Keyhole Arch

I like to find natural wonders that can only be photographed for limited times or days during the year. My quest started with Horsetail Falls in Yosemite. It took six years to get a photo and the journey was part of the joy of capturing the unique “fire fall” in February. (I have a post about it from about a year ago down below in the past postings.) This year the challenge was to photograph Keyhole Arch in Big Sur, California. Instead of six years, this was only year two. I’m experimenting with video so I’ve attached a short clip of the day.

Let me know if you like the video option. I’m experimenting and not committed to the format yet.

Industrial Art from the Golden Age of automobiles.

To a gear head a car show is about horsepower, posi-traction, and a host of other modifications that improve speed and performance for certain cars from specific eras. Things like flatheads, and slicks go with unique vocabulary like “Tri Fives”, posi, and a host of other specific “in the know” terms that both limit understanding from outsiders and are the ticket to the “in crowd”. In some ways, community car shows tend to have the same model and makes of specific cars, the crowd pleasers that guarantee a well-attended show. After all, who doesn’t like looking at large finned 57 Chevy Bel Airs, 55 and 56 T-Birds and 65 Mustangs? There is always a chance to see muscle cars from the late 60’s and early 70’s. What’s not to like?

Back in the day before aerodynamics was everything and designers presented to us smooth sleek bodies without exterior extras, cars were designed as pieces of practical art. I’m sure it is no mistake that the art deco style of the twenties helped influence automotive design. Elegant sweeping fenders, beautiful v-styled hoods, interior lamps and burl wood dash boards added flair to an otherwise pedestrian piece of transportation. A small but obvious part of the car’s art was the ornament at the front of the hood. Hood ornaments were both practical and artistic. In the early days Henry Ford’s Model T hood ornament doubled as a thermometer for the radiator. Mostly, hood ornaments are reflections of an era and part of the marketing and persona of the car.

The design team for this early Ford used their metal and chrome to give the proud owner a flying bird that not only ads an artistic flair, but it also adds to uniqueness of the car. Denoting its speed, Chrysler used the Clipper ship for a while. Here are a couple of variations

In the 1930’s and 40’s fast translated to this Ford Greyhound.  What about this hawk from the Chrysler? One of my favorites is the 1940’s version of a bullet train, very Streamline Moderne. The theme of the fifties was the jet age and Chevrolet used the jet and the line behind it to signify speed. This car is beyond fast it’s supersonic.

Industrial art was part of the car business from the beginning. I guess you could say it made cars more than the sum of their parts. Some of those parts were much more than mechanical and served an esoteric personal function. More than mere transportation, this industrial art speaks to another part of the automobile world I had missed all these years.

Do you have a favorite? Maybe something unique to a small brand that has ended up on the trash heap of the auto business. I’d love to hear your preference.

Photos on Fire

California was on fire. The forests were burning, grassland was burning, the air was barely breathable. Lightening started one of the fires near San Jose while a gender reveal party got out of control due to some pyrotechnics in the dry summer grass in Orange County. Things were bad.

But opportunity knocks in strange ways sometimes. To a camera it just looked like a great big orange filter in front of the lens; perfect for warming up everything in front of it including some fantastic sunsets. For my sunset I wandered to some local percolation ponds set up by the local water agency. In addition to recharging the ground water, these little ponds provide recreational opportunities like fishing, day hiking, and places to take pictures, I took advantage of the orange sky both as a reflection pond and a filter one night when the state was a big inferno this past fall.

Happy Hollow-San Jose’s zoo.

Someday I’d like to go on a photo safari, a real safari with big cats and cheetahs. But until then, I look for opportunities in my backyard. You could argue, and I would agree, that I get a chance for safari when I paddle with whales in the Pacific Ocean. I would add I never get tired of photographing whales and the other creatures they swim with. Off the water one of the local treats I have is San Jose’s own zoo. It had a major revision about 10 years ago to be a more school and kid friendly place.

They did a marvelous job with the kid friendly places and expanded a few of the exhibits. One of those  enclosures was for the lemurs. A small primate, lemurs share many characteristics with other primates including opposable thumbs and stereoscopic vision. This means that can hold tools, like rocks to bang things open, and have depth perception which allows them to distinguish between things close by and far away. Maybe because of these two capabilities or maybe due to something else, they are a curious lot. Like their larger cousins, homo sapiens, they display curiosity, elation, and frustration. This makes them great subjects for a casual day at the zoo.

Paul Simon’s song rolls around in my head when I go to a zoo, “Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it.”

The other portrait today is a good ‘ol American Prairie Dog. What makes them fun to photograph is their tendency to be skittish. I suppose on the prairie this is a good thing and helps them live another day but in the enclosure it makes them look hyper-active. Our little guy here looks like he is taking the measure of me instead of the other way around. It was nice of him to pose because I wasn’t going to give him directions which way to turn his head or which foot to put his weight on.

On safari I would have to rent a very expensive and heavy lens to capture the antics of both these animals. In the zoo I can get close without the expense. In fact, I took these photos using a Tamron 70-200mm lens. I own it as a standard piece of equipment for people portraits. It is very sharp, not too heavy, and didn’t break the bank to buy. It is fast enough I shoot it hand-held. The field of view using this lens on my Nikon D200 is the equivalent of 300mm on a 35mm or full frame digital camera when used at maximum length. I was able to shoot these frames at the lowest ISO of 100 which made them clear and clean, thanks in part to the large aperture of 2.8. The aperture also helped me with bokeh, making the background blurry and my subject nice and sharp.

While I want to go on safari, there are plenty of opportunities in my backyard to keep me busy and give me real live practice for some future road trip. I encourage you to not overlook your own backyard. I’m sure there are subjects close by.

McWay Falls-Big Sur, California

It looks like a tropical island; clear water falling over the cliff into the sea, cool, clean, and picturesque. McWay Falls might be one of the most sought-after photos of California’s central coast. Just seeing the iconic photo feels like a vacation or a splash of cold water on a hot day. 

The journey to the waterfall begins in Monterey. The storied city by the non-bay has been both a mystery and destination for over 200 years. Vizcaino founded the city in 1770 under the Spanish empire. His description to the king and queen, possibly a little embellished to make him look good, is located at the very unsheltered southern end of Monterey Bay. The Portola Expedition walked past it twice and didn’t find it due to the flowery language Vizcaino used to describe the bay that housed the small presidio and town. Today, it is home to a world famous aquarium, some great seaside dining, and a chance to kayak with sea otters, get close to seals and sea lions, and take a three hour whale watching cruise that will result in viewing at least a couple species of dolphins, humpback whales and perhaps 3 other whale species. If you follow this blog you know I’m a whale paparazzi so I know wherein I speak.

Begin by driving south from Monterey on California’s famous Highway 1. You will go past Carmel and the famous 9-mile drive, and after a while over the world-famous Bixby Bridge, built during the Great Depression. At 260 feet above Bixby Canyon, the arched bridge causes traffic jams all by itself as people from around the world stop to take a picture. Another 45 minutes or so south will take you to Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer State Park. The short road to McWay falls is just south of the park entrance.  If you decide to go, I recommend you take a day and enjoy the beach and the redwood forest at Pfeiffer SP.

There is plenty of day hiking for you and the kids, if you have them, and a small gift shop for the obligatory t-shirt or other memorable trinket to prove you were having a good time. It’s also good insurance if you don’t get the photo. Oops! I slipped back to the film days when you never knew until the roll of film was developed. Today, with your digital camera, you’ll know if you got the shot before you leave the scene. Your challenge will be to get a unique picture that doesn’t’ look like you bought a postcard. You will walk a short way to the overlook photo spot, no drive ups here, and there is no beach access. There is a small incline on the pathway, but it isn’t difficult. The best time of day for a great photo is during the golden hour so have your fun during the day and then arrive about two hours before sunset.

I encourage you to move around and take more than one photo. It is almost inevitable that you will take “the postcard shot”, but there is a pretty good chance that really isn’t the one you want. Bragging rights when you mount that image on your wall on quality poster sized photo or fine art paper, and find the money to mount it into a proper frame to hang on the right wall, demand a shot that is just a little unique. This isn’t the time for a phone photo unless you only want to view it with electricity on a screen. You’ll need the best camera you own to get a wall size printable image.

While you can continue south on Highway 1, the trip to San Simeon and Morro Bay is very long and not highway fast. If you waited until the golden hour for your photo, the drive will be wasted by the darkness. Return to Monterey for the night and blast down CA 101 the next day for a more pleasant trip home, especially if you have kids. One of these is on my wall in a 20”x24” frame.  I think CPQ printers outside of Nashville printed it for me. It is matted and framed in a natural wood frame.  I never get tired of it.

Do you have a McWay Falls story? I’d love to hear it.

Postcard from the Central Coast

The trees are legendary. Old, big, and red, they only grow here along the coast of California, well the ewoks have them but, being in a different galaxy and time, they’re too far away. Sequoia sempervirens, known as the California coast redwood to all but the naturalists among us, may grow to a height of 367 feet and 22 feet in diameter. They are not only unique for their size, the way they are watered is also unique; they get about 40% of their moisture from the coastal fog, according to the National Park Service. Recently, I had the chance to walk among the redwoods during a visit to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos, California.

Aptos isn’t a large community. Nestled at the edge of the redwoods and only five minutes from the Pacific, it offers some of the best California has to offer. The hike was not difficult, and the temperate climate made the walk through the woods pleasant. With a small creek going through the center of the park and the redwoods soaring above, it was hard to believe we were so close to an urban setting. The views were astounding as the morning sun streamed through the canopy onto the forest floor, illuminating saplings, ferns and the red bark of some of the trees. At the same time, the shadows made some of the up ended roots looks foreboding and, may I say, spooky.

This is a place to walk alone or with a friend and share the day, share life, and be thankful. I hope you have a location near you where you can step back, forget about the job, COVID, politics, and bills, and rejoice in the wonders of life. Peace, it’s what we all need.

Paddling under the Golden Gate Bridge

The old pill box is at 2:52 if you want to skip right to it.

The tides and current can be murderous. The fog is legendary. And then there’s that suspension bridge. When you put them together on the wrong day paddling a kayak from the San Francisco Bay out into the Pacific Ocean to Point Bonita could be a recipe for disaster. With some careful planning, however, the recipe turns into delight. Delight is what a couple of buddies and I had on a recent overcast Saturday morning.

By the numbers we paddled about 8 miles from Fort Baker to Bird rock, just past Point Bonita, and back. The tide was only about a foot and the wind was under 5 miles an hour, just right for some unique views of the Marin coast, the bridge, and the gate to the mighty San Francisco Bay.

The headlands have a few extra secrets to reveal from three feet above the water surface. The most obvious is being up close and personal with seals and anything else that swims or flies by. The big rocks that look small from the bridge or the viewing parking lot make an impression. Although the natural topography and wildlife are exciting, our paddle started with the overwhelming size and scope of manmade objects.

One of the overwhelming impressions driving or walking over the bridge is the height and size of the two towers. Paddling next to the north tower and under the roadway accentuated this effect and left me feeling small and insignificant. The numbers don’t really do the experience justice. My kayak is 17 feet long and sitting inside I’m about 3 feet above the surface of the water. At 746 feet tall and 8,981 feet long, it is imposing to look at when sailing by, but paddling next to the tower with a base of 33ft by 54ft and a load of 61,500 tons is a humbling experience. Feeling like an ant next to the tower and the realization that the force of the current and the immoveable steel structure reminded me who was going to pay the price of a slip up or collision.

The low slow pace of paddling had other benefits including seeing the unseeable. Before the construction of the bridge the northern side of the bay was protected by Fort Baker. Pill boxes and other defensive reinforcements for ammunition and various generations of artillery were placed throughout the hill and positioned to stop an unknown enemy from entering California’s best sheltered port.  Unseen by pedestrians and motorists, a low placed artillery casement remains behind the north tower, on view for slow moving, hand powered boats and a reminder of days when the safety of the Western coast of the United States was protected by short range, manually loaded and non-guided ordinance (see the video above).

It seemed fitting that two of the three kayaks on our Saturday morning trip were wooden.

Being right on the water made for a few interesting low angle pictures of the Point Bonita Lighthouse as you can see.

When I started kayaking over 20 years ago, I never dreamed I would have some of the experiences I’ve been privileged to participate in central California. From paddling with grey and humpback whales, to being completely surrounded by a pack of dolphins and seals to paddling under the Golden Gate Bridge, I count myself one lucky fella.  

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Morro Bay Birds

I was recently at Morro Bay on California’s central coast. The four-mile bay is a favorite for vacationers from San Juaquin Valley cities of Fresno and Bakersfield to escape the summer heat and enjoy the beach. It is also mid-state situated for Bay area residents to be close by and far away at the same time. A popular activity is to rent a kayak and paddle the calm waters of the bay. I did exactly that on a casual Sunday morning bringing my Nikon D7100 and 80-400mm lens, comfortably situated in a dry bag for protection while paddling. I was on the hunt for large, interesting birds. On a trip ten years earlier, I had seen an osprey so I knew if I looked carefully, I could probably spot one and maybe get his picture.

 On a stake in the middle of the bay I saw an osprey I think was looking for a late breakfast at about 8:30am. He couldn’t seem to get his eyes off the shallow bay waters. I set up a safe and legal distance away, pulled the camera out of the dry bag and waited.

Have you ever wondered how the photographers in the 50’s and 60’s captured amazing wildlife pictures with manual focus lenses?  It turns out their secret is also our secret. They committed to the shot early by pre-focusing on an area within the frame and waited. Using their knowledge of depth of field and the distance scale on the lens, they learned how much space they had to have to remain sharp and keep the background pretty shallow. Pre-focusing the auto focus lens gives us the same advantages. In doing so, you have committed to leaving all the shots that don’t fit into the pre-focus zone, but the reward is going to be more keepers.

This is exactly what I did. I pre-focused on the pole and bird and waited for his move. Where else did I have to go on a lazy Sunday morning? This pelican flew into my focus zone, so I took his picture and continued to wait for the osprey to make his move. Still nothing. From the background I noticed a couple in a double kayak approach the bird from behind and I knew this would be my chance. They got too close and spooked the bird and I was ready. Focus lock was quick, due to the pre-focusing while I was waiting, and by tracking him I never lost focus.

I was looking for a photo of the osprey grabbing a fish and flying away with it in his talons or mouth. Who knows if it would have happened without the other kayak coming into the scene? Even though he flew away without breakfast, he didn’t get away completely.

It’s all about the light

Several years ago, I was at Morro Bay paddling with a friend. We had a great day of conversation and Pacific Coast paddling early in the day. As the afternoon wore on, we decided to go north of the bay to explore. As heat inland drew the moisture toward the coast the inevitable afternoon clouds rolled in; at the beach, cool and overcast, a couple of miles inland, hot and clear. As we retuned back toward Morro Rock on highway 41, we stopped on the coast at Cayucas Pier.

As we stood on the side of the road, a sliver of sun broke out from the clouds and illuminated the wharf. Photos like this only last a short time and I quickly grabbed a camera and took this photo. Not only did I like its uniqueness, I like the light.

A short time ago I was back at Morro Bay and as we wandered up the coast for a short trip, we passed Cayucos Pier. Let’s stop and get a photo, I said, as a contrast to the one a decade ago. Here it is.

Taking nature photographs can be a challenge when the light doesn’t work out or the sky is too orange due to fires miles away. Sometimes I wish I were back in the studio where I can control both the direction and quality of light. However, knowing about how to control the light means being able to recognize when it happens naturally. It also means you might have to move your point of view or position to “make” the light behave the way you want.

I couldn’t have staged the light for that picture a decade ago. But I knew it when I saw it. Remember, your camera doesn’t take the picture, you do.

Technology or craftsmanship?

I was recently at Morro Bay on the central coast of California. In addition to wanting to get away for a few days and try out my newly carved two-piece Greenland paddle, I wanted to take some pictures. Morro Bay was in rare summer form with sunny comfortable days devoid of overcast clouds or low hanging fog, very unusual for the central coast in the summer. With all that beautiful blue sky I decided to do some sunset shots. Not another sunset! You say. I know they are all over the internet. I usually avoid the urge because I have so many; this was my chance to play with the sunset colors off the water and focus on the edge of Morro Rock. My plan was to focus on a little rim light on the edges of the old volcano core.

The first night we saw wonderful orange and blue reflections off the bay as we ate dinner. We were about midway in the bay and I made a commitment to enjoy the moment without the camera. We would take pictures the next night. The conditions were identical to the night before but my position along the bay, closer to the northern end my Morro Rock made for a different point of view on the bay. The oranges and blues of the previous night were just a memory as the angle of view had changed. At some point I decided to get a starburst as the sun set along the side of the rock. At that point I had two choices: take out a starburst filter or do the shot without the added filter.

Use a starburst filter or stop down the lens?

A starburst filter is etched to make the sun follow the lines scratched onto the face and create the effect. They come in 4 through 16 points. One disadvantage of using the filter is that you sacrifice sharpness in the rest of the photo. If the focal point of the picture is only the starburst this isn’t an issue. But if the starburst is only to add mood the sacrifice might be too big. I decided to go with a clean lens.

The starburst effect is caused by refraction of the light as it passes through the lens. A large aperture leaves the photo with an orange or yellow sunset blob. The method to get the burst is to stop down the lens to f16 or smaller. Of course, you run the risk of lens flare when you do this. The way to handle lens flare is to try different angles and change the focus of the lens to something else other than the sun. Adjustments also need to be made to “fool” the in-camera meter or it will meter the sun and everything else will be black. The opposite is also true, metering something dark will clip or blow out the sun. I recommend looking at the photo through aperture priority, check the histogram, and then go to manual for final adjustments or use the +/- EV on the camera.

Here we are. I didn’t know if I really accomplished my task until I downloaded the picture to the computer. Like many photographers I have GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) which results in a loss f spendable income in my wallet when I see the new thing that promises to transform my photography. Usually, all I really needed was more education or to slow down and make photos instead of taking them. This was certainly the case here.