Hidden Gems: Cape Charles, Virginia

 

Note:  Special thanks to my photographer friend Kim, who introduced me to, and guided me through, this special place.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a 70-mile tract of land on the Delmarva Peninsula enclosed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west.  Its northern border with Maryland and Delaware separates it completely from the rest of Virginia.  On the Atlantic side, a series of barrier islands forms the longest remaining natural coastline along the entire eastern seaboard.

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Sunset overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles, Virginia

Although this region is one of the earliest colonized areas of North America, Native American tribes flourished here long before European settlers first arrived at the beginning of the 17th Century.  Characterized by fertile, easily tilled land and surrounded by the bay and ocean  waters, the area remained a seafood and agricultural region with scattered small towns for almost 300 years.

Cape Charles 03 Pearl Valley

Pear Valley 18th Century home, National Historic Landmark

(This tiny, frame house outside Eastville, VA has one room downstairs and two partial rooms in a sort of attic. It is an example of a middle class home in 1740)

In 1883, a group of railroad investors hatched the idea of a rail-sea link that would extend the terminus of the existing rail line in Maryland 65 miles down the peninsula to a massive pier where the rail cars would be loaded onto special barges that would carry them across the 36-mile stretch of water to a terminus in Norfolk.

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Sunset Old Ferry Pier, Cape Charles, Virginia

The creation of the new rail-sea line was the reason for the creation of Cape Charles which, from its very conception, was a planned community and its original layout is still visible today.  Many of the original  homes still stand, a diverse range of styles including Victorian, Colonial Revival, and even some of the Sears and Roebucks houses that were delivered as a “kit” of 30,000 pieces and a 75- page manual.

Cape Charles 02 Kellys Pub

Intersection of Mason and Pine Streets (looking left)

The above image shows a former bank, dating from the early 20th Century, that has been renovated and is now a popular Irish pub.

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Intersection of Mason and Pine Streets (looking right)

The above image shows a former bank, dating from the early 20th Century, that became a branch of the Bank of America and is now the town library.

With daily trains arriving from New York, the town quickly became the economic center of the  lower peninsula.  Benefitting from a planned system of paved streets, electricity, telephones, and central water and sewage systems, it was more cosmopolitan than the other shore towns.  But the glory years began a downturn with the Great Depression in the 1930s, the decline of the railroads after World War II, and the opening of the Bay-Bridge tunnel in 1964.

Cape Charles 05 AT Altitude Galley

The At Altitude Gallery, opened in 2015 by photographer Gordon Campbell in the renovated Wilson’s Department store and exhibiting his dramatic aerial photography of the Cape Charles area. 

But, after several decades of continued economic and population decline, the trend has reversed.  As indicated in the above image, new businesses have opened and its potential for tourism has been recognized.  As indicated in my images below, photographers are particularly smitten with its natural beauty and diversity of subject matter.

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Sunrise at Oyster

(Oyster is small unincorporated community, named for its fishing industry, located about 5 miles from Cape Charles on the opposite side of the peninsula.)

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Osprey Nest at Sunrise, Cape Charles, Virginia

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Sand Dunes off Bay Avenue, Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles 10 (Kite Surfers)

Kite Surfers, Cape Charles, Virginia

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Eyre Hall Gardens, Cape Charles, Virginia

(Eyre descendents have owned land in the lower portion of Northampton County continuously since 1622 for 12 generations. The gardens, while privately owned are open to the public and are among the oldest gardens in the United States)

Moonrise

I know, I know.  I promised scenes from the Galapagos would be in my next post, but……

A week ago (March 12), there was a full moon, an event that happens every 29.5 days.  But for photographers in Washington, DC, it was a special night because the moon would rise in a location on the horizon that was pretty close to perfect for the so-called “Holy Grail” shot.  It happens, on average, every one or two years.

Full Moon March 2017

Moonrise over Washington, D.C., March 12, 2017

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm on tripod;                Exposure: 1.6 sec @ f/11, ISO 400; taken )

There is a spot in Arlington, Virginia where one has an excellent view of the city of Washington with a compositionally sweet alignment of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol.  The location is the base of the Netherlands Carillon, just to the south of the Iwo Jima Memorial.

Before the advent of the smart phone/tablet, anticipating this event was not easy, requiring a compass and access to some publicly available software on the website of the U.S. Naval Observatory.  But now, with the availability of numerous apps, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) or Photo Pils, anyone can figure it out. For example, on this night, even with temperatures hovering around freezing, there were over 60 photographers there, each with at least one tripod and a big lens.

Other than the cold weather, conditions looked pretty good on this evening.  The sky was clear and the moon would rise at 86.0 degrees azimuth on the horizon and 13 minutes after sunset.  That was a bit further south than ideal, and a bit later than desired relative to the sunset. Nevertheless, it would be the best opportunity in 2017 with only one other chance (October 5) that will be in the ballpark.  However, in October, the blue twilight period (Civil Twilight) will end before the moon gets sufficiently elevated.

Moonrise D-17-03-12-9670

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm on tripod;                Exposure: 1.0 sec @ f/11, ISO 400; taken at 7:32 PM)

Although the official time of the moonrise was 7:27 PM, it would be a bit later before it would appear above the skyline.  It was first sighted by the group at about  7:29 and the image immediately above was taken about 90 seconds later.  By this time, the end of civil twilight is approaching and we would soon lose the classic blue color that is essential to this kind of image.

 

Moonrise D-17-03-12-9696

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm on tripod;                Exposure: 2.0 sec @ f/11, ISO 400; taken at 6:36 PM)

Furthermore, the combination of a very clear sky with the rapidly fading twilight would cause the moon to become extremely bright as it rose above the dimming effects of the ground haze.  The above image was taken at 6:36 PM, about 3 minutes before the end of civil twilight.    Already the moon is becoming increasingly bright and the excellent details on its surface have almost vanished.  Any images taken after this point would require increasingly heroic post-processing efforts.

So when you prepare for a moon shot, make sure you check more than the location.  The relationship in time between the sunset and moonrise and civil twilight can have a significant impact on your results.  If you are in a classic landscape situation where no artificial lighting typical of an urban scene is expected, you may want to evaluate the prospects on the night just before the actual full moon.  This is especially true where a mountain may be blocking the moon at the time of the “official” moonrise.

 

Next (and I promise): Scenes from the Galapagos Islands.

 

New Year, New Gear!

Photographers are always looking for new tools and techniques to help improve our work or to facilitate the exploration of new subject matter.  For me, it was the latter scenario—I recently purchased a new telephoto lens with the intention of taking a stab at wildlife photography.  As a long-time Nikon shooter and, as one not prone to splurge on gear, I settled on the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR  telephoto zoom and the Nikon 1.4 tel-extender.  When combined, they theoretically provide the capability to take a shot at 700mm.  That’s a big jump from my previous maximum of 340mm using a 1.7 extender with my 70-200m f/2.8 lens.

Weight is also a consideration.  The weight of the f/5.6 zoom lens is 5.1 lbs., while the weight of the 500mm f/4 prime lens is 8.54 lbs.   And for those who consider the weight of their wallet, the price difference is more than $5,000.

But how does it perform?  The answer to this question is still open, but some preliminary findings can be made.  In my view, it’s usually wise to take small steps while becoming familiar with a new piece of equipment.  So, I decided to start in my own backyard where the presence of a several bird feeders attracts a decent variety of birds, especially during the winter months.

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Pileated Woodpecker  (male)

(Nikon D800E with Nikon 200-500mm lens on tripod;  1/400th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 3200)

The image above was not cropped and there was no sharpening in Photoshop. Due to the large size of original file, it would come out as a 16 X 24” print without any upsizing.  Given the low light situation, a high ISO was necessary so there probably would be a bit of noise evident in a full-sized print.

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Pileated Woodpecker (female)

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod;  1/125th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

Adding the extender brought the subject really close.  But I found that the D800E had difficulty resolving focus with the extender.  Switching to the Nikon 810 brought better results but it had become clear the extender has limited utility in low light situations.  As before, this is an uncropped image.  A full stop was lost due to the extender, but by dropping the shutter speed, it was possible to use a lower ISO.  This speed, however would far too slow without a tripod, let alone a bird in flight.

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Avian Food Fight #1

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/9, ISO 1600)

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Avian Food Fight #2

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

The feeder in the two images immediately above is about twice as far away and the birds are much smaller.  But it was well illuminated by sunlight so a faster shutter speed was possible and focusing was not a problem.

Having tested the lens in a familiar environment and with full knowledge of knowing exactly where to point the camera before the birds arrived, it was now time to try for something a little more difficult—birds in flight.  I spent a bit of time practicing on a flock of buzzards at the nearby Great Falls National Park.  I will spare you samples of the results.  They turned out fine, but buzzards??

We need something more impressive.  Something regal and majestic, like a bald eagle.

Luckily, there is a location about two hours away where a large number of bald eagles gather in the winter.  It is the Conowingo dam in Darlington Maryland and I learned of it from Jim, a photographer colleague who had been there.  More information about it can be found here.

So, with a forecast of sunny weather on Wednesday, Jim and I drove up in the teeth of the morning rush hour traffic.   Jim was correct—there were many eagles to see and, as noted in the referenced link above, there were many photographers there as well.  But the weather man had lied—a heavy cloud cover arrived as we drove into the parking lot.

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In addition to large numbers of eagles and photographers, there were also numerous vultures (buzzards).  Not a problem I thought, until I saw this sign.

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But, there were so many cars in the lot, what were the chances?  We rolled the dice and decided to stay. (That part worked out as we hoped–they did not attack my car)  Here are two examples of the results.

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Bald Eagle in Flight

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/1600th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)

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Bald Eagle with Fish

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld;  1/5000th sec @ f/11, ISO 1600)

In sum, more testing is needed and hopefully there will be another chance at Conowingo before the eagles depart in late January.  Updates will be included in future posts.  In the meantime…

 

Keep Shooting……

Sleeping Beauty

There is one building on the National Mall that has been closed to the public for a decade but, thanks to a renovation project launched in 2009, is now beginning to awaken.  It is the Arts and Industries Building next (east side) to the Smithsonian Castle.

Sleeping Beauty 10

Arts and Industries Building, View from the Enid Haupt Garden at the Smithsonian Castle

Background

It’s a large building (the roof covers 2.5 acres) and it has been here a long time.  Constructed in 1879-1881, it was the first building created solely to house the US National Museum. The National Museum’s collections had been housed in the Smithsonian Castle since the 1850s but soon outgrew the space.   Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, devoted his entire career to developing a great National Museum at the Smithsonian and this building brought his dreams to reality. A detailed history of the building can be found here.

The structure was renovated in the 1970s for a special exhibition during the National Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.  Afterwards, it was used for a variety of temporary exhibits but its condition slowly deteriorated until it received the dubious distinction in 2006 of being named as one of America’s Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was closed soon afterwards.  Three years later, some of the funding needed for its restoration was made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  Although the funding  was only about 30-40% of the total amount required, it was sufficient for a “shell restoration,” essentially restoring the exterior face, replacing the roof and windows (all 911), and stabilizing the structure.

Arts and Industries building

Undergoing rennovation

 

The above image is by G. Edward Johnson, courtesy Wikipedia and the source information can be found here.

When the exterior scaffolding was removed at the end of this phase, the results were quite impressive.

Sleeping Beauty 09

Detail of Jefferson Street Entrance

Sleeping Beauty 14

Exterior of the Central Rotunda, View from Independence Avenue

Sleeping Beauty 13

Western Facade, View from across Independence Avenue

But funds are not available (so far) for an equivalent restoration of the interior and it is not open for the public.  However, the Smithsonian Associates recently held a special “open house” and I joined several hundred others to get a rare look at the interior.

Sleeping Beauty 07

South Hall Looking Toward Independence Avenue

It was a festive event, with games, music, and food.  There was much interest in the presentations, especially the compelling  story of the restoration project as related by Construction Manager Pat Ponton (above).   Built in a time without air conditioning and before electrical lighting was practical,  the visionary design incorporated natural light and circulation, high ceilings and fireproof materials that foreshadowed modern construction techniques.

Sleeping Beauty 05

Games for the Visitors

The black marble used in the geometric floors was quarried in Vermont and is characterized by a variety of fossils dating back 480 million years.  The same marble was also used in Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Much work remains but one can glimpse its former glory, especially when looking up at the dome above the central Rotunda.

Sleeping Beauty 01

Dome over the Rotunda

According to Frederica Adelman, the Director of the Smithsonian Associates, the space is being made available for rent for private functions.  But lacking sufficient funding for the full restoration, final plans for the building’s ultimate purpose have not been made.

Tours are periodically offered by the Smithsonian Associates, so stay alert for future opportunities to get a peek.  In the meantime,

 

Keep Shooting….

 

Cherry Blossom Update

Photo colleague Carla and I checked out potential images on Friday afternoon and concluded that the cherry blossoms around the tidal basin will not be ready for prime time until Monday or Tuesday.  And the prospects for rain and snow on the weekend have raised some concerns that the blossoms may be damaged before then. A thorough article in the Washington Post provides the details.

On the positive side, the magnolia trees continued to be magnificent everywhere they are growing as illustrated in the image below.

Cherry Blossoms 01

Magnolia Trees at Enid Haupt Garden, Smithsonian Castle

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 35mm.  Hand held, with fill flash 1/200th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400)

They also can be found, among other places, in the Outdoor Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, Rawlins Park between the two lanes of E Street, and a small stand near the Korean War Memorial.

Cherry Blossoms 02

Magnolia Trees Reflected in Korean War Memorial Pool

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm.  Hand held, exposure of 1/160th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800)

In addition to the Magnolias, the weeping cherry trees are in excellent viewing condition, but tend to be found as single trees in various locations.  The weeping willows along the Potomac are also looking very nice.

Cherry Blossoms 03

Weeping Willow Trees and Weeping Cherry along the Potomac

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 29mm.  Hand held, exposure at 1/125th sec. @ f/14, ISO 400)

And if you are over in the Federal Triangle area, check out the newly restored Mellon Memorial Fountain at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue.  I suspect it will look good in any weather.

Mellon Memorial Fountain 05

Mellon Memorial Fountain, March 17, 2016

In the meantime,

Keep Shooting…..

Return to the Living

There was a good news story in Washington, DC today.  The Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain, situated at the apex of the Federal Triangle complex in downtown Washington, is now operating again after an 8-year hiatus.  In a special ceremony this morning, the 75th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, the fountain burst back to life in dramatic fashion.

Mellon Fountain 04

Mellon Memorial Fountain, Running Again

Designed in a style similar to a fountain in Genoa, Italy, the Mellon Memorial Fountain consists of three nested bronze basins, from which water cascades into a low granite-curbed pool, measuring 55 feet, 4 inches in diameter. Water is supplied from the central jet or plume, and flows from the two top tiers into largest and deepest of the bronze basins. The water is kept at a constant level by sophisticated controls and is tempered and smoothed by means of a bronze baffle, so that when it finally pours over the lip of the basin, it becomes a clear transparent sheet of water.

Cast by Roman Bronze Works and General Bronze Corporation in 1952, it is thought that this was the largest bronze fountain known at the time of construction. The material is known as statuary bronze—a quaternary alloy made of copper, zinc, tin, and lead, and traditionally golden brown in color.

Sidney Waugh, commissioned to design the reliefs for the lowest basin, created twelve high-relief symbols of the zodiac that were cast in bronze and applied to the fluted wall. The sign of Aries is situated so that the sun shines on Aries on March 21—the vernal equinox.

Mellon Fountain 02

Sunrise, Mellon Fountain

(Photographed today as the rising sun illuminated the basin and the Aires symbol)

I first photographed the fountain six years ago, after I learned about its relationship to the solar cycle.  I visited at sunrise on the morning of that year’s spring equinox and was saddened by its pathetic condition.  I have always been hopeful that it would someday be brought back to life.  The photograph below provides a rough idea of its condition in 2010.

Mellon Fountain 01

Sunrise on Vernal Equinox, March 2010

The fountain and surrounding triangular park, which are dedicated to Gallery founder Andrew W. Mellon, had been the responsibility of the National Park Service.  But in September 2015 custody was transferred to the National Gallery of Art.   The rapidity of the renovation under the aegis of the National Gallery is impressive.

According to the Gallery’s press office, their conservators worked with Washington-area firm Conservation Solutions, Inc. to assist in carrying out the treatment on the bronze fountain. In order to preserve the bronze patina while removing a green mineralization buildup, the team used a special method of blasting dry ice (CO2) on the metal surface instead of using strong chemicals or an aggressive mechanical process to remove the multiple corrosion layers. The process revealed a stunning surface, with original brushstrokes of protective wax visible across the bronze. Several layers of a new protective wax coating were added to help preserve the bronze surface. Annual maintenance will be carried out in the winter when the fountain is not operating.

Mellon Fountain 03

Throwing the Switch

Special thanks to my photo colleague, Michele, who alerted me to this event and to gracious staff at the National Gallery who invited me to attend their press briefing and rededication ceremony.  More can be learned about the history of the fountain here.  Information about the origins of the National Gallery of Art can be found here.

It’s Later Than You Think

Spring is arriving early in Washington, DC this year and time is running out for those wanting to partake of the annual visual treats that emerge after winter every year.  The cherry blossoms still have a ways to go, but there is much to be seen already.  A good place to start is the Smithsonian Institution’s Enid Haupt Garden on Independence Avenue.  I visited it late yesterday afternoon and found the magnolia trees in perfect condition.

Smithsonian 01

Moongate Garden and Smithsonian Castle

(Nikon D810 on tripod, with 24-70mm f.2.8 lens extended to 26mm; exposure: 1/60th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400; two vertical images photomerged)

When I moved to the opposite side of the Moongate pool, another opportunity presented itself.

Smithsonian 02

Magnolia Tree and West Wing, Smithsonian Castle

(Nikon D810 on tripod, with 24-70mm f.2.8 lens extended to 50mm; exposure: 1/30th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400; approximately 45 minutes before sunset)

The above image is a view toward the north.  But there was more.  The setting sun occasionally found an opening in the clouds and provided a few brief illuminations of the Arts and Industries Building to the east as shown in the image below.

Smithsonian 04

Magnolia Trees, Enid Haupt Garden

(Nikon D810 on tripod, with 24-70mm f.2.8 lens extended to 66mm; exposure: 1/13th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400; approximately 40 minutes before sunset)

Update:  A check on the cherry blossoms early this morning (March 11) showed that it will be at least a few days before they are ready for their moment to shine.