Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chuck the Writer Gets Lit Up in Schenectady

No, not "that" kind of lit-up.

Now that I've had my chance to experiment with HDR photography, I thought I'd take a shot at one of the Capital District's iconic illuminated signs - the sign above the General Electric headquarters in downtown Schenectady.

Of course, it's one thing to actually take the photo - but it's another to find a location suitable for shooting. My original plan was to get as close to the building as possible and shoot the sign from maybe the GE parking lot. No such luck - the building was wrapped in a green chain-link fence, which would have been right in front of my line of view.

I then decided to take a chance and drive straight up to the front gate and ask the gateman if I could shoot the sign from inside the fence. But before I could roll down my window, I saw a sign on the tollgate that said "NO CAMERAS OR RECORDING EQUIPMENT PERMITTED." I then asked the front gateman if there were any places one could shoot the sign without violating this rule.

"You could shoot from I-890," he said sarcastically, referring to the elevated highway. "Just don't get run over."

Unfortunately, even if I COULD shoot from I-890, there would be no way for me to set up a tripod and shoot on a federal interstate - especially with the prime shooting location devoid of a breakdown lane.

Reluctantly, I resigned myself to shooting the logo from Erie Boulevard, farther away than I would have liked.

At that point, as I was squeezing off photos and calculating exposures, a Schenectady police car pulled up next to me.

Oh shit, I thought. I probably violated some rule about photography on the city sidewalks, or something.

"What camera are you using," he asked me.

"Nikon D70," I replied.

"I've got a D60 myself, I use it to shoot my daughter's recitals and swim meets."

Ah... the cop speaks Nikon.

Actually, he was more interested in making sure I was safe. He also recommended that if I really wanted to capture the GE sign, I should walk up Erie Boulevard and access a pedestrian bridge that spans one of the side roads.

Great suggestion. And as you can see from the photo, it worked out better than I hoped. And as you can see... I actually got the shot I wanted.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Chuck the Writer tries his hand at HDR photography

So after I got my latest lens for the collection (a Russian Kiev Mir-20H fisheye), I took it out for a little test this morning.

And by test, I mean that I included a brand new attempt at photography. I had read about this "HDR photography," otherwise known as High Dynamic Range Imaging. I can't use it for sports photography, in that I have to take several shots from the same exact location - making sure that some of the shots are overexposed and some are underexposed - and then digitally blend them together into what you see here, a shot of the old RCA building with Nipper on top. The difference here is that you see the contrast of the building against the blue-white sky, which does look rather impressive.

I took some other shots in the HDR format, including St. James Church on Delaware Avenue and the old Third District Police Station in Albany's North End. I kinda like this style of photography... I may want to experiment with it more - as long as everything (like the buildings and such) stay still when I'm shooting. I don't think it would work if a basketball player was going up for a slam dunk.

If you want to see the other photos I took, click here and enjoy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chuck the Writer tests out his new lens

Flash back a couple of weeks. When I was working as an extra on that SALT movie, I met another extra - a college student from RPI. We talked for a little while, she said she was getting rid of some of her photography equipment - including a very large lens that she couldn't use any more. I offered to buy it from her, and came into possession of a 1970's era Nikon Zoom-NIKKOR 50-300 f/4.5 manual focus telephoto lens.

Despite its age, the lens looked good - and I was about to take it out for a test run when I looked inside the lens and saw a copious amount of dust and gunk inside the lens elements. This would have made any shot I took look like it was photographed through a marshland.

So I took the lens over to my camera tech at Cameraworks, a Latham-based photography repair shop. Guy does great work. A few days later, I was able to acquire my new lens and took it out for a test run.

This Friday morning, just before work, I took the lens down to Albany's Broadway area and used the telephoto lens to snap various building facades, including the one you see here. I also took it out to a little league game Thursday night (after making sure I cleared using the camera with the little league operators so that nobody would assume nefarious use), and discovered that although the lens is decent for long-distance telephoto work, it's not fast enough to handle sports photography. So if I'm shooting nature or architecture, it can come with me; other than that, it's staying home.

I'll see what this lens can do this evening, as well as maybe some shots tomorrow.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chuck the Writer Wins Trivia for Cancer Relief

Ed DerGurahian is a friend of mine from back in the days when both of us worked for the Albany Patroons (Ed dressed up as Lido, the Patroons' panda-costumed mascot). Ed and his fiancee, along with some of his friends, also play trivia as the team "A Few Cards Short of a Deck," mostly playing at McGeary's in downtown Albany.

Ed asked if I would like to play at a special "Relay for Life" cancer trivia tournament at the North Albany American Legion post Wednesday night, and despite it being my night for Brown's Brewing trivia, I figured at least I would show up, participate, make a decent showing for myself, and go home. Plus, it was a fundraiser to help find a cure for cancer, so it would be a $10 buy-in, a few dollars for some 50/50 raffle tickets, and the like. Plus, the winning team would receive $250 in cash.

I made it to the American Legion post, and was there when Ed and his team showed up. We shared a table in the Legion post's meeting hall. Other teams showed up, including the two-man "Sky Hawk" squad that often plays at Uno (like Ed's team and myself, "Sky Hawk" was one of the tough teams to beat when there was Tuesday night trivia at Albany's Hooters).

Questions came in fast and strong, and I started out slow. I used my double-chance option early (write down two answers to a question, if right, receive the points, if wrong lose DOUBLE the points) on what ocean Christmas Island may be found. I chose Atlantic and Pacific, apparently it was the Indian Ocean - whoops.

But after that I snagged several tough questions, including the major league baseball team who first played at Huntington Grounds (the Boston Red Sox); the director of the remake of Psycho (Gus Van Sant), the two highest Yankees retired numbers (44 for Reggie Jackson and 49 for Ron Guidry) - and by the end of 19 questions I had a comfortable lead.

Final question - Cable television.

What cable network began in 1988 with a broadcast of the film Gone With the Wind?

Figured it had to be a Ted Turner property, so that made it either TNT or Turner Classic Movies. And since I thought Turner Classic Movies came about so that there would be no commercial interruptions, which apparently were the norm for TNT, I went with TNT.

And was right.

And won $250 (minus $50, which I gave back to the cancer fundraising people). WHEE!!

There were several door prizes handed out - Ed and his team won some prizes, and Frank from the "Sky Hawk" team also won a raffle.

The 50/50 raffle, however, was won by our intrepid trivia host Baker - who promptly handed the proceeds back to the cancer society fundraisers.

In the end, the fundraiser garnered about $850 on the night, a sizeable and quality amount. And a good time was had by all who attended.

Plus... I'm now $200 closer to getting the camera of my dreams. YAY!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chuck the Writer Shoots Some Ducks

I wanted to test out some dusk photography last night, so I went to Albany's Washington Park to photograph the Lakehouse. As I was setting up my tripod and hooking up my camera and lens (I used my Kiev Mir-24H Russian lens on my Nikon D70), I saw a couple of people tossing bread chunks in the water to feed some ducks. I asked if they could throw some bread chunks over towards my camera frame, and I got this nice shot for my efforts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chuck the Writer Cheers on his College for a National Championship

Before 2008, Hamilton College never won a national championship in any team sport. Never. And it wasn't for lack of trying, either - because Hamilton was part of an athletic conference called the New England Small College Athletic Conference, they were prohibited from playing in any postseason tournaments that commenced seven days after their last scheduled regular season game. So essentially all they had was the NESCAC tournament and that was it. In 1993, Hamilton and the rest of the "Little Ivies" in the NESCAC conference were allowed to show their stuff in NCAA postseason tournaments.

Last year, Hamilton claimed its first ever national championship, when the women's lacrosse team beat the snot out of Franklin & Marshall. Hamilton is ready to defend its title this weekend, as the Lady Continentals get to pummel Franklin & Marshall like whack-a-moles, and then get to take on the winner of the Gettysburg-Salisbury semifinals. The brackets are here; you can see the path the Continentals took to get to this point.

What was that old Hamilton College fight song again... oh yeah... Dear is thy homestead, glade and glen, we will beat Franklin & Marshall again...

Chuck the Writer Takes the Lead at Graney's Trivia

Thanks to knowing such minutiae as the third-largest city in Mississippi (Hattiesburg), and the three Van Halen albums comprised of either numbers or phoenetics (1984, OU812, 5150), I was able to finish Round 2 of Graney's Monday Night Trivia with a sizeable run. Another team, "That's What She Said," was nearly perfect, but they missed one of the VH albums.

I needed to clarify with the bar owners regarding if a team could win multiple times, they stated one set of tickets per team for the summer. I appreciate them letting me know about this now, kinda wish the Recovery Room could have done that.

So here's what Week 2 looks like after 19 questions:
  • Street Academy - 238 pts
  • That's What She Said - 210 pts
  • Baba Ghanoush - 186 pts
  • The Dragons - 174 pts
In other words... Street Academy IS NOW IN THE LEAD with two weeks left!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chuck the Writer Finds a Blast From His Past on Google

Bear with me on this one.

I'm bouncing around Google's "Books" section, and I discover that Google has digitally scanned thousands of issues of Billboard magazine. So if you ever want to know what song was #1 on the pop charts in whatever year, chances are it's listed in one of the issues Google scanned.

And surprisingly to me... they scanned this issue.

Background. I was in college in the early 1980's; by my freshman year, I was working at the college's radio station, WHCL. It was an extremely low-powered station, its miserable 5-watt range meant you couldn't pick it up on the other side of the campus, and most of the record companies had completely given up on sending us any new records (and what few records anybody had disappeared out of the libraries as part of an unnamed "seniors get to take what they want" ethos). But for me, WHCL was a haven away from feeling like an on-campus fish out of water.

By my sophomore year, I had earned a couple of on-air timeslots (including a Friday night "Nightowl Radio Show," a mixture of whatever records I could scrounge from my own personal collection). Now at that time, Billboard ran an article about the benefits of college radio as a way to get that "new music" out to the airwaves, a chance to get untested and previously unheard tracks out to the general public. This was not unusual - despite its limited record company inventory, WHCL's DJ's kept the station listenable by, in many cases, bringing in their own music.

So, just for a lark, I wrote a short editorial about the benefits of college radio as a promotional tool for the music industry. I sent it off to Billboard and didn't think anything else of it.

Around mid-October, I received a telephone call. It was from the editor of Billboard's editorial department, asking me to send a photograph of myself, as the letter I wrote was going to be used as a guest editorial for Billboard.

It took a minute for that to sink in. But only a moment.

First I had to find someone who had a photograph of me (remember, this was back in the 1980's, there was no "digital photography" and you had to develop the film and blah blah blah). A campus friend did have a photo, and I immediately sent it off to New York.

Lo and behold, the article ran - but not in just any issue. It ran in Billboard's most popular issue of the year, the "year-end" issue with the cumulative charts for all of 1982. Hokey smokes.

Suddenly, our little radio station picked up some national notice. We started getting more and more records in the mail. And not just from teeny-weeny companies who accidentally had us on their mailing list. Warner Brothers started sending us stuff. So did RCA. And CBS. And Motown. And A&M. Eventually we started receiving material from Virgin - the UK version of Virgin. We received albums from Attic Records in Canada. And Festival / Mushroom records in Australia. The stuff was coming in faster than it could be cataloged!

Our station's broadcast frequency also improved. By 1984, we were up to 205 watts of power; a year later, we were thumping the dials at 270 watts, and could be picked up on the New York State Thruway between exits 30 and 33. Swank!

So I read that article once again, an article that preceded mp3's and DVD's and Compact Discs and the perceived death of the 8-track tape. I recalled all the old names of artists and groups we played back in those WHCL days, many of whom are still on my iPod today.

Some of the things seem so antiquated - a discussion of "tracking," a practice where radio stations would play both sides of an album, uninterrupted, which allowed listeners to "tape" the LP and never have to spend money to buy the album. At the time, a radio station in Washington, D.C. was tracking albums like crazy, while record companies like Chrysalis (who at the time had Blondie and Pat Benatar) were threatening to cut off the supply of fresh records to radio stations who "tracked" their product. And you thought Napster was original? Why do you think college kids bought chromium TDK and Maxell tapes? To archive their professors' lectures?

But something alone stands out from that article. something entirely.

That photograph of me.

Jeez o' Petes, I had one nasty, screwed-up hairstyle in college. And oh God, those godawful windshield eyeglasses. And is that a soul patch? Christ, I looked like Shaggy if he HADN'T dropped that acid and discovered that dogs could talk!

Chuck the Writer Goes Out for a Photo Shoot

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I needed to get out of the house. So I grabbed my Nikon D70 and my camera bag, as well as my tripod, and went around Albany for a little photo walkabout. This time, I concentrated on using my Kiev Mir 24-H wideangle lens, currently nicknamed my "Commie" lens.

A little background. Last year I purchased a Kiev-19 SLR film camera and two interchangeable lenses, a Kiev Helios-81 (essentially the Kiev's "kit" lens) and a Kiev MIR-24H wide-angle. Little secret - Kiev lenses that are designed for Kiev's Model 17, 19 and 20 camera bodies are interchangeable with Nikon's F-mount SLR's and DSLR's, they just have to be shot with manual focus and manual exposure, and the camera photo's EXIF information won't list the camera lens (it'll either list it as unknown or "MF", most likely meaning manual focus).

The Kiev lens is a decent little shooter, but it's been kinda buggy. Quality control is lax in the Kiev Arsenal photo plant, so my lens needed to be re-aligned and re-oiled at my favorite camera repair shop, Cameraworks in Latham (Alan, the guy at Cameraworks, is as dependable as a sunrise, I highly recommend his work).

So it was me, the D70 and the Commie lens, traipsing around Albany and getting some nice photos here and there. Just like this one that you see here.

It looks like a giant dog is standing atop an old tire factory, guarding it like a sentry. Fact is, the dog "Nipper" is actually a remnant from the original tenant of the building behind the tire factory; Nipper was placed on top of the old RCA warehouse behind the tire factory in the mid-1950's. The building is now owned by a moving and storage company, who spent a ton of money to repaint and repair Nipper's outer shell.

If you want to see more of my photos around the Capital Region, click on this link. I may be adding to this slide show in the near future, so don't hesitate to visit it from time to time!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Chuck the Writer Crosses His Fingers for a third IAMA Award

In 2004, my editor at RoadKing alerted me that she had submitted my "Convoy Rides Again" article on country musician C.W. McCall to the International Automotive Media Awards. The article claimed a silver medal, which greatly pleased me.

Last year, I submitted my article on the history of the Speed Racer animated series to the IAMA's, and was extremely surprised (and honored) to learn that it received a prestigious gold medal from the judges.

So this year, I decided to submit two articles to the IAMA's - "Diecast Dreams," a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Hot Wheels cars, for RoadKing; and "Redlines, Orange Track and Blue Streaks," an article about the collecting culture of Hot Wheels cars, this article for Toy Collector Magazine. I entered "Diecast Dreams" in the print media category, while "Redlines, Orange Track and Blue Streaks" was designated for the Internet category.

Now comes the waiting.

The IAMA Awards will be given out this summer, most likely in June at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, within sight of The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. I had the opportunity to tour the Automotive HOF and The Henry Ford last year, and it was a fantastic experience.

The Hot Wheels articles were especially fun to write. I met several collectors of Hot Wheels cars and memorabilia, including Mike Zarnock, whose extensive collection is housed at the Children's Museum in Utica, N.Y. Really worth the trip to see these rare artifacts. From there, I went to the New York Toy Fair to see the 4 billionth Hot Wheels car ever built, a commemorative car laden with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of diamonds and rubies. Talk about pimping your ride!

Crossing my fingers... let's hope my hard work pays off!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chuck the Writer's Experience with the new Angelina Jolie movie

The Craigslist advertisement seemed too good to be true. I could make some money by being an extra in an upcoming Hollywood motion picture - a film for which scenes would be filmed in Albany.

Sounded like a good deal. So I submitted a picture of myself and my car (the world-famous 1991 Pontiac 6000) and received a call back a day later. The person I spoke to, who identified herself as "Tina from Columbia Pictures," gave me some dates that they were filming and asked me if I would be available on those dates. I said yes, and immediately realized that I was about to become part of a Hollywood motion picture.

The motion picture, apparently an action film called SALT, stars Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy. Part of the film involves a chase scene filmed around Albany's elevated Interstate 787, and there was a need for cars to simulate Washington, D.C. traffic on that highway as part of the car chase.

I showed up for work early on Saturday, April 25, at a warehouse down by the Port of Albany. I filled out a blue voucher for payment, and was informed that I would be receiving $85 for 8 hours of work per day, plus time and a half if it goes over 8 hours, plus double time if it goes over 12 hours - and I would also receive $35 extra for the use of my car in the film.

For me, this was a no-brainer - I could use the money toward some of my bills, and gather enough for a down payment on either a swank Nikon D700 camera or its equally sexy big brother, the Nikon D3 camera. Plus, the production fed me and all the extras breakfast and lunch.

The first three days would have certainly swayed anyone from being part of a Hollywood production. The majority of us were not used, and in fact stayed at the warehouse all day. By the fourth day of shooting (Thursday, April 30), we actually got out of the warehouse, and I found myself assigned to an entrance ramp onto I-787, parked behind a black Chevy Blazer and a silver Dodge Ram 4x4. Crew members and cameras were all around the parking lot. Next thing I know, an elderly crew member was behind my car.

I rolled down the window and asked him what he was doing back there.

He said, "I have to put this DC license plate over your New York plates, the scene is being filmed in DC and the cars need to look like they're from DC."

Fine by me. So for a few days my Pontiac 6000 is a veteran of the Beltway and not the Thruway.

Essentially my "scenes" involved me driving up onto 787 with the Blazer and the Ram, then the filming would stop and someone would say "Okay, reset!"

If you've ever been in a Hollywood film, "Reset" means get back to the original position you were in before filming began. Even if it means driving 40mph IN REVERSE down a curved access ramp. I did that about 20 times in one day. My transmission will probably remind me about it at a future time.

Did I get to see Angelina Jolie? Maybe for a split second, I was so far away from where they were filming the scene that I couldn't tell at times if it was Ms. Jolie or a stunt double.

However, I think the best part of the filming was to be able to meet so many different and varied people, all of whom were either chasing the dream of being in Hollywood, or at least being in the Screen Actors Guild (and boy did I catch on to such lingo as "meal penalties" and "NDB" real quick). Me - I was just looking forward to that paycheck. $85 for 8 hours of work, $35 for the car, and time and a half. Minus taxes, of course - but hey, that averaged out to a lot of money. It wouldn't buy the D700 or the D3 outright, but it would at least make a dent on a down payment. Plus, I made connections with several people for future freelance jobs or new future opportunities. There's plenty of positives in that.

After six days of filming, I thanked the PA's for the experience of working in a Hollywood film, even though I suspect my car will only be in about 3 frames of the finished product. I turned in my fake DC license plate (one of the PA's said I should have just driven home and kept it, but that's not me), and went home to wait for the checks to come.

The first check came... but that will be a topic for another post.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Chuck the Writer starts out strong at Graney's Trivia

Well, my first night of the four-week Monday night trivia competition at Graney's Tavern worked out pretty well. Your man nailed question after question like Earl Anthony nailed strike after strike, having known such answers as the horror film that was Johnny Depp's debut film appearance (Nightmare on Elm Street), the singer whose 1996 debut album was called Tidal (Fiona Apple, natch) and who was People Magazine's sexiest man of the year for 2008 (Hugh Jackman, how easy was that). Had I known Matt Damon's and Ben Affleck's character names in the Ocean's Eleven series (I knew George Clooney was Danny Ocean, drew a blank on the others) or the birth state of the Jonas Brothers (who knew they were from New Jersey), I would have finished with the lead. As it is, I'm currently tied for third place.

The prize? Four swank choice tickets for a New York Yankees home game in their new multizillion dollar home park. Just like the Saratoga Trivia Tournament in the summer, each team's cumulative scores are taken after question #19; those totals will count toward the big prize four weeks from now.

So here's my competition and where everybody ranks at the moment.

  • Crappily Married - 120 pts
  • The Dragons - 114 pts
  • Street Academy - 108 pts
  • Baba Ghanoush - 108 pts
  • Mensapause - 96 pts
  • That's What She Said - 52 pts
  • Pussy Pizza Santa - 38 pts
  • Whack-a-Moles - 30 pts
  • Beat Farmers - 30 pts
Only 12 points off the lead, with three weeks to go. This is going to be fun...

Friday, May 1, 2009

Chuck the Writer Enters a New Trivia Competition

True story.

Last year, the Recovery Room Sports Bar in Albany offered super-swank NY Giants and NY Jets tower suite tickets for the high scorer in trivia on their Wednesday Night trivia nights. So for six weeks, I was the team to beat, nailing three first-place wins and three sets of box seats.

Then one day I go into Recovery Room and the assistant manager says, "You're not allowed to win any more. It's not fair for anyone else. If you win, you will not be given the tickets. However, we will consider comping your bar tab if you win."

That was a kick in the face that still hurts to this day. I was being treated like a Las Vegas card counter - being kept away from the big prize because I was just too damn good at what I do. On the positive side, it allowed me to go to another bar (Brown's Brewing) and kick tush in trivia over there.

Now comes word that Graney's is offering four-packs of Yankees tickets for the monthly winners of trivia at their location. I checked my schedule. Monday nights are free for me. I checked with Graney's. They will allow a team of "one" to win tickets if they have the smarts to do so.

I've played at Graney's before, the food's decent. And the opportunity to see Yankees games without having to hear the nails-on-chalkboard voices of John Sterling or Suzyn Waldman sounds like a swank deal.

Let's see how this turns out.

Besides ... if I win the tickets... it will be the sweetest revenge for the way I was treated at Recovery Room.