Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View – Ethics & Legality   4 comments

For this swirling pool on Colorado's St. Vrain River, I went for a POV looking down on it.

For this recent shot of a granite-lined pool on Colorado’s St. Vrain River, I went for a downward-looking POV.

After the recent posts on point of view (POV), I realized I had been taking it for granted.  It’s the kind of thing that experienced photographers model naturally when shooting.  But they gloss over it and don’t talk about it enough when teaching.  Novices tend to be busy figuring out their cameras, exposure, where to focus, etc.  As a result they may not pick up on how important POV is until later on.

But here’s a simple fact: the sooner you learn to quickly and purposefully adjust your point of view, the faster your photography will improve.  Why is POV so important?  Because it’s all about finding the best compositions.  And in photography composition means everything.  So be sure to check out POV Part I and POV Part II.  This week let’s take a step back and look at some consequences of changing POV in the quest for the perfect shot.

Last post I showed the male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near the nest at 11,800 feet elevation in Colorado.

Last Wednesday featured a male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near their nest at 11,800 feet (3600 m.) up in the Colorado Rockies.

An image whose point of view is of another creature's point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

An image whose point of view is of another creature’s point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

Okay.  You got the message of the last two Foto Talks.  You’re moving around with purpose, shifting POV in all directions, shooting away.  You’re well on your way to better photos.  And maybe on your way to trouble as well.  Here are some quandaries common to photography, along with ideas on how to handle them.

POV & Ethics

  • Be Kind to the Environment.  Moving closer to your foreground subject could mean trampling delicate vegetation or disturbing other living things (stirring up sediment in a sensitive aquatic environment, for example).  Just last night I saw a portrait photographer trampling flowers while shooting a family, and this was inside a national park.
  • Be Kind to Fellow Photographers.  In places with other photographers around, working a subject with many different POVs (normally laudable) could result in you selfishly “hogging” the subject (next post will have the counterpoint to this).


  • Strike a Balance.  While a strong commitment to getting the shot is necessary to get good images, it’s also important to avoid being insensitive or rude.
  • Be Aware of where you are and of those around you at all times.  I’m not saying to take your mind off the photography or to worry about what others think of you lying there on your belly.  But at the same time, be conscious about damaging sensitive habitats.  Think about the critters, including your fellow photographers.
The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

POV, Legality & Permission

Are you going to hop that fence to get closer to your subject, grab a quick shot and get back before the property owner comes along?  What about entering a questionable area in some foreign country?  Laws are different there and enforced in different ways.  Do you really want the shot that badly?

  • Example 1:  Unexpected problem in a Foreign Land.  In a busy public area in Malawi I was shooting a cute little baby with big brown eyes, after asking her mom.  The unexpected result: a policeman became suspicious, approached me and wanted to take my camera away.  I had to do some quick talking, show them my pictures, and get the mom to back me up.
  • Example 2:  Dangerous & Illegal POV turns out OK.  Another example is the image below, which is a few years old.  I had driven past this spot with a fantastic view of Portland, Oregon many times.  But I could never see a safe way to shoot there.   For the same reason that makes the spot such a great POV:  it’s on a busy, curving freeway ramp that swings out over the Willamette River.

But one day I noticed a spot where the ramp widened, with just enough room to park.  It even had a curb for a bit of protection from traffic.  It required a quick maneuver in the heavy traffic.  The first time I did it was on my motorcycle, which made it quite easy.  But I knew it was illegal to be there so didn’t stay long.  I quickly set up my tripod and captured the shot I had been after.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

SOLUTIONS:  Asking vs. Apologizing

You’ve probably heard the old expression “better to ask forgiveness than beg permission”.  Sounds good, right?  But in the real world you have to weigh risks and be able to handle things diplomatically if you get caught or challenged.    Here are a few examples:

  • In villages and on treks I’ve seen photographers surround some poor kid doing something cute, with no thought of whether it was okay with the parents.  That is horrible ugly tourist behavior.  With kids you should almost always ask the parents first.  Or be ready to be apologetic and honest about your motivations.
  • For sensitive areas (political or military), I would avoid them outright.  If you insist, always ask first.
  • Photographing someone’s property (including their bodies) also begs you to ask first.  But we’re entering a gray area.  If you make it a rule to always ask, you may not get many good shots.  You could miss the light, for example.  Then in reality you’re asking to return another time.
  • One more example: on a city street photographing people.  Unless you shoot first, you’ll probably miss that great candid shot.  For some subjects, however, it doesn’t matter, street performers for example.  So you may as well ask first.
One of my favorite child images, I didn't ask permission first in order to get this candid. But in an out of the way place, people are more chill, and I smiled a lot. Mom invited me in for tea.

One of my favorite child images, a Sherpa boy waiting for his dad to come home.  I didn’t ask permission first, but in a part of Nepal away from tourists, I was willing to risk it.  I smiled a lot and his mom invited me in for tea.

SOLUTIONS:  The Quandary

The last two points above illustrate a quandary unique to photography.  Do you forego the quick shot and engage first, or do you strike while the iron is hot and talk later?  Each of us have to handle it in our own way, realizing that each situation is different.  Ultimately we need to accept responsibility for our actions.  It’s safest to ask permission first, especially if there is the slightest doubt.  But whatever happens, it’s important to be honest and pleasant.

Okay that’s it for now.  Next week we’ll look at other issues to be aware of when actively changing your point of view.  Happy shooting and have a wonderful weekend!

Sunset over the high tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.


Friday Foto Talk: Point of View, Part II   4 comments

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV.  Like atop this fallen giant in California's redwoods.

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.

This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography.  Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background.  This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.

Point of View:  Height

Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera.  What did we do?  We shot from a standing position.  Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level.  This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position.  You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them.  Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s?  There’s only one way to find out.  Get up or get down and shoot!  It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.

Long's Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.


The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it.  You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose.  Or you squat, getting a bit lower.  Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod.  When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.

You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower.  For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground.  Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California.  So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:

  • Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger.  For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above).  If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number).  Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
  • Foregrounds change position.  Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background.  As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion.  This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette.  You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background.  Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
  • Backgrounds recede.  This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements.  Even tall mountains tend to shrink.  Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar.  It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.

For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.  Compare with image below.

Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.


Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject.  It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try.  And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well.  That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination.  You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.

Here are some ideas:

  • Climb a rock or mountain.  We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us.  In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop.  It can also add interest to a group photo.  Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth.  The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill.  I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
  • Or a tree!  Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows.  While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots.  So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree.  I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV.  I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is.  But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

  • Tote a ladder around.  This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances.  For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically.  For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
  • Go flying.  I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane.  In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds.  If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all.  You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot.  In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.


  • Get a drone.  I don’t really like drones.  For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera.  But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry.  They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.

A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.

I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting.  Not often, but it happens.  I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there.  In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything.  Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.

But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day.  A good way to check if you are truly motivated  is to simply observe yourself.  Are you moving your feet?  Are you changing position and height?

The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible.  All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise.  So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV.  Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.


Two for Tuesday: Close-up Signs of Spring   12 comments

Orange globe mallow in bloom.

Orange globe mallow in bloom.

Yesterday was the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere.  So in celebration here’s a Two for Tuesday post.  It’s where I post two photos that are related to each other in some way.

This pair shows a couple closely related signs of Spring.   During a splendid hike through a desert canyon recently, the season was springing forth in typical desert fashion.  Spring rarely bowls you over in the desert.  But the closer you look the more you see.  It’s why both of these are close-up shots.

The hummingbird surprised me at first when he buzzed by my head, looking straight at me hovering a couple feet away before zooming off to perch on his branch.  I wondered why he was there at first, but then walkiaround I found a spring with some flowers blooming.  In fact the further up the little draw I walked the more like a lush oasis it seemed.

This little hummer was spending part of his morning checking out the visitor to his little oasis near a spring in a desert canyon: Death Valley National Park.

This little hummer was spending part of his morning checking out the visitor to his little oasis near a spring in a desert canyon: Death Valley National Park.

Get out there and enjoy springtime (or autumn for my southern hemisphere friends).  And thanks for checking in!

Glacier National Park in Spring: Things to Do   13 comments

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Lets continue with Glacier National Park in springtime.  This post will suggest things to do if you visit the park in early season (May & June).  Check out the introductory post too.  I visited this beautiful park in NW Montana last month.  Though much of the park was snow-free, most of the high country was inaccessible because of snow.  The famous Going to the Sun Road, which crosses spectacular Logan Pass, was closed from the Avalanche trailhead & campground on the west side all the way over to the east entrance at St. Mary Lake.

Spring was in the air at lower elevations, with green meadows, flowers and busy critters.  That atmosphere, combined with relatively few other visitors and all those waterfalls made the trip very worthwhile, despite Logan Pass & St. Mary Lake being closed.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

A Caveat:  If you’re going to Glacier to knock some shots off your photography bucket list, you should stop reading right now and find another avenue of research.  For one thing, it being early season, I wasn’t able to access ever-popular Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake (at Sun Point).  So I’m not much help for these two very popular places to shoot at Glacier.

The internet features thousands of pictures from these two spots, and it seems everybody with a camera wants to (or feels they should) see and shoot them.  They’re on the itinerary of every photo workshop at Glacier (they have to be, people would feel cheated if they weren’t).

That’s why, as those who’ve been reading this blog for awhile have probably already guessed, I’ve happily skipped them on all my trips to the park, even in summer or fall when they’re accessible.  Besides, I don’t need to keep a group of workshop participants happy.  And I don’t do bucket lists.

St. Mary Lake, East Glacier

Here are a few ideas for things to do if you come to Glacier in early season (photography suggestions follow each one):

  • Rivers & lakes are plum full in spring.  So it’s a great time to float the Flathead (north or middle forks) in a raft.  These rivers approach Class III but are mostly mellow Class I & II.  Look for outfitters based in Kalispell or Whitefish, or closer to the park at West Glacier.  This is a favorite weekend activity for local residents of the Flathead Valley.

** Action shots on the river, especially if you’re able to capture people’s expressions in the great light of a lowering sun, will make you popular with companions.  If you’re nervous about shooting on the water, buy a relatively inexpensive waterproof point and shoot camera.  But the chances of capsizing on the Flathead, especially in a raft, are slim indeed.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall on its way from the lake of the same name.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall from the lake of the same name.

  • Camping lakeside is a wonderful way to spend a weekend in May or early June here.  Lake McDonald is an obvious choice, but Bowman Lake, also on the west side, is more out of the way and gorgeous as well.  You’ll need to drive a gravel road into Bowman, but it’s well graded for 2WD, and in early season not too washboarded.  On the east side, camping (and hiking) along Two Medicine Lake is a superb choice.

** Campfire pictures (and videos) are sure winners.  I’m talking people pictures, not close-ups of the fire.  Help to get your group in the mood to sing and dance, then stand back with your camera on a tripod and capture both freeze-frame (higher ISO) and movement-blur shots.  Or zoom in for a close portrait of someone telling a story, face to the firelight.  Can you think of other ideas?

  • As long as you’re camping by a lake, spring is a fantastic time to paddle, either in kayak or canoe.  Morning is best to avoid any wind that may come up.  And drop a line if you’re so inclined.

** Photograph canoes & kayaks in quiet, peaceful, and watery settings at sunrise, sunset, or even in the moonlight.  Shots of people (fishing?) or just the empty boats can both work.  Sure these can look a bit cliche, but if you’re genuinely trying to capture the mood of a peaceful paddle, these types of pictures can really shine.  Of course sunset or sunrise by a lake also provides the perfect chance to shoot landscape if the light is right.

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

  • Wildlife watching & photography is great this time of year.  Dusky grouse were mating when I visited in May, and the deep “thump thump thump” calls of the male permeated the forest everywhere I went.  I saw moose and plenty of deer, along with bighorn sheep.  Mountain goat are quite common as well, especially if you hike to one of the high rocky ridges, such as Apgar Lookout near the western entrance.

I didn’t see bears this time, but they are mostly out from hibernation at this time of year.  Note: there are plenty of grizzlies in this park, so travel in groups if possible and make noise when you’re hiking (especially if alone) in areas where you can’t see far (no bells, loud talking instead).  Discretion is the better part of valor: shoot grizzlies from a distance!

** You have to be patient to get pictures of dusky grouse, but the males (like males of any species, including us) are easier to approach when they’re displaying and their minds are elsewhere.  The real challenge is to get a shot of a female!

** Bighorn sheep are fairly easy in most areas of Glacier because they are habituated to humans.  But in order to observe more natural behaviors, and to get close to young ones, you need some patience.  For both sheep and goats, if the terrain and your abilities allow, climb above them at a fair distance and circle around.  Then descend slowly, approaching from above.  That tends to keep them much more relaxed than if you were to approach from below, where most of their danger comes from.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.


Next time I’ll cover hiking at Glacier.  It might have to wait until a follow-up trip in a few weeks, after which I’ll be able to recommend not only good trails for spring, but perfect hikes for summer as well.  Happy traveling!


Flowers bloom in springtime from an out-of-the-way spot I found along Flathead Lake, Montana.

Spring flowers bloom above Flathead Lake, Montana.

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.

Friday Foto Talk: Depth of Field III   13 comments

This Friday I’d like to continue with depth of field. But before I do I want to thank all those who contributed to my campaign to replace my camera gear (which tumbled over a waterfall several months back) and get back to showing you all some fresh material on this blog. I will be sending out a reminder email to those folks, to pick the images they want.

I didn’t make it all the way to my goal, but I got partway there. And that means something. I’m busy right now working 7 days/week doing the only thing I know how to do that makes me money quickly. And it’s actually legal, go figure! So it won’t be long before I make up the difference myself.

Make sure and check out the first two parts of this series: Part I and Part II.  They go over the basics behind depth of field.  The example here will show how to apply those basic principles in the field, so it’s important to know them.

Cape Ground Squirrel

I was traveling through Namibia when I took a break from the road.  Namibia is one country in Africa where you can very easily rent a car and take off on an impromptu road trip, like you would in the western U.S.  If the roads in the west were still largely unpaved that is.  

I strolled up a small ridge with my camera and one lens (a 400 mm.).  Suddenly directly ahead this cute little fellow popped his head up and looked at me with big dark eyes.  I had never encountered this rather tall slender rodent before.  Later I found out it was a cape ground squirrel, native to southern Africa.

Of course I wanted a shot of him, and quickly before he decided I wasn’t all that interesting.  But as usual my position wasn’t ideal.  A portion of the scrubby hillside formed the background not far behind him.  My lens only opened up to a maximum aperture of f/5.6.

Since I wanted a portrait that showed him plus a bit of the bare ground at his feet but little else, the hillside was a problem.  It was too close and would have been too much in focus, too distracting.  I wanted as shallow a depth of field as I could get.  But I was limited in what I could do.  I couldn’t open the aperture larger than f/5.6, couldn’t go longer than 400 mm., and couldn’t change lenses.

I was down to one option, changing relative distance between camera to subject and subject to background.  And since I couldn’t move closer without scaring him off, increasing the subject to background distance was all I had.

I grabbed a quick shot or two, in case he ran away. Then I slid down low, lying on my belly so that the hillside behind him was out of view. Now a much more distant ridge formed the background.  Problem was, the lower point of view put my little friend out of view.

So I waited, hoping that his curiosity would get the best of him.  Sure enough he popped his head up again.  Luckily his long tail (which is what fascinated me about him in the first place) trailed to the side.  I had been framing a vertical photo, but I quickly switched to get his tail in and fired off a few frames before he zipped off to continue his daily desert rounds.

The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.

The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.

I ended up with a pretty good shot of him, a key part of it being the smooth gray out of focus background. The shallow depth of field was afforded by a relatively long focal length of 400 mm. combined with the squirrel’s proximity to me relative to the distance between him and the ridge behind.  The low point of view resulted in the picture’s main weakness, an out of focus rock low in the foreground.

I tend to combine all the factors controlling depth of field (aperture, focal length and positioning).  But since focal length is pretty much dictated by the composition I’m after, aperture and positioning are the main variables.  I’ll move closer or farther from my subject, change point of view to move background forward or back, or ask my subject to move if that’s possible (I haven’t figured out how to speak to animals yet).  All the while I will adjust aperture to the degree that I can.

Of course I run into shutter speed limitations when adjusting aperture.  But it’s easy to mitigate that by adjusting ISO.  Better to have a little noise from a higher ISO than to have a blurry subject because of a shutter speed that is too slow.  I have ruined many a shot because I thought animals or people were perfectly still when they weren’t.  I’ve been a very slow learner in this regard.  Always shoot live subjects at somewhat faster shutter speeds than you think are necessary. 

The Cascades III: Mount Rainier, Part 2   18 comments

Good morning Mount Rainier!  Reflection Lakes.

Good morning Mount Rainier! Reflection Lakes.

What’s in a Name?

Geographic place names are a frequent bone of contention.  In North America, we have a push-pull between those who want to retain the names for mountains, rivers and the like that were given by the first white explorers, and those who want to use the native American names.  It is really a slap in the face to native tribes that we don’t use the names of places they often regard as sacred.  But there is a strong inertia at work as well.  The U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN) is quite the staid, traditional organization.  The issue can get people’s blood boiling in a hurry.  And that’s not even counting all the racially-offensive place names, the Squaw Buttes of the world.

The Nisqually River Valley at Mount Rainier is filled with low clouds at dusk.

The Nisqually River Valley at Mount Rainier is filled with low clouds at dusk.

Mount Rainier in the past definitely illustrated this tension.  As mentioned in Part 1 the mountain was named for a rear admiral, a friend of Captain Vancouver (who led the first forays of white explorers up the Columbia River).  The name is typical of Cascade mountains. Many were named after the friends and backers of some of the first expeditions to explore the Pacific Northwest, others for presidents.  The Puyallup, a local native tribe, called the mountain Talol, or Tahoma (Tacoma).  This probably means “source of waters”, but also could be a general term for all snow-capped peaks.  Herein lies the problem with native American names, one reason for the BGNs reluctance to change names.  Often it is not at all clear what the meaning of a Native American name is.  Also, different tribes often use different names for the same place.

A young buck at Mount Rainier National Park.

A young buck at Mount Rainier National Park.

During the late 1800s, the city of Tacoma lobbied hard to get the nearby mountain’s name changed to Tacoma.  Seattle, then a rival, wanted to leave the name as it was.  The debate reached fever pitch in the latter years of the 19th century when the mountain was being considered for National Park status.  Tacoma’s civic leaders figured (correctly) that a name change would bring tourism, money and prestige to their small city.  Even President William McKinley, who signed the park into existence, weighed in.  Perhaps predictably, he favored keeping the name Rainier.  A president’s opinion matters, so the park was named Mount Rainier and the mountain’s name stayed the same.

A small waterfall plunges down a narrow verdant ravine at Mount Rainier.

A small waterfall plunges down a narrow verdant ravine at Mount Rainier.

Flying Saucers of Mount Rainier

In the summer of 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier.  He had detoured during a business trip to look for the site of a recent crash of a military transport plane (there was a $5000 reward).  Suddenly he sighted flashing lights, then discovered they were coming from several strange flying objects near the mountain.  He saw some disk- or crescent-shaped objects that were flying en echelon, darting around mountains and into valleys at high speed.

He watched them for quite some time, flying in parallel but losing ground to them fast. He calculated their speed by timing their passage between Mounts Rainier and Adams and came up with 1700 mph (2700 km/h).  This was more than three times faster than any known aircraft.  Arnold told his story to the folks at the hangar in Yakima where he landed to refuel. The word spread quickly.  When he was interviewed by journalists, and later by the Army, he came across as a very careful observer who was not exaggerating.

I too happened to have a sighting!

I too happened to have a sighting!

Arnold did not compare the flying objects’ shapes to saucers.  He actually said they looked more like half-discs, or a pie plate cut in half, convex in the rear and longer than they were wide.  He told people they flew like a saucer or disk skipping over water.  But the term flying saucer was used in newspapers and the name stuck.  This was the first documented sighting of a UFO in the modern era.  There were many sightings over the next few weeks in the same region, many from very reliable observers.

Did Arnold see craft visiting from an advanced space-faring civilization?  He didn’t think so, at least at first.  He thought they were a new top secret aircraft being developed by the military. But he soon came to doubt that.  For one thing, the speed of the turns as they dipped and weaved would not have allowed a human to survive inside.  Although he noted the possibility of their being remote-controlled, he also had estimated their size as larger than a DC4 (a very large craft to be remote-controlled).  Later investigation by the Army turned up several other witnesses (a fire lookout, a prospector) that saw similar objects in the same area at the same time.

Night Sky at Rainier:  Did a delegation come from a planet orbiting one of these stars?

Night Sky at Rainier: Did a delegation come from a planet orbiting one of these stars?

This event affected Arnold’s life significantly.  He loathed the publicity it brought.  He was both labeled a loony and contacted by many people who believed in visitors from space. He could not understand, with the amount of concern and interest among the public, why the military would not have come clean if the objects were theirs.  Ultimately he seriously entertained the possibility of them being extraterrestrial in origin.

This sighting was followed by hundreds of reports from around the world, 850 or so from that same year.  Not long after the Arnold sighting, 9 UFOs in Idaho were spotted by a crew on a United Airlines jet, and this received much more media coverage than did Arnold’s.  It was during that same summer of 1947 that the public learned of the Roswell incident, the most famous UFO incident in history.

The Milky Way is easily visible from high up on the slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington.

The Milky Way is easily visible from high up on the slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington.

Was Ken Arnold first to see the vanguard of an exploratory mission of some advanced extraterrestrial intelligence?  Did he glimpse advanced military technology? Or did his sighting simply open the floodgates of the public’s imagination, a public primed for this?  It was early in the Cold War and the technology revolution (especially in aerospace) was just then going into hyperdrive.  The sound barrier had not been broken yet, and the speed of these objects were a big part of what captured the public’s attention.  It’s interesting to think about.  But one thing is clear: if those saucers were actually extraterrestrial, then Spielberg had it wrong in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  It was not Devil’s Tower that the aliens picked to visit first but Mount Rainier!

Mount Rainier in alpenglow.

Mount Rainier in alpenglow.

Friday Foto Talk: Travel Photography, Part III   9 comments

An empty beach invites exploration on Costa Rica's remote Osa Peninsula.

An empty beach invites exploration on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula.

This is the third and final installment in this series on travel photography tips.  I hope you’ve enjoyed and gotten something out of them.  Check out Part I and Part II if you haven’t already.  If you are interested in any of the pictures just click on them and you will see options for purchase of the high-resolution versions.  Please contact me if you have any questions.

      • What to Photograph:  You should have done some research on what to seek out and photograph while on your trip.  But if you didn’t do much, so what?  Just hit up a gift shop when you arrive and check out the postcards.  They will tell you what is often photographed in that place.  You might not want to take most of those pictures, but it is only a good thing to know what they are.  Don’t be shy, ask questions about the subjects in the pictures.  Hit up the proprietor or buy the card(s) and approach locals on the street with questions about what’s pictured.  This can yield much more than how to get to the particular spot.  Think of postcards as springboards for further exploration.

A boy in a village in northern India gazes with a peculiar intensity.

      • Roaming & People Pics:  I mentioned wandering above, but I want to stress that there is one good reason that a plan is not really necessary.  That reason is people.  There are almost certainly going to be people anywhere you go, and they are endlessly fascinating subjects for your pictures.  While I am normally quite reserved around home, I open up on the road.  Especially in different countries, I’m willing to sort of make a fool of myself.  I approach people readily, perhaps make a joke, and ask to take some photographs.  Most say yes.  Sometimes I even take their picture first then go up and explain why I just took their picture.  My reason is usually flattering.  As you might know, flattery will get you everywhere.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

      • Children:  I hate seeing tourists with cameras converge on kids and you see the kids aren’t into it.  It’s one thing if a group of laughing children approach you and ham it up.  But you should always ask about and look for their parents.  Ask the parents if it’s okay first.  Just don’t be one of those doofuses in the Himalayan village cornering a couple young friends just being themselves and feeling slightly threatened by all the pasty tourists pressing in with their cameras.

Upon waking very early on only my 3rd morning in Africa, I stepped outside to see this stately female Thornicroft's giraffe in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park.

      • Elderly:  There is a sort of axiom out there about travel photography that kids and old people are what you should focus on.  This might be true as far as the impact of the images, but I don’t generally go along with it.  I think there are all sorts of interesting people out there: young, old and in between.  But kids and the elderly are probably most likely to have the time to give you.  Just don’t treat the elderly like some people treat kids – as if they have no real say in the situation.  Treat everybody the same, with respect for them and their time.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

      • Communication:  A nice smile and willingness to chat is always good.  Sometimes language is a barrier.  But you can just share what pictures you’ve taken with them (via the LCD) and have a laugh.  It’s important to make some kind of connection, and make clear from the beginning that you’re into taking pictures.  Don’t be shy about that.

In Etosha, Namibia, my patience paid off.  After 2+ months in Africa, I had not seen a cheetah.  Then I happened on a mother and these two cuties.

      • Sharing:  It goes without saying, if you promise to send pictures of people that you’ve taken, you need to follow through.  Doing it while on the road is the best option.  But I carry a Polaroid Pogo printer, a pocket-sized printer that uses no ink and connects directly to my DSLR via a mini-USB cable.  It produces wallet-sized prints.  I give out prints for people who cooperate and with whom I’ve spent time.  I don’t go crazy (you can only carry so much paper), but it has greased many a wheel believe me.  I just found out, however, that they have almost quadrupled the price on these.  The new ones have bluetooth, but I paid $45 and they are now about $160!  I can’t really recommend this thing (which produces, after all, rather poor quality prints) at that new price.  But if you can find an older one, go for it.

The spectacular peak of Taboche looms above the trekking route to Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

      • Money:  Should you pay for pictures or not?  If a person is dressed up like his ancestors and is accompanied by a bored animal, you can bet you need to.  But in most cases it’s optional; always has been.  I don’t generally do it.  But since in the case of other countries (where you are more likely to be asked to pay) the people I want to photograph are on the street and thus may likely be selling something, I will simply buy something from them.  Then I’m not some tourist with a camera but a customer.  Or if they ask for money I might offer them a small print (from the Pogo – see above), explaining that it’s not my “thing” to pay for photos.  Like all rules, this rule of mine has exceptions, but I try pretty hard to stick to it.

An attractive couple of locals from the Nicaraguan island of Omotepe take a break from riding their horses in a local parade.

      • Relax:  I think everyone should read Tao de Ching before they travel.  Trust me I’ve tried too hard when traveling, usually only for the first couple days though.  Just take it as it comes.  If it rains, get an umbrella and shoot interesting city stuff.  If it’s hot get out early and late, taking advantage of “pool light” in the mid-day.  Shoot what interests you in the place you’re in and don’t stress about things.  You want to have a good time on your trip, so you should be willing to miss some shots and keep your “let the good times roll” vibe in place.  For one thing, you’ll get better people shots with a fun carefree attitude.  Have fun!

A lone jet skier motors across Lake Powell, Arizona at dusk.

Okay, I’m tired of this subject for now.  There is more, probably much more, to say on this subject.  If you have something to add, or any questions, let it fly!  I’ll probably be posting on this subject in the future, and many of my posts are travel-related anyway.  Thanks for reading!

A relaxing walk on the beach is a great way to take life easy when on the road.  Get a picture while you're at it.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.


Nicaragua III: Rio San Juan   Leave a comment

The Rio San Juan at the outlet of Lago Nicaragua. The town of San Carlos is at right.

It felt rather surreal pulling into the small port of San Carlos at the south end of the lake.  I had a few hours before I caught a small boat down the San Juan, so I explored the town a bit.  A lot of trade comes through here, and bananas are no small part of that trade.  I headed to the riverside town of El Castillo.  It’s dominated by a very interesting fort on the hill above town.  It was built by the Spaniards to protect the entrance to Lago Nicaragua (and the rich town of Granada) from marauding pirates.

Unloading bananas from the overnight ferry that travels the length of Lago Nicaragua.

El Castillo is the jumping off point for trips downriver and into the pristine rain forest on the Nicaraguan side (the Costa Rica side of the river has been cleared for ranching and agriculture, sadly).  But the town is a great spot to hang for a day or two.  I found a little family-run place along the river, where I again worked a deal to photograph their rooms and beautiful exterior in exchange for lodging.  You can hear the rapids on the river as you fall asleep, always a good way to beat insomnia.

The Rio San Juan (central America’s longesr river ) winds toward the Atlantic as viewed from the walls of El Castillo

I walked around town rounding up a few backpackers to share the cost of a boat and guide into the rain forest downstream.  Next morning we were on our way.  We hiked a beautiful stretch of jungle, and I saw my first poison dart frogs (see image).  On the way back upriver we stopped at a place called Refugio Bartola.  I decided on a whim to stay, despite having only the clothes on my back, a water bottle and bug repellent ( I had left my luggage with the family in Castillo).  Bartola sits on the river and is backed by wild jungle.  I had a little adventure here…

The so-called blue-jeans frog inhabits the pristine rain forest along the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua.

Although it was getting to be late afternoon, I took off on a hike into the forest, by myself.  I often do this in unfamiliar places, not sure why.  I like the challenge of using only my sense of direction to find my way back.  And I often am rewarded with great sightings.  I was really hoping for a jaguar, but my consolation prize was a spider monkey, my favorite!  I blame this sighting for keeping me going away from the Refugio for too long.  As I worked my way back, I took a wrong turn and ended up against darkness.  I was still running on the rough root-strewn trail when darkness caught me.

A spider monkey sits in the jungle of southern Nicaragua.

In the tropics dark comes quickly, and in the jungle it descends to true blackness.  With no flashlight, I tried to proceed.  But it immediately became obvious that it was impossible to stay on the trail.  I was stuck!  I sat down for awhile in the blackness, but then stinging ants found me and I hopped wildly about, shaking them out of my shorts.  I had to keep pacing to keep the insects off me as the jungle started to come alive.  I had nothing but a near-empty water bottle.  Luckily it wasn’t destined to get cold overnight, so I would probably survive.  But would I still have my sanity in the morning?  I was doubtful.

After a couple hours of this being alone with my thoughts (“I am NEVER hiking without a flashlight again!”), I saw a brief flash of light in the trees.  I was thinking fireflies, but then I heard them: guys speaking Spanish!  I shouted at the top of my lungs: Ayudeme!  I was rescued!  The guide who works at Bartola had had happened to hear from one of the women who works in the kitchen that she had seen me hiking off alone.  He rounded up the two military guys from the nearby post and, armed, they began the search.  They were amazed that I was so distant.  I asked why the guns were necessary, but knew the answer before it came: jaguar.  There apparently was a large male that called this patch of jungle home.  As we walked back to the Refugio, I wondered about my confidence that I could survive the night.

A couple days later I was traveling, again by river, across the border into Costa Rica.  This country is safer I thought, more traveled and more civilized.  Isn’t it?


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