Posted by: kerryl29 | November 14, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Nevada Fall Power

Late in the morning one day during my time at Yosemite National Park a few years ago, I made something of an on-the-fly decision to hike the Mist Trail. Those familiar with Yosemite are probably scratching their heads at this revelation. Why would I decide to hike the very popular (and, thus, very crowded) Mist Trail at the height of the tourist hour (i.e. when a heavily-visited trail can be expected to be at its most crowded)? As best I can recall, my attitude was on the order of, “what the hell.” I’d had a wonderful morning of photography, it was now a classic blue sky day, and if I didn’t hike the trail that afternoon, I probably wouldn’t have had time to do it at all before leaving the area in a couple of days. So basically, why not?

There are numerous ways to hike this trail, in part or in full–meaning all the way up and beyond Vernal Fall (where the vast majority of people turn around), all the way up and around Nevada Fall, and back to the trailhead (by one of several routes). The full loop is a minimum of something like eight miles with substantial elevation gain and loss. I had hiked the loop once before (back in 2001) and was keen to do it again, and so I did, with the full knowledge that, with time for photography (in the grotesquely plodding way in which I typically engage in the pursuit), this would take most of the remaining nine-odd hours of daylight.

Given the record snowfall in the Sierra-Nevada that winter, the waterfalls were absolutely roaring, and after working my way around the anticipated crowds below the waterfall, I donned my waterproof gear as I made my way through the extended splash zone, where the trail runs past Vernal Fall. As expected, there was far less foot traffic on the trail once I moved past the top of Vernal Fall. (By the time I got back near the bottom of Vernal, near the end of the hike at the bottom of the loop, it was less than an hour before sunset. The area that had been choked with visitors near noontime was almost completely deserted.)

As I made my way along the John Muir Trail, on the back side of the loop, I stopped a number of times to make images of Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall from the numerous spots when both were visible. These features were bathed in sunlight, but it was now flattering angular light. Still, as is so often the case in Yosemite, monochrome renderings were often on my mind.

Nevada Fall, particularly in the spring and especially after a record snow winter, is an extraordinarily powerful cataract, and I decided to highlight that fact. Using a telephoto lens, I zoomed in on a section of Nevada Fall’s upper half, and–unlike my typical waterfall rendering–chose a relatively fast shutter speed. The simple composition had little color anyway, so black and white was a natural consideration. Post-processing was relatively simple: a contrast bump and a bit of modest, selective burning. The final product is below.

Nevada Fall Intimate Black & White, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
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Posted by: kerryl29 | November 7, 2022

The Ancillary Costs

Please indulge me for a moment while I complain about something endemic to photography: the expense. Pretty much everything about photography, at least the way I like to partake in it, is expensive. The equipment is expensive. The associated travel is expensive. And so are the ancillary costs associated with the “developmental’ (read: processing) aspects of digital photography. The software and hardware involved with fleshing out the digital darkroom certainly can be expensive as well.

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

What has inspired this rant? Recently, while out of town, I was informed that my image-editing desktop computer was failing to boot properly and, shortly thereafter, was failing to turn on at all. Long story short, the motherboard has died. Now, this computer was nearly 10 years old–ancient, in computer terms–so it really didn’t owe me anything, but it was a sad bit of news to learn nonetheless.

Prairie Afternoon Black & White, Union County, New Mexico

If you’re wondering what I’m doing with a (nearly) ten-year-old computer, see the first paragraph of this post. When I purchased this unit, in the spring of 2013, it had fairly high-end specs. That was intentional, as I intended to keep it for a long time. I don’t know that I anticipated using it for quite this long, but given how costly a high(ish) end computer is, I certainly wasn’t planning to replace it in short order.

East Side Reflections, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

In truth, I started noodling about a possible upgrade almost three years ago. At the time, I was starting to see some modest performance issues–not signs of hardware failure, simply indications of incremental resource limitations. Given the age of the system–it was already pushing seven years at that point–a memory upgrade seemed insufficient. Right around the time that I started to seriously consider whether I should upgrade, the pandemic hit and, shortly thereafter, the computer chip shortage pushed prices through the roof. As a result, I mothballed the idea of upgrading. I could wait out the performance issues, I felt. Sooner or later prices would fall and I’d take the plunge.

Bear Creek Nature Trail, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas

For a variety of reasons I needn’t get into, I procrastinated about upgrading. And then, poof! (Or perhaps more accurately, “splat.”) The computer is now dead as a door nail. This will make the transition to a new system more difficult than it otherwise would be. And it’s still going to cost some real cash to get a replacement. On the rare occasions when I make these system transitions (did I mention that it’s been almost 10 years? yes?), I try to future-proof things to an extent, so that I don’t have to repeat the unpleasant process any time soon. And there’s an initial cost to that. (The alternative has always struck me as being penny-wise, pound-foolish.)

Aspen Glory, Coleman Picnic Area, Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park, Alberta

Additionally, for reasons I won’t get into at the moment that have nothing directly to do with the computer failure but will keep me away from my home base for most of the next few months, I won’t be in a position to receive or set up a new system any time soon. As a result, this issue won’t be resolved for the foreseeable future. The bad part of that? I can’t do any image processing work at all. The good part? I get to keep my wallet in my pocket for a bit longer. I don’t think the tradeoff is worth it, but that’s the way it goes.

Fall Color Intimate, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Posted by: kerryl29 | October 31, 2022

Return to the Desert: More from Death Valley

The second full day at Death Valley involved a great deal of location scouting and less photographing than we would have liked, but we did get some time behind the camera. The day started out at Mesquite Flat Dunes. Even though we spent some time in the dune field the previous day, it was still a bit difficult to gain our bearings in the pre-dawn darkness. When the light came up, we realized that we hadn’t hiked far enough into the field as copious footprints were still visible all over the place. It was also completely clear that morning and occasionally windy (meaning there was some blowing sand). But we persevered and managed to get a few images in.

Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Before we hiked out, we spent some time in a playa area of the dunes field, where a series of abstract and semi-abstract image opportunities presented themselves. This experience had been one benefit of scouting the area the previous day as we’d discovered the playa and made a point of setting aside time to examine it more closely this morning.

Playa Abstract Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Playa Abstract Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Playa Abstract Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Dunes Intimate Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Around mid-day, we returned to a spot that we’d looked over without our gear the previous afternoon. The light was quite harsh, but I wanted to see if what I could capture would hold up to a black & white treatment. (To be honest, I’m doubtful that it does, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.)

Badwater Basin Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Badwater Basin Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California

Much of the rest of the day was spent scouting various locations sans photo gear (the light was not conducive to good photography), but mid-afternoon we did haul our equipment into Golden Canyon, which yielded several interesting opportunities.

Golden Canyon Abstract, Death Valley National Park, California
Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Golden Canyon Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California

In the early evening, we returned to a location in Badwater Basin that we’d looked over at length the previous day. Those intimately familiar with Death Valley may recognize this area, but I’m being deliberately vague about the specific spot as it’s quite sensitive terrain and I don’t want to encourage a stampede of visitors by identifying it any more specifically than I already have.

We were quite taken with this location when we first came across it and, luckily for us, for one of the very few times on the entire trip, the sky cooperated as sunset approached. I started out with an image that I planned to convert to monochrome.

Badwater Basin Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California

As the sun dropped closer to the mountains to the west, the salt-encrusted edgings of the stream caught the angular light and simply lit up.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

When the sun dropped below the mountains and started to light up the clouds, I carefully moved around to the other side of the water. Doing so required a significant detour, as I didn’t want to mar any of the delicate ground-based formations you see in the above images.

Sunset, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Sunset, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Sunset, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

That concluded the day’s photography. Opportunities had been limited, but rewarding, in most instances. The next day would begin yet again at Mesquite Flat Dunes and the resulting photo opportunities would be more plentiful than they had been this day.

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 24, 2022

Gear (and Technique) Follows Intent

Let’s do something we seldom do on this blog:  talk about gear.  Well, sort of talk about gear.  And let’s do something else we do here rather sparingly:  talk about technique. Well, sort of talk about technique.

First, a seemingly irrelevant exposition of my current camera/lens situation:

Half Dome at Sunset from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California

Earlier this year I completed my transition from the Nikon F-mount system to the Nikon Z-mount.  This process began roughly 18 months ago when I first acquired a Z7ii camera body with a 24-70/4 “kit” lens.  (I put the word kit in quotation marks because the 24-70/4 lens—part of Nikon’s premium Z-mount lens line designated as “S” (for “Signature)—is surely one of the best performing kit lenses ever designed, produced and sold, for any camera system.)  At the time the Z7ii/24-70 purchase was made, I also added the 14-30/4 to cover ultrawide focal lengths and very shortly thereafter I added another Z7ii body.  (For more information as to why I have two identical camera bodies, go here.)  Along with the Nikon FTZ adapter (purchased at a steep discount at the time of the original Z7ii acquisition), which allows relatively seamless performance for most modern F lenses mounted on Z cameras I was, at least temporarily, set.  One camera body had the 24-70 lens attached, and when the 14-30 was needed (for focal lengths shorter than 24 mm), it would be swapped onto this body.  The other camera had the FTZ adapter mounted and the 80-400 mm F-mount lens from my old system attached.  This left a small gap between 70 mm and 80 mm—only rarely an issue.  But it also left me with the 80-400 lens as my telephoto option.  For the record, I have owned two 80-400 mm F-mount lenses over the period of more than 15 years and I have never been entirely happy with either of these rather expensive optics, mainly because I never considered either of them sharp enough.  (The second, more recent model, is better than the first, but only by degree.)

Mt. Burgess from Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Additionally, I continued to use, on occasion, two other F-mount lenses with the adapter:  Nikon’s now ancient 200/4 mm macro lens and a Sigma 24-35/2.  I use the 24-35 sparingly, but it was a terrific asset when photographing the aurora borealis in Alaska last year.  The macro lens is a favorite of mine, but because of its design, it cannot autofocus with Z cameras.  The only reason this matters to me (I rarely use AF for single shots with a macro lens) is that it makes it impossible to use the Z’s automatic focus stacking feature with this lens.  I remain hopeful that someone—Nikon or a third party—will produce a reliable adapter that will allow these old-style F lenses to autofocus with the Z system, but I’m not holding my breath.  (Nikon has released an excellent “mid-range” macro lens (105 mm/f2.8) for the Z-system, but I’m not sure I do enough macro photography to justify purchasing it and I do much prefer the longer working distance of the 200 mm model, so I currently have no plans to buy the Z-mount macro lens.)

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

Nikon has had a lens road map for the Z system, which they’ve modified from time to time, since the Z lineup was first announced back in the late summer of 2018.  The two lenses on that list that I always hoped to purchase were the 24-120/4 and the 100-400/4-5.6.  I once had a 24-120 lens for the F-mount and absolutely loved the versatility of the focal range (but was not very happy with the optical performance of the lens).  I waited for reviews of this new lens, and for the 100-400.  As more and more lenses—particularly S-designation lenses—were released for the Z-mount, and it became clear that there wasn’t a dud in the bunch, I became increasingly confident that these two lenses would measure up to my standards.  As a result, I pre-ordered both of them within a few days of their simultaneous announcement in October, 2021, though I hedged my bets by making sure that I could cancel those orders if I didn’t like what I was hearing as reviews trickled in.  (I knew that it would be months after the pre-order was placed before I could expect delivery of these new lenses.)  As I hoped and expected, the reviews I read were glowing.  Days before the end of the year I received the 100-400 and, reviews notwithstanding, I ran my own set of side-by-side optical tests of the 100-400 and the 80-400.  The former blew the latter away, as I anticipated, allowing me to retire the 80-400 from my kit for good as well as banish the adapter to usage with only the macro and 24-35 mm lenses, both of which are specialty case performers for me.

Swallowtail and Azaleas, Kings Mountain State Park, South Carolina

I didn’t receive the 24-120 until mid-May, almost eight months after the pre-order was placed, by which time I knew I wanted it and didn’t give it a true field workout until the recently completed trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin (to be chronicled at some point down the road), during which it performed brilliantly.  So my current working kit now consists of two cameras and three lenses:  14-30/4, 24-120/4 and 100-400/4-5.6.  There are now no focal length gaps between 14 and 400 mm and with some focal length overlap, there’s less need than ever to swap out lenses or rigs.  For the first time since I began shooting with a digital camera (more than 19 years ago) I’m completely happy with my landscape lens set. 

[Waves tiny flag.]

Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

So that’s the gear talk.  I’m sure that everyone (?) reading this is happy that I’m happy.  But why am I, someone routinely on the record as stating that (in my opinion) gear is overrated, going on and on in this post about gear? 

Answer:  To further illustrate and emphasize that point, and to adapt that very assertion to the area of technique.

Monument Rocks Black & White, Logan County, Kansas

A discussion I had with my friend and photo buddy Ellen Kinsel made me think about this.  (Thanks to Ellen for helping to inspire this post.)   We recently spent a week, give or take a day, in northern Minnesota, photographing along the North Shore of Lake Superior and in the aftermath of the trip, we’ve exchanged a few images.  This led to a brief discussion about approaching some of the scenes we encountered on the trip and, inevitably, about gear and techniques used in some of those instances.  During that dialogue, I mentioned that whatever techniques I may use in a given instance are based on what I intend to do when rendering a scene. 

Upper Falls Black & White, Letchworth State Park, New York

Whatever I’m doing—whether it’s related to specific in-field techniques (e.g. focus stacking, high dynamic range capture, etc.), or what lens I choose to use, or where I choose to position the camera, and so on—it’s all a matter of my intention to present the scene in a particular way for some explicit set of reasons.  The gear and technique(s) I use follow my intent.  Gear and technique are tools–means to an intended end.  They are not, in my view, ends in and of themselves.  I don’t bracket focus and/or exposure for the sake of it.  I don’t use a given lens just because I have it in my backpack.  It’s all about achieving the means to express a given vision.  Just as a painter might choose a specific type style of brush and/or employ a particular painting technique to achieve his/her vision, I choose a specific focal length (lens), employ specific camera settings (the exposure triad), select a specific camera position (e.g. close to ground level, etc.) and use a particular method of capture (e.g. focus stacking) for a direct, intended purpose.  The gear (and technique) are the tangible means to a desired aesthetic, a decided intangible end.  And it’s all very intentional.

Bluebells Intimate, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

All of that may seem extremely obvious.  (At first blush, it certainly does to me.)  But apparently, for many people, it isn’t.  Let’s face it, there are photographic techniques and styles that become quasi-fads.  Remember when everyone and his brother was capturing star trails?  Remember when light painting was all the rage?  Remember when every other photographer was using blur techniques by pointing his/her camera out the window of a moving vehicle or playing around with vertical camera movement or zooming during a long exposure (frequently of a grove of trees)?  If it’s sounds as though I’m being dismissive of any or all of these things, that’s not my intent at all.  It’s simply to point out that there’s a kind of copycat tendency with something (anything?) that’s a bit…unconventional and new.  (This can apply to digital techniques just as consequentially as with in-field actions.  Remember when you couldn’t turn around without tripping over someone who was implementing the Orton effect?)

White Trillium, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

What seems to happen with many of these things is that a huge number of people play around with some new technique (or unusual piece of equipment) in a chunk after it bursts on the scene and then, almost inevitably, it—whatever it is—ceases to be new.  After a bit of time, it’s no longer so interesting and you see evidence of it less and less as time goes by.  As a consequence, the faddish nature of the technique fades away.  But the technique itself doesn’t disappear completely.  People do, after all, still capture star trails, and they do still create blurs, and they do still use things like focus stacking, and so on.  And, hopefully, the residual use of these no-longer-new approaches overwhelmingly becomes the province of people who are using it to accomplish something intentional. 

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

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing around, in a sort of carefree manner, with something new.  It can be a lot of fun and it can also lead to a creative aesthetic as employers of these new things start to realize new possibilities.  But eventually, the excitement that comes with the veneer of newness dissipates and technique becomes little more than a tool…and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Pinkham Notch Color, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

When the ability to (relatively easily) stitch digital panoramas became a reality a couple of decades ago, I kind of went bananas with them.  I was creating panos here, there and everywhere.  But over time, the “wow, I can do that” aspect of the concept wore off and I produced fewer and fewer panos.  These days, I still create panoramas (sometimes stitched, sometimes single frame crops), but it’s solely a function of when I see a scene that I think really lends itself to a panoramic rendering.

Lost Lake Slough Reflections, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

The same thing can, and often does, happen with gear.  I know people who have picked up a fisheye lens and, for a few days or weeks, all they do is photograph with the fisheye.  Everything looks different in the viewfinder when a fisheye lens is mounted on the camera.  But gradually, the newness factor recedes and, the vast majority of the time, the fisheye fades into niche use.  For a lot of people, it ends up gathering dust In the closet.

Lily Pads Black & White, Mabel Lake, Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, Wisconsin

I don’t own a fisheye lens, but I can remember a similar (if more muted) tendency when I first procured an ultrawide angle lens.  It got some pretty heavy use for a while, but after a bit of time, that eased dramatically.  Now, when I pull out the ultrawide, it’s to achieve a specific effect when facing a scene.

Technique is following creative intent.   And gear use is following creative intent.  And ultimately, that’s how I think it should be.

Golden Light, Twelvemile Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Posted by: kerryl29 | October 17, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Chapel Falls

On a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 2008, I carved out a day to explore the Chapel Area of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It was an area of the park I hadn’t previously visited and I took the hike down to and around Chapel Beach (it’s roughly a seven-mile round trip). A bit more than a mile into the hike you reach a point where you can view Chapel Falls. I remember viewing the waterfall on that hike; I also recall not being particularly impressed with it as a photographic subject. The cataract–a 70-foot drop–is dramatic enough, but I couldn’t find a good vantage point from which to photograph it and came away fairly disappointed. I also recall making the hike on a mostly sunny day and a good potion of Chapel Falls was in sun. I’m not often inspired by sun-kissed waterfalls; I strongly prefer to photograph such subjects in soft light. Were that not enough, there wasn’t all that much water coming through Chapel Creek that day.

On my most recent of six visits to the UP, in October of 2020, I wasn’t planning on returning to the Chapel area, but my photo buddy Jason wanted to see it and, on a day that wasn’t very promising photographically for many of the subjects we wanted to capture (it was partly cloudy and quite windy), we decided to make the pilgrimage, figuring it would serve as a scouting session if nothing else.

As I mentioned when I chronicled that trip, peak color was running at least a week ahead of the typical schedule. Many inland locations were already past peak when we were there (roughly Oct. 4-10), but spots near the Lake Superior shore always run 7-10 days behind spots just a few miles inland. As a result, the shoreline was at peak during our time in the UP. Chapel Falls is less than two miles from Superior, so you can imagine what the color was like there. What’s more, there had been a lot of rain in the Upper Peninsula in recent days and we had already experienced the fact that a great deal of water was coursing through the UP’s waterfalls.

Having only seen Chapel Falls when the surrounding foliage was mostly green, I was not prepared for the absolutely gorgeous site I encountered when we reached the falls that day. Fortunately, we arrived just as the sun disappeared behind clouds for more than 20 continuous minutes, bathing the scene in beautiful even light. Just as fortunate, though the wind was blowing like mad (as we would experience first hand when we made it down to the shore later on the hike), at the falls, the spot was mostly sheltered and, as a result, the wind was light and variable.

The foliage was so beautiful, it served as co-center of interest with the waterfall. A two-image stack was necessary to obtain sharpness from the nearest branch of leaves to the trees above and behind Chapel Falls, so I had to wait out lulls in the light breeze. Eventually I got what I was looking for and, using a slow shutter speed to render the water the way I wanted, produced the frames necessary to create the image you see below.

Chapel Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The moral of the story: don’t judge a metaphorical book (in this case, Chapel Falls) by its cover (the less than optimal conditions of the first visit).

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 10, 2022

Return to the Desert: Zabriskie Point, Plus

Much of our first full day at Death Valley was spent scouting. This was my first visit to the park and Jason had only been there once previously, merely for parts of two days. But despite our inexperience, we did have a predetermined spot for sunrise–Zabriskie Point. The drive to the location would take about 35 minutes from Stovepipe Wells and we wanted to arrive roughly 45 minutes before sunrise, so it would be an early morning.

It wasn’t much past the onset of civil twilight when we arrived at the Zabriskie Point parking lot; it was dark enough that we needed headlamps to see where we were going. There’s a short, but somewhat steep, hike up to the viewpoint at Zabriskie from the parking area, and we weren’t the first people to arrive that morning. But it wasn’t super crowded and we quickly grabbed our gear and made the short walk up to the spot where I would first glimpse the utterly unique landscape visible in the valley below.

By the time we reached the viewpoint there was just enough light to begin to see the formations and I made a quick sweep of the area and quickly decided that the broad rock ledge below the “official” viewpoint was the place to be. After several minutes of careful observing, I set up my tripod and made a long exposure of the scene below me.

Earthshadow, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

This was the first of a series of images I produced while the earthshadow effect was still in evidence. The resulting gradient is among the best ways to retain interest in the sky when there are no clouds, and it requires photographing in the direction opposite where the sun is rising or setting. So, this largely west-facing viewpoint was a perfect perch for sunrise on this clear-sky morning.

Earthshadow, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Earthshadow, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Earthshadow, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Earthshadow Panorama, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

When the sun pierced the horizon and shadows began to be cast across the terrain below, I changed my focus to much tighter compositions and started thinking–most of the time–about abstract and quasi-abstract monochrome renderings. Sometimes I focused my attention on areas that were still in open shade, and sometimes I was drawn to locations where direct sun was beginning to make an impact.

Either way, patterned themes were the order of the day. And a substantial majority of the time, I felt that black and white renderings of the image would be a more effective way to reveal the patterns. There were a few exceptions, but they are just that–exceptions.

Zabriskie Point Foothills Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Foothills Abstract Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Light Points, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Foothills Abstract Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Foothills Abstract Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Panorama, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Foothills Abstract Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Foothills, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Spotlight Black & White, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Foothills Black & White, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Spotlight Black & White, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Foothills, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
Shadowland Black & White, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

When the light became too hot, we put a wrap on our Zabriskie session and moved along, scouting numerous spots in the park over the remainder of the day. It was well into the afternoon before we photographed again, at a spot known as Mosaic Canyon. There are a number of readily accessible canyons in Death Valley that aren’t narrow enough to qualify as slots, but still of interest.

The photo options are mostly of the subtle variety; teasing out interesting compositions requires some careful observation.

Mosaic Canyon Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Mosaic Canyon Abstract, Death Valley National Park, California
Mosaic Canyon Close-Up, Death Valley National Park, California

Late in the day, we spent a fair amount of time scouting a location we would photograph multiple times later in the trip, the Mesquite Flat Dune Field. Much of that time was spent without our gear–a pure scout–but before the end of the day, I did retrieve my equipment to make one image of the scene.

Land of Shadows, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

By the time we were in the dunes, they were crisscrossed with footprints (even though we walked at least a mile into the field), so unmarred scenes were limited. Our hope was that the wind would kick up that evening and sweep the dunes clean, as we hoped to photograph in the dunes at first light the next day…

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 3, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Pompton Lake Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story Behind the Image: Everlasting Beams of Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 19, 2022

Return to the Desert: A Dip Into Death Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset, Death Valley National Park, California

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

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

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 12, 2022

Return to the Desert: The Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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