Sunday, 31 May 2009

Slovakia (10): Leaving Slovakia

Our last photo opportunity, sunrise on Friday morning, was yet again rained off. After a leisurely breakfast, I said goodbye to companions as they headed off for the airport, and I took the train back to Kosice. I spent the afternoon pottering around, visiting the bookshop (again!) to stock up for the return trip, and catching up on some photo processing.

By Sunday morning the rain had caught up with me, so I spent the time until check out in the apartment, and then headed straight for the airport. I was very grateful for the free wireless internet on offer there, not to mention the new books I had bought, as I arrived to find that the check-in and security check weren't going to open for a couple of hours, and that the cafe was also closed. In fact, for the first 90 minutes, I pretty much had the airport to myself.

Back through Prague, Amsterdam and then finally the train, I arrived home some 9 hours after I had left the hotel. After a glass of wine with the neighbours, I enjoyed a Greek takeway (ordered over the internet, whilst I was waiting for my bag at Schiphol) and had an early night, looking forward to a lie-in on Monday morning.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Slovakia (9): Back to Hrebienok waterfall

When we woke at 4am to check the weather, it was immediately clear that there would be no photography. Not only was there a howling gale, but looking out of the window, there was nothing to see, except the snow which had settled onto the glass. Otherwise, white, white and more white.

Given the discomfort of our sleeping arrangements (5 of us crammed into a room for 4, with Chris on the floor and me on the very small sofa), not to mention the furnace like heat, we were all up and about early nonetheless. We decided to take the first gondola back down, at 8.40am, and until then, kept ourselves occupied by brief trips out into the snow to cool down.

The gondola ride down was rather faster than the trip up, and in no time at all we were tucking into our breakfast, in the canteen at Skalnaté Pleso, a good selection of pastries, combined with slightly greenish scrambled eggs, and large quantities of frankfurters. Breakfast over with, it was time to take the cable car down to the bottom, and make the short drive over to Starý Smokovec where we would take the funicular up to Hrebienok.

Well, if only life was so simple. In the end, we waited almost 2 hours whilst the cable car was started, stopped, started, run a little and then stopped again. Watching the webcam, we could see Erik waiting in the van in the car park at the bottom for us! Just at we'd ascertained that there was a viable walking route direct to Hrebienok, and decided to take it despite the snow, we were finally ushered into the cable car, and with much jostling, crashing and getting stuck in the doorways with camera backpacks and tripods, we were off.

For a little while, all seemed to be running smoothly, then all of a sudden the system came to a standstill and we were flung violently backwards and forwards. Well, I have to admit that I did let out a somewhat undignified yelp at the moment. But I wasn't the only one. For a person that has never been particularly comfortable with cable cars, this wasn't really the best sort of experience. For the next five minutes we got going a little, stopped suddenly and swayed back and forwards a couple times, and then finally managed to make the final stretch into the shed at the halfway point. We were all ushered out of our cars, and bustled into new cars for the final run, which continued without a hitch.

Finally, we headed off to the waterfall, and tried to make the most of what we had learned from the critique of our earlier waterfall shoot. My focus was on the patterns within the water, and also trying to be very strict with myself about spot metering the exposures. The shoot didn't up end lasting very long, as yet again we were defeated by the weather. A light rain quickly turned into a persistent snow, and we decided to call it a day.

Back in the valley, the weather was a little more clement, and we continued with our plan for a sunset shoot at the spot we'd visited on Tuesday night. I decided to travel light, and emptied out the contents of my camera bag. As soon as we arrived, I realised my mistake - the tripod adapter for the camera was back in the chalet, still attached to the 20D. Making the most of the situation, I decided to try my hand at some motion blur shots, generally larking around, and doing stupid things like sitting down in a bog, to get an interesting angle. Whilst most of the resulting shots are not worth much, there's a few that I was rather pleased with.

Even though I couldn't use the tripod, I also continued with my plan of taking some more practice HDR shots, in order to work on the post-processing stage. This was also a good test of the new custom settings I had set up on the 5D MK2 for generating multiple auto-bracketed exposures, and enabled me to discover a couple things which I hadn't set up properly.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Slovakia (8): Lomnický štít

We had planned to start our day with a sunrise trip to the spot we visited on Tuesday night, but since the weather didn't co-operate, we enjoyed a lie-in instead. As we had arranged to be picked up from the chalet at 12.15, that left plenty of time to process some of yesterday's photos and hold another critique session. I included a selection of detail shots from the visit to Spiš Castle and some HDR shots from the same evening.

We spent the night on Lomnický štít - at an altitude of 2634 m. The trip up there is a multi-stage process - first by cable car to Skalnaté pleso, where we spent half an hour photographing the lake, and then a gondola up to the peak itself. The gondola trip was a little unnerving, as most of the journey took place in the clouds.

Up on the top of the mountain, I was very quickly overcome by vertigo. There was a small building, surrounded by a wooden walkway which was suspended halfway up the building, with a steep drop on every side. After about half an hour, with the encouragement of Chris, I finally managed to make the walk around the side of the building to see the mountains from the other side.

Getting photos was a challenge - not only because of my vertigo, which rather limited the opportunities, but also because of the constant cloud movement across the peaks. Eventually, as the wind was picking up, and the temperature was dropping, we went back to the main entrance to sample our welcome drink, a lethal pear schnappes, and take a group photo.

Once the final group of visitors for the day had left, we had the chalet, and attendant waiter, to ourselves for the night. As the cloud was getting thicker, and the wind harder, we settled ourselves into the bar for the duration, and ordered a bottle of wine. We passed the evening chatting about the trip and possible future trips that Chris might offer. As the weather didn't show much signs of improvement, we didn't worry too much about getting an early night! By the time we went to bed, snow was falling, and the outside temperature had dropped to about -5C.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Slovakia (7): Zelene Pleso

A relaxing start this morning, leaving the chalet at 6.15am for the walk to Zelene Pleso (Green Lake). It was a nice walk, uphill through the forest, with a river running alongside for much of the way. We stopped a couple times to take photos of waterfalls. Nearer the top, the weather deteriorated, and we hit some snow on the path. It was passable, but required a little concentration!

Up at the lake we stopped for a warm drink before heading out to take some photographs of the lake, which was surrounded by tall mountains. Unfortunately, it had become very cloudy, and almost as soon as we stepped outside, it started raining, initially lightly, but quickly becoming very heavy. We took shelter inside again, and tried to wait out the rain. After half an hour or so, it became clear that the weather was not going to improve any time soon, and so we decided to make out way back to the van, despite the rain.

It was a long and wet trudge back downhill, and decidedly cold. Alison and I were glad of the fleece lined hat that we purchased at the chalet. Back in town, we paid a visit to a shopping centre to stock up on beer, and so that I could buy a warmer fleece for tomorrow's visit to Lomnický štít, where we will be staying the night.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Slovakia (6): Spiš Hrad

We had an early start this morning, leaving the chalet at 3.45am to drive to Spiš Hrad (Spiš Castle to non-Slovak speakers). Despite leaving early, the sun was already quite high by the time we had arrived, and walked up a hill to get a good view over the castle. We had hoped for mist around the castle, but in the end it was only hazy.

We fairly quickly managed to exhaust the two obvious viewpoints onto the castle, and most of us turned our attention to the surrounding hills. Once we were all satisfied with what we had done so far, we drove about 5 minutes away to a rape field, and trudged our way through it in the hope of an interesting composition. It quickly became clear though that the most interesting shots were not going to include the castle. Being short, trying to photograph over the tall rape plants was a challenge, so in the end, my best shot was taken from a foot off the ground, looking into the field.

Back to the castle car park, and a stop for breakfast whilst we waited for the castle to open at 9am. We had hoped to have the castle to ourselves for a while, but in the half hour before it opened, the car park filled with coaches, full of mothers with toddlers, and school parties. As soon as the gates were opened, the castle was crawling with people, making photography a bit of a challenge. I spent most of my time focused on the smaller details of the castle - patterns in the stone, chains, and the shape of the archways and windows.

I also spent quite some time framing a shot through a window over onto the rest of the castle. Getting the tripod perfectly set up to remove as much extraneous clutter as possible was a challenge. With the dark wall, and the lighter view, this was a perfect candidate for HDR, and just as I finally shot my final exposure of the three, a couple children walked into frame. If you look very closely, you can just about see them, although as this was the overexposed shot they have been turned into ghosts. What I unfortunately missed was depth of field, the end result was very disappointing because the stones framing the shot weren't sharp enough.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Slovakia (5): Popradske Pleso and Strbske Pleso

The plan for today was to photograph two lakes - Popradske Pleso and Strbske Pleso. In order to get to Popradske Pleso in the early light, Erik picked us up from the chalet at 4.30 am and dropped us off a short walk from Popradske lake. In theory it's possible to walk the whole way around the lake, but snow on the path meant that only part of the path was accessible.

The path ran about 8 feet higher than the lake, but I managed to clamber down the rocks and find myself a good spot by the water's edge. I found a good composition of stones, lake and distant mountains, but like the others, was hampered by the lack of good light on the mountains to really make something of the scene.

Whilst we waited for the light to improve, Chris gave us some tutoring on the use of the ND grad filters, which was very informative, as my use of them in the past was rather haphazard. I used to have some once, but I've no idea what happened to them, or even whether the ones I had would fit my current lenses. Since I couldn't expose the whole scene well using traditional methods, I took a number of bracketed shots with the aim of processing them with HDR software.

After working for a couple hours and being defeated by the light, we took a cup of coffee (we've been accompanied everywhere we go by a giant blue ice box of food and a thermos of coffee) and walked back to the van, for the drive to drive to Strbske Pleso.

Unlike Popradske Pleso, which felt quite isolated, Strbske Pleso was a little busier, with other people walking around the lake, and buildings around much of the lake side. Along with a giant ski jump, these offered quite a challenge to composition as it was hard to find a vantage point with good views onto to the mountains, without including at least one eyesore.

I slowly made my way around the lake, focusing on a few spots where I was able to get close to the water, and include some foreground interest in the shots. I borrowed Chris' ND grads to try and improve the exposure, but found it difficult to hold the filters in front of the lens whilst balancing one rocks at the water's edge. On my way back to rejoin the rest of the group, I saw a family stopped, and pointing into the trees. A deer - the first non-bird wildlife I've seen in Slovakia! I took a couple shots, but the tree cover was too heavy to get a clear view.

We came back to the chalet for lunch, and Chris held a critique session in the afternoon. Each of us selected 5 or 6 photos from yesterday's shoot, and then we commented on them - primarily focusing on composition. It was a very useful exercise, which took us about an hour and a half, and gave us all both feedback on our own photos, and inspiration from the others' photos.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Slovakia (4): Waterfall

Since it was our first day out in the field, we had a leisurely start, leaving the chalet at 7.30 take the funicular railway up to a spot where we could photograph a waterfall.

We walked from the railway terminal, down along the path of the stream, continuing on past the point where everyone else was posing for their cameras in front of the waterfall. We started low down the waterfall and slowly worked our way upstream. The day was fairly freeform, with Chris on hand to give advice, but basically leaving us to our own devices.

There were some good shots in the waterfall, but many necessitated contortions of both body and tripod to get a good composition. I also spent a little time trying to work on some macro shots, with limited success.

We spent the whole day photographing in the area, following upstream and then taking a loop which brought us back to the railway terminal. Eric took a scooter back down on the hill, but the rest of us were a bit more circumspect, deciding to walk down back down to the car. After a good dinner, we all went early to bed, to prepare ourselves for tomorrow's 4.30am departure.

Slovakia (3): Velka Lomnika

Today is the start of my photography trip so, after spending a final couple of hours working on my assignment, I was picked up at midday by Tereska, from Mountain Paradise to join up with the rest of the group who had flown in from the UK. During the drive, we got to know each other a little, and I was surprised to find out that she has lived for four years in the Manchester area, including a stint as an au pair in Bowdon, just down the road from where I grew up.

We're based in a village called Veľká Lomnica, 15 minutes away from the town of Poprad, close to the Polish border. In fact, the Polish town of Zakopane, which Dad and I visited on our trip to Krakow a couple years ago, is only half an hour away, and turns out to be a favourite day trip spot from Slovakia.

The rest of the group were waiting at the chalet along with Chris, our photographer-guru for the trip, and Matt of Mountain Paradise. With the addition of Eric, the driver, we have a total of 4 support staff to support the 4 clients - pretty good service!

I spent the afternoon getting to know the other 3 participants on the trip, and catching up with Chris, who I haven't seen for a couple of years, since I went on a trip he organized to South Africa. It turns out that two other participants, Bob and Alison, have also travelled with Chris before, doing similar trips to Alaska (grizzlies) and South Africa as I have done. It was particularly good to hear news of Chobe, the orphaned lion cub I played with in South Africa, and Savannah, the cheetah, who has had cubs since I visited.

The photography starts tomorrow, with a leisurely start (we leave the chalet at 7.30) to visit a waterfall.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Slovakia (2): Košice

I spent this morning holed up in my apartment, working on my biological psychology assignment (yes, I know should have finished it before I left).

After spending the morning in a quiet air-conditioned room, the outside temperature, not to mention the streets full of people (including a large number of teenagers, all blowing whistles - not sure what that was all about) came as a bit of a shock.

I spend a few hours wandering around town, and visited the park, where it was a relief to escape into the shade of the trees. It was quite an overcast day, not ideal for taking photos, although of course that didn't really stop me.

I also visited St Elizabeth's Cathedral, and St Michael's Chapel next to it. The latter was lovely - small and quiet, with murals painted on the walls, and I spent a little time there in quiet contemplation of life in general.

Before heading back to my hotel, I found a bookshop, which after some searching proved to have a reasonable collection of English books. I picked myself out a couple readers for the coming week, and then had a look at what else was on offer. As ever when I travel, I was surprised to see just how many English/American books are translated into other languages, and amused to see that not only titles, but in some cases, also author names had been translated to appeal more to the Slovakian eye.

After a bit of a rest, and a half-hearted attempt to continue with the assignment, I went back into town for dinner, deciding this evening to find myself something that was (in my mind at least) typically Eastern European. I found myself at a small restaurant on the main street, sampling borscht with perogies (ok, technically speaking, that's Polish), followed by pork with stewed sauerkraut and dumpling.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Slovakia (1): Košice

When I dropped off my bag at Schiphol this morning, the check-in agent squinted at my confirmation, hmmed and aahhed a little and then pointed to where it said Košice and said "so, you're travelling through to, uh, this place then, are you?" He then looked a little apologetic and said, "sorry, I don't know how to say it". The same issue has been troubling me every time people have asked at work where I'm going. Having listened carefully to the announcement on the aeroplane, the answer seems to be something along the lines of "Ko-shee-suh".

My flight itinerary took me first to Prague, where we had a wonderful view of the city, the bridges over the River Charles and the castle on the hill as we came into land. After a short wait, I boarded a 50-seat turboprop (ATR-42), which had the distinction of being the first plane I've been on with business class seating at the rear. This makes some sense when you take into account that the door was also at the rear of the plane, with cargo loaded at the front.

Košice airport seems to be quite a quiet place - we were the only plane on the tarmac (there were a few light aircraft at a hangar), and I was in downtown Košice within 10 minutes of leaving the terminal. My acommodation for the next two nights came as a surprise - I booked the hotel on recommendation of the photo tour organizers a couple of months ago, and didn't look too closely at the details. Instead of the hotel room I expected, I have a spacious, air-conditioned apartment.

After dropping off my bags, I headed off into town, only a five minute walk from the hotel, to find some dinner. The main street was lined with little terraces where you could eat or have a drink - most seemed to be linked to restaurants somewhere out of sight. After a stroll down to the church and back, I settled on one at random, and had a very good steak with goose liver and almonds (I was tempted by the "irreplaceable salad", but the steak won out).


Finally, I managed to clear up the living room enough to take a photo of the new carpet!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

French Exam

Hurrah, I passed!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Oops, new gadget

Garmin Forerunner 405 with Heart Rate Monitor. Saw Emmy's in Leiden on Sunday, ordered it yesterday, and tried it out on the bike ride home from work today.

Playback the route on Garmin Connect.

Leiden 5K - Video

To be honest, they're not very impressive, but here are the links to the videos of Emmy and me as we crossed the finish line last Sunday.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Leiden 5K - 34:54

I've been obsessively watching the weather forecasts leading up to the Leiden Marathon today. After a couple days of downpours, I woke up to more of the same this morning... not too promising. Nervous Facebook checking confirmed that fellow runners Emmy (Leiden half marathon, and the person who got me running again - thanks Emmy!) and Josie (10K in Nijmegen), also had nothing but running and weather on their minds!

I headed off for Leiden early, so that I could collect my start number and watch Emmy at the finish of the 21.1km. She was looking in impressively good shape, as Jamie's photo (taken a little earlier) shows, and finished with a time of 2:04:47. Despite the crowds we managed to meet up at the end and killed some time before my race started an hour or so later.

So, then it was my turn. My expectations weren't too high - I haven't run seriously in over a year (since I ran the 10K last Spring) and I haven't managed enough training since I decided to sign up for the 5K. Still, I was determined to give it a good attempt, and hoped I wasn't going to come in last.

Standing on the start line was exciting, but nerve wracking. Never mind that you have nothing to lost, and nothing really to prove, standing on that start line gives you butterflies. After 5 or 10 minutes jiggling impatiently before the start, the runners joined in the final 10 seconds countdown, and we were off!

The course took us through the centre of Leiden and through some residential areas. It was fairly easy running, aside from one cobbled area and the four or five bridges we had to cross. The lowest point in the race for me was a fall, somewhere around the 1.5km point - I turned my ankle and fell flat on my face (or more accurately, my left knee). The resultant stinging took my mind off muscle ache, but also broke my pace. Still, I was up on my feet pretty quickly, and didn't pause to catch breath before starting running again. Although it took me a little time to find my balance back, the fall left me doubly determined to complete the course.

At the 4.5km mark, the encouragement of spectators along the way spurred me on, and I managed a final sprint to the finishing line, getting in just under 34 minutes (33:54). My final position was 778 out of 922 - less than half as fast as the fastest runner, but about twice as fast as the slowest! For interest, I've produced a rough graph showing the distribution of the times.

As I hoped, the experience has fuelled my enthusiasm for running again, despite the impressive colour of my knee. I've signed up for the Rotterdam Ladies Run in June (5K again, don't think I'm ready to tackle the 10K just yet), and now, of course, I have the incentive of beating my time from this race.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Choral Evensong - 16th May 2009

Our new choir robes have arrived! They're a stunning (you might even say, blinding) shade of red, and look pretty impressive. Along with the order was my own personal robe (purple) and surplice, meaning that I no longer have to beg, borrow or steal one when I sing with the ECS.

  • Introit: Sicut cervus Palestrina
  • Office Hymn: there was one, I don't recall what it was
  • Preces & Responses: Sumsion
  • Psalm: 29 (Attwood)
  • Canticles: Stanford in C
  • Anthem: Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem Stanford

Thursday, 14 May 2009


Before I went to Canada, I planted the first set of vegetable seeds: rucola, beetroots, fennel, runner beans, potatoes (in a pot) and onions. The potatoes, onions and beans are already making good progress:

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Northern Flicker

These photos don't have much to recommend them technically speaking, but I found them a nice series nonetheless. They were taken at 400mm handheld, and have been significantly cropped. A lucky sighting whilst we ate our lunch at a rest area off the Trans Canada Highway.

VNF West - May 2009 - Heempark Arboretum

We began today's photo club meeting with a practical session in the Heempark Arboretum, an area of the Delftse Hout next to the Papaver, where the photo club meets. As it was a windy evening, photographing the plants didn't turn out to be too successful, so I concentrated on orienting myself in the park for a future visit, and trying to find some bird life. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a pheasant, who didn't seem too disturbed by all the photographers wandering around. With the low light, I decided to the put the 5D to the test, and shot at 2000 ISO, giving a shutter speed of around 1/200 s at f5.6.

The second half of the meeting was "eigen werk", where members have the opportunity to share their photos. My favourites were a collection of bird photographs, including a couple shots of a purple heron, a bird which I have not yet seen, but would very much like to.