Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Summer is Here

Really I think the picture says it all. This is just what you do in Napa.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Negative Space

I want to feel the confidence of a tiny boat bobbing across an endless sea.

Fire-Proof Safe

You have a house. You have stuff. You want to keep it safe at night. You buy a lock box. 

The first question when shopping for a home safe is what do you want to put in it. Big things? Little things? Jewelry? Documents? Photo albums? Going through this exercise made me realize the only possessions I have that are truly irreplaceable are my data. Pictures and videos of loved ones in exotic locales. Fun we had. How young we were. You're not getting that back and all you can keep in this modern world is memories and digital shadows cast in micrometric silicon.

Protect it. Guard it jealously. Copy and save every last pixel. Store it in three places, at least one offsite. Someone will steal your laptop, you'll lose your backpack, your hard drive will fail, your house will burn down. Someday you will find an old picture you never noticed before and zoom in as far as you possibly can and wish you could keep zooming into more and more detail until you feel like you're back there again, that moment in time. You'll want to save in native resolution for that.

So it goes, I have the raw camera data on a portable hard drive backed up to another external hard drive at home and uploaded to cloud storage just in case. Keenai promises unlimited photo storage and I intend to take advantage of it. We'll see, I'm still on my extended free trial and I'm still uploading digital negatives. The finished photos are on my laptop, google photos, Keenai, and a few other sharing sites.

So if there's a fire, or burglars, or aliens researching human nostalgia, we can feel better knowing the sentimental jewelry is safe, the hard-to-replace documents are secure, the equipment is insured, and the data is backed up. I know I will always have my pictures.

That's one less thing to worry about.

Photographing the Grand Canyon

Don't. You'll be disappointed. You're not going to get any picture that hasn't already been done better. Don't even bother with the camera. Okay, do, but don't expect anything. Expect it can be a challenge, an exercise, a test of your skill, but if you're pointing your camera towards a big hole in the ground and snapping the button you won't be showing off photos with any real wow factor, not like you would expect. The Grand Canyon has wow factor when you see it in person, and yet somehow the grandeur doesn't compress into a twenty megapixel jpeg file.

Plus the light is terrible. The sky is bright and the canyon is dark. The clouds are completely blown out fields of white, and the canyon is various shades of black. This sort of snapshot is best used as a frustrating exercise in post-processing. If you're serious about getting a good picture you can bring a set of graduated filters and spend lots of time finding the right combination of darkening the sky and exposing various depths of the earth while your friends stand around bored. I'd rather not, most of the time.

Not to say it isn't fun. Walking around, looking for compositions, trying new angles, posing, and generally looking for cool stuff you haven't seen before, it's part of any good vacation. It's also an opportunity to be social. Because everyone has a camera, and sunsets are the enthusiast photographers' watering hole. It's fun to watch the sunset, fun to line up with everyone, discuss the weather, the equipment, lenses, and play a round of what have you seen today. It's fun to at times turn the camera away from the sunset and towards the people.

Okay, so it isn't realistic to go to the Grand Canyon and not take pictures. And as much as I warn against it, I can't resist taking the same photo from the same view everybody else does, so let's get that out of the way. The first day I walked around with only a 50mm lens. And you can take a sub-par photo, convert it to high contrast black and white, and have something kind of, okay.

Occasionally you'll mindlessly snap a photo, say of the rising full moon, and later on think, I kind of like how that looks. Good enough for memories.

If you're really lucky you'll get bad weather and have lots of clouds, fog, and snow in your picture. Better than the typical sunny day from the observation deck railing.

Better yet, don't photograph the canyon, take snapshots of people and use the canyon as a backdrop. Like a cowboy leading a mule train.

Or how happy you are to be at a place called Ooh-Aah Point.

Or just living on the edge.

Finally, if you insist on doing the typical canyon shot, you can take two approaches. You can try to subtly bring out the details to get a somewhat realistic view that doesn't look like you've spent an hour fiddling with the color balance. Trying for the natural look. (full disclosure: it doesn't hurt to nudge up the orange and blue saturation, just try not to look like you're doing that!)

Or you can point your camera directly into the blazing sun, exposure bracket the crap out of everything, and go for a look that's completely stylized and to hell with the purists.

The pictures don't do anything justice. It's simply better being there.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Week in the American Southwest

Open desert, narrow slot canyons, dizzying heights. Dust devils spinning across slick rock in the dry heat of the sun. Landscapes of red rocks, white sandstone, and blue sky. Fluffy clouds, orange sunsets, and moonlit starry nights. A floppy hat, extra water, compass, and camera. This isn't the Grand Circle, this is a much smaller circle in a corner of the Grand Circle. This is a Nevada-Arizona-Utah road trip. This is the American Southwest.

We planned this trip with a mind to hit the well-known highlights but also get a little off the beaten path, either way seeing some really cool stuff. Alternating between hotels and camping we rented a 4x4 Jeep to traverse the aforementioned unbeaten path and get us down unpaved BLM roads in comfort and style. Along the way we camped under a full moon, explored slot canyons, and ascended the grand staircase to the very top of Zion.

And this is how we did it.

Part 1: Grand Canyon to Kodachrome

We arrived in the Grand Canyon and found it was cold, foggy, and had just snowed. Yes it can snow in early May, the road to the north rim was still closed. On the south rim, winter coats and hats were in order.

There wasn't much in the way of grand vistas when we arrived, just a wall of fog, but someone had made a snowman. A small snowman.

Luckily weather is fickle and it cleared up into a lovely springtime climate, cool and clear. We spent a few days at the Grand Canyon, a bit of hiking, walking, riding the shuttle. Then we headed north, the usual route through Page, Utah, with a stop at the famous and much-photographed Horseshoe Bend.
photo credit Tami Wallenstein

Taking a picture of the bend requires walking or crawling out on a ledge high above the river. Not for the acrophobic!

Now the tricky part. From there we headed north to our campground in Kodachrome Basin State Park, a beautiful park named after the well known film stock, much like the Paul Simon we were singing as we arrived.

Gives us the nice bright colors
Gives us the greens of summer
Makes all the world a sunny day

To get there, we left the highway and turned north on Cottonwood Canyon Road, a dirt road that is best taken by Jeep. It's a beautiful drive with hiking stops for canyons and Grosvenor Arch (named after the editor of National Geographic magazine). To get to this road, turn right off highway 89 just after Big Water. 

The entrance to the road has a sign warning you to have the right vehicle. While people have taken normal cars on this road, I'd feel better with a Jeep. 

Lower Hackberry Canyon is the first scenic hike we came across. We spent way too much time exploring the canyon and by the time we left the sun was already getting low.

By the time we reached Cottonwood Canyon Narrows, the sun was setting, which made for a beautiful scene. The price for this beauty is we had to make the rest of the trip in the dark.

We finally arrived at our campsite, had a late dinner, and went to bed. 

Part 2: Exploring Escalante

Kodachrome Basin makes a great home base for exploring Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It's right on scenic Highway 12 and you can go in any direction. With so much to see and do, you can read a guide book, consult the Internet, or simply ask around. We got some good advice from Utah Canyon Outdoors and other vacationers. For hiking we chose Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons, which require a 4x4, some climbing, basic trail finding skills (I had to resort to using my compass on the final stretch back), and are completely worth the effort. After spending the day shimmying through a maze of colored rock we rewarded ourselves with a romp in Devil's Garden and pizza at Escalante Outfitters.

When we were finished with Escalante, or more accurately when we ran out of time, it's a scenic drive west to Zion, the final and most spectacular spot, stopping along the way at Bryce Canyon and a few smaller sights just to see some random new things. As we left highway 12 onto 89 there were coffee shops for the first espresso of the entire trip.

Part 3: Zion

A nice thing about Zion is that cars are not allowed making for a more peaceful, serene experience, and riding a shuttle is more social anyway. You don't need me to tell you the natural beauty is awe inspiring, you can read that anywhere and safely assume it's all true. I recommend everything, and schedule plenty of time besides to sit by the river and take long lazy walks on any trail. The last day we hiked the canyon from bottom to top on Observation Point Trail and then back to the lodge to relax. We stayed at at the end of the shuttle line, a bit out of town where we were surrounded by mountains rather than shops.

And how can we forget Ranger Kelly. Ranger talks are the best.

Can I get a woo-hoo?

Vacation accomplished.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Maker Faire 2017

Get yourself to Maker Faire by car, train, bike, or whatever this is.

Another Maker Faire has come and gone, and we vintage computer geeks have done our part. It never ceases to amaze me how kids can be so fascinated by a bunch of old computers. Kids of all ages.

Of course there was a lot more than old computers at Maker Faire, way too much to describe. As a geek with a camera, I was never bored.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Black Hole Sun

I took this picture in London's Hyde Park in the summer of 2014.

Chris Cornell, iconic singer of the band Soundgarden, who helped define the 90s grunge sound and was still successful to this day, killed himself last week.

David Foster Wallace compared suicide to jumping out of a burning building, and went on to say the annoying thing is when someone jumps out of an actual burning building everyone else can see the flames and say oh yes, that at least makes sense. That the fire is inside your head and invisible to everyone but you doesn't make it any less painful, or any less real. So when I hear about a tragic suicide I don't blame, I don't try to understand. My heart aches and I say it's a damn shame we couldn't put out that fire in time.

If you ever feel like you're trapped on the top floor with your back to the window and the heat of the flames against your face, hold out as long as you can, alert the rescue crews. Know where the nearest emergency exit is and test your fire extinguishers regularly.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Jeeping it up in Utah

If you take a road trip through Utah and stick to the highways you're missing out. In fact, the fewer paved roads the better. With a 4x4 you can go places like Cottonwood Canyon Road, clearly marked high ground clearance vehicles only, not that everyone listens. You could conceivably do this in a regular car, but a Jeep makes it easier, more comfortable. Same with the unpaved BLM roads, totally doable in any car, but a rough dirt road like this, to a Jeep, is like any road. You can drive normally on unusual roads. You can ride in comfort and confidence. And there isn't a bit of pavement in this entire photo sequence.

Entering Cottonwood Canyon Road from the south, a sign alerts you to the fact that you're exiting the pavement of Highway 89 and entering an unimproved road into a greatly improved adventure.

Elsewhere in Escalante, a Jeep gets you the last mile to the trailhead of Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons.

Who needs an RV? We made our own! Sort of. This configuration is just for moving campsites, not recommended for highway use.

Settled into the campground, our little Jeep looks right at home.

Goodnight, campers.