eric paré

Photographing the salt flats of Uyuni for a third time

20 Mar 2018

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Our third trip to the Uyuni Salt Flats. Even if we love that place, it was not our logical choice (we're long due for a beautiful beach ah!), but hey, we packed our boots and warm clothing and went straight into it. The thing is that not long ago, probably around a good bottle of wine, we checked on PhotoPills to try to figure out if there was such a thing as a full moon during the blue hour, in Uyuni, in March. That's a lot to ask. Our story is well documented in the video below:


But I also wanted to provide a few more technical details for the techies out there. Our first time was in January 2015 and we had barely any water. It was sort of a miracle to be able to create these shots.

Nearly the whole desert was dry. Nonetheless, this place is unique whether it's filled with water or not. Our equipment back then was quite lighter: two older full frame cameras (Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mark III), cheap/broken tripods and a gopro. What, no tubes? No tubes, that is way before we found out about the tubes. In fact, we did no light-painting at all. It was nice to learn to know the salar, get to use to altitude, and see what's around. On top of spending 4 days in the salar, we also did the typical tourist tour which brought us 5000m high in altitude (outch my head is still hurting!). Visuals up there are so different and gives you a feeling that you're walking on the moon ;)

In March 2017, we went for a second time, and for a solid reason. By then, doing tube light-painting was the main purpose of all of our trips. The technique was now mature and we knew we could create our best pictures ever despite the harsh conditions. We knew it would be cold, we knew we'd have to work late and wake up early. But wow did it worth it? My favorite picture up to date as been created during that trip and it represents so well what the Tube Stories are about: traveling with a tube, a flashlight, and a feather. It is exactly what I had in mind.

We also had a lot of surprises, including the everyday-thunderstorms far away. That time, we spent 4 days in Coquesa (very remote) and 4 days in Colchani (near Uyuni ciudad). Another goal of that trip was to make giant sunset pictures with Kim as a silhouette. I brought my 400mm lense + 2x extender and shot on a Canon 5d Mark IV. The foreground is rarely totally pure mirror and to make everything disappear, the best trick is to shoot extremely low. That was very painful and complicated as I was not really equipped for this. I was using the lens tripod mount as a base leveler, but that was making the thing super hard to frame, and the autofocus was not working at all. I missed a lot of shots but managed to get a couple of interesting ones.

On that trip, I also had a Mavic Pro that I never been able to use: the battery charger broke on the way in, and I couldn't do anything good with my 3 fully charged batteries as the camera was extremely wabling. Also, my vlogging camera was now a Canon M5 and we documented a lot of the trip, including a complete tutorial on how I setup my camera for tube light-painting.


A few months later, we tried a similar technique in California but instead of aiming for the sun, we went for the moon. And wow, this was so different. 

We asked ourselves what would it look like if we could do this on the giant mirror in Uyuni. It happened that we could potentially get the perfect conditions by going back in March 2018. And so we did. We gave us plenty of time. We had about two full weeks and we were so well prepared. We had only two mornings where the moon was correctly aligned to set at the right time. But on both time, it disappeared below the horizon at the last minute. We called it a fail, but the truth is these two days were at the end of our trip, and by then, we had so many incredible moments and created beautiful images and videos. We felt that the single fact that we were able to be there was a total blessing. Here's something I haven't told yet. When we arrived in Uyuni (the city), we realized that the level of water was way too high. We've been told that it was too dangerous to enter the salar. On top of that, the heavy rain from the previous days had completely destroyed the road to go to our hotel. We talked to them and they said that they would be closed for a full month! There were also some protests happening and the road to the salar was supposed to be blocked for a few days. Things were going so bad that we tried to change our plan and go to Chile instead (Atacama desert). But somehow, everything fell into place and we've been able to shoot for ten days in a row in the salar. 

Now back to the technique and equipment. What I knew I needed this time was a solid base and a way to do autofocus. The thing is that I am so blinded by the sun when doing these shots that I have to rely on the auto focus. To do so, I brought my Canon 1Dx Mark II and upgraded to the version III of the 2x extender. That kit was very sketchy but it worked so well. The fact that this camera can shoot at 16fps was a big bonus, especially when Kim was jumping. 

The base plate is a platypod on which I put my smallest ballhead, a Benro N00 (which got totally destroyed/eaten by the salt). I used my Benro Slim tripod only to stabilize the camera (to give it a proper angle). I know that my setup looks ridiculous, but I have no Idea what else I could have used to be as efficient / safe. My vloggin camera is now a Canon 6d Mark II + Canon 16-35mm f4. One other upgrade for me was to switch to the Mavic Air for drone footage (as you can see in Episode 61), which was flawless (yes, I soaked it on the last day but it was my fault).

Now back to our failure. Wait, is it a failure? We don't think so. Huge cliché alert: the end result didn't really matter. We had a crazy interesting experience and created some of our best pictures ever. And we got a story. And we'll have to go back again :) 

There will be many other stories about Uyuni, so stay with us either on this blog, on Instagram or Youtube :)

If you ended up here trying to find info about the light-painting tubes, search no more, everything fully explained here: