Posted by: kerryl29 | August 13, 2018

Favorite Trails for Photography Part III

In case you missed the first two installments, they can be found at these links:

Favorite Trails for Photography Part I

Favorite Trails for Photography Part II

Part I includes a brief description of the motivation for this series as well as a description of the criteria for inclusion.

On to Part III…

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

On the western part of the Olympic Peninsula, not far from the town of Forks, Washington, lies the Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest stands of temperate rainforest in North America.  The trees are a mix of coniferous and deciduous species, including some huge specimens of spruce and hemlock.  It’s called a rainforest for a reason; the area averages nearly 130 inches of precipitation a year, with approximately 2/3 of that amount falling between November and March.  (The months of June, July and August are the driest times, averaging 9-10 inches of rain over the three-month period per annum.)

Many, if not all, of the tree trunks and branches throughout the forest are coated with a type of hanging moss, which is what gives this particular trail its name.  The Hall of Mosses Trail is a loop of a bit less than a mile and is very easily traversed; the trail is broad in most places and there’s very little elevation gain.  But there’s almost endless subject mater for photography.  The challenge in this area is defining order out of chaos, as there are are few places I’ve ever been that are more chaotic looking at first glance than the Hoh Rainforest.

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

But if you spend some time really looking, compositions will start to reveal themselves.  It may be helpful to hike this easy loop trail more than once.  I did it four times in the same day (twice in each direction) and every time I did so I discovered numerous compelling perspectives that I’d missed during previous sessions.

Regardless, the Hoh’s unique, haunting character is not to be missed.  I recall feeling as though an Ent would reveal itself to me at any given moment.

Tree Arch, Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

Lakeshore-North Country Trail (Hurricane River to Au Sable Point), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Au Sable Point at Sunset, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The Lakeshore-North Country Trail runs for miles along the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  My focus is on a 1-1/2-mile segment that lies in the midst of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, east of the town of Munising.  The end of this hike leads to the lighthouse grounds at Au Sable Point, home of the Au Sable Light Station.  It’s a fine destination indeed, as the lighthouse itself is highly photogenic, be it from the beach just west of the tower or from up on the bluff where the lighthouse is surrounded by a series of handsome brick outbuildings.

But there’s more to the subjects along the trail than just the lighthouse.  The beach, from the hike’s beginning at the Hurricane River estuary all the way to Au Sable Point is well worth the time it takes to explore it.  The remains of three shipwrecks are visible–conditions permitting (basically, calm conditions on Superior)–at various spots along the way.  The estuary (and locations a bit upriver from the estuary itself) is worth some time…particularly if the conditions on Superior aren’t calm…and the thick forest that lies immediately to the south of the trail can yield some interesting intimate images.

Au Sable Point Light black & white, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The trail itself–three miles round-trip–is extremely easy.  This is an old Coast Guard service road–now used by the National Park Service to supply the Lighthouse (which is used as a visitors center and open for touring during the warm weather months)–so it’s wide, graded and flat.  Hikes don’t get much easier than this.  There are numerous spots along the way that allow the hiker to descend to the beach–which you’ll need to do if you want to check out the shipwrecks.  In fact, if Superior isn’t churning, you can make the entire jaunt on the beach if you like.  The going will be slower this way but the immediate sights are arguably more compelling.

Even if you stay on the main trail all the way to Au Sable Point, a staircase down to the beach is accessible at that spot, and you should certainly take advantage of the opportunity.  In addition to interesting views of the lighthouse there are numerous colorful beach stones that are worth checking out.  (Word of warning:  if you visit this area in the late spring/summer or in the fall before the first frost, prepare to deal with bat-sized mosquitoes and black flies.)

Hurricane River Estuary, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Autumn Overlook, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

This approximately 7-mile loop is among the most photography-rich trails I’ve ever hiked.  I spent a good ten hours on it in one day in the fall of 2017.  The variety here is remarkable.  If you want broad vistas, you’ve got ’em.  Forest or meadow intimates?  Check.  Close-ups of bark, leaves, ferns, lichen, the forest floor more broadly?  It’s covered.  If you run out of compelling subjects on the Dark Canyon Loop Trail, you’re not looking very hard.

The trailhead is located near the high point of Kebler Pass in the Gunnison National Forest, along Gunnison County Road 12 west of Crested Butte.  The loop trail consists of segments of other trails so it’s well worth purchasing a forest service trail map so that you know where you’re going.  And, note that there’s plenty of elevation change throughout the hike–lots of up and down, though none of it is all that steep (though it may seem that way by the time you’re on the back end).  I hiked the loop in a clockwise direction but you can do it either way.  Do note that the trail can get quite muddy in spots if there’s been any recent precipitation.

Aspen Trunks, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

In some respects, this hike reminds me of the Opabin Circuit Trail (featured in Part I of this series); there’s a lot of effort involved but the essentially endless gob-smacking scenery makes it undeniably worth it.  And the variety of options makes it likely that you’ll want a variety of focal lengths with you.  On both trails, I used every lens in my bag…and might well have used my macro lens, had I brought it with me.  But the relative strain of the hike itself should make one pause about how much to weigh yourself down.  For many, if not most, photographers, a single lens in the 24-105 or 24-120 range will cover a clear majority of your desires.

Marcellina Mountain, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

The trail is roughly a 2 1/2 mile out-and-back (five miles total) excursion, but the best opportunities for waterfalls and rapids on Cascade Brook lie in the first 1.2 miles or so, making it about a 2 1/2 mile round trip if you hike as far as Rocky Glen Falls.  The first half mile of the trail–which takes you as far from the trail head as The Basin is easy.  From that point on it gets significantly more difficult, less because of elevation change (it’s about 500 feet over more than a mile), and more because of the frequency with which protruding rocks and tree roots on the trail become an issue.  There’s also a stream crossing that must be made about halfway from the trailhead to Rocky Glen Falls.  How difficult that will be depends a great deal on the water flow of Cascade Brook; it wasn’t a particularly difficult rock hopping exercise when I was there in early October, 2016.

The Basin, Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

Including The Basin, there are three named waterfalls along this trail and countless unnamed, but wonderful, cascades.  In short, there are many, many good photo opportunities.  It’s best to visit on a cloudy day to take advantage of the even light.

I wouldn’t describe this trail as a great fall color location, due to the high volume of coniferous growth in the forest bordering Cascade Brook, but the creek/waterfall opportunities are terrific on their own and I would guess that in the mid-spring (i.e. May), when the water flow is at its height, the brook may well be at its best.  Ordinarily I’d recommend wading footwear, given the stream crossing, but given the nature of the trail itself, good hiking footwear is a must.

Rocky Glen Falls, Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

Some links to posts covering this trail:


Banff Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

An informal–but visible–trail meanders for several miles from its head near the Banff airstrip through a series of meadows and terminates near a pumping station that serves the town of Banff.  Along the way the hiker is treated to an enchanting landscape filled with clumps of aspens and occasional conifers.  One of the best aspects of this trail is that, despite it’s proximity to the hustle and bustle of Banff, it’s virtually unknown.  I spent several hours in this area one day without encountering a single person.  I love these meadows filled with aspen groves, so I can’t get enough of places like this.

Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

The trail itself couldn’t be simpler.  There’s no elevation gain to speak of and there are virtually no impediments to the hiker.  There are ample opportunities for grand landscape imagery at this location and plenty of different perspectives are simply waiting to be discovered.  This is an outstanding place to spend a morning or afternoon/evening.

Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Blackbird Knob Trail, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Blackbird Knob Trail, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

I hiked this as a slightly more than three-mile round trip, though the trail goes considerably farther than that–about five miles one-way, I believe.  The section of trail I hiked was in pretty good shape considering that it had been raining (and snowing) fairly steadily for days.  After a mile or so the trail crosses Alder Run which can usually be crossed without getting wet and 1.6 miles brings the hiker to Red Creek.  Crossing the creek often requires wading which was something I wasn’t prepared to do; this is why I made Red Creek my turn around spot.  I saw only two other people during my time on the trail (a weekday in early October in less than pristine weather).

Red Creek, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Dolly Sods is a unique environment and this trail provides access to many of the ecosystems that make it so.  You’ll see rock-filled meadows, forests, bogs and creeks.  (Continue beyond Red Creek all the way to Blackbird Knob and you’ll be treated to some remarkable vistas as well.)  With this kind of variety you can imagine how broad the photographic opportunities are.  The trailhead is only about two miles south of the Bear Rocks overlook on Fire Road 75.  (Warning:  the road, from either direction, up to Dolly Sods is–or was, on the multiple occasions I’ve been there–truly awful.  Vehicles without all-terrain tires are highly susceptible to flats.  Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Regardless, this is a beautiful area, and if you can catch it under the right conditions it’s a spectacular location for photography.  I’ve been up to Dolly Sods four different times and in good weather it was absolutely spectacular.

Blackbird Knob Trail, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pink Canyon is what amounts to an unofficial “trail” at Valley of Fire.  The “trailhead” is an unremarkable looking dry wash, but after rounding a bend or two you’ll find yourself at the mouth of a slot canyon of almost indescribable beauty.  This is one of the most promising areas for abstract and semi-abstract photography that I’ve ever seen anywhere.  The entire hike is no more than a half mile one-way and it’s quite easy.  The key, in my view, is catching the scene in even light.  Cloudy days are rare in southern Nevada, so photographing in Pink Canyon is best done at the very beginning or very end of the day.  Depending on the time of the year you probably have an hour or so after sunrise before the sun encroaches on wide shots.  With a diffuser and a bit of poking around, tight abstracts may be viable for longer stretches of time in targeted open shade.

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

While the broad outlines of this location are static over time, the specific elements change every time the canyon floods.  And, take warning–you don’t want to be anywhere near this location on the rare occasions when the floodwaters are surging.  I’ve been witness to a seemingly innocuous dry wash turn, in minutes, into a life-threatening raging torrent; it’s a truly frightening spectacle.  The vast majority of time, however, flooding isn’t a concern.  Valley of Fire is very hot (most of the time) and very dry (almost all of the time), so prepare accordingly.

This is a location to keep one’s eyes peeled for unusual, evocative elements and compositions.  I relied pretty much exclusively on focal lengths from extremely wide to short telephoto, but your mileage may vary.  Regardless of field of view, wherever one looks in Pink Canyon the pastel colored striations predominate; there are endless opportunities to render them.

Pink Canyon Abstract, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 6, 2018

Favorite Trails for Photography, Part II

If you missed the first installment of this series of photo-worthy trails–which includes the criteria for inclusion as well as a set of five of my favorites–you can check it out here.  A general entry about hiking and photography, which led to the current series of posts, is here.

Here’s a second, unordered, list of some of my favorite trails for photography:

Cascade Stream Gorge Trail, Franklin County, Maine

Cascade Stream Trail, Franklin County, Maine

This short (about a mile and a half) out-and-back trail is a hidden gem.  Located just a few miles south of the small town of Rangeley on ME-4 in sparsely populated northwest Maine, the trail leads into a deep (90-foot) gorge cut by Cascade Stream that’s filled with waterfalls and chutes on a tract of land protected by the Rangelely Lakes Heritage Trust–a local conservation organization.

The trail itself steadily climbs along the edge of the gorge, but isn’t exceptionally steep and there are numerous spots where the various cascades can be viewed and photographed, including several spots where–with care–it’s possible to descend all the way down to water level.  There are no rails and fences, so caution is advised.

If you can take your eyes off the stream you’ll find yourself wandering through a beautiful mixed deciduous/coniferous forest that includes several stands of towering pines.

Cascade Stream Trail, Franklin County, Maine

The trail is rarely crowded.  I explored this trail twice–first as a scouting session and on a second occasion to photograph–over the course of several days and had the place all to myself on both occasions (the second of which lasted for several hours).  While there are more spectacular environs on this list, it’s the subtle beauty and quiescence of the Cascade Stream Gorge Trail that gives it a space on this list.

Cascade Stream Trail, Franklin County, Maine

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

This isn’t a trail, per se; the Heart of the Dunes–a trackless area where one can wander contentedly for hours–is essentially the absence of a trail.  White Sands National Monument is the single most graphic landscape I’ve ever seen–whatever lies in second place isn’t even particularly close.  With towering, snow white sand dunes–formed from gypsum–in a stark setting surrounded by low mountains, there’s really no place quite like it on earth.  The Heart of the Dunes describes a trail-less area in the center of all this.

“The Cavity,” Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

While the area is overwhelmingly stark there are some pattern interruption elements upon which to focus–the occasional yucca or cottonwood tree, for instance.  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find an inexplicable feature like the cavity–or depression in the sand–as represented in the image above.  While I reject the notion that there are no worthy images to be made at White Sands outside of 30-minute windows around sunrise and sunset (as I had someone tell me once), there’s no question that those periods, generally speaking, are the best times to photograph.  So park your vehicle on the packed sand roadway and hike out into the dunes to find photographic bliss.

Earthshadow, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Located roughly 4 1/2 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitors Center on the Newfound Gap Road, the Chimneys Picnic Area is the jumping off point for the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, among the best spring wildflower locations in the Smokies.  (And that’s saying something because the Smokies represents one of the great spring wildflower locations in North America.)  The trail–a bit more than a 3/4 mile loop–can be steep in places and muddy after rainy weather, but the opportunities to photograph wildflower close-ups and “flowerscapes” are well worth the effort.

Spring Wildflowers, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

There are some wonderful trillium clusters–white, nodding and yellow–at the peak of the wildflower bloom (usually the second half of April), and the variety of flowers, combined with the compellingly hilly terrain, fallen longs and fresh spring greenery make for a fascinating photographic tapestry.  Be sure to take your macro lens along and aim for a cloudy day as the thickly forested setting is best rendered in even light.

White Trillium, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Damnation Creek Trail/Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Of the redwood groves I’ve visited in five different parks in northern California my favorite is the area along the Pacific Ocean in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park near Crescent City.  If you follow the Redwood Highway south of Crescent City for about 10 miles you’ll reach a parking area on the west side of the road with room for 15 vehicles or so.  This is the trailhead for the Damnation Creek Trail.  This trail descends irregularly for about 2/3 of a mile to the west until it reaches a junction with the Coastal Trail which extends–mostly with little elevation change–for more than a mile in either direction (i.e. north or south).  The Damnation Creek Trail then descends–steeply–for another 1.3 miles or so all the way to a narrow, rocky beach.  (From beginning to end over the entirety of its two miles, the Damnation Creek Trail includes 1100 feet of elevation change; approximately 850 feet of that comes in the 1.3 mile second segment, west of the Coastal Trail.)

The entire Damnation Creek Trail–both the parts east and west of the Coastal Trail–are absolutely beautiful.  The path winds through magnificent groves of redwoods, lush understory and, for a few weeks in the spring (usually late May to early June), magnificent blooming Pacific rhododendron.  On days when fog is wafting through the groves, this area is especially magical.

Rhododendrons and Redwoods in Fog, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

The Coastal Trail, for more than half a mile in either direction of its confluence with the Damnation Creek Trail, is every bit as beautiful.  This track–which follows the roadbed of the old coast highway (you can occasionally see segments of the old asphalt with the road lining still visible) winds through its own set of redwood trunks and its flatness is a welcome reprieve from the steepness of the Damnation Creek Trail.

I doubt these trails are ever that crowded.  I’ve hiked the area on the morning of a holiday weekend and it was never all that bad.  At early times on non-holiday weekdays you can have the place more or less entirely to yourself for hours.  This is one of my very favorite places not only to photograph but simply to be.

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Falls Trail, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Water Meet, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

The Y-shaped Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen State Park in northeast Pennsylvania is one of the greatest photographic “bang for the buck” locations I’ve ever experienced, particularly if you like waterfalls and cascades.  With more than 20 named waterfalls and countless smaller rapids, if moving water is your thing you’ll be in heaven.  The trail can be done as a loop of more than seven miles; there’s a considerable amount of up and down.  Coupled with photography, it’s essentially a full day’s endeavor.

Seneca Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

The upper left-hand part of the Y shape is known as Ganoga Glen and the creek along this stretch of the trail contains 10 named waterfalls.  The upper right-hand of the Y–known as Glen Leigh–has eight waterfalls.  The confluence of the two creeks is known as Water Meet.  Kitchen Creek–the joined waterway below the confluence–has three more named waterfalls.  Most, if not all, of these falls include numerous compositional options; don’t ignore the numerous unnamed spots along the streams, including Water Meet itself.

The park is open all year.  Best time for water flow is in the spring or following heavy rain at any time of the year and the scenery can be brilliant in autumn in a good fall color year.  The trail is quite steep in places and the footing can be challenging in spots, so take care.

Tuscarora Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Next time:  more favorite photography trails

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 30, 2018

Favorite Trails for Photography, Part I

A few months ago, I posted an entry entitled Hiking and Photography.  That post, in which I made the case for going to the trouble of hiking to enable one’s photography despite the…well, trouble of doing so, has received a lot of traffic since it went live in March.  As a follow up I decided to produce a series of posts outlining some of my favorite “photographic trails.”

What this Is and What it Isn’t

This isn’t meant to represent a be-all, end-all list, even for me personally.  These are just some of my favorites; there are undoubtedly great trails I haven’t yet experienced.  There are certainly others that I have hiked that I think are good but won’t be included for one reason or another.  And I should add that the focus is on trails that have a lot of photo opportunities along the way, as opposed to trails one takes primarily or exclusively to reach a great photo destination (e.g. hiking to an overlook or a waterfall or a beach, etc.).  Perhaps that could represent a future series.  Hmmm…

That covers the rough, informal criteria for the list–which, not incidentally, is presented in no particular order.  This is not a comparative ranking of photo hikes–merely a presentation of some of my favorites.  In my opinion, all of these trails are conducive to exceptional photography under appropriate conditions.  So, without further adieu…

Trail of Ten Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

South Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

A long loop trail that can be done in a single hike or in segments, the Trail of Ten Falls, located in Silver Falls State Park (about 40 minutes east of Salem, Oregon) is just under nine miles for the entire circuit.  In addition to the waterfalls–surprise, there are ten of them–there are numerous cascades on Silver Creek that are photogenic, in addition to moss-draped broad-tooth maple trees and numerous wildflowers (in spring and summer) that will capture your attention.  And, given the winding nature of the trails, most of the waterfalls have numerous perspectives you can explore without violating park guidelines to stay on the trails.

It’s possible to walk behind three or four of these waterfalls, which adds to the compositional possibilities, and there are at least a few photogenic bridges (not to mention stone walls and wooden fences) that can be effectively utilized in some of your images.

Lower South Falls Black & White, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

The park sees a fair amount of traffic, but if you can time your visit for a weekday not during the summer months, and particularly if you can get out early and/or stay late, you shouldn’t run into serious problems with crowds.  I’d recommend visiting in the spring (pick a cloudy day, regardless of season), when all the waterfalls are typically flowing nicely, the trees have leafed out and the wildflowers are plentiful.

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Lower North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Auxier Ridge Trail, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Auxier Ridge Sunset, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There are a plethora of interesting trails in and around the Red River Gorge and the nearby Natural Bridge State Park in eastern Kentucky, but the Auxier Ridge Trail, within the confines of the Daniel Boone National Forest, is my favorite.  I hiked this trail at least four separate times during the week I spent in the area a number of years ago and even when I didn’t have my photo gear with me I enjoyed the experience.

While it can be turned into a loop by intersecting with other trails, the Auxier Ridge Trail itself is about a 4 1/2 mile out and back.  There are some really impressive views from numerous spots along the trail–including sightings of several natural arches.  The trail also winds through some interesting mixed forest settings along the way.

Forest Floor, Auxier Ridge Trail, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There’s a fair amount of up and down on this trail, but none of it is particularly difficult.  Best times are in the spring–I’d say mid- to late April is ideal–and in the fall (late October).  There are a number of spots that work well as sunrise and/or sunset locations as good views can be had in all directions at various spots along the trail, but be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp if you plan to photograph under those circumstances.

Ridge Lines, Auxier Ridge Trail, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

Rainbow Falls, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

The Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is a paved route of about 1 1/4 miles (2 1/2 miles out and back), featuring 800 concrete steps that provide some phenomenal views of 19 waterfalls and countless cascades that tumble through the deep, narrow crevice.  Because of the ice that forms in the winter months and the rarity of sunlight penetrating the gorge at that time of the year the trail is only accessible from mid-May until early November.

The trail is very popular; even on weekdays in the non-summer months that the Gorge Trail is accessible the place is teeming with people during the “usual” tourist hours.  But since the scenes effectively demand even light for photography, you don’t want to be there in the middle of the day anyway.  Get there at (or slightly before) first light and you will blissfully have the place to yourself–ideal for getting the perfect perspective.  Getting those ideal spots is next to impossible when it’s crowded so the only point to visiting at or near the middle of the day is for scouting purposes.

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

A tripod is a must; it always is, but it’s especially a must, if that makes any sense, given the subject matter (moving water) and the inherently long shutter speeds given how dark it is in the gorge at the edges of the day.

Be prepared to get a bit damp as you clear Rainbow Falls.  And if you have to go on a blue sky day, with a bit of luck (and planning) you may be able to experience (and photograph) the ethereal glow that reflected sunlight can emit to the stone walls–natural and man made.  Regardless, this is a location not to be missed.

Minnehaha Falls and Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Opabin Circuit Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Hungabee Lake Outlet Stream, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Among the most beautiful places I’ve ever set my eyes on, the Opabin Plateau, hundreds of feet above the valley that contains Lake O’Hara, can be explored via the Opabin Circuit Trail, which begins on the shores of the aforementioned lake before steeply climbing to the plateau itself.  I’ve described this hike at great length in a piece posted several years ago and rather than repeat myself I’ll simply direct you there.  Suffice to say that, if you get good weather and can work within the access limitations, the Opabin Circuit should be near the top of any landscape photographer’s wish list.  If you can time your visit during the period during the back half of September when the larches turn gold you’ll have all the elements for an unforgettable experience.

Mary Lake and Cathedral Mountain from the West Opabin Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

The Opabin Circuit itself is (roughly) a five-mile loop, most of which isn’t strenuous but the parts that are can be challenging if you aren’t in good shape.  It’s also worth noting that there’s essentially no shelter of any kind along the trail so if the weather turns bad–and, believe me, it does so frequently–you have to be prepared to absorb whatever Mother Nature throws at you.  It’s also worth noting that there are so many side routes worth exploring once atop the Opabin Plateau that you’re going to end up hiking a lot more than five miles, though you’ll be so entranced you probably won’t notice….much.

Suffice to say, I don’t believe I have ever photographed along any trail, before or since, as much as I did on the Opabin Circuit.

Hungabee Lake and Cathedral Mountain, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Some links to posts covering this trail:

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

This isn’t a trail in the conventional sense because the “trail” is really the river bed.  The length of this “trail” is variable, depending on conditions and how much you want to do.  I did about a 5-mile out and back, turning around when the sun was playing havoc with my photography opportunities and when the water level (I was there in May, when the river is deep and rushing) threatened to reach shoulder height.

But the experience of hiking the Narrows is like nothing I’ve ever had before or since.  Since I was there when the winter melt off was doing its thing, most of the hike was in water up to (or slightly above) waist level.  At later times of the year–summer into fall–there’s much less water to deal with, which is better for hiking, certainly, but probably isn’t nearly as photogenic.

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Visitation levels at Zion have exploded in the last few years and this is among the most popular hikes in the park, so I’m not sure what to tell anyone about best times other than to get there as early as possible–you absolutely must be on the first bus up canyon–and to avoid weekends (and the summer in general) like the plague.  Hiking the Narrows in the spring, as I did, is both rewarding and challenging but you have to be prepared to deal with the current and the fact that you’re going to experience water levels at least up to your waist.  There are definite advantages to going at this time of the year, but there are problems that must be overcome as well (dry bags, anyone?).

In any case, if the opportunity presents itself to do this hike when the Narrows isn’t inundated with zillions of people, by all means do so.

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Some links to posts covering this trail:

I’ll present another installment of my favorite photo trails next time.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 23, 2018

Sleeping Bear Dunes: Forests & Wetlands

As I noted in my initial Sleeping Bear Dunes post, one of the best facets of photographing at the park is the variety of subject matter.  Forested areas make up a distinct, significant ecosystem and during our few days there in June we spent a significant amount of time amidst the trees.

Red Pine Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I’ve noted my affinity for photographing in deep forest settings before, so it should come as no surprise that I was happy to do so up at Sleeping Bear.  We explored several impressive stands of red pine–some of which were clearly managed forests at one time, given the unnatural symmetry of the trunks.

Red Pine Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

These kinds of settings were classic examples of pattern and pattern interruption, phenomena that I’m always on the lookout for when photographing in the woods.

Red Pine Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

One of the most interesting of these red pine locations had a compelling mix of ferns scattered on the forest floor.  Some of the ferns made nice isolated foreground subjects…

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

…while in other spots, extensive layers of ferns formed intrinsic parts of patterned compositions.

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Fern Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The forest floor itself can often be an interesting subject and the pine forests of Sleeping Bear certainly filled the bill.

Forest Floor Intimate, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Forest Floor Intimate, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Other close-up opportunities were abundant as well.

Mushroom Closeup Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

As I mentioned in the Sleeping Bear Dunes intro post, one of the most interesting spots we visited on the trip was Lasso Road, an unpaved two-track that forms a loop (a “lasso”) to and from the main highway.  This thick, natural forest was fascinating and we caught the ferns in perfect condition.  Our first stop was near a series of wetlands on the first half of the loop and, braving the mosquitoes, I scurried down a hillside to make some images of a small bog on the south side of the road.

Lasso Road Bog, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Lasso Road Bog Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Not far from this spot was a larger wetland, filled with subtly teased compositions just waiting to be explored.

Lasso Road Wetland, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Lasso Road Wetland, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

There were few spots to stop on the far side of the loop, but the forested setting along this part of the road was simply too beautiful to overlook.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The even, overcast light, with colors fully saturated by a light rain that was falling produced an enchanted forest effect.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

These delicate fern fronds will blow with even the slightest breeze and even though it was nearly dead calm, that wasn’t good enough.  All of the fern forest images you see above (and immediately below) required a focus stacking approach, ranging from three to six frames to establish front to back sharpness.  Fortunately, patience was rewarded by lengthy lulls.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Lasso Road, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

BuildingsBeaches and dunes.  Forests.  I know I just scratched the surface at Sleeping Bear.  I look forward to further explorations.

The very name of the place–“Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore”–conjures up images of…dunes….and lakeshore…and, I suppose, sleeping bears.  (In truth, the sleeping bear part of the name stems from a Native American legend involving the distant appearance of one of the main dunes areas, but I digress.)  As I noted in the first post in this series, there’s much more to the region than dunes and beaches, but those are major elements of the park’s landscape.  This post will focus on those particular points of interest.

Good Harbor Beach at Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan


It’s my sense that when most people think of beaches they naturally conjure up notions of ocean beaches.  It’s certainly my first instinct.  But I’ve done a fair amount of photography on Great Lakes beaches, which bear both similarities and differences compared to ocean beaches.

Platte River Morning, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The Great Lakes contain fresh water, unlike the saltwater you’ll find when seaside.  Fresh water can beset all kinds of problems upon photographic equipment but it’s not nearly as corrosive as seawater.  Whenever photographing near the ocean I take great pains to minimize–any contact between my tripod and saltwater.  Even if I’m able to avoid such contact completely, the wind can–and does–blow elements of salt all over the place, so I always wipe down my tripod after photographing on an ocean beach.  I have no hesitation about allowing my tripod to make contact with the wet stuff when I’m photographing near freshwater, including along the Great Lakes.

Platte River Beach Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

On the other hand, sand is sand, and you’ll find plenty of it along the shores of the Great Lakes, just as is the case on ocean beaches.  Sand can really wreak havoc with photographic equipment so when photographing at any beach, I try to avoid changing lenses and try to minimize the amount of extending and retracting of tripod legs, to avoid allowing grains of sand to become caught up in the works.  If there’s any inkling of this having taken place I always disassemble and clean the tripod at the end of each day.

Good Harbor Beach Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I’ve photographed along the shores of three of the Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior and Huron) and, with very few exceptions, have found that ocean beaches are much, much deeper than those of the Great Lakes.  As a result, photographing along Great Lakes beaches can be more challenging from a compositional standpoint and in terms of the ability to avoid having footprints mar the scene.   Rarely, for instance, will the reflective effect of wet sand, so frequently encountered on a broad beach impacted by the relative consistency of ocean waves, be found at the Great Lakes.

Platte River Beach Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Freshwater lakes aren’t susceptible to the tidal forces present in oceans and the impact of waves on adjoining beaches varies accordingly.  While the daily effect of tides can sweep a beach clean of footprints, ocean beaches usually require the less reliable force of the wind to achieve the same effect.   And, of course, the kinds of elements one might see on the beach will vary.  Driftwood and beach stones can be found, if you know where to go, on both ocean and Great Lakes beaches, but offshore rocks of size are much more likely to be found at the former than the latter.  The wildlife is, of course, quite different as well.  And while estuaries can be found in both locales, they take on a very different look along the Great Lakes than in ocean environs.

Platte River Beach Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan


Outside of other dunes areas around the Great Lakes, my only experience with dunes photography is the time I spent at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.  That trip, made in 2007, was an entirely different kind of experience, and not only because there’s no water and the dunes at White Sands are snow white in color–though those are two significant differences.  The dunes at White Sands are overwhelmingly…well, sand, broken only by the occasional yucca cactus or mostly buried cottonwood tree.  (See below.)

Dunes Abstract, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Heart of the Dunes black & white, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

But the dunes at Sleeping Bear are pierced by grasses and clusters of cottonwoods.  There aren’t many wide expanses of unbroken sand.

Dunes Black & White, Lake Michigan Overlook, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Dunes Grass, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

At White Sands, the wind essentially “cleans” the largely unadorned dunes every night, eriasing any footprints created that day.  But at Sleeping Bear, all of the vegetation makes it harder for the wind to accomplish its task.  We saw that on the transition from our third day in the park to the fourth.  The wind was substantial on the morning of the fourth day and was beginning to obscure the previous day’s footprints, it wasn’t able to sweep the sands clear in one evening.

Dunes & Cottonwoods Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Dunes & Cottonwoods, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

As a result of the different elements present, the dunes at Sleeping Bear have more of a “traditional” landscape feel than those at White Sands, which is the most graphic locale I’ve ever photographed.  One isn’t “better,” in my judgment, than the other, but despite the dunes commonality, the places emit a completely different feel.

Cottonwoods Black & White, Lake Michigan Overlook, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Cottonwood Cluster, Lake Michigan Overlook, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

As you can see from the images in this post (and the last one), I produced a lot of black and white photos at Sleeping Bear.  This theme will be the primary subject of a later post.

As I mentioned in my last post, among the subjects present at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are a number of farms and homesteads that are no longer occupied by people.  On a mostly cloudy day, we spent some time at a few of these sites and I focused most of my attention on elements within the elements.  In other words, rather than trying to capture the essence of the entire site, or even an entire building at a site, I homed in on some of the details.

The light was even for all of these shots and I ended up converting all but a few of them to black and white renderings.  Monochrome was, in fact, on my mind at the time of capture in all but a few of these instances, partly because I thought that the textures and other details of these scenes would be better rendered without color, but mostly because of the mood that I felt black and white would engender.

One of these images was included in the nine-photo set I presented in the introductory piece–a black and white intimate from one of the farm buildings.  (This shot is presented again immediately below.)

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

For the sake of comparison, here’s a color version of the same image.

Homestead Intimate; White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

While I find the faded red of the wood kind of interesting, I much prefer the black and white rendering, which has more of an “old feel” to me.  That’s my sense of the vast majority of these kinds of images from this trip, some of which appear below.

This is a very different kind of image than I usually present on this blog, so please forgive my self-indulgence.

Barn Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Beyond the simple weathered feel, the above image appealed to me because of the reflection of the barn in the window.

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

There’s a somber storytelling feeling to a lot of these scenes, I think.  Many of these buildings still have at least some of their contents in place, as you can see–blinds, curtains, etc.–that are showing the ravages of time.  Coupled with other signs of age–the chipped paint on the wood frames, for instance–I think the monochrome treatment better conveys the feel of these places than color renderings do.


Homestead Intimate; White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

There are some exceptions, including the above image of one side of a shed which, in color, allows the rusty metal to be much more easily recognized.

Barn Intimate, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I’m ambivalent about the above image.  The color version doesn’t have all that much color to begin with, but the rusted metal is a highlight and I kind of like the accent produced by the tall, unkempt grass at the bottom of the frame.  But I like the vertical of this scene (see below) better in monochrome, perhaps because of the greater feeling of dilapidation provided by the missing wood panels.

Barn Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National

I’m still feeling my way through this process a bit.  Part of my strength–such as it is–as a landscape photographer is that I have learned through experience what I like when it comes to representing the landscape.  It’s something that comes together through a myriad of things including (but not limited to and in no particular order) subject matter, perspective, mood and composition.  Knowing what I like makes it easier for me to work with the landscape.  In this other genre, I’m still sorting out what I like, so it’s more of a challenge.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Barn Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National

Barn Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 2, 2018

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Six or seven years ago I began looking into making a spring photo trip up to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore area, in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  Something happened–I honestly don’t recall the details–that caused me to halt the planning process (which never advanced very far to begin with) and, while I kept Sleeping Bear on my informal photo “to do” list, I never really got back to it.

Fast forward to earlier this year.  I was in the midst of an ongoing conversation with my friend and fellow photographer Danny Burk about possible day trips this year (we eventually ended up at Trillium Ravine in early May) when he mentioned that he was heading up to the Sleeping Bear area some time in the late spring at the invitation of Gary Dardas.  I had photographed with Danny and Gary (and several others) at Acadia National Park in Maine, and again, briefly, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan back in 2006, but hadn’t seen Gary since then.  Danny said, if I was interested, he’d ask Gary if he minded if I tagged along.  I was definitely interested; Danny spoke to Gary, who said he’d be most pleased if I joined them.  And so, after determining mutually agreeable dates, on the morning of June 18 I drove from Indianapolis to South Bend and, from there, Danny and I drove up to Glen Arbor, Michigan, about 25 miles west of Traverse City, right in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

A brief digression:  while the photography portion of our time in the Sleeping Bear area was a terrific experience (see below), other aspects of the trip were memorable as well.  It’s always fun to catch up with Danny–and we had plenty of time on the ride up and back to do so.  It was also great to spend some time with Gary again–despite the 12-year gap it felt as though we’d last conversed no more than a month earlier–and he and his wife Pat were such gracious hosts that I joked, at time of departure, that I was thinking of moving in with them permanently.  As Danny and I literally pulled out of the driveway on the way back to Indiana on June 21, I said “what exceptionally nice people Gary and Pat are.”  And Danny said, a nanosecond after I finished that sentence:  “I was just about to say exactly that.”

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We had a few days to spend in the area–one afternoon/evening, two full days and one morning.  That would be enough time to, at least, get a sense of what the location had to offer.  I didn’t come in with much background knowledge upon which to draw.  But I figured–correctly–that with a guide like Gary, who knows the park like the back of his hand, my time in the area would be well-served.

The name of the park–Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore–suggests Lake Michigan beaches and dunes…and not much else.  Beaches/dunes are indeed significant elements, but there’s so much more to the area, including:  smaller interior lakes; thick areas of fern-filled mixed deciduous and coniferous forests; bogs and fens; spring and summer wildflowers; open meadows; rivers and estuaries; and numerous unoccupied farms and homesteads that date back to the time before the park was established in 1970.  (Despite the “national lakeshore” designation, Sleeping Bear Dunes is part of the U.S. National Park Service.)

What follows is a tiny sampling of some of the images I made during our time at Sleeping Bear Dunes; I’ll comment briefly on each photograph–something about the experience and/or subject matter.  I’ll follow up with additional posts over the next few weeks displaying and commenting upon other elements of the trip.  I know that we barely scratched the surface of the tremendous potential the area holds–and I hope to further probe the possibilities in the future.

Pine Forest Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

There are a number of spots in the park where (apparently formerly managed) red pine forests have nearly symmetrical lines of tree trunks.  The above came from my favorite of these, on the first evening of our visit.  The even overcast light was perfect for the setting and I liked the way the monochrome conversion highlighted the patterned nature of the elements.

Good Harbor Beach Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We’d had the opportunity to scout this beach location (while swatting away flies and mosquitoes) shortly after our arrival on day one.  That’s when I discovered the driftwood, partially buried amid the sand and beach stones of the river estuary.  The beach, located on the east side of a peninsula that juts into lake Michigan, is well-suited for morning imagery.  There weren’t many other strong foreground elements on this beach so when we arrived–in already dramatically changing light–the following morning I made a beeline for this spot.  The color in the sky was all but gone in a matter of a few minutes after this image was executed.

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The park is filled with old farm sites, and it would be possible to spend weeks simply working them, both from wider perspectives and longer focal lengths.  We visited this particular spot on a mostly cloudy day, so I concentrated on tighter images and was thinking black and white when I made this photograph; I felt that the monochromatic treatment better conveyed the somberness of the mood.

Cottonwood Cluster, Lake Michigan Overlook, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I found this composition upon first glance on the afternoon of the third day, during a mid-afternoon scouting session to this overlook off Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.  The site was crowded with people at that time and, despite some impressive cloud formations, the light was less than favorable.  Fortunately, we had the opportunity to return early the following morning when there was no one else around.  (Also fortunately the clouds that morning were more or less as nice as they had been the previous afternoon.)

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

On the second day of the trip, the skies clouded over quickly and Gary suggested that it was worth taking a drive down Lasso Road–an unpaved two-track–because the light would be perfect for the forested location and–he suspected–the area would be shielded from the light breezes we were experiencing that day.  He was absolutely right on both counts.  When we reached this part of the back end of the loop road I caught a glimpse from the passenger’s seat of the setting you see and asked if we could stop…which was difficult because there were few areas where it was possible to pull over.  This was the thickest, most pristine area of ferns, with almost perfectly interspersed pine trunks, that we had seen and, in a light rain, we spent quite a bit of time at this location.  The wind was quiet enough to eventually allow me to compile a six-image focus stack to produce the photograph above.

Good Harbor Beach at Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

This is the same location as the driftwood sunrise image (second from top), but I had moved several hundred feet south on the beach and in this instance I’m shooting toward the estuary, more or less northeast rather than southeast.  (The driftwood is in the frame but, at this size, is almost impossible to see.)  The sun had just barely crested the horizon at the time this image was made but was partially diffused by clouds.  I noted the lack of strong foreground elements on this beach, so I decided to use the shoreline for depth and the patterned look of the beach stones for added interest, with the camera positioned just below waist-level.

Dunes Grass Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I was thinking black and white all the way when I made this image, due to the fairly contrasty late afternoon light and the natural contrast of the sand/grass/cottonwood elements.  I also really liked the sky in this north-facing perspective.

Pastoral Morning, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We visited this site, on my request, the final morning of the trip.  We’d passed it–and done one brief from-the-car scout, on the first or second day–and I really liked the combination of the elements here–the barn, the lone tree you see near the left-hand edge of the frame, another pair of small trees just out of frame to the left and another largish lone tree well to the left of the frame.  The sun had just risen (essentially behind my shooting position in the above image) and the face of the barn was just catching this early, angular light.  These were the same attractive clouds that graced the Cottonwood Cluster image above, made within 30 minutes of this photo.

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Yet another red pine trunks location, but this one had scattered ferns.  This image, from the third day, was made with my ultrawide 14-24 mm lens.  I got right up on top of this handsome fern and the wind cooperated long enough for me to eventually produce a three-frame stack.  I completed the set just moments before hot spots, from the rising sun, encroached on the lower portions of the background trunks.

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I think this small sampling of images highlights some of the variety that the Sleeping Bear Dunes area contains.  I’ll present more images from the trip in the next post.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 25, 2018

New Lens: Sigma 24-35 mm f/2

I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the image quality of my 24-70/2.8 lens.  It was fine when I was shooting with the Nikon D700 and its 12-megapixel sensor, but when I moved to the 36 MP D800E (and its cancellation of the anti-aliasing filter), the 24-70 started to show some flaws in the corners of each frame.  When Nikon announced a successor to the lens about three years ago I anxiously awaited its release.  The lens was bigger, heavier and significantly more expensive than the version I have.  It also has a larger filter thread size which would have meant a full replacement of polarizing and neutral density filters; the entire cost of replacement (lens and filters) likely would have cost me in the neighborhood of $3000.  That would have been hard to swallow, but had the image quality been immeasurably better I would have seriously thought about purchashing it as this is, by far, my most used lens.

Reviews of the Nikon replacement were…okay.  IQ in the corners was improved, but there was some diminution in the center.  Overall, it was iffy, in my view, if this was a better lens in terms of sharpness.  Does that sound like a purchase worthy of $3000?  I didn’t think so.

Then Sigma announced that its Art Series–a very highly regarded set of lenses released by Sigma over the past few years–would see the addition of a 24-70/2.8, including one with a Nikon mount.  I thought that this would be a certain home run, given that the Art Series hadn’t had anything but exceptionally high quality lenses to that point.  And then the lens was released and the reviews implied that this new lens was no better than the lens I already had (and might not even be that good).

So, it was back to the drawing board.  While I use, at various times, the entire 24-70 mm focal range, the area I use the most–probably half the images I make with the 24-70 lens if not more– is near the wide angle end.  I seriously considered a fast prime lens–a 24/1.8 or 24/1.4, for instance–but one lens really intrigued me:  Sigma’s 24-35 mm f/2 Art Series optic.  It’s fast, it’s more versatile than a prime and the image quality reviews were all extremely positive–some went so far as to state that the lens offered prime quality throughout its focal range.  It’s also not a particularly expensive lens, retailing for about $1000.

Late last year, there was a $200 Sigma instant rebate on the lens, dropping the price to about $800, and tossing in the Sigma dock (a value of roughly $60) at no additional cost and that’s what finally persuaded me to pull the trigger.

Sigma 24-35 mm f/2 Art Series Lens

I spent a couple of days testing the lens after I received it and I was impressed.  I produced duplicate images with the Sigma and the Nikon 24-70 that I already owned throughout the 24-35 mm focal range.  There was no discernible difference between the two in the center of the frame but in the corners there was no contest–the Sigma was significantly sharper.  So, I kept it, and finally had the opportunity to use the lens in the field when I visited Cataract Falls back in May.  If you check my Cataract Falls post, you can see some images produced with the Sigma 24-35.  As you might imagine, when I was processing the files I paid particular attention to the corners of the images.  As expected, based on my testing, I wasn’t disappointed.

The lens isn’t much smaller or lighter than the 24-70/2.8 (due to the f/2 maximum aperture) and it’s obviously nowhere near as versatile.  Those are the trade-offs for the additional sharpness.  I’ll use this lens for images in the focal range when I’m “near the car,” (i.e. when my shooting location isn’t far from whatever I used to get to the spot) and/or when I know I won’t be using the normal or short telephoto focal lengths of the 24-70 at a particular location.  It will likely rarely accompany me when I’m hiking as the last thing I need to do is add weight in such circumstances.

But when I travel to places far away from my home bases, this lens will be coming along for the ride.  It did, for instance, make the journey up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula last week (more on that experience next time) and it will be making the trip with me to Alaska in late August (more on that in the relatively near future).

So how does this purchase comply with what I said about new equipment in my last entry?  It will allow my large prints to hold up to closer scrutiny.  The corner sharpness difference is truly significant; this isn’t a hypothetical improvement we’re talking about.  (The wider aperture will also come in handy should I have the opportunity to photograph the aurora borealis while in Alaska later this year, but that wasn’t a major factor in the decision to purchase the lens.)  This may seem like a modest reason to justify this purchase–and perhaps it is–but I merit it worthwhile.  In the real world, the lens is filling exactly the role I expected of it–and, to me, that role is worthwhile–and that’s really all one can ask.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 18, 2018

Cost of the Endeavor

Recently, I saw a post on a photographic forum I frequent from an individual who was selling some old–12 to 14 years since purchase–gear.  All of it was described as being in perfect working order, most of it in excellent to pristine condition.  While there were a couple of camera bodies in the haul, most of it was in the form of lenses.  While the purpose of the post was to gather information about recommended venues for selling used equipment, I took note of a side issue:  the cost of the gear and the likely return.  The best guess was that the equipment that was being put up for sale originally sold for roughly $20,000 (US).  Making allowances for compounded inflation, that would amount to roughly $26,000 (US) in 2018.  The seller hoped to receive $2500 for everything when it was all said and done, meaning 10 cents on the dollar would be an acceptable, if not good, return.

Secret Beach at Sunrise, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

Most durable goods sell for a pittance of their original price on the used market and I don’t know that photographic equipment is all that different, at this point, in terms of resale valuation than the average widget.  But I do know that the price of used photographic gear has declined substantially over the last couple of decades (for a variety of reasons).  Put another way, photography equipment used to hold its value significantly better than it does today.  There was a time when the cost of purchasing a new item could be more easily justified, knowing that a healthy percentage of the price could be retrieved (assuming the item was kept in good condition) by selling it used at a later date.  (Some people I know essentially treated new purchases as glorified rentals…the difference in the purchase and resale price was the effective cost of the rental, deferred over time.)  That philosophy is effectively out the window today.

Jobs Pond, Orleans County, Vermont

This all serves as a stark reminder of just how expensive a hobby photography can be, particularly when the implied (and inferred) disposability of current gear is factored into the equation.  I know of other hobbies that carry a steep “equipment price” for enthusiasts but I’m not aware of anything with the implied ongoing equipment expense for someone “serious” about photography.  This is particularly true in the digital age when the assumption is that people who are serious about the endeavor will upgrade camera bodies, if not necessarily every generation, at least every other generation.  For most camera lines marketed to enthusiasts that new body can be expected to cost north of $1000 (US), often far north.  (The current version of the Nikon D8xx line–my camera body belongs to this model line, though is now two generations old–sells for more than $3000 (US).)  For other hobbies with a significant cost in terms of gear , the expectation is that equipment will be used until it wears out.  With photography, that decidedly is not the expectation.  The assumption is that equipment will be replaced when something “better” comes along and in most cases that’s every couple of years or so.

Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

The good news is, you don’t have to buy in to the marketing hype, as I have noted several times in the past on this blog.  You don’t necessarily need a top end camera and lens line and you almost certainly don’t need to purchase the latest iteration of whatever camera model/make you’ve ultimately bought.

Cades Cove Morning, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Think of your photo equipment as your tool set; your cameras, lenses and accessories are the items you use to carry out your vision.  Period.  There may be compelling, applicable reasons to go with expensive gear, in at least some instances.  And there may not.  That upgrade that’s being touted as so wonderful?  What practical, actionable reason is there to spend several thousand dollars obtaining it?  How, exactly, is it going to impact your photography?  What problem that you have with your current camera (or other piece of gear) is this new product going to solve?  These are the kinds of questions that, answered honestly, will help to ensure that your (likely considerable) investment in photo equipment will actually bare fruit.

Virgin River Intimate black & white, Riverside Walk, Zion National Park, Utah

It was, after much tortured questioning and answering, that I broke down and purchased a new lens recently–my first such purchase in roughly four years:  the Sigma 24-35/2.  I will use this example to flesh out the principles elucidated in this post, next time.

Sunrise Silhouette, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 11, 2018

Focus Stacking: A Primer

I’ve made countless offhand references to focus stacking on this blog without ever actually describing what it is, let alone outlining the technique behind it.  I did describe what was involved in a post I published five years ago during my guest blogging sting at 1001 Scribbles and I’ve adapted that piece here as part of what will probably be a short series on the subject.

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The Problem

Depth of Field…it can be the bane of the photographer.  It seems as though we’re constantly dealing with more of it than we want or not enough of it.  As a landscape photographer, I much more frequently have to deal with the latter than the former.

For our purposes, depth of field can be defined as representing the part of a scene that is rendered acceptably sharp in a single exposure.  In that sense, it’s inherently subjective; after all, what you may regard as “acceptably sharp” I may not.  So, while establishing a consensus about sharpness is possible most of the time, in the end depth of field is something that we eyeball.

When it comes to landscapes, I frequently find myself unable to obtain sufficient depth of field without stopping the lens down (i.e. reduce the size of the aperture—increase the f-stop number) to levels best avoided.  (Very small apertures can introduce image softening as a result of diffraction; exactly where diffraction becomes perceptible is dependent upon a variety of variables.  For an in-depth discussion of diffraction, go here.)  Sometimes it’s impossible to obtain the desired depth of field regardless of the aperture used.

All things being equal, shorter focal lengths and narrower apertures produce greater depth of field, but sometimes the desired shot requires more depth of field than you can achieve in a single frame.  This is where the focus stacking technique comes into play.

Redwood Sorrel and Ferns Black & White, Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Three Frames

Focus Stacking:  Personal History

I first started playing around with focus stacking 12 or 13 years ago, using a program called Helicon Focus.  I originally became interested in focus stacking as a way to solve depth of field problems inherent in closeup work.  (The focus stacking technique was pioneered for this purpose.)  But, not long after procuring the software, I started to wonder why I couldn’t adapt the approach to assist me with solving depth of field conundrums that came up constantly in my landscape photography experiences.

When photographing landscapes, I routinely found that I didn’t have enough depth of field (DOF) to realize my vision; I was usually facing the prospect of shooting with wider focal lengths than I wanted to use, simply to acquire enough sharpness.  As a result I found myself facing background clutter, optical distortion, the inclusion of unwanted elements or all of these things.  It was quite dissatisfying.

During a trip to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico many years ago I found myself facing the usual DOF problems when I decided to try a multi-frame technique to achieve the shot I had visualized–an abstract of dunes layers.  The narrowness of the field of view required a telephoto focal length–something on the order of 200 mm, as I recall–but it was entirely impossible to obtain the necessary DOF in a single frame, regardless of how far I stopped the lens down.  Via a bit of trial and error I determined that I could get everything sharp, from front to back in the frame, with five focus-bracketed exposures at f/8, so that’s what I did.  I didn’t have the opportunity to see if the experiment worked until I returned home (more than a week later) and could bring the group of frames into Helicon Focus but when I did, and carefully examined the result, I was thrilled to discover that the processed single image was sharp as a tack.  A subsequent 12 x 18 inch print served as further confirmation.  (This first focus stacked image is below.)

Dunes Geometry, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Five Frames

When I saw the final result the gears in my head started to turn.  This approach could open up a world of previously unachievable compositional possibilities.  I’ve been working with this basic mindset–and ever-expanding the use of the focus stacking approach–as I’ve pushed the limits of the software (and as the software itself has objectively improved) in the years since.  I routinely use the technique today.  In my most recent previous blog post–covering the day trip to Cataract Falls–roughly 3/4 of the included images were produced using a focus stacking approach.  Knowing that this approach to DOF problems is in my toolbox has completely changed my thinking in the field.  Images that were once out of the question are now at least open to consideration.

Palmetto Closeup Black & White, Riverbend Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

Five Frames

What Is Focus Stacking?

In general terms, focus stacking refers to the technique of: a) taking two or more shots of the same scene; b) altering the focus point of each shot thereby altering the plane of critical focus to different points of the frame; and c) combining these images in post processing, either manually or via an automated, software-driven process.  Regardless of the specific technique, the key to success is meeting the following criteria:

1) Keep the camera in a fixed position (i.e. use a tripod).

2) Adjust focus in a manner that covers the entire range of the scene that you want to be rendered sharp.  In other words, every bit of the scene that is intended to be sharp must be properly focused in at least one frame.  I generally work from front to back (i.e. beginning with the point of critical sharpness closest to the camera and ending with the point of critical sharpness farthest away from the camera) but there’s no inherent reason why you couldn’t do it the other way around.

3) Be sure that each frame overlaps focus with each adjoining frame.  The furthest point in Frame A that is sharp must at least slightly overlap with the nearest point in Frame B that is sharp.

4) Exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO and, if not shooting RAW, white balance) should be identical for each frame in the stack.  If this isn’t the case, the final stacked frame will likely have issues with uneven tones (though automated stacking programs typically include exposure blending techniques to account for modest differences between frames).  The only thing that should change from frame to frame is the point of focus.

5) Typically, it’s critical that the subject matter itself not move during the process of producing the exposures, though there are some exceptions (patterned moving water, such as a waterfall or stream is one—waves are not), which I’ll discuss in greater detail below.  Over time, as different algorithms have been added to Helicon Focus, altering the manner by which images are stacked, I’ve found that there can, at times, be some wiggle room to the issue of minor movement–with foliage or flowers, for example–from frame to frame.  (More on this later.)

Manual Focus Stacking

I perform manual focus stacking in Photoshop, but any program with layers and masks is suitable.  I have, on rare occasions, done manual stacking work with three frames, but I typically use this approach with only two shots.  (And the truth is, as Helicon Focus (and my own in-field technique) has improved, I do less and less manual focus stacking to the point where, now, I only implement it as a possible end-run when I encounter issues that Helicon can’t handle.)

For landscape shots, the key to using this approach is to have a scene where the upper and lower parts of a frame are at distinct, discrete distances from the camera.  For example, the image below is a two-frame manual stack.  Note how the elements—trees, rocks, etc.—in the upper half of the frame are significantly more distant from the shooting position than those in the lower part of the frame.

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Two Frames

This image was photographed at f/7.1, and at this aperture, I couldn’t get the entire scene sharp in a single frame.  (The camera I was using becomes diffraction limited at apertures smaller than f/7.1.)  So, I found a focal point that made the foreground and mid-ground sharp (the background was soft) and clicked the shutter.  I then refocused so that the mid-ground and background were sharp, and clicked the shutter again.  I converted both RAW images with identical settings, brought the frames into Photoshoop, and stacked the two shots on top of one another (with the mid-ground/background sharp image on the top), and added a layer mask.  I found the spot—very near the middle of the frame vertically—where both images were sharp and, and painted black over the lower half of the mask to reveal the lower half of the image on the bottom of the stack—the one with the sharp foreground and mid-ground.  And it was that simple—I now had a single sharp frame, from front to back.

Below is another image that I did a two-frame stack of.  In this case, it was very easy to visualize how to pull it off; the only sharp areas were the extreme foreground (the rocks) and the far background (the trees).  Everything in between was naturally soft (the blurred water).  After establishing the exposure criteria I simply focused on the rocks and clicked the shutter, then focused on the trees and clicked the shutter.  The process of assembling the image was essentially the same as with the creek shot above, with the mask line established somewhere in the water.  It didn’t really matter where.

Anderson Falls Nature Preserve, Bartholomew County, Indiana

Two Frames

Note that with both of these images, subject movement between shots wasn’t an issue.  The water movement itself was so tightly patterned and naturally blurred that it’s impossible to detect the masking line between frames.  But beyond that, any foliage movement between frames wouldn’t be detectable since all of the foliage lies in either Frame A or Frame B; there’s no need to line things up since these frames are distinct elements of the final product.  This is not the case with the automated focus stacking approach discussed below.

One reason why I use manual focus stacking so rarely these days is that there can be element alignment problems, even without subject movement from frame to frame.  Changing the plane of focus will literally change the magnification of the elements in the scene, thereby producing offset “ghosting” effects that are particularly evident with distinct lines and shapes.  When it comes to things like moving water in the creek and waterfall of the above images, this effect is undetectable.  But with most other elements, it’s plainly obvious and creates all kind of issues.  These problems can, usually, be cleaned up in post-processing, but it often involves a lot of painstaking work.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Four Frames

The image above is an example of the kind of scene that would be virtually impossible to render acceptably using a simple manual mask/blend approach as the “seam line” between each blended frame would cause alignment issues with every distinct shape that fell along the areas of overlapping areas of focus.  This kind of scene is littered with countless distinct lines and shapes.  Software designed specifically for the purpose of stacking focus-bracketed images adjusts for this magnification problem.

Software-Based Stacking

A more commonly applied approach—both for close-up photography, where depth of field is often extremely limited (sometimes measured in millimeters) and for landscapes and still life shots—is a more automated, software-based stacking process.  There are a number of different packages that you can use, including Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker.  (As noted throughout this piece, I use Helicon Focus myself, but I’ve heard very good things about Zerene.  Photoshop now includes a focus stacking feature, but I’ve never used it.  The addition of this capability to PS was years away when I started playing around with the technique.)   I almost always use this approach when the number of shots needed to create the final image is greater than two.  And, in fact, I now typically use this approach even with a mere two-image stack.

Fallen Leaves, Eagle Creek Park, Indiana

Eight Frames

In this instance, within the software package of your choice, you select the frames that you want to be part of the stack and then let the software do its thing. You typically do have some options for setting parameters—I advise messing around with the various options (which may include specific processing algorithms, radius settings and thresholds) to see how they impact the final result. Over the years that I’ve been using Helicon Focus I have changed the default settings to obtain what I consider to be better results.)

Crop Rows, Hancock County, Indiana

Ten Frames

I have, at times, combined more than 30 images in a single stack, with extremely magnified close-up images. A more common number, particularly with landscape images, is five to eight though, as noted earlier, I’ve used as few as two images.

7-Frame Close-Up Stack

Seven Frames

Note that with this approach, it’s absolutely critical that the subjects don’t move. Even slight image movement will often result in “ghosting”—a kind of multiple outline artifacting that will show up around subject edges. Over the years, stacking software has gotten better and better at eliminating this ghosting (which, to a degree, inevitably results because changing focus points in the field literally changes the size of the subject as recorded by the camera’s sensor), but movement ghosting of any significance is very hard to eliminate. This problem can often be cleaned up manually in postprocessing, but it can be a tedious exercise indeed if it exists in any quantity.

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Nine Frames

As I mentioned above, I’ve found that one of the specific blending options available in Helicon Focus (there are three) can, with some scenes, can render a certain amount of subject movement between frames moot.  Each frame needs to freeze movement independently, but modest element movement between frames can be overcome.  The less plane of focus “intersection” there is throughout the frame, the more likely this approach is to work.  (In the interest of relative brevity I won’t go into the details here but if there’s enough interest I’ll put together a future post on this subject.)

Autumn Overlook, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Two Frames

The Payoff

The best part of focus stacking is realizing that it exists, because realizing that this approach is available can open up an entirely new way of thinking about imagery.  Images that are optically impossible to render in a single frame can be realized using this technique and recognizing the expansion in opportunities can bring a breath of fresh air to your photographic creativity.  Additionally, it’s possible to combine focus stacking with other creativity-inspiring techniques, such as HDR.

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Two Image Stack/5-Exposure HDR Combination

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