Sunday, August 25, 2013

Josh's Helpful Camera Buying Guide

If you are reading this, it is probably because of one of the following reasons:
  1. You read this blog regularly, and are simply reading my latest post.
  2. You have recently asked me for advice on buying a camera.
  3. You are part of a clandestine government organization that has been following my movements for the last six months and is gathering information that will ultimately tie me to The Pentavirate.
  4. You Googled "Pentavirate," and wound up here.
Regardless of what brought you here, congratulations. Welcome to the blog. I hope you find it educational, enlightening, and many other words that start with "E." And four years from now, when you find yourself wrestling to justify the purchase of a $2,000 prime lens and its accompanying $200 filter, even though you already have a perfectly good $1,000 L-series zoom that covers the exact same focal length, you can both thank me and blame me.

Image of yours truly in action, courtesy of:
Harry Cleigh Photography
If at any point in time you have asked yourself (or myself) the question, "what camera should I buy?", here is my answer:

It depends.

It depends on what you want to use it for. Are you interested in simply "taking pictures," or do you want to "get into photography?"

Allow me to explain...

If you just want to "take some nice pictures," there are plenty of point-and-shoot cameras out there that will take perfectly nice images of you standing in front of famous places. By "point-and-shoot," I am referring to the smallish all-in-one cameras that you can buy for anywhere from $100 to $500, which only require the user to "point" them at a subject and click a single button to take ("shoot") a picture.

I don't mean to be condescending, here; I actually got into photography through a couple of nice point-and-shoot models. But if you're not looking to be an artist, and are more interested in quick results than indulging in the creative process, this is your category. Now, since I haven't purchased a point-and-shoot since 2006, I don't have much advice beyond that. Megapixels are pretty much irrelevant at this point, and all I remember from my point-and-shoot search is the idea that optical zoom means something and digital zoom doesn't. I'd check the reviews on B&H Photo, Consumer Reports, or for more specific info.

But if you want to buy a camera because you feel the subtle tug of art beckoning, if you recognize the delicate grace of natural light on the pile of unfolded laundry sitting on your bed in the morning, and long deeply to capture it for all eternity so its beauty will always be available for you and your 500 Facebook friends, my general advice is to get an SLR. An SLR (or Single Lens Reflex, if you care) is more of a traditional camera that allows you to swap lenses and basically control all the functions of your camera (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.). Greater control may equal greater time investment (and certainly financial investment), but it also leads to greater creativity and greater image quality. If you want to "get into photography," this is where you want to be, sooner or later.

From here, you need to ask yourself a pair of follow-up questions:

What do I want to take pictures of? Do you want to do portraits? Sporting events? Super close-ups of little bugs like those photos you saw on a website one time?

How much do I want to spend? Do you have a generous budget, or do you want to take things slowly and see how committed you are to your new hobby?

The type of camera you wind up with, and more importantly, the lens (or likely lenses) you wind up buying for it, will vary greatly depending on your answer to this question. For one thing, SLR cameras can cost anywhere from $300 to $50,000. Not a decision you want to make lightly. Chances are, if you're reading this your current answer will sound something like this:

"I want a modestly priced camera that will be good at taking pictures of everything."

It's OK; that's not a ridiculous answer. I mean, it kind of is, but it's really all right. Just as long as you don't think your camera will be the BEST at taking pictures of everything. In my relatively few years of observation, the trend in photography seems to be that the more you spend, the better your equipment will be able to perform more limited functions. Luckily for beginners, most camera manufacturers team up entry-level cameras with kit lenses that are geared towards a nice balance of quality and versatility.

At this point, instead of break down the infinite number of follow-up questions and solutions, I think it would be more beneficial to tell a streamlined version of my own camera-purchasing story:

After using my dad's Olympus point-and-shoot to take a few pictures in downtown Chicago a few years ago, I decided I wanted to get my own camera. At first I thought I'd find a simple point-and-shoot for around $150 that would do the trick. (My real money would be saved for the $2,500 Canon pre-HD video camera that I thankfully never bought.) Then I read a review of a camera called the Canon S3-IS, which looked more heavy-duty and, unlike most of the Canon Powershot series, was black (I like black). It sounded like it had fancier features, and the review people liked it, so a few months later, I bought it for about $350. For the next 18 months I used it frequently, and eventually concluded that:
  1. It never caught my subject as quickly as I wanted it to (because I tend to favor action shots).
  2. I needed to buy an SLR.
Since I had been using my S3-IS frequently, I knew that photography was not a passing hobby, thus I could justify the expense of my new artistic pursuit. I did some more research, and narrowed my SLR choices to two:
  1. A high-end Canon Rebel (the exact model escapes me)
  2. An entry-level semi-pro camera (at that time, the Canon 40D)
After careful consideration, I decided to buy the 40D, because it felt like something I could grow into. It also shot six and a half photos a second, which took care of that whole "catching my subject" thing. Once I got my finances in order, I slapped down $1100 for a kit that included the 40D and a 28-135mm zoom lens.

When it came in the mail, I opened the box like it held the Holy Grail. My new camera was big, heavy, and black (black!). It had a textured contoured grip that scientists had designed to draw the artistic powers straight out of my fingertips. It also made me feel like I was completely out of my league. I almost felt embarrassed to take my first pictures with it. But I have never regretted the choice to "buy up." My wallet has, but I haven't.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why I Hate Running...and Why I Run Anyway

I really, really hate running. Always have. Not entirely sure why. Obviously it's hard, but I don't automatically hate hard things. It's certainly not that I hate exercise, or athletics. My dad signed me up for the South Davis Soccer Association when I was in Kindergarten, and I've played sports ever since. By the time I got into football in the sixth grade, I actually wanted to make a career out of playing sports. Football was the first sport I was actually good at.

Maybe that's why I hate running. Because running in the context of playing football has a purpose. I'm running to catch the spiral, or closing in on another player before leveling him with a forearm shiver. There's a payoff. But with "running," there's just...running. And eventually stopping.

My first legitimate exposure to running came in my 7th grade gym class. During the week we'd play flag football or ultimate frisbee, but Fridays were set aside for the Mile Run, looped around the long defunct Centerville Junior High football field. For three years I dreaded Mile Run Fridays, even though the competitor in me drove myself to perform. Because I couldn't just dog it and get it over with. I got A's in my classes, and even if I hated running the mile, I was going to run it as fast as I could.

Maybe that's why one of the most memorable accomplishments of my junior high career was cracking Coach Pierce's top ten mile time list the first week of my ninth grade year. He posted a list every week of the top times, and it was pretty cool to see my list up there with the cross country kids, the track kids, and the other jocks...even if I knew it wouldn't last.

For a long time after that I avoided running because I was afraid that it would make me even skinnier than I already was. I looked at the long distance runners, and I saw bodies I didn't want. I was already skinny enough. Turning thirty took care of that concern.

For a long time I told myself that I wasn't well-suited for running, long distance anyway. I was a fast-twitch guy, not a slow-twitch guy. That's why I played football. I was a sprinter. Well, after turning thirty, all I can say is that all sports leave me twitching these days.

That post-30 weight gain is what led to my effort to drop 20 pounds a while back. I finally started monitoring my eating habits a little more closely--both what I was eating and when I was eating it--and instead of spend all my time at the gym in the weight room, I spent a lot more time on the treadmill and the elliptical...hating every minute of it.

That fall I ran my first 5K. Ran it at the Salt Lake Fairgrounds with a bunch of other people painted up to look like zombies. I cramped up and had to walk a bit in the middle, but I still finished in around 33 minutes. Far from Coach Pierce's list, but nothing to feel ashamed about. My goal was to run a 5K, not to win one.

But that's the thing about goals: you finish one, you start thinking of setting another. I had finished a 5K, and now I had to figure out what the next step was. I ignored it for a year. 2012 passed with me slowly putting the weight back on, then as 2013 started, I began ramping up my pre-workout run from one mile to one and a half, then finally to two by the middle of summer. My unofficial goal was to run another 5K, and get under 30 minutes doing so.

Then one day I wandered over to Gold's and decided to go for it. I wasn't wearing a number, and I wasn't in a pack of thousands, but I figured a 5K was a 5K, and so I ran a 3.2 miles right there on my treadmill. Final time? 29:12. The latest goal monkey was off my back.

Till the next morning. As I started about my day, I began to second guess whether I was correct in my estimate. I could swear that a 5K equaled 3.2 miles, but I wasn't sure. I started to dread the possibility that it was 3.25, or 3.5, and that the effort I was so proud of offered for nothing. Finally I punched up a Google search on my phone, and braced myself for the results.

Tender mercies. Turns out a 5K is actually more like 3.1 miles. Sweet, sweet relief.

I really, really hate running.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Miracle of the 40 Pound Watermelon

Two weeks ago I took a terrifying risk: I bought a watermelon.

Watermelon is one of my favorite summer items, yet I cringe whenever I consider buying one. It's one thing to grab an apple or a peach and find out it isn't quite ripe enough, or even to blow $1.50 on a half dozen and find out the same thing; it's something altogether different to find out that you've dropped good money on a 20-pound pile of mush in a rind. Supposedly you can tell whether a watermelon is good by tapping on it (getting a nice hollow thud, right?). I don't know. I've had too many bad experiences to feel a lot of confidence in my thud discerning abilities.

Yet there I was at Pettingill's a few days ago, standing in front of a pile of two dozen melons, debating whether one of my favorite fruits was risking the 42-cents-per-pound asking price. It felt a little high, even for seedless, but my optimism was buoyed by one experience from many years ago:

One night in the final weeks before leaving on my LDS mission, two of my friends and I were feeling brave, and decided to roll the dice on a 40-pound watermelon we found at Dick's Market. It was so big the cashier had to take it over to a special separate scale, since the standard checkstand scanner couldn't handle the weight.

The exercise was largely a joke, and watermelons must have been on sale or we wouldn't have justified it, but the moment of truth came about fifteen minutes later in my parents' kitchen. We braced the thing as it rested on top of the counter, threatening to crush my parents' stove and everything beneath it. Carefully I stuck it with a long knife and started to slice it in half. What followed was the most beautiful cracking sound I have ever heard in my life. I may be unsure about the thud test, but even I know that a ripe watermelon is supposed to crack when you cut it open. And crack it did.

I finished the cut, and we took one of the halves and divided it into three equal pieces. (If you're keeping track, we're talking seven pounds a serving.) Then we stretched some plastic wrap over the other half, and with a little work, managed to load it into the fridge. Stepping back to admire our work, I just crossed my fingers that my parents wouldn't need to go grocery shopping for another week or so.

This memory was still rolling through my mind as I asked one of the ladies at Pettingill's to help me choose a watermelon. She gave me the usual speech about hollow thumping and such, but I didn't really pay attention, because secretly I just wanted her to pick it out. That way I could place my confidence in her experience, and also blame her if it didn't pan out. She hefted one particular melon onto her shoulder, tapping it to demonstrate the thud.

"How do you feel about that watermelon?" I asked.

"I feel pretty good about this watermelon," she replied.

Spurred on by the memory of the Miracle of the 40-pound Watermelon, I decided to pull the trigger. Several hours, a bison burger at Maddox and a fresh batch of salsa later, I pulled out one of my Cutco knives and sliced into my eight-dollar purchase. There was no crack, but as the end fell open, it revealed a red interior that was just the right color and just the right consistency.

It's true that where much is given, much is required. It's also true that from great risks come great rewards. What I don't know is true is whether its the black seeds that make the cracking sound.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Ten Least Embarassing Movies in My DVD Collection

A while back I wrote about the 10 most embarrassing movies in my DVD collection. Here are 10 of my prized DVDs, to bring balance to the Force and restore a little of my street cred:

1. Rubin and Ed

After renting this on VHS several times and going to screenings at the Tower Theater, I was psyched to be able to pick this up on DVD. It's a local film directed by Trent Harris about a multi-level marketing burnout (Howard Hessman--Dr. Johnny Fever on "WKRP") and a 20-something loser in elevator shoes (Crispin Glover--Marty McFly's dad in "Back to the Future") who drive into the southern Utah desert to bury a frozen cat. No, I'm totally serious. As a bonus, the two leads meet in front of the statue by the downtown Salt Lake Federal Building where I worked for five years.

2. Harold and Maude

Bottom line: any fan of Wes Anderson must see this movie. The plot is about a 20-year-old kid who is obsessed with death, and the 80-year-old woman who helps him to appreciate life. It features a killer soundtrack from Cat Stevens and a British roadster converted into a hearse. More importantly, its mood and style tell you where Anderson got a lot of his inspiration. In fact, the kid who plays Harold also played the kidnapped accountant in Anderson's "Life Aquatic."

3. Freaks

"Freaks" was made by Tod Browning (same guy who did the original "Dracula") back in the '30s. It's a cute little story about a group of circus freaks and the carnies who abuse them. Seriously, it has a very powerful message about the nature of true evil (IE, people laugh at the "freaks," but the carnies are the real monsters), but since Browning used honest-to-goodness circus freaks as actors (no CGI in 1932?), people found the film...a bit too creepy. It was banned in Britain for decades, and now it's a cult hit. It also provided some inspiration for The Ramones in the '70s.

4. Superman II

There's a new version of "Superman II" out in circulation that is reportedly the version director Richard Donner intended to create before he was replaced by Richard Lester ("A Hard Day's Night") halfway through production. Honestly? I like Lester's version better. "Superman II" is an awesome blend of legit cool superhero narrative and fun camp. Superman is fighting both Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and three super-villains, including the infamous General "KNEEL BEFORE" Zod. Eight years ago I made the argument that this was the greatest superhero movie of all time. And now, even after "The Dark Knight," and with all apologies to Heath Ledger, I still think I'd say the same.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

"Wrath of Khan" has the distinction of being the only film on this list that inspired me to write a 15-page conference paper in grad school. (You can read it here. No really, go ahead and read it.) I've often thought that if there was a Star Trek film that was best suited to appeal to non-Star Trek fans, this was it (and that includes the new JJ Abrams film). It's got a great story, solid effects, and most importantly, an awesome villain. Ricardo Montalban makes the film worthwhile by himself.

6. Night of the Living Dead

Might be the scariest movie I've ever seen, next to Pauly Shore in 1993's "Son-in-Law." It's definitely the scariest movie I've ever watched by myself in my parents' basement at 1am. This film single-handedly bridged the gap between the cheesy drive-in horror movies of the 1960s to the underground indie horror of the '70s. I'm pretty sure the torch gets passed right after the pickup goes up in flames.

7. Victory

Pele, Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone play soccer against Nazis. Read that sentence again. What's really impressive is that the movie completely works on a serious level, in spite of the utter lunacy of its presence. One of the great sports movies, though few have heard of it.

8. Bullitt

The plot's pretty simple: someone kills a witness under Steve McQueen's protection, and McQueen spends two hours tracking them down. Nothing super unique, except for the high stakes car chase about halfway through between a black Dodge Charger and McQueen's '68 Shelby Mustang. Not only is it a great car chase (through the uneven streets of San Francisco), it's also basically the first car chase ever put to film.

9. Eraserhead

Before he became famous for movies like "Blue Velvet" and "The Elephant Man," David Lynch made a little black and white film about a brand-new father who takes his hairstyle cues from boxing promoter Don King. The film is reportedly an examination of Lynch's own fear of parenthood, but after spending some time in his super-impressionistic nightmare world, it seems obvious that parenthood is just one of many fears that is being explored.

10. Let it Be

Most diehard Beatles fans have seen "A Hard Days Night" and "Help," and some have even seen "Yellow Submarine" and "Magical Mystery Tour." But the Holy Grail of Beatles films is the documentary that was made while the band was trying to record "Let it Be" and splintering into a thousand pieces. It features such gems as George Harrison and Paul McCartney bickering over guitar solos and finishes with the famous "rooftop concert" that turned out to be the band's final public performance, and was honored in the U2 video for "Where the Streets Have No Name."