Category Archives: Landscape Photography

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer’s Nirvana

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…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

You’ve probably seen photos of this place…maybe you were as fascinated by it as I was!

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:

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Artist’s Palette

 

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Zabriski’s Point

 

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Mesquite Dunes

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!)

Teakettle Junction Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

I remember when that kid was the size of a tea kettle!

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.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

The Playa is about two miles long, a mile wide and ringed by black mountains.

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.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“The Long and Winding Road”…apologies to the Beatles!

The shadows lengthened as the afternoon passed and the photography just got better and better.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“One Rock, Two Trails”

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.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

The entire Playa is covered by a polygons of hard, baked mud. When the sun hits it at a low angle, the dark cracks really pop.

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!

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Alpha Centauri IV?    Vulcan?   Mars?       Nope…California!

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.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Blue Planet

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.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Sun Run”

Once the sun broached the ridgeline, the floor of the Playa lit up;2016 SW Death Valley 03 06 0761_2

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Direct from the Source

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…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Take me to your Leader Earthling”

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Drag Racer!

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-

“Time for you to leave”

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!

Jeff

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racetrack Playa:  A Photographer’s Nirvana

 

 

 

Also posted in Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , |

My Twelve Best of 2015

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):2015 Smokies_04_30_03285 3260 blendI 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.

2015 Smokies_04_30_02492 cropJust 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!

2015 Smokies_04_28_00219 blendGeorge 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.

 

2015 Scuba 17 March 11879 crop2_1My 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!

 

2015 PAC NW 08 12 2628My 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….

 

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On second thought, I kinda like this long exposure perspective of Ponytail Falls too…

 

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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.

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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…

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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!

 

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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!

 

Best Photos of the Year

Perfect Palouse

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.

 

Best Photos of the Year

Manatee Sunrise

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.

Jeff

Also posted in Best Photos of the Year, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Underwater Photography, Waterfalls, Wildlife

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

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.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

Welcome Committee at 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.

No, Not Rainier...This is actually Mt Yakima..Rainier was still stubbornly hidden behind the clouds off to the left.

No, Not Rainier…This is actually Mt Yakima..Rainier was still stubbornly hidden behind the clouds off to the left.

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.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

“Color me Purple” Rainier finally makes an appearance!

Author’s note:  A couple years after writing this article, I had another chance to visit Tipsoo and I had better luck at sunrise (this really is a morning location).  The sky was clear, the wind was calm and the mountain’s reflection was just perfect.

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I ran up the hill behind the lake to capture this view that included the wildflowers Tipsoo is so well known for:

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Tipsoo Sunrise

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’re dead tired, not paying attention AND 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.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

Path to Paradise. You can’t miss Rainier if the skies are clear. It is just magnificent!

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.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

Pathway back to the Paradise Inn. That’s the Tatoosh Range below the Milky Way

As hiked back, I turned the final bend in the trail and the Paradise Inn came into sight.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

I’m thinking this shot should be in the Paradise Inn’s brochure!

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.

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Sunrise awakens the wildflowers along the shore at Reflection Lake

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 .

The dawn was stingy with color but the lake was perfectly calm creating wonderful reflections plus the fog and clouds set a dramatic mood which lent itself to black and white processing.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

“Taking it all in…” A fellow photographer stops and just soaks in the moment…a lession to us all.

Editor’s Note:  A nearby location I found a couple years after writing this blog is Inspiration Point.  See this link for details and a map.

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Inspiration Point sunset. Only a few minutes from Reflection Lakes

I drove back to the Inn and hit the Skyline Trail one last time hoping to catch the wildflowers in the soft morning light.

 

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Tipsoo is shaded from the wind and the morning reflections can be awesome!

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

“Stairway to Heaven” Apologies to Led Zeppelin:)

The day before, people had been queued up at the viewpoint to see Myrtle Falls but at 7am I had the place to myself.

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

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.15 Hours at Mt. Rainier: A Photographic Sprint

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!

Jeff

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

15 Hours at Mt. Rainier:  A Photographic Sprint

Also posted in Milky Way Photography, Pacific Northwest USA Tagged , , , , |

Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Q:

How do you know that you just might be a photographer?

A: 

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:

Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

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:

Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

2015 Northwest 06 29 209

The lack of light sucked the color out of the landscape and I thought these views were made for black and white.  Even so, some of the little icebergs were a beautiful deep blue: Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

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…

Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Sawyer Glacier

 

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:

Sawyer Glacier Calving

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.Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

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.

Jeff

 

 

 

 Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Also posted in Alaska Tagged , , , , , , |

An Arctic Walkabout: Photo Tour of the village of Kaktovic Alaska

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.  kaktovik_alaska[1] 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. An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska 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.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

I processed this shot to resemble the look created by the 19th century glass plate cameras. I think it adds just the right character for the shot.

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.   An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

Cesar snapping a final shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

Never see these in Orlando!

We headed down to the lagoon and came upon an old bowhead whale skull.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

I took while to compose this shot. Fortunately I had a travel tripod with me so I was able to take multiple long exposures and process this scene via HDR when I got home.

Right next to the whale bones was an old wooden wreck.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

The texture of the grass wood really worked well in a black & white exposure but I like the scene in color as well.

 

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

As I looked around the harbor, I could see that there were a number of old wrecks..

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

WW 2 era Landing Craft abandoned along the shore

 

We continued walking back toward the center of town and came upon this child’s wagon.  It’s bright color really jumped out.

2014 Alaska 091714 04013

 

House on skis!

House on skis!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By this time we had walked to the far side of Kaktovic.  Just past the homes was a second cemetery.  We later learned that this was the ‘new’ graveyard.  The fog started to thicken as we approached.An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

 

As the visibility worsened, we decided to head back.  As we started trudging along, I looked down and my heart skipped when I saw this:An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

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.

Jeff

 An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Alaska, Roadtrips Tagged , , |

A Childhood Dream Come True; Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

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:

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

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.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis           A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

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!

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis             A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

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.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

That little spot of light by the river is the headlamp of a disappointed photographer (me). Photo by Cesar Aristeiguieta

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.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

This was a wild view. The nearly full moon backlit this scene and really boosted the Aurora’s brightness…it looked like a rainbow on steroids. This effect was visible for less than a minute and this was the only shot I was able to get before it faded.,

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.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

Possibly my favorite shot of the trip. The reds had faded to burgundy but the ‘curtain effect’ was strikingly visible on the left side of the Aurora. I loved how the red color of the Aurora was reflected in the river to the left while the road on the right reflected shades of green!

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.

A Serendipitous "Twofer"

A Serendipitous “Twofer”

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.

Take care!
Jeff

 

 

 A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Also posted in Alaska, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , |

Grand Teton: An Icon Worthy of the Name

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.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

“Welcome Party” I came upon this Grizzly foraging next to Blackwater Creek a couple miles before I got to the border of Grand Teton…great way to start a visit!

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.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

The Oxbow Bend Overlook on Highway 287 is well known to landscape photographers and with a view like this, it’s small wonder why…

Another popular spot is Schwabacher’s Landing.  In fact. even well after sunrise, Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tipsthere 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!

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Schwabacher’s was my favorite vista at the Tetons. The placid water (thanks to a beaver pond) make a perfect reflector for the splendor beyond.

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.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Check out the look in this little guy’s eye! He wasn’t expecting me to be hiding behind that shrub!

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…

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Just Incredible….Even though I wasn’t there during prime wildflower season, I was pretty impressed with this beautiful field in the lowlands near the Snake River.

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.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Location! Location! Location!

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.

A bit south of the Cunningham Cabin is the bend in the Snake River made famous by Ansel Adams.  I ‘channeled’ my inner Ansel and came up with this effort:Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

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!

Jeff
Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

 Grand Teton photography tips

Grand Teton photography tips

Also posted in Wildlife

Lost Dutchman State Park: Phoenix’s Saving Grace for Photographers

Phoenix is Arizona’s capital, its most populated city (6th largest in the US) and it is located smack-dab in the center of the state.  As a result, Phoenix seems to come up in travel plans for most of us at one time or another.  So I guess it isn’t surprising that I found myself in Phoenix for a conference a few years back with a free day on my schedule and a memory card itching to soak up some landscapes.

What is surprising, was that there isn’t a whole lot nearby to interest a landscape photographer.  Or at least it seemed that way to me at first.  After all, Arizona has the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Horseshoe Bend…the list seems endless, but in comparison, I originally thought Phoenix was a bit, well…boring.

That was until I found the Lost Dutchman State Park:

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

View of the Flatiron from the basin area of Siphon Draw Trail. This is my favorite spot in the park but don’t get caught here in the rain!

Lost Dutchman State Park is a wonderful bonanza for photographers located only 4o miles east of Phoenix.  The park’s centerpiece is the Superstition Mountains which rise majestically from the Sonoran Desert.   Here you can find a compact area with mountains, desert, Saguaro cactus, wildlife and a rip-roaring dollop of western history.

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

The Superstitions greet another dawn. The summer monsoons generate outstanding cloud formations that enhance your photographic efforts.

 

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

I think this little fella was looking for the stash too…

So how did Lost Dutchman get its name?  Well, the story goes kinda like this:  Back in the 1870s Jacob Waltz, (“the Dutchman” ) and his partner,  Jacob Weiser,  hunted for gold in the Superstition Mountains.  They hit it big and buried their gold to keep it safe.  Weiser was soon killed (maybe by Waltz) but Jacob also died without revealing the gold’s location.  Folks have been looking for it ever since.

So…do you wanna so look for some gold (or even just take some photos)?  Either way, here is a link to the park’s website for details, directions and other info.  The entrance fee is a bargain: only $7.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Time of year?  If you were like me, your schedule was pre-determined.  However, if you have an option, try to visit during March and April when the wildflowers bloom in the desert.  A great second option would be during the summer monsoons (July thru September) when the skies often feature killer clouds.

Time of Day?  Mornings in the desert can be awesome, but the Superstitions look best when illuminated in the late afternoon.

Highlight?  Siphon Draw Trail is a 4.8 mile loop trail in the park that takes you to the famous Flatiron (see below).

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

The prow-like profile of the Flatiron is unmistakable

It is about a 1.6 mile hike to the basin where you get the best view of the Flatiron (see the first shot in this blog).  You can go farther, but it is steep and tough going beyond this point and the views, although impressive, are not particularly photogenic (at least in my opinion).  This trail is often crowded on weekends and it can be HOT.  Take more water than you think you could ever drink.  The hike is obviously cooler in the morning, but the light for photography is better in the afternoon.

Safety Note:  That little stream of water you see in the gully on my first photograph becomes a torrent in wet weather: this isn’t where you want to be if rain is forecasted.

Sunrise/Sunset Spot?  You can find a great location for sunrise and sunset just before you get to the guard gate at the entrance of the park.  Pull over here and hike a hundred yards to the east or west of the road and you can find some killer landscape opportunities.  You will also find a bunch of saguaro cactus here and they make wonderful foreground subjects.

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix.

This spot is within 500′ of the park’s entrance.

This blog only scratches the surface, but you get the idea.  If you find yourself in Phoenix with a camera and some free time, this is the place to go.

PS:  If you do find the Dutchman’s treasure, you really should think about giving me a small finders fee:)

I’m heading off to Atlanta this week, so I won’t be posting for a couple weeks, but I hear Zoo Atlanta has twin baby pandas….might be worth a shot or two!

Jeff

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

This spooky old wreck was at a nearby tourist trap: Goldfield Ghost Town

 

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

Also posted in Southwest U.S.A. Tagged |

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Flying in a helicopter is a rare and expensive extravagance.  Dropping $300-$600 for an hour’s entertainment might not be a big deal for CEOs or professional athletes, but for the rest of us, that amount of money leaves a big hole in the old budget.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Anita and I with our chopper pilot. I think the Hawaiian hand gesture we are making means: “Look at us…We just spent a ton of money!”

And, truth be told, I’m a bit of a tightwad: (I can hear my kids laughing now as they say:  ”A bit of a tightwad?  Heck Dad, you make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a Saudi Sheik throwing money at a Vegas roulette wheel!”)  Be that as it may, I’ve long been fascinated by flight and aerial photography… so over the years I have occasionally coughed up the bucks for a chopper ride.

I’ve enjoyed all of those flights…heck, its FUN to hover and zip around like a big hummingbird.  But strictly as a photographer, I found that the expense was rarely justified.  Why?  Four reasons:

1)  First of all, aerial photography has its own unique rules and techniques.  None of it is rocket science, but until I learned the  basics, my results were often disappointing  (I’ll write an in-depth article next week providing you with all you need to know about aerial photography so you don’t have to learn the hard way).

2)  Second, most helicopters are not well-suited for aerial photography.

  • Typical helicopters have large, curved windows which create wicked reflections/distortions in your shots.
  • Many of these choppers have 6 or more seats.  Which means that some seats are NOT by a window.  In other words, you can end up in a middle seat and be unable to get a decent shot the entire flight.
    • Some tour companies will tell you that their helicopter was designed for touring and ALL the seats are great.  Don’t believe it.
    • Since seats are assigned  based on your weight to ensure that the chopper has proper balance, most companies will NOT guarantee you a window seat.

3)  Third, flights are relatively short…so unless there is a lot of great stuff to photograph in a compact area, you can only get shots of one or two locations.  This this makes it really difficult for most photographers to justify the cost.

4)  Finally, the cheap-skate that lives somewhere in the back of my head would tell you that most of the locations flown over by helicopters are accessible via cheaper (but less fun) methods.

Well, now that I’ve burst your bubble about helicopter photography, let me tell you about the one exception I’ve found so far.  A flight that is so incredible that it is worth the money even if you don’t take your camera along (which is a heck of a statement for a photographer).  The location is the island of Kauai, the oldest and, in my opinion, the most photogenic of the Hawaiian islands

So, why is Kauai the exception?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

The legendary Na Pali: One of the most spectacular vistas on earth.

1)  The only way avoid the issues I described with typical choppers is to fly in a 4 seat helicopter that has removable doors.  These choppers are not commonly used by tour operators because they (understandably) want to maximize profits by taking as many paying customers as they can on each flight.

  • There are at least two tour operators on Kauai that use small 4 seat helicopters. Mauna Loa Helicopter flies the Robinson R44 and Jack Harter uses the Hughes 500).
  • Four seats mean that EVERY seat is a window seat
  • Both of these choppers have removable doors, which eliminates reflections & distortion (and makes for a much more exciting ride!)
  • Note: Some of the 6+ seater choppers do have sections of their windows that slide open.  That is better than nothing, but it pales in comparison to having the entire island at your feet (literally) in a doors-off aircraft.

2)  Kauai  has three world-class photographic subjects that you can easily reach during a typical one hour tour:

  • Incredible waterfalls (including the Wall of Tears on Mt Waialeala, the Five Sisters, Manawaiopuna Falls…aka Jurassic Falls),
  • Waimea Canyon, (the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’) and
  • The Na Pali coast (the Pièce de résistance..totally breathtaking)
Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the movie Jurassic Park)

3)  Most of Kauai is inaccessible by road (the estimates range from 65-90%) and many of the most photogenic waterfalls are on private property, so you can only see them from the air.

  • You can hike Na Pali and Waimea Canyon.  However, Na Pali’s Kalalau Trail is a strenuous 22 mile round trip thatwillrequire two days.  Hikes in Waimea Canyon are less challenging.
    • Although both hikes offer good views, they aren’t incredible views like the ones you can see from a chopper.
  • There are small boat tours to Na Pali and I recommend them highly.  These tours are certainly cheaper than a helicopter and the photography can be very good. Again, just not quite as good.

Decisions, Decisions:

What time of day should you schedule your tour?

If your heart is set on Na Pali, then you will need to fly in the afternoon when the cliffs are illuminated by the sun.

If waterfalls are your primary focus, then mornings are usually best since many of them are shaded in the afternoon.  The air is usually calmer and clearer in the mornings as well.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

At first I was disappointed when we flew into Waimea Canyon and saw that it was shrouded in fog….but the mist was actually a blessing

Waimea Canyon often gets pretty foggy/cloudy in the afternoon which washes out colors, but the clouds can make for dramatic photos (see above).

Personally, I was excited about Na Pali, so I flew in the afternoon.  Now, if I had won a Powerball, I would have taken a morning flight too, but…

What Lens?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Nawiliwili Light Station. You will see this moments after leaving Lihue airport..

You are not allowed to change lenses while in flight (some silly concern about things flying out of the chopper and hitting the tail rotor), so you will want to have a full-range zoom lens on your camera.  On my full frame Nikon, I found that nearly all of my shots were between 28 and 135mm (if you have a cropped APS-C sensor camera, then the equivalent would be 18-84mm)  Since you will be shooting with a fast shutter speed, you will want to use the fastest zoom you have that covers this range.  (I have written a detailed  blog about aerial photography that provides details on your other settings and gear.  Click this link to see it.)

What time of the year?

The winter is best for waterfalls.  Kauai gets a lot of rain (Mt. Waialeale is sometimes referred to as the ‘wettest spot on earth’ with 461” per year!)  December thru March are the wettest…which has a dramatic impact on the waterfalls.  For example, the shot below on the left is of the ‘Wall of Tears’ taken during the winter, compare that to the same shot on the right I took in September.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Each company offers a lot of different helicopter tours, which should I choose?

Nearly all the tours follow the same clockwise path around the island and follow a pretty rigid schedule with very little flexibility in what you will see and how long you will see it.  In other words, if all the waterfalls are covered by fog and not worth seeing but Na Pali is bathed in glorious sunshine, the pilot won’t spend less time at the waterfall and more at Na Pali.

However, there is at least one exception:  Mauna Loa Helicopters offers a “Photographer Tour”  With this option, you basically charter the chopper, so the pilot will go nearly wherever you want, spend more or less time at particular locations, swing back for a second pass, etc.   This was the best option for me.  Surprisingly, this tour isn’t significantly more expensive than the standard tours. The cost is $660 per hour.  So if two of you are going on the flight, it is only $110 more than paying $275 each for the standard island tour.  Heck, if you are already blowing over $500, then what’s another C-note, right? And if you have two friends with you, it is actually cheaper.  By the way, I don’t get any kind of compensation or free flights  from Mauna Loa or anyone else for that matter.

Weather

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kahili Falls (one of the “Five Sisters”)

A significant number of flights get cancelled due to weather,  If you are going to be on Kauai for a few days, be sure that your flight is scheduled on your first day…so if there is a cancellation, you will be able to reschedule.

One other thing, even if the weather is great at the airport, there is a good chance that it won’t be perfect everywhere on the island.  On my flight, Waimea Canyon was socked in by fog, but the waterfalls and Na Pali were beautiful.  Be flexible.

Safety

I can’t avoid this topic.  After all, it seems like there are reports about a tourist chopper going down somewhere every six months or so.  While it is true that the accident record for private helicopters is higher than for commercial airline aviation, statically your chances of getting injured in a car accident on the way to the heliport are a lot worse than while in the air  But everyone has their own tolerance for risk and if you are uncomfortable flying you probably won’t enjoy this tour no matter what the numbers say.

Final thoughts

Personally, I thought this flight worth was every penny.  I got some incredible shots that simply couldn’t have taken any other way.  Additionally, the scenery was beautiful and the feeling of the wind zipping by the open doors was really quite a rush. If there is a Hawaiian trip in your future, a helicopter flight over Kauai should be on your itinerary!

And remember, photography is about more than just pretty pictures.

Jeff

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Is that a view or what? Afternoons are usually best for lighting at Na Pali….clouds often build up later in the day as well which can have dramatic results

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

 

Also posted in Aerial Photography, Hawaii, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , , |

Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

One of the things I love most about photography is that it entices me to venture out into the world and see wonders I would never otherwise experience.  For example…have you every heard of a ‘moonbow’?  Well, I hadn’t either until a few weeks ago.   I was doing some research for a trip to Yosemite when I saw a mention about moonbows and it caught my attention.  It turns out that a moonbow (also known as a lunar rainbow,  white rainbow or space rainbow) is a rainbow created by full moon at night (instead of direct sunlight during the day).  Although recorded by observers from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin, they are still not well known due to their rarity.   Not every waterfall can host a moonbow, in fact, the list of well-known locations is pretty small: Yosemite, Victoria Falls in Africa, Hawaii’s Waimea  Falls and Cumberland Falls in Kentucky.   The five required conditions are:

  1. Correct “rainbow geometry” when the moon lines up correctly with a waterfall’s mist
  2. A clear sky (few, if any clouds),
  3. Abundant mist at the base of the fall,
  4. An absence of artificial light,
  5. Bright, direct moonlight (full or nearly full moon)

So how do you know if there is “correct rainbow geometry?” Well, that was a problem for years.  Although back in the 1870s, famed naturalist John Muir was singing the wonders of Yosemite’s “elusive, ethereal moonbow”, no one could predict when you would be able to see one.  It wasn’t until 2007 that astrometers in Texas figured it out and published a schedule of future moonbow dates.  So there is no guessing anymore, a quick click onto the Texas State University website and you are good to go. Note:  don’t confuse the Texas State University with the University of Texas (which is a mistake I made when I first wrote this blog)…my thanks to William Cardwell for pointing out my error…Go Bobcats!)

Well, by the time I finished reading all this, I was very interested.  When I checked the Texas website and saw that one of the predicted moonbows would occur while I was at Yosemite, I was EXCITED!  All I needed now was a bit more luck… a clear night.  Did my luck hold?   Check out the shot below:

Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

Looks just like a regular rainbow…right?  Whoops, not quite…check out those stars!   To be honest, it doesn’t quite look like this to the naked eye (this is a 30 second exposure).  In person, a moonbow has very subdued colors .   It really depends on the cone color receptors in your eyes, if yours are sensitive, you will see colors, if not, you will see more of a greyish-white ‘bow.’  Either way, it was everything John Muir promised.  In fact, even though it was wet and freezing, each time the moon hit the mist just right, the moonbow would shiver into sight and you could hear the assembled photographers gasp and call out to one another in amazement.  And that’s saying a lot, because my experience is that landscape photographers have a tendency to be quiet and reserved…but you would have never known it that night.

Personally, I was so enthralled that I stayed at the falls for nearly three hours the first night, and nearly as long the next.  I’ll tell you, it is really nice to be able to feel that same sense of wonder that you experienced as a child.  Perhaps it doesn’t happen as often, but I think the emotion is deeper felt than when I was younger.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Where to Photograph From

    • There are usually at least two locations that the moonbow is visible from:
      1. Lower Yosemite Falls:  The bridge and terrace at the base of the falls (see map below)Moonbow map for Lower Yosemite Falls-
        • There is parking available on Northside Drive, just east of Yosemite Falls Lodge.
        • Plan on a short 10-15 minute stroll on the paved trail.  Just follow the signs to ‘Lower Yosemite Falls.’  When you come to a 50 foot bridge at the base of the fall, you have found the spot.
        • The concrete terrace just to the west of the footbridge is the favorite location of most photographers because the bridge can shake a bit when folks walk on it and the terrace tends to get hit with less mist
        • At the terrace, move as close to the north end as you can (closest to the falls).  There is a large fallen log that borders the edge of the terrace, if you can get right up to it, I think you will have the best seat in the house. This location is ‘up close and personal.’  The view, sound and mist are incredible.
      2. Upper Yosemite Falls
        • You can see a different perspective of the moonbow from the parking lot at Sentinel Bridge or just south from Cook’s Meadow
        • It won’t be as crowded but frankly, this view just doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the terrace at the lower falls.
  2. When to Go

    • Check the Texas Website and see when moonbows are predicted.
    • The water flow is usually best in the spring which should generate more mist, which should result in a better moonbow.  That isn’t a sure thing, but if you had a choice of when to go, choose the predicted dates earliest in the year.
    • The best tripod locations fill up early, so I’d get there about an hour before the start of the predicted moonbow
    • When the moonbow first appears, it will be high on the falls.  As the night progresses, the bow will move lower and lower toward the base of the falls.  Many viewers think earlier views are the best
  3. What to Wear

    • You will likely get wet photographing from the terrace/bridge at the Lower Falls.  Bring good Gore-Tex raingear (preferably something with a hood)
      • If your camera isn’t weather sealed, you will want to have something to cover it with.  You can find everything from cheap plastic covers to high-end Think Tank Hydrophobias easily on Amazon.
      • If you get wet, you will likely get cold unless you have a good jacket under your raingear.  I was dry but freezing my first night because I had thought a forecast of 60 degrees Fahrenheit didn’t require anything warm under my raingear….I was wrong.
      • Thin fleece gloves will make the experience more comfortable as well
  4. Bring a Headlamp

    • A headlamp will keep light on your subject while keeping your hands free
    • If your headlamp has a ‘red light’ feature, it will help preserve your night vision
    • Please be careful not to shine your light into the eyes and cameras of your fellow photographers.
  5. Tripod/Remote Shutter Release/Extra Batteries

    • You will be taking long exposures and will need a tripod.  And, if you have a tripod with an extending center column, then bring it.  I had my full sized tripod with me and by raising the center column to its full height, I was able to photograph OVER the heads of photographers who had got there before me and staked out the best locations.
    • A remote shutter release will ensure that no vibration will ruin your shot.
    • You will be taking a lot of shots over a couple hours and if it is cold, your batteries will drain quicker than normal.
  6. Lens suggestions

    • Bring the widest, fastest lens you have.
    • On a full frame camera  you will need about 28mm to get the entire falls in the frame (about 42mm on a cropped APS-C sensor camera).
    • A 2.8f or faster lens is ideal but you can still get good shots with slower lenses…you will just need longer exposures.

      Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

      Check out the double moonbow! This spot closest to the fallen log on the northern edge of the terrace has a great perspective. To see this shot in full res, click anywhere on the photo

  7. Lens Cleaning/Drying Cloths

    • Bring LOTS of these.  I found that I had to dry my lens after EVERY shot.
  8. Focus on Infinity

    • Getting good focus at night can be a challenge.  Autofocus will not be your friend, so use Manual Focus.
    • If your camera has a Live-View feature, use it
    • Check your LCD after every shot to make sure you have the focus tack-sharp
    • Be careful that you don’t mess up your focus when you are cleaning the lens.  I made this mistake a couple times before I could figure out why my focus kept changing!
  9. ISO/Shutter Speed

    • There is a trade-off decision you will have to make between these two settings.
    • If your shutter speed is over 30 seconds, the stars will no longer show as pinpoints…they will start to streak
    • Higher ISO settings will let you use shorter shutter speeds, but will result in higher noise levels
    • With a Nikon 800E and a f/2.8 lens, I was able to shoot at ISOs between 140-200 at 30 seconds with fine results.  Experiment with your camera/lens combination and see what works.  Fortunately, the moonbows often last for a couple hours, so you have time for some trial and error.
    • Use your histogram to confirm that you got a good exposure.
    • Even with a histogram, I’d suggest that you bracket your shots to ensure that you do get shots with perfect exposure.
  10. Okay, I’m all set…but where is that darned Moonbow?

    • Remember, the skies need to be pretty clear for a good moonbow, even if you are there on the right night.  If it is a bit cloudy, stick it out and with a bit of luck, the moon will peek thru the clouds before your ‘window’ is over,
    • After you spot the moonbow once, you will know what to look for.  Remember, the colors won’t be vivid to your eye, but the ‘rainbow’ shape will still be there…look for it.
    • See if you can find your head’s shadow and then draw a line between it and the base of the falls…the moonbow should form a 42 degree arc above that line.
    • Even if you still can’t see it, I’ll bet that when the moonbow appears, the folks around you will start pointing at it…that should help!

So, there you have it.  A new potential adventure for you to try and certainly one that will be long remembered.  In fact, often my ‘non-photographic’ friends only pay ‘polite’ attention to me when I drone on about my photo shoots, but when I started talking about moonbows, I think they were truly interested;)

Remember, photography is about a lot more than just pretty pictures!
Jeff

Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

This image was taken later in the evening. Note that the moonbow is much lower than in the previous shots taken earlier.

 Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows:  A Photographic How-To Guide

Also posted in Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Waterfalls, Yosemite Tagged , , , |

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op

You may not of heard of Cathedral Rock, but I’ll bet you’ve seen pictures of it.  Sunset shots of Cathedral Rock are one of the iconic images of the Southwest and it is on the ‘bucket list’ of many a photographer.  Situated near the beautiful and quaint little town of Sedona Arizona, it is in the heart of the famous “Red Rock” landscape that has captivated so many of us.  If you plan to make a trip to the area, then read on and let me help make the most of your visit to Cathedral Rock:  Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op.

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

Cathedral Rock perspective from Buddah Beach (location #2 on the map below)

I thought I had done a solid job researching Cathedral Rock before my first trip.  I had read How to Photograph the Southwest by Laurent Martres (a great series of books for any landscape photographer) as well as a number of other books and internet articles.  For some reason, I had gotten the mistaken impression that I could just drive up a half hour before sunset, walk five minutes down a nice little path, set up my tripod and be good to go. Well, as it turns out….you can’t.  I didn’t get a decent shot until my third trip here.  Here is what I wish I had known:

First of all, you have to find the place:

  • Cathedral Rock is located in a park about 7 miles from ‘downtown’ Sedona.  If you look online you might easily get confused about exactly where the park is and what it is actually called  (I certainly did).  Sometimes it is referred to as Red Rock Crossing Park…other times as the Crescent Moon Picnic Area Park
  •  This website provides a map and good directions.  If you are using GPS, be careful that it selects the right place.  You specifically want the Crescent Moon picnic area in Red Rock Crossing Park.  Again, leave early and give yourself plenty of time.
  • From the “Y” (intersection of US89A and 179) in downdown Sedona, drive west on US 89A.   Just outside of town, turn south on FR 216 (Upper Red Rock Loop Road). Drive about 1.5 miles and follow the signs to Red Rock Crossing. All roads except the short segment leading from Red Rock Crossing Road to the picnic area are paved
  • GPS: N34° 49′ 33.78″, W-111° 48′ 26.7114″

Plan to be at the park at least an hour and a half before sunset:

  • Why so early?  Well the first reason is because sunset will actually be 30 minutes before the “official” time because mountains to the east will block light on Cathedral Rock.  I didn’t know this my first trip and as I pulled into the park, I was greeted by an incredible sunset…but Cathedral Rock was dark: completely in shadow.  I didn’t get a shot worth keeping.
  • Second, traffic in Sedona can be challenging.  It’s one of the few places I’ve photographed in the Southwest where you have to add extra travel-time to your schedule because of traffic.
  • Third, you will need time to scout the area (see below).

My favorite vantage points:

  • I wasted my second trip to the site by rushing from one end of the park to the other trying to find the ‘classic’ views I had seen in all those photographs.  The park is pretty big and if you don’t know the best vantage points you should expect to invest a lot of time scouting locations.
  • Let me save you some effort by sharing a map with my top 4 favorite spots to set up and photograph Cathedral Rock:
  • Cathedral Rock Photo Guide_0002
  • The map below covers a wider area and lets you see where Cathedral Rock is located in comparison to Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing Park:
Photographer's Map of Cathedral Rock

This map shows you the orientation of Cathedral Rock from the Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing Park

A word to the wise:

  • Don’t try to cross the river unless you have a waterproof bag for your camera.  Although parts of the river are shallow (there are even ‘stepping stones’ at one location), the rocks are very slippery.  I have seen a couple of photographers fall in the river and I’m sure it ruined their day.  Frankly, all my favorite locations are on the north side of the river, so I haven’t had an overpowering urge to tempt fate.

Details:

  • There are a slew of different passes and tickets for the multiple photo ops around Sedona.  I found it throughly confusing and expensive.  The one-day entrance fee (Day Pass) is $10 per car at Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing .  A better option if you are going to be in the area for a couple of days is to buy a Red Rock Annual Pass for $40.  It will allow you access to all the Red Rock areas including Crescent Moon and it also serves as a parking pass for all the scenic parking areas around town (otherwise, you will pay repeatedly for parking and it will likely add up to more than $40).  This link will take you to a website with details about the ticket options.

    Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

    View from location #4. This is near the far western edge of the park

  • Although photography is best near the end of the day when the setting sun shifts the color of Cathedral Rock into wonderful red hues, there is plenty you could do here if you have interests other than photography (God forbid!)

Equipment

  • Cathedral Rock is off in the distance a bit, so you won’t need an extremely wide-angle lens.  Most of my shots were taken between 35 and 50mm on a full frame camera (22-31mm on a crop-frame APS-C camera).
  • You will need a tripod to take the long exposures necessary to give the water that entrancing ‘silky’ look.  A tripod will also come in handy since you will likely want to use HDR to capture the full dynamic range…especially as the light begins to fade.
  • Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

    I took this shot as an afterthought, but it ended up being one of my favorites. Look for location #3 on the above map)

There are a number of other stellar locations near Sedona, including Devil’s Bridge, Bell Rock (covered in a previous post), Airport Mesa, Soldier Arch and the incredible Oak Creek Canyon that runs north of town.  If you like to hike, you will be in heaven.  There are an incredible number of trails that run thru some of the world’s best vistas.

Hope you get a chance to visit Sedona soon!
Jeff

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

The ‘classic’ view from the western border of the park along Oak Creek (Location #1). This is near the ‘stepping stones’ down a dirt path about 150′ or so beyond the end of the park’s concrete walkway. When you see a small house along the river, stop at the park’s fence line, walk down to the river and you are at the spot.

 

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op

 

Also posted in Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , , , |

Maui’s Kaihalulu Beach (Red Sand Beach): Photo Tips and a Warning…

I’ve done some crazy things to get a good photo:  hung out the open doors of helicopters, snorkeled with sharks, hiked across a 105°F desert…but the most dangerous (ie.stupid) thing I may have ever done was to make the short walk to Kailaulu Beach in Hana.

20130901_Hawaii_0011

The ominous nature of this spot really manifests itself in this black and white image. Click anywhere on the shot to see it in full resolution.

Locally known as the “Nude Beach” or ‘Red Sand Beach’, Kaihalulu is a crescent-shaped beach with, yes, red sand.  It is an incredible setting…the beach is actually cut out of the side of the Ka’uiki Head volcanic cinder, the water is an iridescent blue and a wicked line of lava ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ thrust up through the surf across the neck of the cove.  It was one of the “must-photograph” spots I had selected L-O-N-G before my trip to Hawaii last year.

I had read everything I could find about Kaihalulu, checked-out Google Maps and even arrived in Hana the afternoon before so I could walk the path (a short half mile hike) in the daylight.  Okay, so what made this so darn  ‘sketchy’ you might ask ?   Well, first of all, it turned out that I couldn’t scout the trail after all…the area was blocked off because of a baseball tournament.  Not ideal, but no bid deal, right?…so I show up the next morning with my headlamp and find the trail.  Wait a minute, my mistake…I said ‘trail’…do you consider something less than 6″ wide a trail?   And to make it really entertaining, this trail hugs the side of a dirt cliff with nothing to break your fall except insanely sharp lava boulders in the surf about 50-75’ below.  I really should have turned around….I mean…I really should have listened to that little voice inside me…but I was focused on the shot…and I continued.

As I decended the trail to the beach, it was clear that I had at least two more challenges.  First of all, the cloud cover was intense and the sun, which should have already been visible, was MIA.  Second, the photographs that had inspired me to trek to this beach featured the sun rising behind the ‘Dragon’s Teeth’…which make for a dramatic silhouette. However, after moment or two it was clear that the sun was going to rise so far to the east that the side of the cone/cliff would block it from view.  I had make a rookie mistake, I hadn’t checked where the sun would actually rise at the time of the year I was going to visit. (FYI…I was there in November, so I would guess you would need to hit this spot in the summer months in order to have the sun shift enough to the right to place it behind the ‘teeth.’

Maui's Red Sand Beach: Photo Tips

Check out that red sand…and see if you can spot the crescent moon!

Just the same, I was stoked and it was an breathtaking scene.  Then, the cloud cover had pity on me and started to split up so I was able to get to work and capture a few different perspectives.  HDR was very helpful because everything in the cove was shaded by the cone wall between me and the sun.

After too short of a time, the morning color faded away and I started to head back to the car to meet my (very patient) wife who had understandably decided to stay put and enjoy a nice book while I was off on my silly little trek.

Believe it or not, I actually had more trouble making my way back in the sunlight than I had getting to the beach the dark.  Maybe I wasn’t concentrating as much, maybe I was over confident…I don’t know…but I damn near slipped where the trail was at it narrowest point on the side of the cliff.  Boy…that jump-started the old adrenaline again!  I was shaking my head at my stupidity when who did I see waiting just around the bend of the trail?  It was my wife…who was worried about me (god bless that woman)!  She had the good common sense not to go on a slippery, narrow trail hugging the side of a cliff…like she told me later:  at least she would be able to tell the recovery team where to look for my body.

20130901_Hawaii_0008-0014_HDR

Love those dragon’s teeth…quite the view.

If you decide to photograph this spot, I hope this blog inspires you to be very, very careful.  I would NOT try to make the walk the beach in the dark unless you had made the trip previously in the daylight.  Don’t make this hike alone.  I would also suggest that you try to reach the beach by walking along the shoreline (if it isn’t high tide and the surf isn’t too rough)….as I mentioned, the path further up the slope can get washed out and can be treacherous.

UPDATE: I just read a post by a paramedic who works in Hana.  He mentioned that in just the past year they have had six rescues of tourists who have hurt themselves on this trail…including one broken back.  Use good common sense.

How To Find Kaihalulu Beach:

  • See this link to a Google Maps view of the area.
  •  Park near the end of Uakea Road near the field by the Hana Community Center.  The trail will be on your right (south) at the edge of the grass parking lot.  Sometimes the trail is overgrown…so it might not be easily visible if it hasn’t been recently cleared.
  •  If you end up at the ruins of an old graveyard (the Japanese cemetery) , you’ve gone the wrong way.  Go back and look for a trail that heads down hill.  Again, I’d suggest you stay down near the ocean’s edge as long as you can rather than use the paths that are higher up.

 

A few suggestions:

  1. Plan to spend a night in Hana.  Nearly all the hotels on Maui are on the other side of the island and the famous ‘Road to Hana’ is not something you want to drive in the dark.
  2. There is only a single ‘traditional’ hotel in Hana, the Travaasa Hana…but it is not cheap.  However, if you look on Trip Advisor under ‘specialty housing’ you can find accomodations for less than half the price of the Travaasa.  In most cases, these are small bungalos rented out by local residents, so they are not the spic and span hotel rooms you might be used to…but you can save a bundle.
  3. There are two other great sunrise locations in Hana and they are so close together, you can easily cover at least one of them after getting your shotatKaihalulu:
    • Hana Beach Park is only a few minutes away from Kaihalulu
    20130901_Hawaii_0058-0068 crop skew_HDR

    Hana Beach Park…you can drive right up to this spot…

    •  Kōkī Beach Park is only about ten minutes away and you can get great shotsthatincorporateAlau island which is right off shore

      20130831_Hawaii_0743

      Alau island makes a wonderful focal point at this spot.

  4. After you get your morning shot, head down the road to Haleakala National Park.  There is fantastic photography available there.  The famous Ohe’o Gulch, the Pipiwai Trail that runs though the photogenic Bamboo Forest and the incredible falls at Waimoku .  The park can get crowded, but most of the tourists don’t show up until mid-day (because they have to drive from the other side of the island), so you will have the place to yourself most of the morning.

There you have it.  Hana is a ‘target-rich environment’ for any photographer.  Take my advice and spend at least a full day or two here, there is a wealth of photo ops nearby.

PS:  Yup, Kaihalulu really is a nude beach.  Funny, I didn’t see anyone there at dawn, but if you show up a bit later the scenery might be more exciting than you bargained for!

Aloha!
Jeff

Maui’s Kaihalulu Beach (Red Sand Beach):  Photo Tips and a Warning…

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Little Surprises: Little Wailua Falls…Maui’s Subtle Hidden Treasure

One of the lessons I’ve (painfully) learned over the years, is to be open to the unexpected and unplanned.  Honestly, it isn’t an easy lesson for me.  By nature, I’m a planner..perhaps excessively so (at least my wife THINKS so!).   My perspective has always been:  This might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip…what if there is a killer photo op two miles away but I don’t know about it!  So often I leave on a trip with a twenty page itinerary complete with maps, notes, GPS coordinates and more.

On the other hand, I honestly have to admit that much of my best work has been the result of an unplanned opportunity (or flat-out, total mistakes).  Like this shot below:

Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls...Maui's Subtle Hidden Treasure

To see this shot in full resolution, just click on it with your mouse.

I love this photograph.  Of the dozens or so huge, magnificent, incredible waterfalls I photographed on a recent trip to Hawaii, this quiet, secluded, almost miniature cascade is by far my favorite.

It happened like this:  My wife and I had stayed overnight in Hana so I could get some sunrise shots.  I had planned to photograph Wailua Falls (about 7 1/2 miles south of Hana) since it was right on our the way to the trailhead for a hike we were making later that morning to Waimoku Falls (another 400′ tropical wonder). When we got to Wailua Falls (here is a link to a map on Google Earth) it was obvious that over 99% of the photographs falls are taken from the bridge which runs right in front of it.   So I decided to hike down to the base of the falls and get a shot with a different perspective…but I made a mistake.  I knew from my pre-trip research that there was trail from the bridge to the falls but I didn’t know where it started.  I looked around and spotted one just past the bridge (west) on the ocean side (south) of the road.  After ten minutes of slipping and sliding down a wet and muddy slope, I had worked my way back to the bridge…which is where I found this delightful little pool.  As it turns out, I couldn’t get any closer to the big falls from this trail (apparently, the correct trail is on the other (north) side of the road).

Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls...Maui's Subtle Hidden Treasure

View from the other side of the pool

And here is where I got my second unplanned gift.  The best thing (to me) about this shot are the streaks caused by the the swirling leaves in the pool.  I had seen this before in work done by other photographers, but I hadn’t ever done it myself.  Honestly, I didn’t even notice at the time that the leaves were moving. But since the spot was very dark, I took a series of seven bracketed shots hoping that HDR would be able to capture what little light there was.  A couple weeks later when I processed the shot with HDR , I was shocked to see that the slowly moving leaves were now wonderful looping swirls of color.  In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that that seven shots, taken over a two or three minute timeframe, would transform the languidly moving leaves into mesmorizing streaks of color.

So there.  I didn’t know this little falls even existed and I had no idea that the HDR would result in the beautiful leaf swirls.  Despite that, the result was far better than my hundreds of well-planned shots of other, more impressive and well-known waterfalls.

The moral of the story?  Planning is vital and it will dramatically increase your chances of great captures, but don’t be a slave to your plans or ‘pre-visualized’ shots.  Keep one eye open for the unexpected…and see what happens!

Have a great Holiday and may all your surprises be happy ones!
Jeff

PS: Here is a shot of Waimoku Falls from later that same morning.  It is an incredible vista (yes, that little green dot at the base of the falls is my long-suffering wife Anita waving at me)!

Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls...Maui's Subtle Hidden Treasure

A human figure sure helps you get a sense of scale! Click on the photo to see it in FULL resolution!

 Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls…Maui’s Subtle Hidden Treasure

 

Also posted in Hawaii, Waterfalls Tagged , , , |

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

Beach sunrise & sunset photos aren’t exactly a rarity in Florida.  Heck, with 1,350 miles of coastline, I doubt if there is a Floridian that lives more than an hour from a beach.  But from a photographer’s perspective, what might originally seem like a golden bonanza tends to tarnish a bit when you come to realize that many of the beaches look pretty much the same.  Nice sand, dunes, sea oats….and that’s about it.  Great if you are out to get a tan and enjoy the ocean, but as a photographer, I’d prefer to have some waves smashing against boulders, mountains dropping off into the surf…something other than just sand, ocean and sky.  Don’t get me wrong, a simple beach sunrise shot can be beautiful, but when I’m scouting beach locations, I’m always looking for something more.

I found myself on Amelia Island last week and I found one of those beach locations with a bit more. What do you think?:

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

One of those sunrises that make you very happy you dragged yourself out of bed! Click on the photo to see a full resolution image.

I really think this is the best sunrise location on the Island.  Even better, this wood pier is easy to get to and very accessible. Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location It is located just a couple hundred feet south of Public Beach Access #31..which includes a small public parking lot (even better, the parking is free).  This is located right off of South Fletcher Ave. (A1A) at Hutchins Ave (look for the blue and white Beach Access sign marked #31…see photo to the right ).  You should be able to get here in 30 minutes or less from any point on Amelia Island. Click here for a google map with directions to this spot  Don’t confuse this pier with the large concrete one a bit north in Ft. Clinch State Park (the park doesn’t open until after sunrise).

The great thing about sunrise shots that incorporate a fishing pier is that you can just walk a few hundred yards down the beach and now get a shot sans pier:

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

I liked how the foam on the bottom right mirrored the clouds above…

Of  course, once the sun is up you can hang around the pier and play with long exposures that turn the surf into that silky look:

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

A few sunrise/sunset tips for my fellow photographers:

  • Be early!  Color is usually best before the actual sunrise…often 30 minutes or more before.  I learned this lesson the hard way last year in Charleston when I walked out of my hotel room twenty minutes before sunrise and looked up to behold one of the most glorious sunrises I’ve ever seen.  By the time I got to my pre-scouted sunrise location (despite running the ENTIRE *&$^@} way), the sunrise had faded to one that was nothing special.
  • Another frustration to be avoided is when you get to the beach just in time to capture the sunrise’s peak…and then notice that your lens has fogged over.  With humidity close to 100% during the summer, condensation on your lens is a common occurrence in Florida. You can avoid this by just driving to the  beach with your windows down and AC off…your camera/lens will acclimatize in ten minutes or less.
  • Bracket your shots.  The dynamic range of sunrises/sunsets is pretty, well, dynamic!  A range of exposures will ensure that you get at least one shot that you can work with.  It also gives you the option to use HDR.
  • Bring your tripod.  Some of your shots may take several seconds.
  • Wear watershoes.  You will likely need to get your feet wet.  Otherwise you will end up running back and forth like a sandpiper.
  • If you set you tripod up in the surf, be aware that receding waves will dig sand out from under your tripod…which can result in blurred shots.
  • Move around.  Some folks scout out a location, pick the best spot and never move.  I would have missed many of my best shots on this beach if I had set up my tripod and kept it there.
  • Bring your wide angle lens to allow you to get the whole scene.  A wide angle zoom is even better since you can change your perspective without actually moving.
  • If your camera has a Live View feature, use it to get your focus perfect.  Limited light can make it difficult for autofocus to work properly.

Once the sunrise burns itself out, there are a number of other photogenic locations on Amelia Island:

  1. Ft. Clinch
    • This is a state park at the northern end of the island that features a Civil War era brick fort.

      Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

      Ft. Clinch

  2. TheFernadina Beach Lighthouse.
    • Best views are from the Egans Creek Overlook within Ft. Clinch State park or parked alongside Atlantic Ave across from Atlantic Park
    • You usually can’t get close since it is located behind a locked fence and it is only open the first and third weekend of the month (website)

      Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

      Fernadina Lighthouse as seen from Ft. Clinch park across the Salt Marsh

  3. Fernadina Beach ‘Old Town’
    • Find Centre Street on your GPS and head there after sunrise.  Park your car and take a stroll…the street is quiet and deserted before 9am so you can walk the sidewalks by yourself and capture the antique buildings in soft morning light.
    • Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise LocationAmelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location
  4. Cumberland Island/St. Marys
    • My wife and I enjoyed the Amelia Island Boat Tour.  Cost is $28/each and for that you get a well-narrated 2 hour tour that leaves from the little harbor at the end of Centre Street in downtown Fernadina Beach.    You  have a good chance of seeing dolphins as well as wild horses on Cumberland Island (bring your longest lens).  You can get nice shots of Ft. Clinch as well distant views of nuclear subs at the base at Lake Mary’s.  See reviews of this tour on Trip Advisor by clicking this link.
    • Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise LocationAmelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise LocationAmelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location
  5. Sunsets are a bit more challenging to capture than sunrises.
    • This shot was taken from harbor at the end of Centre Street (next to Brett’s Waterway Café)Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location
    • If you are a guest at the Omni resort, you might want to try shooting the sunset from the boardwalk at Drummond Park (on Sea Marsh Road past the Golf Clubhouse).  The sunsets during my visit were lackluster, but I’d bet that a decent one would look pretty impressive over the salt marsh.  If you aren’t a guest at the Omni, I believe you could still get to the park if you have reservations for dinner at the lodge…if so, they will allow you access thru the guard gate.

I won’t be able to post again for a couple weeks, but I have a great excuse:  I’m leaving this Friday for a two week trip to Hawaii (I know, poor me!)  I’ve spent the last two months planning every sunrise and sunset shot…dozens of hours on the internet looking for tips, eons on Google Earth figuring out angles and shadows, forever on Trip Advisor trying to figure out the best tours…but I wouldn’t have it any other way!  I’m looking forward to sharing my photos with you when I get back.  In the meantime, have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

Doesn’t get much better than this…

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

One last shot….I was blessed with two consecutive killer sunrises!

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips and a great Sunrise Location

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Locations

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

Also posted in Southeast U.S.A. Tagged , , , |

Delicate Arch Photo Guide and Tips…an Icon that lives up to the Hype

If you are a landscape photographer, then you have seen images of Delicate Arch…probably hundreds of them.  After all, this incredibly graceful 65 foot tall sculpture of entrada sandstone is a photographic icon.  Majestic, colossal, dramatic, colorful…I mean, what more could any photographer ask for?  So earlier this year when I was planning a photo shoot at Delicate Arch, I was pretty surprised when I googled “Delicate Arch Photo Tips” and got only a handful of hits.   If you are like me, Delicate Arch is not a spot that you will get to visit often…so you don’t have time to learn things the ‘hard way’…you want to be prepared so that when you get there you are able to maximize your time.  This article is intended to help you do just that.

Delicate Arch Photo guide and tips

Summer Monsoons can result in wonderful sunset compositions…
(Click on photo to see full resolution version)

 

 The Basics:

Be Safe.

A lot of the folks that trek to Delicate Arch the first time clearly don’t have any idea what to expect.  This isn’t the typical National Park ‘scenic overview trail’ where you drive up, walk ten minutes on a paved trail, take a look and walk back.

  1. Listen to that voice in the back of your head.
    • This location isn’t inherently dangerous, but there are cliffs and drop-offs.  If you stick to the main trails, pay attention to where your feet are going (rather than looking out into the distance for your next shot) and listen to that little voice that asks you “Is this really a good idea?”…then you will be fine.  Just use common sense.
    • With that said, it is a truism that when any photographer worth their salt visits an iconic location, they want to get a unique shot.  Not the standard postcard view that has already been printed a million times (okay, we want to get the postcard shot too…but we really want to capture something NEW).
      •  So…if that sounds like you, please keep in mind that at least two photographers I know of have died at Delicate Arch.  Both of them slipped and fell.   One of them was climbing on the sheer cliff behind the Arch and the other guy was in the ‘bowl’ in front of it.  My guess it they both didn’t listen to that little voice and went a bit too far trying to get that unique shot.
  2. This really is a HIKE.  Yes, it is only 1.5 miles to the arch, but remember that you are at an altitude of 4,800’…if you are aflatlander like me, you will find the thinner air will sap some of your energy.  There is also a 500′ elevation gain.  The hike should take you about an hour depending on your pace.
    • There will likely be tons of folks on the trail…you certainly won’t be alone, so there shouldn’t be any chance of getting lost.
    • Dave and Ginger Rathbun have a detailed article about the hike that includes lots of photos, use this link to see more
    • Wear good hiking boots…you will appreciate the traction when you are trying to keep your balance on the slickrock that makes up much of the trail.
    • Summer temperatures in excess of 100F are common.  No shade.  There are no sources of water, except what you bring with you, so bring LOTS of water…at least a liter or two.  A couple bottles of Aquafina stuffed in your pockets isn’t going to cut it
    • A big hat with a wide brim, sunscreen and sunglasses will help
    • Bring rain-gear for you and your camera (unless the temperature is below freezing).   The last time I photographed the Arch the forecast had “ZERO” percent of rain…and yes, it rained anyway.   Raingear is lightweight and good insurance to have.  Also, there is no shelter out at the arch and slickrock is called slickrock for good reason.
    • If you are going for a sunset shot, bring a good headlamp. In fact, bring a spare or two.  If you leave right at sunset, you should have enough light to get back to the car lot.  But if you get enraptured with the sunset and say a bit longer than you planned (it’s happened to all of us) you really wouldn’t want to find yourself on that trail in the pitch black.
    • The arch is in an exposed area and the temperature drops pretty quickly after the sun sets.  In the summer, that is a wonderful thing.  However, if you are visiting at another time of the year you might get chilly or downright frozen after dusk…bring something warm in your backpack for that hike back.

How to find it

  1. Delicate Arch is located in Arches National Park (use this link to see their website) just north of Moab Utah.
    • If you are coming from Moab, take Main Street north out of town (main street becomes UT-191).   After you cross the bridge over the Colorado river, drive 1.8 miles and turn right into the entrance for Arches National Park (Nice big sign).
    • If you’re coming from I-70, take Exit 182 (Crescent Junction) and drive south on US 191S about 27 miles.   Turn left into the entrance for Arches National Park.
  2. After passing the fee station ($10 per vehicle per week) continue past the visitor center and then up the hill.  At 11.7 miles, take the road on your right which will have a sign for Delicate Arch and Wolfe Ranch.  After 1.2 miles you will reach the Delicate Arch/Wolfe Ranch parking area (here is a link on Google maps to this spot).  Park here and look for the trailhead on the edge of the parking lot.  The parking lot often fills up near sunset, if so, there is a bit more parking on the right side of the road just past the main parking lot.
    • It should take you about 30 minutes from downtown Moab to get to the Delicate Arch Parking lot.
  3. For those of you that like to do it yourself:  Here are the GPScoordinates
    • Trailhead of Delicate Arch Trail: 38.73563N / -109.52049W (38° 44’ 8.268” / -109° 31’ 13.7634”)
    • Delicate Arch is located at: 38.743501N / -109.499327W (38° 44’ 36.6036” / -109° 29’ 57.5766”)

 When to go

  1. Season
    • Summer
      • Hot and the crowds can be frustrating
      • On the other hand, the summer monsoon season often results in some incredible cloud formations and aerial pyrotechnics.
    • Winter
      • The most impressive shots I’ve seen of the Arch have been winter shots with a layer of snow. The contrast of blue sky, red sandstone and white snow can be incredible. Check out this shot by Gleb Tarassenko.
    • Fall & Spring
      • Fewer tourists, not as hot, but often not as many clouds as summertime.
  2. Time of Day
    • Sunrise and sunset are wonderful times to be at the Arch, but of the two, sunsets would be my first choice.  The setting sun reflecting off of the Arch’s sandstone makes it nearly glow and its colors become fully saturated.
    • Mid-Day
      • During the summer, mid-day isn’t fit for mad dogs or Englishmen.  Insanely hot and unless you have a storm with photogenic clouds, it’s just not worth your while…go hit something else in the park instead!
    • Night
      • I had planned to photograph the Milky Way rising thru the Arch my last trip there.  Unfortunately the summer monsoons resulted in cloud cover every night so I added that shot to my future ‘bucket list.”
      • Other photographers have done outstanding work of the Arch at night.  Take a look at this link to see night images by Brad Goldpaint.  His work is breathtaking and it gives you a goal to shoot for next time you visit here.
      • The walk back in the dark could be treacherous, so I wouldn’t try it unless you’ve made the hike a couple times, you don’t try to do it alone and you have good headlamps.

What to Expect/What to Shoot when you get there

  1. First of all, don’t expect to be alone..unless you are there during a blizzard or at night.  More than likely there will be plenty of tourists there and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM WILL GO AND STAND DIRECTLY BELOW THE ARCH TO HAVE THEIR PHOTO TAKEN.  But in the interest of full disclosure, I did the same..and then I took photos of my son under the arch as well.   Just expect it and be prepared to use some “Content Aware Fill” in photoshop to clone them outta there.  After the sunset, most of the tourists will bolt for the parking lot, so you can often get some nice people-free shots then.  Keep in mind though, that a human silhouette can really help to give the arch a sense of scale.
  2. Be prepared to feel like a foreigner because Americans are often a minority of the folks you will meet there!  Seriously, it can be like being at a mini UN.  I challenge you to ask everyone there where they are from…you will likely be shocked about the number of nationalities that are represented.
  3. There is a photo op that you shouldn’t miss about 50 yards before the end of the trail.  This is Frame Arch…named because you can use this arch to ‘frame’ a shot of Delicate Arch.  It is located up and to your right as you approach Delicate Arch.  Just don’t do what I did… I was so excited when I finally got to Delicate Arch that I totally forgot about Frame Arch.  Here is a link  to an impressive photo by Tom Horton showing you the shot I missed.
  4. The classic shot of the Arch is from the edge of the ‘bowl.’  This is where you first see the arch as the trail comes out from behind a wall of sandstone.  This perspective will allow you to frame the distant La Sal Mountains thru the Arch.  Use this link to see this spot on Google maps (look for theplacemark labeled “Perspective A”).  The last time I was there, a storm bank positioned itself behind the Arch…it made for a dramatic shot, but the mountains were hidden:
    A shot from the 'classic' perspective.

    A shot from the ‘classic’ perspective.

    • This link will take you to a nice shot by Dan Hartford of this same view showing the La Sals thru the Arch.
  5. If you move further to the left (east) along the rim of the ‘punchbowl’ in front of the arch (careful of your footing), the perspective changes.  I was lucky that a break in the clouds opened up right at sunset and illuminated the distant mountains to the right of the Arch in this image.  The maroon color was just incredible.
  6. If you move even futher to the left (where the tourists line up in a cue to have their photos taken under the arch), the perspective changes again.  This link will show this location on Google maps (look for theplacemark labeled “Perspective B”).  Iwas blessed with an incredible sunset here back in July, and from this spot with a verywide angle lens, I was able to capture the full extent of the scene.  See below.

    16mm glass was able to catch the full sunset panorama

    16mm glass was able to catch the full sunset panorama…including the incredible ‘punchbowl’ in front of the Arch.

  7. Panoramas beg to be taken here.  Go ahead and take a number of overlapping shots which will allow you to create a high resolution, wide panorama in Photoshop when you get home.
  8. HDR really helps for sunrises/sunsets.  Otherwise, the dynamic range will likely be more than your sensor can handle .  All of my shots on this blog were HDRs.
  9. Tripod…of course.
  10. Bring your widest lens.  This is an incredibly expansive vista and wide glass will help you capture all of it.
  11. Have a zoom with you as well, it will allow you to shoot the La Sal mountains thru the arch as well as arch close-ups.  Here is a detail shot of Windows Arch  by my Swiss friend Carlos Wunderlin.  Most photographers (including myself) would never think of framing only part of an Arch because we are enraptured by the grand panorama and want to get it all in the shot.
  12. A polarizer will likely come in handy.  Of course, if you are photographing in the Southwest, you always have one of those with you…right?!
  13. When you get to the arch, use your Photographer’s Ephemeris app  on your cellphone to see exactly where the sun will set (This app only costs $8.99 and you will be surprised how often you will use it).
  14. If you going to shoot at night, then the Star Walk app ($2.99) will be invaluable in allowing you to ‘see’ where the Milky Way will be.  The cool thing about this app is that you can key in future dates so you can ‘see’  what the sky will look like at a particular date, time and place in the future.

So there you have it.  Certainly not an exhaustive study of everything you can do at Delicate Arch, but enough to ensure that you are well prepared for your first trip!  I’d love to hear your own insights and suggestions about this wonderful place…just pop me a comment and I’ll update this article with additional info.

Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

 

Delicate Arch Photo Guide and Tips

 

Also posted in Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , , |

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and Tips

Ask anyone who has visited Horseshoe Bend to describe it and I bet that I can predict the reaction:  They will hesitate, then a sly smile will creep across their face…they will slowly shake their head and say:  “Oh yeah…Horseshoe…Wow… you have to see it yourself.”

Horseshoe is one of those places that truly are more emotionally impactful in person than you could ever think possible if you have only seen it in photos.  Try to imagine this…you walk about 30 minutes over a featureless desert landscape…there really isn’t much to see…some mountains out in the distance…lots of sand and slickrock…maybe a Jack Rabbit or two bouncing between brown and thirsty plants.  Then, suddenly, the path ends.  Actually, it doesn’t end, it simply disappears as it abruptly ends at a sheer 1000′ drop.  No handrail, no signs, just this:

Horseshoe Bend Sunset: One of those "OMG" moments. Click on this photo to see a full resolution image.

Horseshoe Bend Sunset: One of those “OMG” moments. Click on this photo to see a full resolution image.

Look at the bottom of this photo…that is a straight drop down to the river…nothing to stop you other than a couple sandstone outcroppings that might slow you down a bit as you bounce off of them:)

Photographer at Horseshoe Bend Arizona. Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

Check out the front leg of the tripod…next step: 1,000 feet straight down!

This vista WILL get your heart kicked into overdrive.  In fact, I’ve seen some folks actually crawl up to the edge on their bellies to take photos because they didn’t trust their legs. But in all fairness, I won’t deny that I had second thoughts as I set up my tripod on the edge. If you are ever near Page Arizona, then this is a stop that you really have to make…it is a visual and emotional powerhouse!  Interested?  if so, then read further for my Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips.

The Basics:

  1. Horseshoe Bend is a loop of the Colorado River 5 miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell (just south of the Utah line).  It has its own parking area on the west side of US 89 about 4 miles south of Page, Arizona.  The GPS coordinates are: 36.876246,-111.502788.  This link will show you the parking lot location on Google maps.
  2. There is a (small) sign for Horseshoe Bend, but it is easy to miss.  However, if you keep looking to the west you will see the parking lot…there isn’t a whole lot else out there.
  3. The path to Horseshoe is very easy to follow.  It is about 3/4 of a mile but much of it is over loose sand, so the going is slow.  It is mostly downhill (something to remember for the walk back).  It should take you about 30 minutes depending on your pace.
  4. There is no shade, no water, no bathrooms.  If you are there in the middle of the day during summer, you will need to bring plenty of water.  A hat and sunscreen would be good to have with you too.
  5. It can be pretty windy…bring your sunglasses
  6. Be prepared to meet folks from all over the world!  I had two guys from France on my right a German to my left and a photographer from Mumbai India spent twenty minutes asking about my camera.  You will be surprised how friendly and talkative folks can be when they have this scene before them.

    "Sunset Self-Portrait"

    “Sunset Self-Portrait”

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Most photographers are going to visit Page because of Antelope Canyon.  The nice thing about Horseshoe is that you can photograph it before or after your day at Antelope.
  2. How much time should you schedule?  Well, if you jumped in your car in Page, drove to the parking lot, hiked to the site, snapped off a dozen shots and hoofed it back to your car, you would be back in Page in less than a total of 2 hours.  If that is all the time you have, then fine.   However, if your schedule isn’t too tight or if you are blessed with a killer sunset, you can easily spend twice that amount of time.
  3. Bring a steady Tripod.
  4. Where to set up:
    1. Once you get to the edge, most photographers just set up their tripods and go to town.  I’d bet that 99.8% of all Horseshoe photos have been taken with 100′ of each other.
    2. Do yourself a favor and show up a bit early and scout around a bit to the left and right.  You just might find a nice bush or a landscape feature that will make your shot stand out from the crowd.  The photo above, with the nice “V” in the rim that focuses your attention on the butte is probably no more than 300′ to the right of the end of the trail.
  5. Lenses:
    1. A 14-16mm lens on a full frame camera will let you capture the whole panorama in a single frame (you will need a 10mm lens on a APS-C, cropped sensor camera).
    2. If you have a fisheye lens, you can have fun with it at this location.  My 15mm fisheye came in handy here.
  6. If you don’t have a wide lens (or if you want a super-high resolution image), you can stitch together a panorama in Photoshop.
  7. Time of Day:
    1. To get an idea about how the light at Horseshoe changes over a day, check out this link.  It shows a wonderful series of photos by Brian Klimowski from pre-dawn to late evening.
    2. My personal favorite time of the day here is sunset.  One hint: most of the scene won’t be in direct light, you will need to use HDR or a strong ND filter to tame the dynamic range.
    3. If you can’t schedule this for a sunset shot, morning can be good as well…
    4. Mid-Day will light up the full scene.  For example here is an afternoon shot I got a few years back:

      Horseshoe Bend Arizona. Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

      Mid-Day perspective

  8. Time of year:
    1. The drama of this scene is undiminished no matter what season you get to see it, however, summer during the rainy (monsoon) season can provide dramatic clouds (see the first shot above…taken in July).  I’d bet this would be an incredible to see covered in snow, but I haven’t been able to capture that shot yet
  9.  HDR tip.  If you are shooting at sunset, you will need at least a full 7 stops of exposure to capture the full dynamic range.
  10. A polarizer will come in handy except at sunrise or sunset.
  11. Be careful of your focus.  With a wide angle or fisheye lens, the lip of the cliff right in front of your tripod will be in your frame, so you will want to either crop that out of your final shot or set your focus accordingly.

There is a whole lot more to photograph in the area (Antelope Canyon, Bryce, Zion, the Wave, etc.)  If you have more than a couple hours to spend in Page, then you might want to check out this blog which gives you pointers on how to best schedule your day to maximize the photographic potential!.

You will enjoy (and certainly always remember) your time at Horseshoe bend. Have fun!

Jeff

PS:  When my son was taking this shot of the photographers lined up on the cliff’s edge he thought:  “You know…one good gust of wind and these guys will be the lead story on the TV news tonight”

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

One little push…

 

 Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

 

Also posted in Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , , |

Sedona’s Towers of the Virgin: A Surprising Sedona Sunrise Photo Location!

I spent three days shooting in Sedona, Arizona last week and I have some great images and tips that I will be sharing over the next weeks about the area’s iconic locations (Cathedral Rock, Devil’s Arch, Bell Rock, etc.)  However, first I’d like to let you know about a Sedona sunrise photo location that I’ve never seen discussed before…and it surprises me because I think it bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous Towers of the Virgin at Zion National Park.  I’m going to call it Sedona’s Towers of the Virgin, but I just made the name up this afternoon, so don’t ask anyone in Sedona about it…they will just look at you like you were another crazy tourist.

A 'mini' Towers of the Virgin?

A ‘mini’ Towers of the Virgin?

Okay, now it certainly isn’t as large as the real thing, but it’s a wonderful vista just the same.  And, unlike the shot at Zion, I wasn’t in a field filled with other photographers taking the same shot!  For the sake of comparison, here is an image of the “Virgins” at Zion:

The 'real' Towers of the Virgin at Zion

The ‘real’ Towers of the Virgin at Zion

Like the location at Zion, the Sedona ridgeline is lit by the rising sun as it clears the horizon and the red rock just glows as it warms up.  Wonderful spot to spend a morning.

If you would like to visit this location, here are the directions and photo tips:

  1. From the “Y” in ‘downtown Sedona (this the roundabout intersection where 89A and 179 meet), just head south 4.9 miles on Highway 179.  Here is a map on Google Maps.   GPS Coordinates for the trailhead are 34.807336,-111.769574
  2. There will be a ‘scenic overlook’ sign on the right (west).  This is the only scenic overlook on the right…all the others are on the left, so you can’t miss it.  Park and pay $5 at the automated kiosk.  This location is called Yavapai Point (not to be confused with the location with the same name at the Grand Canyon:)
  3. The trail is well marked.  Follow the one called Yavapai Vista Trail.
  4. The trail will twist and turn and will have a slight elevation gain.  In about .2 of a mile you will come to a large slick rock shelf from which you will see the ridgeline I photographed.
  5. The sun will start hitting the ridge about ten minutes after the “official” sunrise time.
  6. Take a tripod.
  7. You will need a 35-50mm lens on a full sized sensor camera…or a 57mm-75mm on a cropped’ sensor DSLR.
  8. The dynamic range of the sunrise is best captured via HDR.  If you don’t use HDR, bracket your shots and merge them in Photoshop so you avoid blown-out highlights and totally black shadows.
  9. There are great shots to be had here of Bell Rock as well, just look to the east:

    Photo of Sedona's Bell Rock at sunrise

    This location provides you with a perspective of Bell Rock that is different from the ‘standard’ shot.

If you are in Sedona, this is a great sunrise spot.  Personally, I like it better than the popular Airport mesa.  Hope you enjoy it!

Good luck and good shooting!
Jeff

PS:  Here is a final shot:

Red Rock in it's morning glory!

Red Rock in it’s morning glory!

Also posted in Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , , |

Mesa Arch: The Southwest’s best Photo Op?

First of all, let me apologize…I haven’t written a blog for a few weeks, but I have the best of excuses: I’ve been on a two week photo trip!  An absolutely incredible, 6,100 mile roadtrip with my son who just graduated from High School.  Frankly,  I’m still sore from hiking over 40 miles (often with a 35 lb backpack in 100+ degree temperatures!) but the pain is alleviated by the treasure trove of new photos that I will be editing over the next month or so.  The trip also provided a wealth of blog topics and I’ll start with a fun but controversial one… Mesa Arch: The southwest’s best photo op?

Why controversial?  Well, the American Southwest may well have the world’s greatest concentration of landscape photography icons, so picking one out as the best would be challenging.  But I’ll tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time in the southwest over the past few years and I think I could make a good case that Mesa Arch is the best of the best.

Why do I think Mesa Arch is the best photo Op in the American Southwest?:

  1. Well, photographs like this one are a good first argument.
    Be set up and ready to capture the sun when it peeks over the horizon.

    Be set up and ready to capture the sun when it peeks over the horizon.

    I mean, just look at it!  This arch stretches over the precipice of a cliff gazing out over a breathtaking vista.  But of course, Mesa Arch’s true claim to fame is the way the rising sun illuminates the bottom of the arch with an intensity that makes every photograph look like you went nuts with Photoshop’s saturation slider!  Seriously, when I first opened up the raw files from my shoot at the arch, I had to do a double check to see if I had already worked on the shots…the orange was really that insanely saturated!

  2. A second argument is that Mesa Arch has a lot of varied looks.  By that I mean that for a location that isn’t really all that large, you can harvest a wide range of shots just by changing lenses or moving 15 feet.   For example, this image was taken no more than a dozen feet to the right of the previous photo:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    Move around and get different perspectives..

  3. A third point is that Mesa Arch is relatively easy to get to. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d be the first to admit that a location that requires a ten mile hike makes me appreciate the resulting photos a bit more than one where I simply roll down the window and shoot it from the car. With that said, Mesa Arch was my last shoot of this trip, I was bone tired and sore in places I didn’t know I had, so I didn’t mind that it was only a 15 minute stroll from the parking area!
  4. My last point has nothing to do with the resulting photographs, but it has everything to do with photography.    By that I mean that I had a ball photographing Mesa Arch because of the other photographers that were there.  There were folks from Switzerland, France, Germany, Boston, Michigan and Florida (yours truly).  Now, it really isn’t all that unusual to see photographers from Europe in the southwest…sometimes I think they outnumber the Americans:)  What was wonderful was the sense of camaraderie, civility and pure friendliness that this group of strangers shared for the couple hours we enjoyed the spectacle that is a Mesa Arch sunrise.  Folks were sharing ideas, shifting positions to let others get a shot from the ‘prized’ tripod locations and actually talking with each other, which I can tell you isn’t always the case when 20 intense landscape photographers are trying to get the same shot at the same location!  Perhaps it was the fact that we had all traveled far and were so excited to have the chance to photograph this breathtaking location that we were near giddy..even those all of us had gotten up at about 3:30 am to be there!

For my fellow-photographers:  Mesa Arch Photo Tips:

  • Stay in Moab.  This quaint and funky little town is about an hour from Mesa Arch.  It is the perfect base for Canyonlands National Park (where Mesa Arch is located).  It ALSO less than ten minutes from Arches National Park as well.  A quick look a the map and you will see that Moab is truly in the center of a incredibly ‘target rich’ environment for the landscape photographer.  There are a number of hotels and plenty of interesting places to eat.  If you are traveling with a companion, they will find plenty to do here.  Oh, and if you visit Moab you will be obligated to check out the gallery of one of landscape photography’s superstars: Tom Till.
  • You will need to leave your Moab hotel about two hours before sunrise.  Why?  Well, space under the arch is limited and  if you aren’t one of the first there, you probably won’t end up with an ideal spot for the sunrise.  It is about 38 miles from ‘downtown’ Moab.  Just take Main street North out of Moab (Main becomes Hwy 191 outside of the city) and turn left on UT-313.   UT-313 will become the ‘Island In the Sky Road’ and then ‘Grand View Point Road’. Once you pass the Canyonlands National Park entrance area (careful of the intense speed bumps) it is another 6.3 miles to the Mesa Arch parking area on the left (marked with a sign). Trailhead coordinates: 38.389084, -109.868143
  • The road is in good condition but it doesn’t have lighting and is a “free range” area.  If you aren’t from the west, then you need to know that ‘free range’ means that the roads aren’t fenced and cows can and do wander on the road.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being surprised by the sight of a black bull standing in the middle of a dark road on a moonless light while traveling at 70 miles an hour, then you know why you shouldn’t be driving anywhere close to the speed limit!  Take it easy and hold your speed down…the drive is beautiful, even at night.
  • If you took my advice, then you will be at the parking area about an hour before sunup…and you still might not be the first one there!  Mesa Arch isn’t a secret, I’ve seen twenty photographers here at sunrise shooting side by side with overlapped tripods.  If possible, come on a weekday and/or out-of-season to avoid the crowds.  Shots after a snowfall can be magical with the wonderful contrast between the red rock, blue sky and white snowflakes.
  • There is a well marked trail to the arch from the parking lot…there are a few areas that cross over sections of slickrock where the trail is a bit more difficult to see but there are a number of cairns (piles of stones) that will show you the way.   You will need a headlamp.  The hike is about 15 minutes…the trail is a .5 mile loop.
  • When you get to the arch, use your Photographer’s Ephemeris app on your cellphone to see exactly where the sun will rise within the arch (If you don’t have this app, buy it.  It only costs $8.99 and you will be surprised how often you will use it).  Basically, the sun will rise on the left side of the arch in summer…right side during winter.  Personally, I like the look of the sun off-center, so I position my tripod accordingly when I first get to the arch.
  • While the sky is beginning to brighten, use your Live View to get your focus perfect.
  • Before the sunrise, take your time to figure out the different apertures you will need for each lens you plan to use.  At the very least, you should be prepared to use two apertures.
    1. Be prepared to shoot at your smallest aperture when the sun first breaks to get a nice ‘sunburst’ effect
    2. Then open your aperture up to a hyper-focal point that also allows your Depth of Field (DOF) to be sharp from the foreground to the horizon.  If your memory isn’t as good as it once was (like me), there are easy apps for your smartphone that will help determine your DOF and hyper-focal point.  The one I use, Simple DOF, costs only $2 and is easy to use.
    3. You should also know the aperture at which your lens produces its sharpest images…this is critical if you are going to blow-up your shots to a large size.  When I first buy a lens, I look on-line for test results to determine its sharpest aperture.  I then write this aperture # on a small label and stick it on the barrel of the lens.  Maybe not a sophisticated method, but it helps when I’m excited at a photo shoot and can’t remember silly little details like this:)
  • Bring your tripod…this is a location made for HDR.  The dynamic range needed for these shots is incredible.  I started shooting with a 5 stop bracket (-2 stop to +2 stop) but found that wasn’t enough.  Even a 7 stop bracket range was barely sufficient.  I’d suggest a full 10 stop bracket…it is better to have a few extra frames than to find that the sun ‘blew-out’ your highlights!
  • You will need a minimum of a 16mm lens on a full frame camera (or a 10mm on DX sensor camera) to get all the arch in the shot.  Frankly, a 12mm would be perfect.
  • I did try some panoramas by using a sharp 20mm prime and stitching them together…but it is REALLY hard to keep the full dynamic range without using HDR.  Perhaps my next time I will try to do a HDR Panorama, by then there will likely be software than can make this a reality.
  • This location also works well with a fisheye lens…I had a ball with my 15mm Sigma FE:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    Fisheye perspective (non-corrected). Click on the image to see full resolution image in Flickr.

  • Once the sun peeks over the horizon, get your shots of the starburst with your smallest aperture.
  • After you get that starburst, MOVE!  Don’t stay rooted to the same spot.  If you pick up your tripod, others will do the same and everyone can shift around and get some different perspectives.  As a matter of courtesy, it is considered bad manners here to take your camera off the tripod and leave the tripod set in a ‘prime’ location.  Please pick it up and let someone else have a shot.
  • You should have about 2o minutes or more to work after the sunrise.   At this point, change your aperture to it sharpest setting and continue shooting until the sun is just about to slide behind the bottom of the arch…then shift back to your smallest aperture to get that sunburst one last time.  The saturation of the light on the bottom of the arch is also at it’s peak at this point.
  • Since you are shooting nearly directly into the sun, your polarizer won’t be particularly helpful unless you are lucky to be blessed with reflective cloud cover.
  • Be careful of lens flares.
  • Also, don’t pack up once the sun slides behind the arch.  Get out your telephoto lens out and get some shots of the landscape thru the arch like this one:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    View thru the Arch

  • Talk to the other folks there.  This is an event!  For most of the photographers there, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Break the ice by just asking where everyone is from: the smiles will come out and the conversations will flow!
  • I found it fun to use a pocket point-and-shoot to take some shots of the other photographers…

    Mesa Arch Sunrise Photographers

    Photographing the Photographers

So is Mesa Arch the best of the best?  Well, at the very least it is in my Top FiveIt really should be on every photographer’s ‘bucket list’!

Next week I’ll share with you my trip to another southwest icon:  “House on Fire”

Till then, Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

 

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Where Eagles Dare: Eagles, Sunrises and Wildflowers at Lake Jesup 2012

I am a planner.  I won’t deny it.  Always been that way, always will.  Even so, it’s funny to me when a perfectly planned photo trip gets high-jacked by something I never anticipated.  It happened to me again this week.

I was out at Lake Jessup to see if the sunflowers were still peaking.  Although some areas were a bit past their best I was able to find whole fields that still look as good as ever. The fields were serene and peaceful…didn’t see another person the whole day.

What I did see though, were eagles.

Eagle at Lake Jesup Marl Burl Flats sunflower fields

“Silly photographer…why are you standing in the middle of that swamp with wet feet?”

I saw at least two pair of eagles and they visited me a number of times throughout the morning. This was be best frame of the morning and  I’m tickled-pink with it!  It’s not perfect, but it is as nice a shot of an eagle that I’ve ever gotten in Florida (Alaska is another story…eagles there were as common as pigeons).   I was working with my new D800E (more about my baby on a later post).  I had it set on the DX mode, which effectively made my 300mm lens a 450mm, which was more ‘reach’ than I’ve ever had before and it really made a difference.

What really makes me happy is though the wildflowers will be gone soon, I’m betting the eagles will be around awhile.  So I can go back again and again and practice improving my technique (and hopefully getting even better eagle portraits)!

lake jessup marl burl flats sunflowers

“Heh, heh….they won’t see me now!”

I know that eagles have incredible eyesight, so I thought I should try some camouflage. What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 Oh, yeah..almost forgot about the reason I drove out there in the first place…the wildflowers!  I’ll be making some big panoramas by stitching shots together (see my last post about Jessup) but the last image I’d like to share with you was the sunrise.  It was one of those mornings that make you appreciate the beauty of this rock we call earth.

Central Florida's best landscape photo location

Dawn breaks over the endless fields of wild sunflowers at Lake Jesup’s Marl Burl Flats

I’ve also published a how-to guide of everything you need to know about photographing this location, just click on the following link http://www.firefallphotography.com/sunflower-island-lake-jessup-wildflowers/

Good Luck and Good Shooting!
Jeff

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Sunflower Island (Lake Jesup Wildflowers): Photo Tips & Guide

For years I had been envious of the wildflower fields out west.  Although Ponce de Leon named my state “Florida” after being inspired by the flowers he saw here, I’d lived here for decades and had rarely even seen a wildflower.  That is, until the day I stood behind my camera taking in this scene…

Photo of wildflowers sunflowers at Lake Jesup Florida. Photo tips and guide for Lake Jesup Wildflowers

“Sunflower Island”  The oak hammock in the background looks almost like an island floating in a sea of sunflowers in this is a six frame panorama.

I was simply amazed.  It was absolutely incredible…beautiful yellow wildflowers as far as I could see.  What really rocked my world is that I had lived less than 15 miles away from this vista for nearly thirty years and had no idea it existed!  I probably still wouldn’t if not for Ed Rosack.  Ed is al local photographer who has a great blog called Central Florida Photo Ops http://edrosack.com/wordpress .  Ed, if I ever meet you, I owe you a beer!

Still photos are great, but sometimes a video tells the story even better, take a look at this 90 second ‘film’ that will allow you to see what I saw:

I’ve been back to this place every year since.  Rarely do I see another soul.  Usually a bald eagle or two will circle me probably wondering what the heck I am doing in the middle of nowhere.  It is blissfully quiet, which is amazing considering how frantic and busy Central Florida can be.  I think I would have a great time here even if I didn’t have my camera.

Okay, so are you interested in getting in on the fun here?

Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers

Spider’s web reflecting in dawn light at Lake Jesup

First of all, this incredible display only lasts for a couple of weeks from late September into early October.  As a general rule, the flowers peak around Oct. 1st but obviously every year is a bit different.

Second, keep in mind that this isn’t Disney.  You can’t just pull up, jump out of your car and snap some shots.  You will need to hike for about 20-30 minutes each way, you will get bit by mosquitoes and it will likely be hot and muddy.  Plus this is a wild area on the shores of a lake reputed to have the most dense alligator population in the state (421 per mile of shoreline is the stat I’ve read).  If that doesn’t scare you, then read on….

How do you find the spot?

  1.  First of all, once you are in the Orlando area, you want to get on SR 417 (AKA: The Greeneway Tollway/Expressway).  The flats are on the shore of Lake Jesup, which you can see from the 417.  Some folks actually take photos from the shoulder of the road…but that looks dangerous to me and  State Troopers take a dim view of parking on the side of an expressway.  Besides,  you can take MUCH better photographs from the location I reveal below
  2. Here is a link to a Google Map that you can print that will help you find the place.
  3. If you don’t like maps, here is a description:  Drive north on the 417 and exit (east) on E Lake Mary Blvd (the first exit north of Lake Jesup) and head east.  Then take a right (south) on South Sanford Ave.  Take a left (east) on Pine Way (this will be just before you drive under the 417 again). Take a right (south) on S.Mellonville Ave. This will dead-end into Oakway…turn left (east). Oakway is a narrow two lane road with no shoulders so be careful if a vehicle is coming the other way.

    IMG_0371

    The lot can handle only about 4 or 5 vehicles…

  4. Oakway dead-ends at a small parking area that is open during daylight hours (see photo above).  If the gate is closed, there is room for a couple of cars to park outside the gate on the shoulder of the road.
  5.  The trail starts at the gate (see below) located in the back south-eastern corner of the lot located next to the parking area. As you walk to the gate, you will likely see your first sunflowers in the fenced field to your right.

    IMG_0370

    Gate at the trailhead.

  6. Follow the trail on the other side of the gate (actually an old overgrown dirt road).
  7.  You will see trail markers with both red and yellow diamonds. red yellow diamond
  8. In less than five minutes, the trail will split.  Either trail will get you to the fields (see map below).Lake Jesup Sunflower Wildflower Trail Map
    1. Red Trail.   Personally, I think this trail leads to the best views so try this one first.  The trail (round trip) is less than a mile and should take you about 20 minutes each way.
      • At this first split in the trail, continue straight (don’t turn right).  The trail markers will now have both red and yellow diamonds.
      • After another five minutes the trail will split again…take the left trail.  The trail markers will now be marked with red diamonds and the path will lead thru a nice old oak hammock with wonderful spanish moss.
      • The trail will lead to the open flats about ten minutes later (you can’t miss it).
         I told you these sunflowers are TALL!

        I told you these sunflowers are TALL!

        • My best compositions have been taken when it is dry enough to walk right out into the fields.  This will allow you to photograph in any direction with flowers stretching out to infinity.
        • There are some areas in the flats that are a bit more elevated than others.  If you see a tree out there, you know it is on higher ground (although it still might be under water).  There aren’t real trails thru the actual sunflower fields but usually you can find some paths that horses, cattle and other photographers have made. Be aware that the sunflowers can be over 6′ tall.
        • If the water table is a bit high, the flats may be under an inch or two of water.  If that is the case, just stay on the drier ground under the oak trees and keep walking to the right (west) on the edge of the field until you find a good view.
        • If it has been a rainy September, the fields might be under a lot more than an inch or two of water.  If so, you won’t be able to see much at this location and you should try the Yellow Trail instead.
    2. Yellow Trail.  This area is at a slightly higher elevation and although the views might not be quite as impressive, it could be your best/only option if the water table is high.  This hike is a bit longer, but still shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to reach it.
      • At the first split in the trail described above, take the trail to the right (it will be marked with yellow diamonds). Yellow Diamond This trail will take you thru an oak hammock and will soon curve to the left (south).  Continue straight down on the trail (actually an old dirt road).As you continue, you will notice that the trail/road is actually elevated a bit over the land to either side.  Continue straight down the trail until you see the flats .
      • At the edge of the flats, the trail/road will take a sharp right.  As you stand here looking out to the flats you will see a long, perfectly straight row of palm trees leading off south-east into the flats.  Walk along that line of trees (no need to follow it to the end).  As you do so, you should see a nice field of sunflowers to your left (south-east).  This area is particularly nice in the afternoon with the sun to your back
Photo tips and guide. Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers

One of approximately 34 billion wild sunflowers at the peak of the bloom. Most folks around here call them Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) but another common name is Narrow Leaf Sunflowers

What should you bring with you?

  1. These fields are marshy…bring waterproof boots or your feet will get soaked.  If it has been a rainy September, it will be more than ‘marshy’, it will be underwater (it was so wet in 2014 and 2017 that you couldn’t reach the fields without a boat).  Although I’ve only seen a couple of snakes, I’d rather be wearing boots than watershoes if I happen to surprise a moccasin!  Cattle occasionally wander thru this area and folks obviously ride horses on these trails a lot.  The cows and horses do leave their ‘calling cards’, so step carefully.
  2. Some years the mosquitos can be intense, bring your industrial strength bug spray.  I use 100% DEET and sometimes that even isn’t enough.
  3. Temperatures in September can easily hit 90º and there isn’t much shade in the flats, so bring a hat, lots of water and use your sunscreen.
  4. Wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt and quick drying fabric (not cotton).  Many of the plants in the field are as tall as you are and they will scratch up any unprotected skin.  Plus, the plants are often covered in dew first thing in the morning…and you will get wet.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Bring a tall tripod.  Many of these flowers are over 6′ in height so it helps to elevate your camera over them.  Use a cable release/remote shutter.
  2. Use your smallest aperture (f/22 or higher) to get the maximum depth of field.  The tripod will help here since the exposure times might be long. Mornings are great since there is little wind.
  3. Bring  a  selection of lenses.
    • Obviously you want your wide-angle lens…the landscape begs for them.  The wider the better.
    • If you have a macro lens you can stay busy here all day.  In addition to the flowers there are insects of every kind and first thing in the morning, sometimes you will find dew covered spider webs that make wonderful compositions.
    • There are often eagles circling in the sky over you…a long zoom can help you come home with some nice portraits.  In addition to eagles, I’ve seen hawks, wood storks, and  a plethora of other species…if you happen to be a birder, you will be photographing a lot more than sunflowers.
  4. Sunrises and  sunsets can be magical.

    Lake Jesup Sunflowers Wildflowers

    Who says that there aren’t any landscape photography locations in Florida?

  5. Don’t forget your polarizer….it can make the blue skies absolutely breathtaking.
  6. Your best shots will be taken when the sun is shining directly on the fields.  Fortunately, in Central Florida we don’t have many overcast days.  Ideally, visit on a day with partially cloudy skies:  Nice big white clouds in a deep blue sky hanging over yellow field of flowers makes for wonderful images.
  7. If it is windy, you will need a quick shutter speed (1/250 or so) to ‘freeze’ the flowers in your image.

Other sunflower locations :

Lake Jesup Area:

Although I consider the Marl Bed Flats to be the primo location, there are 3 other flats with sunflowers surrounding Lake Jesup that you can explore.

    1. Caldwell Fields is very close to the Marl Bed Flats (basically just on the other side of the 417).  You can get there from a trailhead located in Lake Jesup Park (see map below).  This can be a wonderful spot since part of the trail is atop a berm…which allows you expansive views because of the height.  Unfortunately, the trail you take to the berm is at a very low elevation and I’ve rarely seen it dry enough to hike during the sunflower bloom.Lake Jesup Park Calwell's Field full res
    2. The North Cameron Tract is often dryer than the Marl Bed Flats but the flowers are not usually as profuse.  Check out this link to see a map.
    3. The East Lake Jesup Tract (also on this link) is on the southern side of the Lake and I’ve never had much luck there…but I honestly haven’t spent much time exploring it either.

Oviedo:

Another location in Central Florida that usually has sunflower displays is the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area near Oviedo.  The best spots are in the flats near the St. John’s River on Powerline Road.  This link will take you to a helpful map.

Ft. Myers/Naples:

For those of you in west and south Florida, I’ve seen photographs of fields of sunflowers at Pepper Ranch in the Ft. Myers/Naples area.  I haven’t visited myself, but if you live in that area you should check it out.  Here is a link with directions and details.

I consider the sunflowers at Lake Jesup to be the best landscape photography op/location in Central Florida and certainly one of Florida’s Top Five.  If you happen to be within driving distance during early October, you really should see this extravaganza yourself!

Jeff

 

PS:  I usually post updates with details about the bloom every year.  Check my blogs during late September and October to see what is happening this year.  Click here to see the latest 2017 update.

I’ve also published a couple other articles about the fields you might find interesting,  check here and here.

Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers

Sunflowers aren’t the only thing that might catch your eye!

 

 


 

 

 

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