Friday, October 21, 2011

Travel TidBits: Thar Desert, India

Camel Ride at Sunset
 We have traveled deep into Rajasthan and we are in camel country.  It is dry and hot and the desert is all around us.

By mid afternoon, we reach the Camp Thar Desert outside a small village Osian.  Since our driver and guide had not been there, we stop in the village to ask for direction and head into the desert on a narrow but paved street.  Along the way, we need to backtrack and finally find the entrance to the camp:  The reception area is an open but roofed area with a desk and some chairs and as we sign in it becomes clear that no computers are used here.  Our passports and the Indian Visa number are copied by hand together will all other necessary information. We then enter an open square lined on the outside with permanent small “houses” roofed by a white tent canvas.  Inside we find the walls covered with Indian printed fabric including the ceiling which gives the impression of being in a tent.  It is blazing hot upon our arrival and we are glad to have AC in our ‘tent’.  It is cozy and has all amenities for a comfortable night.  Our dinner is simple Indian food cooked family style and we enjoy it under a starry sky.

At the end of the afternoon, we are invited to a camel ride to see the sunset.  Two camels await us outside the reception area since Ashim decided to walk.  On command, the camels ‘fold their legs under their bodies’ by first going onto their knees, then bringing their hind down before lowering their front.  We are being helped up into a sort of saddle, a very well cushioned affair, and the camels stand up in the same stepwise way – rocking us frontward and backwards as we ascend to the heights of a full standing camel over-towering everyone around us.  And off we go!

We each have our camel driver, 2 young boys of 9 and 10 years of age.  My camel driver is Monsoor who speaks “little English, not big English”.  The boys handle the camels skillfully trying to prevent them from stopping and grabbing a mouthful of leaves from the trees.  We walk through desert farmland where crops have been harvested and now the stalks are drying to be gathered for fire woods.

The path we walk on – or better the camels walk on – is sandy.  The Thar Desert is a hot and dry place and supports only vegetation adapted to sandy grounds.  But it appears that the farmers here work the land to feed their families.  We pass by little hamlets where a few families have built their modest homes and where livestock from cows and goats to peacocks live in harmony with the people. 

After an hour’s walk we reach a hill side and our camels reluctantly climb up to a sand dune their broad hoofs sinking into the sand and sometimes sliding backwards.
As we de-mount, Lynda’s camel flops down on its side as if to tell us how exhausted it is!!

... and we all sit down to rest.

Our walk was perfectly timed as the sun is setting the sky turned yellow and red with the last rays  and our camels silhouette beautifully against the darkening sky.

Night has fallen fast and as we descend the hills, it becomes dark but our sure-footed beasts carry us back to camp in a steady walk and we marvel at the stars above.  With no lights around us in the desert, we see the Milky Way and many star constellations shining down on us.  It is peaceful and the world is at rest.  But as the warm lights of camp greet us, men and beast are happy to be home.

Til next time,

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travel TidBits: Jodhpur, India

Since a week I have traveled in India and it is a  beautiful and fascinating country.  There are so many stories to tell!  So I will jump right into it and won't just chronicle my impressions but rather offer some vignettes here:

Cows, Temples and Turban Men

Early Morning Street Sweepers

Sanctuary for Cows: This morning, we visited a sanctuary for cows!  This is probably an oxymoron for everyone reading this, but in India, cows are sacred.  They roam the streets, they are in the medium of divided streets, they stand in heavy traffic and everyone drives around them.  It’s quite a sight to see.  But what happens to the cows as they are getting old and frail?  Here is where the sanctuary comes in.  This one is in a suburb of Jodhpur and is run by a man belonging to the Jain Religion that preaches compassion to all living beings.  The sanctuary was behind a high wall – not unusual for the Indian suburban architecture – and houses 260 cows.  There was a whole area for blind cows, others were undernourished and all of them are thin with bones clearly visible through the hide.  There was a couple-of-days old calf born to a cow that did not have milk and the little creature was feed milk through a bottle. 

One can of course wonder why are the cows on the street in the first place.  According to the Hindu Religion, cows are only used for milk production and beef is not eaten.  Thus the female calves and cows are valuable as long as they produce milk.  So male cows at an early age are useless for society and they roam the streets and country side only to be joined by female cows that lost their mild production or thus usefulness.  These animals are at the mercy of their environment:  in the country side they find greens in the fields or even along the roads but in the city their life is more difficult and they go through the ever present garbage or being fed by friendly store owners.  So, being taken in by the sanctuary might present a luxury senior housing where food is plentiful and peaceful. 

Laundry day

Women selling goods at a street corner

The Mandor Memorial:

 In the same vicinity, we visited a beautiful park serving as a memorial and burial ground for by-gone Maharanas and Noble Men.  In the Hindu tradition, once passed on cremation is done within 24 hours of death and for the royals it was typical to built a memorial for the urn to be buried.  The Mandor Memorial was created for the Royal of the Mandor family, the ruling family of Rajasthan for the last 500 years.  The memorials erected over the burial ground are elaborately carved in marble, with conical towers pointing to heaven.  It must have been a splendid sight in history but unfortunately, like so many things in India the temples have fallen to neglect.  Never-the-less the stone carvings survived many centuries and tell the story of a more glorious past.

The old Town of Jodhpur

The Old City Gate

Jodhpur is a bustling city of 5-6 M people and a center of commerce in Rajasthan.  Built in 1500, a fort strategically built on a hilltop overlooks a sprawling town with an old town center within the old city walls.  As we enter through an enormous gate, we enter the clock tower plaza from which the streets narrow to alleys with vendors and tiny stores lining each side.  Little light penetrates to the street level.   Pedestrians, bicycles, motor rickshaws, pushcarts, motorcycles all hustle back and forth causing the periodic traffic jams that we have come to expect.  It is amazing how 2 motor rickshaws squeeze by with the rest of the foot- and wheeled traffic piling up behind, horns blow but in general all resolves in time and all traffic flows again.

Strolling along the alleys, we encounter a diverse selection of merchandise:  from houseware to food to clothing to locksmiths to spice vendors all displaying their merchandise within and in front of their stalls.  The most colorful are the fabric and the spice vendors.  Rajasthan is known for their colorful saris worn by all women – young and old – and that so attracts my photographic eye.  There is something very elegant how the women in India wear their saris, and I marvel how a single piece of fabric can be so elegantly draped topped with a color-coordinated shawl often of chiffon materials.  This shawl can be easily pulled over the head and will veil the face on a moment’s notice – particularly when not wanting to be photographed.  The women seem to glide along their way even when they carry a basket or other goods on their head.

As we penetrate further and further into the old city, it is not just the women that attract our attention but also men with long white beards and enormous turbans in bright colors.  Although the color of the turban has significance and tells of the origin of the wearer or his occupation, it will take more study to understand all these intricacies.   Fascinated by the elaborate turbans, we question whether they are like hats or being assembled each day.  Our guide, Ashim, tells us that the turbans are one long piece of cloth about 10 m long (!) to be draped over the head within less than a minute.  To prove his point, he asks the next turbaned man whether he would show us how to bind a turban – and voila, he complies.  He takes off his turban, disassembles into one very long clothes and within a minute he recreates his turban right in front of us. 

We can only marvel at this!  We take pictures, he laughs, the store keepers around us all smile and the diverse worlds have just become a little bit closer. 

Til next time,

Friday, October 7, 2011


Courage does not always roar,
Sometimes courage is the quiet voice
at the end of the day saying:
“I will try again tomorrow.”

Courage: to brave the water hunting for salmon for the first time.

Courage:  to survive the first winder in cold and snow.

Courage: to become a surrogate mother to an orphaned elephant.

Courage: to accept being in a sanctuary rather than tied to a post on a crowded market.

Courage: to accept food in a sanctuary rather than begging on the streets of Bangkok.

Courage: to hunt for the tiniest morsels to feed your young.

Courage: A mother's Love.

Northern Canada

Courage is to brave the world, 
accept what is,
thrive to make it a better place, 
and live to the fullest.

I hope you enjoyed this quiet corner today,

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cheetahs - Fast Action Photography (2)

The next chapter:  Cheetahs

A couple of weeks ago I organized a Photo Workshop in Reno.  Nine photographers answered the call and
– no – we did not go gambling.  Reno was hosting a fantastic Hot Air Balloon Festival and Race, a yearly
event drawing experienced balloonist from all over the world.  In the early morning, colorful hot air balloons glowed
against the night sky and the mass ascension of 100+ balloons is a marvelous and colorful spectacle –
not to be missed.

 Ringo, the raccoon

Lynx,  © M. Raeder-Photography

But today I want to bring you another fast action photography story:  While in Reno, we visited a small wildlife center and sanctuary for life for rescued animals that can no longer survive on their own in the wild. 

Among the 2 tigers, the lone wolf, a mountain lion, the elderly arctic fox, Yogi bear – may his soul rest in peace – coyotes, kit foxes, a lynx and several other animals, there are 3 cheetahs:  a 13-year old female and two young 2-year old boys. 

In the wild, cheetahs hunt chasing their prey at a speed of up to 60+ miles per hour and they are the fastest of the cats.  Although this puts a strain on their body, research has shown that the life expectancy of cheetahs in captivity is less than in the wild and it is speculated that the lack of exercise might be causing the earlier death of these animals.  With this knowledge, the Animal Ark devised a ‘race track’ where the 3 cheetahs can exercise and ‘chase’ as they would do outside captivity.  As we visit the Ark, we learn that the cheetahs exercise in a chase once a week and the public can see them exercise at certain dates.  One of those coincided with the Reno Hot Air Balloon Festival.

During the afternoon, we visit the other animals in anticipation of the run.  A small crowd had gathered along the race track, and our group of photographers took position in the blind where we would see the animals running towards us.  And what a thrill it was!!

Mountain Lion,  © M. Raeder-Photography

In a cloud of dust, they were sprinting not more than 50 yards away and each round was over in several seconds – quite a Photographic challenge.  [For Fast Action Photography Tips, please scroll down.]

© M. Raeder-Photography
© Bob Story

© Brian Wong

© Lynda Sanders

We saw all three cheetahs sprint and chase the lure with such concentration.  In the last image here, you can see the yellow lure that the cheetahs follow in their run.  Their reward at the end of the run was a hefty portion of raw meat and they knew that that was their treat.  But if you allow me to anthropomorph a bit, I had the distinct feeling that they were smiling as they chased down the race track.  Every muscle in their body a well tuned powertool!

Fast Action Photography Tips:
For those interested, I thought I would describe the camera settings for capturing fast moving objects.  This technique is often used in wildlife photography and I teach it in depth in my hummingbird workshops:

To obtain the shallow depth of field, I use f/7.1 and try to achieve a shutter speed of  1/1000 or shorter.  Depending on the light, this will necessitate dialing up the ISO to 640 - 1200 or more.  On our particular day at the Animal Ark, we needed to shoot with ISO 2500 or more since a storm front was blowing through and the black clouds were gloomy.  To capture the fast moving cheetah sharp and in focus, set your camera on continuous focusing and either spot or dynamic focusing (this is a smaller focus area than the usual matrix focusing).  These are of course are the starting points and need to be adjusted in accordance to your histogram.  This might necessitate adding some exposure compensation to obtain the correct exposure.

The challenge in our situation here was that the action in each run was over in about 3 seconds and we had only a limited number of runs!  So being prepared, setting the camera and being ready was a must!

I always had very mixed feelings about holding wild animals in captivity and that notion was strengthened after seeing the wildlife in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda this Spring.  But here at the Animal Ark, at least once a week these cheetahs can enjoy the almost freedom of a run, feel the wind blowing around their face!

And for us, marveling at what nature provides strengthens my believe that we need to protect, conserve and do everything in our power to make sure future generations can see and enjoy such beauty in their natural settings.

Til next time,

To see all of the workshops and photo travel opportunities 
offered by M. Raeder - Photography, please click here.
Join me for a great outing to photograph the elephant seals and their newborn pups!

Photo Tips: Ants in my Viewfinder

Lens Review:
AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (FX) Lens

In less than a week, my friend Lynda and I are embarking on our next trip.  We have traveled and photographed polar bears in Northern Canada, went on safari in Kenya and have marveled at cheetahs running from 0 to 60 miles an hours in several seconds.  In our upcoming trip, we are focusing on cultural photography in India, Bhutan and Thailand.  The age-old question is of course what photo equipment to take specifically when being on the road and in a different hotel every night – being prepared for every situation and yet not to be over burdened by a heavy pack, tripod and all.  On top, for our 6+ week travel we each contemplated the necessity of taking 2 bodies, one with a DX and the other FX sensor format.  Lynda had been photographing with the Nikkor 18-200mm Dx lens, a very nice overall range and a preferred lens for many travel photographers.  However, after using more serious top-end pro-lenses like the 70-200mm lens recently, this all around lens while giving nice images tends by comparison to be a bit soft.

Then earlier this year, Nikon came out with the new AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens.  So before the impending trip, Lynda took stock of her lenses and decided to buy this new lens and ‘test drive’ extensively and compare it to four other lenses (see list below).  Having been an analytical research scientist all her life, she put her scientific hat on and developed a testing matrix taking every thinkable variable into account and then meticulously tested and compared results under the proverbial microscope.

Having seen the results, I wanted to share her assessment of several lenses specifically with respect to sharpness and thus, invited her to write a guest lens review for my Travel TidBits blog and today, here it is!

I won’t steal the thunder and won’t reveal her overall results.  It was an interesting experiment and I want to applaud her for her thoroughness.  So please read on….

   Lens Review by Lynda Sanders

Well, in preparing for an extended trip to lands afar (India, Bhutan and Thailand) I wanted to review and update my equipment with an eye to size, weight and image quality.  And versatility - why take two lenses if one will do, since we will be doing some serious hiking, and my feet get sore these days.

Some years ago I purchased my Nikon D300 body (before even the D300S was available) with, as was quoted to me at the time 'the only lens I would ever need', the AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VRI took that equipment to Myanmar (Burma) and shot exclusively with it, and was thrilled with the results. (  I thought I was set for life.

Then, more recently, I went to a butterfly exhibit in the San Diego Wild Animal Park (highly recommended, once a year in April) and armed with a Tamron 1.4x converter, got some shots that still needed serious cropping, such as a butterfly's soccer ball-design compound eye.  When I compared my images with those of companions who had different lenses, I developed a suspicion that my beloved 18-200mm was not as sharp at the extremes as it might be when challenged with a tough situation.

I have since moved on and upward, and acquired a D700 body (full frame sensor vs the 2/3 sensor of the D300) and other lenses.  Life was good.  Then, the AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (FX) lens was released.  This of course gives almost exactly the same range as the 18 -200 on the smaller DX sensor.  With a big trip ahead, the question was, should I get this 28-300mm lens for my D700?  Is it just a bigger, heavier version of the 18-200mm but marketed to the FX people?  It has a great range, but, key point, it does not have a constant aperture over its zoom range, putting it in a 'less than fantastic' category.  What to do?

For me, there was only one option - buy one and test it against other lenses, owned and borrowed, and see how it looked.

These are the Nikkor lenses tested on the Nikon D300 or D700 body:

  • AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (FX)
  • AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (DX)
  • AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (FX)
  • AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR (FX).

As a scientist (in a previous life), and for those of you to whom this is meaningful, I designed an experimental matrix, changing only one variable at a time.  I used a few different lenses for comparison, including the amazing AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (FX) which is my current favorite lens.

Experimental Matrix for Testing and comparison of Lenses
Camera body
Focal Length (used)
35mm Equivalent

ISO kept constant at 500, aperture priority at f 6.3
My test real-life object was a marching ant as seen in the banner at the top of this blog, and  focused right on the center of the ring of the eye facing you.

And - the results:

Sharpness of the 18-200mm vs the 28-300mm on the D300 body:

The eyes have it.
On the D300 (with a small size sensor) there is no doubt, the 28-300mm gives a sharper image than the 18-200mm.  Look at that eye-ring.  And the forked nose, even though it is probably just in front of the plane of focus.

How does this compare with a really great FX lens on the D700 body?

Not so much of a difference.  Bear in mind, this is a small crop of the originals to highlight differences.  The 70-200mm is a high-end lens, and the 28-300 gives it a good run for its money.  We begin to see pixelation before we see differences in sharpness, and that is as good as it gets.

And, what do we think of the 24-120mm lens by comparison?  This is a constant aperture F 4.0 mid-range, gorgeous zoom.  For someone wanting 'good glass' and not satisfied in principle with a variable-aperture zoom, this might be an alternative to the 28-300 for a general-purpose lens, but of course with a more limited range.  (Life is a series of trade-offs, have you noticed?)

Wow.  The 28-300mm stacks up pretty well against this lens too.  A small qualifier:  to maintain constant parameters, both shots were taken at 120mm, which is in the middle of the range (optimum for sharpness) for the 28-300mm but at the extreme of the range of the 24-120mm.  So maybe the comparison is not completely fair.  But, the 28-300mm still looks pretty darn good.

Another technical qualifier:  All lenses have specs (specifications) of a given range.  This means that each individual lens performs somewhere within this acceptable range, but lens-to-lens there will inevitably be small variations.  So, I can really only say that the particular lens I have performs as shown.  But, I would expect that other 28-300mm lenses would be closely similar.

Footnote:  I noticed that the focusing of the 28-300mm was just a tad slower and noisier than the 70-200mm (my reference for a really nice lens) and if you read other reviews, I can understand why some consider it not the best for wildlife photography, where you need the fastest focusing possible to track that bald eagle zipping by overhead.  But it's a lot better than other lenses I have tried (like the astoundingly slow-focusing older 80-400mm lens) and I'd judge it fine for all but a running cheetah.

So, at the end of my study of the ants, I am going to keep this 28-300mm lens and plan to use it as my workhorse lens for my upcoming trip.  I'll take some other lenses, like the 16-35mm F 4.0 and 50mm F 1.4  for when I'm seriously worried about sharpness.  And maybe I'll take an extender or two for further flexibility without much weight - there are pros and cons there, but I leave that discussion for another day.

Happy shooting!
Lynda Sanders

So, here you have it. 

Thank you, Lynda, for your thorough ‘test drive’ and for sharing your comparisons and results.  Since we will travel together, I am sure we will have lots of other discussions on equipment and compare Lynda’s ‘workhorse’, the 28-300mm lens, with my favorite, the 24-120mm lens, in our daily evening download and review.  I am sure in the end we will both bring back lots of great images and not to forget:


So, watch my Travel TidBits from the road through India and Bhutan!

Til next time,