#1106. Backyard Gems: Quick trip to the Sainte Baume – Planning Video with Photography

By pascaljappy | Travel Photography

Apr 06

It’s hard to complain about lockdown when an enchanted forest is close enough to home to remain in the legal 10 km radius we’re allowed to explore. The place is gorgeous and it’s where my first video attempts could take place. Here’s a quick escape into the hills, as a good way to restart the week πŸ™‚


As many of you know, filmmaking has been at the back of my mind for the past few months. And it makes more sense to me to start with local subjects, particularly those as interesting and beautiful as this location. So, my long week-end walk in the Sainte-Baume allowed me to grab the photographs you see on this page, but was also dedicated to note-taking about places to return to with a video camera.


Of course, with a strong history in photogtaphy, this visit led to me testing various looks and renderings for the photographs, on top of my usual monochrome conversions (and no, the painful irony that most of my pics use a vertical format has not escaped me πŸ˜‰ ) The light was bright during mid day but we started early in the morning, before shadows came up and so we encountered a large variety of lighting situations and looks.

This is one of the aspects that worry me about filming. How do you keep the feeling of light consistent throughout, if you can’t carry a Hollywood studio on your back and if the lighting conditions change dramatically from one moment to the next?

This is not a consideration that would worry my in photography as it’s natural to understand why two adjacent photographs are lit differently. But, in a movie, you need some sort of causal relationship between shots. And we all know that we don’t always want to edit in a linear fashion, and that some shots made earlier in the day can end up after others made later, in the cut. Hmmm … any ideas are welcome.


Then, there’s the matter of organizing the whole visit into a story.

Here the luxury of choice is the only obstacle. There are so many actual stories in those hills that the problem is one of selection and editing, not of subject matter. A nice choice to have to make, really πŸ™‚

The forest on this page sits below a North-facing escarpment and is home to more folklore and history than most other places I know. The escarpment itself is dotted with caves, one of which is reputed to have been the final home of Mary Magdalen, Who is said to have spend the last 17 years of her life in prayer there. The cave has been turned into a church that was visited by every new French king for a period of time, and still is an important regional pilgrimage to this day. As you can imagine, there’s no way I was going to photograph it at Easter and trouble the numerous visitors.


Christmas is also an interesting time of year for the cave and people walk up (for hours) from nearby villages for a celebratory mass. I’ve always wanted to do that myself and it would obviously make a very interesting story for a short film.

The main way up to the Mary Magdalen cave is a Way of the Cross dotted with the usual stations, but the local religious fervor is such that many other non official crosses and signs of worship regularly appear here and there.

And another advantage of the area being so steeped in religious pilgrimage history is that stone stairs and walls abound, adding to the wonderland feeling of the whole area. Add to this a vast quantity of remarkable trees with the oddest of shapes, a few over 500 years old, and you could imagine Frodo and Friends hosting a 10-years-after reunion in those woods.


The ridge, of course, reveals a very different scenery and story.

Battered by rain, snow, extreme sun and near constant wind, it feels very barren and desolate after the dense cover and Entish vibe of the forest just a few meters below.

Here, the story takes a turn to wildlife (wild goats, wild boar, the occasional wolf, wall creepers, Bonelli’s eagle, short toed eagle, rare adders, …) and landscapes. The area is one of the few protected against the innumerable noisy disturbances man inflicts on nature (and on other humans interesting in less noisy adventures) for his own distraction. Although the Castellet F1 circuit is a stone-throw away and acts as a constant reminder that the fun of a tiny minority can legally pester the rest of the world, so long as there’s money in it, this place is as peaceful and wild as it gets in the immediate vicinity of a city called home by millions of people (Marseilles, in this case).


On the ridge as well, religious signs abound. Sadly, many of them are unrelated to the above facts, and more to the surprisingly numerous deaths of climbers and walkers who suffered fatal accidents here.

But, unlike the deeply spiritual vibe of the forest below, the dominant feeling on the ridge is one of exposure to the elements. This is a barren, mineral playground, windswept most of the year. From the top, the view extends to the calanques and sea to the South and to Cezanne’s Sainte Victoire, the Alps and Mont Ventoux to the North.


In between those two starkly contrasting universes lies a middle path called Sentier du Paradis (Paradise Trail). And my story is that all of Earth was created like that but then God found it too gorgeous and took it all away to build Paradise and just left this trail as a reminder that being good is worth it. True Story.

Colour photographs might do it more justice, but I can’t help myself in those lighting conditions, sorry πŸ˜‰

Still, the path, just above the forest, and just below the ridge, inherits a bit from both environments, with the gnarliest of old trees mysteriously finding sustenance in the cracks of rocky pile ups. As you can tell from the photographs, all of this happens really close to civilization and at no point are you further than 4 miles from a small town. But it feels otherworldly, bracing and nurturing, all the same.


As a hiker, you experience a kind of layer cake of all those facets. The trees, the history, the folklore, the wildlife, the vistas, the fresh air, the sore legs …

It’s a wonderful experience, but we hikers typically focus on the trail, treating the other elements of the walk as a set that passes us by, much like the houses and people seen from a bus. It’s all a wonderful setting, but not the story itself.

So how do you tell that story in a way that’s neither boring and documentary nor focused on GPS coordinates and forks on the path?


This is both my challenge and my key. Until I figure out a compelling story and a way to tell it, I won’t buy that video camera.

My past and experience are in photography. I can see how to create an exhibition around this enchanted place, and I want the movie to reflect this, rather than follow the usual codes of action nature videos. Can you help? How would you like to hear about this in more depth? Are there any short films that come to your mind about similar areas of the world that you could share to guide me? Help πŸ™‚


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Dallas Thomas says:

    Pascal, I use to shoot video 15+ years ago, my only tips are keep your grabs short, and zoom out not in. Your location looks excellent for your first masterpiece. Dallas

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    LOL — good luck to you, trying to film Mary Magdalen!

    I have enough troubles with stills, trying to match exposure – I’d never thought of what it must be like, with film – I take your point – it must be extremely challenging. But doesn’t that just mean you have to rise to the challenge?

    I won’t take this – “the painful irony that most of my pics use a vertical format”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there another truth? – that WAY too many shots are horizontal (and for the most part, 4×6)? – whereas you broke free a while back, and started simply giving each image the format it deserved, with a complete disregard to fashion or habit? And instantly found gratification, by discovering this new approach made the “real” subject of each shot just leap out at the viewer?

    Maybe I just dreamed that. But it is what I thought happened to your photography, somewhere along the line.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      Vertical just speaks to me more. But that’s gonna be a problem in video … There will have to be rising to more than one challenge, methinks πŸ˜‰ Which is why I’m searching for interesting local documentary done before (I mean people documentary work close to where they live, not local to me πŸ˜‰ )


  • Boris says:

    Seems to be a lovely place. I wish I had something like this within 10 km of where I live (especially the mountains).
    Last week I jumped in at the deep end and sold all my photography cameras and bought an FX3. Lot’s of things to learn. But it’s a nice camera and fun to use. Last weekend I did some first test shots at the old river arms of the Danube (which is also about 10 km away from where I live). I got an idea about choosing the right color profile for video and how to manage exposure, but I’m far far away from doing any kind of local documentary with this camera. So no helpful examples for the next time from my side, I’m afraid.
    But my recommendation to you would be to just buy the FX6 and start filming.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Boris, you’re right. Learning on the job is the only way to become better at real-life things. I just want to have an idea about what I want to say and think it will then be easy to learn how to say it. Right now, I’m lost πŸ˜‰ I suppose that’s the fun of learning.

  • Mark says:

    As a still photographer it may be difficult to conceptualize what story, and how you would tell it, in video (movie) form. It could very well be that you will continue to have that problem until you start actually doing video. Once you’ve started and become more familiar with its form factor, you may begin to realize the story you want to tell and ow to tell it. You may be better off jumping in, and as you gain experience and familiarity with the process your ideas will come.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Unfortunately, Mark, that makes a lot of sense. And you’re the second person to tell me that. I’m really in favour of learning on the job and only wanted to clear my mind about where to start, so as not to find myself in the hills with a camera and no idea what to shoot. But you and Boris are probably correct. From those shots will probably emerge bits of a story that will guide me towards more shots. Thanks!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I read Boris’s comment and then Mark’s, and your responses – I’m afraid I’ve never been much good at rote learning, I’ve always preferred “hands on” learning. The results might be awful – but at least I know they’re mine. And because of that, when I appraise them, I can do it from the viewpoint of the only person on the planet who knows just exactly what I was trying to do – so it’s infinitely easier for me to see whether I did it or not.

        Of course I often find that I did something else instead. Never mind. It’s how I learn!

        • pascaljappy says:

          Awful is subjectively OK. Something that some people find awful but others love is fine by me. Just plain bad or average is not a result that would motivate to continue. I need to know there will be some appeal to an audience. If not, why waste the electrons? This probably makes me a little bit too mental and I should probably let go and just give it a try. But I need a plan to let go within a supportive context πŸ˜‰

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Well, when you ask “How do you keep the feeling of light consistent throughout, if you can’t carry a Hollywood studio on your back and if the lighting conditions change dramatically from one moment to the next?”, I would be tempted to answer: do as Richard Linklater with “Before Sunrise” in 1995 and “Before Sunset” in 2004: he “did” take tons of equipment, the huge staff, all the “Hollywood things”…but, mainly, he filmed the sequences mostly during golden hours, an essentially in real time!

    The hardest part, I guess, will be to make that nature “talk”… I can just suggest two inspirations – so diverse and not endorsed by the “establishment”, I know πŸ™‚ -, the Japanese animations form Hayao Miyazaki, and the non-narrative movies from Ron Fricke, like Baraka; both were famous for making “landscape” the main character at moments…
    Good start !

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Pascal. Great suggestions.
      Golden hour would be more difficult, as every session implies quite a bit of traveling. So I’ll have to find other ways to maintain some sort of consistency.
      But hey, where would be the fun if it was strightforward πŸ˜‰

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Pascal, I won’t be much (i.e. any) help on the video side, but I do have two comments: One, this is obviously a lovely area, despite its traffic in pilgrims (and how did Mary Magdalene get there all the way from Palestine?). The rocks are interesting, but for me the trees are fascinating. Often I find bare trees do best in B&W; but sometimes we need to see the chlorophyll. I think it will look, and photograph, best after a gentle rainβ€”I think it rains even in a Mediterranean climate. I like the goats better in color also. Two, I wouldn’t worry too much about vertical or horizontal orientation: your intuition should be a good guide as to what’s appropriate. And this you do very well indeed.
    All in all, I enjoyed the tour. And I don’t really need a story! Lad

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      LOL – same way Christ made it to Salt Lake City – she flagged down a passing El Al “Dreamliner” – the rest is history!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, that is local folklore and not official dogma. Legend says that the 3 Maries embarked on a boat and turned up on the shores of Provence. One went to the Sainte Baume, the other to Saintes-Marie de la Mer and I’m not sure about the third. There’s a bit of this on wikipedia : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Marys#Legend_in_France. Interestingly, those places are now known for huge pilgrimages. Gypsies hold a local one in Saintes Maries de la Mer that’s one of their most important in the world.

      The trees in this area are particularly fascinating. Their trunks seems very convoluted and some are quite large, particularly for species that don’t usually grow very old or very tall. I’ll certainly go and photograph the trees more. Film them? Not sure what that would add to a simple photograph.

      And that’s where the need for a story kicks in. Why make a film if all I have to show is a succession of stills? That would make no sense. Which is why I’m still struggling to justify the purchase of a camera … Or dear πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      • Boris says:

        “Film them? Not sure what that would add to a simple photograph.”

        I think you can’t see the wood for the trees πŸ™‚

        You could move through the forest while filming. This gives a completely different and often more intense feeling of a forest and can be so much more than just “a succession of stills”. But you need some very smooth movement to not distract from the lovely forest (meaning using a gimbal or drone + slow motion + maybe some stabilization in post). But it could work. Just try it!

        • pascaljappy says:

          Hmm, there seems to be an overwhelming agreement on this topic now πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰
          You’re probably right. Let me get my chequebook! Thanks Boris.

          • Boris says:

            Or just use your existing gear until you are really sure about your decision. Even a X1D can be used for some lovely 1080P video. Or use your smartphone. I enjoy using new cameras and it can be an additional motivation. But they are definitely not a necessity. Just start filming with whatever you have right now.

          • Boris says:

            Imaging resource wrote about the X1D: “However, at ISO 3200 and below, I was surprised at how clean the video looks. Lines are sharp, colors are crisp, and the same love for greens I exhibited in the photos review carry over here with video. I really like how the X1D renders colors, even in video.”
            Sound promising, especially for forests.

            • pascaljappy says:

              I have filmed with the X1D and the results were really beautiful. Some sort of stabilisation is nΓ©cessary as the footage was very shaky. So I could maybe start with just a gimbal … That sounds like a relatively risk-free plan!! Thanks.

  • >