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May 10, 2012


A Cheetah in Kruger National Park, South Africa

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We spent four days on safari, driving through the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Our guides drove us around for hours each day as Oksana and I hung out our respective windows, searching the countryside for the next amazing animal.

Before we arrived in South Africa, I never would have guessed that so many of the iconic African animals could be spotted in a single country.  For some reason, I thought you had to travel all over the continent if you wanted to see lions, wildebeest, rhinos, giraffes, leopards, hyenas, elephants, crocodiles, zebra, buffalo, baboons, and warthogs.  (We saw most of those the first day in the park.)  About the only big African animal I can think of that we didn’t have a chance of seeing was a mountain gorilla.

The highlight of the safari, for me, was spotting a cheetah.  After we stopped the car to watch him, his brother also emerged from the brush.  Both of those beautiful animals eventually crossed the road directly in us before disappearing into a ravine.

The next day, it got even better.  Oksana spotted another cheetah.  Our guides were blown away.  Not only are cheetahs among the rarest animals seen in the park, but we were the ones to spot them – not them, the more experienced guides!

It was nearly sunset when we spotted the cheetah on the second day and we were far from our camp.  Still, it was such an amazing animal, our guides graciously allowed us to stay as long as possible.  As we watched, the cheetah got up and stretched, then went about marking his territory.  Against all odds, his path again took him across the road we were on.


February 23, 2012

Angkor Wat at Dawn

Angkor Wat at Dawn

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While in Cambodia, we made sure to buy a three-day pass for the temples.  Partly that was to have enough time to see all the ruins at a leisurely pace, but I also wanted more than one shot at getting a sunrise photo over Angkor Wat.

On our first morning, we had our tuk tuk driver pick us up at 5am.  He dropped us off at the gates of Angkor Wat and told us to try to set up in front of the northern reflecting pool which, he said, was the best spot to get the sun, the temple’s spires, and their reflections all in one shot… at least in December.

That early, it was still pitch black.  Without our flashlights, I’m sure we would have tripped on the uneven paving stones of the causeway.  By the time we reached the reflecting pool, almost every available spot had been taken.  We set up on the extreme right edge where we could still get some water in the shot, but unfortunately the grassy edge of the pond dominated the frame.  At least the sky was clear.  The best photos we got that morning – when the heavens were still changing from black to purple to red – were well before the sun actually came into view.

We resolved to make another attempt the next day and arranged for our driver to have us at the gates just before the park officially opened at 5am.  Those extra 15 minutes made all the difference.

While other people made it into the complex before we did, Oksana and I were the very first ones to the reflecting pool and we even had about five minutes to choose our spot.  By the time I was extending my tripod’s legs, other people were staking their claims.  This time we were set up on the opposite side of the pool.

The sky was very different that morning.  There was a low cloud cover that was being pushed by the wind.  Clouds came from beyond the Angkor Wat, floated over the temple, then over our spot at the reflecting pool.  It never looked like it was going to rain, but those clouds prevented us from ever seeing the sun directly.

My favorite photo came well before dawn.  I was still playing with the settings on my camera, trying to find the right balance between silhouetting the temple and illuminating the clouds.  Oksana later told me about the Japanese tourist that had leaned in over my shoulder after every shot, trying to read the 5D’s shutter speed and aperture settings so he could dial them into his own DSLR.  (Pointless, because he didn’t have a tripod.  The only way he was going to get a 30-second exposure in focus was if he’d brought Medusa along as his assistant…)

Many, many of the tourists crowding around us were cluelessly taking flash photos with their point-and-shoot cameras.  Most of them were either unaware that their tiny flashes wouldn’t illuminate much beyond 10 feet, or didn’t know how to turn them off.  At any rate, Oksana and I commiserated about how annoying it was to have a hundred strobes going off in the dark every minute.

Later, when we were reviewing our photos on a laptop, we discovered an unintended and wonderful consequence of all that added light.  While even 50 flashes were not enough to lighten the face of the temple, their cumulative brightness was enough to paint the pink water lilies out on the pond with their light.

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 5:32am, 6 December 2011
Focal Length: 47mm
Shutter: 30 sec
Aperture: F/4
Exposure: +2 step
Flash: No
ISO: 640
Photoshop: Slight rotation and crop, auto color, slight saturation boost, and a lot of tiny patch tool work to get rid of the long-exposure, red and blue “hot pixels.”


January 18, 2012

The Siq

The Siq

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The third Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade, made the ruins of Petra, in the Kingdom of Jordan, famous.  I’ll admit that the imagery in that movie – namely the huge architectural façade carved out of the face of a sandstone cliff – inspired me to travel there when we found ourselves in the Middle East.

While Petra’s Treasury (or “Al Khazneh,” as it’s known in Arabic) is the most famous monument in the park, I actually found other parts to be more interesting.  The colors of the rock inside the Urn Tomb were much brighter and had intricate veins throughout, while the biggest and most impressive rock-cut temple, the Monestary, stood at the top of a long stone staircase that rivals anything on the Inca Trail.  The Siq, though… The Siq was my favorite part of Petra.

“Siq” is an Arabic word meaning “shaft,” and what an impressive shaft it is!  Beginning at roughly the entrance to the park, it winds gently downward almost a full mile before opening directly in front of the Treasury.  Except for perhaps an hour or two during midday, the sun never touches the bottom and while the rocky walls towering above you are aglow with sunlight, the floor is below is nice and cool.

The walls of the Siq were pulled apart by geologic activity and the lower sections have been worn smooth by countless flash floods.  Part of the restoration of Petra was building a new dam to hold the waters back.  Without the dam, the Siq would be a very dangerous place to be during one of the rare rainy days in that part of Jordan.

Taking a good photo in this natural canyon is more difficult than you might imagine.  During the day, the sky and upper walls are incredibly bright while the bottom lies in shadow.  Expose for the lower walls and the top will be totally blown out.  During the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, the sun is at such an extreme angle that it barely illuminates the edges of the cliffs 600 feet above your head.  Without illumination, those rich golden colors in the wall seem dull and grey.  Sunrise and sunset are usually the best times to take pictures of landscapes, but canyons only benefit from that soft lighting when they’re running exactly east-to-west.

Looking over my Siq photos, I found a few with compositions that I really liked, where the wall’s curves snaked through the photo’s third lines and created interesting shapes with light and shadow.  Unfortunately, the best of those had the sun directly overhead, rendering the floor of the Siq as nothing more than a hard white line.  The sky is blown out in this photo, but it’s such a small element of the overall composition that it doesn’t even matter.  The walls are beautiful, just as I remember them.  I love the lone janitor with his bucket, too, about to go around the corner.  Without him, we wouldn’t have the proper sense of scale.

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 11:34am, 3 August 2011
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 1/50 sec
Aperture: F/4
Exposure: -1.3 step
Flash: No
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Auto levels, minor saturation increase

January 6, 2012

The Burj Khalifa

The World's Tallest Building, the Burj Khalifa

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We only had one day in Dubai, a 17-hour layover between Moscow and Bangkok.  Oksana and I left our bags at the airport and spent the day in the city.  We explored Dubai’s insane malls, giant hypermarkets, went skiing indoors, and tried (but failed) to ascend the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Late in the afternoon, we decided to give the Big Bus Tours company a try.  They run a “hop on, hop off” bus that we, despite the sky-high price they were asking, thought would be a good way to see the city sights.  It wasn’t.  They happily sold us two tickets (for a total of $120 US dollars!) at 3:30pm, failing to mention their buses only run until 5pm.

We chose our seats on the second level of the open-air, double-decker bus and put in our earphones so we could hear the guided audio tour.  We both pulled our cameras out of our bags at the same time and, to our horror (and shame, because we should have known better as Alaskans), watched every glass surface on them instantly fog.  Not only had our cameras been inside a cool, air conditioned mall for the last few hours, they’d also been with us when we went skiing.  By pulling them out of our bags, we’d effectively raised their temperature almost 70 degrees less than 5 seconds.

The air in Dubai is surprisingly humid and after half an hour of frustration, I worried that the inner elements of my lens would never defrost.  Our first few photos were ridiculously blurry.  Finally, by the time we pulled up to the third or fourth gigantic mall on the bus’s loop, the sun had done its job.  My camera was ready to take some pictures again.

When the bus pulled out again, we were the only ones left on the top level.  After 5 minutes or so, we realized that the guided tour was no longer playing through our headphones…

We forgot our worries when the bus pulled onto the highway.  There, in the distance, was the Dubai skyline with the sun sinking into the humid haze behind it.  Oksana and I moved to the opposite side of the bus, leaned over the rail, and tried to frame a photo – any photo – without a telephone pole or an electrical wire in it.

Of the dozens we shot, the one you see above is my favorite.

When we sat back down, we knew something was wrong.  No audio guide and we were moving further and further from the city.  Neither Oksana nor I wanted to go down and ask the driver if we’d stupidly missed the last stop, but of course, eventually we had to.  I walked down when he pulled off at a gas station – the lower half of the bus was also empty – and caught up to him at the pump.

“Um, is the tour over?” I asked.

He looked at me, shocked. “You were on the bus?”

“Yes, upstairs.”

“The tour ended at five! You were not supposed to stay!” He sighed. “Where did you planning to go?” His English wasn’t perfect.

I gave him the name of the mall where we bought the tickets because I knew it had a metro station nearby that would lead us to the airport.  He drove us back as soon as he finished filling up the tank.

I felt guilty, but hey, he should have checked his own bus at the last stop, right?  There was even a security camera on the upper deck, pointed right at us!

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 5:38pm, 30 September 2011
Focal Length: 82mm
Shutter: 1/8000 sec
Aperture: F/4
Exposure: -1 step
Flash: No
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Minor rotate and crop, Slight crushing of blacks with Levels


April 15, 2011

Wall of Wine

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Mendoza, Argentina is wine country.  The sunny weather is predictable and a plentiful supply of water comes trickling down from the back side of the Andes.  Obviously, the thing to do while you’re in Mendoza is to visit the vineyards.  The touristy thing to do is much the same, just on a bicycle.

Five of us set off one morning with a plan to try the touristy thing.  We rented bikes from Mr. Hugo and started pedaling our way to the first of 10-or-so wineries, olive farms, and chocolatiers.  What could have been a dangerous ride back was actually rather sober, as many of the vineyards were closed that day and, what’s more, we couldn’t justify 15-peso samples at every bodega we visited.

I’m not sure the bike ride thing worked for me.  The first time Oksana and I were in Mendoza, we simply found a bodega we liked (Tempus Alba) and spent a long, quiet afternoon on their veranda sampling all seven of their wines.  The travel time involved with the bikes, pedaling in the sun from vineyard to vineyard, made the whole day seem rushed.  That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, however.

At Vistandes, we paid for a combination tour and tasting.  Our English-speaking tour guide generously moved us past the large steel fermenting vats and dark cellars full of oaken casks rather quickly so that we could spend more time sampling their wines.

While speeding along one plain hallway, we passed a low wall of wine bottles.  I didn’t hear what our guide said about it – no doubt something about the stack being another step in the aging process – because she didn’t even slow down as she passed it by.  I stopped long enough to frame two shots with Oksana’s point-and-shoot before I had to catch up with the group.  Both turned out well, but I like this one better because of the way the bottles go to the end of the frame, the curvature of the wide-angle lens bows them out a little, and, well, just the way that tilt of the photo makes the whole thing a bit more abstract.

Panasonic DMC-TZ5
Date: 3:03pm, 7 March 2011
Focal Length: 5mm (30mm equivalent)
Shutter: 1/30 sec
Aperture: F/3.4
Flash: Yes
ISO: 100
Photoshop: None

February 26, 2011

Tormenta de Uyuni

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What a difference three weeks can make!

After getting sick on our first visit to the world’s largest salt flat, Oksana and I retreated to La Paz and rested up.  We knew we were coming back to the Salar de Uyuni on our way down to Chile, but we worried that the trip wouldn’t be the same without our friends, Dusty and Wendy, along (not to mention that we couldn’t afford a “private” tour without them…)

So, when we arrived at Red Planet Expeditions again, we had plenty of questions for the guides.  The most important of which: How can we see the Salar at night?

The short answer: “You can’t.”  At least not without staying at a $100/night salt hotel.  When pressed, one of the guides admitted there were other options. We could pay $150 for a private, one-day tour which would let us stay out on the flats until about 10pm.  That seemed steep to us, considering the 3-day tour to Chile would still cost us $130.  Another option, he said, would be to try to convince a group to change the normal itinerary on their 3-day/2-night tour to stay out on the flats until just after sunset.  In that case, everyone would have to spend the night in Uyuni again, because there would be no time to drive south after dark.

Most of the tourists with reservations wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, so we resolved to return to the office early to meet them and pitch our idea before committing our own money.

The next morning, nothing went as planned!  The buses from Sucre and La Paz were late (due to the unpredictable road conditions during the rainy season.)  At first, this seemed like a great thing:  The later we got underway, the more likely it seemed we’d be able to convince our guide to stay on the salt flats until dark.  But as time went on and no word from the buses materialized, plans changed.  Oscar, a Red Planet guide, decided to simply merge the people who were waiting, even though not all of us had paid for the same tour.  “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll just tell the others that we’re staying until sunset and they won’t even know that’s not normal!”

Indeed, after hearing that the normal tour only allocated a couple mid-day hours on the flats, the two couples from Argentina and France recognized the opportunity for what it was.  Sunset and star photos on the world’s largest salt flats?  And we don’t miss anything else on the tour?  How did we get so lucky?

Ever since I’d first heard about this tour in Quito, I’d been looking forward to getting some nighttime, starlight photos on the salt flats.  Supposedly, when the stars are reflected in the water below, it looks like you’re floating in space!  The weather on our second tour was cooperating, too.  On our first trip, it rained off and on the whole day, but this time, the sky was blue overhead and the only clouds were on the horizon.  Another difference: the water level on the flats was much higher on our second go-around.  We were excited that the mirrored surface was even better, even though that meant there were very few places where we could attempt the funny perspective shots…

As the sun began to set, a storm developed on the western horizon.  Big black sheets of rain began to fall, far in the distance, and the few people remaining on the flats began to cluster together and start taking photos.  As the storm approached, the lightning grew more intense.  Some of us were actually able to take handheld lightning photos if we were quick enough.

But as the night began to fall, the real show began!  With the darkness, I was able to lengthen my exposures.  I set my camera to shoot in bursts, bracketing all three shots to be slightly darker than normal.  The storm was raging by the end (though we never did get rained on!) and practically every photo captured at least one, big lightning bolt.

Everyone in our group has amazing photos from that evening, but this one is my favorite.

By 7:30pm, the air was whipping around us and I suspect the wind chill was below zero.  I was still in shorts and up to my ankles in icy salt water, shivering uncontrollably.  The storm had literally horseshoed around us and lightning was coming down on all three sides, but I continued to take photos right up until Oscar arrived with our Land Cruiser.  “I’m so sorry, man,” he shouted over the wind, “but I don’t think you’re going to get your starlight photos tonight.”

“Are you kidding me?  After a show like that?  I couldn’t care less!”

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 7:20pm, 23 February 2011
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 8 seconds, -1.7 step bias
Aperture: F/11
ISO: 500
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, cloned out a couple dozen “hot” pixels (chip temperature errors), plus cleaned up the ghosting of one person’s silhouette (because they moved during 8 sec exposure.)

February 4, 2011

Salar de Uyuni

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The Salar de Uyuni has to be one of the most surreal places I have ever been.  Situated high in the Andes, it’s the world’s largest salt flat.  In over 12,000 square kilometers, the elevation varies by less than one meter and the tricks that plays on perspective almost have to be seen to be believed.

We’d raced through Peru to get to the Salar de Uyuni by early February because we’d heard that the best time to visit it was in the rainy season, during a new moon.  This time of year, during the day, water covers the salt flat and reflects the sky, and on a moonless night, the reflection of the stars – supposedly – creates a universe both above and below your feet.

We had also been planning to meet our friends, Dusty and Wendy from, at Uyuni since we’d hung out with them in Lima.

Everything was going well the night before.  After much debate, we’d booked a 3-day/ 2-night private tour with the Red Planet tour agency.  We were happy to pay a little extra for the two unused seats in our Land Rover (and pay a little bit less for a Spanish-only guide.)  Come the morning of our visit to the Salar, however, things started going downhill.

Both Oksana and I woke up sick.  If it had been only us, we’d probably have cancelled our tour, but we wanted to hang out with Dusty and Wendy, so we decided to soldier on.

And boy are we glad we did!  We drove onto the Salar in the Land Rover at about 5 miles an hour, pushing 10 inches of water out away from us in every direction. Our guide, Roy, stopped at the first dry island so we could take pictures, but one of the many passing showers caught up to us before we really got started.  We piled back into the SUV and he drove us to the Salt Hotel, farther out on the flats.

From the hotel, you could barely see the horizon in any direction.  Miles and miles of salt was covered by just a few inches of water which created floating mirages out of the mountains in the distance.  Aim your camera towards wet ground and your subjects appeared to be walking on the sky.  Point it at one of the few dry spots and the lack of perspective lent itself to hundreds of humorous opportunities to play with scale (for instance, a person standing 25 meters behind another might appear to be perched on their shoulder.)

Unfortunately, it felt like Oksana and I spent half our time on the flats doubled over with stomach cramps and while I took a few good photos, I wasn’t feeling especially creative with the camera.  We decided over lunch that we would cut our tour short and just go back to the hotel and sleep.  Our biggest regret: Bailing on our friends.

(Three days later, we’re feeling much better.  We’re about to catch a train back north into Bolivia, but I expect we’ll return in a couple weeks, because the agency we used has an easy option for border transfers into Chile and that seems like a fine place to go next!  Maybe next time we’ll find a way to get those night shots!)

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 1:51pm, 02 February 2011
Focal Length: 105mm
Shutter: 1/1600 second, -.7 step bias
Aperture: F/8
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, desaturated SUV after auto color tinted it green.

Because I was well aware of how our sudden sickness was affecting the mood of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I asked Wendy and Dusty to help us stage a photo so we could all remember how our day together felt: