During the summer months in Portugal, a good alternative to avoid the crowded beaches on the coast is to head out to the interior. In recent years, the popularity of fluvial beaches in the interior of the country has increased, as they offer a nice experience to those that look for the quietness of a rural setting. Far from the busy coastal beaches, it is possible to combine a visit to a historical village with a cool swim to mitigate against the summer heat.
One of such places is the village of Constância, that I have visited recently with my family, simply to spend a nice and quiet day surrounded by nature. This village is in the Central area of Portugal, and sits atop a small peninsula, nested between the rivers Zêzere and Tejo. Constância is rich in historical and cultural heritage – the first Iberian inhabitants have settled here, followed by Romans, Visigoths and Arabs. One of the greatest Portuguese poets, Luís de Camões, author of the Lusiadas, has lived here between 1547 and 1550. In more recent times, the metal bridge over the Zêzere was designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Parisian fame.
The fluvial beach is a nice spot to spend the day, swimming in the clear and fresh waters of the river or resting in its forested green margins. Before leaving, we decided to stroll around the village in the late afternoon. The village has many points of interest, from its pelourinho to several medieval churches and chapels. Consequently, there are many interesting details to notice and photograph, wandering around the narrow streets. It is well worth it to walk up the village until the top of the hill, from where a broad view of the Tejo river opens to the east.
For this day trip I only carried the small Fujifilm X100F camera, the perfect tool for such occasions. It was entirely suitable to take a few obligatory family snaps, plus the required documentary shots. I also quite like the Acros B&W film simulation, which I have applied during RAW conversion. I think it suited the historical feel of the place nicely.
I normally do not write (much) about photo equipment, but today I would like to share my experience about transitioning between systems. In order to do that, I need to go back 6 or 7 years, when I started to phase out from the DSLR world into the Mirrorless world. Back then, I had been using Canon EOS (film and digital) for nearly 20 years, so that was a major decision; mirrorless systems were starting to gain traction, and in particular two brands caught my attention: Sony – with the “full – frame in a small size” proposition of the A7, and Fujifilm – with the APSC X camera series and their retro look and ergonomics.
For a while I tried Fujifilm X (X-PRO1, X-E1), just to test the waters, while watching Sony closely. I shoot a lot of landscape and travel, sometimes in very low light and playing with long exposures (think blue and golden hour with neutral density filter). For that, the Fuifilm sensor technology was not yet good enough in terms of noise handling; mind you, I am not too bothered with noise, but back then the results were not fully convincing to me. So, I tried the Sony system, with the A7 and A7II, and used them for 4 years, with very good results. It had what I wanted: excellent quality in a smaller and lighter package, much more trekker – friendly.
However, I always kept an eye on the Fuji X system, and how it was developing. There was something that Fuji did better than the Sony, in my opinion, of course, and that was operational control (dedicated old-fashioned knobs), and the sensible choice of lenses. Shooting often in the dark, or near dark conditions in the field, it is very helpful to be able to set the camera and lens controls from a set of dedicated knobs and dials. Thus, by mid – 2018, I was trying the Fujifilm X system again, and this time around, the sensors were excellent for my type of photography.
Fast forward to today, and I am fully back in Fujiland, with two cameras, X-H1 and X-T2. As for lenses, after more than 20 years, I have learned to be sparse and pragmatic, so I mostly use a Fujinon 16mm F/1.4 and a Fujinon 50-140mm F/2.8. This is my core landscape and hiking kit, that I carry with a travel tripod in a small Lowepro backpack. I use the 16mm lens with the X-T2 off a tripod and reserve the X-H1 for the larger zoom lens; the X-H1 is wonderful to use the bigger Fujinon lenses, thanks to the higher mass, more robust construction, larger grip, and better balance overall. The X-T2 is also a joy to use, lighter and smaller, and hardly weighs down the backpack.
Talking a little about the lenses, I have to say that I am favourably surprised with the 16mm F/1.4 lens. This lens handles, and feels, like a bigger brother to the classic 14mm F/2.8, which used to be my go – to landscape lens. The 14mm lens is a tried and tested superb lens, sharp into the corners, with no discernible barrel distortion. As I shoot a lot of sea and coastal landscapes with the horizon, very low barrel distortion is one of my requirements. There were a couple of nuisances I had with the 14mm lens, namely the loose aperture ring; it was too easy to change it inadvertently. The 16mm lens just feels tighter all around, no loose aperture ring for sure. It also keeps the optical character of the 14mm lens (sharpness, contrast, no barrel distortion), but of course the field of view is not as wide.
In the end, I chose the 16mm F/1.4 lens, despite a slightly narrower angle of view, because those 2 mm of difference were not significant to me, and I got a lens faster by 2 stops. This last factor is important when shooting the night sky and star trails and can open more creative opportunities when shooting wide angle close ups.
I struggled a bit when deciding to go with the 50-140mm F/2.8 zoom lens: it is larger and heavier, so would I be using it that often? After a few months of use in the field, the answer is a resounding “yes”. I used to shoot with a Canon EOS 1V and 70-200 F/2.8 zooms (almost 3kg), and that is something I don’t want to repeat today. Albeit large and heavy in terms of Fujinon lenses, the 50-140mm F/2.8 zoom is perfectly manageable. Fujifilm have a few excellent telephoto primes, like the 56mm F/1.2, 90mm F/2, or the 80mm macro, all very good options for those that prefer primes. To me, the advantage of the zoom is flexibility in focal length when in the field, for landscapes and hiking. And the zoom performs very well from wide open. I also like to shoot close-ups in the field, and the zoom allows me to use my old Canon 500D close up diopter with excellent results.
I wanted to leave to the end the camera that brought me into Fujifilm in the beginning, the X-100 series. I had the original one, today I have the X-100F. This little camera was the reason why so many photographers started noticing Fujifilm around 2010 and 2011. Its upsides (and downsides) are well known, and with each iteration (currently in its 4th one), the concept has been perfected. Today, the X-100F is the camera I carry with me when I don’t want to carry the other gear. The lens is fixed, of course, but it sports a traditional angle of view, and a fast aperture. With the traditional controls and the hybrid viewfinder, it is an instant classic.
As a personal conclusion, I can say that today I am very happy with my Fujifilm system, it delivers all I need in terms of quality, camera ergonomics, and lenses. Currently, when virtually any camera system can deliver the quality most people want, it is very difficult to choose from so many options. To me, Fujifilm offers something different, combining traditional controls and ergonomics with top quality modern image results.
During the first half of 2019, I have been photographing a lot inside the area of Odemira municipality in Alentejo. This is a region that combines a beautiful coastline and beaches, with more interior plains and hills. Thus, it is often described as a “different Alentejo”. Several reasons have contributed to these photographic endeavours: doing several of the various trekking paths; assembling a portfolio for an exhibit; attending more local events; or simply taking more weekends off. There are many highlights in the region of Odemira, and you can get a very good idea from this institutional video:
One of such highlights is no doubt the Santa Clara – a – Velha dam, located about 50km inland. Simply getting there from the coast is a wonderful drive, best negotiated in a leisurely fashion. This is not a land to be appreciated, and understood, at a social network pace. From the coastal road that stretches south from Milfontes, simply follow the directions to Odemira, Boavista dos Pinheiros, until you reach Sabóia. Along the way, you will pass rolling hills and farm country which, depending on the season, will be covered with fresh green grass and trees, blooming flowers, or golden and dry hay. Dotting this landscape, you will notice the conspicuous cork oak trees, some of them very old and majestic, plus grazing cattle.
Now and then, a road sign will seemingly point to nowhere, but by investigating more carefully, you will often arrive at a small village, with just a few houses. It is a great opportunity to spend some time with the locals and witness old and traditional ways of living. In Sabóia, the train station has a couple of beautiful painted azulejo panels depicting the nearby scenery. We are very close to the transition between Alentejo and Algarve provinces, but such border is smoothed by a succession of increasingly higher mountains to the south, culminating in the second highest peak in continental Portugal, Monchique (900m altitude).
After Sabóia, it is a short drive until the quaint little village of Santa Clara – a – Velha. It is worth visiting the small church, with its traditional blue and white facade, and walk slowly towards the river Mira, which winds its way under large willow trees. This village is the starting point of two circular walking trails, each about 12km long. One of them goes to the east, towards the dam, so it is a good choice when the weather is pleasant. Otherwise, it is another short 3km ride until the dam.
The Santa Clara – a – Velha dam was inaugurated in May 12, 1969, so this year marks its 50th anniversary. It was the largest dam in Portugal until the more recent Alqueva was built. It reaches a depth of 83m, with a total capacity of 485,000,000m3. The lake is a true haven of peacefulness and quiet, and a respite in the hot summer days. The only sounds that disturb the quietness are the ones coming from the wind rustling the trees, and the birds singing. It is amazing how quiet it gets. And dark too, which was one of the reasons I visited recently. Coincident with a new Moon, I shot a star trail over the lake. Having previously scouted the area, I set up my tripod with camera and lens facing north; the plan was to shoot for a total of about 1 hour exposure time, to obtain a nice star trail around Polaris.
Many other photographic subjects of interest are available, from the mountain scenery, to some of the infrastructure of the dam. Sunrise and sunset are particularly good times to photograph, as the light is more interesting. For example, sunrise is quite nice looking to the east, as the light is reflected from the calm water. At sunset, it is worth to relax in the balcony of the local hotel, while admiring the view; in this occasion, the warm day was coming to an end, and the golden light was filtered by the haze, bathing the hills in a surreal atmosphere. Visiting this dam is no doubt an enjoyable experience, as it provides a stark contrast with the coastal region.
This is the third and final instalment of a set of posts I wanted to make about my recent vacation in the area of Longueira, Odemira municipality, Alentejo. The first post talked about photographing the river Mira and the countryside near Vale Figueira, and the second post addressed the small fishing harbour of Lapa de Pombas, in the coast.
For this final piece, I want to take you to Milfontes, which is one of the highlights of the region. This is a village that is rich in history, from its colourful 16th century stories of pirates, to more recent “invasions” of peaceful tourists. From the three photographic sessions I wanted to carry out during this time – off, this was the one I had really planned: I wanted to photograph the interesting polygonal coastal rock formations at low tide during sunset. When the conditions are right, the water remains in small tidal pools and reflects the colours and light of the sunset, making for a truly spectacular scenery.
A quick research about tide, sunset, and Moon rise conditions, led me to reserve the evening of 15th June for this objective. There would be an excellent combination of a 70 cm low tide close to sunset at around 9 pm. The Moon would rise near full within that time period, perhaps providing more opportunities. The only thing that was more uncertain was the presence of dramatic clouds to fuel the interest during sunset; the only thing that was persistent during the day were some strong winds and clear skies… hoping for the best and keeping my fingers crossed, I pickled up my backpack and tripod, and made the short 10 km drive between Longueira and Milfontes, arriving about 1 hour before sunset.
I parked near the small lighthouse in the northern bank of the river mouth, which is not a bad location for nice views of the coast to the south, and the village proper, to the east. I spent some time making a few photos with the new Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 lens that I am testing (and that I have used for the photos in the previous two chapters of this essay). Even though this lens is larger and heavier than the 14mm f/2.8 lens (that I have used for years), after a few days of using it I was very comfortable – it basically feels and handles like a grown up version of the 14mm lens (same set of controls) – with the bonus of being more robust (it has Fuji’s Weather Resistant construction and labelling), and 2 stops faster (which can be handy sometimes). One other important change is that the aperture ring is a lot less “free rotating” in the 16mm lens, compared to the other.
Anyway, enough of gear talk… From the vicinity of the car park and after a few photos, I walked down to the beach, where the tide was already very low; I think that the combined effort of near full Moon plus the approaching summer solstice were contributing to such low tide levels. Even better for my plans. Walking along the sandy shallows and the rocks, I managed to reach a good distance away from “land”; this allowed me to make some photos that were completely new to me, which was excellent. In some places, the sand had consolidated into sharp – edged rock formations, so be sure to wear good shoes (summer – type flip – flops will not do!). There were plenty of interesting sand patterns, waves, and the view of Milfontes from this far away to keep me busy for a while.
As the Sun was approaching the horizon, I made my way back and entered the area that I was really interested in, featuring the above mentioned polygonal tidal pools. I took a few test shots to get a feel for the compositions, and finally decided on a location to set up the tripod. I already had a few filters ready in my pockets, as being prepared and ready helps a lot, especially if working over water – you don’t want to drop your precious Lee Big Stopper ND filter on the tide pool, or fumble in your backpack when the light is just great. My greatest fear – lack of an interesting sky – went away, because as the sunset approached, there were long and wispy clouds reflecting the light. This turned out to be a highlight of the session for me, and I was soon shooting frame after frame, as the light changed colour and intensity. I spent more than 1 hour in that place, shooting well after sunset. What a fantastic way to end the day, and I felt blessed to be able to witness this show of Nature.
Spring has finally arrived, bringing with it longer days, more sunshine, and lots of flower covered fields. In my recent weekend visits to Longueira and Almograve, I have kept an eye out for one of my favourite Spring photographic subjects – poppies. This flower can impart a very special character to any area, sprinkling the fields with small red dots. Every year they seem to appear in different parts of the region, with stronger or weaker presence.
Last year, I remember sawing them in a good number quite close to Odemira. This year, the best area I have seen so far is just before Milfontes, where there are many red poppies among the lupine fields. I noticed it whilst driving past; there they were right next to the road. A large tract of land covered with yellow lupine and the conspicuous red splashes of the poppies. I was elated to see this view, because just a mere days before this field was empty of such colour. Such is Spring, whimsical and surprising.
I made a mental note to plan and come back for an early morning shooting session in the next couple of days. I knew that the light at sunrise would be great over this area, bathing the flowers in golden light. I also knew that I would have to return relatively quickly, because poppies are fragile – their petals do not resist stronger winds or showers, which had been abundant recently. It is a good thing that I do not mind (very much) to wake up well before sunrise…
Thus, one morning I packed up my photo backpack plus tripod, and off I went. It is a short drive from my house in Longueira, and I really like the time of day before sunrise – Nature seems to be waking up, and the morning was clear with some clouds over the mountains, from where the Sun would rise. Excellent conditions for photography, with some clouds adding interest to the sky. After arriving, I strolled into the fields looking for nice compositions, making the most of side light and contre jour conditions. I had decided to bring only a couple a lenses in my Fujifilm X system; the 14mm wide angle, and the 50-140mm telephoto zoom. The former would be able to frame the typical wide vistas of the landscape, whereas the latter would allow flexibility and some close-ups. To add a bit more versatility, I had also packed an old Canon 250D close-up lens, to use on the zoom. This significantly increases the magnification (up to around 0.25X), which is nice for semi-macro shooting.
I started shooting before sunrise, when the light was still low, just to experiment and explore the surroundings and subjects. The light became much more interesting when the Sun started to crest the mountains in the East; I started to shoot faster, trying to make the most of it. As I was close to the road, I must have made a strange spectacle to people driving past, lying low on the ground to frame the poppies against the rising Sun! At one point, an old farmer showed up with his dog, and we had a nice conversation, with me trying to explain how interesting his field of flowers was to photograph. As I always do, next time I am back I will give him a print.
After about 1 hour, I was confident that I had managed to capture some interesting photos, so it was time to go back home for breakfast. Looking back at the last year or so, I reflected how lucky I was to be able to photograph this beautiful region throughout the various seasons. Each season brings a different feel and emotion, and Spring is no different. I will be back in about a week, with plans to visit the fields near Santa Clara-a-Velha, more to the interior. I think that more flowers are waiting.
While trying out a new lens for my system (a 35mm f/1.4), I went out to take some photos of some hay bales I had seen before, close to an old and abandoned house. I waited for sunset to have some good light, and off I went.
I tried some compositions, including the one below, catching the Moon and bicycle.
Having such a fast lens available, I then thought about using it at extremes of aperture range, in this case, from f/16 to f/1.4. The results are shown below, in the following order: f/16, f/1.4 (maintaining focus on the bike), and f/1.4 (focusing on the house).
Normally, when shooting such subjects, I tend to favour a deep depth-of-field, so that both the foreground and background are acceptably sharp. However, later on, when I looked at the images, my favourite of the series was #2, focused on the bike, and shot wide open at f/1.4. In my mind, the bicycle and hay bale are given more prominence, while the house is still there, identifiable. All bathed by the warm and golden light of the sunset.
Talking about sunset, this is what it looked like that day. Wonderful.
I have recently travelled to Muscat, Oman, on a business trip. On such trips, I always try to find some time for photography, especially in such an interesting location. I know the country very well, because I worked and lived there for a few years. Muscat, in spite of all the developments in roads and housing, still keeps its own special charm, so to speak. The city’s mountainous background, its old quarters and traditions, and the hospitable Omanis, make for a unique combination that keeps me coming back whenever possible.
On such occasions, when I can only dedicate a few hours to photography, I profit from my previous knowledge and go straight to the places that I find more interesting; like the Mutrah Corniche, and the nearby Souk. I also prefer to carry only a small camera and lens, to favour mobility and to avoid looking conspicuous. My approach is simply to shoulder the camera, mingle with the folks, wait for something interesting to happen, and shoot away. My Sony A7II and ZEISS Loxia 50 f/2 lens allow me to do this in a most efficient way; the combination is light and reliable, goes unnoticed, and delivers time after time. After a while of walking in the souk, people do not pay me attention anymore. the lens’ aperture and manual focus rings allow me to pre-set the shot as I deem appropriate, so that I can concentrate on what is happening around me.
I leave you with some photos taken close to sunset and at dusk, in a pleasant February evening.
Currently, where auto-focus reigns supreme, it may seem odd to use a manual focus lens. But sometimes, for photographing at a more leisurely pace, a manual focus lens is a valuable tool. No need to think about auto focus modes, camera drive modes, just take full control about where, and when, you want your lens to focus. When travelling, or when simply on a stroll photographing on my own, I enjoy the simplicity provided by manual focus, and manual aperture setting, on the lens.
Since I use a Sony Alpha 7 camera system, it is possible to adapt hundreds of so-called vintage lenses, from other mounts, to the Sony E mount. And I have done that before. But for the standard focal length, 50mm, I have never tried to use a manual focus lens; I was used to the excellent Sony Zeiss 55 f1.8 lens. Recently, I am trying the Zeiss Loxia 50 f2 lens, which is completely manual in operation, but has the electronic contacts to “talk” to the camera, since it is a native E mount lens. In all other aspects, it feels, and handles, like any other high-quality Zeiss manual focus lens, which means is a pleasure to use.
I am familiar with Loxia lenses, because I have used the 21mm and 35mm ones in the past. The lens line is rounded up by the 50 f2, and more recently, the 85 f2.4. Today I want to share some photos, and impressions, from using the Loxia 50 is a recent trip to Odeceixe, a well-known beach located in SW Portugal. I spent a couple of days in the area with my wife, profiting from a balmy end of October, with unseasonably warm temperatures for the time of the year. After some picnicking and swimming, we took the trail that links Odeceixe to the small fishing village on Azenha do Mar to the North.
This trail is very easy to do, and affords great views along the coastline, plus crossing coastal dunes and farmlands. This time of the year, it is sweet potato pick up season. In fact, some of the best sweet potatoes come from this region, with yellow, orange, and purple varieties. But that will be perhaps the subject for a future article, in case I manage to visit the sweet potato festival in Aljezur at the end of November.
Mounted on my Sony A7II, the Loxia 50 balances and handles perfectly; it works and feels like the precision instrument that it is. Manual focus is easy, with all the technological assistance provided by the camera, in terms of peaking and magnification at your fingertips. All the hallmarks of the Zeiss heritage are present in the lens, with the vibrant colours (but never over the top), contrast, sharpness, and resistance to flare. At the end of the day, in Azenha do Mar, I spend some time taking some long exposures off the tripod, photographing the boats in the small harbour.
For those who enjoy manual focus, the Loxia lenses combine tradition and modern performance in a very good way. I will certainly be keeping my copy of the Loxia 50.
The Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro G OSS lens (to give it its full name) was introduced in early 2015, as the first dedicated macro lens in the system. Besides the obvious macro application (the lens can do 1:1 magnification), a short telephoto lens also works nicely for landscapes and portraits. Because I often shoot macro and close-up, I was of course very interested in this lens. I recently had the opportunity to use it for a couple of days in the town of Odemira, in southwest Portugal.
I used the lens on my Sony A7II, and I felt that the balance was good when handholding. The lens is not small, but it is not heavy either, even though it feels robust. Operating the lens is straightforward, which is nice when working in the field. Most of the shots were tripod-based, because I was shooting before and around sunrise; with the required stopping down to get acceptable depth-of-field, I quickly ended with exposures close to 1 second.
People interested in the lens know by now that this is a high-quality lens, and the images it produces are clean, crisp, and colourful. In the macro range, the backgrounds are rendered smoothly. I strolled through the streets of Odemira looking for potential subjects, including landscapes, details of the houses, and flowers in the local garden. I have tried auto focus and manual focus in the macro range, and both worked fine; make sure you use the focus limiter switch on the lens. The optical stabilization in the lens works very well for hand held shots, when required.
After two years in the market, there are no surprises coming from this lens; this is a highly recommend lens for those that like to shoot macro, landscapes, and portraits. To me, the focal length is preferable compared to other shorter (50mm) macro lenses, because it provides more working distance between the camera and the subjects.
I recently spend the weekend near Almograve, a very nice beach located in the Alentejo coast. This is an area that I know very well, and for many years now, as you can ascertain from the several posts I have made until now. During this last stay, I took the opportunity to use a recent wide angle lens for the Sony ILCE system: the Tokina Firin 20mm f2.
Tokina are introducing this new lens line for the system, and the 20mm lens is the first one. After using the Zeiss Loxia 21 f2.8 for a while, I was curious to see how this new contender would fare. In short, the new lens is very good, both in terms of optical quality, and in terms of usability in the field. Mind you, it is only manual focus, but for my intended use (landscapes) I see no problem with that.
Compared to its natural competitor, the Loxia 21, the lens is bigger and heavier, since it is one stop faster; it is also not fully metal build, but that does not mean it feels flimsy or not well constructed (far from that). One can feel the heft of the lens, no doubt the result of some nice glass inside, and robust materials outside. In terms of usability, the only nit I have is the lens’ aperture ring turns a bit too easy for my liking; in this regard, the Loxia has more firm detents.
Other than that, the lens shows very well controlled geometrical distortion (I have not had to resort to correction during image processing), good colours and sharpness across the frame, and of course some vignetting wide open (as expected). Even against the light, the lens performed very well, with no detrimental effect on the contrast or appearance of spurious reflections.
Below are some images shot during sunrise and sunset times, along the coast; some were taken using the long exposure provided by a neutral density filter. Personally, I highly recommend this lens to anyone looking for a wide-angle landscape lens; it also allows to save a significant amount of money compared to the price of a Zeiss Loxia lens, which may be important.