Friday, August 30, 2013

Rancho Part II (or 4 Things I've Learned so Far)

In my last post I briefly touched on some things I learned on the basics of multi-exposure and HDR photos within the context of sunsets in my pursuit of becoming the world's greatest photo-blogger/videographer. Well upon reflection it appears there actually a number of things I've picked up on the past few weeks, some of them confounding technical details and others more general pieces of wisdom.

Mexicans Love their Murals. Then again, who doesn't?

1.)  With Knowledge, Comes Power, and a Much Longer Todo List.

If you want to be able to really get the most out of your photos during the editing process, you need to save them on your camera in their .RAW format.  This ensures that every detail gleaned from your camera's highly sensitive censors will be retained and available for later manipulation.  However, if you're not going to do anything more than tweak the contrast/saturation and splash on a digital filter or two, do not bother.  .RAW photos take up 4 times more space than .JPEGs and with many camera's (my Pentax 5II for instance) RAW photos won't even be compatible with the majority of photo editors, or else they's require a specific software update that can turn into a nightmare if you're using pirated software (Please don't sue me, Adobe, I'll pay you back when I start making money on this blog, I swear it)

Also, many online photo hosting services and their built-in photo editors can't process anything deeper than 8bit color (looking at you, Facebook) so that fantastically vibrant sunset you spent hours capturing and bring to life is more than likely just going to end up a blotchy eyesore for most of your audience anyway.
Calling for Lluvia (The horse next door)

Estefania warming up the room with her smile.

2.)   Having People Skills Will Make Your Job Easier, But There's a Work-Around for Everything

People become remarkably self-conscious when you walk up to them with a giant camera stuck to your face.  Most of the kids nervously shake their head when I utter '¿Puedo sacarle photographia?' in my awkward Spanish. It seems to evoke the most gratifying and candid poses from your models you should either strike up a casual conversation to establish some friendly report or else develop a preceding reputation persuasive enough to do all your talking for you.  Given my current progress connecting with strangers so far, I've decided it'll be faster to just concentrate on the reputation.   

One of the downsides of the hip-shot method is that you can never
be certain the image is in focus :/

In the meantime I've been relying on a 'shoot from the hip' technique I've developed that involves nonchalantly hold my camera at my side and trying to catch people unaware.  I feel like I've managed to be pretty subtle so far, but I have noticed a lot of strange looks lately.


3.)  Always Maintain Awareness.

Especially when trying to take close-up shots of ant colonies in the desert while wearing flip flops.

As spiteful as those little fuckers seem when they latch onto you, they are tender caresses compared to the sensation of landing barefoot on a broken piece of cactus.

And the picture turned out shit too

Everyday flies be bustlin.

4.) As Crucial as it may be in a Land without Running Water, Hand Sanitizer is Not Soap.

Sure, it may seem like the answer to all your germaphobic trials when your taking bucket baths and using a porta-potty every day, but everything has its limits.  Under no circumstances should you ever apply high-concentration isopropyl alcohol solution to your anus region.

You have been warned

These two powerhouses selflessly take the shit of over 200 people every single day

Monday, August 26, 2013

Intro to Rancho Part I (or, The Pictures are Coming!)

It's been almost ten days now since my last post.  Yes, I have been slacking.  But I've also been oddly busy.

 In the last weekend alone I saw a wonderful Irish flick called Waking Ned Devine,
 went to a pony-infested beach, played Mexican volleyball, got sun-burnt, saw a surprisingly entertaining Grown Ups 2 (Sandler Spade nostalgia?) and got trashed with a Rancho staff member who shall remain unnamed so they don't get fired.    Now that may not sound like much, but here at Rancho everything takes roughly twice as long as it should and I'm pretty sure Murphy's law is the ranch motto.

When I'm not about my chores here on campus I'm either working on a new blog project (which hopefully I'll be officially announcing soon) or I'm practicing with my DSLR.  This post is supposed to be an attempt to present my progress in as entertaining a fashion as is possible. Please don't expect too much. I'm really just putting this up for my mom to help me feel less guilty about never really talking to her.   It's like I'm about to play flute at a recital  despite never having practiced any of my songs and I just can't shake the need to perpetually augment the performance with self deprecating humor to relieve my audience's tormented ear-drums.

Yea, I know.  They're just pictures.  Point and Click.  I thought that too.  Well here's a simple point and click picture I took of Joelle working at the coffee shop with my new sigma 30mm f/1.4 lense:

And here we are again after I spend 5 minutes fiddling around with the settings:

Now you can almost see how pretty she is.
When I was younger I used to believe I was a relatively quick learner.  I've since come to realize that it doesn't require much to be considered a quick learner in elementary school.  I was literally competing against kids who didn't grow up speaking English and kids who were born with drug addictions.  If my foray into photo blogging has taught me anything, its that everything is easy until you actually try to get good at it.

Example: Sunsets.  The other day there was a nice cloud pattern in the sky and I figured I'd try and snap a few shots.  The automatic setting on my camera gave me this:

Now this might not be the worst photo ever, but its not even close to representing the image my eyes beheld at the time. Not least because the entire foreground is nearly blacked out. After scrambling with the aperture and shutter speed I tried again and came up with this:

Yay! foreground is visible. Say sayonara to the sky.  
Some hundreds of photos later I realized that there must be something to this gig that I was missing.  Finally I learned about Multi-Exposure and High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos.  Basically cameras are still limited by the fact that they can only focus on one thing at a time, unlike our eyes which can focus on several things over a period of time and then mesh it all together in our brain to present those remarkable images that strike us with awe.

The solution for photographers is to take multiple photos of the exact same scene using a different exposure for each element of the scene.  The result should yield something like this:

This isn't actually a multi-exposure.  Before I can do a genuine multi-exposure I'd need a tripod and at least 5 more hours of photoshop experience.  This me hacking that first photo in half and adjusting the contrast separately on the sky and the foreground.  You can tell because of all the noisy white stuff on the horizon and the fact that the mountains on the left are white.. I just wanted to present the general concept for this blog.

Here's an example of a very well done multi-exposure sunset and you can google for even better ones.

Anyway, I've gotten way off topic.  I'll share some more of the lessons I've learned in another post.  Without further ado, here are some photos of the place I've been living for the last two weeks.

Here is Rancho from far away

Here it is a bit closer

Closer still

Here is Rancho on a map:

Come visit!
The Neighbors

This is my room

Here it is from another angle.

My exercise bands, my bed, and my 5 gallon jug of drinking water

My vitamins. Yes, I need them all. It's part of my 5 step plan towards immortality.

Organization baby.

Joelle working in the coffee shop

Said coffee shop

Ok, I get it.  These are really boring pictures.  But guess what, my life is kinda boring right now and I never seem to have my camera when anything interesting happens.  Also I pay for bandwidth my the megabyte which isn't really relevant, but it sucks.  Also, These are all the pictures I've had time to get through so far. So shut up.

Another angle

My next post will have more entertaining anecdotes I've been collecting as well as pictures of sunsets and flowers.  Like these:

(Edit: In my editor, everything is formatted and lined up perfectly, but when I view the post, everything is crooked.  Anybody know a good way of fixing this?) 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Today (8/16/2013)

Today I 'helped' Brian and Nate build a new pair of guesthouses for Rancho. When Joelle first told me that I would be doing a lot of construction work while I was here, she did it a way that made me believe there was a shortage of extra hands on campus and I would be filling a much needed role. However, just before she introduced me to the Washington State natives (Joelle calls them "the Seahawk Fans") she admitted that the conversation leading to my recruitment began thusly: 'Uh, hey guys my brother is going to be coming in for a month or so and I really don't want him to be bored so is it ok if he tags along with you?' Of course I had my suspicions when I got here and realized that orphanages/schools/churches (especially in Mexico) are places that are naturally overflowing with free unskilled labor and very cheap skilled labor.

The guys were actually quite nice for ex-military general contractors who had just given up a comfortable first world existence and moved their families into concrete huts in the northern Mexican desert in order to work for free and babysit Christian voluntourists looking for the selfless missionary experience.

My first job was to sand the drywall, just before it would be textured. Yes, that's right. We're talking some serious Mr. Miyagi shit.   Nate walked me into the "pre-sanded" bathroom of the first duplex and said, "this is a good example, just try and get it like this, except not so much, look here how the fiberglass is showing, that means you've gone too far." Brian interrupted me before I started with a new mask. "Its better than that one and it won't fog up your glasses"  I already knew which of the two was going to be my favorite.

I must have been really excited about my new job because they weren't ready for me to finish so quickly. "Yea, there's still a little more to do. Go ahead and try and really blend it like this" Nate gave me an example by working a grove into the drywall. Undeterred, I set about reducing the drywall just shy of exposed fiberglass all the way around. I was still faster than they wanted. "Yea that looks pretty good" Nate takes me back to the pre-sanded bathroom room he had just used as an example, "Go ahead and finish this room up too"

Something happened down at the main guest shower-room and there was a passive aggressive stand-off about what should be done about it.  I was able to glean that Nate is generally the bossy one, but Brain, though normally far more good-natured, carried most of the weight in the relationship and as soon as he put up some resistance Nate came into heal real quick.  Nate ended up going down to take care of the bathrooms while Brian stayed with me up in the duplex, which suited me just fine.

After sanding what felt like enough drywall to reduce the structural integrity of the building, I was promoted to mortaring the showers. Taking my cue from the sanding experience I applied the concrete sludge with painstaking precision, being very careful not to let any drop on the floor and making sure the resulting surface was nearly as smooth as the bathroom's freshly sanded drywall. Unfortunately the end of the day was approaching and the priorities of my guardians had shifted. I can't help but admire the tact Brian utilized in communicating that I needed to hurry my ass up. "Hey man, I just found this tool in truck, it should work a lot better" He then proceeded to show me the superiority of this slightly-different shaped cement scraper by by carelessly slopping the mixture on the wall, letting half of it fall to the floor, and crudely canvassing an entire corner of the shower with two long swift swipes; paying no heed whatever to evenness or consistency. "We can just scrape the extra off the floor later".

Thanks Brain.. That'd have been a great tool to have 1 and a half showers ago..

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Subject: More Meandering

Subject: Meandering

It's been something of a tumultuous summer. I'm sitting here just after dusk atop a half-finished cinder-block amphitheater in the middle of the desert 10 miles west of Tecate Mexico watching flowering youth awkwardly rebel against their repressive protestant benefactors and I find myself looking back with mixed emotions. On one hand, I'm roughly where I had planned to be (though almost two months later than planned) and things seem to have panned out as well as can be expected from someone with my particular weaknesses. On the other, I'm worried that my expectations may have suffered disheartening re-calibration. It used to be the distant dreams and grande schemes that kept this boat afloat. But now that I'm actually here, I'm having a hard time remembering why. I worked so hard to give myself a chance at something beautiful and now all I can think about is how afraid I am that I'm just going to blow that chance after everything; or waste it. Waste it on what? On worshiping a chance I'd never be brave enough to take? I'm haunted by the feeling that I'm woefully unprepared, and yet I am absolutely certain that preparation at this point is just an excuse to procrastinate further.  Life just isn't as attractive when you aren't dying for it.

Subject: Today

Subject: Today (8/14/2013)

Today Joelle woke me up at 6:45am to let me know that 'if we want to go into town today we have to go early because I just scheduled a personal for 1pm' and 'I'll meet you at the coffee shop in half an hour'. I certainly did want to go into town.  Not only because I was tired of using my dirty t-shirts as a pillow and drinking from the same styrofoam cup for the last 3 days, but because I was suffering from the most sobering case of internet withdrawal I'd ever known and by this point might have sworn away my first born for 10 minutes on Reddit.

An hour and a half later Joelle picked me up from the campus coffee shop; Her tardiness dutifully countered by a Tupperware bowl of scrambled eggs.

Our first stop was the immigration office in Tecate. Seeing as how I'd been in the country four days already, obtaining an actual visa seems to be something of a formality here. Joelle informs me that she put off getting her own for nearly 4 months. I made a mental note of this on the off-chance I find myself needing somewhere to flee, but given my general propensity to push limits I decided I'd feel safer having at least this detail settled sooner than later.

The immigration officer didn't like my story initially and was reluctant to issue me his stamp of approval. But after taking my over-stuffed passport, decorated with colorful stickers from Asia and Africa, he made a comment about me not having a home that bloated my ego with an embarrassing amount of satisfaction.

There's nothing quite like opening your browser and watching your home screen pop up, error free. That rush of adrenaline as you prepare yourself to engage a global network of live data algorithmically filtered to peak your exacting interests; whether it be atrocities in the middle east, relationships from back home, an aggregated index of your financial portfolio, or fatally adorable photos of kittens, it's like that moment you meet your soul-mate for the first time, except they are a different person each time. Joelle nearly had to drag me out of Cafe de la Puenta so we could finish the rest of the days errands. She had already given me over an hour longer than our initially planned depot because her 1pm ended up cancelling and had loosened up her schedule, which became all the more fortunate when we walked back to where the car had been parked and found a vacant space.

Joelle has been the victim of several unfortunate and statistically unlikely car-related events and was instantly convinced that her vehicle had been stolen. I'm not sure if it was because I'd just recently had a very similar experience with my motorcycle; or because I was baffled by the audacity and prowess of a thief who would at mid-day, in the very center of town, on a street manned with 3 security guards, a traffic cop and innumerable witnesses, somehow steal the only Subaru in the entire country; or because of the obnoxiously bright side-walk sign in front of the space that blared "Prohibido Aparcar"; but I had a hunch the car had been towed.

Rancho sent out a charismatic local kid named Fernando to guide us through the process of recovering a missing vehicle. While we were waiting I popped into a nearby Telcel shop, still high from my recent information binge, and talked a confused attendant with only the most basic English into selling me an internet dongle and prepaid plan with enough data to last me at least through the night.

Fernando tracked down Joelle's car and talked the Police down on the fee (volunteering at an orphanage has its perks I guess) but the whole ordeal left us without enough time or energy to follow through on the rest of our errands thus we returned empty handed. 

Well, Joelle did. As soon we got back I locked myself in my empty dorm, google-translated the Telcel website, whipped out my credit card, and proceeded to ensure that I would never go another minute unnecessarily without internet.

Subject: Writing

This is the first time I've sat down to write in months. It's absolutely incredible the subconscious lengths a person will go to avoid staring at a blank page.