Saturday, May 14, 2016

Travel Photography with the iPhone

Technology has changed the world - how we live, how we travel etc. And of course, how we take photographs. I started photography using film, but of course progressed to digital, and once I laid hands on a DSLR, I have never looked back. Naturally, my DSLR have been an integral part of my travels.

It was barely 2 years ago when I finally found a compact camera that I could comfortably bring for general travels in place of a DSLR. The image quality and capability of todays compacts have become pretty impressive. But all these while, I've never considered mobile phone cameras to be anything serious - until late last year. In December last year, I finally laid hands on a iPhone 6s plus.

In February, I embarked on a 3-month trip to parts of Central America (Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba & Panama), including a "transit" stop in Spain. I brought my iphone along, and my experience have completely changed my views on mobile phone photography.

Here's sharing my views and experiences on the iPhone (particularly the 6s plus) for travel photography :

1. Image Quality
First and foremost for me when choosing a camera is that the image quality must be good. And I think this is the main reason why I have not looked at mobile phone photography as I've always thought that the resultant images are not up to par. But I have under-estimated the progress of technology! Turned out the iPhone's camera is mighty impressive. In fact, since the iPhone 5, Apple has made significant improvements to its camera system. I find its images really good!

2. The best camera is one that is in your hands
Well, its a well known saying, and so darn true. Now, I am someone who tries to carry my  camera with me all the time. With a casing, my compact camera can fit into my pocket (barely) and most often than not, I bring it along when I carry a pouch or a small bag. But a mobile phone? Most of us carry it all the time! So in essence, now I have access to a (good) camera almost all the time!

3. Street Photography
I discovered that a mobile phone camera is excellent for street photography. For some strange reason, when you bring up a huge SLR to your face, people tend to react to this. Bring up a mobile phone to take a photo, and well... people may not even know you are taking a photo of them! I am also pleasantly surprised with the iPhone's quick focusing system, and in my 3-month trip, I find myself taking more street photos than I normally would.

Invisible Street Photography
4. iPhone Camera App
The default camera app in the iPhone has quite excellent features, two of which I like alot - the Time-Lapse and the Pano. I have been creating panoramic images and time-lapse videos using software on my desktop, which entails certain amount of effort and time. So I take images with my DSLR or compact, and then when I get back from my trip, I do the crunching. For long trips with gazillion photos taken, sometimes I had forgotten that I had taken a sequence of photos which was meant for making a panorama. With the iPhone camera app, creating a panoramic image and a time-lapse video is downright simple. True to Apple's style, everything is intuitive and easy. My video and pano is ready there and then! And a really good job at that!

Excellent in-camera panorama
5. Add-on lens
For travel photography, my main "complaint" of the iPhone camera so far is its fixed lens. Nevertheless, there are add-on/clip-on lens in the market that help address this somewhat. The common add-on lens are for fisheye, wide-angle and macro. I was again, pleasantly surprised at the results, especially for the macro lens add-on. It enabled some extreme closeup photos. And these add-on lens are infinitely lighter and easier to bring around than an actual macro lens!!

A macro clip-on lens does wonders!
6. Posting/Sharing on Social Media
I have been sharing my travel images online and in social media for some time now. I have my own website and blog, where I put up my image galleries after each trip. For on-the-fly or in-the-field sharing of images, I use Instagram. I believe that Instagram was developed as a mobile photo-sharing platform, and so I use it as such. By mobile photo-sharing, I meant that the images are either direct from a mobile device or a wifi-enabled camera, have not gone through any desktop processing, and often "in that moment". Today, many use it just as a photo-sharing tool to reach the masses, where the images are usually post-processed to perfection already. Whatever the case, for me, I have been using a wifi-enabled camera to send the images to my mobile to post to Instagram. With the excellent image quality (see point 1 above) of the iPhone, I now post to Instagram direct. And with a travel data sim card, I can now truly do mobile photo-sharing on the go.

So, as mentioned earlier, I took alot more photos from my mobile than I would have in all my past trips. It has, in fact, become my always-with-me camera. Below is a gallery of Instagram posts I have done with the iPhone 6s plus throughout the whole 3 months. Check it out and hope you enjoy the images of central america and Spain! You can also go to my Instagram gallery to see the other non-iPhone photos taken during the trip.

(You can click on the left/right arrows to quickly browse through the images, or you could click through the image to see my captions and hashtags etc)
   



Saturday, December 5, 2015

Singapore Street Art

One of the things I would often stop to admire in my travels is the street art and wall murals in various towns/cities around the world. In particular, I was so impressed with Rio de Janeiro's street art that I made a specific post about it. Of course, there are alot of others, like Valpairiso, Buenos Aires etc, that has wonderful street art culture.

Closer to home, Penang's Georgetown have its wall mural very well publicised here, thanks to its easy access from Singapore and the various media. In fact, Singapore also have the same street artist's art gracing our walls. But wouldn't it be better if we have our very own local artists' creations? Well, recently we do, thanks to the efforts of a Yip Yew Chong.

Yip Yew Chong is a self-taught artist who is actually in the accounting profession. On a career break, he started painting several wall murals that garnered plenty of attention and praise. The thing that set his murals apart is his theme - his murals all depict scenes of Singapore from a bygone era. It is no wonder that it struck a chord with many locals passing by who saw the artwork. I'm sure he had made many new friends while working on set. Many who particularly appreciated his work were of a certain age group (including me), and I had a good time reminiscing the "good old days" with him, discussing brands of milk cans and biscuit tins and details on grating coconut etc.







Of course, the murals can be appreciated by any as the quality of work is top notch, with many works showing an almost 3D nature in the appropriate light. His murals is currently being featured in the various local media and personally, I'm very proud that now, we have our own local street art, by our local artist, about our local culture. Tourists can now see some of old Singapore through these murals!

You can go to Yew Chong's website to find out the details on how to reach the various murals. Go check it out! (Check out his incredible travel map too!!)

Yip Yew Chong's website
Artist painting his latest mural

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Catching the Aurora Borealis

Catching the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights display is on many people's bucket list. It was on my list as well. Now that I had several encounters with the phenomenon, and having seen many questions and misconceptions in travel forums etc, I would like to share what I know on the hunt for the Aurora Borealis.


Generally, the lights occur in locations above the Arctic Cirlce, and can be seen on dark clear nights. The two main criteria in order to see the lights are the the weather, or rather the cloud cover, and the "aurora activity" (the amount of the charged electrons in the atmosphere which causes the light show). Needless to say, you would need a night of clear weather (no/little clouds) and high activity. There are many websites that provide a forecast of this "aurora activity". The one I use is at the Geophysical Institute, University of Fairbanks Alaska, where you can select which region/zone for the forecast. As for the cloud cover forecast, you would typically go to the respective country's weather forecast page. Which brings me to the next point, which country/place is the best?

I have been to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland for the sightings, and frankly, if the above two conditions are met, any of these countries, including Alaska/Canada are all good bets. However, the aurora visibility window is generally between late September to late March, which means it is mostly late autumn to winter at those places. So, it would boil down to what kind of trip you want it to be.

If you like to DIY, be flexible and have your own time, then a self-drive trip to Iceland or the Lofoten islands in Norway are great choices. In addition, if you have time for more than just aurora hunting, then Iceland certainly come up tops as there are many other attractions, including volcano visits and waterfalls etc. For a full-blown winter holiday though, note your driving capabilities in the various countries. For those who are going with family and kids should look at Finland as there is a Santa Claus village which I'm sure the kids would enjoy!

Self-drive allows you flexibility to go to more remote dark areas

If however, you can't (or don't want to) drive, then relying on public transportation is trickier. Of course, signing up custom tour packages is the easiest (and costliest) choice. However, I do not have much information on that, except that Tromso in northern Norway is a popular destination for Aurora hunters as there are many tour agencies specialising in that.

For the independent traveler (solo or otherwise) relying on public transport, then the Lofoten islands may be the better bet. Even better, check out Abisko National Park in Sweden. I do feel that the availability of trains and slightly better transport connections make them better alternatives to, say Iceland and Alaska, where it would be logistically more challenging in winter especially for the solo backpacker.

Watching the Aurora Borealis

A point to note, based on my own experiences, is that even though the aurora forecast indicate low activity, but the cloud cover for the night is clear, it is always worth a shot to check out the sky periodically. I had 2 occasions where I had good sightings even though the forecast was low. It is a forecast after all. So for those who are planning the trip on your own, make sure your accommodations are in less light-polluted area (preferably not in the city) or you are able to reach one. But if you are really lucky, when the aurora activity is really high, they can be seen even in the cities!

The Aurora display is so strong it's visible in the city

Finally, I would like to touch on the expectations of a Aurora Borealis sighting.

For me, I have grouped sightings generally into these 3 types :

1. The lights appear really faint, and some cases you are not even sure they are the famed northern lights. You can only confirm through longer exposures on your camera to see the stronger green lights.

2. The lights appear clear and beautiful. They slowly appear and dissipate, changes shape gradually, and is absolutely mesmerising to watch, though whether they last 10 seconds or 10 minutes is another matter. But it is truly worthy of its place in all the 'bucket list' lists in the world!

3. And then there's the performance. The lights swirl in the sky like a writhing snake and danced across the sky like a leaping ballerina. You'd think it's a timelapse movie but it's all live action. Totally mind-blowing and out of this world!

Sadly, some people only managed to see (1), and mistakenly described it to other people as how Aurora Borealis actually is. Which is rather blasphemous I would think. Words and photos really can't describe the experience of seeing it in person, especially of type (3) above. So, best to see it in person! :)

Aurora activity follow a 10-12 year cyclical pattern and recent reports indicate that the peak had just passed and chances will be lower in the following years. For those who have this in their bucket list (you mean there are people who don't have?), you have now till March next year to try to catch it. (You can still try in later years of course, just that it's lower chance of sighting, that's all). By all recent accounts (including my own glorious sighting in Sep), the sightings this year had been phenomenal.

Good luck, and may the Lights be with You!

Star trails and Aurora Borealis

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nature's Art at Vesturdalur, Northern Iceland

For travelers to northern Iceland, whether as part of the Ring Road or otherwise, Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon should be part of your itinerary. Formerly a national park on its own, it now falls under Vatnajökull National Park.

If you had planned to visit Dettifoss or Ásbyrgi canyon, then you're essentially visiting Jökulsárgljúfur already. Basically, Ásbyrgi marks the northern while Dettifoss marks the southern end of Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon. However, what I found the most interesting is in the middle - Vesturdalur.

Vesturdalur is prime hiking area, with weaving trails leading to many lava rock formations all around. In particular, Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) and Rauðhólar (Red Hills) trails can be easily done from the carpark in a 2-3 hour loop. The basalt rock (formed by rapidly cooling lava) formations at Hljóðaklettar is the highlight for me. You may have seen the basalt columns in Vik, or the many lava fields all around Iceland, but nothing quite like this. Here, the basalt rock lined horizontally (hence columns is not the right word eh), and even at bizarre angles. Parts of the rock formations are also being cut off yielding eye-catching honeycomb patterns! It's mind-boggling how rapidly cooling lava can produce such "art pieces"! There are also lava caves formed by these basalt formations.





Rauðhólar is a crater row which provides a wonderful panoramic view of the canyon, and itself offers some colorful touch to the landscapes. It is easily done together with the Hljóðaklettar trail. For those who have more time and energy, there is a popular 2-day trek that goes from north (Ásbyrgi) to south (Dettifoss). Otherwise, there are parking lots on all 3 sections of the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon.

Colorful Rauðhólar

If you are using public transport, there are summer buses going to all these places from Akureyri or Mývatn but do check the schedules carefully at http://www.sba.is/

Check Hljóðaklettar out !

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Singapore Botanic Gardens & Our Golden Jubilee

Singapore is having our Golden Jubilee this year. Yes, we're having our 50th birthday bash, and a month before the day, the nation received our birthday present - our very own UNESCO listed World Heritage Site!

While there are over 1000+ World Heritage Sites in the world, there are only 3 Botanic Gardens in them. So, we're indeed honored to be one of the three, and not only that, we are the first and only tropical Botanic Garden in it (the other 2 is in England & Italy). Since establishment in 1859, the development of our Gardens from a British tropical colonial botanical garden to today's multi-faceted site for conservation, cultivation, education and recreation certainly proved its worth for inscription into the World Heritage Site list.

Beautiful Light in our 1st UNESCO World Heritage Site

Visitors to Singapore would be delighted to know that admission to our Botanic Gardens is free (with the exception of the National Orchid Garden), and is open whole year-round, right till midnight! Within the Botanic Gardens grounds, there are various other gardens like the National Orchid Garden which is the only one that charges an admission fee. There are also a few historic buildings, many meandering paths to enjoy the flora and picnic spaces for family gatherings and outings. Particularly, the space n front of the Symphony Lake is especially popular as there is a stage set up there for performances during weekends.

Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage
Watching a concert in the Botanic Gardens during our Golden Jubilee

Of course,  for botany enthusiasts, there is a Botany Centre where a library on Botany & Horticulture, a Herbarium and an Orchid breeding centre is. There are also heritage trees within the park, in particular the Tembusu tree that is pictured in our Singapore 5-dollar note. It is also estimated that 70 per cent of all rubber latex in the world originates from the 11 rubber trees originally planted in this garden in 1877. The Singapore Botanic Gardens was truly a test bed for economic plant cultivation in early Singapore.

One of many types of orchids in our Botanic Gardens

Beautiful atmosphere in the Gardens

Check out their website for more information, especially the guided tours to the gardens. They are very informative, and are conducted by very passionate guides. And tomorrow is our National Day! Here's wishing Singapore a

Happy 50th Birthday!!!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Radda in Chianti, Tuscany

Tuscany is my favourite part of Italy so far, especially the UNESCO listed site of Val d'Orcia described in my previous post. But the more famous region of Chianti certainly lives up to its reputation too, and a trip to Tuscany should not be a quick drive through this beautiful countryside.

There are a couple of villages/towns worth stopping in in Chianti, with Greve in Chianti probably the most famous as its considered the "gateway" to the Chianti region from Florence. Others include Gaiole in Chianti and Radda in Chianti etc, and the latter was where I decided to spend more time in.

Tourist Information Centre in Radda in Chianti
Views from Radda in Chianti

All these villages are small, and so is Radda in Chianti. You can probably finish walking the streets of Radda in like 15 minutes! So "stopping" in the villages of Chianti for a night or two usually means staying in one of the many bed & breakfasts, farmhouses, vineyards etc scattered around these villages. Of course, from Radda in Chianti itself, being perched on a hill, you can get fantastic views of the countryside, and the ambience of the whole place is really laidback. I stayed in Fattoria Poggerino, a family-run vineyard cum B&B some 2km from Radda. Set in their traditional stone house handed down from their ancestors, the setting is fabulous. Even right from the house, I could get beautiful sunrises and sunsets. And all the while sipping their Chianti Classico. What an enjoyment!

My B&B house!
You can rent a scooter to tour the countryside

I'm sure the various accommodations around Chianti all offer equally enchanting experiences. The point is that one can, and should be enjoying the sights of Chianti/Tuscany by basing oneself in one of these homey establishments and then taking excursions out. Of course, all these is best done with a car, though those intending to do wine tasting tours have to manage it properly, For solo travelers, another option is renting a scooter like the Vespa. So you could take a bus from Florence to Radda in Chianti (or one of the other villages) and then rent a scooter to tour around. Do note that bus schedules are quite limited though.

For wine enthusiasts, landscape photographers, B&B/farmstay lovers, and generally anyone who just loves the countryside, check out Chianti and Tuscany!

Chianti wine country
View of Radda in Chianti from Fattoria Poggerino
Under the Tuscan Moon - Dawn view from Fattoria Poggerino

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Val d'Orcia & Pienza

The landscape in Tuscany is well-known, and many breathtaking images had been made there. Aside from the famous Chianti region, famed for its wine, there are other areas with equally enchanting landscapes. In particular, I am somewhat enamored with Val d'Orcia.

Val d'Orcia is added into UNESCO's World Hertiage Site list only in 2004. According to wikipedia, one of the criterions is :
"The Val d’Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create aesthetically pleasing pictures."



I am absolutely won over by the "aethestically pleasing pictures" part. Indeed, with the rolling hills, the varied shaded fields, and well placed trees, the light play during the early morning and late evening hours is truly mesmerizing. The light and shadows on display create endless possibilities for a stunning image. A landscape photographers' dream scene.





Tuscany is a region that is best experienced with a vehicle. Public transport is limited to buses with limited schedules and only certain towns are linked by trains. However, it is still possible to appreciate Val d'Orcia on public transport and come away with its beautiful landscape pictures. One of the possible village/town to stay is Pienza, which has bus connections with Siena. The town itself was declared a UNESCO site even earlier, and perched on a hill overlooking the valley, it is an excellent site for photographing the landscape right within the town itself!

Pienza, a beautiful old town with beautiful views

Pienza is also situated between Montalcino and Montelpuchiano, both famous wine town/regions. Hence Pienza benefits from their success as well. Good selection of the Brunello Montalcino and the Nobile Montelpuchiano (both very highly regarded wines) are available everywhere, and it is a good life staying here with different wines for each of your meals. Pienza itself is also famous for its pecorino, a kind of Italian sheep cheese. Thus a stay in Pienza entails enjoying Italian food with great wine, sampling pecorino with great wine, and photographing stunning landscapes with great wine. What is there not to like about Pienza? :)

Check out Pienza and Val d'Orcia when you next visit Tuscany!