All posts by Jon Niola

Rediscovering A Passion

Setting up the D7100 for the evening.
Setting up the D7100 for the evening.

I bought my first SLR, the Nikon D80, in 2007 not long after my daughter Amanda was born.

Like any new parent, I was eager to get the best possible photos of my child and I always liked photography but never actually spent money to get a good camera. I had always used point and shoot cameras and never understood or cared to learn about the underlying principles of photography.

With the D80 and armed with knowledge from reading Bryan Peterson’s fantastic book, Understanding Exposure, I set out to see the world through the lens of my camera.

It had become quite a fun hobby – a creative outlet that I was lacking and needed.

Flash forward a few years and I was hardly shooting. It was getting harder to find time to go out and shoot. I was preoccupied with other stuff in life. Worst of all I was lacking inspiration.

This year, I have made the time to get behind the camera and enjoy it once again. I re-read Understanding Exposure, cleaned up all my glass, and headed outdoors.

Empire State Building
Empire State Building

I am now pushing my comfort zone more than ever with higher ISO settings, shutter speed priority, etc. Rediscovering the fun in finding that one really good shot that you’d be proud to frame on your wall.

One big change I have made is that instead of just going out with my camera to find things to shoot, now I figure out what I’d like to shoot before I go out. This way I can plan on a time of day, what gear to bring, etc. Planning has made my trips out with the camera much more satisfying, and a much better yield of “keepers” from the day’s shoot.

I have no illusion about being a professional. I know the limits of my skill and I like doing it on my terms and not under pressure for a paid job. But I have taken quite a few shots I am proud of and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Find that thing you enjoy and get back at it!

Cheers,
–Jon

734 Days

High ISO fun
High ISO fun

Yet again I have managed to neglect my blog for far too long while consumed with various other activities. 734 days of neglect to be exact.

These days outside of work and family my free time has been spent improving my photography skills, learning new technology, and quite a bit of reading.

Perhaps the biggest change over the past couple of years has been my purchase of a Nikon D7100 to replace my old Nikon D80.

The D80 was great for my first SLR and is still a fine camera but just as we see with anything else in technology, things constantly improve.

The one factor that stands out to me as the biggest difference between the two cameras is the high ISO capability of the D7100. While the D80 could theoretically shoot at up to ISO 3200, the quality was unacceptable without a lot of post-production work. Even then the photos were quite noisy. Best bet was to stay below ISO 800 which basically handicaps one third of the exposure triangle.

With the D7100, I have gotten usable, quality shots at as high as ISO 6400 such as the photo above in this post. This has unlocked a great deal of potential I did not have before, especially in low light settings.

I will be posting more detailed examples when time permits.

Aside from photography I’ve made it my mission to master Ruby on Rails this year. It has matured a LOT since I first looked at it some years ago. The way I see it, it never hurts to broaden your skill set.

The thing about Rails that impresses me most is how quick I can go from idea to prototype codebase just sitting down and dabbling. Some of my PHP friends might not want to hear it, but Rails is a better framework than most of the comparable PHP options.

Until next time – hopefully not another 700+ days away!

Cheers,
–Jon

Plainsboro Preserve

McCormack Lake

The New Jersey Audubon’s Plainsboro Preserve is a real gem and one of my favorite local places for a quick escape from the daily grind. At one time this land was an active quarry, but now it is about 1,000 acres of protected natural habitat teeming with wildlife located in the suburban community of Plainsboro, New Jersey. If you live in central New Jersey and are looking for a nice place to spend an afternoon reconnecting with nature, the preserve is a great choice.

At the center of the Plainsboro Preserve is McCormack Lake. Several of the preserve’s trails provide views of the lake from different vantage points, including the popular Maggie’s Trail which is only about a quarter mile long but leads out onto a peninsula and provides nice views of the lake from all sides.

Plainsboro Preserve - Blue Trail

While it is not a challenging place to hike with its relatively mild terrain, the hiking is quite enjoyable nonetheless and if you are lucky you will see a variety of wildlife. There are multiple trails of varying lengths and most of them can be done as a circuit around the preserve. I have used RunKeeper to measure my hikes in the preserve and found that if I do all of the trails available it works out to about five miles.

The thing I enjoy most about the trails here is that they are all different lengths so I can customize my hike based on how much time I have. If I have a lot of time I will do them all but if I have only an hour or so to kill I might just stick to one or two of them.

Another nice thing is that all of the trails have their own distinctive feel. Some of the trails like red and green go through woods that are mostly old growth beech trees while the blue trail goes through a mixed growth forest with a lot of ferns and skunk cabbage covering the forest floor.

The Plainsboro Preserve is definitely a place to bring a camera. You never know what kind of wildlife you will encounter. I have been fortunate to see all sorts of animals though I am still holding out for the elusive river otters! You can see some of the photos I have taken at the preserve in my Plainsboro Preserve photo set at Flickr.

Cheers,
–Jon

Mt. Tammany And Sunfish Pond

Mt. Tammany - view from summit.
Mt. Tammany – view from summit.

If you live in New Jersey and have not done the Mt. Tammany hike you have been missing out. This hike has it all – spectacular views, beautiful scenery, cascades (waterfalls), and is very easy to get to.

Simply put, this is one of the more enjoyable hikes in New Jersey.

To get there you want to take route 80 west- the parking area is less than a quarter mile from the Delaware river crossing. You will want to look for signs that say Dunnfield Creek Natural Area. The parking lots are literally right off the side of route 80 and hard to miss. If you park in the first lot the trail head starts with some stairs at the far end of the lot. In the second lot the trail head starts with stairs right near where you pull in.

The blaze for this part of the trail that ascends Mt. Tammany is a red dot which is typically painted on a white square. The ascent can be pretty rough if you are out of shape as you ascend pretty rapidly and there are a few rocky parts early on that can be a little steep.

Mt. Tammany and Sunfish Pond -  trails I followed
The red lines on this map show the trails I took.

I unfortunately did not keep track of distances to key points on the trail but ultimately that information is not too important as it will become obvious when you get to certain points of the trail.

There are two really amazing views on the red dot portion of this hike – one you will get to about half way up or so which looks out over the Delaware River and route 80 below and then the summit which has a beautiful view of the whole Delaware Water Gap.

The summit is a great place to stop for a bit, relax, eat and drink and just enjoy. Don’t expect to have it all to yourself. There is a chance you might but this spot is very popular and on the day I went there were five of us enjoying the summit.

Once you are ready to move on you will see the blue blazes. This is the trail that descends the mountain. There are parts where the descent is quite rocky and it can sometimes be wet so make sure you pay attention to your footing.

Forest along the blue trail

While not as spectacular as the views from the summit, the scenery along the blue trail is not too shabby either. There are some clearings that on a nice sunny day make for good break spots just to take it all in and enjoy the clean air. I found the diversity of foliage and the contour of the land on the descent to be enjoyable.

You will keep following this trail and as you get closer to the end of the blue trail you will hear water from one of the small cascades in the area. At this point the blue trail ends and you are now on the green trail where you will be in a beautiful location with cascades that makes for some nice photos.

Dunnfield Creek cascades.

This is another spot that I spent a bit of time in. Rested up, drank some, and just took it all in. This area around the cascades is absolutely gorgeous. I imagine on a really hot day that the ice cold water might be nice to take a dip in.

Once you leave this spot and go down the green trail a little bit you will come to the bridge that crosses Dunnfield Creek. Once you cross the bridge, here is where you decide if you want to go on a longer hike or not.

If you have had your fill of hiking, you will want to turn left and follow the white blaze of the Appalachian Trail all the way back to the parking area.

Should you choose to go on make a right and follow the white blaze of the Appalachian Trail as you ascend the Kittatinny Ridge. This part of the Appalachian Trail is deceptive because when you first get on it from the green trail it is a clear, flat dirt path with few rocks but once you ascend a bit there are a couple of switchbacks and it gets quite rocky in parts.

Appalachian Trail

This part of the hike is long but pleasant. The terrain changes around a lot, and the foliage is quite varied. Unfortunately again I did not measure specific distance per segment of the hike but I believe this part was the longest. Probably a few miles.

I followed the Appalachian Trail all the way until I got to Sunfish Pond – you will know when you get there since it is a pretty large body of water. Once I got to the pond I chose to go around the east side. It is not the Appalachian Trail on that side but there is some distance you can do on a fire road. I chose to stay near the shoreline. There can be some snakes around here so be careful of where you step as they do not appreciate you stepping on them. Nothing to really worry about – just need to be aware that they are there.

I hugged the shoreline until I met back up with the Appalachian Trail on the other side and continued on a bit until I decided to play it safe and turn around for the hike back as I wanted to make sure I got back to the parking lot while there was still adequate light in the woods.

My total hike ended up at a little over 12 miles and took me a good portion of the day but it was worth every minute.

Here are a few of the links I used as my guide when plotting out this hike:

Mt. Tammany – Delaware Water Gap
Sunfish Pond

Just remember to use your head. Don’t take on more than you are capable of and make sure you don’t take on an all-day hike like this without having some food and water with you. Most of all, enjoy!

Cheers,
–Jon

20 Years Of World Wide Web

WWW logo -Robert Cail
WWW logo -Robert Cail

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the very first web site. It is hard for me to believe it has been twenty years since I have been working with the web for nineteen of them and it still seems like just yesterday I was learning HTML for the first time. To say that the invention of the World Wide Web changed humanity forever would not be a stretch by any means.

The web went from being a curiosity to an essential piece of our global infrastructure just like the electric grid and telephone network before it. Some countries use it for elections. Communities use the web to notify their residents of emergencies. Families and friends use it to keep in touch. Ecommerce has grown into a trillion dollar a year business. In some cases the web has even been used as a form of revolution to topple a government.

With all the ways the World Wide Web has changed the world in just twenty years one has to wonder what type of changes we will see over the next twenty years from being a more connected society.

To the next twenty!

Cheers,
–Jon