Dave's Photo & Travelblogue

Photo shoots. World travel advice. Tips on Munich & environs.

Empire State After Dark

Once the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building is one of the first modern skyscrapers.  The last time I visited in 2006, I waited in line for hours. The view was great, but… long queues suck. When I returned in 2009, I decided to give it a go at night, since the upper deck is open very late (2am, although the last elevator up is 1:15).  There was almost no line at around midnight.  Tickets are expensive at $20 for adults, so be prepared with a fat wallet.  Found this on the website: “Military personnel are admitted free when in full uniform.”

View of the Empire State Building from the Flatiron Building:

The square beside the Flatiron Building offers an excellent view

The square beside the Flatiron Building offers an excellent view

Now, let me say: the nighttime views were not as fantastic as those from the Eiffel Tower. But this is partly because it was quite hazy on this hot summer day in New York City. I believe the view (and the photos) would be better on a crisp, clear day.

Times Square is a bit disappointing when seen from this angle. (0.8s, f/4.5, ISO 200)

Times Square is a bit disappointing when seen from this angle. (0.8s, f/4.5, ISO 200)

The Flatiron Building is a well-known monument, and here you can see why it provides such a good view of the Empire State Building:

The Flatiron Building -- can you guess where they got the name?  (4s, f/7.1, ISO 200)

The Flatiron Building -- can you guess where they got the name? (4s, f/7.1, ISO 200)

I guess that just about every bridge in the NYC area is visible from the top of Empire State. Here are the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. One hint: if you want a great geometric picture with suspension lines everywhere, visit the Brooklyn Bridge on a clear, sunny day with your polarizing filter.

Beautiful view of the Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge.  (1.6s, f/6.3, ISO 200)

Beautiful view of the Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge. (1.6s, f/6.3, ISO 200)

Given clearer conditions, I could have taken a superior photo of the Manhattan skyline. But I’m pretty pleased with this result. Now I need to return in a few years… perhaps when the Freedom Tower is complete!

On the far right of the Manhattan Skyline, you can just see the Statue of Liberty.  (2.5s, f/5.6, ISO 200)

On the far right of the Manhattan Skyline, you can just see the Statue of Liberty. (2.5s, f/5.6, ISO 200)

On the way out, I got this shot of the entranceway. That’s a beautiful inlay in the wall behind the desk!

You'll never see the lobby as empty as it is at 1am...

You'll never see the lobby as empty as it is at 1am...

Although not as fantastic as the Eiffel Tower view, I would still recommend the Empire State Building at night — as long as it’s a clear night. If you want photo tips on how to take these great night shots, check out my Eiffel Tower post where I explain details like using a small tripod and a shutter delay.  These were taken with a Nikon D90; if you’d like to support an aspiring writer & photographer, purchase with the Amazon link below!

Getting there:

  • Address: 350 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10018
  • Nearest Metro: 34th St – Herald Square (also not far from 34th St – Penn Station)
  • Building security: small bags are allowed but not large luggage.  Don’t bring drinks.
  • Ticket sales are not on the ground floor, but at an intermediate level after going up some ways in the elevator.

Official website: Empire State Building Website

Posted 7 years, 5 months ago at 11:16 am.

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Sightseeing in Washington, DC

For those who are visiting the East Coast, don’t pass up the nation’s capital. I hadn’t been there for *ahem* “major sightseeing” since I was a kid. Memories of roasting summer heat, ice cream, and old spacecraft came flooding back as I walked along the National Mall.  One note: if you get an ice cream from a street vendor, it may be chilled with dry ice.  My Strawberry Shortcake bar was so damn solid, I thought there was something wrong with it and tried to return it.  But failing in that (“You open, can no return!”), I waited a few minutes, and it eventually thawed into edibility.

Here’s the obligatory snap of Obama’s house… I mean, the White House. One note: if you want a tour, book far in advance by contacting your congressman (or consulate, if you are not a US Citizen). You can’t just show up and get tickets for a tour of the White House.

What a nice garden... my tax dollars at work.

What a nice garden... my tax dollars at work.

My advice on going up the Washington Monument: do it right at sunset. You can stay up there for 15 or 20 minutes: first to get great views of the setting sun, then later see the city lights at night. I’m not posting any pics, though, because the windows were a bit dirty and the photos are not great. You can get tickets in advance (go early in the morning to the visitor center on 15th St. NW next to the monument, they are free), or you might get lucky like we did because almost no one goes at sunset. The guards just let us in without tickets because it was not crowded at all (caveat: it was a weekday, during Congressional recess).

A sunset shot of the Capitol building from the Washington Monument

A sunset shot of the Capitol building from the Washington Monument

For the photography buffs, here’s a nice example of what a polarizing filter can do for your shots. I love to use it whenever there’s sky in a photo:

Capitol without Circular Polarizer

Capitol without Circular Polarizer

Capitol with Circular Polarizer

Capitol with Circular Polarizer

The sky is bluer, the grass is greener, and the Capitol is white instead of gray.

Now, war memorials and presidential memorials: I recommend renting bikes if you want to see them all, as you’ll save yourself HOURS of walking between them. The distances are pretty far.

As a University of Virginia student, I have a soft spot for TJ

As a University of Virginia student, I have a soft spot for TJ

The Washington Monument as seen from the Lincoln Memorial steps

The Washington Monument as seen from the Lincoln Memorial steps

In the gardens between/around these two monuments are memorials to those who fought in WWII, Korea, Vietnam… and several more.

The Vietnam War Memorial, one of many war memorials in the park between Washington and Lincoln

The Vietnam War Memorial, one of many war memorials in the park between Washington and Lincoln

Okay, on to a less weighty topic: museums! The Smithsonian lines the edges of the National Mall and spreads out throughout the city. Aquarium, zoo, natural history, US national history, Native American history, Air and Space, amazing botanical gardens, and many more museums… they’re all here. And, THEY’RE FREE. My personal favorite is the Air and Space museum, with the botanical gardens as a close second.  Just pick your favorites and visit them all.  Bikes not required to get from one to the next, in my opinion.

Stephen Colbert had his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery for some time (also home of every president’s official portrait). Colbert was hung next to the bathrooms. When I visited the National Museum of American History, I found that the portrait had been moved there from the Portrait Gallery.  Of course, it was still hung next to the bathrooms.

Yours truly posing for my one-and-only "touristic" photo in front of Colbert's portrait

Yours truly posing for my one-and-only "touristic" photo in front of Colbert's portrait

At the American History museum you can also see Dorothy’s red slippers, Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, Oscar the Grouch, a lot of boxing gloves, and countless other pop treasures. Then there are the “real” historical exhibits about the Presidents, maritime America, the First Ladies, and countless more.  However the highlight for me was the Star Spangled Banner: the massive flag that was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s song, which became our National Anthem.

Getting to DC, and traveling around the city:

  • I would avoid parking in town. Take the Metro everywhere, as it’s convenient, except when it comes to the monuments. As mentioned, rent bikes to trek between them.
  • Eat at the Brickskeller, a famous beer bar with (supposedly) the world’s largest beer menu.  They have thousands of beers in bottles, and several dozen on tap.  1523 22nd St NW.
  • Catch a movie at the Uptown Theater, a large classic theater with a *fantastic* sound system.  I recommend a loud summer blockbuster with lots of guns and explosions.  3426 Connecticut Ave NW.
  • Smithsonian website (list of museums): http://www.smithsonian.org/museums/

Hope these tips help you enjoy Washington, DC.  Any questions, ask away–I can probably find out the answers for you!

Posted 7 years, 5 months ago at 10:19 pm.

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The Imster Achterbahn

Probably only a few people will know what an Alpine Coaster is. I didn’t until coworkers took me there by chance one weekend. Picture a giant roller coaster going straight down a mountain. Add cows, and a couple of nets in case you fly off. Take away most of the safety and security you take for granted on a Busch Gardens or Six Flags ride. Finally, add a 1h hike (or a ride up the chairlift) to get to the top… voila, you have an Alpine Coaster!

YouTube Preview Image

Here’s a link to watch the video in HD on YouTube.

This was shot on a Canon HF200 attached to a helmet. Yep, I’m aware the video is a bit jerky. The coaster is a LOT jerky. And optical stabilization is not enough. As yet, I haven’t bought a video editing software which will combine the miraculous abilities of a) digital vibration reduction and b) NOT CRASHING. Let’s see what I can find in the next month.

Here are some photos on the way to Imst and while hiking up the mountain. I love that about Europe: where else can you see cows grazing on the ski slopes in the summer?  And standing in the middle of windy mountain roads…

We took a wrong turn on the way to Imst, and found this beast in the road...

We took a wrong turn on the way to Imst, and found this beast in the road...

Is that a beginner or intermediate ski slope in winter?  Guess it depends if the cows are still there.

Is that a beginner or intermediate ski slope in winter? Guess it depends if the cows are still there.

Don’t miss this gratuitous photo of Bunky being nuzzled by a young cow. Daaaamn, that’s hot… if you’re a bovine.

Now there's affection for you.

Now there's affection for you.

Getting to the Imster Achterbahn:

  • Address for your navigation system: Hoch Imst 19, Imst, Austria.  Google maps link here. If you go in late 2009, a word of warning: Imst has some construction downtown, and we had to go around it to get there (a different exit from the main road).
  • I recommend checking the opening times first, as they often have weekend-only operation at the beginning or end of the season.  (In German: opening times = Öffnungszeiten).
  • Prices in 2009: 6.70 to go up the chairlift, 5.90 to come down the coaster (less expensive for kids/seniors, or big groups).

Official website: http://www.imster-bergbahnen.at/index.php?id=6&L=3

Enjoy the coaster, and post your experiences here!  Coming up soon, hiking up the Zugspitze… including scaling the side of a cliff!  Subscribe with the orange RSS and Email links on the left to read about it.  Dave out.

Posted 7 years, 5 months ago at 9:35 pm.

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Celebrity Upskirt: Statue of Liberty

Get ’em while they’re hot! Free celebrity up skirt pics (sorry, no downblouse shots of this hot celeb). Even better than Jessica Simpson or Jessica Alba.  This paparazzi has candid photos of that French beauty, the Statue of Liberty! You could almost see her thong in these pictures, if thongs had existed when she was crafted!

Whoa, from the top of the pedestal I can see right up her robes!

Whoa, from the top of the pedestal I can see right up her robes!

Okay, in all seriousness, here is what it looks like underneath her robes:

Here you can see inside the Statue herself; the staircase is new (1980's)

Here you can see inside the Statue herself; the staircase is new (1980's)

For those who want to visit but have hideous memories of going there before the refit (I believe it was mid-80’s), the staircase is new. When the time I went when I was around 8, I remember long lines and hideous heat.  We waited forever, “trapped” in the old staircase among a crowd of heat-exhausted tourists, all to look out some airplane-window-sized portholes in the crown. Now they only let 160 people a day up there on guided tours, although the summer heat and tiny windows are still the same.

What a moving image for an expat who last visited Liberty at about age 8!

What a moving image for an expat who last visited Liberty at about age 8!

In the pedestal, you can see the original torch, which was modified during numerous retrofits and eventually taken out of service due to heavy corrosion.

This is the original torch, modified several times before it was damaged by corrosion.

This is the original torch, modified several times before it was damaged by corrosion.

Here is another nice image with Nikon’s 70-300VR zoom lens:

There are rumors that the face is based on the designer's mother.  "So hot! Want to touch..."

There are rumors that the face is based on the designer's mother. "So hot! Want to touch..."

The ferry to the Statue Island also goes by Ellis Island, seen in this shot from the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal:

Ellis Island, where millions of tired and poor immigrants arrived to turn their fortunes in the United States

Ellis Island, where millions of tired and poor immigrants arrived to change their fortunes in the United States.

On the way back to the dock after visiting Ellis Island, I tried to beat the haze and get a decent shot of the Manhattan skyline.  I’ll let you be the judge if I succeeded in some small way.

As I post this on September 11th, I think how the skyline would have looked like when I was 8. The victims of terrorism are in my thoughts.

As I post this on September 11th, I think how the skyline would have looked when I was 8. The victims of terrorism are in my thoughts.

I’ll have more articles about US East Coast locations coming up, since I just did a long trip “back home” and visited places I haven’t been in many years.  If you’re interested to read/view those as well, sign up with the orange RSS or Email links in the left sidebar!  One advance tip: to visit the White House you need to call your congressman or embassy to arrange it in advance.  D’oh!

Getting to the Statue of Liberty:

  • I have three BIG tips for anyone going to the Statue. 1) Get tickets in advance for the earliest possible visit in the morning. 2) Get up early and go to the first visit in the morning. 3) Go first thing in the morning! Yeah, there’s a theme here… the lines go from bearable to “WTF!?” very fast. We got tickets the day before, for 9am the next day.
  • If you want to go to the crown, reserve tickets online, MONTHS in advance.  We were told in July that they were fully booked until September.  http://www.nps.gov/stli/index.htm
  • Be at the ferry at least 30 min early for your assigned time.  It leaves from a visitor center in New York City’s Battery Park, near the Bowling Green or South Ferry subway stops.  The ticket fee ($12) is only for the ferry ride to the Statue and then onwards to Ellis Island, before returning to Battery Park.  Entrance to the pedestal or Statue is technically free, but does require a ticket.  (Sorry, you can’t parachute in to save $12).
  • The line to get on the ferry to leave the Statue Island is VERY long, especially if you didn’t have the earliest tickets in the morning.  At Ellis Island it was not so bad (at least when I was there recently).
  • Backpacks: try not to bring one!  Security will NOT let you take it into the pedestal or statue area.  You will have to lock it in some pay-lockers, which are not very big.  Cameras are fine past security, but NOT camera backpacks!  Have a small shoulder-bag for your camera and/or lenses.
  • Security is basically like airport security, but these guards take their job a lot more seriously than the TSA does.  They are guarding the premier symbol of the United States of America.  Respect, yo!

Official website of the National Park Service / Statue of Liberty: http://www.nps.gov/stli/index.htm

Posted 7 years, 6 months ago at 5:34 pm.

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Taroko Gorge – Day Trip in Taiwan

A short train ride (that’s 2h short) from Taipei lies Taroko Gorge, a stunning river-cut gorge with marble walls.  To get across Taiwan’s mountainous terrain, the engineers had to cut holes in several mountains.  Big ones, too, not some pansy little hills–these are massive mountains, and the tunnels are many kilometers long.  After all these tunnels, the train emerges to Hualien, a small city on the eastern coast of Taiwan.  One interesting feature of Hualien is the Air Force base: there is a tunnel going into the side of a mountain, where the planes are kept in case of an attack by China.  This way the planes are safe, ready for a retaliatory strike.

Our (fantastic!) taxi driver, Mr. Wu, met us at the train station and took us north through Hualien and then west into the Gorge.  After a brief stop at the tourist information center, we headed up windy roads into the gorge itself.

On to the photos.  I haven’t played with the colors, so you can see what this beautiful location really looks like to the eye.  Here’s a typical view down the gorge:

Can you spot the profile of a face in the rock, where the river turns?

Can you spot the profile of a face in the rock, where the river turns?

Where the river turns there is a face in the rock.  The mouth is just at water level, with the nose sticking out to the left.  As my friend Matt cleverly pointed out, the rocks are washed clean where the high water level is.  Obviously when we were there, it wasn’t during spring snowmelt or a typhoon.

Here’s an image of what the rock walls of the gorge look like up close, visible from one of the many trails just off the road:

Beautiful marble formations at Taroko Gorge

Beautiful marble formations at Taroko Gorge

The river water must have a lot of minerals dissolved in it to look this color:

Beautiful colors in the river

Beautiful colors in the river

It’s also fantastic to see what nature can do.  As you may know, Taiwan is an active earthquake area, and these quakes knock loose a lot of rocks.  At one point you can see the old road (before an improved road was laid with more tunnels), with fallen boulders the size of trucks in the middle of it.  Here you see a rockfall by the Nine Turns trail:

Rockfall by the Nine Turns trail

Rockfall by the Nine Turns trail

There’s a reason for the hard hats they hand out, although I’m not sure they’ll help against a rockfall of this size.  I heard a tourist was killed by a rock a few weeks before we were there–a child who had taken off his hard hat.  If you’re there with kids, make sure they follow the safety rules, and stay close to the wall.

Here’s another interesting scene.  Unfortunately this bridge wasn’t open to the public, as I would have loved to walk across!

An interesting perspective on a bridge in Taroko Gorge

An interesting perspective on a bridge in Taroko Gorge

Mr. Wu took us up the winding roads and stopped at each attraction or viewing area.  At the end of the day, we had also hiked for a couple of hours, including a fantastic trip up a mountainside next to what looked like a temple.  We were told it was a memorial for workers that died building the roads and tunnels through the Taroko Gorge area.

Finally, Mr. Wu let us off in downtown Hualien.  I have to send a shout out to him; his English is very good and he picked a fantastic aboriginal Taiwanese restaurant for lunch.  As I write, he is probably flying people out from typhoon-stricken areas of Taiwan in his “day job” as a helicopter rescue pilot!

In coastal Hualien, we looked around for a restaurant for dinner, focusing on seafood.  I saw a city-block-sized covered area with the traditional red lanterns hanging beside it, signifying “restaurant.”  Anything that big in a non-tourist town has GOT to be good.  We tried it out, and were treated to a fantastic feast.  Note: there was not a single English sign or menu, but a very nice local helped us figure out what to order.  The sushi was excellent.  The salmon was excellent.  The Kung Pao chicken was the best I’ve ever had.  And of course, the Taiwan Beer was flowing freely.

Tasty seafood restaurant in Hualien City

Tasty seafood restaurant in Hualien City

Here’s what I could find on the web about the restaurant (based on the phone number on the sign in my photo).  I don’t speak Chinese, but if you print it out I’m sure any Hualien taxi driver could find it.  http://twhl.inbegin.com/html/front/bin/ptdetail.phtml?Part=chfood0025 If you can find this restaurant, by all means, go there! Just point to what you want in the tanks, they should be able to grill it up to super-tasty perfection.

Getting to Taroko Gorge:

Here’s where it gets tricky.  We had fantastic travel arrangements from Taipei through a friend, Kirsten (THANKS!).  I recommend that if you don’t know Chinese, you find a reputable travel agent to book your train tickets (express train if possible) and a taxi to meet you at the train station.  I’m sure there are other ways to do it as well, with tour groups, your own rental car (if you know some Chinese), and so on.  Any way you choose to do it, you’ll visit one of the most amazing natural sights in Taiwan.  Just drive up the road through Taroko Gorge and stop at each viewing point / parking lot along the gorge road for fantastic views and short hikes.

Link to Taroko National Park.

Thanks for reading, and hope to see you here again!  If you wish to follow via email or RSS, you can subscribe with the orange buttons in the left sidebar.

Posted 7 years, 6 months ago at 12:00 pm.

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Lantau Peak – Day Trip from Hong Kong

Lantau Island is a fantastic little patch of green nature in Hong Kong.  In fact, you might be surprised how much greenery there is in and around the city — hiking and trees are never far away.  I took the gondola from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping, a small touristy village of ice cream shops and souvenir shops (no one lives there).  Here’s a shot on the way up:

A view down the Ngong Ping 360 cable car route

A view down the Ngong Ping 360 cable car route

The tourist office gave me directions to Lantau Peak and said it would take about 1.5h.  I bought an extra bottle of water at 7-Eleven and headed out.  Past the Wisdom Path is where the trail begins.

On the way to the trailhead I went past Big Buddha.  I think it is billed as “the largest outdoor bronze seated Buddha in the world.”  That’s a lot of specifications.  I am the most famous American fantasy novel author who plays Ultimate Frisbee and lives in Munich.  Anyway, one can climb up almost all the stairs to the base of the Buddha for free.  To go inside where there is some kind of museum, you have to pay (sort of).  They are very clever, since paying to see a holy monument is probably prohibited.  Instead, you must buy a lunch at a nearby restaurant to enter the Buddha (for overcrowding reasons).  I didn’t hear any rave reviews about the museum, so I saved my HKD.  But it was very cool to see, especially from above with my 70-300mm zoom lens (after I was on the Lantau Peak trail):

Big Buddha from high above. Can you spot the tourons?

Big Buddha from high above. Can you spot the tourons?

Continuing along the trail there is a fantastic view of a reservoir with turquoise-blue water:

Shek Pik Reservoir, on the way to Lantau Peak

Shek Pik Reservoir, on the way to Lantau Peak

I should point out that at this point, I was damn hot.  The trail is basically just stairs built out of stone for 90% of the way.  The ~500m climb from Ngong Ping to Lantau Peak is akin to walking up stairs to the roof of a tall skyscraper, only you don’t have air conditioning.  The day I hiked, it was well over 30C, very humid, and full sun.  Here’s a short video showing just how hot I was — I could barely talk properly.  The clouds near the peak saved me from losing another 0.5L of water through my pores:

YouTube Preview Image

At least I was nearing the top.  Just a few more rises to go along the ridge…

Near Lantau Peak, almost in the clouds

Near Lantau Peak, almost in the clouds

Finally I made it, and was greeted by fantastic views of Ngong Ping, Big Buddha, the reservoir, and the Hong Kong Airport.  There is a storm shelter up there too, in case you are caught in bad weather; though I would strongly suggest to avoid being up there during a thunderstorm.

Hong Kong Airport from Lantau Peak

Hong Kong Airport from Lantau Peak

After ten minutes enjoying the view, I headed down.  At Big Buddha I bought a 700mL Powerade, which I finished in about 5 minutes.  I drank another 500mL bottle of water at the 7-Eleven in Ngong Ping.   And this was after consuming almost a liter of water during the hike itself.  The clerk declined to let me lay down in one of their freezers.  D’oh!

Overall, it was a fantastic experience, although I like to push myself.  I would recommend this day trip to anyone; just fine-tune your itinerary based on your fitness AND the temperature.  i.e. Skip hiking to the Peak if you’re there with small children and it’s 30C+… there’s plenty more to do around Ngong Ping that’s not so extreme!

Getting to Lantau Island:

  • Take the Tung Chung Line to its terminus at Tung Chung Station.
  • Walk to the Ngong Ping 360 gondola station, and buy a cable car ticket.
  • You can save if you bundle your ticket with attractions in the (tourist trap) village of Ngong Ping.
  • Walk to the Big Buddha and other points of interest like monasteries.
  • If you are up to it, hike Lantau Peak (approx 1.5-2h up, 1h down; ~500m vertical climb).

Posted 7 years, 7 months ago at 12:00 pm.

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Paris at Night – Eiffel Tower

Many people dream of a vacation in Paris, and I highly recommend it. If you learn a few words of French, that goes a long way towards building rapport with the locals, and they will be much friendlier (often even switching to English when you stumble). One fantastic monument that everyone visits is the Eiffel Tower (la Tour Eiffel, en Francais). But what you might not see in the travel guides is the recommendation to visit the Eiffel Tower at night.

First off, every so often (15 minutes?), the normally well-lit tower flashes with hundreds of strobe lights. This photo is handheld, hence the high ISO (and high ISO performs better on the Nikon D90 than on many other cameras):

The Eiffel Tower flashing with strobes. 1/13s, f/6.3, ISO 1600

The Eiffel Tower flashing with strobes. 1/13s, f/6.3, ISO 1600

The lines are shorter at night, so you probably won’t have to wait so long. See the official site link at the bottom of the article to double-check opening times before you go, to make sure you aren’t too late arriving. Here’s a view from the lower deck, where the first elevator stops. Interesting story: I recreated this from a picture I took in 1999 on my Canon EOS Rebel film camera. Sadly, I lost the negative of that photo and have only a print… so I decided to come as close as possible to the original photo with my Nikon D90. Mission accomplished!

View from lower deck toward l'École Militaire. 2s, f/4.8, ISO 200

View from lower deck toward l'École Militaire. 2s, f/4.8, ISO 200

Next up is a view along the Seine from the upper deck. Here I used a very long shutter speed to get the trails of car headlights. In order to avoid overexposure, I set a high f/stop.

A view along the Seine from the upper deck. 10s, f/14, ISO 200

A view along the Seine from the upper deck. 10s, f/14, ISO 200

The final shot is another favorite, recreating another shot I did long ago with my film camera. This was also a long exposure, though not as long as the river shot.

Arc de Triomphe from the upper deck. 6s, f/8, ISO 200

Arc de Triomphe from the upper deck. 6s, f/8, ISO 200

You might ask how I kept the camera so still. I don’t know how a normal tripod would do at the Eiffel Tower — there are a lot of people walking around vibrating the floor, and there isn’t much space. So I used a mini-tripod grip which I bought with that Canon Rebel long ago. There is a small wooden plank running all the way around the viewing balconies where you can set a mini-tripod. Just aim the lens between the spaces in the security fencing.

If you have a remote trigger for the camera, or use a short timer, you’ll avoid camera shake caused by your finger on the shutter. After taking each shot, view it on the camera’s LCD and zoom in on a distant point of light to make sure it’s really a tiny circle. If it’s a line or squiggle, that means there were vibrations from the tower or from you; delete and re-shoot.  I did this many times.

In case you do visit the Eiffel Tower at night, I’d be interested to see your shots!  Have a good trip, and happy shooting!

Official site: Eiffel Tower

Link to buy the D90 on Amazon (help a freelance writer make a few bucks):
Nikon D90 DX 12.3MP Digital SLR Camera with 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S VR DX Nikkor Zoom Lens

Posted 7 years, 7 months ago at 12:00 pm.

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Lamma Island – Day Trip from Hong Kong

I met a friendly Brit in Hong Kong when I was hiking up Lantau Peak.  He advised me to check out Lamma Island, but warned me about spiders.  So I’ll pass that along now: there are a lot of spiders on Lamma.  A metric arse-load, to be exact.  And we’re not talking about teensy-weensy spiders here like the one that climbed up the water spout; these are 3″ long beasts that look like they could tie up a small hobbit.  There are several pictures of them in this post, so prepare yourself.

It’s an easy day trip, or even half-day trip, to Lamma Island.  You can take the ferry there (half an hour or so with lots of departures), hike across the island for about an hour or two, and then take a different ferry back from the town at the end of the hike.  I walked from Yung Shue Wan to Sok Kwu Wan, ate at the very tasty Lamma Hilton (mmm, garlic chili tiger prawns!), and then headed back to Hong Kong Island.  There’s a beautiful beach near Yung Shue Wan:

Panorama of Hung Shing Yeh beach

Panorama of Hung Shing Yeh beach

I had seen a couple of spiders in webs above the trail before arriving at Hung Shing Yeh beach.  But after that they grew in size, and the webs spanned the trail.  All were well above my head, but I was still a bit nervous that the spiders would fall off in the breeze and land on me.  Here’s one of ’em:

This qualifies as a SMALL spider on Lamma Island

This qualifies as a SMALL spider on Lamma Island

This guy was probably the largest spider I saw.  He was over 3″ in length.  I had to crouch down to get far enough away to snap some shots (one drawback of the 70-300mm VR is the ~4′ minimum focus distance).  This made me pretty nervous, being directly under a massive spider that’s only hanging onto his web by a few legs.  Notice his protege in the background.  “Let me show you how it’s done.  Look at that tourist quiver in fear!”

Nightmare spider

Nightmare spider

Some of the webs were truly impressive in their size and perfection.  Here’s one that was backlit rather nicely by the sun:

This is a BIG web

This is a BIG web

Finally I reached Sok Kwu Wan at the other side of the island and had some dinner, well away from any spiders.  Seafood on Lamma Island is fantastic: I recommend the Lamma Hilton, which was as good as promised by my anonymous British tipster.  Thanks, anonymous!

View of the bay at Sok Kwu Wan

View of the bay at Sok Kwu Wan

Getting to Lamma Island:

  • Depart from the Central Ferry Pier on Hong Kong Island (Pier #4 at the time of writing).
  • Make sure to get exact change after checking the current price (there is a change booth at one of the piers)!
  • Take the ferry to Yung Shue Wan.
  • Hike across the island on the (paved) trail.  Avoid the spiders!
  • Take the ferry from Sok Kwu Wan back to the Central Ferry Pier.

Posted 7 years, 7 months ago at 3:19 pm.

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Taipei Zoo

I’ve been to a lot of zoos in my time.  Some, like the zoo + croc farm in Melaka, are a little sad… the animals don’t look too happy.  Others, like the San Diego Zoo, do a much better job with habitats, space, and overall quality of life for the animals.  I’m happy to say the Taipei Zoo meets the same standard as the zoo in San Diego, at least from what I could see as a visitor.

Leopard in the sun

Leopard in the sun

There were a lot of primates there as well, and their habitats were quite impressive.  Mostly I was going for zoom shots, trying to avoid too many hints that it’s a zoo instead of the wild:

Climbing a tree

Climbing a tree

You’ll notice I have a lot of shots of the big cats.  They had nice habitats, and all were posing for me, so why not?  I used a Nikon D90 and 70-300VR lens for all these photos.

Squinting tiger

Squinting tiger

Okay, this was Taipei, and it gets hot there in the summer.  I think it was in the mid-30’s Celsius (90’s in F).  I was glad to see the most sensitive animals were not in their “on-show” habitats; probably they were cooler non-visible areas.  But several of the animals were looking toasty, and not too happy about it.  (not the greatest focus, but I had to laugh at/with this poor guy)

Sorry, red panda... I don't control the weather

Sorry, red panda... I don't control the weather

Here’s a bird I don’t think I had ever seen before in person, only in photos and on cereal cartons:

Colorful toucan

Colorful toucan

This is a favorite, the lynx: I used one as a character in my book, Demon’s Bane.  The demon Shyama inhabits a lynx form.

This is a lynx, like the one in DEMON'S BANE

This is a lynx, like the one in DEMON'S BANE

I saved my favorite for last.  To get this shot I had to walk around to the back viewing area of the enclosure, and stand on some rocks by the path to get the right angle for a “natural” look.  Out of a dozen shots, one came out looking like a teenager’s portrait in the evening sun:

Friendly-looking lion

Friendly-looking lion

To sum up, if you enjoy good zoos, I highly recommend the one in Taipei.  The zoo is at the end of an MRT line so it’s easy to find.  There’s lots more to do in Taipei, so if you’re looking for a nice trip idea, go there!  You won’t regret it.

Posted 7 years, 7 months ago at 12:08 pm.

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Hiking at Wendelstein

For a fantastic day hike near Munich, try out Wendelstein.  A friend and I started at Osterhofen and made it to the peak in a few hours (1,047 meters of height gain).  Although I’ve only hiked the Osterhofen trail, there is a similar trail from Bayrischzell, and a longer one (1,329 meters of height gain) from the town of Brannenburg.  We departed on foot from the gondola station at Osterhofen, where there was a nice map.  The view from the parking lot is very scenic:

Wendelstein from Osterhofen

Wendelstein from Osterhofen

Along the way we passed the Bergcafe Siglhof.  On the way down we had some tasty Bayrisch food there; I can recommend the Obatzda (a kind of cheese you spread on a big soft pretzel).

Huberhof Hochkreut, near the Siglhof cafe

Huberhof Hochkreut, near the Siglhof cafe

It was easy to follow the signs; we didn’t make any wrong turns.  One amusing sight that I didn’t snap was an elderly couple who had obviously taken the Seilbahn up and decided to walk down.  His smooth-bottomed leather shoes weren’t gripping too well on the damp trail, and her one-inch heels weren’t exactly the wisest choice either.  After a couple hours of hiking we got a nice view from the top:

View from the top of Wendelstein

View from the top of Wendelstein

Watch out for the local wildlife while eating at the restaurant near the top.  This little sucka was trying to eat my plum cake!

Hungry crow, plum cake, beer, and snow-capped mountains. Nice combination!

Hungry crow, plum cake, beer, and snow-capped mountains. Nice combination!

For the infirm and those with small kids (also for the lazy…), here’s one of the other ways to get up to Wendelstein.  Note that it doesn’t go to the actual peak, but a hundred meters or so below it.  Still a great view, even if you don’t choose to follow the sidewalks to the top.

Wendelstein train as it nears the top of the mountain

Wendelstein train as it nears the top of the mountain

One last note about hiking the mountains in Europe: most of them have gondolas to the top (think ski season), so you’ll hike for hours and find people at the summit who got there in 15 minutes with zero sweat.  It’s sweet to see old ladies making their way around the peak restaurant on a cane, but it can be frustrating.  If that bothers you, don’t hike at Wendelstein where there are both a Seilbahn (gondola) and Zahnradbahn (mountain train) operating.  The good news is you can get a great meal and a beer at the top.

Here’s a gratuitous photo of chickens doing the tango, near the Bergcafe Siglhof:

Expect to see chickens as you hike. Oh, and cows, too… right on the trail.

Expect to see chickens as you hike. Oh, and cows, too… right on the trail.

Website of the cable car and train operator: http://www.wendelsteinbahn.de/

Towns: Osterhofen for the Seilbahn, Brannenburg for Zahnradbahn.  Alternatively you can hike from either of those, or from Bayrischzell (and a few others I haven’t named).  You should be able to get there by car or train (BOB), though as a car owner I can’t help much with the train connections.  Google maps is your friend.  Have a good trip!

Posted 7 years, 7 months ago at 5:40 pm.

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