Archive for the ‘wildflowers’ Tag

Adventuring Grand Canyon ~ Toroweap   9 comments

Ocotillo and barrel cactus in spring green: Lava Falls Trail, Toroweap, AZ.

The Grand Canyon is on the bucket lists of many of us.  Most head to the south rim where all the tourist facilities are.  This little story is about the much less popular north rim, which is worth visiting too.  But wait, it’s not even about the more popular north rim, where the lodge is located.  It’s about a little corner of the park that is a little tough to get to.  Called Toroweap, it’s in the northwestern part of the park, which means it overlooks the lower Colorado River.

On the road to Toroweap, Arizona Strip.

Toroweap, which is little more than a campground and overlook, is a Paiute word meaning “dry valley”.  And that’s what you drive up on a long gravel road from the Arizona Strip.  That’s the narrow, isolated strip of Arizona that stretches along the Utah border and north of the Grand Canyon.  I was in the area visiting Zion and the Grand Staircase and had a few extra days.

I’d been wanting to drive up to the north rim from Kanab.  But being late winter, the main route through Jacob Lake was still closed due to snow.  I thought of Toroweap, which is at a lower elevation than the rest of the north rim.  It was open!  So despite my allergy to washboard gravel roads, that’s where I went.  There were fields of flowers blooming along the way (image above).

Along the trail to Lava Falls.

The last short stretch to the spectacular overlook over the lower Grand Canyon is rocky and recommended for high clearance vehicles.  I babied my van over the rock shelves but still parked a couple hundred yards from the lookout.  I claimed a campsite and took a hike out along the rim to the east.  Recent rains had filled the potholes in the sandstone, adding to the atmosphere.  Toward day’s end the light got awfully nice and I got some nice shots before sunset (below).

A rainstorm leaves full water pockets at Toroweap on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

I know what you’re thinking: not too adventurous.  That’s what I was thinking too.  Why hang around an overlook all day?  So next morning I took a little dirt road I’d spied.  It led down to the trailhead for Lava Falls, which I knew was somewhere nearby.  I decided to see how far down the trail I could get before chickening out and turning around.  The sign isn’t kidding.  The trail is super-steep and rough, though much worse in the heat of summer.  Each few hundred feet you drop down it you become more and more aware of how far back up you’ll be climbing in the heat of the day.

Trailhead to Lava Falls, Grand Canyon N.P.

As I went down I left the cool air of the rim and entered springtime.  I came across some just-blooming wildflowers along the way.  I saw a raft party pull off the Colorado, scout Lava Falls, and then run it.  It seemed as if I was looking straight down on them from the trail above.  After a certain point it was hard to stop; the river pulled me toward it.  On reaching the river I scrambled along the shore to reach one of the Colorado’s most impressive rapid, Lava Falls.  Pulling myself up over a boulder I was surprised by a rattlesnake (or vice versa).  I’d never seen this species.  It turned out to be an endemic (found nowhere else), the Grand Canyon pink.

A Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake, found nowhere else but here.

A blooming prickly pear attracts a pollinator within the lower part of Grand Canyon.

Sitting on the rocks next to Lava Falls is an interesting experience.  The water is so powerful that you can feel and hear large boulders roll with the current along the stream bed.  I got as close to the main rapids as I dared, and got the shot below.  It was remarkably warm at the river, and even though the water was ice cold, I took a swim below the rapids.  I figured I’d need the memory of it about halfway on the climb back up.  It isn’t a very long distance, but it was almost sunset by the time I reached the rim.  That last mile or so was a struggle!

Cactus blooming inside the lower Grand Canyon above Lava Falls.

One of Grand Canyon’s most fearsome rapids, Lava Falls, rumbles and roars.

After some great light and a nice shot of the Toroweap Valley at sunset (below), I was far too exhausted to go anywhere.  I slept right where I’d parked for the hike.  I never saw another soul either at the rim or along the trail.  Just those rafters on the river.  It had been the perfect shooting experience, at least for me.  I love being around people when doing travel photography but prefer shooting alone for landscape and nature photography.

Thanks for checking out the post!  Have a wonderful weekend.

I camped near the trailhead for Lava Falls: Toroweap, Grand Canyon N.P.

Adventuring Mt. Rainier: Hiker’s Heaven   8 comments

This is the same face of Rainier that residents of Seattle see every clear day. Much better up close!

The first time I saw Mount Rainier up close I was completely blown away.  I was 19 and had been in the Pacific NW for less than a year.  The Cascade Mountains seemed like the Himalayas to my East Coast eyes.  And Rainier is the biggest and baddest of the entire range.  When I got that first good look I was impressed the way only a young man with far too much energy can be.

Since that first good look at it, Mt. Rainier and its national park have always been a special place of mine.  I’ve spent quite a lot of time rambling the steep trails, climbing it twice.  I even worked for NPS one summer doing wildlife surveys.  So let’s leave the desert for now and continue this Adventuring series with an adventure in Washington’s oldest (and the nation’s 5th) national park:  Mount Rainier.

By the way, I wrote a number of illustrated posts on Rainier that are more travel-guide/documentary in nature than this one.  Check those out if you’re thinking of a visit for pictures or hiking.

Trailside waterfall, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Just below Indian Henry’s, the park’s Wonderland Trail crosses a high suspension bridge over Tacoma Creek.

Camping Where the Bears Are

Rainier hosts the most extensive, and I think finest, subalpine flower meadows in the Cascade Range.  When I was in my 20s I backpacked with a friend to one of Rainier’s best:  a place on the southwest side called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground (see image below).  It’s named for a Tahoma native called So-to-Lick who lived in a cabin there before there was a park.  He straddled the two worlds, guiding the likes of John Muir and assorted climbers up the mountain.  But he never summited himself, holding it sacred like his tribe and thus staying off the glaciated upper reaches.

I tended then, as now, to eschew trail-side camping in popular areas.  So we camped overlooking the meadows, atop a broad peak called Mt. Ararat (had to look that one up it’s been so long).  Toward dusk I took a walk from camp to get a view.  I hadn’t been there long when, from a rocky outcrop facing north, I saw movement on the grassy slope just below.  To my amazement a large bear stepped from behind the nearest trees and slowly foraged across the slope not more than 100 yards away.  It was a cinnamon-colored black bear, and still the largest of that species I’ve ever seen.

As with nearly all my bear encounters over the years, this one mostly ignored me.  But I couldn’t leave well enough alone.  I had a cheap little film camera.  So like a young fool I determined to get closer for a picture.  I waited for him to move a little further away and then climbed down off the rocks.  I slowly stalked after him, keeping the small but dense groups of subalpine firs between us.  I kept moving downslope even though I wasn’t catching glimpses of him anymore.  I thought he’d gone.  Then peering around a shrub, I froze.

This is NOT the bear in the story. This one is much smaller, but also lives on Mt. Rainier.

He was now less than 50 feet away, staring at me hard.  He chuffed once.  There have been other occasions like this in my life, but I believe that was the first.  Despite the differences they all feel the same.  The adrenaline floods in first, immediately followed by the realization of how foolish you’ve been.  You force yourself to breathe, and above all try not to do anything stupid.  Like run.  Those moments stretch time.

Of course the big boy just ended up doing that funny double-take I’ve seen a number of times since then.  Where the animal shifts its attention back to what it was doing, but abruptly turns back and seems to reconsider, and sometimes repeats.  Then finally turns away, apparently deciding you’re not worth it.  And the tension of the moment drops like a stone.  I watched him drift away down the mountain-slope through the tall grass, realizing I had forgotten that picture I wanted.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

Just before dusk, Mount Rainier soars above the flowery meadows of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.


Friday Foto Talk: Video & Macro   2 comments

This series on casual video for the still photographer has mostly stuck to the basics.  I’ve done that to show how easy it is to start shooting video.  None of these videos have been edited either.  I want to head off the excuse that some people use, that they have no time to learn a whole new editing program.  Untold numbers of people shoot video with their phones.  My goal is to get my fellow still photographers to create videos when the mood strikes, but to do them with intention and care.

I’ve also stayed away from stuff like time-lapse and slow-motion.  These are rather faddish in my opinion, but speaking objectively, they are sub-areas of nature videography that require a specific focus.  Time-lapses, for instance, are actually a series of still shots.  While you do produce a video of sorts, the mood is often disjointed.  Also there is no real-time, native sound.  Creating a time-lapse is rather boring in practice, and it doesn’t really help you develop field video recording skills.

Of course there is nothing wrong with timelapse or any other type of video.  But I believe that when you’re first getting into video, or any genre within the photography realm, it’s best to start simply.  Go out and do it before you commit to creating a final (shareable) product.  So many of us love what we see online so much that we just have to go off and create that very thing.  Or something that looks just like it.  It’s a completely understandable impulse.

Consider taking a more organic approach.  See if you enjoy the process of creating it first before worrying about results.  This way you’ll slowly develop your own style, eventually creating something that is uniquely yours rather than imitative.  By the way, I don’t consider myself such a great artist.  But I do have a firm idea of the way to get there!

I know this is the era of instant gratification, but it’s important to be patient.  Learn to enjoy the process before you expect to create something you can be proud of.  High expectations are fine, but don’t impose too-short a timeline.  That will only cause unnecessary stress.  Even a mild amount of anxiety can sabotage the creative process.

Video & Focal Length

Now let’s get to it!  One of the best things about shooting video with a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera is the ability to use a variety of lenses.  As I mentioned in an earlier post on the basics, when you’re starting out it’s useful to stick with a medium focal length lens.  If you have a 50 mm. lens you’re in luck; it’s perfect for video.  Otherwise use a medium zoom and stay 10 or 15 mm of 50.  Reason is to avoid the distortion you get with wide angles, and the shakiness that can happen with long focal lengths.

Once you’re comfortable doing videos at medium focal lengths, you’ll naturally want to try different lenses.  But this post isn’t about using telephotos for wildlife or wide-angles for landscapes.  It’s about one of the most fun ways to shoot video: macro and close-up!  In order to view these videos click on the title at top-left first, then click the play button.

By the way, I didn’t mean to cut short the video of the dung beetles below.  A black rhino had suddenly appeared between my rental car and where I was lying on the ground.  So I had to stop and figure out how to avoid being charged!

Macro Video ~ Tips

  • Try to pick subjects that stay in one place.  You can expand on this once you get some practice.  Either way you should observe your subject for a time before you come up with a plan.  For example in the video above I watched those beetles in Africa roll a couple dung balls from point A to point B before I followed along shooting the clip.  That delay may have saved me, as I could have been regarded as a threat if I hadn’t been lying down!
  • Use a tripod.  Just as with macro still photography, a tripod is nearly essential.  For one thing, most macro lenses have fairly long effective focal lengths.  Hand-holding is hard to do without introducing jumpiness.  Also, whether you use a macro lens or attachments like extension tubes or close-up filters, depth of field will be quite narrow.  Provided you choose a suitable subject, you have a better chance of keeping things in focus when you’re on a tripod.
  • Speaking of focus, choose a point of view and composition that makes it easier to keep the subject in focus without having to twist the focus ring.  “Pulling” or “following” focus as it is called, is a skill that takes awhile to master.  A subject that moves across the frame, for example, is easier to keep in focus than one that moves toward or away from you.
  • Watch for repetitive or cyclical behaviour.  Many times, when observing nature, you’ll notice that a critter will keep repeating its actions, or it might circle back to where it has been before.  If you set up on a tripod focused in on that spot, all you need to do is watch and wait, ready to press record.  For the video below the dragon flies were zipping around much too quickly for me to follow.  So I simply watched one for awhile and noticed her returning to a nearby perch, spreading her wings like they do.  I focused on her first, using manual focus (which is best for video).  Then next time back, since she alighted in exactly the same spot, I shot the clip.


  • Limit motions.  By using the approach just mentioned, pointing at a spot and waiting for the critter to arrive, you’ll be forced to stay put.  Insects and other small critters tend to get used to your presence more quickly than bigger animals, but it’s still helpful to keep still.  Of course moving around is necessary for any good photography.  But macro shooting, still or video, goes much more smoothly when movement is limited, planned out and deliberate.
  • Look for subtle subjects too.  Macro video isn’t just about insects.  For example, flowers or other interesting macro subjects can be great targets for video when light is rapidly changing as clouds move quickly across the sky.   Movements from wind can also make videos worth a try.
  • Finally, don’t limit yourself to true macro.  Do close-up videos with other lenses.  If you have a lens that offers a “macro” setting, you may be able, depending on subject, to focus close enough to get that intimate feel of macro.  Do you know the closest that each of your lenses will focus?  You should.  Wide-angle lenses often focus quite closely.  They also enable you to hand-hold the camera with less chance of shakiness.  For the video below I had to get my feet wet to move smoothly through the scene.  At the end of the clip is a bonus: my little buddy Charl (RIP) watches from the bridge.  No way was he getting his little feet wet!

That’s all for now.  If you haven’t done so, try a macro video or two.  If you have, let us know what you thought.  Are there any tips I forgot?  Thanks for reading and have a fantastically fun weekend!

Friday Foto Talk: Intimate Landscapes   14 comments

Beautiful Falls Creek in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Beautiful Falls Creek in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. 55 mm., 20 sec. @ f/22, tripod.

Last week I posted under the somewhat ambitious title How to Shoot Landscapes.  I mentioned that landscapes come in all sizes, so this week we’ll look at the small scale world of landscape photography.  Most of the photos here are of this type, what I call intimate landscapes.  But a few straddle the line or are definitely the more typical large-scale landscape.  I like sharing recent images with you here on the blog even if they don’t match the topic precisely.  But I also think they help to illustrate the difference between the two kinds of images.

No clear dividing line exists between the more photographed grand landscape and the less common intimate variety.  The same goes for the lower boundary between intimate landscape and macro photography.  In general if you’re shooting something less than the size of a football field/pitch (often much smaller), but you’re including more real estate than a typical macro photo (and not using your macro lens), then you’re shooting an intimate landscape.

Entrance to the narrows at Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.

Entering the narrows at Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley National Park.  16 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/16, ISO 100, tripod.

A traditional home in west-central Cambodia, shot from the edge of the rice paddy about a hundred feet away.

A traditional home in west-central Cambodia.  Shot from the edge of the rice paddy about a hundred feet away, this one straddles the line between intimate and large landscape. 135 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/14, ISO 200, handheld.


  • Which one to shoot?  Let your unconscious be your guide, but realize it’s easier to miss smaller, intimate landscapes.  When a grand landscape inspires you, shoot that.  But always be on the lookout for smaller scenes as well, and photograph those when they interest you in some way.  Try not to go out with the goal of shooting one or the other.
  • Composition is still king.  The same things that make large landscapes work well (subject off-center, sense of depth, use of leading lines, layers, tone and color, and balancing elements) will strengthen your intimate landscapes.
In central Oregon's Painted Hills, you can walk among colorful badlands.  19 mm., 1/10 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100, tripod.

In central Oregon’s Painted Hills, you can walk among colorful badlands. 19 mm., 1/10 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100, tripod.

  • Strong subjects help.  Of course a strong main subject helps any landscape image, but in smaller more intimate scenes, where all of the elements tend to appear the same size and are usually lighted similarly, a good strong subject is even more important.  Remember a striking color contrast can also make for a strong subject.

Shot under an overcast sky, Fairy Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge is a very popular intimate landscape to shoot. 45 mm., 1 sec. @ f/10, ISO 160, tripod.

  • Issues of light and sky.  Oftentimes intimate landscapes are more appropriate when the sky is overcast and the light is even (image above).  Typical small-scale landscapes don’t include much (if any) sky.  But those aren’t rules!  Now we know that great light, whether it’s strong & directional or filtered & reflected by clouds is perfect for grand landscapes that include a lot of sky.  But that light is also great for intimate landscapes, even when you don’t include any sky (image below).

Beautiful light filters into Oregon’s Eagle Creek Canyon near sunset. 24 mm., 3.2 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100, tripod.

  • Careful with clutter. This point is closely related to the one about strong subjects above.  It’s important to be careful with clutter in all landscape photos.  But when your landscapes are composed of elements that are all close to you, it’s even more important to simplify compositions as much as possible.  With big wide-angle landscapes, more distant things tend to look small in the frame, so are not as likely to distract the viewer.  When everything is close, that stuff may easily distract.
These redwood trees grow not in California but in Oregon.  A very simple image shot from a steep slope out into the forest.

These redwood trees grow not in California but in Oregon. A very simple image shot from a steep slope out into the forest.  To limit clutter it isn’t a wide-angle shot.  55 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/8, ISO 800, handheld.

  • Images with a sense of depth.  Shooting near to far compositions (one good way to lend a sense of depth) are more challenging when working on smaller scales.  But it’s possible.  You may be focusing very close to the lens, so choose a lens that has a so-called “macro” setting.  It’s not truly macro of course (marketing).  Always wide-angle with fairly short focal lengths, these kinds of lenses open up a lot of possibilities for intimate landscapes because they can focus very close, in some cases less than a foot away.  Getting down low can also help add depth.
Recent shot in Washington's Columbia Hills in the eastern Columbia Gorge.  Borders on a large landscape, the bit of sky and close-focus on the flowers giving it depth.

Recent shot in Washington’s Columbia Hills in the eastern Columbia Gorge. Borders on a large landscape, the bit of sky and close-focus on the flowers giving it depth. 16 mm., 1/6 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100, tripod.

  • Sky and depth.  While we’re talking about a sense of depth, here’s something to try.  After shooting an intimate landscape that excludes the sky, zoom out a little or shift the camera up a bit and include just a small bit of sky, not much.  Compare and see if that doesn’t add more depth to the image.  The image above makes use of both this and the above tips on adding a sense of depth.

So next time you’re out photographing your favorite landscape, try to find more intimate scenes.  It adds variety to your portfolio and can yield some of your favorite images.  Tune in next week for Friday Foto Talk for some tips on focus and depth of field when shooting intimate landscapes.  Have a great weekend!

Landscape at larger scale but shot from the same place as the image above, just turned around to face the sunset.

Landscape at larger scale but shot from the same place as the image above, just turned around to face the sunset. 16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200, tripod.

Wordless Wednesday: 1st Cactus Bloom of Spring!   7 comments


Friday Foto Talk: Subjective vs. Objective, Part II   6 comments

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

This is the second of two parts on how to approach your photo subjects.  Check out Part I for an introduction to this fairly subtle but important topic.  Thinking about how you tell the story of your subjects is a key step in any serious photographer’s journey.  The reason why I’m not calling this “literal” vs. “abstract” or “interpretive” is that it’s a much more subtle distinction than that.  Now let’s look at a few specific examples.

Example 1:  Fall in Colorado

Last autumn I traveled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, which is my current favorite for fall colors.  The image at top is an objective take.  It’s a level-on, standard composition.  It’s shot in good but not unusually awesome light.  I zoomed in to exclude more of the same.  I’m just trying to show the mountains and trees being their spectacular selves.

In the shot below, I zoomed in again, focusing on the contrast between the golden aspen and green spruce trees, all set off against new-fallen snow.  It’s somewhere between objective and subjective.  The light is flat and there is mist in the air, perfect for showing colors and textures.  The composition excludes all but the trees, giving it even more objectivity.

Fall color and the season's first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

Fall color and the season’s first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.


However, the photo is partly subjective because of its focus on the snow.  It shows the transition from fall to winter.  I feel pretty strongly that transitions are the most interesting photo subjects.  So this overlap of seasons, common to mountains, naturally attracted me.  That’s a subjective viewpoint and one that plenty of people share.  I timed my trip in part to see this transition.  I also knew that most other photographers, who time their visits for the peak of fall color, had come and gone.

Towards the end of autumn, I was in the far west of the state poking around the Colorado River.  I found an off-trail route to some bluffs overlooking the river, with beautiful cottonwoods lining the banks.  Being late fall, clear cold nights caused dense fog to form each morning along the river.  The fog combined with the viewpoint shooting downward gave me the chance to abstract the form of the trees, which being cottonwoods were still in full leaf.  I think in our enthusiasm for fall color we often lose sight of the beautiful forms, which is one reason why I like going post-peak when leaves begin to fall, revealing the ‘bones’ of the trees.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in the fog.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in dense fog along the Colorado River near Fruita, CO.


Now for two examples from a recent stay in one of my favorite places in the world, Death Valley National Park in the California desert:

Example 2: Wildflower Bloom

Winter rains from the current El Nino have led to a great bloom of wildflowers in Death Valley this year.  Some are calling it a “super-bloom”.  I’m not too sure about that.  We’re already calling nearly every full moon a “super-moon”.  But you can’t deny that the flower display is unusual this year and certainly worth photographing.

One subjective take on it is fairly obvious.  Death Valley is well named.  It’s an arid and hot place with sparse life adapted to the harsh waterless conditions.  When colorful flowers burst forth literally overnight from the dusty-dry desert floor (and later die off, just as suddenly, after going to seed), it’s hard to avoid thinking about themes of renewal, impermanence, and the yin-yang of life and death.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

The image above highlights this subjective view of the bloom.  A fairly narrow aperture helped, but increasing the camera-subject distance relative to the subject-background distance did even more to give the cracked desert floor a prominent role in the image.  Otherwise with the macro lens it would’ve been too blurred.

I also did a few objective close-ups, with defocused and indistinct background (image below).  This was to highlight the flowers for their objective qualities.  After all they’re vibrant and colorful no matter where they happen to bloom.

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA.  Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/250 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.


Example 3: Pupfish Pools

I’ve been to Death Valley National Park a bunch of times but have never really focused on pupfish and their habitats.  Pupfish are small, active little fish that resemble guppies.  They are evolutionary left-overs from Ice Age times when enormous lakes filled the valleys here.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manley.  Through the millennia, as Lake Manley slowly dried up, the few surviving fish split into separate species that now live in spring-fed perennial pools and small streams scattered around the region.

The species of pupfish here are all endemic.  Endemic means they live nowhere else, and because of that they’re quite rare and protected by U.S. law.  Pupfish are also quite the cute little guys!  They’re named for their playful antics.  But if you look closely you can see the scars.  What looks like play is actually aggressive territorial behavior.  Their small size and active movements make pupfish difficult to photograph, at least without getting into the water with them (which is illegal of course).

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

I can’t think of the wetlands where pupfish live without imagining what things were like when Lake Manley existed.  It was filled with fish and other life which attracted huge flocks of birds and other animals (including humans, scattered bands of hunter-gatherers living along the lakeshore).  Today’s pupfish pools can in a way be thought of as windows into that distant time.

These ideas have a way of influencing photography in a subjective and often unconscious way.  In the image above (which also appears in a previous post), I drew close to the deep blue pool, shooting to capture the steam rising over the warm water on a frosty morning.  I furthered the slightly mysterious nature of the image with editing on the computer.

The largest spring-fed pool in Death Valley: Saratoga Springs.

In the next image (above), I got close to the ubiquitous reeds lining the wetlands and set them in stark contrast with the deep blue water.  I consider this one partly subjective because it almost looks as if it’s not really a desert environment, like it could be part of ancient Lake Manley.  That was really luck.  During that trip early spring storms moved through the area, filling the springs and decorating the high Panamint Range with snow.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

When I shot the image above I was observing the pupfish.  I decided to get subjective in an abstract way and used camera movement to impart the feel of being there.  I was surrounded by reeds taller than I am, waving in the breeze.

I wasn’t purely interpretive though.  I captured a few documentary (objective) shots of the springs as well as the fish themselves (mostly getting frustrated by the little scamps!).  For the last photo at bottom, I climbed up a nearby hill at sunrise and used a wider angle in order to show the springs in their desert surroundings.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.


Let me know what you think.  How important is this to you?  Do you mostly have an objective or subjective approach to photography?  Or something in between?  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park.

Friday Foto Talk – Macro & Close-up Photography, Part III   8 comments

Butterflies are notoriously difficult to catch still, so I shot this one off-tripod and using autofocus.

Butterflies are notoriously difficult to catch still, so I shot this one off-tripod and using autofocus.

It’s time to dive into the nuts and bolts of this subject.  I mentioned in Part II that depth of field and focus were major challenges when doing macro & close-up photography.  So this post will focus on these two inter-related issues, using a few examples.


The closer you get to your subject, the shallower your depth of field will be.  If you stop down to small apertures your depth of field will increase accordingly.  But that will slow your shutter speed, blurring anything that is moving even slightly.  It will also bring your background into better focus, which may not be what you want.

But you can go beyond simply adjusting aperture.  You can choose a point of view and composition that puts the background at the right distance to blur it in the amount you want (see examples below).  Also, depending on the shape of your subject, camera position will directly affect how much of it is in focus.  Positioning your camera becomes a key way to control depth of field and focus, even more so than in other types of photography.

These aren't fruit but galls on an oak tree in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains.

These aren’t fruit but ‘galls’ on an oak tree in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains.  100 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100, tripod.


Example 1:  Recently, while in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, I found the teddy-bear cholla cactus flowering with beautiful blooms.  I wanted to show off both the color and the “guts” of the flower (its pistils & stamens), while at the same time giving a feel for the protecting spines all around.  Flowers like this have some depth to them; they’re not flat-faced.  So it’s tough to get close and still have all the petals plus the central reproductive parts all in focus.

So I positioned the camera at a sort of 3/4 angle to the face of the flower, so as to get the much of the central part in focus plus a few of the petals.  I raised the tripod so it was slightly above the flower, so that a collection of cactus spines were at the right distance behind the bloom.  I wanted them blurred but not too much.

The piece of blue sky beyond was a bonus, so I adjusted a bit so that it was to the side of the flower instead of right behind it.  My point of focus was on the part that was closest to my lens.  I had to raise ISO a bit so my shutter speed was fast enough to not allow the little breeze from blurring the flower.

Blooming cholla, southern Arizona.

Blooming cholla, southern Arizona.  100 mm. macro lens, 1/160 sec. @ f/8, ISO 400.

Example 2:  In the flower below, I thought the long hairy portion was very cool, so I shot from the side to get all of that in focus.  I experimented with different apertures to get most of the bloom in focus while totally blurring the background (to put attention on the flower).  I also positioned the camera very close to the ground to put the background as far away as possible.  The wind again made me raise ISO to get a faster shutter speed.

These flowers were blooming recently in the Chiricahua Mountains. 100 mm., 1/200 sec. @ f/11, ISO 800, tripod.

These flowers were blooming recently in the Chiricahua Mountains. 100 mm., 1/200 sec. @ f/11, ISO 800, tripod.

Example 3:  With the bee below I had to decide whether getting all the flower, including its petals, in focus was as important as a focused bee and blurry background.  Since I was shooting a living subject, shutter speed needed to be fairly fast, and that naturally led to a larger aperture (which gave me the blurred background).

Would it be better if the front petals were in focus too?  Sure.  But other than taking several exposures and combining them, there was no practical way to do that.  I go for simple over complex most of the time, even if it means trade-offs.  By the way, I got lucky with that shutter speed of 1/60 sec.  Normally you’d need something faster in this situation, especially hand-held.

This bee is going to town on a cholla bloom at Organ Pipe, Arizona.

This bee is going to town on a cholla bloom at Organ Pipe, Arizona.  100 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

So here’s the deal:  think of moving the camera closer and further away from your subject as a way to control depth of field and the degree of blurring in your background.  And think of moving your camera into different positions around the subject (side to side, low or high) as a way to not only get a more blurred background, but also to bring different parts of the subject into focus.

Next time we’ll go into some interesting ways to use macro and close-up photography in combination with other goals.  I promise it will be something you just don’t see other photography teachers covering.  Happy shooting!

A larger view of my recent wanderings in the southern Arizona desert at Organ Pipe Cactus N.M. This is Ajo Mountain drive, which in late summer is just too hot for most people, thus blessedly empty.

A larger view of my recent wanderings in the southern Arizona desert at Organ Pipe Cactus N.M. This is Ajo Mountain drive, which in late summer is just too hot for most people, thus it was blessedly empty.

Friday Foto Talk: Macro & Close-up Photography, Part I   13 comments

The morning’s first light hits a blooming balsamroot in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

I’ve been doing more macro and close-up photography lately.  It’s something I’ve always loved.  The details of the natural world just fascinate me.  I like small critters.  Some of them are so feisty!  And I love wildflowers!  Yes I know I don’t look the part, but why can’t a big ugly guy like to play in a field of flowers?

I think I also like the challenge of macro.  All that bending and stooping kills my back.  The wind blowing flowers around frustrates the heck out of me.  Butterflies flying off just as I’m about to press the shutter button.  Things like this are what I live for!

Blooming mule's ear is covered with dew in a southern Rocky Mountain meadow.

Blooming mule’s ear is covered with dew in a southern Rocky Mountain meadow.

So I thought I’d do a few posts on it, starting this week.  A caveat:  I’m not trying to be exhaustive or complete.  To explain all the things you need to think about and do while getting close with your camera would take an entire book!

First off, is there a difference between macro and close-up photography?  Though the answer to that is yes, you really don’t have to worry about it.  Essentially, true macro is done very close to your subject and with high magnification.  Generally it uses a dedicated macro lens.   Close-up photography comes in when you move a bit further away, with less magnification.  It can be done with extension tubes, close-up filters, or while using the macro settings on some lenses.

A caterpillar cruises along looking for his lunch.

A caterpillar cruises along looking for his lunch.

Why do macro and close-up photography?

  • It’s fun!  You can spend hours in that “flow” state where you lose track of time.  Afterwards you have that pleasant and incongruous feeling of having worked hard, but you feel strangely refreshed.


  • This is a great way to shake things up, to break out of creativity ruts.  Awhile back I did a post on ways to keep your photography fresh.


  • Close-up photography teaches observation skills.  When you’re always on the lookout for macro opportunities, you naturally start looking low as well as at eye level, you shift your focus close as well as far, you think small- as well as large-scale.
The spectacularly whorled and lichen crusted wood of a juniper tree in New Mexico.

The spectacularly whorled and lichen crusted wood of a juniper tree in New Mexico.

  •  You don’t need perfect light for this. Yay!  While light is still an issue, as it always is in photography, with macro you can afford to be much less rigid about what light is acceptable, especially when compared to traditional landscape photography.


  • You get a deeper and more complete appreciation for nature doing macro & close-up.  I often want to take those fellow photographers aside and show them this other world that they’re walking right over on the way to yet another traditional large landscape.

That’s it for now.  Next week we’ll dive into all the tips and techniques for successful close-up and macro photography.  Have a spectacular weekend!

Mount Hood, Oregon, at sunset.

Mount Hood, Oregon, at sunset.


Mtn. Monday: Mount Mazama & Crater Lake   9 comments

Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake, Oregon

My first day back in Oregon after almost a year gone, and I am psyched!  I went up to Crater Lake and hiked out into the snow for a sunset that never quite materialized.  But it was magnificent as always, staring down and out at one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

For those who don’t know, this is a caldera: a giant hole in a volcano.  Calderas usually fill with lakes, at least until they are breached by erosion and drained.  This particular caldera was formed when Mount Mazama exploded in a furious eruption about 6700 years ago.  It’s estimated that the mountain was a bit bigger than Mount Shasta, making it one of the (former) giants of the Cascade Range.

The large magma chamber underneath the mountain emptied rapidly and gravity took over.  The entire peak area collapsed down, creating a caldera.  Some of the last volcanic activity at Mazama, some 800 years ago, formed Wizard Island at one end of the lake.  You can visit the island on boat tours.  I highly recommend you do this if it’s summertime and the tours are running.  You can hike to the 763-foot summit and then return to the cold blue lake waters for a very refreshing swim!

The meadows at Crater Lake aren’t as abundant as at some other Cascade Mountains, but they are nonetheless beautiful.

By the way, hiking to the top of Wizard Island gives you the all-time best lesson in the difference between a crater and a caldera.  Wizard is a cinder cone, a pile of loose pumice and other debris ejected into the air as hot frothy lava and ash.  At it’s summit is a crater, the hole left when that debris blasted out of the summit vent.  So instead of collapse into a large void beneath the mountain, craters are created by explosion outward.  Craters are normally quite a bit smaller than calderas.

This isn't Crater Lake, it's the lake filling Rinjani Caldera, a still-active but otherwise similar volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

This isn’t Crater Lake, it’s the lake filling Rinjani Caldera, a still-active but otherwise similar volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

Mazama’s position and height make it a magnet for snow storms, so it wasn’t long before the steaming caldera filled with some of the world’s cleanest water.  Springs in the porous volcanic debris also helped fill the lake, where evaporation and input from these two sources are now in equilibrium.  Visibility down into the lake is awesome, 100 feet plus.  In recent times that clarity has fluctuated, and scientists monitor things closely.

The forests surrounding Mount Mazama attract snowclouds in this image from the other morning.

The forests surrounding Mount Mazama attract snowclouds in this image from the other morning.

My first morning back into my home state after a long time away, and this is what it looked like:  Upper Rogue River area

My first morning back into my home state after a long time away, and this is what it looked like: Upper Rogue River area

Often overlooked when people come to Crater Lake are the beautiful forests surrounding the mountain.  On the wetter west side rises the Rogue River, which the writer Zane Gray made famous when he lived and fished its lower reaches.  Wandering around the rugged and heavily forested upper Rogue you’ll find big evergreens and crystal clear streams, punctuated by the occasional waterfall.

Enjoy Crater Lake, Oregon’s only National Park!

Crater Lake in August.

Crater Lake in August.

Wordless Wednesday: Fall Color   11 comments


Posted October 15, 2014 by MJF Images in Nature Photography, Photography

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