Monday, April 28, 2008

Cascading Mountains how-to video

This is my first attempt at making a video. I filmed it using my little Canon SD800 point-and-shoot camera, so I apologize for the low quality. I used Pinnacle Studio Plus 11 to put it together. I hope you find it helpful.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California
37° 11.959'N, 122° 12.054'W
March 17, 2008

Canon 5D
Canon 70-200/2.8
Canon TC-80N3 remote
Cokin 2 stop neutral gradient filter
Slik Mini-Pro V tripod

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In a car, down by the river!

The plan was to drive up to Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to get some pictures of the fall color, and to just explore the area. Not everything went as planned, but I came away with some cool pictures and interesting memories in the end.

Depart Baltimore at 7am on Friday, October 19th, 2007, and drive through Harrisburg and Allentown, Pennsylvania, to avoid the usual tolls and traffic on I-95.

Sleep in the back of my Mazda3 somewhere inside the park.

Drive to Trenton on the 20th for a shoot on the 21st.

Canon 5D
Canon 400/5.6
Canon 70-200/2.8
Canon 17-40/4
Canon TC-80N3 remote
Bogen/Manfrotto 3021PRO tripod with 488RC0 ball head
Cokin 2 stop neutral gradient filter
Kelty Basalt backpack

What Worked
Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of rain that Friday. However, because I'd decided to stay in my car instead of a tent, I didn't have to deal with sleeping on the wet ground or packing up a wet tent.

At one point while walking along the boardwalk to Dingmans Falls, it started to pour down rain. Now, since I hadn't really paid attention to the weather before I left home, I had also neglected to bring a raincoat. Luckily I found a tree with thick, sturdy leaves to stand under. I was amazed how dry I was under there. After about 10 minutes of standing there, the rain let up just enough that I was able to walk back to the car.

Since I was spending a significant amount of time in my car due to the rain, I decided to stop by the grocery store in Milford and get some snacks. Grocery stores are often good places to find cheap food while traveling. Most people skip over them and just eat out, which is comparatively costly. As Ken Rockwell's brother says, "Most people are too stupid to be poor."

After much exploring of the park in Friday afternoon's rain, I found a good spot to park my car for the night and get some sleep at the Dingmans Ferry Access boat ramp, which was closed for the season. It was out of the way enough that I probably wouldn't be bothered, and it was close to the toll bridge, so I would be able to get to another person if there was some kind of problem.

I was particularly happy with my pictures of Dingmans Falls on Saturday. I discovered that an exposure of about 1/2 second is long enough to produce very nice looking water. I thought the exposure would have to be much longer. However, it was also important to keep the front of the lens covered when I wasn't taking a picture since there was a significant amount of spray coming off the waterfall.

On my way out of the park, I was originally going to stop by Kittatinny Point (just off I-80, no toll eastbound) before heading south. However, I decided to see if I could get good afternoon shots across the river from the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. I drove north along River/Old Mine Rd., part of which was alternating one-way. About four miles later turned onto Campground Rd. where I found a good spot to park and get access to a good part of the bank with an unobstructed view of both sides of the river. There was even a guy fly-fishing to add to the ambiance.

What Didn't Work
The weather did not work in my favor that Friday. I had planned to take the time for this trip well in advance, so I decided to go no matter what the weather report said. This resulted in clouds and light rain on the drive up, and a couple downpours that afternoon and evening. Basically it meant that I had to spend most of that Friday in the car even though I arrived at about noon.

Since I was coming from the south, I had decided to enter the park from the southern end through Stroudsburg, PA. Unfortunately, a combination of construction, rain, and a Wal-Mart led to some major traffic. Because I drive stick-shift, a traffic jam was the last thing I'd wanted to see at the end of a long drive.

In spite of the snacks I found at the grocery store in Milford, I still wanted some cheap, cooked food. The lady working the grocery store checkout directed me towards Westfall, PA, where there was (another) Wal-Mart with a Subway and a McDonald's. What I didn't expect was a Friday night football game at the high school right next to the Wal-Mart, and a parking lot full of loitering teenagers. Apparently the McDonald's was the place to be, because the line was out the door and around the corner. Luckily the Subway inside the Wal-Mart was much more tame. Still, I decided to eat in my car with my gear with so many bored, rural teenagers around.

The TC-80N3 was a new toy for me, so I decided to give it a try with some extremely long exposures of cars crossing the Dingmans Falls toll bridge. We're talking 10 minutes at ISO 400. This place was dark. After a few tries and a lot of standing around, it didn't seem to produce any usable results. The cars were few and far between and only lit up the top parts of the bridge. There was some light fog hanging over the water, but that never got much light. In the end, the dark areas came out noisy, and the cars just blended into one big streak of light.

Sleeping in the car with nothing covering the windows was a little creepy. I had this vision of someone standing next to my car looking down through the window at me laying there in the middle of the night. Luckily it didn't happen (that I know of), but I think I'll have to find a way to cover the windows next time. Psychologically, it's interesting to consider that a tent would have felt safer, even though a car is clearly more secure.

On the whole, this was a successful trip, especially given Friday's abysmal weather. Even the bad weather added to the memories though.

Camping in the car works, but will require some practice, and window coverings, to perfect.

Sometimes even the longest exposure can't make up for the lack of light, and will probably result in very noisy images, even at ISO 400.

The tripod contributed greatly to the sharpness of the pictures, and was well worth bringing since most pictures were taken within 1/4 mile of the car.

Baltimore to New York... by train

The plan for this trip was to have a little solo adventure up to New York City by train, then stay in a hostel for the night. I'd never taken a train or stayed in a hostel in the US before, nor had I ever spent the night in Manhattan. The ideas was that I'd be able to explore the city on my own and take whatever pictures I wanted. Here's how the experiment went...

April 22, 2008
Depart: Penn Station, Baltimore, Maryland, train 94, 14:47
Arrive: Penn Station, New York, New York, 17:21
Cost: $87

Accommodations: Gershwin Hotel near 27th and 6th, $41

April 23, 2008
Depart: Penn Station, New York, New York, train 187, 21:05
Arrive: Penn Station, Baltimore, Maryland, 23:33
Cost: $61

Canon 5D
Canon SD800
Canon 24-70/2.8
Canon 400/5.6
Canon TC-80N3 remote
Mountainsmith Tour bag

What Worked
Took the Baltimore light rail up to Penn Station from University Center for $1.60. Make sure to get on the train marked "Penn Station." And yes, I got on the right one.

The train had two standard electrical outlets for every pair of seats. I didn't have anything to plug in, but if I had, that would have been a huge plus.

I was able to easily walk from Penn Station to the Gershwin Hotel, though the 23rd Street Subway station seemed to to be closest.

Took the subway up to 96th on the west side of Central Park to get to the reservoir, so I could get some sunset shots of the city across the water. There were a ton of runners on the path around the lake, so I had to watch out for them. Luckily, I accidentally walked across the park to the north side of the lake, which meant I could work my way around clockwise, which was the same direction the runners were going.

After the sun set, I switched the camera into Monochrome (black and white) Picture Style with a Red Filter option, and bumped up the ISO 1600. This gave some pretty cool hand-help pictures of the city at night. The contrasty red filter and the high-ISO graininess reminded me of good old Tri-X 400 from my days at Technique.

Chicken dinner for $6 at a street-side vendor at 53rd and 6th, near the Hilton. Known as The Platter. Get the rice and pita bread. I hear the sauce is good too, but you have to ask for it, which I didn't realize.

There are many drug stores in the city, mainly Duane Reade and CVS. These are enormously useful if you need a cold drink, snack, or if you forget your shampoo or allergy medication. Incidentally, the grocery stores in the city don't seem to carry many over-the-counter drugs or cold drinks, probably due to the number of drug stores.

The hostel dorm rooms at the Gershwin Hotel are co-ed. The two girls in the next bunk were in the city shopping for a week. One was an acting major from Newfoundland, Canada named Annie. The other was on a five-week tour of the Americas from Amsterdam. Apparently, the big thing right now is for Europeans to come to America to go shopping. The girl from Amsterdam kept going on about how cheap everything was since she was spending dollars instead of euros. Annie, on the other hand, was just happy to find more clothing variety since there aren't a lot of options in Newfoundland. In particular, she complained about how her underwear was the same as her boyfriend's ex's, so she couldn't surprise him. I think she will after this trip though.

I'm glad I went by Roosevelt Island, just to see a different aspect of the city that most people don't both with. I took the Subway, but the tram/cable-car looked like it would have been fun.

Sitting down and looking at a guide book makes you looks less like a tourist than standing up and looking at a guide book. If you really want to avoid sticking out, duck into a coffee shop. There are Starbucks everywhere. I used the Not For Tourists 2008 Guide to New York City with some black tape over the shiny title. Overall a good little book for finding the closest whatever. The Central Park map could have used much more detail though, and going from one part of the city to another required looking at multiple pages.

Swinging by the Guggenheim Museum was a good idea, even though I decided not to buy a ticket. The lobby/atrium is free though, and often has some pretty interesting temporary exhibits. They also have some cool stuff in the gift shop.

The Post Office at the intersection of 91st and 3rd allowed me to buy individual postcard stamps. I was able to write my postcards in the shade of the buildings outside.

There seems to be random open wifi all over the city. This worked really well with my iPod Touch, and was especially useful since I hadn't bothered to bring my laptop.

The map store at on 43rd between 6th and 7th had many interesting maps and guide books, but nothing from Liberia.

I made a stop in Bryant Park to rest on the grass and try to take some time-lapse photos. There was a surprisingly large number of people there. There was also free, open wifi which I used to browse the web on my iPod Touch while the camera snapped pictures of the crowd automatically. In the end, the time-lapse experiment didn't go too well. However, as I was leaving, I walked by the New York Public Library and noticed a great view of the Chrysler Building in the setting sun. I busted out the 400/5.6 and mini-tripod and was able to get this shot.

I happened to get onto my return train in the "Quiet Car." I thought this was a pretty nice feature, since it meant no loud conversations or cell phones were allowed. The ironic part was that the intercom seemed to be even louder in the Quiet Car than the regular car. This may have been to wake people up so they wouldn't miss their stop.

I was impressed with the consideration of the attendants on the train. When they took my ticket, they gave me a card with my stop marked on it. I then placed it above my seat so they could see that they had taken my ticket. They also used this to notify me that my stop was coming up. If I had fallen asleep on the return trip, this would have been greatly appreciated.

What Didn't Work
I got to Baltimore's Penn Station way too early. I didn't know what to expect, so I figured I'd give myself a wide margin of error.

The Baltimore light rail only seems to run until 11pm during the week, so I had to take a taxi home for $9 (includes tip). I wanted to make this trip entirely without using a car, but it didn't happen.

The Gershwin Hotel did not have full-size lockers, just small laptop-sized ones. I was able to put by bag in storage though, which worked out just as well.

I did not need to bring my own pillow, towel, or blanket to the Gershwin. This would have significantly lightened my load.

Going to Roosevelt Island in the morning to get some sunrise pictures of the city didn't work as well as I'd hoped. In particular, I wasn't able to get to the southern tip of the island which was closed for construction. From the southern tip, I would have had a much better angle of the UN and possibly the Chrysler Building.

The touristy parts of New York were even more crowded during the week than on the weekend, which was unexpected. I'm guessing this is because the number of tourists is fairly constant, but when you add all the business people that are there during the week, it gets even worse.

The Apple Store on 59th and 5th was insane. I'd been to that one before, but it seemed like there were twice as many people in there this time. Of course, it seems like Apple's market share has about doubled since I was there last, so maybe that was it.

Planning to spend the entire day exploring and taking pictures was a bad idea. I was on my feet at 7am to get some morning pictures of the city. However, my train didn't leave until 9pm. By the late afternoon, my feet were in such pain, that I couldn't even walk around for more sunset pictures. I think this had more to do with the length of time on my feet than the distance traveled.

I took the 400mm lens so I could get some "different" pictures of the city. This only partially worked. It seemed to be too long for most things in such a packed city. I think I will stick to the 70-200/2.8 in the future.

On the whole, my pictures didn't focus on the details enough, which is where NYC really is. I actually did a better job of this last time I went to the city with friends.

I got to New York's Penn Station too early as well. It wasn't as bad as in Baltimore though, since this station was much larger, took more time to figure out, and had many more food options.

I thought I was going to be a bit of a trend-setter by taking the train. I thought the train would be mostly empty. I thought I'd have my choice of window seats. I was wrong. There were many (normal) people taking the train up from DC to Philly and NYC.

The Gershwin Hotel was right next door to the Museum of Sex. Yep.

The Gershwin was fine as a hostel if you'd just looking for a place to sleep. Bring earplugs.

Amtrak was a great way to go to and from NYC, especially solo. Very punctual as well.

New York is in the details. Focus on them.

A medium telephoto zoom is more useful in a city than a long telephoto lens.

Pack light.

Don't overdo it on foot.