Paris seems to be one of those places that has a romantic appeal for people. I had no particular longing, but I figured I’d get there eventually. Michelle wanted to go and 2014 turned out to be the year that we finally had the time and money to make it happen. Even though it wasn’t my idea, I took on the familiar role of travel agent. I made the flight and hotel reservations, gathered the guidebooks and made a spreadsheet of things to see, which we ranked and tabulated. By February we’d done our research and prepared a basic itinerary. Michelle was all packed by the second week of March. As usual, I didn’t even start until two days before.
Planning for the trip
After the Canadian data-plan debacle of 2013, I wanted to have offline maps available on my phone. I found an app from mTrip called “Paris Travel Guide” which worked great. We used it to map out our daily itinerary and get from place to place. I rate it 4 stars.
I also grabbed the “Word Lens” app, which claims to translate text in real time using the iPhone camera. Technically it does – but only under perfect conditions. I found that it struggled with indoor lighting, and the translation was usually gibberish. 1/5 stars, not recommended.
Photography-wise, I planned very little. I didn’t make a shot list, and while I did look up some of our planned destinations on Flickr I had little advance knowledge of what I was going to be shooting. I only took two lenses, my Sigma 17-70 f/2.8-4, and my Sigma 8-16 f/4.5-5.6. This limited the my range, but with one or two exceptions I didn’t miss the longer lens.
I wanted a camera bag that was bigger than my old Crumpler, but less conspicuous than my bulky Lowepro. After some research I bought the Case Logic Reflexion FLXM-102. It was just big enough for a camera and two lenses, with enough room left over for my Kindle, sunglasses, headphones, and some other odds and ends.
The Reflexion looks more like a regular messenger bag, which was nice but hardly mattered as everyone seemed to have a camera everywhere in Paris. My only complaint is that the zipper is awkwardly situated on top of the bag so it was hard to unzip one-handed.
I also brought a full-sized tripod, but it never left my suitcase. In hindsight I wish I had brought it some places. I had to crank the ISO very high indoors and lost quite a few otherwise-good images to noise. The tripod was simply impractical, since we often visited four or five places in a day and spent much of the time walking in crowds or on the metro.
Below are a few of my favorites, in the order they were taken.
On our way through central Paris from the airport, I was amazed by how close together everything was. The driver pointed out one famous landmark after another. Fifteen minutes after arriving we were in front of Notre Dame. It was early on a Sunday morning and the crowds were relatively thin. The church was smaller than I thought it would be.
I upgraded to Lightroom 5 to try out the new straightening and perspective tools. This was my first try, so it’s not perfect. Maybe I’ll go back and fix it later.
Notre Dame was as beautiful inside as out. Mass was still going when came in, and we stopped to watch for a minute. I thought it was funny that there were vending machines with souvenir coins in the cathedral. Money changers and all that. Later I found out these were everywhere.
I learned a thing or two about blending exposures with this photo. Keeping the detail in the stained glass windows was very tricky.
We started our second day in Paris with a visit to the Tuileries Gardens. I really enjoyed sitting by the water in the Tuileries and and people-watching. This arch at the far eastern end of the gardens (the “Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel”) is less-known, but more beautiful, than the big one down the Champs-Elysees.
L’Etoile (“the star”) is the name of the massive roundabout where 12 roads come together around the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a long climb up a 284 narrow spiral steps to the top. Someone told me this photo gave him vertigo, which is all right with me because I suffered to get here.
The wide-angle lens did a good job capturing the sweep of the city. I thought we’d be able to see the Eiffel Tower from everywhere. As you see, skyscrapers are few and far between, but most of the city is six- or seven-story buildings which block out the horizon (and the tower) except in parks or where you can get up very high.
It wouldn’t be Paris without a romantic picture of the Eiffel Tower. This is a rare shot that I had in my head before the trip. She is one of a pair of matching statues in the Trocadero gardens. Her partner is L’Homme.
The Cluny Museum was one of those places I wish I’d brought a tripod. Paris’s museum of medieval art is housed in one of the oldest buildings in the city, the former Roman baths. It’s humbling to stand in a place whose walls were built over 2000 years ago. Unfortunately the Romans weren’t much on natural light, and the shot didn’t turn out.
This stained glass window, originally from the Sainte-Chapelle, intrigued me because it is so unspecific. Its title in French is “Un chevalier tue un roi”. No one seems to remember the name of the king or the knight that killed him. History is deep and murky like that.
I really enjoyed the Rodin Museum. The gardens and the house were beautiful and slightly shabby in an appealing way. The lighting was perfect on this morning. This image is tone-mapped, but not as much as you would think. The bronze has a liquid quality.
Versailles was incredibly frustrating. It was overrun with tour groups, which made it impossible to walk comfortably or spend any amount of time looking at anything. I felt like a cow being herded up the ramp at a slaughterhouse. Michelle and I got separated partway through the tour and spent a while trying to find each other again.
The gardens were nice and not too tourist-trampled, but it was March and the smaller palaces were still closed for the season. We took a little golf-cart “train” to the grand canal and had lunch on the terrace, then walked back up to the palace. The Basin of Apollo was very beautiful, but it was barely visible from the palace. That’s the problem with Versailles, the scale is too big to appreciate.
After Versaille, I was very nervous to visit the Louvre. I knew the tour groups would be out in full force. We got there about 25 minutes before it opened, and to our surprise there was almost no line. We were approximately the 7th and 8th people let in that day. We would’ve gotten in sooner had we not stopped in the courtyard to eat breakfast.
Inside there were lots of people, but there were so many rooms that any given one was not terribly crowded until later in the day.
This is the Mona Lisa, and the crowd of people who raced us through the halls of the Louvre to see it. I knew I wanted to get this shot before coming to France. I was more interested in people looking at the Mona Lisa than the painting itself.
Everyone says the Mona Lisa is tiny and underwhelming compared to its reputation. I found it to be moderately sized and only slightly unimpressive.
Here’s the other thing about the Louvre. It’s so stuffed with art that some of it gets lost. I might have missed the Venus de Milo if not for the Chinese tour group calmly lining up to have their pictures taken. I hung around long enough to get in front of it and take a relatively unobstructed shot, and then moved on. I like the impressed gesture the lady at bottom left is making.
The Napoleon III apartments were what I wished Versailles had been. They’re tucked in an out-of-the-way corner on an upstairs floor and attract relatively few visitors, but I tell you they are spectacular. Seeing all the silk and gold makes you appreciate the unlimited power and wealth of the French royals.
I found Paris to be a comfortable, modern city of people who have cultivated a leisurely way of life very different from the American one. The streets were clean, the trains ran on time, and the photographic opportunities were endless. I highly recommend you visit at some point in your life. Just remember to bring a tripod.