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,
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