Sunday 30 October 2011

Wide Angles and Panoramas

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We sometimes ask ourselves why, apart from sheer extravagance, we buy and hump around so much heavy and expensive equipment.  We keep hearing that photography should be simple.  But we've never managed to make it so.

We've always had problems finding satisfactory wide angle lenses.  Almost all our lenses are Canon L series and we bought Canon in the first place in order to be able to use their first class perspective control lenses.  At the time we were shooting industry and architecture for clients and we have never liked converging verticals unless their is a creative reason for them.  It just doesn't look right, especially after about 25 years of shooting with technical cameras.

In the 1980's we were shooting a lot of off-shore work for oil companies, especially from helicopters and workboats.  35mm was then barely acceptable for that sort of commercial work so we looked for a medium format solution to dramatic wide angle/panoramic views with a hand-holdable, even from a helicopter, camera.  We bought Linhof Technoramas;  first the 6x17cm and then the 6x12cm and with the 6x12cm we found that, with its 135mm lens, it would give us the advantages of wide angle coverage without losing the scale of the subject.  Our clients loved the results from the Technorama.

One of our first helicopter shots with the Technorama, in this case the 6x17mm.  We found the 6x12cm even better.

The digital age has changed all that, not always for the best.  The early Canon PC lenses were not a bad substitute as a technical solution for the problem of converging verticals and we used them almost to destruction.  But we have never been able to find a satisfactory wide angle zoom lens.  We have bought and tried and then sold almost all the Canon wide angle zoom lenses on offer.  We are left with only a 24mm-105mm which is astonishingly temperamental and varies in quality from day to day and hour to hour, from excellent to mediocre.  But it's a great range of focal lengths. 

A couple of years ago we went to Dubai and intended, amongst other subjects, to shoot the Burj Khalifa.  We knew that our old 24mm PC would not do the job and were searching for better quality.  We went to see Klaus Bothe at Isarfoto near Munich ( and came away with a quite sophisticated and rather chunky Novoflex Panning head.  It's a bit of a contraption to put together and quite a lot to carry, but it works and the quality of a well-stitched panorama compares well to a half plate or a 10x8, without the optical shortcomings.  It's not just a question of quality.  But again we had found a way to produce 'wide-angles with long lens perspective'.

 The panning head is awkward to carry and requires a sturdy tripod.  Canon's fixed focus wide angle lenses suddenly improved.  The new 14mm f2.8 is a fabulous lens and we love the wide angle effect.  Level, there is almost no distortion.  But of course a mountain in the background loses all drama.  Horses for courses.  

Two examples of the 14mm's performance taken on the Vercors Plateau.

Still no really satisfactory wide angle zoom but there are two new Canon PC lenses without almost all of the traditional drawbacks of previous 35mm systems or, indeed, any lens systems.  The 17mm PC sometimes produces more satisfactory results than we have been able to get with the panning head and, of course, the panning head is not so useful with scudding clouds or people moving about.

An ideal subject for the 17mm PC lens.
 Apparently, the new 24mm PC lens is even better than the 17mm  -  but not for us just yet.  

A short while ago we were looking for suitable shots of Glandasse, partly to illustrate our recent blog article on our camping trip in September onto the Vercors High Plateau.  Glandasse is a most impressive massif but, with a lens wide enough to encompass it, it fails to impress.  We took the panning head out again and were pleased with the results  -  conventional but satisfactory.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Bellemotte and the Sucettes de Borne

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All the countryside around here in the Diois where we live is superb.  But then, of course, there is always somewhere that excels.  The area that lies between Glandasse and The Jocou has an intimacy rare for such splendid scenery.  The hamlet of Borne is known for The Sucettes, a rather inelegant name (lollipop) for an outstanding and astonishing geological curiosity. But there it is:

 About a week ago we chose one of the last days of 'summer' weather and decided to walk around the mountain of Bellemotte, rather than taking on the summit this time which seemed a bit much for one day.  From Borne we headed north towards Le Plainie, following the ravine and stream which bear the same name "Plainie".  The stream is one of the prettiest that we've seen in this area with multiple small waterfalls, rapids and glades but, unfortunately, so late in the year, almost no light.  We will have to go back at a better time.

We passed the ruins of an old farmstead and crossed some open ground where the first viper we have encountered in this area came rolling down a hill towards us and proved once again that, for us, snakes are best seen at a distance.  From the ruins we climbed to the Col de Plainie at about 1420m and were struck by the arrival of vivid autumn colours even before the summer seemed to have ended.

The next step was a descent to the north east on a route that took us around the back of Bellemotte, though mature forests with some splendid firs which, one day, we will get round to identifying.  Our favourite beech woods are everywhere at this altitude and very much a native species.

We came out of the forest and stopped for lunch near to a pair of the most handsome whitebeam we've ever seen.

Perfect weather for walking, sunny but not too hot.  After eating and dozing in the warmth for the best part of an hour we headed down again to the ruins of the Ferme du Désert, just below the Col de Menée, turned east again and crossed open pasture before diving into another strange, spooky forest on the way to the Col de Jiboui.
Wild and weird woods on the way to the Col de Jiboui

The Ferme du Désert

Carline Thistles, common in this area.  Their more specacular cousins seem rare.


From the Col de Jiboui, our highest point at 1620m, we turned south round the flanks of Bellemotte and started a long descent towards The Sucettes with the Jocou and La Roberche closing the view on our left
First view of the Sucettes de Borne from the north
By the time we had reached the Sucettes which were, theoretically, the main attraction, the sun had left the valley and was lighting only the tops of the mountains.   A few days later we went back to get the shots of the Sucettes that we had missed.  No doubt that summer had really passed by now as walking in shorts would have been a masochistic pleasure, we tramped through the first frost. But the sun didn't let us down.    
Proof of the arrival of autumn
We chose a long route back to Borne which gave us some splendid views of the valleys around Bellemotte.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Local history: the Chateau de Barry and St. Médard

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About a week ago we left early (for us) intending to walk over the Trois Becs, one of the most dominant formations in the region.  As the path was not only closed but surrounded by intimidating notices about the dangers of taking that route we decided against heroics and went looking for somewhere else in the area.  In our excellent walking guide 'Randonnées en Diois' we found a walk from Vercheny to the remote ruins of the Chateau de Barry.

Vercheny is the largest wine growing area in the Diois and produces some of the best Clairette de Die and Crémant de Die.  The extent of the vines is impressive, all contained in a basin around the valley of the Drôme.  

The approach to the ruins is at first through the vines and then by a forest track, climbing about 600m.  The length and tortuousness of the route reveal the remoteness of the castle.  We stopped for lunch on a small promontary at the summit of the climb overlooking the ruined Ferme de Barry.  It was obvious that the farm had been there before we confirmed its presence from the map as trees that had been planted and that don't usually appear in forests dominated the site.  Human habitation can be very persistant.  Above the ruins, under a rock arch, we saw a chamois resting in the shade.
Tell-tale vegetation reveals the site of ruined Ferme de Barry.

We presume that the Ferme de Barry itself, extremely remote, provided supplies to the nearby castle.  It would be interesting to know how long ago the farm was deserted.

The view from the promontary down to the Drôme valley and some of the Vercheny vines.

We spent a few minutes finding the little pathway to the Chateau as it was difficult to believe that the site would be quite so inaccessible.  It never ceases to amaze that buildings and works of this magnitude were possible around 800 years ago, especially in such a difficult environment.  Were the stones all cut locally?  And what sort of lifting gear would have been used to haul them to the top of the rocky outcrop the Chateau stood on?  Now, only the base of the keep remains but it must once have been an impressive sight.

The Chateau was built in the 12th Century and despite its apparently impregnable position it was besieged and taken from the Comtes Valentinois by a warlike cleric Amédée du Roussillon towards the end of the 13th Century.  During the Wars of Religion the redoubtable bishop spent a lot of his time cutting down to size those who refused fealty to him, whoever they were.

All that is left of the Chateau de Barry.

 Even now it's not that easy to take the Chateau by storm as the slopes are steep and forbidding.  We made do with similar views from a rocky shelf at the base of the Chateau mound and the photographs of the vineyards below give some idea of the view.

More views of the vineyards from the ruins of the Chateau de Barry.
On the way back to Vercheny we stopped to take a picture of Glandasse way in the distance and which is just above Châtillon where we now live.  Interestingly, the same Amédée du Roussillon bought the Baronnie de Châtillon from the Princes of Orange.
The mighty Glandasse rises in the distance, seen from just above the ruined Ferme de Barry.
A couple of days later, intrigued by the historical links and caught up with the area, we took another walk from La Clastre near Saillans to Piégros and then to the Chapelle St. Médard.
We parked next to the church, Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, in La Clastre apparently built in the 12th Century.  This church had been a small monastery for 'Chanoines' who we presume were monks who dissented from what was, in effect, the established church.  But then, there were a lot of dissenters in the Diois which became a haven for both Cathars (Bogomils) and Huguenots.
Notre Dame de l'Assomption at La Clastre.  A small church of great beauty.
From La Clastre a straightforward walk through forests opens out at Piégros with a view of its odd-looking medieval castle and attached church, both again ruined during the Wars of Religion, perhaps by the redoubtable Bishop Amédée du Roussillon.
Chateau de Piégros

From the Chateau the path climbs into beech woods and climbs and climbs more and more steeply to about 840m, just below the toothy rim of the Foret de Saou.  It's quite startling to come across the ruins of a small but fully developed priory in such a place.  Once again a masterpiece of construction from the 12th Century.  Started in 1165 the priory was built to a high and impressive specification.  Again, how did they do it?  And how did they do it well enough that it is still, in large part, still standing?  The monks from La Clastre founded the priory and it was active in one way or another until the 16th Century.  Again, we find Amédée, Bishop of Die and Valence, asserting himself.  In 1278 he drove the monks out of the priory as they had failed to pay fealty to him.

The ruins of the Priory of St. St. Médard. Easier to photograph in winter.

From the ruins, it's just a short climb to the small Chapelle St. Médard built by the monks at a later date right on the top of the ridge.  The situation might seem to have been tempting providence, but it was not until 2004 that this little building was struck and severely damaged by lightning.  We had recently come down from the top of Glandasse just before a thunderstorm and were suitably relieved.  Lightning is terrifying when seen from the top of ridges and mountains in this part of the world.  The feeling of vulnerability is total.

Chapelle St. Médard
Chapelle St. Médard, Les Trois Becs in the distance.

 When we dragged ourselves away from this very special view we followed a recommended descent which, in retrospect, seems to have been a little cussed.  Extremely steep paths leading in the wrong direction, followed by re-ascents to another difficult path.  But again, we arrived in one piece and saw more of the countryside than we would otherwise have done.

Another view of the Chateau de Piégros and the Drome Valley from the steep descent from the Pas de Faucon.

Monday 10 October 2011


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We should have missed the best weather but this year we were lucky.  We had four days of glorious summer on the Plateau.  Glandasse, the extension of the Vercors Plateau that provides a splendid backdrop to the Diois, particularly Châtillon-en-Diois where we live, rises in abrupt cliffs to just over 2 000m.  It's a magical place and like most such places it's difficult to get to.  There are only a few passes and they are all hard work for the walker and, fortunately, only accessible on foot.

At night, Glandasse is always cold and the biggest drawback is that, being a limestone plateau, there is very little water available, found only in a few widely spaced springs.  

The first day from our front door to our first bivouac at Les Assiers meant climbing 1 300m and we were carrying 35 Kg between us.  We weren't at all sure that we would manage the load that far and we wouldn't have fancied carrying it much further.  On the way up to the Plateau through beech forests we had a splendid view of a Pine Marten and, later on, saw about 20 vultures in the process of cleaning up the carcass of a dead sheep.  Since their re-introduction, Griffon Vultures have become a common sight in the region, particularly on Glandasse.  They seem to observe walkers from day to day, perhaps out of curiosity or perhaps speculatively.

A lovely evening and a camp site with views one way over the Isère and the Parc des Ecrins, and onwards into the higher Alps, and the other way over Châtillon, that we had left so recently, and the Diois towards the Rhône Valley.  Being very well-equipped, we slept snugly from dusk till after dawn.
The view down to Châtillon from the first bivouac.

View towards the Parc des Ecrins with early morning cloud tumbling into the valleys.
 The night was windy which probably kept the cloud away but left us with a chilly morning.  We moved further south east towards the tip of Glandasse, particularly the Royou.  There is a steep descent into another of those little lost worlds that we are so fond of.  We stopped for a few moments to watch a handsome chamois standing in the sun and disturbed another Pine Marten. This is country to stop and stare and to dawdle in.  A few minutes' silence is usually rewarded by a sight of an unwary bird or animal.  From a distance the Royou, a cylindrical block of limestone surrounded by cliffs, looked difficult to scale.  Closer up there is an obvious and easy route.  The view from the top is as rewarding as any.   360° of more or less unspoiled pleasure.
Looking down towards the Royou on the right and across the Isère and Parc des Ecrins.
We'd always been interested in finding Font Froide, one of the few and one of the best sources of water on Glandasse.  It's rather inconvenient but quite special.  On the way down towards the source we passed a superb maple.  Not the sort of tree that we're accustomed to seeing on the Plateau. A sure sign of the presence of water that it must have been able to tap and probably a sign of more persitant human presence in the past.  We assumed that, along with some other less splendidly situated maples, it had been planted.  Now it is perpetuating a little forest of its own kind.
Isolated maple with the villages of Les Nonnieres and Benavise in the distant valley.
After lunch we headed on to Font Froide.  Once in Scotland, we ignored the local wisdom and camped at a place in the Borders called 'Dede for Cauld'.  Never again.  And judging by the frigidity of Font Froide's water, it would not be a good place to pass the night.  A local legend suggests that this source's water is only safe to drink if taken with Pastis.  We are living proof that this is not the case.

Filling a water bottle at Font Froide.  Shady and damp but with enough hollowed out tree trunks to water an entire flock of sheep.
There is a little used path from Font Froide towards the tip of Glandasse and we walked as far as Echelas and decided not to walk down any more hills that we would have to re-climb.  As the summer pastures don't seem to extend to the tip of the Plateau any more, the vegetation was completely different, with long grass and myrtle predominating.  Higher up, the sheep seem to have done for the majority of the myrtle.  We walked back to Royou and bivouaced on top.  A memorable night, perhaps the clearest night we have ever seen.  The stars seemed to be touchable.  While we felt completely alone, it was obvious that we were surrounded by an abundant wildlife, just keeping its distance.
Evening view north from the Royou.
Morning view east from the Royou with some of the complicated karst scenery in the foreground.
Again, from the top of the Royou looking across the Diois towards the Trois Becs.
Our trusty and truly superior Gregory packs waiting on the bivouac site for an early departure.  (Well, early by our standards)
It was time to head north west towards an eventual descent as we weren't carrying enough food for more than four days and water is always a problem.  We headed past a colony of Marmottes who didn't show their faces and then disturbed a veritable herd of Chamois grazing on the steep slopes above the Royou.  Curious as ever, the Chamois watched us and then disappeared down apparently vertical rock faces  -  how do they do it? We passed the top of our original ascent from Châtillon, leaving the bergerie to our right and skirted round Pié Ferré.  That country is much grander and much less intimate than the Royou and for the last few months had been supporting a substantial flock of sheep.
The great prairie at the Col de la Raille and around the Châtillon Bergerie with a view across Archiane to the Grand Veymont and Mont Aiguille.

A little further on, the landscape becomes far more stony and forbidding, again with Archiane in the foreground, the Grand Veymont and Mont Aiguille in the background.
We planned our descent via La Palle towards the Abbey de Valcroissant.  We bivouaced at the top of the pass near the ruins of Malcollet, the remains of an obviousy ancient summer settlement with fine mountain prairies stretching as far as the eye could see. Around our bivouac we saw some nice specimens of the Glandasse Eidelweiss.  In the morning, the long descent to La Palle and to the Comptoir à Moutons -  a narrow cutting in the local conglomerate made by the people of Laval d'Aix as access to the Plateau for their sheep and an opportunity to count and check the animals on their way through.  The path follows a giddy route around the face of the cliffs and then an interminable descent to the Col de l'Abbaye.
Comptoir à Moutons.
 Unfortunately, the only feasible route on foot back to Châtillon is via the Col de Caux at 1 100m, another 500m climb.  As we were nearly out of water and the day was hot, we filled a water bottle from a relatively swift but shallow stream and dosed it with our purification tablets and hoped for the best.  The ascent of the Col de Caux was, by now, a real grind.  After that, downhill all the way to the Café de la Mairie in Châtillon.  We planned just to stop for a beer but another beer beckoned and by then it was too late to go home and cook so we enjoyed one of Veronique's inventive dishes.  By sheer good fortune, we arrived home with the first few drops of a thunderstorm that clattered around for the next hour or two and would have meant a good drenching on the plateau. Four magnificent but exhausting days and we even left a few kilos of surplus weight behind us.   

Travelling Hopefully

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Every generation faces its fair share of uncertainties and these are uncertain times for us all, especially as children of the ‘40s, not yet too old but no longer young.  Although we’re a little late for such things, the new uncertainties might have had some maturing influence on us.
The idea of the reward being in the journey didn’t appeal to us much in the past but we were younger then and the future seemed longer and more promising.  Probably this state comes to us all as we get older.  It feels like wisdom to want to make the best of the present rather than to struggle now for an ideal state of arrival at some unspecified time.  Arrival become inevitable and secondary to making the best of the travelling time between now and who-knows-what. 
Apart from the march of time, the catalyst driving our change of attitude was the abandonment of our plans to use the equity from the sale of our last house to build an ideal eco house in a village near to here.  It was always a folie de grandeur but, before we had altogether taken that on board, the project was spiked by a combination of the ultimate litigious neighbour and an architect so determined to build ‘his own house’ despite our intentions and pleas, and so uncommunicative that we ended up applying for permission to build something that we never wanted in the first place in the hope of changing everything later.  What can one say by way of excuse?
Now with all that behind us, we have a little cash in the bank, a lot more time to ourselves and the opportunity to make more of the ‘journey’.  The uncertainty of course persists and multiplies.  Perhaps we’ve done the wrong thing again but at the moment we are finding it harder to be stressed about the risks than we would have been in the past.  A rash of ‘we told you so’ stories from worshippers of other tokens such as the pound and the dollar, the jeremiahs who hoped for the failure of the Euro and who are now indulging in an excess of schadenfreud about something that hasn’t happened but that they hope my become a self-fulfilling prophecy if they continue to magnify it, should worry us about that money in the bank.  But then, what can we do about it anyway but enjoy the ‘journey’ and continue in our belief that the Euro has been one of the most successful and humane of economic experiments.  Even greater than the Marshall Plan.
Prophecy is redundant especially without access to the levers of power.  The world is becoming a better place despite a rearguard action by self-interested conservative lobbies such as business, government, unions, public servants and religions who prefer their own hegemony to human progress.  Slowly this bizarre alliance is being undermined by, above all, education, freedom of speech and the ease of communication.  We find it odd that the British government is attempting to take away our copyright in our work in the spurious interests of the freer dissemination of knowledge and culture in order to give these rights to huge pressure groups dedicated to the opposing cause who may, briefly, be the only beneficiaries.
Now, as tenants of a nice house, we have flexibility and more chance of directing our own lives and can take the often quoted advice of Steve Jobs not to live someone else’s life.  Maybe wisdom has come to us late but not too late.
Of course it was ever so;  it just takes a long time to recognise the inevitable.  Our blog was not intended to be controversial, political and opinionated and will revert to our original plan.
Much to be hopeful about

Another passing Summer

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Not just the orchard of France but in the Drôme there is always a cornucopia of good things to eat.  In the Diois where we live the local climate and fertile valleys provide for a huge variety of produce carefully grown and of great quality.  The most visually striking of all the crops is that of the sunflower.  Large fields of yellow heads follow the sun until, one day quite suddenly, the movement ceases and, in the most poignant sign of departing summer, the flowers hang their heads like penitants.

For years we profited from bright yellow fields and huge smiling flowers.  This year, it was the pathos of a passing season that intrigued us.  Untypically this year the summer didn't end but went on and on gloriously until a few days ago.