I visit Muscat around twice a year, on business, and I always take the opportunity to go back to some of the places that have stayed in my memory from when I lived there. For example, I like to go to Mutrah to walk around in the souk and the Corniche at sunset; or go to the Grand Mosque to try and find some new angle. This is not easy for me, as the free time is not much, and I photographed these places many times before.
So for this trip I planned something different, I would only take one lens, the Zeiss Loxia 21 f2.8, mounted on the Sony A7. I also took a small travel tripod, as exposure times would be long. My idea was to visit the Mutrah souk, place the tripod on a busy lace, and shoot around. This would be a great testing ground for this lens. I shoot a lot of travel and people, but using a 21mm lens only was a first for me. It would also be challenging, as 21mm includes a lot in the frame, so getting good and clean compositions is not easy.
From my previous experiences in Muscat, and in Oman, people are really very friendly and are not camera shy; but how would they react to a foreigner shooting off a tripod in the middle of the souk? Well, I had no problems whatsoever, and even showed the results to a few passers-by. Also, there was a local photographer doing the same thing, but using a much larger tripod and camera/lens combination!
Thus encouraged, I just walked along the familiar narrow alleyways, setting up the tripod on an interesting place, and waiting for someone to go by. I am happy with the results, as the ambiance of the place is perfectly reproduced, and the people are registered in a ghostly fashion, adding mystery to the scene.
As for the visit to the Grand Mosque, it was a short one at the end of the day, and I came away with interesting shots of the large dome’s reflection in the marble floor. At this time of the day, the Mosque is closed to visitors, so I merely wandered around trying to shoot interesting angles. In the end, I was happy to have captured some new points of view, by setting the camera on the ground, or by placing the tripod ill-balanced on the fence. It was a bit of a frantic session, with lots of running around, as the blue hour does not last much.
As for the lens, it performed admirably. I would just use say f5.6 or f8, pre-focus, wait for something to happen, and shoot. Plus, no other lens maker does stars like Zeiss! Great contrast, and beautiful colour reproduction too. A winner of a lens.
The island of São Miguel is the largest of the Azores, with a perimeter of around 230 km. I visited the island recently with my wife, to attend the marriage of a friend of mine. We spent one week in the island, and were fortunate to have great weather, with lots of sunshine. São Miguel is the island of the volcanic lakes; there are four major volcanic centres: Nordeste (now extinct), Furnas, Fogo, and Sete Cidades. All are worth visiting and beautiful in their own ways.
Want to elicit that jaw dropping “amazing” expression? Go to Vista do Rei viewpoint in Sete Cidades; this is where Edgar Pierre Jacobs located the entrance to Atlantis in one of Professor Mortimer’s famous adventures. Want to eat some good and truly earthy food? Go to Furnas and try the “cozido” that cooked for 6 hours in the hot earth. Want to bathe in crystal clear water? Go to Fogo and walk down to the lake for an amazing walk. Or take the trail to the Sanguinho waterfall, starting from the small village of Faial da Terra. You will think that you have travelled back in time to spectacular “Jurassic” forests.
If you feel like going away from the crowds and resting in a secluded volcanic lake, try the Lagoa do Congro. You will truly feel like being in one with Nature.
It is very easy to travel in the island by car, but it can be difficult at times to beat the increasing number of tourists; the Azores have become quite popular recently, with the low cost airlines flying there, plus Red Bull cliff diving and world surfing championship events. Of course the island is very pretty, with many interesting viewpoints, and lots of walking trails that bring you right into Nature.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of photo opportunities in the island: interesting viewpoints, many kilometres of walking trails, friendly people, local produce, and many more. In terms of equipment, I carried my Sony A7 kit, comprising two cameras and two lenses (Loxia 21 and Sony 55). I also carried a small travel tripod and a set of Lee Filters, including a very useful Big Stopper. You really need a wide angle to capture the large vistas, and the Loxia 21 proved to be perfect, delivering great images in a small package. The Sony 55 was perfect for more general photography.
I have been fortunate to visit two of the Azores islands this year, Pico ans São Miguel. This is a beautiful archipelago, and I now want to visit the remaining islands.
Almograve beach, Alentejo coast, around 5.30 am. I woke up early one August morning to photograph this beach at sunrise. After Milfontes (previous posting), this time there was no fog, but the quietness was similar. In a few hours, the beach would be bustling with people, but for now, I had it all for myself. Well, apart from the seagulls and a couple of fishermen trying their luck during the low tide.
In recent years, this beach has seen a significant increase in sand in the intertidal zone, which has covered numerous rocks. This has completely changed its profile, and opens new opportunities for photography. In a way, I wanted to document this new character of a beach that I have known for 40 years.
I started by taking photos of the full Moon setting over the sea, with the bonus of some wispy clouds providing added interest to the scene. I tried several exposure times, in the end I decided to keep the 30 seconds one. I knew I could recover the highlight detail on the Moon, and the resulting cloud movement worked out nicely.
From those initial shots, I went down to explore further, making several compositions featuring the rocks, the vastness of the sand at low tide, and even some star trails. The clouds lit by the early morning sun, with some seagulls flying, also resulted in interesting photos. Indeed, there were no lack of interesting things to photograph.
Once more, it really paid off to wake up early and go out in this session. I came away with some keepers, and experienced this beach in its full potential, when it is deserted. And I arrived home just in time for breakfast with the family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.