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.
The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Time for a travel post. After all, that’s supposed to be a major focus of this blog! I’ve been to a bunch of America’s National Parks. In fact, there are not many that have fallen through the cracks, parks that I haven’t yet had the chance to visit: Sequoia & King’s Canyon in California, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Nevada’s Great Basin, the Everglades and Acadia on opposite ends of the East Coast; not many.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is an exception. It seems strange that I’ve been to all of the other parks in the Mountain West but never this one. It loomed large in my mind as a blank spot. I felt I was missing something, until recently that is. I’m splitting this post up into two parts, because I want to share a lot of pictures of this place. I only had my little point and shoot camera, but what the heck, it did a nice job of documenting my trip.
With a week and a half off, and considering I’m working within a (long) day’s drive of Denver, I finally got the chance to visit the park. The hot weather we’ve been experiencing made the decision easy. I was longing to get out of the unrelenting flatness and heat of the Great Plains and back into the mountains. The first night camped at elevation, not far from Colorado Springs, was also the first time I’ve used my sleeping bag in quite some time. It was blessedly cool. Perfect sleeping weather!
A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.
Getting There & Camping
After a short introductory hike through Garden of the Gods, I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver. The usual gateway to the park that locals simply call “Rocky” is via Estes Park, a little tourist-town on the east side of the park. Estes Park is about a 2 hour drive from Denver. From here, after some last-minute stocking up, you have the choice of two entrances: Beaver Meadows, closest to Moraine Park, or Fall River to the north.
An alternative gateway town is Grand Lake, on the southwest side of the park. At about 2 1/2 hours, this is a bit further to drive than Estes Park, but because I’m recommending a loop through the park anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether you enter or exit through Grand Lake. However you get into the park, you won’t have to drive far before you find camping. Campsites (without hookups) cost $20/night.
You can make camping reservations (which in summer is a good idea) at Moraine Park or Glacier Meadows campgrounds. These are located in the most popular part of the park, the Bear Lake Road corridor. Moraine Park is the more popular of the two, but I camped at Glacier Meadows and thought it was just fine. It has a fantastic view (see image at top) and a very friendly ranger to check you in. At either campsite you can show up early in the day to get a decent campsite. Not too early before people check out; about 11-1 is a good timeframe. Campsites are not huge and forested like we have in the Pacific Northwest, but they’re available. That is, providing you don’t try to do Rocky on a summer weekend. Do yourself a big favor and go during the week. It’s a very popular park, and close to a big city.
The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.
One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.
Rocky is For Hiking
This is yet another national park that is best seen from the trail, whether on foot or horse-back. One note: days often start clear, with clouds showing up mid-day and thunderstorms always possible late in the afternoon. I don’t mind storms (call me strange), but if you want a better chance for calm weather start your hikes early and finish before late afternoon.
I drove up on a Monday afternoon, entering the park via an entrance I haven’t mentioned – Wild Basin. This is a short gravel road, driveable in passenger vehicles, that dead-ends at a trailhead. The hike in from here to Ouzel Falls is an easy 2.7 miles. But you can hike further along to a glacier-gouged subalpine basin, ultimately ending up at beautiful Bluebird Lake 6 miles in.
Another key trail-head lies between Wild Basin and Estes Park. Long’s Peak is the highest mountain in Colorado at 14,259′ (4346 m.). You can climb the mountain from the trailhead along Hwy. 7. In late season when there is little snow or ice, the climb is not technical. It can be done in a long day, starting before dawn. Or you can do one of a number of shorter hikes from here. There’s a small tent-only campground at the trailhead.
The Loch is a beautiful place to backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Another great hike, one I highly recommend, takes off from Bear Lake Road at Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This is located just before road’s end at Bear Lake. A short jaunt up the trail and you find yourself at a gorgeous (and popular) little cascade called Alberta Falls. But keep going, the best is yet to come.
The Loch, a lovely lake popular with backpackers, is your next destination. When you come to beautiful Timberline Falls 4 miles in, you’ll need to do a little steep climbing. But the reward for that comes quickly, in the form of two spectacular tarns. A tarn is an alpine lake set into a depression carved by a glacier at the base of steep mountains. Lake of Glass and Sky Pond (image below) are aptly named.
Sky Pond is your final stop before turning around. Unless you want to do some mountain-climbing that is! You will be hiking across rocky tundra at the foot of the granite giants. It’s what you come to Colorado for! The total mileage for Sky Pond is 9 miles round-trip, with about an 1800-foot elevation gain. Not an easy hike, especially with the high altitude, but definitely worth it.
Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
One more great east-side hike takes off from Bear Lake at the end of Bear Lake Road. You will need to take a shuttle for this one-way hike. First park your vehicle at the Fern Lake Trailhead near Moraine Park Campground. Just back up the dirt road from here is a shuttle bus stop. The park operates a free shuttle bus that runs daily from mid-June to mid-October, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You never have to wait long for a bus.
You’ll actually take two shuttle buses with a change mid-way along to Bear Lake, your starting point. From Bear Lake, hike along the lakeshore to the right, quickly leaving the crowds behind when you veer right at a junction and begin climbing to a gentle pass. After skirting a beautiful alpine lake at the base of rugged peaks, drop steeply down to Fern Lake and then out through a lovely valley to the trailhead, where your vehicle is parked. You’ll pass some spectacular scenery on this 9+ mile hike, with the chance to see bear or mountain sheep along the way.
Elk browse in one of the park’s many grassy meadows.
Other Things To Do
After all that hiking you may be ready for some mellow pursuits. If you have fishing gear (you can rent in Estes Park), fly-fishing along the Big Thompson River as it winds through Moraine Park is so perfect you won’t need to catch any fish to have a wonderfully relaxing time. Early morning in Moraine Park is also a great time to break out the camera and tripod to get some pictures. Herds of elk frequent the huge meadow that makes up Moraine Park.
The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.
There are several stables in the park that offer trail rides. All of them seem to be centered around Moraine Park. Those that I saw were your typical long trains of tourists perched uncomfortably on bored-looking mounts. But I’m sure you could arrange to ride in a smaller group where they cater to a more experienced rider with a quicker pace. However you do it, it looks to be well-organized. And the scenery is truly spectacular for horse-back riding at Rocky.
Stay tuned for the second part of this post, where I’ll cover spectacular Trail Ridge Road and the west side of the park. Thanks for reading and happy travels!
Bear Lake at dusk: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Elowah Creek, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.
This is the third of four parts on Dynamic Range. Check out the first two parts. Part I is an introductory look, including what dynamic range actually is. Part II goes into how your eyes and your camera see things differently. Today we’ll look at a key tool you should be using and how it help you both understand and control dynamic range.
Beacon Rock is a landmark on theWashington side of the Columbia River Gorge.
The Histogram & LiveView
With most any digital camera, when you capture an image the camera builds one or more histograms, which are attached to the image file. Histograms are simply graphs with horizontal and vertical axes. Most used (and useful) is the histogram that depicts tones (See Figure 1 below). These show tone on the horizontal axis and the amount of pixels for that tone on the vertical axis. On the far left is pure black (0, the black point); on the far right is pure white (255, the white point).
Fig. 1: Please click this image (which is not mine) to go to the source, a nice introductory blog post on histograms.
With most DSLRs, you can capture the image in LiveView. In other words, you can use it like a camera phone, viewing the scene on the LCD instead of through the viewfinder. This allows you to see a representation of what your final image will look like. Unlike most camera phones, it also allows you to see a very accurate, live-action histogram of the scene before you. This way you can see what the tonal distribution actually is before you fire the shutter. For example a live histogram will show exactly how much of the scene is overexposed or underexposed (see Figure 2 below). When I use LiveView I’m usually on a tripod. I’ll frame up my composition by looking through the viewfinder. Then I turn on LiveView to see how things look on the histogram.
Fig. 2. The histogram on the left is of an image with a small area of underexposure. The one on the right has a small area of overexposure. Click on image to go to the source website.
Dynamic Range & Your Histogram
When you capture an image with a lot of inherent contrast (a sun-dappled forest or the side of a sunlit barn with the door open), your histogram will show a curve that spans across the entire width of the graph. And it will probably climb up the sides (see Figure 3 below). For scenes with low overall contrast, the histogram of a properly exposed image will sit somewhere near the center of the graph with the curve dropping down to the bottom before it reaches the far left or right (see Figure 4).
Fig. 3. This high-contrast image would have a small amount of pure black (far left) plus an area of overexposed highlights (far right). Click image to go to the source website for this.
A casual shot in a city park at sunset. This image has both clipped shadows and blown out highlights (the sun, which is okay!). Thus its histogram is similar to Figure 3.
Figure 4. Three low-contrast histograms. Dark on left, bright on right. Click image to go to the source website this.
This black and white image of a stormy Columbia River Gorge is mostly shadow and mid-tones, with modest contrast. Its histogram would be similar to the one on the left in Figure 4.
These two situations, low contrast and high contrast, are of course extremes in a continuum. And one situation is no better than another. But when faced with a scene that has a lot of overall contrast, a camera with good dynamic range will expose so that the histogram (again, of a properly exposed picture) comes close to but does not climb up either the left or right edges (see Figure 5 below).
Fig. 5. Histogram of a high-contrast but properly exposed scene. Click image to go to the source website.
Garden of the Gods, Colorado. This image has fairly high contrast, and so a histogram very similar to Figure 5.
When the curve of your histogram climbs up the edges, that means you are not properly exposing parts of the image. You’re losing data and will wind up with either blocked (too dark) or blown-out (too bright) areas (see Figure 2 above). The higher up the sides the histogram goes, the bigger are those areas, and the more likely they are to negatively impact the final image. Of course if you want to do this then it’s probably fine. And if something like the sun is overexposed, then it is more than fine, it’s natural.
A camera with good dynamic range helps with this problem of shadow or highlight clipping. It allows you greater latitude to bring out details in very bright or very dark parts of your images. It allows you to capture images with a great variety of overall contrast levels.
Pink bleeding hearts bloom in the forests of the Pacific Northwest during spring.
I would like to throw in a big caveat to this benefit. Don’t think you always need to even out tones HDR-style. How much brightening of shadows and darkening of highlights you do on the computer is, after all, up to you. You can even go the opposite direction by letting things go to pure black. Or you can purposefully allow bright areas to be blown out.
It’s probably best to not think so much about how much contrast you can squeeze from the scene without blowing out highlights or clipping shadows. Instead, think about the mood of the scene, the emotions you wish to elicit, the story you want to tell. Let that be your guide, not the ability of your camera to manipulate a wide range of tones. It’s yet another case of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Okay, end of rant, and end of post! See you next Friday, when I’ll wrap up dynamic range.
This shot of Oregon’s Mount Hood was framed so as to show some of the surrounding forest.
Abandoned oilfield in western Oklahoma now blooming with flowers and a magnet for birds and coyotes.
Last week I posted an introductory article on dynamic range. I want to start diving down into the subject a little more this week, starting with the best visual capture device I know: the human eye. The images here are both from my point and shoot here on the plains where I’m working, and also some from the archive.
Dynamic range, though technically expressed as a ratio, is more simply expressed in terms of stops, as in stops of light. If you hold shutter speed (and ISO) constant and open your aperture from f/11 to f/8 you have brightened the image by 1 stop. You’ve allowed twice the amount of light to enter the camera and be detected by your sensor or film. For every one stop you either double or halve the amount of light.
Small waterfall along Oregon’s Sandy River.
Our Amazing Eyes
So let’s start with your eyes. Although the internet has a wide variety of answers to the question, most agree your eyes have a dynamic range of about 20 stops from darkest to brightest. That means you can detect at least some detail in the darkest and brightest parts of that enormous range at the same time. We don’t usually need to deploy all this range at once of course. Instead we shift and adapt (very quickly!), using different parts of our dynamic range under varying conditions. If you allow for pupil dilation our range increases to 24 stops!
We do have our visual limitations. Our eyes start to fail us in very bright or very dark lighting conditions. We nevertheless can detect enough detail for recognition of threats when either looking into deep shadows at dusk or the rising sun at dawn. Remember each stop of light is accompanied by a doubling or halving of the amount of light. So despite the fact that some other animals put us to shame in other visual abilities, it’s quite the impressive dynamic range we’ve got.
Given the above, you probably are not surprised that cameras, even the best, cannot match the human eye’s abilities in the dynamic range department. At least when it comes to “normal” daylight exposures. At night you can leave the camera aperture open for extended periods and collect the scattered light photons that, while our eyes may detect them, simply don’t end up translating into good clear images in our brains. Our cones (color receptors) are especially lazy at night. It’s the reason we are so amazed when objects in the night sky are rendered in stupendous color.
So unless the future sees us evolve into nocturnal creatures, our eye-brain visual system will remain limited at night. Of course our brains have used our hands to invent devices to extend our vision into the nighttime realm. So enjoy those images of space you see, both the deep-sky telescope images and the star-scapes that have become such popular fare on the web.
Violent storms (that included funnel clouds) pass away from Oklahoma farmland at sunset.
Wahclella Falls, Columbia Gorge, Oregon. This is a very low-contrast image requiring virtually no dynamic range.
Dynamic Range of Cameras
So let’s get to the question that sparked my interest in this subject in the first place: what can cameras see, and does it matter? If you look into this on the internet, you’ll come across all sorts of over-complicated camera test results, graphs and data until it’s coming out your ears! It may come as a surprise that film (at least negative film) can generally capture more dynamic range than digital sensors can. This is debated (of course) on the internet, but it’s pretty much true.
The reason I say “generally” and “pretty much” is that firstly, comparing film and digital in terms of dynamic range is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Film handles tonal variation differently (see Caveats below), and is nonlinear. Digital sensors are linear. In fact, in this way film is closer in behavior to your eyes than digital sensors are. Secondly, film is noticeably better at handling highlight dynamic range (bright end of the scale), whereas digital has advantages on the shadow (dark) side of things. Your eyes can also see more detail in shadow than in highlights. Digital cameras mimic your eyes in this way, but as any film enthusiast will tell you, they don’t do quite so well with highlights (they would describe it less kindly).
It is very hot where I am right now, so here’s a shot of Oregon’s Faery Falls in winter freeze.
All that said, digital camera makers have been working hard on increasing dynamic range, while film is not receiving that much attention. So you can expect all this to be a moot point in the near future. Currently, the best digital cameras for dynamic range, the Nikon D800 and other high end DSLRs, and (especially) the new digital video cameras, can supposedly record dynamic ranges of up to 14 stops.
But that’s at low ISOs. Think about those starscapes I mentioned above, those images of an improbably colorful and bright Milky Way you see soaring over everything from mountains to farm tractors to the Eiffel Tower! That is not really a demonstration of the camera’s dynamic range but its low-light capabilities. When the photographer cranks up the ISO to create those images, she is cranking down on the camera’s dynamic range.
That’s enough for now. This little miniseries on Dynamic Range will continue next week. Thanks for reading!
The Lower Columbia River flows peacefully seaward at dusk. Oregon’s Mount Hood in the distance.
Moraine Park is a big and very beautiful grassy meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. I can’t believe this was my first time visiting “Rocky”! My recent Friday Foto Talk post on dynamic range featured other images from the Colorado Rockies, captured with the Canon S95 I’ve been using lately.
Because of the camera’s limitations, I was hard-pressed to pull off many golden-hour images. But with the bright, even light of mid-morning at Moraine Park photos were snapshot easy! I spent a good hour or two just wandering along the creek, drawing closer to several elk who were grazing at the far end. I didn’t approach them; they have enough people gawking at them in that place!
What a gorgeous day it was! It was too early for many people. In fact I was the only walker in the park. I did encounter a group of horse-back riders from the nearby stables. The leader was shouting things like “heels down” to the tourists. Funny! But also sad when I thought of my horses, so far away (and one of them not even mine anymore!).
The flowers were in bloom as well. Such a perfect morning, followed by a great hike that traversed the high country in front of the peak pictured. I will do a travel/hiking post on this national park later in the week.
Hope your weekend was relaxing and fun! As always, I appreciate any comments.
The Big Thompson River meanders through Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.