Category Archives: France

Cockeyed Cathedral

Bourges Cathedral is a World Heritage Site. Construction began around the year 1200, at about the same time as the cathedral at Chartres. It is unclear when (or if) construction was completed, but it took at least two centuries. What an immense undertaking! As you can see in the photo, portions of the interior need work to this day, and indeed a massive restoration project is underway.

Inside the Cathedral at Bourges © Harold Davis

Inside the Cathedral at Bourges © Harold Davis

It’s impossible to convey the immensity of this interior space. But I wanted to create an image that tried. So I got my tripod low to the ground, and used the inimitable Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 extreme wide-angle lens to give this cockeyed view of the soaring spaces of the interior of the Cathedral at Bourges. Related story: Window in Bourges.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is an ancient village perched high on the cliffs high above the Lot River about thirty miles from Cahors. In France, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful—if not the most beautiful—preserved medieval villages, partly due to its picturesque and highly defensible setting on top of a bunch of rocks overlooking the gorgeous Lot valley.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie © Harold Davis

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie © Harold Davis

Of course, as one of the most beautiful preserved medieval villages Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is overrun with tourists. You can’t drive into the village, and must park in a nearby lot, and there are plenty of souvenir stands, and attractions like donkey rides for the kids. But its more the French analog to a scene like an American going to a state fair and getting a corn dog on a stick than it is to the parade of non-French speaking tourists you find in a place like the Left Bank of Paris.

On the weekend I visited in the late spring, the tourists were in fact all French, and I was the only foreigner staying in the Auberge du Sombral, where I had booked a room. This establishment is one of my favorite kinds of places to stay in France, essentially a restaurant with a few rooms attached, and I had a good meal and a thoroughly fun time.

It was great to be able to photograph in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie at night after the visitors had gone home. In the morning I explored more, and found this alley right behind the Auberge. Hard to say how old, but it has probably been like this for seven or eight hundred years without many changes.

Related Story: Chateau des Nazelles.

Window in Bourges

As I previously wrote in an iPhone storyThe old city of Bourges, France is known for its cathedral. This structure, a World Heritage Site, is probably the largest Gothic cathedral ever built. I think five Notre Dames would fit inside. The vast, soaring interior space is amazing, held in place by tiered flying buttresses—and built to emphasize the status of the church of Bourges as representative of the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine.

Window in Bourges © Harold Davis

Window in Bourges © Harold Davis

Coming into Bourges on an overcast and wet afternoon it wasn’t easy finding my hotel. But once I got there the room and the view from the window was worth it. And in the early evening the skies cleared with beautiful golden-hour light so I was able to make this image. Printed large on Moab Slickrock Metallic Pearl it looks great, like a crisp window framed within the window of the paper.

Related story: Room with a View.

Valentre Bridge

In an earlier story illustrated with iPhone captures, I wrote: The city of Cahors in the southwest of France is a slightly gritty provincial capital—but back in the middle ages it was fabulously wealthy. Protected on three sides by the river Lot, Cahors was nevertheless sacked, abandoned and rebuilt. But glory was never regained entirely (the Black Death didn’t help matters). You can see the remnants in the palaces and monuments of the old quarter, where today they have a wonderful fresh food market. I got my lunch today in this market. You really can’t beat a fresh loaf of bread, a tranche of locally made pate, strawberries and a tomato!

Valentre Bridge © Harold Davis

Valentre Bridge © Harold Davis

Cahors may have fallen to brute force and treachery during the hundred years war during the convoluted battles between French and English monarchs, but the Pont Valentre was rightly regarded as impregnable. Originally a fortress in the center of the river, it was expanded across to both banks with ample fortifications to make direct attack well nigh impossible.

I made this photo of the Pont Valentre from the banks of the Lot River with my camera on my tripod, and my hat held over the camera and lens to protect it from the spring rain.

When two rivers woo

I’ve been playing with poetry, puns and stories in my mind about two rivers coming together, hence “when two rivers woo” and “a tale of two rivers,” and so on. Shown here: The Vezere River coming in from the left and the mighty Dordogne River from the right shot from the castle-turned-exhibition garden high above the town of Lemeuil in southwestern France.

Confluence of Two Rivers  © Harold Davis

Confluence of Two Rivers © Harold Davis

Rain was falling softly and the air was fragrant on the spring day this year that I shot the image, with my camera exposed I was mindful of the brooding clouds in the distance. If you look carefully, you can see the rain skittering across the wind-blown surface of the water at the confluence of the two rivers.

This is an HDR blend of nine exposures, each shot at a moderate wide-angle, ISO 100, and f/11. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/5 of a second to 1/320 of a second. I used a polarizing filter and a tripod.

Related images: Morning on the Lot River and Overlooking the Dordogne River.

Morning on the Lot River

Meandering by slow roads, I crossed and recrossed the Lot River in the southwest of France. Parking by the river, a trail led me back along cliffs for about a mile. There were ancient steps carved in the rock down to the water, and I descended. Pausing, I looked down in the almost still reflection of the river—losing myself in water that seemed directionless and mystical in the early morning light.

Morning on the Lot River © Harold Davis

Morning on the Lot River © Harold Davis

Riders on the Storm meets Christina’s World

In the surprising uplands of Dordogne and Lot in the southwest of France high alkaline plateaus are bisected by deep river valleys. You’ll find medieval towns and castles, with markers from the history of the bloody 100 years war. The Brits may not have conquered back then, but today they’ve taken over, with everything from modest vacation bungalows to gated chateaus and estates.

Riders on the Storm © Harold Davis

Riders on the Storm © Harold Davis

Exploring the back country, in the smallest hamlets I could find, were also abandoned farms and ruined buildings. I paused in Saint-Romain, ahead of the storm, to photograph this farm house, intricate in its construction and picturesque in its decay. The wind whistled through the grass in the fields, with a sound as desolate as the abandoned buildings. The only thing missing was Christina, I thought, disassembling my camera and tripod and turning away as the first drops of rain began to fall.

Trio of Tulips at Giverny

On a misty spring afternoon we left Paris, getting on the van for Monet’s famous gardens at Giverny. The pre-visualizations that I saw in my mind’s eye along the drive were of images like Monet’s impressionistic paintings, or that showed the bridges in the Giverny water gardens. But when we got to the garden the simplicity of individual tulips in the light rain was too much for me to resist!

Red Tulip, Giverny © Harold Davis

Red Tulip, Giverny © Harold Davis

The afternoon was cloudy, but extremely bright. I shot each of these three images handheld, wide-open (at f/2), with my ISO set to 100, taking advantage of the brightness and wonderful bokeh of the superb  Zeiss 135mm f/2 lens. Shutter speeds were 1/1600 of second for Red Tulip (above), 1/5000 of a second for Variegated Tulip (below) and 1/8000 of a second for White Tulip (bottom). There was almost no post-production work other than RAW conversion.

Variegated Tulip, Giverny © Harold Davis

Variegated Tulip, Giverny © Harold Davis

So ultimately this is one of the simplest photography scenarios imaginable. If there is no post-production, then Photoshop was irrelevant (not of course that there is anything wrong with Photoshop). The superb brightness of the lens along with its telephoto focal length isolated the portion of the flower that is in focus from the background. The brightness of the lens allowed me to shoot at fast shutter speeds, eliminating the possibility of camera shake. The technical requirement was to “see” the image, and to focus accurately—with nothing else intermediating between me and the flowers.

White Tulip, Giverny © Harold Davis

White Tulip, Giverny © Harold Davis

Sometimes in this complex world of ours it is hard to remember that simple may be best! When we over-complicate things we can lose track of what is important, and what is not—and also the joy in simple things, of family and friends, clouds and wind, and flowers in a garden.

Sainte Croixe de Beaumont

Way off the beaten track in the southwest of France, I stopped to photograph the ancient church at Sainte Croixe de Beaumont. This complex belonged to the Knights Templar, and is mostly abandoned. The interior of the church is still in decent shape, but the other buildings are heading for ruin.

Oncoming Storm over Sainte Croixe © Harold Davis

Oncoming Storm over Sainte Croixe © Harold Davis

All morning it had been threatening to rain, with swiftly moving clouds overhead. As I wandered through the fields with my camera on the tripod, the oncoming storm burst, and I made haste to take refuge in an abandoned building where I could protect my gear.

Photographing the Paris Skyline

Photographing the Paris skyline at dusk would seem to be pretty straightforward. The rooftop observatory on top of the Tour Montparnasse is open late, and there are gaps in the plexiglass allowing one to shoot without worrying about reflections. With a camera on a tripod, what then could be the big technical issue?

Paris Sunset 2 © Harold Davis

Paris Sunset 2 © Harold Davis

Not so much if all you need to do is display your images at a small size, but plenty it turns out if a large reproduction (print size 60″ X 40″ or 150cm X 40cm and up) is the requirement.

In the spring of 2013 I shot Paris City of Light and Les Lumières de Paris from the top of the Tour Montparnasse. By the way, the Tour Monparnasse is a hideous high-rise built in the 1970s that doesn’t fit in with the elegant Paris skyline in the slightest. The joke is that the best thing about the Tour Monparnasse observatory is that you can’t see the Tour Montparnasse from it. Bus loads of Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists ride the elevators up to the Tour Montparnasse observatory, but most of them stay on the floor below the plein air top deck.

Anyhow, my 2013 shots were good enough for a couple of publications, but there was “trouble in Paradise” when an art publishing client of mine ran some really large test prints. These images just weren’t sharp enough.

What can cause lack of sharpness under these conditions? First, in any landscape shot that includes a distant vista diffusion due to atmospheric conditions is always a factor, and there isn’t much you can do about it except wait for a really clear day (not always possible). Paris is often moist, and has some pollution from cars and other sources, so this limiting factor is a real consideration.

From the viewpoint of photographic gear and the craft of photography, the issues are camera motion, optical sharpness, resolution (sensor size) and sensitivity settings.

Paris Sunset © Harold Davis

Paris Sunset © Harold Davis

As I’ve noted, my camera was on a tripod. But my observation and analysis was that the real problem was slight camera motion, caused by the wind coming through the gaps in the plexi, even using my tripod. Absent the ability to come back with a heavier tripod, which wasn’t possible, the fix in 2014 seemed to be to use a faster shutter speed.

So in the two images of Paris Sunset (far above, above and also shown here) I shot at 1/100 of a second for a relatively short duration shutter speed. This implied bumping the ISO, to 1250 in each case.

The good news: my files this time stand up to the blow-up that is required!

Giverny Waterlogue Watercolor

I shot this image at Monet’s Garden, Giverny, about an hour outside of Paris. I used my iPhone camera app. I used my bracket to place the iPhone on my tripod, and the ear bud as a shutter release. On the bus ride back to Paris, I processed the image on my phone using the nifty Waterlogue app.

Giverny © Harold Davis

Giverny © Harold Davis

Paris Sunset

Towards the end of April, on top of Tour Montparnasse in Paris, France, I watched late afternoon fade into dusk and night. As the sun set, the lights of the City of Light came on. A spectacular view, and best of all because, being shot from the Tour Montparnasse, the view does not include the Tour Montparnasse: a truly ugly building from the 1970s that spoils the symmetry of the classical Paris skyline.

Paris Sunset © Harold Davis

Paris Sunset © Harold Davis

Creative Use of Shutter Speed

If you know what shutter speed does, then you know how to control one of the great creative aspects of photography. Shutter speed is not actually a speed at all—it is a duration of time. In fact, shutter speed refers to the duration of time that the shutter is open, and during which light hits the recording medium (sensor or film). Generations of photography students would not have been confused if the term “shutter speed” had never been used!

Behind the Wall © Harold Davis

Behind the Wall © Harold Davis

With this image of trees along the River Seine in Paris, after much experimentation I found I got the ideal partial blur at 3/10 of a second shutter speed, er, duration of the shutter being open—assuming a slow and steady up and down vertical motion of the camera.

Giverny

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny three times in the past year, and each time they’ve been very different. The spring this year was good for tulips, and in the water garden area the wisteria were glorious.

Giverny © Harold Davis

Giverny © Harold Davis

There is a problem working in Monet’s gardens. These gardens are themselves are a work of art. Of course, they have been the most important subject of a great and world famous artist (Claude Monet himself). It’s hard not to look at Monet’s gardens, or to imagery depicting the gardens, without thinking of Monet’s great waterlily paintings.

Giverny Watercolor © Harold Davis

Giverny Watercolor © Harold Davis

In the shadow of the legendary, my best advice is to have fun—and not worry about the context or comparison too much. That’s what I did this year in Giverny. I had a blast, and look forward to processing more of my images from this very special place.

Related stories: Giverny via iPhone, White Chrysanthemums at Giverny, Dreaming of Giverny, Meditation at Giverny.

Overlooking the Dordogne River

I got to talking about photography with the couple who ran the B&B where I was staying in the ancient monastery town of Cadouin, France, and they suggested I check out a spot overlooking the Dordogne River a little way above the old riverside village of Tremolat. There was a little path from the parking area leading to the cliffs overlooking a bend in the river. By the time I got there rain was moving in, and the sky to the southwest was diffuse and soft, while the clouds to the the northeast were dark and ominous over the village of Lumeuil and the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere Rivers.

Bend in the River - Dordogne in Black & White © Harold Davis

Bend in the River – Dordogne in Black & White © Harold Davis

I ignored the oncoming weather, and mounted my camera on the tripod. Looking left, straight ahead, and right and shot bracketed sequences of exposures for later HDR processing. I did my best to take my time and shoot following a proper and patient protocol despite the raindrops falling on my gear.

Bend in the River - Dordogne © Harold Davis

Bend in the River – Dordogne © Harold Davis

Combining the three images into a panorama meant first combining the exposure sequences, then using Photoshop’s Photomerge capabilities. You’ll find Photomerge in Photoshop on the File > Automate menu. After a bit of experimenting, I found the the Reposition layout setting with the Blend Images Together option checked worked best. There’s always a bit of manual retouching after blending images together using Photomerge, and this set of images was no exception, but generally the Photoshop automation got me about 95% of the way!

The final image is really quite high resolution, about 50 inches wide at 300 ppi without any enlargement (the file size is about 450 megabytes). It’s hard to see in an online version the level of detail this implies in some image areas, but you would see this detail if you were looking at a good print. You can begin to see the resolution in larger versions that will fit on the horizontally-oriented pages of my blog, click here to see a larger size black and white version, or here for the color version.

Speaking of black and white versus color, which version do you prefer?