Sunday, May 31, 2009

More clouds and a new, wider format for The Offlede

shelf cloud_0001A storm moves over the Baymeadows subdivision in Melbourne sometime in the mid-afternoon of July 28, 2008. Of course, this was taken with my old camera, a Nikon D40.

Browsing some old photos last night, I came across some images of clouds that I shot last year. This one shows a storm front above my rental house (right) on July 28, as a strong thunderstorm moved through the area. I took a few similar shots, but had never shared them on The Offlede. In fact, I totally forgot about them.

And I used this photo to help usher in a slightly wider format for this blog. Most computers are equipped with high-resolution screens, which permits the viewing of such large images. The precursor of this format, of course, is The Boston Globe's The Big Picture, which contains collections of images on focused topics. My recent favorite is a post about shuttle Atlantis' maintenance mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The large size of the photos lend them a considerable amount of inspirational gravity.

If you don't like the new format, tell me. I usually listen. I listened when I changed The Offlede's slogan: "Striving to be the second best" has returned after a brief hiatus.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Food review | Whataburger? More like, 'What burger?'

The bacon cheeseburger and fries, splayed out on a tray at Whataburger's soon-to-be-former location on Wickham Road in Melbourne.

Whataburger is one of the many fast-food joints here in Florida that I've been meaning to try. I was never exposed to chains like this while growing up in Maine, and I tended to eat at classier joints such as Five Guys when I lived in Washington and New York.

This week, I finally went to Whataburger only because the company announced last week that it would close all 14 of its locations in Central Florida, including one just down the street in Melbourne. In a news release, Texas-based Whataburger said its Florida sales were just too low.

And I can see why.

Fresh from a storm-chasing adventure Tuesday, I ordered the No. 5: a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a drink. My bill came to $6.35. I gave the cashier a five-dollar bill and two ones ($7), and he gave me back $4.65 in change. He was convinced that I had given him $11, but I said I wasn't that stupid. He didn't believe me, and I wasn't going to argue further. After all, I was the one coming out on top.

The cashier gave me a ticket number, and I sat in a booth, to where I was promised my food would be delivered - a service unlike ones offered at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. Bonus points.

But the wait was nearly 10 minutes, an ordeal also unlike those experienced at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. I asked my server if the restaurant would close, and he said, "Yes, on May 31." That's tomorrow. He encouraged me to call a toll-free number and tell the representative that I would like to see the Whataburger location stay put. I told him I would.

I lied.

The diameter of this burger was large, probably a good 5 inches. The ingredients were similar to those found at less-classy burger joints - your McD's and the like. The meat, both beef and pig, was dry and elastic: Moisture is where the flavor's at. The onions were diced, unlike the ones at the classy Five Guys, where they are sliced: Onion dissection is an important indicator of quality. But to Whataburger's credit, the pickles were crinkle-cut, a nice touch that adds surface area and, consequently, flavor: Believe it.

But the bun (left, sorry for fuzziness), believe it or not, was the most disappointing component of this bacon cheeseburger. I've never described bread as overpowering, but it was. There was more bun than the other ingredients combined - by a long shot. A dry patty sandwiched between dry bread can't be considered a flavorful tasting experience or a pleasurable chewing experience. It was stick-to-your-mouth awful.

The fries also were not noteworthy. But the Coke was admirable - just the right amount of chlorine.

With its Texas heritage, I expected more from Whataburger's beef. But as they say over in the Lone Star State, everything is bigger in Texas. But at Whataburger, I was not expecting that to apply to my bun - and to the amount of change I got.

More: If you want to see a real burger, check out this link, then compare the photo in that post with the out-of-focus one in this post. They are telling portraits.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Clouds in Florida never cease to amaze me

The most detailed clouds were off to my southwest, which didn't make for much a pretty foreground. This is along the Indian River in Palm Bay.

Note: This post has been updated with wider images, in accordance with the new format on The Offlede.

After last week's deluge that brought more than 11 inches of rain to my area of Melbourne, Central Florida has assumed its summer weather pattern of hot and humid days capped off with a late-afternoon thunderstorm. Tuesday's storm shortened my cardinal-shooting venture, but complemented it with some really cool cloud cover.

The storm's front, marked by a pronounced shelf, moved over my position in Turkey Creek Sanctuary while my camera was rigged with a telephoto lens, preventing me from capturing its entirety. The trees in the sanctuary, where I was hunting the cardinals, also obstructed my view. I ran back to my car, huge camera and all, to get a smaller lens, but it was too late. I'm kicking myself for not carrying a wide angle.

But the detail on the underside of the storm was impressive, too. As a Maine native who is not used to such drastic summer weather, I am unceasingly captivated by the clouds in Florida, even those that are not associated with storms.

I was in southern Brevard County for this storm. Starting in Palm Bay, I followed the river down nearly to the boundary with Indian River County, stopping at a few spots for some photos. The rain was heavy, but the lightning was sparse.

In this photo taken in the parking lot of Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Palm Bay, you can see the bluer sky off to the north.

I drove toward the aforementioned blueness and took this shot looking north toward Melbourne.

At the southern end of my journey, a shot at the Sebastian Inlet Marina in Micco that looks northeast along the Indian River. I think the brown color is smoke. I definitely smelled smoke before I even saw this. But I'm not sure of its source, especially considering the fire danger after last week's rain is not that high.

This is taken at the same spot in Micco as the previous photo, just looking southeast toward Sebastian Inlet State Park.

Day 9 of cardinal hunt | A return to where it all started

This was probably the best shot of the day, but it's still somewhat obstructed by leaves.

Monday was my first day off recently that wasn't supposed to be drenched. Last weekend, I meant to venture outside and snap a few more shots of cardinals, but the weather didn't cooperate.

On Monday, my brain didn't cooperate. I drove 30 minutes south to Palm Bay's Turkey Creek Sanctuary, where I photographed my first cardinal weeks ago. After arriving and pulling out my camera, I realized that I had left the battery sitting in its charger at home. No juice, no photos.

I returned Tuesday, yet another fair-weather day, with a fully charged battery. And the cardinals, for the most part, cooperated. In fact, they were everywhere. Ironically, however, that was the problem. In my best opportunity to shoot a cardinal, the bird was too close.

Most of the cardinals in the sanctuary perch in the trees along a boardwalk, singing songs and communicating with each other. One of them, though, was interested in a ground-based food source beside the boardwalk. The cardinal scavenged the ground only feet away. My 150-500mm Sigma lens, however, is incapable of focusing so closely.

The shots I did get were probably the best considering the amount of light available. I can't expect much better from my lens.

As the afternoon wore on, dark clouds became visible on the horizon. A storm was coming, and the birds knew it. They started chirping and flying over the boardwalk. For a photographer trying to chase them, it was a bit overwhelming.

But alas, the storm clouds were too dark, and the conditions for shooting the birds deteriorated rapidly.

After looking up and seeing a well-defined cloud bank, which would have made for an excellent shot, I started running for my car. By the time I reached the parking lot and replaced my telephoto lens with a wide angle, it was too late. If I had brought the wide angle along for the cardinal hunt, I would have captured an excellent cloud photo and an excellent close-up of the cardinal foraging on the ground.

But there's no sense in dwelling on what could have been. These are a few of the other shots I did get.

I had my lens trained on this guy for a while. Because it was almost directly above me, it became quite a pain in the neck.

Some shots came out overexposed in the background, only because I was trying to pick up the details and colors of the bird.

Red, white and green.

Light shines through the leaves to illuminate this cardinal's face and feet.

As were the cardinals, squirrels were having a ball chowing down.

This squirrel is using the boardwalk railing as a dining table.

The clouds cometh - and ruinith my day of bird photography.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's alive: camera's miraculous comeback story

It looked like rain again Sunday, but with a newfound knowledge of what water does to cameras, I did not bring my Canon along for the run yesterday afternoon.

My Canon PowerShot, a trusty little point-and-shoot camera, has survived a "near-drowning" event in last week's deluge. I took it for a run in the rain, for those of you just tuning in.

After a four-day period of intensive care, its guts laid out on a table and its body hanging by its drawstring from a doorknob, the camera lives to take pictures another day. When I turned it on Sunday morning, it thought it was 2005, the year it was born. But other than that, the camera was back to its old self.

And on an even brighter note, it seems to have gotten a good cleaning. I scrubbed the camera with a cloth and sprayed canned air on it in hopes that the water would dry up faster. It did, and it took the dust with it.

Yesterday afternoon, when I went for a run and it looked like rain, I did not take my camera.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rain claims its first photographic life, barring miracle

After I ran with it in the rain, my point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot was stuck in the "on" position, its lens fully extended. I'll know its fate in a few days when the drying period is complete.

In one of my dumbest moments, I may have ruined a 5-megapixel Canon PowerShot that I carry with me almost everywhere. It's one of the best models of the point-and-shot cameras out there. It comes in handy for snapshots or for situations in which a digital SLR would be impractical. It serves as a backup to my backup, a Nikon D40. I've even used it to catch co-workers snoozing; it's my blackmail facilitator.

I took a quick photo Thursday of an approaching storm front, just before it started to rain. I wanted to take more photos, but I wanted to run in the rain, too. So, I compromised: I decided to take my Canon along for the ride.

clouds_vertical_0008I tucked the camera into one of the pockets of a golf jacket that has "naturally waterproof fibers." The thing was a prize I won in a tournament a few years back. I had never used it while playing golf, but it came in handy for runs in the rain. It kept me warm and mostly dry.

It poured so hard during my run that I didn't think it would be wise to take out the camera and take photos.

But when I got back to my apartment, I realized that it probably wouldn't have mattered. The water soaked through my jacket.

The camera was on, and I couldn't shut it off. The lens was stuck fully extended. I shook it, and water sloshed around inside. I pulled the battery and the memory card out. Both were soaked.

So as it is now, the camera is still in the process of drying - and probably dying. My father dropped his Canon DSLR into the lake, dried it out for a week and is using it today. My hope is that with the same period of drying, my backup-backup camera also will be resurrected.

(Left: A family at my apartment complex takes cover from the imminent downpour, in a photo I took before the fateful run.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Video | A long-exposure lightning photo in the making

A grab from one of about 20 frames that make up a video sequence showing three lightning strikes. It all lasted less about 5/6 of a second.

After starting the video, click the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition. Please wait for it to fully load.

I've discovered that filming lightning is incredibly difficult. The high contrast cannot be captured very well, even with my high-definition camera. (I have been, however, shooting with a wide aperture. If I stop it down a bit, I might be more successful.)

Night 2 of lightning fest (2)The sequence in this video, though, shows up better than many of the strikes I recorded early Thursday morning. It also contains the bolts that were captured in this photo (left).

To show exactly what made up the photo, I slowed the action from 5/6 of second - the time it took for all of the lightning strikes - and spread it over about 20 seconds. The exposure on the digital camera was 6.1 seconds long. The first 5 seconds of that happened before the strikes. I closed the shutter immediately after.

The audio in the video, by the way, is 29 seconds of real-time sound from around the time of the strikes.

One feature you can see in the video is a long bolt that parallels the Indian River, stretching from right to left. That only faintly appears in the still image.

Be sure to watch this in high definition. With such graininess caused by a wide-open aperture and little light, the standard version is too pixel-ridden to truly appreciate.

Night 2 of the Space Coast lightning-love fest

In a photo taken along the Indian River in Palm Shores, a cloud appears to be an alien spacecraft attacking Earth.

This is looking toward the Pineda Causeway.

My newfound love of the storm system that has plagued Brevard County this week is undying. More lightning Wednesday night perpetuated the photo-taking affair.

Like I said yesterday, there was only a short lull late Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon that was devoid of lightning. Since nature's electricity started filling the atmosphere Tuesday night, there was a flashing going on somewhere in the sky.

But the frequency and intensity picked up again last night. The cats and dogs had stopped pounding the roof. Only a light sprinkling kissed the air, so I headed out - first to areas around my apartment, then again to the shores of the Indian River in Palm Shores.

The park where I often spend quality time making love to the lightning with my camera is closed after sunset. That didn't put a damper on the outing, though. I took my equipment to the shoreline of the river, feet from the water. My tripods' nine legs got caked with sand. In the future, I'll make sure they're wearing some kind of shoe before plopping them down.

Wind and thunder joined the action. Fortunately, my new Manfrotto tripod is rated for a 20-pound camera. At about 5 pounds, my Nikon and its lens stand firmly atop their base without getting shaken by the wind.

Waves lapped at my feet. A fish wiggled its way over the sand, certain to die of suffocation - with a great view of the lightning, though. A raccoon scurried away once it noticed me. And lightning, the object of my affection, spread over the sky and shot downward near the barrier island across the river.

Eventually, rained chased me off. But I love this. Lightning is something I will never get tired of.

A bolt in the clouds.

This is looking east toward Satellite Beach and is taken from the Indian River shoreline at Palm Shores Park. The park is closed at night, but that didn't stop me.

Before driving to the river, I took a few shots around my apartment. This is in the parking lot of a Catholic church and is facing a new, almost-completed senior center in the middle of Wickham Park in north Melbourne.

Off to the left is the tennis court at my apartment complex. Lightning is striking over in the vicinity of Wickham Park, which is just north of my place.

Video | Lightning explodes, blows me away

A still image taken from around the 48-second mark of the video, at which the lightning appears to explode. Check it out.

After starting the video, click the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition.

This video shows a few of the flashes and bolts Wednesday morning. The first, nighttime sequence was filmed just south of the Pineda Causeway in Palm Shores. The second, morning sequence was shot just north of the causeway.

And the headline is sort of sensational. I'm referring to the 48-second point of the video, where lighting bolts converge to create an overexposed portion at the center of the video. It's nothing too special.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blinded by the lightning: Weather is fun again

Intense lightning strike in Cocoa Beach
Lightning strikes in the Atlantic off south Cocoa Beach. I can still see this image when I close my eyes. It's forever ingrained in my brain.

Some crawlers off Cocoa Beach, just after the deluge had stopped deluging for a bit.

After the beach, I stopped along the Indian River in Palm Shores, where I saw a few bolts.

Note: I might post a video later, if I have the energy after this draining night.

While I was watching Letterman around midnight Tuesday, an Emergency Alert System message scrolled across the screen with a tornado warning for northern Brevard County (Florida, for those of you just tuning in).

As I said in a post Tuesday, I was quite displeased with the amount of rain we had been getting during my four-day weekend. Bands of heavy precipitation were rotating off the Atlantic coast and in toward the peninsula, pounding Central Florida with more than 1 foot in some areas. I felt like I was at Camp Grenada, and I knew I would have some fun if it would just stop raining.

But since its offset, the storm had not produced lightning. That changed last night, when bolts started crawling across the offshore skies, and except for a lull early this afternoon, it hasn't stopped since.

I knew the tornado warning meant there was a good chance of lightning. Despite the rain, I ventured out and drove toward Cocoa Beach, less than 30 minutes from my Melbourne home. I stopped outside my old apartment along the beach. With my camera wrapped in plastic, I attempted to get some shots. But the only thing I got on my camera was water.

But the rain soon stopped, and I set up a tripod on the end of a boardwalk leading to the beach.

The light show was interesting to watch, but without visible bolts, the simple flashing behind the clouds was not photogenic. That was until a gigantic bolt stretched out across the water and struck the ocean directly offshore from my position.

That instance of lightning was so much brighter than what I had been experiencing, so the image came out a bit overexposed. But I was happy to capture it anyway. If it had spanned a greater distance, it would have touched down beyond the view of my camera. I would have jumped into the raging ocean and ended it right there.

sidewalk_0070When I close my eyes, I still get the image of that bolt striking in front of me. In fact, the strike made the hair on my head stand straight up, as you can see in the self-portrait below. (Actually, I lie. That's more because my hair got wet while it was raining and was dried by the stiff onshore winds in Cocoa Beach.)

On my way home, I stopped beside the Indian River in Palm Shores, but it was a different location from what I've staked out before. At this new place, a boathouse provided some foreground as the lightning, still offshore, flashed over the barrier island in the background.

The impressive show continued after daybreak. I attempted a few shots around the time of sunrise, but the task of capturing lightning in daylight hours is considerably more difficult when you can't leave the shutter open for dozens of seconds per exposure.

The photography excursion was draining. I emptied two batteries for my still cameras and two batteries and two tapes for my video camera. I was tired when I left my house at midnight, and it was 7:30 a.m. when I finally jumped into bed. But one must be adventurous when staving off boredom in Florida. Luckily, Mother Nature is once again being conducive to my form of entertainment.

Ahh, but it's raining again. Gee, that's not better.

(Left: Parking lot for the boat landing on the Indian River near the Pineda Causeway.)

I just appreciate the clouds in this image taken along the Indian River in Palm Shores, with the lightning bolts unseen behind the clouds.

Some more unimpressive lightning seen over the Satellite Beach area.

Eager to try something different, I attempted a self-portrait. For this, I used two cameras. The photo was taken with my new Nikon D90, which I triggered with a remote control once in position. But before that, I put my old D40, rigged with an external flash, on a 10-second delayed timer. Just before the D40 fired, I pressed the remote on the D90, beginning the exposure. After the D40 fired - and lit the subject, yours truly - I ducked out of the shot and hoped for a lightning strike. Out of about 10 tries, this is the closest I got. (And as you can see, the electricity really does make your hair stand up.) Note: You can e-mail me at to call me a dork. It doesn't hurt my feelings.

My two babies - Canon Vixia HV30 video recorder (left) and Nikon D90 still camera - at work. The photo is taken with my old D40, which I apparently forgot to focus. The hat - go Black Bears! - is preventing light from entering the viewfinder, in theory.

As the sun came up, I returned to the banks of the Indian River, this time near the Pineda Causeway just south of Rockledge. This exposure was only a few seconds long, as the sunlight started to make long exposures impossible.

These were the clouds above, with daylight arriving around 6:30 a.m. This was not manipulated in Photoshop, for those of you suspicious people. In fact, my version of Photoshop won't even read the images from my new Nikon. I'll have to work on that.

The lightning was still spreading across the sky as the sun came up, but never in front of my camera. I took about 300 shots with this composition, and that puny cloud-to-ground bolt is all I got (shutter speed: 1/20 of a second).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Enough, already: This rain just isn't fun anymore

A shot of another building in my apartment complex, with the rain coming down hard Tuesday night.

A quite badly flooded part of the parking lot, seen in a timed exposure with a flash to highlight some of the raindrops, though it wasn't coming down that hard at this time. It was annoyingly windy, though.

More than 6 inches of rain has fallen on Melbourne in the past two days. Daily rainfall records for both Monday and Tuesday were shattered. Another 9 inches is expected this week.

And I'm sick of it.

With four consecutive days off in a row this week, I had planned to take some photos of birds, maybe even go to the beach to do some swimming in the ocean.

Instead, I have to wade through inches of floodwater each time I go to my car. I mean, this is just a regular rainstorm. Imagine if this were a tropical storm or a hurricane. Those maintenance people who were working on the sprinkler system yesterday should get cracking on the drainage system instead.

Mother Nature has done enough to knock down the fire threat. It's time for the Sunshine State to start living up to its name again.

A car drives by, splashing water toward my camera.

Video | Waiting out the rain and testing camera's film mode

After starting the video, click the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition.

While I was waiting for the rain to die down a bit yesterday, I put my Nikon D90 into video mode and filmed the wetness. The D90, of course, is the first digital SLR with a high-definition video capability, and I was curious to see how it performed.

It's nothing special, and I definitely don't plan to use the video mode often. It pales in comparison to my Canon HV30 video camera, and you can't adjust its setting during recording, which stinks. It might come in handy at times, though. Like when I'm bored.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Here comes the rain: Flood devastates new Nikon, Nikes

Looking north along the Indian River, toward the Pineda Causeway and Patrick Air Force Base, just as the rain started.

Dark clouds looking east, toward Satellite Beach, before the rain began.


Again from one of my favorite weather-viewing spots along the Indian River in Palm Shores, I watched as a storm front moved along the Space Coast, drenching the region with much-needed rain.

The deluge also drenched me and my camera.

My Nikon was protected by a rain sleeve, a glorified plastic bag with a drawstring. The clear plastic guards the guts of my camera, but the lens, poking out the end, can get exposed.

The clouds were dramatic, the lightning was frequent, and the rain forced drivers to pull to the side of U.S. 1 to wait out the worst of it. Some of them joined me in the parking lot of the small roadside park in Palm Shores.

The rain was so heavy that I couldn't make out any of the lightning bolts, which were close. That doesn't make for good photos.

When I got back to my apartment (photo at top right), the parking lot was covered with 6 inches of floodwater.

Without much of a choice, I stepped outside my car, soaking my new Nikes, which I recently purchased for the sake of my other hobby: running. I ran today, in the rain, using my old New Balance shoes, which are worn and uncomfortable.

Ironically, most of the sprinklers on the grounds of my apartment complex were running. I think, however, that was because the maintenance team thought the rainfall made Monday afternoon a good time to work on them.

The ditches are now filling up, though. And after 2008, when Brevard County lost dozens of homes to wildfires during the spring, the rain is a good thing.

Rain collects on my windshield.

And of course, even during a torrential downpour, there's always a need to water the pavement with sprinklers.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Getting high on shooting things that are high? Huh, dream on

Some clouds pass in front of the moon, with Jupiter, seen off to the right, in the clear.

The hobby I seem to be interested in right now, photography, has grown out of my job as a journalist. I started using digital SLRs during a class at American University that taught handling skills for such "high-tech" equipment as high-speed still cameras, high-definition video cameras and high-fidelity sound recorders.

There are many times in my job that I see an image in the newspaper or on the photo wire that simply inspires me, even excites me. That happened this week when I saw amateur astrophotographer Thierry Legault's image of shuttle Atlantis and the Hubble Space Telescope in what's called "solar transit." In other words, they were silhouetted against the sun in a first-ever image captured from the ground. Legault has asked people to respect his copyright on the photos, so I'll just include a link to his site, which contains high-resolution versions. Check them out.

Legault, a French engineer, photographed Atlantis on Tuesday, a day after I shot the spaceship as it launched from Kennedy Space Center. The telescopic images were captured in Daytona Beach, which makes me wonder if he watched the liftoff from the Space Coast.

Like I said, the images inspired me, but I can only dream of such brilliant captures. It takes both expensive camera and telescope equipment, not to mention astronomical knowledge, to achieve such a feet. Instead, I used my new camera to again shoot the moon, this time partially shrouded in clouds and getting cozy with Jupiter.

polaris_1050The angle at which I have to point my camera to shoot the natural satellite is not steep just after moonrise. Later in the night or morning, it can get quite high in the sky. That's when a good tripod comes in handy.

I tested my new Manfrotto Pro 055XPROB tripod early this morning by pointing it toward Polaris (left), the widely known star that happens to be quite high in the sky. I discovered that, when the lens is mounted in reverse, the tripod can be angled to almost 90 degrees (in accordance to the ground), allowing the lens to be pointed straight up. It was still stable, but the lens tended to zoom out without a touch, a phenomenon known as "lens creep" (sounds like a name I've been called while taking photos of little children). But hey, that's what gravity will do to you.

The resulting image of Polaris isn't much, of course. But I'll always have my dreams of something better.

Moons are half off today. Too see a high-resolution image, click on the above one.