Saturday, 30 September 2006

Holiday without a camera

For some reason my camera got left behind on my trip to Barcelona. This was obviously a disaster.

What was interesting though was that I reached the end of my three days in the City with a very good feeling for exactly what photos I wanted to take. The patterns, the sight lines, and the lighting effects that would really make stunning photos. I now have a map marked up with some of these.

I suppose it happens when you've been taking photos long enough; you get a feeling for what makes a good picture, and you don't even need to make a 'viewfinder' with your fingers to have a rough feel for how the image will fit.

Of course when you have a camera to hand, it's easy to just click away. And ninety per cent of the shots will just be snapshots - throwaways, below par.

So maybe I'll make sure the next time I'm in a new city, to leave the camera at home the first day. I'll find the angles, think about the shots, and then go back to take the pictures the next day.

Ten big hills

I enjoy travelling. I enjoy hiking. I enjoy biking. And what I really, really like is the sight of a great big hill to climb.

So here are my ten favourites.

1 - Penyghent, in Yorkshire. It's just a few feet short of being officially a mountain but it has everything it needs for me to think of it as one. There's a precipitous climb up the sharp face, and a marvellous yomp down the grassy side. Its silhouette taunts the walker - "Here, you, bet you can't climb me!" I have, twice - and I want to make it three before I'm finished.

2 - The Malvern Hills. Equally split between Herefordshire and Worcestershire, these fine hills stick out of the Severn plain like a dragon's back. The views are tremendous, all the way over to Wales in one direction and the Cotswolds on the other. The medieval poet William Langland begins his poem 'Piers Plowman' with the view from the hills - you really can see the whole world from here, just as he says. And you can walk from end to end in a day. If you're up there on the second weekend in December you'll see me and about sixty other certified lunatics Morris dancing.

3 - the road up to La Mola in Formentera. You start at sea level at end up at about 197m. One long winding road to cycle up, until you can't, and walk up, until you can get back on the bike. My lungs started to burn half way up. My shirt was soaked when I got to the top. But there's a wonderful view of the whole of the rest of the island, laid out below - the rocky promontory of the Cap de Barbaria, and the long, sandy beaches to north and south. And it's great fun going downhill again!

An alternative route, which I adore, is the Cami Roma, or Cami de sa Pujada - a rocky path that leads up the sea cliff. It's steep and direct - none of the winding and indirectness of the road. I sat down for a rest half way and after a couple of minutes the little green and blue lizards that live there lost their fear and started climbing all over me. And there's the best view of all, about two thirds of the way up, with a little bay below and the island spread out beyond.

4 - the path up to O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago. One long, hard, zigzagging climb that seems to take the whole of a day. And it's always raining. But it's a magnificent climb none the less.

5 - Castrojeriz, another waystation on the Camino de Santiago. Rioja and the meseta of Spain are full of these little hills that poke up from a flat plain - and this one is topped by a castle, just the way it should be in a medieval romance. In late September, I watched the sun set behind the hill and light the cornfields up with gold. And I never climbed up to the castle; I didn't need to. Beautiful just to look.

6 - Glastonbury Tor. I ought to hate the Tor; I had to run cross-country up and down it when I was at school. But its outline, with the ruined tower on top, and its position, a unique eminence in the otherwise completely flat landscape of the Somerset Levels, make it unforgettable. I've been up and down it enough times, but my favourite view is from Cadbury Castle, a huge hill fort miles to the south east.

There's a miniature Glastonbury Tor too, for which I have a great affection. Just like the Tor, the Mump at Burrowbridge, to the south, has a ruined chapel to St Michael on top of it.

7 - Elm Hill, Norwich, has to be in here. What happens when you put a little hill together with fine half timbered houses and cobblestones? It's probably the most photographed sight in East Anglia and it deserves to be. Not a serious climb of course - but I did mention cobblestones; just try it on a racing bike!

8 - The Pic Saint-Loup, Languedoc, France, has the same fascinations as Penyghent - but it's bigger, and the local wine is better! It's a marvellous limestone climb and its spiky profile is visible from everywhere around Montpellier and the coast. There's a chapel at the top, apparently. I've only seen it from far off - on the TGV down to Montpellier and Narbonne, or walking in the Herault - but it's telling me the same thing as Penyghent; I've got to climb it some time!

9 - Vezelay. The whole of this town is built on a ridge, visible from the vineyards and fields below, with the great abbey church at the summit. And in between there's one great street, with old stone buildings on both sides, curving up to the magnificent church.

10 - Shippea Hill. Reached on the railway line between Norwich and Peterborough, this hill has to be seen to be believed. Some intrepid explorer has tackled it and given us this interesting account and pictures of the enormous hill. And once you've seen the picture you'll know why it's one of my favourites!

Now I have one exclusion that I'm really not happy about. I've left out the Mont Saint-Michel and it really is a hill, and one of my favourites. But I expect I'll be doing ten top islands at some point, and it really wouldn't be fair to give it a chance in both categories...

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Flood lines

I was born a long time after the great East Anglian floods of 1953. But my father remembered them, and he showed me the pictures from the local newpaper - the vast flatness of the Fens under water, just a house and a few telegraph poles left standing.

I've been fascinated by floods ever since.

So whenever I travel I keep an eye out for the flood lines. Plaques on buildings often tell the story of great floods, and not always in the most obvious places.

For instance Saint Guilhem du Desert, in the Languedoc of France, is a hill town in the middle of limestone country. It's better known by climbers than sailors. But it's in a narrow valley, with a little stream flowing down the middle and a river at the end of the gorge - and when that stream gets full, the waters back up and the whole place floods.

More obviously there are flood markers all over the Ile de la Cite, in Paris. There's one at the entrance to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, neatly added to the Gothic sculpture of the portal. There's another on a Renaissance house by the river bank. The rising Seine even flooded the metros in 1910 - and stopped all the clocks, when the compressed air network that drove them flooded.

In Florence, flood markers recall the artistic tragedy of the 1966 flood. The waters of the Arno reached 6 metres high in some of the lower lying areas. The saddest relic of the flood though is not the flood lines, though, but the Cimabue crucifix in Santa Croce - scarred almost to the point of illegibility. Half of Christ's face has been ripped away by the water, though his halo still shines, intact.

The best collection of flood markers I've ever seen, though, comes from East Anglia - on the west door of a church in King's Lynn. This Ouse port, on the edge of the Wash, has no protection from the sea - and when the wind blows from the north east down the North Sea, it funnels the water into the neck of the Wash, and down to the flat Fens. It's amazing that so much of medieval Lynn's furnishings have survived - fine monumental brasses, sculptures, and even woodwork - when you think how often the water must have risen.

Timing is key

Two weeks on Formentera. Not really my kind of holiday; beaches.

Beaches full of Italian tourists and sunloungers. Beaches busy with sunbathers. Roads full of kids on scooters. Not really getting away from it all. More like rush-hour-on-sea.

However, I did find one great thing. If you get up early - and on Formentera that's anything before ten in the morning - you can go for a good swim before the sun gets blisteringly hot, and before anyone else has finished their breakfast. If you go to the beach late, say 630 in the evening, you can have the same experience - a quiet swim with hardly anyone else around.

It doesn't always work. I cycled out one afternoon to the lighthouse on La Mola, and for ten minutes I was the only person on the road. Dry stone walls each side, huge fig trees trained into drooping umbrellas of leaves, rows of vines, blue sky, and the dead straight road towards the lighthouse.

Then three buses passed me all at once - and every single person on those buses got out for a drink at the bar there and a wander over the clifftops. Bad timing!

It's quite easy to find out how to subvert the timing at tourist spots. Cathedrals are a favourite - you can't actively do 'tourism' first thing, but going to an early service is often a good way to get a feel for the building before the crowds arrive. Early mass at Fl0rence cathedral sets the building ringing with song and the low bom of the bells.

And for the photographer, early morning or late evening are often the times to get the best shots. Tewkesbury Abbey comes alive with the evening sun, making the stone glow. Walking out of Granada, the chines and gullies of the mountains are set off by low shadows in the early morning sun. Markets are being set up in the morning; we saw a blind man in Barcelona taking his daughter to her first day at school, and a little boy on the back of mum's bike. And I once did manage to get a picture of the Piazza San Marco with no one in it at all, just a lot of water.

I rather like revisiting places at different times, too. The atmosphere of a place changes according to the time and the season - the way the light falls, the number of people there, a scattering of rain or shade.

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Photographing people

About ninety percent of the photos I take are of landscapes and architecture. It doesn't move (though the light does, which can be interesting) and it's never going to get self-conscious.

But I also take pics of people. And one of the problems there is that as soon as you arrive with a camera, they get self-conscious and start posing.

That's okay. As so often, patience is a virtue. I just sit around for a while, and you'd be surprised how often they start to ignore you. For instance I turned up at the shipyards in Sur, Oman - a fascinating and usually almost deserted place - to find a new wooden ship being built. I introduced myself to the foreman, who had no problem with my taking pictures.

So first, a couple of posed shots. Then I just hung about in the background. Within a few minutes I was no longer the focus of attention, and I got some marvellous shots of carpenters at work - concentrating on the task in hand not the lens.

I find a long lens is also useful. It enables you to stand just that little way away from your subject, and the distance makes it easier for you to be part of the background. I generally only use 2 or 3 x zoom - not more than that. Very useful, too, for cutting through crowd scenes to get a shot of the interesting things happening on the periphery. I look for interactions - two people haggling, a conversation going on.

The other option is to pose the shot quite deliberately, but KEEP SHOOTING. This is where 'cheese' dioesn't cut the mustard (to mix a metaphor sandwich). You're not posing a moment, but a few minutes, and shooting every few seconds. Somewhere in the mix of ten or fifteen photos you'll have one that's pure gold and a couple that are okay, and the others won't work. Because people know you're shooting, but they're not waiting for a particular moment, you don't get that frozen quality (what I call 'school portrait' shots).

The other thing I do like is to find a figure in a landscape. I took a lovely shot in Oman of a couple of women walking home with their shopping. A nice ordinary shot - except that they happened to be in the middle of a desert wadi. One man on a park bench. A vendor selling birdie whistles at the Fischmarkt in Hamburg. The difficulty is balancing the landscape and the figure - and that all depends on the story you're trying to tell.

I've got a few of my pics loaded up on flickr - mainly landscape but I'll be loading up some of the shots I've talked about, too.

Now, a request for photographers reading this - I'm a K1000 lover, but film is alas coming to the end of its usefulness for me. So I'm looking for a digital camera that would give me the same high quality as a K1000 - great lenses, reliable (mine has been dropped on a station platform from 6 foot up and still survived, with a couple of dents), sturdy, and with the very simple controls - just set aperture and shutter speed, no fiddling about with knobs and visual displays. I'm using a Sony DSC 727 at the moment but I am really fed up with the difficulty of doing anything but point-and-shoot, and looking for the mixture of simplicity and total control that the K1000 gave me. All advice welcome!