Earlier this month, I had the privilege of being in Northern Spain, leading my new workshop that delved into the fascinating realms of modern and traditional architecture. Our journey began amidst the sleek urban landscapes of Bilbao. The city’s avant-garde structures offered a minimalist aesthetic that was both challenging and rewarding to capture.
The Guggenheim Museum, with its titanium curves, was particularly intriguing. We were fortunate to be there during an exhibition of the Japanese contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama, whose signature trademark of polka dots artfully arranged in the reflecting pool in front of the Guggenheim added an intriguing layer to the composition. These playful dots contrasted with the museum’s contemporary architecture, creating a dynamic visual image. As we patiently waited for the blue hour to set in, another remarkable element came into play – gas flames shooting up from the pool. This unexpected and dramatic element not only introduced a touch of breathtaking drama but also created a captivating juxtaposition between the fiery flames and Kusama’s whimsical dots, making for a seriously unforgettable photographic moment.
After our time in Bilbao, we headed to the coast for a night of photography and anticipation. Our goal was to capture the sunrise over San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a place made famous by its appearance in Game of Thrones as the location of Dragonstone Castle. The rugged coastline and the mystical atmosphere of the place were so captivating that I decided to extend our stay here next year. We need more time to fully delve into the dramatic rock formations along the coast and make the most of this incredible location. One downside to this location is the influx of crowds drawn by social media and its Game of Thrones fame. However, as we hiked down to our dawn spot, we were pleasantly surprised to find that all the crowds we had seen the previous afternoon had vanished. As the sun did its thing, painting the sky in those dreamy orange and pink shades, all you could hear were cameras going crazy, trying their best to capture the pure magic of this iconic spot.
Next on our photography journey was Laguardia, nestled in the heart of the Rioja region. Here, we had the pleasure of photographing the architectural wonders created by the likes of Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry. Their creations seamlessly blended with the surrounding landscapes, making for some compelling shots. And of course, no visit to Rioja would be complete without some wine tasting. The rich flavours of the region added an extra layer of enjoyment to our photographic adventure.
Finally, we based ourselves in Zaragoza for three nights, ready to explore the nearby gems. The ancient Castle Loarre was a true marvel, perched atop a hill, offering a breathtaking panoramic view of the countryside. The villages of Aguero and Riglos, nestled at the base of the Mallos, were like something out of a storybook.
Back in Zaragoza, our first evening proved to be full of drama. As we stepped out of our hotel, I looked up and said, ‘Quick! everyone get back inside!’ No, we weren’t under attack by aliens, but something incredible was happening in the sky. There was a brilliant rainbow arching over the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. We jumped into the lift to the top floor and within minutes we were capturing the incredible light on the cathedral with the stunning rainbow from an open window on the staircase.
It wasn’t an accident that our hotel was strategically located next to the cathedral as I always try to book a hotel with a view. It really paid off on this occasion as we could photograph the gorgeous light on the cathedral from a parallel viewpoint without the distortion of converging verticals that one might encounter at ground level. Once the rainbow started to fade, we headed out to get into position for the blue hour from the river.
When crossing the bridge, we noticed the unusual storm clouds moving in over the cathedral. These were none other than Mammatus clouds, characterised by their distinctive pouch-like protrusions suspended beneath the clouds. They typically form as a result of descending cold air, often associated with the powerful cumulonimbus clouds responsible for intense storms. I had the privilege of photographing them once before on Win Green Hill in Wiltshire.
Walking along the River Ebro, we photographed the cathedral reflecting in the tranquil waters. This was a complete contrast with what was looming overhead in the sky. It looked more apocalyptic. We set up our tripods along the parapet of the Puente de Piedra or Stone Bridge also called the Bridge of Lions because of the four lions (symbols of the city) that were placed on pillars at each end of the bridge in 1991. The warm, golden lighting on the cathedral created a striking contrast with the chilly blue hues of the storm clouds. It was like a natural clash of colours that added a whole new dimension to the scene. After capturing several images of the brooding Mammatus clouds over the cathedral, there was one more location that I wanted to take the group to before the sky became too dark. Just behind the bridge was a small park that provided a perfect view of the old bridge with the cathedral behind. The sky was becoming too dark, but I was confident that the sensor on the D850 would pull out the details that I needed. I switched lenses to the Nikon 24mm f/1.8 prime. This is my go-to lens for creating sunburst effects, especially with the lights on the bridge. I stopped the lens all the way down to its smallest aperture of f/16 to increase the size of the starburst. Once we wrapped up, the incredible experience left us in disbelief. Our first night in Zaragoza concluded dramatically, but more awaited.
I decided to upgrade one of my clients to a particular room with an incredible view overlooking the square behind the cathedral. This way, each of us could set up our cameras by his open window. On our last evening, as another storm rolled in over the cathedral, the sky lit up with lightning bolts dancing next to the majestic pillars. It was the perfect opportunity to put my lightning trigger to the test.
Despite several attempts, the trigger didn’t cooperate, failing to capture the dramatic lightning strikes. Frustrated but determined, I switched to a manual approach, taking successive long-exposure shots one after another, hoping to catch that elusive lightning bolt. After numerous exposures, there it was – a captivating shot of lightning streaking towards the cathedral. It marked an incredible conclusion to our unforgettable trip.
Now, all that’s left is contemplating how I’ll surpass this experience when I return to Spain next year. If you would like to join me book your place now.
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