Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Photography Goals

My goal this year is to become a better photographer.  I plan on accomplishing this goal by getting out and taking more pictures.  There's no better way to become a better photographer than by doing.  I also plan on learning more about digital photography.  I must admit, I'm a bit old-school when it comes to photography.  It took me a hundred techno-years to get rid of my film SLR and embrace the digital SLR.  I'm what the marketing weenies call a "late-adopter."

The digital learning curve is somewhat steep, but the good news is photography is photography.  What do I mean by that?  Well, the art and science of photography remain the same, whether the photographer has a film camera or a digital camera in his or her bag.  Fast shutter speeds still freeze motion, big apertures still blur backgrounds, and ISO 200 is still twice as fast as ISO 100.  Warm morning and afternoon light is still good, contrasty noon-time light is still not good, and bad composition still makes bad photographs.

The learning curve has more to do with translating the film world into the digital world.  For example, on a film camera, one would use the depth of field preview button to check the area of focus before pressing the shutter release.  On a digital camera, one just takes the picture, reviews the image on the LCD, and if necessary, deletes the image, adjusts the aperture, and takes another picture.  Film users use Velvia slide film for its high color saturation; digital users set the camera to "Vivid" or "Vivid+" mode for more color saturation.  Film users screw on an 81A warming filter to enhance the color of a sunset; digital users set the white balance to "Cloudy," tricking the camera into delivering a warmer image.  There's so much to almost makes one want to get a digital point and shoot camera!

Pictures: Click on the images to enlarge.

I downloaded some post-processing software (freeware) and spent a few hours experimenting with it.  Here are a few more pictures from Sunol Regional Park, enhanced with post-processing.  The picture below was used in my earlier "Little Yosemite" blog post.  Notice how much more pop this version has compared to the original.  It's a little over-enhanced with color saturation and luminance, giving it some what of a surreal look.

Picture of a young photographer holding her father's tripod and wondering how many more pictures will be taken in and around this creek.  Original color image converted to sepia, with the reflection added via software.

More pictures of Alameda Creek near Little Yosemite.  I think the contrast and texture in these scenes lend well to sepia.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Little Yosemite, Sunol Regional Park

My daughter and I went on a short photo-hike on Saturday at the Sunol Regional Park, located just south of Pleasanton, CA.  We hiked about two miles to "Little Yosemite."  In the spring months, Alameda Creek flows vigorously through a small, boulder-filled gorge, named Little Yosemite.  I personally don't see the likeness to Yosemite National Park, but apparently the regional park's outstanding marketing team does.  Little Yosemite is truly one of my favorite places to hike with kids because the park is a short drive from home, the hike is relatively flat and easy, and kids all seem to love the water.  It's nature's water park…but closer, cheaper, less crowded, and without as much pee in the water.

Saturday was an awesome day for a hike.  Mother Nature gave us a break in the rain so we could get out of the house, get some exercise, breathe some fresh air, and run some film through our cameras before the showers resumed on Sunday.  It was a chilly 57 degrees, but we quickly warmed up as we started hiking.  The overcast sky was perfect for taking pictures of the moving water at Little Yosemite because it enabled slower shutter speeds, blurring the moving water and transforming it into beautiful, cotton candy-like, mistiness.

Pictures: Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

The opening picture captures some oak trees, waking up from the long winter and grasping for the sun's rays to feed their young blossoms.

Here's a budding, young photographer, taking pictures of the beautiful creek, enjoying the serenity of the outdoors, and spending some quality time with her super awesome dad at Little Yosemite.

Here's a picture of Alameda Creek flowing through the Little Yosemite area.

Sunol Regional Park is one of many parks under the purview of the East Bay Regional Park District.  If you live in the SF Bay Area and enjoy hiking, fishing, kayaking, swimming, or other outdoor activities, check out the EBRPD (

Friday, February 19, 2010

Anticipation (New Camera Lens)

Anticipation is going to bed on Christmas eve, wondering what gifts Santa Claus will bring.  It's a child putting a tooth under her pillow, wondering if the Tooth Fairy's rates have gone up in the thirty years since her parents were kids.  And it's the cheap bastard, waiting for a package to be delivered via UPS Ground because air shipment was ten bucks more.

I ordered a Nikon 12-24mm camera lens online last week.  The street price is about $1,000, so I bought it used through, saving about $300.  Being one quarter Jewish (on my mother's side), I selected the most cost-effective shipping option, UPS Ground.  The nice thing about UPS is one can track the delivery status online.  In this case, the lens was scheduled for delivery on Wednesday, 17 February.  On Wednesday, I was in the office, tracking the package hour by hour, minute by minute, and second by second.  At 7:25 AM, it was out for delivery.  The status didn't change until 2:03 PM, when the status changed to, "Delivery rescheduled to 2/18."  The detailed status indicated the UPS driver attempted to deliver the package but nobody was home to sign for it.  We've received millions of packages via UPS over the years and we've never had to sign for one.  But, I guess it makes sense, KEH wouldn't want a $700 lens sitting on one's door step waiting to be stolen before the purchaser accepted possession.

According to the notice left on the door by the UPS driver, the package would be delivered on 2/18, between 2-5 PM, so I decided to work from home on Thursday.  There was no way I was going to miss the delivery again.  My wife and I remained vigilant, listening closely for the UPS truck and the door bell.  Only one of us was allowed to use the bathroom at any given time, leaving the other available to sign for the package.  I looked out the window every time a truck drove by…darn, it was the garbage man, then the neighbor's landscaper, then a moving van...then a UPS truck!  At 3 PM, a UPS truck was delivering a package to a house on the next street.  Anticipation set in...I must be next.  I patiently watched and waited.  The driver set two large boxes on the door step of the house, turned around, walked back to his truck, buckled his seat belt...and drove off.  WHAT THE HECK???!!!! (not my exact words, but this is a rated PG-13 blog).  For the next three hours, I checked the clock, hour by hour, minute by minute, and second by second.  At 6:06 PM, I finally heard another UPS truck and I immediately jumped up to put on some warm clothing.  I planned on running outside and laying down in front of the truck until he handed me my package.  Fortunately, he showed up at the door before I could get outside.  I opened the door and said, "Hi, you're my favorite person today."  He replied, "Oh, you say the nicest things."  He was probably thinking, "Oh, you're gay..."  I explained I was waiting for this package, then signed for the package, thanked him, and closed the door.  I finally had my lens.  Some days I wonder....why can I spend $700 on a camera lens, but not the extra $10 to get it quicker?

After this experience, I can now empathize with my poor daughter...all those times she'd wake up in the morning, only to find out the Tooth Fairy was a no-show.  Twenty four hours later, she would get five bucks (more than normal...but, the Tooth Fairy probably felt guilty).

The opening picture is a test shot taken at 12mm (equiv to 18mm in 35mm film) and f/8.  Not the best lighting and not the best subject, but it's supposed to rain soon, so I took a few quick shots from the driveway.  I plan on taking more test shots tomorrow, weather permitting.

Below is a shot taken at 12mm and f/11.  Notice the unexpected lady and her dog entering the frame and wondering why this guy has a tripod set up in his driveway taking pictures of the neighbor's house.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Man's Best Friend

 I received an e-mail yesterday from a Texas-based sales engineer I work with, informing me she will be working from home for the rest of the day because her arm hurt from a shot she received from the doctor.  I sent her an e-mail asking if it was a rabies shot.  She immediately called me on the phone asking, "How did you know?"  I replied, "Don't all dogs get rabies shots?"

Okay, that wasn't nice, but it was actually a tetanus shot.  Apparently, she went on a date with a guy and the guy's dog bit her.  Now guys, if your dog bites your date, he's clearly trying to tell you something.  DO NOT CALL HER BACK!  Dump her immediately, change your identity, and run for the hills.  Your dog is your protector and will always have your back (and quite possibly your leg).  And gals, if you get bitten by your date's dog, take that as a sign and terminate the relationship.  There's a reason dogs are known as "man's best friend."  Besides, if his dog doesn't like you, surely his mother won't like you either.

I love dogs….especially with barbeque sauce, macaroni salad, and two scoops rice.  Okay, nevermind...bad joke.  Anyway, I've been around dogs for most of my life and I've come to the conclusion there are two types of dogs, 1) those that pee on your grass and kill it and 2) those that pee on everything else.  The former is the female dog and the latter the male dog.  For those of you who failed "health" class in elementary school, the male dog has this long thingy between his posterior legs and the female dog does not.  This is also generally true for Homo Sapiens, unless you live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My wife and I bought our house in 1993 and soon thereafter, added a blond Golden Retriever we named Rusty.  I quickly realized female dog pee kills grass…which sucks when you're in your new home with a beautifully sodded backyard.  I built a fence out of chicken wire to partition the backyard so Rusty could pee in one area while I reseeded the other side.  Much to my dismay, Rusty would hop over the chicken wire fence and pee.  It was extremely frustrating.  There were so many times I wanted to kill her, wrap her in a plastic garbage bag, tie it to a cinder block, and throw her in the lake (sorry if that sounds psychotic...I've since had therapy).  But, I maintained my patience (for the most part) and accepted it as God's way of preparing me for children.  At the time, my wife and I both worked during the day and we figured Rusty was just bored and needed a playmate.

In 1995, we got another Golden Retriever, named Hunter.  We decided to get a male dog this time to save our yard.  The good news is male dog pee does not kill grass.  In fact, male dogs don't even pee on the grass.  The bad news is male dogs pee on just about everything else….and it's very corrosive, especially to air conditioning units, barbeque grills, patio furniture, and chicken wire fences.  Not only did we have dead grass, we now had a rusty air conditioning unit, barbeque grill, patio furniture, etc.  We've since resolved the grass problem….with a wonderful building material known as concrete….so, our next dog will need to be a female.

Sadly, Rusty and Hunter are no longer with us.  Both lived long, happy lives and we cherished the time we had with them.  Here is a picture of our dog shrine, with Rusty and Hunter's ashes, their collars, and a stuffed animal Rusty used to hold in her mouth.  My brother thinks it's weird (and a little creepy)….but the wooden boxes were just too nice to bury in the yard.  By the way, if you live in the Tri-Valley area and need a veterinarian, check out the folks at the Amador Valley Animal Hospital.  They offer services at reasonable prices and are very compassionate when you lose your best friend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking Better Pictures

I used to cycle with my brother and brother in-law around town, primarily for fitness. My brother in-law pedaled a low-end mountain bike, I rode a commuter bike, and my brother a carbon fiber, feather-light, road bike. While riding on a long straight-away down Stanley Blvd, my brother in-law would be leading the pack, huffing and puffing at a semi-leisurely pace….and my brother would ride up beside him and holler, “IT’S NOT THE BIKE…IT’S NOT THE BIKE…” At the time, I thought it was fairly obnoxious and somewhat amusing, but my brother was right, it’s not the bike. While an expensive bike might make one faster, it won’t make one fast. Setting down the doughnut and getting into shape makes one fast.

So you’re probably wondering, what does cycling have to do with taking better pictures? Well, just as an expensive bike won’t make one fast, an expensive camera won’t make great pictures. Many years ago, I went backpacking with a friend in the Sierras. When I returned home from the trip, I developed my film and found some really nice pictures of the mountains, creeks, wildflowers, and her….and a bunch of crummy pictures of me. All of the pictures were taken with my camera, so it wasn’t the camera. It was clearly the bloody Italian taking the pictures of me. I can only surmise she was talking while photographing, causing the camera movement. You see, even while whispering, Italians cannot talk without moving their hands. I’m digressing again, but the next time you talk to an Italian, watch their hands...

I have a number of tips to help you create better snapshots. I’m not talking about museum of modern art prints, but just better family, vacation, birthday, etc. pictures.

Save Your Money: If you want to take better pictures, don’t buy an expensive digital SLR. Over 99% of bad pictures are not caused by the camera. Instead, buy a cheap, digital point and shoot camera (AKA, idiot camera), or better yet, use your iPhone’s camera. This will allow you to spend more time focusing on the composition of your photograph and less time trying to figure out the dozens of settings on the camera. Some of my best photos were taken on my wife’s idiot camera.

Think Before You Shoot: No, I’m not talking about Planned Parenthood here…I’m saying take a look at your subject, compose the picture, make any necessary adjustments (e.g., get closer, move to the left, get lower, etc.), then press the shutter release on the camera.  Bad composition makes more bad pictures than bad cameras.

Take Two Steps Forward: If you’re taking a picture of a person (or a tree, statue, etc.), compose the picture in the viewfinder (or LCD) and when you’re happy with the composition, take two steps forward, then snap the picture. Most people stand too far away from their subject. Side note -- this technique also works at the urinal. Like my daddy used to say, “take two steps forward…it’s shorter than you think."

Pick One - Foreground or Background: Have you ever seen the infamous vacation picture of the tiny guy in the foreground with the beautiful scenery in the background…where if you used a microscope, you might be able to determine whether or not the guy in the photo was Santa Claus? If you want a nice picture of your husband, zoom in (or take 10 steps forward) and take a nicely cropped picture of your husband. Then tell him to get his big, fat butt out of the way so you can take an incredible, wide-angle shot of the beautiful mountains.

Lighting: Good lighting is probably more important than a good subject. Take outdoor or landscape pictures in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is warm and soft. Do not take portraits outside at high-noon on a bright and sunny day. The light will be harsh and contrasty…and will make your subject look worse than your mother in-law, first thing in the morning (with PMS and a five o’clock shadow).

Follow these tips and you will create much better photographs and your friends won’t grimace every time you pull out the family photo album.

Here's a picture of two smiling siblings in Hawaii.  I like how they are illuminated with the warm afternoon sun and the contrast of the red and black clothing against the blue sky and ocean.  Although the background is beautiful, it's clear they are the subject and focal point of the photo.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bingo Night

Tonight was Bingo night at Mohr Elementary School.  Bingo is a fun game, enjoyed for decades by people young and old.  There's no strategy or skill involved, with the winner determined purely by the luck of the draw.  It is, however, a game of many emotions, including excitement, anticipation, disappointment, and happiness.

Excitement: There's always a certain level of electricity and excitement in a crowded Bingo room.  I suspect a senior citizen or two has loosened up some dentures while screaming for their last remaining number to be called.

There's nothing more exciting than getting your number called.  This young player is ready to jump out of her seat.

Anticipation: As one's card starts filling up and Bingo is imminent, the feeling of anticipation takes over.

Disappointment: The odds of winning can be low, depending on the number of players and active cards being played.  I've personally been to the Mohr Bingo night several times over the years and have never won a thing.  But, the pizza and nachos are always awesome!

Happiness: Bingo is a roller-coaster of emotions and there's nothing better than the happiness and joy of winning.  Victory is always sweet.  This young player is extremely happy, having won twice tonight.

Unfortunately, this will be the last Mohr Bingo night for this family.  Next year -- Middle School.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why “355 Days”?

Just a quick note concerning the name of my blog.  Since I started this blog, I’ve been asked a few times, “Wayne/Dad, I know you’re an idiot, but surely even you know there are 365 days in a year...”

My response is, “Yes, I understand the earth's orbital period is 365.256 days...and don’t call me surely.”   -- if you didn't laugh, you must not have seen the movie “Airplane” or the joke was just lame...or both.

Anyway, I am a locally renown expert in orbital mechanics, I can recite the Julian calendar backwards in Latin, and I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California.  A lot of people think I have a second BS degree...a BS degree in BS.  But, that's another story.  My point is, I do realize there are 365 days in a year and not 355 days.

The purpose of my blog was to document my activities and random thoughts throughout the year, using photographs, creative writing, half-truths, and fiction. Unfortunately, I was inspired to write my blog on January 10th, which only left me 355 days to chronicle the year 2010.  So that's the background.  I may not be a rocket scientist...but I did save 15% on my car insurance.

Pictures -- I was going through some photos, looking for a space-related picture for this subject and found some from a Washington D.C. trip a couple years ago.

The opening photo is a satellite, displayed at a Washington D.C. area air and space museum.

Below is a stunning picture of the Lincoln Memorial.

Monday, February 1, 2010

CYO Basketball

Here are some pictures from the CYO basketball game between Pleasanton (CCOP) and St. Isidore (31 Jan 2010 at Pleasanton Middle School). My lower back is out of sorts, so I took the game photos from the comfort of the bleachers (thank goodness for my Nikon D80/18-200mm and ISO1600).

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Jump Ball - In my unbiased opinion, CCOP's big man (orange #42) is athletic, fast, smart, handsome, and charming.  Clearly a chip off the old block!
Free Throw - the St. Isidore player did a great job boxing out CCOP's big man (#42), preventing him from getting the rebound.
Hot Blond (former brunette) Walking By? - Coach is drawing up the next play, while the bench is obviously focused elsewhere...