Allow me to get technical for a moment.

It’s been an odd year for us this year. It started out with two months worth of interviews for a job that would have uprooted us to live in frozen climes, only to see it end ingloriously with a job offer that fell below the radar, followed by a trip to San Antonio, followed by taking turns with the flu. In the midst of all this, I finally decided it was high time to upgrade my lens from a kit and a few old manual primes to something better.

Mine is a Pentax K5, which has been a treat. The Pentax “limited” lens group is well recognized for its build quality and sharpness, but unfortunately, funds are just as limited and I can only afford to get one at a time. Which brings up the messy business of figuring out which lens, in fact, works best for my purposes. In that spirit, I decided to go out to some of my favorite local spots to see what focal lengths I normally use.

My first thought was that I would need something more like a portrait lens, perhaps the 70mm from Pentax, or if I felt like laying down some good money, the 77mm that everyone raves about. I came to a different conclusion on my first stop, The Movies in Hellertown. I put my 70-300 zoom on the K5 and stood across the road, knowing the results of the shots I’ve taken before. Only problem is, I couldn’t get much of anything in shot, so I went back to the kit and shot this one at a focal length of 24mm.

The Movies, Hellertown, PA

My 50mm prime was just as inadequate from this distance with this shot, so I pulled out my old 28mm and got this. Bear in mind I don’t have any room behind me to stand any further back, unless I wanted to be bold and walk up on someone’s front porch:

The Movies, Hellertown, PA

Strike one for anything above 24mm, but then again, compared to most of my sign pictures, this is an unusually large structure ( I also remind myself that Pentax makes a 21mm pancake lens, which would be ideal for this shot). A bit disappointed, I moved on to something smaller, but also one with challenges. I scooted across the border into Phillipsburg, NJ to Eddie’s Drive-In. This old ice cream stand has closed and sits in the parking lot of The Sand Bar, right near the Free Bridge across the Delaware. I put the kit lens on to start, and this time, I used a focal length of 31mm:

Eddie's Drive-In at 31, Phillipsburg, NJ

Exactly what I wanted, and as it happens, the jewel in Pentax’s crown as far as lenses is concerned, is their 31mm lens. However, if you take a gander at the price tag for this jewel, you’ll understand that this causes another dilemma. I went back to the car and put the 75-300 back on. Not enough room for me to get this even from the porch of The Sand Bar at 75, so I stood at an angle and got this shot:

Eddie's Drive-In at 75, Phillipsburg, NJ

Decent, but not exactly what I was looking for (but, by the way, Laura liked this shot better that the other). Strike two, as far as I was concerned. Anything above 40mm would not be able to get the straight-on shot I was looking for. But again, this sign is a tough one, and you really need to get the full building in shot to get the best out of it.

Then I went to Shankweiler’s Drive-In in Orefield, PA. This is a smaller sign, free-standing, and has a lot of room to stand back. In this case, the 75mm worked very well:

Shankweiler's Drive-In, Orefield, PA

But which ones of these was the rarity? The large object with very little room to stand back, or the smaller neon sign with lots of room for me to roam? I kind of knew the answer to this, but when I went back home, I figured I’d go back and look at all the shots I’d already taken, and see what focal lengths I use the most often.

What I found was that I very infrequently shoot at the wide end of my capabilities, which is 18mm. This shot from Olga’s last fall was one of few that I shot at that range.

Olga's Diner from the front, Marlton, NJ

Occasionally, the best shot I took was from 75mm with my long zoom lens, but almost always I used anything higher than that to shoot details of the sign. This was one of the few I took at above 75, from Harrington Music in Cortland, NY this past spring. This one was a rarity because I rarely get a clear shot from that distance:

Harrington Music in Cortland, NY

Overall, I shot mostly in the 28mm-40mm range, and fortunately, there are many good choices in the Pentax limited line that fit the bill. Of course, if anyone has a spare 77mm 1.8 on their hands they can let me borrow, I certainly won’t turn it down. Wish me luck!


New York State of Mind

Not the most original title, huh? But this is the song I would play every time I came home from college: I had the exact moment timed on my audio cassette version of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits so “New York State of Mind” would play as soon as I crossed the border. That kind of stupidity takes dedication.


Although most of what you see on this site takes place in Pennsylvania, the more you read the more you will see that my heart belongs in Upstate New York. Both me and my wife were born there, my parents still live there, and any time we talk about getting away from it all, it always ends up with us going Upstate, whether it be to the Finger Lakes or Cooperstown or the dear old hometown of Binghamton. So I guess it comes as no surprise that we’ve spent our last two anniversaries in Skaneateles, a town which defines idyllic.

Every year, Lititz, PA gets named one of (if not the) coolest small town in America. I’ve been to Lititz. Nah. Give me Skaneateles any old day.


But do you have a lake, Lititz? Thought not.

But I kid the Lititz.

Now you’ll be amazed to know that Skaneateles has precisely zero vintage or neon signs, but despite this tremendous flaw, I would live there happily and perhaps skip for joy on occasions when I thought people weren’t looking. However, there are still good signs about within easy driving distance, including my favorite sign location in the state.

On the way up, we slid through Cortland. Cortland is one of these places that has some great history, as it was home to Smith-Corona and quite a bit of industry, but the last 30 years have been pretty lean. One thing I’ve noticed about the signs in towns like Cortland: either all the old signs come down, or businesses hang on to their signs for dear life. Fortunately, Cortland seems to fall in the latter category.

skyliner motel-cortland

The Cortland Motel and the Skyliner are off the McGraw exit of I-81. The Skyliner, alas, is no more, but the sign is still up, and points to a vacant lot. The Motel sign was kind of an afterthought. We pulled in and I took a couple of shots from the car, but this turned out to be one of the better finds.

To be quite honest, we were lost. Quite frankly, it’s easy to do in downtown Cortland. They basically toss you on to one way streets until you find yourself in Homer, or Dryden, or Groton. But as I righted the ship and turned back toward the center of town, I found the Melody Land:


This place dates back to before the 40s, is only open Wednesday to Saturday during dinner hours, and is family-owned. According to all accounts, you must get reservations to get in. It was a pity: we got there a good six hours too early…

A few one-way streets later and I was speeding toward Homer (which in this case, was the direction I had hoped) because I remembered a sign along the way that I had missed the previous year. If you take shots of signs as I do, you’ll know this feeling: you spot the sign right at the moment where it would be dangerous to pull over, so you continue on in hopes that you’ll be back again. Even though I had fallen into this trap, I was rewarded:


It was just after noon, and midway through my indulgence the neon of the sign suddenly came alive. I hadn’t gone in and asked. It made me smile.


The fact of the matter was, when I went inside afterward, the woman working there had no idea I was there. Apparently, they have the sign turned on all the time, and she had just forgotten when she had come in. But we had a great talk and gave me the owner’s card. When I got back in the car, I was just so thankful that someone recognized the underlying thing of what I do with these shots: the preservation and appreciation of these great pieces of history.

But not everybody sees it this way. More later…