Archive for the ‘desert’ Tag

Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light   7 comments

Things get interesting when a storm moves into Death Valley National Park, California.

The fun continues in a place that, at first glance, does not appear to offer much.  Let’s face it.  Death Valley, although it’s very dramatic when you first drive in, is a dry and desolate place at first glance.  Because of this, a lot of people drive through without spending the night, just to check it off their bucket lists.  They may stop to check out the sand dunes or go to Badwater, the lowest spot in North America.  But little else.  What a waste!

My last two stories were about adventures from early trips, before it became a national park, and when I was just falling in love with the place.  Looking back at those times I seem to have been more than a little reckless at times.  But that’s the way it is when you’re young and capable of getting into trouble without paying too high a price.  Alas, those days are gone.  We all need to slow down a bit when we get older.  Knowing our limits let’s us return in one piece from an adventure, to tell the tale.  Occasionally I hear about an older person who gets themselves into trouble in the outdoors by biting off more than he can chew.  Nowadays I try to avoid being so foolish.

That said, in my opinion the opposite situation is far more prevalent.  Too many people are far too careful.  We hear about it when things go south for would-be adventurers.  But when have you ever read in the news about someone who missed out on a fun adventure because they were over-cautious?  In general the older the wiser.  But one way we aren’t so wise is that, as we grow into later middle age, we underestimate our abilities in order to avoid risks altogether.  We confuse staying comfortable with staying alive, and that results in ‘roads not taken.’

 

Old mine ruins in Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park.

Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light

This little adventure took place just last year.  Although no where near death-defying, it was just the kind of adventure most of us can do without risking it all.  It happened in an area of Death Valley that does not receive much (if any) attention.  The kind of place where one can hike all day without seeing anyone.  It lies along the Grapevine Mountains range-front, off the Scotty’s Castle Road.  Not far north of this road’s junction with Hwy. 190 is the turnoff for Titus Canyon, a scenic and popular Death Valley destination.

The gravel road to Titus’ mouth ascends an alluvial fan to a small parking area, where you must stop and continue on foot.  Although the road continues into the canyon, it is one-way only, from the other direction.  Titus is often closed to vehicles, and then it makes a fine hike from this parking area.  When it’s open I recommend driving in from the other direction.  But Titus isn’t the only canyon-hike from here.  Two others, Fall and Red Wall Canyions, are worthwhile treks as well.

From a previous hike up Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley N.P.

I started early in the morning, meaning to hike as far up Red Wall Canyon as I could reach in a day.  I hoped to refill with water at a spring in Red Wall, but I didn’t need to carry the usual heavy load of water anyway.  Since it was very early in the year, the weather was cool enough.  Also skies were mostly cloudy.  I headed north along the trail, passing the mouth of the shorter & more popular Fall Canyon along the way.  It was my second trip up Red Wall, and I looked forward to getting good images of the colorful cliff walls in late-day light on the way out.

After several hours hiking up-canyon, where I found some early-blooming flowers (it’d been an unusually wet winter), I decided to turn around earlier than expected.  There were a couple springs along the way, one of them with lush growth around it where I stopped and watched a hummingbird for awhile.  I exited the canyon, and since I had a few hours until dark I decided to do some exploring.  I trekked north along the range-front, looking for more interesting stuff.  Alluvial fans may look flat, but if you hike one without a trail be prepared for rugged, exhausting walking.

Blooming globe mallow in Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley, CA.

A sight you don’t expect in Death Valley: a hummingbird!

This sort of random wandering is one of my favorite things to do.  It probably accounts for the frequency with which I seem to end up in different places than originally planned.  I found another canyon further north, but could not access it the standard way.  That is, by heading up the wash and straight in.  The wash was deeply incised into the alluvial fan, leaving a sheer rock face at the mouth of the canyon.  Also, the wash itself had equally sheer cliffs of coarse gravel bordering it.

I climbed up above the mouth trying to access it that way, and nearly succeeded.  But a crux couple of moves on a scary traverse, something that would’ve presented little problem as a younger man, reminded me that the expression “discretion is the better part of valor” is particularly apt when you’re hiking alone and getting up there in years.

Retreating to the alluvial fan, I kept heading north and west, away from the range-front.  I made for an inselberg, which is a geologic term of German origin that refers to an island of bedrock in a sea of loose (normally gravelly) sediment.  Look around Death Valley and you’ll see them poking darkly out of the alluvial fans.  I found a cool little slot canyon that wound its way into the inselberg.  Smoothed limestone, little pour-offs that were “jumpable”, and plenty of chimney-like alcoves made it a fun maze to explore.

One of Death Valley’s ubiquitous washes.

The weather, which had been slowly deteriorating all afternoon, started to get interesting.  The wind blew harder and dark clouds built over the Panamint Range to the west.  I had the conversation with myself that I’ve had so many times before.  How long to get back to my van?  How much do I want a sunset shot in this area?  Will the light cooperate, thus making a hike back in the dark worthwhile?

Alluvial fans are one of Death Valley’s most iconic features, but one a casual visitor might not appreciate until it’s pointed out.  Just the kind of thing I like to photograph well.  So I decided to stay and try for the kind of shot that had been in the back of my mind for quite awhile; that is, looking down from the top (head) of the fan.  Imagine a bird’s-eye view looking straight down on an alluvial fan and the second part of that name becomes obvious.  The head, or top, of the fan is the sharp point, where it emerges from its source canyon.  From there the fan shape is not as clear.

I climbed up out of the slot canyon and onto the fan.  The wind was blowing a lot harder up there,.  Out on the valley floor it was picking up sand and dust from the dunes at Mesquite Flat and blowing it north, making things even more dramatic.  Wandering around I found a few blooming prickly pear cactus: wonderful little splashes of contrasting color (1st image below).  I wound up perched high above the head of the fan, looking straight down its wash and across to the Panamints.  The sun broke dramatically through the clouds and I shot some images (2nd image below).  Great storm light!

Storm light and blooming prickly pear high on a Death Valley alluvial fan.

The viewpoint I’d been seeking, from the head of one of Death Valley’s iconic alluvial fans.

By the time I finished it was near sunset and the storm was bearing down.  The walk back in gathering darkness was one of those you just want to be over.  Pushing straight upwind, stinging rain in the face, I was getting wet and cold.  That’s not a sensation one often experiences in Death Valley.  My camera backpack had a rain-cover so the gear was fine, but I didn’t have a rain parka.  Although nobody would think it possible in the continent’s hottest place, one could go hypothermic in those conditions.  I pushed the pace to generate heat.

It turned out to be a memorable outing, not just because I got some unusual and nice images of an area very few people visit let alone photograph, but because of the effort and discomfort involved.  As I already mentioned, avoiding discomfort is not always a wise choice.  My life was never really in danger after all.  And hiking back too early, while it seemed smart because of the storm, in the end would have only resulted in lesser images, and a lesser adventure to boot.

Darkness follows the storm, with Tucki Peak rising in the distance:  Death Valley!

 

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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.

Winter Photography, Part VI: Cold Shooting   16 comments

Morning at East Zion, Utah

Morning at East Zion, Utah

I’m not happy right now.  I had to leave Facebook (time for a break anyhow).  Not that it’s a big deal, but still, I don’t like being sort of forced into things.  You don’t want the dirty details.  Suffice to say, much as I believe I was born at least 100 years too late, I don’t think I’m made for today’s photography, at least in the landscape arena.

I’m thinking of giving up landscape photography it’s got me so discouraged.  The way to become popular in LS photography is to follow a path that I don’t want to follow.  In fact, I’m including pictures in this post that, while I like them for a few reasons, I’m really not satisfied with.  Maybe I’m being hard on myself, and tomorrow morning I’ll probably be out shooting happily.  But I’m really ready to move onward and upward, and am frustrated with my lack of artistic progress.  I’m not into this for a hobby.

A frozen pond on 13,000-foot Independence Pass in the Colorado Rockies.

A frozen pond on 13,000-foot Independence Pass in the Colorado Rockies.

Is this fun? An image I got by wading through a cold waist-deep stream, pushing aside floating ice.

Is this fun? An image I got by wading through the cold waist-deep water of Oneonta Creek, Ore., pushing aside floating ice.  P.S. it wasn’t really difficult, just making it seem that way!

So back to winter photography.  Here are a few parting tips for successful winter shooting:

  • Don’t Stay in Bed.  This is the hardest thing, at least for me.  Let’s face it, the best light is usually in the early morning or late afternoon, or with today’s cameras even in the middle of the night!  You can do winter photography at any time of day, but since days are shorter your time is limited.  If you want to focus on the golden hours near dusk or dawn, you have two chances each day, and they are much more closely spaced than in the summer.  So get out early and shoot late; you’ll still get plenty of sleep!
  • Positive Exposure Compensation.  Use your exposure compensation feature and over-expose by about a stop when you’re shooting in bright snow.  The amount you need depends on how bright the sun on the snow is, and on how much snow is in the frame.  The old film rule of thumb was +2 stops, but with DSLRs I’ve gotten away with anywhere from +2/3 to a stop and a half in most circumstances.  If you’re shooting RAW you can always bump up the brightness of the snowy parts on the computer, but it’s always best to get it right in camera.  Just don’t actually over-expose anything.  The easiest way to check for this is to set your blinking over-exposure warning (available on most all DSLRs) and always review the image on the LCD.
The Goblins in snow, Utah.

The Goblins in snow, Utah.

  • Watch the Weather.  Yeah, I know it’s great advice any time of year.  But I’ve found that weather patterns will settle into an area and make it so that one time per day is best, and that these conditions could last for a week or more.  I’ve also noticed that this bias is more prevalent in winter, at least in North America.  (It’s one of those things I pass on in this blog that nobody really talks about.)  That preferential shooting time could be around sunset or it could be sunrise.  If it happens to be dawn that is better than sunset, you better get your butt out of bed!
  • Strive for simplicity.  While this is a good thing to come back to from time to time, no matter the season, in winter the opportunities for simple compositions (and simple themes!) seem to abound.  There’s the obvious fact that snow blankets a lot of chaos with a smooth white, but even without snow there tends to be more simple compositions available during the cold months.
  • Take your tripod.  Winter makes it even more important to consider the limitation of low light.  Even during daytime, take your tripod just in case.
An approaching winter storm at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah.

An approaching winter storm at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah.

Alpenglow lights up Mount Hood in Oregon. Snow-covered Mirror Lake is at bottom.

Alpenglow lights up Mount Hood in Oregon. Snow-covered Mirror Lake is at bottom.

  • Be Ready.  Unless you are in Alaska or somewhere in high latitudes during that hemisphere’s months of shorter days, you should be ever cognizant of the brevity of the light.  In temperate regions (which includes nearly all of North America & Europe), so-called golden hour is noticeably briefer during winter months.  Of course your style may dictate that you are set up and ready at all times.  That’s not me, I wander even during good light.  Just be willing, during winter especially, to decide on a composition and subject well before the light comes.
New-fallen snow along the skiing trail: La Sal Mtns., Utah.

New-fallen snow along the skiing trail: La Sal Mtns., Utah.

  • Look for Details.  In winter, often the light is very clear but also quite boring.  That’s the time to look for details and macro opportunities.  Ice is a world unto itself, and often snow or ice clings to the most improbable objects, creating unusual and beautiful photos.  That is, if you’re looking for it.  As you travel through the environment, keep looking near and far, close-up and wide-open.

Okay, that’ll do it for Winter Photography.  I don’t like to be too prescriptive about photography, so it’s up to you from here on out.  Just bundle up and do it!  I’ll try to maintain the blog, even during my pause on social media (talk about love-hate).  But maybe I don’t consider this blog as the typical social media platform.  Anyway, have a great holiday season everyone!

Yesterday morning, with dramatic skies heralding coming snow, a simple corral up an unnamed canyon, southern Utah.

Yesterday morning, with dramatic skies heralding coming snow, a simple corral up an unnamed canyon, southern Utah.

Two for Tuesday: We’re Coming!   2 comments

If you want to see desert bighorn sheep, you can’t do much better than east Zion National Park in Utah.  Not the canyon itself so much; that can be a zoo in the warmer months.  If you travel east, through a couple spectacular tunnels, you come out in a wonderland of sandstone monoliths.  The bighorn sheep here are doing quite well.

I drove through my favorite part of Zion a couple days ago, stopping to take a short hike.  I saw two sheep browsing the spring growth and slowly pursued them, hoping they’d get comfortable with me.  They crossed the road and I crossed behind them.  Then I saw the babies & another female.

Mom was understandably shy about letting me get close to them, so I just watched as they climbed the steep sandstone.  Mom reached a viewpoint, but the kids were more careful.  They took their time, making sure each step was placed right.

Now they were very visible from the road and a few other cars stopped.   But since I had been with them for awhile, I ended up with a nice series, not just the one with them surveying their domain.  Stories and behavior are what I always hope for with wildlife.  I used my newish 600 mm. lens.  Enjoy!

Wait up mom, we’re coming!

Try and reach us now, haha!

 

Single-image Sunday: Patterns in Sandstone   5 comments

Since the Foto Talk this week was all about not getting too caught up in the search for abstract patterns in your photography, I thought I’d post an image whose sole aim was to abstract the subject.  But is this really an abstract?  I could have made it more so, for example by moving the camera or otherwise blurring details and color.  Or by getting experimental in post-processing.  But I wanted the close-up features of this dune sandstone to be very clear.

The abstraction is created by simply getting  close with my macro lens and framing so as to exclude the tiny flaws that are scattered through the rock.  I captured this at the famous Wave in southern Utah’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  The sandstone has been worn smooth by water and wind erosion, but up close you can see how rough it is, like sandpaper.

The tiny sand grains are frosted by winds that blew them into dunes during the early Jurassic Period nearly 200 million years ago when this whole region of the American southwest was a vast desert similar to the Sahara of today.

The thin layers (laminae) of alternating color are at an angle to the main sandstone beds.  This is called cross-bedding and is characteristic of dune sands.  The wind blew in grains that had been stained brick-red by iron.  Then it turned around and blew in cleaner, lighter-colored grains from a different source.  These grains would cascade down the steeper lee side of dunes, creating the cross-beds.

The flatter, thicker layers have been eroded into steps, a characteristic of the Wave.  Because of variation in their hardness, their ability to resist erosion, the layers stand out or are recessed.  This differential erosion is caused by variation in the amount and hardness of cement binding the sand grains together.

So what this image shows on a micro-scale is an ancient sand dune in cross-section that is now being sculpted by present-day winds.  In other words, it shows winds in a desert of the distant past, when early dinosaurs roamed the area.  And it shows what the desert of today is doing to those ancient dunes

So an abstract image can tell you something real about the subject.  I believe that’s the best kind of abstract in fact.  I’m hoping the image shows what nature can do, not what me or my camera can do.  Please let me know whether or not I succeeded.  I hope your weekend was a lot of fun.  Thanks for reading.

Undulations

Travel Theme: Dry   17 comments

It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts.  This week the topic is Dry.  Enjoy these images from southern Africa.  I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons.  My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.

It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains.  It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety.  This is especially true with respect to their young.  Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season.  Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer.  Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.

If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them.  If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me.  Enjoy and thanks for looking!

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season's first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana.  No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust.  A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia's Namib Desert.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

The standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia.  the mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail brushes insects away from her foal.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

Plants adapted to dry conditions normally grow very slowly, but it's hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia.  Some are well over 2000 years old.

Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope living in arid regions of Africa.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.

This lioness in Botswana's Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt in the relative cool of the evening.  Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

Namibia's Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I've been, an extremely arid coast with plenty of shipwrecks.

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoyingly dry thing that happens inside your nose.  This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Then he smiled mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Wordless Wednesday: Panamint Dunes   4 comments

_MGL8028

Happy Thanksgiving! Arch Leftovers   2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunchgrass & Shame   6 comments

Bunchgrass is about the only plant growing on the desert plains near Utah's Book Cliffs.

Bunchgrass is about the only plant growing on the desert plains near Utah’s Book Cliffs.

You may have noticed something missing this Friday.  Yes it happened, I missed Friday Foto Talk!  And for the first time.  Rather than make excuses I’ll just promise to do a “foto talk” post sometime this weekend and post on Sunday or Monday.  To be honest, there is no reason to apologize anyway; it was deliberate!  Instead of coming into town and blogging I opted to stay and hike through the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park.  What can I say, it was a bluebird day!  So here is the first image I captured upon my reentry into the Beehive State (Utah).  Have a spectacular weekend everyone!

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