A fascinating and beautiful country full of contrasts and colour, Cuba offered me such a welcome respite that I took far fewer images on this trip than I usually do, preferring instead to enjoy the company of friends while killing infinite brain cells with pungent cigars and delicious cocktails. But beauty is beauty and when I could manage a steady hand I attempted to capture a few postcards.We actually started away from the capital, Havana, travelling west through the stunning valley of Vinales and indulging in a brief boat ride through the Indian Caves. We met a gentleman at a small tobacco farm who was kind enough to give me a freshly rolled cigar. Surrounded by endless 'buena vistas' one of the best ways to imbibe the spectacular scenery was a few hours on horseback. Parched and thirsty, we stopped at a coffee farm to sample some alcohol, honey and guava juice; exactly what you need to keep you steady at the reins. A dinner at an eco-fam overlooking the valley at sunset rounded off a beautiful day.I happily forgot about the word for a few hours while frolicking at the lush sandy white beaches at Maria La Gorda, on Cuba's south-west tip. Not one to languish on the sand I absorbed all my rays while floating in the gloriously clear water. The surrounding nature reserve, however, proved too enticing to resist, offering a wealth of species from bee hummingbirds and iguanas to small lizards and herons, and even bats in a cave. It was almost worth serving oneself up as a buffet of blood for the indigenous mosquito population. Repellant is a must.Via a brief stay at the Las Terrazas nature commune we headed back to Havana. A vibrant city resplendent with impressive architecture, anyone with an aversion to colour should definitely stay away. Much of the kaleidoscopic hues were courtesy of the city's famous abundance of classic American cars, their irresistible lines and forms easily forgiving the modern Korean diesel engines under the hoods. They're worthy of their own post and it will be on this blog soon.Havana, baked in heat and humming with ubiquitous air conditioners, is a city with a fascinating history, readily gleaned from a walk through its old town. Statues of conquerors and monuments to pioneers line the busy alleys and squares, walled by magnificent buildings, churches and cathedrals. The seemingly squalid exteriors belie the ornately furnished interiors, often revealed at the summit of a precarious marble staircase. The city's Unesco status inhibits any major development or renovation but also prevents the sacrifice of its distinctive aesthetic to a pervasion of coffee shop and fast food chains.Feasting on a traditional Cuban dish called Ropa Viejo (old clothes), essentially tasty pulled beef, was a fitting prelude to the Buena Vista Social Club where a succession of talented (if rather elderly) singers and dancers regaled us into the night.A great time was had by all in a country that is justifiably attractive to visit and it is little wonder that Hemingway found so much inspiration to write here. The people in Havana, and indeed all over Cuba, are friendly and welcoming, albeit a little too enterprising with their eagerness for your attention. But I found them exceptionally obliging and I will personally be eternally grateful for their kind help. All these images were shot with Olympus, composed and processed in my usual postcard style. While the sweltering heat sweated out my creative juices we were waved off on our departure by thunder and lightning. It made me think of a line from the song Escape by Rupert Holmes. 'If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain' then Cuba is the place to be.
Not to waste a sunny day we ventured down to Wakehurst Place again, a splendidly vibrant botanical garden with a diverse range of plant species from around the globe. We had hoped to see the elusive kingfishers in the Loder Valley Nature Reserve but alas we were not as lucky as our previous visit. Still, there were plenty of other floral and botanical delights to enjoy in the gardens and were happily ambled our way through them. My images here are probably not as good as the ones I accrued on my previous visit but I wished to enjoy the day without being a slave to the photography. Infidelity to my usual micro-four thirds format again, these were all shot with a Nikon DSLR (as indeed were the images from my previous visit here).
One of the more obvious ways of rendering images from inclement weather is to make them black and white. The glass is always half full with me so despite the relentless persecution by the weather I considered myself fortunate that I had seen these sites before (in better weather) and wasn't too disappointed to get a soaking. It thus didn't take me long to navigate through the mist from place to place, starting at Vik and ending at the hidden waterfall near Seljalandfoss. The black sand beaches at Vik and Reynisfyara made monochrome conversions easy, of course, and for the waterfalls at Skogafoss and Kvernufoss I used a long (1-2second) exposure to blur the water.
If you enjoy seeing vast city skylines from above then I suppose you could do worse than visiting the top of CN Tower in Toronto, probably the tallest structure in Canada. I timed my visit to be there before sunset so that I could enjoy the changing light through to dusk and beyond.It was a trifle challenging shooting through the glass but a good polariser helped out on my lenses. The best light came at dusk with its cobalt blue but unfortunately didn't last very long. Since the colour and lights of a city skyline appeal to me most I have processed these with that in mind, even rendering a slight pop-art look to some of the images.All shot hand-held with the Olympus E-M5.
It was more about the walk than the photography, to be honest. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a breezy and bright Sunday afternoon.But I still took my camera along in order to prove that even in the most ordinary of environments interesting compositions and lighting can be found, from the canopy above and right down to the ground.Our host, Epping Forest, allowed the overhead sun to provide shadows, backlighting and pockets of lit trees and leaves. The tree trunks themselves provide directional lines, guiding the eye into their upper echelons and creating a sense of height and scale. Their branches, when not taking on fantastical shapes, create frame edges and pervade the canopy with a dendritic, arterial scaffolding.Individual details are just as representative as grand scale, with bluebells, dandelions and ladybirds all gracefully posing for portraits. With the primes lenses I was using (35mm and 50mm) getting close enough meant some elaborate contortions but shooting wide open helped to blur the backgrounds and isolate the subject. I decided on this occasion to commit infidelity to my usual mirrorless system and shot everything with a DSLR, and without a touchscreen to help preclude crouching for low angles. Still, it's good to be kept on one's toes every now and then and remind oneself that ultimately the most important gear you can use is the trifecta of your brain, eyes and legs.
I decided to kill some time here during my visit to Niagara Falls, having a bit of a soft spot for butterflies. Much like the aquarium it tapped into my inner child's sense of wonder; I still find it extraordinary that these have metamorphosised from caterpillars. Coupled to that their colours and lighting made them a good photographic subject, lending themselves to isolated portraits.A fairly typical butterfly conservatory, there was no shortage of species fluttering about and it was an enjoyable, albeit brief, diversion. With some species on the decline in the wild I imagine it is evermore important for places like this to safeguard their continued existence.All shot with the Olympus E-M5 and either the 60mm F/2.8 or the 40-150mm F/2.8 with 1.4xTC attached, the zoom providing as much background separation as the excellent macro lens.
Well, maybe not all of it was towering but it was still a jungle of steel and glass, a testament to human endeavour and achievement to which I would often look up and casually snap while walking through it. Photographing buildings and architecture, especially the grand structures of an urban metropolis, is an easy photographic subject, in the sense that they offer plenty of leading lines and geometry to furnish one's compositions. After a while you just disconnect from the actual building and focus on the structure and the angles, rendering the images a little more abstract and (hopefully!) more creative than simply documenting individual buildings. Well, Toronto provided no end of subject matter to play with and from the ground the perspective upwards was truly impressive. These are all shot with the Olympus E-M5 and mostly with 12-40mm F/2.8. A couple were taken with the Samyang 7.5mm F/3.5 fisheye and with the Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8. Having the flip-out touchscreen on the E-M5 made composing the shots easy without suffering the neck cramps or vertigo of constantly looking up.
So I still have some shots from my Iceland trip to rifle through. It was a pretty long 8 days. These are mainly from in and around, and after, the Skaftafell National Park in the south.I mainly wanted to capture the Svartifoss waterfalls, bracketed by dark lava columns, but hadn't realised it was a bit of an uphill trek to get there. Nevertheless, I persevered and found some other picturesque waterfalls en route. Views from the hillside were also rather special, and would have been more so but for the descending cloud. Later in the day, as the light waned, I looked for the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. As is inevitable in Iceland, I stopped en route to capture yet another scenic waterfall and set of rapids. By the time I had found the canyon darkness had all but set in so it took some manual focusing and long exposures to bring them out into the light. Everything was shot with the Olympus E-M5 and mainly the 12-40mm F/2.8.
Ok, so I know there's a lot of shots of the skyline here and it goes without saying that I was somewhat enamoured, not just with the skyline itself, but also with the experience of shooting it. These shots are intended to show the beauty of the skyline over the course of the 75 minutes I spent shooting it, in changing light and positions. Reflections in the water and the colour of the sky varied over the course of that time owing to both the stillness of the water, the presence of mist and the changing light through twilight to dusk. My original plan was to shoot it from Polson Street but at the last minute I changed my mind and took a ferry to the Toronto Islands. I timed my arrival to be before sunset so that I would have the time to set up and get the shots I wanted. I found myself completely alone on the shore of one of the smaller islands; just myself and my tripod and camera. The solitude and silence, but for the water lapping at the shore, was a truly serene experience. Before sunset there was too much light for a long exposure so I attached a 10 stop ND grad filter to my lens. This enabled me to use a slower shutter speed without resorting to too narrow an aperture where diffraction would kick in. I also set the ISO to the default 200. As the light waned I removed the filter and was still able to use slower shutter speeds. The cloud cover precluded either a rich sunset or my preferred cobalt blue dusk but there emerged instead a pleasing fusion of magenta and pink clouds against the bluish dusk sky. I was soon able to resort to using the LIVE TIME feature on my Olympus, a great way of seeing the exposure progress and enabling one to stop it at any time. The Anit-Shock feature (1 second delay) was also engaged to prevent movement from depression of the shutter button. My preference when shooting city lights is always to err on the side of slight over exposure, just to catch a little more dazzle. Highlights can always be toned down in post. In the water in front of me was bench (I didn't put it there!) that I used in a few shots as a focal point in the composition, particularly to slow the movement of water around it and achieve a more ethereal look. Eventually the dusk blue surrendered to the black of night, although the city lights in the skyline still created a haze of red and yellow colour around them.Some images were taken from the ferry and also from Casa Loma but most were shot from the islands. These were all shot with either the Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 or 40-150mm F/2.8 on the EM-5 body. Some of the images may seem a little bright and colourful but to me the beauty of a skyline is in its vivid colour and light against the sky. And my postcard style always calls for a little 'pop'.
Well, not really postcards since the inclement weather didn't allow for the most picturesque shots but I did what I could in the brief time that I drove around this spectacular part of the country. Visiting friends was my primary objective during the Easter weekend and with that accomplished I decided to navigate my way through Snowdonia National Park, an understandably popular and stunning part of Wales. Having lived in Wales for a time it is a beloved second home to me and after they put Alpha Whiskey out to pasture (not long now) I hope they sprinkle my ashes liberally over this magnificent land of the red dragon. Thus this excursion was really about the photos but to soak in, enjoy and experience the environment. My friend Natalia accompanied me and we started our journey with a stay at the grand Castle Deudraeth next to the colourful town of Portmeirion. A vibrant, if slightly surreal place Portmeirion as designed and built by Sir Clough William-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village. A walk through the surrounding woods and along the beach treated us to some pleasing views.The following day, besieged with rain and mist, Natalia suggested we do what any sensible person would do in those conditions; hike up a mountain. After wandering through the Mawddwy valley we found ourselves at the foot of Cadair Idris. The late Sir George Mallory (who died on Mount Everest) said that the best reason to climb a mountain is because it is there. And while Cadair Idris is no Everest it was only courteous to accept her invitation to ascend her steep, stepped incline into the dense shroud of mist above. Our hike rewarded us with waterfalls rushing down through her wooded aspect until we finally reached Llyn Cau, the canopy of mist nestled within her crater just floating up in time for our arrival. Some food and rest later we picked the coastal town of Criccieth to see at dusk, with its beach leading the eye to her castle ruins atop a hill.The last day time was on a budget so we judiciously picked a few scenic views to take in. A quick stop at the small village of Beddgelert was a prelude to a drive though Snowdonia, viewing Llyn Gwynant from the mountain side before finding the beautiful Swallow Falls by the side of the road. Speaking of roads, Wales has the best I've experienced this side of the Isle Of Man and it was a real pleasure to drive along her undulating hills and valleys, often completely alone for miles on end but for the ubiquitous sheep. In many ways, with it numerous waterfalls and glacial valleys and lakes, it reminded me of Iceland. We finally made our way to Llyn Padarn, our satnav taking us on a rather agricultural route through skeletal tracks but offering up some terrific viewpoints. Before the obligatory sunset shot over the lake we stopped at the eerie Vivian Quarry, now an apparent training facility for divers. It was, of course, wonderful seeing and reminiscing with old friends and as ever I am grateful for their warmth, hospitality and love. I am also extremely grateful to the group of drivers in customised racers who stopped to pull Alpha Whiskey's car out of a hole. Without their miraculous help I would probably sill be there now. Well, I hope these images offer a fleeting glimpse of this wonderful place and prove that one doesn't need to travel far to see great beauty on this planet. I hope to revisit Snowdonia again with more time to capture more of it. All images processed to my taste and shot with Olympus gear.
Bit of a soft spot for aquaria, I must admit, and Ripley's in Toronto certainly didn't disappoint. Undoubtedly more popular with the kids this is nevertheless rightfully a major attraction of the city. I wasn't expecting to spend very long here but the sheer number of sharks, turtles and rays floating by overhead ignited the wonder from my inner child and I spent a good while in the tunnel mesmerised by the aquatic life. I even managed to get a crustacean manicure at the end. With a huge variety of marine species it's a great place to capture some colourful images. I used both Olympus lenses and the Samyang 7.5mm F/3.5 fisheye, which enabled me to capture the wide shots of people gawking at the sharks overhead.Almost all shot at ISO 1600 on the E-M5 and processed to my postcard style. Enjoy.
While there is plenty to post from around various places I visited in Toronto I figured Niagara Falls was probably a more well known landmark and thus decided to post images from there first. A 1 hour and 45 minute coach ride from Toronto, I spent the better part of a day here. Despite being in the winter season (before April) there was still plenty to see and do. I took a helicopter ride first, which while brief, gave me a great view of the falls and the first five shots you see here. Thereafter, rather than go straight down to the falls I visited the Butterfly Conservancy to the north of the Niagara Parkway. Shots from there will be on a separate post.The WeGo shuttle bus service efficiently delivered me around the park and took me down to the falls for the afternoon. The Falls include the smaller American Falls, flowing over the America side of the Niagara River, and the Canadian Horseshoe Falls at the end. I was told by friends that the views are better from the Canadian side and I believe that to be true. I have to say that I have seen many more spectacular waterfalls than Niagara, such as Iguacu, and take your pick of any in Iceland, but I suppose Niagara is most famous due to its accessibility. Nevertheless, I wasn't especially wowed or overwhelmed but I did try to capture the falls in a variety of ways and in different lights. The Hornblower Boat Cruise into the falls was not available in March, but I had taken a similar ride into Iguacu so it wasn't a deal-breaker for me. Instead I ventured upwards into the Skylon Tower's observation deck to see the Falls from a height. Well, I hope the images provide a glimpse into this famous landmark and now I can certainly tick it off my bucket list. Each image was processed individually and to my postcard style. I found that capturing birds in flight in front of the waterfall provided a sense of its magnitude. Slow shutter speeds were achieved using ND Grad filters. All images were shot with the Olympus E-M5 and a variety of lenses.
Admittedly not a city high on my list to visit but the opportunity presented itself and it was a chance to see Niagara Falls too. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that Toronto was a charming metropolis with plenty to see, do and discover.Inclement weather on my first day ushered me from my base at Trump International Tower to the Art Gallery Ontario, an abundant collection of both classic and contemporary art, with paintings, sculptures an even a model ship collection. The Museum subway stopped, lined with fantastic pillars carved as ancient Egyptian figures and creatures, led me up to the Royal Ontario Museum, something akin to a natural history museum albeit with collections of oriental art and pottery.Still trying to evade the rain I hurried down to Ripley's Aquarium, where an underwater tunnel resurrected my inner child as I marvelled in wonder at the fearsome sharks floating above me. And to say nothing, of course, of the copious other exotic species, particularly the luminescent jellyfish.The evening cleared up enough to take the ferry to Ward's Island (the only Toronto Island venue on the winter schedule) from where I walked to Snake Island and enjoyed total solitude as I photographed the colourful city skyline. Not a soul found or bothered me as I waited for sunset to flirt with dusk. The following day I ventured up to Casa Loma, apparently North America's only castle. It's a beautiful stately home, built by Sir Heny Pellat, reminiscent of properties managed by the National Trust. Ornate rooms and furnishings area prelude to a collection of classic cars, and high turrets offer terrific views of downtown Toronto. Unsurprising that it has been used as a location for several films such as X-Men and Chicago.Spending the day downtown in the shadow of towering skyscrapers it is easy to see why Toronto doubles as New York and Chicago in many a film and television show. From Yonge-Dundas Square down to Nathan Philips Square and City Hall, I shuffled past the Old City Hall building and towards the Gooderham Building. En route I found the Cathedral Church Of St James, a modest example of Gothic architecture with an equally modest interior. Further on St Lawrence Market hosted some colourful delicatessens and charcuterie.A determined walk further on brought me to the Old Distillery District, once the largest distillery in the world and now converted into quirky bars, shops and restaurants. Finally I ascended the mighty CN Tower, from where I enjoyed the view beneath my feet on the glass floor, as well as magnificent city skyline. On my last day, when the weather was at its best, I journeyed down to Niagara Falls. I shall post images from that day separately but I started the day with a helicopter ride and a visit to the Butterfly Conservancy before enjoying the falls. All in all, a trip that went exactly to plan and an experience made all the more enjoyable by the hospitality of the people there. Canadians thoroughly deserve their global reputation for being incredibly friendly, helpful and polite. They have my sincere gratitude. As usual, everything was processed in my usual postcard style and shot with Olympus equipment.
The following day, I headed out to the small town of Trakai, a thirty minute bus journey from Vilnius. Trakai is teeming with history all of its own, having been settled by people from many different nationalities. The town has many individual sites of interest but the most popular to visit is the castle situated on its own island.The castle complex offers a fascinating glimpse into both the history of Trakai and Lithuania, describing how the various settlers came to develop the town. The story is illustrated with abundant collections of artifacts and armaments, porcelain and paintings, and the castle complex itself has been very well restored. This was a great place to visit and learn some interesting history. All images taken with the Olympus E-M5 and 12-40mm F/2.8, and a couple with the Samyang 7.5mm F/3.5 fisheye.
Had a couple of days to kill last week so decided to spend it in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, a former satellite state of the former USSR. A beautiful, if small, city with resplendent architecture from several periods and colourful rendering typical of buildings in Central and Eastern Europe. Most of the main points of interest were conveniently situated within walking distance of each other in the Old Town and the warren of narrow, cobbled streets were easy to navigate. The focal point of the city has to be the imposing Cathedral with its Bell Tower and statue of the Grand Duke Gediminas outside. From here a walk up Pilles Street would become a detour down a small alley, finding my way to visual treats such as St Anne's and Bernadine Church, a stunning example of both Flamboyant and Brick Gothic architectural styles. Back up Literatu Street, displaying artworks mounted on the walls, and around a corner to find the House of Signatories, where Lithuania's Act Of Independence was signed. The Presidential Palace was fairly ordinary but further down, past several more beautiful churches, is the Town Hall Square, and a short walk past that is the Gate Of Dawn, a city gate and one of the country's most significant cultural and historical monuments. Great views of the city can be had from several viewpoints, the most popular of which is probably Gediminas Hill. Alas it was closed for renovation during my visit and so I soaked in the city skyline under a hazy cloud cover from the Hill Of Three Crosses nearby.Being time limited, I managed to get some dusk shots of Gediminas Hill and Mindaugas Bridge, as well as the Cathedral. The second day was spent at the castle complex at Trakai and I shall present photos from there in another post. Seeking out authentic Lithuanian cuisine meant a farmer's meal of meat accompanied by a lot of potatoes and dumplings, but a tasting menu and several courses at Dublis Restaurant was a touch more sophisticated. Of course there is no shortage of museums to explore, and even catacombs within the Cathedral complex, but having limited time I visited only the Holocaust Exposition, a harrowing account of the murder of the majority of Lithuania's Jewish community during the Second World War. Vilnius is an impressive little city to kill some time in, extremely clean and well kept and presenting its aesthetic in an abundance of colour and style. I enjoyed it.As ever, these images were processed in my usual postcard style and shot with the Olympus E-M5 and 12-40mm F/2.8.