Sunday, August 31, 2008

Blue Mountain Trail (青山路) & Bailaka Road (巴拉卡路)

After watching "Ma Ma Mia" on Saturday night, which made us feel so old, we ventured out on a photographic tour to Blue Mountain Trail on Sunday, August 17, 2008.   Taipei basin is surrounded by mountains.  On its western side, between the Taiwan Strait and Taipei, is Yangminshan (陽明山).  Blue Mountain Trail is half way up the western slop, facing Taiwan Strait, of Datun Mountain (大屯山).  It is part of the Yangminshan Mountain systen.  It crosses three mountain streams that suppose to be nice photographic spots.

We started our trip with a Cantonese brunch at top floor of Hotel RegaLees (福格大飯店) outside of TamKang University (淡江大學).  It over looking Danshui river (淡水河), where it flows into Taiwan Strait.  It was an alright restaurant not expansive that let us escaped the hot August sun.  We even got free drinks at hotel lobby.  

Blue mountain Trail for people unfamiliar with the region is very difficult to find.  On the other hand, it is a well paved and maintained road, which the Shanzhi Township (三芝鄉) planted Taiwan mountain cherry trees all alone the road.  It should be very pretty in the Spring.  All three streams were very nice spot for water bathing.  However, even with the fantastic "Picture Control" of our Nikon D40 and D300, the pictures came out very flat.  It was only by reprocessing in Photoshop CS3 that I finally be able to brought out the color.  The selected photographs from this trip is here.

Crossing one of the stream is a very old stone bridge (over 300 years old).  It was formed by 3 pieces of stone slabs.  It is thus call Sanban bridge (三板橋).  When the wet air from Taiwan Straight moves up the Datung Mountain, it often forms very amazing clouds, we saw them at Sanban bridge and later on at Bailaka (巴拉卡路) road.  

Bailaka road is famous bike road for the young and energetic cyclists.  It goes up from Danshui River through Datun Mountain to Yangminshan, a close to 1000m climb.  At one of the scenic spots we can over looking Xiaoyoukeng (小油坑) and Zhuzi Lake (竹子湖).  Yangminshan has a very active geological structure, we could see the steam coming out from underground at Xiaoyoukeng.  Zhuzi Lake is the valley under Xiaoyoukeng.  It used to be experimental rice farm that Japanese developed the most important Taiwan Rice (蓬萊米) here.  It is now mainly flower fields and restaurants.  It is famous for picking Calla flowers (海芋) in spring.  

The image at top of this blog is a composite of four RAW pictures from 70-300mm zone.  Its original size is over 25 mega pixels.  I was too lazy to change lens, thus took four pictures to cover the scene.  Grace has another picture of the same scene of only 5 mega pixels using her 18-200mm zone.  The two pictures looks the same on the web.  On the other hand, I should be able to print my picture to 20 in x 25 in.  Will I ever?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lugang (鹿港), Taichung (台中) Motel and Feng Chia Night Market (逢甲夜市)

Grace' sister, Ingrid, and her family came to the central part of Taiwan from Hong Kong for a short trip with a tour group. Grace and I went down to meet with them in Taichung. We first drove down to Lugang (鹿港) for a photographic tour ourselves. It is in the morning of Saturday, August 16, 2008. The drive to Lugang took about 2 and 1/2 hours from Taipei. The direct translation of Lugang is "Deer Harbor". Although the Plum Flower Deer "梅花鹿", a native species of Taiwan, can only be seen in captivity now, they used to be herds of them running wide in Taiwan. There was a very active export trade in Taiwan of deer skin in the 18 and 19 century. Lugang is a very old town for Taiwan concern. It has over 300 years of history. Its name first appeared in Chinese history in 1695. It used to be a good harbor and its position at the part that is closest from Taiwan to mainland China made it a very prospers town. Today, Lugang still maintains an active old Taiwanese culture and architectures. The ancient houses, alley ways and temples are all mixed with modern buildings and life. Our infamous ex-president's daughter-in-law, now deep in money scandal, came from Lugang. It also has the earliest and one of the most important temple for Matzu (媽祖), 天后宮. Matzu is a goddess worshiped only at China's southeast coast and Taiwan. She protects fishermen and traders traveling over the ocean. Merchants worship her for her ability to bring fortune to them. I went with my friend to the San Francisco branch of Matzu Temple once. It was closed for praying. We arrived at the Matzu Temple at 10:30 and I got to do my praying this time. Grace got a very good sign. Afterwards, we took a tricycle ride through the city and saw all the tourist spots. When we saw the first picture from our digital camera, we know we were in trouble. The bright sunshine of Southern Taiwan made the sky completely over exposed and the dim light inside the temple was completely black. It took a lot of exposure blending and manipulation in Capture NX and Photoshop CS3 to bring them out.

Our plan was to take a rest in a motel then met with Ingrid at Feng Chia Night market. Taichung (台中) has a very famous/infamous unique motel culture. The motels claim to be more luxurious than 5-star hotel. They often have rooms with an indoor or outdoor private pool and the size of bath tub the same size as the pool. However, we got a phone call when we arrived at the motel that my father was not well and was on his way to emergency room. However, the maid and the private nurse seems had the whole situation in control. We continued with our meeting with Ingrid's family for snacks at Feng Chia Night Market before driving back to the hospital in Taipei.

Outside every University and every major Temple, there are usually a night market. The night market outside Feng Chia University in Taichung is particular famous. I volunteered to stand in line to buy the famous "big sausage wraps small sausage" (大腸包小腸). It is a delicacy of grilled pork sausage wrapped in a grilled sticky rice sausage. It took me 1 hour.

Spring in Paris, 2008

You all will still have to wait for Grace to add information to her trip to Paris in April, 2008.  Here are some notes on the technical side of these amazing photographs.

Grace took her D40 and 18-200 VR lens for the trip.  The combination proved again that it was a marvelous traveling pack.  Look at picture DSC_1666 and DSC_1667 where Grace show-off the zone range.  The photos shot inside of the Church demonstrated the power of VR.  Picture DSC_1558 was shot using ASA800 at 42 mm for 1/10 second hand held. 

The day was just before a storm coming in.  The sky gave very extraordinary light.  I only have to darken the sky a little in some of the photographs to dramatize the effects.  She took 400 pictures in 3 hours.  It has taken me a while to put up this blog.  I was waiting for the purchasing of Photoshop CS3.  Now I have it and I can correct the prospective of some of the architecture photos (making all the column standing straight).  

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lu-rou-fan, 魯肉飯,

My daughter called us saying that they went to the A & J restaurant in Rockville, MD for a meal. She ordered one of her favorite, Lu-rou-fan (魯肉飯). Sailee, her almost one year daughter, ate it with enthusiasm. A & J is called 半畝園(half-acre garden) in Chinese. 半畝園 is a very old restaurant in Taipei behind RenAi Hospital (仁愛醫院). It serves traditional Northern China dishes, mainly noodles and Shaobin (燒餅), definitely no 魯肉飯. It is an ordinary eatery. It bravely went to Beijing, the center of Chinese northern cooking, to open several restaurants. They have been very successful. There are 半畝園 in many cities in the US. They serve Northern Chinese and Taiwanese dishes, including 魯肉飯. I have no idea whether they all belong to the same chain stores.

魯肉飯 is such a traditional Taiwanese dish that you can almost find it in every roadside stand, night market and simple restaurants. It is basically ground pork slow-cook with fried shallot and soy sauce. Many eateries have made themselves famous because of this dish. It is an example that I quite often made when friends asked me about the difference in life between Taiwan and the US. I said, in the US, I am happy if I find a place to have 魯肉飯, such as A & J. In Taipei, I have to carefully consider where to have the best 魯肉飯. No self-respect Taiwanese will cook 魯肉飯 with ground pork. It has to be cooked with carefully thinly hand-sliced belly pork, preferably from Taiwan native black-hair pig. The essence of the dish is not the pork, it is the lard from the slow-cooked pork. The server scoops a spoonful of the meat with gravy and lays it on a bowl of hot rice. The customer then mixes the gravy throughly with the rice using chopsticks. The lard coats each individual rice grain, and makes them shiny and individually separated. It is basically the same principle as mixing olive oil with a bowl of perfectly cooked al dente pasta. A bowl of this rice can be finished in one minute, or two at most! Some stores also just sell "rice mixed with lard, 豬油拌飯", it is rice with lard and some gravy without meat.

I attached a picture of the skyline of Taipei at sunset. This series of photographs was taken on a small hill behind our condo at dinner time, while I was think about the various 魯肉飯 eateries under that skyline.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


南勢溪 meets 桶後溪 at 烏來, it then joins 北勢溪 at 翡翠水庫 to become 新店溪.  景美溪 flows into 新店溪 at 木柵.  When 新店溪 joins 大漢溪, which is originated from 石門水庫, it becomes 淡水河.  基隆河 meets 淡水河 at 社子島.  This sums up the tributary system of the Taipei basin.  It sounds complicated and it is, at least for me in the beginning.  It is important part of my life (Bradley's) in Taipei, because the river parks alone these river now have the famous bicycle trails of Taipei.  When I first started riding my bike on these trails five years ago, they were just unconnected small segments.  They now become interconnected system of over 200 km.  My usual rides are about 50 to 60 km along these rivers in Taipei.  The origins of these rivers in the mountain are often tourist attractions and more challenging destinations for bicycling.  You can see the pictures that we took for the Taiwan Mountain Cherry at Wulai (烏來) and waterfalls of Shihfeng (十分) near 平溪 at the origin of 基隆河.

Our destination this Sunday (2008/8/9) is  桶後溪.  The first time I explored this destination was also on my bike about 4 years ago.  We started the day with a good brunch at 麥記飯堂.  Taipei has many Hong Kong eateries.  But to find a place to catch the real feeling of Hong Kong 茶水灘 is not easy.  This one is certainly close.  My friend took me once in Hong Kong to a stand by the street to eat, fish ball, beef tripes, etc cooked in curry broth.  I was surprised to find this restaurant actually served similar things.  It is on 敦化南路190巷, behind Sogo.  We then drove up to 烏來 then turned onto the narrow road up along 桶後溪.  The picture was taken on a bridge at the end of drivable road for us.  We needed special permit to go on further.  A lot families were playing by the river bank.  It is actually a small branch of 桶後溪 called 阿玉溪.

On the way back, we stopped by the restaurant 名流水岸 for afternoon tea at the river bank of 新店溪.  We arrived just in time to escape a now typical afternoon down pour.  The restaurant is a sister restaurant of 名流湯村.  They are now both quite famous for their 懷石料理.  名流湯村 is at the opposite side of Taipei, half way up 陽明山 from 金山 by the north west sea coast.  It is a hot spring spa resort.  We went their 5 years ago for Grace' company meeting.  We went by latter just in time for their reopening and they were having their first investor/board meeting.  We ended up walked in as their almost first customer.  They kindly invited us in and let us have a fabulous dinner free.  We went back many times, for company meeting, with parents for moon festival, for entertaining visiting friends and relatives.  Bradley's mother even went there with Grace to have a spa a few years ago.  The first and only time in her live.  Bradley drove up there whenever Grace was not in town to soak in the open air hot spring Japanese style (pools for woman and man are separated!!).  

Grace bought a pair of shoes on the way home from Blue Girl, an extremely fashionable shoe store at out of nowhere in 木柵.  At 8 pm, we started to look for place for dinner.  We ended up at 小隱私廚.  It is a very small restaurant up 永康街.  A college friend of us living in the area introduced us to this restaurant.  It has very fresh fish simple steamed or grilled and many other  interesting dishes.  A rare restaurant that give us the feeling of home cooking.  After dinner we ended up in the 普耳 tea shop next door to enjoy a pot of 20 years old 普耳茶 with the shop owner.  The day finally ended by up-loading today's photographs and updating this blog.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Taiwan University Hospital, Five-color bird (五色鳥)

I was on the computer in the morning and saw the story of a pair of five-color bird (五色鳥) that is raising two chicks on a tree just outside of the Taiwan University Hospital.  I was in the neighborhood in the afternoon to take care of the healthcare insurance issue for our maid and took the camera with me.  The main reason to bring the camera is to deal with the issue that I had with my 50mm 1:1.4 D lens with the camera shop.  I was curious and dropped by and really saw a very enthusiastic crowd of photographers.  I had no idea why some of them have to camouflage their camera and themselves right outside of a busy hospital.  I only did some quick photographies of the chick, just hand-held with my 70-300mm VR lens, no tripod.  I did not wait for the parents to come back to feed them.  Some of the photographers seems camped out at 5 am to wait for the occasion.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Exposure Blending

Exposure Blending is an old technique used in the dark room to darken the high light and lighten the shadow. It usually involved two photographs of the same theme taken at two different exposures. We can now do Digital Exposure Blending on computer with Software such as Photoshop. The upper picture was blended using two photographs. One was taken +o.7 EV, the other was taken -1.3 EV from a spot reading of the blue color. I did the high speed exposure bracketing hand-held with aperture priority. The lighter image, which gave good color of the subject, was used as background and the darker image, which had correct exposure for the sky, was pasted onto it as Layer 1. I still have to reposition the two layers to ensure that they overlay perfectly. A mask was created on Layer 1 and the background image was copied to the mask (it became black & White, as all Photoshop user should know). Gaussian blur was applied to the mask with a Radius of 30. It was done. The Gaussian blur added to the mask gave an interesting texture to the subject. We can also not applying the Gaussian blur, but in the mask, painted the subject to completely black and the sky completely white, then the final image will really be the subject 100% from the lighter image and the sky 100% from the darker image.

The lower picture was taken at -0.3 EV. The sky was too light and the red too dark. Selectively darkening the sky and lightening the red subject in Capture NX, I had a very good image in a few minutes. The sky for the lower image was deliberately made lighter. Quite amazing how much information the modern digital camera can capture that we can extract them out latter using computer software.

Focusing for D300 and specifically how to focus Nikon 50mm 1:1.4 D lens

The Nikon D300 probably has the most advanced focusing system for DSLR.  It is a 51-point autofocus  system with 3-D tracking capability.  It also uses Nikon's Scene Recoginiton System.  Basically it uses artificial intelligence to select the subject in the scene to focus.  When the subject moves, it will follow the subject and keep it in focus.  In plain English, it will automatically keep the face in focus and can follow the running baby around never out of focus.

To use the system, first is to choose the AF-area mode.  There are three: automatic-area AF, dynamic-area AF and single-point AF.  The second is to choose the focus mode.  There are three also: manual (M), single-servo AF (S) and continuous-servo AF (C).  Thus 3 x 3, there are 9 combinations.  In reality, we use only 2, with 2 more for special occasion. 

1.  Automatic-area AF; single-servo AF (S):  The camera chooses by itself the subject to focus.  Quite amazingly, the focusing points that covered the subject will light up in the view finder to let you know.  We can also see the focusing points afterwards on the image using ViewNX on the computer.
2.  Dynamic-area AF; continuous-servo AF (C):  One single focusing point in the view finder shows up (it can be moved around in the view finder manually).  Put the point on the subject, the camera will keep the subject in focus continuously.  
3.  Automatic-area AF; continuous-servo AF (C):  Leave everything to the camera's artificial intelligent system to do the focusing, point-and -shoot.  The focusing points will not show in the view finder.
4.  Single-point AF; continuous-servo AF (C):  One single focusing point for focusing continuously.

Method 1 and 2 are what we have been useing most often.  Method 1 & 3 are the dummy modes, usually worked very well. Method 2 allows us to put the subject in the center where the focusing point is usually selected then recompose the scene.  The focusing point will follow the subject and always keep it in focus.

I usually use method 1 or 2 only.  However, with 50mm 1.4 lens, there were troubles.  When the lens is wide open at 1.4, the depth-of-field is so narrow, the focus has to be exactly correct.  If I use method 2, the image quite often not sharp.  The reason is the dynamic-area AF actually shifting the focus around the selected focusing point and causing problems.  The method 4 has to be used for precise autofocusing, in which continuous-servo AF is used instead of single-servo AF.  Single-servo AF focuses instantly when we touch the shutter-release button.  Any slight movement of the camera afterwards will put the subject out of focus.  Thus continuous-servo AF has to be used, which continuously track any slight subject or camera movement.  The above two images show how narrow the depth-of-field for the 50mm lens is at aperture 1.4.  The focusing point was at the base of the chimney.  From the close up image we can see anything just 1 mm away from the base is out of focus.  50mm 1.4 D is probably the sharpest lens that Nikon ever produced.  I almost returned it to the dealer as unusable until I found out the correct way of focusing it from a knowledgeable Nikon sales representative.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Black card and Nose-tip

Nose-tip corner (Bitou Cape, 鼻頭角) is part of the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area.  The area covers the Pacific sea coast of northeast part of Taiwan.  It used to be very difficult to get to.  Now the Snow Mountain Tunnel linking Taipei to Ilan and Express Way 62 linking Highway 3 to Rueifang are open to traffic, the area is much more accessible.  We went on Saturday (2008/8/2) after the 福州乾麵 and 燒餅油條 breakfast.  I mainly wanted to try some landscape photographies which involved a lot of sky. The sky and sea was as pretty as Mediterranean Coast of South of France, where we used to live.  It was again a very hot day, both of us were fully equipped for the photography, but not swimming.  The South Dragon Hole Recreation Park, where some of the pictures were taken had three sea water swiming pools, but the facility looked like a ruin, all shops were closed.  We had sea food lunch at one of the many small harbors alone the coast.  It was not bad, but we can easily had the same thing in Taipei for the same price.  After all, it was only an hour away from the center of the city.

Something which is very old fashioned and very Taiwanese, I am not talking about 福州乾麵 and 燒餅油條, I am talking about the Black Card Trick that Taiwanese Photographers use for reducing the light from the sky in order to balance the exposure between sky and landscape.  It is a skill left over from the film era.  The reading of the Black Card Trick was what triggered this trip.  The Exposure Blending technique used in the dark room is for the same purpose, which involves taking at least two pictures of the same theme with two different exposures.  For the digital age, we will do exposure bracketing using a tripod as the old day or using high speed exposure bracketing (6 frames per second or faster) hand-held then process the images on computer using Exposure Blending technique or creating High Dynamic Range Image (HDRI) with tone mapping to achieve the desired results.  However, the new Nikon with active D-lighting switched on actually is able to capture all the detail in the high light and shadow area that we encountered in a single photograph.  With a little help of Capture NX to selectively lighten up the foreground and darken the sky, we are quite alright.  I shall try all these exotic techniques next time.  

Monday, August 4, 2008

Dragonfly, 福州乾麵 and 燒餅

The only connection of 福州乾麵 (dry noodle of Fuzhou style) and 燒餅 (Shaobin, Chinese Muffin) is that there are two particular stores that selling these delicacies open as early as 6 am, and they are also the best in Taipei. It is very good news for the travelers who arrive in Taipei from the US at 5 am, and are hungry for some good solid food. How do they connect to the dragonfly? They are close to the Taipei Botanical Garden where we photographed dragonfly.

50 years ago, when I (Bradley) was very young, my father worked with the telecomunication company; its main office was behind the Presidential Palace. During the very cold winter morning (32 degree F) in Taipei, We would leave home early for my kindergarten by his office. We walked through the Taipei Botanical Garden to watch frost on the ground. He then treated me with 福州乾麵 and fish ball soup Fuzhou style (fish ball with meat inside). Recently, I have been able to find "Lin's Family dry noodle (林家乾麵)" at the junction of 泉州街 and 愛國西路. Its dry noodle is very light, almost tasteless. It was cooked perfectly al dente. The restaurant is very clean and open 24 hours. After eating the 30 NT (1 US$) noodle, we can drive down 愛國西路 and onto 金華街. At the junction of 杭州南路, by the famous 廖家牛肉麵, is a store sells 燒餅油條 (Shaobin Youtiao) only in the early hour of the morning. By 8 o'clock, they will be sold out. Unlike the fluffy ones now sold in most stores in Taipei, its 燒餅 is old fashion solid and is trianglar in shape. It has a very light sugar coating that makes all the difference. Eat it right away. When it is cold, it becomes too solid.

This is what we did this past Saturday morning (2008/8/2). We then went to the Botanical Garden afterwards. The National History Museum has been having the exhibition of Impressionist Millet's painting from Paris' Orsay Museum. We didn't go in, too many people and we have seen it in Paris, but walked around the garden and saw quite a few dragonflies. We packed D300 with the 70-300 VR zoom the next morning and captured the dragonfly images. They were not too difficult to photograph, since they do occasionally stay put stationary on sticks.

Lotus Blossom

The rice fields in the western part of Taoyuan county were converted to lotus ponds recently, both for tourism and for lotus seeds and roots. They are gastronomical delights in Chinese cooking. The area is actually not far from the Taipei's International Airport. The county government promotes every July as Lotus Blossom Festival Month.

We arrived at the area about lunch time of a very hot July summer day (2008/7/19).  Our photographic session lasted over one hour. The temperature was close to 35 degree C. The photographs are here. We tried to compose the lotus flower pictures following the composition of the famous lotus flower painter 張杰. He gave a painting for our wedding 34 years ago, sadly it was lost. Grace now has another two, also gifts from him, hanged in her office in Taipei.

Bradley: Nikon D300, 12-24 DX, 24-85 D, 70-300VR lenses
Grace: Nikon D40, 18-200 VR lens

We set both our camera's Picture Control to "VIVID", "JPEG + FINE" for Bradley's D300 and "JPEG + LARGE" for Grace's D40. Only minor adjustments have been done on some pictures using Nikon Capture NX. How the camera can capture every high light and shadow detail under the bright sunshine was amazing.

The wide angle lens gave a very different prospective of the flower field. The high power telephoto zomes brought us closer to the flowers.  For close up work, the 70-300 VR lens could not focus too closely. The old 24-85 D lens, on the other hand, worked well in this set up. The pictures from it needed some contrast enhancement (10%) using Capture NX. On DX camera, it gave a macro-ratio of 1:1.3, almost life size (1:1). On the other hand, the 18-200 VR lens could do close-up very well. Can you tell the three close up photographs of lotus flower seed pods, which one are from which lens?

200 mm and 300 mm lens on the DX camera means 300 mm and 450 mm. We would never be able to use telephoto lens this long hand-held without the VR (vibration reduction) elements of these lens. Technology does make a difference.

Cape Cod, July 2008

Grace went back to our house on Cape Cod to join our daughter, her husband and our not yet one year old granddaughter, Sailee. It was a short vacation. Sailee was absolutely adorable and Grace took over 750 pictures of her, here are a few. She brought alone her Nikon D40 and 18-200VR lens.


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