Terra Galleria Photography

Crater Lake’s Wizard Island

Most of the photographs of Crater Lake are made from the rim. They often include Wizard Island, whose shape varies with viewpoint. Even when standing directly above Wizard Island, such from the Watchman, the island looks quite small. After looking at it from a distance many times, the main goal of my last trip to Crater Lake was to visit Wizard Island.

Tours are given from July to mid-September with hourly departures. No other watercrafts are allowed on the lake. As I often improvise, on my previous visit, I was disappointed that the tour was sold out. This time, I made a reservation in advance (reservation site). It is even more imperative to do so if you plan to hike on Wizard Island since each day only a couple of tour boats drop and pick-up passengers there.

Since it is illegal and dangerous to scramble down the steep and fragile crater walls, Cleetwood Cove is the only place where you can access the lake, via a 2.2 miles RT trail. You are hiking in a dense forest, with few views until you come close to the water. The trail is one of the most used in the park because it is the access route for the boat tour.

The water temperature at the surface is usually around 55F (12.8C) – and 38F (3.3C) at the bottom. I was content with just dipping my toes in the lake, but more hardy visitors jumped right in.

The boat tour provides you with a different perspective on the cliffs surrounding the lake. They appear much taller seen from the water.

The Phantom ship, dwarfed by rim cliffs from a distance, reveals its true size. To include its reflection in the water, I needed a 14mm lens.

You pass near a couple of waterfalls which are not visible from the rim. Above all, I felt that riding in the boat got me more intimately acquainted with the lake than just observing it from overlooks. Since you are not allowed to stand in the boat except during a few stops, try to secure an external seat for better views.

Wizard Island looks deceptively low from the rim, but is is 700 feet high. As the boat approached, although it is an easy, family-grade outing, I felt the excitement of setting foot on an island that relatively few visit.

The steep 1-mile (RT) hike to the crater summit rewards you with views in all directions over the lake and caldera, punctuated with striking bleached whitebark pine trees.

The other trail (2 miles RT) leads to Fumarole Bay, where I found delightful emerald and turquoise waters that contrasted with the deep blue of the rest of the lake. Although the trail is mostly flat, I had to be careful not to twist my ankle as it is very rocky and difficult to follow past the first bay. Unlike on the summit trail, I had the place mostly to myself.

When you reserve your Wizard Island tour, you have the option of spending 3 hours or 6 hours on the island. Although it may sound a lot of time to spend there, with 6 hours, I had to rush my second hike, running down the trail to make sure I didn’t miss the boat. As overnight stays are not allowed, a boat would come and pick you up, but you’d be charged hundreds of dollars for that.

Back at Cleetwood Cove, at the beach, rocks in the water make for foregrounds to water-level wide views of the lake which are good early and late in the day. Even if not taking the boat tour, it would be worth hiking down there to touch the water and experience the lake up close.

I concluded a great day by staying around until the last light, before hiking up 674 feet of elevation gain in the cool temperatures of the evening.

View photos of Crater Lake National Park

How to make 360 degrees spherical panoramas

I’ve been asked how I created my 360 spherical panoramas (360s). By the way, if you haven’t, be sure to check the latest ones from the Grand Canyon. A detailed tutorial would take several posts, so instead I’m going to try and explain just the finer points I’ve learned – information which doesn’t seem to have been shared by prominent practitioners of this genre.

In this post, I am concerned only about making high-quality 360 degrees (horizontal) by 180 degrees (vertical) panoramas, which means besides high resolution and dynamic range, absolutely seamless stitches over the entire sphere. For making less demanding 360s, there are much easier solutions, from mobile phone apps to a devices such as the Ricoh Theta which creates a 360 in a single shot.

Tripod

Even thought it is much smaller than a flat Gigapixel panorama, a 360 is actually more difficult to pull out successfully. Technique needs to be perfect. 360 means that you are looping back on a sphere, so any alignment flaw will be visible.

While it is quite practical to create normal multi-image panoramas by hand-holding, especially with distant subjects, this just does not work for 360s. Unless you create the 360 from a flying platform (maybe more on that in a future post), you are going to have something at a camera distance less than your height. Close subjects easily cause misalignments if you are not rotating exactly along the optical center. They also require you to stop down a lot for depth of field, resulting in low shutter speeds even in daylight.

Panoramic head

To work on a tripod, you need a two-axis panoramic head, also called spherical head. Its main purpose is to make sure your lens rotates about its optical center (often referred to as nodal point, although this term is not technically correct) in two directions. This is necessary because except for circular fish-eye lenses (8mm), you cannot capture 180 degrees vertical with a single row of shots, even with your camera mounted in vertical orientation – the normal way to work. Separate degrees of rotation make it easy to shoot multiple rows.

Spherical heads are readily available from Nodal Ninja (several choices designed from the ground-up for 360s), Really Right Stuff (RRS – more versatile, but generally heavier and not as convenient for 360s) and several others.

Factors in choosing a spherical head are: capability to support, provide enough adjustment and clearance for your camera and lens, ease of use, versatility (can components be used as a one-axis head ?), compatibility with Arca systems, possibility to reverse the vertical component, size and weight.

I prefer to mount the spherical head on top of my existing ball head, as it makes it faster to level and align the spherical head.

I made my own by mixing components from four different companies:

  • Horizontal rotator: RD 5 from Nodal Ninja. Unlike RRS gear, this has very useful click-stops to take pictures at a fixed angular rotations – several increments are available. I mount it on a custom-machined Arca-compatible plate for quick attachment to existing ball head.
  • Clamp: 42mm screw knob clamp from Sunwayfoto. Not strictly necessary, since base rail could be attached directly to rotator, however this makes it possible to easily use rotator as 1-axis head for 54g (lightest Arca clamp).
  • Base rail: MPR-192 rail from RRS. Sturdy, large integrated bubble-level. I installed a MPR-C flange for marking the pre-determined position of the vertical rail.
  • Vertical Rail with 90 degrees clamp: DMC-200 from Sunwayfoto. Longer than the corresponding RRS product, provides more clearance for shooting up.
  • Vertical rotator: DDH-03 panning clamp from Sunwayfoto. Despite smaller size and lighter weight, locks much better than the corresponding RRS product (RRS subsequently designed a much stronger vertical rotator, but it is quite heavy and bulky)
  • Camera slider: rail with integrated Arca clamp from Hejnar Photo. This was custom designed and manufactured for the same cost as their stock sliders – talk about really right stuff ! – to be the longest possible slider which doesn’t get into the field of view of the 15mm fish-eye lens. If I plan to use the Nikon 14-24 instead, I carry the longer MPR-CL II from RRS.

Aligning the panoramic head

Once you’ve chosen your spherical head, the next task is to align it for your camera(s) and lens(es) at home. For a zoom lens, you need to sample different focal lengths, as each of them will require a different setting. You will then note the correct settings so that you can reproduce them easily in the field. That’s what the markings on the rails are for. I determined settings for all the lenses I am likely to use for a pano, and printed those numbers on a label taped to the rail.

Align the vertical rail by sliding it (or the whole horizontal rail) so that the center of the lens is aligned with the base axis of rotation. This alignment depends only on camera dimensions. It is independent from lens choices.

For the camera alignment, find two horizontal objects, one very close, one far. Position equipment so that they line up in the center of the image. Stopping down and using magnified live-view helps. Rotate the camera as far as it will go while keeping both objects in the image. If the near and far points are still vertically aligned, rotation doesn’t cause mis-aligments and you are done. Otherwise slide the camera back or forward until they are aligned, and verify that rotation doesn’t cause mis-alignments. This camera alignment is specific to the lens and camera used.

Lens

Whereas in normal photography, only the sensor resolution determines the image pixel count, for a 360, it also depends on the choice of the focal length. Longer focal lengths yield proportionally higher-resolution panos. On the other hand, longer focal lengths require proportionally more shots, which is problematic when the light is quickly changing. In the table below, I have indicated panorama sizes obtained with a Canon 5DmkIII (5760 × 3840 pixels, 22MP), as well as number of shots required with an overlap of 30% between images.

The resolution you need is proportional to the screen size, and inversely proportional to the field of view of the virtual lens. For instance, to display with the perspective of a 35mm lens on a 2000 pixels screen, this would be (360 / 54) x 2000 = 13,333 pixels .

You should use the shortest lens that provides the resolution you want. Many experienced shooters prefer the 15mm Fish-eye, as it offers a good compromise: large enough for display on big screens, yet only one row to shoot, plus up and down, with large overlap that makes assembling the 360 easy. I often use the 14mm since I carry a 14-24 as part of my standard kit. More information is available on this panoramic lens database.

Lens FOV (h,v) # rows shots by rows # shots pano size
8mm fish 180,180 1 2(3) 2(3) 7680×3840
15mm fish 150,100 3 1+6+1 8 15400×7700
14mm 104,81 3(4) 1+6+6 (+1) 13(14) 19880×9940
17mm 93,70 4 1+8+8+1 18 22224×11112
24mm 74, 53 4 1+10+10+1 22 28134×14067
35mm 54, 38 6 1+12+12+12+12+1 50 38116×19058

Pano sizes are theoretical numbers. In practice, some pixels are wasted by distortion correction. Spherical panoramas always have a 2:1 aspect ratio.

Formulas:
nb_pixels_pano_h = (360/FOV_lens_h) * nb_pixels_camera_h
nb_shots = FOV_pano / (non_overlap_percent x FOV_lens)
nb_pixels_camera_h=5760
non_overlap_percent=0.7
FOV_pano=360,180

Shooting

Level the head. This is faster if you are using a ballhead or leveling base, but then lock the head really tight because you are going to put a lot of stress on it later. Use the panning base of the ballhead to align the base rail with a tripod leg.

Switch to manual focus. You need to make sure not to change the lens focus between shots, as this causes stitching problems. With ultra wide lenses, it to obtain enough depth of field it is enough to focus near hyperfocal distance and stop down the lens. Exposure should also be manual. If shooting RAW, white balance can be synchronized in post processing. Since the field of view is so large, the dynamic range will often be too large for a single exposure, in which case you should use exposure brackets.

Once all your camera settings are correct, shoot as many rows as necessary to cover the whole sphere, while making sure that you have enough overlap between views, ideally around 30%.

The less efficient way to proceed is to look in the viewfinder. It is better to pre-calculate number of shots needed, and use the angular scale to execute them. The most efficient is to use a head with click-stops. With it, you can rotate the camera mindlessly. You do not to have to look at a scale in dim light. If standing at the edge of a cliff you can focus on your footing.

Here are the 14 images which were used to assemble the Colorado River panorama:

Removing the tripod

Photographing the entire sphere is difficult because of the tripod. Photoshop it out ? This would be very time-consuming, and often problematic because the tripod and head covers quite a large portion of the image. In fact, most of the time I remove the tripod without a trip to Photoshop, in the stitching software (Autopano Giga).

The key is to take a picture of the ground lying under the tripod, while making sure that the camera stays in the same position. The simplest would be to hold the camera in place with one hand at arm’s length, then take the tripod out with the other hand and shoot, but this assumes you can keep the camera in the same position with precision and shoot handheld. I’ve seen a number of complicated tripod techniques on the Internet. Although I came up with the idea myself, I’m sure there are others using the technique I am going to describe.

First take a shot looking straight down. Mark the point on the ground which intersects the optical axis. For that, I use a plumb line, but it is also possible to look at the image. Then reverse the vertical rail and place it near the end of the horizontal slider so that the camera overhangs. The camera now looks directly at the ground. Such a cantilevered position is a good test of your ball-head holding power ! Then move the tripod to a position where the optical axis of the camera intersects again with the mark on the ground. Take a second shot. The tripod is still present in the second shot, but it is in a different position than on the first shot. After the two images are aligned, if you’ve proceeded carefully, the two positions of the tripod won’t overlap, so it is easy to select the portions of each image without the tripod.

You’ll notice that most of my 360s are photographed with the camera in the shade. This way I do not have to worry about removing the tripod’s shadow – not to mention having the sun in the picture.

Assembling

If exposure brackets were used, I first merge them – in batch mode – using Lightroom/Enfuse, which uses exposure blending rather than HDR to create natural looking images with better dynamic range.

Photoshop CC’s Photomerge can assemble multi-row 360s, but not a full 360×180 panorama. You need specialized panoramic software for that. Autopano and PTGui, the two leaders, are both very powerful. Hugin is free and quite close to PTGui. PTGui has more options. As promised by its name, Autopano is more automated. For our purpose, the main difference between Autopano Pro and Autopano Giga (my choice) is that the later let you mark which areas you want to keep or eliminate in two overlapping images. That’s how I remove the tripod, but it is also possible to align images in Photoshop prior to assembling and erase layers to achieve the same effect. Once the 360 is assembled, I color-correct it in Photoshop as I would for a normal image. In the case of the Colorado River, here is the resulting file:

Displaying

The 360×180 is assembled as a spherical image. You need software to display it as a virtual really view. I use Krpano because of its performance, automatic switching between Flash & HTML5, and inclusion of tools to convert the spherical image to cube images which are easier to edit if necessary. You may prefer software with a graphical interface, but I like to edit code. Pano2VR is the less expensive choice with all necessary functionality. Panotour is a nice graphical interface to krpano but lacks the conversion tools. Panotour Pro (which includes them) is much more expensive. All those generate on the fly normal-looking perspectives from the 360 file such as those:

If all those steps have not discouraged you, I wish you a lot of fun creating 360 spherical panoramas, and would enjoy seeing your creations.

Half Grand Canyon rafting

Yesterday was the day I was to fly out of the Grand Canyon, but my trip down the River was cut short one week ago. After making the following image upon entering Horn Creek Rapids, I have no recollections of what happened in the following minute, only of feeling pain and hearing concerned voices around me.

It turned out I had broken my collarbone after losing my grip. The worse of the physical pain was to come one week after the injury: I had to call 911 from home and spend 6 hours in the emergency room after a bone shifted, leaving me in debilitating pain, and maybe the prospect of a surgery. This was the biggest disappointment I had suffered, on so many levels, but in particular to have let down a fine group of photographers and persons. Sorry I had to leave and thanks for your help Sonia, Mark, Tom, Victor, Elaine, Dick, Margit & Juergen, Meggi, Linda, Sun, and John. Fortunately they were able to continue the trip with co-leader Oliver and great river guides from Hatch River Expeditions: Kelly, Lena, Riley (sp ?), Sean, Dom, and Matt.

In 2003, I had reached the Colorado River in the course of a tough four-day backpacking trip with an elevation change of 5,000 feet, where I had to carry 8 quarts of water in addition to the usual camping gear and 5×7 camera. As I hiked on the trail between Tapeats Creek and Deer Creek. I noticed rafts whizzing by, seemingly without effort. Since that day, I’ve wanted to explore the River by raft.

Back then, there were no photography-oriented trips on the river. I saw some in the past few years, but although they were led by prominent photographers, the timing decisions made on some trips looked questionable. They also all used motorized rafts. I understand that they travel faster, nevertheless, they looked a bit like busses. The quiet and intimacy of the smaller oar-powered rafts, traveling at the pace of the river, looked appealing. Experiences are the foundations of my photography, and an oar-powered seemed to provide a better experience on the river, as well as more opportunities for action photographs.

The expedition I had planned was exactly the trip I wanted to be on. For the first five days, except for one adjustment (necessary because of slower travel on the river than expected), it went perfectly on track. Each day, we went for a hike of about one hour (RT) to explore side canyons accessible only from the river.

Our first hike was the North Canyon (river mile 20). It was only 1.5 miles RT, but hiking times can be deceptive in the Grand Canyon, as we had to scramble over boulders. The highlight of North Canyon was a reflection pool at the base of a sculpted spillway, which fortunately was still in the shade at 8:30am.

Nankoweap Granaries (river mile 53) were used by the ancient Anasazi people (earliest Grand Canyon habitation) to store their seed stock and protect it from vermin and rot. One of the last regions that the Anasazi moved into was Nankoweap Canyon, which ends in the largest tributory delta in the Canyon. The abrupt departure, beginning at AD 1100, but also what prompted those people to move into Nankoweap Canyon remain a mystery. 500 feet above the river, the views were spectacular in late afternoon. We stayed until dark for a rare night photography session there.

Little Colorado River (mile 61) is one of only two side streams of the Colorado River with turquoise color, others are clear. Color is caused by high alkalinity, and dissolved calcium carbonate in the water. After the summer rains, it turns brown.

From the Cardenas campsite, a 30 minute hike up the hill provided for sunset a great view of the Palissades of the Desert, and for sunrise an impressive river bend which includes the Unkar Rapids (River mile 72) observed from the top of a sheer cliff.

In mid-afternoon, we scrambled directly in a refreshing stream aptly named Clear Creek to see box canyons culminating into double spouted Clear Creek Falls (mile 84).

Most our time was spent floating the river. This was particularly rewarding in the shade of the stricking Redwall limestone cliffs that dominate Marble Canyon. The tall, vertical, brightly colored, north-south oriented walls were more photogenic than Granite Gorge which began after the Little Colorado confluence. Unlike other famous whitewater rivers, the Colorado doesn’t sport continuous rapids, but instead alternates between rapids u and long calm sections. Some of the Grand Canyon rapids reach class V, on the International Scale of River Difficulty I-VI, with VI meaning “unrunnable” – if a rapid is repeatdely run that was once thought to be class VI, it is typically reclassified as Class V.

On the calm sections, it was easy to photograph with a DSLR camera. Although many – including myself – used waterproof Lowepro DryZone 200 bags, the most handy place to store a camera and lens was the small dry bag provided by the outfitter as day bag.

On the rapids, using a flexible waterproof enclosure (the Outex), I was able to photograph water splashes. However, this is what ultimately may have caused my accident. On the strong rapids, we were told to hang on with both hands to the raft. If only I had listened … why didn’t I heed the advice ? The rear line on our raft, to which I should have held, was behind the tube, so I didn’t see it. It had been recharged and unused, however the battery of my hands-free (head-mounted) Gopro was flat. The ride had been quite smooth in some of the previous big rapids (including feared Hance), where it was enough to hang on with one hand – which some other photographers in the group also did. However each rapid is different. Nobody saw exactly what had happened to me, but our river guide thinks I was tossed forward when the bow plunged, hit her back with my head (losing consciousness for 30 seconds), and then something else with my clavicle. The lesson: hold on with one hand in the front and one hand in the back.

Although the NPS performs between 2 and 8 evacuations per day, most of them are for hiking falls or dehydration. River accidents are rare. About 1,500 people ride with his company each year, but the last river accident Steve Hatch remembers requiring an evacuation was about a dozen years ago, also on Horn Creek Rapids.

Since it was too late on that day, I got to spend one last night in the Canyon with only mild pain, watching the river flow as I talked with Oliver about the trip. A NPS helicopter evacuated me to the rim at first light. From there, I boarded a NPS ambulance to Valle, then a private ambulance to the Flagstaff hospital, which discharged me remarkably fast. I was able to find a flight home that day. It was less expensive to buy a new one-way fare on US Airways than to change the existing reservation. I am specially grateful to Steve Hatch and his wife Sarah for their kindness in personally taking care of me upon discharge, and also for mailing me my gear.

View landscape images of Grand Canyon
(in particular Marble Canyon 1/2, North Canyon, Nankoweap, Little Colorado, Unkar, Granite Gorge)

View images of Rafting the Grand Canyon

New series: “The Ground”

In the post Year 2013 in Review and Parks Nights Favorites, I mentioned that although I release images in large blocks based on geography, I’ve been working on a number of photographic series. That post introduced the series “The Night”, where recent advances in digital photography help to capture the stars in the prominent sky.

In this post, I am presenting some images of the series “The Ground”, where we look under our feet for an often overlooked view. To make the perspective look even less familiar, I have actually removed all perspective by pointing the camera straight down.

Eliot Porter wrote “Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject”. Those images, covering just a few square feet, have been framed to be representative of entire ecosystems. They often include features unique to each place. In my National Parks project, I am interested in the individual character of each place; how each one represents a set of unique ecosystems, yet collectively, all are interrelated and interconnected like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The next series in the National Parks project will look at a much smaller subject that will surprise you.

View more images from this series

Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

Part 6 (last) of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Although Kyaiktiyo, also known as Golden Rock, is one of most incredible sights anywhere, we offered the visit as an extension to the Myanmar photo tour because it is a more arduous journey. It started with a ride (by private mini-bus) to Kyaikhto, about 160km from Yangon, which took about five hours.

From the base station, the only access to the hilltop is by foot (only done by the most hardy pilgrims), or by custom busses, which are just large pick-up trucks with seats. As the sign says, the fare of 3,000 kyat (US $3) includes life-insurance.

Each bus carries 35 passengers seated on hard benches in the back. We were part of the few lucky on the front, although even there it is quite cramped and bumpy. The trip takes one hour, not including a stop mid-way, necessary because on the upper segment, the road is one-lane. I’ve read that because it is too hazardous, foreigners are not allowed to ride that segment, but we were able to do so, which saved 45 minutes of uphill walking.

The amenities at the hilltop hotels are quite basic. During mealtime, as one of the legs of my chair plunged through a hole in the floor which was covered with linoleum, I almost fell. However, we were just a few minutes from the Kyaiktiyo pagoda. Near the entrance, young men were playing Chin Lone, a no-hands version of volleyball, using as a net post one of the ladders provided for climbing into the busses.

The focus of Kyaiktiyo is the Golden Rock, a large granite boulder covered with gold leaves pasted on by devotees. The gravity-defying boulder lies on an inclined rock slab with a small area of contact, overhanging for half its length.

On top of the rock, a small pagoda has been built. It is said that it is a strand of Buddha’s hair enshrined in it which miraculously prevents the rock from tumbling down the hill.

While the Golden Rock is a wondrous sight at any time of the day – there is nothing like it anywhere else – it is most beautiful at dawn and dusk, when it glows magically.

Due to its remote location, the atmosphere surrounding the Golden Rock is much more charged with mysticism and devotion than other sites we have visited. Pilgrims light up candles, pray and chant through the night.

The Golden Rock is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay. Food and souvenirs are available at the nearby Potemkin village, where the ambiance is more festive.

When time comes to go to sleep, many pilgrims camp right on the plaza, wrapped in thick blankets against the chill of the hilltop location (1,100 meters elevation).

With the exception of a few, guesthouses cater to Burmese people. Probably due to the more arduous journey, the number of tourists is still relatively small, which contributes to the quality of the atmosphere.

On the way back to Yangon, we made a lunch stop in Bago. There, this cyclo driver was reading a newspaper featuring a picture of some folks who looked awfully familiar.

Our photo tour group made it into the news !

See more photos of Kyaiktiyo

Part 6 (last) of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Lake Inle, Myanmar

Part 5 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Day 8 (cont)

Nyaung Shwe is the main gateway to Lake Inle. We photographed children in two different settings there, first at a school as they were playing at recess, always a fun interaction for everyone.

Inside the Shweyanpyay Monastery, the ambiance was more studious.

Outside, we noticed beautiful window openings and waited for a few monks to look out.

One of Myanmar’s most spectacular and breathtaking sights is tranquil Inle Lake. The lake’s shore and islands are home to 17 villages built on stilts and inhabited by the native Intha people.

One of the main focus of our stay in Lake Inle was to photograph the famous Intha Fishermen. We created a fresh perspective on this iconic subject by photographing them from above, right from the deck of our resort.

Photographing from a stable position instead of a boat also let us create rare dusk images with lanterns. Intha Fishermen are known for their technique of rowing wrapping one of the legs around the oar to relieve and free arms for fishing.

Day 9

At dawn and for half-an-hour after sunrise, Inle Lake is often graced with a thin layer of mist floating just above the water. A backlit angle emphasizes the mist rising around the Intha Fishermen.

Photographed in the warm light of sunrise, this group demonstrate fishing using the typical conical net.

Kayan women of the Padaung tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. We visited a weaving workshop where besides seeing them working, we were able to make portraits in a relaxed atmosphere.

In the afternoon, we took a boat ride down to the Indein village on the western shores. With hundreds of small stupas in a various stages of ruin, the Indein Pagoda complex is an amazing and haunting site. I hiked to a nearby hill so that I could use a telephoto to compress the perspective, which conveys the density of the stupas.

For our sunset session, we photographed this canoe. Believe it or not, it was sunken by the resort personnel upon our request (upon checkout, I received a billed listing “canoe service”). To focus on such a simple subject let us learn a lot about composition.

Day 10

We started the day with a third session with the friendly Intha Fishermen. One of the goals was to try to create more natural-looking images than the day before. It was particularly instructive to critique images of the previous day while brainstorming and planning for the next similar photo shoot.

We then crossed the lake to Ywama Village. The boat excursion gave us you an intimate view of life in this unique community where villages and farms perch over water on stilts.

The markets on Lake Inle rotate locations on a 5-day schedule. At this morning market we saw the native Shan people wearing their colorful tribal costumes.

Like Lake villages, the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery is perched on stilts.

In late afternoon, the visited the Maing Thauk Village, outside of the tourist trail.

A family invited us to share a tea in their stilt house.

At sunset, we photographed floating gardens of fruit and vegetables which are anchored to the bottom of the lake with bamboo poles.

Day 11

After spending a third night there, it was time to leave the delightful Myanmar Treasure Resort, where each of us enjoyed a private cottage with Lake views.

We enjoyed a beautiful dawn ride to Nyaung Shwe, before driving to Heho, from where we caught a flight back to Yangon.

See more photos of Lake Inle

Part 5 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Pindaya, Myanmar

Part 4 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Day 7

After an early morning flight from Mandalay to Heho, we drove to Pindaya on a bumpy road out of the main tourist trail.

The landscape changes as we gain elevation and travel back in time. High-elevation crops of lentils and mountain rice that make colorful patterns on the rolling hills.

We visited a paper and oiled umbrella workshop to see how red umbrellas carried by the monks (which you saw in the previous post) are made.

Pindaya is known for the Pindaya Caves. They are accessed by spider-shaped covered stairs high on the cliffs. The name Pindaya is a corruption of Pinguya, which translates to Taken the Spider in Burmese. Legend relates that a large spider which resided in the caves had captured local princesses, which were rescued when the giant spider was killed by a prince’s arrow.

Inside the caves, over 8,000 Buddha statues have been placed by pilgrims over the centuries, filling up every imaginable space inside to create an incredible labyrinth.

Day 8

Pindaya itself is a picturesque little town, nestled between Pone Tanoke Lake and the cliffs which house the Pindaya Cave, where every hilltop has a stupa.

Waking up before dawn, we walked around the lake surrounded by giant banyan trees, with golden stupas in the distance.

In early morning, villagers came to the shore of the lake to bathe and wash their clothes.

Men drove ox carts to fill up their water tanks.

Pindaya is the site of a 5-day rotating street market that we were fortunate to catch.

During the scenic drive to Nyaug Shwe, we made several stops on the rural road to greet villagers and observe local activities.

See more photos of Pindaya

Part 4 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Mandalay, Myanmar

Part 3 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Day 4 (cont)

After an early morning flight, we arrived in Mandalay. The country’s second largest city is the spiritual and cultural heart of Myanmar.

On Marble Street, Mandalay’s street of stone-sculptors, men attack blocks of white marble with drills and angle-grinders. From the clouds of marble dust emerge Buddha images from all shapes and sizes which are hand-polished by women.

At the Mahamuni Pagoda, we were fortunate to run into a Novitiation or Shinbyu ceremony. Followed by their families in their best attire, the soon-to-be novices are lead in a procession around the pagoda.

A most important events in a Buddhist’s life, the ceremony reflects Buddha’s journey as he renounced his life as a prince (hence the princely attire and makeup) in his quest for enlightenment.

In late afternoon, we visited Taungthaman Lake and photographed at sunset the legendary U Bein Bridge, the longest piece of teak wood in the world.

Day 5

We were up at dawn to capture the sunrise over the moat of Mandalay Fort. The key to such an image is to wait for the most intense color, which occurs around 15 minutes before actual sunrise.

We had several opportunities to witness monks going for their round of alms. Contrarily to widespread thinking, this is not begging, but an opportunity provided to the devotees to earn merit by giving. To that effect, the monks walk a long way from their monasteries, often barefoot.

We observed life along the Irrawaddy River before taking a one hour cruise to Mingun village.

Mingun Pagoda would have been the world’s biggest pagoda, but construction of this enormous brick building was halted after a fortune-teller predicted that if construction was completed, the King would perish. The remaining Mingun Bell is the largest in the world.

In the afternoon, we admired the extraordinary woodwork at the Swehwe In Bin Kyaung pagoda before going up the Mandalay Hill for a panoramic view.

After sunset, we had the privilege of attending the evening prayer at one of the numerous monasteries that dot the Mandalay Hill. More than half of all Buddhist monks in Myammar reside in the Mandalay area. Out of respect I did not want to use flash. Instead of trying to make a somewhat sharp picture, I opted to capture motion. Images with motion work best when there are elements which remain sharp enough, so the challenge was to wait for a key moment when some monks would be in motion, and others not. This happened at the end of the prayer, so the window was very short. 1s ISO 1600 f4 did I say it was dark ?

Day 6

Sutaungpyei Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill at dawn was a much more serene experience than sunset. As often there is a short window after it is too dark and before the lights are turned off there.

Compared to sunset, sunrise added a low layer of fog, floating well below Mandalay Hill. The image looked just grey but by just moving black point and white points contrast raised to reveal details.

Back to the streets of Mandalay, we ran into this elaborated alms procession, where each monk, instead of carrying his own bowl, is accompanied by an umbrella bearer and a man holding a donation bag.

At the Gold Pounders Workshop we watched sheets of gold being beaten into gossamer-thin pieces and cut into squares. Those are used for a practice seen through the country: the application of gold leaf to Buddha images by devotees and favor-seekers.

At the Mahagandayon Monastery, renowned as a center for monastic study and strict religious discipline, some of the thousand monks line up for lunch.

We visited a silk workshop, a production for which Amarapura is known.

Although today Awa is a small village (in which we had to travel in a traditional horse-drawn carriage), traces of its golden days as Burma’s capital can still be seen throughout its peaceful rural landscape filled with magnificent ruins such as the Daw Gyan Pagoda complex.

Sagaing, an ancient capital, is nowadays an important religious center. Our first stop there was the Zayar Theingi Nunnery.

We next checked the many Buddha images in the crescent-shaped hall of U Min Thonze pagoda.

Our late afternoon and sunset shot was from Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda at the top of Sagaing Hill, home to a more than a thousand monasteries, nunneries, temples and pagodas.

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Part 3 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Bagan, Myanmar

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Day 2

Bagan is known for its thousands of Buddhist monuments and temples, making it one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Asia. After surveying the area from a temple platform, we approached friendly villagers tending to their fields next to the temples.

We continued to get a feel for this rural area by checking out the Nyaung U market.

While most of the Bagan temples are ruined, there are a few active ones, such as the Shwezigon Pagoda.

We explored the Bagan countryside with a visit to Mingun village, where we saw women making a lacquer bowl and processing their harvest, all by hand.

For late afternoon and sunset, we went back to the upper terrace of Shwesandaw.

Our dinner doubled as a marionette puppet show, Myanmar’s most distinctive performing art.

Day 3

The day started with an optional hot air balloon ride, which is the best way to take in the vastness of the site. At $450/person it is an expensive 45 minutes, but the price is the same (or higher) everywhere, so if you are going to try that great experience, Bagan is as good a place as any.

After breakfast, we visited the Sulamani temple, remarkable for its frescoes and stone work.

At an orphanage, Buddhist novice monks lined up with alms bowls before their lunch. This was their last meal of the day, as buddhist monks do not eat dinner.

We generally had great access to Buddhist monks (here at the Shinbinthalyaung reclining Budddha) because our local tour guide was a three-time monastery drop-out.

In late afternoon, we drove to the rustic village of Minnanthu, one of Bagan’s less visited regions. We photographed ox carts against the backdrop of the spectacular Tayok Pye temple.

From the same spot, just turning our backs, we saw this family herding their sheep.

Next to our restaurant (where we enjoyed a music and dance performance), we found this umbrella store.

Day 4

Before catching our flight for Mandalay, we enjoyed a dawn session atop another temple, followed by a colorful sunrise.

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Part 2 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Yangon, Myanmar

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Since my first visit there in 2000, I have always thought of Myanmar as the most enchanting country in South East Asia. In January 2014, I had the pleasure of leading a photo tour there. Thank you Alan, Massoud, Phuoc, Regis, Ron and Yasmina for being such fine and inspiring traveling companions and photographers. In this post, I will share images made during the tour in Yangon, where all tours start and end, but before that, I’ll address a bit the changes I have seen in the country.

Change in Myanmar

Myanmar visitation has been historically low: a few hundreds of thousands visitors per year – for comparison, Thailand receives about 8 million, Yosemite Valley 4 million. It’s not that the country was closed, dangerous, or difficult to travel. However, many in the West considered it politically incorrect to visit because Myanmar is ruled by a military dictatorship. There was this notion that visiting the country equaled to supporting its repressive regime. The locals seemed to have a different view, though, since every single Myanmar national I spoke to in 2000 said it was good to have visitors.

The situation changed a few years ago, with a transition to democracy, recognized with President Obama’s official visit in 2013. Myanmar, long considered off-limits, had become the new hot travel destination in Asia.

As a result, travel costs have increased dramatically, because Myanmar doesn’t have yet infrastructure to meet the demand. A room in the Panorama Hotel in Yangon, listed at $40 in the latest edition (2012) of the Lonely Planet guide, now costs $125. In the fall of 2013, although our tour group was not full, in response to new inquiries, I was disappointed to hear from our local travel agent that I could not add participants because hotels or flights were full. The Lonely Planet guide warns about quick changes, and they are right. Just one example: they advise not to use official money changers because the black market rates were considerably better. Now the money changers at the airport are invariably the ones with the best rate.

In 2000, even sites on the tourist trail were quiet and relaxed. Those same sites are now crowded. Popular sunset sites can be packed with tourists standing elbow-to-elbow. However, it is possible to get around this problem with careful planning. At sunrise the summit of Mandalay Hill was almost empty, whereas at sunset there was hardly enough room to deploy a tripod. Outside the main tourist trail – even in Yangon – things have not changed that much. It is still easy to observe a traditional culture and a way of life. There are places where villagers are now asking for money after posing for pictures, something I never saw in my first visit. But there are also places where they will ask to pose for a picture with you, because seeing a foreign visitor is a rarity.

Day 1

We began our day with a stroll along the peaceful shores of Kandawgyi Lake near the huge Karawek hall (where we would have our welcome dinner), replica of a royal barge.

We spent an hour nearby with beautiful Moe, who posed for some portraits. Like most women and girls in Myanmar, Moe is wearing Thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from ground bark. Thanaka serves as a skin conditioner, sunscreen, and a perfume that has a delicate fragrance similar to sandalwood.

In the early afternoon, we visited indoor sites, first the 229-feet long reclining Buddha statue at Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda.

Not far from there, we saw the five-story tall buddha of Ngahtatgyi Pagoda.

The highlight of the day was the Shwedagon Pagoda, possibly the oldest, largest, most sacred, and most beautiful pagoda in the world, where we stayed until dark.

Day 11

Upon return from Heho, we toured briefly Yangon’s city center, then walked along the Sinoodan jetty to observe life along the river.

We returned at the Traders Hotel to photograph the city at dusk from its upper floors, a fascinating mix of old and new.

Day 12

Before leaving for Kyaiktiyo (see part 6), by tipping a security guard, we were able to photograph at dawn from a private building a view that captures the essence of Yangon: you see Independence Monument, City Hall, 2,500 years old Sule Pagoda, Bengali Sunni Jamae Central Mosque, Emmanuel Baptist Church. Time window was less than 10 min: before it’s too dark, after, lights are off.

Day 13

Back from Kyaiktiyo, Regis and Yasmina were eager to return to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was my 6th visit on that trip, as I had flown in a few days before the start of the tour for scouting. Although the oil candles were not lit, I was rewarded that they had moved away canopies which prevented me on the previous visits to photograph from the Victory Place, my favorite location in the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Day 14

We wrestled ourselves out of bed early one last time to capture the full moon setting over the Shwedagon Pagoda from the shore of Kandawgyi Lake. I used ISO 1600 to keep exposure short enough (1/2 s) to avoid excessive blurring in the moon (which moves fast at 250mm). This is a single exposure.

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Part 1 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6