Night sky photography in the countryside

Summer is an excellent time to be out in the field photographing the night sky. At a dark site location during the new Moon, and with clear skies, conditions are good to make some interesting photos such as star trails and the Milky Way. It is better to choose a place as far from light pollution as possible, so you have a clear and detailed view of the stars. In the region of Odemira, I like to go to the rural interior, far away from the coastal villages. I like to go to an area between Odemira and Sabóia that I know from past experience to be quite dark. There is a small hill with a ruined farmhouse that faces south, so it provides an interesting foreground for a star trail. Below is a photo that I made a few months ago.

Farmhouse on the hill.

According to light pollution maps, this location has a classification of 3 on the Bortle scale (rural sky), which means that there is some light pollution in the horizon and the Milky Way’s complex structure is visible. Below you can see the map with the classification.

Map with Bortle classification.

I arrived at the location with enough time to set up my tripod and camera, selecting a composition featuring the farmhouse in the foreground. My 14mm wide-angle lens is only f/2.8, which is not ideal for night sky photography. Still, with some careful workflow, the results can be good. My camera has an intervalometer, so it is easy to set it up for shooting a series of consecutive frames to be assembled later in Sequator, the software that I use for building the star trails and stacks. I normally shoot Raw, f/2.8, 30 seconds, and ISO 1600. This works fine with Fuji X cameras.

For star trails, it is important to turn off the long exposure noise reduction, as that would take an extra 30 seconds dark frame after each shot, doubling exposure time and introducing gaps in the trail. Then, you just select how many frames you need to achieve the total exposure time you want your trail to have. I normally aim for about 1 hour total time, as that provides a nice circular trail around Polaris.

Star trail.

After finishing the star trail shooting, I also took some photos of the Milky Way, to stack later in Sequator using the “align stars” option. Usually I take between 6 and 10 photos for each stack. If there is some “land” in the frame, ground features will be blurry as result of the Earth’s movement.

Milky Way: stack of several photos.
Milky Way: stack of several photos.

For comparison, the following photos are single exposures of the Milky Way over the surrounding countryside. These do not have the blurriness of the land features (such as trees), but have less light gathered, compared to the stacked ones. I like the results from both options.

Milky Way – single photo.
Milky Way – single photo.

I always enjoy photographing the night sky, and look forward for the next opportunity to do so.

Afternoon at the beach

This week Portugal is going through record high temperatures, with many regions enduring values well above 40 degrees. The preamble to this period started last week, when I happened to be in the Alentejo coast, in the southwest part of the country. I had some free time in one afternoon, so I decided to visit one of my favourite beaches, Brejo Largo, a few km north of Almograve. I packed some food and water, grabbed my tripod, camera, and lens, and took off. The sky was clear and there was a light warm breeze.

After a 45 minute walk, I arrived at the beach. There were only a few other people, as it is July. Come August, the place will be a bit more crowded, but still fine. You can only reach this beach on foot, or driving through a rough track, which explains its relative isolation. I wanted to make some photos at sunset, so while waiting I simply rested on the sand and went for frequent swims. It is wonderful to combine beach and photography in the summer.

My first photos were of a cliff section that displays strong yellow, orange, and red rusty colours. These are the result of the iron rich water percolating through the rocks, in places where it infiltrates the surface. In places where there is some water trickling down the cliff, it is possible to find some plant life. For these photos I used a polarizing filter to cut down the reflection from the wet rock surfaces.

A trickle of water.
Rusty.
Colours and textures.
Cliffs.

During the next hour or so I made some photos of the deserted beach at low tide. The sense of isolation was complete, with the peacefulness of the place emanating from the quiet waves that covered the sand.

Paradise.
Soft water.
Receding.

As the sun was setting, I made my way to the top of the cliff. There I noticed a large amount of white flowers in bloom, which was a surprise. When I had arrived a few hours earlier, they were not blooming; given that rain has been scarce for months, they must survive merely on the humidity that occurs during evenings and nights. Before arriving at home in Longueira, I made a final image of the village at dusk.

Dune flowers.
Back in Longueira by dusk.

Two different mornings

Last week I spent a few days in the small village of Longueira, in the Alentejo coast of southwest Portugal. In the summer, the occurrence of fog during the morning is common, and it makes for some interesting photo opportunities. Such is he case of this abandoned rural house, that is in ruins. After returning from an early morning run, I grabbed my tripod, camera and lens, and went out to make some photos. The house lies in the middle of a hay field, and in clear days it is possible to see the ocean a few km away. The fog imparts a different feel to the landscape.

Old house in fog.
Low visibility.
Field in fog.

The following morning the sky was clear, and I went back to this location to make a few more photos. It is interesting to notice how a change in the weather can transform a scene.

Old house and clear sky.

A bit further along the road, there is a lone pine tree that has been standing in the field for a long time. Walking around the subject to photograph it from different view points can be a nice experiment; in this case, photographing the tree from the side shows how the salty wind has prevented the tree from developing a full canopy. A good metaphor on why it is important to analyze a subject from all angles, otherwise you may not see the entire picture.

Tree photographed from the front.
Tree photographed from the side.

Some of the nearby fields have been planted with sweet potatoes, which will be harvested in October. Other parts of the fields are showing the stalks which have remained after the hay has been cut, to be stored in the typical bales.

Sunny sunrise over planted field.
Golden fields.
Hay.
Bales.

Rural landscapes in the Summer

One of my favourite photographic subjects are rural fields with hay bales. At the end of Spring, farmers start to harvest cereals and hay, the latter to store as cattle feed for the following months. This is a centuries old seasonal activity, still important for the economy of several parts of the country. In previous visits to Longueira, I noticed that some fields already had the typical bales. Every year I go to familiar locations to photograph the bales, so avoiding repetition in the resulting photos can be a challenge.

The photos I am showing here were made last week, in a small field near Longueira. The weather had been quite variable, thanks to the presence of Saharan dust brought in by the wind. This made for unique weather and light conditions. For example, for a few days, the Sun was pale and obscured; the presence of high levels of dust in the atmosphere also created rain showers and thunderstorms.

Dusty sunset near Longueira.
Dusty sunrise in Longueira.

The dust gradually cleared out after a couple of days, and I decided to go out one morning to photograph a nearby field. In the Summer, this entails waking up very early, well before 6 am, but at least the location was only a couple of km away. I grabbed my tripod, plus two of my Fuji cameras and lenses. I had my Fujinon 14mm wide angle lens, and the Fujinon 35mm standard lens. Before sunrise, the sky was covered with stormy clouds, but I started to make a few test shots, using the bales as the main foreground subject. I was walking around between the ends of the field, making photos towards the East and the West; it is important to look in all directions, as the light can change rather quickly.

Bales and clouds.

For a brief period, there was a break in the dark sky, and light illuminated the landscape in a golden glow. This period only lasted for a few minutes, so I had to photograph quickly.

A break in the clouds.
A touch of light.
Golden colours.
East…
…and West.

After that, the clouds covered the Sun again, but there was still an opportunity to photograph the filtered rays, an effect that can add a bit of drama to the photos.

Dark and light.
Light from above.
Luminous.

I am happy with the photos I got, thanks to the interesting weather and light, which conveyed a different mood to a familiar and common subject.

White storks in the early morning

About 1 month ago I wrote about the white storks of the Southwest Alentejo Natural Park, describing my first attempt of photographing them this year.

In fact, every year this unique species returns to this coast, reusing previous nesting places. In April, my visit was during the late afternoon and sunset time; now, in May, I have returned before sunrise, hoping to photograph the birds under a different light and with different behaviors. Thus, I arrived before sunrise at Cabo Sardão, just past Almograve and Cavaleiro villages. Parking the car near the lighthouse, I grabbed my gear and walked towards the edge of the cliffs. I had with me the Fujinon 70-300mm zoom lens, mounted on the Fujifilm X-T3 camera, plus a tripod.

From previous visits, I knew that several nests had been occupied, namely in a tall sea stack with several ledges. In fact, there were 3 nests built in 3 different ledges, and they were all occupied with 1 stork per nest. The sun had just risen, and the mates had gone away to fetch food for their partners and little ones. I spent the following hour or so making photos of the different storks; for convenience, I have named them Storks 1 to 3, starting from the highest nest. The weather was nice, sunny with a light breeze, so it was safe to approach the edge of the cliff. Seems like grooming the feathers and taking a small walk are popular activities.

Stork 1 warming under the first rays of morning sunshine.
Stork 1.
Stork 1 grooming the feathers.
Stork 2 taking a morning walk.
Stork 2 grooming the feathers.
General view and setting of Stork’s 1 nest.

As the sun rose on the horizon, it progressively illuminated the 3 nests. After a while, I noticed Stork 3 starting to move, and to my surprise there were 2 chicks under it. I quickly adjusted the camera and lens, and made a few shots. The whole action lasted a few seconds, and pretty soon the bird was lying again over the baby storks, for protection and warmth.

Stork 3 checking its babies.
Stork 3 checking its babies.
Stork 3 protecting its babies.
Stork 1 bill – clattering.
Stork 1 warming under the sun.

It was nice to be able to witness the birds at the beginning of their day. After a while, I walked back to the car, making a couple of stops to photograph some wild flowers along the way.

Small yellow flower.
Pink flower.

Dawn by the river

Sorry, could not resist the reference to a famous Neil Young song… the river in this case being the Mira, in Vila Nova de Milfontes, where it reaches the Atlantic ocean. If you are familiar with this blog, you will know that I have photographed in this region of Portugal’s southwest coast many times before. I never tire of visiting and photographing this well – preserved piece on Nature, and last week I had the chance of spending a few days there. As the days are longer, it is not easy to get up before dawn at 5am to be on location well on time. Even though I am quite familiar with the place, I still like to arrive early and explore a little bit, looking for some new aspect or feature that might produce a different photo.

I planned this outing to coincide with the low tide, which exposes the river bank, and makes access to the water line somewhat easier. I walked down to the small pier, being careful to avoid slipping or burying my feet in the soft and squishy mud. This made for an overall slow photography process, but that was fine, I normally take my time composing. I had with me my trusty Fujinon 14mm wide – angle lens, plus my Fujinon 70 – 300mm zoom. My first shots were examples of the so called “blue hour”, those minutes before sunrise, where the light is still transitioning from night to day.

River Mira blues.

I made several photos using the small fishing boats as points of interest. The low tide had even exposed an old wooden boat rotting in the mud.

In the mud.

The hints of the first morning light were coming over the distant hills, and pretty soon the sky was acquiring warmer tones. There were some clouds in the sky, which were reflected in the quiet water below.

First light.
Morning quiet.
Tranquility reflected.
Floating.

After a while I walked a short distance along the bank, arriving at a small beach, where the low tide had exposed some nice sand ripples. With the low angle of the sunlight, they made a very interesting subject.

Waiting for the tide.
Here comes the sun.
Sand ripples.

As I was walking around, I noticed the kayaking team leaving the nautical club for their morning practice, and I made a few photos of them in the distance. This is where my telephoto zoom (70 – 300mm) was very useful. The zoom was also useful to isolate the reflections of a colorful boat in the river, and to photograph another boat floating in the golden water.

Golden river.
Early morning practice.
Reflection.
Reflection.
Arriving.

After spending the early part of the morning photographing along the river bank, it was time to drive back home for a well deserved breakfast.

Pego das Pias pools

I like to visit the Pego das Pias pools after a period of rain, because then the Torgal creek is flowing with abundant water. I wrote about this place already, so more details can be found here:

This is indeed a magical place, especially during springtime, with the green oaks and ash trees, plus the conspicuous rockroses in bloom. There are a few excellent places to make interesting photos, like the main pools at the end of the walking path, with the large boulder in the middle. For this visit, I had with me the Fujifilm X-T30 and X-Pro3 cameras, the former with the Fujinon 14mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens, and the latter with the Fujinon 35mm f/2 standard lens. These provide plenty of flexibility and can be carried in a small backpack.

The main pools.

From there, it is possible to continue to walk upstream, negotiating around a few rocks along the way. From the top, it is possible to admire the narrow canyon that has been excavated in the quartzitic rock by the Torgal creek.

The canyon.

Continuing upstream, I made several photos of the water running around the rocks, using a density neutral filter to obtain a smoothing effect.

Flowing creek.
After the rain.

Walking even further, one reaches another set of pools, which was illuminated by the late afternoon light. The water level was higher than usual, which was nice.

Upstream pools.

After spending some time exploring the area, I walked back downstream, following the southern bank of the Torgal creek. The light was filtering through the trees, bathing the forest and the water in a golden light.

Along the margin.
In the forest.
Forest light.
Reflections.
Roots.

Closer to the tarmac road, the valley widens a little, and there is a small pasture area, where some sheep were grazing.

Trekking path.
In the valley.

My final stop was to photograph the bridge that spans the Torgal creek valley. It makes an interesting subject for a wide-angle lens. As I was crossing the bridge, I also noticed the sunset light on the forest below, which was being filtered through the trees.

The bridge.
Filtered light.

Pego das Pias is one of those beautiful hidden places, quite close to Odemira, but still a well kept secret.

A storm is coming

After a very dry winter, finally we are having some rain in Portugal in April. Still not enough to mitigate the drought, but rain nevertheless. During one of my recent walks in the Alentejo coast, between Cabo Sardão and Zambujeira-do-Mar, I ended up photographing some seascapes during the sunset. The afternoon had been very windy, with heavy clouds accumulating in the distance. As the day was ending, the light kept changing very quickly, and the first showers could be seen in the distance.

I mounted my camera on the tripod, and made several photos using the lenses I had with me: the older and trusty Fujinon 14mm wide-angle and the more recent Fujinon 70-300mm zoom. The former was used to frame the coastal cliffs against the sea and dramatic sky, whereas the latter was used to photograph the distant ominous clouds near the horizon.

Natural elements.
Ominous sky.
Into the sea and sky.

The clouds were covering the sun, but as sunset approached, a thin sliver of clear sky appeared, illuminated by warm colors. This made a very nice contrast with the darker bands of sea and sky that were framing it.

Approaching storm.
Blue and orange.
Light from above.

Watching this show was a wonderful experience, and I was glad I had decided to visit the area; bad weather often makes for good light and interesting photos. My final frame was of the Cabo Sardão lighthouse as its light was turned on.

Lighthouse.

The white storks are back to the Southwest

The southwest coast of Portugal is home to a unique species of storks, which are one of the icons of the region. I first wrote about them almost two years ago, in a small essay that can be found in the link below.

The arrival of Spring brings with it the return of these birds to their nests set atop the numerous sea stacks along the coastal cliffs. One of the best areas to observe this species is the stretch of littoral between the villages of Cavaleiro and Zambujeira-do-Mar. I walked this trail a couple of weeks ago, and was able to photograph the white storks in their nests. I used the Fujifilm X-T3 camera and Fujinon 70-300mm zoom.

Two years ago the maximum focal length I had was 200mm, which was a bit limited. So, this time I wanted a little more reach, and the 70-300mm zoom (which was released in the interim) proved to be quite adequate. Of course, the Fujifilm 100-400mm zoom would have been even better, at the cost of extra weight and bulk, not to mention expense. I found the 70-300mm lens to be easy to handhold, and the image stabilization was also very useful. I was in the field for a few hours in the late afternoon, shooting until sunset in various places.

The wind was very strong, which required extra care when approaching the edge of the cliffs. The strong wind also demanded that, when using 300mm, I often had to lie on the ground to improve stability and avoid camera shake, which was a higher risk when the lens barrel was fully extended.

I also made several seascape photos of the area, which is beautiful in itself. In the set below, there are several frames taken with the Fujifilm 14mm f/2.8 lens, a high quality wide – angle lens that I have owned for several years. The geology along the cliffs makes for spectacular shapes and rock textures.

Folded rocks and small bay.
Coastal view.
White storks’ nests.
Tectonic forces.
Delicate bouquet.
White stork.
Rock textures.
Scenic view of coastal region.
White stork in its nest.
Coastal scenery.
Upstairs, downstairs.
White stork.
Coastal cliffs at sunset.
Curved shapes.
Hanging block.
Sea stacks.
Sea stacks.
Sea, rocks, and mountains.
Cove.
Coastal nests.
Earth, sea, and sky.

Route 15 – another walk in the Rota Vicentina near Odeceixe

This walk starts in the village of Odeceixe, which is located in the southwest coast of Portugal, in the limit between the provinces of Alentejo and Algarve. It is a companion walk to route 14, which I have described before (see link below). That one was a circular trail that crossed the coastal plateau, reaching the coast and returning to the village along the river Seixe.

Route number 15 also starts in Odeceixe, but heads to the interior, along hilly terrain, approaching the slopes of the Algarve mountains. This is where the source of the river Seixe is located; in fact, a good part of the trail follows the river valley, as indicated in the map below. The total distance is around 16 km.

Location map for route 15 of the Rota Vicentina.

Leaving Odeceixe behind, the trail heads to the South, crossing cultivated land and a few farms. In the beginning of March, there are some fields of flowers announcing the coming Spring.

Yellow.

It is an easy walk along the flat plateau, with some pine tree forests along the way. After a few kilometers, the trail starts to descend towards the river Seixe, which makes its way along a narrow valley. This is a wonderful part of the trail, walking close to the running water, and amidst small forests of ash and elm trees. Here and there, frogs jump into the pools.

Along the river.
Roots.
Small frog.

The rest of the walk continues to follow the course of the river, sometimes with a short diversion to the top of the nearby hills. The importance of this small river is clear, especially in the surrounding flat terrain, which is cultivated with seasonal crops and fruit orchards. The water also permits the existence of pasture for grazing animals.

Landscape along the Seixe valley.
Looking down into the valley.
Green maze.
Flowing.
Quiet.
Grazing in the valley.

Approaching Odeceixe, the valley becomes wider, and there are more farms along the way. The land is covered in places by yellow rapeseed flowers, and I spend some time making a few photos. During this walk, I only carried the Fujifilm X-Pro3 camera and my trusty 35mm f/1.4 lens, a combination that is flexible enough to cover the different subjects I encountered along the way.

Yellow and green.
Black pigs and farmer.
Landscape near Odeceixe.

Soon I am back at the starting point, and I rest for a while in a café, where it is possible to taste the local delicacies, which are made with fig, almond, honey and pumpkin. As I mentioned in the beginning, this trail route is an excellent complement to the other path that goes to the coast. Together, they provide a wonderful experience of the region around Odeceixe, which is one of the icons of the Costa Vicentina.