The “T”

Tesla Model S85 @ 18 months

On New Year’s Eve 18 months ago I was given the key to my Tesla. It was a pretty exciting and scary day. Since then I have driven over 30,000 miles (48,000km) in the car in all kinds of weather. There have been boiling hot days close to 100⁰F, freezing cold days around -20⁰F, snowy days, hailstorms, sunny days and torrential rains. And so I figured it may be worthwhile doing a quick report on how the car has behaved.

First, what’s a Tesla?

I’m glad you asked. Have you heard of Elon Musk? He’s the South African (we have to stick together) who helped found PayPal and turn it into a billion dollar business. After he sold out he became the CEO and brains behind SpaceX (who are successfully sending rockets to space) and Tesla, a new kind of car company. He has turned both into highly successful, multi-billion dollar companies.

Oh yes, back to Tesla. Tesla is an entirely electric car. It’s not a hybrid like a Prius, or a half-baked idea like GM’s Volt car. Teslas have no engine and there is nowhere to put in gas or petrol. All they have is a big battery and an electric motor. The cars are made in the USA – they come from a factory in Fremont, California – and they have racked up an impressive set of accolades – maybe more than any other car ever? The car received the highest safety rating of any car tested in the USA, was awarded Car of the Year by Motor Trend and Automobile magazines, Consumer Reports said it was the best car they had ever tested and Car and Driver magazine rated it the Car of the Century. [Update: Consumer Reports just retested the Tesla (Model S P85D) in August, 2015 and basically it broke their rating scale.  It scored 103 out of 100 because of the amazing acceleration combined with incredibly low fuel consumption, causing CR to rethink their linear rating system.]

OK, but why all the hype?

Another good question. I think it is a combination of things.

1) It’s electric. That means it is very kind to the environment and your wallet. To give you an idea just how good – I averaged about $200/month in gas for the Audi I drove for 12 years before getting The T. My electricity bill went up $215 for the entire first year that I had my Tesla. And I drove roughly the same mileage. And all of that with zero emissions. Ah – I hear some of you say. Is it really green? Doesn’t the energy to charge the car come from coal-powered power stations that put a lot of bad stuff in the atmosphere? True – some of the energy does. But it’s less than 50% of the energy where I live and more importantly, remember you are consuming somewhere between 1/5 and 1/10 of the amount of energy of an equivalent polluting ICE (Internal Combustion Engined) car. So the net result is a dramatic reduction in net emissions.

2) They are gorgeous and they’ve solved the problem of range-anxiety. Teslas overcome the limitations that all other electric cars seem to have. First the others all tend to look rather awkward and in many cases downright ugly. And then they have a range problem. The Tesla on the other hand goes 300 miles (480km) on a charge. That is a game-changer. If you are like me your first reaction is – yes, but what happens after 300 miles? I can’t just pull into a gas station you say. OK, let’s think about this. First, most people, it’s certainly my case, don’t travel anywhere near 300 miles a day. I do about 80 a day. And every night I plug in my car in my garage and it remembers to charge itself starting at midnight when my electricity rates are lower. The car is completley charged up in about 2-3 hours. Every morning I leave the house with a “full tank”. And when I hit the road on a long trip? Well Elon has been thinking of that too. Tesla has built a network of Superchargers that can charge Teslas at the rate of about 400 miles/hour. And they are free. On a long trip a quick rest stop to grab a cup of coffee or lunch, and within 45 minutes you’re on your way again. On a recent trip from Detroit to Chicago which is about 350 miles, I had to stop for about half an hour to charge my car. Oh, and did I mention that charging my car is free.

3) Teslas are insanely fast. The slow models (like mine) do 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds. The 4-wheel drive performance model does it in 2.8 seconds. Not bad for a 7-seater family sedan. If you are not sure how fast 2.8 seconds is, there may only be 3 other cars in production right now that can match or come close to that and they are exotic Italian and British sports cars. But it is not just fast, it is also silent – remember no engine. And the power is instantaneous and continuous. The moment you hit the accelerator you get 100% of the torque and because there is no transmission, there are no gear changes to interrupt the acceleration. Even in my “slow” model I can almost guarantee getting a “Tesla grin” on the face of my passengers when they feel that incredible thrust back into their seats.

4) There is almost no maintenance. Over the life of my car I will never have to do an oil change, replace the timing belt, water pump or other belts. There will never be transmission issues, or a radiator flush and there is no check engine light, period! I will never have to get my brakes done either. Why, you ask? Because most of my braking is done by the car harvesting the energy and recharging the battery, I probably use my brakes about 1/20 of the amount needed in a regular ICE car. I may have to change brake pads in about 60 years.

I created an estimation model comparing the costs of fuel and maintenance/repair expenses between my Tesla and an equivalent ICE car. Over a period of 10 years (I kept my previous car for 12 years and 200,000 miles), I estimate that I will save between $25,000 and $30,000. And that includes the cost of one battery replacement (the batteries have an 8-year unlimited mileage warranty).

5) Continuous improvements. The car is largely computer controlled. Think of it as one big mobile Apple computer on four wheels. The Tesla has a 17 inch monitor that controls almost all of the functions in the car and is connected via a 3G connection (provided by Tesla) to the internet. The cool thing is that every couple of months I get a software update over the internet. Some of the updates are small, like the improvements to the map programs I got this week. Sometimes they are new features controlling how the car operates – like new braking features or the recent speed improvement provided via a software update. And recently autonomous driving has been added. Already Teslas can drive themselves as long as it is on private property. So you can arrive home and tell the car to go park itself in the garage while you get the mail. Pretty cool. And this feature was added via a software update at 2:00am over the ether. Tesla is now working on further improvements to allow the car to drive itself on public roads.

Finally, the review

I know, I know! I said this was going to be a review. But first I had to explain why I bought one. The factors above were all key in my decision 18 months ago. Now let me tell you about my experience.

The good.

The car has performed as well as I had anticipated. In every sense. The cost to run it has matched my calculations. The only unanticipated expense has been my impetuous visits to the car wash to keep it looking good. ;-). The performance, even in my “slow model” is wonderful. The car handles amazingly well for a large family sedan and the acceleration still blows me and my passengers away.

The use of Superchargers on road trips has worked perfectly. I would say that there is no need for range anxiety, however, you do have to plan ahead – no point in waiting until you are almost out of available range to start looking for your next charging station. But Tesla have made that easier recently (with an over-the-air software update of course) with the car automatically planning the charging spots along your route for you and displaying them on the map on the big screen.

The Tesla service experience is also wonderful. I get a lot of service, like tire rotations regularly, at no charge and I have always been given another Tesla as a loaner for the day.

The not so good.

The only mechanical issue I have had is water inside my reverse lights. Tesla replaced the lights – at no charge of course.

There are three other considerations. These are not bad, just considerations.

  • The model I bought is rear wheel drive. I live in an area that gets lots of snow in winter. I would definitely get the 4-wheel drive version if I was buying now. It wasn’t available until about a year after I bought mine. However, the RWD Tesla does amazingly well in the snow. I have driven in intense storms and have not come close to getting stuck and the car handles the conditions amazingly well.
  • Battery life is reduced when the weather is colder. Especially on those days when the temperature is below 0⁰F (-18C). We have had way too many of those in the last couple of winters. I reckon that I lose about 20% of my range on those days. This is as a result of the car having to heat the battery as well as the occupants. This is not a showstopper, just a consideration. Thank goodness for all the range Teslas have so that giving up 20% is no sweat.
  • The whole car is made of aluminum. Nice and light. Unfortunately the paint is a little soft on the aluminum and quickly shows scratches and nicks. Also the hood is vulnerable to getting a little bend or dimple in the front, if you push the hood in the wrong place. My car has one of those. L

Would I buy the same car again and would I recommend it?

Really good questions. The answers are – YES and ABSOLUTELY! In fact let me go out on a limb here. I think it is only a matter of time before we are all driving electric cars. Just like it is inevitable that in the next 20 years or so, trucks and cars will be moving to autonomous driving, I think we are not far away, maybe less than 20 years, from the tipping point when the benefits of electric cars will be matched by the infrastructure to support them. Tesla is leading the way and I am having a lot of fun driving mine.

Just to add to the fun, I get a lot of interesting and entertaining questions and comments. Like, “What kind of car is that? It’s a Tesla. Oh – who makes it? Tesla! Where does it come from? It’s American. Really?” Or the strange looks I get when I pop the frunk (front trunk where people expect the engine to be) and out comes a suitcase.

By the way…

Recently, Tesla offered its owners and future buyers an incentive to collaborate. Elon Musk sent me a couple of emails this week. Anyone who wants to buy a Tesla and uses my code http://ts.la/colin8593 gets a nice discount – and so do I. So if you know anyone who is thinking about getting a Tesla, let them know about this offer.

Questions and rides

Maybe you have questions or comments. I’d love to hear them. Oh and if you’d like a ride in my Tesla, just let me know. I would enjoy seeing if I could get a “Tesla grin” onto your face.

On white

A few weeks ago I tried something new. I wish I could claim it was an original idea (although some would claim that no such thing exists any more), but no, this is a complete copy (in concept) of a post by the best photography educator around, Scott Kelby. In a recent blog entry (http://goo.gl/ES8XTM) he demonstrated a theme that he stumbled upon accidentally.

The idea is based on something we are all very familiar with – products, cars, models and so on, photographed on a seamless white background. It is great for achieving a clear, undistracted view of the product.  We almost take this look for granted when looking at a product catalog and many advertisements.

So, how about putting buildings on white? It is a little hard getting a roll of seamless white paper that long. But fortunately there is an easier way. All it takes is a slightly overexposed shot and a few simple adjustments and we have a building on white.

Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago

It is really not hard to achieve this look, especially with Lightroom or Photoshop. First, bump up the contrast – a bunch and then a bit more. Also boost clarity quite a bit too. These tweaks will make the bright parts of your picture and the lighter mid-tones brighter (almost white) and do the reverse for the darker parts of the image. With one or two of the images, I also needed to do a little bit of local dodging to achieve the desired amount whiteness. I also took Scott’s advice and sharpened the picture like crazy.

Baha’i Temple in Wilmette just north of Evanston and Chicago.

At this point, you could choose to go black and white and I think that would be perfect for some buildings. I did not do that with any of mine shown here. However, you do need to do something about the color as the increase in contrast has accentuated colors unnaturally.

Marina Towers in Chicago.

To solve the color accentuation, I just lowered the saturation and the “vibrance” of the picture.



I will experiment with this look some more. It suits some buildings and some angles more than others. The first image, of the Trump Tower is particularly well-suited to this look, but others perspectives and compositions could work well too.

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse

Why not give this a try and share your images with me. And let me know what you think too.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Ps. My blog was feeling neglected and ignored. The last post was 6 months ago. Let’s hope I can do another post before too long.

 

Hot air

A Favorite

One of my favorite landscape pictures of all times came out of a recent trip to California when we had the chance to take a hot air balloon ride. I say “came about” advisedly because I think the best photographs involve some planning and certainly careful consideration of the composition. In the words of that famous quote by Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”. So while I was able to prepare for this shot in many ways, it was my first balloon ride and not knowing what to expect, a lot of what took place involved quickly reacting to the circumstances. The opportunity for this picture “came about” as the altitude and direction we were facing changed.

This, my favorite shot of the whole experience, came when the balloon rotated round to face the folds of the hills and mountains, with mist nestling in their valleys. That by itself made for a beautiful vista. However, seeing the multi-colored striped balloon rising as we were descending allowed me to time a shot with the other balloon in the skies above the hills, in a way that was well balanced.

I have just been asked to co-author and article on hot-air balloon photography on pixsy.com. The article provides a few tips to enable other photographers who like me had never taken a ride in a hot air balloon to be prepared.

Tips for balloon photography

Hot air balloon rides are a wonderful way to get some very interesting landscape shots from a different perspective than you would normally when both feet are planted firmly on the ground. I always believe that to get the shots we would like, it is best to prepare as much as possible. If you have never been in a balloon before, it may be hard to pre-visualize the shots, but you can definitely break down the categories of shots you may look for and be prepared for those.   Here are just a few suggestions.

The pre-launch phase of the excursion provides some fascinating opportunities for color-filled photographs. Most balloon rides are done in the early morning.  So be prepared for some low light shots with bright flames pouring into colorful balloons.  A high ISO will likely help here.

Think also about people shots – both catching the feelings of anticipation while on the ground and of course when in the balloon’s basket.  Think about how you can get a good depth of field to have your subjects in the basket, just a few feet away in focus, and the environmental context behind clear too.

Maybe the most obvious shots from the ride will be the broad landscape shots from high in the sky.  Make sure you get an outside position on the basket and of course have a wide angle lens available. For the series of shots that this image comes from, I was alternating between single frame exposures and bracketed shots for HDR processing, depending on the contrast level in the scene.  The balloon is almost constantly slowly rotating and so at times you may be pointing almost directly into the sun with very high contrasts.

A good balloon operator will alternate between high altitude (6,000′ or more) and low altitude (skimming the trees) phases of the ride so think about the different views that this will present. Remember, just as with any other photography, don’t get stuck on one point of view. Don’t just look out for the horizontal shot. Look down and think wide as well as zoomed in.  Look up too and into the balloon, especially when the flame is roaring.  Whichever direction you are looking, think carefully about the position of objects of interest, for example another balloon.  Where does the object best fit in your composition?

One final tip – don’t forget to take the camera away from your eye and just enjoy the awesome fact of floating across the countryside in the early dawn hours.  It is magical and some of the time you need to just look around and experience it!

You can read the original Pixsy article and enjoy other balloon photographs at http://www.pixsy.com/hot-air-balloon-photos/.

Final thoughts

If I get another opportunity to get up in a hot air balloon, I will jump at it. I will follow the advice I have given others after our first magnificent experience, if you are taking a balloon ride, pick a beautiful place. Colorado anyone? New Mexico? How about the Amboseli in Tanzania? I’m ready! I was going to say “fired up” but just couldn’t bring myself to do it ;-).

One bed

A Short Visit

Last weekend I got to spend a very short time at “the garden” – i.e. the Chicago Botanic Garden. This is a magnificent place especially at this time of the year. I only had just over an hour there before needing to meet friends for dinner. So you may wonder – what can you see in the garden in that short time.

I decided to spend most of my time in a small area just south of the walled English Garden. On the way there I came across this hollyhock. Interesting that the brick wall behind was in shadow and almost disappeared when I metered on the white flower. After stopping just long enough to take this picture, I moved on to the part of the garden that at this time of the year is filled with zinnias, salvia, marigolds and a few other brightly colored plants.

As you can see, when I say brightly colored, I am not overstating the feast for the eyes of rich and vibrant colors. In this picture, one zinnia is a stand-out from the rest which with use of a narrow depth of field become a strong blur (bokeh).

I am not the only one who was enjoying this bed. Yes, there were plenty of other people, some with cameras and some just stopping to smell the flowers. But the animals, birds and insects were feasting on the flowers too – quite literally.

This Cottontail Rabbit was trying hard to look innocent as if it had no idea where the pile of Crackerjack Yellow Marigolds lying on the ground came from.

Cottontail has been caught in the act and is finding it hard look innocent now.

This year, there seems to be an abundance of insects too. Lots of bees and bumble bees are loving this bed of flowers.

Also, a dusting of hummingbird moths are sucking nectar with their super-long proboscides from the salvia. These are so interesting to watch as they look and behave like hummingbirds. They hover, drink from the same plants, and methodically move from flower to flower. But then, the White-lined Sphinx Hummingbird Moth has a striped back and wings, which makes it look quite different from hummers.

The hummers were there too. At this time of the year only the females are around and of course, in this part of the country only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird considers this area home.

It was a short visit, but the flowers and all those that enjoy them made for a very satisfying and fulfilling outing.

Fast motion

Many Years Ago

I first had an interest in photography as a teenager, (sigh) more than just a few years ago.  At the same time, I was a huge fan of auto racing, or motor racing as we called it in South Africa. Not surprisingly, the two quickly became interests that I was able to combine.  In fact I was more into motor racing photography than pretty much any other genre. I remember I had posters of Formula One world champion, Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell on my bedroom wall. The close up shots of that blue Tyrrell and the South African driver on some of the most famous race-tracks in the world inspired me to take my own pictures.

I saved up and bought a manual focus Vivitar 200mm lens and a 2X tele-converter and paired this with my Dad’s old Pentax K1000. This was my primary equipment for shooting racing, and I made it to most of the races at Kyalami, near Johannesburg. I am sure I had pictures of all the greats in Formula One at the time, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi and Ayrton Senna – often as they hurtled sideways into a barrier or catch fence.

I had no training in photography, and the internet, which is such a great resource for photography learning, was not even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye at the time. I remember that most of my racing pictures were taken at high shutter speeds to freeze the action. At the time, the alternative, having blur in my racing pictures, seemed like something to avoid like the plague.

A new perspective

Fast forward to today and I still love racing and have a blast doing photography at the track.  But my perspective is so different and my styles have changed dramatically. I have seen the work of great racing photographers like Darren Heath and Jamey Price, and I learn something every time I go to the track with my friend Garen. Now when I go to the track, I am intent on capturing the mood of the track and, of course, the sense of speed. I wish a picture could capture the sound, and the smells too, but at the very least I want to portray the atmosphere.

Something that I find hard, but that can be so good at creating the feel of the track, are the wide-angle environmental shots. Bringing in the forest, the sky and even the broad sweep of the track can set the scene. If the car is just a small part of the image, it can still be a powerful part of the picture, and often say so much more than the close-in detail shots do.

Forest racer

The track is a wonderful place to practice and improve your panning techniques. Depending on the lens I am using, I may slow the shutter down to 1/25th. With my longer focal length lenses, I am often at 1/50th. I aim to get the key part of the subject, a wheel, the driver’s head, or whatever sharp, and the background just a sweeping horizontal blur. And it is not the end of the world to have the entire car a streak of color with nothing frozen.

Zoom zoom

One way to create the feeling of motion is to add some zoom blur.  Needless to say, as the name implies, this requires a zoom lens.  By quickly rotating the zoom dial while the shutter is open, the effect of movement is vivid, drawing the eye to the central point.

Often several things come together in a scene, such as with the Audi RS4, above. It is like the A4 I drive, and yet not very much like mine at all on the other hand, especially with the pipes coming out through the window of the back door. Not only do I have an affinity with this car, but it has those rich colors, the reflections and the sense of mystery with the driver invisible. All of this comes together in one eye-catching package.

Racing lines

Even an object moving at speed, has many photographic elements that can draw the eye. I look for lines, color, contrast and shapes. Sometimes something like textures or reflections will jump out at you.

As with all photography, everything changes as the light changes. A stormy sky and bright sunshine will create entirely different feels. And then as day goes into night, it all changes again.

I have only managed to visit a track twice in the last couple of years. Just looking at these pictures again makes me want to head to the track again.

Wildlife photography – thoughts on style

Generally when I take wildlife shots, I expect the style to be more of a documentary approach. Now, even documentary shots have a number of artistic elements. We focus on composition, we think a lot about the background and isolation of the subject and so on. We are still creating art, not just capturing pixels. Like many other photographers, I wonder about the oft used comment “Nice capture” which is particularly common with wildlife shots. It seems almost as if the camera has done all the work, and it was a passive activity on the part of the photographer. It seems to imply something quite different from the creative work that is being done It understates the active creative thought, preparation and work that takes place.

Having said all that, there is often something more documentary than fine art in style when taking pictures of animals or birds. We are often intent on getting a sharp eye – preferably with a catch-light too; an appropriate depth of field; good lighting – particularly on the head/face; and we try hard to achieve an unobstructed view of the subject.

However, it is not always this way, even with wildlife photography. Sometimes we want blur – to indicate motion; or a partial shot of the animal that may draw more attention to lines or colors; or maybe we place more emphasis on the context than detail of the animal – imagine for example a small red cardinal in a large snow-covered tree in winter. I don’t think there is a definitive line between wildlife photography that follows a more documentary approach and that which is more akin to fine art photography. But there is no doubt in my mind that stylistically, some wildlife shots lean more to just documenting the subject and some are more aimed at achieving an artistic goal.

This leads me to the question – do we decide in advance which style we are aiming for? Are we intentional about it?

The surprise

I would like to say that all the pictures I create are pre-visualized, thought out and planned. I would like to say that, but is far from true for me, especially with wildlife. There is always some element of surprise.

And then there are the times when the level of astonishment is much greater – when we are quite taken aback by the scene that unfolds and the resulting images. That happened recently with the shot below.

“On a mission” – A Great Blue Heron in Lake County, Ilinois.

The back story

I went down to one of the rookeries in our county recently. I love this rookery because it has an abundance (maybe plethora would be a better word) of birds nesting – mostly Great Blue Herons, Egrets and Cormorants and among them all a pair of Bald Eagles. My goal on this particular day was to see if I could get some good sightings of the eagles, but due to the flooding we were having, I could barely see the eyrie (or aerie if you prefer) from dry ground. Only the top of one of the eagle parent’s heads was visible.

So instead I tried to focus on shots of the GBHs with nest-building branches in their beaks. In other words, documentary shots. The birds were at the height of nest-building and so every few minutes, a heron would return with a twig or small branch in its beak.

When I saw this picture I was so surprised. I was surprised because it was not like many of the other pictures at all. There is no stick as you may have noticed if you are really observant. But that’s not it. Straight out of the camera this picture had a stylized look, almost cartoonish in a way. In fact there is minimal processing done to this picture. When I look at this picture, as I have for about a month now on my desktop background, I get drawn to something quite different from just a clear capture of a bird in flight. There are elements that catch my eye and my imagination in the scene as a whole. There are so many things about the bird’s stance and its context that speak to me way beyond the purely documentary.

By the way, this picture may not catch you in the same way it does me – and that is fine, but I am sure you have your own examples too. Does this kind of surprising result happen to you sometimes? Can you plan these kinds of shot, or are you like me, all too often astonished by the results.

Here’s to many more pleasant surprises.

Published

Green Violet-ear Hummingbird (Costa Rica)

Fun news!

A couple of months ago I posted my series of hummingbird pictures from Costa Rica. It was such a treat to get to see so many different species and even get to capture some great images of these little birds.

OK – here is where it gets interesting and fun! The pictures were seen by an online wildlife and nature photography magazine and they asked if I would write an article on hummingbird photography for the next edition. I was of course delighted and honored. Having read articles by some amazing professional photographers in the magazine, I was particularly honored to be able to contribute something. The article I submitted has just been published in Wild Photo Mag – you can download a copy for free here (or see the notes at the end of this post for different reading formats).

The Article

The article covers topics such as:

  • Location – which parts of the world have hummingbirds
  • Gear – the kinds of camera gear you’ll need
  • Size – basically small and smaller
  • Behavior – learning their habits helps you to get better pictures
  • Color and Iridescence – where does that amazing brightness come from
  • Freezing Motion – techniques for freezing those tiny little wings

Hummingbird photography is a whole lot of fun and current camera technology enables you to end up with some spectacular results. The article ends with these 10 tips for photographing hummingbirds.

Tips

  1. Find a location where there are lots of hummingbirds if you want to have a chance of getting great shots.
  2. My gear suggestions would include a telephoto or zoom lens that is at least: 150mm (micro four thirds body), 200mm (crop sensor) and 300 mm (full frame). I would recommend even longer focal lengths if possible.
  3. Watch the birds for a while to learn their patterns.
  4. Pre-focus on a flower or feeder that the hummer is likely to head to. This will enable you to acquire focus on the bird more easily.
  5. Identify some attractive perches that the hummers frequent. Be prepared to catch a hummingbird there even if it only rests for a few seconds.
  6. If photographing around feeders, remember that the best shot may be when the hummingbird backs up a few inches and hovers. Alternatively, camouflage a feeder with plants or flowers if you can.
  7. A wider aperture enables you to blur the background, but be careful that you don’t get the DOF too narrow.
  8. A fast shutter speed will allow you to freeze the wings on a flying bird. Try 1/1000 to 1/1500. Use flash (try setting it to only 1/16 power or less) as an alternate way to freeze the wings.
  9. Don’t expect a high keeper ratio. As with all photography, practice helps.
  10. Remember to have fun doing this. These amazing little creatures can put on an amazing aerobatics show. Sometimes you just need to take the camera away from your eye and just watch.

Read it

I had a blast writing the article, but then I have such fun watching and photographing these amazing little birds, so writing about it could only be fun. The article can be found here: http://www.wildphotomag.co.za/hummingbird-photography-tips-by-colin-michaelis.html.