Posted by: kerryl29 | September 14, 2020

The Story Behind the Image: New Faces in Familiar Places

When I last visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in October of 2013 it was my fifth trip there in the fall since 2002.  I spent a significant amount of time visiting my old haunts in the Hiawatha National Forest and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, but I also made a point of checking out some new locations, like Tahquemenon Falls State Park and Whitefish Falls.  Another location I investigated for the first time was the Grand Sable Lake area of Pictured Rocks, in the far eastern part of the Lakeshore.  It was a partly cloudy, breezy afternoon late in my trip when I ventured to the spot, just a bit south of Grand Sable Dunes and Sable Falls.

H-58, the main road through Pictured Rocks, skirts Grand Sable Lake to the north, and there’s a pull-off on the road with an overlook, which I’ve never found particularly compelling.  But if you continue on H-58 to the east, you actually leave the Lakeshore property and about a mile after doing so you intersect M-77.  Take that about half a mile south and you’ll come to Lowder Rd.  Hang a right and, in short order, you will re-enter Pictured Rocks (again, in about a mile) and shortly thereafter you’ll cross a creek, the road will bend sharply to the left and you’ll find yourself near Grand Sable Lake’s eastern shore.  There are several pull-offs that lead to areas where very interesting intimate images can be made, if the conditions are good.

But that creek…I can’t remember why–it’s been seven years, after all–but something about it caught my attention.  I don’t recall it being particularly noteworthy at a casual glance, but I do remember wandering over to it and taking a look.  The water level was quite low, but I remember seeing some very interesting reflections.  I donned my rubber boots and found a composition I liked.  I remember setting up, in the water, fine tuning the composition, which included some fallen leaves on rocks that were above water level, and then metering the scene.  I recall having a polarizing filter on my lens, partly polarized.  After I produced the shot, at something like one quarter of a second, I remember thinking that the image might well benefit from a slower shutter speed.  I stopped down to f/11, but that only bought me one stop.  I went back to my bag–which I hadn’t brought into the creek with me; it was propped along the nearby roadside–and fished out a six-stop neutral density filter.  I recalibrated my settings and messed around with different shutter speeds, before settling on a 20-second exposure, the product of which you see below.

I really liked what the extremely long shutter did to the water in this image.  I doubt it would have worked had the water level been higher or had there been any whitewater present, but the slow shutter speed really enhanced the blue-gold character of the reflections and the smoothing effect produced on the watery surface helped bring out the sharpness of the leaves and exposed rock faces.

Autumn Creek, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Perhaps I’ll be able to find a comparable scene when I return to the UP in a few weeks, in what will be my first visit there in seven years.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 8, 2020

Big Bend Day 7: Epilogue

A recounting of my last day–really, the final early morning–at Big Bend National Park will feel like a bit of an anticlimax, I’m afraid.  The weather forecast was for a cloudless daybreak, which didn’t bode well for a lengthy morning’s photography and, what’s more, I had a 600-mile drive back to the Houston area peeking over my shoulder.  So I drove into the park from Terlingua in the pitch dark, trying to figure out where to go try to take advantage of the fleeting soft, early light.  I ultimately settled, for reasons I can’t remember, on Dug Out Wells, a spot I’d visited back on Day 2.

It was a cold, windy and cloudless daybreak and, looking around, I latched on to the old windmill that still stands–and operates–at Dug Out Wells.  I wandered into the desert and found a position from which I could silhouette the windmill against the colorful sunrise sky.  I experimented with different shutter speeds with which to capture the spinning blades.

Windmill Sunrise, Dug Out Wells, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I wasn’t sure that there was going to be anything more to the shoot that morning, but as I returned to my vehicle, I looked far down the road in the vague direction of Rio Grande Village and, in the growing light of the morning, saw what appeared to be…fog?  I rubbed my eyes.  Was I really seeing what amounted to valley fog here in the Chihuahuan Desert?  As I reached the road it became clear that I was indeed seeing low-lying fog and, as the sun was rising, it was lifting…everywhere.  It reminded me of a kind of thin marine layer often seen on the Pacific coast…in a place that couldn’t be less coast-like.

As the lifting fog began to fill the sky with objects that resembled clouds, I found a spot to pull off the road and try to find some pleasing compositions.

Morning Light, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Morning Light, Big Bend National Park, Texas

What looks like clouds in these images is the aforementioned fog lifting.  Consider the difference having something other than bare blue sky makes in these images.

Morning Light, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Morning Light, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Also consider how the “clouds” are impacting the ambient light.  It was awfully, awfully sweet that morning, soft and speckled in a manner that never would have been in evidence without the lifting fog.

Morning Light, Big Bend National Park, Texas


Morning Light, Big Bend National Park, Texas

About an hour after I first clicked the shutter that morning, the fog had disappeared completely, the light grew increasingly harsh and it was time to start the long drive back to Houston.

I hope you enjoyed this “trip” to Big Bend National Park.  I was extremely impressed with the place and I hope that came through in the daily chronology.  If you missed the earlier installments, I’ve linked them below:

Intro.     Day 1     Day 2     Day 3     Day 4     Day 5 Part I     Day 5 Part II     Day 6

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 31, 2020

Smell the Roses

A recent e-mail conversation with blog reader and friend EllenK included a discussion of the virtues of taking one’s time when in the field engaged in landscape photography, which directly led to this post.

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When photographing landscapes, I don’t think there’s anything I dislike more than feeling rushed.  For me, landscape photography is a deliberate, contemplative exercise; this is an integral part of the reason why I enjoy it so much.

Make no mistake:  much of the time, when engaged in photographing landscapes, a slow pace is contraindicated.  A classic example of this sort of thing is the photographing of sunrises and sunsets.  With the light constantly changing, photographic deliberation is rarely, if ever, a part of the equation.  And, of course, there are plenty of other situations that make proceeding with circumspection a non-starter.

Foggy Morning, Swift Creek Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

But there are many landscape photography situations where speed isn’t requisite, and on those occasions I think it’s essentially axiomatic that taking one’s time usually leads to a more satisfying result.  Why is this so?

Ganoga Falls, Ganoga Glen, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

For one thing, a slower pace allows the photographer to catch errors and flaws that he/she might otherwise overlook.  For instance, taking the time to carefully examine the viewfinder (or LCD screen) may reveal an unwanted merger between two elements that can be easily corrected with a slight adjustment to the position of the camera.  Similarly an unwanted element may be noticed on the edge of a frame or a particularly near element may be revealed to be out of focus due to inadequate depth of field.  These are all things that can typically be corrected with minimal effort…but only if they’re noticed in the first place.  And discovering the flaw requires taking the time to look for it.  How many times have you returned from a photographic venture, downloaded your images and, in the process of reviewing them, said something to the effect of “if only I’d done that” or “if only I’d noticed that“?  Most of the time, what you’re really saying is “if only I’d taken the time” to look for this or that…

Battleship Rock, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

If you’re trying to work quickly, the chances of making a potentially “fatal” mistake rises, sometimes dramatically.  For instance, you might forget to reduce your ISO setting to the lowest possible level (from whatever you had it set before).  Or, you might neglect to polarize a scene that would really benefit from it.  You might not double check to make sure every element of a scene that you want in focus is.  You might even forget an entire piece of equipment that, it turns out, you want or need.  Whatever the specifics, working quickly inflates the chances of goofing up in some manner.

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Another main benefit to moving at a deliberate pace is that it naturally provides you with the opportunity to think about something other than whatever your primary focus might be.  This can cover an almost infinite number of possibilities.  You might consider a different subject altogether; you might ponder a different perspective on the subject of choice; you might try an utterly different field of view.  These are just a few examples.  The point is that not feeling rushed begets the opportunity to get creative in your thinking and regard different possibilities.  This is almost always a positive thing.

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Are there any ways to improve your chances of deliberation while photographing landscapes?  I believe there are, and here are a few of them.

Autumn Color, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Arrive Early

This is particularly relevant when photographing an event that depends on specific or approximate timing, such as sunrise/sunset, high/low tide, moonrise/moonset, the eruption of Old Faithful, etc.  The absolute last thing you want to do is find yourself scrambling around, trying to set up and looking for a strong composition while an event is unfolding.  (Don’t ask how I know this.)  Showing up early (sometimes that means, at least in part, scouting the location in advance–earlier the same day or even a day or days before) allows for the opportunity to explore different options, identify desirable and undesirable elements and run though the (formal or informal) photographic checklist that just about everyone has.  Once you’ve taken care of the necessary things, you can turn your mind over to creative exploration.

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

Don’t Take Non-photographers on Photographic Endeavors

I’ve discussed this point before.  I find it nearly impossible to truly take my time when I’m out in the field with non-photographers, even if they tell me–sincerely–not to worry and take all the time I need.  I just can’t do it; I’m hyper-conscious of the fact that someone not engaged in the practice is waiting for me.  When that happens I find myself thinking about that fact rather than what I’m doing and things fall apart quickly.  The only thing worse than this is when someone’s along for the ride and I know, in no uncertain terms, that they aren’t patiently waiting things out.  I’ve known of a few people who’ve been able to make this work, but I know of far more individuals who haven’t.  (I’ve known a few photographers over the years who’ve seen relationships fall apart following a poorly thought-out photo trip with a significant other.)  I recommend avoiding this situation like the proverbial plague.

Atlantic Afternoon, Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

Plan Ahead

It helps to have a sense of what to expect at the places you visit.  Having a known starting point can reduce the amount of chaos present upon arrival which can free up time that can be spent investigating options and fine-tuning.  So, plan ahead.  But…

Red Jack Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Don’t Overplan

I think this is worse than simply winging it.  If you build a strict itinerary you’re going to likely miss the opportunity to discover the unexpected and let a particular location reveal itself to you in its entirety.  Creating a hard list of things you’re going to do can be incredibly limiting, much like having “the shot” mentality.  If you’re only looking for one thing you’re relatively unlikely to find anything else.  If you’ve budgeted only an hour for a specific location so you can move on to the next spot (and the next, etc.), you’ve placed an artificial limit on yourself.  This doesn’t play well with the notion of slowing down and taking your time.  Now, you may decide that you don’t want to spend more than an hour at a particular location, but not wanting to and not allowing yourself to do so are very different things.

Lake Falls Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Be Properly Equipped and Know How Your Gear Works

If you take what you may need–in terms of clothing, gear and other accessories–you maximize your chances of taking your time and playing around with a variety of options.  If you’re able to remain comfortable and have the gear you need to indulge your whims, you’ll be far less likely to rush.  And if you know how what your equipment can do and how to implement its features you’re also more likely to explore your options.

White Domes Slot Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Use a Tripod

Long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised that I’ve invoked the beloved, iconic tripod.  But seriously, it’s not nearly as gratuitous a reference as it might appear.  One of the many, many benefits to using a tripod for landscape photography is….it all but forces you to slow down, and make the process more deliberate.  In fact, if you’re not already using a tripod (I will resist the urge to shame), I doubt there’s any single thing you could change that would have a more pointed positive impact on your landscape photography than to begin using one.

Evans Brook, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Maine

So, whenever possible, take your time.  You may be surprised at just how much you like the results that stem from having done so.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 24, 2020

Big Bend Day 6: The Window

My last full day at Big Bend revealed skies that would be almost totally clear from beginning to end.  This was what I had feared would be the case each day during the trip, but–fortunately–those fears proved unfounded.  Still, this one day would provide me with the opportunity to see if I could successfully deal with the Clear Sky Challenge [TM].

I drove in the pre-sunrise darkness to a spot along the main road, not far from Panther Junction, and wandered a short way into the desert.  Given the complete absence of light pollution, the starry sky was mesmerizing  It was very cold at daybreak–below freezing–and felt every bit of it.  A light breeze blew every so often and added bite to the dry air.  Though the dawn sky lacked the drama created by the clouds evident from the Mule Ears Viewpoint on Day 5, the early morning light was exquisite.

Dawn, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The earthshadow effect to the west was present, as expected on a crystal clear morning.

Earthshadow, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I crossed the road and faced the southwest where the Chisos Mountains were poised to the accept the first of the sun’s rays this day.

Dawn, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sunrise, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Popsicle-like, I returned to the welcome warmth of the vehicle’s interior and began the drive to the Basin area.  I stopped a couple of times along the way to capture the serendipitous moonset over the Chisos Mountains.  At the first spot, a long lens landscape included faces of the rocky mountain range in deep shadow.

Chisos Mountains Moonset, Big Bend National Park, Texas

My second stop, at a pullout along the road into the Basin, produced some foreground options.  Focus stacking was required for both of the below images.

Chisos Mountains Moonset, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Chisos Mountains Moonset, Big Bend National Park, Texas

When I arrived at the Basin parking lot, my plan was to hit the Window Trail.  The hike on this trail was to be my main activity for the day.  But before I began the hike, I decided to check out the short Window View Trail, which I’d first investigated on Day 2.  The main attraction to this trail is, unsurprisingly, a view of The Window–the feature I’d be hiking to later in the day.  But on this morning, the most compelling images I found didn’t involve The Window.

Moonset, Window View Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Moonset, Window View Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Moonset, Window View Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

When I finished with Window View, I hit The Window Trail (the trailheads for the two are steps away from each other).  The Window Trail is a bit less than a six-mile round trip hike, with a one-way elevation change of just under 800 feet.  That doesn’t sound too bad and it really isn’t, though the first half-mile or so is steep enough to require a series of switchbacks.  The trail descends from the Basin, below the Basin Campground, into Oak Creek Canyon, which is a beautiful spot in its own right.  I did a bit of telephoto shooting in Oak Creek Canyon on the way in and waited for the wide angle work until I made my return.

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The canyon narrows as you approach the The Window itself and when I moved down into the shaded area, before the final descent to The Window, I pulled the camera back out.

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail Intimate Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The final 1/8 of a mile or so before The Window is absolutely fascinating.  This is an extensive pour-off area and is frequently wet, with small pools of water and cascades flowing over remarkably smooth gray rock.  (The rain I experienced on Day 4 certainly contributed to the conditions when I was there.)  By the time I got there this area was in patchy mixed light–direct sun and open shade–so I simply sized it up and decided to stay down at The Window long enough so that I could photograph this area in even light on the way back.  That would mean staying at The Window for a long time, but I decided to do so regardless.

This hike is one of the most popular in the park and even though I was at the park during a fairly quiet time (and on a weekday to boot), a steady stream of visitors came and went.  A youth group–with close to 20 participants–was the biggest and stayed the longest (they made this spot their lunch break), but I was in no hurry.  The Window itself was, when I arrived, in mixed light, so I simply hung out down there until the conditions improved.  By the time they did, there were few people around and part of the time I was by myself.  I was lucky enough to catch a point when an attractive group of clouds–the first I’d seen all day had drifted into position.  They wouldn’t last long, so I hastened to take advantage of them.

I shot with both the 24-70 mm and 14-24 mm lenses.  I set up very low to the ground and the images are a combination of HDR and focus stack sets.  Post-processing was a bit involved, but worth the effort, I think.

The Window, Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Window Black & White, Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas


The Window, Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Window, Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

As mentioned above, I planned to photograph the wet area just above The Window on the way back and, fortunately, foot traffic had decreased significantly, making it much easier to do so.

Window Trail Intimate Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail Intimate, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail Intimate, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail Intimate Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail Intimate, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I re-entered Oak Creek Canyon and quickly made up for lost time.

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was good and tired by the time I dragged my sorry behind up the switchbacks–the steepest part of the trail–and back to the Basin parking area, but there was still some daylight left.  The few clouds I had seen down at The Window had long ago disappeared; the sky was essentially completely clear.  I decided to make my way back to my go-to spot for end-of-day photography at Big Bend:  Sotol Vista.  The drive would take about 45 minutes, and I figured I’d make it there perhaps half an hour before sunset.

There weren’t many clouds in the sky, but I managed to find and take advantage of a few.

Sunset, Sotol Vsta, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sunset, Sotol Vsta, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sunset, Sotol Vsta, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Dusk, Sotol Vsta, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I had to head back to the Houston area the following day–a drive of roughly 600 miles–but I planned one more early morning shoot before departure…

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 17, 2020

The Story Behind the Image: Spring Has Sprung

Seven years ago this past April, I met my friend Tom Robbins at Matthiessen State Park in north-central Illinois.  Matthiessen lies just steps away from the better known and more heavily visited Starved Rock State Park, just south of the tiny town of Utica.  Our primary destination was the Upper Dells area of Matthiessen, but before we made the journey down into the crevice, we paid a quick visit astride Mathiessen Lake, which is formed by a dam on the Vermillion River.  The shoreline area we approached was a bit muddy, as I recall, but we were well-prepared for that.

The water near the lake’s shore has a tendency to be a bit murky, but that wasn’t the case on this trip.  There was no wind to speak of and the lake’s surface was glass-like.  Though the sky was mostly cloudy, the sun–which had risen shortly before our arrival–was softly kissing the elements abutting the waterline.  The foliage across the lake was a mix of fresh spring greenery, with its characteristic hue, and the unmistakably unique color of the nearby redbud trees, which were at their peak pinkish/purplish splendor.

I pulled out the telephoto lens…and, really, there wasn’t all that much more to the production of the image you see below, as the scene essentially framed itself in the viewfinder.  This photograph has more or less served as the embodiment of spring for me ever since.

Spring Reflections, Matthiessen Lake, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 10, 2020

The Story Behind the Image: Oceanside Gloom

Five years ago I paid a return visit to the Oregon Coast.  The hope on that trip was that I’d be able to avoid the occasionally persistent marine layer that plagued my previous experience back in the summer of 2009; in general, that proved to be the case.  On one evening I essentially outran the marine layer, but for the most part on the 2015 trip, the confounding mix of clouds and fog stayed at arm’s length.  That decidedly was not true, however, on Day 6 of that trip, when the marine layer was dominant all day long.

My last stop that day was at Myers Beach, a location I frequented during the trip.  Broadly speaking, I don’t think that even light and low-hanging clouds are particularly conducive to color photography at wide open locations–like beaches.  There are, as always, exceptions to the rule, but they are relatively few and far between in my experience.  But relatively moody scenes can, in my estimation, be rendered with some effectiveness in black and white and that’s what I turned my attention to in the early evening of this day.  After some false signs, it became clear that there would be no significant breakthrough in the marine layer and I sought out scenes, both intimate and sweeping, that I hoped would bring out the emotion of the setting under these circumstances.

Myers Beach is a long, deep stretch of sand that lies on both sides of the Pistol River estuary.  I spent a fair amount of time wandering around the area set back from the surf and sea stacks that dominated most of my forays on the beach.  On the northern edge of the beach that lies north of the river, near Cape Sebastian, I found the remnants of what had probably been a massive piece of driftwood.  It had clearly been in place, far up the beach from the surf, for quite some time and a depression had formed around it in the sand, punctuated by a collection of scattered beach stones.  The dry sand area nearby had been sculpted by the wind into copious ripples.  Because of the location–far from anything–nary a footprint marred the scene.

I carefully approached the log from the rear, taking care not to mar the pristine spot with my own footfalls, and surveyed the scene.  The large scattered sea stacks to the south made for the more pleasing backdrop, I felt, and the contours of the sand made for attractive lines as well.  The looming clouds–best brought out with detail using the enhanced contrast capabilities endemic to monochrome renderings–capped off the scene.  I contemplated the specific perspective that I felt most suitable; lower than eye level, surely, but not too low in this instance.  The mid-ground sand ripples were too sublime to minimize more than a bit.  The driftwood fell naturally into the lower left-hand corner, allowing for the elimination of US-101 to the left and keeping the upper right from being dominated by featureless space, even if it meant losing the very edge of the faux shadow that made up the depression surrounding the log.  A polarizing filter helped bring out some of the detail in the sky and eliminated some sheen caused by the bright overcast conditions.  Wait for a wave to break at the waterline and…click.

Myers Beach Evening Black & White, Pistol River State Park, Oregon

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 5, 2020


I thought I would have time to produce a new post this week, but it’s become clear at this point that I was far too optimistic.  I made a hurried, unexpected drive from Chicago to Houston over last weekend (a trip of roughly 1100 miles) and have been too busy since arriving in Texas on Sunday to put an entry together.  I hope–and expect–to return to the usual schedule next week.  In the meantime, I thought I’d post a few images with minimal content that, hopefully, readers of this blog will enjoy.

If you like mountains…

Elliot Peak at Sunrise, David Thompson Country, Alberta

or waterfalls…

Hector Falls, Schuyler County, New York

Ocean scenes…

Sunset, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

or reflective lakes…

May Pond at Sunrise, Orleans County, Vermont

Moody scenes…

Aspens in Fog, Last Dollar Road, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

or rainbows…

Morning Rainbow, Council Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Flower-strewn woodlands…

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

or prairie sunrises…

Coneflower Morning, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

Rollicking rivers…

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

or parched deserts…

Monument Valley Morning, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Colorful rocks…

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

or nearly colorless landscapes…

Ice, Snow & Water Patterns Black & White, Eagle Creek Park, Indiana

Fall color…

Autumn Color, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire

or spring color…

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


The Mountain and the McKinley River Valley, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

…or Hawaii…

Kealia Beach at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii

…I hope you found something at least mildly inspiring in this ersatz post.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 27, 2020

Big Bend Day 5 (Part II): The Leitmotif of Light

I’ll pick up the Part II narrative of Day 5 where Part I left off.  It was still fairly early in the afternoon and I decided to spend the bulk of the rest of the day checking out the Grapevine Hills Trail.  The trailhead is located roughly 6.5 miles down the Grapevine Hills Road, which is described in park literature as an “improved unpaved road.”  And the first…maybe two miles or so…are in excellent shape–or were, in any event, when I was there in the first half of February this year.  This stretch is extremely well-graded, unquestionably easily passable by any sort of vehicle, and at relatively high speeds at that.  After the first couple of miles, however, the road deteriorates gradually.  At first it’s just a little bit rough, but still easily traversable with any ordinary passenger vehicle.  But after four miles or so, it’s starts to get a bit iffy.  At no point–as long as it hasn’t rained recently–is a four-wheel drive vehicle necessary, but one with relatively high clearance is advisable for the last mile or so, as there are some dips and rocky stretches that would, I fear, cause a regular passenger vehicle to bottom out, and it’s recommended that you greatly reduce your speed for the back 2/3 or so of the journey.

I stopped once, very near the beginning of the road, to photograph a scene that intrigued me.

Remnants Black & White, Grapevine Hills Road, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The main attraction to this trail is what comes at the end–Balanced Rock, a truly remarkable rock formation.  In truth, the entire trail is filled with some noteworthy photo opportunities.  The hiking experience is quite easy for most of the way; the trail up to the rocky cluster that includes Balanced Rock has a slight incline, but only slight, and the one-way hike is only 1.1 miles.  But the last quarter mile or so requires climbing up the rock formation itself, which obviously involves some exertion.  The trail is marked, so there’s a “right way” to climb up the hundred feet or so on the rocks at the end.  I was really taken with the valley leading up to Balanced Rock, but decided to defer any photography of this area until the return, on the theory that the light would only get better…and that the extremely strong wind that was flying down the valley might slacken with time.

So I made my way directly up to Balanced Rock–where there wasn’t much wind at all, interestingly–and sized the formation up.  I present the below image mostly so you can get a sense of what it looks like.  As you can see, there’s a massive boulder jammed in between–on top of, really–a pair of adjacent rock fins.

Balanced Rock, Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

It’s possible to fairly easily walk through the “tunnel” that the formation creates; in fact, the above image was made after doing just that.  But it’s relatively difficult, I think, to produce anything really all that compelling photographically, beyond the “wow, look at that” nature of Balanced Rock itself.  That didn’t keep me from trying, however.

Balanced Rock, Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Balanced Rock, Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

It should be noted that, despite the questionable nature of the Grapevine Hills Road, this is a very popular hike, so if you’re going to be here at anything other than the margins of the day, be prepared to put up with a fair amount of traffic up at Balanced Rock.

During one period while I was waiting for people to leave, I decided to check out some of the spots on the rock pile and came across a small window cut into a rock face.  The below is a monochrome version of a six-image focus stack.

Window on the World Black & White, Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was up on the rock face for about an hour.  (A good part of that time was spent answering questions from another would-be photographer who didn’t know how to use her camera, but was highly motivated to learn.)  On the way back to the trailhead I engaged in the photography that I had deferred on the hike in, beginning as I descended the rock pile to the valley floor.

Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

As you can see, the rock formations in this part of Big Bend have a lot of character.

Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was fortunate, as I discussed in a previous entry on this blog, to have interesting sky conditions.  This had not been the forecast, but I was extremely pleased nonetheless.

Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The last two images in this sequence were made just steps from the trailhead.

Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Grapevine Hills Trail Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

By the time I made my way back to the main park road after finishing at Grapevine Hills it was only about an hour until sunset.  Unfortunately, the clouds–as had been the case that morning–had drifted off to the east and were replaced with nothing other than bald sky to the west.  I decided to head back up to Sotol Vista and see what might catch my eye.  Along the way I stopped to photograph at one spot in the steadily improving light–east facing, as you can see.  (Note the few remaining clouds.)

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sunlit Sotol, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sotol Isolate, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I made my way up to Sotol Vista less than 30 minutes before sunset.  The western sky was almost completely clear and not a lot was happening elsewhere, either.  Still, the end-of-day Chihuahuan Desert light was exquisite.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at Sunset, Sotol Vista, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Sundown Rock Face, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Western Glow, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Last Light, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Earthshadow, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Earthshadow, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The last full day at Big Bend was coming up and it would be another long one.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 20, 2020

Big Bend Day 5 (Part I): The Leitmotif of Light

I hadn’t intended to make the reflections of this day a two-parter, but since I had eclipsed the 2000-word mark barely halfway into the account, I changed course.  Were I Io complete the day’s chronology this post would likely reach 4000 words or more, which is absurd.  Thus, Part I of this entry will cover the morning and early afternoon of Day 5; the next installment will discuss the remainder of the day’s events.

Day 4 at Big Bend National Park was relentlessly cloudy and ended with a surprising steady rain.  Day 5 was neither of those things.  The forecast was for sun throughout the day, but–blissfully–it was a bit more complicated than that.

Back on Day 2 I had paused, during my partial exploration of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, to scout the Mule Ears Viewpoint.  This east-facing spot, accessed by a short paved spur road to the east of the Drive, appeared to me to be a promising location for a sunrise shoot–assuming there was to be a sunrise.  The forecast said there would be a sunrise on Day 5, so I headed to the viewpoint in the pre-dawn darkness.  It was cold–just a hair above freezing–with periodic gusts of wind that made it feel even colder when I stepped out of the car.  I pulled out both of my tripods–more on that in a moment–and set up both cameras, one with the 24-70 mm lens and the other with the 80-400.  I was just about certain that I’d want to photograph with both a wide-to-normal perspective and a telephoto view.  I adjusted the base settings on both cameras to account for the low light shooting conditions, took a test shot with one to gauge approximate shutter speeds and then retreated to the vehicle to warm up while I waited for the light.

A note about the two tripod matter.  Before I set out on this trip I fished out the big, heavy  Gitzo tripod that had originally been purchased back in the Mesozoic Era, when my wife thought she might want to get into bird photography.  The tripod that I always have with me is a much smaller, lighter model–suitable for hiking.  I’d always said that when I drove to a location for photography I would take a second tripod, specifically for situations like this, where I would be set up close to the car and might want to have quick access to both cameras with different focal length lenses attached to them.  The scenario on this morning was a perfect example of a situation where this approach would be useful and, though I haven’t made mention of it in the write ups of previous days, this morning wasn’t the first time on this trip that I’d implemented the two-tripod setup.  (By the time the trip was over I’d activated the multiple tripod setup seven or eight times, to great effect, and–where practical, because it often isn’t–I plan to have the second tripod with me regularly in the future.

I kept my eye on the horizon and when the ambient light reached what I judged to be just shy of the point where I’d want to begin to photograph, I ventured back into the cold and began the process.

The Mule Ears are a distinctive formation at Big Bend, one that was apparently used as a geographic guide point by early travelers in the region due to its unmistakable shape.  I used it as a background feature when photographing with the 24-70 and as a formation center of interest when using the 80-400.

Mule Ears at Dawn, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Mule Ears at Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Mule Ears at Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Mule Ears at Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The constantly changing nature of the light, even before the sun crested the horizon, produced a different-looking landscape with each passing moment.

Mule Ears at Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I gradually turned my attention to compositions that didn’t necessarily include the Mule Ears.

Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Desert Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Eventually, of course, the sun rose above the horizon and began to directly impact the formations around me.  A rocky rise immediately to the right of my shooting position had intrigued me but didn’t really come to life until after the sun’s rays reached it.

Desert Morning, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Desert Morning, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas

After nearly an hour, I gratefully packed up and returned to the inside of the vehicle to warm up.  It would be plenty warm later–despite some occasionally strong winds–but such is the nature of life in the desert, where temperatures fluctuate wildly depending on the time of day.

I headed south on the Drive, to see if I could take advantage of the still-nice light to photograph Cerro Castellan, a nearly-iconic formation in this part of the park.  Unfortunately, the clouds that had bathed parts of the eastern sky at daybreak were drifting away and weren’t being replaced by anything from the west.  It was, it appeared, going to be a cloudless day.  That had, in fact, been the forecast, though it would prove to be far from the case, as I’d eventually find out.  Still, for the moment, I was going to have to deal with the always unpleasant prospect of bald blue skies.

I reached the point on the road with a fine perspective of Cerro Castellan.  I found a pull-off and then walked into the desert with my camera and tripod (just one this time) and noticed that this perspective would allow me to include the moon, which was a few hours shy of setting.  It was a lucky break and I hastened to take advantage of it.  I found a spot with a foreground ocotillo and a mid-ground yucca and went to work.

Cerro Castellan Moonrise, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I moved around a bit; some of the perspectives I chose didn’t lend themselves to the inclusion of the moon and, when that was he case, I chose to minimize the amount of sky in the frame.

Cerro Castellan, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Cerro Castellan, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

But when possible, the moon was a small, but important, part of the overall image.

Cerro Castellan Moonrise, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I made my way back north on the Drive and stopped at Sotol Vista, the highest point of ready access in this part of the park.  I hadn’t visited the Vista in the morning up until now and decided to see if I could find anything of interest.  I found a few things, including this particularly interesting foreground rock, which still had remnants of the previous evening’s rain contained in its curious hole.

Moonset, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

An area that showed fog (!) lifting up from a slot in the Chisos Mountains was particularly interesting (and foreshadowed an event two days hence)

Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The ridge line/crevice shadow interplay visible in some of the surrounding foothills also caught my eye.

Shadowland, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

But what really obsessed me–and I spent quite some time trying to find a way to make it work–were the towering stalks of the numerous sotol plants in the area and the challenge of finding a way to use them to frame the setting moon.  I wandered all over this area trying to discover a workable composition and I finally found one.  I knew that I was going to have to produce this image with a long lens–the moon would be too small for the effect I wanted if I used anything wider–but then I was faced with all kinds of depth of field problems.  While the four stalks in the frame all appear to be very close to one another, they weren’t.  From front to back I’d estimate that the stalks covered a distance of about 75 feet.  The moon, of course, could only be made sharp by focusing at infinity, and since the focal length used was in the 300 mm range, depth of field was at a premium, even at f/11.  Yes, a focus stacking approach was a possibility if I wanted to keep all of the elements sharp (I did), but the problem with that, in this case, was the wind.  The sotol stalks were moving around; I could easily obtain the necessary shutter speed to freeze them, but there was no way that they’d all stay still long enough for me to squeeze out the five-image stack that was going to be necessary to get each segment of the image sharp.  I held my spot for several minutes but at no point did the wind stop blowing nearly long enough to be able to execute the process.  So I simply did the best I could and decided that I’d see what I could do in the way of image blending when I got back to the digital darkroom, several weeks later.

What you see immediately below is the finished product, which is a manual blend of five separate frames.  The one thing I made certain of in the field was that none of the stalks overlapped in any of the parts of the frames that I might use in the final blend.  First, that would have been a compositional no-no, but second, it would have made it extremely difficult bordering on impossible to produce a blend that included sharp elements throughout.  In the end, some creative work with masks and layers did the trick.  All of the frames, taken within seconds of one another, were made with identical ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings, so there were no visible tonal distinctions from frame to frame.  Absent the need to do any exposure adjustments, the blending process in Photoshop was pretty straight forward.

Moonset, Sotol Vista, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I continued to make my way north on the Drive, and stopped at Sam Nail Ranch.  This is the site of the last ranch within what is now the park boundaries to be eventually abandoned.  Parts of two windmills (one of which is still operating) survive, as do parts of foundations of one of the buildings and part of a wall.  Because the windmill is still drawing water from an aquifer, fruit and nut-bearing trees on the property continue to thrive, the better part of a century after the ranch was abandoned.

The walk from the pullout on the main road to the ranch is short and easy.  On the way, I spotted a very cooperative mockingbird perched in one of the trees and pulled out the long lens to produce a couple of handheld images.

Northern Mockingbird, Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Northern Mockingbird, Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, Texas

When I got to the ranch site I found a short trail that led down to the nearby creek.  The creek was bone dry, unsurprisingly, but it gave me a perspective of a huge old cottonwood tree.  The light was pretty poor at this point of the day, but I thought a black & white conversion might be interesting.

Cottonwood Black & White, Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, Texas

I climbed back up to the ranch site and poked around.  I found a spot where the working windmill was visible, from a location behind a large rock which served as the canvas for an interesting shadow pattern cast by a nearby tree.

Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, Texas

It was early afternoon at this point–the “worst” light of the day.  I continued north on the Drive until I reached the main park road and made my way east, in the direction of The Basin and Panther Junction.  I reached the point adjacent to the turnoff for the Basin–a couple of miles west of Panther Junction–and was really taken by the view from the desert floor of the Chisos Moutains to the south.  Some clouds had shown up and completely altered the scene.  There was plenty of room at this spot to pull off the road and I did so.  Despite the “bad light” and copious wind (it was really blowing at this location), the setting was screaming “black & white” to me, so I set up and produced a couple of images, destined for monochrome conversion.

Chisos Mountains Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Chisos Mountains Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

We’ll pause here.  Part II of Day 5 will cover my time in the Grapevine Hills area of the park, featuring Balanced Rock, and the early evening/end of day shoot back along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and at Sotol Vista.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 13, 2020

Looking Up

In the comments adjoined to the recently posted entry “The World at Our Feet,” blog reader David E. Smith made the poignant suggestion that, when photographing, remembering to look up is a good idea as well.  He’s absolutely correct.  It’s something I do…not quite as routinely as looking down, but, particularly in wooded settings, something I always try to remember to consider.

Rockefeller Grove, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

Hemlock Hill Black & White, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

At first glance it may seem as though this is essentially a random exercise:  point the camera up and fire away.  That’s not the case with this perspective any more than it is with a more conventional “looking out” approach that probably covers something approximating 90% of the landscape images I produce.  These “looking up” images are just as compositionally purposeful as any others.  Considerations of line, form, pattern, depth and placement of elements within the frame all play a role.

MacBryde Garden, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai, Hawaii

Bare Aspens Black & White, Sunshine Campground, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Similarly, the notion of a “vision statement” is just as relevant with a “looking up” image as it is with any other.  What does this scene, depicted in this manner, say?  What is it trying to convey?  Those questions remain important, whether the camera is pointed up, out, down, or any other direction.

Aspen Afternoon, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Moonset, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

Aspens, Belly of Abraham, David Thompson Country, Alberta

The point is that images that fit this broad category aren’t gimmicks; I don’t see them that way, in any event, though I can understand the first blush inclination to view them as such.  (And it isn’t beyond my notice that collecting examples of this style together, as I have here, might tend to belie my claim.

I have very deliberately put some of these images, which have a kind of superficial stylistic similarity, together.  In the many years that I have been seriously photographing–well over 20 at this point, what you see above represents roughly half of the images of this sort that I have made over that time.  I have examined this perspective on countless occasions, but it’s quite rare in my experience that things come together enough for me to actually click the shutter.  The above images were made using an ultra-wide angle lens an unconventional perspective and I concede that it’s necessary for me to see the image “though the lens” to assess whether the end product is something I consider meaningful.  Most of the time, in my experience, the attempt has fallen short, but when it works…well, it seems to really work.

Not all of these images have the same apparent “look” to them, even if they include trees.  Some of the obvious differences in look come from the fact that a longer focal length was used.  Some of it comes from an entirely different vision that led to the creation of the image in the first place.

Autumn Intimate, Essex County, Vermont

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

And, of course, sometimes the subject matter is entirely different, whether it be birds in flight…

Canada Geese in Flight, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Wood Stork, Paurotis Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida

Egrets in Flight, Pah-hay-okee, Everglades National Park, Florida

…or something completely different.

Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Sun’s Eye, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

So, when you’re out with your camera, remember to look up every now and again.  You never know what you might see.

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