Whale Watching at Point Reyes

And so much more.

I went whale watching yesterday. At least that was the excuse I used to make the two-hour drive to Point Reyes National Seashore. The motivation to get out there by 9:30 AM was provided by the Sacramento Paddle Pushers, a Meetup.com group that had suggested the trip. (I’d gone on a 9-mile paddling trip with the SPP a few weeks before; they’re really active and do a lot more than paddling. Thought I’d blogged about it, but I guess not!)

I didn’t carpool with the group. Although I like the idea of carpooling — saving gas, companionship for a drive, etc. — I don’t like the idea of being tied to another person who I may or may not know very well. I like the freedom to make things up as I go along. And I absolutely detest waiting for other people to get organized or to give the green light for setting out on the next part of a drive. So I didn’t carpool. I drove out on my own, with Penny beside me and Google providing turn-by-turn driving instructions.

It was dark when I left at 6:30 AM. I not only wanted to get there on time, but I wanted the freedom to stop wherever I wanted to along the way. I headed westbound on I-80 as it got lighter and lighter and foggier and foggier. By the time I’d exited at Route 37, the fog was thick — so thick that I had to slow down going through the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Then it lifted just enough to make normal speed possible and I continued on my way.

The route Google chose took me through some residential areas before sending me toward the coast on Novado Boulevard. There were cows grazing on lush green hills along the way. The road wound up and down and around, past small lakes as wisps of fog got caught up in trees and floated on lake surfaces. The early morning sun shined brightly above the marine layer, trying so hard to break through. I stopped at Stafford Lake Park to let Penny take a walk while I shot a few photos.

Stafford Lake
The scene at Stafford Lake Park yesterday morning.

Interesting Breakfast
Not sure how I wound up with a veggie breakfast, but it was good. It’s always nice to try something different.

Eventually, we wound up at Point Reyes Station. It was early — only 8:30 AM. I had a whole hour to go the last 16 miles, which Google said would take me 33 minutes. I decided to stop for breakfast. I wound up at the Station House Cafe, which was pretty much empty. (Heck, the whole town was empty at 8:30; it would be very different later on.) I sat at the counter and although my brain really wanted an omelet as good as the one I’d had in Winters the morning before, I went with something completely different: cheese grits and sauteed Swiss chard. As I told a Facebook friend later in the day, it was good, but bacon would have made it better.

Please don’t lecture me about leaving my dog in the car. First of all, I only do this when I’m certain that the temperature in the car won’t exceed a balmy 70° or 80°F or get below 40°F. On warm days, I always park in the shade if possible. And if I’m parked in town, I always leave the doors unlocked so anyone could simply open them up if there was a concern.

Penny has spent a lot of time in the car — whether it’s my Honda, Jeep, truck, or a rental car — and is quite accustomed to it. She usually just settles down and goes to sleep.

On that particular day, the high in the area was forecasted as 50°F and although there was no shade, I did leave both front windows down a good 4 inches. I locked the doors, but anyone with a long, skinny arm could have unlocked them.

I was back in the truck, finishing up my drive by 9:00 AM. The road wound through the tiny town of Inverness on Tomales Bay before cutting west across the peninsula into the park. I followed the signs and wound up in the nearly empty Drakes Beach parking lot. I took Penny out for another quick walk and moved the truck to a spot closer to the ranger station. Then I gathered my camera equipment together, made sure Penny was set with food and water, locked up the car, and went to find the others.

I brought all my good camera equipment with me that day: my Nikon D7000 and 3 lenses, including my 300 mm lens, which I thought might be good to capture images of the whales. I also had my Manfrotto monopod. Yes, I know a tripod would be better, but I detest using one in situations involving moving subject matter. My monopod gives me enough steadying on full-sun shoots.

And there was plenty of sun that day. The fog was mostly burned off, although there was a definite white haze in the air. I went to the building just as the ranger was unlocking it. There were a handful of people milling about, but no one I recognized. I didn’t think it worth querying people to see if they were with the group. Again, I was leery of tying myself to one or more people until I knew how the day would unfold.

Like most other people there, I paid $5 for a shuttle bus ticket. Then I went outside and followed the group to a nice charter coach that was being used to shuttle park visitors to two points of interest: the Point Reyes Lighthouse and a spot called Chimney Rock. The bus pulled away from the curb and the driver, a big man who obviously had a lot of passion about the park and his job, told us a little about the wildlife we were already seeing: black-tailed deer and Tule elk. He then put in a short CD that explained a little of the park’s history and told us about the dairy farms we were passing along the way.

We were making the final climb up the road toward the lighthouse, when the man in front of me and I saw the same thing out on the ocean to our left: a whale! We’d already made our first spotting.

At the bus stop, we all got out and headed up the hill toward the lighthouse. There were about 20 of us in this first trip of the day. I took my time, taking in the view of the surf on the beach stretching out to the north. This was my third trip to Point Reyes and this particular view has become iconic for me. No matter when I come — late afternoon, midday, or morning — the pounding surf seems to disappear into the far distance, perfectly illustrating one of the themes I like to capture in my photography: infinity.

Infinity Waves
It looks like this pattern of waves against the shore could go on forever, no?

I caught sight of movement over a small hill and moved farther up the trail to investigate. On the other side of a clump of trees, on the hillside sloping down to the cliffs, were two black-tailed deer, grazing. I moved in among the trees for some photos while other bus passengers hurried by behind me, talking at full volume about anything other than their surroundings, oblivious to nature around them. Finally, someone spotted me with my camera and took a closer look. By the time I was finished, a small crowd had gathered with people snapping photos of the deer less than 100 feet away. To their credit, no one tried to approach them more closely.

Black-Tailed Deer
Shot with a 300 mm focal length lens, cropping this photo was not necessary; this deer was close.

I reached the top of the steps leading down to the lighthouse and stopped for a moment to take in the view. We were on a point of land facing due west with sweeping views to the south and northwest. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The blue of the sky and the blue of the ocean met in a somewhat blurred line out in the distance. The sound of the waves and calling birds laid a background soundtrack to the chatter of the people around me. There was almost no wind at all. An absolutely perfect day to be at Point Reyes.

Map View of Point Reyes
Google’s Map view of Point Reyes. The lighthouse is on the left (west) point; Chimney Rock is on the right (east) point.

There were 300 steps down to the lighthouse. A sign at the top of the steps warned that the climb back up was the equivalent of climbing a 30-story building. (I seriously doubt that. The stairs were shallow and easy. Maybe 20 stories.)

Lighthouse at 70 mm

This is an interesting illustration of the way various lens focal lengths affect the appearance of distances. The top image was shot from the top of the stairs at 70mm. The bottom image was shot about halfway down the stairs (on my way back up) at 10mm. Neither image was cropped; both are shown here at the same size. Doesn’t the stairway look longer in the second image?

Lighthouse at 10mm

Once at the lighthouse, I joined a few other people there who were actively looking for whales. We were rewarded many times. A pair of young whales, maybe 20-25 feet long, were making their way around the point. They’d surface together every 5 or 10 minutes quite close to us, send up two sprays of misty air, give us a good look at their backs, and then disappear under the waves. They did this at least a half-dozen times while I watched with the others. Good photos weren’t possible — there just wasn’t any exciting activity. These whales were motoring, not auditioning for SeaWorld. This is the best I could do.

Yes, there are two gray whales in this photo. No NatGeo photo op yesterday.

Lighthouse Tower
An example of symmetry — or as much as possible, considering the light and rust patterns.

Since I wasn’t getting any satisfying whale photos, I started looking at other things that were interesting. The lighthouse, flowers along the stairway, equipment in the lighthouse building. Other themes and techniques I like to explore in my photography include symmetry, patterns, filling the frame with an image, and putting foreground items against out-of-focus backgrounds.

Detail from Lighthouse
I don’t know why I like this photo so much, but I do. It seems to me that anyone can take a picture. But when a picture evokes an emotion — as this one does for me — it’s something worth looking at.

Iris Iris
Two examples of an interesting foreground — irises in bloom — against an out-of-focus background. Which do you think works better?

Red Maid
I’m not sure, but I think this one is called red maid.

And I’m pretty sure this is a violet.

Indian Paintbrush
I’m pretty sure this is Indian Paintbrush.

Yellow Bush Lupine
Yellow bush lupine grows in huge clumps out on the peninsula.

One of the huge benefits of traveling alone is that you can spend your day the way you want to do it. No one to compromise with. No one to get bored and hurry you along. No one to drag you places you couldn’t care less about.

That was me yesterday. Spending as much time as I liked, seeing what I wanted to see. I know a companion would have lost patience with the amount of time I spent kneeling or even lying in the dirt to frame up some of these photos. I’ve had traveling companions like that in the past and I can’t begin to imagine the things I missed because of them.

(You could also argue that traveling companions can reveal a whole new world for you. I think that’s possible — with someone who is imaginative, open to seeing new things, and not opposed to changing plans as opportunities arise. But I haven’t had a companion like that for many, many years. Instead, I spent a lot of time stuck with someone who was tied to a schedule. Any suggested change resulted in, “But I thought we were going to….” I’d rather travel alone than deal with that ever again.)

Once I’d finished up at the lighthouse and made the climb up the 300 steps, I walked back to the bus stop. Along the way I peeked through the row of trees to see if the deer were still there. They were. And that’s when I noticed a third deer lying in the shade of a bush.

Two Deer
Can you see the deer in the background?

While I was enjoying my day, taking lots of photos, and really having a great time being outdoors in such a beautiful place, I was also chatting with the folks around me. One by one I met up with about a dozen of the SPP members, including Lynn, who’d organized the meetup. The group had broken into smaller subgroups of twos and fours, each wandering around the park at their own pace. Nice. No pressure.

I rode the bus to the Chimney Rock stop. There were three points of interest there: the elephant seal beach, the historic life boat station, and Chimney Rock point. The elephant seals were closest, so I took that path, getting into a conversation along the way with a woman from Las Vegas who was also traveling alone — and enjoying every minute of it. She and I would cross paths a few more times before the end of the day.

At the end of the path was a lookout point where we could clearly see hundreds of young elephant seals and their mothers stretched out on the sand, sunning themselves. Every once in a while, one of them would start barking or screeching or making some other weird noise. Seals would swim out of the water and shimmy up onto the beach. A harbor seal splashed around in the weeds just offshore. There were no breakers in the sheltered cove, making it ideal for the young animals to rest and learn how to swim.

Elephant Seals
Elephant seal weanlings sun themselves on the beach with their mothers.

Seal Beach
There were hundreds of seals along the stretch of sheltered beach.

I chatted with a volunteer naturalist about the seals and the flowers I’d been seeing throughout the day. She was extremely informative and had some visual aids to show how the features of the elephant seals change throughout their lifetimes. While we chatted, a male seal swam up to the base of the cliff right below us. Meanwhile, a ranger worked with some kids to teach them about the seals. (Really, parents, why aren’t you taking your kids to places like this?)

My Ex Brother In Law
You can kind of get an idea why they call them elephant seals — the males get an elongated nose as they age.

Chocolate Lily
Chocolate lily. This plant also grows in the mountains near where I live.

Afterwards, the naturalist walked back along the trail with me and another member of the group to show us a relatively rare chocolate lily in bloom. I’d only seen one before — on a wildflower hike in Washington State near where I live — and it was nice to see one again out in the wild.

Although the historic boathouse was open that day for tours, I decided to skip it. Instead. I walked out along the 1.6 mile trail to Chimney Rock. I got a nice photo of the boathouse and Drakes Bay from along the trail. I also snapped some photographs of some of the flowers I’ve already shown above.

Historic Boathouse
The historic life boat station with the old pier and seal beach in the distance.

The trail to Chimney Rock was interesting mostly because it ran along a relatively narrow spit of land with open ocean on one side and Drakes Bay on the other. The ocean side had dramatic rock cliffs with more seals sunning themselves on small beaches. At the end was a rocky point, a fence to discourage wandering along the cliff, and some benches. Off the point, a buoy bounced it the waves, making a mournful sound. Some members of SPP were having lunch.

From Chimney Rock
View from along the trail to Chimney Rock. The beach was full of sunning seals.

I’d chosen to carry camera equipment instead of food and was quite hungry by that point. It was after 2 PM. I was starting to get a little worried about Penny being stuck in the car for 4-1/2 hours. It was time to head back.

I met up with Lynn again at the bus stop. Most of the group was going to stop in Point Reyes Station — coincidentally, at the restaurant I’d had breakfast — for a meal. Others were going to the Cowgirl Creamery nearby. Neither plan sounded that good to me; I wanted to try something different and preferred to avoid the temptations of cheese. And I knew I couldn’t wait around for the group to gather. So I decided to stick to my solo plan for the day.

Back at the main parking lot, Penny was fine but glad to see me. I put her leash on and walked her out along one edge of the parking lot where there was a picnic area with grass. Despite the No Dogs sign, there were four other dogs on leashes nearby. Penny got a lot of pee and barking out of her system before we climbed back into the truck and headed out.

My stomach did the driving, retracing our route past the cows and various park turns toward Point Reyes. When I got to Inverness, I spotted Vladimir’s Czech Restaurant, which had outdoor seating. Soon Penny and I were sitting beneath the shade of an umbrella, eating stuffed cabbage with a hearty grain bread. The sound of live musicians playing Irish music (for some reason) drifted out the restaurant’s open doors, flooding the patio with a cheerful sound.

I made a few more stops on the way home — Point Reyes Station, which was packed with people, and Muir Woods, which was just emptying out — before heading home. I’ll cover Muir Woods in another blog post; it deserves one.

It had been another great day out. Yes, I’d seen some whales, but I’d also enjoyed experimenting with photography again, doing some good walking, and being out in great weather. Although I’d debated spending the night in the area and doing more the next day, I soon realized that an overnight trip would be better during the week when it wasn’t so crowded. I have a month left here in California; I need to plan a nice two or three day trip with Penny before I head back home.

Maybe next week? Got nothing else planned and the only schedule I need to check is my own.

Paddling with the Birds (and Turtles) at Lake Solano

It’s more than just an upper-body workout.

On Thursday, I took my kayak out to Lake Solano near Winters, CA.

I blogged a little about this lake last week — I’d driven through the campground there and was amazed to see dozens of peacocks strutting around. I took lots of photos.

Map of Lake Solano
The area of Lake Solano where I paddled on Thursday.

The lake isn’t anything to brag about. Really, it’s more of a very long, narrow pond. When I mentioned it to a local friend, his response was “What lake? Never heard of it.” In fact, Google Maps doesn’t even refer to it as Lake Solano — instead, it’s just Putah Creek.

What attracted me to it was the calm, smooth water. An easy paddle — something I was really looking for after my 9-mile paddle last Saturday on the American River. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t blog about that trip, it’s because I’ve been just too darn busy to blog most of the things I do these days. Maybe if I ever slow down.) Secondary was the wildlife — including birds — that I expected to find along the way. I’ve bring my camera and turn it into a “Photo Paddle.”

The weather couldn’t have been better. Temperature in the low 70s and not a cloud in the sky. I put on my swim shorts and a tank top, packed a picnic lunch that included a salad, some almonds, some string cheese, and a bottle of icy water. I grabbed Penny’s life jacket and the waterproof case I used to keep my phone safe on the water. Then I loaded up the kayak into the back of my truck and headed out. It was around noon.

I took the freeway to route 128 and headed west through Winters, stopping only long enough to put some fuel in the truck. A short while later, I was pulling into the parking lot for the day use area near the bridge, ignoring the signs that said “No Pets Beyond this Point.” After all, it wasn’t as if Penny and I were going to have a picnic in the park. We were there for the boat ramp.

I backed the truck down the narrow ramp, pulled down the tailgate, and slid my kayak into the water. I put the picnic lunch in the watertight compartment and my bottle of water in the cupholder in front of my seat. I carefully stowed my camera bag on the floor of the boat, shoved up toward the bow where it was more likely to stay dry. Then I put Penny’s life jacket on her, fastened her leash to it, and put her in the boat. I attached the leash to the elastic tie-downs on the front of the boat and left her to move the truck. I parked it in the shade, locked it up, and returned to the boat.

I decided not to wear my life jacket, although I did bring it with me as required by one of the many signs in the park. I’d use it as a backrest. The water was calm and smooth and not very deep. The possibility of me flipping the boat and then being unable to keep my head above water was pretty much nil.

I pushed the boat out a little and climbed on board. I settled myself into the comfy seat, put my feet on the supports on either side, and paddled out into the lake. After fiddling with my camera while the boat drifted in lazy circles, being pushed by a mild current and light winds, I started paddling upstream (northwest) with Penny sitting on one of her dog beds fastened to the bow.

I started seeing photography subjects immediately. The first was a heron, which I’ve always had trouble photographing. The birds are extremely spooky; it’s next to impossible to get anywhere near one. Fortunately, I had my 300mm stabilized lens. I managed to frame a few shots before it took off.

This great blue heron was standing in deep water when we drifted by.

Another heron along the shore of Lake Solano.

Later on, I shot another one on the other side of the lake. As I expected, he didn’t wait around. If it weren’t for the 300mm lens, I never would have captured these images. I really like that lens for wildlife photography.

Heron in Flight
Although I didn’t capture an image of the heron taking off, I did get this shot of it flying away. (Frankly, I’d rather look at wildlife than photograph it.)

After that, it was mostly various types of ducks.

A pair of Barrows Goldeneye ducks. IDed by my friend Dale.

A pair of Common Merganser ducks. Also IDed by Dale.

Duck on a Log
A female Common Merganser.

Paddling was pretty easy, even though I was moving upstream. There was a little bit of a breeze behind me and the current, for the most part, wasn’t even noticeable. I took my time, pausing plenty of times for rest and to just look around me or snap photos.

Eventually, we reached the lower end of a long island (see map above). I brought the boat up on a gravelly shore and stepped out. Penny jumped out and I unfastened her leash. It was a nice place to stop for lunch — sunny and quiet with a nice view down the lake. I settled down with my picnic lunch of salad, cheese sticks, and almonds while Penny sniffed around the island and nibbled goose poop. (Of course, that could explain why her digestive system hasn’t been quite right since then.)

Lunchtime View
I sat on the shore and looked down the lake while eating lunch.

After lunch, we continued upstream on the southwest side of the island, which seemed a bit shadier. Since spending the winter in Wenatchee, I’ve lost most (but fortunately, not all) of my year-round tan and I’m a bit susceptible to sunburn. The creek got narrower as I paddled upstream and the current became noticeable. I kept going, paddling around fallen trees and rocky sandbars.

Finally, we reached a place where there were “rapids” — if I could use so strong a word — as water rushed over rocks. I suspected I was pretty close to the top end of the island and got the idea that I could sort of portage the boat up the rapids by dragging it and then come back down the other side. I climbed out and gave it a try. I got about 100 feet upstream — far enough to look beyond to see whether I was near where the water split around the island. It didn’t look as if I was. So I turned the boat around, got back in, and paddled through the rapids back downstream.

Here’s a GoPro BowCam image as we left the “rapids” on our way back downstream. (You didn’t think I’d do this trip without a GoPro on board, did you?)

For the most part, Penny was pretty comfortable up on the bow, taking in the view. After her initial frustration of seeing so many ducks so close up and not being able to get them, she settled down. She took great interest in the weeds and sometimes river rocks right below the surface. She may even have seen a fish or two — she certainly reacted as if she’d seen something interesting.

Penny in the Bow
My dog will go anywhere with me.

The paddling was easy in the smooth, calm water with a hint of a current behind us. We were back at the bottom end of the island in no time. With no hurry to be anywhere else, I turned up the northeast side of the island and started paddling upsteam again.

Calm Water Reflections
Here’s another BowCam shot. The water was mirror smooth in some places.

Canada Geese
There was more to this scene than just a pair of Canada geese.

I shot some more photos along the way. The Canada geese shot was particularly memorable. As I paddled up the northeast side of the island, I saw a goose standing alongside the creek. I got my camera ready as the boat drifted upstream. That’s when I realized that there were two geese standing side by side. I snapped two good shots of them and then took a moment to just look at them. That’s when I saw the deer behind them, moving away into the brush. I’d been so focused on the geese that I’d missed the deer. And I’d been so surprised to see the deer that I didn’t react with my camera. Photo op lost, but that’s okay.

All of the birds — except the geese, of course — were spooky. Any time I got close, they’d take to the air. As I paddled up the side of the island, I got rather close to a pair of ducks. The GoPro captured footage of them taking off.

Runaway Ducks
A screen grab from the BowCam video. The ducks were airborne in less than 2 seconds.

I reached the rapids at the top end of the island and turned around without stopping. By then, I was ready to go back.

Later, back in the main body of the lake, I managed to capture some images of turtles, sunning themselves on logs. Like the birds, they were pretty spooky and I could only snap photos from quite a distance away.

Turtle on a Log
Bet you didn’t know turtles could climb trees. Per my friend Terry, this is a red eared slider.

Great Egret
This great egret was fishing across the lake from the boat ramp.

I caught sight of a great egret not far from the boat ramp and paddled over as close as I dared to get one final photo.

Afterwards, I paddled back to the boat ramp and brought the boat onshore. I fetched the truck, loaded up the boat, and climbed into the cab.

I took one quick ride through the campground to look at the peacocks again before heading back to our temporary home.

It had been a nice, relaxing day out. According to my GPS track, I’d paddled about four miles. Best of all, I had some really nice photos to share from my day out.

The Peacocks of Lake Solano Campground

A campground drive through turns into an amazing photo opportunity.

There are a few weird little things I like to do. (Actually, there are probably enough weird little things to fill a book, but we won’t go there now.) One of them is driving through public campgrounds to check out the facilities.

I don’t remember when I started doing this. It might have been way back when I first started doing road trips with my wasband in the 1980s. Or it might have been in 1995, when I began doing road trips on my own. In any case, when I’m on the road just wandering around and don’t have anyplace special to go and I see a state or county park campground that looks interesting, I detour to drive through it.

I’ve seen a lot of really neat places to go car camping this way. A lot.

Lake Solano, west of Winters, CA, was just a point on the map when I went out for a drive to Lake Berryessa midday yesterday. The satellite view on Google Maps didn’t show it to be anything special. But when I drove by it on my way up route 128 into the mountains, I noticed its calm, clear water stretching alongside the road. And after a 9-mile kayak paddle the day before that had left me very sore indeed, the calm water of the little lake looked extremely inviting for a paddle one day in the future. So on the way back, I drove slowly past the lake. And that’s when I noticed the sign for the campground.

A campground near a lake. Of course, I had to check it out.

It’s a nice campground with plenty of wooded site. I didn’t really notice whether water and electricity were available. The reason for that was the initial distraction of seeing what looked like a small person carrying some sort of netted frame along the road ahead of me. My brain asked, “What the hell is that?” I looked harder and soon realized I was seeing the side of a peacock with his fan of feathers fully extended. It was the fan that looked like a frame with a net.

I pulled over on the side of the road and grabbed my camera. I’d brought my Nikon D7000 with me, hoping to see something photographic at Lake Berryessa. (I’d been disappointed.) The bird was standing in the middle of the road, rotating slowly so all the females in the area could see him. When he faced me, I snapped a photo with the 24-70mm “everyday” lens that I keep on the camera.


Surrounded by PeacocksAnd that’s when I realized that we were pretty much surrounded by peacocks and peahens. They were strutting through the empty campsites, along the road, and into the brush. Occasionally, one would let out a shrill call. Penny stared at them through her window. I used my phone to grab a photo of that.

I spent the next twenty minutes driving around the campground, snapping photos out the truck window of the peacocks and peahens. When I realized after a few minutes that I wasn’t scaring them off, I took a moment to put my 70-300mm stabilized lens on the camera. Then I kept shooting. Yes, every single one of the shots on this page was taken from inside a running diesel pickup truck.







I did get a chance to check out the boat launch, which was perfect for canoes, kayaks, and other non-motorized boats. And I looked at a bunch of campsites, trying to judge whether my mobile mansion would fit into any of them.

But mostly I looked at the peacocks. I never realized just how beautiful these birds are.

Art History Book Mystery Partially Solved

So that’s why they sent me a copy!

Last spring, as I was finishing my packing and preparing to leave my Wickenburg home for good, a box arrived in the mail from Pearson Education. I’d been writing for Pearson’s Peachpit imprint since 1995 and assumed the box contained copies of my latest book about Mac OS X, translated into other languages. Of course, all my other books had already been packed and I was bummed that I couldn’t pack this latecomer with the others.

The Mystery

Art HistoryBut when I opened the box, I was very surprised to see that it wasn’t a translation of one of my books. It was an absolutely beautiful 1240-page hardcover book about art by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothern titled simply, Art History (Fifth Edition). A quick look on Amazon.com showed me that the book would cost nearly $200 to buy. That wasn’t difficult to believe. The book was beautiful.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have only a passing interest in art history. But paging through this book while trying to figure out why it had been sent to me, I realized that I was holding the definitive guide to the history of art — a book that covered art history as far back as prehistoric times. It was chock full of gorgeous full-color photos. Everything the average person could want to know about the history of art worldwide was in this amazing textbook.

But why the heck had it been sent to me?

I didn’t know the authors and I didn’t write textbooks. I had never voiced an interest in art history to anyone I knew. There was no note with the book. Nothing at all to explain why I’d gotten it. I wound up assuming that someone at Peachpit had sent it to me as a gift — I’d been getting quite a few little gifts from friends who sympathized with my divorce ordeal.

I packed the book carefully in one of the last boxes I sealed up. It would look nice on the coffee table in my next home. And maybe — just maybe — I’d have time to read some of it when I settled down again.

A Partial Solution

This morning, I got two email messages, each referring to permission to use one of my photos.

One message was from a woman named Evi, who I vaguely remembered from the past. In this new message, she told me she needed to “re-clear the rights to use the below picture” for a new edition of Stokstad’s Art, A Brief History. I scrolled down and saw one of my photos of the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio
I shot this image of Lookout Studio after dawn one day in October 2008, most likely while I was on one of Flying M Air’s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventures (which I stopped offering when I permanently moved out of Arizona).

It was very important, Evi told me, that my rights be extended to Pearson, the US publisher. The other message was from Pearson and included a permission form. (Pearson has forms for everything.)

Art Brief HistoryI looked up the book on Amazon.com and found a 640-page paperback book titled Art: A Brief History (5th Edition). Although I’d never seen the book before, it did get the wheels turning in my head. I did another Amazon search on the author’s name and found the book discussed at the beginning of this blog post — the book I’d received out of the blue at least nine months ago.

And then I remembered a bit more about my email exchange with Evi. It had been about two years ago. Her company had bought — actually paid — for the rights to use the photo. Somewhere along the line, I must have also requested a copy of the book. Months later, I got the check from the UK-based company drawn on a US bank, cashed it, and promptly forgot all about it.

Is it possible that they used my photo in such a big, beautiful book? Or did they use it in the shorter paperback she mentioned in her email message?

But the dates didn’t jive. The paperback book was published in December 2011. Surely it hadn’t been that long since all this transpired.

And if it was in that 640-page paperback book, then why had they sent me the 1240-page hardcover book?

Without asking for details — which I really don’t think is worth the bother; after all, this poor woman has thousands of pictures to get permissions for — the only way to know is to look through the book they sent me to see if my photo is in there. Of course, that box is still packed and still in storage. I likely won’t unpack it until later this summer, at the very earliest.

Permission Granted

I’ll definitely be giving them permission to use my photo again. And I won’t charge them a fee this time. I’m hoping that the photo did appear in the bigger book and that I get a copy of the smaller book once it’s revised.

Needless to say, I’m tickled that my work appeared in such wonderful volumes. Photography is just a hobby for me; to have my work recognized and used — with permission — in such a way really makes me happy.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Drones for Aerial Photography

I’m watching the developments closely for a few reasons.

I care about unmanned aerial vehicle or drone use, no matter what size it is. But I really care about drones flown by amateurs for photography.

The Death of a Revenue Stream

I first felt the sting of drone use for aerial photography when one of my best aerial photography clients began using a six-rotor, radio controlled quadrocopter to create some of their excellent 360° interactive panoramic images. Their setup even made international news when it photographed a protest in Moscow in 2012.

Bryce Canyon Pano
Our trip to Bryce Canyon was especially memorable because it was so freaking cold.

The drone seemed to be the perfect solution for one of our biggest problems: finding a cost-effective way to get an aircraft to some of the most remote locations in the world. In the past, I’d flown this client at Bryce Canyon in Utah, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Arizona, San Juan River Goosenecks in Utah, and the San Juan and Colorado River Confluence in Utah. Drones theoretically also made it possible for them to get images at places helicopters couldn’t legally fly — such as within certain national parks and other restricted airspaces. I worked with one photographer on many of our flights; he was just as disappointed as I was about the drone use because it meant he wouldn’t be sent to these locations, either.

As I saw more and more images and video footage shot from drones, I thought I was seeing the writing on the wall. Why spend $500 or more per hour to fly with a helicopter pilot when you could spend less than $10,000 for a ready to fly quadrocopter designed for photography that you could use over and over anywhere in the world? Or much less for something more basic, like a Parrot AR.Drone or Phantom Quadcopter that you could attach a GoPro camera to? Theoretically, an investment of less than $1,000 would give you everything you needed to get the aerial photos or videos you need.

Of course, you have to be able to fly the damn things. But apparently, that isn’t much of a problem.

So I saw the very real possibility of a revenue stream — aerial photography flights — drying up because of the proliferation of drones carrying cameras.

Bigger Worries

But there was something else that worried me — something that worried me much more. As a helicopter pilot, I often fly at or below 500 feet AGL (above ground level). And contrary to popular belief among airplane pilots, there is no minimum altitude for helicopters. I fly where it’s safe to fly and try hard not to annoy people on the ground. Still, there’s a very real possibility that I could be flying in the same airspace as someone with one of these drones.

And that scares me.

Yeah, you say. Fly higher. But sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes I need to fly closer to the ground. And besides, the FAA has given me permission — by issuing me a helicopter pilot certificate — to fly in this space. The same can’t be said for most drone operators.

Watch the video from the crashed drone.

These drones are not toys. They have the potential to be very dangerous. This became very apparent in October 2013 when a Quadcopter crashed in Manhattan after bouncing off a few buildings, landing only a few feet from a pedestrian.

Can you imagine what would have happened if this drone had struck someone on the ground? Or went through one of those office building windows? Or collided with a helicopter or small airplane?

Here’s what happened when a radio controlled helicopter struck the man controlling it in a Brooklyn, NY park in September 2013.

And the possibility of drones and aircraft colliding isn’t so remote. It almost happened near Denver in May 2012.

In December 2013, the PBS NewsHour did a story about this: “How will thousands of drones impact already crowded skies?” That story explores other issues, too, including computer-operated drones that can fly themselves and privacy.

The FAA Steps Up to the Plate

After dancing around the issue for a while, the FAA finally made a statement — and it’s one I’m very happy about.

It all started last week when the Spokesman-Review newspaper published a video shot from a “radio-controlled helicopter.” The aircraft that shot the video was clearly operating in close proximity to people on the ground — indeed, even right overhead. A self-proclaimed “troll” tweeted about it and the legality of “drone journalism” turned into a Twitter debate that was picked up by Poynter. The operator of the drone claimed such use was a “gray area” as far as the FAA was concerned. As covered in later articles on both Poynter and the PBS NewsHour, the FAA plainly stated that “drone journalism” is not allowed. According to the Poynter piece:

“There is no gray area,” said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

Hobbyists are allowed to use small, radio-controlled crafts under specific guidelines, but “if you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” he added.

Although I’m very happy about this development, I’m sure this isn’t the last word. I’m equally sure that drone photographers will find loopholes to avoid use being classified as “commercial” and that the practice of strapping cameras onto drones will continue into the future. Hopefully, however, drone operators will limit their use to more remote areas and keep them away from people and property on the ground.

It also proves to me that the FAA is finally paying attention to this issue. With luck, their attention will be enough to limit drone use for these purposes — at least until some sort of controls can be put in place to ensure safety.

January 10, 2014 Update: Watched the latest video of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee this morning. In the first 30 seconds of this video (after the commercial), you can see a UAV with a camera flying over the Delorean. Seconds later, it crashes. I’m thinking they didn’t do this on purpose — although Jerry masterfully works it into his script.

Screen Grab from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
This screen grab is from 1:11 in the Patton Oswalt episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. (Highly recommended show.)