Archive for the ‘scenery’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Very Close Focus in Landscape Photography   2 comments

Lupine in bloom this past week at Rowena Crest in Oregon.  Shot with my 21 mm. Zeiss, a sharp lens but the modestly wide angle limits depth of field.

Lupine in bloom this past week at Rowena Crest in Oregon. Shot with my 21 mm. Zeiss, a sharp lens but the modestly wide angle limits depth of field. 21 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100; tripod.

Let’s continue with the focus on landscape photography.  I’m writing this on Saturday, April 16th.  My excuse is April 15th.  ‘Nuff said!  The topic is close focus, which is a challenge when shooting the near to far kind of landscape composition that is so popular today (it really wasn’t in the olden days).

With those very close elements in the foreground, most images call for focus throughout the scene.  As last week’s post indicated, these sorts of near to far compositions can work just as well when shooting intimate landscapes – those confined to smaller areas.  So let’s get into it!

  • CLOSE-FOCUS BENEFITS:  Near to far compositions are the kind that can lend a sense of depth.  Even more reliably they can also is highlight a foreground subject, giving the viewer a good look at it and maybe even “putting them into the scene”.  Why focus on or very nearly on this close subject?  If you’re using a lens with a wide enough angle (less than ~21 mm. full-frame or ~30 mm. crop-frame) you have to focus either right on or a hair beyond your closest element in order for that close subject to be in focus.  And you almost always want it to be in focus.  Generally an image with its closest elements out of focus rarely works.  It can when using those elements to frame the photo, but not very often (see image of tree below).
Rowena Crest, Oregon, sunrise the other morning.  I focused right on the nearest flowers but the wind kept them from being very sharp.  16 mm., 1/20 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

Rowena Crest, Oregon, sunrise the other morning. I focused right on the nearest flowers but the wind kept them from being very sharp. 16 mm., 1/20 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200; tripod.

  • THE CHALLENGE OF CLOSE FOCUS:  It’s often difficult to get everything in focus when you have very close elements.  And if your foreground is only a foot or two away, getting a sharp background is going to be especially difficult.  You’ll be forced to either move further away from your close subject, making it smaller and less impactful, or allow the background to be a little or a lot out of focus (deliberately by using a wider aperture).  Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with an out of focus background.  But what if you want everything sharp?  Read on.
Late November ion the Oklahoma prairie.  I wasn't too close to this cottonwood to pose much of a depth of field challenge, but the subject's size helped to create what I wanted.  16 mm., 1/50 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 400, handheld.

Late November ion the Oklahoma prairie. I wasn’t too close to this cottonwood to pose much of a depth of field challenge, but the subject’s size helped to create what I wanted. 16 mm., 1/50 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 400; handheld.

  • DEPTH OF FIELD SOLUTIONS – LENS:  Even at f/22 and at wide angles, most lenses can’t give you sharpness from say, a foot or two on out to 100+ feet.  Most of us use these more common wide-angle zooms that start at ~16 mm.  Despite the fact that they often can focus closer than a foot, for depth of field out to the background they work only up to a point, usually no closer than around three feet (and further if you’re out at 20 mm. or more.

But there are lenses with focal lengths significantly shorter than 16 mm.  On a camera with full-frame sensor equipped with an ultra-wide angle lens like Canon’s newish (and spendy!) 11-24 mm., you can get everything in focus with one shot.  The same goes for fish-eye lenses.

  • MORE LENS OPTIONS:  One type of lens that does a slightly better job at depth of field is the wide-angle with a bulbous front glass element, like a fish-eye lens.   Examples include Nikon’s famous 14-24 mm. f/2.8, the Tokina 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and primes like Canon’s 14 mm. f/2.8L II.

Another option, again an expensive one, is the tilt-shift lens.  Canon’s excellent 17 mm. and 24 mm. tilt-shift lenses can be made (by tilting) to bring everything into acceptable focus.  The 17 mm. has the bulbous front glass as well, so it rocks in this department.  Note a big downside to using lenses with bulbous front glass elements:  you can’t use screw-on filters, at least without an extra kit – sort of a housing that goes around the lens and uses huge filters.  But these can be shockingly expensive.

A very simple shot of wind turbines in the Palouse, Washington.  16 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, handheld.

A very simple shot of wind turbines in the Palouse, Washington. 16 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400; handheld.

  • DEPTH OF FIELD SOLUTIONS – FOCUS STACKING:  In order to get good depth of field front to back when your closest elements are very close, and lacking a specialized lens, one option is to focus stack.  You shoot several exposures of the same exact composition, using a tripod.  Start by focusing at one extreme (the closest element, for e.g.) and work toward the other, focusing on increasingly distant parts of the scene in our example.  Then in Photoshop you stack those images and blend them via masking to get one picture with everything in focus.  By the way, this technique is used in macro photography as well, since macro lenses have very short depths of field.

 

  • FOCUS STACKING CAUTIONS:  Most landscape photographers today focus-stack with nearly every image.  I’m the opposite; I prefer the simplicity of one exposure and don’t like sitting in front of Photoshop for too long.  If my focal length is relatively long then I consider it (image below).  One thing that’s often forgotten in the focus- (and exposure-) stacking frenzy is the fact that when things move in the frame from one exposure to the next, you’ll have a hard time later on the computer matching things up.  It may be impossible to create a natural looking image.  I’m talking things like living subjects, fog, waves and other stuff that’s not all at infinity.  This is a bigger issue with exposure stacking, since then even clouds can present problems.
Pink heather blooms on an alpine hillside in Olympic National Park, Washington.  28 mm., 1/8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod; focus-stacked.

Pink heather blooms on an alpine hillside in Olympic National Park, Washington. 28 mm., 1/8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod; focus-stacked.

  • CLOSE FOCUS FOR INTIMATE LANDSCAPES:   When you’re shooting on a smaller scale, the elements tend to appear more similar in size than when shooting a traditional landscape.  So if you want to highlight a subject by putting it close it may, depending on how intimate (small) your composition is, be necessary to get very close indeed.  Then you’re back to the same problem as mentioned above; even wide-angle lenses don’t like to put everything in focus when set on one or two feet.  It’s surprising how rapidly focus drops off.  Focus-stacking intimate landscapes can be a real pain, since they tend to be composed of a lot of vegetation and other hard-to-mask elements.
Recent image of a barn along Oregon's John Day River.  50 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod.

Recent image of a barn along Oregon’s John Day River. 50 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100; tripod.

Intimate landscape looking up into a large tropical hardwood: Monte Cristo forest (bosque) in El Salvador.    Note the out-of-focus framing branches at bottom.

Intimate landscape looking up into a large tropical hardwood: Forest (bosque) of Monte Cristo, El Salvador. Note the out-of-focus branches at bottom acting as a partial frame.

  • A FINAL WORD:  Every landscape photographer falls in love at some point with the near to far composition.  I did, and it was all I looked to shoot for a time.  But that phase passed and I realized I would be making a mistake by continuing to stress about finding super-close foregounds.  Sure, pigging out on a particular kind of image is useful to teach you how to shoot it.  But to continue in that manner is to be a one-trick pony.  It’s like going out looking for one specific image and being unwilling to take what is there; it’s a recipe for frequent disappointment.

I observe people doing this almost as often as I see other photographers in the field; for example the other morning.  It tends to produce herd behavior so it’s noticeable.  You will almost always get more good images when you avoid single-mindedness when looking for something to shoot.

As I’ve said before in this blog, variety is the spice of photography as well as life.  Flexibility is key too.  So use the tips found in this post and elsewhere when you’re focusing close.  But save yourself some hassle and shoot plenty with your closest subject far enough away to get everything in focus.  That can be satisfying as well (image below).

Swan River National Wildlife Refuge in western Montana, an image that despite no close subject has been purchased for large canvases.  58 mm., 8 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100

Swan River Wildlife Refuge in western Montana.  Despite no close subject this has been purchased for large canvas prints.  58 mm., 8 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100; tripod.

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Glacier National Park in Springtime   18 comments

The Mission Mountains north of Missoula, Montana

I’m in the mood for a travel post, so here goes.  This is the first of at least two parts.  Glacier National Park lies in northwestern Montana.  It’s part of a larger park, an international peace park,  spanning the border with Canada.  The Canadian portion is called Waterton Lakes.

Glacier is a place of beautiful, rugged mountains and big blue lakes, a place of charismatic wildlife, including grizzly bear, moose, and even (rarely seen) wolves.  Because of widespread glacial retreat over the past century or so (an effect of global warming), you need to hike into high country to get up close and personal with the park’s namesake glaciers.  Those that remain, while visible from the road in places (mostly on the east side) are relatively small.  Much more obvious are the spectacular landscape features left by the extensive glaciation of the past.  U-shaped valleys, glacial lakes, sharp aretes (knife-edge ridges), moraines and more lie around every corner.

Springtime is lambing season: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

Before I get too far, I have a pet peeve.  When we read about travel destinations, either in a guidebook or in a blog like this, the author invariably tells you when is the best time to visit.  We are so used to this that we feel cheated if it’s missing and go off to another source to find out this important piece of information.

This of course, for nearly every destination, is pure bull.  I’ve heard professional photographers complain about how over-popular and over-exposed places like Iceland and Patagonia are getting.  Too many photogs. and too many pictures.  And yet they all continue to schedule their workshops at the same time of year.  It’s like the busiest road near where you live.  You only think of it as having tons of honking cars or bustling people on it.  But try taking a walk there in the middle of the night, or the middle of a snowstorm.

Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides:  above Grinnell Lake.

Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides: above Grinnell Lake.

Is there really a “best” time to visit?  Maybe, but travel authors are giving their opinions, as should be obvious from the word “best”.  You aren’t learning about the only time to go but the best time with regard to climate and other factors (the main factor being the author’s personal opinion).  It’s a very subjective topic that is far too often presented in a misleadingly factual manner.  Now some places are virtually off-limits during some times of year because of major road closures or other factors.  But it is a very rare destination that can’t be visited at any time of year.

Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier's subalpine regions.

Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier’s subalpine regions.

For example, on a trip across Montana a couple weeks ago, I had plenty of options other than Glacier.  But I love the scenery in the NW corner of the state, so I drove up toward Flathead Lake through the Mission Valley (top image).  After that, it was an easy decision to go a bit further to Glacier.  It was my first springtime in Glacier (late May is still springtime in the northern Rockies).

Every photo workshop plying this park I’ve ever heard of is scheduled in high summer, some in early fall.  But that doesn’t mean other times of year aren’t worthwhile.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the park whatever time of year you go.

I may sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but I’m going to recommend, if it’s your first visit to Glacier, that you think about sometime after 4th of July weekend, on up to early October.  But if you’ve been before, if you want fewer fellow tourists, or if you want a slightly different experience, consider either an early (May to mid-June) or very late (mid-October into winter) season visit.

In May, and most years well into June, you’ll be dealing with snow in the high country.  The famous Going to the Sun Road over Logan Pass was closed to vehicles when I visited.  It’s closed until at least mid-June most years.  That’s a big draw for Glacier; first timers want to drive over that pass.  But read on for a way around that apparent limitation.

It didn’t bother me too much that Logan was closed.  For one thing, I’ve been to the park before in summer and have driven over the pass.  Also, because of the closure, not too many people were there, even though it was Memorial Day weekend.  Best of all, I found out that Logan Pass wasn’t actually inaccessible after all.  You can bicycle up from the closure gate!  Bike rentals are available at the store in Apgar Village, the main hub of activity in the west part of the park.

You can also walk of course, but it’s a longish hike.  Granted, once on top you’ll be walking around on huge snow drifts.  But it will most likely be compact enough to not sink in too far.  And you’ll be sharing it with just a few or no other people.

Weather moves in over Two Medicine Lake.

High-country hikes were snowed in during my visit, but that left plenty of hiking to do.  Opened up for consideration were out of the way places I’ve never before explored, and probably wouldn’t if I was busy doing the more popular stuff you see in pictures on the web (over-shot Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake from Sun Point for example).

If you go in wintertime, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing is not only magical, you’ll get pictures very unlike the mainstream.  You can even go by rail in winter and stay at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, which has wonderful groomed cross-country ski trails.  The Inn is just outside the south boundary of the park.   You can rent a vehicle to explore (with XC skis or snowshoes) those parts of the park open to traffic.

A doe, a deer, a female deer...

A doe, a deer, a female deer…

You see, there are always ways to make a trip worthwhile, no matter what time of year you go.  So when you read about the “best” time to go someplace, you should at least take it with a grain of salt.  For one thing, “best” times are usually also the most crowded and expensive times.  Also, any pictures you get will end up looking more similar to what’s been done before.  That’s because each season brings its own unique light and weather conditions.

Next time I will offer some ideas for things to do if you decide to break with the crowd and visit in Glacier’s spring season.  I’ll also cover ideas for photography there in spring.  So stay tuned!

Light from the setting sun illuminates the peaks along Lake Sherburne.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Part II   10 comments

The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

This is the second of two posts on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Make sure and check out the first part, where I cover some logistics, along with things to do on the popular east side of the park.  This post will take you over to the west side on your one-way tour, entering via Estes Park and exiting through Grand Lake.  You could also do it the opposite way of course.

Trail Ridge Road 

Trail Ridge Road is a famous highway that traverses a high ridge over the Continental Divide.  Local American Indian tribe, the Utes & Arapahos, maintained a foot-trail near where the highway now runs.  They accessed hunting grounds on the Great Plains, where those big mammals you now see mostly limited to the high country in the national parks (elk, buffalo, etc.) used to congregate in huge numbers.  In fact, one of the park’s most popular trails is called the Ute Trail.  It doesn’t involve much climbing and yet accesses high country.

A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.

A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.

Find the Ute Crossing Trailhead roughly half-way between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon interpretive trail on the east side of Trail Ridge Road.  There is not much parking.  You can walk out a couple miles to a large rock and small pass and then retrace your steps.  Or with a car shuttle you can continue steeply down Windy Gulch a few more miles to Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park.

For sunset, you can’t do much better than drive up to the top of  Trail Ridge Road.  This high highway, reaching over 12,000 feet, traverses alpine tundra with fantastic views of Long’s Peak to the east and the Never Summer Mountains to the west.  Get an early jump on sunset so you can enjoy a walk on the tundra.  Well, not on the tundra, on a trail through the tundra.  It’s delicate.

The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Stop just before the summit at the Rock Cut pull-off.  From here a trail takes off north of the road and winds its way up onto the ridge.  Try your best to tear your eyes away from the incredible vistas and pay some attention to the tiny flowers and other tundra vegetation at your feet.  You won’t see tundra like this in many places outside of far northern Alaska.  There is a visitor center just west of the summit where you can learn about this tough community.

A little side-trail leads right up to the ridge-line where interesting mushroom-shaped rocks (hoodoos) will compete for your attention (see image below).  Climb up onto the summit rocks for some great views of Long’s Peak and surrounding mountains.  I found some great light and beautiful far-reaching photos here (image at bottom).

Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.

A Warning

I rarely do this on my blog but feel I must in this case.  In Part I I mentioned starting early and finishing before late afternoon.  There is a reason I’m stressing that again, and adding an important point.  In summertime the Rockies are prone to very fast-moving and violent thunderstorms that build up in the afternoon.  Lightning is a very real threat, a threat made clear a few days ago when two hikers died from lightning strikes.  Both died while hiking off Trail Ridge Road, one of them a woman hiking with her husband on Ute Trail.  A total of 13 people were taken to the hospital from one of the strikes alone!

Now there is no reason to fear hiking up high in Rocky in the summer.  These events are rare.  But you’d do well to keep a close eye on the weather.  If big billowing clouds start to catch your attention, it’s time to move to lower ground.  Do not get caught out in open terrain where you’re the tallest thing around.  Do not take shelter under a big lone tree.  Get into a low depression or down into thick forest if you can.  Of course you can mitigate the danger by finishing your hike by 3 or 4 p.m.  But situational awareness is always the best tool you have for this (and all) dangers in the outdoors.

Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The West Side

At first glance it seems as if the west side of the park is not as full of things to do as the east side.  But look a little deeper.  Though the views may not be as frequent, it is a wonderful place to hike, photograph and watch wildlife.  And this is in no small part because of the Colorado River.  The Colorado is one of two great rivers of the American West (the other being the Columbia).  And this is where it starts.  The Colorado’s headwaters are accessible via a trail that takes off from where Trail Ridge Road finally levels out after a long looping descent.

The Colorado River Trail takes you on a nice level foray through lovely meadows bordering the Colorado (see image above & top).  It’s amazing to see the river in this way if you have experienced it like I have, in the desert southwest.  You’re far upstream from the cactus-lined rocky desert canyons here.  And that includes the biggest of them all, the Grand Canyon.  It’s a mountain stream up here, with bighorn sheep descending the steep rocky slopes to sip from its cold waters.  Keep an eye out for moose as well.

Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail.  They let me get within 50 feet of them.

Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail. They let me get within 50 feet of them.

The trail heads out to Lulu City, an old silver mining town.  Well, not a town now.  There isn’t really anything left outside of some cabin foundations.  But that’s really okay, because the miners sure picked a pretty spot on which to site the town.  Located in a meadowy area along the river, it makes a fantastic place for a picnic.  Lulu City is about 3.5 flat miles in.

If you’re hankering for more of a hike, keep going to the Little Yellowstone Canyon area.  It resembles the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, though like it’s name suggests is quite a bit smaller.  You can keep going to La Poudre Pass about 7.5 total miles in, and thus reach the true top of the Colorado River system.

From small beginnings:  a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

From small beginnings: a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

For photo opportunities, wildlife seems particularly abundant in this part of the park.  A walk near sunset along the winding Colorado is bound to result in beautiful shots of the river and mountains.  If you’re lucky a moose or elk will grace your foreground.  There are a number of other hikes in the area.  I hiked to Big Meadows, a fairly easy 3.2 miles round-trip to a big sea of grass.  Wildflowers were in bloom and I saw plenty of wildlife sign, though no animals.  It would be a great early-morning or evening option.

There are several routes up into the Never Summer Mountains that I didn’t check out.  The hike up to Michigan Lakes Basin seems to me a particularly scenic, if steep, hike.  The hike up to Lake Nokoni features a great wildflower show.  The short walk to Adams Falls is a great family option.  All things to do on my second visit!

Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

 

Final Thoughts & When To Go

As I already mentioned, a good way to tour Rocky is to do a loop from east to west (or vice versa), camping along the way.  I visited in late June, and a few of the hikes I did (especially the Bear Lake to Fern lake one-way) crossed abundant snowfields.  The flowers were blooming big-time in the meadows below tree-line.  In July the wildflower show moves up to the subalpine areas as the snow melts, so right now is a perfect time for a visit.  And so is autumn, with the Rocky Mountains’ signature quaking aspen adding their spectacular golden colors to the mix.

The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.

The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.

It’s worth repeating that this is quite the popular park.  You should avoid it during summer weekends or holidays.  If you come in May or early June (depending on how much snow fell during winter), be prepared for snow blocking access to many trails and even roads.  If you look at a map of the park you’ll notice that it covers a big area with limited road access.

What this means is that it will at first seem crowded (as it did to me).  But as soon as you put a couple miles or more between you and a road you’ll find big empty mountainous country.  Just make sure to take it easy and go at a measured pace.  The high altitudes will humble even the most fit flatlander.  Thanks for reading!  I hope your summer is filled with fun and sun!

 

Long's Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening's last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.

Long’s Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening’s last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.

Wordless Wednesday: Winter hike in Zion   2 comments

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