Category Archives: France

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?

Room in Bourges

The 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.

Room in Bourges near the Cathedral © Harold Davis

Room in Bourges near the Cathedral © Harold Davis

My first task when I got to Bourges was to find my lodgings, an apartment at the top of the watch tower that guarded one of the palaces in the old town. This was not easy to find in the maze of narrow one-way streets of the old city, but when I did, and I had been handed the key, I was pleased with well furnished chamber and the view of the famous cathedral in the late afternoon light.

Impregnable

Today 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!

Pont Valentre Waterlogue © Harold Davis

Pont Valentre Waterlogue © 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, shown above and below via iPhone captures, 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.

Pont Valentre Tower © Harold Davis

Pont Valentre Tower © Harold Davis

All this seems to me a bit like Game of Thrones—or maybe life is stranger (and more interesting) than fiction, at least in this case.

Splash

Rain left puddles along the paths and trails of the Parc de Sceaux, on the outskirts of Paris. I positioned my camera to capture the perspective generated by the reflections of rows of trees in one puddle, and—splash!—tossed a pebble in to the water to take advantage of the concentric rings that this generated.

Splash © Harold Davis

Splash © Harold Davis

The underlying exposure for full depth-of-field and low noise was at ISO 100 and f/22 to capture the reflections in the puddle, while the exposure for capturing the splash part of the image was at ISO 2,000 and 1/25 of a second. Obviously this is the kind of image that usually takes some trial and error to get right—not only in terms of photographic exposure, but also where one aims the splash.

Spirals at the Hotel D’Orsay

If you know me, you know that I am nuts about photographing spiral staircases. The Hotel D’Orsay in Paris has two, one with an elevator running up the middle, and the main stairs, which has five flights in a narrow spiral formation.

Stairs at the Hotel D'Orsay © Harold Davis

Stairs at the Hotel D’Orsay © Harold Davis

This kind of staircase tends to be harder to photograph than meets the eye. First, they are rarely well lit. This means a long exposure if you are stopping the lens down to get enough depth-of-field for most of the spiral to be in focus. The problem with a long exposure is that this kind of old staircase is usually they are rickety and transmit vibrations. If anyone comes up or down the stairs, they are likely to spoil your exposure just by walking past.

Spiral Stair at the D'Orsay via iPhone © Harold Davis

Spiral Stair at the D’Orsay via iPhone © Harold Davis

Another issue is holding the camera steadily above the stair for a straight shot down. You need a good tripod and steady nerve, but you can usually brace the tripod against the railing to make this possible. To make life easier and avoid all the trouble, simply shoot the spiral staircase with your iPhone!

Double Rainbow over Paris

In the afternoon the rain started to come down hard, with a lush, almost tropical sound as it fell hard on the rooftops of Paris. I went upstairs because I had left my window open. I stuck my head out the window before I shut it. Around the corner was a hint of a rainbow.

Double Rainbow over Paris © Harold Davis

Double Rainbow over Paris © Harold Davis

I grabbed my camera, dashed downstairs in my t-shirt and jeans, took an umbrella from the bin next to the front desk, and ran the two blocks to the Seine River. A double rainbow was forming, upstream in the direction of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay. Precariously balancing my camera and using the umbrella to shelter it from the wind and rain I snapped a few photos.

Sometimes you get lucky.

Pont Royal

Spring in Paris means that sometimes it rains, which can make it all the more romantic. I took advantage of the moody light today to photograph along the Seine River. From time to time rain squalls hit, and my camera and I went for cover under one of the bridges. I used a long exposure (two minutes) to flatten the moving water and give and old-fashioned appeal to this shot of the Pont Royal.

Pont Royal © Harold Davis

Pont Royal © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, 35mm Zeiss lens, circular polarizer, +4 ND filter, 120 seconds at f/13 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.