Sunday, November 14, 2010

The beauty of snakes - Houston Zoo

Red-Tailed Green Rat Snake, 55mm, f/4.5, 1/60
Everyone of us has some irrational fear of some sort, I do to. I used to be afraid of sharks and to a smaller degree, of snakes. Their beauty helped me overcome my fear. Both families are just fascinating. I have traded fear for caution.

Snakes are shy, they usually run away before you can even notice them. They will only attack at the last resort, although some are more aggressive than others. Inland Taipan, notorious to be the most poisonous snake inland will give a warning bite before injecting venom.

Copperhead, 55mm, f/3.5, 1/25s
Snakes can be lethal and therefore must be approached with extreme caution. I chose the easy option by  always keeping a glass between us (if they are poisonous) or by staying far away.
Snakes are also one the most beautiful creations of Mother Nature. I was amazed by the patterns and colors I discovered. Snakes are just masters in the art of camouflage and thanks to a very knowledgeable Houston Zoo's herpetology staff, I was immersed in a world I had no idea it existed. Having a passion for photography helped me taking the time to appreciate what I was seeing. Get close and stop for a while.

The Red Center - Australia

Uluru and Kata Tjuta, two sandstone rocks piercing the desert floor of central Australia are some of the highlights of the Outbacks. Aboriginals have settled long ago around Uluru making this place of unique spiritual heritage. Since then, an airport was built, the roads, paved. National Parks and iconic places always bring many tourists. Walking up the trails let you avoid the crowd but it was difficult to feel the solitude of the outbacks.

I still managed to feel very much alone: after admiring the sunset on Kata Tjuta, I returned to the car park. With nobody around, I tried to open my car. It was locked. I had no cell phone coverage and the closest town was 75km away. After a few seconds of panic, I decided to walk for a couple of miles, in the dark, to the closest emergency phone I had noticed along one of the trails and called the rangers. They showed up, around midnight, towed my car and I eventually went to bed, around 4 in the morning as we had the surprise to discover another empty car on our way back, which meant a rescue attempt. Using headlamps this time, we found the lost guy who was starting his night in the wild, not without fear. Looking at his eyes when we discovered him, he was really relieved. That is my own personal experience of the Australian outbacks. Next time, I will be prepared.

Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Black & White - Australia

Uluru, Australia
Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is clearly one of the symbols of Australia, this giant country / continent. This massive rock made of reddish sandstone, remnant of a much larger eroded formation,  stands out in the middle of the gigantic desert of Australia. It seems so flat for hundreds of kilometers around. I flew over the desert from Sydney to Ayers Rock. The red center was indeed red with patches of green, and particularly flat. Uluru stands out, and it is not a surprise it became a mystic place for the aboriginal community.

I went at the end of August, jut before the end of the winter to avoid extreme heat. I got there, and it was raining! My dream of seeing one of these incredible sunsets, when the rock suddenly becomes bright red, vanished. It wasn't the end of the world, as it turned out to be very pretty. A cloudy sky increases contrasts.

I have chosen to only display black & white pictures on this post. It gives a different perspective, with improved contrasts.  Twenty hours were way too short for a stay in a place like but I still managed to make good use of all my time. Walking around Uluru took me 4 or 5 hours, although I am usually walk very fast and then stop for a long time when I find something of interest. I had the opportunity of taking a few shots of this very strange and spiritual rock.

Opera House, Sydney

The Opera House in Sydney is an iconic building, so unique, that the city is always associated to it. All travel magazines and tourists ads use it to promote Sydney or as one of Australia's symbol. It is probably the first thing that any tourist will want to see and I am no different from anybody else, except I wanted to see it at dusk and wasn't so interested in it during day light.

Armed with my tripod, I left the hotel not long before sunset, after a long and tiring day walking along Bondi Beach. I was heading to Quay, a restaurant facing the Opera for a fantastic dinner, sadly on my own, one of the fallbacks of business trips. Both the food and the view were truly amazing.

I had seen the building in many books and I was still pleasantly surprised by the design. Not many cities are established in such a beautiful natural setting, which clearly creates a nice atmosphere.

The Rocks was just behind my back, it was time to go listening to some good Aussie's live music at a local pub.

The Opera House, Sydney

Arche de la Défense, Paris

Esplanade de la Défense, Paris
The Arche de la Défense is located in the heart of the business district, near Paris. This building, inaugurated in 1989 by French president François Mitterrand for the commemoration of the French revolution, is built along the historical axe running through Paris, from Le Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe and the Arche de la Défense.

The design is inspired by a four dimensional hypercube projected into our third dimensional space, forming a nearly perfect square, a very unusual design for a building. I particularly enjoy photographing perspectives and I must say they are countless ways of looking at this controversial piece of architecture.

Until very recently, the building was opened to the public, with a spectacular ride in a transparent elevator. The roof was accessible, offering a very interesting view of Paris. As I was passing by on my last visit to Paris, I am glad I stopped and payed for the quite expensive ride. It was closed just a few months later.

Arche de la Défense, Paris - 12mm, f/9
A museum dedicated to the ages of computer sciences was located at the top. I would have passed through pretty quickly if it wasn't for a retrospective of Apple's computers. My family had so many different versions of Apple's that many good memories came back in a couple of seconds.

It is a shame that they decided to close it under the pretext they couldn't invest in repairing the external elevator. This monument is now kept for government employees.

Carousel, Downtown Houston

Families gathering around the carousel at the Aquarium, Downtown Houston

The challenge with babies carrying some form of disabilities is to get their attention and make sure they will react to some degree of stimulus. The usual environment may just not do the trick and it is best to go out, if possible. Grocery stores are just fine, aquariums are even better. What I didn't realize is that the aquarium in Houston had a carousel.

The location is pretty amazing and it was great to see the little guy get so interested in the rapid movements of lights and objects, in this case sea creatures. Yes, even the small kids will love it, and that is why they will beg their parents so often to try it, again and again.

Luckily enough, I was carrying my tripod, which I never do so I managed to take longer exposures, especially after sunset. I still can't understand how the three adults and a baby on the picture at the top of this page managed to stay still during the time it took to take this photo, but I am thankful.

Singapore Airport

Rushing to the gate at Changi airport, Singapore
Duty Free, La Changi Airport

In transit from Perth to Paris via Singapore and London, I discovered the giant duty free at La Changi airport in Singapore. I was blown away by the size of the terminal but wasn't prepared to walk into a mall. I could have headed straight to the lounge but decided to stretch my legs, exploring a few stores with my camera. I am glad I was too busy taking pictures, I could easily have bought stuff, you know, the kind of stuff nobody needs.

My lay over was short and as often I took too much time walking around trying to find cool things, so I had to rush to the gate. I suddenly thought about a picture of my cart on one of these very long moving sidewalk .

I was ready for another 13 hours flight!


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Onion Creek Diapir, Utah

Overview of the Onion Creek diapir 
Being a geologist has some advantages, like having to take classes on the field where rocks are exposed. Utah is certainly amongst the best spot on the planet and Moab in particular. The geology there is spectacular and on display in two great national parks, Arches and Canyonland. Under the massive red sands that makes Moab so famous, rests a massive salt sheet. Evaporite deposits, which do not stand weathering very well, are exposed in the Onion Creek Diapir. To my knowledge, such exposure only exists in three places on earth. Yes, this place is unique although most people would pass by without stopping. 

In the heart of Onion Creek Diapir
The dirt road to get there is an adventure by itself, and one must drive a 4WD while paying attention to the weather. Flash floods can be disastrous when driving in the steep canyon.

Above, I chose to show the diapir, in white, with its chaotic structure while the gentle "S" curve in the road is used to give a more pleasant feeling. On the right, I am using the very stable "V" shape to frame the salt formation. Rendering chaos is quite difficult as the observer can soon become uncomfortable .

Composition improvements

Rule of Thirds, 22mm, f/13
I invested in a telephoto zoom, 70-200 mm, just before going on a safari and I spent most of my time shooting wildlife portraits or at least close shots. Not having the luxury of possessing two camera bodies, I was reluctant changing lens every other minute, by fear of missing some action and also concerned by the amount of dust in the air. I had to switch to a wide angle lens when I saw these two peaceful zebras which would be a perfect addition to a landscape picture of the Masaï Mara reserve in Kenya.
I knew parts of the famous Rule of Thirds which stipulates that the main subject should be aligned to, or be positioned at the intersection of arbitrary lines dividing the frame in nine equal parts as shown in the picture. What I didn't know, is that each intersection does not have the same power and corner 1 should be preferred to any other one, while corner 4 should only be considered last. These rules are of course meant to be broken but I find that paying attention to this detail adds a lot to the overall effect and improves the composition. In this example, not only the zebras are not placed appropriately, they also lead the viewer outside of the frame. A more pleasant picture was obtained when I cropped it three years after framing the shot. Landscape photography does not necessarily mean wide angle.

Masai Mara, Kenya

My cow moment, Montbrun-Bocage, France

Curious cows, french countryside (f/2.8, 1/8000, ISO 400)
Some say photography is all about luck and having the right gear. I don't disagree completely with that statement, for there is certainly a big part of luck. But if you are staying home watching TV, capturing interesting pictures is not going to happen. 
On a nice afternoon in the southwest of France, I decided to finally go check out a farm near my in-laws', where there were supposed to be cows. As often, I wasn't prepared and my camera wasn't set up properly. In a split second, what appeared to be uninteresting subjects, turned into this picture. Yes, each one of them was very busy feeding. Suddenly they realized I was there and started running at me. I was quite scared for a second as I wasn't prepared to wrestle seven 800 pounds mammals, each armed with unpleasant weapons. They all stopped in front of me, stroked by curiosity perhaps. I took the shot and gently walked away, in case they'd change their mind.