A few months back I wrote a blog about some of the night photography I had a chance to do in Russia earlier this year. Afterwards, I had a lot of requests to see some daytime shots as well. So I’ve just published a new portfolio on my website that includes both day and night images from the land of the Tsars. Check it out by clicking here.
- Landscape Album
- Night Skies Album
- Wildlife Album
- Underwater Gallery
- Cityscape Album
- Purchasing Prints
Category Archives: Buildings/Ruins
I’ve added a gallery of photographs featuring Old San Juan to the ‘Cityscape Album’ on my website. Old San Juan is one of the historical treasures of the New World and certainly one of the most photogenic as well. Don’t forget to check out my article detailing Old Jan Juan’s Top 10 Photo Locations and Tips as well!
I’ve just added a number of new images to my San Francisco Gallery. This includes my best images taken during my recent trip and many of them haven’t been previously published
I hope you enjoy them.
Click this link to see my updated San Francisco Gallery.
Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips
I don’t do a lot of street photography. As a rule, I prefer to spend my time outdoors and do my best to avoid cities. There are some exceptions, towns like Savannah, Charlestown and St. Augustine have a charm I certainly wouldn’t deny and I have spent many an enjoyable day photographing them. Today, I’m adding another location to that list: Old San Juan.
I’ve visited Old San Juan a half dozen or so times over the years, usually at the start or end of a cruise (over a million tourists cruise out of San Juan harbor yearly). I had taken a couple quick tours and hit the highlights but that was about it. However, earlier this month, a lovely young woman we’ve known for years had her wedding there and I found myself with nearly three days to explore and photograph the city.
First of all, an overview. Old San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada “the walled city”…understandable for a town surrounded by a 3.4 mile long wall that is up to 20 foot thick. It was founded in 1521, by Spanish colonists who called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (“Rich Port City”) and is considered the second oldest town in the New World. The city occupies the western side of a small island at the entrance of San Juan Harbor. Thanks to decades of good zoning laws, you will rarely see a modern structure, in fact, as you walk the narrow streets and look up at the 400 exuberantly painted and carefully restored 16th and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings, it would be easy to think you had slipped thru a time rift and had been carried back a couple centuries. The city is pretty small (about 7 square blocks). You can walk to nearly any spot in the city in 30 minutes.
As soon as I booked my flight, I started searching on-line for ‘photo tips’ and ‘photo locations.’ However, I was surprised by the lack of info available, so I’m writing this blog to help out future photographers who visit this exceptional city.
Top 10 Photo Locations in Old San Juan:
Sure, this Top 10 list is just my humble opinion and some might quibble over a couple of the selections but it will give you a great starting point for your exploration. So, here’s my top 10 list (in no particular order):
- Paseo Del Morro (see location #1 on my map)
- This is an incredible walkway that snakes along the water’s edge between el Morro (see #2) and the southern part of the island. It is wide, paved and nicely landscaped. Photo ops abound and include the Raices Fountain (see #6 below) the old red city gate and wonderful views of the city wall with its projecting Garitas (sentry boxes). The trail ends at el Morro. Great sunset views.
- Castillo San Felipe Del Morro (#2 on map)
- Commonly known as El Morro, this is an impressive, 6 storied, 16th-century citadel with walls that soar 140 above the amazing turquoise Caribbean. Although smaller than Castillo de san Cristobal (#9), it is much more photogenic because of its location at the tip of the island…the views of San Juan Bay from El Morro are spectacular. The fortresses and the walls, together with La Fortaleza, are recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, one of only 23 such locations in the United States.
That fee will also get you into Castillo de san Cristobal and your pass is good for a full week.
There is a lot to photograph here. Cannons, flags, tunnels, a Victorian lighthouse…plenty to easily keep you busy for a couple hours.
3. Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery (#3 on map)
- Frankly, I’m usually not very enthusiastic about photographing cemeteries, but this is an exception. Santa Maria Magdalena must be one of the most picturesque burial sites in the world. It is only a short walk from El Morro. Early morning photos here are enchanting.
4. City View of La Fortaleza (#4 on map)
- This spot provides a dramatic view of the city wall and La Foraleza (the Governor’s mansion). From the La Rogativa statue (#5), just walk a short distance along the city wall northwest (toward el Morro) until you reach the Casa Rosa (Rosada), also known as the Pink House. Part of the wall in front of this building curves out toward the bay, giving you a wonderful view of the illuminated city wall, the red city gate and the Governor’s house (La Fortaleza)…at night, this is a beautiful, world class vista.
- Note: Be careful entering the sentry boxes (Garitas) at night…unfortunately, they seem to be used as bathrooms by some folks.
5. La Rogativa Plaza (Plaza of Religious Procession…#5 on map)
- Statues of generals and assorted statesmen can be found across the city. Most of them look like those you can see anywhere. Not this one. It is different, modern and depicts a cherished moment in San Juan’s history:
- In 1797 an English blockade threatened to starve the city into submission. Outnumbered and desperate, a large group of women and children lit torches at night and walked toward the city as part of a rogativa, or divine entreaty, to ask the saints to save them. The English, mistakenly thinking the long column was Spanish reinforcements, abandoned their blockade and fled.
- The best natural light is in mid morning. Also, the sculpture very photogenic at night (see photo above).
- Located where Paseo del Morro meets Paseo de la Princesa, this large and uplifting statue is front lit in mid morning. Also makes a killer sunset shot.
7. Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (#7 on map)
Second oldest cathedral in the New World and also the resting place the island’s first governor: Juan Ponce de León. It may not be the largest or most impressive cathedral you’ll ever see, but there are some beautiful niches and stained glass. Visitors can explore the cathedral from 8:30am to 4pm daily.
- This is simply the side of a decrepit building that has been imaginatively painted with the Puerto Rican flag on the front door and images of famous residents on its walls. Judging by the number of photos of this spot on the internet, it seemed to be to one of city’s iconic locations but I couldn’t find directions. On my last day I happened to turn a corner and there it was!
- You can find it about 300 feet south of Calle san Sebastian on Calle de San Jose.
- It is best to photograph this spot early in the day. There can be some harsh light and shadows here in late afternoon.
- This fort is located on the eastern edge of the old town and is only a bit more of a mile walk from el Morro (which is on the western end of Old San Juan). A stroll between the forts will take you only about 20 minutes (or you can just use the free trolley that runs between them).
- Castillo de San Cristobal is actually larger than el Morro and covers 27 acres of ground (110,000 square meters). In fact, it was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.
- Personally, I didn’t find San Cristobal to be as photogenic as el Morro. Perhaps I was just so enamored by el Morro that I didn’t give it a fair chance. Good location for sunrise shots with the sun rising behind the fort.
This is a huge field on the landward side of el Morro. Originally left open so defenders could have clear fields of fire against attackers this expansive space is unique in Old San Juan. On weekends, the skies over the field are filled with kites as the locals enjoy picnic lunches. You can buy kites from vendors there and try it yourself!
11. And even more…
Okay, okay, I know I promised just 10 locations, but there are many more wonderful photography subjects in Old San Juan…my advice is to just start walking and looking. For example, a life-sized statue of famed Salsa composer Tite Curet Alonso makes a memorable shot (you can find him in the Plaza de Armas…it was actually his favorite bench!)
Even the streets themselves are interesting and subtlely beautiful. They are paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag.
As you wander around photographing the colored buildings you will also find iguanas, street performers, dozens of feral cats and a cornucopia of other subjects for your camera!
Tips for Photographers:
1. Stay in the old city If you will be there more than one night, find a room in the old city…NOT the modern part of San Juan. Although the distance between the two is not significant, traffic can make it a long commute. Besides, you really get a chance to soak up the atmosphere if you stay in the old city. My wife rented an apartment on a quiet street with a killer view on Airbnb for less than the cost of a ‘traditional’ hotel. Seriously, find a place in the old city…you won’t regret it.
2. Don’t rent a car. The city is full of narrow, one way streets and finding a parking spot can be impossible. Besides, since the city is small, a reasonably fit person can cover it easily on foot…plus you just see so much more detail when you walk, if you were driving you would miss a lot of photo ops.
- Taxis are also available, but can be hard to find.
- There is a great hop-on, hop-off free trolley service which you can use to cover ground quickly. It runs every day Monday through Friday from 7am until 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9am until 7pm every 15 minutes. Click on this link for a map of the routes.
3. Hat, Sunscreen, Water, Walking Shoes This is the tropics and the summers can be very hot. Plus, the sun can be merciless. My wife, for example, never gets sunburned, well, at least she never had until this visit to Old San Juan;)
4. Camera Gear
- A wide angle lens is a must. I had a 28mm on my full frame camera (about 18mm on a crop sensor APS-C camera) and it worked out well, but I wish I had brought my 14mm for some shots.
- A regular lens in the 50-70mm range will come in handy for most of the other shots you will need. I really didn’t find much need for a telephoto lens.
- Travel tripod. I used mine quite a bit, even during the day. The buildings are tall and shots often have both shadows and brightly sunlit areas. I often had to take bracketing shots so I could later process them in HDR to capture the full dynamic range.
- Polarizer. The skies over San Juan can make for a wonderful backdrop for your shots. A polarizer will really make the blue ‘pop’ in your shots.
4. Time of Day to shoot
This is one location that you truly can photograph 24 hours a day. Seriously.
- Early mornings have wonderful, soft light and is the least crowded time of the day. Sunrise shots at the San Cristobal castle can be wonderful. Then walk down to the Magdalena Cemetery (#3) for shots of El Morro castle with the sun at your back.
- Mid-Day This is the time to walk the streets and photograph the colorful buildings and the even more colorful people! When you are photographing the quaint old buildings, I think they look best when the sun is high enough to get some light on them, so late morning thru early afternoon is prime-time. Keep in mind that one side of a street might get great late morning light while the other side will be best with afternoon light…so you might need to cover the same street during different parts of the day in order to get shots of the buildings on both side of the road.
- Sunset The Raices Fountain (#6) is a wonderful spot for sunset shots. Then you can easily head down the El Morro Trail (#1) for a series of great photo ops as the sun drops into the Atlantic.
- Night San Juan doesn’t ever sleep. You will find folks on the streets all night. My favorite night locations were:
- The La Rogativa statue (#5 on map) and
- The city wall at Casa Rosada (#4 on map). Position yourself at the city wall and shoot back toward the governor’s mansion (La Fortaleza).
- Although there is a significant amount of crime in new San Juan, most of the old town is heavily patrolled by police. I never felt uncomfortable at night but then again, I avoided dark, deserted areas. Just use common sense like you would in any city.
- One area to definitely avoid at night is the La Perla neighborhood. This is on the northern side of the city between el Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal (see this map).
I hope you and your camera get a chance to explore Old San Juan soon. Even if you are like me and your first love is landscape or wildlife photography, you won’t be disappointed!
Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips
April 2019 Update: False Kiva is CLOSED.
Due to repeated instances of vandalism, the National Park Service no longer allows visitors to enter False Kiva. You can still use the hiking trail to the entrance of the alcove that contains False Kiva, but you can go no further. This restriction was put in place in fall of 2018 and there is no indication when or IF it will be lifted. Unfortunately it only takes a handful of immature morons to make it impossible for the rest of us to be able to enjoy treasures like this. I fully understand and support the action of the Park Service but it saddens me to think that I may never again be able to enjoy this vista.
False Kiva is one of those locations instantly recognizable to most landscape photographers. And with good reason! It has it all: Indian ruins framed by the opening of a cave on the edge of a cliff that looks out upon a magnificent desert landscape stretching out to distant mountains on the horizon. It is also kinda spooky…well, that’s not technical term, but it is accurate. Unlike most of the icons I’ve photographed that are technically beautiful, but serene, False Kiva has a definite ‘vibe.’
My son Ryan and I hiked to the Kiva this summer. As we threaded our way around a rock outcropping we caught our first glimpse of the kiva high on the cliff to our right. But it wasn’t empty. There was a tall, almost spectral figure…bald, light-skinned and shirtless glaring intently down directly at us. We were too far away to see facial details (assuming there WAS a face)…but judging by the body language, it clearly wasn’t happy to see us. Ryan’s internal ‘heebie-jeebie’ radar immediately got the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. His next move, seriously, was to find a sharp rock that he could use as a weapon..actually, two rocks, one for throwing and one for hitting! I have to admit, I was bit spooked myself…I hadn’t really expected to see anyone else at the site…and we were in the middle of nowhere.
We continued the climb toward the kiva, always looking up toward the entrance to see if we could spot the occupant again…but we saw nothing. As we made the last turn and approached the entrance we strained our necks to look inside. It was empty. Ryan and I just looked at each other and then s-l-o-w-l-y turned and stared out at the trail we had just climbed. There was only a single way in or out. Even a mountain goat would have broken its neck getting out of the kiva any other way…but the fact remained we were alone. And confused. We looked at each other again, shrugged our shoulders and laughed that stupid chuckle that men do when they are confused and alarmed but are too macho to admit it.
We never did figure out what happened to the “person” we saw. I started calling him the “Crazed Kiva Killer” which Ryan thought was funny…but he didn’t put down those two rocks until we got back to the car a couple hours later. True story.
Tips for my fellow Photographers:
- The Kiva is located in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park (near Moab) but it isn’t marked on any of the park maps (the rangers don’t want visitors to ‘love it to death.’ The (unmarked) trailhead is on Upheaval Dome Road. If you decide to make this trek I would suggest caution. Don’t take this hike alone. The trail isn’t marked. It is isolated. Parts of it hug a cliff and if you were to fall, it would be along time before anyone would pass by.
- I know a LOT of folks who have taken this hike and never found the kiva. There are a lot of cairns but even so, this isn’t an easy spot to find. If you aren’t comfortable with your GPS, you should seriously consider hiring a guide.
- There is little shade and no water. Dress accordingly and take plenty of fluids. Plan on about an hour to hike to the site. The hike itself wasn’t long (about 1.6 miles each way)
- Take a WIDE angle lens. A 15mm fisheye on a full frame camera was barely able to capture the full scene. The cave is not as deep as I thought it would be…it is really more of an alcove than a cave. If you don’t have really wide glass, you could also take a number of shots and stitch together a panorama.
- Take a tripod because you will want to try HDR at this location. Obviously the cave/alcove is dark and the view out of the entrance is bathed in direct light, so you will need HDR to capture the full dynamic range.
- A polarizer will really make the blue sky pop.
- The cave opens to the west, so the lighting is great by late morning. Sunsets are also pretty dramatic here but you will have a scary hike back in the dark. Originally I wanted to shoot a Milky Way shot but after making the hike in the late afternoon, I decided that I didn’t want to make the return trip in the dark. If my son fell off a cliff on the way back my wife would just make my life insufferable. Maybe next time.
You might not have the same unsettling experience my son and I did when you visit False Kiva, but if you read blogs of folks that have visited it, they all seem to have an emotional reaction to it. And I have to admit, even though I’m a pretty non-emotional, logical, ‘”just the facts, Ma’am” type of guy…False Kiva is one of the few locations that struck an emotional chord in me. Far more so than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or any of a number of far more famous landscape icons. It truly is a serene site. Beautiful, yes…but one that is more than just pretty…one that speaks to your core.
Photography is about a lot more than just pretty pictures,
False Kiva Photography tips
I can’t remember when I saw my first image of the Anasazi ruins called “House on Fire” (HOF). Maybe it was in the near-legendary “Photographing the Southwest” books by Laurent Martres or perhaps the famous David Muensch photo…but no matter what the source, what I do remember is being awestruck by the image of an ancient cliff dwelling seemingly being engulfed by fire. Not only was it an incredible visual but it also appealed to my life-long interest in ancient history and American Indians. Well, a few weeks ago I had the chance to visit this iconic site and I’d like to share with you my House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips: Burning Down the House! (My compliments to the “Talking Heads”)
My first impression when I stood before the ruin was that, yes, by God…it really does look like the ruin has fire roaring out of its roof! I had to take a few moments and ponder about the ancient Anasazi who choose this spot to build…was it simply because this was a south facing alcove that would be cool in the summer and warmed by the sun in winter? Or did that builder appreciate the incredible way the light reflected off the roof of the alcove and decided that this would be his home. How many generations lived here over the centuries…how many hours did they spend gazing at the ceiling enjoying the spectacle?
After a few minutes of sitting with my son in front of the ruin taking it all in, I finally started to concentrate on photography. Once I did so, it didn’t take me long to realize why all the shots I’d seen before of House on Fire are so darn similar. It’s because that the perception of fire shooting out of the roof of the house is really only apparent from a very limited location…even moving a couple feet from the ‘sweet spot’ degrades the illusion. I took hundreds of shots from different locations around the site but after reviewing them, there are only a few that I thought were outstanding…and yes, everyone of them turned out to be taken from that same specific spot…like the shot above.
So as a photographer, well… this location is a ‘one-trick-pony’. Don’t get me wrong, you can get an incredible shot here…you would swear that the stone ruins are blazing when the reflective light hits it just right. However, you will be hard-pressed to come up with a stunning image that is significantly different from the ‘standard’ shot…but don’t let that stop you, the ‘standard’ shot is amazing and what photographer wouldn’t want it in their portfolio?!
Directions to the site and photo tips for my fellow photographers:
- The most important thing is to be here at the right time. The perception of ‘fire’ is the result of sunlight reflecting off of the wall on the opposite side of the wash. This reflected light only occurs in late morning. If you get there too early, the light won’t yet be on the opposite wall and if you are too late the site will be in direct sunlight, which will ‘wash-out’ the fire effect.
- In July, the light is perfect about 11am and it lasts about an hour.
- The second pre-requisite is that the weather has to be clear. If clouds are obstructing the sun, you will loose the reflected light which is critical for the shot.
- My third tip would be to photograph the nearby “Fallen House Ruin” first in the morning and then drive to House on Fire (26 miles/30 minutes travel time from trailhead to trailhead). You should be able to do so and still be at HOF before 11am.
- If you haven’t made this hike before and you aren’t on a tour with a guide, then I would suggest that have GPS with you.
- The closest town is Blanding (about 25 miles away). There are a couple of hotels here you could stay at. The next nearest town is Mexican Hat, about 40 miles away.
- House on Fireis located just off of UT 95 about halfwaybetweenBlanding and Natural Bridges National Monument on County Road 263. When driving on UT 95, look for CR263 just east of mile marker 102 on the north side of the road.
- Don’t be tricked by a sign for ‘Mule Canyon Ruins‘- this is NOT the right spot.
- Turn north ontoCR263 (it is a dirt road) and you will immediately see a BLM sign and kiosk on the left.
- Stop and pay your fee ($2/person as of July 2013).
- There is a small car parking area less than 3/10 of a mile down CR263 on the right. You can park here or you can continue a few hundred yards to the bottom of the hill where there is parallel parking available for a couple vehicles.
- At the bottom of the hill, you will find a small trailhead marker (on your left).
- Geographic coordinates at the trailhead: N37.53739 – W109.73203
- Here is a link to the trailhead on Google Maps.
- Start your hike by descending into the wash (on the left/west side of the road) and walk west along the stream bed. The trail meanders to the west/northwest.
- House on Fire is about one mile from the trailhead (about 40 minutes) just before the canyon turns due north. It is located on a ledge to your right (north) about 60 feet above the floor of the wash. It can be hard to see from the bottom, so just keep looking up and to your right.
- You have to scramble a bit up some slickrock to reach the ledge but there are some rock cairns to show you the way.
- So, where exactly is the ‘sweet spot’ that I’m talking about? The photo below shows where to set up.
I’d suggest taking a copy of a HOF photo with you…then walk around the site with the picture in front of you until you find where you need to set your tripod.
- There are actually three or so structures under the ledge, but the one on the far right has the best “flames” over it
- Personally, I think a vertical orientation for your composition is the best way to emphasize the ‘flames’ in the sandstone ceiling
- Lenses: A fisheye can be fun to use here. I also used 16-35mm zoom (most shots were taken at about 21mm). Note..these lenses were used on a full frame sensor DSLR…you will need to account for the crop factor if you are using a camera with a smaller sensor.
- HDR is useful here to fully capture the highlights and shadows. Even with HDR, it will be difficult to include the sky in your shot and frankly, I think the shot is best with it excluded.
- Take your time and use your camera’s Live View feature to ensure that your focus is sharp from front to back.
- There are some handprints painted on the wall in a small alcove to the left of the ruins…worth a look.
- A green rectangular metal register box (actually a surplus Army ammo box) is chained to a tree near the ledge’s edge. It is interesting to look thru it and see what other hikers have written and see how many countries they had come from. Don’t forget to jot a note down yourself!
- If you have time after photographing HOF, there are at least 5 more ruins I know of within the next 3 miles further down the wash. None of them are necessarily photogenic, but they are interesting nonetheless.
- Post-processing: If you catch the reflected light on a cloudless day, you will likely be pretty happy with the colors and saturation. However, by increasing the contrast and adjusting the brightness/darkness of your color palette, you can easily enhance the ‘fire.’ Have fun with it!
As I was packing up to leave, a local guide, Jon Fuller of Moab Photo Tours and two clients also arrived at the site. Jon was very friendly and readily shared some tips and stories. I think my son enjoyed listening to Jon more than he did exploring the site, but then again, photography should be about much more than just pictures, right?
Have fun and keep shooting!
House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips
If you are a photographer who happens to have a cruise or trip to Cancun / Cozumel in your future, then read on for my guide and photo tips for a great photo op I recently found there: Xcaret.
Xcaret is a ‘target rich environment’ for any photographer…if you enjoy wildlife, architecture, native culture or even underwater photography, then Xcaret will keep you busy! Even better, if you happen to be traveling with kids and/or a spouse/friend who isn’t a photo nut, they will find plenty to do here. Check out the link to the Xcaret website for a full listing of all their activities and I think you be able to convince your traveling companions that this park will interest them as well (while you go off on your own for a full day of wide-ranging photography).
- Xcaret is a huge (200 acre) Disney quality park located on the coast near Cozumel and Cancun.
- Just about everyone speaks English, the place is clean and organized.
- There was plenty of security on site and I was never got concerned or uncomfortable about my safety.
- If you are on a cruise, they usually have this park listed as one of their shore excursions with a cost of about $110 for adults and $60 for kids. If you are at the port of Cozumel, the tour takes a 45 minute ferry to Playa del Carmen and then a 20 minute bus ride to the park.
- The cruise shore excursion was a full day…about seven hours. I could have spent twice as much time there and still had lots more to photograph.
- If you aren’t on a cruise, it is about an hour from Cancun by Taxi (approx. $80-$100) and entrance tickets are around $79 (you can pick them up for $71 on their website) . However Xcaret recently starting offering a bus service from Cancun for $125 (includes admission) which seems like a great deal. This link will give you details.
- Lots of restaurants and drink stands. Prices are reasonable.
- Lockers are available
- Some of the things available for non-photographers include an underground “Lazy River” (pretty cool), horse shows, shopping, swimming with dolphins (there is an extra fee for this activity), beach area for sunbathing, and lots more.
- Google Map link:
- For more info, I recommend you check out the Tripadvisor Site…don’t just take my word for it!
Tips for Non-Photographers:
- Pick up a map of the park when you enter, it will help you plan your day and find yourself around.
- The underground river is neat, so bring a pair of trunks and a towel. If you want to hit the beach, these will come in handy also.
- Wear comfortable shoes…this place is BIG and the walkways are concrete.
- There are a lot of trees, but Mexico is hot, so a hat and cool clothes will be nice to have.
Hints and Suggestions for my fellow Photographers:
- You will want a long lens (at least 300mm) for the wildlife and a wide angle lens for the architecture and landscapes
- If you want to try and get some photos of the underground river (I didn’t get a chance) a waterproof camera would be good to have (if you go on the river, you can lock up your equipment in lockers…but do so at your own risk).
- For non-wildlife shots, a polarizing filter will help ensure those rich blue skies in your shots.
- I didn’t see the need for a tripod. If you are going to be there in the evening or if it is a cloudy day it might be a different story, but it was a bright beautiful day during my visit.
- Don’t overload yourself. You will walk a lot and the extra weight will punish you.
- There are a number of ‘shows’ during the day. Get a schedule when you first enter the park so you can plan to be at the events that interest you.
Specific subjects and venues I found to have Photographic interest:
- Jaguars! The Jaguar and Pumaexhibit was the highlight of my day. It is a modern-style enclosure surrounded by a moat with no cages. They had two jaguars (one was all black!) and a puma whichwas located on an adjacent but separateexhibit.
- The first thing you want to do when you get to the park is ask an employee near this exhibit when they are going to feed the cats! As you might know, big cats sleep most the day which can result in some boring shots, but if you are there when they toss scraps of meat to the Jaguars, you can get shots like this:
- When I first got there, the Jaguars were dozing in the shade…they seemed to be determined not to be interesting photo subjects. Then I noticed a couple of the park’s employees holding some zip-locked bags of meat heading toward the other side of the Jaguar enclosure. Well I darn near knocked over some other tourists as I hustled over to get closer. Sure enough, the employees starting tossing scraps of meat over the moat to the now very awake and active big cats! The distance is less than 70′ and with a 300mm lens, you will be able to get some great shots.
- One last hint…try to position yourself RIGHT NEXT to the guys throwing the scraps. The Jaguars stare intently at the food as it flies toward them and if you are close to the spot where the food is launched, your photos will appear as if the cats are looking right at you. I only figured this out at the end of their meal, but the shot above was the result. It was a gas!
There are a number of other animal exhibits that have good photographic potential, including: monkeys, tapirs, deer, flamingos, a HUGE butterfly pavilion, scarlet macaws, etc . Trust me, if you love to photograph wildlife, you will be happily busy all day.
- There is some non-caged wildlife as well! This is Mexico and you will certainly see iguanas. I don’t know why I like photographing these mini-dinosaurs so much, but I do!
- The park also has a recreation of a Mayan ball court and a pyramid. You will also find full sized reproductions of Mayan sculpture. Granted, this isn’t as cool as photographing the real thing at Tulum or Lamani, but it is fun nonetheless!
- Xcaret also has a full sized recreation of a Mexican Hacienda, a primitive Catholic church, Mayan village and a wild Mexican graveyard.
There is a full orchid greenhouse as well as a botanical garden if photographing flowers is one of your interests.
One last thing, if you’ve never seen Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) , it is worth your time. Unfortunately, I got to the show late and my view was pretty limited so I only got a few shots. Show times are listed on the flyer you get when you enter the park. Seating is limited, so get there early for a good spot.
I’ve been to Cozumel/Cancun a number of times and there is nothing else I’ve seen there that has the intense, varied and consolidated photographic potential as Xcaret. Of course, if you have more than a day, then you might be able to find similar subjects, but it would probably take you the full week to do so. Plus, the rest of the family can have a fun day while you get to indulge your hobby!
Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun and Cozumel’s Best Photo Op
My wife loves to cruise. I love my wife. So I go on a fair number of cruises:)
But, as a photographer, I find cruising can be a bit frustrating. I mean, you get to travel to some beautiful, exotic and incredibly photogenic locations, BUT…you rarely have much time in port, you miss the best light (arrive after sunrise, depart before sunset) and the standard shore excursions are rarely oriented toward the photographer. To make things even more challenging, there is precious little info available to help you plan how to make most of the limited photographic potential you do have. For example, go ahead and Google: “Yosemite Photo Tips”. Instantly you are rewarded with PAGES of hits that can help you plan a photo trip. However, when you Google: “Jamaica photo tips”, or “Cozumel photo guide” or “Mayan Ruins at Lamanai photo hints” you won’t find a lot of help out there….
So if you happen to be a photographer on a cruise boat that is going to stop in Belize City, then I hope you will find this article to helpful. Your ship will likely have a shore excursion to the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai. Now you could go on a city tour, snorkel, zip-line or drive ATVs…but you can do those things at any of the other stops. As a photographer, trust me, you want to book the Lamanai tour. Even if you aren’t a photographer, the Lamanai ruins are unique because you are actually allowed to climb them…which hasn’t been the case at any of the other ruins I’ve visited over the years. C’mon…this is one of those “bucket list” memories that you really need to experience!
History and Location
- Lamanai (Lama’an’ain means submerged crocodile in Maya) occupies 950 acres and is the second largest Mayan city in Belize (however, I think it is the most photogenic). Over 700 structures have been mapped and 70 of them were excavated back in the 1970s.
- It was one of the longest continuously occupied Mayan Cities – from about 500 BC to 1675 AD or later.
- If you would like to read more about Lamanai’s history, click on this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamanai
- Lamanaiis located in northern Belize near Orange Walk Town on the western bank of the New River Lagoon (which is full of crocs…hence the name).
Tour Overview & Helpful Hints:
- The cost for a cruise-line sponsored tour (in March 2013 on Norwegian Cruise Lines) was $109 per person…you can get a similar non-cruise line sponsored tour for about $75 (keep in mind, however, if you are on a non cruise-line sponsored tour and it is late getting back to the dock, the ship will leave without you. If you book your tour thru the cruise line, they guarantee that the boat will wait for you…easily worth $35 to me!)
- From start to finish, the tour takes about 6 hours.
- The trip to the ruins takes about two hours (split between an hour on a bus and an hour on a river taxi).
- The bus ride is pretty boring and the landscape is not photogenic. The guide will talk for about 45 minutes and share details about Belize…it was interesting, but bring a book, he doesn’t talk much on the way back and you will get bored.
- You won’t need your book on the New River water taxi. There is 26 miles of wildlife…crocs, bats, howler monkeys, iguana, herons, etc.
- You even pass by John McAfee’s compound and a Mennonite community.
- The trip to the ruins takes about two hours (split between an hour on a bus and an hour on a river taxi).
- You get only about one hour actually atLamanai.
- Our guide was very knowledgeable and maintained a running monologue about the Maya. In fact, he had been one of the laborers employed by Dr. Pendergast during the excavations back in the 1970s!
- The guide takes you to three separate temples: The Jaguar Temple (N10-9 Complex), the High Temple (N10-43) and the Mask Temple (Structure N9-56)
- You also pass thru an excavated Mayan Ball Court between the Jaguar and High Temple.
- None of the Temples are more than a five minute hike from each other.
- The High Temple is the one the guides usuallyencourage you to climb. It is the tallest of the three (99′ tall) and there is a rope installed down the center of the stairs to give the tourists something to hold on to. The view from the top is mesmerizing. Nothing but green jungle as far as the eye can see and a killer view of the New River to the east.
- WARNING: This is not something you want to do if you are not fit.
- Let me be clear: You are not in the States…OSHA would totally freak out at this place.
- There are no handrails, no safety equipment of any kind.
- The steps are tall and they are STEEP. Really steep! It is more like climbing a ladder than stairs.
- This isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ve done acrobatics in warbirds, ran class 5 rapids, scuba’d around sharks…but this climb (and the trek back DOWN), really got my heart pumping. Know your limits.
- Let me be clear: You are not in the States…OSHA would totally freak out at this place.
- WARNING: This is not something you want to do if you are not fit.
- Bring some snacks…we didn’t get lunch until about 2pm, you will be hungry long before then
- Bring some water. They do have drinks available, but not when you are actually at Lamanai.
- This is the tropics…
- It is hot, even during the winter. I’m a Florida boy…I’m used to heat, but Belize was a good 20 degrees warmer than Orlando during March when I visited! You will want a hat and cool clothes.
- Wear hiking boots. You will be walking over uneven terrain covered with roots and rocks. I saw one lady trip and bang up her head. This isn’t Disney.
- If you come during the rainy season (June thru October) you should expect a shower in the afternoon, so bring raingear.
- The rainy season also breeds mosquitos and other annoying pests, so pack your bugspray (get the good stuff with a high percentage of DEET).
Tips specifically for my fellow photographers:
- You will want a long zoom lens for wildlife. 300mm minimum.
- A wide angle lens is very helpful for the temples.
- I regretted that I didn’t bring a fisheye. I think you could have fun with one here.
- Bring your polarizer filter. It will allow you to maximize the rich blue sky…which will help give you contrast against the jungle and the temples.
- Once your water taxi gets to Lamanai and the guide leads your tour to the first temple, you need to break away from your group. Everyone else will be staying within ten feet of the guide to hear his monologue…if you do the same you are going to severely limit the variety and quality of your shots. Just keep them in sight as you work around the area. It is also a good idea to tell the guide ahead of time what you are going to do and find out exactly when they plan to get back on the boat. If you somehow loose track of your tour group, just make sure to make your way back to the boat on time.
- Make an effort to include people in some of your shots. They can really add scale to the scene.
- Actually, the real problem is getting a shot without mobs of people around the pyramids.
- The best way to accomplish this is to stay well in front of your group. This way you get to the next temple before your tour does and hopefully just after the previous one has moved on. If you talk to your guide ahead of time, he will gladly share with you details of the route he will take so you can anticipate their movements.
- I found a tripod to be critical. Straight on shots of the temple are pretty unexciting. My best shots were ones in which I positioned myself on the edge of the treeline and incorporated some of the native flora in the foreground. To keep everything in focus, you need to use a really small aperture…which is going torequire a long shutter speed and that’s where the tripod will come in handy.
- If you want to shoot a panorama from the top of a temple, then your tripod must be light and equipped with a strap that allows you to carry it on your back without throwing you off-balance.
- Unlike Mexico, Belize has no restrictions about having a tripod at the ruins.
- If you do shoot from the edge of the jungle, the dynamic range will likely be too much for your sensor. Try HDR to get the full dynamic range (you will thank yourself again for having your tripod).
- Jaguar Temple
- There is a wide, treeless field between this temple and the ball court. You can get some dramatic shots by climbing the entrance to the ball court and getting a shot of the temple across the lawn
- Try some shots from the jungle’s edge framing the temple with trees.
- There are some spectacularly carved stelae (stone pillars) near the Jaguar Temple. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about them until I got home and was doing research for this article. They are located near the base of the temple.
- Ball Court
- I didn’t find the ball court to be very impressive or photogenic. If you find an angle, perspective or technique that results in an impressive image, let me know so I can try it next time!
- The High Temple
- If you climb this, then a panorama from the top is a must (see shot earlier in the article)
- I didn’t take my tripod to the top of the temple…now I wish I had. I had to hand hold my camera and the quality of the resulting panorama suffered as a result.
- Take some photos of folks climbing the steps…this is impressive from both ground level and from the top.
- If you climb this, then a panorama from the top is a must (see shot earlier in the article)
- Mask Temple
- My favorite. This structure is flanked by two huge 12′ tall sculpted ‘Olmec’ heads!
- Shoot from an angle to capture some side-lighting which will highlight the features
- The head on the left (east) is damaged (the end of the nose is missing). The one on the left is perfect (see below)
- Of course, have someone snap a shot of you next to the head for your “I’ve been there” wall.
Even if you don’t have a fascination with photography, archaeology or history, I’ll bet that a trip to Lamanai will be one that you remember long after you’ve forgotten those other typical shore excursions. I found something haunting and deeply stirring as I strode about this site. I think you will too.
Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide
As a photographer, it is often a challenge when you shoot a new location. Time is always short and you don’t want to miss any cool photo ops, especially those that might be right around the corner but you just don’t know about them. If you are like me, you research the web looking for photo tips about the site and if you are really lucky, you find a recap by a photographer who helps you shoot like a pro.
Well guess what? You are lucky because this is the recap of Charleston photo tips and locations that I wish I could have seen before I went there! Below I’ve listed my top 6 tips for the photographer who has a day or two to spend in Charleston.
1) Spend most of your time in Old Town
Old town is just what you would think it is, the older, historical section of the city. It is located on the southeastern part of the peninsula that Charleston occupies and is roughly bordered by Meeting Street, Broad Street and Charleston Harbor. It is crammed with old homes, parks and buildings that could easily consume a full day of photography. In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming and without a guide you could spend a couple days wandering around and still miss a lot of the good stuff. If you can, get a hotel actually in Old Town..all the photo ops are within walking distance and when you are done shooting, there are tons of restaurants and boutique shops to keep you entertained. We stayed at the Doubletree on Church Street, which was very convenient. http://doubletree3.hilton.com/en/hotels/south-carolina/doubletree-by-hilton-hotel-and-suites-charleston-historic-district-CHSCSDT/maps-directions/index.html
2) Go on a Walking Tour
A good tour guide will help you find those locations that you might otherwise miss and ensure that you optimize your time. Hands down, the best tour for photographers is Charleston History Tours http://www.charlestonhistorytours.com/Tours.html. This tour is targeted specifically for photographers and your guide (Joyce) will spend over two hours showing you the locations you might otherwise have missed. Not only that, but she knows her Charleston history. To make this a no-brainer, she only charges $23.50 for the tour.
3) Be at Waterfront Park for sunrise
This park has two impressive fountains and an attractive covered pier…all three are outstanding foreground subjects for sunrise photos. This means that you can get a number of very different sunrise shots all within ten minutes of each other. Get there at least 40 minutes before sunrise since the best color sometimes hits that early. Parking can be difficult in the Old City but I’ve never had a problem at daybreak. Waterfront Park is located at the intersection of Concord and Vendue Range Street.
Although I adore landscape and wildlife photography, I have to admit that on occasion, we humans get lucky and create something truly exquisite. I wouldn’t usually say that about a bridge, but this one is an exception. A great location to shoot the bridge is from a park (Mt. Pleasant Pier Park) located just under the bridge on the other side of the Cooper River in Mt. Pleasant (http://ccprc.com/index.aspx?NID=1171 at 71 Harry Hallman Boulevard Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 843-762-9946 or 843-795-4386). It is free to enter and there is a long, new concrete pier that runs right alongside the bridge that will give you a great perspective for photos. The sun sets behind the bridge so you can get great sunset shots here as well.
5) Hit the outskirts of the city
If you have exhausted the photo potential of Old Town, then there are a number of plantations about 40 minutes from Old Town out on Highway 61 that can yield photo ops. Locals recommended Middleton Place Plantation https://www.middletonplace.org/as the best of the bunch. Frankly, I didn’t get a lot of great shots there. Keep in mind that I visited in October and I’m sure it is more interesting in the spring when everything is blooming.
I’ve already mentioned Old Sheldon Church in a previous post http://www.firefallphotography.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=567&action=edit&message=1 . This is located about an hour from Old Town off of Highway 17. This is absolutely worth the hour drive from Charleston.
6) Are you a history buff?
Then you have to see Patriots Point, Ft. Sumter, Ft. Moultrie and the Confederate submarine, Hunley.
Patriot’s Point is a wonderland for anyone with an interest in aviation, warships or all things military. Seriously, if this kind of thing interests you (I’m certainly guilty), then you could spend the better part of a day here. Tickets are $18 for adults and it features the U.S.S. Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier that is packed with aircraft and exhibits of all kinds. They also have a submarine, a destroyer and a mock-up of a Vietnam-era support base. Patriots Point is located at 40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 near the Mt. Pleasant Pier Park mentioned above. http://www.patriotspoint.org/explore_museum/?gclid=CKGZkaHMt7MCFQu0nQodDH8AKg
Ft. Sumter was a bit disappointing from a strictly photography perspective since it really isn’t that dramatic visually. If you haven’t been there before, you might be surprised to find that it doesn’t at all resemble those pictures you saw in the history books about Civil War… http://www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm
On the other hand, Ft. Moultrie was different from the dozen or so other Civil War era forts I’ve visited since it had been restored to look like it did during it’s heyday. It is in Mt Pleasant and is a bit of a drive, but if you have the time, you can get some interesting shots here.
As for the Hunley, well it is a fascinating story…both its wartime service as well as its recovery, but like Sumter, you will find it difficult to get exciting photos.http://www.hunley.org/.
So, there you have it…a quick recap of how you might want to plan your Charleston Photo Trip. Hopefully you have found this helpful, but either way, I’d love to have your feedback so I can improve my ‘Photo Tips’ in the future.
I’d never had the chance to really get to know Charleston but since it was on the way to a photo shoot in the Smokies, I decided to invest a couple of days and see what there was to see.
Now, before we talk about Charleston itself, let me tell you a few photo tips about a killer location about an hour from the city that you really need to see: The Ruins of Old Sheldon Church.
This place is a dream for a photographer. The skeleton of this church is hauntingly beautiful, especially near the end of the day when shadows stream thru the columns. Shots early in the day with the site shrouded in fog would be worth the trip too. If you like black and white photography, you could have a field day here! In addition, there are bits and pieces of an old graveyard around the church. This particular tombstone caught my eye:
The church has an incredible history…burnt twice, once during the Revolution and then again by Sherman’s troops nearly a century later. It sits on a nicely maintained site and is free to visit. It is a peaceful place with very few visitors.
The address is 919 Old Sheldon Church Rd. Yemassee, SC 29945. To get there from I-95 take Exit 33 (U.S. Highway 17 north) towards Beaufort. Follow U.S. 17 north for about 3 miles (5 km). Turn left onto Cotton Hall Road (S-7-48). After 2.5 miles (4 km), the road will come to an angled intersection with Old Sheldon Church Road. Make a slight right turn onto Old Sheldon Church Road and follow it for just under one mile (1.5 km). The ruins are located on the left. Parking is available along the curb of the road or in a small gravel lot across the street…just be careful of all the trees, I managed to back into one on my way out:(
|32°37′6.7″N 80°46′49.7″W / 32.618528°N 80.780472°W / 32.618528; -80.780472:|
I had done a lot of on-line research before this trip looking for photo sites in Charleston, but Old Sheldon Church wasn’t on my radar. If it wasn’t for a great tour guide in Savannah (Bobby Davis http://www.exploresavannah.com/) I would have driven right by it without a clue. I think this is a truly unappreciated photo op that doesn’t seem to be well known to anyone but the locals. Don’t miss it!
Next, on to Charleston.
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All rights reserved. Photos and text copyright Jeff Stamer and Firefall Photography 2008-2017