View Over Washington

I have lived in Washington, D.C. for a number of years - not including the brief stint spent living overseas. Yet in all of my time here, it was only a week ago that I first had a chance to tour the White House.  

The house and the rooms within are beautiful, but I wasn't attracted to photograph them. My interest was captured by what lay outside the house - the view. Looking out the White House windows offers an incredible sight, easily one of the best views of Washington. With my Leica M240, I captured these two images depicting that wonderful view. 

I also recently upgraded my mobile iPad editing setup, in hope that one day I can become detached from the computer as the lone means to edit. These photos were both edited entirely on the iPad, and I will be updating my blog in the future with more information about the mobile workflow (and if it actually works!) 


Revolutions - The Book

Phew! It's been a tremendously long slog to get to this point, but we've arrived! Barring any major setbacks, I've completed the arduous process of writing my first book, "Revolutions."

I have never attempted to seriously write a book before, and I have gained a much better appreciation for what's involved. From dozens of manuscripts to bribing friends to serve as copy editors, it's been painful and fulfilling at the same time! 

Today I sent the final manuscripts to the publishing company and they will now produce a final proof for my approval before we go to mass printing. Unfortunately, it's expensive to make high quality books, so I need to order hundreds of books in order to make the cost reasonable. For that reason, I'll soon be hosting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publishing of this book, which will also be available on vendors like

So stay tuned, because I'll be sharing more soon, and I look forward to having your support.

For now - check out this link to preview the first 15 pages of the book!

A Long Overdue Update from Kristen

Hey Folks! I've been a terrible person lately - my blog has atrophied as I have been working on my move back to Washington, DC - and I owe you an update. So let's go:

First - I got back at the very end of February, but my return has not been drama-free. As soon as my flight touched down in DC, I got an email that the ship transporting my car across the Atlantic had caught fire, and they weren't sure if it was lost in the fire. (Two weeks later I heard it was okay, but it was a dramatic start to my move!) Second, we sold literally every piece of furniture we owned in the UK and needed to buy everything new..... bed, sofa, desk, dressers, chairs, lamps, tv, entertainment center, etc. Third, we had to buy a new car because we only had one and it was questionably charred in the middle of the ocean. Oh.... and I am starting a new job, retrieving my pets from their flight back to America, moving from a hotel into an apartment, and slowly taking delivery of my personal belongings. Phew.

I'm not complaining, but I do have a quasi-valid excuse for my delinquency in updating the blog! Unfortunately I am still not 100% moved in - we are waiting for our final shipment from the UK, which happens to be the one containing most of my camera gear. So, yeah, it's one I kinda want.

The good news is that I'll be getting more active on the blog again as I get moved in and finalize this headache process. I have a few projects from my time overseas to wrap up (including the book I am writing!) and have some new projects in mind.

One of these will be to capture the essence of America's pastime... Baseball! Here are some teaser pics to prove that I still take photographs!

So stay tuned, because more great stuff is coming. And thanks for hanging around while I get organized!

Why I Sold My Leica Q

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in memory of Kristen's Leica Q, and to remember it's life and photographic contributions.....

Ok, the Q didn't die, but I did sell it. And after writing an initial impressions review where I was totally smitten with the Quirky Q, I owe you an update as to my decision to sell it.

First, let's be clear - the Leica Q is an awesome camera. There are a lot of happy users, and it makes fantastic images. The "bang for buck" is absolutely there. It's a great travel companion, and is a real treat in the lineup of cameras offered by Leica. I have no complaints about the Q. 

But I sold it because it wasn't for me.

I really learned to be a patient photographer when I got into Leica rangefinders. When I shot Nikon's, the camera drove me.... I didn't drive the camera. I let the Nikon think for me, focus for me, read the light for me, and I was lazy. Leica rangefinders - the emphasis on limited manual controls - put me back in charge of the photography, and I became a better photographer because of it.

When I used the Leica Q, I felt myself becoming lazy - slipping back into the camera-think-for-me land. Sure, with the Q you can shoot totally manual and control every setting, but I found I wasn't using the camera that way. I was letting autofocus and aperture priority drive me. 

I already have an autofocus camera - one I adore - called the Leica SL. For those times when I need or want autofocus, I found myself reaching for it. I reached for the Leica Q when I was feeling lazy, and it shows in my photographs. 

If you asked me to select my 100 favorite and best photographs that I've ever taken, the Leica Q wouldn't be represented amongst any of the selectees. That's not because the camera can't produce a result worthy of a top 100 spot - I didn't use it that way. 

I love a rangefinder. The sensation of looking through the precision glass instrument and seeing the world is my crack-cocaine. I'm a rangefinder addict. The Leica Monochrom is one of my favorite cameras to reach for when I need a fix. The feel of the shutter, the slide of the lens barrel focus ring, the stealthy size.... snort. 

The Q never gave me the same excitement. I never got a quiver down my spine when I picked it up. My toes never tingled. It is a fantastic camera, but it never got me excited to take photographs, so my photographs taken with the Q lack excitement. I wholeheartedly believe that a photographer who feels emotion with their camera can better capture emotion with their camera. 

As the announcement of the Leica M10 drew closer, Leica held some killer promotions for saving money on a new Leica M240, so I decided to trade the Q into Leica and get a M240 to feed my rangefinder addiction. I previously owned the M240, but sold it when I got my Leica SL, so it was nice to be reunited with the camera yet again. 

There are times when I miss the simplicity of the Q, but it's been 4 months since the Q and I broke up our relationship, and I have no regrets. I would still recommend the Q to anyone shopping for a great compact travel camera, it just wasn't for me.


I am just three days away from my around-the world move back to the United States, so I've been busy packing, sorting, organizing, and freaking out! But I'm going to surface from my moving-induced panic to share a few more photographs from our last trip to Finland.

As part of our overnight dogsled adventure, we trekked through deep Finnish forest, seeing a wilderness untouched except by winter. I could have spent hours photographing all the landscapes, but that wasn't an option.... I was riding on the back of a dog sled! So to take any photographs, I had to balance on the sled, take my hands off the steering, and hope to time up a good composition. And that's what I did.

I carried my Leica M240 under my heavy down jacket to keep it warm, retrieving it whenever I saw a photographic opportunity ahead. I used the 28mm f/5.6 Summaron lens, which was a great choice given it's small size to sit under my jacket, wide field of view, and large depth of field. Rattling off snaps as we whooshed past on the dogsled, I hoped there was something in focus and well composed in the mix!

Focusing a rangefinder is already a two handed task, and it's certainly complicated when a dogsled is involved, but I was able to zone focus and get sharp images--- much to my delight! 

Review: RNI All Films 4 Pro

Over the past few years, there's been a resurgence in film photography- folks are going out to buy vintage film cameras and put them back to good use. Two years ago I joined the ranks of photographers returning to film and analog photography techniques. Since then, I've studied printing in darkrooms and explored a variety of film processing and development techniques.

As consumers flock to buy old film cameras, companies are joining in the movement by offering "easy out" film photography.... that is, film photography without the film. One such company is RNI (stands for Really Nice Images), a London-based company selling film presets for digital Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Two weeks ago, RNI approached me asking if I would review their "All Films 4 Pro" software suite, which retails for $122 US Dollars. Full disclosure, they provided me a free copy of the software in exchange for my review- though I have reviewed this with the mindset that I had just shelled out my hard earned cash for the software personally. This lady can't be bought with free software (but maybe for cars).

Anyway, I downloaded the software and began the installation on my MacBook Pro. While they offer the features for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, I only tested it for Lightroom as that's where I now do 90% of my editing.

Essentially the software is a suite of Lightroom presets designed to make your digital images look like they were taken on film. So if you aren't awesome enough to rock some film and learn a little development, this is how you can get the "look" with your digital files.

The installation of the software was relatively uneventful- RNI provides detailed step-by-step instructions for installing all of the presets and features, and it took me only a few minutes to complete. The software package took approximately 100MB of hard drive space.

After the installation, I restarted Lightroom and saw that I now had hundreds of new presets in the development module. So many presets that I stand no chance of capturing them in one screenshot...... 

When RNI says the software includes "All Films" they are only slightly off.... it includes presets for the most common films, and then a healthy stock of more obscure film. There was only one film I love to use frequently missing from their list, which is the Adox line of film, specifically the Silvermax film.

Anyway, I had a bit of shell shock seeing the list of film choices. It's actually overwhelming! To help with the organization, RNI has folders for each type of film, as follows:

  • RNI Toolkit (contains features like frames, vignettes and lens effects)
  • RNI Films 4 BW (Black and white films)
  • RNI Films 4 Instant (obviously, instant films like Polaroid) 
  • RNI Films 4 Negative (negative color films/ films developed with C-41 chemicals)
  • RNI Films 4 Slide (color slide films / films with development in other chemical combos)
  • RNI Films 4 Vintage (a selection of films that aren't produced anymore)

Ok, so I haven't come close to shooting a 10% of the films offered in these presets, so I stuck to presets for films I have used - Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, etc. As noted previously, my beloved Adox Silvermax is missing from the preset list.

Test 1: Finland Window

I took this photograph on my Leica SL Type 601 in Finland a few weeks ago, and the colors and textures are a good subject to explore the various film presets with. We'll start with the original image as I edited it, then go through a list of presets. Read the subtitles for each to get the film preset name, and click on the files to see an enlarged version.

My original file - edited without any RNI presets

Color Negative Film Presets

Kodak Ektar Preset

Kodak Portra Preset

I don't shoot much color negative film, but when I do, it's either Kodak Ektar or Portra, so those are the presets I can fairly judge. Before applying either preset I thought about the films, what I know about how they render colors, and formed my expectation for how the preset would look, then clicked the button. For the Kodak Ektar, the resulting image is pretty true to my expectation - colors are bright and vibrant with strong black tones. The Portra, however, was not what I expected. In my experience, Portra renders nice pinks and red hues, which is why it's popular for portraiture. But the reds and pinks in the wood became muted and the black looks wimpy. 

If I am judging these presets based on my experiences actually shooting these films, then the Portra comes up a bit short, while the Ektar meets expectations.

Black and White Film Presets

The true test is black and white film. I shoot a LOT of black and white film, specifically Ilford Delta 100, HP-4 and Adox Silvermax. Since Adox wasn't a choice, I experimented with Kodak T-Max, a popular film, but one I don't shoot as often.

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP-4 Preset

Kodak T-Max Preset

From my experience, these three presets are fairly true to expected performance, particularly the Delta 100 and HP-4 presets. I have shot hundreds of rolls of each film, and the preset looks pretty true to the tonal composition, contrast, and detail of those films. The T-Max preset is maybe a little heavy in contrast, but I have only shot a handful of T-Max rolls, so I am not the expert on that film.

Other Presets (Slide & Effects)

As previously mentioned, the RNI film presets pack includes some slide and vintage films, plus some effects. I have only shot one roll of slide film before, and it was such an epic disaster to develop that I quickly gave up and retreated to the safety of C-41 color negative film for those times I want color. 

Here's our starting image, again from the Leica SL Type 601. This is Esa, a Finnish man who leads dogsled teams.

Esa, our dogsled guide. Original image from the Leica SL Type 601

I first played with the Fuji Velvia preset, which is the only slide film I'm remotely familiar with. But as mentioned, my experiment developing it at home resulted in a lot of green film, so the RNI preset was sure to be better!

Fuji Velvia 50 preset

Sure enough, nice pop in the colors and beautiful saturation. This is what Velvia is famous for, and the preset delivered. Next I took the same image and played with some of the effects filters. There are a billion effects, from vignettes, contrast, etc.... but I went for "Vintage Lens 4."

Velvia + Vintage Lens 4 Preset

Apparently "Vintage Lens" means reduce sharpness and add a vignette? Because, as far as I can tell, that's what this effect did.

Choices Galore

RNI All Films 4 is full of film preset choices - so many choices that I couldn't possibly begin to represent an opinion on all of them without a heavy amount of BS'ing involved. And I was overwhelmed with choices before opening the camera profiles, at which point I ran for cover. If you want an endless selection of choices, this is your software, but I'd have to start deleting some of the presents I don't like to de-clutter my workspace.

The Problem....

On the surface, RNI All Films 4 offers a lot of presets in their package, which is good considering it's moderately pricey software at $122 US Dollars. But thats the problem. There is other software with film presets (albeit not as many choices) that you can download for free. So you have to be pretty dedicated to wanting almost every film emulsion known to man to shell out the money, and I suspect many folks won't know the difference. If you've never shot film, would you know the difference between the dozens of black and white film emulsions available? Doubtful. 

Which brings me to the next question - who is the target audience? Surely someone who shoots film regularly will just shoot film and bypass the filters. So I am assuming that RNI intends this for a digital photographer who wants to give their images the film look and feel without actually shooting film. But again, so many choices - are there that many Nikon-Shooting-Joe's who know enough about film to appreciate all the film presets?

RNI has a solution for this - which is the Lite version of the software. For $59, you get a smaller subset of the film set, which I expect will appeal to most photographers. If you are enough of a film die-hard to know the difference between HP-4 and HP-5, then you probably shoot them, and don't need a preset.

Sidebar: This Isn't Film Photography

I need to detour away from the RNI product for a second to explain that film photography isn't this simple. I don't just load some film into my camera, snap away and voila. There are two other chemical processes after I take the photograph that determine the look of the final product - development and enlargement. I won't attempt to expand upon this too much, but let me start by explaining that Ansel Adams wrote three very long and detailed books about this process.

To click a preset button in Lightroom - no matter where that preset came from - is disingenuous to film photography. A film photographer goes through three different chemical process to produce a print - it's not just a button click. I can make a film that is light on contrast have more contrast in the final print by changing how I enlarge the negative. I can lighten or darken a negative by extending development by a matter of seconds or changing the water temperature. 

If you want to make film photographs, buy a film camera and learn about film photography. Using presets won't give you the same experience, and your hands won't smell like fixer!

RNI Mobile Apps

RNI also offers a suite of mobile apps for applying these sorts of presets to images and then sharing them on Instagram, etc. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting application of these presets for me personally - I don't use one click filters for most of my photography, but I will use a quick filter if I'm sharing some cutesy selfie on my personal Facebook page. 

I was not given a trial of the RNI mobile apps to review, but based on the photos and videos on their website and Facebook page, I think RNI has built a nice platform for Instagram'ers to modify and share their iPhone images.  

In Summary

The good:

  • Lots of presets to choose from
  • All major film emulsions represented, including a nice selection of vintage films
  • Easy installation
  • One-click use. Easy for any Lightroom newbie to use

The bad:

  • The full suite is pricey, particularly given some of the free choices on the market
  • Adox Silvermax is missing
  • The number of choices can be overwhelming to someone not familiar with film photography

Would I Buy It? Would I Recommend It?

Personally, I would not buy RNI All Films, though that doesn't have anything to do with the product RNI offers. I already shoot film, and if I want the look of film, I'd just grab a roll and go. Some of the features, like the vintage lens presets, are a bit gimmicky too. Not to sound like an elitist, but I shoot Leica cameras - I spend a lot of money to have my images look good and don't have any intention of introducing flaws to a photograph on purpose. 

Would I recommend it? Hum. Depends. I probably would tell someone looking at the RNI films software to start with one of their cheaper and smaller scale products to see if they like the presets before diving into the deep end with preset mania. Had I used the pro version before becoming familiar with film photography, I think I would have been very intimidated by the number of choices. If you don't know much about film photography, start with one of the Lite versions and upgrade later if you like it. RNI lets you upgrade at a discount, and that's where I'd start. 

If film photography does interest you, then also consider spending $50 on a cheap film camera and a roll of film. You'll learn something and have a ton of fun - more fun than you'll have clicking preset buttons in Lightroom!

Have you used any of the RNI products, like their mobile apps? What was your experience? Leave me a comment!

A Night Amongst the Dogs

Join Scenic Traverse Photography for a ride through the wilderness of Finland on an overnight dogsled safari. 

Have you ever had an experience so incredible that when you sit down to write about it or tell your friends about it, you are at a loss for the words to tell the story?

That’s the predicament I find myself in now…. I am going to attempt to capture in words one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’m going to fail miserably. But I appreciate your willingness to give me a chance at success.

Right now I should be packing my bags to spend three weeks in Thailand; however, when I found out that I needed to quickly move back to Washington, DC for work, I had to abruptly change plans and cancel that trip. Eager to have one last European getaway before we left the continent, we booked a week in Finnish Lapland to see the aurora one last time. While some of our trip included the usual staples of nighttime snowshoe hikes and sky gazing for the aurora, we decided to get really adventurous and spend two days on a husky safari. This overnight trip would take us deep into the forest along the Finland / Sweden border, where we would make camp in a rustic cabin and care for our dogsled team.

We were both a bit nervous about this trip - we have previously done 15km dogsled rides, but this was going to be a trek unlike any previous. As we packed out suitcases, we added liberal supplies of snacks, wet wipes, and extra thermal underwear specifically for the unknown that an overnight dogsledding trip brings.

Our trip to Finland started with a bang as we had two great nights of aurora viewing, but we kept thinking about Friday, when we’d meet our dogsled teams and head into the wilderness. When the time came, we packed our overnight bag with a variety of warm clothing and equipment, and set out to meet our guide, Esa.

Our guide for the trip, Esa

Esa is a Finnish man who has been working with dogsled teams for over 20 years. So he knows a thing or two about this adventure. Esa spoke English, though not as well as the Dutch mother / son team who also joined our safari, and gave us basic commands for gearing up and getting ready. 

The first stop was to the equipment shed, where he gave us sleeping bags and liners. Loaded down with even more gear, we trekked into the dogsled pens to meet our teams. 

Mike, the Photo Sherpa, would bring up the rear of the line with his team. I was third in line with my team of four dogs - Celina, Palvy, Oden, and Chicko. As we approached our teams, we saw all the equipment we needed to rig the sleigh waiting for us. First is the sled itself, which had a canvas zipper bag mounted in the frame for carrying our gear. Next were the four harnesses for the dogs and the lines and cables that connect the dogs to the sled. That’s it.

Ropes for rigging our team to the sled

Rigged and ready to ride!

I know I made it sound like a lot of equipment, but at its core, dogsledding is a minimalist sport. It is only when you take into account the wood for a lunch fire, food for the dogs, spare harnesses, food for humans, axes, etc that the sport becomes more gear intensive. Anyway, Esa showed us how to put our dogs into the harness and we built our teams.

Each team has two leaders - mine were Celina and Palvy. These dogs are more ‘mature’ - they are more experienced and you could argue the sleds are self-driving because the dogs know where to go and how to ride these trails. Celina became my pal - her charisma and attitude was addictive. The other two dogs are the muscle. They follow the leaders and help pull the weigh of the sled, though they just follow the dog butt in front of them and don’t need to think about the journey like the leaders.

My team - Palvy, Celina, Odin, and Chicko

Celina was definitely the boss during this whole affair!

Before we get any further we need to discuss the human job in this whole affair. Esa taught us the basics of working the sleigh, but you learn best by doing, and that also applies to dogsledding. The majority of the sled is for hauling gear and cargo- the human cockpit is only a small bit at the end of the sled. There are two runners - wooden slats covered in a rubber grip material, that you put each foot on, and a handle that you cling onto for dear life. 

Between the runners is a metal paddle with two spikes called the brake. When your foot isn’t in contact with the brake, springs keep it retracted and out of the way, but when you need to slow the sled, you move one foot off the runners and onto the brake, pressing down to dig the spikes into the snow to slow or stop the sled. There is no accelerator or gas - you are either braking or you are going. For longer stops, you can deploy a snow hook, which is a fancy looking boat anchor, and tie the sled to a tree so the dogs don’t pull it away. The dogs really don’t care if you are attached to the sled and ready to ride - if they can run, they will, so brake discipline is one of the first things a driver learns…. 

With my team - and two feet on the brake!

There is no steering wheel. Steering the sled is done by 1) praying your dogs won’t have the idea to run head first toward a tree and 2) leaning your body weight between the runners to counterbalance the sled. It works like a motorcycle - you have to lean into turns and curves so the sled doesn't tip over.

Driving basics out of the way, it was time to set off. I stood at the back of my sled, both feet on the brake, nervous with excitement. I won’t lie, when the snow brake and ropes had been removed, I felt a bit like someone had tied me to a rocket ship….. the only thing keeping me from blasting into space was that foot on the brake.

Driver's eye view. Shot while we're riding - and after I'd gotten a little more confident!

Go! Time for mistake #1. We had been told to ease off the brake, but having never experienced that before, it didn’t go well. Easing off was more like “let go” and the dogs rocketed out of the pen at full speed. If you have ever ridden the ‘Rockin’ Rollercoaster’ at Epcot - that’s what it felt like. I had just enough time to hear the other kennel staff yell “BRAKE” before flying out the gate, eyes bulging and knuckles white as a clung on for dear life. 

Oh shit, what have I done? These dogs love to run, and the second they are free, they explode forth. I tapped the brake, trying to get a feel for the right speed, and hoping I would survive until my next birthday. Every time I touched the brake, the sound of the spikes scratching the snow caused one of my dogs to turn and give me a look of disgust. He was probably saying “can’t you see I’m working here” and frustrated I didn’t have more respect for his efforts.

I had a few minutes of riding relative flat to collect my nerves before the next endeavor - hills. On an uphill, you need to kick like a skateboard to help the dogs up the hill. More on this later. On the downhill (with the gravity assist), the sled is faster than the dogs, so you have to brake as the sled can go so fast that you’ll run over the dogs. All of this sounds good on paper, until the execution. Going uphill sucks because it’s slow and requires me to run uphill too - something I’m not good at during the best of situations, never mind when I’m wearing 10 layers of clothes and its snowing. But downhill, which inevitably comes after the exhaustion of uphill, is where death awaits.

On our first downhill, I was convinced I wouldn’t make it to dinner without loosing a few bones and limbs. The track we were riding had been made by snowmobiles that leave the snow bumpy. When I say bumpy, I’m not fooling around. It was like a downhill slalom course covered with a million speed bumps. So here I am, still trying to find my way around the sled, being bounced down a hill trying to keep the sled from running over the dogs.

Remember when I said you have to put a foot on the brake? Putting a foot on the brake - thereby preventing the brutal crushing of your dogs, requires removing one foot from a runner. The result is that your body weight is no longer evenly distributed over the sled, so now the whole contraption wants to lean slightly to one side. 

Dogs doing what they did best!

Please form the mental image of me hanging onto the back of a sled for dear life, with one foot on a runner covered in slick snow and ice, one foot on the brake, leaning slightly and bounding down a bumpy hill. Yikes. I arrived at the bottom shocked more than anything - shocked that not only was I still alive, I still had all four dogs!

In addition to being exhausting, uphill also gave me a chance to dread downhill. On these climbs, my team would often stop pulling, turning to look at me with faces that said “could you have gone on a diet before this trip lady?” I would get off the sled and kick and jog to help push the team up the mountain, still clinging on for dear life in case they had a burst of energy that sent the team shooting up the mountain without me.

My team stopped for a break and tied up to prevent a runaway sled

We experienced a huge diversity in the scenery as we rode - some spots were densely wooded and required keen attention to make sure the dogs didn’t send you flying into a tree, while other portions of the ride took us over frozen lakes, where we could let auto-pilot-dog take over and enjoy the scenery. Likewise, the snow conditions changed as we rode - in places it was nice and flat and well compacted. Other spots were deep and soft, so the dogs looked more like they were swimming than running. These patches of soft deep snow were another death trap in disguise. 

Riding over the frozen lakes

To cool off, the dogs will take a bite out of the snow and rub their face in snow as they run. The best place to find fresh snow for eating is on the edge of the path, where the snow is a little higher from the ground. My team was all too happy to push that even further, forging their own path in the high snow so they could more easily snag a snow snack. If you have ever walked in snow and had your foot sink down further than expected as you step, then you know what is about to happen. Led into the soft snow, the sled starts to tip, and you have to lean with all your weight and might to keep it from flopping unceremoniously off the hard snow track.

Our team pulled us deep into the forest, past trees covered in fresh snow and ice, before arriving at our first stop - a small shelter for having lunch. These shelters are spread along the wilderness and are designed for communal use - they have a small area for sitting out of the weather, a fire pit, and usually an outhouse. I had been so pre-occupied with staying alive on the back of my dogsled that I didn’t realize my own hunger until we stopped at this shelter. After securing the sled dog team, we built a fire and dined on “Finland Hamburger” - a slice of pork, ham and cheese cooked in a cast iron skillet. Remarkably delicious meal, made even better by the surrounding scenery……. 

Lunch and coffee over a fire in the middle of the wilderness

As we ate, the dogs relaxed and cooled off in the snow. To my surprise, they were fairly quiet and mellow during this break - when the dogs are geared up and tied to the sled they get really animated, jumping and barking with excitement to go. Anytime we paused on the trail to re-group the dogs would immediately start howling and barking in protest, but as soon as the brake was released, a blissful silence fell over the team. So to hear the dogs be so calm while we ate came as a surprise, but I quickly learned they are smart enough to understand the immediate potential of running. When we were finished and packing up, they became animated again, knowing that a run was in their future.

Some of the incredible landscape we rode through

We set off down the track, which had turned into a mostly flat frozen lake at this point. All of my senses were in overdrive. I took in the soft sound of pitter-patter paws running in the snow and the smooth crunch of the snow running under my sled. I smelled the ice cold air, which has been tested as some of the cleanest air anywhere in the world. I felt the light undulations of the sled below my feet and realized I was getting more comfortable driving. After 20km of riding, I finally felt like I was in my groove.

After almost four hours of riding, we turned off the frozen lake and into a small piece of property situated on the snow covered banks. I parked my dog sled team and tied off to a tree before looking to Esa for instructions.

The first rule of overnight dogsledding is that you take care of your team before taking care of yourself. Human dinner would come only after the dogs were attended to and fed. We took our stuff off the sled and started to untie our team. It took about 30 minutes to get the sled dog teams broken down - harnesses off, dogs secured, and gear unpacked. These steps were pretty easy - it was a reverse of the process we’d done earlier that day. 

Caring for our team at the end of the day riding

Celina had exhausted from a day of running

Esa summoned us to follow him into the sauna to get “water for dogs.” We followed and were promptly handed a sled, two large buckets, and one smaller bucket. Pointing out toward the lake, Esa said “water for dogs.”

It was a command. Go fetch water for the dogs. Um? We looked at each other bewildered. We had just ridden over the lake - I’m fairly sure it’s frozen….. and there is no running water in the cabin we were staying at. “Do we put snow in the bucket?” we asked Esa. He scowled at us with a look of “no stupid, I said water.” Seeing that we were stumped as to where we should source water that was in a form other than snow, he pointed to the lake again and said “water for dogs.” This didn’t help. One of our teammates asked Esa if there was an axe for us to cut a hole in the ice. Again Esa frowned. Clearly that was wrong. One last time he pointed “water for dogs.” 

At this point we decided to just start walking with our empty buckets - maybe a source of water for dogs would become apparent if we started walking. Uncertain of how we were going to complete this seemingly simple sounding task, we embarked out toward the lake. Then we saw it. On top of the lake, a few feet out from the shore was a metal lid sitting on the ice. Someone had previously drilled a hole through the frozen lake, and we just hadn’t been able to see the access point until walking out to the water. Lifting the lid, we saw a thick layer of ice on the top of the lake, with a hole big enough for us to stick a small bucket through and scoop out water. Got it - water for dogs.

"Water for dog"

We plunged our hands into the freezing water to pull out enough buckets of water to fill our two larger pails. Fully loaded, we worked as a team to haul our water back to land. We chuckled at how stupid we must have sounded to Esa as we questioned his instruction of “water for dog,” but realized then that our instructions didn’t include a destination for our freshly collected water. Knowing the water was for dogs, we decided to haul it to the dogs….. We guessed wrong. A moment later Esa came out yelling that water had to go to sauna, around the other side of the cabin. I wish there had been a camera on my face that instant, because the look of confusion would be worth a million bucks. We had just gotten water for dogs, here are dogs, why are we going to the sauna?

We followed Esa’s instructions and carried the water into the sauna, where he told us the water was going to warm to make “soup for dog.” Equipping us with an axe, he sent us back outside, now to hack at a frozen slab of meat. This slab, which is chicken and pork, is literally a frozen block of meat. So we took turns hacking at the slab with the axe to pull apart the meat into smaller frozen chunks. We placed a small amount of the meat into one bucket and the remainder in a second bucket. Sensing our our confusion, Esa told us that the dogs got a two course dinner - first was “soup for dogs” then came the main entree, which is what most of the meat was for. But before the entree could be served, the now hacked meat needed to defrost in the water that was now warming in the sauna. Things were coming full circle for us, and Esa’s madness started to make a lot more sense. 

Chopping the meat block to make "Soup for Dog"

“Soup for dog” is really a generous term for the meal, as it’s mostly water mixed with a small amount of the meat and some dry kibble. Each dog got one ladle of soup into a bowl, and it quickly struck us as ironic to prepare soup, because dogs didn’t want soup. Almost all of the dogs used their nose, mouth or paw to unceremoniously dump the soup onto the ground, picking out only the kibble and meat slurry. This also explained why the snow in the area was so discolored - it wasn’t urine from dogs, it was dumped over soup from previous dog teams that had frozen. Clearly the dogs are rebelling to soup!

Before the main course, the dogs needed time to digest the soup they didn’t eat and for the main course meat to melt. So Esa gave us another task - chopping firewood for the sauna and fireplace in our cabin. The wood stored on the property was too big to put in the small sauna and fireplace, so again we were handed an axe and given something to chop. We filled the sled with wood, then dragged it to the sauna. I just made the wood chopping process sound fast, but it was slow at best. None of us have a career as a lumberjack waiting for us…..

Firewood - one of the many chores

The chores were never ending, but I found them to be the most fun chores I’ve ever done. At some point Esa handed me a large jug and again pointed to the lake, telling me to get water before adding “safe for drink.” Oh, right. The hole where water for dogs came from is the same hole where water for human would also come from. My confidence in Esa’s statement that the water was safe for us to drink wavered as I eyed the light brown tinge to the lake water. Thankfully Esa would mix the lake water with a juice mix, giving it a red hue and making it easier to forget the origin of the water.

At last the main course was ready, so we hauled the meat stew out to the dogs, who sensed the meal they really wanted was upon them. They howled and stood on their hind legs, jumping with excitement. The main, which had the consistency of a stew, was quickly devoured by all of the dogs. As we finished picking up bowls and cleaning up for the night, the dogs got ready for bed by curling into little balls and laying in holes in the ground covered with straw. According to Esa, even though it was below freezing outside, it was still warm for the dogs, and that made me feel better about having them sleep outside all night.

Stomach full, ready for bed

With the dogs tended to (we kept saying “soup for dog” and “water for dog” all night), we finally retreated into the cabin for some human rest and relaxation. The cabin is rustic, but very nice. There is no electricity or running water, but it had separate bedrooms, a large dining table, a kitchen, and an out house in the back. For me, the out house was the low point, but not because I’m a germaphobe. Using the toilet meant having to brandish bare skin in 20*F / -8*C temperatures! Thankfully waste in the toilet freezes quickly, which helped control any ode. The other problem with using an out house was that it took a lot of work to use the bathroom, so we all tried to wait until the last possible moment before bed to pee, else we had to don 20 layers of clothes for a middle of the night trip.

We sat around the candlelit table socializing and sharing tales of our adventure while Esa cooked up a meal of mashed potatoes, reindeer meat, bread, cookies, crackers, cheese, etc. It was a feast - there was nothing rustic about our dinner! As I reached for a second portion of reindeer meat, I could envision my dogs looking at me the next morning when we got to the first hill - no doubt they would be able to tell that I’d had seconds! 

With a full belly and exhausted from a day of dogsledding, we were ready for bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag and laid down to great dismay. Mike and I had chosen the bunks with the world’s thinnest mattress. In hindsight, we should have gone into the main room where there were more bunkbeds with reasonably sized mattresses, but exhaustion over took me, and I laid down. It wasn’t a very restful sleep - anytime I got cozy, the dogs would start howling outside, jerking me back to reality. By the morning, my back was pretty sore from the non-existent mattress, and back pain coupled with howling dogs only complicated the issue.

The following morning Esa told us that the dogs were unusually loud - as he put it: “Dog no sleep, I no sleep.” That makes two of us. At 2 o’clock in the morning, Esa went out to check on the dogs because they were being so noisy, and he attributed it to one of the dogs in the group that he usually doesn’t work with and belongs to another guide. This dog would start to howl, which got the rest of the dogs feeling animated. But when Esa emerged to make sure everything was okay, the dogs all fell silent…. for a few minutes. 

I was groggy from a very restless sleep, punctuated by sore back and shoulders, but dogs and dogsledding doesn’t wait for the weary! We had another feast of a breakfast and then went out to tend to the dogs before cleaning up and setting out. The dogs need time to digest their morning soup before running, but since we were seasoned pros at making “soup for dog”, it was much faster to serve than the night prior. Again, most of the dogs dumped their soup onto the ground. We moved amongst our teams, patting the dogs on the head and checking that everyone was ready to embark on the day.

Getting geared and ready to ride for Day 2

My team was exceptionally well behaved, though all of the dogs were friendly and personable. The exception was Celina - my leader. She wasn’t just personable, she had so much personality that she might have been part human. Whenever I got near her, she jumped up wagging her tail and with eyes wide hoping you were coming to scratch her ears. She loved to shove her head on my leg and lean against me in a sign of love. She’d stand on her hind legs to greet me, and was always sweet and affectionate with me. Celina was the leader of the team, and I loved having a lead dog that I could bond with so quickly.

Celina (right) was the boss

We cleaned up the cabin and started to pack our sleds to depart, which the dogs recognized. They became more animated and excited seeing us pull out the ropes and harnesses, and were happy to get suited up for the ride. The really smart dogs, like Celina, would even lift their paws as you put the harness on so you could more easily slide it on them - they were experienced pros!

We built our teams again - muscle dogs in the back were connected first, followed by the leaders. In the few minutes between building our sled dog team and the start, the dogs jumped and howled with excitement. The forest echoed with the sound of 20 dogs eager to run. At last, we picked up our snow hooks, let off the brake, and were off. The silence was immediate - the pitter-patter of paws was the only sound.

Esa told us that we’d take the same route back that we took out, because he thought the dogs ran better in the woods and forest than over large open lake, which was the alternative route. I gulped knowing that meant we’d face some of those bastard hills again, but felt far more comfortable on the sled than I had the day previous. Keeping my knees bent and hips relaxed, I absorbed the bumps gracefully, almost having fun with some of them as it started to remind me of a roller coaster. I think this is the key to dogsledding - if you are too rigid and tight, you’ll feel every bump and will be more white knuckled. But if you relax and let your body roll with the sled, it is far more enjoyable. 

Of course there are times you still have to use your body to drive - again my dogs found a high snow drift and brought us dangerously close to tipping as we caught the soft snow. I had one particularly close call with falling off the sled, which happened as I went to move my foot back from the brake to the sled runner. The rubber grip section where my foot normally rests had a big patch of ice on it, and when my foot hit the ice, it slid off. I was in the middle of redistributing my weight back to that foot, so my whole body gave out and I had to hang onto the sled with my arms as I regained my footing. For a brief moment I thought I was going to loose my grip and fly off, but I managed to recover….but if there had been a bump in the snow around that point, I almost certainly would have fallen off on the bump. As it was, Esa remarked his surprise that none of us ever fell off our sleds, and no one wanted to be the person who ruined that record!

On the way back we again stopped for lunch in a shelter, this time enjoying some pork and reindeer sausages over the open fire. We were only a few kilometers from the kennel when we paused for lunch, and the dogs knew it, so they were more restless than before. In their minds there was no reason to stop here, we were almost home! And more doggy soup awaits….

I was filled with sadness as we pulled into the kennel. I could have trekked for several more days with my team - the peace and serenity of being that deep in the forest is a sensation I rarely experience, and I wanted to savor it forever. But my dogs were hungry, and after two hard days of hauling my butt up and down mountains, they deserved some TLC.

Pulling into the kennel, the other dog teams went straight, while my team turned hard right. They have pretty good autopilot, so I let them go for a second thinking they must know another route to get to the kennel. Nope. Turns out one of the dogs on my team belongs to another guide, so he lives someplace else, and he had vetoed the other dogs and was leading us to his kennel. It took a few minutes to get sorted out and untangled, but alas, we were back.

At this point there was no doubt in my head about the intelligence of my dog team, but it was once again put on display as we took them out of their harnesses. They didn’t need to be guided back to their dens and houses - they knew where they lived. We let them out of their harness and they went home naturally. We followed behind serving a last round of dog soup and patting them on their heads for a job well done.

It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to my team, especially Celina. As I approached herkennel to say goodbye, she ran over and stood up with her paws on the fence, putting her paw on top of my hand to say farewell. I got a little choked up we linked paw / hand through the fence, and thanked her for taking such great care of me during the past two days.

The whole experience, which has taken almost 8 pages to write up, is one of the most memorable of my life. It was incredibly surreal to experience Finland and the Arctic like that, and the relationship and bond I made with my team in such a short time will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

The photos that appear in this entry were taken with the Leica SL and Leica M 240 camera (with 28mm Summaron lens). I was able to tuck the Leica M into my jacket and pull it out as we rode, snapping some of these photos on the go.

I booked my trip through Artisan Travel:

Finnish Architecture

I 100% do not consider myself an architecture photographer - but I do like to capture little details in a local culture that tell you something about the place.

Finland is a fantastic country with so many incredible places to see and explore. The people here are also unlike any others I've met anywhere else in the world - bubbly, optimistic, friendly, and nature lovers. My kind of people!

Anyway, these photos were all taken on a farm - the same farm, as a mini expose into how Finnish homes look. I think seeing these little bits of the architecture tell you more about the culture and the people who live here than a zoomed out photograph of the whole farm. 

What do you think? Can you envision their farm?

To Hell And Back: How Durable is the Leica SL?

In the year and change that I've owned the Leica SL Type 601, I've taken it around the world and tormented the camera in dozens of cruel and unusual environments. From the scorching heat of the Jordanian desert to the -20*C of Arctic Sweden (and then -10*C in Finland), the camera has seen it all.

I recently returned from the Scenic Traverse Road Trip, where I spent a month living in a van and photographing the American landscape with the Leica SL. While it never got as hot (though it did get nearly as cold) as some of our previous adventures with the Leica SL, this trip was the true test for the durability of the Leica SL.

I do not believe in babying a camera. American street photographer Jay Maisel once gave me the following advice when asked the best way to improve as a photographer:

Always carry a camera, it’s easier to take pictures that way.
— Jay Maisel

His advice is dead on, which is why I don't carry my Leica SL in a bag. I don't even use the lens cap. I took the lens cap off the Leica 24-90mm lens as soon as we got to Los Angeles for the start of the Road Trip and I didn't put it back on for 30 days and 3,682 miles. I expect my camera to be ready to shoot when I'm ready to shoot, and I am not going to coddle it along the way.

I don't even use a strap all that often, though that's partially because I don't like the strap attachment points on the Leica SL. There were days where I didn't use a strap to protect the camera from accidental falls and drops.... even when I was hiking in the middle of the river (the Narrows hike in Zion National Park). 

Look ma! No strap as I carry the camera through the famous Virgin River hike in the Narrows. Also, this drysuit isn't the least bit flattering. Photo by Seth Hamel,

This is all to say that, despite the camera and lens combination running upward of $12,000, I don't baby it or treat it any nicer than I would a $100 camera. The camera is a tool, designed to be used, and I can't be afraid of it getting a little beaten up.

Here's a quick snapshot of the abuses subjected upon the Leica SL during the Scenic Traverse Road Trip:

  1. Extended exposures to temperatures well beyond the operating range recommended by Leica Camera.
  2. Repeatedly soaked in heavy rain, without any protection or removal of collected rainwater.
  3. Banged against rocks, scraped against rocks, and otherwise brutally impacting rock.
  4. Rolling around the floor of the camera van as we drove, with no protection on the front lens glass.
  5. Completely submerged in fine sand in Death Valley's sand dunes.
  6. Caked with coarse salt in the salt flats of Badwater Basin.
  7. Coated in a fine dust from Arizona / Utah desert sands
  8. Splashed with ice cold river water while hiking the Narrows

Oops..... Hiking in Death Valley, I slid on a sand dune and landed camera first in the fine sand. The camera was 100% submerged, and this was taken while I'm still laying on the ground, but just after digging the camera out. A little shake off and we're back in business. 

So how does the Leica SL hold up to the abuse? In terms of camera function, perfectly. The Leica SL has never once failed to shoot, slowed with startup or experienced any other issue. It is rock solid reliable. You want photo, you get photo. Done.

Arguably it is the function of the camera we're most concerned with. A camera that fails to turn on, stay on, or gets upset by a little weather isn't what a landscape photographer wants to use. So where it matters most, Leica delivers. The weather sealing is remarkably good. I have accidentally dropped my camera in water and totally buried it in sand, and none of that has penetrated the outer protections of the camera body. We spent an hour shooting in a heavy downpour - where the only protection I gave the camera was to use my hat to cover the lens between photos to keep water spots off - and still, it performed perfectly.

It was pouring - really pouring - in Malibu, California as I shot long exposures of waves. I had to use my hat to cover the front of the lens between shots to keep it from getting coated in water drops, but the SL stayed on and exposed the whole time. No problem. 

But that's not to say it's perfect....

Considering how much the Leica SL costs, I am rather disappointed by the durability of the finish. I have lost a ton of paint, including white paint in the 'C' of the "LEICA" logo on the front. There are huge gashes on the side of the body and several dings that expose bare metal. Every edge of the camera has a heavy silver from loss of paint. And today I discovered some of the rubber on the grip is starting to peel and tear. 

I have attached some photos showing the dings in my Leica SL as a reference for what you can expect if you are a user of your cameras. I converted them to black and white to help with the contrast of black paint vs exposed silver metal.....

For comparison, I owned a Nikon D800 for several years and never had the finish on the body get damaged. I didn't treat the D800 any better or worse than the Leica SL, but I was able to resell it in great condition. I have had the Leica SL for 13 months, but it looks like it's been 13 years.

I don't know what Nikon and Canon do for a finish that is different from Leica, but this painted aluminum needs to be revisited before the SL 2.0 is released. The paint on my Leica M240 (black paint) and Leica Monochrom are both holding up better than the SL, so Leica's engineers need to revisit the finish. 

Would I still recommend the Leica SL? As long as you understand this camera will look used if it is actually used, then yes. But if you want a camera that can be put in a box a few months down the road and be sold for "like new" despite some use, then this isn't your camera.

Those who value performance in all weather will find it with the Leica SL. Those who value looks ought to keep shopping.

Cold Days, Geomagnetic Nights

It's time for one last European adventure!

We had to cancel our three week trek through Thailand to support our ongoing move back to the United States, which is why you haven't heard much from me lately. I've been breaking apart my studio and getting the rest of our house in order - my car gets loaded onto a boat next week and our first load of movers is just days away.

But we couldn't leave Europe without sneaking away for one last adventure. So we called the Aurora Zone and asked about being slotted last second into one of their trips into the Arctic. This is a popular time to head north, as it's peak Aurora viewing season, but we managed to snag a week in Finnish Lapland.

There will be lots of photos to come, but I'll start with the highlight, which is the Aurora. We have been very lucky this week to witness several spectacular showings of the Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are the result of solar gases hitting the atmosphere (ok, that's the overly simplified science) and aurora activity can be forecasted several days in advance by monitoring solar winds.

For the layman, scientists use the KP scale to describe the intensity, with 1 being weakest and KP9 being the best. Before this week I had only ever seen KP2/3 displays, which are most common and still pretty spectacular. But this week we had two nights of high intensity activity registering KP5! At KP5, it's considered a minor geomagnetic storm.

In the photos it's hard to tell the difference, but it's very obvious to us as spectators. An Aurora at KP2/3 is nice and green, but not as fast moving, big, or dramatic. At KP5, almost the entire sky is covered, and I have to keep moving my head and camera to where the action is most intense. 

On a slow night, the green bands don't move very fast, but on a fast night, it's like watching a ribbon waving in the sky, and the movement is very easy to see with the naked eye. Our local Finnish guides - the ones who live here and see the Aurora most often - have even been animated and excited by the spectacular displays we've had the past two nights.

Normally, I use exposures of 10+ seconds with KP2/3 storms to get enough color and intensity to make a nice photograph..... however, I have been shooting this week at 4 seconds! 

This is also the first time I've used the Leica SL for photographing the Aurora, and so far, so good! I chose the 21mm Super Elmar Lens for the task, and it's been a great choice.