The edge of the continent, and the edge of night: westernmost point of the contiguous United States at Cape Alava, Washington.
It’s been a long time since I’ve participated in the WordPress weekly challenge. I like this week’s theme, Transitions. A lot. I think of it more broadly as the “edge”. I love pictures captured at the edge, or within a transition: from the literal edge of a cliff to the edge of a human expression, and everything in between.
These photos are mostly about the transition from sunset colors to dusk (blue hour). I think it’s my favorite time to shoot landscapes. Even my blog’s header image, moonrise over Monument Valley, depicts an evening transition. For variety, I included a photo where a Cambodian woman is at the edge of smiling, plus one captured at the dramatic transition from dry season to the rains in Africa. To see an image displayed bigger and better, just click on it. Enjoy!
The amazing Bolaven Plateau of southern Laos.
Edge of a smile: Cambodia.
I’ve never seen a more dramatic change of seasons than the one from hot & dry to the rains in Africa. A lone wildebeest stands against the first thunderstorm of the season, sweeping dust ahead of it: Mbabe Depression, Botswana.
High up on Mt. Rainier, clouds filling the valley below helped to reveal the edge of night.
End of the golden hour transitioning to night: Portland, Oregon.
Skiing near Mount Hood, Oregon.
Winter Safety 101 – Driving to the Shooting Locale
Okay, now that we’ve made sure our equipment is protected (see Part I), it’s time to talk about winter photography itself – how to get the best pictures when it’s cold and snowy out. Right? Not so fast! Be patient, we’ll get there. There’s no sense shooting in winter if you’re not going to stay safe yourself.
A recent November storm moves into Zion National Park, Utah.
And before worrying about coats, layering, snowshoes and all that stuff, it’s a good idea for all of us to take a good hard look at our winter driving skills. Of course most guys (and some girls) think they’re expert winter drivers. But we’re literally talking life and death here. So forget about ego. No matter how much experience you have, before snow and ice arrive, do some brushing up.
- To Go or Not to Go: This would be an easier decision if stormy weather did not so often present some of the most beautiful, dramatic light. So check the forecast, think about your tires, your vehicle, and most of all your skills. Discretion is the better part of valor, but I don’t think avoidance is a good policy either. Practice makes perfect in winter driving as in all else.
- Leave Extra Time: Being in a hurry when you’re driving can be dangerous at any time, but when it’s slippery out, driving too fast could be the last mistake you will ever make. Head out to shoot earlier than you normally would.
- Slow Wins the Race: It’s worth repeating: going slow, especially on curves and down hills, is the most important thing to practice when driving in slick winter conditions. Go slower than the conditions dictate (except when starting up a hill – see below). This goes for every type of vehicle out there, from beefy 4×4 to rear-wheel drive sedan.
Waking up to a snowy morning at the rim of the Rio Grande Canyon, New Mexico.
- It Helps to See: Keep your windshield clear. Stop and scrape it if necessary. If visibility is extremely poor, you may need to pull over and wait for things to improve. Don’t push it whatever you do.
- No Cell Phones Here: Winter driving demands maximum attention. First, increase your following distance by quite a bit. And look further ahead than usual. Keep a special eye on other vehicles to catch on to out of control drivers. Use your mirrors when you slow to make sure somebody is not ready to rear-end you.
- Light on that Brake! As much as possible, stay away from the brake. To slow, let off the gas well ahead of time, shift down (auto transmissions also have low gear options – use them) and avoid turning the wheels sharply. If you must use the brake, alternate pressing and releasing, looking out for areas of better traction to hit the brake in. If you have more distance, you can try feathering the brake. Never press and hold. If push comes to shove and you must stop quickly, stomp on and immediately release the brake, and keep doing it until the emergency is over. This is one of only two times that it’s okay to make strong, aggressive movements when you’re driving in snow and ice.
A pause on a ski descent near Mt. Hood, Oregon.
- Momentum is Your Friend: Keep momentum up on hills. At the approach to an uphill, get up speed. On the way up, if you slip, back off a little on the gas. Knowing when to hit the gas is a feel thing when it’s slick out, and like braking, it helps to look out for areas with more traction and hit the gas there. On downhills it’s the opposite. Slow down on the approach and shift down before the steep part. Gently feather the brakes if you need to slow more.
- Curves: The Approach. Recall what you were told when you learned to drive – slow on the approach, gentle acceleration through the curve – and take that to heart. Slow well ahead of the curve then gently accelerate through it. You should never have to touch the brake on a curve.
- Curves: The Fish-tail. If your rear end slides sideways (a fish-tail), it means one of two things. Either you are going much too fast or you hit the brakes when you shouldn’t have. Turn your wheel in the same direction as your rear end is going, toward the outside of the curve. The sooner you do this the better; the second you notice it starting is good. By the way, this is the only other time it’s okay to make quick movements on slippery roads. Just make it quick and smooth.
**But there’s a catch: it’s very easy to overdo steering into a slide. Back off the second you feel your rear end coming back out of the skid and be ready to swing the wheel quickly the other way, in case you fishtail in the opposite direction. Again, it’s about feel: steer smoothly and no more than necessary. Feel what’s happening and adjust accordingly.
- Keep your Cool: In any emergency situation, keep calm but react. The sooner you make the (correct) adjustment, the better things will be. The key is to not freeze up but also not to panic and over-react. A relaxed focus plus action will get you through a lot! Your attitude should be one of confidence up to a point; don’t get overconfident and go too fast. If the conditions deteriorate, just turn around.
Next time we’ll talk about equipment specific to winter photography. Have a great weekend!
The entrance to Zion Canyon, Utah.
Winter’s first snowfall: southern Utah.
This week I got snowed on for the first time this season, on the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah. It’s been cold too, well below freezing some mornings. So I think it’s time to talk about winter photography.
First of all, I’m assuming you want to keep shooting in wintertime. There really is no reason to stop. There is a beautiful crystalline light that is unique to winter. And this is the time to go for fog and other moody atmospheres. Most important, how else are you gonna get a shot for that Christmas card?
Fairy Falls in winter, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.
Don’t worry, your camera will be fine. In fact, excessive heat and humidity are much bigger worries than cold is. Camera manufacturers publish a lower limit of around 32° F (0° Celsius). But modern DSLRs can function just fine down to 0° F and even lower with no ill effects. You just have to follow a few simple precautions:
- Be Gentle: Cameras and even many lenses are mostly plastic these days, and plastic gets brittle and will break much more easily in frigid weather. The metal parts also get more brittle. So avoid knocks and be especially careful with both camera and lens. Glass doesn’t care how cold it gets, but you’re already being careful with that spendy glass, aren’t you.
The old one-room schoolhouse in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
- Beware Condensation: When you bring a camera that has been in the cold inside, or anywhere warmer, there’s a risk of moisture collecting inside the camera and lens. Obviously this is not good. So before coming in from the cold, put your equipment inside your zipped-up camera bag at least. A large ziplock or otherwise sealable plastic bag is even better. Let your gear warm gradually inside that bag before taking it out. The colder it is outside, and the more humid the warm place you’re bringing it back into, the more important it is to follow this advice. It’s also a good idea to let it cool off gradually, inside your camera bag, before shooting.
Oneonta Gorge, Oregon.
- Battery Blues: Batteries have shorter lives when they’re cold, and the colder the shorter. So bring extra batteries and keep the spares in an inside pocket, near your skin. If you know you’ll be shooting again next day, keeping the camera and lenses inside your trunk, where they remain cold, will avoid the whole condensation thing. But remember to take the battery out and bring it inside to recharge. If you take your memory card out to upload photos, stick it in a little ziplock before coming inside and let it warm up gradually.
Late afternoon light hits Silver Star Mountain, Washington, after a mid-winter snowstorm.
A recent image that made it onto my new website. Colorado River bottom wreathed in morning fog.
This is a Foto Talk with more promotion than I generally believe in. But I worked so long and hard on my new website that I just had to share it. I updated many images and added a bunch of new ones. Take a look and let me know what you think. Please, if you see something that you think could be improved, make suggestions in comments below. Don’t be shy!
Here it is: MJF Images
Below are a few more examples. Click on the image to go to the gallery on my site where it’s located. Thanks so much for all of your support. And please keep Paris in your thoughts.
Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado, a recent image.
A reddish egret, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
I also have a gallery devoted to people, but I couldn’t resist sneaking animals into a few. I used to own these two horses.
And lastly, a Novemberish picture: last fall in the Ozarks of Arkansas.
The Okavango Delta in Botswana doesn’t have termite mounds, it has termite towers!
And finally, a soft desert sunset at Great Sand Dunes, Colorado.
The Utah monolith called Molly’s Castle is set aglow in early morning light.
This is a little different from most other Friday Foto Talk posts. I’m only passing on one piece of advice. If you don’t already do so, on occasion it’s a good idea to go back through your archives and look for hidden gems. Select some that spark your interest for re-processing on the computer.
I’ve been doing this lately, as part of redesigning my website and freshening up the images there. Some gems were just sitting there dormant, waiting to be found and re-edited. I’ve posted several here for your enjoyment. I’d like it very much if you were to share your comments on them below.
This photo of a lovely water lily floating in the middle of the Okavango Delta, Botswana is the very essence of a hidden gem.
I’ll say right off that I am not the type of photographer who saves all or even most of the pictures I take. I try to be fairly ruthless when it comes to deleting images that don’t really work for me. But there is a limit to this kind of thinking. The reason is this: editing software, not to mention your editing skills, constantly improve.
You probably aren’t noticing your editing skills getting better, just like you don’t notice your photography skills improving, until you go back and look at pictures from several years back and have a go at re-editing some of them.
In my effort to remove some older shots on my site to make room for the new, I’ve re-edited some old favorites and found some “new” old ones. Re-processing these images, in some cases with plug-in software that I’m now much better at using, has made them better, no question about it.
I always liked this picture of Elowah Falls in Oregon, but a simple re-edit made it worth putting on my website.
This young Himba girl from north Namibia didn’t need much of a re-edit, just re-discovery.
You may think all this argues for keeping everything, just in case. I don’t believe this is true. For starters, I know I wouldn’t want to plow through thousands and thousands of images to find those few I want to spend more computer time on.
As long as the reason you’re deleting an image (forever) is because it just isn’t very good (compositionally for example), and not simply because you can’t manage to make it look right, go ahead and trash it.
This barn in Washington’s Palouse wheat-farming region I now like better with a square crop.
The rugged north coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington in the typical fog that has caused many a shipwreck.
So now, once a year I commit, and recommend you do as well, to go through my archives and thoroughly review the images on my website. Keeping your website fresh is important. But I think a better reason to do this is to track how fast you’re improving, and how your editing skills are progressing too.
Plus it’s fun to breathe new life into an older image, to share both the picture and the memories behind it. After all, this is a big reason why we picked up a camera in the first place. Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
Previous to this I just couldn’t get an edit I liked of this colorful sunset over Arches National Park.
I almost forgot about this holiday! This is the only recent image that fits the bill. I captured it on a foggy morning in Colorado National Monument last week. The trees are Utah juniper. They’re actually alive, though they’re mostly bare. They look pretty spooky in low light, especially sandstone monoliths of Monument Canyon looming in the fog beyond. Hope you’re having (or had) a fun halloween night, with only treats no tricks!
Book Cliffs, Colorado. A landscape image shot just this morning at an unconventional focal length of 310 mm.
I’m starting an occasional series on common photography myths and misconceptions. This one is pretty widespread. It goes something like this: “If you want to shoot landscapes, you need to do it with a wide angle lens.” That’s often extended to “and the wider the better”. It’s mostly assumed and not stated outright. But it’s yet another case where good advice is stretched well beyond the original scope and meaning.
When I posted the series Learning Photography, in the part about lenses I recommended that if you’re serious about landscape photography, you really need to get a wide-angle lens. Does that mean all good landscape photos are done with a wide-angle? Certainly not!
I know (very good) photographers who shoot almost nothing but wide-angle landscapes, some loving the ultra-wide. This is what they like, so I’m not knocking them at all! But even though many of these pictures are amazing, there’s a risk of getting stuck in a rut, with images that begin to all look the same. Little or no variety means eventual boredom, on the part of the photographer if not their viewers and fans.
Columbia River Basalt, Washington scablands. Wide but not too wide at 28 mm.
The fact is that landscape photos are simply images of the land (I’m including seascapes). That’s it. The only other limitations are what you put there. And if you accept limits as an artist you’re shortchanging yourself. I shoot landscapes at every focal length I have. I’ve even done landscapes with my 600 mm. wildlife lens.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t feel good going out to shoot landscapes without a wide-angle lens, one shorter than 35 mm. in focal length. A sharp zoom lens that covers about 16 mm. to at least 24 mm. is just about perfect for many landscapes. I love that close, detailed foreground and the sense of depth you can achieve.
Panther Creek Falls, Washington. Going wide at 16 mm. because I was so close to the falls.
Note I am talking about 35 mm. equivalent focal lengths. If you have a full-frame DSLR, 24 mm. is 24 mm. If you have a crop-frame with a 1.6 factor, multiply your focal length by 1.6 to get the full-frame equivalent. In that case a wide-angle zoom of about 11 mm. to 16 mm. would be good for wide landscape shooting.
But if you capture pretty much every landscape with a wide-angle lens, too many photos will include a lot of uninteresting stuff around the periphery of the most interesting part of the composition. It’s a case of seeing that good photo within the larger average photo.
Many times I’ll start out with a wide-angle but then, bored with the foreground, I’ll switch to a longer lens in order to focus in on an interesting part of the scene. Tip: If you’re shooting wide, keep an eye on the light and be ready to quickly switch lenses or zoom in to catch smaller areas when the light falls just right.
For so-called intimate landscapes like the last two images in this post, everything is fairly close to you and elements tend to be evenly weighted in the frame. Because of this you have to be even more careful about going too wide. Depending on how close you are, a medium focal length (35-50 mm.) is often best in these cases.
Fall colors in rural Oregon, captured at 200 mm.
The fall colors above were captured at a long focal length (200 mm.) mostly because I didn’t want to trespass. But if I’d bothered to get permission, I would have gotten close and gone wide, to add some depth. But I like how it turned out. The river image below was shot at 24 mm. But I cropped it on the computer, just a little. I would have used 35 mm. if I had that available at the time.
So there you go! I hope the accompanying images have convinced you how misguided it is to go out shooting landscapes with the mindset that there’s a ‘proper’ lens and focal length to use. Happy weekend and happy shooting!
A mossy spring on the Hood River, Oregon. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.
Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.
Occasionally I like to highlight a mountain I like for Mountain Monday. Today it’s Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park, California. This has long been one of my favorite national parks. I started visiting when it was still a national monument. My first visit was a college seminar and field trip. My second time was freelancing with friends, and we climbed Telescope Peak.
The top is just over 11,000 feet high, and since it was early spring, we waded through hip-deep snow drifts to get there. After the all-day climb, we drove back down into the valley, took our sleeping bags, and tumbled out into the sand dunes to sleep under the stars. What a contrast! An icy morning at 8000 feet, a snowy climb, then sleeping out in balmy weather at sea level.
Snowy Telescope Peak has been lifted by faulting along the range-front over 11,000 feet above the hot desert floor of Death Valley.
Telescope is the highest point in the park and crowns the Panamint Range. The Panamints are an upraised block of the earth’s crust, lifted along the west side of a fault zone that at the same time dropped Death Valley down. And down a lot! The floor of the valley is a few hundred feet below sea level.
But the valley is filled with thousands of feet of sediments that were eroded from the Panamints and other ranges as they rose. The top of the the bedrock that was dropped down by the fault lies some 11,000 feet beneath the valley floor. This enormous wedge of valley fill is made of gravels, sands and clays. But overall it’s quite salty. There are thick sections of salts of various kinds, including good old NaCl, table salt.
These salt flats at Badwater in Death Valley are just the top of thousands of feet of salt and sediments filling the valley.
Geologists call these types of deposits evaporites because they are formed when large bodies of water evaporate away in a drying climate. In Death Valley’s case it was a large lake called Lake Manly. From about 2 million to 10,000 years ago, mega ice sheets lay to the north. Because of this, the climate was quite wet in the now ultra-dry Death Valley region. Early hunter-gatherers, recently migrated in from Siberia, were able to spread south because of this climate, which supported a diversity of life much greater than today’s desert does.
But when the ice sheets retreated during inter-glacial periods, the climate grew more arid, and Lake Manly shrank. Because of how fault-block mountains border almost all sides of Death Valley, often there was little or no chance for the lake to drain in the normal way, via rivers.
The six-foot high wheel of a heavy duty borax wagon.
Evaporation was (and is) the main way that water left the valley. Salts that were dissolved in the water grew more concentrated as the lake grew smaller. A brine was the result, and as the lake grew and shrank many times, often down to nothing, the salts were precipitated out. They built up layers and layers of evaporite deposits. The famous 20 mule-team wagon trains transported tons of borax from the borates (a type of salt) mined from the valley (image above).
A close-up of Death Valley’s evaporites (salt deposits).
BADWATER SALT FLATS
The current desert climate of Death Valley is one in which standing water from paltry winter rains evaporates rapidly, leaving behind fresh salt. The salt can take very interesting forms (image above). The mix of fine muds and salt, combined with repeated wet/dry cycles, can form fantastic polygonal patterns, as the bottom image shows. Salt is also eroded away occasionally by the Amargosa River when infrequent storms allow it to flow south out of the valley.
The water in the image at the top of the post is really not part of this equation. It’s fresh not salty, and comes from the amazingly strong Saratoga Springs in southern Death Valley. I camped nearby one time and captured this view early the next morning. Saratoga is well off the beaten track and most visitors to the park miss it. There’s a very cool dune field nearby.
The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns. Telescope Peak is just left off the photo.
This is the first time I’ve visited this part of Colorado. I’ve passed through before but never drove up the amazingly twisted and steep road into the national monument named I think more for the plateau and river than for the state. The Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley, which is fog-covered in this shot. The monument is a beautiful collection of canyons and rock formations spilling off a mesa that is part of the much larger Colorado Plateau.
Fog-filled Monument Canyon, Colorado N.M., Colorado.
It’s very near the Utah border, and here you are in terrain that is much less about the Rocky Mountains and more like the red-rock canyon country of the desert southwest. There are plenty of great canyon hikes, and the mountain biking in adjacent lands is world class (google Fruita Colorado mountain biking). Driving west through the Grand Valley and into the town of Grand Junction you are leaving the Rockies and entering the Colorado Plateau. The river goes from more of a swift river of mountains to one that cuts through spectacular sandstone canyons.
Waking the first morning to fog in the canyon bottoms and lowlands, the sun didn’t show its face until the middle of the morning. But I still had a grand time shooting the rock formations, wreathed in fog, for which this National Monument is known. The spire front and center in the photo is called the ‘kissing couple’. The view is southward down Monument Canyon and into the east-west running Grand Valley.
Hope you’re enjoying your weekend. Friday Foto Talk, by the way, is on a bit of a hiatus. It’ll be back, promise.