Posted by: kerryl29 | October 3, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Pompton Lake Reflections

Six years ago, in late August, my wife and I drove from Indianapolis to northern New Jersey, to attend an annual gathering of collie enthusiasts. (My wife is one such enthusiast.) I was mostly along to do the driving and serve as moral support. This was decidedly not a photo excursion. But I brought my photo gear anyway, and managed to spend about five hours over consecutive evenings poking around a few nearby locations.

One of these spots was Terhune Memorial Park, which is the site of the aforementioned gathering. (If you’re interested in the background of the event, there’s some information about it here.) The public municipal park, which was formerly the site of Albert Payson Terhune’s estate, known as Sunnybank, includes access to Pompton Lake.

During one evening while we were on site, I wandered around the small park, and found myself drawn to the lake shore at sunset. I made a few images and, as dusk settled, prepared to call it a day. Before doing so, I took one last look at the lake. There wasn’t a breath of wind that evening, so the lake’s surface was as still as glass and as reflective as a mirror. I caught sight of a vine, hanging from a nearby tree branch, and moved to a position where I could see it reflected in the water. The lake itself was bathed in the warm light of post-sunset glow, which I found quite appealing. I looked at the reflection of the vine, and moved my position again, so that the reflection’s platonic ideal–the vine itself–was in the same visual plane as the reflection. Using a rock penetrating the surface of the water as an anchor, I set up the image you see below. There was some vegetation at the shore’s edge that I would ideally have eliminated, but that was impossible, so I let it form a perfectly imperfect lower edge of the frame. It all left me with a very Zen-like feeling.

I made sure that I had enough depth of field to carry the day (I did; no focus stack was necessary, so this is a single frame) and produced the final image, which required minimal post-processing beyond a basic Raw conversion.

Glancing at this image always leaves me with a sense of peace and a rapid return, in my mind’s eye, to that evening on the shore of Pompton Lake.

Pompton Lake Intimate, Terhune Memorial Park, Passaic County, New Jersey
Posted by: kerryl29 | September 26, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Everlasting Beams of Light

Note: By the time this post goes public, I will be in northern Minnesota, hopefully taking advantage of an early outbreak of fall color along the northern shore of Lake Superior. Another post will appear, as if by magic, next week. I will be back home early in the first week of October and should be able to return to the chronicling of the Death Valley experience the following week.

10 years ago, while on a photo tour of northern Arizona, we spent a few days on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The tour ended with a morning session at Point Imperial, one of several North Rim canyon overlooks. We had visited the location in the afternoon the day before, and were thus familiar with most of the ins and outs. We had a nice sunrise and I think most of the participants figured that was more or less the end of the tour, as everyone took what was presumed to be their final images of the session.

But something unusual happened. The clouds in the eastern sky formed in such a way that beams of sunlight began piercing the cover, creating fascinating patterns between the sky and the canyon. Once this effect had been noticed–and we all noticed–everyone pretty much forgot about leaving, and hastened to take advantage of the conditions.

The scene itself was unique, but what was even more extraordinary, in my view, was how long this phenomenon lasted. I’ve seen events akin to this elsewhere, both before and since, and typically the effect plays out in a few minutes. A full hour after this started, it was still very much extant. I honestly don’t know how long it lasted, because after 75 minutes or so, I left, having obtained what I felt I could, both photographically and existentially. And I was the last of the participants to pull up stakes!

Regardless, it remains today among my favorite experiences and, thus, one of my favorite captures.

Morning Light, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim, Arizona

To see a larger rendition of this image, go here. Be sure to click on the image in the new window to view the photograph with proper proportionality.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 19, 2022

Return to the Desert: A Dip Into Death Valley

After consecutive nights of freezing our nunnies off, following our day at The Wave, we gave ourselves a break with an evening in a Kanab hotel.  We slept in—another cloudless day was forecast, so we made no effort to get up for sunrise—and after we checked out, we took our time making the roughly five-hour drive to Death Valley.  I drove our rented vehicle; Jason drove his own car.  It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived at Death Valley’s southern entrance.  We stopped to discuss our options.  Our plan was to camp at Stovepipe Wells, in an actual campground, which meant, among other things, access to running water and plumbing, something we hadn’t had the luxury of either of the nights at Vermillion Cliffs.  It was also—and this was important—much warmer at Death Valley.  We would spend five nights, and the temperature never dropped below 50 degrees (F); in fact, it rarely dropped below 60.  (It also never got truly hot.  The peak temperature during daylight hours while we were there was approximately 85 F.)  So once we pitched the tent—which happened in the dark of the first evening we were in the park—we simply left the tent in place and returned each evening when we had finished photographing.  It was, relatively speaking, luxurious.  (Everything’s relative, you know.)

But when we stopped just inside the park entrance on that first day, we had to decide what we wanted to do that evening.  I deferred to Jason, who had, after all, been to the park once before.  (As he reminded me repeatedly, his experience consisted of parts of two days.) 

Distances at Death Valley can be vast; it’s the largest national park in the continental United States.  And we would experience the significance of these substantial distances throughout our stay.  Jason rattled off some possibilities, but ultimately we decided to head to a location known as Artist Palette.  It would take at least an hour to get there, but that would be enough, he assured me, to look around a bit and set up.  We’d be shooting rock formations in soft light, so even if we extended past sunset it shouldn’t matter much.  So, off we went, with Jason in the lead, since he knew where we were going.

Let’s talk about Death Valley a bit, from a visual perspective.  If most of the areas of Vermillion Cliffs conjure up the word “abstract” in one’s thoughts, Death Valley caused “graphic” to come to the forefront of my mind, more or less immediately upon the descent into it.  That’s what I kept thinking as we drove along, and this notion would be repeated, virtually non-stop, throughout our time in the park.  This notion had come to mind previously when I visited White Sands (then) National Monument in New Mexico in 2007.  But White Sands is essentially sand dunes, with a few other elements sprinkled here and there.  While there are multiple dunes fields in Death Valley, the overwhelming majority of the park is not made up of sand dunes.  And yet, the place screams “graphic,” almost everywhere you look.  “Stark” is another word that comes to mind, more or less non-stop.

Those were my thoughts as we pulled off the main road and began the sidetrack to Artist Palette.  Eventually, we pulled into a parking area, and from there I had a glimpse of the spot’s attraction.  At a distance, an utterly barren but remarkably colorful series of rock formations climbed the mountainside.  Clearly, different minerals made up the formations, accounting for the different hues.  We looked around and spotted an overlook, of sorts, that appeared to be a pretty good spot from which to capture what we saw, so I grabbed my things and climbed an incline, which provided a much better view than had been available from the parking area.  Unofficial trails led into the colorful rocks, but I sensed that close proximity would be less interesting, at least photographically, than the perspective available from this more distant viewpoint.  (I would later prove this to myself by wandering into the rock formations and never removing the camera from my bag.  Sometimes first impressions are correct.) 

The subject matter here spoke to me as a mélange of abstract and graphic; there was a combination of colors, shapes, textures and patterns that’s difficult to describe in words, so I’ll let the images speak for themselves. 

Before I began photographing the colorful formations on the mountainside, I glanced to my right, and saw the contours of a dry streambed, snaking into a canyon.  This area had none of the color striations that were so evident dead ahead of me; there was little color variation at all, in fact.  But there was something about this scene that I found compelling, so before I went to work on the mountainside, I turned my attention to the canyon.  With full intention of converting anything I liked to monochrome, I, began by moving my tripod to capture a more pleasing angle, then fine-tuned a horizontal and vertical composition with a mid-range focal length.

Dry Creek Bed Black & White, Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Dry Creek Bed Black & White, Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California

Once I was done with this spot, I moved back more or less to the spot I had been previously and began picking out parts of the scene in front of me, using the long end of my 24-70 mm lens.  Eventually, when I wanted a tighter perspective, I switched to the 100-400 (mostly using the shorter end).  Some of the ensuing frames required a focus stack to obtain sharpness from front to back in the frame.

Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California
Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California

At some point during the session, all of which was conducted in the soft light of open shade, I spotted an interesting looking sunset(ish) scene to my left, looking out over the mountains that ring Death Valey.  There were, as was the norm on this trip, no clouds in the sky, so this was another concession to the naturally graphic nature of the location.

Sunset, Death Valley National Park, California

It was at this time that I descended from my perch and began the process of wandering into the Artist Palette rock formations but, as I alluded to above, I didn’t find anything that I found nearly as interesting as had been revealed from the overlook.  Before long, the light was disappearing, and I returned to the parking lot to catch up with Jason.

We made our way to Stovepipe Wells to set up camp; it was still pretty early in the evening, and we took advantage of our proximity to the campground’s restrooms before discussing what we should do the following morning.  The decision was made to photograph sunrise at Zabriskie Point and then see what caught our fancy thereafter.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 12, 2022

Return to the Desert: The Wave

As detailed in the most recent entry in this series, we camped at Stateline Campground the night before our permitted day at Coyote Buttes North. It was, again, very cold overnight, though not as bad as it had been at Cottonwood Cove the evening prior. (For instance, the water bottles inside the vehicle didn’t completely freeze.) We camped at Stateline because it’s just a couple of miles from the Wire Pass trailhead–which serves as the jumping off point for the hike to The Wave–and we wanted to hit the trail as early as possible. We’d talked about hiking in early enough to photograph sunrise somewhere along the way, but ultimately we decided to wait until twilight to begin the hike. It was another blue sky day, so it wasn’t as though we were going to miss out on some epic sunrise. Besides, we didn’t have a sunrise spot picked out. There was no way to scout the area in advance, given the permit restrictions.

It was plenty cold when we set out–we were undoubtedly the first people to hit the trail that day–but we warmed up as we moved and the air temperature rose pretty quickly as the sun crested the horizon.

The hike to The Wave is 3 1/2 miles each way, but it isn’t particularly difficult. There’s some elevation change, but nothing too onerous until you come to the large rock “mountain” that includes The Wave, when climbing a moderate sand dune is necessary. It’s always a bit of a slog to climb a sand dune of any height, but this was nothing like the experience we had at Coyote Gulch the previous spring. It only took a minute or two to surmount this dune.

In any event, the most difficult thing about The Wave hike is the absence of signage. Coyote Buttes North–like the South tract–is officially designated as wilderness, so really isn’t a true marked trail. There are several tiny signposts with arrows, which allow you to be certain that you’re headed in the right direction, but cairns aren’t allowed in Coyote Buttes North. Most of the hike is over slick rock or sand. I’ve done some open desert hiking on a few occasions and the experience is closer to that than dealing with a marked trail; there’s greater reliance on physical landmarks than on the few man-made markers for route finding.

After surmounting the sand dune, we found ourselves on the plateau that includes The Wave. We walked right into and through the amphitheater that includes The Wave and I gaped at it for a few moments. Our plan had been to wait until the sun was on as much of the formation as possible, which wouldn’t be until high noon, hours away. Our first destination was another rock formation, known semi-officially as “The Second Wave,” which is located about a half mile farther along on the plateau.

I almost didn’t make it to the Second Wave without photographing something else. One of the misconceptions, I think, about Coyote Buttes North is that The Wave is the only feature of interest. This is simply untrue. The Second Wave–which Jason, who had been there before, assured me was worth reaching while it would still be in full shade–is just one example of extremely interesting subject matter. And, as I alluded to above, there were multiple compelling spots along the way that had already caught my eye. We wouldn’t run out of photogenic subjects on this day.

We arrived at the Second Wave–reaching it requires dropping down a relatively steep, but short, rocky decline (it’s not nearly as difficult as it may sound–no scrambling was required)–and I took a moment to take it all in. There’s a bit of a danger here of being visually overwhelmed, as there’s so much to photograph and the formations are so singular. After I’d walked around and examined things a bit, I retreated back to the spot where we’d climbed down, while Jason worked an area closer to the part of the formation that gives the Second Wave its name.

The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The colors, lines and shapes here are simply fascinating. To make matters even more enticing, we began to see the evidence of some reflected light in spots.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I moved back and forth between compositions of a “three-quarters” style to shooting down the numerous fins and grooves.

The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

And the ever-changing light had a dramatic impact on the subject matter.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The sun began to encroach on the Second Wave and we made plans to return to this spot at the very end of the day. In the meantime, I wanted to hustle back to one of the areas that had caught my eye on the way in. We still had plenty of time before we wanted to photograph The Wave, proper.

The spot that had intrigued me was a colorful bowl, of sorts, with several isolated bits of vegetation. This area remained in open shade–though that wouldn’t last for long–with some reflected light punctuating the colors.

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

There wasn’t a lot of time available before we lost the light at this location, but I did take enough of a look around to find a notch in the rocks, covered by lichen, that made a pleasing foreground, with a shrub, somehow growing in a deep crack of a bright, giant orange boulder, in the background. I managed to jam my tripod into a notch and set up a stacked series, resulting in the image you see below. The shadow line–created by the sun rising over a formation behind my shooting position–was already creeping down the rock wall in the background. Another few minutes and this image would be gone.

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We returned to The Wave. It was still a bit too early to photograph it, so we spent some time exploring a narrow alcove-a virtual slot canyon–adjacent to The Wave.

The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

It was late enough in the morning by this time that other visitors to Coyote Buttes North had arrived, and occasionally someone would come through the alcove, so we had to be patient to obtain photographs without someone encroaching on the scene.

The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I’d wanted to spend some time looking at tight abstracts in the alcove, but it was impossible to set up in the slot without making it extremely difficult for anyone to go back or forth through the passage, so I rather reluctantly gave up on the idea, and we returned to The Wave amphitheater.

It was basically high noon at this point, with as much direct light on the entire formation as possible, given the angle of the sun at this time of the year, so I set up to take the “classic” wide shot before moving on to what really intrigued me–the abstracts.

The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The photo immediately below is from the same basic angle as the image above, but omits the sky. I was standing something like 15 feet below my initial position for the photograph below.

The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Then, I went to work on some abstracts. I converted many of the ensuing images in this set to black and white, because the contours stand out better in monochrome than color. But the next group of images will be a mix of the two renditions.

The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

When we finished at The Wave, we decided to explore the wider formation that included the plateau. There are ways to get up to areas far above The Wave, but as best we could tell, they all require scrambling (i.e. the use of both hands). As we were carrying heavy packs of photo equipment and tripods, after much exploring, we decided to forego the exercise. After a couple of hours, and much hiking, we returned to the area around The Wave and spent some time working on intimate abstract compositions.

The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We slowly made our way back towards the Second Wave. We stopped at a couple of spots, that caught our eyes, prior.

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

When we arrived back at the Second Wave, it was a revelation; the scene was dramatically different looking than it had been that morning. Now, early in the evening, the formation was bathed in direct low-angular light. We had no more than 15 minutes–and probably not even that–before the sun dropped below a ridge and the entire scene would be in full shadow, so we had an incentive to work quickly. As was the case on our first visit, we had to work cooperatively to avoid getting in one another’s way, but it was even more difficult now because of the long shadows our bodies and tripods cast over the scene.

I rendered each of the small number of images I made here–save one–in both color and monochrome and will present both renditions.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

While Jason was working a wide scene, I found an area of rippled, glowing rock and managed to find time to tease out a couple of intimates.

The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Intimate Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Intimate Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Before we departed the area, I produced one final image, from up on the ridge above the Second Wave, as the shadow from across the canyon slowly spread across the formation.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I wished there had been more time as I’d already identified several compositions, visible from up on the ridge, that I would have liked to render, but the light was disappearing before our eyes.

We had entertained some thoughts about staying out until sunset, but there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all day and we still had a 3 1/2 mile hike (actually more like four miles from the Second Wave) to get back to the trailhead. Doing that in the dark seemed…unwise…so, we kind of high-tailed it back toward The Wave, down the sand dune and across the slick rock, keeping our eyes on the relevant physical formations to guide us. We had, best guess, no more than 30 minutes until the sun would officially set.

We made good time and make no wrong turns. We were hiking the final stretch–a dry wash–as the last ambient light was fading, but we saw the headlights from a vehicle on House Rock Valley Road ahead of us, so we knew we were very close and on the right track. We emerged onto the road in the twilight.

We decided–rightly, I think–that rather than spend another extremely cold night camping, to drive back to Kanab and get a nice, warm hotel room. Our plan had us driving to Death Valley the following day anyway, so there was absolutely no reason to camp. So that’s what we did.

Our adventures in Death Valley National Park would begin the following day and will be the subject of the next installment in this series.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 6, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Oregon Coast Sunset

I have complained at length, on this blog and elsewhere, about my experience with the marine layer on the Pacific Coast during my time in Washington and Oregon in 2009–the year I began this blog. When I returned to the Oregon Coast in the spring of 2015, it was with the hope that things would be different, because I hoped to do some seaside sunset shooting and, for the most part, the marine layer squashes sunsets. I largely got my wish, though the mere absence of a heavy marine layer doesn’t, by itself, guarantee good sunset conditions. But on one evening in May, 2015, everything came together.

During one of my extensive scouting sessions during the harsh light hours early on the trip, I made the descent from the elevated Coast Highway all the way down to China Creek Beach, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, roughly halfway between Gold Beach and Brookings. The short version of the story once I got there is, I liked what I saw. A long, empty beach (there was no one else there; perhaps people were dissuaded by the approximate 15 minute hike to the sand?), seastacks offshore, a tallish cliff, marking the cove’s edge, to the south and China Creek itself, emptying, as so many waterways on the Pacific Coast do, directly into the ocean. This was a place worth coming back to, on an evening when a sunset seemed promising.

There’s some irony involved in the story behind this image because it was the presence of the marine layer that led me to make the trip to China Creek Beach at sunset one evening. Allow me to explain.

I had made a trip to Bandon Beach–roughly an hour north of China Creek–for sunset. I’d had a successful shoot there the evening before and returned for another opportunity, partly because I’d spent the latter half of the afternoon nearby. But the marine layer had rolled in late that afternoon–I’d seen this before. I made the short drive up to Bandon, just to be sure, but I was almost certain that I’d see heavy coastal fog there and, sure enough, I did. There would be no sunset at Bandon that evening, I concluded.

But my experience on the coast in 2009 had taught me something: not infrequently, a trip south, in the direction of Port Orford (and beyond), would reveal a thinning, and eventually, disappearing marine layer. There was something about the contour of the coast, I surmised, that left the marine layer hanging right on the beach at Bandon but offshore at Port Orford….and more or less not even extant as one moved further south, closer and closer to Brookings and the California state line. Whatever the explanation, I was determined to see if I my assumption was correct. I jumped back in the car and headed south. I had about two hours until sunset; that would be plenty of time to get to China Creek Beach if I turned out to be right about the marine layer.

By the time I got to Port Orford I could see that the expected trend was playing out. I could still glimpse the marine layer, but the sun was shining brightly there. And as I looked to the southwest, I saw partly cloudy conditions, and not a hint of the marine layer. Perfect!

I drove the rest of the way to the China Creek Beach trailhead, quickly gathered my things, making sure I had my headlamp and flashlight as an expected return to the car in the pitch dark was hopefully in the offing. (If the post-sunset glow was nice, it would be good and dark before I started back on the heavily forested trail.)

I got down to the beach with about 45 minutes until the sun went down and things looked just about ideal. There were some–not too many–clouds to the west; the wind was light; I had the beach entirely to myself; and the marine layer was nowhere to be seen.

While I was waiting for the sun to sink closer to the horizon, I noticed just how strong the reflections were on the wet sand near where China Creek emptied into the Pacific. I’d seen just how vivid these reflections could be at Bandon the previous evening and I planned to make use of the phenomenon again. And so I did.

China Creek Beach Sunset, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

There was still some ambient light on the beach when I packed up and headed out, but that disappeared completely when I entered the thick woods on the trail. It was a bit of a spooky hike back to the car, but I made it without incident, thanks to my trusty headlamp. And I did so with the satisfaction that I’d finally been able to scratch my Pacific Coast sunset itch, which had been six years in the making.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 29, 2022

Return to the Desert: Cottonwood Cove

On the first full day of this trip, I was aroused by the alarm on my phone in the freezing cold of our rented SUV’s interior. It was still dark and very cold, and there was a pretty strong incentive not to emerge from the relative warmth of the sleeping bag. But we had come on this trip to photograph, so I slipped out of the bag, found my hiking boots and got them on, then emerged from the cold car into the even colder outdoors. I called to Jason through the tent and as soon as I was certain he was awake I retreated to the car to get my backpack and tripod, as well as some food and water as I figured we’d be out until at least midday.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Cottonwood Cove section of Coyote Buttes North is a designated wilderness area. That means, among other things, that there are no maintained trails. As we climbed a sandy dune area into the cove, we followed some footprints that had probably been there for a week or more, made by earlier visitors. We had no predetermined spot set for a sunrise shoot. Jason had a vague idea of where to go, based on his previous experience at Cottonwood Cove, but since that previous experience consisted of exactly one day several years prior, “vague” is probably understating the case.

The light was coming up, slowly, as we trudged along. Given how cold it was–almost certainly still well below 20 degrees (F)–it actually felt good to move around and we hiked for something like 20 minutes before finally settling on a spot that amounted to an overlook. With a completely clear sky, the sunrise was going to be only so enticing.

I set myself up on a ledge of slick rock, overlooking a series of tent-shaped rock formations. As the sun came up, the southeast-facing sides of the rock formations started to light up and I captured the scene while shivering through my clothing. Fortunately, there was virtually no wind–it would have been unbearable if the wind had been blowing at any level of consequence–but it was still extremely chilly.

This was the only image I made at sunrise, and I wasn’t particularly enthralled with it, but I had reason to hope that the photo opportunities would improve as the day moved along.

Cottonwood Cove, Sunrise, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

`It already felt modestly warmer when we decided to move on from our sunrise spot. With no trails and little preconceived idea of where to go, we just kind of wandered around as the topography allowed. Deep canyons, with occasional accompanying sheer drop-offs, were quite constricting in terms of the routes we could take, so had to watch our step.

We reached a spot overlooking a canyon. I was intrigued by the colorful abstract patterns, illuminated by reflected light, on the canyon walls, probably a quarter of a mile or more across the expanse. I pulled out my telephoto lens and captured the scene. For scale, the dark objects dotting parts of the frame are stunted trees, roughly 6-8 feet in height.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Abstracts were, to a greater or lesser extent, the name of the game in Cottonwood Cove. While I often render abstract scenes in black and white–and I did so again, on a few occasions, on this day–color was a critical component of many of the images made while we were in the Cove.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Reflected light pulled out the pinks, purples, reds and yellows embedded in the rocky surfaces that surrounded us. The lines and striations were an added bonus.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Now and again, bits and pieces of vegetation served as compositional accents.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Intimate scenes not only weren’t neglected, they were arguably the highlight of the day’s session.

Lichen Intimate, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Care was taken not to tread heavily on any of the fins, lest they crumble underneath our feet. We saw plenty of evidence that others had not been so cautious.

The lines, shapes and colors of the rock were endlessly fascinating.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Some of the intimate spots we discovered lent themselves to compositions procured from various angles and with a broad array of focal lengths.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Some spots that we stumbled upon represented a kaleidoscope of colors.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Though we were wandering around with little direct purpose, we had no concern about finding our way back to the spot where the tent was pitched as I had brought my handheld GPS with me and had marked where the car was parked. This approach had saved our bacon at Coyote Gulch the previous year and so we implemented the process again on this day, without hesitation. It was nice to know that we had the GPS in our back pocket, figuratively and literally.

At one point, early in the afternoon, we found ourselves overlooking another canyon–that we dubbed “Rainbow Cove.” On the wall, far away and somewhat below us, we saw an absolutely fascinating colorful wall, which had the ambience of an abstract mural. Serendipitously, it was in even light–open shade. I wandered out to a ledge and, at 400 mm, produced the set of images that you see below.

Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I was thrilled with what I was able to capture, but Jason, who had no lens nearly long enough to produce anything comparable, appeared to be out of luck. The spot I had descended to was as close as we could get to the wall from where we were.

I felt bad about this and perhaps it inspired me to examine the area more closely. Following the line of the canyon rim, I thought we might be able to get much nearer to the wall. I wasn’t certain, but I thought it was worth a look. I made the suggestion to Jason and he seemed ambivalent about making the trip but when I pressed him it became clear that he was concerned that we’d be wasting my time if we made the exploration, since I had already been able to photograph the wall. After all, if we spent time doing this, it would be time we wouldn’t be checking out something else. While I appreciated the selfless thought on his part, I said “nonsense.” I wanted him to have the opportunity to photograph the wall–it was clear that he wanted to do so. Besides, I said, if we could reach a close perspective, there would almost certainly be compositions that I’d discover that I hadn’t been able to see from a distance. Once he was sure I didn’t mind, Jason eagerly agreed to the exploration of the route that I thought might provide us access to a ledge I’d spotted that saw was more or less directly in front of the wall.

We hiked along the rim for roughly a half-mile and, sure enough, when we rounded a bend we could see a route that would allow us to climb down to a ledge that would give us a terrific vantage point from which we could photograph the wall. We made several stops on the ledge; it turned out to be a great opportunity.

Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We were both pretty pleased with what he’d been able to do in Rainbow Cove and we agreed that we should head back to the campsite, to refill our water bottles and pick up some additional supplies before heading back out for the late afternoon and sunset. So that’s what we did.

The process was pretty simple. We actually recognized much of the terrain we needed to traverse and consulted the GPS only a time or two, just to make sure we were heading in the right direction. We did what we needed to do back at the campsite and, in short order, plunged back into Cottonwood Cove.

We returned to several spots that we had scouted earlier in the day–mostly places that Jason had found when he had visited the area a few years earlier.

Half Rock, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove Black & White, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

From an extremely cold morning, a very pleasant day had emerged. Winds were light to non-existent and it was quite comfortable. We had ditched our jackets, gloves and winter hats by mid-morning.

The light was improving by the minute and we hastened to take advantage of it as we made a kind of giant circle in our travels.

Control Tower, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove Black & White, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Half Rock, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

As the sun went down we found ourselves adjacent to the formation dubbed Half Rock, for the third time that day. Just across a rocky expanse was another formation that I thought would work for the post-sunset glow. A few clouds had drifted into the sky above the formation, so I set up, with a pothole in the foreground to my left, and waited until the modest dusky glow reached its peak.

Cottonwood Cove Sunset, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

That was the final image of the day. We weren’t far from our campsite–a half-mile at most, over a well-known quasi-path that we’d trod multiple times already. I packed up my gear and pulled out my headlamp, just in case it got dark before we returned. Our plan was to drive out of the Cove that evening. It would be in the pitch dark, but we’d driven the road on the way in and felt it would be no trouble to navigate. The plan was to stay at Stateline Campground that night, back on House Rock Valley Road. This was only a short distance from the trailhead to The Wave, where we’d be hiking before first light the next morning. It would mean setting the tent up in the dark, but the campground had actual campsites and there was reason to believe it wouldn’t be as cold there, as the elevation was significantly lower than Cottonwood Cove.

It had already cooled off considerably–it was another reminder (as if we needed one) of just how quickly the temperature changes in these desert environs–so I pulled out my gloves…and could only find one. I looked all around me on the ground, in all of my pockets, in my backpack…the second glove was nowhere to be found. I groaned. At some point during the day, somewhere, presumably the glove had fallen out of my pocket. I’d had it that morning, of course, but I’d taken the gloves off within an hour or so of sunrise and never put them back on. Now it was gone, and we were facing the likelihood of another frigid night and a very cold morning’s hike with me having nothing to cover one hand. And the thought of even trying to backtrack to all the places we’d been that day was an utter non-starter. We’d never be able to retrace our steps. Besides, it was about to get dark.

Jason said we should keep our eyes peeled on the hike back. I agreed, but I knew that there was almost no chance that we’d find that glove. The odds of my having dropped it on this one particular stretch (it would have had to have happened when we hiked out for our final shoot) and, if that even happened, of us seeing it in the gathering darkness, was minuscule.

I looked, of course, but it was half-hearted. We were almost back to the campsite–there was almost no ambient light at all–and I was running through my head how I’d be able to deal with things without that glove when Jason, who was walking ahead of me, turned around and flipped something at me. I caught it, instinctively….it was the missing glove. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently it had, indeed, fallen out of my pocket earlier–on the way back out to the Cove, surely. Jason had spotted it right there, reached down and picked it up and…you know the rest.

Knowing that I’d have two gloves made me feel a lot better and it definitely eased the rather lengthy trip out of Coyote Buttes North, back to House Rock Valley Road, and to the campground. There we pitched the tent…and promptly resumed the previous night’s m.o. Though it wasn’t as cold at Stateline Campground as it had been up at the Cove the previous evening, it was still plenty chilly–about 20 degrees F (and it surely dropped lower overnight). Jason slept in the tent with both zero degree sleeping bags and I took up residence in the back of the SUV with the two 20-degree bags.

We needed a good night’s sleep as we were headed to The Wave the following morning…

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 22, 2022

“The Wave”: The Backstory

In my previous installment in this series, I provided a broad introduction to this past winter’s trip to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Death Valley National Park. This installment will detail the experience traveling from the Midwest to Las Vegas and the lottery process for “The Wave.” There will be very little imagery in this post; I will make up for that in the installment that follows.

The trip started with significant travel problems.  A snowstorm hit a huge portion of the mid-section of the United States on the day that I was supposed to fly from Chicago to Las Vegas.  The storm was not unexpected, and in the days leading up to the date of departure, Jason and I had discussed what we were going to do if there was a massive travel mishap for either one of us.  I say either one because Jason, who was planning to drive from Colorado Springs to Kanab, Utah, was facing the prospect of crossing the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm.  Ultimately, we basically crossed our fingers and hoped.

I received updates from United Airlines, my carrier for the flight, through the day telling me that there would be delays and suggesting, not very subtly, that I consider rebooking on another flight.  The problem was, if I didn’t arrive on the scheduled day, I was facing all kinds of logistical issues, like having to rebook a rental vehicle and losing the cost of a night’s lodging.  So, I went to the airport and tried to think optimistic thoughts. 

On the drive to O’Hare, I received a text from United telling me that the flight had been delayed—but not canceled.  At least not yet.  I decided to chance it and continued to the airport through a steady snowfall.  Traffic was bad, but not totally impossible.

When I arrived at O’Hare and got myself inside, I was astonished at what I saw…or didn’t see.  The place was a ghost town.  I have been inside the United terminal at O’Hare hundreds of times over the years and I have never, ever seen it like it was that afternoon.  When I checked the flight departure board, I saw why:  at least ¾ of the day’s flights had already been canceled.  There was no arrival board, but I’m sure at least that many incoming flights had been killed for the day as well.  My flight was still shown as delayed—with a projected flight time, a couple of hours later than originally scheduled.  I had a bag to check, but didn’t want to do so until I was confident that the flight would actually go out at some point, because I feared the process of trying to reclaim my bag if the flight was axed.  I also, briefly, considered what I’d do to get home if the flight was canceled.  I had no brilliant ideas.

I hung around the virtually empty terminal.  I received at least four updates from United—all rescheduling the flight again.  At one point they suggested that it would leave roughly five hours after it was originally scheduled, but that was later revised to an earlier time.  The issue, I ultimately discovered, dealt with the plane.  Basically, there wasn’t one.  Unless a flight came in from—of all places—Miami, there was no craft.  And that Miami to Chicago flight kept being delayed (but not canceled).  I decided that, once I was certain that the flight from Miami was in the air, I would check my bag.  Monitoring the situation on the United app on my phone, I finally got that confirmation at something like 4 PM—about 2 ½ hours after I arrived at O’Hare.  I went ahead and checked my bag.  There was no line.  There was no line at security either (I have TSA Precheck, but it wouldn’t have mattered in this day).  There was almost no one in the gate part of the terminal either.  Most of the concessions were closed—employees had either been unable to get to work that day due to the weather or had been told to stay home since there would be little business. 

After a wait of roughly two hours at the gate—the crew for the outgoing flight was there, which made me feel just about certain that the plane would eventually leave—the Miami flight came in.  About a dozen passengers straggled off.  I figured that this was just the start of the usual deplaning, but shortly after the first group of passengers came off, the entire flight crew did as well.  Knowing that the flight crew doesn’t leave the plane until all of the passengers are off, I realized that a nearly empty plane had arrived from Miami.

We boarded.  It became clear pretty quickly that, while this plane wasn’t anything like empty, it wasn’t remotely close to being full, either.  It’s been ages since I was on a plane anywhere near as empty as this one—it was half full, perhaps a tad more.  A flight attendant came down the aisle after the door was closed and asked if anyone wanted to move because there was plenty of room elsewhere.  I had an entire bank of seats to myself.  The captain addressed the cabin before push back, apologizing for all the delays, and told us that there would be one more; the plane needed to be deiced.  That would add at least another 20 minutes before we left, but it had to be done.

The flight from Chicago to Las Vegas takes nearly four hours, and we didn’t get off the ground until at least 7 PM Chicago time (roughly 4 ½ hours after the scheduled departure).  By picking up two time zone hours, we arrived in Las Vegas around 9 PM local time.  I had to claim baggage and then go through an absurd process to pick up my rental car, which I will not recount in detail in an attempt to retain my sanity.  Suffice to say that, by the time I arrived at the hotel I was staying at that evening, it was nearly 11 PM Pacific Time (that would be 1 AM back In Chicago).  I hadn’t eaten anything, at that point, in something like 12 hours.  I will not detail the experience of getting something to eat, either.

Fortunately, I had all day the following day to make the drive to Kanab, which is about 3 ½ hours from Las Vegas.  The drive, I’m happy to report, was uneventful, and I arrived there mid-afternoon.  Jason had needed to postpone his departure by at least 12 hours to give road crews time to clear the high mountain passes on I-70 in Colorado, but he eventually texted me that he was on his way.  He hoped he’d be able to make it without stopping, but if he did, it would be probably 2 AM, or later.  I told him not to hurry.

We actually did have something going on the following day.  That was dealing with the lottery for a permit to visit The Wave.  Let me explain.  The Wave is a unique rock formation in a permit-restricted area located in the Coyote Buttes North (CBN) section of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, just south of the border with Utah.  Many of you reading this have surely heard of this feature as it’s one of the world’s most iconic natural features.  People come from all over the globe to see “The Wave.”  The area is under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Because there is so much interest in The Wave, the BLM imposed permit limitations many years ago, in an attempt to preserve the area.  An online lottery system was put into place, with limited entry allowed.  The demand for this online lottery so exceeds the supply of daily permits that the odds of winning a permit via the online lottery are extremely low.  But there is another crack at the lottery…or, to be accurate, there was another crack at the lottery.  (The BLM has, relatively recently, eliminated this “second crack” that I’m about to describe.  When we made our plans to visit the area—our trip was in the first half of February, 2022–we did not know that the system I’m about to describe was about to become extinct.)  The deal was that there was a “walk-in” permit drawing, held at a site in Kanab, awarding permits for the following day.  So, if you were there on a Monday, you could enter this walk-in lottery that morning for a permit applicble for Tuesday.  During most of the year, these walk-in lotteries were held every day, but for a few months in the winter, the drawings were only held Monday through Friday.  On Friday during these winter months, a drawing was held for permits for the following three days—Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  If you’re thinking that, if you have any flexibility at all, you get the biggest bang for the buck by entering a Friday walk-in lottery drawing during the winter months, you’re dead on.  At least you used to be, as this process has, as I mentioned above, disappeared entirely.

Jason, having been to the Wave once, several years prior, knew all about the ins and outs of the drawings, so it was no accident that our plan involved being in Kanab, in the winter, for a Friday morning drawing.  Typically, a few dozen groups of people showed up for the Friday drawing at that time of year.  When we were there, the limit was up to four groups of people or a total of 16 people for each day, whichever comes first.  What Jason told me, based on his experience, was that many of the people who show up on Friday aren’t prepared to take any of the three days when they might win a spot; they were hoping for one specific day of the three.  The Friday walk-in drawing—which is literally done using a bingo wheel with numbered balls—is done chronologically.  The permits for Saturday are done first, then Sunday, etc.  You don’t have a choice of which day—you either take the permit for the day drawn when offered, or your number goes back in the wheel and another ball is drawn.

When we were there, the drawing had been moved from the joint Park Service/BLM visitor center to a public meeting location in town, to provide more space during the age of COVID.

While I was on my own Thursday afternoon, the day I arrived in Kanab, I took a drive—Kanab is a very small town—and found the drawing site.  I had spoken to Jason while he was driving from Colorado Springs, and it was understood that if he couldn’t make it in one night, I would go to the lottery site and enter the drawing for both of us.

On Friday morning, I was up in plenty of time for the 9 AM drawing.  Jason contacted me…he’d made it to Kanab in the middle of the night and had crashed in one of the local motels and managed to get about four hours of sleep.  I told him I could handle the drawing myself, but he said he’d meet me there.  I went early and was the second car In the parking lot.  Slowly but surely more people showed up.  The building was not yet open.  Eventually, I saw someone open a door to the site and very shortly after that Jason arrived.  We exchanged greetings and made our way into the center.  Roughly 35 groups/individuals entered the lottery, including us.  As is my wont, I immediately figured the approximate odds of us winning one of the spots—it had to be approximate, because there was no way to know exactly how many people were in each group or what percentage of the groups present were willing to accept any day offered.  If I’d known those things, I would have calculated the odds exactly.  (It’s what I do.)

The lottery started.  The bingo wheel was spun and a ball was withdrawn.  The number on it wasn’t ours.  When people had their numbers drawn, they were asked whether they would accept the permit for that day.  If they said yes, most of the people assembled applauded.  I’m not kidding, that’s how valued these permits are.

We proceeded through Saturday’s offerings, and all five permits were offered and, eventually, accepted.  Several people turned the permits down, apparently hoping for either Sunday or Monday.  When Saturday was completed, a significant minority of the remaining people got up and left.  Jason had told me this would happen; these were folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t stick around for Sunday or Monday.  There were fewer permits available now, but our odds were almost certainly better now than they had been at the start. 

The Sunday drawing started.  A ball was drawn and, again, it wasn’t ours.  Another ball was drawn and the number this time matched ours!  We indicated that we held the application number matching the ball.  Did we accept the permit?  Yes, we both said, rather loudly.  The audience cheered.  We had won a permit to The Wave on Sunday!

The settling up and actual issuing of the permits took place at the end of the lottery.  Eventually, all of the permits were spoken for and the lottery ended.  A fairly large number of those in attendance left empty-handed and, presumably, disappointed.  We had been lucky.

We paid our fee and got our permit.  It was technically in my name and I tied it on to my backpack.  We had to be prepared, on Sunday, to prove we belonged in the area in case anyone from the BLM was checking—something that apparently happens quite frequently.  We were then given a brief orientation about CBN.  We were told, for instance, that there was no truly marked trail from the parking area to The Wave, but that were a few modest trail markers and some landmarks we could use to make the 3 ½ mile (one way) hike.  We were told that the hike was “moderate” in difficulty, that we needed to be sure to bring plenty of water, food and sunscreen with us, and that we really needed to be back at the trailhead by dark.  There was no hard and fast rule that required us to be out of the area by dark, but we were told it was in our best interests to do so since,“by far,” the biggest problem in terms of search and rescue at CBN was represented by people staying out too long and getting lost in the dark trying to find their way back to the parking area.

Sunday was now accounted for.  In the meantime, we had Saturday to fill.  Our plan had been to visit another permit-restricted area—Cottonwood Cove, by name—in the Coyote Buttes South (CBS) part of Vermillion Cliffs.  While CBS, a designated wilderness area, requires a permit, demand for these permits is minimal.  Jason told me that, unlike The Wave, we’d have no problem securing a permit for CBS.  He was right.  All we needed to do was fork over the required fee and we had a permit for CBS for Saturday.  We decided that we’d head up to Cottonwood Cove—the primitive roads need to be taken slowly and a four-wheel drive vehicle is a must, as it was for our foray into the nearby White Pocket section of Vermillion Cliffs the previous spring.  It was late morning by the time we were done at the center.  We went back to our respective hotels and checked out.  The drive to the access to the Vermillion Cliffs back country (a usually decently graded unpaved thoroughfare known as House Rock Valley Road), is about an hour’s drive from Kanab.  From there, it’s another 90 minutes or so on some very confusing unmaintained 4WD roads to Cottonwood Cove.  The point is, there was no practical way to stay in Kanab and spend time at Cottonwood Cove.  We were going to have to camp (we knew this), as we did at White Pocket, and Jason had brought all of the same camping gear we used during our Utah trip in the spring of 2021.

We drove our vehicles to House Rock Valley Road.  At a spot along the road, just off the main highway, there is a large parking area.  We moved all the camping gear, and everything else Jason had brought that he’d need for the next couple of days, from his Toyota Prius into the large SUV I had rented. Jason locked his car and we piled into the SUV, and made the drive to Cottonwood Cove, carefully following a map that we had of the monument’s road system.  We arrived at Cottonwood Cove about 2 ½ hours before sunset.  There was no one there.

We poked around and found what we thought would make a suitable campsite (this was a dispersed camping situation) and I assisted Jason as he set up the tent.  When we were done, there was perhaps an hour and-a-half minutes until sunset. We technically weren’t permitted to hit the Cottonwood Cove area until the next day, so we decided to explore the non-permit-restricted adjoining area for a little while, until it got dark.  That didn’t take long.  I pulled the camera out once during this time, and the image I produced—the very first image I made with my newly acquired 100-400 mm Z lens—is below.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Though it was cloudless, it got dark quickly.  It also got cold quickly.  Cottonwood Cove is more than 5000 feet above sea level and, while the temperature was cool (probably not even 40 degrees F in the shade) while the sun was out, it became downright cold very quickly thereafter.  It was pitch dark by 7 PM and we weren’t anywhere near ready to go to sleep quite yet.  We also didn’t much feel like sitting outside, so we retreated to the car.  I turned on the ignition and ran the heater periodically, to keep things pleasant, and we watched as the car’s thermometer dropped.  It wasn’t long before it dropped below 20 degrees (F).  This was becoming worrisome.  We had two zero-degree sleeping bags and two 20-degree sleeping bags but how cold was it going to get, and how well were we going to be able to tolerate being out in it?

Eventually, we decided what to do.  Jason was going to sleep in the tent, but he’d have one zero-degree bag stuffed inside the other, while sleeping on a low cot, to keep him off the ground.  I’d sleep (or try to) in the back of the vehicle (with the back seat down, I could stretch out).  I’d have the two 20-degree bags.  I used one as a pad and climbed inside the other.  My job was to set my phone’s alarm so we could get up early enough to be out and about to photograph sunrise the following morning.

It was brutally cold in the car—I can only imagine how bad it was outside.  (We estimated it dropped to at least 12 degrees—very possibly lower—overnight.)  I kept all of my clothing—thermal long underwear, top and bottom, heavy wool socks, and a winter hat, as well as a mid-weight lined jacket and gloves on my hands—on the entire time.  The only things I took off were my shoes.  And I was still cold, at least at first.  But eventually, after I managed to settle my feet, I discovered that if I zipped the sleeping bag all the way up, it was possible to stay comfortable.  Eventually, I fell asleep.

The alarm woke me about an hour before sunrise.  It had become so cold in the car that the water bottles we had filled had frozen solid.  I carefully got myself out of the car—it was still almost completely dark—and roused Jason in the tent.  He had done okay—the two bags had been enough.  We slogged our way into Cottonwood Cove and tried to stay warm while we looked for a suitable sunrise location, as the light—and eventually the temperature—gradually rose. 

I will detail our day at Cottonwood Cove in the next installment.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 15, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Sun Catcher

On my first trip to the Canadian Rockies, in the fall of 2014, I spent the second half of my time in the region on a photo tour of the eastern front range of the mountains. It was a great experience, which you can read about here, if you’re so inclined.

One chilly morning during the tour, we were photographing sunrise over Abraham Lake from a rocky outcropping, just south of Highway 11 in Alberta. There had been some light snow overnight–heavier at the higher elevations, making for a nice, fresh dusting–and I positioned myself in such a way to, with a wide-angle lens, include some lichen-covered rocks in the foreground, a splash of aspen color in the mid-ground, and the lake, mountain and a nice sunrise sky, in the background.

Abraham Lake at Sunrise, David Thompson Country, Alberta

I was quite satisfied with what I was capturing, but there’s an old maxim that suggests that, when photographing in a relatively open locale, you should always look behind you, so…I did. And my jaw dropped. Behind me, to the west, the east-facing side of Elliot Peak, a 9400-plus-foot mountain, was bathed in the first golden light of the day.

I wanted a telephoto portrait, not a wide-angle, because I wanted the sun catcher to dominate the frame, something that wouldn’t happen if the peak was a tiny object in the background. What’s more, I knew I had to hustle. The sunlight was squeezing through a break in the cloud bank, so it was now or never; if I was lucky, this image would be extant for another 60 seconds. I removed the camera that was on my tripod, reached into my camera bag and pulled out my second camera, with the telephoto zoom lens mounted on it, quickly affixed the new rig to the tripod head and tightened it down. Then I swung the tripod around and quickly metered the scene (spot meter on the brightest part of the sunlit peak), adjusted aperture and shutter speed giving myself roughly a stop-and-a-half above the metered reading, fine-tuned the composition and made sure that everything was stable…then tripped the shutter.

Elliot Peak at Sunrise, David Thompson Country, Alberta

This case study has come up several times in previous blog entries, discussing the advantages of carrying two cameras, with different lenses mounted on each body, in the field. Certainly, the second image wouldn’t have come to fruition without the second camera/lens immediately at hand. No more than 30 seconds after the Elliot Peak photograph was made, a cloud drifted in front of the sun and that was that.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 9, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Bluebonnet Farm

It was a poor wildflower season in south Texas this past spring, largely due to an ongoing drought that has plagued the region for some time. As a result, finding good locations to photograph bluebonnets (and Indian paintbrush) between Houston and Austin was a challenge.

I spent a day in and around Brenham, in Washington County, during the wildflower bloom in 2021 and found some decent spots, but a return to the area this year was much more challenging. While I discovered several impressive fields of flowers, bucking the trend of the season, most of these spots didn’t make for good “flowerscapes” (as I refer to broader scenics where flowers are a prominent element). There was always something wrong. The vast majority of these scenes are on private property, usually fenced, which makes it difficult to get into place to optimize photographic opportunities. And most of these fields also had truly unappealing backgrounds. Either there was no real background at all, due to the placement of flowers on slopes, or the backgrounds were littered with unappealing elements, such as utility poles and power lines. It was a frustrating experience.

I had been made aware of one location that sounded very promising–actually located in neighboring Austin County, way off the beaten track. When I first tried to find the location–I was given GPS coordinates–I simply couldn’t. I looked and I looked but where I was told that there was a large field of bluebonnets…it wasn’t there. Discouraged, I drove the nearly two hours back home to the Houston area never having so much as removed my camera from my bag. In addition to the less-than-exciting locations, the weather on the day of the scouting session was uncooperative–blue skies and windy. Had the spots been more interesting, I would have waited for the golden hour and hoped that the breeze calmed down, but the scenes I had found had been so uninspiring I didn’t bother. Perhaps I’d been spoiled by the bluebonnet scenes I’d experienced in Ellis County the previous year. Whatever the reason, it had been a supremely disappointing day.

After I returned home, I contacted the person who had provided the location information and we discovered that he’d given me the wrong coordinates. I was provided with a corrected set of coordinates, a copious description of how to get there and an assurance that it would be worth a return trip. I planned to head back to this single location three days later, late on a Saturday afternoon. The forecast was for partly cloudy conditions. It would mean a three-hour round trip, but I decided to make it. The alternative was no bluebonnet photography that spring at all, since I wouldn’t have the chance to head up to Ennis.

The forecast for Saturday proved wrong. There was some partial cloudiness in the morning, but by mid-afternoon it was clear as a bell (and would remain that way for the rest of the day). It was, however, almost windless, so I decided to make the trip, leaving at about 4:30 PM with the expectation of arriving on scene at about 6, just as the light would be getting good.

When I arrived, I saw what the fuss was all about. There was a field of wildflowers–bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. It wasn’t the most magnificent or densest collection of flowers I’d ever seen; not by a long shot. But it was nice. And the backdrop was better than nice. A dilapidated old barn, surrounded by trees in the early stages of spring greenery. I still had, I estimated, 30 to 45 minutes before the light would be at its most sublime, so I moved down the country road a half-mile or so, to check out another field of bluebonnets. This was a much denser field, but without the idyllic backdrop.

I produced a few images at the second location, but I was mostly just killing time. After 20 minutes or so, I returned to the field in front of the barn. The property was deserted, but it was clearly privately owned, so I stayed along the roadside. That was fine, because there was no fence to deal with and clusters of wildflowers encroached on the shoulder of the road; I didn’t need to wander into the field to find pleasing compositions.

Setting my tripod up very low to the ground, I fine-tuned my compositions. I made, all told, something like eight images. The photograph below–the product of a six-image stack, as I was just inches away from the nearest subjects, making depth of field an issue (good thing there wasn’t a whiff of a breeze, as executing the stacks took some time)–is emblematic of the opportunities that were available.

In the final analysis, I was glad I made the return trip. The images made that evening were the only ones I produced in Texas this spring.

Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush, Austin County, Texas
Posted by: kerryl29 | August 1, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Androscoggin River Fog

Six years ago this autumn I spent a couple of weeks in northern New England. The first third of the trip was based at a location I hadn’t previously visited and knew relatively little about prior to my arrival–northwest Maine. I arrived, following a two-day drive from the Midwest, in the tiny hamlet of Rumford Center mid-afternoon on a Sunday. At the family-owned motel where I was staying, I had a pleasant conversation with the proprietor who, after I explained why I was there, gave me some location suggestions and also mentioned that I was free to photograph anywhere on the property, which was located on the banks of the Androscoggin River.

After an unusually warm September up to that point (I arrived on Sept. 25) the previous night had seen temperatures drop to freezing and it was expected to be even colder heading into the 26th. Early morning would certainly include river mist. I didn’t need any more information to settle on the decision to photograph along the motel’s river bank first thing the following morning.

(I have discussed the subject of fog and its relevance to landscape photography on a number of occasions during the history of this blog, most extensively here, but here as well, and I recommend both of these posts if you want to read about the subject in some depth.)

When I got up and out in the pre-dawn darkness the following morning–the light was just starting to come up–it was cold. The air temperature was something like 28 degrees (F); there was frost all over the grass. As I made my way down to the river bank–it was a short walk, perhaps a couple of hundred feet, from my room–I glanced around and the impact of the river fog was palpable. I had to decide how best to work with it.

Though this was a river–not a lake or a pond–the water was so slow-moving that excellent reflections were available. I made some images, but I felt that, given the broad expanse across this wide river, I would need the fog to thin a bit, allowing the wider scene to reveal itself in part, before the full ambiance of the setting would be felt. And that would happen, I was confident, as the sun came up.

Sure enough, in relatively short order, the river mist began to thin. Above the cloud bank, a partly cloudy sky, with subtle coloring, showed itself. And as the lower fog bank thinned out as well, the treeline on the far side of the river and the contour of the hills in the background could be discerned.

I went to work. I decided that I wanted some semblance of a foreground, to create a sense of depth. There weren’t a lot of great options–believe, me I looked–but I settled on the tall grasses in the lower left hand corner. There was no wind, so shutter speed wasn’t a concern. Liking the cloud pattern, I placed the horizon line about 3/5 of the way from the top of the frame and let the reflections, and my foreground elements, fill in the bottom 40%. The background convergence, where the treeline on the right meets the hillside (in reality, the river bends between the two), with the fog/cloud accent, was deliberately placed left of center in the frame.

Androscoggin River at Daybreak, Oxford County, Maine

To view a larger rendition of this image, go here. Be sure to click on the image in the new window to see full frame version.

To see thumbnails of other images from this location made on the same morning, go here.

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