03 September 2017

Moonless night

According to the astro-photographers, moonless nights are the best to make this particular type of photography. The reason for that is obvious: most of the time the moonlight is so intense that, for the exposure needed to correctly record the celestial bodies, all the foregrounds will be prohibitively over-exposed. Most of the times pictures are taken above ISO 3200, with shutter speeds around 20 to 30 seconds (more than that and you risk star trails on the final image) and apertures between f/1.4 and f/4.0.
This particular case, althought not even close to be considered a good photograph, gives you a general idea: I wanted to shot the Milky Way against a mountain humanized foreground. So I choose the Achada do Teixeira abandoned hut/restaurant, at 1600 mts above sea level, as my foreground. Placed the camera on tripod and choose my point of view for composition. ISO 6400, f/4.0 and 30 secs exposure gave me the best result possible for the Milky Way. Problem was that the hut would become a dark, textureless, shadow using those parameters. Increasing the exposure to lit the hut would only burn out the sky, due to the residual amber light reflected to the atmosphere from the villages down under, at sea level.
So I opted instead to "paint" with light, for about twenty seconds while the shutter was open, just a little bit of the foreground, from the position where I stood with the camera and with a simple pen-sized-chinese-made LED torch, powered by two small AAA alcaline batteries.
That a modern digital camera sensor can suck so much light from such a weak light source is to me beyond believe. I can easily imagine that twenty five years ago to have the same lighting effect on the set of a movie production with a motion film camera you'd need at least twenty thousand Watts of light to achieve the same result. Now all you need is a highly sensitive digital sensor and a pocket flash light.
So, although I'd say this modest example is light-years away to be considered photographic art, I think you (no pun intended) get the picture.
Picture taken with Nikon D610 and Vivitar manual 24mm f/2.8 lens. Sirui Travel T005 light tripod and kit ball-head. Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop CS6.

04 August 2017

Seiko Divers Kinetic 200

Why would I need another diver’s watch? Another timepiece to end up in a small drawer already filled up with, as any competent watch fan would recognize, substandard time measuring machines?
Well, in fact… I don’t. We could say, however, that there are worst ways of spending our hard-earned money. But I’m far for being a collector also.  It’s more of a healthy curiosity, I imagine.
Maybe it’s their mechanical complexity that is so attractive, so addictive. So many precision components working together in perfect balance and harmony with the simple task of dividing the days in hours, minutes and seconds.
The  lovely Seiko Divers Kinetic, with the reference number SKA371P2, is a very interesting introduction to the diving watches' , giving you you a "lot of bang for the buck" in a truly ISO certified diving watch.

However, I’d say, there’s a bit more to it. More than the simple amusement we have when looking at one of those fragile mechanisms that seem to have a life of their own, while the rotors and the escapements move and the little thing looks like a tiny heart, pulsating, tick after tick.
Can we imagine a more obvious mechanical metaphor to our living human condition?
So, why would I need another cheap divers watch? Well, I’ve never owned a Seiko and money was a bit short for a “Grand” one. And although I admire the elegance and technical mastery achieved by the dress watches, my heart always leant for the tool ones.
A simple design, with a flat Hardlex crystal and  a deep and easily readable dial. 120 clicks ,one-direction, turning bezel, the usual (over-sized and easily handled) screw-down crow. The lume is second-to-none, as per Seiko's standards and tradition. As a single complication: a date window at three o'clock. The push-button above the crown just tell us the the kinetic engine power-cell reserve. Honestly, do we really need anything more than that?

To me, basically, a wrist watch is an extension of our bodies. We live with it through the day. Heck, we even sleep with it sometimes. This means it has to sustain its daily amount of abuse without complaining. And while we are seeing the appearance, on the past decades, of several variations on the concept (field watches, pilot watches, alpinist watches, etc.), truth is, structurally speaking, dive watches are, still today, reference watches in terms of durability and toughness.
The reason for that, being, in my modest and deeply amateur opinion, due to three factors: reliability, simplicity and robustness.
The Seiko Kinetc Divers SKA371P2 is as solid as a divers watch can be. The case has an interesting design, mixing smooth and round contours with more harsh lines. But, hey, japanese design was never famous for being "classical". The screw-down case back has the already famous "tsunami" logo engraved on it. Can this be the quintessential diving watch? Well, it can well be. But this is a subjective matter. Objectively speaking, this is a wristwatch that you can use and abuse, without being worried to pay several hundreds of Euros just for minor repairs. For a price tag just under the 200 Euros you just trash it to the can, if needed be. Or pay a few dozen Euros for repairing it. Remember just one thing: forgetting for a moment their high level of reliability, Seikos (or Citizens and Casios, for that matter) are the Toyotas of the watch world. Everywhere in the globe you'll find competent technical assistance and spare parts.

Reliability, I’d say, in these particular timepieces, is normally hand in hand with simplicity. In fact most of the diving watches just tell the time. The more common complications (chronograph functions, date or GMT hands) are not true necessities to accomplish its basic function. If there’s a detail that distinguish them from the rest of the crowd it’s the rotating bezel, formerly used for dive time and decompression calculations, on a Era when diving computers were science-fiction material.
Avoiding movement complexity leads the design to simpler mechanisms. And with simplicity comes a lower probability of malfunctions. This is just basic common sense, valid for any human endeavor.
Regarding robustness, their design speaks for itself: compact stainless steel cases with screw-down crowns and case backs. With these two characteristics, a diving watch is as weatherproof and water-tight as a wrist-watch can be. It simply can’t be much tougher than that.
And amongst the many in the world, Seiko produces some of the best. Curiously, I first got acquainted with the brand already in my adult years. It was only during my seafaring years that I started noticing some of my fellow shipmates wearing Seiko watches (although not necessarily divers). The general preference for the brand was a mystery to me, until I noticed that during the seventies and the eighties it was common for the Portuguese merchant fleet (what was left of it) to sail on the Indian basin and on the Western Pacific. Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore and Yokohama, to name a few, were, at that time, some of the ports on the area where you could buy a few nice things still rare in Europe. Wrist watches were some of them, immediately followed (but not necessarily on this order) by electronics and photographic cameras.
The strap could be a little bit better? Well, it could. Instead of plastic, a more noble material could have been choosen, like rubber or silicone.But that would also put a price on durability. Fact is we can always look for faults if we look hard enought. Does it really matter, on my daily use? Not really.

So, after that introduction I started to look at the brand with a detailed attention. And, in fact, at sea, it was present nearly everywhere: in my shipmates’ wrists and also as ships clocks, master clocks and chronometers.
And, you can call me pretentious (or, perhaps, it’s just a bias), but after all these years it’s still to me a sign of a very good taste seeing a fellow seafarer (man or a gal) wearing a Seiko.
And that is, basically, for a reason. Although can I easily recognize that I’m leaded by preconception, we all agree that, to a vast extent, in the present bling society where we are living in, the suit makes the man. Naturally, the correctness of this assumption is another story.
And, somehow, I guess, the equivalent to an Armani suit in the watch world is a Swiss-made one.
But, truth be told, and I’m by no means an expert, there’s a reason why they include them in the chapter of luxury brands: simply because they can. They were always top of the line timepieces. It’s a fact. But I remember visiting a watch shop in Lisboa with my mother during the early eighties.
On those days the one catching my attention (as if I could afford it) was the Rolex Sea-Dweller.  At the time, that watch was priced just a tad above 1000 Euros, whereas a Citizen Aqualand (the first model, just fresh out of production) was costing around 270 Euros. So, on those days, a top of the line Swiss Rolex diving watch (the best divers of the brand, at the time) was costing four times as more as a Citizen Aqualand. Nowadays, you can buy the modern Aqualand model for 500 to 600 Euros. Tops.  Good luck trying to find a new SeaDweller for less than 8000.
Can you, as a consumer, find any logic in this? Neither can I.
But, hey, we all know that the vast majority of people wearing these watches couldn’t care less about time keeping. In fact, for most of them, time is dictated by others. Therefore, the much more important and needed I-Phone - also telling you the time - will suffice. These expensive watches are bought mostly as an exhibition of social status, power and financial wealth. Pretty much like buying a Harley-Davidson instead of a Honda. Or choosing Leica over Nikon. People who buy them couldn’t care less about the craftsmanship. And, seriously, how many people do you know, besides navigators, really needing a certified chronometer on their wrists?
Nowadays we have to recognize this behavior for what it is: a simple manifestation of vanity. But we have to understand that, like peacocks, we always love to show our most beautiful and colorful feathers. Did we really evolve all that much since those earlier days on the sunny planes in Africa?
Fact is this status-quo already reached the merchant fleet. And it became too common to see, presently, Officers on board wearing the flashy Swiss things: Rolexes, Breitlings, Omegas, JLC’s, you name it. Particularly on the cruise ship industry (where looks and pantomime are everything, or pretty much most of it) you get so tired of seeing one with a better (more expensive!) watch than the other that their use is becoming vulgar. There’s less and less place for imagination, creativity and individuality – if you like – because all of them are using the same 8000 Euros pieces of time-keeping, only in different shapes.  Curiously, in this particular case, there’s a great relationship between vanity and nationality (I promise I won’t go further, for the sake of good comradery). Generally, you can easily tell the nationality of the crew members for their flashy time pieces. And the opposite is also true. The most unpretentious ones are from particular nations. And these aren’t really countries famed for being low-income ones. Oddly, we are forced to recognize this particular behavior as a cultural thing.
As an interesting detail, the lugs are perforated from side to side. Although it breaks somehow the continuity on the elegant case, thruth is this is quite a useful feature for quicker strap changes.

So you can imagine my satisfaction when I see a fellow colleague wearing a discreet Seiko (or a Casio or a Citizen, or a Timex for that matter!). To me, he (or she) isn’t following the crowd. And instead of burning a horrendous amount of money on a vanity stunt, their choice is lead to a reliable and discreet piece of engineering. They couldn’t care less. It’s their way of sticking it to the man, if you like.
But don’t be fooled by the comparatively lower prices in relation to the Swiss ones. The heritage is there, since Seiko history is already a long one. Technically speaking they are leading the way, still today, in watchmaking. Their innovations and patents are vast. They even have their own in-house chronometer calibration bureau; a reference in the field and with more strict standards than the Swiss COSC one. Simply put we can say that a movement that passes Seiko chronometer standards will easily passes the COSC test. However the opposite is not always true.
So Seiko isn’t, by any means, just another brand. So what if they are able to produce both cheap and expensive movements under the same name. Their exquisite engineering is as much to praise as their middle-class, common man, products. Both made with the same respect for the consumer and under the highest professionalism. After all, it’s Japanese.

30 April 2017

Summer's coming!

Always a pleasure to visit the island of Porto Santo during this time of the year. We are still in mid-Spring, but it's like we are already in Summer. The atmosphere gets clearer and all the natural formations seems to be closer and bigger than they actually really are. The few occasional rain showers are a blessing at this time of the year, to fill up the levadas, instead of a premonition of stormy weather to come.
The air temperature, although still a tad on the cold side, doesn't discourage the occasional stroll at the peaceful evening time, along the sand patch of one of Portugal's most beautiful beaches. With everything that surrounds us in perfect harmony.
A bucolic Porto Santo scene, photographed yesterday, around 2130, with the whole beach pretty much for myself, following the berthing manoeuvre of the M/T Letízia Effe (IMO 9373230).
Picture taken with Nikon Coolpix P7100 and cheap Polaroid PLTRI42 light tripod. Post-processing of the NEF file and conversion to JPEG in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

20 April 2017

Life’s a circle.

Ceramic wall panel on the Megre family country house, in Águas, northern Portugal; depicting the many voyages made by José Megre during his lifetime. An homage of the Penamancor City Hall to one of the county's most illustrious sons.
Months ago, one of my regular travels to the mainland was as much a periplus as it was a pilgrimage.With the purpose of visiting my alma mater, to fulfill some academic duties, I decided to make the best of those short eight days in the continental  Portugal and, school compromises solved, head out to the Northern part of the country, to the Beira Alta region, steering my course towards the Central Massif to enjoy a few peaceful days of mountain air, surrounded by the high peaks of granite before returning to my island.
For a few reasons, I’m glad I’ve done it. Because that short trip was one of discovery and reflection.
He was a reference to many. Both mature and young people alike.
A mechanical engineer by college formation and early profession. A former Army Comando, with war commissions in Angola. An adventurer and a leader. A writer and a communicator. A grown man who, I can easily imagine, never ceased to look at the world with a youngsters' eyes.
He was also a father and a husband. A family man.
José Megre was all of this and, certainly, a bit more.
To the common layman, myself included, he was mostly the “father of the Portuguese off-roading  movement”. He started it all, during the late seventies and early eighties, when this poor nation, freshly recovered from the Carnation Revolution, was opening up herself to the modern world and Europe.
There were many famous Portuguese adventurers through the ages. Many more forever anonymous, forgotten by History, although they were part of it. We were always a country of voyagers. Of dreamers. Of people trying to see beyond the horizon. A poet once said that this nearly millenary nation is too small for her own people. Hence the diaspora.  And the simple, unquestionable, fact that anywhere in the world you’ll find a Portuguese.
José Megre had it on his genes. The “carpenters' bug”, as we say in Portuguese. A restlessness that forces us to move ahead. To unknown territories, mostly within ourselves.
Like for so many young kids of my age, avid readers of Jules Verne and Jack London, he was Mr. Adventure personified.
Sadly, I never met him in life. He was already a seasoned respected voyager while I was still in elementary school. Our paths never crossed. And today it’s already too late. So, I’ve decided I’d pay him a visit on his last resting place, when I had a chance.
So here was I, together with my faithful Citro AX GT, my very own modest, unpretentious (to say the least!) and timid approach to the motorized sports, at the gates of Águas one September afternoon.
Águas, like so many villages in the Portuguese mountainous interior, has a telluric relation with the Earth. The austere granitic architecture, seen from afar, looks like a part of the natural landscape. Like so many towns around, Águas seems stopped in medieval times. I sometimes wonder how can this be possible. How can a country be so full of contrasts, between modern and old, between futuristic development and the total lack of it. And all of this in a rectangle of 90.000 square kilometers.  How can this diversity be possible in such a small area? A nation smaller than most of the USA states?
For an American citizen, used to its square-grid modern cities, where everything looks the same in the landscape for hundreds of kilometers regardless of the direction taken, the fact that the scenery changes at every fifty kilometers must be puzzling.
The central square of the small town is dominated by two main buildings, constructed side-by-side: the Catholic church, built in a neo-gothic style, and the country house of the Megre family, his own.
He was the son of one of many aristocratic and bourgeoise landowning families so common in Portugal’s interior during the XVIII, XIX and early XX’s centuries.
So, financially speaking, he was a wealthy person, having born within a rich family, whom, according to a local inhabitant , owned the vast majority of the land surrounding the village. But would that factor alone explain his devotion to motorized sports early on his life? And the later pursuit of adventure that led him to organize the first Portuguese team to race in the Paris-Dakar rally, during the early eighties?
And his passion for travel, fueled late in his life, that drove him to visit – in his own words – “all the nations of the world, except one”?
That’s an ambition, a need for fulfillment that has to come from within. And although money does help, it doesn’t justify it entirely. Otherwise, how could we explain the thousands travelling the globe as we speak without a dime in their pockets?
Someone said “every voyage is an unsatisfied anxiousness”. I would concur with the author. There’s a certain restlessness that some people have that always seems to move them to perpetual motion. José Megre, we can easily imagine, was part of those few. Living life by his own terms. Facing challenges where all the others saw unclimbable mountains.
Now, I cannot help but to think about the ephemeral nature of life and how dramatically short it is. There’s never enough time to fulfill our own very personal definition of destiny, although I’d say that José Megre approached his.
And after nearly forty years of an adventurous life, that took him to the four corners of the world, he found rest in here. In the same old town where he probably used to play as a child and, perhaps, dreamt with those faraway places he’d love to visit someday.
And, with that final act, he closed the circle.