Nikon D750 at Epina, La Gomera

Leading an Authentic Adventures photography tour on La Gomera in the Canary Islands presented my first real opportunity to use the Nikon D750 as a travel camera.  Having used it alongside my D4’s at weddings during the later months of 2014, I like the D750 very much as a lighter secondary camera. It would never take the place of a D4 for wedding photography, but as a travel camera option it has a lot going for it.  It’s relatively small, comparable in size to a D7100, not as heavy as the D810 and more practical with it’s smaller file sizes.  It fits in nicely between the D4 and the D810 for my requirements and the three cameras make a very versatile combination for most situations and commissions.  For the La Gomera trip I took the D750 along with 20mm f1.8G, 28mm f1.8G, 50mm f1.4G and 85mm f1.8G lenses with just enough room in my LowePro Flipside 300 backpack for my Leica MP, 50mmf2.8 Elmar-M and CV28mm f3.5 Color-Skopar,  a few rolls of Adox Silvermax 100, Lee filters and my Gitzo 1551T carbon tripod.  Reading back through that list, I’m astonished by just how much equipment will fit into that backpack!   I just managed to keep within Monarch and Thompsons cabin baggage weight allowances.

La Gomera isn’t generally considered a photographer’s classic destination and I have to admit to having some reservations about it when I was asked to lead the tour.  I’m not a great fan of the Canary Islands, having previously visited Gran Canary, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Tenerife, these islands offer relatively cheap winter sun and most of what goes with that type of holiday, which generally isn’t for me.  A little internet research revealed enough to provide me with some hope that it might just be different enough from most of it’s neighbours to make an interesting destination.  As there are no direct flights to La Gomera, the route is to fly to Tenerife and transfer to the ferry at Los Christianos for the 1 hour sailing to San Sebastian.  From there it was a 1.5 hour drive to my hotel at Valle Gran Rey.  The journey has two distinct low points and two distinct high points: the low points are the 4.5 hour flight from Birmingham, followed by waiting for the ferry at Los Christianos.  The two high points are in leaving Tenerife well behind and the ferry voyage itself.  Tip: plan your flight arrival time and allow enough time for the journey to the ferry terminal to coincide as closely as possible to the ferry leaving Los Christianos.  Sailings are at 2pm and 7pm and you really don’t want to be spending a single moment longer in Los Christianos than is absolutely necessary.   It’s best left far behind and you won’t even want to look back as the ferry leaves!

Road travel on La Gomera is slow going.  The roads are often narrow, rarely straight and usually steep uphill or downhill with many hairpin bends.   You won’t find much opportunity to get past third gear at any time, so allow enough time to get around.  Despite my earlier reservations, the island is spectacular.  It is very mountainous with a similar topographical profile to one of those old fashioned glass lemon squeezers.  The highest point is in the centre with dramatic and precipitous ridges radiating outwards to the sea.  There are few beaches, the cliffs are often huge and plunge directly into the sea.  Valle Gran Rey  is the best-situated base for exploring the island and has a range of bars and restaurants with a plaza behind the beach where an assortment of lifestyle hippies and holiday hippies (usually German) congregate in the evenings to beat their drums as the sun goes down.  Valle Gran Rey has a laid-back Bohemian atmosphere, it’s a place I would return to.  Everything closes down around midnight and peace reigns, it’s not a bad place at all in the context of the Canary Islands.  I’ve stayed in far worse places in that neck of the woods.

If you were to drop a ruler across the middle of the island, you’d see a distinct difference between the verdant north and the arid south.  For such a small island, there are some interesting contrasts, both in climate and flora.  The north is dominated by the Garajonay National Park which is mainly native forest. Cloud inversions seem to happen at least twice a day and the temperature can vary considerably within minutes.  Garajonay is a very dramatic, evocative and peaceful landscape.  The main issue from a photography aspect is that due the the dense forest, sweeping vistas are restricted to the miradors or viewpoints, which means images taken from these will be exactly the same as countless images taken by countless tourists who went before.  It’s worth exploring a little further than the obvious.

Epina is a village off the beaten track and worth an excursion.  As with many villages on La Gomera, the population is shrinking as younger people move away in search of better opportunities elsewhere.  Only a few elderly residents remain and the traditional ways of this village are inexorably disappearing as holiday homes are beginning to have an impact.  At the time of my visit, there is just enough traditional life to make a visit to Epina worthwhile.

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Epina, La Gomera

Nikon D750 in the Canary Islands

Palm honey gatherers, La Gomera

Nikon D750 in the Canary Islands

Cockerels, Epina

The remaining residents are very quiet, but they all know you’re there.  I doubt there are many secrets in Epina.These two palm honey gatherers were the youngest people I met in Epina, they don’t live there.  They pay the palm tree owners for the sap they gather.  It’s dangerous work, some of the palms are 50-60 feet high and are climbed directly, either via metal pegs that are hammered into the trunk or by precarious footholds that are cut into either side of the trunk.  The ‘honey’ is actually a sweet sugary sap, very similar in colour and taste to maple syrup.  It’s a significant cash crop.  The gatherers climb to the very top of the tree and trim away the top to form a bowl, which then fills with sap, anything up to 8 litres per day.  The water content of the sap evaporates off to leave the ‘honey’, usually about a litre of honey each day is removed and refined.There wasn’t a lot of evidence of livestock.  A few fowls, goats and sheep are around.

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Growing potatoes, La Gomera

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Roof tiles, Epina, La Gomera

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Abandoned cottage, La Gomera

Nikon D750 in the Canary Islands

Abandoned cottage, La Gomera

Nikon D750 in the Canary Islands

Abandoned cottage, La Gomera

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Abandoned cottage, La Gomera

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Abandoned cottage, La Gomera

Nikon D750 on La Gomera

Retired palm honey gatherer, Epina

The local people are quiet, polite and friendly and, with the right approach, aren’t averse to being photographed.  Gomeran potatoes are delicious, very sweet, boiled and rolled in sea salt.  Gomerans are very proud of their potatoes and onions!‘Knee’ tiles, so-called because they were traditionally molded over the leg of the tile-maker.  Epina had it’s own tile kiln, now disused.  Roof tiles are now machine-made and imported from France.I found a door open to an abandoned cottage and went inside.  Six months on from a very moving experience in ‘Rachel’s Croft’ on the Isle of Harris, and in a different place.  I had found Jose’s cottage, the parallels with Rachel Morrison were profound.  The experience was similar, remnants of a presence and a lifetime, felt deeply.  To have this experience once again was uncanny.Jose’s bed. Exactly as before on Harris in Rachel’s Croft,  Jose’s presence was palpable.Two rooms in the cottage; a bedroom and a room for everything else.  A simple lifestyle, a simple home.Jose’s kitchen area. Once the epicentre of family life here.  The intimacy was exactly the same as that with Rachel Morrison six months previously and a world away on the Isle of Harris.A lifetime spent gathering palm honey and subsistence farming in Epina.  He was friendly and inquisitive with a kind smile and bright eyes.  Best of all, he was fascinated by my camera and enjoyed being photographed!

The D750 worked very well as a travel dslr.  The only irritations were the cramped af senor array, the easily-lost rubber viewfinder cushion, lack of an integral eyepiece blind for long exposures and the silly little accessory infra red remote release. I prefer the 10-pin electronic remote release of higher-end Nikons and the absence of an integral eyepiece blind is a major irritation.  However, the tilting rear screen is a major advantage over the fixed screen of other Nikons such as the D810 when working on a tripod or at low levels.  If there is one thing I would put on a wish list for a future D910, it would be a tilting screen!  Even with the heaviest lens I had with me for this tour, the 85mm f1.8G, the combination was a comfortable carry on the very narrow Peak Designs Leash strap.  I never felt at any time that I would prefer a wider strap such as the Peak Designs Slide over the Leash.  The D810 needs the width of the Slide and that is a good indicator of the weight and size diffences between the two cameras.  Battery life is excellent, too.  Although I carried spare batteries with me, I didn’t need to replace the battery at any time during a full day of shooting.

Being such a small dslr, the D750 partners perfectly with the latest range of Nikon f1.8G prime lenses. Those who know me will know I prefer prime lenses to zooms, but out of curiosity I attached a 24-70-mm f2.8 before I left for the tour.  The result was that the D750 felt totally unbalanced and front heavy.  Where much larger cameras such as the D3’s and D4’s feel comfortable with a large heavy f2.8 zoom lens, on the D750 it’s a combination that I personally find too irritating to use.  I’m far happier carrying just one lens for walk-around photography, such as the 50mm f1.4G or 28mm f1.8G, adding the 20mm f1.8G and 85mm f1.8G when I need my full set of four travel lenses.  I really think Nikon have put together a very good set of prime lenses with the f1.8G range, they seem to be tailor-made for the D750 and travel photography!  One other deal-maker in my decision to buy the D750 is the all-important dual SD card slots.  The camera inherits many other features from the flagship Nikon cameras, autofocus is excellent, although the cramped sensor pattern is disappointing, and the metering and dynamic range are also impressive. As I do change lenses frequently when I’m shooting, dust can be a problem and the Canary Islands are notorious for being enveloped in airborne Saharan dust.  On the day my group arrived, both Tenerife and La Gomera experienced a dense Calima.  Changing lenses outdoors in these conditions is not advisable, but I did so on several occasions.  The built-in sensor cleaning function of the D750 did it’s job very well, I only have one dust speck on a few frames and after a couple of cleaning cycles it was gone and has not reappeared.

With a few shortcomings and niggles aside, the Nikon D750 is a great choice for travel and likely to be with me for more adventures to come.

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