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11 Roadworthy iPhone Apps for photographers

Monument Valley, Highway

The Forrest Gump Road

When I’m traveling or shooting on location, the iPhone 3GS is an indispensable tool. Aside from all of the great little camera apps that you can get with the iPhone, there are a few apps that are creatively useful. A couple relate directly to location use, and others are more for entertainment value while getting from place to place.

  1. Where’s that pesky sun gonna be?
    The built-in compass is great, as far as it goes. Anywhere you have line of sight communication, the compass will leverage the built in GPS system on the 3GS and give you a good indication of east and west. Very useful when you need to locate yourself in relation to a distant photographic subject. In conjunction with the compass and GPS feature, a couple of apps go further in helping you determine sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times. With a built-in database of location coordinates, these apps will tell you precisely where the sun will be at any given time during the day or night. My favorite is Focalware 2.0, published by Spiral Development. Darkness, by Bjango, is a world clock with the ability to give you sun and moon times as well. See also my post on photographic tools for a couple more ideas.
  2. Navigation.
    No expedition is complete without a set of maps. I still swear by the old-fashioned topographic kind, including the USGS maps, and the Benchmark Road and Recreation series are especially good for backroads. However,  Google Maps and Google Earth, both free, are invaluable in finding your way. Google Maps, built into the iPhone, has a better traffic indicator than many dedicated GPS systems. TomTom and Navigon both have full-featured GPS apps that function as well as dedicated GPS, but I don’t like giving up the other features of the iPhone to use it as a GPS. When multitasking hits the iPhone operating system, perhaps this will change. My wife uses Navigon, and likes it. But for me, the Garmin GPS units are better suited for highway and in-town navigation.
    Google Maps is best used in conjunction with a dash or vent mount system, such as Kensington’s windshield mount, or the Gomadic vent mount so that you can view the info without taking your eyes off the road. Personally, I like the vent mount, as it puts the phone close, without it being too intrusive. Using Google Maps on the iPhone and a GPS, I have very good advance beta on road conditions ahead as well as directional info without fumbling with a big bulky atlas.
  3. NPR Radio.
    I like to listen to audio books and NPR as well as music while driving. The iPhone is great for music and books, but sometimes the radio works just as well. But it’s hard to find NPR stations in unfamiliar territory. That’s where this group of apps comes in. NPR Station Finder excels at using the location info on the iPhone to search for nearby public radio stations. Sometimes listening to the radio is preferable to listening to streaming radio, and if you’re like me and don’t want to pay for satellite radio, finding a local NPR station is just the ticket. But you can also use the iPhone to stream public radio, with apps like the Public Radio Tuner, a collaboration between American Public Media, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and Public Interactive. If you have a good 3G signal, you can listen to 100’s of streaming public radio stations for free. NPR also has their own news tuner, NPR News, although I haven’t tried it yet. You can find it, and many more, in the iTunes App Store.
  4. Accomodations and Eats.
    Finding a good place to eat or stay is often problematic on the road. Fortunately, there are lots of apps to help you out. Most of the major hotel chains have their own app, like the Hampton Inn or Choice Hotels locators. These apps are good for finding hotels chains that you often stay at, but what about when you are miles from home on an unfamiliar stretch of road? Finding restaurants and businesses couldn’t be easier with ManGo, Vicinity and YPMobile, which all take different approaches to the problem. YPMobile excels in helping you find businesses as well as restaurants, hotels and other essentials. With predictive search and voice control, the new version is even better. You can also browse by categories, which is helpful. YPMoile is also free, and probably the most useful if you know what you’re looking for. ManGo searches the immediate vicinity for known chain restaurants, which makes it especially handy when you need a bite to eat. ManGo uses different apps for different categories, each costing $0.99. Vicinity ($2.99) goes one better, and searches for banks, cafes, convenience stores, gas, hotels, and more, all within the immediate area. Vicinity also has links to Panoramio and Flickr, a marginally useful feature, IMHO.
    Another approach taken by apps like BestExit, which let you know in advance what’s off each interstate exit. The main drawback to BestExit is that it only works on the interstate, not on tollways, or within city limits. It’s a good add-on when you need a gas station or a McDonalds, though. BestExit is just a buck, though, and has been useful the few times I’ve needed to use it. And don’t forget perennial favorites like Urban Spoon and Yelp. Both have iPhone app versions, and feature other folk’s opinions of local establishments. Urban Spoon’s iPhone app has a neat randomize feature that will give you suggestions based on a limited set of parameters and a quick shake of the phone.
  5. eReaders.
    When you stop for the night, it’s great to have a little something to keep you entertained after you’re done checking the web and your email. There’s always YouTube, built in to the iPhone, or a downloaded movie, but I like to settle in with a good book reader. I can use it in my tent, or in the back of the camper, without bothering with a flashlight. One my favorites is Stanza, which comes with the ability to download thousands of free public domain titles from the Gutenberg Project, Random House Free Library, Feedbooks and many more. You can also download tech books from O’Reilly, SmashWords and many more. A close second is Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone, which works just the same as its big brothers, letting you download any Kindle title almost instantaneously. Both apps are free, but you’ll pay for the privilege of downloading best-sellers for the Kindle. Both apps do feature many free titles, however, and are among the best values in road-worthy apps. And I haven’t even mentioned the many newsreaders that are currently available. Apps like Mashable, HuffPost, Sportacular, USA Today, and even the Bible are available at the App Store. If you like it, chances are it has an iPhone app available for it.
  6. Weather Apps.
    I almost forgot these extremely important utilities. There are two kinds of weather apps, those that run in the browser, like the NOAA weather site, and those that stand-alone. I like the stand-alone versions, and while the supplied app from Apple is okay, it doesn’t really tell you too much you can’t learn by sticking your arm out the car window. WeatherBug works extremely well, loads fast, and has a good radar display, which is important when you’re at a show and need to know whether a storm will hit at 4 or 8PM. Also good is Weather Underground, which does run in a browser window. You can put a bookmark on your iPhone desktop though, because if you’re like me, you’re constantly checking the radar. The Weather Underground radar display is better than WeatherBug’s, and features the “WunderMap”, which lets you zoom, pan and animate the display. The best news is, Weather Underground is free, while WeatherBug costs a buck.

Okay, so maybe I mentioned a few more apps along the way. These are just a few of my favorites, and all have been tested during many highway miles. Please keep in mind that it is uncool to use these while driving. If you need more info on this, read Andy Ihnatko’s post in the Sun-Times. ‘Nuff said. Pulling off to a rest area is much safer, and will keep you tootling along much longer. So drive safe & enjoy the trip!

Souvenirs of the Southwest

I’m writing this on WordPress for iPhone, so by necessity it’ll be short. Wanted to post a couple of shots from the Vulture Mine. Like my pal Art says, it’s a “target rich” environment.


Interior of the Assay Office/Manager’s quarters


Another Interior

The Assay Office

Click on an image to view full size

A Tale of Two Peaks

View towards Payson

View towards Payson, Pass Mountain peak

While in Arizona for a couple of shows, I had a few days to nose around in the mountains. Monday was cloudy in the morning, and I spent most of the day just driving. First it was to Sky Harbor to drop Karyn off for her flight back to Detroit. Then I got turned around on the exit ramps and headed east on the 202, so I just drove northeast towards Payson. I grabbed a shot of a windmill I’d spotted the previous week, but photographically, the day was pretty much a bust. Coming back through Globe and Superior, I did see a peak that was picturesque and climbable. Picketpost Mountain is right off Highway 60, and there is a trail that goes to the top. I added that to the “someday list”, along with Picacho Peak, between Tucson and Phoenix.

Vulture Peak

The start of the Vulture Peak hike

Vulture Peak

Tuesday I headed out towards Wickenburg. I got up early (4:15) in hopes of catching the sunrise, but it was not meant to be. The day dawned cloudy with barely a milky sun. The moon was just setting in the west as I pulled into Wickenburg and gassed up. On a whim, I headed out to the Vulture Mine, which I’d heard of via Art Skopec, a local Phoenix photographer and friend. But it was too early to tour the mine (they open at 9 in the winter months). So I killed some time by walking up Vulture Peak. There is a rough campground at the base of Vulture Peak, with a mess of RV’s seemingly parked permanently there. I was put off at first, as it looks like a prime ATV spot, with many tracks running down washes. I parked Blutan the Truck and loaded up my bag with camera, food and water, and set off across the desert. The trail is well worn, and there was a maintenance crew camped at the trailhead. No problems finding or following the trail. It starts out as a pleasant ramble through saguaro, barrel cactus, ocotillo, teddy bear cholla and the usual Sonoran suspects. The grade is easy, and I took a few shots as I walked.

Vulture Peak

The top of Vulture Peak

After about a quarter mile, the trail crosses a big wash which is 4WD accessible. There is a trailhead closer to the peak that you can drive to, but that seems to miss the whole point of the desert experience. The 4WD road follows this wash for a bit and eventually meets up with the trail at the base of the peak roughly a mile in. The last half mile is pretty much uphill all the way, switchbacking gently up the slope to a saddle, where the maintained trail ends. I met the maintenance crew up on the side of the hill, busily cracking stones and clearing drainage ditches. The trail showed obvious improvements where they had been. Spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries with them before struggling up the last few feet to the saddle. It was windy up there, and I was glad I had a jacket to stop the breeze. To get to the peak proper, an obvious use trail heads up a gully to the left. Some scrambling is in order, but it’s pretty easy stuff, with no exposure. After a couple hundred feet of mucking about, I was on top, with 360 degree views. Some jerk had spray-painted her name on a boulder at the top, and I spotted two USGS survey markers. Also a used condom. Come on people, clean up after yourselves! I made a few photographs and added my name to the battered summit register, in an old ammo box set in a concrete anchor.

Assay Office, Vulture City

The assay office, constructed of stone from the Vulture Mine

After reaching the bottom, I wandered over to the Vulture Mine. That will get its own post, as it is a wonderfully preserved (not restored) and cared for gold mine. Marty and Roma Hagen run a small souvenir shop and let tourists wander the workings and ruins on their own. I really enjoyed the mine, and recommend it highly if you are in the Wickenburg/Phoenix area. They are closed in the summer months though, due to the high desert heat. Phone ahead.

Wind Cave Trail

Yesterday, I went over to Mesa to Usery Mountain Regional Park, to hike the Wind Cave Trail. My doctor, Mark Florek, had mentioned that this hike had been a favorite of his father’s in years past, so I had wanted to check it out. The Usery Mountains are right next door to the Superstition Mountains, just northeast of Mesa. Access is easy, and the park is open most days for nature walks and camping. It’s $6/day per vehicle to get in.

Pass Mountain

Pass Mountain, Usery Mountain Park (lefthand arm of saguaro points to caves)

The Wind Cave trail is very popular, being close to a major population center, so don’t expect solitude. I met a lot of people walking, trail running and many of them were older, fat , out of shape, or all three. I felt right at home. Lots of dogs, too. The trail ascends gently through typical Sonoran desert scenery. Lovely views towards Phoenix, with saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, palo verde and beautiful barrel cactus. The approaches to these quick peak bags are often the best part of the hike, and the easiest, especially later in the afternoon, when the light gets low.

Wind Cave Trail

Wind Cave Trail, with barrel cactus and ocotillo

The trail gradually gets steeper, and switchbacks steadily up to the headwall of Pass Mountain, where it traverses the base of the rocks. After about 1.5 miles, you reach Wind Cave, a large undercut recess in the limestone. It’s not really a cave, but it is cool and shady. And yes, windy, too. The breeze felt good in the afternoon heat. This hike faces west, so I imagine it’s a great spot to come for the sunset. Plan about an hour to get to the cave. The trails do close at sunset, so you would want a headlamp to come down after dark. (I don’t think they’ll kick you out if you’re already on the trails.) Watch your step!

Wind Cave Panoramic View

Panoramic view from Wind Cave, Usery Mountain Park

At the cave, a sign warns that hiking beyond the trail is dangerous. Indeed, the footing is loose, and there are dropoffs. I walked across the cave to the north and ascended an obvious gully, where three tall saguaros seemed to mark a path. There is no trail here, so experience and prudence should dictate your own passage, should you choose to pass this way. After ten or fifteen minutes of scrambling, I reached the ridgeline. Traversing the ridge towards the summit, I found a well-worn use trail, complete with white blazes. It sort of took the fun out of my bushwhack, but it was going where I was going, so what the hey.

Pass Mountain Peak

The Superstion Mts, from Pass Mountain

I followed it to the top, and was rewarded with fine views of the Superstition Mountains to the East; Four Peaks to the North, and Phoenix, Mesa and Apache Junctions spread out on the other side. Well worth the extra effort to get to the top. And I was the only one up there. Most tourists stop at the cave, warned off by the threatening sign. I stayed on top long enough to take a few pictures, then followed the use trail back to the cave. At one spot, the trail forked, and seemed to head off in the wrong direction, so I headed right. A small headwall required down-climbing, but mostly it was easy going to reach the bottom of the headwall. Rounding a corner, I was once again back at the “Danger, Will Robinson!” sign. Hmmm…. didn’t seem all that dangerous to me. Again, your mileage may vary.

Sonoran Desert

View towards Phoenix with desert flora

When hiking in the desert, always take a map, water, some emergency eats, a compass, a flashlight, clothing for extra warmth should you get caught out at night. Let someone know where you are and when you expect to be back. I found that texting my wife with my whereabouts works extremely well, in areas with cell coverage. Since I don’t always know where I’m going to end up when I leave my accomodations, this works better than leaving a note. I don’t advise leaving a note on your windshield when you park your car, as it can alert thieves to the length of time you plan to be away from the vehicle. And remember: when your water is half-gone, your hike is half-done. Turn around and head down! I learned this the hard way, on the Flat Iron. But that’s another story.

Both of these hikes are described with great accuracy on Todd Martin’s wonderful hiking page. His beta was very useful to have, and as a consequence, I had a trouble-free, very enjoyable experience. His web site has a plethora (don’t you just love that word?) of information on southwest and desert hiking. One of the best I’ve found.

Today, I’m too tired to get up and go hiking, so I’m writing about it instead. This afternoon, I’ll be setting up for the Carefree Fine Art and Wine Festival, and I’m hoping the weather holds up as nicely as it has this week. Till next time: Happy Trails!

Five handy photographic tools

As photographers, there are certain tools that we all take for granted. A camera is necessary, but not necessarily a lens, for most photographs. Something to hold the camera: hands, or a tripod, perhaps. Some way to present the images captured, whether on paper or the ephemeral flickering light of the computer screen. And then there is the non-physical aspect of photography, the thinking part. The ability to see the picture, and compose a cohesive story out of seemingly inconsequential moments. Eyes to frame the scene. Ears to hear what is happening while the image is being photographed. A designer’s mind. These perhaps are more important than the camera and tripod.

But this post isn’t about all that. No, this is about the little things that make photographic life easier in the field. Like coffee in the morning and Lightroom in the digital darkroom. Every photographer has a few tools in the camera bag that make life in the field just a bit easier. My five favorites include

  1. My iPhone. Aside from allowing me access to email and internet browsing while away from the laptop, the iPhone has a number of enhancements that make fieldwork a lot easier. Built-in GPS on the 3GS version; mapping, trip routing and traffic for free, courtesy of Google Maps; a rudimentary compass; a rudimentary camera with many third-party apps such as BestCamera, Photoshop Mobile and others; the list goes on and on.
  2. Sun locating tools. Back in the day, I used to use a little circular slide-rule device called a Sundicator. Nowadays, thanks to GPS technology, the iPhone has several good electronic equivalents. My favorite is Focalware, by Spiral Development. With a built-in compass, and the ability to find the sun and moon at any latitude and longitude, FocalWare gives you the height of the celestial objects on any day and date. It also lets you calculate the length of the shadow. With the built-in compass, you can line up a shot with the sun in the position you want. You also have the ability to lookup many common geographic locations, as well as save custom locations that are not already in the database. Darkness, a similar app by Bjango, has some additional features, such as civil, aeronautic and astronomical twilight; the ability to compare sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset for several locations; a nifty light map and an easy to use interface. Darkness costs $0.99, Focalware is $9.99.
    A third, desktop based application is Stephen Trainor’s The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. This app is built using Adobe Air, so you’ll need to download that first in order to run TPE. With an elegant interface, and maps enabled by Google Earth, TPE is a beautifully designed application that will do many of the same things that FocalWare and Darkness can. And it’s designed so that it can be run on a NetBook, so anywhere that you have internet connectivity, TPE will run. The main advantage to TPE is that you can see the angle of light superimposed over a map of the area you are photographing. For planning a shoot, TPE is indispensable. And best of all, it’s free. Development is funded by donations alone.
  3. A small level. Although tripod heads often have a built-in level, a small portable level is very handy to have in the bag of tricks. It doesn’t weigh much, it doesn’t cost much, and can be useful for setting up level or plumb on top of your camera. A small hot-shoe plate can be glued to the bottom of the level so that it can be affixed to your camera when using it handheld. Available at most hardware stores and home centers, a tiny three-way torpedo level costs less than $5.
  4. Lens-cleaning tools. I know this sounds obvious, but keeping a small bottle of lens cleaning fluid, a micro-fiber cloth and a small anti-static brush in the camera kit is a no-brainer. Other useful additions are a bubble blower, such as the Giottos Rocket Blower; a small sensor-cleaning kit, if you’re so inclined; and a package of pre-moistened lens-cleaning wipes. Visible Dust makes some very good sensor cleaning brushes, available directly and through photographic suppliers. I wouldn’t recommend cleaning the sensor out in the field, but it’s handy to have in the evening, especially if you change lenses often. An antistatic brush is also handy — Kinetronics makes a small StaticWisk brush on a lanyard that is quite nice.
  5. In-field backup systems. Although the proliferation of cheap CF cards in the 8, 16 and even 32Gb capacity has made portable hard-drives largely unnecessary, having a redundant copy of your media is a good idea. I’ve used Wolverine’s portable drives, as well as a laptop powered by an inverter off of the truck battery. I like to copy the contents of each card shot to an external drive before erasing the card. Ideally, I like to have two copies, one on the laptop and one on an external drive. Here’s where the Wolverine comes in handy. You can preview the images on a built-in LCD screen, and you can copy directly from the card to the device. Battery life is low, however, so carry spares, or a charger. Epson also makes backup units in 40G, 80G and 160G versions. Available through Amazon, and other retailers, many photographers use these devices. The Wolverine is a bit less money, however.

There are lots more tools that didn’t make the short list. For shooting models and small products outdoors, you can never have too many mirrors, reflectors and bounce cards. Grip supplies, from the lowly C-47 to Matthews C-stands, can be handy for larger shoots. Model and property releases. I’m positive that you have your own favorites, so don’t be shy about adding your comments!

Thanks to everyone I’ve met along the road

Thanksgiving is a time for reflection and gratitude. I’ve been very fortunate this year. I’ve met many good people at shows, galleries and along the road while shooting my Western photographs. Thank you all for your support and encouragement.

My November update email is now on its way to subscribers. If you’d like a peek at the latest news, feel free to view it online, here.

TwitterArtShow pieces ready to go!

Am finally getting caught up on my backlog of work, and am happy to report that I’ve got my two pieces for the first Twitter140 Art Show ready to ship down to Flagstaff for the first gallery show.

It’s a great concept. Get a bunch of talented artists together who’ve never met physically, and let them all create art based loosely around a common theme. In this case, it’s Twitter, the idea of connected-ness, networking, the collective subconscious. Sheree Rensel, a painter and educator from Tampa was the instigator and driving force behind the Twitter140. She tirelessly recruited some brave artists, wrote proposals and sent them to a dozen galleries across the country and managed to connect with one right off the bat.

Grandon Gallery, in Flagstaff AZ, is hosting the month-long event, starting September 4th. All media will be represented, with the only stipulations being that each piece could not be bigger than 140 total square inches, and that the artist provide a 140 character bio, and a 140 character artist statement. Somewhat challenging, yet open-ended!