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.


  1. Beautiful – I’ve never been to Big Bend, looks like a lovely place. Really enjoyed those Mockingbird photos too 🙂

    • Thanks. Big Bend is quite something.

      Re the mockingbird…every now and then an animal (bird, mammal, reptile, etc.) poses for me. Animal photography is certainly not my forte.

  2. This is another great set of images from Big Bend. Thanks for including the thought and execution of the moonset composite.

    • Thanks, Ellen. I don’t go into detail about the machinations of a particular photograph too often; but every now and then I think it’s worth explaining the technical aspect of how a photograph came to be.

  3. A wonderful opportunity for you, Kerry, and what a treat to be able to share your vision of these iconic landscapes.

  4. So pretty!

  5. […] 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 […]

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] Day 1     Day 2     Day 3     Day 4     Day 5 Part I     Day 5 Part II     Day […]

  8. […] Big Bend Day 5 (Part I): The Leitmotif of Light […]

  9. […] a tripod acolyte, but I am not going to hike any distance with two tripods!) You may recall that I did this a couple of times during my trip to Big Bend National Park. It paid off nicely at Skyline View; it was the only time […]

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