Category Archives: Photo Tips and Guides

Fencing in Horseshoe Bend: Upcoming Safety upgrade for a Photographic Icon

Horseshoe Bend is one of the true photographic icons of the American Southwest.

Fencing in Horseshoe Bend: Upcoming Safety upgrade for a Photographic Icon

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

I’ve photographed there many a time (even written a guide with tips on how to best photograph there…see this link).  But no matter how many times I visit, my heart always starts beating harder…not just because it is impressive, but because, to be honest, it scares me a bit.

Fencing in Horseshoe Bend: Upcoming Safety upgrade for a Photographic Icon

One good gust of air and….

I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but when I stand at Horseshoe’s sheer 1000′ cliff edge, well..it can create a few butterflies in my nether-regions.  I’ve actually watched visibly shaken tourists walk toward the edge only to repeatedly turn around.  Some of those folks, no joke, actually crawl up to the edge on their belly to take their pictures.

That’s why I was glad to see today that the government is going to add a railing along part of the cliff where the trail currently ends.  They are also going to upgrade the trail to make it ADA compliant, which will be a lot easier than walking in the parts of it that were soft sand.

Fencing in Horseshoe Bend: Upcoming Safety upgrade for a Photographic Icon

Will this affect photography?  Judging by the illustration the NPS released (see below), the fence will be short enough that you will be able to easily shoot over it with a tripod.  Plus if you want to avoid the fence completely, you will just need to walk a couple dozen yards to the left or right past the end of the fence and you can still shoot right on the cliff’s edge.

Seeing youngsters run around at the cliff’s edge has always made me nervous and there have been fatalities recorded here.  The new fence will make the area much safer as well as keep heart-rates down for some of us as well.

Construction is scheduled for November and construction should be completed before January of 2018.  You can read more about the details here.

 

Safety Upgrade at Horseshoe Bend

Conceptual Drawing – Horseshoe Bend Rim Viewing Area
NPS Image

With all the recent cut-backs you read about affecting our Federal lands and parks, it was nice to hear about this modest investment!

Take care,

Jeff

Safety Upgrade at Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend Sunset: One of those “OMG” moments that will soon be a bit safer

Safety Upgrade at Horseshoe Bend

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

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

I have long admired the beautiful images of Mt. Baker and Mt Shuksan in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains.  Earlier this year I finally had the opportunity to photograph them myself.

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

View of Mt. Shuksan from Highland Lake (continue reading for details)

As I did my pre-trip research, one thing that quickly became clear to me was that a lot of the best locations to photograph Baker and Shuksan require significant hikes.  That was a bit of a bummer since long hikes weren’t going to be possible on this trip.  So I refocused my efforts on finding locations that didn’t require a lot of hiking.

Fortunately there are two roads (542 and 20) that allow easy access to the mountains and lead you to a wealth of beautiful views of both Baker and Shuksan.  After spending a week photographing here from dozens of locations, I’ve narrowed down those spots to the five most photogenic (and easily reached):

From the North: State Road 542 – Mt. Baker Highway

S.R. 542 was created for the single purpose of allowing tourists (including photographers) to visit the Cascades (and leave lots of their dollars behind with the locals).  It is on the very northern edge of Washington state (most of it is 10 miles from the Canadian border) and it runs roughly east 57 miles from I-5 near Bellingham all the way to Mt. Baker.

Location #1: Picture Lake

I’ll start with what is often listed as the most photographed location in the state:  the iconic view of Mt Shuksan from Picture Lake near the end of S.R. 542.

You can literally drive right up to the lake, walk two minutes and set up your tripod and start shooting. Try to be there near sunset…Shuksan catches afternoon light in a wonderful way so it is a killer sunset spot.

An added bonus is that wildflowers abound in the Cascades from June thru September and photos of Shuksan reflected in the lake with a foreground of colorful wildflowers can be absolutely stunning.  Unfortunately, I was there in early October and walked the entire shore without finding a single, straggly flower. Apparently, this area can be ‘loved to death’ by visitors who stray off the walking path and trample the flowers.

Even so, the view was amazing (see photo).

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Mid-day view of Mt Shuksan from Picture Lake…

 

Tips:

  1. This is one of the most popular photography locations within 100 miles, so get there early for your sunset shot or you will be shooting over the head of other photographers.
  2. There is a $5 Parking fee if you are visiting for a single day or you can get an Annual Pass for $30.
  3. Hwy 542 is usually open 365 days a year to upper Mt. Baker Ski Area lodge at milepost 54.7 (which is at a bit past Picture Lake), so you can shoot from Picture lake all year round.
  4. There is a nice paved path all around the lake.
  5. You can get driving directions and more details about Picture Lake here

Location #2 Highwood Lake

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Maybe not the ‘perfect’ spot, but not too shabby!

I never heard anything about this spot despite all my planning.  I found it by accident only a few hundred yards away from Picture Lake while scouting for wildflowers.

Highwood Lake is smaller and the trees on the opposite shoreline partially screen the mountain so it isn’t quite as grand a vista as Picture Lake.  Plus Highland has only a narrow road shoulder and a short sloping shore to shoot from so it’s not as ‘user friendly’ as Picture Lake…and there is only a small section of shoreline that features good reflections of the mountain.

So why do I even list it here?  Because when I visited its shoreline was lush with wildflowers…unlike Picture Lake.  Possibly the reason was simply that the flowers hadn’t been trampled…there isn’t a maintained, easy walking path like Picture Lake so it doesn’t get many visitors.

As I drove here for sunset, I passed a whole crowd of folks at Picture lake and when I pulled up to Highland there was only a single car parked.  Unfortunately that car belonged to another photographer and a large group of her friends who were already set up in ‘my’ spot that I had scouted earlier in the day.  I was a bit ticked off at myself for not getting their earlier and prayed that they would move….but they stayed firmly rooted until the last of the sun’s red glow faded from the snow atop Shuksan.  I worked the ‘less perfect’ spots around them and despite that, the images I captured during that sunset were among the best I captured on my entire trip.

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Once the sun sets, the subtle red tint quickly fades on the summit and the mountain reverts back to shades of grey

Since Highwood isn’t well-known, here is a map to help you find it.

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Location #3: Artist’s Point/Artist’s Ridge

After Picture Lake,  continue driving on 542 for less than 3 miles where the road ends at the Artist’s Point parking lot. This is at an elevation of over 5,000′ and you may well find snow there even during the summer.

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Afternoon shot of one of the 3 or 4 small tarns along the trail with Shuksan’s reflection

It certainly absolutely delighted my wife Anita and I during our visit…which immediately led to a mandatory “we’re from Florida so we gotta have a snowball fight!”

The view from the parking lot is pretty impressive, but there are even better vistas from the trails that start here.  In my opinion, the best one is Artist’s Point Ridge (see below for more info on where to find the trailhead).  This hike is an easy 1.5 miles out-and-back which winds along a ridge with panoramic views of Mt Shuksan to the east and Mt. Baker to the west.  It passes a few ice-cold tarns (small ponds sculpted in bedrock by passing glaciers) where you can photograph perfect reflections of Shuksan when the wind is calm.

I was fascinated with the tarns (I think I just like saying the name…tarn, Tarn, TARN…so cool).  The area around the tarns is often muddy from melting snow and not particularly attractive so you might have to work a bit to find good compositions.

Since Shuksan is to the east, the light is wonderful in the late afternoon.  And it truly shines at sunset when the summit glows orange.

After a bit of looking, I finally found one small attractive bush by a tarn and was able to get a shot by lowering my tripod to a spot only a few inches over the rocky soil.  A full rising moon made a nice accent as well:

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Shuksan at sunset flanked by the rising Moon

I spent a couple of hours on the trail photographing Shuksan but I also scouted for locations that would work for the next morning’s sunrise shots of Baker.  The next day I was up at 4am and heading back on 542. The parking lot was nearly empty (it fills up often during the day when the weather is nice).  I hiked to my furthest pre-scouted location and waited on the sun.

Suddenly, I didn’t have to wait anymore:

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

This view of Baker is from Huntoon Point at the end of on Artist Ridge Trail

Since the glow on the summit is short-lived, I quickly snapped a series of shots then hustled down the trail to my next pre-scouted location and did it again.

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Mount Baker is 10,778 ft in elevation and is an active volcano that is closely monitored just like Mount St. Helens and the other 3 active volcanos (Mt. Rainier, Glacier Peak & Mt. Adams) in Washington State.

I only had time to shoot from three spots before the glow faded…but that was a glorious ten minutes!

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Baker in some glorious morning light.

Although Baker is the star here during the morning, I did try some shots of Shuksan but with the sun rising right over it the direct light washed out the colors and the wide dynamic range made things challenging:

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Sunrise shot of Shuksan. I opted for a B&W  HDR exposure.

Tips:

  1. The last few miles of 542 (just past picture lake) closes after the first significant snowfall (usually October) and usually doesn’t reopen until June. So unless you are willing to strap on snowshoes, you will want to visit during the summer.
  2. There is a $5 Parking fee if you are visiting for a single day or you can get an Annual Pass for $30.
  3. This location works for both sunrise and sunset since Shuksan is to your east (catches nice sunset light) and Baker is to the west (sunrise light)
  4. The parking often lot fills up during the day, but you shouldn’t have problems finding a spot at dawn or dusk.
  5. The trailhead for Artists Ridge is at the edge of the parking lot to the right of the bathrooms (as you stand facing the bathrooms with your back to the parking lot).   The first part of the trail is paved but it quickly splits and becomes a dirt path.  Take a left where the trail forks.  After that the trail will take you to Huskan Ridge where it dead ends and you return the same way.  Here is a link with more info about this trail.

From the South: State Road 20 (North Cascades Highway)

About a half hour south of 542 (on the way to Seattle via I-5) you run into S.R. 20 which actually crosses the Cascades (Note that it does close between late November and mid December and reopens usually by early May).  From there it is about another hour to Lake Baker which has my last two recommended spots to photograph Mt. Baker (see map below).Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Location #4: Lake Baker Boat Ramp

The first location is near a public boat ramp and park operated by PSE (Puget Sound Energy). This is next to the Kulshan Campground (which might be easier to find on your GPS).  As you drive east on SR 20 look for Baker Lake Road, which will be on your left (north) about 24 miles from I-5.  Take Baker Lake about 15.5 miles and look for signs on the right for the Boat Ramp and/or Kulshan RV park.  Take that road all the way to the boat ramp and park at the lot there.

There are nice views of Shuksan to the north and great views of Mt. Baker to the northeast.  The problem with this spot is finding a decent foreground.  Many of the views are marred by docks/causeways plus most of the shoreline is nothing more than gravel with little native vegetation.

After a bit of scouting I think the best spot to photograph here is along a long a large gravel berm that you can see to the left as you stand in the parking lot (see map below).

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Map of Baker and Depression Lake

The berm is blocked for cars.  However, if you walk down the hill to the berm you can stroll on top of it (east) and it will provide this view of Mt. Baker:

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Sunrise shot from top of the berm.

2017 09 03 Washington State iPhone 0001

As you stand in the parking lot by the boat ramp, you will see this gravel berm to your left. There is a sign by the staircase that says “Depression Lake”

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Shot from the “shore” of the berm at Depression Lake

This is a good morning shot while Baker is lit up by the sunrise.  You can shoot from the top of the berm and get a nice reflection and if you are lucky, there might be wildflowers growing on the slope of the berm that you can use for foreground.

Although you can also see Shuksan from this spot, I found that finding a decent foreground clear of obstructions was impossible.  Hopefully you will have more luck.

Location #5:  Boulder Creek.

If you head back to Baker Lake Road and turn north (right), you will come to my last spot in less than 3 miles (just past the Boulder Creek Campground).   A well-marked bridge crosses over Boulder Stream.  There is room to park just past the bridge on the right.  There is a walkway along the bridge that provides this view of Mt. Baker:

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

View of Mt. Baker from the bridge over Boulder Stream.  This is a morning shot with the mountain illuminated by the early sunlight.

 

If you don’t mind scrambling a bit, you can get down to the river (from the riverbank near where you parked).  Then walk back up the river a bit past the bridge and you can find some nice river-level compositions.

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Morning view of Mt. Baker along the Boulder stream/river just upstream from the bridge)

If you have extra time, there are more photo worthy locations further east on SR 20 (Diablo Lake, Maple Pass, Washington Pass, etc.)…but I’ll save those for a future blog.

Hopefully you found the info in this blog helpful for your trip to Washington’s Cascades…have a great time!
Jeff

Five Easy Landscape Photography Locations for Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

Also posted in Pacific Northwest USA Tagged , , |

Yosemite’s Tunnel View vs. Artist’s Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

Tunnel View at Yosemite needs no introduction, I doubt there are many photographers left on earth who haven’t seen an image taken from this iconic location.  The view is grand, majestic and truly awe-inspiring.  Plus this guy named Ansel Adam’s took one of the 20th century’s most famous photographs there:

Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

You may have this snapshot before: Clearing Storm by Ansel Adams 1944

Among photographers, there has been a bit of  buzz lately about a ‘better’ location called Artist’s Point.  It’s not far from Tunnel View and earlier this year I checked it out to see if it truly was superior.   I found that the answer to that question will really depend on your priorities.

Tunnel View

Pros

  1. The view is magnificent….You have El Capitan to the left, Bridalveil Falls to the right and Half Dome anchors the center of the image.  One glance and you will fully understand why this is the most popular spot in Yosemite.

    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    The view back into the tunnel at Tunnel View…

  2. It is super easy to get to.  It is located at the mouth of the tunnel on Wawona Road (see this link for a map).  Tunnel View is a large paved overlook (with parking) that allows you to experience the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley only a few feet from your car.  It is a perfect, easily accessible spot for photographers…you can shoot here any time of the day or night and get memorable images.

Cons

  1. The biggest downside is that its popularity has resulted in untold millions of photos being taken here.  So it is truly challenging to capture unique images here.
  2. Plus, it can be busy.  Even though there is a lot of room, you might need to arrive an hour or more before sunrise/sunset to get a prime spot during holidays or during the summer.   Photographers will be lined up with overlapping tripods.

Artist’s Point

Pros

  1. The view is (also) magnificent.  Artist’s Point is located at a higher elevation about a half mile away (as the crow flies) southeast and offers a subtly different view than Tunnel View.   Take a look at the two shots below and see if you can spot the differences.
    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    The view from Artist’s Point…

    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    and the more famous view from Tunnel View

    • A close comparison will reveal that from Artist’s Point you can see Bridalveil Meadow, North Dome, Ribbon Falls and Royal Aches but you can’t see Sentinel Dome and Half Dome is a bit less prominent.
    • Is one view really a better view than the other?  Opinions differ, but personally I think the differences are so darn subtle that calling one ‘better’ than another is splitting hairs.  I doubt that more than 1 person in a 100 would say one is superior to the other.
    • However, even though the views are very similar, Artist’s Point does have the advantage of not looking exactly like those bazillion shots taken at Tunnel View.  If you are one of those folks (like me) that strives to create images that are unique, then maybe even these minor differences might be enough to tip the scale in favor of Artist’s Point.
  2. Another advantage is that you will likely be the only person there.  It won’t make a bit of difference in your photos, but life isn’t completely about photography (at least it shouldn’t be).
    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    Tunnel View isn’t exactly the place to go to enjoy solitude!

    Unlike the carnival atmosphere at Tunnel View, the experience at Artist’s Point is much more intimate.  The last time I visited Tunnel View it was packed with over a hundred folks…plus a wedding shoot was in progress and noisy tour buses and motorcycles were continually disgorging even more tourists.  But during my visit to Artist’s Point, I didn’t see another person for over three hours and heard nothing but wind rustling thru the leaves.  Take a look at my short time-lapse video to get a better idea of what an afternoon at Artist’s Point is like.

Cons

  1. The only down-side of Artist’s Point is that it isn’t as easy to reach as Tunnel View…you can’t just drive up in your rental car and start shooting.  You have to hike.  It isn’t a bad hike. The first half mile is steep and can be a bit difficult to follow, plus the trail isn’t really maintained, so you will be climbing over some fallen trees…but your average person can reach Artist’s Point in about 40 minutes.

If you decide to hike to Artists Point, here are some helpful hints.

The Hike:

  • First, check out this hiking guide to Artist Point.  It provides a wealth of detail.
  • The trailhead for the hike starts in one of the two Tunnel Valley Parking Lots.  It isn’t the lot on the side of the actual overlook, it is the one on the north side of Wawona Road.  The trailhead sign doesn’t actually say “Artist’s point”…the sign reads “Inspiration Point” or the “Pohono Trail.”  The trail to Artist’s Point is the same one as Inspiration Point for the first .6 miles.  By the way, although Inspiration Point has a great name, it really isn’t much of a view for Photographers.
  • I know of many folks who have tried to reach Artist’s Point and failed.  It’s not a long hike, but the first half mile is poorly marked.  To avoid getting lost my first time, I used the AllTrails app on my smartphone.  This app lets you download the hike ahead of time and it tracks your progress while hiking via GPS to within 10 feet or so.  Next to having a guide, this is the best way I know of to find the spot.   This link will take you to iphone version and this link will get you to the Android one.
  • The first half a mile is narrow and steep…you won’t win any speed records but take your time and an average hiker can make it with no problem.
  • At that point you are going to come to a trail crossing.  The trail you will cross is wide…more than 7 feet wide.  It is actually the old stagecoach road and you will see these two signs:
  • Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?
  • Now, take the trail left (east) which is the direction of the Bridalveil Falls Parking Area.  You will follow this wide trail another 1.6 miles.  You will probably have to climb over/under some trees that have fallen across the trail.
    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    Like I said, the trail isn’t maintained…but it sure is nice and wide.

    You will start to get glimpses of the valley to your left but it will be largely obstructed by trees…just keep going.  Artist’s Point doesn’t have a sign or marker but when get to the spot shown below that has a clear view, you will know you’ve reached your destination.

    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    180 degree iPhone panorama from Artist’s Point.

Equipment:

  • Keep in mind that if you want to be there for sunset, you will have to hike back in the dark so take a headlamp or two.

    Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

    Bridalveil Falls shot from Artist’s Point with 140mm lens

  • You will definitely want your wide lens.  A minimum of 35mm on a full frame camera (about a 50mm on a crop-sensor APS-C sensor camera).  Plus, a longer zoom (say 70mm to 120mm) will allow you to grab nice portraits of Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan.
  • If you are shooting at the beginning or end of the day, a tripod will allow you to take the necessary longer exposures.

Bottom line, if this is your first trip to Yosemite and time is tight, then just go to Tunnel View.  But if you’ve been here before, have the time and you’re the type that appreciates solitude, take the hike up to Artist’s Point and soak in one of the world’s most majestic vistas in peace and quiet.

Jeff

Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

Yosemite's Tunnel View vs. Artist's Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

Artist’s Point

PS;  Oddly enough, even though Artist’s Point is the ‘new’ hot spot, it actually is older than Tunnel View which didn’t exist until 1933 when the Wawona tunnel opened.  However, back in 1855, artist Thomas Ayres stood at Artist’s Point and drew a picture of Yosemite Valley that as was published in California Magazine.  Not long after, a stagecoach road was extended into Yosemite Valley that ran right by Artist’s Point.  The road was paved in the early 1900s but abandoned after the shorter route into the valley was completed in 1933.

 

Yosemite’s Tunnel View vs. Artist’s Point: Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

Yosemite’s Tunnel View vs. Artist’s Point:  Which is the Better Choice for Photographers?

Also posted in Yosemite Tagged , , , |

Just published: Old San Juan Gallery

Hi folks,

I’ve added a gallery of photographs featuring Old San Juan to the ‘Cityscape Album’ on my website.  Old San Juan is one of the historical treasures of the New World and certainly one of the most photogenic as well.  Don’t forget to check out my article detailing Old Jan Juan’s Top 10 Photo Locations and Tips as well!

Jeff

Old San Juan Photo Gallery

Raices Fountain…one of the many treasures in Old San Juan

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Caribbean/Central & South America, Historical Tagged , , |

How to Photograph Lava from a boat in Hawaii

Ask a hundred photographers going to Hawaii what are the top three things they most want to photograph and I’ll bet Lava will be on every list.  Specifically, photographing the lava entering the ocean from a boat is something many photographers would gladly trade a limb or two for.   Since this is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, you will want to make the most of it.   I certainly felt that way my first time but there was very little info on the internet about how to best do it…so I learned the hard way.  Fortunately, you won’t have to.  This article will tell you everything you need to know about how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Hot, Lazy, Lava River

Is this for you?

First of all, to see the lava ocean entry you have to go out into the open ocean in a relatively small boat.  This isn’t a pleasure cruise, it can get rough so if you don’t like being in a rocking/jarring boat, have back problems or if you are frail, then this might not be something you want to tackle.  In fact, some of the tour operators won’t sell tickets to folks who are pregnant, over 75 years old or weighing over 275 lbs.  They seem to take safety seriously and aren’t shy about turning people away that could potentially get injured (and sue them).2017 Hawaii 06 05 10204

With that said, I think this tour is absolutely incredible and unforgettable.  The experience of being watching new land be created from  50′ away is breathtaking and not something you will ever forget.    You will be close enough to feel the heat on your face and hear the explosions of the sputtering and sizzling hot lava as it collides with the chilly Pacific.  Nearly everyone in my family has done this tour and they all loved it.

And if you are a photographer, well you can create mesmerizing photographs that simply can’t be created any other way.  I’ve photographed lava from the air, ground and sea and I think images of lava taken from a boat are the most dramatic, impressive and beautiful.

Where is it?

The only location in the state you can see lava is on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The lava enters the ocean on the southeast coast (see map).  Most flights to the big Island arrive in Kona but Hilo also has an International Airport and it is quite a bit closer.how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Which tour to take?

As of July of 2017, there are only four tour operators licensed to conduct ocean tours within 300 feet of the lava entering the ocean: Lava Ocean Tours, Moku Nui Lava Tours, Kalapana Cultural Tours and Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours.  I’m sure you can find other tours and they will be cheaper.  But consider this:  it is at least a 20 mile ride on the open ocean to the lava:  Do you really want to take the chance on a unlicensed operator?  Plus, the Coast Guard has been known to board and shut down illegal operators 

So, which is the best for photographers?  Well, personally I prefer Lava Ocean.  The competition uses much smaller fishing-style boats, typically like the one I photographed at the ocean entry earlier this year (below).

2017 Hawaii 06 05 09521

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

LavaOne

Lava Ocean’s boat (the LavaOne seen here) is a modern 40′ aluminum catamaran designed specially for lava viewing.  The LavaOne is a more stable platform for shooting, gets you out to the lava 50% faster and I consider it a safer and better designed vessel.  It will cost you $20-$50 more.  But if you are going all the way to Hawaii for a bucket list item like this, then 50 bucks shouldn’t really be a consideration.  If money is tight, you can save $20 by paying cash rather than using a credit card.

To be candid, others don’t necessarily share my option.  They note that it is easier to shoot from both sides in the smaller boats.  Plus other companies may stay on site at the lava a bit longer.

By the way, I do not receive any kickbacks, discounted tickets or so much as an ugly, cheap t-shirt for my endorsement of Lava Ocean:)

 When to go:

Go NOW!  Lava has been flowing into the ocean for just over a year, but there is no way to know how long this will last.  For three  years prior to July 2016, for example, lava wasn’t flowing into the ocean.  So before you book a flight specifically to see lava entering the ocean, call or email Lava Ocean and make sure that the lava will visible during your visit.

I really don’t think that one time of the year is significantly better than another. Yes, the rainy season is from November until March and photographing the lava in a rainstorm is less than ideal.  But keep in mind that it rains a lot on this part of the Big Island…even during the dry season.

Lava is MUCH more visible and photographically dramatic at dawn or dusk.  Tours are scheduled throughout the day, but don’t even consider any of them except the dawn and sunset tours.  You will pay a premium of $70 or so compared to the daylight tours, but it will be worth every penny (which is why those trips sell out first).  Personally, I think the dawn tour is the better of the two, if for no other reason that the ocean tends to be calmer.

The weather doesn’t always cooperate.  In addition to the rain, the ocean can get rough.  If the waves are too high, the tours will be cancelled.  Schedule your tour early during your trip to the Big Island so that you have time left to reschedule if needed.how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Tips Before you go:

Get a room/hotel near Hilo or a bit south of it…this will save you a lot of driving.  The boat launches from Issac Hale Park…which is 45 minutes south of Hilo and a long 2.5 hours from Kona.  Driving on some of these roads at night isn’t fun, especially with intense fog that is common between Kona and the eastern part of the island.

Leave early.  As you approach Issac Hale Park, the roads get narrow and curvy…it will likely take longer to get there than your GPS tells you.

Have your camera and gear already set up and ready to go before you leave your room (more about camera settings later).  You really won’t have much time or opportunity to do so on the boat.

Tips for the Boarding Process:

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

You actually climb into the boat on the parking lot…

After you park, get out and look for a guy from Lava Ocean holding a clipboard and flashlight.  There might be a couple other tour operators there, so make sure you find the right one.

After you and the rest of the folks have checked in they load the boat.  You actually board in the parking lot and then they launch the boat at the park’s ramp.

One factor that will determine how many good shots you get will be where you sit on the boat. The seating consists of padded bench seats running down each side of the boat with three people in each seat and an aisle down the center.  You want to sit on the end of the bench seat against the side (gunwale) of the boat (away from the center aisle) so you have an unobstructed view with your camera. 

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

The best seats are right up against the side of the boat…not in the center or aisle seat.

Obviously if you are in the center of the bench seat or the spot closest to the center of the boat, you will have to shoot around your seatmates. Once the boat is underway, you can’t change seats or stand up, so it is really important to get a good seat.

So how do you get a good seat?

This isn’t like an airplane where your seat is pre-assigned.  They load the boat by age.  People over 60 years old board first and sit where-ever they want.  Then folks over 50.  Then everyone else.  If you are older, then you shouldn’t have any problem getting a primo seat.  If you are younger, here is what you do:

  1. Be there early…I’d suggest arriving 10-15 minutes before the check in time (in the summertime, check in is at 4:30am)
  2. When you check in, ask the captain/crew where they want you to line up for boarding.  If they don’t give you a specific answer, watch carefully and you will see when they bring the boat into the parking lot on the back of a trailer.  When the boat/trailer stops moving, walk over as close to it as you safely can.
  3. Most customers just mill around aimlessly after they check in.  Pay attention and move quickly to board ahead of the ‘herd’ when your age group is announced.
  4. The seats toward the back of the boat tend to provide a smoother and dryer ride, so those are preferred. However, if the only seats left on the sides of the boat are toward the front when you board, grab one of those instead.  You’re a photographer and this is likely a once in a lifetime opportunity…who cares if you get a bit wet and go home with a sore back?!

What to expect:

From start to finish, the tour takes about 2 hours.  The check-in/boarding takes about a half hour.  The trip to the lava takes about 30 minutes, you spend a half hour there and then head back.

On the way out it will be quite dark (if you are on the dawn tour).  Sometimes it can be very rough (another reason to have your camera already ‘dialed-in’ before you board).  Depending on how big the waves are and your attitude, the ride can be fun…a group of girls on my last tour squealed like they were on a roller-coaster every time we hit a wave (maybe it did get kinda old after a couple of hours).  On the other hand, some folks were tossing their cookies and asking the captain if he could turn the boat around before we even got to the lava.   Consider taking motion sickness pills if you are prone to sea-sickness.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

I didn’t go on the boat to photograph sunrises, but if you put one in front of me….

Once you get to the lava, the captain will spin the boat around every few minutes so that customers on both sides of the boat can see the show.  In other words, you will only be facing the lava for about half the time you are there.  When you are turned away from the lava, dry your lenses, check your photos and make sure your exposure and focus look good.  Then you can adjust your settings accordingly.  After that you can pass the time by taking photos of the sunrise and grumbling that the people on the other side of the boat get to face the lava more than your side…

Another thing you can do is take photos of the floating rocks.  Yup…I kid you not!  When the lava hits the ocean and solidifies it can get a lot of air trapped in it, so pieces of  will sometimes float right by you…sparking,  sputtering and sizzling the whole time. Pretty darn neat.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Ever see a floating rock? Here you go!

 

Photographing lava from a boat is kind of like photographing wildlife from a moving vehicle.  The action may appear anywhere in front of you and shooting with both eyes open will allow you to spot a new opportunities as they occur.  Keep scanning constantly.  Waves hitting the lava creates a lot of steam and will obscure some locations while other areas might clear up.

 

You will find that the 30 minutes there passes in an eyeblink.  When the captain starts to head home, pack your gear away because the ride back is usually rougher than the way out.  You can enjoy the view of the coast but unless you spot some dolphins your camera won’t likely miss anything particularly photogenic.

What to Bring:

Rain Gear…for you AND your camera

Although the boat does have a roof, you WILL get wet from the spray/waves even if it isn’t raining.  Your rain gear should cover your legs as well.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

“Armageddon”  When the surf hits the lava, wild stuff will start to happen in front of your camera!

Keep your camera in something watertight during the trip.  When you arrive at the lava, you will likely be able to shoot without much fear of getting wet (assuming it isn’t raining or the seas are not incredibly rough).

Dress a bit warmer than normal:

Although you are in Hawaii, you might get cold, especially if you get wet.   Your feet will likely get wet as well, I wouldn’t wear sandles…something waterproof would be better.

Bring a small waterproof backpack or drybag

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

“Pele’s Creation” It is quite an experience to witness the birth of new land.

Anything you put on the floor of the boat will get wet.  Water sloshes across the floor and out the scuppers (holes above the floor that let the water flow out).  There is a small shelf under your seat that is raised above the floor that stays dry.  But it is narrow…maybe about 9″ tall so bring a waterproof bag/backpack for your camera gear that will fit on the shelf.  Keep in mind that the ride can be very rough, so be sure you have some padding around your cameras.

Lenses:

  • Bring your fastest glass…at least f2.8.  Since you will be shooting with a fast shutter speed in near darkness, slow lenses are going to struggle until the sun comes up.
  • Use zooms, not primes.  Your perspective is constantly moving and you are at the mercy of the captain and the waves, so a zoom is your only way of being able to selectively choose and frame your subject.
  • Since your time shooting is short, you don’t want to be changing lenses (besides the salt spray and rocking wouldn’t help) I usually bring two cameras: one with a wide angle zoom and the second with a long zoom.
  • Once the boat gets to the ocean entry point, it stays close to lava (often within 50′) so if you want to capture the whole scene you will need a the wide angle lens.

    2017 Hawaii 06 05 09404

    This wide angle shot gives you a perspective of the entire scene, but I found close ups with a long zoom to be more memorable.

  • It will be your long zoom that you will use the most.  Frankly, 90% of my total shots (and 99% of my favorite shots) are taken with the long zoom (Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 with a 1.4 teleconverter).  So if you only want to bring a single camera, put your long zoom on it.
  • I prefer not to use a polarizing filter shooting lava.  I don’t find that it helps colors/reflections enough to justify the loss of a stop of speed.

Camera:

  • Your camera needs to be able to handle a lot of dynamic range.  The lava can easily blow out your highlights and you can’t shoot HDR from a rocking boat.  I use my full frame Nikon D810 with a wide angle lens and a Nikon D500 with the 70-200.  how to photograph lava from a boat in HawaiiBoth handled the dynamic range well.
  • Select a camera with excellent autofocus ability. Again, this is like wildlife photography, lighting isn’t great, everything is moving and a camera without competant autofocus is not going to give you as many ‘keepers.’
  • I love my D810 but my D500 is my go-to camera for lava photography.
    1. It has wicked autofocus and it shoots 10 frames per second, which allowed me to capture a lot of the quick action of dripping lava.
    2. Also, the D500 is a DX, so that effectively doubled the focal range of my 70-200.  I need every bit of that range when shooting lava from the boat since about half my shots are usually taken at the longest setting.
    3. Although the dynamic range of the D500 doesn’t equal the full frame D810, I found it was capable of handling the lava.

Misc:

  • Have empty, large capacity memory cards and full charged batteries.
  • Have a number of easily accessible microfiber cloths ready in your shirt pockets. In addition to the rain and spray, you will probably run into clouds of steam at the ocean entry, so the microfiber will come in handy.
  • Since you are on a rocking boat, you will be handholding your camera…no need for tripods/monopods/gorilla pods

Camera Settings:

  • VR:  Since you are on a bouncing boat, you need to engage your Vibration Control (VR/IS).
  • Shutter Speed: Selecting a high shutter speed will also help eliminate vibrations.  This will also allow you to ‘freeze’ the action of the spray/waves and exploding lava.  I find the best results are between 1/500 and 1/1000th of a second.
how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Check out the water dripping from the lava after being hit by a wave!

  • Manual/Shutter Priority:  Personally, I like to shoot in Manual and adjust my settings as I go.  If this isn’t something you do regularly, I’d suggest you use Shutter Priority.
  • Aperture: Shoot with your aperture wide open…you will need every bit of light you can get.
  • Auto ISO:   Use your Auto ISO setting.  The brightness of the lava constantly changes and using Auto ISO will allow your camera to use the best possible ISO without requiring you to continually change it yourself.   I adjusted my auto ISO so that 1600 was my highest setting and 200 was the lowest.  I usually find that the ISO settings on my shots start at 1600 when we first arrive on site and the Auto ISO gradually upgrades the setting to ISO 200 after sunrise.
  • RAW:  Shoot in RAW.  This will preserve every bit of data your sensor collects and will make your job a lot easier in post-processing when you are trying to tame the wide dynamic range.
  • White Balance: I leave my white balance on Auto and then adjust to taste in Photoshop.
  • Frame Rate:  Set your camera to its fastest possible frames per second setting.  Shoot a lot…you have to anticipate that some of your shots will be blurry because of the moving boat and long focal length.  The more shots you take, the better your chances that your auto-focus will produce some crisp shots.

Post-Processing:

  • Your main challenge will be controlling the dynamic range.  Use the Photoshop sliders for ‘highlights’ and ‘shadows’ and minimize blown out highlights while still showing some details in the darker areas of your images.
  • Noise will probably be a challenge, especially in areas containing steam or dark shadows…made worse if you are shooting at high ISOs.  I cut out the lava and surrounding rock, put it on the top layer.  Then I liberally use the noise reduction slider on the other, lower layer that has the steam/foggy areas.  This leaves the areas of lava and rock sharp which really contrasts against the ‘soft’, noise free steam/fog.
how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

The contrast between the ‘harsh’ lava/rock and the ‘soft’ steam/fog/ocean makes for dramatic images.

  • The raw colors on my images are usually pretty intense and rarely need much saturation/tweaking in Photoshop
  • Don’t forget to adjust your white balance.  Your shots will have a strong blue tint before the sun rises.

After the tour:

When you get back to Issac Hale Park, you might want to check out the hot springs there. It might be just the thing for your sore muscles if your trip was a bit rough.

If you are staying in Kona, you should check out Hilo while you are on the eastern side of the island.  The Hilo area has a number of beautiful waterfalls.  And of course, Volcanos National Park is also on the way back…you could easily spend a couple days exploring that incredible treasure.

Anyway, more about other Hawaiian photo ops later.  Now I must leave, it is time for my evening glass of wine!

Aloha!
Jeff

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

How to Photograph Lava from a boat in Hawaii

 

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

A Photographer Commutes on Zion’s Subway: Photo Tips

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

This is pretty much straight out of the camera. I pulled the highlights down a bit, lightened the shadows and increased the vibrance a tad…that’s it!

If you are a photographer, then you know we live in challenging times.  The source of this concern is that there are a LOT of  talented and dedicated photographers out there and they are creating incredible images.  So why is that a problem?  Well, have you ever finally got to one of those locations on your ‘photographic bucket list’, set up your tripod, looked thru the viewfinder, and said to yourself….Crap, this doesn’t look at all like those pictures I’ve been looking at!

That’s the problem I’m talking about.

Heck, you get all excited, spend the money and time to travel to one of these photographic icons….and then the real thing just doesn’t look nearly as good as those images you saw on your computer back at home.

It’s happened to all of us…no matter how good our equipment or how talented (we think) we are.

So when I do get to a ‘bucket list’ spot and I look thru the viewfinder and what I see is there is as good as anything I’ve ever seen on the internet, well, then I know that I’m truly in the presence of something special.   A real Icon.

And I’m here to tell you that the Subway at Zion National Park is one of those Icons.  I don’t care how many photoshopped masterpieces you’ve seen taken by National Geographic Award Winning Photographers …the fact is that YOU can take a photo here that will compare well to the best of them and  make you shake your head in wonder.

Yeah, but here’s the hitch (there’s always a hitch).   It’s not easy to get to the subway.  Access is tightly restricted by a permit system plus you have to be willing and able to make a long hike.

Actually, there are two ways to get to the Subway.  One way involves rappelling and other mountain climbing type skills, so let’s forget about that one.  The second route is shorter and easier… its called the “Bottom-up” hike.  Although easier, it is still about a 10 miles roundtrip hike.  And it isn’t a smooth, easy trail.  The National Park Service calls this a strenuous hike.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was certainly the toughest 10 mile hike I’ve done.  None of it is smooth, straight, level or flat.  You are constantly scrambling up and down over rocks and boulders.  Maybe this explains why less than 1% of Zion visitors make it to the Subway.

My son, Ryan, and I are confident hikers but we still took about two hours (not counting stops) to reach the Subway.  Once you figure in some breaks as well as stops for photography, it would be difficult to do this whole hike in less than seven hours.

But it is worth it!

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

You start seeing these colorful pools as you approach the subway entrance

Ryan and were in Zion this March and the Subway was #1 on our list of hikes.  We got to the trailhead a couple of hours after dawn and started down the trail.   To be honest, compared to other hikes in Zion, this one isn’t particularly beautiful.  To be brutally honest it was a long, tiring slog.  But as we finally approached the subway entrance things started to get very interesting.

Carved out from the colorful sandstone by moving water, the subway is aptly named.   Actually it is a narrow canyon with a thin opening in the ceiling but it really does look like someone burrowed a curving, round tube right thru the rock.

We set up our tripods and took our first shot.  We glanced at the result and then looked up at each other with huge, dopey smiles on our faces.  Shook our heads and got to work.  We were bouncing ideas off of each other, suggesting different angles, perspectives, camera settings…I was almost giddy.  The place is truly magical for a photographer!

The subway was a lot larger than I had imagined, the ceiling was about 20′ tall.  And the colors are amazing!  The chilly water saturates the rock which results in robust reds, fluorescent greens and subtle yellows.

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

“Subway Commuter”  My son’s silhouette helps you appreciate the size of the place.

Ryan thought it would be good to include people in some of the shots.  I’m kind of ‘old school’ and was taught to exclude people from my photographs.  But I’ve come to appreciate how much a human figure in an image provides a sense of proportion and fosters an emotional link to the image.  Looking thru my Subway shots now, the ones with people are among my favorites:  who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?

'Zion's Subway Photo Tips'

It can be hard to come up with unique compositions at the Subway. In this shot, I used a Gorillapod tripod to set up my camera only inches over the water.

The Subway is fully shaded and surprisingly cold, especially when the wind whips thru the ‘tunnel.’  We had a ball, despite the chill and managed to stay on our feet the whole time although the swift current and slippery rocks resulted in a couple slips that certainly got the adrenaline flowing for a moment or two.

There is a waterfall in a chamber at the back of the Subway, but the water levels were too high for us to reach it due to the snowmelt.  Something for our next trip.

We enjoyed the Subway’s magic for nearly 90 minutes before we regretfully packed up to head home.

We decided to stop for a well earned lunch at Arch Angel Cascades.  As we were enjoying our extravagant meal (Cliff Bars) we noticed a young couple coming down the stream headed for the Subway.  We waved and said hi.  About ten minutes later we were putting our packs back on when we saw the same couple heading back.  I guess they weren’t photographers.  They had hiked for 2 hours, looked at the Subway for five minutes or so, then turned around started the 2 hour walk home. Ryan and I were amazed.  Sure, the Subway is beautiful, but I wonder if I would be willing to walk 4 hours to look at something for less than 300 seconds!

The hike back seemed to take forever…possibly because I was dreading the climb near the end of the trail where you have to climb 500′ over less than a tenth of a mile.  That is one steep climb.  Of course my 21 year old son bolted up the trail like some kind of crazed mountain goat.  My 57 year old knees weren’t quite as nubile so he got to wait quite a while at the top before I clawed my way up.

Now, four months later,  the sore muscles are (nearly) forgotten.  But whenever I look at the photos I took that day, I smile and think of a place where you don’t have to be Ansel Adams or Tom Till to take a breathtaking photograph.

Photo Tips and Guide for Photographers visiting Zion’s Subway:

Normally, what you would see now on my blog would be a full length article on “How-to photograph the Subway” …but that isn’t going to happen:  Because someone has already done it.  I ran across this guide  by fellow photographer Nico Debarmore when I was first planning my trip.  His article is through, detailed, accurate and I highly recommend it to any photographer considering making a hike to the Subway.

In addition to Nico’s information, let me add a few random thoughts of my own:

Find out about the water conditions  before you hike: 

  • The Left Fork of North Creek is the stream that runs thru the Subway and it is the single most important variable in your visit to the Subway.  The amount of flow and temperature will determine IF you can make the hike and what type of equipment (i.e. neoprene socks/boots/etc) you will need.
    • The best way to get this info is to ask one of the outfitters in Springdale (the little town at the southern entrance of Zion.)  They get daily updates on water conditions from their customers as they come back to return rented equipment.
      • Personally, I found the folks at the Zion Adventure Company to great sources of info…plus they have all the gear you will need to rent at decent prices (and no, they don’t give me a kickback for this endorsement, unfortunately.)
    • I originally tried asking Park Rangers at the desk that issues permits for the hike but they rarely seemed to have up-to-the minute and accurate info (or maybe liability concerns by the management has resulted in instructions for them to be vague?)

Don’t get lost

  • This isn’t a well maintained trail.  However, once you get down to the river you really can’t get lost…you just follow the river.  But the trail from the trailhead at the parking lot to the river can be difficult to follow.  I got lost for ten minutes when I thought a dry creek bed was the trail.  Thankfully I had a “AllTrails” GPS app on my phone and was able to get back to the right trail quickly (that alone was worth the $15 I spent on it!)

Don’t get distracted on the way to the Subway.

  • We stopped and photographed a number of neat little waterfalls and cascades on the way to the Subway…don’t do that.  Hit them on the way back.
  • A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo TipsA Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips
    • Why?  Because there are 3 truly memorable photogenic subjects on this hike other than the Subway (Arch Angel Falls, the Cascade just above Arch Angel Falls and the Crack).  They are all clustered near the end close to the actual subway.  If you dawdle too long during your hike, then these 3 spots will likely be in direct sunlight by the time you get there.
      • So, don’t be a slowpoke and if any of these 3 spots are still in the shade when you reach them on your way to the Subway, stop and take a few minutes to capture some images.
    • A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

      I photographed Arch Angel Falls on the way back from the Subway…by then it was in direct sunlight. If I had taken this  photo while it was in the shade I would have been much happier with the result.

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

The Cascade above Arch Angel Falls photographed in mid morning while still shaded by the canyon walls. This shot was taken in March and the snowmelt provided a nice waterflow. Later in the year (summertime) the current is much reduced and isn’t quite so photogenic.

  • You won’t find a photo of the famous Crack in this blog, because I was in a hurry to get to the Subway and didn’t stop and photograph while it was still in the shade.  I really should have.  Because by the time we returned on the hike back it was in direct, blinding and harsh sunlight.  It wasn’t even worth wasting a shot.  I’ll know better next time.

Avoid the Crowds.  The Park Service allows a maximum of 80 hikers per day to visit the Subway which doesn’t sound like a lot.  However, the Subway can’t really handle more than a handful of photographers without them getting in each other’s way.  You really don’t want to be here maneuvering your tripod here around 79 of your new, bestest friends.

  1. Start your hike at first light (before sunrise if you can).   It will mean leaving your room/campsite early, but you will avoid most of the crowd. Plus, you will be able to get to Arch Angel Falls and the Crack before they get hit by direct sunlight.  Also, if you are hiking in the winter months when there are only 12 hours of sunlight, you have to start early or you will be hiking home in the dark.
  2. Try to avoid April – October.  These are the busiest months.  If you visit during Nov-March you are very likely to get a permit (for example,  the day my son and I visited in March, there were only 11 other people who applied for a permit). However, during the busy April- October timeframe the 80 available permits are in such demand that they are actually doled out via a lottery…so there is NO guarantee that you will get one  (see Nico’s article for more details). .

Bracket your shots

The Subway is at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon, so it doesn’t get much direct sunlight.  The light is subdued and my Nikon D800e was able to handle the dynamic range.  However, the D800 is known for its dynamic range abilities, so depending on your camera, it might be a great idea to bracket your shots just in case you have to use HDR software.

'Zion's Subway Photo Tips'

Ryan and I waving goodbye at the end of an epic photo shoot!

 

I’ve never seen a place like the Subway.  It is truly unique and for the photographer willing to make the hike, it is a place never to be forgotten.

I hope you get to experience the magic yourself someday soon!

Jeff

 

 

 

Zion’s Subway Photo Tips

Zion’s Subway Photo Tips

 

 

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

Palouse Photography Tips: A Guide for Visitors

The Palouse is a remote farming area in southeastern Washington state and western Idaho.  The endless softly rolling hills are home to vast wheat fields, scattered small towns and friendly folks.  It’s the type of place that evokes memories of the “Norman Rockwell” America we imagine it was long ago.

You’ve probably never heard of the Palouse…unless you are a wheat broker, a local resident or a landscape photographer.

Why landscape photographers?  Well, those hills I mentioned are blessed by a soft, flowing, nearly sensuous beauty when viewed thru a camera.  As a result, photographers from across the world flock there during the summer when the fields are covered by colorful waves of wheat.   Images of this area captivated me for years and I finally had the chance in June to experience it for myself.

And here’s what I found:

Palouse Photography Tips: A guide for visitors

“Whitman County Growers”

What do you think?  Unreal?  Surreal?  I’d never seen anything like it but for some odd reason when I first gazed upon the Palouse landscape, I was oddly reminded of a painting by Dali …

The Persistence of Memory.jpg

“Persistence of Memory” by Salvadore Dali

I thought Dali was Spanish but maybe he spent some time in western Washington before he started painting?

The Palouse seems to encourage random, strange thoughts like that…it just doesn’t seem real somehow.   It is all just so pretty…so green and the people are just so incredibly nice.  Boy, I thought the folks in my town were friendly …but the Palouse?  Have you ever had one of those road-workers that holds the “Slow/Stop” signs actually walk up to your car and start talking to you?  This happened to me twice in the Palouse.  If this occurred in some other parts of the country, I’d be rolling up my windows and frantically looking for a way to get away…but here it didn’t seem odd or threatening.  It quickly became clear that the locals just don’t seem to have the ‘shields’ that those of us from urban areas take for granted.

Palouse Photography Tips

I bet you could have seen this same scene in 1950….or even 1850. The Palouse seems to embody a classic rural ambiance of a day long gone.

Okay…okay…enough with my ramblings about how the Palouse made me feel.   What does it look like?

Well, first of all the landscape is best appreciated from the vantage point of height.  Fortunately, there is a tall hill (butte) smack dab in the middle of the best part of the Palouse.  It is called Steptoe Butte and as part of the Washington State Park system, it is open to the public.    In the hours before dusk and after dawn, the low angle of the sun creates wonderful shadows around all those curvy hills.

2015 Northwest 06 19 554 south pano

Seven frame panorama from the summit of Steptoe made right after sunrise…

Steptoe tops-out at 3612′ and you can park on the summit and see an absolutely unreal 360º vista.   Palouse Photography TipsWith a pair of binoculars you can see the occasional red barn, farm house or grain silo…but those are the exceptions.  Nearly everything you can see in every direction is just soft, curving hills covered with rippling waves of grain.

Well, you will also notice the 58 turbines of the Palouse Wind Farm built in 2012.  They are a good distance north of the butte so they don’t look huge but they are actually about 500′ tall and produce quite a bit of electricity.

 

Palouse Photography Tips

Unplanted areas contrast the lush green crops

Every direction you look reveals more details and different perspectives:

Palouse Photography Tips

This is the famous ‘Red Barn.’ Look for it when you are on the summit. I bet it has been photographed thousands of times…

If you come down from the Butte, the perspectives from ground level are still captivating…just not jaw dropping.

Palouse Photography Tips

One very lonely and very dead tree.

So, if you ever want to travel back in time to a simpler, friendlier time while being surrounded in a landscape that only a crazy Catalonian surrealist artist could envision, make your way to the Palouse next summer.  It will be a memorable experience.

Tips and suggestions for my Fellow Photographers:

When to Visit?

May and June are usually peak for the yellow and green of the fields.  A very different look can be seen in July and August when the wheat turns gold and brown. Harvesting usually begins in late August.

Where to stay?

Colfax is the town closest to Steptoe.  It is about 30 minutes south and you can choose from 4 or 5 hotel/motels.

Where should you go for your shots?

Steptoe Butte  As mentioned, Steptoe Butte is the primo place to be in the Palouse.

Palouse Photography Tips

Steptoe sticks out of the surrounding landscape like a sore toe (sorry…had to say it)

The best light is near sunrise and sunset.  Be on Steptoe for both….the same features can look totally different at the opposite ends of the day.  Plus, by visiting twice you will increase your chances of photographing during partly cloudy conditions when dappled sunlight accentuates the incredible shadows created by the low angled sunlight.

When you first get to Steptoe, pay your $10 at the unattended kiosk (or you can buy a full year pass online for $30), then drive to the summit. There is a large parking area just below the actual summit and many folks pull in here mistakenly thinking they are at the top.  The actual summit is accessed by a narrow (a little wider than a single car), unmarked road on your left as you pull into the larger pullout.  It looks like a service road used to get to the cell towers on the summit.  Once you get to the top, scout out your potential shots by using your binoculars.  Look for nice perspectives and find the farm houses, barns and silos that you will want to incorporate into your shots.

Palouse Photography Tips

Front Row Seating for Steptoe Summit Sunrise

Don’t stay at the summit the whole time.  There are a number of pullouts along the road that winds around the butte and they will give you significantly different perspectives.  It only takes a few minutes to drive from one to the other and you will be surprised how different your shots look from the lower elevations.

The park is officially open from dawn to dusk but I’ve never had an issue being there earlier or later than the posted hours.

Palouse Photography Tips

Some fields are planted with brilliant yellow canola stretching as far as your eye can see…

During the day, drive around:  Get off the paved roads, slow down and just drive.  There are some wonderful vignettes to be found.  Be respectful of private property and be aware that some big farm equipment rolls down the gravel roads.  Also be aware that most of the roads around here have sharp drop-offs right at their edge….you can’t just pull over everywhere.  You may have to drive a bit further and hike back a short ways.

Palouse Photography Tips

The famous “Wagon Wheel” fence

Dahmen Barn:  Located in Uniontown (about an hour south of Steptoe) this is an antique barn that is now a co-op for local artists.  Photographers adore the fence that surrounds the property which is made from hundreds of old metal tractor wheels, gears, etc.  Here is a link with more info and directions.

Palouse Photography Tips

Not your typical barn

T.A. Leonard Barn:  You will see a lot of quaint red barns in the Palouse, but how many round barns have you ever seen?  This beautifully restored gem is 40 minutes south of Steptoe in Pullman right off of Old Moscow Road.  It’s a private farm and not open for tours but you can photograph it from the road.  This site will give you more info and directions.

Kamiak Butte:    Actually a bit taller than Steptoe but you can’t drive to the summit. 2015 Northwest 06 20 904 There is a hiking trail to the top (about 3.5 miles roundtrip).  If you are visiting for more than a day and you have already got all the shots you want from Steptoe, then it is certainly worth a visit but if your time is limited, Steptoe is the place to be. Great place for a picnic lunch.  Kamiak is about 29 miles (55 minutes) from Steptoe.  Click this link for more info.

Palouse Falls:  About an 90 mile drive west of Steptoe is the magnificent 197′  Palouse Falls.  Perhaps best seen at sunset, you can also take wonderful Milky Way shots here.  I’ll be writing a full article about this location later in the fall.

Other locations:  A local photographer has put together a detailed map  showing locations of barns, old cars and other photographic points of interest.  She sells the map via the internet for $25.  It is quite detailed and worth your money if you are going to visit.  Here is a link.  And no, I don’t get a commission!   Short of hiring a full time local guide, this is the best resource I’ve found to help visiting photographers find potential locations

How long should you visit?

If your time is tight, you can cover the highlights in a day.  That will give you a sunrise and sunset on Steptoe and the middle of the day to explore the countryside.  Of course, the Palouse is a big area, so you would need to spend much longer to cover it thoroughly.  If you do decide to take a few days, I’d suggest you hire one of the local photo guides or book a photo tour.  Many of them have relationships with the farmers who will allow you to access to locations on private property that would otherwise be unavailable to you.

Equipment?

Lenses: When you think of landscapes, you naturally think of wide angle lenses and they will come in handy when you are driving around the farm roads.   But on Steptoe, you need long lenses.  As I reviewed my photos taken on the butte, I noticed that nearly all of them were taken somewhere between 300-500mm on a full frame camera (450mm to 750mm on an APS-C crop sensor camera).

Polarizer:  You will often have some haze on Steptoe and a polarizer will help reduce that issue and make your colors ‘pop.’

Tripod:  The Palouse can be a bit breezy.  On Steptoe, the wind can really rip.  I have a heavy duty tripod and head that had never, ever had a problem even with my monster 200-400 beast of a zoom lens.  At least it never had a problem until I was on Steptoe.  As I checked my shots in the LCD, I noticed that some of them were not quite as sharp as others…the wind was shaking my rig ever so slightly.  I’d suggest you weigh down your tripod, take 2 or 3 shots of every scene and check every single shot fully zoomed in to ensure that your shots are sharp.Palouse Photography Tips

Post processing

Dynamic Range:  Full frame cameras, HDR, blending layers in Photoshop….many of us work hard to show the full dynamic range in our shots.  Oddly enough, the Palouse is one of those venues where that might not be necessary..or even preferred.  Those dark shadows contrasted by the brilliant crests of the hills seems to me to be a big part of the beauty of the Palouse.  Do yourself a favor and try processing some shots where you can’t see every detail in the shadows…you might like the result.

Haze:  I found that I had to use the clarity slider in Photoshop liberally to combat this issue.

That should be enough to get you started on a successful photo trip to the Palouse.  I’m sure you will enjoy yourself and feel free to email me with copies of your best images!
JeffPalouse Photography Tips

Palouse Photography Tips:  A Guide for Visitors

 

Also posted in Pacific Northwest USA Tagged , , , |

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

The Earth is blessed with many beautiful and emotionally provocative sights, but I seriously doubt that any of them can top the Aurora Borealis for sheer sensuous and awe-inspiring beauty. The Northern Lights have amazed mankind long before the ancient Romans named ‘Aurora’ the Goddess of Dawn and the Greeks called the wind ‘Boreas’.   Unfortunately for most photographers, the ‘Dawn Wind’ is not something we get a chance to capture often.  When we do, it is often after travelling long distances and spending some serious dollars.  So, if you do get the chance to photograph the Northern (or Southern) Lights, you probably want to make the most of the opportunity  That became very clear to me after I published my last blog, which was a recap of a recent Aurora photography trip.  I was deluged with emails asking for specifics on how to take Aurora photos.    So, in this blog, I will share with you the Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

Scout locations that include water for some great reflective shots of the Aurora. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

Where can you find the Aurora?

  1. The Northern Lights are sometimes visible far below the Arctic Circle…but if you are going to plan a trip to see them, you really need to go north…way north!  The northern areas of Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland and Russia are all prime locations.  For most of us, the best choice will depend on how close/affordable each option is.
  2. Most of the towns in these areas are pretty small, so city lights are not much of a problem.  Fairbanks Alaska, for example, has only 32,000 residents and I didn’t find light pollution to be much of an issue.
  3. Personally, I thought Fairbanks was an excellent Aurora location.  It had a fine international airport with lots of daily flights, rental car agencies and plenty of hotels.  Plus, if I got tired of town,  it had good roads heading out into the back country that I could explore and photograph.  It also didn’t hurt that I spoke the language and felt very comfortable there.
    • Keep in mind that if you live in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis might be your best bet.  This counterpart of the Aurora Borealis is visible in Antarctica, of course, but sometimes can be seen from the South Island of New Zealand , southern Australia (especially Tasmania), and southern Chile/Argentina.

When is the best time?

  1. Aurora Borealis season in northern polar latitudes (Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia) runs from August to April.  During the summer months of May thru July, the sun rarely sets and it is just too bright to see the Aurora.
    • Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are best for aurora activity. The winter months of October to February should be your second choice.
  2. You will still be at the mercy of the clouds.  A few clouds can be a nice accompaniment, but if your trip is only for a few days and it is totally overcast every night, you are out of luck.
    • Schedule as long a trip of you can to increase your chances of having at least one or two clear nights.  When you consider a location also take into account if it has any daytime photo ops that would keep you busy if the Aurora is elusive/
    • Check out the long-range weather forecasts and historical weather patterns for the locations you are considering.  See how many clear nights they usually experience.
      • Iceland, for example, is overcast nearly 90% of the time.  Plus, the clouds are constant…one time of the year is about as cloudy as the next.
      •  Alaska, on the other hand, does have fewer clouds in the spring…about half the nights are clear or partially cloudy.  In the fall, however, it is cloudy nearly 80-90% of the time.   On my last 10 day tip to Alaska in September, for example, I had only 3 clear nights.
  3. The Aurora can be pretty bright, which means you don’t have to schedule your trip during the part of a month with moonless nights.  In fact, I prefer full moons, since they light up the landscape with out you having to try to do so with your own lighting.
  4. There actually is a daily forecasts for the Aurora.  If you are going to Alaska, check out the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Geophysical InstituteIceland and the other places you might travel to also have their own forecasts, just Google it.
    • However, if you’ve travelled a great distance to photograph the Aurora, you shouldn’t write off a night of photography because of a bad forecast.  Like weather forecasts, these aren’t always accurate.
    • Forecasts range between 0 and 9 with the higher numbers indicating more intense Aurora activity.

Scout Locations during the Day

Any photo of a nice Aurora is wonderful, even if the surrounding landscape is flat and boring.  BUT…the same photo can be magnificent with a killer foreground.  Spend your day driving around looking for locations that will add interest to your shots.

  • Calm rivers and lakes can make wonderful mirrors for the Aurora.
  • Mountains and hills will break up the horizon and give your shot some pizzazz.
  • Putting a cabin or tent in the foreground (with a light on inside it) is a great touch.

The Aurora usually appears to the northwest/northeast.  If there are any cities around, look for potential locations that would allow you to photograph the Aurora to the north but place the towns behind you (to your south).

Consider hiring a local guide

I rarely hire guides.  I like doing things on my own.  I’m tight with a dollar. One of the few times I did hire a guide, was the last time I went on an Aurora Photography tour…and I’m glad I did.

The fact is that the Arctic is much different from the world most of us know.  Here is one example: Many of the best locations for Aurora photography in Alaska are north of Fairbanks off of the dangerous Dalton highway.  However, it isn’t legal to drive most rental cars on the Dalton.  Which means either you hire a puddle jumper, take a heck of a chance and illegally drive your rental car anyway or pay an insane amount of money to the few rental agencies that will let you take their vehicles on the Dalton.  My guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography.

I worked with Hugh Rose.  He lives in Fairbanks, has been a photographer and tour leader there for decades and he seriously knows his stuff.

Have the right equipment

I’m personally a bit sick of hearing “It’s not the camera…It’s the photographer!”  The statement is true…to a point, but even the best photographer would be up a (frozen) creek without a paddle if he/she didn’t have the right equipment when photographing the Northern Lights

  1. The Camera.
    1. The new, full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  The Nikon 600/700/810s, etc, as well as the Canon 1D/5D/6Ds are all excellent choices for this type of work.
    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 Aurora shots.
  2. Tripod.   Since you are taking long exposures, a tripod is mandatory.  Use a tall tripod so you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.
  3. A cable or wireless shutter release.
  4. Lens:  Fast!
    • The Aurora is much brighter than most subjects you would normally photograph at night so you might think you wouldn’t need a particularly ‘fast’ lens.  However, unlike the slow-moving Milky Way, Auroras can move across the sky at a pretty good clip.  As a result, you need to take much shorter exposures in order to capture the  quick-changing aspects of Auroras.  Some details, like the ‘curtain-effect’ (see the reddish area of the Aurora on the left side of the photo below) will be blurred and  lost with exposures over 10-15 seconds.  Therefore, I’d suggest a 2.8f lens or faster.
    • Let’s put this in perspective:  A 2.8f lens is twice as fast as a 3.5f.  In other words, if you took an 8 second exposure with a f2.8 lens and then switched to a f3.5 lens, you would have to take a 16 second exposure to get the same amount of light.   By the same token, a f2.0 lens is twice as fast as a 2.8f and so on.

      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      I love how the red Aurora reflected off the river in the bottom right of this shot, while the green Aurora on the left reflected off the Dalton Highway. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  5. Lens:  Wide
    • Aurorascan be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      Moonlight backlit this Aurora and turned it into something truly special. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 2200

      • If you have a full frame camera, then 14mm would do the trick.  I use my 14-24mm Nikon 2.8f zoom and have found it to be an excellent choice for Aurora photography.  For Auroras that span from horizon to horizon, you might want to try a 16mm fisheye lens
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a regular 10-12 mm would work ( or a 8 or 10 mm fisheye),
    • Panoramas?
      • With the Milky Way, you can take multiple shots with lenses that aren’t particularly wide and then stitch them together in Photoshop (or a similar program).   However, since Auroras move quickly, panoramas are usually not an option….so you really need that wide lens.
  6. Photoshop.  Right out of the camera, Aurora shots can be amazing.  But often you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program to get the most out of the image.
  7. L-Bracket.  This isn’t a Must-Have…more of a ‘really Nice-to-Have.”  L-Brackets attach to your camera and allow you to connect it to your tripod in a portrait orientation without having to swivel your camera sideways on your ballhead.  This means that you don’t have to lean over so much and it gives your tripod better balance. L Brackets are available from a number of companies (Kirk, Really Right Stuff, etc).  Basically no more than a well-machined piece of painted aluminium, the pricing can be surprising high.  I have found that  Hejner products to be high quality and reasonably priced.
  8. Headlamp.
  9. Extra Batteries.  The cold will drain your batteries quicker than normal.  Keep a couple spares in a warm pocket.
  10. Warm clothes.  This topic could be the source of a whole article.  Obviously if the temperature will be low and you will be standing outside for hours, you won’t be able to concentrate on the Aurora if you can no longer feel your extremities!  Pay particular to your feet…the cold will seep into them from the ground.

Technique

  1. Focus. 
    •  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 couple pieces 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 can be assured your shots will be perfectly focused.  Otherwise, you have to try to focus in the dark, which is more difficult.  Plus, without the tape, you will likely bump your lens at some point…and that will throw all future shots out of focus.  Unless you review EVERY shot at full magnification…which you should do of course (but that is a habit difficult to learn…at least for me!)
    • If you don’t get a chance to focus before it gets dark you need to keep in mind that your autofocus won’t work well at night.  So you will need to switch to manual focus.
      • 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.
      • Focus manually on the moon,  a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp  (use a loupe if you have one available).  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape.
  2. Camera Orientation (portrait or landscape)  simply depends on what the Aurora looks like the night you are photographing. Most of my shots are taken in portrait orientation, but within a few minutes, the Borealis can shift and you might find that a landscape perspective would be the better choice. Be prepared to shift your camera between both orientations (another benefit of an L-Bracket).

    Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

    The full moon really illuminated the fall foliage on the other side of the Chena River in this image. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

  3. Lighting.  If you are shooting under a bright moon, ambient lighting might be all you need.   However, if there isn’t much moonlight or if you want to draw attention to a particular feature in the foreground you will need to illuminate it yourself.  Sometimes a headlamp will do the trick but for larger subjects you might need a portable spotlight.  Bring both so you are ready for any eventuality.
  4. Composition Test.  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 (you can also use this technique to check that your focus is perfect).
  5. Aperture.  Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in the widest aperture your lens is capable of.
  6. Shutter Speed.  First set a  shutter speed of 8 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  Take the shot and look at your histogram.   If  the histogram is bunched completely to the left (too dark), reset your camera to a slightly longer exposure and try again.  Keep adding seconds to the exposure until you get proper exposure (the  histogram should be bunched somewhere near the center).
    • Ideally, you want an exposure in the 8-15 second range.
      1. Anything over 15 seconds will ‘blur’ detail in the Aurora.  Some Aurora’s don’t have much detail, so that might not be an issue
      2. Anything over 30 seconds will likely result in ‘streaked’ stars.
  7. Adjust your exposure.  I find it helpful to dial in a +2/3 to +1 Exposure compensation
  8. Shoot in RAW.  If you are a pro, you are already using RAW exclusively.  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.
  9. ISO. This really depends on your camera and just how bright the Aurora is on the night you are shooting.
    • The newer full frame cameras can take good quality shots well over ISO 1600, while older cameras and those with smaller sensor might create so much noise that you might not be able to go over 800.
    • The brightness of the Aurora, however, will be the primary factor that determines your ISO.  I’ve seen some nights that the Aurora was so bright you could read a newspaper by its light.  In that case I was able to shoot with an ISO as low as 400 with no problem (see the shot to the right).  Other nights, the Aurora was be much dimmer (but still beautiful) and I’ve had to dial the ISO all the way up to 2200 with my Nikon D800E.
    • The way to figure out the right ISO is simply to take practice shots after you first set up and adjust from there.  Find out how high you really need to set your ISO for your camera and the brightness of the Aurora.  Remember that the lower your ISO, the less noise in the resulting image.  Also keep in mind that the Aurora’s brightness will change during the night, so you might have to adjust your ISO setting accordingly.
  10. Turn off your IS/VR.  This is the ‘anti-shake’ function built into your lens.  Since you are shooting from a tripod, it won’t be necessary.
  11. Remove any filters from your lens.  Many photographers, myself included, attach high quality UV filters to the end of every lens and leave them there.  They provide some protection to the lens and don’t affect the quality of the image.  However, some reputable photographers have reported issues with these filters when photographing the Aurora, especially during severe cold.  My advice would be to remove any filters…no reason to take a chance on ruining a once in a lifetime shot.
  12. Blend the Foreground. If there isn’t much moonlight, the foreground will likely be little more than a silhouette.  That can be a really nice effect, but also try some shots that  include some detail in the foreground.  The best way to do this is take your 8 second (or so) shot of the Aurora and then, without moving the camera, take a much longer exposure (try 30 seconds to start) which will better expose the foreground.  Later, you can blend the two images together in Photoshop which will give you a shot perfected exposed for the Aurora and the foreground.
  13. Test, Test and Test Again!   It can be a real temptation to just start ripping off shots of the Aurora because you are afraid it isn’t going to last.  I’ve fallen for that temptation myself.  But trust me, the right thing to do is to slow down and try different settings and then methodically review them.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes less than 10 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing

This is where the pure technique ends and you get to be creative!  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but other photo processing software can give you the same results.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

If you want a real processing challenge, try a shot with both the Milky Way AND the Aurora!
D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 3000 and 4800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try increasing your exposure to see if it make a lot more stars visible without washing out the entire frame.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Clarity.  A small shift to the right on the clarity slider can really help the stars appear nice and crisp.
  5. Hue/Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real fun starts.  Your challenge is to coax your camera’s digital image to accurately reflect what you actually saw.  Be careful not to oversaturate the colors or shift hues to extremes.
  6. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Aurora.   For example, I often find that enhancing the ‘clarity’ of the Aurora can help define details.  This tool also helps you isolate hue/saturation adjustments to specific parts of the image.
  7. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your raw image.  The amount will depend onyoursettingsandthe quality of the sensor in your camera.
    1. You are going to need to reduce the noise to create a high quality image. There are a number of noise reduction programs you can use (I use Nik’s Dfine 2)
    2. No matter what software you use, remember that noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements (darker areas) than in the bright areas of the Aurora, so don’t use a ‘blanket’ or overall adjustment.  If nothing else, just put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

With these directions and a bit of practice, you should be set to go out and take your own impressive Aurora photographs.  However, I’ve provided only the basics.  If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the iPhone app How to Photograph the Northern Lights  (or you can get it in an e-book/PDF ).  Written by Alaskan resident Patrick J. Endres,  this is an exhaustive 280 page review on how to photograph the Aurora.  It costs about $25, but if you are spending serious bucks to photograph the Northern Lights, then it would be  a pretty small part of that investment.

The Aurora is truly one of natures greatest wonders, I hope you get a chance to watch a performance soon!
Jeff

 

 

For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-96), Act III, scene 2, line 379.

Also posted in Alaska, Night Photography Tagged , , , |

A Childhood Dream Come True; Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Once, when I was a kid, my family was on vacation in Canada.  We were out on our boat fishing in Lake Huron and the wind came up.  It was blowing so hard we couldn’t make it back to camp and we had to spent the night on the rocky shore.   That night, after my brother and I went to sleep, the Northern Lights came out.  Although we had never seen the Aurora  before, my Mom and Dad didn’t wake us up, thinking we really needed our sleep.   The next morning, the wind had calmed and we were able to get our boat back to camp.  But when I found that I had missed a chance to see the Aurora, I was terribly disappointed .   I carried that regret for the next forty years.

Last month, I got a chance to finally fulfill that childhood wish.   I took a ten day trip to Alaska on a Hugh Rose Photography Tour.  My primary goal was to  see (and photograph) the Aurora Borealis.  In this blog, I’ll share with you some photos and highlights of that experience.

The tour group met for dinner the first night in Fairbanks and our guides (Hugh Rose and Ron Niebrugge) gave us some pointers about shooting the Aurora.  They suggested we get some practice that night, so  I set my alarm for 11pm.  When it woke me up in my nice, warm bed a few hours later, I peeked out my window and saw a bit of green in the sky.  It wasn’t much, but it was an Aurora, my first!  I quickly gathered my gear and walked down to the Chena River, which was no more than two minutes behind my room at  the River’s Edge Resort  .  I quickly set up and here was my first effort:

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

I didn’t particularly like the lighted highway bridge, so I hiked upstream until it was out of sight and found  a spot where the river turned north (toward the Aurora).  This bend made the river look a lot wider, which allowed me to capture more of the Aurora reflected in the water.  As time passed, I noticed that the Borealis gradually increased in size and intensified in color as well.

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

By now it was midnight and for the next three hours I was totally enthralled by the spectacle in the heavens above me. It was glorious.  What really surprised and delighted me was that the Aurora MOVES.  I had seen time lapse videos which showed the Lights moving, but I thought it did so slowly…I didn’t think you could watch it move  with your  bare eyes.  I was wrong.  I stood there in awe as it slowly and sensuously danced across the sky.

There was a full moon, which did a wonderful job of illuminating the trees across the river.  Fall had come to Fairbanks early, so those trees were blessed with a riot of autumn colors as well. The river was flowing slowly and with long exposures, I was able to capture great reflections!

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

The next morning at breakfast, the tour group was excitedly bubbling about what a wonderful exhibition we had seen the night before.  It turned out that there had been a massive solar flare a few days earlier and it had just hit the Earth’s atmosphere.  And since the Aurora is caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles, the result was the killer display we had witnessed.

The forecast for the upcoming night promised an even better and more intense Aurora.   Plus, the Northern Lights tend to be better the further north you go and the higher in elevation you are.   Since our plan was to spend the night in Wiseman, which was 270 miles north and at an elevation twice that of Fairbanks, our expectations were thru the roof.    But wouldn’t you know it…as it turned out, the night was pretty much a bust.  The Aurora was pretty wimpy compared to the previous night and to make matters worse, it clouded over as well.

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

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

We never did figure out why the Aurora didn’t live up to the forecast.  But the really frustrating thing was that those clouds that had rolled in didn’t leave.  In fact, we didn’t have clear skies for another week.   Fortunately, we had plenty of wildlife to photograph (see my upcoming blog about Polar Bears on Barter Island).

Over the next week, I got up every night a couple of times to see if the weather had broken, but I had no luck.  With the trip nearly over, we were driving back to Wiseman at midnight in the middle of the Brooks Range when I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the sky was clearing…even better, I could see color in the heavens.  Our vans pulled over at a great spot a few miles ahead that Hugh had previously scouted and we piled out to set up our tripods.

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

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

I was really excited to see red in the Aurora.  Red is considered rare compared to the more common green shades I had seen the week before.  I rushed around to find foreground elements and leading lines I could use.

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

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

While the other folks pointed their cameras north, where the Aurora was most visible, my attention was drawn the opposite direction toward the Milky Way.  I love Milky Way photography and I  thought : “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to get the Aurora and Milky way in the same shot?”  I laughed to myself…what would the chances of that be?…

A few minutes later, the gods answered my prayer and a wide band of the Lights swung far to the south.  I excitedly fit it all in my viewfinder and got off a few shots before the Aurora shifted out of the frame.

A Serendipitous "Twofer"

A Serendipitous “Twofer”

By now, the Aurora was starting to fade…as were the photographers.  We got back in the vans and headed for Wiseman.  As it turned out, these would be my last shots of the Northern Lights,  those darn clouds showed up again obscuring the skies for my last couple days in Alaska.

As I flew home, I reflected on a wonderful trip.  I had got to see the Aurora Borealis…and it was far more beautiful and impressive than I had imagined.  I had also captured dozens of photos that would help keep the memory alive over the years ahead!

Next week, I’ll post a separate blog with detailed How-To Tips for Aurora Photography.

Take care!
Jeff

 

 

 A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Also posted in Alaska, Landscape Photography, Night Photography Tagged , , , |

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

I couldn’t tell you when I saw my first photo taken in the Virgin Narrows at Zion National Park.  But since that first moment, this became one of the top locations on my “photographic bucket list.”   And with good reason:  the images of sandstone walls glimmering with reflected light were magnificent.  Sort of like Antelope Canyon…only with a river ripping thru it!  Last month I finally got a chance to visit this icon and I have to tell you, it was everything a photographer could hope for.  First I’d like to share with you some of the highlights and then provide some hints for those that hope to make this trip in the future.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

The sensuous curves and dramatic reflected light on the towering sandstone cliffs will touch your soul.

 

So, first of all, what exactly is the Virgin Narrows?

Over the eons, the Virgin River has carved its way thru sandstone to create the wonder that is Zion National Park.  The Narrows is a section where the river has sliced a thin, deep wound thru the surrounding sandstone…only 20 feet wide in some spots and the walls of the canyon shoot nearly straight up over a 1,000 feet.  Just imagine yourself standing in the river, the walls close on either side, and the sky no more than a sliver of light snaking its way far overhead.  It truly is magnificent.  And if that wasn’t enough, what really makes this a wonder to see is the incredible way the sandstone of the canyon walls reflect light…it isn’t easy to describe…almost a glow, an iridescence…heck, just look at the pictures!

My top Impressions

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

Try some shots while set up in the river for a different perspective.

Here are four aspects of the Narrows that truly stand out:

1)  The light.  I’ve already mentioned it, so I won’t beat this to death, but the quality and color of the light as it reflects off of the sandstone walls of the canyon is amazing.

2)  The sheer number of incredible views.  You know, many of the places I photograph really are ‘one-trick-ponies.’  You go to a specific location for a specific shot, set up the tripod and might not even move it more than ten feet until you leave.    But the Narrows is not a single, specific vista.  Here you are moving the entire day and are treated to new views every five minutes!   I could spend days here without photographing the same scene twice.

3)  Six hours never zipped by so fast.  I know that this sounds like a long hike, but much of the time you will actually be photographing, not walking.  And I was so enthralled with trying to capture the grandeur before me that time just flew by.

4)  I actually enjoyed this hike.  Time for a confession:  I usually don’t really love hiking.  I mean, the actual process of putting one foot in front of the other with a heavy pack in hot weather for a full day…well, I can think of more pleasant things to do.    With that said, this is one of the few hikes I would go on again even if I didn’t have a camera with me.  It-is-really-THAT-cool.  The scenery is non-stop the entire way and the fact that most of the hike is actually in the river itself makes it just plan fun!  My son and I have hiked a lot of places during our years in the Boy Scouts.. but we both agreed that this was the best day of trekking we have ever experienced.  It is small wonder why this is often included as one of the Top 10 hikes in the country.

There are different hikes for the Narrows, which one should I take?

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

To put things in scale, check out my son on that white rock in the middle of the river!

For photographers, I’d suggest you do the “Bottom-Up”  hike in which you trek upstream about 3-5 miles and then turn around and return.  This hike will cover most of the prime photo ops, you don’t need a permit and most reasonably healthy folks should be able to make the hike with no problems.  Another great thing for photographers is that you can catch a sunrise shot, hike the Narrows after sunrise and finish in time to head out to another location in the park for your sunset shot.

You could also do the “Top-Down” hike.  This is about 16 miles starting at the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch.    It can be done in a long 12-14 hour day IF you are in great shape, AND you don’t mind that you won’t have any time to actually stop and take photographs. Photographers will need to plan to make this a two-day overnight hike.  A permit is required for any “Top-Down’ hike and you can obtain them three months in advance at this site.

Since the “Bottom-Up” hike is the one most photographers choose, it is the one I will review in this article.

 What should I expect on the Bottom-up hike?

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

See all the hiking sticks? Folks leave them on this bank at the end of Riverside Trail for the next day’s hikers

This trailhead starts at the Temple of Sinawava.  You first walk a mile on the paved “Riverside Trail.”  Keep your eyes open, there is a lot of wildlife (especially early in the morning).  At the trail’s end you enter the river and head upstream.  Most of the water is waist deep or less and you will cross from one side of the river to the other dozens of times.  With a bit of practice you will learn to recognize where the current is slowest and cross at those spots.  Photo ops begin immediately once you get into the river.   Less than a 1/2 mile will bring you to Mystery Falls (see photo below).

Each bend of the river reveals another photo-worthy vista and you will find yourself stopping often to set up your tripod.

About 2.5 miles from the trailhead (1.5 miles after entering the river), you will see a small stream enter from another canyon on your right.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

You will see Mystery Falls slipping over this bank of sandstone early in your hike.

This is Orderville Canyon.  Although it has a charm all it’s own, the best of the Virgin Narrows is yet to come, so I’d suggest bypassing Orderville and continuing down the main channel.  After Orderville, the canyon gets even more narrow and the photo ops continue over the next two miles until you get to Big Springs (when you see waterfalls coming out of the western side of the cliff, you will know you found it).  This is as far as most folks will be able to reach before having to stop and head back.

When should I go?

The Park Service doesn’t allow hikers in the Narrows when the water flow is high due to snow-melt (usually April to June).   As a result, summers are the most popular time of year to hike the narrows and even though it might be over 100 degrees, the cool river and the shade make it a comfortable trip.

Autumn and winter has fewer crowds, however, the river sure gets colder!  I’ve done this hike in March with a dry-suit (you can rent gear in Springdale for about $55/day) and I was warm and toasty.  The only downside is that the water levels were higher and the water wasn’t quite as clear.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

By noon, the light is harsh and the river is full of tourists.

Go EARLY in the day!  The Narrows can become a real zoo by late morning, especially in summer when there will be literally hundreds of people on the river by noon.  Trust me, you want to be at the trailhead as early after dawn as you can so you can enjoy the river and your photography while the multitudes are still in bed or having a leisurely breakfast.

Also, during the summer, the reflected light is best in early or mid-morning during the summers…by 11am or so you will have missed the best light.  I still regret that I skipped some shots when I first got to the Narrows figuring I’d just take the shot on the way back…but by then the light was harsh and directly overhead…plus the river was so packed with bodies that it was pointless to even pull out my camera.

Note that if you are hiking in autumn, you will find the best light in mid-afternoon.

How to get to the Trailhead

If you are visiting Zion between November and mid March, you have to take the mandatory park shuttle bus to the trailhead (at the Temple of Sinawava…the last stop).  Just park your car at the Visitors Center, which is on the right after you pass the toll-booths at the South (Springdale) entrance of the park.  The Shuttle is free and during the summer (May 9-Sept) the first one leaves at 6am  (it leaves at 7am the rest of the year).  Be on one of the first buses. Here is a link to the 2014 Zion Shuttle Bus schedule (note that it changes every year).

If your trip is between November and early March, you can just drive your own vehicle to the parking area at Sinawava.

Weather

You need to be aware that the narrows can be dangerous after a rain…that pleasant, shallow river can turn into a raging wall of rushing water coming at you in a narrow canyon with no way to reach higher ground.  Don’t take this hike if rain is in the forecast.

We photographers love our clouds. You can hear us groan at sunrise or sunset when the sky is clear.  However, clear skies are actually ideal for this location since there will be that much more sunlight to reflect off the sandstone.  If you are spending multiple days at Zion, do this hike on a day with a forecast for sunny skies.

Equipment

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

River rocks make nice foreground elements…

Since you are going to be actually hiking in the river for much of the day, there is some equipment you will want to bring that probably isn’t part of your usual kit.

1)  Buy a Dry Bag.  A dry-bag will cost you less than $20 on Amazon and it will prevent your camera, wallet and (electronic) car keys from getting wet.  The rocks in the river are rounded, smooth and often not visible.  Even if you are sure-footed, there is a strong probability that you will trip at least once.

Yes, this means that you will have to pull the dry bag out of your backpack for every shot, but once you’ve done it a few times you will get it down to a science.

2)  Take hiking poles.  Even if you don’t normally use them, make an exception on this trek.  I would have fallen at least three times if I hadn’t had these with me.  A single hiking stick is better than nothing but a pair of hiking poles is really the way to go on this excursion.

Everytime I go on this hike I find new perspectives for my shots...

Everytime I go on this hike I find new perspectives for my shots…

3) Footwear.  Since you will be in the water a good part of the day, you need footwear that can handle it….and this doesn’t mean sandals or water shoes!  You will be jamming your feet against rocks (I still have two bruised toes!)  Wear shoes that give your toes some real protection, have a tread pattern that can grip slippery rocks…and if they provide ankle protection, so much the better.  Also, buy some 3mm neoprene socks (about $15).  These will help keep sand from getting between you and your shoes and rubbing you raw…they will also keep your tootsies a bit warmer.

4) Tripod.  This isn’t an option.  The canyon is definitely a low light photo op.

5)  Clothing.  Quick dry (non-cotton).  Even when water is at its lowest during the summer, there are spots that are chest high in the river. You will get wet.

6)  Food/Water.  You are going to be out for a good part of the day and you will burn some serious calories.  There are some epic spots for picnics.  Climb atop one of the big sunny rocks in the middle of the river and enjoy a nice lunch that includes something more elegant than  granola bars.  You can also develop quite a thirst over 6 hours and you won’t want to drink the river water.  A single bottle of Aquafina isn’t going to cut it.

Looking into Orderville Canyon...which flows into the Narrows a couple miles into your hike.

Looking into Orderville Canyon…which flows into the Narrows a couple miles into your hike.

7)  Hat/Sunscreen.  Really? In a slot canyon?  By mid-day, the sun will be hitting you right on top of the head and during the summer it will be hot.

8)  Camera.  You will be hard-pressed to get high quality shots with anything less than a DSLR.  The dynamic range in the canyon is incredible.  My full-frame Nikon 800E has excellent dynamic range, but even it was incapable of handling the Narrows with a single exposure. If you also have small waterproof point-n-shoot, stick it in a pocket to capture shots of your fellow hikers and those spontaneous events that you will otherwise miss because of the time it takes to unpack your big camera!

9)  Lens.  You really need a wide lens otherwise you won’t be able to capture the full scene from river to cliff top.  Nearly all of of my shots were taken at 16mm or wider (10mm on APS-C cameras).  Your lens does not have to be particularly fast since you will be photographing from a tripod

10)  Polarizer.  A polarizer will help tame reflections and saturate colors.  It will also result in a longer exposure, which helps to produce that ‘silky’ water effect.

Technique

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

Something remarkable around every bend…

1)  Use HDR.  As mentioned earlier, the dynamic range in the Narrows is dramatic.  Sometimes I had to take 9 separate exposures a full stop apart to successfully capture the full range of light in HDR.

2)  Only show a sliver of sky (or none at all) in your shots.  If you include large portions of the sky, it will be difficult to prevent it from overpowering the rest of your image…even with HDR.  In addition, the direct sunlight tends to lessen the beautiful effect of reflected light…which is why you are photographing the Narrows in the first place.

3)  Get Low.  Set your tripod as low as you can…and try some shots set up in the river.  This makes for a more unusual perspective and tends to emphasize the water’s movement.

4)   ISO  Since you are shooting on a tripod, use your lowest ISO setting.  This will result in some long exposure times, but it will maximize the quality of your images and also soften the appearance of the rushing water.

5)  Don’t forget people!  It’s not all about scenery (at least my wife keeps telling me so).  Capture some memories of the folks you spend time with in the river.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

My son Ryan and I share a moment in the Narrows

So there you have it, tips and suggestions to help make the most of your adventure on the Virgin River.  If you get the chance to photograph this iconic location, I’m sure you will have as incredible a time as Ryan and I did!

Take care,
Jeff

Picture yourself here.  You just gotta make this hike!

Picture yourself here. You just gotta make this hike!

 

 

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

 

 

 

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

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Two of my passions are photography and aviation so it’s only natural that I’ve often combined the two over the years.  To be honest, my initial efforts were not particularly successful.  I learned the hard way that techniques learned for landscape and wildlife photography often just didn’t apply to aerial work.  In this article, I intend to to help you avoid that same learning curve by sharing my hard-earned aerial photography tips and how-to guide.

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Images like this one of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast are the best argument I can offer to give aerial photography a try!

1)  Before you Fly

The most critical determinant of taking high quality aerial photos is to avoid photographing through a window.

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Typical small plane with removable doors. Once you fly like this once, you won’t want to ever do it any other way!

Windows cast reflections, magnify glare and tend to reduce color saturation and contrast.  You can avoid all these issues simply by choosing an aircraft that has windows that open or, better yet, flying in one that has removable doors.  Not only will you get better photographs, but it is a lot more fun!

So…when you call to book a flight, your first question should be :  “Does your aircraft have removable doors or windows that open?”  If they say no, then tell them “Thanks but no thanks!” and call the next company on your list.  Some tour operators will tell you that you can take fine photos thru their big expansive windows which were designed with photographers in mind.  Don’t believe it.  It’s not impossible to get a good shot thru a window, but a significant percentage of your shots will be flawed.

Okay, so what if you don’t listen to my wonderful advice and try to photograph thru a window anyway?  Then here are four things you need to know:

  1. Clean the windows, inside and out before taking off (ask for the pilot’s permission first),
  2. Wear dark-colored clothing (this will reduce reflections)
  3. Keep your lens close to the window when taking photos.
  4. Cut a 3 inch wide strip of black foam rubber and tape it around the end of your lens with painter’s tape (to visualize this, it will look like a donut attached to the end of your lens where the lens cap would be.  This will allow you to put the foam up against the canopy and eliminate any reflections.  (Thanks to my friend Wes Gibson for this Navy Combat photographer tip).

Helicopters vs Small planes, which is best?

  • Helicopters
    • If you have a choice, a helicopter should be your preference for aerial photography because of their superb visibility and their ability to hover, which means you can stay in a particular ‘sweet spot” (rather than have to circle around). Unfortunately, this comes as a cost, you will likely have to pay bit more (but it is worth it!)
    • Four seat helicopters are often your best option since they usually have easily removable doors and you always have a window seat.
    • Don’t fly in a helicopter that has more than 4 seats UNLESS the operator will guarantee you a window seat and that the window opens. Many tour operators fly 6 or 8 seat choppers which means you might end up with another customer between you and a window…this will dramaticallyreduce your opportunities for good photos.
      • Since seats are assigned based upon weight to ensure the chopper is balanced, most pilots will NOT guarantee you a window seat.
  • Small Airplanes
    • Many small airplanes can also be great photography platforms…but only if it has wings mounted to the top of the aircraft (high-wing aircraft.)   Don’t waste your time with bi-planes or low-wing aircraft, since a wing will be in your way much of the time.
    • Like choppers, the two other things you need to verify is that you will get a window seat and a window that opens (or they will remove the door).

If you are in a tourist area (Grand Canyon, New York, Hawaii, etc.) you can easily find aerial tour operators on the internet.  In more isolated locales (or if you want to save some money), do a web search for “Flight Instruction.”  Many of those businesses will take you up for $100-$200 per hour.  Just tell them you want to fly around and take photos (don’t tell them you want to ‘charter’ a plane, that term has a  specific legal meaning that can result in you paying more for the exact same service) .

Do some research before the flight

Like most types of photography, ‘the more you plan; the luckier you get.”  If you are going on a tour, check out You Tube and Trip Advisor to see photos taken by previous clients.  I often review Google Earth and Flickr to see what is in the area that we might be able to overfly.  And certainly ask for your pilot’s input…some of these guys have flown a lot of photographers and have great insight to share.

What time of day should I schedule my flight? 

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Sunsets can be even more beautiful at 3,000!

Like most photography, early mornings and late afternoons feature the best light and color.  Additionally, the long shadows seen at those times make for more dramatic shots. Also keep in mind that some locations look best at one time of day or another.

If everything else is equal, fly in the morning since the air tends to be clearer and the ride a bit less bumpy.

A few thoughts about safety

  • Always use a secure camera strap so your camera doesn’t decide to give skydiving a try.
  • Don’t bring anything that could be pulled off by the wind whipping by your window (lens hoods and hats are examples).   Helicopter pilots get down-right ornery when something flies out of the cabin and hits the tail rotor:)
  • Keep your camera and attachments inside the aircraft and out of the wind stream.
  • Wear warm, tight fitting clothing.  It will be a lot chillier in the air than at the airport and loose fitting clothing (hats, collars, hoods, etc) will flap around and irritate the heck out of you.(especially if you are flying ‘doors-off’.
  • I’ve seen some folks get queasy after looking through a viewfinder on a bumpy flight for over an hour.  If you are so inclined, you might want to take preventive medication ahead of time.
Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Denali Range

A DSLR is ideal, since you can take multiple shots in quick succession without filling up your buffer.  Don’t get me wrong, a good quality point-n-shoot (PNS) can do fine work, but you’re paying serious money for the flight, so why not take a serious camera?

If you have a second camera, then by all means bring it along. If your primary camera craps out while you are in the air, you can forget about getting a refund from the pilot. This also allows you to shoot with a second lens without trying to change glass in the air.

Lenses

On a full frame camera, I find that nearly all of my aerial shots are taken between 28 and 135mm (if you have a cropped APS-C sensor camera, then the equivalent would be 18-84mm)

The longer your zoom, the more issues you will likely have with vibration.  Rather than use a long lens, just ask the pilot to get closer.

Really wide angle lenses (10-30mm) aren’t necessary unless you want to include the aircraft in your shots.

Fast Glass.  If you have a f2.8 zoom, bring it.  If not, even a f5.6 zoom will be fine in most circumstances unless it is a very dark day.

Memory Card

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas

Bring the largest, fastest memory card you can afford.  You will take a lot of photos and changing memory cards during your flight is something to be avoided.  Besides, you certainly don’t want to use your precious time in the air reviewing and deleting bad photos!

Battery

Put a fresh and FULLY changed battery in your camera before you take off.

Camera Settings

The camera settings for aerial photography are probably much different than from those you typically use.  Coupled with the fact that it is easy to get excited and forgetful when you are in the air, it’s a good idea to take care of the tasks listed below BEFORE you get to the airport.

A) Shutter Speed.   This is the single most important camera setting for good aerial photography.

Depth of field isn’t an issue, so set your camera on Shutter priority.  Select between 1/500th to 1/1000th of a second (1/750th of a second freezes most blur with lenses up to 100mm in length on a full-frame camera).

B) Image Stabilization /Vibration Reduction

If your camera/lenses have this option, make sure they are enabled.

C) ISO

This waterfall is on private land in Kauai, so you can only photograph it from the air.

This waterfall is on private land in Kauai, so you can only photograph it from the air.

Take some practice shots with your camera once you set your shutter speed and determine how low of an ISO you can use and still get a good quality resolution.  If you have good sun, you can often use as low as 200 ISO.

D) Set up your camera’s viewfinder so it shows a grid or artificial horizon.

If your camera has this option it will help you keep things horizontal in your photos… which can be a challenge when your aircraft is constantly changing its attitude

E) Exposure Settings

If you have a good quality DSLR and you are shooting in RAW, then exposure bracketing is something you don’t have to mess with unless you shooting scenes with a truly dramatic dynamic range.

Set your camera on Auto-Exposure.  Most photographers are too busy during an aerial shoot to consider using manual exposure.

F) Metering

Use an “area” or full-frame rather than “spot” metering mode to reduce exposure issues.

G) Focus Mode

Most modern cameras have quick and effective auto-focus capabilities.  I leave my camera on auto-focus for aerial photography.  On the other hand, if your camera’s auto-focus function has a tendency to ‘search’ and takes an eternity to lock-in, you could use manual focus and set it for infinity’.  If so, use this old tip:  Before your flight, manually set  focus on infinity and use  blue painter’s tape (no residue) to hold it in position.  This way, even if your focus ring gets bumped during a flight…you won’t find out later that you have a bunch out-of-focus shots

H)  RAW file format

If you are a pro or serious amateur, I’m sure you already shoot in RAW mode.  If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should.   RAW shots contain a lot more data than standard jpegs and will give you a LOT more flexibility in post processing…and even if you currently don’t do much post-processing, you might in the future.  If so, those RAW files will be ready and waiting!

I) Circular Polarizer

I always use a circular polarizer for aerial photography.  It reduces glare (very helpful when shooting over water) and intensifies colors, especially blue skies.  However, know that polarizers reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor, so to maintain your high shutter speed, you will likely have to use a slightly wider aperture and or ISO setting .

2)  While you Fly

Talk to your Pilot

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Mendenhall Glacier: If I hadn’t asked the pilot to go around for a second pass, you wouldn’t be looking at this shot now.

If you are supplied with a microphone & headset you should take advantage of it!  Most pilots love what they do and will bend over backward to ensure that you have a good time. For example, I noticed the rhythmic patterns in this Alaskan glacier (see below) after we had already overflown it.  However the pilot was happy to make a second pass. Even tour pilots will often be flexible if you ask nicely.  And even the surliest captains are often thinking of a tip at the end of the flight, which gives you a bit of leverage

Your Shooting Position

Do not rest the camera or your upper body (including arms) on any part of the aircraft.  Doing so will transmit vibration to your camera.

Review your LCD!

It is normal to be so focused on your NEXT shot that you neglect to check your LCD to see how your LAST shot turned out.  Once over the Grand Canyon I somehow bumped my camera and never noticed that my shutter speed had changed to 1/8000th of a second…which ruined every single remaining shot I took on that flight .   One of those lesions learned the hard way.  Check your LCD often.

Shoot wide

When I’m taking a landscape photo, I sometimes spend a full minute making sure the shot is perfectly framed before I click the shutter (my wife says I take an hour).  This isn’t a habit you want to bring along on an aircraft. Frame your photos a bit wide and crop later.

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

One of the few shots I got of the Grand Canyon…

Take Multiple Shots of each subject.

  • Even with vibration reduction and high shutter speed, you will likely find that a number of your shots are not in perfect focus. You can usuallyensure you get at least one perfect shot by taking 3 or 4 frames of every subject.
    •  Nearly all DSLRs have a ‘burst’ or continuous mode, Use this feature.
    • This will also help take advantage of another feature of aerial photography, the fact that shots taken even a fraction of a second apart can look very different due to the speed of the aircraft.  For example, the following shot over the Grand Canyon was one of 5 taken in a burst, but it looks significantly better than those taken just before or after it.
    • Finally, you will occasionally get a propeller blade in your shot.  By taking a burst of shots, you will end up with at least one that is clear.

Keep your eyes open for the unusual and unexpected

No matter how much you preplanned, you should be ready for the unexpected!  For example,  I was on a flight to photograph Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas when we flew over this wreck…which made for a cool shot.

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

“3 Hour Tour?”

And once, flying near Disney World, the pilot pointed out “Mickey’s Magical Forest” which I had never heard of, even though I’ve lived near Orlando over 40 years!

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

only here in Mickeyland….

 Be aware of Haze

Haze can be a real problem and not just over polluted cities.  Even worse is that you often don’t notice how bad it was until you get home and review your work on the monitor.  Here are some strategies that will help:

  • Use high quality UV filters.  Frankly, I’m not positive that they visibly reduce the effects of haze but they certainly provide an extra layer of protection…which is a good insurance policy when photographing in a bumpy aircraft that has a lot of hard surfaces.
  • Shooting toward the sun will often emphasize haze..try to keep it to the side or behind you.
  • Haze will increase with distance and altitude.   So you don’t want to get too high (I prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000’).  If it is a hazy day, don’t  concentrate on distant, vast panoramas, ask the pilot to get closer and shoot subjects not near the horizon

3)  After you Fly

Tip your pilot

If your pilot did his/her best to ensure you got good shots, then spread the wealth baby!

Post-processing

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

The clarity filter helped me salvage this irreplaceable image of the World Trade Center.

My photoshop workflow for aerial work isn’t significantly different from normal.  However, there are two exceptions:

  • Clarity
    • If you do notice haze in your shots, use the clarity slider in Photoshop a bit more aggressively than usual,   This tool can often dramatically reduce the problem..
  • White Balance
    • If you had to photograph through a windshield, be aware that this often gives your images a blue-cast.  You can fix this with the white balance tool (eyedropper).
    • Plexiglas also desaturates colors, so you will likely have to increase the vibrance or saturation slider as well.

Now, I know this seems like a lot of information and it might seem intimidating.  But the paybacks can be incredible…unique perspectives and locations you simply couldn’t photograph any other way. Expand your photographic horizons and give aerial photography a try!

…and remember…photography is about more than just pretty pictures!

Jeff

PS:  If are going to try aerial photography under very low light conditions AND you have money to burn, you might want to consider using a Gyro Stabilizer.  Frankly, I’ve never used one…they aren’t cheap ($1,500 and up) and you really don’t need one under normal lighting conditions…but if you’ve hit the lotto and can rent a chopper to take photos of the milky way rising over a volcano spewing lava in Hawaii, then give it a shot!

PSS:  If you would like to see more of my aerial shots of Na Pali, click on this link.

 

Photos from airlines will lack sharpness and contrast but post-processing can help camouflage those flaws.

Photos from airlines will lack sharpness and contrast but post-processing can help camouflage those flaws.

 

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

 

 

Also posted in Aerial Photography Tagged |

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why is Kauai the exception?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

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

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

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

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

Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the movie Jurassic Park)

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

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

Decisions, Decisions:

What time of day should you schedule your tour?

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

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

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

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

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

What Lens?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

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

What time of the year?

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

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

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

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

Weather

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kahili Falls (one of the “Five Sisters”)

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

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

Safety

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

Final thoughts

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

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

Jeff

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

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

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

 

Also posted in Aerial Photography, Hawaii, Landscape Photography Tagged , , , , |

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

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

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

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

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

Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

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

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

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Where to Photograph From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  7. Lens Cleaning/Drying Cloths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also posted in Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Waterfalls, Yosemite Tagged , , , |

2014 Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

Those of you that subscribe to my blog know that I’ve been photographing Manatees for years.  Every winter, I look forward to the Manatees returning to Crystal River and my chance to interact and photograph these gentle giants.  And every year, I  learn a few tidbits that help me take better photographs (who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks?!).  In today’s blog, I’d like to share with you the best of my 2014 manatee photographs as well as my learnings, tips and suggestions.

 

Manatee Photography: Tips and GuideBefore we get started, if you are looking for an in-depth review of how to photograph manatees, check out this article I wrote last year.

My first tip of 2014: Book your tour with Birds Underwater

In the past, I haven’t recommended a specific tour company…because over the years I had found them all pretty much the same.  However, this year I took two trips with Bird’s Underwater and I was incredibly impressed.  They’ve been in business for quite a while and somehow manage to combine all the best aspects of the other tours with none of the downsides…and their pricing is competitive as well ($45/per person in March of 2014).  I’m not the only one who thinks highly of them, they also have an excellent Trip Advisor rating.  Here is a link to their website.  And…no, I (unfortunately) don’t get any kickbacks/discounts for this recommendation:)Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

Buy an underwater housing for your DSLR

Although you can get solid quality manatee photos from a waterproof point n shoot camera (which is what I’ve recommended in previous posts), I finally broke down last year and bought a Ikelite underwater housing for my old Nikon D700.  Although I got it used on eBay for half of the retail price, it still wasn’t exactly cheap.  But, I have to admit that using a DSLR provides a significant advantage.

When combined with a 15mm fisheye and an 8″ dome,  you can get truly remarkable shots of Manatees with a technique known as CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle).  Since manatees will come right up to you (heck, they will bump you!), CFWA is perfect for this type of photography (I wouldn’t try it with Great Whites though).  Alex Mustard is a underwater photographer I have long admired and he has provided a great recap on techniques involved in CFWA…check out this link for more.

Shooting underwater with a fullsize DSLR takes some practice.  Over the years,  you get to know your camera’s controls without even looking, but don’t be surprised if using an underwater housing initially seems like learning how to use your camera all over again. The sheer size, bulk and weight of the housing can also be a bit intimidating but it manageable with practice.  Oh, and you will certainly get comments from your fellow snorkelers!

Hold your camera down and aim up at the Manatee.

I photographed manatees for years before I realized what a difference it made to use this technique.  It will allow you to capture the dome of the blue sky in your shot, which makes for a beautiful contrast to the grey manatees and green-blue water.

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Looks like a huge blimp is flying overhead!

The photograph bellows illustrates a photographer using this technique:

2014 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions

Regulations prevent you from diving below the surface, but you can accomplish the same effect by holding your camera below you and and angling it up toward the manatee..

Try to capture sunbeams streaming thru the water.

I think sunbeams are a magical enhancement in a manatee portrait.  Although silt in the water doesn’t help the clarity of your photos, it does enhance the sunbeams. Position yourself with the sun nearly in front of you and you should have some luck.

2014 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions

 Try Off Camera Flash

Using a flash attached to your underwater housing (not the one on your camera) is a tremendous advantage, for a few reasons:

  1. First of all, by moving the flash away from your lens, you deemphasize the ‘backscatter’ of the silt suspended in the water.
  2. It also helps you illuminate the bulk of the manatee and give it a more 3-D appearance.
  3. Finally, when it is overcast and/or visibility is murky…a strobe will cut thru the gloom and help you finish your day with some usuable shots that wouldn’t have been possible otherwiseManatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Be Aware of New Manatee Laws & Regulations

The laws and regulations that protect Manatees from over-enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) are reasonable and should be respected.  Not only that, they are actively enforced.  Know your responsibilities as a photographer and be well informed before you go…this video from the US Fish and Wildlife Dept. is a great recap (eff March 2014).  Note that the regulations seem to be upgraded every year…be sure you have the latest info.

A few watchouts/suggestions:

  1. You only allowed to use flash beginning a hour after sunrise until a hour before sunset.  This means if you are on an early tour,  you may not be able to use your flash when you first get there.
  2. You are not allowed to use a strobe/underwater flash more than once every five seconds.  I saw a photographer pulled out of the water by a wildlife officer for violating this restriction.
  3. I suggest that you ask your tour captain how the laws are currently being applied to photographers.  Since there can be some subjectivity to how the regs are enforced, your guide will be able to provide the latest scoop.
  4. Finally, you should be aware that there are those who would prefer that we not be allowed to snorkel with manatees and that all observation be restricted to above-water.  We should consider it to be a honor to be in the water with manatees and be on our best behavior.  It would be a shame if a few overly enthusiastic photographers were to cause all of us to loose this privilege in the future.

There you have it…my learnings from 2014.  Hope they help you get better shots the next time you get to photograph these wonderful animals,

Take care!
Jeff

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

How could you not love these friendly critters?

 

 2014 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions


 

 

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Underwater Photography, Wildlife

False Kiva: A “Hauntingly” Beautiful Landscape Photography Icon

False Kiva is one of those locations instantly recognizable to most landscape photographers.  And with good reason!  It has it all:  Indian ruins framed by the opening of a cave on the edge of a cliff that looks out upon a magnificent desert landscape stretching out to distant mountains on the horizon.  It is also kinda spooky…well, that’s not technical term, but it is accurate.  Unlike most of the icons I’ve photographed that are technically beautiful, but serene, False Kiva has a definite ‘vibe.’

False Kiva Photography tips

Killer View
To see a full resolution version, just click on the photo.

My son Ryan and I hiked to the Kiva this summer.  As we threaded our way around a rock outcropping we caught our first glimpse of the kiva high on the cliff to our right.  But it wasn’t empty.  There was a tall, almost spectral figure…bald, light-skinned and shirtless glaring intently down directly at us.  We were too far away to see facial details (assuming there WAS a face)…but judging by the body language, it clearly wasn’t happy to see us.    Ryan’s  internal ‘heebie-jeebie’ radar immediately got the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.  His next move, seriously, was to find a sharp rock that he could use as a weapon..actually, two rocks, one for throwing and one for hitting!  I have to admit, I was bit spooked myself…I hadn’t really expected to see anyone else at the site…and we were in the middle of nowhere.

We continued the climb toward the kiva, always looking up toward the entrance to see if we could spot the occupant again…but we saw nothing.  As we made the last turn and approached the entrance we strained our necks to look inside.  It was empty.  Ryan and I just looked at each other and then s-l-o-w-l-y turned and stared out at the trail we had just climbed.  There was only a single way in or out.  Even a mountain goat would have broken its neck getting out of the kiva any other way…but the fact remained we were alone.  And confused.  We looked at each other again, shrugged our shoulders and laughed that stupid chuckle that men do when they are confused and alarmed but are too macho to admit it.

We never did figure out what happened to the “person” we saw.  I started calling him the “Crazed Kiva Killer” which Ryan thought was funny…but he didn’t put down those two rocks until we got back to the car a couple hours later.  True story.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. The Kiva is located in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park (near Moab) but it isn’t marked on any of the park maps (the rangers don’t want visitors to ‘love it to death.’  The (unmarked) trailhead is on Upheaval Dome Road.  If you decide to make this trek I would suggest caution.  Don’t take this hike alone. The trail isn’t marked.  It is isolated.  Parts of it hug a cliff and if you were to fall, it would be along time before anyone would pass by.
  2. I know a LOT of folks who have taken this hike and never found the kiva.  There are a lot of cairns but even so, this isn’t an easy spot to find.   If you aren’t comfortable with your GPS, you should seriously consider hiring a guide.
  3. There is little shade and no water.  Dress accordingly and take plenty of fluids. Plan on about an hour to hike to the site.  The hike itself wasn’t long (about 1.6 miles each way)
  4. Take a WIDE angle lens.  A 15mm fisheye on a full frame camera was barely able to capture the full scene.  The cave is not as deep as I thought it would be…it is really more of an alcove than a cave.  If you don’t have really wide glass, you could also take a number of shots and stitch together a panorama.
  5. Take a tripod because you will want to try HDR at this location. Obviously the cave/alcove is dark and the view out of the entrance is bathed in direct light, so you will need HDR to capture the full dynamic range.
  6. A polarizer will really make the blue sky pop.
  7. The cave opens to the west, so the lighting is great by late morning.  Sunsets are also pretty dramatic here but you will have a scary hike back in the dark.  Originally I wanted to shoot a Milky Way shot but after making the hike in the late afternoon, I decided that I didn’t want to make the return trip in the dark. If my son fell off a cliff on the way back my wife would just make my life insufferable.  Maybe next time.

You might not have the same unsettling experience my son and I did when you visit False Kiva, but if you read blogs of folks that have visited it, they all seem to have an emotional reaction to it.  And I have to admit, even though I’m a pretty non-emotional, logical,  ‘”just the facts, Ma’am” type of guy…False Kiva is one of the few locations that struck an emotional chord in me.  Far more so than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or any of a number of far more famous landscape icons.  It truly is a serene site.  Beautiful, yes…but one that is more than just pretty…one that speaks to your core.

Photography is about a lot more than just pretty pictures,

Jeff

False Kiva Photography tips

“We survived the Crazed Kiva Killer!”

 False Kiva Photography tips

 

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Southwest U.S.A.

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, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography Tagged , , |

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

I’ve just returned from a two week photo extravaganza in Hawaii and I have a lot of photos, stories and tips that I’m dying to share with you.  After the first ten days or so, I was starting to think that my biggest problem would be deciding what I would write about first, but that turned out not to be an issue after my wife and I did a night snorkeling Manta Ray tour!  Holy crap…this was one of those kick-you-in-the-head incredible events that leave you positively giddy!  I mean it was otherworldly, graceful, enthralling, ethereal, beautiful, exhilarating,…and another hundred adjectives that elude me right now.  Read on to learn more about an experience you will be adding to your bucket-list.  This article will give you some pointers and tips that will ensure you make the most out of your trip and also help you take incredible photographs to keep along with your memories.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Just imagine this big guy shooting up at you from the ocean floor! (Click on the photo to see a full resolution image)

So, what makes this so impressive?  Well, start by looking at the photo above.  Imaging laying on the surface of the ocean, at night, and you start to notice shadows moving on the periphery of your sight, then this massive, but impossibly graceful apparition swoops up from the ocean floor, slowly opens its huge mouth and heads right toward you.  Then, inches away from your nose, it turns away and silently glides back into the darkness while your body rocks from the water displaced by its passage.  Now imagine four or more of these creatures doing this same ballet repeatedly over an hour.  Oh, and by the way, when I say massive, let me clarify…many of these suckers are easily 12′ or more from wingtip to wingtip and can weigh 2,000 lbs.   The captain on our boat referred to one local Manta they call Big Bertha that is more than 20′ across!  If you would like to read more about Mantas, check out this link.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Almost like you are on another world having a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind!”

Absolutely insane.  This was without a doubt, the most incredible thing I did in Hawaii (which is truly saying a lot).  Not only that but my wife ALSO agreed that it was the highlight of our trip…which is perhaps an even more impressive fact:)

Okay, I’m assuming you want to give this a try this now, so here are some answers to some questions that often come up:

Is it safe?

Mantas eat plankton.  If they mistakenly get a fish in their mouth, they spit it out.  They certainly don’t dine on Homo Sapiens. Also, unlike, stingrays, mantas don’t have stingers (so don’t concern yourself about a repeat performance of the sad story of the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin).  Put it this way, the nickname for Mantas is the “butterfly of the sea”…gentle, non-aggressive, no worries.

One other thing, there are two locations that most of the tours go to…one is by the Sheraton at Kona and the other is near the airport.  Both locations are within 100′ of the shore, so it isn’t like you are heading out a couple miles to sea.  If the boat sprang a leak you could swim ashore in two minutes.   Also, the Kona coast is pretty calm so unless you are very susceptible to seasickness, you can leave the Dramamine at home.

Sharks?

Some folks have a real phobia about sharks…but attacks are rare. Your chances of getting hit by lightning is much higher and a fatal traffic accident while driving to the marina is even more likely.  I did an internet search and couldn’t find a single record of a shark attack during a night manta ray dive.  I’d worry about other things instead.20130912_Hawaii_3625

Is it difficult?

No…we had boy and a girl under 7 years old on the tour.  You basically float on the surface while breathing thru a snorkel about ten feet from the boat. Most boats have large floating platforms (see photo to the right) with hand grips you hold onto (so you don’t even have to really swim).  This float has lights that shine down into the water…which attracts the plankton and the plankton attracts the mantas (and the mantas attract the tourists)!

By the way, the two kids didn’t have a good time for the first five minutes.  The reality of floating in the ocean at night wasn’t as cool as they had anticipated.  Once the Mantas showed up they settled down and had a great time.  Obviously folks that hate the dark or the ocean might not enjoy this as much as most.

Is it expensive?

My wife and I paid $90 each.  For a bucket-list item, that seems cheap to me!  Of course, you still have to get to Hawaii…which is anything but cheap.

Where can I do this:

The Big Island in Hawaii near Kona is the only spot in the Hawaiian Islands that I’ve heard of.  However, if you ever get to Australia, Bora-Bora or the Maldives, I understand that you can do night dives with Mantas there as well.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Here is a critical Thing to Know:

Not all tours are the same.  Some of the folks we saw on another tour were given glow sticks and a cheap underwater flashlight to attract Mantas (their boat didn’t have the lighted floating platforms).  Needless to say, those folks didn’t see many mantas and probably didn’t have a memorable experience.  When you are deciding which tour to take, be sure they use the lighted platforms.  We used a tour operator named “Sunlight on Water“…they did a fine job (no, I don’t get kickbacks from tour operators…wish I did though).

One other thing, I was checking out Trip Advisor and saw that some folks on other tours didn’t see a single manta when they went out.  Being wild creatures, no operator can guarantee sightings, but if your tour operator knows what they are doing and have the right equipment, you should have a very high chance of success.

Other hints:

Most of the tours start about an hour before sunset (so the actual start time depends on the time of year).  You will be told that your tour will be about 3 hours long, but your time actually in the water will probably be 45 minutes to an hour)

Bring a towel and some dry warm clothes to change into when you finish your dive (yes, it is Hawaii and the water is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is less than 98.6 and you will feel a chill by the end of your time in the water.)

Our tour operator supplied a wetsuit, snorkel gear and gave us hot chocolate on the way back to the harbor.  Check to see if yours does the same.  It really is nice to have something to get the taste of saltwater out of your mouth.  Our tour also had a warm fresh water shower right on the deck which was great as well.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Don’t use a Flash!

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Backscatter at its worst…

I know this seems counter-intuiative, it would seem to be common sense to use a flash at night, especially underwater.  The problem is that using your flash/strobe will result in backscatter because of all the plankton (backscatter is a term used to describe when an underwater flash illuminates small suspended particles in the water resulting in thousands of little specs of light in your photo…see example to the right).

The tour operators told me all this, but I had lugged my strobe nearly 5,000 miles and I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, even though I had my strobes set up on the arms set as wide as possible away from the camera housing, I still got terrible backscatter.

If I ever have a chance to try this again I might try to have an assistant hold another flash unit off-angle about six feet away and trigger it remotely.

The floating platform actually generated a lot of light…enough for me to get great shots without the flash.  And since those lights are shining straight down and you will be off to the side, the backscatter won’t fill your frame.

 

Take the first 15 minutes to Experiment

This will be difficult advice to follow.   You will be so excited and overwhelmed by the mantas that you will want to capture every moment.  Trust me that the action will get better the longer you are in the water (you often get in the water right at sunset and it takes the mantas some time to be attracted to the lights).  Use these first minutes to try different camera settings (ISO/Shutter speed/exposure) to get your camera ‘dialed-in’.  It is more important to finish the night with a couple dozen killer shots than to review you work the next day and see that you got 200 frames, but they are all mediocre.

ISO

I shot with an ISO of 800 on my Nikon D700, which has very good high ISO resolution.  This is one of those settings you will want to experiment with during those first 15 minutes to see how low you can keep your camera’s ISO and still have good exposure on the mantas.

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Looks like one of those old WW2 movies with the British bomber caught in the spotlights above Berlin!

Shoot in RAW

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW (as opposed to JPEGs), do it.   There can be a substantial dynamic range between the areas illuminated by the spotlights and the shadows and manipulating a raw file in photoshop will give you the best chance of coaxing those details out of the shadows and avoiding the ‘blow-outs” in the highlights.

Use Shutter Priority

The Mantas move slowly and I found that a shutter speed of 1/250 successfully froze their motion.  In retrospect, I think you could probably get away with as low as 1/100th.

Use a fast Wide Angle Lens

The Mantas will get close.  By close I mean that they bumped my underwater camera housing a couple times!  Coupled with the fact that they are huge, a wide angle lens will be ideal.  And since there isn’t much light, the faster a lens you have, the better.  I used a f2.8 15mm Sigma Fisheye and it did a tremendous job.20130912_Hawaii_3537 crop

Try a Video

The Mantas  perform what you would swear is an underwater ballet…it is incredible (and I’m not even a fan of the REAL ballet).  Still photos are great, but they fail to capture the grace and fluid movement of the Mantas.  If your camera has the ability to record video, you might want to give it a try.

Post Processing

Since your shots are taken at night with limited lighting, you will have to invest a significant amount of time in photoshop to develop high quality prints.  A full review of processing underwater night photos is beyond the grasp of this post, but here are some guidelines:

Adjust your white balance.  Fortunately, mantas are white on the bottom, so you have something on which to click your white balance tool and get an initial setting.  I found that a color temp of 11,ooo or so was close to correct if the manta was close to the dive platform, but I had to increase the setting up to 30,000 if it was near the sea floor and away from the lights.

Then use your Fill Light tool to reveal some of the details lost in the shadows and also adjust your Exposure as needed.

You will likely spend some time with noise control.  I had to move the Luminance slider all the way up to 50 or so to get the noise level down to an acceptable level…far more than you would dream of doing with a typical daylight shot.  I also found it helpful to cut the manta out and put it on a separate layer, which allowed me to use even more drastic noise control on the background while maintaining detail on the ray.

 

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Here’s a good view of a Manta starting its “roll” below the floating light platform…you can also barely see some snorkelers holding onto the platform.

Capture ALL of the Manta

Don’t come home with shots only of the bottom of the Mantas.  I say this because if you are not careful, you will end up with most of your shots showing something similar to the photo above.  The reason is because the Mantas have a particular ‘dance’ they will perform for you repeatedly.  They swoop in along the sea floor until they are right below the lighted platforms. They then swoop straight up scooping up plankton (you will be shocked how big their mouths are…and you will see ALL the way down into them).  Just before they get to the surface (and you), they flip upside down (exposing their bottom side to you) and spin away.

After my first ten minutes I reviewed the shots I had taken and saw that 90% of then showed the bottom of the rays.  After that I concentrated on getting shots of them during their ‘approach’ BEFORE they did their flip.

One last thing

Don’t get so wrapped up in taking photos that you fail to take a moment to appreciate just how magnificent this experience is.  About 50 minutes into our swim, I heard some folks shouting and hollering loudly so I popped my head up to see a new group of snorkelers that just joined in the fun.  These folks were so excited that they literally couldn’t restrain themselves.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that I was raised with the old-fashioned ‘real men don’t show emotion’ mindset…but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I put my camera aside for a couple moments and let go of a couple little ‘woops’ myself!

I really hope you get swim with the Mantas someday.  If so, I know you will find the experience to be as mind-blowing as I did!
Jeff

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Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Hawaii, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , |

House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips: Burning Down the House!

I can’t remember when I saw my first image of the Anasazi ruins called “House on Fire” (HOF).  Maybe it was in the near-legendary “Photographing the Southwest” books by Laurent Martres or perhaps the famous David Muensch photo…but no matter what the source, what I do remember is being awestruck by the image of an ancient cliff dwelling seemingly being engulfed by fire.   Not only was it an incredible visual but it also appealed to my life-long interest in ancient history and American Indians.  Well, a few weeks ago I had the chance to visit this iconic site and I’d like to share with you my House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips:  Burning Down the House!  (My compliments to the “Talking Heads”)

My first impression when I stood before the ruin was that, yes, by God…it really does look like the ruin has fire roaring out of its roof!  I had to take a few moments and ponder about the ancient Anasazi who choose this spot to build…was it simply because this was a south facing alcove that would be cool in the summer and warmed by the sun in winter?  Or did that builder appreciate the incredible way the light reflected off the roof of the alcove and decided that this would be his home.  How many generations lived here over the centuries…how many hours did they spend gazing at the ceiling enjoying the spectacle?

The " Classic Shot"

The ” Classic Shot”

After a few minutes of sitting with my son in front of the ruin taking it all in, I finally started to concentrate on photography.  Once I did so, it didn’t take me long to realize why all the shots I’d seen before of House on Fire are so darn similar.  It’s because that the perception of fire shooting out of the roof of the house is really only apparent from a very limited location…even moving a couple feet from the ‘sweet spot’ degrades the illusion.  I took hundreds of shots from different locations around the site but after reviewing them, there are only a few that I thought were outstanding…and yes, everyone of them turned out to be taken from that same specific spot…like the shot above.

So as a photographer, well… this location is a ‘one-trick-pony’.   Don’t get me wrong, you can get an incredible shot here…you would swear that the stone ruins are blazing when the reflective light hits it just right.  However, you will be hard-pressed to come up with a stunning image that is significantly different from the ‘standard’ shot…but don’t let that stop you, the ‘standard’ shot is amazing and what photographer wouldn’t want it in their portfolio?!

Directions to the site and photo tips for my fellow photographers:

House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

A bit of experimentation with your contrast and adjusting the saturation/exposure of your reds and yellows will quickly coax the ember in your image into a full throated blaze.

  1. The most important thing is to be here at the right time. The perception of ‘fire’ is the result of sunlight reflecting off of the wall on the opposite side of the wash.  This reflected light only occurs in late morning.  If you get there too early, the light won’t yet be on the opposite wall and if you are too late the site will be in direct sunlight, which will ‘wash-out’ the fire effect.
    • In July, the light is perfect about 11am and it lasts about an hour.
  2. The second pre-requisite is that the weather has to be clear.  If clouds are obstructing the sun, you will loose the reflected light which is critical for the shot.
  3. My third tip would be to photograph the nearby “Fallen House Ruin” first in the morning and then drive to House on Fire (26 miles/30 minutes travel time from trailhead to trailhead).  You should be able to do so and still be at HOF before 11am.
  4. If you haven’t made this hike before and you aren’t on a tour with a guide, then I would suggest that have GPS with you.
  5. The closest town is Blanding (about 25 miles away).  There are a couple of hotels here you could stay at.  The next nearest town is Mexican Hat, about 40 miles away.
  6. House on Fireis located just off of UT 95 about halfwaybetweenBlanding and Natural Bridges National Monument on County Road 263.  When driving on UT 95, look for CR263 just east of mile marker 102 on the north side of the road.
    • Don’t be tricked by a sign for ‘Mule Canyon Ruins‘- this is NOT the right spot.
  7. Turn north ontoCR263 (it is a dirt road) and you will immediately see a BLM sign and kiosk on the left.
    • Stop and pay your fee ($2/person as of July 2013).
  8. There is a small car parking area less than 3/10 of a mile down CR263 on the right.  You can park here or you can continue a few hundred yards to the bottom of the hill where there is parallel parking available for a couple vehicles.
  9. At the bottom of the hill, you will find a small trailhead marker (on your left).
    • Geographic coordinates at the trailhead: N37.53739 – W109.73203
    • Here is a link to the trailhead on Google Maps.
  10. Start your hike by descending into the wash (on the left/west side of the road) and walk west along the stream bed.  The trail meanders to the west/northwest.
    • House on Fire is about one mile from the trailhead (about 40 minutes) just before the canyon turns due north.  It is located on a ledge to your right (north) about 60 feet above the floor of the wash.  It can be hard to see from the bottom, so just keep looking up and to your right.
    • You have to scramble a bit up some slickrock to reach the ledge but there are some rock cairns to show you the way.
  11. So, where exactly is the ‘sweet spot’ that I’m talking about?  The photo below shows where to set up.
    House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

    “X” marks the spot! This shot is from the far left (west) of the ledge. You can see the photographers aiming at the structure to the FAR right.

    House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

    View from the eastern side of the ledge. The window on the far right in this shot is part of the ruin you will photograph.

    I’d suggest taking a copy of a HOF photo with you…then walk around the site with the picture in front of you until you find where you need to set your tripod.

    • There are actually three or so structures under the ledge, but the one on the far right has the best “flames” over it
    • Personally, I think a vertical orientation for your composition is the best way to emphasize the ‘flames’ in the sandstone ceiling
  12. Lenses:  A fisheye can be fun to use here.  I also used 16-35mm zoom (most shots were taken at about 21mm).  Note..these lenses were used on a full frame sensor DSLR…you will need to account for the crop factor if you are using a camera with a smaller sensor.
  13. HDR is useful here to fully capture the highlights and shadows.  Even with HDR, it will be difficult to include the sky in your shot and frankly, I think the shot is best with it excluded.
  14. Take your time and use your camera’s Live View feature to ensure that your focus is sharp from front to back.
  15. There are some handprints painted on the wall in a small alcove to the left of the ruins…worth a look.
  16. A green rectangular metal register box (actually a surplus Army ammo box) is chained to a tree near the ledge’s edge.  It is interesting to look thru it and see what other hikers have written and see how many countries they had come from.  Don’t forget to jot a note down yourself!
  17. If you have time after photographing HOF, there are at least 5 more ruins I know of within the next 3 miles further down the wash.  None of them are necessarily photogenic, but they are interesting nonetheless.
  18. Post-processing:  If you catch the reflected light on a cloudless day, you will likely be pretty happy with the colors and saturation.  However, by increasing the contrast and adjusting the brightness/darkness of your color palette, you can easily enhance the ‘fire.’  Have fun with it!

As I was packing up to leave, a local guide,  Jon Fuller of  Moab Photo Tours and two clients also arrived at the site.  Jon was very friendly and readily shared some tips and stories.  I think my son enjoyed listening to Jon more than he did exploring the site, but then again, photography should be about much more than just pictures, right?

Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

One last perspective…

 

 

 House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

 

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical, Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , |

Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Hummingbirds are one of those incredible marvels of nature that seem to make everyone smile in wonder. These amazing and beautiful flying jewels zip and dart around like god’s own miniature UFOs leaving a trail of excited and happy people behind them.  Being a shutterbug, I had occasionally tried to photograph them over the years… but with less than impressive results.  Earlier this spring a hummer flew up to me while I was in the backyard, hovered 3 feet in front of my nose and took a good long look at me before she scooted off.  Right then I decided that my next goal in photography was to learn how to take a decent photo of these little marvels.  Take a look at the shot below and tell me if you think I was successful!   If you would like to take photos like this, then I think you will find this 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips to be very helpful.

Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Click on this photo to see it in full resolution on my Flickr page.

STEP 1:  Come to America 🙂

First of all, you have to be where the Hummingbirds are.  If you are in Europe, Asia, Africa, or Australia, then sorry, but you are out of luck.  Hummingbirds are only found in the Americas.  Their range extends from Alaska to the tip of Chile during the summer but they do migrate to warmer locations during winter.

The bottom-line is that if you live nearly anywhere in the western hemisphere, hummers are probably nearby.  Even if you live in an urban area and have never seen a hummingbird near your home, I’ll bet you can attract them with a tad of effort.

STEP 2:  Invite the Hummingbirds to your party (Make them come to you!)

You can grab your camera, put on your hat and hike around gardens looking for hummingbirds…but I’ve found that it is a lot more productive to set out a feeder and simply let them come to you.

There are dozens of feeders available and the article attached to this link provides an excellent recap of features you should look for in a feeder as well as what type of nectar you will want to have.  You can also plant hummingbird attracting flowers in your yard…but if you really just want to take photos, a feeder will likely bring in all the hummers you need.  My favorite feeder is inexpensive, easy to clean and its low silhouette doesn’t block the hummers when I am photographing.

An important note:  Keep the feeder clean and replace the nectar every few days!  You also need to wash the feeder at least a couple times per week (more often if it is in direct sun).  The nectar can breed bacteria quickly and if it does, the hummers will know and they will avoid your feeder like the plague.  Seriously…you can waste a lot of time watching a feeder that hummers have no interest in because they know the nectar is spoiled. Also, once you mix up a batch of sugar water, use it within a couple of weeks…even if refrigerated, it can go bad that quickly (I learned this one the hard way).Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

STEP 3: Get the right Equipment

There is no way around it…to take world class hummingbird photos, you have to have the right tools.  Fortunately, some of the stuff is cheap and there’s a good chance that you already have some of the more expensive items.

Flashes

This is the one area where most folks will have to shell out some money because the most important equipment for killer hummingbird shots are your flashes (yes, plural).   Two flashes are really the absolute minimum for good shots and three flashes will allow you to take best-in-class photos.  Some folks use as many as eight flashes, but there are diminishing returns once you get past three.

So, why so many flashes?

  1. Two distinguishing hummingbird characteristics are that they are small and they are fast.  If you shoot without flash, you can compensate for one or the other of these characteristics, but rarely for both.
    • Unless you are satisfied with shots that show the wings as a total blur, you are going to need exposures that are between 1/1000 sec to 1/10,000 of a sec (yes…that is one ten thousandth of a second!). The problem is that if you set your shutter speed that high, you will have to open your lens aperture up wide…which unfortunately will minimize your depth of field (DOF) resulting in most of the hummer being out of focus.
    • On the other hand, if you reduce your aperture (to increase your DOF and keep the whole bird in focus), you will have to reduce your shutter speed to the point that the wings will seem to nearly disappear, which really isn’t an attractive look to most folks.
  2. You want the hummer to ‘sparkle.’   Hummingbirds get their ‘jewel-like” quality from the iridescence in their feathers.  If you use only a single source of light, then the iridescent effect can appear flat or irregular.  For an in-depth review of this topic you can see this link, otherwise, just trust me that a second flash will put your hummer photos into a whole new category.
  3. Hummingbird Heaven: A 5 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

    Without a flash dedicated to the background, your hummer will look like she was out after curfew!

    If your flashes are all pointed directly at the hummer, you will notice that your photos look like they were taken at night (see photo to the right).  It actually looks pretty neat but if you want photos that look like they were taken during the day, you will need at least one more flash specifically to illuminate the background.

Hummingbird Heaven:  Six Step Guide to Hummingbird Photography:  Hummingbird Photo tips

Now, isn’t that better?! A background flash will allow your hummer to look like she is out enjoying a sunny day! (Click on photo to see it in full resolution)

How should I set up my flashes?

This aspect of hummingbird photography can get very technical and frankly, there are multiple systems and techniques you can use to successfully illuminate your photo.  I’ve tried most of them and I’m going to tell you the system I use.  It is relatively inexpensive, it is simple and it works.

  • Commander/Slave
    • More than likely, your DSLR’s pop-up flash (or an external flash mounted to your camera’s hot shoe) can be set up so it will wirelessly and automatically trigger your other, off-camera flashes (the flash on the camera is called the ‘master’ (Canon) or the ‘commander’ (Nikon) and the other flashes are called ‘slaves’).  I have a Nikon and this system works flawlessly (I’m going to assume that the similar systems used by other major manufacturers are also effective).
    • It seems every camera/flash combo is different, so I’d suggest you do a quick google search (or, God-forbid, read your manual:) to see how to set up your particular system.  If you own a Nikon system, take a look at this article by Ken Rockwell which clearly explains how to use a Commander/Slave set-up.
    • Important Point:  If your camera’s pop-up flash isn’t able to be used as a ‘commander’ you will have to buy a separate flash for that purpose.
    • NOT ALL EXTERNAL FLASHES HAVE THE ABILITY TO BE A COMMANDER…so you need to confirm this before you buy one.
    • A money saving hint:  Your ‘slave’ flashes do not have to be top-of-the-line models made by the same company that made your camera.  I picked up my slaves second hand on eBay.
  • High Speed Sync Mode
    • Another thing you are going to want to do is set up your camera on auto high speed flash sync.  This is because most cameras are limited to a max sync flash speed of 1/250 (which is way too slow for most hummer shots).  By using the high speed flash sync mode, you will be able to use much faster shutter speeds.  Personally, I found this topic very confusing until I read a great blog by Darrell Young.  This link will take you to this insightful article.
    • To be honest, mastering High Speed Sync was the single most frustrating technical issue I had.  I seemed that sometimes I could get the Commander/Slave system to work, but then I couldn’t take shots faster than 1/320th.  Other times, it was just the opposite!  It wasn’t until I read this article by John Adkins, that I understood the problem.  Here is the solution (for Nikon anyway)
      • On the back of your Nikon, hit the
        • Mode button, then arrow down to the
        • Custom Setting Menu then arrow down to and select
        • e Bracketing/flash  then scroll down to and select
        • e3 Flash control for built-in Flash  then scroll down and select
        • Commander Mode the under the
        • Built-in flash, change the output mode to “–”   then
          • Change the Mode under Group A to “TTL”
            • Your speedlights will also need to be set on Group A
          • Finally, change Channel to “3” and set your speedlights to channel “3” also.
      • After I did this, I had no more problems.

Flash Stands

Flash stands will allow you to precisely position your speedlites/strobes.  I got a couple of these inexpensive stands  from Amazon for less than $30 each that get the job done just fine.  Just make sure that your stand will allow you to get the flash at least 6 feet off the ground and have wide, stable bases.

Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Amazing little critters, aren’t they!

Wireless Remote Shutter Release

For me personally, a wireless shutter release is the second most important piece of equipment for taking quality hummingbird shots.  The use of a wireless remote allows you to set your camera up very close to the feeder and trigger the shutter from far enough away that small movements on your part won’t scare the hummers

Initially I used a remote shutter unit that connected to my camera with a cable, but my cable was only 3 feet long, so I still needed to stay pretty close to the camera.   That meant I had to sit perfectly still or shoot hummers from a blind.  You might be able to find a remote with a long cord but trust me, a wireless shutter release for photographing hummers is a godsend.  Most of them are cheap (Amazon has a couple units for less than 20 bucks that fit many cameras).

I’ve taken most of my hummingbird photos while comfortably seated in my air-conditioned office about 15 feet from the feeder.  Usually I just glance thru my window every couple minutes to see if a hummer is visiting  (who says you can’t do two things at once?). This sure beats hiding in a cramped blind in the Florida heat fighting off mosquitoes!

Lenses

One of my biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments was realising that you don’t need a telephoto lens to take great hummingbird shots.  If you have a $10K 600mm 2.8 lens, then by all means, use it.  However hummers quickly grow tolerant of tripods and cameras placed close to the feeder.

Ideally, you want a lens that is fast, sharp and can focus close to the camera.  My best shots have been taken with a 105mm Nikon Micro lens…which is fast (f2.8), insanely sharp and can focus at subjects within a couple feet.  However,  I’ve also used much cheaper ‘prosumer’ lenses and gotten fine results.   The bottom line is that the ability to shoot very close to hummingbirds means that you can get pro quality results without pro quality glass.

A huge challenge is depth of field (DOF).  Hummers are only about 3 inches long, so we aren’t talking about a huge amount of space…but you might be surprised how shallow your depth of field is, even when using your smallest aperture. For example, the DOF for my 105mm is only about 3 inches deep when set up 30″ away with the aperture set at f25! Since most hummers are only a few inches long, keeping the whole bird in focus takes some practice.

Important Tip:   You can waste a LOT of time taking photos that have only part of the hummer focused unless you take the time to figure out your DOF ahead of time.  If you don’t have a DOF calculator, there are a couple great ones available for your smartphone.  The app I use cost $2 and is easy to operate and understand.

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird with ant in beak

Harriett’s Breakfast (click for full resolution)

Tripod

Some folks photograph hummers hand-held.  God bless them…those folks must have incredible patience and insane stalking skills.  But for me, hand-held hummingbird photography is simply frustrating and unproductive.

Mounting your camera on a tripod will dramatically increase your percentage of great photos:

1)  You will able to pre-calculate your DOF and prefocus your lens on the EXACT spot where the bird will be.  Which means that many/most of your shots will be perfectly focused and the entire hummer will be sharp.

2)  You can set up your camera very close to the hummers.  This will allow you avoid cropping.  In other words, you will maximize your resolution and sharpness by using nearly all of your sensor.Hummingbird Photography:  A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird photo tips

3)  Hummers, are usually not very tolerant of movement close to their feeder.  Even the slight movement of lifting your camera a couple inches while you are seated ten feet away will often scare them off.  However, if your camera is on a tripod and you are using a remote shutter release, they won’t see any motion.

Camera

As long as your camera has a ‘hot shoe” or has a pop-up flash that can serve as a commander, then you should be good to go.  Nearly any high quality DSLR should work.

Backdrop/Posterboard

You will want to set up a backdrop behind your feeder to avoid the ‘night-time’ look I mentioned before.  I use a piece of posterboard that I painted a nice sky blue.  You can also try spray-painting hazy patterns that imitate an attractive bokeh in the background of your shot.

Your backdrop won’t have to be very large.  For my current set-up, a 24″ x 12″ backdrop completely fills up the background in my photos.  Yours will likely need a somewhat different size depending on your camera/lens combo.

Flower Props

Shots of hummers flying with nothing else in the frame start looking kind of stark, so I like to include some flowers in the same plane of focus as the hummer.  Use local plants, especially ones the hummers feed on if possible.   If you don’t have some in your yard you can cut, just pick up some at your local nursery or home improvement store.

STEP 4:  Set the Stage.

A 4 Step Guide with Hummingbird photo tips

Diagram 1: Hummingbird Photo Studio

Basically, you are going to set up an outdoor photo studio in which you control all aspects of the photograph.

A 5 step buide with Hummingbird photo tips

Diagram 2: Photo of my Hummingbird Studio

 

The Feeder

Hummingbird Photo tips

Diagram 3: Feeder detail

Hummingbirds really don’t care where you put the feeder, they will find it and flock to it.  So, find a location that is perfect for YOU.

  • Put the feeder in a shady location.  This way the food won’t spoil quickly and and it will ensure that you control the light (with your flashes)
  • Attach cut flowers (I particularly like orchids) to the feeder so they will appear in the photo.
  • You can also put potted plants and/or flowers on a stand slightly behind the feeder out of the prefocus area…they will be a bit blurry which will add a nice sense of depth.
  • Put masking tape over all the feeding holes except the one you want the birds to use.  This ensures that when they come to feed, they will do so at exactly the location you want them to (more about this later).
  • Next modify your feeder by removing the ‘foot rests’ in front of the hole you left open (this way you get shots of hummers flying, not standing on the plastic foot rests.)
  • When I’m not photographing, I leave my feeder hanging by the supplied hook .  However, when it is time to photograph, I place the feeder on a piece of PCV and remove the hook (see Diagram 3).  This way there is nothing over the feeder that will be in the photo except the hummer and any flowers that I might be using as props.
  • One last thing, if you have multiple feeders, take down all of them except the one you are actually photographing.  Why give your models any reason to go anywhere else?
  • A sneaky trick:  Put the stem of a flower of your choice in the feeding hole you left open and then put a bit of nectar into the flower with an eyedropper or a syringe.  Since the hummers will become conditioned to come to that particular feeding hole, the next time they come back, they usually adapt quickly and try the flower.  Now you will be able to get killer shots of a hummer feeding from a flower, rather than from your feeder.

The Flashes

Positioning of your flashes is one of most critical decisions you will make.  Trial and error is the key, but my preference is to set up two flashes about 45 degrees from one another with one flash shooting up at the hummer and the other shooting down.  I also set  these two flashes so that neither one of them is pointing directly at the posterboard background …this will prevent them from throwing shadows from the bird or flower props onto the posterboard (See diagram 1).

The flashes need to be CLOSE to the feeder.  I often set them up within two feet of the feeder.  This is necessary because as you increase your shutter speed, the amount of illumination in your shots will be progressively reduced.

I typically use a diffuser on the flash shooting from below the bird…this helps soften the flash on the lighter colored underbelly without ‘blowing-out’ the whites.  However, I usually don’t use a diffuser on the flash that is shooting down..this helps make the iridescent feathers on top of the hummer ‘sparkle.’  Keep in mind that the only hummers I usually see are Ruby-Throated Hummers..which have white bellies, if you are west of the Mississippi (or lucky enough to live in Central America where there are over 50 species of hummers),  you will be photographing other species so your use of diffusers will likely need to be different!

The third flash will be positioned close to the posterboard shooting from the side.  By placing the flash off to the side, the backboard will be more illuminated on one side than the other…I find this to be an attractive look since it simulates the effect of the ‘sun’ brightening part of the ‘sky.’  However, if this isn’t appealing to you, adding another flash on the other side of your backdrop will even out illumination (but now you are up to 4 flashes!)

Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

The backdrop/posterboard

You want to position the posterboard far enough behind the feeder so that it is completely out-of-focus, but not so far that it is too dark in your photograph.  I typically set it about 30″ behind the feeder but your distance will depend on your lens and the aperture you select.

The Camera

  • I position my camera tripod at about a 90 degree angle from the flashes (see diagram 1).
  • Shoot in Raw, not jpeg.  Often I have to underexpose my shots because of the combination of a fast shutter but small aperture.  Shooting in Raw will allow you to boost the exposure in postprocessing.
  • Switch off the Vibration Reduction
  • Turn off the autofocus.
  • Select Manual Mode on the camera
  • Prefocus.  In the diagrams in this blog, I use the spot where thehummer usually ‘hovers’ after taking a sip but you can also select the feeding hole.
    • I just hold my hand in the exact spot I want to photograph the hummer and manually focus on it using Live View.
    • If you want to learn more about using your camera’s Live View function, this article by Ian Plant is a great start.
  • My current camera is the Nikon D800 and although it handles high ISOs incredibly well, I usually select an ISO of 280 or lower.
  • Set your aperture to the setting you selected after reviewing your DOF (see Lens section above)
  • Set your camera speed.  I can tell you that even at 1/5000 of a second, you will still see movement in the wings (you have be at nearly 1/10,000 of a second to totally freeze those little wings).  However, I actually like to see some wing blur, so I usually select either 1/3200 or 1/4000.
  • If you camera has one of those little pre-focus or ‘red-eye’ lamps that illuminate the subject, turn it off.

STEP 4:  Trial Shots

I am always anxious to start shooting in the morning…especially if hummers are already stopping by while I am setting up.   But I’ve learned that it pays to take your time in the morning and take trial shots after you set up to make sure that everything is perfect.  I review the first trial shot for focus, evenness of flash coverage, how my flower ‘props’ look in the frame and then make adjustments and shoot again.  I continue until I can get an absolutely perfect photo.  Then I go and get my coffee, sit in my chair, put my thumb on the remote shuttle release and wait for the party to start!

STEP 5:  Party Time!

  • Hummers have a predictable pattern when dining at your server…Zip In…Slurp…Back Away…Hover…Repeat.  I call this pattern a ‘Zisbahr’ (zis/bar) for short.  Once you know this pattern, you simply wait for them to fly into the spot you prefocused on and trip the shutter.
  • Hummers get territorial, so often a single bird will stake claim to your feeder and aggressively scare away any intruders.  This year,for example, a female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird that I’ve nicknamed “Harriett” has adopted my feeder.  If this happens to you, then you will find that individual birds have rather predictable ‘routines’.  Harriet stops by my feeder every 10-13 minutes early in the day until 8:30 or so and  less frequently after then.  This allows me to plan my schedule accordingly.

    Photo Guide with Hummingbird photo tips

    Say “Hi” to Harriett…my breakfast date today!

  • Take the last feeder down at night and don’t set it back out until you are ready to photograph the next morning. The hummers will know when the food is back and you will likely get a rush of activity.  In addition, the first feedings in the morning will be long…sometimes they will repeat seven or eight ‘zisbahrs’.  This first rush in the morning is my most productive time for hummer photography.
  • Don’t photograph your hummer until it has had a chance to complete one full ‘zisbahr’.  This way they get a taste of the nectar before you startle them with the flash.  They won’t like the flash, but if they have a taste of that nectar, they will probably put up with it without taking off.
  • As I mentioned hummers don’t like sudden movements, so even if you are a good distance away, move slowly.

STEP 6:  Postproduction

Once I import my shots into Photoshop, I first open it in the camera RAW format and use the following workflow:

  1. Adjust exposure.  My shots are often quite dark due to the high shutter speed, low ISO and small aperture.  So the first thing I have to do is increase the exposure (sometimes by nearly 4 stops).
  2. Adjust the Recovery and Fill Light sliders as needed
  3. Tweak sharpness and luminance to reduce noise
  4. If the background is still too dark, I will put the targeted adjustment cursor on the background and adjust the luminance slider up.  This will lighten the ‘sky’ but not colors in the bird or the flower props (unless they are the same color as your background).

Once I’ve completed the Raw adjustments, I save the file and reopen in regular photoshop, then:

  1. If there is residual noise in the background of the shot, I cut out the hummingbird and put it on it’s own layer.  I then use the noise filter to clean-up the background layer.  You can also add some Gaussian blur to the background.
  2. I often change the color of the white orchids attached to my feeder to a subtle hue.  Select a hue that contrasts and compliments the color of the sky and the hummer (like in the photo below).

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Final thoughts:

Although this article is a lot longer than your average blog, it certainly isn’t an exhaustive review of the subject…that would take a full book!  Actually, my goal was pretty modest:   I simply hoped to inspire you to give hummingbird photography a try and explain the basic techniques that would give you a good, solid start.   With a bit of practice and patience you will soon be showing your friends photos that will amaze them.

As your hummingbird photography skills improve and you learn techniques and tips that are not covered in this article, please share your learnings with me by noting them in the comments section at the end of this article (I reserve the right to get better!)

Thanks…now get out there and photograph some hummers!
Jeff

PS:  A note about the photos you see on this blog:

Unfortunately, I have to reduce the resolution of my photos by 80% when I insert them in this blog.  If you would like to see them in their full glory and resolution, check out my Flickr Hummingbird album.

PSS:  If you want to see even better hummingbird photos:

Checkout these photos by Dan Ripplinger.  I think this guy might be the best hummingbird photographer on the planet.  You will be impressed!

PSSS:  Hummingbird Trivia  (Source: Wikipedia, etc.)

  • Hummers get their name because of the humming sound created by their beating wings, which sometimes sounds like bees or other insects.
  • Hummers can fly at speeds exceeding 15 m/s (54 km/h; 34 mph);
  • Hummers are the fastest animal on the planet (if you measure speed in body lengths per second).
  • Hummers are the only group of birds with the ability to fly backwards
  • Hummers have the largest brain, proportionate to their size, of any animal.
  • Hummers in flight have the highest metabolism of all animals (excepting insects), a necessity in order to support the rapid beating of their wings. Their heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute.
  • Hummers hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings 12–80 times per second (depending on the species).
  • Hummers consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they must visit hundreds of flowers daily.
  • Hummers are continuously hours away from starving to death, and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight.
  • Hummers are capable of slowing down their metabolism at night or any other time food is not readily available. They enter a hibernation-like state known as torpor.
  • When the nights get colder, their body temperature can drop significantly which slows down their heart and breathing rate, thus burning much less energy overnight. As the day heats back up, the hummingbird’s body temperature will come back up and they resume their normal activity
  • Hummers are among the smallest of birds, most species measuring in the 7.5–13 cm (3–5 in) range. Indeed, the smallest extant bird species is a hummingbird, the 5-cm Bee Hummingbird.
  • Individuals from some species of hummingbirds weigh less than a penny
  • A group of hummingbirds is called a “choir.”
  • Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Hummingbird Photo tips

Hummingbird Photography:  A 6 Step Guide with Photo Tips

 

 

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Sun ‘n Fun Airshow Photo Tips & Guide

Okay, I know most of you read this site because of your interest in landscape and/or wildlife photography.  So, why is this blog about an airshow?  Well, I’ve had a passion about aviation since I was a kid and the Sun N Fun Airshow is a world class event that is located only about an hour from my home…so I just had to go!  And to be honest, a number of my readers are interested in ANY interesting photo location in Central Florida….and this one big Photo Op!  If this interests you, read on and I’ll share with you my Sun ‘n Fun Airshow photo tips & guide.

Sun 'n Fun Airshow Photo Vultee Vibrator

This beautifully polished and photogenic Vultee “Vibrator” was proudly displayed in the ‘Warbirds’ area.

If you have never been to an airshow, it’s kinda like Woodstock…for airplane nuts.  First of all, there is the airshow itself, in which aerobatic planes, wing-walkers and precision flying teams perform (like the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds).  Second, there are a lot of vintage and high performance aircraft parked on the flight-line that you can walk right up to and photograph (but be careful not to touch…a careless scrape of a camera could ruin a very expensive paint job).  Finally, there are exhibits where aviation vendors try to sell their goods.   Not only that, but you will find flight simulators, video games, food stations and lots of things to keep non-photographers happy.

photo tips & guide for Sun 'n Fun Airshow

B-25 Nose Art

Logistics:

  1. First of all, the show runs thru this Sunday, April 14, so if you want to go this year, you have to make some quick plans!
  2. Tickets are $37 for regular 1 day admission.  There is also a preferred ticket available for an additional $20.  I bought one of these but it really wasn’t worth it (you get a plastic chair, free water and nice bathrooms located at the center of the runway).
  3. The airshow is located at the Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland.  Link with directions: http://www.sun-n-fun.org/FlyIn/GettingHere/driving/directionsDrive.aspx
  4. The gates open at 8am.  The airshow runs from 3-6pm.
  5. There are a lot of affordable food and drinks vendors.
  6. Here is a link to the Sun ‘n Fun site for additional details: http://www.sun-n-fun.org/getdoc/4d0ac40c-4330-4be2-a5e3-6266d5feb194/Admission-Rates.aspx
  7. They also have an Iphone and Android Ap you can download that provided schedules, maps and other helpful info.

Sun ‘n Fun Airshow photo tips & guide for my fellow photographers:

Self-Portrait in reflection of prop spinner on a Beechcraft Staggerwing

  1. Get there at 8am!  This will allow you to get some great low sun angle shots of the parked aircraft. Also, clouds tend to form as the day progresses, so if you want some of those beautiful deep blue skies in the background of your shots, get there early.
  2. Wear comfortable sneakers.  You will be walking much of the day.  You don’t need hiking boots.
  3. Bring a hat, refillable water bottle and sunscreen..obviously there isn’t much shade:)
  4. Check out the weather report.  If you are lucky there will be a forecast of clear skies.  Not that you can’t get good shots if it is overcast, but it isn’t ideal.
  5. Unlike a lot of airshows, Sun ‘n Fun does allow you to bring backpacks and tripods.
  6. Bring a lightweight tripod.  If you aren’t blessed with clear skies or if you want to maximize your depth of field for your shots of static aircraft, it will come in handy.  It can get crowded so yes, a tripod can be awkward, but if you going to the show, why not ensure that you don’t miss that one great shot because you didn’t bring it with you?
  7. Sun 'n Fun Airshow Photo Tips

    I had a ball photographing reflections on this Lockheed Electra!

  8. Take a wide angle lens for your upclose shots of the parked planes.  A fisheye would be fun to bring as well.
  9. You will need a fast telephoto (300mm MINIMUM) for the airshow.  Set it on Shutter Priority at 1/400 second (this will be fast enough to freeze the aircraft but slow enough to give you that nice ‘blur’ on the propeller).  If jets are performing, you might need to increase to 1/000 to account for their greater speed.
  10. If you don’t splurge for the Preferred Seating, bring a lightweight folding chair.  By the time the airshow starts at 3 your legs should be getting tired and standing for all 180 minutes of the airshow wouldn’t be a lot of fun!
  11. Bring your Polarizer!  You will use this filter all day long and it will ensure that you get those rich blue skies..it will also help you manage reflections off of polished aluminum.
  12. For the actual airshow, find a location near the Announcer’s Booth (this is the center of the action).  Nearly all the action is overhead, so it isn’t critical that you get right up front.  It wasn’t terribly crowded on Tuesday when I went, so it wasn’t necessary to find a seat well in advance of the 3pm start for the airshow.  However, the weekend will be busier.

Even if you don’t have a passion for aviation, I’d encourage you to expand your photographic horizons and attend Sun ‘n Fun.  Some of the aircraft are just absolutely beautiful…bright colors, polished metal, framed by blue skies…lots of possibilities!Sun 'n Fun Airshow photo tips & guide

 

Sun n fun photo

PS:

One last thought, if you’ve never photographed the iconic Airstream Ranch, it is only about 20 minutes from the airfield.  Even better, if you are planning to be at the airshow at 8, why not get a daybreak shot of the Ranch (sunrise is just a bit after 7am now).

Photo of Airstream Ranch

Daybreak at Airstream Ranch

For details about how to get to the Airstream Ranch, you should check out the great blog by my fellow Central Florida Photographer Ed Rosack .http://edrosack.com/wordpress/2013/03/08/airstream-ranch/

Have fun!
Jeff

This photo is dedicated to the memory of Jane Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker (shown here performing at the Sun 'n Fun airshow in Lakeland Florida in April of 2013s year).

Jane and Charlie

PS:  This article is dedicated to the memory of Jane Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker (shown above & below performing at the 2013 Sun ‘n Fun airshow).
Jane and Charlie were killed on June 22, 2013 when their Stearman biplane crashed at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.
I met and briefly spoke with Jane and Charlie at Sun ‘n Fun…they clearly loved what they did and performed with passion and enthusiasm.
Rest in Peace.

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Aerial Photography, Central Florida Photo Locations, Military Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

I’ve lived in Florida 40 years now and visitors often ask me what they should do when they visit.   At the top of my list is swimming with the Manatees at Crystal River.  I’ve done it a number of times and I’d like to share with you my learnings and photo tips to help you make the most of this incredible experience.

Photo Tips:  Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

“Just Chillin’

Manatees are large, gentle creatures that seem to touch an emotional chord in most people that encounter them. They live in the coastal areas of the southern US and through-out the Caribbean.  Being mammals, they are sensitive to the cold.  As a result, every Florida winter they return from the ocean and head for the rivers that have underwater springs which pump out relatively warm 72 degree water.

Although there are a lot of springs that attract manatees, there are only two locations where you can swim with them:  Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.  Of the two, Crystal River is the best for photography, and an entire industry has been built around this fact.  Crystal River is on the west coast of Florida about 70 miles north of Tampa (100 miles west of Orlando).  There are a bunch of small tour companies there that will take you on a pontoon boat directly to the manatees so you can snorkel with them for a couple hours.  The cost is about $50-75 per person and includes snorkeling gear and a wetsuit (you will need it…72 might be warm to a manatee but I guarantee you will find it chilly!)  If you haven’t done much snorkeling, don’t let that stop you… most of the places the tours hit are shallow enough that you can simply walk on the bottom rather than swim.

My photo tips for Manatees:

Equipment

  • Obviously you will need a waterproof camera. Fortunately, this isn’t like photographing 60′ below the surface inside a wreck…you are shooting in 5 feet of water (freshwater at that)   I’ve used everything from a high-end DSLR in an expensive underwater housing to $300 waterproof point-n-shoots.
  • A DSLR can certainly provide better quality and if you are trying to produce world-class work, then it is the way to go.  However, if the shots are just for your own use and you aren’t going to try to print anything larger than 8×10,  then a high-end waterproof point-n-shoot is a lot easier to use and will give you adequate quality.
  • I would suggest that the camera be able to shoot in RAW.  You will need to avoid blown-out highlights and adjust the white balance in post processing to account for the shift into the blue spectrum and having your images in RAW will help a lot in this regard.
  • Whatever camera you are using, practice using it in the water until you instinctively know how to adjust the controls.  I stress this because most of us don’t use underwater cameras often and even if you are using your regular camera in a waterproof housing, you will be surprised how difficult this can be in the water.  For example, the last time I was photographing manatees I was using my Canon S 100 in an Inklite housing.  I practiced using the camera in the housing for an hour the day before the dive.  But…almost as soon as I got in the water I noticed the camera had started a video recording.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in the housing.  Sixty seconds later the memory card was full and that camera was done for that dive.  Fortunately I had taken a backup camera with me.
  • Since you are so shallow and since the sun usually shines brightly in Florida, you won’t need much in the way of lighting.  Often you don’t need any.  On-camera flash does a fine job when some in-filllightingis needed.
    • Note:  There are state and Federal regulations restricting the use of flash photography around Manatees.  Those regulations tend to change yearly and become more restrictive.  Please check online here and here  to ensure that you have the latest info.  If you book a tour, your boat captain will have this info…just ask.
  • Take a roomy backpack or duffel bag with you on the boat and load it with a warm change of clothes (including socks), a towel and Thermos with hot coffee or chocolate (some tours have hot beverages on board).
  • If you have your own wetsuit (full wetsuit, not a ‘shorty’) mask and snorkel, bring them as well.  Bring water shoes and wear them when you are in the water. You probably won’t need fins and many tours won’t let you use them anyway (so they won’t inadvertently bother the manatees or stir up silt)
  • The boat ride to the dive site can take up to a half hour (depending which marina you start from).  There is a lot of wildlife on the way, so I always bring my bestDSLR with a long lens (300mm or more).  Eagles, osprey, herons and other birds will keep you busy.  I just leave this camera on the boat when I dive and I’ve never had an issue with theft.

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

When to Go

  • Manatees can be found in Crystal River year-round and the dive companies will tell you you can see them any day of the year.  However, you really want to come during the winter and if possible, during a cold snap.  You can see literally dozens of Manatees on a one hour dive during the winter while you might only see a couple during a full day in the summer.
  • Most tour companies have two or three tours a day.  You want to go on the FIRST tour they have in the morning.  In fact, you should check to see just how early their first tour is.  Some “8am” tours don’t actually get to the manatees until 9:30 and by then there might be dozens of other boats already there.  The problem with this is that if there are a lot of people, they will inevitably kick up a lot of silt from the bottom of the river and this will adversely affect your visibility AND your photographs.  Some tours start before sunrise so you are getting in the water as soon at it is light…those are the folks you want to book your tour with.
  • The least busy, and therefore the best days of the week are Tuesday thru Thursday (unless one of these days is a holiday).
  • The two weeks before Christmas are excellent since most folks are focused on the holidays and don’t plan a manatee trip.  As a result, you will have the manatees almost to yourselves.Photo Tips:  Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

What company to Use

  • I’ve used a number of different companies and they all were all adequate.  I’d suggest using Tripadvisor  to check out reviews of potential companies.  Here is a link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g34162-Activities-Crystal_River_Florida.html  
  • If you are looking for a bargain, you can occasionally getagroupon that cuts the cost down to only $25.
    • Also be sure that a wetsuit rental is included in the price…otherwise you might be hit with a surprise extra charge.
  • Personally, I prefer a company by the name of Bird’s Underwater.  They feature an early 6am trip, their captains know their stuff and their price is very competitive (and no, they don’t compensate me for this recommendation).

Where to go at Crystal River?

  1. The most popular location is Three Sisters Spring and this is the destination for most tours .  This location is in a beautiful, lush setting and has 3 springs (hence the name:  Three Sisters),  The water flow can result in very good visibility by constantly pushing the silt downstream and out of your way.
    • Due to its popularity, thislocationcan be VERY crowded.
      • If you can’t be there at sunrise, it might be too crowded to be worth your trouble.  All those people can create storms of silt that the springs can’t clear out.
    • The regulations at this location are more restrictive than other sites (and they are very actively enforced).  The officials do their best to make sure the manatees aren’t ‘loved to death’ and you need to be on your best behavior.  Talk to your captain to be sure you fully understand the rules for photography.
  2. There are over 40 other fresh water springs that flow into Kings Bay at Crystal river.
    • Three Sisters gets all the press, but many of these other springs can yield wonderful manatee photo.
    • Your captain will decide which location(s) to visit.  Let him/her know that you are a photographer and visibility is really important to you.

      2015 Manatees 08 January 09922_1

      If you do have a DSLR in an underwater housing, then Over/Under shots can be a lot of fun.

So I’m in the water at Three Sisters, Now what?

  • The boat will probably anchor in the river near the entrance of a small stream where the Three Sisters empty out into the river.  Ask the captain to point out the stream and head for it once you get in the water (and get used to the chilly temperature:)
  • You will pass a roped-off  ‘manatee refuge’ area that you are not allowed to enter.  You will probably see a bunch of manatees there which will attract most of the tourists.  Don’t spend much time here.  Make your way to entrance of where the 3 Sisters spring empties into the river and make your way up the stream.
    • NOTE:  There are new proposed regulations (January 2015) which would create new ‘manatee refuge’ areas in the pond area…ask your captain
  • There is a bit of current, and the bottom is irregular but your water shoes will protect your feet.  I find it easier to walk up the stream than to swim it. It will take you five minutes or less to get to the springs
  • The stream will open up into an irregular shaped pond.  Most of it is less than 4 feet deep so you can move around easily.
  • First, make a tour of the pond to see where the manatees are.  Don’t necessarily stop at the first manatee you see one.  What you are ideally looking for is:
    • A Manatee that is in relatively shallow water (less than 5 feet)
    • A Manatee that is close to and downstream from one of springs (this will ensure that your shots won’t show much suspended silt).
    • A Manatee that isn’t surrounded by a horde of snorkelers.
  • Often the manatees are resting on the bottom.  If see this,position yourself about ten feet in front of the manatee.  Try to find a spot that has a darker background behind the manatee (ideally, you want to get the dark blue water of the spring behind it).  Now… you….wait.  Usually it will come uptobreath every 3 or 4 minutes rising slowly to the surface and back to the bottom.  If so,youshould be able to get a number of shots every time it does this.
    • Note:  New proposed regulations (January 2015) will ban ALL flash photography at Three Sisters (although not at other locations).  Talk with your captain to ensure you know the latest rules.
  • If the manatees are moving, you just have to try to anticipate where they are going and position yourself accordingly  Keep in mind that you are not allowed to harass them…which basically means that you shouldn’t do anything that makes them change their behavior.  In other words, if a manatee swims right up to you and rolls over, you can rub her belly (this really happens..and it is just incredibly cool when it does), but you can’t swim up to a stationary manatee and try to climb on it’s back.  Please review the official  regulations on the attached link: http://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/viewing-guidelines/
  • I’ve never had a captain rush me back to the boat, even when I was the last one from our boat in the water (actually, I’m always the last one in the water).  However, be aware of the time and the fact that unless you hired the boat for the entire day, that the captain does have another boatload of folks waiting back at the dock.Photo Tips:  Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

Postproduction

  • Your primary task will be re-adjusting the white balance.  Manatees are grey, so you can usually just touch your Photoshop white-point stylus to their skin and get close to the right colors.
  • It can be challenging to get a shot that has the right exposure.  If you were able to shoot raw, then you should be able to recover most, if not all of the blown-out highlights that often result from the sun reflections off the surface of the water.
  • No matter how careful you set up your shot, you will probably see some suspended silt (backscatter) in your shots…especially if you used flash.  You can try using the dust filter in Photoshop but if that is a bit too severe you can just take a deep breath and take the time to use your clone tool systematically thru the frame and remove the ‘backscatter’.

UPDATE:

  • I’ve added a number of new techniques and suggestions in a more recent blog.  Click on this link to see more!

Final thoughts

If you want to photograph more after your tour, then take the time to hit some of the numerous parks located right on the water in Crystal River (none of them are more than ten minutes away).  I’ve gotten some incredible bird shots here…two weeks ago I watched (thru my viewfinder) an osprey desperately trying to steal a fish from another osprey that had just snatched it from the river.  Just another boring day in Florida!

 

PS:  After completing this blog, I was referred to an excellent photo guide by John Ares.  Check out the attached link: http://www.divephotoguide.com/underwater-photography-travel/article/underwater-photographers-guide-manatees-crystal-river/

Good luck and good shooting!
Jeff

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

 

 


 

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , , |