Foggy morning in Milfontes

What do you do if you wake up at 5 am one August morning, with the plan to go out and do some pre-sunrise photography in a nice place, but then everything is covered in thick fog? This happened to me recently, when I wanted to go to the picturesque small village of Milfontes, in the Mira river estuary (Alentejo coast in Portugal), in order to try and get some good landscape photos. Early in the morning is always mandatory for some good and interesting light, and the summer one more reason to go out this early: avoid the summer crowds on this popular beach destination…

I bit the bullet and went out anyway, despite the fog. My plans of framing the village, bridge and houses, against the rising sun, with the beach as a backdrop, was gone. So I quickly came up with plan B, which was to focus more on some studies featuring the sand patterns, the calm water, and a couple of small piers. The difference between the hustle and bustle of the beach during the day, and the calm that was now everywhere, was really big. All I could hear in the near darkness was the slow flow of the water lapping against the margin, and a few seagulls that were probably waking up.

In the end, I was happy with the results I got, and above all, happy with the experience of tranquillity that I had, with a long stretch of nature just for myself. As I was packing up to go leave the place, I met two other early birds, a couple that were starting they daily trek towards another beach. This is what I like about this region: even in the middle of a busy summer season, it is possible to experience the place fully.

Technically, the photos were taken on the Sony ILCE-7 and the Zeiss Batis 25 f/2 lens, all on a tripod. With the low light levels, I was of course using a tripod and Bulb mode with a remote release.

Now boarding
Now boarding
Long way?
Long way?
Sand
Sand
Receding
Receding
The pier
The pier
Waiting room
Waiting room

 

The choice: colour or black and white?

With the advent of digital photography, black and white (B&W) photography is quite popular these days. Almost every camera has a B&W mode, and there is even one camera (from Leica) that has a dedicated B&W sensor. In my film days I used to shoot a fair amount of B&W film, that I would drop in a respectable lab in Lisbon. Then I would scan the negatives, for digital archiving and web publishing.

Of course today things are a lot simpler, but, some may argue, not necessarily better. I do not wish to embark on a discussion of what is better for B&W, film or digital. I am only concerned about what B&W can bring to my photography, and some choices thereof. For landscape photography, B&W can add interest and drama to a scene, distilling the subject to its basic lines, shapes, and textures. No more colour to distract us.

One thing that is important to understand is, it takes a lot more than converting a file from colour to B&W, to achieve a good B&W photo. Timing, lighting, subject, and composition, have to be there from the start. Also, it is important to learn how to “see” say a landscape, or your subject, in B&W tones. When I am out in the field, I often think and previsualize how the scene would look like in B&W. With many cameras today, it is even possible to set the B&W mode, and the LCD will display in B&W. As I wrote above, it has never been simpler.

Using the example below, of a long exposure I took recently near Cabo Sardao, southwest Portugal, I thought at the time that it would make a good B&W: the streaks in the clouds would be enhanced compared to the colour version, while maintaining the texture in the cliffs and water. But I also like the colour version, I like the contrast between the golden cliffs at sunset and the blues of the sky and water. In the end, both versions work for me, for different reasons. Converting this file was easy, just a few moments in Silfer Efex, a really nice and powerful software.

So, next time you are in the field, think about how a scene could be improved by using B&W; it could be by eliminating coloured distracting elements, by enhancing textures or contrasts between elements, or a combination of other aspects.

Monochrome
Monochrome
Glorious colour
Glorious colour

By the light of the moon

All landscape photographers know that the best time to be out shooting is during the blue hours and golden hours. This is when the light is at its best, with golden hues and long shadows to lift even a normal scene to another level. But how about going out shooting well after the sun has set? In the last few years I have been doing a series of individual “projects” (for lack of a better word), going out into the field at night to photograph some landscapes, and see what comes out.

This is a lot easier to do with digital sensors, than it was with film. And the results can be both good and surprising, especially with the latest generation of sensors, that have low noise during long exposures, and benefit from techniques such as “long exposure noise reduction” (where a dark frame is taken with the same exposure time of the actual one, to subtract the noise in-camera). Of course a good tripod and ball head, plus some sort of remote release, are necessary, as we are dealing with Bulb exposure mode. On the gear side, a so called full-frame camera (with a sensor the size of what 35mm film used to be) helps a lot in the noise department, but smaller sensor cameras are also improving all the time, so do not feel restricted about it.

Recently, during my holidays, I went out to a favourite location of mine, Cabo Sardao, in the Alentejo coast, Portugal. I wanted to try some landscapes under the full moon, or “moonscapes”. I know the area very well, which helps in planning and selecting some interesting locations. This type of long exposure is a bit of trial and error, but again, much easier to do than before. It is possible to raise the ISO to the maximum, just to fire off a few shots and verify exposure time and composition. Then, once satisfied, just lower the ISO and adjust the exposure times accordingly. You can do the very simple math in your head, or get some sort of app to help you out. In the end, you will be reaching multi-minute exposure times quickly, so why not take some time, relax, let the gear work its magic, and enjoy the surroundings?

As enjoyable as the photos is the experience of being out there in the middle of the night, in a secluded place, admiring mother Nature. Try it out some day, summer is great for this type of photography in the Northern hemisphere at least, with warmer nights. It is a literally eye-opening experience, as the camera “sees” in the dark much better than your eyes.

Empty beaches
Empty beaches (719 seconds)
Night colours
Night colours (359 seconds)
Not during daytime
Not during daytime (119 seconds)

Climbing Pico mountain, Azores

This year I had a special birthday (the 50th), atop Portugal’s highest point, the mountain of Pico, in the Azores island of the same name. At 2351m above sea-level, the volcano rises majestically from the ocean, being the third highest in the Atlantic to rise from the ocean bottom. The idea to go up the mountain was my wife’s, and I am grateful to her for such an incredible experience.

We planned everything in due time, since July is a busy month in the Azores. We wanted the event to be a family one, so my son and daughter also went with us. After some research, we decided to book with Tripix, a recently established adventure company. Everything went smoothly, the guide was very good and knowledgeable. The company is also ecologically sound, as it provides wooden poles, not metal tipped ones; the latter end up eroding the lava rocks, which is bad, especially with the increasing number of trekkers. We went up on the afternoon of the 19th, camped inside the crater, and came down the following morning.

The climb is not a technically difficult one, but it still requires relatively good physical shape, due to steep inclines, and some loose ground near the top. Our group consisted of 8 people, plus the guide. The Pico volcano is integrated in a natural reserve, and provides amazing views over the central group of islands of the Azores archipelago, like Faial and São Jorge. It took us about 5 hours to climb up from the starting point at 1200m altitude, and about 3 hours to come down the following day.

Of course I wanted to do some photography, and it is always a challenge to decide what to take on the backpack; especially when also carrying a tent, sleeping bag, food, and some extra clothing for the colder night. In the end, I decided to carry my two Sony A7 cameras, one with the Zeiss Batis 25mm lens, and the other with the Sony 55 lens. Plus, a small but robust Manfrotto table top tripod for long exposures at night. This light kit fitted nicely inside a small 22 litre backpack.

It just happened that the night of the 19th was a full moon, which was a good opportunity to photograph under special conditions at night; also, the weather was clear during the sunset and the sunrise, so I managed to get some interesting shots of the moonset and the shadow of the volcano. We stopped a few times going up, which allowed for some picture taking time of the great views. In the morning of the 20th, we woke up at 4am to climb the Piquinho, the small volcanic cone created by the last eruption in the year 1718. From there, we watched the blue hour developing, and after that the sunrise. The volcano is still active, with some fumaroles smoking through the vents.

In the end, this was a memorable experience, that my family enjoyed very much. And I came away with some unique photos for my portfolio too. The Sony kit performed really well, never missing a beat.

Piquinho under full moon
Piquinho under full moon
Sunrise
Sunrise over Pico and Faial islands
From the top, looking over Faial island
From the top, looking over the crater and Faial island
Moonset over Pico shadow
Moonset over Pico shadow
Pico volcano panorama
Pico volcano panorama at sunrise

 

Some black and white images from Oman

This post is more or less a continuation of the last one, in the sense that the photos were taken during the same trip to Muscat, Oman. However, this time I want to describe how I came about making these images, and how they ended up like this, in black and white.

The first two photos were taken just outside my hotel, in a seaside walk that is flanked by some trees. On a late night walk, I noticed that some trees were in bloom (the frangipanis), and I imagined that they would make some interesting subjects at dawn. So I planned accordingly, and the next morning I woke up early and went out shooting. As a bonus, the sky was stormy and the light soft, providing and interesting background. I immediately thought that I had good material for black and white images. I ended up with a composition showing the whole tree, and another one showing branches “reaching” into the sky, and into each other. Some quick adjustments in Silver Effex, and all was done.

For the next pair, the story was different. These were taken in Wadi Bani Kharus, during a geological field trip in the mountains. I was excited to be back in an area that I know very well, having lived in Oman for 7 years. In terms of landscape, the Oman Mountains provide some of the most picturesque and rough scenery, almost primeval in character. It was late afternoon when we parked our vehicles near a small village. The houses hugging the mountainside, and the ridges against the sky, made for a very typical shot. On the way out, we caught the last rays of sunshine filtering through the haze, and silhouetting the ridges; to somehow enhance the primeval feel of the instant, I opted for an antique plate effect for the black and white conversion.

Looking at the images, they remind me of what it felt like taking that morning stroll, or being inside the mountain range.

The tree
The tree

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Village
Village
Ridges
Ridges

 

The ZEISS FE 35mm f2.8 lens in Muscat, Oman

Traveller photographers are always searching for the best/lightest/smallest camera and lens combination, without compromising on performance and image quality. In this regard, the introduction of so-called mirroless systems has brought many valid options. From very early on, the Sony Alpha 7 system has offered such a combination, with the possibility of matching the small cameras with small high performing lenses such as the FE 35 f2.8 and FE 55 f1.8.

In this article, I would like to share my experience of using the FE 35 f2.8 lens in a recent business trip I took to Muscat, Oman. This is really diminutive lens, and it comes with the famous ZEISS logo on its barrel; it also comes with the concomitant price, which is arguably higher than normal for (slow) f2.8 prime lenses. This relative high cost was what initially put me off the lens. But after reading some reviews and testimonials of other photographers, I finally managed to borrow one copy and use it myself. From what I was reading, this little lens was a high performer indeed.

So I ended up in one of my favourite places in Muscat, the Mutrah Corniche and Souk. This is a lively place, with all the merchant stalls, smell of incense burning, spices, textiles, and all other sorts of articles. It is also a place where light levels are somewhat low, and where there are also some high contrast scenes of light and dark areas. Now, I do like the Loxia 35, but sometimes I need auto-focus for quick-shooting, or shooting from the hip.

The little FE 35 f2.8 lens performed without a fault, both mechanically and optically. I was mostly shooting between f4 and f8, with auto-ISO taking care of the rest. There is some light fall off wide open, but this can be easily taken care of during Raw developing. The lens is very sharp, and maintains excellent performance levels into the corners and edges of the frame.

So what is not to like? Well, photographers always prefer faster apertures; as I wrote above, f2.8 in a prime lens is perceived as “slow”. Thus, enter f1.4 and f2 lenses; Sony has a 35 f1.4 lens (also with ZEISS logo), which is top quality, but much bigger and even more expensive. ZEISS has the aforementioned Loxia 35 f2, but this one is manual focus and more expensive too. I think there might be a slot for an auto-focus 35 f2 lens?

In the end, the little FE 35 f2.8 lens is a great option for an A7 camera, it makes perfect sense as a reportage/travel lens. Combined with the excellent high ISO performance of the sensor, f2.8 is not really that limiting. Of course, there are situations where we may need to combine high ISO, f1,4 or f2, to get the shot. For those situations, there is the FE 35 f1.4 lens. For the rest, the FE 35 f2.8 is surely more than enough, and one hardly notices it is mounted on the camera.

Relaxing
Relaxing
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Working
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Colours
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In the souk
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The shop
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Choices
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The bag
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Smell the incense
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House and fort
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Going down
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Going up
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Fishing
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Waiting
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Souvenirs
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Red power
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Underneath
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Repairs
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The smile

 

ZEISS Batis 25 and 85 lenses – some landscapes from SW Portugal

For this first post of 2016, I want to share some photos taken in one of my favourite places, the Brejo Largo beach, in Portugal’s southwest Vicentina Coast. One can reach it by walking (my favourite way) or via 4WD through off-road tracks. I have photographed in this beach for about 20 years, and it never disappoints me: the beach profile is always changing, due to the action of wind and sea, and the light is different through the seasons.

Winter light, on cold and stormy days, is particularly attractive, with the low sun providing long shadows and some warmth. Couple this with low tide near sunset, and the result is wonderful. This is what happened during this visit, where I have used my ZEISS Batis 25 and Batis 85 lenses, to shoot some seascapes. This focal length duo has long been a favourite of mine, with the 25mm providing wide vistas, and the 85mm allowing for some tighter compositions.

In my opinion, ZEISS has some real winners in these lenses, they are really good and a joy to use in the field. Performance with smoothness, I would say. I also continue to experiment with the Big Stopper filter from Lee Filters, which allows the use of several minutes’ exposures, rendering the sea and sky in special ways. One has to try several times, in order to achieve the intended result, as the result changes constantly, with the sea and clouds always moving.

I wish all a Happy 2016.

Brejo Largo beach - general view
Brejo Largo beach – general view
Moving elements
Moving elements
Winter warmth
Winter warmth
On the dunes
On the dunes
Low tide reflection
Low tide reflection
Twilight
Twilight

ZEISS Loxia 35mm f2 lens – walking around Lisbon

The Loxia line of lenses for the Sony Alpha ILCE camera system consists (so far) of two, the 35mm f2 and the 50mm f2. These lenses are manual focus, but provide electronic comunication with the cameras. Thus, manual focus aids like peaking and automatic viewfinder magnification are provided, should one desires to enable them.

I have always liked shooting with a 35mm lens, so trying out the Loxia, when it became available in Portugal, was a natural thing to do. The lens is robustely built of metal, with a typical Zeiss buttery smooth focus ring, plus the traditional aperture ring. This is a lens that combines purist tradition with modern day electronics. The design is probably borrowed from the ZM lens line, where 35mm and 50mm have always been rangefinder afficionados favourites.

With this in mind, I set off shooting for a day in the streets of Lisbon, with the lens on my Alpha 7II camera. The Loxia 35 f2 is a pleasure to shoot with, thanks to the simple operation and the manual focus aids provided by the camera. The lens performs as I was expecting, in a traditional way. It is not bitingly sharp from corner to corner wide open (for that, there is the Batis 25), but stopping down to normal street shooting apertures (say between f4 and f8), it provides plenty of sharpness, plus the typical Zeiss colour and microcontrast.

I shot various types of subjects – people on the street, buildings, details, even close-ups. The light varied from soft cloud cover to direct sun light, but the image files (RAW) came out very well, with more than enough latitude for my usual processing.

In summary, I can highly recommend this lens if you want a fast 35mm to shoot in a classical way. Below are some images from this day.

Sunrise
Sunrise
On reflection
On reflection
Old Alfama Quarter
Old Alfama Quarter
The Old Sé Church
The Old Sé Church
Shop
Shop
Old Alfama Quarter
Old Alfama Quarter
Inside the Sé Church
Inside the Sé Church
Tram
Tram
Praca do Comercio
Praca do Comercio
Old Lisbon
Old Lisbon
Autumn Colours
Autumn Colours
Crinkled
Crinkled
Street Art?
Street Art?
The Rossio Train Station
The Rossio Train Station
Selfie...
Selfie…
Selling Roasted Chestnuts
Selling Roasted Chestnuts
By the river
By the river
Abandoned
Abandoned
Lines #1
Lines #1
Lines #2
Lines #2
Old Cafe
Old Cafe

Some images from the ZEISS Batis 85 f1.8 lens

After the (excellent) Zeiss Batis 25 lens, I also managed to grab one Batis 85, thus completing my lens set. My plan is to use the Batis 25 mostly for landscapes, and the 85 for portraits. However, this first set of images from the 85 comes from spending some time on the streets of Lisbon with it. Granted, an 85mm lens is not the first thing it comes to my mind when going out on the street, but I was surprised how versatile the lens turned out to be.

In one afternoon, I shot some street portraits (of course), but I also used the lens to shoot some details inside a church, some street scenes, and some city views. The lens performed very well, responding quickly to find the focus on moving people, and not missing focus in poorly lit venues. The detail and rendering I am seeing in the files is pure Zeiss, with plenty of detail, microcontrast, and colour fidelity.

Below, are some images that came out of this first session. These were shot on the A7II, using aperture priority, which is my default shooting mode.

ET
ET
On the bench
On the bench
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Waiting
Waiting
Street car art
Street car art
Who's calling?
Who’s calling?
Lady
Lady
In support
In support
From up here
From up here
Square
Square
Castle
Castle
Choice
Choice
Smoke
Smoke

Late autumn afternoon with the ZEISS Batis 25 lens

Finally, I managed to get hold of the elusive Zeiss Batis 25 f2 lens. The waiting was long, but was it worth it? After using it in the field for the first time, and after processing the images, the answer is a solid yes. Zeiss have a winner in this lens, as already reported by many photographers, but it is always nice to be able to confirm it personally. Since I started using the Sony Alpha 7 system, I have tested a few options for a wide angle landscape lens; these included an old (but excellent) Nikkor AIS 24 f2.8 lens, as well as a (more recent) Nikon 20 f1.8 G lens. Both are very good choices, but the Zeiss delivers much more, in terms of colours, contrast, edge and corner performance. Plus, the whole haptics of using the lens in the field is very different: non-fuss and smooth operation.

So I went to my local testing grounds, Carcavelos beach, near my home. The late afternoon was nice, with interesting clouds and sky, plus a lot of surfers. I shot some long exposures, which I always like to do, plus some more mundane scenes.

For the future, the Batis 85 is alluring, and I hope that Zeiss keeps introducing more of these high quality lenses for the Alpha system.

Sand, sea, and sky
Sand, sea, and sky
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Boards
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Into the water
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The horizon
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Ghost surfer
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Sky show
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Blue
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Late stroll