mikegreenimages

Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Posts from the ‘Locations for photography’ category

My thoughts on photographic locations I’ve used.

Locations for photography: Antelope Canyon, Arizona – one piece of advice!

'Antelope tumbleweed'

Go there, if you possibly can – but go at the ‘right’ time of year!

I strongly suspect that the majority of people reading this will already know what Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona is, and what it looks like. If you don’t, a ‘net search will produce a wealth of images of orange, purple and yellow swirls of striated, curvaceous rock. Without hyperbole: it’s stunning! Whether it’s the most stunning slot canyon in the US is a question I can’t answer – there are rather a lot of them; notably an entire national park called ‘Canyonlands’, which presumably contains at least the odd few – but it’s surely ‘up there’, and it’s extremely accessible.

Antelope CanyonAlong with the wealth of images available on-line is a similar abundance of advice and guidance on how to photograph the canyon, so I’m really not going to repeat it all (you’ll be pleased to know!)

In summary, however:

  • the canyons (Upper and Lower) are deep, dark slots in sandstone;
  • the light at the bottom is therefore a) minimal in most places and at most times, b) very, very bright in other places…
  • If you go equipped for this – and also bearing in mind that your probable, desired points of near and far focus in a given frame may range from tens of centimetres to a few tens of metres – then you’ll find numerous achievable compositions throughout the short length of the canyons.

It would be really quite difficult, I suspect, to go in there and not come away with at least a few shots which could be considered pleasing, even if you were to randomly point the camera in a vaguely upward or horizontal direction and press the shutter repeatedly! (Note: ‘pleasing’, as I think mine are, not necessarily ‘good’, and it would certainly be a challenge to add anything new to the existing wealth of images of the place! That said, I am very pleased with the tumbleweed image at the top of this article!)

The tricky thing is the myriad of other people…

Antelope Canyon…or so I’d been informed by reading a fair few pages of photographic advice. Our Navajo guide, Brian(!) told us that he’d counted 3,000 people leaving the Upper canyon in one hour one summer day, whilst waiting to lead his group through… We did press him on this, and he insisted that he’d literally counted them. Having been there, it seems hard to believe those volumes to be physically possible, and I would personally not have entered in those circumstances. Nonetheless, even assuming that he was exaggerating for effect (if so, he succeeded there; we were appalled!), it clearly does get very busy – everyone says that.

But it’s not always like that

What everyone doesn’t say is that this somewhat distressing, even alarming, throughput of people is not constant throughout the year. This was Brian’s point, and he was making it since we were the only people in the canyon at the time. You enter and exit at the same end in Upper Antelope (which is where we were) so everyone who enters is obliged, on their way out, to pass the groups who have followed them into this often narrow passage. In our case, we met just one group of seven people as we left: that was bad enough, and I don’t like to imagine what a busy, summer day is like :-\

Unfortunately for me, I’d believed the stories of gross over-crowding: the near-impossibility of setting a tripod up; the constant jostling for a view; and the likelihood of people constantly throwing sand in the air to catch the light. Consequently, I had no tripod and only one lens. Had I known that the two of us, plus Brian, would have the place to ourselves for an hour, I’d have brought extra kit from Europe, just for that hour!

Importantly, we were there in early December. i.e. between the two major US holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Antelope, along with everywhere else we went, was enjoying its deepest ‘off’ season of the year.
Antelope Canyon line detail

I’d choose this month again, without hesitation

  • Yes, the weather could be an issue: we did have some snow, but nothing which affected our travel more than to extend journey times a little on a couple of occasions.
  • Yes, the famous and beautiful light beams, which pierce the narrow opening of Upper Antelope and illuminate the sandy floor at predictable times of day (and encourage people to throw sand into the air…) are not present in December: the Sun is too low in the sky to ever reach the floor of the canyon. Personally, I was happy to miss out on these beams, given that it meant the confined space was devoid of the summer hordes.

I should also say that we were the first party of the day to enter the canyon, which probably helped. There were, however, only about ten people getting ready to go in when we left, so it didn’t appear that the Navajo were going to have an exactly bonanza guiding day.

I can’t emphasise enough how fabulous the place is when you have it to yourself, irrespective of photographic potential. And if you are going to photograph it carefully, and need to use a tripod (and I’d say that having one is close to essential for lots of compositions), then going at a busy time would be, at best, very frustrating indeed. Lower Antelope is supposedly still quieter, but the flow-rate of visitors is now also rising as the Upper canyon has clearly reached capacity on busy days.

So, that’s my recommendation: go, if you can, and go in December.
Antelope Canyon pink detail


Thumbnail links to gallery for this article

Musings on: bonsai landscapes in the US south-west

For my first article about the western desert of the US, a few thoughts about how preconceptions of landscapes, as well as the circumstances in which we visit them, can affect our approach to photography – well, my approach at least, but I’m daring to assume that I’m not unique in this!

No, ‘Bonsai landscape’ is not the most usual description of the south western desert area of the US! My alternative title to this piece was:

‘Musings on: how over-familiarity, equipment availability, and travelling style affect the way we view landscapes’

…. but that was a teeny bit verbose; not to mention that I like the term ‘bonsai landscape’ to describe the very small areas, often with tiny bushes in them, which I seem to have photographed predominantly whilst there.

I’ll step back here and provide a bit of context.

I’ve just returned from a road-trip touring around various ‘big ticket’ sites in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, centred around Las Vegas as a convenient and pleasingly bizarre place to enter and exit the US. The thing is, it wasn’t a photographic tour, it was a non-solo, driving holiday, and the point was to ‘see the sights’, which meant Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Antelope Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly and all sorts of less well-known things en route. I’ve written before about the incompatibility of ‘serious’ landscape photography and non-photographer companions, so I reluctantly chose to take just a camera body, two small, light lenses and one [polarising] filter. My graduated filters, the two lenses I use for most of my images, and my tripod all stayed at home.

The effect of this was interesting.

  • Firstly, and not surprisingly, it avoided all the problems I’d imagined, had I taken all the normal kit and gone with ‘intent to photograph’: no issues with anyone else having to wait around whilst I set up shots and waited for changes in light, and the big benefit of not having much to carry around either!
  • Secondly – and this is the more interesting result, and the subject of this musing – I ended up making very different images, in general, from those I’d expected to concentrate on.

Tiny elements of a vast landscape

The south-western desert area of the United States is a huge landscape, characterised by vast skies, monoliths, and deep canyons – the sort of thing which lends itself to big vistas. That impression is reinforced by a quick on-line search, where the photographic results which come back are predominantly ‘big stuff’ with ‘impressive skies’. I have very few of those shots. Yes, I do have some, but I have considerably more detail shots. And it’s not even medium level detail, the type of thing I generally find myself capturing; they’re real detail of landscape elements measured in single digit metres across the frame – not something I’ve done much of before. Whether I shall again is another question…. I like the results, but I think I prefer my normal work, such as ‘Plateau’, below.

'Plateau'

At the time, I didn’t notice what I was doing….

I recognised this concentration on detail for the first time whilst doing initial processing on the captures I made during the trip. Prior to that, I’d not been at all aware that I was behaving differently, in terms of what I photographed, from normal.

I think there are three reason for this – temporary! – change in subject matter:

Equipment availability
I had no wide angle lens: my widest was 35mm on Nikon DX format, or about 50mm full frame equivalent; not exactly wide. I had no tilt-shift lens, no tripod, and no graduated filters: all these things are essential to how I normally take photographs, so, inevitably, I couldn’t do what I would typically do. Instead, I gave up on real front-to-back sharpness, any idea of including sky, and any exposure longer than about a 30th of a second. OK, so the sky aspect was no great change – I often exclude it, as discussed before – but the other two things were!
Time availability
Generally, I’ll hang around at a site for at least an hour, and more often two or three, making a single capture. Doing that sort of thing at every location on a long road trip would have been…. let’s say ‘not sociable’, nor productive in terms of the primary objective of ‘seeing lots of things’. As a consequence, most of my images took a matter of a minute or less to see, compose and shoot – a bit of a difference from my usual approach.
Over-familiarity with the landscape
I think this is the most significant factor. The two above are both strong, practical arguments for a different approach, and consequently for a different set of take-home images, but this is the one which, I can see now, really drove the change.

I don’t mean that I’d been to these places before; I hadn’t. Yet, with these iconic and stunning locations being both heavily photographed and included in innumerable feature films, I found myself acutely and accurately aware of what I was going to see before I arrived in most places. It’s great, for example, to have seen Monument Valley in the real stone (and the real snow, and the real ice, and the real, very bitter, wind), but I didn’t exactly learn anything new, visually, from being there. It looks as it does in the films, and many people have made excellent images of the mesas through a combination of familiarity and repeated visits. I wouldn’t seek, or be able, to emulate those. Essentially, in one day, I didn’t feel that I could add anything on the vista scale.

'Antelope waves'

These three things conspired to make me concentrate, unknowingly at the time, on small elements of the overall photographic possibilities in each place

Lack of time and kit meant that compositions were necessarily simple and quickly made, and my reluctance to try and capture the vast vistas in a manner which was new, or improved upon, existing work, led to abstract and detailed shots. These will, I’m sure, remind me of the trip very well indeed, despite the fact that relatively few of them could be placed on a map with any certainty. Given that ‘making memories’ was the main point of my photography on this trip, that’s fine!

And?!

In retrospect, perhaps all of the above was obvious: perhaps I could have predicted the type of capture I’d make? Maybe so, but I didn’t, and discovering this after the fact is quite enlightening – it’s another new thing to add to my gradually increasing understanding of the photographic process as a whole.

It does, of course, mean that, in future, I shall be more aware of the possibilities of different styles – or at least of different choices of subject matter – emerging when I travel in different circumstances, with different equipment, and with overall different objectives from ‘serious photography’. Personally, I think that’s great: change and new revelation in any pursuit is, I strongly believe, a good thing, and it maintains interest :-)

'Bonsai bush - Zion'

I’m sure much of the above is painfully obvious to many people reading this….. If so, thanks for reading this far! This journal is, as I’ve said before, aimed at recording my progress as a newcomer to landscape photography, and this really was quite a major revelation to me, whether it should have been or not!

Why I ‘need’ to return to the Bolivian Altiplano and the Atacama desert

I am so very tempted to simply write “because it contains some of the most fabulously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen”, but that would be, it could be argued with a degree of fairness, a little trite. In this article, I shall add considerably more justification to my assertion that I ‘need’ to travel for a third time to what is, from Europe, a really rather distant location; even when employing those flying-bus things.

As an aside, I would love to travel by container ship …. shame it’s so demanding of that ever-in-short-supply ‘time’ stuff. One day perhaps; just not any time soon. And as another aside, I make no apology for the relatively high density of superlatives in the following. I have genuinely tried to keep adjectival extravagance to a minimum, but this is a geography which justifies their use!

Layered sunrise

I’ve been to various parts of the Altiplano on two occasions now, once approaching from the north, via Peru, across Lake Titicaca into Bolivia, and once via the Atacama Desert into the southern Bolivian region of active volcanoes, multi-coloured lagoons, and the World’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. It’s to this latter area, and including the Atacama Desert in Chile, that I ‘need’ to return; and I recognised that need mere weeks, perhaps days, after I last left. And for a little more context on that rather emphatic opening statement: I’ve seen a generous number of beautiful landscapes, including ice-clad mountains, from their summits, in several ranges, and plenty of deserts – so I’m not solely comparing the high plain which covers parts of Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Argentina to, for example, the Yorkshire Dales, where I live!

So: why?

I’ll expand that: why is this region home to some of the most fabulously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen? It certainly is – I’ve spent about an hour, since writing the opening sentence, debating with myself as to whether that’s true, and I definitely can’t fault my conclusion.

Cactus on the salar          Flamingoes

Firstly, I like drama in landscapes: you don’t get much more dramatic than multitudinous, active volcanoes dotted around lagoons on a sparsely-vegetated (very sparsely!) plain. The lack of roads adds to this drama; the only man-made tracks are of 4x4s and they hardly impinge greatly on the landscape, if at all. In fact, from a photographic point of view, these faint lines can sometimes be used as part of compositions.

Secondly, the colours are quite literally fantastic. Not only are the rocks astonishingly varied, with greens, vibrant golds, reds, blacks and bright whites, but the lagoons, rather than being restricted to the conventional blue shades, come in green, turquoise, yellow and red. These surreal colours are the result of various minerals (copper, arsenic, and others), as well as the self-protective responses of algae living at high altitude in salty water. And I’m not talking pastels here in most cases: the Laguna Colorada, for example, is a vivid orange as a result of the microscopic algae.

Thirdly, the wild colours and dramatic topography are accented in many places by the white of the salt which encrusts the edges and shallows of the lagoons, producing stunning swathes of pure texture and adding shape to everything.

Painted desert

Fourthly, this remarkable plateau is high; the altitude of the Altiplano varies from well over 3,000m. to nearly 5,000m., with some of the volcanoes reaching over 6,000m. The Atacama is lower, but still above 2,000m. and home to several major astronomical observatories. The latter is a good indication that the result of the altitude and negligible airborne pollution is crystal clear air and visibility which extends unusually far. Of course, the lack of moisture in the air isn’t necessarily ideal for photography of certain sorts, but I can photograph ‘trees in mist’ in the English Lake District, so I can happily live with that ‘problem’.

Lastly, the Salar de Uyuni needs a specific mention since it’s inarguably the most memorable place I’ve been. That’s not to say that I want to live on, or near, this perfectly flat sea of salt – it’s rather far from ‘hospitable’ – but, at over 10,000 square kilometres, the experience of standing in the centre and walking around on it is both difficult to describe and one I very much wish to repeat. There are, perhaps, relatively few compositional options on the salar, but they’re all spectacular, given the right light, perhaps some clouds, and the right time of day. For example, one image I totally failed to capture on my previous visit, and which I would very much like to, is of the cones of salt scraped from the salar and left to dry on its mirrored surface prior to being collected manually, bagged and sold.

Salar de Uyuni at dawn

How to see the Atacama and the Altiplano

That last point is my fundamental justification for ‘needing’ to return. I took a camera when I was there last time, but I wasn’t specifically on a photographic trip – I was just travelling for its own sake; a great experience, but not one which entirely lent itself to experiencing the best light. The nature of the terrain, and the outlandish colour palette, mean that there are many subjects which work well in bright sunlight, producing pleasingly strong colours and shapes, but I was convinced, when I was there, that they could all be more interesting, more subtle, if I had the chance to watch a scene all day and pick my moment.

Unfortunately, the default means of seeing both the Altiplano and the Atacama is to travel around in a 4×4 with other tourists on pre-planned tours. Naturally, these do tend to start after sunrise and finish before sunset, though those on the salar, at least when approaching from the Chilean border, generally reach the island of giant cacti in its centre before the Sun appears. Consequently, the vast majority of my images from that trip are of the midday-sun variety. I’ve since hunted around on the web, and this is true of most images; the best to be found, however, are clearly taken at carefully selected times of day to make the most of the particular location (not necessarily the ‘golden hour’).

So, quite apart from wanting to go back because it’s utterly stunning, I need to go back to see it in different lighting conditions and, I hope, to make some more considered images, either by going on a dedicated photographic tour or by hiring a vehicle and guides privately (not as expensive as it sounds, though somewhat more difficult to arrange, naturally).

And the best thing about another trip?

The salar is mostly dry, as in the photo here, but in the short ‘wet season’ the surface is covered with a thin layer of water, producing what apparently looks like a 10,000 square kilometre mirror in which the clouds reflect perfectly – that has to be worth seeing, but first I want to see the dry season again and do the ‘thoughtful photo’ thing. The net result of that is that I’ll have to go twice more. Splendid!

Lagoon

More – and better – images

As I said, most of my images were taken at non-optimal times of day. The finest, single place that I’ve found yet to see a huge number of high quality images of this area is in the ‘Bolivia’ and ‘Atacama desert’ galleries of Gerhard Hüdepohl’s web site. Bruce Percy also has a superb collection of Bolivian Altiplano images in his Bolivia portfolio.

If you’ve been to the region and can recommend any specific times and places, I’d be very pleased to receive comments on both that and on any other thoughts that this article has provoked.

Locations for photography: the Howgill Fells

I shall start by saying that this is an excellent place to go with a camera. It needs a bit of thought, but the potential is enormous. The ‘why’ of that follows…

The Howgill Fells: Wainwright’s favourite group of hills, or so I keep hearing. ‘Hearing’ is the key word there; I’ve not yet found anything written by Alfred Wainwright which makes a sufficiently categorical assertion. I’m thinking the statement that “the Howgill Fells are my favourite group of hills”, or something similar. Anyone who can point me to written evidence of this view, from the man himself, please do so in the comments section. In the meantime, I’ll happily go with the idea that he was a fan of them, if only due to the startling absence of the ‘other people’ who are so notable in the nearby Lake District, and even, albeit to a lesser extent, in the equally nearby Yorkshire Dales.

That last is a point worth clearing up too. Whilst most emphatically in the county of Cumbria, the Howgills are, equally clearly, within the Yorkshire Dales national park. At least the southern third of them is; that part which is immediately north of the lovely little town of Sedbergh and whose ridges form such a dramatic and prominent view from what many people consider ‘the best bit of the M6’, when travelling northwards. Admittedly, the competition for that accolade could be argued to be weak but, then again, there are certainly several other pleasant views from the motorway, though none as dramatic as that just beyond junction thirty seven as the Howgills appear. It’s probably obvious from this anomaly that, prior to the 1974 changes in counties, this area was part of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

To return to Wainwright’s alleged advocacy: if he thought highly of them then, clearly, they must be good – at least for walking on. It’s reasonable to assume, however – he being famously not a fan of ‘other people’ – that their quietude and isolation were big selling points for him, whereas those features are not entirely critical for photography. Of course, those are not bad things, as such, for a photographer (I’d argue that they’re rather fine bonuses in fact), and even if the hills’ primary features are the remarkable paucity of people and the stunning views to both the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, that’s still a strong, albeit partial, argument for considering them as a good location to make landscape photographs.

I think, however, that they have considerably more to offer than that. In particular, they feature an unusual lack of walls, trees and bushes, combined with an equally noteworthy shape: steeply rounded, folded and generally ‘well weathered’. There are virtually no sharp edges here; everything is smooth, water-eroded curves, as if the land is a thick towel folded to form the shapes. The surface lends itself to the idea of a folded fabric too; perhaps velvet. Close-cropped grass and heather gives everything a marvellous, soft sheen in the right conditions, and further smooths the outline of the fells from a distance.

All these distinctions stem from the fact that the geomorphology is different from that of the Dales or Lakes. These are very old, seriously-worn hills formed of hard gritstone and slate, and barely shaped by ice ages – though they would have had their own ice cap through being isolated and rising to a height of 676 metres. The distinctive, rounded ridges and steep-sided valleys are consequently quite different from the glacially-produced landscape of the Dales or the complex, rocky character of the Lake District hills.

The following Google Map shows the southern end of the range, with Sedbergh at the bottom; you can move the viewed area around without the need to enlarge it. This detail level clearly shows the ridges and illustrates the possibilities offered for series of these slanting across a frame, either clear and graphic, or softened by the atmosphere. (If the map’s not showing, please refresh the page; sometimes it seems to load only partially.)

So, why are they photographically interesting?

I think partly it’s because they’re thoroughly different from everything else in the area. The sensuous curves provide a wide range of possibilities for images which are both graphical and multi-layered. As yet, I’ve not been there in mist – more precisely, I’ve not been there in mist since I started taking photographs ‘with intent’ – but I’m certain that there are opportunities to capture sinuous lines of moist air creeping up or down the v-shaped valleys, perhaps combined with fading ranks of smooth ridges in the middle distance.

The image below was originally to have featured fog; it doesn’t, but I was not too unhappy with the met. office as the result is still very much what I’d pre-visualised when passing this spot, camera-free and at midday on a cloudless weekend, a few weeks earlier. This is looking west from a kilometre or so south of the highest top, The Calf. Taken shortly after dawn, the frost is still sharp and the indirect light gives the rounded shapes of the interlocking ridges what I thought of as a velvet texture.

'Zip'

Another photographically interesting feature of this small massif is the close-cropped mixture of heather and grasses. Whilst it can look predominantly ‘just green’ from a distance, the surface has considerable variegation, and the colours can be remarkable at the right time of day and the right part of the year. I don’t see the Howgills as ever producing what might be thought of as real drama – they’re too gentle – but the potential for subtle images relying on shape, texture and swathes of mottled colour is excellent.

I should also mention that, on a clear day, the major peaks of the Dales are clearly visible, and could form part of a composition, and the same is true of at least the eastern Lake District – those are Lakeland hills at the top of the image above. Such photographs are not what will draw me back to the range, but they’re certainly ‘there’ and offer some good options for sunset and sunrise images, in particular.

To summarise

: these excellent fells feature few people, no walls, no trees, just strong, graphic shapes and textures. As I said at the beginning of this piece: they’re different!

Oh! – and they’re very easy to access. This short item isn’t intended as a guide (that’s probably fairly obvious by now….), it’s more an evocation of potential, but there are several easy paths from various directions, including several from Sedbergh, which take you to the height of the main ridges in an hour or so. Don’t be put off by many of the images on Flickr, which make the hills look a little bland; quick snaps in sunny weather really do this landscape no justice at all; worthwhile images here require a bit of thought but can be, I firmly believe, very rewarding.

And lastly, in case anyone’s interested, the name Howgill derives from the Old Norse word haugr, meaning a hill or barrow, plus gil, meaning a narrow valley – another one of those cunning ‘it says what it is‘ type of names.

Musings on: Easter Island as a location for photography

I have mixed feelings about Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it’s more evocatively called. On one hand it’s a very special place to visit, in several different ways; on the other hand, I found it disappointing as a venue for photography.

I’ll start with the positive aspects. The island is quite genuinely fascinating and I have no regrets whatsoever about having visited it for a week in late summer. Quite the reverse: I may very well return one day. The giant statues – the moai – sitting on their plinths, gazing out over the island, are everywhere and easily succeed in pervading the atmosphere of this small piece of land 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile. The moai are iconic; seeing them in situ was worth every hour of the two days travelling it took me to get there from Europe. Add to that the sheer “I’m on Easter Island! Wow!” factor – a feeling only surpassed by the same sentiment applied to travelling across Outer Mongolia years earlier – and Rapa Nui was a truly marvellous place to go.

Fortunately, I travelled there largely for the sake of simply doing so; photography was secondary. It’s a place which I’ve found fascinating for many years and finally it became ‘next on the list’. Not that I have an actual list, but the solar eclipse which occurred in July 2010 had brought the island to my attention again, and once I’d concluded that I didn’t want to go there for the eclipse, since it was going to be both wintry and abnormally busy, I realised that there was nothing stopping me going anyway, at a warmer, quieter, and considerably less expensive time of year.
Tongariki - 'the 15 moai'

A sketchy and selective history of Rapa Nui
For anyone who doesn’t know the putative history of Easter Island – and I say ‘putative’ since there is much dispute on precisely what happened, in what sequence, and over what time-scale – here’s a brief summary of some of the more entertaining aspects.

  1. At some point, the islanders started carving and erecting huge, stone statues around the coast (only a few are inland). They face away from the Pacific ocean and are thought to be indicative of some form of ancestor worship.
  2. This industriousness was doubtless fine for a while, but the island is small and did not have infinite resources: it’s only about fifteen miles on a side and roughly triangular, being formed from a trio of volcanoes, each one approximately constituting a corner. The inhabitants lived on crops, fish, the birds which nested in the abundant trees, and their eggs. A splendid, varied diet no doubt.
  3. Unfortunately, they used the trees in increasing numbers to handle and transport the enormous statues – the largest of them is about eighty tonnes and would not have been straightforward to move – so they cut down the trees to make rollers and ropes.
  4. After a while, as tree cover decreased, so did the numbers of birds, and the top-soil was susceptible to being washed away; not to mention that there were fewer trees to fashion boats from, and hence fewer fish were caught.
  5. Eventually, their obsession with statues was such that they had wrecked their ecosystem and the population fell dramatically.

As a result of this self-destruction, Rapa Nui is often cited as an example of how homo sapiens, despite our name, is not quite as wise as some might like to think: these people essentially destroyed all their sources of food, whilst at the same time expending enormous effort in erecting ludicrously large statues of their deceased relatives. Oops.
Tongariki at dawn

On the upside, this fanatical statue-building did leave a fascinating archaeological legacy whose precise mysteries and ‘rationale’ – to be generous – are as yet not fully understood (and probably never will be). The island has getting on for one thousand moai (887 extant, to be pedantic about it) in various states of repair and mostly toppled forwards onto their faces during a speculated, tribal dispute in the mid 1700s. A few dozen key plinths have been restored though, so the visitor can get some idea of what this World Heritage Site was like when Europeans first landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722.

At some point after the statue-fetish phase, they also had a political system which involved, amongst other things, a race to some nearby rocks to retrieve the first bird’s egg of the year – the birds had presumably caught on to the whole ‘being eaten’ downside of nesting on the main island now that it lacked trees. This was a particularly fine event and involved plunging down the notably steep cliffs on the side of one of the volcanoes, swimming a little over a mile through waters whose fish population included sharks, then reversing the process carrying the egg. Pleasingly strange and not entirely without risk. The winner became the leader, or perhaps his sponsor became the leader, until the next birdman competition.

The overall point here is that, what with huge statues, numerous carvings on rocks (petroglyphs), extreme isolation from other human habitation, and a tiny population, this is a very interesting place to go (if you like that sort of thing, obviously). If you don’t like that sort of thing, there’s a rather stunning little coral beach with a stand of palm trees called Anakena. The rest of the coastline is black, volcanic rock, but Anakena is a beautiful beach (it’s possibly not worth going there just for this sandy bit though, to be entirely honest – there are more accessible beaches on the planet). Oh, and Anakena has moai too; but of course.

Back to photography

Anakena moai

Rapa Nui is mostly scrub grass with a healthy smattering of horses and a few cows, plus one herd of rather impressive goats which live on the least accessible volcano. There are still very few trees, and those that do grow are only a few decades old. Two of the volcanoes are now just flattened cones with nothing especially dramatic from a photography perspective, though the third, Rano Kau, has an excellent crater lake. The image opportunities, then, tend to concentrate very distinctly on the moai themselves and the excellent, black-rock coastline. Oddly, these are remarkably difficult to photograph in an especially interesting way – at least, I found them so as a relative beginner. Bruce Percy has some very good black and white images from his time on the island, but I’d still maintain that moai are not the most photogenic of subjects.
Rapa Nui coast

Critically, whilst I was there – and this was in early March – the sky was a beautiful, clear blue for the entire week. This is not atypical during a large part of the year – or so I was told by several Rapa Nui people, so I concede that they may have been putting what they thought was a positive spin on their climate. On such a relatively featureless island, I was rather hoping that there would be clouds to form key elements of compositions: there were some clouds; just not what I’d consider an abundance or, indeed, ‘enough’.

So, this brings me back to returning. I would at some point like to revisit the island in more interesting weather. Whilst I’ve somewhat decried the moai as subjects, I’m certain that with huge, dramatic skies they could make excellent foreground, they’re just not – at least not to me – sufficient subject in themselves to make more than a handful of worthwhile compositions.
Single moai at sunset

If you’d like to correct any of the highly-condensed facts in this post, please comment, and I’d be very happy for anyone to prove me unduly negative about Rapa Nui as a photographic subject! Once again, it’s a remarkable place to see, and very much worth the trip; it’s simply the photographic opportunities which I’m less enthused by…