18 Aug 2014

Rome in Black & White

I recently visited Rome, in the height of summer, on a weekend break with one of my sisters are her seven-year-old son. It certainly wasn't the most ideal time or conditions for capturing Rome from a photographic point of view, but I made the most of it, combining sight-seeing and spending time with family with the odd snap or two.

I first visited Rome in November 2010 and it was grey, cold and wet and I didn't like the place all that much, perhaps as a result of the weather, or perhaps just because I couldn't make sense of the mish-mash of ancient, old and new all cobbled together haphazardly. This time I at least knew what to expect the city to look like, and the skies were clear and blue, although this was accompanied by temperatures soaring far higher than I feel comfortable with (at least 32° C). The apartment we stayed in had no air-conditioning, just an ineffectual fan, so I was forced to sleep, ear-plug-less, with the windows wide open onto a noisy square (screaming children and yappy dogs at 1am not appreciated!). As a result of the excessive heat, dreadful nights' sleep and unnecessarily unfriendly waiters, I still didn't come away loving the place.

In spite of that, the architecture, cultural wealth and the history are undeniably impressive. I'd warned my sister that my nephew probably wouldn't be interested in much of the cultural side, the but she was keen to see the Sistine Chapel, so we gave the Vatican Museum a go anyway. I'd paid the €4 per ticket to book online, avoiding the long queue to get in along the City wall outside, but inside the queue continued - right to the Chapel. It was absolutely rammed and the journey past endless riches through the painted corridors to the prized chapel took over 45 minutes, shuffling along with the other tourists, everybody snapping away. It was so packed and hot that it was hard to appreciate the immense treasures we were passing by.  It was less crowded on the return journey, but by that time the seven-year-old was definitely over it (we were too, actually), and so we walked swiftly to the exit (via the wonderful iconic spiral staircase, below (and gift-shop, of course)) and headed off in search of spaghetti bolognese. I took a few shots inside (not in the Sistine Chapel, of course, as it is forbidden there), but in spite of the 5DIII's great low light capabilities they still didn't come out brilliantly.

Over the weekend we took metro trains, buses and a tram and visited many of the usual sights - the Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican City (I'm obsessed with those magnificent pillars!), the Colisseum (also worth the €2 a ticket online booking fee to avoid the queues) and nearby Palatine Hill, had a good wander past some other sights (the Trevi Fountain - currently under wraps, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the imposing Altare della Patria, Castel Sant'Angelo) and took an open-top bus tour to see a bit more. We watched the supermoon rise over Ponte Sant'Angelo after the sun had set behind the Vatican City. We visited my favourite restaurant from my previous visit (Enoteca Cul de Sac) in hope of their delicious onion soup, only to find it isn't served in summer (the lasagne wasn't bad, instead).

Upon my return home I sifted through the hundreds of photos and began processing a few. One thing that had struck me while I was there was that we were often out in the middle of the day, with harsh overhead sun and deep blue skies (away from the sun, anyway), which would make for striking black and white images. With this in mind I'd tried to capture images that would make the most of this contrast as well as conveying the feeling of the blistering sun.

I've recently started using a programme called Perfect Effects 8 for my black and white processing, as it gives huge scope and control over the process which is somewhat basic in Photoshop Elements. I love playing around with the channels and contrast to find the right look, ensuring that the blue skies become dark (move the filter slider over to the red side), the highlights aren't blown out, textures remain strong, the mass of people stand out like little ants and the buildings pop out at you, while still looking real. I finished these images off with a fairly strong dark vignette to make the subject stand out even more. The occasional cirrus cloud lingering around adds a welcome contrast to the skies.

These images (and many more - including some colour ones!) can be seen (bigger) on my website and are available for purchase.

21 Jul 2014

Midsummer in the Lofoten Islands

I've seen the midnight sun before a few times, and there is something exciting about it to begin with. For a photographer, however, it's not the best time of year to visit the Arctic - unless, that is, you enjoy staying up all night. The days are bright (if there is any sunshine, of course) and the golden hours come between 10.30pm and 3.30am - not the ideal time for any normal being. There is no dawn or dusk, no blue hour, no dark skies. But I didn't visit the Lofoten Islands over midsummer for a dedicated photography trip; it was a last-minute holiday grabbed with my husband, and we both enjoyed it very much - speeding ticket aside, so I mustn't complain too much.

Crepuscular Rays over the Norwegian Sea at Kvalvika Beach

The Lofoten Islands are a small chain of islands just north of the Arctic circle in Norway, with magnificent peaks that jut out at steep angles from the sea. Getting there is no easy feat - requiring at least an internal flight from Oslo, and then either a long drive in an expensive rental car, another short hop in a plane, or a not-very-conveniently-timed boat-trip from the mainland. We chose the first option, flying from Oslo into a little airport called Evenes or Harstad/Narvik, from where we rented a car, stayed overnight in Bogen nearby, before embarking on the long drive south-west through Hinnøya (Norway's fourth-largest island) before arriving in the Lofoten Islands themselves.

The view from our hotel, Evenes Fjordhotel, near Bogen
We spent our second night in the town of Svolvær, the largest settlement on the islands, after driving for a few hours through pleasant scenery. Svolvær is a nice-enough town with an array of impressive mountains in the distance (including the islands' highest peak - Higravstinden, at 1,161m), a harbour, a few restaurants, some swanky hotels, and place to take boat-trips around the surrounding fjords. We took a drive around the area, stopping at the local aquarium to see the bizarre-looking wolf-fish, before taking a loop drive around the northern part of Austvågøya past the lighthouse at Laukvik. The weather had deteriorated as the day had gone on and the peaks were now shrouded with an ethereal fog. Our fingers froze in the fierce cold winds at the lighthouse. About 20km before getting back to Svolvær we were pulled over by a traffic cop hiding in a driveway behind a bush and fined a whopping 4,200 krone (about £420 or $715) for driving 66kmph in a 50. It somewhat ruined Svolvær for us, and we were glad to leave the following morning (having gone through the arduous exercise of actually trying to pay the damned fine - you have to pay cash at the police station - they don't accept foreign cards).

Laukvik Lighthouse
Misty hills on the north side of Austvågøya 

The view from our hotel, Thon Lofoten, in Svolvaer

On the way south the road goes through endless tunnels and over steep bridges. We made a short stop at Unstad beach, not far from Leknes - the other reasonable-sized town - on the way to Hamnøy, where we had rented a rorbu (fisherman's cabin) for 4 nights. At Unstad a surf-lesson was going on, and I took a few long exposure shots of massive rocks at the far edge of the beach, with the sun peaking out briefly.

Long exposure at Unstad Beach

From there we continued onwards, but our journey was slowed considerably by summer roadworks on the road just outside of Hamnøy. The road is being rebuilt, with massive open-sided tunnels being built to protect the road from the frequent boulder falls from the mountains above. The road is closed for about 15 minutes while they blast a few rocks, and then each line of traffic is guided through in turn. Throughout the summer nights they close the road between 11pm and 1am and then again from 2am until 5.30am while they continue working in the available light. I hope the works will be finished soon, as it definitely impedes one's ability to explore the area.

We spent our first full day hanging out in the delightful rorbu (see my earlier blog on our first rainy day there). Wifi helped us while away the hours, and I did manage to get a few shots of the mountains across the fjord, in spite of the horrible weather. The winds rattled the rorbu but we felt safe and snug inside. Gulls struggled to stay on their feet on the rocks outside the cabin.

Looking out at our neighbours as the rain fell...

A large herring gull tries to stay upright in the gusty winds
The sun briefly came out in the early evening over Lilandstinden, one of the peaks above the cabin.

The following day the weather was considerably better so we did a wonderful hike up from Sørvgen to the Munkebu Huts (thanks to Cody Duncan and his wonderful site www.68north.com for all the detailed information about hikes in the Lofotens). It took us a little longer than anticipated and skies cleared as we reached the huts. The hike back down was glorious - the views throughout the trek are fantastic.

Some hikers below us on the way down from the Munkebu Huts

Murray crossing some late snow just above the Munkebu Huts
One of the many picturesque small lakes on the way up to the Munkebu Huts 
A view down to a bridge on the E10 between Reine and Sørvågen

When we returned from the hike the sun was just above the Olstind peak opposite the cabin and poured spectacular rays across the hills as it moved slowly northwards.

The next day we decided to do an evening hike to Kvalvika beach, hoping to catch some real midnight sun (although it doesn't actually face due north, so it wouldn't have happened anyway!), so we took it easy during the day and headed back down to the charming village of Å, at the end of the E10, where we had a short stroll and then managed to locate the bakery and scoffed a couple of their delicious cinnamon rolls, chatting to a couple of intrepid young American guys who were travelling around the region by public transport, and camping along the way.

Picturesque traditional buildings in Å
Delicious cinnamon rolls at the bakery in Å, part of the museum there
We set off towards Kvalvika in the late afternoon - via the laborious roadworks - and ate in Ramberg, a pleasant little place with a long white beach. Heavy clouds sat above the hills in the direction that we were planning to hike.

The long expanse of white sand at Ramberg

We then drove back and across the bridges towards Fredvang, where we parked the car and set off on our trek. To get to Kvalvika beach you have to hike up about 200m, taking about an hour, before a steep hike down to the beach. It is worth it, though, as it's quite an impressive beach, split into two with some boulders inbetween. The sea was an incredible green colour, only visible at its best briefly as the sun peaked through from the clouds. My husband explored each beach (finding a few plastic bins and fish containers from random towns in the UK) while I set up the tripod and took a few long exposure shots (my favourite!). There were some pretty crepuscular rays seeping out over the sea, but the midnight sun was not going to appear.

Even without sunshine the sea appears amazingly green. This is the northerly of the two beaches at Kvalivka; 25 second exposure
After clambering across the rocky area between the two beaches I took a few long exposures of the southerly beach at Kvalvika; this is a 1.3 second exposure

By the time we'd left the beach and climbed the massive hill the golden hour had arrived, although the sun was still behind clouds to the north. The views from the pass were lovely in both directions.

Nice light looking back over Kvalvika beach once we reached the top of the pass 
Sunset light over the mountains to the east seen from the top of the pass on the way back from Kvalvika

Once we'd got back down the other side we'd already missed our window-of-opportunity to reach the road while it was open. We took a drive around a few fjords to kill time, knowing we needed to be back at the edge of the roadworks between 1 and 2am in order to get back to bed, so we couldn't go too far. We drove to a quaint little fishing village called Nusfjord where I took a few shots at midnight, before driving back, waiting to pass the works, and finally getting home at about 1.30am.

Picturesque Nusfjord at midnight

On our last full day in the islands we checked out of our lovely rorbu - nearly leaving our delicious juniper-smoked salmon in the fridge - and drove north-east again, stopping at the picturesque Haukland beach. The beach is also split into two parts and has pure white sand, and the sun actually came out while we were there. It was one of the prettiest beaches I'd ever seen - like a tropical beach but without the palm trees (and a wee bit colder too!).

The stunning Haukland beach

We continued through Leknes where we stopped for a delicious lunch of bacalao and fish curry at Johnsen's Fiskerestaurant. We hadn't know about the place but stumbled upon it - what a find!

Delicious bacalao - a tomato-based stew made with salt cod - absolutely yummy!

We continues on to Henningsvær, another pretty fishing village with a backdrop of jagged peaks, via a lovely back-road with very few other cars around. Most of the Lofotens actually seems quite built-up, with houses dotted every few km along the E10 main road. It was nice to get off the beaten-track and feel a bit more remote. There were also far fewer Dutch camper-vans along that stretch.

We ate in a smart restaurant in town and finally tried a dish of semi-rehydrated stockfish (the dried cod that we'd seen hanging everywhere throughout the islands). It wasn't particularly nice, but we managed to eat most of it it! It was a nice little village to wander around, with typical old Scandinavian houses dotted around a couple of islands, connected with bridges. The place has lots of fishing and sailing boats, as well as being a centre for rock-climbing in the area. It also has a fantastic modern art gallery, which we visited the following morning before heading back to the airport, in an old converted caviar factory (Kavi Factory). Throughout the town one can also spot stencil graffiti by a local artist (Pobel) - a little bit like our own Banksy.

The view of Henningsvær from our hotel, the Finnholmen Brygge

Chairs outside the Kavi Factory in Henningsvær

A stencil graffiti work by the local artist Pobel, seen in the toilet in the Kavi Factory art gallery - worth nipping inside to have a look!

The drive back was long and slow - we didn't dare drive a km over the speed limit after the earlier incident, and in retrospect it would have been more efficient to fly into Bodø and then fly into Leknes from there, but I booked it in a hurry and didn't have time to do much research. While the scenery is still mountainous on Hinnøya it's certainly not as spectacular as the Lofotens themselves and the drive is a bit tedious at 80kmph (although there are a few stretches as you hit the mainland where it increases to an almost normal speed of 90kmph!).

I'm considering returning for my winter photography trip, to see the islands in better light, with snow and ice, with the golden hours at a reasonable time of the day, and of course with a chance to see the northern lights over the stunning peaks. I'm not sure if I can keep away from Iceland, though! We shall see; it's a long time until next March...

Six minute exposure of the view from our cabin, Thomas Bua (no.1) at Eliassen Rorbuer, taken at 12.35am

More photos fro this trip can be seen on my website.

21 Jun 2014

Another Rainy Day in the Lofoten Islands

The view a few steps from the cabin. A 5-minute exposure of the view across the fjord to Olstind

We finally arrived at our wonderful rorbu (old fisherman's cabin) in Hamnøy yesterday, on Moskenøya, the southernmost of the main islands of the Lofotens in Arctic Norway (there are a couple out to sea to the south-west). The view, as expected, is spectacular, looking directly across the fjord from two corner windows to Olstind, an impresssive pointy peak, and the massive Lilandstinden towering above to the north out of the other window. I chose the cabin after a thorough search (including TripAdvisor and Google Streetview), ensuring that I found a cabin with decent views out of the main windows. There wasn't a great deal of choice left, given that I booked it last weekend, but for some reason the cabin with possibly the best view was still available (it's not cheap, but nothing here is). So here we are, in cabin number 1 (Thomas-bua) at Eliassen Rorbuer.

This is the view from the east window, towards the next cabin, Lilanstinden on the left

But of course it's now raining! The long-term weather forecast before we arrived had been for cloud with a little sun, but as the days got closer, the forecast deteriorated, so now - on midsummer's eve - the mountains are only just visible through low cloud and gusts of up to 30mph rock the little cabin from time to time (the cabins are pretty robust, so we feel warm and safe inside!). It is forecast to improve, with sun by tomorrow afternoon, so fingers crossed...

This is the view from where I'm sitting right now (from the kitchen table)

Hiking today is out of the question. Going outside might even be. Opening the windows briefly to stick the camera outside maybe what I'll have to satisfy myself with. And reviewing the photos of the journey here and our arrival yesterday, when there was the odd shower but I was able to get a few shots.

The view from Eliassen on arrival

The kitchen table of Thomas-bua, with views across the fjord to Olstind and Lilandstinden (honest). They recycle here, hence the bins...
The sitting room part of the cabin and the "master" bedroom - only a wide single bed and two narrow bunks, but still comfy. No black-out curtains!

The sun was visible on the slopes of Olstind for a few minutes after we arrived - hopefully we'll see it again in the next couple of days
After we arrived we took a drive through the nearby islands of Sakrisøy - where we picked up some fresh wolf-fish for supper at Sjømat (fantastic fish shop, where we also tried a tiny piece of smoked whale meat - quite tasty!), and Reine, the biggest village in the area, before heading on to the end of the road at Å (the shortest place name in the world, perhaps?). I was glad we'd chosen Hamnøy instead of Reine, as it's peaceful and quiet.

Cod heads drying on racks on Sakrisøy - they're everywhere, and mostly exported to Nigeria
The view as you drive across to Reine (not actually an island)
We didn't stop for long in Å - just tried to figure out where the bakery was that sells delicious cinnamon rolls. We couldn't locate it, but will try again today perhaps (after a quick google search I discovered that it's part of the museum there and only sells its wares in the summer, which apparently is now!). We drove back and Murray cooked the wolf-fish, accompanied by baked sweet potatoes, while I stood outside getting a few long exposure shots before the next shower arrived. A tiny sea otter poked its head out of the water at me briefly; hopefully I'll see him again while we're here. Dinner was washed down with some tasty Nøgne IPA which we'd bought at the duty free in Oslo on the way in (booze is extremely pricey in Norway, so the queues in duty free on arrival are always very long!)
Another quick shot before bed - 75 second exposure at 10.30pm
 The curtains are a little thin here, but as it was a grey, cloudy night, there wasn't too much daylight to prevent sleep. We heard a loud bang, which at first we thought must be thunder, but then realised that it was a dynamite explosion from up the main road, where they're rebuilding the precipitous road along the coast (it's closed for most of the night while they work, and on-and-off during the day too, which made our journey here a little arduous).

I woke up early to the sound of the gusty wind and driving rain battering the cabin, but hopefully the forecast of better weather tomorrow will be right; some blue skies and midnight sun would be nice. In the meantime, I have to content myself with nipping out when there's a lull in the wind and the rain, and be glad that the cabin has wifi!

Not so easy to get long exposures when the wind is coming at you, bringing the odd spot of rain too!
Our temporary home - hubby is inside there in the warmth!
A lone seagull flies around in the rain above Lilandstinden