Czech this out...
A bit of a different trip this time as I swap my normal landscape and nature photography destinations for a few days in a city, heading for the old town of Prague in the Czech Republic.
After checking into the hotel my first port of call was the Cafe of the Black Madonna where they not only have great coffee and delicious cakes (I recommend the Mille Feuille) but also one of the world's more photogenic staircases, commonly known as the lightbulb staircase.
The "bulb" at the top of the stairs is in fact a window, so this particular lightbulb only shines during the hours of daylight. Shooting interior pictures, and trying to find interesting perspectives with a very wide angle lens was very refreshing during this trip.
As evening approached I walked over the famous Charles bridge, lined with statues, which leads from the old town towards the castle. The statues and towers make for an interesting subject but the thousands of people that are in the way make this a less appealing prospect. At this time of year the sunset and the following blue hour are at civilised times of the day so there is no chance to get popular city destinations to yourself.
The following day, before breakfast, I made the steep uphill walk from my hotel to the castle, trying to familiarise myself with the area and see what I might like to photograph over the coming days. One thing to notice was that all the famous buildings that were illuminated in the evening were shadowy and silent in the morning. There were fewer people and better light for shooting, but the possible subjects were dark and dead. In what would become a pattern for this trip I had walked about 10 kilometres by the time I sat down for breakfast.
After refuelling at the breakfast buffet I set off towards the castle again, intending to try and find some interesting architecture shots. On the way I stopped at St Nicholas church, near to the old town square. The grand ceiling and impressive chandelier caught my attention and I decided to shoot from directly underneath the chandelier, making a very graphical picture, reminiscent of the view through a kaleidoscope.
Continuing towards the castle I joined the thousands of others making their way up the steep hill. The many remarkable buildings in the castle complex were interesting to look at, but the huge amount of people was off-putting when it came to photography and I continued my journey towards the Strahov Monastery and particularly their library. Admission options for the monastery library included the possibility to pay a little extra for rights to take pictures there so as I made my way up the stairs to see the reading rooms I had a yellow sticker on my jacket indicating that I had photography rights. Even the yellow sticker did not allow entry into the rooms themselves so one had to be content with shooting from the doorways in this beautiful place.
From the library I continued ever upwards towards the impressive observation tower at Petrin and the small hall of mirrors beside it on the top of the hill overlooking Prague, before heading back down towards the Vltava river and the city beyond.
This route took me close to one of my other targets, "the Dancing House" designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic, so even though I had already covered close to 30 kilometres that day I decided to take the small detour see the dancing house in the twilight.
This iconic and slightly odd building was fascinating to look at but not very easy to photograph. The adjacent intersection is extremely busy with traffic and the area is full of overhead electricity cables - it is a challenge to find a suitable place to shoot from. The picture above was taken from a very small traffic island with angry drivers (I did not notice any other kind of drivers in Prague) racing by within one metre of my tripod on both sides.
Finally on this long, long day I visited the staircase at the Cafe of the Black Madonna in the dark to see what I could do with the lightbulb staircase when the light was "off". To me the resulting view now resembled the head of a bird instead of a lightbulb, the spiralling lines of the staircase retaining all of their interest even though the bird's eye had gone dark.
The next day I was up and about before dawn once again. This time I climbed a different hill, across the river to the north of the old city and up to the park which contained the Prague metronome. If you searched carefully there were a few spots which offered panoramic views of the city, and continuing round towards the Kramarova villa there were also some good views towards the castle... but the morning was another grey and gloomy one with no interesting light for cityscapes. I did however have the good fortune to spot a Eurasian Nuthatch, seemingly quite a common bird in Prague (I saw a few) but still exciting for someone who lives in Finland where they are rather harder to find.
After breakfast I set off once again to the north of the city, heading for the area containing the zoo and the botanical gardens.
I have rather mixed feelings about zoos, it is very interesting to see the animals up close, and I understand that many zoos are doing a lot of work with conservation of animals, but I still feel bad every time I see animals enclosed in tiny environments. All zoos are not equal, and I think that the Prague one was towards the better end of the scale when it comes to having enough room for the animals with quite a few very large areas, but in some cases (such as the eagles and owls) the cramped spaces seemed especially harsh.
Putting aside any other negative feelings, the challenge of taking pictures in a zoo is an interesting one. One the one hand you can get incredibly close to some very interesting species, but on the other hand you need to be quite inventive with your shooting in order to keep all fences, windows, walls and other artificial elements out of your pictures.
Having spend many hundreds of hours searching for genuinely wild wildlife with my camera over the past couple of years, it is almost annoying how easy it is to get interesting shots in a zoo.
Although this was an interesting exercise, and I was quite happy with the pictures I managed to take, I think I will stick to "real" nature photography from now on.
I wonder what the future will hold for our zoos. With the amazing variety of nature programs on the television and the huge amount of information on the internet, the "need" for zoos in our cities as a way to educate the public would seem to be greatly reduced compared to 100 or even 50 years ago. I guess that more and more will evolve towards a concept where there are fewer and fewer animals incarcerated in cages and more and more open environments where a lower amount of animals can interact with their environments in a more natural way with humans observing safely from within the environment. It will be interesting to see how it goes.
After leaving the zoo I found myself in an unfamiliar position. My phone battery was dead and I was not exactly sure where I was. The walk to the zoo had taken nearly 2 hours and although I thought I could retrace my steps I was reluctant to do so as I was rather tired. I decided to get on a bus and hope for the best, even though I did not recognise the names of any of the stops nor understand any of the signs.
Some time later I was deposited at an unfamiliar underground station from where I made another guess about which stations might be near my hotel, and then a further guess about which way to walk... all of which brought me safely back to my room. It seems I am a decent guesser. It was a reminder of how much we come to rely on our phones, but also good to know that I could survive without mine for a few hours.
The Prague underground itself is an interesting place. Built in the 1970s and 1980's the stations themselves have a definite feel of their time of origin... but not in a "terrible wallpaper of your childhood" kind of way.
Each station on the same line seemed to have a slightly different colour scheme but a consistent design, helping passengers to easily identify their stop.
I got the feeling that it might be possible to spend a productive day or two just photographing the activities and stations along the 65.2km underground network. Maybe next time.
That evening I once again made the walk across the Charles bridge, looking for some different views than the ones I had seen so many times before.
I once again climbed the steep hill to the area beside the metronome in search of a different view towards the castle, preferring to shoot in black and white to simplify the real mess of different colours that illuminate the buildings of the area.
This was a very good trip, a refreshing break from my normal landscape shooting, and also great exercise as I carried my camera gear for over 150,000 steps in my 4.5 days in the city... a benefit which was somewhat mitigated by the mere 5,000 steps that I took in the following 4.5 days while going through my pictures.
Before I leave you, there is just time to share one more picture from the staircase at the cafe of the Black Madonna, surely my favourite place to photograph during the trip.
Thanks a lot to all my readers, please feel free to leave comments or questions by clicking the "Contact Andy" link below.
Until next time,
Winter is coming
"Winter is coming" said the weather forecast, as it has been saying for a few weeks here in southern Finland... but the problem is that winter never arrived. Finally I got fed up of waiting and decided to head north for a few days in search of deep snow and real winter rather than grey wet depression. My destination was Ruka, a skiing resort about 25km north of Kuusamo and about 40km south of the Arctic Circle... about an 850km drive from my home.
On my way I stopped for the night in the small city of Kajaani to break up the long drive, finding the interesting old church as I explored the city in the late evening. The following day I eventually completed the journey to Ruka and was happy to see that there was a good amount of snow in the area. It was already obvious from the drive that the trees, covered in an unfeasible amount of snow, would provide interesting subjects for photography. The days are very short at this time of year at this latitude but the light for photography is rather good, even when the sun is at its highest the light is not very harsh and the sunrise/sunset and the blue hours last for a long time.
Another bonus from photography point of view was the way the ski slopes were lit, the artificial lighting which is used for that purpose was not the harsh orange sodium lighting that you usually see in town centres but a much softer and slightly more pink light which resembled sunset colours, extending the sunset mood for many hours after the sun had departed.
I spent quite some time wondering around the area near the ski slopes as the twilight and the light from the ski slopes were made even nicer by thin low cloud. I had found the winter I was looking for.
The magical trees also looked great once it was truly dark, I ventured to the village again in the late evening after taking a dinner break.
One difficulty caused by the short days is that there is not much time available to scout for good shooting locations. In summer photography trips you have a total of 3-4 hours per day of good light to shoot in with a 10 hour scouting gap in-between - this makes it quite easy to find new locations and travel to them ready for the action periods. In winter that gap just disappears and it is not so easy to get to know a new location.
On the second day (and first morning) of my short stay in Ruka I headed out on foot a couple of hours before the sunrise, picked a direction in which to walk and hoped for the best... I was at least treated to a beautiful morning walk.
My idea for the day was to visit Oulanka National Park, about 25 minutes drive north of Ruka, where I hoped that one of the trails would be passable without needing skis or snowshoes. My goal was to get to the rather photogenic rapids at Myllykoski and shoot them in full winter conditions.
The path to Myllykoski was passable, but not very easy. There is a fair amount of traffic on this route so a very narrow path through the snow was kept open, but if you put a foot to the side your leg was quickly enveloped in snow up to your knee. The main hazard was the occasional very steep sections. There are steps in place for these sections in the summer but they were in a curious condition, smooth icy slopes with a rail beside them. I wondered how they got to this state until I saw someone approaching in the other direction sliding down the slope using the rail to keep the speed to a minimum. All very clever... but for people wanting to go up the same steep slope this was quite a pain in the ass.
The other interesting part of the route was the narrow rope bridges that allow you to cross over the Kitkajoki river. These were also quite hazardous as they were only just wide enough for a person, covered with snow and ice, and very wobbly... with a raging river below.
When starting the trail from the car park in Juuma, the first bridge over the river was a great spot to see white throated dippers. There were 2 of them fishing there when I went past on the way to Myllykoski, and 5 of them as I passed the same spot on the way back. Dippers are always interesting birds to shoot... but I did not have a suitable lens for that job on this occasion.
After a couple of kilometres I found my way to the Myllykoski area, a bend in the river where the water suddenly speeds up and becomes agitated, with a lovely old mill on the apex of the bend. After looking around for a few minutes it became clear that the best vantage point would be from another wobbly rope bridge.
After making my way round to the bridge, an even shakier one than the previous one, I was able to get some shots of the Myllykoski mill. The wobbly bridge presented quite a challenge from photography point of view, in order to handle the rushing water you would usually aim for a rather long exposure... but in order to keep the shots sharp on the unstable bridge the exposure could not be too long. Some experimentation was needed to discover the longest safe shutter speed for shooting from the bridge.
As I was in unfamiliar territory, with the light fading, and with the path not being easy to traverse, I didn't want to go too much further along the trail - returning in darkness would have been a bit difficult. I followed the trail through the forest and around the next bend where I found a nice view of another cabin in the forest as the sun went down, and then started back to the car.
I could not resist taking a few more shots of the mill at Myllykoski on my way back, this time using a bit longer focal length to make the mill take up more of the frame.
This was a really nice location to visit, and would be worth returning to in different seasons. There is an extensive network of trails through Oulanka National Park and they would be a great hiking destination in the summer months.
On the following morning I started for home, my idea was to drive a far as I (safely) could as I needed to be home by midday the following day at the latest, but in the end I made the whole journey home in one day. According to my car I drove 851 kilometres and the driving time was 10 hours and 31 minutes. I did however stop a couple of times to take photographs of the forests at the roadside.
This was an enjoyable little trip, and helped to blow away the depression of the grey days in southern Finland. The new year is well under way, the nights are getting lighter and I hope that I have some interesting trips ahead of me.
Until the next time,
Restart with a Redstart
As 2017 came to an end, my project to photograph as many bird species as I could in 2017 also concluded. The red-legged partridge from Kilmuir in Scotland was the final addition to the 2017 list, the 169th species I captured during the year. Overall this was a pretty good result, my initial target had been 100 species which seemed ambitious enough in January last year, but ended up being fairly easy. Some relatively common species escaped my attention (e.g. rook, rough-legged buzzard, black woodpecker, hawfinch) but on the other hand I was able to photograph some rarer species (e.g. pallid harrier, red kite, stonechat, Tengmalm's owl).
With the new year I need a new count, and suddenly I am all the way back to zero. I think I will keep track of my count for 2018 also but I won't give it such a focus as I did last year, preferring to concentrate on learning to recognise new species that I have never photographed before and getting as good pictures as I can of whatever species, even if I have photographed them before.
My 2018 account got off to a very nice start yesterday as I went in search of the Black Redstart which had been spotted a number of times over the festive period in the capital area (of Finland).
Wait a minute, you are probably saying, that doesn't look exactly like I was expecting... and you would be right, the consensus amongst those who know better than me seems to be that this is a central asian subspecies of the black redstart - phoenicurus phoenicuroides for all you latin speakers. Quite what such a specimen would be doing in these parts is a bit of a mystery,
It might be that those who know even better than those who know better than me can still come to an updated conclusion about what the bird is, if so then I will update this post with any subsequent developments... but for now I will assume it is this "eastern black redstart".
The weather in southern Finland has been typically disgusting over the past weeks, temperatures fluctuating around zero rather than providing a proper winter experience, instead we are treated to grey, wet, cold, slippery, muddy and dark days and only get to see the sun for some brief moments every 4th or 5th day. This creates quite a challenge for bird photography where you would ideally use fast shutter speeds (1/1000s or faster) to freeze the action. In order to get enough light to fall on the camera sensor in dark conditions it is sometimes necessary to gamble on much longer exposures... and as with any gamble there is a possibility to lose and that leads to blurred images... but once in a while you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat if they happen to be blurred interestingly.
This was a marvellous looking bird, and a rarity, so it was a really nice way to start 2018 and very much worth tramping through some luxurious mud and navigating through a swampy area in order to find it. Spotting the bird itself was easy on this occasion, the half a dozen humans pointing telephoto lenses or binoculars at a particular bush gave a strong hint as to it's location.
The bird was also very well behaved as a subject, happy to stay relatively close to it's interested observers while regularly changing positions to allow some variety in the pictures. I don't think that it was entirely healthy however, it made constant head and neck movements over the 20 minutes that I observed it, as if it was trying to swallow something, so perhaps it has something stuck in its throat. I hope that it recovers from whatever is ailing it and manages to find a way to survive the winter.
When searching for birds, particularly when searching for one certain species, it is very often the case that your effort ends in a disappointment, it is not an exact science or an easy task, so it is very satisfying when you get one of these good days and find what you are looking for. I hope there are more such days to come as the year progresses.
That's it for this time, hopefully I will soon have something to share with you again. I hope that 2018 has started well for you.
Until next time,
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