Monument Valley

Right on the border between Arizona and Utah, lies a vast region with a plethora of sandstone rock formations, known as Monument Valley. The scenery is easily identifiable – the movie set for many Hollywood western productions and blockbusters such as Back to the Future III and Forrest Gump. Today, this region is inhabited in majority by the Navajo Native Indian tribe. This tribe made history in World War II, as the Navajo language (due to its uniqueness and complexity) was adopted for radio communication by the US forces.

The Valley was the first overnight stay on our 2-week US roadtrip. Naively, we did not make any hotel reservations, thinking perhaps that there would have been plenty of last-minute accommodation available in the area. Much to our surprise this wasn’t the case; in fact, we realised at 11pm that not a single room was available within a 2-hour driving radius! After many failed attempts talking to Booking.com operators and researching online, the front-office manager at the Hampton Inn felt sorry for us and suggested that a friend of hers might have a room for the night at her B&B home.

In a scene that resembled nothing less than a move thriller, we drove to the Navajo reservation camp at midnight, in the middle of a rain storm. Looking back through the rear-view mirror, I could see the sign of worry drawn on everyone’s faces, as we drove in muddy roads through a bunch of old trailers and makeshift shacks.

Worry turned quickly into a smile and a sigh of relief, once we were greeted by a friendly Navajo lady, who welcomed us in her pyjamas to her recently renovated home. After giving us a short tour, she mentioned that she had to leave early in the morning to go to work. Worried not to wake us up, she politely asked us to leave the money on her kitchen table and lock the door behind us on our way out. She had known us for less than a few minutes, yet she was kind and courteous enough to treat us like family – a trait that one doesn’t come by often and a gesture that I will never forget.

Monument Valley - 1920c

Shot with my tripod mounted Canon 60D and my Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 DC HSM lens, at ISO 100, F8.0, at 1.6 sec, exposed at (-2/0/+2).

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Yellowstone Park

Growing up as a kid, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Yogi Bear and his picnic basket stealing escapades at Jellystone Park. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that Jellystone is an actual take-off on Yellowstone National Park, a park that spans almost 9,000 sq Km in the state of Wyoming. After researching what this place was all about, I was quickly convinced that it had to be added to my bucket list. It was therefore no coincidence that when we started planning for our road trip, no matter how we planned to cross the continental US, all routes led us through Yellowstone.

One cannot fathom how large this park is until you start driving through it. It took us about 2 hours to cross it the first day we got there, and subsequently 2 full days of driving just to visit some of the major sights. What you bear witness to however is truly remarkable, as the park has a plethora of lakes, canyons and rivers, home to hundreds of species of mammals, fish and reptiles, some of which are considered endangered. The park also sits on an active volcano, so there is an abundance of hot springs and geysers. I’ve managed to take a few pictures of the landscape, animals and other sights and will dedicate the next few blog posts to share these with everyone.

Starting off though, this is the picture of the Lower Yellowstone Falls, one of the highlight features of the park, standing at 94m tall – nearly twice the height of the Niagara Falls.

Yellowstone Falls2 - 1920c

Taken with my tripod-mounted Canon 60D and Canon 24-70 F2.8L lens, at ISO 100, F8.0 and 15 sec exposure (using my B+W ND 3.0 solid filter).

Silhouette Trees

Any nature photographer will attest that the “golden hour” is the best time to go out and photograph. Also known as the “magic hour”, this is roughly the first hour after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset. The reason for that is because during that time of day the sun is fairly low on the horizon, producing more diffuse and flattering light, as opposed to the hard shadows cast during midday.

Travelling however with company, gives you little flexibility to being in a particular spot during those times. That was the case when we visited the Arches National Park, home of 2000 or so sandstone arches in eastern Utah near the small town of Moab. A simple image search, will bring up hundreds of images, some depicting the sun casting a beautiful orange glow on the rock formations, others showing the sun rising or setting while being framed within the sandstone arches.

Unfortunately we arrived there just before lunch time, when the hot scorching sun was already high up in the sky. I felt disappointed because there was no way for me to take the particular picture that I had in mind. Just as I was about to give up, I noticed a bunch of dried up trees that had a very compelling shape. I veered away from my friends and started working the scene, trying to take a snapshot that would tie together the deep blue sky, the sun and the shape of the trees. After trying out multiple exposures from different angles and varying backgrounds, I ended up with the following picture, which surprisingly didn’t turn out that bad!

Tree Silluette - 1920c

Shot with my Canon 60D and my Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 DC HSM lens, at ISO 100, F18, at 1/80th of a second.

Breathtaking Bend

Just south of the small town of Page, Arizona, a small inconspicuous sign on the US-89 freeway reads “Overlook – Horseshoe Bend”. What awaits is a spectacle like nothing I had ever witnessed in my life.

If I was to use one word to describe the theme of this road trip, that word would be “nature”. One would surely say however that nature is abundant when you decide to cross any part of the continental US. Our route however was carefully planned, to visit as many national parks as possible and other natural landscapes. That route took us through Sedona, Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Zion National Park, Arches National Park and of course the famous Yellowstone.

The Horseshoe Bend however, truly stole the show. It was hands down the highlight of the trip. Maybe it was my low expectations or the fact that prior to researching our trip route, I for one had never heard of this place. Once  you stand however at the overlook and stare 300m down towards this sight, this wonder of nature truly takes your breath away.

Horseshoe Bend - 1920c
 Shot on my tripod mounted Canon 60D and my Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 DC HSM lens, at ISO 100, F22, 1/15 sec and bracketed at -2/0/+2.

The Big Apple

Back from a long and much needed vacation, finally realizing one of my life-long dreams – driving 6.000 Km from the south border of the US, through deserts, mountains and canyons, national parks and grand lakes, all the way to Canada (map link). Not surprisingly, I am physically exhausted but that was very well anticipated. I am back though mentally rested, with some great memories, 3Kg of extra weight around my mid-section and nearly a thousand pictures evidencing this once in a lifetime journey!

No one can claim though that they have visited the US, unless they’ve been to New York City. The iconic Big Apple, is a city that many of us choose to either love or hate. A concrete jungle full of energy, great architecture and amazing restaurants, shadowed by its unending road construction, constant smell of garbage and sheer number of homeless people.

Although the road trip officially started in Phoenix, we all decided to start our journey together by spending 3 nights in NYC, visiting various sights and museums and obviously getting “some” shopping done. I’ve been to NYC many times before, but apart from a bunch of touristy photos, I’ve never managed to take a decent picture that captures the essence of this great city. This time around, I was lucky and grateful to convince everyone to walk with me across the Brooklyn Bridge, with the aim of taking a shot of the skyline at sunset. Big thanks to Vasiliki, Christos and Yianna for being so very patient with me. This picture is dedicated to you!

Brooklyn Bridge - 1920c

Taken  with my Canon 60D and Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 DC HSM lens, at ISO 100, F8, 1sec,and bracketed at -2/0/2.

Ngapali Sunset

For a while now I’ve been itching to take a seascape shot at sunset, but never got around to it. I finally found the opportunity 2 weeks ago when I was on a business trip in Ngapali – a beach town on the west coast of Burma. Hearing prior to my trip that this location has one of the best beaches in the South East Asia region, I had my hopes high and thankfully I was not disappointed.

I generally try to travel light, but one of the compromises I never make is taking my trusty travel tripod – a key ingredient for this type of shots. Equally as key (though not 100% necessary), is a set of Neutral Density (ND) filters. For this shot I used a 3-stop solid ND filter to slow down my shutter speed, as well as a 2-stop ND grad filter to equalize the brightness of the sky with the foreground.

I arrived to take this shot about 20 minutes before sunset. As I was setting up my equipment knee-high in water, a young Burmese boy approached me and silently stood by, curious about what I was doing. I attempted to explain to him that I was taking a picture of the scenery but the response I got was a simple nod before he started pointing out the fish swimming in the water. He must have thought that my tripod was a fancy spear gun. I smiled in return knowing that it was all lost in translation.

Ngapali Sunset - 1920c

Shot with my Canon 60D and Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 DC HSM lens, at ISO 100, F22, 0.6secs, w/ 0.9 solid ND and 0.6 ND grad filters.

Don’t go chasing waterfalls

Happy New Year everyone! Wish you a healthy and prosperous 2014!

Got back last week from a short 5-day holiday in Thessaloniki, where I have to admit I didn’t get much of a chance to go out and photograph. My sole attempt was on the eve of my departure, when the family decided to go on a day-trip to the Edessa waterfalls – approximately a one hour drive west of Thessaloniki. From a weather perspective and by contrast to the rest of my stay in Greece, I have to admit that we chose to do so on perhaps the worst possible day.

For anyone who’s been there, the best vantage point for a photograph of the falls is from all the way down looking up, which meant that we had to drive off a long beaten path to get there. When we arrived, the only accessible place where I could actually set up my tripod and camera, was very near the falls which meant that both myself and the equipment were being hammered by a ridiculous amount of mist – so much in fact, that after every shot I took, I had to wipe down my camera lens and filters. Not the best conditions to take this shot, but this was the best I could do given the weather that day and the fact that I had to drag a hungry bunch with me (aka my entire family) while overdue for lunch by a couple of hours. Special thanks to my cousin and gear caddy Simos, who was patient enough to help me set up!

As for the picture, not my best work to be honest. Shooting with a very small aperture (to slow down the shutter speed and capture the movement of the water), also meant that even the slightest drop from the mist would show up on the image, which meant significant loss of sharpness and more work for me in post-production.

Edessa Waterfalls - 1920c

Shot with my Canon 60D and Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 DC HSM lens, at ISO 100, F25, 0.5secs, with a 2-stop ND grad filter.