Category Archives: Milky Way Photography

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer’s Perspective

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Can you say BFE?

New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands is one of those places that most folks have never heard of but landscape photographers  idolize as an ‘icon’.   So why is that? 

I guess we could start with the fact that the whole area was once the shore of an ancient sea which covered much of New Mexico 70 million years ago.  And…so what, how does that make Bisti cool?   Well, the answer lies in what happened after the dinosaurs (including the “Bisti Beast”) had their time in the sun   Erosion over the millennia on Bisti’s unique geology created vast areas of absolutely bizarre and delightful rock formations unique on earth.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Not of this earth…

So why isn’t it famous and packed with tourists?    Well, first of all Bisti is way off the beaten path…about an hour from the nearest hotel.   Plus, this isn’t a ‘pull up and whip out the iPhone’ kinda place.  Once you park you have to hike across a desert for at least 45 minutes.  Yes, I said desert…which gets  a bit toasty in the summer with temperatures soaring over 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius).  Oh…and did I mention that there isn’t a visitor’s center, or bathrooms, or water, or food, or shade or trails, even decent cell coverage for that matter?  

 

Maybe that’s why you’d have to be a crazy photographer to consider Bisti a “must see.”   But to be honest, even though landscape photographers say they love Bisti, you won’t find many that have actually been there.   I was certainly guilty…it had been on my ‘bucket list’ for ten years or more…but I had still only seen photographs of it. 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Cracked Eggs the Alien Egg Hatchery

The ‘Hatchery’…more about this spot later.

But last month all the planets aligned and I finally found myself hiking out into the Bisti Badlands in the cool fall weather.   So after a decade of anticipation, how did it measure up?  In this blog I’ll discuss my impressions and share photos so you can see for yourself.  If you are a photographer and plan to visit Bisti yourself, check out my free “Photographers’s Guide to Bisti” which is chock full of maps, tips and other info that will help make your trip as productive as possible. Down the road I’ll write a longer blog in more of a ‘how-to’ format with lots of photographer specific info.

First of all, Bisti really is in the middle of nowhere.  Some days I would hike from before sunrise to after sunset and see only one or two other souls the whole time.  Seriously, I saw more coyotes than people.   Other than the occasional footprint, there are few signs of mankind here.   If you are like me and enjoy some time alone, then you will appreciate the solitude.  It is deeply peaceful place.

Bisti isn’t Disney.  Once you leave the parking lot, there are no rangers, no boardwalks, no trails, no signs, no way to find your way unless you have a guide or can use GPS.  Maybe that’s why they call it the Bisti Wilderness.

Bisti is about as alien as anyplace on earth.  For example, would it really surprise you to see the image below in Luke Skywalker’s photo album from his boyhood home on Tatooine?

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Would it be difficult to believe that this image was created a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?  The ‘Conversing Hoodoos’ are tall, graceful formations with a commanding view of the surrounding valley.

The area is huge.  The Bisti Wilderness covers over 45,000 square acres.  Even though I hiked 10-20 miles per day, I covered only a small fraction of the area.  You could literally spend weeks exploring here and find something new every day. 

Bisti is full of surprises.  I had done a lot of research before my trip but even so, I was unprepared for the sheer number of hoodoos, arches, wings and formations of every possible, misshapen and contorted shape imaginable.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Hoodoos, Wings and Arches…oh my!

Known as the Vanilla Hoodoos, this is one of many football field sized areas full of hoodoos you will come across in the Badlands

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The ‘Bisti Arch’ is no more than two feet tall. But you can make it look larger by getting your tripod down to just a couple inches over the sand.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Every variety, every shape, every size…

 

 

 

 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of wings and hoodoos. 

I had heard that you could find shards of petrified wood at Bisti.  Well, heck with that…I found whole trees:

 

One of my neatest ‘finds’ was the hoodoo shown below: 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Look again…yup that is a  hunk of petrified wood on top….only in Bisti!

Yes, Bisti was alien during the day but it truly was magical at night.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The ‘Stone Wings’ are one of the best known locations in Bisti. These ‘star trails’ were created by combining 25 or so four minute exposures ‘. I used my backpack as a pillow while the camera automatically took a series of shots for over an hour. It was peaceful, quiet and, to be totally honest, just a tad spooky.

Other than the mournful howling of coyotes, the loudest sound you will hear is the beating of your own heart as you gaze up at the Milky Way.  The nearest towns are 30-50 miles away so light pollution is minimal and Bisti’s 6500 feet of elevation ensures that the stars are incredibly colorful, bright and crisp.  

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Stone Wings under the Milky Way

That’s Mars in the upper left. I was lucky to have a small cloud pass just under it when I was making this exposure.

The Bisti Badlands are beautiful but barren.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The “Beige Hoodoo’s”…literally hundreds of them.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Badlands…as far as the eye can see.   Nary a tree or critter in sight..

By that I mean that this isn’t a place conducive to life.  No grass, no trees. An occasional, desiccated scrawny bush and some insignificant lichens growing on rocks.  Perhaps a few birds and you might even flush a jackrabbit if you are lucky…but don’t expect to see much else green or moving. 

 

 

 

 

 

Bisti is the kind of place that really fires up your imagination.  You see the wild shapes sculpted millions of years of persistent erosion and then your brain struggles to make sense of what you are looking at. 

For example, my eyes saw this hoodoo:

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Stone WingsBut to my brain, it was a Klingon Battle Cruiser:

   

 

Then I noticed this one :

But my inner Jedi saw a Star Destroyer bearing down on me!

 

As I explored Bisti my mind kept drifting and I found myself daydreaming about Sci-Fi movies.   Apparently that doesn’t make me unique…after all, the most famous place in the Badlands was named after a scene in the classic Sigourney Weaver Alien movie…

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

This set from the movie ‘Aliens’ inspired some creative soul years ago when he/she named Bisti’s “Alien Egg Hatchery”…

The ‘eggs’ are a collection of rounded boulders, each about 3′ long or so.  From a distance they seem nondescript but as you get close they really do appear eerily organic.  The experts will tell you that they are are remnants of limestone tubes that eroded into egg shapes, but your imagination might come up with a more frightening explanation.  The Egg Hatchery can be wildly dramatic near dawn or dusk when highlighted by direct, low-angle sunlight.   At night, it just takes a little low level lighting (LLL) on the eggs to create stunning images. 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

An image like this only needs Ripley to jump out and start roasting these limestone eggs with a flamethrower…

 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The wonderful low angle sunset light really makes the whole scene pop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found Bisti to be one of the most entrancing, memorable and emotionally stirring locations I’ve visited.  It is easy to understand why Native American’s consider the area to be sacred.

Just the same, Bisti clearly isn’t for everyone, but if you want to see something totally different, don’t mind solitude and can put up with a bit of walking, it might just sing to you like it has to me.

Jeff

Reminder to you photographers out there:  If this place interests you, I also have written a comprehensive Bisti guide for photographers.  Just click here to check it out!

“Warp Speed Mr. Sulu”

 

 

Bisti Badlands Photography

Bisti Badlands:  A photographers perspective

 

Bisti Badlands Photography a photographer’s perspective

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Racetrack Playa is high on the bucket list for many landscape photographers…and with good reason.  Photos of the ‘sailing rocks’ with their long mysterious trails winding off behind them on the vast mud playa captures our imagination.  Your inner-child has to wonder how the heck those boulders move and the photographer in you recognizes the potential for dramatic photography.  Although Racetrack Playa is a photographic icon, I was surprised that there weren’t many ‘how-to’ photo tips available  on the internet.   So this article will address that shortcoming…consider it my effort at ‘paying it forward.’  So to help you make the best of your next visit, here is Racetrack Playa:  Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“The Long and Winding Road” (apologies to the Beatles)

Racetrack-damage[1]

Sad…very sad.

Before I begin, let me make a plea.  The Racetrack is fragile and easily damaged…its surface is nothing more than a thin crust of dried mud.  Fortunately a few simple precautions will allow you to avoid causing any harm:

  1. Don’t drive out onto the Playa with any vehicle (including bicycles). They are not allowed on the Playa because they can leave tracks which can remain for years.  There is no reason other than pure maliciousness to drive on the plaza.  Check out this blog to see the damage a jerk in a car can do.
  2. If the Playa is wet, do not enter it.  Not even on foot.  Your footprints will remain a permanent feature on the Playa until the next good rain…which could be years.  If it is wet during your visit, please be considerate to the visitors who will follow you over the years and don’t walk out onto the Playa.

 Racetrack Playa Description

Racetrack Playa is located in a remote high desert valley in California’s Death Valley National Park.  The Racetrack is a playa:  A huge dry flat lakebed surrounded by mountain ranges.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The surface of the Playa is a mosaic of sun-baked mud

It’s larger than you might think:  2.8 mi (4.5 km) long (north-south) by 1.3 mi (2.1 km) wide (east-west).

It’s real claim to fame of course are the ‘sailing stones’ (also called the ‘rollling stones’, ‘moving rocks’ or ‘sailing rocks.’)   The floor of the valley is littered with rocks and boulders (some of them weighing hundreds of pounds and the size of large television sets ).   The fascinating thing is that the rocks have long, winding trails behind them.  Clearly they move across the valley and how that happens has fired imaginations for generations. Theories included everything from aliens from nearby Area 51 playing hockey to stuff that was really ridiculous.  Recent research  has shown that the rocks actually move on thin sheets of ice that slide across the valley during a rare combination of weather events.  Personally, I like the alien theory better, but either way, you can’t stand on the Playa without a sense of wonder enveloping you.

Getting There

Death Valley is only a couple of hours by car from Las Vegas (or 4 hours from Los Angeles).  Getting to Death Valley isn’t a problem, but getting to the Racetrack is another story.

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0406-Pano

Ubehebe Crater. It is difficult to capture this facinating subject well…at least I haven’t been able to do so yet.

Racetrack sign

Sign at the beginning of Racetrack Road

Once you are in the park, head north on Scotty’s Castle Road to Grapevine junction where you turn west onto Ubehebe Crater Road.  Take it to the end where you will see Ubehebe Crater.   At the crater, you will find a sign for Racetrack Road.  That’s where the pavement ends and the real adventure begins.

You’ve heard the expression “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Well, they weren’t talking about the Racetrack.

Racetrack Road is 28 miles of broken rocks, huge potholes and the worst washboarding you will probably ever experience.  Racetrack Road is graded once per year but you might not even notice:  the road is still hideous.

Note:  There actually are a couple of other roads/trails to the Playa but they are much worse than Racetrack Road.   I’ve never had a reason to try them.

  • Vehicle Suggestions

    1. You will need a high/clearance vehicle.  I’m not saying a regular sedan/van can’t make it but understand that there is a good chance you will damage or destroy your undercarriage.  I’m not exaggerating.  On my last trip down Racetrack road, I saw three vehicles broken down in the first few miles.
      • There is no cell service.  If you break down you get to wait until another vehicle comes by and hope they stop.  It isn’t a well travelled road, so you could be waiting for hours.
      • If you are in a rental, nearly all their contracts forbid off-road driving.  If you got the rental insurance, you will find it doesn’t cover you either if you go off-road. You will pay for the repairs out of your pocket
      • Getting a tow-truck here is insanely expensive…like well over $1,000.  I know people who have had to spend twice that amount.
    2. A 4 wheel drive vehicle isn’t necessarily mandatory if you are careful (and lucky).  But unless you are very experienced at driving off road, it would be a good thing to have.
    3. Bring a full-size spare tire (or two).  This isn’t a gravel road.  It is sharp, broken rocks.  They slice open tires (especially sidewalls).  I’ve NEVER driven this road without seeing at least two people changing flat tires. Racetrack Road is notorious for damaging light-duty passenger car tires
    4.  Also bring a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lugwrench, and be sure all parts of your jack are on hand.

So, you don’t want to take a chance with your rental or personal car…and you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle and live close enough to actually drive to Death Valley…what can you do?  There are only two options:

  1.  Take a Tour.  There are a few companies who will take you out to the Racetrack.  I’ve never taken a tour, so I can’t review them.  However, the tours I’ve checked on usually only spend a couple of hours actually at the Playa…and  they take you there in the middle of the day when photography is far from ideal.
  2. Rent a jeep from Farabee’s.
    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    My Farabee’s Jeep Wrangler on the road to the Racetrack

    Farabee’s rents jeeps specifically for off-road use in Death Valley.  (see this link)  Their jeeps are well-maintained and modified with beefed up suspensions and heavy duty tires, plus they give you a GPS Spot unit (this sends a signal to a satellite in case of emergency).  They aren’t cheap.  A rental will cost you about $250 for a 2 passenger jeep and another $50 for a 4 seater.  Plus, the rental isn’t for a full day.  You pick up the jeep after 8 am and you have to return it that night…or you pay for a second day.   If you want to photograph the Playa at night or at sunrise, you need to plan on a two day rental.

Driving Tips

  1. Make sure your gas tank is full before you start your drive to the Racetrack.   Gas stations are few and far between.
  2. If the road is wet, or if rain is in the forecast (rare, but it happens), then don’t go.  Even 4WD vehicles can have problems if the roads are wet and unless you are an expert off-road driver, you will likely find it beyond your capabilities.

    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    A selfie with my son at Teakettle Junction

  3. Drive right down the center of the road.  Don’t try to ‘smooth out’ the ride by driving with one set of tires on the edge of the road and the other on the ‘hump’ in the middle of the road.  The sharpest rocks are found on the side of the road and you will greatly increase your chances of tearing out a sidewall.
  4. The road is narrow (not wide enough for two vehicles to pass in many locations) and there are a few blind corners.  However,  you can see dust clouds from approaching vehicles well in advance.  I’d suggest you slowly pull over and stop before approaching cars reach you and let them pass safely
  5. Keep you speed down.  I’ve seen folks take the road at 40+ mph…and although the ride seems to me to be smoother at higher speeds, your chances of hitting a pothole or nice big sharp rock is greatly increased.  It usually takes me about 2 hours to drive the 28 miles….yes, I know that is less than 15 mph….take your time, it is worth it.
  6. Stop at Tea Kettle Junction.  About 22 miles down Racetrack Road, you will run into a ‘road’ junction called TeaKettle Junction.  It is traditional to stop here for a photo (it’s a nice break anyway) and if you have one with you, tie a tea kettle to the sign. At this point you have about 6 miles to go.  Soon enough you will see the Playa.

When to Go

Time of Year

Not the summer.  Death Valley got it’s name for a good reason.  Summer temperatures hit 120 F/49C…in the shade.  Heck, Farabee’s closes for the months of June, July and August because no one is crazy enough to be out in that heat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Usually the sky doesn’t add much to your images at the Racetrack, but exceptions to that rule can be wonderful!

High °F Low °F High °C Low °C
67 40 January 19 4
73 46 February 23 8
82 55 March 28 13
91 62 April 33 17
101 73 May 38 23
110 81 June 43 27
117 88 July 47 31
115 86 August 46 30
107 76 September 41 24
93 62 October 34 16
77 48 November 25 9
65 38 December 18 4
91 63 Year 33 17

My favorite time of year to visit the Playa is February or March.  The only downside to spring is that it can get really windy.  If you want clouds in the sky to spice up your shots, then your best bet is to visit in winter or in April/Sept during the cusp season for summer monsoons.

Time of day

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0422

This shot was taken during the middle of the day. The lack of shadows makes it look flat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This shot was taken right after the morning sun cleared the mountains to the east. The low-angle light makes the image much more dramatic.

Although the novelty of the sailing stones makes the Playa photogenic anytime of the day, it really is at it’s best in the morning after the sun rises over the surrounding mountains or in late afternoon just before it dips below the horizon.  This is because sun is at a low angle during those times of the day and that dramatically increases the shadows in the mud mosaics Playa floor.  The shots to the left and right demonstrate that effect.

Also the color of the Playa is a non-descript, washed-out light tan.  However it can take on an attractive golden hue near sunrise/sunset.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Sun Racer”

Be aware that since the Playa is in a valley, the sun will set about a half hour before ‘official sunset’ time due to the mountains to the west.  By the same token, you won’t see the sunrise until 30+ minutes after the ‘official sunset’ as well.

You need to get to the Playa early enough to give yourself some time to scout around.  The Playa is pretty large and the sailing stones are somewhat dispersed, so you need to have time to locate some photogenic ones before the light is right.  I’d suggest planning at least two hours for scouting.

If you enjoy shooting at night, the Playa can reward you with incredible images of the Milky Way (see section below about shooting here at night).  The Playa is at an elevation of 3,700′ and is located well away from most light pollution,  Shots of the Playa lit up by moonlight are also amazing.

What to  Bring:

  1. There is no water, food, gas or phones (or cell service) on Racetrack Road or at the Playa.  In other words, you need to bring with you all the supplies you might need during your trip.  Especially the water…lots of it.
  2. There is a port-a-potty at the Playa’s campground a couple of miles south of the Playa (see map).  It may or may not have toilet paper.  Other than that, you are on your own.
  3. Obviously you are going to be in a lot of sun.  Don’t forget a hat, lightweight breathable clothing and sunscreen.
  4. It would be a good idea to bring some goggles (especially in the spring).  When the wind starts blowing, the sand can be hard on your eyes.
  5. Don’t forget a tea kettle so you can leave a memento at the Junction;)

If you are going stay over night at the Playa:

The campground I mentioned is about 15-20 minutes past the Playa and it has about a dozen sites which are first come first served.  They are nothing more than a small area cleared of stones, but they will do if you bring a tent.  If you happen to visit during the spring, be aware that the wind at night can be incredible.  During my last visit, the wind was so intense that my trusty MSR tent nearly collapsed and the noise and constant movement made sleep impossible.  Some folks just sleep in their vehicles at the parking lots by the Playa.

The Playa can get cold at night so bring some warm clothes if you are planning to shoot after sunset from November thru March.

Photo Gear:

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The Playa is big it takes some time to walk between the rocks. Spend some time scouting and have your ‘primo’ rocks picked out before the light is at it’s best.

  1. There is a lot of dust and grit at the playa.  Bring your lens cleaner and lots of microfiber cloths so you can keep your equipment clean.  Try to minimize lens changes.
  2. Bring your wide angle lenses.  I find that most of my shots here are taken between 16-35mm on a full frame camera (30-75mm on APS-C camera).  You probably won’t have much need for telephoto lenses at the Playa.
  3. Tripod.  A lot of your shots will involve getting real close to the rocks but trying to keep the background in focus as well so a tripod will come in handy…especially if you are shooting in low light near sunrise/sunset.
  4. A remote shutter release
  5. A polarizer will help make the blue skies really pop.  They will make a nice contrast for the pale-tan playa surface
  6. If you do any time-lapse photography, this is an incredible venue for it…bring your gear.

Okay, So you have your gear and made it to the Plaza, now what?

Racetrack Road enters the valley containing the Racetrack from the Northwest. Most of the sailing stones are located in the far southeastern corner of the Playa.  There really isn’t much of interest in the rest of the Playa except for the Grandstand.  The grandstand is a 73′ tall hunk of nearly black rock that rises out of the Playa’s flat surface.  If you have a lot of spare time on your visit, walk out and check it out.  Personally, I don’t find it particularly photogenic and would rather spend my time photographing the sailing stones.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Close-up of the Grandstand

 

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This is the view from the edge of Racetrack Road about halfway down the Playa.  You can see the Cottonwood mountain ridge on the far side and the Grandstand is visible just left of the center of the shot if you look closely.

Drive down Racetrack Road (it runs along the western edge of the Racetrack) to the last (most southern) parking area near the end of the Playa.  Park here.  The sailing stones are located directly across the Playa.   If you have a compass, set your heading at about 70 ° (this is northeast), grab your gear and get going.  As you walk east across the Playa, it will at first look empty but you will start seeing the rocks after you get about halfway across.  Distances can be deceiving here…remember, the Playa is more than a mile wide…it is going to take you a while to get across.  The good news is that the number of rocks increases the closer you get to the opposite side.  The map below will help you familiarize yourself with the area:Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Photo Techniques & Tips:

Scouting:

  • I know I already mentioned this, but you really need to scout around during the day and have some images preplanned so that you are prepared when the light gets good at the end of the day (or right after sunrise, if you spend the night at the Playa).  The best light doesn’t last long and it takes time to walk from one rock to another plus some of the rocks are just more photogenic than others.  Scouting ahead will allow you to take full advantage of your time on the Playa.

Perspectives:

  • Try setting up your tripod a few inches off the ground near a rock and use it anchor your image in one corner while showing the vast playa and distant mountains in the background.Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.
Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“From the Source”

However, one fascinating aspect of the Playa are the trails the rocks make, not just the rocks themselves.  They twist, cross each other and make all types of eye-appealing designs.  Don’t miss the chance to set your tripod to its full height and capture that perspective as well.

F/22 or Focus Stacking:

You will likely want to try to keep everything in focus throughout your image.  That can be difficult if you have a rock a foot from your lens but also have distant mountains in the background.

If you are comfortable with focus-stacking, it can be quite helpful at the Playa.

Otherwise, set your aperature to f/22, switch to Manual Focus and use your Live-View.  Adjust the focus point until you can get the image sharp from front to back.

Night photography:

The Playa at night is a nearly mystical place to be…as quiet as anyplace I’ve ever been.  The photo potential is incredible.

First of all, you need to know where the rocks are.  It can be surprisingly difficult to find the rocks on the Playa at night…even if you spent hours there the same afternoon.  Give yourself plenty of time to find them or mark their locations with a personal GPS device during the daylight.  A flashlight will obviously come in handy.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Midnight Run” This is a combination of two photos taken a couple of minutes apart. The rock in the foreground was illuminated for a couple of seconds with a small flashlight during a 400+ second exposure. The Milky Way shot was taken a few moments later…it is a 22 second exposure.

Personally, I like to do a bit of light painting on a rock, while taking a long exposure with a low ISO.  Then, I switch to a higher ISO (like 3500 or so) and take a 20-35 second exposure to capture the Milky Way.  After I get home, I merge the two shots together.  Click here for more details on how to take good Milky Way shots and the equipment you will need.

If anyone else is out photographing the Playa at night while you are, it might be a good idea to team up with them so you both aren’t ruining each others shots with your lightpainting.

Recap:

So, that should give you enough info to help you avoid the ‘rookie’ mistakes I made during my first trips to the Racetrack.  By the way, if you would like to read a blog with details about my last trip there, hit this link.  It isn’t a ‘how-to’ article but you might find it interesting and pick up a few more tidbits of info.

Take care and enjoy your trip to one of the coolest places on the planet.  Feel free to email questions and if you have suggestions for other tips, just let me know and I’ll revise this article.  Plus, if you want to share some of your Racetrack photos with me,  I never get tired of them!

Jeff

 

 

Also posted in California, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , , , , , |

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:

2016-sw-death-valley-03-04-0044-b-crop

Artist’s Palette

 

2016-sw-death-valley-03-05-0290-pano-bw-brop

Zabriski’s Point

 

2016-sw-death-valley-03-05-0386-skew

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 Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , |

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Last week I returned from an 8 day photo trip to the American Southwest with my son Ryan.  He was on Spring Break from college and wanted to get more experience with his new camera and try some of the area’s world-class hikes.  As for me, I never need an excuse to photograph the southwest and spending time with my son was just icing on the cake.

So now, after flying 4,000 miles, driving another 2,000 miles and hiking 40 miles…I’ve finally recovered enough to provide a quick trip report (with pictures of course)!

We flew into Vegas on a Saturday morning, got our rental jeep and were quickly on the road out of Sin City heading for Death Valley.

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

First Sunlight on Manly Beacon at Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point

I was excited since I’d never visited Death Valley.  Even better, I was finally going to see one of the locations on my “Photographic Bucket List“:  Racetrack Playa.  Years ago I first saw photos of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ and their long trails on the flat Playa.   I’ve been fascinated ever since and this was my chance to finally visit.  I’ll be writing a full blog on this location in the near future, but I can tell you it is as strange, eerie  and alien as it looks in all those pictures you’ve seen.

Racetrack Playa Milky Way

Not of this Earth? The Racetrack is one of those places that sends a deep shiver down your spine!

After a couple of days living off of granola bars, Ryan decided to treat his old man to a nice breakfast on the way out of the park.   There aren’t a lot of dining choices in Death Valley, but the Inn at Furnace Creek looked nice.  They were serving brunch and we were so hungry that he didn’t even ask the price.  The meal was excellent leaving him both contented and smiling.  But when they presented a bill for $70, they managed to wipe away that smile along with a large portion of his Spring Break budget;)

Our next stop was Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada about an hour northeast of Vegas.  We only had 90 minutes to devote to this park but could have easily spent days there.  I had two goals here:

1) Find the mysterious “Windstone Arch” made famous by photographer David Muensch, and

2) Hike out to the “Fire Wave” and catch a sunset.

Fire Cave Windstone Arch Valley of Fire Nevada

Windstone Arch is a petite little treasure. Measuring about 3′ tall it might be a home for hobbits or elves…

Many folks have trouble finding Windstone (also known as Fire Cave) Even though it is only 150′ from the road, it isn’t marked in any way and is hard to see unless you know what you are looking for.  Luckily I had GPS coördinates and walked right up to it.  I was doubly lucky because it clouded up and even started to rain.  Why was that good luck?  Well, Windstone is a morning shot…usually the direct sun in the afternoon ruins the shot.  Overcast skies meant no direct sun and the diffuse light filled the small alcove nicely!

 

 

It was still overcast so my sunset shot of Fire Wave wasn’t looking promising but we drove to the trailhead and started hiking anyway…at least we could scout it out for our next trip.  Then, nearly at the end of the trail, the sun squinted thru an opening at the horizon.  We nearly ran the last few yards and I fell over myself setting up my tripod.  This was the scene:

"Sun Worshiper"

“Sun Worshiper”

It was magnificent…dramatic and brief!  Two minutes later, the sun was gone but I was still on a photographic high.  In fact, my son laughed at my giddy mood, but I was too happy to care. After the sun fell below the horizon, I took a look behind me:  This place just wouldn’t stop…a double rainbow!

End to a memorable day!

End to a memorable day!

The next few days were spent at one of my favorites, Zion National Park. We packed in full days of hiking.  Those miles on the trail were a bit less tiring for my 20 year old son than for my less youthful body, but the images I captured were worth every last single footfall.

We hiked up Angel’s Landing our first day…this was the trail I had the most pre-trip concerns about.  Reviews of this hike cited it as one of the most dangerous in the country (six folks have fallen to their deaths on the hike) and critics warned that anyone who didn’t like heights would be sorry.

Angels Landing Summit

View up toward the head of the valley…

Zion's Angels Landing Summit

The view down the valley toward Springdale..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frankly, it wasn’t all that bad.   It WAS steep and I have no idea how many switchbacks were on that silly trail but the views at the end were breathtaking.

But then, just as we reached the summit, the weather Gods (who had smiled upon us the day before) turned downright nasty. The sun and blue skies vanished.  And then it actually started to snow. Ryan and I looked at each other thinking about how the way back down wouldn’t be all that fun or safe if the trail back got wet or iced-up.  We called it a day.

We checked off another “bucket list” location the next day:  the famous Subway.  Since it was so early in the year, we had no problem snagging two of the 20 daily permits allowed for this hike.

It was a long, rough hike.   Despite a ‘trail’ that looked like a Delta Force obstacle course,  we managed to have some fun on the way:

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

“Samson at the Temple or Stamer at the Subway?”

When we finally reached the Subway, it was everything we could have hoped for.  In fact, when I took my first shot and looked at the LCD on the back of the camera, it was one of those few moments when what I saw looked better than all of those perfectly photoshopped pictures I had admired for years on the internet:

Zion Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

The Iconic Subway: Living up to the hype.

And then, the long hike back…including a challenging ‘scramble’ that involved a 1500′ elevation gain right at the end.  I was a tired puppy and it was a long day…over 9 hours from the start of the hike until we got back to the jeep.  We ate like pigs that night…I figured I had burned off my share of calories!

Our final day in Zion we hiked up the Narrows.

Zion Virgin River Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

The Narrows

A big part of the attraction of this hike (even for photographers) is that you actually hike in the Virgin River.  However, since it was March and water temps were in the 30s, we actually had to rent full dry-suits to avoid turning into human Popsicles!  The good news was that the cold water kept most of the ‘fair-weather hikers’ in their nice warm beds so we had the river nearly to ourselves…which made it a totally different and far more peaceful experience than my previous summer visits.

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Ryan looks down Orderville Canyon as it flows into the Narrows

After the hike we drove up to Escalante (near the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.)  We scouted the ‘Hole in the Rock Road’ before dusk (and nearly plowed into a herd of mule deer).

Devil's Garden Escalante Milky Way

Ryan contemplates infinity…

We got up at 3:30 so we could reach Devil’s Garden by 4am when the  Milky Way would be high enough to photograph.  As you can see above, it didn’t disappoint.  Escalante is so isolated and far from big cities that the view of the heavens is simply incredible.   We shot for an hour and hit the road again.

Ryan noticed that Bryce Canyon was on our way, so less than 2 hours later we were there for sunrise.  I had been checking the webcams and knew that Bryce still had snow…I had long wanted to photograph the hoodoos with snow!

Bryce sunrise with snow

Bryce’s hoodoos are unique and expansive….nothing else like this view anywhere…

Two more hours in the Jeep and we decided to stop in Kanab to try our luck in the daily lottery for at a permit to visit ‘the Wave.’  Well, that was an experience!…Over 150 potential people packed in a little room hoping to be one of 10 hikers who would get permits.  We didn’t win, but ‘nothing ventured….”  We actually drove back the next day to try again but it wasn’t to be.  Afterwards, during a ‘consolation breakfast’ at McDonalds we chuckled about the lottery and decided that next year would be our year to photograph this Icon!

We hiked out to Wirepass Slot on the way back from Kanab and then toured Lower Antelope Canyon.  We finished the day at Horseshoe Bend near Page Arizona.  Five photo locations in 17 hours…we certainly packed everything we could into that day!

Lower Antelope Canyon sunbeam

I’d heard that Lower Antelope doesn’t get sunbeams…I was dead wrong.

Lower Antelope Canyon Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Sand Avalanche

The next morning we decided to try Horseshoe again…I really liked the soft morning light but my favorite shot was a self-portrait from the night before:

Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Wish I had this view from my back porch…

 

For some reason, I really wanted to see ‘Balanced Rock’  which was a bit out of our way (near Lee’s Ferry).  It is a cool hoodoo, but I can’t honestly say it is remarkably photogenic.  Something about it just appeals to me, maybe just my odd sense of humor:

2016 SW Balanced Rock 03 11 2385

Yup… a big rock

This was our last full day and we drove down to the Grand Canyon.  It would be Ryan’s first time seeing this wonder.

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 11 2515 Raven

This Raven joined us for lunch. It wasn’t shy and was the size of my dog Shadow. Truly an “Apex Scavenger”!

Unfortunately, the afternoon was overcast and the light was flat.  The canyon was still impressive of course, but as photographers, the dismal skies left us a bit disappointed.

Sunset was a bust so after it got dark we splurged on pizza (SO much better than Cliff Bars)!  When we came out of the restaurant, the skies had started to clear, so we headed back to the rim.  I shot until the clouds came back and completely hid the sky.

Grand Canyon by moonlight

Grand Canyon by moonlight

We headed back to the room and I set my alarm for 4 am just so I could check to see if the weather might break for sunrise.  Maybe we could get a few decent shots before we had to head to the airport for the flight home.

Four am came quickly.  I grabbed my beeping phone and my weather app told me it was still overcast, in fact, it was snowing!  So, it was our last day and the weather looked like crap.  The bed, on the other hand, looked wonderful to my sore, sleep-deprived body.  I figured that the chance of a decent sunrise was about nil…so, of course I got dressed and headed to Mather Point anyway.

Glad I did.  I found a spot, got set up and prepared to spend a cold morning shuffling my feet without taking a shot.  But then, somehow, right at daybreak the sun managed to poke thru a clear slot in the overcast skies. It revealed a wonderland of snow, red rock and hoar-frost covered trees.  Shutters started clicking and the tourists at the viewpoint gave up a cheer (I might have joined in)…

Sometimes you do win the lottery...

Sometimes you do win the lottery…

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3206

 

I could never have asked for a better morning to be at the Canyon…it was a photographer’s dream.

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3237

A photographer’s life doesn’t get much better than this…

To make the day even better, I crushed my son in a our first ever snowball fight (hey, we don’t get much snow in Florida!)2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3241 2

Killer trip.  Great photos.  Fun with my boy.2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3441

Does it get better than this?  If so, bring it on, I’m ready!
Jeff

 

Also posted in Photo Tips and Guides, Roadtrips, 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….

 

2015 PAC NW 08 11 2353

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

 

2015 PAC NW 08 09 1205cropwm24x36

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.

2015 Northwest 06 30 451 (1)

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…

2015-northwest-06-24-656-blendskewsky

 

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!

 

2015 Northwest 06 20 904

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, Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Underwater Photography, Waterfalls, Wildlife

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver’s Paradise

When I first began my career in photography, I was drawn to the icons…Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches (you know the list).  The internet and libraries are filled with info about “Photographing the Southwest,”  “How to photograph the Grand Canyon” and “Fifty Places to Photograph Before you Die.”  These icons are famous for a reason…great photographs can be taken there and as an aspiring photographer it only made sense to  ‘fish where the fish are.’

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Bonaire Bound

But there is a downside too…and that is that it is unlikely that your shots are really going to stand out.  Yes, they still might be impressive, beautiful and inspiring….but honestly, it is pretty difficult to take a unique photograph of Half Dome from Yosemite’s Tunnel View when 43 trillion other photos have been taken from the same spot.

One solution is find a new way to photograph an old icon: a different angle, a creative perspective, something…anything new and different!  You will find this piece of advice in nearly every photography article ever written.  It’s good advice, and I certainly strive to dream up new ways capture these legendary vistas.

But there is another way to take a unique photo.  Find a place that isn’t already well known to every photographer on the planet.

I can’t honestly say that this is the reason my wife and I spent a week on the island of Bonaire earlier this fall.   To be honest, we were there because we are divers and Bonaire is well known as a “Diver’s Paradise.”  I hoped there might be something else to photograph, so I searched the internet.  But even Google failed to give me much except lots and lots of underwater shots.  But I’m an optimist, so I packed my cameras, tripods, lenses and another 80 pounds of photo gear…just in case.

I’m glad I did!

It turns out that there is a lot more to photograph in Bonaire than just fish.  A lot more…

First a bit about the island.  Bonaire lies about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is the least well-known of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao).   Cruise ships don’t visit often and with less than 17,000 natives it is quiet and uncrowded.   It’s a Dutch island and people are friendly but respectful (you don’t get mobbed by people yelling “hey pretty lady, buy my t-shirts!”  Surprisingly, the island is very dry…looking more like the desert Southwest than the typical lush tropical rainforest you might expect.

First of all, there is some fascinating wildlife to keep your camera busy.  Yes, they have iguanas (which I simply love….running around like half-baked dinosaurs)!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Iguana Rex

And then there were the birds…wow!  Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Barika-Hel

For me, a highlight had to be the Flamingos.  Bonaire is host to the one of the few places in the world that has breeding grounds of the Caribbean Flamingo.  Heck, I’d never seen a flamingo except in a zoo….and in Bonaire I saw thousands.  They don’t like noise or movement, so you need a long telephoto and some stalking skills, but where else can you get shots like this?Barika-Hel

As you know, I adore hummingbirds, so I was delighted to see hummers swarming the flowering bushes and trees around our resort even before we got to our room!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Ruby Topaz (Chrysolampis mosquitus)

The Ruby-Topaz hummingbird and the well named Emerald hummingbird  are both gorgeous and much different from the Ruby-Throated hummers we have back at home in Florida.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)

For the entire week, after our morning dives, you would often find me with my 70-200mm staked out by the flowers near our room.  Other tourists would be walking to their rooms, spot me, take a wary look at the guy creeping around with a camera… but then they would see the hummers and their faces would light up and they would start whispering and pointing.

Oh yeah, they had parrots too! (at least I thought they were parrots).  Right outside our room..often roosting in the same trees as the hummers were what the locals called ‘Loras.’   They looked like a huge parakeets on steroids, which it kinda turns out they are.  Meet the Caribbean Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) .  They certainly had no fear of people and posed patiently while I burned thru some memory cards.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

The Schwarzenegger of Parakeets!

There aren’t many big critters on the island.

Spotted Trunkfish

Meet Larry, Curley and Moe

The most interesting are the donkeys. Apparently the early Dutch imported a lot of donkeys for use as pack animals.  When cars and trucks became available, the donkeys were let loose to roam the island and fend for themselves.  Since they aren’t native, life was challenging for the newly emancipated burros, but in 1993,  Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, established a donkey sanctuary on Bonaire for sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys.  Now over 400 donkeys call the Donkey Sanctuary home.  For a small donation you can drive thru the compound.  If you ever wanted the opportunity to get a close-up photo of a donkey, here is your chance.  Hey, it’s not photographing Grizzly’s catching spawning Salmon, but it makes for an entertaining photo op!

Spotted Trunkfish

“Hey Pretty Lady, are you going to finish that carrot?”

How about landscapes?  Well, to be honest, we never even made it to the northern part of the island which is the home of Washington Slagbaai National Park.   This park covers 1/5 of the total island and locals told me it had the most potential for landscape photography on Bonaire.  Unfortunately, I really only explored the southern coast and  central part of the island around our resort (near Kralendijk, the Capital).

The salt flats on the southern end of the island are pretty dramatic.  The water in the flats is actually pink…well maybe mauve…well, it changes, depending on how the sunlight hits it.  The huge mountains of salt in the background can make some fascinating images when contrasted with the salt ponds and if you happen to find a couple flamingos necking in a salt pond in the foreground, you might actually get one of those unique images we were talking about:)

Spotted Trunkfish

“Caribbean Fantasy”

Also on the isolated and unpopulated southern coast were the remains of the slave huts and ship markers that are a fascinating but disturbing reminder of a past when slaves worked under harsh conditions harvesting sea salt from the nearby salt flats.  The huts are minuscule and must have been like ovens with whole families crowded into them.

Spotted Trunkfish

The obelisks were built in 1837 as markers directing ships to the correct beach where the salt would be loaded.

Since there isn’t much light pollution on Bonaire and nothing but ocean to the south, I hoped this might be a good spot for Milky Way photography.  I was right!   It might have been a bit spooky but it made for some wonderful and unusual photography.

Spotted Trunkfish

Cursed Obelisk

After my wife and I returned home, I got a note from one of the folks I had met on Bonaire telling me about a Photo Contest the island’s tourism bureau was conducting.  The top prize was a week of lodging for two along with food, rental car and free diving.  I’m not much on contests, I’d rather be out taking photos than filling out forms but my wife encouraged me to enter.  I find it is usually a good idea to listen to her advice….and guess what?

Spotted Trunkfish

I should always listen to my wife!

Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!

Jeff

PS:  I have a long way to go with my Underwater photography before I ever see the end of my learning curve.  But I love a challenge,  Plus the underwater world is alien, colorful and visually stunning. My UW shots didn’t win any prizes, but I’d like to share a few of them with you anyway:

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Spotted Eel

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Caribbean Reef Squid

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

My wife loves these little guys. They are just plain funny looking. We call them Cowfish but I’ve been told it is actually a Spotted Trunkfish

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

 

 

Also posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Hummingbirds, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , |

Lost in Space: Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Yes, I am a child of the 60s!

Have you ever seen the excitement in a child’s face when she experiences something for the first time?  Seeing that joy and hearing those squeals of delight are one of the things I most love most about children.

As we get older, we tend to get jaded and take much of life for granted.  Those moments of childlike happiness become a rare thing.  Which is one of the reasons that I adore photography….it continually challenges me to seek out new locations and experiences and helps keep the child alive in me.

For, example, earlier this year my son Ryan and I were planning a trip to Oregon.  While talking with one of my friends in Portland, he mentioned that the Perseid meteor shower would be peaking when I was visiting.  Now honestly, I had vaguely heard of the Perseid’s before, but neither Ryan or I had ever even seen a meteor, much less photographed one.

But a quick search on Google educated me:  The annual Perseid meteor shower is probably the most popular one of the year.  When the Earth crosses the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle in late August, debris from the comet cuts thru our atmosphere at 130,000 miles per hour sometimes resulting in dozens of meteors per hour.

Well that certainly sounded like something I wanted to see!

But where in Oregon would be best to photograph this spectacle?  I wanted a spot with great views (of course) and little light pollution.  After some research on the internet, I decided to split my time between two locations in northern Oregon’s Cascade Mountain range: Trillium Lake and Lost Lake.

Well, we got to Trillium Lake on Aug 10th right after sunset.  And the sky was overcast.  Couldn’t see a single star.    Killed a couple hours eating dinner (and drinking great local beer) then went outside to check again.  Clouds.  Went to bed and got up two more times to check.  Clouds.  The sky did start to clear up just before sunrise so Ryan and I went down to Trillium and captured some shots, but by then it was too bright to see meteors.  Just the same, it was a quiet, peaceful sunrise.  Trillium Lake is an idyllic spot and it is easy to visualize how incredible photos can be taken here..

Lake Trillium Oregon Sunrise

Other than the kayaker and one very persistent duck, Ryan seemed to have the view to himself.

After a day exploring some incredible waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge (another post about this adventure later) we pulled into Lost Lake late in the afternoon and set up camp in our Yurt.  What’s a yurt you ask?  Well, when you make reservations at a popular campground only a month in advance during peak season, a yurt is likely to be the only thing left available. Like I said, photography helps me have new experiences…

I had pre-scouted the area on Google Earth and knew I wanted to photograph the meteors from the north-western shore (Lost Lake is shaped like a triangle, and the northwestern shore faces Mt. Hood).  What I couldn’t see on my computer was that trees grow right up to the shore blocking your view of the sky, not exactly ideal for sky photography.  But there was one strip of shore, maybe 100′ long that was perfect: overhead it had a clear stretch of sky and below in the shallows of the lake were wonderful boulders and fallen trees that made great foreground subjects.

Except for one little problem…a group of folks were already there enjoying a bonfire.  So Ryan and I hiked up the shoreline vainly looking for a decent alternative location but we had no luck.  We returned to a spot near the original location and made the best of it, but the light from their fire played havoc on my shots.  Their party finally wrapped up by 11 pm and as their fire faded out, the views of the stars and meteors reflected on the calm lake became more visible.

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

But my heart had been set on taking shots of Mt. Hood with the Milky Way behind it.  Unfortunately, by this late hour the rotation of the earth had moved the Milky Way so far to the west that I couldn’t fit it into the frame with Mt. Hood.  Plus I had hauled my not-so-young body around for miles that day and I was exhausted, so headed back to camp with hopes of better luck the following night.

The next morning, we went back to watch the dawn.  No wind, no clouds, (no bonfire!)…it was one of the most perfect scenes I could imagine.

Sunrise at Lost Lake Oregon Mt. Hood

After a few shots, we hit the road early to go hike more waterfalls but drove back to Lost Lake well before sunset to get ‘first dibs’ on our spot.   As the clearing came into view we were happy to see that we were the only ones there, so we set up our equipment, set back and relaxed while we waited for the show to start.

It turned out Ryan and weren’t the only photographers that knew about “our” perfect spot.  Over the next couple hours, four more shutterbugs (who had also previously scouted the area) set up next to us.  They knew that the peak of the meteor shower was going to be that night (Aug 12) and had all traveled to Lost Lake to capture images of it.

Actually, this is one of the things that Ryan and I like most about photography…meeting and getting to know other photographers.  Most of them love to talk about their hobby and share their knowledge and swap stories.  One of the guys, Dan Duerden, was a High School teacher from British Columbia who was spending his 3 month summer holiday on a photographic journey through the PAC NW.  Dan is an incredibly talented photographer and you can see more of his work on his Instagram page: https://instagram.com/dduerds/ .  Ryan had recently started posting his own photos on Instagram (https://instagram.com/ryanstamer/)  and the two of them had an animated conversation about that topic…it was all way over my head.

There was a retired guy obsessed with photography (not that I’m throwing stones!).  Along with him was his long suffering wife who described herself as his “Sherpa” because she got to lug around all of his gear.  When Ryan heard that, he playfully elbowed me in the ribs…. because he is my designated tripod-carrier on our hikes.

Anyway, we spent the next few hours taking our photos and quietly talking on the edge of the shore.  We watched the sky…and listened to the “Ewwws!” and “Ahhhs!” from the campers on the other side of the lake as meteors streaked across the heavens.

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

“Ryan’s World”

 

I had two camera set up to automatically take continuous photos.    This ensured that I would capture nearly every meteor that flew over our heads.  It also gave me the chance to try my hand at making a time-lapse video.  The resulting ‘film’ condenses about 600 photographs down to less than 100 seconds, take a look:

In addition to the meteors, you can also see a number of aircraft and satellites in this video, but basically, anything that you see for less than a half of a second is likely to have been a meteor…and there were a bunch!    This is my first ‘real’ time-lapse and I’m still learning…but it was a lot of fun and I’m pretty happy with the result.

There weren’t a lot of meteors early in the evening, but they appeared with increasing frequency as the hours went by.  Just the same, of the 700+ frames I took over two days, there was only a single image that captured two at the same time:

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Twice as nice

Note how the meteors are multi-hued, plus they tend to be wider toward the center.  I learned that these attributes help you distinguish them from satellites or aircraft.

I really loved the way the Milky Way arched over the entire lake.  It was too wide a view to capture in a single shot so I stitched five frames to make a panorama:Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Here is one last shot I’d like to share.  Basically, I took most of the decent sized meteors I photographed on Aug 12 and placed them on a single image.  I had to reorient some of them to take into account the rotation of the earth (since we saw the meteors over a 3 hour span of time).  It certainly makes for an interesting image:

Milky Way and Perseid Photography at Lost Lake Oregon

“Fusillade

By 1 am Ryan and I were yawning and since we planned to be hiking again in a few hours we thought it might be nice to get a bit of sleep first.  We said goodnight to our new friends and headed for our sleeping bags.

Over the next week or so, Ryan I spent time at a number of amazing places in the PAC NW, but our time at Lost Lake has become one of our favorite memories from the trip.   It kind of reminded us of one of those old-time fishing camps nestled way back in the woods. The area is truly beautiful, peaceful and seems to do wonders for your soul.

Plus, I got to have some NEW experiences.  Yeah, maybe I didn’t exactly squeal like a child, but it made me feel young just the same.

 

Jeff

PS:  If you go to Lost Lake, here is a map showing the spot we “found”:

Map for Photographing the Milky Way at Lost Lake Oregon

 

 

 Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Night Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Time Lapse Photography Tagged , , , |

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.

2017 08 26 Washington State 0855

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

2017 08 26 Washington State 0884_HDR crop2

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.

2017 08 25 Washington State 0443_HDR

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.

2017 08 25 Washington State 0684-HDR

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.

 

2017 08 26 Washington State 0855

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 Landscape Photography, Pacific Northwest USA Tagged , , , , |

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies: Clingman’s Dome

In late April  I found myself alone atop the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  It was 4am, and I had just gotten out of my car in the freezing parking lot at  Clingman’s Dome.  It had been about an hour and a half since my iPhone alarm had roused me from my toasty room in Cherokee, NC and I was having second thoughts.

So, why would I want to be there…and at THAT hour?  Well, I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way from the top of the mountain, but according to my Sky Safari app, it wouldn’t rise high enough above the horizon for a decent photo until 3:30am.   I had just driven up from Florida the evening before and my 50+ year old body was cranky and sleep-deprived as I hiked up the path to the Observation Tower.  About halfway up the trail, I stopped and looked up.  My fatigue was instantly forgotten as I glimpsed the Milky Way with my bare eyes for the first time in nearly six months:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

No matter how many times I see it, sight of the Milky Way always leaves me in awe. ____Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 3200/30 sec.

At the end of the short but steep trail, I reached the observation tower.   The Milky Way was pretty high in the sky and I set up my tripod almost directly below the tower.  From this perspective, the ramp seemed to lead all the way to the band of starts:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

“Tower of Terror” ________Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 3200/30 sec.

I used my headlamp to briefly illuminate the tower for a few seconds during the 30 second exposures.  It took quite a bit of trial and error to avoid having one section overexposed and the other dark, but eventually I got the hang of it.

After a while, I moved further away from the tower which allowed the Milky Way to wind over the serpentine tower:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

♫Meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy…♪__Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 2200/30 sec.

After about an hour and a half, I noticed that the Milky Way was starting to fade as dawn approached.  That gave me just enough time to try something new.  I had been reading about time-lapse photography and thought this would be a great venue to give it a first shot.  So I set my Nikon up to automatically take a series of 30 second exposures…one after another.  I started it up and sat back as the camera started snapping away.  Well, I only had about ten minutes to spare before I had to hit the trail and since it takes 30 frames to make one second of a time-lapse, that means that I ended up with less than one second of  actual ‘film.’  See the clip below if you have a free moment (literally) to spare:).

Did you miss it?  Yup…that is what you call a short video!  Not a terrible first effort…but it was clear that next time I would need to shoot for a few hours.  Plus I would bring warmer gloves, a folding stool and a book so I could stick it out long enough to make a real video.

I hiked back to the Subaru and then joined the other photographers setting up for the sunrise on the edge of the parking lot.  The lack of clouds eliminated any chance of a ‘National Geographic’ shot, but even an average dawn at Clingman’s is wonderful.  There is nothing like the view of the dancing orange sky behind those blue mountain ridges receding off into infinity:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

Smokies Icon

Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t another clear night the whole week I was there, so I didn’t get another shot at my time-lapse.    But I’m not whining…I learned a lot and besides, now I have something to look forward to on my next trip to the Smokies!

Milky Way Tips for Photographers:

Check out my Milky Way how-to Blog to learn about the basics for this type of photography

Specific Tips for Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s Dome:

  • Locations:

    Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

    “The Emergence” __D800E/Sigma 15mm Fisheye/f2.8/ISO 3200/ 30 sec

  1. Most photographers set up right on the edge of the parking lot at the top of Clingman’s.  It is a good location facing south with unobstructed views stretching from east to west.  But, there is quite a bit of light pollution on the horizon with nothing to block it out. Sometimes that can work to your advantage like it did for me in the shot shown to the right:
  2. The trail to the Observation Tower can work out well.  Keep looking over your shoulder as you walk up the trail and look for views in which the Milky Way is framed by the trees (like the first shot shown in this blog).
  3. Shots that include the Observation Tower are my personal favorite.  The design is so “Jetsons”  and futuristic that it just cries out to be silhouetted against the cosmos in a Milky Way shot.
    1. The paved trail from the parking lot is only a half mile but it isn’t lighted and it is steep…plus you will be carrying a tripod and the rest of your equipment.  Give yourself at least a half hour.
    2. Also, if you aren’t used to the lack of oxygen at 6643′, you might find yourself out of breath.  I’m from Florida and our highest point is only 345′, and trust me, there is a difference!
  • Equipment
  1. Dress warm.  It is often 20 degrees cooler at Clingman’s than it is in Gatlinburg or Cherokee.
  2. Dress dry.  I swear that I get wet at least half the time I’m on Clingman’s even if the rest of the park is dry.  That might be a slight exaggeration, but pack your rain gear for you and your equipment.
  • Safety
  1. Like any isolated spot, you should consider your safety at Clingman’s, especially  if you are there for a night shoot.  I’ve never personally had a bit of trouble but leaving valuables in plain sight in your car would be tempting fate.
  2. Yes, there are bears in the Smokies, lots of them, but unless you try to kidnap a cub from it’s mother or have a pork chop hanging around your neck, you should be fine.
  • Time of year
  1. Spring thru Fall is the best time of the year to observe the Milky Way in the Smokies.  However, it is most visible during the summer. Also, it isn’t visible early in the evening during the spring but by late fall you can see it right after sunset. Use the internet or a smartphone app so you know exactly when it will rise…that way you can plan when you should be at Clingman’s.
  2. The Milky Way also shifts where it appears in the sky during the course of the year.  During the spring it appears more in the southeastern sky but by the fall it will shift to the southwest.  Again, apps like Sky Safari will let you know where to expect it.

Enjoy your Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s and best of luck!
Jeff

 

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

Milky Way Photography Tips with an Hawaiian Twist!

Photography isn’t exactly a new art form.  One of the downsides of shutterbugs working their craft for a hundred years or so is that it is now challenging to come up with something new.  You are constantly reminded of this fact when you read articles and blogs (mine included) that contain repeated references like: “Don’t take the standard tourist shot,”  “Find a unique perspective,” “Put your own spin on the image.”

Well, space photography is  something new.  Sure, astronomers have photographed the stars since cameras were invented but it wasn’t until after the amazing photos from the  Hubble Space Telescope  were released in the early 1990s that the public was fully aware of the mind-blowing beauty contained in the heavens.  More recently, we’ve seen incredible shots of the Milky Way on the internet taken by amateurs (not astronomers).  Like many folks, I found these photographs to be absolutely enthralling,  I also found it difficult to believe that these photos were taken by regular people instead of professionals with expensive equipment.

This wasn’t possible until recent technological improvements in camera sensor ISO capability (the ability to capture faint light).  Now, anyone with a newer, good quality DSLR, a decent wide angle lens and a tripod can take shots like this:

2016-sw-death-valley-03-06-0594-combo-4-glow2

“Midnight Run” Alpha Centauri? Vulcan?      Nope: One of the ‘sailing stones’ at Death Valley’s famous ‘Racetrack’

 

But there IS a catch (isn’t that always the way?)

Blue Sky

Screen shot of the Blue Sky website showing light pollution in the Hawaiian Islands.  You can zoom in as much as you want to find ideal night photoraphy locations

Most of us live near urban areas that have so many lights that the Milky Way is ‘washed out’ at night.  Therefore,  You first have to find a location that isn’t smothered by light pollution.  One quick way to do that is Blue Sky.  This is a free access website (see screenshot to the right) that allows you to zoom in easily on any location in the world and see where light pollution isn’t a problem. Once you know where to go, all you need is a moonless night with clear skies and you are good to go! Okay, okay, there are a few other things you need to know but seriously, it really isn’t all that difficult and I’m going to let you know what you need to learn.

 

Tips for Milky Way Photography:

Equipment

  1. The camera.
    1. Full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  Their large sensors are ideal for Milky Way photography
    2. ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality.  Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Milky Way shots.
  2. You will need a tripod.  A solid one (especially if it is breezy where you will photograph).  If your tripod is tall, you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.

    2015 PAC NW 08 07 0176

    Crater Lake Oregon during the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower.

  3. A cable or wireless shutter release will come in handy.
  4. Lens:  Fast and wide!
    2015 Northwest 06 20 903

    Palouse Falls, Washington. It took a serious flashlight to light up the falls in this image!

    • The Milky Way isn’t bright, so the faster your lens, the better.  Personally, I think f/2.8 lenses (or faster) are ideal. Anything slower than f/3.5 will make it difficult to get a good image.
    • The Milky Way is WIDE…it can stretch from horizon to horizon.  So, ideally, you need a wide angle lens.
      • If you have a full frame camera, then I’d suggest a minimum of a 16mm lens.  My preferred lens is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.  However, there are a number of expensive options…for example, I’ve also used a Sigma 16mm fisheye f/2.8f lens with good results.
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a 8 or 10mm fisheye might be your best bet.  A regular 10-12mm would work as well, but it will be difficult to get the full Milky Way in the shot.
    • A second option is to take a series of smaller, overlapping images and just stitch them as a panorama  using the ‘photomerge‘ function in Photoshop.
  5. PhotoPills.  There are Apps for your smart phone that allow you to see exactly where the Milky Way will be visible in the sky.  They will also let you select different dates/times and locations (so you can preplan a shot). These tools are critical to preplanning Milky Way shots. IMO the best of the bunch is one called PhotoPills.   For $9.99 you will buy a tool that will dramatically improve your Milky Way photography (no, I don’t get a kickback…unfortunately).  In the past I also used the Star Walk and Sky Safari apps but PhotoPills is superior.
  6. Photoshop.  If you really want to capture a great shot of the Milky Way, you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program.  Your shot right out of the camera can be impressive, especially if you’ve never photographed the galaxy before, but just a little bit of work in Photoshop can make your shot a knockout!
  7. A Headlamp AND a Flashlight.
    • You will need both hands to manipulate your camera and a headlamp is the perfect solution.  Get one that has a red light.  Red light won’t ruin your night vision and that of any nearby photographers.
    • If you are blessed to have a good foreground, a good flashlight will allow you to illuminate it.

Technique on Site

  1. LOCATION:  As I mentioned before, you need to find a spot that isn’t saturated with light pollution.  That doesn’t mean that you have to find a location that doesn’t have a town in sight…a glow or two on the horizon can be a nice touch
  2. WHEN:
    • Ideally you want a moonless or near moonless night.  A full moon is so bright it overwhelms the Milky Way and makes it difficult/impossible to photograph well.
    • Keep in mind that even if there is a full moon, you can shoot the Milky Way if there is a ‘window’ at night before the moon rises (or after it sets).  The apps I mentioned earlier will let you figure out if that is a possibility.
    • If the moon isn’t full and it is located away from the Milky Way, then you can still get a solid shot.  In fact, a bit of moonlight can help illuminate your foreground.

      A partial moon lit up the foreground here on the island of Bonaire but it wasnt' so bright it washed out the Milky Way.

      A partial moon lit up the foreground here on the island of Bonaire but it wasn’t bright enough to wash out the Milky Way.

    • Obviously you also want clear night…no one wants to see half the galaxy hidden by clouds.
    • Although the Milky Way is visible through-out the year, the most prominent features (the galactic plane or core), are best viewed in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months (May through September).
  3. FOREGROUND:
    • A shot of just the Milky Way is cool but your shot can be supercharged if you include a foreground element.
      Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

      The red traffic light at the entrance to Launiupoku Beach Park on Maui provided the dramatic foreground lighting!

      Trees, mountains, buildings…scout out possible locations during the daylight.  The elements that make for a splendid sunrise or sunset shot work every bit as well for Milky Way shots.

    • If you are going to show anything in the foreground, it will need a bit of light to make it visible in your shot.  Ambient lighting might be enough (see shot to the right) but a bit of ‘light painting’ with your flashlight can often result in dramatic images.
  4. CHECK YOUR COMPOSITION:
    •   Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot.  If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute.  This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect.

Camera Settings

  1. Shutter Speed.
    • Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in 25 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  You want to have as long an exposure as possible (to capture more stars and detail) without resulting in ‘star trails’ (when stars no longer appear as round spots, but instead become a streak…because of the earth’s movement).  The rule of thumb is about 25 seconds but try some test exposures to see just how long you can expose your sensor.  With my D810 and the 14-24mm lens, I start seeing star trails after about 25 seconds, but remember,  every camera/lens combo will be different.
    • The shot below shows an extreme example of star trails…nice in its own way but not ideal for Milky Way shots:

      Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

      Star Trails over Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona. This is about a 2 hour exposure…far more than you want to try for a Milky Way shot.

  2. Shoot in RAW.   If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try.  Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.

    One of my favorite shots. The Milky Way AND the Aurora Borealis photographed together in the Brooks Range, Alaska

    One of my favorite shots. The Milky Way AND the Aurora Borealis photographed together in the Brooks Range, Alaska

  3. Focus.  Your autofocus won’t work well at night, so you will need to switch to manual.  Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
    •  The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets.  Then turn off the auto-focus and put a piece of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place.  This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you start your Milky Way shots.  Otherwise, you could bump the lens during your shoot throwing all future shots out of focus (of course, you should also review EVERY shot at full magnification to be sure…but I have a hard time remembering to do this myself).
    • If you don’t get a chance to do this before it gets dark, focus manually on a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp.  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape to hold it in place.
  4. ISO. You will have to boost your ISO far higher than you do during daylight shooting.  With my Nikon D810, the ISO sweet spot for night photography is between 2200 to 3500, with my best results at the upper edge of that range.  Although the higher ISO does result in more noise, it also captures more of the color that makes the Milky Way so beautiful.  If your camera isn’t as light sensitive as the D810, you will likely have to shoot at a higher ISO.
  5.  Aperture.  Use the widest aperture you’re lens has since you want to capture every bit of light you can during those 30 seconds. I consider f 2.8 to the minimum.
  6. Try a Panorama!  Capturing the entire arc of the Milky Way makes for a powerful image.  Take a number of overlapping shots from one horizon to the other and then stitch them together in Photoshop.

    This shot of Mt Hood and Lost Lake was created by stitching together 5 individual frames in Photoshop.

    This shot of Mt Hood and Lost Lake was created by stitching together 5 individual frames in Photoshop.  The streak you see in the image was a meteor that zipped by during my exposure.

Now, once you have everything mentioned above set up, take some test shots.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes only 30 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing (Photoshop Wizardry)

Sometimes, a bit of color left from the sunset can be a wonderful contrast.

Sometimes, a bit of color left from the sunset can be a wonderful contrast.

This is where the pure technique ends and the ‘art’ begins.  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but this really isn’t science.  Sometimes I’ll work on two frames taken a minute apart with the exact same camera settings but end up with totally different results depending on what I end up doing in Photoshop!  Here are the basics:

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 2800 and 3800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try tweaking up your exposure and see if it allows you to see a lot more stars.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Hue//Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real creativity comes in and you can easily spend more time tweaking these adjustments than all the others combined.  Your goal here is to find the colors inherent in the Milky Way and coax them to be a bit more visible.  Sometimes I’m shocked how easy it can be to create a stunning image with these adjustments.  And then other times I spend a half hour and get nothing but mediocre results…  If so I just take a break and then come back a bit later and try again!
  5. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Milky Way so that your adjustments don’t give you unintended and undesirable results in your foreground elements.
  6. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your shot…there is no way around it with current levels of technology.  I usually find that I can adjust the luminance slider in Photoshop’s noise control panel up to 50-80 or so (with the detail slider also around 70) without significantly degrading detail.  Noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements than in the star field, so often I put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

Again…this part of the process is the most creative but it can be time consuming.  Don’t get frustrated if your  results aren’t immediately what you had visualized.  Take your time.  Experiment. Have fun!

Tips if you find yourself in Hawaii and you want to try some Milky Way (Hoku-noho-aupuni) photography20130906_Hawaii_2004

  1. Oahu is your worst bet for Milky Way photography in Hawaii.  This where most of the folks in the state live and a quick look on the Blue Sky website will show you that it also has the nastiest light pollution of any of the islands.  However, there are some pockets in the mountains and on the west coast around Kaena Point that are pretty good.
    • If can’t visit the other islands, well the good news is that Oahu isn’t ideal, it still probably has less light pollution than you see at home, so get a bit away from Honolulu give it a try!
  2. All of the other islands are great…heck, they are fantastic!  There will be some light near the larger cities (Kona on the Big Island, Lahaina on Maui, etc) but a short twenty minute drive along the coast will usually get you clear of the light.
  3. Higher is better!  There is a reason that observatories are built atop mountains…when you are at 10,000 feet above sea level, 95%+ of the earth’s atmosphere is BELOW you…which results in a better view of the stars.  In Hawaii, there are three possibilities:  Mt.Haleakalea (on Maui), Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (both on the Big Island).
    •  Mauna Kea
      • The Onizuka Visitor Center.
        • This is your best bet for Milky Way photography on Mauna Kea.
        •  The road all the way to the Visitor’s Center is paved and your rental sedan will have no problems getting there.
        • Get away from the main building and scout for a location that gives you a view of Mauna Loa and the Milky Way
      • The Summit
        • At 13,000′ and 360° unobstructed views, this would be the ideal spot for Milky Way photography. Unfortunately, you are only allowed on the summit of Mauna Kea between dawn and dusk.  Rangers drive around and ask you to leave 30 minutes after sunset (this ensures that tourists don’t inadvertantly shine flashlights at the multi-million dollar telescopes at the summit).
        • Be aware that sections of the road from the Visitor’s Center aren’t paved and it is very steep.  4WD and high clearance vehicles are recommended.  If you drive to the summit, be aware that you are violating your car rental agreement and you will be on the hook if you have any problems.
    • Mauna Loa
      • You can’t drive to the 13,600′ summit of Mauna Loa.  The road is gated closed at the weather observation station (at 11,000′) and from there it is a tough 6 mile hike to the summit.
        • There is a cabin near the summit (reservation required), so you could spend the night and get a Milky Way shot.
      • The road to the summit is on the northern flank of the mountain, which means that the bulk of Mauna Loa effectively blocks your view of the Milky Way to the south.
      • Frankly, I’ve never seen an outstanding photo of the Milky Way taken from Mauna Loa.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there are much better locations on the Big Island that require a lot less work.
      • FYI…if you plan to research a visit to Mauna Loa keep in mind that a lot of tourists (and photographers writing blogs) get Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea confused.
    • Haleakala
      • I think Haleakala is your best best for high altitude Milky Way shots in Hawaii.
      • You can easily drive right up to the summit on paved roads in a rental car.
      • Haleakala National Park, is open 24/7   365 days/year, so you can photograph at night with no restrictions.
      • Some hints and suggestions for photographing at Haleakala:
        • It will be COLD.  Seriously.  It was 88 degrees when I left my hotel in Kaanapali and it was below freezing at the summit (I actually got ice on my camera).  Gloves, hat, jacket and a thermos of hot chocolate are good ideas (it was kinda funny packing my parka and ski pants for a trip to tropical Hawaii!)
        • The summit is occasionally surrounded by clouds.  Be patient.  On my last visit, the last mile to the summit was completely socked-in by fog/clouds…I could probably have walked faster than I drove.  But it did clear up about 30 minutes after I got to the summit.
        • I think the best spot to photograph the Milky Way here is from the Pu’u’ula’ula Summit.  You can include the observatories in your shot from this location (the observatories themselves are not open to the public).
        • Plan on a full night.  It takes a while to get to the summit from most of the island’s hotels.  Plus the road to the summit is full of switchbacks and it isn’t lighted.  It took me over two hours each way…so you won’t be getting much sleep after you get back.  You might want to drive up to the summit in the daylight, photograph the sunset (although the sunrise is a better shot) and read a book for a couple of hours while it gets good and dark.
        • It is often be WINDY here.  Try moving around to find a spot where the wind is blocked.  You will need a sturdy, heavy duty tripod.  If you only have a small travel-tripod with you, hang some serious weight on your tripod to avoid the ‘shakes.’

          2013 Hawaii 09 04 0745

          A shot of the observatories on top of Haleakala. Lord it was COLD!

  4. Photograph from the shore
    • Although photographing the Milky Way from 10,000 feet is technically ideal, don’t ignore potential shots from sea level too.  Hey, you are in paradise…photograph the Milky Way rising from the surf with some palm trees swaying in the breeze…I mean, you can’t do this back home in Cleveland, so go for it!
    • All of the islands have beachfront parks loaded with coconut palms that are great night photo locations.   Beaches on the southern side of the islands have a clear view of the Milky Way (which is located to the south) but even locations on the eastern or western coasts can work IF they have a view to the south.
    •  A lot of the beachfront hotels have lavishly landscaped grounds that are illuminated at night…and they also provide public access to the ocean.  So even if you aren’t staying beachfront, you can photograph from these locations.  Their night lighting will illuminate foreground subjects without the need for you to do so.
    • Scout around during the day for southern facing locations with interesting foregrounds.  The islands of Hawaii have some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and there are untold numbers of potential locations for Milky Way photography.

      2013 Hawaii 09 06 1305

      The walkway at the Sheraton Kauai Poipu on the south side of the island

  5. How about a photo of the Milky Way and lava!
    • I have seen amazing photos of the Milky Way taken on the Big island that feature the lava glowing in the Kileaea crater in the foreground.
      • You can get this shot in Volcano’s national Park in the southern part of the island
        • The park is open 24/7 365
        • Two great locations are the Jagger Museum or the nearby (and less crowded) Kilauea Overlook
        • The volcano has been active since 1983 but the lava isn’t always visible in the Kileaea crater.   Don’t plan a trip just to get this shot without first going on-line to confirm that the lava is visible.  Check this link to get the latest updates.
      • If you really want an adventure, hike out to the lava field during the day and photograph the Milky Way after sunset with hot, red lava as your foreground
        • Unfortunately, often the lava flow isn’t visible…it runs in ‘lava tubes’ all the way to the ocean.  Check this link to see if you will be able to see lava before hiking 4 miles out there.

There you have it.  A quick primer on Milky Way photography.  Wow, I originally thought I’d sit down and rip off a quick blog between coffee and breakfast…now it’s 3pm and my daughter just got home from High School!  Time to do some chores and earn my keep.

I’m sure you will love photographing the Milky Way…the results will astound your friends and family!

Take care,

Jeff

 

 

 

 Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

 

 

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