Pictures from a small Baltic island

All of the photographs on this blog are © Rob Watkins

I'm an ex-rock photographer and picture editor from Wales now living in the idyllic Åland archipelago. Welcome to my world of pictures...
  • Mariehamn Sailors Chapel
  • underpass Jomala Åland sunbeam shaft light
  • Morning mist over an Åland inland lake


New Year, new camera, new me

The joy of shopping in Helsinki

IN OCTOBER I bought myself an early Christmas present. A Fujifilm Finepix x100. Now there are lots of photographers out there who have done pretty exhaustive reviews of the camera’s good points, bad points and the fact it’s rather overpriced. I agree, it is bloody expensive.

But I just want to talk about how the x100 makes me feel as a photographer. Physically it reminds me of my first ‘proper’ camera – an Olympus OM10. It’s beautiful, small, quiet and discreet. I’ve already been out and tried some street photography with it. When you carry a 5D Mark 2, as I usually do, people are wary of you. So you tend to stand a little further away than necessary.

When you have an x100 you just look like another tourist. I like that.

I’ve also seen a lot of photographers complain about the fact the x100 only has a 23mm fixed lens (that’s 35mm in old money). Well, I love that too. I fear modern photographers have become lazy. This camera makes you use your feet and get close to your subject. And that’s what photography used to be about, as I recall.

Take this street photograph. I had to go right up to the shop window to capture it. Not only did I get the wonderful smile of the shopper, I also captured a wide range of reflections in the glass from the street behind and the closeness made the foreground details of shoes and bags really large in the perspective. Lovely. Action across the frame. Depth. In short, a story.

So how does this camera make me feel? Well, it makes me feel like a young photographer again.

And that, to me, is well worth the high price…


Simple beauty sometimes takes an effort

Mariehamn Sailors Chapel
The beautiful sailors’ chapel in Sea Quarter of Mariehamn Eastern Harbour, Åland, Finland

LOOK at this picture. Beautiful isn’t it. Simple. Balanced. Clean lines. Nice evening light.

This is the Sailors’ Chapel in the Sea Quarter of the Eastern Harbour in Mariehman in the Åland archipelago. The picture was taken in April as the ice cover over the harbour was beginning to melt.

Take another look at the picture. Where was the picture taken from?

The camera position makes it seem like it must be floating just above the water. I can assure you I wasn’t standing in the water or on the thin late-season ice. And there is no shore line here until five metres behind me. But I did want a nice reflection of the chapel in the gap between the ice. And I wanted the landing jetty on the left to extend up into the top corner to give the eye a dramatic path into the photograph.

There was only one way to do this. I braced my legs under a rope on the jetty and leaned out and down over the icy water bending my knees. I could only do it for about 15 seconds at a time because it really hurt. But these pictures from low above the water are much more dramatic than the ones taken off from the top of the landing jetty.

A lot of effort for a beautiful and simple image. But worth every ounce of pain…

Reading the street photography signs…

Walking through the symbolic streets of Helsinki

SOMETIMES street photography is all about instantaneous reaction. A flash of action. A chance taken which is rewarded.

But sometimes it’s planned. Many of the best street photographs are.

I loved these signs on the pavement where a building was being renovated in the centre of Helsinki. They were sort of funny. What would make the photograph even better would be to catch someone walking past who would somehow echo the silhouettes.

Juxtaposition. One of the great things in street photography.

I waited for about a minute with my camera framed to catch someone walking into the gap on the left of frame. Three people did. This lady was the third and I got the timing spot on and caught her footfall just right to shadow the body language on the signs.

Spontaneous. And planned.

Never let a wonder pass under…

underpass Jomala Åland sunbeam shaft light
A shaft of morning sunlight in the underpass in Jomala, Åland, Finland March 2011

I DIDN’T see this picture at first. I stopped the car to take a completely different picture.

It was a beautiful March morning with crisp sharp sunlight shining down on the snow and a fine mist rising from the land. It’s quite rare to get such a lovely mist covering the island at this time of year. I stopped the car to take some photographs of the beautiful church at Jomala in these great conditions. To get to the view of the church I wanted I had to pass through this underpass. And I was met with this view.

This is the first shot I took. I took about a dozen more photographs, some from the other end of the underpass including the beautiful church and some with silhouettes and long shadows of schoolchildren walking through. But this first one was the best. It’s the combination of graphic simplicity and beautiful light. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.

And it’s a lot better than any of the nice pictures of the church I actually stopped to take. But I wouldn’t have found this scene if I hadn’t stopped to take pictures of the church. That’s the lesson I guess. If you see a good picture always stop and take it. Because you never know when you might stumble across a great picture.

Seeing through the daily mist

Morning mist over an Åland inland lake

Morning mist rising over an inland lake during Autumn on Åland © Rob Watkins

I THINK most people pass great pictures every day. Sometimes they don’t see them. Sometimes they do see them and say to themselves: “Oh, what a shame I missed that great picture.” Often, given the right circumstances, the shot will reappear if you go back at a similar time.

This picture was taken from the main road to town from my house. I passed this lake every day on the bus for a year while I was learning Swedish. Most of the time the lake was pretty, but not a great picture. Never confuse those two things. Pretty scenes rarely make great pictures in my experience. But in the Autumn the rising morning mist over the lake made the scene very dramatic.

This effect often doesn’t last very long, maybe about 20 minutes on misty days, over a period of about four weeks in September and October every year. For a week I woke up early to check the atmospheric conditions were right. The day I saw great mist cover over the land I drove in instead of taking the bus. I stopped and waited for the mist to clear by the right amount. I used a telephoto lens, about 200mm, to crop out some unwanted details and compress the distance between those little peninsulas of water reeds.

So the lesson is, try to look at the things you see every day with new eyes. And if you miss a great opportunity once, go back. Sometimes I’ve been back to a location seven or eight times before recreating a great scene and it’s so satisfying when you finally get that picture!

This picture is available to buy from by searching for ‘watkins aland’

Breaking the ice

baltic sea © rob watkins

The ice cap on the Baltic Sea begins to break up in the Åland archipelago © Rob Watkins

I love the ice sheet that covers the Baltic Sea in the Winter. But it can make for rather dull pictures. It can just look a little like a huge snow-covered plain and not the sea at all.

When Winter starts to fade and the ice begins to crack it becomes much more interesting photographically. And it’s at its very best when the ice is about to disappear completely and significant gaps being to appear making really beautiful patterns.

The picture above was taken at the end of March as the ice cap began to disappear. The problem I had was that I really wanted to capture a picture that looked like a sea full of ice and at this time there are huge gaps of open water and rather thin bands of ice.

I chose to crop in a little through the viewfinder, cut out the horizon and waited with my camera ready until enough ice flowed through to fill my frame. I was taking a bit of a chance and I had to wait about 10 minutes for the perfect moment but it was worth it when I captured this image…

This picture is available to buy from by searching for ‘rob watkins ferry’

No man is an island

Welcome to my blog. My name is Rob and in 2008 I left my life in Wales for the Finnish island of Åland. I had been a photojournalist, picture editor and designer in Cardiff for almost 20 years before I came to this beautiful archipelago.

The change in the pace of my life is reflected by a change in my photography. This blog will deal with my development as a photographer, but first a little peek back at the sort of photography I’ve left behind…


My old life in Wales: Rock, News and Sport Photography