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The Art and Craft of Tomb Bagging

Keeping dry in the shelter of an Irish tomb, photographer Jim Richardson takes a chance on capturing a panoramic scene—without a tripod.

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

I think I'm becoming a tomb bagger.

When traveling the Celtic world, I am drawn to ancient dolmens, or tombs, scattered across the landscape. When I get up close to a dolmen, I often have a bit of a sit-down inside and commune with my ancestors, keeping an ear out.

It was on a rainy day at Gleann Cholm Cille in County Donegal—when the Irish air was soft with mist and the green hills were dotted with lambs—that the portal tomb in a nearby pasture called to me.

I'm not alone. Once on Orkney I heard a couple of other self-confessed tomb baggers talking. These folk are like birders, traveling about the countryside building a "life list"—in this case a compendium of tombs they've visited. One tomb bagger said to the other, "You should go over to Raasay. You can catch the morning ferry and bag half a dozen tombs by noon!" My kind of folks.

It's an open question about what the local farmers 4,000 years ago were thinking when they built these megalithic burial chambers. I know what I was thinking: I forgot my umbrella on the ship and couldn't keep my lens dry. Practical soul that I am, I climbed inside the tomb.

Photographically there was one great advantage of getting inside the tomb—I could keep my lens dry. Once inside, I found it was interesting on the inside looking out. From the outside, the tombstones looked a bit like random rubble. From inside they looked rather monumental. But even my Nikkor 16-35mm lens wasn't wide enough. So I decided to attempt a multishot panorama. Huddled with my back to the rocks, there was no room to set up a tripod (which, in any case, was back at the ship with the much lamented umbrella).

So, holding the camera as straight vertically as I could, I shot away. My Nikon D3 has a virtual level that I could see through the viewfinder. (It's saved me any number of times when I have to get pictures straight.) I boosted the exposure as much as I thought I could without blowing out the outside exposure, and I shot the series several times for good measure.

Then with a quick nod of thanks to the spirits of my ancestors and a promise to toast them with a pint of Guinness when I got to the next pub, I was off to catch up with my shipmates, already down the road admiring the blooming gorse.

Back aboard on the computer, the panoramic photograph came together remarkably well. Stitched together with the Photomerge command in Photoshop, it has a spacious sweep, although the capstone bends a bit—a common visual artifact of panoramas.

It was good practice for an upcoming story. I'll be able to use that technique again.

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