Saturday, February 26, 2011

GeoPic II offers GPS tagging without the headaches

Anyone who takes a lot of travel type photos is always happy to have geo-tagging done so they can tell exactly where a photo was taken. After a seven-day cruise, those ocean shots all look the same and who knows whether you were in the Caribbean or the Pacific.  

There are many GPS solutions on the market and each has their own positives and negatives.  My recent test of the GeoPic II leads me to believe there are a lot more pluses to like about this unit The unit locks onto a GPS signal relatively quickly and lets you start shooting as soon as possible.

According to their documentation, it takes 40 seconds to acquire a signal on a cold start, but I’ve had much quicker response on most occasions. Reacquiring a signal can be as quick as .1 seconds.

One of the major drawbacks to on-camera GPS units is the constant power drain. Some units suggest you set your camera’s automatic shut-off to 30 minutes so they can maintain their GPS connection. That really kills your battery life.

With GeoPic II, that’s a concern you won’t have. It has a mode of operation that allows photos to be geotagged without contacting the satellites for each shot.

There are actually three modes selectable by the user: continuous, low power and freeze. In low power and freeze modes, you’ll get almost the same number of shots as you would have had there not been a GPS unit attached to your camera.

Continuous  In this mode, your location is constantly monitored and sent to the camera from the satellites.  A slow flashing red indicator means searching for signal and steady red means the signal is locked on. This mode takes the most power but is the most responsive when shooting and changing location frequently. I’d use this if I was on a tour bus or doing aerial photography from a helicopter. Just keep an eye on your battery as it’s going to lose power probably 3 times as fast.

Low Power Here, the GPS location is sent to the camera if the green light is on and it will be sought if the green light is slowly flashing green. Pressing the shutter half-way down tells the unit to get a GPS location. When the light comes on and the unit beaps, the signal is locked in and you can take your picture. This is the most efficient outside mode, resulting in almost normal battery life.

Freeze This is the mode to use if you are going to be taking photos inside where a signal can’t be read. Before you go in, set the GeoPic II in the blue Freeze mode and take a photo outside to lock in your location. The internal buffer maintains the location and each time the shutter is depressed while inside, the location is recorded on your photo. This is your most battery efficient operation, requiring almost no power. 

The GeoPic II works on all cameras with a 10-pin connector including Nikon D200, D300, D300S, D700, D2HS, D2X, D2xS, D3 and Fuji S5 Pro.

The unit slips into the hot-shoe mount atop the camera and can also clip to your camera’s shoulder strap. The camera strap is the preferred location if you will be using either the cameras built-in flash (like the one on the D300) or an external flash like the SB800 or 900.

Two cautions when using any hot shoe mounted GPS. The cord connecting the GPS unit to the 10-pin connector is just one more thing that’s liable to snag when hurriedly placing your camera in your camera bag. Also, if using it on a camera with a built-in flash, it will prevent the flash from automatically raising when needed. If there’s a case where you’ve set the camera to have the flash automatically pop up, you better to remember to mount the GeoPic II on your shoulder strap.

Once your photos are embedded with the GPS metadata, you can access that information through a variety of programs like: Adobe Lightroom, Microsoft Expression Media, Nikon ViewNX, Apple "Preview" standard software (v5 and up) and  "JetPhoto Studio" for Mac and PC.

The GeoPic II can be ordered in the US through B&H Photo in NYC or in Europe at the Custom Ideas website.
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Thursday, February 24, 2011

A short list of books to take to Florida this spring

irlsWhether you’re doing the snowbird thing or you’re going on spring break, chances are good that a lot of our fellow Clevelander's are heading south to Florida. Here’s a short list of books you might want to take along for the journey.

Along Interstate 75, a book by Dave Hunter, is a wonderful guide if you’ll be following that route. Dave is a professional travel writer and travels this route several times each year. He and wife Kathy check out each exit and update their listings so you’ll have a constantly current journal of what to expect along your way. This is the 16th edition he’s just published.

I’ve traveled with journals like this before and can’t tell you what an advantage it is to know that maybe just one more exit and the food goes from ordinary to outstanding. His book is loaded with that type information as well as interesting side ventures where you might spend an extra 15 minutes, but see some extraordinary sights.

Maps are included in the familiar AAA trip-tik style, but Dave goes one better and has photographs and detailed drawings of his recommendations. Why, there’s enough information in this book that the journey can become THE destination – you don’t need to really go anywhere special to enjoy yourself.

History buffs, you don’t even need to leave home – he’s got you covered with all sorts of stories about the regions you’ll pass. Photographers – look for Dave’s notes on special photo opportunities. Lead foots – you’ll especially appreciate all the little highway patrol car indications for speed traps. See, I told you there was something here for everyone. Check his website for up-to-date information and ordering info.

Girls Getaway Guide to Key West, Leave Your Baggage at Home by Casey Wohl is a tiny book suitable for a vest pocket or purse, but it packs a LOT of information about the Key West area.

Learning to pronounce “Conch” correctly is the first thing you need to know; because, since 1982, this has area has become The Conch Republic. They even tried to secede from the Union at one point. Have a local tell you that humorous story, and it’s pronounced “conk.”

Casey goes into all the “must see and do” information you’ll need, along with recommended places to stay, eat, shop and get pampered. There’s a whole chapter of special events that happen only in certain months and another on her “fave” places. To keep you updated, you can check her website where other Girls Guides are available as well.

Living Without Reservations, a journey by land and sea in search of happiness by Barbara Elaine Singer is another one to pack along, no matter where you’re headed. If you’ve ever thought of pitching it all and traveling the world – Barbara can tell you how it’s done.

Her journey didn’t start until some serious ups and downs completely turned her life around. In one year she got divorced, watched her only daughter move away to college, fell in love with another man and then suddenly he died. It was time for a real change of scenery.

What followed was a trip cross-country from Philadelphia to Alaska and back in an RV with her dad, followed by working as crew on a yacht in the Caribbean to eventually landing in Italy. She had traded the goal of a big 401k for the goal of collecting experiences and enjoying meeting people.

With her book, she hopes to inspire her readers to go for that Eat, Pray, Love experience. She’s an example of trusting faith and just going for it. For more information about her journeys and her recipe for life, check out her website.
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Savannah, GA - a sinfully-splendid spring getaway

Spring comes early in the south, and for us Northerners it’s a great getaway, even if just for a long weekend. In a matter of hours after I leave Cleveland, I can bound off a plane, drop my coat and enjoy going for a walk again. Last year this time, Savannah, Georgia was my destination of choice.

I had been invited to come and sample Southern hospitality - Savannah style. Having only been there once before for a short meeting, I was really looking forward to returning. Arriving in downtown, one couldn’t but be impressed with the great history of this town and its architectural gems. 

As I pulled into the parking lot of the Bohemian Hotel, I marveled at what a great job they had done converting an old riverside warehouse into a modern hotel. Only later did I learn that the hotel was almost a brand new structure, painstakingly built and decorated to look as though it had been a part of the downtown riverfront for years. Turns out that most other tourists assumed the same thing I did.

Operated by the Kessler Collection, the hotel exudes artwork everywhere possible. A most generous patron of the arts and Savannah native, owner & CEO Richard Kessler’s private art collection exceeds 10,000 works of art. Thousands of paintings, wood and bronze sculptures and multiple-medium pieces of art decorate each of his hotels. You literally slow down to the southern pace to soak in all this art as you wander the corridors and public spaces of the hotel.

The rooms are a wonder of floor-to-ceiling windows; furs tossed across the bed, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind light fixtures, and comfy leather chairs. In the bath, a dark wooden hand-carved vanity front sets off the dual marble sinktop. The oversized marble shower with their own collection of toiletries tops off the creature comforts built into each suite.

The evening I arrived proved to be a wonderful opportunity to sample the ambiance and views of Rocks on the Roof – the chic rooftop lounge. With glass rollup doors that retract in the mild weather, breezes flow through the bar area and invite you to the railing. With a 360-degree view of the river and the downtown area, it’s proving to be “the” place to meet and mingle.

The following morning started with breakfast in Rocks on the River – the lower-level, full-service restaurant, also looking out onto the Savannah River. Every so often, you can enjoy watching the huge ocean-going freighters sail by, less than a stone’s throw from your table. After a most leisurely and filling breakfast, it was off to wander and explore the city. Before leaving the hotel, I stopped by the reception desk and borrowed an iPod with an audio walking tour that explained the sites between the hotel and Forsyth Park.

Savannah is laid out so that you barely walk three blocks without wandering through one of their 20+ downtown parks. Each a full block in size, they make wonderful areas to explore and to relax. Each square has a central theme and many date back to the city’s founding in 1733. 

The largest square has grown into Forsyth Park, complete with bandstand and coffee shop/refreshment vendor operated by the Kessler Group. The north end of the park features a circa 1858, multi-sculptured fountain and a fragrance garden which will truly seduce you in azalea season. 

Immediately to the east of the park is the Mansion on Forsyth Park, the other Kessler property in Savannah. The Mansion is a AAA Four-Diamond, luxury boutique hotel of 126 rooms. This was my next destination for two things I had never done before.  

Savannah is known for the foodies it attracts and the chefs that call it home. I was about to take a cooking class with Chef Darin Sehnert at 700 Kitchen Cooking School. A former chef instructor at the Disney Institute, Sehnert took a group of a dozen+ students and first explained the whys and wherefores of Low Country Cuisine, its main food groups and spices. His explanations were captivating and luckily a full booklet of notes were given out so we didn’t need to try to take dictation. He next got everyone into the act of slicing, dicing, stirring and cooking a full blown Southern meal. 

Excuse me if I brag, but it was the best lunch I’ve ever prepared with 12 of my closest (new) friends. From the mouthwatering cheddar and chive biscuits, to the shrimp in red eye gravy (my responsibility) to fried green tomatoes to the penultimate dessert – pecan praline angel food cake – it was out of this world. My only regret…I had to gulp my homemade pineapple mint tea so as not to miss my spa appointment.

After being around as long as I have, getting an upscale massage is something that you just figure is not going to happen. But being on a dream getaway, that’s exactly what you are supposed to do – try something new, experience something you’ve never done before.

As I walked into the Poseidon Spa, I was met by Courtney Small, the spa director. Explaining their ten different type massage traditions, we settled on the Swedish massage. I entered one of their many treatment rooms and was instantly at home with the soft lighting, tasteful décor, and body-temperature massage table blanket-like covers. I could have instantly fallen asleep in this type environment if it hadn’t been for the wonderfully talented masseuse who relaxed and rejuvenated this newfound devotee of the massage.

Upstairs, in the hotel, I discovered a gallery showing of Stefano Cecchini’s artwork in the Bosendorfer Lounge. With cocktails and an opportunity to talk with Cecchini himself, it was a great way to bide the time before dinner. He paints luxury cars and large-scale wildlife with the detail that makes you wonder if you are looking at a photograph. Exquisite trompe l’oeil effects on wood are deftly created with oil and tempura. Stunning. 

Having such a great experience in the Cooking School, I reasoned that I really needed to stay for dinner at the 700 Drayton Restaurant and see what the pros could do without my help. Somehow they managed to do quite well, and I really enjoyed their four course dinner with four wine pairings. For the entrée, they served Tybee Island seared shrimp, with Georgia camembert grits, wild mushrooms and pea tendrils. A Casa Defra 2000 Pinot Grigio was the perfect compliment.
While I was in Savannah, their annual music festival was underway and I scored a ticket to see Cherryholmes and Shannon Whitworth perform. Both were extremely entertaining and real crowd pleasers. 

The following day, before heading home, there was just enough time for a quick trip across the river on the free ferry over to the convention center. It’s a nice short ride and a chance to see the Savannah skyline from a slightly different perspective. 

The absolute last stop before leaving had to be at Zunzi’s, a quaint, hole-in-the-wall carryout that the locals sort of keep to themselves. They open at 11 a.m. and you want to arrive close to then as the crowd at lunchtime can stretch out the door and down the block (no joke.) I indulged in the Godfather sandwich which combines their own homemade South African beef sausage and chicken on a French bread roll with gravy and onions. Heaven in a 12” hoagie.

As I rode home, I immediately wished the getaway weekend had been a month. Savannah offers so much to see, do and did I mention – eat? It was the perfect time off before I went back to Cleveland’s winter.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wildlife Photography – written by Uwe Skrzypczak

No doubt, probably one of the most fantasized photographic experiences is being on safari in the Serengeti of Africa. With all the predatory animals in abundant supply, this is the place to be to get shots of all the “majors.” 

Suffice it to say, those who have actually spent the money to fly to this destination and then came back with merely distant, blurred shots for their album are probably wondering how the professionals get such great, detailed shots.  Had they read Uwe Skrzypczak’s book, they could have vaulted themselves closer to the knowledge it takes to bring back the trophy shots.

Make no mistake, it’s going to require expensive, pro caliber equipment to shoot wildlife from a distance, but knowing what to do with that equipment is just as important as having the equipment itself. In the most detailed explanation possible, Skrzypczak (pronounced Scripcheck) explains his choice of equipment, how to get it there, and what to choose based on the shot desired. 

He continues with a detailed explanation of auto-focus and its multiple modes, with recommendations for times to use each one. Shutter speed is another major area of emphasis. For example, to fully freeze motion on a running cheetah, you better be shooting at 1/4000 or 1/8000 of a second.

Many of his explanations will apply to wildlife whether they are shot in the Rockies or in Africa. Being patient and waiting for the animals to ignore you, applies in most locales. 

However, if you are headed to the Dark Continent, you can’t be without this book.  He gives detailed descriptions of migratory trends and maps as to where to find which wildlife depending on the time of year you travel. The cost of this book is nothing compared to what that can save you driving around looking for animals that “went south” two months ago. 

If you can’t catch one of Uwe’s workshops, this book is your next best investment in wildlife photography

The Wild Side of Photography – written by Cyrill Harnischmacher

Most every photographer loves to have people compliment them on their pictures. But, let’s face it, not every picture is compliment worthy. The world is full of way too many boring photos.

Cyrill Harnischmacher is out to change that in his newest book The Wild Side Of Photography. This is not your normal “hold-the-camera-steady” or “use-a-shutter-speed-equal-to-your-lenses-focal-length” type of photo book. As a matter of fact, the book is subtitled: Unconventional and Creative Techniques for the Courageous Photographer.

Harnischmacher has gathered a dozen+ photographers with the most diverse list of specialties to assemble this book. There are creative suggestions to suit just about any experience level when it comes to your talent or equipment in the photo field.

Starting with blurring photos, both during and post exposure, Alain Briot explain how he creates his art prints. He not only explains the handheld technique used to shoot, but also gives exact Photoshop and Lightroom settings he used to achieve his results.

Gerhard Rossback shows how a miniature product shoot can be easily set up using a laptop and a couple inexpensive USB lights.

You’ll learn how to turn your telephoto lenses in telescopes, paint with light – graffiti style, and handle shooting the moon & stars with ease.

Two unique ways of dealing with aerial photography – sans plane – are explained using oversized monopods and kite supported cameras. Detailed instructions and sources are included for your material needs.

This book is 21 chapters of creativity. With this guide in hand, there’s no more excuse for shooting boring photos.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Camtasia 7 - Buy it for the office and enjoy it at home

Camtasia Studio 7 is a super-powerful, but easy to use software for recording business presentations, PowerPoint shows and webcasts. But its value doesn’t stop there. Think about using it for your next travel movie or vacation slide show.

For years, I had used Camtasia’s earlier versions in a corporate environment. We used it to record presentations and then repurpose them as webcasts and on-line videos. It is wonderfully adept at such tasks, even allowing the presenter to add quizzes and surveys to the production, making it suitable for on-line learning. The quizzes are even SCORM compliant, meaning they comply to educational record-keeping standards.

But recently, while testing some new helmet-cam  equipment, I encountered video with a proprietary format. Try as I did, I could not get it to play back in Premiere, Premiere Elements or QuicktimePro. I began looking for other packages that could edit the video when I thought about Camtasia 7. 

Sure enough, Camtasia took in the odd 320x240 clip with nothing other than a warning that it used 16k audio and was liable to sound strange. No problem…sounded fine and looked okay as well. Click and play the video below or click here, to watch an overview on TechSmith’s site.

Camtasia will allow you to mix various video formats and sizes on the same timeline without complaining. It can handle video and digital stills up to 1280x1024. 

Since then, I’ve done a dozen recordings with Camtasia Studio 7 and have been wildly enthusiastic about it. The timeline is straight forward and it gives you all the standard editing tools you’ll probably ever need.
Doing voiceovers is as simple as it can be. Camtasia 7 allows you to lay out all your video and stills and then record your voiceover as you watch the clips play back. Watching the cursor travel the timeline gives you a good sense of the timing you’ll need to be on specific topics as they appear on the screen. It’s also easy to add time if you need it by just dragging out a digital still clip to a longer duration and everything else downline slides over as well. 

Callouts are a simple click and drag to add emphasis to any part of your video. The Zoom and Pan function makes everything look like it was done on a high end video editor. 

When you’re done editing, the rendering wizard gives you all the most popular options to present your video on the Web, CD, DVD, HD, iPad, iPhone, iPod, YouTube or Screencast. Rendering is quick as well.  A typical 2 minute video rendered to 640x480 MP4 in 80 seconds on my laptop. 

Poor Camtasia. Most people who work in offices will get the weekend off. Now that you know what Camtasia can do for your travel videos, it’s going to be working overtime.

Camtasia Studio 7 can be purchased as a standalone package or bundled with Snagit, my favorite screen grab tool. You can purchase them from TechSmith’s website or through various retail dealers.  Check their website for special pricing if you are an educator or work for a non-profit.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Grand Bahama Island – via the world’s best value cruise

Sailing out of the Port of Palm Beach at sunset
Yes, Virginia, there are still travel bargains to be had. One of them sails out of the Port of Palm Beach regularly – the Bahamas Celebration by the Celebration Cruise Line. A two-night cruise for $159 is a bargain any way you look at it. When I sailed in the fall, you could add two nights at a four-star resort on Grand Bahama Island for only $130 more.

Are you kidding me? Last time I checked, a nice hotel in Orlando can cost $289 for ONE night, and here you are getting four nights, lots of food, entertainment, real sea breezes, absolutely pristine white beaches and pampering galore.

Add to the above, this is a medium-sized ship so you aren’t lost among 3 or 4,000 of your closest friends (enemies) waiting to go ashore. The cruises depart every other day, and offer you the opportunity to get away on short notice for the perfect pick-me-up. Check out some photos here


Great service - The ship’s crew is very attentive and mirrors the “my pleasure” attitude made famous by the Ritz-Carlton chain. In speaking to the captain, Peter Fielding, he complimented the “can-do” attitude of all the 350 crew members, many of whom have been with the ship for years now.

Full service – Being a smaller ship doesn’t mean limited services. The ship has a casino, multiple pools, library, multiple lounges, nightclub, four restaurants, spa, fitness room, and restaurants galore.

Dining choices – With four restaurants, it’s hard not to find something you like. Meals at The Crystal Dining Room, Rio’s and Trattoria Di Gerry are all included in your package and serve a wide variety of tasty, appealing meals. Expect a variety of meat, seafood, pasta and Caribbean recipes from which to choose.  Dinner is a five-course, sit down meal, so relax and savor the culinary experience. The Cove Restaurant is designated the “more intimate” dining area and an additional $25/person charge is added here if you opt for a special evening meal.

Two full days and nights – Passengers may board any time after noon on the day of sailing, and take advantage of a great buffet lunch. The ship departs the Port of Palm Beach at 6 pm. You’ll arrive at Freeport on Grand Bahama Island at 9 am the following morning. The day is yours until 6 pm when the ship sails back. You arrive back in Florida at 8 am the following morning. Those who opt for the additional two-night resort package spend their two days at Our Lucaya resort (see my follow-up article for that description.)

Adult pleasures – The Wynmore Casino is open until 3 am while at sea and a variety of card games and slots are offered in this cozy area on Deck 4. The View offers a variety of great entertainment and then dancing til you drop with a DJ pumping out the latest hits. Pub 437 offers low-key live music, a British Pub atmosphere and is a great place to chill if you like your music on the quieter side.
Feeling fit – or the need to be? Before or after swimming in the pools, try a workout at Mussel Beach, the on-board gym where you can pedal, pump or run off that last meal. Afterwards, reward yourself with a massage or other full-service spa service in the Fountain of Youth Spa and Salon.

Plenty to do for the kids – The ship has three separate daily schedules of activities for children. Junior Cruisers (ages 3-9) get together in the Island Coconut Club while their older counterparts (ages 10 to 13) have the Club Wave for their activities. Teenagers (14 to 17) get their own area in the Open Water Club. They all seem to enjoy the 180’ water slide on the stern of the ship.

A selection of shore excursions – In addition to the option of spending the day at the Our Lucaya Beach Resort, you also could try glass bottom boat tours, snorkeling, swimming with the dolphins, a city tour or what I’ll be trying next, the “Ultimate Eco-Tour on Horseback.” There you’ll ride through the endangered pine forest, emerging onto the beach with an opportunity to  ride out in the waves on your stead.


For only $159, most people are probably scratching their heads going “What’s the catch?” So here goes, the whole scoop and what’s not included.

Drinks – Just like virtually every cruise ship, drinks are extra.  If you thought otherwise, you probably haven’t been cruising before. Drinks are reasonably priced however. A glass of Kendall Jackson Reisling sells for $5.75 plus 15% gratuity – less than most restaurants here in Cleveland.

Taxes – Your helpful government needs to eat also, so they tack on $55.95 in taxes and fees to each ticket. 

Tips – In addition to your ticket, you’ll be charged a flat rate fee that goes to cover tips for all the ships staff. At $12 per night, expect an additional $24 to be added to your invoice for the two-night cruise. Again, typical for most cruises, and I actually like not having to always have singles available.

Top-Name Talent – You won’t find Radiohead or Taylor Swift headlining the entertainment. What you do get are a superb selection of singers, comedians and former Cirque de Soleil performers. Very entertaining and perfect for a smaller, close-to-the-talent venue.

Captain Peter Fielding on the bridge
A brand-new boat – The Bahamas Celebration was originally built in 1981  when it sailed between Norway and Germany. It was completely renovated in 1995 when 100’ was added to its length. The décor is modern but not posh. New carpeting and flat screen TV’s accentuate the cabins, which start at 140 s.f. and increase in size to 270 s.f. in the deluxe suites. 

Most staterooms I viewed were very clean and more than comfortable for a journey of just two nights. After all, who plans to spend their time in the stateroom. You come to the Caribbean for the fresh air and the sunshine. If you are really concerned about being cramped, spring for a suite – it’s only $120 or so more than a standard cabin. The deluxe suites are very spacious and should please all but the most hard-core cruise snobs. 

A deluxe suite on the Bahamas Celebration
Eric Martinez and Amber Wood, both active travelers in the airline industry, commented that they loved the stellar service aboard the ship. When pressed for shortcomings, they mentioned that the ship was obviously older than many, but they rated the overall value as better than most other cruises they had ever done.


Somehow the Celebration Cruise Line has done what most frugal travelers have only dreamed of…combining good food, good staff and a great cruise to a desirable destination for a most modest fee. Check out their video on YouTube or check their website. You can view some of my photos from the trip here

Prices change with seasons and availability, so be sure to verify pricing with the cruise line or your travel agent. 

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