City of Joy

It’s been a while since I blogged. Moving to a new job has kept me busy, these past few months. It’s been a particularly demanding, challenging and exciting journey, but it hasn’t left me much time for anything else, including blogging. In August, I also moved my blogs to WordPress.com, and that migration took the good part of a precious weekend, but I digress. Before I joined my new employer, I took the opportunity to go on a trip to a city I’ve longed to see for more than a decade – Kolkata.

Kolkata is a city unlike any other in India, or so I’d heard until I actually saw it for myself. Now, I know it to indeed be so. I chose the last week of June – one of its hottest and most humid – not by choice, but because I was in between jobs and that was the only window I had. Yes, I’d done a fair bit of research online, and also spoken to my “bong” friends who were very generous with their long lists of things that should be ‘must-see’ on my agenda. But, I also wanted to keep it free flowing… experience Kolkata as it happens to me.

And, as it turned out, that was a wonderful idea!

I hailed a non-airconditioned yellow ambassador taxi from the airport, since that was the most classical way to traverse the city of joy. I’d chosen to stay on Sudder Street, since it was very popular with foreigners who backpacked across India, and also close to the famous Park Street. Sudder Street, and its adjoining New Market, were a full-blown sensory experience, giving me the chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city in all its glory. Most places I wanted to see were a short taxi ride away, which was convenient since it saved me a lot of time.

Over the course of the next four days, I did almost everything I wanted to do on my list – circumnavigate the famous Maidan, go to the Indian Museum, visit the Victoria Memorial monument, photograph St. Paul’s Cathedral, go up and down the legendary Park Street several times, ride the Kolkata Metro, spend some hours in the tranquil surroundings of the South Park Street Cemetery, drive over the Howrah and the Vidyasagar bridges, visit the old Howrah town, drive past Eden Gardens, experience the sprawling Science City on the outskirts, saw several street arguments, visit the glamorous and upmarket stretches of Salt Lake City, and of course use every opportunity to take in some Bengali food, including eating at Peter Cat (where my wife had enjoyed several meals as a youngster!).

In the end, the only things left unchecked on my list were a tram ride and a trip to see Mother Teresa’s home – these would have to wait until my next visit. Of course, there would be many more visits to come…

Kolkata touched me in a way that most cities haven’t, and I was glad that I was able to take this opportunity to experience it in a way that most tourists don’t. Kolkata has an uncanny ability to assimilate you into its culture. Once you’ve made it your own, so as to say, it’s almost impossible to see it like an “outsider” does. Most folks I know would have a love/hate relationship with the city – they would either think I’m nuts to think of Kolkata in these terms, or simply “get it”.

Vir Sanghvi described this sentiment beautifully when he wrote: “That’s why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.

Bombay to Goa: Part Two

Please Note: This is an extension of my earlier post on a road trip from Bombay to Goa. Read that to get additional dope on this subject.

This April, we made a second road trip to Goa and back. This time around, however, we were far more experienced about what to expect. (For the record, the Mumbai-Pune-Kolhapur-Nipani-Ajara-Amboli-Sawantwadi-Mapusa route is still the best route to take.) I’m sharing my log file with you since many of you have written in about how helpful you found those pointers…

Bombay to Goa

We decided to get a two hour headstart by starting off from Pune early morning. So we ended up staying over in Pune one day prior to departure. In hindsight, that didn’t help much since the time on road (including breaks) from Pune to Goa also ended up taking 12 hours.

0545, 0 kms – Started from Pune (near Baner) via Katraj bypass
0625, 36 kms – Passed by McDonald’s @ Khedshivpur
0711, 80 kms – End of Khandala (Satara) ghats
0750, 96 kms – Clean loo, Petrol pump n Restaurant
0950, 208 kms – Passed by Sai Food Court
1000, 217 kms – Kini Toll Plaza
1025, 240 kms – Passed by 24-hr McD (Kolhapur) on the opp side
1123, 283 kms – Turn off NH4 towards Goa @ Hotel Kavery (very clean Indian-style loo for ladies)
1245, 325 kms – Hotel Minerva Paradise. Very clean loos + Lunch break 1 hr
1430, 362 kms – Passed by Kamat’s @ Amboli just before the ghats begin
1500, 378 kms – End of Amboli ghats

(Then we took a left for a shortcut to Mapusa, but you should avoid it as it’s an unpaved narrow that bypasses Sawantwadi; Go via Sawantwadi instead)

1545, 395 kms – Turn on to NH 17
1622, 426 kms – Turn right for Mapusa city
1645, 440 kms – Reached Hotel in Baga

Goa to Bombay

On the way back, we decided to split the journey at Kolhapur which is almost midway in terms of time taken.

0835, 0 kms reading – Started from Baga towards Mapusa, then onto NH17 for Sawantwadi
1020, 59 kms – Sawantwadi ends
1045, 72 kms – Amboli ghats begin
1140, 88 kms – Ghats end @ Kamat’s. (Loos not too functional)
1240, 120 kms – Hotel Minerva Paradise about 1 km before Ajara town
1345, 160 kms – Turn onto NH4
1430, 210 kms – Reached our Hotel in Kolhapur

Next day…

0915, 00 kms – Started from Kolhapur
1125, 137 kms – Anewadi Toll Plaza
1150, 166 kms – End of Satara (Khandala) ghats – bypassed through tunnel
1210, 187 kms – Big Kamat’s for lunch stop upto 1 pm
1325, 212 kms – New Katraj tunnel to enter Pune city
1415, 249 kms – Turn onto Pune-Mumbai Expressway
1520, 342 kms – Expressway ends @ Kharghar
1610, 371 kms – Airoli Toll Booth
1645, 382 kms – Home

Special thanks to the missus for logging in all this info on her cellphone throughout the drive. Have a safe one…

Bigger vs Better

Most of us would’ve encountered the situation where, in a group of trigger-happy camera-toting enthusiasts, someone whips out a larg-ish lens mounted on a larg-ish DSLR body, and the typical reaction was: “He/she must surely be a serious photographer”!

The truth is that having a more expensive (or larger) camera or lens makes you no better a photographer than buying a bigger piano makes you a better pianist. In fact, most intelligent folks do not make this extrapolation in any other vocation or profession, except in photography.

All that gear comes at a price, of course. And I don’t mean just the monetary kind. Once you have the stuff, you need a place to store it, the means to carry it, the time to maintain it, etc. etc. etc. As this writeup will explain in great detail, for many wannabe photographers, the path is quite well laid out. They keep adding to their gear until, one day (and only if they’re lucky), they realize that those with more basic equipment are making better pictures than them!

Now, some of you may not know this, but DSLRs evolved from SLRs (yes, the film kind!). And the folks at Canon and Nikon who were responsible for decades of investments in the technologies involved, were less inclined to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the most revolutionary advancements in this space were born out of research & design by players like Panasonic and Olympus. If you’ve been following the action, you would have encountered terms like “mirrorless”, “EVIL” and “Micro Four Thirds” and the likes.

I’d been watching this space for a while now, and recently concluded that the third-generation of camera technology has finally evolved to a level that poses a serious threat to the world of DSLRs (at least for amateurs and hobbyists like myself). But, like most people who have been practising the art, I already had a Nikon D90, a Nikon F75 and 3-4 Nikon-mount lenses that would not work with these new formats (with some exceptions).

So I sold every thing!

Yes, that’s right. I ditched my DSLR and started from scratch. Then came the tens of manhours of research to find out the best solution for my specific needs. I was looking for something that would be much smaller and lighter than a mid-level DSLR, but would offer comparable image quality. Having reaped the benefits of a “platform”, I was also keen on making a beginning with a platform that would keep up with my evolving needs. HD quality video would just be an added bonus. Finally, I wanted to keep the overall spends to under $900 (or INR 50,000).

I loved the retro styling of Fuji’s X100 and the range & affordability of Fuji’s X10, but they came with fixed lenses. I liked the small body of Sony’s NEX series, but its choice of APS-C sized sensor made its lenses extra large. To be fair, I also evaluated Nikon’s recent attempts with the V1 and J1, but it’s still early days for them. After extensive research, I settled on the Micro Four Third platform as the answer to my needs. Finally, I took the plunge and went for the Olympus E-P3, built on the legendary PEN platform.

The newest PEN series range of cameras from Olympus offers significant advancements over older models, notably in the area of autofocus response and image processing. I specifically chose the E-P3 since it was the biggest of the three models (I have large hands) with more advanced features (like OLED touchscreen, manual zoom ring, etc.) than the others. The image sensor was about 40% smaller than APS-C, but 5-7 times larger than compact cameras, making the body+lens combination much smaller and lighter than traditional DSLRs. Finally, the Micro Four Third platform (jointly developed by Panasonic & Olympus) would also offer me an array of more than 40 interchangeable lenses for all my needs. Yes, the Olympus menu system is nowhere near Nikon’s, in terms of ease-of-use, but the design is so customizable that you don’t need to dig into menu levels to get to your often-used functions, once you’ve set it up.

With the E-P3, I got every thing I was looking for in a camera that is less than half the bulk and weight of its DSLR counterparts, and I couldn’t be happier. You have a choice too – Do you wanna be the guy who “looks” like a photographer, or do you want to shoot more photographs?

The fact of the matter is, sometimes, bigger does not equal better.

Update: Oct 2015

After 3 years of working exclusively with the mirrorless Olympus E-P3 platform, I switched back to a Nikon D3300

The mirrorless platform was a great experience, but given my large hands, I missed the grip of holding a larger camera in my hand. Also, while the size of my E-P3 was considerably smaller than DSLRs, the weight was not much less. Finally, over the past few years, DSLRs have also evolved quite a bit, offering ISOs of upto 12,800 in even entry-level models. I now look forward to using the trusty old DSLR format in exciting ways, leveraging its capabilities to the extent possible!

Update: June 2018

After two and half years of shooting with the Nikon D3300 and a host of mobile phones, I took the opportunity to compare some pictures shot in the same place and at the same time, between the two platforms. My analysis confirmed the suspicion that mobile phone cameras have significantly improved over the years, and that comparable pictures shot on a DSLR vs a capable camera phone are virtually indistinguishable. In fact, in some cases, the camera phone performed even better!

Sure, there are situations in which a DSLR (or full frame) with the right lens will vastly outperform anything small and mobile. Some examples that come to mind include ultra-wide, ultra-fast, ultra-zoom or very low light. Since I don’t do too much of that kind of photography, I sold off all my Nikon gear, and now intend to continue shooting with the camera that is almost always in my pocket – an appropriate ending for a post on how Bigger does not always mean Better, don’t you think?!