A Weekend in Kiev

My trip to Kiev was nice, but very short.  Snow had fallen in Kiev the morning of my departure, leading to flights out of Boryspil airport being delayed.  Perhaps the Ukrainians were taken by surprise by this sudden onset of wintry conditions having expected balmy summer days until next May, but it reminded me of the time when I was delayed 5 hours in Sheremetovo airport on my way back to Sakhalin from Istanbul because snow had arrived in Moscow.

Anyhow, I lost two hours of my Friday evening and it was dark when I arrived.  I had a choice of taking a bus from the airport to my hotel in the city centre for about 2 Euros which would take about an hour, or a taxi for 20 Euros which would take half that.  This was the first inkling I got that Ukraine was on that rapidly-shrinking list of countries that are still very inexpensive.  I plumbed for the taxi.

As is now the case in Moscow, almost all the cars I saw on the road were foreign-brands, and only a handful Russian.  The roads and signage and other paraphernalia were well maintained, telling me Kiev has emerged from the decrepit post-Soviet era along with the Baltic capitals I visited 4 years ago.  I have no idea if this is the case in Belorussia, but it would be interesting to find out.  I saw plenty of signs of foreign investment, the French ones catching my eye: Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Auchun.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and I spent the day walking around the main sights of the city centre, which consisted mostly of nice looking Orthodox churches.

It was cold.  The actual temperature was only -5C or so, but that’s as cold as I’ve experienced outside a ski resort in a long time, and any residual toughness from my time in Russia disappeared years ago in the heat of Thailand and Nigeria.  I had the right clothes on, but I was not tempted to stay outside too long hence I didn’t see all that much of the city.

I was surprised by how small Kiev was.  I didn’t see the suburbs, but the city centre didn’t seem that big and I was amazed – on a late Saturday morning – by how few people or cars were about.  There didn’t seem to be any traffic even on the city’s main boulevards, which isn’t the case in most capital cities.  For some reason I’d gotten the idea it was a giant megalopolis approaching the size of Moscow, but it was actually far smaller.

Below is a picture of Maidan Square, the location for both the Orange Revolution in 2004/5 and the Euromaidan protests in 2013.

The place was deserted.  One thing that struck me when standing in that spot was that Ukrainians ought to schedule their protests a little better: both took place at roughly the same time of year I was, and I didn’t envy them camped out in the snow.

I was speaking Russian, not knowing a word of Ukrainian, and I from what I could tell there was a lot of Russian spoken.  I’m not sure if I could have told the difference, but on the few occasions I asked I was told it was Russian.  Which is to be expected, of course.  There were signs of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia though, some more subtle than others.  I noticed among a hundred brands of vodka on sale in a supermarket there was no Russki Standardt, nor was there Baltika in the beer section.  And the kiosks in the subways were selling rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s portrait on each sheet.

The food was good: I had two bowls of borsch, which is pretty much compulsory when visiting Ukraine, but couldn’t detect any difference from those I ate in Russia.  Although bowls of borsch are like snowflakes, no two are alike.  If you ever want to start an argument among Russians (and presumably Ukrainians) just for fun, ask two of them to tell you how borsch should be made properly (this also works with salad Olivier).  And the food was cheap: after years of Paris prices, it seemed it was almost free in Kiev.

I took a few photos, some of which are not bad, but they’re nothing special.  It was too cold to walk slowly, hunting around for unusual things in the back streets, and operating an SLR camera with gloves on isn’t easy.  I snapped the main sights I came across, and that was about it.

For those that are interested, the full collection of my photos of Kiev are here.

All in all it was a nice trip, and Kiev is worth a visit.  Only it would be a lot more sensible to visit in summer rather than winter, which is what I said when I came back from the Baltic States in late December.  Although there was something nice about the snow coming down and stirring memories of Russia, a place I’ve not been to in 4 years now.  My only regret is I didn’t go to see the Mother Motherland statue, which I completely forgot was there, but I’d probably have frozen to death if I’d tried.  Next time, perhaps.

Photos from Alsace

I’ve not gone anywhere new for a while and I’ve done enough photography around Paris for the time being, so my camera has been quiet of late.  So instead I’ll post some photos I took when I went to Alsace last May, taking in the towns of Colmar, Eguisheim, and Kaysersberg.

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The full collection can be seen here.

The Paris Motor Show

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of cars, but I like them enough.  So when I heard the Paris Motor Show was on this week, I thought I’d take a day off work, stump up 16 Euros for a ticket, and go along and take a look.  I also thought it would be a good opportunity to practice taking photos indoors, which I’ve not done much of.

As things turned out I was a bit disappointed.  Firstly, there was a huge emphasis on electric cars which I think are complete waste of time as I explained here.  Although some of the BMW electric cars undoubtedly look nice.  Secondly, the cars that were not exotic you could see in a showroom and the cars that were you couldn’t get near.  The high-end Porsches, BMWs, Audis, and Ferraris were cordoned off and you needed to persuade a bloke in a suit to let you close to them.  In other words, I found going to the motor show to be a bit like paying to go to a car showroom and then asking permission to look at the cars.  When I grumbled about this to a colleague over WhatsApp he said “Sounds like a typical motor show, mate!”  So it’s probably going to be my first and last.  I think you have to be really into cars to go, and whereas I’d maybe like to sit in a few Porsches I’m not prepared to fight my way through a crowd to do so.

Regarding the photography, I kind of lost interest due to the number of people and the subject matter which I discovered I wasn’t really into: if I want a photo of a Porsche 911 I can find professional quality ones on the Porsche website.  So I don’t think these photos are much good and I’ll not put them on Flickr, but I’ll post some of them here.  For anyone that’s interested, there is more than enough lighting on most of the cars that you don’t need a flash, let alone an external one.  Push the ISO up into the low hundreds and you’ll be fine.  And bring a wide-angle lens, I shot with a 17-40mm on a full-frame camera.  The pre-set white balance options are rubbish on my camera for indoor work, and so I set it manually.

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Photos of New York

I found New York a surprisingly difficult place to photograph.  To start with, everything a newcomer would find interesting has been photographed a million times before, unless you are prepared to head out to areas where your camera will get nicked and even then it’s probably been photographed already.  Finding something new in New York is difficult, and for a tourist almost impossible.  If I’m in a familiar city, or one not as spectacular as New York, I can take my time to seek out unusual things in shop windows or down small streets, but in Manhattan my eye was forever being drawn upwards to the large and famous buildings I was usually seeing for the first time.  I’m a tall guy anyway, and my eye is naturally drawn upwards above the heads of the crowds and into the buildings and other structures.  One person who commented on my photos of this trip asked “Where are all the people?” as there don’t seem to be any.  Mostly this is down to my not liking photographing people without their knowing it as a general rule (I could have gotten one great shot of a homeless black guy, but I really don’t like taking these sort of “poverty porn” photos), but also because of the effect I just described whereby my eye was continually being pulled upwards.

One of the other things I noticed was that with modern architecture using so much glass and steel, the towers in Manhattan often look a uniform blue from the reflection of the sky, and hence don’t look particularly good in a photo taken from street level.

Contrast this with the older style of brick building:

On this trip I also discovered – and this is probably the engineer in me – that I like geometry in my photos, particularly intersecting lines and repeated patterns.

In this regard, shooting in Manhattan was pretty easy.  Sometimes I didn’t have my SLR with me, so had to make do with an iPhone, the best picture from which was this one of the sun striking the Chrysler building as I made my way (where else?) to a bar in the early evening:

The full set of my photos from New York can be seen here.

The Bois de Boulogne

Following a June in which it poured with rain incessantly to the point I was beginning to feel nostalgic for Wales, July and August have seen some beautiful weather in Paris.  This week it has been in the high thirties, and everyone is complaining about the heat because Paris, being a city of mostly old buildings, doesn’t have much by way of air conditioning.  When the weather is nice on the weekends in Paris, people head to one of several parks in or close to the city: the Jardin du Luxembourg in the southern part of the city is particularly popular, as are the much smaller Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement and Place des Vosges between Bastille and Saint Paul.  In the sunshine these places fill up with people sitting on the grass drinking from bottles of wine in a highly sophisticated manner, and toddlers roam free as their parents ignore them.

But by far the largest recreational area in the western side of Paris, and the second largest in the whole city, is the Bois de Boulogne.  Despite suffering a reputation as being a place where prostitutes and transvestites hang out in the evenings, it still attracts thousands of people every sunny weekend, including enormous families with dozens of kids.  There is a  lot to see in the park: there are thick deciduous woods with miles of tracks for walking, running, and cycling; there are lakes and islands; there is a golf course, a hippodrome, tennis courts, and rugby and football pitches (I even saw a game of cricket going on there last year, played exclusively by people who looked Indian); and acre upon acre of grass to sit and do pretty much whatever you want.  I’ve spent two afternoons walking around it – one in June 2015 and another in July 2016 – and I reckon I must have seen a good two-thirds of it.  Anyway, this is all a preamble to my pointing you towards the photos I took on my more recent excursion.

The full collection is here.

Photos of People

Despite my saying in an earlier post that I don’t take photos of people surreptitiously, I have accumulated a neat collection of photos of some of the people I have met over the past ten or twelve years, with one or two pictures of strangers thrown in.  Some of these people I only knew briefly, some of them I’ve known for years, some I am related to, some I love, and some I don’t like very much at all.  I post their pictures not as a commentary on them as people, but because I think they are nice photographs and illustrate well the variety of people I’ve met along the road, such as my friend Kenny below.

The full collection can be viewed here.

Some Photos of Paris

Today, 15th August, is a public holiday in France – Assumption Day, whatever that is – and so I took advantage of the wonderful sunny weather to wander around part of Paris with my camera, specifically: from Charles de Gaulle Étoile, down Avenue Kléber to Trocadéro, across the bridge and around the Eiffel Tower and along Champ de Mars then across to Invalides and back towards the Grand Palais over the Alexandre III bridge.

Don’t expect to see anything you won’t have seen a thousand times before – I was mostly photographing world-famous landmarks – but the blue sky made for some good, basic photography.

More photos here, including those I took on previous wanderings through Paris.

Photography

One of the positives to come out of hanging around this artsy headcase that I mentioned a couple of posts back is that it prompted me to look a little closer at the art of photography.  I have always enjoyed taking photos ever since I bought a Sony DSC-R1 after much agonising when I was still living in Dubai.  Since then I’ve moved onto Canon SLRs, with the inevitable result typical among oil industry expats who worked through the last boom that the quality and cost of my equipment far outstrips my ability to use it.  Nevertheless, I have been able to take some nice photos.

A quick look at any half-decent amateur photography website or collection tells me this is not something I could do for a living and that whatever meagre talent I have is common to other amateur photographers numbering in the millions.  In other words, I’m not going to strut around Paris or anywhere else declaring I am an “artist”.  But looking back over my old photos, and with my putting in some effort when I was on a recent trip to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana in a friendly competition with my ex-pal Angela (who was on holiday in Spain at the time), I realised I had some degree of what people call a photographic eye.

I have no idea where today’s photographers post their stuff, but Instagram seemed more like a visual form of Twitter and Tumblr a blogging platform for photos.  What I wanted was somewhere to post photos in collections, and from what I could tell Flickr was the best for that.  The only concern I had was that Flickr seemed to be big in the mid ’00s, and I felt I was stepping back 10 years by setting up an account in 2016.  It was a bit like setting up a MySpace account.  I noticed a lot of once-prolific photographers are now dormant on Flickr, and I did try to see if everyone had migrated to another platform but couldn’t really tell, and so I decided just to go with Flickr.

So, if anyone is interested, my Flickr photos can be found here.

There are probably two things I try to do to make my photos stand out.  The first is get myself to places where most people won’t go.  I took hundreds of photos during my time on Sakhalin Island, some in places which very few people will have been to.

View of the encampment from the top of the Piltun lighthouse, Sakhalin Island, Russia

To a lesser extent I also took a few photos in Nigeria which will be new to most people.

Shipwrecks, Ilado Beach, Lagos, Nigeria

 The second is during street photography, when I walk quite slowly trying to see a detail that others may have missed.

Graffitied building, 3rd Arrondissement, Paris, France

Being tall certainly helps in this regard as my eye-level is above most people’s, and being tall also helps in street photography generally because I can take photos over people’s heads when they’re crowding around something.

I also like to take photos of general scenery, some of which will be quite well-known landmarks, so don’t expect to see something new in every picture.

Toompea Castle, Tallinn, Estonia

I also try to avoid photography cliches.  I might not always be successful in this, but where I am aware of one, I try not to do it.  Something you hear a lot from amateur photographers is “I like to photograph people”, meaning they stand there with a super-zoom lens and take photos of people going about their business totally unaware they are being caught on camera.  Firstly, I think this is a bit of a cop out: it is not hard to surreptitiously snap somebody making an intriguing gesture or looking “human”.  Secondly, I once read a convincing piece by a photographer saying you should shoot people in 35mm or 50mm so they know you are taking their picture, or ask them for permission.  Anything else is cheating.  If you look at the best photos of people on the photography websites they are posed, or at least the subject is aware of the camera.

So if you’re interested, please do check out my photos, I intend to post a selection of each place I visit from now on.