24 December 2009

If Mr. Claus was Fully Employed in 2009...

Let's imagine the various agents (titans and minions alike) that run (and are run by) our financial empire were able to control their greed, perspective and the genie that was let out of the regulatory bottle. Let's suppose the Great Recession didn't happen and the fully and gainly employed numbers were increased by just one. Let's pretend that money is (almost) no object and that Santa was feeling especially generous this Christmas. Let my imagination run amok and daydream about what would be most cool to find under the tree tomorrow? Yes, photo gear no doubt would rate highly.

Being an avid Pentax user (are there any more of us out there?) I would love to find a K-7 waiting for me, especially now that Mrs. Claus can buy it at a reduced price at B&H Photo. Based on what I've read, this body is a significant improvement in a number of ways on the K20 which was a quantum jump over the previous K10. I own both of the latter but would like to have both of my primary shooters as similar in resolution as the K7 and K20 are (both 14.6 mp).

I have a pretty complete flight of lens for my Pentaxes but there are a few gaps that are begging to be filled. One of those is a fast, "normal," auto-focus prime lens that is a super portrait performer and allows creative opportunities for compositional and
bokeh wing-stretching. Either the Pentax 55mm f/1.4 or the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 would make this photo-camper oh so happy. Another lens I have been eying for some time is Sigma's 10-20 f/3.5. Yes, I know I have Sigma's 12-24mm and it is a very nice lens with an incredible sweep of perspective. But the 10-20 is faster with a fixed aperture and importantly permits the use of filters on the end of the objective. All good reasons for Santa to drop one under my drooping tree.

I would also love a lens to cover the range 18-135mm or even 18-250mm. For Pentax photographers the choices are pretty much relegated to Sigma: either the 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 or perhaps the 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3. Either of these lens -- and especially the latter -- would allow me to walk-about with one one or two less lenses. That counts when traveling abroad or hiking in the desert.

There is finally a point-and-shoot for photographers: the
Leica D-Lux 4 and yes, it is high on my list. It's not cheap, but it is a Leica and based on everything I have seen and read, it is a mighty tiny camera.

Of course any digital photographer these days needs post-processing power. I drum my fingers waiting for my old (last year's model) PC running XP to process my 40MB HDR files, not to mention my 120MB TIFF scans. So, yes, I would also like an Apple Mac Pro...preferably the
3GHz 8-core model with 12GB RAM...please...oh and maybe the 30" Apple Cinema Monitor?

I think I just tipped the balance with that last request and I don't want to be on Santa's Bad Karma list. It's easy to daydream but some of the above will indeed creep into my kit bags. For this Christmas I'll make due just fine with my current gear and computers and the lot and just settle for one little old thing under the tree...

07 December 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part IV

We had already captured two sunrises that were beautiful, but essentially very similar: gray-purple pre-dawn glow
giving way suddenly to a glorious orangish glow followed by the bright white of day. No clouds to give a brilliant pyrotechnic orgy of color with harkened angels singing hallelujah. The forecast was the same (no clouds) so that, coupled with Dan's overworked knee, persuaded us to sleep in. Relatively speaking...

We had one destination this last morning in Zion: return to the Horseshoe bend and photograph the beauty of the riparian curve prior to the harsh light dropping upon it. Fortunately that deep swath of the Virgin River -- below Angel's Landing -- stays in shadow long after the sun has officially risen. We pulled into the large parking lot just after 8:30 took separate paths down to the river and consequently worked the river individually and in our own private fashion. For me, I wandered upstream and with the aid of my (almost) knee-high mud boots crossed to an island (of sorts) and was able to set up for some very nice shots of both the upriver cliffs in golden light and the deeper shadows down river toward the Great White Throne.

ally I worked my way to where Dan was: shooting an old fallen tree that we had "discovered" two days earlier, when we had first visited this area. It is a scenic beauty of a downed giant, with whitened trunk and branches reaching plaintively to the far cliffs, or so it seemed to me. Regardless, the tree made a wonderful subject to work around and photograph from various angles, some images and angles more interesting than others. The sun continued to creep down the high cliff walls and we felt that we had played out this certain bit of heaven on earth as much as we could: it was time for our 'ritual' of real coffee at the Mean Bean Coffee House before checking out of both our motel and Zion National Park.

For a final photo op, we stop at what remains of the Mormon ghost town of
Grafton. Of the 4 buildings still extant, the schoolhouse-cum-church and the Alonzo and Nancy Russell Home -- the latter a two-story ranch house with quite a bit of square footage for a town of this size -- are in the best condition. Across from the Russell home is a more ramshackle structure identified as the Louisa Foster Russell Home. It would be forgettable but for the original adobe fireplace that still stands. A last stop at the graveyard on the way out of town reminds me of just how tenuous life was
a mere century and a quarter ago: killed by Indians, taken by diphtheria, drowning, a swing accident (!) that killed two teenage girls, etc. A lot of tragedy for such a small town, but hopefully leavened with a fair dose of happiness and the simple pleasures that were unique to Western frontier life.

Dan spins some classic 70's rock on our way home (Supertrtamp, Steely Dan, Lee Michaels, Malo) and I ponder why it took me so long to return to Zion. Twenty-seven years between visits is a bit much. I could say that it has something to do with the NPS' anti-dog policy. Or the fact that the Parks can be incredibly overrun with tourists. Or, that I had been seeking a more primitive experience that is better sought and realized in Wilderness Areas. Or maybe that we have been having too much of good time exploring Europe. Or, I could just say "stuff happens," leave go of over-analyzing, and promise to return NEXT year. Yeah, that works.

03 December 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part III

Another early morning, another bad pot of coffee. Regardless, we're out the door by 6:15 with our destination just 10 minutes up the road: Courtyard of the Patriarchs.

I was set to scramble down to the river for what I thought would be some nice valley-and-river sunrise shots, but Dan gently suggested that we head up the hill behind us for a grander view of the Patriarchs. And, yes: he was right. A short asphalt 'trail' leads to a viewpoint -- already manned by a photographer -- so we clambered up higher and higher. We finally reached a glorious spot probably 100 meters higher than the road, unobstructed by trees (no mean feat) with almost a 180° view of the ramparts in front of us. We had again arrived in time to capture the pre-dawn glow I so like. Soon the sun's rays hit the top of the cliffs and how quickly the light changed. From a soft, warm, orange-ish fuzz to bright yellow and quickly (too quickly!) -- once the shadow curtain has completely fallen -- to a harsh white light. I capture the progression of the sun's path on the far walls in both color and IR, before we and the dawn quit.

Down the hill and to the Virgin River we go, as I originally wanted. Good thing that Dan suggested uphill for the sunrise: the view of the Patriarchs was significantly blocked from the river side. I capture a few nice reflections in the rapidly flowing river and manage to lose one of my tripod's rubber foots in the soft, enveloping mud. (Note to tripod manufacturers: do something about this. Do I have to super glue all of those rubber buggers?)

Next stops, the ranger station to pick up a permit for The Subway and then some real coffee again at Mean Bean Coffee House. The Subway has become one of those iconic locations that we so love to discovery and then love to death. What Delicate Arch is to Arches National Park, The Subway is becoming to Zion, or so I submit. In its favor, it is a slog of a hike from the Left Fork trail head, as I find our fairly quickly. This and the permitting system which limits the number of people in the canyon on a daily basis, prevents hoards of casual hikers from cluttering up the view and experience. A short 15 minutes from the trailhead we start the steep 250 meter descent to the Left Fork of North Creek. The guidebooks suggest you wander upstream looking for trails on either side of the fortunately low creek. We do this and it is a slow 4 mile hike to the first set of miniature falls that mark the near-beginning of The Subway proper.

The creek itself is beautiful with high sandstone walls on either side that keep us almost perpetually in the shade. We see occasion rockfalls that look quite recent and I am reminded how nothing is static; that this landscape is dynamic, just on a scale difficult for us to appreciate. We encounter a fellow explorer/photographer at the first set of small cascading falls. Up until this point the solitude was sublime. Proceeding a bit further upstream we encounter another photographer who has lugged a heavy 8 x 10 large format camera and has it positioned with his almost equally heavy tripod over a joint in the sandstone that is overflowing with rushing water.

the corner lies The Subway, certainly one of the most amazing canyons I have seen. The approach to the narrow funnel is long and I can only wonder at the force of water that courses through during flash floods. Dan tells me that the log in in this image was further upstream the last time he was here.

The pools coupled with the strangely warm glow of the Subway itself make extremely compelling photographic subjects. I spend well over an hour within a 10 meter square area composing and shooting long exposures, trying to capture the unique nature of this space. The rock is wet, slick and tricky to walk on and soon my feet are chilled to the bone (as they say) and I need to seek the sun of the outer canyon while Dan works his 4 x 5. The day grows long and based on Dan's previous experience (best left to him to tell) and advice, you don't want to be caught in the canyon after dusk, so we begin to head downstream.

Some of the cascades are still partially in the sun and make interesting visual compositions but the dappled nature of the water and rock don't translate well via a camera.
However, the sun continues to drop an
d we reach a stretch of shaded creek that is absolutely gorgeous and amazingly rich with copper tones. Dan has to practically drag me away from the scenes and the logical part of my brain says "go, fly with the light!" or some such poetic nonsense.

The slog out is long but our way is helped by the discovery that the main section of the unmaintained trail stays pretty much on the right-side (faced downstream) of the creek and so our journey is quicker than our way in. Nonetheless, the sun has already set by the time we reach the base of the cliffs and the steep climb out of the canyon. Up, up, up we go.

I pass a young man sitting on a rock who asks for water (which I give, having drank little of it myself) and wonder
s aloud whether he can make it. I tell him that he is less than 45 minutes from the trailhead and victory will surely be his soon. (The drill sergeant in me wants to add: "if you stop complaining, get off yer arse and start putting one foot in front of the other!" - but, I refrain.)

Once on top, the last 1/2 hour goes quickly but not without a wee bit of confusion. In the gloom of post-dusk, my night-adjusted eyes can follow the trail through the junipers with no problem until I reach a wash where tracks go in every which direction. I can't really recall the wash when we hiked in some 6 hours earlier, but I make a decision to continue out of the wash on the now faint and fading trail, which of course turns out to be the correct decision. At the trailhead, wishing for a beer (ALWAYS pack a cooler with beer for trail's end, dude!) I watch the moonrise and capture a last night shot.

Dan's knee is killing him (2 weeks shy of surgery) and so it's an early night and dinner back at the motel restaurant, the Switchback Grill. Not bad at all and the beer is cold.

11 November 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part II

The time change (fall back!) contributed to the early morning freshness I was feeling when the alarm rang at 5:15 (O'dark-thirty!). The terrible in-room coffee left the proverbial bitter taste in my mouth but did the trick, further contributing to my wakefulness. (Note to hotels: not all Americans prefer the stale, acrid but thin brew you so quaintly label Coffee!)

Out the door at 6:15, the goal was to capture the early light and sunrise
on the Towers of the Virgin, just behind the old Visitor's Center (now administrative offices and a museum). Dan warned me that other photographers would likely be there and he was right. The meadow was large and the tripodists but a handful, so no one appeared in anyone else's viewfinder, that I was aware of anyway. The pre-dawn light was smooth, soft and cast a warm glow on the mammoth rock face before us. I'm always amazed at the amount of light that can be gathered before the sun rises or after it has set. Don't wait for the sunbeams...the light is already there! As evidenced by this 4 second exposure.

In fact, though the sun elicited an a-ha effect when finally its rays shone on the sandstone ramparts, the quiet, even early light is what I favor. Nonetheless, as the light curtain continued to crawl down the canyon walls we kept shooting, documenting the growing dramatic contrast between bright,
orange-ish cliffs and the dark foreground.

I process most of these shots to reveal some foreground detail, so contrast is dialed back a bit. Infrared images, however, have no such latitude. Deep, inky blacks and brightly lit rock produce chiaroscuro drama unrivaled in color.
Once the orange light began turning to a more prosaic white, we packed up our gear and headed to the Mean Bean Coffee House for some REAL coffee and an apricot scone.

Replenished our next photo stop was back up the canyon, where the river makes a large horseshoe around Angel's Landing. Called the Big Bend, the Virgin has cut a graceful river bottom ripe with cottonwoods. Longish exposures and the use of HDR photography allow me to capture bright, high cliffs and their reflections in the smoothly flowing but dark waters. We find an old uprooted tree that has much character. These are the kinds of "props" that you find, without knowing that you are looking for them.

Morning moves on and so must we: to the Narrows we go...Wandering up the short Riverside Walk
-- the 'civilized' stroll path that leads to the Narrows proper -- we look in vain for a stray red maple or two. Instead we stop to photograph a rich -- in texture and contrast -- weeping wall. This is perfect fodder for B&W photography and Dan begins the arduous, 20 minute process of setting up his 4x5 field camera for a shot, or perhaps two. He draws many comments from passersby and being the patient and pleasant guy that he is, happily answers questions that I'm sure he's answered countless times before. As he is fielding questions and setting up for his shot (or two, mayhaps), I blithely click away with both my Pentax K20D DSLR and my infrared-sensitive Fuji IS-1. Both smallish cameras, I feel like the little kid with a cheap plastic toy truck standing next to his older sibling with his solid die-cast monster Tonka dump truck. A slight feeling of inadequacy that would be called. I get over it and am relatively happy with a shot.

Just before the Narrows we find a wonderful stretch of the river that offers multiple opportunities to capture water crashing through a rollicking tumble of boulders. It's amazing how the proverbial time flies: we easily spend 45 minutes in a 15 square meter space shooting the river from different angles and directions. Non-photographers may not "get it," (though certainly their spouses have had to put up with it!), but if the light is good (to be defined at the time and place), hours can be spent in one relatively small space exploring lines, shapes, colors and contrasts.

The intention is not to explore the confines of the Narrows-- we'll leave that for another day, another trip. Instead, after a quick lunch, we back to what I now call the Glowing Wall ravine, off of the road to Checkerboard Mesa. Once there, Dan has in mind a series of B&W compositions with his 4x5 of a large dead tree. That occupies him for the better part of an hour as I wander up above the ravine and look for lines, angles and shapes.

Since we know what to expect now for sunset: glorious dying sun colors and the silver dollar orb of a luminous full moon, by later afternoon we are again set up in 'our' Checkerboard Mesa spot. In time to catch some glowing light reflecting off of the etched sandstone edifices...just before the moon begins its westward rise and journey.

We are further rewarded when shortly Earth's satellite begins its arc. I quickly realize that my Sigma 18-50mm is not going to yield the images I want and grab my Pentax K10D which I fortuitously had pre-mounted with my Sigma 50-500mm on a separate tripod (really, you can never have too many camera bodies, lenses or tripods!).

The moon is stunning in its size and clarity and I shoot well past the fading golden glow.

We are both looking forward to that first beer and meal, whatever it may be. But before heading back into Springdale, I convince Dan to pull off the road just past Canyon Junction so that we can do some moon-washed photography. Never having done this before, I help Dan with some settings on his camera (always good to help a pro!), and we take some shots of canyon walls just before the moon crests over the east ridge
(such as this purplish 30-second exposure) followed by some shots of the west walls when the moon is finally bathing them in its reflected light and the stars are shining in the deepening skies. The results are always stunning and Dan is amazed that his sensor can yield such images, in such diffused light.

It's finally time for that aforementioned beer and tasty dinner at the top-notch (but not terribly expensive) Flangan's Inn & Restaurant. It's been a long, but rewarding day. I don't know it yet, but tomorrow will be even richer.

08 November 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part I

It had been 27 years since I last gazed firsthand at the towering sandstone monoliths and ramparts that define our 16th National Park, Zion. Too long. Invited by Dan Hendriksen -- a local semi-professional photographer who primarily shoots large-format (4 x 5) -- to accompany him on his yearly Fall colors trip to canyons and plateaus of the Virgin River, I jumped at the opportunity.

The weather portended to be optimal for touring and hiking (cool mornings, warm afternoons, no rain), if imperfect for shooting (we photographers love glorious, billowy clouds and indirect sunlight!). We arrived Halloween Day, after a seemingly short 4 hour drive from Salt Lake, in the mid-afternoon and immediately headed up Scenic Drive to the end of the road, at the Temple of Sinawava, and the entrance to the famed Narrows of the Virgin River. Our goal was to shoot lots of Fall foliage: the brilliant flame-reds of the slope-side maples and the shimmery, bright yellows of the river bottom cottonwoods. We got half the equation: most of the maples had already dropped their leaves and we were lefty with a smattering of burgundy here and there and many yellow plus green-to-yellow transitional cottonwoods. Dan was severely disappointed and though I knew not exactly what I was missing (I was last here in summer: the height of green), the occasional maple that had not lost all gave me a teasing taste of what it must have been like, several weeks before.

Photographers have no more control over the environment than other mortals, so we adjusted and began shooting the river as it was. The light was leaving the deepening canyon but some nice shots could still be had. With some foresight, I had brought my below-the-knee boots that I use on muddy days out at the Great Salt Lake. Wearing these boots, the water in the river was not so deep that I could not -- with some judicious foot placement -- wade into the river for a few waters' eye view photos.

With the tight canyon coils now in ever-lengthening shadow, Dan decided to take us up the Zion-Mount Carmel highway and into the light of a side ravine off that road and on the way to Checkerboard Mesa. In this cleft we found a small patch of red maples in front of an incredibly glowing, high sandstone wall. The reflected late afternoon sunlight appeared to gave the sheer, brick-red sandstone a warmth from within. Hard to capture with a camera it was a treat nonetheless to gaze at.

Easier to photograph were the few deep pools with the high sandstone buttresses still in the sun, reflecting in the dark pools.
Our last photo stop of the day was off the
highway and in front of the aforementioned Checkerboard Mesa. We scrambled to catch the dying light AND the rising of the almost-full moon. Though there were no clouds to give us a glorious burst of color, we committed to arriving at this spot again earlier the next night to better prepare and capture the dual beauties of sunset and moonrise.

After checking in at the
Best Western Canyonlands (recommended: quiet, convenient and reasonable) and a nice Mexican dinner at Oscar's (also recommended...the flautas were quite tasty) washed down with the local suds (Zion Brewery), we were ready for a night's sleep and an early sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin.

05 October 2009

Do you want a Netbook...Do you NEED a Netbook?

In the past couple of months I've been asked, "My computer is getting long-in-the-tooth (well, really not many people use that expression much anymore, but you know what I mean) and I was wondering if I should pick up one of those new ultra-light laptops...wadda you think?" I don't follow all the techno-trends and am certainly not an early adopter of new gizmos for the sake of being an early adopter (evidence: I was late to the CD revolution and I still have a boat-load of vinyl and cassettes; I still own VHS tapes -- sorry no betamax -- in addition to my extensive DVD collection, and have no intention of jumping to BlueRay anytime in the foreseeable future; and while I have a BlackBerry and two iPods, I have no interest in an iPhone or iTouch, etc., etc.). I prefer to move to new and/or improved technology devices when there is a demonstrable need to make such a move. That is why I recently picked up a Netbook even though I have a perfectly fine MacBook Pro.

I love my MacBook. With a 300GB hard drive loading with graphics' apps, Windows via Parallels, the Office suite, etc. and 4GB of RAM powering a dual-core 2.4GHz Intel processor, it has plenty of umph to compete with my Windows desktop computer. (True, it "only" has the 15" screen, but I didn't want to buy all new carrying bags and just try opening one of the 17" laptops in coach class!) The downside is that battery life is poor and it weighs over 5 pounds. Drag a couple of extra batteries along and we are now around 9lbs! The final limitation is size. Open that beautiful 1440 x 900 pixel resolution screen in coach class and all is fine until the gent in front of you puts his seat back. If you happen to be "fortunate" enough to fly in one of the upgraded planes that have TV screens on the back of every seat, you have lost several more precious inches. I briefly thought of adding a MacBook Air to my computing arsenal. Elegant but its small hard drive and dearth of ports coupled with its high price make it a non-starter make for me. Then I heard about a minor phenom in the computing world called Netbooks. Really, this is nothing new: people have been downsizing laptops for decades. The problem was that you always gave up something essential when going small: screen size, screen resolution, keyboard, trackpad, power, flexibility, versatility, etc. And, frankly, that's still the case. The big difference is that our computing needs and purchasing expectations are now more in sync with each other.

What dost that mean? The Netbook concept fills the need (for some) to have a light-weight computer for travel that can act as foundation for three activities: email, browsing the Internet, and light-duty work. It is not suitable for processor intensive computing, watching movies (no internal DVD drive and though you can buy an external drive, generally the anemic processor found in most Netbooks cannot play the movie seamlessly) and gaming. It is a great second computer for the person on-the-go. It is a terrible choice for a primary computer. Match your needs with the true expectations for the device.
My needs were a platform that was light and compact, with ample storage space for image files. I wanted long battery life without dragging along multiple batteries and I needed to be able to open it in coach class, where I now consistently find myself when I flying overseas. It had to be sufficiently powerful enough (coupled with enough RAM) to open and run PhotoShop for the occasional image I might want to edit, but I did not expect to engage in any heavy-duty processing of multiple images, like I do on either my desktop or my MacBook Pro. The screen resolution had to sufficiently large enough that when I opened up a RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw I could access the controls without scrolling. And, it had to have video, audio and multiple USB ports. Finally, it needed to be less than $500.

As of this writing really only one netbook fit those needs: the Gateway (yes, GATEWAY!) LT3103u (catchy, huh?). Sporting a 11.6" screen coupled with HD resolution, 2GB Memory, an AMD Athlon 64 Processor and a 250GB hard drive. Battery life? On a return trip from Slovenia, I was able to use this little guy for almost 2/3's of a 10.5 hour flight from Paris to SLC. I was pretty amazed by that.
I just checked on the Best Buy site and can no longer find that model. Yes, I did buy it in August but really that is only 2 months ago. My how time flys...

The chase: Netbooks are not for primary computers, but potentially perfect if you know what you are going to use it for. This one -- while certainly slower than my MacBook -- will be in my bag when venturing overseas.