Friday, April 11, 2014

Lifestyle Lessons in Valldemossa

During our 8 day bicycling tour of Mallorca we were constantly awestruck by the beautiful countryside we were passing through, and I would often make a mental note of where we had been and what we had seen so I could make a new visit to take some pictures.

Although Palma de Mallorca and Alcúdia both resemble typical tourist destinations with countless hotels packed tightly along the beach and all the expected souvenir shops and tourist traps, this is not the case in any other Mallorcan city or village. In every village we passed through we were met by charming scenes of everyday life that could have taken place 50 years ago. Little old ladies gossiping in front of their flats, children on their way to school, men enjoying an espresso at the local espresso bar for 1 euro, and small boutiques with locals and the occassional tourist.

The exception is the town squares, usually centered around the village church; they look deceptively laid back and quaint in the early morning. But at lunch time it is standing room only as the entire square is packed with bicycles and bicyclists in their brightly colored club uniforms and the waiters and waitresses scurry between tables taking and delivering orders. By 13:30 the cyclists are on the road again and life on the village square returns to normal.

One of the many charming villages we encountered is Valldemossa, and although it is named in guidebooks as the most beautiful village on Mallorca, it would be unfair to say that it was much different from any one of a dozen villages we passed through; it is however on the road to Sa Calobra which was one of our destinations for the day, and that put us in Valldemossa in time for a mid-morning espresso and a look around the center.

As we approached the village via a winding road we stopped on a private driveway to get an overview of the village. There are few places to stop on the narrow roads of Mallorca, and many times we were not able to stop due to traffic and/or bicyclists. Early morning is the best time, before the cyclists take over the roads.

Once in the village we set off on foot looking for the main square, which led us to the highest point where the cathedral is located.

While my cycling colleague Olof Hagander studied the guidebook and looked for an open café where we could enjoy an espresso  I photographed the square and then took a tour of the cathedral and the attached museum.

The church (above on the left) opens for visitors at 10:00 and a tour group of fifty Germans was ahead of me, so it was impossible to see or photograph anything in the cathedral when the doors were opened. Seeing my dilemma a museum attendant suggested  I start at the far end of the museum and work my way back to the cathedral completely avoiding the German invasion. Great idea...

The museum contains the various chambers of the monastery as they were used hundreds of years ago, including the pharmacy and the Celda Prioral (the Prior's cell) above and below.

With the Germans out of the way I was able to get this view

Back on the street Olof found a small boutique where he stopped to buy some plums. The queue system was unique to say the least. There were only a couple of customers in the shop when we came in and Olof got in line with his small bag of plums. The owner took several minutes with each of the two customers ahead of Olof, mostly small talk I suspect since no additional products were purchased. As Olof got to the front of the queue the owner smiled and said, "Just one moment please" and proceeded to let another customer (where did she come from?) step in front of Olof and pay (which also took a couple of minutes). Once more at the front of the queue Olof was once again ready to pay, but once more the owner said pleasantly "Just one moment", and took yet another local customer ahead of Olof. Maybe it was just their way of maintaining the small town atmosphere, taking care of their friends, relatives and repeat customers first; tourists at best only buy plums for a couple of euros...

Exploring the back streets around the square we found a restaurant that was not yet opened, but their terrace had a nice view of the valley below., where we took a a final shot of Valldemossa before continuing our trip to Sa Calobra.

Photographing in the narrow streets and confined spaces of old villages can be a challenge, the best results require a wide angle lens. I used a combination of the full-frame Canon 6D + Samyang 14mm and the Canon 24-105L, but the Canon 17-40 would have been a good alternative. And if it's still too tight, make a multi-shot panorama image, the image of the town square above was made with 13 shots in portrait orientation with the Samyang 14mm. Just remember to shoot in manual mode to ensure the same exposure on all images, and allow about 50% overlap on each image. Photoshop CS and Photoshop elements have a great tool to automagically merge your multiple images into a single shot. It's best with a tripod, but even hand held gives good results if you are careful about keeping the shots level.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mallorca, for Birders and Bicyclists...

Beside being a favorite destination for bicyclists, Mallorca is also a favorite for birders. The island is both a stopover for European birds migrating to and from Africa, as well as being home to many resident species. In total over 300 species of birds have been seen on Mallorca, and early spring is a perfect time to photograph birds. Once the birds begin nesting in mid-April and May, they become more secretive and will be much harder to spot. In addition the sunlight in late spring means an even earlier sunrise, when birds are most active, and harsher contrast in your images once the sun is up, as well as a greater likelihood of un-sharp images due to heat haze. Cool cloudy days with occasional sprinkles are best, and as luck would have it that was the weather I had on my first day out.
A problem when traveling by car on Mallorca is that it is often impossible to stop and photograph safely due to the narrow roads, and the many cyclists and cars. So my first photo stop was an early morning at the Cap de Formentor on the northwest point of Mallorca before the cyclists and tourists had taken over the roads. This allowed me stop almost anywhere I liked without taking any risks, and from the car I was able to photograph the following species:

This blue rock thrush was taken from the parking lot at the Formentor Lighthouse, it's not a great shot, but they are shy birds and they simply refused to come any closer.

Another species that can be seen easily but not photographed well from the lighthouse are the shearwaters that glide over the water's surface about 300 meters below. I won't make a guess on which species of shearwater these are. In Sweden Twitchers (Birders) become ecstatic when they see a shearwater at 1000 meters, which then leads to endless discussions on the internet birding forums on which species it might have been...

In the valley forests on Formentor red-legged partridge can be see around almost every corner, unfortunately they run for cover when you pull over to take a picture, I think they are more used to shotguns than Canons. This one was far enough away to not be bothered by my stopping.

During a visit to the summit of Sa Calobra this cinereous vulture circled over in the drizzling rain, but the picture doesn't do justice to this magnificent bird, so I am also including a picture I took of the same species while visiting mainland Spain a few years earlier... 

My cycling colleague Olof Hagander who joined me on the trip to Sa Calobra later recalled the scene in the following way:
"Sa Calobra revisited... 45kph winds, rain, under an olive tree a goat cowers while a black vulture circles above... Mordor"

And finally along the southwest coast, in the meadows and farmlands there are countless other LBB's (little brown birds) like this crested lark

And the European greenfinch

Most of these shots were taken with the Canon 7D+ 800/5,6, but a 300/2.8L with 2X extender or the 500/4 +1.4X extender would also work well. If you are only interested in birding your options are far greater, since there are many wildlife sanctuaries with hides which provide good views over wetlands and meadows, although not with the same proximity that a photographer demands.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mallorca, An Accidental Photo Trip...

I've never been a big fan of common tourist destinations which always makes for interesting discussions with the family; I suggest Alaska, Spitzbergen, Jokkmokk, the Falkland Islands, and they respond with New York City, Miami and the Canary Islands... But Mallorca wasn't intended to be a normal vacation; instead my bicycling club CK Lunedi planned an 8-10 day trip for spring training. In the middle of the cold and wet Swedish spring making that trip seemed like the only sensible thing to do, never mind the tourists...

After doing a little research it seemed that there might be more to do on Mallorca than just bicycling, so I took along my camera gear as well as my bicycle. I had to pay 65 euros for the bicycle, but I think the camera gear weighed even more than the bike.

We stayed in Can Pastilla which is just east of Palma de Mallorca in a beachfront hotel called Fontanellas Playa, with breakfast and dinner included. The hotel is very much geared towards cyclists who can be a demanding lot when it comes to food. The buffet was excellent with varied specialties every day, and lots of alternatives for replenishing the calories burned during the long cycle tours during the day.

From the hotel and the immediate surroundings, Mallorca looks like a normal tourist destination, the kind I usually avoid. But 30 minutes into our first bicycle ride into the countryside it felt like I was no longer in the same place, or even same century for that matter. The countryside is filled with rolling hills, meadows of wildflowers, mountains, cliffs, and uncountable small villages that have changed little since the 1700's. So after an exhausting 135km ride on Sunday, I decided to take the following day off and explore the island in a rental car.

Leaving early and missing breakfast I managed to catch the sunrise on the south coast (taken with the Canon 1DmkIV and 300/2.8) before revisiting Randa, one of the hills we had climbed the day before.

It's only about 500 meters elevation but the view is fantastic. (This image is a 9 shot panorama with the Canon 6D + Samyang 14mm/2.8)
I then continued on to Formentor, the Northwest peninsula of Mallorca where I had the road to myself until about 10AM when the bicyclists hit the roads. The road is narrow and winding, but the views are spectacular. This is a 5 shot panorama again with the 6D + Samyang 14mm.

At the very end is a lighthouse with a snack bar. This seems to be the main destination. Come early, otherwise parking is impossible and gridlock is guaranteed. This shot taken with the Canon 6D+24-105/4 @40mm)

Later in the week after a couple more 130km bicycle rides I had even more places I wanted to photograph, among others the 10km serpentine road that leads to the port of Sa Calobra which we had bicycled on Wednesday.

On a rainy Thursday my cycling colleague Olof Hagander and I took a rest day from cycling and enjoyed fresh squeezed orange juice and a salad with tuna at the summit of Sa Calobra and when the rain let up for five minutes I ran out and captured this panorama (11 shots with the 6D + Samyang 14mm). The view is breathtaking, and the bicycle ride down is exhilarating. But be warned this is also the only road out and it took us 59:51 to ride up to the summit again (stronger/younger/lighter bicyclists do it in half the time).

We also spent a couple of hours in the beautiful village of Valldemossa, but I will cover that in a separate post...

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Sistine Chapel of Torna Hällestad...

Since moving to Sweden in 1987 on an exchange program with UCSD a favorite pastime has been exploring my new home country. To that end I have dragged my wife, children and in-laws to the arctic North in both February and June and most of the rest of the country in spring and summer when we have explored the back roads, small towns and nature and I can safely say I have seen a lot more of Sweden than most Swedes, who take this fantastic country for granted. So it was I was quite surprised when I discovered a new treasure only a short distance from our home.
On a recent March morning when the weather was poor and the wildlife had gone into hiding I gave up after a few hours and decided to head home on a back road that took me through Torna Hällestad (pop. 584). I have tried to photograph the church from outside but was never really impressed with the results, but on a whim I thought I would take a look inside and see if there was anything to photograph. Opening the door to the church was like stepping back in time to the middle ages. In 25 years of living in Sweden no Swede has even mentioned Tonra Hällestad to me, but I guess the grass is always greener...
In any case it is impressive; the architecture, the vaulted ceilings and most of all the paintings on the ceilings, which I later learned painted around 1460 by a Swedish artist named Nils Håkansson and called "Vittskövlemästaren" - "The Master of Vittskövle".
Trying to capture this interior however is a challenge; how do you present this in a way that reflects both the detail and the whole? The only option I could see was to shoot this as panormas about 20 shots using my favorite Samyang 14mm/2.8, starting with the ceiling:

 Ideally you should now hold your computer monitor or at least your iPad over your head to get the proper effect.

Moving on to the crossing of the transept I shot the 360 degree panorama (26 shots) you see below. There is some HDR processing to be able to recover both the shadows and highlights since it was a bit dark in the middle of the church, but with bright light from the windows.

And finally moving to the transept I shot the 210 degree panorama below which shows a bit more ceiling detail.

Satisfied with my one hour visit, when not a single person had entered the church I took a look at the exterior of the church which contains three rune stones in the wall including the one below. Originating from circa 980 AD and probably commemorating the battle of Fyrisvallarna, outside Uppsala. In total there are three runestones in the church walls. Interestingly the one which should be vertical is horizontal and the one which should be horizontal is vertical

While it might not be fair to compare this to the Sistine Chapel, considering that people are willing to travel thousands of miles and spend enormous amounts of money to visit Rome, Torna Hällestad Church deserves a good deal more attention from both Swedes and visitors, so the next time we have visitors we will definitely make a stop here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Golden Eagle Adventures...

Even though I already had 2400 pictures of golden eagles which I was really happy with, when I got the opportunity to join Felix Heintzenberg on a 3 day trip to Norway to photograph more golden eagles, I just couldn't resist. So after landing in Oslo at 9:30 we picked up our 4wd rental car at 10.00 and started driving to Dalen in Telemark, a place so remote that my GPS said there are no streets there. Thanks to back up guidance from Felix we managed to find our guide's home at 3.00am. Jostein had said to give him a call when we got there, and a bit hesistantly we called and got... voicemail. Grrrrr. Now what? Sleep in the car for an hour and a half before getting up to head to the hide? We knocked on the door; carefully at first and then a little more insistenly. Still no answer. I checked the door, it was unlocked. "I'm going inside and sleeping on the couch". Felix followed me in and we were met by two extremely well behaved retrievers who refused to bark or leave there beds, but their tails were wagging so hard it was hard to ignore while trying to fall asleep. Jostein finally heard all our noise and came and greeted us. His phone had run out of juice without him noticing he explained sheepishly.
We tried to sleep a few more minutes, and at 4:30 we finally got up and had some breakfast before packing our gear and loading it on to Jostesin snowmobile and sled. Felix volunteered to ride on the sled with the gear as we started the 15 minute ride to the top of the mountain to the eagle hide. I kept looking back to make sure Felix was still there. Near the top of a very steep hill the snowmobile just started spinning its track, so we both had to jump off and walk the last 15 meters up the hill. The brisk wind and a lot of snow down the back of my neck woke had me fully awake and the all night drive seemed almost forgotten. We finally reached the hide, loaded in our gear and hurried to get everything set up while it was still pitch black to avoid scaring off any eagles or ravens that might be able to see us. We had two cameras and lenses each, and once they were in place, pointing out of the hide, they could not be removed until it was dark to avoid scaring the eagles.

At 8:30 there was finally enough light to being to photograph, but so far only the ravens were to be seen, and care must be taken not to scare them. They are a sign to the eagles that everything is safe. Finally at 9:00 the first eagle made a cautious approach and sat on a tree top at a safe distance, but they were cautious and only stayed a few seconds at a time. As the day wore on and it became afternoon the eagles came and left several times and extended their stays, Felix and I took turns napping between eagles visits.

Most of the eagles fed individually and if a second eagle landed it usually meant there was going to be a fight. But there was one pair of eagles that was obviously a couple since they ate and flew together. In little more than a month the female would be sitting on their nest incubating two eggs that will hatch around the beginning of May.

The weather changed from snow to clear to fog to more snow and finally the light disappeared again at 5:00pm while a final eagle took a few last scraps of meat to tide him over until morning. The days result was 360 images, a few of which made the long day in the hide worthwhile. We packed up our gear and waited for Jostein and his snowmobile to take us back down the mountain.
By the time we got off the mountain, ate dinner and had a quick review of our pictures we were ready to pass out from lack of sleep. We made an early evening of ate and before we knew it the alarm was ringing to tell us it was 4:30am and time to get up.

Our second and final day in the hide was much slower, fewer visits and poor light, but  nature is fickle and golden eagles show up on their own terms. Nonetheless I took 260 images and filmed the eagles as they ate 25 yards from us. We loaded our car with our gear and prepared for the the five hour drive back to Oslo. On the way we passed a wooden church and thanks to the full moon the sky still had a blue tint despite the fact that it was 11:00pm. We finally reached Oslo at 1:30 where we grabbed a few hours of sleep before catching a 7:00AM flight back to Copenhagen.

Two days in isolation with these majestic birds and a fantastic view; it can hardly be called a vacation, but it was definitely worth the time and effort! Nonetheless I was glad to get back to work and be able to sleep normal hours...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Spot

Domkyrkan, the cathedral in Lund is a great photo subject during the Christmas and New Year's holidays. The towers are illuminated and the windows glow from the lights inside. The only challenge is getting far enough back in order to be able to capture the entire facade. The front of Lund's Domkyrka is about 35 meters from the buildings and shops across the street and through the years I have seen thousands of tourists pressed up against the shops across the street trying in vain to get as much as possible into the shot.
For most p&s cameras it's impossible, they just can't go wide enough. When I first came to Lund in 1987 I had an analog camera, an Olympus OM2n and a 24mm Zuiko lens which allowed me to capture the front but not much else. The situation deteriorated when I went digital with the Canon 300D + 18-55mm lens, which was the full frame equivalent of 29mm

Lunds Cathedral at 18mm (29mm fullframe equivalent)

As you see the shot is nothing to excited about, it might work as a reminder of what I have seen, but it doesn't put the cathedral into any kind of context.

I've never been very interested in wide-angle lenses but every time you travel to a big city like Stockholm, New York or Lund, you realize they have a place in your lens collection. With a full-frame camera like the 5DII the Canon 24-105mm lens became my "walk-around" lens. It's much better than 29mm but still not quite at home in close quarters. Here is where the 17-40mm lens shines, allowing you to put things into a context:

Lunds Cathedral at 17mm
As you see in this shot the cars spoil the shot, and setting up for New Years eve fireworks I knew that this was going to be a problem when the fireworks went off behind the cathedral. It would be better to be on the same side of the street, but then the 17-40 isn't wide enough. So I decided to chance it and as you see from the result below the composition is pretty good, but the cars were indeed a problem; of the 15 shots I took, there were cars in most of them.

New Years Fireworks at 17mm
Still even 17mm doesn't tell the whole story, and while my favorite lens the Samyang 14mm is better, I wanted even more.

Lunds Cathedral with the Samyang 14mm f/2.8

So during the last days of my Christmas holidays I experimented with stitched panoramas of the cathedral, using the 14mm Samyang and taking 15 shots in portrait orientation to create a 360 degree view.

360 degree view of Lunds Cathedral
Of course now the distortion is a bit distracting, but it captures the big picture.
The nice thing about stitching images is that you can use almost any lens, a tripod makes it easier to line up the images properly and shoot in M mode to ensure that the exposure is identical in all images. I could have created the same result using a 50mm lens, but it would have taken 240 images instead of 15.
So next time you can't get far enough from your subject, try capturing the shot using multiple images, remember to use portrait orientation, otherwise your image will only be wider, not higher. Photoshop's "Photomerge function will put the pieces together for you automagically, blending the image perfectly.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Every so often Lena gets tired of spending Christmas in Southern Californa and insists that we spend Christmas in Sweden and enjoy a traditional Christmas in Sweden. Unfortunately the weather in southern Sweden has a somewhat different interpretation of traditional Christmas, and what we generally get is rain, wind and clouds.

As luck would have it we did get some snow a couple of weeks before Christmas and Lena and I took the opportunity to pay another visit to Skäralid National Park. It made for a fantastic winter setting but it only lasted one day before the rains came and washed it all away.

This image was taken with the Canon 6D and my "walk-around lens" the 24-105L, post-processing done in PS Lightroom, with some extra saturation to bring out the red in the buildings.

This image is taken with one of my absolute favorite lenses, the Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Although this is a completely manual lens, you shouldn't be intimidated by the lack of autofocus. Even at f2.8 the depth of field will extend from 2m to infinity, so focussing is rarely a problem. This lens costs a fraction of what Canon's 14mm lens costs, and easily matches the Canon in most aspects, and surpasses the Canon for astro-photography where the Canon has a tendency to make stars look like commas.

And here is the Christmas weather we were dreaming about:

But I had to dig into the archives from 2005 and the Ice Hotel in Northern Sweden for this one.

Best wishes for a happy new year!