A short trip to the South of Spain was a good occasion to push myself out of my comfort zone and create some new work. While I'm usually shooting my travels in a documentary fashion with a small camera, I decided to try to shoot more deliberate with my medium format camera and even a tripod. The end results on such a trip are less important than learning new things and that's what this post is about.
Cabo de Gata is a rugged and wild area in the South of Spain that isn't very touristic compared to other nearby regions. In fact, we found it to be pretty much deserted to the point that it sometimes was a challenge to get a cup of coffee. It's clear that in the warmer months this area is busier but when we were there in the middle of March, the eclectic collection of retired RV dwellers and hippie vanlifers had the place to themselves.
The area is pretty divers with beautiful beaches, rolling hills, desert, and steep peaks. Unfortunately most of the flat areas are the home of huge greenhouses made of plastic. These create environmental and social issues and it's rather sobering to see where our vegetables come from. The documentarian in me would have liked to explore this industry more but that would have asked for a lot more time than we had.
The weather wasn't great when we were there. The temperatures were fine but during our stay the constant stormy winds made it feel a lot colder.
Our first outing was to the desert.
I've taken some decent landscape pictures over the years but mostly when I just stumbled upon a perfect scene with all the pieces of the puzzle already in place. It's a different thing when you have to actively search for good shots. All the theory about camera settings, light direction, ... are familiar to me but that didn't always translate into good shots.
The reason why I wanted to make high resolution landscape/travel images on this trip is that one of my clients asked me if I had any good shots that they could use to print crazy big as decoration for their facilities. They ran some tests with pictures shot on my X-series cameras and although they print big very well, the resolution wasn't enough for this project. You see, this client is in the printing industry so they want huge prints that can stand up viewing them from up close too.
When I go on a trip I usually set myself a photographic goal or at least a general direction. So I figured I might as well see if I could make some images within the requirements of this client. Mind you, this wasn't a commissioned trip, I just tried to make some images that would fit this clients' requirements.
Maybe I'm spoiled by my visit to the Dubai desert only a couple of months ago, but I wasn't blown away by the Spanish desert to be honest. And I believe that you have to be impressed by what you shoot in order to make a picture that evokes emotion. You shouldn't try to photograph what a place looks like but rather how it FEELS. My general feeling throughout the day was that the area was "nice". At best, that translates in just "nice" pictures but nothing that can trigger an emotional respons from the viewer.
It was only when we took our rental car up a dusty track to a higher vantage point and a gentle warm breeze accompanied the setting sun, that I felt extremely privileged to be in this space. I call these moments, my split seconds of pure happiness. These are the moments I live for. Breath those moments in and (if you want) try to translate that feeling into a picture.
While in the car we noticed some kind of white structure on a mountaintop in the distance and decided to check it out. With every bend in the long winding road up the mountain, the temperature dropped and by the time we got to the top we went from 16°C to below 0. The wind was fierce too, so getting out of the car in our spring attire was challenging to say the least.
The widest native lens I have for my GFX50S is the 63mm f/2.8, which can be compared to a 50mm on a full frame camera or a 35mm on the X-series and other APS-C sensor cameras. I always state that you can shoot pretty much anything with such a lens and I stand by that. But for landscape photography, it's definitely more of a challenge than with documentary, street or portrait. This lens offers a natural perspective which makes the pictures look more like what the human eye sees, but it's harder to express the feeling of scanning around a broad horizon with this lens. Lens choice is one of the tools we have as photographers to express ourselves and I admit that on this trip with landscapes in mind, not having other lens options made me feel limited. Usually I'm perfectly ok with traveling with one lens, but in this case a wider one would have probably been better. I like the challenge of shooting with one lens, it makes me see better but maybe I challenged myself a bit too much with the limitations this time. Not only did I have just one focal length to my disposal (and not exactly the obvious choice for the job at hand) I was also shooting subject matter that I'm not that confident with, in challenging situations and mostly on a tripod. But like I said before, on trips like this it's not about the missed opportunities but about learning how to avoid them next time.
The limitations of a single fixed lens became even more clear when we went exploring the coast.
I love simplicity and flexibility when it comes to my gear. It's not just easy to travel with, it's also cheaper and you can stay focused on the picture rather than the gear. If you want the best possible picture in all circumstances, you will need a couple of assistants following you around with a truck full of gear. Not only would that ruin me, it would also prevent me from enjoying the moment. So I always try to get a gear package together that is easy to carry around and yet offers me flexibility.
If I was an all out landscape photographer, I would definitely invest in a full filter system but for my occasional outing in this field of photography I try to make it work with whatever gear I have. So for longer exposures I took my Tiffen Variable ND filter. I bought this filter mainly for video in combination with my XF16-55mm but with a cheap adapter ring, it fits the GF63mm as well. A variable ND filter is not nearly as good as a one piece ND filter: you can experience some colour casts, the image quality is slightly degraded and it doesn't take away the same amount of light as, let's say a Lee Big Stopper.
For the first time I also took a pretty big tripod with me on a trip. This is a piece of equipment that makes sense if you want to get the most out of a medium format camera and use small apertures and long exposures. I've never been much of a tripod person but lately I've been using one a lot more, but that's something for another blog post.
Some days, there seem to be great pictures around every bend in the road, the light is always great and you are in the flow. But on other days the photo gods take a break and however hard you try, you can't seem to get even an halfway decent shot. I used to fight those days but I've come to accept them. Definitely in landscape photography there are so many parameters that you don't control: weather, light, a dumpster truck blocking that perfect view, ... Good preparation and research can improve your chances a bit but I feel you can also over research. Sure a meticulously plan A, B and C will lower the risk of coming up empty. But over planning also minimizes your chances to be surprised. Photography to me is not just about the picture, it's also about experiences, exploring and being surprised. I've adopted this zen-like approach that if I want to experience the highs then I have to accept the lows as a byproduct of that. Every low is just an essential step towards the next high. Now I'm starting to sound like Mr. Miyagi.
If you don't get all frustrated on a bad day, you will often notice that when you least expect it, something good presents itself out of the blue.
When I read books, blogs or magazine articles it's often like there are only two hours in a day worthy of taking your camera out. Sure those golden hours often make for great shots but never limit yourself to only those moments. The in-between pictures may not have that same spectacular Instagram friendly mood, but there's still plenty to shoot.
I have visited the Alhambra in Granada many years ago but Griet had never been there so we decided it was worth the long drive. Well, it wasn't. Despite the fact that their aren't many tourists around this time of year and the parking lot of the Alhambra was virtually empty, they said there were no tickets available anymore that day. I was still having issues with that rolled ankle so a stroll around town wasn't an option. So we had a coffee and drove back, accepting defeat. We went off the highway through the Sierra Nevada a couple of times but always ended up in uninteresting spots. In the end we tried one last detour and at least found a great place to have lunch on an empty cosy terras ... until a group of loud Dutch business people emerged out of the blue and ruined the atmosphere. We drove back to the coast, hoping to get at least a couple more pictures on our last day.
Some of these images will find their way into presentations, maybe one or two will end up being printed big on my client's walls. But I doubt than any of them will still be in my portfolio a couple of years from now. That doesn't bother me a bit. These pictures will always be good memories of a great trip with my girlfriend and they will be stepping stones towards evolving and changing my style and the quality of my work.