Lunar Eclipse – Africa Style.

June 17th, 2011 No comments
Rising moon in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Rising moon in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

It’s always cool when you discover that through serendipity, you find yourself with more than you bargained for… in a good way. I was recently winding down a group safari that took us to some amazing remote locations in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Arriving back for dinner on the day before the scheduled end of our trip, we learned that the dinner would be served out in the middle of a large pan just outside the camp, very near a watering hole that is frequented by various animals looking to quench their thirst. Talk began to drift to the topic of an impending lunar eclipse, and many began to speculate about what this would look like when viewed from this remote region of Africa with very little ambient light to interfere with this event. Crowding close to the boma fire, we enjoyed the illumination provided by the full moon. Shadows appeared beneath the Acacia and Teak trees looking much like they would during the middle of the day. A Giant Eagle Owl called out from a tree 50 meters from the warmth of the fire, while a Side-Striped Jackal barked in response. Tipping back my Zambezi beer, I watched as the base of the moon began to go dark. By the time we finished dinner, the moon was now completely dark, basked in an eerie subtle orange glow.

Full lunar eclipse - June 15, 2011

Full lunar eclipse - June 15, 2011

The remaining group packed up, and all but 4 of us retired for the night. Armed with a few beers, some chairs, and a few remaining scraps of firewood, we settled in for the remainder of the lunar show. Slowly the pale moon began to lighten at the bottom, looking like a strange floating ball in the sky. The arriving illumination slowly changing the landscape from one of darkness and mystery to one of clarity and brightness. The landscape took on a tone of that of a toy model, with little evidence of depth and scale. The whole savannah looked flat, almost like a movie set. One of the coolest visual scenes I have ever taken in. As the evidence of the eclipse faded back into the still impressive full moon, we packed up the last of our gear, extinguished the fire, and headed back to camp. It’s not often that all the essential ingredients of a situation fall into place and allow for the maximum enjoyment of an event, but here I was – staring up into the African sky at a rare event surrounded by old friends, new friends, and a canopy of stars. Good stuff.

Lunar Eclipse Fading - ZImbabwe

Lunar Eclipse Fading - ZImbabwe

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How to stir the soul

June 30th, 2009 2 comments

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I thought that I would share some of my previous adventures in Africa, and include some excerpts from my travel journal. I try as much as possible to always journal when I travel to Africa. While photographs are indeed worth a thousand words, they only capture a discreet slice in time. It is often that the chronology of events and the situational insight are what truly bring all the elements together into a cohesive storyline. Such is the case for the relatively uninspiring image at the introduction to this blog entry. What may appear as just a lion at night is really so much more…

It’s common to return from evening game drives long after dark. The guide will often use a spotlight to help identify and spot nocturnal species. Unique animals not seen during the day spring into activity and use the cloak of darkness as reprieve form the intense heat and as opportunity to feed without the visual risk associated with daylight. In this case, we were driving back to camp in the Jao concession of Botswana when we happened upon a lion laying in the grass. Lions spend about 90% of their time sleeping and relaxing, so this sighting was in no way particularly unique. By looking a bit closer, a more compelling scene emerges…

We fist noticed the cuts on the Lions face. These cuts are a result of sparring with other male lions to assert territory and to maintain genetic dominance over the resident females. I recalled hearing intense fighting the evening before as I was falling asleep in my tent. I could tell the fighting was between some Lions and spotted Hyenas. I also remembered hearing much more Lion roaring than I was used to hearing. This information, coupled with the visible scars in the face of this lion indicated a time of struggle for territorial control. This Lion wasn’t relaxing… He was resting. He was plotting. He was thinking…

My journal entry from May 8, 2006:

Tonight I sat silent 10 feet from a male Lion as it roared out into the nighttime savanna. With each voice of the roar I could see the lions breath hanging in the cool nighttime air. I could feel the reverberations in my chest. How do you explain this to someone who has never witnessed it? After all it is really just a sound. But to see this lion laying in the grass calling out to his kind in a voice that man could never understand is a humbling experience. The two male lion brothers have been fighting. A third male is encroaching on their territory, and both show the signs of the struggle to maintain dominion over this land. While one limps on an injured right foot, the other nurses severe cuts to his nose and eye. My camera will never do justice to these amazing creatures, and the life they live will always rely in part upon the drifts of our imagination. But to know and to witness a lion’s roar firsthand will change a person. The raw emotion and vocal power of the moment cannot be ignored. I am reminded of our collective struggles, our desire for an effect on the outcome, and a quest to find our place and our role in the larger context of our environment. These are the raw ingredients of a life well lived. I am the luckiest man on the planet right now.

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Categories: African Travels Tags: , , ,

Stalking the Black Rhino | Namibia

June 24th, 2009 1 comment

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The World Conservation Union (IUCN) curently lists 1665 animals as “Critically Endangered”. This classification means that each of these species’ populations has, or will decrease, by 80% in the next 3 generations. We live in a unprecedented time of environmental strife, with species extinction occurring at 100-1000 times the historical rate. This is a big deal.

Among those animals listed as critically endangered is the Black Rhinoceros. It is estimated that about 3600 of these animals remain in the world 1. Think about that – 3600 animals. By comparison this is about the size of a small village. In addition it was in 2006 that the IUCN declared that one of the four subspecies of the Black Rhino was officially extinct. Extinct for several reasons, but the primary being poaching only for access to their horns. Buyers in both China and Yemen fuel a still active black market for Rhino horns where they are used in the creation of dagger handles or for traditional medicines.

The good news is that Black Rhino populations are slightly increasing with incremental jumps in population for the last 2 years. Keep in mind this inflection point occurred after a 95% drop in population. In the period from 1970 to 1990 the population of the Black Rhino went from 65,000 to just 3,800 2. Through private and governmental action to curb poaching, there is hope that the Rhino populations will continue to increase.

We spent 2 nights at Desert Rhino Camp in the Damaraland region of Namibia. This camp specializes in the preservation and research of the Black Rhino, and operates in cooperation with the Save the Rhino Trust. This camp provides acess to the largest population of free ranging Black Rhino in all of Africa. An Italian film crew shooting a documentary for National Geographic was on site when we arrived. We were initially disheartened to learn that they had been out for the last 3 days tracking the Rhino but had been unsuccessful in locating any of the animals. They would be leaving in the morning, and without any of the footage they had hoped for. This left us skeptical that our luck would be any different.

We started early, with the trackers heading out first. As we drove along keeping careful watch for Rhino tracks and silhouettes, we admired the giraffe grazing on trees and the Mountain Zebra scurrying up the adjacent hillsides. A call on the radio informed us that the trackers had spotted 2 Rhino on the opposite side of the valley. It was quite a distance to make it to the opposite side of the valley but I took solace knowing that as the morning drifted towards mid-day, the Rhino are likely to seek shade and stay put. We crossed our fingers as we quickly made our way to the other side of the valley.

As we approached by Land Rover, we could see that 2 Rhino were situated in the shade on an opposite hill.

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Thankfully, the wind was in our faces, thereby masking our scent from the animals. Rhino have relatively poor eyesight, but very keen senses of smell and hearing. We exited the vehicle about 200 meters form the Rhino, and proceeded to approach the animals on foot. I have been a few meters from Lions and Leopards in the Okavango Delta, but always in the protective illusion of a vehicle. The prospect of sitting in the grass with a Black Rhino 3o meters from me was enough to raise my heartbeat quite a bit! As we approached, it was clear that the Rhino knew something was up… We made our way closer and closer, always under the direction of our guide as well as the Rhino specialists who were collecting information about the sighting. We finally settled in a spot that did not seem to stress the Rhino, yet provided us with a good view. We remained in this space, observing and photographing the Rhino pair for about 15 minutes before we headed out. Again, walking single file and as quietly as possible, we made our way back to the truck. This was some very challenging photography, as the light was quite harsh, and the Rhino are quite dark compared to their surroundings. Much like shooting photos at the beach or on snow, this was a situation requiring a good degree of exposure compensation to aid in the proper exposure of the Rhino themselves. Most of these shots are all over-exposed by about 1 – 1.5 stops to prevent the Rhino from becoming dark blobs in a sea of properly exposed grasses.

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Many thanks to the individuals responsible for the care of these Rhino. Each sighting is carefully documented with both photos as well as visual information. This is all stored in a database to help researchers better understand the health of the Rhino population and to better understand the overall migration patterns of these animals. Notice that ear markings are a unique way to identify different individuals..

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Raven and Rich with the Save the Rhino crew

This area was not all about Rhino, so I thought that I would include a few shots of some of the other wildlife from this region.

Gemsbok a.k.a. Oryx:

Gemsbok or Oryx

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Mountain Zebra:

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Spotted Hyena:

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Behind the scenes..

Behind the scenes..

Footnotes:

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More Himba | Village 2

June 21st, 2009 1 comment

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These are some additional Himba pictures from the furthest village from the camp. We left early in the morning to arrive at the village shortly after sunrise. The goal was to witness the villagers going about their daily chores – milking the cattle, herding the goats, and warming their bodies from the cold night. We would see first hand how these people conduct their morning routines. A routine that was likely very much the same as it has been for hundreds of years.

As we arrived, the kids in the group were cooking Maize meal for breakfast.

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And Moms were waking up with their babies and making crafts.

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Then the process began of herding the goats out of the village, and separating the calves from the mothers so that they could be milked.

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Notice how the back legs are tied to prevent the cattle from moving away during the milking process.

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This woman actually had blue eyes, and as a result seemed very sensitive to the sun.

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Below is my favorite shot of the day..

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Categories: African Travels Tags: ,

Crazy Dead Trees | Dead Vlei Namibia

June 19th, 2009 2 comments

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If Salavador Dali had stumbled upon this place, he might have found fodder for another interpretation of his masterpiece “The Persistence of Memory”. Dead Vlei is a flat clay pan embraced on all sides by large red sand dunes. It is one of the landmark features of the Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft park of southern Namibia. Many centuries ago, the Tsauchab river flooded this area, pushing deep into the dunes during a heavy rain year. The remaining water collected in the pan, and provided nourishment for numerous Camel Thorn trees. As the climate changed, and drought fell upon the area, the dunes moved in and isolated the pan from the river. The trees eventually died, and as a result of the extremely arid climate, have not yet fully decomposed. Instead they have assumed a rich, dark, and almost black patina resulting from the intense heat of the sun. The estimated age of these trees is almost 1000 years old.

A few remaining plants are able to eek out a living in this harsh climate. Small bushes grow on the surrounding dunes, creating a unique backdrop for this setting and challenging the mind to comprehend the juxtaposition of colors, textures and shapes. I could spend a week photographing all the nuances of this single place. It is truly one of the most unusual places I have ever visited.

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As this pan is completely surrounded by dunes, the early morning light takes a bit of time to reach the floor of the pan. All of the above shots were taken mid morning, after the sun had risen high in the sky. The perspective is what really makes this place unique, and although some of the trees are very small, others are quite big.

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Small tree or giant guy?

Often the only way to get a good composition is to lay down flat on the pan. Thankfully the pan is quite firm, and the dirt closely matched the color of my pants!

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The following morning, we got out early to visit Dead Vlei one more time to reach the pan before the sun had completely illuminated the trees.

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The folowing day, we boarded a small Cessna 210 for the 4 hour flight to the north. As we flew up the valley, we flew directly over the Dead Vlei. When viewed from the air, the scale of this place can be truly appreciated. Note the arrow which points to the end of the pan where all of these shots were taken.

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Dead Vlei from the air


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Humbled by the Himba

June 17th, 2009 3 comments

I often consider what life would be like if things were more simple. So much of our everyday life seems consumed by effort that yields little in the way of personal or social benefit. Our modern culture creates a unique framework for the allocation of our energy and time. One that is arguably inefficient and flawed in providing a sustainable lifestyle that nourishes our collective and individual needs.

For this reason, I was enthusiastically looking forward to visiting one of the few remaining nomadic and pastoral cultures in the world – The Himba of Northern Namibia. The Himba of Kaokoland in the extreme northwestern part of Namibia are closely related to the Herero tribe who in the 17th and 18th century migrated from the East to what is now known as Namibia. They are a Nomadic people who breed cattle and goats, and use these livestock as a metric for assessment of their relative wealth. Each village/family will share in the benefit of these animals, using their milk and their meat as nutrition for the entire village. The Himba are monotheistic, worshiping the god Mukuru. Each village will maintain an ancestral fire which serves as a place of worship and prayer. This fire is visited every 7-8 days by the village fire-keeper who will pray on behalf of the village to both the god Mukuru as well as ancestors of the family. Located close to the cattle pen, this is a very sacred space for the Himba. During our visit to the village, we were asked to please not tread in this area.

Three Himba villages were near our camp. Two were very close, only involving a 20-30 minute drive to reach. The other was a bit further, being about a two to three hour drive. We arrived at the first and closest village at sunset. As we arrived, the children were walking back to the village, their silhouettes casting long shadows across the golden grasses. It is common in African culture to hold hands as a sign of deep friendship, and many of these children were holding hands as they approached the village.

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The women of the camp were all sitting in the shade to escape the heat of the sun. The Himba women create a paste of ochre and milkfat with which they cover their skin to create a natural sunscreen. They also use this mixture to braid their hair in very ornamental braids, the style of which will communicate the maturity and marital status of the individual. This group of women seemed to be put off a bit by our presence, so I respectfully let my camera rest over my shoulder, and asked our guide (who is also Himba) about this observation. He assured us that we should not take this personally. The Himba are a very private people and not necessarily gregarious in their interactions with Westerners. I asked him how to greet the Himba in their local tongue. As we did our best to replicate this phrase as accurately as possible, we observed smiles and eye contact that validated what the guide had told us. I asked by pointing at my camera if it would be okay to take some pictures, to which I received a smile and a nod. I had been chomping at the bit to photograph this amazingly exotic scene in front of me, and felt a sigh of relief in knowing that I was being respectful in my intrusion into their world. I started capturing images…

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We learned that in the few days prior to our arrival that many of the boys in the village had been circumcised. Noting that this did not seem like the most sanitary of conditions, I asked how they managed the obvious risk of infection. I was shown a Tamarisk tree, and Steve, our guide, pulled some of the green needles from the tree, crushing them in his hand. “We crush these needles into a fine powder, combining it with the milkfat to create an antibiotic ointment” Steve said. I’m always intrigued by these natural remedies, as I sometimes think that we put too much faith in chemical-based medicines so common in our Western culture. The Himba have learned over the course of many generations to find local remedies to common human ailments. With no medical facilities within several hundred miles, it is imperative to be able to live locally and off the fruits of their surroundings.

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The Himba people of this village are accustomed to trading jewelery and crafts with the visiting guests. At our request, they all brought out there various goods so that we could shop. Spreading out decorative blankets onto the Kalahari sand, the landscape of the village quickly changed from a place of rest and reprieve form the sun to a scene more like a bustling local market. Beads, baskets, and copper bracelets were all laid out for our inspection. The craftsmanship and authenticity of these items was obvious, and unlike may other trading markets I had visited in Africa, this one was without pressure or influence. We drifted from blanket to blanket admiring the work of these women. Raven selected a nicely woven basket, and after inquiring about the price, found herself a nice reminder of this amazing place. With a burst of enthusiasm and excitement, the women all cheered at the purchase. This response took me by surprise as it was so different from tone of the village upon our arrival. Perhaps the people of the village were warming to our presence, or were they simply excited about the purchases that we had made? I’d like to think the former, but it was likely the later…

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We departed this village to visit another that was located only a few hundred meters from the first. As we approached, I could see that a man was present in this village – something that was missing from the last village. We learned that many of the men were off with the herds of goats and cattle, leading them to fertile grass and water, both of which were visibly absent from the region immediately surrounding the villages. As we arrived, the man was sitting in a chair, and the woman was outside the hut smoking a pipe of tobacco. The light was fading quickly, so I knew that I did not have much time to shoot…

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Steve showed us what was for dinner. I claimed to be a vegetarian…

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As we departed the village to make our way back to camp, we offered our best effort at a Himba goodbye, and headed off. As the light was fading, we could see the children of the first camp playing on the sand dunes near the village. As they giggled and laughed, pulling each other down the dunes, I thought about the essence of a good life and the origins of daily happiness. By our Western standards, we might be inclined to feel pity for these people – to see only what was lacking by comparison. To assume this hypothesis, I determined, would be to miss the true essence of what was happening. The giggles and laughs coming from those dunes were sincere and heartfelt. More than that, they communicated a true happiness. A happiness that is often lacking in even the most wealthy and fortunate of those in the Western world…

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Tomorrow – More Himba from the village furthest from the camp.

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Sossusvlei Dunes | Namibia

June 16th, 2009 2 comments

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This is part one of a series that will outline a recent trip to Namibia in southwestern Africa. This trip was actually a honeymoon for me and my new wife, Raven, but this area of Africa is also one of the best photographic destinations on the planet. Namibia is about almost 3 times the size of Germany in land mass, yet only has about 2% of its’ population. With only 2 million people to share this huge area, Namibia is second only to Mongolia in being the most sparsely populated place on the planet. A welcomed change from the high density living in the San Francisco Bay Area! We started the trip with three nights in Sossusvlei, a clay pan in the middle of the infamous Namib-Naukluft national park – Home to the largest sand dunes in the world, which reach as high as 1000 feet above the clay pan. The central Namib desert is over 55 million years old, and is second in age to only the Atacama desert in Chile. The unique nature of this park is not only the size and scope of these dunes, but also the contrast in colors. The dunes in Sossusvlei are a brilliant red as a result of iron present in the sand, which has oxidized over time. It’s interesting to observe various dunes with different shades of orange and red, as these varying shades are an indication of the age of the dune. The more red the dune, the longer the iron has been oxidizing.

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Dune 48

Dune 48

A very interesting and as yet unexplained geographical feature of the Namib desert is the presence of numerous barren circles that litter the landscape. These features, known as “Fairy Circles,” are barren patches of earth where no vegetation grows. These circles gradually expand with the passing of time before they finally submit to the intrusion of grasses. Local beliefs suggest that these areas were formed as a result of gods, spirits, and/or natural divinities. See the image below which was taken from a small plane near Sesriem. They look like raindrops into still water.

Climbing on the dunes is quite a workout. The sheer size of the dunes presents a formidable challenge against gravity, and the silky smoothness of the sand makes each step feel like 1 step forward, and a 1/2 a step back. Dune 45 is the popular destination in the morning, and is best to visit early before all the vehicles show up with caffeine-fueled occupants looking to charge up the dunes. We arrived shortly after sunrise, and headed out with only 4 other people on the dune. After the first steep section, the gradient relaxes a bit, and the views of the surrounding valley really open up.

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As a photographer, you have to be careful with your gear in this place. The blowing sand can easily find its way into your gear bag and into your lenses resulting in a costly return trip to Canon for servicing. I had no problems on this trip, but the wind was not blowing as ferociously as it could be in this area, and I was very diligent to keep my gear off the ground which is where most of the sand is transported by the wind.

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As the summit approaches, the topography of the valley becomes more revealing with textures and rolling features that must be seen to be truly appreciated. This is especially true at sunrise where the low-angle light really helps to reveal all the nuances and character of the flowing dunes. 55 million years of massaging by the wind have created a landscape that seems more appropriate for another planet than for part of our world.

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The best part of reaching the summit has to be the mode by which you get back down – Running! The gradient of the dunes is so steep, that it is not uncommon to leap 20-30 feet with each bound. What might take 40 minutes to climb, is descended in a matter of seconds. All who take this path down the dunes can be heard yelling in bliss… it’s like returning to a time when we were 10 years old and invincible… if you make a mistake running down the sand, the only penalty is a bunch of sand down your pants, and a bruised ego from the humiliation of crashing in front of a bunch of people.

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Removing sand after a run down the dunes

Removing sand after a run down the dunes

Finally, a sunset illuminates the sky over Dune 48 as we crack a bottle of wine and cheers to another amazing African day…

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Tomorrow, we take a trip to Dead Vlei where ancient Camelthorn trees stand guard over a white clay pan in the midst of giant red dunes.

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Bridge to nowhere

May 12th, 2009 3 comments

I’ve been on a bridge kick lately. It could be that I’m finally realizing that I live so close to this icon of a structure, and I really haven’t put any effort into capturing images of it. It could also be that the fog has been really interesting lately, and hearing the foghorns blowing as the tankers move under the bridge is like a siren call to grab my camera. The nighttime shots are the most enjoyable. There’s something about the traffic across the bridge, the illumination, the city, and also the absence of people that makes for a better environment to shoot in. It’s just me and the bridge. Unfortunately the rangers often close the upper gate each night at dusk which prevents access to the best view point of the bridge and the city. All is not lost however, as there are many alternate spots that each offer a different perspective.

This shot is from up high, just before I was kicked out by the ranger. The full moon was illuminating the bay in a wonderful way, and the long exposure helped to smooth out the waves in the bay much in the same way that a waterfall renders as silky streams.

Golden Gate Bridge at Full Moon

This shot was from a bit lower (almost at at sea level) near the Coast Guard station in Fort Baker.

View from Fort Baker

This next few shots were during one of those fog events. It’s hard to know if the towers are in fact going to be poking through the cloud layer, and many times I made the trek up the hill only to find everything was completely socked in.

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And finally, my favorite of the series. A pre-dawn shot of the bridge:

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Studio Gear Lust

May 1st, 2009 No comments

I was lucky this week to have the opportunity to work with fashion shooter extrodinaire Cavan Clark during a swimsuit shoot for Zoebikini in San Francisco. Zoe and the whole crew involved in the shoot were a blast to hang out with, and her swimsuit designs are awesome. High fashion photography is enough to get anyone fired up, but this was a killer shoot at Cavan’s new digs in Mill Valley, CA. Weather was great, and we shot a mixture of indoor and outdoor shots, both lit and natural. Seeing Cavan work was a great learning experience, and his comfort with a multitude of challenging lighting situations was quite humbling. He really knows how to make those strobes work in magical ways. I of course couldn’t stop lusting over the stockpile of really nice Profoto equipment, and realize that many pennies will need to be saved before a set of these is residing in my gear closet!

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The new website is live!

April 27th, 2009 2 comments

After hours of image screening, and the same in webpage configuration, the new vividnotion website is live! check it out here. Many thanks to Rob and the crew over at Aphotofolio for putting together such an awesome package for professional photographers. I’m eager to now get out and start promoting the new site, and hopefully generating additional interest in my work.

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