Archive for February 2016

Friday Foto Talk: Subjective vs. Objective, Part II   6 comments

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

This is the second of two parts on how to approach your photo subjects.  Check out Part I for an introduction to this fairly subtle but important topic.  Thinking about how you tell the story of your subjects is a key step in any serious photographer’s journey.  The reason why I’m not calling this “literal” vs. “abstract” or “interpretive” is that it’s a much more subtle distinction than that.  Now let’s look at a few specific examples.

Example 1:  Fall in Colorado

Last autumn I traveled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, which is my current favorite for fall colors.  The image at top is an objective take.  It’s a level-on, standard composition.  It’s shot in good but not unusually awesome light.  I zoomed in to exclude more of the same.  I’m just trying to show the mountains and trees being their spectacular selves.

In the shot below, I zoomed in again, focusing on the contrast between the golden aspen and green spruce trees, all set off against new-fallen snow.  It’s somewhere between objective and subjective.  The light is flat and there is mist in the air, perfect for showing colors and textures.  The composition excludes all but the trees, giving it even more objectivity.

Fall color and the season's first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

Fall color and the season’s first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

 

However, the photo is partly subjective because of its focus on the snow.  It shows the transition from fall to winter.  I feel pretty strongly that transitions are the most interesting photo subjects.  So this overlap of seasons, common to mountains, naturally attracted me.  That’s a subjective viewpoint and one that plenty of people share.  I timed my trip in part to see this transition.  I also knew that most other photographers, who time their visits for the peak of fall color, had come and gone.

Towards the end of autumn, I was in the far west of the state poking around the Colorado River.  I found an off-trail route to some bluffs overlooking the river, with beautiful cottonwoods lining the banks.  Being late fall, clear cold nights caused dense fog to form each morning along the river.  The fog combined with the viewpoint shooting downward gave me the chance to abstract the form of the trees, which being cottonwoods were still in full leaf.  I think in our enthusiasm for fall color we often lose sight of the beautiful forms, which is one reason why I like going post-peak when leaves begin to fall, revealing the ‘bones’ of the trees.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in the fog.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in dense fog along the Colorado River near Fruita, CO.

 

Now for two examples from a recent stay in one of my favorite places in the world, Death Valley National Park in the California desert:

Example 2: Wildflower Bloom

Winter rains from the current El Nino have led to a great bloom of wildflowers in Death Valley this year.  Some are calling it a “super-bloom”.  I’m not too sure about that.  We’re already calling nearly every full moon a “super-moon”.  But you can’t deny that the flower display is unusual this year and certainly worth photographing.

One subjective take on it is fairly obvious.  Death Valley is well named.  It’s an arid and hot place with sparse life adapted to the harsh waterless conditions.  When colorful flowers burst forth literally overnight from the dusty-dry desert floor (and later die off, just as suddenly, after going to seed), it’s hard to avoid thinking about themes of renewal, impermanence, and the yin-yang of life and death.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

The image above highlights this subjective view of the bloom.  A fairly narrow aperture helped, but increasing the camera-subject distance relative to the subject-background distance did even more to give the cracked desert floor a prominent role in the image.  Otherwise with the macro lens it would’ve been too blurred.

I also did a few objective close-ups, with defocused and indistinct background (image below).  This was to highlight the flowers for their objective qualities.  After all they’re vibrant and colorful no matter where they happen to bloom.

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA.  Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/250 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

 

Example 3: Pupfish Pools

I’ve been to Death Valley National Park a bunch of times but have never really focused on pupfish and their habitats.  Pupfish are small, active little fish that resemble guppies.  They are evolutionary left-overs from Ice Age times when enormous lakes filled the valleys here.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manley.  Through the millennia, as Lake Manley slowly dried up, the few surviving fish split into separate species that now live in spring-fed perennial pools and small streams scattered around the region.

The species of pupfish here are all endemic.  Endemic means they live nowhere else, and because of that they’re quite rare and protected by U.S. law.  Pupfish are also quite the cute little guys!  They’re named for their playful antics.  But if you look closely you can see the scars.  What looks like play is actually aggressive territorial behavior.  Their small size and active movements make pupfish difficult to photograph, at least without getting into the water with them (which is illegal of course).

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

I can’t think of the wetlands where pupfish live without imagining what things were like when Lake Manley existed.  It was filled with fish and other life which attracted huge flocks of birds and other animals (including humans, scattered bands of hunter-gatherers living along the lakeshore).  Today’s pupfish pools can in a way be thought of as windows into that distant time.

These ideas have a way of influencing photography in a subjective and often unconscious way.  In the image above (which also appears in a previous post), I drew close to the deep blue pool, shooting to capture the steam rising over the warm water on a frosty morning.  I furthered the slightly mysterious nature of the image with editing on the computer.

The largest spring-fed pool in Death Valley: Saratoga Springs.

In the next image (above), I got close to the ubiquitous reeds lining the wetlands and set them in stark contrast with the deep blue water.  I consider this one partly subjective because it almost looks as if it’s not really a desert environment, like it could be part of ancient Lake Manley.  That was really luck.  During that trip early spring storms moved through the area, filling the springs and decorating the high Panamint Range with snow.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

When I shot the image above I was observing the pupfish.  I decided to get subjective in an abstract way and used camera movement to impart the feel of being there.  I was surrounded by reeds taller than I am, waving in the breeze.

I wasn’t purely interpretive though.  I captured a few documentary (objective) shots of the springs as well as the fish themselves (mostly getting frustrated by the little scamps!).  For the last photo at bottom, I climbed up a nearby hill at sunrise and used a wider angle in order to show the springs in their desert surroundings.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

 

Let me know what you think.  How important is this to you?  Do you mostly have an objective or subjective approach to photography?  Or something in between?  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park.

Wordless Wednesday: Sunset Paddle   Leave a comment

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Abstract   12 comments

Since I’ve been shooting a few more abstracts recently I thought I’d join in on this week’s travel theme.  The theme appears on Ailsa’s blog Where’s My Backpack?  Hope you enjoy!

Algae releasing oxygen for us to breathe during photosynthesis in a meltwater pond at Mt. St. Helens.

Algae releasing oxygen for us to breathe during photosynthesis in a meltwater pond at Mt. St. Helens.

Springwater collects in a small canyon at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Springwater collects in a small canyon at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

A burned lodgepole pine forest in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

A burned lodgepole pine forest in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Canyon scene reflected in a stream, southern Utah.

Canyon scene reflected in a stream, southern Utah.

Agave in Mexico is backlit by a setting sun.

Agave in Mexico is backlit by a setting sun.

Banded sandstone appears to flow at The Wave in southern Utah.

Banded sandstone appears to flow at The Wave in southern Utah.

Fine clay at the bottom of the amazing Utah slot canyon Buckskin Gulch.

Fine clay at the bottom of the amazing Utah slot canyon Buckskin Gulch.

Posted February 20, 2016 by MJF Images in Nature Photography, Photography

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Friday Foto Talk: Subjective vs. Objective, Part I   3 comments

Morning breaks at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

Most of my Friday Foto Talk posts treat fairly standard photography topics.  This week I’d like to say something about subject interpretation.  This is the first of two parts.  This week we’ll look at basic ideas plus tips, then next week dive into real-world examples and ways to shoot.  Check out the images here for examples as well.  Click on them to go to the relevant gallery page.

So how do you approach your subject?  Do you approach it in a literal or objective way?  Or is your take more subjective, even abstract?  I’m not only talking about literal vs. abstract interpretations.  Those two approaches are far out on the extreme ends of the continuum.  Instead I’m speaking more generally.  It boils down to choice:

  • You can either (A) decide how you feel about a subject (or what you think it represents) and shoot that; or (B) try to exclude your own feelings or biases from your photos, being as objective as possible.
  • If you decide on option (A) you have more choices.   How much subjective bias will you allow into the photos?  And for subjects that you’re of two (or more) minds about, which one will inform the images?  Do you want your biases to be just barely recognizable?  Or will the subject represent your ideas while being clearly defined on its own?  Do you want the subject to be nearly or completely subsumed in an abstract?
This great egret hunting breakfast I photographed and edited in a way to capture the quiet, dimly lit and closed-feeling atmosphere of Big Cypress Preserve, Florida.

This great egret hunting breakfast I photographed and edited in a way to capture the quiet, dimly lit and closed atmosphere under the enormous trees of Big Cypress Preserve, Florida.

From the same morning, a more objective take on a black-crowned night heron who survived an encounter with an alligator.

From the same morning, a more objective take on a black-crowned night heron who survived an encounter with an alligator.

  • You may ask “isn’t bias and subjectivity inevitable, no matter how much we try to avoid it?”  We all know the answer to that is yes.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of it and do something to either limit it or give it free rein.
  • Whether you approach things in a subjective or objective way is the same as deciding whether to shoot at f/22 or f/2.8, or which lens to use.  It’s an artistic choice, your choice.  There is no right or wrong.  You can even shift approaches in the middle, later deciding on the image that resonates best with how you want viewers to see the subject.
  • If you’re photographing a person, she may have some ideas on how you should interpret your subject.  Okay let’s be real: she probably has strong and definite ideas, and may not your attempts at getting all “artsy fartsy”, using her as a guinea pig.
A village boy from northern India gazes at me with what my subjective mind takes as a degree of hostility

A village boy from northern India gazes at me with what my subjective mind takes as a degree of hostility

This smiling young Mayan woman from the Guatemalan highlands I shot after having some laughs with she and her friend.  Sort of the opposite of the above image.

This smiling young Mayan woman from the Guatemalan highlands I shot after having some laughs with she and her friend. Sort of the opposite of the above image.

A candid image of a couple Nicaraguan Vaqueros.  Candids can be more objective, without the biases of the relationship between photographer and subject.

A candid image of a couple Nicaraguan Vaqueros. Candids can be more objective, without the biases of the relationship between photographer and subject.

This is admittedly a subtle photography topic.  But I think it’s an important one.  In thinking about it, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind regarding a common theme in this blog; ignore the noise.

  • Word-noise:  Let’s face it; there’s a lot of opinion in photography today (just read my blog!).  So-called experts constantly admonish you to shoot what a subject feels like, not what it looks like.  Or they urge you to find quasi-abstract lines and patterns in the scene and turn them into leading lines and other devices to capture and maintain the viewer’s attention.  There is nothing wrong with that advice, that is until it becomes prescriptive; always do this.
  • Image-noise:  In popular photography today there seems to be a bias toward processing techniques and gear.  Even the photographers themselves often take center stage.  Or at least that’s the impression you get from reading the (often long) captions.  Images sometimes seem to be designed not around the subject but as a way to showcase the skills and adventurous spirit of the person with the camera.  I wouldn’t mind any of this so much if it didn’t force the subject to take a back seat.

 

How much more objective could I be about this ripe durian presented me by the grower on Flores.

How much more objective could I be about this ripe durian presented me by the grower on Flores.

A hike to the top of a mountain on the island of Flores, Indonesia revealed a strange juxtaposition, and allowed me to symbolize the odd fact that a Catholic island lies in the middle of a Muslim country.

A hike to the top of a mountain on the island of Flores, Indonesia revealed a strange juxtaposition, and allowed me to symbolize the odd fact that a Catholic island lies in the middle of a Muslim country.

  • Remember that the subjects you choose and how you photograph them is completely up to you.  The nature of your subject, how the light is hitting it, even how you feel at the time, all of that is more important than any recipe for taking great photos you may read about or see beautiful examples of.  Also remember you can always take good advice without feeling compelled to always do it that way.
  • I implied above that a focus on post-processing is just ‘noise’.  That’s not completely fair or accurate.  Post-processing is part of the..er, process of subject interpretation.  But I don’t think it’s as important as the capture stage, especially with respect to your choices regarding the subject.   Also, I think what you do on the computer should flow naturally from your approach during capture.  If you’re doing one thing during capture and the complete opposite during editing, it becomes much more difficult to create a good image.Tune in next time for specific examples of this at work.  Happy weekend all!

The layers of a sunset made me use longer exposure and composition to show that more than the actual beach and surf.

Two for Tuesday: How to Avoid a Sunset   1 comment

16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100, camera movement.

16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100, camera movement.

Unlike many photographers, I don’t think subjects like the sunset or a rainbow are necessarily cliche’.  But they can easily dominate a composition, and it’s that which can get tiresome.  The Milky Way has become exactly the same way in recent years.  But with that said, I do get tired of shooting toward the setting sun.

On a recent afternoon at the beach, after photographing a sail boat in front of the lowering sun (already posted for Wordless Wednesday), I set up to capture the color, which as usual was concentrated toward the west.  But when I put the wide-angle lens on and found some interesting foreground rocks, instead of shooting a standard composition, I started messing around.

The first shot is actually an accident.  I was experimenting with camera movement but ended up not liking any of the results.  Then a big wave came in and I had to quickly grab the tripod and raise it above my head to save my camera from a dousing.  I left the rocks then, not wanting to push my luck (plus I was soaked).  Later when checking out the images I liked this last one the best.

The second picture was well after sunset, when palm trees framed the crescent moon.  The sun was long gone but was still coloring the horizon and high clouds.  It’s a twilight image, but not too long of an exposure, because of the need to keep the moon sharp.

The first image is the kind of thing that happens accidentally but only to those who are giving luck and chance an opportunity.  The second picture is the kind I really like, not only because it happens after other photographers have gone, but because it’s only possible with patience and faith that the show isn’t really over.

70 mm., 1.0 sec. @ f/8, ISO 1250.

70 mm., 1.0 sec. @ f/8, ISO 1250.

Friday Foto Talk: Showing the Wind   8 comments

Spring flowers and a windy morning in Oregon.

Spring flowers and a windy morning in Oregon.

I was out of touch yesterday, spending the whole day on the beach in Southern California.  But I decided early on that Friday Foto Talk posts can be plus or minus one day.  Not long ago in a post on sand dunes, I showed an image captured during a windstorm.  That gave me the idea for a post on how to “show the wind”.

I get pretty excited about showing something that is considered impossible to see in a still image.  Moving water is fairly easy, but the wind?  It’s invisible after all.  Here’s how I approach the challenge:

  • Anytime it’s windy I try to avoid lens changes to keep the inevitable dust from getting inside the camera.  Choose a lens that will work for the shots you want and stick with it.  If you break down and change lenses, try to find some shelter and do it quick!  Also realize you’ll likely need to clean your sensor after a windy outing or two.
  • Showing the wind is all about showing its effects.  Blowing branches, spray, snow, etc., it can all be used as a proxy for the wind.
Hiking to a high viewpoint gave me a chance to show the patterns of winds sweeping across Lake Crescent, Washington.

Hiking to a high viewpoint gave me a chance to show the patterns of winds sweeping across Lake Crescent, Washington.

  • As with water, I often use a shutter speed that either freezes or blurs movement.  Sometimes you have to search for a medium shutter speed that will make the blowing subject more visible.  Blowing rain or snow can be like this.

Owen’s Valley, California

  • For blurring movement, a subject that forms a strong contrast with the background will create a naturally stronger composition.  Look for contrasts in texture, shape, and especially color.  You don’t want your blowing subject to be too subtle to notice at first glance.
  • It can be harder to show the wind’s effects by freezing movement (see image below).  My advice here is to give your imagination some rein and experiment with different shutter speeds.  Then choose the image that best shows the moment, whether that’s the drama of high winds or the feel of a gentle breeze.
The tail end of a rare snowstorm in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park offered the chance to shoot the bluster and spindrift.

The tail end of a rare snowstorm in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park offered the chance to shoot the bluster and spindrift.

  • Using blowing wind as a supporting subject is also a great idea.  Say you already have a strong subject, for example a person or animal standing firm, facing the wind (as in the image below).  Then you can allow the background effects to show the wind.  In this case you may be limited to a relatively faster shutter speed because of the need for a live subject that is sharp (they move a little even when it doesn’t seem that they are).

This image from Botswana has been posted before, but it shows the intensity of a duststorm so graphically here it is again.

  • Finally, strong winds can cause stability problems.  If you’re using slow shutter speeds, trying to let some elements blur while keeping others sharp, you’ll need either to hang a weight from the center post (if your tripod has a hook) or use a heavy duty tripod.  If on the other hand you’re shooting with a fast shutter speed to freeze movement, then be free and work without a tripod.

The next time it’s windy, instead of wishing for calm, get out and shoot to show the wind in all its glory.  Hope you’re having a great weekend and happy shooting!

A California sunset with the Channel Islands and blowing sea-spray.

Sunset the other day over the Pacific, with blowing sea-spray and the Channel Islands offshore: Southern California

Wordless Wednesday: Sail Away   6 comments

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Posted February 10, 2016 by MJF Images in Photography

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Single-image Sunday: The Super Bowl!   7 comments

It’s Super Sunday!  That day when nearly everyone in America gets together with friends or goes to sport pubs and watches the last two football teams standing duke it out for the championship.  It’s also the day when everybody overeats and quite a few drink too much.  This year it’s the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers.  The storyline is that Peyton Manning, the veteran quarterback who owns most important records for that most important position, is likely retiring after this game.  And even if he decides to stay one more year, this is almost certainly his only chance to go out on top.

Peyton has been one of the best QBs to ever play the game, but his skills have diminished somewhat because of age and a devastating injury to his neck 5 years ago.  He still has what it takes from the neck up, but arm strength is not what it used to be.  His counterpart on the other side is the complete opposite of Manning in every respect.  Carolina’s Cam Newton is young, just coming into his own.  He is the odds-on favorite for most valuable player this year.  He runs and passes with devastating effectiveness (most QBs do not run much).

Newton is 6 feet 5 inches and 260 pounds, an unusual size for a QB and a nightmare to bring down.  He’s capable of running over a linebacker on one play and then throwing the ball on a rope into the end zone on the next.  His personality couldn’t be more different than Peyton’s, with his old-school business-like manner on the field.  Cam dances and plays to the crowd, and obviously loves the camera.  He’s gregarious and demonstrative, and this rubs some fans the wrong way.

Newton is also black, and while there have been plenty of black QBs in the NFL for years, it still seems to be an issue for some.  I think his dancing and other antics are absolutely no big deal.  It’s not my style, but I’m not him and you can’t argue with the way he plays.  As long as he doesn’t taunt the opposite team (and he doesn’t), I really don’t care how much he dances.  Others are really bothered by his style and personality, and some commenters point to race as the reason for this.  I don’t believe that either.  Other than the relative few but typically noisy outright racists, I think most of the criticism of Newton arises from an age/personality conflict.  Peyton, by the way, is white.

A bronco throws a panter, I mean a buckaroo! Small-town rodeo, eastern Oregon.

A bronco throws a panter, I mean a buckaroo! Small-town rodeo, eastern Oregon.

My team is out of it, but I’m definitely rooting for a team.  Can you guess from the photo which team?  I’m like many fans outside Carolina in that I want to see Peyton go out with a Super Bowl ring.  Also, the Panthers are favored and I normally go for the underdog.  Finally, the Broncos are a western team, and I’m a western boy.  In order to win, most agree the Broncos will need to run the ball well, play stellar defense, and not turn the ball over.  Peyton will also need to have a near-perfect day.  Carolina has a strong balanced team and can run the ball well.  Denver’s defense has been the league’s best for most of the year.  It will probably need to force two or more turnovers in order to win.

Okay, let the game begin!  Go Broncos!

 

 

Friday Foto Talk: Video Likes & Dislikes   11 comments

Saratoga Springs surprises with so much water in such a dry desert.

Happy Friday!  Here’s another installment of Likes/Dislikes, where I give my totally personal opinion on a trend or issue in photography.  I want to do a series on videography soon, so why not preview that by taking a subjective look at video?  I have so many still images from recently at Death Valley, so forgive me if I share them instead of videos.  So here we go!

LIKE:  The ability to shoot video on most cameras today has changed the way we use our cameras.  I love being able to just switch modes from still to live action on a whim.

DISLIKE:  There is an explosion in photographers switching over to making videos.  It’s trendy, which for me is a reason to view it with some skepticism.  I realize most photographers shoot video simply because it adds profit, and that’s perfectly fine.  But it’s a lousy reason to create something artistic.

Abstract of the reeds reflecting in Saratoga Springs, home of those cute pupfish!

Abstract of the reeds reflecting in Saratoga Springs, home of those cute pupfish!

LIKE:  When they’re well done, nature videos are quite educational, even inspiring.  They’re similar to the best of that series Planet Earth.  Videos that feature humans can be eye-opening as well.

DISLIKE:  I have a confession.  I don’t like most videos I see.  I’m not sure of the total reason, but part of it is explained in the next Dislike.  For example, nearly all time-lapse videos bore the heck out of me (probably in the minority there).  When in school I really enjoyed being exposed to time-lapse for educational purposes.  Who doesn’t love seeing exactly how a flower blooms?  But most time-lapse goes for the wow as with still photography.  And it fails miserably.

Line and pattern: Ibex Dunes, Death Valley N.P.

Line and pattern: Ibex Dunes, Death Valley N.P.

LIKE:  Seeing good interesting action is such a different experience than viewing a still.  Good videos are engrossing.

DISLIKE:  When you view a still image you are in control of the experience.  You can look as long as you want and focus on different parts of the picture at your leisure.  Videos on the other hand, control the pace and duration of your viewing.  And before you even watch it you’re being told how long it is.  When the first thing I experience with imagery is the duration of the experience, the life can be sucked right out of it.

The pan near Saratoga Springs features unusually soft and puffy evaporite deposits.

LIKE:  The world is filled with wonderful sounds, and I’ve often lamented the inability to include it in a still image.  I want to create those greeting cards that play a short audio segment when you open the card.  That would be cool!

DISLIKE:  It’s hard to get sound right, even if you have a separate microphone and the gear to monitor and adjust audio.  To make things worse, humans seem to be in love with making noise.  Our world is now filled to the brim with noise pollution.

I can’t count the times I’ve been inspired to record sound in nature only to have Murphy’s Law strike!  I’ll get my microphone out to record some lovely bird call or the wind through tall grass.  And just before I press ‘play’ a plane suddenly drones overhead.  Recording audio at Yellowstone’s thermal features is near impossible without people talking.  You have to go late at night or hike to some off-trail thermal areas.

A desert five-spot blooms near Saratoga Springs.

A desert five-spot blooms near Saratoga Springs.

LIKE:  What about creating videos?  That can be fun and a nice change of pace.  It may even stoke your creativity.  There are several different variations, such as time-lapse and slow-motion.

DISLIKE:  Although shooting natural-time videos can be very enjoyable, making time-lapse videos is like watching paint dry.  You have to sit there with your camera clicking away, automatically taking shot after shot.  Boring!

Most time-lapse shooters do something else while the camera is doing its thing.  They snooze in their cars, look at their phones, and essentially disconnect with their subjects.  And as I mentioned above, I think viewing time-lapses isn’t much better than making them.

LIKE:  Moving pictures can tell you more about the subject than a still photo can.  For example it’s easy to see exactly how graceful a lynx is as it walks across the snow.  A still might hint at that grace, but it’s nothing compared to seeing it in action.

DISLIKE:  Videos can be either distracting or boring, often in the same video.  Sure you can eliminate distracting elements just as with a still image.  But it’s far easier to cut right to the point with a still.  A bad still is easy to ignore.  A bad video may get good, so you’re tempted to stick with it.   You often end up disappointed.

Please add your take on videos in the comments below.  Do you like doing them?  How about viewing?  Why?  Have a fantastic weekend of shooting you all!

Sunset colors over the Ibex dunes, Death Valley N.P.

Sunset colors over the Ibex dunes, Death Valley N.P.

Two for Tuesday: Forming Sand Dunes   14 comments

Recently I spent a few days at a dune field I’ve been wanting to photograph for quite some time.  With a great name (Ibex Dunes) and a fairly remote location in the far southern part of Death Valley National Park, California, they are a natural magnet for someone like me.  A bonus: nearby Saratoga Springs gives rise to a large wetland, attracting birdlife and hosting a number of endemic species, including pupfish.

I was there long enough to see a windstorm move through, out ahead of a big rain and snow storm that hit southern California this past week.  It was one of many this winter that are related to El Nino.  That gave me the idea to do a Two-for-Tuesday post.

Sand dunes are a bit like glaciers.  They move and evolve over time.  Glaciers are under the influence of gravity combined with year-on-year snow in their higher reaches.  The driver of a dune field is the wind combined with a steady supply of sand.

For the Ibex dunes, there is a large valley with fine sand and salty sediments west of a range of craggy peaks.  The prevailing winds are from the west, so they pick up that sand and essentially throw it up against the mountains.  Anywhere wind is forced by topography to change direction it slows down, potentially dropping it’s load of sand.

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Wind moves sand over the Ibex Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

The great thing about wind and sand dunes, at least for fans of texture and shape in nature, is that not only does the wind bring in new sand, but re-sculpting takes place as well.  Footprints are erased, ripples and ridges are sharpened, curves are smoothed.

In open terrain dunes move along, driven by the wind.  For the Ibex Dunes, eastward movement is arrested by the mountains.  But you can see how dunes have migrated up onto the alluvial fans and to the north (where with a decrease in sand supply, they are smaller and partly stabilized by vegetation).

If you get the chance to visit sand dunes in wind, don’t miss it.  The sand in your hair is a minor inconvenience compared to the opportunity to see dune formation in action.  Thanks for looking and happy shooting!

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

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