Archive for August 2016

Single-image Sunday: Frames   10 comments

Early morning in the Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness, New Mexico.

Early morning in the Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness, New Mexico.

It had been quite awhile since I’d used this simple technique, but recently I had a golden opportunity to use it.  Photographic frames (or frame within the frame) are actually more common than you might think.  But they’re usually much more subtle than this image shows, particularly natural frames.  I was inspired by this week’s Daily Post.  Check out many more examples over there at Frames.

Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness

I recently checked out an area that I’d been wanting to get to for awhile.  It’s in a fairly remote part of the western U.S. in northwestern New Mexico.  Just north of Chaco Canyon, it’s a protected area called the Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness.  It’s usually just called Bisti, which is a shortened translation of the Navajo word for adobe walls.  I like the second part of the name better.  It’s an exact rendering of the Navajo for cranes.  South of the wilderness are petroglyphs of cranes.  I love cranes and it’s a beautiful name for them, but with little time, I didn’t locate them on this trip.

 Landscape photographers have been coming here in increasing numbers, so you’ll see plenty of images online if you search.  But these are mostly shots of the interestingly shaped hoodoos (pinnacle-like rock formations), with the most popular being a large wing-shaped formation.  Of course I went for a different take, so explored the canyon floor and an area outside the main concentration of hoodoos.

Despite De Na Zi’s popularity I didn’t see another soul.  I got up very early to be out there at sunrise.  It can be difficult to know how to proceed when you first foray into an unfamiliar area.  And when you start out in the dark pre-dawn hours, it can even be quite disorienting.  This is what I was feeling as I hiked out there into the De Na Zi, still half-asleep.  But there was a moon so I soon got used to it and relaxed, enjoying the detached feeling and the solitude.  See the Extra below for some guidance on confidently heading out into unfamiliar lands to shoot.

I found this little arch just after sunrise.  The badlands beyond were receiving full sun while the grainy rock of the arch, inches from my camera, had just been touched by the sun.  I had to scramble up to it and it was a little precarious to position the tripod, but not too bad.  It was very quiet out there as the shadows gradually shortened and the sun rose, promising a hot August day ahead.  Thanks for looking!

EXTRA: Finding your Way

I don’t use a GPS while hiking & photographing.  Too much temptation to locate and find specific things instead of exploring for my own compositions.  Also I have a good sense of direction and rarely get truly lost.  The most important thing to possess, though, is the right attitude.  I don’t mind wandering around temporarily unaware of exactly where I am (I don’t call this lost).

But whenever I go hiking with others, I realize that most folks do mind not knowing where they are, and do call it being lost.  So for most people who want to go off-trail to find unique photo opportunities, I recommend a GPS.  Learn how to use it in a local park before trying it out in the wilderness.  Even for short forays away from the road, it’s nice to tag your parking location so you’re able to head straight back to the car, particularly if the sun has gone down.

Without GPS, I just keep track of my route using landmarks and position of the sun/moon/stars, occasionally turning around and studying the terrain.  So I’m normally confident of the general return direction.  It’s not as exact as a GPS, but terrain usually dictates an indirect route anyway (something that GPS users sometimes forget).  Even if you use a GPS, I suggest getting used to using landmarks and awareness of route direction relative to your parking spot, the direction the road runs, and the sun (or moon/stars if it gets dark).

Friday Foto Talk: Photography in National Parks, Part III   6 comments

Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.

This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks.  For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.

Closures & Budget

In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks.  Here is one more pair:

Like:  National parks are open all the time.  Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365.  That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them).  There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there.  Make sure to check their website before heading out.  A few of these exceptions are described below.

Dislike:  The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely.  They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized.  Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda.   While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.

For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be.  A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.

Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits.  I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger.  It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere.  It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill.  There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.

Orange lichen and sandstone in the Grand Staircase, southern Utah.

Exception 1:  Chaco Canyon.  

This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park.  In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk.  I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon.  I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

 

Exception 2:  Mesa Verde.  

Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco.  That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset.  The reason, as always, is to protect resources.  While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time.  The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Exception 3:  White Sands National Monument.

This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season.  It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge.  The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue.  But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night.  They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group.  But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES 

When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars.  Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall.  No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing.  The best light often comes after that.

I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark.  Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car.  A grace period won’t help in that case.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges.  These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration.  Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night.  And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds.  I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms.  Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.

But I often wish for a world without so many rules.  Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave.  But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it.  I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?

That’s it for this week.  I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all.  I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play.  But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking.  But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Single-image Sunday: Lifting Fog   6 comments

Fog lifts over the southern California coast ranges.

Fog lifts over the southern California coast ranges.

No Friday Foto Talk this week, sorry ’bout that.  I needed a little break.  Instead I’ll post an image from where I camped for several nights waiting for my vehicle to be worked on.  It’s in southern California, but inland from the coast in a southern extension of the San Bernadino Mountains.  It was cool up there, especially toward morning when the bright stars disappeared and dense fog rolled in just before sunrise.  It was a very consistent weather pattern.

A short time after the sun was up the fog would lift and begin to burn off.  This let in those beautiful beams of light called crepuscular rays, which illuminated the valley below.  Besides me the only others appreciating the show were the birds plus a few cows.  Much of the native vegetation above the valley floor is dry and brittle, with a golden hue reminiscent of fall.  California remains in a serious drought.

The shot is one of several that were difficult to choose from.  Together they show a progression of the fog lifting, from fairly dense fog to brilliant pale blue skies with clouds.  They were taken on different days but the weather conditions were virtually identical so they seem as if they were all from one morning.  This one captures the middle part of the process.

Thanks for looking!

Narrow   21 comments

A rare selfie in one of the narrow canyons of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

Time for a themed post: Narrow.  It’s this week’s WPC travel theme, so check out all the other entries.

ONEONTA GORGE

I’ll start out close to home: Oregon’s Oneonta Gorge.  Nowadays it is quite famous, but I recall a time when only locals knew about it.  In the warmer months hordes of people hike up the short narrows, wading through the cool water to escape the heat.  In just a half-mile or less your progress is halted by a tall waterfall, where you can climb up a short way and jump off into the pool below.  So refreshing!

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

My pictures of Oneonta, however, were all captured in the worst weather I could manage, normally winter or early spring.  The canyon is at its greenest and the mossy walls drip with tiny waterfalls.  At these times it is dangerous to go further than the log jam.  The water is deep and swift and believe me, you wouldn’t want to be swept under the logs.  They would be pulling your body out later.

These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.

These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.

Wading through the icy water of Oneonta Creek during a winter storm.

 

DEATH VALLEY

While most of the canyons in this amazing place are not the ultra-narrow slots common to the Colorado Plateau, the park does boast a plethora of narrow canyons to explore.  One of the most famous is Titus Canyon.  Most times you can drive this canyon.  You leave the park on the east side and then re-enter it by descending Titus, passing a ghost town along the way.  There are other canyons near Titus that represent great hiking destinations.  Just hike north from the parking lot at the mouth of Titus Canyon.

You can drive down one of Death Valley's largest canyons, Titus.

You can drive down one of Death Valley’s largest canyons, Titus.

For a canyon hike in Death Valley, the one I most often recommend is Marble Canyon.  Access it by driving the dirt road from Stovepipe Wells, passable in a 2-wheel drive car (but check at the ranger station).  Walking up-canyon, you soon reach the narrows, where canyon walls reach hundreds of feet into the sky.  On a hot day try pressing your whole body against the grey limestone canyon walls.  Definitely a cooling experience!  By continuing up-canyon you eventually come to the beautiful marble that it’s named for.  Most of the way you are passing through limestone, stacks and stacks of it piled into layers at the bottom of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.

Marble Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.

SLOTS of the COLORADO PLATEAU

Spreading across southern Utah, northern Arizona and part of Colorado is an enormous feature called the Colorado Plateau.  It is an uplifted landscape characterised by naked sandstone bedrock.  Known throughout the world for its iconic scenery, the plateau is dissected by countless canyons of all description.

The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.

The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.

The Grand Canyon is of course the biggest, but many are so narrow that you have to squeeze yourself through.  These are the famous narrow gorges called slot canyons.  They formed because, during the plateau’s uplift (at the same time as the Rocky Mountains rose), fractures developed much like a rising loaf of bread.  It is along these fractures that the slots have been eroded by a combination of freeze-thaw action and flowing water.

One of the biggest concentrations of slot canyons lies in Zion National Park.  Many of these are accessible to any adventurous hiker – for example the two most popular hikes: the Narrows and the Subway.  But some others require specialized equipment.  Being a popular national park, there are plenty of outfitters who will guide you safely through the technical slots.  If you’ve never done any canyoneering before, let me tell you: it’s a blast!

Zion Canyon from Angel's Rest.  The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.

Zion Canyon from Angel’s Rest. The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.

If you want to hike the Subway, I recommend either getting a permit way ahead of time or doing it off-season.  Permits are required April through October, so November is a perfect time to do it.  It’s not a short hike but anybody in good shape and with some experience should have no problem.

The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.

The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.

Yet it’s easy to get a feel for slot canyons without investing a lot of time.  Simply drive up to East Zion (beyond the tunnels), park at a likely spot and set off up one of the canyons, turning around at your whim (or when your way is blocked).  This is a great way to explore the park.

A side-canyon in East Zion, Utah.

To the east of Zion is another wonderland of slots: the Escalante country.  A drive down Hole in the Rock Road near the town of Escalante brings you to numerous hikes into the typically narrow tributary canyons of the Escalante River.  You don’t have to brave that long washboard road, however.  Get a good map and explore the numerous canyons accessible from Highway 12.

There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow:  southern Utah.

There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow: southern Utah.

Nearby Bryce Canyon, while not known for slot canyons, nevertheless has an amazing hike you should do if you visit.  It drops below the rim and wanders among the hoodoos (rock pinnacles) that make the park famous.  It’s like a maze of narrow passages, including one named Wall Street (image below).

Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park also has some amazing narrow canyon hikes.  One I can recommend hiking is the strangely-named Muley Twist Canyon.  Drive the Burr Trail Road (an adventure in itself) and near its summit you can hike either up- or down-canyon, exploring Muley Twist to your heart’s content.  A shorter canyon hike at Capitol Reef is Grand Wash, located at the end of the scenic drive (turn off at the Visitor Center).

The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.

The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.

Continuing east across the plateau you’ll find more fun canyons to explore in the Moab area, including Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  You could spend your whole life doing nothing but hiking canyons on the Colorado Plateau and never finish with them.  There are just so many.  It’s a true wonderland.  But be smart when you go canyon hiking.  Take the ten essentials plus a hiking partner (or at least let someone know where you’re going and when to expect your return).

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Thanks for looking!

Single-image Sunday: Morning at Colorado National Monument   14 comments

The early morning sun streams into Ute Canyon in Colorado National Monument.

This is an image from earlier in the summer that I reprocessed.  I wanted to bring out some of the drama of that June morning in Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction.  It was the proverbial ‘dark and stormy night’ when I camped near the monument boundary, high up to escape the heat of the valley floor.  It’s been a very hot summer in the American West.  I woke up a bit too late, assuming it would be a grey, cloudy sunrise.  But after examining the slowly brightening sky, I realized there was promise of clearing.  I didn’t waste any more time.

The monument occupies a spectacular place at the northern edge of the Colorado Plateau, where canyons cut deeply into the colorful sandstone, creating fascinating erosional forms.  I’d camped only 10 minutes or so from the canyon rim, so despite the late start I arrived before sunup.  I searched, somewhat frantically, for a good spot to shoot from.  This is the problem with sunrise.  If you don’t already have something scoped out from the day before, it’s difficult to find a spot in time for the good light.

Ever since my first trip here, I’d been wanting an image of Ute Canyon.  It’s sort of off the radar, mostly because it lacks the soaring rock pinnacles that the monument is known for.  But the canyon has a sort of magnetic draw for me, and it’s aligned toward the rising sun in summertime.  By the way you can hike up the canyon from below.  It makes a great overnight backpack.

I parked and worked my way along the canyon rim.  The sun rose and light was good, but I just got images that included the road.  I didn’t stop there because I know the presence of dramatic clouds like this can mean good shooting even well after sunrise.  I kept looking for a good spot, being careful around the cliff edge.   Just in time for the last of the warm light I found this natural viewpoint, a flat rock perched high above the canyon.

HOW THIS IMAGE WAS MADE

As the sun peeked through and light streamed into the canyon, I got a couple shots.  For this image, I used my 21 mm. lens. I wanted to get very close to the foreground rock to show the interesting lichen and impart a feeling of standing there.  So in order to get as much depth of field as possible, I had to focus stack.  So I shot one frame for the foreground and a couple more for the background and sky.

There was a lot of contrast in the scene, shooting toward a sun that had already risen.  So in addition to the focus stack I did a basic exposure stack as well.  In other words the shot for the sky was a shorter exposure so as not to blow it out.  Using Photoshop I merged the separate exposures for a final image that represents a single moment, despite the shots being some seconds apart.

I hope your weekend was a fun one.  Happy shooting!

Friday Foto Talk: Ethics & Photography in National Parks   6 comments

Chaco Canyon from Penasco Blanco, an out-of-the-way ruin requiring a hike to get to.  Being here at sunset means risking a ticket (see text below)

Last week I listed a few likes and dislikes of visiting and photographing in national parks.  All subjective of course.  When I say I dislike something, it means I dislike only the one thing.  Please don’t try to read anything more into it.  For example, in general I dislike crowds.  Not at ballgames, rock concerts, etc.; they’re a part of the experience at such places.  I certainly don’t begrudge the many people who love our parks and visit them.  I recognize that if crowds at parks are a problem then I’m a part of that problem.  It’s just that I can’t enjoy any natural area if it’s too crowded.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike short distances cross-country for different views.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike cross-country for different views and few people.

Pet Peeve #1: Littering

And speaking of crowds in parks, it can lead to other problems.  One of them, a big pet peeve of mine, is littering.  Strangely, the Park Service seems to do little to combat this problem.  For example the publication you get upon entering any park spends a lot of time warning of the dangers of bears, falling rocks or whatever hazards exist naturally (and obviously) in parks.  Especially bears, they seem completely fixated on bears.  But they say nothing about littering.  The park newsletter is the obvious place to mention the fact that littering is illegal and subject to a fine.

I believe the Park Service thinks the problem was beaten years ago.  Through the 1970s Americans began to litter a lot less.  We became much more environmentally aware in that era.  And increasing fines for littering didn’t hurt either.  But those days are gone now.  The younger generations tend to be less environmentally conscious than their parents.  In other words parents have dropped the ball in this way like so many others.

In addition (warning: this is going to sound politically incorrect), the immigrant population has been increasing.  While that isn’t a bad thing of course, many of them come from places where littering is socially acceptable (though that is now changing in certain parts of the world).  These people simply need to be educated, and for those of us who already know, we need to be reminded.  If anyone doesn’t get the message, break out the fines.  Money talks, in any language.  But the NPS isn’t doing any of this.  As a result we all get to see plastic water bottles and toilet paper strewn about in our national parks.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley, a great place to look for feral burros.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley.  Also within the park, it’s a great place to look for feral burros.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Pet Peeve #2: The Ugly Photographer

Notice I haven’t mentioned the sorts of behaviours that get spread all over social media these days: the idiots (let’s be honest) who approach dangerous animals or enter environmentally sensitive areas to get selfies.  While these kinds of things are certainly damaging (not least to our collective self-respect!), I think they are still pretty rare.  So I don’t join in the public shaming on social media.  But the desire to document everything shows no signs of slowing, resulting in problems more subtle and insidious than charging buffalo.

WILDLIFE & THE GOLDEN RULE

I’d like to throw light on something I’ve observed with increasing frequency in parks.  While not as outright stupid as the tourist who wants a picture of his child next to a wild animal, it’s nevertheless very thoughtless and selfish.  First of all, despite our frequent cluelessness, the great majority of animals do not react to us aggressively at all.  The bad behaviour of photographers, whether they’re slinging a huge lens or holding up a cell phone, is almost always ignored.  But think about it.  We can still make life very difficult for the beings who call our parks home.

Every single day in the parks, wild animals are forced to endure a never-ending procession of tourists who think it’s okay to completely disrupt their lives to get photos.  For example, when bison or elk try to cross the road at Yellowstone, usually to access water or food, tourists routinely block the way in order to get photos.  I’ve seen the same thing done to black bears at the Great Smokies.  I’ve tried to get people to see what they’re doing, but have only gotten angry retorts.  Nobody likes to be called out no matter how diplomatic you try to be.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I know the good people who read this blog wouldn’t dream of doing this, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.  Put yourself in the animals’ places and consider how you’d respond to a stranger barging into your home, blocking your way to the frig while you’re trying to get something to eat or drink.  And just to get a stupid picture.  I don’t mean to rant or lecture too much.  Most people are conscientious.  They just need to hit the pause button once in awhile and think about what they’re doing.

Next week we’ll conclude this little series on the two sides of national parks.  Take it easy out there and shoot mellow.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you're willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim's Toroweap area is much quieter.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you’re willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim’s Toroweap area is much quieter.

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