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.

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.

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.

Power lines.
Rural energy.

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.


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.