Cape Cod Sunset, A Study in Tools Wednesday, Oct 15 2014 

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit Cape Cod, Massachusetts for the first time. It’s a place of quiet fishing villages, trendy tourist destinations and hip hangouts. Since it’s a peninsula, it’s also a very convenient destination for both sunrise and sunset photography – on multiple days, I was able to shoot both golden hours.

In this post, I present three shots taken within moments of each other, with three different cameras. It was a sunset shoot at Rock Harbor, not far from the city of Orleans, MA. The extremely low tide left many tidal pools and exposed sand dunes and grass patches, so there were plenty of ways to experiment with composition.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Film Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Film Camera

First up is my massively reliable medium format camera, Mamiya 7, which was loaded with the legendary Fuji Velvia 50 film. The metering for a sunset scene is never easy, and for a contrasty film like Velvia, I wanted to preserve the highlights, but the shot still ended up quite underexposed — most of the foreground is just too dark. On the other hand, the setting sun and the sky at the horizon have a great color to it, and I love the dark fluffy clouds on top set against the still bright sky. The composition of the foreground is also pleasing, with the patch of grass in the tidal pool. As usual for a shot done on Velvia, I didn’t do much post-processing; I tried to improve the shadows a bit, but not to the point where the photo becomes too grainy.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Digital SLR Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Digital SLR Camera

A few moments later, the sun finally set, but the sky was still pretty bright. This shot was taken by my digital camera, Canon 7D, at the widest setting on my 17-40mm f/4L lens. The composition seems a little different, lower to the ground, and the horizon falls closer to the rule of thirds. The bluish tint is typical for the “blue hour”, but there is still some reddish hues to add interest to the shot. As in the film shot, the tidal pool provides a great reflection, and I like the ripples in the sand, too. I would have liked some more color in the photo, but it still has a nice moody quality – of the three shots, it would probably work the best in black and white. And speaking of quality, even at ISO 800, there is almost no noise or grain in the image.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Smartphone Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Smartphone Camera

Finally, we have the humble smartphone camera; I had with me the Droid Ultra and its 10 megapixel camera, which is more than decent. I metered for the brightest part of the image and let the automatic settings fall where they may. As it happens, I like this shot the best, and it’s partly because of the very wide native format of the camera, which works well with the scene. It’s also very bright, but nothing seems too blown out. There is some chrominance noise in the clouds, but other than that, the shot looks very sharp and clean. I posted it on my Instagram page in its cropped form.

In the end, no one shot is significantly better than the others, but this exercise helps me compare how different cameras see the same scene, so that I can use them more efficiently next time.

Utah Rocks, Part II: Thor’s Hammer Monday, Dec 9 2013 

In my previous post from the Bryce Canyon National Park, I mentioned a rock formation known as Thor’s Hammer. It is one of the countless “hoodoos” in the main amphitheater of the park, but possibly the most imposing and easily recognizable.

Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

It gets its name from the shape at the top of the spire; through some fortunate geological coincidence, the sedimentary rock at the top of the spire is harder than the one below it, so it eroded less over eons, resulting in the characteristic shape. The rock is porous and the water that seeps in the microscopic cracks expands and contracts during endless daily freeze-thaw cycles, carving stone into hoodoos in the process. Geology meets mythology, you might say.

To get this photo, I simply walked down the path just under the Sunset point. It’s about as close as you can get to the Hammer, as it sticks out from the slope of the canyon. The rising June sun paints it a bright orange color while most of the rest of the amphitheater is still lit indirectly. One thing I love about the amphitheater is the shades of orange and red that it creates as light bounces around in the tight spaces in between the hoodoos.

It seems like Hammer has three siblings who live next door, but they are bunched together, and we’ll see over the next few millenia whether they turn into something quite as imposing as the Hammer. Who knows, maybe by that time the endless freeze-thaw cycles of Bryce Canyon would end Thor’s Hammer as we see it today.

Thor's Hammer At Night

Thor’s Hammer At Night

As it happens, I walked this path around midnight the previous night. The Moon was full and high up in the summer sky and it lit the amphitheater beautifully. There were even guided midnight hiking tours, where visitors got to see a very different Bryce Canyon. I took several digital shots, and was reminded of an old technical problem; without a remote shutter release, I could only take 30-second exposures, unless I wanted to hold my finger on the shutter button for an extended period of time. On top of that, I had to use a pretty narrow f/11 aperture setting, to keep everything sharp, since camera has a hard time getting focus lock in such low light conditions. As a result, I bumped the ISO on my Canon 7D camera to 1600, but it all worked out nicely — photo is sharp and not too noisy, and offers a different perspective of this great looking rock.

Utah Rocks, Part I: Bryce Canyon National Park Friday, Oct 11 2013 

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of my favorite places to watch the sunrise. It’s more of an amphitheater than a canyon, and it’s facing east, so the morning sun lights up the endless rock formations known as hoodoos. The resulting color palette is a sight to behold.

Sentinel, Bryce Canyon National Park

Sentinel, Bryce Canyon National Park

I shot sunrise at Bryce on two separate earlier trips, but when I decided to attend a conference in Las Vegas in June 2013, I knew I would want to do it again. And so, after the conference wrapped up, I rented a car, and made the 4-or-so-hour drive into the mountains of Utah.

I stayed only two nights, which meant two attempts at a sunrise. The first morning I stayed at the rim and shot pretty much the same composition as I did a few years ago. As it happens, that’s been one of my most successful photos ever, so I didn’t improve on it.

Sentinel, Without the Hikers

Sentinel, Without the Hikers

The second morning I decided to walk down the trail and among the hoodoos. The shot was set up so that the Thor’s Hammer, a famous rock formation, was behind me. In front of me was the slender spire called The Sentinel, and some rock cliffs on the right. The horizon to the east was muddled with some clouds, but in a fortuitous moment, the sun shone through and lit the cliffs perfectly.

Sentinel, Without the Sunlight

Sentinel, Without the Sunlight

As it would turn out, in that fortuitous moment, two hikers leisurely walked into the bottom right corner of my frame. Since my Mamiya 7 is a rangefinder camera, I didn’t notice them through the viewfinder, but the lens definitely did, since it sits down and to the right from the viewfinder. I didn’t feel like editing them out until I’m ready to display the photo at an exhibit or something, so I took another shot, shown here in the smaller format. The composition isn’t quite what I’d like, but the colors are still spectacular. In fact, they look even more saturated here due to the fact that I scanned that frame with a little less care than the main photo above.

Another bonus shot is of the same composition, taken while the sun was obscured by the clouds. It’s just another proof of my “Formula” for a successful shot, which states that you need only Fuji Velvia 50 film and “golden hour” sunlight; the subject almost doesn’t matter. Here’s the same subject under two lighting conditions only moments apart, and while it looks nice on one shot, it really comes alive in the other.

Happy Birthday, Sarajevo Saturday, Apr 6 2013 

April 6 is the anniversary of the liberation of my home town from German forces in World War II. Around the same time of the year, a more somber anniversary is observed in the city, that of the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern warfare. With this post, I’m making a small contribution in marking these anniversaries.

Sarajevo, 4:30 a.m.

Sarajevo, 4:30 a.m.

This shot was taken during my June 2009 visit to Sarajevo; it’s still one of my favorite trips, partly because it extended to a few days in Dubrovnik, Croatia, but mainly because I spent it in the company of all my dearest family members. I wanted to finally take some good sunrise and sunset shots of the city from some of the many hills surrounding it. The trouble with that plan is that the days in the middle of June are really long, and the dawn breaks as early as 4 a.m.

After a few days of recovering from jet lag, I got up really early this one morning (this was taken around 4:35 a.m.), got into a cab and went to Jekovac, a little park overlooking the old town. I took this shot from the same place, and you can see how foggy it was back in October 2007. This time around, the sky was clear, but the actual sunrise was ruined by some low-hanging clouds, so I didn’t get good shots until a few days later.

I brought two film cameras to this trip, but one thing I wasn’t comfortable doing with them was long exposures. This was 8 seconds at ISO 100 with my Canon 20D digital camera; if I took a shot with my Velvia 50 film, it would have had to be 30+ seconds, due to film reciprocity failure.

In the foreground is the Old Town, anchored by the City Hall, built in the 19th century by the Austrian Empire and later converted into a library, which was then burned down by Serbian military forces in 1992, in the first days of the Siege. Bottom right is the cemetery dedicated to the defenders of the city during the Siege. Further westward, you see the modern buildings of the newer parts of the city, and above, in a fortunate astronomical circumstance, you see the full Moon, about to plunge behind Igman and Bjelašnica mountains.

New Toy Thursday, Mar 28 2013 

For a little while now, I had the desire to own a music instrument again. I used to have a saxophone, but it was a bit loud and just complicated enough for me to lose the desire to really take lessons and learn to play it. I enjoyed making sounds on it, and sometimes those sounds would combine into phrases, even melodies. I sold the sax a few years ago in an effort to get out of some debt I had accumulated.

Bongo Drums

New Toy

Now, I wanted to get something new, but not very expensive, and above all, simple. So, I started looking into bongo drums. They are a simple, but satisfying instrument, and there are many techniques and rhythms to be learned. I did some research online and visited my local “big box” instrument store, which is where I picked up this set from Meinl. Surprisingly, the price was a little lower than at the big online retailer, just under a hundred bucks.

I brought them home and tuned them – the big drum (“hembra”) is around a B note, while the smaller (“macho”) is in the neighborhood of E. After that, of course, I played a couple of Carlos Santana songs and banged along with them.

Leave a comment if you play an instrument. Especially if you took pictures of it.

Bush Key, Dry Tortugas National Park Monday, Mar 25 2013 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I visited the Dry Tortugas National Park while in Florida in December 2012. After exploring the Fort Jefferson on Garden Key a little, I decided to take a walk around Bush Key, connected to the Garden Key by a short sandbar that was conveniently dry for this visit. You can see that on this photo, taken from the top of Fort Jefferson. In the background and to the right, you can see Long Key, but more about that in a moment.

Bush Key, Dry Tortugas

Bush Key, Dry Tortugas

Bush Key is a tiny island by any measure, but it has an interesting and fragile ecosystem. The National Park Service web site states it is closed for visitors, but on the day I visited, there was only a sign asking that you stay on the sandy beach and do not attempt to walk into the interior of the island. This is to protect the habitats of several native wildlife species, particularly terns, which nest there.

There were numerous conch shells on the island, as well as some fragments of coral, and it took some effort not to step on some of this beautiful inventory. At some places, the going got tough, and I slammed my camera into the sand when I attempted to climb a sandy slope and lost my footing. The sun had a hard time poking through the clouds, but at one opportune moment, I snapped this shot of a sun-bleached drift wood against beautiful palette of green and blue colors of the waters of Gulf of Mexico.

Bleached Driftwood, Bush Key

Bleached Driftwood, Bush Key

Halfway around Bush Key, there is a sign asking visitors to refrain from walking onto the Long Key, which is home to many species of birds, some of which were quite majestic. It was easy to see swarms of herons, pelicans, frigate birds and other birds over Long Key. Walking along the other side of Bush Key, I saw this three-bird formation and snapped a few quick photos, of which this one seemed the most successful.

Flyover, Bush Key

Flyover, Bush Key

Shortly before reaching the sandbar again on the other side, I spotted two birds leisurely walking along the beach in front of me. I had my 85mm lens with me and slowly approached. I managed to take a shot of this guy, and I loved how the photo turned out, but at the time I didn’t know which species he is. I knew I’d have to find out, because I definitely wanted to share the photo here on the blog.

Blue Heron Male, Bush Key

Blue Heron Male, Bush Key

I then visited the bookshop at Fort Jefferson, showed the picture on my camera display to the helpful lady working there, and we went through a few books until we determined that this was a blue heron male. He was just turning into adulthood, which you can tell by the little “hair” lock flowing down the back of his head.

Overall, it takes a while to get to Dry Tortugas NP, but if you do it, you won’t be disappointed, whether you’re a snorkeler, bird watcher, or just a photographer.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park Friday, Mar 22 2013 

Entrance to Fort Jefferson

Entrance to Fort Jefferson

Although I’m a big fan of the National Park Service, I never even heard of the Dry Tortugas National Park until I visited Key West, Florida in December 2012. It’s an ecological paradise, sanctuary to countless species of birds and marine life. The only catch is that it’s located 90 miles to the west of Key West, which makes it one of the more difficult National Parks to get to.

Nevertheless, a few photos on a brochure I looked at convinced me that the trip is well worth taking. My hotel made arrangements with the speedy boat to take me there early one morning. The ride is a couple of hours long and on this particular trip the sea was quite choppy, so some passengers lost their breakfast before they got to the destination.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson – looking over the moat to the Loggerhead Key in the distance (film shot)

When we finally docked at Garden Key, we were greeted by the massive Fort Jefferson, built in the 19th century to provide a strategic stronghold in the Gulf of Mexico. Wikipedia says that it’s a largest masonry structure in the Americas, consisting of 16 million bricks. It even has a moat built around it, with a walkway that circumnavigates the fort.

Rodman Gun, Fort Jefferson

Rodman Gun, Fort Jefferson

The fort was fully operational during the Civil War and it included a prison, whose most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, serving the sentence for treating the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of President Lincoln. Mudd ended up serving as the fort doctor during the outbreak of the yellow fever in 1867, which in part led to his pardon.

Civil War history of the fort is also evident by several heavy cannons that can still be found around it. Pictured above is a 10-inch Rodman gun, one of the most common in the fort.

Fort Jefferson, View from Bush Key

Fort Jefferson, View from Bush Key

Finally, since the tide was pretty low, I decided to walk across a small sandbar onto the Bush Key, which appears as a separate island on most photos I’ve seen, because the sandbar gets submerged. Looking back to Fort Jefferson, you can see on the left the catamaran ship that brought me there, and the seaplane which originated in Alaska judging from the tail insignia.

Bush Key walk was thoroughly enjoyable and I made some nice photographs that I will share in a separate post.

Fort Bokar, Dubrovnik, Croatia Friday, Oct 19 2012 

Friday is the day when we celebrate the end of the work week with simple posts.

Fort Bokar, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Fort Bokar, Dubrovnik, Croatia

This is Fort Bokar in Dubrovnik, Croatia. It’s one of my all-time favorite places to visit, and I love the wonderfully preserved city walls. During my visit in 2009, I stayed within the walls and photographed them extensively, so perhaps I can do a series of posts with those photos.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Pontiac Starchief Thursday, Oct 18 2012 

Since I talked yesterday about some rusty cars, I thought I’d add another.

Pontiac Starchief

Pontiac Starchief

Most of the cars in the field were covered in rust, but this Pontiac Starchief still had the bright red paint on. Perhaps it wasn’t shiny as before, but it still made it stand out, especially with that massive tail fin.

Again, my Mamiya 645 1000S camera, with expired Kodak Portra 800 film, shot at EI 200 (2 stops overexposed), due to the age of the film.

Ford Truck Smile Wednesday, Oct 17 2012 

I wrote the other day about my Mamiya 645 camera and the fisheye lens I had for it. This is one of the photos I made with it.

Ford Truck Smile

Ford Truck Smile

A local photographer I know suggested that we look for abandoned vehicle lots somewhere south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The field where we found the Desoto Powerflite was one of such locations, and this was another. It looked as if it was someone’s back yard, and it had a lot of old rusted out trucks and cars that still had some really distinctive design features.

I made a few shots with my normal lenses, but then I wanted to play around with the fisheye. The photo is made from about a foot away from the grille of the truck, and the way the lens curves the lines, it makes it seem like the truck is smiling, like a cartoon character.

In the end, I decided that the fisheye lens is a nice toy, but that my preferences lay on the other end of the focal length scale, in the normal to telephoto range. So I sold the lens for a nice profit and eventually used the money to upgrade to the Mamiya 7 I have now. I have no regrets, but I do have a few fun shots.

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