Monday, June 27, 2005

St. Louis

I've been through St. Louis a number of times but never spent any time in the city. The last transit was 17 months ago after my first eagle trip to Keokuk. I camped out in a hotel near the St. Louis airport on Super Bowl Sunday (Pats 32, Panthers 29) hoping a winter storm wouldn't prevent me from flying back to DC the next day.

This weekend I took the short Southwest hop from Kansas City to St. Louis to look around, take in a couple of Cardinal games, and give my new Canon G6 digital camera its first real workout. There was no possibility of wintery weather this time as temperatures topped out in the high 90's each day. On Saturday my first stop riding in from the airport on the Metrolink was Forest Park. The bus stop to ride into the park looked crowded and the entrance was within sight, so I started walking. It took about 45 minutes of strolling to reach the St. Louis Zoo.

In the River's Edge section, the best exhibit is the hippo tank which was constructed to provide an underwater view. I also got a look at a capybara, giant anteaters, a black rhino, hyenas, mongoose, and elephants. I don't mean to be a snob, but when I saw the giant tortoises from the Seychelles I didn't bother to stop because I didn't see how it could be more interesting than seeing Galapagos tortoises in the wild. I paused at a sea lion pond for a rest, then came to a couple of small, very active Malaysian Sun Bears. I lingered there for a while then continued on to the other bears. Most of them were trying to avoid the heat and were resting, but a couple of huge griz were pacing around. Again, it was not quite as impressive as seeing griz in the wild in British Columbia, but I watched them for a while.

After a lunch of sorts I headed to the penguin and puffin exhibit. Outside they have Humboldt Penguins from the temperate climate of Chile. This was a new species to me so I tried to get some good shots as they preened just a couple feet away. The penguins from further south are inside a dome that is cooled to 45 degrees, so going in there was quite a change from the sweltering heat. Here they have Gentoos and Rockhoppers, which I have seen before, but they also have the larger King Penguins which were new to me. Continuing on, Horned and Tufted Puffins shared another cooled dome. The Atlantic Puffins I saw in the Gulf of Maine last year are similar to the Horned Puffins, but the Tufted variety is different and (in my opinion) not as cute.

I covered less than half the zoo in about three hours, so if I ever go back there will be plenty left to see. It was starting to rain, so I decided to head for my hotel downtown. I found a bus stop as the rain became a downpour, and stood there for what seemed like forever until the bus appeared. By the time the bus got back to the rail station the rain had almost stopped, but I was thoroughly soaked. The hotel only had a smoking room available when I checked in, so in order to get out of my wet clothes I took it rather than waiting a couple of hours for a non-smoking room. And of course the first thing I did after getting out of the wet was to jump in the pool.

I also managed to squeeze in a short nap before walking over to Busch Stadium, which is being torn down after this season to be replaced by a new Busch Stadium next door. As I found my seat, the history of the place started to seep in. "Wow," I thought. "This is where the Red Sox won the World Series." No doubt anyone there wearing a red cap and shirt would start with something other than last year's World Series fiasco when reflecting on the 40 years the Cardinals have played at this venue.

Old Busch Stadium

Old Busch Stadium opened in 1966 and resembles other multipurpose stadiums of the era such as the since-demolished bowls in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Comparing it to a modern facility such as Miller Park in Milwaukee, the deficiencies of Busch Stadium quickly become apparent. I'm not going to cite a laundry list of shortcomings, but I thought the worst part was just walking out of the park after the game due to inadequate exit gates and stairways. As I said, the new stadium is being built right next door to the existing structure, but it's apparent they are going to have do demolish a large portion of the old stadium to finish the new one. If the Cards make the World Series, there's going to be less than six months to do a lot of work.

The Cards' record indicates they are the best team in the National League, and they played like it Saturday evening in drilling the Pirates 8-0. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and some guy named Yadier Molina hit home runs, and Chris Carpenter pitched a four-hit shutout to pick up his 11th win. On Sunday I walked around the Arch and other downtown sites before heading back to Busch for a 1:15 start. The Cards jumped out to a 3-0 lead as Reggie Sanders and that guy Molina hit homers, but after that the home team dozed off and the Pirates came back to win 5-4 in 10 innings. After the game I caught the Metrolink back to the airport and returned to KC.

One way I judged the G6 was to see whether an image was usable without resizing. This image of Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa is a 500x375 crop of the original 7-megapixel image. I did my usual levels adjustment and sharpening. Although it is far from perfect, I think it is pretty good considering that 97.4% of the original image has been cropped away.

Tony LaRussa

The G6 has a built-in neutral density (ND) filter which electronically makes the camera less sensitive and allows the use of slow shutter speeds. The usual usage of this is to for shooting waterfalls and fountains at a low shutter speed with the camera mounted on a tripod, giving the water a wispy appearance. However, I found myself using it when shooting the Arch with the sun behind it. Even though the sun was blocked by the Arch there was so much light that at the camera's smallest aperture of f/8, the maximum shutter speed of 1/2000 was still too slow. I dialed in the ND and got this:


After using the G6 intensively for a couple of days, the main thing I don't like about it is the lens cap. It doesn't feel real secure so it has to be attached to the neck strap, but the way it attaches isn't very elegant. With my S45 you don't have to worry about a lens cap, and with my 1D the cap is either securely on the lens or in my pocket. I'm getting used to the G6 menus and controls, so I'll attribute any difficulty with them to a learning curve.

St. Louis provided an interesting diversion for the weekend and I wouldn't mind going back to see more of the zoo and the new ballpark when it opens. When I first started coming to KC in the late 80's, there was no doubt downtown existed only between 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. Downtown KC isn't quite as dead now, but it seems St. Louis provides an example of what many cities would like to have: A downtown that is busy day and night, seven days a week. KC is putting $250 million into a new downtown arena, but it's going to take a lot more than the Arena Football League or the WNBA (or even the NBA or NHL) to give KC what St. Louis has with Busch Stadium and the Cardinals, which is tens of thousands of people coming into downtown 81 or more times a year, renting hotel rooms, eating in restaurants, and making the city alive.

Update: Kansas City finished its state-of-the-art downtown arena in 2007. Although it has revitalized what is called the Power and Light District, as of 2022 it has failed to attract an NHL or NBA team. The Chiefs and Royals are still far from downtown to the northeast and show no signs of wanting to move.

Also, "some guy named Yadier Molina" is now considered one of the greatest catchers of all time.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Walked around the Arch then saw the Cards mess up today's game and lose to the Pirates 5-4 in 10 innings. Back to KC tonight.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Cards at home leading Pirates 5-0 after 4. I'm surprised they let me in without a Rolen or Pujols shirt. Everyone else has one.

Up before dawn, heading to St. Louis for Cards-Pirates tonight and tomorrow. Hot, hot, hot.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Blue Angels and Snowbirds

The Blue Angels and the Canadian Snowbirds were the center of attention at the Rhode Island Air National Guard Air Show at Quonset Point, Rhode Island over the weekend.

The Blue Angels of course is the name of the U.S. Navy's flight demonstration team. The team staged its usual display of aerobatic skill and power with its six F/A-18 Hornets. Besides the blue and gold paint, these are the same advanced fighter/attack aircraft flown off of U.S. Navy carriers.

Blue Angels over Rhode Island
Blue Angels over Rhode Island

The Canadian Snowbirds are not elderly Canucks in RVs, but the Canadian Defence Forces 431 Air Demonstration Squadron. The team flies a much less powerful jet, the Canadair CT-114 Tutor, a training craft. It isn't even the current military trainer used by Canada, but the nine aircraft still make an elegant sight as the team members perform their precise maneuvers.

Saturday it was overcast for the Heritage Flight featuring an F-86 Sabre from the 1950's and two modern fighters, the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon. It was still overcast for the Snowbirds, but cleared partially in time for the Blue Angels. Saturday's clouds probably kept a few people away and traffic wasn't too bad getting in and out. Everyone showed up instead on Sunday, Father's Day. Despite leaving an hour earlier than the day before, I missed the Heritage Flight and got to the front gate just as the Snowbirds were starting. There were enough blue skies to get a few decent shots, then it clouded over again, then finally it started clearing as time for the Blue Angels approached.

Snowbirds and Saturday's clouds

Both days I shot with my Canon 1D Mark II DSLR and 100-400mm lens. I usually just set the mode on "P" and ISO on 250. When it was sunny, this produced an exposure of about 1/800 at F/10. For those shots where the solo fliers rush at each other at a combined speed of 1,200 miles per hour and cross at center line, I set "AV" mode (shutter priority) with a shutter speed of 1/400 and panned with the plane approaching from the right. With the shutter knashing at eight frames per second, hopefully this meant I would get one frame where the plane from the right is sharp and the plane from the left is going by in a blur. I got a few decent ones but I didn't surpass some of my shots from the 2003 show.

I'm also posting one image taken with my new G6. It's of the Blue Angels' support aircraft, "Fat Albert," a Marine C-130. With the G6 topping out at 140mm I think it would have been possible to get a few decent formation shots. But for the opposing solos, gotta have that telephoto and eight frames per second.


Friday, June 17, 2005

G6 Daisy

This weekend I plan to shoot the Blue Angels at their show in Rhode Island, and there's no better camera for shooting an air show than a Canon 1D Mark II with a Canon 100-400 lens. The lens is long enough to get tight on the solo planes, yet can also widen out for larger formations.

Yep, nothing better. And nothing heavier. I've been mulling over an Ireland trip for the past year or so, but I just didn't see lugging the heavy artillery with me. My research indicates the interesting photographic subjects in Ireland tend to be 5,000-year-old stone structures. Additional research revealed that they are easy to sneak up on, eliminating the need for an image-stabilized 100-400mm white lens.

But I wanted something with more capability than my little S45. I bit the bullet and put in an order for a Canon Powershot G6. It's somewhat large for a point-and-shoot camera, but tiny compared to an SLR. The G-line has been well regarded for a number of years now, and the G6 has been around for nearly a year. Including charger and two batteries, my G6 travel kit weighs in at less than two lbs. (26 ounces). My 1D Mark II travel kit including the charger, two batteries, and the light 28-300 lens that I don't really like would be more than seven lbs. (116 ounces). With two good lenses instead of the cheapo, add another 3.5 lbs for a total of nearly 11 lbs.

I probably sound like a Canon commercial sometimes (and I hereby volunteer to appear in Maria Sharapova's next Powershot ad), but one reason I went with a Canon rather than equally-capable prosumer cameras from Sony, Olympus or Nikon is compatibility with what I already have. It's not just that I don't have to buy new memory cards. I can use the battery from my ZR-60 videocam as a backup for the G6. (As a side benefit, the G6 came with an external charger which the ZR-60 did not.) I can even use my Speedlite 380EX flash unit. The external flash gives the option of using a much more powerful flash when the situation requires (although it does make the camera rather top heavy). The G6 has been officially designated as my "Ireland camera" and I hope it lives up to its name in September.

Until then, it goes to Kansas City in place of all my other stuff. The 35-140mm equivalent lens really isn't long enough to do sports, but I'll take to St. Louis for a couple of Cardinals games next weekend. I'm also looking forward to shooting fireworks with it. The little remote that's included will be ideal for setting off 4-second time exposures of fireworks. Next I'll probably figure out what attachments I need to use it with a telescope.

I'm sure there will be many occasions in the future when I'll lug the heavy backpack, but now I've got an alternative for those times when it just doesn't make sense. Here's one of my first attempts, a macro shot of a daisy that popped up in my unmowed front lawn.

Volunteer Daisy

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Braintree Hawks 2005

Fortunately my employment does not require spending weekends at the office, but I did find a reason to head to the office Sunday – the Braintree Hawks.

Since 2002, May has been the month to watch red-tailed hawks being born and raised in our office park at the edge of the Blue Hills. The locale is the city of Braintree just south of Boston. The two parents built a nest in a tree just 50 feet or so from the building, and raised single chicks in 2002 and 2003, and twins in 2004. In 2002 while I was still shooting film, I got some good closeups of the fledgling Junior I. He camped out on a canopy just outside of our lunchroom for a couple of days, and it was there that he waited for his parents to drop off his lunch. In 2003, I was ready with my Canon 1D DSLR as Junior II posed on a picnic table right outside the window of our library. In 2004, I pointed a Canon ZR60 digital camcorder at the nest and let it run for an hour at a time as the twins Junior IIIa and IIIb grew up.

For whatever reason, the parents decided to build a new nest across the street this year, about 125 feet further away and much more difficult to see from our vantage point. Another problem is I've been in Kansas City instead of Braintree since mid-April. Junior IV probably hatched around May 1, so I was missing his childhood. When I was back in New England this weekend I headed over to salvage something from the year.

Back in April I knew the parents were building the new nest and I scouted for a good vantage point. I decided on a spot under the old nest, across the street from the new one. This spot gave me some elevation, but was far enough away that shooting with a long lens on an SLR would not produce interesting results. Instead, I planned to use my Televue 85 telescope.

With a 13mm Nagler eyepiece on the telescope, the view of Junior IV in the nest was quite stunning. The Nagler provided a wide field of view with 46x magnification. If weight is no object, a Televue 85 with a premium eyepiece such as a Nagler is better than any spotting scope. (But it is heavy.) After scoping out Junior IV for a while (and not seeing the parents anywhere in sight) I swapped out the eyepiece for my digiscoping equipment, my Canon S45 camera joined to a Meade 15mm Plössl eyepiece. The magnification was 40x with that eyepiece, but due to the way everything fits together the field of view was much narrower than I had observed directly with the Nagler. Junior IV filled the frame, so much so that I backed off to a 20mm eyepiece, 30x magnification.

Junior IV

The S45 doesn't have a remote, so to get steady images I had to set the camera's timer. Two seconds wasn't long enough for the tripod to settle down, and the only other option was 10 seconds. So I just fired away, 5-6 shots a minute, hoping that Junior IV would raise his head as the time expired each time. I also took a couple minutes of video with the S45.

Eventually my battery ran out and Junior IV settled down for a rest. I probably wasn't there for more than 45 minutes. The photos and video I have posted aren't that great, but to me even a fleeting glimpse of a red-tailed hawk is worth a Sunday drive, especially if it's the new baby of old friends.