Backpacking Guadalupe Peak

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Our backpacks were too heavy. Nobody had trained. Nobody had even worn their packs before except me, and mine hadn’t left the garage in at least ten years.

On paper, the hike seemed easy. It was four miles up the trail with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, reaching a final height of 8,600 feet above sea level. The logistics of getting to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and back to Houston in one weekend were what had me the most worried … at least until we stepped on the trail.

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We formulated a plan to leave Thursday after work and drive to Kerrville, then get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to to the park. Once there we would obtain the limited backwoods camping passes for the Guadalupe Peak Trail from the rangers, then hike up the mountain. After we set up camp, we’d hike the rest of the way up the peak to watch the sunset. Then I’d take some amazing milky way photos, maybe even do some starry sky timelapse videos before heading to bed. Then we’d wake up before dawn to hike back up to the peak to watch the sunrise before walking down the mountain to go explore other things like Carlsbad Caverns or the strange Prada store in Marfa.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

We did leave Thursday night, and we did make it to Kerrville.

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The Holiday Inn Express had a fancy Texas-shaped pool. Unfortunately it was far too cold and late in the evening to try it out. The next morning we were back on the road.

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We made it to Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 1 p.m. and were very lucky to snag one of the few remaining backwoods camping permits. We unloaded our gear and headed up the mountain.

I’d done a fair amount of backpacking when I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was lucky that I still had my gear. However, nobody else had really tried out their packs, some of which had been procured through eBay, so everyone was starting the hike with discomfort.

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I also didn’t have time to open each person’s pack and ruthlessly throw all their belongings back in the car saying, “Nope, can’t take this,” like the guides and counselors did to me back in the old days. No deodorant. No extra batteries. Not even a toothbrush unless you break off the handle. What’s worse is I didn’t even follow my own rules and packed in two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod in anticipation of all the amazing photography I was going to do. (So glad I brought a tripod for this …)

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Let’s just say it was a very long hike up the mountain.

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We stopped to rest often.

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We really should have paid attention to the fact that the trail was marked strenuous.

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Although we made sure to find plenty of photo ops.

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Five and a half hours later, we finally reached the sign for the camping area.

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Unfortunately that arrow on the sign doesn’t actually point in the right direction. The trail is off to the right of the sign, so the girls took a break while TJ and I wandered the mountain looking for any sign of a camp.

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It turned out to be just over the ridge of lower peak, so we made the last march of day into the camping area and set up our tents.

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We started cooking dinner just as the sun was setting. No, we weren’t going to be able to watch sunset from the peak, but there were times throughout the day when we weren’t sure we were even going to make it as far as we had.

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As I set up my cameras to capture some stars, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen rose into the sky. I thought it made the night look a bit unique, so I set up a timelapse anyway. Then, since the moon hadn’t been able to dissuade me, the clouds moved in as mother nature had a good laugh about the fact that I’d carried all that camera equipment for nothing.

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The weather in the desert makes massive shifts between day and night, so we all layered up to fight the cold. The dehydrated food never tasted so good. Our friends passed around a flask, and we all took a nip of Scotch before climbing into sleeping bags and quickly falling into a deep, black sleep.

Around 2 a.m. the wind had picked up to better than 25 miles per hour. It had been impossible to drive stakes into the hard ground where we were camping, so Mary sent me out with rope to tie the tent down to whatever rocks and trees were within reach. The moon loomed over me, lighting the work. I never even had to turn on the flashlight.

We slept through sunrise.

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The dehydrated egg scramble had never tasted so good, and spirits were high as we knew we didn’t have to carry our backpacks up to the peak.

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Yes, we’d missed the sunrise, but it would still be a nice hike.

 

I packed some water and my camera into a sleeping bag stuff sack, slung it over my shoulder, and we headed for the top.

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The last mile was full of beautiful scenes. We couldn’t get enough photos, but even without packs, everyone was still having a bit of a struggle.

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Once we passed El Capitan, we knew we were almost there.

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A few portions of the trail crossed steep rock face, which had Mary crabwalking, but she overcame her fear of heights to cross them.

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Despite various threats of quitting, we all made it to the tallest point in Texas together.

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Inside the ammunition box at the base of the monument was a log book, signed by all who make the hike. Some people put serious thought into what they write. The book is full of poetry and quotes. We added our own signatures to the pages.

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Had we had more time, water and a permit, I think everyone would have been content to stay another night before breaking camp and hiking down the mountain, but we didn’t have that luxury. We made a quick lunch and then reluctantly put on our backpacks.

Mary had a sore knee, so it was slow going. Even so, it only took us about two hours to get down the hill — a marked improvement compared to our ascent.

I left my pack with everyone at the base of the trail and hiked over to the ranger station to get the car. Everyone was very excited to sit down.

We drove to Van Horn and celebrated our achievement with dinner and drinks at the El Capitan Hotel.

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We made the long drive back the Houston Sunday with one question in mind, what mountain do we conquer next?

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Renting cameras from borrowlenses.com

I had a huge video project land on my desk a few weeks ago, and I knew I was going to need more artillery than what I usually carry in my camera bag.

I decided to try borrowlenses.com for this project. I have no connection to the company whatsoever. I ordered three Sony A7 cameras, two Sony FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS lenses, a Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f1.8 ZA lens, and three extra batteries for 25 days.

I got a message the day before the cameras were supposed to arrive telling me that they did not have the Sony A7 cameras I had ordered in stock, so they were upgrading my order to the newer A7II model for no extra charge.

On the date promised, two packages arrived via UPS.

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A small box contained the three lenses and three extra batteries as well as the return labels for sending the lenses back.

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The second box had a nice Pelican case and the return labels.

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Inside the Pelican case were the three camera bodies, three batteries, and three battery chargers.

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They also provided a packing guide with a photo of how to put it all back in the case to mail it back

All of the cameras had clean sensors and functioned perfectly.

Since we were going to be working outdoors in a shipyard I purchased the insurance, but we thankfully did not have to make any claims.

Total cost for the 25-day rental of the equipment was $1,390.15, less than purchasing one Sony A7II body.

I don’t get jobs this large very often, but I’m very impressed with the service from borrowlenses.com and will not hesitate to use them again in the future.

 

Through which lens do you see the world?

Tonight we’re packing for a week-long charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Unlike weekend trips aboard Gimme Shelter where I can bring along most anything I want, space is limited.

Packing clothes is the easy part. I’m throwing in four shirts, two pairs of shorts and two swim suits. Done. However, I’ve been perplexing for more than a week as to which lenses are going into my camera bag.

Once upon a time I used to travel with just a small point and shoot camera in a dive case. Life was simple, and the photos weren’t that bad.

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But through the years I suffered from gear acquisition syndrome, or GAS, as it’s known by most photographers. I kept changing camera bodies and accumulated more and more lenses until traveling with a camera ended up extremely complicated. When you have limited space, how do you decide what to bring along?

The 50mm f1.4 is my favorite lens. It’s razor sharp, it creates a nice shallow depth of field, and it’s my number one choice for video and portraits. It’s also said that a 50mm best replicates a normal human field of view.

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While not my favorite, the 28mm f2 is my most used lens. Sharp as a tack and great in low light, I usually find myself needing the 28mm for landscapes, sunsets, architecture, group photos, photos of people around tables in classrooms or restaurants, and any wide angle video shot.

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However, when you’re on a sail boat, you can’t back up from your subject or you’re in the water. The 28mm is just wide enough to grab the cockpit, but if I want to capture a shot with the entire mast and sails, I’ve got to swap to the ultra-wide 15mm f4.5. The 15mm is also a must for interior shots on the sailboat.

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But lately all my best shots seem to be with an old 90mm f2.8. The 90mm has been giving me some really nice portraits as well as some nice landscape shots when I need to cut out the foreground.

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But the 90mm just doesn’t quite get me close enough for birding or wildlife. While it tends to suffer from a bit of chromatic aberration and weighs more than all the previous lenses combined, my 135mm f2.8 can catch a nice bird shot if the bird is within throwing distance.

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Of course, my new favorite lens has been the 280mm f2.8, which came with its own suitcase and weighs about ten pounds. If I’m in the very back of the boat, I can capture just a person’s face up on the bow. That might make it too long for shooting on the boat, but it’s great for shooting wildlife or people on other boats. The downside is that if I were to take it along, it would count as my carry-on luggage, and I’d have to check my real bag.

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But sometimes the 280mm isn’t long enough, so I’ve got the 400mm f6.8. I carried this lens in Belize to capture exotic birds, monkeys and kinkajous. I caught a few birds, but it turns out the monkeys and kinkajous only came out in the dark, so it was a bit useless in the middle of the night.

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So that’s seven prime lenses that I REALLY need to bring along.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, hey dummy, just get a zoom lens and be done with it.

Well, I have nothing against zoom lenses. In fact, I’m definitely bringing a 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 zoom with the Sony NEX-6 since that’s the lens that fits in the dive case. It’s not as sharp as the primes, and it has some barrel distortion at the wide end of things, but if I want underwater shots, it has to be in the bag.

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I’ve also tried a 70-200 f4.5 to replace my 90mm and 135mm primes. Yes, it was more versatile when it came to framing shots, but again, it just doesn’t seem as sharp as my primes. I also lose a stop of light, so I can’t shoot with it as early in the morning or as late into the evening as I can with the f2.8 lenses.

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I definitely cannot pack NINE lenses, one of which has its own suitcase, for this trip. Even if I could pack all nine, there’s no way I would use all of them in a week. Yes, each lens has a purpose and is a tool for a certain type of shot, but unless I’m hired for that specific job, those lenses are nothing but a security blanket.

As photographers, our choice of lens is our choice of how we see the world.

Do you want the big picture? Shoot your trip with a wide.

Want to live in the moment with a first person view? Slap on a 50mm.

Want to focus on the details of a place or event? Pack nothing but a telephoto.

Discover what you want to say through your photographs and choose the focal length that best conveys that message.

So here’s my challenge. Next time you go out shooting, simplify everything. Decide how you want to see the world, take just one lens, and discover what kind of story you can tell.

Of course, I’ll still be taking at least three lenses to the SVIs. I mean, come on, I’ve got to get some dolphin pictures!

Critique, evaluation, curation and rejection

The original focus of this blog was supposed to be sailing and sailboat repair projects, but not yet being full-time cruisers (and due to the fact that it hasn’t stopped raining in Houston for almost two months), Mary and I often end up distracted with our other hobbies, so I hope you don’t mind the tangential topics.

I have a tendency to push Mary out of her comfort zone with ideas like “sailing close hauled” or “creating boat cooking videos,” and she does the same to me — this time with photography.

I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures. I bought my first camera, a rectangular 110 point and shoot, with S&H Green Stamps when I was in elementary school. In middle school my parents sent me to photography day camp, and by high school I had my own Canon AE-1 Program, which I carried through college and into my first years as a newspaper reporter — right up until I finally joined the digital revolution. Then, about three years ago I got interested in historical cameras and started shooting with an assortment of TLRs and vintage rangefinders.

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Long story short, I’ve invested lots of time and money in cameras, lenses, film, tripods, bags, memory cards, batteries, etc. through the years, so Mary decided it was finally time for me to have a show.

I’ve never done the gallery thing. I have no idea how this really works, but Mary had already started contacting various galleries and cafes in the Kemah area to see if they would hang and sell my prints.

One small catch. I had no prints.

With an impending meeting last Sunday I had to really sit down, go back through all the terabytes of photos I’ve shot over the past few years, really critique myself, decide which photos were worth printing, and create a portfolio to show the galleries. That meant taking what I considered to be my very best work and opening myself up to having it rejected.

It was a very stressful exercise. The old saying goes, “You are your own worst critic,” but criticism from other people can sting much more.

Here’s a gallery of the photos I selected if you want to check it out.

I decided to go with a sailing theme, put in my print order, and tried not to grind my teeth while I waited for them to arrive.

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Mpix and Mpix Pro have started offering prints on Kodak Metallic Paper for just a dollar more than the regular prints, and wow, they really pop. I highly recommend it.

Now, a very long time ago I had attempted to do my own matting and framing, so I still had an old box of mats in the garage and a mat cutter in the attic. After picking up some foam core and a test frame at Hobby Lobby, I spent an evening attempting to mount, mat and frame one of the prints.

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My mounting and matting weren’t too bad, but when I actually examined the Hobby Lobby frame, it had two big nicks in the wood and a scratch in the glass — which was definitely not UV or glare resistant. When I factored in the cost of the supplies even with sub-par frames and the fact that it took me almost two hours just to finish one print, I decided it wasn’t worth it to do it myself.  I have too many other projects that need my attention.

Sunday afternoon rolled around and Mary, being the great manager/agent that she is, advised me to “dress artsy and seem interesting.”

We met with Roberto, the owner of Cerise Crepes, a new European-style cafe. Roberto was great, he told us about all his hopes for the restaurant and his vision of an art show with local painters and photographers as well as how he wanted to start a French club in the area. Plus, the crepes and the coffee were delicious.

There were only two problems. The first was that Cerise Crepes is located in Spring on the north side of Houston, not anywhere near the ocean. (My agent said she knew the cafe wasn’t located in our target region, but that she really likes crepes.) The second problem tied into the first, being that with the cafe located in Spring, Roberto wasn’t really interested in sailboat pictures.

I suggested that perhaps his customers would have more interest in some of my travel photos from Paris, Rome, London and Rio, so I packed up my display and made my way home where I spent another two or three hours going back through the terabytes of archived files, trying to find new worthy photographs. If I had thought the first time through this exercise was stressful, it was nothing compared to having to throw out all my favorite photos and then pick again.

Here is the new gallery I put together for Cerise Crepes if you want to check it out.

Mary has another meeting scheduled for me in Kemah next weekend, so hopefully that one will go better. If not, at least I did take a few steps out of my comfort zone, and if nothing else, Mary might end up with a wall of really nice prints at the house.

And here’s an ending note from my agent, who swears to me that a 90% cut is industry standard: If you’d like to book Fred for a shoot or order any of his outstanding fine art prints online, just visit www.fredfacker.com.

We’re in Houston Magazine this month

Well, Gimme Shelter isn’t actually in the magazine, but I’m flattered that one of my long-exposure photos is featured in the CLICK section of the April issue of Modern Luxury Houston. Even if you’re not a Houstonian, you can still check it out on pages 22 and 23 of the digital edition.

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Thursday, April 9, I’ll also be on 88.7 FM KUHF Houston Public Radio from 5-6 p.m. representing Technip and matching donations during the Spring Fund Drive as part of our commitment to transparent reporting, sustainable development and community outreach.

And while I’m just promoting random stuff, I thought I’d mention that the crew of Gimme Shelter provides freelance copywriting, design, photo, video and translation services to fund our adventures. If you’re in need of any of those things, visit our photo site at www.fredfacker.com and like our Facebook business page Facker Media Services.

Improving the ONA Bowery camera bag

I’m always looking for the perfect camera bag. While big padded Lowepro bags and backpacks are great, they kind of scream, “HEY, I’M A TOURIST AND THIS IS MY CAMERA THAT YOU SHOULD STEAL!” For a very long time I was looking for something small and light that could still handle a camera body and one or two lenses when I’m traveling or hiking.

Then last Christmas my lovely wife bought me this beautiful ONA Bowery leather camera bag.

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In the past two years this bag has transversed the United States and crossed the Atlantic twice. However, the more I’ve carried it, the more I’ve noticed it has a few problems.

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On the inside, it has only one padded divider. That means you get one camera with a mounted lens on one side, and one lens or flash crammed into the other with a charger.

Those two small front pockets and two small side pockets can each hold one, and only one, of the following: a spare battery, a passport, a lens filter, or a USB cable.

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ONA touted this rear pocket as being for an iPad Mini or other small tablet. Well, I happened to have an iPad Mini, so I stuck it in there. However, it slid out twice in my car and once at Charles de Gaulle airport, so I decided sticking anything in the open back pocket was just asking for it to be lost or stolen.

ONA sells large padded dividers for the briefcase size bags and small padded dividers like what came with the Bowery, but for some reason they don’t sell a divider the width of the Bowery to create an internal iPad sleeve. However, my very lovely and talented wife, who was thoughtful enough to buy me the bag in the first place, can sew.

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For $15 I ordered two large padded dividers, and after about 30 minutes of work, Mary had downsized one of them to the interior size of the Bowery. (Thank you, honey!)

I now have a secure interior slot for the iPad, a notepad, or a battery charger.

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I really don’t know why ONA doesn’t sell the bags like this in the first place. The padded dividers are just cardboard wrapped in packing foam. (And they are a serious pain to cut through with old scissors!) If they can sell two for $15 at a profit, they could definitely add one to each bag without increasing production costs enough to raise the cost of the bag.

And now with the interior padded pocket for tablets, why not add a zipper to the rear outside pocket, so it’s actually usable?

Are you listening ONA?!!!

Shortly after I received this bag, ONA released the Berlin, which if I could do it all again, I’d probably choose that slightly larger model. However, being a gift from Mary, I’ll stick with the Bowery. It is a very tough bag, and it keeps me packing light when we’re doing lots of walking.

Our new feathered friend

Last weekend we had a new bird take up residence near Gimme Shelter. Every morning this snowy egret was walking the shallows just the other side of the breakwater.

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While he kept an eye on us and refused to eat while we were watching, he never flew away. I left him to catch his breakfast while I went to eat mine. I was excited to see him again the next morning when we got up to walk the dogs.

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Rarely are birds and animals close enough to shoot with the rangefinder, but he (or she, I have no idea how to tell the gender) was close enough that I managed to capture these shots with the M9 using the 135mm f2.8 Leica Elmarit lens.

All of the rocks in that area disappear under water when the summer tides and south wind return, but hopefully our new egret friend will stick around and have breakfast with us for a few more weekends.

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