Archive for the ‘Death Valley’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Shooting around Weather   4 comments

Dust and sand from the dunes at Mesquite Flat blows up-valley ahead of a storm.  Surprising for this hyper-arid place, I got soaked hiking back.

I took a break last week from Foto Talk.  Hope you all didn’t give up on me!  This week I passed by an area that was readying itself for a hurricane.  And there’s been plenty of rain besides.  So I’m taking the hint and posting on the subject of photography and weather, in particular photographing in the wet stuff.

Shooting in stormy conditions presents both challenges and opportunities.  You’ve probably heard the advice to keep shooting right through stormy weather.  While I won’t disagree with this in general, I prefer a less absolute, more realistic attitude.  It’s a matter of weighing the upsides against the downsides.

On the plus side, depending on the clouds and sky, you may get some of your most atmospheric or dramatic shots during bad weather.  On the downside your gear is at risk.  In wet weather you are taking the obvious risk of getting moisture inside camera or lens.  Since that’s where your sensitive electronics reside, this is of course not good.

A storm blows itself out over the Columbia River, Oregon.

SHOOTING IN THE STORM

I’ve lived in both Oregon and Alaska, two places where dramatically bad weather is very common.  Here is what I’ve learned over the years about photography in bad weather:

  • I just mentioned the risks of water inside the camera.  But that’s not nearly as bad as putting yourself at risk.  It doesn’t happen often but dangerous weather does occur.  Use common sense and know when to beat a hasty retreat, to high ground and/or shelter.
  • Find camera protection that works for you.  I’ve posted before with tips and recommendations in this regard, and this post isn’t about that.  Just realize that no matter how good your rain cover, lens changes and other occasions expose your camera to the weather.  So no matter what you do some moisture will likely fall on your camera.  If you have a well-sealed professional grade camera and lenses, you can get away with wetter conditions.  The key is to know how well sealed your gear is and act accordingly.
I shot this lighthouse on the Gulf Coast of Florida recently just after a heavy shower had passed.

I shot this lighthouse on the Gulf Coast of Florida recently just after a heavy shower had passed.

  • At least as important as having camera/lens protection is having good clothing that keeps you reasonably dry and comfortable.  But since no clothing is perfect, be ready to put up with a certain degree of discomfort.  I always remember what my grandmom used to say whenever I complained about getting wet.  “You’re awfully sweet but you’re not made of sugar.  You won’t melt!”
  • Unless I see something quite compelling, either while driving or hiking with camera in a pack with rain-cover on, I usually don’t bother getting my gear out when the rain (or wet snow) is coming down hard.  Shots I may try when it’s dry I won’t chance when it’s very wet; that is, unless it’s really calling out to me.  It’s a simple calculation of risk vs. reward.
  • When it’s raining or snowing, contrast tends to be subdued.  So I tend to be attracted to compositions where low-contrast helps instead of hurting.  Low contrast in the wrong shot can rob it of impact, but in the right situation it helps establish the mood of your image.
Hiking up into the Oregon forest during a rainstorm near dusk was the only way to get this shot.

Hiking up into the Oregon forest during a rainstorm near dusk was the only way to get this shot.

  • I shoot from within my vehicle a lot more when the weather is bad.  And I don’t think it makes me a wimp!  It does require sometimes pulling off in odd places.  If you do this, take it from me:  turn your attention away from the light and pay attention to your driving until you’re stopped, and even then continue to keep one eye out for traffic.  Unless the road is truly empty, I won’t block the travel lane.  I always make sure there is good sight distance behind and in front.  Having good sight distance is key, as is using emergency flashers and being quick about it.
The rain was coming down hard for this shot from inside my van: Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

The rain was coming down hard for this shot from inside my van: Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

  • Being near big waterfalls can be just like being in a rainstorm.  So all the precautions you take in rainy weather you should also take when shooting a big waterfall in high flow.
  • Normally I don’t use UV filters, but when it’s wet I like to put them on. Lenses seal much better with a filter than without.  Any filter will help seal a lens.  If I’m shooting in a forest and especially along a stream, I use a circular polarizer instead of a UV filter.  CPLs cut down on reflections from wet leaves and rocks, bringing out their colors.
  • If you like shooting the stars at night, consider also shooting on moonlit nights when clouds or even storms are around.  Lightning is an obvious draw for many photographers, but if you let your imagination roam you can find unusual night compositions.
Most photogs. want clear skies when they shoot at night, but the clouds added drama to this overview of Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone Park.

Most photogs. want clear skies when they shoot at night, but the clouds added drama to this overview of Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone Park.

SHOOTING TRANSITIONS 

As I’ve gone along, shooting in weather of all kinds, I’ve learned that shooting on weathery days is all about transitions.  Periods when weather is moving in on you or just clearing away very often offer the most rewarding light and atmosphere.  That’s why I titled this post Shooting around Weather, not in it.

  • Given that weather transitions usually happen quickly, it’s important to be ready.  That means, for a start, getting out there.  Some people think it strange, but a landscape photographer looks at bad weather forecasts and plans to go out shooting.  And it’s not just landscape shooting that can benefit.  You’ll get some of your most interesting architecture, people or wildlife shots when weather adds some drama to spice things up.
The interesting light here at Bollinger Mill & Bridge, Missouri is from a rapidly approaching violent thunderstorm.

The interesting light here at Bollinger Mill & Bridge, Missouri is from a rapidly approaching violent thunderstorm.

  • So how to plan for something so capricious?  First, identify “transition days” ahead of time.  They are days when weather shifts from one regime to another, and the weather-person will sometimes call them out for you.  Otherwise you can see them coming yourself, once you’re familiar with the weather in your area.  Because they are full of change and thus unpredictable, you can easily get skunked with either socked-in conditions or clear blue skies.  But you can be rewarded with fantastic light as well.
  • Because they are literally defined by change, success on transition days is anything but guaranteed.  So instead of trying to outsmart the weather, go out on storm days too.  Transitions in the middle of stormy periods, often featuring brilliant sun-breaks and colorful rainbows, occur between fronts and generally don’t show up in weather forecasts (although you can sometimes see them on radar).

Within seconds, the rain stopped and light of the setting sun shot out from behind the Grand Tetons, Wyoming.

 

  • Watch the sky carefully and try to anticipate transitions.  This can take practice, and expect Mother Nature to throw you many curves.  During dry times, get to where you want to shoot and wait (hope) for the shift to stormy weather at the right time, when the sun is low.  During the storm, get to your spot and shelter there with camera & tripod at the ready.  As the sun lowers, there is always the chance it will dip below the storm clouds, illuminating everything in beautiful light.

Thanks for reading.  Now I’m off to get some shots of the ocean and sky in tropical storm weather.  Wish me luck!  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Recent sunset in a coastal area along the Gulf of Mexico where Hermine was due to hit.

Recent sunset in a coastal area along the Gulf of Mexico where Hermine was due to hit.

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Friday Foto Talk: Focus   4 comments

Dawn at the salt flats: Death Valley National Park, California.

I’m feeling a little guilty about skipping a couple weeks of Friday Foto Talk.  My excuse is that I was mostly away from the internet, camping in the desert.  I think I’m about ready to collate all of these into an e-book (or two!).  Looking back I’ve poured a lot of my knowledge and experience into these Friday posts.

Last time we looked into a fairly subtle topic (subjective vs. objective approaches), so this Friday let’s get back to basics.  Achieving good focus, and the larger issue of getting sharp photos, should be one of the first things you get good at, from a technical point of view, when learning photography.  This post will focus on focus!  It won’t go into the other things you need to do to get sharp images, which I’ve discussed in past posts.

A blooming creosote bush at dawn in the sand dunes at Death Valley.

A blooming creosote bush at dawn in the sand dunes at Death Valley.

WHAT IS FOCUS

The best way to understand this is to play with lenses (free of cameras, eyeglasses or binoculars) and a blank wall or white sheet of paper, with a strong directional light source.  You probably did this in high school science class, drawing light ray diagrams like the one below.

Light rays (which can also be understood as waves) travel roughly parallel with each other as they travel from where they were reflected off the subject to your camera lens.  They are bent inwards by the lens, coming together into a focal point.  From the center of your lens to the focal point is the focal length, usually expressed in millimeters.  Just behind the focal point sits your sensor (or film), the focal plane where an image is formed.  By changing that distance between sensor and lens you bring the subject into focus.

A convex lens like that in a camera brings light rays together and an image into focus.

A convex lens like that in a camera brings light rays together and an image into focus.

It’s important to realize that once you have a subject in focus, it is sitting in a “plane of focus” (which corresponds to the focal plane inside the camera).  Things above, below and to the side of your subject that are the same distance from your lens also sit in that plane, and so are in focus as well.  Things that are off the plane of focus, either closer or further from your lens, are technically not in focus.  But hang on!  They only get blurry gradually as the distance from the plane increases.

What this means for a photographer is that, depending on your depth of field, much of the image (even all of it in many cases) can appear to be sharp & in focus.  This is despite only a small part of the image being smack dab on the focal plane.  It’s a case of having a sufficient depth of field.  If you go for shallow depth of field, only what is on or very nearly on the focal plane will be in focus, with the rest of the image being blurry.

I found this bighorn sheep skull far up a canyon in Death Valley. It sits on a blanket of mud and debris brought down in the flash floods that struck during heavy storms last fall.

I found this bighorn sheep skull far up a canyon in Death Valley. It sits on a blanket of mud and debris brought down in the flash floods that struck during heavy storms last fall.

GETTING FOCUSED IMAGES

Now that we’ve done a little optics 101, let’s get into some practical tips on how to achieve good focus.  Most of what follows applies to whatever DSLR you may be using.  It’s even mostly applicable to mirrorless cameras.  But since I use a Canon, there are a few things that you’ll need to translate to your camera’s specific controls.  Which leads to the first point:

  • Know your camera.  You should be able to work the controls that affect focus (and exposure) without looking, and really without thinking.  Most DSLRs allow you to change which buttons control focus and exposure.  The default setup that most people use is where shutter button controls both auto-focus and exposure.  A half-press of the shutter button starts autofocus and also forces the camera to take a meter reading, fixing exposure.  Full press takes the picture.
A purple mimulus (monkeyflower) blooms in one of Death Valley's canyons. Getting at least two of the blooms to line up on the plane of focus was key.

A purple mimulus (monkeyflower) blooms in one of Death Valley’s canyons. Getting at least two of the blooms to line up on the plane of focus was key.

  • Be flexible in how you use auto-focus.  There are several ways to go about shooting with autofocus.  As you get better as a photographer you’ll realize that where you focus is usually not the composition you want to shoot.  There are three basic ways to approach this using the viewfinder (see below for further options using LiveView).
    • You can point the center of the frame at your subject, half-press the shutter button to get focus, then move the camera to the composition you actually want.
    • It can be easier and more accurate to frame the composition you want first, then change the autofocus point to the one that covers your subject.  On Canon DSLRs, there’s a little button on the top-right that you press with your thumb.  Then you work the joystick on the camera back to change the AF point.
    • A third option is to just focus where you want the focal plane to be, for examples 2/3 into the frame for a landscape where you don’t have important elements that are very close to you.  Then switch your lens to manual focus and shoot away, concentrating on composition and exposure without worrying about focus.  This can be a quick and easy way to go if you’re doing several shots of the same general scene.
In this diagram what they are labeling focal plane I call the "plane of focus", to distinguish it from the actual focal plane, which corresponds to the camera sensor. Click image to visit source page.

In this diagram what they are labeling focal plane I call the “plane of focus”, to distinguish it from the actual focal plane, which corresponds to the camera sensor. Click image to visit source page.

  •  Depth of field and focus go hand in hand.  The diagram above shows depth of field in the simplest way.  And it really is simple in concept.  But the devil is in the details as they say.  How adept you are at working depth of field and focus directly affects how many good shots you get, especially in dynamic, rapidly changing circumstances. 
    • Focal length matters.  You probably already know about how aperture affects your depth of field (how much of the field of view is in focus).  What many novices don’t appreciate enough is how big an influence focal length is on depth of field.  The shorter the focal length (wider-angle of view), the more depth of field you have.  As you zoom in to longer focal lengths, you lose depth of field and need to stop down in aperture (higher f/ numbers) to maintain depth of field.  With some very wide-angle lenses, everything will be in focus for any apertures above f/5.6 or f/8.
    • Lens matters.  In a similar way to focal length, each lens has its own focus characteristics.  While it’s often subtle, some lenses tend to give better depth of field than others.  And of course some are sharper than others, but that’s really separate from focus.  Learn how your lenses render subjects in terms of focus and depth of field.
In Death Valley N.P., California, charcoal kilns leftover from the mining era high up in the Panamint Range offer a spectacular view of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada.

In Death Valley N.P., California, charcoal kilns leftover from the mining era high up in the Panamint Range offer a spectacular view of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada.

 

The narrows of Marble Canyon in Death Valley are one heck of a great hike!

The narrows of Marble Canyon in Death Valley, one heck of a fun hike!

  • Lens calibration.  Some lenses arrive to your door with their focus needing to be calibrated with your camera’s auto-focus system.  A lens may actually focus slightly in front or in back of the focal plane, where your camera says it is focused.  Most DSLRs have the ability to calibrate the auto-focus for quite a long list of lenses.  So check out your owner’s manual and Google to see how to check focus for new lenses.   I’ve only had to calibrate a couple of mine.  Most good lenses, especially when they come from the same company that makes your camera, seem to be spot on in focus.  But all it takes is one to mess up a lot of pictures, so it’s a good idea to check each lens.

 

  • Know when to switch to manual focus.  When light is dim, or when contrast is low (such as in foggy conditions), it’s time to think about manual focus.  Sometimes what you’re shooting is dim or low-contrast, making your camera search for autofocus.  Sometimes I point your camera in another direction, at a subject that is about as far away as my intended subject.  Then I turn off autofocus and switch back to shoot my intended composition.  Or if everything is pretty dim and/or low-contrast, I will go to manual focus.  When I’m working close-up, especially with a macro lens, I almost always switch to manual focus, often setting the distance and moving the camera back and forth until I get good focus.
Because of low-contrast, it can be tough to use auto-focus in foggy conditions. Shot this morning.

Because of low-contrast, it can be tough to use auto-focus in foggy conditions.  Shot this morning with manual focus.

  • Manual focus is often better.  For some shooting manual focus is actually easier and more precise, especially with macro as mentioned above but also with landscapes.  Your camera has ways it will tell you when something is in focus.  Let’s say you change the switch on your lens to MF (manual focus).  If you point the center of the frame (or your selected AF point) at your subject and then rotate the focus ring, a green light is visible in the viewfinder to let you know you’ve achieved focus.  Also if you have it enabled, an audible beep sounds as well.  I have a couple lenses that are manual focus only.  For those I use the focus confirmation light nearly all the time, unless I’m using LiveView (see below).  I don’t like beeps so I never have that enabled.

This kind of shot demands focusing very closely and upping depth of field as much as possible by using a small aperture and as short a focal length as possible.

  • Using LiveView to focus.  When you switch to LiveView, where the image is displayed on the LCD screen on the camera back, you can do everything that you normally do, including focus.  The ability to magnify the image makes LiveView a good way to achieve precise focus.  There is a little white square that shows which part of the image you will magnify, and you can move that white square around.  Normally the white square also is where your exposure is read from too.  Once you have your subject magnified, you then turn the focus ring slowly to get perfect focus.  Then you can move it around to check out how much of the rest of the scene is in focus.  By the way, you can also use autofocus with LiveView.  In that case the white square becomes your focal point, and lights up green when focus is achieved.

 

The low light of evening can make auto-focus difficult. Happy-green mesquite border the sand dunes at Death Valley.

The low light of evening can make auto-focus difficult. Happy-green mesquite bordering the sand dunes at Death Valley.

 

  • Use the depth of field (DOF) preview button.  If you’re using LiveView in the manner above, the DOF preview button comes in handy.  It will show you what is in focus in front or behind your focal plane.  Some cameras don’t have one, so for them you’ll need to shoot and review to zero in on your shot.  When you press the DOF preview button your lens stops down to the aperture you have set.  This allows you to see exactly how much of the frame is in focus, and how blurry the rest is.  You don’t have to be in LiveView; the button works through the viewfinder too.  But with LiveView’s magnifying abilities you can see a lot better.  Remember: whether you’re looking through the viewfinder or on LiveView, what you’re seeing is the view at the largest aperture your lens has (f/4 or f/2.8, for example).  It isn’t showing you the scene at the aperture you have set, and what the picture will be captured at.  If you’re at f/11 for example, you’re seeing more blurriness than the picture will have, unless you press the DOF preview button.

Whew!  That’s enough for now.  Practice makes perfect, so play with all the different ways to get your camera to focus where you want.  Use manual focus and LiveView, auto-focus points and the DOF preview button.  Change composition while fixing focus (and exposure) where it needs to be to get the focus and depth of field right for your images.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

A storm blows into Death Valley last week. Dramatic Tucki Peak stands eternal guard.

A storm blows into Death Valley last week. Dramatic Tucki Peak stands eternal guard.

 

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.

Friday Foto Talk: Using a Circular Polarizer, Part I   2 comments

Soap-tree yucca growing on the dunes of White Sands National Monument, New Mexico glow in the bright morning sun

The circular polarizer (or CPL) is a must-have for any landscape photographer.  This handy filter can be used in many different situations, but like any piece of photo gear it helps greatly to know exactly what it does and what its benefits and downsides are.  This is the first of two parts.

WHAT A CPL IS & HOW TO USE IT

  • A circular polarizer is a filter that screws on to the threaded front end of your lens.  It has two pieces of glass sandwiched together.  So it also has two rings for you to grip.  If you grip the ring closest to the threads you will be able to screw the filter on and back off your lens.
  • Once it’s on (not too tight!), grasp the ring furthest from the threads to rotate the front piece of glass relative to the other (now fixed in place).  This is the way you adjust the filter’s strength.  It goes from minimum to maximum effect with 90 degrees of rotation, then back to minimum if you continue rotating all the way to 180 degrees.
I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of the side-light and show the texture in the land.

I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of side-light to show the texture in this awesome alluvial fan, visible in the lower part of the image.

HOW A CPL WORKS

  • The CPL filter works by polarizing light in a couple different ways.  When light is reflected it becomes polarized to one degree or another.  Light rays can be thought of as vibrating waves.  When emitted by some source (like the sun), the light waves vibrate in all directions.  When light hits a reflective surface and bounces off it, the waves vibrate mostly in one direction, parallel to the reflecting surface.  The light has become linearly (or plane-) polarized.

 

 

Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.

Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.

 

  • A circular polarizer works by first polarizing the light linearly, then turning it into circularly polarized light.  In the case of the plane-polarized reflected light above, the front glass element of the CPL acts as if it has slits, either allowing the polarized rays through or (partly or fully) blocking them.
  • The rear glass element, the 2nd one the light passes through, takes that linearly polarized light and polarizes it further, but this time circularly.  If you think of the linearly polarized light as a line on a graph, with both horizontal and vertical (X and Y) components, the CPL is blocking one component (vertical, for example) more than the other.  It turns it into a vibrating wave that sort of spirals.  The light that finally reaches your lens is now circularly polarized!

 

Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.

Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.

  • As described above, you adjust a CPL by rotating the front glass element.  This increases or decreases the degree of circular polarization.  And if you have reflected light, off a lake or river for example, rotating the filter also changes how much of that plane-polarized light you’re blocking.  Again, think of that front glass element as having ‘slits’, which when crossed at an angle to reflected light will prevent some of that naturally polarized light from getting through.

Yellowstone’s Lone Star geyser erupts.

  • By the way, that crossing of the slits to plane-polarized light is called cross-polarization, and it’s how polarized sunglasses work.  Their “slits” are fixed in a vertical position, enabling them to block the plane-polarized light reflected off of water, roadways and other horizontal surfaces.  Look at the reflection off a vertical store window  with your sunglasses on and you’ll see they allow that light right on through.

I used a polarizing filter at this pool in Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, Nevada in order to show some of the detail under the water.

BASIC FIELD USE

  • Again the effect increases as you rotate the moveable (outer) ring.  In the case of light reflected off water or glass, rotating the filter to its max. position (90 degrees from minimum) will cut the reflection dramatically.
  • And for similar reasons, as you point the camera close to right angles (90 degrees) with the sun or other light source, the polarization effect increase dramatically as you rotate the filter to its max. position.

Those are just the two basic ways to use a circular polarizer in the field.  There are quite a number of other, more subtle ways to use a CPL in photography.  And next time we’ll look at using the filter to improve your images, all the while emphasizing its strengths and dodging the inevitable drawbacks.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

The barren, channeled nature of a Death Valley alluvial fan is highlighted by strong side-light. I used a CPL but not set to its max setting.

Single-image Sunday – Christmas Edition   5 comments

This was a sunset I was blessed with the other night.  It’s got all my favorite Christmas colors except for green.  But you can’t have everything (if you did then Christmas wouldn’t be so special).  So for everyone out in the world, Merry Christmas and (as the pope said today): May peace be within you.  And I’ll add may peace be within and without you for 2016.

A spring south of Badwater in Death Valley,  California reflects a vibrant dusk sky.

A spring south of Badwater in Death Valley, California reflects a vibrant dusk sky.

Wordless Wednesday: Panamint Dunes   4 comments

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Single-image Sunday: Scotty’s Castle   1 comment

This incongruous place is located in a remote area of the California (Mojave) desert, in the northern part of Death Valley National Park.  Though officially it was called the Death Valley Ranch, it’s better known as Scotty’s Castle.  This post is about a friendship between two men as improbable as a castle in the desert.  I think when you really consider unlikely pairings real truths are often revealed.  These pairings can tell larger stories and illuminate the motivations behind the often-strange behavior of  human beings.

Despite the name, Scotty’s Castle never belonged to Scotty.  Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) was a colorful character who lived from 1872 to 1954.  He worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show for some time, then tried gold mining near Cripple Creek Colorado.  That would be the extent of his working life, as he spent most of the rest of it convincing rich easterners to invest money in fictitious gold mines out west.

Scotty’s last and best benefactor was a Chigagoan named Albert Johnson.  When Johnson was a young man he was fascinated with the west.  While young he made a lot of money investing in a mine in Missouri, and he planned to invest in mines out west.  He wanted a life there.   But a broken back from a bad train accident (which killed his father) changed his life.  He was temporarily paralyzed and made a miraculous recovery.  But his health was never the same and he was forced to settle on a career in the insurance industry.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Johnson would fall in the sights of Walter Scott.  After Johnson had invested some thousands of money into Scott’s secret (and fictitious) Death Valley gold mine with no return, he became suspicious.  It was soon apparent that Scott was lying.  Strangely, despite all the evidence he was being conned, Johnson remained convinced of the mine.

It took quite a number of years and several visits before Johnson finally gave up on the secret mine’s existence.  Through all of this Scott tried to deceive him with several elaborate schemes.  This included (of course) the salting of various fake mines, but Scott was not one to stop there.  He once planted a group of friends in a canyon masquerading as outlaws. They surprised Johnson, Scott and their companions and a fake gunfight (but with real bullets!) ensued.  The ruse was meant to scare away Johnson and his associates in hopes they might forget about seeing the mine with their own eyes.  But the plan quickly went awry when one man was shot and seriously injured.

Scott had learned the art of Wild West theater from the best (Buffalo Bill) and he used that flair for the dramatic in his long career as a con man.  He had a certain boldness. His colorful personality made him a media star in fact.  He made it into newspapers nationwide on several occasions.  And he parlayed that fame into a number of gigs (including a play about himself, starring himself).

Albert Johnson, though a genuinely rich insurance executive, was enchanted with Scotty in the same way he was enchanted with the mythical wild west.  Perhaps Johnson saw his alter ego, the embodiment of a life he wished he had lived.  Of course it was all based on false premises.  The era when the Wild West was real overlaps with the succeeding (longer) era when the concept of the wild west was parodied and used to fire the imaginations of sedate city-goers from “civilized” America – for profit.

Incredibly, Johnson eventually forgave Scott for defrauding him and the two became good friends. You would not expect a man to befriend a man who had conned him out of money, but that’s exactly what happened.  Johnson and Scott genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.  Scott was known as an entertaining storyteller.  All of this might explain why Johnson believed in Scotty’s secret mine for so long, and why he later forgave him.

His early dreams of an adventurous life out west ruined by his devastating injury, Johnson made repeated trips back, particularly to Death Valley.  Trains made some places in the west at least as accessible (in some cases more so) than they are now.  In 1915 Johnson bought and developed an old ranch in Grapevine Canyon.  Though Johnson was content to rough it on his visits, his wife Bessie convinced him to build a vacation home.  And Johnson did not go halfway!  Both he and Bessie loved the peace and quiet of the desert.  As for Scotty, he lived his later years five miles from the the Castle in a cabin built for him by Johnson.

Though Scotty’s Castle was never quite finished, it remains a stunning place.  It was originally run on direct current electricity from a Pelton water wheel powered from the same spring that supplied water.  Johnson did much of the original engineering himself.  The National Park Service purchased the place years after Johnson’s died.  It is nicely preserved and rangers dressed in period costume lead daily tours.

In the picture you can see a cross on the hill overlooking Scotty’s Castle.  This is the grave site of Walter Scott.  He is buried right alongside a beloved dog.  I think this little fact alone might explain why I have a charitable opinion of a man who lied and cheated for most of his life.

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Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park, California.

Wordless Wednesday: Empty   2 comments

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Friday Foto Talk: Depth   6 comments

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Although I don’t like much structure in my life (understatement of the day!), I’m going to force myself to introduce a regular feature in this blog.  Although I won’t drift over to a photography education blog (already too many), just as I won’t drift over to a blog strictly focused on travel, I’m feeling the need from time to time to share some of the more interesting things I’ve picked up about photography.

But please do not think me some sort of expert who is passing on his considerable (in his own opinion) photography knowledge.  That’s exactly the sort of mis-impression I want to avoid.  Instead, please feel free to use these posts to give your take on the subjects covered.  I would very much like feedback on the images as well.  Enjoy!

The four images here were taken on my recent photo sojourn around the American West.  The subject today – depth – is one that’s near and dear to my photographic heart.  To this point I have been sticking with my passion, that is landscape and nature photography.  Perhaps if I ever wish to make a living at this I will need to change that focus, but for now I’m in my comfort zone, and depth is very relevant to this kind of photography.

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

One of the most rewarding yet challenging things about landscape photography is introducing a sense of depth into your images; 3-dimensionality if you will.  Think about it: you are taking a three-dimensional scene and rendering it on a two-dimensional medium.  So it’s not easy.  But it’s no where near impossible to accomplish either.  Here are a few tips:

  • Firstly, try to include at least two out of three of the following: foreground, mid-ground, and background.  All three are best.  When you’re starting out, you might forget about foreground.  But then you learn that it’s important, and end up going to the opposite extreme.  So while it’s important to have detail in your foregrounds, don’t forget about the mid-ground and background.  Don’t let your foreground overwhelm the rest of the image, at least not all the time.
  • The closer you can get to your foreground, the better, up to a point.  The foreground has to be sharp, and it’s usually best when the background is in focus as well.  What this means is a small aperture (say f/22) and focusing on a point in your scene that will provide the sharpest results front to back.  This point varies depending on your focal length and the characteristics of your lens, but is always somewhere in the front third of your scene (sometimes only a few feet in front).
  • Also, it helps if there are details in each of these parts of your images.  Don’t confuse detail with texture.  Texture is always nice of course, but I’m speaking of things that are interesting to look at.  Things that draw the eye are good for depth, but you want to keep your image as simple as possible too.  It’s a balancing act.
  • Light is important.  This is difficult to pin down, but if you’ve been taking pictures for awhile you probably are well aware of the difference between flat light and light with depth.   Unfortunately, good light is not always light that will provide depth.  In fact, flat light can be good for some scenes/subjects.  Sorry I can’t be more specific; my best advice is to try getting pictures with depth in different kinds of light.
  • Leading lines can help with depth.  The classic is a one-point perspective, like the railroad tracks merging in the distance, but your lines don’t have to be this obvious!
  • Dramatic clouds in the sky (as in the second image above) can really help.  It can put a sort of “roof” on your image.  Make sure to include enough of the sky to accomplish this.

Back to these four images.  I chose them because of the varying combinations of light and depth.  In addition, they are all desert scenes and so easier to compare.  The light in the first two, and to a lesser extent the last image, is fairly hard, as is typical for deserts.  The first two were taken around mid-morning, so we’re not talking classic golden hour here.  The second image has better light because of a filtering effect from the clouds (a storm was approaching) but neither has truly excellent light.  The third image has nice soft sunrise light, but little depth.  And the fourth has a great combination of depth and beautiful dawn light.

Gorgeous dawn light greets me as I enter Death Valley from the east.

Gorgeous dawn light greets me as I enter Death Valley from the east.

The first image has, at least in my opinion, nice depth.  It has a detailed and interesting foreground (the cactus) plus a mid-ground (the angled sandstone formation) that leads the eye deeper into the scene.  The background is a fairly detailed skyline plus clouds.  It would have been even better if the clouds were more dramatic (in which case I would have included more of the sky).  Note that the background rocks are not too far away, and so have some detail.  This can help with a feeling of depth.

The second image is dominated by leading lines and so can’t help but have decent depth, but the dramatic clouds really help put a roof on the image (even though they take up a fairly small part of the frame).  The third image was taken during the first rays of light in Death Valley.  Although there are much better images from this place all over the web, the light here is unusually soft (for a desert) and thus demonstrates that an image without much depth can still work well.

The last image has a lot going for it depth-wise, despite its weaknesses.  It lacks leading lines and the foreground and mid-ground are not delineated well.  It has a good sense of perspective from the decreasing sizes of the polygonal cracks in the salt.  It also benefits from interesting detail both in the foreground (the salt) and the background (the moon).  The moon helps to give the already somewhat 3D clouds even more depth.  Lastly, the image is topped off with a beautiful pinkish glow that results from the sun (which is still beneath the horizon) reflecting off clouds close to the eastern horizon.  It’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite images from Death Valley.

A full moon sets over Death Valley's salt flats as a pink dawn approaches.

A full moon sets over Death Valley’s salt flats as a pink dawn approaches.

Thanks so much for reading.  If you have interest in any of the images, they are available for purchase either as a download or beautifully printed (framed or unframed).  Just click on an image and the rest is easy.  Note that they are all copyrighted and not available for download (the versions here are too small anyway).  Again, thanks for your cooperation and interest.  Please don’t hesitate to ask questions, add your thoughts, or give feedback (positive or negative) on the images.

Death Valley I: Intro. & Travel Tips   2 comments

A full moon sets over Death Valley's salt flats as dawn approaches.

A full moon sets over Death Valley’s salt flats as dawn approaches.

Sorry for the long break in blogging; I’ve been out of touch in Death Valley, California.  This is my favorite place in the Golden State.  That’s saying something, since I believe California is one of the nation’s top 5 most beautiful states.  Most people seem to believe California is L.A. and the Bay Area.  Perhaps they think of Yosemite as well.  But it is a huge state and includes beautiful coastline, mountains and (especially) deserts.  Southern California’s once-beautiful, now-sullied coast is not what I’m talking about here.  Those are areas I avoid at all costs.  Instead, I tend to hang out in northern Sonoma County, the Mendocino Coast, the northern Sierra, and the Mojave Desert.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley's many many side canyons.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley’s many many side canyons.

Death Valley is the heart of the Mojave Desert.  It’s an enormous national park, and is difficult to see in a brief visit.  My recommendation is for a full week the first time you come. At least spend three nights.  Most people, however, do not give the park enough time.  It is “on the way” between Las Vegas and the coast, and so normally gets short shrift.  That’s too bad.  It is a stunning desert destination.

In the years since President Clinton turned Death Valley from National Monument to a National Park, it has become much, much more popular than it was in the “good old days”.  Twenty five years ago I hiked through the dunes and up canyons here.  I not only never saw another hiker, but never expected to see anyone else.  You were on your own, with cliffs often turning you back with no rope and gear.  Now many canyon hikes have plenty of hikers along with wood ladders and ropes as aids.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

But Death Valley is still a fantastic place to visit.  Since it is so large, it is pretty easy to leave others behind.  I know this sounds like I am too conscious of other visitors.  But I really feel that in a desert environment, solitude is an important part of the experience.  Also, in a desert like Death Valley, you have no trees to block views.  Everything is wide open, and this makes even relatively few people seem like a crowd.  Stay tuned for a post that will highlight some of the less-popular but still beautiful areas of the park.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent's lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent’s lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

You really should hike Death Valley to get a good feel for the place.  The canyons leading into Death Valley (really a huge canyon itself) represent some of the best canyon hiking in the western USA.  There are plenty of broad washes, narrow canyons, technical slots, and so on.  The variety is incredible.  The geology is ultra-cool, and for a long  time the park has been the site of many a college field trip (that is exactly how I first visited, in fact).

That said, there are plenty of sights to see without doing much hiking.  Many visitors are happy to come stay in the lodge at Furnace Creek, and spend their time golfing and playing by the pool.  Furnace Creek is really the center of the park.  It is centrally located, the Visitor Center is here, and there are two lodging options.  In addition, there are two campgrounds here.  Texas Springs is geared toward tents, while Sunset is set up for Rvs.  Lodging and camping is also available at Stovepipe Wells, which is only a half-hour drive from Furnace Creek.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley's salt flats.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley’s salt flats.

WHEN TO VISIT

I assume you will not come during summer, but if you do, bring a gallon and a half of water for any day hike, and be careful about being too ambitious.  Europeans on their summer vacations will plunge right in to the Southwest’s hotter parks, including this, the hottest one.  North America’s highest recorded temperature (134 degrees Farenheit, or 57 Celsius!) was recorded in Death Valley during summer.  If you’re smarter than this and come during the late fall to spring period, you can be more adventurous in terms of hiking.

Spring often features blooming cactus, and the weather is near perfect.  But March and April are also some of the most crowded times at Death Valley.  It seems strange for me to use the word crowded in the same sentence as Death Valley.  But the fact is that this formerly off-the-beaten-track destination is now firmly on the American Southwest tourist track.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The autumn months (October and November), are popular but not as much Spring is.  Winter months (December through February) can often be the best time to visit.  Nights will be chilly, and there is always the possibility of snow in the higher elevations of the park.  But it is uncrowded and for photographers this time of year features better light, in general, than do the warmer months when the sun is high and harsh.  In February the days are getting longer and warmth usually trumps the fading cold of winter.

In my opinion March is the perfect time to visit, but again it is also the most popular.  If you time your visit for early March, before any of the West Coast’s Spring Breaks occur (when schools take a week off), you should be just fine.  Spring Break normally happens in mid-March to mid-April.

A different view of the famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

A different view of the famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

Whatever time of year you come, be as self-sufficient as you can possibly be.  Have plenty of drinking and radiator water in the car, and consider bringing extra gasoline as well (gas is available but expensive). Do not take your car (rental or not) on to tracks that it is not built to handle.  Even if you have a 4WD, remember the old saying, that a 4WD vehicle only allows you to get stuck worse, and further from civilization than does a regular car.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

Death Valley is a wild landscape, one that does not suffer fools lightly.  Keep your ambitions in line with your abilities, turn around before you get your vehicle in over its head, drink plenty of water, and you should have yourself a grand (and safe) time.  Stay tuned for more posts on Death Valley.

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