Friday, December 2, 2016

Come back to the Smokies

Foothills Sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Canon EOS 1D Mark II, 70-200mm

It's hard for any of us with a connection to "the Smokies" to not feel a sense of pain, loss and grief over the horrendous wildfires which so far have claimed at least 13 lives and destroyed 1,000 or more homes and buildings in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area.  The destruction is wide and deep.  Many people literally escaped with the clothes on their back.  It is a tragedy so enormous that it's hard to fully grasp.

But in the depths of this tragedy there is resilience and perseverance.  You see it in the firefighters who have refused to go home and rest, instead catching a few hours of sleep on the pavement so that they can continue to try to save what can be saved.  You see it in the people who have already committed to rebuilding their homes and businesses.  You see it in the folks who are helping each other, including Dolly Parton's offer of $1,000 a month for up to six months for people who've lost their homes and belongings.

Mountain folk are like that.  Strong.  Resilient.  They've known hardships and have persevered.  They will likely bury the dead, heal the injured and persevere.  God bless them in this.  But they can't do it alone.  They need us.

Obviously they need us to help support the organizations bringing relief to those affected by the fires. They need us to stay away while the rescue personnel are doing their jobs so we don't get in the way.  But then they need us to come back.  

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains intact.  So does the core of downtown Gatlinburg.  Dollywood is reopening.  Townsend escaped the wildfires.  The worst thing we can do for ourselves and for the people of the area is to be reluctant to come back.  The mountains are still there.  They will call us in the spring to see the renewal of life.  There will still be deer shedding their winter coats in Cades Cove.  The dogwood will bloom again along the rivers and streams.  And even at some point the "touristy tacky" parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge will again compete with Wisconsin Dells for the crown of "ugliest city in America."

Tourism -- that's us -- is the economic engine of the Smokies.  When it's safe to return, we should. Getting life back to normal as quickly as possible will be the greatest help in healing those who are hurting.  They need us.  So come spring let's make it a point to come back.  Yes, it may be a little difficult at times to avoid focusing on what was destroyed but then we should -- and must -- turn our attention to what remains and what is is being renewed as it always has been and will be.  Have faith and all will go well.

Little River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Canon 40D, 24-105mm

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Endangered Species: Camera stores

Tunnel View at Daybreak, Yosemite National Park, California
Fujifilm X-T2 XF 18-55mm

Camera stores were funky places.  Most of them were run by photographers who parlayed their love into a business.  Some were good business people, some not.  Others were run by people who knew little about cameras -- a couple I know of actually had sales people wearing shirts and ties which, except for shooting a wedding or some formal event is grossly overdressed.  Some were large stores with huge inventories, others mom-and-pop places and there were a lot in between.  One thing in common is that they are rapidly dying off and we are not the better for it.

I must be up front and say that some of these stores were there own worst enemies -- arrogant, overpriced, misleading -- but others simply fell victim to changing economic times and often an inability to keep up with them.  Kenosha is down to one store, Rode's, which has limited hours and limited stock.  Racine's Camera World store closed years ago.  Calumet Photo in Chicago and nationwide is gone.  So is Shutan and Helix is down to one store with a smaller stock.  There were four or five camera stores in Monterey, California recently but now it's down to two and one is no longer open weekends or downtown.  Sam's Camera in Kalispell, Montana is gone along with two other competitors.  Jackson, Wyoming had three or four stores a few years ago.  Only one is left.

The most recent casualty seems to be Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, California, recently shuttered after 51 years in business.  This was a full-line store (actually two stores, one across the streets from the other with one featuring used gear) in a college town (Stanford) that isn't Podunk.  The owner was quoted as giving several reasons why business is down -- online competition, discount stores like Costco and high sales tax rates.  I found out about this today when I drove there to buy some accessories and the doors were closed and the shelves bare.

Montara State Beach, California at sunset
Fujifilm X-T2, XF 18-55mm

Local camera stores are important places.  They don't just sell cameras, they sell knowledge and camaraderie.  I remember well walking into The Camera Company in Madison 37 years ago and walking out with what I needed to start a darkroom.  They also sold me cameras, lenses, strobes and a lot of chemicals.  They had competition, too, now all gone.

The strange thing is that people are taking lots of photos these days but are using iPhones instead of Nikons and printing is done at Walgreens or on your own printer, not by Kodak or a local lab.  People are buying cameras at Amazon, Costco, Sam's Club and what's left of Ritz Camera (which wasn't much of a real camera store, anyway).  The funny thing is that all you get from these places is a box with a price tag that's sometimes even higher than a local store's.

I buy my camera bodies at local stores.  My two main cameras now were purchased at National Camera Exchange in Minnesota and Vistek in Toronto.  The pricing was as good or better and the service was much better.  I've purchased camera bodies and lenses from many other stores, most all too happy to ship them to be.  Because of what's called MAP (minimum advertised pricing) F-11 in Bozeman, Montana could sell me a Canon camera body for the same price as B&H in New York or Amazon.  The bonus is when I am shooting in Yellowstone and need something photography related F-11 is there for me.  Same with Pro Photo Supply in Portland when I am in the Pacific Northwest.  And I've bought camera and lenses from stores in Spokane, Peoria, Dallas, Kalamazoo, Indianapolis and even B&H, Adorama and Berger Brothers in New York which are also local stores.

If you buy a camera at Best Buy you're probably being overcharged and, even if not, you are anyway because you don't get the knowledge and personal service that you would at most local camera stores.    If you don't shop local stores they will simply keep dying off and then, guess what?  Higher prices and poorer service due to less competition.

So, let me make this plug for you to do as much business as you can at a local camera store.  We need to keep them alive and their business flowing.

Bridal Veil Falls on a windy day, Yosemite National Park, California
Fujifilm X-T2, XF 18-55mm

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Seeing Beauty

Tunnel View after sunset, Yosemite National Park, California
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm
Have you ever had difficulty seeing the beauty in something that didn't quite look or seem terribly good at first impression?  I have  --  more often than I'd like to admit.

Earlier this month when I was in Yosemite National Park I had some unusually good photo opportunities but they came at the expense of capturing some of the "usual" ones.  Sunset at Tunnel View was not to be for me that evening.  

Instead of leaving I stood around and looked for what I may not have seen at first glance.  The warmth of sunset vanished and was replaced by cool, flat light.  I gave the scene a few more looks and decided that I would try to capture it in black and white.  I think it was a good choice not to abandon it without giving it another change.

Isn't it that way with other things in our lives?  

Recently I had a woman in front of me in court who returned to the apartment from which she had been evicted to retrieve the personal property that the movers left behind.  A deputy sheriff who oversaw the eviction told her not to come back and testified that the movers put everything of obvious value in storage.  A neighbor saw the woman go back into the apartment and called the police.

Sounds like a clear case of trespassing, right?  

There's more to the story.  The defendant was homeless and a chronically mentally ill single mother with two children who isn't getting any child support from their father.  The things left behind in the apartment were of value to her and she went back inside to get them,  And despite the strikes against her she has her illness under reasonable control and works at a low-wage job to support her children.

Clearly she was trespassing and I found her guilty which was to her undoubtedly yet another "failure" in her life.  Before imposing sentence I asked her to tell me about herself and anything else she thought I should know.  She threw in the towel and had nothing much to say.  So I asked her to tell me something good about herself because I was sure she was pretty used to hearing about all the not so good things.  Slowly we talked about her work, her challenges and her children.  

I could have viewed this woman as a lawbreaker caught once again.  But I wanted to take another look.  Was the glass half full or half empty?  Yes, she was wrong but if you put yourself in her shoes, what would you have done?  Obviously she was doing about all she can to keep it together and support her children, a tough task for most people with limited income but even rougher when you're chronically mentally ill.  

I fined her $100 -- less than the prosecutor wanted but actually pretty stiff when you consider that it's about half of her weekly take home pay. 

Sometimes taking another look at something turns out that you see it differently than you did at first.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Horsetail Falls

Horsetail Falls, Yosemite National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm
Fishermen often talk about "the one that got away" and for me Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park was like that for many years.  I was in Yosemite ostensibly at "the right time" but Mother Nature didn't get the memo.

Until last week.

Horsetail Falls is really misting water falling downward that during parts of February can become passionately illuminated just before and at sunset.  It doesn't always happen but when it does it's a special occasion -- one, I might add, that's shared by hundreds of people who often have waited for hours for "the right shot."

Despite being a "captive audience" it's not a glum one.  Families picnic, sometimes inviting their temporary "neighbors" to share food and drink.  Photographers offer up their stories and tips for getting a good shot.  Park rangers who once were persnickety about where people parked finally came up with a better idea: temporarily close one of the two lanes on the one-way westbound road so that people could park there.  It's kind of like a football game where people are tailgating together, happy with a victory and sad for a loss but happy for the company along the way.

There are, of course, parallels to life here.  If you want something, showing up is half the battle and sticking with it the rest.  You might not always succeed on the first try -- or maybe the second or third.  But eventually patience and perseverance is likely to win out.  If you get discouraged and give up you'll never succeed.  And even if you didn't get "the shot" you've had the fellowship of kindred spirits.   Life is good.

Horsetail Falls at sunset, Yosemite National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

Note:  It doesn't take a lot of equipment to shoot this but the right gear on hand is critical.  A lens with a 200-300mm effective range, a circular polarizer, a remote shutter release and your camera mounted on a tripod will help you zoom in and maintain sharpness.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Want good photographs? Get up early, be there for the best, stay with it, be on watch for unexpected magic and don't give up when others have gone home.

Zion National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

There is a privilege to seeing God's glory as a nature photographer.  The mystical light before and just after sunrise and an hour before up to and sometimes after sunset.  The privilege to the non-photographer may seem somehow glamorous and exclusive but it really isn't.  It's a matter of being there for the best light and, in the rest of the day, being on watch.

Many times I arrive at an airport around midnight and drive to a photo location, arriving in the cold darkness and waiting for the chance to see if there will be color in the sky as the sun is getting ready for its day.  Yes, it would be nice to sleep in but often when I do I miss the best of the best.

The photo above at Zion National Park shows pre-sunrise light illuminating the peaks.  Seeing it is pure excitement because it's a good harbinger of what's likely to come if you're there -- and patient.

A few minutes later you can see the color beginning to pop yet still make out detail in the shadows.
 Zion National Park, Utah
Fujifilm XE-2, 18-55mm

The light will dance around for a couple of minutes more, enticing you with a bit more color before the shadows become darker and the reddish glow turns into bright sunlight and harsh shadows.  Some people will see that blue sky and call it a "picture perfect day" but it really isn't.  The sun is basically good for two things.  Sunrise:
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm XE-1, 55-200mm

And sunset:

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm
In a short time the glorious light of early day is gone.  The rest of the day is pretty bland, photographically speaking and often there isn't much to do in between.  But sometimes God has a way of interrupting PNT (photographer nap time) because an overcast, stormy day can also produce scenes you ordinarily won't find during that "picture perfect day."

Upper North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

In the middle of the afternoon rain and fog began rolling in.  The waterfall wasn't even visible but after a 20-minute standoff the fog blew off ever so softly.  Most of the time the waterfall wouldn't be photogenic at that time of day -- harsh light and bright white "hotspots."  And when the sun goes down it doesn't automatically mean packing it in.  There was still a little magic left in this shot at Bryce Canyon:

Paria View, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200 mm

Photography doesn't just record life -- it often mirrors it.  I've heard it said that half of the battle in life is just showing up.  (Photographers used to call that "f/8 and be there.")  If you're not there you may miss the best light -- and the best in life.  And instead of running off when the good light burns off it's always a good idea to be on watch just in case something unexpected pops up.  Even at the end of the day when the sun has relaxed its ultraviolet grip on us there can still be magic if you're patient and, more important, there.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour."  Matthew 25:13.  The temptation to give up is often there.  Maybe the day is going to suck anyway, so why bother?  What if it isn't?  What if you're not there?  Well, when the good light is gone, it's gone.  If I am not there the opportunity is lost.  There is no rewind button.  No pause button, either.  And the next day might be a total bust.  As for mid-day magic, it's not likely to happen but it does on occasion and when that happens you want to be on watch, ready for the moment.  Stick with it.  Be ready.  

Oh yes, for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  Matthew 5:45.  But the best experiences will likely fall on those who show up early, remain on watch, stay in the game and don't give up when others want to go home.  And getting outside of your comfort zone counts, too, whether it's in photography or in life.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Can we -- no, we must -- TALK!

Pronghorn antelope, Yellowstone National Park North Entrance, Gardiner, MT
Canon EOS 7D, 500mm f/4L 1.4x

Another murder.  Another mass shooting.  Another wacko killing innocent people.  And the same old, same old response which is more like a non-response.  One "side" will gasp and say we must do something about gun control while another "side" recoils at even the suggestion.  Of course, nothing gets done and the same story will play out again -- and again.

As sad and disturbing as this example is it clearly illustrates what's wrong with our political and social environment today:  our minds are like concrete -- all mixed up and permanently set -- and we  simply don't and won't talk.  Worse, many of us will simply (or rudely) dismiss anyone who doesn't agree with us, devaluing them as well as their ideas.  Truly we may well have met the enemy and he is us.

With respect to gun violence another problem is that both "sides" are ostensibly "right."  Connecticut has strict gun laws but that didn't protect those innocent children at Sandy Hook.  Conversely all those gun totin' Arizonans did squat to help Gabby Giffords.  There may be some truth somewhere in between those extremes but I sure don't know where it is and I doubt anyone else does, either.

But that doesn't mean we should give up searching for that truth even if we may never find it.  And we should not give up respect for each other in the process.  

Folks who favor more firearms restrictions must realize that "When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns" isn't entire a simplistic dismissal.  Making, selling and possessing heroin is illegal but it hasn't stopped the epidemic of heroin deaths.  As the Dixie Chicks ("Goodbye Earl") reminded us passing a law is no guarantee that it will be obeyed ("He walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care").  

On the flip side that doesn't mean we should abandon all hope.  The nation's highways are dramatically safer after tougher drunken driving laws and a shift in public attitude toward impaired driving.  While many people are still killed and maimed by drunken drivers the number is less than it once was thanks to tighter laws passed with public support.  So, no, we can't stop all tragic episodes with firearms but maybe we can agree that some additional restrictions could at least prevent a few of them.  Maybe we could agree that it makes little sense that we have background checks and waiting periods when you buy a gun from a licensed dealer but none of that applies when buying from a private party.  Maybe we could agree that you should do a little more than take a class and send in $50 and some box tops to get a concealed carry permit.  Maybe we could agree that we need to look a little more carefully at prospective gun buyers to determine if we have an undiscovered "nut job" waiting to explode -- and maybe we need to make sure better records are kept so that they have less of a chance of falling through the cracks.

Maybe, just maybe, we can talk this out, realizing that no law is an insurance policy against tragedy but having no laws is also just as impotent.  And maybe we can can the hostile, simplistic rhetoric long enough to engage in this dialogue.  Together, we are stronger.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Who has the will to take it?

Lewis Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis: What would Jesus do?

Mount Moran at Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Fuji X-E1, 55-200mm, circular polarizer
America has "Pope fever."

Pope Francis -- the "people's pope -- is doing his level best to set his church, other churches and politicians across the world on fire with simple messages designed to hit home, not some etheral place where the messages will be neatly filed and ignored.

But what the pope is doing isn't really rocket science.  It's about bringing is back to where we should have been before religion got in the way of faith.

Pope Francis is definitely pro-life but he has called for outreach to and forgiveness of women who have had abortions.  He supports traditional marriage but refuses to judge gays.  He wants churches to be hospitals for sinners, bloody from being in the streets working with the poor and underprivileged.  Francis shuns excess and blasts those who embrace it while calling us to be good stewards of the earth and its resources.

None of this is really particularly radical theology.  It's pastoral.  It's real. It reaches the gut level.  It's the epitome of "what would Jesus do?"

Perhaps that's why Pope Francis is so popular.  He's walking the walk.  And he wants us to join him.  He's telling pastors to stop sending letters to the Corinthians and instead tell it like it is to the people at home.  And while some Catholics comfortable with orthodoxy are reluctant to embrace him Pope Francis is a rock-star for many non-Catholics and even non-Christians.


Maybe it's because he is filling a need we are so hungry for -- spiritual guidance plus encouragement that we who are not perfect people are nonetheless loved and capable of good.  Maybe it's because of the shallow emptiness of our political, business and social leaders.  Maybe, just maybe, it's because he's doing what Jesus would do if he was here today -- consort with, encourage and forgive sinners and the marginalized.  For non-Catholics -- for whom Francis calls their leaders "brother bishops" -- it's a sign of what they wish their churches would be.