Posted by: kerryl29 | August 2, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Clay Beds

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

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

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

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

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

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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

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

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

Bentonite Clay Beds Abstract, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monument Rocks Black & White, Logan County, Kansas

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

Oak Cluster Black & White, Calaveras County, California

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

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

But sometimes intimates in harsh light can work as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Posted by: kerryl29 | July 19, 2021

The Desert Southwest: White Pocket, Part II

One oversight I was guilty of during the first afternoon/evening at White Pocket was not paying enough attention to scouting locations for the following morning’s sunrise. So when we got up and out during the predawn light of the morning, it felt like a bit of a scramble. Predicting exactly where the best color in the sky would be ahead of time was, shall we say, impossible, due to an unexpected cloud bank that absorbed much of the best light (see the second image in this sequence). It’s not that it wasn’t a good sunrise, because it was. But my compositional/orientational predictions ended up being a bit off.

White Pocket Sunrise, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Shooting at White Pocket, suffice to say, isn’t anything like photographing at an overlook (like Little Cut), even an overlook with an extensive array of directional options (like Stud Horse Point). At White Pocket, potential compositional options are almost literally everywhere, and that sounds great…and, in many ways, it is. But having compositional options everywhere doesn’t necessarily mean that there are great compositions everywhere. And I found myself battling with that precept during sunrise that morning.

White Pocket Sunrise, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

And when the light started to go, it went very quickly. Again, due to being unable to predict in advance where the best sky color was going to be and when that color was at its most expansive, I found myself with a disappointing composition. I made the image anyway.

White Pocket Sunrise, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

As the color faded, I started to move, heading off to the “lone tree” area where I had photographed the previous day. My expectation was that the light would become harsh quickly, so I basically ran over to this area and, with very different light than had been in evidence the previous day, adjusted my compositions accordingly.

White Pocket Reflections, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket Moonset, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Jason found me at this point, just as I was getting ready to move on, and we decamped to the quadrant of White Pocket that had been so productive for us the previous day. But before we got there, we spent some time at an interim spot that I had effectively ignored the prior evening.

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

We were staring at mostly cloudy skies at this point. The sun would peak out now and again, but it was almost always diffused. While this prevented us from getting truly dramatic angular lighting, that wouldn’t have lasted very long. In fact, if the sun had been out in full force that morning, the shooting day likely would have been effectively over at this point, at least for color photography. But we ended up with an extended period of this diffused lighting. The rest of that morning’s shoot produced a combination of color and monochrome imagery. Once again, I was forced to confront any preconceived biases I had about when black and white photography was called for. I had to remember that the subject matter–not just the lighting–was a massive factor in assessing which direction to go. (I’ll flesh out my thoughts on this concept more fully in the next thematic post.)

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

We gradually moved toward the active quadrant of White Pocket, but kept stopping along the way when things stimulated our interest.

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

The previous afternoon, I had explored a small alcove, cut into one of the rock formations, that formed a kind of box canyon. The light had been unflattering to the location then, but now it was much more conducive to photography, so I returned and tried to do the place justice.

White Pocket Reflections, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

What I found particularly compelling about this area was the set of sweeping lines, cut into the rock face striations.

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

Most of this imagery was created by placing the tripod as low as possible and then making copious use of the camera’s focus stacking feature.

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

We finally made it down into the “valley,” near the bottom of a decline (as seen in the two images immediately above).

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

About this time, most of the cloud cover had lifted and it became mostly sunny. The light was becoming quite harsh, so we headed back to the parking area.

This might have been the end of the morning’s shoot, but Jason had found some GPS coordinates for an area very nearby that was reputed to have Moqui Marbles. We had both seen marbles before, but we were pretty excited at another opportunity to see–and possibly photograph–them. I punched the coordinates into my GPS, which estimated the location about a mile away, as the crow files, from our present location. (This was still part of White Pocket, but separated from the main area of rock formations.) The hike there was modestly longer, because we had to follow topographic features, but it was a bit of a slog because part of it was through deep, loose sand. It wasn’t really all that difficult, just kind of annoying. There was a trail, of sorts, to follow and eventually we found ourselves in another bowl of sculpted Navajo Sandstone.

And there were the marbles. We were pretty disappointed. They were quite small and, more to the point, there really weren’t all that many of them. But I thought the patterns they formed, in the stone crevices, were kind of interesting. Besides, there was a wall–in open shade–right nearby, that I thought lent itself to abstract compositions, so I produced a few images, of both the wall and the marbles.

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

As we were hiking back to the parking area the sky was clouding up and the wind had also kicked up pretty significantly (the forecast had called for both of these developments). These conditions caused us to decided to pull up stakes and move on from White Pocket. But that wasn’t the end of the day’s photography, as I’ll detail in the next chronological post in this series.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 12, 2021

The Desert Southwest: White Pocket, Part I

When we were done at Little Cut, early on the morning of the first day of the trip, we returned to our campsite, broke everything down and loaded up the car to begin the trek to White Pocket. As I mentioned in the introduction to this chronology, White Pocket, located within Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in north-central Arizona, was one of two “must do” locations on our otherwise extremely flexible itinerary for the trip. Jason had been there once before and desperately wanted to return. I hadn’t visited the location but had seen enough in the way of sample images of the area to want to correct that oversight. We weren’t certain how long we would stay on site. Our best guess was one evening and the following morning, but we were open to the idea of staying another full day if conditions and our initial experience on site called for doing so.

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

What is White Pocket, exactly? It’s a series of rock formations, made up of Navajo Sandstone, that are truly remarkable and really have to be seen to be appreciated. Any written descriptions I might concoct would pale in comparison to the visual evidence. But I’ll try–sort of–anyway. Some of the formations are extremely pale (hence the “white” part of the location’s name) and kind of pillow-shaped. Others are remarkably colorful and have been carved into soaring, swirling shapes over geologic time. There are numerous shallow pools (that’s where the ‘”pocket” part of the name stems from) scattered about the area which fill with water on the rare occasions when it rains in this extremely arid environment. Some of the pools can withstand evaporation for many days, and we stumbled across a number of them, as you’ll see in some of the imagery below.

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

The trip to the White Pocket section of Vermillion Cliffs isn’t a short one. Vermillion Cliffs is where an internationally known rock feature called “The Wave” is located–in the Coyote Buttes North section of the monument. Unlike Coyote Buttes North (and Coyote Buttes South, for that matter), White Pocket does not require a permit to enter. The journey to White Pocket is considered to be sufficiently difficult and onerous to make a permitting system unnecessary, at least for the time being.

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

What does “difficult and onerous” mean? A drive of at least three hours on unpaved roads, some of which require four-wheel drive and high clearance. You start out on House Rock Valley Road, which provides basic access to much of Vermillion Cliffs, including The Wave area. This unpaved road is usually in decent shape and can be traversed with care by any vehicle, unless there’s been recent rain. But after 16-odd miles on HRVR, the initial turn off to White Pocket is reached and that’s when things begin to get interesting. The main threat is loose sand in numerous spots on the road, some of which can be quite deep. Vehicles without four-wheel drive are sure to get stuck in several spots along the way. High clearance is less critical, but still important. On the drive in, I got out of the vehicle on four or five occasions to direct Jason where to drive to avoid scraping the vehicle undercarriage on protruding rocks. There are also a couple of gates–unlocked, but they are routinely opened and closed by each vehicle that drives through, in either direction–that have to be cleared. For all of these reasons, visiting this area by oneself is probably not a good idea. Traffic in and out is light and if you get stuck–which is possible, even with the appropriate vehicle depending on the conditions–it’s not going to be pleasant.

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

The drive after turning off HRVR is roughly 26 miles, so the total distance after leaving the paved highway (US 89) is a bit less than 45 miles. That is a long ride on unpaved roads, particularly of the non-HRVR variety. I would guess that it took us close to four hours to do the whole thing. There were a few spots that were decidedly sketchy, but I don’t think either of us were ever truly concerned that we wouldn’t be able to traverse the route.

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

Ultimately we reached a large unpaved parking area, surrounded by fence. A decent-sized dispersed camping area, with a number of juniper trees, is adjacent to the parking area. When we arrived there were something like eight other vehicles in the parking area, about half of them belonging to people camping with the others attached to parties present in the area on day trips. It was early in the afternoon–about 1 PM, I’d estimate–when we arrived. We picked out a spot in the camping area, and set up the tent.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

When the camp set up was complete, we decided to scout White Pocket itself, the nearest point of which was only about 1/8 of a mile from the camp site, accessed via a (very) sandy walkway. There are no trails at White Pocket; the vast majority of the time you are traversing a cairn-less rock face. The entire area connecting the bulk of the rock formations isn’t huge–I’d estimate a bit more than one-mile square. It’s virtually impossible to get truly lost in this area, but it is very easy to find yourself having to search for the appropriate route to get back to, say, the parking and camping areas, because they are completely out of sight, located behind a large sand dune, from most of White Pocket itself. Despite the lack of trails per se, there are appropriate (i.e. traversable) and inappropriate (ultimately non-traversable) routes at White Pocket and they can be far more difficult to find than one would initially expect. This is more a frustrating experience than anything truly dangerous, however. Ultimately, you should be able to find where you need to go.

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

So, we set out to explore the area around 2 PM, a good four hours or so before we could expect what one might regard as traditional “good light.” There would be plenty of time to poke around and then make the short trip back to pick up equipment later, thus making the scouting session a lot less burdensome. And yet, I brought my gear with me. Why? I thought that, harsh light notwithstanding, some black and white imagery might well be in the offing at this time of day. While the sky was almost entirely clear on the drive in, I did see some evidence of partly cloudy conditions forming and I thought this subject matter might well call for black and white photography. (If anything, I underestimated the potential for black and white photography, arguably grossly so, as I will discuss specifically in a future “thematic interruption” entry.)

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

We basically explored the location from left to right, as you face the White Pocket formation area from the parking/camping area access. (In direction terms, this is roughly south to north.) We looked over some of the white rock areas first and then gradually made our way to the fascinating, colorful formations that lie more to the north and west.

White Pocket is quite desolate, but there are a few lone trees that pop up here and there that can make for fascinating subjects.

All of the images you see above this point in the narrative were made during this “scouting session.” (I think I made the right call re the decision to bring my gear with me.) Ditto the next four images immediately below, which were all made near the end of that session–roughly around 5 PM, just as the light was beginning to become genuinely nice, even for color photography, and as more and more cloud formations were blowing in from the west.

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

The image including the pool, immediately above, was one of the two largest water pockets we saw while on site (the other is depicted in the black & white photo that’s third from the top, near the head of this post) and the story of how it was made will have to wait until I produce a future “Story Behind the Image” entry devoted to this shot. I think the experience is a useful example of overcoming some technical limitations, somewhat reminiscent of the experience I shared about the making of the Windstone Arch photograph at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Jason had retreated back to the camping area while I was still photographing and, after I made the image immediately above, I joined him, following a bit of an adventure finding the route out from this location, deep in the northwest corner of the formations. After a very brief rest (and replenishing of water bottles), we set out again, with the intention of revisiting a number of the spots that we’d scouted earlier in the day but postponed photographing in order to view them in light better suited for color photography. I immediately headed back to the first area we had explored that afternoon and–in a bit of foreshadowing of that forthcoming thematic interruption piece that I mentioned earlier–found myself still thinking “black & white” despite the greatly improved conditions.

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

Not only was the light getting better, as the sun declined toward the western horizon, the sky conditions were improving as well.

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

Jason had headed off in a different direction when we started off on this part of the shoot but he found me again at this point, and mentioned that he’d discovered a very interesting rock pattern that he thought would make a good foreground and he wanted to show it to me. So we headed off in the same general direction we’d meandered earlier in the day, toward the basin at White Pocket that makes up part of the northwest part of the formation.

When we reached the feature Jason had found, I immediately saw the appeal; it was a great find on his part and we both hastened to take advantage of it.

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

After making use of this inverted question mark swirl as a foreground, I backed up a few dozen feet and incorporated the sunlit slope including the swirl as a mid-ground.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Yet again, I saw the potential for a black & white rendering despite the excellent lighting for color photography.

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

We continued on down the slope to another part of the plateau that we’d briefly stopped at earlier that day, to an area of rock formations that reminded me of a quilt.

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

Then it was on to a spot that I informally named the Candyland slope.

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

And then it was down to the bottom of the basin for the final two images of the day.

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

Despite all of the spectacular cloud formations, sunset itself was essentially snuffed out by a thick cloud bank that blanketed the west and southwest horizon.

Even with the lack of a spectacular formal sunset, we were quite pleased with what we had been able to capture that day, as we trudged back toward the camping area in the twilight. We were hoping for good conditions the following morning for what would be round two at White Pocket.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 6, 2021

The Desert Southwest: First Evening, First Morning

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, Jason and I drove from Colorado Springs to Page, Arizona on the first day of the trip. We ended up departing two full hours later than we had intended, due to circumstances beyond our control. As a result, we arrived in Page less than an hour before sunset.

On the drive, we had batted around possible locations to visit for sunset that day, but due to our late arrival our choices were limited. We decided to visit a location, just across the border in Utah–part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area–known as Stud Horse Point. The spot includes several large hoodoos and impressive views in multiple directions and is accessed by a somewhat sketchy unpaved road.

The turnoff to Stud Horse Point is unmarked, but Jason had been to the location once before and, fortunately, remembered the turn. We also had some written directions because, even after finding the initial access road, there are a number of turns on additional unmarked roads that need to be followed. We made our way to the Point in the steadily improving light and, after about 15 minutes of driving on the various dirt roads, reached a gate. The road on the other side of the gate–which was unlocked–was even sketchier than those we’d already traversed, so we parked the vehicle and got out and walked the remainder of the way, which was mostly uphill and moderately sandy. It was only another quarter mile or so when we crested a hill and found ourselves looking down on the Point.

We had perhaps 10 minutes until the sun went down, so what scouting there was to be would have to be very quick. Looking out to the north, I saw dabs of sunlight on rocky formations in the distance. In the foreground was one of the aforementioned hoodoos and other, less distinct, rocks. All of this was underneath a clear blue sky, with a gradient forming on the horizon.

Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah
Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah

Eschewing the hoodoos momentarily, I quickly focused my attention on one of the foreground boulders.

Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah

As the sun descended below the horizon, the earthshadow impact in the eastern sky grew stronger on this clear evening. I hastened to move several hundred feet to my right, where the Point provides views to the east, in the direction of the ever-shrinking Lake Powell.

Earthshadow, Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah
Earthshadow, Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah
Earthshadow, Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah

The light disappeared quickly and we returned to our vehicle in the gloom. That’s when we discovered that we were stuck in the sand. It was pitch dark at this point, but we had a shovel and I did some digging, using my headlamp to illuminate the area. Jason engaged the four-wheel drive feature and we got out of the predicament with a minimum of hassle. We then descended to the main highway without further incident and made the relatively short drive to a dispersed camping area near the trailhead to Wahweap Hoodoos. We–mostly Jason, since he knew what he was doing–then assembled the tent in the pitch dark. This was a foreshadowing of sorts as we set up the tent in the dark every night but one.

We awoke well before sunrise the next morning. The plan was to visit a spot known as Little Cut–another overlook, back across the border in Arizona–for sunrise. The only problem was that neither of us had ever been there and the directions we had for the location were imprecise. But we found it nevertheless–a “cut” in the rock, right off the roadside, 10-odd miles south of Page.

We left the vehicle at a pull-off, and walked out to the overlook. The light was just beginning to come up, allowing for a quick scout. I rapidly found a composition I liked, fine-tuned it and waited for the light.

Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona

I then backed up about 30 feet, for a slight modification of the same scene.

Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona

I descended with care below this particular shooting platform as the sun breached the horizon, to focus on the tent-shaped rocks in the mid=ground, which were positively glowing orange-red in the low-angled sunlight.

Little Cut Sunrise Glow, Coconino County, Arizona

While down at this lower shooting position I glanced behind me and saw the setting moon, above a lone conifer.

Lone Tree Moonset, Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona

The quality of light fades quickly in this desert environment and the morning’s shoot came to a rapid conclusion. We went back to our campsite, broke down the tent and began the long slow drive to White Pocket…

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 28, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Preliminaries

As I mentioned last time, the trip to Arizona and Utah was preceded by a two-day drive from Houston to Colorado Springs. On the first day, I drove from the Houston area to Amarillo, Texas, a drive of roughly 600 miles. (Yes, Texas is a big state. It’s possible to drive for a day and not even come close to hitting a state border.) I arrived in Amarillo late in the afternoon–a couple of hours before sunset. Had there been more time, I would have checked out Palo Duro Canyon State Park, but given the limited amount of daylight, I concentrated on something else.

A prairie dog colony on the property literally steps away from the hotel where I was staying caught my attention. I was able to get, at times, within 30-40 feet of some of the prairie dogs without apparently causing them distress. I stayed very close to the ground and, if they showed any signs of agitation, backed off. But as long as I stayed put, and quiet, they seemed unperturbed by my presence.

Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas

This was my first opportunity to see how the Z7ii would function for moving subjects using my F-mount 80-400 mm lens with the FTZ adapter, which allows F-mount lenses to be used on Z-mount cameras. I found the combination to be quite good, with autofocus quick to lock on to the chosen subject and highly accurate in its placement of the focal plane. There are far more available autofocus points on the Z7ii than was the case with the D800E, and that served me well on this shoot. While I’m still not a wildlife photographer in any meaningful sense of the term, I definitely procured a higher keeper ratio on this shoot than I traditionally have when photographing wildlife subjects.

Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas

It was an interesting experience to observe the prairie dogs engaging in a variety of different forms of behavior.

Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dog, Potter County, Texas

I was particularly intrigued by a group of three prairie dogs, all of them were hanging out near the same colony warren access point.

Prairie Dogs, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dogs, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dogs, Potter County, Texas

Overall, I spent a bit more than an hour photographing the little guys, who were endlessly entertaining.

Prairie Dogs, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Dogs, Potter County, Texas

I arose early the following morning to begin the 7-hour drive to Colorado Springs. While driving on a rural road, early on during the route and not far from Amarillo, I spotted a pleasant scene, just after daybreak, that caused me to stop and produce a single image.

Early Morning, Potter County, Texas

The same thing happened much later on that day as I was driving through a barren stretch in northeast New Mexico. The Texas panhandle and the northeast corner of New Mexico are part of the Great Plains, and double as one of the windiest locations in North America. I witnessed countless tumbleweeds blowing across this little-traveled landscape. I turned the experience into a kind of game as I was driving along U.S. 87: Dodge the Tumbleweed.

But at one point, while driving through a barren stretch on this road, a scene caught my eye. The light was fairly harsh, and the wind was blowing a gale, but I pulled off on an abandoned unpaved drive, got out my equipment and produced this image with black and white firmly on my mind.

Prairie Afternoon Black & White, Union County, New Mexico

Preliminaries having now been dealt with, I’ll move on to the first part of the trip, proper, beginning with the next blog installment.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 21, 2021

Desert Southwest: An Introduction

Late in April I departed for a photo trip of about eight days to Arizona and Utah. I hadn’t been to the desert Southwest to photograph since taking a trip to Utah and Nevada in the spring of 2012 and spending some time in northern Arizona in the fall of the same year. So it’s been awhile. Jason Templin, who photographed with me in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last fall, was my companion again on this trip. I drove from Houston to Colorado Springs, where Jason lives with his family, and from there we drove a four-wheel drive vehicle to Page, Arizona, which was the jumping off point for our photographic itinerary. (The trip from Houston to Page, by way of Colorado Springs, was 1500-something miles and took three days.)

Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah
Cottonwood Intimate, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

This was, in many ways, unlike any photo trip I had embarked on before. For one thing, the vast majority of the time was to be spent camping. Given the remoteness of several of the places on our itinerary (more on the entire notion of a fixed itinerary below), this was a necessity. Some of these spots simply weren’t close enough to any formal–or even informal–lodging to make any alternative viable. And since the decision was made early on in the planning (we first started talking about making this trip last year) to retain as much flexibility as possible, booking lodging was effectively out of the question.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I hadn’t camped since I was in my teens and was a bit trepidatious about the whole thing, and I’ll likely devote a later thematic post to the subject of camping extensively on a photo trip, based on this experience, in the coming weeks. I want to emphasize that this was camping–as, “in a tent, with no services”–not RVing. Potential misgivings aside, I fully signed on to the idea, meaning, I knew, at least theoretically, what I was getting into. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a total catastrophe or anything like that.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Another difference from the norm: I more or less turned the raw planning over to Jason, on the theory that he knew this area far, far better than I did. I had been to only one of the locations (Capitol Reef National Park) that was on the list of possible places to visit and that was 23 years ago. Jason had been to more than half of the places on the prospective list, knew where they were located and had a good feel for the logistics, having visited the general area multiple times. Don’t misunderstand, I was part of the planning process, but I deferred almost entirely to Jason when he asked for my thoughts as to where we should go. This was the flip side of the UP experience; there, I took the lead because I was highly familiar with most of the locations we would explore while Jason had never been to the area at all.

Blue Valley Moonrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

A third distinction from the typical scenario, hinted at above, was how fluid the itinerary was. We discussed this at length prior to making the trip; we visited areas, all of which had multiple plausible options. We had drawn up a a list of locations that were viable choices for each of three or four areas we would visit on the trip; all were reasonably doable geographically and physically, but various specific conditions that we might run into in real time might make some spots better options than others. We decided to wait until we were there to make hard and fast decisions about exactly where to go and when.

Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

There were two broad exceptions to the above maximum flexibility rule, places we had decided in advance that we absolutely wanted to see. One was White Pocket, located in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in north central Arizona. The other was Coyote Gulch, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. The other locations on our list would work around these two focal points. I will dedicate specific posts to both of these locations moving forward.

Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

A four-wheel drive vehicle was an absolute must on this trip; roughly half of the places we visited either required one or were far, far less risky to attempt to reach with four-wheel drive. Rough roads were an issue, so clearance was as important as four-wheel drive in some spots and we ran into a couple of places–most notably the road to/from White Pocket–where deep sand was a major issue. Four-wheel drive served us well.

Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Blue Valley Black & White, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

One of the broad goals of the trip was to experience as much variety as the area provided and I think we did a pretty good job fulfilling that desire. We saw fascinating colorful rock formations, extraordinary riparian gulches, slot canyons, phenomenal overlooks, waterfalls, blooming cacti, arches and natural bridges and more abstract scenes than I can recount.

Rock Hills Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Little Wildhorse Canyon Abstract Black & White, San Rafael Swell, Utah

The opportunities for making compelling monochrome images were more numerous, I think, on this trip than any I have previously undertaken. I generally think of black and white landscape opportunities as being present when natural contrast is high, and there were plenty of times when that description was fulfilled, but the subject matter itself–the plethora of things with interesting textures, lines, patterns and shapes–was so numerous that even without a lot of contrast I found myself thinking “black & white” on a regular basis.

White Pocket Abtract Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Hole-in-the-Rock Road Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Anyone who has photographed in and around the Colorado Plateau is familiar with the unique reflected light that the area is renowned for. We saw that repeatedly, most obviously in the slot canyons we traversed, but elsewhere as well.

Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

What I’ve included in this introductory post is a small, more or less random, set of images from the trip. Many more will follow in the coming weeks as I present a chronological diary of the trip, which will be interrupted–perhaps frequently–by thematic posts that dig into one of a number of matters that don’t necessarily fit neatly into the linear tale. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride and enjoy the presentation.

Swiss Cheese Falls Reflections, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
White Pocket Sunrise, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Posted by: kerryl29 | June 14, 2021

Texas Bluebonnet Bloom, Part III

The first few hours scouting for bluebonnets in Ellis County had gone pretty well. I had covered basically the entire South Trail, managing to squeeze in a bit of photography and identifying a number of sites that begged for a return in better light.

Among those spots was a sunrise location for the morning of the one full day I would be in the area. This was located down a lonely local rural road somewhere south of Ennis. I had taken a chance that there might be an interesting place or two down this road on Day 1 of the trip and it had paid off. I found a field, behind a barbed wire fence, on the south of side of this road, with a nice field of bluebonnets and a few distant trees. The view was east facing, so I thought it would work for sunrise. It was only about a ten-minute drive from where I was staying and since I’d marked the spot on my GPS, I had no difficulty finding it again in the pre-dawn darkness.

Bluebonnet Sunrise, Ellis County, Texas

It was a cool, windless morning and there was a nice wash of clouds in the eastern sky as the sun slowly came up. I had to jump across a small gully to get close to the fence and, jammed between a couple of bushes framing an open view of the field from the fence line, I set up and produced a couple of exposure sets; the scene held too much dynamic range for the image sensor.

Bluebonnet Sunrise, Ellis County, Texas

I didn’t actually shoot over the fence; the lines of barbed wire were separated enough for me to aim the lens between the top and middle strands, which allowed me to avoid shooting from eye level. Weeds and grass at the base of the fence made it impossible to shoot between the bottom and middle rung of wire.

When I was finished at this spot I walked across the deserted road to take a look at the field on the other side of the pavement. It was unfenced and it wasn’t clear whether it was private property; it wasn’t posted and the location appeared to be used as a kind of informal storage/staging area for several public utility trucks. Being uncertain of the status of the land, I stayed at what appeared to be the edge of the tract. This was a west-facing view, and there was a cluster of bluebonnets just a few feet off the road. I set up very low and right on top of this cluster. The light was very soft, meaning exposure bracketing was unnecessary, but given how close I was to the flowers and greenery, a substantial focus stack (14 manually obtained frames) was necessary. (If you look closely at the image below you may be able to see dew drops on some of the fronds; they’re clearly visible in the full-size rendition of this image.)

Bluebonnet Dawn, Ellis County, Texas

From this location, it was only about a two-minute drive to the wetland location I had visited at the end of the previous day. Given the cool air, I though there might be some mist coming off the water at this spot, so I made a quick run over there and found it worthy of a shot.

Bluebonnet Dawn, Ellis County, Texas

In anticipation of worsening light, I thought this was a good opportunity to head off and explore the North Trail. It took me about 20 minutes to reach the beginning of this area–about 12 miles north on I-45 from the site of the wetland image above. I quickly found a couple of interesting spots–again, behind fences, on private property, but still nice scenes.

Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas

Eventually I reached the Sugar Ridge area and, though the light was now not so great, discovered another couple of scenes. The first was a horse in a field of bluebonnets that required me to pull out the telephoto rig for the first time on this shoot.

Horse and Bluebonnets, Ellis County, Texas

The other spot that caught my eye had nothing to do with bluebonnets. I was glad I noticed it because it implied that I wasn’t operating with full-on bluebonnet tunnel vision.

Morning Pond, Ellis County, Texas

I checked out the rest of the North Trail, but I wasn’t nearly as impressed with it as I was the South Trail. I did mark a couple of spots for a possible return the following morning and then, as it was approximately noon, retreated to my lodging to check email.

It was during this email check that I discovered a note from an East Coast camera dealer I had contacted about six weeks earlier, informing me that a second Z7ii camera body had become available and would be in my hands before the end of that week. That would mean that I would have that camera in my possession when it was time to begin the trip to the desert southwest at the end of April. With the guarantee of two Z cameras (as well as two Z lenses) in my possession, I decided to rethink my decision about which camera system to take with me on that trip. So, I thought, it might be a good idea to see what it would be like to shoot with the Z camera in the field–something I had not done to date–right away. So, even though the light was still pretty harsh, I headed out early that afternoon to see what the experience would be like. After playing around with a plot of flowers in an open field across from the hotel where I was staying, I took my gear–all of it, Z-system and F-system (in case the Z-system experience was less than pleasing)– to Veterans Memorial Park in Ennis, a public location that allowed me to freely roam over an extensive field of bluebonnets (and a few other wildflowers), unencumbered by fences or private property restrictions.

I took only one of my Z7ii bodies as well as the 24-70/4 and 14-30/4 Z-mount lenses into the park. While the sun was out, it was partly cloudy. Even when the sun wasn’t behind a full blown cloud bank, it was diffused by a thin layer of clouds that covered most of the sky.

Bluebonnet Field, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Intimate, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Intimate, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet and Indian Paintbrush, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Intimate, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Intimate, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Intimate, Veterans Memorial Park, Ellis County, Texas

I had a great time working with the camera for an hour or so at this location and then moved on to explore some of the other areas in and around the South Trail for the rest of the daylight hours.

Pastoral Black & White, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field Panorama, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet and Indian Paintbrush Intimate, Ellis County, Texas
Wildflowers, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field at Dusk, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet and Indian Paintbrush Intimate, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet and Indian Paintbrush Intimate, Ellis County, Texas

As sunset approached, I returned to the same spot where I had photographed at the end of the day 24 hours earlier. This time, the sky was much more interesting and I hastened to take advantage of it.

Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas

I was treated to some absolutely beautiful light and sky conditions over the next half hour or so.

Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field at Dusk, Ellis County, Texas

The following morning, though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I returned to the Sugar Ridge area of the North Trail at first light for one parting bluebonnet shot, at a spot I’d expressly earmarked during the previous day’s scout, before I made the trek back to Houston.

Bluebonnet Field at Sunrise, Ellis County, Texas

That was the end of this spring’s bluebonnet photography for me. If this had been a bad bloom–as I had been told several times–I could only imagine what a really good year would look like.

My time with the Z cameras had proven so pleasing that I made the decision to take that system, not the older F-mount cameras, on the trip to the desert southwest. I’ll start detailing that experience–which ended in early May–over the next few weeks.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 7, 2021

Texas Bluebonnet Bloom, Part II

If my bluebonnet experience in Brenham was less than phenomenal, I had higher hopes for Ennis. A town of about 20,000 located roughly 35 miles south of Dallas, Ennis is the official “bluebonnet city of Texas” (as proclaimed by the Texas legislature in 1997). The community has a three-day long weekend bluebonnet festival every year, timed at the estimated peak of the bloom (typically in mid-April). An official website has recommended driving “bluebonnet trails” in the countryside near the town and provides regular updates on the status of the bloom.

Bluebonnet Field Panorama, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field Panorama, Ellis County, Texas

This year’s festival–yes, there was a bluebonnet festival in Ennis in 2021–was held April 16-18. According to the Ennis website, bluebonnet peak (delayed there, as everywhere in Texas this year, due to the massive late winter freeze that hit the entire state), was expected to be during the festival or shortly thereafter. With no personal familiarity with the area, and given the three-hour one-way drive from the Houston area to Ennis, I decided to make this a multi-day exploration. I would drive up there on Sunday, the 18th–the last day of the festival–explore that afternoon and evening, give myself the entire next day and the early morning of the 20th. I’d drive back to the Houston area on Tuesday, after a sunrise shoot.

Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas

I took both of my camera systems with me, for some reason. At the time of my departure, I didn’t expect to get a second Z7ii camera body before departing for a trip to the desert southwest on April 27, so I planned to shoot with my Nikon F-mount system on that trip. Given that expectation, I didn’t see the point of working with the Z-system while in Ennis, but for some reason I decided to take it with me. This turned out to be fortuitous, as I’ll explain later.

Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas

I arrived in Ennis about mid-afternoon and quickly started the process of exploring the area. There were two spots on the list of recommended public bluebonnet locations and I made a quick foray to the first–a public nature area. It was pretty much a total debacle. The place was a zoo, the light was awful and–because there had been unfettered access to the bluebonnets for several days–the flowers had been pretty well trampled. What’s more, the area wasn’t all that conducive to wide angle landscape imagery; there were too many people and too many man made distractions (utility poles and the like). I poked around for maybe 30 minutes without ever taking my equipment out of the car and then left. It was time to explore the “North Trail” driving route, located to the northeast of the town itself, and hope for better opportunities.

Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas

I drove around this area in the steadily improving light of the late afternoon and evening, stopping numerous times and marking locations on my GPS. Given that it was still the weekend, there plenty of people out and about but the number declined as the evening wore on.

Bluebonnet Sunset, Ellis County, Texas

While photographing, I ran into many of the same issues that had greeted me in Brenham, most notably the fact that all of the fields of flowers I found were located on private property. But while this stumbling block remained, the fact is that I found far, far more fields of flowers around Ennis than I did in Washington County, where Brenham is located. What’s more, these flower fields had many more flowers than the Brenham fields did and that meant that there were a lot more options. What’s more, some of the fields weren’t fenced; I’m sure they were still on private property, even though many of them weren’t posted. I don’t traipse onto any land that I even suspect is privately owned, and this occasion was no exception, but without fences it was possible to go right up to the edge of the fields, allowing me to get very close to the flowers and not have to worry about encumbrances. I did see people–lots of people–wandering into some of these fields , but I very deliberately did not follow their example. (I should note that I never saw anyone scale a fence during my time in Ellis County.)

Bluebonnet Sunset, Ellis County, Texas

I was pretty excited by what I saw in my first few hours in the Ennis area. I hadn’t even glimpsed the South Trail, but I’d already taken note of at least a half dozen locations that I deemed highly promising on the North Trail route. There was a bald sky at sunset, but that didn’t keep me from photographing at a spot that included a wetland that I discovered along a back road. The area was fenced, but I was still able to find a couple of spots that provided decent vantage points.

Bluebonnet Wetland at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas

With a scouted location for Monday’s sunrise and all day to explore both the South Trail and the other public spot set aside for bluebonnets in Ennis proper, the prospect of much lighter crowds given that it would be a weekday and a forecast for partly cloudy skies and very light winds all that next day, I couldn’t wait for dawn’s first light.

Bluebonnet Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Posted by: kerryl29 | June 1, 2021

A Toe in the Water: First Look at Bluebonnets

Many years ago–12 or 13, I think–I had plans to head to Texas during the wildflower bloom to photograph bluebonnets. I was embedded entirely in the Midwest back then–Chicago and Indianapolis–so it wasn’t going to be particularly convenient, but I had a contact down there who had provided me with a fairly extensive list of locations to visit (mostly, if not entirely, in the Hill Country, as I recall). And then, some time mid-winter, as I was beginning to make travel plans, my contact emailed me and strongly suggested that I not bother coming. Most of Texas was in a drought, he told me, and the forecast was for an awful wildflower season, making it (in his opinion) a waste of time and cash. So I canceled. (Epilogue: the advice was apparently on the money, as all reports concurred that it was a very poor bloom that year.)

While I kept the idea of visiting subsequently in the back of my mind, I never really got to the planning stages again, for any one of a number of reasons. But when my wife and I relocated from Indianapolis to the Houston area in the summer of 2019, I figured that I would finally have a chance to scratch the bluebonnet itch. My first theoretical chance to do so would be in the spring of 2020, but the pandemic destroyed that (as it did so many other things); under a virtual travel ban, I was in the Chicago area from late February until August of last year. This year, however, I was determined to engage in some bluebonnet photography.

The 2021 Texas wildflower bloom was later than usual, a product of the extraordinary deep freeze that enveloped the entire state, wreaking havoc for weeks, in February. And while there was a great deal of debate regarding whether said freeze would hurt or help the bloom, when it did occur the consensus seemed to be that it harmed things a bit, at least as far as bluebonnets are concerned. Most long-time observers I discussed this subject with classified this year as a mild (or significant) disappointment. I had no prior experience with the Texas bloom, so I was excited to see just about anything that blossomed.

While my long-term goal has always been to visit the Hill Country for the bloom, I was unable to do so this year. A series of events kept me in the Chicago area until about April 10. The bloom was late, but it wasn’t that late, so by the time I drove back down to the Houston area the best of the Hill Country bloom was, I was told, done. But I wasn’t too late for two other locations: Brenham, in Washington County, an easy hour drive from my base in the northern part of the Houston area, and Ennis, the official bluebonnet capital of Texas, in the exurbs south of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, about three hours north of Houston.

The Brenham area was the logistical low-hanging fruit, given its proximity. It was expected to be at peak just as I was arriving in Houston, so I made quick plans to zip over there shortly thereafter. Ennis wasn’t supposed to peak until the following weekend. Given the distance involved, I thought it would be best dealt with as an overnight stay and made plans to do so the following week. Ennis was the real prize; it’s widely regarded by bluebonnet aficionados to be either the best or second best location in the state for bluebonnet viewing/photographing. Brenham–though it has a bluebonnet festival of its own (Ennis’ is better known and bigger)–isn’t as highly regarded, but I thought it would make for a warm up for the Ennis trip. Besides, it would be an opportunity for me to, finally, see bluebonnets with my own eyes.

The weather conditions on the day I spent in and around Brenham weren’t great. It was warm (fine), hazy (not ideal) and windy (a real negative). But it was still worth the trip, I think.

Bluebonnets, Washington County, Texas

I learned a few useful lessons during my time in Brenham. The most significant is that most of the best bluebonnet locations–as they pertain to landscape photography–are on private property. I had every reason to believe that this would be true in Ennis as well. (Spoiler alert: It is.) This makes photography a challenge. I do not, ever, wander onto private property unless I have express permission to do so. Most private property in Texas–and most other places for that matter–is fenced, so compositions have to be teased out with this encumbrance in mind. There are some publicly accessible places in both areas that have nice stands of bluebonnets, but they often come with their own limitations (the most notable of these is unwanted elements–think utility polls,. wires and the like–creeping into the scene).

Bluebonnets, Washington County, Texas

The fence issue meant that I frequently couldn’t get as close to the flowers as I would have liked, or approached them from the angle that I would have preferred. It also meant it was often impossible to set up as low to the ground as I wanted. I tried to make the best of it.

Bluebonnets, Washington County, Texas

In fact, nothing about this shoot was ideal. There weren’t as many flowers as I’d hoped to see. The light wasn’t great. The wind was a constant bother. And I only had a vague set of locations to visit, based on some online postings from people who lived in the area.

Bluebonnets, Washington County, Texas

But I kicked around for awhile and finally found a pretty decent cluster of bluebonnets (and paintbrush) near the end of the day. Best of all, it was on a property that was open to public access, so I ultimately got a chance to get close to the flowers and as low to the ground as I liked. I still had to deal with the wind, unfortunately.

Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush, Washington County, Texas
Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush, Washington County, Texas
Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush, Washington County, Texas

It had been a useful preview, I thought, for my trip to Ennis, which would commence five days later. I hoped that the flowers–and the associated photo opportunities–would be more plentiful in Ellis County. If may be a bit of foreshadowing when I state that the fruits of that brief trip will take more than one blog entry to cover thoroughly.

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