Monday, May 26, 2008

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

Just finished reading Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm. It's a fun read. The 270 pages flew by. Thomas manages to describe each scene in detail without slowing down the pace. He also dispels many of the myths that tend to romanticize travel writing. If you're going on a trip and need a light-hearted and light-weight book to read, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Transporting framed prints

I'm in the process of moving into a new apartment in downtown Baltimore. As with most photographers, I had some framed prints hanging on my walls. Moving them from one place to another can be easier said than done though. I think I've found a cheap and easy way to do it though. I'm using some three-sided cardboard science fair stand-ups I had been using as cheap reflectors. Just lay the frame face-down on the large center portion of the board, then close the flaps and start taping. The trick is to pinch the top and bottom parts of the board together as you're taping, resulting in a nice, snug fit on all sides. I haven't tried any drop tests yet, but I imagine the board would take the brunt of the damage.

Of course, this will also work for unframed prints that you don't want to roll up.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Best view of Baltimore... for now

Exploring the west side of downtown Baltimore can take some guts, even in your car. But on this clear, August day, I was determined to find this particular shot. So many times, I'd seen the Baltimore skyline light up in the evening as I was driving up I-95. So many times I'd wondered where I could set up my tripod when the haze relented. After what felt like a couple of hours of driving up and down the roads near I-95, and a couple of dead ends (eek!), I finally came upon Carroll Park off Washington Blvd. It should have been obvious from the start. The park is basically comprised of flat land with a big hill in on the western corner. Perfect. It also should have been obvious because I could actually see my apartment window from this newfound spot (can you guess which one?). I guess it's all about perspective.

Every now and then I go back to that spot when I think it might be a particularly nice evening. This shot was taken about a month later.

I actually went to that spot again this evening for the first time in months. Unfortunately, the air was not as clear as I'd hoped, nor was the sky as interesting. What caught my attention the most was that one of the trees in the foreground had grown significantly in the past few months, making it impossible to get the same shot. I had no doubt that it was still the best view of the city, but it was like part of my discovery had disappeared.

To go off on a slight rant tangent, in many US State and National Parks, there is a battle between the viewpoints and the trees that always seems to be won by the trees... in the foreground. It seems obvious that the trees weren't in the way when many designated viewpoints were built. Yet no one seems to be willing to cut down/back the foreground trees to preserve the magnificent views. How are photographers supposed to get the shot? More importantly, how are people supposed to be talk about the magnificent vistas if they can't see them? How are they supposed to be motivated to preserve the forest if they can only see the trees? Clearly, a few trees have got to go for the good of the forest.

Anyway, the moment you've all been waiting for...

Carroll Park, Baltimore, Maryland
39° 16.746'N, 76° 38.557'W

Canon 5D
Canon 70-200/2.8
Bogen/Manfrotto 3021PRO tripod with 488RC0 ball head

I didn't have my TC-80N3 at the time, so I just used the mirror lock-up and 2 second self-timer.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Spring Break in Paris

In 2003, my friend, John Etherton, and I got it in our heads to go to another country for spring break. At the time, he had never been to Europe, and I'd only been to the UK. Our other condition was that English could not be the country's primary language. For us, that basically narrowed the list to France and Spain. In the end, we picked Paris because we felt that we could actually tackle a city in a week, and it was a chance to cross off one of the "cities of the world" from our to-do lists.

Friday, February 28, 2003
Depart: ATL (Atlanta), Delta Airlines
Arrive: CDG (Charles de Gaulle), March 1st (Saturday morning)

Accommodations: Woodstock Hostel, 48 rue Rodier 75009 Paris

Saturday, March 8
Depart: CDG, Delta Airlines
Arrive: ATL

One of the aspects that made this trip possible was that we were able to use Delta buddy passes to buy our plane tickets, thanks to John's granddad, who used to work for Delta. A buddy pass is basically a cheap standby ticket ($300 round trip) where you get to fly in any leftover seats on the plane... including first class.

Nikon FA
Nikon F3
Nikon 135/2.8
Nikon Series E 50/1.8
Nikon Series E 28/2.8
Fuji Velvia 50
Fuji Provia 400F

The Nikon FA was a brilliant camera. It was the first camera with Nikon's famous Matrix Metering. In spite of the fact that it was created in 1982, the metering was dead on. It was simple, yet clearly ahead of it's time. There were many, many things I liked about this camera, but I'll let you read some of the online info. If you've got a hankering to go old school, get your hands on one of these.

I borrowed a Nikon F3 from Georgia Tech's photography club for this trip. It's such a solid camera, with such a smooth winding action. I could see why it was the go-to camera for National Geographic photographers for so long. I used it as my secondary camera on this trip so I could have multiple types of film loaded at a time. There were some peculiarities about the F3 though. For instance, it didn't have a hot-shoe, but instead had a special mount off to the side. It also only had center-weighted metering, so it was much less "advanced" than the FA.

The Implications of Shooting Film
There are aspects of shooting film on a trip like this that have been mostly forgotten in the days of digital. I certainly don't reminisce about the days of film, but I figure they should be documented, at least for history's sake.

On this particular trip I shot nine rolls of film, which amounts to about 324 pictures. In the digital world, that would be nothing for a week long trip, but on film, that was a lot.

Film also meant you couldn't switch to a different ISO any time you wanted to, unless you carried two cameras, one with fast film, and one with slow film. There were some days where I might only shoot one roll of film, so before I loaded it, I had to think about what speed I was going to need over the next day.

Furthermore, different films had different color properties, so you had to think about what you were going be taking pictures of during that roll. Vevia was amazing for landscapes, but could murder a portrait. Provia was cold, and therefore was good for city scenes and sports. Astia was mind-blowingly good for skin tones, but too warm for most other things. And then, you always had the choice of black & white for artsy or high ISO needs.

On top of that, you could shoot either negatives or slides. Negatives usually had more stops of latitude, but slide had much better color saturation. There was also some processing latitude with negatives, which meant the shot may have been better or worse than what you got back from the lab. Slides did not suffer from this problem, so if the shot was messed up, you knew it was your fault.

Before I'd made the switch to digital in early 2004, I was shooting almost exclusively slide film, except for my pictures for Technique.

One particular advantage of shooting film is that the cameras require much less power. I would seriously change the batteries in my cameras once every 6 to 12 months. This meant I didn't have to bother with charging batteries every day. This can be huge when you're in the middle of nowhere, or you don't have a place to leave your charger for a few hours.

A disadvantage of film is that you had to worry about x-ray machines. I used a lead-lined bag to protect my film through airport security. I'm told this is only a major issue with high ISO films, but it's better to be safe than sorry when you only have one copy of your pictures.

What Worked
When I'm going on a special trip, I try to do something I call "pre-lagging." The basic idea is that I switch my body's clock to the destination timezone days before I leave. Being a student at the time, my schedule was pretty flexible, so I was able to start getting up at 3AM EST for about five days before the trip. Obviously, this is not very comfortable at first, but more importantly, it meant that I wouldn't have to go through that same discomfort during the trip, and I would be able to take full advantage of my time there.

The buddy passes were a huge hit. We showed up at the airport a few hours early for our first possible flight. Not only did we make it onto the first flight, we got into first class. Just imagine two college students flying first class to Paris on a Boeing 777. It was amazing.

Our train ride from CDG to Gare du Nord didn't give us a very good first impression of Paris. There was a bunch of graffiti and garbage everywhere. I knew Europe was better than that though, so as soon as we finished getting settled at the hostel, I took John down to Notre Dame Cathedral so he could get the right impression. I definitely think it worked.

At least attempting to speak French is important. People often comment on how rude the French are, but the people who don't even try to speak French are the rude ones. I learned just enough French to get around (on top of the Russian class I was taking that semester). The bottom line is that starting with bad French, then letting them make the switch to English is much, much more polite than just starting off with English.

After we were done at Notre Dame, we decided to wander around the Seine for a little while. We made our way into the Latin Quarter where we found some great crepes from a street side vendor.

We thought about heading into the Louvre next, but one of the artists on a nearby bridge was kind enough to tell us that all the museums were free on the first Sunday of every month. We decided to hold off, and do some more exploring instead.

We started each day with a free breakfast consisting of a coffee or hot chocolate and a bagget with jam. The flavor of the jam seemed to be randomly chosen. It was probably the cheapest flavor the good folks at Woodstock could find that day. It was a light breakfast, but it was a good way to start the day. I will say that by the end of the trip, I was really craving a glass of orange juice.

Meeting other people in the lounge was also a good thing. If you're in a new place and want to guarantee that you'll meet some new people, stay in a hostel.

In addition to the lounge, Woodstock also had a very nice little courtyard in the back. The surrounding buildings were a great buffer from the street noise, and it was a nice place to chill in the morning. The courtyard was closed in the evening though to keep noise down since the hostel's private rooms surrounded the courtyard.

We tried to get to the Louvre fairly early so we would have plenty of time inside. Even so, the line was out the door since it was the free first Sunday of March. I imagine it's much worse during the summer, but we didn't have any trouble in March. The Louvre was well worth visiting, and I would definitely go back. John actually wanted to go back on one of the non-free days, but we had plenty of other things to see.

After we were done at the Louvre, we made our way over to Musee d'Orsay. The line was much, much longer than it was at the Louvre. I actually didn't think we'd make it in before the museum closed, but John thought we should give it a try. He was right. The line moved pretty quickly, and we got in with plenty of time to explore. The huge atrium and excellent artwork made this museum at least as worthwhile as the Louvre. Needless to say, I'm glad John convinced me to try going in.

Paris is a beautiful city at night as well. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken a small tripod with me to steady my shots. Even so, I was able to prop the camera up in a few locations and get some night shots. Unlike most cities that just have a bunch of white or yellow or blue lights, Paris seemed to have a wider variety of nice colors to capture. Don't put your camera down when the sun goes down. It is "The City of Light" after all.

After our usual start on Monday morning, we went to the local metro station to purchase a Cart d'Orange metro pass, which was good on the Metro and RER for the rest of the week. Remember that the week starts on Monday in Europe, so don't purchase it on Sunday. The process of buying our passes was interesting because we needed a photo to put on the pass. Luckily, there was a photo kiosk in the station. The interesting part was that the kiosk's interface spoke only French. When you're talking to a person that doesn't speak English, you can usually muddle through some kind of understanding, but with a machine, you just do the best you can. In the end, the machine spit out the pictures we needed and we took them back to the woman at the counter.

Multi-course, combination meals are the way to go in Paris. We walked through the Latin Quarter around sunset and were greeted by owners, managers, and waiters standing outside their little restaurants clapping, whistling, and singing to get our attention. Some of them had a three-course meal for 10-14 euros, which we thought was very reasonable for some authentic French cuisine. Being college students though, we only did that on a couple of the nights we were there.

The weather was still cloudy, so we decided to head over to Les Invalides museum. This was definitely a worthwhile stop that I think most people miss. Even if weapons and military history aren't your thing, I think you could still come away with an appreciation of the elaborate craftsmanship that's gone into weaponry throughout history. The part that impressed me the most though was the World War II section. It basically took up three floors on one corner of the museum. Much of it was devoted to the American war effort, and all of the exhibit descriptions were in both French and English. Apparently, even "surrender monkeys" give credit where it's due. The other extremely impressive part of the museum was Napoleon's tomb. I never thought a country would honor a man who'd crowned himself emperor in such ways.

After Les Invalides, we walked by Ecole Militaire, then made our way through the Champs de Mars to the Eiffel Tower. I highly recommend taking some time to just walk around the Eiffel Tower. It's a bold, yet elegant structure. I used my 135mm lens to try and get some detail shots of various parts of it from different angles.

We decided we should finally check out Sacre Coeur and Montmartre since it was just a few blocks north of our hostel. We made our way up the stairs, which aren't nearly as daunting as they look. The view from the front of the cathedral was amazing, and really gives a good idea of the layout of the city.

We walked around the west side of the cathedral and found a square plaza full of artists (mostly painters) displaying and working on their craft. The one that grabbed our eye the most was a beautiful painting of the skyline of Paris. It used many shades of blue, and had an amazing, roughly textured surface. Unfortunately, the artist wanted 300 euros for the full-size version, and 150 euros for the smaller version. It was about 30x12 inches, so we also had no way to get it home.

We continued to make our way into Montmartre, where we came across an immaculate Audi A1 parked along the side of the road. After we stopped to take a look at it, we saw a sharply dressed man get in. When we looked up the road, we saw a small film crew setting up their camera. We had inadvertently walked into a commercial. The film crew was actually ok with us being there, as long as we stayed on the far side of the road. We stuck around to watch them do a couple of takes of the car going around the corner at high-speed. It was pretty cool.

The weather had finally started clearing up, so after stopping for some pastries in Montmartre, we hopped on the Metro down to Arc de Triomphe. When we came out of the Metro station, we discovered that we were outside of the insane traffic circle around the Arc. John wanted to play frogger through the traffic, but I knew there had to be a better way. After looking around for a second, we noticed that there was an underground walkway. I've heard of people that have made their way through the traffic, but I think they were the lucky ones since Parisian drivers are known as some of the craziest in Europe.

We decided to pay to go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There was a small museum inside that didn't have much to it. The views from the top were excellent though, especially since the weather had cleared up. We could watch the crazy traffic below, and look all the way up and down the Champs Elysees, from the Louvre to La Defense. The view of La Defense was particularly cool.

We walked down the crowded Champs Elysees to Place de la Concorde then split up for a little while so I John could relax and I could get some pictures around the Louvre. Once we got back together, we decided to head over to the Pantheon area.

We came out of the Luxembourg station, and found ourselves in the middle of a huge protest over the planned war in Iraq. Being Americans, we decided to keep moving through the crowd and keep our mouth's shut. After watching the protest for a little while, it was really more of a parade and dance party. We also found out that the students of Paris skipped school that day as part of their protest. One of the trucks in the parade was loaded down with huge speakers blasting dance music with a large crowd of young people dancing behind it. Clearly, this was the popular place to be, so the group of actual protesters was probably much smaller than the crowd.

We went into the Pantheon for a little while, then made our way back down Boulevard Saint-Michel to a fast food place called Quick. In there, we talked to a couple of French guys who told us that the protest had actually been anti-Bush and anti-war-in-Iraq and was not anti-American, which made us feel better.

After dinner, we stopped in a nearby record store (that sold actual records) and decided to explore some of the titles in there for a couple hours. I can't even remember the name of the place, but if you can find it, I recommend checking it out.

One of the other reasons we chose Paris was that John knew a couple of girls from UNC that were there for the semester. After multiple attempts to call them, we finally met up on Thursday at a modern art museum where they were having one of their field trips. The professor was kind enough to let us tag along as he gave the tour. He got annoyed when John reached over and tried to move an exhibit consisting of cars that had been crushed into a big cube. John is a hands-on person, so to him it was just a bunch of crushed cars, but to the professor, it was art.

When we were done at the museum, the UNC girls needed to pick up some Eurail passes to go to the Alps, so John and I followed them through the Metro system. To this day, I have no idea where we went, but we did get to see how much variety there was in the different Metro stations. Eventually we made it back to the Louvre area where we found a place with some great creme brulee.

The girls knew I was into photography, so they decided to show us a secret spot on top of La Samaritaine at sunset. The view was indeed amazing. I was able to get some cool shots of the sunset reflecting off the Seine River with the Eiffel tower in the background. I can't remember the exact details of how we got on top, but I do recall that we had to go to the top floor, then go through some random door in the back of the store. Unfortunately, it appears the store closed in 2005 for major renovations.

We decided to try getting out of downtown to explore some of the outskirts of Paris. Our Cart d'Orange passes would only take us as far as La Defense, so we went there first. It was an interesting switch from the classical architecture of downtown to the modern, corporate architecture of La Defense. It was still a worthwhile stop though, especially since we could get a good look at La Grande Arche, and look all the way down the Champs Elysees to the original Arc de Triomphe. We also saw another car commercial being shot in the main plaza in front of the Arche.

The UNC girls had recommended we check out a St. Germaine en Laye, which was one of the endpoints of the RER, so we bought tickets from La Defense out to there. Overall, it was a neat suburb, with some beautiful homes, and a good view of the Seine, La Defense and Paris in the distance.

What Didn't Work
Charles de Gaulle is an odd airport. It seems open and airy with lots of glass, but at the same time, it can be smoky, smelly, and crowded. Our first impression of the airport was actually before we ever reached the terminal. The airport doesn't have many gates, so instead our plane just parked out in the middle of the tarmac, at which point several elevating buses arrived. The buses rose up, loaded, lowered, drove to a gate, rose up, and unloaded. John and I basically agreed that it seemed like a hack.

On our first day in Paris, we went to a convenience store near the hostel to buy a phone card. The pay phones in Paris don't take change, so we had to have the card to call home and to call the UNC girls. It was about 7.50 euros to 50 "minutes." What we didn't know was that the minutes would tick off much faster depending on where we were calling. We burned through about 15 minutes with two, two minute calls home.

In addition to long distance calls, the Telecart burns faster if you place a call to a cell phone. In Europe, incoming cell phone calls are free, but that means the caller has to pay more. It's kind of an odd system, since the caller needs to know if they're calling a cell phone to know how much they need to pay. However, it did foster the rapid adoption of cell phones in Europe.

We decided to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower on Monday, which was a cold and cloudy day. In hindsight, I wish we'd held off until the weather improved. At the time though, we didn't know if the weather would improve, plus I think we had the mentality of getting the major things out of the way early, which wasn't really necessary. On the plus side, the weather may have kept the crowds down, but we can't be sure.

Paris basically closes at sunset during the week. John and I didn't realize this at first, so when we went out looking for pastries one evening, we accidentally wandered into the red light district near Moulin Rouge. John was almost assaulted by one of the pimps along the way because he thought he knew what John wanted. We weren't looking for that, and we knew better than to follow some guy down some dark alley. Needless to say, we returned to the hostel with no pastries.

The hostel had a small refrigerator, so we thought we'd be smart and go to the grocery store for a few lunch items, so we could make sandwiches all week. It really didn't pan out. We didn't have the proper utensils, and we never really knew what our plans were going to be. I do recommend checking out the extremely compact grocery stores though; everything you need in a tiny place.

At one point we were on one of the Metro trains, when we heard some loud American girls going on about how they found it so annoying that people wouldn't speak English to them. It made me feel a little ashamed to be associated with them in any way. Remember that even in a foreign country, there are others that speak your language, so don't mouth off as though no one can understand you. In the case of these girls, I think I would have pretended not to speak English too.

On Wednesday night, John and I decided to check out the view from Sacre Coeur. For some reason, we decided to race up the steps. This was not a good idea since I was carrying my camera gear. I managed to pull my right knee, which crippled my ability to walk for the rest of the week.

The lounge at Woodstock Hostel was sometimes very smoky in the evening. One night, someone was smoking something in there that just made my throat raw for the rest of the week. I believe the smoking laws have changed somewhat since, but just be aware that smoking is very popular in Paris.

When we were done enjoying the views in St. Germaine en Laye, we tried to walk back to the station through the woods, but we got lost and found ourselves near some kind of French military installation. We made our way along the road, which luckily took us back into town. We did not have a detailed map of the area though, so we had to wander the streets until we eventually found the RER station. A GPS (which was not as common back then) or even a compass would have helped greatly.

On Saturday morning, we got up and packed to get to the airport early. The plan was to ride the RER as far as our Cart d'Orange passes would take us, then buy a ticket for the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the train didn't stop at the last station in our zone, so we had to ride it all the way to the airport. When we got there and put our tickets in the turn-style, it wouldn't let us through. We looked around for a ticket machine, but couldn't find one. We had no choice but to hop the turn-style. Luckily, no one said anything to us about it, and we went on to our terminal.

The Metro stations are somewhat basic and exposed compared to American subway stations. For instance, all of the local utilities might be strung over the station's roof, then hung off the sides. In addition, the doors to the Metro trains don't open on their own. There's a latch you have to pull in order to open the door. Fortunately, the latches won't open the door when the train is in motion.

On our walk from the hostel to to Anvers Metro station every day, we had to walk through a children's playground. Instead of grass, it had some kind of cheap astroturf. I felt a little sorry for the kids not having real grass to pay in.

The other thing that caught my attention was that all the children speak French. Obviously, this makes sense, but at the time I subconsciously thought of all foreign languages as second languages, so it took me some time to wrap my brain around the idea of little kids speaking another language better than me. The funny part was that I could tell the kids were saying basically the same things they do in America, and that parents have to say the same things to them; "why?"; "say please", "say excuse me".

Water is not cheap in Paris. In fact, wine is cheaper than water. The French seem to have a natural aversion to drinking the water because they think there are bad things in it. This means they also don't use ice. In fact, they don't like cold drinks because they feel it goes against the natural temperature of their stomachs, and is therefore bad. Also make sure you know that there aren't any free refills in Europe.

Green means clean in Paris. The French have gone to a lot of trouble to make color-coordinate their garbage-related stuff to green. Everything from their garbage bags to their street-sweepers are green.

Stores in Paris seem to be grouped together by type. For instance, you'll find all the clothing stores together, all the antique stores together, etc. We could not determine if this was some form of zoning thing, or just the way the stores grouped themselves together over time. It was probably the latter.

Bring a compass just to stay oriented.

If you're going to be in Paris for a week, try to go for a Cart d'Orange if you can.

The Eyewitness Top 10 Guide to Paris seemed to serve us well.

You can cover Paris much more efficiently if you plan, but be open to random exploration. Leave unplanned time.

Don't bother trying to drive around Paris. The Metro/RER is an extremely effective way to get around.

Make sure you take time to sample the French cuisine, even if food isn't your thing.

Try to make it to the museums on the first Sunday of the month, but get there early, especially during summer.

Don't assume other people around you can't understand what your saying just because you're speaking English.

Paris doesn't always look good or smell good, but that adds to the character.

If you want to meet other people, stay in a hostel.