Rafael Rojas Photography

Blog of Rafael Rojas Fine Art Photography

Trip to South America…some thoughts - Part II


Patagonia, that legendary place... 

We arrived at the airport of El Calafate, and already the first sights of this place through the plane window made a big impact on us: a never ending arid steppe mixed with turquoise glacial lakes and the towering Andes behind. And afterwards, once on the tarmac, the wind. A wind that drills your ears. A wind that would hardly leave us alone during our stay in this magnificent part of the planet. The wilderness of this place was felt from the very beginning.

Basically, we spent three weeks in Patagonia. The places we intended to visit were the "typical" but unavoidable ones: Perito Moreno Glacier, Fitrzoy Range near El Chalten, Torres del Paine National park in Chile and the Tierra of Magallanes, right in the southern tip of the continental land. As photography was the goal, we needed to have as much freedom as possible, so a car was compulsory. We got one with several months in advance at El Calafate, since they tend to overbook quite quickly during the "good" season.

1) Did I tell you about the wind?

Spot lights over the Cuernos, Torres del Paine

Yes, I already said it. It blows. A lot. Some 80-90 km/h is considered "normal" in this latitudes. Now, imagine what happens at dusk or dawn when you need some seconds of exposure: yes, you get a very un-artistic blur. Some things we did in order to live with it were:

-Calm down. It is useless to get angry, even if it is a quite frustating thing to see in front of you nice light exactly when you have the strongest wind gusts. This is the way it works, and in fact that wind is an ingredient of that amazing weather that makes of Patagonia a so special place.

-Use a very stable tripod. In our case, we were taking a couple of them, a big gitzo 5540LS for when too long or extrenous hikes were not necessary, and a little gitzo traveller to be taken for long hikes. The big 5540LS is a beast that carries around 35 Kg… but still, the wind without any kind of obstacle kept it dancing the whole time.

-Put the tripod low, and put the legs as spread as possible, lowering the gravity center of the whole.

-Use something that will block the wind. Easy to say, in some places there were not so many things. But it was important to choose viewpoints where we could hide beside a bush, rock or something. If there was nothing, we tried to block the wind with our own bodies, even stretching our coat. Of course, this did not work when we were shooting into the wind, what was quite common in this area (you are shooting towards the mountains, and wind normally comes from the pacific ocean...).

-Use an umbrella to block the lateral wind. We did it and it worked very well...well, not for the umbrella, of course. It protected our gear from lateral rain and flying sand particles too.

-If the wind is really nasty, we favored the use of shorter focal lengths, and tried not to need a very large depth of field most of all if using a longer focal length...for instance, looking for more kind of mid-distance / background kind of image where almost everything is at the infinity.

-If still, nothing could be got sharp enough, we increased slightly the iso range...but we knew our picture quality was suffering. For this reason, we did it just during some minutes of really heavy wind and always keeping ourselves under iso 400.

2) Difficult reflections

Before going there we had big plans for reflected peaks in glorious light. Once we arrived, we understood they are very difficult to get, due to the strong and frequent winds. The only solution is to be patient and perseverant. I still remember going to the very same spot in Fitzroy range waiting for a morning without wind. It happened once in a week...but it was worth it. Anyway, normally absence of wind means very clear skies and stable weather...and that is a perfect recipe for dull and un-moody photos of this place.

Reflections of Fitzroy at sunrise

3) Nerverending days

Due to the long hours of sun during summer time at these latitudes, you will soon get desperately tired if you stick to the best hours photographically speaking. We were there during the month of December. Bang in the summer solstice, you have to wake up at ridiculous hours to wait for the sunrise, and action ends very late in the day if you want to squeeze the last drop of magic light. That means an average of 3 hours sleeping, comparable to those nights during exams period in the past. So, if you decide to go there during summer time, remember you are very much in the south, and that means never-ending days. Change your sleeping habits, and have big siestas of 2-3 hours during the day to catch up slightly. Or try to have a rest in your tent during those rainy hours (there is nothing as falling asleep while listening to the rain) when location finding scouts are difficult to be done.

4) Camping pays off

Most of all in these areas, sleeping close to action is the only way to get more lotto tickets for that great shot to happen. This is easier in some places, more difficult in others, and even impossible in some other. 

-In Torres del Paine national park (Chile) there are no excuses. Here we found some of the nicest camping sites we have ever seen and very close to the lakes with outstanding views over the Cuernos (Horns). It was a very good way of getting out of the sleeping bag at 4 am and go in ten minutes to our selected viewpoints to wait for magic to happen. Therefore, camping sites there are very civilized, with shower, grocery and access by car. So, all commodities available and no need to carry your 25 kg of equipment on your back for hours!

-In Fitzroy Range, it is slightly more difficult. You will need to pack some food and carry all that during some hours of hike. Still, water can be drank directly from the lakes and you can spare those kilos on your back when going up. However, you will need to carry your sleeping bags, tents and cooking stuff. We took everything we needed for a week up in the mountain, and that gave us the possibility of waiting for the light while being very close to the action.

-Perito Moreno: Impossible, as the camping our guide mentioned had been closed and no camping was allowed in the area. So, we spent the most uncomfortable 24th December night we remember in our car, waiting for the sunrise. Anyway, a night alone in that incredible place, hearing the ice crack and fall into the lake and dreaming about magical light to come was far from being a miserable experience. An option to avoid this might have been to sleep in the nearby El Questro Estancia. But just a little bit expensive and even more for just some 3-4 hours sleep...

-Other places: We happened to set the tent in some other places. I remember for instance putting the tent under a steel stall for souvenirs at the Ottway Sound penguin reserve. That gave us the possibility to wait for the penguins to come up from the shore during sunset, as after 7 pm the gate of the park was closed and there was no way to get out of that isolated place. The only thing, remember the wind and protect very much the tent from the rain...

Fitzroy and lenticular cloud at sunset

5) Patience

Yes, patience is one of the most important skills for a good landscape photographer. In fact, without patience there is no landscape photographer at all. But this has a very special meaning in Patagonia. Be patient, don’t despair, magic will (might) happen. During our stay there, we saw some photographers that did not stop talking about "good luck", "bad luck", "ruined holidays", "damned clouds" and so on. It is perfectly logical, you have spent a lot of time, work and money to come here, and it is very frustrating to go back empty handed. Weather in Patagonia is very unpredictable, but this is the main attractive of this land and you should take it into account when planning your trip. If photography is the objective, increase the number of days per place, so that you will be able to go again and again to the same viewpoint. You need perhaps a week in the very same spot to witness just one magnificent sunrise or sunset. Therefore, every day weather and light conditions will make it a complete different place. Remember, in Patagonia, more than any other location, your photography will be by far more time dependent than place dependent.

Changing light over the Cuernos

6) Bad weather is good weather

If you are a trekker more than a photographer you will probably will be happy with calm sunny days with no trace of clouds, hot temperatures and a very quiet lake. But if you are reading this, that means you are more interested in squeezing the photographic potential of Patagonia, and that means you will want "bad" weather.

Out of three weeks in these lands, we went through rain in almost every day. However, rain is normally a heaven promise for good light, and in fact our best photographs came from minutes of spectacular light preceded and followed by long hours of rain. But for a photographer, such minutes make the whole day and even the whole trip worth. Therefore, from a photographic point of view, there is no such a bad weather. Every weather condition will favor a certain kind of photography. I remember being shooting the Perito Moreno glacier during a whole day of non-stop torrential rain. We decided to use a protective rain cover for the camera and lens we spent some hours shooting the ice.  The cloudy weather gave us saturated blue colors in the ice and the rain "minimized" the details of the mountains background, allowing us to come with very graphic images and very different from those more conventional and iconic of this famous glacier. Another example were the lichens-covered lenga forests. They looked spectacular in those damp days where water saturates the colors and the sky turns into a giant light diffuser that gives you a lot of detail under the canopy.

Perito Moreno under the rain

Then there was the wind, that very same bloody wind that was driving our tripod crazy was however the engine that kept moving the clouds quickly, allowing us to see a completely dynamic landscape in front of us. Spot light crossed the land, lighting the peaks, then the valleys, again some ridges and that foreground island...giving a wonderful play of light that gave us lots of photographic possibilities.

We even had snow in the middle of the patagonian summer, while staying close to the FitzRoy. But what a great surprise, when the cloud cover got higher, revealing the Fitzroy freshly dusted and ready for the sunset.

So, concluding...consider that the "bad" weather Patagonia experiences is in reality a blessing that will reduce the chances of getting a large number of "good" photos, but will increase the chance of getting a few "breathtaking" ones. And that is why you are lugging your camera bag here, aren't you? 

7) Iconic danger

Yes, you are not alone. Patagonia is a wonderful place, but has become very popular. Being honest, it might be due to this popularity that we too decided to go there and now i am here writing these lines. But that means that thousands of photos have been taken of those places. And because normally every traveler photographer is on a limited budget in time and money, he will very frequently stick to the "standard" destinations and have less time to the out the beaten track places. But still, even if you are shooting in Torres del Paine, Fitzroy or Perito Moreno, you will always find possibilities of getting a different shot. Spend most of your time scouting the region. Look everywhere, trying to find new viewpoints and trying to pre-visualize how that place will look at the sunrise and sunset. Consider all possibilities and then shortlist the best viewpoints. And then, go to them once and again during your stay. There is always the possibility of doing something different, by two ways:

-Different composition or viewpoint of a famous vista

-Different weather and light conditions from a known viewpoint, which is especially true in Patagonia, where weather is so dynamic.

-And the best of them, dramatic light and weather conditions from an unusual viewpoint, which is normally the fruit of a thorough location finding, patience and perseverance.

8)  The sky is the star

Something we did before going to Patagonia is typing: "Patagonia" in some of the largest stock agencies (Getty, Alaour, Corbis,...). Normally we do that before every trip. It gives of course a lot of information about what you are going to encounter (so you can start planning), but most of all it gives you a very good spectrum of what you should try to AVOID shooting. Personally, we hate reproducing something that already exists, as for that it would be far cheaper and easier to buy an already taken photo than going to that place to take it yourself.

Sunrise over the Cuernos, Torres del Paine NP

I still remember the first evening we spent in Patagonia. Incredible elevated lenticular clouds, with clearings in the West. Time to run looking for reflections, as that was a perfect cocktail for incredible fiery skies.

These conditions repeated several times during our stay, and are very much due to the existence of strong winds coming from the Pacific at the other side of the Andes. These moisture-loaded winds crash against the mountains, leading to the condensation of water at the crest of those waves and creating those spectacular elevated UFO-shaped lenticular clouds. For the photographer, that means incredible clouds that due to their high elevation tend to turn bloody red when the sun hits them at the end or beginning of the day. A very precious gift to match the glorious terrestrial landscape indeed.

Funnel and lenticular clouds over El Calafate

9) Sunrise but also sunset

The Andes go in the North-South direction, and while visiting Patagonia you will be very surely contemplating them from their eastern side. That means that normally, most places are "sunrise" places. Every morning, the Sun rises from the very flat and normally clear-skied Argentinean steppe hitting those clouds over the mountains and then painting with reds and oranges the peaks of the range. However, as the sun lights the landscape from over your shoulder, very quickly you might find that the light does not model the mountains as much as you would like. However, the fact that these mountains are really high and the Sun does not find any obstacle in the flat East horizon means really intense and saturated warm colors. 

As far as the sunsets is concerned, we found them equally dramatic, if not more on some occasions. The fact that normally clouds hover over the mountains can make that sometimes you will witness dramatic back lighting with fiery clouds and refraction effects on the summits. However, you will need to stack several of those graduated density filters to get also detail in the mountains.

Dramatic backlight in Fitzroy Range

10) Be prepared to want more,..and more

Yes, as soon as you come back from Patagonia, you will be longing for another trip there. It is so special, and so wild. A real photographer haven indeed. We are already thinking on planning a new trip soon!

Sunrise over the Cuernos, Torres del Paine NP