Timeless Beauty

There is no place quite like Yosemite National Park.  It’s been a while since I visited the park – all my pictures were taken with my old Minolta film cameras.  I’ve been looking through my slide collection lately and after looking at these pictures for the first time in over twenty five years, it was time to “scan” some of the slides so that they can finally be a part of my digital collection.  Here are a few pictures from my last trip to Yosemite, taken in May 1994.  I need to go back and visit this wonderful place once again.  Of course, I can say the same thing about Bryce, Yellowstone, Arches, Acadia, the Tetons – the national parks are a true treasure that have endured for millennia.  Let us work together to ensure that these landmarks, centuries from now, are still a source of wonder and inspiration for those who come after us.  Assuming, of course, that Yellowstone doesn’t blow its top in the meantime.

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And then, Yosemite

When I was young, my parents used to take me along trips and vacations to see the wonderful places the world had to offer.  I remember driving to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park for the first time.  My father was ecstatic looking at the mountains and the seemingly endless views of the valley below.  My mother was busy posing for photographs.  I was unmoved.  A typical teenager, I just wanted to stay home and do my own thing.

A few years later, my grandparents were visiting us in Virginia and they decided to visit their friends in rural southeastern Virginia.  If the barely two hour drive to the Shenandoah was long, the drive to Richlands, Virginia seemed like an eternity.  Mountains, hills, valleys all melded into a mosaic of interstates and highways, rural roadways, the occasional town.  It was a happy time for all – friendships rekindled, beautiful mountain air – with the exception of the grumpy teenager who just wanted to stay home.  And of course, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was only a “short” distance away.  So what to do?  Drive through more mountain roads, look at never ending forests, gaze upwards to look  at yet another mountain peak, and meet native Americans for the first time.  That part of the trip was actually interesting.  Clean mountain air, the fog that covered the mountains that made for spectacular sunrise and sunsets, the breezes that made the hot summer days bearable – I didn’t breathe, see or feel any of that.  I chose to ignore the beauty that was around me.  I just wanted to be home.

When my father bought me my first real camera, I started taking pictures of my friends.  Eventually, I started taking pictures of the monuments and landmarks that were so close to me.  Visit to the woods and parklands soon became a favored diversion.  I started to read about the great places to visit in the United States.  Shenandoah National Park.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Yosemite National Park.

I visited family and friends in San Francisco and they offered to drive me to Yosemite.  I was unprepared for what I saw.  I knew that the place was beautiful – who hasn’t seen the pictures of Yosemite taken by Ansel Adams and other great photographers.  I envisioned cliffs, mountains, streams.  Instead, I was treated to one of nature’s great cathedrals.  Yes, El Capitan, with its granite face was a sight to behold.  Half Dome, Yosemite Falls – they were indeed impressive. Still, they are but backdrops to the true beauty of Yosemite.  The life sustaining valley nestled within the great peaks of the Sierras.  The stone monuments, beautiful as they are, are the supporting cast to this place that the trees and animals call home.  Yosemite.  A monument for the ages.  A cathedral for the living.  A gift of magnificent beauty for all.

Beauty in Everything

We are surrounded by beauty.  Often times, we look at everything at the most superficial level.  We see a pretty face, a pretty dress, a beautiful landscape, a stunning sunset.  We travel all over the world to see the Andean glaciers, the auroras in Iceland, the arches and hoodoos of the American southwest, the water wonderland that is Guilin.  We dream of going to far off places, depicted so beautifully by thousands of photographers and artists who share the same passion of seeing, drawing, photographing the places and things that have been universally deemed as beautiful.

We ignore the innate beauty around us.  From a child gazing longingly at the candy cane in the window, the grandmother being escorted by a loving grandchild as they cross a busy street, to a homeless man grateful for a cup of coffee that a stranger provides.  There is so much beauty in the world, if we could only look beyond our preconceptions and prejudices.  And wonder at the beauty that is everyday life.

The bluebird singing.  The stars in the night sky forming patterns that have guided mankind’s journey throughout the ages.  That feather in the grass. Pick it up and look closely.  You may be amazed at what you see.

Unopened Folder

I was browsing through my computer in search of pictures I can use for a new blog posting.  I noticed a folder that hasn’t been opened in a year.  A year old, untouched, pictures unprocessed – what was inside the folder?  A quick glance reminded me that I was at Huntley Meadows that August day.  In search of birds (probably hummingbirds).  I vaguely remember that after a few hours of August humidity and heat, I went home.  I copied the pictures to my hard drive and did nothing else with them.  Until today.

Browsing through the photographs, I see pictures of hummingbirds.  And dragonflies, butterflies, herons and goldfinches.  Remember the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, when the Ark of the Covenant is placed in a crate and stored in what seems like a never ending warehouse of similar looking crates?  Well, that crate among crates seems like an apt metaphor for all the folders sitting inside my computer.  They all look the same, but they are all different.  I am not claiming to have found the Ark, but I did find some interesting pictures.

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Wet and Wonderful

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in early September.  I’ve become quite keen on macro photography lately, and with the intermittent nature of the showers, it was time to explore the flowers at Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna, Virginia.  Raindrops are beautiful when viewed closely, especially when the world around them is refracted and reflected in unpredictable ways.

The garden was not as quiet as I thought it would be.  On the Atrium at the garden, a wedding reception was getting under way.  My first thought was – well, I wonder what kind of wedding pictures the photographer will be able to take.  With a heavy overcast and the rain fairly steady, the wedding party wasn’t spending a lot of time in the beautiful garden.  Sometimes, the best laid plans are thrown asunder by water droplets from the sky.  Still.  A wedding is a celebration, after all.  I suppose wedding photographers will have contingency plans for times like this.  I am glad I am taking pictures of flowers, raindrops, and dew laden plants and not have to worry about pleasing clients on their wedding day.  I wish the newlyweds joy and happiness in their new life.  And may their special day be captured in a special way.

Back to the garden.  The overcast skies made the colors of the flowers really pop out.  It was a feast for the eyes.  The colors!

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Orange, yellow, pinks, purple, red hues, deeply saturated.  The flowers, holding the moisture in their petals. Insects, weighed down by the moisture, slowly drying themselves out in the open air.  Each droplet beckoned to be photograph.  I felt like a bee, moving from flower, to flower, getting ever closer, looking at a familiar world made even more beautiful by the transient beading of water from the sky.

Closer.  Closer still.  Until the world around the flowers can be seen reflected in the droplets that hang precariously on a ledge.  In an instant, a droplet would separate itself from a leaf, from a petal, the reflection rendered so beautifully being pulled down by the invisible force of gravity.  A drip here, a drip there.  Beading, elongating, falling.  Focus.  Focus.  Images go in and out of focus as the lens points excitedly to yet another seemingly frozen moment of time.  Click.  Click. Click.  Each drop a picture.  Each drop a memory.  Nature paused and I was transfixed.

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Classic Subject, Vintage Lens

Over the weekend, a very nice lady gave me an old Minolta Rokkor-TC 135mm f4 lens.  This lens is over five decades old.  It was a sunny day yesterday, so it was a good opportunity to test the lens on a classic subject.  It was off to Meadowlark Gardens for a quick lunchtime photo session.  The lens was attached to a modern Sony APS-C mirrorless camera.  Some pictures.

The lens is lacking in contrast compared to modern lenses; this is most noticeable when there is strong backlighting in the image. Focus peaking works quite well and the ability to magnify the area that I am focusing on is very helpful; unfortunately, I was concerned that the butterfly would fly away before I achieved optimum focus on the subject, so I some of the images are not as sharp as they could have been.

The images were sharpened, contrast added, vibrancy and saturation tweaked, and in the case of the featured image, I deleted “unnecessary” objects from the picture to isolate the flowers and butterflies.  I also had to extensively blur the backgrounds on the featured image and on the last image in the set.  Still, the lens is quite nice.  I am looking forward to using this lens for portraiture – it will probably great for that.

The old lenses are certainly worth trying out.  And as the 135mm f4 Rokkor-TC shows, they will be useful tools for decades to come.

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The Familiar, Redefined

You want to take a picture of some landmark or scenery that everyone else has taken a picture of.  That’s okay.  Each picture is indeed different, to some degree or another.  The thing is, you can make something a little bit more interesting by taking the picture at different times of the day, different seasons, a slightly different perspective.  You can make something familiar just a little bit different so that it becomes something that you own, so to speak.  Here are four pictures of something that everyone has seen before – the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, from the vantage point of somewhere in the Lincoln Memorial.

In the morning, after sunrise.  Don’t over saturate the colors to make it look unnatural. Some clouds to make it more interesting.  A silhouette works fairly well.

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In the middle of a cloudy day, go low, go for contrast, accentuate the clouds.  Black and white works well for this kind of picture.

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In the blue hour, add an interesting element to the composition (people having their picture taken).  With the lights on, the monument stands out against the bluish background. (The scaffolding makes it more interesting as well).

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In the evening, the Washington Monument, with the Capitol in the background, really stands out.  Make sure the lights in the walkway can be seen to add interest to the scene.  Try black and white for the night photograph.

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Four pictures of the same thing, from the same place.  Are these pictures unique?  Not really.  If you really must have that picture of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool in the mid day sun, have at it.  A little variation, however, can make the familiar a little more interesting.

I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for decades.  I have been looking at the pictures I have taken in Washington D.C. in the last decade or so.  Surprisingly, I haven’t really taken that many pictures of the familiar landmarks in isolation.  Sure, I have taken a lot of pictures of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol.  More often than not, these landmarks are not the focal points of the photograph.

I have taken the beautiful things around me for granted.  How many people travel halfway around the world to see the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?  I have taken countless pictures of countless people with these iconic monuments in the background.  I show my friends and relatives the sites that I know are beautiful, all the while not really seeing the beauty before me.  Wonder is transformed to banality.

As a matter of course, I always read Lincoln’s words when I visit the Lincoln Memorial (several times a year).  The words never lose their meaning.  It’s time to look at the familiar in the same way.  Beauty is not only in what we see, but also in what we think.  The thought for the day.  Familiarity is not an impediment to creativity.  Complacency is.