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Low Light Photography

30th March 2019

It’s Dark Down There


Mammoth Cave National Park, located in central Kentucky is the world’s largest system of caves extending more than 400 miles. On a recent trip with a few of our grandkids, we stopped there for a few hours to explore some of the caves.


here are the grandkids adorning the park sign

at this entrance way we had to descend about 30 steps

We arrived at the park too late to reserve a spot on one of the various guided tours. Instead we opted to take the self-guided tour.


The beginning of the cave entrance is lighted by daylight with handrails and a cement walkway. Continue walking and the outdoor light slowly disappears.

Electrical lights provide the only illumination inside, but they are relatively dim. We were surprised by the width of the cave at this point – about 30 feet side to side.


As you can see, we’re walking alongside the cave walls. The pathway is mostly hard dirt but there are cement pavers in some parts of this cave.

At this point, the cave widens considerably and the ceiling varies between 30 and 50 feet high. You’ll also notice that this area is well lighted.


One of the park rangers points out this small bat hanging from one of the cave walls. He tells us that there were hundreds of the bats at one time but they are no longer found in large numbers.

This part of Mammoth ends after about one-quarter of a mile. As we turn around and walk back towards the entrance way you can visualize the darkness of these caves.


This short clip shows the large size of the so-called “ampitheater” within the self-guided tour cave.



The steps from the cave. The self-guided tour is an easy way to explore Mammoth when you’re time limited.

Here is the wife and grandkids relaxing after their cave diving experience.



For those interested, these photos were taken with a Sony A7 III camera using a 24-240mm lens. In most cases, the ISO setting was 16000 or 32000 and taken handheld with a shutter speed of 1/15 or 1/30 and aperture as wide as f/3.5. I think the photos are of pretty decent quality considering the cave environment.

 

 



 

 

 

 

Remote Photography Made Easy

 
At this year’s Wedding & Portrait Photography International (WPPI) trade show I made it a point to watch several live demos of drones. Why, you may ask, are there drones on exhibit at a conference dealing with photography? Well, judging from their impressive video capabilities, drones are frequently used to record weddings. Although it’s been a while since I ended my stint as a wedding photographer, I’m still quite taken by the possibilities and usefulness of drone photography.

After talking to a few of the drone sales representatives at WPPI, I purchased the Mavic Pro. This compact unit has many impressive features – foldable rotors, interchangeable battery, gimbal mounted 4K video camera, micro SD card to record images, remote controller with multiple flight modes, live streaming to your smart phone.

Following, I’ll give you a quick look at some of the above-mentioned features that I make this a worthwhile investment for my flying pleasure – and the pleasure of a few of my grandkids.


When not in use, you can fold the rotor arms. This makes it very easy to carry the Mavic from place to place. On board sensors guide its flight path away from obstacles such as trees or buildings. The Mavic’s battery is rechargeable. Each charge provides about 25 minutes of flight time. Since the battery is also interchangeable, you can carry a spare to extended your flight outings.

The built-in video camera provides very good quality images owing to the 3-axis gimbal that steadies the movies. Video images are stored on an interchangeable micro-SD card. You can also stream live video to an attached smart-phone.

You can connect your smart-phone to the remote controller. Use the controller to start and stop video recording, point the camera in a different direction or take still photos. The smart-phone screen displays the live camera imagery. Additionally, the DJI app lets you change drone settings and view vital information and statistics. Users can command the drone to follow and record a specific person or object from up to 4 miles away. Wave at the Mavic to snap a still photo of you on the ground. Or plot a course for the Mavic to fly using multiple waypoints. The controller is very capable.

Newbies can fly the Mavic using several foolproof ways to avoid crashing. Here’s my grandson taking his first flying lesson using Beginner Mode. You can see that this still photo taken remotely by my grandson demonstrates the high quality of the Mavic’s on-board camera.



Below is a series of Mavic clips that I’ve combined into a short movie. Note how smooth the video plays due to the steadying effect of the gimbal mounted camera.


 

 



 

 
The Mavic Pro sells for about $1000. For more information about the Mavic Pro please visit DJI.

 

 



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CES 2015 – The Drones

24th January 2015

The Consumer Electronics Show – Drones

 

For more than 30 years, I’ve started the New Year with a trip to the Consumer Electronics Show. CES is the premier showcase for new and innovative techie products that are in line to hit the store shelves.

This year I notice the proliferation of 3D printers and picture-taking drones at the show.

Earlier, I wrote a short article about 3D Printing Technology that I saw at CES.

There’s plenty of controversy surrounding the use drones for commercial purposes, manufacturers from around the world are gearing up for battle as they try to outdo each other on features, price, and speed to market. This article presents several of the picture-taking drones that I saw at the show.


Robotix Ghost+

This is the Ghost+ quadcopter.

Its payload is a GoPro camera mounted on a controllable gimbal and has a GPS receiver, gyroscopic controller for smooth flight, retractable landing skids and can stay airborne for 18 minutes.

The WiFi module lets you stream the video remotely to a smartphone and/or tablet.

The suggested price of the Ghost+ is $1300.

For more information about the Ghost+, please visit Thunder Tiger Group.

 


DJI Inspire 1

This is DJI’s newest model – Inspire 1. It has a bult-in gimbal-mounted 4K video camera that can be remotely positioned, real-time feed to the controller and automatic takeoff and landing.


while in the air, the landing pods fold into the “up” position for obstruction-free video recording
Price is $3400 with dual remotes – one for flight control and the other for camera control.

For more info, please visit DJI.

 


Proto-X FPV

The FPV quadcopter is equipped with a 1280 x 720p video camera.

Notice that the controller has a built-in video screen that displays the captured video in real time. It is gyro stabilized for steady movie.

The suggested price is $350.

For more info, please contact Hobbico 


Zano – the nano drone

Zano calls itself a “sophisticated nano drone”. It’s so small that it fits in the palm of your hand.

Your smartphone or tablet is the controller. Simply tilt your phone left, right, forward or backward and the Zano follows. Other onscreen icons control the altitude, rotation, capture, etc.

This is a prototype model and Zano tells me that production begins in July 2015. Price in UK Pounds £170.

For more information, please visit Zano.


 

As a former participant in the flight simulation industry, I’m in awe of the drone “landscape”.

As I watch these new models flying at CES, I am amazed at how quickly the technology surrounding drones has progressed. In addition to highly competitive prices, these devices are much easier to fly – many with auto takeoff and auto landing capability – and features such as gimbals, streaming and navigation are truly impressive.

Written by: Arnie Lee


 

For Movies on the Move

For several years now, GoPro has demonstrated the overwhelming popularity of action videos. They have built an empire of a business around its brand.

Sony’s HDR-AS100V and newer, yet slightly smaller HDR-AZ1 cameras are the center of their video system for recording action in the field. Both units pack lots of features into a very compact space: 1080p with image stabilization, stereo sound, high speed recording, 170-degree view, interval recoding, and WiFi and NFC equipped and GPS (AS100V only).

They are ruggedized and are waterproof, shockproof, dustproof and freezeproof without having to purchase additional accessories.

This AZ1 which is 2/3 the size of the AS100V, is mounted on a drone. Using an optional Live-View Remote (RM-LVR2V) which straps to your wrist you can control the AZ1, change settings and view the playback from afar.

The included Action Cam Movie Creator software lets edit your footage into complete, quality movies using the special recording features e.g. high speed recording, merging multiple clips into a single clip, etc.

 
 
There are a whole host of accessories for the Action Cam system including various camera mounts and straps for bicycling, surfing, boating, diving, snow sports and skateboarding.

List price for AS100V is $279 and for the AZ1 is $249. For more information, see the Sony ActionCam webpage.
 
 
Written by: Arnie Lee
 
 


 
 

Removing the Shakes

30th March 2014

Stabilizers for Shooting Video

As I was making my way through the 300+ exhibitor booths at this month’s Wedding & Portrait Photographers International Expo I was reminded how important video has become to this part of the photo industry.

For quality smooth videos, photographers rely on stabilizers to remove the shakes. At the lower end of the spectrum is the iPhone and GoPro. With proper stabilization, these cameras are capable of shooting very decent videos.

Tiffen has two accessories: one for iPhone and another for the GoPro Hero: the Curve and the Smoothee.


Tiffen Smoothee
Tiffen Curve

The “Smoothee” is for an iPhone

The “Curve” is a lightweight stabilizer for the GoPro Hero

The Steadicam Smoothee is a small single handle device with a quick-release mount for the iPhone. It sells for $150. For more information, please visit Steadicam Smoothee

The Steadicam Curve is specifically designed and balanced for the various models of the GoPro Hero. The price is $100 and is available in four colors. For more information, please visit Steadicam Curve

Both the Smoothee and the Curve are lightweight and allow the photographer to easily move alongside the subject while recording smooth videos.


For larger cameras, a solid tripod with a robust fluid head is most often used. But for hand-held applications, photographers will want to turn to a portable video rig.

One such rig is the Comodo Orbit.


The “Orbit” stabilizer from Comodo is designed for much larger cameras.

This is a lightweight, hand-held gimbal rig built for DLSRs

The twin grips make the rig easier to handle especially when shooting for extended periods of time. The grips also double as a floor stand. With its gimbal mount, the camera is free to pivot to its stabilized position. The Orbit sells for $1500. For more information please visit Comodo.

 
 
 
Written by Arnie Lee
 
 


A Walk around CES – Part 2

14th February 2012

More “goodies” at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

This article is a followup to Part 1 in which I describe a few of the photographic items that attracted my attention as I was scouring the venues of the Consumer Electronics Show. In this Part 2 article, I’ll show you some of the other items that I found interesting at this year’s record breaking CES.
I’m a geek at heart. And since I like touching, feeling and learning about devices and gadgets that perform some kind of magic, the miles of aisles taking up some 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space -are a playground for me. Apparently there are a few others that feel the same way; attendance at the show was north of 150,000.
My reporting covers both technology and photography. This year the Photographic Marketing Association chose to co-locate their annual convention at the Consumer Electronics Show. Since most of the major photo equipment manufacturers already exhibit at CES, it makes sense for the PMA to join forces. Having CES and PMA exhibitors at a single event makes it very convenient for reporters such as myself.

The CES management makes it easy for its exhibitors to get global press coverage by inviting hundreds of media reps to the show. As you can see here, the Press Room was teeming with throngs of reporters filing their articles.

 

OK, here goes Part 2 of the time spent at the Consumer Electronics Show.


Intel, the premier maker of microprocessors, is revving up the market for its ultrabook push. Intel supplies the chips that many computer manufacturers use to build their hardware.
When asked to define an ultrabook, one of the Intel reps described one as a thin and lightweight notebook with a long battery life which starts up (boots) very quickly. To save weight and conserve battery life, most of the ultrabooks have smaller screens (13″ to 15″) and use solid state had drives but without an optical (CD, DVD or BlueRay) drive. All of the new ultrabooks use Intel 2nd generation “Sandy Bridge” core processors.


a new Samsung ultrabook


a Toshiba ultrabook
To those of you familiar with Apple’s offering, the ultrabook most likely took its cue from the MacBook Air. In all, there were eight different manufacturers showing their own variations of the ultrabook at CES. Go here to find more information about Intel-based ultrabooks.

Another feature that will soon start appearing is dubbed WiDi – for wireless display. This new technology couples a computer to a monitor through a high speed wireless connection. At the Intel stand, a notebook computer was sending its display to a huge 52″ Samsung HD television with builit-in WiDi with no apparent delay. I found this to be pretty slick.


I was really intrigued by the Replicator. It sounds like it might be a creature from a monster movie, but it is in fact a 3D printer. A what? What’s a 3D printer?


The Replicator is a printer that spits out a plastic substance according to a pattern to create 3D objects.


Here’s a model car made by the Replicator. Note the intricate detail.


Michael Curry is holding one of the spools of plastic which are fed into the Replicator.


Here’s another very sophisticated model that was manufactured by the Replicator.
MakerBot Industries makes the Replicator. They have hundreds of free templates for making all sorts of models. Price is about $1800. O’Reilly Media features the MakerBot in a recent issue of Make Magazine in which it shows you how to make your own MakerBot.

For more information contact MakerBot Industries.


The AR.Drone 2.0 is another neat gizmo. Designed in France by Parrot, it’s a high tech hovering aircraft.


AR.Drone 2.0 is a slick remote controlled, battery powered helicopter-like aircraft. You control the AR.Drone with an iPhone. What’s unique about this craft is that it can take 720 HD, gyroscopically-damped videos. BTW, it’s fully repairable – parts are available online.


Here, representative Vanessa Loury is showing me a video taken above Paris with the AR.Drone 2.0. The price about $300.
To see some of the sample videos and more information, go to ardrone.com.

One of our companies has been involved with flight simulation for many years, so I made it over to Microsoft to see a demo of their soon to be released Flight product.


Flight starts you on the Big Island of Hawaii flying the Stearman biplane and ICON 5 sportplane. Here’s a virtual pilot approaching the airport for a landing.


The starter set will be free. Shortly, thereafter Microsoft will release reasonably priced aircraft, scenery and adventures to make Flight even more challenging.
Microsoft Flight will be available February 29 at Microsoft Games.

Another phrase that we’ve been hearing a lot about is “the cloud“. Basically, the cloud is a generic name for a secure, remote storage and data backup facility that gives you access to any of the data using various devices (e.g. computer, cell phone, tablet, etc.).

Microsoft’s entry for the cloud is called SkyDrive. Sign up for SkyDrive and you’ll receive FREE, a generous 25GB of storage.

You can backup or store files, documents and photos on SkyDrive. You can choose to share these items with others or keep them private.

Microsoft Office users can work collaboratively with SkyDrive. OneNote users can access files remotely with various mobile and desktop devices.

One limitation is that any file must be less than 100MB in size which rules out many videos.

To sign up for a free SkyDrive account from Microsoft, please go to SkyDrive.


As you can tell from both Part 1 and Part 2 of my walk around CES, I enjoyed peeking at a bunch of the new electronic gadgets that are lining up to meet the marketplace.
As far as the CES in concerned these many years, I’ve adhered to the James Taylor song “Never grow old and never die young”. I hope to report on it again in 2013.

 

Written by Arnie Lee

 


Extreme Sports Camera

06th April 2011

Review of the Eagle Eye

 

From the title, you might think that I participate in extreme sports. Hah, this is far-from-the-truth. Instead, the title is to let you know that there’s a camera that is rugged enough to be used by enthusiasts that do in fact participate in extreme sports.

Let’s move on. In a few days, I’ll be off to the Sierra Nevadas for some easy and leisurely Spring skiing.

In the past, I’ve always lugged a camera around to capture the action. This year, I’ve decided that I would try a different tact.

My goal was to find a small camera that lets me easily record the action. I wanted one that lets me move around “hands-free” like a skier instead of a photographer. So I did a little online research and decided to pick up an Eagle Eye HD sports camera.

The Eagle Eye is a compact video/still camera that comes with a bundle of accessories.

There’s both a 110 volt and an automobile adapter for recharging the battery in-camera; a second lithium battery; two adapters for mounting on different size straps; another adapter for mounting on handlebars; several adhesive cushions for mounting on a helmet; a USB cable and a mini-HDMI cable.


The Eagle Eye doesn’t look like a conventional camera.

It’s shaped like an oversized mobile phone from ten years ago. The outside case is completely rubber coated, making it less likely to injury should it take a fall.

On its face is a small 1-1/2″ LCD for and menu buttons for entering camera settings. The LCD is tiny but is a welcome feature since it lets you review your photos and videos in the field.

The menu functions are similar to most point-and-shoot cameras: set video resolution; white balance; contrast; exposure compensation; power-saving features; format the SD card; internal clock.


On top are two buttons that each have two functions.

Left: when held down for two seconds, powers the camera on/off the camera; otherwise is the shutter release for still photos.

Right: when held down for two seconds, puts the camera into review mode; otherwise is the shutter release for videos.


To make it less susceptible to water damage, the back cover is securely held is place with a tight fitting lock. You’ll have to use a bit of pressure to open the interior compartment.

Inside is the lithium ion battery and slot for a standard SD or SDHC card.

There are also two connectors: one a USB cable and the other a mini HDMI cable.


Here, I’ve used one of the included mounts to attach the camera to my ski goggles.

Given that it weighs only 6 ounces or so, it is comfortable to wear and is not obtrusive.


I took a few stills and videos to make sure that it was working.

Without further testing, I don’t think you’ll want to use this for taking those all-important wedding photos.

Here’s a still taken indoors which I’d rate as just “acceptable”.


However, I am more impressed with the test HD video video. The resolution is a full 1920 x 1080 pixels. The faces are totally in focus and the action smooth.

 

 


My experience with Eagle Eye HD so far is based on an hour or so of becoming familiar with its use.

I’ll complete the review of this camera after I return from my ski trip. I hope to have the results in ten days or so. As already mentioned, since I’m not an extreme sportsman, I may have my two expert-skiing sons help with the review.

 

Coincidentally, I purchased the Eagle Eye from Stuntcams.com. They are located in Grand Rapids only a few miles from our offices where Mike gave me the run-down on this camera. It sells for $249. Stuntcams.com also sells many other sports cameras.

 

Please note that Stay Focused has no connection to Stuntcams.com.

 

Written by Arnie Lee

 


Unique Features of the Sony Alpha A55

The Sony Alpha A55 has a long list of features – some of which you may find in a few other cameras and others that are unique only to the A55. But taken together they they make the A55 a very compelling piece of equipment.

In Part 1, I talked about the “standard” features of the A55.

In this part of the review, I’ll key in on several of these features that are both unique and innovative.

The first three features are possible because of the A55’s translucent mirror.


Electronic Viewfinder

The first time I used the A55, I was surprised when I put my eye up to the viewfinder. In place of a conventional reflex viewfinder used in DSLRs, the A55 has an electronic viewfinder (EVF). The resulting image is somewhat similar to what I might see on a miniature television.

A big advantage is that the image in the EVF can be overlaid with a variety of information as you can see below.


viewfinder displaying the level gauge in the center

viewfinder displaying histogram at bottom right

viewfinder showing changeable settings
Having used a dozen or more DLSRs extensively, it took me about a week to get used to the EVF. As a wearer of eyeglasses I was able to set the built-in diopter adjustment correctly for my vision. The image is bright and clear owing to the 1.1 megapixel viewfinder screen, a high refresh rate (60fps). The EVF also has 100% field coverage. I especially like the level gauge that helps to align the horizon.

(more…)

On my latest cross country drive to deliver my Mom’s car to Phoenix, I broke the 2000 mile journey into two parts. Here’s why.

For years I’ve been reading and hearing about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It’s known as one of the best places in the USA to watch birds, especially those who have migrated there from the northern latitudes for the winter. Since the route from Grand Rapids to Phoenix passes close by, I decided to detour slightly.

Part one of the journey was 2-1/2 days traveling from Grand Rapids to Socorro, NM and visiting Bosque. Although I was in the NWR for only 16 hours or so, I totally enjoyed the wildlife and outdoor. You can see some of the photos from short stay at Bosque here.

Part two of the journey was the remaining 380 mile ride between Socorro and Phoenix. As I was planning for the drive a few days before the trip, I noticed a place on the map with a funny name “VLA”. When I googled it, I found it to be an acronym for Very Large Array. It’s a set of huge radio telescopes 50 miles west of Socorro on US Route 60, the preferred highway to Phoenix. It sounded interesting, so I decided that this would be another stop after Bosque del Apache.

On Friday morning I was on the road by seven and heading west on US 60. An hour later, I saw an amazing group of what appeared to be white dishes sitting on the high desert.



The VLA is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory


The array consists of 27 antennas mounted on tracks to enable repositioning.

You may recognize these antennas if you’ve seen the 1997 movie “Contact” starring Jodie Foster about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. I don’t know if the NRAO found any, but they were definitely pointing the dishes away from Washington, DC. I’m not sure what that means. 🙂

 
At the visitor’s center I followed the self-guided walking tour of the VLA.
The 1/2 mile walk afforded me time to take a few snapshots of the impressive machinery that gazes the universe.

I watched as the 27 antennas rotated together similar to a synchronized dance.

Below is a short video of the antennas.



Each dish is 81 feet in diameter


Jack is another VLA visitor
 

 

After spending two hours at the VLA, it’s time to go. The road takes me over some easy mountain grades. Shortly after reaching the New Mexico-Arizona state line I spot several large black birds making circles overhead. I stop the car, retrieve my camera and begin shooting when I notice a dozen much larger birds flying much higher.

Seeing their white heads, there’s no mistaking that these are bald eagles! Although they are above a field a few hundred yards away, I have such a wonderful feeling watching these majestic creatures soar the skies.





Heading west again it’s more high plains and scrub. At Show Low, US 60 turns south and descends into the Salt River Canyon, another gorgeous part of Arizona.



small drop off along the Salt River


scenic view at the top of the canyon


one of many mesas typical of the area


colorful surroundings in the canyon
The next town is Globe about 90 miles from my final destination. An hour and a half later I’m approaching Phoenix. It’s still early enough in the afternoon so I’ve avoided the heavy commuter traffic.

Mom’s house is slightly east of Phoenix. I pull into her driveway about 4pm completing the 2000 mile drive. I’m relieved to be out of the car. Mom’s there to greet me – she arrived earlier in the day via a flight from Grand Rapids. With the delivery of her car, she now has wheels for her winter stay.



grapefruit growing in Mom’s yard

To make the travel more interesting, I’ve been able to break up this long cross-country drive into a series of short “photo trips”. I hope that you enjoyed some of these sights as much as I enjoyed visiting them.

I’ll be writing about a few of my next photo trips soon. I’m off the the southwest again in two days.

Last Friday Mom flew from Grand Rapids to Phoenix as many other snowbirds do for the winter. I volunteered to deliver her car to Phoenix so that she’d have wheels for her six month stay. To make my drive more productive, I turned the 2000 mile journey from Grand Rapids into a mini photo trip.

Just as many retirees make the trek to warmer climates in the late fall, so do many northern birds. One of their gathering spots is the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I leave Grand Rapids on Tuesday at noon (ahead of Mom) and set the destination in my GPS for Socorro, New Mexico – about 90 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Eight hour later as I’m passing through St Louis, I’m attracted to the night time lights of the Gateway Arch. I exit the interstate and head towards the Mississippi River where I find a place to park my car adjacent to the river front. Here’s what I see:



Four Seasons casino and resort


the Gateway Arch


After 30 minutes I’m in the car and back on the interstate. My next stop is a rest area in Oklahoma near the Texas state line at 3am. I grab a few hours sleep in the car until I awake from the cold. Drive on. Approaching Amarillo, I spot an unfamiliar aircraft circling the airport. Then I recognize it as a V-22 Osprey doing touch and go maneuvers. I pull off at the next exit and grab my camera with a long lens.



V-22 Osprey doing touch and go’s


what a beautiful looking aircraft

On the road again, it’s a pleasant drive on a warm, sunny day across the high plains and farm lands of New Mexico. For the next few hours I pass by towns with great names: Tucamcari, Cuervo, Santa Rosa, Moriarity, Albuquerque.





The final leg is south on Interstate 25 to Socorro about 1500 miles and 28 hours from Grand Rapids. I check into the Howard Johnson motel, drop off my suitcase and hop back into the car for the short 30 miles trip to Bosque del Apache. My goal is to be able to see the sunset at Bosque.



Nat’l Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center


sandhill cranes feeding in the marsh


coming in for a night landing


alone again

The next morning I’m up at 5am to arrive at Bosque again to experience the solitude of dawn.



dawn arriving at the north pond


early morning flight

From here on, I’ll skip the text and show you some of the snapshots



small flock of snow geese


northern pintail enjoying the pond


juvenile northern harrier scanning for food


sandhill crane touching down


high flying adult northern harrier


gorgeous warm and sunny day at the NWR


spectacular flyout by thousands of snow geese


this harrier scared an awful lot of snow geese

 

 


Here’s a short video of the flyout

 



duckling enjoying a swim


sandhill crane moving in late afternoon
Although I had only 16 hours to explore Bosque, I thoroughly enjoyed this amazing outdoor environment. I dispensed with the typical hiking clothing and footwear; although unpaved, the park roads, hiking trails and boardwalks are well cared for.

While there, I shared the refuge with several hundred other nature lovers – some with binoculars or scopes and others will ample photo equipment. I’ve already seen some of their photos on Flickr. Go to flickr.com and search for the Bosque del Apache group.



warm and sunny day at the NWR

While my stay at Bosque ended on Thursday evening, I awoke on Friday to complete the drive to Phoenix. I had a much shorter 350 mile drive ahead of me and again I turned it into another mini-photo trip. More about the Socorro to Phoenix leg in my next episode.