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.

And the Place Goes Boom Tuesday, Oct 16 2012 

Two and a half years ago, on April 11, 2010, Dallas Cowboys blew up their old stadium, because they made a big new shiny one. They made the implosion a public event, and I was there with many hundreds of people who love to watch things blown up.

Texas Stadium Going "Boom!"

Texas Stadium Going “Boom!”

About six months earlier, I purchased the Canon 7D digital camera. One of the secondary reasons for the purchase was the amazing speed of the camera – it was advertised to be able to record eight frames per second. It’s not something you expect using all the time, but, for example, when you’re on a photo-safari hunting whales, it helps.

On this Sunday morning, I knew I’ll only have a few seconds before Texas Stadium falls down, so when the explosions started, I pressed the shutter and kept it pressed. One of the shots was this one, with two fiery explosions going off at the same time. The very next photo on my memory card, taken fraction of a second later, doesn’t have these fireballs.


Coliseum, Rome, Italy Wednesday, Sep 26 2012 

After seeing images from Trevi Fountain and Piazza Venezia, it’s time for the real deal. The most recognizable Rome attraction is the Coliseum, an ancient stadium where the plebs and emperors alike were entertained by gladiators, reenactments and animals.

Coliseum, Golden Hour

Coliseum, Golden Hour

I’m arranging the photos chronologically again, this time by choice. The first photo is a detail I wanted to grab because the “golden hour” window, when the light is best, was closing fast. I took my EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens and isolated this top floor of the Coliseum, showing the bricks placed at the end of the outer ring to prevent further deterioration of the structure.

Then, on the walk back up the Via de Fori Imperiali, after the sun already set, I took a look back and saw the Moon just barely rising over the Coliseum. I had to step into the street, and although the street-level shot is a little too crowded for my taste, it definitely turned out well.

Moon over Coliseum

Moon over Coliseum

A few days later, I would actually follow the crowd and go inside the place. I got a nice tour that explored the underbelly of the Coliseum, as well as its top floor. It was a truly magical time – it was difficult to comprehend that men built this place a few thousand years ago and that it still stands. I imagine people thinking the same at the Pyramids in Egypt.

Coliseum, Mid-day Sun

Coliseum, Mid-day Sun

The mid-day sun wasn’t kind to the photographs, however. Shown here is the look down on the main levels of the Coliseum from the top, or as close to the top as a tourist can get. Buy the extra tour, it’s well worth it.

Coliseum, from Palatine Hill

Coliseum, from Palatine Hill

Finally, here’s a look back to Coliseum from the field across, Palatine Hill. The whole area of Palatine Hill is an active archeological dig — there are even some fairly recent discoveries, despite the foot traffic around the Coliseum. In any event, this last shot is on Fuji Velvia 50 film. A few hours too early to fully take advantage of the golden hour, but still a nice shot from an elevated vantage point. What I like the most is a slightly sideways view onto the inner and the outer rings of the Coliseum. The fact that the outer ring survived all this time, even only at 50% or so, is quite remarkable.

Coliseum is one of those bucket list items, and I’m happy I can cross it off of mine.

Palacio Real, Madrid, Spain Tuesday, Sep 18 2012 

Palacio Real, Madrid

Palacio Real, Madrid

I’ve been posting some photos from my trip to Madrid I took a few months ago, and yesterday I mentioned the grandiose architecture you can find all over the city. Nowhere is that more evident than right here – Palacio Real.

Quick linguistic note – seeing letters “r, e, a, l” together immediately takes me to the English word, but in Spanish, the word actually means “regal” or “royal”. And there are quite a few “real” things about Madrid, the seat of the Spanish royal family.

Speaking of the Spanish royal family, this building was their main home for centuries, until very recently, when it was open to the public. It’s just gorgeous to look at, opulent and extravagant, and I caught it in nice late afternoon light. I even included a tighter crop of the shot I took with my long lens, to show some of the detail on the roof and the facade of the building.

Palacio Real, detail

Palacio Real, detail

Pretty awesome, don’t you think?

Otters, Georgia Aquarium Friday, Sep 14 2012 

Utter cuteness

Utter cuteness

This is a perfect way to end the work week.

Otters may be my favorite animals (next to lions, naturally). They’re impossibly cute, love to play around and travel in packs. A few years ago I was in Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and came across this bundle of otter cuteness. I have no idea what the green stuff around them was (probably something they use as a toy — they use everything as a toy!!!), but there were about half dozen otters in there, sleeping in one big pile of utter otter cuteness.

This was taken with my old Canon 20D camera, which served me well for a few years until I sold it and bought the 7D. ISO was 1600, so the photo is a little noisy… Ah, what the hell. Just look how cute they are!!!

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Water Tower, Justin, TX Monday, Sep 10 2012 

Water Tower

Water Tower

A few years back, I drove past this old rusted-out water tower a few times and pre-visualized an image I wanted – I thought the setting sun would light up the rusty tones and that color would look great against the deep blue sky that I would get with Fuji Velvia film.

I even took a shot at it, but it was completely different from what I imagined. It was in the morning, I used Kodak T-Max 100 film and my lens was way too wide. But I still like the way it turned out, and it definitely had potential.

More than a year after that black-and-white shot, I came back, with my Canon 7D digital camera with me. The sunset was great, the sky clear, and I got the composition I wanted with my 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. The sky definitely would have a deeper hue on Velvia, but I love the way the tower turned out. I never felt happy enough with the shot before to post it online. So here it is – with no post-processing, other than slight rotation to straighten it out, and the usual amount of sharpening.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Point of Inspiration: Alan Ross Wednesday, Jan 26 2011 

This past Saturday, I met Alan Ross, a master photographer, who spent some time in the 70s as the assistant to Ansel Adams. An exhibit of his work opened at the Sun To Moon Gallery in Dallas and he was on hand to schmooze with the Dallas socialites, which, for an hour or so, included yours truly.

Alan Ross

Alan Ross, inspiration

On display was about 20 of his quite exquisite silver gelatin prints, in formats up to 24×30. My favorite by far was Bridalveil Fall in Storm, obviously an homage to Ansel’s Clearing Winter Storm. The touch of genius was a river at the bottom of the frame, which miraculously picked up some great light from the clouds. Then there was Farm and Clouds, New Mexico, layers upon layers of rich details and flowing lines, truly a magnificent work of art.

Then I saw a few others and realized something. I’ve been fortunate to visit some really amazing places the last few years with friends Scott, John, Tyler. All those places were on the walls of the gallery – Bryce Canyon hoodoos, Monument Valley rock formations, and scenes from Yosemite that nearly retraced my own steps.

Which is telling me I’m on the right track. Sure, those are places of world-wide known beauty, visited by million people every year, but my friends and I have done some amazing work there. I have little doubt that we’re getting to where we’d be able to post our own work in galleries. The way we see things, the way we make decisions about what to shoot, it’s all leading somewhere. A lot of the shots I’ve seen at this exhibit are of fragments of nature; a group of aspens here, a pile of rocks there. There was always something outstanding though, and it was usually the weather – the clouds or the fog. So, not always the golden light (it’s black-and-white, after all), but often something to enhance the subject and transform it from ordinary to extraordinary.

Alan signed my copy of Ansel’s Autobiography and we talked shop a little, which inspired me to establish my 2011 resolution – start developing my own black and white film. This was taken with my Canon Elan 7 camera with 85mm lens on great Ilford HP5 Plus film. The only thing that could have made it more exciting would have been to develop it myself.

Humpback Whale, Banderas Bay, Mexico Wednesday, Jan 19 2011 

It’s been more than a year and a half since my last beach vacation (Dubrovnik, Croatia), so I was looking forward to doing absolutely nothing for a week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, this January. Of all the activities that the tourist agencies bombarded me with, the only one of any interest to me was the Whale Photo Safari, as it was an opportunity to take photos of wild animals in their natural habitats.

Humpback whales spend most of the year in the cold waters of Alaska, but every winter, they migrate south for breeding; some end up around Hawaii, but most go to Mexico. Seeing all the photos on the brochures, I thought to myself, if I could get just one photo like this, it would be worth it. So, here it is.

Humpback Whale, Banderas Bay, Mexico

Humpback Whale, Banderas Bay, Mexico

Let it be said right away that your chances of getting a good photo at this excursion are minimal and greatly depend on a few key factors, with reaction speed as a common denominator. First, if all you have is an iPhone or a point-and-shoot that takes forever to snap a picture, you better just put it away. Catching a photo of the whales (or dolphins) as they breach the water is an exercise in futility, because you have a window of about a second and have absolutely no warning. Further, even if you have a fairly decent lens on your dSLR, it helps if you also have a fast continuous shooting mode; the photo here is the second in a series of 8 that my Canon 7D fired off in only one second. The others are almost unusable, despite sharp focus and a shutter speed of 1/400 sec. This is because, in addition to all the other challenges, the boat you’re on swings violently on the massive waves of the open ocean.

Whale, 100% crop

In other words, you have to have the camera ready at all times, and scan the waters around you constantly, fighting the motion sickness caused by looking through the mercilessly unsteady viewfinder. And if you’re lucky enough to grab the photo, you won’t care that your horizon isn’t level or that your boat was in a less-than-ideal spot and most of the whale is in shadow and you can’t see well the intricate details on its rugged skin, covered with barnacles and other growth. You’ll be happy that you didn’t puke your guts out and that you enjoyed a truly “Wow!” moment in your life.

As a bonus shot, here’s another whale breaching a little farther away; however, I cropped the photo to about a 100% so it only appears closer. Notice that the angle is a little more fortunate, so the grooves of the underbelly become more visible.

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