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Valgaudemar: A brief summer affair with the Sony A7 and Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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In those confined times it is so good to look at places my wife and I cherish. Valgaudemar was our winter and summer holiday destination when our children were quite young. A few years ago we had a sort of pilgrimage holiday. We were not as fit as we had been 20 years before, so we decided on a program of easy and more strenuous hikes while we were staying there.

Valgaudemar has been nicknamed the French Himalayan valley. It is a secluded valley on the eastern side of Le Parc National des Ecrins. It consists of two villages and a dozen small hamlets that dot the 20-kilometre valley that runs parallel to the main river, La Severaisse. You will find just a few shops, a few bars, restaurants and hotels.

The nearest supermarket and gas-station are some 20 miles from the valley. No ski-resort, apart from the 20 km of cross-country tracks. The valley’s name comes from the combination of Val (which is the abbreviation of the French for valley) and Godemar, a sixth-century Burgundian king who, historians say, retired to the valley.

Lubac or L’Ubac (the north face of the mountain)

The hamlet of L’Ubac boasts one of the very few small family run hotels. The hamlet is ideally situated at the start of many walks — some easy hikes and some more strenuous ones. From the hamlet you may also enjoy beautiful views on l’Olan, a 3,654-metre-high iconic peak

Le torrent de Prentiq and its hamlet

To my eyes, this is one of the most beautiful highland rivers I know. It is not a huge rolling river with spectacular waterfalls and gorges, simply a small mountain river that bounces on rocks from further up. The river is also used to irrigate the fields of the two nearby farms, thanks to a small network of hand-dug tiny canals.

A steep path that can be really steep at times follows much of the river almost to its source. The path climbs in a larch and linden wood. It also offers many opportunities for slow-speed water photography using an ND filter. They are welcome breaks during the one-hour ascent. This is one of the rare features I liked in the Sony camera as you don’t have to bother with adjusting speed up to 30 seconds.

At the end of the path, you reach the hamlet of Prentiq which is no longer inhabited, although a couple of shepherd huts are still standing. Some heaps of stones under brambles and nettles hint that the hamlet was of some importance in the 19th century.

The two remaining huts can be used in the summer by farmers who send their sheep grazing up in the mountain. Flocks of sheep are sometimes victims of attacks by the wolves that have started to settle on this side of the mountain.

The village is also the starting point for some strenuous walks to high-altitude lakes and passes.

La Chapelle en Valgaudemar and Les Oulles du Diable

Driving for six miles from l’Ubac, you will pass through a few hamlets along the river Severaisse before reaching La Chapelle en Valgaudemar, the biggest village at the end of the valley. However, La Chapelle can be reached by means of a pleasant path that follows the river through shaded groves.

At the right time of the year, the path brims with wild strawberries and raspberries. The village of La Chapelle boasts just one small shop and a butcher. You’ll also find the high-mountain guide office and one of the national park houses which host many exhibitions and films in the summertime.

La Chapelle is also the starting point for the trek to the l’Olan mountain hut — but a couple of tombstones of dead alpinists at the start of the path look rather ominous. On the other side, another path leads to the Hamlet of Les Portes and Les Oulles du Diable (a river gorge with whirlpools). From the hamlet, many paths are an invitation to explore the surrounding valley further up.

Le Gioberney

This is the end of the road some six miles up at the valley. It’s a huge glacial cirque with a hotel that was built during WW2. Many paths lead to three mountain huts that are at the start of several summits. Le Pigeonnier mountain hut is probably the one that offers the best views of the entire glacial circus. It’s a long and steep ascent but really worth the effort. The panorama mode of the A7 with stitch-in panorama inside the camera enabled me to capture wide vistas.

Click panorama images to enlarge

Waterfalls

This is another reason Le Valgaudemar’s fame because it is possible to make images of waterfalls almost from the car with no or very little effort. These last three images were taken with the Ricoh GRD 3.

The sony A7 and Zeiss lens.

Some of you may wonder why I did not keep the Sony A7. I did not like the imaging which looked to my eyes on the arctic side. Even if images are detailed enough, they seem hollow and flimsy to my eyes. Compared with my Ricohs and Leica X2, I always felt that I could walk right through the images which definitely lacked substance and body.

I didn’t gel with the Sony menu system — I found it quite confusing — and this was an added frustration, although I freely admit that this is a personal observation and others will disagree. Battery life was also poor and the shutter noise, although not a problem for landscape, was loud. I would never have taken images of people with that camera.

If you are interested in the valley and have a nice break after the COVID-19 episode, here’s the link to the local tourist guide. I’m sorry but it’s only in French but I’m sure an internet translator will be pleased to step in and help.

See more articles by Jean Perenet


16 COMMENTS

  1. You do take us to some lovely places, Jean. Considering your dislike of the camera, before you got to that point I had been enjoying the chiaroscuro of many of your pictures and the almost tactile quality of your shots of buildings. What also catches my attention is the way you use the 35.mm focal length: I still keep hoping I can come to terms with it and enjoy my Leica X2. Not there yet!

  2. Hello John and thanks for the kind comment. This valley is truly amazing but there’s nothing much to do apart from hiking in the summertime and enjoying the sun and in the winter cross-country skiing is limited because of the many avalanches that plague the valley at that time of the year. This is my favourite alpine valley. As to answer your 35mm query that’s a lens I’ve used almost exclusively for 20 years with my various cameras over the years and it has always been a good allrounder although I sometime miss a slightly wider FOV. I guess I could have lived with my now gone M8 and its 24 mm lens (almost 32 mm) and now looking for a sigma quattro H and a 24 mm. A pity there’s no digital version of the Leica mini 3 with its 32mm lens.
    Stay safe in those troubled times
    Jean

  3. A lovely journey through this beautiful valley Jean, thanks. I enjoyed particularly the photo of Le Pigeonnier hut and as you show the views are tremendous. Interesting comments about the way you see the files from the Sony, people seem to end up in a love or hate relationship with the camera.

  4. Hello Kevin. Thanks for the kind comment. For fear that I should clone my former comment the valley is truly amazing. It was not a hate relationship but I could not come to terms with the imaging. It’s technically superb but compared to X2 images the ones from the Sony seemed without soul. I quite understand people who love the camera as it is a resolution monster and it has really nice features. If I had found a lens that gave more substantial images I guess I would have kept it despite its nerve racking menus
    Stay safe
    Jean

  5. I wonder how many times that area has been used by movie makers? It is just stupendous. James Bond would have been right at home there.you might not gel with the menu but your compositions always make part of the photo. Since the King is gone you should move there and call yourself Lord of the Valgaudemar !

    • Hello John, thanks for your comment. The place is amazing and no James Bond and no king. A place I’d be glad to return to when covid is over.
      Stay safe
      Jean

  6. I really enjoyed this colourful visual journey Jean, I didn’t, and still don’t feel a lot of love for the A7riii that my son in law has – it takes excellent images, but the experience is soulless to me. Whereas I find taking images with my x typ 113 to be unique, and even the Df which has a convoluted menu system of its own, still gives a bonded feel with you when using it.

    The best menu system I have experienced are the Leica ones, straight forward, minimalistic and most things are easy to find with little to no effort, or research with you tube – or relying on the Macfilos community to guide you to the setting you need to fix the issue you are experiencing. I often wonder where I would be sometimes without the army of knowledgeable readers on here who have helped me workout the myriad of weird things buried in our camera systems.

    Enjoy the weekend folks, and continue to keep safe.

    • Hello Dave. Thanks for the kind comment. I much prefer my X2 to the sony any day. Simple menu, beautiful images and an amazing lens. Never got used to the sony imaging.
      Have a nice weekend and stay safe
      Jean

  7. Left field relative to the main theme of the landscapes Jean, I really like the image of the stone steps with flower pots. Light, colour, texture, lines, composition, perspective. Well seen and nice shot that one.

  8. Hello Wayne. Thanks for your kind comment. I quite enjoy landscape photography although it’s sometimes difficult to out of the beaten track in some occasion. Not always safe to concentrate on street portraits as I experienced a few weeks ago . I must say it’s a more unpleasant experience than in Asia for instance.
    Enjoy the weekend and stay safe
    Jean

  9. From your photographs Jean it looks quite a hike to some of these places. Both you and your wife must be pretty fit. I remember my condition at 10,000ft on one trip – I was out of breath climbing the stairs to my room.

    When you say the imaging was more on the artic side you mean cooler toned colours? The camera seems to handle green well, (evident in the Prentiq hut photo) a colour I usually pay attention to in post processing. And the warm-cool colour of the stone hut with the stone steps is also handled very well. All in all a very enjoyable read. Makes me miss my trips even more.

    • Hello Farhiz, thanks for the kind comment. The Sony rendering was much too cool to my eyes, even cold compared to my X2 and my GRs. What I really did not appreciate was the lack of substance in the image. The sensor did handle colours extremely well but the images had no soul. I much prefer the rendering of a pansonic GX80 or Oly omd1 from friends’ images. They are only m4/3 cameras but the colours and rendering is dense. The last images of the ricoh grd3 despite is tiny sensor look more pleasing to my eyes. As for height we manage reasonably up to 12500 feet. We did suffer from height when hiking in Bhutan above that height. As we’re getting older we’re no longer as fit as we used to so mild walking is now our option. Hope you can cope with lockdown in India at the moment.
      Stay safe
      Jean

  10. Jean, the small family-run hotel in Lubac looks to be a cosy place to break a journey, or dwell for a few days. Did you take any interior shots, capturing its alpine character?

    • Hello David. The hotel is a good place to rest, quiet and secluded but the interior is not on par with the garden with very poor soundproofing, a supposed rustic style living room and bedroom swith 1970s furniture but the atmosphere is friendly, the food is really good and the price hard to beat.
      Stay safe
      Jean

  11. Lovely photos Jean. I have not been to the French Alps. The nearest I have got to them are the Gorges of Verdon about 200kms away, but I am not sure where my photos taken there on film around 2003 are.

    Every time I see an article with waterfalls, I am reminded that I must get around to doing an article featuring my photos of Slovenian waterfalls and also one featuring the waterfalls in Milford Sound in New Zealand on a wet and windy day where you can see hundreds of waterfalls many about 500 feet high, being driven sideways by the wind. The boats also bring you into the base of the waterfalls where you can get a free shower as well.

    I have a couple of modern Zeiss manual focus lenses, both 25mm f2.8, one in Nikon F mount and one in Leica M mount. They are both excellent, but I rarely use them. I also have some old ‘real’ Zeiss lenses and a lot more made to Zeiss designs, particularly the Tessar.

    Leaving lenses out, those waterfalls are real magnets for the eye.

    William

  12. Hello William and thanks for the kind comment. The French part of the Alps is so huge that you can’t explore everything, waterfalls included. The same can be said for Switzerland, Austria Italy and Slovenia. As to Zeiss lenses I really enjoyed The Zeiss-Contax G lenses that went with the G1 or G2. I’ve been quite tempted by the milvus line from what I saw on the web but that would mean buying a new body and a set of lenses and that’s not on the agenda at the moment.
    Enjoy Sunday and stay safe
    Jean

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