Monday, January 19, 2015

Plumbing the Salton Sea

MotoTog © Laurie Rubin

Recently my good friends and pro photographers Laurie Rubin and Peter Tellone came up with the awesome idea to visit the Salton Sea, about 2 hours east of San Diego. I thought, "what a great way to kick off the new year!" I was IN mostly because I knew the Salton Sea is a mysterious and trés cool place to visit, and partly because one of my resolutions for 2015 is to renew my photography hobby with vigor. To add some MOJO to the trip, I committed to riding my motorcycle out for the day... it had been awhile since the F800GS had been on a long haul and this was perfect. ;-)

I left Buckwheat Manor around 6:30am on a Saturday morning for a 9am rendezvous with Peter and Laurie. I'd chosen moderate layering to protect against a cold I just "knew" was going to diminish the closer I got to the desert. The problem of course were the freakin' mountains between me and sea level on the other side! Wheeling through familiar stomping grounds in Ramona and Santa Ysabel it was getting downright cold, but when the mercury hit 31 degrees motoring by Lake Henshaw and through Ranchita the bones were ice. I pressed on regardless and snapped into *high alert* heading down Montezuma Grade into Borrego Springs.

Side note: Montezuma Grade is one of the most epic roads in SoCal for your favorite motorcyclist. My skills can't possibly do justice to the serpentine curves which seem to sliver endlessly 'til the desert floor. But I try. ;-) 

My sights were set on breakfast in Borrego Springs and Carmelita's didn't disappoint. Had I not been on the bike, a Bloody Mary would have been in order, but I settled for some excellent Machaca and a place to warm my bones. Looping around Christmas Circle, I knew I had some 30 miles of straight run to the AM/PM meet-up point. Soldiering on, I was excited to see so many desert rats out there camping and cavorting with their toys: Jeeps, Razors, quads, dirt bikes, buggies, baja bugs and a myriad of other post-apocalyptic vehicles stretched to every horizon. God I love America!

The ride out was uneventful, with some nice straights where I stretched the bike's legs to an easy 110mph, tucked in behind a short fairing. Passing the Font's Point turn-off, the slot canyons and radio towers, our friendly Salton Sea shone in the distance, then grew ever closer.

The mini-market was busy. I pulled in around 9am, just about 15 minutes ahead of the crew. Talked to a few dirt bikers and slammed a Red Bull, then Laurie and Peter pulled up - great to see them!

Airy Seat (Macphun Intensify Pro)

Pet Graves & Trailer (Macphun Intensify Pro)
Peter has been to the area well over 20 times over the years and we just placed our agenda for the day in his hands. Man, no disappointments there! Our first stop was a former marina on the North end. Only about 8-9 miles up the road, we were there in no time, getting a sense for the pace of the day by taking in delicious RuralEx scenes of weird old dilapidation.

Double T Vision (Macphun Intensify Pro & Nik Analog Effects 2)
Crunching on glass, marveling at the hopelessness of the graffiti (mostly hopeless w/ few exceptions), ever curious we explored several of the decaying and burnt buildings under Peter's watchful guidance.

FishBird! (Macphun Tonality Pro)
Moving onward towards the shoreline, we took in the barnacles and dead fish and weird water chairs, fingers on the shutter, capturing scenes on our sensors and in gray matter that will haunt for some time. The pace was perfect, Peter allowing us to plumb the depths of each scene, wringing the most out of the time spent.

Lake Throne (Macphun Tonality Pro)
Being the novice, I felt a little sheepish about asking him for advice and how he was composing scenes, but figured it was OK. This is how I learn. After each location, we discussed the next couple of moves to make sure the day was well planned for maximum opportunity.

Dance Party (Macphun Tonality Pro) 
Head West 3 Sisters! (Macphun Tonality Pro)
Next, Peter suggested moving on to the 3 Sisters and the Mud Pots. It turned out to be a long-ish ride down to the Southern end of the Sea, but not too bad. After a brief stop for lunch at the bird sanctuary named after singer Sonny Bono (whom I think was also a State Rep out of Palm Springs), we moved on to an amazing spectacle: The 3 Sisters. So named for 3 dead trees standing starkly on a dry, white lakebed, the Sisters didn't disappoint today.

GeoCruise Ship (Macphun Tonality Pro)
With a geothermal plant off to the South, we were delighted to see 5 iron cubes near the trees provided a wicked cool contrast to the otherwise minimalist scene. Our best guess was that it was someone's "art installation" but no matter. It was otherworldly, which in my book is about the pinnacle of the hop. It was at this locale that Peter suggested Laurie put her quadcopter up in the air. There was nobody around and a fantastic aerial video opportunity lay before us.

Copter Worship © Peter Tellone
Soon, "Bessie" was launched and Laurie was in Quadcopter Heaven! Zipping around the artifacts, all of us were electrically charged with the images that were surely coming out of this session. I probably took it too far by doing "snow angels" in the salty dust while Bessie hovered overhead, but hey... what can I say?

Snow Angel © Laurie Rubin (Macphun Tonality Pro)
Silent Iron Boxes (Macphun Intensify Pro)
Peter's normal sure-footedness left him momentarily as we searched for our next destination, the geothermal mud pots. Fortunately, it resulted in 10-12 miles of high speed dirt road riding for me, awash in dust from his Toyota truck. Yippee! When we finally arrived, I was amazed to see actual mud bubbling and spitting from the ground. Wowsa... Love Mother Gaia! I might have also mumbled something about needing gas for the bike...

Upchuck (Macphun Intensify Pro)
Since we were close, a quick visit to hippie/God-fearing mecca "Salvation City" was in order. It's a weird spot on the planet where over the years a deeply religious man named Leonard Knight painted and shaped the desert into a massive shrine to our Lord in Heaven. Pretty moving, colorful and labrynthine, and one helluva scene of devotion; especially from the youth shooting a music video under the massive "God is Love" mountain. Sheesh...

God's Truck (Macphun Intensify Pro)
Next stop was a place that Peter called Alien Ranch, dubbed as such due to the "rocket" that was somewhat unceremoniously perched on top of an old windmill on a ranch. While it used to have an amazing reflective Alien figure that was stolen long ago, the Ranch still proved decently photogenic. And, another place for Laurie to fly her camera machine contraption. ;-)

Launch Ready (Macphun Intensify Pro)
Our final photo destination for the day was arguably the most beautiful - maybe because it was another water destination but for sure because of a vibrant sunset and a plethora of migratory birds! Bombay Bay is one of many dying water-side "resorts" that just exists, but the people are mellow and seemingly happy. Any place as desolate as Bombay that has an American Legion chapter is cool by me. So... the structures in the water, the reflections, the incredible sunset, the birds and the cliffside populace hanging out just made this a sweet spot to end our photo expedition. We were there well past dark.

Reflective Angel (Macphun Intensify Pro) 
Serene Twins (Macphun Intensify Pro)
In the back of my mind as the sun went down, of course I was thinking about getting some gas for the BMW and the long cold ride home. Nothing I could do though - I was way far out, but balanced by the awesome day we all had. The town of Mecca was only 29 miles away and my gas range indicator read 31 miles left on the tank - no worries. And famous last words! Despite tucking behind the faring, going slower, drafting where I could, for the FIRST TIME in my life I ran out of gas. Hey, the range indicator said I still had 4 miles on the tank!

When that engine quits on a lonely, dark two-lane highway miles from nowhere, it's eerily silent. I pushed the bike off the road and dialed up Laurie on the mobile phone to explain the situation. The stars squeezed in while semi's roared by and a freight train rumbled by, 30 yards away. My bike was silent. I ate a PB&J sandwich to pass the time. Fortunately, town was just 4-5 miles ahead; Laurie and Peter motored back w/ some gas to get me revving again in short order. Wahoo!

A quick gas-up and dinner at Del Taco, left me looking at a 7:40pm departure time and facing a cold daunting ride homeward through the mountains. Obviously up for the challenge (what else?!) but still had to be looked at as something to simply "rise up and get through." Montezuma Grade, upward in the dark and chilly, was a terrific challenge - anticipating the arc of the road and modulating throttle accordingly was great practice. I'll confess, I hit some decreasing radius corners a little hot, but the bike is sheer magic and saved my butt a couple of times.

Rolling in at 9:45pm — fully 15 hours after leaving my house in the morning — I was proud of the 2:05 run home, while respectful and taking a moment to size up the high-speeds needed to make that happen. Why didn't I just chill on the homeward leg, take it super-easy? Errrr... not my nature. Someone "upstairs" was definitely looking out for me today! ;-)

Super Happy: Me & the Nun (Macphun Intensify Pro)
After parking the bike, my family welcomed me home and proffered up "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." An apt ending to a Salton Sea day, methinks...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Imaging USA 2014 - Phoenix, AZ

One of the great things about my job is traveling to new places and having the opportunity to photograph the area. A few weeks ago, the Macphun team was in Phoenix, AZ for the Imaging USA show sponsored by the Professional Photographers of America (PPA).  It's a good show with a lot of energy, although attendance was down this year.

We were joined by Pro photographer Lance Sullivan who shoots commercially and lives in Naimo, BC, Canada. Great guy with a sense of humor that will leave  you in stitches most of the time, esp. when bantering back and forth with my Macphun partner Morneé Sherry.  The first morning we were all together, Morneé convinced us all into getting out and shooting at dawn.  Although everyone was tired, this turned out to be a VERY good thing (thanks Mo!).  We drove up to South Mountain park, which overlooks Phoenix.

Below are some of the shots I liked.  All were touched by Macphun's Intensify Pro, plus some additional tools where I thought they were needed.  Enjoy!

Image processed in HDR Efex Pro 2.

Morneé's bad-ass Leica M9

Leading lines...

Love the angle of the hills, horizon and clouds offset against the rock house.

Morneé setting up a Giga-Pan. Image processed in Analog Efex Pro.

Black & white processed in Intensify Pro.

The Macphun team: me, Morneé, Lance, Matt & Riley.

Phoenix, straight on.

Friday, December 27, 2013

First Exposure to Long Exposure

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to work on the team bringing Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro 2 to market. Our product manager Josh Haftel was a huge black and white fan and saw the potential for the software to help photographers interested in long exposure photography really turn out world-class work.  We often created inspirational videos for brand new products, and he recommended that we work with a Dutch photographer named Joel Tjintjelaar on the Silver Efex Pro 2 product intro video.

Joel was a lawyer by trade (if my memory serves), but very passionate about long exposure photography. What started out as a hobby for him has actually earned him 'round the world recognition. View his exquisite work on the website.

Watching Joel take the image of Crystal Pier here in San Diego that would come to be emblematic of the product planted a seed in my brain ("I really want to do this someday"). At some point, my friend and work colleague Laurie Rubin mentioned that the finest 10-stop filter for crafting long exposures is the Lee Filters Big Stopper.  I had investigated them and determined they were simply too expensive for this lad.

Until Christmas 2013. I was given a Big Stopper as a company gift from the gents at Macphun Software - it's something I would never have bought myself, but recall casually mentioning it at the office as something for which I'd lusted. Lo and Behold, it ended up underneath my tree (thanks guys!).

My first image, above, was a re-imagining of that first shoot by Joel out at Crystal Pier. I used Macphun's Snapheal Pro (as a plug-in from Lightroom) to remove some dust spots and then converted to black and white in Lightroom.

Long exposure photography is by nature a bit experimental. Once you've framed the shot and determined your shutter speed, you sort of multiply that time by 10 (if using a 10-stop filter) and fire away. I used a locking remote and also covered my viewfinder to limit any light leaks.

However, by the time I got things dialed in, there was a lot of light being thrown out by the Sun. The shot below was a long-ish exposure from this morning, only about 40 seconds. I left it in color because I liked the way the water on the wave and beach look like will-o'-the-wisps... darting and cavorting in the morning light. ;-)

The shot below was processed using Lightroom, Macphun's Snapheal Pro and Macphun's Intensify Pro with the "dreamy" preset. Intensify just earned one of Apple's "Best of 2013" honors.

I'm absolutely enthralled with the results of the Big Stopper and plan to use it and experiment further every chance I get. 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Recent Macphun Software news

As many of you know, earlier this summer I took a position at a company called Macphun Software, founded in 2008. Macphun originates from Kiev, Ukraine and was the brainchild of Paul Muzok and Dima Sytnik.  Along with Alex Tsepko, in June 2013 they reached out to me and several others formerly of Nik Software inquiring about whether we'd be interested in helping them open up U.S. operations for their company.

What an opportunity!  To try and "capture lightning twice" was a real gift and at the same time a challenge. The guys from Macphun had experienced tremendous success in the Mac App Store which was a great foundation upon which to build. Along with my good friends Morneé Sherry and Matt Cummins (both from Nik), it's a dream come true and we're having a lot of fun.

As I type this, our products occupy 5 of the top 10 spots in the photography category of the Mac App Store. Intensify Pro - our latest - has garnered a 5-star reputation and won over many Nik advocates.

I plan to update my friends and family via this blog as significant news comes along, and I would consider the following local San Diego coverage cool enough to mention.  ;-)  Without further ado:

San Diego Union Tribune:

San Diego Business JournalClick here to download and view the scanned article.

Channel 10 TV news:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

R.I.P. Bella Bellisimo

Whew - today will go down as one of the tough days for sure. Though she'd been steadily slowing down over the past year, sleeping a lot and yelping for no reason, over the last couple of weeks Bella our 9-year old Viszla really just hadn't been herself. At all.

Reaching down to pet her pretty little head recently, I felt a neckful of mass under the skin and alarms bells went off. After a trip to the vet and a biopsy, the diagnosis was Stage 3 or 4 Canine Lymphoma. At that level, for all practical matters, incurable and fatal w/in a month or so. She had been having trouble breathing and recently was losing control of her bowels so today my wife, son Ethan and I made a really hard decision...

Bella came into our lives through a chance conversation I had with the owner of a Tierrasanta Dog Wash here in San Diego. I'd taken our first Viszla, River, in for a bath and was asked whether I'd ever considered getting another V.  One thing led to another and we ended up "rescuing" an 18-month puppy who was way too much for her elderly owner.

Bella was quickly a pal to River, game for anything. She became super-attached to Ethan, sleeping in his bed almost every night for the past 7 years!  I was proud of him for being with her at the end, their eyes locked on one another.  I may have been the Alpha male in the house, but Etho was her human soul-mate.

I know she's romping in Heaven's rockin' dog park now with River.  Goodbye sweet girl - we miss you!

Update: 12/1/13 — my daughter Emily expresses herself via Instagram.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

FX Photo Studio Pro

If you've followed my "Missives" blog for any length of time you know I'm a bit of a Photography nut, in the enthusiast sense.  I've recently joined a new company called MacPhun Software and one of my favorite products of theirs is a powerhouse collection of filters and basic editing tools called "FX Photo Studio Pro."  It's got over 170 one-click filters that are a blast to browse. Once you pick one to apply, it's easy to experiment and riff from there.  After you find a look that you like, save it as a Custom preset to use on future images. 

Fx Photo Studio PRO is Mac-only and just $19.99. Give it a try. 

Hope you like the images below and give the software a try!

Original image shot on Moonlight Beach, San Diego

Color Pen Sketch effect!

Interface shot of adjusting effect (Ancient Canvas)

Black & White Glow effect

Interface shot of the Adjust panel. Note that you can crop & rotate too.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Halligan's Special Seasoning & Gourmet Rub

In October of 2012, I had the distinct privilege of meeting Robert Halligan II. Bob was the leader of a photo walk at La Jolla Cove as part of Scott Kelby's annual Worldwide Photo Walk experience. An easy-going fella, he was joined by his lovely wife Kathy, several friends and a cadre of strangers who would soon become lovely acquaintances—photo walks have a marvelous way of creating that effect on people! 

Bob on the "working end" of the camera!
I was working at Nik Software at the time and had attended a couple of photo walks in the past.  They're almost always fun and free software never sucks. I offered to bring a couple of raffle prizes for attendees. Being our most recent release HDR Efex Pro 2 seemed to be the hot ticket, but I also gave away a copy of the über-flexible Color Efex Pro 4.

Construction took 7 months.
During the course of the walk Bob and I talked a bit about his background as a restauranteur and an independent financial professional with LPL Financial. I was particularly struck by his stories of opening up his own restaurant in Pacific Beach back in the '70's called Halligan's 4 Fish.

It sounded like a terrific joint that I just missed by a few years (having moved to PB back in early 1987, my house was only a few blocks from Halligan's). The famous Eleanor Widmer—notoriously a tough-minded food critic from the San Diego Reader—even gave it high marks.

Opening Night!
Bob and I talked a number of times after the photo walk and one day he stopped by the Nik office in Mission Valley with a gift for me:  A zip-lock bag with some of his special seasoning, a recipe nurtured and improved on since his restaurant days. It smelled wonderful and I couldn't wait to try it on a London Broil the upcoming weekend!  He confided that he was retiring from financial services soon, and it became clear that he still had fire in the belly for the food business. Bob gave me a couple of additional recipes and, with a twinkle in his eye asked me to let him know what I thought. He was pretty sure I'd like it...

He wasn't kidding! I rubbed the seasoning into the steak, covered it with cling wrap and let it sit in the refrigerator for a day.  Pretty simple, especially for a Neanderthal like me. What emerged from my grill was a steak that somehow had deliciously been transformed into meat that was far more moist and delicious than I'd experienced before. Bob was a genius! 

As time went on and he kept me supplied with his seasoning, Bob mentioned that he was interested in selling the it in retail stores and online. Naturally I offered my wife Kim's design services for graphics and a website, and mentioned that I'd be happy to help him set up a blog and shopping cart as part of the website.  In February 2013, Bob again swung by the Nik office and we called the good folks at GoDaddy. In about 45 minutes, we had transferred his domain, purchased a hosting package and shopping cart, and installed WordPress. In the meantime, Bob worked with Wells Fargo to establish a merchant account and also swapping recipes with a seasonings formulator out of the Midwest to handle production and packaging. This thing was coming together!

Bob wanted to create a brand for his seasonings that exuded high-quality, yet positioned it for everyday use and versatility. Kim did a great job on the label design and the overall site design. The learning curve with the site in terms of hooking up the back-end pieces was moderately steep since I hadn't done it before, but relatively quick. I never hesitate to call live tech support to get advice from the Pros, so I think the GoDaddy people were getting to know me by name after awhile. We had some issues with the nameservers which wasn't our fault, but in other cases it was helpful to call for clarification and best practices. Overall, GoDaddy gets high marks for service.

The site went live in early April.  You can read the story of Halligan's, pick up some great recipes from his blog, and of course purchase the products. Bob reports sales to friends and family are steady and he's already in talks with several meat shops in town (even a restaurant or two). At just $4.99 for a 4oz. package, it's an easy sale. Bob and his wife pack and ship the seasonings from their house to yours. I'm confident the versatility and taste will keep people coming back for more—give it a try and let me know what you think in the comments section below!