Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Colombia, the Sequel

another travel addiction

in Travel , Sunday, January 24, 2016

Things have been a little quiet around here for the past week or so, and they’re going to get quieter for a while longer. A couple of weeks ago we made a snap decision to head back to Colombia for three weeks or so, and getting that organised, along with general Life stuff, has kept me away from trivia like blogging.

I did start publishing a series of posts on Colombia a while back, but that got overwhelmed by other topics, and I never got around to Cartagena.  That’s a real shame, because Cartagena is ridiculously, hopeless photogenic, a wild riot of chaos, colour, and fading colonial architecture. We won’t be going back there this time, other destinations await, but for now, here’s a lightning quick selection.

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Hasta la vista. I’ll be back.

A trip to San Pietro

yep, still more Venice

in Photography , Wednesday, January 13, 2016

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Despite many visits to Venice, the eastern, seaward end of the city has always eluded me. So on my last visit I was determined to make this my focal point. I have to admit from the glimpses I had in the past, I expect something more like the apartment blocks of the outer reaches of Cannaregio, or even Sacca Fisola. While there is an element of this, in fact I discovered that the area cut through by via Garibaldi has a quite distinctive character, subtly different to any other part of Venice. However the part that really caught my imagination is the little island of San Pietro, right at the northern tip.  A few hundred years ago I imagine San Pietro was not the quiet backwater it is today. The Basilica di San Pietro di Castello was in fact up until 1807 the city’s cathedral church, even though St Mark’s was already more dominant. But now it is very peaceful, and only dedicated tourists venture this far away from the fake Burano glass and carnival mask sellers.

Actually, I didn’t even go into the Basilica. Churches aren’t really my thing. I did open the door, but on seeing the inevitable ticket booth, I declined to go further. If the Catholic Church has decided that the primary purpose of ecclesiastical architecture is to make money, then it is hardly surprising that the only relevance it has today in much of the world is to tourists. I’m quite happy to make donations, but even an agnostic such as I am looks as much for a sense of the spiritual in a church as a collection of mouldy, dark old paintings by some vaguely famous Italian bloke. And that sense is stopped in its tracks by a ticket booth.

But anyway, it hardly mattered, because the visual treasure trove was immediately next door, in and around an old colonnaded courtyard backing on to the Basilica.  I can’t actually find a reference to this place, and I suspect it is in a fleeting state of transition between out of bounds Church property and a luxury development of charming residences with Genuine Venetian Fittings™. It was marked “private”, but I spent at least two hours wandering around, and the two or three people I saw there didn’t seem to mind. They obviously thought I was a bit weird, though.

Not that I would know anything about it - despite a brief dabble - but this seems the perfect location for a certain genre of portrait photography. Since I didn’t have one to hand, I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine the models, in the set below.

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All photos from Sigma DP0, except the first and second after the text, which are Kodak Portra 400 / Voigtländer Bessa III

 

 

 

 

Valle Verzasca

landscape heaven

in essay , Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This article was first published in OnLandscape in November 2015 (Issue 102). Since OnLandscape is a (very worthwhile and value for money) pay site, it wasn’t available for general view. Well, now, with a few modifications, it is.

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The geography of Switzerland is dominated by the East-West high alpine ridges that split the country into Northern and Southern parts. The Northern part is where the major cities and industrial centres are located. The Alps themselves are the home of spectacular highlights like the Eiger, the Matterhorn, or the Aletsch Glacier. But the Southern side is a little less well known, and has a quite distinct character. South of the Rhone Valley and the Gotthard massif lies the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. And while Ticino certainly has it’s fair share of tall peaks, the highlights, geographically speaking, are to be found in and around a series of glacial valleys descending from the high snowfields, with tumbling rivers feeding into the Maggiore Lake. Any one of these valleys, including the Maggia, Calanca, and the Centovalli, would keep most landscape photographers busy for years, but the jewel in the crown, and the subject of this article, is the Valle Verzasca, through which the river of the same name runs.

The Verzasca valley is around 25km long, stretching due south down from the village of Sonogno, through an endless sequence of cascades, rapids and gullies until it reaches the artificial Lake Vogorno. This is created by a spectacular dam, the Diga di Contra, which was the scene for the opening sequence of the James Bond film Goldeneye, and today is famous for its terrifying bungee jump. Having passed the dam, the river threads its way in a more leisurely fashion before emptying into Lake Maggiore, a few km away from the city of Locarno.

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I defy any landscape photographer with a pulse to get further than a third of the way up the valley without demanding to stop. Even if the temptations of the artificial lake can be resisted, with the clusters of old town houses clinging to one steep side, and the emerald green waters of the lake lapping up against the forests that plunge down to the other side, once you pass the church at Berzona (carefully!) and enter the upper valley, the scenes that unfold are irresistible.

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The bedrock of the Verzasca river is mainly gneiss, and over the millennia this has been eroded by the current to reveal fantastic banding and layering patterns in the rock, which in turn has been sculpted into spectacular forms. Add to this the transparent dark green and emerald waters, a sprinkling of reflected light from the surrounding forests, and any one location could keep you busy for a week. And there are countless such locations. I am fortunate enough to live close enough to the valley to visit pretty much on a whim, and have been doing so for 15 years, but even so, on each visit I discover somewhere or something new.

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The nature of the landscape suits it to a variety of styles, from wide angle vistas all the way down to very intimate details. For some reason, very little has turned up the way of photographic publications from the area, but one book I have found, Pietre in valle Verzasca, by Mario De Biasi, concentrates mainly on detail studies of small scale rock patterns and formations. You can embrace, or leave out, the water. You can feature the surrounding chestnut forests, especially in Autumn, or crop them out. You can pick a short stretch of the river and get to know how all the little details of the flow change with the seasons and the water level. The water level is very variable, and this often leads to certain compositions being quite unrepeatable.

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After Berzona the valley contracts very noticeably, and you start to get glimpses of the river. You can also see the village of Corippo, the smallest municipality in Switzerland, clinging precariously to the opposite slope. Corippo is well worth a visit: the whole village is protected as a Swiss Heritage Site, and remains largely untouched. It was not even accessible by road until the end of the 19th century.

Some of my favourite haunts are found soon after the Corippo crossroads. This part of the river is dynamic and fast moving, and it’s well worth taking a little time to discover paths down to the rocks. A word of warning, though, which applies to the whole valley: be very careful, the rocks are very slippery when wet, and are prone to accumulate black ice the winter. You do not want to fall into that river, even in the summer. It has very strong currents and is very cold. And, sadly, it claims victims every year. Take your time, don’t go down in the gorge alone, and don’t take unnecessary risks. The water level can also change frighteningly quickly, and it is all too easy to get trapped. Since Switzerland is not much of a nanny state, and assumes you can take care of yourself, you won’t find many handrails, but there are an increasing number of warning notices in the parking areas.

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Up until now I’ve managed to completely avoid any mention of the number one attraction of the valley, the village of Lavertezzo. Let’s be clear, you’d probably be best advised to avoid Lavertezzo in the summer, unless of course your photography extends to a more Martin Parr-like style. Lavertezzo is totally gorgeous, but it is completely overrun in summer, even to the extent that large tour busses manage to get there (totally insane in my opinion, and I’ve seen some stuck in the narrow, tight hairpins at the mouth of the valley more than once). However, should you find it at a quiet moment, you’ll find it hard to ignore. The village itself is pretty, but the main attraction is the area just below it, where the river has cut channels of all shapes and sizes through a wide platform uplifted gneiss. Overlooking this is a high, narrow twin arched stone bridge dating from the 17th Century. I described Lavertezzo in a little more detail in an article I wrote back in 2009.

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The human history of Valle Verzasca has, up until the mid–20th Century, been one largely of poverty and subsistence farming. Being a closed valley, it generally attracted less attention from invaders than surrounding regions, and was something of a safe haven. It came under the control, variously, of the Swiss Confederation and various Northern Italian kingdoms, but was always heavily under dominion of the Catholic church. It was also pretty much uninhabitable in the winter, and then the population moved down to the Magadino plain, along with their livestock. Some reminder of this is still evident in place names today, for example you will find the village of Lavertezzo Piano near the foot of the Verzasca, to where the population of Lavertezzo retreated from the snows.

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The forests surrounding the valley have a large proportion of chestnut trees. These were actually planted in the Middle Ages, and provided a critical contribution to the people’s diet. Chestnut flour is still a treasured traditional ingredient in Ticino. However, a blight leading to failed crops bought famine in the late 19th century, leading to mass immigration from the valley, and other surrounding areas, to North and South America, and to Australia. The museum at Sonogno, as well as the one at Cevio in Vallemaggia, document this period. The result was a massive crash in the population, which was far higher than today. If you follow the mountain paths from any of the villages, you quite often come across the ruins of long-abandoned hamlets invaded by the forests. It can be quite moving to sit and imagine the lives of the long-gone inhabitants of these forgotten villages. And of course, there lies another whole world of photographic opportunity.

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Upstream of Lavertezzo the river widens, and rushes over a series of rapids. This area is more interesting for the colours of the larch forests in Autumn, and for a number of quite spectacular waterfalls on the west side of the valley. But the next part is perhaps the richest of all from a photographic perspective. Below the village of Brione, the river drops about 50m over a couple of kilometres, threading its way through a field of huge boulders. You see the end of this stretch where the road crosses the river, about 5km from Lavertezzo. The east bank of this stretch is accessible from a footpath which runs from the bridge all the way up to Brione. Getting to the river itself, or to the west bank, requires a bit of dedicated scrambling, but it’s well worth it. It would take a decade to run out of opportunities here.

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From Brione itself a quiet side valley heads off to the west, the Val d’Osura. This has a quite different character, with the river sluicing over wide limestone shelves. It’s an easy hike up the narrow, largely car-free road, and well worth a detour. The main valley continues up to the village of Sonogno, where it splits. This is also the end of the road for cars, and for the Post Bus. Both branches of the valley are worth exploring, but my favourite is the westerly one, known as Val Retorta, which has many more landscape marvels to offer, and leads eventually to Püscen Negro, the highest village in the valley, now abandoned and never connected to the outside world.

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In summary, if you’re looking for a location which can offer both boundless photographic potential, and also plenty to entertain non-photographer members of the family, this is it. But be warned, you won’t want to leave.

 

Africa with Athena, by Armand Dijcks

relax with a video

in Product reviews , Monday, January 11, 2016

For quite a while I’ve felt I’m way outside of the audience for photographic educational material. In particular stuff like “How To Make Perfect Landscape Photos”, etc. Not that I’m saying I don’t need them, just that I’m impenetrable to such words of wisdom.  I’ve read, and watched, everything I could find on the topic, and very little has sunk in. So my reaction to seeing such things on offer tends to be rather cynical.

So why my interest was sparked by a web site I stumbled upon during the post-Christmas doldrums, offering an “exclusive, travelogue-style video tutorial” featuring landscape photographer Athena Carey on location in South Africa, I’m really not sure. But since clicking on the preview was a lot less like hard work than, say, editing several extensive photo collections I’ve built up and ignored in the last year or so, I did so. And I was intrigued, And since it was on special offer, I clicked.

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I’ve seen my fair share of “video photo tutorials”. They generally promise a lot, and end up being endless, tedious talking head shots of men, usually of a certain age, fondling their cameras. Some are more professional than others, in that they’ll do some level of editing. Others just set the camera to record, stop after 2 hours and 55 minutes, and sell you the resulting yawn-a-thon for $75. And of course after watching this you’ll have fully assimilated their precious workflow and wisdom. So I’m a hard sell.

Africa with Athena” is nothing like these, and on several key counts. First of all, it is obvious from the first seconds that the video has been produced by somebody who actually cares about communication, inspiration and entertainment, and also cares about producing the best possible experience. It is clear that very little cost or effort has been spared in the making of this video.  It has nothing to envy anything you’ll find under the National Geographic or BBC banners. I’m sure that Armand Dijcks, the producer and videographer, makes mistakes just like the rest of us, but we’re not treated to them in the final product. Instead we’re treated to a technically and artistic excellent video, with a perfect mix of sweeping, dramatic but also intimate location shots, and indeed talking heads. But these talking heads - well, always the same head - are expressive and varied and shot with different angles and situations which emphasise and help to carry the message. I’m a million miles away from being any expert on the topic, but as a pure consumer, I find it a very impressive production, which is well worth the asking price.

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I haven’t even really mentioned the content yet. Well, the content is basically Athena Carey. Hers is not a name I’d come across before, but she seems to have a good reputation. Certainly her photography has a strong personality, mainly orientated towards long exposure monochrome.  This might immediately, and inevitably, bring Michael Kenna to mind, but her work is quite different. Of photographers I know, she’s perhaps closer to Steve Gosling, but in any case she has a distinctive style. Her approach in the field, and to photography in general, which is well documented here, remind me more of the approach of my friend Alessandra Meniconzi. Both are interested in equipment up to the point that it allows them to do what they want, and absolutely no more. Indeed, the section on the contents of Athena’s camera bag veers towards humour. Essentially, and clearly getting things out of the way as quick as possible, she tells us she’s got a big camera and a smaller one converted to infrared, oh, and some filters, and that’s basically it. I don’t think brand names are even mentioned. A similar segment over at the Luminous Landscape would be 45 minutes long and sound like a 10 year old child reading the B&H catalogue. This is pretty refreshing to me, but I’m not entirely sure if, unfortunately, it’s what the mainstream audience for this type of offer wants to hear.

But there is technical content. In fact her description of how she uses Nik SiverEFX to convert to monochrome is the best I’ve ever seen, and although I’ve been using this software for years, watching this I discovered a few key points I’d never realised before.

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Most of all the video is about a dedicated and committed photographer collaborating with a talented videographer to illustrate her process to produce a couple of photos in a particular location. It does this without being arcane, patronising, or boring. I think it is generally very hard, if not impossible, to truly express in words what makes us photograph, especially for landscape photography. All attempts come across as pompous, clumsy or ridiculous. Generally of course they’re produced by the photographers themselves, which prevents the necessary detachment. Here instead the creative partnership works very well, delivering the goods both as medium and message. It sets a very high standard for others to follow.

Film, or Foveon ?

fish, or fowl?

in Sigma , Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Ah, the eternal quandary of the dilettante art photographer: film, or digital ? And if digital, which kind of digital ?  For many, the ultimate expression of film in these End Days is Kodak Portra 400, with its oh so aesthetic transparent, lucid, indeed filmic quality. Or to put it another way, washed out. And that description is not exactly unreminiscent of the way Sigma Foveon digital sensors paint the world. So, which is “better” ? The two examples here offer no conclusion, are not a test, and make nothing other than an observation.  And they’re taken with completely different lenses, so obviously the framing and viewpoint are quite different (the sign on the wall at the left of the second photo can be seen on the right of the first, beneath the stairs).  But the scene, lighting and time of day are the same.

The first, on Portra 400 120 roll film, was taken using my Voigtländer Bessa III (aka Fuji GF670). It has an 80mm lens, so near enough 50mm in old money equivalence. It’s probably the last (serious) medium format film camera ever to be designed, and it’s probably the best fixed lens MF rangefinder ever. The rendering of the Porta 400 film was entrusted to Silverfast’s NegaFix tool, scanned at 5300dpi on the OpticFilm, which at this setting easily resolves grain.

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The second was taken using the quite remarkable (in several senses of the word) Sigma DP0 Quattro.  This has a Foveon Quattro sensor producing a file roughly equivalent, so they say, to a standard 39Mpix sensor. Which is quite big enough. More to the point, it produces absolutely gorgeous, natural, transparent, lucid, indeed filmic colours. In my opinion, anyway. In this case the lens is a highly corrected, good enough for architecture, 14mm, which is near enough to 21mm in old money.

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So which is best ? I don’t know. I’m happy with both. They don’t call me Indecisive Dave for nothing, you know. One might expect digital to be more convenient than film, but Sigma levelled that one with a (ahem) fabulous piece of mandatory software called Sigma Photo Pro. Of course, I could also have compare with my standard, sensible Olympus digital camera. But there’s no fun in being sensible.

 

 

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