New Day, New Country, Same Place   September 23rd, 2010

In about two and a half weeks, on the symbolic day of “10-10-10”, I will be participating in a little bit of real history. That’s the day that Bonaire, the island I live on in the Caribbean, switches countries.

Spirit of Bonaire by Jake Richter

Spirit of Bonaire by Jake Richter

Presently, Bonaire is part of the country of the Netherlands Antilles, which presently consists of four-and-a-half Caribbean islands: Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, St. Eustatius (also known as Statia), and Dutch St. Maarten (which shares a geographic island mass with French St. Martin). Up until the mid-1980s Aruba was part of the Netherlands Antilles as well, but then split off to become its own country.

While the Netherlands Antilles (and Aruba) have always been part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, they have their own parliament and government infrastructure, based in Curacao (Aruba has its own, of course).

Some years ago, referendums were held on the five islands of the Netherlands Antilles about future status, and the result of those referendums as well as various political processes, is that on 10-10-10 the Netherlands Antilles fade into history as a country that has ceased to exist.

Taking its place will be two new countries – Curacao and St. Maarten, with the same status as Aruba – countries under the Dutch kingdom. ┬áThe three smaller islands, referred to locally as the BES islands (Bonaire, Eustatius, and Saba) will become municipalities of The Netherlands. What is a municipality of The Netherlands? It’s not particularly clear because Holland has never really reabsorbed past colonies, and as a result, many things are still in flux and being decided. And other than mostly vague policies, the details of the rules, laws, and procedures that will be in place after 10-10-10 have not been communicated to the people of the BES islands yet. In fact, it’s looking likely that many of these things, two and a half weeks before the changeover, still aren’t decided or determined.

And I don’t think everything will get figured out until later in 2011 because there are just so very many things involved in running remote islands from afar – from telecommunications and labor issues to governmental structure and the environment.

One thing is clear, though, and that is that the BES will not be treated the same as a province in Holland. Dutch citizens will still need a residence permit to live on Bonaire, for example (although these cannot be unjustly denied).

Also, on a monetary basis, we will be switching over to the use of the U.S. Dollar on January 1, 2011. Switching to the Euro would have been terrible for the local economy since most of our trade is with North America and in dollars, but it requires complete reeducation of locals who have no idea what a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter are. There will be quite a bit of chaos when the mandatory switch to the dollar happens.

We also end up with interesting logistical issues, such as how to properly address mail being sent to our island. Currently, people either put “Netherlands Antilles” or “Dutch Caribbean” as part of the address when they mail things here, but after 10-10-10 the former will no longer be correct, while the latter has never been a country per se, just a geographic identifier. Technically we should be “Bonaire, The Netherlands”, but that would mean our mail would get routed to Europe first before getting here – who knows how many weeks or months that would add to current mail delivery (which is already horrifically slow). The Dutch Kingdom office on Bonaire recommends we continue to have such mail addressed with “Dutch Caribbean” for the foreseeable future, incidentally.

In any event, even with all the planning that has gone into the process, there will be countless adjustments we will all have to make in dealing with a country dissolution and transfer, especially in rather untested waters, as no modern western nation has reabsorbed previously semi-independent locales in recent times (outside of the result of warfare, of course). It will be very interesting to be part of the process as well, instead of merely observing from afar.


A note about the image that appears in this blog post: Spirit of Bonaire is an original digital painting I created a few months ago to commemorate the transition of Bonaire back into the unknown of direct Dutch rule. More specifically, with the bright colors of the flag, which reaches out into the infinite, I meant to show that the spirit of Bonaire and its people is up to the challenge of transition, and strong enough to survive anything, even in the face of change and uncertainty.

 

On-line Education Pitfalls   September 23rd, 2010

A key component of on-line education, such as the Master of Fine Arts in Photography that I’ve started pursuing this semester, is a stable Internet connection. In an on-line program, like the one I’m in, you’re supposed to submit your assignments via upload to a web site and actively participate in dedicated discussion groups, which take the place of classroom interaction.

One of the things we are told is that having computer problems or Internet connection issues on our end is no reason to not participate, and that we should use available resources, like an Internet cafe, to ensure we meet our obligations. Okay – I agree that the Internet is now relatively ubiquitous, so unless there’s a complete Internet outage and you’re stuck on some sort of desert island and can’t get to an active connection (which here, on Bonaire, which is a desert island, could actually happen), there should be little excuse to not be able to get on-line in some capacity.

But what if the school goes off-line? Can’t happen, right? Wrong.

It’s happening right now. If you’re a person with an inflexible schedule, perhaps due to a job, and your plan was to check into class in the morning before leaving for work, you are hosed. Going to an Internet cafe will not fix the problem if the problem is at the other end and outside of your control.

Not an encouraging sign when you try to access your classes

Not an encouraging sign when you try to access your classes

I’ve been getting the above message since I first tried to get in about two hours ago. And the school’s main web site is down too.

Even the University's main web site is down

Even the University's main web site is down

We’ve been advised to call the On-Line Help Desk if we have problems with the web site, but unless we somehow had the forethought to store that phone number locally, you’re stuck because you have to be able to get to the school’s web site to get the phone number (this is where Google’s cache feature is really handy – I found it there – 888-431-2787).

But even calling the help desk doesn’t help here because the number is either busy or dumps you to an answering machine, suggesting others have located the number and are trying to get through too.

This reminds me of the fire drills and bomb scares we used to have in my grade school and junior high classes in Munich during the 70s. Everything was shut down and were sent home for the day. Maybe a server outage is the modern day equivalent?

I’m sure that this will get resolved at some point today, hopefully with our work from yesterday intact, but it’s a great lesson to all of us – namely that computing technology can fail in unpredictable ways, and if we rely on it too much or leave things to the last minute, we may suffer unintended consequences.

Back to my paper-bound, handheld books while I wait for class to resume.

 

During one of my classes, the comment came up about needing a tripod to shoot images in low-light. I provided some tips on how to potentially avoid the use of the tripod that I thought I would share with a broader audience.

I should mention that I shoot a lot of low light imagery, and you’d be surprised what you can accomplish without a tripod.

Example of low-light photography without a tripod. 1/13th @ f/3.5, ISO800 with Sigma 18-250mm at 18mm on my Nikon D300s

Example of low-light photography without a tripod. 1/13th of a second @ f/3.5 and ISO800, with a Sigma 18-250mm lens at 18mm on my Nikon D300s. (Photo of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, on July 14, 2010).

My tips:

  1. Make your body the tripod. What I do to stabilize my images (I am right handed) is put the weight of the camera on my hand and then brace my let elbow against my torso. I also tuck my right elbow against my side. If you try and take a photo without your arms braced and stabilized, you’re asking for camera shake for longer exposures.
  2. In addition to minimizing your arm extensions, find something to lean against to provide you with even more stability. Your camera doesn’t have to rest on the wall, pole, ledge, etc. (although if you can get the picture you want by doing that, even better), as long as your body is kept more stable by the physical object. You’ll find after practicing this for a while that you’ll always be on the lookout for such assists.
  3. Control your breathing. Long, slow breaths are good. I find I will typically hold my breath a moment before I depress the shutter release.
  4. Be aware of your camera’s noise reduction features and how to set them properly as well as your camera’s and lens’ stability improvement capabilities. A Nikon VR lens, for example, can get you an extra stop because of its built in image stabilization (but it doesn’t always help). Noise reduction helps get rid of the speckling you see in your images if you zoom them up. Each camera model also has a different maximum sensitivity (expressed as ISO) before noise becomes noticeable in your shoots. For example, the older Nikon D200 I used to use for most of my image started getting noisy at ISO800. But I can shoot my D300s at ISO800 with no appreciable noise, and even at ISO1000 or slightly higher, but by ISO1600, noise is definitely visible if I look for it. Note that if you want a gritty feel to your image, you may want to pump the ISO way up to get that grainy look, of course.
  5. Try to get the brightest lens you can for the shoot you’re planning. That means a low “f” number on the lens. f/1.8 or f/2 is probably the lowest you’re going to see, and they are pricey. But every stop counts in low light photography, whether with a tripod or not.
  6. Make sure your camera is not in a multi-shot mode, so that when you take the image you can leave your finger pressing the shutter release until the image has been captured. The quick pressing and release of the shutter release is a major cause of low light image blur because it jostles the camera – minutely, but enough to cause problems.
  7. Avoid using a zoom on low-light shoots – the more zoomed in you are, the greater the potential shake during image taking. My father once told me that the magic rule for being able to always take shake free images was to use an exposure speed that was 1 over the focal length, and if possible to make it 1 over 2x the focal length you’re shooting at. So, if you’re using a 300mm effective lens, you’d want your exposure to be 1/300th – 1/600th of a second or faster. But for a 24mm effective, you’re down to 1/24th – 1/48th (or realistically 1/30th – 1/50th). Big difference. For low light you can’t always manage that of course, but it’s a goal.
  8. Play and practice, a lot. And use your camera’s playback function with zoom to look at how you did with your shake after you take a picture.

The above tips allow me to get focused shots down to as low as about 1/10th to 1/8th of a second with a 50mm focal length at f/4.5. And if I can brace the camera itself against a wall, telephone pole, headstone, mailbox, car, whatever, I can get stable multi-second exposures. All without having to carry a tripod around with me.

 

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A couple of days ago, lightning struck a large tank filled with naphtha, a highly flammable petroleum product, at the oil transshipment facility on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where I live. The BOPEC (Bonaire Petroleum Corporation) facility and local firefighters were unable to extinguish the flames and apparently the island actually ran out of fire extinguishing materials, so the plan was to let the fire burn itself out. And burn it did.

I captured the images below last night – the second night after the lightning strike. Word is that the flames have gotten smaller overnight, and there’s hope that additional materials and support arriving on island today will allow the fire to be completely extinguished later in the day.

Larger versions of these images are available on my Flickr pages.

 

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I just entered the National Geographic Traveler World in Focus photo competition. Today is the last day for entries, and I’d like to encourage all friends, family, and fans to please vote for my images in the People’s Choice part of the competition!

Alone, Together

Alone, Together

Six photos were entered (click on link to go to the page where you vote):

  1. Lone Penguin
  2. Yawn
  3. Nighttime at the World War II Memorial
  4. Alone, Together (shown above)
  5. Alone
  6. Hello?

You can vote once per image per e-mail address that you have registered with the contest.

Thank you in advance for your support!

 

Last Thursday, I started graduate school, taking full advantage of the Internet for that purpose. I will be pursuing my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Photography via the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, entirely on-line.

The MFA program, if classes are taken full time, two semesters a year, will be completed in three and a half or four years. That’s a long time, but I think based on my current passions, it is a worthwhile challenge. At the end, in addition to having my degree, I will have further expanded my expertise in photography, and hopefully developed one or more signature styles to my imagery.

It is strange to be a true student again after all these years. The last time I had a class that took more than a few days to complete was over twenty five years ago. And now I have three classes going on simultaneously: History of Photography, Language of Photography, and Nature of Photography. All very different, and already quite interesting. There are approximately 15 students in each class, including myself.

Every week we start a new module – there are 15 modules per semester, which involves reading and/or listening to a lecture on that module’s subject, and then executing one or more assignments, and some mandatory on-line discussion. Both may require some research, and possibly some photography to explore the topics discussed in the module. And because it’s all on-line, you can work on this any time of the day or night as long as you meet your deadlines and discussion participation requirements.

One thing I am already finding is that my diverse experience and expertise is already bearing fruit in my class work.

For example, in my History of Photography class the issue of early patents for photographic processes came up, and with my background in patents, I was able to do quite a bit of research for my first assignment based on the original patent for the daguerreotype process. My experience in HTML coding for web site design has also helped me generate the sort of posts I want in the discussion group software that I have to use to communicate with my instructors and fellow classmates. And following school dictates for the proper sizing and name of submitted photographic images was a piece of cake too because of my long time expertise in image processing and file management (and Adobe Lightroom 3 makes it incredibly easy too).

And since I shed my fear of writing over two decades ago, written assignments are no barrier either. For whatever reason, I have been the first person to post my work in several of the assignments we have had so far. I suspect that’s because of both my anal retentiveness as well as comfort with writing.

So, keep this in mind if you are a Renaissance guy or gal: If you find people giving you grief for following too many different paths as you meander through life, keep in mind that as a jack of all trades you gather incredible amounts of experience that can be useful in most any pursuit, such as going back to school or performing a particular job.

And if going to school seems like a huge time commitment – four years, after all! – look at it from a different perspective, namely that each class is only one semester long, and each class is different. Break the bigs things into smaller ones, and things get easier, I think.

 

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