Archive for November 2013

Friday Foto Talk: Where to Shoot and When, Part II   2 comments

I hope your Thanksgiving was warm and wonderful!  This is the second of a two-part post.  Check out Part I.  I left off talking about what a traveling photographer should do with all those well-meaning recommendations on what and where to shoot, plus when is the best time of day.  Upon entering Arches National Park in Utah, the flier the ranger gives you has one of these lists of where you should consider shooting photos at sunrise and sunset.

An unusual cloud formation over the La Sal Mountains (Utah) just as the sun was making its first appearance on a cold morning after snowfall overnight.

An unusual cloud formation over the La Sal Mountains (Utah) just as the sun was making its first appearance on a cold morning after snowfall overnight.

Following Recommendations…sort of

After my first day in the park, I got around to reading the flier.  Among others, they listed Balanced Rock and (of course) Delicate Arch for sunset.  For sunrise, one of the spots on the list was the Windows area.  I didn’t know exactly what to think about the list, so I checked out the internet to see what popped up. After Googling “good photo locations for sunrise at Arches”, I came upon definite recommendations on where I should go.  The first page of search results all featured the same target: the Windows area.  They were more specific than the Park Service in that they recommended a certain composition where North Window frames Turret Arch.  Both arches are lighted by front-light from the rising sun, which is over your shoulder.

The sandstone fins at Arches National Park are where arches form.

The sandstone fins at Arches National Park are where arches form.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know what I did with this information. I made a note not to photograph Turret Arch framed by North Window at sunrise.  But I didn’t avoid the area at sunrise, far from it.  In fact, I think it is a great place to shoot at sunrise and I wound up visiting no less than four times.  On that first morning, I went to the recommended spot.

I had that funny feeling you get when you are doing something counter to your personality.  But what the heck.  I was there very early, I was curious, and only two other groups of people appeared pre-dawn.  Unfortunately the light was not great at sun-up.  I roamed around to look for other shots and voila!  I found some.  On subsequent visits to Windows I captured Double Arch, a nice panorama, and some great moonlight shots.

Each of the other mornings I visited the Windows area up to a half dozen photographers were in place before sun-up in order to replicate the picture of Turret Arch through North Window.  And this is in low season!  The area where you need to set your tripod is small so I imagine in high season competition is fierce.  There really isn’t enough room for more than a few photographers.

Double O arch, while on a popular hiking trail, is often empty because it is at the far end of the trail.

Double O arch, while on a popular hiking trail, is often empty because it is at the far end of the trail.

In Moab, the town near Arches, I saw two framed versions of Turret Arch through North Window.  One was in a bank and the other in a cafe.  I’m sure there are more hanging around.  This is a very popular picture.  Is it a good one?  Sure.  But I think it’s also somewhat two-dimensional.  And after shooting in Arches pretty extensively over a week, I know it isn’t even close to being the best picture you can get in the park, at sunrise or any other time.  It may not even be the best you can get from the Windows area.

This is one of the shots I got at the Windows area in Arches N.P. while NOT getting "the shot".

This is one of the shots I got at the Windows area in Arches N.P. while NOT getting “the shot”.

Another different sort of shot in the Windows area,  of Double Arch.

Another different sort of shot in the Windows area, of Double Arch.

What to Do with Recommendations

So what to do when you’re researching an area you are planning to visit?  I recommend not totally ignoring the lists of recommended spots for photography and when to shoot.  Check the direction of the sun at your planned time of visit (use the Photographer’s Ephemeris) to see what the angle of light will be. Check at sunrise and sunset; the recommended time to shoot will usually be based on front-light, and you might want to try it back-lit (shooting into the sun).

Also, check maps (or Google Earth) to get an idea of the terrain around the popular subject.  If you want to shoot it, don’t hesitate.  Go for it.  Just realize that anything that is listed very high on a Google search will be over-shot.  Period,  no exceptions.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t find other interesting compositions in the area.  It also might be worthwhile to get the recommended shot under unusual conditions (snow, moonlight + stars, etc.).  It pays to visit during the day with an idea of where the sun rises and sets.  Record the azimuth of sunrise & sunset and bring a compass, or use one of the smartphone apps for this purpose (I go old-school).

By using a map and having a healthy explorer’s spirit, you can often get a different perspective on the popular subject.  To illustrate this last way to visit popular photo spots without shooting the same shot everybody else does, let me tell you what I did at another place in Arches National Park: Courthouse Towers.

I took a break from Arches to go up to the La Sal Mountains, and of course that was the night it got cold and snowed.

Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park, shot during a “non-recommended” time of day.

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I decided to take a break from Arches and went up to camp in the nearby La Sal Mountains. Of course it got cold and snowed!

Shooting a Popular Spot your Way

You will find Courthouse Towers on almost any list of recommended places to shoot at Arches, in this case at sunset.  I had checked the area out one morning and noticed a group of people with rock-climbing gear heading out.  I watched where they went, up a steep gully.  They weren’t using their ropes.  Later that day, I hiked/scrambled up the gully and, as I suspected, found out it was a canyoneering area.

Canyoneering (called canyoning in Europe) means hiking up to the top of a canyon and then using ropes to climb/rappel/jump/slide/swim down.  I’ve done it a half-dozen times in technical canyons and it’s a blast!  The slickrock area at the top turned out to be fairly extensive and easily explored without climbing gear.  You do need to be sure on your feet and not too afraid of heights.  Best of all for me, it looked to have promise for photographing Courthouse Towers from above.

Early pre-dawn shot from atop Courthouse Towers in Arches N.P., Utah.

Early pre-dawn shot from atop Courthouse Towers in Arches N.P., Utah.

I got some decent shots on that late afternoon, but I suspected it might be even better at sunrise, shooting into the sun.  So I returned a couple mornings later, hiking up by headlamp.  While actual dawn was a little disappointing light-wise, once the sun was up I got a few very nice shots, including the ones above & below.  I really like the fact this picture shows the majesty of Courthouse Towers, but not with the popular perspective of looking up at them. Instead, this view is downward and includes one of the steep canyons that makes the area popular with the climber/canyoneer crowd.

From above, the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park are awesome at sunrise!

From above, the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park are awesome at sunrise!

Various forms of quartz (jasper, opal, etc.) lie scattered on the sandstone & reward the exploring sort of photog.

Various forms of quartz (jasper, opal, etc.) lie scattered on the sandstone, rewarding the exploring sort of photographer

Now you might or might not be up for doing this kind of exploring.  I certainly don’t want to encourage you to get into dicey situations.  You normally need to be a fairly confident off-trail hiker to explore for unusual nature photo opportunities.  Very important is to stay off of delicate areas.  For instance, in the desert southwest, there are extensive areas of biotic soil crust, a living community that is destroyed by boots and bike or jeep tires.

To start out, you should take easier and shorter routes and work slowly towards tougher excursions.  Remember if you start getting in over your head you can always turn back and retrace your steps.  Rely on your intuition on this.  The key, photographically-speaking, is to not have any expectations of certainty.

One thing I’m certain of, however, is that in popular areas such as National Parks, in order to find unique and interesting photos, you simply must be willing to explore, to eschew the shots that have become popular. You might strike out of course.  The safe and sure course is to go where other photographers are.  I’m not looking down my nose at those photos or the folks who capture them.  I simply want to point out there is another way to do it.

If you recognize this scene, you might be dating yourself!  It was in many "Marlboro Man" commercials.

If you recognize this scene, you might be dating yourself! It was in many “Marlboro Man” commercials.

I wound up investigating this  full pothole in Canyonlands N.P. for a couple hours.  Potholes fill after a rainfall and the creatures hibernating in the mud spring into action!

I wound up investigating this full pothole (aka water-pocket; -tank) in Canyonlands N.P. for a couple hours. Waterpockets fill after infrequent rain and the creatures hibernating in the mud spring into action.  These shrimp breed and die quickly, nourishing those who are still growing.

As usual, if you are interested in any of these images just click on them.  If you get to my galleries and can’t find the one you’re interested in, that means I haven’t uploaded it to my site yet.  I will, however, respond immediately to any request you have.  Just contact me.  I prefer meeting any of your needs with personal attention anyway.  Thanks for your interest!  This subject has given me some ideas that I’ll share in a post soon, a post that will be a different sort for me.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Driving along in Canyonlands National Park I stopped and scrambled up a steep hill to find this view.

Driving along in Canyonlands National Park I stopped and scrambled up a steep hill to find this view just before sunset.

A tough little hike was required to reach this spot, a spectacular stretch of smooth slickrock.

A pretty tough little hike was required to reach this spot, a large, perfectly flat stretch of smooth slickrock.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Arch Leftovers   2 comments

To all of my U.S. friends I wish a Happy Thanksgiving.  And I send the same wishes to anyone else who might choose this day to give thanks for this wonderful world (and universe!) we all are privileged to live in.  (To Canadians, sorry I’m late!)  I am most thankful for all of you, who are sticking with me on my blog, even though I’ve not been great about checking out all your blogs while I’ve been on the road.  Thanks for this!

With so much food around on Thanksgiving it’s certain there will be leftovers.  Leftovers (and specifically turkey sandwiches) were always one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving.  So I’m posting this recent image I have titled Arch Leftovers.  It’s a picture I captured at Arches National Park in Utah.

When arches form by weathering and erosion from the sandstone fins in Arches and the surrounding region, one question comes up.  Where does the rock that occupied the spaces go?  Believe it or not, this is a great scientific question.  Weathering breaks the blocks that fall from the forming arches into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually you end up with sand.  Since water does run in the desert washes, however infrequently, you’re safe assuming that most of the sand is carried away in streams. Actually, most is transported down to the nearby Colorado in dramatic flash floods.

Because this is a treeless desert region, erosion by wind, though it takes a back seat to water, is quite prevalent.  Sand is picked up by strong winds and, like sandpaper, wears away and sculpts the arches and spires in the park.  When it has done its job, the sand is unceremoniously dumped, unneeded and forgotten, into dunes.

These are not dunes the size of those in the big sandy deserts of the world.  Water carries away much of it before it can accumulate into big dunes.  Nevertheless the dunes that do pile into alcoves and niches in the cliffs take on graceful shapes and curves, especially in beautiful late day light.  It was windy just before sunset when I shot this, and the blowing sand gives the dunes a certain soft texture.

The wind blows often in Arches National Park, Utah, and these small dunes accumulate near the sculpted arches from which they are eroded.

Arch Leftovers.  Please click on the image for purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download.  Thanks!

Wordless Wednesday: Desert Bighorn Sheep   9 comments

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Storm in the Desert   2 comments

The meat of the winter storm moves across a barren southern Utah valley.

The meat of an early winter storm moves across an empty valley in southern Utah.

The first snowstorm of the winter moved across the desert southwest in the past few days.  When the desert gets snow, it is announced noisily beforehand by cold and wind.  But like most politicians it doesn’t fulfill all its blustery promise with much of a payoff – in this case snow.  The first night an inch or two came, and the second about five inches fell.  That morning I woke in Capital Reef National Park and there were large flakes slowly falling in a gentle, windless snow. Beautiful.

Morning reveals new-fallen snow in the old pioneer settlement of Fruita, Utah.  This is the one-room schoolhouse, which has been beautifully restored.

Morning reveals new-fallen snow in the pioneer settlement of Fruita, Utah. This is the one-room school, which has been beautifully restored.

This particular storm is neither the coldest nor the snowiest I have seen in these parts.  But for November its not bad.  Since I can remember I’ve enjoyed weather like this.  I always think it passes too quickly in the western U.S.  Alaska is the only place I’ve ever lived where weather like this can hang on for weeks.  This weather cay yield great pictures, but I can’t say I like messing with camera gear in cold, wet conditions.  I will post a Friday Foto Talk on how to deal with this potentially damaging issue surrounding winter shooting.

As I write this the weather has returned to typical conditions for the desert southwest; that is, cloudless blue skies.  Have a great week!

Goblin Valley is a hot place in summertime, but on this morning it was anything but.

Goblin Valley is a hot place in summertime, but on this morning it was anything but.

Single-image Sunday: Book Cliffs in Deep Dusk   4 comments

This is an image I captured a few days ago during the very last light of the day, a day that had started with good light and ended with great light.  It is a longish exposure and so has a deep blue cast.  The view is typical for the desert southwest, a lonely dirt road heading off to who knows where.  The background is part of southern Utah’s Book Cliffs.

A lonely road heads off into the dusk in the southern Utah desert.

A lonely road heads off into the dusk in the southern Utah desert.

Weekly Foto Talk: Where to Shoot and When, Part I   8 comments

Deadhorse Point in Utah is a very popular spot to photograph at both sunrise and especially sunset.

Deadhorse Point in Utah is a very popular spot to photograph at sunrise (above) and sunset.

I had to change the name from Friday to Weekly Foto Talk ’cause I’m a day late!  I’ve been making my way across the desert southwest through the winter’s first real storm.  It snowed overnight and the desert was frigid but beautiful this morning!

Say you’re going on vacation, perhaps to a national park.  Or much more relevant to late November, say you’re going to Hawaii, or the Virgin Islands.  Since you’re a serious photographer you’d like to get high quality shots of the place while your’e there.  The question comes up: where to go shoot?  And when? Should I go to this place or that place at sunrise?  Which one should I hit at sunset?

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Since this is a very broad topic, it will cover two parts, finishing next week with part II.  But it’s still much too broad.  What to shoot?  I’m realistic; I don’t want to go into that rather personal question.  So allow me to narrow things down.  I got the idea for this post when I read the flier given me by the ranger upon entering Arches National Park in southern Utah.

These newspaper-style publications are a feature of most national parks in the U.S.  Though they convey useful information on camping, trails and programs, not to mention a decent road map, they can also be tiresome.  Repetition of the same park rules you see on countless signs is typical, as are blurbs that incorporate scare tactics.  Apparently those who write these things for the federal government believe scare tactics are a good way to inform.

In most cases they wish to scare you on two fronts.  Firstly, they want you to believe not only that the animals in the park are wild (which might seem obvious to most of us) but that these critters would like nothing better than to claw/bite/trample you and those you love.  Also they want you to realize that, despite all those old cartoons featuring characters who survive 2000-foot falls and huge boulders toppling over on them, getting up and walking away with a body shaped temporarily like a spring, the terrain is real and quite unforgiving.  The cliffs are precipitous, the rivers swift, and the rocks as hard as..well as rocks.

A cottonwood tree along Kane Creek Wash near Moab, Utah was an irresistible attraction.

A cottonwood tree along Kane Creek Wash near Moab, Utah was an irresistible attraction.

Arches National Park’s flier was mercifully short on these gratuitously written blurbs, and for that I thank their local scribe. There was, however, one feature I found interesting. Arches is a magnet for photographers, and so the Park Service, in their constant spirit of helpfulness, included in their flier a list of suggested locations for photography. There were two lists of recommend places to shoot, one for sunrise and one for sunset.

 Being a stubborn lot, most serious photographers don’t like advice on where to shoot.  But when you’re unfamiliar with a place it is tempting to take this kind of simple advice – where to go and when – and run with it.  In traveling around the park, I soon realized that those subjects recommended for sunrise photography (such as Turret Arch) face east, while those that are supposedly good for sunset (such as Delicate Arch) are lighted by the setting sun.

Alone in the snow, a rock formation in the weird Goblin Valley of southern Utah.

Alone in the snow, a rock formation in the weird Goblin Valley of southern Utah.

Obviously the Park Service thinks we should all photograph the Arches’ wonders in front-light only.  But they aren’t the only ones.  Many similar lists that pop up during web searches are identical in their simplistic assumption of desired lighting.  There is an implicit assumption that it’s important to avoid shooting into the sun or even at much of an angle to it.  Of course this is silly advice.  You do want to shoot into the sun at times.  You do want to shoot at an angle to the sun. You do want to throw subjects into silhouette at times, etc. etc.

Light snowfall during the day brought something to shoot during an otherwise gray hike in the desert.

Light snowfall during the day brought something to shoot during an otherwise gray hike in the desert.

There are a couple other problems with taking this sort of simplistic advice too much to heart.  First, you’ll be shooting, almost by definition, what nearly everyone else is shooting.  I’m not saying you won’t get nice shots at popular spots if the light is good, and  I don’t completely eschew these over-shot subjects anyway (see top image).  But unless you do something different at those locations your shots will be part of a huge group of near-identical pictures.  

The second problem is more subtle.  Traveling around a place like Arches hitting all these recommended spots at the “right” times squelches exploration and creativity.  If you want to find your own unique compositions you need to explore on your own with no preconceptions in mind regarding where to go shooting and when.  I think you need to do mostly do things in this more challenging way in order to develop your own style.  

Molly's Castle near Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.

Molly’s Castle near Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.

What I suppose I’m saying is that the question of what to shoot and when can be answered by this simple encouragement:  go find out.  When I say go I mean it in its traditional sense.  You’re not “going” to the web or “going” to an article in a magazine, or even “going” to a trusted blog (hehe!).  You’re using your motorized conveyance of choice and then your own two feet to go find out.

Though I believe in it 100%, the above paragraph still seems to be a bit of a cop-out on my part.  So in the second part of this post, I’ll go into more detail.  I will pass on some tips on how to get started on the process of finding out what and where to shoot and when.  I should mention I already did a blog post on photo trip planning, so it’s not as though I don’t believe in planning ahead.  But this post’s next part will dive more into on-the-ground decisions and using recommendations and your planned itinerary wisely, not as a crutch.  Tune in next Friday for that (I promise)!

What self-respecting photographer would waste light like this on just a random, unremarkable place out in the desert?  This photographer.

What self-respecting photographer would waste light like this on just a random, unremarkable place out in the desert? This photographer.

Corona Arch   Leave a comment

This is an arch in southeastern Utah that lies not far from the Colorado River.  It is a very beautiful arch, appearing as “Little Rainbow Bridge” on some maps.  This is because it resembles the much larger but similarly shaped Rainbow Bridge near Lake Powell.  It’s funny, but the BLM (Federal agency governing range land) has signs warning people not to try to repeat the antics of rock-climbers who’ve apparently posted videos of their friends swinging from the arch.  When I visited the span I saw that it was quite easy (for a rock-climber at least) to rig up a sort of rope swing over the arch.  The background scenery is spectacular, so it’s no wonder some of the videos went viral.

Corona Arch in Utah

Corona Arch in Utah

I had my own little “extreme” adventure there, making an unplanned loop out of what should have been an easy, out and back 3-mile hike.  I mistakenly followed the railroad tracks, ending up well below the arch.  I had to make some rock-climbing moves just to get back up to the trail.  The weather was clear and the sun rose quickly. Despite the delay I arrived at Corona in time to get some shots as the sun was just hitting the arch.

The thing I found cool about the arches (it has a companion, smaller Bowtie Arch) was that the railroad passes right by them.  The rail line, which services the potash mine and plant just downstream along the Colorado River, cuts through a narrow gorge in the towering red rock cliffs.  There are several places where significant blasting and clearing was necessary to get the railroad through.  This is extreme country to try and put a rail line in.  It was morning, before coffee.  When my body is forced to move at this time of day my mind wanders.  I imagined the railroad workers having fun with their dynamite, daily views of the arches that they probably grew tired of.

The settling ponds for the potash mine along the Colorado River near Moab are set off against a colorful sunset sky.

The settling ponds for the potash mine along the Colorado River near Moab are set off against a colorful sunset sky.

Then I began to imagine the uranium prospectors scrambling through this area, using the arch as a landmark.  I imagined the first white explorers. Perhaps John Wesley Powell saw the arch on a walk up from a Colorado River campsite.  The arch isn’t visible from the river, but Powell was not the type to miss things.  Then I imagined the Native Americans.  The Fremont or the Navajo coming into the country from the north and seeing this arch, which the native Pueblo people had known about for a long time.

As you can see I had some time to ponder all this while trying to figure out how to ascend up to the level of the arch.  I did eventually make it, and gratefully walked back on the regular trail.  There are several cables and a ladder, plus footholds carved in the sandstone.  It’s funny to see all these aids (most of which aren’t really needed) when you’ve just pulled sketchy free-climbing manoeuvres.  I think I need to leave this place of cliffs, this region where Wile E. Coyote would feel at home – before I hurt myself!

Dusk along the Colorado upstream from Corona Arch.

Dusk along the Colorado upstream from Corona Arch.

Single-image Sunday: Survivor   5 comments

I like to post images on Sunday that dovetail from the previous Friday’s Foto Talk.  On Friday I wrote in part about not taking your photography so seriously that you forget about your own safety.  In other words, it was about survival.  And I can think of no better way to highlight the concept than to post this picture I took the other evening.  

At Deadhorse Point near Canyonlands National Park, Utah, this ancient, wind-battered Juniper tree has been standing here for a long long time.  It certainly has a grand view to admire, looking out over the canyon country carved by the Colorado River as it flows toward Cataract Canyon.  How many sunrises like this has it witnessed?  

You can see the small crack it grows from.  It’s roots can travel up to 100 feet or more to reach pockets of water which collect in the crevice during infrequent rain and snowmelt.  If you’re interested in purchase options for this image just click on it.  If you have any questions, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest and have a happy Sunday!

The Old Man

Sunrise from Deadhorse Point, southern Utah.  This image is copyrighted & not available for download without my permission.  Click on picture for purchase options.  Thanks for your interest!

Friday Foto Talk: Lessons from the Field   11 comments

The day begins in southern Utah's desert.

The day begins in southern Utah’s desert.

I had quite an eventful day yesterday.  I don’t normally spend a lot of time blogging about the goings-on in my life.  This isn’t reality television after all!  But I’m going to make an exception because of how the day unfolded as a cautionary tale for any nature photographers out there.  Amazingly enough, all three parts of my day (sunrise, mid-day and sunset) contain lessons relevant to photography.  It might be instructive to take a look at how yours truly sometimes does things, if only so that you might learn what not to do!

Lesson 1 – When to Challenge Yourself

This is something that was brought home to me while shooting sunrise yesterday.  I was camped at Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  It was my second visit.  As far as I know, the place is relatively unknown amongst photographers.  But I think it has a lot going for it.  Beautiful reddish & smooth sandstone with fascinating patterns overlooks a pretty canyon.  Atop this so-called slickrock lies a collection of white, mushroom-shaped sandstone monoliths, with views that include the La Sal Mountains.

On the first visit to Bartlett I was a bit late for the dawn light.  And having walked up to the white sandstone monoliths, I had trouble finding a good composition.  Even though it’s obviously an interesting place with plenty of photographic potential, it is also challenging.  The main trouble comes when trying to find good shooting positions (or points of view).  Some of the best compositions are found from atop the mushroom monoliths, but some of them are far from easy to climb.  And which one to climb?  It’s a bit confusing.

Dawn from the "mushroom monoliths" at Bartlett Wash.

Dawn from the “mushroom monoliths” at Bartlett Wash.

On the contrary, the reddish slickrock below is not only easier to get to, it is chock full of leading lines and other strong patterns.  It’s much more a gimme than the mushroom rock above.  So on this second visit, I told myself I would be early and make sure to shoot the reddish sandstone in the best light.  I woke early enough alright, but something made me go up to the mushroom rock.  I spent the time of best light up there, again getting frustrated looking for good compositions.  By the time I got around to the red slickrock the sun was well up and the light a bit harsh.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

I don’t know about you, but I often go for the more challenging photo  subjects, even when I know a more-certain option exists.  The red slickrock was there for the taking.  I saw plenty of strong compositions which don’t involve any real challenge; you just walk right up to them.

But here’s the thing: it’s not at all clear that it was worth the extra effort to bang my head (metaphorically) against the white mushroom rock.  It may or may not have yielded the best images at Bartlett.  But the fact that it’s more challenging up there drew me.  And so I missed good light in the more certain photographic terrain of the red slickrock.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Only you can decide which path you will take when presented with similar options during your shooting.  It may depend on your mood.  I don’t know if it’s very smart for me (a non-morning person) to pick the more challenging path for sunrise.  But without thinking about it that’s what I did.  You might be better able than me to see where the better pictures are to be had and go there without regard for challenge.

In fact, it makes more sense to save the more challenging terrain for a time without the extra stress of quickly passing dawn light.  The idea is to find the good composition at leisure and then return for it in good light.  That would be the logical way to do it.  Sometimes I am not the most logical person.  But I’m sure of one thing: the process of tackling challenging photographic subjects in quickly changing light can definitely make you a better photographer.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Lesson 2 – Be Prepared

This one isn’t tied directly to any photographs I took, but it’s certainly relevant to photography.  In mid-morning, after the sunrise shoot (see Lesson 1), I decided to do a short mountain bike ride at a place called Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  Or that was the plan, to play on the slickrock there for just an hour or so.  By the way, slickrock is smooth sandstone that is perfect for off-trail hiking and mountain bike riding.  The Moab, Utah area here is famous for it, but it occurs throughout the American desert southwest.

While riding, I became intrigued by the slickrock terrain on the other side of the wash from where I was riding.  Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, and the slickrock is always smoother!  Finished and back at the bottom, I saw a little sign I had not noticed, pointing to the area I had been curious about.  It said simply “3-D Jedi”.  I had not heard of that ride.  Bartlett was in my guidebook but not this one with the fascinating name.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

So instead of heading back as I should have done I biked up onto the slickrock.  I told myself I would just check out the first mile or so, but you know how that goes!  The thing is, since I was only out for a little bit, I didn’t bring any sun screen or sunglasses (the day started out cloudy).  I also didn’t bring a repair/patch kit or bike pump. And crucially, I had no map and no water.  Yep, you heard it right, I was out in the desert with no water.

Stupidly, I kept going..and going.  The ride turned into a 5 hour ordeal (I mean ride!).  Though I never saw another soul, a set of bike tracks was visible in places, plus sporadic rock cairns marked the route.  So I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting lost.  I kept wanting to head back but the thought (hope?) that I was riding a loop kept me going. For over a mile the “trail” skirted a narrow ledge with a truly dizzying drop on one side.  Needless to say I walked my bike on the narrowest parts.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

When the route finally descended onto more great slickrock and dropped onto a jeep track, I saw my first sign at a junction.  Though the sign didn’t say 3-D or Jedi, I guessed the left fork would lead me back to where I came from.  Deep sand had me pushing my bike for a good while, and the sun came out in force.  I was THIRSTY!  Then my luck turned: I saw a sign that said 3-D with an arrow pointing ahead.

When the sandy jeep track crested a ridge I recognized the canyon.  I was back in Bartlett!  The surface grew firm and I raced down the twisting trail.  I had made it!  I almost attacked the water back at camp, and in fact had to rein myself in.  You can get very sick drinking too much water at one time.  It even has the potential to kill you.

Slickrock makes the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Slickrock makes for the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Lesson 3 – Go slow to go fast

You might have heard this expression before.  If you don’t take your time enough to do things right, even under stressful conditions when hurrying is important, you will pay the price.  You’ll spend much more time either fixing mistakes or regretting not having been more careful.  This was brought home to me during my sunset shoot yesterday.

After the big bike ride, I realized I had time to go somewhere for sunset.  I felt I had played Bartlett out, and it’s best for sunrise anyway.  There’s an area I also like near Moab, one that also doesn’t see photographers.  It’s great for sunset, with a grand view of the La Sal Mtns.  There is one hitch though – access.  You either need to do a rough 4WD jeep trail or hike in from the other side.

The hike up the wash toward my sunset spot.

On the hurried hike up the wash toward my sunset spot, I paused just once for this shot.

The hike (which takes about an hour) goes up a canyon.  Then you need to climb out of the canyon up onto the rim.  There are only a couple reasonable routes, the rest being cliffs.  I explored this area awhile back for the first time.  When I started out sunset was 55 minutes away, so I was in a hurry.

Almost at the top, I glanced over to the La Sals and saw beautiful light beginning to hit them.  There was one more 10-foot ledge to scramble up, and I was determined not to miss the light.  I stepped on a huge block of sandstone that I should have been suspicious of.  It shifted and came smashing down on my ankle.  I wrenched my leg away just in time then came a mad dash for safety as the huge rock began rolling.  Luckily it didn’t go far and I was able to get out of the way.

I lay there on my back in some pain.  Looking up into the sky I saw the clouds turning orange and pink.  But suddenly that didn’t matter.  I gingerly rotated my ankle.  Amazingly it seemed okay.  The real test came when I got up and put weight on it.  Yes!  It seemed to be only bruised and cut.  To shorten the story, I made it to the spot I had in mind and got some nice shots (bottom).  After the sun set I made my way down.  Though I had my headlamp, it’s somewhat nerve-wracking to pick your way down a steep rocky descent in the dark.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it's like to still be on the edge as darkness falls.  Car headlights trace the park road.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it’s like to still be on the edge as darkness falls. Car headlights trace the park road.

That night as my ankle swelled up, I thought about how stupid I had been.  Go slow to go fast!  It’s even more important advice when the light is pushing you to hurry. Though it’s important not to waste time getting set up (the light won’t wait after all), over-hurrying often results in mistakes that show in your pictures.  Bad photos are one thing; always remember that much bigger disasters are possible when you’re in a big rush.

So think about what you’re doing when out photographing nature.  It’s a real excursion, and you are the only one responsible for your safety.  Go prepared.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  Take your time.  It’s important to come back with the best pictures possible.  But it’s even more important to come back!

Thanks for sticking with this long post.  If you’re interested in any of these images (which are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission), please contact me.  Click on any of the pictures to go to my galleries.  Thanks for your interest.  By the way, my ankle is sore but just fine.

The view from "almost broken ankle point" in Utah.

The view from “almost broken ankle point” in Utah.

Life in the Universe VI: Space, the Desert & Exoplanets   8 comments

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

Space is on my mind here in the deserts of southern Utah.  It isn’t so much that when the sun goes down in the desert the stars shine brightly.  It is the very nature of the desert itself.  The way small clusters of people and houses seem to occur randomly with huge empty spaces between them reminds me of the scarcity of life in an immense void.

And during this time of year at least, the way the temperature drops so quickly at night and rises almost as quick in the morning reminds me of being on an airless planet where the nearby star’s light brings intense heat during the day and biting cold at night.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones.  On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones. On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

This is an ongoing series on my blog, believe it or not.  Like space, there are long journeys involved in going from one post to the next in the series.  The last installment, Part V, began to explore the question of life outside the solar system by highlighting the indomitable Carl Sagan.  Part IV discussed the search for life within our own solar system.  This part will continue to explore the idea of life out in the universe as a whole – a challenging subject I admit I’ve been avoiding.

The question that I posed to begin, the one which underpins the meaning of this series, is explained in Part I.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the big sky.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the broad skies.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Quest for Exoplanets

Humans have found over 1000 planets outside our own solar system to date, with well over 3000 potential candidates.  In typical parochial fashion, we call these extra-solar worlds exoplanets.  The Kepler space telescope is one of the finest tools we have in the quest to find exoplanets.  It explores a constellation-sized area of the Milky Way Galaxy near Cygnus, the Swan (aka the Northern Cross).

Kepler continuously monitors the brightness of more than 145,000 stars.  It looks for a slight dimming in brightness indicative of a planet crossing between earth and the star. Think of trying to detect the dimming of a bright streetlight a mile away when a moth flies in front of it and you have the idea.

To find exoplanets, astronomers have traditionally used the slight wobble of a star that occurs when an orbiting planet tugs on it.  This gives us good information on the sizes of the planets, along with how close they orbit to their host stars.  More recently the Spitzer space telescope has detected, for the first time, actual light coming from an exoplanet.  This is key.  In order to find out anything about the surfaces of these worlds we need to examine the light bouncing off them or skimming through their atmospheres.  Spitzer and some ground-based telescopes can do the former while Kepler is uniquely suited for the latter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Candidates for Life

Most of what we’ve found thus far have been very massive exoplanets the size of Jupiter and larger.  Many of these “hot Jupiters” orbit very close to their stars, closer even than our own Mercury.  As our techniques get more refined and as more time goes by (allowing the wobble method to work on exoplanet candidates orbiting further from their stars), we are finding more and more planets that are close to the size of Earth.

Crucially, we are now finding planets that orbit their stars at a distance which allows liquid water to exist.  This orbital distance, which in our solar system essentially extends from Venus to Mars, is the “habitable zone”, also known as the Goldilocks Zone. Combining these two factors that are relevant to the search for earth-like life (the planet’s size and distance to its parent star), we have found to date 12 earth-like exoplanets.

The size and brightness of the host star makes a big difference in how close a planet can orbit and still be cool enough for liquid water and possible life.  We have found only one earth-sized, rocky planet thus far (Gliese 581-g), and happily this planet orbits about the same distance from its star as earth does from the sun.  But there are two problems.  First, Gliese 581 is a much smaller and cooler star than the sun.  So its habitable zone, where water may exist, is presumably much closer in.  Gliese 581-g still would orbit within it, but depending on the shape of its orbit it may get too hot for liquid water.

There’s a much bigger potential problem, however.  The very existence of Gliese 581-g is disputed by some astronomers.  Its discovery is somewhat clouded and controversial.  Confirmation of Gliese 581-g may take some time.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

An exoplanet called Kepler 22-b is also interesting.  The Kepler space telescope caught it passing in front of its star on just the third day of the spacecraft’s operation.  Though 22-b is some 2.5 times bigger than Earth, its parent star is very similar to the Sun (G type).  Also, 22-b orbits at an average distance very similar to Earth’s, and so its year is similar to ours.  The only problem with Kepler 22-b is that we know so little about it.  For instance, we don’t know how elliptical its orbit is.  If it is highly elongated (as most explanets’ orbits are) it might spend part of its year very very close to the star and part very far away.  Earth’s orbit is nearly circular.

The closest potentially habitable exoplanet to us is Tau Ceti-e, only 12 light years away.  That is still much too far for us to visit in anything close to a human lifetime, so we need to temper our enthusiasm.  Also, Tau Ceti-e is yet another unconfirmed exoplanet.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park as Venus sets.

Are We on the Right Track?

You might be questioning the importance of looking for exoplanets that are earth-like, orbiting sun-like stars at earth-like distances.  You might wonder why we don’t also look for life forms that aren’t anything like ours, life that perhaps does not rely on water or based on carbon.  Also you might notice that we always speak of planets.  We know from the search for life within our own solar system that the moons around planets are in some cases better candidates for life than are the planets themselves.  Finally, life in the cosmos may in some cases be decoupled from planets or moons, living instead in space, perhaps close to large energy sources (such as quasars).

You’re right to question.  Definite biases exist in the search for extraterrestrial life.  To some extent they are unavoidable.  But consider two facts: First, it is easiest to look for earth-like planets and life.  And this is not an easy enterprise to begin with.  Second, our sort of life is all that we know for certain can exist.  Again, it is hard enough to look for our type of life trillions of miles away let alone other types.  These sound like excuses for our bias, but there it is.

And so the hunt continues for exoplanets that are candidates for earth-like life.  Based on the Kepler space telescope’s findings, astronomers estimate that perhaps as many as 20% of the sun-like stars in the our galaxy have habitable planets orbiting them.  This is a stunning estimate because it suggests that there are nearly 9 billion habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.  If even a tiny percentage of these planets have developed intelligent life, then we have plenty of company in our galaxy. 

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

 

 

 

 

 

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