In autumn last year, with pandemic travel restrictions finally easing, I, like many, was chomping at the bit to jump on a plane and explore pastures new. Wherever my travels take me, I always go camera in hand. Although, I should stress that my travels are just that, trips – never designated "photography holidays".
I'm always looking to balance adventure with cost and this is best achieved through careful choice of destination. I knew I needed a bit of beach time but ideally wanted to compliment this with some hiking and photography along with a good dose of city culture. All while watching the wallet. Albania ticked all the boxes.
Nestled on the coast of the Adriatic Sea – bordering Montenegro to the north, Kosovo and North Macedonia to the east and Greece to the south – Albania is the perfect destination for the budget-conscious traveller looking to encompass city, beach and mountain, relatively hassle-free. Steeped in culture and history, and only a 3-hour flight from the UK, it was a no-brainer for me.
The capital, Tirana, was okay for a few days – think cold-war history and communist-era architecture – but I soon needed to get on the road in search of more appealing experiences. I chose to head to the mountains next, via the northern city of Shkodër on the border with Montenegro. With a decidedly provincial atmosphere, it was a welcome departure from the oppressive capital. Through my guest house, I arranged onward travel to the Albanian Alps, otherwise known as The Accursed Mountains.
The following day, taking only what I required for a couple of nights and leaving the rest at the guest house, I travelled by jam-packed minibus to the shore of Lake Koman. From here, I embarked on what is described as one of the most stunning ferry trips anywhere in the world. Lake Koman is a man-made reservoir, constructed during the communist era. The scenery that adorns the shores of the lake is nothing short of breathtaking, made up of foreboding vertical slopes, deep gorges and dense forest. Naturally, this is where my camera came out of its bag for the first time.
Shooting from a boat has its obvious limitations. The unstable nature of the platform seriously hinders the photographer's creative scope, denying one the use of a tripod or long-exposure techniques. You end up essentially just taking "snaps" of the scenery. This raised two relevant questions that got me thinking.
Firstly, is it practical to successfully shoot landscape photography whilst otherwise committed to travelling between locations, snatching opportunities here and there? The answer in this particular instance was an unequivocal no. To make the most of shooting the lake, a bespoke travel package was most definitely required. This would afford the ability to disembark at various spots along the line of travel and be there at the right time of day for the light. Trying to half-arse it by grabbing unsatisfying snaps whilst en-route just wasn't cutting it.
This in turn raised a second question – if all I was doing was grabbing snaps that would never amount to much, was there even any point to unpacking my camera? Or would I have been equally served using my iPhone camera? Especially as smartphone photography is a concept that has increasingly drawn and intrigued me over recent years. As what had been a very memorable ferry trip came to an end, the jury was still out on this second question.
From the port of arrival, I once again loaded onto a mini-bus for the final leg to Valbonë, a beautiful alpine village at the foot of the Accursed Mountains, where I spent the night in a traditional and very hospitable guest house with several fellow travellers, all with the shared plan to hike the Valbonë to Theth pass the following day. Early nights all-round.
The following morning, after a very hearty breakfast, I was once again bundled onto a mini-bus with my fellow hikers and driven to the trailhead. Though still very early and with some rays of morning sunlight peeking through the clouds, it was clear that an overcast and dull day lay ahead. Perfect weather for hiking! A little less inspiring for landscape photography. Although far more favourable than harsh sunlight and haze, it was still not conducive to achieving the quality of photography I aspired to.
Even if the conditions had been ideal, the group agenda was first and foremost about tackling the pass. Whilst not a technical climb, by any stretch of the imagination, it was certainly not an easy hike or for the faint-hearted. Opportunities to properly dedicate myself to landscape photography along the route were limited and, in any case, no one was going to wait around for me while I set up my tripod and created a frame. It just wasn't conducive to the activity that we were undertaking.
I again found myself pondering the necessity for a bespoke photography trip for this particular destination and the fact that I could have possibly got away with my iPhone for the "snaps" I was using my camera to take, negating the need to have dragged my camera kit up a mountain in the first place!
We made our way down off the pass, arriving in Theth in the late afternoon, checking into our guest house and treating ourselves to a few cold ones before dinner. A hearty meal was followed by more than just a few shots of the local raki which, in turn, led to dancing around a campfire with my fellow travellers and our Albanian hosts who were celebrating something or other. It's all very hazy. But it's experiences like this that make the best memories. The perfect end to an unforgettable day.
The following morning, in contrast to the day before, we were greeted by glorious sunshine. My plan, along with a handful of fellow travellers who I'd become friendly with, was to hike to a waterfall known as the Blue Eye of Theth. While the trail lacked the elevation that we had endured the day before, it was still a rather arduous full day's hike up and down the valley and far from easy-going underfoot. However, it should afford more opportunities for the style of landscape photography I had originally set out to achieve, both along the valley and at the Blue Eye.
Despite the harsh sunlight and haze working against me, I did find the opportunity to deploy my tripod and camera without overly hindering the group's cadence. With that said, my iPhone was still used in equal parts to my camera, producing comparable results that I was more than happy with. However, as we arrived at the Blue Eye, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had actually bothered to drag my camera equipment with me.
Not only was I going to need my tripod for the long-exposure techniques required to shoot the waterfall but my polarising filter was also going to earn its keep in reducing the reflection of the harsh sunlight on the water. Naturally, I still snapped a shot on my iPhone but you can see the difference in the two resulting images below. In this instance, my camera kit proved its worth over the smartphone.
Sore and weary from two days of hard hiking, we made our way back up the valley to Theth. The following day, I mini-bused back to Shkodër and onwards to the white beaches and turquoise waters of southern Albania. Unfortunately, this is where my adventure was abruptly cut short. Before I got the chance to shoot any seascape photography, as was my plan, I was called back to the UK due to a staff member contracting Covid 19. Sod's Law. So whether my camera or iPhone would have won out in that particular set of circumstances is yet to be put to the test. Watch this space. My staff member made a full and rapid recovery, I should add.
So where am I going with all this?
Firstly, I need to resolve the disconnect between my desire to travel and shoot landscape photography. Ultimately, I believe the answer to this lies in refining my process. I could start booking myself on guided photography holidays. But this isn’t likely. For me, travel is all about loose plans, freedom and adventure, an ethos that flies in the face of a guided holiday, in my opinion. I mean, never say never, but no time soon.
Self-planning a dedicated photography holiday is more desirable and something I'm more likely to embrace. But to be perfectly honest, the wider act of travel is much more the priority in my eyes. I enjoy travel for the sake of travel. For me, photography, dare I say it, is very much secondary and incidental to travel itself.
What I do need to improve upon is planning and research. This is an important skill for any landscape photographer but one that I have been reluctant to adopt. Like I say, I'm very much a let the chips fall where they may personality type. But I recognise how even just a little research can reap massive rewards in terms of increased efficiency and reduced frustration once on location. I've recently been watching some interesting Youtube videos on this very subject and picked up a few tips which I intend to discuss in a future blog post. Stay tuned.
In terms of equipment, I won't be trading in my camera in favour of my smartphone anytime soon. After post-processing a selection of the RAW files taken with my camera and comparing them to the iPhone JPEGs, it's clear that to do so would be premature for most photographic scenarios, to say the least. Even if I were to upgrade to the latest iPhone model with the most up-to-date sensor, it still couldn't compare in terms of optics or controllability.
What I have done is reduce my equipment burden by embracing the Fujifilm X Series (as discussed in my JPEG Only? article). The lightweight and compact nature of this mirrorless camera system lends itself perfectly to both landscape photography and travel, requiring less space in my rucksack. Next, I need to treat myself to a carbon fibre travel tripod in place of my current aluminium model. It's on my wishlist.
In terms of the iPhone, I have backed an interesting campaign on Kickstarter by a company called Fjorden. They have pioneered an attachable DSLR-like control grip for the iPhone, something I personally believe will prove a game-changer for smartphone photography. This will give me another powerful tool to add to my box and further complement my primary camera system, while not outright replacing it. I may even treat myself to an iPhone upgrade and reap the benefits of the improved camera capabilities. Again, something for the wishlist.
So, as with everything in life, we aim to refine and improve. My next trip, coming up in a week's time, is to my old stomping ground of Cambodia. This is somewhere I have very much neglected in terms of landscape photography, despite having lived there for 18 months. Naturally, I'll be taking my camera and tripod. Cambodia is a charmingly chaotic place and this tends to have a knock-on effect on even the best laid plans. However, plan I must if I am to progress. Continually doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of madness, as they say.