Castle is a castle ruin, that does self explore tours. I would say it is a small sized castle. We only took about 45 minutes to cover the whole thing.  From there we went to Glenfarclas Distillery.

Balvenie Castle (Cell Phone Picture)

Jim at Glenfarclas Distillery (Cell Phone Picture)
Glenfarclas distillery was the last distillery and place we stopped at today.  We did not do a tour of the distillery, but Jim and Bill did do a tasting. Jim and Bill tasted a 15 year, 21 year and 25 year scotches. While Cristina and I just wandered around the visitor center looking at 7,000+ pound sterling scotch. That ended our day out.  Tomorrow we head up to Thurso to catch the ferry to Orkney.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Last night we had a late dinner at the hotel.  The dinner was a two course meal, and we added a desert for each couple.  I had the prosciutto and melon plate to and Jim had the skenk soup to start. I had the sea bass and Jim had the venison steak for the main course, and we split a toffee topped cheesecake.  It was a very good dinner, and good way to end the day.  

Urquhart Castle (Cell Phone Picture)

Today started with a hearty breakfast at 8:00AM.  I had scrambled eggs with sausage and Jim had fried toast, a fried egg, sausage, and baked beans, and both breakfast were combined with toast and breakfast tea.  After Breakfast we headed out to find a grocery store to get bottled water, then headed out to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.  

On the way out to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle we stopped at Tomatin Distillery to pick up expressions we cannot get in the US.  Sadly, Jim could not taste anything because he was driving but he still picked up a few bottles.  Bill, did taste a few of the scotches, and ended up filling his own bottle directly from the casks in the tasting room and got to fill out a hand label for it.  After that we continued on to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.

Urquahart Castle is located along the shore in about the middle of Loch Ness.  It has been around since the 13th century.  The castle is now in ruins but still very explorable.  I was able to climb up several of the towers and look out over the loch.  After thoroughly exploring the castle we headed to the Loch Ness gift shop. Yes it is a tourist trap but I was looking for Nessie Christmas ornaments which they did not have.  From there we headed back towards the hotel and to get dinner.  Sadly there few places to eat in this area.  We stopped in Charlestown of Aberlour to eat, which has a total of three restaurants of which one is a take-out place.  So not a lot of options.  We ate at place just called restaurant, all the sign said, and was full of people on a bus tour.  The food was decent. That basically ended our day.

For tomorrow it looks like we will be going to several distilleries and a local castle which also has a distillery.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Driving on the Wrong Side

Today we were picked up at the hotel and taken to the rental agency to picked up the car, which is a BMW X3.  After going through the rental stuff, Jim had to figure out how to drive on the the left side of the road. I highly believe rental car agencies in the UK need a practice course for continental drivers so they can get used to the car and the the feel of being on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car.  But Jim did well getting out of the airport area onto the motorway/freeway to get us to St. Andrews.  

We made it to St. Andrews in one piece and only clipped the mirror of one car parked on the side of the road.  Yay us.  Once we made it to St. Andrews we went to the abbey ruins and cemetery.  In the abbey area we climb the 160 spiral stairs of the remaining tower to see the view of the city of St. Andrews.  It was a very nice view. From there we wandered over to the St. Andrews castle ruins. The castle was rather small, but interesting.    From there we went to have a late lunch at a small Italian place.  By that time we were done with lunch it was almost 3:00 and it was supposed to take three hours to get to the hotel.  

The drive to the hotel was interesting. While some of the roads were main roads, some were back country roads and were only one lane.  However the drive did take longer then three hours.  So we did not get to the hotel till 6:45 PM with an 8:15 PM dinner time.

So today we did not do a lot of sightseeing due to the large amount of driving. Tomorrow should be a more full sightseeing day.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The First of Many Castles

Jim's Breakfast
Today started early, with a full breakfast at the hotel.  Our friend’s Bill and Cristina  had oatmeal and scrambled eggs with salmon respectively for breakfast. I had a ham  omelet, while Jim had pancakes and bacon.  When Jim’s breakfast arrived he got a stack of pancakes with a large slice of almost ham-like bacon placed between each pancake all drizzled with maple syrup. It was a very interesting presentation. After breakfast we used the bus system to get to the Royal Mile, so we could go see Edinburgh Castle.  Personally,  I like using a subway system, because I believe it is easier to get a round on then a bus system. With the bus system I have to pay too much attention, and find it harder to know what stop I need. So now onto the castles.

Back of Edinburgh Castle

We arrived at Edinburgh Castle a little bit before it was to open, we thought it opened at 9:00AM but it didn’t open till 9:30AM.  We got our tickets then started exploring the castle. We started exploring, then quickly lost a member of our party.  Jim, Bill, and I went down to see the Lower Defenses believing Cristina was following, she was not.  By the time we came up back up, about 10 minutes later, she was gone.  We looked everywhere in that location for her but she was nowhere to be found.  So we made a collective decision to continue exploring the castle, hoping we might find her.  We got through about half the castle and watched the changing of the guard, before asking one of the castle staff to report Cristina missing and see if she approached any of them saying she was separated from her party.  Sadly, none of the staff saw her, but the castle was extremely crowded due to several cruise ships being in port. So we continued on our tour of the castle.  I finally spotted her in the entrance area as I was looking down from where the big cannon (Mons Meg) is located.  Thankfully Jim has an orange raincoat, thus when he yelled down to her and she looked up she could easily spot us. We discovered she explored the castle on her own so we departed the castle and headed for the Whisky Shop and lunch.

Polish War Bear Statue
We ate lunch at the Red Squirrel, then walked through the Princes Street Gardens on our way to the bus stop to head up to Craigmillar Castle. In the gardens is a statue of a Polish war bear. The bear was befriended by the Polish Army and would help them unload artillery shells.  

Craigmillar Castle is a small castle and is also self explore castle, meaning they don’t give you a map.  So you naturally discover the castle and its rooms. The view from the top of the castle is nice. Plus since this one is out away from the city center, it did not have hoards of people at it.  It was nice.  

Craigmillar Castle from the castle gardens

From Craigmillar, Bill and Cristina went to Mary King’s Close, while Jim and I headed up to Calton Hill.  Calton Hill has several monuments on it and very good views of the city, too bad it was cloudy and dreary looking.  So we took a few pictures, before heading back down to go to dinner.  We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant,  their Mexican is interesting, they used curry powder instead of cumin.  From there we met back up with Bill and Cristina, to head back to the hotel, thus ending our day.

View from Calton Hill

Tomorrow we pick up the rental car and travel to Aberdeen Shire. It will be interesting, especially for Jim since he will be driving on what we consider the wrong side of the road.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Scotland Travel and Climbing a Volcano

Waiting in the airport with the mammoth
It's that time of year again, for Jim's and my annual vacation. This year it is Scotland. We had an evening flight out on British Airway.  The flight was smooth and uneventful to London where we cleared immigration and customs before getting on the flight from London to Edinburgh to start our Scottish adventure.  

So what do normal people do after a long overnight flight and checking into a hotel, usually clean up, eat lunch,  relax, and maybe take in some local city sites.  Not us, we went out, got lunch, then climbed a dead volcano. Yes there is a dead volcano in Edinburgh, it is called Arthur's Seat, then went to see some old church ruins.  There are two ways to get to the top of Arthur’s Seat, the long gradual incline that can take up to 3 hours or the steep 30 minute, hope you're a mountain goat,  ascent.  Guess which one we took, the steep one. Now the climb wasn’t that horrible just some spots were a little tricky for me because I have short legs. The other issue was the wind, the higher you got the more wind there was; I wish I had about 10 more pounds in my bag so I wouldn’t feel like I was going to blow away.  Now if you are wondering why we made this ascent the first day we arrived and jet-lagged,  no specific reason it got the blood flowing and it provides gorgeous vistas of Edinburgh.

View from part way up Arthur's Seat

Sitting at the top of Arthur''s Seat
Ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel

After we made the summit of Arthur's Seat we came down the easy way, it had steps and nice gentle path that lead to the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel.  There is not much of the chapel remaining but it makes for a nice photo opportunity.  This is one of those spots I wish I could just summon a model in a magnificent dress.  It is such a lovely location.  From there we headed up the Royal Mile to get some dinner.

So now after a long day of hiking and walking it is time to turn in and get some much needed sleep. Tomorrow will be a full day with going to castles, some monuments, and The Whisky Shop.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

20 Feet of Red Fabric and Blossoms

Near the middle of April, I did a fashion/editorial style cherry blossom shoot, with Orisen Cosplay who was wearing the lovely “endless fire” dress, with a 20-foot train, rented from Dream Shoot Rental.  For this evening shoot, I used a three light set up which included a honeycombed key light, a shoot through umbrella fill light, and a straight speedlight as a back or rim light.    I positioned the key light using a C-stand with a boom arm so the light could be placed within the branches of the tree and angled down onto the model.  I also put a large honeycomb grid directly onto the flash head to narrow the light and provide a spot or beam of light look.  I used a flash inside a reflective bounce- shoot through umbrella angled up into the tree branches to light the cherry blossoms. I also place a flash with no modifiers directly behind the model to act as a rim light and light up the train of the dress to add depth to the shot.   Additionally, I shot using ISO 100, a focal length of 18mm, an aperture of 4.5f, and varied shutter speeds between 1/100s (18% of shots), 1/160s (50% of shots), or 1/250s (31% of the shots).  The flashes were fired in all shots and the power of the flashes were adjusted to eliminate as much of the ambient light as possible and varied throughout the shoot as the ambient light changed. 

Below are a few of my favorite final photos from the shoot and one extreme edit.

To get this shot we tossed the train in the air several times to get this shot.  The exposure and contrast were increased slightly. The whites and highlights were completely darkened while the shadows and blacks were darkened slightly. I then applied a filter based off slide film with a poppy orange and teal colorcast. I removed the grain applied by the filter and adjusted the vignetting around the edges.  Also during post processing I removed my assistant (my husband), who was tossing the train in the air, from the shot. 

In this next shot, we decided to drape the long train over the tree branch then had her sit on the branch and reach for one of the delicate cherry blossoms. I to give this shot more of moonlight feel, I applied a filter to put a blue cast on the image using a blue and grey split tone. I then adjusted the setting of the filter until I got the look I wanted. From there I added a heavy vignetting around the edges to bring focus to the model. 

For this shot, I draped the long train on the tree branch and then had her lie along the branch looking up contemplation. You may notice the image has a slight downward tilt, because the tree itself was on a hill. I decided to keep the tilt of the image because it looked off if leveled. For this image the exposure and contrast was slightly increased along with the clarity and vibrancy of the image.  I then applied warming filter to the image that also gave the image a bit of punch. I then added a heavy vignette to the image but kept the some of the cherry blossoms lit. 

As I mentioned earlier in the post, my assistant tossed the train so I could capture movement in the shot.  I found in several of the shots were the end of the train was just tossed towards the model; it took on a head shape similar to that of a dragon.  This inspired me to work with the image a bit more, and do a bit of composite work in Photoshop. The base edits included increasing the exposure, clarity, and vibrancy slightly.  I then used a medium contrast and added some slight vignetting.  I then pulled the image out of Lightroom into Photoshop to touch up the image by getting rid of distracting features and adding the dragonhead. The dragonhead is part of dragon stock image I found on the Adobe Stock Image site.  I placed the dragonhead by dragging and dropping the image onto the base photo then used the darken mode as the blend type for the layer. Then set at about 30% opacity I moved the layer around to properly position the head.  I then returned the layer to about 90% opacity and used several eraser opacities to remove and blend the dragonhead into the train of the dress.  I then adjusted the color of the dragonhead using the hue slider to get the proper shade of red.  I then flattened the image. Overall, I do not do a lot of composite or heavy edits within Photoshop, but I’m happy with how this image turned out. 

Overall, I’m very happy with how several of the images from this shoot turned out. Orison Cosplay was amazing to work with because she took the dress I gave her and created a whole character.  It also helped that she absolutely loved the dress and was not afraid to play with it, especially the 20 feet of train.  You can see all the images from the shoot here.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Portraits with the Cherry Blossoms

This year I did a two portrait shoots using the cherry blossoms as a backdrop.  I did one shoot in the morning at the tidal basin and the other in the afternoon at a local park.  There were not as many cherry blossoms overall this year due to frost and cold temperatures near the peak bloom period.  

I went down to the tidal basin early in the morning to meet LaReine Rousse Cosplay who was cosplaying Mikumo.  I did her shoot using my Canon 70D an 18 -200mm lens, a 430 EX-RT III flash mounted on my camera, and a bounce attachment for the flash.   It was a densely clouded early in the morning however; the clouds did break up later in the morning resulting in a sunny day.   We started near the Jefferson Memorial, worked our way around the tidal basin, and ended across the street in the offshoot of the main tidal basin area.  The challenge of shooting portraits at the tidal basin is being able to get clean pictures (limited to no distractions) with all the people looking at the blossoms.  Most people were nice and waited until I took the photo before moving between my model and me.  Even though the blossoms were not as full as usual, I got a nice overall nice set of images. While there was a bunch of people walking along the basin that day, I was able to capture this image without showing the crowds.  This is my favorite image from the shoot because it shows the peace and serenity the blossoms can bring, as well as gives the impression she is the only one there.  This image was shot at ISO 100 with a focal length of 18mm, at an aperture of 4.5, a shutter speed of 1/800s, and fill flash to compensate for the backlighting the sun was providing.  I did edit the photo in Lightroom to adjust the highlights and shadows to bring out the details in the tree and blossoms.  I also increased the clarity and added a slight pink cast to the image.   You can see all the images from the shoot here.

The second cherry blossom shoot, was in a local park with Michelle as Cersei from Game of Thrones.  She chose the Cersei’s blue dress, which complemented the pink in the blossoms and the character itself worked for the setting.  Usually, the blossoms from this tree hang over the rocks more like a veil, but due to the cold snap there were not as many blooms to weigh down the branch.   This resulted in many of the photos not having a lot blossoms in the shot.  For this shoot, I used my Canon 70D an 18 -200mm lens, a 430 EX-RT III flash mounted on a light stand with an umbrella.  I have two favorite photos from the shoot. The first one shows the inner strength of the character, and was tinted blue to make it feel as though it was shot during the twilight hours. The original image was shot at ISO 100 with a focal length of 50mm, at an aperture of 4.5, a shutter speed of 1/160, and fill flash.  I also did a more modern take on the character by placing my model on the edge of the modern sculpture located in the park.  I told to give me her best intimidating Cersei’s look, and the second image pictured was the result.  The image was shot at ISO 100 with a focal length of 20mm, at an aperture of 4.5, a shutter speed of 1/400, and fill flash.  I did clean the image up slightly in Lightroom by intensifying the color and clarity slightly and adding a bit of vignetting to the image to bring attention to her face. You can see all the images from the shoot here.