Copia, Napa Valley

Copia was one of those great ideas that did not survive the test of time, or put another way, the wine world’s ever-shifting winds.  But its passing doesn’t mean that the great Robert Mondavi does not deserve any credit for his attempt to educate the great American wine lovers.  You could even marvel at Julia Child’s old kitchen there and wonder how all those old posts concocted such great meals.  But the tourists and wine enthusiasts did not show up in sufficient numbers to prevent bankruptcy, and now the main reason to stop by the little town of Napa is to catch the famous wine train that will take you up and down the valley while you try to shamelessly consume what the valley produces.

The day I visited Copia there was not much happening there, which perhaps explains its predicament.  Drove up from San Francisco (bad idea if you are planning to tour the wineries) instead of paying for a guided tour of some of the wineries.  The advantage of driving up yourself is that if you have your precious digital camera with you, you can pretty much stop anywhere to snap a photo of the ripening vines or the colorful wineries.  Well, at least before you start consuming the entire portfolio of wines from every winery down Route 29 and Silverado Trail.  And if you want to have a fantastic meal at one of the most trendy restaurants in the area without breaking the bank, stop by modern Redd for an unforgettable meal.

Union Square, San Francisco

OK, so Union Square in San Francisco is one of those places where you’ll see pretty much anything.  And the best thing is that you can pretty much stand on one spot and it all comes to you.  The place is simply like a magnet for people from all walks of life.  I found myself there because I was attending the Second Life virtual world conference, which turned out to be as colorful as the scenes that were playing out outside at the square.  This kind of led to the dilemma of whether to go to the conference or just hang outside at the square.  Of course, the outside was a lot more enticing, primarily because the place is so photo-friendly that it almost makes you forget the photo-phobias of the Washington, DC area.  What’s more, some of the most colorful characters in the place are more than glad to pose for photographs.  OK, not everyone.  I did take a picture of a homeless person and found myself on the receiving end of a string of obscenities that would make a sailor blush.  This was a bit disconcerting, specially when everyone there looked like a tourist with a camera hanging from his or her neck.  Lesson learned, though.

In addition to the many photo opportunities there, what makes Union Square such a great place to linger for a day are the many chic stores that face the square, as well as the great eateries that lie just a few blocks away between Sutter and Bush Streets.  The square is only a few blocks from Chinatown and its commercial heart is dominated by the two Macy’s stores (his and hers) that sit just across the street from the square.  Of course, the ever-present trolley cars are there too, packed with tourists precariously hanging from the back section.  Come to think of it, they make good photographs too.  And when you’ve had enough of all the hustle and bustle (or when your camera memory card is full) for the day, not far from the square on your way to Chinatown you’ll find the famously sleek Rouge et Blanc wine bar.   The great choice of wines-by-the-glass will surely take care of all your troubles.

Washington Marina, DC

Believe me when I say that I’m not totally sure what the Marina’s official name is, although if you dig a little you will find out that Southwest Waterfront is about as official a name as it will get.  Most people seem to refer to it as the place by the Potomac River where all those seafood restaurants are, or where you can catch a dinner boat for a few hours. I did discover a name for the section where the boats are docked: The Gangplank Marina.  Frankly, after living in the area for a while, this is the first time I ever hear of a Gangplank, although admittedly, I am not much of a boat person.

This place was extremely popular in years past, but fell of the “hipster” radar screen some years back, and for reasons I can’t remember. Notwithstanding this lost reputation, it remained one of the best places in DC to photograph, specially if you like those late afternoon shots like the ones here.  The light is simply amazing, even if some of those highlights insist on creeping into your pictures.  Walk the entire length of the waterside promenade and you will see people working on their boats, lovers walking slowly as if they had all the time in the world, and the occasional incredible portrait of someone who just stopped by to catch the last few minutes of sunshine in the day.  Oh, and if you get hungry at the end of it all, you will be only a few steps away from some of the area’s popular seafood restaurants.

Adams Morgan, DC

Adams Morgan is one of the most (if not the most) ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the Washington, DC area.  They could move the United Nations here and the delegates would feel right at home walking its streets.  Of course, one of the big drawbacks is that the place doesn’t have a metro stop, which means that you either get off at Dupont Circle or at Woodley Park-Zoo metro stops and then walk for about 8-10 minutes to get there.  But if your intention is to find interesting people and places to photograph, or get some great ethnic food in its many restaurants, then the walk is well worth it.  Be forewarned, though, that this diversity also bring some questionable characters to the area, so you will have to keep your eyes open while enjoying the lifestyle.

The neighborhood is also a great place for photographers, but you need to be mindful of the fact that some people do not want their photograph taken and are quite vocal about it.  This is specially the case around the small South American market that occupies the small square at the intersection of Calvert St. and 18th Street.  Took one photo of the group and they were on me like a cheap suit saying that photographs were not allowed by order of the “administrator,” whose office apparently was next to one of the many food stalls at the square.  The gentleman who approached me said the current administrator was really the “acting” administrator because the real administrator (a woman from Puerto Rico) was out of the area.  Apparently, the “official” reason they didn’t like anyone to photograph the market is that “people” were constantly trying to kick them out of the square by accusing them of something. However, he did smile when I asked him if that was the only reason. We left it at that and I moved on after snapping a couple of more pictures of the market from across the street.

Williamsburg, Virginia

Have the urge to rub elbows with history, but without breaking the old travel budget?  Then Williamsburg, Virginia is definitely a place for you.  For photographers this is one of those “must see” places in Virginia, where behind every tourist you will find a costumed actor evoking visions of another era.  Oh, yes, there is a city there too outside the historical district, but I’m not sure that anyone ever visits there.  The historical district is definitely the place to see and photograph.  This 18th Century gem of a town has more than 500 restored buildings, with a great number of them having been converted to shops, museums, and tourist attractions.  But be advised that for the average visitor it is almost impossible to distinguish between a local attraction and someone’s home.  They all look the same after a while and you will easily meander into a back yard and get some menacing looks in the process.

But this is a place for walking and exploring.  In fact, parking areas and driving streets are all outside the historical center, so there’s no escaping the walk (map).  That is, provided you decide not to dish out some savings to ride one of the many carriages that haul tourists up and down the main drag in old town.  Here’s my suggestion: start your walk from the old Capitol building and end up at William & Mary college.  I suggest this route because most of the best places to eat are at the college-end of the tourist area.  And believe me, you definitely want to eat downtown if you can because with few exceptions, the hotels in the area (and the food they serve) really leave a lot to be desired. Then again, why go to Williamsburg to stay in a hotel?

Fish Market, DC

Think that Washington, DC is all about government and cocktail party princesses?  Well, think again.  Not far from the power lunch joints in Congress lies the small fish market where politicos and common folks can mingle, even if it is for the time it takes to buy some Bay Area crabs or some Texas shrimp (yes, one vendor actually told me they get their shrimp from Texas).  This is a typical fish market, so if you happen to head on down to this Maine Ave institution, be ready for some pronounced fish smell, some yelling, loud music, but lots of friendly people.  From a photography point of view, this is a little-known paradise.  The best thing is that no one seems to mind much if you take his or her picture, but like people anywhere, they do respond to a photographer’s courtesy and friendliness.  This comes easy, though, because there’s plenty to talk about when you can’t recognize half the fish you see there on any given day.  How many types of shrimp are there?  Parking is also very good, but do take coins because it is all meter-based.  Oh, and if you plan to buy some fish for that great dinner party, I would suggest you pack a cooler with ice.  Then again, if you are there to take pictures, fish oil may be the last thing you want on your fingers.

The Village Of Shirlington, Virginia

This is a place that is easily missed by most people, but the word is rapidly getting out that this may be one of DC Metro’s new hangouts.  The Village of Shirlington lies just south of the Pentagon (actually the first exit off I-395), but for the metro dependent DC crowd, it might as well be worlds away.  You guessed it: there’s no metro stop there.  What’s there are tons of nice restaurants, a great wine shop, live theater, and a great movie house showing those movies you just can’t find anywhere else.  What it all boils down to is to the perfect “dinner and a movie” kind of place.  However, if dancing the night away or hanging out at crowded, meat-market bars is your kind of thing, then Shirlington is definitely not for you.  After the dinner crowds begin to thin out, the place takes somewhat of a somber, “it’s time to go to sleep” kind of personality.  That is, unless your thing is to hang around Harris Teeter during the late hours.  That you can do here.

But what Shirlington offers, it offers with a sense of class and in abundance.  Want to go high-end?  Then head on down to the Carlyle, which is perhaps the best restaurant in the area.  Oh, and if you are still in the game and have a good paying job, then hang around the bar for a while so you can connect with your kind.  Or if you are one of those people who would rather watch Dirty Jobs on the tube than The Life of the Rich and Famous, then cross the street to the Cap City Brewing Company for a cold beer.  Fill out one of their little cards with your name and email, and they will be sending you some freebies on your birthday too.  You can even learn something about wine before hitting Signature Theater or the movies by hanging around The Curious Grape wine shop, which has a free tasting bar that is always open.  So, you may not be able to do any dancing in Shirlington, but after visiting all these places you might not care anyways.

What I Really Saw

Sometimes, your eyes just see beyond the photograph you are about to take.  I should say from the beginning that I am no artist.  Far from it. However, I think that I’m probably right in saying that most photographers tend to see at least two things when they look at a scene: the simple photographic reality in front of them, or a whole range of possibilities that will inevitably move the scene into some form of altered reality. The latter is exactly what happened when I saw these two gentlemen a couple of months ago, and thanks to the great folks from Nik Software, I was able to use their filter plug-ins in Capture NX 2 to recreate that altered reality I could have sworn I saw that day.

The top photograph was taken at Bethesda, MD and was processed using Color Efex Pro via Capture NX 2.  I applied the Bleach Bypass filter to bring out those dramatic lines on the gentleman’s face and then played with the setting for a while until my eyes told me to stop.  Pretty much the same setting for the bottom photo, but this time I used the Solarization filter to bring out some of that contrast and in order to achieve the colors that matched my mood at the time.

Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

It is always a sure bet to find something happening in Old Town Alexandria, specially around King Street (the main street for commerce) and around the waterside.  For photographers this is also the place that keeps on giving.  The place is specially good for photography during those magic hours in the early morning and late afternoon.  Of special interest is the area around the famous Torpedo Factory, where the multi-level art center attracts all sorts of people, performers, and curiosity seekers.  However, noon hours are particularly bad because the light-colored buildings do reflect a lot of light, thus making you work very hard for those nice shots.  Then again, you could turn inside during those hours to photograph some of the Torpedo Factory scenes.  But be aware that some of the artists are extremely sensitive about strangers taking pictures of their work.  In fact, they can be quite direct when they see you pull out that telephoto lens.  OK, I wasn’t planning to do anything with the photos anyway.

Best photo trail: walk down King Street from the King Street metro station all the way down to the Torpedo Factory.  After photographing everything that moves there, proceed via the dock/marina area to some of the adjacent parks. You will see great boat scenes and people doing all sorts of things, from playing guitar by the waterside to speed painters trying to impress the tourists for food money.  You just can’t go wrong with this place.

Occoquan, Virginia

Had a chance to visit the historic village of Occoquan in Prince William County, Virginia.  Not a great day for taking photos, as temperatures were quite low and there was a bit of glare bouncing off the buildings. However, Occoquan continues to be a rather quaint and laid back place, but one that is at its best in the warmer months of the year.  You could tell that merchants seemed to have some free time on their hands, as several of them came out to talk to me and ask me whether i was taking some good pictures.  They all got my standard answer: I sure hope so.  Check out the top picture, where I used the Topaz Adjust plugin to give some added punch to a rather simple photograph.  I think I’m going to like this plugin, but have a little to go before I figure out its full capability.

Aguadilla, Puerto Rico

OK, I was compelled to post these pictures here on the blog out of nostalgia, or something like it.  Living in the DC Metro area these days has not been altogether fun for photographers, as temperatures continue to plunge and a mercury reading of 37 degrees is considered good news.  To say that it has been cold lately would be a gross understatement.  So, as our fingers freeze and our photo outings don’t take place as often as we would like, I got to thinking about sunsets in the Caribbean and the slow, rhythmic days that characterize the west coast of Puerto Rico.  These photos are from the small town of Aguadilla, which is famous for producing some of the island’s best artists while maintaining it character as a throwback to another era when Spaniards roamed its streets.  But it’s the sunshine that matters most to me today, and the endless sound of the crashing waves.  It sure beats the cold, short days we’re all experiencing near the nation’s capital; not to mention the endless sound of our shivering teeth.

On this particular day I was able to sit by the ocean and chat with some of the local fishermen and young men trying to fly their colorful kites.  We talked about sunsets in this part of the island, about fishing (which I do not do), and about the virtues of living life at a reduced rate of speed.  In fact, they all seemed to have mastered the slow lane down there.  For more than an hour we all sat there waiting for the sun to go away, and in typical fashion for that part of the world, it did just that, but not without first putting on a spectacle of colors for all in attendance.  It all seemed to last forever, but no one there seemed to mind.

National Harbor, Maryland

Maryland?  Yes.  I guess we all have to admit that when it came to the side of Maryland that borders our nation’s capital, not too many places got people in their cars to eagerly drive there on a Saturday morning.  OK, with the exception of Bethesda’s downtown, which will be the subject of another story.  But if you haven’t made the trek to the new National Harbor in Maryland, then you are really missing out.  The good thing is that it is very close to DC just past the Woodrow Wilson bridge (directions).  I’ve been there several times to like they say, “see what I see.”  Or more appropriately, to see what the camera sees.  And the camera sees a lot there.

One of the first sights that you’ll see once you get down to the waterside is the old Neptune sculptor that used to be at Haynes Point in DC.  This was not a popular move, but I think most people have gotten used to the statute’s new home.  Actually, it looks good there, even if a bit too old a sight compared with all the glitter around it.  You’ll also find a ton of great restaurants there (the interior photo above is from the Sauciety restaurant at The Westin hotel), with prices for pretty much everyone.  OK, more for the fully employed than the marginally employed dreamer, but hey, they have to recoup some of that investment after all.  But do go there for events and to eat your heart out because when it comes to things to see, you are somewhat limited to the marina and the main plaza area (where Neptune lies half-buried).

And what if you are a photographer?  Then the answer is YES.  We’re talking people, boats, lovers, sky, and lots of reflective glass.  Lots of colors, but do avoid those noon hours where the sun will fill your photos with glare and bright spots that you’ll never get out, not even with Photoshop.

Penn Quarters, DC

Chinatown

No question about it, Penn Quarters is an up-and-coming neighborhood in DC.  This place used to be a real dump about a decade ago, but its shady past is hard to imagine once you see the neighborhood in its present form.  One sad part of this new facelift was the fate of the old Chinatown.  Don’t get me wrong, it is still there, but it’s only a mere shadow of its old ethnic self.  What you will find these days are slick restaurants like Zaytinya, Jaleo, and Zola, coupled with some great beer joints and attractions like the Spy Museum.  All this has given the neighborhood a reputation as a good hang-out place where you can find great food, cheap beers, and a few attractions (Spy Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Verizon Center, and the Crime and Punishment Museum).

But not everything has changed with the times.  Need a good place to experience some pick-pocketing fun?  Well, this may be your place too, as the place seems to have more than its share of unsavory characters hanging around.  This is specially the case around both Metro exits (Gallery Place-Chinatown stop) and the Verizon Center.  Good place to practice your street-smarts moves.

Hello World!

This is my first post and hopefully the start to a media-rich new site.  Expect to see lots of photography and some video as I attempt to document events and places around the world.  Ambitious?  Of course, but what is life without ambition?  Come with me to look into those millions of little stories that take place around the world every day, but which go unnoticed and undocumented forever.  Well, no more.  I will do my best to document all the stories I can get to, and if in the process you come to enjoy this journey with me, then the more rewarding this effort will be.  Visit often!