What I learned on my visit to Prague
–The climate and history must weigh heavily on Czech humor. Yes, a decided dourness abounds, but nothing a few words in Czech can’t penetrate (at least learn “thank you”, or děkuji, if nothing else). I think the Czechs would say that American service employees are two-faced, with their false friendliness and smiley helpfulness intended only to improve profits, not to gain friendship. With the Czechs, on the other hand, you get honesty–WYSIWYG.
–Russian matryoshka dolls are the Prague equivalent of the flamenco and bull fighter figurines you find in many cheap Barcelona curio shops. And those furry USSR hats? Yep, same category.
–The Charles Bridge is mostly empty at sunrise–except for a dozen or so tripods with their attached cameras and photographers.
–There are probably 10,000+ locks in and around the Charles Bridge area (not counting the locks the boats use), all left behind by hopelessly enamored couples confirming their committment to each other. How many keys are at the bottom of the Vltava River? How many couples now wish they could return to Prague with a pair of heavy-duty bolt cutters?
–I wonder what the rest of Prague is like? The heavily-touristed city center is gorgeous, but super-trampled. What is life like in Prague for the typical resident not living or working in the tourist zone?
–There are penguins in Prague, albeit yellow plastic ones. And giant brown-bronze babies, too.
–Some people who write on the Lennon Wall are outright idiots with no sense of culture or history. A few are thoughtful. Not too many.
–Winter is freezing-ass cold, what with the fog and humidity and all…and it wasn’t even quite winter for us. Oh, how it cuts right through all your lumpy layers whilst you wait in line for your warm trdelník.
–I could definitely live here–from April through October, that is. The city is gorgeous and there is a lifetime of history and architecture to explore. The cold rest of the year? How about Mallorca!?
–It was crowded as hell the first week of December…what must the busy summer tourist season be like???
–The public transportation is awesome. With the Metro, buses, and trams, there is almost no need to use a car or taxi, especially downtown.
–They might be using the Euro currency in the Czech Republic by 2020, but they currently still use Czech crowns, or koruna. Current exchange rate: roughly 24-25 koruna to the Euro.
–Prague is part of the Schengen group of countries in the European Union. What does that mean? It means no customs or passport controls when traveling to/from these countries. This is a major convenience…like going from Colorado to California, for instance.
–McDonald’s and Ryan Air must use the same interior decorators. You need sunglasses to visit both…then there are the fast food ads on the backs of the airline seats that look they came from a Dairy Queen menu.
The B61 Nuclear Bomb
Finally, and soberingly, I was once a young F-16 pilot (“lawn dart”, or “viper” driver), based in West Germany, tasked with the job of “laying down” a B-61 nuclear bomb (or “dial-a-disaster”, as the kiloton yield could be adjusted with a dial on the bomb itself) on some underground Warsaw Pact communications center outside of Prague. That is, if the big bad balloon had gone up and the USA and the USSR had pressed their respective and figurative red doomsday buttons. All this, of course, IAW the SIOP…which carefully integrated the US military’s triad into a massive end-times attack as the ultimate of various options.
Ah, fun times during the Cold War.
The real B61 nuke “device” to some, had a beautiful mahogany nosecone and was much smaller than you’d think–less than a thousand pounds and easily stored in most standard living rooms on a very sturdy coffee table. Upon delivery of the “package”, even at Mach-snot, the Escape Distance Actual was less then the Escape Distance Required, if I remember right. That was way BITD in 1987-1989. Then The Wall came tumbling down and suddenly we were all friends, Trabants (“spark plugs with roofs”) were putt-putting into Berlin to buy stuff (anything!), we shook hands with the guards in East Berlin, rented a hammer and chisel from a couple of young Turks, and ended up with a multi-colored piece of The Wall on our mantelshelf.
Interesting how times and politics change. Thank you, Slim Pickens!
Oh, yes, photography!
As to the photography theme…I used the Sony RX100ii exclusively during this trip. It fits in your pocket–a huge convenience–and has a 20mp sensor that does pretty well in low light despite its small size. Its image stabilization works fairly well also, thus making for a good handheld system for a traveler. The lens has a 28mm to 100mm equivalent optical zoom (f/1.8-4.9). Newer versions of the RX100, starting with the iii (3), have a 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens–so, you get a much faster lens for low light at the expense of telephoto range.
In the following pics, I will give you the basic EXIF data with each of these images (along with a few relevant comments) so you can judge for yourself how effective this little Sony might be in your personal paws. (They are up to version 5 now; the one I used on this trip was a version 2, or ii.)
This is a view of part of the St. Vitus Cathedral, on the grounds of the famous Prague Castle, to demonstrate what you can do with this camera if you shoot in raw. Take a look at this next pair of photos and compare them. Both are the same image from the same shutter click–the second is what came out of the camera as a JPEG and the first is the raw version with which I was able to pull out an impressive amount of unseen detail from the shadows. I ran this raw version through Photoshop Elements and Google/Nik Color Efex Pro (Tonal Contrast filter):
This JPEG straight-outa-the-camera photo looks like crap, huh. This is a great advert for shooting in raw then developing your photos with appropriate software. Yes, you could work on this JPEG in post, but you would not have near the latitude to move those sliders–especially in shadows–as you would with a raw file:
Moving inside, here are two low-light shots of the spectacular St. Vitus Cathedral, which demonstrate the high ISO/low shutter speed handheld capability of the camera. In addition to my usual post-processing flow, I also ran both images through Topaz DeNoise. Doing that eliminated the very obvious noise at this high ISO, but at the expense of some detail. EXIF data is shown on each–note the slow shutter speeds. Still, a very usable image for the web:
In high contrast scenes, especially at night (or twilight, in this case), the Sony struggles. I sure missed my D800 at such scenes. It seems like low-light interiors are handled much better. Still, this view of Prague Castle is not too bad for such a small camera:
This next photograph, on yet another night, shows the camera’s capability with a completely dark sky and a rising and very bright full moon. (I swear I could hear the werewolf’s cry!) I cheated a bit, though–some thin clouds passing over Mother Moon helped mitigate her strong highlights so her face looks almost properly exposed. Normally, the Sony wouldn’t handle the contrast and the moon would show as a pure white disc in these conditions:
On three separate mornings, I got up before dawn so as to be on the Charles Bridge before sunrise. The weather and lighting conditions were quite different each time, but it was the fog day I liked the best. At these early hours, there were no crowds on the bridge, mostly just a few other photographers with their cameras and tripods stuck to their eyeballs. If you want to have the lamps illuminated in your photos get there early as they apparently turn them off about 20 minutes before official sunrise.
Trying to come up with original compositions that haven’t already been printed on the postcards is always the challenge:
For luck, rub Charles IV’s prostrate, cold, polished, and lifeless bronze body with your greasy hand as millions of others have done before (right). The Prague Castle was barely visible on the hill through the freezing December fog:
You can walk down beside the bridge for a different perspective. Unfortunately, the swans refused to swim into my foreground to help out the composition. I believe those log structures are to keep boats and flood debris away from the bridge–past floods have caused significant structural damage to the historical icon.
As you look at the EXIF data, notice that I tended to shoot at slow shutter speeds quite a bit and it didn’t seem to be much of a problem. To ensure a sharp shot, though, I would make multiple captures of the same scene, brace myself when I could, or I pushed out against the camera strap I had around my neck to stabilize:
And the big, creepy, creeping, bronze babies, an over-sized sculpture group by David Černý, are not far away from the penguins. Apparently folks like to play cowboy on top of them and pick their missing snotty noses given how polished they have become. (BTW, if you are interested in bizarre sculptures in Prague, take a look at THESE SIX.):
Now, back to more interior shots with a visit to the various Jewish Synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. Here, on the walls in the Pinkas Synagogue, you will find the names of all the Czech and Moravian Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust…very moving:
On your way to the next synagogue, you will pass through perhaps the most famous Jewish cemetery in the world (and the largest in Europe) dating from the 1400s to the late 1700s. Since horizontal expansion of the Old Jewish Cemetery was normally not allowed, dirt was brought in to allow proper vertical separation of the dead, with all of the tombstones being continually moved to the topmost layer. Thus the crowding of tilted tombstones representing burials as much as 12 layers down:
In this wall, behind the bar, they have preserved fragments of tombstones dating from the mid-1300s:
My favorite view of the Old Jewish Cemetery, from a window in the Ceremonial Hall…something about the symbolism of the bars and the distant perspective:
In addition to the Old New (above), the Spanish Synagogue is another amazing must-see in the Jewish Quarter. Really, and ironically, shouldn’t it be called the “Arab Synagogue” based on the motifs and architecture? But Spain was occupied by the Arabs for 700 years, so there is understandable confusion and mixing of the Spanish and the Arab (in music, language, customs, art, as well):
The geometry will pull hard at the photographer’s eyeballs, without a doubt. Here, a ceiling view:
Time to offer up another raw versus JPEG-from-the-camera comparison. The first image below is what I was able to do with a raw file during post-processing–bringing up the shadows, reducing excessive highlights, eliminating noise, enhancing the color and contrast a bit, etc. The second image is what came out of the camera with no post-processing at all. Again, you could try working on that dark JPEG, but you would likely start seeing weird artefacts as you move those shadow sliders to the right to pull out detail. The JPEG file just wouldn’t have the processing flexibility of the raw file:
As you exit the Spanish Synagogue, pause and reflect by Jaroslav Róna’s Franz Kafka statue, an apperent reference to a surreal scene in one of Kafka’s earlier works, Description of a Struggle. The sculpture is easy to find–just look for the throngs of tourists taking turns having their photo snapped by Kafka’s shiny toes:
Now, a couple of odds and ends…If you take an early morning walk on the hillside above the west bank toward the Prague Castle you may be surprised to see Old Glory waving back at you. This would be the American Embassy grounds, always located on prime real estate, dontcha know:
Stop at the Lennon Wall while you are near the Charles Bridge, southwest end. Consider bringing paints and adding something profound to the peace collage. Avoid adding to the catalogue of stupid and inane grafitti that seems to be crowding out the good stuff. Consider the Wall’s history and do something creative instead:
A visit to the Museum of Communism is well worth your time. It is a chilling journey through the Czech experience with the Cold War from the beginnings after WWII through the “Prague Spring” and the “Velvet Revoltuion“. Having served in the US Air Force in West Germany during that time (see my B61 bomb comments above), I found the exhibits particularly interesting and meaningful:
Finally, here is what I meant with the Ryan Air/McDonalds reference earlier:
So, Prague was spectacular–one of the most beautiful cities I have seen so far. And the Sony RX100ii was a fair companion on the trip. Let me know how your trip to Prague goes!