Prague

Ten years ago I visited Prague for the first time. It was an exciting trip - I was abroad on my own , without my parents for the first time. I don’t remember too much except for the fact the food was great.

Since we moved to Paris, I was a bit sceptical of Prague: it’s so popular among Russian tourists, a company that I don’t enjoy too much; besides, what’s so interesting about Eastern Europe anyway? What an idiot I was.

We finally went there for Anna’s birthday. It was absolutely awesome. We were mostly doing the standard tourist stuff - sightseeing, walking, eating way too much. I’m not gonna bore you with the details, but here are the main highlights that are not the obvious tourist attractions:

  • Elixir Mystery Escape Game is probably the best escape game I’ve ever been to.

  • Museum Kampa has a pretty nice collection of modern art, and had a great temporary exhibition “Office for eyes, nose, mask, tongue, heart, hand and mouth”.

  • Konírna had some of the best food we had in the town, surpassing, in my opinion, even the excellent U Pravdů

  • Pedal boating on Vltava was an amazing experience. We took a regular pedal boat and soon realized we could’ve walked a bit further and gotten a much cooler swan-shaped boat.

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This was clearly not a photography trip - I tried to spend as much quality time with Anna and our friends as possible, so I packed a fairly minimal kit of RX1R II and a FlashQ Q20.

I always worry if I won’t be able to get the shot when I pack small like this, but I gradually learn to put more trust into the “pocket rocket” that the RX1R II is.

Once again I was impressed with how much variety in shots I could get with just a fixed lens, a flash, a panorama stitcher software and a high resolution sensor.

They went over the top with the black pepper, but otherwise it was an excellent shawarma.

They went over the top with the black pepper, but otherwise it was an excellent shawarma.

We had quite a bit of fun with the compact off-camera flash - no regrets there!

We lived right next to the Manifesto market. It’s a hip food market with a dozen of food stands.

We tried the mini pancakes (pretty good!), the shawarma station (too much pepper, but otherwise good), the ice cream stand (service is a bit slow, but worth the wait) and the cocktails (not bad at all).

The ice cream was worth the wait.

The ice cream was worth the wait.

Overall, this place is worth the visit if you’re in the area and are hungry for some street food, but not much of a tourist attraction in itself.

We visited the Jewish quarter, where in the Spanish Synagogue you can find a beautiful interior but also historical photographs telling you the story of the Jewish community in Czechoslovakia and specifically in Prague.

One of the things that amazed me in Prague is just how much open space there is. The streets and the sidewalks are wide, and you don’t feel claustrophobic with a wide river and big green spaces all around. You really don’t need to go that far to get to a nice park, with no buildings towering above the trees wherever you look. There is something very human about this. It’s just easier to breathe than in London or Paris or New York, where the city spans many kilometers around the city center.

Pretty nice view from Letna Park!

Pretty nice view from Letna Park!

An improvised photo shoot using a FlashQ off camera.

An improvised photo shoot using a FlashQ off camera.

In Letna park, located on a hill, we enjoyed the view of the city. There is a funny Stalin bar that stands on the place where a Stalin statue once was - it played some very loud techno music :)

There are many pubs in Prague, and it was a pleasure to come back home and have a well deserved pint of cold, light liquid bread.

Enjoying a pint after a long day of sightseeing

Enjoying a pint after a long day of sightseeing

The pedal boat was a surprisingly great experience. Would totally do this again!

We spent almost a full day in the botanical garden. Of course we came on the one day of the week when the greenhouses were closed, but the park is absolutely worth a visit by itself.

Thank you, dear friend, for your unlimited patience.

Thank you, dear friend, for your unlimited patience.

Of course having a flash in my bag led to a bunch of experimental pics. Most of them are the flowers in the carousel above, but we had this impromptu photo session in a huge hollow stump. Turns out, tiny radio triggers don’t work so well through 20cm of wood. I’m happy with this result though :D

On the last day we went to Vyšehrad - I’ve seen the castle on our way from the airport, and I thought we just had to go. It offers a beautiful view of the city, and the St Lawrence Basilica is phenomenal.

I have to say that the public transportation system is awesome in Prague. The Soviet-era metro is clean, quick and efficient; the buses and trams run on schedule, and it’s extremely easy to go around.

This is a vertical panorama of three images. The golden hour sun peaks from the clouds and hits the church for extra dramatic effect.

This is a vertical panorama of three images. The golden hour sun peaks from the clouds and hits the church for extra dramatic effect.

So in conclusion, this was a great trip, and Prague is a fantastic city. I will definitely go there again, once I’m done losing all the weight I gained in Prague’s delicious restaurants. Even the Game of Thrones e05s08 couldn’t make it a poor experience.

Happy Birthday, Anna! Thank you for regularly bringing us together with our friends :)

Already looking forward to seeing you next year!

Already looking forward to seeing you next year!

Spring in Paris

The spring is here, and we’re trying to get as much of it as we can. The days are long, the flowers are in bloom, and we feel great. Well, except for my seasonal allergies :)

Two weeks ago we opened the longboarding season on the banks of Seine with our friends. That was lots of fun!

Too cool for school.

Too cool for school.

It takes two to tango

It takes two to tango

Last week we went to Oise to reserve our future kittens. We were planning to rent a car, as the cattery is a few km away from the nearest train station; but eventually we chose to make this a small adventure and rented electric bikes. It was the first time trying e-bikes, and they are a lot more fun than I imagined.

Anna and her e-bike on the road by Oise

Anna and her e-bike on the road by Oise

Our future kittens! They wont’t come until end of June, and we can’t wait!

Our future kittens! They wont’t come until end of June, and we can’t wait!

Of course I had to fly my drone ;)

Of course I had to fly my drone ;)

Today we chose to just enjoy our city. We went to a Russian restaurant called La Cantine des Tsars, and then had a nice walk in Jardin des Plantes.

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Jardin des Plantes is a very popular place right now, and for a good reason!

Jardin des Plantes is a very popular place right now, and for a good reason!

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Ski Trip 2019

I just came back from an exciting ski trip to Les Arcs. Basically, this is the same trip we did last year. I was really excited about it in many ways, including photographically.

I had a great time out there. The conditions for skiing were pretty terrible, with only 2 days of good visibility, and a few snowstorms so bad that the entire resort was closed. I went there motivated to improve my snowboarding, but I feel like my skill didn’t improve at all because of the poor conditions and lots of downtime. I also was planning to spend a lot of time with my friends and coworkers, and I indeed enjoyed it a lot.

As I was preparing for the trip, I packed a ton of gear. Thing is, the transportation is really convenient, and I was confident I won’t have to lug my heavy bags for hours. I also knew the location very well, so I knew which tools I could use in which conditions from last year’s experience. Unfortunately, the conditions were much less picturesque compared to last year, so I came out with very few pictures. I made a few technical mistakes, and I definitely overpacked. Let’s talk about my impressions and every piece of gear I took, with pictures :)

Sony A7R III + lenses

This is my main camera. I primarily took it for shooting a panoramic of Mont Blanc in the sunrise. That’s also why I took my big and heavy 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G and a tripod. That’s 1500g of camera + 1200g of tripod + roughly 150g of the L-bracket.

The result? This 100+ Megapixel pano of the first light of the day kissing Mont Blanc.

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And this other, 75+ MPx pano a few minutes later.

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So was it worth it? I would say yes. To me, these are special images, and I enjoyed hiking uphill with a heavy backpack to be rewarded with this pano. Special landscape images often require heavy, bulky specialty gear in a special location at an early hour, and in this case I was able to get an image I’m proud of within roughly 1 hour from waking up, a few hundred meters from my hotel. Basically the only price I had to pay is the few laughs I got from my friends when they looked at my camera bag.

Drone selfie of me taking the panorama of Mont Blanc. My camera, on the right, is recording a timelapse, now that the best light has passed.

Drone selfie of me taking the panorama of Mont Blanc. My camera, on the right, is recording a timelapse, now that the best light has passed.

The other two lenses — the 16-35 zoom and the 55 f/1.8 prime — I only used once for some causal portraits. I hoped for slightly more use for them, especially the zoom, but the conditions didn’t materialize. A total overkill.

One of the casual portraits with the 16-35 zoom

One of the casual portraits with the 16-35 zoom

Mavic 2 Pro

Last year I took my Mavic Pro with me, and the video I got from it was excellent. This year, I upgraded my drone for two reasons: higher image quality, and follow-me mode that allows the drone to go downhill. My hope was to get some video of us on the slopes, but really we got only 10 hours of riding in good weather, so I didn’t waste it taking videos: I came there for snowboarding first, photography and parties being just a compliment.

This type of perspective you can only get with a flying camera.

This type of perspective you can only get with a flying camera.

In fact, I didn’t even fly it in follow-me mode. All the flying was done in convenient time, and every photographer will tell you that best images/videos come when the light is right, which is almost never a convenient moment. Therefore, I cannot really say much about the improved features of the Mavic just yet. I will say, however, that the photo quality is on par with the Sony RX100 III, which is just great.

I made a small video from the drone clips. You can see that the dynamic range is decent, for a flying camera that is. You can also see how I’m a terrible pilot. Most of the footage comes from the 1.5 days of good weather that we had, with one clip where I sit on the slope coming from the snowstorm, to demonstrate the typical conditions we got in there.

RX100 III

I just love this little camera. I borrowed if from my wife, who’s not shooting with it anymore, using the Fuji X100T and her phone instead. For many, it’s hard to justify having a compact camera like this when you have the phone. For me though, it has a couple of important advantages. A tilt screen and a viewfinder really help taking a shot in bright sunlight; the mechanical controls are more usable in gloves; and the image quality, especially when zoomed in or in low light, is noticeably better than any phone, when viewed on something larger than a phone screen. I tend to view my pictures on at least an iPad, so the phones are still lacking in image quality for me.

And yet it’s so small that I took it with me every day when skiing. This let me take some of the best images on the trip, as the light comes and goes in the mountains.

Last light of the day coming into the valley, as I’m taking the last chairlift up.

Last light of the day coming into the valley, as I’m taking the last chairlift up.

Quick shot on the way home.

Quick shot on the way home.

Avalanche control: snow powder rising after a controlled avalanche release explosion.

Avalanche control: snow powder rising after a controlled avalanche release explosion.

A snow storm rolling into the valley.

A snow storm rolling into the valley.

Honestly, most of these shots on a phone screen will look identical to something taken with a Pixel 3 or an iPhone X. But these I will be able to use as my desktop background on a 5K screen.

Osmo Pocket

Finally, a new small tool in my kit. I bought this mainly for video. I often shoot some video on my hiking trips with my iPhone, but the jerky movements look terrible. I was hoping that this will smooth out the shots when walking and when panning; I also was looking forward to the motion timelapse feature.

For the purpose of this trip, I had high hopes for the subject tracking. In the ideal world, I should be able to double-tap on a person and just follow them on my snowboard while sticking my hand out, with the gimbal pointing in their direction automatically. In reality, the subject tracking is disappointing: it is really hard to acquire the correct target using the small screen, and the camera often just loses the subject seconds after locking on it. Interestingly, one time it worked in fairly low light and low visibility; other times it didn’t work in ideal conditions like bright light, colorful skier on a white background. Here are two short clips demonstrating the issue.

But despite the average ergonomics, video quality equal to a good phone, and poor subject tracking, it’s hard not to like this camera. It is really small and the stabilization is a lot better than any phone I tried. It is more comfortable to use in gloves, and pans look beautiful. I think this will stay in my pocket for many years, unless its non-weather-sealed body dies soon.

Lessons learned

I have made a couple of regrettable mistakes in terms of photographic technique that I regretted quickly. For instance, when I was taking the panoramas, there was a tractor grooming the slopes nearby. I should’ve increased the ISO to drop the shutter speed, but this never occurred to me; besides, I only checked some of the pano shots for sharpness on the spot. The annoying part for me here is that I made the same exact mistake last year - trying to chase a lower ISO made me discard most of my panoramic shots. Luckily, I made it out with two whole panos with no motion blur, but I could’ve had 10 to chose from.

The other thing I came to regret is not learning how to use the follow me mode on the drone. The only time I attempted it on the slopes, I chose the wrong mode and managed to not start recording at all. As a result, I didn’t really use the capabilities of the new Mavic, and I didn’t get any of that sweet follow-cam footage.

One more issue that I have to admit is that I overpacked. I could’ve left at least two lenses at home and I would’ve come out with just as good of a result.

But by far the most important lesson is that when the weather isn’t good for skiing, and isn’t good for photography, there is still a lot of fun to be had. I just had a wonderful time with my friends, going to bars, watching Game of Thrones, having a conversation over a dinner — basically being a normal person and not a gear-obsessed photo geek. I am looking forward to the next year’s ski trip :)

Autumn in Père Lachaise

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Many of you know that I live next to Père Lachaise, a famous cemetery in the East of Paris. It’s a charming place, and I love to walk there on a weekend. Unfortunately, it opens very late and closes really early, plus the entrances all close at a different hour, and as a result I can’t really go there during the week.

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While there are many really original graves and statues, my favourite thing about it is the greenery - the trees, the flowers, the moss on the old stones. And of course all of this comes alive in autumn, when the trees turn bright red and yellow.

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Today I took my camera with me, because I knew the place looks beautiful right now. The light wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t come for masterpieces - I came to capture the beautiful autumn, and to enjoy life. I also wanted to take a few pictures with Helios 44-2 which I had for a while but had no adapter for my new Sony body. You can tell the pictures from it by the characteristic swirly bubbly cateye bokeh.

My stopover

This February I was going on a business trip to Seattle, and I used this opportunity for a stopover in Iceland. The plan was to have a three night trip of the South coast, where the most exciting place for me is Jökulsárlón. However, due to unexpected circumstances, I had to change my tickets and only had one day in Iceland. I canceled my hotel reservations, got a room near the airport, and after dealing with a delayed (due to a snowstorm in Iceland) flight, I landed in Reykjavik. 

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Since it's impossible to rent a car for less than two days, I was getting around by bus. Icelandair lost my luggage, which was actually to my advantage, as I had a change of clothes and all the warm winter stuff with me, alongside my camera. Therefore I was able to just head to the city, without making a stop in the hotel to drop my bag.

Our bus took twice the normal amount of time to get to the city, because the road was covered in snow. Sitting in the bus, watching the dark road and the snowflakes in the headlights, I felt like I was back in my hometown. Everything was going quite well, except my jetlag, which was totally killing me. 

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When I got off the bus, I found myself on a dark street with a pile of snow and a sign for a bus stop. By the magic of Google maps, I figured which way I needed to go to get a coffee. Everything was still closed, as it was 7 AM, but after walking on that street for half an hour, I found one open pastry shop that served me an extremely expensive salmon sandwich and a cup of coffee. Yes, one thing I didn't miss about Iceland is the prices!

Reykjavik feels a lot like the old part of Akademgorodok, the small town in West Siberia where I'm from. I always found my home town charming, and therefore it was an absolute pleasure to wander around Reykjavik. As I was jetlagged, I didn't do anything of interest: I found a museum built around an archaeological site, admired the architecture, and spent an hour picking a late lunch spot. Having finished my (expensive) sandwich and my two (expensive) glasses of excellent Einstök beer, I got some Apelsin and Maltextact, then headed back to the hotel to take a shower and get some sleep before my morning flight. 

In conclusion, I really enjoyed my time in Reykjavik. It was a pain to get around by bus - driving is infinitely more practical in Iceland. Food in cafés is expensive, but the beer is really, really good. I will definitely try to make a stopover again if I go to North America, although next time I really hope to get out of the city and spend my time in the nature!

A Weekend in Étretat

This May our best friend Sandra came to visit us in Paris. She knows Paris very well, so we offered her to go to Normandy together to see something new and get away from the city life. She readily accepted, and we booked a trip to Étretat, a small town in Normandy famous for its cliffs.

The right trail has the best view of the cliffs

The right trail has the best view of the cliffs

The weather was nice for the first two days, and the third day was cold and foggy. The coast offers a lot of easy hiking, especially on the pebble beaches during the low tide. There are many tourists in the town during the day, but early in the morning and after the sunset it’s quite empty. In fact, in the evening Étretat is pretty much dead. 

From the beach, there are two trails. The one to the right has a great view to the most famous cliff (see above). There you will also find a small church. The trail continues over the cliffs in the Northern direction. 

Tourists on the left trail

Tourists on the left trail

The other trail goes on the cliffs, past a golf field, and allows you to see more cliffs and even spot some ships headed to Havre. If you follow the trail past the few first cliffs, you will leave the crowds behind, and find yourself alone on a narrow path surrounded with tall grass. The trail goes above the water, and for the first 30-40 minutes there are a few dangerous footpaths going down to the beach, mostly marked as closed. Eventually, there is a wide, safe trail that brings you to an empty beach, way nicer than the one found in the town. 

Anna and Sandra heading to the beach. Note the lack of people there.

Anna and Sandra heading to the beach. Note the lack of people there.

In low tide, it is possible to return to Étretat by the beach. The walk is mostly very easy, there are only a few slippery rocks, and there's one hard place where you have to jump down from a rock. There is a rope to help you get down, but it’s not very useful, and we were considering coming back the way we came. After much debate, I jumped, and helped Anna and Sandra descend, but we’re still unsure if this was a safe thing to do.

I left my camera gear at home and went with only RX1R. I met a German guy with a heavy backpack and a full size tripod headed in the opposite direction, and it was clear that the walk was quite a challenge for him. I was counting to come back to my photo bag by the sunset where I will have great light.

We came back just in time for me to sprint to the hotel, grab the backpack, and rush to the other trail for the sunset view. After taking a few dozen steps, we found ourselves at the top with the beautiful views in every direction. The town and the cliffs were bathing in the soft golden light.

The one mistake we made that day was expecting to find food in Étretat after the sunset. There was only one restaurant that would still let people in, and it wasn’t great.   

 

The next day we drove to the nearby picturesque towns of Fécamp and Yport. With charming streets and pebble beaches, they offer views to more cliffs, although the cliffs in Étretat are more impressive. We went for a walk on one of the beaches, too, because it was low tide again. 

We came back to Étretat in the evening to eat (this time a bit earlier to get to a decent café) and catch another sunset on the same spot.

We then descended to the beach to see the stars. There are big lights pointed to the cliffs, but otherwise the light pollution is fairly low, especially compared to Paris. I get so excited every time I get to see the stars!

On the final day we woke up to some dense fog and strong cold winds. Despite the low visibility, we ventured out for a walk on the cliffs one last time. 

 

We than drove back to Havre, where we had a few hours before the train. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of the city, but the parts we’ve seen were pretty incredible. The city was bombed heavily in WWII, and when they rebuilt it they went for constructivist architecture. 

In conclusion, the trip was certainly a success. We were lucky with tide times - if you go, please review tide schedule and be sure to leave the beach before the tide rolls in. Also plan your dinner in advance, as everything closes very early. 

A Spring Walk In Jardin des Plantes with Sony RX1R.

Every spring one of the places we love to go to is Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden in Paris. There are a couple of cherry trees, and when they are in bloom, it's spectacular. We call one particular tree with white flowers "the dude". This spring is no different, and since it's the first sunny weekend, we happily headed to our favourite park.

It was a good opportunity to test my new camera. Just a couple of weeks before I got a Sony RX1R off Ebay. It’s a fixed-lens full frame camera with a 35mm f/2 lens and a 24Mpx sensor. 

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I was curious about it for a while, since I always liked the Fujifilm X100 series, and my favourite lens on my X-T2 is the XF 23mm f1.4. The RX1R offers the same focal length in a very compact package. 

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In use, it is not the easiest thing to handle. While I don’t mind it’s slick gripless design, I definitely missed a tiltable screen when photographing close to the ground. Furthermore, not having a viewfinder on such a bright sunny day made framing difficult.

Thankfully, 24 megapixels is plenty for my walkaround photography needs, so cropping images in post to correct framing and straighten the horizon was fairly easy. 

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But not everything can be corrected in post. Nailing the focus on an f/2 lens using only the screen was quite a challenge. Manual focusing isn’t great: the focus ring is too loose to my taste, and the focus-by-wire is pretty terrible. Not only that, checking that you have nailed the focus is annoyingly slow: the camera really takes its time writing the file to the card, and while it’s doing it, it doesn’t let you view the picture.

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And did I mention the tiltable screen? It’s even more desireable when you consider that the lens can focus as close as 20cm! With a satisfying turn of the macro ring, you extend the lens by a few millimeters, and you’ve got your focus range limited to 20-35cm. You would think that 35mm field of view is not great for macro, but boy does this lens deliver!

Framing your macro shots is a challenge without a tilting screen.

Framing your macro shots is a challenge without a tilting screen.

It is not immediately apparent, especially when trying to view your pictures on a tiny glaring screen in the park, but when you get the images on a big screen, there is no doubt. This lens is truly outstanding.  It is so good, that I barely touched my XF 23mm f1.4 ever since I got the RX1R.

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The sensor also delivers outstanding results. The shadow and highlight recovery are beyond what I had on my X-T2, and I don’t need any tricks to get beautiful colors and sharp images in Lightroom. I was really surprised that a camera introduced in 2012 was really delivering a better result than my 2016 X-T2. It makes sense as it’s full frame, but I was very surprised still.

Check out the shadow recovery. Shooting straight into the sun.

Check out the shadow recovery. Shooting straight into the sun.

All in all, the RX1R has become my main camera, replacing the X-T2 for 90% of my photography. I carry it with me every day, and the results are so good that I’m willing to tolerate the lack of a viewfinder and a tiltable screen. 

In 2015, Sony released a RX1R II with a pop-up viewfinder and a tiltable screen. I heard it’s still slow and eats the battery a bit faster, but I’d love to upgrade to it some day. It’s expensive, and there are very few of them on Ebay; buying a new one is also not that easy - very few shops have them in stock.  

I’m hoping Sony will release a RX1R III with a touchscreen and a faster CPU. It’d be great if they also improved the focusing ring, the current one really feels cheap compared to everything else on this camera.

A ski trip to the Alps

It's been two years since our last ski trip. Last time we went to Alpe d'Huez as a part of a university group, and it was quite fun. I still remember the pain in every muscle I got after two days of snowboarding. Literally everything hurt: I distinctly recall the sensation of the exhausted diaphragm when breathing. The pain was so omnipresent it was funny (and it hurt to laugh, too).

View from our apartment.

View from our apartment.

That's because I'm a fairly inexperienced snowboarder. I'm compensating for my poor technique with muscle power, and two years ago I frankly wasn't in a great shape. My wife's a great skier, though, so she was doing much better. 

Having fun on the slopes.

Having fun on the slopes.

Planning a ski trip is a bit tough: you usually have to make a connection from the train to the bus, find a place to rent the equipment, compare the ski passes - all of this for a couple of resorts and on a number of available dates. I am not very familiar with places to ski in Europe, too - so I need to read about the resorts to check if they are not too boring, not too hard, and not too flat for a snowboarder. This kind of research often overwhelms me and I decide that I don't care enough for skiing to go through it. For this sole reason we didn't go anywhere last winter.

This year, however, there was a trip organized by my job's work council, and we happily joined a group of my colleagues. We went to Les Arcs 2000, a large ski resort in the French Alps.

Everything was great! The weather was mostly good (we got two dark, snowy days; two really sunny days, and three days in between), the snow was wonderful, and the accomodation was not bad at all. 

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Being a camera nerd, I took my camera and drone for a ride. I was lucky enough to get a pink sunset light on the peaks once; and on two mornings I got clear skies. Both mornings I was one of the first people awake in the hotel, running to the slope with a tripod and a camera bag. I felt really happy to be almost one on one with the epic view of Mont Blanc.

But this was not a photography trip by any stretch; instead I promised I will put snowboarding first. I feel an improvement in my technique, and I am looking forward to riding again next year!

The last light of the day on Mont Blanc

The last light of the day on Mont Blanc