Togs & Tales

Stephen Phelan

Stephen Phelan

Landscape Photographer

I have spent the majority of my life, some would say unfortunately, in Limerick. My girlfriend lives in Kerry which in minimally more scenic.
When I was a young lad I swam competitively at national level, competed at international lifesaving competitions and played in a brass and reed band. Now I play indoor soccer once a week!
By trade I am a Swim Coach and a Strength and Conditioning Coach. I loved college so much I did two degrees, a BA in Irish & Media and a BSc in Strength & Conditioning. I am now applying for a masters, should probably get my head checked. I recently qualified as an SNA too.

I spent the last year in Vancouver, Canada, working as both a Swim Coach and a Strength & Conditioning Coach. We had great plans to travel the whole west coast of Canada and the USA but some Covid stuff happened and we ended up coming home last August. It was great to get the chance to see so many of the wonderful landscapes Canada has to offer before we came home. Driving up and down the Icefields Parkway will always be on the best experiences in my life. It would have been great to stay, but it would have been impossible to travel and see what we wanted to see before the visas were up. We will be going back at some stage.

These days with lockdown I have become a wild garden bird expert. I feed them, take their portraits for their passports and care for the sick ones when I can catch them. Last September the only garden bird I could, probably, confidently identify was a Robin. Now I know all the species and can identify the sick ones.
I am also the most indecisive person you’ll ever meet, so I’m sorry in advance. Or am I? I haven’t decided yet.

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

In the summer of 2019 I had some small kind of interest in photography. I went over to New York City by myself and that is where I bought my first camera. I knew I was going to buy a camera over there so I spent loads of free time(being undecisive) watching reviews on affordable cameras. I am a cheapskate.
By some divine intervention I had actually decided on a camera before I got there, it was the Sony A6000. It was perfect, it was cheap and it fit in my pocket. I didn’t understand it was mirrorless or an APSC sensor at the time, well I knew it was but hadn’t a clue what that meant!
So my first experience of ‘landscape’ photography was walking around NYC at all hours, by myself, #loner, buying Jordans and snapping pictures. I went on an open door helicopter tour too which was great. I almost got on the chopper with the wider lens until I saw some other lad with a massive lens and thought I should go with the zoom kit lens I got instead.
When I went to Canada a month or so after that it was the landscape over there that made me fall in love with landscape photography. The 40 trillion waterfalls were hard to ignore, and it made me determined to explore Ireland’s landscape when I got back. Unfortunately I have been in lockdown since so it’s been a challenge. So many places on my doorstep I have never bothered to look at. I went to the Copper Coast for the very first time last December, that’s an embarrassment haha. But having a camera is great for getting me to places I have never gone!

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

I don’t have many amazing stories, I must be boring.
But on one glorious day in Banff we were heading towards Johnston Canyon. With Covid and all that they had actually closed the section of the Bow Valley Parkway road to keep the numbers low that were visiting the canyon. This meant we had to park and walk along the Bow Valley road for about 7km to get there, then walk the canyon to see the waterfalls and all that, and then walk 7km back to the car. The walk there and back alone took almost three hours.
Now the Bow Valley is a road you drive on if you want to see some wildlife, so we had our bear spray and the bells to make noise and alert bears in the area. To be honest, after listening to that bell ringing for three hours I would have preferred to be mauled by a bear. So about 20 minutes into the 90 minute walk to the canyon a black bear strolls out right in front of us. It was our first experience in the wild with one of these animals, it was so surreal.
The black bear went on about his business, eating his greens, not one bit fazed by us. I didn’t bring my zoom lens with me, because I wanted to be able to move pain free the next day, so to be able to get photos of this bear at roughly 70mm, without having to crop too much, was fantastic. It was an experience I will never forget.
Landscape photography wise, Johnston Canyon was great. It had impressive waterfall and rapids throughout the canyon. I also had a tour guide, a little chipmunk that liked me for some reason. I definitely didn’t give it nuts to gain it’s affection, I’m just so likeable.

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

I have done some silly things, but thankfully I have never had a really bad experience.
During the winter time in Canada last year we were up around Lake Joffre, which was a two and a half hour drive from the apartment. During the heavy snowfall we got a flat in the rental car, I got out to change the flat but of course there was no jack in the car. We had to wave someone down who was more than happy to help and provide a jack. This was also a Sunday so every place was closed that could sort us out with a new tire. We had to drive back to the apartment at a ridiculously slow speed, the views were great though. Got a full refund from the rental company and now I always check rentals to make sure the jack is actually there.
When I was first trying to photograph stars last year I spent a good 10 minutes trying to find a star through the viewfinder. I kept switching between viewfinder and screen but could only see black. Naturally I thought my exposure was too dark, changed all the settings and could still only see blackness. Anyway turns out the lens cap was on the lens still.
I have also left home and left the camera battery plugged into the wall charging. I think I hold the world record for having to turn the car around to go back home to get something I forgot.

Sunrise or Sunset & Why?

Definitely sunrise for me, purely because I am an early riser. 4 & 5am starts have been part of my life for a long time.
Realistically it depends on the location, where you’re shooting and where you want the light to hit. At Moraine Lake in Alberta, I went there at sunrise because I wanted to see the ten peaks being illuminated by the light.
But if I had to choose it would be sunrise because that is just my preferred time to be up, there’s no technical, scientific or amazing reason why!

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

Unfortunately my time in Ireland with a camera has been very limited because of my current 18 months having a camera only 6 of those have been in Ireland. This, tied with never ending lockdowns, has meant I have not got out much except to shoot the moon mainly.
But when I have gotten out I have really enjoyed the Burren and the west coast of Clare along Moher. A first trip to the Copper Coast has me exciting to get back there eventually. Can’t forget shooting the moon from the back garden in Limerick ha.

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

This is harder for me to answer than say someone like TJ Allen, who probably has fewer good photos.

If I really had to choose my favourite I think I would pick my first milkyway shot I got in Canmore last July. I went to shoot the mountain range named ‘The Three Sisters’ with the milkyway popping up behind it. I used the photopills app to help me plan it. I will always remember being able to see the milkyway faintly with my own eyes when we got there, and the excitement when I saw it for the first time on the back of the camera.

What equipment / Setup are you currently using?

During the lockdown in Canada, and thanks to the wonders of FB Marketplace and Craigslist, I upgraded from my Sony A6000 to a Sony A7Riii. Most of my stuff is second hand and thankfully I’ve never had problems with any of the gear.

With the A7Riii I have the two budget Tamron lenses 17-28mm and 28-75mm. I’ve got the 70-200mm f4 from Sony, and also the 200-600mm because I love shooting wildlife.

Top Tip for anyone starting out?

Go out and take photos as much as you can, make all the mistakes and learn from them.

Best Advise you’ve personally been given?

Take off the lens cap, it has really helped me! I don’t think anybody has given me personal advice. I have never gone shooting with another photographer, mainly due to that Covid and I’m just not likeable haha.

Who is your biggest inspiration as a Landscape Photographer?

Recently I have really been inspired by the like of Enrico Fossati and Ryan Dyar having only come across their work. Since I started photographers such as Adam Gibbs, Gavin Hardcastle, Nick Page and Mads Peter Iverson have always influenced me with their style and approach to photography.

Who is your favourite Irish photographer at the moment?

It’s hard to pick just one, but I’ve always enjoyed the work of Mark O’Brien and Sean O’Riordan because they were two of the first Irish photographers I came across on Instagram when I got home last August. Their photos are nice too I guess!

Another one I like, especially for his astro, is Gary Cummins. I didn’t realise he was Irish until recently but he’s based in Canada.

© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Stephen Phelan
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