This is the first sunrise with my new camera. I finally ended the drought by recently buying a barely used Canon 6D. I also bought a lens to go with it, a wide-angle zoom that Canon just came out with. It’s the 16-35mm. f/4L. I really haven’t used it much yet. But I’m hoping it is a good landscape lens. This image was shot with a different lens.
Often sunrise is so beautiful over the prairie near where I am right now. The sky can be truly spectacular, even though the terrain is flat. The light fog hanging in the low places was surprising. The nights are so warm here at this time of year that fog rarely forms. I imagine that will change later in the year. But for now the early morning is wonderful. It’s the only time of the day when the temperature is comfortable.
I had to scramble to shoot this right after waking up. I like how it turned out, I’m pretty happy with the camera. It does not focus as well as my 5D III did, but that camera has pro-level autofocus and this one doesn’t. Usually not a problem with the kind of images I generally shoot, but with wildlife or candid shots of people I could see it being an issue. Other than autofocus, plus the fact it is obviously not as well sealed against the weather, I can’t see many differences between the 6D and 5D III. They both have full-frame sensors.
I hope you all are enjoying your summers. I am taking a break from doing Friday Foto Talks in August. I’ll get back to it, promise. Now I’m off to explore this area. I have a few days off, yippee!. Thanks for looking.
First Light on the Prairie (and for me & my new camera)
Danum Valley, Borneo
I am posting this image because I need to post something. I just completed a big post for this week’s Foto Talk. It involved a lot of thought and about 6 hours of work. You will never see it now and I won’t ever see it again either. That’s because I thought it had been saved as a draft by WordPress but it was not. Learn from my mistake and never ever trust WordPress to save any of your work online, no matter how many times it has worked correctly for you before.
I am going to figure out now how to do posts offline, separate from WordPress, and import them into the blog and have them look the way I want. I tried this in the beginning and it was difficult to get the posts to look right. But now I find it is necessary to really learn this before doing any more blogging. All it takes is once to waste hours of work and have it come to nothing for you to commit to doing things differently. So never trust WordPress to save drafts, never.
By the way this is a shot from several years ago when I visited the island of Borneo. It was really a fantastic experience, and I’d really like to go back and dive back into that amazing jungle, however much I hate leeches! Have a great week everyone.
A home in the bush: Alaska
This is follow-up to my post last Thursday on Alaska, sort of a different take on visiting America’s most untamed state. First a disclaimer: I’m not discounting a cruise up the Inside Passage, or an RV-based road-trip to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula. Depending on who you are, those may be good options for your first trip, or if you happen to be elderly. I just know what’s out there, and if I wanted to tour the state in a memorable way I would work in some more adventurous options along with more standard destinations. So here’s my very biased take on visiting the Great Land.
Flying over a glacier in the Alaska Range.
When to Go
This is a fairly simple question. If it’s your first time go in summer, which is May through September in the Southeastern Panhandle, mid-June through mid-August in the far north, and something in-between in the rest of the state. Summer is in full swing throughout Alaska by late May. In June come the longest days, with no real nighttime in most of the state.
You can have rain, clouds and cool weather at anytime during the summer, but it’s a little more likely late in summer into fall. Make sure you have good rain gear. Waterproof hiking boots are worth having as well. Autumn, though short, is very beautiful in Alaska. September is a time when wildlife is very active, and the tundra turns a beautiful gold and red. The mosquitoes are mostly gone, and the few late hatches feature big and slow skeeters.
If it’s your second or third trip consider winter. Especially if you want to see the northern lights. I recall seeing them as early as the beginning of October. If you ski you’ll love the later winter when days get a bit longer. But in the southern part of the state you’ll have plenty of daylight to ski or snowshoe at any time of year. The world-famous Iditarod sled dog race happens in late winter. But a more spectator-friendly race (actually a series of them) happens during Fur Rendezvous. “Fur Rondy” is a fun winter festival in Anchorage that takes place each year in late February. The rest of this post assumes a summertime visit.
Skiing along a creek with sculptures like this is only possible if you visit Alaska in winter.
Snowshoeing doesn’t have to be a trudge, it can be as fun as you want to make it.
Visiting the “Real” Alaska
In order to really see Alaska you need to fly. A helicopter obviously allows you to land in many more places than does a fixed-wing. But it’s amazing how many unlikely landing spots exist for bush planes. If money is truly no object, I recommend hiring a chopper and pilot for several days to a week. If you’re like the rest of us you can probably only afford a scenic flight on a helicopter. Some even land on glaciers, at predetermined spots.
But this isn’t the same as having control of where a chopper goes and where it lands, having the pilot wait for you or pick you up somewhere else. That sort of freedom takes real money for someone whose work doesn’t make it necessary. For most visitors to Alaska, I recommend saving up and budgeting for at least one trip on a bush plane. This gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
I got to fly with an older bush pilot my first summer there. He flew a Caribou and was well-known among pilots and long-time Alaskans. The Caribou was a tail-loading cargo plane used heavily in Vietnam. It had a very short take-off distance for its size. His wings would skim the tops of spruce trees on many landings. In the fall after the field season was over, he crashed and died in the resulting fire. He must have been somehow trapped, unable to walk away (as many bush pilots do) when the plane caught fire. He was mourned throughout the state. Bush pilots: they’re worth their own post.
Climbing in Alaska presents challenges, even for “small” mountains.
If you make the effort there are bragging rights – just remember the picture!
Unless you cheat and use one of these!
But you shouldn’t worry. Given the number of flights there is no significant added hazard to flying in a bush plane compared to jets. Just hop into one and see Alaska. Chartering bush flights can be expensive on your own, but the cost can be mitigated by combining with other people. Even independent travelers have the option of inquiring at the plethora of companies operating out of the sea-plane base at Lake Hood near the Anchorage Airport. You could hook up with like-minded people to organize a charter trip. Whether you do it off the cuff or plan ahead of time, take at least one journey into one of the state’s roadless areas. Don’t skip it.
Views like this one of the Moose’s Tooth are available flight-seeing with a bush pilot.
A Non-Touristy Experience
If I did a trip into bush Alaska, I’d give serious consideration to the southwest. While you’re thinking of joining all the tourists to watch bears fishing at Brooks Camp, think about other options too. The whole region is chock full of wildlife, and because of the marine influence the mosquitoes tend not to be as abundant as the rest of the state (the interior is where mosquitoes hatch in countless numbers).
One great option for a wilderness experience in SW Alaska is to organize a fly-in camping/fishing trip to Tikchik Lakes (see image). These are a series of lakes, elongate east-west and strung out in a north-south direction along the front of the little-known Wood River Mountains. I worked in the region for a couple months and it was some of the wildest country I’ve ever been in. It also had the best fishing I’ve ever done, hands down.
Tikchik Lakes in SW Alaska has some great scenery and fishing.
Camping for a week would allow you to decompress in total wilderness. The lakes to the north of the Tikchik chain have very little tall vegetation surrounding them. You could roam the mountains, full of wildlife, no trails necessary. Take a can of bear spray. Fish to your heart’s content. Lunker lake trout oblige you anytime of day.
All it would take is a flight from Anchorage to Dillingham, then a bush plane to the lakes. If you get a group together, hire a Beaver (largish float plane) or Otter to take your group plus camping gear & an inflatable raft. If it’s just you and one other, maybe a Cessna would do the trick. The pilot will drop you off and then pick you up on the appointed day. If you want to double-down on the experience, you could paddle down the length of the lakes, connected by spectacular rivers, through huge Wood-Tikchik State Park, all the way back to Dillingham. A few companies do guided trips if you don’t feel confident in organizing your own.
Alaska tundra in early autumn.
There are so many places I can recommend during a visit to Alaska. A drive along the Denali Highway is a great side-trip. It’s not the paved road to the national park; that’s the Parks Hwy. Denali Hwy. is a graded gravel road that takes off east of the park with stupendous views of the Alaska Range (see image at bottom). Also a trip to McCarthy in the Wrangell Mountains is well worthwhile. Visit the old copper mine, situated right along a glacier.
On the Kenai Peninsula, do a halibut fishing trip out of Homer. (Don’t drink too much at the Salty Dog Saloon the night before!). A classic Alaskan experience is sea kayaking out of Seward or Cordoba. Consider a short cruise in Prince William Sound to see the state’s incredible marine life. The Kenai Fjord day-trip out of Seward is inexpensive. And speaking of worthwhile tourist things to do, don’t miss a flight-seeing trip over the Alaska Range. Drive to the small town of Talkeetna to arrange one in a small bush plane.
Hiking in Alaska is unlimited. On the way to Denali, consider a hike into Denali State Park before you get to the (relative) tourist mayhem at the national park. And a hike up into the mountains above Anchorage is a great way to stretch the muscles after your long flight in. Flat-top Mountain, while extremely popular, is a great introduction to Alaska right off the plane. It’s a short but steep climb. There are superb hikes and climbs that take off from the highway south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm.
This remote valley in the Brooks Range may be the furthest from a road I’ve ever been.
A Republic of Rivers
A book called A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon features poems by Robert Service (The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Call of the Wild). I read it when I lived up there. Reason I mention it here is that while Alaska is a land of mountains, it is even more a republic of rivers. Before the plane, rivers were the main way to travel into remote areas of the state, and they remain so in the interior (along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers especially). Boats in the summer, dogsleds and later snow machines in winter. (Snow machines are called snowmobiles outside the state.)
Once I took a boat trip up the Kuskokwim River out of McGrath. It was a totally different experience from any other I had in Alaska. More like traveling upriver in the Amazon or Congo Basins than in the far north. It was a very “Heart of Darkness” experience.
Mt Drum in the Wrangell Mtns. rises above the Copper River.
If you like river trips, specifically paddling downriver, Alaska has a life-time’s worth. In the western Brooks Range, the amazingly clear Salmon is a gorgeous river. I worked along the Salmon for a summer. It’s one of the only places I’ve been where you could walk up to a big river, dip your hands in, and drink cold refreshing water with no worries.
In the NW Brooks Range, the Noatak River drains the largest undisturbed watershed in North America. It’s a great river for canoes. In the central Brooks, the John, the Kilik, Hula Hula and that true gem, the Alatna, are all great arctic wilderness floats. Research all of these and consider a guiding company; there are several.
In Lake Clark National Park in the southwestern part of Alaska, you can do combination hiking/rafting trips that will take you into wildife country with great fishing and few mosquitoes. The hard to pronounce Tlikakila is fairly short but extremely scenic.
Hiking in Alaska is often not easy but there are plenty of pay-offs.
The old copper mine near McCarthy was once the world’s largest producer.
Combining Alaska and Canada on a river trip is a fantastic idea since at least two of the world’s greatest river floats cross the boundary. The Alsek runs through Kluane in Canada and ends in Glacier Bay, Alaska. It is serious business, involving real skill (and $, a helicopter portage is involved). The Firth is an extremely remote river trip that starts near Alaska’s border with the Northwest Territory in Canada. It ends in the Beaufort Sea.
There are guided trips to all these places; do the proper research and pick a company with a good reputation. Many of the state’s rivers (and most of the above) lack many big rapids. They’re suitable for beginning paddlers and perfect for canoes or touring kayaks. If you just want an easy to access but rollicking whitewater ride that does have big rapids, check out the Nenana on the way to Denali National Park. No planning required; just stop at one of the companies along the banks and go rafting! Aside from that there are plenty of whitewater options for kayakers and serious rafters.
I really hope you can visit this place one day and experience some of the fun and adventure I had up there. Or if you’ve been before, I hope you can go back and see more. Because there is always more to see. Alaska never stops surprising you, never stops knocking your socks off. So next spring when you hear that familiar sound and look up, when you see that V-shaped formation of geese flying, stop and think a minute. They must know something. Go north!
September along the Denali Hwy. provides colorful views of the eastern Alaska Range.
Glacier flying in the Alaska Range.
For what a lot of folks call “Throwback Thursday”, I’m going to post a few old film shots of a place near and dear to my heart. While I make it a policy never to apologize for any of my pictures, I will say that the camera gear I had for these pictures of the past was not up to the high quality of either that era’s best film stuff or even today’s digital.
Alaska is where I spent my twenties, not so long ago (well, okay, I lied; it was awhile back!). After graduating college I drove the Alcan up with some buddies. Alcan, if you don’t know, stands for the Alaska-Canada Highway, which then was still gravel-surfaced over much of the northern stretches. I rode in a little 4×4 Subaru wagon owned by my friend and college roommate. He was born in Alaska & had attended the Univ. of Oregon with me.
Unfortunately we were delayed when his car was nearly totaled. We hit a bear! I remember the horrible feeling I had when I stupidly got out and listened to the wounded bruin crashing around & roaring in the brush below the road. I also remember the scenery getting much more spectacular when we crossed into Alaska (Kluane excepted, sorry Canada!).
Some old cabins at a mine site just west of the Denali National Park boundary.
Near the village of Kiana in the Brooks Range.
Alaska is where I burned all that ridiculous energy of youth. It’s where I learned the false lesson that I was invincible. The truth is that while young we tend to get second chances. It’s as if we’re all cats with 9 lives, at least in youth. We use up most of those chances in our late teens and twenties. Then when we are older, if we try to skate along the edge, we almost always get spanked hard for it. One of the sad parts of getting older is not being able to get away with very much anymore. I used up nearly all of my 9 lives in Alaska.
I was a geologist there, which means I got around and learned much about the land and the culture of the natives. I remember getting into intense pickup basketball games with Inuit youths in the village of Kiana above the Arctic Circle. Basketball is as big in bush Alaska as it is in Indiana. I recall marveling at how impossibly cute the children were. And how some men would drink themselves into oblivion. And how native men would head off into the wild on a moment’s notice to hunt when we thought they had signed up to work for us.
Out of the six summers I spent up there, two were in the Brooks Range, one was in the Alaska Range, one in the southwestern part of the state, one roaming the interior, and one (the 1st) in Anchorage and various other places. I spent one autumn in the southeastern panhandle. Winters were mostly spent in Anchorage, learning how to ski well. What else is there to do in the long winter besides drink? Whichever of these you choose, you’ll have plenty of practice, and you’ll get damn good at it!
An unnamed peak my friend & I climbed and named Broken Horn for the dall mountain sheep we saw up there.
Alaska embraces extremes, the edge: its people as well as the land. There is no halfway. Incidentally, the book I think really gets Alaska right is Going to Extremes by Joe Mcginnis. I’m not sure which is truer: is it the character of the place that makes the people more extreme, or do those who move to Alaska become more extreme? I suspect there’s a bit of both going on. Those born there, like my college roommate, are different from the rest of us. He would routinely sleep 12 hours in winter’s long nights. Then in summer he would get by on 4-5 hours.
I still have affection for the place, which means I really loved it when I was there! I remember getting a little airsick in a chopper and offering the pilot the excuse that I wanted to sample a rock formation below. Not really fooled, he set me down and went to refuel. After the ship’s noise faded away, I lay down and buried my face into the moist tundra. I did what I had been wanting to do, without knowing it, for a long time. I gave Alaska (and the Earth by extension) a big, hour-long hug.
Caribou in the Brooks Range.
You may think, given how I love the “Great Land”, that I would visit often. But other than a couple trips in the 90s I have moved on. Part of me regrets this. I’ve never been anywhere that I felt matched me as well as good ole AK. I really love the Pacific Northwest, but it really isn’t the same. Alaska seemed to know it had my number. I still wonder how I was able to leave all those years ago.
But I did leave. I can still see those fall colors along the Copper River in the Wrangell Mountains, dusted over with termination dust (season’s first snow). Autumn, that season of change when I get itchy feet, was the only time it was possible to leave. After seeing a stupendous display of northern lights on a freezing night at Thompson Pass (the only time I actually heard them), I drove away for good.
To be young and full of piss and vinegar again!
It really is time to go back for a visit. But both Alaska and I have changed so much. I am worried I will be disappointed. I don’t want to be a tourist there, despite knowing a bunch of ways to get off the beaten track. Of course it would be interesting to see the effects of climate change, which are quite obvious in a high-latitude place like Alaska. Especially for someone who once knew it well and has been away so long. But I have my doubts about going back now.
Well, that’s enough reminiscing. I sure hope there’s such a thing as reincarnation, because I really really want to do that young & strong thing again! Stay tuned for another post on Alaska, this time giving some advice for a visit that hits some good sights off the beaten tourist track. Thanks so much for reading!
An early winter’s sunset over Cook Inlet as viewed from the Chugach Mtns. just above Anchorage.
Everybody is posting winter images these days. In some parts of the U.S. it is very hot. Not too hot. It’s summer after all, and to complain about heat in Texas during July is rather pointless I think. It’s supposed to be hot there in July. Besides, we should enjoy these summers. They’re cool compared with what’s coming in the future. But this isn’t a post about global warming calamities. Just a winter image I captured in February, and probably my favorite one so far this year. It’s also a post with good news!
The reason I like this picture is because of the (lucky) timing and unusual combination of weather forces. The Columbia River Gorge occasionally freezes up. Doesn’t happen too often, and when it does, local photogs. head out to shoot frozen waterfalls. It never lasts very long. This time it lasted 3 days, and I was out there at the stormy peak getting shots of big icicles and such.
On the 4th day a warm front started moving in. I went out to the Gorge, curious to see what the melting would look like. The freeway was a mess. Cold air had held on within the Gorge, causing sleet to fall overtop the snow. I finally made it with not much day left, and only had time for one stop. Instead of a waterfall I walked through the thick brush to the river at this spot I know with a view of Beacon Rock. Ice had glazed over all the trees and branches, and at the riverside the mossy rocks had a layer of ice-covered snow on them.
But what was most intriguing was the sky. The warm front was riding up and over the cold air, causing some very angry-looking cloud formations. I grabbed a few shots as the freezing rain started to turn to slushy rain. I love shooting at transitions like this. It often produces strange but beautifully moody pictures, and this time was no exception.
The reason I’m posting the picture (again) is that I’m hoping now to get an even better picture this year. I couldn’t say that with confidence before yesterday, because I didn’t have a good camera. The one that allowed me to capture this image, as most of you know, took a dive into a waterfall last spring. I’m happy to say I can finally put that episode truly behind me.
Yesterday I rode my motorcycle up to Seattle to meet a woman who sold me her Canon 6D. It’s a much simpler and cheaper version of my trashed 5D Mark III. She was upgrading to the 5D in fact. And she had not had the 6D long; it’s in new condition! So now I’m almost home free. All I need is to buy a lens to replace the one damaged in the waterfall and I’ll be back to full strength. I’ll post new images from it soon. That’s right all you wonderful people in blogville, I’m back baby!!
Crashing Skies: A winter storm passes through the Columbia River Gorge, Beacon Rock sitting on the Washington side of the river.
Predawn crescent moon after a long drive through the middle of nowhere, Nevada. Digital.
I’m having some trouble deciding if I want to go back to film. It wouldn’t be forever – I don’t think – but just a stop-gap measure until I can afford to replace my DSLR. I have a Pentax K-1000 with 50 mm. lens that works very well. It’s great because you never have to worry about the battery. It lasts for years and years, only running the simple light meter. There is no energy-hungry processor or LCD. It is manual only, so even in -60 degrees it would work. You’d just have to guess on the exposure, which I think I could do. But I don’t plan on going into the deep freeze anytime soon.
It’s a difficult decision. A foray back into film might do my photography some good. I’d have to decide on which types of photography I wanted to do, then get the type of film to match. With digital, you don’t need to decide until the moment of capture, when you can set ISO (speed) and whether you want to view it B&W or not. You can also change your mind later with digital, so long as you’re shooting in RAW.
Alaska Range, film.
Gliding gull on the Oregon Coast, digital.
I most likely would not be making a huge commitment to film anyway. That would involve getting a medium or large-format camera and lenses, buying the larger film, and finding a very good company to do the scanning. These days, if you want to go film, you need to make sure the scan is high quality. You still need to scan into digital. It is the 21st century after all. Digital is the way everyone delivers images, pro and amateur alike.
I don’t see the point in going whole hog on large format film. That is, unless you want to do landscapes or other imagery that needs to be printed truly huge – like billboard size. And provided you are making money from it. Then you’d want to buy the large-format lenses and get a digital back.
These are sort of half-digital cameras. They take the image from large (or medium) format film lenses and convert it straight into digital. No scanning of negatives required, no buying of film. It’s the best of both worlds really, except for the weight and cost. You still have that bulky large-format equipment to haul around. And they’re quite expensive. A 50 mp Hasselblad digital back goes for $17,500 at B&H Photo. And you still need to buy the lenses and heavy-duty tripod. You’re $50,000 into it before you know it!
Ferris Wheel at the Portland Rose Festival, digital.
What I’m thinking of is much less ambitious, but still a bit of a hassle. I’d have to buy one or maybe two more film lenses. And then I’d need to find a good processor/scanner. But I don’t know if I’d like it. I’m very used to the control I have with digital. It’s significant. You can choose ISO for one thing. With film you have to rewind the film (after making note of the frame) and make sure you don’t wind it all the way into the cartridge (not easy). Then you need to load a roll with a different speed. Then you have to go back to the original roll when you encounter different shooting conditions. With the Pentax camera these transitions are all manual, and my fingers aren’t exactly dexterous!
Bocas del Toro, Panama, digital.
Glacier in Alaska, film.
Digital photography will eventually take over completely. Yet despite what you may think, it has not yet done so. There is no real 50 megapixel DSLR camera, for example. The resolution has just not caught up with large-format film. But talk to a random film shooter and you’ll find out that resolution is not the main reason many of them shoot film. And it would most certainly not be the reason I would go back. There’s a mini-film revival going on right now. But digital will take over eventually, no doubt about that.
Scarlet Macaw, Honduras, digital.
I’m just not sure what to do at this moment. For me it’s not really a question of what I want to shoot – I know it’s ultimately going to be digital. It’s just that digital is a much more expensive option as it sits right now. Oh well. By this time tomorrow I will have decided what to do for the near future. Until then I have posted a few examples of each format. Hope your weekend is going swimmingly!
Sunset over the Pacific, digital.
I’ve been working on the southern Great Plains lately away from my beloved Oregon. I don’t know why I miss home more now. After all, I’ve been here in Oklahoma for no longer than I’ve been away on my long photo safaris of the recent past. But I do miss home.
That’s why I”m writing this post at the airport waiting for my flight. I have about a week and a half off so I decided on the spur of the moment to cash in frequent flyer miles and fly back to the Northwest. I need a break from the monotony of treeless plains and fields, from a river-less place that gets its water from an enormous underground store created by rains of the distant past.
The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest of its kind in the world and has supported the American bread basket for generations. Now of course it’s being “mined”. We’re steadily depleting it, forcing us to continuously lengthen our straws, drilling deeper and deeper for precious water.
I’m posting a few photos from an old farm that I passed on the long highway that runs the length of the Oklahoma panhandle. This stretch of loneliness juts westward between Kansas and Colorado on the north, the bulk of Texas to the south. It seems as if it takes forever to drive far enough west to leave Oklahoma, either continuing west to New Mexico or north into Colorado. The highway never strays. It points west like an arrow.
It’s inevitable that you pass or parallel a few historic pathways. One is the old Santa Fe Trail. Kit Carson and countless others rode horses over this trail in that golden time of westward expansion in America. But this series of photos speaks to a more recent time. Although the farm was abandoned sometime in the 1960s judging from the vehicles left behind, it very likely was used in the decades before that. Maybe even during the wet years before the dust bowl swept through in the 1930s.
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath documents the lives of those hard-working souls who left Oklahoma during the dust bowl and traveled to California in search of work. These are the kind of people who built this country. The story of westward expansion has fascinated me for a long time. It was the first historical writing that I devoured while still quite young. At least by choice; I don’t count anything I was forced to read in school.
It was a warm late afternoon with very sparse traffic on the two-lane highway. A few flies buzzed around the old buildings and automobiles. The old windmill had been stripped long ago by relentless winds. On that day the wind was calm.
Heeding the warming someone had painted on a door (see picture), I didn’t go into any of the buildings. I just walked around shooting pictures, stopping to picture children playing in the yard, a weather-beaten woman hanging laundry. A man bouncing to a stop in one of those old pickups, drunk on moonshine.
I wonder why they left? Was it one of the droughts that routinely plague this region? Too many failed crops of corn? Did they just up and move to California one day? Did they start over from zero? I look and wonder. Did they miss home? Now it’s time for me to go home!
Central Oregon. This type of scene requires a camera with good but not extreme dynamic range abilities. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on this image if you’re interested in it.
I know this hasn’t been the most straightforward of topics, but let’s try to end by putting dynamic range in proper context. By the way, make sure to at least skim through Parts 1 – 3 first, then come back to this one. I started by pointing out the importance of dynamic range. But then I proceeded to poke some holes in that idea. To allay any confusion, let me tell you my current thinking on the subject:
- Mostly it’s important to know the dynamic range capabilities of your camera. Whether its dynamic range is high or more modest is not as important as knowing how much it has. This will allow you to approach different lighting conditions with a good idea of whether you can successfully shoot in them. And if so, whether you’ll need to employ graduated neutral density filters or other techniques.
- Dynamic range is quickly becoming similar to megapixels. That is, camera companies are exaggerating its importance in an effort to market newer models. After all, their job is to make you upgrade your camera body before you really need to.
Sandy River, Oregon: No great dynamic range required here!
Angkor Wat, Cambodia: this is a high contrast thus tricky exposure, all about the details in the dark (not brightest) areas. Copyright MJF Images. Click on image if interested in it.
- That said, the companies are really just responding to consumer demand. The HDR trend that got going some years ago has had a real effect on how we capture and especially how we view images. While (thankfully) the grungy, over-the-top HDR look has largely come and gone, a push toward evening out tones is very widespread in nature photography today.
- Combine the above point with our desire to photograph anything in any light and you have a recipe for the current trend toward cameras with ever-higher dynamic range. I’m not sure this is all that healthy (see caveats below).
- Now you tell me what you think about all this. Do you like the HDRish imagery you see on the web? Do you like some of it? Do you think it’s overdone or natural? Is the pendulum going to swing back or is this a trend destined to continue, driven by technological advances in sensor design and software capabilities?
The elephant tree of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Though it may not look like it, this is definitely a high dynamic range situation. Copyright MJF Images.
This redwood forest shot is a fairly high dynamic range situation not because of the sun but because you need to retain detail in deep shadows and in the bright ferns. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on image.
There are many factors other than dynamic range that affect the ultimate range of brightness you can shoot in. These combine with dynamic range to influence the variety of images you can capture. If you know me at all, you know how important I think variety is in a portfolio. But again, it’s not all about dynamic range:
- The ability of post-processing software like Lightroom to compress or expand contrast just keeps getting better. If you shoot in RAW (you are, aren’t you?) then you have much more control over dynamic range in post-processing than if you shoot in Jpeg.
As I explained in the 1st post in this series, your camera has a certain dynamic range capability. If you avoid compressing that range (by turning the image into a Jpeg before it even leaves the camera) you then have some powerful software at your disposal, software that can go a long way toward bringing out shadow and highlight detail.
Navajo Arch, Utah: I waited until the sunlight coming through the arch was filtered by clouds, so that the contrast wasn’t too great. Copyright MJF Images.
- Tonal range is at least as important as dynamic range, maybe more so. Tonal range is the number of different tones your camera uses to get through the dynamic range (which again is the total difference between brightest and darkest and still retaining some detail).
In other words, good tonal range makes for smooth transitions between dark and bright, while narrow tonal range can cause choppy, banded or otherwise unnatural looking transitions. This is yet another criticism film shooters level at digital.
Lake Powell area, Arizona. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on image if interested.
- High dynamic range capabilities may make you a lazier photographer. A narrower range can force you to adapt and limit yourself to shooting in suitable light. Recall I’ve already pointed out that high dynamic range gives you more options during post-processing. Sounds good right? We want to be able to take pictures in all sorts of conditions and produce beautiful images. That’s why camera makers are busy expanding dynamic range in their new models.
But is this a good thing? Isn’t it better to learn how to look for better light, a better angle to avoid that over-bright spot, etc. It’s like all learning in life. Doesn’t it help to work around limitations, to meet and beat challenges? It’s probably the better path toward becoming a good photographer, better than having everything under the sun available to you. I’m not fully on board with this critique of high dynamic range (I like shooting in high contrast situations), but I can see the point.
This image on the Oklahoma prairie I captured with my point and shoot so there was no way to avoid letting the foreground go dark.
- The quality of light, like it does with most everything in photography, trumps dynamic range. And good light tends to be soft, to have a narrow range (see above point). The idea is that you don’t need very high dynamic range capability since good light tends to be low in contrast.
There are exceptions to this of course. And it’s much more important in landscape than other types of photography. But looked at in an admittedly skeptical way, high dynamic range just allows you to capture all of that ugly high-contrast light instead of just part of it.
Olympic Mountains Sunrise: Anytime you’re shooting into the sun (and aren’t doing silhouettes) dynamic range is pretty important. Copyright MJF Images.
- Dynamic Range may not be as important for you as it is for other photographers. As implied in the point above, the type of photography you’re doing and the the way your images will be displayed/used have a lot to do with how much dynamic range you need in a camera.
In fact, many pros want camera makers to make adjustable dynamic range a feature of new models. You would adjust it like you do shutter speed, aperture and ISO. And there are hints this is coming down the pike. Sony’s new compact mirrorless camera, the A7s, supposedly has a sensor which adjusts its dynamic range depending on light conditions. Not the same as user-controlled but going in that direction.
I hope you enjoyed this series. Feel free to reblog, and make sure to comment below if you have anything to add, or even if you have questions. I’m glad to respond to anything. Click on one of the images to go to my main gallery page. Contact me if you are interested in any of the images as a download or print. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!
An image at Death Valley that will appear in a magazine soon! Copyright MJF Images.
Charl the shih tsu (pronounced shee tsoo) at his favorite place, the Oregon Coast.
I lost my friend yesterday. He was named Charl. I didn’t name him and, fittingly, it’s uncertain why his name is Charl and not Charles or Charlie. He was a little shih tsu. I have been blessed by having in the past 20 years two of the best dogs I could ever imagine. First Sugar and then Charl. Shih tsus are dogs originally bred in China for the households of royalty, where women with bound feet needed the warmth of their fur in wintertime.
Shih tsus have very unique and engaging personalities. And this particular shih tsu had a truly unique personality even compared with others of his breed. He was 16 years old and lived quite the full and exciting life.
Never let anybody tell you a small dog is not a “real” dog. And never assume a small dog can’t go hiking and adventuring with you. I had some of these preconceptions before I met Charl, and he shattered them all. I inherited him from an ex when he was just one. He was my companion for more than 15 years.
A little known fact about the old west that has been lost to history: shih tsu scouts!
I swear he was part cat, especially with respect to having 9 lives. There were many times when I thought he had been lost. He had a habit of wandering from the trail and driving me crazy with worry looking for him. One time he got lost while hiking high on Mt. Hood. My uncle searched in one direction and I went the other. When my uncle found him he was sleeping right at the edge of an enormous cliff. Another time was in the snow and it had gotten dark. I still don’t know how I managed to meet back up with him that time.
But until he got old he never shrank from a physical challenge. I may have had to lift him up and over big rocks on climbs, but he would routinely do 15+ mile hikes with major elevation gains exceeding 3000 feet! He was extremely healthy throughout his life, never sick and (almost) never a pain. He could hold his pee for incredibly long periods if necessary. And when he was too old to hike with me he’d wait patiently in my van for many hours. He was a very mellow and relaxed little thing who almost never barked.
Charl in his later years was not as intrepid though he always played along.
When on camping/photo safaris, as soon as I got up at dawn to photograph, Charl would move right into my sleeping bag.
He almost became prey on a number of occasions. On Hurricane Ridge in Washington it was only by very quick action on my part that he wasn’t taken by an eagle. He even came face to face with a wild wolf, a lone alpha male in Yellowstone Park. He was only 10 feet away, but again my presence saved him. I snatched him up before the wolf could get any ideas about snagging a take-out lunch.
When he was a youngster he would disappear with his sister Abbi, most times at the beach. Some time later I would get a call when someone found him. Invariably they would’ve scored treats or even full meals. He wore my phone number around his neck his whole life, and it was necessary in his case believe me.
This wolf is looking right at him but Charl had very little idea he was face to face with his wild origins.
On a trip to Yosemite National Park, Charl shows the local deer just how ineffectual he is as a hunter.
All through these trials he maintained that extremely mellow disposition that everyone remarked upon. When he was a puppy he was of course rambunctious. But throughout his life he was a dog who could appreciate laziness in all its forms. He slept many hours on my lap as I drove. I thought of him as a lap dog who had adapted very well to an active life. In fact, shih tsus are the most adaptable of all the lap dogs.
Charl was always happy to lounge on people and keep them warm, even little people.
The great thing about lap dogs is you can take them anywhere.
He learned how to hike by following my previous dog, Sugar. There were some years of overlap when I had two dogs. Sugar also taught him how to love streams. He was afraid of them at first but after watching her cool down many times by plopping her belly down in cold creek water he got the idea and started following suit.
Charl goes canyoning in southern Utah.
The only hassle was his fur. It was the kind that doesn’t shed. That made it strange. It would pick up half of the forest floor as if it were velcro. Powder snow would quickly ball up until he couldn’t walk for all the packed snowballs on his under-carriage. He needed frequent combing and bathing. Especially when his hair was long. I always thought he looked more like a natural dog when his hair was long.
Charl is struggling in the snow because his fur picks up snowballs. La Sal Mtns, Utah.
So he got a free ride in my pack, the only time he skied!
His favorite place in all the world was the Oregon Coast. He loved to run up and down the beach chasing the surf as it receded, chasing shore birds, having a ball. He would run until he was a speck in the distance, and I would have to run after him. He used to be so fast, like a flying dust mop!
Charl rests after some fun on the Oregon Coast.
The sand was good for playing, but the warm rock is much better for napping.
Even the last time we were there, with him an old codger, he started to run for a bit before tiring quickly. Because of his love for the beach I will be going with my uncle to the coast soon to scatter his ashes. My uncle, Charl and I hiked many times together.
Charl as an old dog. Though he eventually went blind, he aged gracefully.
I suppose I shouldn’t be sad that Charl is gone. He lived a full life after all. But I am sad, very sad. I know that I will never meet a dog like Charl. Rest in Peace buddy, you’ll be missed.
Charl: 1998 – 2014, Rest in Peace.
The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This is the second of two posts on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Make sure and check out the first part, where I cover some logistics, along with things to do on the popular east side of the park. This post will take you over to the west side on your one-way tour, entering via Estes Park and exiting through Grand Lake. You could also do it the opposite way of course.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is a famous highway that traverses a high ridge over the Continental Divide. Local American Indian tribe, the Utes & Arapahos, maintained a foot-trail near where the highway now runs. They accessed hunting grounds on the Great Plains, where those big mammals you now see mostly limited to the high country in the national parks (elk, buffalo, etc.) used to congregate in huge numbers. In fact, one of the park’s most popular trails is called the Ute Trail. It doesn’t involve much climbing and yet accesses high country.
A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.
Find the Ute Crossing Trailhead roughly half-way between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon interpretive trail on the east side of Trail Ridge Road. There is not much parking. You can walk out a couple miles to a large rock and small pass and then retrace your steps. Or with a car shuttle you can continue steeply down Windy Gulch a few more miles to Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park.
For sunset, you can’t do much better than drive up to the top of Trail Ridge Road. This high highway, reaching over 12,000 feet, traverses alpine tundra with fantastic views of Long’s Peak to the east and the Never Summer Mountains to the west. Get an early jump on sunset so you can enjoy a walk on the tundra. Well, not on the tundra, on a trail through the tundra. It’s delicate.
The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Stop just before the summit at the Rock Cut pull-off. From here a trail takes off north of the road and winds its way up onto the ridge. Try your best to tear your eyes away from the incredible vistas and pay some attention to the tiny flowers and other tundra vegetation at your feet. You won’t see tundra like this in many places outside of far northern Alaska. There is a visitor center just west of the summit where you can learn about this tough community.
A little side-trail leads right up to the ridge-line where interesting mushroom-shaped rocks (hoodoos) will compete for your attention (see image below). Climb up onto the summit rocks for some great views of Long’s Peak and surrounding mountains. I found some great light and beautiful far-reaching photos here (image at bottom).
Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.
I rarely do this on my blog but feel I must in this case. In Part I I mentioned starting early and finishing before late afternoon. There is a reason I’m stressing that again, and adding an important point. In summertime the Rockies are prone to very fast-moving and violent thunderstorms that build up in the afternoon. Lightning is a very real threat, a threat made clear a few days ago when two hikers died from lightning strikes. Both died while hiking off Trail Ridge Road, one of them a woman hiking with her husband on Ute Trail. A total of 13 people were taken to the hospital from one of the strikes alone!
Now there is no reason to fear hiking up high in Rocky in the summer. These events are rare. But you’d do well to keep a close eye on the weather. If big billowing clouds start to catch your attention, it’s time to move to lower ground. Do not get caught out in open terrain where you’re the tallest thing around. Do not take shelter under a big lone tree. Get into a low depression or down into thick forest if you can. Of course you can mitigate the danger by finishing your hike by 3 or 4 p.m. But situational awareness is always the best tool you have for this (and all) dangers in the outdoors.
Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.
The West Side
At first glance it seems as if the west side of the park is not as full of things to do as the east side. But look a little deeper. Though the views may not be as frequent, it is a wonderful place to hike, photograph and watch wildlife. And this is in no small part because of the Colorado River. The Colorado is one of two great rivers of the American West (the other being the Columbia). And this is where it starts. The Colorado’s headwaters are accessible via a trail that takes off from where Trail Ridge Road finally levels out after a long looping descent.
The Colorado River Trail takes you on a nice level foray through lovely meadows bordering the Colorado (see image above & top). It’s amazing to see the river in this way if you have experienced it like I have, in the desert southwest. You’re far upstream from the cactus-lined rocky desert canyons here. And that includes the biggest of them all, the Grand Canyon. It’s a mountain stream up here, with bighorn sheep descending the steep rocky slopes to sip from its cold waters. Keep an eye out for moose as well.
Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail. They let me get within 50 feet of them.
The trail heads out to Lulu City, an old silver mining town. Well, not a town now. There isn’t really anything left outside of some cabin foundations. But that’s really okay, because the miners sure picked a pretty spot on which to site the town. Located in a meadowy area along the river, it makes a fantastic place for a picnic. Lulu City is about 3.5 flat miles in.
If you’re hankering for more of a hike, keep going to the Little Yellowstone Canyon area. It resembles the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, though like it’s name suggests is quite a bit smaller. You can keep going to La Poudre Pass about 7.5 total miles in, and thus reach the true top of the Colorado River system.
From small beginnings: a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.
For photo opportunities, wildlife seems particularly abundant in this part of the park. A walk near sunset along the winding Colorado is bound to result in beautiful shots of the river and mountains. If you’re lucky a moose or elk will grace your foreground. There are a number of other hikes in the area. I hiked to Big Meadows, a fairly easy 3.2 miles round-trip to a big sea of grass. Wildflowers were in bloom and I saw plenty of wildlife sign, though no animals. It would be a great early-morning or evening option.
There are several routes up into the Never Summer Mountains that I didn’t check out. The hike up to Michigan Lakes Basin seems to me a particularly scenic, if steep, hike. The hike up to Lake Nokoni features a great wildflower show. The short walk to Adams Falls is a great family option. All things to do on my second visit!
Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Final Thoughts & When To Go
As I already mentioned, a good way to tour Rocky is to do a loop from east to west (or vice versa), camping along the way. I visited in late June, and a few of the hikes I did (especially the Bear Lake to Fern lake one-way) crossed abundant snowfields. The flowers were blooming big-time in the meadows below tree-line. In July the wildflower show moves up to the subalpine areas as the snow melts, so right now is a perfect time for a visit. And so is autumn, with the Rocky Mountains’ signature quaking aspen adding their spectacular golden colors to the mix.
The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.
It’s worth repeating that this is quite the popular park. You should avoid it during summer weekends or holidays. If you come in May or early June (depending on how much snow fell during winter), be prepared for snow blocking access to many trails and even roads. If you look at a map of the park you’ll notice that it covers a big area with limited road access.
What this means is that it will at first seem crowded (as it did to me). But as soon as you put a couple miles or more between you and a road you’ll find big empty mountainous country. Just make sure to take it easy and go at a measured pace. The high altitudes will humble even the most fit flatlander. Thanks for reading! I hope your summer is filled with fun and sun!
Long’s Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening’s last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.