Friday, July 21, 2017


Today marks our last week in Europe. One week from this morning we will begin our last day here, a morning, afternoon, and night. Then the next day this will all be over, we'll tidy the house one last time, load the baggage in a rental car, pack the cats up in their carriers, and board a plane out of Frankfurt for the last time. The end.

These last couple of weeks have been kind of rough. Everything is all set for us in the US; we have a house, phone numbers, utility accounts, etc. Extracting ourselves from Germany has been less simple, frustrating even. It's like at the end of a movie, when the last lines of the credits disappear at the top of the screen and the house lights come on. There's no point in sitting in the theater any longer, the magic is over and it's time to go home. Trouble is, we're still stuck here, with few belongings in a house that no longer feels remotely like home amongst people we feel no connection with. The days are punctuated by one move out crisis after another- the landlord refuses to cooperate on a meeting time, the painter needs to make an estimate, the people coming to buy our appliances have changed their minds. The in between time is hours reading and watching Netflix on an air mattress in a house darkened against the summer heat, a place of limbo. The Company said we had to stay until the end of July, so that's what we're doing.

But, this is also a time for remembrance, a chance to look back at the highlights of this experience, jot them down, and honor the moments and places that have made all the frustrations worth it. So, over this last week I'm going to dust off my notes, dig through my photo archives, and share some of my favorite places and memories with you. I'll cover a different place each day over on my Instagram account, but I'll present them all at once for you here in this post. Without further ado, here are the highlights of the last 5.5 years:

Norway: Bridge to Another World

The first time I left the United States I went to Norway. As soon as I returned, I wanted to go back. Norway sparked a love for travel that I've never been able to shake. When I finally did return in 2015, it was just as I remembered. It is a land of fast waters, lofty mountains, deep valleys that plunge into  bright blue fjords, hillsides dotted with red barns, cliff sides dotted with turf roofed cabins, a place the sun never really sets in summer, and a country filled with cheerful, kind, and beautiful people. It started it all for me, it was a bridge to another world and another life. Going back opened the imagination even further. The road through the Jotunheim was just as stunning as I remembered. The waters were just as clear. The fogs were just as mysterious. Norway will stay with me the rest of my life, as all things that change our lives do.

Moments from Norway I don't want to forget: walking in Otta after midnight because we could, getting our butts kicked by Grandma Badass hiking the Vidden trail, Diam in the ice cream, cheese filled/bacon wrapped/fried onion topped hotdogs on a ferry, getting our precious Kvikk Lunsj bars stolen by seagulls in Odda, the longest tunnel in the world (at the time) with those blue caves along the way, dinner from a gas station, the Fram, the smoky smell of stave churches.

Lisbon: Best Kept Secret

We went to Lisbon to escape the chilly atmosphere of Germany and because all those tiles looked incredible. We ended up in awe of its soul. I have never been in a city like Lisbon before. It is stunningly beautiful, of course. The architecture, the people, and the very streets themselves were an endless photographic journey. The food was a revelation. Lisbon has all the things that make a great European capital worth a visit, but it has something that no other city on this continent has: the Lisboetas themselves. Never once in all these years have we entered a city  inhabited by such warm and wonderful people. Coming from Germany, the climate and food were shock enough, but the locals' hospitality and kindness hit us like a splash of cold water on a hot day. From waiters, to shop keepers, to doctors, to people we passed on the street, they were all overwhelmingly kind and gracious. We never felt as welcome in a city as we did in Lisbon, it was absolutely gut wrenching to leave. If anyone asks me what is the best place in Europe to visit that few people ever go to I will always answer Lisbon. Be warned, however, you may not want to leave either.

Moments from Lisbon I don't want to forget: that first pastel de nata, sunsets from mirados, vinho verde, watching a soccer game in the park, lunch in the market, watching the day end at Belem Tower during that rock music festival, the kid with the water, "Santa Maria!", the emergency room, getting my sight back, ginja in the little chocolate cups, music coming from somewhere every night.

Belgium: Dear Kindred Spirit

Oh, Belgium, Belgium, you weird, wonderful mess, you. Belgium was our refuge for many years while we lived in Luxembourg. It was a place of misty forests, bike races, amazing beer, bizarre encounters; a place where the unexpected should always be expected. It was a country where we had our worst travel disappointments and favorite little revelations.  I think I love Belgium, both halfs, because it reminds me of where I'm from. Except for the microcosm of Brussels, a bustling international city, Belgium feels slightly trapped in another time and slightly left behind. The roads are full of holes, abandoned homes and factories fill the towns and cities, the population is mostly working class, the countryside feels wild and untamed, the majority of cities are past their prime, slow moving canals run along old streets- some reeking of the garbage floating on  their surfaces. The bars in small towns are inhabited by silent old cantankerous men who suspiciously eye  you over Jupiler beer. The cities are layered in generations of grime and all the other tattered trappings of failing modern societies. But, if you spend a little more time there and peer around the corners, you'll find an  art market in a small warehouse, jazz clubs down alleys,  small independent theaters, craft breweries,  and on occasion someone playing Brahms on a piano at midnight in a city square. Sure, Belgium may seem like it's dying a slow death, but under the surface it is very much still alive and kicking, just like the "Rust Belt" back home. I recognize Akron, Cleveland, Youngstown, and Toledo in Ghent, Liege, Arlon, and Antwerp. They were comforting and familiar, and could be a marvel if you let them, just like my hometown.

Moments from Belgium I don't want to forget: every single bike race we got to watch from its roadsides, paper cones of golden frites with mayonnaise, renting that guy's  basement in Spa to go cycling only to have every road closed for a rally car race, having Kwaak in the proper glass for the first time, buying cheese at Orval, peering over walls in Rochefort, talking with the Estonian diplomats during the Brussels beer festival, every single night in Ghent, gnomes around Houfflaize, the brothel run by the 12 year old Chinese kid in St. Hubert, every single meal at L'Ancienne Hopital, cycling to Bruges, trying to rent a van in Liege, sugar waffles, pralines, buying more beer than we could ever hope to finish.

Italy: Land of Light and Life

We could always count on Italy to come through, no matter where in it we ended up. It was always as beautiful, exciting, and as fun as we hoped it would be. It was  easy to kick back and enjoy life in. Rome floored us with the weight of its legacy and countless layers of history. Congested and chaotic it wrapped us up in blankets of memory. Rome has always been and will always be. Florence, hurried and gilded kept us at a distance, but little Lucca made up for all the bustle with its peaceful squares, and hidden alleys. Countless villages passed on back road routes were pulled from postcards. Then, there was Venice. Venice was a tapestry, the light was ethereal, the sounds muffled, the pace slow and yet still hectic. It was a pleasure to photograph and I only scratched the surface of possibility. But, most special was little Sorico on the shores of Lake Como, a haven, a refuge from the world and home to some of the nicest people we've ever met. And, of course, Italian food is the best in the world, from toe to calf the eating is incredible all along the boot. Despite what the French might say, the Italians have mastered food and wine and coffee. The rest of us are just trying to catch up.  

Moments from Italy I don't want to forget: getting off the highway somewhere on the way to Florence and getting sorta kinda lost, gelato every day, pizza on park benches, cannoli in Rome, learning to love wine again,  freezing for dawn photos in Venice, Christmas in Venice (for crying out loud), having St. Paul's to ourselves, realizing Fernet Branca sounds cooler in the Dark Knight script than it tastes in real life, all the flowers, appreciating the Italians' gift for the public argument, that cafe for fisherman in Burano, dawn at the Spanish Steps, naps in the heat of the day, finding abandoned palaces in the hills, the tunnels, Madonna del Ghisallo, Fausto Coppi's hometown, discovering the moka pot, dawn arriving over the Forum, afternoon thunderstorms, every single meal Mama Angela made and her tiramisu too.

Iceland: Be Still My Heart

Several people I know have visited Iceland this year, and I'm thrilled they did. It's one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. Even after seeing it, you may not believe it. There's a reason Iceland stands in for other planets in the movies. You could almost swear it was. Even now I can't quite put the place into words. I believe Scandinavia is one of the most beautiful regions on earth, and Iceland is  most certainly the jewel in its crown. There are waterfalls that create  rainbows, basalt columns rising out of the earth, black sand beaches, moss covered fields of lava, glaciers miles deep with chapels carved out of them, and its  capital city is a place covered in color. And, then  in the winter there is this incredible nightly show that cannot be matched by anything else  created in  nature or created by man. It is a place so incredible it catches your breath. Your heart skips a beat. If any spot on earth could light  a passion of love for this planet it is Iceland. If you haven't been, go. Go now.

Moments I don't want to forget from Iceland: super Jeeps everywhere, discussing the pros and cons of  eco tourism with a couple of Poles and our Icelandic guide, that trip up the Jokulsarlon glacier and then going into it, really expensive but delicious IPAs, that bar that was only playing old MTV music videos, dinners at gas stations, little hairy ponies running alongside the bus, a beach of ice sculptures, the Viking longhouse under our hotel, seals playing in the lagoon, almost getting blown away in  the wind, using crampons, all too brief days, risking frostbite because I couldn't stop watching and photographing those waves and waves of color and light.

Ireland: Balm for the Soul

Ireland was the hardest to leave, the one place I could honestly see staying in forever. There's no way we would have ever stayed in Luxembourg or Germany for the long term. We and our expat bases  couldn't make it together forever, we're too different. But, Ireland felt that it could be home. Why? Sure, it helps that we could speak the language for a change, and yes, that scenery is so beautiful it almost hurts. But, like Lisbon, it was the people that pulled us in. The Irish are a special people, they're open, real, and welcoming. You can walk into a restaurant or a bar and there's no staring or silent judgement, they smile and talk to you like you belong there. That's one of the main things that I miss about home in Ohio, friendly people up for a chat. Keep in mind, I'm an introvert, so missing random conversation is really saying something. Being in Ireland was a balm for the soul. On top of being genuinely lovely folks, they were pretty fantastic cooks and musicians too. And, then there were those green rolling hills, misty evenings, flash rain falls, wildflowers, ruins, and sheep. If ever I disappear, look in Ireland first.

Moments I don't want to forget from Ireland: reuniting over crab claws and pints with a friend and spending time with her family, getting a little lost in Dublin, staying in the famine cottage outside of Cahersiveen, the solstice at the ring fort, talking basketball and LeBron James at Mike Murts, talking/coping with  Brexit with the guide at Tullamore D.E.W.,  live music and spilled  pints in  Doolin, learning about whiskey from the old guy at the liquor store, seeing the Skelligs across the water, climbing up into the rain and over fences to find a wedge tomb, getting lost in the mountains and then having to wait for the cows to move so we could turn around, learning there's a better way to see the Cliffs of Moher, yelling "Hedge!", the Burren at sunrise, the sea wind off the coast, breaks in the clouds, flicking Trump off when we drove by his golf course, laughing with just about everyone we met, lunch at Tom Crean's amidst portraits of him,  Shackleton, and clippings about polar exploration, finally seeing Newgrange, feeling like (for once) we belonged.

Paris: City of Cities

There is nothing I can say about Paris that hasn't already been said. For those who have spent some time in Paris, the city is their own. Paris is our own, it is our Paris, not anyone elses. It's complicated, mystifying, intimidating, inspiring, pure white and yet dirty. It doesn't give itself up to you easily, you have to come back again and again to peel back the crafted surface to see its  insides. Then you come back again and it's the same but also completely different. Paris was our place, and we'll always have it, as the saying goes. I'm blessed to have stood beneath the Eiffel Tower in the middle of the night before terrorism made such an experience unattainable. We had our hotel and our cafe. We knew the city's rhythms for a while and that is good enough for me. You can't fully know Paris. In many ways it exists on its own plane. But, you can go and it will be there, different and unchanged. No city is like it, nothing could ever be.

Moments from Paris I don't want to forget: that last time at Cafe Central complete with absinthe and escargot, Hotel de Paris Invalides, the little studio we rented at Christmas with all the books on art, sunshine on the golden dome of Les Invalides, tangos spied on the banks of the Seine, choco pain and cappuccinos, that slap stick comedy routine we did on Rue Cler, the smell of the Metro, endless hours in flea markets, hot dogs in baguettes, the sewer museum, seeing Saint Chapelle for the first time, freezing under the bridge across from Notre Dame, knowing where everything was (for the most part), people watching in Gare d'Est, those stairs to that studio we rented at Christmas, Christmas in Paris (for heaven's sake), boat rides in the dark, the Eiffel Tower every night on the hour.

The Alps: Home to My Dreams

The Alps. They will always have my heart. It doesn't matter if they're the Swiss, the French, the Austrian, the German, or the Italian Alps. I love them. Ok, the ones in Switzerland may be my favorite. There are beach people and there are mountain people. I'm 100% a mountain person. Give me rocky peaks, snow, unpredictable weather, rolling mist, waterfalls, and deep and green valleys over sand, sea, and sunshine every single time. I want my landscape to scare me a little, keep me humble. I want a landscape I can't take my eyes off of.  The Alps are an  especially unique mountain range because people live there and have lived there for thousands of years. Walk down the trail a ways and you may find yourself in a town or at a hut with a micro brewery. It's a civilized but completely uncivilized place. The Alps are shockingly beautiful, comfortable, and terrifying.  I don't know if we will ever get to return to all these other places, but I deeply hope we will get to come back to the Alps someday. I will miss them dearly.

Moments from the Alps I don't want to forget: that horrible and wonderful climb up Legnone, making the turn into Lauterbrunnen for the first time, self serve cheese on the side of the road in Switzerland, Franks' place, that schnapps sampler, chicken fajitas, raclette for dinner four nights in a row, driving the switchbacks from Italy to Switzerland, meeting goats and marmots, watching climbers in Chamonix, hiking all day to beer, the traditional giant Toblerone bar every time, buying vignettes, hiking in the dark to watch the sun ignite the peak of the Matterhorn, cow bells, old men in felt hats, honor shops, the north face of the Eiger in all its glory, the crack of an avalanche high above.

What about Germany and Luxembourg, you ask? Well, those places deserve more than a blurb. I'll get to them in due time.

Then there are all the other moments in all the other places I don't want to forget either: tacos in Edinburgh, going to where they buried my ancestor's leg bone in Caen, saying hi to kings and queens and other important folks buried in Westminster, getting horribly ill on the beaches of Normandy, apocalyptic  weather in Barcelona, almost getting stuck in Bratislava, having disappointing cake in Vienna, midnight trains to Prague, finding THE picnic spot from To Catch A Thief and having chicken and beer there too, Eze, lavender fields, swimming in the Med with that octopus, ruin pubs in Budapest, "The foulest thing in the room!", Sunday roast dinners, Stonehenge, caipirinhas in Dresden, randomly driving through the town my paternal grandfather's people are from in Austria, walking into Austria that other time because it was right there, taking The Dog just about everywhere we could, calvados, meeting friends of friends in a Newcastle bar and getting trashed with them, staying in that old bakery near Valkenburg, going to the Tour de France, feeling the power of  the Arenburg Trench, eating the marrow because no one else would, cycling in Ærø, being kids at Legoland, a train ride from Scotland to England, and, and, and...

It sure has been fun!      

Monday, June 26, 2017

Where We're At

An iPhone shot of the field from last week. Not a
bad place to start most days from.
This morning I set up my tripod in the fairground area across from our house for what is likely the last time I shoot a landscape in Europe. It wasn't in a famous location or a spot that is particularly remarkable in the German countryside. Instead, it was to shoot a view of home. It's a view of a big hill on the other side of the river with the fairground field in the foreground. This field is where we've been walking our dog for the last 3.5 years. The view of that unremarkable field and the unremarkable hill across the river has been the view from our house, a view we've had in our lives longer than any other. It was important to me to capture it during a sunrise. In a month we'll pull away from this house and our street and this town and we'll probably never see that view again, at least not at that time of day. I think we often take these types of places for granted and sometimes we see them so much we forget that there might come a time we will never see them again and then we may forget them. I've lived in a lot of places and I have photographs from all of them. But, they're mostly all snapshots. It wasn't until we moved to Europe that I thought to document the towns and homes we lived in with a little more care. So, this morning I officially closed out my European photographic journey with shooting a place that means a little more to me than some bright city or sweeping landscape elsewhere. It isn't that exciting compared to all those other places I photographed, but every time I looked out a window at home at this view or walked The Dog in the field, I said a little thanks for being given time to live in this beautiful, simple place.

After I came inside this morning, I packed up most of my equipment. Saturday morning we're flying back to the US. We're going for a week to finalize our housing in Akron and take care of a lot of logistical stuff. We're also taking The Dog back and he will be hanging out with my parents who graciously offered to care for him until we finalize the move at the end of next month. That way we will be able to take Cats 1 & 2 in the cabin with us on that last flight instead of putting them in the hold. The Dog will be riding under the seat on Saturday's flight and my computer, backup drives, all of my cameras, lenses, and other misc gear will be riding under the seat next to him. The "powers" that be in Washington are threatening to make passengers check their laptops on flights from Europe to the US like they did earlier this year with flights coming from Muslim majority nations. I want to get my laptop out of here before that goes into effect. We have a moving company shipping nearly all of our belongings, but I certainly don't want my equipment crossing the ocean on a tanker or in the hold of a cargo plane. So, it all has to come back under the seat on Saturday. No important equipment will be checked, of course. All that will remain in Germany to use during our last few weeks here is my X70 and a Gorillapod.

These next few days I'm going to be cramming in as much editing from our trip to Zermatt as I can and I'll probably continue to work on that while we're in Akron next week. But, we have a lot to get organized for the move too and time will be tight. Whatever I don't get to is going to wait until we are done with the move. I'm not going to have my computer for 3 weeks! So, there's a good chance this will be the last blog post for a while, but I'm hoping to keep posting with my tablet right up until the end. There's definitely going to be a lull in new photograph uploads to the website, though. I hope you'll bear with me!

After we return next weekend, we'll be in Germany for three more weeks. They will be shipping nearly everything we own right after we come back from Akron so we'll be sharing an air mattress on the floor with the Cats and eating a lot of carry out on paper plates. It's going to be like camping in someone else's house because it won't feel like ours anymore. In fact, it doesn't feel like home anymore now. All the art is off the walls, we have piles of stuff everywhere- some for the boat, some for air cargo, some to take back next week, some to donate/throw out (massive hassle on that front, by the way), and some to keep here. It's a mess. International moving is like regular moving except about ten times more stressful. Every single thing has to be kept track of, accounted for, and organized- right down to the toilet paper and cat litter. It's hard to believe that by the end of Summer this will all be behind us and we won't have to move again for hopefully a very, very long time.

So, just wanted to touch base, but I really need to get back to editing. Time is short.


Friday, June 9, 2017

All Good Things...

"We shall not cease from exploration. 
And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive
Where we started and know the place for the first time."

~T.S. Elliot

It's Friday morning. I'm listening to some music and making plans, organizing, packing, and cleaning up my office. I'm sorting out the stuff I will need over the next month and boxing up the things I won't. The studio lights and drop clothes are folded up and stacked in the corner. I gave away a couple of old camera bags last week. I've separated out the power strips and plugs for European voltage from the ones that work with North American circuits. Bank accounts are being closed, kitchen gadgets are being given away, and old broken stuff is getting thrown out.  Our bicycles are clean and oiled, and the cycling gear is sorted back into the boxes in which they arrived. After 3.5 years of living on the quiet banks of the River Main in Lower Franconia (the longest we've ever lived anywhere), it's time to move again.

My husband is being relocated back to Akron, Ohio at the end of July to take a new position at The Company so The Dog, Cats 1 & 2, the bicycles, the cameras, and myself are going back too. We're going back to where we all started, but it's not the same and neither are we.

Five and a half years is a good run. It is almost double the time we were supposed to be on this assignment. We've seen and done far more than we ever hoped to do. We've met some amazing people who changed our lives. They will be friends we'll love forever, no distance or amount of time will change that. We've seen countless incredible views. We've had some incredible meals. My husband has become nearly fluent in German. I can read, speak, and understand a little French when I have to. We've gone to a few European bike races. We've visited 20 countries. We know Paris almost as well as we know Akron. We've learned more than I could ever put into words. The world we understand now is not the world we thought we understood before.

I can confidently say I will never live in a place as beautiful as this river bank for the rest of my life. I will be forever grateful that I had the chance. Every single day that we've lived in Europe, even the days that absolutely sucked, were a gift we wouldn't trade for anything.

But, it's time to say goodbye. It's time to go home. And, we're ready.

Five and a half years is a long time. I used to say, "Home is where your stuff is." As time has passed though, I realized that home really is where your heart is, and that's usually where your people are. We've really been missing our people- family and friends. Every time we go back to Akron for a visit, that feeling has been stronger and stronger. I won't deny that I was looking forward to getting out of Akron for a while when we moved to Luxembourg in 2011. I'm so glad I did, because in addition to all the things we got to experience over here, now I have a much deeper appreciation for my hometown. As it worked out, a lot of things that frustrated us before are either gone, fixed, or are being improved. And, the veil has been lifted from the things that have always made Akron a wonderful place to live. We see where we're from with new eyes. So, now we look forward to returning, settling down and living in a house longer than we've lived anywhere before. Sure, it's not Paris, or a sleepy German village, or the Alps, or County Kerry, or sunny Portugal, but Akron is home and it's the place this road was meant to end, the final destination.

So, for the next seven weeks things are going to be pretty insane around here. At least this isn't the first time we've done an international move. We have one final photo trip to make- the Swiss Alps where I will hopefully get a few good final shots from Europe. Shortly afterwards we'll pack up all my camera gear and The Dog and fly to the US for the first round of moving. We'll be there for a week getting things in order like cell phone contracts and hopefully getting the keys to a house we've been in the process of purchasing since we were in Akron last month. The Dog is going to hang out with some long suffering family members while we return to Germany for a few more weeks to oversee the packing of the rest of our earthly belongings and tie up any loose ends. Then, on the final weekend of July we, Cats 1 & 2, and four suitcases will fly back to the United States for good. The journey will be over.

And, then the next one will begin.

We're really excited to start the next chapter. My husband is thrilled to start a new job that will be taking full advantage of his personal skills and his unique work experience of the past 5.5 years. I have about 3 dozen photo projects I've been looking forward to starting once we're back in the States. We're super excited to be moving into a house of our own in the heart of the city we love. While I cannot speak for them entirely, I think the cats are looking forward to a time of life that involves lounging in windows with bug screens and the promise they will never have to stay at a cattery again. The Dog can't wait to have a proper yard. I'm looking forward to being able to do all our laundry in one day instead of an entire week. I'm not going to lie to ya, I'm also looking forward to having a car again. You can only photograph so much from the bicycle. It will also be a relief to no longer be local curiosities, to be able to understand what's going on (well, to a point anyway), and to be a part of a community again.

Are we going to miss jumping on the train to go to Paris for the weekend or driving down to the Alps for a little hiking? You betcha. But, there was a time in our lives that those things were normal and that's more than I ever could have asked for. A dream has been lived and now we'll carry it with us for the rest of our lives.

All good things come to an end, and that's part of what makes them good.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Vatican City Tips & Tricks

Vatican City is the smallest independent country in the world, but this tiny nation inhabited by priests, nuns, and cardinals (not to mention the Pope) can overwhelm the visitor. Because of the Vatican's religious significance to millions all over the globe, it is one of the most popular places to visit for those going to Rome. While many come to participate in religious services, many more come to see the artistic marvels of the Vatican Museums and to stand within the greatest cathedral of them all- St. Peter's Basilica.  Whatever your interest in visiting the Vatican may be, here are some tips and tricks for maximizing your visit.


The Vatican Museums get as packed as Times Square on New Years Eve on pretty much any given day of the year. There's really no way to avoid the crowds, but if you play your cards right you can at least get ahead of the sluggish tour groups to enjoy the museum collections in peace. Some people prefer to wait until the afternoon to go, since many of the large groups will have been and gone by then, but I heartily recommend booking ahead online for the earliest time slot- 8:30. There's more than one reason why.

If you visit the Vatican Museum online ticket office you can book your tickets ahead and this will save you tons of time, especially if you book for an 8:30 slot. Once you arrive at the entrance the voucher you printed ahead of time will let you bypass the main line, head straight through to security (day bags are allowed in the museum, but not suitcases, etc), and go directly into the ticket office of the museum where the voucher is exchanged for actual tickets.  Next, muscle through the tour groups waiting for their guides, scan your ticket in the turnstile, then ride the escalator up into the museum.

I'll get back the museum in minute. Next, I'll fill you in on why you really should book that 8:30 time slot.

2. Visit St. Peter's When It Opens, Before You Go to the Museums

Trust me, that early morning wake up and walk to the Vatican (or taxi or bus ride) is worth it. Even if you're one of those people that normally refuses getting up early on vacation, please, please make the effort for your visit to St. Peter's.

We walked from our apartment to Vatican City on our first morning in Rome. As you know, if you've read my other posts, we always get up early when visiting a city to photograph and it's one of our favorite things to do. But, this morning it was even more enjoyable. We didn't stop along the way to take many photographs because we wanted to arrive at the basilica as close to 7:30 as possible. It just so happened that as soon as we approached the city the sun was just starting to break over the horizon- lighting up the front of the basilica in orange and pink light.

Panorama of St. Peter's Square at sunrise

Looking back down Villa della Conciliazione

No one was around except a half dozen fellow early risers and security guards. We were able to walk right through security without waiting at all and continue to St. Peter's as if we were the only people in the city.

If you want to photograph the Swiss Guards without throngs of competition, this is the time
Since the basilica opens at 7:30 and we were booked at the Museums at 8:30, we only had an hour to see the basilica, climb the dome, and walk to the museum (the entrance is on the outside of the city walls and a 20 minute walk from St. Peter's Square). However, that short amount of time is of a much higher quality than a 2 hour visit would be later in the day.

It's just going to be you and the priests and nuns. If you're lucky they will be holding mass in one of the chapels. Hearing a choir in the incredible space of St. Peter's is a moving experience, whether you're catholic or not. We could freely roam around the church and enjoy the space in quiet and solitude.

As we entered, the sun lined up through one of the open doors, sending a beam of intense white light down the full length of the basilica.

You can see in the above photographs that there were hardly any other people there at this time. We walked through the basilica in about 15 minutes, stopping by Michelangelo's Pieta and then we went to climb the dome.

3. Go Up the Dome as Soon as It Opens

This is another reason to arrive at St. Peter's at 7:30. The dome ticket office doesn't open right at 7:30, but a little closer to 8:00. There are two tickets- one takes you on an elevator for part of the way, the cheaper ticket requires you take the stairs all the way up. It's a lot of stairs. We used the elevator to save time and energy and thanks to the early hour we shared it with only 5 other people. There are still quite a lot of stairs to the top of the dome after you exit the elevator. A lot. The stairway is very narrow at certain points and the space has you leaning to the side for a good portion of both the climb up and the one down. The last few steps up have you half climbing a rope too. If you're like me, the presence or lack of a crowd in a space like that is the difference between visiting it or not. You could not get me to go up the dome of St. Peter's for any amount of money after 9:00am when the crowds arrive.  But, being there early meant we were the only ones on the stairs going up and then going down. It was still steep, but not at all unbearable.  And the view, well, pictures really can't do it justice.

Viewing area of St. Peter's Dome
4. Give the Vatican Museums the Time They Deserve

We got so wrapped up in the view from the dome, we ended up half running to the Vatican Museum entrance to get there by 8:30. However, we made it just in time and only had to deal with the tour group crowds at the entrance before we ended up well ahead of them within the main museum itself.

The one nice thing about tour groups is that they stop in one place a lot so their guide can talk. If you time it right, you can stay ahead of most of them and take in the wonders of the museum in a more civilized, intimate, and peaceful way.

But, that doesn't mean rush straight through all the galleries just to get to the Sistine Chapel at the end. The Vatican houses many incredible works of art and you really should take the time to see them. It would be a shame to miss the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, the Egyptian room, the Belvedere Torso, and all the other masterpieces housed within the main exhibits of the Vatican Museum. If you booked an early visit there is no reason to rush through and waste the opportunity to see these works without the crowds. You won't be sorry you took the time.

Eventually, the tour groups may catch up to you if you linger and that's ok. They have their uses. Which brings me to tip 5.

Now, this tip is very, very special and comes with a little risk. There's no guaranteeing you'll be able to pull if off, but if you can you will be winning at visiting the Vatican.


5. Disappear into a Group at The Sistine Chapel

The route through the Vatican Museums ends in the Sistine Chapel, the grand finale. Take your time enjoying Michelangelo's masterpiece. Take a seat in one of the chairs if you can (not the steps), stay quiet, and soak it in. But, while you're there, keep your eyes peeled for a large bus group.  Why?

There are two exits from the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. The main exit takes you all the way back the length of the museums to the beginning and adds about 30 minutes of walking. The other exit is for tour groups only. This exit deposits you right at the entrance of St. Peter's Basilica! So, if you time it right and blend into a group, there's a good chance that exit will be opened by the docent and you can sneakily cut a half hour of walking out of your day. This is perfect if you haven't been to St. Peter's yet. You won't have to wait at security like everyone else and you can basically head right into the basilica from there.

Looking Up in St. Peter's

Of course, there is a chance you will caught by the tour guide or the docent, but honestly I think saving the time and hassle of going all the way back through the length of the museum is worth a little risk.

Having a pleasant, worthwhile visit to Vatican City is all about planning and timing. Getting there early with an appointment is the difference between seeing this incredible little country in all its glory and having just another nightmare touristic experience.

I didn't make photography the point of the Vatican visit. Tripods, of course, are not allowed within the basilica, and there's no need to schlep a bunch of equipment around the museum. I just took one camera and lens that day, like any other tourist. It was nice taking some time off from an early shoot in order to focus on the visit itself. We finished at Vatican City at lunch time, when the congestion of visitors was just reaching its peak. We grabbed a snack and headed back into Rome. It ended up being one of our favorite parts of the trip. We felt we had experienced this famous city in a way most people don't, and that was definitely worth the extra effort.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: Peak Design Everyday Backpack

I warned you. I said back in January that there was a good chance we'd pick up a Peak Design Everyday Backpack at some point. After a great experience using the Everyday Messenger in Venice and the following few months, we decided that there was no point wasting time with the old, uncomfortable backpacks anymore. So, goodbye, generic German pack! Hello, Everyday Backpack!

Let's take a look. 

It has many of the same features of the Everyday Messenger including the Flex-Fold dividers, Maglatch closure, key tether system, anodized aluminum hardware, weatherproof exterior material and zippers, reinforced zipper pulls, and tuck-away straps. We opted for the 20L Ash version since it was the most versatile of the two color scheme choices. This model replaces the hypalon "touch points" with leather ones and the accent color is blue instead of the traditional red.

Leather "touch point" on the Ash model

Weather resistant zipper tracks

Re-enforced zipper pulls


Pivot point of the main straps
Also, like the messenger, the backpack has laptop and tablet storage and an easy access quick stash pocket. Unlike the messenger, it has two water bottle/tripod storage pockets. This bag also offers multiple carry options besides the shoulder straps- the usual strap found on the top of most backpacks and two side ones. These two side straps allow you to pick the bag up and carry it in whatever position is the easiest and most comfortable for the moment. 

Access to the laptop/tablet storage and quick stash pocket
Ok, now for the revolutionary parts. First of all, the interior of the bag can be accessed completely from the sides, not just the top!

Why would you want to do such a thing? Well, if you're a photographer you know about the desire to just swing a bag around quickly while still wearing it to grab a camera or some other piece of equipment while on the go. Also, it's a convenient way for a partner to grab something without you needing to take the bag off. We took advantage of this feature almost exclusively in Rome. It saved quite a bit of time to just grab or stash something without needing to remove the bag. Plus, leaving the bag on made it much harder for thieves to nab, an unfortunate concern in Rome. Now, you may notice that there are some zips in those side pockets. Those open up a whole other little world of storage possibilities.

 Within this little secret world are color coded pockets for storing things like memory cards, batteries, filters, lens clothes, what have you without impeding the interior storage capacity of the bag.  There's also another secret pocket inside the top of the bag. See it?

 I didn't either at first (and I completely forgot about it when I took that photograph, actually). It's located inside the top cavity on the outside facing side of the bag. It's a small magnetically sealed pocket perfect for storing valuables and for misplacing your tripod's Allen wrench in.

Another revolutionary thing about this pack are the external carry options. This bag is perfect for securely and comfortably carrying a lot of stuff, all day if you have to.

The Everyday Backpack, fully loaded, in the wilds of the Roman Forum.

Just like last time, the bag test took place in Italy; this time we were in Rome. We had a few days during our trip that were pretty hectic and we needed a bag that would help, not hinder us. After spending so much time on our feet in Venice we decided that a messenger just isn't very comfortable for that type of all day travel situation. A backpack is more the animal for the job. They distribute the weight more evenly on the body making it easier to carry all day.  We had a whole day planned away from our apartment that started at 4:30am when it was about 38ºF through to the afternoon when the temperature was about 75ºF. So, we had coats in the morning and no place to stash them when it was warm enough to be in just our shirt sleeves in the afternoon. Also, we needed to use the tripod in the morning. Thanks to the exterior carry system we were able to roll the jackets up and strap them underneath the bag with the tuck-away straps. The tripod slid easily into one of the outside pockets and we could store a water bottle in the other. The tripod was secured with another one of those fabulous tuck-away straps. Because of its sleek design the bag stayed close and tight to the body even loaded down. The backpack also comes equipped with waist and chest straps that can be tucked away or stowed when not needed. Another nice feature which comes in handy at the airport is the built in luggage strap on the back of the bag that allows you to slip it over a rolling suitcase handle. The bottom of the bag has the same re-enforced material as the messenger so you don't have to worry about setting the bag down on rough or damp surfaces. This also serves as another tripod storage sleeve if you'd prefer keeping yours underneath the bag. The carry possibilities are endless!

Now, we've been through a lot of backpacks through the years, long before cameras came into our lives. There is one thing that determines a good backpack- how your shoulders feel at the end of the day. Once again, my husband did the carrying of the bag. He's struggled with back problems over the years so he'd know sooner than most if a bag is going to be comfortable all day. While carrying the Everyday Messenger caused some discomfort for him, he didn't have a word of complaint about carrying the Everyday Backpack. In fact, he didn't have a single complaint about the bag whatsoever. 

Its design is unassuming and stylish and the straps keep it snug to the body so it feels like a part of you, not a sack swinging behind you that puts pressure on your shoulders and back. Unlike all the other packs we've ever used, this one has class. For those who like to keep a sense of style when they travel, this bag will only add to it.  It transitions seamlessly from an air travel carry-on to a daily use camera bag. Plus, the dividers aren't just for cameras. Non-photographers will get just as much use out of them since they keep your stuff organized and protected. We carried cannoli around in it at one point!

Now, there are a couple of things that I found need a little work. The bag will fit differently on women than men (duh!). Like so many companies on this earth it seems Peak Design may have forgotten about the needs of its female customers a little. The chest strap tends to, uh, conflict with the female anatomy. The only place I find it somewhat comfortable is in the highest possible position (shown above). Because of that it doesn't allow a lot of wiggle room for the Capture One Pro clip system. It took two of us to get the Capture One in an orientation that kept it from digging into me anywhere. It works, but it could work a lot better if that chest strap could be positioned another inch higher.  The second problem I noticed is the same one we found with the Messenger. While the seatbelt material of the straps is tough as nails, it tends to slip over time. I found myself having to tighten the chest strap about a half dozen times on a two hour hike last weekend. The waist belt straps tend to loosen over time as well, even more so with a heavier load. That could be prevented with a redesign of the hardware on future renditions. The slipping isn't a major aggravation and if you're using it for city travel you'll probably be taking it on and off enough anyway that making midway adjustments won't be as necessary. Because of the slippage, I may be less inclined to use the Everyday Backpack for anything longer and more intense than a moderate day hike.

So, is the Everyday Backpack worth the price? Since I don't get any of the gear we test and use for free or at a discount, I can tell you that this bag is worth spending the dough on. Sure, it will cost far more than your standard city daypack, but it definitely will out perform your standard daypacks. Unlike all the other backpacks out there, it doesn't make you look like a dork. There isn't any loose, bulky material to get caught on lens hoods and the origami style dividers make it easy to keep your lenses and bodies happy and safe. The built in organizational pockets in the side panels will guarantee that your shutter release, lens pen, and filters don't go missing in the depths. Plus, it isn't only for photographers. Anyone can use this bag! It's sleek design makes it perfect for getting around town on foot, bicycle, or whatever form of alternative transport you prefer (Segway riders will probably love it too!). All the loose strap ends can be tucked away preventing that untidy and irritating dangly strap end syndrome you get from other bags. For those who shun panniers, this (like its messenger cousin) is a bike commuter's dream bag. The bag itself is weather resistant, so there's no need to deal with a rain cover. It expands and contracts to match its load, and even fully stuffed you're not going to look or feel like a backpacker. At the end or beginning of a trip, it'll ride handily on your luggage and slide neatly under the plane or train seat. Yes, it has a couple of kinks to work out, but so far this is definitely the best backpack we've ever used and I doubt we will want to replace it any time soon.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rome: Shooting the Eternal City

We weren't planning on going to Rome, but we changed our minds. I'm so very glad we did.

Rome at the end of March 2017 (safely passed the Ides, of course), was a city entering into the height of the tourist season. Most places are still in the off season at this time of year, but thanks to the climate and its enduring popularity I'm not sure Rome really has an off season. Keeping with tradition, we accidentally booked our trip to coincide with the city's marathon (lessons learned in Prague are soon forgotten) and American Spring break (half the US's high school population was there, it seems). The entirety of central Rome was PACKED.  It had all the components of a frustrating photo trip. However, we have a secret about dealing with overcrowded locations so we weren't too concerned. The trip ended up being a mad dash, a brutal workout, luxurious, relaxing, uplifting, and frustrating all at the same time. Most of the plans went better than expected. Failures were made up for. It was a trip of incredibly lofty highs and incredibly low lows. But, that's Rome for you. Anything less would be a disappointment.

What's our secret for dealing with crowded locations?  It's really not rocket science so I'll tell you. First, we plan ahead and, second, we get up crazy early. In Rome this is really the only way to get the kinds of shots I want and see the sights without being trampled by the hordes. We take this approach in every city we visit, but Rome is one of those cities that you simply cannot shoot properly unless you get up early. There's no way you can just work with evening blue hour or sunset. There are just too many people.

For example:

That's the Trevi Fountain just after sunset. Normally, I wouldn't even bother shooting a long exposure with this many people around, but in this case I felt the crowd was part of the fountain's story so I decided to attempt it with a precariously positioned tripod. It worked out really well, and my camera was only nearly knocked over once. Oh, yes, I did add another exposure of the moon back into the shot in post, but it appears the way it did and where it did that night. We had a beautiful Moon in the early evenings of the entire visit.

The Trevi Fountain was the only location that I wanted a crowd in. All the other places on my list I wanted as people free as possible. Why? These places have been photographed for generations so I wasn't likely to get a unique composition, but at least by photographing when many people do not I could create an image of these locations that people don't see as often. Secondly, the more people around, the harder to get the right composition. Thirdly, where there are tourists there are people who feed off of them. The more tourists around, the likelier of getting my gear stolen (unfortunately, Rome has a higher petty crime rate than many other cities in Western Europe). Finally, I find people distracting in scenic photos since our eyes are naturally drawn to the human form. For example, in the picture above, what do you notice first? The fountain, The Moon, or that nearly perfectly still couple embracing in the foreground? My guess is that if they weren't the first thing you noticed they were the second. Since the Trevi Fountain is one of the most romantic spots in the city, I wanted them there and this shot, while not being typical for me, is one of my favorites from the trip.

But, I didn't want selfie sticks, NorthFace jackets, fluorescent baseball hats, and street peddlers in photographs of the other locations. So, that means getting up around 4:30am. We'd be out the door around 5, and it would only be us and the folks catching the bus to work and opening up shops moving around in the city at that time.  And really, even if you're not interested in photography, I'd recommend doing this a couple of times when you have an extended stay in a large city like Rome. You will get to see a completely different side of the place and it's pure magic.  Our first day in Rome started out pretty rough. We turned in late the night before and then were wakened not long after to the news that my husband's grandfather had passed away. The sadness of his passing would linger in the background for the rest of the trip. After a few hours of sleep we had to get up early to walk from our apartment by the Pantheon to Vatican City. We had booked an early entrance to the Vatican Museums and we wanted to get into St. Peter's when it was opened at 7:30am before our appointment at the museum. So, we got into St. Peter's Square just as the run was rising, striking the grand cathedral in glowing light. I mean, geez, could that be more perfect?

But, more about the Vatican some other time. My point is that if your willing, for a few hours every day you have the chance to not only see something, but the chance to take it in. It has a chance to move you. That really is worth the lost sleep. And if you're getting up that early every day in Rome, you're definitely going to be losing sleep. Those dinners, oh those incredible dinners, run late into the night.

On the plus side, at this time of year the soft light ends earlier in the day, but the tourists are still in their hotels. So, we had some time to enjoy Italian breakfasts properly with the locals when the pastries (and the baristas) were fresh.

Best post shoot breakfast while in Rome? I recommend sfogliatella and cappucino.
Don Nino does a good rendition of both and opens just as the light is leaving.
Some attractions open right after breakfast so with some caffeine in us we could head straight into, say, the Colosseum with pre-booked tickets and enjoy it at a civilized pace. Besides getting up early I recommend booking tickets online for the earliest visit time as possible. The tour groups and buses will start showing up soon, but there aren't as many in places that open early (7:30-8:30). Save yourself the line wait time and get in before the masses, even if you only get 30 mins of peace. It's worth it! You don't want your memories of something like the Colosseum or the Forum to just be of dodging selfie-sticks and tour groups.

If we didn't head straight to an attraction after breakfast we'd amble back to our apartment and go back to sleep. These trips are also a vacation for a us, and we don't want to be total zombies. After lunch we'd just roam around the city seeing what we can find before it would be time to head to the evening shooting spot. Sometimes our wanderings take us to some really interesting locations, like the Aventine Keyhole. If you look through the keyhole to the Knights of Malta priory (which is closed to the public) on Aventine Hill you can see the dome of St. Peter's perfectly framed within. In the afternoon the line is slow and long, but it is a pretty cool sight and worth the wait. 

Shooting at sunset and blue hour in cities as popular as Rome requires a lot of patience, planning, and more patience. During our afternoon wanderings we'd usually scope out the area I wanted to shoot from later to find the place I wanted to set up the tripod. Then, more often than not, we'd return an hour early to hold the spot before I'd start photographing. I know, that sounds crazy. But, some places are so popular it's shoulder to shoulder when the sun goes down. If I miss a shot because I was late and didn't get a place to set up, I have only myself to blame. In most cases, I only have one chance to visit a location so I don't want to blow it by being lazy.

One of the most popular views of Rome is of the Sant' Angelo Bridge and St. Peter's as seen from the bridge of Umberto I. On a warm night in a city as crowded with tourists as Rome, I knew I'd have to get the right spot early. We hung out in the same few feet on the bridge for about two hours, an hour ahead of sunset to hold the place and then another hour to shoot from sunset through blue hour. It did end up being shoulder to shoulder and it took two of us to protect the tripod from being jostled and knocked into the Tiber below. Low stress location it was not, but at least there was a snack stand nearby so we were well provisioned during the siege. 

This sort of thing may sound like a pain in the neck just for a handful of photographs. However, we really enjoy it. How many people get to stand and soak in a view like this for hours?

When the shooting is done for the day, that's when it's time to get to the best part of a trip to Rome- the dinners. I can't recall having a bad meal in Italy, but I don't recall ever having a great dinner every night no matter where we ate in any city in any country. Look, I'm just going to say it, the Italians have cornered the market on eating, the rest of us will never measure up. Eating dinner in Italy is an event, and so don't take it for granted. Eat out every night, order the pasta, and for heaven's sake get a glass of wine. Restaurants are open late, so if you have another engagement earlier (say standing on a bridge for two hours), you should't have a problem booking a place for a 8:30-9 dinner. Yes, that's much later than most Americans eat, but like getting up early in Rome, eating late in Rome is worth it too. By then the tourists are all snug in their beds in front of the TV, but real Rome is very much still awake. You can have dinner to the sounds of Italian being spoken around you, and if you're lucky there's still a street performer outside with his cello. But, make sure you make reservations if you're going anywhere off the main streets and classier than a pizzeria, especially during a busy time like a marathon weekend.

Speaking of marathon, that was the only real hurdle to manage during our visit. For the most part we managed to shoot the spots the race would block before the day of the event, but not the Spanish Steps. So, we needed another morning to return to that location once the red race barriers were removed. 

Our backup plan if the steps were blocked was a crowd free shot of the Trevi Fountain since it's nearby and was bypassed by the marathon. That was scrapped thanks to some amateur photographers shooting some sort of haphazard engagement session in front of the fountain at 6:00am. They didn't seem to know what they were doing (they couldn't figure out why their photos in the dark were so blurry) making their refusal to move incredibly angering. I did take some tight shots of fountain details, but the fountain's lights go out at 6:30am, blowing a chance for softer natural light. We packed it in when they went out, never getting that people free photo I was after. Plan C was the grandiose Monument to the Forefathers, but race prep trucks and forklifts were all over the square. I never got a wide shot that morning, and I have to say I was not in a good mood at all. Thankfully for the sake of our sanities, it rained and stormed all day so it was a good chance to catch up on much needed rest until the race ended. We stepped out to watch the runners do their thing, grabbed some pizza, napped, and waited until the event finished and when the forecast said the rain would end. The rain never stopped, but that was ok since we bought a souvenir umbrella and so we were able to shoot around the Pantheon without getting too much water on the lens. 

Despite the grief of losing a loved one while we were on the trip and the little hiccup on marathon day morning, all in all the trip went very well. The visit proved the importance of planning ahead to visit attractions, photograph, and get a good meal. Because of the heavy crowds and logistical issues, Rome was more of a challenge to photograph than other cities we've been to. We had to hold locations longer and eat later than usual, but because it's Rome we were still having a good time. Even when things didn't work out the way we hoped, we still got to spend our time in one of of the greatest cities on earth. 
Rome is a city of chaos. All roads may lead to it, but once you get there the roads fall into disrepair and the traffic is wild at all hours. In a city where you can't always count on things being open or the bus to come on time, there's always something beautiful to see, a story to hear, and more than likely something delicious to eat or drink just around the corner.  There's really no other city quite like it. It is a city of ruins and modernity. It crumbles and rises again. Its history is filled with war and blood, but it is considered one of the most romantic places on earth. It's a city where the formula for and pattern of modern civilization was first perfected, but it's a city that cannot be controlled. It's a place of jumbled contradictions, even some of its most hallowed monuments are just a pile of rocks. Here is where so much began, but it seems it has always been just slightly out of step ever since. It's beautiful and ugly at the same time. It is trapped in the patina of its most glorious era, but remains in other ways youthfully eternal. If you can see Rome at at silent dawn, in the clamor filled afternoon, in the music filled nights, then somewhere in there you will see what makes it so special.

We managed to get back to the Spanish Steps and shoot the morning before we flew back to Germany.
You can see more from Rome here!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: Wacom Intuos Pro S

“The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams

Or, to paraphrase Bruce Barnbaum, the RAW file is the score and the TIFF is the performance. No matter what the genre of photography, completing the image is always done after (sometimes long after) the shutter button is clicked. It doesn't matter if it's a digital or film photograph, something always has to be done in post- in software, the darkroom, or both. The amount of post processing done is up to the photographer and is often dictated by the subject. The goal is to create a photograph that best represents how the photographer perceived the scene, not necessarily to create a carbon copy of the scene.

Therefore, it makes sense that having the proper tools for post processing is just as important as having the proper tools for capturing the original image. The computer and the software or the chemicals and darkroom space are just as important as the camera, the lenses, the tripod, and the filters.

One of the most frustrating parts of post processing for me was in detailed work. Using my MacBook trackpad was a pain to use for anything beyond gradients. The mouse was ok, but dragging and holding a click wasn't effective for more intensive work. The mouse was a port in a storm. So, I started looking into tablets. Using an art tablet offered a more controlled and comfortable way of editing. Instead of a mouse you use a pen. I have a little background in art so using a pen sounded more attractive. It didn't take long before I inevitably landed on Wacom's line of editing hardware.

Wacom makes a ton of different products from pen computers to simple smart pads. For photographers the best choices would be the computers, pen displays, or the pen tablets. I decided to to go with a Intuos Pro pen tablet because using another display didn't seem necessary. Also, the texture of the tablet sounded more appealing to work with over that of a smooth display glass. Plus, the Intuos was far more affordable. There are several models of the Intuos Pro to choose from the S, M, and L (small, medium, large) or the Paper M or Paper L (designed for tracing over paper). I decided on the S model since it measures about the same as my Mac and would fit in a bag with no problem.

The Pro S is 320 x 208 x 12mm (12.6 x 8.2 x 0.5 in) and has 6 customizable express keys- on/off, zoom, etc. It connects to the computer either wirelessly (with included adapter) or through USB. The active area also functions as a finger touch pad.

Express keys are customizable for a myriad of functions

The slightly textured active area is indicated by the illuminated corners.

The tablet connects wirelessly to the computer through a simple to install adapter.

Of course. the main attraction of the tablet is the pen function. The Pro S has 2048 pen pressure points on a 157mm x 98mm (6.2 x 3.9in) active area. The pen has a rubber body and grip and has two buttons that can be customized to function like mouse clicks. The pad is sensitive to the pen's tilt and the pressure applied. The pen itself is battery free. It includes a couple of plastic rings which can be fitted below the head for customization. It also includes a stand.

I didn't realize this for a few weeks, but the stand opens to reveal a whole smorgasbord of pen nibs and a tool to remove them. There are 5 regular nibs of firm plastic which feel, at least to me, like a pencil on paper. There are 4 felt nibs which feel like a felt pen on course paper. There is one rubber flex nib with a small spring near the base which feels like a brush. The last nib, and this one is my favorite, is called a stroke nib and is a combination of plastic with a rubber tip or core that feels like a marker on smooth paper. I find that it is the most natural feeling.

Extra pen nibs and the tool to change them are stored in the stand.

My pen is fitted with the stroke nib.
All the reviews I read on the tablet said that there can be quite a learning curve. And there is a lot of truth to that, especially using the pen instead of a mouse for menu selections, etc. However, when it comes to editing I found using it to be second nature. When I first started I had a standard nib in the pen and I didn't care at all for how it felt. To me it seemed like I was scratching the tablet too much. But, once I switched to the stroke nib, it felt and worked perfectly. It makes editing, especially fine detailed edits, much easier. Because the tablet and pen are more accurate, I get through complicated edits in half the time. Plus, it's more enjoyable to use. Using a mouse was always a frustrating experience. All that frustration is gone with the Intuos Pro. Since it works wirelessly, I can sit back and get comfortable just like with a pen and paper instead of sitting hunched over a desk for hours.

I don't tend to use the express buttons very much and I haven't really used it as a touch pad. For clicking through menus or scrolling I usually just switch over to my mouse, mostly out of habit. For some functions the mouse is the more natural choice. The S model works wirelessly through an adapter which plugs into a USB port. The larger models work over Bluetooth. Using a USB port can be an inconvenience if you only have a couple of ports. Battery life in the tablet lasts for several weeks and is recharged through USB. The tablet will automatically shut off if it's not in use for a while, hence the long battery life. Installation and set up is really easy, but the directions for use don't come in the box. But, using it is mostly intuitive. The only direction I needed was on how to remove the pen nibs.

The Wacom Intuos Pro S is slim, lightweight, and measures about the same size as my MacBook Pro. It's easy to master and works as a perfect solution for photo editing in lieu of the old trackpad or the mouse. It didn't cost an arm and leg either. So, if you are looking for a cost effective and more accurate tool for post processing work, I recommend looking into one the Wacom Intuos Pro models. I don't think you will regret it!