In Praise of AAA

Disclaimer:  AAA is a big franchise operation, and I think their roadside assistance is also franchised to independent contractors.  YMMV of course, and my story really only relates to my experience with the specific folks I interacted with.  That said, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a complaint-worthy problem with AAA services.

My wife and I for years have carried a “Plus” membership with AAA.  Most years, thankfully, it’s been an expensive way to get some “free” maps or some discounts on local attractions.  From time to time we’ve had to take advantage of the towing and/or roadside assistance, and usually those events have been worth the price of admission.  We generally regard the membership fee as a form of insurance, so we don’t see it really as any more wasted on years where we don’t need their services than our life insurance premiums are on years when we don’t die.

Anyway, twice in very recent times we’ve had to call upon them, and frankly, both times the service has been noteworthy.  So I will give them some free, positive publicity.

The first time, I walked out to my car at work ready to go to lunch, only to find I had a flat tire.  I know how to change a tire, but frankly I didn’t have time to fool with it and wasn’t really dressed for the occasion.  So I called AAA.  In short order, a neat and clean fellow drove up in his AAA-painted tow truck.  In a friendly and professional manner, he retrieved the spare from under the car, tested and re-inflated it, replaced the bad tire, and was on his way.  Exactly what one could ask for in such a service.

The second time was just yesterday.  The battery died in my minivan, in the pick-up line at my son’s school in downtown Lexington.  In the rain.  And I had errands to run last night.  I called a friend to come pick up the kids (his daughter was with us), and then called AAA.  The dispatcher estimated the usual “1 hour” for the help to arrive.

45 minutes later, the driver calls, apologetically. Traffic was bad, and he was another 10-12 minutes out.  OK.  If you live in Lexington, imagine this.  You are at Fayette Mall.  It’s evening rush hour.  You need to get downtown in a hurry.  There’s a wreck in the Northbound lanes of Nicholasville Road.  How do you get there fast?  The answer is, you don’t.  The route the driver needed to take from his previous call to me is categorically the worst possible driving route in the city at that time of a workday.  So he went around, and it took time, but he did the best our traffic situation would allow to keep me waiting as little as possible.  And then apologized.

Ten minutes later, in the rain, he had diagnosed my problem, tested the rest of my charging system, and restarted the car.  I could limp home now, with another apology for “taking so long” (not really) and a happy “good evening.”  But that’s not all.  He had an exact replacement battery in the back of his truck, at a competitive price.

Another ten minutes later, my car was fixed, good as new, and instead of going home to fix my car, I could go home to fix dinner, get the shopping done, and get on with my life.  All at no charge (except of course for the price of the battery).

In short, I pay AAA to fix my day when this stuff happens and threatens to ruin it. And they do, consistently.  I didn’t get the names of either of these guys, but to them — and to AAA for providing the system within which they work — I say thank you.

Posted in Life In General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunrise

The pre-dawn sky is a deep cobalt blue, clearly not black but only just barely, and then lightens gradually, becoming a richer and richer blue.  A band of orange appears through the low clouds on the eastern horizon, growing like a wildfire in the distance.  Looking up, I see the last of the stars fade from view as the sky continues to slowly but steadily lighten.

Deep orange along the horizon lightens to yellow and again to the first signs of day-sky blue to the East, as the West finally wakes from the dark of night to pick up the deep dawn blue.  On and on the lighter colors march as the dark recedes.  Details become sharper and clearer on the ground as the world wakes around me.

The sun struggles to be seen through the low clouds far to the east as the dark sky to the west begins to glow a soft lavender and the dome above me begins to shrug the last vestiges of cobalt.  The clouds are on fire, ablaze with oranges and yellows as the sun climbs above them.

Finally the sun reaches clear sky, announcing the start of a new day in a full blaze of yellow glory in a bright, clear blue sky, yet at the same time losing the magic of that first hour when its more diffuse light first brushed the sky.

Posted in Life In General | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Shooting Volleyball

UK vs. ETSU 7-Sept-2013

I’ve now got a season of Middle School Volleyball under my belt, as well as at least one college-level game, and boy have I learned a lot!

First, a shout out to this website biggerinthemiddle.com, about the only volleyball-specific photo how-to I could find on the internet.  Lots of useful information there.  I also found some great advice on Randall McAdory’s Lens Extender site, but I found him late in the season. If you know of any other volleyball-specific sites, how about adding them to the comments?

OK, so what have I learned?

Color Problems

UK vs. ETSU 7-Sept-2013

First, the lighting in our home school’s gym is atrocious.  Not only is it dim (for photography purposes), but it’s mixed.  There’s fluorescents mixing with tungsten, creating this really odd orange/green mix.  To make matters worse, the gym floor and bleachers are varnished wood, the walls are tan, and many of the “accoutrements” in the room are orange, adding to the color effect.

This is where knowing how to set a custom white balance comes in handy.  I bought a small white / grey / black card set, and use it to set the custom white balance on my camera to match the actual lighting in the room.  When I got home I was able to confirm that despite the still-horrible orange cast to all of the pictures, it was the fault of the room, not my white balance.  The whites were in fact white!

Dim Bulb

UK vs. ETSU 7-Sept-2013

The second problem we confront in the gym is the lack of lighting.  Even at ISO 3200 (really pushing it, even on my camera), I was barely able to get 1/125 at f4.  This is much too slow to freeze a flying volleyball, and barely fast enough to catch a moving player.  To make matters even worse, the varnished basketball court floor doesn’t diffuse the ceiling lights very well, leading to hot spots.  Still, I was able to handle the lighting OK and get some decently exposed photos.

At the tournament, the lighting in the high school gym was much better, and a good deal brighter than our home gym, but really only enough to get the ISO down to 1600, or the shutter above 1/200.  The lighting was more even as well, but the floor was still a bit too mirror-like.  It was nice to have learned a bit about the “exposure triangle” (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) to be able to compensate for the lighting conditions.  I did notice one other fellow trying to use his on-camera pop-up flash from 40 feet away.  I wonder how his shots worked out…

The college game was far better than any of the others. I’m not sure the type of lighting, but white balance was no problem, as you can see from the shots here. Plus I was able to get all the way up to 1/640 at f5.1 and ISO 1600, leading to some (relatively) very sharp photos.

Focus, focus!

UK vs. ETSU 7-Sept-2013

Third up, I love my manual focus lenses! I used the Tamron 70-210 a lot, set at f4 and 100mm (200mm equivalent), and particularly shooting from the stands to the far side of the court (about 85 feet to the net), I had enough depth of field to keep everyone on my team’s side in focus, without having to twiddle with it.  This was especially nice when shooting through the net, as the autofocus didn’t handle that quite so well.

Up close, from the side, I’m not certain whether I liked my “new” Sigma 35-70mm manual lens or my Olympus 40-150 AF lens.  The Sigma did work well, but the zoom range of the Oly suits the venue pretty well.  Up close the 40mm is a bit restrictive, can’t get the whole court in view.

I’ve since purchased a Tamron 40A 35-135 zoom that is nearly perfect (in terms of zoom range) for a Middle School sized gym. The short end is wide enough to get some good multi-player shots, and the long end is long enough to zero in on a play from the top of the bleachers. It’s a good “one lens to carry” for my needs, though it is quite heavy compared to more modern lenses. At the season-end tournament, I was able to shoot an entire match with just this lens, with the sole exception of the wide full-court “establishing shot” I took at 14mm. Of course, at f3.5-4.5 it would be nice if it were a little faster glass, but for $20 I can’t complain.

Game Play

UK vs. ETSU 7-Sept-2013

This was the best part, and the hardest part.  Technically speaking, I quickly caught on to watching the serve, predicting where it would go, and getting the camera in the right position to follow the action.  By the end of the season, I was even beginning to be able to do some composition before the crucial moment.  It’s pretty much a given that at least a little bit of cropping will be necessary, as the game can move very fast and sometimes you need to zoom a bit wide to be sure to catch the action in frame.  Or at least I do. I’m sure I’ll get better at this.

The hardest part was balancing my “duty” to take good photos against my interest in enjoying the game.  That was, of course, my daughter and her friends out there fighting hard to win the game.  I often found myself missing great shots because I was busy watching the action, or missing the flow of a great play because I had my eye to the viewfinder.  Mostly the former.

It would actually be easier, and more fun from a photographic standpoint to photograph other teams playing, and sit back to enjoy and cheer on our own team. But then, how would we have photos to enjoy afterward?

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

World Wide Photo Walk ’13

P1080216

Yesterday, I stepped a bit out of my “shell” and spent the morning in the company of some other photographers, on Scott Kelby’s World Wide Photo Walk. The WWPW is an annual event where groups in cities all around the world go out together for a few hours to socialize and — of course — shoot and share photos.

(TL;DR version, the rest of my photos are in my Flickr account)

We met at Triangle Square in downtown Lexington, about a dozen of us, and then scattered to wander a loose loop along Main and Short streets, before meeting back up at Sawyer’s to share our experiences.  At first I was rather expecting us to stay together as a group as we walked along, but I actually found it liberating to have 2-1/2 hours to freely explore downtown Lexington with no agenda and no-one else to worry about.

I carried my Lumix G5 with my 14-42mm and 40-150mm zoom lenses in my small shoulder bag. I also brought my Canon 50mm lens, but I forgot the adaptor (which I had “borrowed” to use with my new Tamron 35-135mm zoom), so I didn’t get to use it. Once again, as in Alaska, my Think Tank Lens Changer pouch on my belt was almost perfect for quick lens switches.

P1080073

One thing I discovered is these neat bourbon barrels. From time to time over the past several years the city has had a number of these art projects where a variety of objects are painted by different artists, displayed around town and then sold at auction for charity (or something like that). We’ve had horses and water barrels, and now there are these bourbon barrels.
P1080134

I think I’ll try to plan a walk-about to photograph the rest of them.

Here’s my wife’s favorite horse, now on display outside a downtown pub…
P1080096
I think you can guess why she likes it!

The route also took us by the Lexington Farmer’s Market, where the fall harvest is plentiful.
P1080231

I went downtown expecting to take architecture and regular street shots…
P1080077

… but it turns out that the WWPW wasn’t the only event going on in Lexington yesterday. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure charity run was also there, and that made for a fantastic photo opportunity. I really never would have seen myself doing this, but I really enjoyed walking amongst the crowd and asking people to take their picture. Everyone was so jubilant and enjoying the beautiful day so much, and most were genuinely flattered that I asked.

The opening photo is my friend Matt, his wife (a survivor and a runner!) and a friend of theirs. Matt is a great guy, and I’m really glad his wife is doing so well.

This is the race winner…
P1080132

… two seconds after he broke the tape. I had just taken a slow-shutter photo of a nearby water feature, using the two-second timer on my camera. When I heard the announcer say the lead runner was coming in, I rushed over to get “the” finishing shot. I even managed to get into an excellent position… only to find my camera patiently ticking off two seconds, as I had forgotten to turn off the timer. As it turns out, two seconds is an eternity at the end of a race. Oh well, maybe next time.

Here are a few of my favorite shots from the race festivities…
P1080111

P1080152

P1080205

P1080209

P1080202

The WWPW was great fun, and would have been anyway, but to be able to also be involved in the Komen race by documenting the happy participants, and to play photojournalist for a morning, was icing on the cake!

Be sure to catch the rest of my shots in my WWPW Flickr Set.

 

Posted in Life In General, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skagway Valley

Skagway Valley by BGTwinDad
Skagway Valley, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

I like this one. ‘Nuff said.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Skagway! Gateway to the Klondike!

P1030961

Day Six of our journey found us making the long drive from Haines Junction through Whitehorse, and on to Skagway. Much of the Yukon through this part consisted of more of the beautiful broad valleys bordered by towering mountains that had been the “meat and potatoes” of the last few days of driving. Whitehorse is a bustling town of 35,000 or so, and we did take time to stock up on necessaries at the Walmart and have a late brunch at the McDonald’s.

Moving South into British Columbia, things got progressively steeper and narrower, until we were clearly winding our way back up into the mountains, but as we approached the pass at the border, the terrain rather suddenly turned… almost alien.

P1030908

P1030909

… and even a little bit dangerous…
P1030910

P1030911

This unique landscape, we later learned, was once the site of a mile-thick ice field, and it was the continual grinding of the ice that created these odd, smoothed stone shapes with hundreds of small lakes and other water features in between.

The whole pass was socked in with fog, making driving a bit exciting, and there were plenty of mosquitos about to keep us company. But we did eventually make it back into the United States, I think. It was hard to read the sign.

P1030914

The Alaska side of the pass is more of a steep, windy mountain valley, carved first by glaciers flowing down from the ice field, and later by the rapid action of the Skagway River.

P1030927

The road crosses the San Andreas Fault high up near the head of the valley over this rather unique bridge.
P1030924

The Captain William Moore Bridge spans the fault, and it is unique in that unlike most suspension bridges, it is anchored at only one end (the downhill end, left in the photo), so that it will not be torn apart in the event of an earthquake. I must say that driving down this valley in a top-heavy minivan has been one of the more white-knuckle driving experiences I’ve ever had. And I learned to drive in West Virginia…

… but we did soon find ourselves safely in the town of Skagway, Alaska, population 920.

P1030932

Note, of course, that just one of the two cruise ships docked that day can carry more than twice the entire (permanent) population of the town…

P1030929

Skagway is a quaint little town, and aside from the paved streets hasn’t really changed much since its founding in the gold rush years. Or at least, it’s gone back to its roots. Back in the day, the town existed largely to serve the thousands of men who arrived by ship headed over the pass toward the Klondike gold fields. Today, it exists largely to serve the thousands of tourists who arrive by ship to head over the pass just to see what it’s like. In a way it’s a tourist trap, but somehow it works here, perhaps because the town was always a sort of tourist trap.

Skagway’s “downtown” is full of t-shirt and jewelry shops, antique dealers, rug merchants, hotels, motels, restaurants, and other places that cater to the tourist trade. It’s the Southern end and starting point for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which takes tourists some 67 miles over White Pass, past Lake Bennett, and on to Carcross, just like it hauled miners over a century ago.

Inside the Klondike Gold Rush National Park office building, which used to be the railroad depot, is a nice museum whose centerpiece is this life-size statue of a stampeder with the two tons of food and equipment the Canadian Government required him to bring with him into Canada.

P1030948

The Skagway Centennial statue shown at the top of the post is situated in a small park between the docks and the WP&YR railroad station, and depicts a Tinglit tracker leading a gold rush stampeder up the pass toward his fortune.

And then there’s the Red Onion Saloon.  Once the most exclusive… entertainment centre in town, it’s now a National Historic Building.  Downstairs it’s an authentically decorated saloon, complete with quite a collection of bedpans along the wall.  Upstairs, it’s a museum dedicated to brothels.  The wait staff dress in period costume and the food — especially the pizza — is not to be missed.

We also had a fine meal at the Skagway Brewing Company, outside of which we saw these two adorable labs who were just hanging out, waiting for their master (mistress? we never did see) to finish dinner, and getting petted by nearly everyone who came by.
P1040014

The waitress had the same name as our daughter, and was a real trip.  She, like many of the tourist industry workers in Alaska, was only summering in town, and would return south once the snow began to fly and the ships stopped coming in.

Next up: train stuff!  The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad!

 

 

Posted in Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Good night, Moon!

P1060989 by BGTwinDad
P1060989, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

I grabbed this shot after dinner this evening, not long before the moon set. This was a bit of a challenge, though I know I can do better, mostly by picking better conditions.

This was taken from my front yard, near a street lamp, with city lighting not far off. f8, 1/20, ISO 400, 210mm with 4x digital zoom (so, like an effective 1680mm!). Obviously I used a tripod and the 2-second timer.

It can be tricky to get the right exposure for the moon, as its brightness varies, it’s generally very bright against the sky, and it’s relatively small, all of which messes with the auto-exposure on most cameras.  I used the good advice from this tutorial by Nasim Mansurov on PhotographyLife.com, and then made adjustments to get the shot above.

How could I have gotten it sharper? Well, the weather is about as good as it gets this time of year, though it’s extremely humid.  Waiting till colder, drier weather would probably help.  So would getting to a higher altitude (less air between me and the subject) and getting away from all those city lights.

As for the camera, using a bigger zoom lens and/or a teleconverter would have been better than the digital zoom, though the digital zoom is quite handy in this case.  The more glass-zoom (vs. digi-zoom), the more pixels available to record details.

But, given all that, this is my best one so far, and the path to even better ones is quite clear.  Looks like I need to start saving up for that telescope!

 

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment