Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New lens

I've been wanting to get a better portrait lens for a long time.  I had the Canon 50 mm 1/1.8 II that was good, but knew I wasn't getting quite the bokeh effect that I wanted.  I had a hard time deciding between the 50 mm 1/1.2 and the 85 mm 1/1.2 that I got.  As soon as I got it I took some pix around the house and outside.  The depth of field wasn't as hard to work with as I feared. 

Here you can see the awesome aperture in action!

Here was my first try at getting the face in focus despite the shallow DOF.

Not everyone is as happy as I am to have the new lens!

In the next couple of shots you can see how it is a pretty fast lens and works well in action photography as well.

Monday, April 15, 2013



We only missed a few hours of daylight in Beijing and Carson and Trey slept on the plane but I was really sick and couldn't sleep, but when we arrived the local time was 5:30am, so by the time we bartered with a taxi driver and checked in at our hotel, we headed straight back out to make the most of the day.  We were staying only a couple of miles from the Forbidden City so we walked there and decided to hire a tour guide.  She was very nice and spoke better English than anyone else we met in China, so we asked her every question we could think of.  You could tell she was proud of her country's history and defensive about the Communist Government. 

Here are two panoramic photos Carson took with his phone.  Hopefully they will blow up when you click on them to see them bigger.  The first one is of the Forbidden City/Palace from the park at the end.  It is a large hill that was made from the dirt removed to make the moat around the palace.  The second one is of the main square inside the Forbidden City.

Here is picture of the smog in Beijing.  At first I thought it was a foggy morning but you could tell it was sunny and it didn't burn off.  Our tour guide explained that the air quality was actually better than normal because of high winds!  The smog seemed unbelievably bad to us, I can't imagine that it's usually worse!!

On the walk to the Forbidden City we saw these shirts in a shop.  Can anyone explain this to me?  Do they like Pres. Obama or not?  Are they celebrating his communist/socialist policies or making fun of them??
A lot of the symbols from the Forbidden City were found all over Beijing.  Two Lions stand in front of many important gates: the one on the left is a female and has a baby cub under her foot to symbolize motherhood.  The one on the right (not pictured) is a male and has a ball under his foot, I think it was to symbolize ruling the world or something like that.
Outside the Forbidden City hangs this picture of Chairman Mao which was slightly confusing to me since he's not the current President and also not a traditional Emperor who lived in the Forbidden City.  Like they have to remind us that although we're viewing the palace of ancient Chinese tradition, the real China is communist now. ???
A pretty spot we passed on our way there - it still felt very wintry but the willows were starting to leaf out.
Inside the Forbidden City.  It was HUGE!!! This is one of the 9 central gates, after the 9 sons of the dragon king (no daughters).
Our tour guide really wanted to take a picture of us jumping.  If you watch the movie
The Last Emperor you can tell that the grounds have been cleaned up a ton since it was filmed.  They said tourists have been able to visit since the 1920s.  The central buildings are for royalty and events, and the side buildings are for storage, working, and the living quarters of the hundreds of eunichs and thousands of concubines and their children who lived there.
The dragon king with his 9 half-dragon sons - all the main buildings had this on the corners.
You can rub the lion heads on the cauldrons for good luck.  The scratches are from people who plundered the palace after the royalty were kicked out and tried to scratch the gold off.
The wood buildings had been rebuilt after fires over the centuries but the stone carvings are original, including extensive stairs & railings, all ornately carved, with hundreds of dragon-head rain spouts.
Throne room

All the ceilings of the main buildings had these incredibly ornate painted ceilings, all with the same designs except for in the Empress' building, where the dragons were replaced with phoenixes, the symbol of the Empress.  Everything was done in 4 colors: red, blue, green, and real gold leaf.  Some of the painting was old and faded and some had been re-done for the 2008 Olympics.  It was cool to see the contrast between the two.
The male lion sentry.
The largest carved stone in the world. 
There was so much beautiful bronze metalwork.  Also it was freezing cold and windy and we had our hands in our pockets as much as possible!
You couldn't go into the most special rooms but since our camera takes good pictures in low light, we stuck the camera in and took pictures and were able to see more than we could with our naked eyes.

The moat around the Forbidden City
Going up the hill at the foot of the Forbidden City

The view of the Forbidden City from the hill.  They said usually you can only see the first of the 9 gates from here because of the smog.  The "gates" are the large buildings in the center, going back.
On the other side of the hill - Beijing was so huge that it was buildings as far as the eye could see in all directions.
We went to Tiananmen Square but there wasn't much to see besides a large phallic monument to communism, some working man statues and 2 very large TV screens (red in the background)
We went over to the Lama Temple which was decorated in the same style as the Forbidden City and possibly even more ornate. There were several rooms with big statues of Buddha, each bigger than the last.  People were worshipping with insence and prayers.

We had some trouble exchanging our money (long story) and getting back to our hotel - it turns out that even though all the streets are labeled in both English and Chinese characters, taxi drivers can't get to a hotel with the address written in English.  Carson had printed out a list of places we wanted to go written in both English and Chinese, so we could easily get anywhere we wanted... except the hotel!  Finally we had a taxi driver take us back to Tiananmen Square and walked from there.  We took showers (finally) and Trey fell asleep on the bed.  We tried to wake him up to go to dinner but he was completely out.  Fortunately the place we planned to go was just down the street so we let him sleep and went to Da Dong restaurant which was rated the best place for Peking Duck in Beijing.  You can watch them roast the ducks in big wood-fired ovens in the middle of the restaurant.

Carson saw this sea cucumber on the menu and couldn't resist.  It didn't taste like much and was covered with plum sauce so it was okay but the texture was very squishy!!
We both had Peking Duck and it came with little pancakes and a plate of little sauces and relishes.  It was very good and the only Chinese food in China that I truly enjoyed.  We also had a pumpkin soup and "dragon beans," which were some kind of broccoli-brussesls sprouts related vegetable.  The restaurant was beautiful and had a stream running though the middle full of colorful koi fish.  After being awake for almost 2 1/2 days straight I seriously couldn't keep my eyes open while we were waiting for the waitress to bring the check! 

The next morning we ate at the breakfast buffet at our hotel. We told Trey to make sure to eat a lot since it was kind of expensive.  He had hardly eaten in 3 days so that wasn't a problem!  He ate plate after plate of noodles, fruit, dumplings, pastries... everything!  Carson and I love to try new foods and eat the regional cuisine wherever we go, but we had a hard time in China!!  We tried to buy strawberries on the street but the bottoms were all mildewed.  We ordered some soups and dumplings at a small restaurant by the Forbidden City but the soups were just okay and the dumplings were so full of raw garlic that we couldn't even eat them.  We bought some corn on the cob on the street and it was flavorless and weirdly chewy.  After being exhausted and feeling sick to our stomachs we wussed out and went to the breakfast buffet instead of chancing the streets of Beijing.  They did have a lot of Chinese foods there but they also had cocoa puffs (to Trey's delight), cold kashi with nut & fruit toppings (I had 2 big bowls), apples and yogurt... I felt healthier immediately! 

The white wedge with black seeds is dragon fruit, we though it was like a cross between a soft apple and a kiwi.  On the right is a pastry and on the left are different Chinese dumplings.
We called a tour service for the Great Wall of China that arrived at our hotel with a driver and a "translator" lady... who barely spoke English.  The concierge at our hotel warned us that some of the tour companies will take you to "shopping" places where they try to rip you off.  We told the tour lady that we didn't want to go anywhere but the Great Wall.  She said that's not the deal, for 500 yuan we go to the Great Wall and the shopping.  Carson offered her 700 to NOT stop anywhere else.  We left with them through the crazy streets of Beijing (it's a wonder we didn't see any pedestrians and cyclists hit by cars!) and headed out into the countryside.  We left the main highway and the tour guide said she and the driver needed to get lunch.  They stopped at (shocker) - a cloisonne factory with high price tags.  We refused to do the tour there and the tour guide begged us to stay just 10 minutes.  5 minutes.  We got in the car and she came a few minutes later (without any lunch), complaining loud and fast in Chinese to the driver... apparently she didn't get paid for making the stop!  She kept calling us "friend" but didn't offer much in the way of a tour.  After we got to the Great Wall and bought tickets for the cable car, she said she would meet us back at the car in an hour and a half.  I was surprised but happy to have a break from her!  We REALLY enjoyed the Great Wall, it's just so iconic that it seemed surreal that we could be there, walking on the world's longest man-made structure, started before the time of Christ, built over centuries and visible from space!

You can see the steep steps we climbed in the distance and the Chinese characters on the hillside

An unrestored section showing the original stones, grown over by plants
Looking back over the section we hiked
Trey going sideways down the steep steps

Back down at the entrance to this section of the Great Wall.  We bought some dried fruits as a snack and rode back to our hotel, where Carson explained to the tour guide that he was really disappointed that she had broken her promise and gave her 600 yuan (about 100 dollars) - remember that the original price was 500 and Carson negotiated 700 for no stops.  We expected that she wouldn't be happy about that but we didn't expect that she would go absolutely crazy on us!  Her arguing quickly turned into yelling at the hotel people got involved.  After understanding what was going on, they asked Carson to go into the hotel and let them handle her.  She followed Carson into the hotel lobby yelling at him and they called security and the manager came down and followed her out.  Carson said she could stand there all day arguing but there was no way he was going to pay her the extra amount for no stops when she made a stop and tried to lie about it.  She was so mad and finally the hotel called the police and she left.

We ran up to our room and brushed our teeth and wanted to go out right away for the silk market but I was kind of afraid that she or the driver would jump us on the street and I wished I had another jacket besides my bright orange one!  I asked the hotel people to call a cab in to the hotel drive so we didn't have to go out on the street and we went to the silk market, which is the biggest bargain-shopping tourist market in Beijing.  It was in a building with 6 floors, one was a food court and there were different wares on each floor, with a labyrinth of glass-walled vendor booths.  We only had a couple of hours before they closed so we zeroed in on bronze statues for the boys, pearls, and a pink Chinese dress for Aspen.  We had heard that you should aim to pay about 10% of their original offer.  It seemed so crazy but we were able to get close, but not without a lot of effort!  The vendors were really aggressive, trying to get you into their shops, pushing you to buy more, acting offended when you offered a low price, saying "I lose money!" and "Why you do that to me?"  They would call in their friends to back them up about it being real bronze or real pearls and worth the price and I was stressed trying to make decisions about what people would like, doing the exchange rate conversions in my head as we bartered, trying to figure out if we had enough in yuans or if they would take credit card, under pressure for time and with Carson & me not always agreeing on which was the best or what we were willing to pay.  We got what we wanted but by the time we left we were tired and hungry and a little bit on each others' nerves! It was too late for a real dinner and we had kind of given up on authentic Chinese food anyway and there was a McDonald's across the street so we went in but they had a small and different menu so I just had a milkshake and half a fillet-o-fish and Trey had a McFlurry and a piece of fried chicken.  Carson wanted an interesting-looking burger with sausages on it but they were out so he just had a regular burger.  This sounds lame but seriously we were so done with Beijing after just 2 days!  I'm sure other places in China are much nicer, but between the air quality, the pushiness of the people, the weird food and the difficulty getting around we were just done.  Almost all of it was a concrete jungle anyway, I think we would have had to do a lot more traveling to see other things that were beautiful and traditional.  I was afraid that 2 days wouldn't be enough but we got to see some awesome things and had a little taste of the culture and we were all glad we went, but ready to head over to Japan.
In the airport you could practice calligraphy.  The Beijing airport is the largest airport in the world - and not heated  :(  but definitely had some cool stuff!

Below are some of our favorite pictures of various things in China that we especially liked...

Yin & Yang in the middle

Marriage - two people joined together in happiness