photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography


paradise lost

in Travel , Sunday, April 20, 2014

Looking through Tiina Itkonen‘s Greenland images I can’t help remembering my one and only visit to Greenland, some 14 years ago. I spent 3 weeks in August 1999 with a small group trekking west and north of Tasiilaq. I had various motives for this trip, one being to be able to get away from daily routine and decide if I wanted to make a big change in my life, another was to try to recapture the memories I had of the Antarctic Peninsula, still another was to purge the memory of a fairly disastrous trip to Venezuela. Oh, and of course to visit Greenland.


On most counts it was a success. I enjoyed the environment, the company, and the welcome we got from the local people. I even enjoyed eating whale meat (seal, not so much). But on a photography level it was a total disaster. Something went badly wrong with my Canon A1, either the exposure meter was defective, or it mis-read in low temperature, or I just screwed up. In any case, most photos were badly over-exposed. And worse, at one of the absolute high points, a trip out into a fjord in a small open boat with an Inuit guide tracking a humpback whale, my Tamron zoom lens fell apart and I was left with a 35mm lens. As far as I recall I just gave and enjoyed the show. But I took a few shots.

I dug out the photos again yesterday, and actually in the age of Instagram they’ve got a certain something about them. Well some of them, at least. In fact there’s a hint of “honour thy mistake as a hidden intention” in some, in retrospect.


Greenland is unfinished business to me. It will probably remain so. Going back seems increasingly unlikely.




Crazy City

sentimental claptrap

in Photography , Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I guess the answer to the question “does the world need another photograph of Venice ?” is pretty obviously a resounding NO. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon, or indeed Iceland’s Jokulsarlon, Venice has been photographed to oblivion and back. And yet while I feel absolutely no desire to add to my archive of Jokulsarlon shots, I could happily traipse around Venice - with or without a camera - every weekend.

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Venice, of course, was one of first tour destinations offered by Thomas Cook in the mid 19th century, and has been a magnet for travellers of all descriptions for centuries. Venice long ago sold her soul to the tourist trade, but then again, trade is at the very core of Venice. And yet although seemingly every inch of the city has been described and photographed countless times, every trip there seems to be like a new discovery. The causeway which takes you from Mestre to Venice bridges more than the lagoon. It takes you from one version of reality to another. The mainland seen from Venice appears like a distant mirage, a fragmented memory of some other, irrelevant place. The train station, or the Piazza di Roma, are like decompression tanks where part of these suddenly foreign lands are allowed to crossover with Venice, and which allow a space for the mind to adapt to the disorientation brought about by the shifting planes of reference.

Venice for many is part of a “See Europe in 5 days” package. Tick off St Mark’s, blow €50 on a gondola, and you’re done. I have to confess I did, finally, visit St Mark’s last December, since there was nobody around and no queues.  I even dithered about visiting the Doges palace, because you have to, really, but on the point of buying a ticket (also no queues, obviously: I don’t do queues), I realised that I’d be losing several hours of quality wandering-around-the-city-getting-lost time, and beat a hurried retreat.

Because that’s what Venice is about for me. Exploring labyrinths within labyrinths, with new details and new mysteries being revealed every time, but never really repeating. Fascinating hideaways which I don’t know how I found, and I’ll never find again. My favourite parts of Venice are, unsurprisingly, away from the focal points. I can never avoid the further reaches of the Castello, but even the less ancient parts of Cannaregio draw me in. The list goes on. And at night, it all changes.

In literature, Venice is often associated with ghost stories, like Girardi’s “Vaporetto 13”, or with gritty, dastardly crime, or scary tales like McEwan’s “Comfort of Strangers”. Or on the photographic side, Marsden’s “City of Haunting Dreams”. Sort of entertaining, but I don’t really get that, myself. For me, there’s the tangible sense of layers upon layers of living history, and most of all the essential craziness of the whole concept of this fabulous, ridiculous city, the “Pure City” so well chronicled by Peter Ackroyd. And there’s comfort in Venice’s confined yet endless spaces, and just a feeling of pure joy which it can communicate. And it’s an island. I’m a total sucker for islands.

So, no, the world does not need another photograph of Venice. But I do, and if you don’t, you might be well advised to steer clear of this blog for the next few weeks…


Northern Lights

Obscured by clouds

in Olympus E-System , Saturday, February 25, 2012

Well after 8 days in Iceland I have maintained my perfect record of Aurora Borealis dodging. It has rained, snowed, and in between there has even been the odd patch of light illuminating iconic photo opportunities to which we have been delivered by our tireless guide, Daníel Bergmann. This has been my second ever group photo tour. I don’t usually find that I can really photograph in a group, especially with people I don’t know, but this time Marissa, Leslie, Ed, Patrick, Shane and Peter have made it a real pleasure.

I don’t know yet if I got any good photos, but my first experience with the Olympus E-5 has been pretty positive. There are a few things that I think the E-3 does better, but that might just be down to familiarity.

Hvitserkur, straight out of camera, with a nice big raindrop waiting to be edited out

We have a few more hours of potential photographing around the Reykjanes peninsula, but anyway, I think there already a few shots in the tin.


Lost in Reykjavik

Adrift in 101

in Travel , Sunday, February 19, 2012

Of all the times I’ve been to Iceland, I’ve never really had much time to spend in Reykjavik. So this time I’ve given myself a weekend to explore. Downtown Reykjavik seems to cater for drunks and tourists. And drunk tourists. Even better, rich drunk tourists. As far as tourists are concerned, Reykjavik has been mostly about shopping for quite a while. Sweater and knick-knack shops abound, and there’s always a good few photography books on sale, ranging from the excellent to kitsch (putting it politely). Of the “regulars”, Ragnar Alexsson has a fairly new book out, “Last Days of the Arctic”, which looks good but is way to heavy to carry home. As for the Icelandic Landscape stuff, well the old classics are still around - getting Lost in Iceland is still no problem, but I’ve gone into overload on this stuff. In fact I’m begining to wonder if there is anything much new to say or discover about Icelandic landscape. The heavy, relentless exposure through books, magazines and endless online galleries is casting a bit of a tired light on the whole thing, and it’s becoming a bit demotivating. That sounds pretty selfish and small-minded, I realise, but it’s still how I’m coming to feel. Maybe the coming week will reinvigorate me. In the meantime at least I’ve ticked off a few touristy snapshots I’ve never seen before, spent a very interesting and enjoyable afternoon at the National Museum, and scoffed some very good organic gourmet Icelandic fish and chips. I still like Iceland. Maybe it’s me who’s jaded?

Here be woolly jumpers!


Volcano hopping in the Aeolian Islands

shooting volcanos

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’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…



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