Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Traveling to Korea (again) - What's In My Bag?

 


I've owned this bag for 6 or 7 years and I still can't believe how much gear it holds.


It's been about six months since I first received word that I would be returning to South Korea for my next military assignment. Out of all the possible assignments, this was perhaps the best option for me. It's where I spent the three years just prior to Fort Bliss, Texas, where I have spent the past five years and the area in which I bought a house and hope to grow roots once my military career is over. 

South Korea is also where I found my renewed vigor and passion for photography. As strange as it seems to me now, the first time I traveled to Korea I took with me only one very small camera. The old Sony Bloggie, which was essentially a cell phone camera, without the cell phone. I acquired nearly the entirety of my current camera inventory while I was in Korea from 2013-2016. That being said, the big difference this time was that I had to decide which gear I would bring with me. Obviously, I would not be able to bring EVERYTHING, as my inventory/collection is way too big to take with me on the plane and I chose not to have anything shipped. Whatever I could fit into my https://amzn.to/37FWC75, that would be it.

I first had to consider my needs. What camera bodies would best fit the type of photography I would be doing? For reasons that are obvious, I usually get tasked with the additional duty of Battalion Public Affairs Representative, which in Korea equates to a fair amount of shooting photos in the field. When it comes to shooting Army training in the field, it means dirt, dusty, muddy and overall austere environments. For these reasons, I actually repurchased the Sony A99 that I had previously sold and within the past two years, I picked up a very nice, used Sony A77II

Both the Sony A99 and Sony A77II are built to handle these types of rough and rugged shooting environments. Both have a magnesium alloy chassis and a fully articulating rear LCD screen, which gives me great confidence in that I can simply turn the screen inward, to the "closed" position to minimize the chance of damage. With the A7 and A6000 mirrorless line of cameras, this isn't an option. I have also found the IBIS systems to be a bit touchy when it comes to being bounced and thrown around the back of a Humvee.

Aside from being well-built for shooting in field environments, both of these camera bodies deliver outstanding image quality and shooting capabilities. The only thing I can really complain about is the smaller buffer on the A99, but then again, this camera was first released back in 2012. But I've always loved the images that this full-frame camera produces, even the .jpgs straight from the camera look great. The A77II picks up the slack, such as wireless connectivity, higher FPS and eye auto-focus. Overall they compliment each other well, both have a 24mp sensor, one is full-frame, the other APS-C.

But, I also brought a third camera, which I will talk about further on down the blog. For now, let's talk about the lenses...

Choosing which lenses to pack was a more difficult decision than choosing camera bodies. I've amassed quite an impressive array of Sony A Mount lenses over the years. But what is perhaps more interesting than which lenses I chose to bring, are the lenses I chose NOT to bring. 

Among the lenses I DID NOT pack were perhaps my two best A-Mount lenses; the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Sony G 70-200mm f/2.8. Why in the world would I not bring those along? The answer is pretty simple really. Primarily it had to do with size and weight. Both of these lenses are quite large and heavy. The Zeiss 24-70 weighs in at 2 pounds, 11 ounces and the 70-200 weighs in at 3.26 pounds. Between the two that's 6 pounds. In addition, they take up so much room in my bag, it would severely limit what else I could bring along. Lastly, these are two of my best lenses, pricey too. I simply did not want to put them at risk on a long journey, knowing that I will be doing a fair amount of shooting in austere environments. 

So let's start with the longer focal lengths and work our way down.

I knew I would need a versatile zoom lens and the Sony G 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 was a perfect fit. The zoom range is generous and while this lens only stops down to 4.5 at 70mm, it still delivers fantastic images. The A99 and A77II can both shoot well at higher ISOs, so if I ever need to shoot with this lens in low light, it can still deliver. But the main reason I went with this lens over the 70-200 f/2.8 is the weight. It weighs in at a mere 1.68 pounds. That's about 1 1/2 pounds lighter! Truth be told, at the last minute, I had intended to leave the 70-300 at home as well, with the intention of bringing along the Minolta "beer can" 70-210mm with a constant f/4 aperture and it weighs even less. However, I forgot to switch them out. Oh well. 

I also packed the Minolta 135mm f/2.8. This is a very compact and light lens considering it's focal length. It weighs in at only 12.9 ounces and measures a mere 2.5 x 3.26 inches. I wanted to bring along a high quality portrait / telephoto lens and this vintage beauty fit the bill perfectly and takes up very little space in my bag.

That's it for the longer focal lengths. What about standard zoom lenses?

I kept it pretty simple when it came to standard zooms. I recently purchased the Sony 16-50mm f/2.8 APS-C (24-75mm full frame equivalent) lens for use on my A77II and my A6500 (with an adapter). It weighs in at 1.28 pounds and makes for a great everyday walk around lens. I've always had an affinity for mid-range zoom lenses and this one is quite nice. For my full frame A99 I opted to bring the Minolta 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5. This is another well-built vintage lens that I wanted to bring along in case I needed a mid-range zoom on the A99, just in case the A77II was busy doing something else. I don't see myself using it very much, the performance doesn't stack up very well compared to the Sony 16-50mm that I'll be using most of the time I need a mid-range zoom. I just wanted a full frame option in my bag.

As amazing at it might seem, in addition to the lenses I have already mentioned, I still had plenty of room to pack 4 more lenses, all of them primes; three full frame and one APS-C.


It was a foregone conclusion that I would bring along a 50mm lens. The Minolta 50mm f/1.4 is an awesome and extremely affordable prime lens. I've seen it listed on eBay for as little as $100 USD but the normally sell for between $140 and $180 depending on the condition. I predict that this awesome little lens will be spending a significant amount of time on my A99. 

I wanted to bring a wide angle lens and had originally packed the Minolta 20mm f/2.8 but when I decided to bring along my drone at the last minute, I needed to save on space. The Minolta 20mm isn't all that big but it is kind of fat (it uses a 72mm filter thread). So I made the decision to take it out of the bag and replace with the much smaller, although not nearly as wide, Minolta 28mm f/2.8, which is much smaller, thus taking up less space (it takes a 49mm filter). I don't shoot a lot of super wide angle photos so I think 24mm or 28mm ought to cover my needs. Besides, I already have my eye on picking up a Minolta 17-35mm f/2.8-4 while I am over here. I've seen those for as little as $199 USD and it is a mighty fine lens.

I also brought along the Sony 85mm SAM f/2.8 lens, which is a nice, yet cheap portrait lens. I used to own the mighty (and mighty heavy) Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, but once I decided to reacquire the A99, I didn't have the funds for the Zeiss, having already purchased the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 for my E Mounts. So I took a chance on this light-weight little lens and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it is built almost entirely of plastic but that worked out just fine for me, given that I am trying to save on weight wherever I can and this lens weighs in at a mere 6 ounces!

Lastly, I picked up another cheap prime lens, very similar in build to the 85mm, this one being the Sony DT 35mm f/1.8 which is an APS-C lens for use on my A77II. It offers an equivalent field of view of 52.5mm on a full frame camera. It also weighs in at 6 ounces and gives me a nice option for low light shooting if I happen to not have the 50mm on my A99. I guess. I probably could have left this one at home since the Sony 16-50mm, which is also for APS-C use on the A77II, will most likely be living full time on that camera body. But it was so nice and small, I threw it in the bag.


THE THIRD CAMERA

There's nothing wrong with either the Sony A99 nor the Sony A77II. I could have brought only those two camera bodies and been just fine for however many years I'm going to be stationed in Korea this time. But I've spent serious amounts of money on a few serious cameras that offer serious specs. I wanted to bring something small with next level image quality. My options were, the Leica D-Lux Typ 109, the Sony RX100 IV and/or the Sony RX1RII. These three are my most compact cameras.

While I love the look that the Leica D-Lux delivers and the versatility of the 24-75mm f/1.7 lens, I have found it to be a rather fragile camera, not really suitable for the long distance travel and unknown terrain I was sure to be crossing. It's a fine point and shoot for street photography in good conditions but I don't feel confident enough to bring it on a mountain hike, in cold or wet weather on the Korean Peninsula. So that one stayed home.

I've had the Sony RX100 IV for a number of years and it has never disappointed me. It is extremely small and I have always liked the image and 4k video quality. But the sensor in it is quite small (it features a 1 inch sensor which is about 1/4 the size of a full frame sensor) and the aperture only goes to f/11 which limits my shootings options for long exposure landscapes. And although it features a built in ND filter, it is still extremely limited. This is a fine camera, built tough too, but it simply didn't offer me enough options when it came to what I think I might be needing.

So that left only the Sony RX1RII. This is perhaps, the camera that delivers the best, sharpest, highest resolution images in my entire collection. The 42mp full frame sensor, is perfectly matched to the fixed, 35mm Zeiss f/2 lens. It's a great camera for street photography, well, any genre of photography really. And I've had great results with it for landscape photography, which I plan to be doing plenty of while I'm over here. I brought along a variable ND filter and 4 extra batteries. The extra batteries are a must because this thing goes through the tiny little NP-BX1 batteries really fast. This is the only downside to this camera. The tiny NP-BX1 is the same battery that's used in Sony Action Cams and in the RX100. IT IS SMALL. But small is the operative word here. The Sony RX1RII is relatively compact, extremely compact when you consider it packs a 42mp full frame sensor. And that's what I needed, a super-high-quality camera in a compact body, easy to fit in my bag with everything else we've mentioned so far.


WHAT ELSE IS IN THE BAG?

No landscape photographer worth his salt (is that even a saying?) would be caught dead without a decent set of filters. I brought a modest assortment of ND filters and a variable polarizing filter. I did not pack a full-sized tripod, but I did bring along a very handy Manfrotto mini tripod, which doubles as a sort of handheld stabilizer. I also brought the cell phone holder that goes with it. I'm planning on simply buying a full-sized tripod once I'm settled in, it's time for a new one anyway.

I brought along a basic cleaning kit complete with sensor cleaning swabs, liquid, dust blower and brush plus a few microfiber cleaning cloths.

I also packed a microphone, the Sony ECM-XYST1M which is great for better quality audio and mounts right to the camera hot shoe and I packed a basic external flash, the Sony HVLF20M. I wanted to bring along a larger flash but I simply didn't have room for it in the bag. Additionally there are the various battery chargers and spare batteries for the Sony A99 and A77II and my Dell XPS 15 laptop which slid snuggly into the laptop slot at the rear of the bag. I've upgraded this to 32gb of RAM, along with the Intel i7 processor, it easily handles HD and 4K video editing tasks. 


And lastly, I ultimately decided to make room for my DJI Mavic Mini drone. Granted, it wasn't that difficult to make room because it's so small, even with the controller, spare props and spare battery but I did have to switch out the larger Minolta 20mm wide angle lens for the smaller 28mm but it was a small sacrifice considering how much I flew a drone the last time I was in Korea. Back then it was the Phantom 2. 


It's really quite impressive, the amount of gear I was able to pack into my bag. I guess that's part of the reason I bought it in the first place. It's lasted a number of years without any tears or serious wear, although, I can tell it's starting to near the end of it's service life. I have yet to find it's equal and will probably replace it with the identical model. 

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for photos from my Korean adventures over the next few years!


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Progress, Not Perfection - Meet Ben Clagett (Walking Across America!)

There's a long stretch of New Mexico State Highway 9 that runs through what has to be one of the most isolated and desolate places in the lower 48. If you're traveling West, Highway 9 ends at a "T" intersection with Highway 80, intimately close to the Arizona state line, nearly straddling it.

On Thursday, February 4th 2021, I made a round trip from my home in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, to Tombstone, Arizona where I met up with a friend, but let me stay on track, lest I "veer off the highway" and start telling that story (although, truth be told, there's not much to tell, I had lunch, watched a wild west show and that's about it for Tombstone). 


Ben Clagett walks along a stretch of New Mexico State Highway 9, near the Arizona border promoting walkfor60.com

On the return leg, with the sun at my back, coming the way I had come in the morning (also with the sun at my back), this had me therefore, traveling Eastbound on Highway 9, having just made the turn off of Highway 80, I spotted, along the side of the road, a moving, animated figure. As I closed the distance, traveling at about 70 MPH in my Jeep, I was able to make out a marker flag of some sort and a person wearing an orange safety vest. All at once, as I drove past, I was able to briefly make out that this person was walking, pushing an oversized three-wheel stroller/buggy. 

But what was he doing way out here? 50 miles in any direction from the nearest town. This wasn't just a local out for a late afternoon stroll. I just had to find out what the story was. I applied the brakes and made a U-turn to investigate.

As I pulled along side, I blurted out "Do you mind if I take your picture?" (For lack of a better ice breaker).

"Sure" the stranger in the orange safety vest replied.

I wasn't sure if he was going to stop what he was doing, or talk to me as he continued with his walk. He definitely had a look of determination in his attempt to get to wherever he was going. I parked about 50 meters ahead of him and when he reached my location, he did indeed stop. I felt guilty for the entirety of our interaction, feeling as if I was keeping him from getting to where he was going, which would now take a bit longer thanks to me.

"I'm walking across the country." he exclaimed. 

"Well, Jacksonville to San Diego, actually."

(Holy shit!) I thought to myself. I might have even said it out loud, I can't be sure.


"Is there a cause?" I asked, diving further into this roadside curiosity. 

"I'm Ben." introducing himself as he unzipped his stroller, reaching for a business card. "I'm promoting walking." (Which makes perfect sense, doesn't it?) 

"I'm Felix" I replied in kind.

"I'm also a recovering alcoholic," he continued. "My web site is Walk for 60. I'm trying to get people to get out and walk at least 60 minutes a day for better health. I'm a recovering alcoholic. It's (walking) helped me in my recovery."

On the front of his stroller is a hand written sign...

Walking 

Across 

America

Progress, not perfection

Take a step today!

"Progress, not perfection" struck me with its genius philosophical simplicity. It's not about how much you do, it's about doing SOMETHING. One step at a time. Which as Ben himself pointed out to me, was key in his continued success overcoming alcoholism. This philosophy can be applied to any endeavor in your life and it's one that I consistently am in need of being reminded of. So it was perhaps my fate, that I should have had this all-too-short, chance encounter, on the loneliest stretch of a remote New Mexico highway. 

"Do you mind if I take YOUR picture too?" Ben asked politely.

"Of course!" I answered.

We exchanged a few more pleasantries and I mentioned that I was a photographer and soldier, headed to Korea in a weeks time. He told me about how the simple act of walking has impacted his life "one step at a time" as he and many others have espoused.

Still feeling guilty about the delay I caused in his already lengthy-enough journey, we shook hands and concluded our all-too-brief encounter. I would have liked to have talked more, but both he and I had places to get to, and the sun was dropping rapidly. 

And as amazing as it was, to meet someone in this remote place, walking across the entire country, that isn't the best part of this story. The best, most amazing and incredibly inspiring part about Ben, is that THIS IS HIS THIRD TIME WALKING ACROSS AMERICA!

Please take a moment to follow and support Ben in his efforts at the following pages and sites:

Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/walkfor60/

Web - https://walkfor60.com/ 

Make a donation (I donated a modest $15) - https://walkfor60.com/how-can-i-help/

Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/been_walkin/


Ben Clagett walks along New Mexico State Highway 9



The photo that Ben took of me posing alongside his buggy/stroller. Holding my Sony RX1RII. NOTE: All photos in this blog, except for this one, were taken with my Sony RX1RIIBen posted thia photo on his pages later that same day. We now follow each other on social media and I look forward to reading about the successful conclusion of his walk across America.

Now then, since this is a photography blog, and I intended to snap a few photos on my day trip to and from New Mexico to Arizona. I find it only fitting and mandatory that I share a few other images of scenes that caught my attention along what ended up being a fabulous and wonderful day.


How much resolution does the Sony RX1RII deliver? Check out the above photo (original) and the cropped and edited photo below. With 42mp to play with, you can crop in 100% or more and still retain a super high resolution image.



A must see if you're ever in Southeastern Arizona is the Coronado National Forest. Sadly, I only had about a half hour to spend there, but managed to snap a few nice photos and capture a short video with my DJI Mavic Mini drone.





Sample video shot with the Mavic Mini


Above photo capture at 400 feet altitude with the DJI Mavic Mini


Above: the view looking Southwest towards the dramatic entrance to the Coronado National Forest.

Below: a few more images from my road trip...



Above and below, just another pair of examples of the 42megapixel resolution of the Sony RX1RII at about 120% crop, it's amazing!









Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tamarkin Camera, Chicago Leica Dealer - Service Above and Beyond Expectations


Pictured above: My Leica D-Lux Typ 109, just back from sensor cleaning service at Leica USA
(Image captured with Leica M240 and Zeiss ZM 50mm f/2 lens.

My dad recounts the days, back in the 1950's, when you pulled into a gas station, and several young men in bow ties jogged out to your car and treated you to a full service experience when you stopped to fill up that tank. They checked the oil, tire pressure and pumped the gas for you. That was service, the kind of service which seems to be getting harder and harder to find. But there is a place, in the retail photography world, which has set itself apart, at least in my admittedly minimal experience and interaction with them, and that's Tamarkin Camera, Chicago, a certified Leica dealer.

I first visited Tamarkin Camera back in April of 2018. I was in Chicago for a 4 day weekend, visiting a girlfriend and had some time to spare. I wandered around the street of Chicago doing a little street photography, but I had circled Tamarkin Camera on my map and went to this particular area of Chicago with the specific intention of visiting this Leica store. This is when I first met the proprietor of this fine camera store which specializes in the upscale, luxury camera brand, the one and only Leica. By coincidence, the camera I took along with me on my trip to Chicago was this very same Leica D-Lux Typ 109.

This is also when I met Dan Tamarkin, who took over the business in 2012 from his father, Stan, who started it in 1971. I suspect that Dan's zest for life, personable demeanor and passion for all things Leica must have rubbed off on him from his dad. Although, my dad and I could not be more different, it's a near impossibility for at least some of a father's traits not to be passed on to his sons. That being said, Dan's genuine care for his customers must have been the same in his father. This man truly cares about service. And just to prove it's not all about the almighty dollar, continue reading...


300 West Superior Street Suite C
Chicago, IL,60654



Dan Tamarkin, owner Tamarkin Camera - follow him @ https://www.instagram.com/dan_tamarkin/

A couple months ago, I made the mistake of taking my Leica D-Lux Typ 109 out to the dusty and dirty desert environment (which is prevalent in Southern New Mexico), the edge of which starts mere yards from my home. My good friend Keith and I were headed out to fly my DJI Mavic Mini drone, as he wanted to fly it for himself in his effort to decide which drone he was going to buy (he ended up pruchasing the DJI Mavic Air 2, a very nice drone indeed). As this was not to be an outing for photography, I just grabbed one of my point and shoots, which ended up being the Leica D-Lux Typ 109. I could have also reached for my Sony RX100 IV, Fujifilm X100S or Sony RX1RII, but alas, I seem to always choose my Leica. 

The problem with this fine little camera, and I should have considered this before selecting it for this particular outing, is that it's not the best choice when shooting in austere environments. As I unfortunately discovered, the "in-n-out" motion of the lens when the camera is powered on and then off, can have a tendency to "suck in" dust particles which can end up inside the camera body, on the sensor itself, which is exactly what happened on the day in question. 

What does any of this have to do with Dan and his fine store, Tamarkin Camera, located far, far away in Chicago? I'm getting to that.

In addition to the dust getting inside the camera body and on the sensor, I also unwittingly cracked my screen protector and ended up with a small scuff on the rear LCD screen, fortunately there was no actual damage to that camera and functionality was not affected. But how would I remedy the dust on the sensor? After all, the Leica D-Lux Typ 109 is a fixed lens camera and I have never been very handy at disassembling and reassembling sensitive electronics with calibrated lenses, nor would I recommend attempting it.

I went to the Leica USA web site to initiate a service request only to discover that they were closed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and were not accepting any repairs or service requests. So much for that option. Certainly there had to be a camera repair shop open that could assist me? After all, I was going to have to pay for the sensor cleaning service one way or another as this service would not fall under the category of a warranty repair. 

I next contacted Precision Camera in Austin and actually ended up mailing the camera to them, only to be told that they would be unable to perform the sensor cleaning service because they would not be able to re-calibrate the lens. I'm not sure why they didn't have that capability to perform this service but alas, I was resigned to the fact that I would have to wait until Leica USA reopened for service requests.

And this is where Dan comes in. 

For some reason, I assumed that Dan and his store, Tamarkin Camera did repairs on site, but it turns out he does not. He sends his customer repairs to Leica USA. So when I messaged him asking if he could perform a sensor cleaning on my Leica D-Lux Typ 109, he said only that he could send it in to Leica USA for the sensor cleaning. I mentioned that I had contacted them and they were closed and were not accepting repairs or service requests. This is when he mentioned that Leica USA was accepting repairs and service requests from HIM (and other authorized Leica dealers, I assume) and that he would be happy to send it in on my behalf. Wow! Awesome! Duuuuuude, yes please!

Here comes the punch line, mind you, I have NEVER spent a penny in Dan's fine establishment. Not that I don't want to, it's just that I haven't had the need or the timing simply hasn't jived. When I was in Chicago, at the store back in 2018, I was in the market for a Leica M240, but didn't have the funds at that time. I did feel a little bad when, a week later, I did purchase a used M240 off of eBay, but can sleep well at night because, in fact, I did not have the funds available when I was in Dan's store the week prior, and the package that came with the M240 I bought, was too good to pass up for the price. Dan didn't mind at all, he was just happy to see that I had joined the ranks of Leica M240 owners, a fine group indeed. 

I shipped my Leica D-Lux Typ 109 to Dan and he turned around and shipped it off to Leica USA for the sensor cleaning. It came back in quick order, I think it only took a week or two before he received it back from Leica USA and shipped it back to me. 

It's strange, to feel emotions such as pleasure and joy from the simple experience of receiving a camera back from a sensor cleaning. But honestly, that's exactly what I felt when I got the box from Dan with my camera in it. But that's what owning a Leica (or four) is all about. Leica's do bring pleasure and joy to their owners. They are unique, just like the OUTSTANDING service from Dan and Tamarkin Camera, that went WAY above and beyond any expectations. I have no doubts Dan treats everyone he meets with the same selfless service, friendliness and courtesy. And I also have no doubts that it was his father that taught him so well.

Thanks again Dan!

And if you ever find yourself in Chicago, stop in and introduce yourself. Dan's store also hosts a fine photography gallery as well. I look forward to visiting again. Say Dan, do you happen to have a Leica Summarit 75mm f/2.4 in stock? I'm in the market for one. ;)


Above and below: more images of my Leica D-Lux Typ 109
Captured with my Sony RX100 IV



Monday, June 15, 2020

A Behind the Scenes Look at Paranormal Cirque (Stuck in El Paso)


Olivia, a performer at Paranormal Cirque sits in front of her trailer 2 hours before show time. She performs 7 days a week, with two shows each on Saturdays and Sundays.

The life of a circus performer, there's a romance to the idea of living that lifestyle, but the reality is that the life of a traveling performer can be demanding, grueling and sometimes lonely. It's a nomadic life, with the vast majority of their time spent on the road, away from home. To put it another way, home is the road, an absurdly small space in a trailer. Scant few perfomers can afford a luxury motor home or private"5th wheel" trailer, most live like Olivia, in a room not larger than 10 feet by 6 feet, if that. 


For all intents and purposes, this space is Olivia's home. She spends fewer than 3 weeks a year at her actual home in Las Vegas. 



So, this is home. But thanks to the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic, home has taken on yet another manifestation, this time in the form of a parking lot at the Sunland Park Mall in El Paso, Texas. As they have many times before, the Paranormal Cirque caravan of trucks and vehicles rolled into town, set up their tents and made camp expecting to be in town for two weeks, after which they would pack up and hit the road, making their way to the next town. But not this time. On March 16th 2020, the day they arrived, the cast and crew were notified that all shows were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of the writing of this article, they've been in El Paso for 3 months. El Paso has become home, albeit, a temporary one.

But this article is not about that particular and unusual set of circumstances, that story has already been told in the local press https://kfoxtv.com/news/local/roadshow-circus-stuck-in-el-paso

Instead, I thought I'd share with you the human side of life on the road as a performer and a behind the scenes look at the hours leading up to the big show. Because these are people, just like you and I. And their camp site is a society and subculture all it's own, with the ups and downs, drama, life and love that in many ways mirrors the society that the rest of us live in.

The trailer camp site is a corral of big rigs, motor homes, living quarters, a food truck and various other vehicles, all of which serve to support, house and feed around 60 cast and crew members. Of the 60 personnel, only 16 or so perform in the show, the rest work in various capacities as vendors, cooks, truck drivers, production crew and so on.

It's no surprise, like the people that make up other entertainment shows and productions, theirs is a family. There are romances (love and heartache), drama and cliques. They come from nations as far away as Russia, Senegal and Italy. But what seems to bind and connect all of them is their love of performing, the rewarding feeling of the applause, laughter and delight of the audience. The satisfaction of spending themselves in a worth performance, leaving it all out there, on the stage, much the same way a professional athlete leaves it all on the field of play.







 

Preparations start about two hours before show time. Around the camp site cast and crew begin to appear, some of them making their way to the kitchen trailer where they are provided two meals a day. Those not opting to eat at the kitchen trailer receive a modest meal stipend. I can only assume that the experience of eating at the kitchen trailer every single day isn't too unlike what we soldiers go through, eating at the Army dining facility every day, the food is good, but becomes mundane over time. I cannot confirm what, if any, salary the performers and crew may have received during the two months they were not performing any shows, but they still received free meals and housing, which I would have had to considered a blessing, given the situation.

By the time I arrived to the camp site, around 5pm, a good number of the performers already had their first base of make up on. Olivia came out to meet me, and for some reason, it came as a bit of a surprise that she already had her make up on, but even with that thick white base of make up, I could tell she was an exceptionally beautiful young woman. She was extremely personable, greeting me with a big smile (made to appear even bigger with her exaggerated lipstick) and a hand shake. I'd say we hit it off right away as I am no slouch in the "warm and friendly" department.

From the moment I originated the idea of authoring an article about the show, I knew I wanted to get a glimpse of life behind the scenes and thanks to Olivia's hospitality, I was able to do just that. 

One of the first cast members she introduced me to was Mommy (pronounced 'moe-mee') which is short for Mohammed, he's from Senegal, the Western-most country in Africa. He greeted me with a big smile, his energy is immediate and infectious. It's safe to say, I liked him right away. He seemed to be in a hurry but before he ran off to attend to whatever task had his attention at that moment, he agreed to let me come to his trailer to photograph his pre-show preparations. 




Mommy's trailer is significantly larger, if not more modest and rudimentary, than others. He has his own shower and bathroom, whereas others (those without their own motor home or 5th wheel) share the use of a bathroom and shower. He turns up the volume on what is clearly an African genre of music, he begins dancing to the beat and rhythm as he begins his daily make up ritual. Olivia and I laugh in approval and I can't help but dance a little myself. 





The ticket office opens about an hour before show time, more cast and crew can be seen moving about and their pace has noticeably quickened, food concessions are heating up their grills and fryers, although popcorn seems to be the favorite fair among circus-goers. 

Olivia leads me to the stage, under the big tent. It's larger than it appears from the outside, with ample seating, although, as of the writing of this article, the show is only allowed to be at 25% capacity. They are considered to be a "theater" and their allowable capacity will increase at the same rate as movie theaters, as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. Olivia tells me they have been selling out every show since reopening, which seems to be a clear sign that El Pasoans are eager to get out of their homes and enjoy life in all it's cirque-splendor!

On the stage, there are a pair of uneven bars, 4 bars total, forming a square, this is the equipment set up for the first act. 4 gymnasts who will perform their routine with impeccable timing and a high level of difficulty, made even more so by having to avoid hitting each other while performing their impressive physical feats. My super human talents of deductions and detective skills tell me these four male gymnasts/performers are from Russia and that this act is known as the "Russian Bars". Ok, ok, so there's a "set list" posted backstage, not unlike a set list that a rock band might have on stage. It might not have required talented detective work, but I still consider myself to be a keen observer.



I had not originally planned to stay for the entire show. I was mostly interested in the story behind the scenes but once the show started, I knew I had to stay until the end as it became evident that the show itself is distinctly a part of the lives of the cast and crew and it is the reason that they have come here together, from all parts of the globe, to put on an entertaining show and put their unique talents to good use.





Guests make their way to the main stage via a haunted tunnel, along the way they might encounter scary creatures, ghouls and goblins. Come see the show and experience it for yourself.




Once I started snapping photos of the show, I definitely had to change gears, I worked up a good sweat actually, moving from shooting position to shooting position to get the best angles. Lighting conditions at any stage performance can be difficult due to various intensities and colors of lighting etc. But they can also provide and support a feeling of drama and suspense that hopefully bring the photos to life.

The theme of the show is horror-magical-mystical, for example; the Russian Bars features the four Russian gymnasts not only performing their routine of physical prowess and talent, but they do so in the character of zombies. In fact, this theme runs throughout the show, with all performers in some sort of mystical and/or horror-like make up and costumes.

Take for example the contortionist, who is wheeled out onto the stage in the confines of a cage. The mystical sorcerer releases him to perform is act, which must be seen to be believed (who knew a human body could twist and bend like that?). At the conclusion of the routine, he is placed back in his cage and given a severed human arm to eat, as his reward. It's clever and funny in a macabre sort of way.











Having formerly been a performer myself (not a circus performer), I always feel a kinship with other performers, regardless of their medium or stage. Putting yourself in front of an audience takes a certain type of courage, even more so when you add elements of danger and physical feats. The performers at Paranormal Cirque have no days off, none. They perform shows 7 days a week, with two shows each on Saturdays and Sundays. Their only days to rest are days on which the show is moving to the next city. It has to be an exhausting schedule that puts tremendous strains on their minds and bodies. And in the case of their extended and unexpected stay in El Paso, it had to have added financial stress as well. 

Olivia tells me that the fewest number of people they've performed for is six. As I already mentioned, the seating capacity is currently limited to 25%, and while I am certain the talented cast would prefer to perform in front of a packed house, the show must go on. And go on it does, with each and every performer giving it their all, and spending themselves for the entertainment of the audience. The roar of the applause on the night I was there sure sounded like a packed house. If I had closed my eyes, I would have been hard pressed to believe that there was only 25% of the seats filled. As far as I can tell, El Paso enjoyed the show and appreciated the efforts of the entire cast and crew. I hope that at the very least, Olivia and friends will remember their extended stay here fondly and be able to cast aside the troubles that the first half of 2020 brought with it.

A big and sincere thank you to the entire cast and crew of Paranormal Cirque, for letting me into your personal space, inside your trailers where you live and backstage at the show. It was a real pleasure and I hope the photos do you, your hard work and your talent justice.

Ticket prices start at $10 for youth (ages 13-17) and $20 for adults and are available on site at the box office or online at https://www.paranormalcirque.com/

Enjoy the rest of the photo gallery!

































 


Follow Paranormal Cirque on social media at the following links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/paranormalcirque/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/paranormalcirque/

Follow Olivia on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cirquedragon/