Archive for the ‘advice’ Tag

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   6 comments

Easy walking in Death Valley: a recent flash-flood has left a smooth deposit of mud.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you know that this chunk of southeastern California desert is one of my favorite places to explore and photograph.  I’ve had a thing for it since my first visit in the early 1980s, and its more recent popularity hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm.  It seems that no matter how well I get to know the place there is always someplace new to hike and explore.

I’ve written of Death Valley before, posting a lot of photos along the way.  Most of what I’ve written of the place in this blog has been geared toward those planning a trip there, with recommendations on places to visit, hike and shoot.  For this short series of posts I’m sharing a few of the adventures I’ve had in this stunning part of the Mojave Desert.  I hope the stories will encourage you to take off and explore on your own.

The simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes beckons for a morning walk.

If you do plan to get off the pavement, if you strap a backpack on and take off into a canyon, up a ridge-line or across an alluvial fan, keep a few things in mind:

  • There are few trails here.  They aren’t really needed, as the landscape lends itself to following natural features like canyons and washes.  This fact brings with it the responsibility to take full charge of navigation.  Bring a good detailed map, and I’m not speaking of the one you get when you pay the entrance fee.  See below for more on this.

 

  • Death Valley is very very dry.  Depending on temperature this means you need to carry much more water than almost any other place you’ll ever hike.  If you visit spring through early fall you need about a quart/liter of water per person for every hour you plan to be walking.  In wintertime you can get by with less.

 

  • Cell service is close to nonexistent.  You are on your own, so be self-contained.

 

  • If you plan on driving off-road be prepared.    Think of driving off-road here just the same as if you’re hiking off-trail.  That is, with respect for the fact that help is nearly impossible to reach.  And even if you do will take a long time to arrive.  It’s also quite expensive.  See below for more on driving off-road in Death Valley.

 

  • Snakes are common.  While you’ll probably be fine as long as you’re alert while walking and don’t put your feet or hands anywhere you can’t see, be aware that the side-winder rattlesnake is not the most mellow venomous snake.  If you’re in a remote area and get bit by one, you may end up losing an appendage.

 

  • Last but not least, if you visit May to September limit your ambitions.  A general tourist itinerary on mostly paved roads is the way to go in the hot summer months.  It’s a good time for a first visit.  If you want to explore a lot on foot and/or four-wheel into the backcountry, go in the cooler months.  One exception:  summer’s a great time to hike in the high Panamints, climbing Telescope Peak or one of the other mountains in the park.

The classic view of Telescope Peak from Badwater.

 

Navigation in Death Valley

A topographic map, along with the ability to read it, is probably the most important of the “ten essentials”.  And this applies whether you carry a GPS, or are like me and still carry a compass, old-school-style.  Before going, practice crossing terrain you’re already familiar with, using a map to locate yourself in relation to landmarks.  Try navigating without the GPS, starting with out and back routes and progressing to off-trail loop hikes.  Whatever your approach, avoid following the GPS blindly like so many do.  Use it as a general guide instead, always being ready to alter your course from the straight-line GPS route to take into account features of the terrain, or interesting tangents!

Canyon hiking is superb at Death Valley, and your options are near limitless.  From a short jaunt up Mosaic Canyon to a trek up lonely Bighorn Gorge, there’s a canyon hike that’s just the right length and remoteness for you.  Just remember that dry falls are nearly as common here as they are in southern Utah’s canyon country.  Take a rope or be prepared to turn around.

Distance and terrain can be very deceiving here.  It’s tempting to park off the side of the paved road and strike out for a canyon mouth.  But walking up an alluvial fan is much tougher than it looks.  Allow plenty of time even when rambling around the “flat” valley floor.  That said, some of my best adventures have started out by crossing the valley or ascending an alluvial fan.

Climbing the big peaks such as Telescope is well worthwhile.  Elevation can pose a problem, especially since you’re spending much of your time at or below sea level.  Snow can fall during much of the year too.  So you’ll need to be prepared for mountain weather in the higher reaches of the Panamints.

Hiking in the area south of Furnace Creek puts you in the badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation.  The clayey hills are quite unstable and crumbly, so use caution.  Most of all, do not attempt to traverse steep hillsides in the Golden Canyon/Zabriskie Point area.  It’s not only hazardous, it mars the delicate formations that people come to see and photograph.  For this area it’s best to use established trails.

When hiking Death Valley’s canyons geology is always front and center: Red Wall Canyon.

Off-Pavement in Death Valley

There are many unpaved routes in Death Valley, but not all are open to vehicles.  While driving in washes is allowed for some areas, off-roading is not allowed in the National Park.  Obtain up-to-date road conditions and restrictions from the rangers upon arrival.  Buy a good detailed map for the area you plan to explore.  As mentioned above, navigate with map and GPS just as you do if you’re walking.

Make sure your vehicle has excellent tires and at least one spare (two minimum for some roads, like the one to Racetrack Playa).  Most of the unpaved roads require high-clearance, and many of them are 4WD only.  Bring a shovel and portable air compressor (for re-inflating tires after softening them for sandy areas).  Lastly, don’t forget about the threat of flash floods.  Don’t park overnight in washes if there is any chance of rain in the region, and camp up on benches away from where water runs.

Evening is near in far south Death Valley, where the Ibex Dunes are known for the spring bloom of sand verbena.

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Friday Foto Talk: Photographing People ‘in Flow’ ~ Candids & Travel   Leave a comment

While shooting landscape in southern Utah, some hikers "rudely" inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

While shooting the landscape of southern Utah, these hikers “rudely” inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been doing a little series on the idea of flow in photography.  Flow is that state of hyper-focus that we’ve all experienced, perhaps not enough in the modern era of distractions.  Last week’s Foto Talk looked at people photography in general, but was biased toward portraiture.  This week is a follow-up that focuses on my favorite kind of people photography: serendipitous candid shots done either traveling or while engaged with another subject (landscapes, as above, for example).

Two young Malawian boys who somehow didn’t become members of Madonna’s family.

Serendipity & Candids

Serendipity implies little or no thinking ahead.  But it’s okay to have a general approach.  It’ll vary depending on whether you know ahead of time that you’ll be photographing people.  And whether or not you like shooting without first asking permission.  But serendipity means at the very least that your subject(s) don’t know they’re going to appear in your photos until very close to the time you press the shutter.

  • Why should you do this kind of photography?  Say you’re traveling, whether on a short weekend trip close to home or half-way around the world.  You naturally want pictures, right?  Suppose on this trip you head out on foot to look for interesting stuff to photograph.  You might think you’ll be shooting buildings and “the sights”, but in most places you will come across people as well.  You already know they usually make the best images from a trip, and that’s because people speak to us of the place where they live much more strongly and eloquently than any building or mountain can.
I didn't even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

I didn’t even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

 

  • So whether or not your goal on a shoot is to photograph people, be ready anytime you’re out in even a lightly populated area.  I don’t always follow this advice, being somewhat shy most of the time.  But traveling in foreign lands is different; I’m much more outgoing.  I’ve learned that approaching people is easier than it seems.  For one thing they may be just as curious about you as you are of them, and for another many people want to help visitors, and that includes helping them get good photos.
Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

  • The first question photographers who want candid travel shots ask themselves is, “to ask or not to ask first”.  While I do shoot the occasional picture when someone isn’t expecting it, I normally ask first.  But don’t make the mistake I made at first, which is to go right up and ask to shoot their picture.

 

  • Instead of letting your camera get in the way right off the bat, spend a little time with people before asking to shoot.  Minimize the fact you have a camera (I know, easier said than done when you have a big white lens!).  Be curious about them, advice that applies to all photography subjects.  And if you’re not genuinely curious, shoot something else.

 

  • As with all people photography (and in fact all photography), have fun!  When you approach strangers, joking around and even making a bit of a fool of yourself are sure-fire ice breakers.
This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

 

  • All this engagement takes more time than if you simply shoot and move on to the next subject.  You may miss a shot or two by focusing on the person first and the pictures second.  And you’ll probably get fewer photos.  But the images you do get will hopefully be better, and most important they will mean more to you.

 

  •  Now it’s time to ask for pictures.  You can simply smile and ask, or you can take more of an indirect approach.  You could point out the aspects of the setting, light, or of your subject that attracted your attention and made you approach in the first place.  Whatever you do, be honest about what you want and respect their decision if they decline.
At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn't push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn’t push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

 

  • There is one more issue that inevitably comes up when doing this kind of travel photography, and that’s how to express your gratitude if they say yes.  Your subject may request money, especially if you’re a tourist in a foreign country.  If it’s obvious that you are better off financially than they are, it becomes even more of a temptation to pay.  I generally don’t pay for pictures.  But there are a few exceptions, such as when someone has organized a way to direct a little tourist money to local people and I really want the pictures.  But I do believe that paying results in a less desirable relationship between photographer/tourist and subject/local.  I also think there are too many other ways to show gratitude (see below).  But ultimately whether or not you pay for pictures is a personal decision.
While I didn't pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

While I didn’t pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

 

  • Showing gratitude and sharing your pictures is about more than just showing the back of your camera.  While traveling I carry a small portable printer (Polaroid Pogo but there are others).  I print a wallet-size picture direct from the camera and it’s always a hit.  If they ask for emailed pictures, always always follow up.  I recommend you use low-resolution versions that are good for computer display.  Another great way to show gratitude if your subject is a vendor is to buy something.
Happy kids aren't hard to find in Cambodia, but I got great reactions from this group along Angkor Wat's moat when I handed out pictures. They are holding them and note my little red printer at lower left.

Happy kids aren’t hard to find in Cambodia, but these “urchins” along Angkor Wat’s moat were quite excited when I handed out pictures (which a couple are holding).  Note my little red printer at lower left.

That wraps up people photography & flow.  I hope you enjoyed the pictures.  Granted, some of the above points are not specific to the idea of flow.  It is good advice whether or not you experience flow while shooting candids.  But all of will help create a comfortable atmosphere, and to help both you and your subjects relax and have a good time.  It doesn’t guarantee experiencing flow but it sure helps.  Thanks for reading and have a grand weekend!

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

Friday Foto Talk: Captioning   7 comments

Autumn in Utah's Wasatch Mountains means quaking aspen in their golden glory.

Autumn in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains means quaking aspen in their golden glory.

Photo captioning is a subject that never really occurred to me before last week.  And I don’t really known why.  It just seemed to fly under the radar, something not really relevant to photography.  How wrong that is!  Writing good captions is a part of presenting your images well, and is just as important as good editing on the computer.

As images have proliferated on the web, so have bad captions.  Let me back up.  When talking about photography, I try to be as non-judgmental as possible.  I have my own ideas of what a good image is, but I don’t presume others will always agree.  Photography is an art, thus completely subjective.  So let’s just say the following is my opinion and leave it at that.

The images here are a sampling from my recent trip through the American West.  I’m picking the keepers now, and succeeding posts will feature more.  They are all copyrighted, thus not available for free download without my permission.  Please click on the image or contact me directly if you’re interested in purchase of prints, downloads, etc.  Thanks for your interest.

The Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon attracts an enthusiastic group of "wind-riders".

The Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon attracts an enthusiastic group of “wind-riders”.

Here are some examples of captioning that is less than useful (in my opinion):

      • The Superhero Story:  I put this first because it annoys me the most.  And it’s getting more and more prevalent.  Even pro photographers succumb to the temptation.  Of course Facebook is prime hunting ground for these captions.  But even sites like Earthshots.org (which features excellent nature photographs) seem to love these silly captions.  

The superhero story is a long, involved account of how the photographer got the shot.  Nothing about the subject unless it is some hazard that he had to face down.  You find out that in order to bring you this amazing shot, he had to brave dangers that would make mere mortals like us turn and run.  

Reading these captions, you find out that the photographer entered dangerous waters, faced vicious predators, danced at the edge of tall cliffs, endured extreme weather and discomfort.  In short, he performed feats that Homer would have been proud to include in The Odyssey.  Notice I use ‘he’.  That’s on purpose, because this is primarily a male ego thing.  It is also pure B.S.  

These captions are about the photographer not the subject.  Will the viewer think the image looks better after finding out the photographer went to some trouble getting it?  It’s more likely the reader will discover the photographer has an inflated opinion of himself? 

Early morning light floods into the historic Peter French Round Barn in the "outback" of southeastern Oregon.

Early morning light floods into the historic Peter French Round Barn in the “outback” of southeastern Oregon.

   

      • Camera Info. Only:  Pros do this all the time, I think because they are sponsored by the camera/lens manufacturers.  I certainly don’t mind knowing the camera and lens used, but don’t tell me that and leave out the camera settings.  I don’t really care if someone uses a $6000 camera and $12,000 lens.  After all, a person shooting with much cheaper gear could easily have much better images.  And would it kill these guys to write an actual caption for the photo?  Where is it, what is it?  You know, a caption!
      • Inaccurate:  I’m running across this more and more.  These days, people want to be seen to know about all sorts of things.  I want to say to them, “hey, I’m slightly impressed you know this, but I’ll never mistake you for a Renaissance man.”  It’s certainly okay to give detailed info. in your captions.  But if you don’t know a lot, don’t get too specific.  Nothing wrong with going into detail, but do your research.  Get it right.
      • Deliberately Misleading:  I understand why a photographer might not want to reveal exact locations.  I have my favorite (secret) spots too.  But for the most part, you can easily give location information without giving away your exact shooting position.  I think it betrays insecurity when a photographer is afraid that others will replicate the shot.  Who cares about imitators?  If you are secure in your ability, you’re not worried about such things.
A frosty morning walk along the Rio Grande River is beautiful when the cottonwoods are in autumn leaf.

A frosty morning walk along the Rio Grande River is rewarded by cottonwoods in autumn leaf.

The end of fall comes to the high desert of southeastern Oregon.  "Termination dust", the winter's first snow, mantles the peaks in ghostly white.

The end of fall comes to the high desert of southeastern Oregon. “Termination dust”, the winter’s first snow, mantles the peaks in ghostly white.

I could go on but I’m starting to sound like a curmudgeon.  To sum this up, here’s what I believe a good strong caption should possess:

      • Keep it Short:  Say enough but not too much.  Captions should be short paragraphs, one line if you can swing it.  Don’t worry about writing sentence fragments, but make it readable.  Just the facts.
      • Be Accurate:  Do your research.  Find out the animal’s correct name, get the place-names right (including spelling), was it sunrise or sunset, and so on.  Most important, don’t go beyond your knowledge.  If you don’t know for sure, don’t include it.
      • Make it Subject-centered:  Give the viewer some idea of the What/Where/When of the image.  If you want to add camera & lens info. make sure to include the settings too.  It is even more important to give information on the subject when the title lacks it.  Titles; don’t get me started on those!
      • Avoid “Making-of” Stories:  Following the above point, make it about the subject and consider a blog if you want to talk about how you got the shot.  There simply isn’t room in a caption to give a lot of back-story.
      • Spelling & Grammar Count:  Run spell-check.  While I think phrases and sentence fragments are fine in the interest of brevity, that doesn’t mean bad grammar is okay too.  Captions are writing, and bad writing looks sloppy.  It can reflect poorly on you and your images.
      • Add Interesting Stuff:  If you know something interesting about the subject, include it.  You don’t have to be long-winded to add info. that people would find fascinating.
      • Don’t overdo Cute/Funny:  An occasional cute or funny caption is great, depending on the photo of course.  But if most of your captions are like this I’m not sure you’ll be taken seriously when the time comes to inform rather than amuse your viewers.  Wittiness can, like everything else, be overdone.
Welcome home:  A typically understated entrance to an adobe house in Taos, New Mexico.

Welcome home: A typically understated entrance to an adobe house in Taos, New Mexico.

Writing good captions takes some practice.  But if you keep it simple, start with the basics – the What/Where/When – and if you add interesting tidbits only as you learn them, you really can’t go wrong.  Have a great weekend and Happy Shooting!

In this view of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, the early morning low sun highlights the spires, buttes and mesas of Indian Creek Canyon.  The Abajo Mountains lie in the distance.

In this view of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, the early morning low sun highlights the spires, buttes and mesas of Indian Creek Canyon. The Abajo Mountains lie in the distance.

The former mining town of Silverton in the San Juan  Mountains of southwestern Colorado lies nestled in a high valley.

The former mining town of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado lies nestled in a high valley.

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