Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In the Sanctuary of the Albatross

For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary on Jan. 1 we wanted to go someplace special, and since we were visiting my parents during the holidays we had San Diego as our starting point. Since we have seen so much of the Southwest already it was time for something even more exotic, so I suggested Hawaii and didn't get any arguments from the rest of the family. And while this was intended as a family trip I couldn't help checking google for what kind of birds and wildlife we might find on the island of Hawaii. I have been to Hawaii a couple of times before and wasn't expecting anything new, but then I just happened to stumble upon information about an albatross sanctuary on Hawaii, and that their nesting begins in December. Apparently the population has been decimated in the past by wild dogs and off-road vehicles, but a few years ago the state put a fence across the peninsula of the albatross nesting site and since then their numbers have quickly increased.  Access to the nesting grounds entailed a 4 kilometer hike across open terrain that can get very hot, but as luck would have it we managed to time our visit with a real cold spell and the threat of continued storms and rain, YEAH! (not)... The girls were more interested in the shopping malls and generously offered to stay in Honolulu...

Johan and I, still under the influence of jet-lag, left Honolulu around 5AM with coffee and breakfast from Starbucks and made the 90 minute drive to the parking area. The weather did not look promising and we were sure that we would be drenched by storms on the horizon, and although we felt a few drops we probably found the least rainy spot on the island. During our one hour hike we saw no sign of albatross over the ocean, so we weren't completely convinced that they we were going to see any...

Even as we reached the fenced area we did not see any albatross, until we begin walking along the trail, and then suddenly only a few meters away a lone albatross sat in the grass obviously on a nest. We were very careful to avoid making any noise but the bird did not seem particularly concerned about our presence. After taking a few telephoto close-ups we continued our hike further into albatross territory.

Due to the storms the winds were hard, but that didn't bother the albatross and we saw more and more in the air performing acrobatics, hanging in the winds and then diving just over the ground before landing in their courting and nesting areas.

When they landed we observed the typical greeting behaviour as they shake their beaks together and sound like a noise maker.

But this behaviour was not just reserved for couples, but even extended to the neighbors, and after greeting their spouse the newly landed bird would also wander over and greet the neighbors

After making the rounds the spouses traded places and the sitting birds waddled off to the launching pad and pointed their beaks against the wind and began their wild flapping and running to get airborn...

Once up in the air they made a few passes over the nesting area, maybe to see who else was at home, before heading out to sea to search for food.

After three hours the activity died down and there were almost no flying birds over the colony, and we decided that was a sign that it was time to make the 4km hike back to the car and head back to civilization. Next time we will have to time our visit so that the eggs have hatched, probably February...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

From the Alps to the Volcanos of Clermont-Ferand

I keep thinking I need to finish this post but life got in the way. Now it's nearly Christmas and I haven't had much time to photograph due to the weather the last few weeks, so it's nice to reminisce about what a fantastic summer we had.
After leaving Venosc and the Alps on the 6th of July we headed west to stay with our friends Aurélie and Aurelien in Clermont-Fernad. Aurelien suggested we stop in Lyon and visit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and since I really love looking at old cathedrals it sounded like a good place for a break in our trip. Even though Aurelien said it was worth the visit, I try not to get my hopes up to avoid being diasappointed, but this was a real jewel...

And as a photographer the challenge is how to take it all in? No single shot can capture the how impressive this cathedral is, so panorama is the only option. First a 180 degree horizontal panorama

And then a 180 degree vertical panorama; I think the woman behind me was quite surprised with I continued my shots from front to back and wound up pointing straight at her.
I am really happy with how this turned out considering it is handheld; it would have been much easier with a tripod...

After spending an hour in the cathedral it was time to continue to Clermont-Ferand, and area of France known for its past volcanic activity. Arriving at the home of A & A we were treating to an assortment of French cheeses; I had to take a picture of the beautiful presentation, and it tasted as good as it looked.

From their flat A&A have a fantastic view of the cathedral of Clermont-Ferand, but it's a bit of a challenge to photograph it and capture the detail in the shadows, so every morning and evening I took a few shots.

Despite a few rain showers we made daily trips in the region including one which led us to the Château de Murol.

The clouds from the storm that trapped us in the château made the scene look much more dramatic, and Kristina looking out over the fields reminds me of Rapunzel letting down her golden hair. It was  a bit of a fairy tale day.

After the storm passed the skies quickly turned blue again...

After one of the longest summers I can remember autumn went by in a flash, and in three weeks it will be Christmas. I hope spring doesn't keep us waiting...


Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Killer Marmotte of Alpe d'Huez

In search of a new adventure, and new scenery I jumped on a bicycling challenge proposed by Nina Gilljam from Höllviken CK (one of the two cycling clubs I belong to). Höllviken CK has all sorts of interesting cycling destinations and this one "La Marmotte" struck a chord;
thirty years ago in 1984 I visited the Alps around Alpe d'Huez and watched two stages of the Tour de France and since then have dreamed of crossing the Alps on bicycle in order to experience what the pro's really go through. My hero at the time, Greg Lemond, was the first American to have a shot at winning, even though officially he was working for Bernard Hinault and team "La Vie Claire".

So on the 15th of July, 1984 after spending the night in a tent on a slope my traveling companion Cathy and I spent the day watching the racers fly by, one every two minutes, during the individual time trial. A real festival atmosphere as thousands of fans lined the roads and waited for their favorites.

But "La Marmotte" is a very different animal, literally. La Marmotte is a cyclosportive named after a rather large rodent of the same name that makes its home in the Alps:

I have no idea why they named this cycling event after a rodent. Maybe someone thought a marmot would give associations to something soft and fuzzy, and that was probably a good marketing move, since the animal that best captures the pain of the world's most challenging cyclosportive (174km/108 miles and with 5,180 m/16,990 ft of climbing) would probably be the tasmanian devil, and who would sign up for a ride like that? But never mind the pain, the rewards are unforgettable.

The scenery in the alps and particulary along the route of La Marmotte, alpine meadows, quaint villages, wild orchids, and the comradery of 7000 cyclists climbing a 12% grade at 2600 meters to pass by this sign...

I was completely exhausted by the first 114km when I reached that sign, but from there it was 50 kilometers downhill which begins with sheer cliffs and hairpin turns at speeds of 60+kph before leveling out ahead of the final 13km climb up Alpe d'Huez.

Unfortunately inexperience put a stop to my race; I neglected to douse my head with cool water before starting the final climb and overheated 10 km from the finish. I didn't lose too much sleep over not making it up Alpe d'Huez that day though , since I managed to make it up another day:

Whether for cycling, photography or both this was a fantastic destination.

From our ski cottage we had fantastic views all day long, and beautiful sunsets that played out on the glaciers:

And while struggling up a hill on a training ride there were countless orchids lining the side of the road.

On the final night of our stay in the clear summer night, the stars were amazing...
But since most of this week had been dedicated to cycling, most of my photography started the day after the ride...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 4

Despite unlimited things to do in Venice, we thought we should also explore the areas outside of Venice. On the advice of photographer Arved Gintenreiter we decided to take a day trip to the Island of Burano; an island known for its brightly painted houses. We got an early start and caught the Vaporetto boat at 10AM. There were already quite a few tourists on the boat, but when we arrived at Burano it was relatively quite and uncrowded.

View from the Vaporetto - Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 28mm f4 1/250 ISO200
This would all change as the day progressed and the island filled with more and more tourists, but at least we had a couple of hours of relative calm to stroll the streets of this very small community

Burano 15 shot Panorama - Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 28mm f5.6 1/250 ISO200
There are many charming houses as you can see, and a panorama shot really captures the atmosphere.

School Girl at Drinking Fountain - Canon 6D +24-105L at 24mm f16 1/100 ISO200

Of course even the boats and oars are brightly painted on Burano...

Blue Boat of Burano - Canon 6D +24-105L @ 105mm f8 1/250 ISO200
After four hours on Burano including a lunch at one of the towns least expensive establishments we decided that we were now overloaded with colorful houses and caught the Vaporetto back to Venice. Once back on our "home turf" I convinced Lena and Johan to make a side trip to a couple of the photo spots from our day with Arved, and luck was on our side. The cloudy skies improved the lighting significantly and as we were photographing a newly wed couple in a gondola became the center-piece on my panorama.

Venetian Wedding Limousine - Canon 6D + Sigma 14mm/2.8 @ f8 1/100 ISO100

But now everyone needed to take a break so we headed back to our hotel for a couple of hours before heading out again in time to catch the blue hour around 20:00...

Gondola's at Piazza San Marco - Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 45mm f8 15sec ISO100
And finally at 21:50 the blue light was fading, one last shot from the Riva degli Schiavoni

View from Riva degli Schiavoni -  Canon 6D + 24-105L @ 28mm f8 25 sec ISO400

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 3

After yesterday's marathon photo session I slept in until 6:30; no blue hour photos today, and it was unlikely that Lena or Johan was going to be up before 9:00. So I decided to simply wander the streets and see what I could find. One of the places that Arved had suggested was worth a visit was the medical museum in the Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo, so I headed there. It's a bit odd entering a hospital without any hospital business, and I was  a bit worried that someone would ask me what I was doing there, so I tried to act like I knew where I was going and finally found the library upstairs. The library itself is stunning, with a gold tiled ceiling, but the highlight has to be all the medical equipment that they have gathered from hundreds of years of medical practice. Most of them look painful and would probably have persuaded me to live with whatever was bothering me.

Hospital Museum - 2 shot pano Canon 6D + Samyang 14mm @ 1/60th, iso1600
As fascinating as the museum was, it didn't fit my photographic vision for the day, so after 45 minutes of looking at scary metal instruments I headed for another recommended destination; a nearby used bookstore with some original decor. The back entrance to the bookstore is via a canal, so the store is subject to flooding, and to avoid damage to the books the owner has stacked the lower books in bathtubs and a gondola, which is what you see in the image below.

Panorama with Canon 6D+Sigma 14mm/f2.8
The owner was very friendly and suggested I also take a look at his garden, where he has built stairs of books

Panorama with Canon 6D+Sigma 14mm/f2.8
By now it was close to 10:00 and Johan and Lena were ready to go out, so I returned to the apartment and then we headed towards the Rialto Market area. This meant crossing the Rialto Bridge which provides beautiful views even mid-day...

View from Rialto Bridge
There are both fish and vegetable markets and they are well worth a visit. Being under cover you can photograph midday with not worries about shadows or high contrast, and there are always interesting fish and produce to look at.

Vegetable Market
After exploring the market we went to a small restaurant Do Spade to get a bite to eat. Risotto was the specialty and was recommended to us by Arved. My only complaint is the portions in Venice are both small and expensive. In Italy you have several courses with every meal; risotto is more of an appetizer than a main course. But rather than spend another small fortune on another small portion we decided to hold out for an early dinner.

Our next destination with the old Jewish Ghetto of Venice, where Arved promised we could find an excellent gondolier Luca without the tourist traffic jams. It took us several trips in, around and through the ghetto before we finally find Luca, but we did succeed and he was extremely charming as he spoke reverently about his 50 year old gondola that was built by his father with upholstery recently restored by his mother.


 Luca took us through areas that most tourists never get to see, and we enjoyed the solitude and quiet in the narrow canals of the oldest parts of Venice.

On the way to our flat we passed one of Venice's oldest pharmacies. Half the pharmacy was modern, and half was a museum exhibition of the old pharmacy. Obviously clean floors and safety was a concern back in the middle ages as well.

Ancient Pharmacy - Canon 6D+Samyang 14mm @ f8 1/80/iso1600 7 shot panorama

After a reasonably priced dinner in one of Venice's neighborhood pubs we climbed the Rialto bridge again to watch the gondola traffic as night began to fall.

Rialto Bridge at Sunset - Canon 6D+24-105L @ 24mm/f8 1/2sec
Finally when it get's dark enough you can do long exposures, assisted with ND and/or POL fiters which smoth out the water and create star effects of the street lights. Another stunning day in Venice, final count 412 pictures...

Blue Hour on Rialto Bridge - Canon 6D+24-105L@ 24mm/f11 30 secs

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Venice; A Tale of Two Cities... Day 2

4AM arrived quickly. No doubt because I had left the bedroom window open on our fifth floor room and was up half the night trying to get rid of our uninvited guests. Later I discovered that our room had air conditioning, which avoided further blood-letting. Anyway, happy 50th birthday Lena, this will be a day to remember... Lena is not a morning person, so I think she suffered more by the 4AM wake-up call than I did from the mosquitoes and lack of sleep.

We met Arved Gintenreiter by the columns on the Piazza San Marco at 4:45. We spent about 10 seconds on introductions because the night sky was disappearing quickly. Arved assisted Johan while I quickly set up for a panorama shot of the piazza capturing the contrast between the cobalt night sky and the illuminated piazza which was now completely deserted.

Pre-Dawn Piazza San Marco 9-shot panorama Canon 6D+24-105L @ 24mm/f4 1sec iso800
The night sky was quickly disappearing and we hurried to take  different shots on the piazza. When we finished I made another effort at the full moon disappearing behind the Basilica Santa Maria, but it was a lost cause. I overexposed the moon which was now too low to make the composition interesting, and missed the focus on the basilica since I had used manual focus earlier. But what are you going to do? I will pretend I was focusing on the gondolas and the Basilica is the background...

Moonset Behind Basilica Santa Maria - Canon 6D+24-105L 65mm/f5 1.3sec iso100
We took a few more shots on the piazza and ended our first session at 5:50 as the sun began to light up the basilica.

Street Lamps on Piazza San Marco - Canon 6D+24-105L 100mm/f4 1/25sec iso100

Basilica Santa Maria at Dawn - Canon 6D+24-105L @ 75mm/f5 1/160sec iso100
We took a quick coffee break at one of the few cafés open at this time of morning before starting our next session, where Arved taught us some very interesting lessons about using the play between light and dark. Knowing the locations and how to time the shots with the sun's position, Arved led us to a half a dozen interesting spots all the while sharing the history of Venice and the places we were seeing.

The shot below was unplanned; just a cat in a window at 7:30 in the morning. This was the only good shot before a scowling old man opened the window to see what what was going on outside. He obviously hadn't had his coffee yet.

We finished our morning session and agreed to meet Arved again at 5:45PM. In the meantime we went back to our hotel room and collapsed for a couple of hours before lunch. At 12.00 we tracked down one of the few restaurants that advertised having gluten free pizza for Johan. A poor choice in hindsight, a half sized pizza at twice the price... oh well, YOLO...

So now we were back in the tourist Venice as the once empty streets and alleys quickly filled. I'm always a sucker for a view, and since the cathedral on the piazza did not allow photography I suggested we take the elevator ride to the top of the Campanile which provided a fantastic view of Venice. It's not so exciting photographically, no contours, and mostly roof tops, but at least there were a few clouds to make the sky a little more interesting.

View from the Campanile
An authentic venetian traffic jam. A tick in the box for the one day visitor to Venice. But do yourself a favor and find a gondola outside the main tourist zone. No queues, no traffic and a no tourists.

We met up with Arved again at 5:45 and spend another few hours walking to a dozen great photo sites, while Arved pointed to even more we should visit when the light was right or the sky was better, or we had more time. It's hard too choose from the many shots we took, and this shot is maybe a standard postcard shot, but I just love a good sunset...

San Giorgio Maggiore at sunset - Canon 6D+24-105L 70mm/f22 6sec iso50

1055 shots was the final count for the day, but I did a lot of bracketing, so maybe the true count is closer to 400. It was a memorable day, for all us and loaded with ideas on venues, restaurants we said farewell to Arved on the Piazza San Marco. We ended our evening enjoying a great dinner while listening to a live band just outside the window. 

Birthday Dinner on the Piazza San Marco