Posted by: kerryl29 | December 6, 2021

There’s No Quota

In the early stages of post-processing the set of images I brought back from Alaska, I noticed something that, had I been conscious of it previously, it was only vaguely: the number of images I had made during the first couple of days of the trip was pretty modest. A moment later, I forgot about it.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

If I forgot about it, how is that I’m mentioning it here? I was reminded of the situation when I produced the posts for Day 1 and Day 2 of the trip. That exercise served as another prompt; there hadn’t been a lot of photographs made on the first two days.

Chapel Creek Intimate, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

In the past, this sort of thing bothered me, and more than a little bit. My thinking at the time was, in essence, that I’d gone to a lot of trouble and expense to go on a photo trip. And, as the term “photo trip” clearly implies, the point of the exercise was to engage in photography. A small number of images implied that relatively little photography had been done. And, yes, I found that bothersome.

Chisos Mountains Moonset, Big Bend National Park, Texas

But at some point, after I’d been taking these trips for at least a few years, I discovered that my attitude regarding this subject had, shall we say, evolved. “Engaging in photography,” I came to feel, involved a great deal more than summing up the number of times I pressed the camera’s shutter button on a given day. More broadly speaking, this wasn’t an exercise in producing image volume. While a “good photo day” might include a large number of images, it certainly didn’t have to be that way. Producing a lot of images in a single day is neither a necessary nor sufficient element of having a good day in the field.

Sunrise, Papawai Point, Maui, Hawaii

There’s no quota. That was the lesson that I ultimately learned, though I couldn’t begin to tell you exactly when I came to this realization. I’ve had “good photo days” where I produced no more than a handful of images.

Backlit Maple, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

I have, in fact, had a “good photo day” when I produced exactly zero images, though honesty compels me to report that I didn’t recognize that said day was a “good” one until it was in the rear view mirror. On this occasion, I spent an entire day scouting, an exercise that led to some subsequent wonderful photo opportunities–opportunities that wouldn’t have come about had I not spent the day scouting. That’s how a day without photos turned into a very good photo day.

Birch Trunks, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

So, it’s absolutely possible to have good photo days without making many images. Besides, there were plenty of subsequent days on the Alaska trip filled with innumerable good photo opportunities…and some of those were good photo days, too. 🙂

Good Harbor Beach Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Posted by: kerryl29 | November 29, 2021

Alaska II, Day 2: Up the Dalton Highway

After an abbreviated photo session at Creamer’s Field on Day 1, we prepared to make our way to Wiseman, roughly 270 driving miles from Fairbanks and 190 miles north of the southern terminus of the Dalton Highway. That puts Wiseman about 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Following 2018’s trip to Alaska, I wrote a post describing the broad outlines of a trip up the Dalton Highway and I direct you there for the basic facts (since they haven’t changed in the last three years and I don’t see much point in repeating them). But broadly speaking, there are almost literally no services on the Dalton Highway; the road is approximately 400 miles in length and along the way there are only two places to purchase gas (both in the southern half of the road), only three places with lodging (again, all on the southern half of the highway), no places to purchase supplies and no connecting through roads. If you’re going to spend time on the Dalton Highway, you need to understand what you’re dealing with.

Ellen and I had 2018’s experience to draw upon and, based on that experience, we felt we were prepared to handle what the Alaskan far north could throw at us. (Spoiler alert: we were right. There were no catastrophes.) We did rent a satellite phone in Fairbanks, just in case, but otherwise we mostly relied on caution and our previous experience. We brought plenty of food with us (purchased at a supermarket in Fairbanks, the night before we made the drive). We had, long prior to the trip, reserved one of the two cabins at Boreal Lodging, in Wiseman, the same place we had stayed in 2018. And we knew where the gas station at Coldfoot Camp was located; that gas was going to be expensive (it was approximately $5.50 per gallon when we were in the area); and that letting the gas tank dwindle much less than the halfway point wasn’t an option.

270 miles–the driving distance between Fairbanks and Wiseman–probably doesn’t sound all that bad, but consider two things: driving at a breakneck speed on the Dalton Highway is downright reckless. Most of the highway is unpaved and some of the sections that are paved aren’t in great shape. The unpaved sections are graded, but the road deteriorates quickly due to the extreme weather conditions. Even during the relatively warm parts of the year (i.e. mid-summer), there’s a copious amount of precipitation in Alaska. Technically, the speed limit on the Dalton Highway is 50 miles per hour, but there are many places where it’s ridiculous to consider driving that fast. The trip between Fairbanks and Wiseman takes 6-7 hours assuming no stops. But we absolutely planned to stop as often as we found something worth stopping for, photographically speaking or otherwise.

The weather on our drive was spotty. It rained on and off, which made the road conditions particularly sketchy at times. (I won’t dwell on the “skidding incident” we experienced about 1/4 of the way up the highway; as I said, there were no negative repercussions.) But we did stop with some frequency and dealt with the occasional rain, and chilly temperatures, as best we could.

Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We had timed this trip to take advantage of what historically is the time for fall color in Arctic Alaska and we discovered pretty quickly that our timing was going to be spot on. The color was coming along on the southern part of the Dalton Highway; I predicted that it would be at peak when we drove back to Fairbanks, four days later (stick around and see if I was right). We also figured that by the time we got to the central part of the highway, where we would be based for the next three full days, that things would be at or near peak.

Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

During a lull in the rain, we paid a stop at an unnamed pond, just off the highway to the east, and made the short walk down an access road to see it was worth photographing. We decided very quickly that it was.

Unnamed Pond, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Unnamed Pond Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Unnamed Pond, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Water Lilies, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we reached Finger Mountain, about halfway up the highway (from the southern terminus, near Livengood, to Wiseman), we knew we wanted to stop, because it had been such an impressive site to photograph in 2018. The weather was pretty awful when we stopped–cold, windy and threatening to rain. But we got out and checked things out anyway.

Autumn Tundra, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Bearberry and Mushroom, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

As unpleasant as the weather was, we were prepared to stay for some time, but after about 10 minutes it started to rain in earnest and we beat a fairly hasty retreat to the car and resumed our trip north.

We made another stop, at a lake that caught our attention, on the west side of the road. Unlike Finger Mountain, there was almost no wind at this location, as the glass-like reflections demonstrate.

Cloudy Reflections Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Cloudy Reflections, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Cloudy Reflections Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Misty Mountains, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Following a stop at the gas station in Coldfoot to fill the tank, we drove the final 12 miles or so to the access point for Wiseman, arriving at our lodgings early in the evening. After unloading our belongings we had just enough time to make the short walk down to the northern shore of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River to catch sunset. There was just enough clearing in the sky to make it worthwhile….highly worthwhile, in fact.

Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska

There hadn’t been as many photo opportunities on the drive up the highway as we had hoped; we planned, given more cooperative weather conditions, to rectify that on the drive back down to Fairbanks a few days hence (with the simultaneous hope that the color would be better as well). But in the meantime, we had three full days in the Brooks Range to look forward to. After a good night’s sleep, we’d begin the process the following morning…

Posted by: kerryl29 | November 22, 2021

Alaska II, Day 1: Creamer’s Field

As noted in the last post, after flying into Anchorage on August 23 and staying there overnight, Ellen and I picked up our rental vehicle (a Jeep Cherokee SUV) the following morning and drove to Fairbanks, following a stop at Stewart’s Camera. Driving distance from Anchorage to Fairbanks, via the George Parks Highway (AK-1), is approximately 360 miles. We didn’t break out the cameras on the drive, partly because the vehicle was packed pretty tightly, but mostly because we didn’t have any great photo opportunities. We almost had one; we spotted a good-sized moose off the side of the road, but by the time we’d turned around and maneuvered into position to have a decent look, the moose had ambled into the forest and vanished.

We arrived in Fairbanks by late afternoon–around 5 PM–and checked into our lodging and unloaded the vehicle. By this time it was around 6 PM. The weather wasn’t great–fairly chilly (around 50 degrees F) with occasional light rain. Nonetheless, having spent the vast majority of the past two days sitting, we were anxious to move around. With more than three hours of daylight left we decided to pay a visit to Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, which was only about 10 minutes from where we were staying. Having visited the refuge three years earlier (almost to the day), on our previous trip to Alaska, we were familiar with the lay of the land.

We saw hundreds of sandhill cranes at Creamer’s Field back in 2018; this time, we heard quite a few cranes, and briefly spotted a few flying overhead, but they were clearly hanging out in a different, less accessible, part of the refuge, so there were no crane photos this time around.

We had really been impressed by the Boreal Forest Trail at Creamer’s Field when we visited three years earlier. The trail winds through a birch forest and wetland area and had numerous great photo opportunities. We hoped to mine this area again.

Before we hit the main part of the trail we stopped at a couple of spots that provided really nice reflections of part of the birch forest in a marshy area. It was here that we made our first images of the trip.

Birch Reflections, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska
Birch Reflections Black & White, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

There was almost no wind, so the water surface was glass-like and yielded terrific reflections.

Birch Reflections, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska
Birch Reflections Black & White, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska
Birch Reflections, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska
Birch Reflections Black & White, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Then we moved on to the main part of the trail…and were immediately met with a problem. The trail includes an extensive series of boardwalks that traverse the marshy areas and provides access to the interior of the birch forest. The boardwalks–on both ends of the loop–were partially under water and partially destroyed. There was no way to gain access to the forest. This was disappointing, but we spent a bit of time mining the part of the trail that skirted the edge of the groves of trees.

Birch Forest Intimate, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

I was again grateful for the lack of wind as it allowed me to make heavy use of focus stacking; the technique was a must to obtain the compositions I found compelling.

Birch Forest Intimate, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildflife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Even though we were still more than an hour shy of “sunset” (the copious cloud cover made the notion of seeing the sun go down seem utterly absurd), it had become quite dark and as it started to drizzle for at least the fifth time since we’d reached the refuge, we decided to call it a day and trudged back to our vehicle. The experience hadn’t been quite what we’d hoped for, but there had still been a few decent image making opportunities.

We hoped that the next day would be more productive; we had all day to make our way to and up the Dalton Highway to Wiseman, in the heart of the remote Brooks Range.

Posted by: kerryl29 | November 15, 2021

Alaska: A Reintroduction

For a period of approximately 2 /12 weeks–spanning the last week of August and the first nine days of September–I made my second photo trip to Alaska. This was almost exactly three years after the first trip, which was chronicled on this blog.

Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Tundra and Spruce, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Mist, Denali National Park, Alaska

Difficult Logistics

The itinerary this time around bore some similarities to the 2018 excursion, but plenty of differences as well. I had only one photo companion on this occasion–Ellen, whom I met at the Anchorage airport. Debbie, who was part of the team in 2018, was unable to make it this time around. The logistical considerations for this excursion were innumerable, but I’ll note a few of them. This trip, which we began planning shortly after returning from the first Alaska experience in September, 2018, was originally supposed to happen in the late summer of 2020. The pandemic squelched that. Much of the cost of the trip–close to half, I’d estimate–had already been paid for when we officially called off any hope of making the journey in 2020. (That decision was reached in May of last year, but by the time the pandemic really took hold in North America–early March–we strongly suspected that there would be no way to make the trip.)

Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose Cow, Denali National Park, Alaska
Summit Lake, Summit Lake State Recreation Area, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Facing the option of rescheduling or canceling–and with uncertain prospects of full refunds from at least some of the places we’d already paid–we tried to be optimistic and rescheduled the trip for the exact same set of dates in 2021. We could only hope, when we made that decision, that it would be safe enough to travel by then and that international travel restrictions would be lifted. Ellen lives in British Columbia and we had very serious concerns about border restrictions and whether they’d be lifted in time for the trip.

Squirrel-Tail Grass, Chandelar Shelf, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marmot, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Color Riot, Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Mountain Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

I will spare everyone the vast majority of the details, but within a few months of departure time for the trip, we were still uncertain as to whether we could make it and, for that matter, whether we should make it. I hadn’t been on a plane or in an airport since mid-February of 2020–a few weeks before the pandemic really took hold in North America–until, after having been fully vaccinated for approximately six weeks, I resumed flying between Chicago and Houston in June. I thought that would make for a good test of whether I was prepared to make the long flight from Chicago to Anchorage in late August. My experience flying–and I made a pair of round trips between Chicago and Houston before the scheduled flight to Alaska–indicated to me that it could be done safely. (I wear an N95 mask whenever I’m in an airport or on a plane and I don’t remove it until I’m outside.)

Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Birch Trunk Intimate, Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Alaska Range Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska

My thinking, generally, about being able to be out and about in Alaska largely revolved around the fact that we’d literally be outside the vast majority of the time and would–inside or out–rarely be in close proximity with other people. Furthermore we’d never be in extended close proximity with anyone, indoors and out, who wasn’t fully vaccinated. (Ellen was fully vaccinated shortly after me, back in the early part of the summer.) Had the plan for the trip been to be indoors and/or in crowded places, it would have been canceled.

Spruce Prime, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Birch Forest Fall, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset, Richardson Highway, Alaska

Around our drop dead date for deciding whether we were prepared to commit to going ahead this year or not, we found out that the border would be open, with restrictions. There were no restrictions on me, as I was going from one part of the United States to another. Ellen had to jump through some hoops–both entering the U.S. and then returning to Canada–but the limitations were to be cut back dramatically by the time of the start/end of the trip, so it wasn’t quite as onerous an issue as it would have been a month earlier. Still, Ellen had to take COVID tests (which were negative) in both cases and wait out a return to Canada with family in Seattle for a couple of days on the return trip.

Galbraith Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
PIka, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Rocky Swirl Black & White, Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The Rough Itinerary

So what of the itinerary? We flew to Anchorage this time, rather than Fairbanks, stayed overnight near the airport and picked up our special rental vehicle (we needed something that we’d be allowed to take on unpaved roads, as much of our travels would involve extensive driving on such thoroughfares–standard vehicle rental in Alaska expressly forbids this, and we paid a pretty penny for a vehicle that we could drive on the likes of the Dalton and Denali Highways) the following morning. After stopping at Stewart’s Camera (a very well-stocked outlet) in downtown Alaska so Ellen could pick up the second camera body she had rented for the trip, we were on our way north and drove all the way to Fairbanks (roughly 360 miles via the George Parks Highway–AK-3).

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska
Clouds and Conifers Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska
Willow Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
A Room with a View, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

We stayed in Fairbanks overnight and picked up our provisions for the trip north to Wiseman, in the heart of the Brooks Range, where we had spent several days with a photo guide (David W. Shaw; highly recommended) in 2018. This time, Ellen and I felt sufficiently confident–given that we now knew the lay of the land, the importance of keeping a full gas tank, how much food we’d need to bring and where some of the best photo opportunities were located–to make the trip back up to the Brooks Range on our own. (We did rent a satellite phone in Fairbanks.) We spent a day driving up to Wiseman, three full days in the Brooks Range, and another day driving back, again staying in Fairbanks. From there, we drove the Richardson Highway to Delta Junction, where we spent one night at the Garden B&B.

Misty Morning, Brooks Range, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Evening Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

The following day was spent with another photo guide–Steven Miley–who took us to several locations between Delta Junction and Paxson, most notably a glacial ice cave (more on that in a future entry). And from there we made our way west on the Denali Highway. We ended up spending the equivalent of three full days (and a bit of a fourth) on the Denali Highway (which, if anything, wasn’t enough), and then took up lodgings in the Carlo Creek area, about 20 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park. We had, as things adapted, two full days in the park (including the only day on the entire trip that was close to a full washout) and the morning of a third.

Sunset, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Ice Gave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Autumn Tapestry, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska

We then drove to our final location–Hatcher Pass, a couple of hundred miles south of Carlo Creek, and a bit less than an hour north of Anchorage. We spent the remainder of that day and all of the next too photographing in the Hatcher Pass and Chugach areas, then wrapped up with a brief shoot in Chugach State Park the following day before Ellen dropped me off at the airport for a red eye flight back to Chicago via Denver. That was late on the evening of September 9. Ellen flew to Seattle the following day and was back home in B.C. a couple of days later after waiting out the negative COVID test.

The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Evening’s Onset, Fishhook Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Forest Floor, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska

A Brief General Assessment

I’ll dive into the specifics in future posts as I chronicle the experience day-by-day (and possibly thematically, here and there), but to the point, the trip was simply outstanding–very likely the best photo trip I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken a fair number at this point). What made it so good? Briefly (and in no particular order):

  • We caught fall color, full on, in just about every place we went. (Many of the images I’ve included testify to that.) This was a very different case from the last time when, due to a particularly late fall season in the interior of Alaska in 2018, we only caught truly good fall color during the back half of our time in the Brooks Range. Not this time. We couldn’t have timed things better and…I must say, the fall color experience in Alaska is simply phenomenal, if you’re at the right places at the right times. Aside from the relevant issues of remoteness and expense, I can’t think of any good reason why Alaska isn’t routinely considered one of the prime fall color destinations in North America.
  • We intentionally planned the itinerary to give ourselves plenty of time wherever we went, with the flexibility to be able to pivot when we felt we wanted to do so and this was a major, major factor in my assessment. We really never felt rushed, and not feeling rushed is an important key to mining good landscape photography opportunities. We covered more ground on this trip than the last one, but this one was longer. We were in the field for parts of 17 days and I really don’t ever remember feeling pressed for time, which is quite a luxury.
  • We had the best of both worlds in terms of being able to leverage previous knowledge of many locations we visited with the excitement that always seems to flow from discovering opportunities in fresh spots.
  • Ellen implicitly reaffirmed what I already knew–that she’s a terrific travel companion. She put up with all of my usual nonsense without a single complaint and was great company during the frequent downtime that we had. (There were a lot of long drives; if I recall correctly, we put approximately 3000 miles on the rental vehicle.)

The next installment in this series will cover the brief time we had, late on the day we arrived in Fairbanks, when we paid a return visit to Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge.

Bearberry Intimate, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Eagle River, Alaska
Clearwater Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Early Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Posted by: kerryl29 | November 10, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: The Photo that Almost Wasn’t

Apologies for taking so long to get a post up this week, but I’ve been busy. Among many other things, on Monday night (more accurately, about 1 AM Tuesday morning) I finally wrapped up the post-processing of images from Alaska. When the dust finally settled, more than 640 photographs from the trip had been processed. I’m not sure what my previous image record was for a photo trip, but it was far short of that total. I will begin chronicling the Alaska experience with a post next week.

Since I’ve invoked the spirit of Alaska, allow me to introduce to you one of the least likely images from the trip. Among the places we stayed–in this case, during the transition from the Brooks Range to the Denali Highway–was a bed-and-breakfast in Delta Junction, Alaska, about 95 miles southeast of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. Delta Junction is in east-central Alaska, more than 330 miles north of Anchorage.

Despite this extremely cold-sounding location, the bed-and-breakfast we stayed at is called the Garden B&B, and it absolutely lives up to its name. We stayed there on the night of August 30, which is definitely into fall in that part of the world. But the garden at the appropriately named Garden B&B took our breath away. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for anything like this to exist at such a latitude. We arrived there mid-afternoon of the day of our stay; the weather was very pleasant, with a high temperature of around 60 (F), mostly sunny and almost no wind.

Recognizing an unexpected opportunity right under our noses, we asked our hosts if we could photograph in the garden and we were encouraged to do so. So we spent an hour or two doing just that, as prelude to heading out on the Richardson Highway to look for more traditionally anticipated subjects (like the Alaska Range) when the light grew softer early that evening.

As a relevant side note, I like ferns. I’ve always been drawn to them when out with my camera, whether it’s in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, in the redwood forests of northern California, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, any one of a number of lush spots in Hawaii, the mountain forests of Colorado or elsewhere in Alaska.

But when I came across a nice batch of ferns on the Garden B&B property, I almost turned the opportunity aside. We’d been photographing flowers in the garden for some time at this point and we wanted to move on before long to explore photo opportunities down the Richardson Highway before we lost the light. Besides, I knew that I was looking at a deep photo stack of frames to obtain what I wanted with this cluster of ferns. Processing whatever I came up with was going to be a chore. And if there was even a breath of wind, the whole exercise–which would take a significant amount of time to execute, making the likelihood of the already stated breath of wind pretty likely–would amount to a waste of time. (Have you taken a close look at ferns? If someone sneezes in the adjacent county, they move.) Was it really worth the trouble?

Despite everything stated above, and for reasons I can’t recall, I decided that this was, indeed, worth the trouble. So I carefully set up the shot–composition and exposure settings, found the nearest object in the frame and established initial focus, got the focus stack settings established and carried out the procedure, hoping all along that nothing would move. I didn’t see anything move as the process was being executed and when I investigated the images in the stack on the camera’s LCD–all 28 (!) of them–I didn’t detect any movement, but it’s hard to be certain about it. If there was a problem, I’d have to find out when I tried to process the final stack on the computer.

A couple of months later, I did just that. Careful examination of the processed stack, combining all 28 frames, showed no movement at all. I converted the stacked image to black and white, as I had planned all along, to emphasize the textures and patterns of the subject matter.

In the end I was glad that I’d bothered.

Ferns Intimate Black & White, Delta Junction, Alaska
Posted by: kerryl29 | November 1, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Sequoias and Dogwoods

In the spring of 2017 I spent six days in Yosemite National Park. One apparent truism of Yosemite is that, if you time things correctly, you can catch the dogwood bloom in the valley or you can catch the dogwood bloom at the higher elevations but you absolutely cannot experience peak in both locations at the same time. By the time the dogwoods in places like the Mariposa or Tuolumne sequoia groves reach peak bloom, the trees in the valley have played out.

On the first evening of my time in the park, the very first place I stopped upon entry was the Pohono Bridge over the Merced River where I viewed what appeared to be peak dogwood bloom.

Dogwood from Pohono Bridge, Yosemite National Park, California

I photographed these dogwood blossoms on several occasions during my time in the park, and found equally wondrous opportunities at other spots in Yosemite Valley as well.

Merced River Dogwoods, Yosemite National Park, California
Dogwood Blossoms, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite National Park, California
Dogwoods, Mirror Lake Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
Dogwood, Yosemite National Park, California
Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

Given how phenomenal the dogwood bloom was in the Valley, I knew that I’d get nothing at the higher elevations, but I still wanted to check out the groves because I love being in these giant tree cathedrals.

Entry to the Mariposa Grove was impossible when I was at Yosemite; the park service was doing a full-blown reorienting of the trail network in that part of the park that year, so the grove was off limits. But the Tuolumne Grove was accessible. Even though there had been a record snowfall in the Sierras the previous winter, which kept the road to Tioga Pass closed until the beginning of July, the road to the high country was gated immediately after the entry to the parking area for the Tuolumne Grove. I’d be able to spend time amid the sequoias, despite the lack of dogwood bloom.

I drove up to the high country on my first full day in the park–a cool, cloudy, drizzly day. A light rain was falling–and it never stopped–when I reached the Tuolumne Grove parking area. It was about 40 degrees (F). Given the conditions, I left my camera equipment behind; this would be a mere scouting session. I figured I could scope things out, find some spots I liked and come back when the weather was a bit more forgiving.

I hiked the mile or so to the grove…and imagine my shock when I discovered that the dogwoods were not only blooming, they were at peak! I was puzzled. How could this be? The Tuolumne Grove is roughly 6200 feet above sea level. The Yosemite Valley floor is 4000 feet above sea level. How on earth could these two areas of dogwoods be not only blooming at the same time but peaking at the same time?

Whatever the reason, the proof of this inexplicable event was right in front of my face. I all but ran back to the car to get my gear.

I then spent most of the rest of the day in the grove; I wasn’t sure if or when I’d get another chance to photograph this location under even light conditions. And, despite the light rain, there was no wind. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

I produced many photographs in the grove that day, but one thing I wanted to do was incorporate the sequoia trunks with the dogwood blossoms. I produced several such images, but one of my favorite attempts involved jamming myself very close to a foreground sequoia trunk with the dogwood blossoms in the background. I composed these elements in several ways, and at first conformed to the rule of thirds, with the background blossoms taking up about 2/3 of the frame, in a kind of peeking-around-the-trunk shot. Ultimately, however, I decided to toss the rulebook aside and went for what my instincts told me to do: divide the frame more or less evenly between a mossy sequoia trunk and a splash of background blossoms; a kind of yin-yang that filled the frame in a unique expression of Yosemite High Country spring.

Sequoias and Dogwoods, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

We began the final day of the trip where the previous day left off: in the pitch dark at Skyline View. We had made it to this location–after several false turns, because the route was unmarked and we weren’t entirely certain where we needed to go–without being able to see anything surrounding us the previous night, and pitched the tent in the overwhelming blackness. Jason had assured me that the sunrise shoot would make the trouble worthwhile. He was more than vindicated.

When we awoke it was still dark, with just the tiniest signs of increasing ambient light. I put on my shoes and climbed out of the tent and as my eyes adjusted to the light–and as it became incrementally brighter–I found myself in a truly singular landscape. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Our tent was no more than a couple of hundred feet from a cliff face, itself several hundred feet above the valley below. This is the Blue Valley and it’s utterly barren. This overlook is known by several–as far as I know unofficial–names, including Skyline View (the name I’ve chosen to use here) and Moonscape Overlook. It is truly a sight to be seen, as words are incapable of adequately describing it.

I returned to the vehicle, which was adjacent to the tent, and grabbed by camera bag and both of the tripods I brought with me. Yes, I had two tripods. This is something I’ve taken to doing when I drive to a location where I think there may be an opportunity to photograph using multiple lenses from the same location: a sunrise/sunset overlook is a perfect example of this. For this approach to work, I have to be set up close to my method of transport. (I may be a tripod acolyte, but I am not going to hike any distance with two tripods!) You may recall that I did this a couple of times during my trip to Big Bend National Park. It paid off nicely at Skyline View; it was the only time during this trip that I used two tripods.

There weren’t many clouds in the sky, but–fortunately for us–those that were present were hovering around the eastern horizon. The moon had risen just an hour or two before sunrise as well, which provided another element to include for the first photograph of the day.

Blue Valley at Dawn, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

You can gain a sense of what the Blue Valley landscape looks like. There were several prominent buttes and ridge lines running out from the overlook. About that overlook, by the way: it runs for several miles, mostly on a north-south trajectory. I actually liked the spot that was closest to where we’d made camp because there were a couple of bluffs that could be used for foreground interest and/or a sense of depth.

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

There is no visible vegetation in Blue Valley, at least from where we stood; this is obviously where the “moonscape” moniker comes from.

Blue Valley at Dawn, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

As the sun began to approach the horizon, I waited to see how the effect would impact the features in the valley; it would hit the tops of the buttes and ridges first, of course, and it would gradually seep into the contours of the folds in the hills. That, I figured, would be a very interesting effect indeed.

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

In the meantime, as we waited for direct sun, I decided to let Blue Valley reveal how it obtained its name.

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

And then, the sun made its appearance…

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

…and it was remarkable how much the color palette of the scene changed.

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

The greater the effect of the rising sun, the more likely I was to move to the tripod housing the camera with the telephoto lens attached.

Blue Valley, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

The combination of the landscape and the impact the sunlight had on it made this setting a perfect canvas for long lens abstract imagery, which worked both in color and black and white, as each type of rendering depicts the scene quite diffeently.

Blue Valley Black & White, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Blue Valley Black & White, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Blue Valley, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

I did survey a wider version of the scene at least one more time…

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

…before returning to the telephoto setup.

Blue Valley, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

As the sun played footsie with the cloud bank near the eastern horizon, the color changes were palpable.

Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Blue Valley at Sunrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

A few more images were produced in the minutes before the light became excessively harsh.

Blue Valley Black & White, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Blue Valley, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Land of Shadows, Blue Valley Black & White, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

It had been quite a morning and, as we drove out of the area, we admired the edifice of Factory Butte in the distance. This was a location that begged for a return visit at some point.

When we wrapped up at Skyline View, we decided to make a quick run back to Capitol Reef. There had been a few spots in Capitol Wash that we wanted a second crack at. It took the better part of an hour to get back there, but we were greeted with beautiful reflected light and hastened to take advantage of it. Speed was recommended because, shortly after arriving, the wind–which had been entirely absent all morning–suddenly kicked up.

Between the worsening of the light and the wind, there wasn’t as much of an opportunity to mine the many appealing locations in the gorge. But we took what we could get.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

When the combination of wind and encroaching direct sunlight became overwhelming, we decided to move on. We’d decided to pay a mid-day visit to Little Wild Horse Canyon, in the San Rafael Swell area. This slot canyon combines easy access with numerous intimate photographic opportunities. It’s not as tight as Spooky Canyon and has a very different feel to it.

There’s a hike–a very easy one–of at least a mile before you hit the head of Little Wild Horse Canyon, and another half mile or so before you get to the first part that’s particularly interesting, photographically speaking.

The first thing that caught my eye was the abstract that you see below, that I like best when rendered as a black and white.

Little Wild Horse Canyon Abstract Black & White, San Rafael Swell, Utah

From this point on, the camera was out pretty regularly until the shoot was over. As is the case with most, if not all, slot canyons, the best opportunities change as the position of the sun changes, casting attractive reflective light here and there. What may look awful at, say, 10 AM, might look tremendous at 2 PM.

Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon Wall Abstract, San Rafael Swell, Utah

Near the end of what we decided was the most interesting part of the canyon, from a photographic perspective, I started mining the many, many locations that I thought made for excellent opportunities to produce graphic/abstract images. I probably could have spent several days producing nothing but these types of images, but I settled for an hour or two.

Little Wild Horse Canyon Wall Intimate, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon Wall Intimate, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon Intimate Black & White, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon Wall Intimate, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon Wall Intimate Black & White, San Rafael Swell, Utah

As we were hiking back toward the trailhead, we reached a spot that had been in open sun several hours earlier, on the hike in. It was now bathed in reflected light and we had to stop for what turned out to be the last photo opportunity of the trip. I liked the scene so much I shot it both vertically and horizontally.

Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah

When we were done at Little Wild Horse Canyon, it was late in the afternoon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor was there forecast to be for the rest of that day or the next. We had considered staying in the San Rafael Swell and photographing sunrise the next morning before making the long trip back to Colorado Springs (which would be followed, for me, by a more than 900-mile drive back to Houston). In addition to the cloudless conditions, the wind was now whipping up dust storms in the desert. We’d been sheltered in the slot, but out in the open it was nasty. All things considered, we decided that the prudent move was to begin the trip back to Colorado. We stopped for the night in Grand Junction and made the rest of the trip back to Colorado Springs the next day. I then drove to Amarillo, Texas and stayed there before driving all the way back to Houston the day after. It was a lot of driving over three days, but it would have been much tougher if we’d stayed in Utah that final evening.

In all, it was a great trip, filled with many terrific photo locations, almost all of which were entirely new to me. I fully expect to be back in the desert southwest, probably sooner than later.

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 18, 2021

Tools, Fads and the Cool Kids

At one point earlier this year, I ran into another photographer in the field and he struck up a conversation with me while we were waiting for the wind to die down. The conversation inevitably turned to photographic equipment and technique–it’s remarkable how often this happens, but I digress–and at some point this gentleman mentioned, almost gratuitously, that he didn’t use focus stacking or high dynamic range (HDR) approaches in the field. This guy was at least 20 years younger than I am, so this wasn’t some old school “get off my lawn” attitude being expressed. It became apparent, after I asked a couple of questions (“Why not?” was one of them), that he viewed these techniques–and others–as…faddish, for lack of a better word. A bit more prodding made it clear: these were things the cool kids used, and they used them because they were cool, and because they used cool techniques that made them cool, and that’s what the cool kids do: use cool techniques because it makes them cool. Got that?

Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

It was all a bit circular, not to mention ridiculous. Let’s address this nonsense.

Chapel Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I use both focus stacking and HDR. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you also know that I’ve been using these techniques for about 15 years. What I probably haven’t mentioned, because it never occurred to me to think about it, is that I have no idea–and have never had any idea–whether these are the kinds of things that “the cool kids” do. (I’m inclined to doubt it; I have a hard time imagining that, whatever “the cool kids” are doing, it has anything to do with photography. But, again, I digress.) If the implication is that these techniques are what amounts to photographic fads, well…I honestly wouldn’t know about that, either. But if they are–or ever were–fads, that presumably would have been the case a long time ago. I wasn’t the first person to mess around with either focus stacking or HDR, and since I’ve been using them for 15 years, well…I would imagine that these approaches are long past the fad stage.

Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas

And this is all beside the point; whether either or both technique is properly classified as a fad or not, I’m not sure it would be possible for me to care less.

Casa Grande from Boulder Meadow, Pinnacles Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

These techniques, and any other I might indulge in, are, from my perspective, simply tools. They are a means to assist in achieving my photographic vision and, as a result, I tend to view them the same way I regard my equipment–cameras, lenses and accessories. All of these things are tools in my metaphorical photographic toolbox; together they all help me carry out the technical part of photography–my chosen art form to express my personal aesthetic. And I’m not sure why anyone would view them any other way. Even the cool kids.

West Maui Sunrise, Papawai Point, Maui, Hawaii
Posted by: kerryl29 | October 11, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Capitol Reef National Park

Prior to this trip I’d visited Capitol Reef National Park once –for a few days in the late summer of 1998, as part of a two-week trip spent hiking in the south Utah national parks. (It was that trip that led me to jump start the process of getting serious about photography.) My distant memories of what the park was like were utterly obliterated by the reality that surrounded me.

Jason and I needed some time to recover from six consecutive nights of camping and, as the sunrise forecast was for clear skies, we “slept in,” and didn’t get up and out until an hour or two after the sun came up. The sky was, in fact, completely clear. A good chunk of this day would be spent, again, scouting, but we spent most of the rest of the morning–until we lost the light entirely–photographing in Capitol Wash.

Located inside of Capitol Gorge–which contains an unimproved road that runs 2.3 miles from the park’s Scenic Drive to the Capitol Gorge Trailhead–Capitol Wash is an almost always dry creek bed deep within the towering red rock canyon walls of the gorge. It is an excellent place to capture reflected canyon light, the quality of which really must be seen to be truly appreciated. (It was the kind of thing we frequently observed during our foray into Coyote Gulch, a couple of day’s earlier.) Despite the dry desert conditions, a good deal of vegetation can be found in the wash and the combination of reflected light on the rocky walls, intricate abstract patterns, boulders and isolated growth captured our attention.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In a dilemma similar to the one I encountered at White Pocket, I found myself thinking about rendering a scene in black and white to better reveal the lines, shapes, contours and textures of the elements encountered in Capitol Wash, despite the routine presence of stimulating colors.

Capitol Wash Black & White, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Ironically, in fact, it was the very presence of vibrant color that often led to the decision to render in monochrome; the color could, at times, completely overwhelm the other elements of the scene.

Capitol Wash Black & White, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

But just as often, the impact of the reflected light was simply too impressive not to be revealed in color.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

And, occasionally, I made the decision to go with color even for abstract images. In the end, the rendering decision was very much a simple matter of personal preference.

Capitol Wash Abstract, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

And sometimes I simply punted on making any decision at all and processed the image in both color and black and white.

Capitol Wash Abstract Black & White, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

We drove the length of the Capitol Gorge Road, following it all the way to the trailhead, and back, and got out frequently to investigate a compelling scene. We spent several hours in the wash; even after direct sunlight began to encroach on some spots, abrupt turns in the canyon walls left areas in open shade a bit longer and we tried to take advantage of that fact.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

While we were in the wash the breeze kicked up and made a nuisance of itself; we tried to exercise some patience and wait it out and were occasionally rewarded with brief, but adequate, lulls.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There was an evident subtlety and complexity to photographing in this area. The issue wasn’t primarily technical (though, when setting exposure, keeping a close eye on the red channel was a must); rather, it was aesthetic. Compositions seldom jumped out and presented themselves at this locale. Instead, they had to be teased out carefully, with much attention paid to small details.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In numerous instances, a seemingly modest change in position and/or perspective produced remarkably significant differences in the final product. Jason and I both spent copious time moving around, changing the position of the camera and (seemingly) endlessly fine tuning the frame. It’s a challenging process, but can be immensely rewarding when things finally come together.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

When the sun reached a point in the sky that it was flooding virtually the entire gorge with direct light we called it a day in the wash. The next several hours were spent scouting locations in the eastern half of the park and outside the park borders to the east.

When the light started to dramatically improve, very late in the afternoon and early in the evening, we returned to the park’s Scenic Drive and pulled our cameras back out. Reaching one of the spots we’d scouted earlier–near a location that Jason had photographed during a previous visit to Capitol Reef–required a short hike up a ridge, just off the park road. From there, an interesting view of the valley below and beyond was beheld.

Shadowland, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

With less than 90 minutes until sunset, we moved west on the Scenic Drive and found several compelling spots.

Chimney Rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The Castle, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Evening Light, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Finally, with only about 30 minutes until sunset, we moved on to Sunset Point, one of the locations we’d scouted earlier in the day, to catch the evening’s last light, first as it was absorbed by features to our north and east…

Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

…and then as the sun dripped below the horizon in the west.

Last Light, Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

We returned to our vehicle and drove to the east. The goal for the last full day of the trip was to catch first light at the moonscape of Blue Valley from Skyline View, near Factory Butte, not too far from the town of Hanksville. The plan was to camp near the rim, but first we had to find it in–you guessed it–the pitch dark. There were some false starts with this process, but with some persistence and the aid of the ever-valuable GPS, we ultimately reached our desired location. Apparently, that is, because we couldn’t see anything. But we did find some other dispersed camping denizens which implied that we were in the right place.

The tent was pitched in the dark yet again and an alarm was set for about an hour before sunrise. We didn’t want to oversleep on this morning.

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 4, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Au Sable Point Sunset

Between my visits to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 2008 and 2013, Alger County Road H-58, between Munising and Grand Marais, was completely paved. Prior to the completion of the project, which apparently took place in 2010 the vast majority of the route was gravel and of uneven grading.

Why does this matter? H-58 provides the only road access to the bulk of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which runs for more than 40 miles between the aforementioned communities on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Accessing many spots not located near Munising or Grand Marais was comparatively difficult and time consuming prior to the paving of the road; afterward, it was immeasurably easier. So when I traveled to the Upper Peninsula in early October of 2013, I planned to explore numerous locations inside the park that I had rarely or never visited before.

I discussed an unexpected hiccup to these plans–a federal government shutdown–in a blog entry chronicling the trip, but suffice to say for now that the shudown was gotten around.

One of the spots I’d always wanted to check out was Au Sable Point. The point, which is home to a handsome lighthouse, requires an easy three-mile round trip hike from the Hurricane River Campground parking area. The hike itself was never a deterrent; the problem had been getting to the campground. With H-58 now paved that was no longer a problem.

I’d actually made the hike to the lighthouse earlier on the same trip and I’d decided I wanted to make it to the Point for sunset, so that’s what I planned to do on the very last day of that trip. The potential hang up was the hike back in the pitch dark, but that was taken care of with a flashlight. Another potential problem was the presence of legions of insects–black flies and mosquitoes, mostly–because this area, right along the Superior shore, remained warmer than inland areas where a killer frost had already taken care of the bug problem. But between the use of repellent and a bit of luck (the mosquitoes were far less of a problem out on the beach and away from the forest), that situation proved tolerable, though barely.

Problems notwithstanding, the decision to head out to the point that evening proved fortuitous because the result was an epic sunset, certainly one of the ten best I’ve ever been in position to photograph. The light show started in the eastern sky, which is usually a sign of good things to come. By the time I was facing west, it had all come together and I ignored the mosquitoes, to the best of my ability, to take advantage of it. I had the rock-strewn beach, some fall color provided by some early-turning birches, reflections of the colorful sky off the relatively still waters of Lake Superior and the wet sand and, of course, the colorful sky itself, which was simply outstanding on this evening.

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

Even the walk in the dark back to the campground area through the mosquito-choked forest couldn’t detract from the experience.

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