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Odds & Ends

My recent series on my “evolution” got me thinking a little more about “gear.” I have done this before, in perhaps a different way.

Sirui 3023 carbon fiber tripod

As photographers, we spend a fair amount of time on art and a fair amount of time on gear. But the gear tends to be heavily stilted toward cameras and sensors. And there certainly has been no shortage of new developments in camera and sensor technology to discuss. But there are some other “odds and ends” which I think are pretty essential toward our craft. There is a lot of shooting that I do these days with just a camera in hand – and in the end – that is the essence of photography: making images with a camera. But whenever possible, I use aids to assist in the craft. One item I have been pedantic about over the years has been tripods. I try to shoot from one when circumstances allow – or demand.

Surui 3021

Surui 3021 small tripod

I have two tripods I regularly use these days. The primary tripod is a medium large, carbon fiber tripod. I use a Sirui 3023, but there are many affordable and similar models available. I also use a very small (also Sirui – 3021)) tripod, which works not only wonderfully well for travel and for my very small Sony RX100-4 camera, but also for the larger gear, in a pinch (especially during travel). The beauty of the small tripod is that it folds to around 12 inches, and is very light, while still being reasonably stiff. It can require some bracing technique though, particularly with heavier equipment mounted. There are other, more affordable small setups (notably the MeFoto aluminum model, which is slightly larger, heavier, and pound for pound, not a rigid a base as my carbon fiber setup). Here are some of the items I consider essential aids to shooting from a tripod.

Heads

As I noted recently, the tripod head de-rigueur, for many years now, is the ball head. Again there are various models of ball head available. The heads were popularized by action shooters, as it is much easier to move the camera around to stay with any moving target. The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image. Generally, it is a function of the size of the ball, and the construction of the clamping mechanism. The larger the ball, generally, the more rigid and stable the operation. Particularly if you are shooting large bodies/lens combinations, if you don’t use a fairly large ball, you will experience “creep,” which makes it difficult to compose a still scene in which you are being picky about composition. I learned I had to almost anticipate that it would creep downward a bit and tighten the ball head above where I wanted it to end up. My former, Induro tripod had a very large ball and it worked better. But none of them – in my view – work as precisely and surely as the old 3-way heads.

The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image

Even better, is a “geared” 3-way head, which essentially allows micro-adjustment in each direction. The problem has been – until recently, the available solutions were limited. Bogen/Manfrotto has made a nice, lightweight geared head – the Manfrotto 405. There are two major problems with it for me. First, it costs about $560 dollars. That is a budget issue. Second, and the real deal-buster, is that it has the clunky and insecure (in my opinion) Manfrotto quick-release system cast onto the head. For the more budget conscious, they do also offer the “Jr” model, (the 410) at $299 – but still with the QR system. I couldn’t make that work for me.

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

To solve the QR issue, I could have purchased the very nice, well-built and sturdy Arca-Swiss geared head, with the dovetail QR system I prefer. Now we are in a range from about $1,500 to $850! Still couldn’t justify that cost. I have been perplexed for some time why other manufacturers haven’t produced a dovetail QR system geared head. Finally, in 2018, Benro introduced a 3-way geared head, at a comparatively reasonable, $200. After some research, I bought one. While I haven’t thoroughly field tested it yet, I have it on my large Sirui legs, and have used it enough to know it is what I had been waiting for. To each his own, but for landscape and architectural shooting, this is really a winner for me. I kept the Sirui Ball Head in the bag in case I wanted it for some action shooting – but not really being my shooting style, I doubt it will see much use. For portability, I will keep the ball head on the small legs and live with it for travel.

L-Brackets

The L-Bracket is an ingenious contraption that has become – for me – an indispensable item. It replaces the dovetail plate on all my cameras. The design is such that you can remove the camera from the tripod, rotate it 90 degrees, and re-attach it, keeping the image plane on the same axis. It makes shifting from landscape to portrait mode for the same scene very easy, with no adjustment necessary to the horizontal axis. I do that a lot, and wondered, after finally obtaining one, why I didn’t do so much sooner.

Dovetail L-Bracket

Like any equipment item, there are certainly disadvantages to L-Brackets. They add some bulk and weight to the outfit. These days, however, the extruded and cast aluminum and magnesium manufacturing and engineering processes have allowed for some very small and light pieces. I have a bracket on my Sony 7r that is barely noticeable.

Another major drawback to these brackets is that they tend to be expensive. They were, at first, produced as specialty items by companies like Kirk and Really Right Stuff. Both companies are small, U.S. based companies, and their costs – as well as the R&D for these items make them an expensive choice. Also, the majority of them are camera-specific, meaning each new body design begets another needed re-tooling and design of the brackets. Of course, this also means you have to add the cost of acquisition of one of these, each time you change camera bodies. And, for effective use, you really need to have one attached to each camera you carry. There are some universal brackets on the market, but in my experience (I have tried them) they are ineffective because they allow the camera to turn. An effective bracket must be physically married to the body in a way that it seems integral and doesn’t allow for even a fraction of movement.

All said and done, an L-bracket is an item I wouldn’t be without

Competition (and perhaps either the expiration of – or bypassing by unique design – of patents) means that today, there are dozens of these items available by different sellers (a quick Amazon search produced at least 20 pages of them there). While you have to do your research, many – if not most – of them are well made, lightweight, and much more reasonably priced. I have used the Sunway brand (I am sure, just an import name for a bracket line that is manufactured for many other sellers – most likely in China) and found them to be very good, effective and reasonably priced, for the most part. All said and done, this is an item I wouldn’t be without.

Level

I began photography in 1976-77. For the next approximately 30 years, I shot landscape images and more often than not, as time went on, did so from a tripod. And my eye for level was pretty good. At least that’s what I thought. :-). Here is the reality. They weren’t, and nobody else’s are either! Our eyes-brain interaction compensates for so much. It tells us what a level horizon in our view is. But the camera is mechanical. And because our eyes are so good, we trick ourselves into thinking our camera is level. Just look at the millions of “sunset” (very few “sunrise” 🙂 ) images over water on Facebook and Instagram that have tilted horizons. See, The world is not Flat.

Hotshoe Bubble Level

My good friend and gifted photographer, Al Utzig, in critique of some of my images a few years back, remarked that a few of my horizons were not level. I was inclined to disagree, but there are some mechanical tests that are brutally honest. I opened a couple of them in Photoshop and pulled a horizontal “guide” down to the horizon. Damn! Al was right (and not for the first time 🙂 ).

Before electronics became common in cameras, it was possible to change out the screen in the viewfinder of many of the higher-end cameras. I put an “architectural” screen in one of my cameras (cannot remember which one, but probably the N90s). It had horizontal and vertical lines etched onto it. When electronics did become common, “turning” these on became possible as an option – one I highly recommend for a number of reasons. But even with these aids, I frequently missed the boat with level horizons., more commonly with handheld images, but sometimes even with a tripod-mounted camera.  It was usually minuscule, but again, our eyes are good enough to sense something being not quite right about the image. The experienced eye recognizes it quickly as a tilted-horizon. Even with guidelines, it is possible for our own eyes to fool us.

3-axis Bubble Level

Shortly after our conversation, Al and I were shooting together, and he showed me an inexpensive little item that he religiously uses, and suggested I set up an image with my eyes and then we put it on my camera. It was a hotshoe-mounted bubble level. We did, and my eyes were wrong. The level is never wrong (assuming it has been manufactured to tight quality control). These plast gizmos should seem familiar to anyone who has ever used a carpenter’s level. The range in cost between about $4.00 and $15.00. My experience is that you may want to skip the $4.00 models, as they are often not manufactured to quality specs and may not – themselves – be level. Your mileage may vary. When I have purchased them, I have put them on a tripod on a level surface and actually done comparative testing with a carpenter’s level.

The level is never wrong

The two models pictured here are the most common. I have both. I prefer the cube myself, for a couple reasons. It is slightly bigger and harder to lose (they are easy to lose and having an extra is a good idea). I also like the way it reads and looks. All wildly subjective and aesthetic considerations. But here is a key point. These are known as 3-axis levels. Do not rely on the spirit level that it often part of modern tripod legs. While the might be helpful for setting up, they are essentially useless for the purposes here. There is a spirit level available, also, that mounts in the camera hotshoe. Again, in my opinion, do not waste the money.

Compass

While a compass is not an item one would think of as a photographic accessory, it is a very useful item. I always carry one in the field. As a one-time mentor said to me once, “the compass doesn’t lie” (though it can “fib” if you aren’t careful about how you use it. Because they are driven by the earth’s magnetic pull, you must be careful not to use it very near any magnets, or ferrous material). I use a software program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to do my pre-scouting and research. This mapping program gives an overlay of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset angles on the scene. When you arrive, it becomes pretty important to know at least the cardinal points (North, East, South and West) that the compass reading will give you. They are small, cheap, and an essential “carry” item.

Filters

There is a school of thought that after having spent $$$$ on expensive glass, you need to protect the front element by having a filter on the front of it. The most commonly used filter for this purpose is a UV or “Skylight” filter. Historically, these filters were designed to reduce the amount of ultra-violet light, rendering possibly better colors. Over the years, lens technology has included multi-coatings which integrally accomplish this purpose.

There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school. My gestalt view is that I never put anything in front of my expensive glass without a specific purpose. There are, of course some very good reasons. When I am around salt water and salt spray, I tend to have something on to protect my lens. If I am trying to achieve a particular effect, I use a filter. Usually, there are only two reasons I ever use a filter, and only two filters I use: a Polarizing Filter and a Neutral Density Filter.

I learned the virtue of a polarizing filter early on, probably because I had one and was able to play around with it. Polarizers mainly reduce “glare,” which is caused mostly by bright, blue light. Blue light rays are short and therefore often scattered. It is this scattering and omni-directional quality of the light that produces glare, and reduces the clarity of the image being captured. The polarizing effect creates a linear filter which only allows blue rays which are parallel to the filter to enter the lens.

There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school

There are some drawbacks to this filter, of course. The polarizer must be manipulated mechanically, by physically rotating it. This may be difficult in a handheld situation, and virtually impossible for “action” subjects. By its nature, it also reduces the light entering the lens, causing you to lose 1 to 2 effective stops of light. In tricky lighting conditions, this can be a handicap. However, with modern sensor technology, it is much easier to override this issue by bumping the ISO up with little penalty than it was back in my Kodachrome/25 ISO/ film days.

Another drawback is that they tend to be expensive. This is partly because of the technology needed to do them right. First, it requires dual rings in order allow the rotation. This can create a vignetting problem with wider angle lenses, and I always have purchased the thin ones, which are more expensive to manufacture. They also can create unnatural color casts, and the truly “neutral” polarizers just tend to be more costly.

To add to the issues, when auto-focus became more or less “the norm,” standard straight line polarizers interfered with the AF mechanism on most DSLR cameras, so circular polarizers, which were much more expensive, had to be purchased. The AF technology on the mirrorless cameras is different, and isn’t bothered by polarizers, and it was nice to be able to reduce my out-of-pocket for them once I shifted to my Sony mirrorless system. At the same time, some of this may be becoming moot. I shot with a polarizer on every lens probably 80% of the time for many years. However, with the software available today for post-processing, I use them significantly less than I did.

Neutral density filters are something I very seldom use, but almost always have with me. I generally use them in situations where I have too much light and am trying for a longer exposure – most notably water, and waterfalls. I use the square ones designed for a holder, and generally hand-hold them. There was a day when we used split-neutral density filters to try to bring high contrast scenes under control. The best example was a landscape in early light, where there was a bright sky, but shadows in the foreground. There was a line (it could be hard, or a gradient) halfway up the filter, with 1/2 being the ND filter and the other being clear. Because nature is rarely in perfectly straight lines, I found I had very little success with this technique, and once I learned how to blend images in Photoshop, stopped trying altogether.

Remotes

Popular wisdom has always had it that if you are going to go to the trouble of mounting your camera on a stock-still tripod, you should trip the shutter remotely. The theory is to avoid camera shake caused by our touching it. In fact there are many variables at play. There are times (e.g., a very windy day) when we must touch the tripod to brace it. Other times, I will admit to laziness, and have often triggered my camera with my hand resting on the tripod. Except in touchy situations such as, perhaps, a macro shot, I am not sure that – once everything is at rest – it truly makes that much difference.  Though generally, it is good advice, many shooters live life happily never having owned one.

There are various methods, from a mechanical cable release, to wireless, to using the self-timer on the camera. I don’t care for this latter method, mainly because of the degree of control you give up over the precise moment you want to trip the shutter. Most pre-electronic cameras had a mechanical, plunger wire type cable which screwed into the release on the camera, or around the housing of the release. Even my vintage Ashahiflex had one. Electronics in cameras, and particularly AF, changed all that. On most modern cameras, one or more electronic functions are actuated by a partial press of the release. This meant we had to go to electronic cable releases. Another cost, and something to screw into the camera body somewhere. I had the MC 30 release for my Nikons and they are still $65.00 at B&H. Of course, they were proprietary, though fortunately, the MC30 worked on all my cameras from the N6006 through the F800.

MC-30 remote

As great as their cameras are, Sony lags behind Nikon and Canon on accessories (especially flash). They just don’t have any elegant remote cable solution.  At some point, cameras began to be able to be remotely triggered wirelessly. Unfortunately, the built-in systems are just not very good. The wireless signal is not particularly strong and is very directional, meaning that you normally have to hold the wireless trigger close to either the front or back of the camera. In short, I have found wireless cables frustrating, and that wired cables interfere with my L-bracket. Plus, I like the idea of wondering away from the setup at times, while shooting.

Wireless remote

Having an affinity for gadgets, I recently purchased a Pixel Pro wireless remote apparatus that I am really enjoying. Part of what drove me to it was my flash setup. I needed to be able to trigger the camera and a flash setup with multiple flashes, and wanted to do it at night. The existing remotes weren’t up to the task. This unit only triggers the camera, but that sets the whole chain-reaction moving. This unit works even when I am a substantial distance away from the camera.

There is a downside, of course. It takes more batteries, more setup, and a learning curve to make sure everything will be working as expected when you are in the shooting situation. They work on channels and it is pretty important to make sure the sender and receiver are “married” at the same channel. And its just more moving parts to cart around. I will probably continue to play with it. But it may be more trouble than its worth. I will need to keep the focus on making good images and not having cool equipment.

Flash

My Asahiflex outfit had a large, bowl-shaped reflector which attached to a bakelite housing (holding 2 D cell batteries), which in turn attached to the side of the camera. When attached and turned on, triggering the shutter would also ignite a flash bulb. Some of us are old enough to have grown up with incandescent light bulbs and have experienced the pop when we turn on the light, and it burns out. Flash bulbs were light bulbs designed to do just that and to emit a certain color and intensity of light when they did. They were, unfortunately, one-time use, and relatively costly. They were also very hot to handle immediately after use. For those reasons, I seldom used flash.

Nikon SB600 Speedlight

In the ensuing years, electronic flash units became widely available, and were much easier (and perhaps safer) to use.  They are generally referred to as “Speedlights.” They only expended batteries. They were, in most cases, at least partially adjustable. And as camera manufacturers became more advanced, the electronics in the cameras controlled the flash, with properly dedicated units. None was better than Nikon, and it was pretty easy to set things more or less automatic and let the Nikon system do the work. Nikon’s TTL (“through-the-lens”) worked by reading the light measured at the film surface.

I have always thought and said that digital changed everything for the better. Well, it was not really everything. Digital really messed up electronic flash for a period. It could no longer read the light off the film plane and, at least in the beginning, unable to read it correctly off the sensor. Eventually, it has been resolved and, true to its reputation, Nikon probably did it best first. Today, they have their i-TTL system. The drawback is that it only really works well with certain newer cameras and flash units. And they are relatively expensive. The SB600 (guide number of 98/30) was $350. The SB600 is now discontinued, but it can be found used for around $100, which is a bargain. The upgraded model is the SB700 and is about $330. I am not sure it is worth buying against the 1/3 of the cost, used 600. It has a slightly higher guide number, slightly faster recycle, and built-in remote control (for what its worth, I have a third-party setup for this that works pretty well, on virtually any flash – more below). The SB600 worked perfectly well for my purposes, and I found it basically as good as I had experienced with my film based system. The SB800, was larger and over $500 new. It was eventually upgraded (replaced) by the SB900, which was upgraded to the SB910. All of these are now discontinued but can be found used at some pretty good bargains. The current big flash is the SB5000, at $600. Too rich for my blood. Again, these are tools, and if you make a living with flash, the $600 may well be worth it.

Nobody has really made a third-party flash that works as well as Nikon’s own system for Nikon. Once again, my switch to Sony threw me out of the “good flash” loop again. I have been a rare user of flash over the years. I have always carried a speedlight in the field when on a dedicated photography excursion. I have mostly done so because I will occasionally find a scene I wish to photograph where there are some deep shadows in daylight conditions. I use the flash to “fill” those shadows without blowing out the brighter parts of an image. Occasionally, I will use it for portraits in very sunny conditions, but I don’t do much with those. Part of the reason is that without a really good automatic system, proper use and understanding of flash involves math. “I was told there would be no math.” The very thought of math makes me quake with fear. I am one of those persons who cannot add double digit numbers without a calculator. :-).

Godox TT685 – Sony-dedicated Speedlight

Sony offers 6 dedicated flash units. One of them is small enough that I don’t consider it useful. One, the F60m, is still on Sony’s website, but it appears to be discontinued, as I only find it used on site like B&H. With a guide number of 60, it would work for me, but is a bit on the low power size for its $300 price tag. It also is reputed to have overheating issues, which shuts it down, apparently even during moderate use. The other 4 units range from $300 – $600. Sony also seems to have had some disorientation when it comes to their electronic shoe system. This means there are compatibility issues, and a given flash may only fit a given range of cameras – at least without an adaptor (another item, another cost). And none of them, frankly, are close to as good, or as turn-key, as the Nikon system.

Voking Speedlight

My current solution has been to buy a book, and try to learn the basic math (ugh), and go with third-party units. I bought a Godox (made in China and found and purchased on Amazon) unite compatible with my Sony A7. It has enough “automatic” features to work for my needs. I also wanted to experiment with multiple lighting and some night shooting, along with the ability to trigger the flash independently. So I later purchased a second, manual Voking branded light and a Godox TTL wireless flash trigger. Total cost to me for all of this stuff was under $200. The downside is it is more gear to lug, and more learning curve and setup and practice prior to going into the field.

Odds & Ends

It seems suitable to end with a connection to the blog title. There are a few items I keep in my bag, which (depending on the nature of the trip), I try to always consider:

  • Extra batteries and a couple chargers (you never know when one might fail)
  • Extra memory cards
  • Flashlight (and batteries) – (I also carry a headlamp with a red option, as red supposedly messes less with our night vision)
  • Proper clothing – especially rain gear (and covers for the camera and lens)
  • Towels and garbage bags (an assortment of large and small towels and large and kitchen size bags will be of great assistance in wet conditions)
  • Tools (small [jewelers] and medium phillips and regular screwdrivers, allen key/wrenches, small adjustable wrench, electrical and duct tape)
  • I keep a small spiral notebook and pen with me
  • First Aid Kit

 

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Part V; Fundamental Changes

As I write this, it is amazing to me that I have been shooting with my current Sony system now for 10 years! It seems like only yesterday that I made the momentous complete switch to a new system and brand.

Fundamental Changes – 2007 to Today

Cameras.        During the foregoing time period, I owned a handful of small, “Point & Shoot” digital cameras. At first, it was the only affordable alternative, and for some of our personal use (travel, family events, etc.) was convenient to be able to shoot digitally, and then upload, send, and post images. We started with a Canon < 2megapixel model we ordered on QVC. It didn’t have a viewfinder and I always found that awkward. We used it some, but it wasn’t my personal cup of tea. Not sure what ever happened to it.

Nikon Coolpix 5000

  • Nikon Coolpix E5000.  In 2001, I purchased a Nikon model that was more suited to my liking, the Nikon Coolpix E5000. With a 5 megapixel sensor, a 28-85mm equivalent lens, a viewfinder, and raw capability, I was able to do a lot of what I was trying to do with digital capture. And, as you can see from the image although it was smaller than an SLR body, it was substantial, and had somewhat familiar controls for a Nikon SLR-user. All non-DSLR digital cameras back then had an unfortunate “lag” from the time you depressed the shutter and the actual capture. This was frustrating, though I did learn to capture action by using the burst mode and starting before I thought it would happen and continuing until after. With a very small sensor, there were also some limits to the image quality, and significant noise in low light conditions or high ISO images. I traded this one in when I bought the D100 DSLR.
  • Canon G12.  During the time I was shooting DSLR equipment, I wanted a small camera for convenience, daily carry, and travel. But I was only interested in one that would meet certain demanding standards: namely, high image quality files and raw capture/save capability. My research indicated that in the point and shoot line, the one camera that continued to stand out was the Canon G series. In 2012, I purchased a 10 megapixel G12, and shot that for a number of years. But as the DSLR lineup – and my personal ability to own them – got better, the point and shoot cameras were relegated to only occasional use. What they did have was the convenience of small size. The G-series were truly pocketable cameras. And that, we will see, drove my next phase of gear in a huge way.Both the Coolpix and the G12 had electronic viewfinders. Unlike the old 35mm viewfinder cameras that folks like Alfred Steiglitz made famous, the electronic viewfinders were electronically “linked” to the lens, so that it mimicked the look of an SLR “through-the-lens” viewfinder. Sort of. The were grainy, black-and white-ish, and not really a great representation of the scene. But the still beat – in my view – the LCD screens on the backs of consumer point and shoot cameras (a feature that these days comes on all cameras, including DSLRs). They weren’t great and they didn’t give the user experience the DSLR did. But technology marches on.

Canon G12

  • Sony NEX-6 – The Segue.     By 2013, we had begun to do a fair amount of travel. When it was a “dedicated” photo trip, lugging a bunch of gear seemed to be part of the mystique of the experience. And other items were held to the minimum necessary. It was a given that we would be checking bags. Most often those trips were with my buddy, Rich and involved just the two of us and our gear.

    Sony NEX-6

But my wife and I had also begun to take more extended trips, including some cruises, and some trips to faraway places. Sometimes it would be just us, and other times, we would join friends and/or family. Lugging photographic equipment (and even finding time to shoot in the best light) became a challenge. And even when we did travel, lugging the DSLR body and zoom lens around started to become a bit of drudgery. And because I was with a group and traveling more socially, so to speak, the shooting was less planned, the excursions less photography dedicated, and the time to focus on shooting curtailed. So I started thinking about alternatives. I needed something small, portable and relatively non-intrusive, while at the same time, rendering the image quality and giving me the setup flexibility I was used to.

I “met” pro shooter Ray Laskowitz years back on the old Nikon Professional Message board sponsored at AOL. Ray was always generous with advice, very knowledgeable about his craft and the equipment surrounding it, and very factual in his approach. We remained friends over the years, long after the AOL boards became nostalgic history. We e-mailed from time to time, and I was expressing my thinking about a “lighter” travel rig. I had “stumbled” upon the Sony NEX “mirrorless” interchangeable lens cameras, and in particular the NEX-6 and 7 models. When I raised that with Ray, he told me had had been shooting with a couple of the NEX-7 models for some time and was very impressed. He encouraged me – for numerous reasons – to give the “small camera” a try. At the time, I owned Nikon’s estimable D7000 (arguably the best and most popular APS DSLR they ever made). The image quality, even in low light situations was excellent. The APS sensor in the NEX-6 was said to be the very same sensor as the D7000 sensor (or very close). So I traded the D7000 in for a used NEX. That camera was my first introduction to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras; and to Sony. I was dually (see what I did there?) impressed. In fact, I can say it is one of the few cameras I have owned, that I truly regret not keeping. It sold me on Sony and what they were doing in the photographic world.

Japanese Maple Leaves
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The NEX-6 generally sold as a kit with a Sony 15-50mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens. It was frequently discounted by writers and critiques as not a very good quality lens. I found it to be of very good quality and very versatile. And it was small! The entire rig was reminiscent of the old viewfinder cameras. Two other things got me excited about my new find. First, the new electronic viewfinders were (are) amazing. They are full color, and it is virtually indistinguishable from looking through the through-the-lens prism viewfinders I had grown so used to. And, because they were fully electronic, they could be programmed to work in what we might call “real time.” As you change the exposure solution (shutter speed or aperture) the viewfinder can actually darken and lighten, simulating what the exposure might really look like. I have now grown so accustomed to these electronic viewfinders, that when I pick up a DSLR, it often confuses me as I make changes and nothing seems to happen. The second think was that Sony entered into a partnership with the acclaimed Zeiss Optical Company. This meant that they were manufacturing lenses with Zeiss specs, under Zeiss supervision, and also that Zeiss was manufacturing lenses that were designed to mount on Sony Cameras. The 24mm f2.8 Zeiss lens I shot on this camera had the most amazing bokeh of any lens I have ever owned. The Japanese Maple was in my front yard and I took this image with the NEX-6 – Zeiss 24mm combo shortly after rain one morning. The daylilies were also shot in my front yard with this combo. Keep in mind that on the APS sensor, the 24mm appears more like a 35mm in terms of 35mm film/sensor size.

Sony NEX-6; Sony-Zeiss 24mm f1.8 lens

  • Sony A7 ILCE.  I probably should have been satisfied with the NEX-6. But I was hung up on the thought that I “needed” so-called “full frame.” So I shot with my Nikon D800 for a while as my primary camera. Having the pro Nikkor lenses was also partly a motivator. But I remember doing some side-by-side comparison shots at one point and not being able to say the Nikkor pro lens was any better than the Zeiss. I may have had my own bias by then, but I preferred the Zeiss look. But wanting the “full frame” for image quality, I waited until Sony introduced the first “full frame” mirrorless camera, the A7. I took a leap of faith, and traded my entire bag of Nikon gear in for the A7, the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom, and the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom. The entire setup is smaller and lighter. In 20/20 hindsight, I gave up an awful lot in those two stops of aperture – not so much in versatility – but in the loss of the really nice blurred backgrounds the wider apertures provide. And in 20/20 hindsight, I was also amazed at just what great bokeh a quite wide angle lens on a much smaller sensor size produced in the APS-matched 24mm Zeiss. Those extra stops of aperture on the wide end are truly enviable. I have never been able to reproduce that with my current gear (even with a 50mm 1.8 Sony lens on the A7 – its just not Zeiss optics). I am not saying I regretted the change. I did like the smaller, lighter setup, and the A7 (now a pretty old model) is a quality piece of equipment.But my buddy, Rich, a couple years later, asked about making the same switch and I told him for our shooting styles, I wouldn’t do it again. He had an identical setup to mine at that point (a D800, the same two pro Nikkor lenses, as well as my old Tokina ATX-AF 300 f2.8 and a nice Sigma 24-70 zoom).  This reflection was particularly in light of another shooting change I made shortly after buying the A7.

Sony A7

Over time, I have come to feel that in today’s world, with my presentation needs, I really didn’t need “full frame.” And, at the same time, the quality of every part of digital technology continues to improve. But APS would have been fine, and if I could turn back time, I would have kept the NEX-6 and concentrated on lenses.

Sony RX100-iv

  • Sony RX100.    I carried the A7, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 on the next 2 or 3 major trips we took. It packs nicely as the footprint is substantially smaller than the D800 and Nikkor 24-70. It is also much lighter. But not enough that it still seemed like an anchor much of the time. I started looking at the point and shoot cameras again. And they had come a long way. by 2015, Sony was, into its 4th iteration of its RX100 camera. Measuring 4″ x 2.25″ x 1.75,” it is a truly pocketable camera. It extreme quality build gives it some heft, but it is still a far cry from the bigger cameras. It sports a Zeiss f1.8-2.8 lens with optical image stabilization and a 24-70 35mm equivalent zoom. The smallish sensor was newly designed to improve the size of the exposure surface and reduce noise. It is fully capable of raw capture, as well as pretty much everything the A7 can do.  So, 24-70. Zeiss. Raw. Less than half the size body and miniscule lens. See where I am going with this?Of course, image quality would be the biggest test. Again, I sought Ray Laskowitz’s advice. Again, perhaps not coincidentally, he laughingly told me how he had just come home the day before to find a box for him holding the RX100. He had no hesitancy about the quality issues – so of course, I bought one. And never looked back. I have an Epson inkjet professional printer capable of making gorgeous 13″ x 19″ prints (longer in landscape with roll paper). I took a similar flower image to one above, and printed it on my inkjet, side by side with a print made from an A7 “full frame” file. I couldn’t see the difference. In a few weeks, I would be making the trip of a lifetime; to Japan for my son’s wedding. We spent 3 days in Kyoto and the balance in Tokyo, and I took just the RX100 and a small tripod. During the entire week I can think of only one instance where I wish I had my longer lens. The image quality on this little camera is amazing. On family travel, I haven’t carried any other camera since, and that includes a couple trips to Europe.I am not ready to fully give up the bigger gear, and still carry and use it on dedicated photo outings. So, you will see here and on my SmugMug site, that my primary camera is the A7, with the RX100 as my backup/travel camera. It has made my luggage needs much smaller and lighter. And, if the economics supported it, I wouldn’t hesitate to move to the NEX-6 or equivalent, along with some of the lenses, as my primary camera. My buddy, Rich did exactly that last year.

Lenses.  Lenses and size drove my current equipment lineup.  Though I have had the good fortune to have a couple really nice lenses in the lineup over the years, until I finally moved up to the Nikkor “pro” zooms, lenses had always been a bit of a compromise in my bag. The closest I came was probably the Tokina 300mm f2.8, which was arguably as good as the Nikkor equivalent. Piece for piece, high quality optics are the most expensive component of the system. And the larger the medium, the more costly it is to produce high quality optics with wide apertures. It is more difficult and expensive to produce a 35mm lens than the equivalent Point & Shoot size or even the equivalent APS size.

That all changed with the NEX-6. I had read and heard about two legendary optics: Leica and Zeiss. I wasn’t necessarily a believer. But I was able to purchase the 24mm Zeiss lens used for a pretty good price and after some research, wanted to give it a try. Even on the smaller sensor, it is/was amazing. I can say without a doubt that it was my favorite of any lens I have ever owned. It got lots of use, along with the 15-50 “kit” lens. Sadly, I no longer have it.

Sigma made a couple lenses for the Sony E-mount (the NEX mounting system) that were really inexpensive and some of the sharpest lenses ever made. At one time, B&H had a BOGO deal on the two of them – a 30mm f2.8 and a 19mm f2.8 and I picked them both up for $199. Needless to say, I had some fun shooting with the NEX-6 lens combinations.

When I bought the A7, I traded the Nikkor gear. I matched up as close as I could at that time, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 and the Sony 70-200. In terms of build quality, They are both as nice as any Nikon I ever owned. They both AF quickly and quietly. They are marginally smaller than the Nikkors. But they are also 2 stops slower which helps account for the size. As small and compact as the A7 body seems, the good lenses are all disappointingly large and heavy. For working photography, I have liked them fine and believe they render good, sharp images.

One of the “draws” of the Sony camera was the fact that Zeiss has a continued comittment to make their own proprietary lenses in the Sony mount (E for APS and EE for “full frame). There are a couple Zeiss lenses out there that I might like to own some day. But I just paid off all my mortgages and car loans, and am not sure I want to mortgage the house. As was historically the case, the Zeiss lenses are expensive! Time will tell.

I did purchase – more recently – two lenses. Each had a specific purpose. The first was a Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. It is fully mechanical and was purchased primarily to engage in some night time photography – particularly of stars and the Milky Way. I have not really dedicated the time and effort to that yet, but it is on my “to do” list.

The second, was the Sony 50mm f1.8 lens. That was done specifically to try to achieve some of the bokeh effect I had been able to create with some of my prior gear. Again that one needs some sorting out and use. Stay tuned on that one.

Medium.  This is an area where nothing really changed. Digital is obviously here to stay, and the change will come in capture technology and quality. Today, we are seeing iPhone images that probably weren’t possible with my D100. That is technology. That is good, in my view.

Doodads. The same factors that influence my gear changes effected this area. I happily shot with the Induro Carbon Fiber tripod for a few years. It was very rigid, light, and easy to use. My body height needed that length it offered. But it was really a bit of a travel hassle. Even in my checked bag, It would only fit with the head removed (not a huge deal). But for the type of travel I was becoming accustomed to, it was just too bulky. And with the RX100, it was massive overkill. With a smaller camera, in general, I was able to get by with a smaller tripod. And there were times and places I just could not go with the big legs.

Around 2010 – 2011, I began searching for a very small tripod that I could use in a pinch on any of my equipment. I ultimately found a carbon fiber legset with a very small ball head and a reasonable price tag. For a short time, I used an aluminum tripod from a company (owned by Induro) called MeFoto. It was – ironically – slightly larger than the carbon fiber model I now have – and not quite firm enough to do the job. I ultimately gave this to my daughter.  The model I purchased is the Sirui T-025. It is perfect for the RX100, and I have used it on a rig as big as my Nikon D700 full DSLR with a fairly heavy 28-300 lens, to shoot the San Francisco skyline on a windy night on Alcatraz (sounds like a song). The link is to my 2012 blog describing this great little tool. The folded length of this little ultralight gem is under 12 inches. Of course it is not going to extend up to my full 6’1″ of height. Life has its compromises. 🙂

Years back my decision was Bogen vs. Gitzo. Today there are 100’s of brands of carbon fiber tripods available and many of them are quality-built at reasonable prices. I was impress with the build and price point of the Sirui equipment, and so, in 2014, purchased a larger Sirui to replace the Induro. I was looking for a smaller folded size and was able to move to a slighlty smaller and lighter build model, because of the size and weight of equipment I was supporting. Many of these new tripod have a design in which the legs fold back over the main part of the tripod, making their folded height smaller. My regular tripod is the Sirui M3204X. There are 4 leg sections, which does compromise the stiffness a bit (though I often only use part of the lowest section). But it also makes for a shorter folded length. With the same folding design as my smaller model, this one is under 21 inches (with the ballhead attached). I changed my head recently, which may require removal for packing, but the 21 inch tripod legs will actually fit in a carry on bag (though I am not necessarily likely to do that). If you can sense a pattern here, I am trying to go smaller whenever possible.

Bogen Tripod with 3-way head

My first Bogen tripod had a 3-way adjusting head on it. Until ballheads became popular, that was the common configuration. That head itself weighed more than my bigger Sirui tripod. With long handles for adjustment, it was cumbersome, and of course it sported that clunky Bogen quick-release setup. The primary reason I moved to ball heads was to acquire the dovetail quick release system. But I always missed the 3 way head. For my kind of shooting, when I am using a tripod, I am almost always shooting stills. I usually have plenty of time to make adjustments. The ballheads have two drawbacks that annoyed and occasionally frustrated me. First, any vertical and horizontal adjustments were made completely by hand. There is no indexing mechanism and it can be difficult to make very small adjustments. Second, unless it was a fairly large and very well constructed head, ballheads are susceptible to “ball drop.” In the best case, it meant you would work hard to get your composition, tighten it down, and it would still move a fraction – especially with a heavy lens. In the worst case, if you didn’t get it tightened down, the entire lens could slam down against a leg (of course, possible with a 3 way also – but less likely in my experience).

Ball Head with Arca Swiss type QR

Three way heads are much more positive. This is especially true with geared heads. I have always coveted a geared head. But until very recently there were two alternatives. One was ungodly expensive (Arca Swiss manufactured – $1,100 to 1,500), or Manfrotto (Bogen) with its quirky QR mechanism. The only way I could see around that was to “Rube Goldberg” a dovetail mount on a Manfrotto, and I wasn’t really ready to try that. Too bad, because the Manfrotto Jr. model looks very well built and comes quite reasonable (the Manfrotto is about #450.00 and the Jr. about $200). I find it surprising that it took this long to see an Arca Swiss mount geared head come on the market. But over that last year or so the Benro company (same parent company as Induro/MeFoto), finally release a very nice, cast magnesium, dovetail mount 3-way geared head at a $200 price point. Of course, I now have one :-).

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

Finally, in the past couple years, I have been fiddling with electronics (Flash/controllers/remote controllers)

 

In Search of “Tripod Holes”

The Colosseum is one of Rome’s “postcard” images. It is very difficult to get without crowds and often repair/construction scaffolding.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

Ray Laskowitz’s comment on my recent post inspired me to think (and write) about this. His “been there, done that,” observation is insightful (as always).

This is probably my favorite shot in Rome. I turned away from the crowds and made “my own” image.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

In the 1980’s and most of the ‘90’s, photography was a very different world. There were – seemingly – two different photographer groups out there: The serious (including pro) shooters with “sophisticated” equipment, training and experience, and “point & shoot” camera-toting tourists (not meant in a pejorative sense).

This is my hands on favorite shot in Venice. The “postcard” image would include The Grand Canal and perhaps the Ponte Rialto, where the crowds can be unbearable. This one was made early in the morning, on a back canal.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

We used film. The point & shooters used color negative film and had prints made at the local drugstore. The serious shooters used a variety, including black and white, and color slides. Most of us had our developing done by either a local or mail-order photo processor. The serious among us worked hard for our images, scouting and studying locations and other photographs we saw. But there weren’t very many of us, and except for the very most popular sites, it was pretty normal to either have it to yourself or only be sharing with one or two other shooters on any given day.

Differing accounts put the number of “smartphones” in the world in use at between 2.5 and 3 billion. Billion!

And then came digital (of course, like all short writings, this is a bit of an oversimplification. But in general, I think these are valid observations). I have been as enthusiastic a cheerleader as anyone about the “digital photography revolution.” It has certainly made making images and showing them more convenient for me. And the “digital darkroom” has opened doors for me that I either couldn’t have opened, or at least not very easily.

The Golden Gate, of course, is the big bridge in San Francisco, and is perhaps the most famous and photographed bridge in the U.S. And, it is not too difficult to catch, since there are multiple perspectives to shoot it from. But “my” image is this one – The “Bay Bridge,” taken at first light, from the Embarcadero. I was there all alone.
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

But technology, we continue to learn, often comes at a cost. Differing accounts put the number of “smartphones” in the world in use at between 2.5 and 3 billion. Billion.

One approach I have always advocated is to get up close and look for a more intimate image. This – if you can do it – excludes crowds and other shooters, and is likely going to be “your own” take on a scene.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

Compare that with about 5 million in 2000 (my research may be a bit questionable. I had a hard time finding this information, but this was from a site that gave numbers of shipments of digital still cameras during the years 1999- 2018. Presumably, this would include DSLR cameras).

With the right foreground, a sunset or sunrise can always add mood to an image. This is an example of a shot where nobody goes – but I did 🙂
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Incorporate 3 billion smartphone users (they all have cameras, and so virtually all smartphone users have now replaced the “point & shooters” noted earlier), with the combustive growth of digital media and you have a true explosion of the conditions I mentioned in the early paragraphs of this blog. As I noted in the last blog, it is difficult for me to illustrate the difference between a small crowd of shooters in 2013 and absolute mob scene we encountered in 2017.

Honeymoon Island is a popular beach, but certainly not an “iconic” photo opportunity. But it IS a good photo opportunity for those famous Florida Gulf sunsets. The unrequested “pose” made this image a “keeper” for me
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

So what do we, as photographers, do now? I am as much a fan of the “postcard” iconic image as the next guy. Indeed, in an earlier phase of my photographic quest, I sought primarily those images. Even though somebody had already done it, I wanted to have “my own.” No apology for that.

I worked to get this “already done” image, even doing a bit of “photoshopping” to get it the way I wanted it.
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

However, there are some palpable certainties that come with the “new age” of digital and smartphones. One is that the opportunities to make these “postcard” images have gotten much, much more difficult. You will have to plan to be present at odd times (which can be difficult for a traveler that is not staying in a destination). You may have to fight the crowds, and thus, change the physical perspective of your images.

I have never been to the Jenne Farm, which is the most photographed barn in New England, but have heard the stories of having to “fight” for tripod position even before sunrise. Instead, my single favorite Vermont Barn scene is this one, which I learned about from a friend. There are not very many shots of it out there (yet).
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

And in the end, Ray is right. We need to get away from the crowds and the icons; away from the “tripod holes” already made by others. I have known it for some time, and my own shooting has (glacially, I admit) evolved in that direction. These days, I look for my own images of the place (those are much more, “my own” than a copy of the postcard shot). And many times those images are away from the crowds, or at the edges of the crowds. My best imagery seems to come when I can spend some time in a location and get out very early or be out late, when the tourists are in bed or in the bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, because of our chosen method of travel, which often puts us into places during mid-day. Even so, I have found images when I have been looking for them.

When Enough is Enough

Church in the center of Amalfi. When we visited this in 2013, there were very few people. In 2017, the crowd in front of the steps (mostly hidden from view) is 3 to 4 times as many people as are on the steps.
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

Those (very few) who follow this blog have probably noticed that I haven’t been here lately. It has been a combination of things. I have been largely consumed for the past few months – transitioning to full-time retirement. With retirement came a permanent move from Michigan to Florida, and the days have recently been fully engaged with that process. At the same time, these events have conspired to keep me anywhere but behind the lens, or traveling. That will soon change. I have lots of new places to explore and photograph, and some trips on the horizon.

I thought it was time to jump back in here (or at least wade into the shallow end). I often look at other sites on the web for inspiration, information and ideas. A recent news item intrigued me. There is apparently a very small, very quaint and very photogenic street in Paris, where the residents have had enough. I am not going to name it, or link to it. The article notes that “accounts show pictures and videos of dance troupes, fashion shoots, music video crews, endless selfie takers and photographers using the street as though it were a public studio.” the residents have petitioned local government to close of the street and ban such activities during evenings and weekends, so that they can enjoy the very reason they live there.

Church in Amalfi
Copyright Andy Richards 2013
I could not get this same perspective in 2017 because I would have had to wade into a crowd of 100’s of people and try to hold my camera above the fray.

Recently, I have read that certain destinations around the world (like Santorini and Venice) are considering limiting the number of visitors per year. We have all read about the overload of visitors our own National Parks.

My photographer’s “knee-jerk” reaction would be to assign blame to the ubiquitous “smart-phone” toting tourist

So when is enough enough? My photographer’s “knee-jerk” reaction would be to assign blame to the ubiquitous “smart-phone” toting tourist. There might be a kernel of justification there. There is no doubt that there are many rather ignorant souls out there who trample, litter, and otherwise abuse photogenic sites. And they all carry smartphones, for the most part. But the reality is (and we have all observed them), there are some expensive, sophisticated-gear toting “photographers” who are equally guilty. And, as well, there are some pretty talented shooters who make wonderful shots with their smartphones.

Of course, I think I should be allowed to exclusively visit those locations. 🙂 How many of us have silently cursed the person(s) who walked into our just-composed scene (or who just won’t move out of it)? Indeed, I can think of at least one instance where my intently “working” the scene was keeping another photographer from getting his shot (until my companion gently suggested that I move).

Of course, I think I should be allowed to exclusively visit those locations

The point (there is a point? 🙂 ) is that none of us has any superior “right” to the scene. My grandmother used to tell me that the definition of “manners” is simply “consideration for others.” She was right of course, and as we continue to see more and more travelers and photographers (be they DSLR users or smart phone shooters), we need to become more patient, more observant, and yes – perhaps more courteous.

My ebooks often give some pretty specific directions to scenes. I also try to urge readers to consider the rights and privacy of the landowners and adjacent owners, and to make their images without leaving a “footprint.” It is part of what I mean by courtesy.

Right Time; Right Place Photography

Porcupine Mountains Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Recently, I went through a review and update of my LightCentric Photography photo website.  As I was systematically checking captioning information (among other things), a couple of the images made me pause and reflect on their circumstances as involving a particularly memorable moment of for whatever reason, just being in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes it was planned. Sometimes it was just serendipity.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been other times and images. There have been too many photographic memories to cover, including trips to New Mexico, Alaska, New England, California, and around the world.

In some ways, the Porcupine Mountains image is my most memorable photo. Taken back in the days of film, I made this photograph on my very first “dedicated photography trip.” I spent a long weekend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) for the first time since my childhood. The trip was planned with much anticipation of fall color imagery.  For the most part, even though I was there during the first week in October, I was still fairly early for foliage, and was largely disappointed in that aspect of the trip. The trip motivated many more similar excursions to the U.P., mostly in the fall.  I arrived at “The Escarpment,” in the Porcupine Mountains late on a Saturday afternoon. From the Escarpment, you can view the Lake of The Clouds, which is often photographed – especially during peak foliage. Conditions were not what I had hoped for.  It was cloudy, with a 40 plus mph wind.  I had seen images of Lake of The Clouds, and that was my goal for this part of the trip.  Foliage conditions were just starting, and I just did not see the image I had visualized. To make matters worse, the forecast called for worsening conditions, with all-out rain by morning.  So I took a number of images, using a much faster shutter speed and lower aperture combination than I normally would have, bracing the tripod against the wind buffets with my own weight (seemingly counterproductive).  Unlike these days, you could not see a representation of the result on the back of the camera.  I would wait until I returned home, and the photographic processor completed developing my slides.  I didn’t expect much from this location. But on the light table, this one image jumped out at me. It is perhaps the only “keeper” from that take. As I viewed it, I realized that the contrast between the lingering greens, the precocious reds, and the developing oranges and yellows, was actually more visually interesting – indeed satisfying – than some of those images that I had seen that were a complete wash of fall color. There is a photographer’s saying:  “F8 and be there.” I don’t think this was F8, but I was there, and this is what I found. The image here, is prepped for printing, and may look a bit saturated. But I did not touch the saturation sliders in Photoshop.  Instead, I used an old technique (surpassed for most of us by plugins such as NIK Viveza 2), converting the scanned image to LAB color space and making adjustments to the A and B curves. This image has continued to be my best selling photo. It hangs in the main conference room of my law firm’s offices, and draws many comments.

Mad River
Waitsfield, VT
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

In 2006, after much bragging to my best buddy, Rich Pomeroy, about the “best fall foliage in the world, bar none,” he called my bluff and we took a week long trip to Vermont. We had take many business trips together before, but this was our first “together” photography adventure. I am delighted to say that we have made numerous other photo trips, and will make many more in future years.  But this one turned out to be kind of a bust. We went during the last part of September and very early October. All during the week, we wished we had waited a week, as the foliage was again in very early (almost non-existent) stages. We worked hard to find some foliage and though we had a lot of fun and made some memorable images, it wasn’t what we had anticipated. Determined to “find” those colors I remembered from my youth in the 1970’s in Vermont, I returned – alone this time – in 1997, a week later. During that trip, I spend a couple nights in central Vermont, driving along it famed Route 100. Mother Nature can be fickle, and the colors were – once again – not as nice as I had hoped (this time a bit past peak in many places).  One morning, I was headed for a waterfall that has turned out to be (in my opinion) unremarkable;  Moss Glen Falls in Granville. But on my way, I got waylaid by a vision:  some color off in the distance of a scenic turnout.  The turnout turned out (see what I did there 🙂 ) to be a nice series of drops in the Mad River. The Mad River is really just a stream or creek that is not really navigable.  It is also the namesake of “Mad River Canoes,” originally built by hand in Waitsfield, where this very same stream wandered through his back yard. A drizzly rain was falling, but I donned my wading boots and spent 2 1/2 hours shooting there.  The image here was actually on a return trip in 2010, when I brought Rich back to “prove” my assertions about Vermont foliage 🙂 . That morning was a magical time. I was all alone with the subject, which remains a really photogenic series of waterfalls.

Otter Cliffs Sunrise
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

In 2009, Rich and I made another memorable photo trip; this time to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. Bar Harbor is a quaint little touristy town with just enough non-photographic things to keep our spouses entertained (well, for about a day that is – but we were there for a week 🙂 ). Acadia is probably one of the most photographed National Parks. There a numerous books about the Park Loop Road, and all the different photographic venues. Otter Cliffs is one, but it is most often viewed more distantly, from another cliff to the north.  From the vantage point, you cannot even see this cobblestone beach. I had a friend who strongly recommended that I “work” to find this spot, which is a cobblestone beach that is not well documented or marked (at least, it wasn’t in 2009). The directions in the books don’t really reveal it, but with some perseverance, and some insight from him, we did find it. We visited it for 3 successive mornings in the pre-dawn, before we got this one. There is really nothing like being in a location like this, literally alone, and watching the sunrise and the morning develop. It was a location worth “working” for.

Burton Hill Road
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Vermont has a special place in my heart. Readers here know I make period trips to Vermont to photograph; usually during the vaunted fall foliage season. I wrote my first eBook on this very topic.  As I did my homework, planning each trip, researching and hobnobbing with members of the Scenes of Vermont forum, I “met” two of my wonderful friends, both of whom also happen to be talented photographers and writers. Al Utzig and I carried on a e-mail correspondence for several years before I finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person. We were good friends by that time and the face-to-face didn’t change that (for me at least – I’ll let Al be the judge of it 🙂 ). Carol Smith, who many of you know as my co-author for the current edition of Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage,” was a frequent poster on the Scenes forums and we were all soon to learn, an extremely knowledgeable and observant resource for wannabe Vermont photographers. She was of immeasurable help to me on the first edition and it was a logical progression for her to co-write a second edition which contains much more information, primarily from Carol. In the process we also became good “online” friends. In 2010, Rich and I returned to Vermont. I was there for a week, but Rich was only able to join me on the southern part of the trip for about 3 days.  This trip began with a group of us (particularly Al, Carol and me) meeting at Carol’s Barton house in anticipation of a next-day, early morning “tour,” led by Carol. This was my first face-to-face meeting with Carol, and to my surprise, she still loves me :-). We started at Bean Pond along the US 5 highway, for a foggy sunrise over the pond. The time and images were magical, but while Al and I gushed, Carol promised that the best was yet to come. And boy, was she right. The Burton Hill Road image is by far my personal favorite Vermont image, and perhaps my most “successful.” After others had left, Carol and her very patient husband, guided me around several other areas, including the Craftsbury Common image that appears on the cover of the Vermont eBook. But that morning is one of the most memorable times of any photographic trip. And I got to enjoy it with two of my very favorite friends.

Eagle in Flight
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Some years were big travel years for me. Others not so much. 2010 was one of those big years. In addition to another trip to Vermont, my wife, son and I went on our first cruise; the Inside Passage from Vancouver, B.C., to Whittier, Alaska. It introduced us to cruising (which to my surprise, I really liked), which has opened travel doors to us throughout the world. There were hundreds of images taken on that trip to Alaska, with some pretty great photographic opportunities.  But the most memorable image of that trip came as a complete surprise to me. We were signed up for a “deadliest catch” look-alike excursion (sans the cold and ice and heavy oceans). When we came ashore, one of the crew who met us saw my “big camera” and said “I see you came prepared. We are going to get some eagle photos for you today.”  Right. He was a tour guide. He certainly wasn’t going to promise me crappy photos.  🙂 I think we were scheduled to be out for 3 1/ or 4 hours, during which they talked about the history of these fishing boats (the boat was an actual boat used in the Bering Sea, just like the ones on the “Deadliest Catch” series, which had been shipwrecked, and then salvaged and retro-fitted with observation seating).  All very interesting, but no “knock your socks off” eagle photos. We saw some, but they were a long way in the distance. At the end of the cruise, they announced that they had a special treat for us, and took us by an uninhabited island, which was in native waters (by U.S. treaty) and therefore not subject to U.S. laws. As I looked, I saw a solitary eagle perched in dead tree. O.k. Then I suddenly heard “plop.” “Plop, plop.” The crew was up in the flybridge tossing bait into the water. The skies next to our boat suddenly turned into what I can only describe as a air to air dogfight as about 30 eagles all appeared, diving and often fighting for the food. I really wasn’t prepared and it all happened in about a 5 – 10 minute sequence. But in spite of my ill-preparedness, I was able to get several good shots. This one is my favorite. I doubt that I will ever get an opportunity to photograph eagles in flight from that close a position again. As our first cruise, it was hard to have it come to an end, with so many amazing and new experiences. But it did. It marked the end of a great trip – and the beginning of many more.

San Francisco Bay Bridge
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

In 2011, instead of a fall foliage trip, my wife and I opted to spend a week in California during the first week in October. My daughter lives in San Francisco, so we used that as a staging point, with an overnight excursion to Napa for some wine tasting. Lots of memories from that trip. My daughter’s place at the time was in downtown, south of Market Street (SOMA). She was just two blocks south of Market and just a few blocks west of the Bay Bridge, the Embarcadero and the eastern part of San Francisco bay. I was up early and somewhere on the street each morning by sunrise or earlier (the 3 hour time differential was a positive, making it easy for me to wake up and roust early). What I really noticed was the relative stillness, just before the world “wakes up.” I made numerous images of the Bay Bridge, which is a favorite subject of mine (I prefer these images to those I have made of the more famous Golden Gate). But this one, I think, best illustrates that early morning pre-dawn calm and stillness.

Blue Angels
Fleet Week
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

That trip had other memories. We made friends with a couple of the winery owners, and in later years would travel with one of them, to the Caribbean and to Ireland, as well as returning to the vineyard when back in California. But the unexpected and incredible opportunity of shooting the air show put on by – mostly – the U.S. Navy, during its San Francisco “Fleet Week,” is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We shot from the ground for over an hour as the planes flew low over us. I worked hard to capture a “bloom” from the jet fighters as they broke the sound barrier. Because sound and light do not travel at the same speed, it was touch to anticipate. I got just one. But am pretty pleased with it.

New River Gorge Lookout
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Returning to California, Rich and I were able to sneak in a quick 3-day trip to West Virginia’s Babcock State Park, to photograph the often photographed Grist Mill in fall foliage. While we probably missed the peak near the mill, we were able to find peak foliage around Boley Lake in the park. What made this trip special was my first opportunity to meet one of my photographic mentors and a great inspiration to me, James Moore. Jim is an uber-talented nature photographer with many sales and publications; primarily in and around West Virginia. We had become on-line friends a year or two before, and he had a group he was guiding there photographing earlier in the week. Jim was still there when we arrived, but left early the next morning.  We had a nice time to chat and he gave us some great insight about when and where to shoot in the park. In 2012, Jim did me the great honor of asking me to act as a guide for one of his photography workshops in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Jim had heard a lot about it but had never visited there. We spent a great week, learning, shooting, and watching the foliage develop from pre-peak to full peak conditions. Jim had some health problems later in life and sadly those of us who knew and admired him have lost touch. For the West Virginia image here, my model was Jim, and the New River Gorge lookout was one of his favorite spots in the park.

Oxbow Bend
Snake River, Wyoming
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

2012, marked yet another photography trip with my buddy, Rich (and spouses). We joke a lot because I am a “planner” when it comes to these trips. I have usually figured out what I want to shoot, how to get there, how long it will take, and what time of day to be on site. For the most part, Rich is happy to let me do that, and quite often comes home with the better image. 🙂 A couple years before, Rich had attended a photography workshop in Jackson Hole, and the Grand Teton National Park. We both wanted to go again. This time I showed up and Rich was the guide. What a fun and memorable week with many great photo opportunities. As an old school photographer (or maybe just an old photographer), when it comes to scenic shots, I think in terms of a print. What we all want to bring back is a “wall-hanger.” Over the years I have made, printed and framed a number of my images. None has been better that this image of Oxbow Bend. We arrived here (I think the second time) in the pre-dawn hours and there was frost on everything. As the sun rose, the warmer water temps created a wonderful low fog over the bend in the river. May some white cotton-candy clouds would have enhanced this, but it was a great morning and I knew walking away from this shoot that this would be a wall-hanger.

Venice
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

2013 was a huge year for us. My wife came from a military family, so she had done some limited world travel as a young person. But in our adult lives, we had not traveled out of the U.S. except for a couple trips to the Caribbean, and Canada (which really doesn’t seem like it counts 🙂 ). We decided to kick our cruising up a notch, and booked a Mediterranean Cruise. In many ways, it may have been the most memorable of all of our cruises. It was our third cruise on the Princess Lines, and we were booked on their newest, and best ship. We were excited to see the world over the next two weeks, disembarking from Venice and ending in Barcelona. The cruise ship decided it wouldn’t cooperate, and our cruise was cut short. There was, however, a happy ending to that.

Gondolas
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

As is our custom, we planned to spend 3-4 days in our originating port city before boarding the cruise ship. We walked around Venice for 3 days and boarded the ship thankful for an immediate “day at sea,” exhausted.  But what I can say about Venice is that it is wall-to-wall “eye-candy” for the photographer. I have hundreds of Venice images, but the two shown here represent moments that separate themselves from the others.  The Gondolier was a case of right time, right place. I was looking for shots, and heard them coming. I found this setup and was blessed with wonderful early morning sunlight. The covered gondolas is not original on my part. I had seen at least one other photographer do this. What it would need was very early light in order to make an exposure long enough to capture the motion of the rocking gondolas. This meant either very early morning, or evening. I chose morning because there would be less people, and less activity on the Grand Canal, producing just some gentle rocking. I use this image on my Facebook LightCentric Photography Page Cover.

Lombard Street
San Francisco
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

In 2014, we returned again to San Francisco for several days. I made more trips to the Bay Bridge. I also walked to the San Francisco Giants ball stadium. My daughter took us to Lands End, to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a different perspective, and to Jones Beach. But what I remember the most is walking from our SOMA location, all the way across town and uphill to Lombard Street (the famous s-curved, brick-paved, switchback street that is a “must photograph” when you visit). I made the usual images (except for the nighttime shot with the streaky headlights). Then I looked for something else to shoot. A unique perspective that possibly nobody else had ever done. I think I might have been successful.

Sailboat
Narragansett Bay, Newport
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

In 2016, I made a last minute trip to join my buddy, Rich, who was in Newport, Rhode Island for business. I flew in on Thursday evening and we spent two days shooting.  Friday morning, I was on my own and walked around the downtown area and the wharfs, making lots of photos of boats, buildings, etc. Everything was a more or less nautical theme. That evening we went to shoot a lighthouse that Rich had found earlier in the week (Castle Hill Light). This was a photogenic lighthouse, and as we often do, we arrived early to scout best perspectives for shooting. And then we waited on the light. It is often worth waiting for the absolute last of the light to see if anything magical happens in the sky. To our west, the sun set over Narragansett Bay, with beautiful orange skies, but no real photographic interest. But as we watched and waited, this white sailboat approached and passed. Knowing a little about sailing from my past, I made note of the wind, and calculated that the boat (it was actually a large, tour charter boat on the last leg of the day) would come about and come back toward us. I quickly swiveled my tripod head around, took some metering measurements, and waited to frame the boat where I wanted it to be.  I knew I would get 2-3 shots at best of this quickly moving boat.

Tokyo Tower
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

2018 has been kind of a slow year, photographically. But we absolutely made up for that in 2017. In July, we spent a week in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. We saw many amazing sights and I did my usual early morning walking around both cities. I was intrigued by Tokyo Tower, lit at night, and worked hard to find a good place to photograph it from. I took a few from a couple different places. But it turns out that the best I could do was through the window of our Tokyo Hotel.

Santorini, Greece
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

In September, we made our 3rd, and much anticipated Mediterranean Cruise. We again spent several days in Venice. One of the other places I had seen and wanted to shoot was the Greek Island of Santorini. We had a wonderful tour guide, who happened to also be a photographer, and he the right time and place for us to be to get shots I am certain I would never have found without his help, in spite of the research I had done.  Did I mention that Venice is “eye-candy” for photographers? Ditto Santorini.

Well.  This was an interesting exercise for me.  I tried to keep it to not more than 15 images. There were many more that perhaps fit the bill. And I am sure there will be more to come. As always, thanks for reading.

 

New Orleans

New Orleans, LA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Some 20 years ago, we spent a long weekend in New Orleans.  We stayed across Canal Street and spent a fair amount of time wandering around the French Quarter. I fell in love with the food, feasting on Crawfish Etouffe, Jambalaya, Gumbo, and red beans and rice.  At some point I wandered into one of the small groceries and asked someone what spices the locals used to with their roux bases.  He pointed to the counter and said “Zatarain’s. I thought he was kidding, because this stuff was freely available in our Saginaw, Michigan grocery chains. But he was serious.  Signs often attract my photographic image, and this one says NOLA to me.

Superdome; NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

This fall was an unusual period for me. I almost always plan a dedicated trip based around fall foliage somewhere. The last couple years have been a bit unsettled, as – for whatever reason – we have had trips planned that involved groups and were more about the social aspect than dedicated photography. Last year we spend almost 2 weeks in the Greek Isles and the Mediterranean and took a late October trip to Las Vegas. This year, work and personal scheduling kept me away much of September and October, with just one very short, 3 day weekend photo trip.  Late October, again, involved a trip, this time for just a couple days, to New Orleans.

Bourbon Street; NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Both of these late October trips were social in nature, with a group of 5 couples. There was not much time for dedicated photography and I didn’t even really try in either instance. There were people I should have connected with in both places, but the schedule just didn’t allow for either. I still hope to return someday with just my camera, no itinerary, and a visit to my friend there who I know can show me the real, New Orleans.

Mississippi River; NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t carry my camera. Very much like my cruises, the shooting became a shoot-when-you-can, point and shoot, street shot exercise. I carried the small camera, as always.  And I shot.  One of the things I would like to do someday is walk around a couple of the cemeteries. I am told that most of them are private and charge an admission. I also am told that the one I got the fleeting “drive-by” shot of – St. Louis Cemetary No. 1 – requires a guide (as Ray notes, sadly, the reason for this is because of vandalism -we have become such a destructive society; both physically and emotionally). A guide is fine, as long as I can take my time, look for, and make some shots. There is one, in the Garden District, I believe, that is public.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

We stayed in the French Quarter. And, for the most part, we literally stayed in the French Quarter, except to venture out to a couple restaurants, a “Hop On / Hop Off” bus tour, and the World War II Museum.  We spend a full day in this museum and still did not see everything.  There is a small, adjacent Civil War Museum that I would also like to visit.  It was a pretty intense day.  I was born at the very end of the Viet Nam war, and had a very high draft number.  I never saw military service, but have family members and close friends who did.  I have always been thankful their sacrifices for me freedom.  But I am not sure I truly appreciate it.  This was an experience that reminded me.  Thank you, to all of you who have served.

National WW II Museum
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

NOLA has rich, mixed cultural tradition, and appears readily accepting of people, cultures, ideas and freedom.  And often, in its acceptance, its humor.  I liked the humor in the “One Way” sign.

Bourbon Street; NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

There is a mix of architectural and artistic style in French Quarter.  And while Bourbon Street is perhaps the most well know by outsiders, the many streets that weave across the quarter have a great deal of unique charm and beauty.

Royal Street
French Quarter; NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

French Quarter
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

New Orleans is also known for its music. Jazz and Blues are what I mainly conjure when I think of NOLA and I was disappointed to find that 20 years after my first visit, most of the music in the bars and restaurants in the French Quarter were performing modern rock music.  I guess the shopkeepers have to stay open and in order to do so, must cater to what attracts today’s visitor.  But I would have liked to have seen more Jazz and Blues.  I can find modern rock music in almost any other venue.  The street musicians were a little more likely to be playing jazz/blues music.

Street Musicians
French Quarter
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

And of course, the occasional “second line” parade sported jazz (although I think these are more commonly seen in some of the wards outside of the French Quarter).  This was a small one that happened by us and was over very quickly.

Second Line Parade
French Quarter
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

There was art and architecture everywhere we looked.

Piano in the Window; French Quarter
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

French Quarter
NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Architectural Detail
French Quarter
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

I just finished the latest John Grisham novel, which was set in the 1940’s.  Mostly in his home stomping grounds of Mississippi, NOLA played a substantial part, and there was mention of the Hotel Monteleone.  We did not make it, but I am told that a Martini in the bar is an experience that we should not have missed.  I shot this from a balcony bar on Halloween night.

Hotel Monteleone at night
French Quarter; NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

As seems to be a common refrain from me, this is a city I need to visit again, and spend more time when I do :-).

St. Louis Cathedral
NOLA
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Photographing the Michigan U.P.; Update – Iron Mountain Area

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

As I noted in my recent blog about my quick U.P. trip this fall, I did have an opportunity to scout two new areas.  The first was the Escanaba Area, and particularly, the Garden and Stonington Peninsulas, which I covered in the previous blog.  My plan was to to shoot as much as possible around the good light, but if the weather was uncooperative, to make the approximately 1 hour drive to Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Perhaps unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative all weekend.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Perhaps best known these days for its provenance for nationally noted sports coaches, Iron Mountain’s welcome sign boasts of being “the “proud hometown of Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci.” But it certainly is also world-renowned for its namesake.  At one time, Iron Mountain held one of the largest iron ore producing and processing resources in the world.  There is still a mine there, which can be toured.  While I am not sure I would consider the area a photographer’s destination, a day trip would probably be filled with opportunities.  The color in Iron Mountain was still nice, but well past “peak” when I was there in the second week of October. Escanaba is approximately 50 miles further west (from Escanaba) on U.S. 2. Being inland and at a higher elevation, this area’s probable normal “peak” is late September to early October.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The area is blessed with some nice natural phenomena, including rivers, waterfalls, rocky foothills, and lakes.  Just east, and outside of town, there is a roadside stop for Fumee Falls.  Fumee is perhaps the most accessible of the numerous waterfalls in the Michigan U.P.  This was my first trip to these falls.  There are two drops visible from the roadside, with a small, photogenic footbridge across the stream at the bottom of the second and larger drop.  Many years of visitor traffic has resulted in significant erosion of the original falls area, and today, viewing is restricted to the boardwalks which border the falls.  While this perhaps limits the photographer’s access, it hopefully preserves the falls for the future.  Although the light was terrible, I was able to make a couple “record images.”

Lake Antoine
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Just to the Northeast of the downtown area, is a nice small lake, Lake Antoine.  The northern 1/2 of the city of Iron Mountain borders the west endo of the lake. There is a significant residential presence around the west side of the lake.  On the east end, is Antoine Park, a public beach, picnic and boat launch.  I found a small memorial park with a fishing pier on the way to the lake, and make a couple images.    Antione Lake Road loops around the lake and crosses U.S. 2 both to the east of and to the north of town.

Understory; Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

About 4 miiles east of downtown is the small community of Quinnesec.  In about 2 1/4 miles, you will come to County Road 10 (a/k/a “Upper Pine Creek Road), which goes north, to The Fumee Recreation Area. The entrance is marked, but it is a rustic sign, about 1 mile north of U.S. 2.  There is a parking lot and no motorized travel is allowed beyond. There are two lakes, “Little Fumee Lake,” and “Big Fumee Lake.”  The recreation area has several trails around both lakes, with a total of about 8 miles of trails, which are used by walkers, runners, bicyclists and horseback riders.  I walked the short trail around “Little Fumee.”  Again, the light was awful, but I could see the possibility of some nice imagery.

Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

On the county road in to the recreation area, I also found some nice farm scenery.  The shot here is on what appears to be a private road, called “Baclack Road.”

Farm near Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018