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Spoiler alert:  we made it!

Start:  Destruction Bay, Yukon Territory, Canada

End:  Anchorage, Alaska, USA

Miles:  542 mi

TOTAL TRIP STATS:  3,700 miles / 6 days / avg. ~ 610 miles a day, or 12 hours of driving

Highlights:  Seeing a grizzly bear and two cubs on the road right before the U.S. border … we couldn’t stop because we were in a line of construction.  Those things sure are big!  Arriving back in the U.S. after five days!  Cheap(er) gas prices, with no need for litre and dollar-amount conversion.  Seeing not one but TWO brochures for Chicken, Alaska – and stopping to take a photo of the sign at the start of the highway up to it.  Meeting a couple from Washington and seeing a moose through binoculars.  Crazy wind and mountain views all along the highway to Anchorage.  Driving through a winding mountain pass, with a road sort of tacked onto the side like it would fall off with a little shake.  Stopping to observe a glacial stream (and learning a thing or two about property ownership in Alaska… turns out even on public roads, the land itself is owned to the centerline by the parcel owners…)  Knowing this was finally, finally the last day of driving – and being able to make the push through.  Returning to multi-lane highways between Palmer and Eagle River.  Driving into civilization.  Seeing the big “Anchorage Welcomes You” sign.  Stopping.  Sleeping.  Not driving anymore.

Lowlights:  Road quality, although it actually wasn’t as bad as we had heard.  The roads outside Whitehorse were almost worse, as (unlike most other times we’d driven) it had not been previously raining, so the dust kicked up in all its dusty glory.  Getting to our motel room at 1 AM after unloading all my stuff and realizing there was no way we would get a good night’s sleep on my empty floor.

I haven’t gotten the Google map to work properly since I posted it on Day 2, but in the interim they seem to have updated the route to include that last bit of bad road between Whitehorse and Beaver Creek – before, Google directions would not even register that segment as a passable road! (And to be fair, some of it was pretty bad… full dust and gravel and major potholes).  Here is a link to the overall route map, starting from the Chicago area (and not including the drive from Ithaca to Buffalo to Hilliard to Indiana).  And here is the total route from Ithaca, about 4,500 miles.

Construction dog outside Beaver Creek - it has a jacket!!!

Construction dog outside Beaver Creek - it has a jacket!!!

Welcome to Alaska (I should have gotten a better photo!)

Welcome to Alaska (I should have gotten a better photo!)

Finally, the Alaska portion of the Alaska Highway

Finally, the Alaska portion of the Alaska Highway

Boreal forest and mountains (Wrangell-Elias??)

Boreal forest and mountains (Wrangell-Elias??)

Chicken, Boundary, and Eagle

Chicken, Boundary, and Eagle

Mom observing the moose

Mom observing the moose

Pond along the Highway

Pond along the Highway

Serious mountain situation

Serious mountain situation

There's a glacier in there somewhere

There's a glacier in there somewhere

Brought some of the Alaska Highway with us.  Car needs a wash!

Brought some of the Alaska Highway with us. Car needs a wash!

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William H. Whyte is awesome.

His 1988 classic, City: Rediscovering the Center, is a big book with big ideas–he discusses everything from the use and user-friendly design of plazas to the history of zoning in New York City to the emergence of company campuses (PRE-Garreau’s Edge Cities!) to pretty much everything we think of as contemporary urban design issues.

After so many keen observations, insights, and pronouncements about property city form, however, he concludes with a little bit of self-awareness.  Perhaps pointing out his own hubris is in fact a device which further contributes to it, but it is nevertheless an interesting statement on the role of the researcher in observing human behavior.  The perception of objectivity breaks itself down.

Here’s the final page, and a neat way to end a book:

“Let me append a methodological note.

“I have tried to be objective in this book, but I must confess a bias.  In comparing notes with fellow observers, I find that I share with them a secret vice:  hubris.

“Observation is entrapping.  It is like the scale models architects beguile you with; start lifting off the roofs and you gain the sense of power.  So it is with the observation of a place:  once you start making little maps of it, charting where people come and go, you begin to possess the place.  You do not possess it, of course.  The reality continues to exist quite independent of you or any thoughts you may project onto it.  But you feel you possess it, and you can develop such a proprietary regard for it as to become pettily jealous if anyone else arrogates it.

“A further temptation beckons us.  As time goes on, you become familiar with the rhythms of the various street encounters:  100 percent conversations, prolonged goodbye, reciprocal gestures, straight man and principal.  Now you can predict how they are likely to develop and, by predicting them, get the sense that you are somehow causing them as well.  They are your people out there.  Sheer delusion, of course, but there is nothing so satisfying as to see them all out there on the street doing what you expect they should be doing.

“Three men on the corner are in a prolonged goodbye.  One of them is slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.  No one else is.  At length, the man stops rocking back and forth.  I chuckle to myself.  I know that in a few moments another of the men will take up the rocking motion.  Time passes.  More time passes.  No one budges.  More time passes.  At length, one of the men shifts his weight; slowly, he begins walking back and forth.  I am very pleased with myself.”

William H. Whyte.  City:  Rediscovering the Center.    New York:  Anchor Books, Doubleday,  1988 (1991).

… Possibly the most pretentious post title yet!

So it’s officially Week 7 that I’ve gone without a car . . . that is, it’s still in the shop with transmission problems.  (The lesson to be drawn from the past two summers’ worth of car problems is, do not buy a Subaru without a good warranty and a steady income!)  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on public transit going one place or another, and have taken advantage of the lovely service of the public library.

Earlier in the summer I was avoiding “work” reading (planning-related books), in favor of easy fiction and those random books that had been on my list for a while.  As I reluctantly realize summer is ending, however, I’ve started turning back to the city books.  Rationale:  there’s a long list of planning-related things I should read.  I won’t want to read them during the school year, because that’s all I’ll be doing anyway; light fiction and some “escapist” stuff (easy to pick up and put down and pass out in the middle of a chapter at the end of the day) will be a better idea.  Therefore, better do it now!

One book I picked up (per a friend’s suggestion) is Nan Ellin’s Postmodern Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 rev. ed.).  It’s pretty theoretical and there’s a fair amount of academic name-dropping — even some stuff from the old cultural history reading list!  Hobsbawm! — but it makes some interesting claims about the goals of (post)modern design, what it’s actually doing, and why it’s ultimately still part of the Modern Project.  That is, it might look different than modernist buildings, and it might attempt to return to pre-industrial city form, but it still takes a rational and technocratic approach to achieving its aims.  And it inescapably operates within a market-oriented, consumer-based structure which essentially dictates the outcome of design and planning exercises, however inclusive.  [Insert lots of David Harvey block quotes here.]

Here are a few things to think about.  I still am.

“Recent urban design inarguably advances the modern project because it refuses to relinquish the vast possibilities offered by the new technologies because it is embedded in larger market forces.  Despite its prevalent romantic imagery, its mode of production, distribution, and consumption remain highly rational as do the lifestyles of the people who use it (with a few scattered exceptions).  In architecture, an abandonment of the products and promises of the modern project would constitute an undeniable regression because its evolution has gone hand in hand with that of new technologies.  And a challenge to the modern project on the part of planners would violate the very bases upon which planning rests since the profession emerged during the modern period and is predicated on modernist notions of rationality and progress.  It is not surprising, then, that the architecture and planning professions have largely avoided reflecting too deeply on the continued validity of the modern project.

“Pressed to ascertain whether this recent swing of the pendulum in urban design theory and practice has actually posed a challenge to the modern project or whether it has affirmed it, we must concede that as long as architects and planners seek technical and creative solutions to social problems in pursuit of progress, they continue to pursue the modern project.  While contemporary urban design may break from the modern project formally and rhetorically, it actually continues it technologically, politically, and economically, perhaps with the exception of a growing sensitivity toward social diversity and toward the environment.  Symbolically, contemporary urban design both continues and breaks from the modern project for it suggests to the general public a re-valorization of history, urbanity, the vernacular, and the community, while in fact only cosmetic changes are effected.  In sum, while contemporary urban design may constitute a symbolic break from modernism, in actuality, it continues the project, as is revealed by architects’ and planners’ goals, their means for implementing these goals, their products, and their means of assessing the relative success of these products.

Rather than avoid the drawbacks of modern urbanism, then, architecture and planning since the 1960s are guilty of much the same, albeit unwittingly.  This is largely because the political economy of advanced global capitalism and the continued prominence of positivistic thinking (despite challenges posed to it) impose constraints that limit its actual divergence.  A reality which many architects and planners have preferred to ignore or minimize is that rather than following function, form has increasingly been following finance.  The prime mover, particularly in the more liberal economies, is less the architects and planners than the larger economic system in which they work and which functions according to the profit motive.  Like the initial claims of modern design to be populist, those of postmodern urbanism have also been subverted, perhaps even more so.  But designers are reluctant to acknowledge their ever-growing reliance upon the marketplace for it detracts from their potential for creative expression and for implementing change, not to mention their ability to preserve the legitimacy of their professions.” (212-213)

“Superficially, then, we have come full circle.  This time, however, the pre-industrial-looking landscapes (some of which are more convincing than others) are the product of hyper-rational efforts.  As such, postmodern urbanism might be perceived as dishonest or pretentious for trying to be something it is not.  In addition, its complicity with the political economy in which it is embedded often renders its intents unrealizable, or in the interests of capital rather than the larger good.  As a result, many contextual intentions are stymied and, even when realized, are judged unsuccessful by users and designers alike.  When successful, though, these efforts can result in environments that harmonize with the physical and social contexts and which people appreciate for their non-intrusive quality and formal interest.

“Although the lessons of modern urbanism have yet to be fully assimilated and postmodern urban design theory is inherently flawed, it nonetheless offers certain correctives to its predecessor and has generated some built environments that are widely recognized as superior to those which issued from the tenets of modern urbanism.  Most important is the renewed attention to fulfilling non-functional needs and tastes, as manifest in building on a human scale; reintroducing ornament, color, and whimsy; developing a mix of uses in one project; valuing public spaces of many kinds; and valuing experimentation with new typologies, morphologies, and modes of architectural production including various kinds of user participation, computer-aided design, and serial production techniques.  Some of this experimentation has undeniably enhanced the lives of its users as well as the shape of the landscape.

“The reconceptualizations of the city and of culture over the last few decades are inscribed within the larger challenge to the modern canon in contemporary Western society.  This broadbased challenge is reflected in legitimacy crises in our basic assumptions, ways of knowing, and practice, and it is expressed in the millennial meditations described above.  While all indications suggest a threshold, what lies on the other side remains unclear.  At its worst, the extreme relativism and disengagement that may result from a distrust of master narratives and expertise can eliminate any possibility for communication, ethics, and democratic practice.  With regards to cultural forms of expression, it can detract from any emancipatory and educational possibilities.  The result can be an ultra-subjective alienating sense that there is no longer a “real,” and a corresponding obsession with artifice which allows for easy manipulation by the deft imagery of advertising and other forms of persuasion.  In some respects, then, the efforts among urban designers to remedy the imagery merely play into the hands of this process, ultimately intensifying rather than combating the prevailing sense of insecurity.” (291-292)

I’m looking at you, New Urbanists!!!

Full disclosure, I’m not actually an Illinois resident anymore so this was a bit shady – but the Midwest High Speed Rail Association sent out a general call for members to write their Illinois senators (Congressional and state) to urge support for Illinois’ HSR proposal.

Dick Durbin (D-IL), the state’s senior senator, sent an automated reply.  Sure, it’s from a politician, but I thought his statement might be of interest.  Reproduced below from the E-mail I received today.


April 27, 2010
Dear —–:
Thank you for contacting me regarding the importance of developing high speed rail service. I appreciate hearing from you and share your support for high speed rail.
Illinoisans, like many Americans, want a quick, energy efficient, cost-effective, and reliable public ground transportation system. I believe that high speed rail is an important element in achieving this goal and have supported efforts to develop high speed rail in Illinois and the surrounding states.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (H.R. 1) appropriated $8 billion for high speed passenger rail – 17 times more funding than the federal government has invested over the last 10 years combined for high speed rail. I have met with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors Tom Carper, and state leaders to discuss Illinois’ commitment to competing for federal dollars to make high speed rail in Illinois a reality. The Illinois Department of Transportation, in coordination with Union Pacific, has already taken the first steps by committing to developing a high speed rail connection between St. Louis and Chicago.
There has also been a concerted effort to work with other Midwestern states to develop a sustainable plan for high speed rail throughout the region. Illinois hosted the Governors of many states in the Midwest to discuss the potential of a Midwest high speed rail corridor. Also, I, along with other members of Congress from the Midwest, recently created a new bipartisan, bicameral Midwest High Speed Rail Caucus. We are helping and encouraging state officials throughout the Midwest to work together to develop a comprehensive high speed rail plan for the area. At the same time, we are actively working with federal agencies to facilitate funding for high speed rail service for the Midwest.
As we invest further in developing high speed rail in Illinois, it is also important that we work to create an efficient rail network that connects communities that do not currently have rail service. I have also supported extending branch lines to other major Illinois communities such as Peoria, Rockford, and the Quad Cities so that more Illinois residents will be able to enjoy the benefits of rail service.
High speed rail will provide new opportunities for business and individuals alike. It will make it easier to travel in a quick, efficient, and safe manner throughout the Midwest. At the same time, high speed rail will support additional economic development and growth while providing a green alternative for moving goods throughout the Midwest. I will continue to support efforts to create a new high speed rail network that will benefit Illinois and the country.
Thank you again for contacting me. Please feel free to keep in touch.
Sincerely,
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator

I’m working on – or rather, not working on because I’m blogging – a paper about parking policy.  In it I intend to talk a little bit about Columbus’ proposed zoning ordinance changes regarding required off-street parking, which is exciting.  I also pulled a couple images from Google Earth for illustrative purpose, specifically one which shows how much of downtown Columbus is now parking lots.

From what I understand, Columbus underwent a great deal of urban renewal in the 50s and 60s, hence why most of the buildings are not that old and/or became surface parking lots.  The result is that the center of Columbus, the capital of Ohio, one of the largest states in the Union, has a handful of skyscrapers surrounded by a bunch of parking lots.

You can’t really tell this from looking at the skyline from a distance on the ground, but it’s pretty visible in this Google aerial image (had to use the Flight Simulator to get a bird’s eye angle).  Disclaimer:  the 3D buildings, produced by the Planning Department, may not be a complete inventory of all the buildings downtown, so this image may be somewhat misleading in that it does not show all the buildings at their proper height.  Nevertheless, the images of parked cars on so many of the properties makes it pretty clear that it’s almost all parking lot once you go a few streets east (bottom-right) of the river.  I annotated the map with some key landmarks and an approximate outline of all the parking lots I could see (red lines):

Downtown Columbus: Parking Galore (Source: Google Earth, 2010)

And I checked the approximate area of downtown Columbus – the section pictured is roughly a square mile (maybe more to the north and south).  Think how much fits in a square mile in New York.  Or Chicago.  The Loop, strictly speaking (within and immediately surrounding the El tracks), pretty much fits in less than a square mile.

Well, at least Columbus has plenty of parking.

Our class discussions about race, cities, and various forms of residential segregation (both systemic and self-perpetuating) got me thinking about my own hometown, Columbus Ohio.  Growing up, we lived in a primarily white neighborhood in the city limits.  Then we moved to an even more white suburb on the west side, where my parents still live today.

I think it’s safe to say that Columbus considers itself a pretty “white” city.  It’s the capital city in a Midwestern state surrounded by suburbs and farms, and has long been primarily white-collar, unlike its neighbors to the north and south (Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Cincinnati).  Sure:  Ohio State University, with about 60,000 students from all around the world, is a major source of diversity, but one which remains somewhat concentrated around the campus itself.  And sure:  Columbus actually has a three-term black mayor, Michael B. Coleman (1999-present).  But he is Columbus’ first black mayor, only a few decades behind other Ohio cities like Springfield (Robert C. Henry, 1966) and Cleveland (Carl Stokes, 1968).

That said, however, it should also be said that much of the political and social power in the Columbus area (apart from the University and state politics in the Capital) lies in the suburbs, which are pretty uniformly white.  I dug up some demographics from the Census in the American Community Survey and found some interesting results:

Columbus (City)
Total population:  729,369
67.5% White
27.9% Black
4.5% Hispanic (of all races)
4.6% Asian
1.7% Other

Columbus (Metro Area)
Total population:  1,752,870

81.9% White
14.9% Black
2.9% Hispanic (of all races)
3.5% Asian
1.1% Other

(ACS 3-year estimates, 2006-2008)

This seems typical for an American metro area, but that’s the point!   The city population is 28% black, but only 15% in the whole metro area.  Compare the numbers themselves:  there were 203,493 black residents in the City of Columbus counted (out of 730,000), and 261,422 black residents in the entire metro area (out of 1.75 million, more than double).  That says to me that the suburbs must be pretty white.  Here’s the data for Hilliard, a city I would consider to be predominately white but with some pockets of diversity.  The numbers suggest I’m even overestimating the latter point:

Hilliard (City)
Total population:  31,556

91.0% White
3.0% Black
2.7% Hispanic (of all races)
6.2% Asian
0.9% Other

(Interestingly, the percentage of Asian residents is slightly larger than the average for both Columbus proper and the metro area).

All these numbers are to say, there is a discrepancy between perception and reality here.  It got me thinking about my own experience growing up:  I attended a racially-mixed public (arts) elementary school, and was bussed a fair distance to get there; I briefly attended a public middle school in which I was in the minority; but otherwise most of my friends, neighbors, and classmates were white.

Then I started thinking about all the areas of town I didn’t go to, for one reason or another:  Franklinton, immediately west of downtown; the east side, south of the campus area and out by the airport; in fact, much of the east side, period.  I had the perception, particularly in Franklinton and east of campus, that these areas were “bad” or unsafe; these areas are also, I know now, predominately black neighborhoods.

Furthermore, a lot of the “desirable” places to go–the shops along Grandview Avenue, shopping at Easton Town Center mall, the boutiques along the Short North, and pretty much all of the northern suburbs–are very “white” places.  White not only in terms of their typical patrons, but also in that very intangible, subjective set of assumptions you make when you hear the description “white neighborhood” or “black neighborhood.”

I don’t know enough about the history of housing and politics in Columbus to talk more specifically about residential segregation, whether it was a large-scale project like in some cities (Chicago) or more of an informal sorting-out of the real estate market by income and racial groups.  But in evaluating my own experiences and perceptions about Columbus, I feel suddenly aware that race was an unspoken issue in the area, despite the fact that it is clearly an issue nonetheless.

Why does this matter?  Beyond the obvious political implications for the neighborhoods in question and the city as a whole, I think it’s really too bad that Columbus continues its self-identification as white for this reason:  its story is actually more complex, and it has a lot to offer!

  • Columbus is the capital of a large and influential Midwest state;
  • Columbus has the largest single-campus university in America, and attracts smart and interesting people from all over the world to do what I can only assume is helpful research and study;
  • Columbus hosts an annual International Festival, in which for a small price you can sample international foods, music, and purchase small wares;
  • Columbus also hosts an annual Asian Festival, a Greek Festival, a Jazz Festival, an Arts Festival, and a bunch of other interesting events year-round;
  • Columbus is home to a significant Japanese population, due in part to a nearby Honda plant; a growing Somali refugee population; a growing Hispanic population; a sizable (but clearly not visible) African American population; an active gay/lesbian population; it’s the historic home of a Native American population (though I’m not sure what those numbers are now); and of course a variety of ethnic and cultural groups which we generally lump together as “white.”
  • At the risk of sounding superficial, Columbus also has a great variety of ethnic restaurants, given that it’s in the middle of some cornfields:  Blue Nile (Ethiopian), Udipi Cafe (South Indian), a bunch of North Indian places, Central Asian Market and surrounding Japanese restaurants; Thai Orchid (Thai); Greek; Italian; Chinese; Mexican; and a host of things I’m forgetting.

Based on conversations I’ve had with those from elsewhere in the country, Columbus is either seen as a lukewarm place, or it’s not on the radar at all.  And that’s really too bad.  Columbus needs to improve its image, and part of that should be more closely evaluating its own self-image in regard to its diverse population.  It’s not that Columbus needs to become a more diverse (and international) city; it’s that it already is, but doesn’t think of itself that way.  I don’t want to gloss over the social problems of segregation by saying it’s enough to do an image makeover, because I think those problems are made worse by their invisibility.  But perhaps even before we (the collective residents of that area) can be in a place to address and improve those problems, we–city AND suburbs–need to think about where we live a little differently.

1,752,870
81.9%
14.9%
2.9%
3.5%
1.1%

I was driving south toward Indiana this morning, and on a whim decided to detour on I-55 to visit those giant silos on South Damen Avenue.  The ones with the big “STATE AUCTION” sign on them, and all the graffiti.  This summer, I had a very enjoyable afternoon seeing them for the first time (even slipped under the fence, shhhh), and thought I would see how they looked in the snow.  Was not disappointed.

[Editor’s note:  I should really start a photoblog, and save CityForward for mostly text-based posts.  This fixed-width layout is killing me, as it conveniently snips off the right margin of all my landscape-oriented photos.  Straw poll:  Flickr, or a legit photoblog format?]

"State Property, No Trespassing" Sign

Silo through the fence, with AUCTION sign

Fence and Silos

Silo, Graffiti Detail

No Dumping Sign

Graffiti, "RIP AFRO 42"

Graffiti, "RIP EVOL"

Graffiti, Rabbit

Wreath in front of silos

Silos and building through the fence

Building skeleton

Graffiti on brick building

Brick building, with Sears Tower in the distance

Side building, river, and geese

Side building, river, and bench

Side building, river, and silos

Highway ramp toward home

Family, friends, and cleaning have kept me from some quality LEGOing during the break, but I will at least take the time to write up a few tips about LEGO photography.  I need to preface by heartily emphasizing that I am not an expert, or even an experienced amateur, in this area.

For more skilled endeavors into taking brick pictures, check out the following links.  Or, just search for “Star Wars LEGO” on Google Image.  I can guarantee thousands of hits.  Thousands.  [Note:  I checked, it’s 2,500,000.]

The Brick Testament – LEGO versions of classic Bible stories

LEGO365 – Day-by-day photoblog of miscellaneous LEGO scenes

via Wired – “Lego Tableaus Re-Create Classic Photos

via Wired – “Historic Moments Recreated in Lego

Based on what I’ve done so far, I can offer a few helpful tips:

Setting the scene

  • Orientation.  Even if you’re taking photos from multiple angles, consider the scene as you would a stage – remove any of the “fourth wall” obstructions, unless you want them to be out of focus in the foreground.  A temptation might be to set up your photo as though it was candid and not contrived, especially something like a street scene or battle, but it won’t appear the same way as you intend from the photo’s single vantage point.  Also, it’s LEGO.  It’s going to look a bit contrived, not to say, plastic.  If you want to show interiors of buildings, consider building a cutaway, as I did in this condo build:

Cutaway of Condo Interior

  • Background.  If you’ve already browsed some of the above LEGO photo sites, you’ll noticed that often the background is very blurry.  This is usually a function of the camera’s macro setting (see below) but can be avoided by using relatively two-dimensional scenes.  Depending on the scene, a background may or may not be appropriate; occasionally the set’s original box will make a decent stand-in for a more complicated scene.  Posters, magazine images, and (for underwater scenes) that plastic “wallpaper” you can buy for the back of fishtanks also work great.  But in a pinch, any colorful surface can be put into the background for a generic non-white or -black background.
    Depending on the scene or scale of your build, using an outdoor scene might be useful.  A blue sky might be a nice “looking up” shot at your work.  Beware, however:  for minifig scale shots, things like grass, concrete sidewalks, or flowers will generally clash with your intended scale.  Unless you’re going for that Alice-in-Wonderland-caterpillar-scene look.

Sometimes just a wood floor is a decent background

For complete scenes, however, a blank background diminishes the effect

  • Poses.  I haven’t put much effort into LEGO tableaus which require a great deal of challenging poses.  The best I can offer here is, even if you’re only taking architectural photos, put a bit of thought into what your minifigs are doing in the scene, besides existing for scale.  Are they sitting or standing?  Talking or alone?  On the phone?  Reading?  Walking or running?  What are their hands doing?  Little details like this can make them more realistic, as it were.

These minifigs, a doctor and a woman of means, are waiting expressively for the bus

Taking photos

  • Use the macro setting.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Every (digital) camera has a macro setting – the little tulip/flower on the menu options.  (Note:  if your point-and-shoot is in “Auto” setting, it may not display this option – switch to “Manual” for more options.)  Not only does it focus on and maximize the sharpness of close objects – and because LEGO builds are small scale, you are inevitably right in front of them with your lens.  It also adjusts the flash so the light does not wash out the nearest objects.  Even if you don’t use the flash, macro mode can improve the clarity of your images.
    The two (potential) disadvantages of macro mode are:  1) extremely close focus tends to make the background very blurry, even when not far from the camera either; and 2) having a close flash will substantially darken the space behind the closest object, making a faraway black or very shadowy.  These can be adjusted for to some degree, but it is somewhat in the nature of LEGO photography to lose some of the depth of life-size photography.  The photos below illustrate the difference in quality between regular and macro mode – I’m still sold!

Bus stop photo, normal focus mode, with flash

Same shot of bus stop, macro (flower) focus mode, with flash

  • Flash or no flash?  As the above photos illustrate, macro mode makes a big difference.  Depending on the scene you want, light levels also make a big difference.  Because the flash tends to be very reflective, even in macro mode, sometimes it’s best to try to use directional light sources to achieve the effect you want.  If you have the option of shooting outdoors, this can also be a great way to light the scene (especially if you can get natural shadows from morning or afternoon sunlight).  Controlled lighting also gives you some crazier options, as shown below.
    While I’m not a fan of flash photography in most cases, I make an exception for LEGO.  Because I have a lot of white building pieces and, from my most recent purchase, even more of those, I tend to build white buildings with a red roof.  Using the flash indoors brings out those bright colors, whereas incandescent or fluorescent lighting can make the white too warm or cool.  This can be somewhat corrected in post-processing software (see below).  Generally speaking, however, a daytime LEGO scene is best lit with directional light with minimum shadows.

Even in macro mode, the flash can add excess glare and odd shadows in low light

I'm still not sure how the camera did this, but dramatic lighting can create interesting effects!

  • Vantage point.  When documenting your creation or setting up a tableau, consider your vantage point.  Shooting from straight above, or at an angle looking down, will produce a photo of a LEGO build; shooting at ground level will make the photo appear to scale for a minifig; shooting too low will be pretty much unrealistic.  While this seems obvious, even subtle changes in angle may make a difference – play around until you figure out what you want your camera height to be.  I am still perfecting this one myself.

Not quite right - the background is too blurry, and the camera is perhaps a bit too low

Getting closer - the height might be a bit off, but feels more realistic

Final edits

  • Adjustments.  Tweaking photos would be a series of posts in itself, so I’ll be brief.  Grab your favorite photo-editing software (both Adobe Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro have their merits, if you can afford either; GIMP is a generally-functional open-source freebie)  Unless the light you used completely washed out the photos, you generally don’t need to mess with saturation or contrast to make them realistic-looking – LEGOs are shiny plastic blocks that come in mainly primary colors, so they don’t need much help in the color department.  In fact, if you’re printing the photos on a regular printer, I’d recommend stepping back the saturation about 15% to adjust for ink levels.
    The main things I would recommend would be increasing some of the lights and shadows to compensate for the flash.  If you took photos outdoors on a sunny day, definitely balance out highlights and shadows.  And finally, you can enhance the difference between a clear focal point and surrounding objects by playing with the sharpen and blur functions in the program.  If the background was already blurry you can’t do much about it, but if you want to enhance the effect it’s easy to do with layers and lens blur.
    Also, don’t forget to crop out the stuff around the edges, especially if you only built the scene to extend to a certain point.  Easier to do in software than with the camera.

Binky's house, pre-retouch in Photoshop

Not a very precise job, but toning down Brightness and using Burn/Dodge adds some color back to the shot

Happy LEGO-ing and photo-ing!