Archive for the ‘Photos’ Category

Birds, bats, bugs, bulbs

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Waking up each day with the birds chirping and the cool morning air streaming in the windows has been a great part of the Guadalupe Mountains experience, for me.  It has been such an antidote to the heat that we’ve found everywhere else.  I had been pining for a tenting trip up our local mountains in Arizona just so I could sleep in the fresh forest air without an air conditioner running, and had even pitched the idea to Eleanor.  After four days in Guadalupe, the need has mostly faded.  Being here has been terrific.

Our Sunday plan was really more of a wind-down.  Our ambitions have weakened each day as we’ve settled into an increasingly lazy pattern.  After puttering around in the morning we headed over to the Visitor Center so Emma could complete her research to achieve both Junior and Senior Ranger patches, plus a Guadalupe Mountains National Park badge to add to her collection.  Eleanor says this is #65.

We also walked the Pinery Trail, but it was just a 1/3 mile nature trail which ended at the ruins of a Butterfield Stage stop.  This is what I meant by not much ambition.  We really should have gotten an earlier start and hiked McKittrick Canyon, which is about eight miles east of the campground.  Although it runs about four or five miles, it’s not a terribly hard hike since it follows a stream through a canyon (thus not much elevation gain).  It has a good reputation for scenic beauty.  We’ve left it for a future visit.

Back at the campground we did finally meet up with the other Airstreamers who parked right next to us despite the largely empty RV parking area.  At first I thought it was because birds of a feather flock together, but I think now that it was really just so that they’d be in the shade.  The trailer turned out to be a 1974 Trade Wind.

We spent the afternoon in the Airstream, me reading,  Eleanor making a big lunch and mixing up cold soft drinks, and Emma doing various kid-like things such as hunting interesting insects.  I took a few shots of the more curious or colorful bugs and butterflies she found.  It was rather warm in the afternoon but not intolerable even without air conditioning.

By 5:30 we had accomplished our primary goal of not doing much and took the car north to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  We had always wanted to do the  9.5-mile scenic loop drive (a rough gravel road) but never had because on all of our prior visits we’ve had the Airstream in tow.  This was our chance, and it fit right into our program as a low-stress “activity” that required us only to look out the window.  Of course, we did step out of the car long enough to check the Rattlesnake Trail from an overlook and ponder whether we’d want to hike that one on our next visit too.  It looks interesting.

The real point of driving 45 miles up to Carlsbad was to see the evening bat flight.  This is another thing we’d missed on our prior visits.  If you’re interested in bats, it’s well worth the time, as a park ranger spends about 30 minutes answering questions and then everyone goes quiet as thousands of bats begin to stream out of the cavern.  It takes two hours for all the bats to leave, but after about 30 minutes it’s too dark to see them anymore.  No photos or even cell phones are allowed, as they disturb the bats, so if you want to see this you need to show up in person.

It was the right call to stay boondocking in Guadalupe and dismiss the Siren’s song of full hookups at White’s City (nearer Carlsbad).  Our elevation was the key to comfort; at White’s City it was running 10 degrees warmer.  And when we got back at night, the stars were absolutely amazing.  I can’t recall such a vivid view of the Milky Way galaxy in years, even in other famous “dark sky” parks.  Speaking of which, Bert Gildart has written and photographed a great article about Dark Sky Parks which will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life.

I’m really happy with the LED lights we recently installed.  They’re working perfectly, and so efficiently that lights are no longer a factor in our power budget.  We can leave as many of them on as we need, and it’s rare that they even consume a single amp.  Since we’ve also put in an alternative to the power-hungry furnace (a catalytic heater), this leaves only the laptops, vent fans and water pump as major power consumers.  There’s not much we can do about those items, and they don’t really matter much when the sun is shining.  After four nights of boondocking, we are leaving with 79% of our battery charge still available, and in a few hours it will be back up above 90%.  Based on this success I’m planning to order more LEDs to outfit the rest of this trailer and the 1968 Caravel, when we get home, which will be Tuesday.

Life in the third dimension

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Ever since my last encounter with John Long, a Bowlus owner who is also an accomplished photographer, I have been more curious about stereo or “3D” photography.  John is one of the acknowledged experts on the subject and showed me the beautiful portfolio of stereo images that decorates his home.

Now back in Tucson, I’ve started to play with 3D photography myself.  Composing a good stereo image is quite different from 2D photography, and it’s fun.  For practice purposes, I’ve been using “3D Camera,” which costs only a buck-ninety-nine.  The photo quality is limited by the iPhone camera, but for learning how to compose a good stereo image it’s quick and easy.

These images are all color anaglyphs, which means you’ll need a pair of those red-green glasses with paper frames.  If you’ve bought a DVD in the past couple of years that is in 3D, there’s probably a pair of those glasses in the DVD case.  If you don’t have a pair of those glasses, the image just looks blurry and crummy.  Click on the images to enlarge them.

This has been an interesting way to document the day.  The weather has been spectacular in Tucson lately, with every day in the mid 70s.  So we’ve been doing outdoor stuff and hitting the events of interest around town.  Today we dropped in on the Flandrau Science Center at the University of Arizona for an exhibit on “gas” (meaning elemental gases, not gasoline).  Sounds boring but it really wasn’t, since they kicked in plenty of neon. Above you can see Eleanor studying a neon sign through a spectroscope.

I’ve learned that shooting people is difficult to do well in stereo unless you have the type of camera that shoots two images at once.  With the iPhone I’m using the “cha cha” method, which means I shoot the left image, and then move the camera a few inches for the right image.  In between the shots, you don’t want anything to move.  As with HDR, still lifes are easier to shoot.

Downstairs in the Flandrau is a permanent exhibit on minerals, which Eleanor and Emma always love for the many fantastic examples.  For them, it’s like a prelude to the annual Tucson Gem Show.  One of the photos here is a display case from the Mineral Museum.

Our next stop was the Sonoran Glass Art Academy, where you can watch glass art being blown.  Emma made a pumpkin with the leadership of one of the staff.  It’s cooling in the kiln now, and we’ll pick it up in a few days.  The photo here shows some of the other pumpkins that have been made.

Once I feel I’ve gotten a handle on stereo composition, I’ll switch to the Nikon D90 and a stereo processing application on the Mac.  This will take longer, but the results should be much better.

I’m tempted to upload more 3D images as I get better at the technique, but I don’t want to freak out the blog readers who don’t have access to anaglyphic glasses.  So don’t expect more here.  At some point I’ll open up a Flickr album for the best shots made with the Nikon and reference that for those who are interested.


Tucson neon hunt

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.


Perfect lightning

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Living an Airstream you tend to be more attuned to the weather.  Perhaps that’s because you’ve got less “house” surrounding you and therefore feel closer to the elements.  Two inches of fiberglass sandwiched by aluminum sheet is all that protects you from the threat of rain, snow, high winds or hail, and when precipitation comes down it makes a musical racket above your head.  Whatever is happening out there is something you can’t easily ignore.

This freaks people out at first, especially the first time they hear hail nuggets pinging off the aluminum, but eventually (I’ve found) the weather becomes an old friend that visits regularly, and rarely is it something to fear.  I particularly appreciate the sight of far-off lightning in the summer, which in the summer monsoon season of Arizona far outshines Fourth of July fireworks.  Now, out of the Airstream, I still pay more attention to the weather than I used to.

All summer I’ve been waiting for the perfect thunderstorms to come through Tucson.  By my definition, the perfect thunderstorms are those that arrive after sunset and dance around the city about twenty miles away.  They are discrete cells, surrounded by clear air, and often arrayed in a line that slowly marches by.  When this happens, we can see the lightning show but avoid the rain and high wind, and conditions are perfect for nighttime photography.

Eleanor had wanted to be here for such a night with hours of lightning.  There was one lovely evening when we drove up the mountain to an overlook and watched a few distant storms, but I’ve written about that already.  The “perfect” line did not occur before she flew back to Vermont, much to her regret.

Last night I began to see rapid flashes through the closed shades on the windows.  I had to go look from the front step, and sure enough it looked like a line of storms had set up to the south and west of Tucson.  I could see at least three distinct storms, each flashing like fireflies so often that the sky lit up every 15-20 seconds.

Even though I was dressed for bed, I had to grab the tripod and set up the camera.  My usual lightning photography gear is the Nikon D90, tripod, Tamron 10-24 super wide angle lens, and a headlamp (so I can see to adjust camera settings).  In this case, it was augmented by silk pajamas as I stood out on the concrete sidewalk in front of our house and snapped over a hundred time exposures ranging from 12 to 30 seconds.

Unlike my session last summer, I opted to let the exposure run a little longer, so that the sodium lamp glow of Tucson would give the sky an orange-pink cast.  This made a few lightning strikes over-expose, so after a particularly good and distinct bolt I would cover the lens with my hand until the timer ran out.

Lightning photography is fun because you never know what you’ll get and it’s a constant chase game.  The storms move across the sky, some peter out and others gain strength, and all you can do is try to guess where they’re going to hit next, set up an exposure, and hope for good luck.  Southern Arizona monsoon storms help out by providing lots of lightning — much more than we get in the northeast — so even an amateur has hundreds of strikes to work with.

The storms continued all night.  I finally wrapped up my photo session around 11:30 when things seemed to be waning, but in the middle of the night a new set came through and woke me several times with ear-splitting crashes and house-shaking booms.  At dawn another set came through, finally bringing us the first rain of the night.  When I finally dragged myself out of bed, the ground was wet, the sky was gray, and the air felt like a Florida summer morning, ripe with humidity and the smell of things growing.  It will stay like that for half the day, and then things will clear up back to the normal clear blue skies of the desert … until the next time.

More photos from last night on Flickr.

And more from 2010


VTJ 09 photos

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Just a quick note:  The Vintage Trailer Jam has ended, very successfully, and we had a fabulous time.  There were absolutely no problems related to the Phish concert on Sunday night, and the week was great fun.  We’re back at summer home base in Vermont now.

People have been posting photos online since they got back.  Here are a few sites to check out:

Elly Cramer’s photos

J’s photos

Marc Weimer’s photos

I’ll also add my photos later, and update this post when I do.

Wedding by the lake

Monday, August 3rd, 2009


The past week has been entirely focused on the Big Event of the year:  my oldest brother Steve, at the ripe age of 50, has finally gotten married.  The shock notwithstanding, our energies have been directed to doing what we can to make sure the wedding came off as well as it possibly could.

dsc_0301.jpgThis was a small, very personal, and low-budget event, so we all had a role to play.  My job was as wedding photographer.  My qualifications for this were ownership of two Nikon cameras and a willingness to take the blame if the pictures were awful.  This was a bigger risk that you might think, since I’m accustomed to shooting Airstreams and having time to pose people inside them. A wedding is a dynamic and challenging event, and the lighting was difficult to say the least. We had a big bright lake in the background, harsh sun & sharp shadows, and the sun was setting right behind the ceremony site (backlighting the couple terribly).  I compensated for my inexperience by shooting madly, taking about 100 photos of the preparations and 700 photos of the wedding day.  I think about 200 are worth keeping.

Three different women told me that I wouldn’t get good photos of them because they weren’t photogenic.  I’ve found that as a photographer, the best response to this comment is that “I make everyone look great — don’t worry.”  Then they relax when you come by with the camera later.  Of course, all three women turned up in shot after shot looking absolutely perfect.

dsc_0249.jpgEleanor had the bigger job, however.  She volunteered as caterer.  For months she and Carolyn have been going over menu ideas, and as they did so, the guest list grew from 20 to 25 to 33 “plus leftovers.”  She cooked for “40”, just to be safe, but you need to understand that Eleanor’s portioning usually allows for 2-3 times the actual guest count.  Nobody goes hungry at one of her events.  Thus, we had food for about 80 people.  Two days later, we’re all still eating it, which is not a bad thing since it was all terrific.

I’d post the menu but it’s almost too long.  One person could never even sample all the stuff on the buffet table, much less eat a full portion. There were sandwiches, cheese platters, hummus with pine nuts, skewers of marinated chicken and spiced shrimp, champagne grapes and raspberries, compound salads of wild rice and barley, and tons of other stuff.  In the photo you can see her preparing fresh figs with a vinaigrette sauce and goat cheese — always a crowd-pleaser.

Because the bride requested a “fresh” menu, all cold dishes and predominantly vegetarian, Eleanor and I spent about 10 hours preparing vegetables and meats on Friday, and then Eleanor spent another four hours or so making sauces and handling details.  She got up again at 7 a.m. on Saturday to spend another eight or nine hours at it before the guests arrived.  I was on hand to wash dishes, carry things up and down to the basement refrigerator, chop things, and generally lend a hand where I could, but she did the really heavy work.  It was an enormous job, and yet it was great for Eleanor to have the chance to flex her culinary muscles and make a lot of people happy.

dsc_1272.jpgEmma’s job was ring-bearer, and to deliver a short reading during the ceremony.  She read a selection from A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six” about Winnie-the-Pooh, and did a great job. The book she practiced on was mine when I was her age. I wonder if, now that she’s been introduced to Milne’s poetry, she will read the rest of the book?

Of course, the Airstream had a role as well.  We had volunteered to get it out of the driveway before the wedding, to free up parking dsc_1240.jpgspace, but Carolyn wouldn’t hear of it.  She arrived after having her hair done and used the Airstream as her dressing room.  So the picture at right is the first moment when anyone saw her, ready to get married.  Now our Airstream has a small piece in family history too.

I like small, personal weddings.  There are more decisions to make when you act non-traditionally, but the result is very gratifying.  Everything suited everyone there: the comfortable clothing, the music (as the bride walked across the lawn, we heard Iz’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow,”) the food, the ceremony, and the lakeside setting.  There’s also a lot of risk in trying to hold an event on the shores of Lake Champlain because of the changeable weather, but as you can tell from the photos it was perfect for a memorable day.

dsc_1707.jpgThe best part of a good party is when it doesn’t end.  About half the guests pitched tents on the lawn and spent the night. It was sort of like having an Airstream rally.  One of the friends fired up a grill and made egg & cheese muffins for everyone in the morning (flavored with maple syrup, of course, since this is Vermont), and then we sat around in the Adirondack chairs while a few gifts were opened.  I don’t think anyone left before noon, even though it started to rain.  You know you’ve done it right when people don’t want to leave.

Now the wedding is behind us, and the leftovers are nearly eaten, and I’ve culled down the 700 photos to fit on CD’s for people who couldn’t be here.  We’ve got to start thinking about the next events coming up.  The Addison County Fair and the WBCCI Region 1 Rally will both start this week.  Next week is the Vintage Trailer Jam.  We are going to all three events.  August has started with a bang and it looks like it will continue in the same festive vein for quite a while.

Staying busy

Friday, April 24th, 2009

I find myself in a rare state: alone, and with little to do.  Eleanor and Emma are off on a trip without me, and they’ve left me alone in the house with a stack of ready meals in the fridge. I’m hardly ever left on my own these days, and for the past month I’ve contemplated what I would do with the time.

My first thought was to pack up the Airstream and go somewhere, but at the moment I’m actually finding Tucson more appealing.  This is spring in Tucson, meaning excellent weather, lots of local events, and no reason to leave.  This is peak season for hiking, camping, bicycling, browsing, and projects.  So instead of the Airstream, I’m trying a “staycation” here.

I do still have work to do, but I’ve settled into a routine: up at 6:30 or so, work steadily until after lunch, do some projects around the house, then go out for some air and exploration.  Each day I try to examine some previously-unknown aspect of Tucson, preferably something that nobody else in the family would enjoy being dragged around to.


Tuesday’s expedition was to the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which is where world class telescope mirrors are being made.  These days all the big telescopes use gigantic mirrors to collect light from the very edge of the universe and literally the beginning of time.  Making a perfect mirror of perhaps 8.4 meters across such as the Large Binocular Telescope project requires, takes a couple of years and about $23 million dollars.

dsc_9404.jpgThe tour is conducted in a white box that is hunkered down in the shadow of the U of A football stadium. It’s rather academic, and I felt like I was back in college.  The docent started in a conference room with a 40 minute discussion about how the mirrors are made, with bits of astronomical fact tossed in, until I felt that I was prepared to make a mirror myself.  It turns out that you don’t need a fancy “clean room” at all, you just need a big warehouse and a gazillion dollars of specialized equipment, plus a staff of couple dozen wizards.  Far more important than dust control is temperature and humidity control.  We were welcome to just walk in and stare without any special concern for cleanliness, which surprised people on the tour, considering that the polished surface of the mirror will be accurate to a few atoms when it is done.  In the photo you can see an 8.4 meter off-axis paraboloid mirror (part of the future Giant Magellan Telescope) being slowly polished.  That’s one of seven such mirrors to be made.

I can recommend this tour to geeky folks like me who get a kick out of science projects.  It’s a bit too long and too academic for younger kids (unless they’ve got a Science Club badge on their shirt and a pocket protector).

Wednesday’s outing was to explore Tucson’s camera shops.  As you may have heard, Ritz Camera, the nation’s largest camera chain, is closing hundreds of stores across the country. In many towns, the local camera shop is a thing of the past, and with them have gone many of the knowledgeable staff.  Now people mostly buy cameras at Ritz (or Wolf, which was part of the same company), Best Buy, or online. It’s hard to get the same level of service and information from the chain stores, so I’ve always been a bit disgruntled at the homogenization of camera stores.

Now, with Ritz shutting down both locations in Tucson, we were left with a bit of a vacuum.  So I went out to check the local places that deal in cameras to see who would fill the gap.  Our local Tucson Camera Repair has stepped up to become a Nikon dealer (full retail price across the board, but at least they have selection and service). Monument Camera is sticking with its specialty of used and often ancient gear, so no joy there.  Greg’s Camera And 1-Hour Photo is stocking a small amount of Nikon and Canon gear, and Jones Photo is still just a film-processing shop.  Overall it was a bit disappointing but still better than Ritz.  If I want a large camera store with tons of selection, I’ll still go to George’s Camera in San Diego, or try to find something suitable in Phoenix, and for low-low price via mail order or Internet it’s hard to beat the prices of the NY stores (of which Adorama and B&H Photo/Video are the majors).

I’ve found that exploring the city is best done slowly.  In each category of shopping or entertainment I am methodically working through as many options as I can and making mental notes, as I did with the camera shops.  Partially this is because we have a lot of guests from out-of-state and they always want to know where to go for things.  I’m expected to know the best pizza place, the best camera store, the best hardware store, RV repair, auto service, Mexican lunch, steakhouse, hike, bike trail, RV park, etc.


I also want to explore slowly to find the best places for our needs.  For two years I’ve been trying different places to get my hair cut.  I’ve tried barber shops, chains, swanky salons, and hole-in-the-wall hacks.  I haven’t been the same place twice in two years, and finally I think I’ve found the right place.  The guy who cut my hair is named “Nino” and right there he’s got approval from Eleanor, who believes that only Italian men can give really good haircuts.  Nino is friendly but not too talkative, mature but not too old to deliver a stylin’ cut, helpful but not pushy with “product.”  Best of all, when I come home with a fresh haircut I get fast approval from the ladies of the household, rather than the disdainful, “Who cut your hair this time?  Don’t go back!“  (To which I usually reply, “Hey, it was only six bucks!”  Nino is $20, which is way over my usual cheapskate limit, but if it makes the wife smile then I guess it’s worth it.)

dsc_9612.jpgThursday’s outing was to the International Mariachi Festival, which is held annually in Tucson in April.  This is a unique and fantastic opportunity, so I had to go. (I’ll bet they don’t have a mariachi festival in your town!)  I love mariachi.  It’s fun, colorful, and always makes me think of good times on the road.  When I hear mariachi on the radio I know I’m near Mexico, and the sun is shining and the air is dry.  It makes me want some roasted chiles for lunch.

On Saturday they have a big concert with all the professionals, which costs $40-84 for a ticket.  This year Linda Ronstadt will be there. On Thursday they have the concert of students who have attended the festival, and that’s just $10, which is more my price range.  The mariachis started very small, with kids who appeared to be as young as six or seven years, and gradually worked up in age to the more accomplished musicians.  No matter — all were entertaining and the costumes were spectacular.  Mariachi is much more varied than I had thought, so each musical presentation was a pleasant surprise.

Photographically, it was a challenge to get usable shots.  The lighting was fairly dim and the colors kept changing.  I shot over 200 images at ISO 1600 and considered myself lucky to get a couple dozen worth keeping.  (What I really needed was a long lens faster than my f/4-5.6 200mm zoom, but the pro f/2.8 version weighs three times as much and costs as much as a used car.)  Still, some of the better shots can be seen on my Mariachi Flickr album here, if you’re interested.

I have a week to go before the ladies return home, so that means a lot of time left in my staycation.  I wonder what else Tucson will have to show me?

Photo lessons from the Tucson Tattoo Expo

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Our friends Alex and Charon flew in from their frosty home up in the northeast, to spend a week in Tucson enjoying our fine spring weather, and not incidentally attending the Tucson Tattoo Expo.  Our friends are best known as sword swallowers, fire breathers, and practitioners of other carnival sideshow specialties, but it just so happens that in their off-hours they pursue relatively typical activities as well.  Alex embalms dead people and Charon tattoos live ones.  (What?  Not normal enough for you?)

tatto-expo-013.jpgBeing fellow Airstreamers, they were happy to spend the week in our Airstream in the carport.  I put only one condition on their use of the Airstream: I had to go to the Tattoo Expo.  You just can’t pass up a photographic opportunity like that, and besides, I’m always interested in alternative cultures. Charon spent three days basically working non-stop on tattoos while Alex and I roamed around the booths of 30 or so artists who were also there.

I discovered that tattooing is part of a larger culture of “body modification,” which includes piercing, hair dyeing, and breast augmention.  People seem to regard the body as a canvas to be tweaked and altered to suit fashion or personal taste, which really isn’t as odd as it sounds.  After all, don’t you know plenty of people who dye their hair, wear makeup, or have had some sort of cosmetic surgery?  This culture just takes it a step further.  Sometimes two steps further.  There certainly was a lot of cleavage about.

tatto-expo-012.jpgNaturally, this was photographically a rich subject area (more photos on my Flickr album), but there were some complications.  I had to carefully ask permission before taking photos of anyone or any art.  Also, the lighting in the hotel ballroom was a mixture of the worst that I encounter at indoor trade shows and conventions:  fluorescent lights alternating in rows with tungsten lights.  That means it was impossible to come up with a reasonable white balance, because the white balance would change with every step across the floor.

One solution in such situations is to overpower the ambient lighting with flash, so I mounted up the trusty Nikon SB-600 and bounced it off the ceiling.  I was lucky that the ceiling was white and relatively low (about 12 feet).  Still, it was a struggle to get usable photos with my Tamron 10-24mm superwide lens.  It needs to be stopped down to at least f/6.3 to get sharp images and there were situations where that just wasn’t possible.  After a few hours I gave up with it and switched to the Nikon 18-200mm lens, which takes sharp photos at lower F-stops.  That helped during the fast action of the Saturday evening pinup contest.  (Now I bet you want to see my Flickr album!)

Alex is a walking encyclopedia of obsolete photographic methods.  His collection at home includes large-format 4×5 and 8×10 cameras.  He was once a professional photographer, and even taught people how to make their own emulsion for glass-plate cameras.  Digital, he knows little of, so we were happily exchanging knowledge all day. At one point he opened up a box of camera equipment and I was delighted to see an old Nikkor (Nikon) 50mm f/1.4 manual-focus lens in there.

Now, if you’ve gotten into SLRs only since the digital age, you may not have seen such a lens.  Like a lot of people, I learned the basics on a film camera, when everyone carried an f/2.0 or faster “normal” lens, but these days such lenses are ignored by most people (you young whippersnappers!) in favor of big zooms.  There’s good reason for that: today’s zooms can give you a lot of utility for not a lot of cost.  Inexpensive zooms are rather poor at gathering light, but digital SLRs can easily be cranked up to high ISOs (meaning fast “film”) to compensate.

But hey, one day you’ll be in an dimly-lit room trying to capture people moving around, and you’ll find that it’s a tough slog to get images without blur or adverse flash.  You’ll also find that the flash alerts everyone to your presence, and so it is harder to get good candids.  That’s the situation I found myself in at the Tattoo Expo.

tatto-expo-014.jpgSo I popped the old Nikon lens on and tried it out.  Wow, what a difference! I could shoot a full three F-stops faster, which meant no-flash images.  But the varying lighting, and dark shadows on faces, forced me back to bounce flash and the zoom Nikon for the balance of the day.  Still, I was intrigued, and so I’ve borrowed the lens from Alex for a few months to see what I can do with it.

I have to admit that I had some trepidation at going back to this old-tech lens.  It has no internal microchip, and pre-dates digital cameras by at least a decade, so all of the advanced features of the camera are defeated.  No auto-focus, no light metering, no distance information, no automatic aperture, and no readout on the camera.  All the camera can do is sort of electronically shrug and tell me “There’s a lens there and I don’t know what to do with it.”  The rest is up to me.  I wondered if I’d still remember how to manually focus and set aperture/shutter speed quickly enough to get photos before they got away.

I needn’t have worried. It’s like putting on a well-worn old pair of shoes.  In fact, it’s darned fun.  The lens takes beautiful pictures, and once again I can control depth of field indoors with precision.  I’m having a blast running around the house and snapping away at everything, just marveling at the visual effects I can create with de-focused backgrounds and shallow fields. Having this much fun with an ancient lens worth perhaps $25 is like a kid playing with the box his toy came in.  It just reminds me of how sometimes simpler is better.

The Tattoo Expo is over now, and we have two days in which to explore Tucson with Alex and Charon before they wing it back to the northeast.  Our primary mission, however, is already accomplished: they will be coming back to spend the winter here.  That’s the second couple we’ve converted from northeasterners to southwesterners (at least for the cold season).  My plan for world domination is to convince as many good friends as possible to come down here in the winter, so we have lots of people to play with.  It’s working … who will be our next victims?

New photoblog

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

I’m trying an experiment.  I’ve started a new photoblog, with some of my favorite images from the past four years.  It will be updated daily.  See it here.


Random photos, part I

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

Writing this new, randomly-posted blog instead of my daily Tour of America blog has caused several curious dilemmas for me.  One, for example, is that when I don’t write every day, a week later I often can’t remember what I did.  With the old blog, I could just look it up, but now days disappear from time to time. I seem to have a choice: write daily or accept that some days will blur into the past.

Another dilemma is that photos are piling up on my computer.  Taken with intent, but unused, some of them deserve a better fate than to sit on a hard drive awaiting the rare possibility that I might need them for an article in the future.

To resolve this, I have decided that every few weeks or months, I’ll pull out a few of my favorite images and run them all together as “Random photos.”  Not only will I be able to share a few possibly interesting images, but I can document a few small events that otherwise might not have made the record.

Here’s the first installment. (All photos are by me unless otherwise noted.)  Click any photo to enlarge it.

Air Force jet

af-jet.jpg I was at March Field with Terry and Marie last month, touring the aviation museum, when this large jet began practicing touch-and-go landings.  At some points the jet was close enough that with a 200mm lens it felt like I could reach out and touch it.  I haven’t bothered to research the model of the aircraft; perhaps a reader will identify it for us.

Home invasion

home-invasion-cat.jpg We don’t have a cat, but this one has been showing up in the backyard occasionally.   That’s a neat trick considering our backyard is entirely surrounded by 5-7 foot walls.  Eleanor, being a major softie for cats (but allergic to them), left the window open with the hope that the critter would visit.

The cat thought she was being clever, but I caught her in the act.  Once she saw my camera, she ran like a Hollywood starlet spotted in Wal-Mart.

New cushion fabric

as-new-cushions.jpg recycled-beach-club-fabric.jpg The blue-and-cream “Beach Club” fabric that came with our Airstream turned out to be wholly impractical. Not only did it immediately start to darken with dirt, but it seemed that there was no stain which could be cleaned off it.  After three years of spaghetti sauce, kid feet, and several unsuccessful attempts to wash it, we finally gave up and asked our friend Greg to make covers for us from a more kid-proof fabric.  The result is the brown Southwestern themed cushions you see in the photo.

And what did we do with the old “Beach Club” fabric?   Why, we gave it to the guys pictured at right.  They managed to get it clean and make nice chairs out of it.  (Not my photo.)

By the way, Greg says if anyone comes to Tucson to visit us and stays for at least a few days, he’d be willing to make a set for them while they wait.   We’re probably going to ask him to recover the rest of the dinette as well.

Turkey slicing

turkey-cutting.jpg chef-martin.jpgSince I’m usually behind the camera, this is a rare photo.  You can see how I dressed up and got my hair coiffed for Thanksgiving.  Emma is peering over anxiously to make sure I cut plenty of dark meat for her. Later, when she’s a teenager and utterly rejecting us for our meat-eating barbarism, this photo will be useful blackmail material.  On the wall between us is a black-and-white photo of Eleanor’s grandfather, Martin Manzonetta, during his reign as Head Chef at Boston’s famous Locke-Ober restaurant. You can see him at right in a scanned image from a magazine article, showing his famous dish Lobster Savannah (still served at the Locke-Ober today).

Rainbow palm

rainbow-palm.jpgTucson is not a place known for thunderstorms in November, but we had a few beauties around Thanksgiving, and one of them resulted in a spectacular rainbow just to the north of our house.  Emma spotted it and I got a few great shots.  In Hawaii, a rainbow over a palm tree is a common sight, but here in Tucson it’s more like getting snow at Christmastime.

To my mind, it’s better than snow at Christmastime.  A palm tree swaying in a gentle warm breeze is exactly the symbol I want to remember this Thanksgiving.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine