Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Wedding of the Year

Yesterday, Alastair and Rebecca tied the knot. Congratulations! A very special occasion for celebration. Just one photo for now:

Thursday, December 18, 2003

London and the Eye

London just before Christmas! A good time to be there, particularly when the weather cooperates. On Wednesday evening we enjoyed the Royal Commonwealth Society's Christmas Concert in St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Trafalgar Square) and then the Society's annual Christmas Party at their headquarters on Northumberland Avenue. Next morning the sun shone with a winter's low angle brilliance that cried out for some photography. So we decided to take a "flight" on the London Eye. The London Eye is the largest "observation wheel" in the World and is a truly maginificent experience. A few photos taken with the Finepix S7000 cannot do it justice, but here goes!

The London Eye from Westminster Bridge

View of Hungerford Bridge

At the Top of the Eye

St. Pauls and the City

April and Big Ben

On the way down

Friday, December 12, 2003


So here I am in Houston. Two down, three to go (three flights in ~4 days). And the first thing I do is put my wallet through the washing machine! I only hope the bank card works at the ATM tomorrow morning!

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Caracas Airport - Maiquetia

Caracas is located up a mountain - I've not been there yet, but I am told it's "up there" at the end of a freeway with tunnels through three mountain chains. The airport is at sea level in a place called Maiquetia. This post is about Maiquetia. As the main gateway to modern Venezuela, the airport looks much like any other large airport. Lots of unfinished concrete and tiles, uncomfortable chairs, taxi touts and petty crime.

The other day I met a man who had lost his luggage while standing in line at the check-in counter. A team of two worked him over, one distracting while the other walked off with a carry on bag containing passport, wallet, laptop, etc. Welcome to international travel, it's oh so glamorous (or so those who don't travel think!)

Then there's the situation where a man offers to take you through a back passage in order to avoid security. I had this offered to me at the domestic terminal but a colleague reported the same activity at the international terminal.

Airports could do so much to improve security, particularly for strangers. Deciding to become better informed, I asked a fellow passenger what I should do if the car sent to meet me wasn't there. Simple, he said, avoid the taxi touts and look for an official black taxi in the form of an SUV. So why doesn't the airline and the airport make this information readily available? I can't believe the taxi touts have the backing of a powerful union.

An abandoned well and pump

On Tuesday I spent the day surveying an old oilfield, discovered in 1936 and still producing a small quantity of oil. This well was shut in long ago. Long enough for vegetation to take a strangle hold. I don't see this as an eyesore, any more than I do the numerous abandoned mines in Colorado or the scars of old granite quarries on Dartmoor. I call them a part our heritage, ikons of our species!

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Having enjoyed Theroux's travel writings in the past (The Great Railway Bazaar, the Patagonia Express) I bought his latest travel epic, Dark Star Safari, to read during this trip to South America. This evening I finished following the brave journey from Cairo to Capetown. I have not been to many of the countries described in the book, but Theroux has reminders of Africa in general on every page. So a description of East Africa seems to fit quite well with my West African experiences.

Perhaps the saddest part of this book is Theroux's own conclusion that little has changed in the 35 years since he lived and worked in Malawi and Uganda as a Peace Corps teacher. If anything, things have gotten worse. Not just AIDS, bad enough that that scourge is, but the overall reliance on others to bail out Africa, be it money, food, infrastructure, anything, everything.

He notes that he felt happiest in the rural areas where there was a measure of self-sufficiency, albeit at the total expense of national progress. He blames the leadership of Africa and their total reliance on foreign aid (which more often than not buys the leaders their perqs and provides little to the people in need). His greater scorn, though, is aimed at all the foreigners in their white Land Rovers and Land Cruisers who drive around doling out what little gets through to a people now totally dependent on the next aid shipment.

Whatever happened to the concept of "Don't just feed a starving man, give him the tools to feed himself"?

The book itself is strongly recommended. Theroux seems to have gotten even better at painting pictures with words. This is a book that needs no illustrations. I also envy his ability to simply catch a bus or make a split decision to take the long road round an obstacle, to eat the local food and survive, and to sleep in places where sleep is impossible unless you realize there is simply no alternative.

Monday, December 08, 2003

The Price of Petrol(eo)

Here in Venezuela, an OPEC country, unleaded gasoline costs 97 Bolivars a liter. Unleaded petrol in England costs around 75 pence a liter. There are 27 Bolivars to each penny (£1 = 2,720 Bolivars) which means that petrol in Venezuela costs 21 times less than in England!

Both countries produce oil, one levies no tax, the other levies too much.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

My own oil well!!!

Well, not really. As a shareholder I suppose I own a very, very small part of this well, a percentage probably too small to calculate. It's Uracoa UM-152, Eastern Venezuela. Just completed and flowing about 1,800 barrels a day of oil through the valves I have my hand on! A good feeling, courtesy of my host for the day, Operations Manager John Paul McKee, who took the photo during a brief tropical downpour that couldn't dampen my spirits.

Friday, December 05, 2003

The Fujifilm Finepix S7000 - a short Review

The Fujifilm Finepix S7000 is positioned at the top of of the consumer range and has many professional features, thus qualifying for the monicker "prosumer camera". So it is not a Nikon D series but it is also much more than a point and shoot digital snapshooter.

The features that help to qualify for "prosumer" status include:

A 6.3 megapixel CCD
Interpolation to 12.3 million pixels (4048 x 3040)
A 6x f2.8 quality zoom lens with additional digital zoom available
A Through-The-Lens electronic viewfinder, switchable to LCD screen
Three meter modes
TTL contrast type autofocus with manual override
File format option includes CCD-RAW uncompressed
Storage media can be both xD Picture Card and Microdrive/CF Type II
USB 2.0 file transfer
Fully manual operation (exposure, focus, flash)

The features that are usually associated with point and shoots include:

Built in flash (but there is also a built in flash shoe)
Automatic exposure programs (i.e. P and SP modes)
Movie option with sound

In general, the S7000 is a relatively easy camera to use, given that there are lots of menus to become accustomed to. It is easy to operate as a point and shoot. The negatives are far fewer than the positives and so I will stress the few negatives I could do without!

Start up time takes a couple of seconds as the lens has to telescope out from the body. Once ready to shoot there is a small shutter lag (I would guess around 1/10 to 1/5 of a second) which can be reduced by using pre-set manual or semi-manual focus;

I have ordered a very fast flash card so that images can be saved quickly. There seems to be no point using this camera in 2 or 3 megapixel mode, so large files need to be saved quickly if several photos are to be taken in succession with CCD-RAW switched on. I'll update on this once I have tested the faster storage card;

Fuji should have included the optional AC power supply as it really is necessary when transfering files to the computer;
Apple's Image Capture software doesn't always recognize the camera connection. I am not sure why but a restart is then necessary;

I have also ordered two extra sets of high capacity Ni-MH AA batteries as the one good set I have discharge quite quickly. I wouldn't even consider putting alkalines in the camera unless it was in an extreme emergency!

Here is an image trimmed down from a larger file:

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Downtown Maturin and a New Digital Camera

I am spending a lot of time in Maturin, Eastern Venezuela and one part of the assignment will be to photograph oilfield installations in this petroleum-rich province. This morning (very early) we drove through downtown for the first time in daylight, so I took this photo through the windshield.

Before I left Houston I decided to buy a new digital camera. Camera Co-op, my favorite camera store in Houston, showed me a number of models and I ended up with the Fujifilm Finepix S7000, a new model which is Fuji's "pro-consumer" model of the month (digital cameras must be on an exponential model upgrade curve). The S7000 is a 6 megapixel model with 12 megapixel interpolation, giving 35 meg files, almost as detailed as our Nikon slide scanner.

Like all digital products the camera takes some getting used to but the results have been quite pleasing. Later I'll do a more detailed review and make some comments about the accessories that are really necessary in this digital age.
Is film dead at focalplane.com? No. The F5 is still a great camera and slide film is an excellent medium.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Moor Street Station, Birmingham

An earlier post discussed the new Bullring development in Birmingham and how it has taken that part of the city back to its roots. We decided to check it out in mid-November and found the shopping center to be a disappointment - completely turned over to the under thirties. Selfridges, the anchor store with the wierd architecture is already looking tired, heaven knows what it will look like in thirty years time, possibly worse than the 1960s structure it replaced.

The two highlights of the redevelopment are not new, however, but the restored parish church of St. Martins in the Bull Ring and Moor Street Station. The latter is in the process of being rebuilt as it looked like in the 1930s. The track alignment for the terminal platforms will have to wait a while, but when complete, Chiltern Railways may have the finest end-to-end run in Europe from London Marylebone to Birmingham Moor Street - both stations have a charm unusual in this day and age.

The photo below was taken from the bridge leading into Selfridges from the car park. The Churchward designed 2-8-0 Great Western Railway freight locomotive is a static display that advertises the fact that Moor Street will be a steam engine terminus for the Shakespeare Line (steam trains every weekend to Stratford-upon-Avon).

Friday, October 31, 2003

Two weeks in South America

A busy two weeks spent mostly inside an inside office, but I did get to visit the mountains north of Maturin, Venezuela, last Sunday. This is where the F2 was used for the first time in several years (see October 17 entry). The slides will be processed in a few days time and hopefully one or two images will be posted here. The main reason for taking the F2, to photograph oil field installations, was not to be, but there will be another opportunity and I may use the F5 next time.

The reason for not being sure about this is that I have been searching for an airline compatible case that can carry both a laptop computer and a large camera like the F5 with several lenses. The high end digital cameras are similar in size to the F5 so you would think there might be a market for such a bag. But so far I have not found one.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

MetroRail Open Day

Beautiful weather today, no humidity, no clouds. MetroRail chose the perfect setting for showing off the new light rail trains at Reliant Park. Lots of photos to come. The trains are excellent, the Metro people friendly and helpful.

Since I was there, I decided to walk across Reliant Park to the new stadium. Lots of interesting Texana sculptures were photographed and then I moved on to the new stadium itself, site of the 2004 SuperBowl. After taking a couple of wide angle shots I was stopped by security from taking any more. A sad reflection on our society. Not the first time I have been accosted by security but everytime it happens I wonder why. Of course, in this day and age there is the real threat of terrorism but that being the case, shouldn't security have demanded that I destroy the film?

Friday, October 17, 2003

Nikon F2

In anticipation of a work assignment that requires I carry minimum equipment and not be too obtrusive, I have dusted off the 28 year old Nikon F2 and bought a beat up but otherwise optically sound 28mm f 2.8 AIS wide angle lens. This lens is considered one of Nikon's best ever lenses so it will be interesting to compare results with more modern lenses.

The Nikon F2 is a classic. With a Photomic meter built in to the pentaprism head it offers good exposure control while the camera itself is efficient, not too heavy, and in this day and age, virtually indestructable. Just after I bought it, in 1976, I accidentally dunked it in a river in Indonesia, but only for a split second. A quick toweling off and it worked just fine. Modern electronic cameras don't survive such treatment - my Nikon Coolpix was ruined when I knocked a small glass of water over it while staying at a B&B this past summer. The cost to repair was quoted to be far more than to replace it with a comparable model.

Friday, October 10, 2003


Ellis used to be a neighbor in Montrose. We actually met as a result of being active participants on photo.net. One day I walked into AZ Lab and Ellis heard my name. "Not the Paul Ashton on photo.net?" "Er, yes!?" I replied, wondering if I had in some way upset this 6' 4" but friendly looking guy with some controversial comment on one of the forums. "I really liked that brown pelican shot you posted the other day!" We've been good friends ever since!

About that time Ellis started dating Guinevere and then they got married. A wonderful ceremony at an exciting venue - the Live Oak Friends Meeting House (check out their site and note the James Turrell Skyspace). Then they moved to Atlanta and shortly after baby Alison was born. We have yet to meet Alison but thanks to Ellis' frequent digital newsletters and photo albums we know here quite well!

Well, do check out ellisvener.com - a well-designed gallery of fine pictures. And there's a rogue or two in Ellis' gallery!

A Good Photoshop "Read"

"How to" books on software programs are an expensive purchase. Too often the software they support moves to the next release just after the book is published. In this case, however, the truth seems to be that Adobe Photoshop 7.0 for Photographers by Martin Evening will have a reasonable shelf life even though Photoshop 7.0 has just been upgraded. This books comes with a vey useful CD that contains a number of full feature Quicktime movies that really do demonstrate (at a fast pace) how to undertake several of the more mystifying Photoshop procedures. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this book is that, although it is for both Apple and Windows users, all the examples are illustrated using OS X. Too often books try to cater to both systems to the point of alternating examples between the two - which must be confusing to all.

After reading about half of the book in some detail it occurred to me that there must be very few real Photoshop gurus on the planet and that even those on the credit list of the program itself may not be fully acquainted with every nuance of this landmark piece of software. That being said, Evening may be up there with the most knowledgable.

Now for the commercial. FocalPlane is an Amazon Associate. If you, the reader, find this site useful - perhaps you enjoyed surfing the portfolios or reading the travelogues - there is a way to say "Thank You" and benefit all of us! Simply click through any of the links to books you find on this site and then make a purchase within 24 hours from Amazon.com and we will receive a small commission and you will receive a bargain! And you don't even have to buy the book that formed the link. Buy anything! Buy everything!

Monday, September 29, 2003

Light Rail is arriving in Houston in 2004

We live three blocks from one of Houston's new MetroRail stations. On purpose.

The future of alternative public transportation in this city of concrete freeways looks like it will finally arrive early next year. To celebrate this momentous occasion as well as to assist in the promotion of many more miles construction in the future, an ongoing portfolio is to be created in the next three months. It will take the form of a chronology but will also take a hard look at the artistic side of the MetroRail concept. Pro-rail groups are welcome to link and refer.

The current status is that four trains have been delivered and are being tested at the southern end of the 7.5 mile system. More trains should arrive next week. The system is slated to start passenger operations on January 1, 2004, in time for the Superbowl. I spoke with an engineer at South Fannin on Friday and he is confident that the start date will be honored.

Laying the Tracks - May 2002

Future single line operation on San Jacinto in the Museum District. Downtown Houston in the background.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Another Special Entry

April went to see Lucy, Jeff and baby Isobel today. Pete took the photo and by the wonders of modern technology, here is Isobel in April's arms! Isn't she cute!

Isobel May Chilberto

Banbury, September 25, 2003

Taken by digital camera, image temporarily uploaded to peteashton.com, downloaded in Houston, image re-scaled and adjusted, posted here, all in about an hour!

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

A Special Entry!

Today I became a grandfather! Daughter Lucy gave birth to Isobel May Chilberto, weight 7 lbs 2 oz at 12:52 p.m. The due date was approaching fast and Lucy was having fun monitoring her family "blog". So I thought "why not scan a slide of Lucy when she was just born and send it off for inclusion in her blog". I chose the picture shown below - technical details are in the box to the right. I doubt if Lucy opened the e-mail attachment before giving birth and as they're going to have their hands full from now on, I decided to post it here.

Congratulations, Lucy and Jeff. I am looking forward to taking lots of photos of Isobel! I understand it is the grandparents' privilege to spoil their grandkids rotten. What fun!

Lucy Elisabeth Chilberto nee Ashton

Singapore, November 1975.

Scanned from a Kodachrome slide with minor color correction. The archival qualities of Kodachromes are second to none

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Washover Channels near Cape Hatteras, courtesy of Isabel

NOAA has published a number of after-the-storm aerial photos from the devastation caused by Hurricane Isabel. Following FocalPlane's publication of the Padre Island travelogue with its pictures of washover channels, I thought it would be interesting to bring one of the pictures on board - thanks NOAA for such excellent imagery!

The image is from the barrier beach near Cape Hatteras. The Atlantic is to the right. The barrier beach has been breached in several places. It would be interesting to follow this break and see how quickly longshore drift bridges the gap.
Image downloaded from NOAA

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Coastal Texas Update

The weather broke yesterday with fresh clear dry air as a result of a cool front moving through, pushing three days' worth of clouds and rain off into the Gulf. I wasn't planning on going anywhere but the great outdoors beckoned. So I decided to spend the day surveying old haunts along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast.

Surfside, Texas was partially hit by Hurricane Charlotte in July. The main effect was the removal of the small and fragile dunes with little additional damage to property. The beach is probably the Upper Coast's best in terms of sand and water quality (the mud content increases to the northeast) but this is no paradise except when the weather is just right, as it was Saturday. Water temperature is still in the mid 80ºs!

Galveston Island (accessed by paying $2 at the San Luis Pass Bridge) is the subject of a lot of new development. Here the battle of Texas' open beaches is being fought between those who own smart beach properties and those who simply want to enjoy the beach. the Texas Open Beaches Act clearly defines the rights of the individual but some of these rights are being eroded by local authorities and residents' associations who deny or charge entry and then claim they are supplying additional services (such as chemical toilets and trash barrels).

Passing straight through Galveston (people everywhere having lots of fun) I ended up in line at the Bolivar Ferry. This is Texas' best kept free cruise secret! Yes, it's free. Once the car is on board, leave it and go upstairs to the upper deck and enjoy the scenery. Shipping, wildlife, cloudscapes and the antics of others make this a short 15 minute journey. Too short.
The Bolivar Peninsular is more of the same barrier island system guarding the Texas coast, but in some ways the development here is a little less organized and more egalitarian than West Beach Galveston.

The road turns inland at High Island due to storms that have washed out the coast road between High Island and Sabine Pass. However, a lot of vehicles were up there so I followed, driving about four miles. This is a desparate place and I have no wish to return. As I turned round I noted I was in amongst a Naturist gathering. Apparently this area is Texas' only clothing optional beach. Somehow it just didn't make sense. The beach is littered with blocks of eroded roadway, the ocean in muddy brown, the sand is dirty and here were people desiring to bare it all in the only place the "authorities" would allow. They should all emigrate to France!

High Island was asleep - well it isn't spring! Explanation: High Island is a popular birding destination during the spring northern migration. A few grackles would have disappointed even the most avid birder! So I drove on to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. The evening sun kept the mosquitoes away as I drove around Shovelers Pond, hoping to see a few aligators. No such luck. Apart from some snowy egrets in flight the place was as deserted as High Island. So I turned west and drove into the setting sun, back to Houston.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Two more permanent features

The first:

The Becker Collection - a series of photographs from the Texas Hill Country vineyard and winery of Richard and Bunny Becker

The second:

Flying Over Greenland - Dating back to August 2000, this sequence of photos was taken from a window on one of Continental Airlines' new Boeing 777 aircraft.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

19th Century Birmingham

Check this out on focalplane.com

Monday, September 08, 2003

Improving a scan

Friend Karen Stanley sent us this photograph taken in the English Lake District - Hard Knott Pass. In the e-mail she noted: "The view is from Hardknott Fort, about twelve miles west of Windermere on the road from Little Langdale to Boot, looking to the northeast. It's one of my favorite spots in England and well worth a visit if you find yourself in the Lake District. (We seem to have cut off the top of Bow Fell, though, and the focus is not too good, although that may have been the scanner's fault.)"

After a few moments working with the jpeg file, I made some adjustments! See below.

Nature photographers often have a problem with the "manufacture" of scenery and other digital manipulations. I am not sure that Bow Fell actually looks like it is shown above, but it must be a close approximation. The sharpening is a custom FocalPlane routine using a particular setting from Photoshop's vast array of options.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Looking at Old Photographs

Robert Pols has written several books on how to date when a photograph was taken by examining its contents. Not always available in print, they are invaluable aids for the genealogist and photo restorer alike. Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Good film processing

In many ways, good film processing is as important as the image itself. If you are lucky enough to find a really good film processor, don't be tempted to stray! We use a professional lab in Houston and no-one else. AZ Lab has an interesting history. Architectural photographers Joe Aker and Gary Zvonkovic founded their business in 1978 and in 1994 decided to add a full service lab. Located at 4710 Lillian, near the junction of Shepherd and Washington, they are open from 8 in the morning until 8 at night and offer fast turnround and great quality.

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Exciting times on a photo-safari-cum-weekend on the beach!

We shouldn't be here to write this! Well, if we had had our way, we would still be camping out on the beach, 54 miles "down island" on the Padre Island National Seashore.

Instead, along came Tropical Storm Grace, a poorly organized weather system in the Gulf of Mexico. We had already spent Friday afternoon and all day Saturday being beach bums and at 9 p.m. we were settling down to post-dinner relaxation when a park ranger drove up. He explained that the tidal surge was expected to seal us off and advised us to exit the beach as quickly as possible.

Which we did, striking camp in about 15 minutes (basically throwing everything into the back of the car regardless of its condition!) and set off up an already emptied beach to Malaquite and the black top road out of the park. There is only one way off the island and we made it to Corpus Christi in good time by 11:45 p.m.

There didn't seem much point in hanging around and waiting for Grace to show up, so we headed home, driving the last hour through the outer spirals of Grace's squalls. We arrived in Houston at 3:15 a.m.

So, we spent less time doing what we wanted to do but, by taking good advice, are here to tell the tale. 54 miles down a one way beach track is definitely remote and somewhat exposed to the risks of Nature! Thanks to the park ranger we got out in good time (though I believe the storm probably did not have as bad an effect as feared - a case of "better safe than sorry"). For an example of how Hurricane Brett passed over Padre Island in 1998, take a look at this movie (4.4 Mbytes, broadband recommended).

Also, we did not take as many photos as planned. Which is always a good excuse to return.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

An existing focalplane feature is reborn!

In The News has been a feature of focalplane's website since August 30, 2003. Now it is moving to Blogger. Some of the entries will be updated and modified but generally the threads will be the same. This was the original entry for this date:

While sitting on the beach I had an idea - an In The News window accessed from the home page. And here it is - the page will feature travel tidbits, photos and links. The date of the latest entry will be included on the home page link to make it easy to check for new entries. Perhaps later on we'll make it interactive.

Perhaps becomes reality!