Mixing Work and Play
We were only just back from 10 days of work/exploration in the gorgeous Hebrides. My wife had previously made it clear that she needed a holiday in the sunshine too. To be specific she said sunshine, beach, pool and a sun lounger. After a tough first year as a Newly Qualified Teacher she had definitely earned herself a break. My only issue was I wasn't sure I could do a fortnight on a sun lounger. This would require some thought.
So with Ailsa's holiday list in mind I now needed to consider my own. Mine was fairly simple. We enjoyed similar things but I needed to find somewhere with bucket loads of photographic interest. Ideally a bearable climate and something a little different. With it being the school holidays flight costs were going to be prohibitive, so ideally the destination needed to be within the usual short haul distances.
The Hebrides had been fantastic, awe inspiring at times and baffling at other. I'd perhaps seen too much of a good thing in too little a time. Like a greedy kid in a sweet shop I never really had time to pause, think and truly 'enter' the landscape. One of those occasions we all know where we know we have left far too many images behind. I will naturally be returning as soon as I can, as it was definitely love at first sight with this wild and varied corner of the UK.
I knew I wasn't ready for 2 weeks of horizontal sun cream appliance. I need activity, exploration and I need to create. A bit of good old fashioned work/play balance. If I sit still for too long, I'll be shooting water abstracts in the pool and looking for shadow patterns among the sun loungers. (EDIT. This did actually happen..)
The location had to be affordable, warm, coastal and with a good blend of photographic interest. The location had to be affordable, warm, coastal and with a good blend of photographic interest. Enough interest to spend a week exploring perhaps? We love the Greek Islands, we've seen a few but we fancied something different.
Lanzarote - The Canary Islands
I thought of The Canary Islands because they certainly ticked a number of boxes. I thought of them because of the climate, that ever present 'breeze' that takes the edge off the heat. 26 years earlier I'd been to Lanzarote as a fledgling teenager and I had some vague memories of what to expect from the landscape. It would certainly tick the 'challenging' and 'different' boxes. So I put it on the table and it wasn't rebuffed.
We checked a few of the usual websites, we scanned tripadvisor for accommodation reviews and before I knew it we we had booked the Timanfaya Palace, in Playa Blanca (a stones throw from where I had stayed a quarter of a century before). It would be interesting to see how it had all changed. I booked a hire car for the second week, giving us a week of rest and relaxation and a chance to acclimatise a little before heading out to explore.
Flights to Lanzarote
Lanzarote is well served from throughout the UK by a large number of different airlines. The flight time is approx just over 4 hours and flights vary from about £100pp to £400pp depending on the time of year. Arrecife has good facilities and a number of leading car hire companies operate. Buses were plentiful and reasonably priced. We booked a coach connection in advance through our travel company to bring down the cost.
Lanzarote doesn't roll off the tongue when you think of Landscape Photography locations but it offers something quite unique. Lanzarote is a Spanish Island, it is the easternmost of the Canary islands in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 125 km off the coast of Africa. Covering 845.9 square kilometers, it is the fourth largest of the Canary Islands. The dimensions of the island are 60 km from north to south and 25 km from west to east. Lanzarote has 213 km of coastline, of which 10 km are sand, 16.5 km are beach, and the remainder is rocky.
Its landscape includes the mountain ranges of Famara (671 m) in the north and Ajaches (608 m) to the south. South of the Famara massif is the El Jable desert which separates Famara and the Montañas del Fuego. The highest peak is Peñas del Chache rising to 670 meters above sea level. Lanzarote's volcanic birth is very much in evidence everywhere you travel on the island.
The island emerged about 15 million years ago as a product of what was known as the 'Canary hotspot'. Alfred Wegener, the noted geophysicist visited in 1912 and concluded that the island fitted with his theory on continental drift. Lanzarote, along with others, had emerged after the breakup of the African and the American continental plates.
The greatest recorded eruptions occurred between 1730 and 1736 in the area now designated as Timanfaya National Park. The force and scale of these eruptions is very evident within the immediate landscape.
75% of the population are Spanish but Brits account for about 4%. The currency is the Euro.
Lanzarote has a fabulous year round climate. The average winter temperatures are 17-20c with the summer hovering at about 25C+. For those who don't like it too hot you'll be pleased to know that the fairly constant breeze has a great cooling effect. Do be careful in the sun though because the wind can make it quite deceptive. Wear plenty of sunscreen and don't forget your sun hat. We visited in September and the sea temperature was also very pleasant.
Where to Stay?
Our hotel was in Playa Blanca, located on the Southern Tip of the Island. Heading out from Playa Blanca did mean that I found myself covering old ground regularly to reach different parts of the Island. Teguise and even the capital Arrecife are perhaps better located to ensure you are equidistant from all the action. If you head north and choose to go via Arrecife then you will have to negotiate your way around the ring roads but it wasn't too busy. We found good sat nav coverage using the Galaxy Note 3 and Google Maps (at the naturally extortionate roaming data charges).
The island is blessed with a lot of holiday accommodation. Prices naturally jump during the school holidays (I'm married to a teacher..) but their are lots of options in some of the smaller seaside towns away from the resorts. Lanzarote offers everything from the occasional campsite, to camper van hire, rentals at every price point and hotels for every budget. When I return it will be self catering and I will definitely look further afield. Food and drink was affordable and we came across many well stocked supermarkets along the main routes. We particularly liked the look of some of the seaside towns in the north east of the island, notably Arieta and Punta Mujeres. They had a more local feel and were less touristy.
Driving and Car Hire in Lanzarote
Driving is on the right. We found the roads well maintained and largely traffic free. Signage was good but we used Google Maps where possible as some of the 'tourist' maps were not entirely accurate. Motorways run from north to south on the island with a speed limit of 100kmh. When leaving the tarmac do be careful of the change in height as the majority of pull-ins and lay-bys were not tarmac. Tracks away from the main roads were best suited for 4x4s. It does get windy so take this into account. Cycling is also popular on the island so please give cyclists plenty of room. Drivers do need to ensure they carry their passport, driving license and hire agreement at all times. Passengers all need to buckle up and the drink driving limits are far lower than the UK. Barefoot and flipflop driving is also illegal.
We booked our car hire through Holiday Autos in advance and collected our car from the airport. I took out excess protection for peace of mind. Always check over your hire car fully and photograph and report any damage you find before leaving. Our gear lever fell off on departure but this was remedied straight away and we were given an upgrade. Fuel prices have come down considerably in the Canary islands are on a par with the UK.
We only used public transport to pick up the hire car and we found it on time and reasonably priced.
What to Pack?
The tricky bit comes when trying to pack for a trip like this, especially when using budget airlines. I'd immediately topped up my baggage allowance but I still knew it would be a hard task. I had to consider my desire to bring snorkeling gear, a laptop, gym gear and enough clothing to at least maintain a little wardrobe variety. This being a downside of staying in a nicer hotel.
I opted to take my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 with a Seido Obex waterproof housing. My main camera would be a Canon 5d Mk III and I packed my 24-70 f2.8 L II, a 14mm f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8 L. Into the bag went a host of Formatt Hitech and Lee Filters. A spot of Gaff (never travel without it..) and a wireless remote. I travelled with a new Feisol CT-3472 tripod that I am trialing and a 44mm ballhead to keep weight down.
I dropped most of this into a lightweight and now bulging Lowepro Flipside Sport which would be my carry on case. Insurance aside, I was not willing to let my camera out of my sight. I knew I was taking a chance travelling with only one body but this was supposed to be R and R after all. With the gear I had I felt that I could cover most eventualities. I also had some flexibility if I decided to cover things from more of a documentary perspective. I also needed all the gear to fit in the hotel safe. I'd checked ahead for dimensions, although the hotel were happy to assist with additional secure space should it be required.
What to Photograph?
Initially my focus had been to capture the wider drama of the volcanic landscape inland. Lovers of coastal photography won't be disappointed. I was also toying with a more journalistic approach based around an idea I had in the Hebrides looking at crofting. Lanzarote and the Hebirdes both share the wind and they have adapted their agriculture accordingly. Look out for the wonderful vineyards sunken into the landscape and protected from the harsh drying winds by curved walls. The majesty of the volcanoes offered a fantastic backdrop in many locations but foreground interest can at times be tricky to come by. Endless, largely flat lava fields can dominate much of the landscape. Leading lines were few and far between. The light changed dramatically throughout the day so it pays to vary when you head out to different locations. The textures and colours of the volcanic landscape were very interesting indeed with considerable potential for more abstract work. The town of Haria in the north was very picturesque with its white painted houses and green doors.
Lanzarote's climate is great all year around but it does get a little windy at times. There is certainly some variation in different areas of the island. I found the North slightly wilder and offering more reliable cloud across the volcanic spine that separates Orzola from Caleta de Famara. It can also be a little cooler down in the valley at Haria. The wind can be both a blessing to the sun-seeker and a hindrance to the Landscape Photographer. The wind is both a blessing to the sun-seeker and very much a hindrance to the Landscape Photographer.The breeze is fairly constant, often increasing later in the day. Achieving sharpness working at slower shutter speeds can be a challenge later in the day if you are using drop in filtration. I happened to have packed the largest of the lot. At times I was transported back to the Isles of Harris, Lewis and The Uists, desperately holding a golf umbrella braced against the wind to try to mitigate its negative effects.
Lanzarote's volcanic landscape in the interior can be repetitive and with little interest in the sky for the first few days I had the car, I found it quite testing. With limited time this was always going to be more about research. I did made a note of a variety of spots I'll certainly return to. As R and R was supposed to be the primary factor on the trip I was keen to not get too irked by things that were out of my control. I could sense great potential but often the crucial ingredients I wanted would not align. Of course good images come with a lot of trial and error and a healthy dose of patience.
I must admit I didn't do a great deal of photographic research and avoided looking at other photographer's work of the island. I did of course scan Google Maps intently and TPE (The Photographers Ephemeris) and I checked the tide tables too. The weather forecast was looking great for the sun lounger portion of the trip but sometimes those cloudless, blue skies don't always work for landscape photographers seeking drama!
Budget flights as part of package holidays often lead to horrendously early flight times. I usually get no sleep and arrive on my last legs. A couple of breakfast beers on the flight while catching up with the latest issues of OnLandscape and Outdoor Photography ensured I was struggling. Although I did have a vague recollection of the island, I was at first surprised at how arid and harsh the immediate landscape appeared. Lanzarote can appear very barren in places. Give it a chance though and you will find it equally spectacular. An almost lunar landscape but with its own unique variations. As the coach wound its way south through the lava fields from the airport towards Playa Blanca, I was a little worried whether my fiancee would approve and whether I was going to find what I was looking for. I needn't have worried.
I spent the lion's share of my time on the outskirts of the Timanfaya National Park and along the stretch of coast from Salinas de Janubio to El Golfo. By car you are limited to a number of small pull-ins between the two locations. There is improved car parking at the Salt Flats and El Golfo. The majority of the attractions, which do offer some great photographic interest get very busy. Working first and last light is crucial if you want the area to yourself. A head torch is a must as the paths back to the car tend to be unlit.
On my first visit I found a wonderful natural volcanic inlet about 1km West from Janubio, where a sea arch had formed along with an interesting blowhole. The light wasn't ideal and a reccy suggested that the best spot was a small beach uncovered at low tide about a 10-15m climb down. There were some wonderful smooth boulders that offered a great contrast to the harsh jagged volcanic walls of the inlet. I returned the next day and after a very careful climb down, worked for an hour in this captivating spot. Attempts had been made to shore up the end of the inlet with crude concrete but this had since broken away. So if you do find the same spot please exercise care if you choose to climb down. Make sure you check the tides and wear appropriate footwear. I made my way further west along the same road towards El Golfo.
There were some wonderful locations along this road but few stopping places. Much of the land to the west of the road is protected and to be fair looks a little perilous. Great swathes of the strata have literally crumbled and folded down the slopes of the volcanic peaks. On the other side of these peaks lies the much photographed green, sulphurous lake at El Golfo. El Golfo is incredibly popular and one of the main tourist attractions on the island. You need to be there very early or at last light to beat the crowds. This is certainly the case if you want a wider shot.
I'd chosen to visit at low tide and I was more taken with the fantastic variations in and around the rock pools. Again there was wonderful contrast between smooth black boulders that sat alongside jagged volcanic forms. The rocks all warrant a closer look as they contain a wonderful array of fiery reds and turmeric yellows.
The rocks are also horribly slippy. I was rushing to make it around to the beach, racing the failing light. It is not a good place to be rushing, especially laden with equipment. With time not on my side, I set up to capture some of the rock pools. I found a spot blessed with wonderful curving, leading lines out towards the ocean. I left a lot behind at El Golfo and have strong ideas for when I return. The black sand of the beach offers wonderful contrast to the varying hues within the rocks. The striated, layers of what must be a former caldera that surrounds the lake have great potential.
Timanfaya National Park
On the outskirts of Timanfaya National Park I found an area where the lava fields were partially covered with ash. This gave a subtle change to the landscape with the ever present volcanic peaks in the distance. The ash provided not just a textural contrast but was also home to a myriad of lichen predominantly a vibrant yellow in appearance. Arid and unforgiving it may appear but the volcanic ash and rock are very fertile. There was some good cloud movement above the mountains but the strength of the wind put paid to any ideas I had about longer exposures.
We eventually got to Timanfaya National Park on our second attempt. The queue was well out the gate when we first arrived in the mid afternoon. We did a u-turn assisted by a helpful attendant and the ticket office kindly gave us a refund so we could return early the next day. All attractions in Lanzarote get very busy in the holidays. You want to get there first thing or late in the day to avoid the long waits. The idea is to beat the Coach parties! Entry was Euros 9 per adult at all island attractions. A multi-visit ticket is an affordable way to see several of them.
I didn't know what to expect beyond the geyser demonstrations and geothermal restaurant but it transpired that the trip is undertaken via a coach. The Coach offered Spanish, German and English commentary. This gave you the background of how the Islands were formed and when the volcanic events that shaped the island took place. All of this with an eerie, desolate sounding soundtrack designed to add drama!
The landscape was stunning, the scenery offered so much potential but it was going to be challenging to capture anything through the dusty coach windows. It was fun watching an army of other tourists rushing from one side of a bus to the other firing flashes into the windows and generally looking puzzled as their image preview gave them the bad news. It was spectacular though and there was some impressive, mildly hair raising bus driving to enjoy en route. I'd love to know if it is possible to gain access out of hours to capture the majesty of the place.
Timanfaya is worth seeing but don't bother thinking about proper landscape photography unless you are willing to covertly slip off over a wall. Saying that, there was something about the official's uniforms that reminded me of a Bond villain's henchmen.
I can be a bit of a sceptic and something about the whole 'pouring water down a tube to create a burst of steam' just didn't seem right. I couldn't help but think a man and a tap were down the hole! It is however well worth seeing and a fun spectacle.
Exploring the North of the Island we visited the wonderful coastal town of Orzola which certainly had a lot to offer. The North of the island is split north to south by a ridge of volcanic peaks. At the north of this ridge is Mirador del Rio, a viewpoint designed by Cesar Manrique affording a wonderful view across to the Island of La Graciosa and beyond. We didn't quite make it there, preferring to explore a little off the beaten track.
This same ridge ends dramatically just north of Orzola with a huge cliff face leading to a number of interesting sea stacks beyond a horseshoe shaped volcanic bay. The coast here is a maze of jagged volcanic spikes, reminiscent of giant termite mounds eroded by the fierce onshore winds. (Seaspray, often my nemesis, was abundant....). There is also a ferry you can take from Orzola out to the nature reserve island of La Graciosa. It is well worth a visit but I only hope that the boat we saw fighting its way out through the surf wasn't the ferry! If it was then it would be prudent to check the weather and do a little research. Not for the faint hearted.
For those seeking seascapes this area is a must. I used the area as an opportunity to test out some new Formatt Hitech ND filters. At 165mm x 200mm the very large size of these filters makes them a trickier proposition in breezy conditions. Setting out north from the main car park takes you through passable trails towards the water's edge. There are some wonderful fisherman's huts built into the loose volcanic rocks. There is a real other world feel due to the looming volcanic spires all around you. There was a local 'dancathon' going on in the town square which we narrowly avoided getting roped into.
To the south of Orzola the coastline was beautiful with small, rugged stretches of sandy beach. A natural lagoon existed along the same stretch, that provided a lovely sheltered area for a swim and snorkel. The very same windbreaks used to protect the grape vines on the island were in evidence here to keep the sunbathers out of the wind. As it was one of the cloudier days, the wind had a bit of a bite to it so I got busy with some of my own wall building. I note that the lighter weight volcanic rock with its rough edges is very good for wall building. It was a very popular beach with local families, with many making a day of it with tents, elaborate windbreaks and BBQs. This is definitely an area I would return to. It had plenty of pull-ins for camper vans and beaches you could have entirely to yourselves.
As a part time beach bum and surfer, a trip to the surfing spots of La Santa and Caleta de Famara were a must. The dunes at the latter offered some wonderful sand patterns as the sun lowered in the sky. The high mountainous ridge that runs alongside Famara beach does have the odd lofty cave offering magnificent views back along the coast. I look forward to checking them out in the future. The queues prevented us from seeing Cesar Manrique's Jameos del Agua to the north of Arrecife on the east coast. We did park up to explore the coastal strip there. For surfers, just a few hundred yards SE of the carpark there is what looks like a great left hand point break, breaking over a sandy bottom with long rides possible. You can get quite close to the action from the shore with a longer lens if you fancy trying your hand at surf photography. There were some great rock pools too for kids.
Rest and Relaxation
Escaping the heat usually meant heading to the water. I spent a fair amount of time snorkeling in various spots on the island and I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. Just a yard from the swimming steps on the seafront of Playa Blanca there are a huge number of fish to see. We ventured further each day and eventually decided to take some bread with us to feed the fish. Wow! There is nothing quite like being in the sea surrounded by literally hundreds of fish. I was able to put my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 through its paces, utilising the Seido Obex waterproof case. I was impressed at the results from a camera phone.
We saw a good sized Octopus and on the day we fed the fish, a Barracuda cruised past to see what all the commotion was about. Naturally the Barracuda has grown since the tale was first told. A scuba diver I met, who had just returned from the Red Sea, was genuinely surprised at how much there was to see in the waters so close to shore. He showed me images of Morays, Stingrays, Atlantic Rays and both Lemon and Guitar Sharks. Had he shown me pictures of any more menacing sharks I would have done my snorkeling in the pool. He was kind enough to explain that you are far better off diving than snorkelling. As a diver you present yourself less as prey on the bottom than you do afloat on the surface as a silhouette. Duly noted.
Apart from the access issues the lava is slow and dangerous to navigate. A very sturdy pair of hiking boots are a must, best worn on the way out to keep weight down. Some areas are prohibited as part of protected zones and others I imagine for safety reasons. The loose volcanic ground is very sharp, it takes few prisoners and varies considerably with regards to stability. It can be both solid and quite brittle. Where the ground has been forced up there can be hidden troughs and voids. There are some tracks into the lava fields but they are basic and not suited to the average hire car. I was definitely missing my Land Rover. Your feet will guide you best, just make sure you take plenty of water, sunscreen and pack a good lightweight hat.
I have a ruined pair of running shoes to show for a few forays I made into the lava. I can't stress enough the potential for injury. Take Care!
I'll Certainly be Returning
I will definitely return to Lanzarote and I feel there is great potential throughout the island. I have some projects I'd like to further there. After a good reccy, I have a better idea of where I'd like to base myself and how to get the best out of the locations I have found. I'd also like to explore the islands nearby, notably Furteventura and La Graciosa. It is of course all about the light and if you can get things to come together then there is much to enjoy.
Fuerteventura has considerably less light pollution so is very popular with stargazers and astro photographers. Lanzarote is a wonderfully textural, rugged landscape and I think the micro landscapes and abstracts on offer are excellent
Lanzarote is a wonderfully textural, rugged landscape and I think the 'micro landscapes' on offer are excellent.
You need to look past the barren, lunar landscape and do some exploring. You will of course find yourself yearning for a spot of greenery, a woodland or forest after a while. I think the variation I sought in the landscape started to come with greater familiarity. As is often the case, the more I looked, the more I began to see.
If you can arrange travel outside of the main holiday season, flights and accommodation can be quite reasonable. Even during peak season, I booked a car for a week for under £100. I'd definitely recommend Lanzarote as a destination, especially with good access to the nearer islands. With winter temperatures hovering around 18-20C you can certainly see the allure. It won't be for everyone but if you yearn for something a little bit different, that can be coupled with a traditional beach resort holiday then I'd give Lanzarote a go.
- Book out of season. Save money out of the peak season and avoid the crowds.
- Pack Light. Try to keep your gear flexible.
- Location. Opt for somewhere more central.
- Hire Cars. Shop about and take out excess protection. Photograph the car on collection.
- Uneven ground. Wear appropriate footwear.
- Snorkel. Pack your snorkeling gear and take some bread to attract the fish.
- The Sun. Cover up with sunscreen as the wind can be deceptive. Pack a hat.
- Beer and Wine. Very reasonably priced and plentiful.
If I can give you any advice don't hesitate to get in touch.