The Azores

BlueHour's big scouting trip for 2018 was to The Azores islands of Portugal - or, Açores. If you haven't heard, these volcanic islands are called "The Hawaii of Europe." This destination is becoming more and more popular for tourism, as the weather is nice year-round, and is not particularly far from the east coast of the U.S. We spent one week island-hopping across 3 of the 9 major islands: Faial, Terceira and São Miguel.

Our first stop was Faial, the smallest island of the 3. We found this island to be the hardest to get to, having to take 3 planes to get there. It is also the most rural. We spent our two days here exploring the perimeter, the Capelinhos lighthouse located on the volcano, and Horta, the marina which in its heyday was one of the most trafficked in the world.

 Our view from the hotel room at sunrise © Paul Nguyen

Our view from the hotel room at sunrise © Paul Nguyen

 Framing up the Lighthouse © Paul Nguyen

Framing up the Lighthouse © Paul Nguyen

Our next stop was Terceira. A little bigger, and certainly not as rural. The houses were beautifully designed and were so colorful. This island was so different than the last. An interesting spot we visited many times was Cha Gorreana, Europe's only working and oldest tea plantation. This photo is from the early morning, when the tea hedges were shrouded by fog. 

 Gorreana Tea Plantation shrouded in fog

Gorreana Tea Plantation shrouded in fog

The green farmland was very characteristic of this island. We drove to one of the highest viewpoints for this perspective on the pasturelands. 

 Sunset at Serra do Cume

Sunset at Serra do Cume

The northern coast of the island was mostly obsidian, or lava rock from previous volcanic activity. If you're adventurous, and careful, you can make interesting long exposure photographs of the waves crashing over them. 

 Lava Rocks on the Ocean

Lava Rocks on the Ocean

Paul captured a great video using our new drone to show you "how it's made."

The city of Angra is also worth mentioning. The buildings are pastel colored, and you can drive to the top of the volcano on the other side to look upon the port city. We found a public park up there complete with a small zoo home to parrots, lots of roosters, and deer.

 Angra do Heroismo

Angra do Heroismo

Something else that caught us by surprise is that we arrived in Terceira on one of the days of the "Tourada a Corda," or, Rope Bullfight. This street-style bullfighting is only found on this island during May through October, and takes place in various town squares. Five men hold the rope of the bull while the ends of the street are barricaded off. Onlookers take to any higher ground they can for viewing. The "in-the-street" show allows for spectators to also participate - just make sure you can run fast enough. We had to see this for ourselves. 

The bullfighting was certainly a cultural highlight of the trip. Another highlight, though, was using our new drone to capture bird's eye perspectives of this incredible landscape. We almost didn't bring it since we're still new to piloting, but we're so glad we did. Check out some stills:

The third and final island, São Miguel was the largest, and the one we were most looking forward to exploring. This island is characterized by large, blue lakes and craters that were certain to make amazing photographs. 

 Paul at Lagoa do Fogo

Paul at Lagoa do Fogo

 Dorks at Lagoa do Fogo

Dorks at Lagoa do Fogo

Even though São Miguel is the most populous, you'll still find plenty of farm life and agriculture.

The photo that made me investigate this place as a potential destination was one of a seemingly endless hiking path up a mountain over a crater. For some reason, it was extremely difficult for us to find the trailhead to make this photo. There was no real name for this part of the trail, and it wasn't on any official hiking routes. After hiking everywhere but where we needed to be, we finally found it - it was a viewpoint hidden away in the very back of another lake that we were at earlier on our trip. 

 Stairs to Nowhere

Stairs to Nowhere

And we're so glad we found it when we did, because that evening turned out to be the only sunset of the week. And, our other potential shoot spot became shrouded in fog so heavy that there would be no shot to be made. Luck was on our side! The entire shoot produced great results. Here are two different takes on the same sunset and same crater, at different variations of light conditions:

 © Paul Nguyen

© Paul Nguyen

We'll definitely be back, and hopefully with other photographers in tow. The purpose of these scouts is to one day create a photo tour for our students. Azores, we'll be seeing you again!

Scouting Utah: The Big 5

Last time I posted, I wrote about our photo tour to Arizona. This post is about the "after tour" - the few days afterward that Paul and I stay to explore new areas  for the purpose of launching future tours. The entire state of Utah is ripe for epic photography, and we were already right there, so why not?

Since Paul has already extensively photographed through Zion and some of Arches, we decided to visit the other 3 of the "Big Five:" Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands. Put them all together, and you have a photo tour to all 5. 


We began the long ride back north directly from the airport. Phoenix to Bryce Canyon is a 7 hour drive, and we were on a mission to make it for sunset that evening. And we did! We spent about an hour shooting the hoodoos as the sun set behind the cliffs, and then stayed up most of the night trying to capture the Milky Way, which is a lot harder than it seems, since the canyon is so deep. And, to make it even more difficult, there is almost always a group of people attempting to light paint here and across the Southwest. This sort of thing could work if done correctly, but if you're trying to photograph the whole canyon while someone else is light painting, you can forget about making a nice photo. Waiting for them to finish or leave is what makes night photography in Utah very patience-intensive. Despite the light painters, Paul made a great panoramic image of the Milky Way Center. 

 A cool panorama of the entire Milky Way center © Paul Nguyen

A cool panorama of the entire Milky Way center © Paul Nguyen

Even though we spent the whole day driving, and the whole night photographing the night sky, we managed to get ourselves up and out of bed for this amazing sunrise too. Tired and sleepy, but worth it!

 Sunrise over Bryce Canyon

Sunrise over Bryce Canyon

 Sun flare through the Window © Paul Nguyen

Sun flare through the Window © Paul Nguyen

We like to keep our eyes out for interesting compositions that you may not notice had you not been looking. The shot most go for here is the sun rising over Thor's Hammer, the stone spire on the right hand side. Instead, Paul waited for the right moment and captured the sun flaring through this natural window. We think it makes for a more interesting and pleasing shot. Join us on any photo tour and we'll teach you how to keep an eye out too.

 Inspiration Point

Inspiration Point

 Descending Bryce

Descending Bryce

We also met a pretty tame squirrel on the trail. Check out how close we could get with our cameras in this video:


After the morning, there was one stop I wanted to make in the nearby Grand-Escalante area. I had seen photos of this place from various photographers, so I wanted to see it myself too. The Zebra Slot Canyon is a small, extremely narrow slot canyon that you can walk into if you follow an unmarked trail all the way to the end, which can seem extremely long if the weather is clear and hot. I couldn't find any official trail listings for this place, and the only advice I could find were in blogs that didn't have very specific information (like distance!). If you're going to do this hike, make sure you bring enough water and sunscreen for an approximate 5 mile hike, roundtrip. There is some sand which makes walking difficult. We left our camera packs in the car, knowing how narrow this was going to be. I consider myself a very small person, but even I struggled getting into the canyon. There are water pockets requiring you to ditch your shoes, and you'll have to force yourself up the wall a little bit too to get over a log. If you do all of this, you'll be rewarded with a cool shot like this one. We didn't see the cool and warm light at the same time, but nevertheless, the patterns are really nice. 

Allie in Zebra Slot Canyon © Paul Nguyen

Check out what Paul did...

We then headed to Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef is a big park, about 60 miles long and 6 miles wide, enveloping the Waterpocket Fold. If you come here, make sure you program the actual park entrance and not just "Capitol Reef National Park." Our GPS took us a very long way out of the way. We didn't realize it until it was almost too late. According to our GPS and Google, it would take us more than 2 hours to drive from where we were (on the Southeast corner, dirt road) to the main entrance. Somehow, I made it there in under 45 minutes. Even shaving 5 minutes off the estimated time is an achievement, so I don't know how that's even possible. I deserve a T-shirt or something. 

This park is very desolate. We saw very few people here. But even so, there are some cool features that have photographic potential. One of them is on a short hike we did called "The Tanks." Natural sandstone pockets in the earth collect rainwater, and on a cloudy day could look really cool with a reflection. Unfortunately, when we went, it was very dried up. 

Disappointment at The Tanks © Paul Nguyen

 The Tank

The Tank

There are interesting facets of this park, like the Mormon settlements and orchards within. There are lots of little caves and even cliff drawings here. 

After Capitol Reef, we made our way toward Canyonlands. We made a stop (a couple of times) at Deadhorse Point State Park, which overlooks a bend in the Colorado River. The wind here was more powerful than anything we've experienced; there was a moment I thought my camera gear could have flown away with the wind.

Dead Horse Point © Paul Nguyen

The most famous part of Canyonlands is Mesa Arch. We tried photographing it at night time, pleased that there was no one else there to ruin our shots. Be careful at night, don't get too close to the edge!

 Mesa Arch by Night

Mesa Arch by Night

The next morning was clouded over, but by around 7 or 8 AM the sky had cleared. Paul made the trip back to capture this sun flare as the sun was rising higher into the sky. We love how you can see the landscape through the arch. On our potential photo tour, we'll take a small group of photographers here to capture the sun flare inside the arch at sunrise.

Mesa Arch © Paul Nguyen

After Canyonlands, it was time to make our way back home. We were flying out of Salt Lake City. The area is surrounded by some pretty mountains and farmland. We made a quick stop for some photos of these sheep.

Sheep Farm © Paul Nguyen

While we were taking pictures, the owner saw us and decided to show us a one-day old lamb that was born that morning.It was so awkward and cute.

1-Day Old Lamb © Paul Nguyen

We made it to SLC in time for sunset, and I managed to find a nice spot of the temple, perfectly reflected. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a small part of the city cut out just for them - and it is amazing. The architecture and gardens are so well-kept and curated. I'd say it's worth a visit if you're in the area.

 Salt Lake Temple

Salt Lake Temple

We'll be launching a photo tour based on our itineraries to Utah: The Big 5 in 2019. If you're interested in joining us, feel free to comment or email us.

The Best of Arizona

BlueHour launched a photo tour to the best sights in Arizona this past April. We took a small group to areas based on our itinerary in 2017, when Paul was serving as the Artist in Residence at Petrified Forest National Park. We made a big loop, flying into Phoenix, driving to Holbrook & Petrified, to Page, and then south to Grand Canyon and Sedona. We had a blast!

Kris photographing among the wigwams

One of our first stops was the city of Holbrook, Arizona. This town was once bustling in the heyday of Route 66, and when archaeologists found fossils in Petrified Forest. It still has some interesting remnants ripe for photography, like the Wigwam Motel, complete with some great classic vehicles.

Betsey getting a closer look

Our first "official" shoot of the trip was a new one for us all, at Spider Rock of Canyon de Chelly (pronounced, Canyon de Shay!). We were treated to some spectacular color on the way there, and long after the sun had set, though only our cameras could pick it up. This is why we always try out long exposures, even after the 'main course.' You might be surprised!

Ⓒ Paul Nguyen

The Coelophysis - crowning jewel of PeFo

The next morning, we spent the entire day exploring Petrified Forest, though we couldn't stay until sunset. Unfortunately, with the the cut backs to National Parks, Petrified is understaffed and the park hours have shifted significantly. I know Paul did enjoy bringing others into his Park experience, though. From there, we made our way north to Page, which is home to Horseshoe Bend, slot canyons, and Lake Powell. 

We took the group on a boat cruise across Lake Powell all the way to Rainbow Bridge, a sacred natural bridge to the surrounding native tribes. It is one of the smallest units under the care of the National Parks Service. Lake Powell itself is an incredible, both man-made and natural feature, whose coastline in total is longer than the entire United States. We documented a part of the cruise using our new 360 degree camera! Our new 360 videos are interactive, meaning you can actually drag the video around 360 degrees using your mouse, or by moving your mobile device from side to side. Try it out!

Allie photographing Rainbow Bridge Ⓒ Paul Nguyen

The next part of trip was exploring one of the slot canyons nearby. Page, AZ is very famous for Antelope Canyon, North and South. They offer a lot of abstract compositions and colors, but unfortunately due to their fame, are very, very crowded, expensive, and overall not a comfortable experience where you can take any time to "make your shot." These canyons also belong to the Navajo tribe, as they are part of the reservation land. You cannot simply walk in - you have to be accompanied by a guide. So we decided to try out a very similar, but lesser known canyon called Canyon X. Rather than being pushed through from beginning to end, we had approximately 4 hours to explore two slot canyon areas at a relaxed pace. Our guides taught us how these canyons were formed, and even created these great "sand waterfalls" for us by throwing sand onto the uneven walls. We definitely recommend visiting the lesser known spots!

Paul practicing his smartphone-ography on the sand falls

Ⓒ Paul Nguyen

 Sand Falls

Sand Falls

Canyon X

Just over the border and into Utah is a short trail to a spot we visited last year: The Toadstools. The trail doesn't look like much, but once you reach the end you'll find tall, columnar spires with rocks resting on top of them like pedestals, hence, "toadstool." This is a great spot to learn how to use Sun Surveyor and to capture the sunset, or, take a silly group photo. 

The Toadstools at sunset Ⓒ Paul Nguyen

Part of the group at The Toadstools

Part of the charm of being out west is all of the culture around Historical Rt. 66, now a scenic byway. Cities like Flagstaff and Williams have some of the most preserved stretches of its heyday, like an antique train, neon signs, gas pumps and diners. We love to stop and photograph these cultural icons!

Memorabilia in Williams, AZ

Rt. 66

After getting our kicks on Rt. 66, we spent an entire day in Grand Canyon National Park on the South Rim. We drove all the way out to the watchtower, and then let everyone have a free day to shoot and explore. We met up at Hopi Point for sunset, a very popular spot for photographers and tourists. We were expecting throngs of people, but not so! Mother nature was ferocious and the winds must have been at least 30-40 mph, with gusts up to 50 - more powerful than what we experience in Iceland even. And, it even snowed a little bit. Despite this and the freezing cold, our group was tenacious, toughed it out, and was rewarded with some killer sunset photos. That's what it's all about!

 Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Sun flare & photographers, toughing it out for sunset

And to top off our trip, we spent a day in Sedona. Sedona is located at the bottom of a valley and is known for its thriving arts, health and healing community. We hiked to the top of Devil's Bridge, the largest natural bridge arch in the area. We explored some of the kitschy shops downtown, and spent sunset photographing Cathedral Rock from Crescent Moon Ranch. 

Kris & Suzanne at Devil's Bridge, Sedona Ⓒ Paul Nguyen

 Cathedral Rock, Reflected

Cathedral Rock, Reflected

We definitely weren't alone for our sunset shooting either - we were joined by a couple of dogs who wanted to cool off in the river. We love this 360 video of them! 

If you enjoy following along on our travels, consider joining us in person on a tour!

My First Photo Tour to Italy: A Success!

I know it's been awhile since I last posted, which makes sense considering how busy it's been in the "off-season." It's fitting my last post was about Italy, since I just returned home from there again. I led a photo-tour to the big 3: Rome, Florence & Venice for just over a week in March. 

 Gondolas during blue hour before sunrise - it was snowing!

Gondolas during blue hour before sunrise - it was snowing!

 A photo during sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo, overlooking Florence.

A photo during sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo, overlooking Florence.

I was a bit nervous to have the responsibility to guide first-timers around these places with BlueHour. This tour was the first of its kind, since nearly every tour we do is almost solely focused around landscapes and landscape photography. Italy is very, very different, especially when it comes to tourism sites like Rome. We were able to fit in the very best these cities had to offer in a short amount of time. I was really happy with how it all came together! Though, with some changes, which we will be implementing in the future. 

I'm proud of the shots I managed to make on this trip! I was looking forward to visiting Burano most, since I had never been and it was a stop I missed on the first go-round to Venice. Even though it was raining on that day, the rainbow-painted houses are a sight to see!

I also made a timelapse this time of the Colosseum at night:

I think one of the best parts about Italy, and I don't think anyone would disagree, is the food. I was able to revisit some of my favorite restaurants again, with the addition of trying the famous Florentine Steak! We even did a wine-tasting outside of Siena, which are always so much fun. I learned something brand new over the course of that day - all about Balsamic Vinegar. I had no idea how "the real thing" tasted, and I didn't know I would like it. We got to sample 12-year and 20-year aged Balsamic, and I think it might have changed lives!! I'll never look at Balsamic the same way again, and no more cheap stuff for me! I made sure to take plenty of photos of our culinary experiences:

 St. Peter's Basilica & The Tiber River after sunset.

St. Peter's Basilica & The Tiber River after sunset.

And, the blog wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention our stop at the Florentine leather school, where I bought myself a nice leather trench coat, and our tour-goers made some quality purchases as well. If you're going to buy leather goods anywhere, Florence is the place to do it.

The Aventine Keyhole

The making of the keyhole photo - It just looks really silly doesn't it - photo by Paul Nguyen

After the conclusion of the tour, Paul and I stayed an extra couple of days to scout out new locations for a new Italy tour. Our next stop will be Southern Italy, where we'll take photographers to locations like Sorrento, Capri, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast (it will be warmer there too!). It was a nice change of pace to visit the much quieter Amalfi & Positano, compared to the likes of Florence and Rome. 

 The classic perspective of Positano.

The classic perspective of Positano.

I even made a "cat series" of photographs, since Italy, especially southern Italy, has so many of them scurrying around. They'll make a nice addition to my existing ones!

Interested in our 2019 tour? Send us a message so we can put you on our 'shortlist,' and we'll email you details when we're closer to our tour announcement before anyone else!

Italia: I Went, I Saw, and I’ll Be Back Again Soon

Not quite how that saying goes, but it works as a title.

From Centro Storico, Perugia

I have long wanted to revisit Italy since I studied there at the Umbra Institute in Perugia four years ago (I can’t believe it’s already been that long…). I decided that this year I finally would. I set aside two and a half weeks to mill about Perugia and the surrounding towns, and also to explore the Val D’Orcia, a part of Tuscany I have known about for years but never was able to visit in the past. I booked my tickets early on in 2017, and with everything else I’ve been busy with, I nearly forgot I was going!

But, November 10 arrived and I was up for another marathon-of-a-day in planes, trains and buses. The best part about international flights is they come with a pillow, blanket, multiple meals – and free alcohol! I admit, I was particularly nervous about this trip since I hadn’t travelled alone in quite some time, but as soon as I saw that we were approaching Rome, I couldn’t keep the smile from my face, and the nerves faded.

The first thing I did when I arrived after the bus into town was to order a cappuccino & cornetto – the breakfast of champions. Well, maybe not, but, it was perfect. Instead of English, everyone around me was speaking Italian; I had missed hearing it. (I really should have brushed up on my language skills before coming). Already, even in the train station, people sounded different, looked different, the smells were different. There’s something exciting about being somewhere completely different from what you’re used to.

I only had one day in Rome before making the trip to Perugia. I walked all over the city. I took a few pictures, and went to see an Oasis cover band perform. I made a great decision, because somehow, I met my good friend Cory’s college roommate completely by chance. What are the odds of that happening? We could have spoken all night without knowing about the mutual connection. Crazy!

I packed up my too-big-for-Perugia suitcase, made my way to the bus station and was on my way. I stayed at a hotel just outside the city center for a whole week – something I never get to do. Of course, it was Sunday, and rainy – not a soul was out in the center. It was really surreal being back, but even more so seeing it in the off-season.

I spent the whole week walking around familiar places, eating at old and new restaurants, and spending time with friends from way back when. With the passage of time, things were different, but also the same. I’m glad I was able to come back.

Umbricelli alla Norcina

I also met someone who I’d like to think I’ll keep in touch with for a long time. He showed me his hometown, took me to the waterfalls and the lake near his home, cooked me meals (he is a chef! Can’t get better than that) and even introduced me to his friends and family. It was probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me and I’m so grateful for such an authentic experience.

Marmore

Carbonara & Red Wine Linguine

Though I loved being where I was, it was time for the next part of my trip. My friend from home, Heather, was coming to join for this part! She had never been to Italy so it was exciting to be able to show her around and explain how things worked, or what things were. I met her in Florence, where we walked around the city, ate lots of pasta, drank lots of wine, and went shopping (how could you not?).

Fiocchetti alle pere

Desserts & pastries everywhere

We had rented a small apartment in an agriturismo (a ‘hotel’ if you will, but on a working farm) between the tiny cities of Pienza and San Quirico D’Orcia. It’s the place you think of when you think “Tuscany.” We rented a car outside of Florence and drove about an hour and 40 minutes south in the night. When the sun came up – we both spent the morning just walking around the property, looking around. Every single property here is a farm and they are all located some distance away from one another atop a hill lined with cypress trees. Amazing. Though it was late in the year and the soil was being tilled, it didn’t matter.

The driveway to our agriturismo

Cypress in Montalcino

There were also 5 cats on the property, which Heather and I both took the liberty to pet and play with them. We’re cat ladies.

I would feel super guilty if I didn’t be a ‘mofo photographer’ for at least one day while I was here. I woke up at sunrise on two mornings to scout out locations and photo spots for future tours! The best part about where we were staying is that every spot is within 30 minutes of each other.

I was treated to this amazing sunrise; I made a timelapse too, though I wish I had started earlier.

 Podere Belvedere

Podere Belvedere

I will for sure be returning in the Spring at some point to photograph the wheat fields and flower blooms.

Oncoming storm & Cypress rows

Bagno di San Filippo

The rest of the time was spent exploring and relaxing. Heather and I spent a day at the Spa in Bagno Vignoni, where we got a red wine hydro-massage bath and took dips in the thermal water. And in the same day, went to Bagno San Filippo and Fossa Bianco for some admission-free  hot spring relaxing, locals-style. We visited Montepulciano, which is most famous for their ‘Vino Nobile,’ or ‘Wine of Nobles,’ which carry a special denomination. We did some wine sampling, and our Christmas shopping at the Christmas market. We had arms full of meats and cheeses. And on our last day,  we took a cooking class, and learned how to make Pici (the traditional Tuscan pasta) from scratch, a tomato sauce and a pear & ricotta pie. Mmmm.

Needless to say, I had a wonderful time and I can’t wait to go back.   

Molly & Ryan

My last wedding of 2017 was for Molly & Ryan at the Sturbridge Publick House Inn, MA. The day went painlessly thanks to the work of the coordinators and staff! Though November is late in the year and a little chilly, the atmosphere was warm and the couple's friends and family couldn't have been happier for the newlyweds. 

Here are some of my favorites from the day and evening:

The little details are always a favorite for me to photograph

The lacing on Molly's dress was beautiful!

The royal treatment - Molly rode in a golf cart on her way to surprise Ryan for their 'first look' pre-ceremony

The first look!

The whole bunch of 'em

My second shooter really captured the silliness of the groomsmen! Love the selfies shots.

Getting ready to walk down the aisle

The ring exchange

And of course, the kiss.

Congratulations Molly & Ryan!