Archive for the ‘landscape’ Tag

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The classic view of Telescope Peak from Badwater.

 

Navigation in Death Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off-Pavement in Death Valley

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

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

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

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Rural America: Summary Musings   15 comments

Rural ranchland of southwestern Colorado.

We’ve been rambling through the rural western U.S. on a series of road-trips.  Now it’s time to pause for a bit of reflection.  I’m greatly enjoying this series and hope you are too.  It’s been great to get away from photography topics for awhile and celebrate the reason I do it in the first place.  I first got into photography on my first ever solo road-trip at the tender age of 18.

A couple months after graduating high school I escaped my east-coast birthplace and drove across country in my Pontiac.  I’d been given a little manual camera as a gift.  Knowing nothing of the rule of thirds or anything else about photography, I shot many rolls of Kodachrome on that trip.  To this day documenting subjects I find while traveling is my #1 reason for doing photography.  I’m more serious about it now, with the added motivation of artful expression thrown into the mix.  But it’s still all about exploration and inspiration.

An old wood Baptist church sits in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

America celebrates horses (and doesn’t eat them): wild foal and mare, North Dakota.

The trips I’ve featured in this series have balanced visits to natural wonders with route variations that take in remnants of rural America and its history.  What is so fascinating about many parts of the country is the way that these three (the land, its human history and the way people interact with it now) are interwoven.  It’s possible when traveling in sparsely-populated areas, especially in the West and parts of the Midwest, to feel the power that the landscape exerted on past explorers and settlers, both native and white.  And it’s fascinating to see how the land continues to influence the way modern people live on it.

An old-time antebellum mansion on Georgia’s Atlantic coast.

Tending the land demanded bigger families in America’s past.  These folks lived at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in what was New Mexico Territory.

But everywhere you go in this great country it’s impossible to escape the obvious: things have changed in fundamental ways.  Gone are those days when most people made their living off the land, when they stayed at or very near their birthplaces for their whole lives.  Here’s an important fact about American history: those relative few who did not stay home were critical to shaping the young country.  They were responsible for America spreading westward to the Pacific.  They created the reality of the American spirit and formed the basis for the myths that would later be woven into that reality.

A cemetery out on the windblown plains of western Oklahoma.

Interior of a round barn: southeastern Oregon.

Nowadays nearly everyone moves somewhere else.  The same kinds of motivations are at work for us as for our forebears: a desire to start anew.  But since travel today does not entail near the hardship of days past, many more people move.  A person who is willing to take the chance that moving across country may mean that some of the family will die on the way is quite different than one who drives a U-Haul to California for a new job.  The latter is taking risks, but nothing like the former, whose life could literally collapse around her.

A cabin draws a small herd of free-range horses at the base of remote Steens Mountain, Oregon.

Crystal River runs down one of my favorite little valleys in the Colorado Rockies, home to a lucky few.

In my own travels through the west I’ve often tried to put myself into the boots of those risk-takers.  I imagine riding into rough country without maps, where my destination was more hope than reality, where I was in very real danger of being assaulted by robbers or bands of vengeful braves.  The change that has overtaken the world has not spared the western U.S.  But in out-of-the-way corners it is still possible to see things that have changed little, or even not at all.  And that’s what this series was all about.  (I say ‘was’ but I’ll return to the theme again when the mood strikes.)  Thanks for reading!

Spring daffodils bloom at an old cabin in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee live up to their name.

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Landscapes   2 comments

I took a break last week from Friday Foto Talk.  I hope everybody’s new year is starting off right.  I’m going to conclude the series on video for still photographers with two or three posts focusing on common subjects that you might want to film, with tips on how to make the most of those opportunities.  The first one is, you guessed it, landscapes.  By the way, there’s nothing wrong with using the verb ‘to film’ when you’re talking about digital video.  Is there?  To view the videos here, first click on the title at top left.  Then you can press the play button.

The Feel of a Landscape

Have you ever been out photographing a beautiful landscape, perhaps with a stream flowing through the scene or a breeze sighing through the trees, and wondered what it would be like for your viewers to hear and feel what you are hearing and feeling?  How do you shoot a video of a landscape and not bore people?  Nothing is really happening after all.  Or is it?  Although there is very little going on in the video at top, I think the intense dawn chorus of birdsong gives a strong feel of watching the sun rise over the Klamath wetlands of Oregon.

THE BASICS & BEYOND

It’s probably best to start out filming landscapes by putting the camera on a tripod and using a medium to narrow aperture focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene.  It’s easy to screw up a video by leaving important areas out of focus.  Now if you have close foreground in your video, you should not only focus closer, right on the foreground or slightly beyond it, you should also go with a wide angle lens and use a narrow aperture.

But if you’re trying to transmit the feel of the scene to your viewers, the procedure I just mentioned may not be the only thing you try.  For me the reason to do videos is to give viewers an idea of what it’s like to stand where I’m standing and see what I’m seeing.  It’s also one of my main goals in shooting stills, by the way.  First of all, don’t worry so much about the boredom factor.  For landscapes you’ll be trying to strike a balance between capturing the mood and boring your viewers, but don’t let that hamstring your creativity.  Definitely don’t limit your video to when there’s a lot of action.  My opinion is there are very few situations in still photography that cannot be successfully filmed.

COMPOSITION IS STILL KING (BUT AUDIO IS QUEEN)

Compose your video to take advantage of any movement in the scene, but make sure the movement is in keeping with the scene’s mood.  For example you could try getting low and close to a moving foreground element (waving grass or moving water, for e.g.).  Despite what I just said about focus, you could even leave your foreground out of focus if it doesn’t take up too much of the frame.  It’s not quite as distracting to see out of focus foreground in a video as it is in a still photo.  If it’s moving we don’t seem to mind as much if it’s blurry.  Experiment with this.

Don’t forget audio.  Sound is an important factor when trying to impart mood in your video.  For native audio, note what part of the soundscape you want to capture and use the appropriate mic, if you have one.  Or adjust position, recording short clips and listening back to them until you pick up the sound nicely.  In the video below, which was shot with a fisheye lens so you can see both up- and down-stream at Zion’s Subway slot canyon, it didn’t matter what mic I used.  Because of the closed-in canyon, the sound of moving water dominates everything.

We looked at wind already (check out this post), but it is part of nature so is a near constant concern.   Use a windsock but realize the wind will still cause issues.  Position and shelter the mic to minimize it.  If it’s whistling around some object, you could get close and deliberately record instead of avoiding it.  Or consider a video with audio turned off, and add separately recorded sound or music later.  Whatever it takes to create the mood.

GET A MOVE ON!

A lot of good video can be done while locked down on a tripod if you select your subjects and compositions carefully.  But moving the camera is inevitable.  If you want to pan through a scene, check out the tips in this post.  What I didn’t mention there is creating a sense of the scene with camera movement.  For example, panning horizontally on a tripod allows you to change the view by pivoting the camera.  But that can end up giving your viewers a vague sense of being disconnected from the scene.

By moving the camera itself you can give viewers a sense of moving through the scene.  Moving in an arc is good when you’ve got focus locked on an important subject and want to keep it in focus.  Just remember to either use a wide-angle lens with careful hand-held technique, or use some means of stabilizing & smoothing the movement (wearable stabilizer, rail, etc.).  Jumpiness distracts.

The best way to find a video that captures the mood of a landscape is to try different things.  Mix things up.  Panning vertically in a forest is worth trying.  In the video below I was walking through a Colorado aspen grove on a breezy morning and, despite the fact I knew the sound would include some wind interference, wanted to capture the quaking part of quaking aspen.  It’s a lesson in not letting worries about the quality worry you too much.  The wind only messed up the sound for a brief moment.

One final example:  if you are lucky enough to have an interesting subject in the scene, you could try breaking a rule.  Normally videos require slow, steady camera movement.  But how about throwing in a sudden jump-over?  Swing quickly over to that moose, or even a friend caught in a compelling action.  You need to keep it steady once you’re there; that is unless it’s a dangerous critter, in which case viewers expect a little jumpiness.  The point is to avoid getting stuck into some imagined correct way to do things.

Next time we will take a beginner’s look at the wonderful world of wildlife videography.  And speaking of that, have a wonderful weekend!

Friday Foto Talk ~ Sound in Video   2 comments

Last week because of Christmas I skipped Foto Talk.  I hope the holiday was fun and festive for all.  The series on video is not done yet, so let’s jump back in with perhaps the most important (and challenging) aspects of video.  I’m assuming that you wish to catch native audio; that is, the sounds that you hear during your video clips.  Adding audio later, whether it’s music or something else, is certainly possible and in many way easier.  But my initial goal is always to capture interesting audio at the same time as the video.

Check out the previous posts in this series for tips on the visual half of video.  In order to view the videos in this post, click the title at top-left, or on the link.  You’ll shoot to my Vimeo page where you can click on the play button.

There are several pitfalls to watch out for when recording audio.  The main ones follow, along with solutions.   As you do with photography, tailor your solutions for sound-recording problems to the specific subject and situation.

  • Built-in Microphone.  Your camera’s microphone, while usable, is essentially a starter mic.  Depending on its quality, the sound can be tinny and harsh.  It also can’t easily be used with a windscreen.  But don’t forgo your internal mic entirely.  It can be a better recorder of ambient sound than the shotgun mic that you’ll likely purchase (see below).

  Solution:  An internal microphone is okay for starting out.  But sooner or later you’ll want to purchase a separate external mic (or two) that mounts on your hotshoe.  There are two basic types of microphone, and what you most like to record will determine whether you get one or the other (or both).  If you want to record discrete sound sources (bird calls, a person talking or singing, etc.) get a shotgun mic.  If you most often record diffuse soundscapes with the sources scattered around you (the video at top is an example), get an omnidirectional mic.  The shotgun mic (which comes in different types which vary in their degree of directionality) can cost a lot more than the omni mic.  But it’s useful in a far wider set of circumstances.  So I recommend buying a shotgun mic first.

  • Wind.  The wind often adds atmosphere to a setting (see link to video below).  So why not record it?  Not so fast!  Your ears are designed in a wonderfully organic way.  But when wind hits a microphone it doesn’t sound atmospheric.  It just sounds like somebody trying to annoy you by blowing into a mic.

  Solution:  There is a deceptively easy solution to wind noise.  If and when you buy an external mic, buy a windscreen for it and don’t take it off.  They come in foam or hairy (“deadcat”) versions, or you can make one yourself.  Depending on how strong the wind is they can be very effective in blocking out wind noise.  But they aren’t 100%, so you should take steps to shelter the mic further from strong winds.  Point down-wind and block with your body if at all possible.

Wind and Quaking Aspens: Colorado Rockies

  • Image Stabilizer & other Space-outs.  I hate to admit how many great soundscapes I’ve recorded that are immediate candidates for deletion.  Why?  Because I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon).  That little motor you barely notice while shooting stills will sound like a generator, even if you use an external mic.  Another easy thing to forget is the sound setting itself.  If you turn off sound recording in the menu (say you plan to add sound later), you’ll feel as dumb as a post when you play back to dead silence.  You may think it’s hard to be this forgetful, but when you’re grabbing a quick video in the midst of shooting stills, believe me it’s easy to space out.  Finally, if you have an external mic it can be easy to forget to turn that on.

  Solution:  Get in the habit, every time you switch to video mode, of checking to make sure that IS or VR is turned off.  Also helpful is getting in the habit of reviewing and listening to at least portions of your clips.  And before you do any video make sure that the sound setting is turned on.  Then if you turn it off for a video or two, go in right after and turn it back on.  Make it your default setting.  Most external microphones have a little light that says it’s on.  But get used to turning your mic on (and off when you’re done) every time you record.

  • Planes.  Aircraft (planes, helicopters, and now drones) are a type of unwanted noise that deserves its own category.  Whether you’re recording the human voice or the sounds of nature, planes just seem to show up at the worst times.  Soon after you press the record button, you’ll hear one buzzing overhead.  It’s almost guaranteed.  I never fully appreciated the amount of air traffic in our world until I started shooting video and recording natural sounds.

  Solution:  Mostly patience is all that is required.  Planes don’t take too long to pass over, though while you’re waiting it can seem an eternity.  If you’re under a flight path it may take awhile to get a silent window.  If a helicopter is working in the area you’re stuck with it and should probably return another day.  If somebody has a drone and insists on flying it near you, well that’s what a slingshot or pellet gun is for (just kidding..I think).

There is more to sound than the above, and next time we’ll dive in a little deeper.  But if you can overcome these simple stumbling blocks, you’re well on your way to recording quality sound with your videos.  Thanks for reading, and have a happy and photographic New Year!

Wordless Wednesday: Happy Winter Solstice!   8 comments

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Single-image Sunday: Surf Fishing   4 comments

I know it’s a bit lame, but I can’t help but apologize for my recently inconsistent Friday Foto Talk posts.  Blame it on that good old sense of guilt that everyone raised Catholic seems to suffer from.  Believe me I haven’t forgotten about it.  I’m also going to be collecting all of them into one or more e-books.  It surprises me to look back and see how many I’ve amassed over these past several years.  It’s a nice summary of my photography knowledge (which hopefully still has a long way to go)

In the meantime, enjoy this image from the other morning.  I’ve been rising in the pre-dawn every morning for work, but it mostly happens that the people I’m working with abhor starting before the sun is up.  The happy result is that I get to enjoy a peaceful sunrise somewhere.  On this morning I walked over the dunes just as the sun was breaking through and in time to see this fisherman casting into the breakers for snook.  In talking to him I detected an accent that made me think South African but with a small twist.  Turns out he was from east Africa.  Retired now, he walks up to the beach almost every morning for some surf fishing at sunrise.

Thanks for looking and have a great week.

Surf-fishing at sunrise, Atlantic Coast of Florida.  50 mm. Zeiss lens, 1/100 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

Surf-fishing at sunrise, Atlantic Coast of Florida. 50 mm. Zeiss lens, 1/100 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

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.

Friday Foto Talk: Likes & Dislikes ~ Shooting in National Parks, Part I   17 comments

Sunrise over the Continental Divide, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

After several weeks of relatively involved Foto Talks, I’m in the mood for short and sweet this week.  As my annual pass to National Parks (NPs) expires, I’m trying to decide when (or even if) I should buy another one.  I probably will.  But it’s made me consider all that I love (and all that I don’t) about America’s National Parks.  I’d love to hear what you think of my likes or dislikes.  Or if you have any of your own you’d like to add.  So fire away in the comments!

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

LIKE

National Parks are photo-worthy.  Of course it’s easy to like the scenery and wildlife of the parks.  It’s mostly why they were protected in the first place.  Nearly all of the parks are photogenic.

DISLIKE

NPs are crowded.  All that beauty and wildlife draws a lot of visitors.  Nearly all of the parks have seen steady increases over the past few decades.  And with recent drops in the price of gas, people are on the road, flocking to the parks.  Visitation is exploding.  Of course a few parks have always been busy: Yosemite, Great Smokies, Grand Canyon.

But two fairly recent trends are bothersome, at least for those of us with some history in the parks.  One is the increase in off-season visitation.  Another is exploding visitation in parks like Zion and Rocky Mountain (which has recently leapfrogged both Yosemite and Yellowstone).  Even small, out-of-the-way parks like Great Basin (which I recently visited) can get busy in summertime.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them:  Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them high up in Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

LIKE

NPs are diverse.  Most parks are all about mountains, forests and streams.  Others are more famous for their wildlife.  But many others feature history or pre-history.  The newest unit, Stonewall National Monument in New York, even celebrates LGBT (gay) rights.

DISLIKE

NPs attract very non-diverse visitors.  I don’t know how much of a dislike this is because I think it’s slowly changing.  But parks are lily white.  Black Americans in particular are few and far between, especially in the big nature-dominated parks of the west.  Latinos are beginning to visit in greater numbers, probably because they have families to entertain.  But they’re also under-represented.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

LIKE

NPs are managed for people.  Most parks go out of their way to make parks accessible to everyone.  And this includes the disabled.  It’s actually in their charter.  They were created with a dual purpose in mind, which if you think about it is a pretty difficult pair of opposing values to simultaneously succeed at.

But they do a good job.  There are accessible trails and fishing platforms at Yellowstone and other parks, for example.  Roads give access to the best attractions, and lodging plus camping allow staying inside the park (as long as you make reservations early enough).

DISLIKE

NPs attract all sorts of people.  Here’s a sad fact:  many people bring way too much with them when they go on vacation, yet they routinely leave common sense at home.  People arrive ready to have a good time, and that’s fine.  But for so many, a good time means getting loud and raucous.  You won’t see the same people in a NP that you see at a trailhead for a remote wilderness area, getting ready to hike in for a week of self-sufficient existence.  That doesn’t mean you won’t find these hikers in NPs (I for one, haha!).  It’s just a numbers thing.

In nature, around wildlife especially, being the typical noisy human being is simply not appropriate.  It ruins the atmosphere and impacts all sorts of creatures, including other humans.  But sadly it’s all too typical.  Many young people don’t learn how to have a different sort of good time until well into adulthood.  It’s one of the things I am thankful for.  I learned early on.

Next time we will continue with some general advice on shooting in national parks.  Happy weekend everybody!

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake in the alpine terrain of a less-traveled area of Rocky Mtn. NP, Colo.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View & Staying Safe   13 comments

A recent shot from a lovely place in the Colorado Rockies called Bluebird Lake.

Let’s follow-up on the topic point of view (POV) and in particular last week’s Foto Talk on ethics and legality.  As you begin to dream up and try a wide variety of positions to shoot from, you’ll find yourself getting more deeply involved with it.  It’s what photography is all about.  But before you get lost in the moment, take another moment to consider the following cautionary tales.  The phrase “safety comes first”, after all, applies to photography like it does to any undertaking.

Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

POV & Safety:  People

  • Property Territoriality.  I mentioned last week how you might run afoul of property owners or officials.  Yet anybody could take strong exception to your shooting near their “territory”.  One time in a lonely rural area I was getting some sunset shots.  Not far away was a farm house.  I was on the side of a county road, not even pointing the camera directly at the house.  But driving away in the gathering dark I noticed a guy following me in a pickup.  He continued for quite awhile until I stopped, got out and challenged him (something I don’t recommend).  Later I was pulled over by a cop (the guy had called) and had to explain who I was and what I was doing.
While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.

While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.

  • Compositional Territoriality.  It’s not always property owners who have issues.  You can also get in the way of other photographers too.  Although I generally shy away from popular locations and subjects and so don’t run into many others, on occasion I have inadvertently stepped in the way of a fellow shooter.  Some of these guys (they’re always guys) are extremely possessive of “their” compositions (see bottom image).  I don’t know why but they seem to like shining flashlights or (worse) laser pointers at me in a sort of passive aggressive way.  Weird.
  • See Below for more on staying safe in populated areas.
Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot 'cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot ’cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.

SOLUTIONS    

  • Stay Cool.  I probably don’t have to tell you that situations involving angry people can spin quickly out of control.  But if you remain relatively calm and listen to what the person is saying you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Be Honest.  It’s always best to state honestly what you’re doing.  If you try to obfuscate in any way you’ll just put yourself under suspicion.
  • Be Sensitive but Firm.  I try to strike a balance between (1) being sensitive to both the law and to people’s concerns and (2) being firm about my right to be on public property and my right to use (especially to keep!) my camera gear.
  • Know when to Walk Away.  I don’t always handle people the way I later realize I should have.  The main thing I’ve done wrong in the past is to not apologize and walk away when someone gets very angry.  Apologize even if you don’t think you’re in the right.  If they won’t let you go and want to get physical, just pull out your phone and dial 911.
St. Vrain River, Colorado.

St. Vrain River, Colorado.

POV & Safety:  Animals

People are obviously the biggest danger, but other animals can be dangerous as well (see what I did there?).  How close to that buffalo do you really need to be?  Seems we read on a weekly basis about tourists getting hurt when they get too near buffalo or other wild animals in Yellowstone Park.  And it’s not just tourists.  Pro photographers with not enough wildlife experience or common sense get too close.  Don’t take domestic animals too lightly either.  For example I give Brahma bulls more respect than most wild animals.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

SOLUTIONS

  • Learn.  Start by reading about your animal subjects, paying particular attention to body language, territorial behaviours, “comfort distances” and related info.  But remember to take anything you learn on the internet or in books as a general guide only.  Animals are like people.  It’s not just that each individual is unique; it’s that each situation you find it in is unique.  Animal behaviour depends not just on instinct but on the individual and its circumstances.
  • Observe.  There is no substitute for careful observation of body language while you’re anywhere near a potentially dangerous animal.  Don’t approach until you take a good look.  For example, ears back is a common warning sign with prey animals.  For predators you may get ears back if they’re feeling defensive, or ears forward and alert if they’re on the hunt.
  • Go Slow.  Approaching slowly will not only avoid frightening the animal and blowing your chances, it will also give the animal a chance to get comfortable and keep it from becoming defensive.  It will also allow you more time to observe your quarry and stop if a behaviour indicates you should.  As a rule you should never turn your back on or run from any potentially dangerous animal.  There are exceptions to this however.

I’ve posted this one before, but it shows so well how animals use body language to warn you about getting any closer (arched tail).

POV & the Blinder Effect

  • The blinder effect is when you are dialed in to what you’re doing, changing positions and POV.  Our minds are on the shot, not on possible dangers.
  • As photographers we are more vulnerable than the average person.  To see why, let’s take mountain lions as an example.  If you’re a smaller man or a woman you need to be particularly careful in cougar country.  But even if you’re big and ugly like me, think about it.  As a photographer we often choose to shoot near dawn or dusk when the light is good.  And that’s when most predators are active.  Further, we tend to crouch down (making ourselves smaller) with faces pressed to the camera instead of directed toward danger.
  • In populated areas, simply substitute the word mugger for cougar and the situations are perfectly parallel.

ANIMALS

It’s not just when they’re the subjects that wildlife is a potential danger.  On a couple occasions I’ve been so focused on a landscape shot that I allowed a curious animal to approach me quite closely.  Depending of course on the animal and the situation, this could be either a pleasant surprise or a dangerous development.  For example cougars inhabit even populated areas.  And don’t forget venomous snakes.  Adjusting POV often means walking through tall grass or thick brush.

I definitely avoided turning my back on this Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia.

This Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia snuck up on me while I was photographing a bigger one. It’s a bit chilling to be stalked.

PEOPLE

  • Urban Areas:  In cities, wandering into a sketchy neighborhood near dark is easy to do when chasing a shot.  I did it in Kuala Lumpur once while trying for a photo of the Petronas Towers at blue hour (dusk).  That is, until a kind local noticed and let me know I was putting myself (or at least all my camera gear) at risk.  I got a shot but it wasn’t right, so next night I did something different (see image).

Not as famous as the Petronas Towers, but still worth shooting, the Kuala Lumpur Tower & the perfect POV on my hotel’s roof. I don’t think I was supposed to be there.

  • Remote Areas:  One reason I like wilderness areas is because there’s normally no need to worry about other people.  But the other side of that coin means you are more vulnerable if a bad character does appear.  Several years ago I was in Colombia on a hike through a jungle known for its bandits.  I stopped to watch some very cool-looking monkeys.  There was a small noise and I turned around to find that two young native guys with machetes had caught right up to me.  Chills went down my spine.  But happily they turned out to be friendly and we ended up hiking together.  One even climbed a tree and used his machete to cut a huge fresh papaya down (yummy!).

SOLUTION

For the blinder effect there is really just one solution:  Be Aware of your Surroundings.  Take your face away from the camera and look around from time to time, particularly in lonely places.

Summary

I feel like I’ve sounded a tone that’s a bit too paranoid.  We all know what can result from too much fear: paralysis.  In fact you’ll probably never run into most of these situations.  But they are worth being ready for in the same way that it’s wise to prepare for a natural disaster that’ll probably never happen.  So be careful out there, just not too careful.  Shoot with as many POVs as you think is necessary.  Practice awareness and common sense and all will be well.  Have a great weekend!

At Deadhorse Point, Utah, a popular spot, I arrived pre-dawn & was able to shoot this gnarled juniper while another photog. who arrived after me circled around with his little flashlight.

At Utah’s Deadhorse Point, a popular spot, I showed up very early (rare for me).  While shooting this gnarled juniper a guy who arrived after me but apparently wanted the same shot circled around trying various ways to hurry me.

Friday Foto Talk: Pre-Visualization   6 comments

From the Columbia River Gorge, this was a completely unexpected image, only captured because a traffic jam forced me to take a detour. Although I've been here many times since then, the conditions have never measured up to that day.

From the Columbia River Gorge, this was a completely unexpected image, only captured because a traffic jam forced me to take a detour. Although I’ve been here many times since then, the conditions have never measured up to that day.

The past half-dozen or so Friday Foto Talks have focused on landscape photography.  The topic of this one, pre-visualization applies to all photography.  But it’s become apparent to me that many photography “experts” believe pre-visualization is critical when making landscape images.  That triggered my always-ready skepticism, so I thought I’d examine this assumption with a critical eye.  Is it really possible that, at least with respect to pre-visualization, I’ve been doing landscape photography wrong all this time?  (In general I don’t pre-visualize my images.)

Mount Rainier from Eunice Lake, an image I had pre-visualized, though I did not know about the flowers until I hiked up there.

Mount Rainier from Eunice Lake, an image I had pre-visualized, though I did not know about the flowers until I hiked up there.

Pre-Visualization Defined

What exactly is pre-visualization?  In order to distinguish it from visualization (the subject of next Friday’s post), I’m defining it the following way: Before you’re out shooting, imagine in your mind the way you’d like an image to look.  You’re starting to pre-visualize.  Going further, you imagine the place and subject, the composition, all the supporting elements and even the light that makes the image look perfect.  In short, everything about it.  You also make the necessary plans to execute that image, including when and how to get there, where exactly to stand, etc.  You may even imagine all the praise you’ll get, but that’s a different topic!

I had come here to Great Sand Dunes National Park photograph the dunes, but found myself on a dry lake-bed nearby, and an un-pre-visualized image.

I had come to Great Sand Dunes National Park to photograph the dunes, but found myself on a dry lake-bed nearby, with an un-pre-visualized image.

Problems with Pre-Visualization

CHANGING VARIABLES

With landscape photography, I sometimes pre-visualize when I’m making a repeat visit to a place, rarely on a first visit.  But here’s the kicker: I mostly don’t get the precise image I’ve visualized.  Often I don’t even come close.  Does that mean I fail at getting successful landscape images?  Only you the viewers can judge, but in order to keep going I assume the answer is no.  Instead of getting discouraged, I recognize there are far too many variables at work for me to consistently realize my imagined images.  Light is the obvious one, but access and other compositional restrictions, unexpected extra elements, even the exact mood (both of you and the time/place) all come into play, most of the time ruining our best-laid plans.

While in the middle U.S. I wanted an image of a covered bridge or other historic architecture, but with a different composition. This one at Bollinger Mill, Missouri, fit the bill.

While in the middle U.S. I wanted an unusual composition of a covered bridge or other historic architecture, but didn’t visualize anything too specific.  This one at Bollinger Mill, Missouri, fit the bill.  

THE NEED FOR FLEXIBILITY

To be a photographer is not to always stick to your plan; it’s to be ready at a moment’s notice to enact plan B (or plan C).  It’s to be almost hyper-aware of your surroundings, observing the changing weather, light and other conditions, and to adapt, making the most of what you’re given.  You could lay out a pre-visualized plan and stick around until all the light and other variables cooperate.  But the time and patience required for that is not very practical, at least for the majority of us.

Sure, the occasional image might be important enough to you, so go ahead and do it.  Or if you’re shooting architecture, portraits, or some other type of photography with more easily controlled variables, then pre-visualization can work without great amounts of extra patience and time.  But your usual mode of operation for landscape and nature photography should be much more flexible and open-minded.

I had pre-visualized a starscape image featuring the Milky Way (when I was more into those), then I came upon this different kind of image with the Big Dipper & Vermillion Cliffs.

I had pre-visualized a starscape image featuring the Milky Way (when I was more into those), then I came upon this different kind of image with the Big Dipper & Vermillion Cliffs.

SNEAKY INFLUENCES

Changing variables and the need for flexibility is only the most obvious reason to take pre-visualization with a grain of salt.  Isn’t it possible that many of our pre-visualized images are influenced by images we’ve seen online, even down to the exact place and composition?  I think so.  This is perfectly fine if you’re a tourist or otherwise casual shooter and simply want to take some photos for fun and memories.  I was casual about photography for years, so I mean that sincerely!

If you’re more serious about photography and want to develop a style all your own, if you view your photography as artistic expression, it’s extremely important to avoid influences that could lead you to capture too many images that are derivative in nature, simple replications of the photography of others.

I had pre-visualized this image of Jackson Lake with the Tetons and the Milky Way. The setting moon was an unexpected addition.

I had pre-visualized this image of Jackson Lake with the Tetons and the Milky Way. But I’d planned on waiting ’till the moon set, not including it’s light behind the Grand.

When & Why to Pre-Visualize

Despite these downsides and cautions, I believe there is a place for pre-visualization.  For one thing, pre-visualization helps to develop at least a preliminary plan.  And it even works sometimes, with some luck.  I’ve posted the image at bottom before.  I’m posting it again because it’s the most recent successful image that I deliberately pre-visualized before arriving at the location.  But it’s the exception.  Most of my successful landscape images were not explicitly pre-visualized.  However, this doesn’t mean visualization was not involved (see below).

Definitely pre-visualized image of a small exploration drill rig. I even planned the pipe as leading lines plus the blurred movement in dim blue dusk light.

A pre-visualized image of a small exploration drill rig. I even planned the pipe as leading lines plus the blurred movement in dim blue dusk light.

The most important reason to engage in at least occasional pre-visualization is that it can help you to be more conscious about your photography.  Consciously thinking about your pictures before you go out shooting leads to more subconscious pre-visualization, tapping into your creativity.  Going further, the practice of pre-visualization (either consciously or subconsciously) can lead to a greater amount of visualization, which is done while out shooting.  Next time we’ll examine these things in more depth, specifically visualization and its role in making good photographs.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

I had pre-visualized this image of the barn and cliffs of Capitol Reef, Utah. All I needed was at least one of the two horses being out in the pasture, plus good light of course.

I pre-visualized this image of the barn and cliffs at Capitol Reef, Utah. All I needed was at least one of the two horses being out in the pasture, plus good light of course.

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