Desert Solitaire

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“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” – John Muir, 1923

Back in college in my US Environmental History class we read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It rocked my world. With other assigned readings that included Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and The Control Of Nature by John McPhee it solidified the class as one of my favorites during my four years at Santa Barbara. I remember being surprised that a history course, and one in the Environmental Sciences department, would assign such a prose-laden and literary piece of work. My friends and I thoroughly loved the instructor and the course.

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.” – Edward Abbey

My trip with my Mom to Sedona whet my appetite for more. More space. More wildnerness. More cold, elevated air. More hot, sweaty hikes. More ascent. More sunsets and sunrises. More foliage. More silence. Which is all the more remarkable since the desert is the epitome of minimalist. Creatures survive against reason in this land. Plants have innovated ways to store water against all odds. It’s the terrain of survivors.

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“Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” – Edward Abbey

Perhaps my California upbringing makes me particularly attuned and sensitive to this phenomenon. This intricate balance that seems to be teetering on the edge.

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“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” – Joan Didion

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Lately, I have become acutely aware of my bias for the wilderness and the wild out West. It is not the fault of the East that it is older and wiser, that its peaks have been denuded and that its shores slope gently and slowly into the mild ocean. But I prefer the dramatic landscape, the cliffs given to hyperbole, the valleys pushing away from the sky, the ocean that roars to make its presence known and that threatens homes perched precariously above. The Wild out West is still in its geologic adolescence. It shows off, it is excessive, it can’t control itself, and it is changing.

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I am beginning to believe that perhaps New England has some of this. It will of course feel different. Will it feel steeped in age and tradition, the East Egg of our landscape? Will it have the wild spirit of the West? Will it prove itself the original?

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The West seems hard to beat. It is the place of dreams, the trail left behind in America’s search for its Manifest Destiny before it collided with the Pacific Ocean.

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“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself….A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck

 

Sedona

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I suppose it was about a month ago now that I visited Sedona with my mom. I’ve finally gotten around to editing photos and exporting them in various file formats for printing, blogging, etc. Sometimes I think there has to be a more efficient way than my current process that I just don’t know about. It helps that I took a sick day today and was finally able to work on photography in between sniffles and tissues. My day of being stuck inside my apartment and being forced into sedentarism, a word I just created, actually flew by. It was aided by an episode of Homeland and a documentary on Kobe Bryant.

So, I really didn’t know what to expect from Sedona. My mom and I had originally planned to meet up in Tahoe, but sort of ad hoc decided randomly upon Sedona instead. I’d never been, but she had and she guaranteed me that spending six days there was still not enough to see and do everything. Though skeptical of this claim, I happily booked a flight and the trip then sort of disappeared to the back of my mind. It wasn’t until the day before that it really hit me I was leaving the next day. In hindsight, I think it made the trip even more enjoyable for me because I didn’t have a chance to start creating expectations of the trip. At the last minute, I grabbed a copy of Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck off my bookshelf, which I had pilfered from a friend last year out of a bag of books she was getting rid of. It turned out to be the perfect read for the flight there and back, and is just as timely and relevant now as it was back in 1962.

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“It is impossible to be in this high spinal country without giving thought to the first men who crossed it, the French explorers, the Lewis and Clark men. We fly it in five hours, drive it in a week, dawdle it as I was doing in a month or six weeks. But Lewis and Clark and their party started in St. Louis in 1804 and returned in 1806. And if we get to thinking we are men, we might remember that in the two and a half years of pushing through wild and unknown country to The Pacific Ocean and then back, only one man died and only one deserted. And we get sick if the milk delivery is late and nearly die of heart failure if there is an elevator strike. What must these men have thought as a really new world unrolled – or was the progress so slow that the impact was lost? I can’t believe they were unimpressed.”

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Now, before your mind goes to correcting me, I realize the inaccuracy of the quote, and the misplacement of it here in a post about Sedona, Arizona. But still, that is the spirit that unexpectedly permeated my trip to the southwest. I realized, with a fleeting sense of sadness but more wonder, that that type of discovery is not only a relic of a bygone era, but also that no such trip would be possible today. We can explore places that expand our worldview, challenge our assumptions, break down biases, but from here on out we will always know someone has been there before. I began to wonder what left in the world remains uncharted? Placing myself in the shoes of Meriweather Lewis, I realized the great sense of curiosity, mission and adventure that must have taken hold of his soul.

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I was so interested by imagining walking two moons in this man’s moccasins that I got a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, a biography about Lewis and the expedition he led across the Louisiana Purchase to discover just what President Jefferson had bought.

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“Ocian in view! O! The joy.” – William Clark

If I were ever to get a tattoo, which is 95% unlikely, I would probably get this quote. I guess he jumped the gun and too quickly misidentified the body of water he was seeing, but the sense of adventure in it, and the happiness they must have felt at seeing what they thought was the Pacific Ocean after an incomprehensibly arduous journey, is a sentiment that stirs something in me. Plus, I always am joyous when I see the Pacific Ocean.

It’s my contention that it is impossible to take a bad photo in Sedona. The trip reinvigorated my atrophying attention and effort in photography. The past few weeks, where I’ve found time to dabble around in lightroom, I’ve tried some new editing techniques, trying to parse it down and lightly touch the photos. Like a woman’s makeup, I am trying to use editing tools to play up the natural spectacular features of the image rather than recreate something that is not there. I am quite pleased with how my Sedona photographs have turned out so far.

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I signed up for an art class. Just a two week course that focuses on photography printing and matting. We are supposed to bring two images to class that we will work with, and by the end we will have them printed and prepared for framing. As I’ve looked around, DC does have more art courses than I originally suspected. This particular one I will be taking at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW). I will let you all know how it goes!

Camera Shopping

So, you want to start taking photos. Or, you want to start actively improving your photography skills. I’m no expert, but fellow blogger and friend The Dame in Spain wondered aloud about cameras, and I decided that since I’ve read into it perhaps a bit more than the average bear, and have some hands-on practice with different cameras and lenses, I’d weigh in with my opinions.

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Street scene in Beograd, Serbia. Shot using a Canon 6D and 50mm 1.8 lens.

First off, I’m going to discuss cameras and lenses for every day use type things, like food shots, lifestyle captures, and my favorite, travel. Most important thing probably is to know that the lens is more important than the camera body if we’re talking DSLRs here. I just had to look that up, it’s “digital single-lens reflex” camera. These are the bodacious ones you see nearly everyone carrying around these days. True story: I saw these listed as great hipster accessories. “Accessories?” Sure, if you have hundreds of Benjamins to drop on an accessory. Whatever, buzzfeed. When I travel, I must say I quite blend in with the other Asian tourists (thas raycess) since I swear, everyone and their mother (well, not my mom), has a DSLR these days.

As a tangent, I wouldn’t overlook the convenience of using a smaller point-and-shoot for travel. That might be blasphemous to say in the photography realm, but the first camera I traveled around with was a Nikon COOLPIX point and shoot, and it really was foundational for me as I learned how to manipulate light. Because really, in my unprofessional opinion, that’s what separates a DSLR from a point-and-shoot: greater power to manipulate what light you have. If you go this route, make sure you have some manual capability on the camera, like I did with the Nikon COOLPIX, so you start to learn about aperture and shutter speed. The reason my mom does not have a DSLR is because I got her a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas, and it was a beefed up version of my first camera. I got her the Nikon COOLPIX L830. She will be able to do everything she wants to do with it, without sacrificing quality for her purposes. There is also a semi-new product out there called the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) that is also compact, but more on that later. Oh, and one last thing, don’t worry too much about how many megapixels the camera has. Most cameras these days have plenty.

There are a lot of resources on the internet about photography. At the end of this post, I’ll list some of the blogs and resources I’ve turned to repeatedly. One caution that is nearly obligatory is, as they say: the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s only to say, you can have the greatest equipment in the world but if you are caught in a moment without it, and all you have is, say, your iPhone, then guess what? Your iPhone just became your best camera. If you’re never going to lug around a heavy DSLR, then you shouldn’t get one. Easy as that. In fact, I bought a lens off a guy I found on Craigslist. The reason he was selling all his equipment was that he had decided he really only needed his iPhone. It was the best camera for him.

Santorini dinner

Santorini, Greece. Shot using my Canon 6D and 24-105mm lens.

But back to equipment. After fiddling with my Nikon point-and-shoot pretty intensely for about a year or so,* I decided to go the DSLR route because I wanted to have more control over manipulating light. I wanted to be able to dial down the aperture (i.e. open the “eye” of the lens more) in low light situations or to capture fast-moving objects with a quicker shutter speed. Since I was shooting handheld, vice using a tripod, and since I was using natural light instead of a flash, aperture and shutter speed were big deals to me. So, I took the plunge and bought what is often considered the ideal entry-level DSLR: the Canon T3i. I got it on Craigslist. It came with a kit lens of 18-55mm; pretty standard. I never shot with that lens. If you can, just buy the body. I also found a 50mm 1.8 canon lens on Craigslist. Dame in Spain, I recommend this setup for you if you’re truly committed to learning how to use a DSLR. I still use the 50mm 1.8 lens, even though I’ve since upgraded changed which Canon body I use. That’s because the lens is the best bang for your buck in the photography world. Yep, the whole world. I’ve entertained the thought of getting the 50mm 1.4, which is a “faster” lens (wider aperture) to yield even better bokeh (the nice blurred background effect), but am not convinced it’s worth the extra money. Notice the bokeh in the below images. On the left, I use the shallow depth of field to focus attention on the ice cold diesel coffee sitting in front of me (Canon 6D, 24-105mm lens). On the right, to make a photo of the rose garland more interesting (Canon T3i, 50mm lens).

Austin coffee Turkish garland

So, to get a little more specific, the T3i is what they call a “crop sensor” camera, which is different than a “full frame” camera. “Full frame” indicates that the sensor is 24mm x 36mm, which harkens back to film days when people shot on 35mm film. “Crop sensor” is anything smaller than that. Here, here, and here are some more articles on this. The reason I went with the T3i was because of price and ubiquity. I could easily find one on Craigslist for the price I was willing to pay. I decided also to go with Canon instead of Nikon because I think at the time, I decided the lens family was one I wanted to be loyal to. This becomes important once you start acquiring more lenses.

After a while, I wanted to be able to shoot wider angle shots. Instead of buying a new full frame body, I bought the 10-22mm lens (also on Craigslist) to “imitate” the full frame. I put imitate in quotes because people are always trying to “upgrade” to a full frame because they think it’s better. I think you can make a case for either. With a crop sensor, your lenses will magnify things more, so you arguably save on that side of the equation, but sacrifice on the wide angle perspective a bit. Here are some shots using the wide angle:

San Blas fisherman San Blas boat San Blas wide angleIn the case of the local fisherman and the boat, I was standing only a few feet away, but because of the wide angle lens, was able to capture a large swath of scenery. Had I been using, say, a 85mm lens (common portrait lens), I could have focused the viewer’s attention more on the fisherman’s face, had I wanted to tell that story.

At this time, I also had salvaged some lenses from when I was much younger, when my dad gave me a Pentax camera and some lenses to go along with that. And here’s where the * comes into play from above. The Nikon wasn’t my first foray into photography. When I was younger, I played around with an old Pentax film camera, took some classes, and still keep some of the lenses to this day. I discovered that for about $3-5, I could get an adapter that I could affix to the old lenses so that they’d be compatible with my T3i body. So, with the T3i, I was shooting with the 50mm, 10-22mm, which were both Canon, and also the 135mm and 28mm, both Pentax. I excitedly researched the old lenses one day, hoping I’d have miraculously saved, in my infinite wisdom and foresight as a child, some really valuable pieces of glass, but alas, they are just mediocre. But, they allowed me to practice with some different lenses. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate that I have tried a few more lenses than just the 50mm, but still recommend that one for lifestyle and travel photography. It’s the common photojournalist lens, along with probably the 35mm, because it lends a perspective that is similar to what the human eye sees.

So, to end this long ramble, after another year or so traveling around a bunch with the T3i and really enjoying myself, I decided I wanted to change yet again to another body and lens set, so I used a bunch of acquired credit card reward points one day on a killer deal at Amazon. I got the Canon 6D (full frame) with a “kit” lens of the 24-105mm, a lens that on its own costs over $1,000. The credit card points, Amazon deal, and money from selling the T3i body made it so that I paid around $300 for the new body and lens. Sí, es increíble. I noticed that Amazon would once in a blue moon drop its prices on certain camera and lens combinations; I lucked out and spotted this one at a convenient time. I did agonize over the Canon 5D Mark ii/i for a while, but eventually determined that, while being the popularly used camera by a lot of the bloggers I follow, the price tag wasn’t for me. Here is a set of really informative and interesting metrics on popular cameras and settings for Reuter’s 2012 photos of the year.

Sarajevo mosque Sarajevo mosque

There are lots of other things I could go on and on about, but I think the best advice is to just get what you can put your hands on, and start taking shots and learning. The great thing that I think made me stick with photography this second time around and that alleviated some of the frustrations and patience-requirements of the learning curve when I was younger is the arrival of digital photography. You can take however many photos you want and there’s no extra cost of film development. This means you can take 10 millions shots of the same subject and switch the shutter speed or make minor adjustments to the composition or the angle you’re standing at without worrying about the cost of it all. And, on top of all that, you get instant gratification. You can immediately see how the image will look and adjust accordingly.

Hope this post helped! As promised, here are some of the blogs I’ve found helpful. I also sometimes stalk my favorite bloggers or photographers and try to dig up their tips and tricks, sometimes found in their FAQ pages, or through interviews.

http://www.KenRockwell.com
http://www.lightstalking.com
Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin

Speaking of food photography, I really like the photographs by Molly Yeh at http://mynameisyeh.com/ who I’m pretty sure uses VSCO in post-processing, as well as Katie Quinn Davies’ work at http://www.whatkatieate.com/, and the dark and dramatic images at http://ladyandpups.com/. As far as coffee table books go, I found a copy of Annie Lebovitz’s At Work at a used bookstore, got a signed copy of Women of Vision at a NatGeo event, and also have Steve McCurry’s book Untold, all of which I really like.

This is kind of sparse, and does not contain everything I’ve read (obviously). In general, if I’m curious about something, I’ll look it up, and I haven’t yet been let down by crowd-sourcing the answers. “What is HDR?” for example. But Ken Rockwell’s page is great. I’ve also talked to journalists about what they use, attended events at NatGeo, and struck up conversations with photographers on airplanes. Seems like a friendly community, so I wouldn’t hesitate asking people you meet.

Tope Costa Rica Aya Sofya chandelierAbove: LEFT – Tope festival, Costa Rica; Nikon COOLPIX, RIGHT – Hagia Sofia, Istanbul; Nikon COOLPIX.

Switch Up

Switching it up on ya here. I’ve been posting a lot from Greece recently. While there are still a number of photos I want to share from that region, I figure it may be more exciting to break with chronology and share random photos from the past few years that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve also been reviewing other photography blogs, and have really liked thematic posts, such as Steve McCurry’s “Language of Hands” post. Maybe one day I’ll be able to string together images like that…

Also, for those of you who follow along with email updates on my blog, I just sold my soul and created a facebook page for A Heightened Sense of Things. I’m trying it out to see if it motivates me a bit more to post, knowing that some more folks are looking at what I’m sharing. You can find me at: https://www.facebook.com/heightenedsense. I may be doing a photo giveaway or something to celebrate the blog’s first birthday in a couple months. Like my page to stay posted!

And as always, thanks for the support!

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Swim in the Sea

Live in the sunshine
Swim in the sea
Drink the wild air.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paros | GreeceOn this particular day in Paros, we rented bikes from a shop along the waterfront in Parikia, and adventurously set off, sans map, to explore the island. We knew we had to get up and over a small set of hills in the center of the island that served as a geographic divider between the towns of Parikia and Naoussa.

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We stopped near the top of the first killer set of hills to take in the view.

Pedaling on, we finally crested and cruised, exhausted by our rickety rental bikes, onto the windswept roads along the beaches on the other side of the island. Our efforts were rewarded by beautiful beaches tucked away into coves of wrinkled rock.

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Once Upon A Dream

I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream
I know you, that look in your eye is so familiar a gleam
And I know it’s true, that visions are seldom all they seem
But if I know you, I know what you’ll do
You’ll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.

Putting together this post, and reliving the tucked away alleys of Santorini, I recall this song. I performed this song once at a piano recital. Googling it reveals this version by Lana Del Rey, that I’m now in love with. Her eerily slow voice makes these winding walls seem all the more intriguing, if not slightly claustrophobic.

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