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!


Vanishing America

Far too often in what I do, I am reminded of how quickly something can change. I know I’ve said it often, but it remains true, that photography is about this very moment , that even though I can go to the same place and take the same picture, the weather will be different, the angle of the sun, and I am convinced that the mood I am in, whether I have exercised that day, and even what I had for breakfast will make a difference. And sometimes the subject will have changed, or disappeared entirely the next time.

I was going through Phillipsburg, New Jersey last spring. I discovered the Key City Diner a few weeks earlier and had gotten some shots of it, only the sun was not cooperating and somebody had parked a van right next to the sign. I figured a morning shot would be better, so before my morning appointment in Easton, I charged across the border on 78 and turned back up on to old US 22. I love the old US Highway system: some of the best secrets are hidden there.

I got stopped at pretty much every light, which, if I was normal, would annoy me, but since I constantly have my head on a swivel looking for signs, the red lights are always welcome. It was cloudy, but there was a promise of sun. And off to the side, I see a Drive-In Restaurant.


Originally called Tony’s when it opened in 1956, it was bought in the early 80s and renamed Sammy’s after the new owner, Sam Ayoub.


You can somehow tell when a place is enjoyed. I could see the kids in line in their little league uniforms and their parents sitting in these outdoor seats with their ice cream. I could also see the “For Sale” sign, and I was glad that I stopped to document the old place before it went away completely.

A few weeks ago I drove by and the Hershey’s Sign and the Sammy’s Drive-In sign were gone. I later read an article that Sammy’s signs and most everything inside was auctioned off in February of this year. I’d like to think someone will take it over and make it a local treasure once again, but…

There’s a grouping of signs that I’ve taken since 2009 that have already gone by the wayside. I’ve put them on a new page called Vanishing America.