Explorations

Explorations: 3D Chessboard

Just one of many Explorations, I designed this chessboard after wondering why chessboards have to be flat. Start with “why?” and you never know where you’ll end

Here you’ll find insights and observations on what I’m learning as I try new experiences and offer exercises, experiments and expeditions for you to try as well.

Think of it as behind-the-scenes explorations on new ways of learning by learning new things.

Our starting Explorations are in FoodPhotographyThe Art of Craft and, of course, Travel.

Come back soon for more.

*******


How to take better sunset photographs

If you want to take better sunset photographs – and who doesn’t, particularly when you’re on a trip? – it helps to know a few tips. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the years on how to take better sunset photographs.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - San Gimignano sunset

Don’t make the sunset the star. Have other objects – buildings, trees, birds, people, etc. – be the main subject of the photo. Let the sunset be a nice background addition. Or even better, look behind you. Sometimes the best images at sunset aren’t of the sunset but what the sinking sun illuminates in its warm, glowing light and colors. Always ask yourself, “What story am I really trying to show?” or “What’s the real subject here?” or and then pursue that story or subject incorporating the sunset but not fixating on it.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset MonteverdeFrame the sunset. Even when the sunset itself is the main attraction, use other elements – trees work particularly well – to frame your image. If you want to take better sunset photographs, concentrate on composition and lighting as much as on just that big orange ball that’s quickly sinking. The worst sunset images (and the most common) treat the sun like a target you’re centering in on with nothing else in the frame but the sun, the horizon and maybe some waves.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset at ArchesAdd lens flare. This one is subjective. Some photographers see lens flare – those rainbow-like blocks or circles created by shooting directly into the sun – as a distraction or a mistake. For me, I like the added visual element…in moderation. To increase your chances of capturing lens flare, shoot toward the sun at a high F-stop (like F11 or higher if your camera allows aperture priority settings). Higher F-stops (and thus depth of field) can also make the sun’s rays more pronounced as in the above image.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - sunset and pierUse a tripod. This is critical if you want to make a better sunset photograph by the ocean and you want the waves smoothed out via a long exposure. You can also make images long after the sun has set when the light is often at its best.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset and Fountain

Apply the rule of thirds. Don’t shoot with the sun in the center of the image and the horizon in the middle of the picture. That’s just boring (see point 2 above). Try to locate the sun either a third of the way up or down and a third of the way from one side. It’s more visually dynamic and interesting. One of the best ways to understand this is to go online and look at how others have taken sunset photographs. You’ll quickly see that the most compelling shots are not symmetrical images of the sun alone.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Sunset and grassKnow your camera and filters. Learn how to bracket your shots meaning, for example, you take one photo at the correct exposure, one a stop overexposed and a third a stop underexposed. Then, on your computer, use software to merge the three so that your foreground subject isn’t too dark you’re your sky isn’t too light. Many cameras today even allow you to do this by making an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image in the camera itself. Or go old school: Use a graduated neutral density filter on your lens that darkens the sky without making your foreground too shadowy.

 

The light at the end of the day: Post sunset

In many ways, this image is too underexposed and dark. But it is still more interesting than if it had been too light.

Underexpose. If none of the previous point made any sense to you, don’t worry. Just try and make your sunset shots darker than normal. They tend to “read” better and our eyes accept a sunset image where the sun isn’t too bright and the surrounding scene is darker than usual in a photograph.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - rock climbing at sunsetPlan ahead. You usually only have about 30 minutes of great light during and after the sunset. You can get apps for your phone that tell you exactly when sunrise and sunsets occur wherever you are. Use them to be there and be set up knowing the scene you want to capture before you miss your moment. You want to be set before the sun does.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Piazza after sunset

This technically isn’t a sunset photograph…but it is. Note the luscious light right after sunset.

Wait. Similarly, once you are there, don’t be in a rush to leave. As noted, the best light usually occurs after the sun has set. Wait for it. You may not have the actual sun in your photo, but you’ll have a better photo.

 

How to take better sunset photographs - Purple cloudsFollow the clouds. This is probably the most important tip of all: sunsets are pretty boring without clouds. Some of the best sunset photographs occur right after a storm or on really cloudy days. Clouds are the secret to making better sunset photographs.

That’s a start. How about you? What’s your secret to taking better sunset photographs?

This ends my three-part series on sunsets. The other two are The Light at the End of the Day and Why Sunsets Move Us.

 

The light at the end of the day

A light at the end of the day - Mal Pais SunsetAt the end of the day, or really anytime, when you get to the “T” in the road, you have two choices. Three if you count continuing straight and driving into the Pacific Ocean.

Turn right and you enter the bustling town of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Small hotels, shops and restaurants line the bumpy main street paved, curiously, only in stretches of about a hundred feet here and there. Along this popular dusty thoroughfare walk or ride – primarily on motor bikes or four-wheeled ATV’s – an assortment of locals and foreigners (mostly surfers). The whole town has a surf vibe due to the quality of the consistent break that lies behind the trees off to your left as you drive into town.

If, however, you go the other direction at the “T” you’ll find only an isolated building here and there amidst the jungle that encroaches on the road. From the trees, howler monkeys gaze down and call out in voices too big for their diminutive size. At the end of this road lies the tiny harbor of Mal Pais (“bad country” in Spanish, a misnomer it seems to most modern-day tourists). Here, you can greet the fishing boats each afternoon as they bring in the day’s catch. If you feel like cooking your own fish, you can negotiate your way to a lovely rockfish or tuna.

Or, you could do what we did and have a fresh seafood meal prepared for you in a setting as astounding as the food.

The light at the end of the day - Our table at CaracolesCaracoles restaurant in Mal Pais has no dining room per se. Sure, there’s a covered area with tables and chairs next to the building that houses the kitchen and bar. But my wife, Kris, and I chose instead one of several tables out beneath the palm trees right on the edge of the beach. At first, it seemed more picnic than fine dining until we tasted the food.

Walk 30 feet from our table and this is the view.

Walk 30 feet from our table and this is the view.

As we neared the end of the day, it was still quite warm so we ordered something light and cool. For me that meant ceviche and a salad, both perfect. Kris, went for the shrimp in mango sauce. We both oohed and aahed our way through every bite.

And then the floorshow began.

We looked out over a strand of white sand between us and a stretch of rocky tide pools backed by the incoming waves. That scene alone, framed by palm trees, would be worthy of a travel brochure cover. But then, out of nowhere, a lone horse meandered down the beach like the opening act.

The light at the end of the day - horse on the beach near Caracoles

The view from our table as the horse casually wandered down the beach.

The real show began as the sun and the horizon met and the sky exploded. Blues and oranges bled and morphed. Pinks and yellows seemed to change by the second in a kaleidoscopic display of cloud and color; raw yet orderly, vast yet intimate.

We experienced one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, a fitting end of the day.

But it made me realize something.

The light at the end of the day: Post sunsetThat same sun rises and falls each and every day. But sunsets usually pass me by unnoticed or at least, unexamined in their routine familiarity or even over-familiarity (after all, what inspirational poster doesn’t have a sunset on it?). But here, on this trip, all the factors aligned to get me to not only notice, but pursue the beauty as it unfolded. As the sky faded finally into a soothing deep purple and then into the color of night, Kris and I did not let the moment go unheeded. We watched. More than that, we were a part of it, consumed by each transition of light and color.

We understood then what the ancient Celts referred to as “the time between times,” the bookends of each day filled with extra possibility, awe and magic. We realized that the end of that day is what made that day. But more than that, we remembered what only beauty or affliction seem to force us to recall; that the possibility of wonder comes around every single day.

We will likely not see such a beautiful sunset any time soon. But at least now I will make more of an effort to look, even if there’s no horse or beach nearby.

For more on sunsets, check out these two entries: Why sunsets move us and How to take better sunset photos

 

A life in ruins

A life in ruins: Angkor Wat temple

We find life in ruins. That may seem like an oxymoron since ruined buildings usually denote death, decay and the absence of human existence. In most cases, the only life found in such places comes in the form of plants and animals that reclaim what humans once made their own.

A life in ruins: Front of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

But life is more than breath. And in the forgotten and fading remains of wood, stone or concrete fragments, we discover another kind of life in ruins: our own.

A life in ruins: Angkor Wat

Last time (as well as the photos here) used examples from San Juan de Dios hospital in Granada, Nicaragua and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to explore five reasons why ruins fascinate us.  But here’s the main explanation, at least to me, as to why we’re intrigued with the broken-down and crumbling:

Ruins are beautiful. They speak to us in ways we can’t always comprehend and they tell us a deeper story.

A life in ruins: Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

We may find the cobwebs, debris, small animals and flora emerging from the ancient walls to be curious – even, in some cases, disturbing – but the stonework, the carvings, the details and craftsmanship of those walls? These are works of art. Works that survive because they were well-made of materials meant to last. Such work and the ruins themselves touch us and move us in the way only beauty or affliction can, for they represent elements of both.

Angkor Wat monkeys

The beauty of ruins, however, is very different than the beauty of the original buildings. Visit other temples in Cambodia or Asia or visit other hospitals in Central America. Some are lovely, but many can feel decorative. Overdone. Even (to our Western sensibilities) a bit tacky. But when time and weather have their way with these places, what’s left are the elemental forms. The aesthetics of structure and support. The colors of decay: rusts, grays and gritty pastels. In the end, what remains is the character of the place.

A life in ruins: Hospital doorway - Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

And so it is with us. Ruins remind us that when you strip away all our superficialities, what remains is our own character. That can be a simple wreck. A collection of fallen, broken pieces. The remnants of what we strove to be but never quite pulled off.

Or, our characters can reflect the real us. The core of who we are beyond our faded pretenses, poses and props. The depths of our true selves, something of great wonder and beauty that people marvel at. Our characters can, in a way, reflect the summary of our lives, the end result of all the shaping of time, circumstance and choice.

Thus, in the end, it might be that ruins evoke a deeper story in, from and through us. A story of great beauty. One that reminds us that beyond what we see in the present is something far greater and much richer. One we don’t always appreciate until all else is removed and we are left only with the character.

Of a place…or of a person.

 

5 reasons why ruins fascinate us

Why do ruins fascinate us? Why do so many of us seek out the old and the antiquated, the weathered, worn and barely-still-standing?Why ruins fascinate us: the Hospital San Jaun de Dios - Granada, Nicaragua

 A tale of two ruins

The images you see here are from two recent trips. The more modern ruins above are from Antiguo Hospital San Juan de Dios in Granada, Nicaragua that I visited a few weeks ago. This old hospital was built at the end of the 19th century and has long ago fallen into disrepair. Rumors of rebuilding it as a museum seem to be merely rumors. I had been informed that guards stand outside the shell of the building to keep trespassers away. Yet when I visited, they too appear to have to have abandoned this place.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - entry

The other, more famous ruins shown here, are from my son Sumner’s trip last month to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Built in the early 12th century these temples cry out to be explored. Tomb Raider and other movies have been filmed here. As Sumner noted, visiting here makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than anywhere else he’s been.

Two very different trips. Two very different types of places. One common appeal. But what’s behind our interest in the old and run down? Why do ruins fascinate us so?

Here are some theories. Add your own in the comments section.

 Reasons why ruins fascinate us

Why ruins fascinate us: Back of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

First, we tend to romanticize the past. What came before us seems more interesting than what lies in front of us today. History and the richness of its associations sparks our imaginations. We give in to nostalgia or associations with symbols from the past in ways we may not even realize or admit.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - sunrise

Second, we live in a culture of perceived impermanence, transience veiled under the guise of mobility. Thus, we gravitate toward representatives of permanence or at least the rootedness we find in old buildings that have lasted for decades, centuries or even millennia.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Facade of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

Third, we appreciate a level of skill, craftsmanship and materials we rarely see today. Unless you’re an eccentric millionaire, you’re not likely to build a castle or cathedral. So we marvel at works of splendor that last for generations beyond the life of the builders.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Carved faces at Angkor Wat

Fourth, I think we’re drawn to ruins because they remind us of our own condition. Let’s face it: deep down we’re all wrecks. Ruins remind us that there is something of value and magnificence even in our brokenness and in those places that are falling apart.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Doorway of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

Fifth, ruins also may remind us that we are mortal. In college I worked at Disneyland. There they told us a story about the building of the park. Apparently Walt Disney hired a psychologist to guide the design of the various “lands.” One suggestion Walt followed was to construct Skull Rock from Peter Pan and put this universal symbol of death (the skull) right in the middle of Fantasyland. The reasoning went that people would feel even happier when they saw the skull because they would subconsciously have a sense of overcoming death. So perhaps we like ruins for similar reasons: We encounter them and witness their crumbling facades and broken walls. And yet we emerge from them as vibrant as when we entered.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - courtyard work

Beyond these five reasons, one other remains as to why ruins fascinate us. To me, it’s the most important and thus deserves its own entry. So join me next time for the main reason ruins fascinate us. And in the meantime, please share below your own thoughts on the subject.

 

It’s a nice place to visit but…

Frozen Fountain New York

What follows are photos I’ve taken on various trips to NY at various times of the year. Some are things you’d see as a tourist and some are less so…

New York is a nice place to visit but…

View from the High Line

View from the High Line

I love New York.

Usually for about a day.

I get to New York every two years or so for business. And each time, whenever I arrive, I’m like a little kid. I scan the skyline for outlines of familiar landmarks. I get caught up in all the things I could do here if I only had more time. I even, if I’m arriving at night by cab, look up to the warm lights of windowed brownstones and wonder what the people who live there are doing.

Playing chess in the park

Playing chess in the park

Once there, I usually sit through long days of meetings and, in most cases, enjoy a nice dinner with the client or with colleagues. And then I’m left with the after hours, the time when the stores (except for the tourist shops) and museums are closed. It’s too late to see much but too early for the nightlife of New York to kick in (as if my work-worn body and mind could remain awake that late anyway). So what do I do? I wander.

Store Display

Store Display

That first night of wandering is magical. Even familiar places like Times Square seem so full of life that I think, “What a great place to live.” And then, if I’m there for more than one day, I find that that same magic wears quickly. The next evening, Times Square is just another over-commercialized tourist trap.

Times Square

Times Square

It’s not just New York. Many locations are fun at first, but if you spend much time there, they lose their charm. They are a nice place to visit, until they aren’t. I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d discover new interests not available to the typical tourist. But I have no intention of finding that out. Instead, I treat New York like so many other places and leave thinking, “Nice place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.”

Cloisters Entry

The Cloisters is one of my favorite places in NYC

But what if I did?

Instead of burning out on a place by exhausting all the tourist activities, here’s a new approach I’m going to try and I invite you to explore as well. If you’re in a location that feels stale because the touristic novelty has worn off, ask yourself this: What would I do if I lived here?

The Cloisters

I like the Cloisters (a museum of medieval art in north Manhattan) because it is such a peacefully different place.

It’s an intriguing question. On first thought, I start checking off all the things that a local can do that I can’t: meet with friends, take care of daily routines, visit special places I’ve only discovered by being a place for a long time. But then I think, “Okay, how do I translate those into something that I, as a traveler, might partake in?”

NY at Night

NY at Night

Some of this takes advance planning like asking friends for contacts in the city you’re visiting. Having a local guide can completely change both your experience of a place and how you think about it.

Central Park Singer

Musician in Central Park

Others simply require a bit of ingenuity and effort. You may not be able to take care of routine issues, but then why would you on a trip? Instead, what about hobbies or other interests? Find stores, museums, sporting venues, places to run, festivals or other events that align with your interests. A little effort goes a long way.

Finally, in terms of the “special places” simply ask around. Go online or ask friends or acquaintances. Ask the bartender in your hotel bar for his favorite hangout. Ask a work colleague about some undiscovered gem. Ask the concierge not for the best restaurant but the one he’d take a friend to from out of town or where she might go to on a first date. Simply asking the right questions can uncover a wealth of options.

30 Rock

30 Rockefeller Plaza

So next time you think, “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” think again. Think about if you did live there. And that can open up a completely new way to see what has become old and familiar.

 

 

10 reasons why paying attention matters

The value of paying attention

Not far from my house sits a field. A small trail runs through it. I rarely see anyone on it because the trail, like the field, is both ordinary and out of the way. The other day, as my wife and I walked our dog through this field, I was struck by the beauty there, suddenly aware of the stunning flowers that I rarely notice. It made me wonder.

Why do I let the world around me fade into a blur of familiarity and under-appreciation? Usually it is because I’m too busy, preoccupied  or simply apathetic. I let the cares of life blind me to the joys of it. But on this day I decided not to miss out on the little details that add so much to life.

What follows are 10 reasons why paying attention matters. Not in some abstract, philosophical way, but to you and me personally. I’m accompanying each reason with a photo I made in that field, a reminder to all of us of the beauty that lies around us if we but take time to notice.

Paying attention - Foxglove

 1. Paying attention adds value to others.

It used to be that money was our most valuable commodity. Then it became time. Now? It’s our attention. We give it so rarely to others. But when we pay attention to people, it shows we value them. Not for their words or the cleverness of their comments, but for who they are.

 

Paying attention - Oregon Grape

 2. Paying attention adds value to you.

A client told me that he reminds his sales people all the time to, “Be more interested than you are interesting.” In other words, pay attention and listen to your customer rather than showing how fascinating you are. For when you do, they notice and appreciate it. Best of all, you learn so much more when you listen than when you talk. And that makes you wiser.

 

Paying attention

3. Paying attention enhances your creativity.

Last time we looked at how creativity is this combination of collecting, connecting and sharing. Simply put, the more you notice, the more you collect. You gather a greater amount of raw material for creative ideas. And the more you collect, the more you’re able to make connections that others don’t. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings compares collecting and connecting to working with LEGOs: “The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.” Read her insightful piece on this here.

 

Paying attention - Red Hot Poker

4. Paying attention provides focus.

Rather than filling your mind with needless worries, pay attention to your surroundings. Concentrate on useful matters and sharpen your observation skills. Even if your looking around produces no aha discoveries this time, you’ve built your capacity to focus and observe for the next time.

 

Why paying attention matters: California Poppy

 5. Paying attention gives you purpose.

When you go out into the world noticing, every trip becomes an adventure. Even a neighborhood walk can become a treasure hunt for what is new, interesting or useful. You’re never bored when you’re open and looking.

 

Paying attention: Dandelion

6. Paying attention fosters gratitude.

Probably the most important aspect of paying attention is that we value what we notice. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to virtually all the important things in life that we simply cease to appreciate. I guarantee that if you begin to give your full attention to even the most common object or familiar person and seek to see it or them as for the first time, you can’t help but appreciate them more.

 

Paying attention to wonder: Poppy stem7. Paying attention reveals wonder.

We plan expensive trips to pursue novelty and wonder without realizing that wonder is all around us. Paying attention makes us aware of the mysteries of people, places and things that, if displayed in a museum would likely awe us. But familiarity reduces wonder to the level of “so what?” The photo above may not be wonder to you, but I’d never realized before that poppies leave this little ring or cup on the stem after the petals have fallen. It may not rival the aurora borealis, but wonder comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

Paying attention - coreopsis

8. Paying attention encourages curiosity.

I didn’t care about any of these flowers’ names until I made photos of them. Now, I want to know more about them. I also want to understand why the flower above has water drops on its petals whereas no other flowers around it are wet. The more curious you are, the more you will likely see and the more you see, the more connections you will make.

 

Paying attention - Primrose

9. Paying attention expands your perspective.

When you pay attention, you see a different side of things. You make unlikely connections you didn’t before. For example, in the photo above, I never before realized how the petals look exactly like crumpled paper or fabric. It makes me want to try out some new art projects based on this in materials I’ve barely worked with before. In short, paying attention broadens your possibilities.

 

Paying attention - Daisy with bugs

10. Paying attention reminds us that little things matter.

I used to think that with all the big issues going on in the world, why bother paying attention to the small things? But if I can pull away from the distractions that hammer me, I come to realize that the small things ARE the big things. The taste of a favorite food. The smell of fresh coffee. The touch of a loved one’s hand or the sound of their voice. Another sunrise. Another breath. Paying attention helps us value the small moments and realize that they matter far more than we normally realize.