Orcas. An Arctic fairytale of whales (which are actually big dolphins)

By Tommy Simonsen – Northern Norway, January 2017.

The air is crisp and cold, and the light is about to break as we speed through the strait, heading north. We freeze a little in our yellow safety suits; we are after all in an open boat hurtling through the winter darkness at 69”N. The 12 meter long black R.I.B. (rigid inflatable boat) is perfect for these arctic waters, and the feeling of cold doesn’t bother us too much on our way to a great annual adventure: the Arctic Orca Safari!

The dark season is about to come to an end at these latitudes. The region has been engulfed in darkness and passing winter storms since the end of November, when the sun broke above the horizon for the last time. The further north you get, the longer the darkness lasts. Today we got a vague sort of daylight between 11.00 and 13:30.

I have been tracking the weather forecast, and noted that the clouds are supposed to clear around this time. As the sun is about to make a return, that is an extra reward, whether or not we find any orcas. At this time of the year, sky at the top of the world turns a special shade of pastel pink.

Orcas and other whales arrive in the northern coast of Troms county from the end of October to February. They follow the large shoals of herring that come from the open waters into the fjords. Herring is food, so where there is herring, there are whales.


After an hour the R.I.B. suddenly slows down. It lies quietly in the water, with snow covered mountains rising in the distance. The light has turned an intense yellow in the southern sky, and in the north, deep blue has given way to pastel pink.

P-Tchhh!  I look around; it’s close.

 

P-TCHHH!!!

 

It’s really close!

 

An orca pops up right next to our R.I.B., exhaling explosively, filling the air with the smell of digested fish.

There’s nothing like the smell of herring in the morning!

As the light gets stronger, we realize that it is a large family group we have found. A shoal of herring is present, and the family is in hunt mode, ignoring us completely. They work like a wolf pack, confusing the fish by blowing bubbles, working to keep the panicked herring close to the surface and then barrel through them, filling their great mouths with stunned prey. It is clamour and carnage on the surface, with seagulls and sea eagles swooping in to join the feeding frenzy. Pods of orcas zigzag, coming right towards the R.I.B., dorsal fins slicing the water.

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Orcas are everywhere. They dive under us, emerging on the other side of the boat. Close by us. Far away from us. Everywhere. It’s intense. I remind myself to breathe, to not forget why I am here.

To get extraordinary pictures.


How I create my orca pictures from a boat

Type of boat

I prefer to work from a small boat, so I can shoot from lower angles. But remember: salt water is certain death to your expensive electronic camera. It is extremely important to pack your gear in a waterproof Ortlieb, Lowepro or similar bag of another brand. And I mean really waterproof! If you’re not used to shooting from a small boat, keep the bag properly closed during transport. Learn to read the waves and how the boat responds to them. The waves might not splash you from the front, but come at you from the sides, or elsewhere unexpected.

When you use your camera, keep the bag closed. And NEVER leave the bag unattended on the boat deck. When I need to, I cover the camera under my arm or in a plastic bag when I wait for something to happen. Don’t put the camera against your body under the jacket. Remember it’s cold outside, and you are warm. When you take your camera out again, the lens and viewfinder will fog up.

Keep your gear cold. Only spare batteries should be kept warm in your inner pockets. On a trip like this, you should bring several batteries.


Position in the boat

Where you sit on an R.I.B. during a tour is important. If you occupy a front seat in the bow, you get a wide, panoramic view with no obstructions. But the bow gets the worst beating from the chop, and is also the one position where you are almost guaranteed to get wet if the sea is anything but calm.

On an R.I.B. during a whale safari, I prefer a seat at the rear, as close to the pilot / guide as possible. It makes communication easier, and is also the place where the boat’s rail is at its lowest, so I can lean over the side in calmer conditions, to get the lowest angle possible. Capturing whales high above the horizon line adds to the drama of my images.


Cameras and settings

I have two FUJIFILM X-T2 camera bodies with two 32 or 64GB SD cards in each. One with the XF50-140mmF2.8 WR on it, and the other with the XF16-55mmF2.8 WR.

Both bodies and lenses are weather sealed, which is necessary because you get a little wet working around waves and whales, and this equipment can take some some sea water without damage. And I always have the ever important, absorbent microfiber lens cloth. I have a couple of them in different pockets, so I can switch when one of them gets too wet.

The X-T2’s tilt screen is one of the reasons it is my preferred field camera. It’s perfect for shots at lower angles, especially with the vertical tilt for portrait oriented images.

Shutter speed and reaction time are vital to shooting whales. I prefer 1/2000 sec. If the sea is rough, shutter speed has to come up. All of these shots were made under lower lighting conditions, so my shutter speed varied from 1/500 to 1/1000 sec at ISO 1600 to 2500 in all of them. Imagine how the colors would have turned out at ISO 200? Fast lenses are certainly critical in these conditions.

Responsive auto focus is also important. I often use “single point” or “Zone” AF mode, normally on Single or Continuous tracking focus. Typically, I use “CL” or “CH” burst modes for whales. The AF point joystick is most important to me for quick composing and shooting.

 


Don’t forget to have fun

Remember to put your camera down once in a while. These Arctic orca safaris have a special place in my heart. I work very hard on these trips, but remind myself to put my cameras away sometimes, to fully enjoy the spectacle of these magnificent creatures in action.

Thanks for coming along on this Arctic journey with me.

Tommy


Arctic Orca facts

  • The Orca is the largest of whales in the dolphin family, and like most other dolphin species, they live in social groups.
  • There are about 3000 orcas in the Norwegian and Barents Seas.
  • Females can be up to 7.7 meters, and weigh 3.8 tons, with an average life expectancy of 50 years, and a maximum of 80-90 years. After being pregnant for 15-18 months, a female gives birth in the late autumn to a 2.3 meter long calf that weights about 200Kg.
  • Males can be up to 9 meters, and weigh 5.5 tons, with an average life expectancy of 30 years, and a maximum of 50-60 years. The dorsal fin is much larger on males.
  • They live in family groups of females and calves, with only one or few adult males.
  • Each group seems to have their own dialect for communicating.
  • Orcas often collaborate to capture prey, which can be small fish like herring, or the large species like other whales. They have been observed herding fish into tight corrals, while other members of the group swim into its midst, stunning the fish with their tails to make feeding more efficient.

Facts source: Norwegian Polar Institute.


 

El Camino with the Fujifilm X100S

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The Camino de Santiago (also commonly known as ’The Way of St James’, or ‘El Camino’ in Spanish) is the name given to the pilgrimage routes that start all over Europe, but all lead to the same destination: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Northwest Spain).


By Danny Fernandez

Since moving to Spain in 2011, I had heard many people talking about doing ‘El Camino’, and each of them saying how incredible the experience is (life changing for many). For the past few years, it has been on my ‘to do’ list, and this August, I decided to combine three of my passions (travel, cycling and photography) and see what all the fuss is about!

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The first choice I had to make (although it wasn’t really much of a difficult one) was whether I should walk, or cycle. As a keen cyclist, the choice was simple; I would do a cycle tour. By cycling, it also meant that I could see much more of the coast in a shorter time, and also easily take detours if I wanted to explore the area.

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The second choice that I had to make was which camino to do. It was a toss up between the most popular, but easier and better facilitated route; the Camino Frances, or the more difficult and less crowded Camino del Norte. I decided to do the ‘Camino del Norte’. This is the route which follows the northern coast on Spain. I chose to do this route as I had heard it is the most beautiful but also one of the most difficult routes due to all of the mountains! I decided to start in the beautiful coastal town of Castro Urdiales (50km west of Bilbao), and had approx 17 days to cycle the 780km to Santiago de Compostela.

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The third choice that I had to make was where I would stay. Typically walkers (commonly known as Pilgrims during the camino) stay in Albergues (which is like a simple hostel, solely for pilgrims). However, cyclists get the last priority of beds in Albergues (walkers first / those on horses – yes, horses – second / cyclists third). As I had no guarantee of a bed, I decided to bring a tent and camp where possible.

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My Way

There seem to be as many reasons for doing the camino, as there are pilgrims. I met people from all walks of life, including entire families, married couples, adventurers, grandparents and even one guy who had walked out of his front door – in the Netherlands – 11 months ago, and is still walking now!

At the start of my camino, I overheard people saying things like “The Way gives you what you need”. I rolled my eyes and blew this off as some hippy thing, but after 17 days of cycling, I agreed with this.

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I think that the nature of any repetitive action (in this case ‘wake up/eat/cycle/sleep/repeat’), gives you a lot of – almost meditative – headspace, and can teach you all sorts of things about yourself. I had a lot of time to ponder on things (I was, after all, cycling by myself for on average 5 – 8 hours a day).

I also feel that the challenges taught me a lot about myself, and man, there were challenges! It was way more difficult than I could imagine. Some days I would battle a constant uphill mountain for more than 2 hours without escape. On average, I was ascending and descending between 800 – 1000 metres of altitude a day. And when it’s 32 degrees, and your loaded bike weights 30kgs, you feel every meter.

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Before starting, I expected to have many highs, and many lows (such is the beauty and the curse of solo travel), and the camino gave me both of these. I had extreme highs after making it through hours of rainy mountains to be rewarded with parted clouds over the most breathtaking views. And I had extreme lows when I questioned my reasons for this ‘stupid idea’ and was 90% sure that I was going to quit and just hang out on a beach for the remainder of my trip.

Each persons experience of the Camino is unique and I feel that if you listen, you can learn a lot about yourself during this journey.

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Why I chose the X100s

I’m not sure if other photographers are like me, but I spend so much time in a constant debate over which camera equipment to bring before any trip.

Since selling my Canon gear 3 years ago and slowly building a collection of Fuji (X100s / X-T1 / X-T10 / XF16mm / XF35mm / XF56mm) I was fortunate enough to have the choice of what to bring for this trip.

x100sI had narrowed it down to the X100s, or the X-T10 + XF16 and XF35 lenses. After changing my mind on a near daily basis, I eventually decided to simplify EVERYTHING on this trip, therefore I would only bring my X100s. I had previously spent 3 months backpacking around India with this camera and think it’s an incredible travel camera.

My reasons for bringing just the X100s was that I wanted simplicity. This was very much my philosophy behind the entire trip – to get away from every day life of choices and go back to basics (this was also the basis for my terrible decision of bringing only 2 pairs of socks for a 17 day cycle trip). I was clear that this was not a photography trip; it was all about the experience of the camino, and the X100s was always at hand to document it.

And if I had to choose only one reason why this is still my favourite travel camera, it’s because it doesn’t interrupt your experiences; but instead is there to complement them. Photography has taught me how to see, and when a camera fits in so seamlessly with your life, it can help deepen your appreciation of that moment.

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Flight of the Swans – X Series on expedition – Part 1

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X-Photographer strip BLACK

By Ben Cherry – Environmental photojournalist & Fujifilm X-Photographer.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the volunteer media team covering a project called Flight of the Swans. This is an ambitious conservation expedition, where Sacha Dench will paramotor from Arctic Russia back to the UK over 10 weeks following the flyway of Bewick’s swans.

This charismatic species was what encouraged Sir Peter Scott to set up Slimbridge and eventually the Wildfowl Wetlands Trust (WWT). Now though, the species is under threat having gone through a dramatic decline over the past twenty years. Between 1995 – 2010 the Europe population fell from 29,000 to just 18,000. The purpose of this expedition is to raise awareness of their plight, to confirm the key reasons for it, and hopefully create solutions.

This is the first of three blogs covering the project. Here we will focus on the lead up to the take off and the ground team reuniting with Sacha. Then there will be a blog during the expedition and one just as we all return to the UK.


How I got involved

Ambitious and ‘out there’ projects like this don’t come around very often so when I saw the advertisement online I jumped at the chance to get involved. I was lucky enough to be shortlisted alongside an amazing group of people and the next step was a selection weekend in Wales, where we were put through a series of exercises to see how well we can adapt and collaborate. This was a fantastic weekend, supervised by seasoned explorers and everyone came together, despite the competition and lack of sleep!

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Image courtesy of WWT/Jessica Mitchell

Once I was informed that WWT would like me to be a part of the media team, I became as available as possible to help where I could, leading up to the off. We have been put through a series of training exercises from remote first aid, to satellite phone tutorials, as well as covering some of Sacha’s specialist training, like having to jump into a simulation pool at RNLI College, Poole to see how well her flotation devices for the paramotor work! It does help that she used to be a professional free diver…

You can find out more about the selection process here – choosing our dream team  To read my personal reasons for joining the project you can see that here – Meet Ben Cherry, one of our media volunteers.

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Long road ahead! Autumn is about a month ahead of the UK in Russia, which is why the Bewick’s have started migrating. X100T

What kit I’m taking

I have two bag set ups for two different purposes:

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Shoulder bag/go bag

This is basically the first thing I grab when we arrive at a general location. It contains an X100T, X-Pro2, XF16mm F1.4, XF35mm F1.4, 56mm F1.2 and an SP-1 printer. The set up encourages me to be creative as well as being small and not intimidating when first encountering a new community.

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Backpack – Wildlife/assignment bag

When I know we are going out to find the swans or capture other aspects of nature, then this is the bag I grab. Inside is an X-T2, X-T1, XF10-24mm F4, XF16-55mm F2.8, XF50-140mm F2.8, XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6. As well as miscellaneous items like filters, cleaning kit and a flash set up.

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Having the two distinct bags means that I can keep my kit focused for particular types of photography, as well as not constantly overloading myself with gear. This particular project has so many interesting factors, from tracking the swans which are very timid in Russia and much of Europe, to engaging local schools, conservation and hunting groups. My kit has to be able to maximise each and every opportunity.

The rangefinder cameras are brilliant as they are particularly inconspicuous. I keep them together as I use my right eye with the rangefinder cameras, while I use my left eye with the SLR style cameras. The X-T range cameras are generally more flexible, particularly the X-T2. So from my perspective it makes sense to keep the most versatile lenses (zooms) and cameras together. Generally the X-T2 has the XF100-400mm attached inside the bag so it is ready in case we come across any wildlife suddenly or Sacha has to take off/land quickly. The advanced autofocus and 4K footage makes the X-T2 ideal for this kind of project.


How has it gone so far?

At the time of writing this (23rd September, now I will hopefully be running around the amazing tundra!) we the ground team have just arrived in Arkhangelsk, Russia. Referencing the map below, that is where the blue line from the UK has stopped, as well as the green line coming down from the tundra, that is Daisy Clarke, one of our satellite tagged Bewick’s! Sacha is the highest, turquoise line. To get the latest on our location be sure to regularly check our live satellite map – https://www.flightoftheswans.org/live-map/

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Sacha has made amazing progress so the ground team have had to work double time to make sure we join up and keep on schedule. We left on the 14th September, and have managed to cover over 2,500 miles during that time, along with a 32 hour stay at the Russian border.. We will hopefully reunite with Sacha tomorrow!

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Part of the ground team moving north in Russia

From there we will then steadily start heading back to the UK all together. Along the way we will be conducting lots of press, conservation and community events. Please be sure to follow our social media channels as we will be trying to make our presence known along route and could be passing nearby! I am in charge of the social media channels from the field team, so I will be sharing images straight to my phone via the FUJIFILM Camera Remote app and sharing them across our social media channels (see below).

Once we are back in the UK we will be visiting some of the fantastic WWT nature reserves as well as holding other exciting UK events. We will be running various live broadcasts too so be sure to stay up to date! You can find all the latest information via our social media channels:

Facebook – Flight of the Swans

Instagram – @wwt_swanflight

Twitter -@wwtswanflight

Next month I’ll be giving an update on the project, as well as offering a photo travel guide for the locations we have passed through. Our focus so far has been making as much time as possible, once we are all on the return leg then our media team can really get to work so I promise there will be plenty of photos to share in the next instalment.

Be sure to stay up to date! From Russia with love. 🙂

Ben Cherry

Twitter – @Benji_Cherry

Instagram – @Benji_Cherry

Facebook – Ben Cherry Photography

Fujifilm X-Photographer Page


 

India – The Good, The Great and The Downright Scary – Part 2

This is a two part blog into the adventures of Tom Corban and his trip through North & Northwest India, if you missed the original post you can view it here. 


As the trip went on and the temperature increased, I appreciated not having a rucksack covering my back. I began to realise that I was missing something. It was really brought home to me when we went north into the Himalayas to do some mountain biking. We were cycling downhill on a narrow bumpy mud track with a steep cliff face going up on one side and a sheer drop of over 1 kilometre on the other and I realised that there is only so much weight you want bouncing around on you, irrespective of how you are carrying it. I started fantasizing about my X-E2 with its kit lens, but more about that later.

Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Jo finishing a 26 km cycle ride which started at 3940 m, descended to 3413 m, then climbed back to 3627 m. Quite an achievement at that altitude.
Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Jo finishing a 26 km cycle ride which started at 3940 m, descended to 3413 m, then climbed back to 3627 m. Quite an achievement at that altitude.

One of the nice things about this trip was that it was a holiday. There was no pressure and no deadline for any images. This gave me the chance to experiment with the Fuji kit without worrying about making any errors. It may sound unprofessional to some people but I have been so impressed by the Fuji Jpegs that I now rarely shoot RAW files. I had not really explored the various film settings and tended to use the Standard and Velvia settings almost exclusively. Having now experimented with the film settings, I am developing a soft spot for the Black and white with a yellow (or in some instances red) filter and I have found that in the right setting the Chrome can be stunning. I had an almost childish delight in finding out what the camera could do.

A man sits on blue steps outside his house in Jodhpur Old City, Rajasthan, India. Jodhpur is also known as the blue city because of the large number of houses and walls painted blue which, according to the locals, repels termites which are a problem in the area.
A man sits on blue steps outside his house in Jodhpur Old City, Rajasthan, India. Jodhpur is also known as the blue city because of the large number of houses and walls painted blue which, according to the locals, repels termites which are a problem in the area.

We had decided to limit our travel to the north and north west of the country, travelling by train, bus and in the more remote areas, camel and 4 wheel drive. I was interested to see how the Fuji kit stood up to the rigour of travel and how it performed in some challenging environments. I was aware that my photography had already changed as a result of using Fuji cameras but it became much more noticeable on this trip. I made fewer images and I have become, on the whole, slower.  This is not a bad thing as I find that I am getting the results I want with the Jpegs straight out of the camera.

Delhi, India. India Gate at sunset, The 42 m high archway stands in the center of New Delhi and commemorates the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during World War 1. It also bears the names of British and Indian soldiers killed in the Afghan war of 1919. The structure sits in a large expanse of green lawns which are popular for picnics and cricket on summer evenings.
Delhi, India. India Gate at sunset, The 42 m high archway stands in the center of New Delhi and commemorates the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during World War 1. It also bears the names of British and Indian soldiers killed in the Afghan war of 1919. The structure sits in a large expanse of green lawns which are popular for picnics and cricket on summer evenings.

Slower behind the camera and then less time in front of the computer suits me well. I have also found that I have fewer “technical” rejects. I find that the focusing on the X-T1 is not as fast as the Canon 5D mk 3 so in some circumstances I have more out of focus shots than I would expect. However, for me this is more than made up for by the fact that I have far fewer unsharp photographs caused by camera shake in low light settings because of the wider aperture of the Fuji lenses, the lack of a mirror and the vibration it causes and the ease of holding the camera steady.

Phul Mahal (The Palace of Flowers) in the Mehrangarh Fort,Jodhpur, India. Built in the mid 18th centuryit was probably used as a private audience hall. A stunning room but with with very little light showing what the X-T1 can do in difficult lighting conditions.
Phul Mahal (The Palace of Flowers) in the Mehrangarh Fort,Jodhpur, India. Built in the mid 18th centuryit was probably used as a private audience hall. A stunning room but with with very little light showing what the X-T1 can do in difficult lighting conditions.

Perhaps if I were doing a lot of fast action work I would be more tempted to use the full frame camera but as things stand the Fuji suits me fine.

In low light settings such as religious services in Varanasi, the Fuji kit showed its strengths. Wonderfully sharp lenses and a camera that I could hold in my hands at slow shutter speeds.

Sunrise on the Ganges at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Garlands of flowers and candles given as offerings float on the river as the sun rises.
Sunrise on the Ganges at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Garlands of flowers and candles given as offerings float on the river as the sun rises.

The weather sealing stood up well in some difficult situations with temperatures of over 50 C in the desert and below freezing in the Himalayas, as well as rain, sand and huge amounts of fine powder dye during the Holi celebrations in Jaipur. There was a little wear on the camera body and the rubber cover that protects the HDMI, remote release and USB sockets has become a little misshapen with the heat but it’s a solid body built to last.

A man bathes in the river Ganges at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Hindu's consider the Ganges to be the most sacred river in India and thousands visit the Holy city of Varanasi to cleans their sins in the spiritually purifying water. Environmentalists are concerned about the high levels of pollution in the river caused by the increase in population and the resultant increase in pollutants discharged into the river.
A man bathes in the river Ganges at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Hindu’s consider the Ganges to be the most sacred river in India and thousands visit the Holy city of Varanasi to cleans their sins in the spiritually purifying water. Environmentalists are concerned about the high levels of pollution in the river caused by the increase in population and the resultant increase in pollutants discharged into the river.

Did I make the right decision to take the Fuji Kit with me on this trip?

Absolutely. It’s a joy to use. The full kit fitted into a small waist bag with the lens hoods still on the lenses, I had no difficulty keeping the sensor clean, the Jpegs were wonderful straight out of the camera and the film simulations are good (I mean really good). I can also hold it in my hands at low shutter speeds, the lenses are sharp and I had no trouble with chromatic aberrations.

With a kit that performed like that, what more could I possibly want?

Well my X-E2 with its kit lens really.

I said earlier that we had been lucky on this trip. Whilst that’s true, we did have some difficult times. We had a bag with my Fuji X-E2 and Jo’s phone in it stolen on a sleeper train from Varanasi to Agra. I had taken my X-E2 on a various trips around Europe during the past couple of years and was really fond of it. It was the sort of camera and lens combination that you could carry unobtrusively and I loved wandering around new cities with it. Heat, rain, fog – just tuck it under your jacket. As our India trip went on, I found myself wanting it as a second camera.  I know that this sounds a bit excessive but the option of occasionally leaving the full kit in the hotel and just spending some time wandering around with a smaller, lighter camera and the kit lens was very appealing and certainly would have been useful when we were cycling.

It had never been an option before as there was never anywhere secure that was large enough to lock up my full frame camera and lenses and, as a result, I would carry everything with me all the time. You do get used to it but it’s an ongoing nuisance and wonderfully liberating when you get home and don’t have to carry a heavy bag everywhere. To my delight, I found that the small safes that hotels all over the world use was large enough to fit all my Fuji kit in and still leave room for a backup hard drive and a few other odds and ends.

It’s a real game changer as it gives me the option of going out with the full kit or just the X-E2. Well it would give me that option if someone had not stolen the X-E2!  I will clearly have to replace it. Mind you I have not seen the X Pro2 yet but it certainly looks good on paper and the reviews are encouraging. Now, back in England, I find myself wondering if the X Pro2 will be the camera that finally makes me sell my Canon kit and move to Fuji completely.

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India. Young women in traditional dress during Himachal Day. Himachal Day celebrates the creation of the State of Himachal Pradesh after independence in 1948. Hima means snow in Sanskrit and Himachal literally means "The land of snow"
Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India. Young women in traditional dress during Himachal Day. Himachal Day celebrates the creation of the State of Himachal Pradesh after independence in 1948. Hima means snow in Sanskrit and Himachal literally means “The land of snow”

And if you’d like to read more from Tom check out:  To Glastonbury and beyond featured here at fujifilm-blog.com.

See more of Tom’s work at http://www.tomcorban.co.uk/

India – The Good, The Great and The Downright Scary – Part 1

Jaipuri, India.
Jaipuri, India.

By Tom Corban

It spread through the air like static electricity, conducting from one person to another. Fear truly is contagious.

Everyone was running away from the rather skinny looking snake. Skinny or not, the guides and camel tenders were visibly frightened. You could feel the fear in the air.

We had just spent our first night in the Thar desert close to the border with Pakistan, sleeping on the sand dunes with four other travelers we had met the night before. The blankets we had been sleeping on had been piled up ready to be put on the camels. It was then that the snake was spotted.

Three Camels at dusk in the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer District, India. The desert, also known as The Great Indian Desert is the worlds 17th largest Desert. It was here where we had the encounter with the snake.
Three Camels at dusk in the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer District, India. The desert, also known as The Great Indian Desert is the worlds 17th largest Desert. It was here where we had the encounter with the snake.

Armed with sticks, shovels and an axe, the camel tenders returned. One of them went forward and nervously lifted the corner of the top blanket. No snake. He lifted it higher, then pulled it off the pile as he quickly backed away. The others moved in with clubs and axes ready to pounce. Still no snake. They retreated again. This process was repeated four times before the snake was found. Each man swung his stick or axe clubbing the ground wildly before running away, looking back to see if the snake was chasing them. The snake however had disappeared into the sand. We asked Mulla (our guide) how dangerous it was. “It’s a Lundi snake, very dangerous, very poisonous” he said.  The men, armed with shovels, moved in. I thought they were just going to chase it away but the process of digging, hitting and running away continued until the snake eventually received a blow from a stick and a man with an axe moved in to finish it off.

When we got back, we looked up “Lundi snake”. Lundi is the Urdu name for a sub species of Saw Scaled Viper. It is described as a very fast moving snake that strikes quickly & repeatedly, with reports of it chasing its victims relentlessly, and in India alone, it is responsible for an estimated 5,000 human fatalities a year.

Once the snake was no longer a threat, the camels were saddled up and our companions from last night started on their way back to Jaisalmer.

A monk sits on the steps at a Jain Temple in Jaisalmer, India. The temple, which was constructed in the 12 century, is built of yellow sandstone and is famous for its intricate stonework.
A monk sits on the steps at a Jain Temple in Jaisalmer, India. The temple, which was constructed in the 12 century, is built of yellow sandstone and is famous for its intricate stonework.

Jo, I and Mulla set off in the opposite direction, further into the desert. There are many things one can do on a camel but being comfortable is not one of them, well not at first anyway. It also seems a slow way of traveling but before you know it you have covered a considerable distance and things that were on the horizon are now beside you. It’s a bit like traveling by canal boat in Britain but with more pain and less tea. It was scorching by the time we stopped for lunch and took shelter from the sun as it was far too hot to move when the sun is at its height. Even at 5pm when we stopped at an oasis to water the camels, it was still 42.9 C degrees in the shade. We finally stopped for the night on a small group of sand dunes. As Mulla made us tea, we watched 8 Desert Eagles circle in the thermals above us. Eventually they lost height and settled in a tree from where they kept us company till the morning. We spread the camel blankets out on the dune and looked at the stars till we fell asleep. Even though we woke many times during the night, each time the night sky was stunning.

The next morning Mulla said that there had been a lot of Lundi snake activity during the night and there were snake tracks around the camels. He said that he was relieved that the camels had not been bitten as it would have killed them. We showed him some tracks where something had come up the dune to where we had been sleeping and passed just over a metre away from where my head had been. “That Lundi snake” he said. “A big one”. “But we were sleeping there!“ we exclaimed. “You very lucky” he said.


We were very lucky a lot on this trip. We had started off in Delhi before going to Varanasi, Agra and then Ranthambore National Park near Jaipur. We were told that you should book at least 6 safaris to stand a good chance of seeing a tiger. We booked 6. We saw 8 different tigers including a mother and her two 9 month old cubs.

A tiger emerging from the grass at Ranthambore National Park, Sawai Madhopur, India. The reserve was the private hunting reserve of the Jaipur Royal Family until 1955. The reserve is thought to have 43 adult tigers and 14 cubs although it is difficult to be certain as it is an "open" reserve which forms part of a larger "tiger corridor" in the region.
A tiger emerging from the grass at Ranthambore National Park, Sawai Madhopur, India. The reserve was the private hunting reserve of the Jaipur Royal Family until 1955. The reserve is thought to have 43 adult tigers and 14 cubs although it is difficult to be certain as it is an “open” reserve which forms part of a larger “tiger corridor” in the region.

We met funny and generous people who went out of their way to look after us and show us around. We were accepted into an Indian family to experience the Holi festival with them in Jaipur.

A child covered in coloured dye during Holi Festival, Jaipuri, Rajastan, India. Holi is a Hindu festival celebrating the beginning of spring. Bonfires are lit the night before Holi and offerings made to ensure a good harvest. The main Holi festival takes place the following day when people throw coloured dye on each other. It is often celebrated privately within family groups but in the streets anyone is fair game. Holi provides an opportunity to disregard social norms and young men have been known to act disrespectfully as the day goes on. Advice is given for single women to avoid going out alone and for tourists to be off the streets by early afternoon.
A child covered in coloured dye during Holi Festival, Jaipuri, Rajastan, India. Holi is a Hindu festival celebrating the beginning of spring. Bonfires are lit the night before Holi and offerings made to ensure a good harvest. The main Holi festival takes place the following day when people throw coloured dye on each other. It is often celebrated privately within family groups but in the streets anyone is fair game. Holi provides an opportunity to disregard social norms and young men have been known to act disrespectfully as the day goes on. Advice is given for single women to avoid going out alone and for tourists to be off the streets by early afternoon.

We then went on to Spiti valley where we met the Lama of the Kee Monastry who showed us around, unlocking rooms and ushering us in as he went. In one room there was a metal encased Stupa about 10 ft high,decorated with emeralds and other precious stones containing ashes of the 6th to the 13th Dali Lamas. Afterwards he took us into his private room and gave us tea and cake before giving us his blessing and waving us off.

Kee Monastery (also spelled Ki and Key), Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. The Buddhist monastery, believed to be a 1000 years old, sits on a hilltop at an altitude of 4,166 meters. It has a collection of ancient scrolls and murals and is the biggest monastery in the Valley.
Kee Monastery (also spelled Ki and Key), Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. The Buddhist monastery, believed to be a 1000 years old, sits on a hilltop at an altitude of 4,166 meters. It has a collection of ancient scrolls and murals and is the biggest monastery in the Valley.

On previous trips through Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia I had taken my Canon kit. It had worked well but it was heavy and took up a lot of room. On the Nepal trip for instance, we had hired an extra porter as we were going into the Annapurna Sanctuary. It’s a long walk if you are carrying heavy gear and are not used to the altitude.

Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Buddhist prayer flags at Dhakar Monastery with the floor of the Spiti valley in the background.
Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Buddhist prayer flags at Dhakar Monastery with the floor of the Spiti valley in the background.

This time I wanted to travel lighter so I took the Fuji kit. This consisted of an X-T1 and three lenses. The XF 10-24 f4 lens, the XF 16-55 F2.8 and the XF 50- 140 f2.8. I also took a XF 1.4 Teleconverter and a Nissin i40 flash.

Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Farming in the Spiti valley near Kee (also spelled Ki and Key), The Valley is a high altitude cold desert. It is very remote and covered in snow for much of the year. Although this photograph shows tractors they were the only ones we saw in the valley where, because of the steep slopes, the type of cultivation is terraced and tractors are of little use.
Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Farming in the Spiti valley near Kee (also spelled Ki and Key), The Valley is a high altitude cold desert. It is very remote and covered in snow for much of the year. Although this photograph shows tractors they were the only ones we saw in the valley where, because of the steep slopes, the type of cultivation is terraced and tractors are of little use.

In practice this meant that I could carry the complete kit with ease in a waist pack. It was a bit of a tight fit when everything was in it, but when I was using the camera it was easy to change lenses or get the flash out. I found it much easier to manage the Fuji kit than it was to manage the Canon 5Dmk 3 with its lenses, where I needed a much bigger camera rucksack. Although the Fuji lenses I was using are not much smaller than the Canon Lenses, the X-T1 is significantly smaller than the Canon full frame. This meant that everything fitted into the waist bag even the lens hoods! The lens hoods may not sound like a big deal, but to me they are. Previously I had tried everything I could think of to accommodate lens hoods for my Canon lenses, ending up with collapsible rubber ones that I would keep in the top part of my camera rucksack and put on when I was using a particular lens. It was less than ideal. Changing lenses would usually require taking the rucksack off, opening the bottom compartment to change the lens and then opening the top compartment to get the lens hood.

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India. Housing on the hillside around Shimla. The town, built on seven hills, was the summer capital of British India, becoming the capital of Himachal Pradesh after independence.
Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India. Housing on the hillside around Shimla. The town, built on seven hills, was the summer capital of British India, becoming the capital of Himachal Pradesh after independence.

With the X-T1 body and the Fuji lenses with the lens hoods fitted, all within the belt pack, changing lenses became much easier. It was certainly a lot safer when changing lenses in crowded environments where there were warnings of pickpockets operating.

The other thing that is worth mentioning is that although in practice there was not much difference in size and weight of the Fuji lenses compared to the Canon ones, the Fuji ones have an aperture of f2.8 as opposed to the f4 on my Canon lenses. As a travel kit, I found it worked wonderfully. I had a good range of focal lengths and a comparatively wide aperture when I needed it.

Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh, India. Tribal women in traditional dress in Kalpa village. The Indian government has given 'Tribal Status" to the area in order to give special focus on the social and economical development of most deprived class of society i.e Scheduled Tribes. The region is very remote with no air, rail or waterway links. Roads which can often be closed by snow, swept away by floods or closed by landslips, are the only means of communication.
Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh, India. Tribal women in traditional dress in Kalpa village. The Indian government has given ‘Tribal Status” to the area in order to give special focus on the social and economical development of most deprived class of society i.e Scheduled Tribes. The region is very remote with no air, rail or waterway links. Roads which can often be closed by snow, swept away by floods or closed by landslips, are the only means of communication.

Part 2 of Tom Corban’s adventure through India can be found here. 

And if you’d like to read more from Tom check out:  To Glastonbury and beyond featured here at fujifilm-blog.com.

See more of Tom’s work at http://www.tomcorban.co.uk/