Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Capitola Pier, November 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas, 2010



Just wanted to wish everyone a merry Christmas and happy new year!  Here's a shot from May of this year in Yosemite (actually it was in Wawona, to be precise) of a fast-flowing melt-water river.  Buried in there is a lone, sparse shrub that's somehow still standing despite the pressure of countless gallons of water flowing past each and every minute.  May we all be able to call upon such vast reserves of strength and perseverance, eh?  Still, it obviously can pay off because the two large trees on the right were also sticking up through the torrent!

Here's to a wonderful 2011 for all of us!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Yoesmite - Winter Trip



The above was taken the last time we were in Yosemite in late spring 2010, following one of the wettest (and hence, snowiest!) winters for years.  However, we are still seeing quite a strong spell of wet weather in the Bay Area so snow is building fast in the Sierras.  Anyway, long story short, we are off again to stay in Yosemite once again but in winter this time.  Off in late February for a few days, weather permitting of course!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Clearing Storm - A Timelapse

video

Thought I'd post a rough version of a timelapse film I did over the weekend. It shows the storm we had clearing out of the area, turning the weather from very wet with low clouds to showery, blustery and clearing. I thought it would be interesting to see the clouds and fog in the valley behind our house "boiling" away as that weather front passes through the area and clearing sets in behind it, and I think I was right. It's worth watching several times to see the different areas - sky, valley, distant hills, etc. - all changing over what was roughly an hour or so.

For those interested, this was done by setting up my DSLR to take one frame every three seconds, importing all the pictures to my desktop PC running Adobe Lightroom, and then outputting (also from Lightroom) at 24 fps, 720p, into mp4 format.

I'll add some titles and a soundtrack, plus some zooms as well, to it once I find a spare cycle or two. Meanwhile ... enjoy the rough-cut!

(Stop press ... for some reason the original video wouldn't post so here's one I did earlier. Similar situation so you wil get the idea! I think the more recent one might have been a bit too long for Blogger.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Water Gate (No, Not That One)



As mentioned, I've been stopping off at various beaches between Santa Cruz and Monterey over the past few months, partly to take some photographs but partly just to learn more about what's available along the coastline within an hour's drive from home. One such stop, in Moss Landing, yielded the photograph shown above.  It looks like the remains of some sort of jetty, but apart from the two uprights shown & a crumbling bit of concrete at the shoreline, it's hard to figure out what it originally looked like when whole.  It's also hard to determine exactly why it was there (it's actually located outside of the nearby harbour, directly facing the Pacific) though likely it served the fishing - or perhaps even whaling - industry before the more formal harbour complex was built.

I'll plan on going back there for another go at this view because I'd like to get the horizon lower than I was able to do this time around.  It was close to high tide so I had to stand up the beach, looking down somewhat towards the pilings themselves. And for those interested in such things, it was a 59 second exposure.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Peace Offering


Has it really been two months since I last posted something? Apparently, the answer is "yes" judging by the date stamps.  Ooops.  Sorry about that.  So by way of a peace offering, and just to show I've not been totally idle whilst invisible, here's one of a series of shots I've been doing along the local coastline.

Believe it or not, someone, somewhere, thought it made sense to sail a decommissioned concrete-hulled tanker to a point off of Aptos, near Santa Cruz, sink it, and call it a tourist attraction. Unsurprisingly, this was a short-lived venture, leaving as detritues a broken-backed cement-based wreck just yards from what otherwise is a pristine California beach.

Oh well.

More soon!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Helicopter Experience


As a few of you know, I decided to do an initial experience flight at the controls of a Robinson R22 helicopter. I'd been planning to do this for a while but finally was prompted to follow-through when I saw a Groupon coupon for a half-price ($99) trial at Specialized Heli in Watsonville. Half-off? Bargain - where do I sign up??

Thanks, largely, to a few fatal crashes early on in the era of personal helicopter training, the FAA requires you to pass a basic ground-school course before being allowed to place hands on the controls, even when paired with a qualified instructor. Sound extreme? Actually, no. A small, 2 seat machine like the Robinson is very sensitive to the controls, and in terms of power/weight ratio actually quite well endowed! Think about going out to a race circuit and being let loose in a formula car when your only driving experience was previously in a 30 year old Morris Oxford and you'll start to get the picture. However, even that analogy doesn't quite cut it, as we shall see.

The ground school was actually quite a reasonable test (in the sense of being, well, testful) but having read the basic book on helicopter theory and operations, and sat through an hour instructional class, it wasn't too hard to pass. Having got through that step, and signed on for an hour flight (extending what's offered in the package by some 40 minutes) then it was time to head off into the wild blue yonder, conveniently located right around the airfield.

So here's what I learned: basically, helicopters are machines designed expressly to kill you. Your task, Grasshopper, is to learn how to foil their every attempt, and to do so for each and every minute you are in the air.


Fixed-wing aircraft are, in comparison, the very model of human-loving devices, actively working to keep you from harm. Take you hands off the controls in, say, a Cessna, and by-and-large the thing will sort itself out for you; it wants to fly level, it wants to keep you up there, all gravity-defying and happy. Helicopters, on the other hand, have no such virtues. Take the controls and try to steer the thing, and it wants to crash. Take you hands off the controls, and now it wants to crash even faster. Flying the thing is akin to bomb-disposal: one significant wrong move - including at times doing absolutely nothing - and you're on the ground in a big exploding fireball before you have time to say, "this might hurt".


In order to avoid ending up all KFC (crispy, and able to fit into a bucket), you have to make constant, tiny movements on the main control, the cyclic, in order to coax the thing to the place where you want to be, always nudging it back onto the proper course. However, the problem then is that some of those movements will cause the other two sets of controls you have to manipulate now themselves to require adjustment. (This thing's operating fully in 3D space, plus velocity of course, so both hands and both feet are fully engaged in wrestling your way across the sky.) And don't even get me started on hovering because even the above is trivially simple compared to stopping the thing and staying still in one place. Which, take it from me, is impossible. Judging by the flight path when I tried then looking from the ground, preferably from half a mile away at least, you'd basically conclude I was suffering from whole body tremors the results of which were being directly transmitted to the airframe.

Regardless, after an hour I was starting at least to get the hang of heading in one direction, turning and doing the basic up/down thing. However, hovering is very tough to master, but in my defence then I only got to try this part for a few minutes towards the end of the flight and would hope to do better second time around.

Will I go again, with the intent, perhaps, of seeing if I can qualify for a basic private-pilot's licence?


Watch this space!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Netgear WNDR3700: Let Me Repeat Myself, Wirelessly

After getting round to replacing our aging home PC late last year, I finally decided to tackle the next step in upgrading our home network, namely upping the transmission speed to 1 Gig. Thanks to the - fast growing - store of digital images we collectively produce, moving those things around really does take up an awful lot of bandwidth and our old Buffalo router only supported 10/100 Ethernet. Therefore, downloading from storage cards and saving the results to a network-attached drive was getting pretty painful, especially now I'm using 16 Gbyte CF cards!

In order to allow for future expansion, I opted for the NETGEAR WNDR3700, dual-band 2.4/5 Ghz unit, largely because it offered simultaneous dual-band support and wireless repeating, the latter being key because I wanted to extend the wireless aspect of the network out to the garage. In order to keep things simple, I bought two of them, largely to make sure that the wireless repeat function should operate flawlessly, free of any weird incompatibilities that might result from using dissimilar devices. (Yeah, I know it's a standard protocol these days, but experience tells me that madness lives down the road you travel by believing "it should just work, sir".)

I'll spare you all the extended tale of woe resulting from what I thought should be a simple half-hour job, but suffice it to say that a) the documentation for wireless repeating mode set-up for this unit is pretty much non-existent, b) configuring the two routers to play nicely together uncovers a number of limitations I wasn't aware of going-in and c) I may yet give up and run a cable from the router to the repeater because of poor end-to-end performance. Anyway, for those of you who want to try the same thing, here's how I finally got it going.

Step 1: get the first unit working as yer basic, bog-standard wired router. The provided documentation is OK here but one thing to note is that it will, on start-up, want to look for firmware updates. This was OK for me because I was swapping out a known, working (Buffalo) unit that demonstrably had working Internet access so that process was able to complete OK before going into set-up mode. Mostly, you can leave a lot of stuff in there at the default setting for now and it should basically work, though I should say that I used manual set up and not the provided wizard because I've never had good luck with those things.

Step 2: once working wired, the next step is to make sure you can access the main router wirelessly. Set-up your preferred security options. (I use pretty weak options here because the neighbours are so far away that they won't be able to get any 5 Ghz signal at all, and anyway drive-by Internet theft isn't much of a risk at our house!) One thing to note: once in repeat mode WPS won't work, so don't go relying on it, OK??

Step 3: in wireless repeat mode, there are a bunch of restrictions which you will now need to take into account as we move forwards :
- You can't repeat 5 Ghz and 2.4 Ghz at the same time. Yes, you read that right. Despite buying a parallel, dual-band router, it turns out that the repeater will only extend one of them. I opted for 2.4 Ghz coverage (the most common band) to be extended.
- WPS doesn't work, but I didn't really care. Setting up wireless clients isn't that taxing after all, and if you think it is then you are probably going to have a hell of a time getting all this stuff to work anyway :-)
- Auto channel selection is a no-no on the band you will be repeating, so just pick one. I noticed previously that in auto-channel mode the router set-up channel 1 so I just used that as the manual selection.
- You will have to restrict maximum link rate. I use 130 Mb on the 2.4 Ghz channel and that worked for me.
- The repeater needs a fixed IP address so you'll need to limit the DHCP range that the base station will grant addresses from in order to clear some head room. I set an upper limit of 240, leaving, for example, 250 available as a static address for the repeater.
- Enter the MAC address of the repeater into the appropriate place on the designated tab (named, cunningly, "Wireless Repeating Function").
Having done all the above, make sure that everything is still working. And by that I mean "turn it off and on again so you really know it works", OK? If so, shut that unit down and plug-in the other one, i.e. the unit that will become the repeater, and connect it up to the Internet and LAN.

Step 4: Kick-off by getting this device up and running as a wired router, as per step 1 above. The reasons for this are to make sure you have both units at the same firmware revision level and that it's working properly overall. Use the same basic settings (e.g. SSID, pass-key and channel one operation on 2.4 Ghz) entered into the base station.

Step 5: OK, so now we'll add the settings that this device, as a repeater, will work from. The tricky thing here is that each change, made on each separate tab on the administration menu, requires you to hit "apply" before moving on. Alas, that means that some of those changes render the device invisible, especially if you are trying to set it up from a wireless connection! (I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to work round that one ...) Therefore, save setting up the Wireless Repeating Function tab for last. (However, if memory serves me then there's one other step that causes problems and that's setting manually your static IP address, 10.0.0.250 in my case. You'll need to enter that directly into the browser you are using for configuration once the setting is applied in order to continue configuring the device.) So in summary, you will a) assign a static IP address to the repeater, b) enter in the MAC address of the base station, i.e. the one that's currently sitting on the floor not connected to anything, right?) and c) tick the box to make this a repeater.

Step 6: Put back the first router in place of the wireless repeater you just configured. All being well, it should be working for both direct wired and wireless connections, exactly as you left it.

Step 7: turn on the repeater while monitoring the configuration of the main router. You should be able to see from the status information that the repeater is seen on the network (look at attached devices for the 10.0.0.250 address).

Step 8: go to your static IP address (i.e. http://10.0.0.250/) and log-in to the repeater. The configuration menus should now show some items as greyed-out and the status information should show that it's operating happily. One thing to note, in my set-up I was getting a reported link speed of only 11 Mbits! Your mileage may vary but it's worth noting that the link quality was reported as "fair" so the radio signal wasn't that bad.

OK, you should now be up-and-running. However, I have to say that this network topology is a bit of a compromise to say the least. I now find that wireless devices, because they like the strongest signal, will attach to the repeater when in fact I want them to be on the base router for maximum throughput on the internal network. At some point, I'll try giving the repeater a separate SSID to see if I can control which devices lock-onto the repeater and which go direct to the base router. After all, a "good" signal at 130 Mb is way better than an "excellent" signal offering all of 11 Mbits! Still, on the plus side then my Internet radio in the garage now gets a signal and we can move around PCs more freely now that there's coverage everywhere.

Postscript:

Robert, a reader of the blog, contacted me to see if I had any additional advice as he was still having some issues getting this to work, albeit with the 3300 model.  The exchange, and additional input from Netgear, follows below ...
----------
Hi. Thank you so much for your post about setting up your WNDR3700. It’s way better than anything else I’ve found. Unfortunately, it’s not working for me. Would you mind answering some questions? If not, feel free to say no. But if so:

The symptom is that when I turn on the repeater, devices that were connecting to the router refuse to connect wirelessly at all. They report that they can’t get an IP address. I may be missing a few pieces of info:
What do you have set as your Gateway IP address? I set mine as my main router’s IP address as of that moment, but that’s dynamically assigned by my ISP. Also, my router shows its IP address as 192.168.1.1, but in reality it’s something like 76.14.67.xxx

What did you set as your DNS server(s)?

On the Wireless Repeating Function screen, what did you set as the repeater IP address?

One more detail: As you suggested, I was going to turn off DHCP on the repeater as my last step, but as soon as I enabled the repeating function the LAN setup link was greyed out. I assume that turned off the DHCP function but maybe not. Do you know?
----------
Hi Robert,
 
I am happy to answer questions but should begin by saying that, after just a couple of months running that configuration, I did indeed throw in the towel and ran a cable under the house. The throughput issue and lack of dual band repeating made working that way enough of a pain that drilling holes in the walls and through floor joists didn't see so unattractive all of a sudden! 

Therefore, I can't look at my present settings but instead have to rely on memory ... oh dear!

I don't think I changed the main router's gateway address, leaving it to be assigned by my ISP and set however it was when just the main router was connected on its own and working. Just to be clear, under "Basic Settings" I have Internet IP Address set to come from the ISP, as is the DNS address, and don't set those myself (though I have tried the Google open DNS settings in the past to see if lookup were any quicker, which it wasn't). I don't think it matters what shows up in the greyed-out boxes alongside what you see were you to set things manually; i.e. I don't think it's saying that those are the addresses your ISP has assigned.
 
However, under "LAN Setup" I then have it set to use IP addresses on my house network starting with 10.0.0.1 onwards and have the "use router as DHCP server" box checked. Alongside that, I restrict the range of IP addresses it can issue to 10.0.0.2 to 10.0.0.199. That leaves a small group of addresses, 10.0.0.200 onwards, that are unallocated and I used one of those as the fixed IP addess of the repeater. That should ensure you don't end up with the possibility of duplicate IP addresses being issued and it also means that you can then directly ping the repeater to see what's going on because you always know its fixed IP address (I used 10.0.0.250, for example).
 
The other thing to try that might help illuminate what's happening is to give the repeater a different SSID. That might make untangling who connects to what a bit easier, as least temporarily until things start behaving.
 
Hope this helps?
----------
After getting Netgear support to kick me up to phone support I got the repeater working. First, here are the instructions they sent:

The UI doesn’t match that of the WNDR3700, but it was close enough. The instructions say I can run at up to 270MBPS with WEP, but you can’t do that on the 3700 at least. I’m running it at 54MBPS with WEP, which is faster than what I can actually get. They also only briefly mention that you need to configure a static IP address on the repeater that’s outside the DHCP range of the base station. The key bit of information here is that the channel needs to be the same on both devices. I tried channel 1 at first and that didn’t work. I then tried channel 11 and that worked.

Also, the technician I spoke with said that I can repeat both the 2.4 and 5GHZ bands, but that the range of the 5GHZ band is so low that there’s no point. So I’m just repeating the 2.4 GHZ band. I now have a strong signal and 9 MBPS download speed in rooms that had had no signal before.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why Is Clothes Shopping So Hard?

I had a spare hour or so between meetings yesterday so decided to head over to Stanford Shopping Center to try and do some clothes shopping.


I find buying clothes to be a painful and highly frustrating process. This is because I suffer from two key failings that render me particularly ill-suited (pun intended) to successfully accomplishing that most simple of tasks: a) I am short and skinny, unlike the majority of the male demographic around these parts, and b) I'm not gay. Taken together, this renders 95% of what's exhibited in stores out there utterly unsuitable unless I somehow gain 50 extra pounds overnight or suddenly take to liking pale yellow shirts with shoulder tabs. However, "needs must" as they say and so I ventured forth regardless. Which brings me to a third reason it's a futile quest: I am the wrong age.

Quite sensibly from their perspective, malls such as Stanford cater largely to the clientele to hand, namely rich kids under 25 in their case. Therefore, SSC abounds with stores catering for the young and trendy rather than the middle-aged and indifferent, the latter category being of course the one in which I am counted. In fairness, however, I should point out that the larger chains at least also have to cater to the older crowd, but largely that means they just carry stuff made by Ralph Lauren. Please, God, preserve me from that fate. I have never played polo and likely never will, and what's worse polo, when it is played at all, is done so by the likes of Prince Charles, someone that no one wants to dress like unless they are certifiably insane. And yes, I know the Macy's and Bloomingdales of this world sell suits, too, but I don't know who buys them. Indeed, when I went up there, purely in the interests of checking out the vibe, the answer appeared to be "no one at all" because the entire floor was utterly deserted.

However, I finally did find a cheap shirt at J. Crew ($15 in a sale, a level to which I bet they weren't sure their price guns could sink to) and a pair of "need to look vaguely smart in the office but without actually bothering to wear a jacket" trousers from Banana Republic, also on sale.

With luck, that should see me through until well into 2011, by which time I have no doubt that the problem will have become even worse.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Of Mice And Men, But Mostly Mice

As highlighted previously, we are going through some minor remodelling work. So far, the ugly wood cladding from the ceiling has been removed and the ceiling refinished. Also now done, the lamps set into the full-height of the ceiling in the living room have been replaced with 50,000 hour LED items so now we can actually turn the bloody things on without forever fretting about how to replace a blown bulb. Next up, redoing the work surfaces in the kitchen.


Meanwhile, the entire place is off course a mess, including the garden which increasingly seems to look like a scale map of the battlefields of the Somme, exhibiting as it does countless trenches, holes and tunnels. However, that's just the manifestation of a larger problem: mice have made it through our defences and infiltrated the underfloor.

A week or so ago I woke up to hear odd noises coming from the kitchen. Something was scurrying over the construction paper that was taped to the floor to try and provide some sort of protection while work was underway. Next night, same thing. Each time I'd go down there and of course nothing could be seen, but I knew alright, I knew ...

Things proceeded to escalate. In addition to the "walking about" noises, another sound could be heard: serious gnawing. After a couple more nights trying to figure out where on earth it was coming from, the secret of the mouse army was revealed - one of the buggers had got into the heating duct and was trying to chew its way out from the inside. "This means war", I tell you!

Tally so far: four dead, two captured and released (one with minor injuries) and at least one more to go. And one of our traps was captured by the enemy and now presumed lost.

Definitely a learning experience, with lessons as follows:

1. Mice can get through amazingly small places. I think they got in through a grill set under the house through which air conditioner piping had been (badly) routed. It wasn't much of a gap, but enough it seems for them to slip through at dead of night. Or even during the day. Seems our dogs will chase lizards until the cows (which we don't have an infestation of, thankfully) come home, but rodents leave them cold.

2. Mice literally think peanut butter is to die for. Makes great bait. But after a while it does put you off PB&J for breakfast.

3. Repairing heating duct is hard, so have someone else do it. On the plus side, you may find, hidden on top of a small cupboard the previous owners built, a 1996 copy of Playboy hidden in an envelope addressed to the head male of said household.

4. Reusable traps are great the first time you use them but after that they smell of scared mouse pee and so all future foot soldiers from the mouse army give them a wide berth, thereby utterly negating their value.

5. Mice don't spring rat traps and only sometimes spring mouse traps. Be prepared for a long campaign. with a side effect that all the peanut butter they consume means you are strengthening your foes.

6. There seems to be a natural force of attraction in effect between set mouse traps and human fingers. Oddly, this force only acts when the trap is wound up and ready to go, not when it has sprung. I'll ping Dr. Hawking to see if potential energy effects at the quantum level can explain this. Or rather, I will when my fingers heal well enough for better tipyng.

7. Sometimes, Mr. Mousey isn't killed by spring traps but rather caught by a stray leg, tail or some such. One of the fallen was sans a back leg and that is also why one of those released was not at full fighting fitness.

8. They look cute, even in death. Remember, you have just slaughtered Mickey and all his family.

So there you have it. I'm off now to find a "Mission Accomplished" banner I can hang prematurely over the front door before cracking the champagne and then going back to the battle to capture the remaining forces of oppression.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

iPad Unlimited


Spurred largely by AT&T's announcement that the unlimited data plan would be dropped from their available iPad connection options, I went ahead and ordered one before the cut-off date of June 7th. Earlier this week, it finally arrived on my door step, seemingly no worse for wear following it's long, long journey from Shenzen where doubtless small bands of happy elves, living in a forest full of honey, dates and unicorns, knocked it together using fairy dust.

The original promise was that AT&T would still honor making the unlimited plan available to customers who bought their device ahead of the deadline. However, it turned out that there's no longer an option to sign up for this unlimited plan on-line at the time you first set-up the iPad from the internal configuration menu. Seems that for all new devices, the only options offered directly from the device are the 250Mb and 2Gb plans.

After poking around the relevant support boards on the Apple web site to try and fix this, two things became clear:

a) Apple says it's AT&T's problem not theirs, and

b) Be prepared to spend a long time on the phone.

I can agree with (a) and soon discovered the accuracy of (b).

I called the number being mentioned (1 866 640 5125) the next morning and heard a cheery voice say that "due to high call volume, expect to wait more than 20 mins", which was a bit of an understatement given that after 90 minutes of suffering through the single tne playing again and again as hold music, I had to give up and go to a meeting. I tried again that afternoon - and here having a speakerphone on your desk is a godsend - but once more had to duck out after one hour, thirty-eight minutes of listening to exactly the same tune all over again. (Reading some posts that day, others reported wait times of approx. 2 hours so, annoyingly, I wasn't far off getting to actually speak to a human being.)

Next day I tried calling early in the morning (7 am PST) and had the on-hold call in the background wile watching England finally win a game instead of drawing them. This time, I reached an operator in an hour and 45 minutes, but I do have to say that once I got there it all went through very quickly. Basically, they collect some details from you, a step which entails your reading some numbers off of the device (so have it to hand and powered up). You then complete sign-up on the iPad for the 2Gb plan and they say that you'll get a message in up to 10 days noting that you've been switched to the unlimited plan and will be charged accordingly. However, one caveat: don't let it lapse. If you drop down to a lower plan or forget to update your CC card details and a charge is declined that that's it - the unlimited plan is gone and you cannot get back onto it.

Any-hoo, the device is now running both AT&T and Wi-Fi, and I'll post something more about my initial experiences once I have had a chance to use it for a while and hence have, err, experienced something.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Stockholm's old town, Gamla Stan, is largely on Stadsholmen island and located right in the city centre. It's small, compact and very walkable, at least in the summer when not shrouded in snow and ice that otherwise makes the cobbled streets treacherous in the winter months. (And yes, I speak from experience!)

The architecture is what you'd expect - solid, Germanic-style buildings, plain and with little adornment. Interestingly, that description also seems to apply well to the Royal Palace that's also located here. Compare what's here with, for example, what's to be found in cities like London, Paris and Vienna and you'll see what I mean!

Head down the main thoroughfare to the water and you'll find a frontage of old merchants' houses and maritime offices. During the Great Power Era, Stockholm became the centre of Sweden's push to become a major mercantile force in the region, leading to a period of prosperity and architectural development.

The shot above is of one of Gamla Stan's narrow cobbled streets glowing warm in the early evening summer sun.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Spring In Stockholm


Back now from Stockholm where, for at least one day, it was mild and sunny, both at the same time. At this time of year, it's quite possible to do a day in the office, grab something to eat and still find enough daylight to make walking around with a camera a worthwhile experience (sunset was around 10 am with dawn breaking a mere 6 hours later at 4 am.)

On a tangent, it's hard to figure out how to photograph a large church with a small camera and still get something interesting. Details can work, but it's rare you have a lens that can deliver sufficient reach to make that workable. Going wide is perfectly do-able, but often not very interesting.

Art is never easy!


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Yosemite #2


Not likely to post much this week as I'm heading off to Sweden for a few days and will only have my work PC with me. However, before I leave I thought I'd post something a bit different from Yosemite - a view of Tunnel View's eponymous tunnel!

Sounds like conditions there right now are perfect. The snow is melting fast and the river is running so high that the Lower Falls campground may close. However, Tioga seems to be open and it also looks like the Glacier Point road is now free-and-clear too. Only thing to note is that while we were there, a couple of weeks ago, there were roadworks along the Wawona road between Wawona and Tunnel View meaning that instead of taking around 40 minutes on average to get into the Village it was over an hour on occasions.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Yosemite #1


As heralded earlier, last week we headed off for a few days R&R in Yosemite. The original plan was to time this so as to hit pleasant spring weather combined with enough snow melt to make the waterfalls suitably impressive. In summary, we missed the first but nailed the second.

S managed to find a cabin rental in Wawona, a small community located about 40 minutes south of Yosemite Village but still inside the precincts of the park. Although booked a bit on-spec, it turned out to be a great location. The privately-owned cabin had been recently updated and so despite being, well, a wooden, rustic cabin, it boasted a very nice kitchen and bathroom and came complete with marble counter tops, stainless-steel appliances and, amazingly enough, free DSL!

The shot above is of a single rock standing firm in the midst of a fast-flowing Merced river. Actually, these kinds of pictures are made much easier with overcast skies to the absence of spring clearing was quite beneficial in that regard!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

2010 ALMS Part II


Largely, I'll spare you all from a sequence of shots of sports cars and allied racing goodies filling up the pages here over the coming days, with sole the exception of the above. This was a 6 hour race which means that by the time it finished (8:30 pm) it was almost completely dark. As you (may) know, I did some racing myself both in the UK and US, but never in the dark, though I did have to run in the rain once without any functioning wipers which was itself, err, interesting, so it's hard to say just how tough that must be.

It would be fascinating, though, to see how the lap times varied as the light changed. My guess is that for the front runners it made little difference. Once you are in the rhythm, by all accounts an important part of endurance racing, it's probably not going to matter as much as one might think. However, spare a thought for the back markers who are now being overtaken by things they probably don't even see until there's a set of extremely bright lights burning into their retinas from the rear-view mirrors, followed immediately by very angry-sounding engine roar as they fly past. Now that would help you stay focused, night-time and all!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

2010 American Le Mans


As promised, here's one example of a shot taken with the Canon 500 mm (and Tom, this one's for you!). On the plus side, image quality, clarity and sharpness were top-notch. On the minus side, it's heavy and somewhat unwieldy. I also found that, for Laguna at least, it didn't add enough over the 400 mm in getting really close to the action, except for the times when it was too much and I'd have been better off with something of shorter focal length! Anyway, worth the exercise in renting it, even if it meant I used it far too much, shooting with it even when it patently made no sense to do so!

The racing? It was OK, but there were far too many incidents throughout the day, resulting in way too much time spent running behind the safety cars. This seems to be an all too common aspect of racing here, especially the ALMS races.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Big Guns: Canon's Canon

Since the 2010 American Le Mans series is rolling into town this weekend, I thought I'd take the opportunity go and cover some racing. It's been two years since I was at this event last so I'm looking forward to seeing what's new. But I also have another mission - to try out the beast shown above. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Canon 500mm f4 lens. This bouncing, 8 lb baby, would run you some $6,000 if you fancied owning one, which is precisely why I'm renting it for the weekend. Stick it on the front of the 1D Mk IV and now you are hefting around some 11 lbs of kit just for this one combination, setting aside all the other stuff one usually ends up carrying up and down the hill behind turn 7 to the Corkscrew.

I'll let you know how it goes ... pictures to follow sometime next week, though maybe not until we get back from Yosemite.

Monday, May 17, 2010

San Francisco At Night #5


OK, into the home straight. Final stop on the tour was Treasure Island, shooting back towards the Embarcadero. Getting pretty late by now so time was a bit short. Above is yer basic long-exposure shot with the bridge on the left leading the eye towards some buildings towards the right. What I should have done was turn this into a panorama and shoot the next two parts, adding in recognisable landmarks like Ciot Tower and the Transamerica building. However, by the time I realised that this would have been a good thing to do it was already time to leave.

(Interestingly, given that it was by then knocking on 1 am, there were still quite a few people around, though I use the term "people" quite lightly. Actually, "jackasses in crappy cars" is nearer to the truth. But I digress.)

Overall, a very worthwhile workshop and one I'd recommend, both in terms of the advice available and as a way of finding new and interesting places to shoot from.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

San Francisco At Night #4


After a brief refueling stop for coffee and a snack it was time to head to the Embarcadero. This is a location I've shot from before so no great surprises here. The photographic opportunity is to shoot the Bay Bridge with some old pilings in the foreground and, because it's night, the lights of Oakland in the background.

Despite the darkness, this set-up actually works quite well because there's enough light spill from the roadway to illuminate the pilings sufficiently to allow them to be balanced against the skyline and lights on the bridge itself.

There is, though, one challenge: light temperature. Frankly, it's all over the map but with a heavy dose of sodium vapor just to turn everything green. I was able to back most of that out but then had to ease off slightly to warm things up a little.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

San Francisco At Night #3


OK, next up on our nocturnal tour of San Francisco was Lombard Street, but just the famous bit - you know, the very twisty piece snaking down an overly-steep hillside? The obvious night shot is of car lights winding down the hill, pulling the eye towards the city skyline in the distance, and mostly that's what's duly shown above!

The not-so-obvious picture is just using Lombard as a context for some other shot, such as here where I just liked the juxtaposition of the chimneys, cathedral window and Transamerica pyramid building.



I actually like both of those approaches here, though the arrangement of the latter shot could, I now see, have been much better, and the former is made more challenging by ugly street lamps and sign posts. Regardless - it was an interesting stop!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

San Francisco At Night #2


From Baker Beach we moved but a short distance to the headlands right above. This gives a "look down" sort of view onto the bridge and is a location I'd like to go back to when a) it's not blowing a gale and b) there's some fog to soften things down and make for a more interesting feel to the place. Even so, it was a worthwhile stop, even if the strong winds made getting a clear shot somewhat difficult. And yes, this is all somewhat of an excuse to try and explain why I'm only posting the above picture, made by zooming the 70 - 200 mm lens while the shutter was open. I have some others I may get round to working on but nothing really "grabby".

Monday, May 10, 2010

San Francisco At Night


As duly mentioned last week, S and I went up to San Francisco on Friday evening to do a night-time photography course. The schedule called for a 6 pm start at Baker Beach and from there to shoot 4 or 5 locations in and around the city, ending up back at the starting point sometime after 1 am.

I haven't yet processed all of the pictures I came back with, and that's despite taking fewer than normal thanks largely to the extended exposure times making that decision for me! And as always, from even a cursory glance at those I did take then I now see all the pictures I should have spotted instead of the ones I actually took. Sigh. Nevertheless, a very worthwhile and instructional session, well organized and run by the Aperture Academy in Campbell.

Background now duly set, the above was from the beginning of the evening, taken on Baker Beach. We again found ourselves out shooting in the midst of strong winds, a problem magnified five-fold at the next stop! Still, at 7 pm it wasn't yet too cold on the shoreline and the wind did at least move the tops of the waves around to provide a bit more visual interest.

Others, though, are clearly made of hardier stuff than I, including the large naked bloke who was wandering around in and out of the water. He seemed harmless enough, and indeed was quite chatty to some of the female course attendees, but judging by what was being displayed, I'm not sure he had much reason to be parading it all around (though I'm sure he'd just claim it was all down to the cold weather.)

San Francisco, eh? Tch.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

BMW Runflat Blues


Those of you residing in the Bay Area will doubtless have noticed just how bad the pot holes have been on the highways and byways of Silicon Valley this year. Not only are there more of them, but they have been deeper and more aggressive than ever, leading to an interesting phenomenon - the canny commuter. Those of us driving the same roads everyday soon learn where the really bad ones are and hence we'll steer round them. It's easy to spot the locals, therefore, because they are the ones weaving back and forth in their chosen lane, for all the world looking as though they are playing some weird version of Frogger. And just like Frogger, mistakes have consequences, especially when you venture outside of terra cognita.

A couple of weeks ago, we hit a huge pot hole somewhere between San Francisco and home, I think it was, with the kind of thump that has you crying out in sympathy for what the poor offside front wheel just went through. When stopped, I jumped out and took a quick look but didn't see anything immediately amiss. With a sigh of relief, we headed onwards ...

Fast forwards to Monday of this week and the Beemer was in the garage for a check up, mostly to see why it was low on coolant. Ultimately, no particular issue was found on that front but while waiting for the dealer to open I did notice a large bulge that had developed in the sidewall of the offside front. Hmm, don't like the look of that. I then went round to inspect the other front tyre and saw a weird wear pattern had developed on the outside shoulder. This wasn't going to be good, which in a garage translates into "that's not going to be cheap, sir".

Despite being runflats, and hence having stiffer sidewalls than normal tyres, that pot hole had nevertheless comprehensively broken that tyre and ruined the suspension alignment, thereby buggering its rubbery chum on the other side. You know where this is going, right? Low-profile runflats; German; dealer has your car up on jacks ....

4 new runflats (rears were anyway getting low after 26,000 miles), suspension alignment and taxes ran me $1,800. Gulp.

If you reckon on how many other drivers that hole must have caught out, it would probably be cheaper for us all to chip in for its repair, thereby saving California the problem of finding enough loose change down the back of CalTran's sofa in order to pay for patching it.

No wonder I cried out at the time - it was just a practice run for receiving the eventual bill. I guess I never was much good at video games, Frogger included.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Heads Up

Just a warning - off to do some night shooting this weekend so there's a fair chance that this will continue to look like a photo blog for a bit longer yet. However, on the plus side then it's almost time for the American Le Mans series to roll into Laguna Seca at the end of the month so by June at least you'll get a break from the landscape/cityscape shots!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Canon 1D Mark IV: An Update



Given that I've been posting shots from the Mk IV for a while now, I thought I'd therefore take a break here and provide an update on impressions so far.

Just to be clear at the outset, this is not a technical review; frankly, it's nothing other than a set of subjective notes based upon my own personal experiences with the camera, set against the sorts of things I like to shoot and how I like to shoot them. So there. And now, on with the show.

Handling: compared to the 20D it is of course heavier but actually not that much, and really once you stick a decent sized bit of glass on the front then the difference is much smaller than you first think. Compared to the Mk III the physical feel is all but identical, though that's not all to the good as will be covered later.

Reliability: no issues so far in that department. I've run a couple of thousand shots through it so far without suffering any physical hiccups. Along similar lines, one of my reasons for going to a 1 series body was to get away from the curse of dust always collecting on the sensor, and so far that goal, too, has largely been satisfied. I did get a few specs show up while in Death Valley but having cleaned those off then things seem to have stayed spot-free since.

Image Quality: With the caveat that I've done very little at ISOs higher than 800 then I've been very happy indeed with with results. Firstly, straight out of the camera images have better colour, clarity and presence, and hence require less processing in order to get close to what you want the final result to be. Secondly, the extra pixels mean that you have more leeway when cropping before image quality degrades. Thirdly, files take sharpening very well - at least for screen viewing - but I've yet to print many Mk IV shots so I'll reserve judgement a little on what works vs. what doesn't in that area until I have some more experience. Lastly, image noise is very well controlled. At the per-pixel level, it's comparable or better than a Mk 3 and up to a stop better than a 20D, but the extra pixels add about another half stop to the first comparison point and a full stop to the second. In short, forget about it. Noise isn't an issue: this sensor is better than film and perfectly usable up to 1600 without you having to give it much of a thought.

Features: There are a slew of new capabilities added to the Mk IV but here I'll concentrate on the things I've found useful. Starting at the top, I am now a devoted fan of live view. Before trying it then I was sceptical to say the least that it was worth all the attention it has drawn. I have other cameras that are mirror-less that of course use the same basic approach and frankly always missed the viewfinder option. However, when doing landscape shots or for night shooting then I now default to live view and rely almost solely on the screen on the back of the camera. For landscape work you can place the camera in hard-to-get-at locations, very close to the ground for example, and yet are still able to compose, meter, focus and shoot without having to contort yourself to find a place where you can look through the viewfinder. For night shooting you can use the 10x magnification capability on live view in order to focus, a revelation to me and something that on its own makes this technology all worthwhile. Bliss. Live view is now a regular part of my shooting and I'd very much miss it if I had to give it back. And along with live view we of course also get HD movie recoding. I will get round to testing this at some point, I promise, but not yet. Try me again after ALMS at Laguna later in May! Other stuff? Auto bracketing can now be set for up to 7 shots and exposure compensation is available for +/- 3 stops, both of which are worthwhile improvements. And yes, auto focus is much better than on the 20D and, subectively at least, feels better than on the Mark 3.

Features Missing: For a start, most of the electronic toys first seen on the 7D, such as an electronic level, for example; dedicated movie switch (going between live for for stills and movie mode requires going back into the depths of the menu tree and you are best served using the FEL button - itself too tiny - for movie recording); still no way of using what the camera knows about itself to calculate DOF and display the result; no way to set narrow focus with the centre point unless you have a lens with available "stop" button; no built-in auto-shot timing al la the TC803 remote; no built-in WiFi or GPS. Seriously, $5k and now with a body and features that are largely 5 years old? Come on Canon, this is not good enough. The simplest of these - leaving off adding a dedicated switch between movies and stills - just feels like Canon was too cheap to change the body of the Mark III in any way at all.

Summary: All-in-all, I'm very satisfied with the main items, image quality and robustness, and am enjoying using it. Sure, there are niggles and things that I think Canon have fallen short on, especially on the level of features appropriate for a camera launched in 2010, but there you have it. If what you shoot matches the well-covered strengths of this camera, and you have the necessary wedge to spend, then go for it. I did, and have no regrets.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alcatraz #5


At one end of the main cell block complex sits the mess hall and associated kitchen. Although the food preparation area is behind a metal grill, it's possible to shoot through the bars quite easily and to anyway get a feel for how this would all have worked. The kitchen is another of the staged areas, in Alcatraz and one of the items displayed is a knife cupboard complete with outlines, painted black, presumably to make it plain when any particular item was missing. Not a bad idea, especially when your dining patrons include the likes of Al Capone!

(And yes, the blur, achieved by moving the camera while dragging the shutter, was deliberate!)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alcatraz #4


I really don't know why, but somehow Alcatraz seemed more humane than I was expecting. Now, that's not to say that I'd fancy doing a 20 stretch in solitary there - or frankly getting banged-up for a stay at the Her Majesty's pleasure (or whatever the equivalent is here in the USA) in any federal, err, facility - but given when this place was built then it seemed, well, reasonable, I suppose. A bit short on privacy, perhaps, but just think of the location! The views would be fantastic ... if only you could see them.

Given all that, how then to capture the essence of a place built for incarceration of the most notorious criminals the US has to offer - and let's face it, the development of extreme and hardened villains has become a world-beating industry here over the years so there were plenty of candidates to chose from - locked up for decades at a time in the same cell?

My shot at answering that particular question is shown above!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Alcatraz #3



Something a bit different this time. Walking around the cell block, you'll find that a few of them have been staged in one way or another and the one above caught my eye because it had been set up to show some inmate drawings. I'm not 100% sure the cross-processing effect I used here really works so will likely take another stab at it in black-and-white at some point. Still, it does serve to highlight the drawing above the sink (as well as the headshot above it), which was why I went that road in the first place, it's just that the coloration of the cell door doesn't really seem to work so well. Still, I do like the arrangement of objects in the cell, and in particular the way they are delineated by the bars of the cell door.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Alcatraz #2


Following on from the picture yesterday, here's a classic example of making sure you always turn round and look at what's happening behind you! I did this one in HDR, partly because of the extremely high dynamic range, covering as it does strong and direct sunlight though to deep shade, and partly to get detail into the staircase. Kind of worked, but ultimately this shot went a different way than I was expecting!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Alcatraz #1


Rain. Lots of it. It was pouring, and yet we were booked to go to Alcatraz on the first ferry of the day. Therefore, we went!

Although people were getting soaked waiting in line for the ferry at Pier 33, and then were destined to get wet again walking from the dock on Alcatraz up to the main building, nevertheless the boat seemed full. In addition, it's clearly a popular spot for photographers on a Sunday morning because we weren't the only ones toting backpacks and tripods.

Upon landing, our photo group headed straight to the main cell block to begin shooting in the prison showers, which is basically the place where the tours start from. Given that it was wet then the normal course of events - tourists collect right on the dock where the boat lands to hear an introductory docent talk - wasn't really followed and it was clear that there would very soon be a lot of people milling around the buildings. Therefore, I headed off to photograph the main cell block before there were too many visitors a'visitin'. I found the above spiral staircase at the end of the block and spent quite some time shooting it from all angles, but liked the one above (and maybe one other I'll post too), even though it's a very functional, square-on sort of shot. To me, it's interesting because of its basic symmetry, offset by the mirror reflecting the prison cells in the adjacent corridor. Note, too, the difference between areas worn dark by the passage of countless footfalls in and those bits of floor, under the staircase, for example, where the stone looks much more pristine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Baker Pier


Back to night shooting, this time of the Golden Gate from the end of the pier at Fort Baker. Alas, not much in the way of success to report here. The wind had really strengthened by this time and in reviewing the shots I took afterwards then far to many of them were blurred. It was also difficult, I found, to find unique views that would make an interesting shot. There is a large rock under the bridge that can provide some foreground interest but I just couldn't get something that really worked and the above was about the best of the bunch.

Oh well - tomorrow we are set for a trip to Alcatraz! Never been there before so I have to say I was very much looking forward to it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Battery Spencer



After a quick pit-stop back to the hotel, we caught up with the rest of the group at Battery Spencer, the next stop after Point Benito lighthouse. From a strategic standpoint, when it came to protecting the Golden Gate bridge then Battery Spencer won the top prize. The location, high on the headlands and right in front of the bridge, meant that it had the perfect field of fire in order to protect the approaches to the Golden Gate from the Pacific. And that also means that today, anyone visiting, will also have an incredible view of both the bridge and the city beyond.

It would heave been fascinating to see the battery fully staffed, armed and ready for action, but it seems that it only flourished (if that's the right word) for some 45 years after construction was finished in 1897. However, you can get a good idea of what it was like here and from the image below which is of one of the three, 12 inch guns that formed the main defensive artillery (image found here as part of another detailed article on the battery.)



After spending an hour or so it was time to take a break, get some food and head off to Baker Pier for some night shots.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sentinel


As augured, the weather progressively got worse as we headed out of Muir Woods, so much so that by the time we reached Point Benito it was blowing hard and starting to rain.

For those of you who have never been there, access to the lighthouse is via a tunnel that can be closed, followed by a wooden suspension bridge of such age that no more than two people are allowed on it at any one time (NB: it's due for replacement in the next 12 months but that means access is likely to go away for a while during construction).



Fortunately, there weren't too many visitors when we were there, although having said that it had become much more crowded by the time we left in the early afternoon.

I still find photographing these kinds of landscapey things to be tough going, especially when the light is nothing special. This means you are forced back to find different takes to take, other ways of doing something unique. The other thing I find is that now I've been there once then next time around I'd have a much better idea of what I wanted to shoot. Alas, I cant' quite yet figure out how to make that happen while I am there!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Standing Stone



Saturday morning dawned, so we headed off early to Muir Woods to begin the photo-workshop. I've not been there before so was interested to see what was in store for us.
Getting there early when the park opened (8 am) turned out to be a good move. The place was absolutely packed by the time we left a few hours later with cars parked all along the access roads into the woods. Not sure if this is usual or down to some sort of event but regardless the message is clear: get there early on the weekend!

We spent close to four hours working our way around the paths and trying different views. The above was taken on the first bridge overlooking a small stream. Yeah, it's a little overdone, and I'll take another go at it at some point, but at least it gives you an idea of the whole slow exposure/moving water thing (an effect that's overused these days, usually to try and add something of interest to an otherwise uninteresting scene.) Overall, though, it was a diverse mix of old and new growth forest, was easy to walk around (boardwalks or paths the whole way) and interesting enough to offer-up many different photographic challenges, not the least of which was avoiding the "too wide/too busy" view of trees and shrubs!

Lunch was a sandwich at the visitor's center (really quite reasonable) and then off to the next stop: Point Bonita lighthouse. Alas, the grey morning had by now developed in to a grey, rainy morning with evidence of a stiffening breeze. Far from promising, in short, especially given where we were heading.

San Francisco Skyline


On the way back from dinner in Sausalito, we stopped off to try some night time photography. S knew of a location that offered the opportunity to get some foreground interest into the frame by including old pilings into the view, so that's where we went.

Getting things sharp is always one of the challenges with long exposures - the one above was 25 seconds long - but with views like this you also have to deal with other hazards like planes and, as shown here, boats! Looking at the original file then it's sharp ... ish, but could be better. We were on decking out in front of an office building (that's presently unoccupied) and it wasn't 100% vibration free, especially if anyone moved at all during the exposure. Next time I will try using mirror lock up as well as being more religious about using a remote for firing the shutter to see if that gets the final image to be that little bit crisper. However, not much I can do about passing container ships other than be a bit more patient!

On the plus side, at least the seagull stayed fairly still!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cavallo Point, Marin


Having barely got back from Death Valley (and I will return to posting some more shots from there shortly) it was very soon time to head off to Marin and San Francisco for a photo workshop.

In addition to the workshop, we were looking forward to spending a couple of nights at the Cavallo Point hotel, set in the National Park Service's Fort Baker. (I actually spent some time photographing here at the other San Francisco workshop I did back last September with Chris Honeysett.)

The weather on Friday was glorious. Thanks to some nifty booking work by S, we were granted early check-in and so arrived around 1 pm. And really, I have no idea why hotels do do this more often because we immediately headed to the restaurant where, thanks to a lunch bill of around a hundred bucks, the hotel was immediately in-the-black on the whole deal. (In fact, the restaurant bills we saw were all around that level or higher, except for breakfast which was included in the room rate on the package that we had.)

We stayed in one of the modern rooms, set in blocks above the main hotel buildings. The view was a fine one - smack across to the Golden Gate Bridge - and the room was very comfortable (though neither of us were fans of the sliding door on the bathroom!)

It was fun to stay in a location where there were built-in activities: walking round the harbour, going out onto the pier where people were crab fishing, climbing on the old fortifications and gun emplacements and strolling up to where work was being done on the bridge. All that is a definite plus, especially as it allows more leeway for a glass or two of wine with lunch without then having to fret about driving somewhere. Bliss.

For dinner we went into Sausalito, a ten minute drive up the coast, to eat at Sushi Ran. Once again, not cheap but still a great place to eat. Would highly recommend this place to anyone who loves sushi/sashimi/sake. They say on the menu that some items are flown-in daily having been bought that morning at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, a claim I can well believe. Price? Easily over $100 for two - but well worth it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Seen Better Days


No, not me, the car. I asked some Internet chums and the best they could figure out was that it's a 1948 Buick 2 dr. Sounds reasonable to me, so I'm sticking with it!

This baby sits outside the abandoned Eureka Mine out towards Aguereberry Point in Death Valley. Both the mine site and the outlook at Aguereberry are well worth the drive of 2 and 4 miles respectively along a dirt road. However, and despite what it says on various sites, the mine remains sealed off so you can't get into it. Still, the few buildings that are there are unfenced and it's always interesting to see these old claims and hence to get a feel for what it must have been like to work them (damn hard.)

No idea if the Buick was Pete's own car, but I like to think so!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Death Valley Coyote


In order to try and find more in the way of wildflower displays, we headed towards the southern end of the park, past Lake Manly and towards Ashford Mill, where reports said that things were in bloom. However, along the way we found this chap, standing by the side of the road and seemingly unconcerned by the passing traffic. Indeed, it was easy to get the sense that he (she?) had figured out humans could be an interesting source of food. Hopefully not, because that's no way for a wild animal to behave, of course, and at the very least if the park service decides he's too tame then he'll will be carted off to the back country ... or worse.

After watching him posing for a while, we decided to carry on and leave him to his quest. And just to close the loop, there were indeed more flowers down that way, and though far from being a spectacular display it was nevertheless well worth the drive.

Having said all that, it made a pleasant change to find a wild animal you could photograph easily from the comfort of the driver's seat.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Achievement


While in the same location as the shot in the previous post, I saw a walker in the far distance on top of a dune and grabbed the above shot before he moved on. Not sure I quite have the balance quite right yet on this one so will have to work on it some more, but it has promise.

As you can see, the Mesquite Dunes rise to quite a reasonable height, for sand piles at least!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sun, Sand, No Sea


The journey to Death Valley from the Bay Area runs around 500 miles and takes something like 9 hours (with breaks). We headed off after 9 am and arrived at the hotel around 5:45 pm. As mentioned yesterday, we took route 223 eastwards from I5 in order to take in the building wildflower display in the rolling hills outside of Arvin. S got some good pictures on that road both on the way there and back, but I have to admit defeat in shooting flowers, regardless of the conditions. However, plenty of others were stopped along the roadside happily clicking away so I'm in the minority.

Upon arrival we went out and had a look at Badwater for a sunset location. Nothing spectacular, but a good scouting exercise for what/where/when to shoot over the coming days.

Next morning, I got up early and headed off to shoot the Mesquite Dunes at sunrise. It was very windy at the hotel but thankfully much calmer over at the dune site and glad to say they have now built a new car park alongside the road to Stovepipe Wells. However, there is a downside to making the location more obvious - it was quite crowded. There was a complete party of photographers already up on the dunes, as well as numerous solo shooters. Hmm, had to rethink plans to try and find some clear space to work in. Headed south round the dunes themselves (much easier way to go) and then headed inland. Had to hustle a bit as the sun was rising fast and I was already a bit late. I found a reasonable location and was rewarded with some beautiful light with which to attack the challenge of photographing big hills of sand!

Overall, a fun morning and glad I was still able to find things to shoot without having to spend ages afterwards in Photoshop deleting random bodies from the vistas. Example result shown above.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Road Trip


We made it back safe-and-sound from our short break to Death Valley and I'll post some shots from the trip over the coming days. Weather-wise, things were fine and clear through until Sunday when clouds from a storm front coming in from the Pacific made it over the (four) intervening mountain ranges to get in the way of some shoots we had planned, but that's the way it goes. (The above was taken between Death Valley and Lone Pine, heading back towards the Sierras.)

In terms of wildflowers the best display was in fact on the journey to/from the park, on 223 just east of Arvin. Full bloom looks to be a few weeks away in Death Valley but it's hard to know how good it will be this year, especially now it's cooled off for a few days and there might even be a little more rain. Regardless, the best display of flowers in the Park S found were at the south end, past Lake Manly (which is now completely dry again).

Not sure about this week or next but last weekend the park was full, if only in the sense that all the campgrounds were sold out and there seemed to be no more than a handful of RV hookups or hotel rooms to be had. Pretty much everything is open but look out for roadworks on the road to Scotty's Castle where you can be stuck for 30 to 45 minutes if you time it wrong.

The salt flats were still a bit soggy and some surface water was visible right in the middle and towards Furnace Creek. While that's good for getting some reflections into the pictures at dawn/dusk, it's not good for footwear or clothes!

More thoughts and pictures to come.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Guess The Country?


Probably not the hardest of competitions you will ever see so I'll tell you the answer right off the bat: Korea. North Korea is the dark bit, South Korea is the one with all the pretty sparking electric lights. The light dot sitting towards the bottom left of North Korea looks to be the capital, Pyongyang. Doubtless, this was just the governing party burning the midnight oil on behalf of its citizens, trying to figure out how to fix the obvious mess they are in. Or maybe not.
Alas, I don't have an attribution for the photograph other than to say it was referenced by Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, in an interesting article about what North Korea is really up to behind all those myriad of closed doors.

The point Hitchens is making - and I have no way to objectively judge whether or not he's right, of course, but the arguments are persuasive - is that North Korea isn't anymore even pretending to be a communist state forged for the benefit of the people. It's now a fully-fledged racist, totalitarian dictatorship that uses its own people as slave labour, and in a never ending quest for military advancement in order to reunify the country and as a by product reshaping the South in its own image. (Hmm, having said that it actually does sound quite like the reality of communism, especially as practised by the likes of Stalin.)

However, I'm not sure that we should immediately fear North Korea, if only because the Dear Leader is on his last legs and I am sure wants his son to take over something other than the pile of glowing cinders that would result from them trying something stupid with a missile attack. However, it all bears watching very closely and I for one will pay a lot more attention to the next announcement of a North Korean military "exercise".

Global terrorism of course remains a potent world threat, but just because North Korea is lumped in with the old war/Cold war countries doesn't mean that they aren't still a threat worth watching very, very closely indeed. After all, something must be going on under cover of all that darkness ....

Friday, March 19, 2010

Time For An Upgrade


This is all going to become a bit photo-geeky, but I'll do it anyway. In order just to make sure everything is working, I was trying out my new toy, a Canon 1DMkIV. Camera technology (actually, sensor technology) has come a long way since I bought my last one, the trusty 20D that has been relied upon for many of the shots posted here over the past couple of years. However, time and silicon advances wait for no man and meanwhile the world has moved on, and based on what I've seen so far then seemingly a very long way.

The snapshot above, taken in natural light, indoors and in a well-shaded room, was taken at ISO 12,800. It's not perfect - noise can easily be seen, dynamic range is reduced and detail is lost - but it's pretty darned good for 7 stops over the base ISO value of 100. Add to that 16 Mpix resolution and I have to say I'm looking forward to seeing what it can produce in Death Valley next week.

Now let's be clear, on a per-pixel basis the Mk IV is about as noisy as its predecessor, the Mk III (see the shots I took in Africa for some examples), but it delivers twice as many of them, so on an adjusted basis it's twice as good, or +1 stop in old money. Confused? Don't worry about it. Just think "better" than the Mk III, and "much better" than the 20D!

Monday, March 15, 2010

New Digs

As might be expected, am in the process of transitioning from the old company into the new. It feels a little strange to be going from a 55 person outfit to one where employees are counted in the tens of thousands ....


Along with a new business address, I of course have a new workspace. And by "workspace", I mean "cubicle". And by "cubicle" I mean small, dark cubbyhole, deep in the bowels of one of the lesser campus buildings. Think "final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark", except done with acres of grey partitions instead of packing crates.

Meanwhile, we are off to Death Valley again next week, just for a few days this time. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the extensive winter rains, combined now with fast warming temperatures, will mean that the wildflowers will make a timely appearance; weekend after next would be fine! This will also mean that I will get to play with a new toy that I have yet to take out of the house. More on that later ....

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reach For The Skies


Just when I say "everything is different, now", stuff goes on as before. Off to Stockholm this evening, back at the weekend. Not sure how many times I will be doing this particular journey again so this may indeed be the valedictory tour I am about to embark upon. Still, after 5 years of travelling there at all times of the year, it's a bit of a shame to be wrapping up my tour of duty in the winter time.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, we're doing a limited amount of cosmetic remodelling around the house. The ugly, 1980s wood-dressed ceiling is coming down to reveal something much plainer. However, this isn't as easy as it sounds, as those of you who have been to our place will know. The ceilings here in the main room must be 20 feet high and so our contractor has had to be quite creative in figure out a workable solution that doesn't cost the earth (like, for example, renting scaffolding.)

Oh yes, this will be fun ....

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Dawns


I am sure you have all been wondering what happened around here, at least given the complete absence of any posts showing up for almost 4 months, but then maybe not?? Actually, truth be told, most of you already know the answer: since early November the company I run has been deep in acquisition negotiations with a Fortune 100 company. I am very happy now to report that today we closed on this transaction, ending a process begun way back in May last year.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of each day I had very little time - and even less emotional energy - left to do much of anything, let alone write new blog posts. And of course, that's all compounded by the simple fact that I couldn't say anything at all to do with the deal that was consuming all those daily cycles, to the point that it felt like I was in a WWII time-warp, surrounded by posters screaming "loose lips sink ships" and other exhortations to keep quiet and shut up.

However, I can now draw breath again, pick up the keyboard and look forwards towards pastures new. In the near term, I stay with the acquirer for six months or so in a transition role before needing to figure out what to do next. S and I have a couple of short trips planned (Death Valley and San Francisco) and I'm looking forward to playing with my new toy, as reviewed here! (And no, the above shot was with taken my older camera still.)

So thanks to all for their patience, and I will now strive, albeit slowly, to get back to a more regular heartbeat of posting.