Sunday, January 29, 2012

Capturing Cuba

Trinidad de Cuba (To see the full Cuba set click here)

Another year begins and another escape from the frigid temperatures of the Canadian prairies. I must admit however our winter here in Saskatchewan has been alarmingly warm. Much to the chagrin of those I left behind my 1 week trip did allow me to dodge the brief cold snap of -40° weather.

From Jan 12th-19th I made my hotel room at the Barcelo Solymar resort in Varadero my base of operations. Traveling with one of my best friends, who is also my roommate, we planned a nice mix of excursions and relaxation (read: partying) during our 1 week vacation.

The day after our arrival we met with our Sunwing rep and booked our tours. We opted for a 1 day Havana excursion and then a 2 day overnight trip through 4 provinces up to the mountains (aka Trinidad + Rambo tour). Prices seemed fair at around $60 and $120 respectively.

We still had the remainder of the day to explore Varadero a little so we paid 5CUC for an all day bus pass on the double-decker bus that cruises up and down the strip. I was leery of taking my 5DMKII along to Cuba so I opted to bring my 2Ti instead which had served me very well in Halifax, Mexico, and Cypress Hills. I also brought along my trusty Canon SD780IS point & shoot and my tiny Golden Half, a diminutive half frame camera put out by Superheadz in Japan.

Like most of the tourists in Varadero we wound up at the various fleamarkets that dot the main drag. While the various tables held treasures for some it was the side streets and photo opportunities that lured me in.

Street scene in Varadero, Cuba

17 18
Shot from my Golden Half on the main drag in Varadero, Cuba

The next day after an unintentionally late night (hey the drinks are free) we boarded the tour bus for Havana. Just getting to see some of the countryside instead of the very touristy Varadero was nice.

Scene beside a rest stop on the way to Havana

Throughout Cuba there are people who make their living just posing for tourist photos, the gentleman in the shot below just hung out at this one rest stop where people on their way to Havana would stop.

A "tourist model" poses for a shot at a reststop on the way to Havana

Havana itself was an impressive sight, you could just imagine how crazy it must have been in the 30's with the mobsters flocking there and setting up casinos and nightclubs. Everywhere you turned there were amazing sights to be seen.

Amazing architecture is everywhere in Havana

Having never been to Havana before, or Cuba for that matter, we wound up sticking with the tour group the whole time. This limited the shots I was able to get but I still managed to get some good captures. Street photography is a genre I haven't dabbled in too much but I was very happy with some of the shots I was able to get. The photo one below was actually shot out of our bus and was one of my favourite from Havana.

A Habanero looks down the busy street from his window.

The Havana tour ended with a stop at their Capitol building which looks very similar to another landmark in another country.

[8] Canon t2i, Havana Edits, 16 images, IMG_4557 - IMG_4572 BW 20x30 FIXED Flickr
Capitol Building in Havana, Cuba

Next we had a few days at our resort, initially we were a little worried because we seemed to only be running into Russian or French speaking people. I like meeting new people but if they don't speak any English its hard to break the ice. Eventually though we found there were lots of other English speaking Canadians and after a few Cuba Libres everyone was a friend. We also met lots of cool people from around the world, Sweden, Russia, Albania, Belgium and I even met a female Italian rally driver!

These group shots are always a big hit, especially with drunk people!

On yet another sleep deprived morning we boarded a bus for our 2 day excursion. Traveling south from Varadero we'd pass through the city of Cardenas, then on to the Che Guevara Museum in Santa Clara. Lunch would be in the city of Sancti Spiritus, followed by a stop in Trinidad de Cuba before heading up to our hotel in the mountains of Topes de Collantes.

A statue of Che at the Che Guevara memorial in Santa Clara

Our tour guide explains the ration system at a distribution center in Sancti Spiritus

My favourite city from the trip though was Trinidad de Cuba, this was less touristy than some of the other places we'd been. The town had more of a sleepy laid back vibe and the people were very friendly.

A street scene in Trinidad de Cuba

A pretty girl smiles for the camera from inside a building in Trinidad de Cuba

Two girls hang out in front of their shop in Trinidad de Cuba beckoning people to come in look at their merchandise

After the last rays of daylight had faded we boarded our bus and made our way up the mountain to our hotel. After a nice dinner I had what proved to be my only hot shower during my entire Cuba trip. Feeling human again I went to bed knowing we'd have a full day the next day. Eight hours later I fueled up on a light breakfast and a few cups of coffee before hopping aboard an old Russian army truck which was going to carry us further up the mountain. From there a new tour guide was to take us on a 3km hike down the mountain where we'd see various flora and fauna and see a nice waterfall.

Lush vegetation covers the mountains in Topes de Collantes

My buddy serves as a human tripod to let me take a slow shutter snap of this waterfall

A bit further down the trail we stop and those who wanted to were free to swim in this mountain pool.

At the end of the trail we broke for lunch, the restaurant was open air and had some very nice flowers and trees around it. The flower in the shot below reminded me of those cheap fiber-optic wand thingamajigs you used to be able to buy at the circus.

A neat flower from outside the mountain restaurant

After lunch we boarded the Russian army trucks again and headed back to our regular tour bus. From here we'd make our way down the mountain then west to our last stop of Cienfuegos, a port city on the Caribbean side of Cuba.

The Russian army trucks that transported us up and down the mountain

An anorexic cow grazes on the side of the road on our way to Cienfuegos

A windsurfer takes a ride off the shore of Cienfuegos

School must have just let out in Cienfuegos while we were there because the streets were full of students.

Just before boarding the bus to head back to Varadero one of the many street artists I'd encountered during my stay in Cuba had managed to pen my image. I think the hat and goatee are a magnet for caricature artists :) I actually really liked this one but had just spent my last $1.50 on a container of ice cream to help soothe my now burning throat (I had a nasty cold at this point). My buddy, seeing my predicament, quickly hopped off the bus to pay the gentleman and snag what I thought was one of the best caricatures of me I'd seen during the whole trip.

IMG_5350_Edit 2

From here we left on the 4 hour bus ride back to Varadero for our last night in Cuba. Sick with a cold and thoroughly exhausted I felt as though I'd done my best to see a fair chunk of Cuba over my stay and capture the experience as best I could.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011 Photo Retrospective

2011 Highlights

All in all 2011 wound up being a pretty good year for me photography wise. At first I didn't feel I'd done as much photography as I would have liked to. However, after going over all of the shoots I'd done this year I realized I had amassed a decent amount of good photos these past 12 months.

The year started out with a much needed reprieve from the bleary prairie winter we'd been having, Cancun fit the bill quite nicely. The trip yielded quite a few good shots, the highlights being the ones I took of El Castillo at Chichen Itza. I wrote a whole post about the trip here.

[3] Cancun, Chitzen Itza, 13 images, IMG_2431 - IMG_2443 Square Detouristed Cross Processedr
El Castillo in Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico

Next up a few photographer buddies of mine and their better halves all got together with me and my then girlfriend for a couples shoot. We all had a blast chatting, sipping a few beverages, then shooting here and there. As the night went on people became a little less inhibited and some crazy props appeared like the feather boa below :)

My friend's wife strikes a pose and begins her illustrious modelling career.

In April I was preparing for my second go round of shooting for Midtown Stylists, I'd ordered some new gear and needed to try some of it out. I had just purchased some strip lights and my buddy Krystian had just picked up a beauty dish he offered to let me try out, we met up for some drinks and both he and his wife were nice enough to be guinea pigs while I dialed in my lighting.

My friend's wife Aleks poses as I test out my new strip lights and Krystian's beauty dish.

All of the preparation seemed to pay off once it finally came time to do the Midtown Stylists shoot. Having done it previously things ran a bit smoother. This time around I had more gear and knew exactly what the client wanted. Shooting 27 people in 2 days on location proved less stressful than the first year. A very cool aspect of this semi-annual gig is that they don't hire models, every one of the "models" were regular customers.

One of the Midtown Stylist's customer-turned-model

Ad Concept 2011 Rev 2
The final version of the 2012 Midtown Stylists Ad

From hair salons to ghost towns, my next shoot couldn't have been more opposite than my last. My good friend Krystian called me up one afternoon and asked if I wanted to go check out a ghost town, half an hour later we hit the road with our gear in the back of his SUV. The location proved to be amazing, there aren't many of these elevators left standing so getting a shot like this was a treat.

Death of the Wheatpool
Taken in July 2011 in a ghost town a little ways out of Saskatoon

In early August my then girlfriend's nieces came to visit and we took them to the zoo for the day. I try to make it down at least once a year, see the new animals and put my zoom lens to use. This year the butterfly conservatory had quite a few inhabitants and I was able to snag a few good shots.

A butterfly perches on a flower at the Butterfly Conservatory at the Saskatoon Forestry Farm

By this time I couldn't wait for my summer holidays, we decided to stay in the province and head south to Cypress Hills. I wrote a lengthy post on it here but in short if you've never been down, especially if you live in Saskatchewan, you absolutely have to make the the trip at some point!

Elysian Fields 2
A golden sunset falls on the Frenchman River Valley in Pine Cree Regional Park

Bald Butte Pano (2011 Redux)
You can see for miles from atop Balde Butte in Cypress Hills Inter-provincial Park

After I got home from my summer vacation I decided to invest in some prime lenses which I discussed in my last post. With these lenses desperately needing to be tested I called upon a good friend who had just moved back to Saskatoon. She was 6 months into her journey towards motherhood so what better time for a photoshoot. We went out to a park near where I grew up to do the shoot. Even though there were quite a few people around the 85mm f1/8 simply dissolved them into non-existence with its velvety bokeh.

A glowing soon to be mom

Just as the leaves stated to fall another good friend called me up wanting some family portraits so once again I packed up my new primes and headed for the same park. With each portrait shoot I was doing I was falling more and more in love with my new lenses, especially the 85mm f/1.8.

Family Portrait Shoot Highlights Variety A
Family Portrait Shoot Highlights Variety B
Various poses from an autumn family portrait session with friends

My last outdoor shoot of the summer was again with friends as they were quickly running out of time for some maternity photos. I believe this shoot was about a week before the due date, luckily there were no unexpected early arrivals :)


IMG_7438 Retouched
Friends pose about a week before they welcome their first addition into the world

My final shoot of 2012 was probably the most gruelling but also the most rewarding. For a second year I lent my photography skills to a great charity event called Help Portrait. In cities around the world photographers, hair stylists, makeup artists, and countless other volunteers get together to take portraits of people and familes who otherwise might never have had a decent photo of themselves. This year our Saskatoon based group shot 112 sittings in a 6 hour period, provided a hot nutritious lunch for everyone, and also brought in people to provide information on various topics. We printed on site this time around which proved to be a big hit as people were able to walk out with prints in hand. Help portrait 2011 was a rousing success, not just in Saskatoon but worldwide. Help Portrait 2011 produced 67,927 portraits in 56 countries, 4,984 photographers got behind a lens for a good cause and 8,793 other volunteers helped them bring smiles to peoples faces. What better way to end off the year than by giving a little back.

2011 proved to be a nice mix of paid work, relaxed shoots with friends, and some of what I think is my best landscape work to date. 2012 is shaping up to be exciting too, I'll be leaving for Cuba in a few days and might even make it to Scotland this fall!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Power of Primes

Late this summer I decided to take some of my photography earnings and invest in some new lenses. Since getting my 5D MK II I've become acutely aware of the need for good quality lenses, however, my pockets aren't deep enough to always seek out that illustrious "L" and the red ring that accompanies it. There is a way to cheat this a little though and that is through the power of primes. If you read the reviews on most prime lenses and see their output is often compared to L glass. Rather than being a jack of all trades but a master of none the prime lenses focus their efforts (accidental pun) on being great at just one focal length all while remaining decently affordable.

Knowing my main intent with these lenses would be portraiture I opted for the Canon EF 35mm f/2.0, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, and finally the Canon EF 85mm f1.8. The 85mm was initially what got me cruising the B&H site, I'd heard good things about this lens and knew the wide aperture would be great for melting the backgrounds away. I already owned the practically disposable "nifty fifty" but I wanted to upgrade more for build quality than the extra 0.4 of a stop that the 1.4 offered. The 35mm was more of an afterthought, I had emailed a friend needing some help to justify my purchase and while giving me the push I needed also suggested the 35mm.

My first order of business with the new primes was to test them out by doing some maternity portraits of a friend of mine. I decided to revisit a location I'd relied on heavily when I first started out doing portraiture, Kinsmen Park in Saskatoon. I grew up in a nearby neighbourhood and this park has a lot of interesting angles. Already being familiar with it let me focus on shooting rather than scouting for places to setup etc.

2011 Maternity Shoot Highlights 1
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 - Shot at 1/640 @ f1.4

2011 Maternity Shoot Highlights 5
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 - Shot at 1/200 @ f2.2

2011 Maternity Shoot Highlights 3
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 - Shot at 1/500 @ f1.8

I tried shots with all 3 lenses but quickly found that the 35mm was not my favourite choice. Whether it was just my shooting style or the fact that being outside allowed for use of wider lenses I wound up just putting it back in my bag. I'm thinking that where the 35mm will really shine is in my basement studio where space is limited and I'll be shooting in close quarters.

A few weeks later I found myself back at this park with another friend's family to further put the lenses through their paces. This time the 50mm got more use than the 85 just because I was shooting 3 people instead of just 1. By this time the golden hues of autumn had taken hold and with apertures down around 1.8 the backgrounds became a sea of orange and yellows.

Family Portrait Shoot Highlights 4
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 - Shot at 1/200 @ f1.4

Family Portrait Shoot Highlights Variety B
Various exposures

By the time I got around to doing one of my last summer shoots, again of friends, I was pretty comfortable with these lenses and was feeling confident that they were indeed a great investment. For this shoot I was pointing the lens at another photographer so I knew I had to be at the top of my game :) His wife was a week away from her due date and at times I was worried we might have to stop the shoot and just head to the nearest hospital. Luckily I was shooting at the University of Saskatchewan which has a hospital right on the grounds, though fortunately we made it through the shoot without anyone's water breaking.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 - Shot at 1/200 @ f1.8

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 - Shot at 1/250 @ f1.8

I did wind up using the 35mm for a few shots during this shoot, the shot below wouldn't have been possible with the 50 or 85mm unless I had a lift of some kind.

Canon EF 35mm f/2.0 - Shot at 1/160 @ f2.0

Now I should point out a few things to anyone reading this, especially those newer to digital SLR cameras that might be shooting with cropped sensors. [I explain crop sensors in another post here] All of the entry and mid level cameras have sensors that are not equivalent to a full 35mm frame, most are 1.5 or 1.6 times smaller or "cropped" as they call them. If you use an EF lens on a cropped frame sensor two things will happen: 1) The effective "zoom" of the lens will increase by the crop factor and 2) the dept of field will increase a little. This means that a 35mm lens will behave more like a 50mm and a 50mm will behave more like an 80mm. Shooting at 1.8 on a crop sensor will result in a slightly less blurry background (aka less Bokeh) than if shot on a full frame sensor. Don't let this deter you however, the loss of Bokeh is fairly minimal and if you plan ahead the amount of zoom you get won't matter at all. There is the added bonus that if you ever upgrade to a full frame camera you'll be able to use these lenses whereas your EFs lenses will be useless.

I also want to mention that I bought my lenses online through B&H Photo at a significant savings compared to my local camera stores. I'm not affiliated with B&H at all and I'd actually rather have put money into my local economy but in the end even with shipping I saved a few hundred dollars by ordering through B&H. One aspect I was quite happy with was the shipping, being in Canada online shopping can be a real pain because people forget about brokerage and duty fess which can be ridiculous. Most of the time these insane fees can even be avoided if the US merchant would take the time to fill out an extra form when shipping. B&H apparently does take the time and uses Purolator to get you your stuff within a few days. On a $1200+ order I worked out the duty I paid and it wound up being exactly equivalent to the GST which is what its supposed to be, and the best part is there was no brokerage! I just wanted to point this out because gear is expensive and you shouldn't get gouged on shipping if you don't have to. Also hopefully some of the local stores in Saskatoon will see this and realize how insane it is that I can order stuff from New York and have it shipped while still saving 20% on their inflated prices.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cypress Hills & Area - Summer Vacation 2011

Bluebell Sunset
A bluebell catches the last rays of daylight on Balde Butte in Cypress Hills Inter-provincial Park
To see all photos from this trip click here
[Editorial note: I meant to post this months ago and apparently forgot so here goes, better late than never]

This summer holidays took place right here in Saskatchewan, southern SK to be exact. Me, my girlfriend [at the time], and her dog, spent 5 days tenting in Cypress Hills Inter-provincial Park (Centre Block) and then a day and a night in a really great little campground called Pine Cree. Initially we had planned on staying only 3 days in Cypress and then 3 days in Pine Cree but we opted to stay at Cypress a little longer. There were some great photo ops along the way, interesting things to see and do, but mainly it was just nice to get the hell out of the city and away from my job for awhile ;)

Camping (Deer Hollow in Cypress Hills Centre Block)
The first thing I learned upon arriving at Cypress Hills is that the park is located on a geological formation called Conglomerate.

A conglomerate (/kəŋˈɡlɒmərɨt/) is a rock consisting of individual clasts within a finer-grained matrix that have become cemented together.

Now why the geology lesson you might ask? Well aside from my girlfriend [at the time] being a geologist and finding this sort of thing very interesting it became painfully clear that regular tent pegs were simply not up to the challenge. The saying "you've brought a knife to a gunfight" came to mind as blisters formed from futilely pounding the tent pegs into what is described as "natural cobblestone cement" using a picture hammer. I was making up new words on the spot and none of them were fit for a family campground, it was just lucky we didn't get kicked out ;) Since our tent needed at least 14 pegs and after an hour I'd only managed to get 4 into the ground I conceded defeat and sought help. To our extreme luck our nearest camping neighbours not only had a bigger hammer for me to borrow but lent us a bag of gravel stakes! These things are fantastic and I can't recommend them enough, I'll never go camping without some again. I quickly set about exacting my revenge on the conglomerate as my framing hammer rang out victoriously and split through the many tiny rocks to get purchase in the cobbled earth below. Ten or fifteen minutes was all it took for all of the stakes secured.

That hurdle being overcome the rest of the trip was relatively without incident. Our tent which we borrowed from Mary's sister was nice and leak proof (ordered the same one as soon as we got home). Guinness, our canine camping companion, was really good throughout the whole trip. On the first or second night we had a good thunderstorm with scared her a little and after running around inside the tent a little she calmed down and somehow curled up under my cot just below my head. I joked the next day that we bonded during the storm :)

With our basecamp setup we day tripped to Fort Walsh, the Conglomerate Cliffs, Cypress Hills Winery &Vineyard, and Eastend to see the T-Rex centre. We also checked out some of the attractions within the main campground like Lookout Point and Balde Butte.

Congomerate Cliffs (map link)
Located just a little ways off of highway 271, very easy to find with good signage showing you where to go. Whatever you do though don't take Gap Road* to get there ;)

Conglomerate Cliffs 1
Amazing view from the Conglomerate Cliffs in Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park

*While planning our trip out to the Conglomerate Cliffs and Fort Walsh we saw a road that connected the Centre block with the West Block, it was called Gap Road. Now that road had a little disclaimer saying that it was impassable when wet. Since it had been fairly dry while we were there we figured we'd take it. At the last minute before heading out I figured we should stop and ask one of the locals at the gas station as to whether or not we should take the road, the kid raised an eyebrow and said that he doesn't even use gap road lol. It was lucky for us we stopped, a few days later a friend who was fishing in the West Block was supposed to meet up with us for lunch and never showed. I simply thought the fishing was good and they decided to stay longer, since cell reception is spotty I wasn't surprised to find I couldn't reach him. A few days later I found out they had been on gap road in a 4x4 and slid down and embankment, no injuries luckily but they were stranded until a farmer finally saw them and pulled them out with his tractor.

Living Skies
Taken a few minutes away from the Conglomerate Cliffs

Fort Walsh (map link)

Stormy Jack

This turned out to be a very neat place, there was a lot of history there that I had no idea about. The Fort was built in response to the Cypress Hills Massacre, an event which also precipitated the formation of the North West Mounted Police. The fort was, for a time, the central base for the NWMP in Canada. Today at the site you can find a nice little visitor's centre and a partially restored fort complete with tour operators dressed in period costumes. Tours are offered of the various buildings left standing in the fort but you also have the option of a self guided tour. We opted for a self guided tour, we had the dog with us and wouldn't have been able to go into the buildings with her. Also by going self guided we could avoid the crowds so I could get some unobstructed photos. We did go into a few buildings with one of the guides who were between tours and he was quite knowledgeable and friendly. If you have the time I'd recommend following the guided tour just for the sake of good information, then lingering for any photos you may want to take.

Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery (website)
When you think of Saskatchewan the last thing you'd probably think is wine country, beer country perhaps due to the vast fields of wheat and barley but not wine. It's still in its infancy and though its had some setbacks the Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery is a quaint stop that you should definitely check out. Despite not being a wine aficionado I still found it neat and its a great place to stock up on gifts for friends and love ones who are winos afficionados. As a side note the people running this place turned us on to another SK winery that has been creating quite a buzz, the Living Sky Winery out of Perdue Saskatchewan.

Pine Cree Regional Park (unofficial website)
Elysian Fields 2
View from "Top of the World Trail" at Pine Cree Regional Park

As I said earlier our original plan was to stay 3 days in Cypress Hills park and then leave early Friday morning in hopes of getting a spot at this little gem of a campground. I'd heard from a friend who lives in Shaunavon that come the weekend all bets are off as to whether or not you'll be able to get a site. In the end it was until Sunday that we got to Pine Cree so we were only able to spend a night. It turned out this was lucky, had we came on Friday there wouldn't have been a spot anyway.

I'm a little apprehensive about even including Pine Cree in this post, its a great little spot and part of me doesn't want the secret to get out, the other part wants to shout "Hey look at this!!!!". Located just little ways NE of Eastend if it weren't for the sign you'd never even know anything worthwhile was down the road you turn off onto. After a few hundred feet you quickly descend into this amazing little valley filled with towering pines that immediately wedged a Saskatoon band's version of a Joan Baez song in my head I couldn't shake loose for two days.

Cotton Candy Creek
Shot from my previous visit to Pine Cree in 2007

Pine Cree is fairly small with only 28 sites and most are very close to the stream. Within about half an hour of arriving the camp's caretaker showed up in her little quarter-ton and welcomed us. She immediately began apologizing for the state of the campsite (which already appeared pristine) and found 2 some hitherto unseen beer cans that had been left in the fire pit. To say she took pride in her campground would be an understatement :) I've never had to do my business in a cleaner porta-potty than the one at Pine Cree lol. I can't say enough good things about the place and others have described it better than I can. Check it out if you can but leave the trailer at home because they don't accommodate them, also if you're just wanting to get out an party don't bother coming here because you're not welcome.

In conclusion...
All in all I had a great time and was able to capture what I thought to be some good images. If you live in Saskatchewan and haven't been down south to Cypress Hills I highly encourage you to check it out!