2020 – a year in images

As I remember 2020, it is impossible to avoid Covid – 19. One year ago, I was busy planning a family trip to the north of Portugal, specifically to the village of Vila Nova de Foz Côa, where my grandparents (on my father side) lived the better part of their lives. I had not been there for 20 years, and I wanted to go back; I have fond memories of childhood vacations spent there. In those times, just to get there it would take almost one day.

It was a wonderful trip, as we visited the region for 4 days, including guided visits to the Paleolithic Rock Art World Heritage sites; admiring the vistas along the rivers Côa and Douro, where decades of landscaping have resulted in another type of heritage, in the form of terraced vineyards. Standing on the top of a cliff, it is possible to admire the views of the river valleys, with the hills covered in vineyards, olive trees, and almond trees. In late February, the almond trees are in bloom, adding a feel of magic to the landscape.

Dawn over the river Côa.
Almond blossoms.
Paleolithic rock art, Penascosa site.

Then in early March the first cases of Covid were detected in Portugal, and the rest is history, as they say. During the first lockdown period between March and May, I managed to photograph near my place, in Carcavelos, where we have a nice beach. It was good to still be able to go out during sunrise and do some photography.

Pool reflection, Carcavelos at sunrise.

Even with all the strange conditions, there was a sense of (some) normalcy during late Spring and Summer. Not much time for travel or vacations, of course, but I can always find a little time for photography in southwest Portugal. It was interesting, after many weeks of restrictions, to be able to return to this area I know so well. I went back to some of my favorite places, like Almograve, Vila Nova de Milfontes, Odemira and Cabo Sardão, and came away with a refreshed spirit.

Geologic record, near Cabo Sardao lighthouse.
Milfontes moon set.

In early October, the second (and then) third waves of the Covid pandemic were still far away, so it was possible to walk some trails of the Vicentina route in the Odemira municipality. These are always great opportunities to get in contact with Nature and traditional economic activities in the interior of the region.

Green and blue.
Along the road.

Whenever it was possible, I would “escape” to my house in Longueira for the weekend, accommodating a little bit of time for photography.

Autumn sunset in Milfontes.
Cliffs at sunset.
Dawn in Almograve.

The year finished more or less like it had started, with a short visit to a cultural heritage site, this time in the land of the Templars in central Portugal – Tomar and Dornes.

Dornes.

Given the very difficult year that 2020 was, and the challenges it brought, I am glad for all the photos I was able to make, and I can only hope that things will improve for everybody.

Stay safe and healthy.

Signs of hope.

First photos in 2021

As we enter the new year, it is clear that the Covid – 19 crisis is here to stay. Christmas and the New Year have come and gone, and I spent some days off of work at home, with the family. After that I decided to go to Longueira on the second weekend of January. I have a small house in that nice little village on the southwest Alentejo coast; it has been a sort of refuge on these dire times.

As always, I had my photo backpack ready, plus plans to visit nearby beaches and also walk an interior trail. It happened that on a very cold afternoon I went to one of my favourite local beaches, Brejo Largo. Looking at my records, last time I went there was at the end of 2019, more than one year ago.

So it felt appropriate to return and make some photos around sunset time. As I mentioned above, the weather was very cold for Portugal (still is today), with cloudy skies and a stiff northerly wind.

The small village of Longueira.

Even though it is possible to reach the beach using a four – wheel drive, I prefer to walk the 4 km between Longueira and Brejo Largo. It is a wonderful walk, crossing firstly cultivated and pasture fields, and secondly the coastal sand dunes covered with twisted pine trees and shrubs. Approaching the coast, one hears the sea before seeing it, as the the sound of the surf gets carried by the wind. After reaching the cliffs, there are two ways to go down, via rough steps excavated on the soft argillaceous rock: one set of steps on the northern end of the beach, and another one more or less in the middle. I chose to descend using the former, because it is also a nice viewpoint to start making some photos.

Arriving at Brejo Largo beach.

For this short photo session, I decided to keep things simple, using only one 23mm lens for my Fujifilm camera, complemented by the tripod and Lee Big Stopper filter. I am a big fan of long exposures, especially with such nice waves and clouds. As a bonus, the tide was low, so there were plenty of available rocks to use as interesting foreground subjects. The low tide exposes some interesting geologic features, such as long volcanic dykes that run parallel to the coast. Their lighter colour makes an interesting contrast with the predominant black schist.

Volcanic dyke.
Another volcanic intrusion.

I simply walked along the beach photographing the rocks, pools, and the beautiful scenery.

Rocks, sea and sky.
Intertidal.
Winter time on the beach.
Tidal pools.

When sunset arrived, the colours were incredible, with red and orange streaks permeating the clouds. This light only lasts for a few minutes, so I was very busy just shooting. The beach has a very flat and nearly horizontal profile, which results in good reflections from the sunset colours on the thin film of water. I walked back home after dark and bracing against the cold, but it was well worth it.

Near sunset time, colours become more alive.
Low tide reflections.
Fiery colours.
Peak colour time.
Beach at sunset.
Nature’s display.
Colours start to fade.
Almost night time.

Along the coast near Cabo Sardão, southwest Portugal

In the first week of December we had a few bank holidays in Portugal, so I drove south to spend some days in Longueira, on the Alentejo coast. During the weekend, depression Dora hit the country, with heavy rain and strong winds. Even under such conditions, there is always the chance to go out and take some photos. That is what I did during a Saturday afternoon, near the Cabo Sardão area.

From my house it is only a short drive to the lighthouse of Cabo Sardão. The weather was changing quickly, with heavy showers alternating with sun spells. I know the area quite well, so I decided I would walk along the coastal trail for a round trip of about 8 km, or a couple of hours. I simply grabbed the Fujifilm X100V and the tripod, plus a raincoat of course.

The coastal trail that passes through Cabo Sardão is part of the Rota Vicentina. From this point, it is about 20 km until the next village to the south, Zambujeira do Mar. The coastal region here is characterized by short vegetation and rocky Palaeozoic cliffs with many tectonic folds. A true natural haven, part of a protected area. Now and then the clouds would break, and a golden light would illuminate the cliffs and the sea. It was simply a question of sitting down and enjoying the quiet surroundings, with the land being buffeted by strong winds and crashing waves.

Rainbow panorama assembled from 3 photos.
During a break in storm Dora.
Cliffs at sunset. This light lasted for a few seconds only.
Saddle and arch.

It was a wonderful walk, graced with great but elusive light.

Pure light.

Some black and white photos

Black and white photography is as old as photography itself. With the advent of digital photography, it is increasingly easy to produce black and white images using various types of software. In my opinion what makes a good black and white photograph still has to do with light and subject. Sometimes colour can be a distraction, so by eliminating it, we can focus the attention on textural details, shapes, moods, and feelings.

On one of my recent trails in the Rota Vicentina of southwest Portugal, I made a series of photos of the rural landscape. You can read about it here:

The weather was very nice, with plenty of sunshine and white clouds. Some of the cork oak trees are very old in this region, and they make for interesting shapes against the sky and surrounding landscape. Some of the houses were also interesting, with the typical strong blue and white colours of the Alentejo province. In several photos, I used a polarizer to enhance the richness of the colours even more.

Even though I was quite happy with the colour photos I made on that trip, I thought that some of them might also work in black and white. So, when working on the Raw files, I tried several types of conversions. There are many ways to convert from colour to black and white, but I wanted to keep things simple. In this case, I used the Fujifilm presets inside Lightroom, deciding on either the Acros or Monochrome presets, with a touch of red filter to darken the sky and enhance contrast.

Following are some photographs that I converted and am happy with. Next time you are out photographing, keep an eye for interesting subjects that might be suitable for good black and white images.

Skeleton.
On the road.
Primary school, Monte da Estrada village.
Earth and sky.
Door and cloud.

Sunset walk with the Fujifilm X100V

I recently wrote about the latest iteration of the X100 series of cameras in the article below.

I have been using the camera whenever the opportunity arises, in short walks, or even on long trails. One of these recent short walks in the beach near my house, Carcavelos. Since June I have been working under a mixed regime, one week in the office, one week at home. Thanks SARS-COV-2… anyway, one of these afternoons, after work, I went for a sunset stroll on the beach. The little Fuji X100V is a perfect companion for such occasions, so I took it along.

The weather forecast included some rain showers and clouds, courtesy of storm Alex, so things were looking promising in terms of potential photographic interest. Looking through the window, there were indeed some clouds, but also occasional sunshine. Upon arriving at the beach, the weather was great, with golden light that with time turned to the typical post-sunset blue hour. I simply walked along the surf, making some photos here and there.

Golden beach.
The loner.
Sand, sea, and sky.

There were several surf schools operating at the time, and they always signal their position with flags. One of the attractions of the X100V is the fast f/2.0 lens, so I tried a close shot of one flag with the lens wide open, so the background would melt away. It’s nice to have these options in a small camera. This camera is small but quite responsive, so this type of unplanned photography on the go is easy to do. The fact that the X100V looks like some old film camera also helps in being unobstrusive when among people.

Surf school.

I stayed in the beach until after sunset, as the sky started to show magnificent colours. I did not have a tripod with me, so I had to raise the ISO more than I am used to, but even so, the quality of the RAW files was quite good. At the end of the day, it was an enjoyable and relaxing walk, and I was able to make some interesting photos with this nice Fujifilm camera.

Gone for the day.
Trio.

Next time I will write about my experience with it when hiking on a trail along the Vicentina route in southwest Portugal.

Between Moons in the southwest

Every landscape photographer knows that one of the best times to include the Moon in landscape photos is one day before the full Moon. On that day, the Moon rises around the same time as the Sun sets; this results in a nice light balance during golden to blue hour transition, because as our satellite rises, the landscape is still illuminated by the fading light of the sunset. As a bonus, the following morning the Moon will set around sunrise time, again providing an excellent opportunity for a good light balance. On the day of the actual full Moon, it rises after sunset, which means the landscape will be darker.

During my recent vacation time in the southwest coast of Alentejo, Portugal, I had the opportunity to photograph during the full Moon, so I made plans to choose a nice setting for such. Being familiar with the area, I chose to photograph the Moon rise in Odemira, and the Moon set in Milfontes. In Odemira I set up near the local windmill, which in itself is an interesting subject. By being located in an elevated area, I would see the Moon rising over the surrounding hills. Then, in the ensuing morning I would go to Milfontes to photograph the Moon setting over the river Mira estuary. I have already shared some photos taken during such sessions in my previous essay.

All the best plans can be laid to waste if weather does not cooperate. Fortunately, I was lucky, as the weather cooperated. I drove to Odemira about one hour before sunset, to take some photos of this nice village. The winding road twists and turns as it descends towards the Mira valley, with some good view points along the way.

Odemira windmill
Odemira windmill

I spent several minutes photographing the windmill and the village during the sunset. It is a nice spot that affords a 360 degree view, from the village proper to the rising heights towards the South, that culminate in the Monchique mountain at 900m of altitude.

Odemira dusk
Odemira windmill – the wind blows through the cones
Looking South, with the Monchique mountain in the background

Once I saw the Moon rising over the hills in the East, I started photographing it, with the camera firmly mounted on the tripod. I was glad to have a telephoto zoom with me, to provide compositional flexibility from my fixed location. Light levels go down very quickly, so keeping an eye on the exposure histogram is very important. Also relevant is to avoid exposure times that would blur the Moon, which actually moves quickly in the viewfinder!

Moon rise – first peak
Moon rise

During this period, I kept an eye on what was happening behind me, as dusk was coming over the village. I made some interesting photos of the windmill and the day-to-night transition.

Transition
Moon rise

After this good photo session, I called it a day and drove back home for dinner. Next step: wake up before sunrise to photograph the Moon setting in Milfontes. The following morning the coastal area was partially covered in fog. I wanted to photograph from the bridge over the river, as it provides an excellent view of the estuary and the village. Fortunately, the area over the river was not completely covered in fog, and the setting Moon was visible. I set up my camera on the tripod in record time, and started to shoot.

Milfontes Moon set
Milfontes Moon set
Milfontes Moon set

Towards the East, the river was still under the foggy shade of the mountains, enhancing the quietness of the place at this early hour.

Dawn coming
Dawn over the river

After such a good outing, I returned home for a well deserved breakfast. No matter how many times I photograph in this region, I never get tired of it. There is always something new, due to the changing light and the time of the year. Following the Moon in about a 12 hour period was a great way of showing the character of this singular region, from the interior to the coast.

Rural landscapes in the summer, plus comet Neowise

Summer in the southwest Alentejo natural park is usually a very busy season, with a large number of people choosing the area for vacation. The main attraction are the many pristine beaches that exist along the coastline and that allow a well deserved rest in a natural and quiet setting. This bit of coastline is probably one of the last “wild” ones in Europe.

I spent a short vacation in the region last week, and noticed that this year the number of visitors had dropped considerably. No doubt the result of the ongoing pandemic crisis. The impact on the local economy will be significant, as in many parts of the World where tourism is a large part of the local income.

For this trip I had no definite plans concerning particular photographic endeavours. Weather permitting, I was hoping to spot comet Neowise after sunset, and go out to photograph the rural fields dotted with the typical hay bales. One of the things I like best about this area is the sea versus land dicotomy that is always present: only a couple of kilometres inland from the coast, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills and rural farmland. If it weren’t for the sea breeze, one might be well within the interior of the country. A true surf ´turf of geographic and climatic nature.

I had previously spotted a few places with abundant hay bales, but I wanted to find a location where they would be complemented by the native cork oak tree, to add a bit more of interest and context to my photos. I found such a place near the island of Pessegueiro, between Milfontes and Porto Covo. After parking the car, I started to walk around looking for potential frames in my mind. I had about 1 hour before sunset, so I was in no rush to start shooting. I normally take my time before setting up the tripod, just familiarizing myself with the surroundings and the light.

Pessegueiro island. There are Roman archaelogical remains (fishing station), plus a ruined late XVI century fort.
Endless.

The light had a nice golden quality to it, thanks to the approaching sunset; shadows from the bales were long, complemented by some soft wispy clouds. For some photos I used a polarizer filter to enhance the sky and define the clouds a bit more. I kept moving around and trying different angles, to include the farm houses, the trees, the distant hills and some wind turbines.

Bale and cork oak tree.
Farmland.
Paired.

Besides using a wide angle lens for greater depth and context, I also used a telephoto lens to isolate the subjects a bit more. Like in the previous photo, and the following ones.

Leaning.
Power lines.
Rural energy.
Sunset.
Sunset.

What about the comet? I went to a dark area after dinner, at around 10.30 pm. I knew it would be visible to the northwest, just below the Big Dipper. It was actually easy to find with the naked eye, and it was a great experience seeing it with binoculars. I set up the camera on the tripod and took a few shots, testing the shutter speed to avoid star trailing. There was some atmospheric haze (the day had been very hot) that affected the visibility, as the comet is not very high above the horizon. But overall I am happy with the results, and above all I felt privileged for being able to witness such a spectacular visitor.

Neowise.
Neowise.

I was glad I went out for the comet that night, because for the next 2 days the entire coast was covered in fog!

The white storks of the Vicentina coast

As mentioned in my previous article, today I will write about a unique species of white storks in Portugal’s southwest Alentejo and Vicentina coast. Between Vila Nova de Milfontes and Sagres, this beautiful and still wild coastal region hides another interesting “secret”: it is home to only species of white storks in the world that nest in the coastal cliffs.

Since the 1980’s biologists have been studying and monitoring these colonies of birds. Today, there are over 40 occupied nests. One of the best locations to observe them is in the cliffs near Cabo Sardão. From the car park beside the lighthouse building, it is only a short walk to the edge of the cliffs. There is one nest right in front of the lighhouse´s direction, and another one just a bit towards the south.

Scientists have concluded that most of the couples are still migratory, returning at the end of the Winter. Often the nests are very damaged, and the birds spend a lot of time repairing them. They have to do so in preparation for the birthing of the younger ones in the spring and Summer. Observing these unique birds (plus many other species, of course, like the rare coastal eagles) is a great experience, particularly for the beautiful surrounding seascape.

The best times to observe the storks are during the early morning and late afternoon, when there is more activity relatedto finding food and bringing it to the young ones in the nests. I prefer observing them in the late afternoon, close to sunset, when the light has a magical golden quality. The photos below were taken during a couple of recent visits. A tripod and a telephoto zoom are recommended, for some more close-up compositions and more stability of the gear in windy days.

Sheer drop
White stork nest
White stork nest
White stork nest
White stork nest
White stork nest – caring for the young ones
White stork nest – lift off

For sure I will return to observe these unique birds. Like them, it would be great to be able to fly and soar above these seascapes.

Panoramas by the sea

During a recent weekend trip to the southwest Portuguese coast, I had the chance to photograph in the Cabo Sardão area. This is one of my often photographed locations, so it is a challenge to come out with something new, or a different approach. In this occasion, I have planned to tackle two different obiectives. The first one was to photograph the white stork species that lives in the area: this is a unique species of stork, because it nests in the coastal cliffs, and will be the subject for a future essay.

The second objective was to make a few panoramas by shooting a series of photos for later stitching in the computer. There are many sweeping coastal vistas in the area, and sometimes a wide angle lens is not wide enough to encompass the entire scene. For creating panoramas I have been using Panorama Factory, a software that does the job very well.

The first image is a set of 3 photos taken with my Fujinon 16mm f/1.4. The image shows the coast at low tide a short distance away from the Cabo Sardão lighthouse. The hour was close to sunset, so the scene was illuminated with golden light.

Low tide

Next is the classic view of the precipitous cliffs with the lighthouse in the top. This is an assemby of 6 photos, as above taken with the 16mm lens, spanning a large angle of view; larger than what would have been achievable with only a single shot from my wide angle lens.

Cabo Sardão lighthouse

For the third and final image I waited for the full Moon to rise beside the lighthouse. Again, it would have been difficult to get the image with a single shot. This is an assembly of 9 photos taken with the Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom. I like the result because the lighthouse is also lit, as the Sun had just set behind me.

Moon rise

This was an excellent occasion to dust off my panorama abilities, but honestly, these days it is really easy to achieve good results with just a bit of care in the field. For these photos I used a tripod, but this was dictated by the low ISO and concurrent slow shutter speeds. The key concern is to have sufficient overlap between the successive shots, so the software can stitch them correctly.

Post confinement

Under the current health crisis, many governments have implemented states of emergency, where confining people to their houses to break the infection chain was required. In Portugal that state of emergency lasted for 6 weeks, from mid-March to end of April. Thanks to this, we had success in curtailing the spreading of the infection and are since 4th of May slowly reopening some economic activities.

In early March, just before the lockdown was put in place, I managed to make a short trip to my house in the southwest coast, in Longueira. I wrote about it in this article:

After 2 months, and with the lifting of restrictions, I was able to return with my wife to Longueira for a weekend. The local municipality, Odemira, has only 5 reported cases as I write this. This is not strange, because Odemira is the largest municipality in area, and the one with the lowest population density. This is a trait common to the entire province of Alentejo, where social distancing is already the norm, due to the large distances between villages.

It was good to go back and travel a bit in the area; all the restaurants and small cafes are still close (they will reopen 0n May 18th), and there was hardly anyone on the streets.  But at least it was possible to enjoy this “new freedom” while admiring the views in Milfontes, Almograve, and Cabo Sardão, for example. After being at home for 2 months, it was great to be out in one of my favorite places.

Of course, I took my photo backpack with me, ready to go on a photo walk, should the opportunity present itself. That was the case one afternoon, where I spent a few hours near Cabo Sardão. I have photographed this area so many times, it has become a challenge to obtain different photographs. This afternoon, the weather was quite unstable, with many showers and the occasional sunshine spell. I parked the car at the end of a dirt track, near the cliffs, and just admired the view and the feel of the place. I was thankful for my family being healthy and felt blessed for being able to be back here, enjoying the salty wind in my face and the crashing of the waves below. I could not think of a better place to deconfine.

Wind patterns in sand
Over the cliffs
Sea stacks

After some minutes of simply “being there”, I started walking along the coastal trail, paying close attention to potential photographic subjects and elements. We are in the middle of Spring now, so there are many flowers around, some of them quite small, others clinging to the rock fissures, all buffeted by the strong winds. These winds keep shaping the consolidated and rusty colored sand dunes into small canyons and plateaus, where rounded pebbles have found their resting place. The surrounding landscape seems to strike a balance between the erosional forces of the sea, wind and rain, and the resilience of the rock cliffs.

Natural flow
Resilience
Erosion

In my pursuit of finding new angles for familiar subjects, I often ended up lying flat on the ground photographing small flowers, sometimes isolated, other times as foregrounds for the receding cliffs and sea. I have also tried several long exposures, with the idea of conveying this feeling of perpetual change, showing the relationship between the natural elements of water, wind, and rock formations. During the afternoon there were a few showers, but even then, they helped to keep the atmosphere clear and bright. I kept shooting until sunset time, simply enjoying being out in such beautiful surroundings. Hopefully, this health crisis will pass sooner than later, and we will emerge from it stronger and better human beings.

On the edge
Spring in the dunes
Spring in the dunes
Small flower
Small flower
Clinging
Small flower
Tidal flow
Dune flowers
Cabo Sardao lighthouse