A great place to get good and lost
There’s something alluring about the desert. Maybe it’s the crustiness of its hardened inhabitants, the solitude that’s inevitable in any harsh landscape or the beauty of a landscape beaten, weathered and stretched out as far as the eye can see.
Last month, we took a trip out west to St. George, Utah so my husband could run the Iron Man out there. (More on that later.) St. George is a pretty little town set against bright red cliffs and is the launch pad to Zion National Park. If you’re not the outdoorsy type, though, there isn’t much to do in those there parts and finding a drink is harder than you’re probably used to.
Since we were in the area we went to visit Zion. While we couldn’t do any real hiking due to the aforementioned Iron Man and the fatigue that naturally follows, we did walk around some of the easier paths. Just driving through the park even is impressive. There were some interesting rock formations, where the “grain” of the rock (so to speak, not up on my geology terms) would be horizontal, then almost vertical and so on from ancient sand dunes that were blown every which way before becoming solidified. While Zion is beautiful, it’s kind of gone the way of Yellowstone: so overcrowded it’s almost like Disneyland. I’m sure there is some peace to be found, however, on some of the more arduous hikes.
Next up, we went to Bryce Canyon which is a little over an hour drive from St. George. Bryce Canyon is definitely the better national park. It has some unique geological formations, the most notable being the field of spires called hoodoos. The landscape is reminiscent of the Cappadocia region in Turkey, except that nobody has ever made homes out of these hoodoos. While walking the rim of Bryce Canyon offers stunning views, the more interesting hike is under the rim, in the “fairylands” and amongst the spires. Hikers must be careful to stay on the trails, though, as a bar tender informed us that people are always getting lost out there and having to be rescued. What a great place to get good and lost.
The post-modern vintage photograph
I don’t know what it is about the charm of old things. I mean aside from the possibility of any monetary value of antiques and such. People tend to love old things, and in case you haven’t noticed, right now vintage is most decidedly “in.” Making new photos look vintage is currently a huge fad (#instagram) that I am patiently waiting to pass. As a rule I don’t add any type of vintage wash to my professional work unless specifically requested by a client and even have gone so far as to focus on bright colors in almost everything I shoot. However, until “vintage” is again a thing of the past, for my personal work, well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So for all yous-guys out there wondering how to make your high megapixel image look lo-fi, here are a few simple ways to snazz up your pics for your lo-fi photo wall. Most of these techniques can be applied to an image with any old editing software, although being a photoshop guru also helps (and if you are a photoshop guru, just download some free actions. Seriously, it’s way easier). You can use any or all of these, mix and match, etc to your liking.
Here is my original, edited as I would any point and shoot image:
Naturally, as most photographs fade over time, the first and easiest step is to desaturate your image to your liking. Also, lightening the image just past where you want it.
Tone down the contrast
Decreasing the contrast can also give your favorite pic that “faded photograph” kinda look. You can go the other route and do a lo-fi look that’s super grainy and super contrasty, but that’s a lesson for another day.
Give it a little Vignette
I’m not talking about a severe vignette, where the perimeter of the photograph is completely black. Just make the corners and perimeter a little darker. Many photo editing programs have a little vignette tool or feature. If not, you can also use your burn tool just to darken the outside, which is what I have done to my photo. It looks better if you, you know, try to make it blend, and I’m sure this goes without saying but make sure you’re not vignetting over the subject too much.
Add a little noise
Now I know most programs will denoise a photo, honestly I’m not sure if the free ones will let you add noise or not. If not, sorry.
Change the hue
Most old photographs get a little discoloration with age, usually in a red, orange or yellow direction. Usually you can use a slider to change the hue or the tint, or just go into your color correction tool and make it warmer with yellow, magenta, red, or a combination. I did the latter, and you may want to desaturate again after this. I did not. If you have photoshop you can also do this by adding an overlay or fill layer and adjusting the opacity.
So there you have it, how to put a little lo-fi in your images. There are a million other ways to achieve that “look” so play around, this is really just a start.
A minimalist approach to big ideas
While I usually post about other photographers, cool gadgets or muse about my travels, here’s a little snippet highlighting my real work. Probably due to my background in news photography, I’ve developed a minimalist attitude towards equipment and lighting (at least for the moment). I’ve assisted many o’ photographers, carried my fair share of light boxes, etc etc, and I just don’t like excessive equipment. It’s always bulky, heavy, expensive and a pain in the ass to set up and maintain. Then there’s all the room for error when putting on a giant production. Call me lazy, but I really tend work much better leaving a little something up to the element of surprise. When natural light changes, critical thinking and problem solving ensues. For me, that usually results in a better picture. While complete control over your lighting is comfortable and safe, I think of myself as more of an artiste, and art for me never comes from a comfortable or safe place.
Last December, I collaborated with designer Greg’ry Revenj in a photo shoot for the launch of his new website and blue jean campaign. Here, the sun wasn’t really an option for a light source so I improvised, sans light kit. Here’s how I did it:
Lighting: Flash (key light), umbrella, gels, small fluorescent lights (fill lights)
Greg’ry was looking for a really gritty scene and was inspired by the look of the Saw movies, so I got a green gel for my flash and hung up small fluorescents to use as fill light. Yes, I could have turned the images green in post production, but I prefer not to rest on Photoshop for everything. When most of the work is done in-camera it saves time on the editing end and tends to look more natural. I even ended up not using my umbrella to bring in harsher shadows and highlights for this gritty scene.
We were both happy with the results.
Dude, don’t be lazy. Just bring your camera with you already
Since the iPhone came along as the first phone with a halfway decent camera, people have become addicted to the taking and sharing of camera phone pics, some more than others. With a million photo apps to enhance your otherwise crappy smart phone photos and more apps (like instagram) to share said otherwise crappy phone photos, “phoneography” has kind of reared its head into a category of its own.
With these new found phoneographer enthusiasts (and boy, is there enthusiasm) comes the regular gamut of cases, filters, lenses, and other attachments to make your camera phone pics look better (or at least look more hipster).
Now, most of these gizmos are small enough to stow in a backpack, purse, or maybe even a pocket. Makes sense, if that’s your schtick and all. Especially if you have a keen eye, an iPhone, and a budget lacking the wiggle room to buy a digital SLR and good lenses and all that junk.
I will say, though, that things are starting to get a little out of hand. Last summer, the blogosphere was all in a tizzy of clever witticisms when this little contraption was released:
For $250, you can attach your GIANT lens to your tiny phone in order to take manually focused photos without the luxury of adjusting your f/stop (unless your lens is so old school it has an f/stop ring on it), that come out upside down so you have to download an app to turn them around. It’s like learning French there are so many exceptions.
What’s the newest addition in iphoneography ridiculousness?
It’s the world’s most elaborate phone case ever. It looks like an old rangefinder, has a little working shutter like an old rangefinder, but it takes your photos and your phone calls. And what happens anyway when the damn thing rings? I take it you just answer the camera. Cute? Sure, but it almost seems like iphoneographers out there are just pining for the real deal.
Tales from the Ger: Sometimes you feel like a nut
Hello friends! This is my last post about our adventures in Mongolia. If you’d like to see more photos of our excursion visit my Flickr page. It’s back to all things photographic from here. As always, thanks for reading!
Pretty much since the day we arrived in Mongolia I noticed a lot of people kind of snacking on something. I thought maybe the whole country had an obsession with eating sunflower seeds.
Then on one of the days we were driving we picked up a hitchhiker (as you do – in Mongolia hitchhiking is actually a very safe, acceptable, and popular mode of transport). He was a nomad wearing the gray coverall-type garb that’s usually worn when working with livestock. He smelled of mutton and earth, had a smile missing a few teeth and seemed genuinely good-natured, although we did not exchange words due to the language barrier. Then suddenly he reached in his pocket and gave me and the husband each a small handful of these tiny brown roasted things. My husband immediately pops one into has mouth, at which point the driver and the hitcher started yelling for him to stop and show him they must be cracked open. The outer shell was thicker and harder than a sunflower seed, and before eating it I went to examine the small snack and what did I find? A pine nut!!!
From that point on I noticed that crunching on pine nuts was somewhat of a Mongolian past time. While standing in line, waiting at the airport or just walking down the street everyone seemed to have some pine nuts in their pocket or a trail of shells following them. Soon after, we stopped at a market to buy some. I managed to convey to the woman selling them, “how much?” at which point she held up one finger. I started to pull out a one-hundred tugrik bill, when my husband stopped and said, “No no, surely she means 1,000.” The lady takes the bill and pours a double dose of pine nuts into our bag. As we were walking away we realized that yes, she meant 100. Keep in mind the exchange rate is about 1300 tugrik to 1 USD. In other words, at $.73 we over paid for nearly a pound of pine nuts by 1000%. Imagine the surprise when I told one of our guides, Oogie, how much pine nuts cost in America.
Since this my last post, here’s a little gem sent along from my father-in-law showing how a ger is put together.
Tales from the Ger: Mutton’s a must
As an avid foodie, eating for me is almost half the fun of traveling. To start, the Mongolians don’t eat “Mongolian barbecue,” apparently that’s a made up American concoction. Like many things in Mongolia, the cuisine is kind of separated into two camps: city and countryside.
In the cities, the food is very much a blend of the two countries it’s sandwiched between: Russia and China. The bulk of the cuisine consists of noodles, rice and dumplings with mutton as the main protein, though other meats are available. The dumplings definitely took center stage. Buuz, as they call it, is minced mutton (usually) wrapped in a thin dough and either steamed or fried. Bansh is another type of dumpling boiled and served in soup. The interesting thing is that you can kind of see the progression of the dumpling from Asia up to Russia (or is it from Russia down to Asia?). Bansh and buzz have the thinner wrapping like an Asian dumpling, while a fried meat dumpling (called khuushuur) has a thicker and more pastry-like wrap, kind of like a polish perogi. With a lack of western fast food, the Mongolian version of “fast food” are little cafeteria-style places called guanz that serve up dumplings and other noodle/rice dishes, fast and hot.
As far as vegetables go, it’s kind of slim pickin’s, however, there is always some kind of salad floating around that’s usually of the vinegar, cabbage and carrot variety and is clearly of Russian influence.
In the countryside, eating can be a completely different experience. The nomads live off the land and eat mostly meat and milk products, in addition to a few basic veggies in the summertime and preserved cucumber or cabbage in winter. During the summer months milk and yogurt is plentiful, as is butter. The yogurt is extra tangy. They also make a slightly alcoholic drink out of fermented mares milk called airag. It’s a bit similar to Turkish ayran or Indian Lassi, but tangier. The Mongols sometimes even take it one step further and distill the airag (or other milk) into a clear vodka they call “yogurt vodka” in English (I have no idea what they call this in Mongolian). It’s about the strength of Korean soju (around 20%) and it’s NOT, I repeat NOT for the sensitive palate. Imagine the most sour yogurt you’ve ever tasted that’s turned quite a bit and add a little alcohol to it. My husband didn’t mind it. I, however, almost tossed my cookies after about the third or fourth large shot and had to politely decline their offer of more.
During the winter months, the nomads mostly live off meat and fat. Probably the most delicious nomadic culinary experience is khorkhog, where meat (usually lamb but sometimes a goat kid or marmot) is cooked with hot stones. They also preserve the milk by making aaruul, aka dried milk curds. This is often offered with tea when visiting a ger in winter or summer. It’s rock hard and tastes about like a parmesan rind that has been left out on the counter for a few weeks. Not horrible, but it’s no fine cheese.
During our home stay, our hosts prepared a dessert-like treat that I can’t seem to find a name for. It’s basically like a shortbread cookie dough and is made over the stove with flour, sugar and butter. The interesting part is that they basically clarify the butter, then take out the clarified part using only the milk solids. They then add the clarified butter back in at the end. It has the taste and consistency of raw cookie dough even though it’s kind of been cooked. We were served this tasty treat before dinner. They make a lot at once, so with the leftover dough they form little patties and leave them out on the ger’s roof to dry in the sun so they are left with a cookie.
Tales from the Ger: Nomadic Notions
While Mongolia today has many settled cities and towns, their nomadic roots play a huge role in Mongolian customs and culture, and roughly 30% of the population is still nomadic (or somewhat so).
The countryside in Mongolia is remote and sparsely populated, although a ger with a family of nomads is never too far off. Combined with the renowned Mongolian hospitality, it’s a little comforting knowing that you’re not likely to succumb to the elements in some freak scrape, accident, or from just plain getting lost. It seems apt that in such a harsh landscape, survival means being able to pop in on any ger for a meal and a warm place to sleep, and this is still the case today. Even western wayfarers can knock on the door of any ger in the countryside and enjoy snacks, hot tea, and awkward silences, unless, of course, you speak Mongolian or have a translator. And yes, if you’re really in a fix, they will even put together another ger (if a spare is not already in tact) and give you a bed.
So what is life like for a Mongolian nomad? It mostly centers around the care and maintenance of the livestock and, in the winter months, keeping warm. Wake up, chop wood, graze the livestock, milk the cows etc etc. A self sustaining herd is usually around 300 heads, so most Mongolian nomad families have at least a few hundred head of livestock in any variety of goats, sheep, horses, camels, yak or cows. Wealthier families will have upward of 1000 heads of livestock.
Inside the ger, both the husband and wife (at least at our home stay) spend time preparing the milk into tea, yogurt, dried milk curds, cheese and airag, a fermented milk drink that’s lightly alcoholic. The children go to school during the winter months at the nearest town, where they stay, and visit home over the summer months and holidays.
During down time, they read, listen to radios, play Shagai (a game where they throw the ankle bones of a sheep or goat) and now even watch TV thanks to an entrepreneur that went ger to ger selling a combination satellite dish and solar panel package for an affordable price. This led to us sharing a chuckle with our Mongolian home stay family after watching the dance scene in Little Miss Sunshine (dubbed in Mongolian). I was wondering how they would feel about A) toting around a dead family member in a van and B) a little girl doing a provocative dance; it didn’t seem to offend and they thought it was hysterical. It’s funny how you would think you couldn’t be more different than a Mongolian nomad only to realize when it comes down to it, we’re all quite the same.
Tales from the Ger: The art of becoming shaken, not stirred
Driving in Mongolia can be an adventurous and rewarding experience, once you learn to roll with the punches. To start, the traffic in Ulaanbaatar is comparable to that of Manila despite the fact that they have about 10 million less people on the road. Once leaving the city, though, the roads are nearly empty and the scenery of Mongolia’s beautiful steppe is simply breathtaking.
Then you run out of pavement. Mongolia only has four paved highways (one in each direction leaving UB) and they are really only paved for a few hundred kilometers or so. After that, it’s all dirt roads with limited signs (by “limited” I mean “none,” except maybe leaving a city or small town) and it’s extremely easy to get off course. The main “highways” are incredibly potholed from trucks and other commerce, so most individuals stick to the tire tracks next to the main thoroughfares, aka the frontage roads. These little tracks, however, kind of cross and veer all over the place, so without a good GPS you could find yourself having driven in the wrong direction for hours.
We discovered that it was generally better to follow the power lines. We hired a driver, which was almost the same price as going it alone, thinking it would be nice to not be liable for anything that happens to the car. I’d suggest not hiring a driver and just getting a really good gps in your language.
Sometimes getting from point A to B in Mongolia requires things that aren’t currently available, like bridges. Driving through a river crossing is relatively common, but, of course, there are risks.
Don’t worry, everyone made it out of the vehicle OKAY, albeit a little wet.
Tales from the Ger: Ulaanbaatar
Well, the summer turned into fall, and fall turned into the holidays and excuses, excuses, etc etc. I’ve been duly ignoring the blog. I do apologize, but now I’m back for your reading and all-things-photo pleasure. The next few entries are some images and thoughts on our trip to Mongolia in the late summer/early fall. It’s not really photography based, but there will be photos and it’s my blog so I’ll write what I want. Enjoy!
Mongolia is a vast and interesting place with a rich history and a culture to match. (You can google the history lesson on Chinggis Khan and communist control.) Nestled between China and Russia, Mongolia is the poster child of democracy for a formerly communist nation. Despite the trials of their recent history, Mongolia lacks that sense of desperation that can be found in third world countries. Yes, there is poverty, but there is not a lot of crime and very few peddlers vying for money at tourist hot spots. Maybe it’s just that there aren’t that many tourists, almost none during winter. Or maybe it’s simply that in this land of nomads, livestock and genuine hospitality, nobody goes hungry.
We started our journey in late August, just as summer was sighing her last breath with fall tapping at the back window. Flying in to Ulaanbaatar makes for a scenic landing; the city of about 1 million is condensed at its center and expands into a series of ger camps on the outskirts of the city. Along the countryside, single gers dot the rolling landscape amongst a seemingly confusing network of lines swirling on the ground (I later found out these were roads and highways, but more on that in another post).
As the world’s coldest capital city, the weather turns chilly quickly and early before the city sets in for a long and cold winter. After the day we landed (which was a lovely 80 degrees farenheit), we whipped out our chilly-weather clothes as the rest of our family and friends sweated out the worst heat wave in decades back in Texas. No complaints here, so far.
Ulaanbaatar is not the prettiest of cities in the world as most of it was built by Soviet communists in their typical high-on-function, low-on-aesthetics fashion. Since their liberation from the Soviets in 1990, however, a few modern buildings and sky scrapers have popped up around Sukhbaatar Square (in front of the parliament building) adding a delightful contrast to the otherwise bleak building facades.
Amongst the one million citizens of UB, you get the full gamut of personalities, from faux-hawked kids to countryside nomads to suited businessmen, all jam packed into one neat little package. Only the really old ladies or people performing traditional Mongolian music and dance wear traditional clothing anymore. Yes, even in Mongolia everyone’s homogenized.
Among the hustle and bustle of the city is a gentle blend of both Russian and Chinese influences with a big helping of the strictly Mongolian nomadic culture thrown in for good measure. There are also some unavoidable Western influences when it comes to clothing and music and the like, however, this is (so far) the only capital city I have visited in which I did not see a McDonald’s or a 7-11. Unfortunately, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Once you get used to walking on a lot of unpaved and uneven pathways and probably some of the worst traffic in the world for such a small city, Ulaanbaatar is a pleasant city to explore that offers most of the usuals for a metropolitan area: history, arts, good food, and one million friendly faces.
Drooling over a Canon rangefinder
Since my addiction to traveling has me out of town for a few weeks, here is a post by a fellow photographer, Thomas Maupin of 38 Maple Photography out of Moore, OK. For all you collectors of old cameras, start salivating. Enjoy!
Drooling over a Canon rangefinder
By Thomas Maupin
Some guys have great luck. About five years ago, a guy I know found a 1950s rangefinder at an Oklahoma City garage sale. He quickly paid $50 for it and later sold it to a New York camera store for more than $1,000.
That was pretty high on my “Green With Envy” list until co-worker Paul told me about his new acquisition: a Korean War era Canon rangefinder. My green level went up a few degrees when Paul said the rangefinder was given to him for free. Paul is an up-and-coming professional photographer in Oklahoma City. He said a boyhood friend’s grandfather asked him to take photos of his house and relatives. Paul received the Canon rangefinder and its kit as payment.
The friend’s grandfather told Paul he bought the camera in Japan about the time of the Korean War and paid $400 for the camera and its kit. One night, Paul brought in a brown leather case with Canon stamped on the front. The case was a little bigger than my Domke F-5XC. In the accompanying photo, my Canon 72 mm lens cap is on the case. Strapped to the inside lid was a 7-inch Canon flash reflector. Inside the main compartment were more flash unit parts, a Gossen light meter (not sure about its age), a Canon filter/lens hood combination, and various other pieces of vintage equipment. Secured to the bottom of the carrying case was the Canon rangefinder, which was further protected by the bottom half of a leather case.
I should have taken the time to look at the original manuals and sales slips in the carrying case. That information would have identified the camera model. Comparing my photos with those on the Canon Camera Museum website, I think the camera is a model “IV Sb.” But I could be wrong. As you can see in my accompanying photos, Canon Camera Company Inc. is stamped on the camera’s top. The lens is marked Canon Camera Co. Serenar f:1.9 50 mm. The website said the Serenar brand was changed to Canon in 1953.
I couldn’t help but think of David Douglas Duncan as I held the camera. (OK, he probably used a Leica). I had read that the introduction of the Leica M3 in 1954 shocked Canon’s engineers because of the M3’s brighter and clearer viewfinder.
Looking through the Canon rangefinder’s viewfinder was difficult for my 60something-year-old eyes. I had to remove my glasses to see the viewfinder’s corners, but that added to the blur factor. This was not the clear and bright viewfinder of a Leica M7 that another co-worker allowed me to hold and look through a few years ago. Paul said he plans to run some film through the Canon. His eyes are younger than mine, so he won’t have a problem.
My only actual rangefinder experience was using my dad’s 1953 Argus C3 while I was at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the early 1970s. Hmmm, maybe I would have received an A instead of a B in the basic photojournalism class if I’d bought a used Canon or Nikon rangefinder or a new SLR. The Argus has long since been retired, and today I use a Canon DSLR. But I’d like to take the Canon rangefinder outdoors for a spin around town.