Posted by: kerryl29 | May 24, 2021

Mississippi River State Park

In the first half of April, as part of a two-day 1100-mile drive from the Chicago area to the Houston area, I stopped in Forrest City, Arkansas, which is roughly the halfway point of the trip. I arrived with a few hours of daylight remaining and, based on a tiny bit of “research” I’d done (basically five minutes poking around on the Web) in advance of the drive, I made my way to Mississippi River State Park, which is about 30 minutes south of Forrest City, just outside the small town of Marianna.

Despite the park’s name, it’s actually about five miles from anywhere on the property to the nearest point of Mississippi River shoreline. But there is a decent-sized body of water within the park boundaries: the manmade Bear Creek Lake.

I really didn’t know what to expect in the way of stimulating subject matter before I arrived; I was merely looking for some place that might provide the impetus to use my camera equipment.

The conditions when I arrived weren’t great–a bald blue sky and a decent amount of wind. But I meandered around a bit, near the lake’s shore, not far from a campground. What I found, at first, was a relatively sheltered inlet of the lake that had some interesting–at least to my eye–reflections. I pulled out the 80-400 mm lens and messed around for about a half an hour at this spot, altering my shutter speed depending on the amount of rippling due to the wind.

Bear Creek Lake Reflections, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas
Bear Creek Lake Reflections, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas

I drove around for a bit, looking for other scenes that might be of interest but struck out until I reached the head of the park’s lone marked trail–the Bear Creek Nature Trail, a self-guided (roughly) mile-long loop that had a series of interesting explanatory placards discussing the various types of hardwoods along the forested route. The sun was within an hour of setting when I hit the trailhead and it had already descended behind a ridge, so the area I hiked through was almost entirely in even light. What I discovered was a fair amount of blue phlox, and a few other wildflowers, as well as fresh spring greenery on the still leafing trees. I was also fortunate that the wind died down significantly.

Bear Creek Nature Trail, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas
Bear Creek Nature Trail, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas
Bear Creek Nature Trail, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas
Bear Creek Nature Trail, Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas

I used up virtually every moment of light, as it was just about dark when I returned to the trailhead. It won’t go down as my most spectacular few hours of photography, but it was a pleasing late afternoon/early evening following a very long drive that day.

My next post will feature images from my time photographing bluebonnets during the Texas wildflower bloom later in April.

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 18, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Aspens Forever

I apologize for the lack of content lately, but a great deal of recent travel (and other unrelated events) has made it difficult for me to produce new posts. That will change in the very near future as, beginning this week, I now have the opportunity to process a trove of imagery that has been made over the past couple of months. In the meantime, I hope another “Story Behind the Image” will help bridge the gap.

When I was in Colorado several autumns ago, I spent a great deal of time poking around aspen groves and forests. This is partly due to the fact that aspens are incredibly striking in the autumn and partly because I’m fascinated by birches and aspens, due to their unique black and white trunks. One day while I was in the San Juan Mountains, I meandered over Coal Bank Pass near the end of the day. I visited several overlooks, which encouraged me to view the scenes unfolding (mostly) below me with both relatively wide angle and telephoto focal lengths.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I tend to go with longer lenses when I photograph from overlooks; the exception is when there’s something of foreground interest that captures my attention, but that is decidedly not the rule. And that pattern held while I was at the Coal Bank overlooks.

The way I typically handle long lens situations from an overlook is to scan the scene with the naked eye and, when I spot a detail that appears interesting, I pull out the camera with the telephoto lens attached and have a closer look, to see if what I initially noticed holds up to tighter scrutiny. Typically what I’m seeing is some sort of pattern, a set of converging lines, or some other form of graphic interest.

Since a telephoto lens, by its very nature, is going to compress the scene, the considerations as to what will make for a compelling subject are typically completely different than those that represent potential wide angle photo opportunities. While depth–broadly speaking, bringing a three-dimensional feel to a two-dimensional medium–is ordinarily a prime concern when working with a wide angle lens, it’s not usually a principal consideration when working with telephoto focal lengths, though there are certainly exceptions to both sets of rules…or guidelines, if you prefer.

On this occasion, at Coal Bank Pass, what caught my attention was a seemingly endless stand of aspens on an adjacent slope. This was hardly the first time on the trip that I had seen an apparently infinite “sea” of aspens, but what made this occurrence different was my perspective relative to the stand. Because of the height of my perch relative to the subject, the trunks of many of the aspen strata were plainly visible, rather than just the nearest stand. Instead of an endless expanse of aspen crowns, the lines that made up the various sets gave the scene a very different look and feel.

I pulled out the telephoto lens and, after zooming to 140 mm, I found the patterned look that I felt best represented what had attracted my eye to the scene in the first place.

Voila. Aspens forever.

Aspens Forever, Coal Bank Pass, San Juan National Forest, Colorado
Posted by: kerryl29 | May 3, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Ricker Pond

One day, on my autumn trip to New England a few years ago, Carol Smith was gracious enough to spend a day showing me around part of Vermont. My friend Andy Richards put me in touch with Carol when I told him I was going to spend some time in the Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont because Carol knows the area as well as, if not better than, anyone on the planet. We spent a long day, covering numerous spots, and wrapped up at Groton State Forest.

For a variety of reasons, we didn’t have as much time at Groton as we’d hoped, but we did manage to sneak a peek at several of the ponds that lie within the state forest, wrapping up at Ricker Pond, which was my personal favorite. It had been a mostly gloomy day, with scattered rain throughout the morning and early afternoon, and while the precipitation stopped entirely by late in the day, the cloud cover never really disappeared. We centered our location choices around the weather, picking sites that we thought would benefit from the soft light.

By the time we got to Ricker Pond it was nearly dark, and since it was never all that bright on this particular day, that meant for some long shutter speeds. My final shot at the pond–and, by extension, of the day–was 10 seconds, despite my upping the ISO to 200 and selecting (for me) a wide aperture of f/5.6. Fortunately, there wasn’t a breath of wind at this point in the day. Despite the 10-second exposure, the brilliant foliage is tack sharp and the reflection held up pretty well, too.

Ricker Pond, Groton State Forest, Vermont
Posted by: kerryl29 | April 26, 2021

The Other Side of the Story

Having done a significant amount of complaining about certain aspects of the Nikon Z7ii on this blog in recent weeks, I thought it was only fair that I offer some thoughts about my first field session with the camera, which took place a week before this piece was posted.

Foggy Morning black & white, Ft. Harrison State Park, Indiana

Some background.  I was in Ennis, Texas, a haven for bluebonnets during the spring bloom.  I was only there for one full day and a bit of two others, but it was to be my last time out with the camera prior to an extended trip to the Arizona-Utah back country beginning later this week and into next.  My time in Ennis was my third session with a camera in the field since the start of April.  I spent a bit of time at a state park in eastern Arkansas during a layover on the drive from Chicago to Houston in mid-April and then I was in Washington County, Texas, between Houston and Austin, for one day in mid-April on a quest for wildflowers.

Tenaya Creek Reflections, Yosemite National Park, California

But these sessions with the camera found me still using my Nikon F-mount gear rather than the Z-camera, mostly because I didn’t expect to be able to flesh out my Z-mount kit prior to heading to the Southwest near the end of this month.  It seemed silly to me to begin the process of getting used to the Z-mount gear if I was going to have to revert back to the F-mount during an extended trip.

Muleshoe Picnic Area, Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park, Alberta

But in the middle of my one full day in Ennis I received word that a second Z7ii body would be available to me before I left for the Southwest.  I have detailed, on more than one occasion on this blog, why I insist on having two identical cameras with me when I’m on an extended photo trip.  I hadn’t expected the second Z7ii to be available to me until after I returned from the Southwest, but hearing that I’d be able to have it in my possession before I left made me think.  Maybe I should get out in the field with the one body I had in my possession during the second half of my time in Ennis and see if that experience would lead me to reverse course and go with the Z-mount in Arizona and Utah.  So, beginning in the early afternoon of that single full day in Ennis, I shoved the F-mount cameras aside and, for the remainder of the day, used the Z7ii and my two Z-mount lenses.

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

What was that experience like?

Short answer:  it was good.  Very good, in fact.

Thunder Rock Cove Overlook Black & White, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

My biggest interest in moving to a mirrorless system–something I’ve contemplated doing for the better part of three years now–was to reduce the size and weight of the equipment in my bag.  I have indeed done that, dropping about five pounds and numerous cubic inches of space.  This is partly due to the camera bodies themselves–the Z7ii body is about half the weight of the D800E and much, much smaller–and part of this is a function of the the two Z-mount lenses (the 24-70/4 and the 14-30/4) that I’ve acquired.  The new glass replaces the F-mount 14-24/2.8 and the 24-70/2.8.  It’s apples and oranges given that the two new lenses have maximum apertures of f/4 compared with f/2.8, but the fact is that both of the new lenses are about half the weight and less than 2/3 the size of the old ones.  (I won’t miss the f/2.8 maximum aperture at all; I literally never shot either of the two F-mount lenses at f/2.8 in the field in the nearly 13 years that I’ve owned them.)

Glowing Hoodoos at Sunrise from the Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

So the size/weight goal has been accomplished.  But there’s more to my positive experience with the Z7ii than that.  After a few hours of using the new camera to take pictures of bluebonnets, I realized something:  I haven’t enjoyed the process of working with a camera as much as I did with the Z7ii that afternoon/evening in…I don’t know, maybe ever.  This mirrorless camera and many of its features is really, really well constructed for the type of photography I do. I don’t know how great it would be for action (though AF, at least, seems plenty snappy to me), but for landscape photography, it’s terrific.  I already feel extremely comfortable with it–almost certainly a function of my familiarity with the Nikon ergonomics, menu system and terminology–and going back to the D800E would feel like a step backward. This effect isn’t nearly as dramatic as the change from film to digital was 18 years ago, but it’s pretty consequential.

Foothills, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

I do wish the focus stacking feature worked in a manner that would allow me to directly (rather than indirectly) trigger the start of the process, but the camera still fires off the sequence far, far more quickly than I can do manually.  And because everything with a mirrorless camera requires the camera to be turned on to do anything (the one–and only one–thing I miss about not having an optical viewfinder is the ability to size up the scene with the camera turned off), battery drainage is much more substantial than with a DSLR.  But literally everything else about the electronic viewfinder is superior for landscape shooting and I’ve already adapted my in-field approach to take advantage of some of these things–real time histograms in the viewfinder; being able to review images (with magnification) in the viewfinder; a truly reliable level in the viewfinder.  Some things–like the improved LCD, the focus stacking feature, etc.–I could have gotten with the D850 (the most current rendition of my DSLR) but not these viewfinder improvements.  And I still would have been dealing with a much larger, heavier camera body with all the inherent limitations of the F-mount. The D850 might still be the better option (probably would be, in fact) if I shot any appreciable amount of action, but I don’t.  Most of the things I’m getting with the Z7ii could have been obtained with a Canon or Sony mirrorless equivalent; the benefits I’m talking about are basically mirrorless benefits, not Nikon mirrorless benefits specifically.  But by staying with Nikon I also get the FTZ adapter, allowing me to use my F-mount lenses with the Z7ii (which is critical for now given the telephoto zoom hole in Z system).

Boulder Meadow, Pinnacles Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

In addition, there’s my aforementioned 20-year familiarity with Nikon ergonomics, menus and terminology, all of which are largely reiterated here, saving me the considerable trouble of reinventing the wheel.  It really says something that I was able to take the Z7ii into the field for the first time and basically hit the ground running with almost literally no interruption.  What was theoretically to be an in-field practice session turned into a very productive afternoon/evening of real world photography.  That’ a big deal, in my view–the seamlessness with which I was able to move from the F-mount in the morning to the Z-mount in the afternoon.

Dawn, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Illinois

So in the end, I’ll be taking the Z-system to the Southwest; the trip begins tomorrow.  (You’ll understand if posts are somewhat thin between now and the middle of May.)   I probably should have recognized the benefits of moving to a mirrorless system for landscape photography sooner, but better late than never.

(Note:  you’ll have to take my word for it regarding the Texas wildflowers.  I won’t be able to begin editing those images until the second half of May.  In the meantime, hopefully you’ll enjoy the more or less randomly selected images accompanying this entry.)

Posted by: kerryl29 | April 12, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Myers Beach at Sunrise

As I’ve mentioned on this blog in the past, one of the great oversights that can be made when photographing on the Pacific Coast is falling into the trap of assuming that there’s no point in getting up for sunrise. In case you missed the memo, the sun sets in the west, and on the Pacific Coast, that means the sun sets over the water. By extension, it also means that the sun rises over…a typically non-descript land mass. But that doesn’t mean that mornings on the West Coast of North America aren’t utterly engaging (assuming that the marine layer is behaving itself).

Once I learned this lesson–dating back to my first photo trip on the West Coast in 2009–I never forgot it and that stood me in good stead during my extended trip on the south Oregon coast in 2014. I was up and out every morning on that trip and that almost always paid dividends, including my early mornings at Myers Beach.

I will never forget my first glimpse of the Myers Beach seastacks. During a mid-day scouting session I was driving south from Bandon on the coast highway on my last full afternoon of the 2009 trip. This was basically an opportunity to see what I’d missed on that trip as a result of not having budgeted enough days on the coast for much of anything.

Reflecting on the first sight of Myers Beach in 2009, five years after the fact, I wrote the following:

The Coast Highway climbs steadily from Gold Beach as you approach the heights of the entrance to Cape Sebastian State Park and descends abruptly back to sea level on the other side of the cape. The road bends sharply to the east and just as you reach the beginning of the curve the sea stacks of Myers Beach come into view.

If you don’t feel something the first time you view Myers Beach as you approach it from the north on US 101 you’re probably not conscious. I can recall my first experience doing so, on a sunny July afternoon in 2009; I was viewing something special and I immediately knew it. The light was awful that day and I was more than 60 miles away from my base at Bandon so I didn’t have time to do much more than exit at one of the three Myers Beach pullouts and gape. But on this occurrence, in May of 2015, I had time. This time, I got out of the car. This time, the light was improving (even if the sky was almost completely bald). This time, I got out my gear and made my way down to the beach itself.

That was the prelude to the first of at least a half-dozen distinct visits to Myers Beach during my 2014 trip. One of those took place on a chilly, clear but windless morning. I stopped at one of the extensive highway pull-outs that front Myers Beach, which is both miles long and hundreds of yards deep, with the Pistol River flowing through the middle, directly into the Pacific Ocean. The beach was utterly deserted at this very early hour. The almost non-existent surf made the setting more quiet than usual; the silence was only occasionally interrupted by the modest lap of the water and the rare cry of a seagull.

I made my way down the stairs and into the sand on the Cape Sebastian (i.e. northern) side of the beach, which fronts a fascinating stack with a visible window cut into it. Most of the time this feature is hundreds of feet into the surf, but at a particularly low tide it is possible to walk right up to the opening. That was not the case on this morning, but I still wanted to use the stack for background interest. The moon, a regular morning presence during this part of the week I was embedded on the coast, was setting and the sky was on the precipice of exploding with an earth shadow gradient.

That is what nature presented me on this morning; my job was to find the rest of the composition. I walked around a bit and eventually settled on a frame-balancing foreground rock, surrounded by a shallow tidepool; a small arcing of valella, brought in with the tide, in the otherwise undisturbed sand was a pleasing bonus.

Having found the scene I wanted to photograph I simply had to wait for the light to do its thing. At the height of the earth shadow, I made the image you see below.

Earthshadow, Myers Beach, Pistol River State Park, Oregon
The bottom has fallen out of the interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market in recent years.  New ILC camera sales last year were less than half of ILC volume a decade earlier.  The are multiple reasons for this:  cellphone cameras are cannibalizing the previously high volume low-end ILC market; much of the last decade has been relatively bad economically worldwide; the pandemic has decimated travel and thereby drastically reduced planned photo opportunities ; etc.  But there’s another explanation that’s relevant as well:  camera companies are doing, in my judgment, a bad job of addressing their customers needs and wants.  And why is that?  Because, in part, camera companies are doing a bad job of communicating with their customers, so they don’t know what customers needs and wants are.


Sotol Moonset, Sotol Vista, Big Bend National Park, Texas

As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve acquired a Nikon Z7ii mirrorless camera.  And I’ve come here to complain about it.  Well, not really complain about this camera per se, but about the way cameras are designed in today’s world..  And I’m going to use one feature of this camera as a placeholder.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar–using something about this particular camera to make a broader point–well, it should, because I employed this approach just two weeks ago.  But in that instance, I was utilizing a metaphor about individual mindset.  This time, it’s considerably more straight forward, as will become apparent in relatively short order.

China Creek Beach from Spruce Creek Viewpoint, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

I’ve discussed the technique of focus stacking on this blog several times in the past.  (For a primer on the subject, go here.)  I’ve been using this technique, designed to overcome natural depth of field limitations, for about 15 years now and have always implemented the approach manually.  In other words, I’ve adjusted the point of focus physically.  For a number of reasons, this isn’t an ideal approach:  since it’s a relatively slow process, it’s necessary to touch the camera (which can introduce vibration) and is prone to error in terms of insuring overlapping focal planes from frame to frame.  I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, but it remains a less than ideal way to carry out the process.  Beginning several years ago, automated focus stacking began to show up as a feature in cameras and it’s now commonplace (if not universal).  The Z7ii is the first camera I’ve ever possessed that includes such a feature and I was, unsurprisingly, anxious to work with it.
Given the introduction to this post, it will come as no surprise that I’m not entirely enamored with how this feature works, which is more or less as follows.

Tulip Tree Evening, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

You access the feature through the camera’s menu (or via establishing it as a custom button option).  You focus the camera to the nearest point in the scene that you want in focus; you select the (maximum) number of images you want to produce as part of the stack; you select the “focus step width” (essentially, how much the plane of focus is going to change from shot to shot, on an unspecified scale of 1-10, with 1 being the smallest amount of change).  You select the delay between shots, from none to several seconds.  Once you get the settings in place, you initiate the sequence by pressing the OK button on the back of the camera.  The firmware “processes” the instructions and then begins the practice of producing the sequence of frames…after a 2-3 second delay.  The camera takes the shots, up to the number you specified.  If the camera reaches infinity focus, it stops taking shots, regardless of the limit that was set.

Chimney Rock Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There’s a great deal in there that I don’t like, so let’s start with one thing I do like:  the camera stops taking shots after it reaches infinity, no matter the number of shots set at the beginning of the process.  This makes sense because there’s obviously no reason to keep taking shots at the same distance setting–it just fills up your memory card and wastes time.  By forcing a stop once infinity focus has been reached it’s impossible to overestimate the number of shots to assign to the stack.  You can set a limit you’re certain is too high and not worry about the process taking longer than it should or having to delete countless extra frames when it’s over.  So that’s a well-implemented sub-feature.  [Waves tiny flag.]
Basically nothing else about this process is implemented the way it should be, in my view.

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

Let’s start with this “focus step width” business.  First, as I mentioned, it’s unclear what these 1-10 numbers really mean.  Higher numbers are “less sensitive” than lower numbers; that much we know.  But how much?  Who knows.  Is the difference between numbers a linear ratio or is this merely an ordinal scale?  Who knows.
You have to experiment to see what works…and given that the appropriate number of shots (whatever that means exactly) for a given stack will vary depending on focal length, aperture and the nearness of the closest object in the frame to be in focus…let’s just say that it’s going to take a lot of experimenting to get the right number.  Some kind of practical guidance about all of this would be welcome.  There is none.

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

How should this feature work?  In my view, something like this:
1) you focus the camera at the nearest point in the frame (just as you do now) and set it (by pressing a button)
2) you focus the camera to the farthest point in the frame that you want sharp and set it (by pressing a button), or specify infinity focus as a default menu option
3) based on the established focal length, aperture and focus points (as established in steps 1 and 2); the camera’s firmware determines the number of shots necessary to overlap sharp frames.  (There would have to be a consensus on establishing a circle of confusion value; so be it.  If desired, the current sub-optimal scalar approach to defining the stack parameters could be retained as a user-selected option.)

Webb Lake Black & White, Mt. Blue State Park, Maine

Now let’s talk about this “press the OK button” to begin the process of taking the set of shots, followed by a 2-3 second delay.  Part of that delay is undoubtedly a function of having to press a button on the camera to start the process; the delay allows any vibration from touching the camera to dissipate.  And it evidently takes the camera’s “computer” a few ticks to run through its instructions.  But the whole thing is, in my opinion, not properly thought out.  Again, the process starts on its time (2-3 seconds after the OK button is pressed), not mine.  What if I’m photographing something that’s prone to wind-driven movement, as I frequently do?  (Think flowers or foliage.)  I want to initiate the focus stacking process on my direction (using a remote release, of course), not 2-3 seconds after I press a button, and hope for the best.

Redbud Serenade, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Here’s how this part of the focus stacking process ought to function, in my view:
1.  You get the settings established (just as it works now)
2.  One of those settings (not currently an option) is how you want the process to be triggered:
A.  By depressing the shutter release
B.  2-3 seconds after pressing the shutter release
C.  2-3 seconds after pressing the OK button
This setting option would stay in place until/unless changed by the photographer, to save time in the future.
3.  Camera processes instructions and:
4.  Carries out “C” if that’s what’s chosen; shows “READY” message after step 3 if “A” or “B” is chosen
5.  If “A” or “B” is chosen, camera awaits shutter depression (by direction contact with shutter button or via remote) to carrying out the process
There is nothing that would prevent all of this from being possible with a firmware update.  No extra mechanical or electronic parts are needed.

The Watchman at Sunset, Zion National Park, Utah

It’s my understanding that the focus stacking process isn’t much, if any, better implemented in any other camera currently on the market.  I’m told that it’s a bit more flexible and sensible in the Fujifilm medium format digital cameras.  [Again, waves tiny flag.]
This is simply one very modest example, among a seemingly infinite number, of how little camera makers appear to understand–or care to understand–how their products are used by customers and what can be done to address user problems, concerns and desires.  The fact that this is the second edition of the Nikon Z7 camera and this is how the focus stacking feature works is an indication that Nikon isn’t engaging with its customers properly.  And while Nikon is notorious for this sort of thing, I’m not at all certain that any other camera maker is doing all that much better–if better at all.
I’m not implying that the camera companies are going out of their way to intentionally design cameras that customers don’t want.  But there are tens of millions of photo enthusiasts and professionals all over the world who would be a lot more inclined to upgrade if the camera companies gave them a good reason.  In other words, communicate with your customers, understand their problems, figure out where your products are coming up short and act accordingly.  This simply isn’t happening and it is absolutely a factor–a big one–that helps explain the collapse in camera sales over the past 5-7 years.  So while these companies aren’t malevolent, in my view, they sure are complacent and short-sighted.

Moose, Clyde River, Essex County, Vermont

A couple of years ago I posted a Story Behind the Image entry entitled “Perseverance.”  Upon reflection, it really wasn’t the best illustration of the theme that I could have chosen.  Instead, I should have selected a different story, one that I wrote about nearly 10 years ago, again with “perseverance” as the title.  It was a post that almost literally no one read (this blog didn’t have much of a following back in those days), so I’m reprising it, lightly updated, here.

*                                    *                                       *

Sometimes, getting “the shot” means waiting, and occasionally one must linger longer than anticipated.

Case in point:  when I was out in the Pacific Northwest a couple of years ago, I had the distinct advantage of being advised on locales by Portland, Oregon-based professional photographer Jack Graham.  Among the locations he recommended was Mt. Hood at sunrise from Trillium Lake, in the Mt. Hood National Forest.  He offered to show me the spot and I enthusiastically agreed, so we got up at 3 AM one morning to make the drive from the Portland suburbs in time to set up for mid-July civil twilight at Trillium Lake, about an hour away.

Weather forecasting in the area is notoriously unreliable and while the stars were out in the Portland area, we hit a light mist as we neared our destination.  It was still dark when we arrived at the designated spot, but there was a visible heavy fog.  As the ambient light gradually improved, all it did was make the mist more visible.  It was past sunrise when Jack gestured with his hand, indicating where Mt. Hood would appear if the fog wasn’t blotting out any hope of seeing it.  Sunrise had been a rumor at Trillium Lake that morning and we packed up and headed toward the Hood River Valley and the Columbia River Gorge to check out other opportunities.

I had two more mornings based in the Portland area; my itinerary had me heading to the Oregon Coast late morning of the third day.  Jack was unable to join me again, but I knew how to get to Trillium Lake on my own now and I was hellbent on getting that shot.  (That–being hellbent on getting that shot–was part of the problem, but I wasn’t quite as aware back in 2009, when this occurred, as I am today.)  So the next morning I was up again at 3 AM and shortly thereafter on my way back to the Mt. Hood National Forest.  I drove through a light rain on the way there, but I was hopeful that this day would be the reverse of the last.  This time, I reasoned, I was leaving the poor weather behind me instead of heading into it.

No such luck.  I arrived at Trillium Lake to find it enshrouded in fog and moistened by a light rain.  I waited until after the appointed sunrise time and never caught a glimpse of Mt. Hood.  I finally left, and spent the remainder of the day shooting waterfalls in the Gorge.

On the third morning, in a near-“Groundhog Day” dementia, I was up at 3 AM and hit the road for Trillium Lake.  This was my last chance;  I was off to the coast later that morning.  This time, I had reason to be optimistic.  Not only were the stars visible in the Portland area as I departed, they were still visible when I hit the Mt. Hood National Forest boundary and, better yet, when I reached the turn off for Trillium Lake I could still see them.  Mostly clear skies!  I was finally going to see the mountain at daybreak!

Or not.

The access road to the lake is a couple of miles long and heads downhill.  As I rounded the final turn before reaching Trillium Lake itself, my heart sank.  The lake was enshrouded in a low-hanging fog/mist; the mountain was hidden.  Facing the lake, I turned around and could see sky behind me.  But the lake itself was producing the conditions that were causing the fog.  Still, I was hopeful that as it warmed up the mist would burn off and Mt. Hood would be revealed.  I wasn’t facing a weather system this time, merely a set of present conditions.  So, I unloaded my gear, set up in the direction that I presumed the mountain could be viewed and I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Still no mountain.

After about 30 minutes, another photographer showed up, and we chatted for awhile.  He’d driven down from the Portland area too, in hopes of shooting Mt. Hood.  We commiserated about the bad luck with the mist.  We could see the sun come up, burning through the fog to some degree…but still no mountain.  So much for a sunrise shot.

After another 30 minutes or so, the other photographer left in frustration.  I stuck around.  At this point, it was about more than just getting the shot.  I simply wanted to see Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake!  Three straight mornings getting up hours before the rooster’s first crow can produce some pretty strong emotions, let me tell you.

I figured that I had until about 9 AM before I had to take off.  Sunrise had (allegedly) been around 5; at this point it was after 6.  I still had nearly three hours.  If that mountain was going to be visible, I was going to be there to see it.

For some time, it had seemed to me, the fog was thinning.  Perhaps it was my imagination, I thought, but somewhere around 7 AM I caught a faint outline of one of the slopes of the peak.  Sure enough, I kept staring and more and more of Mt. Hood began to reveal itself.   As soon as I had a full outline, I began shooting.  It was long past sunrise, but the light was still eminently shootable and the mist was still working as a kind of diffuser.  I shot and I shot and I shot.  After about 30 minutes of this, on the left-hand bank of the lake, I could see–through the fog that was still hovering somewhat thinly at water-level–-someone slip a small boat into the lake.  I waited for him to glide into the perfect spot, and snapped the image you see accompanying this entry.

Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon

For roughly another hour, I shot countless additional images–wide angles, tight shots, panoramas–from many different angles.  It wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated–no sunrise, of course–but it had been a marvelous experience.  Finally, a bit after 8 AM, I gathered up my belongings and left.

Sometimes, good things come to those who wait.

Posted by: kerryl29 | March 22, 2021

The Moral of the Story

This post is going to read, at first glance, as an arcane discussion of photographic gear.  At one level, it is that.  But there’s a moral to the story with far more significant implications, I believe, and that’s why I’m sharing it here.

As background, I recently gained possession of a Nikon Z7ii camera, Z-mount lens, and an FTZ adapter that allows Nikon F-mount lenses to be used with the Z7ii.  I will have a great deal more to say about this equipment, from an array of different perspectives, on this blog at some point down the road.

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

But for the moment I’m going to limit myself to one small aspect of the camera that, from a substantive point, may seem entirely irrelevant to most readers.  Why am I doing this?  Because, as alluded to above, there’s a larger lesson to be learned.  Please bear with me.  (I’m tossing in some photographs which have nothing substantial to do with this post that will hopefully assuage those of you who find the subject too boring for words.)

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The aspect of the camera I want to discuss–I can already hear the groans and envision the eye-rolling–has to do with accessing the port on the camera that accepts devices that allow the camera shutter to be tripped without touching the camera body itself.  As most of you probably know, there are ways of tripping the camera shutter without depressing the shutter button at the time the shutter is opened.  A self-timer feature is one such way; a remote release of some sort is another.  Whenever I photograph from a tripod–which is almost all the time, as I have mentioned countless times on this blog over the years–I use a remote release, because it allows me to avoid introducing vibration to the camera which will cause some degree of softness in the final image.  If you think vibration from manually pressing the shutter button isn’t a problem, spend some time with intermediate shutter speeds (the effect is particularly pronounced in the range between about 1 second and 1/60 of a second) and examine the difference between a contact-free shutter release method and pressing the shutter release directly.  Even on a tripod-mounted camera, I assure you, the effects are easily detected.

Sunrise, Papawai Point, Maui, Hawaii

Given that I like to control exactly when the shutter is tripped (I frequently photograph subjects that are prone to move in the wind, so there’s a major benefit to knowing exactly when the image is made), I need some kind of a remote release, and the least expensive, least troublesome means to that end is a wired or wireless remote.  Either way, some kind of a device has to plug into a port on the camera that is designed for this purpose.  On the Z7ii (and many other, but not all, Nikon cameras, be they mirrorless or DSLR), that port is designated as DC-2.  On the Z7ii that port is behind a small “door” along with USB and HDMI ports.  This door is on the left-hand side of the camera’s body.

Bendix Woods County Park, St. Joseph County, Indiana

Why does this matter?  To answer that question, I (briefly) need to raise another esoteric subject:  quick release of cameras from tripod heads generally and L-brackets specifically.  There is only one palatable way to attach and remove a camera from a tripod and that is by use of a tripod head with some kind of quick release capability.  You can screw a camera directly into a tripod, but for a variety of reasons (and here I’ll spare those of you who are undoubtedly already nodding off while reading the grimy details) that’s not a viable option for outdoor photography.  And, really, the only way to be able to use a camera on a tripod in both landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) orientations is to use an L-bracket on your camera.  An L-bracket is a metal device that wraps around the camera body on two sides (the left-hand side and the bottom), with a quick release configuration that makes it very easy to orient the camera horizontally or vertically on the tripod head.  Once you’ve used one for awhile, changing the camera’s orientation is something you don’t even have to think about, and it takes just a few seconds to execute.

Freeland Farm Morning, Tucker County, West Virginia

So what’s the problem?  What did I say an L-bracket was?  “…a metal device that wraps around the camera body on two sides (the left-hand side and the bottom)…”  And where did I say the port for the remote release was on the Z7ii?  “…behind a small ‘door’ along with USB and HDMI ports.  This door is on the left-hand side of the camera’s body.”  So part of the bracket is wrapped around the area where the door is located.  Now, all of the L-brackets made for this camera deal with this issue by creating a “hole” in that part of the bracket, allowing you to access the port.  No problem, right?  As long as the camera is oriented horizontally, that’s correct.  You can access the port with little difficulty.  But what happens when the camera is oriented vertically?  The side of the camera with that port is inserted into the tripod head.  It’s impossible to access that port.  Not difficult, impossible.  That makes it impossible to use a remote release of this type with the camera mounted vertically on a tripod.  And that’s a big problem.

Honeymoon Covered Bridge, Carroll County, New Hampshire

There is one L-bracket that provides a solution of sorts to this problem:  the L-bracket from Really Right Stuff.  I checked this out very carefully before I decided to make a purchase.  The RRS bracket is actually two separate modular pieces:  a horizontal piece that attaches to the tripod socket on the bottom of the camera (i.e. a regular quick release bracket, custom made for the camera) and a vertical piece that runs up the left side.  The latter slides into the former, which allows you to pull the vertical piece several inches away from the side of the camera.  Take a look at the image below.  Note the sizable space between the extended vertical part of the L-bracket and the camera body; there’s room to get to that port on the left side of the camera.

Nikon Z7ii Really Right Stuff L-bracket in horizontal orientation

Now take a look at what this apparatus looks like when the camera is mounted on a tripod in vertical orientation, with cords plugged into multiple ports on the left-hand side of the camera.

Nikon Z7ii Really Right Stuff L-bracket in vertical orientation

When tightened down the configuration is rock solid.  It’s really an ingenious design and execution.

But while this is functional, it’s still pretty clunky to work with.  It’s hard to get an exact sense of scale from these L-bracket images, but the space between the extended bracket edge and the camera body is only about 1 3/8 inches.  (Yes, I measured it.)  I have small hands and there’s not a lot of room to work.  It’s a far cry from having direct, unimpeded access to a port, which is what I’m used to with my longstanding camera (the Nikon D800E) and, quite frankly, every camera I’ve used previously as well.

Middle Falls, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

I’m generally pretty patient with this sort of thing, but when I first started fiddling with the process of trying to attach the cord into the DC-2 socket with the L-bracket extended, even with the camera in horizontal orientation, I got fairly frustrated.  This was inside, where it was warm and dry and I immediately started thinking:  if I can’t do this easily under these conditions, what’s it going to be like if it’s damp and/or cold outside, in the field, with the wind blowing, etc.?  I was having a hard time seeing how to make this work at all.  Maybe, I thought, I should just chuck the entire idea of working with this camera at all.

Rio Grande Valley, Hot Springs Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

But I caught myself.  I realized that my instinct was to throw up my hands because:  a) this was a different process than the one I was used to; and b) the new process wasn’t just new, it was objectively worse/more difficult.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it couldn’t be overcome with just a little bit of effort.  Examining the entire apparatus a bit more closely, I discovered that it was relatively easy to thread the cord through the gap in the extended vertical bar which made it much easier to slip the end into the DC-2 port.  It was even fairly easy to do this with the camera mounted in vertical orientation.  Horizontally, it was a piece of cake.

Secret Beach Morning, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

And while it takes some getting used to get the cords in and out of the port, I’ve found that a little bit of practice goes a long way.  The image above displaying the vertical orientation shows all three of the major ports on that side of the camera engaged at the same time. I’ll never use more than one at a time, and only the release port when in the field, so it’s not as crowded an arrangement as the image might imply.  But I’m keeping the camera mounted on the tripod–in portrait mode, where working with the port and cable is the most difficult–and 5-10 times a day, I detach and reattach the cord from scratch, as I would in the field.  In the span of little more than a day, I’ve now reached the point where I’m about as quick with it as I was with the release on my old camera, which had nothing like this kind of encumbrance to deal with.  The more I work with this arrangement, the more routine it feels.

And that, at long last, is the moral of the story.  Resist the urge to reject something in whole because a small–albeit important–aspect is new and more difficult.  Examine things more closely.  Give yourself a chance to adapt.  Don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Posted by: kerryl29 | March 15, 2021

When It’s Time to Upgrade

I have made the case, right here on this blog, that many photo gear upgrades are misguided attempts to overcome some sort of problem that has nothing to do with equipment.  There are a significant number of folks out there who believe that a general dissatisfaction with the images they’re making will be magically solved by a purchase of Camera X or Lens Y…or, hey, maybe both!  This kind of thinking is, of course, encouraged by camera manufacturers, but it’s rarely true and purchases of these sorts seldom do much of anything other than lighten someone’s wallet.

Sturgeon River, Canyon Falls Roadside Park, Baraga County, Michigan

That being said, there are legitimately good reasons to upgrade.  An obvious example is someone interested in photographing birds in flight who has found, after careful experimentation, that his/her camera’s autofocus doesn’t track flying subjects well, making it difficult to get a sharp image of the intended subject.  Or perhaps the buffer or frame rate of the current camera is making it harder than it ought to be to produce the desired result.  Getting a camera that will address these technical shortcomings wouldn’t, I would argue, make someone a better photographer; a more successful photographer very probably, but that’s not the same thing.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Still, the point is that there are practical, pointed reasons to upgrade photo gear.  If you can identify a specific shortcoming with your current equipment–like the examples above–that can clearly be addressed by obtaining something else, that’s a solid reason to at least consider a purchase.  Broadly speaking, if your gear is impeding a fulfillment of your photographic vision, it should be replaced, if at all possible.  I don’t see this sort of thing in the real world all that often, but when it does rear its ugly head, it’s a revealing experience, and that’s what happened last fall.

Merced River, Mist Trail Yosemite National Park, California

This past October, I met my friend Jason Templin in northern Wisconsin and we drove up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from there for roughly a week’s worth of photography.  Though he has a digital camera with a couple of lenses, Jason is still primarily photographing with a medium format film camera (a Pentax 67, for those of you interested).  While there must be others out there, Jason is the only person I know still using any kind of a medium format film camera.  What’s more, Jason’s film of choice is Fujifilm’s Velvia Classic, an ISO 50 transparency emulsion, that many people (including Jason) historically have photographed using a camera ISO setting of 40.  Over the years, many photographers have been partial to the look of the highly saturated renderings obtained with Velvia.

Kealia Beach at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii

I shot my share of Velvia back in the day; it’s a notoriously finicky slide film, with an extremely limited exposure latitude (film speak for “dynamic range”); you get about five stops to play with, at best.  It’s generally inadvisable to use this film under even modestly contrasty lighting conditions, due to the tendency to blow the highlights or block up the shadows.  It also frequently requires long shutter speeds (the effect of shooting a film at ISO 50, to say nothing of 40).  If you’re getting the idea that Velvia is naturally limiting, you’re on the right track.

Fire Wave at Dusk, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

For those of you with little or no familiarity photographing with any film, let alone an emulsion like Velvia, there are countless limitations relative to shooting digitally.  Want to change the ISO?  You have to shoot out the roll of film (assuming you’re using rolls of course, which you are with medium and small format cameras), then go with another limiting roll.  In other words, you can’t change the ISO shot to shot.  You get far fewer images per roll of film than any flash card in circulation today.  You can’t preview your exposure.  You can’t review your exposure or focus after the fact.  Even metering through the lens isn’t a given (though many film cameras do have this capability).  Focus stacking?  Forget it.  HDR?  Forget that, too.  15-20 years ago there were countless articles written about the film/digital tradeoffs that I’ve barely scratched the surface of summarizing here.  Today, so few people are shooting film relative to digital capture that the issue almost never comes up.  If anything, the disparities are much greater these days because digital capture has continued to advance while film essentially has not.

Ohio Pass Overlook, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

In short, I think it’s fair to say that digital capture is, objectively, far more flexible and forgiving than film capture ever could be.  In the parlance of the first three paragraphs of this post, digital capture doesn’t really make you a better photographer compared to film, but it really does make–again, I think objectively–it easier, most of the time, to carry out your photographic vision.

Ferns & Cascades, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

This subject is something I hadn’t actively considered in years, but photographing with someone shooting film–magnified by someone shooting film with a medium format camera (where focal length/field of view conversion factors mean shooting with longer equivalent focal lengths…which leads to even more significant depth of field issues…which leads to shooting with smaller apertures…which means even slower shutter speeds)–made the matter even starker than it would have been otherwise.  The number of times during our days shooting when I heard Jason say–wistfully–something along the lines of “if I photograph that moving water scene it will end up looking like a white blob” (due to exceptionally long shutter speeds and how water is thus rendered) or “I’m going to need a shutter speed of 15 or 20 seconds” (during which time foliage would blow incessantly) for a frame that I was comfortably shooting at 1/4 of a second or thereabouts, was positively depressing.

Buttermilk Creek, Buttermilk Falls State Park, New York

Add to this the fact that Jason really didn’t have flexibility at the telephoto end of the field of view spectrum, a function of limited lens availability for his camera (limited affordable lens availability, in any case), which produced another entire category of images that weren’t accessible, and it became readily apparent to me just how heavily impacted his image making opportunities were.

Tangle Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta

It wasn’t that Jason was complaining; he wasn’t.  In fact, he was resolutely upbeat.  But I could see how many photographs Jason wasn’t getting; critically, this was not because he wasn’t seeing them.  It was because his equipment made it effectively impossible to obtain them.  Jason’s a fine photographer; he knows what he’s doing and he has a genuinely good eye for composition, but–here it comes–his gear is impeding his ability to fulfill his photographic vision.

Jack Brook, Orleans County, Vermont

I will add that I’m deliberately oversimplifying the situation to present a real world version of the theme of this post.  There are perfectly good reasons that are preventing Jason from updating his equipment (i.e. it’s not as though he doesn’t realize everything I’ve written above) to date, which are beyond the scope of this piece.  But the point remains:  there are times when equipment upgrades are warranted and gear impeding the process is the most salient of those times.

Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska

Posted by: kerryl29 | March 9, 2021

A Lesson Relearned: The Black & White Counterpoint

My apologies; the last week has been a bit chaotic, so my plans for a new blog entry went awry.  Instead, I’m updating a piece that I originally wrote 6 1/2 years ago during my guest blogging stint on the now dormant 1001 Scribbles blog.  Hopefully you’ll find it of interest; I’ll be back with a new post next week.

I’ve written about black and white photography on several occasions in the past in this space, and I’m going to ask you to indulge me one more time as I revisit this topic—but with a very specific story to tell.

Lake Falls Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

A few years ago, when I was updating my website, I was slowly reviewing and reprocessing a huge number of old images.  Some of these images were more than a decade old at the time and it was an interesting experience to revisit dated photo shoots, albeit vicariously.

Heart of the Dunes Black & White, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

In any event, going through this mass of material reminded me of something that I learned a long time ago, but had kind of slipped into the background of my consciousness:  some of the worst times for color photography are among the best for black and white shooting.

Light and Shadow black & white, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Color photography is usually pretty unappealing in harsh, contrasty light.  Black and white imagery, on the other hand, loves contrast. Many black & white images look their best with as broad a range of tones as possible.  While blocked up shadows often—not always, but often—are something to avoid in color, letting shadows go virtually if not all the way to black can frequently make a monochrome shot sing.  There are times when I wouldn’t dream of shooting in color that will see black and white images thrive.

Pretzel and Lighthouse Arches black & white, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Similarly, for scenes where there is very little color present, which can often result in truly blah color images, black and white shots, with their much more forgiving sense of contrast, can often shine by bringing out a scene’s tones and details in a manner that’s hindered by a color rendering.  This can really be exploited during the time of year between the colorful periods of mid-autumn and mid-spring (where I live, a period that lasts a solid five months).

Spruce Plot in Winter (Black & White), Morton Arboretum, Illinois

There are also specific types of scenes that, under certain weather conditions, invariably seem to work better in black & white than color.  Among these—and something that I was reminded of ad nauseum during the period of website work that I mentioned—is the case of beach scenes on cloudy and/or foggy days.  Such locales, under these conditions, are the very definition of the term “flat light” when working in color, largely because all of the tones seem so homogenized.  If you’re working in color, the seaside screams for a traditional definition of “good light.”

Second Beach Black & White, Olympic National Park, Washington

But in black and white, everything changes.  Nuanced details, in sand, water and sky, emerge, despite the “flat light.”  Tones that seem to be entirely absent in color renderings are revealed as if by magic.  Scenes that scarcely seem worth bothering with become intensely compelling.  A moodiness and tension that color can’t seem to provoke are present in aching terms in black and white.

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

I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but I strongly urge you to give working in monochrome terms a whirl.  It can serve to help you see better and think with a deeper dimension in the field (which can serve to aid even your color photography).  It can also provide you with some really memorable images that you would otherwise almost certainly never even consider making.

Driftwood Epic, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington


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