Corks and Other Corkers


March of the Cork Oaks. An orchard of cork oaks stand shorn of their lower bark near Grazalema, Andalucía, Spain.

On our last photography day, we drove west through some beautiful country outside Ronda. Much of it was very photogenic and well worth attention in the morning light, but it wasn’t readily apparent that there was somewhere safe alongside the road, so we pressed on. There was much excitement about thirty-odd griffin vultures circling overhead a little later which caused Astrid, our leader and driver of the lead vehicle, to duck into a pull-out so quickly that Charlie driving the van was caught unawares and finally stopped about 100 yards further on at a substandard pullout. Fundamentally, the vultures were top-lit black birds at an altitude best described as somewhere between high overhead and suborbital and not much short of the Hubble Space Telescope was going to get a decent picture of one. Had they been griffons and not griffon vultures, I would have been as excited as the rest. But as it was, I was in a desultory mood and took a single mediocre photograph:

Vultures Circling the Van. Griffin vultures soar high overhead, Andalucía, Spain.

In truth, I think I was more worried about the fact that up the way the van was parked, at best, more off the road than on. To me, the handiness of a nearby flock of vultures to clean up a tragedy did not offset the situation’s inherent risk, given the slim hope that one of the birds would survive reentry and get close enough for a photograph to verify that vultures are, indeed, ugly birds. They do add a little bit of interest to the landscape above, so perhaps I should have tried harder; I am sure the others were more successful.

From there we pressed on and drove along a road through hills that had countless wonderful cork oaks. The cork is harvested off the lower trunks every seven years, so only a fraction of the trees have been somewhat recently harvested. Those that have look like shorn sheep, or perhaps freshly-shaved poodles, and on those that were very freshly harvested, the bottoms of the trees were quite red in color. Where the bark remains, it is covered by beautiful lichen and moss. Unfortunately where these trees grow, they are surrounded by barbed-wire-topped fences and much gorse—the first limits access to the trees and the second limits access to the fences. (I believe the fences are really there to manage the acorn-fed pigs used for Serrano ham, a product that’s importance to Spain cannot be overstated since Spaniards are, on average, about 30% Jamón Serrano by weight.)

Since we had neglected to bring Bangalore torpedoes, the fences and gorse limited our ability to maneuver freely. I initially found finding compositions pretty frustrating. Charlie is quite fond of “lovely dappled light,” but I found it a bit of a pain because I really wanted to highlight the harvested trunks and show off their reddish color. The trunks are pretty dark, and even if you can find a well-placed dapple on a promising tree trunk, the rest of the gaggle of dapples tend to overwhelm the image with well-lit worthless patches of grass and weeds. I ended up with dozens of images that could be entitled Revenge of the Dapplegaggle. Redeeming some of these takes a lot of decidedly non-desultory dodging and burning. I did see a few spots where the sun angled in sideways and lit the trunks directly, but unfortunately we drove by them. On the way home that afternoon there seemed to be quite a few more, where the reddish lower trunks were nicely lit with warm light, but again we had somewhere else to be. I think the success of many of these images is going to depend a lot more on my post processing skill and stubbornness than I prefer. A drizzly day probably would have been nice in this location, but my British friends would have been grousing in the gorse, to be sure.

Corker. A majestic cork oak stands tall in an orchard near Grazalema, Andalucía, Spain.

After the cork oaks, we stopped at the beautiful white village of Grazalema. The main square had fascinating plane trees that were both pollarded and being trained to intertwine branches with their neighbors, although the training is clearly in its early stages. They were very unique and pretty but it was difficult to get perspectives that isolated them, or at least didn’t have a lot of competing background. I tried almost everything: long focal lengths, wide focal lengths, a fisheye, shallow depth of field, using a sideways lens tilt to get the the image plane down the row of trees, close-ups…I am happy with a bunch of them but not really delighted in any of them. I left my Petzval lens at home, and perhaps it would have been useful to swirl away the periphery. I am not sure how an ICM would have helped, but perhaps even a zoom-blur could have been useful. Or a multiple exposure. But some of those ideas are born more of desperation, I think.

Arm-in-Arm. A row of pruned plane trees, their branches being trained to intertwine, line the main square in the village of Grazalema, Andalucía, Spain.

Most of my images—and likely the most successful ones—came from a walk down the road alongside (and above) the town. I took a lot of images of rooftops and such. More than enough, I think, to make a nice collection. I did not really take many from street-level in the town itself, but only because of the landscape photographer’s curse of unipresence.

Uptown Funk. Narrow streets climb the hill to Iglesia de San José in the village of Grazalema, Andalucía, Spain.

At the end of the day most of us went down below the bridge in Ronda. There are viewpoints that offer good views of the bridge, cliff, and waterfall as well as views west across the valley towards the mountains. I took several photos of the bridge and falls in warm light (which I missed two days earlier due to my tardy arrival) but spent most of my time shooting across the valley to wrap up my photographic journey to southern Spain.

New Bridge Old Cliff. The 230-year-old New Bridge crosses the gorge in Ronda, Andalucía, Spain.
West of Ronda. The Sierra de las Nieves (Snow Mountain Range) looms in the haze beyond the olive groves and farms west of Ronda, Andalucía, Spain.

Next week I will wrap up this series about Andalucía! Since this post has so many pictures with so many different lenses, I decided to include the technical notes in table form:

Image TitleLensFocal LengthApertureShutterISO
March of the Cork OaksNikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S54mmf/111/8 sec64
Vultures Circling the VanNikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S82mmf/81/100 sec64
CorkerPC Nikkor 19mm f/4E ED19mmf/111/10 sec64
Arm-in-ArmNikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S120mmf/111/125 sec90
Uptown FunkNikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S170mmf/131/200 sec110
New Bridge Old CliffNikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S14mmf/81/125 sec64
West of RondaNikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S120mmf/9.51/180 sec64
Technical details for the images in this post. Images are listed in order of appearance. All photographs in this post were taken with a Nikon Z7 and were processed from RAW in Adobe Lightroom Classic.