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.

Agathla Peak, AZ Wednesday, Oct 3 2012 

When I decided to start the 365 project, I realized I will have to recycle some of the photos I have been posting over the last 5 or so years on my Flickr page. The tougher challenge would have been to actually post a brand new photo every day for a year – and that may be something I can look into next year.

I balance that by often posting more than one photo in each blog post. So, today, I wanted to share three photos from one of the most surprisingly magical places I visited.

Agathla Peak, After Sunset (digital)

Agathla Peak, After Sunset (digital)

This is Agathla Peak, sometimes called El Capitan, and it is a volcanic plug just south of the border between Utah and Arizona. My friends John, Tyler and I were on our way to the Monument Valley a few years ago and couldn’t help seeing this fantastic piece of rock protruding from the ground.

After shooting a sunset at the Monument Valley, we stopped by Agathla on our way back to Page, AZ. That’s where the first photo was made – I made it with my Canon 20D digital camera. Because I didn’t have a remote shutter release, I had to limit the exposure to 30 seconds, using the ISO of 400 and even lightening the photo in post-processing.

Agathla Peak, Day (film)

Agathla Peak, Day (film)

A year later, the three of us were joined by our friend and photographer Scott; this time Agathla wasn’t going to surprise us. We made sure to have enough time to stop there in the afternoon. The second photo was shot on medium format Velvia 50 film, and you see it here pretty much the way it looks like on the slide. I was very proud of it – the composition was great and the moment captured was lovely. Just look at those clouds!

Agathla Peak, Night (digital)

Agathla Peak, Night (digital)

Speaking of clouds, the third photo was taken later that night; the wind was moving the clouds exactly over the tip of Agathla, which became very evident on this 5-minute exposure. That’s no typo – this shot is lit by nothing except the Moon, and it took 5 minutes to get enough light to the camera sensor. You can even see the star trails – that’s how much the stars moved while the photo was being taken. You can tell I was ready to take this photo by the fact that I bought a remote shutter release for my Canon 20D.

Don’t let this rather technical post diminish the fact that this place is just fantastic. It’s nothing but a rock sticking out of the ground, but the combination of its ruggedness and the relative serenity of its immediate surroundings creates a very dramatic image, at any time of day. Or night.

Nevada Falls, From John Muir Trail Tuesday, Oct 19 2010 

I mentioned in my previous post that I visited Yosemite National Park during peak water flow. Scott, John, Tyler and I wanted to spend a day climbing up and down one of the signature trails of the park, The Mist Trail, which that day could have been named The Enormous Plumes of Spray Trail. The section just under the Vernal Falls was the worst, and we were more concerned with protecting our expensive cameras from the water than with using them to take photos. On top of the falls, we had to change shirts and expose some soaked clothing to the morning sun.

The final climb to the top of Nevada Falls didn’t quite resemble an unrelenting cold shower like its counterpart downstream, but we still got plenty of gusts of wind that brought the chilling spray upon our weary bodies. By this time, sun hid behind some clouds and the temperature dropped a bit. Wind was strong, and the clouds were moving, which made photography a bit challenging due to the changing light.

We finally made it to the top and enjoyed lunch, before we got on our way back to the valley following the John Muir Trail to the other side of the falls, against a sheer granite cliff. Just after one last refreshment courtesy of some persistent snow melt, we paused to gather our strength for the descent. I fired off a few shots, including the one of the back side of Half Dome I posted earlier.

Nevada Falls, From John Muir Trail

I then changed lenses and tried a wider composition with my next shot, which is what you see here – notice the similar scattered light. At 17mm, pretty much everything is in sharp focus, and I really love the distorted clouds reaching for the corners of the image with Liberty Cap dominating the center. I hesitated to post this, because it was too similar to the earlier shot, but upon further review, I decided this photo has a character of its own and deserves a spot in the blog.

October Manifesto Sunday, Oct 3 2010 

In my September Manifesto, I set some goals designed to get me more involved in photography. Overall I did pretty well – I posted eleven portraits on my Flickr page; I shot a roll of medium format film and I read the book “First Light”. The goals I fell just short of were the number of blog posts (six instead of projected seven), and I did not make the 11×14 prints I wanted.

Despite not completing the list, I’m pretty pleased, and it definitely helped to define the goals in order to stay driven. It makes me adjust my October goals slightly, based on available time and opportunities to do photography-related activities. So, here they are:

Write 6-8 blog posts. Six is a good number – not too much so that I would have to blog too often, and not too little either so that I can stay motivated. I still have to get some ideas out there, so this should not be a problem.

Post 8 photos. I still have some maternity shoot photos to post, and let’s not forget that I shot a roll of medium format film that I could scan and post a few keepers.

Read “The Camera”. It was great that I was able to satisfy the September requirement by reading “First Light”, but that wasn’t really the achievement in reading. It was definitely amazing to learn the experiences of five great photographers, and even more inspiring to see their photos, but there wasn’t much text in the book, and I finished it in a few hours. However, “The Camera” is a little more substantial and requires some effort, perhaps even taking some notes. Still, I can’t wait.

My favorite photo from October 2009

Make 11×14 prints for portfolio. (From the September Manifesto) This is what I do to show people my work, and also to evaluate the possibilities of making even larger prints. All the Yosemite shots should be in here, as well as a few others; there are serious candidates for drum scans there, I just need to be able to visualize what I want.

Streamline Flickr page. Right now, most of the stuff is there, but there are some orphan sets, and a few things need to be tied together. It’s a vague goal, but any step would be a step forward.

I could also invest in a frame for one of the prints I made, and shoot another roll of medium format film, but this is enough for now.

What’s your plan for October?

September Manifesto Thursday, Sep 2 2010 

July was okay in terms of my involvement in photography. I took a few photos on my trip to Bosnia, I polished and posted a few photos from my June trip to Yosemite, and I even managed to participate in a mini-meetup session with a few models and photographers just before the month expired.

August, on the other hand, was terrible.

My shutters were completely silent; not a single exposure was made. I barely even got my gear out of the bag since that July 31 model shoot.

This could not go on. Therefore, I made some quick notes about how to reclaim my zeal for photography in September. Nothing big, just a few basic things to get things going. Here they are, in no particular order.

* Post 5-10 portraits. Model shoot with 3 models, studio maternity/pregnancy shoot, as well as the rock show I shot for my good buddy…. there’s got to be 10 good shots in there somewhere.

* Write 7-10 blog posts (not counting this one). I only wrote a few posts in August, and I know I could have written more, even without posting new photos. They don’t have to follow the portraits mentioned above, I have things to write about.

* Make several 11×14 prints for the portfolio. This is what I do to show people my work, and also to evaluate the possibilities of making even larger prints. All the Yosemite shots should be in here, as well as a few others; there are serious candidates for drum scans there, I just need to be able to visualize what I want.

* Read a total of one book on photography. I already have the books to choose from: “The Camera” by Ansel Adams, and “First Light” by a group of authors/photographers (including Scot Miller, who signed my copy!). The way I worded this leaves some wiggle room; since I like to start more than one book at the same time, I can read half of each book or any similar combination.

* Shoot at least one roll of medium format film. Digital snapshots are easy, but you know you’ve been out shooting when you have a roll of exposed medium format film in your bag. On my Mamiya, that means 15 exposures. I actually have a plan for this, but I’d really like to go beyond the minimum of one roll and shoot more. I have many films to choose from, but they’re sad and lonely in my fridge, their only company a carton of eggs and a bottle of tonic water.

One of my September 2009 shots...

That’s about it. Nothing too fancy, just a pledge to get out there and shoot, come back and post, think and write. There could be a few minor additions to the list along the way (my Flickr page needs a makeover), but these are the main objectives.

What’s your plan for September?

My Favorite Lens Thursday, Aug 26 2010 

When I finally decided to enter the world of digital SLR cameras, I purchased a modest Canon Rebel XT, and for the most part, made the best of the EF-S 17-85mm IS lens. I later even added an EF 70-200mm f/4L lens that I coveted for months. Alas, my whole kit was stolen one day, and I had to start rebuilding it again.

Before I even purchased my next camera (which will end up being a used Canon 20D), I decided on the lens. It was going to be the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, mainly because I could not find a bad review of the lens. Everything about it was appealing – the huge maximum aperture, the focal length, relatively small size and light weight… It’s not a zoom, but if I could have only one lens, I knew it would be that one. Since then, my 85 is always with me, it has become my go-to lens for portraits and closeups, and it especially shined on my Yosemite trip last June (see this, this and this).

Sword in Sheath

Yet, I wanted to find a non-portrait photo to illustrate this post, so I decided to go with one of the first shots I made with the lens. The next day after it came to my doorstep, I brought the lens to the Dallas Museum of Art, and took a photo of this really cool piece. It’s a sheath ornament, made of leather, animal tusks, pearls and imagination. The picture is weird as hell, but I liked it so much I used it for a set of my “moo cards”.

I heard that Nikon just released a 85mm f/1.4 lens. Although it costs a four digit amount, I’m sure it’s spectacular. Canon’s next step up from my f/1.8 is the EF 85mm f/1.2L, which is very expensive, very heavy, and not easy to use well wide open. So, 1.4 would be a great compromise, but until Canon comes up with something like that, I’ll hold on to the one I have. It’s been good to me.

A Shy Little Wish List Entry Friday, Aug 6 2010 

My photography brothers-in-arms Tyler and John and I used to have a disease that often affects fledgling photographers, which we called “upgradeitis”. Both of them are Nikon D90 shooters, but only after they owned a D40 and D50, respectively. I started off with a Canon Rebel XT, and later moved on to a used Canon 20D. We all have multiple lenses, filters and assorted knick-knacks.

Since I bought my Canon 7D almost a year ago, I had no desire to move forward with my digital gear. But I also shoot film, and I’ve consistently been getting better results with film than with digital. Therefore, the one area where I’d like to improve my gear is my medium format setup. If you’re wondering, that’s the type of film where an image area is at least three times larger than on a standard 35mm frame, offering higher resolution and a potential for greater image quality.

My current Mamiya 645 1000S

A Hasselblad would be great, but it’s not a significant improvement over my Mamiya 645 1000S. However, if I could get my dirty hands on a Mamiya 6 (square format, slightly larger) or Mamiya 7 (6x7cm, larger still), that would be the jackpot. These cameras are easy to carry and still have superb image quality. That’s a way away still, as the body itself is many hundreds of dollars, and lenses aren’t cheap either.

The main difference wouldn’t be so much the format as much as the weight. The Mamiyas 6 and 7 are rangefinders, so they’re lighter, and even their lenses are more compact. My 645 is an SLR and it’s pretty heavy and the ergonomics of it are atrocious. It would be so much easier to have a camera over my neck all day instead of tugging on my backpack straps.

Wish List Entry

In part, this wish list entry is somewhat driven by some improvements I could do to my current 645 setup – metered prism finder and a better grip/winder are the first that come to mind. I could also re-sell my whole current kit for about what I paid for it. Even so, it’s still a future goal, and I’m at least happy knowing medium format is something I want to continue to pursue. With the 7D, my digital kit is set for at least a few years, but honestly, ideally, on a future photo trip like the recent one to Yosemite, I could see myself leaving the digital rig behind if I had a reliable and lightweight medium format alternative.

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