Posted by: kerryl29 | September 27, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Lower Calf Creek Falls

Whether it was directly a function of the previous day’s experience or not, there was relatively little photography on this day of the trip. We did not get up for sunrise–understandably, I think. We had actually planned to hike into Little Death Hollow, but when we arrived at the parking area around mid-morning, after doing some scouting, we were advised by someone who was just coming out–after spending a couple of days in the canyon himself–that it would be a push to be able to get to, and photograph, the best parts of the hollow as a day hike, given our starting time. After what happened at Coyote Gulch, pushing it was not a popular option.

For the first (and only) time on the trip we did make use of the diffusers I had brought to photograph a flowering Claret Cup cactus we had spotted on the side of the road.

Claret Cup Cactus, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We also spent a fair amount of time, during the generally harsh light portion of the day, exploring several spots in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The light was not flattering to these locations at this time on a crystal clear and quite breezy day, but the areas were noted (I marked them on my GPS) for possible future reference.

Our next stop on the trip was the Capitol Reef National Park area, several hours away, but we had to decide whether to head straight there or not. One of the spots we had wanted to visit, still in the monument and not all that far from the town of Escalante, was Lower Calf Creek Falls, a good-sized waterfall, quite different than anything else we had photographed (or would photograph) on this trip. We had more or less written off the location, but once we had decided not to do the Little Death Hollow hike, it was back on the table. Jason–who had been there before–was confident, based on his experience, that the waterfall would be in even light by late afternoon. So, by mid-afternoon, we arrived at the trailhead and began the roughly three-mile hike (six-mile round trip) to the 126-foot waterfall. Jason was correct; the light was perfect for waterfall photography.

It’s a testament to our stamina (or stupidity or both), I suppose, that we didn’t blanch at the notion of making a six-mile round trip hike, some of it through (ugh) loose sand the day after hiking 17-plus miles. But I don’t think either of us had any problems with the hike itself.

The waterfall is quite something. It’s nestled in a fairly narrow canyon that’s much, much cooler than the exposed areas on the hike in. The tight canyon also sheltered the location from the wind. Lower Calf Creek Falls is also quite photogenic.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

There are a surprisingly large number of ways to compose photographs of Lower Calf Creek Falls, partly because it’s possible to approach it from numerous directions. The view above requires clearing a stream–which can be done by rock hopping, if one is careful. I ended up having to go back and forth twice because I left my backpack on one side of the stream (this was intentional–I figured that the rock hopping would be significantly easier if I wasn’t weighed down–and I ended up forgetting an accessory and had to go back to retrieve it. Still, I made the crossing both times without incident.

Lower Calf Creek Falls Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

For the second time in as many days, we ran into James Kay‘s workshop. This time, they reached the location of interest before we did. We assured them that we weren’t stalking them.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls Intimate Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When we finished at the waterfall and made the hike back to the parking area, it was time to make the drive toward Capitol Reef. We were looking forward to spending the night in a motel for the first time on the trip, after six consecutive evenings of camping. (This meant the opportunity to take a shower (!) among other things involving indoor plumbing.) But on the way, we stopped at an overlook on the extremely picturesque Utah State Highway 12 to take advantage of what the evening light was doing to the rocky mesas and domes in the distance.

Last Light, High2ay 12, Garfield County, Utah
Last Light, High2ay 12, Garfield County, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park was our next stop.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 21, 2021

The Desert Southwest: The Coyote Gulch Saga

Coyote Gulch. Where to start?

Coyote Gulch lies within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. It is a deep canyon, with a creek running through it…kind of a riparian ecosystem surrounded by towering sandstone walls. It is a fascinating place.

So what’s the problem?

Access. The most photogenic parts of Coyote Gulch, according to everyone whose seen it, are in the middle. The Gulch, you see, runs for approximately 25 miles from end to end. It’s fairly easiily accessed, Jason and I were told, on both ends. But the middle 10 miles or so, that’s the part that we’d want to see. The only way to enter from one of the ends and see the middle was to do so as part of a multi-day backpack, something neither of us was interested in or prepared to do. No, we wanted to photograph the interesting part of the gulch as a day hike. To do that, we learned, involved entering (and departing) via one of two somewhat dicey mid-points.

One is known as the Water Tanks (due to the location of some old elements fitting that description near the trailhead), which lies closer to the upstream end of the canyon. The problem with this entry point is that it’s a steep slickrock slant. Best to have a rope, we were told, to go via this route because if you slip and fall you can seriously injure yourself. Oh, and best to avoid this route at all if you’ve got a heavy pack unless you’ve got technical climbing experience. Doesn’t sound very promising.

The second option is known as the Crack-in-the-Wall, which lies a long ways downstream from the Water Tanks. Requiring a relatively easy mile and a half hike to get to the crack itself–on the canyon rim–the crack is an extremely narrow passage way through a break in a series of massive rocks. It’s so narrow that large individuals probably won’t fit through the gap and forget about taking anything–a backpack, a tripod…anything–through the crack with you, because it won’t fit. If you have gear and you want to enter the gulch via this route, you have to lower your gear roughly 30 feet via rope. Alert readers will also recognize that this process must be reversed (i.e. pulling your gear up) if you choose to exit the gulch via the Crack-in-the-Wall.

A mutual acquaintance of Jason and myself who has photographed in Coyote Gulch multiple times told us, in no uncertain terms, that if we wanted to photograph the gulch as a day trip that we should definitely enter and exit via the Crack-in-the-Wall.

And so that’s what we did. We had camped not far from Sunset Arch on the previous evening, as I recounted in my last Desert Southwest entry, which wasn’t a long way from the Crack-in-the-Wall trailhead. We made the short drive before sunrise, and were on the trail to the Crack shortly thereafter. We needed some light to make the hike because most of the trail is over slick rock and open desert and is marked by cairns. Making this hike in the dark would be…let’s just say that without being able to see the cairns, some other form of route-finding would be necessary. Consider this a bit of foreshadowing.

We made the hike to the crack quickly and with ease and soon found ourselves eyeing the crack itself and figuring out how to navigate it. Entering the crack requires scrambling over a massive boulder and dropping several feet into the narrow passage. As it had been determined that Jason would be lowering the gear (all of our packs and both of our tripods) via rope, I had to go through first. I managed to make it down into the passage without a problem, but I remember wondering how on earth I was going to be able to climb back over that boulder on the way out, since I had to drop about three feet over the edge and I saw no way that someone of my height (a bit under 5-6) was going to be able to find a way to pull myself up. I trusted that we’d figure something out, and then I shimmied my way through the passage that is the crack itself. It’s incredibly tight; anyone with a broad-brimmed hat would be unable to get through with the cap on one’s head.

But I made it through and then walked around the rocky cliff face to receive the supplies from Jason. One by one he knotted the gear pieces and lowered them to me; I unknotted them and yelled for him to pull the rope back up. After the last piece had been lowered and secured I started bundling up the rope while Jason worked his way through the crack. All of this took about 10 minutes from beginning to end.

Once we were both through and ready, we started the hike down into the gulch. This hike was down a very steep and very tall dune, made of extremely loose sand. The hike down–nearly 1000 feet–couldn’t have been easier, but as we effectively flew down the dune, I remember saying, out loud, that it was going to be one miserable climb back up at the end of the day. I had no idea.

We were down in a matter of a few minutes and found ourselves at creek level. We knew that the interesting part of the gulch involved a hike upstream, so we made our way off quickly. It was still pretty early in the morning.

The Hike: Expectations

Before I continue with the narrative of our experience, indulge me for a moment (I promise there will be photos!) while I describe what we were in for.

Coyote Gulch involves stream walking–there’s simply no avoiding it, repeatedly. The water is not deep–even in early May, while we were there, water levels were rarely much above ankle height–but it is relentless. This isn’t like hiking the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park at the same time of the year, when water levels routinely reach waist-deep and beyond and when water hiking is at least 3/4 of the experience, but the Coyote Gulch hiker must be prepared for repeated instances of sloshing through the creek. As a result, both Jason and I purchased and wore water shoes; my experience was a bit more positive than Jason’s, though this was due mostly to sheer luck, as I will explain.

Given what we wanted to see of the gulch, we expected–including the three-mile round trip hike between the trailhead and the Crack-in-the-Wall–to hike at least 17 miles on this day. That sounds like a lot, and I suppose it is, but since we expected to stop repeatedly to photograph and we had all day long…and because there’s very, very little elevation change (other than the [expletive deleted] sand dune–yes, this is another instance of foreshadowing)–we honestly didn’t think it would be a huge issue…and for the most part (more foreshadowing!) we were correct.

We were pretty concerned about having enough potable water for this hike. We were confident that we could handle the distance, but we knew that access to water throughout the day was important and we didn’t want to weigh ourselves down by trying to slog a gallon of water apiece on our backs. So, we each carried about a quart of water and we purchased a water filtration system from an outfitter in Escalante the day before the hike. Many gulch hikers do just this; we could filter a quart of water at a time in a matter of just a minute or two simply by tapping the endless supply represented by the creek. This was absolutely the right move and it made things much easier for us though, in the latest in an infinite number of instances of foreshadowing, we still had some issues at the end of the day…though this had nothing directly to do with our reliance on the water filter.

Finally, in a fail-safe move that absolutely proved critical in the end (yet more foreshadowing?), I took my handheld GPS with me and made a deliberate point of marking the trailhead…just in case something went wrong. (Ha.)

The Coyote Gulch Experience

We hiked along the creek a short distance before coming to the first of several waterfalls we would visit on the way. We pulled out the camera gear and went to work.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

It was a small waterfall; none of the falls in the gulch are particularly big, but this was the smallest we’d see. I photographed it both with and without the brightly lit canyon wall in the background (which presented some dynamic range issues that were relatively easily overcome

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Reflections–a major element of a number of images that would be made on this day–were the subject of an abstract shot that I made using the pool below the waterfall.

Coyote Gulch Reflection Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We continued to hike along the creek, clearing problems–like having to climb over a rock wall to get around another, larger waterfall (there were several of these kinds of hindrances along the route), which involved a modest scramble and the handing of packs, tripods and other supplies to one another–as needed.

Our next photo stop was alongside a huge rock alcove on the left side of the stream. I was quite intrigued by the scene but had a very difficult time composing a photo that I felt was at all compelling, let alone doing the feature justice (which was effectively impossible in a two-dimensional medium). But as I was moving back and forth in the water, camera in hand, constantly aware that the problem was a lack of depth caused by the absence of any sort of meaningful foreground, I figured out my answer to the problem: the sand ripples, visible below the surface of the shallow water. That was my foreground.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I converted this image to black and white as well; the texture and pattern of the submerged sand ripples are more evident in a monochromatic presentation.

Coyote Gulch Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We moved along the creek, stopping whenever we found something of interest to photograph, including this cottonwood tree backed by a red rock canyon wall.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

At some point during this stage of the hike, Jason’s watershoes–which hadn’t been properly broken in (neither had mine), started causing blisters on his feet. After awhile, he couldn’t take it anymore and we stopped so he could take them off. The skin had been rubbed raw in a few places. Fortunately I had a stack of bandages with me and we applied them liberally to his feet, but they only did so much good. At some point, Jason simply took the shoes off and walked barefoot whenever we went through the water (which, as I stated earlier, was frequently). Walking in the water wasn’t so bad, but having to tread on tree roots and the rocky non-creek hiking surface was a problem. I felt lucky that I had no such problems with my own shoes (which weren’t any better broken in–they just fit better, as it turned out).

By early afternoon we’d reached the site of Coyote Natural Bridge, an impressive arch with the creek running through it. Given the light we had (relatively harsh) at that point, a compelling wide angle image of the Bridge was not to be found, but–as we’d decided to take a break at this point, replenish our water (with the help of the filtration system) and just chill for a bit–I wandered around to see if I could make something ever-so-slightly on the abstract side of the natural bridge’s contours. Before long I found what I was looking for.

Coyote Natural Bridge, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

While we were at the bridge, I also found a tight shot of a cottonwood branch backed by the canyon wall that I liked, but the wind was blowing consistently at this spot and it took me at least 10 minutes of (relative) patience before I was finally able to capture the image below.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We continued our hike upstream as the afternoon wore on, and came to a narrow sluice, three or four feet deep, where the creek water, forced into a tight channel, surged through. Jason and I were both intrigued by this feature and, fighting encroaching hot spots, sought to find ways of rendering it.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We were at least six miles into the gulch part of our hike when we came upon an interesting gate-like feature of the canyon, which opened as widely on the far side of the enclosure as it narrowed on the side we were on. I looked at the opening closely, and walked around a bit, as I’d discovered a sun-splashed cottonwood on the other side that I could frame with the canyon walls.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

With my telephoto lens I shot the scene as both a horizontal and a vertical. The latter better displays the depth of Coyote Gulch.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Finally, something like seven miles into our hike–by this time it was late afternoon (we were keeping track of the time–more on this below)–we reached what is known as Swiss Cheese Falls, a small cataract that is framed by pock-marked canyon walls (hence the swiss cheese reference). But what intrigued us immediately upon approaching this waterfall was the reflections; the wet rock was almost neon yellow-green, as it was picking up the bright reflections from sunlit cottonwood leaves on the nearby trees. The scene was mesmerizing, and we hastened to take advantage of it.

Swiss Cheese Falls, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Swiss Cheese Falls, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Swiss Cheese Falls, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Swiss Cheese Falls, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Swiss Cheese Falls, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

While we were working the scene at Swiss Cheese Falls, a group of photographers emerged at the waterfall, hiking downstream. This was professional photographer James Kay‘s workshop. They had clearly come to this site to photograph the scene during this window of time when the reflections were at their best. But, as we had arrived first, they graciously stayed out of our way–though we invited them to work in with us as we wrapped up, which they eventually did. I was impressed with how courteous this group was. Jason had met James Kay, and his wife Susie (who always accompanies the group), before and introduced me to them–very nice, gracious people.

But this meeting left us with some questions. How had this group–some of whom appeared to be in their 70s if not their 80s–managed to get down here? They’d come from upstream, so they presumably had descended from the Water Tanks entrance. Alert readers will recall that we had been told not to attempt this route. But if people as much as 30 years our senior had made it down (and were presumably planning to head out) that way…

So, we asked the Kays how they’d made it down to Swiss Cheese Falls and, sure enough, they’d entered (and were going to depart) via the Water Tanks route. They did have a rope and apparently none of their clients had any issue getting down, nor were any issues anticipated for the route back up. So that was interesting.

Meanwhile, it was now early evening and we had to get back to the Crack. We determined that attempting to go up the Water Tanks route would leave us miles (five or six was the best estimate) from our vehicle, over trackless desert, very possibly in the dark. We hadn’t planned on that. So we had to get back to the Crack and we knew that it was imperative that we get through the Crack before dark. It was time to head out. We had about seven miles to get back to the sand dune. The hiking was easy and there would be no stopping; we felt confident that we’d make it with plenty of time to spare.

Actually, though on the hike back we passed innumerable places where we would have liked to stop as the light was now terrific just about everywhere, we eschewed all of them. All but one, that is. We made a two-minute exception, at a beautiful meadow that we simply couldn’t resist. Regrettably, it was the last image of the day.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The Hike Out

We made good time all the way back, despite the occasional road blocks, Jason’s feet and the sheer seven-mile distance. When we got back to the point where the dune met the gulch–this is going to sound absurd–we couldn’t immediately find the route up the dune. We were too close to it, as it hovered steeply, immediately to our right. But eventually we discovered the opening and found ourselves at the base of the dune and began the climb up.

It was, honesty compels me to report, worse than I’d anticipated, and as you’ll recall, I knew it would be awful. We were in a hurry…but the dune was incredibly steep and the sand was loose, so everything felt like three steps forward and two back. Despite the volume of the day’s hiking–and we estimated that we’d hiked, at a bare, bare minimum–15 miles up to that point, we both felt quite fresh. That changed in a hurry.

I’ve hiked some steep trails in my time and I basically never stop to catch my breath. We must have stopped five or six times, at least, climbing that dune. It was the toughest hiking I’ve ever done. I’m sure that the amount of walking we’d done that day was a factor, but…only a small one. The weight of what we were carrying was no help either. That dune kicked our butts. But, we finally made it up, though it took much longer than we’d expected.

We got to the Crack. This time Jason went through first, with nothing but the rope, and cleared the boulder. He got into position 30-odd feet above me and dropped the rope. Now it was my turn to knot our pieces of gear, one by one, then call up. Jason pulled up whatever I’d tied in and then dropped the rope again and repeated the process. When everything was up, it was my turn to squeeze through the crack and, when I got to the boulder, it was as I’d feared: I was too short to grab hold of anything above me to pull myself up. So, Jason basically reached down and yanked me out of the crack and I got my arms on top of the boulder, allowing me to climb up to the canyon rim.

The sun was setting at this point, but we took a minute or two to catch our breath. We had realized on the hike up the dune that we had very little water–probably no more than a pint between us. We had planned to fill our bottles from the creek (using the filtration system for purification purposes) before climbing the dune, but when we were flummoxed, looking for the access point, we were probably forty or fifty feet above creek level, and given that we were in a big hurry–really concerned at this point about avoiding having to navigate the crack in the dark–we just started heading up the dune. Now it was an issue.

When we navigated our way around several huge rocks, toward the area where the trail would take us the 1.5 miles back to the parking area, it was dusk. We were able to find the first couple of cairns and then…poof. It was too dark to find anything. I put on my headlamp and pulled out the GPS. Thank goodness I’d marked the trailhead; the GPS would tell us if we were heading in the right direction because, if we were, the distance (marked in hundredths of a mile) would decrease.

It was amazing how quickly it was pitch dark. We had no idea where the marked trail was. We were walking through open desert, with frequent vegetation, mounds of slickrock and, most notably, some fairly deep bowls, some filled with water, as had been the case at White Pocket.

When we initially had to rely almost exclusively on the GPS to find where we needed to go, we still had about 1.3 miles to the marked spot. I determined pretty quickly that Venus–bright, but low (it was setting) in the western sky was an almost perfect beacon for us–hiking straight at it seemed to bring our distance down pretty quickly. That was a good guidepost for us for about half a mile, after which we approached a rise that caused the planet to descend out of our view.

The hike back was miserable. Despite one’s best efforts, it’s almost impossible to keep a steady course in the pitch dark. The headlamp helped avoid any major pratfalls, but we were exhausted–the hike up that dune had been a killer–and probably somewhat dehydrated (we took just an occasional drop of water to preserve what we could). We stopped several times on open slickrock spots and just kind of collapsed for a few minutes. It was also somewhat chilly. Not too bad, but nighttime in the desert, given the near absence of humidity, can be a problem. Fortunately there was no wind.

I don’t think either of us was ever really concerned that we wouldn’t find the trailhead, but we did, at some point, briefly discuss the implications if we had to hang out in the middle of the desert until first light, when we’d be able to really see what we were doing.

But we slogged on, and I kept rapt attention on the GPS to make sure we stayed at least mostly on course.

Finally, when the GPS said we were only about 1000 feet from the waypoint, Jason spotted a reflection–something bouncing off a vehicle’s headlights. We simply made a beeline for that reflection and, before long, we were climbing up a rise, to the parking area.

Whew.

We got to the vehicle and tapped into the massive reservoir of water we had. That was a major boost to how we felt. We still had to set up camp, which we did, pretty much right there, and then more or less collapsed into the tent, with no concern at all about how late we got up the following morning.

Epilogue

Jason and I spoke at length, over the ensuing days of the trip, about the Coyote Gulch experience and we concluded a number of things, including the following:

  • Despite what undoubtedly reads as a near-tragedy, we’d done an awful lot right, despite a natural focus on what we’d done wrong. We did have the filtration system. We did have headlamps with us. We did have the GPS and we’d marked the key spot. We did ask for (supposedly) experienced advice about how to approach entering/exiting the gulch. It’s not as though we’d just run in there completely unaware or without having considered a Plan B. Nor had we lost track of time. In fact, it was almost certainly our preparation and caution that had kept the hike out from being more than just a really unpleasant experience.
  • The advice we had received was awful. Just awful. Relying on the crack entrance/exit for an all-day hike was a terrible idea. I heartily recommend that anyone considering a day at Coyote Gulch not repeat this mistake.
  • Doing an all-day, single-day shoot at Coyote Gulch is, broadly speaking, probably a bad idea and, in fairness, that conforms with just about all the advice we received. You end up missing most of the best light of the day both hiking in and out. Maybe–maybe–it’s possible to do this via the Water Tanks entry, but I certainly do not express that notion with any confidence whatsoever. Further investigation is needed.
  • Partial day shoots almost certainly should plan to exit via the Water Tanks or forego the experience entirely. At the very least, no one should plan to hike up that Crack-in-the-Wall dune at the end of a long day with a lot of heavy gear.
  • Coyote Gulch is absolutely beautiful and is a tremendous place for photography. If there’s any way to do it as an overnight or, even better, a two-nighter, that’s probably your best option. Exactly how to go about doing this without it being a miserable slog (hauling both camping and photo gear, both in and out) is the conundrum.
Posted by: kerryl29 | September 15, 2021

A Tease

Last Friday I returned from Alaska following a red eye flight from Anchorage to Denver and then a connecting flight to Chicago. That night, and Saturday morning, I slept 11 hours straight after going roughly 36 hours without sleeping at all. Between that and a couple of minor issues that cropped up after I returned, I was unable to produce a new blog post for this week in the usual timeframe. I hope to get the next installment from the trip to the desert southwest up early next week.

In the meantime, rather than scramble to post another substantive entry, I’m simply going to post an image from the Alaska trip (I’ve had a little bit of time to do some processing), without further commentary, in the hopes that it will whet viewers’ appetites.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Posted by: kerryl29 | September 6, 2021

Working With What You Have

I know that many people think that a successful artist needs to demonstrate a given style, and perhaps that’s true, but in the world of nature photography I feel that if you must reveal a style (and I’m not at all sure that you do, but that’s a topic for another day), it’s important to do so within the confines of the setting. That is to say, a successful nature image should let the scene reveal itself through the style and technique of the photographer. It is, then, a symbiotic relationship; it’s not about imposing oneself on the natural world, literally or figuratively.

Allow me to illustrate my meaning through an image that was made during a trip to the Canadian Rockies several years ago.

Mistaya Canyon Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta

I was in Mistaya Canyon, in Banff National Park, and was a bit frustrated. I like to shoot in settings like this one—a fairly deep canyon, with a rushing river running through it—in even light. But, for a variety of reasons which are ultimately beside the point, I found myself there mid-afternoon on a mostly sunny day. I kept seeing pleasing compositions that just happened to be poorly suited for the lighting conditions that were present because there were distracting hot spots all over the place.

The ideal solution to the problem would have been to return at a time when the light was better suited to my intentions, but that wasn’t possible—it was my last day in the area and I had several other locations I wanted to visit before the end of the day. So rather than cursing the darkness (or in this case, the light), I decided to light a candle: I turned my attention to intimate scenes that were lying entirely in shade. While this eliminated a good number of compositions from consideration, it ratcheted down the frustration level because I turned my attention to something that I could accomplish—even if it wasn’t necessarily my first choice in an ideal world.

I identified such a shot that I found pleasing but it had its own problem—insufficient depth of field. The shot you see above was taken at a focal length of 66 mm and it originally contained an exposed rock in the foreground and another in the mid-ground; even with an aperture of f/16 there was no way to obtain a sharp image from front to back. Going wider—thereby increasing the depth of field—significantly changed the composition, introducing elements that I wanted to exclude and also returned me to the mixed light problem. It was only with a very tight shot that I was able to work with even light.

What to do? I kept the tight shot but altered the composition modestly by eliminating the rocks in the fore- and mid-ground, and placing the plane of focus on the exposed rocks in the background. The foreground and mid-ground would appear soft, but in this instance that was fine, since those areas were made up entirely of textured, blurred water.

So, instead of “imposing” myself on the scene, I worked with it…and still had the opportunity to reveal my style, such as it is, in the process. Symbiosis at its best.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 30, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Spooky Canyon Arch

Sometimes things just come together, in a manner that really can’t be planned. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does occur it helps to be in a position to take advantage of it. This transpired during the photo shoot at Spooky Canyon, part of this past spring’s trip to the desert Southwest.

Generally speaking, when photographing in a slot canyon like Spooky, I’m looking for scenes that show off reflected light. That’s what makes the different colors in the slot really stand out. (You can see some examples of this in the post covering a shoot at Lower Antelope Canyon back in 2012.) There are some exceptions to this rule of thumb, but broadly speaking, direct sunlight is to be avoided; it tends to create visual hot spots that detract from the overall presentation and produce contrast that I typically find unappealing in such settings.

So, of course, I’m here to present an exception to the rule. When we were at Spooky Canyon we reached a kind of antechamber that contained a small(ish) arch. It made for a very interesting sight, but I was less sanguine about the photo potential. The arch itself, at first view, kind of blended into the background; it was difficult to discern. Still, I thought the scene was worth a photographic attempt, so I set my tripod up and took the camera in hand to search for a composition that I thought would work. The sun was apparently behind a cloud while I was doing this, which may have added to the relative “flatness” of the scene as I was looking at it.

Suddenly, a kind of soft sunlight cut into the scene and I was momentarily mesmerized by the change. This was not full-on sun; it was the kind of effect that is sometimes seen when a thin cloud layer is partially diffusing sunlight, or when the edge of a cloud is skirting the sun’s position.

I couldn’t see the sky from the antechamber so I’m not certain exactly what was going on but the effect was unmistakable. A glow emerged on the bottom of the arch and, perhaps even more importantly, an S-curve of sorts was created on the floor of the chamber as the shadow line of the canyon walls was outlined. Any more sun than this and the effect would be utterly blown out. Any less and there would be no observable effect at all. I didn’t know how long these conditions would last, but I had to assume that the answer was “not very.” The same rationale applied to the question: how long would this antechamber remain free of other people?

Instantly assuming that I had mere seconds to obtain the image, I dropped to my knees, slipping the camera into the tripod head’s quick release brace. Fortunately I had already metered the scene and set the exposure. But I still had to compose the shot, establish the initial focus point and execute a short focus stack bracket. I did this as quickly as I could; I’m guessing it took 10 seconds or so.

I quickly reviewed the shots to make sure that the focus bracket was good and when I was satisfied I decided to repeat the exercise with a horizontally oriented composition, so I started to remove the camera from the tripod…and before I even placed the camera back in the brace the sun blasted the entire scene to smithereens. Whatever cloud cover had been causing the diffusion was gone. I stayed in place briefly, just to see if the effect would return. It didn’t and within 30 seconds or so people started streaming into the area.

To the best of my knowledge, the effect wasn’t repeated. I’d had one opportunity to make this image and I was fortunate enough to have successfully completed the sequence. Sometimes you just have to get lucky.

Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The day this article posts I’ll be traveling to Alaska, finally fulfilling a longstanding plan to revisit that state. I’ve put together a couple of relatively brief posts to cover the next two weeks, while I’ll be gone. I should be back in the Chicago area on September 10 and plan to return to chronicling the Desert Southwest series at that time.

The morning after the day at Willow Gulch was spent photographing at one of the locations that was scouted late the previous day–a spot in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that I’m deliberately keeping vague in terms of its specific locale. We hiked out to a spot below a canyon rim in the early morning light and waited for the sunrise. It came and, though it wasn’t exactly spectacular, it served up some nice light.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I focused my shooting attention to the south–because the compositions I liked called for me to face that direction. The view to the east, in the direction of the rising sun, was far less appealing and, as it turned out, the sunrise itself wasn’t all that remarkable, as noted above.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I actually liked what developed in the southern sky after the sun had crested the horizon. There were some nice cloud formations in that direction that took on some direct light and, eventually, the red rock checkerboard foreground and mid-ground lit up. There were a number of scattered boulders that had some attractive lichen on them as well.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

As I turned to the southwest, the setting moon made an appearance.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I then moved down the slickrock canyon lip to a spot that served as an overlook of what was (to me) a fascinating series of line grooves cut into the rock face below me. We had gone to some considerable trouble to scout this location the evening before. Reaching this spot was ever-so-slightly precarious, but not dangerous as long as the rock surface is dry (it was) and care is taken (it was).

Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Having photographed the scene with my telephoto lens, I rendered most of these images in both color and black & white. While I like the color versions, there’s no question in my mind that–as was the case at White Pocket–many of these pattern-laden compositions are more evocative in monochrome.

Canyon Abstract Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When we were done with our morning shoot, we had to decide what to do with the rest of the day. It was partly cloudy, but the sun was out the majority of the time, so the decision was made to visit a pair of relatively nearby slot canyons–Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, by name–that are right next to one another and, unfortunately for us, pretty heavily trafficked.

As we made the drive along Hole-in-the-Rock Road on the way to the slots, I caught site of a lone tree not far off the roadbed and we stopped to check it out. I photographed the scene from multiple angles and, again, ultimately rendered the scene in both color and monochrome.

Lone Tree, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lone Tree Black & White, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We drove to the parking area for the trailhead to the slot canyons and then made the relatively easy hike of about two miles to the opening of Peek-a-Boo canyon, which can only be entered by scrambling up a rather steep wall–it’s about 10 feet to get into the mouth. We managed to do this with the assistance of some of the other people who were there. While Peek-a-Boo had some interesting looking spots, the light in the canyon while we were there was pretty bad; there were hot spots all over the place from the sun in the good locations. So we looked, but didn’t photograph while in Peek-a-Boo, and navigated our way through some of the choke points in the canyon, without too much difficulty.

Before long we were out of Peek-a-Boo and in a transitional area headed toward Spooky Canyon. This was a completely different experience. For one thing, there were some incredibly narrow spots that were extremely difficult to work our way through with our gear and we had to pass our packs and tripods to one another to work through a good number of them. For another thing, the canyon had a fair number of people passing through it, many of them in pretty good-sized groups. The passages in many places are so narrow that it was very difficult to find spots to squeeze into that allowed other people to pass by.

But despite the difficulties, the other difference–and the key one–in Spooky compared to Peek-a-Boo was that there were a good number of extremely compelling locations.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The sand in the canyon was an orangy-red and the reflected light, in some spots, was sublime.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

At one point we found a small arch, part of an antechamber that led to a special photo opportunity that I will detail in a future “Story Behind the Image” blog entry. That image is displayed below; I also rendered this shot in black & white, which is what I planned to do when this photograph was made.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

But the point of emphasis was on the impact of reflected light, and while we were on site there were spots in the canyon that really worked well in this regard.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

For these images there was no question of rendering them in anything but full color, given that color was such an important element of each shot.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Or was there? Well, actually, there was. For some of these images, the details, patterns and contours arguably are better expressed in monochrome.

Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

You can decide for yourself which rendition you prefer; it’s entirely subjective.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We moved along and, as we dodged hikers, continued to find interesting spots that we thought were worth photographing. Unfortunately not all of them had the same reflected light impact that we saw earlier.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We wrapped up at Spooky, climbed out, and hiked back to our vehicle. Jason hadn’t brought any water with him on this hike and started to flag a bit, so I more or less insisted that he drink some of my supply–I had plenty to get back to the car, where we had a huge water tank from which we were filling bottles.

Our goal for sunset was to photograph the aptly named Sunset Arch; we had GPS coordinates for it but there’s no trail to this spot, so we parked at a kind of dispersed camping/parking spot that was relatively nearby (about a mile and a half as the crow flies) from the arch. Then, with the aid of my GPS, we set out over the open desert toward the coordinates. The unit showed us drawing steadily closer, so we knew we were headed in the right direction. Good thing we had the GPS because you can’t see the arch until you’re almost on top of it, given the direction it’s oriented. We were headed toward a rocky cluster–that much we could tell. Finally, when the GPS said we were only about 500 feet from our goal, we could see the arch.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Sunset Arch is so named because the setting sun lights up the west facing side of the impressive structure. After we arrived, we didn’t have long to wait until the arch began to take on a reddish glow. That glow grew nicer and nicer as the sun continued to sink towards the horizon. And as the sun sank, I moved closer and closer to the left hand foundation.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I did pull out the telephoto lens and made an image of the mountains to the south as the sun dropped.

Sunset, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When I felt that I had done what I could with the arch at sunset, I walked around to the other side of the feature, just to see what it looked like. It didn’t seem as photogenic to me on that side, but as the sky to the west lit up, my opinion changed. I yelled to Jason, who was still on the other side, that he might want to head to the side where I was now set up.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We were thrilled with the unexpected bonus in the form of a true sunset shot series at Sunset Arch. When the light in the sky faded–it lasted for awhile–we packed up our things and began the trek back to the car. It was now quite dark, but I was prepared, both with my headlamp and the GPS. Everything seemed fine until, almost a mile into our return hike–by now it was pitch dark–we found ourselves staring at a fence. We must have drifted slightly off course and found ourselves behind some kind of cattle enclosure. We tried to hike around it but, after several minutes of frustration (unable to find the end or a break in the fence), we decided to simply go over the structure. This was a bit tricky because there was barbed wire involved, but we managed to make it work (by lowering our gear over the fence and then carefully climbing up on a fence post and jumping the wire. From there it was a short hike back to the vehicle and, as we were now used to setting the tent up in the dark, it wasn’t long before we were ready to hit the sack and get ready for a truly remarkable experience–our all-day trek into, through and out of Coyote Gulch.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 16, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Willow Gulch

It was quite late in the afternoon when we wrapped up at the Clay Beds and transitioned from the Vermillion Cliffs area to Escalante, Utah, which would be our base for the next few days. It was after dark when we reached Escalante and, after a few false starts trying to find a camping spot, we ended up at a dispersed camping area not far down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. It was quite late, and the forecast was for a clear morning (which turned out to be correct), so given the less than brilliant conditions and the inability to scout anywhere in advance, we gave ourselves a break and didn’t get up until after sunrise.

The plan for the day was to visit Willow Gulch, a location neither of us had ever visited, located near the southern end of the road, more than 40 miles south of Escalante. Hole-in-the-Rock isn’t paved but is in pretty decent shape. It has a bit of a “washboard” feel to it, but most sections are viable for any vehicle. Still, high speeds are not advisable, unless you want a flat tire, so it took us a fair bit of time to get to the turnoff for Willow Gulch, a journey that was marked by a false turn or two.

But we got there, finally, under partly cloudy skies late in the morning. Willow Gulch is…well, it’s a gulch. Shocking news, right? There’s a creek that meanders through a lengthy canyon, of sorts. A not particularly long trail–2 1/2 miles or so–wanders in and around rock formations and along riparian stretches of creek, with numerous cottonwoods and other growth. The payoff at the end is the towering (and extremely impressive) Broken Bow Arch.

There was only one vehicle in the parking area when we arrived. We lathered on the sunscreen and hit the trail. Before long, I found a scene I wanted to photograph. Jason was anxious to get into the canyon part of the location, in the hope of using mid-day reflected light, so I told him to go on ahead; I’d catch up to him eventually. (I did, but not until the very end of the trail, as it turned out.)

The light was admittedly not great, but I loved the shape of this old cottonwood.

Cottonwood, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The light being what it was, I converted the same image to black and white. To my surprise, I think I like the color rendering better.

Cottonwood Black & White, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The trail was interesting. After passing a shallow slot canyon along the rim above, the trail meanders around some slick rock and then reaches a grove of stunted cottonwoods, well above the creek bed. I stopped to make an image in what was now slightly diffused lighting as a thin layer of clouds took over a larger portion of the sky.

Cottonwood Grove, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Not much farther along a path slithers off into a side canyon, which I decided to follow. It led me to a ledge, high above the creek, with a view of the gulch sentinels, with a healthy cottonwood in the mid-ground.

Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Returning to the main trail I found myself descending to creek level, where the trail became occasionally sloppy, but I worked around and through it without too much difficulty. The gulch narrowed considerably here, though it was never very tight. The creek, and the surrounding sandstone walls, wound around in sinewy S-shape, fringed by tall grasses.

Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Winding around the creek bed, I found a place where I could cross easily, and then found myself in a broader canyon, at the base of a slickrock shelf. I climbed toward the top and, as I neared the peak, part of the far end of the gulch came into view, dominated by Broken Bow Arch. I naturally began to make a beeline for the arch–who wouldn’t?–but I caught a glimpse of something to my right–a gorgeous cottonwood tree, backed by a towering sandstone wall, glowing red with modestly reflected light. I practically dropped my gear, momentarily forgot about the arch, and sized up this visual prize.

Cottonwood and Red Rock, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

There were a number of ways to frame this scene, and I explored most, if not all, of them. The tree was some distance from me, or from any place that I could easily access, so I moved around the shelf I was standing on and adjusted my perspective accordingly. Ultimately, I made three images of the scene.

Cottonwood and Red Rock, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Cottonwood and Red Rock, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When I was done with the cottonwood, I turned my attention back to Broken Bow Arch, and moved closer to it. The arch is huge–a span of nearly 100 feet. There are lot of angles from which it can be photographed. The two images below are from spots accessible from the trail on the way in.

Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

You can hike around to the far side of the arch and then up a steep sand dune for a view in the opposite direction of the two photographs above. I did this, and liked the view, but wasn’t at all enamored with the sky visible at that point in that direction, so I planned this shot as a black and white.

Broken Bow Arch Black & White, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Back down the dune, it’s possible to hike down to creek level, where I found a scene with what I thought were interesting reflections. It was extremely difficult to produce the image below; it required a focus stack and bracketed exposure for HDR rendering. It was also a very awkward position to stand.

Willow Gulch Reflections, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I caught up with Jason up at the back side of the arch; on the hike back, I stopped to produce one more image of Broken Bow.

Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

It was late in the afternoon when we got back to the parking area. Ours was the only vehicle there. We’d met the owners of the vehicle we’d seen upon arrival shortly after reaching Broken Bow Arch–the only people we’d see on the trail all day.

It took about an hour and a half to head back to the dispersed camping site. A bit of scouting was done on the return, as we explored possible locations for the following morning’s hoped-for sunrise, but increasing cloudiness snuffed out any prospect of a sunset that evening and attention turned instead to plans for the following day–sunrise and beyond.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 9, 2021

Thematic Interruption: Looking vs. Seeing

On the first morning of the desert Southwest trip, while photographing sunrise at Little Cut, I was in the process of packing up to leave when I noticed a composition with elements that appealed to me, so I stopped what I was doing to take a closer look.

Lone Tree Moonset, Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona

It wasn’t the most spectacular set of elements that I’ve ever seen, but something about the scene appealed to me. This is how I roll in the field. I try not to look for images; rather, I try to see them. What’s the difference? It’s a matter of intent. In the former case (i.e. looking for images), you have something in mind. It may be a certain element or a specific style (or both), or something else entirely, but there’s something preconceived about the process. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. In fact, some photographers prefer to follow this very recipe.)

“Seeing” images, on the other hand, is a bit more reactive and a bit more organic. I don’t want to overstate the case; it’s effectively impossible to approach a scene entirely passively, devoid of any preconceived ideas. But I do think that there’s a qualitative difference that distinguishes these two approaches. One is focused on the idea of trying to fulfill a vision and the initial thrust of the other is to respond to what one discovers.

Again, I don’t want to leave the impression that these notions are mutually exclusive or that one is “better” than the other. But my general preference is to find scenes and compositions rather than actively look for them.

And so it was with the Little Cut image. I most definitely was not looking for it. As I said, something about it appealed to me on sight; it was only after seeing the scene that I could begin to explain the appeal, and that’s exactly what happened because Jason noticed that I had discovered something and asked me what I’d found.

And that inspired me to go through the process of describing what it was about this scene that appealed to me. There were, I discovered, a number of things. First, there was the lone juniper, at the top of the rock face. There was also the sinewy crack running up the bluff, right to the base of the tree. And the mixed lighting, still soft enough not to cause all kinds of exposure issues, with its relatively workable shadows, spoke to me. And finally, there was the setting moon, which critically produced the effect of seeming to reduce the amount of blank sky, an elemental approach that I’ve tried to utilize on a number of occasions in the past, rarely by preconceived design. (See below.)

Dawn Light, Myers Beach, Pistol River State Park, Oregon
Moonset, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Mono Lake at Sunrise, Mono County, California

None of the points that I’ve described about the Little Cut scene were things that I was actively aware of until Jason asked me what I’d discovered and I started actively thinking about them. But they were there, buried somewhere in my subconscious; I was effectively reacting to what I found subliminally appealing.

This “seeing vs. looking” dichotomy became something of a mantra during the trip, a distinction that Jason and I brought up in our ongoing discussions on a number of occasions, sometimes as we were working in the field, and sometimes while we were driving from place to place and talking about the art of–you guessed it–seeing in the field. Give yourself the opportunity, I said, free of preconceived notions, to look around you, hopefully without prejudice. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with fulfilling a vision; I noted that I’ve done so myself, more than once. But the danger, as I see it, of relying heavily (or exclusively) on this approach is that there are countless images, countless compositions, that you’ll simply walk by.

A photographer can’t make an image that he/she never sees in the first place.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 2, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Clay Beds

After the morning shoot at White Pocket on the second full day of the trip, we had a decision to make: stick around White Pocket for another day (i.e. the rest of that day and the morning of the next) or head out. Given the flexibility in our itinerary (as described in the introduction to this series of posts), either option was a legitimate possibility. We decided to let the conditions decide, and since those conditions called for increasing cloudiness (leading to full-blown cloudy the rest of the day) and strong winds (which would mean blowing sand at White Pocket), we decided to pull up stakes.

Our plan was to hit the Escalante area of Utah next, but we had a location on the way out of Vermillion Cliffs that we thought would work given the expected conditions (which we could see coming to fruition as we broke camp, as the clouds dominated the sky and the wind kicked up): a series of bentonite clay hills off House Rock Valley Road.

There are a number of spots in the western interior of the United States made up of bentonite, including one in the Lower Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park which we hoped to visit later on the trip. (Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.) We hoped we’d get an opportunity to photograph this area in even light and so the cloudy conditions were welcome.

The problem was, we didn’t know exactly where these “clay beds” (as we took to referring to them) were located. But, after traversing the gnarly areas of the unpaved roads that connect White Pocket with House Rock Valley, we made a right turn on House Rock Valley Road, in the direction of U.S. Highway 89. About halfway back to the highway, we spotted the hills, to the south, well off the road. There is no trail to the hills (there are actually several sets of “clay beds”); we simply had to find our way there, which is more difficult than it might seem at first because simply walking overland directly towards them isn’t possible (a series of good-sized gullies and canyons dot the landscape between the road and the clay beds). So, we parked the vehicle in a lonely turnout, got out and hiked down an unmarked dirt road to see if we could find a route that would work. I took the GPS with me and marked our vehicle location, just in case the route wasn’t easily retraceable. (This proved unnecessary, but better safe than sorry; consider this foreshadowing for events later in the trip.)

We followed the road down to its end–more than a mile, based on the GPS–and then followed a dry wash in the direction of the hills and, after another a mile or so, we found another wash intersecting the one we were on, and what looked like a faint trail. We lost sight of the hills, due to the topography, but we followed the trail, through a sort of canyon and within about a quarter of a mile, we found ourselves smack in the middle of one of the clay beds.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

These bentonite clay features are truly fascinating subjects, with swaths of swirling colors and textures–basically the same raw set of attributes (i.e. colors and textures) as the rock formations at White Pocket, but with a dramatically different appearance because the specific elements are entirely different.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I treated these features, compositionally, as abstract or semi-abstract subjects. Any temptation there might have been to include the sky–which obviously would have reduced the abstract character of any rendering–was removed due to its featureless gray appearance.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I shot extensively with both my telephoto lens (with some images in excess of 300 mm) and my wider angle optics. I felt that the subject matter lent itself to both approaches, with (unsurprisingly) very different results.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I even produced a pure abstract closeup, of sorts, highlighting the crusty patterns that provide the physical and aesthetic foundation for the broader features.

Bentonite Clay Beds Abstract, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

All of this photography took place in a relatively small area–roughly 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile, I would estimate. Maybe even a bit smaller than that.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

In a nod to my previous post, note that none of the images from this location have been rendered in monochrome. That’s because I felt that color was a crucial element in all of the clay beds images. If the idea of “black and white” ever popped into my head while photographing at this location, it was summarily dismissed.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Despite the small area, there were a lot of options, as you can see, at this location and we spent at least two hours here.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We were able to retrace our route without any great difficulty, as it turned out, making the GPS unnecessary.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I suspect I could find my way back to this location, but I’m being deliberately vague about how to get there. As I mentioned earlier, anyone driving through this area on House Rock Valley Road can see the formations from their vehicle; the Clay Beds aren’t hidden from view. The hills aren’t a secret.

But actually reaching these hills–and there are multiple different clusters of them (I have no idea how many)–as I noted earlier, is by no means a straight forward exercise. The hills are extremely delicate and it would be a travesty if this area was overrun. Jason and I were scrupulous in avoiding stepping on any of the hills.

When I return to this chronology I’ll begin the process of describing our adventures in and around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

Let’s talk about black & white imagery. (Yes, again.) I want to discuss the subject in the context of my experience at White Pocket, which I’ve chronicled in the previous two posts. It’s no accident that many of the images accompanying these two entries have been rendered in monochrome.

Monument Rocks Black & White, Logan County, Kansas

I’m on record as saying that quality of light has a great deal to with the intent to produce images that were designed–predetermined, if you will–to be presented in black and white. One specific set of examples is comparatively harsh light conditions, circumstances when natural contrast can be leveraged to the photographer’s advantage rather than be a hindrance (i.e. color photography under the same conditions).

Oak Cluster Black & White, Calaveras County, California

I think this contrasty light truism is particularly well-applied to relatively wide landscape renderings where elements of the scene often express this contrast so well: dark foliage against light colored grasses, puffy white clouds in a darker sky, light-colored sand juxtaposed against darker water, etc.

Mushroom Rock Black & White, Mushroom Rock Trail, Maui, Hawaii

But sometimes intimates in harsh light can work as well.

Dunes Abstract Black & White, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Black and white enhances patterns and textures by removing the distraction of color from the frame.

Breaking Wave Black & White, Hoapili Trail, Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve, Maui, Hawaii

Intimates with a center of interest of pattern and/or texture can benefit from a monochromatic treatment even when the light isn’t harsh.

Sand Tufa Abstract Black & White, Navy Beach, Mono Lake, Mono County, California
Thatch Palm Closeup Black & White, MacBryde Garden, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai, Hawaii

We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of monochrome motivation.

Atigun River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Aspen Trunks Black & White, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado
Virgin River, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

So there’s more than one motivation to go the route of black and white. There’s leaning in to natural contrast. There’s emphasizing patterns. There’s making texture the center of interest. There’s playing up the role of shapes in a composition. There’s running with a graphic theme. There’s combining multiples of these things. (And that’s just for starters.)

Cook Pines Black & White, Prince Edward Park, Kauai, Hawaii

So, that’s all very interesting, you’re (hopefully) saying. What has this got to do with White Pocket?

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The White Pocket experience was a strong reminder of just how broadly cast the motivations for monochrome imagery can be. When Jason and I started poking around at White Pocket, mid-afternoon on the day of our arrival there, the conditions were of the classic black & white contrast variety. It was natural to think black & white, right out of the box.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

But as the light improved and color photography became the obvious assumption, particularly as we migrated into the more colorful part of this rock-filled destination, I was struck by how strong the pull of black and white remained. The motivating elements beyond the contrast of the light were so emphatic at White Pocket they couldn’t be ignored., even when the light became increasingly soft and thereby more conducive to color photography.

White Pocket Intimate Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Even with scenes and conditions when color renderings worked wonderfully well, it was truly remarkable how often monochrome was a perfectly viable–even desirable–alternative. I don’t believe I have ever rendered as many compositions in both color and black & white as I have from White Pocket.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

That is the black and white lesson of White Pocket: there are no “rules” about when to render images in black and white; only broad guidelines, and extremely loose ones at that. And yet…one of those “guidelines” is, if color isn’t clearly adding to the image there’s a good chance it’s distracting, and perhaps it should be removed altogether.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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