California/Arizona/New Mexico Road Trip, February 2007
It is my intention that this page will be edited on-the-fly as I'm on the trip. I started writing this on Friday 9th February, two days before I'm due to set off. If you're reading this particular sentence, the trip report isn't yet finished, so you're going to have to be patient. LJ people may also like to keep up to date by reading my blog.
This trip was planned in something of a hurry -- less than a week, in fact, when I decided at the last moment to drive to a conference in New Mexico rather than to fly. 2500 miles in a week. Should be doable. I hope!
Well, the first thing I needed was a car actually capable of a 2500 mile trip. I took my car along to Wheelworks in Mountain View, initially just to get a slow puncture fixed, but it ended up with a whole load of things being sorted out. It drives far better than ever now, so I'm not complaining -- given such a huge trip, I don't want to risk problems, so better to have it sorted out now than end up stranded somewhere.
Today, I went to the local army surplus store on my way home from work. I am now the proud owner of an orienteering compass, a small first aid kit and a US Army survival blanket. The first two are intended for emergencies-only duty, but the last one could well prove useful to protect my cameras from rain if I don't have time to pack up if a storm hits unexpectedly. No pictures today, sorry, but I'll take a couple while I'm packing tomorrow so you can see just how crazy I am.
OK, here I am in Starbucks with my venti vanilla nonfat latte. Oh how so very Bay Area. *coughs*
Well, the plan for today is to pick up the remainder of the supplies for the trip, to put everything chargeable on charge, and to go clothes shopping, because (swoons) I simply have nothing to wear. Which is actually close to true, but as much as I intensely hate clothes shopping, it's got to be done, if for no other reason that I don't actually currently own any decent rainwair. Or jeans without holes in them, but that's another matter entirely. Hopefully, by the end of today, everything will be in place, so all I'll have to do tomorrow is clean out the car, load up and go. I should probably put together a Road Trip Check List really. I'm going to be pretty amazed if all this stuff fits in my little VW Golf, however!
(cue wobbly montage special effect with background music and shots of me studiously rooting through racks of jeans)
Clothes shopping went well. I must say, if you happen to be of the (*coughs delicately*) larger persuasion, I'd very much recommend Avenue, who have a smallish but very good shop not far from here just off El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. So, I'm all sorted with clothes. I've bought a crate of water for the trip, enough trail mix and hard candy type survival food for several days hard hiking (which I certainly don't intend to have to do!). Next trivial-but-important job is loading up the iPod with Stuff to be Listened To en route, particularly lots of podcasts. I have a love/hate relationship with listening to radio on long car trips. I like the continuous discovery of new stations, but I hate it when a station just starts to get interesting as it goes out of range. I am also a bit of a talk-radio fan, so I've loaded up with vast quantities of podcasts from Radio 4, NPR and freeFM. I need to copy a load more music MP3s onto there from my other machine tonight too, so still lots that needs doing, albeit at a trivial level. I suppose if I'm bothering about this kind of trivialities, life can't be that bad.
T-3 hours and counting
Packing is happening. Camera stuff is charged (modulo minor OQO issue, which I'll come on to) and in its cases ready to go. I am up, though not entirely ready myself yet (I'm a terrible bath robe lurker in mornings). As promised, I took a few photos of the packing progress:
These are my three camera bags. The closest is the huge Pelican case with the Cambo in it, then the Bronica gear, then at the far side it's the smaller Pelican case with the BetterLight system in it. The blank area of foam is usually where my laptop sits when I'm on location.
This is the OQO I use with the medium format system. Currently, I'm having problems with 2 of the 3 batteries I have for it -- the working battery is currently attached to the computer, and the two dead ones are on the table next to it. The one that's facing down shows the clip that Megavision add so you can clip the OQO either to the back or to the battery pack -- there is a narrow air gap between the clip's back plate and the battery, which I fear is probably acting as a thermal insulator, so I suspect that the two dead batteries bought it through overheating. I'll have to attempt to get OQO to replace them under warranty, but I somehow doubt I'll get very far with that. I'll mention it to Megavision, and suggest that in future they glue the clip directly to the battery pack so it will just conduct the heat rather than insulate it.
Clothes and other stuff ready to be packed once I manage to find my rucksack. Which is, apparently, definitely here, but just, er, somewhere.
We are go for launch
I finally set off at 2pm, about an hour behind schedule partly due to being overoptimistic and partly because of the mysterious disappearance of my nice big rucksack. Nevertheless, I did still manage to pack everything. Carrying it all down to the car (4 floors below) wasn't fun. Ground floor for me next time I move, I think. The trip was surprisingly simple. Turn right out of apartment building. Turn right onto Shoreline. Turn right onto 101. Drive for several hours. Turn right into Goleta. Turn right into motel.
Nevertheless, like the devout geek that I am, I still navigated by GPS. Of course, I like to get my driving environment nicely set up:
Going roughly clockwise, GPS, $10 bill (I'm in a drive-through queue waiting for lunch here), water bottle, iPod sitting in transmitter thingy, bag of emergency food, crate of water, map.
The trip was pretty uneventful. I arrived at the Super 8 motel ahead of schedule, plonked my bags down, phoned for delivery food, then curled up on the bed with my laptop and the free wifi. Yaay, free wifi.
It's now about 11pm, Sunday night, in Goleta. Some of my plans seem a bit unravelly at the moment -- it appears that I40 has snow forecast for tomorrow and the day after around the Grand Canyon and further east. This is (was?) my intended route. I am currently seriously considering a change of plan and taking a more southerly, lower altitude route that would take me through Phoenix, AZ instead. Though it buggers up my chances of photographing the Grand Canyon, it's probably better to be alive. I've just arranged to stay over with friends in Phoenix, so it's all good. I don't need to be there until quite late, so I have time for a photo-stop along the way. The obvious place on the route is Joshua Tree National Park, but I'd already intended to go there at the end of the week, so I might go and take a look at the Salton Sea instead. Or something. We shall see.
I'm driving through the desert in a car with no name
Megavision factory, Goleta CA
The more southerly route worked -- in fact, once I got past LA, the weather was gorgeous. The drive was relatively uneventful -- after picking up a battery pack from Megavision in Goleta, I managed to hit the road well before 9am. The GPS routed me through LA, and I was surprised to see a few familiar sights along the way. (I have photos, but I'm too tired to upload them tonight -- expect them in a day or two). I stopped off in 29 Palms, CA for lunch and to get petrol, then I headed south through the Joshua Tree National Park. Wow, such a very strange looking place, like a slightly less red Mars with sparse vegetation. I'm sure I spotted a few Star Trek locations as I was driving. I didn't have much time, so I didn't really explore the park very deeply, but I did stop to take photos. The replacement battery pack worked a treat, so I was able to shoot some strangely shaped rocks and a Joshua tree before I had to get moving toward Phoenix. I'll post photos here once I've had a chance to copy them off the OQO, but like I said, I'm way too tired to do that tonight. I just drove, today, further than I've ever driven in my life, possibly further than is actually possible to drive in a straight line inside the UK. And I get to do it again tomorrow. And on Friday, Sunday and Monday. My trip is about equivalent to driving from London to Kiev and back, though of course the roads here are typically dead straight and have far less traffic than their European equivalents, so it's perfectly possible to drive at the speed limit for 5 hours continuously without even touching the brakes.
The weather forecast hasn't improved much, so I am going to have to play it safe and take a quite circuitous route to Albuquerque, avoiding the high altitude routes. My plan is to drive south east to Tucson, AZ, pick up the I-10, then head east until I get to the I-25, then go north to Albuquerque. It's hard to be exact, but I'm guessing about 8 hours of driving, about the same as today. My original plan would have only needed about 5 hours tomorrow, so this is a bit nontrivial. I don't know yet if there will be much time for photography, but I'll have to see how it works out. Oh well, hopefully things will improve from here.
... and the next day, I did it again
I made it to Albuquerque by 6pm after an exactly 600 mile (as the GPS flies) trip. I chose not to stop for photographic purposes on the way, because the extra 2 - 3 hours necessitated by the more southerly route would have meant my risking having to do the last bit of the trip (the most likely to be snowy) in the dark. As it happened, I got to Albuquerque just as it became dark, a little after sunset. It's Really Cold here, but there is not any snow. Luckily. About 100 miles south of Albuquerque I went through a fairly mountainous area (about 5000 feet altitude I think), where it was raining heavily but only just below the snow line. I think I made the right navigational decision, somehow.
I have photos to upload, so I'll probably do that on and off over the next couple of days. I'm at a conference currently (an AFRL workshop on reconfigurable systems), so don't expect more updates here until Friday.
Shooting from the hip^H^H^Hcar
After two days of pretty intense conferencegoing, I spent a bit of time sorting out some of the photos from the drive to Albuquerque. They aren't in any particular sequence, but here they are. All of these were taken with my tiny little Panasonic/Leica/Lumix/whatever DMC-FX07, hand held. The outdoor images were taken from a moving car, mostly through the windscreen. I have to say, I am extremely impressed with the image stabilisation in this thing -- no way should I have ended up with results like these.
Truth or Consequences
This is definitely my favourite image from the trip so far, despite being a hand-held grab shot.
Snow in the desert
I arrived in Albuquerque, NM a little after sunset on Tuesday. It was extremely cold, but otherwise clear and dry when I arrived. This is the scene from my hotel room window the following morning. The weather conditions caused the locals a lot of trouble -- apparently, this amount of snow is extremely rare here.
Driving through Joshua Tree National Park
I was driving slowly, holding the camera out of the window with one hand here. I will put up the medium format images from Joshua Tree NP most likely after I get back to Mountain View -- I think there may be a couple of reasonably nice ones.
John & Heidi, my friends from Phoenix, AZ
Many thanks are due to John & Heidi for putting me up on Monday night at short notice when my travel plans went, er, a bit south.
Medium format images
(Note: These are preliminary versions of the images -- this section will probably be removed at some point when they are redone)
As promised, here are a few sneak previews of medium format images from the trip. All were shot with a Bronica ETRS and the Megavision 16 Megapixel E4 Monochrome back. I'm very pleased with the results -- I can't wait to get back home so I can put together properly finished versions ready for printing.
These trees are very strange indeed. I'm quite pleased with this image -- having no background detail other than sky with quite stark lighting has resulted in an extremely sharp result that should print very well. Shot with a 45-90 zoom with a deep red filter in Joshua Tree National Park, California.
Boulder and Joshua Tree
45-90 zoom, deep red filter, also in Joshua Tree National Park. Again, this gives the impression of being sharp down to the grain-of-sand level and should yield a nice print when I get the chance.
Off Route 66
The road you can see in the distance is actually Interstate 40, which occupies the track of the original Route 66. Again, 45-90 zoom, deep red filter, near the Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona.
Large Format Images
Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Monument
Super Angulon 90mm, f/16, Cambo Legend 4x5, Better Light Super-6K with infrared low pass filter. The monorail was set level, no tilts, with some horizontal and vertical shifts for framing and perspective control.
I had originally intended to shoot with the medium format system at Joshua Tree National Monument again, but I failed to get the back to work properly. [Edit: This turned out to be my own stupidity -- it wasn't the back, I'd neglected to make sure that the battery in the ETRS body was OK] I managed to fire a couple of frames, then had a series of shutter errors. I eventually gave up and got the large format gear out. As is not untypical when shooting large format, I found a nice place and didn't really move more than 20 or 30 feet from that position all afternoon -- with medium format, I can set up, shoot a few frames, change lenses, shoot a few more, then knock everything down ready for the next location all within about 15 minutes or so. Large format is a wholly different undertaking -- it's necessary to be really quite careful about everything, and it takes quite a while just to set up the camera, level everything and to zero all the movements. Typically, it's about 30 minutes from arriving to being able to shoot the first frame. As an example, in roughly three hours I shot 20 frames -- this is actually quite productive, and the result of (subjectively) working relatively quickly.
Large format shooting is a different experience than smaller formats. You have to take a longer-term view of things (no pun intended, but I'll roll with it anyway!). I tend to find myself spending a lot longer over finding the right shot -- if you're going to spend so much time on it, you might as well make sure you get the results. I'm also more likely to set up and 'wait for the light' -- the above image is an example of exactly that, where I actually waited for quite a long time for the sun to start setting directly behind the boulder. The raw image had a huge contrast range that would have been impossible to deal with if I'd been using film, or even a more conventional digital camera with 8 bits of resolution. I captured the image at 14-bit depth, making sure I didn't under- or over-expose anything in the frame. Back home, I loaded it into Photoshop, then created quite a complicated rig that processed the different contrast ranges of various parts of the image separately. I rather like the result -- it's not actually real in the strictest sense of the word, but it's actually that unreality in the lighting that makes the image work strongly, I think.
Mount Improbable, Joshua Tree National Monument
Super Angulon 90mm, f/16, Cambo Legend 4x5, Better Light Super-6K with infrared low pass filter. In this case, the monorail was tilted back slightly to help emphasise scale, small shifts for framing only, no tilts were needed.
With apologies to Professor Dawkins. This isn't a mountain, it's actually a house-sized boulder, but the thing that attracted me to it was its rather alpine double-peak, coupled with the shape that the late evening setting sun made across the front face.
Nose Rock, Joshua Tree National Monument
Nikkor-W 150mm, f/16, Cambo Legend 4x5, Better Light Super-6K with infrared low pass filter. Camera set parallel, framing achieved by tilting rail slightly.
Yes, I made up the name for this one, too. I think it looks like it's got a nose. Hence the name.
Rocks, Joshua Tree National Monument
Caltar 210mm, f/16, Cambo Legend 4x5, Better Light Super-6K with infrared low pass filter. Camera set horizontal, no tilts, framing achieved by slight shifts.
The sky was doing just the right kind of thing at the right kind of time here -- it's entirely real, I've not faked it in any way. As with the other images, the black sky is a consequence of very low reflectance at near-infrared wavelengths, creating a stark contrast to the brilliant white (brilliant near-IR?) clouds. The effect is very similar to that of a deep red filter, perhaps unsurprisingly, though unusual effects on vegetation appear in the infrared that are not present in visible red.
I should probably add one more thing -- since focussing is always manual, it can be a bit of a challenge to focus correctly for infrared shooting. My approach is to focus visually first using my usual combination of sticking my head under a dark cloth and peering through a x10 loupe, then put the back in and use the Better Light's focus meter facility. This basically moves the linear CCD to your position of choice, then displays a continuous (numeric and bargraph) representation of the amount of sharpness at the relevant point. It can be quite tricky to use -- the Cambo's gearing is a little fast for my taste, so it's necessary to have an extremely light touch on the focus knobs, but when you get it right, it's really right -- dead-on, pin-sharp.
Finished Medium Format Images
I shot about 100 frames or so with the medium format system in Joshua Tree National Monument and in Petrified Forest National Park. I'll add web versions of final versions of the 'keepers' from this here.
Rocks and Boulders, Joshua Tree National Monument
Bronica ETRS, 45-90 zoom, deep red filter, Megavision E4 16-Megapixel Monochrome Back
This looks fairly simple, but it actually took about 4 hours in Photoshop. It's a composite of two frames, both of exactly the same scene from the same position, one focussed on the near rocks and the other focussed on the far boulder. I did some fairly robust sharpening on both frames, tweaking the settings in each case to optimise the results. When the composite was done, I used a levels layer and a curves layer to tweak the image to make it 'pop', then I did my own take on dodging and burning, actually with four separate curves layers with hand-painted layer masks. This is a common trick of mine -- I'll look at a bit of a frame, decide I want to manipulate the contrast in a particular way, then create a curve that does what I want for that area (though usually messing up the rest of the image in the process). I'll then paint the layer mask so that the curves effect only touches the bit of the frame I want to affect. I also use essentially this technique to do dodging and burning, but doing this with curves and a layer mask makes the process nondestructive and endlessly tweakable after-the-fact.
Snow in the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park
Bronica ETRS, Super Angulon PCS 55mm shift/tilt, no filter, Megavision E4 Mono
Looking at this, I could be standing on Mars or maybe even Titan. I arrived at the location a day after the whole area had received quite a lot of snowfall, so the white highlights you can see dotted around are actually the remains of this. I've not printed this yet, but I'm expecting good results. I shot the scene using the shift lens shifted full left then full right, and then used Photoshop to stitch the result so I ended up with a roughly 6500x4000 image. Not quite as extreme as the Better Light, but not far off, and that lens really is very sharp. Unlike the Canon shift/tilt lenses, the Schneider has independent fall/rise and left/right shifts, so I was able to do a little perspective correction. I used a tiny amount of tilt to help keep everything sharp up to the horizon, though this may not really have been necessary.