Archive for the ‘National Park’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Focus   4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS FOCUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GETTING FOCUSED IMAGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Mountain Monday: 2014’s Favorite   12 comments

Despite 2014 being the first time in years where the amount of photography I did actually decreased, I had a pretty tough time picking a favorite mountain image.  A bunch are more spectacular and dramatic than this one.  But I really like the perspective and light, so this is the one!

Captured from the edge of String Lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, you see three peaks, the center one being the tallest one in the range, Grand Teton itself, at 13, 776′ (4200 m.).  The one on the left is called Teewinot Mountain, after the Shoshone word for “many pinnacles”.  This peak is very nicely highlighted by the light from the setting sun, which is streaming down and bouncing off the walls of Cascade Canyon.

I was just returning from a great hike along the range-front past Leigh Lake and to the sunny, empty shore of Jackson Lake, where I had a nice warm siesta.  I went off-trail for a couple hours and saw moose (including a baby), elk and deer.  I had been rushing to get back before dark, but when I came to String Lake, not far from the trailhead, the sun was getting ready to set.  I wandered off-trail and along the shoreline.  I was actually more in wildlife mode, with a long lens on.  But when I saw the light on Teewinot, with the Grand behind it, I began to look for good landscape compositions.

String Lake has plenty of rocks and logs along the shore, but I thought the partly submerged grass in this spot where a small creek entered matched the mood of approaching evening.  The light reflecting off the water looked beautiful filtered by the grass.  It’s been said that pictures will come to you if you let them, and that’s what happened this time.  The framed composition just appeared while I was awkwardly trying to keep my feet dry (I failed).  I set up quickly while the light lasted.  The vertical composition was so obvious to me that I didn’t do a horizontal.  I usually try to do both.

I named it The Sentinel because that’s what Teewinot reminds me of here.  Although I have a number of very nice images of the Tetons, this might be my favorite thus far.  But tell me what you think; don’t be afraid to be honest either!  I hope you are enjoying your short work week!

Teewinot Mountain and Grand Teton from String Lake.

Teewinot Mountain and Grand Teton from String Lake.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus   19 comments

A frog enjoys the shallows of Snow Lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

A frog enjoys the shallows of Snow Lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

I was inspired to do a rare Monday post by the Weekly Photo Challenge on WordPress.  Also, this week’s topic, focus, gives me a good excuse to post some of the close-up shots I captured during my recent trip to Rainier and Olympic National Parks in Washington state.  I had a great time up there photographing both the landscapes and small details of a beautiful corner of the country.

The mountain in the lake: Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park.

The mountain in the lake: Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park.

This challenge is deceptively simple.  Focus gives even experienced photographers fits on occasion.  I often take only a camera and lens on photo walks, no tripod.  My goal is to sharpen my creativity.  With no tripod and a lens choice of one, you need to improvise to get decent images.

Pasqueflower is a hairy beast!

Pasqueflower is a hairy beast!

For instance at Mount Rainier’s Paradise Park, which is the park’s most popular area, I didn’t want to be burdened.  I wanted to simply stroll through the wildflower meadows with only my camera and macro lens.  Doing macro with no tripod is definitely a challenge, and this time was no different.  But when I saw other photographers with heavy backpacks full of camera gear, tripods in tow, I felt very happy with my choice.

Tracking this interesting beetle was a challenge hand-held with macro lens.

Tracking this interesting beetle was a challenge hand-held with macro lens.

In the Olympics I hiked up to a popular waterfall, Sol Duc Falls.  While shooting this triple cascade, I noticed the wild huckleberries, along with some other kinds.  For some reason I was the only one who was partaking of these scrumptious trail-side treats.  I didn’t understand that, but I made sure to photograph the berries before plucking and popping them into my mouth.

A fresh huckleberry in Olympic National Park just before it became a snack.

A fresh huckleberry in Olympic National Park just before it became a snack.

Rain overnight and cloudy skies means perfect conditions for macro photography.

Rain overnight and cloudy skies means perfect conditions for macro photography.

I hope you enjoy the pictures.  Please note they are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  Go ahead and click on the photos to be taken to my main gallery page, where purchase options are listed.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for your interest.

Lupine in the morning dew, Mt. Rainier National Park.

Lupine in the morning dew, Mt. Rainier National Park.

The rainforest in Olympic National Park, Washington receives what it thrives on: water!

The rainforest in Olympic National Park, Washington receives what it thrives on: water!

Death Valley I: Intro. & Travel Tips   2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHEN TO VISIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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