Category Archives: Southwest U.S.A.

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, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , , , |

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer’s Nirvana

In a recent blog, I mentioned a couple of hikers who made the tough 10 mile hike to reach the Subway at Zion National Park.  They spent five minutes looking at it, then turned around and hiked back.  That got me to thinking (which is a dangerous thing)…would I have hiked to the Subway if I WASN’T a photographer?  It is an amazing place… but honestly… a full day of tough hiking for just a glance.  I don’t know…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

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

So I wondered:  I’ve photographed a number of sites that were pretty challenging to reach…how many of them would I go back to, even if I didn’t  have a camera with me?   To be honest, that list is mighty short, but at the top of it would be Racetrack Playa.

I’ll bet you’ve seen photos of the Racetrack …even if you aren’t familiar with the name (see the image to the left).  The ‘sailing rocks’, some of them hundreds of pounds rest on a vast, flat mosaic of sun-cracked mud with trails stretched out behind them.   Folks have wondered for years how the heck boulders ‘sail’ across the high desert valley floor in a remote part of Death Valley.  Theories covered the spectrum from aliens (probably visiting from their nearby home at Area 51) to some other stuff that was really ridiculous.

Something about the Playa simply fascinated me.  The images of those sailing stones just fired my imagination.  And the Playa itself looks like an image taken from a Mars space probe.

Racetrack Play instantly went on my ‘bucket list’ and I finally I got my chance to photograph it this spring.

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, covering 5,262 square miles.  My son, Ryan, and I spent our first day doing our best to hit the park’s photographic high points, including:

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

Artist’s Palette

 

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

Zabriski’s Point

 

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

Mesquite Dunes

But I was really there for the Playa and it was the only thing on our schedule for the next day and a half…but first we had to get there.   Now, Death Valley isn’t exactly difficult to visit, over a million folks do so every year.  Getting to the Playa, however,is ‘a whole nother matter.’  I doubt that more than 20 folks per day make it to the Playa and now I know why.  It’s isolated in the far western edge of the park and the only way to reach it is via a ROUGH 28 mile unpaved road. When I say rough, I mean this was by far the worst road I’ve ever been on in my life.  It’s not a simple dirt or gravel road, its a mixture of sand and sharp broken rocks.  The washboarding is incredible and much of the ‘road’ is wide enough for only a single vehicle. Put it this way, the road is only 28 miles long but it took us about 2 hours to reach the Playa…yup, I averaged about 15 mph (and I thought that was fast!)

Teakettle Junction Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

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

We had read about the road beforehand and knew we shouldn’t try to get there in a regular rental sedan, so we rented a modified 4×4 Jeep.  It wasn’t cheap, but it had heavy duty tires, beefed up suspension and included an emergency GPS tracker you could activate if you got stuck (no cell service on that road…or most places in the park for that matter).

I thought maybe I was being over-cautious renting the jeep.  I mean how bad could it be?  Well, in the first couple miles we passed two regular sedans that had blown tires and another that had the bottom torn out of it (no wonder the Park Service recommends you take TWO full sized spares).  Apparently towing costs are outrageous …like $1500-$4000… so I started thinking the cost might not have been ridiculous after all!

After an hour and a half of being thrown around like ping pong balls in a lottery cage, we reached Teakettle Junction.  I don’t know how it originally got its name, but over the years folks have decorated the sign with, you got it…tea kettles!  It was worth a photo and the good news was that it meant we were only 6 miles from the Racetrack.

We finally made the last turn and saw the Playa…  As I soaked in the view it became apparent why they call it the racetrack..it really is a huge flat oval surrounded by mountains that look like bleachers…throw up some NASCAR banners and I would have thought I was at the Daytona 500.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

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

We parked when I first spotted some rocks out on the Playa.  They didn’t look that far out there so I grabbed my camera nearly ran out into the flats.   After about five minutes, the rocks didn’t look any closer…so I slowed to a trot…then a jog…and then I just plain walked.  It slowly dawned on me that the Playa is big…really BIG.   Plus the rocks were out a lot further out there than they appeared and of course they were all on the FAR side of the Playa.

But I didn’t care!  I was at the Playa and I had my camera.  I spent the next few hours gleefully snapping away running from one rock to another.  The weather was wonderful.  Temperatures were in the 70s…nice partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze.  I’d hate to visit in the summer when temperatures top 100° but in March, it was ideal.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

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

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

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Finally the sun slipped below the mountains (the aptly named ‘Last Chance Range’) .  That seemed to spark an exodus as nearly all the other folks at the Playa got back in their vehicles and started back…probably hoping to make it before darkness made a difficult drive into a dangerous one.  But Ryan and stuck around.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

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

We were going to spend the night:  I had my heart set on photographing the Playa at night…hopefully getting shots of the ‘sailing rocks’ with the Milky Way hanging above them.  Since the Playa looked like a scene from a different world, I figured that including the Milky Way would be just be icing on the cake!

The campsite was close…less than a mile away.  It was small, rugged and primitive. No water, no electricity, no bathrooms….no problem.  I had done my research, so we knew what to expect and we were prepared…well, we THOUGHT we were.   What we didn’t plan on was the wind. The mild breezes we enjoyed during the day intensified as it got dark…and then got worse.  We live in Florida so we know a thing or two about wind…heck, Hurricane Matthew just hit a couple weeks ago…but we had never camped in winds like these.  40-60 mph gusts blasted our tent with sand and rocks:  it sounded like we were inside a blender full of gravel.  Needless to say we didn’t sleep much…  After a few hours we gave up, jammed the tent in the back of the jeep and drove back to the Playa.

Clouds had accompanied the wind and the Milky Way wasn’t visible.  At least the jeep was quieter than the tent and Ryan managed to drift off to sleep.  I just stared out the window hoping to see stars.  Around 3am the gale died down and the skies started to clear.  I left my sleepy son in the jeep and headed out onto the flats with my tripod and camera.

There was no moon and it was truly pitch black.  The silence was absolute and profound.  The Playa seemed eerie, empty and endless.  It really should have been one of those moments when I stopped, took a deep breath and appreciated the moment…  But all I could think was: ‘Where the heck are those freakin’ rocks?!’  Spotting them during the day had been pretty easy but in the darkness it proved frustratingly difficult.

The Milky Way was beautiful and clearly visible but sunrise was coming and the skies would soon start to lighten.  I kept walking and the minutes kept rolling by.  My chances of getting a Milky Way shot with the ‘sailing rocks’  were slipping away.

And then I nearly tripped right over one!

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

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

I knew I had less than 30 minutes before the stars faded with the dawn.  That sounds like a lot of time to take a picture of a single rock..right?  Well, not really.  To get a high resolution shot of the rock in the darkness, some of my exposures had to be nearly 8 minutes long…so I didn’t have time to a lot of photos.  Plus I had to focus in the darkness (which isn’t fun)…then figure out the best way to light up the ‘sailing rock’…plus I had to take separate 30 second exposures of the faint Milky Way (later I’d merge the photos together in Photoshop).

Sometimes you imagine a shot in your head and wait years to get it but it doesn’t equal your expectations.  But the shot above didn’t disappoint me a bit.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Blue Planet

I would have loved to photograph more than one silly rock, but the sky had already started to lighten and the Playa slowly unveiled itself.  As details became visible, I started to faintly make out dozens lots of those silly rocks that had been so elusive in the dark.

The world shifted to shades of blue for twenty minutes or so, then the sunlight reached the clouds and briefly burned them red.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Sun Run”

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

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Direct from the Source

By now Ryan had joined me and we darted around the Playa yelling to each other when we found a particularly photogenic rock.  Some of the trails were truly weird, sharply cutting and darting around like a running back caught behind the line of scrimmage.  Others were straight as an arrow or gently curving…the variety was puzzling and fascinating at the same time.  I caught my self a couple times just staring at the magical and bewitching scene before me…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Take me to your Leader Earthling”

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Drag Racer!

We had about an hour before the light got harsh which brought an end to our visit.   Ryan and I looked at each other and grinned that smile that guys do when they are really happy but way too old-

“Time for you to leave”

school to actually hug each other.  We ambled back to the parking lot, ate a power bar, fired up the jeep and headed back to civilization.

I’m sure some will look at these photos and think  “OK…a bunch of rocks in the desert:  Big Deal”  But if you are like me, it will spark a sense of wonder and enchantment.  I found it totally surreal and bizarre….and starkly mesmerizing.  Despite the time, hardship and treasure it costs to get to the Racetrack, I’d go back in a minute…even without a camera.  There just isn’t another place like it…at least here on earth!

Jeff

 

PS:  If you are thinking about visiting Racetrack Playa, I’ve written another blog with maps and specific tips.  Use this link for a full report of all you need to know to photograph Racetrack Playa!

 

 

PSS:  The mystery of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ has been scientifically solved (see this link for the full report).  A group of researchers actually put small GPS trackers on some of the rocks and set up cameras to take time-lapse photos of them.  Basically, when a thin layer of ice forms on the Playa, the rocks will move if there is a high, sustained wind (yup…I know about THAT!)   It happens rarely, but they caught it on tape.  I guess someone was bound to have enough time and money on their hands to solve this mystery…but honestly, I kinda liked not knowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racetrack Playa:  A Photographer’s Nirvana

 

 

 

Also posted in Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography 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 Photo Tips and Guides 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, Photo Tips and Guides, Roadtrips Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield…when photographers think of White Sands National Monument,  “it just don’t get no respect.”   If you review the “A-Lists” of must-see locations for landscape photographers in the southwest USA…White Sands doesn’t often make the cut.

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Sunset Panorama at White Sands

Frankly, I think the root of the issue is simply that White Sands is isolated and doesn’t easily work into the routing for a typical “Southwest Icon Tour List.”

A second issue is that White Sands doesn’t comfortably fit into the preconception of what we think of when we dream of the American Southwest.  Visions of red rock, hoodoos and carved canyons dance in our heads.  White Sands is none of those things.  It is difficult to categorize…difficult to comprehend.

For whatever reason, it took years of exploring the Southwest before I made the long, lonely drive to these secluded sands.

First of all, let’s talk about exactly what White Sands is.  Covering 300 square miles, it is the world’s largest white gypsum (not sand) dune field.  Gypsum dissolves in water, so unless there is a basin where rain is trapped it is impossible for gypsum to be converted into sand.  Well, White Sands is located in the huge Tularosa Basin which is enclosed by the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains near the small town of Alamogordo .  After the last Ice Age, a lake that covered the basin evaporated and left the fields of gypsum that became White Sands.  The Park is actually part of the White Sands Missile Range (home of the worlds first A-Bomb explosion…the Trinity Site).

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Yup…the sand is white…makes for a striking image.

Second of all, those facts don’t matter a bit when you visit.  What matters is that this place is truly strange…and oddly magical.  Put yourself in this mindset:  you’ve driven hours across desert in the middle of nowhere to get there.  Hour after hour of flat, boring,  mundane, reddish brown desert.  Small, nondescript towns connected by a seemingly endless line of two-lane blacktop.  Finally, you see a sign welcoming you to Alamogordo…and before you know it, you’re passing a sign thanking you for visiting Alamogordo.:)   A few minutes later you pull up to a small National Park Service building, pay the guard, get a brochure and continue driving into the desert.  But…then…things… start …to… change.  As the road twists and curves, the sparse vegetation becomes even more scarce and the sand starts to loose its color.  Then the flat landscape begins to shift as the sand forms dune…which become larger and larger as you drive on. By the end of the eight mile road you might think you were on another planet.  There is an absence of plants and animals.  The sky is blue…the sand is white and other than that, very little color.  There is no sound unless the wind stirs.

You stand there, looking around and then you start to notice weird things…like the the sun might be scorching hot but the sand is cool enough to walk on with bare feet (gypsum doesn’t readily convert sunlight into heat).  And to make it a scene right out of your favorite sci-fi movie, you might even see rockets arch overhead (from the Missile Range).

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Getting down low to the sand and processing in black and white can help to emphasize the drama of the scene.

This place is just not right…like a slightly warped alternate version of reality.  But…it is beautiful.  As a photographer, I was mesmerized. The landscape is so stark, so extreme that images can deliver a real punch.  I experimented a bit with black and white since it complimented the views well.  My son and I parked at the end of Dunes Drive and hiked north to get away from the few other people around and to find dunes that were free of footsteps.

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

These tracks became visible near sunset as the shadows lengthened.

It didn’t take long to get the feeling that we were the only persons alive on this strange alien world.  However, there were a few tracks in the sand, so some critters had obviously adapted to life in this extreme climate.

We hiked even further, just enjoying the solitude and incredible vistas.  All too soon the sun began to set behind the distant San Andres mountains. The orange hues of the sunset created a wonderful palette against the blues and white.  The next few minutes proved to be my most productive as I scrambled to find different compositions.

My favorite shot of the day proved to be my last one.  As my son and I were putting on our backpacks for the hike out, I caught this image of Ryan taking a last, longful look at the rising moon.

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

I consider this image to be one of the best I’ve ever taken.

With this photo, White Sands entered the “Big Leagues” in my book.  I will be visiting again!

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

1)  Bring your polarizer…it can really help blue sky ‘pop.’

2) If the wind is blowing, sand will get everywhere.  Bring a blower for your equipment and avoid changing lenses

3)  There are a few hiking paths, but those areas tend to be covered with footprints.  If you want photos of ‘virgin’ sand, you will have to avoid the trails. I’d suggest parking at the furthest parking lot and hiking north click here to see a detailed map of the park.  Also, if you want shots with only a solitary yucca plant, you best bet is also a the north end of the park.

4) Bring a GPS if you go off trail.  It can take only a few minutes to loose sight of the road and there are few landmarks.  I’m dead serious about this.  It is not a place to get lost.

5)  Morning shots are challenging because the park doesn’t open until 7pm which is after sunrise for much of the year.  If you don’t mind camping, there are a limited number of camping sites that you can reserve.  Keep in mind that sidewinders live at White Sands, so don’t be out in the dark unawares.  They do leave interesting patterns in the sand…if you can find them!

6)  Sunsets are not a problem since the park is open for an hour after sunset.  Just don’t hike so far out into the dunes that you can’t get back to the park entrance in time.

7)  Although shots taken early or late in the day provide wonderful shadows behind the ripples in the sand, photos taken during the middle of the day can also work due to the sheer sharpness of the setting.

8)  Obviously this is the desert so if you are there during the summer, dress accordingly and bring lots of water.

9)  The further you go into the park, the fewer plants you will see.  If you want shots of nothing but desert, you need to go to the end of the road.

10)  Get down low.  It will emphasize the shadows behind the ripples in the sand.

11)  A tripod will be a must if you are going to shoot in low light.  Bring a lightweight one if you are going to hike a distance into the desert.

12)  Temperatures during the summer can be brutal.  It was over 110 on the day I visited (hot even for a Florida boy).  It is certainly more comfortable during the winter.  On the other hand, the summer monsoons often create wonderful cloud patterns.

13)  The park is actually closed regularly because of military rocket tests so before visiting you should check this site for info on Missile Closures.

 

PS:  I love some of the roadside art I see on my travels.  This 15 foot tall road runner was in a junkyard along the road heading out of Alamogordo…

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

♪ Beep! Beep! ♪ ♫ Roadrunner, roadrunner, the coyote is after you….! ♫

Enjoy your travels!
Jeff

 

 White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

 

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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

 

 

 

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

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

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

That was until I found the Lost Dutchman State Park:

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

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

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

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

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

 

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

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

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

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

Tips for my fellow photographers:

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

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

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

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

The prow-like profile of the Flatiron is unmistakable

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

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

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

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix.

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

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

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

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

Jeff

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

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

 

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

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Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op

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

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

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

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

First of all, you have to find the place:

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

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

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

My favorite vantage points:

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

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

A word to the wise:

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

Details:

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

    Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

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

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

Equipment

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

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

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

Hope you get a chance to visit Sedona soon!
Jeff

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

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

 

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op

 

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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, Photo Tips and Guides

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

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

Delicate Arch Photo guide and tips

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

 

 The Basics:

Be Safe.

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

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

How to find it

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

 When to go

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

What to Expect/What to Shoot when you get there

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

    A shot from the ‘classic’ perspective.

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

    16mm glass was able to catch the full sunset panorama

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

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

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

Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

 

Delicate Arch Photo Guide and Tips

 

Also posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , |

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Basics:

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

    "Sunset Self-Portrait"

    “Sunset Self-Portrait”

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips for my fellow Photographers:

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

      Horseshoe Bend Arizona. Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

      Mid-Day perspective

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

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

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

Jeff

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

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

One little push…

 

 Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips

 

Also posted in Landscape Photography 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

 

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

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

A 'mini' Towers of the Virgin?

A ‘mini’ Towers of the Virgin?

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

The 'real' Towers of the Virgin at Zion

The ‘real’ Towers of the Virgin at Zion

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

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

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

    Photo of Sedona's Bell Rock at sunrise

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

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

Good luck and good shooting!
Jeff

PS:  Here is a final shot:

Red Rock in it's morning glory!

Red Rock in it’s morning glory!

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Mesa Arch: The Southwest’s best Photo Op?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    Move around and get different perspectives..

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

For my fellow-photographers:  Mesa Arch Photo Tips:

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

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

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

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

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    View thru the Arch

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

    Mesa Arch Sunrise Photographers

    Photographing the Photographers

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

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

Till then, Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

 

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Can you do the Charleston? (Charleston Photo Tips)

As a photographer, it is often a challenge when you shoot a new location.  Time is always short and you don’t want to miss any cool photo ops, especially those that might be right around the corner but you just don’t know about them. If you are like me, you research the web looking for photo tips about the site and if you are really lucky, you find a recap by a photographer who helps you shoot like a pro.

Well guess what?  You are lucky because this is the recap of Charleston photo tips and locations that I wish I could have seen before I went there!  Below I’ve listed my top 6 tips for the photographer who has a day or two to spend in Charleston.

1)   Spend most of your time in Old Town

Old town is just what you would think it is, the older, historical section of the city.  It is located on the southeastern part of the peninsula that Charleston occupies and is roughly bordered by Meeting Street, Broad Street and Charleston Harbor.  It is crammed with old homes, parks and buildings that could easily consume a full day of photography.   In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming and without a guide you could spend a couple days wandering around and still miss a lot of the good stuff.  If you can, get a hotel actually in Old Town..all the photo ops are within walking distance and when you are done shooting, there are tons of restaurants and boutique shops to keep you entertained.  We stayed at the Doubletree on Church Street, which was very convenient.  http://doubletree3.hilton.com/en/hotels/south-carolina/doubletree-by-hilton-hotel-and-suites-charleston-historic-district-CHSCSDT/maps-directions/index.html

2)  Go on a Walking Tour

A good tour guide will help you find those locations that you might otherwise miss and ensure that you optimize your time.  Hands down, the best tour for photographers is Charleston History Tours  http://www.charlestonhistorytours.com/Tours.html This tour is targeted specifically for photographers and your guide (Joyce) will spend over two hours showing you the locations you might otherwise have missed.  Not only that, but she knows her Charleston history.  To make this a no-brainer, she only charges $23.50 for the tour.

3)  Be at Waterfront Park for sunrise

Photo tips for Charleston

Charleston’s Waterfront Park at Dawn

Photo tips for Charleston's Waterfront Park

One of the fountains at Charleston’s Waterfront Park

This park has two impressive fountains and an attractive covered pier…all three are outstanding foreground subjects for sunrise photos. This means that you can get a number of very different sunrise shots all within ten minutes of each other.  Get there at least 40 minutes before sunrise since the best color sometimes hits that early.  Parking can be difficult in the Old City but I’ve never had a problem at daybreak.  Waterfront Park is located at the intersection of Concord and Vendue Range Street.

4) Get a shot of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

Although I adore landscape and wildlife photography, I have to admit that on occasion, we humans get lucky and create something truly exquisite.  I wouldn’t usually say that about a bridge, but this one is an exception.  A great location to shoot the bridge is from a park (Mt. Pleasant Pier Park) located just under the bridge on the other side of the Cooper River in Mt. Pleasant (http://ccprc.com/index.aspx?NID=1171 at 71 Harry Hallman Boulevard Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 843-762-9946 or 843-795-4386).   It is free to enter and there is a long, new concrete pier that runs right alongside the bridge that will give you a great perspective for photos.   The sun sets behind the bridge so you can get great sunset shots here as well.

5)  Hit the outskirts of the city

If you have exhausted the photo potential of Old Town, then there are a number of plantations about 40 minutes from Old Town out on Highway 61 that can yield photo ops.  Locals recommended Middleton Place Plantation https://www.middletonplace.org/as the best of the bunch.  Frankly, I didn’t get a lot of great shots there.  Keep in mind that I visited in October and I’m sure it is more interesting in the spring when everything is blooming.

I’ve already mentioned Old Sheldon Church in a previous post http://www.firefallphotography.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=567&action=edit&message=1 .  This is located about an hour from Old Town off of Highway 17.   This is absolutely worth the hour drive from Charleston.

6)  Are you a history buff?

Then you have to see Patriots Point, Ft. Sumter, Ft. Moultrie and the Confederate submarine, Hunley.

Patriot’s Point is a wonderland for anyone with an interest in aviation, warships or all things military.  Seriously, if this kind of thing interests you (I’m certainly guilty), then you could spend the better part of a day here.  Tickets are $18 for adults and it features the U.S.S. Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier that is packed with aircraft and exhibits of all kinds.  They also have a submarine, a destroyer and a mock-up of a Vietnam-era support base.  Patriots Point is located at 40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 near the Mt. Pleasant Pier Park mentioned above.  http://www.patriotspoint.org/explore_museum/?gclid=CKGZkaHMt7MCFQu0nQodDH8AKg

Ft. Sumter was a bit disappointing from a strictly photography perspective since it really isn’t that dramatic visually.  If you haven’t been there before, you might be surprised to find that it doesn’t at all resemble those pictures you saw in the history books about Civil War…  http://www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm

Flag at Ft. Moultrie

On the other hand, Ft. Moultrie was different from the dozen or so other Civil War era forts I’ve visited since it had been restored to look like it did during it’s heyday.  It is in Mt Pleasant and is a bit of a drive, but if you have the time, you can get some interesting shots here.

As for the Hunley, well it is a fascinating story…both its wartime service as well as its recovery, but like Sumter, you will find it difficult to get exciting photos.http://www.hunley.org/.

 

So, there you have it…a quick recap of how you might want to plan your Charleston Photo Trip.  Hopefully you have found this helpful, but either way, I’d love to have your feedback so I can improve my ‘Photo Tips’ in the future.

Jeff

Sunrise from Waterfront Park

 

 

 


 

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