Image of the week

This week, a picture from a visit to Paris a couple of days ago.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t too camera friendly starting misty before going onto low grey cloud. Just around 5.30 pm the sun started to break through the cloud and because it was late in the day long shadows were being produced.

So a typical street scene with everybody oblivious to the camera as they made their way home from work. The picture was taken in the Montparnasse area.


Visiting a Cognac Trading House

Perhaps I should start by defining what a trading house generally means.

These companies in the main buy in distilled grape juice (Eau de Vie) and then age, blend and market the final product. Most of the cognac suppliers that we are aware of such as Remy, Martell, Hennessey and Corvoissier fall into this category, yes they do own vines but not so many  in terms of their overall production. They will purchase the bulk of their spirit already distilled from a large number of small often owner/family operated distilleries and then use their expertise from that point forwards.

Today I had the pleasure of being shown around a small niche trading house based in the narrow back streets of Jarnac called Delamain. My guide for the tour was their export manager Olivier Jadeau who explained the Irish heritage of the company just like Hennessey.


Behind these un assuming walls lies hundreds of casks of premium cognac.

There is still an original still on the premises which has not been used for many decades but is kept for display, our tour started in one of the cellars pictured below where the master blender was nosing a glass.


It was pointed out that they only created Cognac XO, vintage& single cask bottlings, XO cognac will have been in the cask for at six years although often much longer, so no VSOP in their product line up. The XO is pictured above.

From this cellar we visited the premium cellars where the vintage or prospective vintage casks are held. Unlike the standard casks these are sealed with wax, should the seal be broken on purpose or not then the cask looses vintage status.

5667Another cellar beyond contained more vintage casks but un sealed, instead these were behind two locked gates for which two sets of keys are required, one set held by the house and the other by the French customs service, so un authorised access is impossible.

These are the casks in this cellar.

5669Finally once the cask or casks in the case of a blend are chosen then they are sent for bottling on site. The bottles are rinsed (in cognac) before being filled, labelled and packed for delivery around the world.

5685The labelling machine ready for use.

With thanks to Olivier Jadeau.

http://www.islaystudios  ©

Image of the week

Well not quite as that one is staying under wraps for the meanwhile.

This one was shot earlier today, from a sequence of sixty five shots and the only one I liked from that. The location is the town of Vibrac and the river of course is the Charente, the river flows under three bridges in quick succession and any of them can make a nice composition. this is perhaps my favourite of the bridges. The slow shutter speed has added to movement to the picture, the mono conversion has added the mood.


Vintage Cognac Still

Keeping the cognac still photo theme running, here is a picture possibly of the oldest pot still still in daily operation. This one pretty much in the middle of nowhere took some finding as so few people seem to be aware of it. Unbelievably this one is still heated by wood and coal, so maintaining a consistent temperature is a real age old skill. The owner/operator lives in the shack in which it stands pretty much for 24 hours a day during the coldest four months of the year. When not distilling he single handedly cares for his 15 hectares of vines in the grande champagne region of Cognac.



Former Cognac Distillery

4046This picture shows a former cognac distillery now mothballed as it’s been replaced by a more modern version. I was kindly invited in by the Spanish owner Maria Brillet who produces cognac, pineau de charente, jus de raisin and unusually for the area wine as well. All the products organic as well.

I have chosen to put an antique finish on the picture to suit the subject matter.

Remembering Alex Ritchie

This post has been prompted by a newspaper article that I read this week.

Through my occupation I get to meet many people from the ordinary man in the street through TV and sports personalities (which was a mainstay before I moved to Islay) all the way to globally known news makers.

In the main everybody I have come in contact with has always been very helpful and just a handful who can be totally obstructive. In the former category by a long, long way is a scottish born aeronautical engineer called Alex Ritchie. Now I know he isn’t a household name but he was a major part of a global news story at the time and I was lucky enough to be asked to cover it. Way back in 199o’s Richard Branson (now Sir) was completing various adventure challenges and by 1996 he was planning to circumnavigate the globe by hot air balloon. By 1997 the project was almost ready to go and in November that year I was asked to be a part of it, the sort of commission that is difficult to turn down in all honesty. Because I came into the project late I had quite a bit of a learning curve, my knowledge of ballooning and the jargon that surrounds it was zero but fortunately one of the three pilots was Alex Ritchie who couldn’t have been more helpful in bringing me up to speed with the technical side of it. He was a pilot I guess because of his aerospace experience whilst the other pilots were Per Lindstrand, a top balloonist at the time and then Richard Branson who bought the profile to the Virgin Challenger project.


At one of the land and water based survival training sessions with left to right, Per Lindstrand, Alex Ritchie, the army instructor and Richard Branson.

One bonus of  being the photographer meant several trips to Marrakech where the launch site was in Dec ’97 and Jan ’98 and away from the British climate.


A pilots media briefing.

As well as survival training the pilots also undertook a number of high level parachute jumps from around 15’000 to 20’000 feet in case they needed to leave the capsule. One day I was assigned to cover Richard Branson training for exiting the plane with a parachute and also landing techniques (all done on land) whilst the other two pilots who were slightly ahead in the training went off to do a high level jump, this time from 18,000 feet. Very soon news came through to us that the parachute that Alex was using failed to open and therefore he free fell to land. Miraculously he survived this fall albeit with horrific injuries, he dies from those injuries some three months later.


Per Lindstand and Richard Branson preparing for a Fleet street photocall in front of the ballon being inflated.

For the next couple of attempts replacement pilots needed to be found and on the final attempt which saw the balloon travel some 90% of it’s journey around the globe had the American adventurer and extreme sports enthusiast (also fellow balloon record attempter) Steve Fosset on board, he himself died several years later in a separate air crash in the USA.

The accident that Alex was in was seventeen years ago this week. So this post is for you Alex, a big thank you from me for all your help and I’m sure many others.

In the end the prize was taken by the Breitling sponsored team which meant there were no further attempts by the Virgin Global Challenger Team.

Below, a somewhat younger version of myself minutes before the final but unsuccessful launch/attempt.



Creating simple compositions

Or less is more ! I always keep this in mind when deciding on a composition, it is all to easy to put far too much into the frame when shooting a picture, so why not ask the question “does the picture you are composing need all the elements you have included ?” Very often the answer will be no and then start by removing elements or distracting shapes or colours until you arrive at the perfect composition. You could then compare your original idea to the final version, it could be very different. In this case the wall separates an interesting sky to the barren field, no sheep or cows required here to aid the picture. And then by shifting the horizon from off centre completes the design of the picture. These simple compositions with some contrasty lighting really do lend themselves to mono conversions, I gone for a fairly gritty style and haven’t reduced the structure and kept the contrast on the high end. If I had been printing this in the darkroom I guess I may have been around grade 4 or 5 on the Ilford multigrade system. 3960

It’s snow time !

Whilst the Hebridean islands generally sit within the gulf stream, this means mild wet and windy winters.

Occasionally when the jet stream heads a little further south then wintery conditions appear. This happened today, the first time in four years leaving the islanders waking up to a snowfall.

This had a benefit for me as I had been sitting on a commission for four years waiting on the right conditions and today became the day !

Most people with a camera generally head towards the north end of the island to take pictures using the Paps of Jura as a back drop which whilst always makes a nice shot, it becomes a bit predictable and new angles on this are hard to come by.

So instead I decided on a more creative approach using a very simple composition of these trees with the snow on them which had been driven on a strong westerly wind. Although it looks like a mono image, this is the full colour version as there was very little colour in the scene.


Photographing Bluebells

The display of Bluebells on Islay has been pretty impressive and although non native to the island (or Scotland) doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be captured.

However there is always many ways of doing this and here is a little portfolio of different approaches to this subject.

So there is the traditional woodland scene, the panoramic scene which as they are normally always at the same level cuts out unnecessary background, a contre jour  image, environment scenes (the shed & tree stump) and finally a couple of close up images.

I’m not sure which I prefer the most but possibly this depends on the mood or what I would use the picture for.

Hope you like them.

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