A Visit to Roanoke

Mill Mountain Star in Roanoke, VA. In-camera HDR with Canon 5D Mark III

Kathy & I recently visited Roanoke, Virginia to visit with our friend Steven Norris and attend the opening of a gallery show that Exposure Roanoke is having at a gallery there.  We had visited Roanoke many, many years ago, and had good but fading memories of the place.  We had been intending to return for a long time, and this gave us a good chance to go.

Evening shower, Roanoke VA

We didn’t have a lot of time there, but we stayed at the Hotel Roanoke, which gave us easy access to the downtown area.  With the expert guidance of Steven & Cheryl we visited some of the downtown highlights on Saturday night, and I returned for a little shooting on my own on Sunday morning, before meeting up with our friends for the sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Hotel Roanoke.

I’m not exactly sure what ‘Tomato Water’ is, but if they can make a Martini out of it, how bad can it be?

Roanoke is a railroad town, having grown around the success of the Norfolk & Southern, now Norfolk & Western.  A lot of coal moves through Roanoke.  With a population of just under 100,000 with 303,000 in the MSA, it’s a happening place without the sprawl and congestion of larger cities.  Situated right near the mountains and The Blue Ridge Parkway and an easy drive from Charlotte, it’s a place we need to spend more time visiting, especially with friends there.

Roanoke VA at night
Roanoke VA at night

Despite the amazing number of railroad tracks, there are numerous bridges and pedestrian walkways, so getting around is easy.  Our hotel had a walkway right across from the entrance, so we could be in town within minutes of leaving our room.  And with the exception of going out to the gallery, once we parked our car we didn’t need it again until we left.  My kind of place!

Pedestrian overpass in Roanoke, VA

We didn’t visit the Transportation Museum, deciding to spend our limited time seeing more of the town.  We did visit the O. Winston Link Museum on Sunday afternoon and learned the story of Link and is railroad photography.  The Link museum is a fascinating place, located in the former N&S passenger depot.  It’s definitely a must-visit for any photography and/or railroad buff.

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke VA
Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke VA
Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke VA
Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke VA

The Taubman Museum of Art is across the tracks from the Link Museum, and provides an interesting architectural contrast with much of the older architecture in the area.  I got the impression that there were only two opinions about the place most residents considering it either a hideous eyesore or beautiful.  In my opinion there’s no point in making an art museum look like a Wal-Mart, so I guess I would fall into the “beautiful” camp.  I’d vote for spending my tax dollars on it.

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke VA

We had a nice weekend in Roanoke, a wonderful visit with Steven and Cheryl, and hope it isn’t another 30 years before we return for another look.

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke VA

A Stop at Mabry Mill

Blacksmith shop at Mabry Mill, at MP 177 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Meadows of Dan, Virginia

Kathy & I headed to Roanoke, VA this past weekend, and as we often do we took the “slow way,” stopping at Mabry Mill, on the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 177 in Virginia.  There’s a little restaurant there and some of their buckwheat pancakes are “just the thing” if you like that sort of thing.

Barn and vines, Mabry Mill, at MP 177 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Meadows of Dan, Virginia

The mill itself is probably the single most photographed thing on the Parkway, so I don’t even aim my camera in its general direction these days, unless there is something really special to shoot.  After our sumptuous breakfast we took a few minutes to wander the grounds before heading back up the road.  They were setting up for their weekend demonstrations, and I got a couple of nice shots in the blacksmith shop.

Blacksmith shop at Mabry Mill, at MP 177 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Meadows of Dan, Virginia

Here are a few photos from Mabry Mill to satisfy the curious until I get the Roanoke photos processed.

Old wagon at Mabry Mill, at MP 177 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Meadows of Dan, Virginia

Just One Shot

Rain, Billy’s Restaurant in Roanoke, VA

Kathy & I spent this past weekend visiting friends in Roanoke, VA.  More on that later.

Sunday afternoon we were walking around the downtown area, when a thunderstorm passed through.  Taking refuge under the overhang of the City Market, we were right across the street from Billy’s, a restaurant we had stopped at for cocktails and appetizers the evening before.

The girl in this photo is a hostess at Billy’s.  During the height of the downpour, she pulled up in front of the restaurant in her car, and one of her co-workers from inside came outside under an umbrella and handed her another umbrella through her car window.  She then drove around to the side of the building to park.  Sensing a possible photo opportunity, I maneuvered into a position I thought might be suitable, and waited for her to come down the sidewalk.  As she approached the front of the building, I lifted my camera, took this one shot, and she immediately covered her face with the umbrella and that was it.  But this is the shot I was looking for, and the expression on her face makes it for me.

Passing the Umbrella, Billy’s Restaurant in Roanoke, VA

The photo itself is probably not a big deal, but what excites me the most is that I envisioned the scene, saw it coming and made it happen.  The fact that I only got one shot is interesting, but I only needed one, right?

More to come on the rest of our wonderful visit with good friends, but I wanted to share this one before I go back to working on the rest of my photos.  I’ve got a few more!

Even More Random Thoughts

Disco ball at Dressler’s Metropolitan, Charlotte, NC

Why is it that the people who insist on walking on the wrong side of the hallway – and who you invariably almost run over while rounding a corner – are the ones carrying a bowl of soup or a hot cup of coffee?  Wouldn’t that be a good reason to walk on the right side and to make sure you didn’t run into someone?

Why do the people who only visit a restaurant during Restaurant Week or when there’s a Groupon complain when they can’t also get their free birthday dessert or half-price appetizer?

Someone recently posted an article on Facebook about a new app of some kind that allows you to apply “creative effects” to your iPhone photos in “seconds” instead of the “many minutes” that it takes for some other app to do the same thing.  So now we can see even more lousy iPhone photos.  You’ll be spending less of your time processing them, so I guess that means you can post more.  But I still get to ignore them.

Why do the people who creep through the neighborhood at 24.9MPH (speed limit is 25) feel that it is OK to not bother stopping for stop signs?

I went to a meeting the other night where they had a ‘Swap Table’ for people to sell their used camera gear.  I took in a Ziplock bag with a bunch of stuff I was going to throw away, dumped it out on the table and put a big FREE sign on it.  I didn’t keep track of specific items, but the bag was just as full when I packed it up as it was when I brought it in.  I guess nobody else wanted my junky stuff either.  Maybe they put stuff in?  It’s in the trash now.  I should have just put it there to start with.

Besides the fact that it looks ridiculous, do the people who parade around in their cars with their Poochies on their laps ever think about what would happen to “Poochie” if they got in an accident and their airbag went off?  Do they realize that they’d have a Poochie Pancake?


Just Get Out and Shoot!

I ran into a friend of mine the other night, and he walked up to me with an expectant look on his face and asked, “so how is it?”  I looked at him with a puzzled look that I hoped read as “so how is what?”  And he said, “the camera, the Mark III.  How do you like it?”  Ohboy.

This friend, we’ll call him ‘Bob,’ has frequently sought my advice on cameras and lenses in the past.  I like ‘Bob’ and he’s a nice guy and good friend, and the fact that he asks my advice means he is also smart. 🙂  But ‘Bob’ has asked my opinion on cameras before, in fact, he has been the subject of my blog posts before (sorry, ‘Bob’).  But I’m afraid that he may just not like my advice.

‘Bob’ shoots with a Canon 40D, which is a very good camera.  I own one, still use it and some of my photos from it have made me money.  It’s still in my bag, although it has been relegated to third position behind my 5Ds.  Right now I am using it to hold my Holga lens, but at any time I could throw another lens on it and it would work fine.  Either way it will make good photographs, at least as good as I am able to make.

When we spoke 8 or 9 months ago, ‘Bob’ was thinking about buying a new camera and was vacillating between a 5D Mark II and a 7D.  He had seen photos taken by friends with newer cameras and was convinced that their photos were “better” than his.  I told him at the time that if he wanted a new camera he should just pick one, then take it out and use it.  Either camera would have been, and still would be, a great choice.

What ‘Bob’ told me the other was that he never bought a camera in November.  But now he was getting ready for a trip to Europe and felt like he needed to make a decision.  He had recently rented a 5D Mark III and really liked it, but he decided he didn’t want to spend that much money.  Which is quite understandable, it’s an expensive beast.  So ‘Bob’ decided to buy an “interim” camera and picked up a refurbished 7D.  That’s a very good camera, and one he might have purchased back in November.  But he’s thinking of sending it back.  The problem, he said, is that when he compared the photos from the 7D with those from the 40D, he didn’t feel like he was seeing the improvement that he thought he should be seeing.  But he felt like the files from the 5D Mark III were a lot better than those from the 7D.  Uh, huh.

He then started talking about Nikons and something about 36 megapixels and whether Canon was going to match Nikon and maybe he should just buy another lens and what kind of lenses he should consider.  I kind of zoned out.  Yes, there are cameras with lots of megapixels and big sensors, and huge dynamic range, and there will be more tomorrow.  And there will be more the next day and next month and next year.  But what are we going to do today?  What can I shoot now?

I bought a 5D Mark III in April, which it turns out was a little ironic since the June issue of a newsletter I write for contained an article I wrote about how gear didn’t matter.  I even stated that I didn’t think I was going to buy a new camera.  And then I bought a new camera (I wrote the article in January – things change).  But I didn’t buy it because I thought it would improve my photography (honest!).  I bought it because it was time to upgrade my tools and I wanted to have the latest technology, so that the photos I took with it would give me the best results possible.  The best raw materials, if you will.  But it is still up to me to take the photographs, and I only hope I can do it justice.

But that makes it hard for me to tell ‘Bob’ not to buy one.

One of the things I’ve found about the 5D Mark III is that the camera is so good that it amplifies my mistakes.  That’s good in that it forces me to work harder, but bad because it’s easy to screw up.  One thing I’ve learned with this camera is to stop looking at the files at 100%, since that magnification is way too high.  My new default is 50% for that camera, going to 100% when I really need to get fussy.  Otherwise, at 100% you are imagining flaws that aren’t really there.  Yeah, it makes nice files, but if the photo is crap it’s just a nice file of crap.

Long afterward – too late for me to say anything to ‘Bob’ (I always get my best thoughts hours later!) – I thought that what he did was a lot like test driving the Mustang and buying the Focus.  If what you really want is the Mustang, you’ll never be happy with the Focus.  But if you know you’ll never cough up the money for the Mustang, don’t drive the Mustang.  I think ‘Bob’ wants the 5D Mark III, and until he buys it he won’t be happy.

In many ways, ‘Bob’ represents a lot of us.  We are our own worst critic.  Often I look at my own photos, whether on my computer screen or on a print I have made, and I feel disappointed because I don’t think they measure up to what I see others show.  Other people’s photos often look better than mine.  It’s an example of “the grass is always greener” principal.  Our photos always look worse to us than they really are.  But then I see one of mine hanging on a wall or online next to others’ photos and I think, “hey, that looks pretty darned good.”

We all have the desire for that Magic Button, whether it’s a camera, a lens, a tripod or a computer, we often feel that there’s that “one more thing” that will make us the photographer we know we can be.  But you know what?  That’s just not the case.  The problem is that, except to the extent that a new camera motivates us to get out and use it, it doesn’t really improve our photography.  Sure, a new camera might produce nicer files, but nicer files don’t necessarily mean better photographs.

My advice to ‘Bob’ was to pick a camera and get out and use it.

4th of July Fireworks

I finally got a chance to spend some time at the computer today and decided to work with some of my fireworks photos from July 4th.  I knew when I took the photos that I would be making some composites in Photoshop.  These were all taken handheld with the 5D Mark III and the 40MM 2.8 pancake lens, f4 at ISO 3200. My shutter speeds ranged from 1/5 to 1/50 of a second.

All the photos had some initial processing in Lightroom, including a little sharpening and noise reduction, then were composited in Photoshop.  Once I brought the composited file back into Lightroom I added a little more punch in contrast, vibrance and saturation.

There’s no question that these are more than a bit over-the-top from the standpoint of reality, but that’s what artistic license is all about.  This is what I saw and this is what I felt, so here it is!

This was the first time I had used Photoshop on any 5D Mark III files, and I must say that I seriously challenged the capabilities of my 5 year old iMac.  Each file is around 1 GB, and I had some serious beachball action (it’s a Mac thing) going from time to time.  If I do much more of that I’m going to need to look at upgrading the computer hardware a little sooner than I planned.

The Canon 40 2.8 as a Macro Lens?

When I saw Canon’s announcement of the new 40MM 2.8 “Pancake” lens with a price of only $200 I decided it was a no-brainer and I ordered one.  Then I read some reviews that indicated that it is a pretty fabulous lens, especially for the money, and I started looking forward to getting it.  It came late this past Tuesday (the UPS man was working overtime!) so I had a little time on the 4th to work with it.

I already had planned to take it out for a little fireworks action later in the day and evening, but I wanted to spend some time under controlled conditions to test sharpness, depth of field, bokeh, etc., all the usual stuff.  So I set up the tripod in my office and laid out some objects to shoot.  At some point during my session I was playing around to see how close I could get to an object.  Minimum focus distance is rated at just under a foot, and with a 40MM focal length the field of view was still pretty wide.  That’s not really suited to closeup work if you are trying to restrict your background.  I don’t remember now what prompted it, but at some point I decided to throw on my 25MM extension tube.  Wow!  I was then able to focus down to about 3.5 inches.

Now I realize that my friends who are serious macro photographers will probably scoff at the idea of using this combo for macro work, and I realize that people have been using 50MM and other focal length lenses for macro for years, but I don’t have a 50MM lens.  For the kind of occasional macro work I do, and considering that my usual macro setup includes my 70-200, 2X Extender, Extension Tubes and a 500D close-up lens, this lightweight little setup is pretty darned cool!

What I’ve found is that depth of field is predictably shallow wide open, but gets progressively better as I stop down.  At f11-f16 it’s pretty darned nice, and even beyond it is pretty useable.  All without the weight, light loss and bulk of the Mac Daddy setup I’ve used.

Conclusion?  I need to do some more real-world work with this combination, but since it’s such a small and light lens I’ll probably carry it with me all the time anyway, the extension tube weighs practically nothing, and it seems to work pretty well, I’m looking forward to working with it some more and see what I can get.  Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually spring for a “real” macro lens, but for now this seems to be a pretty good way to go!

Long Overdue

Kathy & I had been trying to find a weekend to head to Waynesville, NC – our favorite little town in the NC mountains – since March.  With the exception of our Alaska and California adventure, things just haven’t been very conducive to getting away for the last several months.  We finally had our chance this past weekend and took advantage.

As luck would have it we didn’t get a lot of relief from the high temperatures, as Waynesville – while about 10 degrees cooler than Charlotte – was still unseasonably hot, to the point where most of the HVAC systems were doing their best to keep up.  Most of them were up to the task, a few were not.

We wisely headed out early and got our in-town sightseeing done early.  In the heat of the afternoon we headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a few hours, and while it was 97 in town, it was an unusually warm but relatively cool 84 at Waterrock Knob, an overlook and visitor center at 5,820 feet.  After a stop for ice cream it was back to town for a nice dinner and some rest in our thankfully-air-conditioned room.

Sunday was spent getting back to reality, and after a stop in Statesville here we are.  A couple of work days with a holiday sandwiched in, and before we know it we’ll have another weekend!

No serious photography this trip, but I had a camera with me at just about all times!

Wine Country!

This vacation was our first visit to California, so naturally our visit to California’s Wine Country was our first visit there as well.  It was something we had been planning for a long, long time and as we sailed back to San Francisco from Alaska we were very anxious to get the next step of our vacation started!

Once we disembarked our cruise ship in San Francisco on Wednesday morning our first order of business was to get a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car.  This was sort of bass-ackwards as the airport was the opposite direction from where we wanted to go, but that turned out to be the cheapest place to rent a car.  Plus we wanted to be able to drop the car off at the airport on our return as it was much more convenient.  After an exciting ride with a Greek cab driver (You like my driving, no?”) we made it safely to the airport and navigated the rail system to the rental car desk.  Soon we had our car and were back on the road.

We had Wednesday afternoon, all day Thursday, Friday and Saturday for our adventure, so we wanted to make the most of it.  Our first order of business after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge was to locate Highway 1 and head toward the coast.  Our intention was to stop at Muir Woods National Monument, but for some reason the place was packed – on a Wednesday!  The main parking lot was full, the over flow parking was full, and the overflow for the overflow parking was full and people were parking on the road.  We decided to drive on, and people were parked along the road for nearly a mile from the entrance.  We hadn’t done any research ahead of time, so maybe the place is always that crowded.  I’d sure hate to go there on a weekend if it is even busier.  Amazing!  We’ll have to do that another time.

After a brief stop at the Muir Beach overlook to get a view of the Pacific Ocean from the land side, we headed on North along Highway 1.  What a view!  Nothing like we get along the East Coast, that’s for sure.  We stopped at a little restaurant in the town of Stinson Beach for lunch, then headed inland toward Santa Rosa, where our hotel was located.

We knew that with nearly 4 days, we would have plenty of time but we also knew that we had a lot to see.  We also decided that we didn’t want to have a “death march” through wine country, although how hard is drinking wine, right?  Seriously though, this was less about seeing how many wineries we could visit or how much wine we could drink and more about seeing the countryside, exploring side roads and having plenty of time to enjoy our time there.

We had started planning our visit several months in advance, and with the invaluable advice and assistance of our good friend Jon Dressler of Dressler’s Restaurants in Charlotte, we had arranged private tours of 4 wineries.  Two of our tours were on Thursday and two were on Friday, with one tour each morning and one tour each afternoon.  We purposely left Saturday completely open in order to see what else we wanted to do.  As it turned out we used Saturday to visit Napa, as none of the wineries we visited were located there.  We had an 11:00 flight on Sunday, so that day would be spent solely on travel.

We used the four scheduled tours as the framework for our visit, and I think it worked out very well.  We got an early start each day in order to have as much “piddle time” as possible with plenty of time to get to our first destination.  We left time between tours for lunch, with plenty of time to drive to our afternoon destination.  Our standard practice after the second tour of the day was to head back to our hotel, make a dinner reservation on Open Table, then take a nap.  Like I said, no Death Marches for us!

Three things stand out to me from our visit:

(1) Distinctive geography – we always hear about the differences in climate, soil and terrain and how those differences affect the grapes and ultimately the taste of the wine.  It’s one thing to hear, but to actually the area is to appreciate the descriptions.  When someone describes a wine as coming from grapes “planted on a steep mountainside at 2500 feet” or coming from “the sandy and rocky soil of the Carneros Valley, it really drives home the distinctions that each area has to offer.

(2) Each winery has its own very distinctive character, from the style of the building, the layout of the winemaking area to the design of the bottles and labels.  What I love about this is that it really allows us to enjoy the wine as a unique statement of everything that goes into the product.  Each bottle is a representative of the winery, since every decision about every ingredient and every step of the process has some kind of an impact on the final result.  Just like photography, everyone starts with the same basic set of tools but ends up with their unique expression of those tools.

(3) Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, is the amount of passion that people have for their business, from the winemakers to the tasting room people to the staff in the restaurants we visited.  The people we encountered were visibly passionate about their work, and that passion is contagious.  This made visiting the wineries, dining at the restaurants, and generally visiting the area a very pleasurable experience.

I’m going to have more to say about our experience in future posts, but the time since we’ve returned has slipped by in a hurry.  I wanted to get this post wrapped up so I can “put a bow” on the overview and get back to some specific commentary about other parts of our vacation.  Hopefully this collection of photos will provide a bit of a sampler of the 4 days we spent in wine country.

Photographs and stuff!