photography

Jump the Fence

Call me a railing jumper. I wear it as a point of pride.

That photo of the waterfall above? I had another one from the viewing station, probably 20 to 30 feet above where I took the above shot. Then I glanced over the wooden railing that surrounded the viewing station, saw a root-studded path down to the rocks below, and jumped.

It happens often enough, especially on trips and photo assignments, that I automatically look for a way to hop the fence and find a path to get closer. It happened on that trip Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I only hesitated because there were a mom and a dad, with their two kids, standing next to me, and I didn’t want to be a bad influence on the kids.

But then I thought, “Well, why not?” Maybe the kids will get yelled at now, but isn’t it better to show them that a little rebellion will do you good?

Sure, jumping the fence could get you hurt (the rocks were slippery from the waterfall spray) or arrested (though I didn’t see a sign – but more often I do). But getting a closer view of that waterfall was worth it.

Now this kind of thing gets me in trouble. I’ve had enough run-ins with the authorities that keeps me at least pragmatically cautious. My first instinct, though, is to jump the fence – always has been.

Don't slip.

While in Yellowstone, it wasn’t enough that I saw pretty waterfalls from the park roadway. No, I had to slide down the ravine, step into the river, scramble up the rocks, and get a closer view. Tasting the river is more memorable than seeing it from the side window.

Grand Canyon - My little rock ledge

At the north rim of the Grand Canyon I noticed, just next to the lot where middle-aged insurance salesmen parked their Buicks, a little outcropping of rock. It was dozens of yards away from the main viewing area, the one encircled by metal railing. This little ledge off to the side? The one partially covered by ragged desert brush and boulders? No one was there. It was all mine.

So I climbed it. And as my legs dangled from the edge and the tourists screamed in horror, I felt like I was getting a view that few people saw. There’s something to be said about experiencing the Grand Canyon all by yourself, with no one around, and with nothing holding you back from the void. There was no railing here.

And so it is with life. That’s pretty obvious, but the more I travel, the more I realize people are content with staying within some prescribed boundary.

This philosophy is largely situational. Rules aren’t there simply to be broken. As Dr. Renner, my journalism professor and mentor always said, “Rules are made for smart people to break.” In other words: learn the rules, pay attention, and break them when it makes sense.

If everyone broke the rules willy-nilly, there might not be waterfalls to photograph. But if breaking the rules means harming nothing or nobody but yourself, I say go for it.

Jump the fence.

On the edge.

Maybe it says something about my compulsion to hang there on the edge of nothing. Maybe I just need medication. I don’t know.

But while I have legs to carry me and a lack of the kind of common sense that says “stay within the boundaries,” I’ll keep doing it.

In fact, I’d recommend it to anyone.


Simple

GE Radio

The other day my dad was talking about his cellphone, and how it liked it so much because it was simple. Flip open, find the number you want, dial and talk, and then to hang up you simply close the clam shell.

Smartphones? They’re beyond him. Why do you need all that fancy stuff when you just want to make a phone call?

I almost chalked our conversation up to one of those aren’t-parents-cute moments, but then I thought, gosh, I recently felt the exact same way.

All I wanted was a radio. Nothing fancy, no media-playing capabilities. Just something that turns on, plays a radio station, and that’s it. And I wanted it to be portable enough to carry around the house with me: in the garage, in the kitchen, or in the kitchen window so I can hear it in the backyard.

At a local rummage sale, I found exactly what I was looking for. But to find it, I had to buy something that’s probably close to the same age as me. It’s the above General Electric desktop radio, model 7-4115B. Faux wood grain, black and metal finish, and two knobs – one for volume, and one for tuning. Then there’s a little switch that you flip to go from AM to FM.

It’s gorgeous, and it’s perfect, and it only cost me $1 at the rummage sale (some yahoo at Etsy has one for $18). That little radio was exactly what I was looking for, and it works like a charm. Plus, it’s stylish in a retro kind of way. That little radio fits perfectly with my kitchen. It’s sturdy enough, and if I drop and break it, I’m only out $1. But it’s the kind of thing where I can see having it for years and years. The thing has survived this long, after all – but maybe the reason it’s lasted so long is because it’s so simple.

When I’m doing repetitive tasks, I need something in the background to listen to. Put the radio on, and I’m up for anything. But if it’s not on, it’s easy to get distracted. Turning my brain off means having music, and so this new GE radio is going to be perfect.

Sometimes, fancy is great. Having the Internet on my phone is wonderfully handy, and goodness knows I get plenty of use out of my iPhone.

But then simple can be all you need just when you need it. My dad just wants a phone to make calls. I just want a little radio to carry around the house with me. Easy. Simple. Perfect.


Amateurs

I’m an amateur soccer player, an amateur cook, an amateur skier, designer, racecar driver, and flyfisherman. And I’m happy to be an amateur at all of those things. Actually I LOVE being an amateur at all of those things – it allows me to dabble, make a ton of mistakes, goof around, drop the ball, not care when something else might be distracting me etc.

Being an amateur at those things means I can be comfortable. It’s safe. There is no fear of success or failure.


The Look

Sean Kingston Concert - Yeah

We often do things that we regret when we’re out of our heads. Drunk, in love, low blood sugar – whatever the reason, something causes our brain to reboot, usually the day after, and look back on our behavior in horror.

Sean Kingston Concert - Smile

But at concerts, at least we’re doing things we regret with other people. It’s fine to act like a screw-loose reptile when everyone else is just as goofy as you.

Sean Kingston Concert - Sing along

Look around you. See all those people screaming their heads off? See how they’re gyrating and dancing in a sea of other lunatics? Notice how they don’t care who’s watching, because (probably) no one really is?

Sean Kingston Concert - Rapture

That’s why I go to concerts: to utterly lose myself in the songs I love. These kids, just like me, were having the time of their lives – and they didn’t care who was watching.

Sean Kingston Concert - Sing-along

The difference is that my enjoyment didn’t stem from the music on stage. No, it came from the kids losing their collective minds. This is why I want to take pictures. They mean something. I mean, look at them. They’re in ecstasy.

Sean Kingston Concert - Front row

Not on Ecstasy, mind you. No, there’s something about a collective musical experience that makes drugs or alcohol totally redundant. Who needs booze when you have grooves?

Sean Kingston Concert - Lining up

It makes my heart ache to see these pictures, the day after, and realize what fun we all had that night. They’ll remember the songs and their friends singing along.

I’ll remember that look on their face.


As I learn more about photography, I learn from and listen to and read what those who have Been There Before do.

And one of the easiest little tools I’ve found? Flickr’s exif data.

For instance, I really liked Jorge Quinteros’s coffee shop shots. Digging into the one with the guy at the table, you can see Quinteros’s exact camera settings. Here, he set the camera in aperture priority mode at f/2.8 at a 28mm focal length with the shutter slapping at 1/40 speed.

If you search through enough Flickr photos, you start to learn how great photos are made. The composition and editing are the artistic parts, where philosophy and style come into play. But in the numbers, you can learn a little bit about how to make cool pictures.


I Bought A Fancy Camera

People that know me know I’m a bit of a shutterbug. Always have been – ever since those cheap-o disposable cameras hit the scene. As bad as those cameras were, they were inexpensive and put a camera in my hands.

They also sparked something. It’s evident in the thousands of photos I’ve taken over the years – mostly hobbyist portraits and travelogue photo diaries. Taking photos has been a way for me to document life. I’m the guy with the camera at social functions and family gatherings and work events. I’ve taken this distinction with pride, and a grain of salt (because mostly people don’t like to have their picture taken, especially if they’re not looking directly at the camera, posing, and smiling).

Over the past few years, as I’ve learned more about photography, and especially since my last trip out West, I’ve wanted more. Or better. I’ve craved the top-notch (but still affordable) tools to take pictures, and develop it into something beyond a casual hobby. I’ve wanted to get beyond the advanced beginners stage and into the realm of know-how and expertise.

That takes time and practice, but even with a great point and shoot I feel like you can only get so far. The drawbacks of consumer cameras, issues like slow shutter speed and poor low-light shooting, provide a brick wall. To climb that, I need to use what the pros use. And learn what the pros know.

So I bought a nice camera – a Canon Rebel T1i. It’s not a high-end professional setup, but it’s a step just below the best hobbyists DSLR camera. In terms of price, features, and approachability, it was just what I needed.

And get this: thanks to Canon’s holiday season rebates and discounts, I ended up with $200 off a $210 telephoto zoom lense, a free memory card, and a free UV lense filter. It all came with the Rebel T1i, which was on sale too, and not with the T2i. With all that, I pulled the trigger on the T1i last Wednesday. It was too good of a deal not to.

Over the next month I’ll invest in some sort of fancy camera bag – because man, this stuff is delicate. It’s not like a simple point and shoot that I throw into my jacket pocket on the way out the door. This stuff takes preparation.

Also, a prime lense. Just a simple, affordable version, something to take great potrait-type shots with. The idea of the prime lense excites me because there’s no zoom. If you want a closer shot, you have to move closer. The thinking is it trains you to be a better photographer – to think in terms of composing the shot and developing an eye for a good photo.

There’s a lot to learn. But that’s always the exciting part, right?


Return to Route 66

Route 66 - wallpaper

This last trip out west brought me back to a turning point in my life. More specifically, a simple pavement-and-paint road: Route 66.

Leaving the Kaibab Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and crossing the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, I entered New Mexico by way of I-40 and Gallup. The last time I was in Gallup was four years ago on a life-changing trip across country – the first of my great big adventures.

But I didn’t enter Gallup by Interstate; that was just the destination. Instead, I drove into Gallup like I did last time – by a smaller two-lane highway coming out of Arizona. Driving down Main Street, seeing the old Sante Fe Line railroad cars, being in Gallup brought back a lot of good memories.

So I thought, “What the heck? Why not?” I decided to hit the route again for old time’s sake. The only problem was that I came unprepared. No maps, no directions, no idea where, exactly, to jump on and start driving.

That’s the thing about Route 66: there are parts that remain in a straight line, but out west the road remains broken and jumps around in fits and starts. You don’t hop on and keep riding. You have to navigate the Mother Road, crossing the interstate, zipping down frontage roads, and then watch as the “Road Ends” sign signals a change of plans.

Doing the best I could, I tried it anyway. And let me tell you, it was great.

I flicked through my iPod playlists and hit “Play” on my Route 66 Mix. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Boston’s “Foreplay Long Time,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” The Eagle’s “Take It Easy,” Chuck Berry’s version of “Route 66” – it’s hard not to get emotional when those songs start playing while I’m driving on the road they were organized for.

There was only one wrong turn the whole way from Gallup to Albuquerque. It’s like my brain snapped into place and my hands become automatic sextants, guiding the rental car down a defunct highway.

Even though, for many miles, the route runs alongside the Interstate, I found (then, as now) that the mind occupies a totally different space when driving on Route 66. On the highway, you pay attention to your destination and the car around you, speeding and passing and watching for exits. On the Route, you pay attention to the Route: the scenery, the little towns you pass, the way the road meanders around rock formations and railroad tracks. You think differently driving at 55 miles per hour.

Of course, for me, there was a lot to think about. I couldn’t help but remember what was going on with my life four years ago, and how it mirrored today. Same stress, same heartache, same need to hit the road. It was only appropriate that I returned to the road that had given me so much comfort and respite back then.

For some parts, it was like waking up out of the slumber I’ve been in – both sobering and exciting to realize that, here I was, back in the desert, on my own again. I looked out at the landscape and thought, “I’m back.”

And it was good to see sections of the Route I missed in 2006. For that section of western New Mexico, I had traveled a lot of path in the dark. I remember pulling out of Albuquerque at sunset, sneaking into the Acoma Pueblo at twighlight (long past closing hours), and crawling into Gallup at night to sleep in my car. When it’s dark in the desert, it’s dark. So I missed large sections of the Route.

This time, it was pretty cool to see the parts I did remember again. There’s a little section an hour or two west of Albuquerque that winds through sandstone cliffs, and “Route 66” is painted on the asphalt along the way. I’d forgotten about that section of road through the years, but driving through those formations brought everything back. It could be that last time I didn’t grab a picture. This time I did:

Route 66 - Main St. of America

Most of all, it was tons of fun to drive. Changes in altitude, taking corners at 15 or 25 miles per hour – it makes steering the car along the road a true joy.

On returning to Albuquerque, I made a special point to take a snapshot of the sign I saw when I left town in 2006. It felt like Gen. MacArthur’s vow to return to the Philippines: I came into town the same way I left it:

Route 66 - A Return to Albuquerque

On the way back home, during my shotgun trip across Arizona back to Las Vegas, I picked up bits and pieces of the Route – mostly because that’s all that’s left in Arizona. There’s a long section, between Seligman and Kingman, that was my favorite driving experience the last time I was out there. Past Kingman, the Route heads toward the Black Mountains, on the border with California, and snakes through Sitgreaves Pass – practically a religious experience for a young man from mid Michigan.

So I went back to that place. It’s a 10 minute drive outside of Kingman to the entrance of the Pass, and last time those mountains loomed at me. I remember my palms sweating, getting nervous, for no good reason except I felt something ominous about those mountains. Turns out I was right, because a winding, narrow, sheer-cliffed road facing the setting sun in a desolate landscape will put the fear of God into you. That road changes things. It broadens your horizons, and teaches you a bit about the unpredictable nature of the world. Plus it’s a pretty fun drive.

Last time, I came down the other side of those mountains – changed, sweating – and pulled over in Oatman just to get my bearings. A pair of the locals, probably feeling sorry for me, invited me to dinner and told me about guys who sat at the entrance of the pass and got paid to drive out-of-towners through Sitgreaves. Many who didn’t have help died falling down those rocky cliffs.

Route 66 - Sitgraves Pass

This time, it was nice just to see it again, and remember the dread I felt approaching that mountain pass as the sun was setting in May 2006. I only went part-way up because I had a plane to catch, but I came back down with some new resolutions and fond memories of my younger self. It was worth the return trip.

Plus, while in Albuquerque, I took a day’s drive up to Sante Fe and caught an old section of the Route, dating from 1938, that I didn’t catch last time. The Route changed, and straightened, to include Albuquerque after 1939. What I did see in Sante Fe wasn’t all that impressive, though – mainly a long commercial section with three lanes each way and many, many stoplights. Really, I was glad to be done with it when I hopped back on south-bound I-25.

But no matter where I was, the world changed on Route 66. It could be part sentimentality and part psychological need, but my heart needed a little trip down one of the best memories of my life. A return voyage to a great adventure, if only in small sections.


Charting the Frozen Continent

Boing Boing special feature: Charting the Frozen Continent:

This year, Morin and his crew were preparing to camp in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleysóa place that serves as an analog for Mars on Earth. As the name implies, there’s little snow in the dry valleys. There’s also very little life, just cyanobacteria and the occasional seal that wandered in and died.

We all have a mental image of what Antarctica must be like (maybe from “The Thing”), but it’s more diverse than most imagine.

Call it a mental exercise, but lately I wonder what other parts of the Earth look like. These images from Boing Boing help paint a more detailed picture of Antartica’s landscape – and help dispel any continental stereotypes we have.

Part of the pleasures of travel is that, when someone mentions a place you’ve been, you can retrieve a reliable picture of it in your brain. Tell me about Arizona, for instance, and I can pull up a few images: broken Route 66 running parallel to the interstate, alpine Flagstaff and its snowy ridges, the Black Mountains and the doom they inspired. It’s all in my head because I’ve been there.

But there are far more places I haven’t been than have. It’s a logistical fact of life that, unless you’re some modern-day Magellan, a trip around the world is impractical. We do the best we can to get out and see the world.

So what does Siberia look like? Or inland China? Or the Eastern coast of Africa? How about those islands smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic? Or the herding plains of Argentina?

That’s why I can get lost in a map. It’s so easy to spend time imagining what those topographical grooves look like in real life, or what high-tailing down this or that highway would feel. Dots connecting to dots, with so much along the way – what is life like from point to point? What is there to see? Is it worth the trip.

Photo journeys like the brief one at Boing Boing help ease the craving for more landscapes. I’ll never see the majority of the Earth, but any little bit I can gather is worth it.