My latest trip, to Reims in the Champagne region of France, was not intended to be a photography trip, the focus was very definitely on sampling the world's favourite sparkling wine in it's natural environment. It was a last minute decision to even take a camera with me, and I am happy that I eventually decided to do so.
Over the past 10 years I have become much more interested in champagne and the Grand Champagne event held every year in Helsinki has given a comparatively easy opportunity to taste many different champagnes without having to buy them by the bottle.
So it came to be that a small group of friends decided to make their first visit to the champagne region.
Reims is a beautiful small city and is reachable in less than an hour by TGV from Paris CDG airport (providing the trains are running). It is one of the two main commercial centres in the Champagne region (the other being Épernay) and many of the biggest champagne producers are based in one of these two cities.
The spectacular Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, pictured above, forms the centrepiece for the old town and is notable as the venue for the coronation of French monarchs in the days before "la révolution" while there are a number of nice squares with statues and fountains in the nearby area.
On our first full day we took a half day tour with Sparkling Tour, which turned out to be an excellent decision. We visited two of the smaller champagne houses and learned about the different stages of champagne making, from vine to glass. Our reward at the end of this learning experience was to taste three different champagnes from each of the two champagne houses.
Our guide and driver for the day was Léa who picked us up conveniently right outside out hotel. We were joined by another small group and there were eight of us in total as we headed for our first stop at Champagne Michel Fagot. This champagne house has 15 hectares of Premier Cru vineyards in the Montagne de Reims area and splits it's business between producing it's own champagnes and selling a portion of it's harvest to larger champagne houses.
Léa took us through the different stages of the champagne making process as we went through the area where the magic happens and down into the cool dark cellars where the champagne peacefully ages over a period of years until it is ready to be enjoyed.
The best part came next as we were able to taste glasses of their Brut Tradition, Blanc de Blancs and Millésime 2006 before we continued our journey.
The next stop on the tour was a visit to the church in Hautvillers where the gravestone of Dom Pierre Pérignon sits in honour at the front of the chapel. Dom Pérignon was an important figure in improving the champagne making process and continues to find fame to this day in the prestige champagne brand which bears his name.
Our final stop on the trip was at Champagne Devavry where we were able to once again tour their cellar and learn something about the champagne house before heading for the tasting room to try glasses of their Collection Prestige, Millesime 2012 and an excellent new Blanc de Noirs champagne that is not yet described on their website or in their printed materials.
It was most interesting to visit these places and I have to say that the tour was very well organised. Everything was take care of efficiently without any fuss and the things that were taught during the tour were explained in an easy to understand way. Léa was also extremely patient and helpful when faced with a variety of odd questions from the participants as they made their way through the six glasses of champagne.
I would definitely recommend a tour with Sparkling Tour to anyone who was visiting the Champagne region.
Back in Reims there was time to explore the city a bit before dinner.
There is plenty to see in Reims and it is a most pleasant place to be even if you are not drinking champagne. There is a nice mixture of historic and modern buildings and many parks and open spaces to enjoy the summer weather.
The Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne runs through Reims, to the west of the town centre and the towpath can be a pleasant place for a walk. Near to the canal, south-west of the centre you can find the Stade Auguste-Delaune, home of the local football team (Stade Reims) and venue for 6 matches in the recent Womens Football World Cup.
The central areas around the cathedral are very pedestrian friendly and there are many places where you can eat and drink on outside tables while watching the world go by as the ever present pigeons fly overhead.
On our second full day it was time to visit a slightly larger champagne house, we walked through the city to take a tour of Pommery-Vranken.
We made our way through the imposing gates and into the castle-like buildings before making the descent into a vast system of underground caves, the resting place for tens of millions of bottles of champagne.
The Pommery caves are just one of many interesting places (e.g. the Budapest Parliament, the Vienna State Opera House) where your best (or only) chance of gaining photographic access is to take a guided tour. This presents some great opportunities and different challenges as a photographer. Often in such situations it is not permitted to take a tripod and it is not allowed to use a flash, so you need to get your work done as best as possible hand-held with whatever light might be available. The other obvious issue is all the other people on the tour who are highly likely to be standing in your picture, standing in your preferred shooting position, or both. I have found it beneficial to try and be the last to leave each location in any tour in order to get a clean opportunity to shoot... but at the same time trying not to be left behind completely.
The caves are truly enormous and they provide a perfect environment year round for their purpose, with the low-ish temperature, high humidity and darkness that works best for the champagne process. The caves are also home to a number of different art installations which can be viewed on different tours. I am not sure if the lighting that was in place in different parts fot eh tunnels was purely functional or if it was part of an art installation, but either way it looked cool and it was designed in such a way than none of the light ever shone directly into an area containing precious bottles.
When the cellars were first taken into use by Pommery the storage spaces were organised according to the place to which the finished wines would be shipped. This naming is still visible to this day. The biggest gallery "Buenos Aires" was so huge that you could not see to the far wall.
The tour we were on was more focused on champagne than art but we still passed many different exhibits (as well as the slightly surprising sight of a bouncy castle in one gallery).
I spent most of the tour looking out for photography opportunities and avoiding the 60 or so other tour participants rather than listening to what the guide was saying.. so it was at times a little difficult to know if the things I was seeing served some technical purpose or were intended to be fascinating art installations.
All in all this was a very nice trip, and quite a success (23 different champagnes in 3 days), it was interesting to have a chance to photograph some different subjects for a change, that is always refreshing even though that was not the main focus of the trip. Thanks a lot to my friends for a great trip!
I have spent most of the last month going through photos from a trip to England so I expect there are some more blog posts coming soon on my more usual topics related to landscape photography.
Thanks to everyone who has read this post! Please remember to follow Andy Fowlie Photography on facebook if you want to see my latest pictures and blog posts.
Enjoy the summer!
As 2019 began the (wet, grey, boring) weather in southern Finland was providing me with no photography inspiration whatsoever... so I decided to head to Berlin for a couple of days to get started with the year's photography.
It seems that I took the wet, grey, boring weather with me on my journey so I decided to mainly shoot interiors and to indulge my interest in photographing staircases which got a hold of me in 2018 (in Prague, Budapest, Riga, Vienna, etc).
After checking into my hotel, near to Hauptbahnhof I went for a walk, thinking to visit a few churches (seeking photographs rather than absolution). One drawback of impulsive "where should I go tomorrow?" travel is that the location research time is somewhat squeezed... the first two churches I visited were closed for renovations. Third time lucky - the Neue Kirche was not covered in scaffolding and the doors were open.
The church building now hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the Bundestag. I was more interested in the building than in the exhibits it housed, the tall central tower contains a large open space at the centre for its whole height with staircases snaking around the outside.
The exhibition rooms and corridors also had some interesting nooks and crannies.
After a good night's sleep it was time to hunt for some staircases. I decided to go straight for the two which I was most interested in, one which was in the film museum and another in an office building. I eventually found the film museum staircase, but was unable to shoot there because it was under repair... that was a disappointment... but not to worry, I continued to the office building. At the office building I was informed by the guard that the owners had decreed that the staircase was copyrighted and nobody was allowed to photograph it. Well... that was also annoying. In both cases I had tracked down the location and got to within 3 metres of the place I would need to stand to take the picture... but I couldn't get a picture.
I decided on a change of scene to get over the staircase disappointments and headed for the Olympic stadium, site of Jesse Owens famous victories in 1936 and in more recent times the home stadium for Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin.
It was most interesting to be almost completely alone in a place where you would usually attend at the same times as tens of thousands of others.
I had a certain picture in mind, the football pitch as a green oasis in the middle of the dark empty stadium... but soon it became clear I would not be getting such a shot, instead of an oasis of green it was more like a sandy desert... with some desert tractors... they were relaying the pitch.
Visitors are allowed quite a good level of access to the stadium, you cannot get to every part of it, but you can get to different areas in different parts of the stadium, so you can choose to be down close to pitch level or high up in the stands and you can walk all around the outside of the stadium.
A large circular structure with many repeating elements offers good possibilities to use lines and curves in your photographs.
It was an enjoyable visit to the stadium, despite the pitch repairs, so I thought that maybe my luck was turning after the churches being closed for renovations and the staircases being forbidden. I headed back to continue the staircase hunt, starting at a hotel where I had stayed for a weekend in 2015, oblivious to the beauty of the staircase I went up and down many times.
From there I went to a nearby office building where another elaborate creation awaited.
The afternoon staircases just about made up for the morning disappointments and I ended the day feeling more positive.
The next morning I set off on foot once again. Although Berlin has an underground/metro/subway/whatever-you-want-to-call-it I found it to be less useful for getting around than almost any other major city I had been to. There seemed to be enough lines and enough stations, but the amount of crossover points where you could easily get from one line to another seemed to be too low. Any time I needed to get somewhere I would investigate how to go by underground.... and the end result always seemed to be that it would be better to walk. A 55 minute walk usually seemed preferable to a a 45 minute walk-underground-bus-underground-walk fuss. I walked about 100,000 steps in 3.5 days on this trip.
My first destination was the Hackesher Market area, full of small shops, dark alleys and interesting architecture.
I was searching for a staircase with golden details which I knew was around here somewhere... but then I wondered up an unpromising looking alley and chanced upon something I liked even better.
My search continued through some more courtyards...
... before I finally found the staircase I was looking for in the first place. This was a very interesting area to wonder around.
After a morning of market capitalism it was time for spiritual cleansing, so I headed for Berlin Cathedral. At this location I was not chasing staircases, but I found them anyway... the path which visitors are directed to follow through the building includes a descent into the crypt as well as a climb to an open walkway around the edge of the domed roof.
The grand staircase leading from ground level up to the first level balconies was quite impressive.
Closer to the roof the stairways got a bit less elaborate but remained interesting.
I then made my way to an up-market shopping mall, a little more fancy than the Hackescher market, but before I could even turn my camera on I was intercepted by a security guard and received a long speech in German... "blah, blah, blah, blah, verboten, blah, blah blah". This was not the first time during the trip for a similar speech. As far as I had understood beforehand from googling about the law related to photography in Germany it is illegal to photograph someone without their permission if the person is clearly recognisable AND the person is the main subject of the picture... which sounds fair enough and is not an issue for me as I go to great lengths to try and make sure there are no humans cluttering up my frame. I was surprised how this translated into "no photos at all" in many parts of Berlin and also how actively it was being enforced.
I sought refuge in the foyer of a nearby hotel and restored my energy with a cappuccino.
My journey continued as I walked towards the Shell Haus, an office building designed by professor Emil Fahrenkamp and built in-between the wars. It is a "classical modernist architectural masterpiece" according to wikipedia - I am not qualified to comment on that, but to me the waved facade of the building rates as "cool", which is one of my highest ratings.
My route from Shell Haus back to the hotel took me through the Tiergarten, a large park area in the middle of Berlin. During the walk I saw many different birds, the most common being the hundreds of mallards inhabiting the park's waterways. From the corner of my eye I saw a flash of something more colourful and was happy to discover that one of the hundreds of ducks was not a mallard, it was something much more fancy - a mandarin duck.
I have not seen or photographed one of these before so this was a real bonus - the 194th (non-captive) bird species I have photographed.
One interesting thing about taking photographs in a city is the wide range of colours and shapes that you might see on a typical day, including many combinations that you will not find in nature. Sometimes this leads to unexpected photo opportunities, if you are just lucky enough to spot the potential.
On my final morning in Berlin I had a simple mission, seek out two more staircases that had come up in my research. I set off on foot once again, in the rain once again. As I approached my first destination I came upon another interesting building - housing the Hotel Motel One Berlin Upper West (or HMOBUW as the cool kids are calling it). It is often not very easy to find a good angle to shoot very tall buildings from street level.
The first staircase I searched for seems to have been a ghost... the building I was looking for could not be found at the address that google had for the building I was looking for... so that was that. It's a bit of a challenge to hunt down a building that has gone missing, especially when it is hiding somewhere amongst tens of thousands of other buildings.
I moved on and turned my attention to the last staircase on my list, in yet another office building. As I got near the entrance I saw that once again there was a guard between me and the staircase. I went and asked permission as politely as I could... expecting another rejection... but on this occasion the guard was perfectly happy for me to get on with it, a happy and surprising turn of events!
So.... that was it... I started heading back to the hotel to check out and head for the airport... but then I saw a staircase through the rapidly closing door of yet another office building. I stuck my foot in the door and investigated further... a bonus staircase was waiting for me, making amends for the one in the missing building.
This trip to Berlin reminded me of everything that I love and hate about shooting in large cities. A city provides such a target rich environment that it is possible to cover many locations in a single day, giving opportunities for a huge variety of subjects and styles. The artificial environment provides great possibilities for vibrant colours, strong lines and curves, repetition of elements, reflections and symmetry... all of which can be powerful elements in a photograph. A city is also swarming with people, making noise, getting in the way and cluttering up your frame. A city is bathed in harsh artificial lights, of different colours, creating many scenes with too high dynamic range and an uncoordinated mess of lighting. A city also has rules, some of which are not helpful.
Overall I really enjoyed this trip and was also extremely happy to leave... my next posts will be from somewhat more remote and unpopulated areas as I spend a few weeks in Scotland.
Thanks for reading my blog, please feel free to comment and to share with your friends!
Until next time,
As regular readers may remember, I have met up with my mother on a couple of my previous trips (Amsterdam and Riga). On this occasion it was time to spend a few days with my father at my parents flat in Edinburgh.
Scotland's capital is a wonderful city with impressive buildings around every corner, some sizeable hills to make the scenery more interesting, and the great benefit of many museums and galleries (most of which are free to enter).
Finnair operates a regular, but infrequent, direct service from Helsinki to Edinburgh and this time I was able to fit my schedule to that timetable. Avoiding a transfer makes a big difference to your travel and also makes a big difference to the chances of your luggage arriving on the same flight as you. When travelling direct with Finnair from Helsinki I think I have a 100% luggage arrival rate over many tens of flights... which tells that they are doing something right.
My flight arrived early in the morning and I had breakfast in the Marks and Spencer's cafe in Princes street to pass the time until my father arrived. Here I had an unexpected new experience... I have eaten hard boiled eggs before, but never a hard poached egg. Not recommended.
After meeting my father at the flat we made our way to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, an interesting and ever changing set of exhibits in a beautiful building... with excellent coffee and "good things" in the downstairs cafe.
From the gallery I continued with a couple of ideas in my head, I wanted to check out different angles for getting pictures of the castle and I also wanted to visit the Usher Hall to see if they would allow me to photograph their staircase.
It is quite often the case as a photographer that the things which catch your eye are not the things you are "supposed to be" interested in, and so it turned out out on this occasion as I spent quite some time ignoring the historic and fabulous Edinburgh castle in favour of taking pictures of a slightly grotty public car park.
Staircases have been on my mind quite a lot having found very nice ones in Prague, Riga, Budapest and Vienna and my Edinburgh research had pointed me towards the Usher Hall as a place where I might find a good one. I went there to enquire about whether I might spend some time with their staircase, given that it is not in a part of the building that is normally open to the public. The reception staff were extremely helpful and informed me when it would be best for me to visit for that purpose.
Walking back through the city I had to take shelter from some extremely heavy showers and these rather removed my enthusiasm for further photography, although I did make a scouting trip to the top of Calton Hill to get an idea of the views and angles from there.
The next day it was time to head north from the city to visit my nephews in Lundin Links, stopping on the way to look at the three iconic bridges spanning the firth of Forth.
The three bridges, the Forth Bridge (a railway bridge), the Forth Road Bridge and the Queensferry Crossing were each built in different centuries (opening in 1890, 1964 and 2017) and each represents a remarkable step forward.
The Forth Bridge is absolutely my favourite of the three and was a true marvel of engineering at the time of its construction. The invention, patenting and licensing of the Bessemer process for steel production in the second half of the 19th century made that material available in bulk cost-effectively for the first time. The Forth Bridge was the first major British construction made from steel, about 55,000 tonnes of it - including 6.5 million rivets.
There was also the small matter of over 18,000 cubic metres of granite (from Aberdeen of course) involved in the construction.
The end result of the huge construction effort which lasted most of the 1880's was a 3 hour reduction in the rail journey time from London Kings Cross to Aberdeen.
The Forth Road Bridge is not so visually fascinating to me, but for road travel through Scotland the impact must have been huge. Before it opened in 1964 the north-south vehicle traffic would either have to make a 50km+ detour to make use of the Kincardine Bridge or cross the Forth estuary by ferry. The possibility to have much faster and more direct access to Edinburgh from the north must have been a great economic benefit for the settlements along the Fife coastline. It was also something of a record breaking feat of construction, the largest suspension bridge outside of the US at the time.
The pillars of the newest bridge, the Queensferry Crossing, can be seen faintly through the mist in the picture above. On this occasion I did not pay it much attention apart from while being driven across it... perhaps I return to that as a subject in a future trip.
Back to the important stuff... my nephews, Hamish and Finlay. These two young men are at that very endearing stage where they have interest and energy to do a million different things, and they are close enough in age that they do many of those things together. It is always a lot of fun to spend time with them.
We also spent time with their parents, my brother and my sister-in-law, but when looking through my pictures I can see that my camera only had eyes for the boys.
The nearby beach provides a great playground (and occasional workplace) for the boys and I followed them on an afternoon visit there.
There were many different activities undertaken in a short space of time!
Throwing is important, but it should be done "at", not "to"... and naturally it works better when the ball is first soaked in a puddle.
A good deal of jumping from high places was also in order...
... it seemed to be fun!
Although to any watching responsible (?) adult the walls seemed pretty high!
This day was certainly a highlight.
The following day it was time to head east instead of north as we journeyed to North Berwick. On our way we visited the National Museum of Flight where the attractions include a Concorde.
One immediately obvious thing when entering the passenger area of a Concorde is how cramped it is, the long thin fuselage does not leave much room for seats. You may have paid £2,500 for your ticket and be drinking fine champagne with your roast beef but you should not expect much elbow room.
A Hawk jet from the Red Arrows was another interesting exhibit, as was the imposing Vulcan bomber, a long range heavy jet which would have carried the British nuclear deterrant in the days before it was felt that a submarine based system was preferable. The spitfire hanging from the ceiling in the wartime hangar inevitably provoked the warmest feelings.
The museum was definitely worth a visit and we passed a couple of hours there before heading on to North Berwick.
This is a fantastic golfing area where you can find the likes of Muirfield, Gullane and Luffness as well as North Berwick and many others... but on this occasion I was chasing a different kind of birdie - the Northern Gannet - a large sea bird which inhabits Bass Rock off the coast of North Berwick in huge numbers.
Bass Rock, with its distinctive Stevenson lighthouse (automated since 1988) is now uninhabited by humans but absolutely inhabited by birds. There are around 200,000 Northen Gannets on the rock in the breeding season, the largest Gannet colony in the world. I took a catamarran trip from the Scottish Sea Bird Centre to go and meet some of them.
The first destination on the boat trip was Craigleith, another rocky island a few miles from Bass Rock. There we were able to see various gulls but also common eiders, common guillemots, cormorants, shags, razorbills, grey seals and.... puffins.
It was really great just to see a puffin (my first time), but there were not that good chances to photograph them on this occasion. They are a lot smaller than I imagined and you would need to get quite close to them, but they were quite nervous (probably for good reason) whenever the boat came near. Shooting small birds from a boat on the open sea is no easy task so I am happy that I at least got a documentary picture of this encounter.
Normally when you go searching for a particular bird, there is at least a small question of whether you will even see any individuals of that species... but on this occasion I could say that finding a Northern Gannet was not that hard.
These remarkable looking birds, which can have a wingspan of up to 2 metres, were covering every available nesting spot on the whole island.
With the best spaces being closely guarded and very little ledge being fought over there was a good deal of "keeping an eye on the others" going on.
This was a really super boat trip and I highly recommend it for any bird watchers or bird photographers. If you want to get good photographs then I guess that the catamarran trip offers better possibilities than the RIB boat trip as there are more possibilities to move around on the boat and to shoot on the journeys as well as at the destinations.
Back in Edinburgh it was time to concentrate on interiors for a change, starting with a visit to the Usher Hall and their interesting staircase, a winding spiral with an illuminated column suspended in the middle. The light in the centre and the window at the top create quite a huge difference in illumiation between the lights and the shdows and I felt that the pictures worked the best when edited in a high contrast black and white style.
Thank you very much to the staff at the Usher Hall who were helpful and welcoming to a visiting photographer.
Leaving the staircase behind I went on a small tour of churches, stopping first at St John's church on Princes Street where they have a very interesting ceiling...
... pausing to pay my respects to a lone piper playing a rousing tune / making a hell of a noise (delete as appropriate) with the castle in the background...
... and eventually making it to St. Giles Cathedral in the Royal Mile, where I had arranged to meet my father.
St. Giles Cathedral has a really beautiful interior with high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and various interesting artifacts.
The ceiling of this fine old church was definitely the most interesting part for me to point my camera at... it had such a beautiful blue colour.
Alas, my time in Scotland was now coming to an end, there was just time to make one more climb up Calton Hill to see if I would be blessed with a beautiful sunset... but after all this is Scotland, sometimes you have to just be thankful that "a bit overcast" has not deteriorated into "you should probably build an ark".
I really enjoyed these few days in my home country, and especially enjoyed being able to spend time with my father. It was a memorable trip.
Until next time!
It seems it has been nearly 4 weeks since my last confession... apologies for the delay... the temperature rose suddenly here in Finland and all the plants released their pollen at once, during a period which has been completely without rain. The allergen onslaught has reduced me to a sneezy, snotty, snivelling state which did not help my productivity as I tried to edit my photographs from a trip to Vienna at the start of May.
Vienna, the beautiful capital of Austria, is truly a remarkable city. As with many of Europe's historical capitals, the richness and variety of the architecture and the extravagance of some of the buildings is quite breathtaking. Even amongst it's European rivals I think that Vienna stands out as one of the most impressive cities.
A fine example of this is the majestic building that houses the Natural History Museum (NHM). This imposing palatial structure dates from the end of the 19th century and opens out to an attractive area of gardens, statues and fountains. In many cities there would be no equal for this magnificent building, but this is Vienna - there is an externally identical building at the opposite side of the gardens, this time housing the Art History museum.
The interior of the NHM is perhaps even richer than its exterior due to the period decoration and furniture as well as the fascinating exhibits.
There are so many highlights in Vienna that it is necessary to be selective, I could have been there for many months without running out of subjects, so on this occasion I mostly focused on the lavishly ornate interiors of some of Vienna's beautiful buildings.
Although the NHM and the Art History Museum have identical exteriors the interior space is slightly different, the Art History Museum allows a view down onto the cafe area which you cannot currently get in the Natural History equivalent.
Although the attractions of the old city are concentrated into a reasonably small area, it is still necessary to cover considerable distances in order to visit many of them. In this situation the Vienna U-Bahn is a most valuable resource, by far the easiest and quickest way to move around the city.
My next stop was the Albertina museum, where the period decoration of the opulent staterooms was the main attraction. Perhaps my readers live in a different style of surroundings, but at least to me these rooms were like something from a far off dream.
Wandering around these rooms makes you think that an Austrian version of Downton Abbey might have a rather different colour palette to the original.
As well as the extragavant state rooms the Albertina museum also hosts major art collections (their website proclaims - "from Monet to Picasso, from Chagall to Richter: The ALBERTINA Museum holds works by all of modern and contemporary art history’s great artists") and other exhibitions of artworks and photographs.
Having surrounded myself with these wonderful period interiors for a few hours I decided on a change of tempo and travelled on the U-Bahn to the Donau City area of the city where the the buildings are hundreds of years newer. A particular attraction from my point of view is the DC Tower 1 designed by Dominique Perrault. This building is quite remarkable in that it manages to simultaneously feel geometric and organic. It might be that some of the window offices on the most slanting parts of the building would feel somewhat exposed, and some others might be somewhat in the shadows... but for the outside observer these issues are irrelevant.
A second DC Tower is beginning its construction phase and promises to be an interesting addition to the area. In fact there are a number of interesting buildings Donau City and it was most refreshing to walk around there.
As I have visited different cities over the past few months I have learned to seek out interesting staircases in each destination as their spiral design often makes an excellent subject for photography.
While researching the staircases of Vienna I came across someone who has taken the interest in staircase photography to a whole new level. Christian Öser is a press photographer and author based in Vienna who has taken pictures of hundreds of staircases from all over Europe.
I reached out to Christian to discuss our shared interest and he was kind enough to help me find some great staircases in Vienna.
It is always interesting to see the different "faces" of each staircase (depending on whether you are shooting up, down or at an angle) and also to see the huge variations in appearance that each staircase brings.
Thanks a lot to Christian for his assistance in adding to my staircase collection... now I am only about 200 staircases behind :)
My journey continued with a visit to the State Opera House where I joined a guided tour (as far as I could tell this is the only legal way to get into the theatre with a camera).
I can admit that I paid more attention to my camera than I did to what the tour guide was saying, but I anyway got a good sense of the logistical challenges of enabling multiple performances and rehearsals of different operas on the same stage every single day.
The tour took us through a succession of beautiful rooms, once you get past the magnificent main hall you can see that the rest of the building maintains that high standard.
One big problem with Vienna... I am running out of adjectives to describe these interiors... but I still have more places to mention.
Otto Wagner is perhaps the most famous Viennese architect, responsible for many of the capital's beautiful buildings, and credited with influencing future generations of architects in Vienna and beyond. I decided to travel to one of his buildings, the Post Office savings bank.
Thankful for having had a short break from the buffet of rich colours I was able to head back into the centre to tackle my next destinations, once again making good use the U-Bahn.
One place which is easy to overlook, but definitely worth a visit, is the Austrian National Library where it is possible to visit the splendid staterooms on a "look but don't touch" basis.
Another somewhat hidden gem is the Palace of Justice. This building is still in active daily use and you need to go through "airport style" security in order to enter but nonetheless it is open to the public and you can even visit the rooftop cafe. The interesting part for me was the main hall and staircase, a large space with a central statue which reminds me slightly of the main hall in Natural History Museum in London with its statue of Darwin.
With that, it is time for me to sign off... Vienna is an amazing city and it has wonders around every corner, I hope that it is not my last visit there.
Thanks for reading this far, this post was longer that I expected!
P.S. - I will leave you with one more U-Bahn picture...
The beautiful city of Budapest was my latest photography destination as I spent a few days there at the end of March. The city is a fascinating one for photography with its many remarkable buildings and a succession of bridges across the Danube which winds its way through the middle of the city, separating the old settlements of Buda and Pest. The city is perhaps at its best during night time as almost all the main attractions are illuminated, making for a spectacular view.
The parliament building, the largest actively used state parliament in Europe, is a particular favourite of mine and I hoped to get some good shots of it during this trip. On the day of my arrival I was hoping to photograph the interior of the parliament but the tickets were sold out for that day so instead I headed to the nearby St Stephen's Basilica.
After recent trips to Prague and Riga I have started to enjoy visiting the grand old churches that can be found in many cities and photographing their interiors, usually with a wide angle lens (my 12-24mm lens seems ideal for this). Appropriately, this kind of photography often involves pointing the camera to the heavens in order to capture the patterns of high ceilings or cupolas.
The churches in Budapest seemed to be very rich and ornate in their details, not only in the main central spaces but also in all the alcoves and secondary areas, which made them extremely rewarding to photograph.
On the Buda side of the river the terrain rises steeply and there you can find the huge castle, the beautiful Matthias church and the remarkable neo-gothic battlements of the Fishermans Bastion.
At the foot of the castle hill lies the castle gardens and the buildings of the Várkert bazár and thanks to some advice from a friend I was able to find another staircase to add to my collection (after the lightbulb staircase in Prague and the art nouveau staircase in Riga). Budapest has many beautiful staircases but usually they are in private buildings so they are not easily accessible, the one in the Várkert bazár however is in regular public use and it resembles an eye when photographed from the right angle.
I usually try to make my photographs mostly in the camera rather than in the computer but in this case the staircase seemed to offer possibilities that were too good to ignore... the staircase looks like an eye, but eyes usually come in pairs, so it seemed inevitable that I should play with that.
On a rainy day later in the trip I may have had a little bit too much time on my hands as the family of staircase creatures started to grow...
At the end of that first evening I took a walk along the river at night and decided that the Chain Bridge was my favourite of the many interesting bridges across the Danube.
I almost always travel alone on these photography trips but this time I had made plans to meet up and shoot with a couple of photographer friends who I have got to know online over the past 5-6 months, Robert Juvet and Gergő Bakos (provider of excellent staircase advice from the day before), both of whom have been very successful in the photography competitions on GuruShots, winning many times over the past year. Robert was visiting Hungary from his home in Switzerland while Gergő is a native of Budapest and we spent about 12 hours of the second day of my trip shooting together in the Budapest area.
Our first destination was the Medveotthon Bear Sanctuary where we had a chance to photograph bears, wolves, lynx and some smaller mammals. This sanctuary provides a comfortable and protected environment for animals who have been released from their former duties in circuses or evicted from their homes in zoos around Europe. The animals are not free to roam the countryside, but they are given a relatively large area with suitable terrain in which to spend their days. To me the animals all looked well taken care of and content... if a little bit bored.
Although the bears and wolves were the headline acts, some of the smaller animals were a great support act, it was fun to watch a cute coati climbing up to the top branches of a tree to play.
The weather was sunny and mild at this part of the day and the bears were lazing around to take advantage of this.
The bear above looked like he might have already breathed his last breath but shortly afterwards he perked up and started doing some yoga :)
The interesting looking long horned Hungarian Grey cattle were the final attraction on this part of the visit.
After Medveotthon we visited a traditional Hungarian restaurant for some delicious lunch on our way to a place where there were a number of old military aircraft and helicopters gently falling apart in a field. This was an extremely interesting place, when it came to photographing it I found the most inspiration when concentrating on smaller details rather than trying to photograph entire aircraft.
As the sun began to set we made for our final destination, heading back to Budapest to shoot the city lights from the top of the hill at Citadella. This vantage point offers great panoramic views to many directions.
My favourite view from the Citadella hill was of the castle and the Matthias church with the suburbs of Budapest on the hill behind.
Over the past few months I have spent quite a bit of time exchanging ideas with Rob and Gergő and being finally able to get them and spend the day shooting with them was a special and memorable occasion and definitely the highlight of the trip for me. Gergő has been particularly helpful to me as I have tried to improve my skills in editing my pictures and I have appreciated that a lot while Rob and I seem to find interest and inspiration in similar places, often shooting in the mountains when possible. This was a successful meeting and I hope we can meet again.
On the following day Gergő had to return to work but I spent a few hours with Rob and his family as we visited Visegrad castle and then the Esztergom Basilica, from where you can get a clear view across the Danube to neighbouring Slovakia.
I would particularly like to thank Rob and his family for being such generous hosts, picking me up from my hotel and driving me around on both days despite the horrendous Budapest traffic.
After saying my farewells and thank-yous to the Juvet family my attention turned once again to the Parliament building. I booked a place on a tour of the interior for the following morning and went walking to try and see if I could find good angles to combine the parliament with one of the bridges.
The following morning my tour of the parliament started at 0815. As far as I could find out this was the only way to view the interior of the building, accompanied by about 60 other people (two guided tours at the same time, one in English and one in French on this occasion). This 45 minute tour gave some great information and took in some of the most interesting parts of the building but was something of a challenge from photography point of view due to the concentration of human beings in each area. The dome room, where the Hungarian crown is kept, would be a particularly beautiful place for pictures (the ceiling is spectacular) but all photography is forbidden in that room.
The grand staircase is truly an imposing sight and would make a great first impression for anyone entering by this route. From there we continued via the impressive dome room to view one of the parliament chambers. Originally the Hungarian parliament was a bi-cameral system and the building contains two identically sized chambers for debating and voting. Nowadays there is only a single parliamentary house and the other chamber is used for meetings and other parliamentary business.
On this kind of tour you quickly learn to try and get to each destination first, or leave last, or both, in order to get some chance for a photo before the crowd arrives. I found some opportunities initially by shooting from the crowd above people's heads but people tend to learn quickly so after a few seconds the people in front would also be taking pictures at arms length above their heads... so I would have multiple smartphones in any picture I tried to take.
After breakfast I had 3-4 hours before I should go to the airport. The weather was pretty miserable so I had to look for indoor photography opportunities. I decided to go to the Matthias church and see how that looked inside. This was a good idea.
This church, on the hill near to the castle on the Buda side of the river, is very beautiful on the outside, but the inside is even better. The rich colours, ornate decorations and beautiful designs in every part of the building make it a superb photography destination.
In this church the beauty was more than skin deep, even side passages and corridors were elaborately decorated.
As the rain poured down outside I spent a happy hour in this great place.
Although this was a short trip it was a really good one. Budapest is an excellent destination for photography and it could have held my interest for many more days, I have to return one day.
Thanks again to Rob and Gergő for good company on this trip.
Until next time,
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!
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,
This week's trip was to a little bit of a different destination, a family city break in Amsterdam, meeting with my mother "half-way" between Finland and Scotland. The trip's primary purpose was not photography... but of course I had my camera with me and I was interested to see what would catch my eye in this historic city. We stayed in the museum district of the city, near to the Rijksmuseum.
Large cities give many opportunities for different kinds of photography. For some photographers the people inhabiting the city and their daily interactions with each other can provide an endless source of interest. For others the buildings and monuments of the city, built over many generations, in a myriad of styles, in various states of repair, provide a fascinating landscape. The massive concentration of activity and enterprise in a small area means that there is always something going on, and there are often interesting little details to be found in innocent looking corners. In many other forms of photography the onset of darkness provides some limitations, but in city photography the fluorescent world that emerges after dark brings a new set of opportunities.
Having spent most of the last few months searching for the peaceful beauty of nature, in the mountains or on remote islands, it was something of a culture shock to be in this frantic city, swarming with people. Navigating the city as a pedestrian is a challenge in itself. The sheer amount of pedestrians is one difficulty but the bigger challenges are caused by the amazing amount of bicycle traffic flying towards you from all directions at all times. There are probably some very sensible rules for who goes and when... but they are not immediately obvious to a visitor. In order to survive even a short walk on the city streets you need to have great spacial awareness and rapidly adjust to situations as they emerge, perhaps it is not surprising that this city was the birthplace of "total football".
In attempt to avoid the crowds and to have a more peaceful atmosphere for photography I chose mainly to shoot late at night and early in the morning... the latter being by far the more peaceful option.
During the 4 day trip I walked along many kilometres of canals and while the scenery was always interesting to observe, I did not find many places that gave opportunities for a clean composition. In the past I have really enjoyed city photography, especially at night, but on this occasion and in this destination I had difficulties to find inspiration.
Many of the buildings, especially around the canal network, were built many generations ago, but around the edges of the historic old town a lot of new architecture can also be found. The Oeverpark area, across the water from the Centraal station, is home to the EYE film museum and the A'DAM Lookout, both of which caught my eye immediately as we first arrived to the city by train from Schipol airport. The Lookout houses a restaurant and an observation platform 20 stories above the city and is lit up in bright yellow at night while the EYE museum has an interesting design.
I returned to these buildings, making use of the free ferry which runs from outside the Centraal station 24 hours a day, on a few occasions during my stay and found interest in both wider shots of the buildings and some more abstract geometrical arrangements.
It was interesting to note how many different bird species were sharing this hugely busy city with the human population. The waterways were home to large amounts of mallards and coots with a smaller but still noticeable population of moorhens also easily visible. Mute swans, crows, jackdaws, sparrows, magpies, grey herons, pigeons (wood pigeons and feral pigeons) and various gulls were also easy to notice. By far the most obvious bird, based on noise level rather than sheer numbers, was the ring-necked parakeet, a population of which has made a foothold in the city. Their loud screeching can be heard almost constantly in many parts of the city and it was a common occurrence to see something bright green flashing past in the corner of your eye. Another species that could be considered "non-native" in the city but which can also be found there in significant numbers is the Egyptian goose. Both of these populations have developed from birds that have escaped from captivity rather than arriving in Amsterdam by their own initiative. I suppose I am not meant to approve of the presence of these non-native species... but they both looked quite exotic to me and I was happy to see them before I found out that maybe I shouldn't have been.
A couple of years ago, at the beginning of my photography activities, I found a lot of interest in photographing flowers. This can of course be done in many places, including your own home, but it can also be very interesting to take a trip to some botanical gardens where you might find some more exotic of interesting species. The Hortus botanical gardens in Amsterdam are a great place to spend an hour or so with interesting plants both outside and in as well as a butterfly house where you can see hundreds of those beautiful and delicate fluttering insects.
Overall, this was a good trip, and a great chance for us to spend some time with my mother in one of her favourite places.
Where next? Well... that is under consideration. After this city experience I think that somewhere with rather fewer people will be a high priority. If anyone has any suggestions about good photography destinations, particularly for landscape or nature photography, then please feel free to comment this post!
Enter your email address to receive notifications of new blog posts