Ok, it has been a few weeks from my last trip to south america, and i decided it might be worth that i write a little about what did work and what did not. Or at least, just give my humble opinion about the places i visited, from a photographers point of view. I will split the content into three posts anyway, because if not you will fall asleep and go directly to facebook...
Basically, we left one of the coldest european winters in decades the 18th of december. The trip route was Iguazu falls (Argentina-Brazil), Patagonia (Argentina-Chile) and lastly Atacama desert in northern Chile. How long?, exactly one month. Was it enough? Of course not, i would have stayed there for 6 years at least, but it was good enough to have some time waiting for the good light...But i am going too quick. A more detailed and cronologically ordered story will do better...
Iguazu Falls One of the most incredible places you will see, as Unesco acknowledged when including them within the list of natural heritage of Mankind. How incredible they look will very much depends on WHEN you see it. The main problem for a photographer is the park schedule, suited specially to those who want to suffer a heat stroke in the middle of the day, with a light contrast strong enough to make the dynamic range of your film or sensor blow up completely. We tried to be there at the beginning of the day and at the end. Not an easy task. And the thing is, the beginning should be REALLY the beginning. You are in a tropical area...and the Sun knows he must rise and set almost vertically. Very quickly you have a light too harsh and contrasty to control, and unless the sun is partially covered by some clouds, it will be impossible to retain detail in both the shade and the lit falls.
A way of "saving" the day during the shoulder hours (early morning and afternoon) and get some mood with that light was using a neutral density filter, and sometimes waiting for a cloud to cover the sun to limit the contrast of the light. For many of the images, I was using a 8 stop filter, and that gave me several seconds expositions even during the day. This, however, posed another problem, vibrations due to people wandering around along the metallic boardwalk. I do not complain about the people, as they had the same right as me to be there. But you have to take that into account, most of all when a big guy at 100 m will give you vibrations big enough to ruin the shot. Therefore, there is this strange phenomenon that happens when you deploy a tripod and expose it to the crowds...it creates a strong magnetic field that attracts everybody around and forces them to take the very same picture ( i have even seen this same magnetic field to stop vehicules in motion on some occasions, by the way...).
Another tricky thing is the water in suspension. You will think it is quite obvious, but in waterfalls water abounds, normally. And when water falls from great heights, it likes spend a few minutes hovering around, trying to fall directly on your lenses or filters. The worst sceneario was when trying to shoot several vertical images to stitch a panoramic, using therefore some of those big Lee graduated filters. You put low light into the equation = some seconds exposition, and the likelyhood of getting the panoramic ruined by water droplets is huge. The solution, a lens cloth put on the camera and filters waiting for a lull in the suspension water and a lenspen-another lens cloth to wipe out the droplets on the filter. Of course, it is normally exactly in that decisive moment when the water is more active around :). Another possibility is adding an umbrella to the equation, but it does not work so much, as water is coming from all directions.
Another difficult issue when visiting a so iconic and photographed place is coming with creative and personal images, avoiding to remain just with the typical clichés and i-was-there-postcards. For that, i was trying to use different techniques: black and white, panoramic, long exposition time, dramatic light (such as backlight), etc. But on top of that, i was trying to look for compositions that might bring a different and fresh point of view, or more typical views under more unusual light conditions. For that, it was essential to spend almost a week in the place (even if everything can be visited in a couple of days at most), going several times to the same places and doing intensive location finding during the hours of the day when the light was too harsh. Again, the same recipe for success: location finding, previsualization of the place at the best light and waiting by the tripod comitted to that very special composition for magic to happen.
As far as the best locations, a lot has been written about which side of the falls is "better": argentinian or brazilian side. Personally, i found very interesting viewpoints in the Argentina side. It is true that as most of the falls are whithin the argentinian side of the border, you will find sometimes difficult to get a broad view of them ( you know, the "tower-eiffel effect" that i will explain someday). However, if you look well, you will find a lot of very interesting compositions. The brazilian side is more straight-forward in terms of photography, as you will very quickly have a direct and broad view on the falls. Compositions are easier, but more predictable. Anyway, both sides are very different, and you should not leave without visiting them both.
All in all, Iguazu falls is a dream come true for any nature and travel photographer, and I am already thinking on going back soon :)