Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gearing up for Southern Africa

The following is a guest post from my good friend, Tom Hennen. He and his wife recently returned from a three week trip to southern Africa. I've asked them both to share some of their experiences in a series of blog posts.


One of the first things I learned about Amy, my wife, was that she wanted to go to Africa. So it was no surprise that six years after we’d met we were finally on our way. What was a surprise was how long we’d be gone, three weeks. Three weeks of scrambling over the tops of waterfalls, game drives and walks, death marches to the bottom of large ravines, ostrich riding, exploring caves, harassing penguins, and petting lions.

Knowing that Africa might be a once in a lifetime trip I wanted to document the trip and take some excellent photographs. When we planned the trip, the little photography experience I had was limited to framing photos with our point and shoot. I didn’t know anything about f-stops, ISO or crop factors. Luckily I had about a year to prepare so we purchased a Sony A580. In order to get comfortable with it I started work on a Photo-a-Week project. Each week I’d post a photograph with a different theme. Many of the early weeks were rough, but I eventually got the hang of it and really learned how to use the camera.

When I started the project I was using the kit lens (Sony 18-55 3.5-5.6) and a telephoto zoom (Sigma 70-300 APO 4-5.6). Between the two of these I was definitely getting the range that I wanted, but I didn’t find it very flexible when walking around. I’d often find myself seeing a great shot but having the wrong lens on. To top it off, walking around with both lenses made for a heavy bag. I knew changing lenses on the trip wouldn’t work since there are so many fleeting moments on game drives. I also knew weight would be a problem since I’d be carrying the camera and equipment around all day. With that in mind I wound up buying a super-zoom, the Sony SAL18-250 3.5-6.3. It’s not quite as long as the 70-300, but the flexibility it afforded was well worth it.


Another concern was how I was going to carry the equipment. Theft is always an issue, no less so in southern Africa. Many camera bags scream “steal me” and since we were going through so many border crossings I thought it was important to have something inconspicuous. After searching for a while I chose the ONA Union Street bag. It had plenty of room for my equipment and other essentials like bug spray and sun screen. Most importantly, it doesn’t look like a camera bag.

With the lens and bag issue settled I had my packing list: camera body, 18-250 lens, charger, spare battery, lens cloth, lens pen, dust bulb, and bag. The only remaining question was if I wanted to bring a tripod...

Sunset on the Zambezi

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Zim-Zam Border Crossing

The following is a guest post from my good friend, Amy Hennen. She and her husband recently returned from a three week trip to southern Africa. I've asked them both to share some of their experiences in a series of blog posts.


One of the things that made me the most nervous when contemplating our trip to Southern Africa was the border crossing at Victoria Falls between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The two countries (especially Zimbabwe) are not known for their stability or lack of corruption. I worried we would try to cross the border in either direction and be told we couldn’t without a steep bribe. However, I really wanted to see the falls from both sides so giving up on it was out of the question.

Doing some research before we left meant that we were as prepared as we could have been. We chose to walk across the border; driving is a bad idea if you want to keep costs down, due to the taxes on cars crossing the border.

We got a double entry visa for $45 at the Victoria Falls airport in Zimbabwe, which made it easier and cheaper to leave Zimbabwe and come back. The single entry visa is $30 and you can also get it at the airport, but it’s not clear if you can leave Zimbabwe and come back while the visa is valid.

If we wanted a multi-entry visa for $60 it would have been necessary to get it from the consulate before leaving for Africa. When we got to Zambia, we bought a “day pass” visa at the border in Zambia for $20.

One of the most surprising parts to me was how professional and orderly everything was a both border checkpoints. The people working in customs and immigration were cordial and direct. When there wasn’t a crowd in the immigration office, they were downright friendly.

Apart from the customs and immigration the actual border crossing was remarkable. It’s a walk in the hot African sun of at least 1km once you leave the Zimbabwean border post until you get to the bridge over the Zambezi River. It’s a no man’s land that is dry and desolate. It’s nothing like the lush landscapes of the national parks on the other sides of the borders. When we were there, we saw people actually making tar over a coal fire to repair the road. There are also huge trucks that are constantly zooming by because foot traffic, vehicles, and trains share the limited amount of space.

Another option, which we did not choose, is to leave Zimbabwe, but stay in the no man’s land between the two border posts. You can go through the Zimbabwean border post to the zip line / bungee jump / restaurant spot on the opposite side of the bridge without going through the Zambian border. If you do that, you won’t need to “re-enter” Zimbabwe on the way back, but you need to tell the officials that’s what you’re planning to do because you do not want them to put an exit stamp on your passport.

Once you get to the Zambian border, ignore people who want to “help” you get through immigration; you don’t need the assistance. It’s also best not to get too close to the baboons that hang out at the Zambian border post; you won’t need their assistance either. Once past the gate, the Victoria Falls park is only another .5km on the left; you don’t need to take a taxi, though the drivers can be pushy.

I was glad we researched it ahead of time. We did see one couple who hadn’t prepared for this and didn’t understand that the double entry visa they had did not mean it was good at both borders. They likely wound up “burning” one of their entries when they decided to go back and try again the next day.

Most of all, I was glad we did it. The falls look totally different from the two perspectives the countries offer. Zimbabwe views are close, straight on, and you can feel the mist from the falls. Zambia looks down the falls, so it’s a different perspective. From the Zambia side we hiked down to the Zambezi River and we walked on top of the falls because it was the low season. Viewing the falls from both sides is an absolute must!


View Larger Map


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Awesome Batch

You know it's a good sign when your scanned film comes back from the lab, and the CD jacket has "Awesome batch!" handwritten on it. Needless to say, this required immediate attention. Here are some of the highlights, including semi-recent trips to Philadelphia, DC, and Baltimore.

Old Meets New

Up and Down


NGA Tunnel




Seating the Light

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Thanksgiving weekend.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Just a quick post to remind everyone that FotoWeekDC starts this weekend. If you live in the Baltimore/DC area, you owe it to yourself to head down and check out some of the great lectures and exhibitions. It's also great to be around other people who love photography. We see plenty of photo-enthusiasm online, but physically being there takes it to a whole new level. I hope you can make it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Real Notes from Rome

My original Notes from Rome article wasn't terribly informative about Rome itself, so this is a do-over. I tried to think of questions we had before the trip, and the answers we discovered along the way, so I've opted for a Q&A format. I hope you find it useful.

Alley Parking

Where did you stay?

In a studio apartment rental that I found on Roman Reference. I had a €102.91 down payment and then had to pay the balance of €534.06 in cash on arrival.

May is a popular time to visit Rome, so I booked the apartment near the end of February.

We called the key-holder when we arrived at the FCO train terminal to arrange a time. He was right out front waiting for us when arrived at the front door.

Does FCO have easily accessible payphones?

Yes, at the gates, airport terminal, and train terminal. I ended up using my iPhone4 though. It took a moment to connect to the TIM network, but otherwise worked just fine. I think the one-minute call to the key-holder cost a couple bucks, probably due to initial registration fees and such.

How did you get to your apartment?

Our apartment was located just south of Piazza del Popolo on Via del Corso. We took the Leonardo Express from FCO to Termini, then took the metro A line west to Flaminio station.

Just a heads-up, the Leonardo Express drops you on the far end of Termini Station from the metro lines. It was probably just under 1/2 mile of walking. Just keep following the signs and you'll make it.

Also, the Leonardo Express ticket machines only speak Italian, and appeared to only accept chip-and-pin credit cards. If you buy your tickets from the person at the kiosk, you have to pay cash.

And don't forget to validate your Leonardo Express ticket before you board. There are little validation machines that look like parking meters near the beginning of the platform.

Where did you eat?

We usually ate dinner in the back streets along Via del Corso. If you eat along the main drags, you're going to pay a lot more. Stick to the little places along the alleys and you'll find great food at reasonable prices.

If you keep your eyes open, there are little grocery stores available as well. We found one along Via della Fontanella di Borgese, walking west from Via del Corso. I think there was another one on Via Antonio Canova. Just keep an eye out. They both accepted American Express.

Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina

How did you pay for things?

The amount of cash required in Rome caught me a little off guard. I'm used to paying for everything with a credit card, for the points and the protection. Pretty much all the restaurants accepted credit cards, but a lot of the tourist attractions required cash. There were plenty of ATM's around though.

If you use your credit card in an ATM, remember that it counts as a cash advance, and starts accruing interest immediately. Use your normal ATM card if you can.

How was the water?

We drank the water without any ill effects. However, water pressure is low. The shower in our apartment came out as a trickle. According the owner, all of Rome suffers from low water pressure. At least the water was hot.

Was noise a problem at night?

Even though our apartment was in one of the busier parts of Rome, we didn't have any problems with noise. Our little balcony was on the third floor overlooking a small courtyard. Very serene really.

Roman Courtyard

How did you get around?

There was quite a bit of walking, but since we were near Flaminio station, we opted to get the CIS unlimited weekly ticket for €16 each. It actually worked really well. The bus system is also really useful, albeit confusing. We were able to find a bus map on the wall just inside Flaminio station. As a starting point, pay attention to the bus numbers you see in your area when you arrive. The busses are totally safe too. We even saw small school children riding the bus alone. Believe me, your feet will thank you for using any kind of transit, even if you end up going the long way around.

Short Bus

How much did it cost to rent bicycles?

We only used bicycles on the Appia Antica. It cost about €22 for two bikes for about four hours. They had to be the most rickety bikes I've ever ridden on, but when you hit those cobblestones, you'll understand why. They were otherwise very comfortable bikes with a convenient step-through design. The ride was an amazing experience, with tons of great stopping points; well worth the cost. Traffic was almost non-existent. Remeber to bring your passport along, as you have to leave it with the rental shop while you have the bikes.

Appia Oasis

What did you do for lunch?

On our first day, we went to one of the grocery stores (see above) and picked up cheese, crackers, canned chicken, bananas, and some other snacks. Each day we brought a portion along in our backpack and found a shady bench to relax and enjoy. It really hit the spot.

As a side note, pay attention to the label on the canned chicken. We made the mistake of buying "pollo in geletina" (chicken in jello). It was edible, but definitely less than ideal.

How did you get into The Vatican?

The huge line in front of the Vatican is for St. Peter's Basillica. The Vatican Museum entrance (and line) is on the north side of Vatican City. We got to the museum at about 1pm and didn't have to wait in line at all.

Also, the tour guides in front of the basilica are extremely persistent in trying to get your attention. At first we tried simply ignoring them, but that didn't work at all. If they start trying to offer you a tour, just say, "we're fine," and they'll quickly move on to the next person. They are actually offering legitamate tours (and quick access) for about €40 each, so if you are interested, by all means, talk to them.

I do wish I'd had a my 17-40/4 lens to capture some of the amazing painted ceilings and walls in the museum though.

The Next Room

And the Colosseum?

Buy your tickets for the Colosseum at the entrance to Palatine Hill just south of the Arch of Constantine. The line is much, much shorter.


How did you get back to the airport?

We had a morning flight out of FCO, so we opted to avoid the trains and caught an early (early) cab that was waiting in Piazza del Popolo. Surprisingly, the cab driver was the only Roman we encountered who didn't speak any English at all. However, we were able to overcome the language barrier and get to the airport in record time for just under €50. In hindsight, it would have been helpful to know that the Alitalia flights to CDG are out of Terminal 1.

After a brief series of unintelligable exchanges with driver, he eventually stopped in front of Terminal 1 and simply asked, "A qui?" (here?). I figured we could walk to any other part of the airport if we had to, so I replied, "Si si," and gave him the full 50 to include a little tip, and got out. Surprisingly, he actually tried to give me change, to which I gestured no thanks and said, "Prego," which appears to mean all-things-good.


Go to Rome, but don't over plan it. Have a key objective for each day, but leave time to explore. Rome will not disappoint.

Tiber Night

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Unlimited Color

I know the blog has been lacking color lately. Fortunately, there's an unlimited supply of color photos that I've been meaning to put up. These are a few shots from my trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton in July, 2008. Obviously, they're a little overdue. As always, more on Flickr. Enjoy!

Lake View

Crater Sunset


Hayden Valley Sunset

Teton Layers

Monday, October 10, 2011


I haven't been to MoMA since a date slip-up back in 2008. This time I was going solo, taking advantage of "Target" Free Friday Night after the O'Reilly Strata conference. It was great. The staff had the free tickets laying out on the counter just waiting to be plucked. The longest line I had to wait in was at the bag check.


Sum of Days

The Sum of Days exhibit has to be one of the largest works of art I've ever seen. It's not as big as the Statue of Liberty, but it helps to think of it on that scale. Oh yeah, and it's indoors. If you do go check it out, be sure to go all the way up to the sixth floor to look down on it from above. The railings aren't very high though, so vertigo is not recommended.


Along the way, I stopped to check out van Gogh's Starry Night. As you can see in the picture, he knows how to draw a crowd. When I stopped in the gift shop to pick up a postcard print, I realized that most prints can't possibly do it justice. In addition to being the wrong aspect ratio (too rectangular) the vivid colts and textures just don't come through.

There were too many other amazing exhibits to list out here, so all in can say is, "Go!"

And be sure to stop at The Cart on the opposite corner afterward. When you think you've put on enough white sauce, put on a bit lot more. Somehow I'd forgotten that rule in the past couple years since I'd been there. Even in the rain, there were still plenty of places to sit on the sidewalk and admire The City rising above in every direction. It's a little bit like being on top of a mountain, or looking up at the stars, feeling big and small at the same time.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Forbidden Pittsburgh

Storm Approaches Steel

It seems wrong to banish oneself from a city because of one bad experience. Then again, when a taxi wedges your car up a barrier wall, it tends to leave an impression. I may return some day, but there are too many other places on my list for Pittsburgh to come up again any time soon.

Luckily no one was hurt and the weekend had been good up to that point, with many Xpan opportunities in the steel jungle that is Pittsburgh. If you should decide to go, be sure to check out the Phipps Conservatory (with Chihuly glass), the Dusquene Incline, and downtown, including Point State Park.

And please, watch out for taxis.

Plus Plus



Under Over Under

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Macro in Gunpowder

"I need to photograph some water," said Tom's text message. I was pretty wiped from the hike up to Weverton Cliffs earlier that day, but when a friend needs to photograph some water, who am I to refuse? Eventually we agreed on Gunpowder Falls State Park at 9am the next day.

I still wanted to keep it simple though. I decided to focus on getting some macro shots with the 5D, 50/1.8, and EF25 II while Tom did water shots. By the time we were done though, I didn't think I'd come away with as many good shots as I'd hoped; at least not as many as I got at Patapsco last year. I was wrong.

Dormant Purple

The real stars of the shoot were some very cooperative spiders though. I'm still amazed at the detail of these shots. It seems like a crime to only post the shots at web resolution though, so I've included a couple extra shots at (nearly) full resolution. I never knew a daddy longlegs had eyes like that. And is that the male hanging out underneath? Crazy.

Daddy Longlegs detail

Daddy Longlegs

Here's another spider that was just hanging out in the middle of his web near the ground. Just to give you a sense of scale, his legs spanned about the size of a dime. I didn't even notice the "large" hairs on his legs until I pulled the image up at full resolution.

Spider detail


I also came away with a few interesting leaf structure shots. Mother Nature is clearly a graphic designer.

Natural Symmetry

On and Off

I used the same techniques as I did in Patapsco last time, so check out that article for more info. By the way, the gear I used can be had for about $1000. Happy shooting.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Notes from Rome

Spanish Steps


Day 1 (May 19, 2011): Check into our apartment near Piazza del Popolo, get groceries, eat pizza at 06 Cafe, visit Spanish Steps.
Day 2: Castel Sant'Angelo, Vatican Museum
Day 3: Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, night pictures along Tiber
Day 4: Bike ride along the Appia Antia
Day 5: Basilica San Giacomo, Pantheon, Piazza Nuova, Villa Borghese
Day 6: Ostia Antica


Canon 5D
Canon 24-105/4 L IS USM
Canon 50/1.8
Canon S95 (amazing P&S, BTW)
Canon SD800 (knock-around/backup)
Slik Mini-Pro V tripod
Kelty Basalt backpack
Think Tank Chimp Cage
Think Tank Pee Wee Pixel Pocket Rocket
Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket


Photographic fulfillment can be an illusory beast. While Rome was very personally rewarding, the 10 pictures I took at the Suburban Airport seem more photographically rewarding than all the 450-ish pictures I took in Rome. As a photographer, it's difficult to separate personal fulfillment from photographic fulfillment. If being a visitor automatically makes you a tourist, then how does one find photographic fulfillment in a sea of tourist photography?

Some would say that it's a film vs. digital thing; that shooting film forces you to slow down and take more care on when and how to shoot. To some extent I agree, but there are other, more important factors to consider.

If you are traveling with others, you have to put the group's priorities first. If the group's priority is not photography, then you're simply going to have to make due with the time and place as is. Waiting for the Light does not apply.


So this begs the question, should one bother lugging a DSLR if there's a high probability that most of the photos are going to be of the tourist variety? I'm still not sure. While there's no question that the quality of the photos coming out of the DSLR are going to be higher, there's a lot to be said for lightening your load.

Tiber Night

It really comes back to personal priorities. If you just want to take pictures for the memories, then a point-and-shoot will certainly do the trick. If you're going for more of a photo journalistic approach, then a DSLR and a solid general zoom is probably your best bet. If you want to play Henri Cartier-Bresson, then take a rangefinder with one good prime. And if you want to get all lomographic and artsy, then take a toy camera.

I tend to lean toward the photo journalistic approach, which is why I took the 5D and 24-105/4 as my primary camera. It's a solid combination that's going to reliably come away with good pictures. In other words, it was the safe option. Can great art come from playing it safe though? Is the safe option always the boring option?

I do wish I'd taken a wider lens though. The 17-40/4 would have been great for capturing the immense art and architecture. Whether I should have taken the Xpan is still debatable. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to waste a bunch of film taking tourist photos, but it's hard to shake that romantic Xpan in Rome ideal.

In the end, it's best to be thankful to be on this Earth; even more so if you have a camera in your hand.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Delta, you idiot

I'm going to try to keep this one short. On the way back from Rome last Wednesday, Delta flew us back from CDG to PHL on a 757. A seven-fifty-seven! It might as well have been a 737. I have to say, it was one of the most cramped, uncomfortable flights I've ever been on. You could tell the flight attendants didn't like it either. Serving eight hours worth of food and snacks to all those passengers on a narrow body jet must have been painful.

Delta, I'm sure your accountants thought this was a good idea, but single aisle airplanes have no business crossing the Atlantic. Your passengers don't appreciate it and your employees don't appreciate it. Stick to wide body, two aisle jets like the 767, 777, and eventually the 787. Meanwhile, try moving your accountants' offices to the coach section of a decommissioned 757, then see what bright ideas they start coming up with.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Suburban Airport

Ok, just got back from Rome. The pictures aren't even copied off of the cards yet, so in the mean time, I thought I'd post this article which I meant to post just before I left...



I came across this rustic airfield one evening in early March. It was completely open, without even a fence separating it from the road. TSA would probably have you believe it's a hotbed of terrorist activity, but for a photographer, it's a gold mine. There was only one other car in the lot, and not a soul in sight, so I started wandering around the shacks hangers. I found an old roll of Provia 400F in my bag, so I popped it in the Xpan along with an 81A filter to warm things up (Provia tends to be rather frigid).

After a few shots, a gentleman came out of the "terminal" and started watching me, so I walked over. I told him I saw this place from the road and just had to stop and take a few pictures, if that was ok. He said it was fine, and to be mindful of my surroundings since they occasionally get "B landings." I assume this meant pilots sometimes use this runway as a backup in case they can't land at their intended runway. Please correct me if I'm wrong though.

As I took more pictures, the sleepy winter soul of this place started to show itself. Ten frames later I felt like I'd captured just enough, and left a little for next time. The sun had set, and it was getting cold. Time to go home.