On a Jet Plane to Europe…

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The time has come to bid another good-bye to New York. In the next 2 1/2 weeks I will be busy exploring foreign lands and old grounds. A trip back home, a 3-day-hiatus to Italy and a 2-day-layover in Iceland – there is so much to explore.

Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Iceland – I’ve seldom been this excited. Even if I only get to see half the places I am planning on, I am still very much thrilled. It’s been almost two years since I boarded a flight back home. Two years is a long time. I’m hoping to see the changes that naturally occur within that time. I am also hoping for lots of rest. Because that’s what’s you need on a good vacation! Catching up with old and new people, enjoying proper European food and wine, taking in some breath-taking culture- if only if only…

Until then, I will be on a jet plane.

Spending the Day in Washington DC: A City in Full Bloom

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Another protest going on in DC

Another protest going on in DC

On Monday, I spontaneously got to visit one of my most favorite cities on the East Coast of America. Washington DC – capital of the US, epitome of diversity and city of culture and cherry blossoms. I’ve so far been three times (only) in the past 5 years. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the short three times I had went.

While I managed to stay for two full days in 2011 and more than a few hours in 2013 for my birthday, this week’s trip was pretty short and sweet. I arrived at 12pm and departed at 8pm already – around 8 hours to spend in a city where having more time is of full advantage.

White House vibes

White House vibes

After grabbing a grilled cheese sandwich from a pretty decent joint around Chinatown, I went on to the obligatory stop when in that area: The White House. Unlike previous visits, the area was fenced off and I was barely able to peek through the fence to the White House, least to say take a proper picture. It was all good though, I know what it looks like without the bars. I managed to ask some of the police officers, who were standing around trying hard to look busy, why there was no single trash can to be found anywhere. One gave me a look as if to say:”Seriously?” and went on to explain how it’s considered a terror threat and whatnot.

White House and I - a love/hate relationship

White House and I – a love/hate relationship

Luckily I found a trash can a few streets down, when walking towards the International Spy Museum. This museum had been on my list for a couple of years already. A friend had went and thought it quite brilliant, but she also spent more than a few hours in the city. After seeing that it would take at least 2 hours to get through it, I opted against it. The entrance fee is around $22 and I wanted to be sure I got my money’s worth. Next time I will stay for longer and check out all the wonders it offers. For the time being, I roamed the gift store and print-pressed a spy onto a 1-ct-piece. Mission accomplished!

Next stop: National Mall. A homeless guy convinced me to “donate” $1 to him if he handed me a tiny flower, which he had probably plucked off somewhere. The idea was cute enough to get my attention, so I went for it. It’s funny how I never consider giving a homeless person in NY anything but food but as soon as I visit other cities all self-made barriers are torn down and I don’t feel terribly bad for the dollar I spent on him. After all, it’s a more unique idea than panhandling through the subway and looking mean while begging for money…

Spring everywhere

Spring everywhere

Spring everywhere

Spring everywhere

On my way to the Mall, I couldn’t help but notice how gorgeous it had already become in DC. Unlike NY, spring had cometh in full bloom only 4 hours south. The snow had completely melted, it was warm and some flowers were out. But no, cherry blossoms were nowhere to be found yet. When I had first visited DC, I had come at the end of March, too. Back in 2011, all cherry blossoms had been out already but this time around not yet. I guess it had been a colder winter than expected. Perhaps this also means that cherry blossoms will bloom for longer when they start later. Fingers crossed!

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I finally got to check out the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Especially the photographer’s section was appealing and informative, as it featured an array of wildlife and great landscapes. This museum also features the Hope Diamond – the most renown diamond originating in India and reshaped through its journey to the British Empire and the French Monarchy. I didn’t know too much about this diamond but it was quite breath-taking to see in person and behind the glass.

Hope Diamond

Hope Diamond

The Museum of Natural History had an array of great exhibitions. I walked through the Mammals and birds section until I found myself in a room that featured pieces and scripts on Indian-American culture. Not Native American, but people originating from India. Since I’ve come to have quite a few friends who classify under this category, I had to send them snaps on this one. It’s quite informative and certainly to recommend, if you happen to find yourself in this museum.

View from the Museum

View from the Museum

Other than a ton of culture, DC offers some pretty good grub and drinks. We lunched in the Old Ebbit Grill, where they serve a mediocre cappuccino but a pretty good lunch special. Cuba Libre offers a great happy hour special, only a few blocks away from Chinatown. Of course, most good restaurants and bars are elsewhere. I remember checking out the area around Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and Adam’s Morgan in 2011. Make sure you head over there if time allows.

It seems that equivalent to other cities in the US, some great amount of gentrification is happening in DC, too. Prices have always been up here and pretty compatible to New York. A friend of mine pointed out that rents have increased in the past 6 years and that you see less and less of the original DC-ers in certain parts of the city anymore. Oh well, not everything can last forever without the hipsterization…

Overall, it had been another eventful trip to the US capital and I was bummed having to leave after 8 short hours. I hope to spend at least 3 days in this city at one point in time. The friendliness of the people always gets to me and makes me never want to leave.

Traveling the West Coast: San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver

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Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

In September of 2014 I had the chance to travel to three amazing cities out west. In 9 short days I explored San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.

For 3 days I trekked around the tourist sites of San Francisco. Among riding the cable car five times (!), I also saw how fortune cookies are made. I had amazing tacos in the Mission District. I saw Alcatraz from afar (since you have to buy tickets in advance and lucky me didn’t know better). I had a love-hate relationship with the Golden Gate Bridge because photographing that beast was certainly one of the most challenging tasks of that entire trip.

Making fortune cookies in Chinatown

Making fortune cookies in Chinatown

In Seattle, I started off with some great Vietnamese food. While slurping away some Pho, a friendly local couldn’t help it but ask where I was from (I must have been the only person with a suitcase in that restaurant). During my 3-day-stay it didn’t rain once. Only when I was walking away from my hostel to the airport, which was quite amazing. I explored the peaceful island of Bainbridge and almost cried in front of the receptionist when I didn’t have time to see their art exhibit.

Seattle skyline

Seattle skyline

I got to take Amtrak past the wilderness up to Canada. I’ve experienced one of the friendliest people on Earth in the quaint city of Vancouver. And spending 24 hours in town was short and sweet but perfectly doable. I even got a haircut from a local hair school. And of course the sea food – just the right city to be in for that! Don’t get me started on their blue hour – it lasted for hours.

Amazing sunset in Vancouver

Amazing sunset in Vancouver

Overall, my trip in September was a full success. I can’t wait to share the impressions I’ve collected in each city individually. Everywhere I went – I was surrounded by water, harbors, sea life and boats. What will always stay in mind is the eternal friendliness of people. The West Coast – oh so different than the rough East of the US!

Blue Hour Magic and Night Photography

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Today I wanted to talk about one of the things I’ve been most passionate about this entire week (and also the past 1 ½ years): Blue hour! Or more so: Blue Hour Photography and Long Exposure Photography.

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Ever since starting off with my old Canon Rebel, I’ve been drawn to fancy pictures taken at night and magical exposures that can only happen with a tripod. Up to quite recently, the creation of these images were quite a mystery to me. But in June of 2013 I took a workshop hosted by Gabriel Biderman at B&H – one of the largest camera stores in the US. He was discussing the magic happening at night and various techniques to make pictures stand out. I was absolutely drawn into his discussion and two days later, after buying a tripod and a remote control, I was standing at the intersections outside of the Barclay’s Center, ready to try my luck. Well, the first few images turned out better than thought. I proceeded to Grand Army Plaza, and captured one of my most cherished pictures to date.

Barclay's Center mess

Barclay’s Center mess

A cab waiting outside of Grand Army Plaza - what timing!

A cab waiting outside of Grand Army Plaza – what timing!

Up to this date, I have taken this passion to another level and am now aiming towards publishing my first calendar and perhaps book in the near future. I have been featured in a Gallery in Greenpoint last year with a diversity of night photographs. Even though my photographic vision has not always been crystal clear, I am now getting to a point where I can say that I am starting to feel pretty satisfied after a successful night shoot.

There is nothing really that can describe the magic happening at night. The lights, the shadows – it all becomes sharper than during the day hours. The way a long exposed sky looks like, how the clouds flow into each other. And of course the smoothness of water, which has been photographed for 30 seconds and longer. I could go on and on.

Photographing at night comes with plenty of caveats and pitfalls. Here are a few:

1) When aiming for cityscapes, the best time is not pitch darkness but blue hour. Blue hour happens 20-40minutes after sunset and roughly 30-15 minutes before sunrise, depending on time zone. To get a better overview, the Blue Hour Site can be very helpful as you can define city, date, and time.
The difference between blue hour and regular night time is perfectly illustrated in the image below. After the sky turns into blackness, lights become messy and exposure times are all over the place. Of course, some people prefer one style over another. I see more potential during blue hour.

A bit messy lights during off-blue-hour

A bit messy lights during off-blue-hour

Blue hour magic

Blue hour magic

2) When aiming for long exposures, a tripod is a must. I look back at some shaky images taken without a tripod, when I hoisted my camera on top of a stone/ rock/ whatever, and I would like to bang my head against the wall. If I had just spent the money on a cheap or halfway decent tripod back then, I would have been able to go for better images. Instead, I can only cross those off as missed opportunities and move on.

3) When aiming for perfect control, a remote control is essential. It can be either battery-powered or wired to your camera. To this date, I still prefer wired controls as I hate to be out of batteries when on a night shoot. Remotes don’t have to cost a whole lot (I started with a $5 one from Vello and it hasn’t failed me terribly). They give you more control over exposure time. Since you will want to put your camera setting onto “Bulb”, you will be able to go over the 30 seconds, which is what the semi-manual control gives you.

4) When aiming for uniqueness, getting up early is worth it. This, of course, can be true for anything, not only photography. This week I got to catch a perfect sunrise in Dumbo before anyone else was able to trek the grounds and walk all over my picture. Perhaps you know the dumb feeling of another photographer standing right next to or behind you, obstructing your view or simply annoying you. It can mess with your creative vibes and it can also just make you want to stop right then and there.

Soft clouds

Soft clouds

5) When aiming for perfection, go ahead and do it all over again. I’ve started replicating older photographs, which were taken with a different camera and a different lens. I’ve also gone two nights in a row if I happened to miss out a great opportunity the night before. Since blue hour only lasts 20 short minutes, I seldom get what I need the first time. I’ve gone to the Brooklyn Library up to 5 times throughout the past 1 ½ years. I’ve also gone back to the Gowanus Canal two months in a row because it was simply too cold the first time around. Dedication and timing is a crucial part of snapping the right photograph.

Coney Island has also become my favorite spot to do night photography

Coney Island has also become my favorite spot to do night photog

6) Have a project in mind. It will help you in getting what you want. I first started off with random images of buildings throughout New York and wherever I went. I am now more aimed towards architecture, landscapes, and whatever else is available to me. I try to only do certain aspects of a city at night, even though it’s hard to bring my tripod every time I travel. Researching a place and the images that have been taken by other tourists before helps in gaining understanding of how to make a spot pop or how to view it from a different, not-yet-explored angle.

Manhattan skyline as seen from a rather unusual point in Brooklyn

Manhattan skyline as seen from a rather unusual point in Brooklyn

7) Be open to the unknown. Some of my best pictures involve unexpected light painting, which I will never be able to replicate. Have a creative heart in seeking out some new viewpoints. Venture out during cold weather, when no one else will get that shot. Be unique and you will have unique images.

BAM light painting by a truck

BAM light painting by a truck

Seattle Harbor

Seattle Harbor

I hope this helps in gaining an initial understanding of blue hour magic. Perhaps you would even like to try yourself on some solid long exposure photography.

Spending Christmas in the Catskills

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I’m finally getting the chance to catch up on all of those travel posts I’ve been wanting to write since last June. Well, here we go with number one!

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Last year I got to go on a trip upstate. Even after being here for 5 years, I’ve never ventured further outside of NY than Montauk and Westchester. Upstate had always been on my list and when my friend suggested to spend Christmas there, I was all for it. Upstate can be defined as anything more than one hour outside of the city, I believe. Upstate goes as far as to the border of Canada. Syracuse would be pretty much in the middle, but I’ve heard there is not too much out there. New Yorkers like to go Woodstock during the warmer months and perhaps even during winter, even though I am not sure what type of activities can be pursued at that time of year.

We ended up in the Catskills, which is a common weekend stay for summers. Perhaps not so much in the winter, but then again, you never know as people like to go skiing and whatnot.
The part of the Catskills we went to was about 2 ½ hours by car. We rented out a cute green cabin perhaps 30 minutes outside of Woodstock. It was Christmas Eve and nowhere close to being a white holiday. Instead, we danced around in the rain during some 50 degrees early-winter warmth.

Fireplace romance

Fireplace romance

The cabin itself was a pretty amazing place to stay. My friend had rented it out because of its fireplace. In the end, we burned down way more logs than thought because we sat in front of it the entire day and night up until 3am in the morning. Even though it wasn’t snowing and chilly outdoors, we certainly enjoyed the pre-winter-thoughts and being able to do whatever we wanted without having any neighbors in our proximity.

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Cabin selfie - best lamp I've seen!

Cabin selfie – best lamp I’ve seen!

After cooking a simply Christmas dinner, we idled our times away telling stories, discovering the surroundings, and “warming” up in front of the fire. We also drank the three bottles of red wine my friend had brought with. The next day I was pretty hungover and in absolutely no mood for a nature hike. Too bad, because the Catskills were amazingly beautiful on Christmas day. I’m sure they are even prettier during spring and summer. The entire landscape kind of reminded me of home, because it was slightly hilly and had a lot of green on the mountains, such as fir trees. I grew up in an area in Germany that is strikingly similar and yet this area lies on another continent…

Cute trains

Cute trains

Hills like Eifel-Germany

Hills like Eifel-Germany

Since we had already turned in the keys to our cabin, we couldn’t really eat home-made food that day. Therefore, we drove to Woodstock, in hopes to find an open diner or restaurant of some sort. Unfortunately everything was closed, as it was a major holiday. We ended up getting Chinese food in Kingston, which is the biggest city up in that area. I also ran across some cool graffiti, while trekking over to the Chinese take-out place.
After cruising the Catskills a bit more, we finally decided to simply drive back to Brooklyn. However, not without making a stop at a local theatre and watching Big Eyes (which is a pretty good movie starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams).

Graffiti in Kingston

Graffiti in Kingston

Chinese food in Kingston

Chinese food in Kingston

My short stay in proper upstate New York needs to be continued during much warmer weather and when I am able to jump into some of the amazing lakes, which are found all over the place. Until then, the Christmas memory will have to do.