The Pleasures of a New Camera

Saturday was another gray, wet day, added to a month of near record-breaking rain. Indoors seemed like a good place to be, but I was eager to try out my new camera. I thought about Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory – should be perfect – so I drove over.

I can’t resist a glass house.  This one is small, well kept and comfortable. Built in 1912 in a traditional Victorian design, it is centered around a central palm house, with a seasonal display house and a fern house on either side. At the ends of the broad, spreading building are a cacti/succulent house and a bromeliad house. For Christmas an old model train is set up in the seasonal house and surrounded by poinsettias – nothing new or novel, but it’s a sweet tradition.

I started in the cactus house.

The new camera is an Olympus, the first Olympus I’ve owned. It’s a micro four thirds, or ILC – interchangeable lens – camera. They’re smaller than DSLR’s but do just about all the same things. The market for ILC’s is growing as the technology improves. The DSLR market is dropping off, but of course the edge is owned by smartphones, Go Pro’s and drones. I’m not ready for a drone or a Go Pro and my smartphone isn’t versatile enough.  I like a smaller camera but compacts don’t cut it –  I want to use different lenses, be able to focus manually, have an articulating LCD screen and a viewfinder – just for starters.

My last camera was a Panasonic Lumix G3, also a micro four thirds. A few months ago the LCD screen died. So every photo I’ve taken for the last couple of months has been kind of blind – I can’t review shots on the screen, can’t use it to see settings – nada. Repairing the screen costs almost as much as replacing the camera (no surprise!). I started looking at alternatives – maybe it was a sign that it’s time for a different camera.

In a local camera store I held an Olympus OM-D EM-5. Very nice. The lenses I already have for my Lumix would fit it.  That’s huge. Then I tried the EM-1 – even nicer! It had a film camera feel, the buttons and grip were comfortable in my hands, it was solidly built, with WiFi and weatherproofing (I can be rough on things).  Though it’s not a new model, the salesman said a huge firmware update was due in November, with many performance enhancements, like focus stacking.  I thought it over, waited, thought some more…

Then Santa came – hurrah! (Santa’s an expert at finding the best deal).

It’s always a learning curve when you move to a different system and this one is a lot more complex than the Lumix. Things got prickly.

At times I felt like tearing my hair out.

I persevered and found a good video online that reviews the camera – that made a big difference. Who writes those manuals, anyway???

I took a few photos around the house, trying to figure out the focusing. Then I went out. It was Christmas afternoon, and I got to the good espresso place just in the nick of time – it was closing early.  (First things first!)

The rain stopped for a moment so I went to the lake, two minutes from the cafe, to try the camera outdoors.

This is straight out of the camera, nothing at all done to it. The camera did well with poor and difficult lighting.

It still felt alien though, and I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.  There are a million options on this camera – for example, you can see in the photo above that I was using the 16:9 image size option, for a long, skinny landscape shot. When you’re not familiar with your camera, finding the button or series of clicks or whatever to change options is torture! I really didn’t want every single photo to be in those proportions. You just have to spend some time figuring it out.

Back at home I started playing with a setting called Art Filter, which I think is unique to the Olympus cameras (other than the hundreds of special effect apps you can download onto your smartphone). There’s pop color, sepia, watercolor, vintage, pinhole, etc. One intrigued me  – soft focus.  I thought it would be good for plants and flowers.

It was. I was impressed with the smooth tones and retention of detail.

I wasn’t using a tripod. That’s impossible in a space like the conservatory. Besides, I’m an impulsive, walk-around kind of photographer. I brought three lenses with me. I quickly removed the 20mm in favor of a macro and used that one lens the rest of the afternoon.

The camera has five direction image stabilization built into the camera, and I think it made a difference. As the day wore on and the ambient light grew dimmer, I could still get sharp detail with very little noise.



On to the other houses –

A fallen Alamanda flower.

The palm house has orchid displays.


I framed a photo looking up through a giant Monstera deliciosa leaf.  This is the kind of high contrast shot a lot of cameras would have trouble with – not this one.

The mature leaves have these cool holes and are called fenestrate – the French word for window is fenetre, so there you go! This plant is a vine and an epiphyte. It has aerial roots, and produces tasty fruit, though I’ve never had it.

Went crazy with the soft focus here –

Spanish moss (Tilandsia useneoides) is plentiful in the Bromeliad house, and epiphytes of many types hang from supports everywhere.

I don’t know what this flower is; it was hanging at about face height. It looks like a confection dusted with sugar. The conservatory has many delights – a little waterfall set with ferns, a bog garden with carnivorous plants like the red-edged plant above, Nepenthes alata, other odd plants, and many repeating plants, which lend consistency as you walk through.

The photo below was taken with my phone, looking towards the bog area. You can see what a pleasure this place is on a December afternoon.

I love the way conservatory windows steam up.  Two views from inside are above (without filters or special effects), and below, a view from the outside. A Tilandsia of some kind presses hard against the glass.

And the train set-up – I didn’t realize until I got home how old the figures are. I should have taken more pictures of them. Last year, the train blew it’s horn AND blew smoke, but on this day, no smoke. Still nice! And it was the perfect shot for another art filter  – Diorama.

The conservatory from the outside:


I think this camera’s going to be fun.


It’s been rainy and dreary here, and from what I’ve heard the gray, wet weather is bothering a lot of people.   The weekend forecast showed a brightening trend last Saturday so I took advantage of it. Chores and errands be damned – I was desperate to get out.

We drove east across the valley and up through the Cascade foothills to Moss Lake Natural Area, a beautiful spruce and hemlock forest set around a small lake.

As the county’s description reads, it is “372 acres of high-quality wetland and forested upland habitats” with “an extensive 150-acre wetland complex” including a sphagnum bog, where peat was extracted in the past. Recently preserved, the land is surrounded by vast tracts of corporately owned forest, most of it regularly logged.

That may not sound good, but it’s better than the land being sectioned off bit by bit and offered up for sale to the highest bidder, as the suburbs push their way into the mountains. Just down the road another small lake is surrounded by houses. Here, the only dwellings are non-human. Most are hidden from view.

Raindrops clung to every branch and leaf on the shore of the shallow lake.  A squadron of Bufflehead ducks dove and swam in the distance.

The lake shore, with it’s grasses and line of tall evergreens, was reflected upside down in each drop:

It was broody weather, but it held! We spent almost three hours wandering around up there, with only occasional sprinkles to worry us. Lucky.

A well-maintained path winds through Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, Red alder and Big Leaf Maple woods – except when a giant falls and blocks the way.

Many trees in the wet Pacific northwest are covered with mosses and lichens. When winds are strong, the trees fling samples down to your feet for a close view.

Here’s a small branch covered with Usnea and Hypnogymnia lichens, mosses, and who knows what else. I love the lichens’ soft, cool green color and varied textures.



A torn Vine maple leaf slowly disintegrates on a bed of Hylocomnium splendens, or Stairstep moss. One of my favorite Pacific Northwest mosses, it grows abundantly, forming soft, leafy mats on stumps or logs or any shady spot with decaying wood.

In certain places the woods present an incredibly complex scene in which patterns are hard to discern. I photograph it anyway. I know this isn’t a proper landscape with a clear focal point, but it does convey the chaos of patches of this forest.

In other places with little undergrowth and fewer species, patterns are clear: tree trunk, branch, moss, repeat. Just sprinkle generously with sword fern and voila! A less chaotic scene.

From time to time the sun shone through cloud windows, creating a neon effect on the moss clinging to the tree trunks.

A stand of hemlocks rose higher than we could see, their broken lower limbs pure sculpture.

This Big Leaf maple’s trunk arcs and bends to carve a light-filled space in the woods. Springing from the moss are graceful flourishes of Licorice fern.


Time to play. I set the camera to shutter priority and swung it around with the shutter open for one full second. It was refreshing not to hold on tightly to keep from blurring my shots. Blurring can be good…

I switch back and forth between the overall “forest” view and the closer “trees” view. The old expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees” may apply to me a bit, but I try to step back and get both views.

I like the way these turned out. It would be fun to print them up huge, but I suspect it would take plenty of tries before it looked right. Seeing images on a computer screen is so different than seeing them printed on paper.

On the way home we passed through Snoqualmie Valley again, taking the smaller roads. We stopped at an oxbow lake that must have once been part of the loopy Snoqualmie River. The snowy Cascade foothills shown blue in the distance, partly – and poetically – hidden by clouds. Mallards laughed heartily on the lake as the sun disappeared.


While in Portland, Oregon, for a conference last month we visited a small, but choice Chinese garden. Portland is known for the spectacular Portland Japanese Garden but it was closed for the season.  The Lan Su Chinese Garden is right in town and sounded interesting. We had no idea!

It was overcast and intermittently rainy – not great weather for photography, but still, the garden presented many pleasures. That weekend Lan Su Garden was crowded with displays of chrysanthemums and over-the-top flower arrangements. It was the Ninth Moon Floral Design Showcase, a juried flower arranging show that requires entrants to include chrysanthemums in the design. Here’s one of the simpler designs:

And a larger, more elaborate arrangement:

Below, a study of one of many specially grown potted chrysanthemums displayed on pavilions and terraces for “Mumvember,” celebrating the importance of this plant to Chinese culture.

But the first “display” we saw as we entered the garden wasn’t plants, it was people –  a group of smiling, oddly dressed folks, the Royal Rosarians of Portland. They greeted us warmly and gave out little embroidered roses to stick on our jackets.  The “Official Greeters and Ambassadors of Goodwill for the City of Portland” were out in force.

Why? Well, because Al Roker, the famous TV weatherman and personality, was due any minute! He was making a Portland pit stop as part of a whirlwind national tour to do the weather forecast from all 50 states in one week, while raising money to fight hunger: the Rokerthon.


You could say it was an embarrassment of riches – a celebrity sighting in the offing, a bevy of special ambassadors dolled up in straw hats, cream suits and white bucks, a multitude of champion chrysanthemums in every size, shape, and color, award-winning floral displays….oh, and there was the garden!

Back to that.


The garden’s name, Lan Su, combines “lan” from “Portland” and “su” from “Suzhou,” the Chinese sister city of Portland.  Suzhou is famous for its classical gardens, now collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Near Suzhou, at the base of Lake Tai and underneath its waters, one finds fantastic limestone rocks with complex patterns of holes and depressions. They are prized in China for use in the garden. Above, you can see them placed to echo the bamboo stalks. Lan Su has many Taihu rocks placed throughout the garden – look for them in the photos.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden displays many typical elements of Chinese gardens – scholar’s rocks, pavilions, a tea house, a pond with koi, arching bridges, a moon gate, “leaking” windows, pebble mosaic pathways, symbolic plants such as pine and plum trees, peonies and bamboo – all packed into a small space. Winding paths cleverly lead you through a series of scenes that evoke much larger natural landscapes.

The scholar’s corner – how I wanted to sit right down, pick up a brush and start working!  I love uncluttered spaces for making art.

Graceful willows lean towards the pond, losing themselves in its mirrored surface.

Clouds thickened and flung raindrops across the water, shattering calm reflections into bar codes for the carp to interpret. From certain human angles the water became mercury-like.


The sun peaked out again. Such poetic weather changes – where was Al?  This was perfect!

Al was an hour and a half late already. A handful of Rosarians had left, but most stayed, frowning in polite impatience.  Crowds were swelling as visitors heard about Al’s impending arrival and they hung on, hoping for the glimpse of greatness.

We moved to the edges. I focused in on the details now; the bigger pictures were too crammed with people.


Leaves had fallen into paper lanterns strung in a courtyard. A flower arrangement centered around large hanging glass globes containing fresh white orchids.

A scolding jay flew back and forth across a the pond. Someone stared up into a small pine on a stone bridge. I followed the line of sight, and to my amazement, there was a Barred owl, peacefully perched a few feet from crowds of people, unperturbed by them or by the screaming jay. From directly underneath, Mr. Owl looked like a feathered football.


Mr. Roker had been expected at 11AM, but the entourage was delayed by a flat tire in Montana. He didn’t arrive until 1:30! By that time we’d just walked out the door. In my pocket was a sweet souvenir.  Visitors are invited to open one of dozens of narrow drawers in an ornate Chinese cabinet, in a corridor between garden rooms. I chose my favorite number, 13, and plucked out this fortune:

It was a typical fortune that could be read many ways, but it worked for me. My fellow traveler was pleasant, our journey to the garden was spontaneous, and sure, I gained experience.

To tell the truth though, it got to be a bit much. We caught our brief glimpse of the petite Mr. Roker (who looks bigger on TV, and used to be commanding before he lost the excess weight), and left for more contemplative pastures – Powell’s bookstore. Those of you who’ve been there know it’s the “World’s Largest Used and New Bookstore.” Yikes! Maybe not so contemplative after all. But they had great espresso. That helped get me back on my feet.


Cold weather and clear nights can bring heavy deposits of hoarfrost, a phenomenon I’ve seen more often here in the Pacific Northwest than I when I lived on the east coast. The effect is sporadic, unpredictable – at least to me. But always beautiful.

If the sun shines on it all too – what a gift!

We drove east into the mountains that day, just for the pleasure of it, not knowing what we would see.  The little town of Index did not disappoint. There it was by the side of the road – a postage stamp-sized plot of neglected land, transformed by frost into a pale winter stage set, ready for ballerinas and fairies.

But no need for ballerinas really – there was entertainment enough in finding an exquisite picture in every inch of the landscape. Just stepping out of the car was to enter a magical world where frozen fingers and toes were quickly forgotten.

Even the ice patterns on the guard rail were a study in carefully composed movement.


Two years ago on almost the same date I came across plastic tarps in big, loose bundles at a farm that were covered with ice crystals after a cold night. They had been transformed into sculpture.


It was hard to take my eyes off the ground.  I felt I should watch my step, lest I ruin a particularly beautiful composition, but it was impossible to avoid crunching  the perfect crystals into oblivion.

Beauty everywhere.

Looking up, this plain spot on the roadside shimmered with more possibilities – gracefully nodding grasses, pale with frost, moss-splotched aspens receding into emerald woods, lavender mountains in the distance – I was lost.

No, it doesn’t always rain in Seattle.


Too bad my favorite espresso and snack stop in Index was closed that day. We couldn’t proceed up the mountain because traction tires were required ahead.  Aiming for the nearest good coffee shop, we drove west and away from the pass. On the way we passed through the small communities of Gold Bar and Startup, alighting in Sultan. I love that string of odd town names along State Route 2. And then the simple pleasures of a warm bathroom, hot chocolate and a macchiato.

A good day.