A new destination this time as I took a short family trip to Riga, the capital of the Baltic state of Latvia. Although the flight to Riga is shorter than an hour from (my home airport) Helsinki I had somehow never made the journey before, but it turns out to be a good destination for a city break and and an interesting place for photography. The main point of the trip was to spend some time with my mother, who made the rather more adventurous journey to Riga from the north of Scotland.
The city itself has an interesting mixture of styles. The old town, with some buildings dating from the 1300s, has a number of old churches and interesting buildings and is a small enough area to allow you to explore it in a day. The Daugava river forms the western boundary of the old town and there are some interesting bridges spanning the river.
In the picture above you can see a train crossing "the Railway Bridge" in the colourful time before the dawn. Its steel arches are a great feature, especially at night when they are illuminated. The building in the background is the Latvian Academy of Sciences and the arches of the central market can be seen to the left of the bridge arches.
The central market is a fascinating place in itself. It is housed in five former Zeppelin hangars, huge semicylindrical buildings which are bursting with life during the opening hours every day. You can find all sorts of fresh meat, fish, vegetables and bakeries in the market as well as clothes, bags and other memorabilia in the stalls outside.
It would be possible to spend tens of hours just viewing the different churches and religious buildings in the old town, my favourite of these was the Riga Cathedral which was constructed beginning in 1211 and has been adapted and modified many times over the intervening centuries.
As well as accessing the main area of the church, it is possible to stroll around the cloister, this is all included in the €3 admission price.
Latvian national library
On the other side of the Daugava, the main building of the National Library of Latvia is an imposing presence. Opened in 2014, this iconic building has 13 floors and employs over 400 people. The lines and shapes of the building are interesting both inside and out and the decision to use a large amount of the internal area for an atrium that extends the full height of the building allows for multiple vantage points. It is definitely worth looking around if you are in Riga.
There were many hundreds of visitors to the library when I was there, but the enormous building quickly swallowed them up and I could maintain my normal "no people" style of photography for the most part.
It seems that I quite often find staircases and escalators interesting when photographing in cities, and this was no exception. As well as the fancy criss-crossing staircases pictured above (not the previous picture but the one before), there was also a more functional high capacity evacuation route which caught my attention.
It is often a good idea to check both the "looking down" and the "looking up" views when photographing a staircase, they are often quite different... it is worth investigating even though you have to climb all the stairs to find out.
The TV Tower
One of the more surprising attractions in Riga is the soviet-era tv broadcast tower. At 368 metres high, this is seemingly the tallest tower in the European Union, the 3rd tallest on the European continent (after the tv towers in Kiev and Moscow) and the 15th tallest in the world.
Situated on Zakusala island, in the middle of the Daugava river, it dominates the surroundings. The tower is accessible with a walk of around 40 minutes from the old town but it is possible to drive right to the base of it if you have access to a car.
From the base of the tower it is possible to ascend in a custom made elevator up one of the legs of the structure. As you might notice the legs are not vertical so the elevator has to make a curving, diagonal journey up to the viewing level (the lower windows in the red part of the the structure) at 97m. From this level it is possible to get panoramic views to all directions, and even though it is "only" 97m high that already makes a huge difference to the view.
The best time to visit this tower from a photography point of view would be in the middle of winter as it is the only time of year when the sunrise, sunset and even darkness hours coincide with the opening hours. The distance to the city and the heat haze during the day, combined with whatever has accumulated on the windows since their last wash, make it challenging for daytime photography.
I understood from the helpful staff member on duty that the tower would be renovated in the next 12-18 months to allow even higher viewing points for visitors, possibly including an open air viewing deck... that will not be for the faint hearted.
The Art Nouveau district
Another highlight that was well worth a visit is the Art Nouveau district. There are a few blocks of really amazing buildings as well as the wonderful "Art Cafe Sienna" which has a selection of amazing cakes, an extensive range of teas and excellent coffee, all of which can be enjoyed in really beautiful surroundings.
My main target when visiting this area was another staircase, this time at the Art Nouveau Museum, perhaps my second favourite staircase so far after the lightbulb staircase in Prague. The Riga staircase is very ornate and beautifully designed.
One major challenge when trying to photograph this staircase is the lighting. There are some large windows at various points going up the stairs, they present something of a difficulty as even when they are hidden from view they still contribute light from unwanted directions... but the bigger annoyance is the motion sensitive lighting that is deployed at various points. The slightest movement or any coming and going caused changes in the lighting conditions, sometimes in the middle of an exposure. Luckily I had time and space to be somewhat patient at this location, it would have been more irritating if time was short.
My final destination in Riga was the Sky Bar in the Radisson hotel. What a perfect place to observe a winter sunset, bringing another trip to a conclusion.
My next trip, in a week's time, will take me to the west coast of Iceland, I am very much looking forward to that. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and I can come back with some good pictures.
Thanks for reading!
In the last few days it was my great pleasure to return to Utajärvi, a small village in the Northern Ostrobothnia region of Finland, to photograph Golden Eagles from a hide in the middle of the forest. I have been to Utajärvi on three previous occasions for the same purpose, it is surely the best location in Finland to photograph these rare and magnificent birds.
The Golden Eagle is one of the best known birds of prey and is present across a large area of the Northern Hemisphere. The global population has been estimated to be approximately a quarter of a million individuals. That does not however make it easy to find! The Golden Eagle has sensibly learned to be cautious around humans and in order to have a reasonable chance to spot one from reasonably close range you need to be in a hide.
On this trip I joined a Golden Eagle photography course organised by Finnature, in association with Olympus, and led by Jari Peltomäki, a well known Finnish professional photographer who is currently an "Olympus visionary" and uses their equipment for his photography.
In order to maximise the chances to see the eagles, the day in the hide starts before 0700. We arrived in the dark in order to be set up and ready to be silent and still during the hours of daylight, waiting and hoping that the eagles would come to visit the area. In order to lure the eagles into range of our cameras some suitable bait (for instance foxes, squirrels or racoon dogs which have met their end in accidents on the local roads) is left for them to find.
The new Finnature hide at Utajärvi (constructed last summer) is larger and more comfortable than the older ones but the most important difference in my opinion is the improved visibility which it offers. It is now possible to have a much wider field of view without having to change your position and that offers greatly increased chances to see all the activity. The eagles tend to approach in stages. Firstly you might see them doing a fly-by overhead, before they settle in the trees at the back of the area for a period of observation, possibly accompanied by some calling.
This period of observation seems to typically last for many minutes, or even tens of minutes, but can also be very brief. One of the challenges of this kind of photography is that while you spend 10 or more hours in the hide, the important action of the day may only last for 10 seconds in total. You have to be ready all the time... and inevitably you sometimes choose the wrong moment to take care of something else (eating, changing batteries, having a toilet break) after concentrating for a prolonged period without getting a reward. All you can do is try to be as ready as possible and as focused as possible for as much of the time as possible. Sooner or later, the eagle may decide that it is safe to come and feed.
This is a very sensitive time, if the eagle notices anything alarming, such as a moving camera lens, then it may decide to leave the area and not return... your day can effectively be over (although you still have to sit in the hide until nightfall). The practice is to remain silent and still until the eagle has started feeding, and then begin shooting. Some cameras have the possibility to shoot completely silently with an electronic shutter, this gives the possibility to aim the camera where you expect the eagle to land and silently capture its arrival without lens movements or disturbing noises.
Once the eagle has landed shooting is also done cautiously, starting with single shots and gauging the reaction over a number of minutes before moving on to longer bursts. The ultimate goal is to encourage the eagle to stay for long enough that there is a chance for a second eagle to arrive. On the occasion shown in the video below, the eagle got spooked before another eagle had a chance to arrive on the scene.
Should you be lucky enough to see it, the most interesting and valuable pictures are likely to come when a number of individuals start squabbling over the available food. Capturing these interactions is extremely challenging, the second eagle can arrive from any direction and as they come together the action can continue in unpredictable ways. The wings of these glorious animals are enormous, the wingspan can be well over 2 metres, and during a scuffle a wing can suddenly stick out to any direction... easily disappearing from the frame.
In trying to capture these interactions, the choice of lens or the choice of focal length, is something to pay particular attention to. The longer the focal length, the more detail you can capture... but the harder it is to keep the birds in the frame. My thoughts for the trip were to use 800mm focal length for eagle portraits and around 400mm for action and interactions... but this plan was undermined by a problem with the weather sealing on my 100-400mm lens. Trying to shoot the interactions with 800mm focal length was something of a challenge.
During the three days I spent with the eagles, I would say that the weather conditions were more favourable than average. Each day had periods where the clouds and the sun were battling for supremacy and this gave some beautifully soft golden light... but unfortunately that light rarely coincided with the best periods of eagle action.
The snow was also an interesting variable with periods of heavier snow as well as moments where tiny individual snow crystals drifted slowly towards the ground as if gravity was turned down to a minimum and would travel horizontally instead of vertically at the slightest hint of a breeze.
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