Old Town Alexandria: My Town

Photographing Old Town Alexandria is best done via carefully cropped vignettes.  Founded in the 1700s, Old Town has many gorgeous original buildings and alleyways.  The key is finding ways to crop out cars and air conditioning units – hence the vignettes.  If you’ve been wanting to do a “door series” of photographs, Old Town is your spot.  Doors, alleys, window reflections, architectural details all make for wonderful close-up photos. 

 We’ve lived here for 12 years and I have walked every inch of this city (a few times over!).  The result of having a dog that needs a daily walk.  Almost all of my Old Town photos are taken on an iPhone and the result of serendipitously catching the right light while walking the dog.  You can find my photos of Old Town on Instagram using the hashtag #oldtownvignettes. 

The most beautiful buildings are a few blocks inland from the river.  To understand Old Town’s layout, think in terms of the Colonial Era in which it was founded.  It was a bustling (and probably stinky, rat-infested) port city that pre-dated DC.  Obviously there was no air-conditioning, and based on observing the neighborhoods built in that era, people lived in a highly stratified society where each group was segregated from another.  The super wealthy (boat owners and financiers?) lived blocks away from the noise and smell of the harbor, on the few hills that exist in Old Town, in homes with massive windows and high ceilings designed to catch any cool breeze. The semi-wealthy (ship captains?) lived closer to the harbor, in houses close to the top of the hill.  Depending upon your rank on the ship, your house got smaller and closer to the harbor.  Sadly, the port city of Old Town was an active participant in the slave trade.  Buildings used by slave traders are located far inland, near the cemetery. 

That means you’ll find many of the regal old brick houses between Fairfax and St Asaph on the south side of Duke St.  There is a notable exception to this rule which is the cluster of amazing houses near Christ Church – including the Lee family homes, the Lord Fairfax house, and the Carlyle House where many meetings were held to plan the Revolutionary War. George Washington also kept his modest townhouse in this area. 

Equally photogenic are a collection of modest, wood clap homes clustered between Queen and Oronoco closer to the water, between Pitt and Fairfax.  The buildings near the port were primarily warehouses.  Most have been torn down, hence much of the new development near the waterfront.  But a few remain.  Look up and you will see the 2nd story barn doors used to haul items into storage areas, particularly on King St in the 100 and 200 blocks.  The cemetery holds some amazing history and is worth a walk, located out Duke St, west of Rt 1 (aka Patrick or Henry St).

 Some of my favorite spots to photograph include:

-       Christ Church – a must.

-       Friendship Firehouse – great lookout tower.

-       The tiny wood clapped homes (see above).

-       The cemetery, which includes a National Cemetery for fallen veterans.

-       Alleys – make sure to peak down all of the alleys, sometimes they’re car-free and you can transport yourself to the 18th century

-       Spite House: the smallest house in Old Town

-       Washington’s town house, it is a replica though!

-       Farmers market: every Saturday from 8 AM – noon on Market Square, except in January to mid-March.

-       Park under the 495 bridge at the tip of the Potomac and the original lighthouse.


Other non-photographic tips, a list of some of my favorites in town:

Little museums: Leadbeater Apothecary, and I won’t reveal the secret on the 2nd floor; Carlyle House, being promoted now due to TV show; Friendship Firehouse, one of the oldest private fire-fighting companies; and Gadsby’s Tavern where Jefferson held his inaugural diner.

Outing: Taking the boat to Georgetown or National Harbor.  The Georgetown boat includes a better view of the major sites (e.g. Lincoln and Jefferson memorials), but it’s fun to pass under the 495 bridge. 

Cocktail: I have to give it up for Todd Thrasher – any of his bars are excellent: Restaurant Eve, super upscale; Society Fair, super casual; and PX, a jewel box speakeasy where reservations are a must!

Outdoor dining: Bastille; Hunting Creek, Virtue Feed and Grain, which also has a really fun indoor space on the 2nd floor.

Romantic dinner: Restaurant Eve, Vermillion, Magnolia’s on King, Brabo’s.  Vermillion is a favorite of the Obamas.  The White House won’t let the restaurant advertise it, but they’ve been known to enjoy quite diners there, with people at the adjoining table probably pretty startled to find themselves next to POTUS and FLOTUS (DC tip, keep your hands visible and move slowly to avoid a close encounter with the Secret Service!).

Ethnic food: Caphe Bahn Mi, Hawwi Ethiopian, The Pita House

Small plates: Grape & Bean

Seafood: Hanks’s Oyster Bar

Southern food, Virginia is in the south after all: Jackson 20, Magnolia’s on King, and possibly The Majestic when they re-open (pre-remodel closure they had excellent Southern)

Hotel: Both Monaco and Lorien are excellent.  Monaco is closer to the action since it is across from City Hall square, but the Lorien is prettier on the inside, has a relaxing vibe and an excellent restaurant.

Camera Tips: Getting Started with Cannon EOS 60D

My current DSLR camera is a Cannon EOS 60D with an 18-200 mm lens. My brother-in-law is a professional photographer and he swears by Cannon.  He says their chips and software is the best, so the rest of the family has Cannons as well.  We used to be an Olympus family but made the switch when everyone converted from film to digital.

The 60D’s bells and whistles can make the camera a little daunting.  Cannon’s operating manual is horrible, and even the highest rated 3rd party books are too dense to be useful. I spent the first two months perpetually frustrated by the 60D interface and getting lost in chapters upon chapters of information that gave me little practical advice.  And I had been using various cameras for 20 years!

Here’s my heavily simplified, net-net version, to help you get up and running quickly and using at least 75% of the camera’s capability.  Note that the information below assumes you want to go beyond the numerous pre-set, automatic control modes provided by Cannon such as Landscape, Macro and Portrait, which make up at least 50% of camera’s features.  Mastering the semi-automatic modes will allow you to include some of the artistic effects photographers seek such as intentionally blurring of motion or throwing some portions of the image out of focus.

#1 It’s all about the Q button! 



I suspect Q stands for Quick, but I’d like to think someone at Cannon has a sense of humor and it is a reference to the James Bond franchise since it gives you instant access to lots of gadgets.  Press Q in any of the manual control modes (e.g. P, AV, TV, M, B, C which is selected using the rotating mode dial on top left, see photo below) and you have quick access to the majority of items you need to change on the fly.

Rotating Mode Dial

Rotating Mode Dial

Press the Q button and you’ll see the following screen:

Quick (Q) Control Screen

Quick (Q) Control Screen

I find myself using the Q control panel to change the following: 

Toggling between color and black & white.  I frequently switch between shooting in color and black & white and will toggle between F (Faithful) and M (Monochrome) regularly.  Thankfully these two modes are adjacent and you can use the round selector dial located just below the Q button (see photo below) to quickly transition from one mode to the other. 

Round selector dial located just below the Q button

Round selector dial located just below the Q button

Set the ISO and f/stop.  Cannon does provide another quick way of changing the ISO by dedicating a button on the top right to ISO.  But given how the 60D’s semi-automatic modes work I don’t find myself frequently changing ISO on the fly but setting both once and adjusting only due to major environmental changes (e.g. moving from outside to inside).


Select the light metering option.  I had never used this option prior to going on a photo safari but was taught on that trip to use evaluative metering, or even spot metering, instead of a more typical center weighted.  This allows you to get the right exposure for subjects that may be in the shade but surrounded by a bright environment. 


#2 Get comfortable with the semi-automatic AV and TV modes


Who can explain Cannon’s rationale for naming the AV and TV modes?  If you check the book you’ll see that AV stands for aperture priority and TV is shutter priority.  Seems the modes should have been called AP and SP.  I have no good mnemonic for these names, I simply remember AV as the aperture mode because of the letter A.  I then remember that TV is, “the other one,” which by default is shutter speed. 

a.     Chose AV mode when you want to control the depth of field.  Frequently photographers choose to have some elements of the image out of focus, often for dramatic effect or to concentrate the viewer on a specific aspect of the image. This mode allows you to choose your f/stop, and therefore your depth of field, and the camera does the rest. Remember, smaller f/stop means smaller depth of field.

b.     Chose TV mode when you want to control the shutter speed, e.g. when you’re photographing a fast moving item such as water or a bird and want to either blur it with a slow shutter speed or freeze the image with a super fast shutter speed.  Choose your shutter speed and the camera does the rest.


I hope that helps you get started.




Johannesburg and Pilanesberg

You can tell a lot about a city by its ATMs. Get $200 in Las Vegas and the ATM will spit out two hundred dollar bills. Get $100 in Johannesburg and you'll end up with a stack of bills – a few $20s, some $10s, and a collection of singles. Joburg is a working man's town.

It was a quick business trip in June, 2014.  I stayed in Standton, the Beverly Hills of Joburg. Built in a rush 20 years ago, when downtown Joburg had erupted into a war zone, it's architecture is a soulless and designed for security.  The semi-fortress buildings disguised as high-end, all built within a decade of each other, remind me of Orlando....transplanted into conflict zone.

It is a little known fact that Johannesburg stock exchange is in Standton.  It was relocated two decades ago and it has become the anchor for the swanky financial district. As a woman traveling alone I decided to avoid downtown, even though locals will tell you it is fine. I found Standton to be  ridiculously safe. The uber security conscious township has placed a security guard on every corner. Literally.

The real reason to go, other than business, is the proximity to the national parks.  It is a wonderful launching point for an African safari. I did a day trip to Pilanesberg since I only had one day to play on my business trip. “The Kruger" is a 5 hour drive, or very short flight, away.  I considered jumping on a flight to Kruger directly from my 14 hour flight from Atlanta but found that I couldn’t get a flight late enough in the day to be assured of catching my connection.  Flights have to land a few hours before sunset since driving in the dark in the park is highly regulated.

I hired a delightful guide to take me to Pilanesberg, Dave Moffat, from Khakiweed Safaris. Irish by birth, African by choice, Dave will chat happily and engagingly about any topic while demonstrating his incredible skills spotting wildlife.  He even taught me a few tips about my camera in the process, was kind enough to loan me his lens when we discovered we had the same camera, and gave me an SD card when mine was acting up. If it hadn’t been for Dave I wouldn’t have seen half the animals I did, he knew how to find them.  He absolutely made my trip.

In Pilansberg we did a pretty good job of checking off the "big 5" by finding a leopard, rhino and elephant.  The buffalo in Pilanesberg live up in the mountains where there aren't any roads, so we didn't have a chance of finding them, and sadly on the day we were there, all of the lions decided to stay hidden.  The "big 5" are so named because they are the 5 animals which, when wounded, will turn and attack the hunter instead of fleeing.

There are three lion prides in Pilansberg, which is about 125 km in diameter.  What strikes you in Africa is just how much open space is required to allow the animals to live. Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. But, as soon as you spend 5 minutes watching an elephant you understand why.  That's about as long as it takes for a bull to uproot three small tress and strip them of their bark and leaves.

Large bull elephant, I was told he lost his tusks in a fight

Large bull elephant, I was told he lost his tusks in a fight

The leopard was an incredible, lucky treat. We found him about two hours before sunset. When Dave spotted him he was lounging on top a rock, at the pinnacle of an outcropping.   As we watched him he decided it was time to head out for a hunt.  He popped up from his nap, quickly sat and surveyed his grounds, stretched, then promptly disappeared as only leopards can do.  The whole viewing lasted about 2 minutes.

Momentary leopard sighting

Momentary leopard sighting

The zebras kept our attention between "major" sittings. Their strips, attitude and quantity make them the clowns of the park. Docile when they are with their pack and hysterically nervous when they are separated, they are always photogenic.  The swirling strips, and the fact that they often seem to strike a pose for the camera makes them a photographers dream.

The zebras were everywhere!

The zebras were everywhere!

There was so much more - the rhino who decided to lie down right in front of us, the sun burned, napping hippos, the croc pretending to be a log, warthogs, wildebeest, kingfishers, girrafes, monkies, and the list goes on and on. Pilanesburg is teaming with animals!

In short, use Joburg as a launching spot for your South African adventure, but don't plan on staying longer than 2 days. If you only have one free day, hire Dave and dash up to Pilanesberg. If you have more, catch a flight to the Kruger!

Camera tips:
I alternated my Cannon camera between AV and TV mode. In AV I kept it in F8, switching to TV, at 1/1000, when I made a few attempts to photographs birds in flight (generally failed attempts). Dave recommended that I use evaluative metering mode, instead of the typical center weighted average for shooting animals hanging in the shade of a tree or a bush. This generally worked very well, with the exception of the pale colored rhino surrounded by bright space. That one ended up a little too hot and needed to be adjusted. Obviously take the best zoom lens you have with you, no matter what you have, you’ll probably be frustrated and want more.  I did not find that I needed a tripod.  I braced the camera against the car window or observation ledges in the blinds built near the water holes. 

Non photographic tips:
I stayed at both the Michelangelo and the Hilton. The Hilton has a very nice outdoor pool, otherwise it is a standard institutional business hotel. The Michelangelo doesn't have any outdoor space since it is right on Nelson Mandela square, but it's pleasant lobby makes up for that limitation. The restaurant at the Michelangelo, Picolo Mondo, is surprisingly good, actually even exquisite. While the restaurant decor is a little stuffy and formal, don't be deterred. All in all, I would pick the Michelangelo over the Hilton because of location, although the Hilton's beds are better. We also ate at Wangthai, very good Thai food, and Pappas, somewhat boring Greek. Step out of Standton and the prices drop.  I also ate at Grillhouse in Rosebank, good meat and very reasonable prices


Whitsunday Islands: What Sunsets!

My family and I were lucky enough to get the opportunity to sail the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, Australia this April.  We rented a sailing catamaran for our trip, specifically a Seawind 1000 XL, named the Lulu, from Whitsunday Escape. We also hired a skipper for our trip, Chris, who made a trip a real treat.  A catamaran is the Winnebago of sailboats, but for a few nights at sea with novice sailors, it was the perfect choice.  

Given the challenge of keeping electronics dry on a sailboat, particularly with winds that consistently blew above 25 knots during the day, I ended up using my iPhone while were were underway or during our excursions.  My DSLR came out morning and evening, when we were docked and the winds were calmer.  One of my sisters kindly bought all of us Vansky waterproof housings for our iPhones, which generally worked quite well.  I did notice the occasional problem with sunspots when shooting toward the sun as the camera caught the light bouncing off the waterproof housing.  Additionally, I did notice that the iPhone auto-focus had infrequent challenges with the addition of external sleeve, but given how frequently I was cleaning salt spray off the Vansky, it was a smart choice.  We appreciated the lanyards to help secure our phones during the frequent jumps into and out of the dingy.  That additional feature ensured non of us tested the ability of the Vansky to float!  I kept my DSLR in a standard dry-bag.  While I did pack water absorbing pouches, I probably could have gotten away without them.  

The sunsets each night just blew us away.  I don't know if there is a scientific reason that sunsets at sea are so spectacular, of if we just got lucky.  While I don't usually bother with a lot of post processing (who has time?) I did find that I needed to apply a graduated filter to the sunset photos in Lightroom to eliminate the blow out occurring near the horizon.  



For non-photography related tips I refer you to my sister's blog since she already did an excellent job of capturing the details: <http://relocation-to-melbourne.blogspot.com/2015/06/sailing-whitsunday-islands.html?spref=tw>



Santiago: Mirrored High Rises and Fabulous Street Art

It was a short, last minute business trip to Santiago in February 2014, with only a few hours to wander the city and look for photographs. Since the trip was predominately work related, I stayed at hotel near the office in upscale Las Condes, where high-rises are sprouting like weeds.

 Santiago is an interesting combination of 1900’s Spanish mission inspired buildings, mid-century concrete low-rises reminiscent of soviet construction, and gleaming modern mirrored high-rises. It’s funny to see the squat four-story 1950s buildings sitting right next to the 40-story high rise. You can almost see property developers salivating to get their hand on the property, tear it down and start anew.

 If you like geometric pattern photographs, spend time in Las Condes photographing the buildings. Most have highly reflective, mirrored windows and the buildings reflect each other creating fantastic patterns. I’m guessing the extensive use of mirrored glass is to help mitigate the heat load, given the incredible amount of sun they get, but it may purely be an aesthetic choice. Regardless, I’ve never seen anything like it in any other city. The few shown here were taken around 10 AM when a few shadows still lingered to emphasize the patterns. I choose to avoid the obvious and took horizontal shots of vertical buildings.

 Sadly the Plaza de Armas was under construction when I was there, but certainly the crowds would make for excellent street photography if that’s your specialty. I was hungry, foot sore and tired by the time I made it there and in no mood to take photos, but the people watching was fun. I was told to keep a close eye on personal items in dense crowds in Santiago, even though the majority of the city feels completely safe, even for a woman traveling alone.

1950s Soviet Era construction

1950s Soviet Era construction

Barrio Bellavista has incredible street art, some of the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t pretend to be any good at street photography, but in retrospect I wish I had spent more time trying to use the fantastic murals as backdrops. When you need a break, stop in at Plaza Bellavista, an outdoor complex of restaurants and shops. Although it was predominately built for the tourists, it is very well done. The architects used changing levels very effectively to create a variety of smaller spaces that flow into each other. It was high-noon when I was at the Plaza so I didn’t choose to take any photos, but I think all of the different levels and flow of people could make for interesting photographs, particularly late in the day when Chilenos come out to play.

Street art in Barrio Bellavista

Street art in Barrio Bellavista

I did take a quick drive up towards the local ski areas just to see the Andes, since I never have before. It was pretty clear that I never made it out of the foothills of the real Andes, but nonetheless in February I had clear line of sight to snow on the mountain tops. Santiago does have some problems with smog and haze. The only afternoon I had for the short drive was hazy, so all my photos were pretty boring. If I hadn’t been so short on time I would have stopped the car and walked to get some close-up photos. Keep your eyes peeled for a variety of elaborate road-side shrines, some make for good photography.


As always, a few non-photographic tips:

 1) Dinning: TripAdvisor will tell you to eat on Isidora Goyenechea. Don’t. I did one night and paid an outrageous amount for very mediocre seafood at Playa Mariscos. Fortunately, my local Chilean colleagues were able to point me to good restaurants the following night – in nearby Viticura. In contrast, La Mar on Avenida Neuva Costanera, was 1000 times better and half the cost. Some of the best ceviche I’ve had, except for Mexico when the fish was caught an hour ago. Neuva Costanera is full of mid-high end restaurants, parsed between Mercedes Benz dealerships, and all of them are aggressively competing for local customers, without a single tourist in site. Don’t worry, the waiters are very helpful even if you don’t speak Spanish.

 2) Transportation: Don’t bother with a car rental, unless you want to go into the mountains. The city is fairly compact, and taxis are both plentiful and cheap. Make sure you don’t mess up the system...no one tips taxi drivers in Santiago. There’s also a metro that runs near the river, although I didn’t use it. Consider renting a bike if you’re there on a Sunday. Santiago converts the main streets along the river to bike-only from 10 AM to 2 PM on Sunday. A lot of locals take advantage of it!



Scotland: Savage Beauty

Be prepared to be overwhelmed and photographically frustrated by Scotland’s scale and savage beauty.  When we traveled to Scotland on vacation in the summer of 2013 and, by some luck of the draw, we got two weeks of near perfect weather.  Therefore, no misty rain soaked photos from our trip, just a lot of dramatic light.

Loch Linnhe

Loch Linnhe


We spent most of our time in the Western Highlands, near Glen Coe on Loch Leven.  By definition, I was photographing mountains, water and clouds.  Sadly, I did not have a polarizer filter with me on the trip (rookie mistake I know, blame it on a brand new camera).  Don’t repeat my error, bring one! If you have a wide angle or fish-eye lends, consider taking those as well. 


I struggled with my “don’t shoot at high noon rule” since we were there in summer when the sun rose at 4:30 AM and set at 11 PM.  And given the dramatic beauty of the mountains and valleys, I had to try to find ways to shoot landscapes without dramatic shadows to enhance the photo.  Therefore, I experimented with focal length, emphasized silhouettes, and grabbed a shadow where I could find it.  When I stumbled upon my very own very of Wyeth’s Girl in a Field, I grabbed it.

Glen Coe

Glen Coe


We did also quickly stop in Edinburgh, a city visually defined by spires, rooftops and its “medieval high-rises.” Think about shooting straight up, or finding a high spot and using a zoom to get perspective. 


Finally, some practical non-photographic tips:

1)      Rent the best sports car you can afford.  Scotland is much larger than you think, the distances between towns is sizable and 90% of the roads are two lane twisty mountain roads with a posted speed limit of 60 mph, which everyone exceeds. 

2)      Given the distances, choose your location carefully.  In the Western Highlands you can easily choose how far away you want to recede from civilization. As mentioned, we chose Glen Coe (a town with a gas station, two markets and one restaurant), but that was easy striking distance to Oban (great little town, variety of restaurants and shops), and Ft William (a complete tourist town, chock a block full of the fake Scottish shops that are prevalent in the area).  We debated Perthshire (in the East) versus the Western Highlands, finally choosing the highlands for stark beauty and dramatic scenery.  We drove through Pertshire on the way to Edinburgh – it’s pretty but very different – primarily rolling hills and farmland.

3)      If you’re debating Glasgow vs. Edinburgh, choose Edinburgh.  The combination of medieval city, Edwardian city, and modern capital make it much more interesting than Glasgow which was built entirely in the 1800 during its economic boom.

4)      Enjoy the seafood! It will be some of the freshest you can find, with huge variety.  But, if you’re going to Scotland expecting Ireland-like pubs, you will be disappointed.  The whiskey is superb in Scotland, but you won’t find the cheerful, music infused pub culture that exists in Ireland.