Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.
Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.
The city of Chicago never ceases to surprise you. It seems that every time I visit (which, granted, is not too often), the place has significantly changed in one way or another. Unfortunately, these days, when we hear about Chicago in the news, the headlines have more to do with the escalating crime rate than with all the wonderful things that are happening in the city. That’s a pity, because without a doubt, this city has one of the most vibrant urban environments I’ve seen anywhere. Like in New York City, people are about at all hours of the day and night. Incredible restaurants dot just about every block downtown, and if you take the time to walk down the beautiful riverwalk promenade, you’ll be able to do some wine tasting while watching the never-ending boat procession sailing down the Chicago River. The negative headlines are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind in the beautiful downtown area, as the city simply takes your mind away from those concerns.
There’s also a lot more to the city than the famous Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, even if that mile alone is worth a special trip to Chicago. After all, right smack in the middle of that mile you’ll find the out-of-this-world Dylan’s Candy Bar store, which is sure to induce a Pavlovian response from even the strongest mortal. But venture a few blocks west of this famous mile, and you’ll come face-to-face with such places as the incredible Italian import that is the Eataly food emporium. You could spend an entire week inside the place indulging in a joyous adventure of pure, unadulterated gluttony.
But with only a day-and-a-half to spare during this trip, I chose to spent most of my available photography time in a couple of areas: walking under the overhead Metro lines that shoot down N. Wabash Street and visiting the adjacent Theater District in the N. State Street area. These areas south of the Chicago River are perfect for street photography, and while not as busy as the famous mile north of the river, they provide ample elbow room for photographers to do their thing. Venture a few blocks east and you’ll bump right into the plush Grant Park, which also affords a whole slew of photographic opportunities. It is neighborhoods like these that make Chicago such a well-kept photographic secret. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if urban photography is your thing, then during the summer months Chicago has to be up there on your list of great cities to visit for great urban photography. The beautiful architecture alone merits its ranking on that list. Come winter, though, the Windy City will live up to its Arctic reputation, and perhaps you’ll be better off taking your precious self to a place where no one has ever suffered from frostbite. Fair-weather photography advice? Maybe, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Every year after the 4th of July celebrations in Washington, DC, a sort of lethargy descends on the locals. Not that this is a character trait, mind you, but rather that after all the fireworks and concerts (not to mention the terrorist threats) people are kind of spent. This year, not even the weather was adding any cheers to the weekend, as storms forced the evacuation of the National Mall hours before the concert and fireworks were about to start. Talk about damper.
But if there’s something you can always count on during summer weekends, it is the myriad of seasonal farmer markets that come-hell-or-high-water, will be there to sell their products. The region is blessed when it comes to farmers and produce. Vendors from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia descend on DC every weekend bringing such variety of products that they often leave these city slickers dumfounded. And then there’s the Chesapeake Bay, with a seafood bounty that could even impress the folks from the Deadliest Catch in Alaska.
But when it comes to rarity, there’s one product that always challenges the best of them: artisanal bread. Who would’ve known that we have so many great artisanal bakeries (and even patisseries) in the tristate region. When I lived in the suburbs I could’ve sworn they had been rendered illegal. Bread came from the supermarket, mass produced and with enough preservatives to guarantee that future archeologists could still eat it 1,000 years from now. Luckily, there’s still hope, an local farmer markets are giving these emerging bakeries some well-deserved exposure. My waistline awaits their renaissance.
Wide-angle photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ask any photographer out there what his or her favorite focal length is, and more-likely-than-not the answer will be other than a wide-angle lens. I count myself in this group, because throughout the years I’ve developed a real affinity for 50mm lenses. You could say that 50mm is my general visual comfort level, even if this sounds a lot less glamorous than the more technical explanations you’ll see on the Internet. But it is what it is, and no matter how many times I hit the streets with my camera, a 50mm is always inside my bag.
Having said that, it is also true that in the last year or so, I have also developed quite an affinity for the 21-28mm focal length. Perhaps because reality makes more sense when it appears in context or something, but ever since I acquired the incredible Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar lens, my eyes have been opened wide, so to speak. These wide, optical marvels usually don’t come cheap (they can set you back as much as the cost of an European vacation), so my move into this area can best be described as hesitant at best. At least until recently, when I decided to give cheap a chance.
That’s where my incursion into the 24mm range comes in. It all started with a conversation that took place during my recent trip to Chelsea in NYC. During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting Olof Willoughby, one of the co-founders of the popular Leica Meet group. It just so happens that Olaf is quite fun of the Leica 24mm range (think European vacation here too), and the day I met him, that was all he was carrying. So, I started wondering that if such a distinguished photographer as Olaf loved that 24mm focal length, that perhaps I was missing something. Not that I haven’t dabbled into 24mm before. I have, and I was once the proud owner of the magnificent Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED lens. But weight and bulk considerations got the best of me, and after kind of abandoning this lens back at home for too long, I decided to part ways with it. Have I lived to regret this decision? Of course I have, but since that lens now retails for about $2,100 (which admittedly is way less than its Leica equivalent) I haven’t been too keen to replace it.
But here is where the “hiding in plain sight” story comes in. I’m referring to the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D lens, a small gem originally designed in the 1990’s. Retailing for $391 and weighing a mere 270 grams (9.5 oz), it is no wonder why the lens has remained quite popular with travel photographers. Affordable, lightweight, and tack-sharp, this lens produces incredible results while ensuring you stay away from your chiropractor’s office. Nano crystal coating? No. Any aspherical elements? Nope. Class leading element/group combo? Of course not. Modern design? You must be joking. Great photos while saving you thousands of dollars you could put towards that European vacation? You bet. Modern glass, while unquestionably great, is not providing thousands of dollars worth of optical performance gain to justify their ever-growing cost. That is specially the case when you factor in the capabilities of modern processing software. Blasphemy? Not really, but perhaps a kitchen analogy will help explain it. It is often said that buying a modern knife will not necessarily result in making anyone a better cook. The secret to better meals is just to learn how to cook better rather than to keep spending tons of money on the latest kitchen gadgets. Too simple? Perhaps, but something that entire generations of Italian grandmothers figured out a long time ago.