Archive for the ‘lessons’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Lessons from the Field   11 comments

The day begins in southern Utah's desert.

The day begins in southern Utah’s desert.

I had quite an eventful day yesterday.  I don’t normally spend a lot of time blogging about the goings-on in my life.  This isn’t reality television after all!  But I’m going to make an exception because of how the day unfolded as a cautionary tale for any nature photographers out there.  Amazingly enough, all three parts of my day (sunrise, mid-day and sunset) contain lessons relevant to photography.  It might be instructive to take a look at how yours truly sometimes does things, if only so that you might learn what not to do!

Lesson 1 – When to Challenge Yourself

This is something that was brought home to me while shooting sunrise yesterday.  I was camped at Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  It was my second visit.  As far as I know, the place is relatively unknown amongst photographers.  But I think it has a lot going for it.  Beautiful reddish & smooth sandstone with fascinating patterns overlooks a pretty canyon.  Atop this so-called slickrock lies a collection of white, mushroom-shaped sandstone monoliths, with views that include the La Sal Mountains.

On the first visit to Bartlett I was a bit late for the dawn light.  And having walked up to the white sandstone monoliths, I had trouble finding a good composition.  Even though it’s obviously an interesting place with plenty of photographic potential, it is also challenging.  The main trouble comes when trying to find good shooting positions (or points of view).  Some of the best compositions are found from atop the mushroom monoliths, but some of them are far from easy to climb.  And which one to climb?  It’s a bit confusing.

Dawn from the "mushroom monoliths" at Bartlett Wash.

Dawn from the “mushroom monoliths” at Bartlett Wash.

On the contrary, the reddish slickrock below is not only easier to get to, it is chock full of leading lines and other strong patterns.  It’s much more a gimme than the mushroom rock above.  So on this second visit, I told myself I would be early and make sure to shoot the reddish sandstone in the best light.  I woke early enough alright, but something made me go up to the mushroom rock.  I spent the time of best light up there, again getting frustrated looking for good compositions.  By the time I got around to the red slickrock the sun was well up and the light a bit harsh.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

I don’t know about you, but I often go for the more challenging photo  subjects, even when I know a more-certain option exists.  The red slickrock was there for the taking.  I saw plenty of strong compositions which don’t involve any real challenge; you just walk right up to them.

But here’s the thing: it’s not at all clear that it was worth the extra effort to bang my head (metaphorically) against the white mushroom rock.  It may or may not have yielded the best images at Bartlett.  But the fact that it’s more challenging up there drew me.  And so I missed good light in the more certain photographic terrain of the red slickrock.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Only you can decide which path you will take when presented with similar options during your shooting.  It may depend on your mood.  I don’t know if it’s very smart for me (a non-morning person) to pick the more challenging path for sunrise.  But without thinking about it that’s what I did.  You might be better able than me to see where the better pictures are to be had and go there without regard for challenge.

In fact, it makes more sense to save the more challenging terrain for a time without the extra stress of quickly passing dawn light.  The idea is to find the good composition at leisure and then return for it in good light.  That would be the logical way to do it.  Sometimes I am not the most logical person.  But I’m sure of one thing: the process of tackling challenging photographic subjects in quickly changing light can definitely make you a better photographer.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Lesson 2 – Be Prepared

This one isn’t tied directly to any photographs I took, but it’s certainly relevant to photography.  In mid-morning, after the sunrise shoot (see Lesson 1), I decided to do a short mountain bike ride at a place called Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  Or that was the plan, to play on the slickrock there for just an hour or so.  By the way, slickrock is smooth sandstone that is perfect for off-trail hiking and mountain bike riding.  The Moab, Utah area here is famous for it, but it occurs throughout the American desert southwest.

While riding, I became intrigued by the slickrock terrain on the other side of the wash from where I was riding.  Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, and the slickrock is always smoother!  Finished and back at the bottom, I saw a little sign I had not noticed, pointing to the area I had been curious about.  It said simply “3-D Jedi”.  I had not heard of that ride.  Bartlett was in my guidebook but not this one with the fascinating name.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

So instead of heading back as I should have done I biked up onto the slickrock.  I told myself I would just check out the first mile or so, but you know how that goes!  The thing is, since I was only out for a little bit, I didn’t bring any sun screen or sunglasses (the day started out cloudy).  I also didn’t bring a repair/patch kit or bike pump. And crucially, I had no map and no water.  Yep, you heard it right, I was out in the desert with no water.

Stupidly, I kept going..and going.  The ride turned into a 5 hour ordeal (I mean ride!).  Though I never saw another soul, a set of bike tracks was visible in places, plus sporadic rock cairns marked the route.  So I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting lost.  I kept wanting to head back but the thought (hope?) that I was riding a loop kept me going. For over a mile the “trail” skirted a narrow ledge with a truly dizzying drop on one side.  Needless to say I walked my bike on the narrowest parts.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

When the route finally descended onto more great slickrock and dropped onto a jeep track, I saw my first sign at a junction.  Though the sign didn’t say 3-D or Jedi, I guessed the left fork would lead me back to where I came from.  Deep sand had me pushing my bike for a good while, and the sun came out in force.  I was THIRSTY!  Then my luck turned: I saw a sign that said 3-D with an arrow pointing ahead.

When the sandy jeep track crested a ridge I recognized the canyon.  I was back in Bartlett!  The surface grew firm and I raced down the twisting trail.  I had made it!  I almost attacked the water back at camp, and in fact had to rein myself in.  You can get very sick drinking too much water at one time.  It even has the potential to kill you.

Slickrock makes the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Slickrock makes for the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Lesson 3 – Go slow to go fast

You might have heard this expression before.  If you don’t take your time enough to do things right, even under stressful conditions when hurrying is important, you will pay the price.  You’ll spend much more time either fixing mistakes or regretting not having been more careful.  This was brought home to me during my sunset shoot yesterday.

After the big bike ride, I realized I had time to go somewhere for sunset.  I felt I had played Bartlett out, and it’s best for sunrise anyway.  There’s an area I also like near Moab, one that also doesn’t see photographers.  It’s great for sunset, with a grand view of the La Sal Mtns.  There is one hitch though – access.  You either need to do a rough 4WD jeep trail or hike in from the other side.

The hike up the wash toward my sunset spot.

On the hurried hike up the wash toward my sunset spot, I paused just once for this shot.

The hike (which takes about an hour) goes up a canyon.  Then you need to climb out of the canyon up onto the rim.  There are only a couple reasonable routes, the rest being cliffs.  I explored this area awhile back for the first time.  When I started out sunset was 55 minutes away, so I was in a hurry.

Almost at the top, I glanced over to the La Sals and saw beautiful light beginning to hit them.  There was one more 10-foot ledge to scramble up, and I was determined not to miss the light.  I stepped on a huge block of sandstone that I should have been suspicious of.  It shifted and came smashing down on my ankle.  I wrenched my leg away just in time then came a mad dash for safety as the huge rock began rolling.  Luckily it didn’t go far and I was able to get out of the way.

I lay there on my back in some pain.  Looking up into the sky I saw the clouds turning orange and pink.  But suddenly that didn’t matter.  I gingerly rotated my ankle.  Amazingly it seemed okay.  The real test came when I got up and put weight on it.  Yes!  It seemed to be only bruised and cut.  To shorten the story, I made it to the spot I had in mind and got some nice shots (bottom).  After the sun set I made my way down.  Though I had my headlamp, it’s somewhat nerve-wracking to pick your way down a steep rocky descent in the dark.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it's like to still be on the edge as darkness falls.  Car headlights trace the park road.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it’s like to still be on the edge as darkness falls. Car headlights trace the park road.

That night as my ankle swelled up, I thought about how stupid I had been.  Go slow to go fast!  It’s even more important advice when the light is pushing you to hurry. Though it’s important not to waste time getting set up (the light won’t wait after all), over-hurrying often results in mistakes that show in your pictures.  Bad photos are one thing; always remember that much bigger disasters are possible when you’re in a big rush.

So think about what you’re doing when out photographing nature.  It’s a real excursion, and you are the only one responsible for your safety.  Go prepared.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  Take your time.  It’s important to come back with the best pictures possible.  But it’s even more important to come back!

Thanks for sticking with this long post.  If you’re interested in any of these images (which are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission), please contact me.  Click on any of the pictures to go to my galleries.  Thanks for your interest.  By the way, my ankle is sore but just fine.

The view from "almost broken ankle point" in Utah.

The view from “almost broken ankle point” in Utah.

Friday Foto Talk: A Few Lessons from the Field   14 comments

Dawn over the Olympic Mountains in Washington

Dawn over the Olympic Mountains in Washington

I’ve been running around the Olympic Peninsula in Washington over the past week chasing the light.  I’ve tried to hit places where I have never been during previous visits.  It is a very large and diverse place, covered in large part by Olympic National Park.  I will do a travel post on it very soon.  Before that I spent a few days at Mt Rainier.  I want to highlight a few lessons I’ve (re) learned that might be valuable for photographers doing trips to areas with natural wonders like this.

Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park is shrouded in morning mists.

Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park is shrouded in morning mists.


      • While a planned route is good as a starting point, allowing you to maximize time and save fuel, you will likely be forced to abandon the plan if you expect to make the most of good weather conditions (i.e., good light).  Do not try to be strict about your plan.  You either chase the light, adjusting meal times, losing sleep, etc. or you miss the light.  It’s that simple.
      • Dealing with traveling companions can be tricky.  If you’re traveling with family (or really anybody who does not live and breathe photography), you will need to find a balance.  Everyone needs to have a good time and you need to get your shots.  Realize that in order to get every shot you want, you will need to travel alone.  I was solo on  this trip.  Well not truly solo, but  my dog doesn’t have a say in things and so doesn’t count.  But I was free to explore, double back, stay up late, sleep in shifts, etc.  I’m very sure that had I been traveling with someone who is more of a casual photographer, this would have been our very last trip together.
Before dawn at Mt Rainier National Park, the moon rises over Reflection Lake.

Before dawn at Mt Rainier National Park, the moon rises over Reflection Lake.

      • But even if you’re traveling solo (or with another die-hard photog.), you need to tend to that “other” person inside you.  I keep having to re-learn this for some reason.  I tend to become obsessive about the photos at times, but then remember I need to see and appreciate things too.  The pace is often different for these two approaches.  But sometimes I have the most fun when I really slow down.  This, coincidentally, is usually good for photography.

 Sometimes switching out of photographer to traveler mode reaps rewards.  On the northern Olympic Peninsula the clouds had moved in.  The light was beautiful when they came, but it promised to be gray for at least a day or two.  I thought of heading down to the rainforest for moody pictures but it was a long drive from where I was.  Instead I headed up to the NW corner of the Peninsula, Cape Flattery.  This is the northwestern-most point of the U.S. (excluding Alaska of course) and I had never been there.  My reasoning was simple and not photo-related.  Fog and mist at sunset rarely do good things for a seascape at sunset.  But I wanted to see the place.

A small waterfall in Quinalt Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.

A small waterfall in Quinalt Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.

As it happened I got great shots of the cape’s forest in thick fog.  On the way along the rugged northern coast, bordering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the fog created beautiful patterns.  The pictures I got are not of a place that most photographers think of when they visit Olympic, but they are beautiful and evocative of the lonely atmosphere of this relatively remote area.  Another bonus was getting to meet friendly locals in one of the few small towns and visiting the Makah American Indian Reservation.

For example I doubled back and revisited a high alpine trail-head where I slept and then woke pre-dawn, hiking to a peak for sunrise.  It was bothering me that on both occasions I did not attain the perfect viewpoint for a panorama of Puget Sound and the Cascades.  So I thought of returning yet a third time, which would have involved driving back two hours late at night.  But I stopped myself, thinking it was a bit too obsessive.  A good night’s sleep along a river-bank was my reward.

Cones protect the seeds of a subalpine fir from harsh conditions on a high ridge-line at Olympic National Park.

Cones protect the seeds of a subalpine fir from harsh conditions on a high ridge-line at Olympic National Park.

      • In getting up for sunrise, plan on rising at least a half-hour earlier than you think necessary.  I have trouble getting up early.  Once I’m up it’s fine of course, but this has always been a struggle for me.  I’m a night person, so staying up late is much easier.  For dawn photography, it’s best to arrive in the area where you’ll be shooting well before the sun rises.  Use a flashlight/headlamp if you’re hiking somewhere, but try to turn it off as soon as there is enough light to see.  This will allow your eyes to get used to the low light and you will see good pre-dawn compositions much more easily.

When there are a variety of clouds in the sky and light is good, those clouds will begin lighting up at least a half hour before the sun rises.  This is often the best time to photograph in any direction.  A brightly glowing cloud bank will cast beautiful light on the landscape.  You’ll need your tripod of course.

A nice place to sleep before tackling the climb of Mount Rainier in Washington's Cascades.

A nice place to sleep before tackling the climb of Mount Rainier in Washington’s Cascades.

Two examples during my trip highlight the different experience to be had depending on exactly how you set that alarm.  The first was at the high point mentioned above.  I underestimated the time it took to hike to the top of Elk Mountain (on Hurricane Ridge), so woke about 20 minutes too late.  I knew it right as I started the 2-mile hike; color was already in the sky.  Conditions were perfect, making me feel more rushed.  The leading edge of a front was moving in from the west, not covering the mountains yet but promising truly wonderful light.  The only good part?  Hard-pumping uphill hiking will wake you up just fine when you have no time for coffee.

I had to abort and climb the ridge just short of the summit in order to catch the beautiful pre-sunrise light.  It was a good viewpoint, but not the best for the east and southeast view (which affected the panorama shot).  But perhaps the biggest negative was the fact I was I rushed setting up, knowing that I had missed the earliest good light.

The mouth of the Quillayute River in Washington is marked by large sea stacks.

The mouth of the Quillayute River in Washington is marked by large sea stacks.

The other example, at Mount Rainier National Park, illustrates the correct way to do a morning shoot.  I slept a fitful few hours near Reflection Lakes, waking before my alarm.  The stars were great so I decided to do some night shots before sunrise.  The fog moved in before sunrise.  Since I was already shooting, this didn’t disappoint me.  Instead I found some nice foggy shots of the lake.  I heard other photographers arrive up on the road but most didn’t stay long, I suppose because of the fog.

When it finally lifted there were some beautiful moments as the mountain came out.  I heard them returning, car doors slamming.  Meanwhile I was already in position by the lake, shooting away.  This is the way to do it, letting the conditions develop before your eyes rather than trying to catch them.  It allows you to experience nice moments while you’re shooting.  At Reflection Lakes, it allowed me to get into a flow, rather than the abrupt, clunky transition from driving to shooting experienced by the other photographers that morning.

Narada Falls plunges into the misty canyon of the Paradise River at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Narada Falls plunges into the misty canyon of the Paradise River at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

      • I know this post is getting long but there is one last lesson I learned, and it was a hard one.  At Rainier, I hiked up to a subalpine meadow area on a trail that is washed out in part.  You need to hike for a couple miles along a swift glacial river across huge boulders, skirting many obstacles.  But otherwise it is a reasonable, 7-mile round-trip hike.  Since I was going for sunset light, I brought a headlamp, whose batteries I thought were fresh.  They weren’t.  Stupidly I neglected to pack spare batteries.


After shooting in the pretty meadows, it wasn’t long hiking down in the gathering dark that my headlamp began to fail.  It went completely out just as I reached the rough part.  I fought my way to the rocky riverbank and began to stumble through the boulders.  There was no moon.  I learned that while it is impossible to walk under the trees in total darkness, it is possible to use the Milky Way as a very dim source of light.  Without it I would have been spending the night with not enough clothing to keep warm.


After a brief period of panic, where I fell several times and bashed my knees and elbows, I calmed myself and slowed down.  Slowly I worked my way back.  But there was a section of trail to reach the dirt road (leading back to my vehicle).  I knew it would be impossible to traverse that trail, let alone find it in the dark.  So I kept going, looking for an opening.  Luckily (and I do mean lucky!) I spotted a subtle flat area through the trees.  I clambered over logs to the spot and found the only place where the dirt road approaches the river.  I finally got back to the van (and a very hungry dog) at 2 a.m.


The sun sets in a clear sky over Lake Quinalt in Olympic National Park, Washington.

So here is the lesson if you are hiking into the wilds: pack the ten essentials in your camera pack.  This includes a small tarp plus a way to make fire (lighter & tissue or wadded newspaper).  It also includes extra batteries for your light!

And here’s one bonus lesson: don’t strap any clothing to the outside of your pack that you would be unhappy to lose.  My hands-down favorite piece of clothing is (or was) a zip-front fleece that is amazingly warm and light, with pockets that are perfect for filters.  During all the ducking under big logs, falling and stumbling it had come loose from my pack.  I went back the next day but could not find it.

I’m sure there are other lessons I learned, but it all really boils down to not sweating the small stuff, keeping things flexible and fun, and striking a balance. Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

Fog fills the valleys beneath Mount Rainier as evening arrives.

Fog fills the valleys beneath Mount Rainier as evening arrives.

Lake Crescent on the northern Olympic Peninsula is a jewel.

Lake Crescent on the northern Olympic Peninsula is a jewel.

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