As someone constantly in search of new playgrounds to explore and photograph, I first noticed the name “Azores” mentioned in weather bulletins. I was intrigued by a place where anticyclones—which create constant fair weather—are born.When a seafarer friend, who had once landed there during an Atlantic crossing, mentioned that each island was covered with lush forests, pristine waterfalls, and sunrises and sunsets to die for, I knew I had to go. “Be prepared to be amazed,” he said.
The items I carry in the trip
- Fujifilm X-T1* and Fujifilm X-Pro1 bodies
- Fujinon XF 10-24 mm f/4 R-OIS*
- Fujinon XF 14 mm f/2.8 R
- Fujinon XF 35 mm f/1.4 R
- Fujinon XF 18-55 mm f/2.8-4.0 R
- Fujinon XF 55-200 mm f/3.5-4.8*
- EF-42 TTL and EF-X8 flashes*
- Gitzo GT 3541 tripod
- GoPro Hero4 Black
- GoPro Hero4 Silver
Sitting at 2351 metres atop Mount Pico, the highest point of Portugal, I contemplate the fiery light slowly invading a deep blue, inky sky. The orange-popsicle-coloured glow stretches above the horizon to reveal the serrated edge of the five-hundred-metre-wide crater and the stratovolcano’s imposing shape.
Volcanoes of Azores Island
Emerging from the dark lava, volcanic fumaroles dance devilishly, backlit by the morning star. I grab the widest lens I have— a 10-24 mm Fujinon—and, once the aperture is set at f/5, I steady the camera on my backpack. “You know, you’re incredibly lucky!” says my guide, Sonia Mendes, as the sunrays settle in and warm up the ambient air. “Most of the time, when I make it here with clients, we’re either above or below the clouds and we rarely see a clear sunrise.” We had started our climb in the wee hours of the morning at the visitor centre, now nestled far below at 1200 m. With the vigour of an Alpine infantry officer, Sonia, a sleek, tall woman from Pico Island, led me in total darkness to the summit. Even now in semidarkness, it’s easy to frame a picture that captures my guide’s salute to the sunrise, thanks to a large high-resolution viewfinder and OIS. The silence is uninterrupted.
Testing my camera for scenic views
Photographing a spectacular sunrise gives me serenity, but it also triggers a creative desire for the day to come that I can feel slowly percolating in my mind. I had recently switched systems, going from a full-size DSLR to a more compact Fujifilm APS-C. Having lugged bulky cameras and huge lenses around the world for years, I thought it was time to lighten the weight on my shoulders and rediscover the joy of photographing. Yet, I was concerned about working with a different sensor size, since it seems that, at least as far as sensors go, size matters. Would the 16.3 megapixels keep their promises? I certainly enjoyed the lightness of being DSLR-free on the way up. With two compact-system cameras, a flash and five lenses packed in a small Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW, I was able to go fast because I wasn’t weighed down. My adventure began five days before and three hundred kilometres away from Pico, on the island of Flores. Along with her nearby sister Corvo, Flores is covered with rich, densely woven vegetation. Both are included on the UNESCO list of biosphere reserves.
Visitors are lured here by a year-round humid subtropical climate with 24 cm of yearly precipitation.“It’s time to put the weather seal of the X-T1 to the test,” I thought while climbing the Morro Alto, near the island’s centre. A dense cloud was surrounding the various calderas—ancient craters now filled by lakes fed by the many streams of the central plateau. However, the wind was on my side, pushing the gigantic white masses away from the volcanic landscape. I was certainly glad I could hang my bag on the central column hook of my Gitzo tripod to weigh it down! When shooting landscapes, I still rely on a grey card from time to time. But with a camera that offers 256-zone metering, the quality of exposure rarely disappoints, and an occasional slightly underexposed image reminds me of the good old feel of richly saturated Velvia film.
Walking around the moutains
After spending the day hiking around the Branca, Seca, Comprida and Negra calderas, my 16-GB card was already half filled with images having the most intense greens and hues of blue that I’ve ever seen in nature. The light seemed polarized by the cyclical movement of clouds. I thought the afternoon would be ideal for a view of Poço da Alagoinha Grande, a series of panoramic cascades falling from 300 metres into a Lost World-like scene, but the clouds eventually won out. The next morning, after a pleasurable and productive ferry ride, I reached the longest island of the archipelago to shoot some hiking images. With a 53-km coastline, São Jorge is dotted by numerous fajãs, fertile pieces of land created by the accumulation of debris from landslides and ancient lava flows. The landscape was stunning and my guides were keen to share the best of “their” island, so we decided to hike to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. The hike to reach the remote village was steep but offered plenty of arresting views. We entered the dense vegetation through dark tunnels created by the interlocking tree canopy and thick ground bushes.
The challenge of balancing the contrast between light and dark areas was nearly impossible, even with the help of the tiny dedicated hot shoe EF-X8 flash, which otherwise is fantastic. I was ready to give up on my nearly three-stop difference when I grumbled, “If only I had a collapsible reflector!” Dina, my guide, was not familiar with photographic equipment and asked me what I meant. When I explained the action of a reflector disc, she simply said, “Oh, but I think I have one!” She pulled out the survival blanket from her first-aid kit. In two minutes I cut some bamboo for a frame. We stretched the aluminum blanket on it and secured the makeshift light bouncer with some medical tape and voilà! With the sun’s help, I had two more stops and the shot was in the bag. We left the forest, and the ocean invaded the horizon again. After a week spent outdoors and in rural villages, Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores, feels like a bustling metropolis.
I’m here to photograph a religious procession—an interesting transition from landscape photography to photojournalism. I dig out my second camera, an X-Pro1, from my bag and select an 18-55 mm f/2.8-4 zoom and a 14-mm f/2.8 fixed lens. I wander through the old city streets covered with flow ers placed there by neighbourhood associations to commemorate the Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, a religious Easter veneration dating from the 1500s. The crowd is dense with the Brotherhood, robed in red and black, and the faithful, ranging from children to older folks.
The light grey sky acts like a gigantic softbox, so there is plenty of light but no contrast. I dial down the ISO to 200, underexpose my images one- to two-thirds of a stop, and throw in a little fill flash. The colours are strikingly vivid. Frankincense perfumes the air, and the crowds slowly move into the streets behind the statue, while devotees, clad in black, pray aloud. I shoot late into the night, strolling the streets until my feet are sore. Slowly, the noises and fumes fade, but there is still plenty of light in the cobbled streets for a few last architectural images.
As the jetliner takes off, I take one last look at the archipelago. From way up in the sky, the Azores look like a small fleet of ships lost at sea. These remote volcanic islands are really as far off the beaten path as islands could be. The visit has filled up my soul and my memory cards. Whether you’re a sailor, an adventurer, an airline captain or a photographer, if you make it to the Azores by sheer luck or by good planning, you should indeed be prepared to be amazed.