Togs & Tales

Ronan Harding Downes

Ronan Harding Downes

Landscape & Wedding Photographer

My name is Ronan Harding Downes aka Ronan HD. These days I’m a Father first so the photography often takes a back seat. But I’m also a full time wedding photographer, a landscape photographer and part time fool from Wicklow, Ireland. I made the decision to quit my job and pursue a full time career in photography in October 2019. Despite 2020s reputation I’ve enjoyed a very successful year and been nominated for a number of awards which I’m very thankful for! I like to keep busy and always try my hand at different things, the most recent being co-creating and publishing the Tri Pod photography podcast with my friends Sean O’Riordan and Kevin Hennessy.

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

I think it was almost genetically inevitable. My Father was always creative with woodwork and carpentry, but also had a great eye for design. In his retirement he had taken up a camera himself and produced some lovely photographs. He taught me a lot over the years and unfortunately passed away in May 2021. I’m eternally grateful that we held a shared passion for a period before he passed. On my Mothers side it’s the same. She is a great watercolour artist and would create amazing works on canvas. She would always have her pocket Fujifilm camera with her to capture photographs to inspire her paintings.
Geography is also a big factor. Being from Wicklow it was easy to fall into landscape photography. Growing up I was just 20 minutes from the Wicklow Mountains so it was always the easiest place to go for walks with my family. When you see the mountains in person it’s difficult to not make a connection. I was about 6 years old when we first drove passed Lough Tay and I’ll never forget the experience. It was like living in a scene from Lord of the Rings, truly awe inspiring!
When we were out on family walks my mother would use her little pocket camera to snap photographs of the landscape for her to paint. I started to use it on walks too and she began to paint my snaps. As I got older and ventured out alone she would ask me to bring her camera in case I saw something nice for her to paint. That led to me observing the landscape instead of just looking as I walked by.
During this time I also had my own interest in photography anyway. I would take photos of the BMX riders in the local skatepark, long exposures on the N11 at night and just generally play around with the camera. It wasn’t until I invested in my first DSLR, the 6megapixel beast that was the Nikon D40, that I married my own photography interests with my love for the mountains.
One of the first photographs I took with this camera was of the now famous boardwalk in Ballinastoe Woods. I had been posting the standard “hold your camera at an angle and throw on a filter” photograph to the then brand new Instagram app, but the photograph of the boardwalk was the first DSLR shot I posted. It instantly went viral and I got loads of great feedback from it. That little dopamine rush pushed me to explore more of Wicklow and try find more unique and exciting scenes!

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

I think I have two favourite adventures, possibly three, but the stand out would be a trip to the Devils Glen with Keith Walsh during Storm Emma. Storm Emma, aka the Beast from the East, was a rare weather event in 2018 that caused almost a week of sustained snowfall and freezing conditions. When the snowfall finally slowed the roads were ploughed and we ventured into the mountains. We knew from the news reports that the Wicklow Mountains were inaccessible, with hundreds of “snow tourists” getting stuck in snow drifts as high as 8 foot, so we decided to stay at a lower altitude and head into the Devils Glen. Safety first!

Road access was fine the whole way up, the roads were gritted and safe to travel. We parked up and began the descent into the valley to photograph the waterfall. The second we stepped off the main road we were up to our hips in snow, I’ve never experienced anything like it. What would normally be a relatively handy 20 minute hike to the waterfall turned into a 2 hour slog through freezing conditions. Every step was draining. Trying to walk through waist deep snow feels like you’ve an 18 stone international rugby player wrapped around your knees trying to tackle you to the ground. We pushed on nonetheless and descended into the valley, literally sliding down hills not knowing where we would stop. It was great fun! Navigating it was difficult though. With the shear amount of snow the terrain was completely different, nothing was familiar in a location myself and Keith had visited many times.
Things eased a bit as we got to the bottom of the valley. The snow wasn’t quite as deep near the river and it was heavily impacted in places making it easier to traverse. When we cleared the tree line and got close to the river I experienced a rather pleasant rush of sensory overload. It’s a memory I will never forget. The valley was silent, but it wasn’t at the same time. Everything made noise, but nothing echoed. The sound was gentle but booming like the surround sound you’d experience in the cinema, but at the same time everything was silent and crisp. The snow was impacted but pristine, we were the only souls present. I wish I could have captured the moment, but everything was white. There was nothing to capture, likely a skill cap on my part at the time, but I’m glad I experienced it. I’m not a religious person but I would imagine it’s as close to god as you can get.
The walk up the valley towards the waterfall was nothing short of epic. The valley was a basin for cold air so every breath I took was invigorating. In terms of photography, the yield of photographs wasn’t great. The waterfall was pretty much inaccessible leaving only the one composition to photograph. Normally this would be disappointing, but given the overall experience it’s one of my favourite photographs ever. That’s one of the many joys of landscape photography in my view. Often getting the shot isn’t what matters.

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

There’s been a few, I’d be lying if I said otherwise! Trudging through waist deep snow was no craic but led to great things! One particularly bad experience was a trip up Tonelagee to photograph Lough Ouler. A literal series of unfortunate events! It was a bitter cold winters morning when I began my ascent. Tonelagee is essentially all bog on the west side and it was pitch black. I started out around 6am with sunrise due at 7.30am, so the race was on to summit the mountain and get to Lough Ouler. Were it not pitch black I would have made the climb fairly handy, but about 10 minutes in my torch died and I had no choice but to put the head down and power on. It was far too dangerous to turn back with no light source, there is a lot of bog holes hidden at the foot of the mountain that I could easily stumble into without clear line of sight. I did try to use the torch on my phone to navigate, but my battery was around 30% because of a faulty charger and I was using hiking poles making it impossible to hold the phone and hike effectively. Keeping a charge on my phone would be important in case I got into any more trouble on the way up. Good thing brainiac turned the phones torch off and put it back in my pocket. Spolier alert: I didn’t turn the torch off, I thought I had, but I didn’t.
On the way up I could see the sky turn from black to dark blue. This was the only landmark I could use to navigate, even the power station at Turlough Hill wasn’t overly visible in the shroud of darkness. I eventually got to the top and was immediately smacked in the face with a bitter cold wind from the east. It felt like razor blades dragging across my face. I was not prepared for that level of cold at all! I waddled over to the south side of the lake to set up my camera anyway. The sun was just about to peak over the horizon and I felt good about the conditions. I set up my tripod, pulled out the camera and then immediately felt like bursting into tears. I hadn’t brought my tripod plate. I had no way of putting the camera on the tripod. I beat myself up a bit and decided it wasn’t the end of the world, the sun was over the horizon now and it was bright enough to hand hold the shot. While I couldn’t bracket or time blend without a tripod, at least I could come away with one shot! Or rather, I could have if my memory card was in the camera. Which it wasn’t. It was in my other camera, at home. You know what else was on my other camera? The tripod plate.
It will be a long time before I return to Lough Ouler again after this experience.

Sunrise or Sunset & Why?

Both are lovely. Being from the east coast I tend to lean towards sunrise. It’s also much easier to predict the light at sunrise in my opinion. You can watch the whole sunrise unfold and set up your composition accordingly!

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

I LOVE Wicklow, there’s so much to see and do here. There’s tons of unexplored locations too just waiting to be found. I’m currently working on a project to photograph the unseen parts of Wicklow and hopefully get enough to release a book in 2021. I also love the Mullaghmore coastline in Sligo and the Copper Coast in Waterford. Two areas with very unique geography that are well worth a visit!

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

Probably one of my more recent photographs of Ballinastoe Woods. There was lovely dappled light, frost on the boardwalk and a light powder snow. It was a really lovely scene to take in.
I also had some sensational light at the Poulanass river in Glendalough recently. It had been bucketing rain for a number of days and when I set up my camera the clouds split and the sun beamed through the trees. As the sunrays caught the spray from the river a tiny rainbow formed, it was a really magical scene to behold!
If I had to choose I’d probably go for my shot of the long tree on Luggala. I’ve always loved Lough Tay and the cliff of Luggala above it. There’s a tiny tree on one of the rocky outcrops there, a sure sign that life can thrive anywhere!

What equipment / Setup are you currently using?

I’m currently between systems at the moment, but both Nikon! I’m transitioning from my D750 and f mount lenses to the new Z6 and z mount lenses. At the moment I have:

Top Tip for anyone starting out?

Listen to the Tri Pod! Or other educational content of course. Photography podcasts and YouTube videos are a great way to learn photography. Read articles and blogs like Togs & Tales to help you learn the terms and get ahead. Don’t be afraid of tuition either. I do one to one lessons catered to the individual, so you can learn at your own pace. There’s also some great photography communities you can join, like the Tri Pod community, not a shameless plug there! The community is full of amazing people, we can’t take credit for them but we’re definitely proud of them!

Best Advise you’ve personally been given?

Learn the basics and you’ll go far. Do not underestimate the power of knowing how a histogram works or the basics of the exposure triangle. When you’re confident with the basics the world is your oyster, it opens everything up. I know a lot of photographers who have just stagnated and feel they can’t improve, but they’re too “established” and proud to go back and learn the basics. They’re powerful things!

Who is your biggest inspiration as a Landscape Photographer

Thomas Heaton would be a big inspiration of mine. As would Simon Baxter. They both run fantastic YouTube channels and approach their photography on their terms. There’s no trends or copying the easy composition you find on Google with them. In an industry saturated with people chasing a following the photography can sometimes get lost, so I’m a big fan of the approach Thomas and Simon take to their work.

Who is your favourite Irish photographer at the moment?

At the time of writing I’m a big fan of Mark McGuires work. He’s recently branched out into drone photography and he’s finding some really unique compositions in the air and on the ground.

Sean O’Riordan and Keith Walsh are fantastic landscape photographers also. I think Keith is one of the best in Ireland, but he’s far too humble and laid back to even entertain having that conversation!

Through the podcast I’ve discovered people like Keith Arkins, Brian Campbell, Sarah Ponsonnet, Orla Fleming, Lee O’Hare, Dragana Guzic and Darragh Gorman to name a few. They all have incredible work.

There’s a lot of talent on this island. I think everyone should look beyond the follower count. There are some accounts that only have a handful of followers, but their work is really incredible. On the flipside you’ve accounts with 10k+ followers that just reproduce the same scenes you would find on a google search over and over again. While the work produced is top notch, for me the joy is being unique and finding your own style and compositions. Take inspiration from others and don’t get sucked into the “like and follow” numbers game. It’s a repetitive and stale approach to photography.
Since starting the podcast I’ve had the pleasure of diving further into the community. I’ve no doubt I’ve missed lots of names here, but next week I’ve no doubt I’ll have even more to share. The community is amazing.

Where can we find you?

For weddings and other enquiries you can get me on my website www.ronanhdphotography.com I’ve another website for my workshops, print sales and book next year if all goes well which is www.ronanhd.com

You can get me over on the Tri Pod page too, just search ‘The Tri Pod’ on the socials and anywhere you get your podcasts! You can also head over to www.tripod.ie

Thankfully, you can find me @ronanhdphotography or by simply searching Ronan HD Photography. I say thankfully because I’ve won my long running SEO battle with Saoirse Ronan, who previously came up as the top hits for “Ronan HD” searches. Take that, Saoirse!

© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Ronan Harding Downes
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