Carnival Season is Almost Upon Us

Jungle Drums by Gremlins Carnival Club in portrait format. Winner of the Feature class and overall winner at the 2011 Glastonbury Chilkwell Guy Fawkes Carnival.

Jungle Drums by Gremlins Carnival Club at the 2011 Glastonbury Chilkwell Guy Fawkes Carnival.

When everyone thinks of the carnival, they inevitably think of Rio or Notting Hill. However, in the Southwest of England, we do things a little differently. Many towns in the Southwest hold a carnival and many more used to, until Health and Safety regulations made the cost prohibitive. There are a number of different circuits, where a group of towns hold overall competitions and the biggest of those is the Somerset County Circuit, which includes a number of towns in central and northern Somerset. Theere are six carnivals in the circuit, all of which can be entered, no matter where you live and in fact, there have been entries from as far away as Rio de Janeiro. The difference between the carnivals in the Southwest and the likes of Rio and Notting Hill is dramatic. The mainstay of carnivals in this neck of the woods, is the illuminated cart or float, although there are also much more modest entrants, each with their own class. It is nominally a competition, but one of the biggest aims of the carnivals is to collect money for local charities.

_F1A6588Many of the entrants are individuals, but there are also a large number of entrants from carnival clubs, many of which have been around for several years and spend large sums of money every year. In fact many of the best entries each year, started from an idea initiated just weeks after the dust had settled from the previous year. They also light up the sky for miles around and result in many road closures, to enable the events to take place. Crowds number into the tens of thousands fo some of the events, with the largest crowds usually appearing at the Bridgwater carnival, often called the home of carnival. There is also an association with Guy Fawkes, one of the members of the catholic group, set to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival is closed with “Squibbing”. This is a line of participants, who hold large fireworks called squibs at arms length, before lighting them. While it is a spectacular sight, it isn’t the place to wear your ball gown or Sunday Best, as sparks can fly.

So if you happen to be in the area around the beginning to middle of November, then why not pay one of the carnivals a visit. With a choice of six around North Petherton, Bridgwater, Burnham on Sea, Glastonbury, Weston Super Mare and Wells, there are a few places to choose from. Bridgwater tends to have the biggest crowds and the most entrants, but the main clubs enter all of the carnivals, then you can say that you’ve been to the largest illuminated carnival in the world.

SleekLens Lightroom Presets

I was recently contacted by SleekLens about trialling their Lightroom Preset “Through the Woods”. It has been designed following comments by a range of landscape photographers.
Last weekend, I installed the presets and had a quick look around. At first glance, the presets are a bit excessive for my style of shooting and most images, but with some tweeks, I think they could be useful. Also included though, are a range of brushes, with similar presets and the more selective nature of those could be of greater benefit. Once I have had a chance to evaluate them fully, I will post a review.

Canon EOS 5Ds and 5Dsr

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a Canon Experience Day, with the chance to try out Canon’s two high resolution cameras, the EOS 5Ds and 5Dsr. Helping out, were two Canon Ambassadors, David Clapp and Tim Parkin, along with Canon Representative, Rob Cook.

Hound Tor

Normally when trying out gear, you get a quick few minutes at trade shows and don’t have a chance to take images away with you. However, the idea of the Experience Days, is to really gain some experience with using the equipment available. It wasn’t just the camera bodies either, with a range of lenses also being available to try out. I was also able to try out the bodies with my own lenses and use my own memory cards, so that I was able to examine the images and compare to my own equipment in full resolution.

Conditions weren’t ideal for showing detail, as conditions were very foggy, but it was still possible to practice landscape photography in the more demanding conditions found in the Hound Tor area of Dartmoor and later around the abandoned barn at Emsworthy.

I started off using the EOS 5Dsr for a few hours around Hound Tor, coupled to the highly rated (if difficult to perfect) TS-E 24mm tilt and shift lens. Despite it now being a few years old, this lens really showed what the 5Dsr can do, showing a high degree of resolution and detail. My own EF 24mm f/1.4 was also able to show additional detail, when compared to what my 5D MkII can achieve.

Hound Tor

After a foray into Widecombe for a late lunch, we moved on to Emsworthy Barn. This is an old abandoned barn, situated amongst traditional drystone walls. By this time, I had swapped the 5Dsr and TS-E lens, for a 5Ds and a 16-35. This combination was visibly less sharp, even in the extremely foggy conditions (which may actually have exaggerated the difference) and I was also able to make a direct conparison between the two bodies, using my 24mm lens. This location enabled me to take some images, I don’t often get a chance to try out, as I would normally be wary of heading to the moors in such conditions alone.

Emsworthy Barn

As the light dropped, it was time to head home. It was a very interesting day and a rare chance to try out equipment, I may consider purchasing, before I take the plunge. It has also given me a new perspective on the current very high resolution cameras on offer and rather than get a second MkIII as backup, I would be more inclined to go for the 5Dsr instead, as the price difference is relatively small for the resolution advantage gained, particularly, as I could even see the difference in detail when viewing at 50%, the zoom level I use to estimate print sharpness and detail. The various crop options and ability to use at a lower resolution for many shots, would lessen the impact on cost for computing power and storage space, making it a more sensible choice, than it may otherwise have been.

The Faroe Islands and Viking Invasions

I’m not long back from my latest trip around Scandinavia. Last year, I was given the opportunity to chase the total solar eclipse, which was going to occur on March 20th 2015. Totality was only going to be viewable from land in two places though, Svalbard and Faroe Islands. The original plan was to head to Svalbard, but time of year meant that the weather could be hit and miss. For the sake of mobility and the dangers from polar bears, it was decided to switch to the Faroe Islands instead.

The trip would start in Norway, around Alta in Finnmark, where I was to help out a little with the final tour of the Aurorahunters season. It was a little more low-key than my full guiding in Iceland last November, but it was good to be part of the Aurorahunters team again. As usual, we would be chasing the Aurora Borealis, which in late winter, essentially means looking for gaps in the weather in much of Europe.

Of course, things didn’t quite go to plan, and we fell foul of the strike by Norwegian Airlines pilots, forcing us to make some last-minute decisions and changes to make sure we made it to the boat for the Faroes several days later. When I arrived in the Alta Commune, there was little snow on the ground, but that changed overnight, so it was lucky we decided to go on a hunt the first night and saw a nice display over a canyon and nearby mountains.

To get to the Faroe islands, meant travelling by ship from Newcastle, requiring flights from Alta via Oslo and Gatwick. The ship was to be our base for several days, including the three days travel, there and back, leaving us a few days to explore the islands. The Faroe Islands are a group of self-governing islands (and also part of Denmark) situated pretty much half way between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. The location pretty much offers a picture of the likely weather. Right in the path of the gulf stream, the weather pretty much matches that of the UK and Iceland, with the winds being closer to the strength in Iceland (and also Shetland), than the UK, in other words, potentially very windy and wet, with a lot of clouds. Obviously not the best weather for viewing a solar eclipse. However, as is so often the case, just like in the UK and Iceland, the prevailing weather meant that the scenery was pretty spectacular, with dramatic, flat-topped mountains, betraying their volcanic origin.

Also travelling on the ship, were a band of Danish and Icelandic vikings from the “Berserk Vikings“, who of course invaded the dance floor on the first night, doing recent (and not so recent) dance moves, while dressed as vikings. They were actually travelling to the Faroe Islands to hold a Solar Eclipse Viking Market at the Hoyvik Outdoor Museum, on the outskirts of the capital, Tórshavn. The aim was to raise funds for the future events in teh Faroe Islands, as well as having some fun.

Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to experience the full glory of the eclipse or the strong geomagnetic storm that occurred during our visit, but just witnessing the sudden darkness and the cultural experience with the modern-day vikings was enough. I was even part of one of their ceremonies, thanking each other for helping to make the market a cultural success and that experience will live with me, along with the mental picture of the Faroe Islands landscape.

Guiding in Iceland

It’s been a little late in coming, but it’s past time to provide an update about my last trip to Iceland. Back in November, I helped out Aurorahunters, guiding for them during a tour to southern Iceland, in combination with Alexander Keen. As usual, the tour had an astronomical theme, but instead of just trying to search out the Northern Lights, we were also looking for the Leonid meteor showers.

Just to make it interesting, we also had to keep one eye on the volcanic eruption, associated with the largest of the Icelandic Volcanoes, Bardabunga. Since mid-August, the volcano had been showing signs of unrest and in September erupted quite a distance to the north of the main cone, in Holuhraun. Even now, it is still continuously erupting. Just before we travelled, some parts of Iceland were experiencing high levels of pollution, so we had to keep a careful watch on the wind direction. Luckily, there weren’t any issues and the tour went without any major hitches.

We arrived a couple of days before the clients, so that we could do some last-minute scouting and make any necessary adjustments to the programme. We had a number of meetings with providers we were working with to make sure things ran smoothly and also visited some of the locations we would be taking the clients to, to ensure there weren’t any hitches. The weather wasn’t looking the best, but then we were in Iceland, so in true Aurorhunters style, the programme was going to be an advisory, rather than a solid plan. Largely though, we did stick to the programme we made in the last days prior to the tour starting. Also, we didn’t have any of the major storms that Iceland is renowned for.

We were staying in Keflavik, not far from the airport and it was therefore a quick trip to collect the VW Transporter before meeting the clients on the day of arrival. After time to settle in, we did the usual welcome meeting with information on the Aurora and Leonids.

The clients had a good taste of Southern Iceland, including geysers and waterfalls. We were also lucky enough to experience the best Aurora display I’ve seen, with movement and pulsing so fast, it was impossible to capture in stills. It literally covered the whole sky and was very spectacular.

A combination of problems with my main camera body and making sure the clients were able to photograph what they wanted, meant I didn’t get many shots myself, but it was an enjoyable experience and the tour was a success, despite working in a largely unfamiliar location, despite the scouting trip in the previous August, without backup from other members of the team over in Norway.

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Icelandic Aurora

Aurora Borealis over the Lofoten Islands.

It’s already been a spectacular start to the Aurora season, with bright and fast-moving displays up at 70 degrees North. Andy and the Aurorahunters team have been able to capture some more memorable shots and have been able to find the “Tricky Lady” on five occasions in the first week.

Northern Norway, has its own charm and remarkable scenery, but if you want drama, then look no further than Iceland, with its dramatic scenery, combining volcanic mountains, geysers and of course the Atlantic Ocean.

In the southwest, you have the capital, Reykjavik, with its cultural charm and landmarks, such as Hallgrimskirkja and “Sun Voyager”, as well as boat trips from its harbour. A bit further afield, there are the delights of the Golden Circle, including the natural spectacles of Strökkur, Gulfoss and Thingvellir. But may be you fancy a bit of relaxation? Then try the trip to the Blue Lagoon, with its soothing pools.

Jökulsárlón and Vatnajökull.

In the southeast, you have Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and to say it is big, would be a vast understatement. The sheer scale of it is staggering. Underneath, it hides some of the highest mountain peaks in Iceland, including the huge volcano Bardarbunga.

Why not visit some of these fascinating locations, along with many more, with the Aurorahunters team. Also on offer are a boat trip, hunting for the Aurora – Aurorahunting with a difference, and a hunt for the Leonid Meterors. There will also of course, be the obligatory standard Aurorahunt, if anything in Iceland can be descrived as standard of course. A chance to see a natural phenomenon, one on the bucket list of many, against one of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth.

The tour is on the 13-18th November, with the Aurora Borealis and Leonid meteor shower as the highlights. See the Aurorahunters website for the full itinerary.

http://www.aurorabasecamp.com/iceland.html

First Visit to Iceland – The Land of Ice and Fire

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland. I travelled with Andy Keen, founder and Director of Aurorahunters, a company who has made it their business to chase the “Tricky Lady” in northern Scandinavia, as well as the company of his son, Alex and three fellow travellers. I first travelled with them to Finland around 18 months ago, then I visted the Lofoten Islands and Finnmark with them in March this year.
This trip was more of a scouting trip, a way of putting out feelers for the potential of Iceland. Also, the primary target wasn’t the Northern Lights this time, but the Perseid meteor shower. Of course, who could pass up the chance of Aurora also, even if the hours of darkness were limited?
After an early morning flight, we arrived at Keflavik and just had enough time to travel to our apartment in the suburban area of Reyjavkik and a quick cuppa, before we headed out on our first trip. Unusually, we were going to be doing some tours with a local agency, instead of making our own way, mainly because we were a little clueless about Iceland. To be honest, we weren’t even sure it would live up to the hype. It’s one of those destinations that everyone talks about and there is always a slight niggling concern that it isn’t going to live up to expectations.
We hadn’t realised, quite how large the company that was helping us was. They were called Reykjavik Excursions and it seems they are pretty much the largest tourist company in Iceland. Despite that though, they went out of their way to collect us from our apartment (which we later found out was very unusual).

I’m not normally one for cities, but Reykjavik was quite interesting and the quick tour helped us to orientate ourselves to some degree, visiting a number of attractions, such as Perlan (The Pearl), the Sun Voyager sculpture, Hallgrimskirkja and a number of other places.

That evening, we visited the Blue Lagoon and yes, it is very blue. It is also in a geothermally active area (just like much of Iceland), with many smaller pools outside the main complex and many volcanic features. The rocks, intermingled with the pools, some of which are quite large, make for a very dramatic landscape.

Probably one of the more dramatic areas we visited, was the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón, in the southeast of Iceland. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in the country and also in Europe and the lagoon has a large number of icebergs, which have calved from the glacier. Also, many seabirds, such as skua and terns were flying around, with common seals swimming amongst the icebergs, while observing all the visitors.

We spent several nights looking and trying to photograph the Perseid meteors, but they were more than a little shy, we did however strike lucky with a faint (but visible) aurora, which is almost certainly the first sighting of the season, a full week before the locals would have expected. Then again, they probably weren’t mad enough to be out at some ridiculous hour, when there was barely two hours of darkness.

The final day, we decided to forego the coach (partly due to camera issues – they don’t like volcanic lakes) and strike out on our own to pick and choose what we wanted to see on the Golden Circle. Our first stop was Thingvellir, the site of the old parliament and visible rift gorge. This is a site where the theory of plate tectonics, becomes reality and the forces of nature are clearly visible. The perfect site for a seat of power. Next stop was the awesome power of the Gulfoss falls (Golden Falls), before finally finishing off the daylight hours at the site of Geysir, in the company of geothermally active, bioluminescent pools and the might of the geyser of Strokkur (churn). Not quite the same power of Geysir, when it is active, but then Geysir isn’t currently active.

Iceland certainly lived up to expectations and we will almost certainly visit again, that is if a certain volcano by the name of Bárðarbunga allows. Two days after we left the island, Bárðarbunga started showing signs of unrest and at the time of writing, has opened up a dyke more than 40 km long and has possibly had some small eruptions under Vatnajokull. If events progress how they could, then it could put on a spectacular display, that could have the potential for much disruption, not just in Iceland, but also in Europe. I can thoroughly recommend Iceland as a travel destination and if you want to chase the Northern Lights, then there is no-one better than Aurorahunters. Also, look out for more nature-based excursions in the coming months and not just the hunt for the “Tricky Lady”.

The Great British Wildlife Hunt

Roosting-TreecreeperEarlier in the year I was contacted by Bloomsbury Publishing, regarding the use of one of my images in an upcoming book and after some negotiation, a fee was reached. The image in question, was a photograph of a treecreeper roosting in the bark of a Sequioa tree, taken with the aid of a flash.

For anyone who hasn’t felt the bark of a Sequioa tree, even way after sunset, in the middle of winter, it is warm to the touch, as it is a very good insulating material. Treecreepers have been quick to adapt to this and the fact that the bark is also very soft, by burrowing into the bark and making small indentations. They then fluff up their feathers to further conserve heat.

The Great British Wildlife Hunt was finally published in June. I had planned on buying the book, but never got around to it somehow. As it turned out, it was actually just as well I didn’t, because just over a week ago, a complimentary copy plopped through my letterbox. An added bonus, to an image sale and one that hadn’t happened with previously licensed images.

Product Details

RSPB The Great British Wildlife Hunt by Anne Harrap (20 Jun 2013)