Not too Scary

Another Halloween has come and gone.  Our neighborhood at home has never been a hotspot for trick or treaters (our all time record was 17) so we gave up buying candy for Halloween a few years ago.  It’s not a good thing when I end up eating more candy than I hand out.  The weather in Phoenix is certainly more conducive for tiny goblins extorting treats, but we live in a small townhome complex with no children.   Almost no one bothered to turn on their outside lights.

We did stop by the house of a friend who is renowned for elaborate Halloween displays.  I honestly expected something a little on the garish side, but was completely blown away by his setup.  Full blown graveyard complete with hearse.  This year he did a pirate theme with a huge mast including a crow’s nest and a ship’s prow “buried” in the front lawn.  Plus a dead man’s chest and assorted pirate skeletons.  You’ve got to admire that kind of dedication.  One of the really cool effects was a projector that illuminated a large tree with thousands of tiny twinkling lights.  What a great way to light up a tree without the hassle of stringing tiny lights.

We’ve spent our first few days here in Phoenix running errands and organizing all the stuff we brought from Minnesota.  My bathroom linen closet is now neatly organized with clothing, books and photography equipment.  Amazingly, I got everything to fit.  We have 3 linen closets here (versus none at home) so we each get one of the bathroom ones for personal stuff and the hall one is actually used as a linen closet.  It seemed like we had a ton of space when we first bought this house, but it’s filling up frighteningly fast so I need to get more efficient about using it.

Sounds like a project…

Right at Oklahoma City, Left at Flagstaff

Just under 1800 miles and 27 1/2 hours later, we are back in Phoenix for (most of) the winter.  It felt like we waited a little too long, based on the last few days of weather in Minnesota.  It was cool to cold (30-50 degrees) for most of the drive but it was over 90 when we arrived in Phoenix.  The turtleneck and cardigan sweater I was wearing for the drive definitely seemed like overkill when we got out of the car at our house.

It’s a pretty uncomplicated drive when you take the southern route – straight down 35 to Oklahoma City, west on 40 to Flagstaff and continue south on 17 to Phoenix.  Essentially two major turns.  It’s not as pretty as going west to Denver, then heading south but at this time of year it’s a little dicey to drive that way in a car that doesn’t love the snow.  Plus the roadsigns and attractions take an interesting turn once you get past the border of Texas.  Apparently clean restrooms are a major selling point, based on their prominent listing for many restaurants.  After using the bathroom in the Gallup NM Denny’s, I can understand why.

Many of the signs are obviously handmade and the grammar and spelling can get creative at times.  Of course my sense of humor might get a little more twisted after so many hours in the car.  One advertising a McDonald’s stated – Exit at 289  Right 24 Hours.  All I could think was, who would drive 24 hours to get to a McDonald’s?  Signs are always funnier if you take them literally.  Sometimes a few letters fall off and it gives the sign a whole new meaning.

I saw this one on our drive home from Phoenix in April.  We took that one at a more leisurely pace, so there were plenty of photo ops.  I’m looking forward to finding more like it this winter.

Book it

I offered to help a friend put together a photo book of her recent vacation.  Heck, I’ve done one so that makes me an expert, right?  In order to make it go as efficiently as possible, I recommended that she decide what site she wanted to use and get the photos uploaded in advance.  Or at least I thought that’s what I told her.  What I actually wrote was – “I can’t remember if you’ve done photo books before, but the most time consuming step is uploading all of the photos you want to use, so you should try and do that as soon as possible.  The website I used for the MIM book is if you want to use that.”

After years of working in IT and needing to divine client requirements from completely ambiguous documentation, you’d think I would be better at giving very specific instructions, particularly to someone who is not necessarily a computer whiz.  But, no.  When we got together to start on the project and I asked if she had uploaded her photos, she cheerfully replied yes.  From her camera to her laptop.  Okay, so this is going to take a little longer than planned.  She had some trouble getting her Mac to power up (it’s a new machine and her first Mac, so perfectly understandable) which made us both a little nervous since she had not had time to back up the photos to another location.  Fortunately the machine came to life after a few tries, so the first order of business was to create a full back-up in case we had any other issues.

After we had a full set on a thumb drive, we went through the process of viewing all of  the photos and selecting the ones to use for the book.  There were a little over 1000 images.  Now, that’s not a lot for me, as I’ve been known to shoot over 500 in one day of a vacation, but it is a lot for a typical vacationer.  She was a fast decision maker so we quickly breezed through all of them and narrowed it down to 120, copying the keepers to my PC for tweaking.  At this point I quit kicking myself about my lame instructions, since we ended up making changes to the majority of the photos.  So uploading to a website in advance wouldn’t have saved any time.  She has a really good eye for composition, so there was a lot a great material to work with.

Unfortunately, we blew my 2-3 hour time estimate out of the water.  It didn’t help that I neglected to bring a mouse and had to work with Photoshop exclusively through my laptop’s touch pad, which is clumsy at best.  After nearly 5 hours of working together, we called it quits with about half of the photos completed.  And of course we still need to actually upload them and create the book.  We’ve probably got an additional 2-3 hours to go before we get to the finished product.

Of course, I have all of the photos on my laptop and in theory I could finish the whole thing on my own much more quickly, which would quiet my project manager anxiety about half finished projects.  But it’s her book, not mine and I want it to speak with her voice.  Plus it was really fun working together and I think the end result will be much better as a collaborative effort.

So I’m telling my inner bossy girl to shut up now.

This photo is from my last trip to Europe – a long weekend in Amsterdam.  It was very gray and overcast, so it seems to work better in black and white than the original color.

Rabbit Proof Fence

Rabbits are the scourge of every gardener.  Giant rodents with fluffy tails and a voracious appetite for anything green.  I could live with it if they just nibbled a little here and there, but no, they will mow entire plants down to the ground.  One winter they feasted on the bark of our largest shrub, just above the snowline, leaving it with naked branches 30 inches from the ground.  It was a sorry sight come springtime.  Another winter they gnawed one of a grouping of three shrubs nearly down to the ground, leaving its two companions untouched.  Like a furry little tornado.

I used to think rabbits were cute, until I saw the destruction they could wreak.  Our backyard is heavily landscaped and surrounded by a cedar fence, with lots of rabbit sized gaps underneath it.  Before the landscaping was done, we would get the occasional rabbit passing through but they didn’t really linger.  The yard was largely grass with a few large trees.  Perversely, by landscaping and putting up a fence, we created a rabbit paradise with lots of hiding places.

My first attempt at rabbit proofing involved stapling heavy plastic mesh across the bottom of the fence.  This worked for a while, but if rabbits are good at anything it’s chewing, so they soon breached the barricade.  This was followed by an ongoing series of reinforcements, first with double and triple layers of the plastic mesh and then gradually moving to chicken wire.  Every time my mom or I noticed a new breach, we would patch it with the wire.  Re-doing the entire fence seemed like a depressingly large task, but last summer we finished all of the north side and a good portion of the west and south.

It seemed like we were starting to win the battle but the rabbit tracks romping through the yard over the winter told a different story.  A few weeks ago I noticed that nearly every time I went into the backyard, a rabbit would bolt out from under a bush.  I walked the perimeter and found a new hole in one of the few remaining unreinforced sections of the fence.  So today we embarked on what I hope will be the final round of rabbit proofing.  We buried a pressure treated piece of lumber under the gate opening to discourage digging and we stapled wire mesh over the rest of the south side and half of the west.  There are a few sections left with just plastic mesh, but only where the bottom of the fence is very close to the ground.  We’ve never had a problem with them getting through in that area before, but never underestimate the devious lapin mind.

Hasenpfeffer, anyone?

Me Pad

I’m embarrassed to admit I broke down and bought an iPad.  I’m not a Apple person.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, many of my friends and family are devotees.  I don’t own an iPod or an iPhone.  (Although I do have an iTouch, which is like an iPhone, but without the phone part)  But I’ve seen a lot of people with iPads, especially on the Target racing team, and they just look so damn cool.  People rave about their battery life and portability for web surfing or viewing photos and videos.  So when it was announced that Target would start selling them, I became obsessed with owning one.  After all, I would be able to use a 10% Target Rewards coupon plus get 5% off by using my Target Visa.  Since Apple controls the retail price, this would be the best possible price I could get.  I rationalized my need by saying how great it would be for displaying photos and for blogging on the road.  So on Friday I bought one.

For two days I let it sit in the box.  Partly because I was a little intimated by the idea of figuring out a new piece of technology and partly because I had some other things I needed to get done this weekend and I was afraid I would fall under its spell once I turned it on.  Last night I opened the box.  I expected it to need charging before I would be able to use it, but much to my surprise the battery was nearly full and I was able to start using it immediately.  After a few clueless missteps, I was able to get it registered on iTunes and start loading it up with photos.  I bought the model with the most memory – 64 GB – but at my normal resolution that won’t hold a ton of photos.  Fortunately, when I started posting photos online I downloaded a nifty little photo resizing application.  So far I’ve loaded almost 2000 and it’s using less than 1 GB.  Soooo, lots of room to expand.

The display is gorgeous and it’s a great compact way to do slide shows.  So if and when I do start my fabulous second career as a photographer (meaning I get paid for doing it) I will have a portable way to do slide shows.  Once I get some software that allows me to organize the order of the photos in a folder.  No the iPad is not perfect.  But it is damn sexy.

I look forward to getting to know it better in the near future.

Here’s one more photo from my fall drive last week.

Acting Up

In early 2007 I started doing volunteer photography for a non-profit organization, Youth Performance Company.  The best way to describe it is a budget version of The Children’s Theatre Company.  Their previous photographer, who had been serving in that capacity for over 10 years, was no longer willing/able to do it.  They sent out a plea to the members of their board, asking for a new volunteer.  My brother was a board member, so of course he thought of me.  To say I was reluctant to take it on would be a massive understatement.  Photographing people wasn’t really my thing, unless it was racing related.  Frankly I was a little terrified of the whole idea.  But I agreed to try it once and see how it went.  My biggest concern was based on the misconception that I would have pose the actors for the photos.  The director quickly disabused me of that idea.  She would be the one setting up the shots, I just needed to operate the camera.

When I think about it now, it makes me laugh.  The least camera averse groups in the world are actors and children and I was being asked to photograph child actors.  You won’t find more ham at Easter dinner.  That first shoot went really well and I was extremely pleased with the images.  Yesterday I did my 15th shoot.  Not every one has been perfect.  The larger shows are always trickier because it’s almost impossible to get more than 3 people in focus with good expressions.  (Keep in mind that I’m shooting without a flash so I’m usually working with pretty shallow depth of field)  I’ve run into situations where almost every shot had a heavy red tint from the stage lighting, making the actors looked bathed in blood.  I’ve learned how to fix that and a host of other issues.

Since I’m doing this in a volunteer capacity, I provide YPC with a CD of processed jpegs from each show and give them unrestricted permission to use the images.  So if you check out their website ( almost all of the rotating images on the homepage are mine and if you happen to get on their mailing list, many of the printed images on their postcards, letters and brochures are mine as well.  But the biggest surprise was when I showed up to shoot one of their fund-raising events and found they had blown up my photos into posters as large as 5 feet by 7 feet.  It actually kind of freaked me out to see my photos larger than life sized.  And looking pretty damn good, at that.  I also get a pretty nice credit as staff photographer in their show programs.  Yes, it’s an ego boost.  But I’m not the most altruistic person in the world so I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t getting something out of it.

The images from yesterday’s shoot were great, but not exceptional.  So here’s one from two years ago that I really like.  See if you can guess the play.

Falling Down

I went for a fall drive with my mom today.  It’s too late in the season to see any good fall colors, but it was really just an excuse to spend the day together.  We drove down Highway 35 to a cute little restaurant in Alma, Wisconsin for lunch.  After lunch we took a circular route following some county roads in Wisconsin.  It was probably gorgeous during the peak fall colors, but even this late in the season it was still a very pretty drive.  Rural Wisconsin is full of rolling hills and picturesque farmsteads.  We pass them all the time during our many drives but almost never stop because there aren’t many good places to pull over the on interstate or any major highway.  Since this trip was on small country roads with little to no traffic, I had no problem pulling over almost anywhere I saw a photo op.

Farm buildings never get deliberately demolished.  Once abandoned, they go from pleasantly aged to derelict to decrepit.  The roof collapses and eventually there is just a pile of boards left in a field.  They make great photo ops right up until the roof collapse.  Once the roof gives out they just seem sad.  You can still get good close-ups of details but it can get a little dicey.  I’m not really that committed.  (No offense, Jane)

This is one of the first buildings I found.  I excluded a sad one to the left of it with a collapsed roof.

With the arched windows, this one looks like it could have been a church or schoolhouse at one time.

This one was a perfect example of an weathered red barn.  It killed me that the front side was in the shadow.  It would be gorgeous early in the day.  I would have gone closer and taken a photo of just the side in the light, but this was a working farm and I didn’t want to trespass to get a better shot.

I found this one just as we were starting to head home on 35.  I was lucky that it was right next to a side road where I could safely pull over.  I think it’s the best one of the group, probably because it follows one of the cardinal rules of a good photo – GET CLOSER.  Plus the light was gorgeous at that point.

A beautiful drive on a beautiful day.  Life is good.

Now that’s Better

It was 46 degrees when I got up this morning, so it finally feels like fall.  We decided to face the brisk air and go for a walk around the lakes.  There’s something a little wrong about getting in the car and driving somewhere in order to go for a walk, but it’s a lot prettier to walk around the lakes than our neighborhood.  We were about two blocks from the house when we saw a white squirrel running across the road.  It’s actually the second time we’ve seen him in the same area, but it’s still an extremely bizarre sight.  Apparently white squirrels are a relatively rare variation of the common eastern gray squirrel.  There’s a website dedicated to tracking white squirrel sightings – clearly a sign that some people have too much free time on their hands.

But I digress.  Our normal routine is to park near the road that connects Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet and do one lap around each.  This takes about two hours.  When we walk, I mostly concentrate on not running into people (or more typically, letting them run into me) and not stepping into poop (usually goose, sadly sometimes dog).  I am one of those people who will look in one direction (toward the lake) and end up veering the other direction (into my husband).  Don’t even ask about walking and chewing gum.  Fortunately, my husband’s powers of observation are much more highly developed.  Thanks to him, I’ve seen bald eagles, blue herons, turtles, an otter and numerous fish.  All of which I would have obliviously passed by if I were walking by myself.

I look at things in a completely different way when I’m holding a camera.  I’ve probably walked around Lake Calhoun close to a hundred times if not more.  As a pleasant form of exercise.  I’ve only done it once from the perspective of a photographer.  My husband and I participated in a photowalk two years ago.  It was a world-wide event and the Minneapolis organizer chose Lake Calhoun as the location.  At first I was a little disappointed because I have done the same walk so many times.  But I found that I saw things I had never seen before, simply because I was looking through the lens of a camera.  I was really happy with the photos and it reinforced the point that you don’t have to travel to exotic places to get great images.  You can take great photos in your own backyard.

Hot Enough for You?

The weather in Minnesota sometimes borders on the bizarre.  Today is October 11th and I was outside wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  Our relentless travel schedule this summer means we missed a lot of the good weather in Minnesota.  Many of the races we attended experienced near-record high temperatures, so it seemed like we went from one heat wave to another.  I would see the more temperate forecasts at home and sigh with longing.  September is one of my favorite months in Minnesota and I was here for 10 days of it.  When we returned from the muggy swamp of Miami on October 4th, it was 61 degrees in the house.  After shivering for a day, I relented and turned on the furnace.  At that point the extended forecast was showing a downward trend in the temperatures, so it seemed safe.

When we got back from Milwaukee on October 8th it was 87 degrees out.  So much for the long range forecast.  I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised, weather forecasting is about as scientific as reading tea leaves.  I have a hard and fast rule about not switching back and forth between the furnace and the air conditioning, so it’s been a little warm in the house for the last few days.  It’s not unbearable, we open up the windows at night and I think the highest it went in the house was 75 degrees.  In a weird way we are getting our Minnesota summer in October, which doesn’t suck.  Unfortunately, it means we will be moving from summer almost directly to winter and giving fall a miss.

In honor of the fall that hasn’t quite happened (at least for me) here’s an image from the archives.  This was taken at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, one of my favorite places in any season.

Horsing Around

We drove to Stillwater yesterday to see the newest addition to Dad’s little racing empire – a not quite 6 month old colt.  My dad owns five thoroughbred race horses in partnership with one of his closest friends.  Horse racing is called “the sport of kings,” primarily because it costs a king’s ransom to own and race thoroughbreds.  The newest colt is the second offspring of a mare named Bobsled who ran a few promising races before a leg injury prematurely ended her career.  The only horse currently racing is Bobadieu, but he’s doing well enough to keep the rest of the herd in oats.  We’ve seen him run at Canterbury Downs twice and both times he won.  It’s pretty cool when you are with a horse owner who wins a race – you get to have a photo taken in the winner’s circle with the horse.  Okay, it doesn’t rank up there with winning the Indy championship (still giddy on that) or any Indy race, but it’s still pretty cool.

Like many pre-teen girls, I went through a horse phase.  I don’t remember exactly when it started, but by the time I was 11 or 12 I had a large collection of Breyer horse figurines and had read all of the Marguerite Henry books multiple times.  I took horseback riding lessons when I was around 13.  The phase died out soon after that, a casualty of moving into the teenage years and developing a burgeoning obsession with Shawn Cassidy.  Ah, youth.

But I still love horses and they make great photographic subjects.  I’ve never really tried my hand at photographing them before, but after yesterday I have a new-found respect for photographers who use them as regular subject matter.  I used to think kids were difficult.  Horses are just as restless as children, but exponentially larger.  I was using a 50mm lens and almost every time I tried to take a shot they would either turn away or start moving so close to me that I couldn’t focus.  I’m guessing a better approach would have been using a long lens from the safe side of the fence.  But it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

This photo was taken just before the horses were brought into the barn for feeding.  They always know when it’s suppertime.  It was late afternoon, so there were a lot of great shadows.  I like the shadow of the fence and the horses here.  I also like the way the direction of the horses leads your eye to the barn.  I would consider this a good photo, but nothing exceptional.  That sort of turned out to be the theme for the afternoon.

This photo was taken from the barn looking out to the corral.  I took another one that showed more of the inside of the barn, but due to the extremely high contrast between the dark interior of the barn and the sunny exterior, it lost a lot of the detail.  This one gives you the feeling of looking out but only shows the most well-lit portion of the stalls.  Again, a decent photo but not one that really wows you.  It does have a nice serene feeling that really conveyed the mood of the place.

Just as we were getting ready to leave, a couple of the colts starting playing rough with each other.  I was able to get one really good shot of them sparring.  It needed to be cropped quite a bit to get the composition I wanted (50mm lens, remember?) but one of the great features of having a 20 megapixel camera is you can do this and still have a pretty high resolution image.  It was a great end to a great day.  I’m looking forward to visiting the horses again in the spring and next time I’ll bring a longer lens.