Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve recently added a full gallery of African Wildlife images to my website. I’ve selected over 60 of my favorite photos for you to enjoy. Check it out by clicking on this link.
Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve recently added a full gallery of African Wildlife images to my website. I’ve selected over 60 of my favorite photos for you to enjoy. Check it out by clicking on this link.
Racetrack Playa is high on the bucket list for many landscape photographers…and with good reason. Photos of the ‘sailing rocks’ with their long mysterious trails winding off behind them on the vast mud playa captures our imagination. Your inner-child has to wonder how the heck those boulders move and the photographer in you recognizes the potential for dramatic photography. Although Racetrack Playa is a photographic icon, I was surprised that there weren’t many ‘how-to’ photo tips available on the internet. So this article will address that shortcoming…consider it my effort at ‘paying it forward.’ So to help you make the best of your next visit, here is Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.Before I begin, let me make a plea. The Racetrack is fragile and easily damaged…its surface is nothing more than a thin crust of dried mud. Fortunately a few simple precautions will allow you to avoid causing any harm:
Racetrack Playa is located in a remote high desert valley in California’s Death Valley National Park. The Racetrack is a playa: A huge dry flat lakebed surrounded by mountain ranges.
It’s larger than you might think: 2.8 mi (4.5 km) long (north-south) by 1.3 mi (2.1 km) wide (east-west).
It’s real claim to fame of course are the ‘sailing stones’ (also called the ‘rollling stones’, ‘moving rocks’ or ‘sailing rocks.’) The floor of the valley is littered with rocks and boulders (some of them weighing hundreds of pounds and the size of large television sets ). The fascinating thing is that the rocks have long, winding trails behind them. Clearly they move across the valley and how that happens has fired imaginations for generations. Theories included everything from aliens from nearby Area 51 playing hockey to stuff that was really ridiculous. Recent research has shown that the rocks actually move on thin sheets of ice that slide across the valley during a rare combination of weather events. Personally, I like the alien theory better, but either way, you can’t stand on the Playa without a sense of wonder enveloping you.
Death Valley is only a couple of hours by car from Las Vegas (or 4 hours from Los Angeles). Getting to Death Valley isn’t a problem, but getting to the Racetrack is another story.
Once you are in the park, head north on Scotty’s Castle Road to Grapevine junction where you turn west onto Ubehebe Crater Road. Take it to the end where you will see Ubehebe Crater. At the crater, you will find a sign for Racetrack Road. That’s where the pavement ends and the real adventure begins.
You’ve heard the expression “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Well, they weren’t talking about the Racetrack.
Racetrack Road is 28 miles of broken rocks, huge potholes and the worst washboarding you will probably ever experience. Racetrack Road is graded once per year but you might not even notice: the road is still hideous.
Note: There actually are a couple of other roads/trails to the Playa but they are much worse than Racetrack Road. I’ve never had a reason to try them.
So, you don’t want to take a chance with your rental or personal car…and you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle and live close enough to actually drive to Death Valley…what can you do? There are only two options:
Farabee’s rents jeeps specifically for off-road use in Death Valley. (see this link) Their jeeps are well-maintained and modified with beefed up suspensions and heavy duty tires, plus they give you a GPS Spot unit (this sends a signal to a satellite in case of emergency). They aren’t cheap. A rental will cost you about $250 for a 2 passenger jeep and another $50 for a 4 seater. Plus, the rental isn’t for a full day. You pick up the jeep after 8 am and you have to return it that night…or you pay for a second day. If you want to photograph the Playa at night or at sunrise, you need to plan on a two day rental.
Not the summer. Death Valley got it’s name for a good reason. Summer temperatures hit 120 F/49C…in the shade. Heck, Farabee’s closes for the months of June, July and August because no one is crazy enough to be out in that heat.
|High °F||Low °F||High °C||Low °C|
My favorite time of year to visit the Playa is February or March. The only downside to spring is that it can get really windy. If you want clouds in the sky to spice up your shots, then your best bet is to visit in winter or in April/Sept during the cusp season for summer monsoons.
Although the novelty of the sailing stones makes the Playa photogenic anytime of the day, it really is at it’s best in the morning after the sun rises over the surrounding mountains or in late afternoon just before it dips below the horizon. This is because sun is at a low angle during those times of the day and that dramatically increases the shadows in the mud mosaics Playa floor. The shots to the left and right demonstrate that effect.
Also the color of the Playa is a non-descript, washed-out light tan. However it can take on an attractive golden hue near sunrise/sunset.
Be aware that since the Playa is in a valley, the sun will set about a half hour before ‘official sunset’ time due to the mountains to the west. By the same token, you won’t see the sunrise until 30+ minutes after the ‘official sunset’ as well.
You need to get to the Playa early enough to give yourself some time to scout around. The Playa is pretty large and the sailing stones are somewhat dispersed, so you need to have time to locate some photogenic ones before the light is right. I’d suggest planning at least two hours for scouting.
If you enjoy shooting at night, the Playa can reward you with incredible images of the Milky Way (see section below about shooting here at night). The Playa is at an elevation of 3,700′ and is located well away from most light pollution, Shots of the Playa lit up by moonlight are also amazing.
The campground I mentioned is about 15-20 minutes past the Playa and it has about a dozen sites which are first come first served. They are nothing more than a small area cleared of stones, but they will do if you bring a tent. If you happen to visit during the spring, be aware that the wind at night can be incredible. During my last visit, the wind was so intense that my trusty MSR tent nearly collapsed and the noise and constant movement made sleep impossible. Some folks just sleep in their vehicles at the parking lots by the Playa.
The Playa can get cold at night so bring some warm clothes if you are planning to shoot after sunset from November thru March.
Racetrack Road enters the valley containing the Racetrack from the Northwest. Most of the sailing stones are located in the far southeastern corner of the Playa. There really isn’t much of interest in the rest of the Playa except for the Grandstand. The grandstand is a 73′ tall hunk of nearly black rock that rises out of the Playa’s flat surface. If you have a lot of spare time on your visit, walk out and check it out. Personally, I don’t find it particularly photogenic and would rather spend my time photographing the sailing stones.
Drive down Racetrack Road (it runs along the western edge of the Racetrack) to the last (most southern) parking area near the end of the Playa. Park here. The sailing stones are located directly across the Playa. If you have a compass, set your heading at about 70 ° (this is northeast), grab your gear and get going. As you walk east across the Playa, it will at first look empty but you will start seeing the rocks after you get about halfway across. Distances can be deceiving here…remember, the Playa is more than a mile wide…it is going to take you a while to get across. The good news is that the number of rocks increases the closer you get to the opposite side. The map below will help you familiarize yourself with the area:
However, one fascinating aspect of the Playa are the trails the rocks make, not just the rocks themselves. They twist, cross each other and make all types of eye-appealing designs. Don’t miss the chance to set your tripod to its full height and capture that perspective as well.
You will likely want to try to keep everything in focus throughout your image. That can be difficult if you have a rock a foot from your lens but also have distant mountains in the background.
If you are comfortable with focus-stacking, it can be quite helpful at the Playa.
Otherwise, set your aperature to f/22, switch to Manual Focus and use your Live-View. Adjust the focus point until you can get the image sharp from front to back.
The Playa at night is a nearly mystical place to be…as quiet as anyplace I’ve ever been. The photo potential is incredible.
First of all, you need to know where the rocks are. It can be surprisingly difficult to find the rocks on the Playa at night…even if you spent hours there the same afternoon. Give yourself plenty of time to find them or mark their locations with a personal GPS device during the daylight. A flashlight will obviously come in handy.
Personally, I like to do a bit of light painting on a rock, while taking a long exposure with a low ISO. Then, I switch to a higher ISO (like 3500 or so) and take a 20-35 second exposure to capture the Milky Way. After I get home, I merge the two shots together. Click here for more details on how to take good Milky Way shots and the equipment you will need.
If anyone else is out photographing the Playa at night while you are, it might be a good idea to team up with them so you both aren’t ruining each others shots with your lightpainting.
So, that should give you enough info to help you avoid the ‘rookie’ mistakes I made during my first trips to the Racetrack. By the way, if you would like to read a blog with details about my last trip there, hit this link. It isn’t a ‘how-to’ article but you might find it interesting and pick up a few more tidbits of info.
Take care and enjoy your trip to one of the coolest places on the planet. Feel free to email questions and if you have suggestions for other tips, just let me know and I’ll revise this article. Plus, if you want to share some of your Racetrack photos with me, I never get tired of them!
Last month my son and I got to spend a week in one of my favorite locales: Central California.
It was Ryan’s first trip there so I had the added pleasure of introducing a new generation to one of the Earth’s most photogenic regions.
We flew into San Francisco and although Ryan and I usually avoid urban areas on our trips, this was an exception to that rule: the City by the Bay is one of the most beautiful places touched by the hand of man.
We hit the highlights: Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Sea Lions at Pier 39, Cable Cars and Lombard Street
Toward the end of the day we headed over to Marin County to check out a sunset location I’ve wanted to see for years: Rodeo Beach. On the way, I had to stop at Hawks’ Hill, which has arguably the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge
After the sunset we recrossed the Golden Gate Bridge and went back into town for some night shooting.
We welcomed the next sunrise at one of my favorite spots: Pier 9. The perspective of the Transamerica Tower from the end of the Pier is epic.
We said goodbye to San Francisco but not until we stopped for breakfast at Safeway (a west coast grocery store). On our first day, Ryan had discovered the Breakfast Burrito at Safeway and that became his choice for the first meal of the day. In fact, on our way to the airport at the end of trip, he made me stop at another Safeway so he could have one last one to eat on the plane:)
We spent a couple of days photographing the highlights of the California coast between San Francisco and Big Sur. The spring rains had destroyed parts of the Pacific Coast Highway and we were unable to reach McWay Falls, which is one of the true highlights of the coast but even so, there was no shortage of amazing places to photograph.
Boy, did he see Sequoias!
If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I adore otters. Well, central California has one of the premier locations to photograph Sea Otters: Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing.
I shot over 1700 frames in about two hours there….the image above was my favorite of the bunch.
At the very northern edge of Big Sur is Garapatta State Park. This occupies a strip of land along the rocky shore that includes an embarrassment of breathtakingly beautiful coastal views…whether you shoot at before sunrise:
or during a mid-day fog:
or at sunset:
We also had a chance to hike thru Point Lobos State Park which has a lot of incredible terrain packed into a condensed sliver of heaven:
After a couple short days on the coast, we climbed in the rental car and headed east across the Central Valley with our sights set on Yosemite, the highlight of our trip. I had sung the praises of Yosemite to Ryan for years and I was curious if he would feel the same or decide that I had over-hyped it. As soon as we entered the park I took him straight to the park’s most magnificent vista: Tunnel View:
Ryan took a long look, grinned, slowly turned to me and said my praise had been severely understated.
We spent three days at the park. Sleep wasn’t an option. We were up well before dawn so we could photograph the valley illuminated by the full moon…
Once the sun was finally up we kept at it until it was dark again…we photographed the valley from dozens of perspectives,
We hiked quite a bit…our favorite of the trip was the Mist Trail. This hike provides the novel experience of climbing up steps cut into the rock alongside Vernal Falls all the way to the top:
The trail is well named and we got happily soaked. Plus the snow and ice on the steps made the climb, well, let’s say it was entertaining at times;) I was actually getting kinda proud of myself since it’s a challenging trail and I’m not exactly a teenager…but then a lady in her 70s passed me on the trail with her two grandkids….needless to say, I was appropriately humbled.
We made our way up to Nevada Falls where we conducted our traditional snowball fight (sorry, but when Floridians actually see snow, you can’t expect anything less). Later that day back at camp we relaxed and soaked in the view (and a few brews).
I think we could have spent the rest of the trip in that spot.
The remaining days passed far too quickly. However, there is no doubt that we will return again to enjoy the magic that is Yosemite.
Some things are universal. A mother’s love is perhaps the most touching. It crosses every boundary and certainly isn’t restricted to humans. I was reminded of this truism last year in Africa.
We were out photographing on the Masai Mora…which is the part of the Serengeti that crosses into Kenya. It is a vast grassland that stretches to the horizon.
Our guide, Julius, got a call from another Land Rover that had spotted a lioness creeping into a thicket. It seemed worth a look but after creeping up a rocky hill, all we could see was this:
Just a tall jumble of branches…frankly, even if there was a lion in there I didn’t see how we would get a photo worth having. But Julius knew better, so we parked about 50′ away and waited… Before long, we sensed something moving in the thicket…then we heard a pathetic, wimpy ‘mewing.’ And sure enough, this little guy crept out of the wood pile. Smaller than a loaf of bread and probably only a couple weeks old. Barely had its eyes open and could hardly see at all…kept bumping into rocks and stumbling over his own feet. But he was determined and over the next five minutes he managed to stumble quite a distance from the lair. Which wasn’t good…there are all types of predators who would enjoy such a nice little morsel…I couldn’t tell you how many kinds of raptors I had seen…
…and any of them would have been delighted by this mobile ‘brunch.’ As the minutes stretched out, we started actively searching the skies to see if something would spot our little cub…and he got further and further from home.
Then…we saw Mama…
She barked a throaty snarl and gave us a no-nonsense…”Stay the hell away from my cub!” look that affected me deep in the pit of my stomach. This wasn’t one of those fake “take a shot of the lion when it yawns…it looks just like a roar.” This was the real thing…and you could see it in her eyes! After making sure we weren’t a threat, she headed right to her errant cub.
Then, this fierce hunter morphed into the most gentle soul you can imagine…
Maybe she was a new mother, but she seemed very apprehensive about picking up her cub…
She tried over and over again. Finally, she seemed to give up and gave him a bath instead..
Of course, the cub didn’t make it easy for her…it kept wiggling and scooting away.
But finally he settled down and she got a good grip…firm, but not too firm…
She headed back to the thicket…
…and then she silently slipped back into the bramble.
It’s funny, if we had been even a few hundred yards away, we would have probably never known this little drama had even taken place. The savannah might be vast, but it certainly isn’t empty and it has stories to tell…
The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography
Every day during my two weeks in Kenya, we would go out into the bush and I would be treated to some wild new wonder. Yes, I had never been to Kenya…so of course it all was new. But some of the experiences so bizarre they even amazed our guides who were native Kenyans! Maybe the best example of this was the adventure with the Hippo and the Lions.
One morning, we headed out before sunrise to a spot by the river where we had seen a lion pride the night before. The lions were still there all right…eight or nine females and their young just lounging around soaking up some sun.
We moved the Land Rover to a great spot on the opposite bank and started snapping shots. We had been photographing for quite a while when I noticed a hippo surface in one of the deep pools in the river just below us…
He (she?) casually climbed out and struggled up the embankment…
That really got the attention of our lioness. She got up and started trotting toward the hippo. She maneuvered into its blind spot…
Now lions don’t usually prey on hippos…nothing really messes with hippos, they’re just too big. Despite their comical appearance, they can be deadly. Hippos reportedly kill more people in Africa than any other land animal…our guide Julius explained that are particularly dangerous when you get between them and their escape route to the water.
Maybe the hippo heard something, because suddenly it twisted its head and saw the lioness!
It froze for a second and then….it spit up what looked like 20 gallons of water. I don’t know if this was a defensive action or if the lioness just scared it right out of her…
A split second later, the hippo charged the lioness. Now, you wouldn’t think a 3,000 pound hippo could move fast…but you would also be wrong. They can hit 20 mph…keep in mind that Usain Bolt can only hit 27 mph!
This is as close as the Hippo got…the lion’s speed quickly got her out of harm’s way.
Perhaps it decided that discretion was the better part of valor… ’cause it spun around and headed back toward the river. The lioness immediately jumped off in pursuit…
and seemed to open its mouth to scream when it saw it was being chased again. She put her head down, put on the afterburners and started really moving!
As they passed the pride, the other lionesses started paying attention.
By now the hippo had a full head of steam…with all that momentum, I doubt that anything could have stopped it…
In the shot above, you can see that the lioness had caught up to the hippo and was throwing on the brakes. She must have been thinking “Why am I chasing this guy…what the heck would I do if I caught him anyway?!”
This was my last shot before the hippo passed behind the trees lining the river and headed down the bank…to safety.
Just like that, it was over. From the time I first spotted the hippo in the river until she jumped back down the embankment less than 50 seconds had passed. It’s incredible the drama you can experience in less than a minute. Anyway, it made for an exciting morning…for the photographers as well as the hippo and the lion pride. Like I said, something new and exciting every day!
Until my next post, take care,
From Canada to the Carribean to Kenya, I was blessed with the chance to explore a variety of landscapes and exotic wildlife in 2016. The only downside to this kind of bounty is that it creates a challenge when trying to pick my favorite dozen shots from the year!
Its a great problem to have and below is my best effort to recap an incredible year. I’ve included some of my best selling images as well as others that I personally love even if they haven’t sold a single print. So, ready or not…here we go…
Racetrack Playa has long been on my bucket list and I finally got a chance to explore it last year. Unlike some other icons that don’t quite live up to the hype when you finally get to visit, Racetrack was all I hoped it would be and more (although I could have done without the sandstorm)! Check out this blog if you would like to read more and see photos from that trip.
This is one of those shots that I wouldn’t have gotten if I wasn’t so persistant (or ‘pig-headed’ as my wife might say). My son and I had a few hours to explore Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park on our way to Zion and we hiked out to the ‘Fire Wave’ even though it was ugly and raining. I had just dropped my backpack when the sun burst thru the clouds and bathed us in glorious light for brief minute or two. Ryan ran up to the wave and I got my tripod set up in time to grab an image or two before the sun disappeared.
My wife Anita and I were diving near Pompano Beach when this Green Sea Turtle decided to tag along with us for a while. It was wonderful to spend a few moments with this graceful guy in such a tranquil setting. Here’s a link to a full article about this experience.
My wife (whom I clearly do not deserve) bought me a photo tour to Kenya as my Christmas present last year (I think I bought her a sweater); The trip was really all about wildlife, but deep down, I think I’m a landscape photographer at heart. Maybe that’s why I never missed the chance to capture some of the more incredible vistas…even if there was a leopard in the tree 50 feet away!
Yeah, I might love landscapes, but when your Land Rover turns the corner and two muscular Orix are scrapping for the rights to a harem of females, I had my camera up and ripping off shots with the rest of them. These two guys were cracking their spike-like horns together, grunting and wheezing with excitement…maybe I should have shot a video instead!
One challenge for any photographer is to capture something new and unique in their shots. This is nearly impossible when shooting iconic locations that have been photographed thousands of times before. Mt. Rundle, as seen from Two Jack Lake in Canada’s Baniff National park is one of those places. My son and I had spent two weeks getting systematically rained out of every single sunrise and sunset when the gods finally smiled and this scene appeared thru a breaking morning storm. It was one of those moments when everything came together and allowed Ryan and I beat the odds and capture a truly magical moment. I’m really proud of this image…it became my best selling print of 2016 and it is one of my all-time personal favorites. See my full blog from last year about how it all came together.
I’ve photographed Arizona’s Antelope Canyon many times now but I’m still amazed every time I crawl down into that narrow crack in the red sandstone. Technically, it is a difficult place to photograph but the resulting images can be amazing. Everyone should experience this insane place at least once in their lives.
2016 may be the year I finally came to understand ‘birders.’ To be honest, I’ve always looked at birders as nice but ‘unusual’ folks who delighted in talking thousands of photos of little grey and brown birds. Well, my two weeks in Kenya introduced me to a world of colorful and exotic birds that anyone would be crazy NOT to pick up a camera and start snapping shots! This shot of a Lilac Breasted Roller (I think) is possibly my all time best effort at capturing a bird in flight.
This is one of those photos that I would think is a photoshopped ‘creation’ unless I had been the one who actually taken the shot. A killer rock perch above a dramatic waterfall with a perfect little island right behind it just looks too cool to be real…but it is! Ryan and I arrived at Jasper’s Sunwapta Falls with an idealized idea of what we wanted to photograph but once we got there we just couldn’t find the right spot. We searched for quite a while before Ryan found it. This shot is the result of his persistance.
This is probably the most popular shot I took in Kenya (which is saying quite a lot since I took over 35,000 photos)! These four lion cubs were just walking right down the middle of a dirt road early one morning in Masai Mora National Park. That one to the left looks like he was shouting out cadence..”Hup, one, two three four, Hup…hup!” Actually, he was just yawning:) Check out their dirty little feet… clearly they had been up early playing in the mud…just like youngsters!
I was so excited when I first got to Lake Moraine that I immediately headed right to the famous ‘rockpile’ where you get this elevated view of the ‘Ten Peaks’. To get there, I left the trail and hopped across a series of slippery logs floating in the water next to the parking area then scrambled up a steep rocking incline to the top. Here was a 55+ year old guy carrying thousands of dollars of photo gear in a heavy backpack and I remember wondering if this was really a good idea. The funny thing was that when I got to the top, I saw that if I had stayed on the trail from the parking lot a bit longer I would have seen that there actually was a nice, paved walkway to the top that was being used every other tourist in Alberta….
I’ll finish with my favorite wildlife shot of 2016. I was watching a group of cheetahs trek across a small stream when one stopped at low spot in the surrounding bedrock that held a small puddle of water. I was shooting ten frames per second and luckily managed to capture this moment when the cheetah seemed to gaze at its’ own relection before lapping up an evening drink. The reflection was just perfect and the way the cheetah looped its tail and arched her back was nearly poetic in its gracefullness.
There you have it…the best I could do in 2016. Photography was good to me last year. It challenged and motivated me to seek out and enjoy the beauty of our earth. I hope you enjoyed my photos and perhaps they will inspire you to get out there and explore a bit as well!
I can’t remember a blog that has been as difficult to write as this one. It’s been nearly a month since I returned from Africa and as each day passes I receive more and more subtle (and not so subtle) questions about ‘when are we going to hear about your Kenya Photo Safari (and see some photos!)?’
Frankly, part of the problem is that I am a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of photos I took…over 25,000 images. Just culling and processing them is a huge task. Plus Africa was so dramatically different from my normal ‘world’ that I’ve been at a loss of even figuring out where to begin.
After four or five false starts, it became clear that I couldn’t write a single article about my trip….it would be exhausting…and very, very long. This first blog is going to be no more than an attempt to relay some of the most intense impressions that Kenya made upon me…along with a scattering of photos. That will at least get the ice broken and future blogs can cover some of my experiences in detail.
First of all, let me tell you about the Kenyan people. I’ve never met folks who were so genuinely friendly. And I don’t mean friendly like the “Welcome to Disney world, thanks for spending a boatload of cash” that I’m used to. I mean people who wave to you as you drive by a narrow dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Don’t give me wrong, if you walked downtown Nairobi at midnight with a Rolex on your wrist I’m confident you might meet someone who might give you a different impression. But in a nation with 40% unemployment (yes….40%!), I found it admirable and inspiring that the Kenyans had such sunny dispositions.
Second, Kenya not only has an incredible amount of wildlife but it is shockingly diverse.
I guess I’m used to the National Parks in North America where, sure, during a good day I might see a couple dozen different kinds of critters and maybe even something big now and again. But in Kenya, there was such an incredible variety…hundreds of brightly colored bird species, dozens of exotic and strange mammals and an endless supply of animals every bit as big (and bigger) as our Land Rover. For photography, it was truly a “target rich environment.”
Third, animals are people too. Well, ok…they’re not human but I mean that after watching and photographing wildlife ten hours a day for two weeks I was impressed with how often they displayed nearly human emotions and behavior. The longer I was there, the more I appreciated that for all of humanity’s progress, science and intelligence….we really aren’t all that different.
Fourth, Africa is beautiful but it isn’t benign.
I drove my guides a bit crazy with my desire to get out of the vehicle and take landscape shots. It made them nervous as hell if I got more than ten feet from the Land Rover. At first I didn’t really understand it… I’m used to hiking in the Americas where there really aren’t that many dangers from wildlife (assuming you display reasonable caution). Africa is different. There are a number of critters there that will kill you. I learned that you couldn’t just go out and photograph the Milky Way at night by your tent (a leopard killed an antelope one night inside our camp). And to always look where you put your feet (see photo to the right). Don’t get me wrong…its not like tourists are being killed in droves but you have to exercise a higher level of caution than you might be used to.
Fifth, maybe I could be a birder after all. I’ve joked about birders for years, but this trip may be the end of that. The birds in Kenya amazed me. So many different species. So much color. So freaking exotic. They were seemingly everywhere and they would let you get a lot closer than I am accustomed to.
Sixth, what happens when you put a landscape photographer on a wildlife tour? I just couldn’t help myself…
Seventh, Cats are where its At! Sure, I loved seeing elephants playing in the water or giraffes reaching for leaves on the tops of trees but lions, leopards and Cheetahs generated a whole ‘nother level of interest. There is something inherently fascinating about these preditors…their powerful grace, surprising tenderness and pitiless lethality.
Eighth, wildlife photography can be intensely exciting. Stuff happens quickly with no warning. In landscape photography I might spend weeks planning a shot, an hour just setting up and another thirty minutes taking the shot. In Kenya we might come around a corner, find two Oryx fighting, rip off 100 frames and be moving on….all in a total of five minutes.
Landscape photography is like writing a book: it is calm, cerebral and certain…you pretty well know what is going to happen next. Wildlife photography is like skydiving: Fast and furious and the future is anyone’s guess!
Tenth, I learned to try and photograph a story…not just a moment. Don’t get me wrong, one-off shots of a majestic lion are great:
But the story of a lion cub running around with a shoe…and playing ‘keep away’ from his siblings makes perhaps an even stronger impression.
I have a number of other Kenyan wildlife ‘photo stories’ that I will share in blogs over the next few months. Stay tuned!
Okay, I know that’s a pretty choppy blog…but at least I broke the ice and hopefully it won’t be so long until my next one.
Happy Holidays to you and your family. Kwaheri!
PS: I usually plan my own photo trips and rarely go on tours or use guides. I made an exception with this trip and I’m very glad I did. My tour was with “Wild4Photo Safaris” run by Stu and Justyna Porter. This is a class operation and I wouldn’t have come home with half as many killer shots if it wasn’t for Stu and my driver/guide Julius. These guys had an amazing ability to anticipate where the wildlife was going to do be and what they were going to do. They never failed to have us in the perfect position for the shot. Not only that…but they were great people who became my friends. I owe them a huge thanks for memories that that will last the rest of my life.
Well, tomorrow I embark on a grand adventure…a two week photo safari in Kenya!
This has been on my ‘bucket list’ since I was a kid and I’m insanely excited about the trip. My wonderful bride of 26 years gave me this trip as my Christmas present and I gotta say: The woman knows me well!
I’ve spent the better part of six months getting ready, which included buying additional camera gear (of course), more innoculations than I can count and hours trying make all my gear fit Emirates Airlines’ insanely measly luggage allowance (one carry-on bag for a 20 hour flight..Come on, really?!).
Fortunately, my trip will be with an outstanding, experienced guide (Stu Porter who specializes in nothing but photo tours), so I don’t have to worry about anything once I get to Africa except taking photos.
I don’t expect to have much internet access, so don’t expect to hear much from me for a while…but once I’m back I’ll be sharing lots of photos!
This is a quick post aimed at any of you who have visited the Caribbean island of Bonaire in the last couple of years.
The Bonaire Tourism sponsors a yearly photo contest for pros and amateurs in which you can win a free stay on the island. Unlike most contests, there is no fee to enter, so you really have nothing to loose by trying! Here’s a link.
I’m not big on contests as a rule, I’d rather be photographing stuff than submitting applications. But the applicant pool for this contest isn’t really deep…this isn’t like you are entering a National Geographic contest and there are thousands of applicants…and I won the contest last year…which proves that ANYONE could win!
Anyway, they gave me a great free trip last year and I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least give them a bit of publicity:)
In a recent blog, I mentioned a couple of hikers who made the tough 10 mile hike to reach the Subway at Zion National Park. They spent five minutes looking at it, then turned around and hiked back. That got me to thinking (which is a dangerous thing)…would I have hiked to the Subway if I WASN’T a photographer? It is an amazing place… but honestly… a full day of tough hiking for just a glance. I don’t know…
So I wondered: I’ve photographed a number of sites that were pretty challenging to reach…how many of them would I go back to, even if I didn’t have a camera with me? To be honest, that list is mighty short, but at the top of it would be Racetrack Playa.
I’ll bet you’ve seen photos of the Racetrack …even if you aren’t familiar with the name (see the image to the left). The ‘sailing rocks’, some of them hundreds of pounds rest on a vast, flat mosaic of sun-cracked mud with trails stretched out behind them. Folks have wondered for years how the heck boulders ‘sail’ across the high desert valley floor in a remote part of Death Valley. Theories covered the spectrum from aliens (probably visiting from their nearby home at Area 51) to some other stuff that was really ridiculous.
Something about the Playa simply fascinated me. The images of those sailing stones just fired my imagination. And the Playa itself looks like an image taken from a Mars space probe.
Racetrack Play instantly went on my ‘bucket list’ and I finally I got my chance to photograph it this spring.
Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, covering 5,262 square miles. My son, Ryan, and I spent our first day doing our best to hit the park’s photographic high points, including:
But I was really there for the Playa and it was the only thing on our schedule for the next day and a half…but first we had to get there. Now, Death Valley isn’t exactly difficult to visit, over a million folks do so every year. Getting to the Playa, however,is ‘a whole nother matter.’ I doubt that more than 20 folks per day make it to the Playa and now I know why. It’s isolated in the far western edge of the park and the only way to reach it is via a ROUGH 28 mile unpaved road. When I say rough, I mean this was by far the worst road I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s not a simple dirt or gravel road, its a mixture of sand and sharp broken rocks. The washboarding is incredible and much of the ‘road’ is wide enough for only a single vehicle. Put it this way, the road is only 28 miles long but it took us about 2 hours to reach the Playa…yup, I averaged about 15 mph (and I thought that was fast!)
We had read about the road beforehand and knew we shouldn’t try to get there in a regular rental sedan, so we rented a modified 4×4 Jeep. It wasn’t cheap, but it had heavy duty tires, beefed up suspension and included an emergency GPS tracker you could activate if you got stuck (no cell service on that road…or most places in the park for that matter).
I thought maybe I was being over-cautious renting the jeep. I mean how bad could it be? Well, in the first couple miles we passed two regular sedans that had blown tires and another that had the bottom torn out of it (no wonder the Park Service recommends you take TWO full sized spares). Apparently towing costs are outrageous …like $1500-$4000… so I started thinking the cost might not have been ridiculous after all!
After an hour and a half of being thrown around like ping pong balls in a lottery cage, we reached Teakettle Junction. I don’t know how it originally got its name, but over the years folks have decorated the sign with, you got it…tea kettles! It was worth a photo and the good news was that it meant we were only 6 miles from the Racetrack.
We finally made the last turn and saw the Playa… As I soaked in the view it became apparent why they call it the racetrack..it really is a huge flat oval surrounded by mountains that look like bleachers…throw up some NASCAR banners and I would have thought I was at the Daytona 500.
We parked when I first spotted some rocks out on the Playa. They didn’t look that far out there so I grabbed my camera nearly ran out into the flats. After about five minutes, the rocks didn’t look any closer…so I slowed to a trot…then a jog…and then I just plain walked. It slowly dawned on me that the Playa is big…really BIG. Plus the rocks were out a lot further out there than they appeared and of course they were all on the FAR side of the Playa.
But I didn’t care! I was at the Playa and I had my camera. I spent the next few hours gleefully snapping away running from one rock to another. The weather was wonderful. Temperatures were in the 70s…nice partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze. I’d hate to visit in the summer when temperatures top 100° but in March, it was ideal.
The shadows lengthened as the afternoon passed and the photography just got better and better.
Finally the sun slipped below the mountains (the aptly named ‘Last Chance Range’) . That seemed to spark an exodus as nearly all the other folks at the Playa got back in their vehicles and started back…probably hoping to make it before darkness made a difficult drive into a dangerous one. But Ryan and stuck around.
We were going to spend the night: I had my heart set on photographing the Playa at night…hopefully getting shots of the ‘sailing rocks’ with the Milky Way hanging above them. Since the Playa looked like a scene from a different world, I figured that including the Milky Way would be just be icing on the cake!
The campsite was close…less than a mile away. It was small, rugged and primitive. No water, no electricity, no bathrooms….no problem. I had done my research, so we knew what to expect and we were prepared…well, we THOUGHT we were. What we didn’t plan on was the wind. The mild breezes we enjoyed during the day intensified as it got dark…and then got worse. We live in Florida so we know a thing or two about wind…heck, Hurricane Matthew just hit a couple weeks ago…but we had never camped in winds like these. 40-60 mph gusts blasted our tent with sand and rocks: it sounded like we were inside a blender full of gravel. Needless to say we didn’t sleep much… After a few hours we gave up, jammed the tent in the back of the jeep and drove back to the Playa.
Clouds had accompanied the wind and the Milky Way wasn’t visible. At least the jeep was quieter than the tent and Ryan managed to drift off to sleep. I just stared out the window hoping to see stars. Around 3am the gale died down and the skies started to clear. I left my sleepy son in the jeep and headed out onto the flats with my tripod and camera.
There was no moon and it was truly pitch black. The silence was absolute and profound. The Playa seemed eerie, empty and endless. It really should have been one of those moments when I stopped, took a deep breath and appreciated the moment… But all I could think was: ‘Where the heck are those freakin’ rocks?!’ Spotting them during the day had been pretty easy but in the darkness it proved frustratingly difficult.
The Milky Way was beautiful and clearly visible but sunrise was coming and the skies would soon start to lighten. I kept walking and the minutes kept rolling by. My chances of getting a Milky Way shot with the ‘sailing rocks’ were slipping away.
And then I nearly tripped right over one!
I knew I had less than 30 minutes before the stars faded with the dawn. That sounds like a lot of time to take a picture of a single rock..right? Well, not really. To get a high resolution shot of the rock in the darkness, some of my exposures had to be nearly 8 minutes long…so I didn’t have time to a lot of photos. Plus I had to focus in the darkness (which isn’t fun)…then figure out the best way to light up the ‘sailing rock’…plus I had to take separate 30 second exposures of the faint Milky Way (later I’d merge the photos together in Photoshop).
Sometimes you imagine a shot in your head and wait years to get it but it doesn’t equal your expectations. But the shot above didn’t disappoint me a bit.
I would have loved to photograph more than one silly rock, but the sky had already started to lighten and the Playa slowly unveiled itself. As details became visible, I started to faintly make out dozens lots of those silly rocks that had been so elusive in the dark.
The world shifted to shades of blue for twenty minutes or so, then the sunlight reached the clouds and briefly burned them red.
By now Ryan had joined me and we darted around the Playa yelling to each other when we found a particularly photogenic rock. Some of the trails were truly weird, sharply cutting and darting around like a running back caught behind the line of scrimmage. Others were straight as an arrow or gently curving…the variety was puzzling and fascinating at the same time. I caught my self a couple times just staring at the magical and bewitching scene before me…
We had about an hour before the light got harsh which brought an end to our visit. Ryan and I looked at each other and grinned that smile that guys do when they are really happy but way too old-
school to actually hug each other. We ambled back to the parking lot, ate a power bar, fired up the jeep and headed back to civilization.
I’m sure some will look at these photos and think “OK…a bunch of rocks in the desert: Big Deal” But if you are like me, it will spark a sense of wonder and enchantment. I found it totally surreal and bizarre….and starkly mesmerizing. Despite the time, hardship and treasure it costs to get to the Racetrack, I’d go back in a minute…even without a camera. There just isn’t another place like it…at least here on earth!
PS: If you are thinking about visiting Racetrack Playa, I’ve written another blog with maps and specific tips. Use this link for a full report of all you need to know to photograph Racetrack Playa!
PSS: The mystery of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ has been scientifically solved (see this link for the full report). A group of researchers actually put small GPS trackers on some of the rocks and set up cameras to take time-lapse photos of them. Basically, when a thin layer of ice forms on the Playa, the rocks will move if there is a high, sustained wind (yup…I know about THAT!) It happens rarely, but they caught it on tape. I guess someone was bound to have enough time and money on their hands to solve this mystery…but honestly, I kinda liked not knowing.
I made another trip out to the sunflower fields today.
As you might expect, the rain from Hurricane Matthew has made a pretty dramatic change compared to a couple weeks ago. Although there are still plenty of flowers, all the fields are flooded. You can get close to them but you can’t actually get into the flowers unless you have a boat or want to go swimming. The good news is that even though we are well past peak bloom, there is still plenty of color plus the temperatures are nice and the mosquitos seem to be few and far between.
If you make a trip out, just take your waterproof boots and stay on the ‘red trail.’ Once you reach the flooded fields, keep hiking southwest on the dry ground under the oak hammock that borders the wet field.
Even if the sunflowers aren’t as impressive as they were before Matthew, it’s a nice little hike…Plus if you keep your eyes and ears open, you will likely see eagles. My son and I saw two today.
If you haven’t seen the flowers yet this year, I’d think this coming weekend might be your last chance to catch any decent color…otherwise, you will have to wait until 2017!
PS: If you’ve never been out to the fields, check out this link for directions and other important info.
For those of you waiting for the annual Lake Jesup sunflower bloom, the time is here!
I made my first trip out to Jesup’s Marl Bed flats today and the flowers were there in abundance. Not full peak…let’s call it about 30-40% of max bloom. Lots of the flower buds haven’t opened yet and I would think that another 7-10 days or so will be the peak.
The good news this year is that the fields are pretty dry. Water levels are the lowest I’ve seen in the past five years. Although you can still get your feet wet, it’s much better than years past.
The bad news is that you are going to have to walk a bit further than in 2015 to reach the best fields. Plus the fields are not as expansive as last year. Perhaps that is largely because the bloom isn’t at its peak…time will tell.
If you are planning to visit the fields and haven’t done so before, follow this link to my post that has full directions as well as tips about what you will want to bring with you.
If this isn’t your first time, be aware that the best fields are in different locations than in 2015. The map below will help steer you in the right direction. Usually, the sunflower fields start right where the oak hammock ends. This year you have bear to the right (north) once you reach the fields or walk east well out into the flats (about ten minutes) before you hit the best areas.
The fields were deserted today…didn’t see another soul. After all these years, I still find it amazing that I can be sitting in bumper to bumper traffic at 8:00 and thirty minutes later be standing in the middle of a silent field with sunflowers stretching to the horizon.
Saw hundreds of birds of all types. The eagles are out again this year but never got close enough for a good shot.
Mosquitos were much less active this year. I saw a airboat spraying along the edge of Lake Jesup, maybe the county is actively trying to control the bugs this year because of the Zika scare…whatever the reason, I didn’t need nearly as much bug spray this year!
Hope you get a chance to get out to the fields this year. I’d say the next two weekends are going to be as good as it gets!
I just added a new portfolio to my website featuring images from the Rocky Mountains (just click here) . Taken in the US and Canada over the past decade, I’ve selected a couple dozen of my favorite shots for you to enjoy. I hope you have the chance to take a look and let me know what you think!
The US National Park Service celebrates it’s 100th birthday today!
Americans are justifiably proud that the U.S. created the world’s first National Park. It was a truly inspired concept which spread world-wide.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the foresight and sheer genius of the concept of National Parks. Most of my vacations are spent in them. My career is dependent upon their existence. And, more importantly, they are among the few places in the world that consistently fill me with a sense of peace and wonder.
Happy Birthday US National Park Service!
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
– William Shakespeare
No long, detailed description of an iconic landscape photography location today…I just wanted to share with you a short but sweet encounter I had recently.
Last weekend, my wife Anita and I drove down to Pompano Beach for a day of scuba diving. Oddly enough, although we live in Florida, we rarely dive here…most of our dives are in the Caribbean which is close and cheap.
However, we might rethink that strategy because of a wonderful experience: We ran across a young Green Sea Turtle got to swim with him for an hour or two. Okay, okay…it was really less than two minutes, but it seemed longer!)
So, my Dive Buddy (Anita) and I were diving on a shallow reef called the ‘Nursery’ off of Pompano Beach. It is a shallow reef and frankly, the visibility was only so-so. I’m starting to think, “Yup, this is why we don’t dive in Florida” and I happened to glance to my right and noticed this little guy (gal?) calmly swimming right along beside me…
Anita spotted him at the same moment and swam over to take a peek…
But it didn’t take long for our new little friend to get bored with our effort at Synchronized Swimming. He veered away from Anita and headed right at me…
For a moment I thought he was going to hit my camera housing before he gracefully swooshed below me and out to the deep blue.
Anita and I hovered there for a moment or two and did our best to smile underwater with regulators jammed in our mouths (trust me, it’s difficult to do!)
Now, this was nothing more than a common, simple, chance encounter. But I’m reminded of the old saying: “Life Is Not Measured By the Number of Breaths We Take, But By the Moments That Take Our Breath Away ”
No, this isn’t a sales pitch. It’s just a simple question I’ve been asking myself. How many mornings would you get up at 4am with less than 5 hours of sleep and then drive in total darkness in a foreign country on unfamiliar roads to have the chance to take this shot? Two…three times… maybe? But what if you had to do this twelve times…after first flying nearly 3,000 miles and camping in a leaky tent while it rained nearly non-stop for a week in a half?
Yeah, I’m asking myself that question because my son and I went to the Canadian Rockies last month. As it turned out, the 12 days we were there had the dubious honor of hosting some of the worst weather on record. Of course you never expect the skies to be perfect for an entire trip, so even though you might plan where to photograph every, single sunrise and sunset, you know that some of them won’t work out.
Well, this time we didn’t get a single decent sunset the entire trip…totally skunked. Sunrise wasn’t much better, there was one decent, but unspectacular morning early in the trip and we got some nice shots of Crowfoot Mountain.
But after that…zilch, zip…nada. Truth be told, as the trip started to wind down, it did get to be a bit depressing. Don’t get me wrong, we took advantage of the overcast skies and photographed some killer waterfalls plus the animals didn’t mind the rain which allowed us to enjoy some of our best wildlife photography ever. And honestly we had a few partially cloudy afternoons which allowed us to do some hiking and see the Canadian Rockies in all their glory. Just not at sunrise… or sunset…sigh.
Not only that, but I nearly didn’t get this shot at all. My son and I had showed up at the dark and empty Two Jack Lake parking lot thirty minutes before sunrise (for the third or fourth straight day), set up our tripods in the rain (for the third or fourth straight day). We aimed our cameras pointing at Mt. Rundle (well, we couldn’t actually SEE the mountain, but we knew it was out there somewhere to the southeast:) Then we sat down in the car and waited. And waited. Sunrise came and went with no sign of sun. After about an hour of some sleepy father and son bonding, we just looked at each other, shook our heads, packed up and and left.
A few minutes down the road I spotted two nice bucks grazing in a meadow off to the right. Since we certainly had the time, I pulled over, grabbed my big 200-400mm and stalked them for a bit.
And then a funny thing happened. After 15 minutes or so I noticed a bit of blue starting to peek out from behind the clouds. We weren’t that far from Two Jack Lake so we turned around and headed back just to see if we might finally get lucky and see some actual sunlight.
Now, there wasn’t much in the way of color, but hey, it wasn’t raining (for once) and we could actually see the mountain. So we set up our tripods and started to snap a few shots of Mt Rundle. And then, gradually, a bit of sunlight struggled thru the overcast skies and a small, partial rainbow shimmered to life off to the west.
Ryan and I perked up and we started to get a bit excited.
Suddenly a shaft of sunlight ripped thru the clouds and lit up the mountain. In that moment, the scene before us morphed from mundane to MAGIC!
Over the next seven minutes, we had an absolute ball! Since we had already spent hours there, we certainly knew where to go. We ran from spot to spot to photograph from every possible perspective.
Ryan and I looked at each other and just grinned. Here we stood in one of the most popular sunrise spots in the Canadian Rockies during the busiest time of the year. Photographers usually line the shoreline, tripod to tripod at sunrise ….and we were the only souls there. And had witnessed an absolutely incredible, epic, sunrise!
Not a nice sunrise…not a good sunrise…not a pretty sunrise…an EPIC one!
As the rain picked up and splattered around us, a couple Canadian Geese wandered over like they were asking…”Hey buddy, did ya see that sunrise? Wow…that one was pretty damn impressive, wouldn’t you say?!”
So…back to the original question.
What is this shot worth?
Was it worth it?
Well, I’ll never sell enough prints of this shot to pay for the trip, so financially, no it wasn’t.
But, it was one of the most dramatic sunrises I’d ever had the good fortune to witness. I’ll forget hundreds of other average, normal, nice sunrises…but I’ll remember this morning with my son until I’m on my deathbed. When I look at it that way, yes…it was worth twice the price.
Tomorrow my son and I head off to the Canadian Rockies for nearly two weeks of camping, hiking and photography (not necessarily in that order). Temperatures here in central Florida have been in the mid 90s for a while and I’m looking forward to cooler weather (heck, the surface of the sun might be an improvement!)
Earlier this year when Ryan and I were considering where to go on our summer road trip, he shared with me a number of photographs on Instagram that had caught his attention. A surprising number of them were from the Canadian Rockies. Although I had heard of Banff and Jasper, they had never really come up on my radar screen even though I had photographed Glacier National Park last year and had been enraptured by the alpine vistas. But the more photos I saw, the more I was impressed.
Here we are a few months later and I’ve spent more hours than I would like to admit researching where we will photograph every single sunrise and sunset! Not only does the region have incredible landscapes but it is also famous for its wildlife. In fact, I bought a new Nikon D500 just for wildlife photography…we will see what kind of bear shots I can get with it mounted to a 200-400 zoom coupled with a 1.4 teleconverter (that will almost be the equivalent of a 900mm lens…I should be able to count the nose hairs on the bruins!)
Ryan and I are truly stoked about the potential for a great trip. But in the back of my mind I wonder how many more of these trips we have in our future. After all, Ryan is 21 and will be graduating next year…soon there will be a career and then a family…he just won’t have the time for these adventures with the old man. But that’s the future…in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy it!
I’ll be sure to update you all when we return…here’s hoping the weather gods are good to us!
If you are a photographer, then you know we live in challenging times. The source of this concern is that there are a LOT of talented and dedicated photographers out there and they are creating incredible images. So why is that a problem? Well, have you ever finally got to one of those locations on your ‘photographic bucket list’, set up your tripod, looked thru the viewfinder, and said to yourself….Crap, this doesn’t look at all like those pictures I’ve been looking at!
That’s the problem I’m talking about.
Heck, you get all excited, spend the money and time to travel to one of these photographic icons….and then the real thing just doesn’t look nearly as good as those images you saw on your computer back at home.
It’s happened to all of us…no matter how good our equipment or how talented (we think) we are.
So when I do get to a ‘bucket list’ spot and I look thru the viewfinder and what I see is there is as good as anything I’ve ever seen on the internet, well, then I know that I’m truly in the presence of something special. A real Icon.
And I’m here to tell you that the Subway at Zion National Park is one of those Icons. I don’t care how many photoshopped masterpieces you’ve seen taken by National Geographic Award Winning Photographers …the fact is that YOU can take a photo here that will compare well to the best of them and make you shake your head in wonder.
Yeah, but here’s the hitch (there’s always a hitch). It’s not easy to get to the subway. Access is tightly restricted by a permit system plus you have to be willing and able to make a long hike.
Actually, there are two ways to get to the Subway. One way involves rappelling and other mountain climbing type skills, so let’s forget about that one. The second route is shorter and easier… its called the “Bottom-up” hike. Although easier, it is still about a 10 miles roundtrip hike. And it isn’t a smooth, easy trail. The National Park Service calls this a strenuous hike. That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was certainly the toughest 10 mile hike I’ve done. None of it is smooth, straight, level or flat. You are constantly scrambling up and down over rocks and boulders. Maybe this explains why less than 1% of Zion visitors make it to the Subway.
My son, Ryan, and I are confident hikers but we still took about two hours (not counting stops) to reach the Subway. Once you figure in some breaks as well as stops for photography, it would be difficult to do this whole hike in less than seven hours.
But it is worth it!
Ryan and were in Zion this March and the Subway was #1 on our list of hikes. We got to the trailhead a couple of hours after dawn and started down the trail. To be honest, compared to other hikes in Zion, this one isn’t particularly beautiful. To be brutally honest it was a long, tiring slog. But as we finally approached the subway entrance things started to get very interesting.
Carved out from the colorful sandstone by moving water, the subway is aptly named. Actually it is a narrow canyon with a thin opening in the ceiling but it really does look like someone burrowed a curving, round tube right thru the rock.
We set up our tripods and took our first shot. We glanced at the result and then looked up at each other with huge, dopey smiles on our faces. Shook our heads and got to work. We were bouncing ideas off of each other, suggesting different angles, perspectives, camera settings…I was almost giddy. The place is truly magical for a photographer!
The subway was a lot larger than I had imagined, the ceiling was about 20′ tall. And the colors are amazing! The chilly water saturates the rock which results in robust reds, fluorescent greens and subtle yellows.
Ryan thought it would be good to include people in some of the shots. I’m kind of ‘old school’ and was taught to exclude people from my photographs. But I’ve come to appreciate how much a human figure in an image provides a sense of proportion and fosters an emotional link to the image. Looking thru my Subway shots now, the ones with people are among my favorites: who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?
The Subway is fully shaded and surprisingly cold, especially when the wind whips thru the ‘tunnel.’ We had a ball, despite the chill and managed to stay on our feet the whole time although the swift current and slippery rocks resulted in a couple slips that certainly got the adrenaline flowing for a moment or two.
There is a waterfall in a chamber at the back of the Subway, but the water levels were too high for us to reach it due to the snowmelt. Something for our next trip.
We enjoyed the Subway’s magic for nearly 90 minutes before we regretfully packed up to head home.
We decided to stop for a well earned lunch at Arch Angel Cascades. As we were enjoying our extravagant meal (Cliff Bars) we noticed a young couple coming down the stream headed for the Subway. We waved and said hi. About ten minutes later we were putting our packs back on when we saw the same couple heading back. I guess they weren’t photographers. They had hiked for 2 hours, looked at the Subway for five minutes or so, then turned around started the 2 hour walk home. Ryan and I were amazed. Sure, the Subway is beautiful, but I wonder if I would be willing to walk 4 hours to look at something for less than 300 seconds!
The hike back seemed to take forever…possibly because I was dreading the climb near the end of the trail where you have to climb 500′ over less than a tenth of a mile. That is one steep climb. Of course my 21 year old son bolted up the trail like some kind of crazed mountain goat. My 57 year old knees weren’t quite as nubile so he got to wait quite a while at the top before I clawed my way up.
Now, four months later, the sore muscles are (nearly) forgotten. But whenever I look at the photos I took that day, I smile and think of a place where you don’t have to be Ansel Adams or Tom Till to take a breathtaking photograph.
Normally, what you would see now on my blog would be a full length article on “How-to photograph the Subway” …but that isn’t going to happen: Because someone has already done it. I ran across this guide by fellow photographer Nico Debarmore when I was first planning my trip. His article is through, detailed, accurate and I highly recommend it to any photographer considering making a hike to the Subway.
In addition to Nico’s information, let me add a few random thoughts of my own:
Find out about the water conditions before you hike:
Don’t get lost
Don’t get distracted on the way to the Subway.
Avoid the Crowds. The Park Service allows a maximum of 80 hikers per day to visit the Subway which doesn’t sound like a lot. However, the Subway can’t really handle more than a handful of photographers without them getting in each other’s way. You really don’t want to be here maneuvering your tripod here around 79 of your new, bestest friends.
Bracket your shots
The Subway is at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon, so it doesn’t get much direct sunlight. The light is subdued and my Nikon D800e was able to handle the dynamic range. However, the D800 is known for its dynamic range abilities, so depending on your camera, it might be a great idea to bracket your shots just in case you have to use HDR software.
I’ve never seen a place like the Subway. It is truly unique and for the photographer willing to make the hike, it is a place never to be forgotten.
I hope you get to experience the magic yourself someday soon!
Zion’s Subway Photo Tips
Just wanted to let you know that I’ve just added a gallery of Pacific Northwest images to my portfolio. Check it out by clicking on this link!
Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips
I don’t do a lot of street photography. As a rule, I prefer to spend my time outdoors and do my best to avoid cities. There are some exceptions, towns like Savannah, Charlestown and St. Augustine have a charm I certainly wouldn’t deny and I have spent many an enjoyable day photographing them. Today, I’m adding another location to that list: Old San Juan.
I’ve visited Old San Juan a half dozen or so times over the years, usually at the start or end of a cruise (over a million tourists cruise out of San Juan harbor yearly). I had taken a couple quick tours and hit the highlights but that was about it. However, earlier this month, a lovely young woman we’ve known for years had her wedding there and I found myself with nearly three days to explore and photograph the city.
First of all, an overview. Old San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada “the walled city”…understandable for a town surrounded by a 3.4 mile long wall that is up to 20 foot thick. It was founded in 1521, by Spanish colonists who called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (“Rich Port City”) and is considered the second oldest town in the New World. The city occupies the western side of a small island at the entrance of San Juan Harbor. Thanks to decades of good zoning laws, you will rarely see a modern structure, in fact, as you walk the narrow streets and look up at the 400 exuberantly painted and carefully restored 16th and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings, it would be easy to think you had slipped thru a time rift and had been carried back a couple centuries. The city is pretty small (about 7 square blocks). You can walk to nearly any spot in the city in 30 minutes.
As soon as I booked my flight, I started searching on-line for ‘photo tips’ and ‘photo locations.’ However, I was surprised by the lack of info available, so I’m writing this blog to help out future photographers who visit this exceptional city.
Sure, this Top 10 list is just my humble opinion and some might quibble over a couple of the selections but it will give you a great starting point for your exploration. So, here’s my top 10 list (in no particular order):
That fee will also get you into Castillo de san Cristobal and your pass is good for a full week.
There is a lot to photograph here. Cannons, flags, tunnels, a Victorian lighthouse…plenty to easily keep you busy for a couple hours.
3. Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery (#3 on map)
4. City View of La Fortaleza (#4 on map)
5. La Rogativa Plaza (Plaza of Religious Procession…#5 on map)
7. Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (#7 on map)
Second oldest cathedral in the New World and also the resting place the island’s first governor: Juan Ponce de León. It may not be the largest or most impressive cathedral you’ll ever see, but there are some beautiful niches and stained glass. Visitors can explore the cathedral from 8:30am to 4pm daily.
This is a huge field on the landward side of el Morro. Originally left open so defenders could have clear fields of fire against attackers this expansive space is unique in Old San Juan. On weekends, the skies over the field are filled with kites as the locals enjoy picnic lunches. You can buy kites from vendors there and try it yourself!
11. And even more…
Okay, okay, I know I promised just 10 locations, but there are many more wonderful photography subjects in Old San Juan…my advice is to just start walking and looking. For example, a life-sized statue of famed Salsa composer Tite Curet Alonso makes a memorable shot (you can find him in the Plaza de Armas…it was actually his favorite bench!)
Even the streets themselves are interesting and subtlely beautiful. They are paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag.
As you wander around photographing the colored buildings you will also find iguanas, street performers, dozens of feral cats and a cornucopia of other subjects for your camera!
1. Stay in the old city If you will be there more than one night, find a room in the old city…NOT the modern part of San Juan. Although the distance between the two is not significant, traffic can make it a long commute. Besides, you really get a chance to soak up the atmosphere if you stay in the old city. My wife rented an apartment on a quiet street with a killer view on Airbnb for less than the cost of a ‘traditional’ hotel. Seriously, find a place in the old city…you won’t regret it.
2. Don’t rent a car. The city is full of narrow, one way streets and finding a parking spot can be impossible. Besides, since the city is small, a reasonably fit person can cover it easily on foot…plus you just see so much more detail when you walk, if you were driving you would miss a lot of photo ops.
3. Hat, Sunscreen, Water, Walking Shoes This is the tropics and the summers can be very hot. Plus, the sun can be merciless. My wife, for example, never gets sunburned, well, at least she never had until this visit to Old San Juan;)
4. Camera Gear
4. Time of Day to shoot
This is one location that you truly can photograph 24 hours a day. Seriously.
5. Camera Gear
I hope you and your camera get a chance to explore Old San Juan soon. Even if you are like me and your first love is landscape or wildlife photography, you won’t be disappointed!
Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips
Last week I returned from an 8 day photo trip to the American Southwest with my son Ryan. He was on Spring Break from college and wanted to get more experience with his new camera and try some of the area’s world-class hikes. As for me, I never need an excuse to photograph the southwest and spending time with my son was just icing on the cake.
So now, after flying 4,000 miles, driving another 2,000 miles and hiking 40 miles…I’ve finally recovered enough to provide a quick trip report (with pictures of course)!
We flew into Vegas on a Saturday morning, got our rental jeep and were quickly on the road out of Sin City heading for Death Valley.
I was excited since I’d never visited Death Valley. Even better, I was finally going to see one of the locations on my “Photographic Bucket List“: Racetrack Playa. Years ago I first saw photos of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ and their long trails on the flat Playa. I’ve been fascinated ever since and this was my chance to finally visit. I’ll be writing a full blog on this location in the near future, but I can tell you it is as strange, eerie and alien as it looks in all those pictures you’ve seen.
After a couple of days living off of granola bars, Ryan decided to treat his old man to a nice breakfast on the way out of the park. There aren’t a lot of dining choices in Death Valley, but the Inn at Furnace Creek looked nice. They were serving brunch and we were so hungry that he didn’t even ask the price. The meal was excellent leaving him both contented and smiling. But when they presented a bill for $70, they managed to wipe away that smile along with a large portion of his Spring Break budget;)
Our next stop was Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada about an hour northeast of Vegas. We only had 90 minutes to devote to this park but could have easily spent days there. I had two goals here:
1) Find the mysterious “Windstone Arch” made famous by photographer David Muensch, and
2) Hike out to the “Fire Wave” and catch a sunset.
Many folks have trouble finding Windstone (also known as Fire Cave) Even though it is only 150′ from the road, it isn’t marked in any way and is hard to see unless you know what you are looking for. Luckily I had GPS coördinates and walked right up to it. I was doubly lucky because it clouded up and even started to rain. Why was that good luck? Well, Windstone is a morning shot…usually the direct sun in the afternoon ruins the shot. Overcast skies meant no direct sun and the diffuse light filled the small alcove nicely!
It was still overcast so my sunset shot of Fire Wave wasn’t looking promising but we drove to the trailhead and started hiking anyway…at least we could scout it out for our next trip. Then, nearly at the end of the trail, the sun squinted thru an opening at the horizon. We nearly ran the last few yards and I fell over myself setting up my tripod. This was the scene:
It was magnificent…dramatic and brief! Two minutes later, the sun was gone but I was still on a photographic high. In fact, my son laughed at my giddy mood, but I was too happy to care. After the sun fell below the horizon, I took a look behind me: This place just wouldn’t stop…a double rainbow!
The next few days were spent at one of my favorites, Zion National Park. We packed in full days of hiking. Those miles on the trail were a bit less tiring for my 20 year old son than for my less youthful body, but the images I captured were worth every last single footfall.
We hiked up Angel’s Landing our first day…this was the trail I had the most pre-trip concerns about. Reviews of this hike cited it as one of the most dangerous in the country (six folks have fallen to their deaths on the hike) and critics warned that anyone who didn’t like heights would be sorry.
Frankly, it wasn’t all that bad. It WAS steep and I have no idea how many switchbacks were on that silly trail but the views at the end were breathtaking.
But then, just as we reached the summit, the weather Gods (who had smiled upon us the day before) turned downright nasty. The sun and blue skies vanished. And then it actually started to snow. Ryan and I looked at each other thinking about how the way back down wouldn’t be all that fun or safe if the trail back got wet or iced-up. We called it a day.
We checked off another “bucket list” location the next day: the famous Subway. Since it was so early in the year, we had no problem snagging two of the 20 daily permits allowed for this hike.
It was a long, rough hike. Despite a ‘trail’ that looked like a Delta Force obstacle course, we managed to have some fun on the way:
When we finally reached the Subway, it was everything we could have hoped for. In fact, when I took my first shot and looked at the LCD on the back of the camera, it was one of those few moments when what I saw looked better than all of those perfectly photoshopped pictures I had admired for years on the internet:
And then, the long hike back…including a challenging ‘scramble’ that involved a 1500′ elevation gain right at the end. I was a tired puppy and it was a long day…over 9 hours from the start of the hike until we got back to the jeep. We ate like pigs that night…I figured I had burned off my share of calories!
Our final day in Zion we hiked up the Narrows.
A big part of the attraction of this hike (even for photographers) is that you actually hike in the Virgin River. However, since it was March and water temps were in the 30s, we actually had to rent full dry-suits to avoid turning into human Popsicles! The good news was that the cold water kept most of the ‘fair-weather hikers’ in their nice warm beds so we had the river nearly to ourselves…which made it a totally different and far more peaceful experience than my previous summer visits.
After the hike we drove up to Escalante (near the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.) We scouted the ‘Hole in the Rock Road’ before dusk (and nearly plowed into a herd of mule deer).
We got up at 3:30 so we could reach Devil’s Garden by 4am when the Milky Way would be high enough to photograph. As you can see above, it didn’t disappoint. Escalante is so isolated and far from big cities that the view of the heavens is simply incredible. We shot for an hour and hit the road again.
Ryan noticed that Bryce Canyon was on our way, so less than 2 hours later we were there for sunrise. I had been checking the webcams and knew that Bryce still had snow…I had long wanted to photograph the hoodoos with snow!
Two more hours in the Jeep and we decided to stop in Kanab to try our luck in the daily lottery for at a permit to visit ‘the Wave.’ Well, that was an experience!…Over 150 potential people packed in a little room hoping to be one of 10 hikers who would get permits. We didn’t win, but ‘nothing ventured….” We actually drove back the next day to try again but it wasn’t to be. Afterwards, during a ‘consolation breakfast’ at McDonalds we chuckled about the lottery and decided that next year would be our year to photograph this Icon!
We hiked out to Wirepass Slot on the way back from Kanab and then toured Lower Antelope Canyon. We finished the day at Horseshoe Bend near Page Arizona. Five photo locations in 17 hours…we certainly packed everything we could into that day!
The next morning we decided to try Horseshoe again…I really liked the soft morning light but my favorite shot was a self-portrait from the night before:
For some reason, I really wanted to see ‘Balanced Rock’ which was a bit out of our way (near Lee’s Ferry). It is a cool hoodoo, but I can’t honestly say it is remarkably photogenic. Something about it just appeals to me, maybe just my odd sense of humor:
This was our last full day and we drove down to the Grand Canyon. It would be Ryan’s first time seeing this wonder.
Unfortunately, the afternoon was overcast and the light was flat. The canyon was still impressive of course, but as photographers, the dismal skies left us a bit disappointed.
Sunset was a bust so after it got dark we splurged on pizza (SO much better than Cliff Bars)! When we came out of the restaurant, the skies had started to clear, so we headed back to the rim. I shot until the clouds came back and completely hid the sky.
We headed back to the room and I set my alarm for 4 am just so I could check to see if the weather might break for sunrise. Maybe we could get a few decent shots before we had to head to the airport for the flight home.
Four am came quickly. I grabbed my beeping phone and my weather app told me it was still overcast, in fact, it was snowing! So, it was our last day and the weather looked like crap. The bed, on the other hand, looked wonderful to my sore, sleep-deprived body. I figured that the chance of a decent sunrise was about nil…so, of course I got dressed and headed to Mather Point anyway.
Glad I did. I found a spot, got set up and prepared to spend a cold morning shuffling my feet without taking a shot. But then, somehow, right at daybreak the sun managed to poke thru a clear slot in the overcast skies. It revealed a wonderland of snow, red rock and hoar-frost covered trees. Shutters started clicking and the tourists at the viewpoint gave up a cheer (I might have joined in)…
I could never have asked for a better morning to be at the Canyon…it was a photographer’s dream.
Does it get better than this? If so, bring it on, I’m ready!
Writing my annual Top 12 blog is always interesting. Yeah…interesting. It’s a good word. It covers everything from fun to frustrating…and that’s very appropriate. Trying to filter 12,000 images down to 12 is a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to remember the trips I took to capture these shots…those are some wonderful memories. But just 12 images…wow…it’s really frustrating trying to narrow it down that much. On, the other hand, I guess it’s a good problem to have, it meant that 2015 resulted in a lot of work I was proud of. Well anyway, you didn’t click on this blog to hear me ramble…you want to see photos, so here we go…my best work of the year 2015 (in no particular order):I know I said the photos aren’t ranked, but this might be my favorite shot of the year. Heck, this might be my favorite shot ever. I have huge metal print of this image hanging right over my desk and every time I see it, I seem to stop and drink it in for a moment or two. Not only does it inspire me, but I always think of the improbable chain of events that resulted in me capturing this image. It’s a shot that I shouldn’t have gotten, but I did…and I’m grateful.
Just adorable. I came upon this cub and his sister playing on the edge of a field in the Smokies and they couldn’t have been more cute if they had tried. I spent a few hours photographing them while hand-holding the ‘beast’ (my 200-400 lens…which weighs as much as the cub’s mom)…but it was worth every aspirin I had to swallow!
George Jetson was here! Well, that’s the type of graffiti I was expecting to see on top of Clingman’s Dome when I was setting up this shot. I love how the spiral observation tower mimics the grace of the Milky Way.
My wife and I were diving on a wreck in the Caribbean when this big kahuna joined us and made my day. I’d never had much luck photographing sea turtles but that all changed on this trip! I’d be the first to admit that I still have volumes to learn about underwater photography, but even so, my family considers this shot to be one of their favorites!
My son and I had an epic hiking trip to the Pac NW last summer and came home with some lasting memories and killer waterfall photos…this shot of Ryan in front of Wachlella Falls is my pick from that litter….
On second thought, I kinda like this long exposure perspective of Ponytail Falls too…
When I get to visit a location on my “Photographic Bucket List” I rarely come back with a photo I would consider ‘world class.’ After all, when you only have a day or two, what chance do you have to really learn how to best capture the scene PLUS be blessed with weather that makes the image truly something special? This shot of ‘Thor’s Well’ was a welcome exception to that rule.
This Alaskan harbor seal appears due to the lobbying efforts of my wife. I would have put it in my top 25 but not top 12…she disagreed. Over the years I’ve learned to carefully listen when she speaks…
I have a love-hate thingy going with the Oregon/Washington coast. I love that the coast line has some of the most breathtaking incredible vistas anywhere but I hate that the weather is
often, usually, always crappy. Okay…not always, but it sure seems that way to me. So it takes some perseverance and luck to get a memorable image. On the other hand, since you have to go back to the same spot multiple times hoping for good weather, when it finally does clear up, you have scouted the spot to death and know how you want to shoot it!
Washington’s Palouse Falls is an incredible sight and I’ve long believed that it would be even more impressive at night with the Milky Way rising over it. Well, over the years I’ve tried many times to get that shot but the falls are in a deep, dark gorge and it is real challenge to light it up well. I tried long exposures…I tried light painting… Nothing I did looked ‘right.’ One frustrating and unproductive night when I was breaking down my equipment a guy walked up and asked if I minded if he tried some light painting. I chuckled to myself and told him to have at it since I’d thought I had already tried everything. He pulled out the most powerful flashlight I’d ever seen and proceeded to do a masterful job of illuminating the gorge. I snapped away and ended up with the shot I had always dreamed of. My thanks to Ariel Rodilla for showing me that I still have a lot more to learn about light painting!
Every photographer should have the chance to shoot the Palouse region of eastern Washington State at least once before they die. It truly is a land that time forgot (in a good way) and the 360° views of the sensuous, smooth, and seemingly liquid landscape from Steptoe Butte are stunning.
I’ll finish with the most popular photograph I’ve ever published. When I posted this one on my Facebook page, it seemed to really strike a chord with folks and it went viral. Oddly enough, this photo bothers me. When I look at it, all I seem to notice is that the front of this manatee’s nose is out of focus. Sometimes being a perfectionist means you get hung up on small details and I’m certainly guilty of that. It was an incredible moment though, when this manatee surfaced right in front of me while I was taking a shot of the sunrise. If only he had given me the time to make sure the shot was in focus…
It was an incredible year for me professionally and personally. I explored more of this incredible planet, met lots of wonderful folks, sold some prints, won a contest or two and got a few images published. Plus, even after all these years, I found that photography continued to challenge and inspire me. Even better, my wife and I got my first Grandchild (little London Grace)…which helps keep my photography obsession in perspective.
Life is Good.
When I first began my career in photography, I was drawn to the icons…Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches (you know the list). The internet and libraries are filled with info about “Photographing the Southwest,” “How to photograph the Grand Canyon” and “Fifty Places to Photograph Before you Die.” These icons are famous for a reason…great photographs can be taken there and as an aspiring photographer it only made sense to ‘fish where the fish are.’
But there is a downside too…and that is that it is unlikely that your shots are really going to stand out. Yes, they still might be impressive, beautiful and inspiring….but honestly, it is pretty difficult to take a unique photograph of Half Dome from Yosemite’s Tunnel View when 43 trillion other photos have been taken from the same spot.
One solution is find a new way to photograph an old icon: a different angle, a creative perspective, something…anything new and different! You will find this piece of advice in nearly every photography article ever written. It’s good advice, and I certainly strive to dream up new ways capture these legendary vistas.
But there is another way to take a unique photo. Find a place that isn’t already well known to every photographer on the planet.
I can’t honestly say that this is the reason my wife and I spent a week on the island of Bonaire earlier this fall. To be honest, we were there because we are divers and Bonaire is well known as a “Diver’s Paradise.” I hoped there might be something else to photograph, so I searched the internet. But even Google failed to give me much except lots and lots of underwater shots. But I’m an optimist, so I packed my cameras, tripods, lenses and another 80 pounds of photo gear…just in case.
I’m glad I did!
It turns out that there is a lot more to photograph in Bonaire than just fish. A lot more…
First a bit about the island. Bonaire lies about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is the least well-known of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). Cruise ships don’t visit often and with less than 17,000 natives it is quiet and uncrowded. It’s a Dutch island and people are friendly but respectful (you don’t get mobbed by people yelling “hey pretty lady, buy my t-shirts!” Surprisingly, the island is very dry…looking more like the desert Southwest than the typical lush tropical rainforest you might expect.
First of all, there is some fascinating wildlife to keep your camera busy. Yes, they have iguanas (which I simply love….running around like half-baked dinosaurs)!
And then there were the birds…wow! Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.
For me, a highlight had to be the Flamingos. Bonaire is host to the one of the few places in the world that has breeding grounds of the Caribbean Flamingo. Heck, I’d never seen a flamingo except in a zoo….and in Bonaire I saw thousands. They don’t like noise or movement, so you need a long telephoto and some stalking skills, but where else can you get shots like this?
As you know, I adore hummingbirds, so I was delighted to see hummers swarming the flowering bushes and trees around our resort even before we got to our room!
The Ruby-Topaz hummingbird and the well named Emerald hummingbird are both gorgeous and much different from the Ruby-Throated hummers we have back at home in Florida.
For the entire week, after our morning dives, you would often find me with my 70-200mm staked out by the flowers near our room. Other tourists would be walking to their rooms, spot me, take a wary look at the guy creeping around with a camera… but then they would see the hummers and their faces would light up and they would start whispering and pointing.
Oh yeah, they had parrots too! (at least I thought they were parrots). Right outside our room..often roosting in the same trees as the hummers were what the locals called ‘Loras.’ They looked like a huge parakeets on steroids, which it kinda turns out they are. Meet the Caribbean Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) . They certainly had no fear of people and posed patiently while I burned thru some memory cards.
There aren’t many big critters on the island.
The most interesting are the donkeys. Apparently the early Dutch imported a lot of donkeys for use as pack animals. When cars and trucks became available, the donkeys were let loose to roam the island and fend for themselves. Since they aren’t native, life was challenging for the newly emancipated burros, but in 1993, Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, established a donkey sanctuary on Bonaire for sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys. Now over 400 donkeys call the Donkey Sanctuary home. For a small donation you can drive thru the compound. If you ever wanted the opportunity to get a close-up photo of a donkey, here is your chance. Hey, it’s not photographing Grizzly’s catching spawning Salmon, but it makes for an entertaining photo op!
How about landscapes? Well, to be honest, we never even made it to the northern part of the island which is the home of Washington Slagbaai National Park. This park covers 1/5 of the total island and locals told me it had the most potential for landscape photography on Bonaire. Unfortunately, I really only explored the southern coast and central part of the island around our resort (near Kralendijk, the Capital).
The salt flats on the southern end of the island are pretty dramatic. The water in the flats is actually pink…well maybe mauve…well, it changes, depending on how the sunlight hits it. The huge mountains of salt in the background can make some fascinating images when contrasted with the salt ponds and if you happen to find a couple flamingos necking in a salt pond in the foreground, you might actually get one of those unique images we were talking about:)
Also on the isolated and unpopulated southern coast were the remains of the slave huts and ship markers that are a fascinating but disturbing reminder of a past when slaves worked under harsh conditions harvesting sea salt from the nearby salt flats. The huts are minuscule and must have been like ovens with whole families crowded into them.
Since there isn’t much light pollution on Bonaire and nothing but ocean to the south, I hoped this might be a good spot for Milky Way photography. I was right! It might have been a bit spooky but it made for some wonderful and unusual photography.
After my wife and I returned home, I got a note from one of the folks I had met on Bonaire telling me about a Photo Contest the island’s tourism bureau was conducting. The top prize was a week of lodging for two along with food, rental car and free diving. I’m not much on contests, I’d rather be out taking photos than filling out forms but my wife encouraged me to enter. I find it is usually a good idea to listen to her advice….and guess what?
Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!
PS: I have a long way to go with my Underwater photography before I ever see the end of my learning curve. But I love a challenge, Plus the underwater world is alien, colorful and visually stunning. My UW shots didn’t win any prizes, but I’d like to share a few of them with you anyway:
My son, Ryan, has recently been bitten by the photography/travel bug. Like a proud papa of a newborn, I have been lavishing time and attention on his growing hobby. Earlier this month, we drove up to the Smokies with the goal of getting some real-world experience with his new camera, tripod, lenses and all the other paraphernalia that photographers surround themselves with. Or, as my son said: “Jeeze Dad, all this other stuff is going to cost me more than the camera!” Oh yeah baby!…welcome to the
addiction world of photography my son…
Of course, I hoped to get some decent photographs as well, but we had missed most of the fall color and the weather was just plain ugly. Rain, clouds, more rain. Not ideal weather for the glorious sunrises or the mountainsides of autumn color my son had hoped to catch. But, if there is one truism about photography, it is that bad weather can make good photos! Rain does help to saturate colors and overcast skies are ideal for photographing streams and waterfalls. So we grabbed our raingear and headed out.
My favorite stream in the Smokies is the Middle Prong of the Little River in the Tremont area. Ryan and I spent nearly a full day there dodging squalls and exploring the hundreds of beautiful vignettes that populate this three mile stretch of heaven.
Another of my favorite streams is along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
We spent hours working this area. And the rain kept all the tourists in Gatlinburg, so we had it nearly to ourselves!
On our last day, the rain stopped briefly so we went off in search of fall color. Oddly enough, the best we found was in the hills right above Gatlinburg.
We drove up to Clingman’s Dome nearly every morning and evening hoping to capture one of those iconic Smokies, layered-mountain scenes…but it was not to be on this trip. My best effort was on the way back down the mountain when the clouds parted briefly and I swerved off onto an overlook to grab this shot.
So, all in all, it wasn’t the trip I had planned and hoped for. But I got to spend quality time with my son and he got hours of personal instruction with his new DSLR. So, maybe I didn’t come home with any award-winning shots, but perhaps the memories are the real prize.
PS: On the way to the Smokies, I made a small detour to stop at one of my all-time favorite waterfalls: Minnehaha in north Georgia. It isn’t well known and I’m happy about that since it is never crowded. This is a big, beautiful cascade that always envelops me in a sense of peace. It is now one of Ryan’s favorites as well.
It is funny how perceptions differ between people. It is certainly true for photographers as well. There are some shots that I consider to be my best work that members of my family look at and politely say…”oh, that’s nice.” On the other hand, there are images I’ve taken that I think are just okay but others really “ahhhh and oooohhhh” about.
The shot below is a perfect example. I took this image earlier this year but I wasn’t happy with it. Sure it was nice to get a manatee and a sunrise in the same shot but I didn’t like how part of the manatee wasn’t in focus so I didn’t even bother to process the shot for a few months. But eventually I did and on a slow day, I named it “Morning Rendezvous” and posted it to my facebook account. And it went viral. Over 10,000 ‘likes’, hundreds of shares and comments. More than anything that I’ve posted before…heck, more than EVERYTHING combined that I’ve ever posted. People started tracking me down to buy prints and it is now, by far, my best selling print. It’s been published and used as the banner for multiple websites…heck…the Crystal River Manatee Refuge even used it as the basis of a mural they had painted at their center!
I really don’t intend to brag. But to be honest, this is a huge break for me professionally, so of course I’m very pleased. It really is great to create something that strikes such a chord in people. That is, after all, one of my goals in photography.
But did it have to be this picture? Clearly most folks aren’t immediately distracted by the poor focus…which is all the perfectionist in me sees.
I’ve enjoyed the blooming sunflower fields near Lake Jesup every fall for a number of years. Although its always glorious, I found that it was getting challenging to photograph the spectacle in new and exciting ways. So this year, I set a new goal: Capture the fields in a way that hasn’t been done before and help the viewer see and feel the experience of standing in a field of yellow flowers that stretch to the horizon.
My solution was to make a time-lapse. Here is the result:
My website can’t handle the size of the video in high-resolution, so I apologize that this version isn’t HD. However, to see the video in High-Resolution, click on this link and it will take you a HD version I put on You Tube.
To make this video, I used two cameras and recorded over 12 hours of images on two different days. I took about 10 shots per minute, so I ended up with over 7,000 photos. The amazing thing is that those 7,000 pictures amount to less than 3 1/2 minutes of video!
Twelve hours might sound like a lot of time to spend sitting in wildflower fields…and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d have the patience…but it really wasn’t all that bad. I just set up the cameras, put my camping stool down in a shady spot, lathered on the mosquito spray and pulled out my latest Jack Reacher novel. Actually, not a bad way to enjoy a beautiful Florida afternoon.
I’m on the steep side of the learning curve when it comes to figuring out how to edit videos. As a result, I won’t allow myself to figure out how many total hours I spent editing this 2 minute “film.” It was certainly a learning experience but I think the result achieves my goal to help the viewer “see” the blooming fields in a new and more personal way.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it as well.
“La Florida”: Time-Lapse of Lake Jesup Sunflowers
“La Florida”: Time-Lapse of Lake Jesup Sunflowers
The fields are still blooming in the Marl Bed Flats area by Lake Jesup but it is still wet…very wet: Unlike the drought out west, Florida’s rainfall as of October 1st has equaled what we normally receive for a full year. Plus, some of the areas that are usually packed with flowers are overgrown by other plants. I’ve heard from a number of you who have tried to see the fields this year but were disappointed.
I’m guessing that we have another week before the flowers start to fade, so this might be the last weekend for you to see the extravaganza this year with the flowers at their peak. If you are interested, then I’ll help you get to this spot.
But first, let me be clear. Don’t be like the couple I met at the trailhead yesterday who expected that they were going to drive up to an overlook, step out of the car and start snapping photos. This isn’t Disney. You are going to have to hike about 20 minutes out to the fields. You are going to be bit by mosquitos (no matter how much DEET you have on) and your feet are going to get wet (unless you have waterproof boots). If you are still game, then read on.
Note: If the following directions look familiar to you, it is because they are identical to those I’ve published in past years UNTIL you get to step #6:
Here’s a map that shows the trails:
It is really gorgeous out there right now and I hope you are able to get out there and enjoy it. If so, be sure to review my list of tips and suggestions before you go…it will help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past and make for a more enjoyable day.
PS: If you know of any other good locations, please let me know.
PSS: Fellow local photographer Ed Rosack was out at the fields yesterday also. Here is his report: http://edrosack.com/2015/10/10/beauty-and-bugs-in-the-soggy-swamp-sunflowers-2015/
PSSS: Here is a shot of my 6′ son in the fields yesterday:
Have you ever seen the excitement in a child’s face when she experiences something for the first time? Seeing that joy and hearing those squeals of delight are one of the things I most love most about children.
As we get older, we tend to get jaded and take much of life for granted. Those moments of childlike happiness become a rare thing. Which is one of the reasons that I adore photography….it continually challenges me to seek out new locations and experiences and helps keep the child alive in me.
For, example, earlier this year my son Ryan and I were planning a trip to Oregon. While talking with one of my friends in Portland, he mentioned that the Perseid meteor shower would be peaking when I was visiting. Now honestly, I had vaguely heard of the Perseid’s before, but neither Ryan or I had ever even seen a meteor, much less photographed one.
But a quick search on Google educated me: The annual Perseid meteor shower is probably the most popular one of the year. When the Earth crosses the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle in late August, debris from the comet cuts thru our atmosphere at 130,000 miles per hour sometimes resulting in dozens of meteors per hour.
Well that certainly sounded like something I wanted to see!
But where in Oregon would be best to photograph this spectacle? I wanted a spot with great views (of course) and little light pollution. After some research on the internet, I decided to split my time between two locations in northern Oregon’s Cascade Mountain range: Trillium Lake and Lost Lake.
Well, we got to Trillium Lake on Aug 10th right after sunset. And the sky was overcast. Couldn’t see a single star. Killed a couple hours eating dinner (and drinking great local beer) then went outside to check again. Clouds. Went to bed and got up two more times to check. Clouds. The sky did start to clear up just before sunrise so Ryan and I went down to Trillium and captured some shots, but by then it was too bright to see meteors. Just the same, it was a quiet, peaceful sunrise. Trillium Lake is an idyllic spot and it is easy to visualize how incredible photos can be taken here..
After a day exploring some incredible waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge (another post about this adventure later) we pulled into Lost Lake late in the afternoon and set up camp in our Yurt. What’s a yurt you ask? Well, when you make reservations at a popular campground only a month in advance during peak season, a yurt is likely to be the only thing left available. Like I said, photography helps me have new experiences…
I had pre-scouted the area on Google Earth and knew I wanted to photograph the meteors from the north-western shore (Lost Lake is shaped like a triangle, and the northwestern shore faces Mt. Hood). What I couldn’t see on my computer was that trees grow right up to the shore blocking your view of the sky, not exactly ideal for sky photography. But there was one strip of shore, maybe 100′ long that was perfect: overhead it had a clear stretch of sky and below in the shallows of the lake were wonderful boulders and fallen trees that made great foreground subjects.
Except for one little problem…a group of folks were already there enjoying a bonfire. So Ryan and I hiked up the shoreline vainly looking for a decent alternative location but we had no luck. We returned to a spot near the original location and made the best of it, but the light from their fire played havoc on my shots. Their party finally wrapped up by 11 pm and as their fire faded out, the views of the stars and meteors reflected on the calm lake became more visible.
But my heart had been set on taking shots of Mt. Hood with the Milky Way behind it. Unfortunately, by this late hour the rotation of the earth had moved the Milky Way so far to the west that I couldn’t fit it into the frame with Mt. Hood. Plus I had hauled my not-so-young body around for miles that day and I was exhausted, so headed back to camp with hopes of better luck the following night.
The next morning, we went back to watch the dawn. No wind, no clouds, (no bonfire!)…it was one of the most perfect scenes I could imagine.
After a few shots, we hit the road early to go hike more waterfalls but drove back to Lost Lake well before sunset to get ‘first dibs’ on our spot. As the clearing came into view we were happy to see that we were the only ones there, so we set up our equipment, set back and relaxed while we waited for the show to start.
It turned out Ryan and weren’t the only photographers that knew about “our” perfect spot. Over the next couple hours, four more shutterbugs (who had also previously scouted the area) set up next to us. They knew that the peak of the meteor shower was going to be that night (Aug 12) and had all traveled to Lost Lake to capture images of it.
Actually, this is one of the things that Ryan and I like most about photography…meeting and getting to know other photographers. Most of them love to talk about their hobby and share their knowledge and swap stories. One of the guys, Dan Duerden, was a High School teacher from British Columbia who was spending his 3 month summer holiday on a photographic journey through the PAC NW. Dan is an incredibly talented photographer and you can see more of his work on his Instagram page: https://instagram.com/dduerds/ . Ryan had recently started posting his own photos on Instagram (https://instagram.com/ryanstamer/) and the two of them had an animated conversation about that topic…it was all way over my head.
There was a retired guy obsessed with photography (not that I’m throwing stones!). Along with him was his long suffering wife who described herself as his “Sherpa” because she got to lug around all of his gear. When Ryan heard that, he playfully elbowed me in the ribs…. because he is my designated tripod-carrier on our hikes.
Anyway, we spent the next few hours taking our photos and quietly talking on the edge of the shore. We watched the sky…and listened to the “Ewwws!” and “Ahhhs!” from the campers on the other side of the lake as meteors streaked across the heavens.
I had two camera set up to automatically take continuous photos. This ensured that I would capture nearly every meteor that flew over our heads. It also gave me the chance to try my hand at making a time-lapse video. The resulting ‘film’ condenses about 600 photographs down to less than 100 seconds, take a look:
In addition to the meteors, you can also see a number of aircraft and satellites in this video, but basically, anything that you see for less than a half of a second is likely to have been a meteor…and there were a bunch! This is my first ‘real’ time-lapse and I’m still learning…but it was a lot of fun and I’m pretty happy with the result.
There weren’t a lot of meteors early in the evening, but they appeared with increasing frequency as the hours went by. Just the same, of the 700+ frames I took over two days, there was only a single image that captured two at the same time:
Note how the meteors are multi-hued, plus they tend to be wider toward the center. I learned that these attributes help you distinguish them from satellites or aircraft.
Here is one last shot I’d like to share. Basically, I took most of the decent sized meteors I photographed on Aug 12 and placed them on a single image. I had to reorient some of them to take into account the rotation of the earth (since we saw the meteors over a 3 hour span of time). It certainly makes for an interesting image:
By 1 am Ryan and I were yawning and since we planned to be hiking again in a few hours we thought it might be nice to get a bit of sleep first. We said goodnight to our new friends and headed for our sleeping bags.
Over the next week or so, Ryan I spent time at a number of amazing places in the PAC NW, but our time at Lost Lake has become one of our favorite memories from the trip. It kind of reminded us of one of those old-time fishing camps nestled way back in the woods. The area is truly beautiful, peaceful and seems to do wonders for your soul.
Plus, I got to have some NEW experiences. Yeah, maybe I didn’t exactly squeal like a child, but it made me feel young just the same.
PS: If you go to Lost Lake, here is a map showing the spot we “found”:
Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon
Note: There is a more recent update published on Oct. 10th, click here to see it.
If you happen to live within driving distance of Central Florida, you may have been thinking of photographing the annual wild sunflower fields that bloom this time of year in the Lake Jesup area. If so, I wanted to let you know that now is the time.
I hiked out to the fields yesterday and they are in full bloom. Compared to previous years, the flats are very wet and you won’t be able to get out very far into them, but you can still shoot from the edges and get some wonderful images . If you do try to venture into the flats, you will need hip waders and lots of mosquito spray! I just walked along the area where the oak/palm trees stop and the flats begin. That area has some trails and is pretty dry but I was glad I had waterproof boots.
If you haven’t been out to the fields before, check out my previous post for directions and tips.
PS: Don’t forget that these sunflowers are TALL…like 6′ tall, which means you need to get your camera elevated if you want to be able to see the horizon. So unless you are a pro basketball player or want to bring a ladder, you should bring a tripod with a center column so you can extend your camera a bit above the flowers.
PSS: Bring your macro lens for close-ups and don’t forget that there are lots of Bald Eagles and other birds, so you might want to have a zoom with you as well.
Until recently, I had never had the chance to visit Oregon, but this year I’ve been there twice…and it has made quite an impression on me:
It is a beautiful state.
It is a diverse state.
But it is an also odd state, where the government thinks adults are intelligent enough to use marijuana responsibility but they don’t trust you to pump your own gas (seriously, they have a state law that requires gas stations to have an attendant to pump your fuel)….but then again, I live in Florida and perhaps I shouldn’t be calling other states odd.
As a photographer, Oregon’s big attraction is waterfalls. They have tons of them. And the ones they have are among the most photogenic in the country…if not the world. Take a look at any Top Ten list of Beautiful Waterfalls and you will likely find at least a couple that are in Oregon.
Most folks like waterfalls, and others, like my son Ryan, absolutely love them. So when Ryan and I planned our trip across the Pac NW earlier this year, he made sure that we included more than a few waterfalls. The first we explored turned out to be one of our favorites of the trip: Toketee Falls.
Tokatee Falls is located in Central Oregon and isn’t as well known as the more publicized waterfalls in the Columbia River Valley. But we had seen some photos on-line that got our attention and since it was only about 30 miles from Crater Lake National Park (where our trip had started) we decided to take a morning and check it out.
The name, Tokatee, is a native Chinook word meaning “pretty” or “graceful”…and it certainly is well named. It is a beautiful, classical waterfall that drops 120 feet in two stages thru a wall carved from ancient columnar basalt.
Oddly enough, the thing that might have been the most memorable, wasn’t the waterfall. Even before we got out of our car in the parking lot, this grabbed my attention:
This is a 12′ wide redwood aqueduct that diverts a good portion of a major river (the North Umpqua) to a hydroelectric plant. What is really amazing is that it was built in 1949 and is still in use! It runs right alongside the trailhead parking lot and as you get out of your car you will immediately notice the leaks. Since it holds a massive amount of water under high pressure those leaks become jets of water, some shooting over 15’…much to the delight of every child (and childlike adult). Makes for a nice way to cool off on a hot day! Check out my amateurish 15 second You Tube video if you want to see more: https://youtu.be/kyc0MStQtpw
The half mile hike to the falls was easy…there is a bit of elevation change (200 steps) but it was shaded and the woods were beautiful. At the end of the trail there is a new observation deck that has a killer view Toketee.
This is the same image you will see in 99% of the images on Google. And with good reason…it is impressive. Nearly all tourists and photographer snap a few shots here, then turn around and go back. Which is exactly what I planned to do. Except, when I finished my shots…Ryan was gone. After a few confused minutes of looking around, I finally noticed him…all the way down at the base of the falls. Since I knew his mother would never let me rest peacefully if I returned without him, I strapped the tripod to my back and started looking for the way down. Mistake. There is no way down. At least not an official one and the only “path” was what locals call “a scramble.” What I would call it is not printable. Let’s just say it is little more than a slippery, controlled fall down a steep muddy slope. After a couple minutes that voice in the back of my head started whispering: “This is stupid…You are going to get hurt…You are smarter than this!!!” But I’m really not that smart…plus my fear of my wife is a heck of lot louder than that silly little voice. So off I went.
I managed to get down without injury…and without loosing control of my bladder (which was kind of a close thing a couple times).
From the base of the falls, after my jackhammering heart slowed down, I raised my head and took in the view.
It was humbling. Over the ages the waterfall has carved a deep gouge in the solid rock wall. And below it blasted out a huge bowl in the basalt. Standing at the bottom of this ‘bowl’ you are surrounded by tall columns of the volcanic rock that reflects and amplifies the sound of smashing water. To say it is loud misses the point… more like you can feel your ribcage reverberating within your chest. Truly visceral!
See that fully grown tree on the right? Now you are starting to get an idea of how massive the columns of basalt are that make up the wall of this gorge!
Ryan and I spent nearly an hour soaking in the view. Not another soul made their way down to the base of the falls (clearly they had better sense than we did.) Although we saw a lot more waterfalls over the next week, Tokatee was one of the most memorable. It has a wonderful balance of size, power and pure aesthetic beauty. I hope you get to visit and photograph this treasure in the future.
Just for the record. Although I used humor when I wrote about getting to the base of the falls, I want to clearly state that I do NOT recommend that you try to do so. The ‘trail’ is not safe in its current condition. I have no doubt that someone will be seriously injured (or worse) trying to reach the falls. I wish that the powers-that-be would invest the funds necessary to make an ‘official’ trail to the base, but that hasn’t happened yet. Listen to that little voice in your head: No photograph is worth serious injury.
1) When to visit? Spring is the best. Snowmelt makes for impressive volumes of water and everything is green. However, most the shots in this blog were taken in June and as you can see, the water volume was still adequate and the vegetation vibrant.
2) Be there in the morning so you can photograph the falls while in the shade. The falls face west and as the day progresses, you will get direct sunlight on the face of the falls which makes photography more difficult.
3) If you are shooting from the observation platform with a full frame camera, you will need about a 60mm lens to get a nice full image shot of the falls (about 40mm on a cropped APS-C sensor camera). If you decide to shoot from the base (assuming you ignore my warning) you will need a 27-40mm for most shots (15-20mm on crop sensor). There is a lot of spray at the base, bring some microfiber cloths to dry your lens between shots.
4) You will need your tripod. Since you will want to photograph while the falls are in the shade, you will need a tripod for longer exposure times, especially if you want the waterfall to have that ‘silky’ look. My first shot in this blog, for example, was a 4 second exposure. Most of the other shots were HDRs.
5) Don’t forget your polarizer. It will help reduce glare and make the colors ‘pop.’
6) How to get there? At milepost 58.6 on Highway 138 east of Roseburg Oregon, turn north on Road 34. Stay left at the Y and cross the bridge. A well-marked trailhead is 200 feet on the left.
7) If you do go to the base of the falls, take a rope and a first aid kit. Don’t go alone. Leave an address for your next of kin on the dash of the car.
This is a beautiful location…enjoy!
Tokatee Falls Photography: Guide, Tips and a Warning
This summer has been a busy, wild and intense ride! In June I spent 20 days photographing Washington State and Southern Alaska. Two weeks ago, my son, Ryan, and I hiked for 10 days during a 1,500 roadtrip thru the Pac NW and at Glacier NP. And in two days, my wife and I head to Bonaire in the Caribbean for some underwater photography and scuba. Needless to say, I am behind in my blog and it may take the rest of the year to catch up.
Today, I have only an hour or so free before I have to start packing, so I thought I would do a quick recap of the highlights of the hiking tour Ryan and I enjoyed…so sit back and enjoy!
Neither my son or I had ever visited Crater Lake and it turned out to be far more impressive than either of us had anticipated. On our first night there, I got what may be the best shot of the entire trip. I had long wanted to photograph the Milky Way with Wizard Island and the lake in the background. I found the famous, whitebark pine that precariously hangs over the edge of the crater and got some solid images before the cold got to me and I decided to pack it in near midnight. Ryan, who had been warming up in the car, came over and we spontaneously decided to use him as a model for a last shot. Just as I hit the shutter, a meteor lit up the sky right over his head and we simultaneously screamed “Did you see that?!!!” In my next breath I yelled “Don’t Move” hoping he could hold still for the 20 second exposure so his image wouldn’t be blurry. Did he freeze? Check it out…
After a couple days of exploring Crater, we headed for the Oregon coast. Along the way we stopped at Toketee Falls. The standard shot is from the observation deck…and it is an impressive view!
My son decided to scramble down to the base of the falls. I followed him but soon had second thoughts when it became clear that the trail was not official, safe or sane. More about that experience at a later date!
Thor’s Well is one of those attractions that photographers fantasize about. It’s a collapsed cavern on the Oregon shore. At high tide, the ocean literally pours thru the roof of the cave and it truly looks like the Pacific is draining into a massive well. I had planned our trip to coincide with high tide and sunset…I was not disappointed!
Our next three days were spent hiking the famous waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge. Ryan loves waterfalls and he had a long, detailed list…and I think we hit every, last, single one of them. Hiking up Oneonta Gorge was without doubt, our favorite…similar to the Virgin Narrows at Zion only shorter and much greener!
Our next stop was Palouse Falls in Washington State. It was over 100 degrees F when we arrived and I chuckled to think I had left Florida trying to escape the heat of August! We hiked down to the base of the falls (yes, it was a trend…Ryan was determined to see every waterfall from all possible perspectives). Fortunately, it cooled off overnight so we didn’t bake in our tent. In the morning, the sun apologized for its brutal behavior the day before by greeting us with an epic sunrise.
We wrapped up our trip with three days in Glacier National Park. Although there were a number of active wildfires in the park, Glacier is huge so we just selected hikes in the areas that were unaffected. I was a bit disappointed by the hazy skies but they did seem to intensive the color at sunrise and sunset.
Glacier is well known for its wildlife…and now I know why! Bears, Big Horn Sheep, Moose, Mountain Goats, Marmots, Bald Eagles…the variety was incredible. Not only that, but when you are alpine hiking, some of these critters use the same trails you do…so they get close.
We finished our trip with the long hike to Grinnell Glacier on our last day. My 20 year old son was kind enough not to leave me behind as we climbed the trail. But to tell the truth, after hiking 50 or so miles since the start of our roadtrip, I admit that I didn’t exactly sprint up the mountain.
So there you have it: 10 Days summarized by 10 Photos! I have much more to share with you about trip…some great stories…like the one where a Park Ranger gave me a breathalyzer test because my eyes looked weird (that’s what a 57 year old guy looks like after hiking for 10 days with 4 hours sleep per night!)
Anyway, I gotta run. More to come later!
I know, I know…15 hours is a ridiculously short amount of time for a visit to a National Park…especially one as expansive as Rainier. Ideally you want to be able to immerse yourself over a number of days to really get a ‘feel’ for the landscape plus you need more than a handful of hours to even see more than a smattering of the most popular photo locations.
Plus, the main reason I’ve long dreamed of visiting Rainier was to photograph the annual wildflower bloom…but that wouldn’t happen for another month or two.
But, I was going to be in the area and had only 15 hours open on my schedule so I was just going to have suck it up and experience the photographic equivalent of ‘speed dating’. Even if I didn’t get any great photos, at least I’d be able to scout out the park and be better prepared next time.
I had reservations at the Paradise Inn, which is one of those old, timber framed lodges you find at many of the National Parks. What it lacks in modern conveniences is more than made up by its location: it is located high up on the mountain near the Paradise meadows which are famous for their wildflower displays. So at 4pm I pulled up to the Inn, checked-in, grabbed my gear and hit the Skyline Trail. And guess what? The wildflowers were blooming! Turns out that a poor snow pack that winter had resulted in an early melt…and early flowers!
That was the good news, the bad news is that the mountain was covered by fog and the trail was packed with what seemed like hundreds of people (I guess the early wildflower bloom was not a secret). Could barely see ten feet and photography was not an option. So I decided to drive to halfway around the park to check out another location I had seen on the internet: Tipsoo Lake.
Unlike the packed trails in Paradise, there were only a few other people at Tipsoo. Even better there wasn’t any fog and it was also awash with flowers. A nice sunset developed, but Rainier stubbornly remained hidden.
I set up behind the lake waiting for the sunset and passed the time talking with another photographer about the chances of Rainier making an appearance before sunset. Didn’t happen. About fifteen minutes after sunset (of course) the clouds around Rainier dissipated and we finally got a glimpse of the mountain but by then the sunset’s vibrant color was long gone. Just the same, there was a nice lavender alpenglow. Not a dramatic sunset scene but nice in its own subtle, moody way.
Sunset was a bit after 9pm and I had hoped to be back to my room by 10:30 but I managed to take a wrong turn on the way back to the Inn which added another hour to my drive. Yes I had a GPS…but I found it didn’t help much when you have the sound on ‘mute.’
Needless to say, by the time I got back to the Inn the sky had darkened well enough for the Milky Way to be visible, so I decided go out on the trail next to the hotel and try some night shots. Yeah, it was a bit spooky walking alone on the trail…but it was peaceful. And since the sky was clear, I become incredibly aware of the Mountain. I mean, Rainier is right in your face when you’re on the Skyline trail. Huge, imposing and impossible to ignore.
After the moon set and Rainier faded into the darkness, I turned my attention to the south and enjoyed some time photographing the Milky Way. Over the next couple house I tried a few different compositions before the realization hit me that I had to wake up in 3 hours to catch the sunrise.
As hiked back, I turned the final bend in the trail and the Paradise Inn came into sight.
I made it back to my room, fell into bed and I swear I had been laying down for not more than a few minutes when my alarm started wailing. I managed to drive down to Reflection Lake which fortunately was less than 10 minutes from the hotel.
The lake was very foggy…I couldn’t even see the mountain but I had scouted the location on the way to Tipsoo the previous day so at least I knew where I wanted to set up. I enjoyed the peace and quiet for about 30 minutes until some other photographers started to show up (Reflection Lake is a very well known sunrise spot). Gradually the fog lifted, Rainier became visible and the shutters started clicking .
I drove back to the Inn and hit the Skyline Trail one last time hoping to catch the wildflowers in the soft morning light.
The day before, people had been queued up at the viewpoint to see Myrtle Falls but at 7am I had the place to myself.
There were numerous signs asking you to stay on the trail in order to protect the delicate flowers, but I have to admit that I was sorely tempted to walk into the fields to take advantage of some potentially amazing views. But, being an old Scoutmaster, I did the right thing and stuck to the trail so the folks who hiked the trail after me would see the same unmarked and pristine fields.
All too soon I had to be on my way… but I will return. Next time, hopefully I’ll be able to schedule a full week and get the chance to hike and explore more of this magnificent Mountain.
’till next time!
PS: I’m heading off tomorrow with my son for a ten day trip to Crater Lake, Columbia Gorge and Glacier National Park. We will be doing some serious hiking (with my camera of course), and I’m sure I’ll be pretty worn out and sore when I return (just try to keep up with a 20 year old on a mountain trail)! I’m looking forward to sharing those photos and stories. Talk to you soon!
15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint
How do you know that you just might be a photographer?
When you are photographing out on the open deck of a boat during a storm of freezing rain and sleet and you realize that every single other passenger (including your wife) is snug inside the warm and dry cabin, drinking Hot Chocolate (and probably making jokes about that moron outside with two cameras hanging around his neck)!
Yup…welcome to my life:)
Oddly enough, I’d bet that I was probably the happiest person on that boat. We were on a small sightseeing catamaran cruising up Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska. While other passengers were bummed out because of the crappy weather, I was ecstatically bouncing around from one side of the deck to the other trying to capture the dramatic views. 4000′ Mountains covered by wispy clouds were jutting out of the fjord to either side of me and the sea was filled with hundreds of icebergs and chunks of ice.
As one of the passengers said when he briefly stepped out “You’re clearly having way too much fun.”
And he was right…I was smiling from ear to ear. Well sure…my hands were numb and I had to dry my lens after every single shot, but the views were awesome. I had photographed the same area once before years ago…but that had been a pretty day and the resulting photos were okay…but bland. Blue skies, grey rock, green trees…ho, hum. But what I was seeing was anything but boring. It was truly awesome.
Take a look yourself:
Was I right?
I’ve been to Yosemite more than a few times hoping to get photos of the clouds as they swirled around the valley after a storm…but no luck. On the other hand, the vistas in the fjord that morning were all I could have hoped for:
At the end of the Fjord, we came to Sawyer Glacier and I understood where that color had come from. When the skies are overcast, the entire glacier seems to glow cobalt from within the ice.
It is hard to convey the size of such a thing, but that is a big, two-story boat you can see to the right: it helps provide a sense of scale…
Of course, I really wanted to see and hear the glacier calve: “White Thunder”. It did a couple times, but they were pretty unimpressive and I missed them anyway. Being the stubborn type, I waited patiently. And waited. And waited some more. And then I heard what sounded like a gunshot as a huge slab of the glacier fell away and shuttered into the sea creating a huge wave. Fortunately, I had my camera ready and ripped off a series of 24 shots.
Yesterday I processed those shotS and here is the best image:
Well, that’s really not very impressive is it? To be honest, I was pretty disappointed. The photo was in focus, it was well exposed, it covered all the photographic basics…but the image utterly failed to convey the size, the action and the sheer violence of the moment.
I realized that I had made a mistake. I should have shot a video. The camera I have now (a Nikon D800E) is the first one I’ve owned that can take video but I’m guilty of being stuck in my ways…I just hadn’t thought of trying a video.
So I was pretty PO’ed with myself for missing the opportunity…I mean how many times am I going to be able to go to Alaska and see something like this? But…I DID have 24 sequential shots…Maybe I could make a pseudo-video by processing the frames like I would a time-lapse. How hard could it be?
Well, here I sit a full day later. The project did not exactly progress flawlessly. In other words, I had no idea what I was doing and I learned it all the hard way…but I did learn. Honestly though, it really frustrated me. Or, as Ricardo Montalban said in the Wrath of Kahn: it “tasked me!” I simply had to keep working on it till I bested it…darn it!
And now I’m the proud owner of a six second video (that probably took me six hours to make…possibly not my most productive use of time) Just the same, it’s kinda cool:
Soon we had to head back to port. As the boat slowly cruised back, the sun tentatively begun to polk thru the overcast. As it did, I spotted this eagle who had clearly been drenched and was trying to dry out his wings.
By now the other passengers had started coming out of the cabin and the camera shutters started clicking all around me. But for me, the magic had dissipated along with the fog so I just went back into the cabin, got a hot coffee, snuggled up to Anita and enjoyed the ride back into Juneau.
It was a good day to be a photographer.
Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord
The Palouse is a remote farming area in southeastern Washington state and western Idaho. The endless softly rolling hills are home to vast wheat fields, scattered small towns and friendly folks. It’s the type of place that evokes memories of the “Norman Rockwell” America we imagine it was long ago.
You’ve probably never heard of the Palouse…unless you are a wheat broker, a local resident or a landscape photographer.
Why landscape photographers? Well, those hills I mentioned are blessed by a soft, flowing, nearly sensuous beauty when viewed thru a camera. As a result, photographers from across the world flock there during the summer when the fields are covered by colorful waves of wheat. Images of this area captivated me for years and I finally had the chance in June to experience it for myself.
And here’s what I found:
What do you think? Unreal? Surreal? I’d never seen anything like it but for some odd reason when I first gazed upon the Palouse landscape, I was oddly reminded of a painting by Dali …
I thought Dali was Spanish but maybe he spent some time in western Washington before he started painting?
The Palouse seems to encourage random, strange thoughts like that…it just doesn’t seem real somehow. It is all just so pretty…so green and the people are just so incredibly nice. Boy, I thought the folks in my town were friendly …but the Palouse? Have you ever had one of those road-workers that holds the “Slow/Stop” signs actually walk up to your car and start talking to you? This happened to me twice in the Palouse. If this occurred in some other parts of the country, I’d be rolling up my windows and frantically looking for a way to get away…but here it didn’t seem odd or threatening. It quickly became clear that the locals just don’t seem to have the ‘shields’ that those of us from urban areas take for granted.
Okay…okay…enough with my ramblings about how the Palouse made me feel. What does it look like?
Well, first of all the landscape is best appreciated from the vantage point of height. Fortunately, there is a tall hill (butte) smack dab in the middle of the best part of the Palouse. It is called Steptoe Butte and as part of the Washington State Park system, it is open to the public. In the hours before dusk and after dawn, the low angle of the sun creates wonderful shadows around all those curvy hills.
Steptoe tops-out at 3612′ and you can park on the summit and see an absolutely unreal 360º vista. With a pair of binoculars you can see the occasional red barn, farm house or grain silo…but those are the exceptions. Nearly everything you can see in every direction is just soft, curving hills covered with rippling waves of grain.
Well, you will also notice the 58 turbines of the Palouse Wind Farm built in 2012. They are a good distance north of the butte so they don’t look huge but they are actually about 500′ tall and produce quite a bit of electricity.
Every direction you look reveals more details and different perspectives:
If you come down from the Butte, the perspectives from ground level are still captivating…just not jaw dropping.
So, if you ever want to travel back in time to a simpler, friendlier time while being surrounded in a landscape that only a crazy Catalonian surrealist artist could envision, make your way to the Palouse next summer. It will be a memorable experience.
May and June are usually peak for the yellow and green of the fields. A very different look can be seen in July and August when the wheat turns gold and brown. Harvesting usually begins in late August.
Colfax is the town closest to Steptoe. It is about 30 minutes south and you can choose from 4 or 5 hotel/motels.
Steptoe Butte As mentioned, Steptoe Butte is the primo place to be in the Palouse.
The best light is near sunrise and sunset. Be on Steptoe for both….the same features can look totally different at the opposite ends of the day. Plus, by visiting twice you will increase your chances of photographing during partly cloudy conditions when dappled sunlight accentuates the incredible shadows created by the low angled sunlight.
When you first get to Steptoe, pay your $10 at the unattended kiosk (or you can buy a full year pass online for $30), then drive to the summit. There is a large parking area just below the actual summit and many folks pull in here mistakenly thinking they are at the top. The actual summit is accessed by a narrow (a little wider than a single car), unmarked road on your left as you pull into the larger pullout. It looks like a service road used to get to the cell towers on the summit. Once you get to the top, scout out your potential shots by using your binoculars. Look for nice perspectives and find the farm houses, barns and silos that you will want to incorporate into your shots.
Don’t stay at the summit the whole time. There are a number of pullouts along the road that winds around the butte and they will give you significantly different perspectives. It only takes a few minutes to drive from one to the other and you will be surprised how different your shots look from the lower elevations.
The park is officially open from dawn to dusk but I’ve never had an issue being there earlier or later than the posted hours.
During the day, drive around: Get off the paved roads, slow down and just drive. There are some wonderful vignettes to be found. Be respectful of private property and be aware that some big farm equipment rolls down the gravel roads. Also be aware that most of the roads around here have sharp drop-offs right at their edge….you can’t just pull over everywhere. You may have to drive a bit further and hike back a short ways.
Dahmen Barn: Located in Uniontown (about an hour south of Steptoe) this is an antique barn that is now a co-op for local artists. Photographers adore the fence that surrounds the property which is made from hundreds of old metal tractor wheels, gears, etc. Here is a link with more info and directions.
T.A. Leonard Barn: You will see a lot of quaint red barns in the Palouse, but how many round barns have you ever seen? This beautifully restored gem is 40 minutes south of Steptoe in Pullman right off of Old Moscow Road. It’s a private farm and not open for tours but you can photograph it from the road. This site will give you more info and directions.
Kamiak Butte: Actually a bit taller than Steptoe but you can’t drive to the summit. There is a hiking trail to the top (about 3.5 miles roundtrip). If you are visiting for more than a day and you have already got all the shots you want from Steptoe, then it is certainly worth a visit but if your time is limited, Steptoe is the place to be. Great place for a picnic lunch. Kamiak is about 29 miles (55 minutes) from Steptoe. Click this link for more info.
Palouse Falls: About an 90 mile drive west of Steptoe is the magnificent 197′ Palouse Falls. Perhaps best seen at sunset, you can also take wonderful Milky Way shots here. I’ll be writing a full article about this location later in the fall.
Other locations: The Pullman Chamber of Commerce has a nice full color map of the area showing locations of red barns, windmills and other points of interest. Short of hiring a full time local guide, this is the best resource I’ve found to help visiting photographers find potential locations
If your time is tight, you can cover the highlights in a day. That will give you a sunrise and sunset on Steptoe and the middle of the day to explore the countryside. Of course, the Palouse is a big area, so you would need to spend much longer to cover it thoroughly. If you do decide to take a few days, I’d suggest you hire one of the local photo guides or book a photo tour. Many of them have relationships with the farmers who will allow you to access to locations on private property that would otherwise be unavailable to you.
Lenses: When you think of landscapes, you naturally think of wide angle lenses and they will come in handy when you are driving around the farm roads. But on Steptoe, you need long lenses. As I reviewed my photos taken on the butte, I noticed that nearly all of them were taken somewhere between 300-500mm on a full frame camera (450mm to 750mm on an APS-C crop sensor camera).
Polarizer: You will often have some haze on Steptoe and a polarizer will help reduce that issue and make your colors ‘pop.’
Tripod: The Palouse can be a bit breezy. On Steptoe, the wind can really rip. I have a heavy duty tripod and head that had never, ever had a problem even with my monster 200-400 beast of a zoom lens. At least it never had a problem until I was on Steptoe. As I checked my shots in the LCD, I noticed that some of them were not quite as sharp as others…the wind was shaking my rig ever so slightly. I’d suggest you weigh down your tripod, take 2 or 3 shots of every scene and check every single shot fully zoomed in to ensure that your shots are sharp.
Dynamic Range: Full frame cameras, HDR, blending layers in Photoshop….many of us work hard to show the full dynamic range in our shots. Oddly enough, the Palouse is one of those venues where that might not be necessary..or even preferred. Those dark shadows contrasted by the brilliant crests of the hills seems to me to be a big part of the beauty of the Palouse. Do yourself a favor and try processing some shots where you can’t see every detail in the shadows…you might like the result.
Haze: I found that I had to use the clarity slider in Photoshop liberally to combat this issue.
Palouse Photography Tips: A Guide for Visitors
Sorry for my long absence but my 2 week trip to the Pac NW & Alaska resulted in over 10,000 photos…and when I got home those photos demanded that I drop everything and process them. So other than short breaks to eat and sleep, I’ve been a Photoshop slave for the past ten days. My wife says I’m a bit obsessive…but you can’t trust her judgment. After all, any woman that would marry me obviously is not a good judge of character and has a tenuous relationship with reality.
We had an incredible time. Exhausting, but wonderful and very, very productive!
I was able to capture some images that I am very proud of and I’m going to share some of them with you today. Later on, I will craft some in-depth blogs about specific events and locations and will include additional photos.
It is a calm, friendly place where even the road workers holding the ‘Slow signs’ walk up to your car and start chatting. Maybe this is the way America used to be, if so, we have truly lost something special. The hills are sensuous in their own odd way and the occasional red barn or grain silo makes for quaint interruptions in the flowing landscape.
Palouse Falls is a few hours to the east, in central Washington. It is truly in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing, I mean nothing, around it. Perhaps that just makes the falls that much more magnificent and dramatic. I had hoped to get a Milky Way shot here and I succeeded beyond my dreams:
Although I had planned this photo, luck played a big role. After standing on the edge of a cliff in the dark for two hours, I finally admitted to myself that although the Milky Way looked great, the moonlight was just too feeble to properly illuminate the falls. I was about to take down my tripod and call it a night when a guy stopped by and politely asked if he could do some light painting of the falls. His name was Ariel and he had the most powerful flashlight I had ever seen….he lit the falls up like it was daytime and I was able to get the shot I had envisioned! I’ll be visiting these falls again next month and I’ll do an in-depth blog with photo tips.
Next we visited with my old friend Alan and his wife Linda in Portland. I was excited to see them again AND get the chance to hike to a bunch of the waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge…which is considered by some to have 5 of the top 10 most beautiful falls in the country.
Multnomah Falls is probably the most famous of those in the area and it is claimed to be the most photographed waterfall in the US. One glance and it is easy to see why. See if you can spot Anita on the bridge!
Next on our list was Mt. Rainier. Although the wildflowers weren’t due to be at their peak until August, I still wanted to visit and do some scouting. As it turned out, the lack of snow during the past winter resulted in the flowers blooming early and when we started hiking in the Paradise area, we were overwhelmed by the lushly flowering trails.
Less than 12 hours later we were off to Olympic National Park where we enjoyed the luxury of spending TWO consecutive nights in the same hotel (I spoil that wife of mine)! Olympic NP amazed me with its diversity…everything from rain forests to towering mountain ranges. I’m finding it difficult to choose my favorite shot from this magical place…and I reserve the right to change my mind in the future, but as of this afternoon, the sunset at Second Beach is the winner. I was able to catch the sunburst thru a sea arch and it made a memorable image:
Our next stop was Seattle. Although I’ll bet a lot of you thought I’d feature a shot of the Space Needle, I’m going to surprise you. This World War II Boeing B-17 overflew our ship as we left Seattle harbor. When I zoomed in on the image, I could see that it was named “Nine O Nine.” A quick check on Google and I saw that this old warbird had flown 140 missions in 1944-5 (including 18 trips to Berlin) without an abort or loss of a crewman. Turns out it was visiting Boeing field for an airshow. Okay, okay, I know you read this blog because of landscapes and wildlife photography…but jeeze, I’m still a kid at heart that wanted to be a fighter pilot!
Then it was off to Alaska to photograph some wildlife!
We went out on small boats and zodiacs repeatedly over the next week and I freaked out more than a folks by bringing along the ‘beast.’ That’s my nickname for the Nikon 200-400 zoom (see photo to the right)…it is huge, intimidating and heavy, but it does the job (even if my right elbow is sore as heck for a couple days afterwards).
Over the next week we travelled to Victoria, Ketchikan, Juneau, Misty Fiords, Skagway and Haines. I don’t think I could honestly tell you how many hikes and small boats we were on…the days were long and seemed to run together. But we saw certainly saw (and photographed) wildlife!
My dream for this part of the trip was to photograph Humpbacks “Bubble Net Feeding.” But it was not to be. The guides said the whales had been doing a lot of ‘bubble net feeding’ but they had just stopped a few days before. We went out on the water nearly every day over the next week but had no luck. As it turns out, they started again as soon as we left (check out this Youtube video taken the day AFTER left). Figures. Oh well, gives me a reason to go back!
But we certainly saw whales. I was able to capture some of my best whale-tale shots ever…even a few with some nice mountains in the background .
The Orcas were very active. Although I captured some nice close-ups, I think I like this shot the best….not because of the Orca…but because of the shocked faces of the people on the boat!
I am always amazed at the number of Bald Eagles you see in Alaska. I particularly liked this shot of this mated pair high in their perch:
But Alaska certainly has landscapes as well. I carefully composed this shot and then a whale surfaced and ruined the composition (I’m kidding!)
Alas, all good things come to an end, as did this trip. Wouldn’t you know it, the best sunset of the whole two weeks lit up the skies right after we got back into a harbor on our last night. Although I would have loved to had been able to get to typical ‘landscape location’, I was more than happy to settle for this image that included our cruise ship, the Celebrity Solstice.
Still Not a bad way to end our adventure…right?!
Anyway, I’ll add much more to my blog over the next few weeks about this trip. But, I’ve got to work fast because I’m heading back out west in less than a month to spend 10 days photographing and hiking with my son Ryan. We will spend a week in Oregon then head to Glacier National Park for a few days. It is going to be a busy summer for me…hope I have enough energy!
PS: I experimented with some time-lapse photography from the balcony of our cabin. I clearly have a LOT more to learn about making a video, but if you have 5 seconds to spare, check it out…
My wife, Anita and I are excited to be leaving tomorrow on a 17 day photo excursion to the Pacific Northwest and southern Alaska. I’ve never photographed Oregon and Washington state before so I’ve spent the last month excessively researching and preparing for this adventure. We will spend most of our time running around in a rental car from location to location…it promises to be an invigorating (and exhausting) trip.
Anita is a good sport, and gave me an early Father’s Day card in which she promises to “not complain about the early mornings or late nights caused by my obsession with photography.” I’m going to laminate that card and hang it from the rental’s rear view mirror…I’m fairly certain it will come in handy before the end of the trip…
Some of the locations on our itinerary are:
We are well and truly ready to escape the 90+ degree weather that Central Florida has been dishing up the last few weeks and explore a new corner of our beautiful world. Of course, I hope to return with some memorable photos, but no matter how much planning I’ve done, it will still largely come down to luck, weather and my ability to work 16 hours days!
I won’t be able to post any blogs for the next four weeks…I learned last year that I simply can’t photograph for a full day and then half the night (because of Milky Way shots) and then go back to my room and write a blog. The desire for sleep is far too strong. However, I promise to update you all with details when I return!
Have you ever had something you’ve enjoyed for years but pretty much took it for granted…until the day you found out it was actually rare and valuable? Then suddenly you looked at it anew with full appreciation? Well, it’s surely happened to all of us…and I experienced it again just a couple weeks ago.
I’ve visited the nearby Audubon Bird of Prey Center in Maitland Florida off and on since the 1980s…way back before marriage, kids or even digital cameras! I might not be a ‘birder’ but I do love raptors and I’ve long enjoyed this facility since it allows me to photograph close-ups of Bald Eagles. After my visit, I thought about writing a blog but I figured, heck, there are facilities like this everywhere, why would my subscribers, especially those who live far from Central Florida, want to read about this one when they could just visit their local facility?
Well, after a few minutes on the internet, I learned how wrong I was. It turns out that this is the premier raptor rehabilitation center east of the Mississippi. Since 1979 they have treated more than 17,000 injured or orphaned raptors, averaging about 650 admissions a year. In fact, they just released their 500th Bald Eagle last month! The center includes a state-of-the-art clinic with its own X-ray equipment and a 100-foot-long flight cage, all of which contribute to their 40+% success rate at rehabilitating raptors.
Ok,I guess everyone doesn’t have a place like this nearby. So, let’s look at some pictures and learn a bit about this treasure.
First of all, The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is tucked away on a small, 3 acre, heavily shaded lot nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. Although only about 20 minutes north of Orlando, you would never know it is there unless you were looking for it (Actually, I drove right by it my first time without even seeing it!) It is a quaint, clean and well laid-out facility housing more than 20 species of raptors, including Bald Eagles, Caracaras, Red Tailed Hawks, Ospreys, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, Kestrels and many others. Although the birds currently being rehabilitated can’t be seen by visitors (they don’t want them to become accustomed to humans) the Center has 20 non-releasable, permanent ‘residents’ that you can observe.
The center has a series of large aviaries that houses many of the birds. Unfortunately for us shutter-bugs, those aviaries are covered with thick gauge wire enclosures that don’t lend themselves to good photographs. However, if you photograph birds that aren’t close to the wire and use a wide aperture (f2.8 or 3.5) you can often throw the wire so out of focus that it isn’t really visible.
The good news is that there are usually 7 or more birds kept outside of the enclosures when the center is open. They are placed on perches about 10 feet or so from the walkway…which obviously makes for wonderful photography. In addition, you can also photograph another half dozen species of smaller raptors that are housed on the back porch of the Audubon House (the 1920s bungalow that is the center of the facility).
To me, however, the crème de la crème is the “Viewing Room” (I used to call it the “Shooting Gallery” but my wife pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t a politically correct term for a bird rehabilitation center). This is a large room with three windows that faces an open-air side porch where many of the larger birds are kept on perches (Eagles, Owls and Hawks). To make it even better, there are binoculars and comfortable chairs right in front of the windows. In other words, you sit in a chair, in an air conditioned house and photograph magnificent raptors that are 10-30 away. The windows aren’t in direct sunlight, so you don’t have to worry about reflections. And to help make this near perfect, the staff will even let you open the center window so you can photograph without any glass between you and the raptors.
Usually I have to hike thru sweltering woods while being attacked by blood-thirsty mosquitos to get good Eagle photos. So I truly appreciate the “Viewing Room”…Nature photography has never been so good!
If you visit the Center a few times, you will get to know some of the ‘residents.’ My favorite is “Paige.” Paige is a majestic female Bald Eagle. She isn’t a petite little lady either…at 10 pounds she is among the larger eagles you will ever see. Unfortunately she has a permanently injured wing and will never be released into the wild. You would never know it by looking…she conducts herself with pride and is incredibly impressive.
Another of my favorites is Cinnamon. She is a Red-Tailed Hawk with lots of personality who always seems to turn her head sideways to get a look at me when I arrive. Maybe she thinks I’m Brad Pitt, but then again she is near-sighted…
If you like to photograph wildlife, you will love this place and if you are a birder, you will absolutely be in heaven. Admission is only $5 and you should plan on spending 1-2 hours….
In 1973, Florida had only 88 remaining nesting pairs of Bald Eagles. Now we have over 1,400, the most in the lower 48.
“Today in Central Florida alone we have more eagles and eagle nests in that area than in the entire 48 states in 1965,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy at Audubon of Florida, to the Winter Park / Maitland Observer.
Clearly the staff and volunteers at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey have made a difference!
The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is located at 1101 Audubon Way in Maitland. Center hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. It is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children, except for those under 3, who enter free
Directions: From Interstate 4, take exit 88 and head east on Lee Road. Take the first left onto Wymore Boulevard and then a right onto Kennedy Boulevard. Turn left onto East Avenue. Audubon Way will be the third left, and the Center is immediately on the right. See this link for a Google Map.
1) Although you can get much closer to these birds than you ever could in the wild, you still want a long lens. A 300mm lens will allow you to get shots that will fill your frame. However, if you want a head shot that will fill your viewfinder, you are going to need something close to 600mm
2) Bring your monopod or tripod, especially if you are hefting a heavy lens. Otherwise your arms will be turning to jelly by the end of your shoot. There is plenty of room and your tripod won’t get in the way.
3) A speed of 1/125 is usually fast enough since the birds are resting on perches.
4) I usually shoot at my widest aperture. Even so, I often have to tweak the exposure in post-processing since the shots at 1/125 are a bit dark.
5) I’ve never used a flash here, but I might try a “better beamer” or similar product next time to provide some fill flash. However, I’ll be sure to first ask the staff for permission (I didn’t see any signs saying “No Flash Photography” but I would want to make sure first!)
6) Although I like to be there at opening (10am), I might try late afternoon next time. If so, the birds in the garden outside the “Viewing Room” would be shaded by the house. This would prevent the ‘hot spots’ from sunlight thru the dappled leaves. An overcast day would be ideal, but those are rare here in Central Florida.
7) It is rarely busy but visit during the week if you can. Also, call ahead to see if they have any groups planned to visit that day, if so, just schedule around them. Note that they are closed on Mondays.
8) Take your time. If you want to capture unusual or interesting behavior, you need to be patient and not just pop a few shots of each bird and head for the parking lot. The eagles, for example, will occasionally start calling to each other, when that happens, you can get really interesting shots of them with screaming with their beaks stretched open. Besides, the whole place has a quiet, laid back atmosphere, the staff is friendly and it is rarely crowded (especially during the week)….so don’t rush, this is far different from visiting a theme park (thank God!)
8) Talk to the staff and volunteers. These folks are super friendly and they love to talk about the birds. Plus, the more I learn about each individual bird, the more their photos mean more to me.
10) While you are there, walk out onto the dock that extends to a gazebo over the lake. During the summer, water lilies bloom there and you can get interesting shots from the elevated deck. Check out these shots.
If you are ever in the Orlando area (and everyone seems to visit here at some time or another), take a break from our world-class theme parks and treat yourself to a bit of the natural Florida at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey.
In late April I found myself alone atop the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. It was 4am, and I had just gotten out of my car in the freezing parking lot at Clingman’s Dome. It had been about an hour and a half since my iPhone alarm had roused me from my toasty room in Cherokee, NC and I was having second thoughts.
So, why would I want to be there…and at THAT hour? Well, I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way from the top of the mountain, but according to my Sky Safari app, it wouldn’t rise high enough above the horizon for a decent photo until 3:30am. I had just driven up from Florida the evening before and my 50+ year old body was cranky and sleep-deprived as I hiked up the path to the Observation Tower. About halfway up the trail, I stopped and looked up. My fatigue was instantly forgotten as I glimpsed the Milky Way with my bare eyes for the first time in nearly six months:
At the end of the short but steep trail, I reached the observation tower. The Milky Way was pretty high in the sky and I set up my tripod almost directly below the tower. From this perspective, the ramp seemed to lead all the way to the band of starts:
I used my headlamp to briefly illuminate the tower for a few seconds during the 30 second exposures. It took quite a bit of trial and error to avoid having one section overexposed and the other dark, but eventually I got the hang of it.
After a while, I moved further away from the tower which allowed the Milky Way to wind over the serpentine tower:
After about an hour and a half, I noticed that the Milky Way was starting to fade as dawn approached. That gave me just enough time to try something new. I had been reading about time-lapse photography and thought this would be a great venue to give it a first shot. So I set my Nikon up to automatically take a series of 30 second exposures…one after another. I started it up and sat back as the camera started snapping away. Well, I only had about ten minutes to spare before I had to hit the trail and since it takes 30 frames to make one second of a time-lapse, that means that I ended up with less than one second of actual ‘film.’ See the clip below if you have a free moment (literally) to spare:).
Did you miss it? Yup…that is what you call a short video! Not a terrible first effort…but it was clear that next time I would need to shoot for a few hours. Plus I would bring warmer gloves, a folding stool and a book so I could stick it out long enough to make a real video.
I hiked back to the Subaru and then joined the other photographers setting up for the sunrise on the edge of the parking lot. The lack of clouds eliminated any chance of a ‘National Geographic’ shot, but even an average dawn at Clingman’s is wonderful. There is nothing like the view of the dancing orange sky behind those blue mountain ridges receding off into infinity:
Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t another clear night the whole week I was there, so I didn’t get another shot at my time-lapse. But I’m not whining…I learned a lot and besides, now I have something to look forward to on my next trip to the Smokies!
Check out my Milky Way how-to Blog to learn about the basics for this type of photography
Enjoy your Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s and best of luck!
Last week I headed over to a local outfit that rehabilitates hawks, eagles and owls (the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fl). I spent about two hours there and came away seriously impressed with the admirable work accomplished by their volunteers (I’ll share more in a separate blog next week).
After an hour or so there, I noticed a dock at the rear of their compound that extended out into Lake Lotus. I wandered out to the dock and happened to see a few water lilies blooming along the shoreline. I’ve always been a sucker for lilies…maybe because I adore the series of paintings that Claude Monet created in the pond behind his home.
So I stopped and took a moment to enjoy the lilies. As I stood there daydreaming, I noticed how calm and clear the water was…and how perfect and pristine the lilies were and how nice the light was. Well, that was the end of my tranquil moment…the photographer in my head kicked in and the next thing I knew I was calculating angles, f-stops and ISO settings.
I love how photography encourages me to see beauty in the world that I would otherwise miss.
Have a wonderful day,
I’m not a superstitious guy so I’ve never really totally bought into the idea of Karma. Sure, if you do good things for people, they certainly tend to return the favor…plus you sleep a lot better at night. But the idea of being rewarded in the future for doing a kindness for a total stranger that you will never meet again, well no. I mean, sure that would be nice, but just because if might be nice doesn’t make it so.
Or does it?
I’m not quite so sure now…because of a experience that happened to me a couple weeks back that still has me scratching my head.
I was photographing in the Smoky Mountain National Park and it was getting late. And the weather had turned ugly. Overcast. Rain. Not exactly ideal for a nice sunset photo. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
So I started driving up into the mountains hoping to get higher than the bad weather. Up I drove…but the weather didn’t improve. I got to Newfound Gap and it was still terrible, so I decided to go all the way to the top of Clingman’s dome (at 6643′ it is the tallest peak in the Smokies and the third highest east of the Mississippi).
Well, the weather went from bad to worse as I snaked my little Subaru around the twisted road. Visibility forced me to drop to less than 10 mph at spots (those sheer drop-offs on either side of the road did a great job encouraging caution). Then, I noticed that the rain was weird. It wasn’t clear…heck, it was white! It was snowing!
Hey, I might be a Florida boy, but I grew up in the north and I spend my share of time photographing in the snow, so it’s not like I’d never seen it before. But this was the last day of April…and the temperature had been in the 60s an hour ago. Snow? Really?!
It took me over a half hour to drive the 7 miles to the peak. When I finally got to the top, it was covered in a full-scale blizzard. The wind was wicked and the snow was coming in hard. Clingman’s is usually packed with people…but it was totally deserted Not a soul in sight and the parking lot was empty (it turns out that the rangers had closed Clingman’s: my car was the last one thru before they barricaded the road). I decided that I might as well wait and see if the weather would break. I pulled on my parka, hat and gloves, pushed my seat all the way back and grabbed my book to help pass the 40 minutes till sunset.
BAM! BAM! BAM! My door window shook and I jerked my head around to see a guy standing next to the car. I didn’t know where the heck he had come from and frankly, it startled the crap out of me! He looked pretty rough…kinda like a homeless guy and there was a nice 12″ sheath knife on his belt…not exactly what you want to see when you are on top of a mountain all alone.
But I took a second look and noticed he was in shorts and a thin jacket, shivering…obviously cold…and maybe looking a bit scared. He said his name was AJ and he had been hiking the Appalachian Trail and had just reached Clingsman’s when the storm hit. He and another hiker had taken shelter in one of the National Park bathrooms. AJ said they had no heat and were freezing…and the bathrooms stunk (if you’ve ever been in one of those bathrooms, you know what he meant.) He asked if I would give them a ride off the mountain.
Now, I have never in my life picked up a hitch-hiker. Too many bad stories in the paper. And this was far from an ideal situation. It was getting dark, I was alone, no cell coverage. But I’d been a Scoutmaster long enough to see that these guys were truly hikers…so…for some reason, I told them; Sure, I can get you out of here.
They tossed their backpacks in the car and climbed in…all the time rubbing their hands together, trying to get some circulation back. I took a deep breath and thought I should just blow off the sunset (slight as the chance of seeing one was) and just take them down the mountain to Gatlinburg where they could find a place to stay.
Well, the drive down was as every bit as bad as it had been on the way up and it took us a while to reach the main road at Newfound Gap. We had time to spare and started talking. AJ said I could call him ‘Deju Vu’ (later I learned that his real name was Alexander Devaux). He was very talkative. Heck, even frozen solid, that boy could talk. Jim Buker turned out to be the name of the other fella but he was pretty quiet until he started to warm up a bit later.
When we finally reached the end of the Clingman road, I made the turn toward Gatlinburg. As I did so, I noticed a streak of pale orange out of the corner of my eye. I slowed and noticed that there was a sliver of sky clear to the west peeking under the solid overcast. So I pulled into the next overlook to check it out.
It wasn’t much. But I had photographed from this same spot (Morton’s Overlook) the night before…and knew that the sun would set right in that clear gap above the valley between the mountains. The chances for a decent shot were slim. But the chances were zero if I just got back in the car and drove away… so I asked the guys if they would mind waiting a half hour so I could try a sunset shot. They seemed to be pretty happy campers just warming up in the car and had no objections.
I got the tripod and camera set up. It wasn’t quite freezing anymore but it sure was chilly…and a nice sleeting rain was falling. I shuffled my feet back and forth over the next 20 minutes as my fingers slowly went numb. I stole envious glimpses at AJ and Jim in my warm, dry car and realized that they were probably a heck of a lot smarter than me.
Just then the sun slid into that clear slice of the sky. I looked into my viewfinder and took the shot:
I thought, well…that’s a nice image…but certainly not worth standing in the freezing rain for 20 minutes.
But then, a couple of seconds later…the…valley…below…me…EXPLODED!
I’d never seen anything like it. One second everything was dark and monochrome…but a moment later crimson sunlight was brilliantly ricocheting across the fog-laden valley in a riot of color. I heard the car door open and AJ or Jim blurted “Holy Crap!” (well, maybe something a bit stronger than that). Vehicles driving by hit their brakes, swerved over and camera phones started clicking while voices excitedly pointed out the view in urgent tones.
I know that some of the most dramatic landscape photographs are taken during poor weather or clearing storms. I’ve taken more than a few shots in those conditions, but this scene was on a whole different level of magnitude.
I was shooting quickly. Checking my focus…making sure my settings were right…trying different compositions.
But, it didn’t last. In less than 4 minutes…it was over.
The sun stumbled below the horizon and a dark, heavy shroud fell upon the valley. I shook my head in wonder at what I had just witnessed and broke down my gear.
AJ and Jim were excitedly talking about the sunset when I got back to the car. I turned over the engine and pulled onto the road. Then I looked in the rear-view mirror, caught their eyes in the reflection and said: ‘Thanks.”
They furled their brows and said ‘What are you thanking us for?’
I smiled and told them that if I hadn’t picked them up, I would still be on top of Clingman’s praying for a break in the clouds. I would have missed the single most glorious sunset of my life. I owed them a debt of gratitude.
Karma, Good Luck, Dumb Chance? Heck, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I was grateful. Because I will carry the memory of those 240 seconds for the rest of my life.
I have to admit that I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to the topic of bears. Well, black bears anyway…I don’t think I will ever take a Grizzly for granted! I live near a state park and see black bears walking thru my yard all the time. So last week when I was photographing a sunset in the Smokies and the guy next to me insisted I see the bear photos he had taken the day before, I took a deep breath, hid my lack of enthusiasm and glanced over at his smartphone. And what I saw took my breath away. He didn’t have your garden-variety photos of bears…he had photos of bear cubs!
I had lived around bears for twenty years but realized in that moment that I had never seen a cub. And Lord…they were so incredibly cute! Although I had made my trip to the Smokies intent on photographing landscapes and spring wildflowers, that focus suddenly shifted.
A couple days later, I was taking a sunrise shot from the Foothills Parkway when a lady pulls into the overlook and sets up her tripod. I couldn’t help notice that she was still in her PJs…and that started a conversation. It turns out she was a local (she had rushed out of her nearby home to photograph the sunrise and didn’t have time to change, which explained the PJs). As we talked, I realized that I had seen her photography on Facebook. Her name is Kellie Walls Sharpe and a friendlier person doesn’t exist on this earth. As we worked the sunrise, I mentioned the bear cubs. Kellie knew all about them and told me exactly where they could be found (her local knowledge of wildlife and photography locations was amazing). Well, as soon as the sunrise had faded, I thanked Kellie and headed off to the spot in Cades Cove she had told me about. About an hour later I was hiking across a field and sure enough, spotted a bear. But it was just a yearling…kinda scrawny and not terribly photogenic. So I kept walking and looking. Ten minutes later movement caught my eye near the base of a hill. I ambled up and saw a pair of cubs…and a big mama bear about 20 feet beyond them.
Now, let me say that the Park regulations require you to keep a 50 yard distance from bears. And although black bears are not usually aggressive, only a fool would get between a mother and her cubs. Fortunately, I had brought my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter, so I was able to keep my distance and still get tack-sharp images.
The twins immediately scrambled up a tree. Mama took a hard look at me, decided I was just another fool photographer and then promptly and totally ignored me for the rest of the day.
I lifted all seven plus pounds of the 200-400 for the first time and started shooting.
The cubs were delightful. They played like a couple kittens…taking swipes at each other, rolling around in the grass, tripping over their own feet…just adorable.
Soon I noticed that the bears had a system. Mama bear would look up at the tree…make a series of short grunts and the cubs would climb down. Then she would rumble about a hundred feet away to a new patch of the forest and start scavenging for food. The cubs would tag right along behind her and as soon as she stopped, they would head right up the nearest tree.
Being youngsters, they had big appetites. They nursed at least twice over the next few hours. Afterwards, I think mama needed a break, so she took a good stretch and rubbed her back against a tree.
By late morning the cubs were getting tired. They climbed a big walnut tree, settled in a comfy fork between two branches, stretched, took a good look around, snuggled together and started to snooze.
I hung around for another 20 minutes but the cubs didn’t move an inch. And frankly, by then I had been following them for three hours and had lifted that darn 200-400 what felt like a million times. No, I hadn’t brought my monopod. I had figured that if I did see bears, it would be for only a few minutes, so why bother bringing another piece of equipment? I’ll never make that mistake again…my arms were jelly…heck, my elbows still hurt now and it’s a full week later!
Anyway, I figured the 1500 frames I had were plenty, so I left mama and babies in peace and hiked by to the old Subaru. As I walked back I counted my lucky stars. It had been a blessing to spend the morning with my little ‘Bruin’ family observing their antics. I knew that I had captured some nice images and even if I drove home right then, my trip would have been a success.
But little did I know that the best was yet to be. With that teaser, I’ll conclude this story. You’ll just have to wait till next week for the rest!
Photographing sea turtles underwater has been a challenge that has long taunted me. Over the years I’ve had a few opportunities but they just never seemed to pan out.
Sure…I’ve gotten some decent above-water shots…like this “Honu” on Kona’s famous black sand beach at Punalu’u …but whenever I slipped below the waves, I seemed to be jinxed.
That streak of bad luck seemed to continue right through last week. My wife, Anita, and I had done some research and learned that scuba divers often saw turtles at Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Thomas in the American Virgin islands. That sounded great to us…so we planned a vacation with the goal of diving at Buck Island.
Last month, we were in St Thomas and it was finally time to go! It was early morning when we made our way to the port, dragged our gear down to the dock and climbed aboard the dive boat ready for our adventure!
..And then the Captain informed us that he was cancelling our dive because one of his engines had just failed. I shook my head. We were only going to be on St Thomas until nightfall so it wasn’t like we could just book a dive with another company the following day. The jinx was still alive and well.
Some folks would have just figured that the gods were against them and headed to a bar to find comfort in a large quantity of tall, cold and wickedly alcoholic drinks crowded with little umbrellas. Actually, I considered this option for a second or two…but I knew it was impossible. Because I know my wife. Anita had her heart set on turtles and I knew she wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. As we feared, all the other scuba tours were booked for the day but within ten minutes she had found a snorkeling tour and we were climbing onto a catamaran by the name of “Virgin Breeze”. No, it wasn’t what we had planned…but at least the day wouldn’t be a total bust. Then things started looking up when the crew told us that they were heading to ‘Turtle Cove” on Buck Island…the exact same spot our scuba tour had been going to dive at! That sounded promising but we were determined not to jinx things by getting our expectations up. But that determination crumbled when we spotted a turtle surfacing for air just as we entered Turtle Cove.
As soon as we anchored, Anita and I hit the water and immediately spotted two turtles about 25 feet below. That’s a difficult depth to reach without weights and I watched a few folks try…but none of them even got close. Fortunately, my camera weighs a ton (well it probably tops out at 15 lbs or so…but it feels like a ton when I’m lugging it around all day). I took a deep breath and let my ‘Nikon Anchor’ pull me down. I dropped like a rock and within seconds I was face to face with this Big Kahuna:
I think he was kinda surprised that one of those silly humans flopping around on the surface had actually gotten to the bottom. He stopped eating, slowly raised off the sand and turned his head to take a good look . I was able to get a few portraits before I had to head back to the surface…dragging that dead-weight camera the whole way.
I dove a number of times but the turtles were already bored of the guy with the big camera. They just kept eating the grass and totally ignored me…which meant no eye contact (and boring photos).
There was a small reef nearby with lots of colorful tropical fish which attracted a lot of the snorkelers but I stayed with the turtles as was rewarded with a few more solid images:
I had hoped to photograph turtles near the surface but other than the one we had seen when we first arrived, they all seemed pretty happy staying on the bottom (I later learned that they can hold their breath for 4-7 hours while they sleep although they breathe more often while awake). I was starting to think that the tour would be over before a turtle would need air…but then this one headed up:
As it surfaced, I was able to squeeze off a number of shots that captured Anita and the turtle in the same frame.
Before I knew it, the crew was blowing the whistle to get us all back on the boat. Like usual, I was the last one out of the water (a fact my wife never fails to note). As we dried off, Anita and I caught ourselves grinning like a couple of kids. It had taken a long time, but we finally had broken the jinx and got our chance to get up close and personal with sea turtles.
The next day, we were in St Kitts diving on the wreck of the M.V. River Taw (we were on a cruise vacation so we scheduled dives at every island the ship docked at). We were running low on air and about to finish the dive when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and…you guessed it…another turtle! Clearly the jinx was totally busted. This green sea turtle was skimming over the wreck in about 40 feet of water.
It was headed in my direction and I got off a flurry of frames before it saw me and curved away.
Luckily, Anita had spotted the turtle before I had and quickly positioned herself in the background for this shot.
Within seconds the turtle gracefully glided over the wreck and faded into the deep blue.
Although we dove another five times over the next week, this turned out to be the last turtle we would see….but we weren’t going to complain. Years of ‘near misses’ and missed opportunities had been put behind us after two unexpected and thrilling encounters in less than 24 hours.
Photography is like that. You can plan things to the Nth degree but sometimes they just don’t go the way you anticipated…you just have to go with the flow. I guess life is like that too. Funny the things you learn as you grow older…
Busting the Turtle Jinx: Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles
Have you ever gone on an expensive trip to a dream location but afterward what you catch yourself thinking about isn’t the ‘Big Name’ place? You mind keeps drifting back to a little, no-name stop you visited as an afterthought?
This happened to me last year. You probably haven’t heard of Kaktovik. That’s not surprising because Kaktovic is a tiny village of 350 hearty souls located on Barter island…which is nothing more than a small spec in the Arctic Ocean off the north coast of Alaska. There isn’t much else even remotely near it…in fact, it’s the only town in the entire 30,000 square mile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But Kaktovic’s claim to fame are the dozens of polar bears that gather there every year to feed on the remains of the whales that the Inupiat are allowed to harvest. The whales attract the bears and the bears attract photographers…which is why I was there.
There are no roads to Katovik. A small group of us had flown in and we were hyped to see the bears. But the weather was bad…and it got worse. In fact the waves were so high that the local captains refused to take us out on the boats to the area where the bears hung out. Since we couldn’t photograph bears most of the folks decided to chill out at the lodge. That didn’t work for me. I figured I could chill out when I got home…heck, I had come halfway around the world to take some darn pictures. One of the other guys, Cesar Aristeiguieta, felt the same way, we so grabbed parkas, mud boots and cameras then headed out to see what wonders Kaktovik might hold. The drive from the gravel airstrip hadn’t revealed much…a few roads, boats, clutter and trash…but nothing ventured, nothing gained, so off we went.
As we walked thru the thick fog, we couldn’t help but think about the warning our guides had given us: Keep your eyes open for scavenging polar bears. I’m a pretty good runner, but I wasn’t positive that I was faster than Cesar, so I kept alert!
As we headed east, an old graveyard was the first thing that caught our eye. It sat in the middle of the tundra surrounded by a wood fence. Since we were guests in the village and wanted to be considerate to the feelings of the residents, Cesar and I stayed on the road and didn’t actually enter the cemetery. The solid overcast made the atmosphere somber and almost oppressive. But it sure fit the scene.
During the cold war, the U.S. maintained and listening and communications station on Barter island. As the fog started to lift we could see the huge radar dome in the distance thru the cemetery’s gateway.
As we strode away, I noticed a long ridge of tall wooden fences in the distance. Being from Florida, it took me a bit to realize that these were snow fences.
We headed down to the lagoon and came upon an old bowhead whale skull.
Right next to the whale bones was an old wooden wreck.
The texture of the grass wood really worked well in a black & white exposure but I like the scene in color as well.
As I looked around the harbor, I could see that there were a number of old wrecks..
We continued walking back toward the center of town and came upon this child’s wagon. It’s bright color really jumped out.
I’m sure the locals had a good laugh as they watched the two ‘Qallunaats’ sprint back to their lodge!
Over the next few days we did get a chance to finally photograph the bears (see my blog about that incredible experience). The bears were awesome. They were magnificent. I will never forget my hours photographing them as long as I live.
But I won’t forget my stroll around Kaktovic with Cesar either.
I have always been a man with wide-ranging and varied interests. Photography, woodworking, history, scuba diving, archeology, impressionist paintings, Victorian architecture, you name it…I probably love it, collect it or do it.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that although I truly love photographing landscapes and wildlife, I actually enjoy pointing my camera at other subjects on occasion. For example, my love of history and photography merge when I photograph a Civil War reenactment. I know, I know…folks hear ‘Civil War Reenactors’ and their heads will turn a bit sideways and a twisted little smile sneaks onto their faces. But the reenactors I’ve spoken to over the years don’t strike me as odd…just impassioned. And since I’ve been accused of being overly impassioned on occasion I’m not going to cast stones! I attended my first reenactment about 5 years ago when the boys in my Scout Troop wanted to see the local “Battle of Townsend’s Plantation.” The guys enjoyed it so much it became an annual event for the Troop…and being a shutterbug, I always took my camera along.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with ways to make my photos look like those created in the Civil War by one of my personal heroes, Mathew Brady. Brady (1823-1896) was a successful portrait photographer during the early days of American photography. When the Civil War started, he dug into his pockets (to the tune of over $100,000) and sent over 20 assistants into the field in an ambitious and inspired effort to document the war in photographs. The results both excited and shocked the American public. It forever tarnished the idealized concept of a ‘glorious’ war.
As The New York Times put it, Brady and his team did “something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
He would justly become known as the Father of Photojournalism. But this recognition came at a high cost. The project bankrupted Brady, who would eventually die alone and penniless. But his images lived on and have become part of the American soul.
The U.S. National Gallery has most of Brady’s original photographs. What is even better is that they are posted online and you can easily see them: just click on this link.
When I first started taking photos at the reenactments, I would convert them to black and white and then add a sepia wash to make them look ‘old.’ But I wasn’t happy with them…they just didn’t look ‘real.’ So I first started researching how Brady and his associates actually took their pictures in an (obsessive) effort to make my shots look realistic.
I learned that Brady used what is called the ‘wet plate’ or collodion process which used a large heavy camera. This system required the people being photographed to remain still for 4-10 seconds (which is why you never see ‘action shots’ from the Civil War). The image was actually exposed onto a large plate of glass and it had to be developed within fifteen minutes, which meant the photographer had to have a portable field darkroom with him. The developing process was detailed, intricate and unforgiving. To make matters really interesting it also used dangerous chemicals (like cyanide!) The resulting photos often had sections out-of-focus, shaded edges, faded areas and sometimes even fingerprints! The glass plates often broke after being developed, resulting in photos clearly showing fractures and chips (‘restorers’ later taped broken plates back together with clear tape…which you can see on some photos). Brady and his assistants scratched numbers into the plates to log where and when the photo was taken (these numbers often appear backwards on the final photo). Once on photo paper, the images could fade, get spotted, folded and torn. The result is a very distinctive ‘look.
Over the years, I have learned how to process my original photos in ways that reproduce the imperfections of the wet glass system. I then add scratches, dust and discolorations to resemble aged photo paper. Finally, I create the effects of flawed glass plates by painstakingly reproducing the cracks and chips found on original Brady photos stored in the U.S. National Archives. For example, here is a shot I took a few weeks ago…compare it to the original Brady photo above:
What do you think? Being obsessive, I’d never say anything I’ve created is ‘perfect’ but I think I’m getting pretty darn close.
It’s kinda ironic…I spend hours on my landscape and wildlife photos removing each and every imperfection…and here I do my best to do the exact opposite:)
Here are some of my other ‘Bradyesque’ efforts:
One advantage to using a modern camera is that I can photograph moving figures (which would have appeared as blurs on a wet plate photo). It isn’t historically accurate, but if Brady had cameras available that could freeze action, I’m pretty sure he would have used them ecstatically. The shots below are the type I imagine he would have taken…
Believe it or not, some guys, like Robert Szabo, actually still use wet plate photography. I admire that kind of devotion, but it’s not for me.
Anyway, thanks for letting me indulge in this little tribute to Mathew Brady. My blog will now return to my usual subjects of (modern) landscapes and wildlife. But we should never forget that photography can be so much more than just pretty pictures…as Brady once said, “the camera is the eye of history.”
PS: I rarely see sharpshooters at these reenactments, here is a lucky shot I got of one at the Battle of Townsend’s Plantation last month (Ed Rosack, is that you?):
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield…when photographers think of White Sands National Monument, “it just don’t get no respect.” If you review the “A-Lists” of must-see locations for landscape photographers in the southwest USA…White Sands doesn’t often make the cut.
Frankly, I think the root of the issue is simply that White Sands is isolated and doesn’t easily work into the routing for a typical “Southwest Icon Tour List.”
A second issue is that White Sands doesn’t comfortably fit into the preconception of what we think of when we dream of the American Southwest. Visions of red rock, hoodoos and carved canyons dance in our heads. White Sands is none of those things. It is difficult to categorize…difficult to comprehend.
For whatever reason, it took years of exploring the Southwest before I made the long, lonely drive to these secluded sands.
First of all, let’s talk about exactly what White Sands is. Covering 300 square miles, it is the world’s largest white gypsum (not sand) dune field. Gypsum dissolves in water, so unless there is a basin where rain is trapped it is impossible for gypsum to be converted into sand. Well, White Sands is located in the huge Tularosa Basin which is enclosed by the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains near the small town of Alamogordo . After the last Ice Age, a lake that covered the basin evaporated and left the fields of gypsum that became White Sands. The Park is actually part of the White Sands Missile Range (home of the worlds first A-Bomb explosion…the Trinity Site).
Second of all, those facts don’t matter a bit when you visit. What matters is that this place is truly strange…and oddly magical. Put yourself in this mindset: you’ve driven hours across desert in the middle of nowhere to get there. Hour after hour of flat, boring, mundane, reddish brown desert. Small, nondescript towns connected by a seemingly endless line of two-lane blacktop. Finally, you see a sign welcoming you to Alamogordo…and before you know it, you’re passing a sign thanking you for visiting Alamogordo.:) A few minutes later you pull up to a small National Park Service building, pay the guard, get a brochure and continue driving into the desert. But…then…things… start …to… change. As the road twists and curves, the sparse vegetation becomes even more scarce and the sand starts to loose its color. Then the flat landscape begins to shift as the sand forms dune…which become larger and larger as you drive on. By the end of the eight mile road you might think you were on another planet. There is an absence of plants and animals. The sky is blue…the sand is white and other than that, very little color. There is no sound unless the wind stirs.
You stand there, looking around and then you start to notice weird things…like the the sun might be scorching hot but the sand is cool enough to walk on with bare feet (gypsum doesn’t readily convert sunlight into heat). And to make it a scene right out of your favorite sci-fi movie, you might even see rockets arch overhead (from the Missile Range).
This place is just not right…like a slightly warped alternate version of reality. But…it is beautiful. As a photographer, I was mesmerized. The landscape is so stark, so extreme that images can deliver a real punch. I experimented a bit with black and white since it complimented the views well. My son and I parked at the end of Dunes Drive and hiked north to get away from the few other people around and to find dunes that were free of footsteps.
It didn’t take long to get the feeling that we were the only persons alive on this strange alien world. However, there were a few tracks in the sand, so some critters had obviously adapted to life in this extreme climate.
We hiked even further, just enjoying the solitude and incredible vistas. All too soon the sun began to set behind the distant San Andres mountains. The orange hues of the sunset created a wonderful palette against the blues and white. The next few minutes proved to be my most productive as I scrambled to find different compositions.
My favorite shot of the day proved to be my last one. As my son and I were putting on our backpacks for the hike out, I caught this image of Ryan taking a last, longful look at the rising moon.
With this photo, White Sands entered the “Big Leagues” in my book. I will be visiting again!
1) Bring your polarizer…it can really help blue sky ‘pop.’
2) If the wind is blowing, sand will get everywhere. Bring a blower for your equipment and avoid changing lenses
3) There are a few hiking paths, but those areas tend to be covered with footprints. If you want photos of ‘virgin’ sand, you will have to avoid the trails. I’d suggest parking at the furthest parking lot and hiking north click here to see a detailed map of the park. Also, if you want shots with only a solitary yucca plant, you best bet is also a the north end of the park.
4) Bring a GPS if you go off trail. It can take only a few minutes to loose sight of the road and there are few landmarks. I’m dead serious about this. It is not a place to get lost.
5) Morning shots are challenging because the park doesn’t open until 7pm which is after sunrise for much of the year. If you don’t mind camping, there are a limited number of camping sites that you can reserve. Keep in mind that sidewinders live at White Sands, so don’t be out in the dark unawares. They do leave interesting patterns in the sand…if you can find them!
6) Sunsets are not a problem since the park is open for an hour after sunset. Just don’t hike so far out into the dunes that you can’t get back to the park entrance in time.
7) Although shots taken early or late in the day provide wonderful shadows behind the ripples in the sand, photos taken during the middle of the day can also work due to the sheer sharpness of the setting.
8) Obviously this is the desert so if you are there during the summer, dress accordingly and bring lots of water.
9) The further you go into the park, the fewer plants you will see. If you want shots of nothing but desert, you need to go to the end of the road.
10) Get down low. It will emphasize the shadows behind the ripples in the sand.
11) A tripod will be a must if you are going to shoot in low light. Bring a lightweight one if you are going to hike a distance into the desert.
12) Temperatures during the summer can be brutal. It was over 110 on the day I visited (hot even for a Florida boy). It is certainly more comfortable during the winter. On the other hand, the summer monsoons often create wonderful cloud patterns.
13) The park is actually closed regularly because of military rocket tests so before visiting you should check this site for info on Missile Closures.
PS: I love some of the roadside art I see on my travels. This 15 foot tall road runner was in a junkyard along the road heading out of Alamogordo…
Enjoy your travels!
White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide
It’s that time of the year again! Last week I made a trip over to the coast to snorkel with Manatees. The weatherman said that Thursday would be the coldest day of the winter so far…which ensured that Manatees would be clustered around the (relatively) warm-water springs that abound in Kings Bay.
Although I look forward every year to photographing Manatees, it is still a bit of a shock when the alarm starts wailing at 3am and I have to haul myself out of my bed, into my Subaru and make the two hour drive to Crystal River. Sometimes, while making that trip, I start to ask myself if it is really worth the trouble…I mean, I have thousands of manatee photos…do I really need more? But once I get in the water and the first manatee slowly paddles up and butts his head into my facemask, well, then I remember why I do this:
It’s really not only about the pictures: Swimming with Manatees is a calming and peaceful experience.
There is just nothing frantic about these lumbering beings and when they peer at you with their sleepy, hound-dog mugs, you just can’t help but smile.
The weatherman was right: It was COLD…and the wind-chill made it even more frigid. One of the couples on our boat were from Russia (Siberia actually) and even they were freezing! It was a relief to get into the water…which was at least 40 degrees warmer. The darkness and silt resulted in poor visibility…maybe 8 feet or less. But, the cold and poor water clarity were forgotten within minutes…because there were a ton a manatees about.
As usual, most manatees didn’t seem very interested in the odd-looking humans, but one youngster was fascinated by us. Even though we tried to observe him passively, he would have none of that. He swam right up…bumped into us, held on with his front flippers and just seemed to have a ball snuggling up with his new friends.
All too soon, it was time to leave. The Manatee in the photo above seemed to slide up to me and ‘wave’ goodbye.
When we got back to the dock, I decided to book a second trip on the 11am boat. Usually, I only consider going out on the dawn trips because by mid-morning there are usually hundreds of folks in the water. But the cold weather had resulted in a lot of cancellations, so I figured..what the heck, I’m already here.
Two German tourists from Hamburg were the only customers other than me on the next boat. It was still pretty chilly (“Sehr Kalt!” according to one of my compatriots). Although most tour boats inevitably head over to Three Sisters Spring, our Captain decided to try a less crowded spot: Jurassic Spring. He was right…we were the only boat there.
There was plenty of sunlight, but the Manatees had stirred up tons of silt. The good news is that this did enhance the sunbeams in the water and I was able to get some interesting shots.
Unfortunately none of these manatee had a fascination with people. Since government regulations prohibit you from pursuing or approaching them, I had to patiently wait for them to come to me. The cold water soon sent the Germans back to the boat for hot chocolate. I stuck it out another hour trying to capture a last portrait or two before I joined them.
As I reviewed my photos the next day, I was initially pretty disappointed. In the past, I’ve been spoiled by photographing manatees in the crystal clear waters of the Three Sisters Spring. But there was so much silt in these shots that I had to instead concentrate on playing with the the moody ambiance created by the backscatter and particulates in the river. Once I made that mental transformation I started to have more success processing my shots and ended up with some that are now among my favorite manatee portraits. Funny how those initial impressions can be so wrong.
PS: If you would like to learn more about how to photograph manatees, take a look at my Manatee Photography Guide.
Every year I publish a “Top 12 Photographs of the Year” article and every year I swear that it seems to be the most difficult blog I have to write. Well, actually, the writing isn’t that bad…but picking out just twelve shots…man, that’s a challenge. I struggle for hours trying to whittle down the list and inevitably, I have to ask my wife and son to both come over to the monitor to help me with the last few selections.
Ah well..you don’t want to hear about writer’s anguish…you want to see photos. So, in no particular order, here are my personal favorites of the year!
My son Ryan and I hiked out into White Sands National Monument this summer and enjoyed a killer sunset together. Once it started getting dark, we headed back to the car as the moon rose and the sands turned to an intense shade of blue. After a few minutes, I glanced behind me and caught Ryan taking this last, pensive glance at the surreal scene.
A highlight of the year was a ten day photo adventure to the Arctic Circle. On that trip I watched and photographed these two young polar bears while they had a good natured but rambunctious rumble near the village of Kaktovik. Gazing at these magnificent apex predators from the nearby deck of a small boat was a rush!
I got the opportunity to fulfill a childhood wish in 2014 by seeing and photographing the Northern Lights…and it was all I had hoped it might be. In this shot, I love how the road on the bottom right reflects the green of the Aurora while the sliver of a river to the left mirrors the deep red in the sky above it
I’ve stood on this bridge in Zion National Park with dozens of others photographing the Watchman at sunset more than a few times. But standing at the same spot at midnight without another soul in sight while gazing up at the glory that is the Milky Way was a whole new and amazing experience. Sometimes I am truly awed and shocked by the beauty of our universe.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you already know that I have an unbridled fascination with Hummingbirds. This shot displaying the full wing and tail extension of a Ruby-Throated hummer captures some of the dramatic energy that captivates me. I photographed this little jewel in my home ‘hummer studio’ that I set up every year right outside the window where I write this blog.
Before 2014, I didn’t know that you could seen a rainbow at night. But in February, I stood before Yosemite Falls under a full moon and shook my head in disbelief as I captured this shot. One of the things I love about photography the most is that it encourages me to learn and see more of the world!
One big ticket item on my ‘bucket list’ is to swim with whale sharks. I haven’t had a chance to make that dream a reality yet, but seeing this whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium was a taste of things to come.
If someone asked a random group of 1,000 photographers to name their favorite waterfall in North America, I’m willing to bet that Minnehaha Falls would probably not be mentioned by any of them. But I think this secluded cascade in the mountains of northern Georgia is one of the most photogenic waterfalls I’ve seen anywhere. Even better, since it isn’t well known, you will probably be the only one there to enjoy its beauty.
I was able to capture the full arc of the Milky Way at a spot along the Navaho Loop Trail on this moonless, cloudless night. It almost looked like one end of the Milky Way was shooting stars out of Thor’s Hammer….
This sunrise at Melborne Beach in Florida was blessed with one of the most magnificent sunbeam halos I’ve ever seen.
Bass Harbor Light is one of the East Coast’s most iconic locations for photographers. And with good reason: A lighthouse perched on a rocky cliff, reflecting pools, huge multi-colored granite blocks, crashing surf…what more could a photographer ask for?
As much as I love this spot, it took a number of trips over five years before I was lucky enough to catch a sunset that was equal to the setting.
The ancients called it the “Morning Wind” and it has amazed mankind since we first looked toward the heavens. As I stood on the banks of the Chena River near Fairbanks last fall, this Aurora weaved and swayed in a sensuous dance that simply awed me.
Well there you have it. 2014 was a truly a wonderful year for me. I was blessed to have the chance to travel and photograph some truly amazing sights and I am excited to see what 2015 will bring. Thanks for reading my blog and sharing these adventures with me over the past year!
Ever since I can remember, folks have told my wife (Anita) and I that we “don’t act our age.”
I’ve always taken that as a compliment even though I’m pretty sure that’s not how it was always intended!
I mention this because last month, Anita suggested we get SCUBA licenses. A lot of folks get SCUBA certified, so that’s not that unusual…but Anita and I aren’t kids anymore. In fact, we had already had gotten certified a while ago (okay, it was three decades ago) before kids and careers had engulfed our lives. In fact, I found it pretty funny that our new SCUBA instructor hadn’t even been born when I earned my first SCUBA certification in 1985.
Anyway, Anita and I just got back from a cruise to the Caribbean and we went diving every time the ship hit a new port. Not only did we get to indulge our new SCUBA hobby in some wonderfully exotic locations, but I got to do some underwater photography that I’d like to share with you.
There were certainly some strange critters to see.
And the colors…wow, all you need is a strobe…and then some of the colors you see are just unworldly:
There was drama:
Sponges and fans:
And all kinds of colorful, vibrant and beautiful fish:
One of the things I love about photography is that it just never gets old. I mean there is just so much beauty in the world, in so many different places and much of it requires that you learn new techniques or master new equipment. For example, although I’ve done quite a bit of photography while snorkeling, I found that underwater photography while scuba diving to be much different. Now I’m excited to have a whole new world to explore!
Not all of my photos from this trip were taken underwater…
And one last photo… Anita and I were grabbing some lunch in Grand Cayman when we noticed a rooster running down the sidewalk. It started heading toward a KFC. Anita and I looked at each other and without a word she herded the beast toward the sign while I snapped off this shot:
Life should have good smile in it at least once a day!
My passion for photography has resulted in a fair bit of traveling over the years, but photographing Polar Bears in the Arctic was undoubtedly my most exotic photo excursion so far (and certainly the most expensive)!
A couple of months ago I had the chance to visit the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean just off the north coast of Alaska. This tiny town (250 hearty souls) is the only permanent settlement on the North Slope portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Although small, Barter Island’s claim to fame is that dozens of polar bears conjugate here every fall before the ocean freezes. The native people of Kaktovik (the Inupiat) are allowed a substance harvest of 3 Bowhead Whales each fall and the carcasses of those whales attract the Polar Bears year after year.
This wasn’t one of those trips where you do a bit of research on the internet, fly in, rent a car and drive off to photograph the sights. The tourism ‘industry’ here is in its infancy and unless you’ve visited before and have good local contacts, I’d suggest you book a spot with one of the few photo tours that go to Kaktovik. These tours have access to the handful of rental vehicles and small boats that are an absolute necessity for polar bear photography (don’t expect to find a Hertz or Avis in town!)
I went on a tour operated by Hugh Rose. Hugh is a real pro and has conducted Polar Bear Photo tours to Kaktovik for years. He truly knew his stuff and he made sure his group got great shots and stayed safe as well.
It is an adventure just to get to Kaktovik.
There are no roads to the island, so nearly everyone has to fly in. We first had to drive 500 miles on the Dalton Highway (aka: the “Haul Road” of Ice Road Truckers fame) from Fairbanks to Deadhorse before a short 100 mile flight in a puddle jumper to Barter Island (there are direct flights from Fairbanks, but our tour included two days of Aurora and wildlife photography in the Brooks Range along the way). The Kaktovik airport is little more than a short gravel strip with no control tower. Bad weather makes delays and postponed flights pretty common..so you need to be flexible in your scheduling.
After the five-minute drive from the airstrip, we unpacked in our home for the next few days…the Waldo Arms.
Basically, the Waldo looked to me like a half-dozen mobile homes pushed together with doorways cut open between them. The bedrooms are tiny, the bathrooms are communal. There is a dining room and lounge but don’t be expecting the Ritz (or even Motel 6). With that said, I don’t think we noticed the rough edges after a few hours…the Waldo made up for its lack of style and sophistication with friendly staff, great food and a funky, comfortable, Arctic lodge atmosphere.
Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, Hugh called us together to review our options for photographing the bears:
You just put your camera on a bean-bag and shoot through the open windows.
Once we heard these three options, well…naturally, we all wanted to go out on the boats. But the weather was too rough…none of the boats had been able to get out of the little harbor for a while. Instead we loaded into our school bus and made the short trip to the boneyard.
The boneyard was kinda gruesome and it frankly gave at least a couple of folks in our group the ‘creeps’. Just the week before, the village had caught and butchered whales (in fact, they had actually caught all 3 of their allotted bowheads in one week…a rare event).
Parts of the boneyard were nearly ten feet high packed with the bones from years of whale hunts.
There wasn’t a bear to be seen when we first got there. Well, we could see them…with binoculars. Over two dozen beautiful white polar bears were cruising up and down the beach just a few hundred yards away on the little barrier island just off-shore of the boneyard. But just as it started getting close to sunset, things really got interesting!
We parked our bus close to the bone pile and waited. Hugh spotted three bears jump in the water and start swimming toward us. Soon they were joined by others…many others. Most of them ignored us, but the cubs seemed to be curious about people.
One cub got bored with the bones, rose up, sniffed the air and looked over at us.
Then he headed right at us……and he didn’t stop…
He rambled right up to the bus. We enthusiastically honked the horn, yelled and reved the engine to scare him away. Hugh clearly felt a great responsibility to prevent the bears from getting too close…and too accustomed to humans. As he explained, those were the ones that eventually might threaten the locals…and end up getting shot in self-defense.
Within a few minutes nearly a dozen bears were milling around within 250 feet of us.
Inside the bus all you could hear were shutters frantically clicking as the photographers desperately tried to capture the spectacle right before them.
Before we knew it, the light faded beyond the ability of the best camera sensor. We put our equipment down and silently watched until it was pitch black. Only then did we head back to the Waldo.
The weather worsened overnight. Morning dawned with waves whipping across the lagoon. That meant no boats again. We checked the bonepile, but the bears weren’t around, so we had a few hours free. I grabbed a new buddy I had met on the trip, Cesar Aristeiguieta, and we used the time to head out and do our own ‘Photo-Walk’ around Kaktovik. The village itself is a wild blend of people and culture..both old and new. It was truly fascinating. I’ll publish a separate blog about Kaktovik next month and show you some of the shots I took on our walk. Even without the bears, there is plenty to keep a photographer busy here.
After lunch, the weather still wasn’t cooperating, so Hugh took us out in the bus to explore the rest of the island. We drove past the Cold-War DEW-Line radar facility and out into the tundra to check-out the wildlife.
A number of the folks on the tour were birders and they had a field day over the next couple hours as they spotted one unusual bird after another. Cesar and I may have been the only non-birders on the tour and, yes, maybe we did joke around a bit and say ‘hey, look…another small brown bird’, but even we had a good time.
After another home-cooked dinner at the Waldo, we suited up in our muck-boots and parkas, climbed into the bus and headed out to find some bears. It was heavily overcast and the light was far from ideal but there were tons of bears at the boneyard, so we weren’t complaining!
We woke up the next day to find that the wind had finally settled down. There were a lot of photographers on the island from other tours that had also been waiting a couple of days to get out in a boat, but Hugh’s long-term relationship with the locals allowed him to snag one for us. Cesar and I headed out soon right after breakfast and it took no more than five minutes to cross the lagoon.
Although the sun wasn’t exactly shining, the cloud cover did thin out and we were finally able to get some good light. Better yet, the bears were very active …it was what military pilots call a ‘target-rich environment!” I took more photos during the next couple hours than I took on the rest of my entire 10 day tour. The most exciting 40 minutes of the trip unfolded when two cub siblings ran into the surf and had a rambunctious (but good-natured) battle:
After a while (and over a thousand photos), one of the cubs seemed to notice our boat..
Suddenly, he put his head down and started swimming right at us.
He must have been over 100 feet away, but he covered the distance in a flash. Our boat captain was paying close attention and fired up the engine and moved us away. But the bear got close enough that I didn’t need a zoom for this shot!
Soon after, the cubs got bored and headed for shore.
The siblings kissed and made up:
Sleeping bears are cute but soon we started cruising up and down the coast looking for activity. Although there were still a lot of bruins in sight, they were all snoozing. After six hours on the boat, my cash was tapped out, so I decided to call it a day and had the captain drop me off at the harbor.
I met up with the rest of the group and we headed out to the bonepile one last time. By then the light was fading, but one bear was playing on the bonepile like it was a jungle gym:
And just like that, the adventure was over. The next morning, it was time to go.
Seeing these magnificent apex predators in the wild was an incredible, emotional and intense experience. One that I will remember the rest of my days. I made a bunch of new friends, learned a lot about wildlife photography and got a real feel for a world far different from the one I was returning home to.
I hope you get a chance to visit the Bears of Kaktovik…it is quite the adventure!
PS: If you would like to see some of my other blogs about photography in Alaska, check out my story about seeing the Aurora Borealis and my write-up about How-to-photograph the Northern Lights. You might also be interested in my article about the Highlights of my Alaska trip.
The Earth is blessed with many beautiful and emotionally provocative sights, but I seriously doubt that any of them can top the Aurora Borealis for sheer sensuous and awe-inspiring beauty. The Northern Lights have amazed mankind long before the ancient Romans named ‘Aurora’ the Goddess of Dawn and the Greeks called the wind ‘Boreas’. Unfortunately for most photographers, the ‘Dawn Wind’ is not something we get a chance to capture often. When we do, it is often after travelling long distances and spending some serious dollars. So, if you do get the chance to photograph the Northern (or Southern) Lights, you probably want to make the most of the opportunity That became very clear to me after I published my last blog, which was a recap of a recent Aurora photography trip. I was deluged with emails asking for specifics on how to take Aurora photos. So, in this blog, I will share with you the Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography.
Any photo of a nice Aurora is wonderful, even if the surrounding landscape is flat and boring. BUT…the same photo can be magnificent with a killer foreground. Spend your day driving around looking for locations that will add interest to your shots.
The Aurora usually appears to the northwest/northeast. If there are any cities around, look for potential locations that would allow you to photograph the Aurora to the north but place the towns behind you (to your south).
I rarely hire guides. I like doing things on my own. I’m tight with a dollar. One of the few times I did hire a guide, was the last time I went on an Aurora Photography tour…and I’m glad I did.
The fact is that the Arctic is much different from the world most of us know. Here is one example: Many of the best locations for Aurora photography in Alaska are north of Fairbanks off of the dangerous Dalton highway. However, it isn’t legal to drive most rental cars on the Dalton. Which means either you hire a puddle jumper, take a heck of a chance and illegally drive your rental car anyway or pay an insane amount of money to the few rental agencies that will let you take their vehicles on the Dalton. My guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography.
I worked with Hugh Rose. He lives in Fairbanks, has been a photographer and tour leader there for decades and he seriously knows his stuff.
I’m personally a bit sick of hearing “It’s not the camera…It’s the photographer!” The statement is true…to a point, but even the best photographer would be up a (frozen) creek without a paddle if he/she didn’t have the right equipment when photographing the Northern Lights
This is where the pure technique ends and you get to be creative! I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but other photo processing software can give you the same results.
With these directions and a bit of practice, you should be set to go out and take your own impressive Aurora photographs. However, I’ve provided only the basics. If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the iPhone app How to Photograph the Northern Lights (or you can get it in an e-book/PDF ). Written by Alaskan resident Patrick J. Endres, this is an exhaustive 280 page review on how to photograph the Aurora. It costs about $25, but if you are spending serious bucks to photograph the Northern Lights, then it would be a pretty small part of that investment.
The Aurora is truly one of natures greatest wonders, I hope you get a chance to watch a performance soon!
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger
Once, when I was a kid, my family was on vacation in Canada. We were out on our boat fishing in Lake Huron and the wind came up. It was blowing so hard we couldn’t make it back to camp and we had to spent the night on the rocky shore. That night, after my brother and I went to sleep, the Northern Lights came out. Although we had never seen the Aurora before, my Mom and Dad didn’t wake us up, thinking we really needed our sleep. The next morning, the wind had calmed and we were able to get our boat back to camp. But when I found that I had missed a chance to see the Aurora, I was terribly disappointed . I carried that regret for the next forty years.
Last month, I got a chance to finally fulfill that childhood wish. I took a ten day trip to Alaska on a Hugh Rose Photography Tour. My primary goal was to see (and photograph) the Aurora Borealis. In this blog, I’ll share with you some photos and highlights of that experience.
The tour group met for dinner the first night in Fairbanks and our guides (Hugh Rose and Ron Niebrugge) gave us some pointers about shooting the Aurora. They suggested we get some practice that night, so I set my alarm for 11pm. When it woke me up in my nice, warm bed a few hours later, I peeked out my window and saw a bit of green in the sky. It wasn’t much, but it was an Aurora, my first! I quickly gathered my gear and walked down to the Chena River, which was no more than two minutes behind my room at the River’s Edge Resort . I quickly set up and here was my first effort:
I didn’t particularly like the lighted highway bridge, so I hiked upstream until it was out of sight and found a spot where the river turned north (toward the Aurora). This bend made the river look a lot wider, which allowed me to capture more of the Aurora reflected in the water. As time passed, I noticed that the Borealis gradually increased in size and intensified in color as well.
By now it was midnight and for the next three hours I was totally enthralled by the spectacle in the heavens above me. It was glorious. What really surprised and delighted me was that the Aurora MOVES. I had seen time lapse videos which showed the Lights moving, but I thought it did so slowly…I didn’t think you could watch it move with your bare eyes. I was wrong. I stood there in awe as it slowly and sensuously danced across the sky.
There was a full moon, which did a wonderful job of illuminating the trees across the river. Fall had come to Fairbanks early, so those trees were blessed with a riot of autumn colors as well. The river was flowing slowly and with long exposures, I was able to capture great reflections!
The next morning at breakfast, the tour group was excitedly bubbling about what a wonderful exhibition we had seen the night before. It turned out that there had been a massive solar flare a few days earlier and it had just hit the Earth’s atmosphere. And since the Aurora is caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles, the result was the killer display we had witnessed.
The forecast for the upcoming night promised an even better and more intense Aurora. Plus, the Northern Lights tend to be better the further north you go and the higher in elevation you are. Since our plan was to spend the night in Wiseman, which was 270 miles north and at an elevation twice that of Fairbanks, our expectations were thru the roof. But wouldn’t you know it…as it turned out, the night was pretty much a bust. The Aurora was pretty wimpy compared to the previous night and to make matters worse, it clouded over as well.
We never did figure out why the Aurora didn’t live up to the forecast. But the really frustrating thing was that those clouds that had rolled in didn’t leave. In fact, we didn’t have clear skies for another week. Fortunately, we had plenty of wildlife to photograph (see my upcoming blog about Polar Bears on Barter Island).
Over the next week, I got up every night a couple of times to see if the weather had broken, but I had no luck. With the trip nearly over, we were driving back to Wiseman at midnight in the middle of the Brooks Range when I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the sky was clearing…even better, I could see color in the heavens. Our vans pulled over at a great spot a few miles ahead that Hugh had previously scouted and we piled out to set up our tripods.
I was really excited to see red in the Aurora. Red is considered rare compared to the more common green shades I had seen the week before. I rushed around to find foreground elements and leading lines I could use.
While the other folks pointed their cameras north, where the Aurora was most visible, my attention was drawn the opposite direction toward the Milky Way. I love Milky Way photography and I thought : “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to get the Aurora and Milky way in the same shot?” I laughed to myself…what would the chances of that be?…
A few minutes later, the gods answered my prayer and a wide band of the Lights swung far to the south. I excitedly fit it all in my viewfinder and got off a few shots before the Aurora shifted out of the frame.
By now, the Aurora was starting to fade…as were the photographers. We got back in the vans and headed for Wiseman. As it turned out, these would be my last shots of the Northern Lights, those darn clouds showed up again obscuring the skies for my last couple days in Alaska.
As I flew home, I reflected on a wonderful trip. I had got to see the Aurora Borealis…and it was far more beautiful and impressive than I had imagined. I had also captured dozens of photos that would help keep the memory alive over the years ahead!
Next week, I’ll post a separate blog with detailed How-To Tips for Aurora Photography.
I’ve spent the last two weeks in a frenzy of non-stop Photoshop processing of the thousands of the images I took on my Alaskan photo tour. Now that I’ve got the bulk of the photos done, I’m in a bit of a quandary about how to write a blog to accompany the pictures. The problem is simply that it was an incredible 10 day trip packed with an expansive range of photographic subjects…everything from Polar Bears to the Aurora Borealis, so if I tried to write a single blog and cover all these topics…well, the result would be a small book.
So instead, I’m going to break up the adventure into bite-sized topics and cover them separately in-depth. Today I’m going to just give you a taste of things to come by providing a brief recap of my Alaska Photo Tour Highlights.
The adventure started off with an incredible night of the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks. In fact, it may have been the best northern lights we saw on the entire trip!
Believe it or not, this view was not more than 20 feet behind the little cabin I stayed in.
Day two and three were spent driving up the Dalton Highway (the “Haul Road” made famous in the “Ice Road Truckers” TV show) which was built to supply the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton is over 400 miles, most of it is gravel and there are only 3 small towns on the entire route (with a TOTAL population of less than 40, combined)!
The Alaska Pipeline was our companion the next couple days and was usually within sight off to the side of the road.
At Deadhorse (the name of the town at Prudhoe Bay) , we took a puddle jumper to Barter Island. This is a small island off the northern coast of Alaska only 70 miles west of Canada which has become justifiably famous for the Polar Bears that can be viewed there this time of year.
We photographed the bears from buses and from small boats. The weather was pretty iffy, but I got one 40 minute window with good light the last day I was there and made the most of it. My adrenaline was pumping!
After three days of photographing polar bears, arctic wildlife and the fascinating native town of Kaktovik, we headed back to Prudhoe. About an hour south of town, our sharp-eyed guide (Hugh) spotted a herd of Musk Oxen.
It was pretty cool ‘stalking’ these huge critters! You have to walk in single file to avoid appearing like a predator. Even so, it took every bit of 550mm to get this shot.
Heading down the Dalton a few hours later we noticed that the Northern Lights were making an appearance. We stopped for an hour or so along the road and didn’t get to our rooms until 3am, but no one was complaining. Of course, then I had to stay up for another couple hours drinking beers with the guys. It sure seemed like a good idea at the time…
I was the only one up for sunrise…I got precious little sleep but I had plenty of time to make up for it during the 23 hours it took me to fly home (thanks to a couple long layovers).
Okay, I know that this blog was brief, but I’ve been stuck for a few days trying to get started so I’m glad I’ve broken the logjam! I’ll be writing some detailed articles over the next few weeks about the Aurora, Polar Bears, Dalton Highway wildlife and landscapes . I also plan to provide a review of the actual tour I was on (Hugh Rose Alaska Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour) for those of you who might be thinking about going yourself!
I am EXCITED! Tomorrow I leave on an incredible adventure: 10 days in the Arctic! I’ll be joining Hugh Rose on his Sept Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour. This incredible photo tour covers Alaska from Fairbanks all the way to the Arctic Ocean (maybe I’ll take a dip and join the “Polar Bear Club”). Click on this link to see the itinerary: It is simply incredible! We will be traveling in vans, small bush planes and rubber rafts…heck, I might have to strap on some snowshoes! My wonderful wife, Anita, purchased my ticket for this extravagant tour as my Christmas present last year and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.
For a guy from Florida, this trip presented some challenges…like buying a full arctic wardrobe. Merino wool underwear, down jackets, insulated boots: these aren’t items that you find in many closets down in this neck of the woods! But it has been fun planning and preparing for the last nine months.
I’m really excited to get the chance to photograph the Aurora Borealis. I’ve never even seen it and I am hoping that I am lucky and the Aurora is visible
Next to the Aurora, the next item on my wish list are polar bears. These predators are not afraid of humans and I’m not as fast as I was when I was younger…but like they say: “You don’t have to be fast, just quicker than the guy next to you!”
Anita won’t be making this trip with me. Not because it will all be about photography (she is used to that) but she gets chilly when the temperatures drop down into the mid 70s….so Alaska in the fall isn’t somewhere she wants to be.
I won’t have internet access for most of the trip, so I’m not even going to try to write a daily blog (that didn’t work out well for me when I tried it this summer:). I will give you all an update when I get back and share my photos as well.
(PS: Did I mention that I’m excited?)
Puffins. I think everyone likes Puffins. Football shaped, Penguin-esque, with their colorful, mini-toucan beaks…no wonder they are called ‘clowns of the sea.’ Puffins… heck, even the name sounds funny! I first learned about Puffins when I was a kid. I was one of those nerds who collected stamps, and as it happens, there is a small island off the coast of England named Lundy, which prints their own stamps featuring, you got it, Puffins.
More recently, I was planning a photo trip to Acadia National Park when I ran across an article about photo tours to a Puffin breeding island off the northern coast of Maine. Now, I’m not a ‘birder’…I mean, I do like photographing birds, but it’s not like I plan my vacations around them (not that there is anything wrong with that)! However, since I thought Puffins were just plan cute (and maybe because of fond memories of my stamp collection), I decided to find out a bit more about the tour.
I learned that although Puffins are common in the North Atlantic, they stay at sea most of the year. They only come ashore for a few months each year to have their young… and there are only 5 breeding islands in the US. Only one of those islands (Machias Seal Island) allows photographers and tourists to actually come ashore. A total of 30 people per day are allowed to photograph Puffins from plywood blinds on the island, often with the Puffins only a few feet away. That option sounded a lot better than the other tours where you just take a boat out and try to photograph them from the rocking deck! Two tour companies have permits for Machias Seal Island…one (Bold Coast Tours) leaves from a small port (Cutler) in northern Maine and another (Sea Watch) is over the border in Canada. I booked with Bold Coast for three reasons:
Before I knew it, a couple months had passed and the alarm was ringing at 4am in my small hotel room in Bar Harbor. The drive to Cutler was a bit over 2 hours, so I needed to be on the road before 5am to be at the dock by 7am. I checked the off-shore weather report and saw that it was going to be clear and calm. This was great news because there is always a chance that if the seas are rough, you won’t be able to actually land on Machias Seal Island once you get there.
A couple of hours and a few cups of coffee later I arrived at Cutler: a small, quaint working harbor. The 16 folks on the tour were quickly ferried to the Barbara Frost, a 40′ coast-guard inspected cruiser where we met Capt. Andy Patterson. Andy has been doing this tour for a couple decades and his jokes and stories kept us all entertained. He also knew his birds and was able to educate us about Puffins and the other wildlife we would see. Fortunately, the ocean was smooth as glass, which allowed us to cover the 9 miles to Machias in slightly over an hour with the bonus that no one got seasick.
Surprisingly, the island is claimed by both the US and Canada, but so far the dispute has been amicable…although a group of Maine lobster boats did ‘blockade’ the island for a short period a few years back:) Although Puffins were heavily hunted in Maine and nearly eliminated in the early 1900s, they have since made a comeback and we were greeted by literally thousands of them as we approached the island. We got ashore and were given the ‘rules of engagement’ by the resident Canadian wildlife warden about what we could and couldn’t do while on the island. He takes his job of protecting the birds seriously, as one of the tourists learned when she broke a rule and got a sharp reprimand.
We were led to the blinds in groups of four and as we approached, the puffins in the area took to wing. The blinds are simple plywood shacks, barely big enough to hold 4 adults and not a place for anyone with claustrophobia! Once you got in, there was very little room to move around. Our blind had ten small windows with sliding panels that you could open and photograph through. We had barely closed the blind’s door when the Puffins returned. They were everywhere, you could even hear them marching around on the roof!
The four of us started snapping happily away. About ten minutes later I came to the brilliant realization that if I took all my shots from the same window, then they would all look pretty much the same. I mentioned this out loud and everyone laughed, because we were all thinking the same thing. We soon worked out an agreement where all 4 of us would shuffle clockwise to the next window every five minutes or so. This allowed us all to shoot out of different windows and capture different backgrounds.
I think we were all surprised when the warden opened the door and told us that our hour and a half was up. I might not be a birder, but time had definitely flown by…it sure seemed like a quick 90 minutes to me!
Everyone was chattering excitedly as we headed back to the boat. It really was an incredibly neat experience. Once back on the boat, we circled the island photographing other birds and the seals on a nearby island. We got back to Cutler about 1pm…about six hours from when we had left.
Was it worth a half day and $120? Oh yeah. No question. Even if you aren’t a birder, this is a great tour. For example, one of the folks on our tour was a typical teen-ager who had been dragged on the trip by his dad, who was clearly an avid birder. It was every bit as clear that the kid couldn’t care less about wildlife or birds…most of his time on the boat was spent playing with his phone. When he got in the blind, you could see that he was bored out of his skull. But then he glanced out the window as the Puffins landed within a few feet of the blind and he got a ragged smile. Then, he nearly squealed when the Puffins landed on the roof and started stomping over his head. Soon the iPhone was out and he was making a video for friends at home…all the while treating us to a stream-of-consciousness monologue about how cool it was!
1) Which tour should I choose?
First of all, if your heart is set on photographing from the blinds, make sure that you make this clear when you contact the company. Both Bold Coast and Sea Watch also sell cheaper tours (about $55) to the island in which you don’t go ashore…you just cruise around Machias taking photos from the water. Don’t even consider this option, spend the extra $60 bucks and go ashore…you won’t regret it.
2) When should you go?
Tours are offered from mid-May through mid-August. However, the birds are thickest from mid-June thru the end of July. The absolute best timeframe is mid-July when the Puffins can be photographed with their beaks full of fish they have caught for their chicks.
3) What lens should I use?
The Puffins do get close, so even a 200mm lens will get you some good shots. I used my Nikon 200-400mm zoom with a 1.4 tele-converter, which was absolutely ideal. It was able to focus on birds close to the blind and give me frame filling head shots, but with the effective 550mm length (thanks to the teleconverter), I was able to get great shots of the birds on the edge of the shore as well.
Changing lenses in the blinds is difficult. I’d suggest you bring a single zoom instead. A second option would be to bring a second lens on a second body.
Anything 500mm or larger is not going to be practical in the blind…plus the other folks in there would be sorely tempted to kill you.
4) Camera Settings?
Unless you are going to try to capture them in flight, you won’t need a particularly fast camera setting for Puffins. I rarely had to go over 1/1000th of a second.
I was able to shoot with an ISO of 200 but you might have to boost that if you are there on a foggy or rainy day.
The blinds are tight, so this isn’t a shoot where you want to bring every piece of gear you have. Leave your tripod and monopod at home. You could bring a beanbag if you have one, but I found that I could support my big lens on the bottom of the windows and it worked just fine.
Going on this tour, my goals were simple. I really wanted to get a good puffin headshot and some in-flight images. On any ‘normal’ photo tour, those goals would have been challenging enough to keep me busy for a half day. But not here. The puffins are so close and so comfortable around humans that I easily had those goals nailed in the first ten minutes. Don’t get so focused on your initial goals that you miss out on other opportunities. Try for different backgrounds and look for unusual behavior or poses.
You have a good chance of getting wet on this trip. Have rain gear for both your camera and yourself. It is also a lot colder out on the water than on shore, and the wind will make it seem even more so. Dress in warm layers. Wear footgear with a good non-slip sole.
Everything you bring on this tour should fit in a single waterproof backpack. Stepping from the skiff to the floating dock at the island can be challenging, especially if you have some waves. Carrying your gear in a backpack will be a lot safer than trying to lug it onto the dock in a hand-held bag.
The backpack should be compact…remember, you won’t have room in the blinds for a full sized hiking backpack.
9) Photo gear
Fog and rain are common so bring extra lens cleaning cloths.
Bring a polarizer if you are blessed with a bright day. It will help saturate the colors and tame glare off of the water.
Don’t forget an extra battery and memory cards…you will be taking a LOT of photos.
I didn’t need a flash unit on the sunny day I visited. However, if you were to visit on a dark/overcast day you might want to give it a try. Keep in mind that the windows are only about 6″ tall, so you won’t be able to use a camera mounted flash. You could use a remotely controlled flash and hold it out another window but that would be awkward (if you are making the trip with someone, you could ask them to hold your flash while you shoot).
It is a long day, so have a good breakfast and bring some protein bars or similar compact snacks. You might want to leave a full lunch in your car to enjoy when you get back.
If you are prone to seasickness, buy some pills and follow the directions (and hope the other folks on the tour do so as well). Andy has water on board but I brought my own drink bottle as well.
There is a bathroom on the boat as well as porta potties on the island that you will have access to should the need arise.
11) Make your reservations early.
With only a single boatload going ashore per day, the tours fill up fast, especially those for the peak-timeframes. Reserve early. Weather in Maine can be ugly and tours being canceled are not uncommon. If this tour is the primary reason for your visit to Maine, increase your chances of a successful photo op by making reservations on consecutive days.
12) Take a map and print the directions to Cutler Harbor from the Bold Coast website.
Cell service is spotty around Cutler and my GPS was completely confused as I got into town. Don’t count on electronics to get you to the dock.
13) Bring cash or a check
You pay the balance of your deposit when you arrive at Cutler and Capt Andy doesn’t take credit cards. Cash is always nice to have as a tip at the end of the tour as well.
14) Bring your passport
You don’t need a passport to visit Machias Island. However, after your tour you should keep in mind that Canada is only 30 minutes away. Campobello Island and the Roosevelt Campobello International Park are nearby Canadian locations that you might want to photograph.
Lubec Maine (the northernmost city in the US) is also nearby and features a very photogenic lighthouse.
15) A special note for you birders
In addition to puffins, there are nesting colonies of Artic Terns and Razorbills on the island . Other species that we saw included Black Guillemots, Common Murres and Common Eiders.
Unless you were to visit on a stormy day and get seriously seasick, I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t have a great time on this tour. I thought it was a wonderful change of pace from photographing landscapes at Arcadia and it got me to another part of the coast I wouldn’t have explored otherwise.
If you are planning a trip to the coast of Maine or Acadia National Park during May-August, this tour is something you should put on your itinerary.
Have a great time!
Photography Icons. You know the places I’m talking about…the ones with their images plastered all over the magazines and websites catering to photographers… heck, you even see them in TV commercials! The photos are awe-inspiring, entrancing and amazing… but it often seems that when I finally get the chance to actually see them in person, I’m disappointed. Sometimes, the reality just can’t live up to the hype.
But sometimes it does. This summer, I went on a wonderful road trip to photograph a dozen or more of these icons in the western US. Looking back on the trip, one place in particular stands out in my mind: Grand Teton National Park. Perhaps the reason is because the photos I had previously seen actually failed to do it justice…it was far more impressive than I had anticipated.
Now, I love to write detailed how-to-photograph articles about new locations, but honestly, I only spent a couple of days at Teton, so I’m simply not qualified. Just the same I was so enamored by this park that I wanted to at least share with you some of my thought and images.
So why did Teton hit my hot button? Well, the Tetons themselves are dramatic mountains…and they dominate the landscape. Sharp, angular and huge. Plus there is the added bonus of the Snake River and a number of lakes which make wonderful foregrounds.
Another popular spot is Schwabacher’s Landing. In fact. even well after sunrise, there were still a half-dozen photographers trying to find an unobstructed spot for their tripod *see photo to the right)…
But when you have a view like the one below, it is easy to understand!
Teton isn’t as well-known as Yellowstone for its wealth of wildlife photography, but I found myself swapping my landscape lenses for zooms on a regular basis. In addition to the Grizzly already mentioned, I stayed busy snapping Elk, Bison and all kinds of waterfowl. Perhaps my favorite wildlife shot, however, was this beaver I surprised early one morning at Schwabacher’s while waiting for the sunrise.
So, mountains, water and wildlife…I thought I was in heaven. And then it just got better…flowers! I found this spot just off a gravel road near Oxbow bend one morning…
Unlike many National Parks, I didn’t see a swarms of tourists (although I did run into a number of fellow photographers). Teton was peaceful: at many sites, I was the only soul around, like when I stopped by the historical Cunningham Cabin.
Although it was nothing but a simple cabin, it certainly had a million dollar view out the back! J.P, Cunningham was a lucky man. I spent over an hour there photographing the landscape and the nearby prairie dogs. But I kept getting drawn back to the cabin. Something about the juxtaposition of the raw-framed log home and the soaring mountains was palatable. The shot above was perhaps my best effort to capture the view. I used a 7 frame HDR to balance the severe dynamic range between the dark cabin interior and the morning clouds outside.
After I got home and started processing my shots, I converted a lot of them into black and white. Something about the Tetons just seems ‘right’ when viewed this way. Perhaps the drama of the landscape and intense weather just made color unnecessary.
There was so much to see that even though I was up before dawn and didn’t stop shooting until well after dark, I never got the chance to photograph some of the famous spots at Teton, like Jenny lake and “Mormon Row.” And the weather wasn’t exactly cooperative: clouds prevented a chance to shoot the Milky Way and the sunrises/sunsets weren’t exactly epic. Despite those challenges, the landscape provided a weath of photo ops. Unlike some places that I visit and ‘check the box’, I will be visiting Grand Teton again..and I’ll be staying longer next time!
Grand Teton photography tips
Last week I was in Washington DC for a couple of days. Although my first love is Landscape and Wildlife photography, sometimes I like shooting in the ‘urban jungle’ just for a change of pace. But…as different as it is, some things seem to remain the same.
For example, I was trying to take the standard ‘tourist’ shot of the White House from the South Lawn (see below).
Unfortunately, I had to take the shot from much further away than normal since they had the road right behind the White House blocked (usually it is open). So I ripped off about a half-dozen shots with my 200mm zoom and walked away with my wife to head down to the Lincoln Memorial.
So I zoomed in even more and…
Yup, looks like the President and one of his daughters had been on the porch enjoying the afternoon and were heading back into the living quarters! Kinda neat…and a reminder of just how incredible modern photo gear can be…I mean, I must have been well over a half mile away!
So my wife and I thought this was pretty cool..I mean how often do you see the President? (even if I couldn’t see him without blowing up a photo by 400%) But, the surprises didn’t stop there. The next day we were hiking across the National Mall and a helicopter flew right overhead.
I recognized “Marine One” (the President’s chopper) and it landed behind the White House. About 30 minutes later, it took off and flew by the Washington Monument. I found out later that Obama had used ‘Marine One’ to leave on his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
Like any type of photography, sometimes it just pays to be in the right place at the right time!
I couldn’t tell you when I saw my first photo taken in the Virgin Narrows at Zion National Park. But since that first moment, this became one of the top locations on my “photographic bucket list.” And with good reason: the images of sandstone walls glimmering with reflected light were magnificent. Sort of like Antelope Canyon…only with a river ripping thru it! Last month I finally got a chance to visit this icon and I have to tell you, it was everything a photographer could hope for. First I’d like to share with you some of the highlights and then provide some hints for those that hope to make this trip in the future.
Over the eons, the Virgin River has carved its way thru sandstone to create the wonder that is Zion National Park. The Narrows is a section where the river has sliced a thin, deep wound thru the surrounding sandstone…only 20 feet wide in some spots and the walls of the canyon shoot nearly straight up over a 1,000 feet. Just imagine yourself standing in the river, the walls close on either side, and the sky no more than a sliver of light snaking its way far overhead. It truly is magnificent. And if that wasn’t enough, what really makes this a wonder to see is the incredible way the sandstone of the canyon walls reflect light…it isn’t easy to describe…almost a glow, an iridescence…heck, just look at the pictures!
Here are four aspects of the Narrows that truly stand out:
1) The light. I’ve already mentioned it, so I won’t beat this to death, but the quality and color of the light as it reflects off of the sandstone walls of the canyon is amazing.
2) The sheer number of incredible views. You know, many of the places I photograph really are ‘one-trick-ponies.’ You go to a specific location for a specific shot, set up the tripod and might not even move it more than ten feet until you leave. But the Narrows is not a single, specific vista. Here you are moving the entire day and are treated to new views every five minutes! I could spend days here without photographing the same scene twice.
3) Six hours never zipped by so fast. I know that this sounds like a long hike, but much of the time you will actually be photographing, not walking. And I was so enthralled with trying to capture the grandeur before me that time just flew by.
4) I actually enjoyed this hike. Time for a confession: I usually don’t really love hiking. I mean, the actual process of putting one foot in front of the other with a heavy pack in hot weather for a full day…well, I can think of more pleasant things to do. With that said, this is one of the few hikes I would go on again even if I didn’t have a camera with me. It-is-really-THAT-cool. The scenery is non-stop the entire way and the fact that most of the hike is actually in the river itself makes it just plan fun! My son and I have hiked a lot of places during our years in the Boy Scouts.. but we both agreed that this was the best day of trekking we have ever experienced. It is small wonder why this is often included as one of the Top 10 hikes in the country.
For photographers, I’d suggest you do the “Bottom-Up” hike in which you trek upstream about 3-5 miles and then turn around and return. This hike will cover most of the prime photo ops, you don’t need a permit and most reasonably healthy folks should be able to make the hike with no problems. Another great thing for photographers is that you can catch a sunrise shot, hike the Narrows after sunrise and finish in time to head out to another location in the park for your sunset shot.
You could also do the “Top-Down” hike. This is about 16 miles starting at the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch. It can be done in a long 12-14 hour day IF you are in great shape, AND you don’t mind that you won’t have any time to actually stop and take photographs. Photographers will need to plan to make this a two-day overnight hike. A permit is required for any “Top-Down’ hike and you can obtain them three months in advance at this site.
Since the “Bottom-Up” hike is the one most photographers choose, it is the one I will review in this article.
This trailhead starts at the Temple of Sinawava. You first walk a mile on the paved “Riverside Trail.” Keep your eyes open, there is a lot of wildlife (especially early in the morning). At the trail’s end you enter the river and head upstream. Most of the water is waist deep or less and you will cross from one side of the river to the other dozens of times. With a bit of practice you will learn to recognize where the current is slowest and cross at those spots. Photo ops begin immediately once you get into the river. Less than a 1/2 mile will bring you to Mystery Falls (see photo below).
Each bend of the river reveals another photo-worthy vista and you will find yourself stopping often to set up your tripod.
About 2.5 miles from the trailhead (1.5 miles after entering the river), you will see a small stream enter from another canyon on your right.
This is Orderville Canyon. Although it has a charm all it’s own, the best of the Virgin Narrows is yet to come, so I’d suggest bypassing Orderville and continuing down the main channel. After Orderville, the canyon gets even more narrow and the photo ops continue over the next two miles until you get to Big Springs (when you see waterfalls coming out of the western side of the cliff, you will know you found it). This is as far as most folks will be able to reach before having to stop and head back.
The Park Service doesn’t allow hikers in the Narrows when the water flow is high due to snow-melt (usually April to June). As a result, summers are the most popular time of year to hike the narrows and even though it might be over 100 degrees, the cool river and the shade make it a comfortable trip.
Autumn and winter has fewer crowds, however, the river sure gets colder! I’ve done this hike in March with a dry-suit (you can rent gear in Springdale for about $55/day) and I was warm and toasty. The only downside is that the water levels were higher and the water wasn’t quite as clear.
Go EARLY in the day! The Narrows can become a real zoo by late morning, especially in summer when there will be literally hundreds of people on the river by noon. Trust me, you want to be at the trailhead as early after dawn as you can so you can enjoy the river and your photography while the multitudes are still in bed or having a leisurely breakfast.
Also, during the summer, the reflected light is best in early or mid-morning during the summers…by 11am or so you will have missed the best light. I still regret that I skipped some shots when I first got to the Narrows figuring I’d just take the shot on the way back…but by then the light was harsh and directly overhead…plus the river was so packed with bodies that it was pointless to even pull out my camera.
Note that if you are hiking in autumn, you will find the best light in mid-afternoon.
If you are visiting Zion between November and mid March, you have to take the mandatory park shuttle bus to the trailhead (at the Temple of Sinawava…the last stop). Just park your car at the Visitors Center, which is on the right after you pass the toll-booths at the South (Springdale) entrance of the park. The Shuttle is free and during the summer (May 9-Sept) the first one leaves at 6am (it leaves at 7am the rest of the year). Be on one of the first buses. Here is a link to the 2014 Zion Shuttle Bus schedule (note that it changes every year).
If your trip is between November and early March, you can just drive your own vehicle to the parking area at Sinawava.
You need to be aware that the narrows can be dangerous after a rain…that pleasant, shallow river can turn into a raging wall of rushing water coming at you in a narrow canyon with no way to reach higher ground. Don’t take this hike if rain is in the forecast.
We photographers love our clouds. You can hear us groan at sunrise or sunset when the sky is clear. However, clear skies are actually ideal for this location since there will be that much more sunlight to reflect off the sandstone. If you are spending multiple days at Zion, do this hike on a day with a forecast for sunny skies.
Since you are going to be actually hiking in the river for much of the day, there is some equipment you will want to bring that probably isn’t part of your usual kit.
1) Buy a Dry Bag. A dry-bag will cost you less than $20 on Amazon and it will prevent your camera, wallet and (electronic) car keys from getting wet. The rocks in the river are rounded, smooth and often not visible. Even if you are sure-footed, there is a strong probability that you will trip at least once.
Yes, this means that you will have to pull the dry bag out of your backpack for every shot, but once you’ve done it a few times you will get it down to a science.
2) Take hiking poles. Even if you don’t normally use them, make an exception on this trek. I would have fallen at least three times if I hadn’t had these with me. A single hiking stick is better than nothing but a pair of hiking poles is really the way to go on this excursion.
3) Footwear. Since you will be in the water a good part of the day, you need footwear that can handle it….and this doesn’t mean sandals or water shoes! You will be jamming your feet against rocks (I still have two bruised toes!) Wear shoes that give your toes some real protection, have a tread pattern that can grip slippery rocks…and if they provide ankle protection, so much the better. Also, buy some 3mm neoprene socks (about $15). These will help keep sand from getting between you and your shoes and rubbing you raw…they will also keep your tootsies a bit warmer.
4) Tripod. This isn’t an option. The canyon is definitely a low light photo op.
5) Clothing. Quick dry (non-cotton). Even when water is at its lowest during the summer, there are spots that are chest high in the river. You will get wet.
6) Food/Water. You are going to be out for a good part of the day and you will burn some serious calories. There are some epic spots for picnics. Climb atop one of the big sunny rocks in the middle of the river and enjoy a nice lunch that includes something more elegant than granola bars. You can also develop quite a thirst over 6 hours and you won’t want to drink the river water. A single bottle of Aquafina isn’t going to cut it.
7) Hat/Sunscreen. Really? In a slot canyon? By mid-day, the sun will be hitting you right on top of the head and during the summer it will be hot.
8) Camera. You will be hard-pressed to get high quality shots with anything less than a DSLR. The dynamic range in the canyon is incredible. My full-frame Nikon 800E has excellent dynamic range, but even it was incapable of handling the Narrows with a single exposure. If you also have small waterproof point-n-shoot, stick it in a pocket to capture shots of your fellow hikers and those spontaneous events that you will otherwise miss because of the time it takes to unpack your big camera!
9) Lens. You really need a wide lens otherwise you won’t be able to capture the full scene from river to cliff top. Nearly all of of my shots were taken at 16mm or wider (10mm on APS-C cameras). Your lens does not have to be particularly fast since you will be photographing from a tripod
10) Polarizer. A polarizer will help tame reflections and saturate colors. It will also result in a longer exposure, which helps to produce that ‘silky’ water effect.
1) Use HDR. As mentioned earlier, the dynamic range in the Narrows is dramatic. Sometimes I had to take 9 separate exposures a full stop apart to successfully capture the full range of light in HDR.
2) Only show a sliver of sky (or none at all) in your shots. If you include large portions of the sky, it will be difficult to prevent it from overpowering the rest of your image…even with HDR. In addition, the direct sunlight tends to lessen the beautiful effect of reflected light…which is why you are photographing the Narrows in the first place.
3) Get Low. Set your tripod as low as you can…and try some shots set up in the river. This makes for a more unusual perspective and tends to emphasize the water’s movement.
4) ISO Since you are shooting on a tripod, use your lowest ISO setting. This will result in some long exposure times, but it will maximize the quality of your images and also soften the appearance of the rushing water.
5) Don’t forget people! It’s not all about scenery (at least my wife keeps telling me so). Capture some memories of the folks you spend time with in the river.
So there you have it, tips and suggestions to help make the most of your adventure on the Virgin River. If you get the chance to photograph this iconic location, I’m sure you will have as incredible a time as Ryan and I did!
A number of you have emailed me with that question. After all, you got a couple blogs about the trip and then….nothing.
Did the guy fall off a cliff? Get eaten by a Grizzly? Decide to run off and become a hermit?
Well, nothing so dramatic. More a combination of my son getting sick, problems uploading blogs from locations with no internet/cell service…and the fact that I’m getting old. To be honest, hiking up to 10 miles a day and trying to get by on less than 4 hours sleep (that’s what happens when you hike all day, photograph the sunset at 8pm, the milky way at 1am and the sunrise at 5am). When I did have a free hour, I have to confess that my first thought was a nap…not writing a blog:)
You know the old saying?: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, the original plan was 3 weeks, 22 states, 12 National Parks and 8,500 miles. A few days into the trip Ryan came down with a bad case of nausea, fatigue and killer headaches. Turns out it was a bad case of altitude sickness. So we cut out about a third of the trip, especially the stuff at high altitude. It was a shame, but it means that we can go back next year and hit the places we missed! Our final tally was 2 weeks, 18 states, 8 National Parks and 7,000 miles…which is nothing to sneeze at. Ryan was a trooper and never missed a wake up alarm or slacked off during a hike (heck, it was like hiking with a mountain goat…the kid was always 10 yards ahead of me!) Fortunately he began to feel better as the trip progressed (and we lost altitude).
We had a blast! We saw Buffalo, Beavers, Elk, Grizzly Bears, Prairie Dogs and a lot of other critters that we don’t see in sub-tropical Florida. We hiked up the Virgin Narrows in Zion National Park (our new favorite hike of all time!) Watched the sun go down over the dunes at White Sands . Chanted “USA! USA! USA!” while a guy ate a 3 pound hamburger and 10 onion rings in less than 15 minutes (a new record at the Pioneer Restaurant).
I will share more with you in blogs over the next couple months, but today I just wanted to apologize for ‘going dark.’
Okay, okay…I can hear you now…”Where are the pictures?…This is a photography blog…you can’t sign off without adding photos!” Fair enough, here are my quick Top Ten Favorites:
We are off!
Headed over to Daytona to start the trip. It was a bit out of our way but it allows us to honestly say that that our road trip is truly Coast-to-Coast. Ryan pulled an all-nighter saying good bye to his friends. He has been up for 36 hours now…God it must be nice to be young!
We plan to get to Kentucky tonight…over 850 miles for the day.
Ryan and I have had a nonstop conversation rolling for about 8 hours, at least until I started typing this blog. He spoke nonstop for the first couple hours…must have been the sleep deprivation.
Time for me to take a shift driving. I’ll try to put up an update tomorrow after we visit the St. Louis Arch.
My blogs are usually recaps of photo ops or ‘how-to’ articles but my wife, Anita, suggested something different for this one: a travel blog for my upcoming trip. Since her advice is usually spot-on, I’m going to give it a shot.
Starting tomorrow morning, my son Ryan and I will climb into our Prius and start a coast-to-coast, 8,500 mile, 22 state, 3 week road trip. We will start at Daytona Beach, work our way up to the Rockies on the Canadian border, mosey over to the Pacific and then head south almost to Mexico before heading home. We will visit over a dozen national parks, take in a baseball game in San Francisco, visit the ranch Ryan’s grandfather was born at in New Mexico and a lot more. And we will hike. We will hike in the snow up in the Rockies, we will hike in the ‘Forest Moon of Endor’ redwoods in California, we will hike up the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park and we will hike in the desert in White Sands. I’m sure we will be two tired and sore guys when we get home on July 10th.
Being a detailed-oriented, slightly obsessive planner, I’ve done a lot of research. Nearly 50 locations and every sunrise and sunset shot is listed on my 15 page itinerary. Since the sun rises at 5am and sets about 8pm, we obviously won’t be getting a lot of sleep. Oh yeah…I’ve also planned some Milky Way shots during the new moon, so maybe I just should forget about sleep until I return!
I’m going pop out some blogs with iPhone photos during my trip recapping the highlights. I can’t promise to do so daily, but I’ll do my best.
This will be longest stretch of time I’ve ever been away from my precious wife since we met 26 years ago. That will be difficult for me. On the other hand, I am incredibly excited. This is the type of trip my Dad and I always talked about doing…but we never did. I feel incredibly blessed to have the chance to create this memory with my son.
Here is a list of some of the locations we plan to visit and photograph:
Sounds like a truly EPIC road-trip to me…wish us luck and safe travels!
Last week I had a conference in Atlanta and found myself with a free day afterwards. Of course I’d brought my camera gear (Question: “How do you know when you are a photographer? Answer: When you travel with two large backpacks stuffed with photo gear and a single miniscule bag with the unimportant stuff (like medicine, clothes and toiletries!”)
In years past, I’d already hit metro Atlanta’s photo spots (the Zoo, Aquarium, Stone Mountain, Botanical Gardens, etc) and besides, I really wanted to get out of the city. A fellow photographer had told me that there were neat waterfalls in the Georgia mountains only about an hour and a half from Atlanta, so the next morning I got in the car and headed north. Oddly enough, although I’ve driven thru the area dozens of times, I had never stopped to explore it before.
My first stop was Toccoa Falls which is on the grounds of a private university (Toccoa Falls College). Although not well known, I was surprised to learn that Toccoa is one of the larger falls east of the Mississippi with a drop of 186’ (57m). After a brief five minute walk up a gravel path, I came upon the view you see above. Unlike Niagara or Yosemite, Toccoa doesn’t overwhelm you with grandeur, but its smaller scale makes it somehow more intimate and personal. It certainly wasn’t crowded, I saw only a few other folks during my Tuesday morning visit.
The setting is certainly peaceful, but it was the site of tragedy in 1977 when a dam burst upstream of the falls sweeping 39 people to their deaths. You will see a granite memorial inscribed with the victims names located on the trail
Finding the falls was a bit of a challenge. My GPS tried to take me off-road when I typed in “Toccoa Falls.” Instead, use Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia as your GPS destination. This is a small, quiet campus and you will find plenty of signs directing you to the falls. Drive to the end of Forrest Drive and park when you see the “Gate Cottage.” It opens at 8am and there is a small admission fee (I think it was $2). Here is a link to Google Maps that you might find helpful.
The best time of the day for photography is either right after sunrise while the falls are totally shaded or mid-morning when the entire falls are illuminated. Often the sun is already hitting the falls by the time the Gate Cottage opens, so you might not really have a choice. Although most waterfalls are best photographed on overcast days or when shaded, I think Toccoa is an exception to that rule.
The best vantage spot for photography might be among the easiest to get to. Just walk to the base of the falls at the end of the gravel path. There are some large flat rocks in the water and if you set up your tripod on top of them you will be treated to a really nice perspective of the Falls. There is a also a small (and slippery) trail running up the left side of the falls. I took a number of shots along the trail, but none of those viewpoints are as nice as the first one I mentioned. I didn’t see an easy way to get to the other side of the stream, I might give it a try the next time I visit to see if the views are good from that angle.
Experiment with different shutter speeds to see the resulting effect on moving water. Personally, I often use HDR since it allows me to capture the attractive ‘silky’ look of rushing water and the full dynamic range often present in waterfalls (especially when in direct sunlight).