Catching Up: The Vacation Saga

So it’s been 8 months since my last post here. Whoops. This year has been completely insane, for some good and mostly bad reasons. I’m holding off on a end-of-the-year recap though (and my retrospective on Project 365), because I wanted to take a chance to talk about one positive thing that did happen: the vacation to Scotland and Wales my wife and I had back in May.

I’ve been severely delayed in saying anything about it because I wanted to get all my photos processed first. That in itself was a Herculean effort. I’m going to talk here about the post-processing saga, a little about my experience having to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road, the pitfalls and successes I had using my DSLR in a wide array of conditions, some of the crazy places I went to get shots, and a little bit the trip itself. I’ll try not to make this a full-on recap of the whole trip, but I can guarantee it won’t be. I could really go on forever about our trip. It was something I’ll never forget.

Our Chariot

Our Chariot

So our journey began in Glasgow. Pushing through a bit of exhaustion after a redeye flight, we spent a few hours in the city proper as we hunted for SIM cards and food. At the time I had a Verizon iPhone and Jen had an AT&T one. Turns out that mine was unlocked, so I could use a prepaid SIM just fine, but hers wasn’t. So for the remainder of the trip, I was launching a mobile hotspot just so she could check in to Foursquare. Just something to note in case you’re ever over there.

I managed to get a small number of shots in before it started raining that night (rain would indeed become my enemy on this trip). I was impressed by the architecture and the feel of the city, and at the time was kind of bummed that we didn’t get all that much time to walk around. However, in retrospect, the city was unexciting compared to what we saw in the days to come.

Before we even set foot in the country, we figured that in order to really see the parts of the country that we wanted to see, we’d to rent a car. And, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at driving on the other side of the road. Little did I know what awaited me.



The rental car company, Arnold Clark, had an overwhelming majority of cars with manual transmissions. It complete makes sense for over there, but is pretty much the opposite of what’s available over here. They did have a select pick of automatics though, and offered to put us in a very nice Audi A3. It was decked out with all the bells and whistles – leather seats, sat nav, collision detection, backup camera. It was certainly the nicest rental I’ve ever driven.

There was a supreme downside though – it’s width. By US standards, it was completely normal – here it would fit any parking space or cruise down any country road without a problem. However, as I came to learn very quickly, the roads over there were meant for much smaller vehicles that the one we had rented.

The first day of driving it, which was our second day in Scotland, was harrowing. Not only did I have a crash course in being on the other side (and the other side of the car), but I had to get us out of downtown Glasgow and up into the Highlands. Jen was an excellent navigator, but my stress level was at a 12 because I didn’t want to damage anything and I was constantly afraid of hitting something. And may have brushed up against several curbs on our way out of town.

Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin

Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin

When we got to the equivalent of a highway, I felt a little better. But where we were going, they don’t need roads – or at least good ones. Farther North they became much smaller and much more windy. It was raining too, which didn’t help in the least. For what felt like a lifetime I had to navigate hairpin turns on roads that were maybe a feet or two wider that the car itself. Another source of stress was everyone else on the road. They were obviously zipping by without a care, and every time someone passed me in the other lane I had a mini heart attack.

Again, Jen was a trooper, despite me yelling at her and having a nervous breakdown. After the initial shock started to wear off from driving, I got to enjoy our sights for the day – Kilchurn Castle and the Glen Coe valley. The castle alone was mighty impressive, as really it was the first one we’d ever set eyes on.

What really sealed the deal was the landscape. The entire area is, and I quote from Wikipedia “often considered one of the most spectacular and beautiful places in Scotland.” I remember my first thoughts after seeing waterfalls rolling down from giant mountains that touched low-hanging clouds was “This looks like a really good Skyrim mod.”

As a side note, if you saw Skyfall there’s a shot with Bond and M stopped on a road that was filmed really close to where we were. I remember when we saw that movie, long before we ever made it to Scotland, I shouted out loud “I want to go there!” There was just something about the way the scene was shot that made it memorable for me. I didn’t believe there was an actual place that could be that beautiful.

Well, there is.

Well, there is.

Ultimately, there was a negative that cropped up, but one I gladly paid the price for: the rain.

I thought I was prepared for it, but I wasn’t. I bought a rain sleeve for my camera which kept the body pretty dry, but it was really bulky and sort of a pain to use. The lens part of it was super long, so I had to bunch it up a lot just not to get it in frame, since I was using my 16-85mm lens. There were many times when I had to stop, wipe rain drops off the lens, re-adjust the plastic, and try again. It became pretty cumbersome. Jen helped make sort of a “hood” out of the end of the sleeve that helped a little bit, but whenever I had to angle the camera up, enviably the lens would get wet.

See what I mean?

Kilchurn and it’s scenic backdrop

It wasn’t until I finally got back home that I had a “duh!” moment – I didn’t bring any of my lens hoods. They’re meant to help reduce lens flare, but it would have helped a lot in dealing with the rain. There is no perfect solution though – I think drops will get on the lens regardless. In the end, it required a lot more time processing in Lightroom using the spot removal tool to try to clean some of it up. There came a point though where I just said “fuck it” and let it be.

Our third day was spent hiking Ben Nevis, visiting the Glenfinnan valley, seeing Jen get giddy at the Aqueduct featured in one of the Harry Potter movies, and finished at Inverlochy Castle. We packed a lot into the day, but we both agree that after the fact we should have spend more time at Ben Nevis. Despite the shearing winds making photography a little difficult, it can only be described with one word: majestic.

And speaking of photos, I decided it would be a good idea to climb the slick stones stairs to the top of Glenfinnan Monument. There was kind of a rope to help guide you up and down, but I seriously thought I was going to break my neck coming back down. At the top it was also stupid windy, so I had a death grip on my camera the whole, but I got some good shots. The risk is (usually) worth the reward!

Is this real life?

Ben Nevis lookin’ all mighty and shit

By the end of the third day, we were chilled and soaked to the bone, so it’s a blessing that for the remainder of the trip we managed to stay pretty dry! My camera would have thanked me if it could talk. But not for the fact that I accidentally dropped it when were were at the Aqueduct. The only victim was the eyecup, thankfully. Nikon makes some sturdy equipment.

We managed to warm ourselves up though with good food and copious beer. We were staying at a place called the Inn at Ardgour while in the Fort William area, of which has the most awesome and nice owner I can ever remember meeting. As we were checking out, we were talking to him about Doctor Who and then sci-fi in general, and he pull out a binder full of signed photos of him with celebrities. Not professional photos either, just the “here’s my camera” kind. Apparently, for years he used to do security for cons in the UK and has spent a lot of time with the geeky stars we adore. Small world, right?

So, onto day four, which was mostly sunny! Hurrah! This proved greatly advantageous as we had a day of unexpected surprises. On the way to Eilean Donan (i.e. the Highlander Castle) we made several roadside stops. One was at the Solider’s Monument, and absolutely scenic vista and something I’m really glad we got to see. The other unexpected surprise was a friggin’ rainbow. Over Loch Ness. I am not kidding.

What does it mean?

But what does it mean!?!?

As we were driving from Eilean Donan to our hotel in Inverness, I caught out of the corner of my eye the hint of a rainbow. I knew we were next to Loch Ness, and as we kept going it got more and more intense. We found a spot to pull over, I snapped away and got some beautiful pictures. Little did I know though, it wasn’t over yet!

Since we actually had a bit of time to spare we made a stop at Urquhart Castle, situated right on the Loch. After purchasing our tickets and heading through the main gate, I saw that the rainbow was still there! I got as many pictures as I could, and still to this day think they are some of the best I’ll ever take. The one thing I really could have used at the time was my polarizer though. I didn’t bring that either, but it would have helped with darkening the sky a bit. It’s not a huge deal though since I managed to replicate the effect somewhat with the ND gradient tool in Lightroom.

A note on that though – I think for some of my sets, especially the earlier ones, I was adjusting the saturation for the blue channel instead of the luminance to make the sky less white. That makes some of the picture look a bit more blue than they should. Not a big deal, but I don’t feel like going back to fix it.

Chugging right along, day five was a bit more low key compared to the day before. We spent a pleasant morning at the Beauly Priory, had a tour and tasting in the afternoon at the Glen Ord Distillery (mmm, whiskey!), then went to Cawdor Castle later on. That night we ate a lot, drank a lot, and laughed our asses off watching episode of Top Gear. Overall, it was a lovely departure from the adventurous nature of our time there thus far and very relaxing.

Day six was our last day in the Highlands as we made out way to the great city of Edinburgh, stopping at Stirling Castle on the way. Stirling is smack dab at the top of a hill in the middle of a town, and it really made me think about how it must have felt to be royalty looking down at the land before you. It’s really quite a view. We also had a stellar and animated tour guide that actually helped me learn a few things. Go figure!

View from atop Stirling

View from atop Stirling

This was also the last day where we had our car. By this point, I had actually become pretty comfortable with driving it. Granted, most of the final leg of our journey was spent on highways, but I just had a better feel for how it handled and was getting pretty good at being on the left. I still was paying close attention though, as I read that it’s easy to let your guard down after a couple of days and make a mistake. Ironically, after everything we had seen and been through, I was kind of sad to turn the car in. The episode of Top Gear we saw the evening before also helped with the sentimentally a bit, I think.

Goodbye, old friend

Goodbye, old friend

So, Edinburgh. We spent the evening on day six there, and the entirety of days seven and eight. There was a lot to see, a lot to do, and a lot to take pictures of. I had my Fitbit with me on this trip, and on the seventh day it calculated that we had walked over 30,000 steps, the equivalent of about 20 miles. And I believe it. We walked from Edinburgh Castle, down the Royal Mile, then up to Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in the city. Except, well, not at first.

That was the plan, and we did eventually make it there, but we didn’t truly know where we were going. Once we got down by the Royal Palace we assumed that the giant hill in front of us was where Arthur’s Seat, well, sat. So we hiked up it’s side, and then started to notice there wasn’t anything there. As the trail continued, it sloped down and down until we were at the foot of the hill on the other side.

It was then we realized we hiked the wrong hill. And don’t get me wrong, it was a big hill. It took about 45 minutes to get up and down it. However – it was small compared to what we actually needed to climb up. So we continued up a very steep incline, with ragged stone stairs that reminded me of Machu Picchu. Our legs were getting tired, but my wife pressed on and had me man up. And finally, we made it to Arthur’s Seat. It’s an incredible view, and probably best enjoyed on a clear day, but there’s probably not many of those in Edinburgh. I tried to get to the edge of some of the cliff faces to get some pictures, but Jen had me reigned in a bit in fear that I’d go tumbling down. Still, got some good shots despite her not wanting me to die :P

The wrong hill

The wrong hill

As we made our down, we had a complete facepalm moment. There was another side to the hill that had a fairly straight, grassy and easy path all the way down. We just laughed.

More walking continued that day and into the next as we visited the National Museum, Calton Hill and the Scott Monument. The museum was a nice respite from the outdoors, and Calton Hill was a great location for some shot of the city. It’s sort of the “postcard” view of Edinburgh, and I setup for some auto bracketing shots so I could do HDR later. I actually have several bracketed sets from throughout the trip that I need to go back and plug into Photomatix. I did finish one though of Eilean Donan, and it’s hanging as a canvas print in our living room.

And speaking of views, my final “hurrah” as it was in Scotland was to climb the Scott Monument. It’s a real centerpiece and in just about every picture I took of the city. The reason for this? It’s quite tall. 200 feet tall, with 287 steps to the top. Now, that doesn’t sound like much, but it is when it’s a series of narrow spiral staircases. Very narrow, as in you can barely fit two people in one. There aren’t any handrails or anything to hold onto expect with slick, wet stone. As I was going up I actually got stuck as two ladies were coming down. My backpack got wedged and we had to do some close quarters maneuvering to break free. I was *this* close to taking a tumble.

Mr. Scott Monument, more power to the sun rays!

More power Mr. Scott Monument!

But don’t tell my wife that!

Despite all this, as you could imagine, the view was worth it. I had a 360 degree view of Edinburgh and took same wallpaper-worth photos. It was a really nice way to end our time in that amazing country. But I might have kissed the ground when I made it back down, because boy were my legs shaky.

So, wrapping things up (if you’re still reading then send me a message and I’ll buy you a beer – no cheating), the final days of our vacation were spent in Wales! Cardiff, to be precise. We got to see one our favorite people in the whole world – Peter! He took us on a multi-day, whirlwind tour of the city to point out various spots were Doctor Who and Torchwood scenes were filmed, including Torchwood Tower!

I didn't want to go.

I didn’t want to go.

He also accompanied us to one of the highlights of our trip – the Doctor Who Experience! I don’t want to spoil much about it, but if you ever have a chance to go and are a Who fan, you should. It’s amazing. The “experience” part was well done I thought without being cheesy (Jen “broke” the TARDIS and Matt Smith yelled at her!), and the museum portion was something I could have spent a whole day seeing. In fact, we ran out of time because was dilly dallying around the 10th Doctor’s TARDIS interior set.

We have to go back some day, no question about it.

So that’s it. I tried to interject some potentially helpful points for anyone planning a similar trip and highlight some of the memorable parts that you don’t really get a sense of from the pictures I took. There’s so much I didn’t cover though, so if you’re ever curious just ask us about it. This was a potentially once-in-a-lifetime trip for us and I’m eternally grateful that we got to make it happen.

One final tip – if you’re bringing a DSLR on a long vacation, find a good Lightroom workflow for yourself beforehand. I spent months trying to get more comfortable with Lightroom to improve my efficiency, but in the process was just delaying the enviable time sink it would take to go through 3,500 pictures. I clearly cut out a lot, because I took a lot of duplicates, but finishing everything took 4-5 hours out of most days for an entire month.

Not what I’d call fun, but it’s done. And if you have any better way to do it, let me know!

Below you’ll find links to all my sets on Flickr:

Day 1 - Glasgow

Day 2 - Kilchurn Castle & Glen Coe

Day 3 - Ben Nevis, Glenfinnan & Inverlochy Castle

Day 4 - Eilean Donan, Loch Ness & Urquhart Castle

Day 5 - Beauly Priory, Glen Ord Distillery & Cawdor Castle

Day 6 - Stirling Castle & Edinburgh

Day 7 - Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile & Arthur’s Seat

Day 8 - National Museum of Scotland, Calton Hill & Scott Monument

Day 9 - Cardiff Castle, City Centre & Mermaid Quay

Day 10 - Cardiff Bay, The Doctor Who Experience & Journey Home

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I was first introduced to the world of geekdom at a young age when my father painstakingly recorded the audio track from a television broadcast of A New Hope, the cassette of which wore down from daily use. This launched a lifelong affair with science fiction and fantasy. I’m a fan of many obscure and wonderful television shows, have an avid obsession with computers and technology, love immersing myself in the latest video game, and slowly learning the ropes of digital photography.

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  1. I loved reading about your trip (I’ll take that beer at DragonCon next year, yeah?). It brought back memories of my own travels in the UK and raised up a pretty big jealousy monster in my heart, because I never made it out to the highlands while I was studying abroad. It’s the centerpiece of my plans to go back someday. That, and introducing Chris to all the places I called home while living there. Your pictures are absolutely beautiful, and I loved looking through them as you were posting the galleries. It sounds like the photo processing took forever but that you also learned a lot while doing it so I bet that’s beneficial, even if it took ages. The Doctor Who Experience sounds like a ton of fun. And I love that the owner of the inn was a total congoing nerd. We really are everywhere!

    • You get all the beers Teija! Thanks for reading. I really hope you get to see the Highlands one day, because while I haven’t traveled all over the world, it’s probably the most beautiful place I’ve been to. And that was like during the end of Winter there. I liked the cities we saw well enough like Edinburgh, but there’s just something special about the country. Also, thanks for looking at all my pics. You’re probably the only one who did, but that you enjoyed them makes all my time processing worth it :)

      We were just stunned about the inn owner. He apparently did security for like 10 years or something at Novacon and some other ones. He would basically just be the celebs bodyguards for the weekend. Too freaking cool.


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