Gear Matters

The rising sun penetrates the sea smoke at Camp Ellis in Saco on a sub-zero morning

Most photography instructors will tell you that camera gear doesn’t matter and that a new lens or camera body won’t make you a better photographer.  They always cite the example that a professional photographer using entry level equipment will take better photos than a novice using top of the line gear.  I think that’s true but it certainly begs the question why professionals would dish out beaucoup bucks for high end stuff if they can just as easily take great photos with a cheap kit.  The answer to that question is that gear matters – in certain situations.

Sea smoke shrouds the rocky Camp Ellis shore

My neighbors recently returned from a three week expedition to Antarctica sponsored by National Geographic aboard the magazine’s exploration ship appropriately named “The Explorer”.   On the first day participants were greeted with wind driven, near freezing, rain as they set out to photograph the hundreds, maybe thousands of penguins gathered on shore.  Of the 130 people in the group, over thirty of them had their cameras die due to water damage.  That probably wouldn’t have happened had they been using more expensive, fully weather sealed cameras.  Whether you’re a rookie or a seasoned pro, a dead camera means no pictures – regardless of your skill level.  Gear matters in the rain.

A beached ice floe in Scarborough
The remnants of high tide in Scarborough

I like to save a buck as much as the next guy and so I often choose generic alternatives to brand name equipment when it comes to photography accessories.  I can’t see spending top dollar for seldom used non-essential items and often find that the “Acme” versions work quite well.   I also thought the same about camera batteries but Mother Nature recently proved me wrong.

Frozen seawater sculpts the beach near Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland

This recent cold snap saw early morning temperatures plunge into the -20F range and I ventured out multiple times when the mercury dipped to at least -15F.  That’s camera battery zapping weather and I quickly learned that the cheap Chinese knock-off batteries that I purchased at bargain basement prices didn’t last nearly as long as my much older, original equipment, battery.  I use the tried and true trick of keeping a spare battery warm by sandwiching it between layers inside my clothing.  Unfortunately, accessing that battery violates a cold weather rule that states that the best way to stay warm is to not get cold.  Having to remove my heavy gloves to unzip my jacket and other layers in order to retrieve the battery, coupled with having to fiddle with the camera to swap out the dead power source, turns a relatively warm me into a cold me.   Once that happens at negative 15 degrees, it’s difficult to recover.  Gear does matter in the cold and that age-old rule of “you get what you pay for” applies here.

A ferry boat makes its way through the sea smoke as the Cousins Island power plant churns out a massive plumage
You won’t find many boats out on the water on mornings such as these

2018 is off to a brutal start, weather-wise, here in Maine.  I don’t expect to be taking my bicycle out anytime soon!  In the meantime, I’m keeping the cut-rate Chinese batteries on full-time charge at least until the groundhog signifies that spring is just around the corner.

The trees refuse to let go of the snow on these frigid mornings

 

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The Right Stuff

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I like to consider myself a “location” photographer.  This genre falls under the landscape photography umbrella but includes seascapes, cityscapes and places of interest – particularly lighthouses. A few nights ago I watched a video that discussed the three prerequisites for being a successful landscape photographer – none of which is directly related to photography.  It made me pause and think about whether I have the “right stuff” and what it might take to up my game.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

In no particular order, these requirements are:

  • Must be able to overcome the fear of darkness – Now this may seem a bit peculiar but is perfectly logical.  Many award winning landscape photographs are taken in remote places and typically around sunrise or sunset.  That means in order to get to/from this remote place one must hike up or down a mountain or traipse through the forest in total darkness and that can be a bit intimidating.  Other than occasionally riding my bicycle in the dark to or from a photo shoot, I don’t have any nighttime hiking or trekking experience.  Maybe it’s time to add that to my bucket list.  It’s in keeping with a photography axiom that states “get your camera in a different place”.
Nubble Lighthouse
  • Must have the physical strength and stamina to carry a heavy camera backpack and tripod long distances – I haven’t added much photo gear to my collection in quite a while but it seems that my camera bag is “feeling” heavier with each passing season.  Might be time to bring less stuff or regain the strength lost to the aging process.  This too supports a key photography principle: “zoom with your feet”.
East Point Sanctuary – Biddeford Pool
Old Orchard Beach
  • Must be able to tolerate adverse weather conditions – I don’t mind the cold and have photographed in sub-zero temperatures but I don’t like getting myself or my gear soaking wet.  Yet, some of the best images I’ve seen recently were taken in horrible climate – particularly in Iceland where freezing rain and hail pelted the photographer.  Not surprisingly he was the only one out there shooting, thereby subscribing to another guideline “shoot where there ain’t nobody else”.  I have Gore-Tex pants, jacket and boots so maybe it’s time to invest in some  rain/snow gear for my camera and get out there when others choose to remain indoors.
Willard Beach – South Portland
Giant Stairs Trail – Bailey Island

If I could add a fourth “must” it would be must be able to get up before the crack of dawn and function normally.  I think the pre-dawn and sunrise hours are the best moments for location photography.  Few people are out at that time, the air is often still, and the bugs are usually still asleep. Magical things happen early in the morning and I look forward to capturing more of them in 2018.  Here’s hoping that you’ll come along for the ride.

Camp Ellis Harbor
Pond Cove – Cape Elizabeth

I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year!

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse – South Portland

The Fall Guy

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June is my favorite month of the year.  I love the long daylight hours and how the green vegetation coats the landscape.  October is my second favorite month.  Peak foliage is a photographer’s dream come true and I like the fact that all four major sports leagues are in action.  I particularly enjoy baseball’s World Series.

A wrong turn in Buxton led me to this scene

That’s why I was conflicted over leaving Maine in October for a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand.  Not only would I miss the height of the leaf-peeping season, for the first time since 1960 I would not get to watch one minute of the World Series – except for some video highlights via the internet and a few blurbs on Australian television.  Of course, since the Red Sox were eliminated from the playoffs shortly before my departure, missing the Series wasn’t all that painful.  Having to forego peak foliage time was a little more difficult to swallow.

Just off the Blue Trail in Rines Forest in Cumberland

Prepping for a three week trip didn’t leave much time for photography but I did manage to get out on the morning before we left.  Websites categorized southern Maine at about 60-70% peak color and I spent time in Buxton, Limerick and Cumberland in search of the reds, yellows and oranges that make October spectacular.

Somewhere in Limerick

The outing also offered me the opportunity to use one of my favorite photography accessories – purchased at Wal-Mart, no less: a cheap pair of rubber boots to wade into shallow waters.  If you want viewers to get a true “feel” of the scene being captured, you have to jump into the scene feet first yourself.  Waterproof boots help.

The Limerick Rapids

I may have missed peak foliage this year but I can’t complain too much.  I came back with some once in a lifetime photographs from Australia and New Zealand.  The leaves will turn color in Maine again next year and for many years thereafter.  Count on me being here.

An angler fishes the Saco River

The Land Down Below

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When I first met my wife, Mindy, over thirty years ago she was very clear about her goals in life.  She wanted to a) get married  b) have children and c) travel to Australia.   We checked the first two items off that list within the early years of our relationship and even tossed in trips to Europe, Japan and Africa but as we approached thirty years of marriage we still hadn’t fulfilled her dream to visit Australia.  Realizing that we weren’t getting any younger, we decided that traveling down under would be a great way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and planning began in earnest in early 2017.

My desire to travel to the Southern Hemisphere was ratcheted up several notches when a friend told me about a New Zealand based photographer named Trey Ratcliff and I began following his blog.  It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the spectacular beauty of this island country and to decide that I needed to see this place for myself.  Therefore, it only seemed logical that if we were going to travel half way around the world to Australia, we might as well tack on another 2,500 miles and see New Zealand.  Neither Mindy, nor I, regret that decision.

When we stepped off the plane and saw this Ibis bird literally scrounging for table scraps, we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore

Getting to Australia is quite a schlep and our journey was made all the more difficult by some bad information from our travel agent.  We were told that visas were not required to visit these two countries but that was only partially correct.  You don’t need a visa to tour New Zealand providing you can prove that you have a ticket to exit the country within 90 days.  You DO need a visa to enter Australia and when we arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport without one, they wouldn’t let us on the plane.  Thankfully, a wonderful American Airlines representative worked diligently to procure the necessary documents online – even calling the Australian consulate – and we made our flight with little time to spare.  We experienced first-hand why airlines want international travelers to arrive at the airport several hours before departure time.  As we found our seats on the plane, we both breathed a jumbo-jet sigh of relief.

Boston to Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia is about twenty hours of flight time and we were very happy to step off the plane and claim our presence on continent #6 – Antarctica being the only continent we have yet to visit.  Immediately we were greeted with something that would accompany us throughout most of Australia – rain.  It rained eight out of the ten days we were there but we didn’t let it damper our spirits.   Armed with Gore-Tex jackets and umbrellas we did just about everything we set out to do and had the good fortune of rainless periods during our major planned excursions.

Australians and New Zealanders drive on the wrong (left) side of the road and that proved to be quite challenging.  I got my feet wet immediately upon arrival as the drive from the airport into downtown Brisbane was particularly terrifying – especially when navigating roundabouts.  Fortunately, Aussies are pretty laid back people (no worries, mate) and any close encounters were met with polite gestures that I needed to be on the other side of the road.  By the time I got to New Zealand, driving went from terrifying to just plain scary.

Spring in the Southern Hemisphere is very colorful

Our first hotel was located in the small seacoast community of Byron Bay.  Situated right on the edge of a rainforest, our room was within earshot of many tropical birds and the sound of the rain added to the ambiance.  Byron Bay has a Key West kinda feel to it with lots of free-spirited and eccentric people making up its population.  Surfing is its raison d’être.

Too many bird species in the rainforest to keep track of

A surfer makes his way to Byron Beach
It’s a steep climb to the Cape Byron Lighthouse  (iPhone photo by Mindy)

Our least enjoyable day trip was time spent at the Gold Coast – Australia’s version of Miami Beach – located about an hour north of Byron Bay.  Home to high-rise luxury apartments and fancy yachts, its beach known as “Surfers’ Paradise” was closed due to rough seas caused by an impending storm.  We settled for a harbor cruise that was enjoyable mainly for the fact that the rain had temporarily stopped.

The Gold Coast on a not so bright and sunny day

The Gold Coast wasn’t a total waste of time.  As we walked the beach, Mindy spotted a monk cloaked in red proceeding to feed a flock of seagulls.  I hurried to photograph the scene and feel very fortunate to have captured this serene moment in time.

Our next stop was the city of Cairns, the launch pad for trips out to the Great Barrier Reef.  A lovely seaside town dotted with outdoor restaurants, this was the only place during our three week trip that we could wear summer attire.  Our hotel was directly across the street from a waterfront promenade and evening and early morning walks featured warm, gentle breezes (when it wasn’t raining) as well as pelican sideshows.  Our only regret is that we couldn’t bottle up this warmth and carry it along to our other destinations.

Seeing the Great Barrier Reef (a.k.a. “The Reef”) was both exciting and slightly disappointing.  I envisioned colorful coral and aquatic life as seen in National Geographic magazine but in reality, the reef is now faded and gray – especially on a sunless day like we experienced.  Mindy and I snorkeled and the crew was very accommodating to first timers like us.  In addition to snorkeling and diving, the outfitter also had a glass bottom boat moored nearby and that proved advantageous for two reasons.  First, we got a much clearer look underwater than we did snorkeling in rough seas.  More importantly, upon Mindy’s request, this boat took her and me out to a small sandbar in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and deposited us there for about a half an hour.  Occasionally pelted by wind-driven rain we nevertheless treasured this time on our own private, deserted little island.  We both knew this was something very special.

A romantic experience somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

From Cairns we flew north to south across Australia to the city of Melbourne.  The highlight here was a safari like excursion out into the “bush” to see kangaroos, wallabies and koala bears in their natural environment.  Kangaroos outnumber people in Australia and finding a group to observe and photograph wasn’t difficult.

“Tie me kangaroo down sport, tie me kangaroo down”

Wallabies are a bit more elusive and we just happened to stumble upon several both here and later on the island of Tasmania.

A baby wallaby in its mother’s pouch is called a joey

Koalas, on the other hand, are extremely rare and difficult to find in the wild but our exceptional guide named, Sally, worked with her team of expert spotters to locate three of them in one day.  Once the spotters pinpointed a koala they would geo-tag the location using Google Maps and Sally would use her cellphone to guide us through the woods and find the sleeping buggers.

This koala was photographed in the wild
This koala was photographed in a sanctuary

The island of Tasmania was our next destination and the southernmost point of our travels.  The city of Hobart is surrounded by mountains and it’s only a short ferry-boat ride to many smaller islands.

The city of Hobart as seen from atop Mt. Wellington
Penguin sculptures in Hobart Harbor near our hotel

We made the day trip out to Bruny Island and enjoyed its unpaved roads and bare-bones accommodations.  The outing culminated with a climb to the top of the Bruny Island Lighthouse and some interesting tales offered by the resident tour giver.

View from the Bruny Lighthouse tower

Our end point in Australia was the wonderful city of Sydney, home of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.  Mindy and I both agree that it has the most beautiful harbor (spelled harbour down here) of any waterfront city we’ve ever visited.  Great sights, super friendly people, and lots to do.

Sydney Harbour
The Sydney Opera House

Wanting to be a little adventurous, we decided to climb to the top of the Sidney Harbour Bridge – all 1,400 steps round trip – and view the city from this extraordinary vantage point 400 feet above the water.   The website promotes the climb as “360 degrees of wonderful” and it didn’t disappoint.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge
Climbers make their way to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The 3.5 hour adventure includes a fair amount of prep time and practice climbs on indoor ladders and walkways.  Each climber is outfitted with a jump suit (no one actually jumps) equipped with hooks to fasten glasses and hats as well as a belt to latch onto the safety cable that accompanies the walkway.  Pockets must be emptied and jewelry and watches must be removed.  Cameras are not allowed except for the guide who has it harnessed to his/her body.  The guide shares all of the photos taken and are free to use as desired.  We picked the perfect time of day as we got to see both the sunset and the early twilight minutes.  A truly spectacular experience!

The following bridge climb photographs were taken Brad.

The walkway was originally built for construction and maintenance workers.  A safety cable was added later.
Thankfully, it didn’t rain on this day!
Military helicopters made an unexpected fly-by
Twilight over the city
A perfect sunset

While we were in Sydney, Mindy reunited with a friend from her high school days who is now living in Australia that she hadn’t seen in fifty years.  Thank you, Pam, and your wonderful family for having us over.  The home cooked meal was just what we needed!

As much as we were sad to leave Australia we were equally excited to see New Zealand.  The roughly three-hour flight from Sydney to Queenstown on New Zealand’s south island was uneventful until we spotted the snow-capped mountains and rugged terrain during our descent.  After admiring those scenes, it became blatantly obvious that we had made a great choice coming to this southern Pacific paradise.

iPhone photo by Mindy

Queenstown is a smaller city than we had envisioned and that suited us just fine.  Our hotel was about five miles out of town and we took a water taxi to and from the downtown area.  An absolute must-do activity in Queenstown is to take the gondola ride up the mountain to Bob’s Peak overlooking Lake Wakatipu.  Coincidently, I had read an article on the flight over how construction of the gondola was almost thwarted by the then mayor in 1967 arguing instead that a skating rink would better serve the city’s residents.  Now in its 50th year of operation, roughly 18 million people have taken this steep cable-car ride up to Bob’s Peak and it’s doubtful anyone ever regretted it.  We certainly didn’t.

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from Bob’s Peak
Queenstown is surrounded by mountains

From Queenstown we took an all-day excursion to Milford Sound and cruised the many fjords lined with snow-covered mountains spouting waterfalls around every bend.  The fjords are home to seals, dolphins and penguins and  we got a good look at a tiny penguin reported to be part of the third rarest penguin species in the world.

Milford Sound

The boat captain spotted this cute little penguin camouflaged by the rocks

Another tour took us on a jet boat down the Dart River, eventually making its way to Lake Wakatipu.  This wasn’t your typical pleasure cruise but rather a 70 mph rush through shallow waters complete with carnival like twists, turns and 360 degree spins.  We did stop briefly to catch our collective breaths and take in the breath-taking views.

These folks chose the slower rafting option

Leaving Queenstown we embarked on the six-hour drive through the Southern Alps to the city of Christchurch situated on the east coast of the southern island.

New Zealand’s Southern Alps

This drive was absolutely stunning and stops in Lake Wanaka, Lake Putaki and Lake Tekapo were icing on the cake.  Had I known it was this gorgeous I would have traded the time in Christchurch for a few extra days in this region.

Lake Wanaka
New Zealand allows free camping at Freedom Campsites such as Lake Putaki

Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand and it just so happened that the Rugby League World Cup tournament was taking placing.  Staying alongside us at the hotel in Christchurch was the national team from Scotland but they didn’t have much to cheer about as they were trounced 74-6 by the home team in a match played at Christchurch Stadium.  I briefly watched some of the game on television.  It’s a bit more barbaric than American football since the players don’t wear helmets or protective padding.  Tom Brady might not fare very well in this league but Rob Gronkowski certainly would.

In Christchurch we met a nice couple from Colorado who gave us an excellent recommendation about a dolphin cruise about 90 minutes away in Akaroa Bay.  Not the easiest place to get to, the route took us over mountain passes and down some steep, narrow and winding roads – all with impressive scenes.  This was a small, family run, cruise business and the captain and crew were committed to showing us dolphins, seals, penguins and other wildlife.  They even made use of a cute little dog named, Buster, to help locate the dolphins.  With his acute sense of hearing, Buster would listen for sounds of dolphins underwater and signal their presence.  A low-tech, but effective, four-legged sonar system.

The long and winding road to Akaroa Bay
Akaroa Bay – well worth the drive
With Buster’s help we saw many dolphins up close
Seals frolicked on the rocks, basking in the sunshine
Impressive rock formations

Leaving the south island, our next stop was the city of Wellington to the north.  The Australian rain eventually caught up to us thereby prompting some indoor activities.  Highly recommended was the Te Papa museum in Wellington – the official keeper of the country’s history and related artifacts. The featured exhibit for 2017 chronicles New Zealand’s entry into World War I at the battle of Gallipoli in Turkey and with free admission, the price was right.  Fighting alongside the Australian army, the New Zealanders totally underestimated the Turkish forces and consequently suffered enormous casualties.  The highlight of the exposition is a series of giant-sized figures constructed with elaborate detail that depict the soldiers’ pain and suffering.  I’m not much of a war buff but this was a very moving exhibit.

The figures were very realistic looking
Inside the Te Papa museum

Next on the itinerary was a one night stop in the city of Rotorua located on the shores of its namesake lake.  It is best known for its geothermal activity and is home to many geysers and hot mud pools.  An unpleasant sulfur odor radiates from the mud pools hence it is nicknamed the “Sulphur City”.

One of the many hot and smelly mud pools

Rotorua is also home to many Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.  Just outside of town they have established a re-creation of an ancient Maori village.  Here you can “discover Maori art, take part in ancient rituals and learn about fascinating Maori traditions”.  Included is dinner cooked in large underground pits fueled with hot volcanic rocks.  We learned quite a bit about the Maori culture and it proved to be a very entertaining evening.

The last destination on this whirlwind tour was the city of Auckland – New Zealand’s most populous city with approximately 1.5 million residents.  Our lodging was once again located on a wharf and cruise ships and ferry boats were just a stone’s throw away.  Whales are often spotted just off the end of the wharf but they chose not to make an appearance for us.

Auckland, New Zealand

If you visit New Zealand and don’t bungee jump off a mountain, bridge or tall building, you’re considered a wuss.  I didn’t let that sway my decision to stay rooted on the ground, but Mindy and I did go up to the observation deck of the Skytower – the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here, we were afforded a 360 degree view of this modern and charming city.

Bungee jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge
View from the Skytower observation deck (you can bungee jump off of here, too)

We took a 40 minute ferry-boat ride out to Waiheke Island which is home to several wineries and some very scenic hiking trails.  We opted for the latter and explored the island’s trails which meander along cliff tops, down to the beaches and into cool areas of native forest.

Waiheke Bay
We walked out to many of the Waiheke cliffs

Our final activity was a four-hour tour of the city with a gentleman named Michael who took us off the beaten path and was even kind enough to stop for ice cream so that we could get our last “fix” before departing for America.  The more we saw of the city and learned of its climate and culture, the more we contemplated that this could someday become our home away from home.

We’ll see!

Black and White

The Greek Island of Santorini

I’ve never been a big fan of black and white photographs.  I think it stems from the fact that my family was the last in the neighborhood to get a color television set.  I remember pleading for our household to buy a color TV in time for me to watch the 1967 World Series between the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals but my pleas fell on deaf ears.  In the end it really didn’t matter.  Yaz and the Sox lost that series 50 years ago this month and I suppose the agony of defeat would have been all the more painful for me had I watched the disappointing finish in living color.

1967 Triple Crown Winner, Carl Yastrzemski  – Photo © Dan Levesque 1978

I’m also too much of a realist to fully appreciate black and white images.  The world is in color and that’s what my eyes see.  Ansel Adams may have seen the landscape in varying shades of gray but I bet if you go to the places where he made his now famous photographs, the world won’t look anything like the one in his pictures – the exception being some of his night time shots.  Yes, Virginia, there actually was color in Yosemite even way back then.  There still is!

Yokohama Bay – Japan

But . . . just like an old dog that learns a new trick, I’m starting to warm up to black and white photography.  It sometimes can evoke a mood that color reproductions simply cannot.  It also creates a more timeless sense of place.  Of course, warming up to something and actually being good at it are often miles apart.  These days with a single mouse click it’s easy to convert a digital color file into black and white pixels.  Unfortunately, there’s no “auto” button feature that can convert it into a fine art masterpiece.  That process still starts in the photographer’s mind and heart; not in the camera or behind the computer.

Florence Italy as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Ansel Adams once said that “you don’t take a photograph, you make it”.  I recently read a new twist on that where the author said “first you take a photograph and then you make it” – implying that post processing in the (digital) darkroom is where photos come to life.  The truth must lie somewhere in the middle.

Alcatraz Prison – San Francisco

I’m gonna give black and white a whirl – until something else inspires me (my wife swears I have A-D-D and can’t focus on one thing for any length of time).  We’ll see how it plays out.

Somewhere on the Greek Island of Crete

I thought I would share some digital photos from my archives that I’ve converted to black and white and added my own “special sauce” refinements.  Let me know what you think.

Bug Light – South Portland
Pine Point Beach – Scarborough
East Point Preserve – Biddeford Pool
Marshall Point Lighthouse – Port Clyde
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Michigan
Portland Headlight
Portland Headlight
Falmouth Town Landing

In Search of the Real Maine

Goat Island Lighthouse as seen from Cape Porpoise

Kennebunkport is a nice little Maine town.  Stroll around Dock Square in the village center and you’ll find plenty of shops to spend your money in and a few good restaurants to curb your appetite.  Take a ride along Ocean Avenue past the Bush Compound at Walker’s Point and I’m sure you’ll find the scenery spectacular. Spend some time on Goose Rocks Beach if you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot and you’ll marvel at the lovely summer homes there.  All well and good, but it’s not the “real” Maine.

To find some semblance of Maine in its genuine article form within this region of the state you have to drive up the coast a couple of miles to the fishermen’s pier in the Cape Porpoise section of Kennebunk.  You won’t find any fancy sports cars or luxury sedans in the parking lot – at least not before sunrise.   All you’ll likely encounter are smelly pick-up trucks with chain smoking fishermen of all ages inside of them waiting for the first light of day to signal it’s time to crank up the boat engine and head out to sea. Likewise, you won’t spot a Hinckley sailboat or a massive yacht moored there. The status symbol of choice here is a lobster boat.

The pier does share a parking lot with its neighbor, the Pier 77 restaurant.  Since this establishment is popular with tourists, you might spot an occasional Porsche or BMW in the lot around dinner time.  I’m told that the food is good there but I much prefer the more Maine-ish adjacent pub named The Ramp where I highly recommend the fish-n-chips.  Any restaurant with lobster buoys dangling from its siding unmistakably shouts “real” Maine.

The Ramp Pub

Driving down to Cape Porpoise to catch the sunrise last Saturday I pulled into the lot at the same time as a vehicle with California plates.  A middle aged couple got out and I could tell by their gear that they were both photography enthusiasts.  I struck up a conversation and learned that they were on a four month cross country journey in search of “real” America.  They had left their home in northern California in early August and traveled up the Oregon coast before heading to Yellowstone National Park.  They later witnessed the total solar eclipse near Omaha, Nebraska and stopped at countless other places before arriving in Maine. Cheap motels and Airbnb’s were the extent of their accommodations.

They spoke of driving up Route 1 all the way to Eastport – the nation’s easternmost township and the first place in the US to see the sun on most days of the year.  Having been to Eastport on several occasions for work related purposes, I can attest that it is not situated exactly on the edge of the earth but you can see the edge from its fishing docks.  My favorite time to visit is when the Chamber of Commerce hosts the “vacant building” festival down on Main Street (anyone who has been to this economically depressed town knows what I mean).

I offered them a few tips regarding several other obscure Maine photo destinations including Lookout Point in Harpswell and Five Islands Lobster Company in Georgetown. And since they were going to Eastport anyway, I highly recommended the WACO Diner right on the waterfront for breakfast.  In all fairness, I did preface my recommendation with a disclaimer that one didn’t go there for the food or the service but rather for the “experience”.  It’s the only restaurant I know of that offers eggs scrambled, sunny side up, or cracked raw into your warm glass of beer (a local Downeast delicacy).  Ask if there is a table available and the hostess will tell you “go and check for yourself”.  On the plus side, you might just spot a whale while dining on their deck. If you want “real” Maine, oh baby, this is it!

Lookout Point

From Eastport, the couple planned to visit New Hampshire and Vermont for peak foliage season before returning home via a southern route with stops in the Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon.

I commend these two for their free spirited-ness and desire to see not only the country’s iconic vistas and attractions but the off-the-beaten-path destinations as well.   Since that aligns with my aspirations, we might just cross paths again.

Return to Africa (well, sorta)

I recently read an article about the fifty best places on the planet for photography and I can report that I’ve been to two of them – a whopping 4%.  Although I beg to differ with some of the choices in the list, I have no argument with the two destinations that I have visited first hand:  Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Africa’s Masai Mara in southwest Kenya.  Both offer absolutely stunning photo opportunities.

I was in the Mara and other parts of Africa exactly five years ago this week and the experience remains unforgettable.  Much like a good wine that gets better with age, the sights that I witnessed and captured in digital form – or reside in my mental archive – amaze me more with the passage of time. Whenever I scan through the nearly 4,000 pictures that I shot I find several more that I deem blog-worthy.

In the two weeks that I spent there I only got to see a tiny fragment of this vast continent and I long for the day when I can return.  Fortunately, through the magic of Netflix and YouTube, I’ve made frequent virtual trips to the grassy plains, rolling hills and pristine lakes of this ultimate in wilderness territories.

A friend told me about a Netflix series called “Tales by Light” that I’ve really enjoyed watching.  Sponsored by Canon, these short presentations follow professional photographers in their quest for dramatic and evocative images throughout the world.  The emphasis is not on photography itself but rather on the resulting pictures these photographers create and how they may influence the viewer and the world as a whole. Filmed in places like Antarctica, beneath the waters off the coast of New Zealand, and in the slums of India, these artists capture the essence of their subject matter with profound impact.

The series features two episodes shot in the Masai Mara that follow the plight of photographers Johnathan and Angela Scott as they work to stop the continued dwindling of the region’s lion population.  I actually have friends who were in the Mara several years ago and met Johnathan Scott.  They can attest to the passion Scott has for protecting African wildlife in general but particularly the lions.  It is his and his wife’s hope that through their remarkable photographs of these amazing creatures, humans will see the need for their survival and act accordingly. I highly recommend this and all the other Tales by Light presentations.

I also stumbled upon another extremely talented wildlife photographer named David Yarrow on YouTube.  A former Wall Street trader, he gave up a career in finance to pursue his love for photography and animals. He travels to Africa frequently and fully subscribes to the axiom that if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.  Consequently, he strives to place his camera as near to the animals as possible rather than shooting them with a monstrous telephoto lens.  Typically, this requires positioning the camera in the expected path of the beast and remotely triggering the shutter from a safe distance.  Through the use of wide angle lenses his images juxtapose the “in your face” look of the animal with its natural environment as a backdrop and this offers a unique perspective.  Of course this comes at a price.  As Yarrow puts it, the folks at Nikon must chuckle when he returns a camera for repair and indicates “kicked by an elephant” or “mauled by a lion” as the reason for the damage.   You can see some of Yarrow’s work here.

If and when I do return to Africa, I’ll hope to do several things differently.  First, I will try to be more selective in my photography and work to capture the animals in a manner that tells a story rather than simply documents their presence.  When visiting Africa for the first time it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the moment that simply recording a sharp image of the animals seems satisfying enough. However, wildlife photography is so much more than that.  Compelling photographs reveal something about the subject and the photographer.  That doesn’t happen easily and typically requires “vision” beyond the camera and lens. I’ll have my work cut out for me!

I will also hope to focus more on the people of Africa, especially the Masai tribe (also spelled Maasai).  These semi-nomadic people remain strongly ingrained in a tradition that centers around their cattle.  Cattle serve as their primary source of food and even act as bargaining chips.  Many grievances among factions within the tribe are resolved by exchanging a few head of livestock.  Lately, the Masai cattle have been a source of controversy as they encroach on lands normally occupied by predatory animals.

I had the pleasure of visiting a Masai village in Tanzania and a later hired a Masai guide in Kenya.  Their colorful clothing and jewelry often make for a powerful photograph in and of itself.  Their welcoming and charming personalities make them a delight to interact with.  Photographing them is a joy.

Finally, the continent is home to some spectacular landscape that is often ignored – wildlife being the main attraction.  Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s iconic landmark and makes for an impressive photograph when it’s not shrouded in cloud cover.  However, there are countless other mountain ranges, prairies, lakes and rivers that warrant attention.  With very little light pollution, nighttime astro-photography will be a must.

Don’t hold your breath awaiting my next “real” trip to Africa.  I’d go back in a heartbeat if it wasn’t such a costly endeavor.  Besides, I have 48 more places to visit in order to complete the list of “must photograph” locations.