Exploring Portugal - Sintra

Step 1: Love ocean. Step 2: Look at map. Step 3: notice big blue area. Step 4: Zoom in and find Portugal.


Well it wasn't as simple as that, but if I had to write a plot synopsis for it in case it was a Netflix tv-series, that is how it might have gone down. Truth is, I spent about a week searching google for "calm remote places in Europe", yearning for something soothing and nice. Sort of like a mixture of a place that a hermit would call home and the complete opposite of a big city. You get the idea. I zoomed in on the map and followed the Atlantic shore line from France to Portugal. Searching for Portugal on 500px revealed some fantastic, seemingly wild beach scenery that farther convinced me to focus on this country. In the end it was an article on Lonely Planet about Sintra and one specific hotel that finalized my search: Quinta da Faianca. I don't think you can summarize this spot as a "hotel" as it is rather a place of its own, something so much more than just a place to sleep.

Living there is like entering a sacred grounds deep inside a forest. It is perfect for photographers and trekkers as it connects to a bunch of paths scattered across the shore towards the Atlantic, and in the opposite direction towards Sintra and its woodlands. It is also the perfect place if you don't have a car, as many of the wild beaches are within walking distance, and if you have good shoes and don't mind using your legs for a few hours - you can easily walk to Sintra. Here I would like to give a big shout out to two dogs who lived in Quinta da Faianca who followed us everywhere we went. I know you guys probably can't read, but you have a special place in my heart and I can't wait to see you again!


Dog. Photo by Hanne Kristin Berg


Fast forward a bit and me and my partner in crime are sitting in a taxi on the way to Quinta da Faianca from Lisboa airport. Cars are zooming and zipping by fast, some faster than others, and I question my mortality. Soon I notice a huge colorful sunset in the sky scattered across the highway and landscape in front of us, and I know that this is going to be a blast. Fear of mortality vanishes.

As a photographer who sees hundreds of landscape photos every single day I fear being repetitive. When I go on trips like these, I try to filter out photography on social media from locations I am going to visit. I want to keep it fresh, because seeing a kick-ass picture of a motif will usually influence me and I might end up looking for the same composition, even subconsciously. And I think that is quite a boring to do - landscape photography should among other things be about exploration and discovery. So I had planned to wander around and photograph Praia da Adraga, Praia da Ursa and anything I could reach in Sintra's parks and castles. We lived just 25 minutes of walking distance from Praia da Adraga so it was very easy to access. Both of the beaches were perfect for sunset and twilight photography because the Sun was setting straight in front of the motifs. You know, in the West. We only made it to Sintra once, despite its promising mossy and dark overgrown ancient motifs. You probably know that feeling of enthusiasm - hell yeah, I am going to explore EVERYTHING. Take pictures of EVERYTHING. World will BOW BEFORE MY EXCELLENCE! And somehow you forget to put in sleep and food in your plan and nor do you get to capture and see everything, nor will the world care or bow for aforementioned excellence. Speaking of food - the small town that Quinta da Faianca is located in had several restaurants - one of which was just down the street and offered some pretty great food. The town also has several shops for all sorts of groceries. My favorite grocery from this little charming secret town, you ask? Why, cottage cheese. 

Enough about eating stuff, let's get back to photography. Particularly Praia da Adraga has many possibilities for compositions. Atlantic roars very big waves which means that the scenery can look different every day - this is especially good for working with wide angle shots with emphasis on foregrounds. The waves will relocate the scenery a bit every tide. This spot is known among photographers and especially during weekends you may find a few other camera-folk. Despite this it is easy to find new compositions, especially in regards to water movement. It is very important to take note of the tide and make sure you don't get trapped or find yourself surrounded by water. Best case scenario you will look silly, and I am speaking from a personal experience. Adraga is most photogenic when the tide is low as the sands on the right side of the beach are more shallow and it quickly reveals many meters into the sea, but that doesn't exclude high tide photography. My conclusion is that there is no need to plan around tide movement, but rather focus on when the light in the sky is best. I didn't get a chance to see how the beaches look like during sunrise, because, well I love my sleep. 


Photo by Ramunas

Photo by Hanne Kristin Berg


Praia da Ursa was different. The beach is considerably more remote than Adraga and requires a steep and sometimes slippery descent. There are two paths to it, one will require some experimental path-finding, a harder descent and a bit of super-simple climb across some rocks at the lowest level. The other path is much easier and is accessible somewhere right in the middle of the beach. Ursa is smaller, more rugged and offers its pillars as the main motif for photography. Some people say the pillars look like a wizard hat. Others say that it looks like something is giving you the middle finger. I think it is just a really fantastic motif. The right side of the beach can be difficult to access depending on how big the waves are in case the tide is high. Compositions here are also limited if you want to focus on the pillars, but it also forces you to experiment a bit, which is a lot of fun. I, for example, did not want to take a photo of that one rock on the beach as a foreground. No no. I rather found myself climbing a bit of the rock wall. Before you start to think that I just am making stuff up and thus revealing my secret Spiderman identity - I am referring to not being afraid to use the surroundings. My climb was a mere meter on a step-like structure at the lowest part of the wall, which went straight into the water. Here I found the smooth wave-washed rock structures as a perfect leading line towards the pillars and the rest of the shore. For Praia da Ursa it is a good idea to bring a flash light if you plan on photographing the sunset, as there is not much light there on the way back, except for an occasional glimpse from the nearby light house. I didn't get the chance to explore the right side of the beach, nor the left, due to high tide and big waves.

Some general tips for beach photography. Picture-safety first - bring wipes for your lens and filters (if you use them), because there is always some wind and hence sea spray. Also very relevant if you want to get closer to the waves. I suppose our safety is pretty important too if the sea is stormy - make sure to watch for rogue waves. Always check weather forecast for storms and winds. I found a good way to do this on location is to observe the sea for five or ten minutes before you start shooting. Identify where the waves crash, how big they are, how far the biggest ones can reach and try to spot the rogues - meaning two waves which melt into each other growing much bigger in size. When photographing, if you get close to the waves, make sure you have a spot to retreat to quickly. Never focus only on the camera, here it is best to use the LCD screen so you can keep one eye on the waves once every few seconds. A quick tip for long exposures - bring CD's or something similar to place under the tripod legs, because it will sink just enough to make your picture blurry. Great use for those Absolute Musics or Summer Hits from 1995. Alternatively, you can do long exposures on rocks, but this will limit your point of view. 


Ramunas Kazakauskas