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Photographing Azores

My interest in photography has arisen at an early age by observing my grandfather with his Rolleiflex and then my father with his Canon FTb SLR.
My main interests as a photographer are landscapes, travel and people. I have been fortunate enough to work in a variety of places and cultures. I am also fortunate to live in a small, beautiful and varied country, Portugal

The Azores are an archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that is part of Portugal. It comprises of 9 islands, the largest of which is Sao Miguel at 62 X 16 kilometres and a population of just over 137,000. The archipelago was discovered by Portuguese navigators in the early 1430s during the onset of the Age of Discoveries.

I first visited the island in September 2016 and I was immediately captivated by its beauty. I was attending the marriage of a friend, so time for photography was limited. I returned in August this year with more time to explore the island, with the aim to build a portfolio of images. In terms of logistics, Sao Miguel is fast becoming a popular tourism and adventure destination, thus some planning ahead is advisable. Air fares are cheaper now thanks to the opening of the route to low cost airlines, but make sure you book well in advance. It is also advisable to secure hotel and car rental in a timely way, especially if you visit during the summer months. Getting around the island is easy as there are many well-tended hiking paths.

Sao Miguel, like the rest of the Azores Islands, is geologically active with several volcanic calderas. The most famous ones are – from West to East – Sete Cidades, Fogo, Furnas and Nordeste. The volcanic nature of the island and its geographical location influenced by the Gulf Stream current have originated an exuberant vegetation; in fact, Sao Miguel is known by the nickname 'Green Island'. Typically, even during summer, it is quite likely to get 'four seasons in one day', with sunshine interspersed with rain; this can create very interesting weather for photography, but make sure you carry rain protection for your gear.

Speaking of gear, during this trip I carried two cameras and two prime lenses, plus one small tripod and a complement of graduated neutral density filters. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to 'get things right' in the field.

One of the ideas I had for this trip was to try to come up with a consistent black and white portfolio of some of the most popular locations, as these are quickly becoming 'saturated', so to speak. After all, how can you innovate when shooting the magnificent vistas over Sete Cidades, Fogo or Furnas? My plan was to visit these places when the light would be at its best, for sunrise and sunset sessions. This had two benefits: avoiding the crowds and capturing the light at its most interesting.

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At Sete Cidades I was welcomed once by a dense fog, another time by a bit of sunshine. The caldera includes two lakes, one blue and one green. The legend says that a princess and a shepherd had fallen in love; their love was forbidden and the last time they met, they cried and cried – the tears having the same colour with their eyes – and created the two lakes. The belvedere at Vista do Rei affords a great view of the lake from what is probably the most recognisable view of Sao Miguel, if not from the entire archipelago.

Continuing the journey, one other mandatory location is the Lagoa do Fogo. This has recently been voted as the best wild beach in Portugal, and with good reason. Viewing the deep blue and placid waters from the top, surrounded by precipitous cliffs, just takes your breath away. I really wanted to get some special photos from Fogo, as it is probably my favourite spot in the island. With that in mind, I planned for a sunrise session; during summer, this meant waking up at 5 am, driving up the mountain and setting up the gear with the help of a head lamp. The reward was witnessing a fantastic sunrise with the clouds changing colour by the minute. I ran exposure times from 10 minutes to 30 seconds as the light levels increased.

Furnas Lake is another magical place. There is a hiking trail that goes all the way around it, taking about three hours to complete at a leisurely pace. The diamond-green water is never far from the luxuriant vegetation; here and there it is possible to see the fumaroles, particularly in the area where the famous 'cozido' (a meet and vegetable stew) is made. The huge pots are lowered into the hot earth for about 7 to 8 hours.

I also visited Furnas. As the ambiance of the place changes a lot, one can find the lake enveloped in mysterious fog or with sunshine peaking through the cloud cover. Photo opportunities are abundant and the tranquillity of the area is inspirational.

A visit to the island is not complete without a tour of the Nordeste, the least populated part of the island. This volcanic complex is no longer active and perhaps this is the reason why it draws less attention. However, this felt to me like the wildest part of Sao Miguel: precipitous valleys ending up in hidden creeks and small rivers, or straight into the endless ocean waters, all covered in the mandatory green hues of the abundant vegetation. Also abundant are waterfalls like the one of Salto do Prego, at the end of a trek that starts at the quaint village of Faial da Terra. Swimming in the crystal clear but freezing waters of the small pool is a great experience.

Much more can be said about Sao Miguel, the 'Green Island'. It is a place that must be seen with dedication and time, not rushing around and ticking off the mandatory photographs that countless others take. If one spends time understanding the place, the rewards will be worth it. I came back from this trip feeling energised and with what I think is a worthy collection of pictures.

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