Posted in Photography

More Night Photos

Since coming to Thailand almost two months ago (oh god, time has passed by quickly), I have been experimenting a bit with night photography. It has really fascinated me for a few years, but it’s quite difficult to get into. First of all, you need a decent camera, then you need a lot of knowledge, then you need a good place to do it, and then you need lots and lots and lots of luck. It also helps to have an app like PhotoPills on your phone, but even then you virtually need a doctorate in astronomy just to figure out how to use it.

Anyway, I began experimenting on the roof of my apartment building a few weeks ago, shooting the stars with pretty mixed success. This was probably my best photo:

Night Photo with light painting

A little later, I attempted to shoot photos of a lightning storm, which is more difficult and infinitely more dangerous. I got lots of photos but none really turned out well. This was probably the best:

Lightning Over Phuket

Beautiful… but a bit blurry.

A few nights ago, I was about to go to bed when I noticed that it was quite clear outside. Now that the rainy season has arrived, it is typically rather cloudy in the evenings, but all of a sudden we had an unexpected clear night. I then noticed just how starry it was… I pulled out my phone and checked PhotoPills, my weather app, and a guide to the nightsky.

They all told me the same thing:

This was the perfect night for shooting the stars.

No clouds, no moon, and the Milky Way rising above the horizon at about 11pm. Great!

I realized that my boring old roof wouldn’t provide a great foreground, and so I decided to hop on my bike and drive along the dark roads to Promthep Cape, where I previously shot some cool sunset photos.

The roads were dark and quiet, and thus pleasant to drive. The air was also surprisingly cool, too, which made a real difference from the sweltering heat of the day. Towards the cape, I began to worry that I wouldn’t find anywhere sufficiently dark because the street lights even in the middle of nowhere were quite bright.

At the cape, I found a dark path and wandered to where I felt I would be able to get a decent shot. The fishing boats on the horizon were brightly illuminated, which wasn’t ideal because it would blow out the horizon portion of the photo. Moreover, mosquitoes were swarming around my ankles and I had no desire to get dengue fever… I realized that my roof was great for taking the time to set up a series of shots, but here I’d have to be faster.

I shot a handful of photos that were more or less satisfactory. Here are my two favourites:

They are not the greatest photos in terms of composition. If I had spent longer, I could’ve gotten something much better. However, in terms of actually shooting the stars, I think these worked really well. I have my fingers crossed for another perfect night like this… but I’m not holding my breath.

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Posted in travel

Driving to Phang Nga National Park

I have been staying in Phuket, Thailand, for about a month and a half, and in that time I have not actually done much exploring. Mostly I stay at home, working, or go to the gym. I’ve been to the beach a few times and I’ve gotten to know the southern part of the island pretty well, but until today I had never really gotten out and explored.

Last night, I looked on Google Maps for places within a day’s drive of Phuket, and decided that Samet Nangshe Viewpoint seemed like a good place to visit. It’s a good few hours’ drive from southern Phuket, especially with weekend traffic. So this morning, about 9am, I set off on my Honda Click, aiming for Sarasin Bridge, which connects the island with the mainland.

Driving through Phuket was not much fun, to be honest. The roads are busy and dangerous, and in places they have large potholes or – even worse – have become completely warped in the stifling heat. You often find yourself sandwiched between a speeding lorry and a row of haphazardly parked cars, hoping no one opens a door and kills you. Other times, you’re going around a bend, being tailgated by a speeding minivan, hoping that the warped road does cause the bike to slip out from underneath you.

After the airport, which is about an hour’s drive from Saiyuan (where I live), the roads get better. For one thing, from the airport to the bridge there is at least a bike lane to drive in. That doesn’t mean that minivans and lorries don’t occasionally veer into it, but generally it’s a much safer passage. By the time I hit the bridge, I was pretty tired and it had only been an hour and a half.

The View from Sarasin Bridge

I stopped and walked part of the way across the bridge. Men were fishing, and I saw a few of them catch some medium sized fish. In fact, I could see that the water was rich with fish, as many of them darted about near the surface.

Then it was time to jump on the bike and find Samet Nangshe. Getting there wasn’t entirely straightforward, but at this point I didn’t care. On the mainland, driving was much more pleasant. Phuket had been busy and the roads were dangerous, but here they were open and well-kept. I pulled off the highway and headed into the countryside on narrower roads that wound through green forests. Sadly, it was not real jungle as all that had evidently been cut down and replaced by – I think – gum trees. Certainly, they were planted in neat rows and had been tapped for some sort of sap. It was sad, but at least I was amidst greenery rather than buildings.

The route to the viewpoint was pretty well signposted, even when seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The only thing was that the distances listed on the signs were completely arbitrary. I had noticed that on the road up through Phuket. I would see a sign that said:

Sarasin Bridge – 24km

Then, ten minutes later:

Sarasin Bridge – 26km

How does that make sense? On the way back it would get even worse, and I had to start completely ignoring the signs or I would go mad.

Near the viewpoint, I saw a small road wind off towards the mangroves and couldn’t resist following it. It took me to a small fishing village, where people hired out long-tail boats to see “James Bond Island”. This island, actually called Koh Tapu, is famous as the location of Scaramanga’s hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun. As with most things in Thailand, a little attention turned into a relentless procession of tourist hordes, and it has been thoroughly commercialised. I was tempted to take a boat there by myself (as they only cost 1,500baht), but decided against it. I didn’t feel like being surrounded by tourists. Maybe another day I would return.

Long-tail Boat at Phang Nga Bay

I returned to the main road and then headed on to what I thought was Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. I found a car park and bought a ticket for 30 baht, then hopped on a little truck, which whisked me up the hillside. On the way, I talked with a Thai family. They enlightened me to the fact that this was not Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. In fact, Sam Nangshe was another 200 meters along the road. I had stopped at Samet Nangshe Boutique Hotel. Oops. Oh well, unperturbed, I alighted and decided to look around. It was, after all, high on a hill and just a few hundred meters from the famous viewpoint. Moreover, there was almost no one here…

Panoramic View of Phang Nga Bay

Well, the view certainly lived up to my expectations. I grabbed a grossly overpriced cup of iced tea and sat looked out at the view. What can you say about a scene like that?

After an hour of watching the view (and admiring the Thais’ tie-dye shirts), I set off again. On the long route back to Phuket, I saw a number of little villages and enjoyed cruising the quiet country roads.

Crossing back into Phuket was a descent into chaos, but at the airport I stopped and went to Nai Yang Beach. This beach is quite famous as the place where you can see planes coming in to land, passing low over the sand. I had read that it was now out-of-bounds and that visitors were met with signs proclaiming the death penalty would be sought for trespassers! However, I could see no such signs and so I went to see if I could shoot a photo of the planes.

When I first got to the beach, I was met by a woman who told me, “This is a National Park, you should pay 200 baht.” I told her I’d think about it and drove away. About 200 meters away, I just parked and walked onto the beach. Evidently, there is only one checkpoint and you can just go around it.

After an hour, I had only seen one plane come in to land and a dozen taking off. The problem with getting a photo was that you couldn’t really see them taking off until they were in the air… They were so damned fast that they were already up in the sky before you could frame the shot. The one that landed did so just as I arrived and was too far away to make it work.

Plane Taking off at Nai Yang Beach

When I got home, it was 6pm and I’d been driving for most of the 9 hours since I’d left. I was exhausted, and my hands were purple from sunburn, but it felt good to have explored a little. I will be in Thailand for a year, and although it’s a cool place to live, sometimes it’s easy to get trapped into not doing much. You have to get out and see the surrounding areas, just like you would if you were on holiday.

Posted in Photography

Lightning over Phuket

I have always loved thunder and lightning, and ever since I took up photography, I have wanted to shoot a lightning storm. That, of course, is problematic. Lightning strikes when and where it chooses, and so you can hardly plan this sort of thing. Moreover, when it does strike, it is gone in a split second.

So how do you take a good photograph of lightning?

After doing a little research, I decided to try various forms of long exposure – somewhere between 10 seconds and 30 seconds. I suspected that 30 seconds might be a bit too long, bringing in too much light, but it was worth a try. As with shooting the stars, I attempted to focus on infinity by finding out from the PhotoPills app where that would be on my lens.

Last night, a long lightning storm off the east coast of Phuket gave me my opportunity. I headed up to the roof of my apartment building and set up my tripod.

(Note: Do not do this. It’s not smart to be on the top of a building in a lightning storm.)

I first tried my GoPro because it’s so much faster to set up, and it can take photos continuously. I tried 20- and 30-second exposures, and managed to capture a few lightning strikes. However, only one really came out well:

(The second pic, which is simply a zoomed-in version of the first, looks like the universe is splitting open. Watch out for Thanos or the Terminator, folks.)

Next, I set up my DSLR and got serious. The lightning storm had continued for more than half an hour and showed no signs of moving on, so I played around with the settings on my camera and tried a number of angles. Unfortunately, the height of the wall around the edge of my roof made it impossible (or at least very difficult) to get a shot of the city, but I was mostly just interested in getting the lightning.

The results were pretty mixed. On the camera, the photos actually looked fantastic, but when I got them on my computer I could see that the wind had jiggled the camera around a little and blurred the images. I’d be annoyed except this is really my first attempt at shooting lightning, and I’m pretty proud of at least one of these. (The one in landscape style.)

The lightning storm moved closer and so I headed indoors. Shortly after, the skies exploded and we were hit hard by a good old tropical rainstorm.

If anyone reading this has any advice on shooting lightning (or other night photography tips), please do share in the comments.

Posted in Photography

Playing Around With Night Photography

I’ve been interested in night photography for a long time, and I have posted a few photos on this website. However, it is a difficult thing to master… and in fact, difficult even to be able to do the basics.

Here is a selfie I took under the stars a few years ago:

My selfie with the stars

It’s definitely among the best night photos I have taken. I used a GoPro to shoot this because GoPros are simple and actually surprisingly good for night photography. You can see a light by my life hand – that’s my phone as I remotely triggered the shot.

Using a DSLR allows for far more versatility but it is of course far harder. When you throw in the fact that Nikon’s app (for setting up and triggered photos) is useless, you can begin to imagine how long it takes.

When you are shooting photos at night, you need long exposures, and sometimes many of them. Making a mistake can cost you a great deal of time. And mistakes are easily made when you can’t see a damn thing. For a start, how do you focus in the dark? It took me until last night to figure that out.

Last night I went up on the roof of my building with both my GoPro and DSLR, and took a number of photos. I started with a 3 hour series of long exposures to capture star trails, – something I had never done before. The results weren’t great, but I suppose they were probably better than I expected. I simply plonked my camera down on a mini-tripod, set the timer, and went back indoors for a few hours.

The next day, I used StarstaX to piece it all together. Unfortunately, despite it having been a really clear night, a few clouds moved in for about half an hour in the middle of my shot, and sort of ruined it. Oh well, try again another day. Here’s what I got:

You can see in one photo I have just made do with the clouds obscuring much of the sky, while in the other I pieced together what I could minus the cloudy photos.

My roof proved actually quite interesting (it’s a new house for me, so that was a surprise) and so I grabbed my DSLR (a Nikon D5600) and tried a few shots:

After a good few failed shots, I figured out how to focus on infinity, and managed to get a decent picture of the sky and the (telephone?) aerial. For the second picture, I lined up the shot and then walked around flashing my phone light on the ground. The slimy green goo on the concrete (after it had just rained) looked pretty damn cool.

Post production was a bit tough, as it always is (for me, at least) with night shots. I fired up Lightroom and tweaked a few settings, but it was hard to get the stars to pop while also reducing the nearby light pollution. I think these two pics came out ok.

Finally, I got a selfie with my GoPro. I took one with my DSLR but it didn’t work too well because the mosquitos were biting me and so I moved ever so slightly, blurring the picture.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR5458.

Actually, I took another, but for this one I went a bit overboard editing it on my iPhone… I look like I am about to be abducted by aliens.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR5457.

Posted in Photography

Walking from Anstruther to Crail

This past weekend, I walked from Anstruther to Crail, on the southern coast of Fife. From the Tay Bridge to the Forth Bridge(s), it is actually possible to walk the whole of Fife’s pleasant coastline thanks to the Fife Coastal Path – a well-signed and well-maintained route along the beaches and cliffs. Of course, you’d need to be incredibly fit to do it in one day… and I expected it would probably take you just about 24 hours, but you can easily park in or near any of the little towns and villages, and do it section by section. In the past, I have walked from Elie to St. Monans, as well as countless other stretches closer to home.

Here are some photos of the landscape and wildlife one finds between Anstruther and Crail:

Posted in Photography

Walking and Birding in Fife

After my month-long travels around Europe, I returned to Scotland 10 days ago. In that time, I have been out walking and shooting photos in the area near my parents’ home in Fife.

Culross

Shortly after returning from Italy, I joined my family on a long walk around Culross (pronounced “koo-riss”), on the north side of the Forth. We set off on a lovely hike along the river, then up through the fields, past a “plague grave” and a war cemetery, to Culross Abbey, before ending the day with dinner at the Red Lion Pub in the middle of Culross.

As you can see, we were lucky to have mostly blue skies. It was a pleasant day, and very nice area of Fife that I hadn’t previously explored.

Loch Leven

I always think of Loch Leven as part of Fife, but in fact it is not. It’s over in Perth and Kinross, although still very close to Fife.

Last week I went with my parents to the RSPB at Loch Leven. That’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the area of land they look after on the south of the loch. Here, you’ll find a number of hiking trails (and even one that is wheelchair-friendly) set back into the hills. There is an astonishing variety of birds, and even some red squirrels. Most of these can actually be seen best right near the cafe and shop at the entrance, where the RSPB has set up a little garden with bird-feeders.

After visiting, I realized it may be time to invest in a better long-lens. And maybe a book about the different kinds of birds. I am pretty much clueless.

St. Andrews’ West Sands

Being so close to St. Andrews, I often find myself walking around the town or the nearby beaches. St. Andrews draws a lot of tourists each year, and it’s not hard to see why – it really is a beautiful place with a lot of history. (And that’s ignoring the golf.)

One day last week I visited the harbour and walked along to the castle:

St. Andrews Harbour

Later, I set out along the West Sands, a frequent place for walking in my family. We went from the town to the very end of the beach, at the Eden Estuary, and then doubled back. We stopped for lunch at the cafe above the Golf Museum and watched a man from Rentokil using his hawks and eagles to scare off the seagulls, which apparently attack people near the golf course.

 

Posted in Photography, travel

Exploring Athens

After Napoli, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I headed to Bari on Italy’s eastern coast. Before you open up Google Maps, perhaps I can explain: it’s at the top of the heel.

Bari isn’t much of anything, but it’s a nice enough little place. There’s a pleasant old town that’s good to walk around and a reasonably attractive seafront promenade. It is clean and orderly compared to other Italian cities, and mostly free from scammers and beggars. There aren’t many tourists because there isn’t much to do, but that’s ok. It’s charming in its way, and I suppose you could say it does have one weird attraction: the bones of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.

In Bari, I dithered further about where to go next. Should head on down through the toe of the boot to Sicily, the rustic and volcanic island, or go north through northern Italy? But there was a third option – to jump aboard a ferry headed for Greece, across the Ionian Sea.

I was keen to stay in Italy a little longer because the country had really impressed me, but as it turned out I’d painted myself into a corner with the travel options in Bari, and getting a bus or train anywhere else was surprisingly hard. So I turned to the sea and booked myself a ferry for Patras. One bright, sunny morning, I headed to the port at the eastern tip of the town and boarded a big ship called the Nissos Rodos. It sounded oh-so-Greek.

The journey across the sea took some sixteen hours, but the departure was delayed by three or four hours for reasons I never did understand. The ship could’ve held a few thousand people, but there were only eleven passengers on board, and by the time we arrived in Greece we had been whittled down to just three. Whether we stopped somewhere in the night and some folks disembarked, or they went mad and jumped overboard, I have no idea.

img_3802

I was surprised to see, as the mists parted and the sun rose, the mountains of Greece covered in snow. I always thought of Greece – at least the coastal regions – as a very hot place, yet there was snow all over, and nearly down to sea level. The wind off the Mediterranean was also nearly freezing, and as I moved towards a destination I had always associated with excessive heat, I was wrapped up in winter clothing.

Patras seemed a nice enough town, but I couldn’t find any cheap accommodation, and so boarded a bus immediately for Athens. The ticket was 20 euros, which surprised me, but I would later find out that travelling in Greece is actually fairly expensive. Certainly, it was pricier than in Italy.

A few hours later, I arrived in Athens and made the long walk with my luggage from the KTEL bus station to my hostel, just south of the Acropolis. I was stunned by the beauty of Athens from the moment I arrived in the old town. The Acropolis stands majestically above the city, gleaming white in the bright Mediterranean sun. Although I had enjoyed Italy, the streets were often filthy and dangerous, but here it was clean and safe. The nearer I got to the Acropolis, the nicer everything looked.

I soon checked in and then headed out to climb Filoppapou Hill, a small slope that rises just higher than the Acropolis. I was able to sit and look out at the whole of Athens, spread out over a vast area 360 degrees around me. The sun went down, casting lovely light across the city and the nearby mountains.

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The next day, with a friend from the hostel, I set out to explore the Acropolis and other archaeological sites in the area. We first took in the Acropolis, slowing winding our way up the slopes past the theatre of Dionysus to the Parthenon and Erechtheum. We both had our cameras and spent several hours shooting the ruins. I regretted having not paid more attention to Greek history in the past, but it was nonetheless impressive and fascinating to see all these ancient buildings and monuments. There were quite a few tourists milling about, but it was not grossly overcrowded as in Rome.

Afterwards, we headed down the hill, north to the nearby Agora Park, where there are more ruins. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting photos there, including some of the local cats. In Athens, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time feeding the local cats, which have become fat and friendly as a result.

The following day, I met up with a Greek friend, Michael Limnios, and he showed me some more obscure places, particularly pertaining to countercultural figures. We saw places visited by the likes of Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg, and looked at bookstores which sold translations of Burroughs’ novels. Of particular interest was an anarchist section of town – somewhere very definitely off the tourist trail.

That evening, I hiked up Lycabettus Hill to see a final Athenian sunset, but it was too cloudy, and so I wandered back to my hostel, ready to move on to the next place. Having ruled out the islands for being slightly out of my budget, I elected for a long train ride north to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Posted in Photography

Rome and Florence

Yesterday I posted some photos and writing from Naples, which I declared “The Best City in the World”. However, after posting it I looked back and realised an oversight. I had skipped a big chunk of my Italian trip! In between Venice and Naples, I visited Florence and Rome.

So here’s a quick recap.

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Florence was an absolute delight. I stayed right near il Duomo, and had the pleasure of exploring one of the world’s great art galleries, the Uffizi, when it was virtually empty. I wandered the beautiful city streets over several pleasant days, visiting the Boboli Gardens and the Pitti Palace, as well as taking in some stunning views of the city from Michelangelo Square.

After Florence, I took a bus south to Rome. Immediately, I was unimpressed. The freeway into the city appeared to be carrying me into some kind of war zone. When I got off the bus, I felt as though I was in danger. I walked hurriedly to my hostel, which was very unpleasant, and during my whole time in Rome I was ill at ease. The city is flooded with refugees, and while I sympathize with their plight, they have turned to crime and crude scams to make a living. It makes for an awful visit.

During my time in Rome, I managed to see as many of the city’s numerous highlights as possible, and even got to see the Pope give mass at the Vatican, which was a real surprise.

Although I have loved my Italian trip, I was delighted to get out of Rome and head for Naples. I didn’t know what to expect but… well, go read about it. It was the best stop yet.

Posted in travel

Venice: A Pleasant Surprise

I hadn’t heard much about Venice that was very kind, at least not recently. Years ago, the famed city on the water was world-renowned for its beauty and sophistication. Nowadays, it is swarmed with tourists, plagued by criminals, and the once-glorious canals stink to high hell.

Or so they said.

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My flight to Venice was painless enough, particularly when you consider that the airline was six-time winner of the dubious “Worst Airline Award”, Ryanair. I loathe Ryanair, but when you get see a flight to a city you’ve never been before for just £10 (ok, £40 including bags), it’s hard to say no. I’ve sat on Indian buses for whole days at a time, so I figured I could just about cope with two and a half hours on a plane.

Ryanair actually doesn’t fly into Venice… In fact, Venice doesn’t exactly have an airport; the neighbouring cities, which are not built on water, have them instead. As such, I flew into Treviso, and from there took a bus (which was far nicer than the plane) to Mestre. Mestre is another neighbouring city – the one directly across the water from Venice, and joined by a bridge and a number of boats. I had found a well-reviewed hostel for much cheaper than you’d get on the island, and so that would serve as my base.

In the morning, I hopped a train to Venice. The train cost a euro and took about five or ten minutes. When I stepped off, I was still not expecting much. But when I got out of the station and saw the Grand Canal for the first time, I was nearly overwhelmed. It was a shimmering turquoise, busy with little boats, and surrounded by regal old buildings.

As I ventured over one of the bridges and into the labyrinthine passageways of the city, I found the streets to be quiet, largely devoid of tourists. I was able to meander at my own pace along the sides of smaller canals, and over quaint little bridges. Where were the hordes of screaming tourists, pushing and shoving? This was far more charming than I expected. Most of all, I loved the old buildings. So many “ancient” towns and cities are completely restored so that very little of the past actually remains. Venice is a real, functioning city and some buildings have just fallen to bits. That actually adds to the charm. (Though maybe not if you live there.)

Eventually, I came to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which was much busier than elsewhere, but still not as bad as I expected. I took more photos and moved on, finding a bench near the sea to sit and rest for a while.

Colourful houses on a canal
One more image: Some very cool looking buildings near the Venice Arsenal.

Wandering back through the city to the train station took most of the rest of my day, and when I returned to my hostel in Mestre, I had clocked up 16km. That’ll help shift some of that Christmas weight!

My brief visit to Venice has been a real unexpected pleasure. Tomorrow morning I’ll head for Florence, a little south of here and towards the opposite side of the country.

Posted in Photography

More Photos of Scotland in Winter

Happy New Year!

I have been back in Scotland for one month, and I have been amazed by the warm weather. It has given me plenty of opportunity to get out and walk in the countryside, shooting photos of the local scenery.

After Christmas, my family and I took a walk out along Tentsmuir, a forest near our home. I shot many photos there. Here are a few of them:

Later, my parents and I took a walk out along the Old Course at St. Andrews. The Old Course is, as its name suggests, one of the oldest golf courses in the world. It’s closed on Sunday, and the public are free to walk on the fairways.

Yesterday, we took off for Edinburgh and climbed Arthur’s Seat:

The sunset from the top was beautiful. I shot this panorama in addition to the above photos:

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I’m off to Italy next week. Look out for more photos, or add suggestions for my trip below in the comments. 🙂