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Antarctica starts here

in Antarctica , Wednesday, August 22, 2012

All being well, in the second part of January 2013, we will be in Antarctica. For my (far) better half, it will be the first time, overcoming the terrors of the Drake Passage to visit the far-off world of penguins and icebergs. For me, it will be a belated return after 2 trips now over 20 years ago. This time, I’ll be a tourist, with nothing to worry about other than getting a few nice holiday snaps. Of course, photography was also a fairly big deal back then, although at least for me it was more a case of muddling along under a degree of peer pressure, rather than any serious intentions. In fact I couldn’t really understand why some of my colleagues at the time aspired to being professional photographers. I suppose we all had our own interests. Naturally there were wildlife enthusiasts, and a good sampling of fanatical outdoor adventure explorer types. My deepest interest, which as far as I recall I kept pretty much to myself,  was actually the history of Antarctic exploration, and the stories of people who’d tried to make a life in the region. Mainly whalers and sealers - not a terribly popular theme in the late 80s / early 90s. So anyway, I was fascinated by any trace of an old hut, of traces of camps on beaches, the stories behind names given to places, and all of this. But since actually I was there to work, all this was of secondary importance, and the ships that carried me were intent on getting me to where I needed to be and offloading me as fast as possible. Sure, there were some incredible sites, but that was more because they’re inescapable, not because they were being sought out. And the unfamiliar, heavy physical labour of helping out with offloading supplies at various bases meant that a lot of good sailing time I spent in my bunk!

However, due to the vagaries of weather, planning and other people’s priorities, I did end up spending nearly 6 weeks in a small hut on a small island in the Antarctic Peninisula, on the other side of the channel where the now-obligatory tourist ship stopover, Port Lockroy, is situated. In those days, Lockroy was deserted, and sadly inaccessible from where we were “stranded”, but climbing up to the ridge I could stare att it in the distance and imagine… One fine day, though, a remarkable event did take place. A tourist ship did actually turn up, which in those days was a very rare event indeed. It was a US-registered vessel, as far as I remember called the “Society Explorer”. I don’t know who was the most surprised - us, or the ship when we called then on VHF radio. Anyway, they a zodiac over, and the three of us - Alan, a meteorologist, Clem, a veteran field assistant /  cook, and myself were invited on board for a barbecue. Is was a surreal experience. I had to sing for my supper though. As the token scientist, I was invited to give a talk on glaciology to the passengers.


Cruise ship talk 2

No, there are no polar bears in Antarctica, and ice is blue because that’s the way God Planned It. Any questions ? Good. Where’s the bar ?

I’m pretty sure the clientele was all in the millionaire bracket in those days. There were very few tourist ships in Antarctica. Most of the passengers seemed to be American retirees, and the ship was complete with a mini shopping mall and full of plush fittings. I could not understand how people could sit inside sipping cocktails when just a few hundred meters away there was Port Lockroy bathed in fantastic evening light. In those days I had no though of wanting to take photos. I just wanted to go there. Anyway, I gave my talk, and we adjourned to the after deck where the three of us - me in particular I suspect - got very, very drunk.  I still remember the aftermath back at the hut. It wasn’t pretty. But I never imagined that one day, I’d be one of those tourists.

I’m in two minds about Antarctic tourism. Obviously, I can’t be against it without being hypocritical, and the increasing levels have bought cruises down to a just about affordable range, although it’s not something most people would be able to do with a decade’s worth of savings. In the past criticism of tourism from, mainly, field scientists, did seem to have at least an element of elitism about, in particular from the British establishment. But it does seem to have gone a bit too far.

Neither of my two trips to the Antarctic were particularly successful scientifically. The first, with the British Antarctic Survey was actually a total disaster. I have to take the ultimate responsibility for this, being the lead scientist in the team, but the deck was stacked against me due to being dependent on a surly and depressed technician who screwed up big time, and being denied any time at all for pre-field testing by a field manager who seemed to think he was running some kind of Thrilling Yarns type of summer camp for Boys. The fact that I didn’t mesh terribly well with the British public schoolboy ethos of the whole thing didn’t help. It was really right at the tail-end of that sort of idiocy, and I wasn’t the only member of the science contingent to be seriously pissed off with it. Unfortunately I was also a little politically naive, which led to some issues later on. I’m still pretty annoyed about the whole experience :-)

My second trip was totally different. I was part of a small, underfunded, slightly insane Norwegian-led independent expedition. In this case the general atmosphere was much better, and the science turned out ok as well, if not Earth-shattering. We had some problems with reliability of electronics, especially freezing LCD screens and dying batteries, but overall our approach and preliminary results gained some plaudits from the international community. Unfortunately not from my boss at the time though, the now Professor Duncan Wingham, head of NERC these days, who wasn’t very convinced of the value of fieldwork, and thought everything could be done by mathematical modeling. Probably still does. Nice enough chap, in his own way, terrifyingly clever, but more than a touch bonkers.

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Fieldwork. It has its uses.

For the third trip, there’s not so much pressure. Just to hope for some good weather, sip some cocktails, and get a few reasonable photos. Oh, and decide what camera to take. And which lenses. And which camera bag. And…. Panic!

 

Posted in category "Antarctica" on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Volcano hopping in the Aeolian Islands

in essay , Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Aeolian Islands form an archipelago of seven volcanic peaks poking above the sea to the north of Sicily and the  Messina Straits. Of those seven, one, Stromboli, is active, and has been in constant (“strombolic”) eruption for  at least 2000 years. Another, Vulcano (the name is a bit of a giveaway), is a smouldering stratovolcano which last blew its top about 100 years ago, and must be thinking about a repeat act in the not too distant future, based on its past record.  Lipari, the largest island, is classified as active by geologists, and has some low key fumarole activity scattered around. The rest are dormant or extinct. Salina, with it’s distinctive twin peaks, is the second largest, and fairly busy by Eolian standards (i.e sleepy). Panarea is a small, discrete high end tourist resort, with the relicts of a massive explosion, Basiluzzo, featuring active undersea vents, a kilometer or so offshore. Filicudi and Aliculdi are car-free, timeless, sleepy dreamlands which you’d love or loathe. All seven are linked by a web of hydrofoils and ferries. If you ever happen to have read Christopher Priest’s novel “The Affirmation”, or his “Dream Archipelago” short stories, this could well be the setting for them.

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Lipari, and Salina’s twin peaks, from the rim of Vulcano’s crater.

The Dream Archipelago

I have always been vaguely aware of the Aeolian Islands. They seemed to be a distant, mythical, far off place which was hard to get to, and about which little was said. I just knew I wanted to go, and finally at the tail end of a two week  vacation in eastern Sicily (also highly recommended, especially Etna), I had my first opportunity. Three days in Lipari, a quick glimpse of Stromboli, an afternoon on Salina and a hint of Vulcano and I was hooked. The next trip  was exclusively to the islands, included cameras, and a first ascent of Stromboli.  The second, earlier this year,  was exclusively photographic, out of season, and featured Vulcano and Stromboli, and some serious near-vertical trekking.

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Alicudi and Filicudi, spied from Lipari.

Vulcano and Stromboli are the obvious attention grabbers, especially Stromboli, so for now I’ll concentrate on these. I’m really at a loss to say which fascinates me the most. Stromboli is more spectacular, more isolated,  more wild and, I guess, more romantic. Ingrid Bergman certainly thought so. Vulcano is more accessible, has fewer  restrictions, is pretty spectacular itself, although you need to seek it out a bit more, and from a photographic  perspective arguably has more potential. I’d hate to have to choose between them.

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The volcano looms over the church of San Vincenzo on Stromboli.

Vulcano

Vulcano’s main feature is the Grand Crater. It is truly impressive, about a km in diameter, with the rim between 400 and 600m above sea level. The north west side is riddled with fumaroles, of varying activity, and wide  deposits of sulfur and other minerals. The crater itself is sprinkled with large lumps of obsidian, which you  really would not want falling on your head.

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Sunrise through sulphuric fumes, Vulcano.

The contrast between the bright yellow sulfur, the deep blue  Mediterranean sea, and the equally blue sky, is full of potential but not so easy to exploit well. Especially when  the pretty yellow patches are associated with enthusiastically poisonous fumes emanating from the fumaroles and  tending to creep up behind you when you least expect them. Please note: if you do visit Vulcano, don’t let the relaxed attitude to public safety put you off. In a nanny state like the UK these would be seriously fenced off. They can be lethal, and stumbling around a steep rocky smoke breathing toxic fumes is not a fun way to spend your time. But then again, with care and attention to your getaway route, you can get extremely close. Of course, then  you’ve got to watch out for boiling water and scalding steam. Hey, it’s a volcano!

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Obsidian and sulphur, Vulcano.

The climb up to the crater is quite straightforward, but don’t carry too much gear, and do carry as much water as  you can carry, and a snack. There’s no bar or gift shop up there!  If you’re taking photographs, honestly you want  to go for the sunrise or sunset slot. Sunrise is better (clearer air) but sunset can be spectacular.  To get to  the path, just follow the road south out of the port, skirting the crater. About 2km from the dock you will see a  path to your left.  Don’t even think about shortcuts, the path is the only safe way, and any shortcut is going to  be much harder.  The path zigzags up the side of the crater. At the first hairpin, a recently installed feature is  a kiosk where you might be asked to pay 2€ for entrance. This is not a con, but an official move to raise funds to  protect the area and improve access. The results can already be seen in a much improved upper section of the  path, which previously could be quite tricky.  However, the kiosk tends not to be manned at 5am ...  Initially the  path is pretty steep. Take your time, plod along. It’s not as bad as it seems and all will be forgiven when you  get your first glimpse of the crater.

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The Grand Crater, Vulcano.

And it will get you prepared for Stromboli! Stromboli is a different kettle of fish. The crater zone is  approximately 1000m above sea level, which is where you’ll be starting from (sea level, give or take 50m).

No pain, no gain

The  climb is steep, unrelenting, frequently exposed to the Mediterranean sun, and as you get higher you’ll be walking  on volcanic sand and ash. It takes between 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the conditions and the group. Because  you’ll have to go in a group. Health & safety regulations introduced some years back in reaction to several  accidents as well as increasing volcanic activity now dictate that you must go with a recognised and licensed  mountain guide, who will always have at least one assistant, and stays in constant communication with the emergency services. Most guides are local, multilingual (at least to some extent), and have extensive knowledge of aspect or the other of the island and volcano, be it geology, vulcanology or botany. Several are qualified scientists. So there is no rip-off here, the guides are well organised and responsible, and the charges are quite  reasonable (around €20). But there is a supply and demand problem. In-season (basically Easter to August), demand  is very high, and groups are large and constrained. In theory each group should spend no more than 30 minutes on  the summit ridge (not including a rest at the lower platform, at about 850m).  This is in part a restriction for  safety reasons, to minimise exposure to toxic gasses (including carbon monoxide), and in part a limitation to  allow the maximum number of visitors per day (and all groups aim to be there or thereabouts at sunset). After  such a climb, it can feel pretty disappointing to have so little time at the summit, so try to go out of season.  Rules are more easily bent, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and 90 minutes on the ridge is not unheard of - by  which time it’s dark anyway.

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Smoking vents, seen from the lower platform, Stromboli

Shooting a volcano

So, photography. Well, really, don’t take too much gear. Really, if you’re exhausted when you reach the top,  you’ll be in no shape to take good photos, especially as you’re going to have to act and react quickly.  First of  all, if you’re in a large group, try to be at the front for the final stretch. You’re going to want a front row  view. Second, or actually no, first of all: safety first. This is a dangerous place. One slip, and you’re quite  literally toast. Nobody is going to go down into to the rift to rescue you. No photo is worth that. Do take a  tripod. Forget filters, you don’t need them, and you’ve got no time to fiddle with them, with the exception of a  UV / Skylight to protect the lens from ash and dust ... which quite possibly will be raining down on you. That’s  why the guide gave you a helmet. Put it on. I would recommend a mid-range zoom lens, with a 35mm equivalent of  around 70-200mm. Take a wider angle if you feel you can take the weight (but honestly, there are few worst places  to change a lens), but you probably won’t use it. I’ve taken an XPan up twice and got almost nothing worthwhile. A  remote cable release is good to have as well.  Observe first: try to avoid seeing the world through your  viewfinder. The experience of being 500m away from an erupting volcano is literally awesome, and pretty much unique at least in Europe.  Identify a good candidate for photos, usually a crater which is producing eruptions  every few minutes or so, frame your shot, set up your exposure, check your histogram, and focus manually. Set up  your motor drive (actually, set up as much as you can before the climb). Then hold your cable release, enjoy the vista, and wait for the opportunity. If you hold your nerve, you’re in with a good chance to get a great shot. If you just flap around reacting to the volcano rather than observing and waiting, you’ll end up with a lot of  blurred shots with something that might be lava in the corner. It’s really not dissimilar to shooting fireworks.  Planning and anticipation are key.

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Third time lucky ? It took 3 visits to Stromboli before I caught this!

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The show just keeps going on.

Then sooner than you want it’s time to go down, but actually this is almost as much fun. You won’t go down by the steep path you came up on, but rather by a wild, head-torch illuminated semi-controlled slide down and across the relict ash slope on the south side of the volcano. You’ll take about 45 minutes to reach the village. And you’ll want several beers to go with that well-earned pizza.

And now ... the easy way up

If you feel like a (relatively) more relaxed and less constrained experience, alternatively you can walk  out towards to east of the island, past Piscinas, past the Punto Labronzo lighthouse, and follow the old path up the ridge overlooking the “Sciara del Fuoco”. You are allowed to climb up to 450m without a guide, and you can get as far up as a  platform which povides great views of eruption craters along the top of the ridge, as well as (if you’re lucky) lava flowing down the slope, and ejecta crashing into the sea below. It’s a different experience, but equally rewarding.

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Overlooking the Sciara del Fuoco, Stromboli.

And there’s a lot more to the Eolian Islands than Volcanos. The best time to visit, in my experience, is late  March, but it varies a bit year to year. At that time things are pretty quiet, the tourist infrastructure hasn’t really got going, and finding a guide is not 100% guaranteed ... but just relax. It’s all part of the experience.

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Not just volcanoes. A natural arch on Lipari’s west coast.

Getting there

The most reliable, year-round link is by hydrofoil from Milazzo. Both Ustica Lines and Siremar operate regular  services. Departures to the outer islands, including Stromboli, are much less frequent out of season. Milazzo is reachable from Catania airport, by a combination of public transport (entertaining but slow), or by taxi service  (fast but more expensive). In-season some bus services link both Catania and Palermo airports with Milazzo.

Stromboli Guides

Both Magmatrek and Antonio Famularo are highly recommended and very professional. Out of season they provide a joint service.

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It’s not all hard work…

 

 

Posted in category "essay" on Wednesday, October 05, 2011 at 09:27 PM

Tuscan Tips

in Photography , Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I guess Tuscany must be well into the Top 20 most photographed locations in the world. The concentration of cameras is phenomenal, albeit nothing like the freak shows you get in places like Yosemite. The first time I went there, quite a few years back (they still sold film - proper film at that - in the shops), I certainly had all the well known cliches in mind.  There’s the Cypress Grove (on your right, heading south on the SS2 just outside of San Quirico d’Orcia, can’t miss it).

The Cypress Grove

Exhibit A: The Cypress Grove

There’s the Isolated Chapel (heading east from San Quirico, towards Pienza, over on the ridge on your right, although to do the Charlie Waite close-up shot you’ll need to take the farm track).

tuscan chapel

The Isolated Chapel

And there’s the vantage point over the Twisty-Road-With-Cypresses, which you can find by heading out of Montechiello towards Pienza and taking the first unpaved road on your left. You can’t miss the actual spot…

twisty road with cypresses

The infamous twisty road, somewhat drenched

And to complete your collection, you just need an early morning misty valley shot, preferably featuring distant ochre romantic farmhouse, and with all the pesky telegraph poles and power lines painstakingly edited out in Photoshop.  Best bet here is the road down from Castiglione d’Orcia, or the road over Le Crete Senesi, from Asciano towards Siena. But you’re going to have to get up painfully early.

misty hills

Misty morning, Le Crete Senesi, around 6am

E perfetto, va bene cosi. I’ve given away all the trade secrets, and you’re now a fully qualified Tuscan photographer. Of course, you get bonus points if you include poppies. I’m leaving that as an exercise for the student.

So, anyway, I was in Tuscany again last weekend, and although I wasn’t expecting to do much photography, I did have in mind that it would be nice to avoid the cliches, and to try to do something a little more interesting… back streets, people, details, close ups.  Of course it didn’t work. I did resist the Cypress Grove, but it was pretty tatty and the sky was dull and overcast.  But the rest, yeah, pretty much.

Detail shots take time and good ones need to say something about the bigger picture. It takes quite a while to get into the atmosphere, to relax, to listen to what a place is saying to you, and as far as Tuscany is concerned, I’m not sure that I’ve ever managed. But I quite like this photo. And I’m not telling you were it is, because I’m going back!

la fattoria

La Fattoria. Sunday, around 7:30am

 

 

Posted in category "Photography" on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 10:58 PM

Summer in the Arctic

in Olympus E-System , Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It isn’t trivial, slimming down a selection of 16 photos from 6000 candidates… Not that all 6000 are good, but probably 1000 or so are in the same ballpark as the 16 I chose (not that I’m claiming they’re anything special).

Anyway, hot(-ish) on the heals of my Pyramiden & panorama galleries, here’s another more general set from the wonderful Arctic world of Svalbard.

Svalbard selection

And for those who like to know these things, they were all taken with an Olympus E-3, using Zuiko Digital 12-60SWD, 50-200SWD and 7-14mm lenses.

Posted in category "Olympus E-System" on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 07:30 PM

Return from the Northern Wasteland

in Travel , Wednesday, September 08, 2010

So, a couple of weeks ago I got back from Svalbard.  First of all, I want to take the opportunity to thank the 11 people I shared a small, yacht-shaped space with for 14 days for making it such an unforgettable experience. If you ever want to see Svalbard properly, your first port of call needs to be Mark Van Den Weg’s Jonathan Adventure Sailing. Don’t leave home without it.

Although photography was a big part of this trip, for me it wasn’t absolutely vital. Nevertheless, it was a considerable blow when, due to brain fade on my part, my XPan stopped working after 3 days. Even though I also had the Olympus and a full set of lenses, I’m finding more and more that “real” photography for happens on film through a wide screen viewfinder. Although I brought back over 6000 digital images, I’m finding it quite hard to get enthusiastic about them.

I have a total of 120 frames from the XPan, a few of which are interesting, but unfortunately the first few days were not really interesting from a photographic perspective. Here’s one of them:

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This example is one of the few taken on Provia 400X. I haven’t really used this before, but it does seem quite similar to Provia 400F, in that it is a little washed out and the shadows seem to lack some density. It is also quite coarse grained compared to to, say Velvia 100F, and there’s quite a lot (relatively speaking) of chroma noise in the scans. However, for handheld use (as this was), when the light is fading, it’s pretty useful. Otherwise I used Ektachrome E100G, on Tim Parkin’s recommendation, and although I haven’t done any high resolution scans of it yet, I’m quite impressed, especially by its dynamic range and neutrality. I’ve got more than enough left over to carry on experimenting ...

Of course, the XPan isn’t much use for wildlife close-ups, or at least not when said wildlife is large, aggressive, and / or timid.  For those shots the Olympus E-3 together with the 50-200mm lens and 2x teleconverter worked fairly well. My traveling companions had various equipment from the usual suspects (no Sony though), and although the heavy artillery on Canon 1Ds and Nikon D700s looks impressive and can give sensational results, it really looks cumbersome and clumsy. The only camera that really made me slightly envious was the Pentax K7, but as far as lenses are concerned, my feeling is Olympus still has nothing to fear from the competition.

Actually there was very little camera talk. Hardly any at all, and when there was, it was invariably somebody asking for help with an uncooperative widget or advice on a setting or two. Absolutely zero “my camera beats your camera” talk, which was very, very refreshing.

But I’m getting increasingly fed up with carrying heavy gear on planes and everywhere else, and I’m seriously looking into something like an Olympus E-P2. I’m not sure how this would work out for long zoom wildlife shots - for that kind of thing I think the balance of a DSLR body helps a lot, but otherwise, well the sheer weight advantage is a strong argument.

My LowePro Photo Trekker Pro bag finally gave up on this trip as well, with a terminal main compartment zip failure. It’s been going that way for several years. One of my companion’s LowePro bags suffered a similar, but even more terminal fate (at least I managed to patch mine up enough to get it home), and my general opinion of LowePro is therefore not good. Their bags are too heavy, often poorly designed, and way over-rated. I won’t be buying another one.

But Svalbard wasn’t about gear, or even photography. It was about experiencing close up one the most remote-yet-accessible and pristine locations in the Northern Hemisphere. And Polar Bears. And Polar Beers.

More photos will follow at some point.

Posted in category "Travel" on Wednesday, September 08, 2010 at 09:59 AM

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