<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Evanescent Light: Photo of the Month

: fleeting, transitory
evanescent wave: a nearfield standing wave, employed for total internal reflection microscopy

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Alabama Hills
Anza Borrego
Badwater 135
Big Sur
Bristlecone Pines
Bolsa Chica
Carrizo Plain
California coast
Death Valley
D.V. Superbloom
Eureka Dunes
High Sierra
Imperial Dunes
Joshua Tree
Lassen N.P.
Log Cabin mine
Mojave Desert
Mono Lake
Owens Valley
Pacific Redwoods
Point Lobos
Racetrack valley
Saline valley
Salton Sea
Salton Sea Ultra
San Joaquin marsh
Trona Pinnacles
UCI & The OC
508 bike race
Anasazi Ruins
Antelope Canyon
Arches Natl. Park
Bisti Badlands
Bosque d'Apache
Canyn. de Chelly
Capitol Reef
Cedar Breaks
Chaco Canyon
Comb Ridge
Coyote Buttes S.
Crater Lake
Glen Canyon / Lake Powell
Grafton ghost town
Grand Canyon
Kodachrome Basin
Little Finland
Maine & Acadia
Monument Valley
Natural Bridges
New Mexico
Other Places in S.W. U.S.A.
Oregon Cascades
Oregon Coast
Oregon, Columbia River Gorge
Oregon, Painted Hills
Saguaro N.P.
The Wave
Valley of Fire
Valley of the Gods
White Pocket
Yant Flat
Flora & Fauna
South & Central America
Easter Island
Bolivia/Chile, Landscapes
Bolivia/Chile, Wildlife
Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia/Chile, Works of Man

Tierra del Fuego
Faroe Islands
Lofoten Islands
Burma-Lake & River
Hong Kong
Animals & birds
Landscapes & cityscapes
NZ Coast
NZ Mountains
NZ Wildlife
Cape Town
Namibia landscapes
Namibia guide
Carcass Island
Grave Cove
New Island
Saunders Island
Sea Lion Island
Volunteer Point
West Point Island
Cooper Bay
Gold Harbour
Hercules Bay
Jason Harbour
Larson Harbour
Ocean Harbour
Prince Olav Hbr. /Fortuna Bay
Prion Island
Right Whale Bay
Salisbury Plain
St. Andrews Bay
Twitcher Glacier
Antarctica: Ice
Antarctica: land & sky
Antarctica: wildlife
Arches & Bridges
Fall Colors
Penguins & puffins
Slot Canyons
Parker Lab at UCI

An ongoing series featuring a recent photo, together with a brief essay on its making

last updated 11/27/2016

#95 - January 2017
"Wet-dog-shake rockhopper penguin"

Pebble Island, Falkland Islands; December 2016

Anne and I arrived home after Christmas after a return visit to the Falkland Islands - land of penguins and albatross - aboard the MV Hans Hansson. Our voyage was a clockwise circumnavigation of the Falklands, visiting many of the wildlife-rich outlying islands. Pebble Island was our penultimate destination, and on a first morning landing did not impress! We had hiked inland to a large pond in search of waterfowl, but the pond was dry. The Falklands are experiencing a six-year drought, and all that remained was a brown expanse of cracked mud, enlivend only by a dessicated sheep's skull.

The afternoon landing, however, was much more productive. We were dropped off by Zodiac at a different beach on the low side of the island, and hiked across to the opposite side where cliffs drop steeply to the ocean. Several colonies of rockhopper penguins are spaced over a few kilometers along the top of cliffs. I decided to stay at the first colony we found to maximize time with the penguins, whereas others in our small group continued onward. To get to their nesting site from the ocean the rockhoppers needed to first cross an extended rock tidal shelf and then find a way up the steep cliff face. I wanted to get down to the shelf, but at first look that seemed a daunting proposal as the convex slope appeared to steepen abruptly. But, after walking around to the side to get a better view I could see that the rockhoppers had created an elegant highway, switchbacking between ledges up the cliff face. This I decended carefully, with the main hindrance being the need to wait for little groups of penguins to pass by on their journeys to and from the ocean.

Once rockhoppers have acrobatically emerged from the ocean onto land, they seem strangely reluctant to continue on to their colony; stopping to preen or just staying motionless, and sometimes even backtracking. Here, the rock shelf offered a further distraction in the form of a large tidal pool, which they seemd to treat as a play-pool; splashing around, cavorting, sometimes fighting and seeming to thoroughly enjoy themselves. After climbing from the pool the rockoppers would stand at the edge and do a vigorous 'wet-dog' shake to dry themselves; something they do not usually do on emerging from the ocean itself.

So, an interesting and highly photogenic behavior, and some nice lighting by which to capture it. I am a sucker for backlit photos, which can convey a dramatic mood albeit at the expense of technical issues of controling the extreme contrast and likelyhood of lens flare. Large boulders cast most of the pool into shadow while providing a black backround behind rockhoppers standing in sunlight at the near edge. I positioned myself low down, facing directly into the sun aligned with a platform the penguins seemed to favor for drying out, and waited for the action. Once out of the pool,a rockhopper would usually wait a few seconds, then stretch its head up and stick out its flippers before beginning the shake. That gave me plenty of time to frame and focus before triggering a motor-drive burst of shots to capture the spray. This month's photo is taken from the second frame of a sequence, when the most dense spay had begun to fly.


#94 - December 2016
"Ice sculpture: Jökulsárlón"

Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, June 2011.

Continuing this month with an abstract (and Icelandic) theme. This is a photo I took during a night spent wandering along the shores of Jökulsárlónlagoon in the south of Iceland. We had arrived that afternoon, and my initial impression of the famous ice-filled lagoon was of dissappointment; tourists thronged the beach, waiting for noisy amphibious craft to take them out among the icebergs. By late evening though, the scene had changed. Everything was quiet and I had the place to myself as the sun briefly dipped below the horizon. A glacier from the vast Vatnajökull ice cap calves into the lagoon, which is filled with icebergs the size of houses jostling one another as they make their way down to the narrow channel leading to the sea. Close to the shore there are numerous smaller fragemts of ice that become sculpted into sinuous shapes as they melt and roll over so that different surfaces become immersed or exposed to the air. While there was still good light in the sky I concentrated on photographing the wider landscape and large bergs, but during the short arctic midsummer night the nearby ice shards provided subjects for lightpainting with my flashlight.


#93 - November 2016
"Seaweed zoom abstract: Djúpalónssandur "

A request from Annie, my photographic elph, for an abstract Photo of the Month.

Iceland, in winter, can have some wonderful light. It can, and frequently does, also have atrocious weather, with gale force winds skimming snow or rain horizontally above the lava fields. This month's photo was taken on a gloomy December afternoon; not really bad weather, but a gentle rain at a temperature just above freezing under overcast skies. Quite appropriate, actually, for the location, a black volcanic pebble beach on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, but a challenge photographically to capture the mood of black lava agains dark grey cloud. I rather like color!

The only color I could find was in clumps of seaweed washed up on the beach, so I decided to concentrate on those. After sampling several clumps the one I ended up prefering was the least colorful, but I was taken by the bare white stalks contrasting against the blue/black pebbles. After taking several 'straight' shots, I hit on the idea that the spiraling symmetry of the stalks might work well with a zoom blur technique. I set up my tripod with the camera and zoom lens pointed directly downwards and centered on the root of the seaweed. Given the dim light and a polarizing filter to cut the glare off the wet pebbles, an aperture of f 8 gave a shutter speed of several seconds - plenty of time to play with the zoom during the exposure. For the photo above I left the lens at its widest setting for about two thirds of the exposure time, and then zoomed in smoothly, reaching the end of the lens travel just as the shutter closed. Thus, the end result is a sharp image superimposed on a blur of pebbles apparently converging to a vanishing point; imparting a three-dimensional appearance to a flat, two-dimensional subject.


Although I had the beach to myself on a wet December day, during summer many tourists visit to see the famous 'lifting stones', as shown at the right. From Wikipedia;

"Djúpalónssandur was once home to sixty fishing boats and one of the most prolific fishing villages on the Snæfellsnes peninsula but today the bay is uninhabited. Four lifting stones are in Djúpalónssandur, used by fishermen to test their strength. They are Fullsterkur ("full strength") weighing 154 kg, Hálfsterkur ("half strength") at 100 kg, hálfdrættingur ("weakling") at 54 kg and Amlóði ("Useless") 23 kg. They were traditionally used to qualify men for work on fishing boats, with the Hálfdrættingur being the minimum weight a man would have to lift onto a ledge at hip-height to qualify."

Yes, I know; my photo shows five stones, not four. The fifth was probably added by a useless tourist...



#92 - October 2016
"Chinstrap penguins, Weddell seal and icebergs"

Hydrurga Rocks, Antarctica. December 2015

You have to go down to Antarctica to find chinstrap penguins in the wild; they don't live any further north than that. Chinstraps are entertaining creatures, and I was happy to get this photo that captures them in their environment. Penguins, a Weddell seal and icebergs: what more could you want for an iconic Antarctic photo!

It was the two blue, beached icebergs that first caught my attention, together with the Weddell seal that had conveniently settled for a sleep. Several chinstraps were wandering around from a nearby colony, so I positiond myself to line up the seal between the icebergs and sat down in the snow (waterproof pants are de rigeur in Antarctica!) to see if any might arrange themselves in a pleasing composition. Other than exercising a little patience I can't claim any particular skill for creating the final image.The penguins deserve the credit for arranging themselves in symmetrical pairs, looking toward the lone individual walking between the icebergs. My main contribution was merely to find a viewpoint that gave some clearance to isolate the seal against the snow, while staying low enough to keep a clean background by hiding intruding rocks on the beach below the snow crest.


#91 - September 2016
"North Atlantic waves: Bøsdalafossur, Faroe Islands"

Vagar, Faroe Islands: July 24, 2016

The island of Vagar is home to both the sole airport of the Faroe Islands and the Faroe's largest lake - the later confusingly known by several names: Letisvatn, Sørvágsvatn and Vatnið. In addition to its convoluted nomenclature, a unique feature of the lake is that its outflow plunges dramatically over a 150 ft basat cliff directly into the Atlantic Ocean. The falls, Bøsdalafossur, were on my list of 'must photograph' locations, but with bad weather on our arrival and pre-booked itinerary I did not get a chance before the last evening before our flight back to Edinburgh. From the airport hotel it was only a drive of a few km along the road running half way alongside the lake to the start of a muddy 45 minute walk along the shoreline to the falls.

Arriving at the end of the lake I could see the water flowing gently out over small cascades in a basalt shelf, before disappearing from view as it plunged vertically into the ocean. A problem, however, was that I coud find nowhere to actually get a view of the falls themselves. Despite climbing high up on the cliff edge on either side (and wading thigh deep through the icy water at the end of the lake), the sightline was always blocked by some rock outcrop.

Nevertheless, I was privileged to have this spectacular location all to myself, the evening light was improving, and we were going home the next day. Although frustrated in my original aim to photograph the waterfall, the thing to do was to come up with a Plan B. What else could I find? Landscape photography mostly seems to be like that. In a few instances I have been able to go to a location and successfully execute a 'pre-visualized' plan, but most often, and particularly when visiting somewhere for the first time, its just a matter of of actively looking around for serendipitous inspiration. My first try was to find a viewpoint where I could focus a small subsiduary fall. But that really was a trickle, not a waterfall, and despite my best efforts framing and zooming in it would never make a prominent main subject. On to Plan C; something that should have been more immediately obvious if I had not been so fixated on the waterfall itself. Every few minutes a larger than usual wave would break, with spray rising half way up the dark cliffs. Much more interesting!

I had carried a light pack with minimal gear - tripod, body and a single zom lens - but anticipating that I would want slow shutter speeds to blur the waterfall I did remember to pack a strong ND filter. That worked to give exposeures of a half or one second that, from viewing on the camera screen, looked to give a nice result on the waves breaking against the cliff. You never know quite how a wave is going to break, so I took many shots, timing the shutter release in advance of when I anticipated the spray would reach its peak, or at other times to catch the rivulets of water streaming down the cliff face following a wave. The photo here is a blend of two such shots. So, a 'made' image: not simply a snapshot of what I saw, but a fusion over two different timescales, blurring the water motion during each exposure and then superimposing a wave with its aftermath.

#90 - August 2016
"Faroese girl among newly sheared sheepskins"

Stremoy, Faroe Islands: July 23, 2016

Ull er Føroya gull - Wool is the gold of the Faroe Islands

"Before fishing became the main industry of the Faroes at the beginning of the twentieth century, sheep farming, and trade in home-knitted goods were the main sources of income for most families. The Faroese sheep has been selectively bred over the centuries as much for the quality of its wool as for its meat. It is a particularly hardy animal, able to survive on the bare slopes of the islands all year round. Its wool, when spun, is exceptionally warm and water-resistant - necessary qualities for a climate where it rains on the majority of days in the year. One notable feature of the Faroese sheep is the variety of natural colours that can be spun from the fleeces. Although the majority of the sheep are white or cream, there are also sheep with black, brown and grey wool, as well as two-coloured sheep: white and black, and white and brown.

Even today there are no large sheep farms on the Faroes. The normal pattern is for families to tend a small flock on the mountain pastures around and above the villages. These sheep farmers - who might also be teachers, doctors or fishermen - join together for the seasonal rituals of caring for new-born lambs in the spring, rounding up the sheep for shearing in early summer, haymaking in late summer, and, in autumn, selecting the best rams for breeding and slaughtering some sheep for the family dinner table.

Most Faroese sheep are still sheared by hand clippers in the traditional way. The fleeces are then sold to the three main yarn manufacturers, who grade them according to colour. The wool is then carded and spun - and dyed for the coloured yarns - to produce yarn ready for knitting ". [The Island Wool Company]

File:Faroe stamp 278 sheep shearing.jpg

Family gatherings to tend their sheep are commemorated in a Faroese stamp, and remain a part of Faroese life to this day. Our visit to the Faroes in July coincided with the time when the sheep were beginning to shed, when the fleece can be easily parted from the body with clippers or merely by sliding a hand between the old and new fleece layers. Driving along the main road crossing Stremoy we passed by a cluster of cars pulled up on the verge by a farmhouse, with many people and even more sheep gathered in a adjacent field. We walked up the farm road to investigate and were greeted by a farmer who, while clipping identifying marks into sheep's ears, gave us an account (in perfect English) of what was going on.

From a photographer's perspective this was a tough scene. Too chaotic, too much happening at once, and highly dynamic as the sheep objected strenuously to their manhandling. Sam Abel can famously create complex, discretely layered images of such subjects, but my attempts to synthesize the numerous elements failed. What did work, however, was a shot zooming in on just one element. Several shearing stations were set up with wooden frames to hold the sheep's head, but all the sheepskins were thrown onto one growing pile. A young Faroese girl was playing amongst this, and I was happy to capture her expression entagled in the mass of wool.


#89 - July 2016
"Flight path of blue-eyed shags"

The Falklands, November 2015; Sea Lion Island.

We never did see a sea lion during our days on this island, although an elephant seal came up the path to the door of the lodge. But, Sea Lion island is a great place for gentoos, rockhoppers and blue-eyed shags, as well as numerous song birds. Although the lodge is surrounded by colonies of gentoo penguins, the big rockhopper and shag colonies lie a few miles away ; not too far to walk, but we had the luxury of a land rover to drive us there. The trail - there are no roads on the island, just muddy tracks across the peat bogs - ends at the top of sheer cliffs, marked by a memorial to the HMS Sheffield, sunk offshore during the Falklands war. A granite amphitheater is home to the rockhopper penguins, which were dutifully hopping up and down among the boulders and small cliff face. Above them, nesting shags (imperial comorants) were outlined against the sky, squabbling with one another and with birds flying in carrying new nesting materials. All great fun to watch and photograph, and we spent several hours there.

Our leader, Hugh, had gone off to reconnoiter nearby areas, and returned to report a dense colony of shags on an open rock shelf a short distance along the top of cliffs. I was happy to have a change of scenery, and followed Hugh back, edging around the colony until we were on the upwind side. Shags were taking off into a strong wind that was blowing straight down along the line of the rock shelf. Fromm where I stood, they passed close overhead as they gained height. At any given instant there might be only two or three birds in the air, but the feeling was of a continuous stream; of being enveloped in a canopy of birds. To capture this impression in a photograph I set up my camera on a tripod, and fitted a super-wide 14mm lens for a field of view vide enough to encompass birds that passed almost directly above. With a cable release I then triggered the shutter, estimating by eye - rather than looking through the viewfinder - the instant when birds would be well placed. In total I took more than 50 shots, aiming to get a good mix with with birds distributed throughout the frame, and taking lots of extras assuming a high failure rate with birds clipped or outside the edges.

To composit the final photo I took a single image of the colony and blended it with about a dozen separate shots of the flying shags, using the 'darken' overlay mode in Photoshop and masking out all but the immediate area of sky around those birds I chose to include. With so many shots I could be quite selective, trying to achive a pleasing balance with the flight path of the birds appearing to originate from a single 'radiant' within the colony; rather like a meteor shower.


#88 - June 2016
"Mono Lake color palette"

Looking back through previous posts, I find this is the sixth time that I have featured the tufa formations at Mono Lake as Photo-of-the-Month. Given that other photos encompass all seven continents from the Arctic to Antarctic circle, that must be a complement to this tny piece of California no more than a few hundred yards across. Indeed, Mono Lake is one of my favorite locations on earth to photograph - with the bonus that it is within a weekend driving distance from my home. The tufa and ancient saline lake are the foundation for creating striking images, but importantly the conditions are always different on each repeated visit. Situated in a high (6000 ft elevation) bowl beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains Mono Lake gets plenty of weather, and on several ocasions I have arrived during an afternoon thunderstorm that providentially cleared just in time for sunset. Moreover, the lake level is in continual flux, as determined by a balance between evaporation (there is no outflow), runoff from Sierra snowmelt, and the extent to which that inflow is diverted by the LA Department of Water and Power. The latter agency is legally required to adjust diversions to target an ecologically sound level some 14 ft above the present height. For a few years after the legal settlement that codified this decision the lake level rose by 10 ft, but more recently the prolonged drought in California has renderd this for nought. At the time of my visit, the lake was down to its lowest level in 20 years. That is not good for the vast numbers of birds nesting on islands that would become vulnerable to predators crossing a land bridge exposed by only a slight further drop in water level. It does, however, mean that the shoreline is continually changing; lagoons appear and disappear, grasses grow where previously there was shallow water or mud, tufa islands become connected to the land along sandy isthsmus. Most attractively, the low level has exposed an area of flat rocks at the tip of the South Tufa area, lapped by shallow translucent water that takes on yellow-turquoise tints. On a previous visit under grey, overcast skies I had been intrigued by photographing these colors as a pastel contrast to a monochrome background. Most recently I was lucky to have the chance to expand this color palette under dramatic sunset clouds.

This month's photo was taken using a 17 mm tilt-shift lens, utilizing a small tilt setting to increase depth of field, but primarily using shift to gain a wider field of view. Also, by combining two vertically shifted shots with the camera in landscape orientation I could obtain a final image in a square format, which makes a nice change from the exaggerated 3:2 aspect ratio of the standard 35 mm frame. Shifted images are usually made with a tripod-mounted camera, combining two shots taken in quick succession to, yield a result essentially the same as would be achieved by a single exposure if the camera sensor were larger. In light of the recent kerfuffle concerning Steve McCurry's 'Photoshopping' of some of his images I should explain that the two shots that were combined to create this image were taken at slightly different times and positions. The lower half is one of a shifted pair of shots I took after collapsing the tripod legs to get a low-down viewpoint emphasizing the foreground rocks and the translucent turquoise glow of the saline water. However, at that time the sunset light had not fully developed, and the matching upper image of the pair had only a nondescript sky. I ought to have left the camera set up where it was and waited for the light to change, but not knowing how the sunset might develop I repositioned the tripod a few feet to focus on reflections from the clouds. Within a few minutes the sky illuminated with nice color and beams from the setting sun as it descended through a clearing above the mountains. The shifted pair of shots I took at that time included a more dramatic sillhouette of the tufa spires against the clouds, but taken from a higher vantage point the lower shot did not capture the color of the water as effectively. In processing my images from that evening I first combined each pair of shifted captures as they were taken, but neither result was entirely satisfactory. An obvious solution was to mix and match, merging the better top-shifted frame for the sky with the bottom-shifted frame for the water and rocks. The image above is thus not a strict representaion of the scene at an instant of time, and would not meet the strict criteria of photojournalism or even entry for many photo contests, but I think it does succeed in conveying the otherworldy aspect and strange color palette of this unique place.


#87 - May 2016
Getting creative with penguins - Part #3,
"King penguins at the Neck of Saunders Island"

Back to penguins this month.

The photograph was taken at the 'Neck' of Saunders Island, a thin strip of sand connecting an outlying hill to the main island. This location is among the best wildlife sites in the Falkland Islands, hosting vast colonies of black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins on the cliffs of the main island, together with a smaller colony of king penguins on the Neck itself. Our little group aboard the Hans Hansson had spent a very long, utterly wonderful day on the island and I was walking back to the beach for a Zodiac ride back to the boat, when I came across this little group of kings. They were quite isolated on a barren stretch of sand, and I was struck by the contrast with the densely teeming birds in the large colonies. Moreover, a typical Falklands mist had started to descend, patchily hiding the hillside and darkening the sky. Altogether there was a strangely moody, almost eerie feel to the scene - at least, that is what I felt, the penguins probably took no notice.

A recurring theme among photographers is that a photograph should convey the emotion of the person pressing the shutter button, beyond merely capturing the literal scene before the lens. That is usually difficult. A two dimensional, visual representation of an instant of time cannot directly convey aspects of the immediate environment such as sounds, smell, and temperature; yet alone the previous history of the photographer that has led him to this spot. In this case, though, it was strictly the visual aspects that dominated, and a simple 'snapshot' was sufficient to capture the mood. The little group of penguins were just hanging out on their way back to their colony from the ocean, and I had plenty of time to frame various compositions. Obligingly, one penguin threw back his head to call, and that provided the something extra to make this shot the winner. My only 'trickery' in capturing the photo was to use a graduated ND filter to darken the sky and enhance the moody atmosphere; and a little Photoshop tidying up to remove distracting debris on the beach.

The Neck of Saunders Island


#86 - April 2016
"Monarch Blurs"

Enough of penguins - for this month at least...

Instead, I feature a much smaller subject - a few individuals among the thousands of monarch butterflies that gather to overwinter in the Pismo Beach Butterfly Grove. This was my first visit, and we arrived early on a January morning. My initial impression was that I was not impressed, and that the butterflies were going to be hard to photograph. Monarchs can't fly unless the air is warmer than about 55 F, so on this cool morning they were all clustered high in the trees, looking almost indistinguishable from dead leaves. Even though a 400 mm lens on my 7DII gave enough reach to resolve the fine wing patterns on individual butterflies, I could only frame large clumps of monarchs and it was hard to find compositions where they stood out from the random tangle of leaves and branches, interleaved with distracting highlights from the sky.

As the day warmed up, however, increasing numbers of butterflies took to the air, and some began to alight on a low tree close to the fence that keeps visitors well away from the butterflies. With the 400 mm lens I could now fill a good part of the frame with an individua lmonarch. Better yet, one of the branches was catching a shaft of sunlight, so butterflies on it were brightly highlighted against a deep shadowed background. I initially concentrated on static butterflies that had already landed, but then realized that those in flight might provide a better subject. Experimenting with different shutter speeds I used the lcd screen on the camera to see what would most pleasingly blur their motion. The optimal exposure looked to be 1/30s at f8: that nicely blurred the wing beat while mostly freezing the forward motion, so while the monarchs were rendered in an abstract fashion they remained sharp enough to be recognizable. I was particularly taken by the way the white dotted patterns on the wing margins often traced out beautiful swirls. Thus, capturing butterfly blurs is rather analogous to photographing waterfalls - a matter of taste as to what shutter speed results in the aestheticallymost attractive blur..

Watching butterflies approaching and leaving this one branch kept me happily engaged for an hour or more, and I got too engrossed to walk over to listen to the docent talk about the peculiar life cycle and migration of the monarchs. Altogether I accumulated more than 200 shots; a good archive from which to later make selections. For a final image I wanted to include several butterflies to convey the variety of patterns formed by their wing motions . No single shots captured more than two butterflies, so I composed the montage above by combining four individual frames with the monarchs disposed in a seemingly random, but hopefully pleasing pattern. The process was facilitated because the backgrounds were so dark I could turn them to complete black without losing any detail in the butterflies, allowing me to position them with complete freedom.


#85 - March 2016

Getting creative with penguins - Part #2,
"Magellanic Penguin in a Sandstorm"

Continuing the penguin theme for this month: and addressing the issue of subject isolation.

For much of my time photographing penguins on our Southern Oceans voyages I was aiming to capture images that placed them in the context of their natural environment. For that reason, I was usually wandering around with a 24-105 mm zoom lens on a single camera, whereas my companions were armed with long telephotos. But I also wanted to get some shots that abstracted the penguins from their background; isolating them to capture the essence of 'penguiness'.

Almost every sort of photograph must deal with subject isolation - 'cutting the cluter'. The main subject should be immediately obvious, and should be clearly delineated from the background. Of course, the background often complements and provides context for the subject, but nevertheless the viewer's eye should go first to the main subject before exploring elsewhere. In wildlife photography a common ploy is to use a long, wide-aperture telephoto lens so that only the animal or bird that forms the subject is in sharp focus, and any background or foreground distractions become pleasingly, and non-distractingly blurred. That technique works well, but can become rather cliched and, nevertheless, careful attention is needed to find neutral backgrounds.

Here, I wanted to get rid of the background entirely, leaving only the penguin. Photographing against a background of clean, featureless snow would be one option, but that can create an artificial 'cardboard-cutout' effect. For this month's photo a fortuitous combination of location and abysmal weather provided an alternative approach. Our small group of photographers spent the last day of our week on the Falkland Islands visiting Volunteer Point, home to a small colony of king penguins approached by a rough drive of several miles through peat bogs on the East Island. Gettting out of the Land Rovers we found a freezing, gale-force wind blowing, and I soon became disheartended trying to get good shots of the kings in a rather muddy colony while struggling to hold my camera still against the wind and bouts of shivering. Going for a walk seemed like a good idea, both to get warm and to scout out other possibilities. I headed down to the nearby beach and there discovered that the wind was blowing a thick carpet of sand to a height of several inches, through which a few penguins (kings and magellanics) were nonchalantly marching to and from the ocean. The blowing sand obscured all background details, giving the effect I was looking for, but to maximize this and get a 'penguins-eye' perspective I had to lie down flat, with my camera raised just to the level of the top of the airborne sand. That position was tenable only looking downwind, so I chose a spot and waited for suitable penguins to walk by. My favorite was the little magellanic penguin featured above, bravely carrying back nesting material for his mate.

This photo reinforces the axiom that good shots frequently involve some discomfort and suffering, even though that might not be apparent in the final result. Half an hour lying on a damp beack in a sandstorm was kind to neither camera nor corneas; the zoom ring on my brand new 100-400 lens and my eyes were both gritty for days afterwards, and I took a long to time to warm up and stop shivering. In retrospect it was a good thing I did not know at the time that the small refuge hut at Volunteer Point was equipped with a propane heater, or I may have never ventured down the beach.


#84 - February 2016

Getting creative with penguins - Part #1, "Penguin Sunstars"

Everybody loves penguins! The different species (seventeen in total; among which I have been fortunate to see nine) all have their very different and adorable quirks and behaviors. Apart from the obvious issue of travelling to where they live, penguins are very easy subjects to photograph. A Google search for 'penguin photographs' pulls up nearly one million hits. There are a lot of penguin photos out there! On our recent voyages to penguin lands in the Southern Ocean one of my aims was to portray these strange birds in a different way; not simply to replicate numerous existing photos but to capture the essence of penguins and place them within their environment.

But how to achieve this? I had little in the way of preconceived ideas beyond trying motion blur effects (to be the subject of a future Photo-of-the-Month). Instead, ideas came as fortuitous opportunities presented themselves; as in the two photos featured this month. After several days of wild weather on South Georgia, we found the conditions during our landing at Gold Harbour living up to its name. We shared the beach with an enormous colony of king penguins and spent a full day photographing them. Kings are my favorite species because of the beautiful yellow-shading-to-orange coloration around the head and neck of adults, and their inquisitive nature. Stay quietly on a beach on South Georgia and they will come up to you and gently peck on tripod legs and overtrousers.

Toward evening the sun began to cast a beautiful diffuse golden glow. Sitting amongst a small huddle of kings peacefully grooming themselves, a thought came that I might be able to sillhouette them against the sun. Indeed by lying flat and placing my camera on the ground I could get the necessary angle of view without being so close that I disturbed the birds. Time was short as the sun would soon set behind the mountains and clouds intermittently blocked the sun, so I rapidly took numerous shots, bracketing exposures and trying various angles with the sun either completely occluded behind penguins or just peeking to the side to create sunstars. Most shots were failures, as I expected, but a few worked both from the point of view of composition and technically (horizon level, sharp, not over or underexposed). After selecting the best, the remaining problem was to deal with the enorrmous dynamic range in the RAW files. Before processing the penguins appeared as mere sillhouettes against a bright and washed out sky. To create the final images and bring up the shadow details I needed every trick in the Photoshop book, primarily using layer masks to apply drastic curves adjustments.,


#83 - January 2016

"The Petrel - Grytviken"

Anne and I recently returned from a small boat voyage to the sub-antarctic island of South Georgia aboard the MV Hans Hansson. South Georgia is accessible only by sea - there is no airport or even airstrip on the island and no accommodations or inhabitants beyond a small research station and a seasonal museum. Our tour operator, Cheesemans Ecology Safaris, had originally proposed that we would be able to camp overnight, but in the end the requisite permit was not forthcoming owing to lack of sufficient scientific justification. I was disappointed to lose this opportunity to do long-exposure night photography on the island, as this is impossible from a boat: even in calm water the boat is constantly swinging at anchor. But there was one chance: the Hans Hansson is small enough to moor at the dock at the old whaling station at Grytviken whereas larger ships must anchor offshore, and we would spend one night with the possibility to go onshore.

I already had a subject in mind, inspired by a beautiful night time photo of the Petrel, a wrecked whaling ship close to our mooring, which has also featured on a British postage stamp. (See photos below). "The Petrel is the best-preserved whale-catcher at South Georgia. She was built in 1929 at Nylands Verksted in Oslo. She is 244.8 gross tons and 31.1 m (115 feet) long. Petrel was withdrawn from the whaling fleet at Grytviken in 1956 and converted to a sealing vessel the following year. This involved removing her whale-winch and replacing it with an ordinary cargo winch, creating a large cargo hatch (for loading the seal blubber), removing the gun platform and the cat-walk that connected it with the bridge on the starboard side. Petrel was one of the first catchers to be equipped with a cat-walk, which was introduced in 1926. The line-blocks were removed from the mast and a derrick installed. She was capable of 11 knots from her 810 indicated horse-power triple-expansion engine. Her funnel has been re-painted in the Salvesen (Leith Harbour) colours, but when she was operated by Grytviken she had blue and white bands on her funnel." [South Georgia Whaling Museum]. The Petrel was restored and the whale gun replaced by the British garrison stationed in South Georgia after the Falklands war. A 1991 photo (below) shows her afloat with spick paintwork, but she is now grounded and undergoing rapid, if picturesque decay.

I woke to my alarm at about 1:00 am local time (the World's least inhabited time zone!), and quietly went out on deck with tripod, camera, interval timer and 14 mm super-wide lens. An immediate problem was that the gangplank had been removed and the tide had gone out since we boarded in the evening, so that the jetty was now three feet above the boat, leaving a wide gap to black freezing water below. Trying to jump across from the rail did not seem wise, so after passing over the camera gear I stretched across and pulled up on a good finger hold in the planking of the jetty. Although the Petrel was then only a hundrd yards away, getting there continued to be a little hazardous, with snow covering ground strewn with industrial detritus and light only from red and green harbor navigation lights and a small led headlamp.

Any hope of replicating my inspirational shot with Milky Way or startrail photography had seemed unlikely given the typical weather of South Georgia, and indeed a keen wind was sending clouds scudding across the sky with a light snowfall. Moreover, the wind constrained photos to only one direction, as otherwise the lens became covered by blowing snow during minute-long exposures. Fortuitously, however, that direction placed the red navigation light directly behind the Petrel and, though occluded by the ship, its light imparted a red glow to the falling snow. A two minute shutter opening at ISO 1600 gave a good exposure for the sky and diffusely blurred out individual snowflakes. Some light was falling directly on the Petrel from the green navigation light, but this was distant and dim as compared to the red in the sky. I thus supplemented the exposure by light-painting with my headlamp. After a few experiments I decided that the image on the camera screen looked good enough, so I could end this masochistic persuit and snuggle back into my warm bunk to thaw out fingers and toes.


#82 - December 2015

"A Quiet Dawn at Pine Park"

The recently issued third edition of Laurent Matres' book on Photographing the Southwest: UtahPine Valley includes several new locations, including Pine Valley, a rather remote site, deep in the Dixie National Forest near the Utah/Nevada stateline. After the crowds of people at Monument Valley, I was looking for peace and solitude to break my journey back home, and from Laurant's description and photos Pine Park looked as if it should be both secluded and photogenic. The main feature is an area of white, eroded Tuff, a 1000ft layer of consolidatede ash erupted millions of years ago from a nearby caldera. Weathering of this soft rock has produced intriguing formations, reminiscent of a miniature version of Tent Rocks in New Mexico, or Cappadocia in Turkey.

The most scenic area lies in a westward-facing bowl, and I tried to get there before sunset to catch the warm light on the rocks. The roads through the forest are suprisingly good, with the last section being well-graded dirt despite leading nowhere other than a tiny campsite with no facilities beyond a single table and a post proclaiming 'designated campsite'. Nevertheless, I had underestimated the total driving distance, some 70 miles after leaving the interstate at Cedar City , and arrived exactly as the light faded. I did get a single, hasty shot, but not what I had hoped for. Anyhow, it was a nice place to be. I had not seen anyone for the last 15 miles, and the designated campsite was a flat area with soft pine needles on which to spread out my camping mat. I soon had a campfire going, and settled down with the last can of Tecate from the cooler to to eat a 'dogs-eye' pie from the Aussie pie shop in Costa Mesa. With a full tummy I had a comfortable night, waking in advance of the Marimba chimes from my iPod as the first light of dawn started to challenge the still bright moonlight.

Its always easy for me to find good reasons to stay snuggled up in a warm sleeping bag; the dawn sky looked boringly clear, and the sun would be rising behind the tent rocks, so they would not receive direct light for hours. But, having driven all that way I wanted to get a good photo, and past experience had taught me that I am no good at predicting conditions and that it is best to go and see what may transpire. Its a quick half mile drive back up the road from the campsite to the rocks, and the best overlook is from the side of the road itself, so there is no hiking. A good job, as serrated layers of thin cloud that had been almost invisible began to glow with the rising sun just as I arrived. The light show lasted maybe for 10 minutes, and I took many shots as it progressed. My final choice was at a time when the serrated clouds were well illuminated, and clouds directly above where the sun would rise (out of the frame to the right) cast a diffuse backlight over the formations. Because the sky was much brighter than the foreground I thought about using a graduated ND filter to even the exposure, but worried that it would introduce an artificial black band across the higher formations. Instead, I took bracketed exposures so I could achieve a more subtle blend later in Photoshop. A final consideration in processing was how to crop the image, which I had framed quite wide to allow some leeway. Should the sky be given prominence and fill more of the frame, or were the rocks the main point of the image? Giving both equal space and weight would create a conflict, and put the horizon awkwardly in the middle of the frame. My feeling was that the formations were the main point of this photo, and that the sky needed to be cropped, despite loosing some nice red clouds above the striations.


#81 - November 2015

"Lunar Eclipse over the Mittens"

The evening of September 27th marked the last of a tetrad of lunar eclipses. The totality period (around an hour) of this eclipse was unusually long; for viewers in the Western US the eclipse started around the time of moonrise; and, the next lunar eclipse will not be until 2018. So, that gave me plenty of reasons to justify a trip to photograph the eclipse at an interesting location. In thinking about possibilities my criteria were somewhere with a high likelyhood of clear skies, and some spectacular foreground scenery in a view looking almost due East. The Trona Pinnacles came to mind, but the classic view of the Mittens in Monument Valley won out. Even though involving a much longer drive, that iconic view is hard to beat, and gave an excuse to take a few extra days to photograph in Utah.

The Photographers Ephemeris indicated that the moon would rise next to the East Mitten as viewed from the visitor center, and then follow an almost perfect 45 degree diagonal path, with maximum eclipse at an altitude of about 22 degrees, and ending at about 40 degrees. I wanted to frame the scene to encompass both mittens and the entire eclipse sequence, and the angle of view of my 17 mm TS lens on a crop-frame camera looked about ideal for that. To compress the horizontal extent a little, and have the moon rising closer to the mitten I chose to shoot from near the camping area, which also had the advantage of taking me away from all the other photographers clustered by the main parking lot. Then it was just a matter of setting up a tripod (heavily weighted with rocks in a shopping bag to minimize the chance I would dislodge it), focusing the camera to infinity, framing the scene, and settling back in my camp chair to wait for moonrise. In the past I have struggled trying to correctly set external timers, sometimes coming back in the morning to a camera that should have been taking shots at intervals through the night only to find just the single image when I set it going. My new 7DII, however, has a built in timer, easily and clearly set through the menu rather than squinting at the tiny screen on an external device. I decided on an iterval of 12 minutes, to give a good separation between each exposure of the moon as it rose, while capturing several shots during the period of total eclipse. But I could not leave the camera entirely unattended - there is the need to change exposure settings because the brightness of the moon changes enormously (about 2000 times) as it goes from fully illuminated to completely eclipsed. I used the shutter speed/ISO settings suggested by Michael Frye and found them to work well.

Producing a final photograph from an image sequence like this is a matter of blending together the individual images, but that's not an entirely mechanical process. For the base image, I took a shot just before sunset, with the Mittens still illuminated by the sun, and darkened it to look more in keeping with the nightime sequence of the eclipse. The problem, then, was what to do about the sky. If the eclipse had been later at night the sky would have been completely dark, giving a black background on which to place each exposre for the moon using the 'lighten' function in Photoshop. But now the partial phase of the eclipse had already started at moonrise, when the sky was still bright. Making the entire sky dark would look very artificial; but equally it would look strange if the later stages of the eclipse, with the moon high in the sky, were on a bright sky background. My solution was to take two image of the sky - one captured at moonrise, and the other during totality when the stars were brightly visible without being obscured by moonlight - and blend these using a vertical transparency gradient.


#80 - October 2015

"Mono Lake tufa - the flip side of a sunset"

The most obvious attraction of a good sunset is the sky itself. But this is a case where the camera has a very hard time capturing what the eye sees. The range of intensity values between those brigh, red-glowing clouds and shadowed foreground is usually just too great, leaving foreground features as mere sillhouettes. To encompass the full dynamic range of the scene usually needs multiple exposures or use of a a graduated ND filter. Even then, it takes some trickery (and subtlety) to cram this into the much smaller range of any display medium (print or computer screen) without producing a false and obviously manipulated result.

One solution to this dilemma is simply to turn around and face away from the glowing clouds. They will be lit up by the rich, warm color of the setting sun, but unlike the very directional light of the sun itself, the clouds act as a vast diffuser, providing a wonderfully even, soft illumination. This month's photo thus pairs with its immediate predecessor; both images were captured within about 5 minutes of each other, but looking in opposite directions, and with the emphasis now on the ground rather than the sky.

As recounted last month, I was fortunate to be at Mono Lake when a clearing storm created a spectacular sunset. At first I was engrossed in shooting the sky, but then noticed that the tufa formations, which are inherentlya muted grey, were taking on some beautiful color. To get a more interesting composition I headed along the beach toward the eastern end of the South Tufa, where there is a concentrated 'cityscape' of slender vertical towers. Space here is constrained, so to capture a more extensive panorama I took a series of vertical shots that I could later stitch together; remembering to use manual exposure and, without tripod, trying to keep the horizon level and centered for each shot. The light was fading quickly, and I could get only one sequence, taken from a quickly chosen vantage point that gave some elevation looking down onto the formations. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to include some more interesting foreground, or leading line into he picture. Being critical, it is rather horizontally linear. That's where scouting and pre-visualization of a location come into play; to know in advance exactly where you want to be in the event that you are lucky to be there during such evanescent light. Here, I knew the general area where I wanted to be, but had never mapped out very specific viewpoints that would suit different lighting conditions.


#79 - September 2015

"Sunset after the storm: Mono Lake"

Mono Lake holds great attraction for me, and for numerous other photographers. The tufa towers emerging from the water and shore give a strange and otherworldly presence. As far as I know there is no other place like it in the world. Although there may be otherplaces where freshwater springs bubbling up from the bottom of saline lakes have created similar tufa formations, they would lie underwater and invisible. At Mono Lake the thirsty citizens of Los Angeles have exposed the tufa, diverting the streams that feed the lake over many years so that the water level has dropped precipitously. A legal agreement with the L.A. Department of Water and Power was meant to rectify the situation and restore the lake back to its historic level in 1950, but ongoing drought has now left the lake at not much above its lowest ever height. For the visitor that has exposed more of the formations, but left a wide expanse of muddy foreshore, seething with dense clouds of alkali flies.

On a sunny day, Mono Lake is a hard place to make a good photograph. The tufa is a nondescript grey, choppy waves preclude reflections, and the beaches look scruffy with scattered clumps of tufa among the mud. But with some good lighting, the place becomes transformed. That was my motivation to visit a few weeks ago when, after photographing the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, the weather forecast predicted thunderstorms over the Owens Valley. The morning had started clear, but fluffy white clouds started to develop during the day and by mid afternoon formed towering thunderheads. I went down to the South Tufa area to try out my new lightning trigger, and captured several shots of lightning strikes. I had been carefully noting the intervals between lightning and thunder, and when the lightning seemed to be getting too close I beat a hasty retreat back to my SUV. That was a good decision, both for safety and because the sky blackened and the rain became torrential. Soon after the thunderstorm died out, but the rain continued, with little visibility through the murk. All the other vehicles left the parking lot, but I stayed, re-reading the 'Worst Journey in the World' on my Kindle, and trying to convince myself that there was a faint brightning in the sky to the West and that maybe, just maybe, there was a possibility of a sunset if the sun could break through a gap between the clouds and the mountains...

In addition to technical skills and artistic sensibilities, patience is an important attribute for a landscape photographer. Spectacular light is fleeting and comes rarely - you need to wait and be ready for it. There have been times in the past when a pervading grey gloom has convinced me that there was no hope, only to to experience a beautiful sunset after hiking back to my car. This time I was going to stick it out. And, as a practical matter, it made no difference whether I stayed at the South Tufa, ready to run down the boardwalk at the first hint of light. If I had a reservation in a motel in Lee Vining the temptation of lobster taquitos at the Whoa Nellie Delli and a comfortable bed might have lured me away. But I was car camping, with a good dinner and a can of beer in the cooler, and my fluffy goose-down sleeping bag laid out in the back. Hotels, beds, restaurants and suchlike are best shunned by the dedicated photographer. Galen Rowell got the best photograph of his life when he left his companions to their dinner and set off running across the Tibetan plateau chasing a rainbow; and I was surprised when my companions on an Antarctic photo cruise stayed at their dinner tables while a luminescent blue iceberg floated past the windows.

The 'Worst Journey' is an engrossing read, so I was happily entertained while the rain continued to rattle the roof. Occasional glances through the rain-smeared windscreen showed only marginal improvement in the weather, and I had little inclination to get out for a better look having neglected to pack any raingear despite the forecast - an oversight conditioned perhaps by the almost total lack of rain in California for the last several years. But then, just as I got to the part where the Terra Nova was close to floundering in a great storm in the Southern ocean, the sky over the Sierras really did look to be brighter, and a faint glimmer of yellow appeared over the lake. I had put my camera ready in a small pack and, checking that it had a fresh battery and card with lots of space, grabbed this along with my tripod and headed out quickly down the trail, with some rain still falling.

By the time I got to the beach the light was becoming spectacular, with a diffuse, luminous yellow glow from a cloudbank over the lake, and clouds to the West starting to take on a red tinge. At that point I was faced with a decision of whether to take time to set up the tripod and aim for a few carefully composed shots, or to go handheld, cover more ground and have more spontaneous possibilities, but at the cost of noisier, less sharp images as the light faded. My watch showed that it was already only a few minutes before sunset so the light was going to be very transitory. Without much conscious thought I opted for the latter option, dropped the tripod and set off running for the closest tufa formations. I had brought only a single lens - a 24 to 105 zoom - and even at the wide setting it could not fully encompass the span of the sky, so I concentrated on taking a series of shots to later stitch into panoramas. Handheld, that needed some discipline to keep the horizon centered and level; a job complicated by the need to keep wiping raindrops from the lens. The yellow glow was my main subject, but just when I thought the light could not possibly get better a rainbow appeared!

In retrospect, I rate this as the second best sunset I have been privileged to experience (and photograph). The best was an amazing evening at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (subject of last month's photo), that combined wonderfully sculpted clouds with colors transitioning across the red end of the spectrum, all reflected by the flooded lakebed. At Mono Lake the water was too choppy for reflections, but in compensation I had never before seen such a luminescent yellow glow, yet alone with a rainbow accompaniment. It was an intense, almost spiritual feeling to be there, particularly because I was entirely alone at this popular tourist site. My only regret is that I was so occupied with technicalities such as checking histograms and choosing ISO settings in the fading light that I had little time to simply become immersed in the experience. I wish I had more memories of that evening stored in synapses rather than pixels!.

#78 - August 2015

"Lithium Dreamscape : Salar de Uyuni"

My selection of a photo this month was prompted by a recent article in the New York Times Sunday magazine by Jaime Lowe, entitled "I don't believe in God, but I believe in lithium", that details her 20-year struggle with bipolar disorder. She was treated - successfully - with lithium, a mood stabilizer that helps stop and prevent mood cycles and is usually the first medication tried with bipolar patients. However, as is the case for many (most!) other drugs used to treat phschological and neurological problems, little is understood of how lithium actually works in the brain. One hypothesis is that it acts to inhibit the recycling of inositol trisphosphate (IP3), an intracellular 'messenger' molecule that regulates many functions in neurons and other cells. My lab studies the actions and functions of IP3, and we recently published a paper describing that lithium can protect cells from damage caused by the amyloid proteins found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

Well, that's all very interesting, but this is my photography website, not my lab website. What has it got to do with the photo?

The link comes from an account later in Jaime's article describing her visit to the Salar de Uyuni; a vast salt flat in the Bolivian Altiplano which is the world's largest reserve of lithium. Her article is illustrated with several photos of the Salar but, despite the regard in which Mike Johnson (The Online Photographer) hold the NY Times as the "World's Best Photography Magazine", I thought the accompanying images were rather mundane. That gave me an excuse to go back into my archives to look through photos I had taken of the Salar during a visit in spring of 2011. Among these, I thought the one feature here best captured Jaime's description of the Salar as "a perfect backdrop for a grandiose delusion".

About the photograph itself, it is largely a consequence of being at an exeptional location under exceptional circumstances, including spectacular sunset clouds and flooding of the salt flat to create a giant mirror of the sky. Often it takes a lot of work to extract a good image from a scene; to picture something which is not immediately obvious to the eye. In this instance, though, I can claim little credit as photographer. It was just a matter of pointing the camera in an interesting direction, getting the horizon level, and adjusting the exposure with a slow shutter speed to smooth small ripples on the water.


#77 - July 2015

"King Penguin Colony; St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia Island"

June 30th marked our 30th wedding anniversary, and for this month's photo I thought I would choose one that holds special memories for Anne and me. Our travels around the world have taken us to many beautiful places, but remote islands rank among the best; Easter Island, Iceland, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and (if Kiwis will forgive the description as 'remote') New Zealand. After several visits, Iceland has come to feel familiar, and visits seem almost like returning home. South Georgia, on the other hand is certainly nothing like home. It is cold, windy, rugged and utterly inhospitable; but the stark scenery and, above all, the myriad hundreds of thousands of penguins make the island one of the most spectacular places on the planet - Art Wolfe's "favorite place on earth".

I took this Month's photo during our best day on the island, following an early morning landing at St. Andrews Bay. We embarked in Zodiacs soon after dawn, anticipating a full day with the penguins, and provisioned with bio-secure cheese sandwiches tucked in our pockets. The landing site was near cliffs at the far southern end of the sweeping 2 mile-long bay. From there I set off along the beach toward the largest King penguin colony, keeping a careful lookout for agressive fur seals hiding behind grass tussocks. Saint Andrew's Bay is one of those places that is so overwhelming that I tend to freeze, trying to decide which of the many possibilities to photograph: wide angle to capture the enormity of the penguin colony beneath the mountains; telephoto shots to isolate individual behaviors; or just sit down on the beach and let the penguins come to me (they are very curious about tripods). In terms of composition, trying to capture penguin colonies present a similar problem to photographing in forests - there is just too much random detail and stuff going on, making it tough to get a simplified, coherent picture. However, the topography of St. Andrews bay presents at least one natural solution. Two glacier-fed rivers join a short way above the surf line, forming a 'V' of land on which the penguins conveniently array themselves. The converging waters provide a geometric structure, framing the countless numbers of penguins receding into the distance. Getting the shot did involve wading out into the freezing and swift waters of the confluence - but that's what Arctic Muck Boots are for!

Anne and I visited South Georgia in November, 2013 on an 'Ultimate Antarctica" tour run by Jo van Os. We had planned it as a one-off , 'trip-of-a-lifetime" voyage. But, the lure of South Georgia was too strong, and we will be returning again during the entire month of November on a small-boat expedition orgainzed by Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris.

#76 - June 2015

"Ancient bristlecone pine in snow"

There are many reasons for a photographer to return to favorite locations multiple times. On any given visit I find I can get locked into a particular 'vision' of what I am looking for, fixate on using a particular lens, and generally just fail to register most of the myriad possibilities . A return trip, after the preconceptions have faded often leads to new insights. And, the light and weather conditions are never quite the same. David Muench's quote that 'bad weather leads to good photographs' must be one of the truest axioms in landscape photography. But, living in Southern California, bad weather is rather rare!

In one sense, that certainly applies to one of the most evocative locations in California, the ancient bristlecone pine forest high in the White Mountains. I have visited many times, usually in summer and under startlingly clear, deep blue skies. Of course, the White Mountains do experience atrocious bad weather during winter, but then the high elevations are snow-bound, and the formidable gates controlling access by both paved and dirt roads are locked shut. Hiking in would be a possibility, but very committing, requiring a multi-day backpack carrying serious winter camping gear in addition to camera gear over many miles and with an elevation gain of over 7000 ft. The recent forecast of a rare May storm gave the prospect of an easier option. Following an exceptionally dry winter with minimal snowpack the roads to the bristlecone pine forest had opened very early in the year, and it seemed that a brief storm might deposit enough snow to be photographically interesting, without blocking access. That indeed proved to be the case. I was able to drive most of the way along the unpaved road following the crest of the mountains, encountering only mud and a few patches of shallow snow. Finally, a mile of so before where the road contours the mountainside at an elevation of about 11,000ft toward Patriarch Grove the snow grew deep, and a couple of red traffic cones suggested that would be a good place to park. From there I hiked in, grateful that I had thought to bring my down jacket, but regretting having no better footwear than running shoes.

Patriarch Grove is always a peaceful, serene place; but even more so this day. I much prefer it over the more popular Schulman grove, both because of the scarcity of people, and because the trees at this higher elevation are themselves more scarce and widely spread out. For most of my time I was alone, and the onset of a gentle, but dense snowfall reduced visibility so that I was isolated in a white landscape punctuated only by the ancient trees. Photography was thus not a matter of landscapes, but instead the soft, diffused light and veiling snowfall enhanced the subtle colors of the weatherd wood and facilitated intimate portraits of individual trees without distracting background clutter.

In summer, I find the dead, weathered snags of the bristlecones make the best subjects, contrasting the bare ochre trunks and limbs against the deep blue sky. In snowfall, however, that did not work so well. Against a white background the bare trees appeared as dark sillhouettes, and my subsequent attempts to bring up the shadows in post-processing gave an artificial look. Instead, I had better success by selecting the still-living trees (only a few thousand years old!) and finding viewpoints where bark-free ancient wood was exposed before live branches bearing pine needles. That gave a nice 'self-framing' effect, with the colorful wood accentuated against a dark background, rather than the uniform white of the sky. The snow and cloud-filled sky further helped isolate a single subject, allowing an intimate portrait of individual trees, with background clutter minimized by the veiling, mist-like effect of the gently falling snow while retaining enough detail to still provide a sense of place. Because of its symmetry and twisted branches reminiscent of uplifted, clasped arms, the tree shown above is my favorite among others I shot that afternoon.


#75 - May 2015

"Novice Monk at Bagaya Monastery"

Both the taking and the selection of this month's photo were influenced by two different equipment failures; but with a serendipitous outcome...

For a recent trip to Burma, I took a 24-105 f4 zoom as my main and 'walk-around' lens. After the first week it suffered irreperable damage - not from any fault of the lens, but owing to human (my!) error, about which I won't elaborate further. That left me with only a 50 mm f1.4 lens as a backup to fill the gap between my 14 mm superwide and 100-400 telephoto. Of necessity, the 50 mm thus became my main lens for the remainder of the trip. This was a lens I had purchased many years ago but had never used much, mostly out of laziness because a zoom makes it that much easier to frame a composition. But a fast prime certainly has advantages, and was well suited to our 'Faces of Burma' photo safari which concentrated on portraiture. 

Young novice monks were a popular subject to capture in their native environment of ancient, elaborately carved monasteries. The interiors of the monasteries provided light which, although wonderfully diffused, was often very dim; emphasizing the advantage of a fast prime lens. Moreover, the very shallow depth of field afforded by the wide aperture enabled enhanced separation between the main subject and background. Both these factors are illustrated in this photo. In framing the shot I placed the monk's body before the inky black interior to maximize contrast, and focus attention on his face. The light was in deep shade and even at f1.4 needed an exposure of 1/60s, so I would have been struggling to get a sharp shot with my zoom. And, this aperture just nicely gave a slight blur to the teak carvings, retaining enough detail to complement,  but not compete with the monk for the viewer's attention.

The original shot, taken on a Canon 5DIII, was, of course, in color; and I had first posted it on my website as a color image (here). When trying to make a print of this I encountered asecond equipment failure - my printer (an Epson R3880) started dribbling black ink. Curiously, this problem ocurred only with the photo-black ink for printing on glossy paper, not with the black ink for printing on matte paper. (Especially curious because both inks share the smae nozzles and feed tubes - the printer just switches between ink tanks depending on the type of paper selected. If anyone knows a cure, please contact me.)  As an immediate fix I switched to printing on matte paper. That results in a more muted palette, and it then struck me that color really did not add anything to the photo, and if fact that the ochre-red of the robe was a distraction. Thus prompted, I did a b/w conversion, adjusting the sliders to darken the reds. The final result, after a little judicious cropping, I much prefer in black and white: and it makes a great matte print!


#74 - April 2015

"Cottonwood tree in a sandstone pothole"


A 'tree in a pothole' sounds a rather mundane title; but the tree here is a most evocative subject. I have been looking for such a tree for several years, having seen Guy Tal's images of trees isolated among a sandstone wilderness. Hovever, Guy does not reveal locations; my own random wanderings were unfruitful; and an exploration last year following up an internet suggestion to look behind Tunnel Slot were thwarted by deep water in the slot. I had also heard that the top of Dance Hall rock was a good place to look, but a previous attempt to check that out was also thwarted by water after the dying fringes of a hurricane turned the Hole in the Rock road into slippery goop.

My Utah trip this spring break was enlivened by the delivery, just a few days before I departed, of Laurent Matre's third edition of his guide to Southern Utah. The book describes many new locations not in the earlier editions, and among them was confirmation, and a photo, of a solitary cottonwood tree growing in a deep pothole on top of the sandstone plateau behind Dance Hall Rock. After driving down the now dry, but washboarded road, I reached Dance Hall by mid afternoon, hiked around the side and scrambled up onto the surprisingly vast expanse of undulating slickrock. There are potholes everywhere up there: mostly empty, one occupied by a tangled jungle of several trees, and just one 'perfect' pothole with a single tree.

As with many of the best photographic subjects, this forms a very simple composition  - simply a tree, a round pothole and the sweep of the rock around it. However, depending on season, weather and the intent of the photographer it would serve as a visual metaphor for many emotions and human traits: bare branches against a lowering sky as a symbol of isolation and foreboding; or, as I saw it with fresh green  leaves, as an icon of tenacity and perseverence under arduous conditions. The photos above illustrate different interpretations, all captured over just a few hours before and after sunset. I am sure I have nowhere near exhausted the possibilities, and hope to return during a summer thunderstorm, at the peak of fall color, and under snow-laden winter skies.

#73 - March 2015

"Sand-carrying girl: Mandalay"

Still in Burma for this month's photo - but, as promised, no more monks. Instead another portrait that I like as a photograph, and which also serves as social commentary.

We spent three nights in the ancient Burmese captial of Mandalay, staying in a very nice, Western style hotel directly across a busy road fronting the Ayarwady (Irrawaddy) River. The road forms an abrupt and striking transition betweenFirst World to Third World. On one side, mud banks are densely settled by a shanty town extending a mile or more along the river (photo #1 below), on the other a newly installed kiosk with ATM gives immediate access to unimaginable wealth for those equipped with a plastic card and a PIN number. (I withdrew $100 in Khat; the majority of Burmese citizens subsist on an annual income of less than $200.) Given the proximity I was able to get down to the river in the early morning to photograph as the river people cooked their breakfast and began their work. Among the many occupations, the sand carriers were particularly striking: women and young girls carrying massive baskets of damp sand balanced on their heads. The sand is quarried from mid-river islands, loaded into rowboats and ferried across to the riverbank (photo #2). There it is transferred to baskets that are transferred from one carrier to another (photo #3) for the steep climb up to waitig carts on the roadway.
I took many shots of the sand carriers. This, I think, worked best. Not from any deliberate forethought in composition, but just a happy coincidence of nice lighting, context among the boats to give a sense of place, and an expression on the girl's face that conveys the effort and tedium of her occupation.

#72 - February 2015

"Novice monks sweeping the yard: Burma"

A companion photo this month to accompany my January photo: more young Burmese monks enjoying themselves.

This was another set-up photo shoot. Daniel recruited a half dozen monks (with their Abbot's permission) to energetically sweep the courtyard of their monastery. The idea was to get them sufficiently engaged that they would lose any stilted, posed expressions, and would kick up a good cloud of dust to enliven our photographs. Indeed, they thought it highly amusing to be performing in front of a group of western photographers and got to sweeping with abandon.

Capturing a good image in this sort of situation is a mix of deliberate preparation, luck, and shooting many frames to select the best one after the fact. In terms of preparation, I had little choice over composition or angle. A group of  several photographers needs to stay in a group to avoid having each other in the picture; and some members can certainly elicit vocal grumbles if they do get in the way. I decided my best bet would be to lie down in front of everyone else. That got me out of their shots, and provided a low angle that would accentuate the brooms and give more drama. Also, I anticipated that I would offer an attractive target for the monks to sweep dust and gravel towards; a decision that involved balancing the likelyhood of getting a more dynamic photo against possible injury to camera or self.  My other main decision was to select a slow enough shutter speed to blur motion of the brooms, while keeping the monks themselves reasonably sharp. That allowed me to stop the aperture right down to keep a wide depth of field, and I switched to servo focusing to automatically follow the monks as I shot off a burst on motor drive as they advanced toward us with brooms flying.

The photo above is my favorite from the sequence - largely, of course, because of the gleeful expression. And, there is a nice dust cloud, and motion blur in the brooms. A little cropping from the full frame removed distracting limbs and broom handles of other monks around the edges, and I cloned out the edge of a broom that intruded too far on the left.

Next month's photo will be something different. No more monks - for a while at least.

#71 - January 2015

"Novice monks playing football : Burma"

This month's photo was taken in a monastery as Salay, an isolated Burmese village near Bagan. It might seem incongrous that Buddhist monks would play football, but the account below, taken from the website of Dietmar Temps, provides a good explanation.

"Myanmar (Burma) is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. About 89% of the people are Buddhist. People in Myanmar practice the Theravada Buddhism, which is more austere and ascetic, but also harder to practice than the Mahayana Buddhism, the other main branch of the Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is also followed in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand. No one really knows, but experts estimates that in Myanmar live about half a million monks. It's customary for a male in Myanmar to enter a monastery twice in his life. Once as a samanera, a novice monk, between the age of 10 and 20, and again as a hpongyi, a fully ordained monk, sometime at the age of 20. Some might remain a monk for just a few days, while others stay for life. Monks hold the highest status in the society of Myanmar. The overwhelming majority of the monks and novices in Myanmar wear maroon- or ochre-colored robes. Monks receive two meals per day, breakfast and lunch and they are not allowed to eat after 12:00 noon. The novices in Myanmar have quite an easy-going life. They only have to keep 10 precepts, a fully ordained monk has 227 precepts. Young novices are allowed to play football, watch TV, play video games and have fun, which is great to see, because all in all they are just normal kids."

The scene above is indeed kids being kids, despite their monastic robes. The game was not entirely spontaneous, having been arranged by Daniel, our local Burmese guide, who rounded up some novices and produced a football. But the young monks got very much into the spirit of it, and their expressions and committment are entirely genuine. The Burmese people are passionate about football, which was introduced early during the period of British colonial rule by Sir George Scott. They closely follow both domestic and foreign football matches (Manchester United!), and the blackouts typical of the shaky electricity supply have been known to be postponed when a match extends into overtime.

We set up the shot by placing the ball so the novices would run from shade into a shaft of sunlight to provide a good contrast with the background. I wanted to get a low angle, and lay down flat in the dirt. That had secondary advantages that it got me close to the action and out of the way of our group of photographers standing behind, but required faith that I would not be hit by the ball or indeed, kicked by an over-enthusiastic monk.  Using a mild telephoto setting I pre-framed my composition estimating where the monks would be when they came out from the shadow, and set my camera to high-speed motor drive and AI servo focus. Then it was just a matter of hitting the shutter button when Daniel gave the command to 'GO', and looking to see later what I had captured.

#70 - December 2014

"Shwedagon Kaleidoscope"

As I write this, there are only 3 days left in December: Rather late for a Photo-of-the-Month. The reason for the  delay is not simply procrastination, but rather that Anne and I spent much of the month on an extended photo tour of Burma (Myanmar), organized by Jo vanOs Photo Safaris and excellently led by Don Lyon and local guide Daniel. I am still working through the many thousands of shots I took of this country and its warm, welcoming people, but as an appetizer, here are two photos from the Shwedagon Pagoda, taken during our first day in Burma.

The Pagoda is the largest, most impressive and most sacred Buddhist site in the capital city Yangon. However, during our visit it was not looking at its best, as the main structure was encased in a basket of bamboo scaffolding to enable restoration of the gold leaf surafacing (see small photo below at left). And, space on the surrounding platform is restricted, so even with a super-wide lens it is difficult to encompass the massive main pagoda. Instead, while walking around the platform in the prescribed clockwise direction, I focused my attention and camera on the numerous smaller temples, pagodas stupas and spires. These made attractive subjects in their own right, particularly as twilight drew on and floodlighting began to balance the natural light from the sky.

Looking to capture something more than a straight shot, I found a temple whose roof was supported by pillars surfaced with an elaborate mosaic of mirrored tiles. Given that the pillars were round, and that the tiled mirrors had not been placed with a high degree of optical precision, they presented a kaleidoscopic view reflecting random segments of the surrounding stuctures, spires and people (see small photo below at right). That was neat, but I found I could enhance the effect to create a 'dreamscape' by selecting a wide aperture, focusing on infinity, and placing the camera lens so it was almost touching the mosaic. The lines of mortar between the mirrored tiles then became blured out to the point of invisibility, so that the fragmented images of the gleaming gold structures merged seamlessly.

In my lab we use highly specified mirrors for steering laser beams, that are rated to reflect 99% and to be optically flat within a quarter wavelength of light. The builders of the Pagoda clearly did not feel it necessary to achieve such precision, as the mirrored tiles were quite tarnished and warped. The quality of the reflected kaleidoscopic fragments is thus quite variable, with blurring and fading. But, I think this adds to the overall impression of the images; a verification that they were captured 'in camera' and not created by post-processing trickery in Photoshop.

Small changes in positioning and angle of the camera resulted in enormous differences in the scene as viewed through the finder and on the camera's lcd screen. It was hard to know what would work best, so I took numerous shots. The two above ended up as my favorites, taken under different lighting conditions. The photo on the left was captured during late afternoon, under diffuse sunlight and a blue sky with scattered clouds. The photo on the right was taken later during the blue hour after sunset when the floodlights were turned on and alcoves containing statues of Buddahs were illuminated. By that time I had progressed on my circuit around the Pagoda, and thus had to battle agains the throngs of worshippers and visitors while headed in the wrong, counterclockwise, direction to get back to the mirrored mosaics.

Shwedagon Pagoda overview

"Straight' shot of reflections from the mirrored mosaic

#69 - November 2014

Backlit casting: Diaz Lake


Mono lake is reckoned to be among the oldest lakes in North America. At the other end of Owens Valley is what may be the youngest natural lake: Diaz lake, situated just south of Lone Pine. Diaz lake was formed by the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake on Tuesday, March 26 of that year when 18 mi (29 km) of the Owens Valley dropped approximately 20 feet (6 m) and a new spring opened, causing water to fill the lowland. The lake is clearly visible from highway 395, but until recently I had never paid it much attention, despite driving past literally hundreds of times on my way to the Sierras and Mono Lake.

Indeed, I took my first photographs of the lake only a few weeks ago, when returning in the mid-morning from an overnight trip to photograph the lunar eclipse over the Alabama Hills arches. From the car I could see that the lake surface was absolutely still, perfectly mirroring the backdrop of mountains and ring of cottonwoods around the far shore. That made for an OK photo (left image below), but aside from the nice reflections it lacked impact or any salient feature. The frontal lighting was harsh, and the cottonwoods were still a muted green, needing time to take on fall color. I added the lake to my mental list of locations to return to under better conditions.

An opportunity came sooner than I had expected. Only three weeks later Anne and I returned to make a 4wd drive journey from Big Pine across Steele Pass down to the Warm Springs and out through Saline Valley. That expedition was thwarted when we encountered a severe washout at the base of the pass, and elected to retrace our path and return the way we went in. The result was that we ended up passing Diaz Lake in the late afternoon. The air was again still and the reflections perfect; but now the cottonwoods were golden yellow, spectacularly  backlit by the sun which had sunknear the crest of the mountains. I grabbed my camera and hastily ranged along the shore looking for good compositions, focusing on the contrast between the bright tree line and the deeply shadowed bulk of the Alabama Hills. In haste, knowing that the trees would very soon be engulfed by the shadow. Although the position of the sun was the source of the beautiful backlight, it presented a big problem because, even when I composed to keep the sun above the top of the frame, it introduced enormous lens flare. To mitigate that I tried using overhanging branches to both shield the sunlight and to act as a frame within the photograph (e.g. right photo, below). Even through the viewfinder, though, I felt that something was still missing. As I discussed in photo #67, one criterion I use in assessing an image is its complexity; how many elements can you add while retaining a coherent whole.

Two women fishing from a deck over the lake fortuitously provided an answer. At first I had deliberately excluded them from my shots, as I usually include people in my landscape photos only to provide a sense of scale, which was not needed here. However, their fishing lines glinted nicely in the sun, and I took some shots as they waited for fish to bite. But the lines were dangling into the water near reed beds, and drew the eye out of the composition rather than enhancing it. Then, I noticed that one woman had reeled in her line and was about to cast. I had little time to deliberately frame, but repetitively pressed the shutter button to capture several shots, of which the first was the most successful, catching a gleaming arc over a dense group of cottonwoods.

Diaz Lake: morning

Diaz lake: late afternoonl

#68 - October 2014

Lunar eclipse over Mt. Whitney photographed through Lathe Arch

Shadows.  I must have travelled several thousand miles to photograph shadows. My wife teases me about it; but shadows do make interesting photographs and some, particularly those involving a combination of astronomical alignment and terrestrial geography, ocurr infrequently and require a long journey.

A 2000 mile round-trip last month to photograph the coincidence of the 'mitten's shadow' at Monument Valley with a rising full moon was a bust, as the remains of hurricane Norbert resulted in a completely overcast sky.  Last week the next full moon was shadowed by the Earth to give a total lunar eclipse which, conveniently, was visible from California high in the western sky in the early morning of October 8th. Given that the eclipse would be visible from my backyard a journey was not strictly necessary; but I wanted to try to photograph it juxtaposed with an interesting terestrial foreground, and anticipated that light pollution in the city might be a problem because the fully-eclipsed moon becomes surprisingly dim. Some research on The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE) showed that maximum totality would align nicely above Mt. Whitney as viewed from the Alabama Hills, and I thought I should be able to get good time-lapse shots shooting through the adjacent Mobius and Lathe arches. So, only a 500 mile round-trip this time.

Good news was that the forecast was 0% cloud cover on the night of the eclipse. My remaining worry was that other photographers would have the same idea for a location, so I arrived early to stake out tripod space. There were indeed two photographers present when I arrived, but both departed after sunset to shoot the eclipse from Death Valley, leaving the arches to myself for the night. I brought two camera bodies, each with ultra-wide lenses (16 and 17 mm FF equivalent), and two interval timers and tripods. Using a printout from TPE as an alignment guage I set up the cameras before the two arches, framing to capture the arc of the moon from well before the start of the partial eclipse through to moonset an hour or so after the end of the partial eclipse.. In the case of Lathe Arch that took some guesswork, as space behind the arch is severely restricted, and I had to position the camera right up against the back rock wall in order to encompass the full span of the arch within the frame.

Photographing an eclipse presents some technical problems, and necessitates quite a lot of post-processing in Photoshop. To convey the sequence of the eclipse in a single image I set up the cameras with timers to take shots at 12 minute intervals, enabling these to later be superimposed. However, the full moon is enorrmously (~500 times) brighter than the totally eclipsed moon, so I further set the cameras to acquire exposure-bracketed sequences ranging from 1/100s to 4 s at f11, ISO 400. That took care of image acquisition, but the problem remained of how to display the extreme brightness range. A print or computer display is simply not capable of representing the range from full to eclipsed 'blood' moon. The approach I took in the photo above was to take a long-exposure image of the fully-eclipsed moon, and superimpose it (in 'lighten' mode) over images of the partly-eclipsed moon. This effect is somewhat artificial as, by eye, the shadowed segment of moon is so much dimmer than the illuminated crescent that it appears black, but I think it gives a more natural appearance than an alternative method of  abruptly changing to display long-exposure images when the eclipse enters full totality. Another issue relates to the capture of  the foreground, 'terrestrial' image on which the lunar sequence is ultimately superimposed.  During totality it is almost completely dark, so a different source of light is needed. To create this photo I took a shot earlier during the night when the full moon behind the arch nicely illuminated the mountains, and supplemented the moonlight falling on the arch by lightpainting using a flashlight and warming gel.

Once everything was set up I could leave the interval timers in charge of the cameras, and snuggled into my sleeping bag with an alarm set for 2;00am to wake me so I could enjoy the eclipse for myself.  That was an unaccustomed luxury, as more usually I find I become so engrossed in taking photographs that I fail to fully appreciate what it is that I am photographing.

Some other eclipse photos

#67 - September 2014

"Mt. Cook/Aroraki from Hooker Lake"
(A 5th order photograph)

A 'fifth-order photograph"?  What the heck does that mean...?

Well, it's a measure I use of the complexity of a photograph - the number of levels of features or elements from which the image is comprised. This month's photo taken of Mt. Cook during what is "indisputably New Zealand's most scenic day walk" serves as a good example of this idea.

Much of the art of photography involves simplification - 'cutting the clutter'. Indeed, very simple compositions can be highly effective, with a high WOW factor. Conversely, more complex images involving several elements can add extra interest. The aim then is not so much the immediate impact of a photograph but to establish a more sustained interaction, with the viewer looking around and finding further details to explore. The difficulty lies in refining the composition - the arrangement of the elements; how they are combined - to achieve a harmony wherein the features and their layout complement, rather than fight one another.

So, let's analyze this photo, which I will do by illustrating several reject shots that follow my thought processes leading to the final image.

The hiking trail up Hooker Valley ends at a viewpoint across to Mt. Cook. From there the striking, isolated profile of the mountain, as well as its status as the highest mountain in New Zealand, made it the obvious main subject for a photograph. But, even including the rather nice cloud cap, a snapshot of the mountain alone does not rise above the scenic postcard level (Reject photo#1 below). Unless the main subject is truly spectacular, or has meaning (as in journalistic photographs) beyond that intrinsic in the image, something else is needed. In landscape photography that is often added by finding a secondary foreground feature, or by being lucky with lighting conditions. Here, two sculpted icebergs trapped among ice sheets in the lake presented an obvious possibility for a foreground feature, so I scrambled down a rough path down to the lakeshore for a closer view. A shot of the mountain and icebergs indeed was looking better (Reject photo #2 below), but I had plenty of time to seek further improvement (my accompanying photographic elf is very patient!). Wandering along the shore I found a patch where the ice sheet had fractured into several geometrically-shaped floes. I had brought only a single lens on the hike, a 24-105mm zoom, but that went just wide enough to frame a close-up of an interesting trapezoidal floe in nice proportion to the bergs and mountain. Moreover, having lined up these three features, I was looking directly into the sun, giving a dramatic backlighting. Shooting into the light can be difficult because of the extreme contrast and possibility of lens flare, but at midday the sun was high, mitigating deep shadows and placing it well above the top of the frame. Nevertheless, I was getting annoyed by a reflection of the sun on the ice and open water to the left of the floe (Reject photo #3). The bright reflection distracted from the main features; an exposure that captured these bright highlights rendered the rest of the scene too dark;, and moving to shift the reflection out of the frame destroyed the symmetry I was looking for. A solution came in an 'ahah' realization that by re-framing slightly I could bring the sun's reflection to line up exactly with the leftmost tip of the ice floe. I hid much of the sun's disc under a patch of snow to reduce its brightness, and having already selected an aperture of f22 to achieve maximal depth of field I knew the remaining flash of light should create a nice sun-star.

Thus, I count the five orders or elements that combine to make this photograph as (i) Mt Cook; (ii) dramatic backlighting, (iii) the icebergs, (iv) the trapezoidal ice floe, (v) the sun-star.  Each adds its own interest, and together I think they form an harmonious whole. Overall there is a strong left-right symmetry that leads the eye through the center of the frame from individual snowflakes on the tip of the ice floe through to the massive bulk of Mt. Cook, but this is interrupted by small asymmetries (the sun-star, the off center geometry of the floe, the different shapes of the bergs) that prevent the composition from becoming trite.

Reject #1

Reject #2

Reject #3

#66 - August 2014

"Cerro Gordo Nightscape"

The Cerro Gordo Mines are a collection of abandoned mines located in the Inyo Mountains, in Inyo County, California. Mining operations were undertaken from 1866 until 1957, producing high grade silver, lead, and zinc ore (Wikipedia). Unlike the mining town of Bodie, which is now a State Park, the remains of Cerro Gordo township remain privately owned, under the care of Sean Patterson. Some of the buildings, including the American Hotel were restored by Jody Stewart and her husband Mike Patterson, while others remain in various states of picturesque dereliction.

Being in private ownership Cerro Gordo is closed to casual visitors, but I recently had the opportunity to photograph and spend the night there during the 2014 running of the Badwater Ultramarathon. Having been barred from its usual course through Death Valley (click HERE to read about that travesty), the Badwater Ultra this year took a new route, including an arduous out-and-back climb of over 5000 ft from the floor of Owen's Valley to a turn-around at Cerro Gordo. I was serving on the race staff as a photographer, but found only a few chances to get shots of the runners as they approached Cerro Gordo since most arrived during the night. In compensation, the race did offer an unusual opportunity for nighttime photography of the ghost town. The Badwater organizers had booked use of the American Hotel for a checkpoint and aid station and to facilitate this, and provide a welcome beacon for runners struggling up the steep hill, the hotel was brightly floodlit for the occasion.

Night photography involves a fine balance between whatever natural light may remain in the sky and artificial lighting applied to illuminate foreground features. The latter may conveniently be achieved by 'light painting' with a hand-held flashlight, but that tends to be rather harsh and directional, casting deep shadows. Instead, on this night, light reflecting from the weathered wooden sidings of the hotel provided a warm and diffuse illumination of the surrounding buildings. The photo above of the old church is a 25s exposure with a 14 mm super-wide lens, taken toward the end of the 'blue hour' when faint light remaining in the sky after sunset balanced that cast from the hotel, and a flying sucer cloud fortuitously added extra interest. The wiggly line in the foreground is a light trail from a runner finding his way in near darkness to the outhouse around the corner from the church.

#65 - July 2014

"Two views of the skies above Mono Lake"

Milky Way arcing above Mono Lake, viewed from the Log Cabin mine road

Noctilucent cloud arcing over the tufa formations of Mono Lake

A pair of photos this month - paired in terms of location and geometric composition and, as will be revealed below, by a minor lapse in my usual Photoshop ethics.

Both images were captured during a recent visit to Mono Lake. The first is a 'previsualized' composition, in that I had had this in mind for some time following an earlier trip up to the Log Cabin mine high in the mountains above Mono Lake. The rough dirt road to the mine accesses a spectacular viewpoint looking due east over the lake, and it occurred to me that this should provide a good astrophotography shot with the Milky Way arching above the lake early in the summer night. My trip provided a good opportunity to try out this idea, as the waxing moon would be only a few days old. Indeed, as the light faded after sunset the Milky Way emerged vividly bright in the clear, dark sky, aligned perfectly above the lake. The angle subtended by the arc of our galaxy was a little too broad to encompass even with my 14 mm lens on a full-frame camera, so I took several panned shots to later stitch together; taking care to facilitate this process by carefully leveling my tripod and positioning the horizon dead center. Exposure with the lens wide open (f 2.8) was a compromise, and I selected a shutter speed of 50 s to minimize streaking of star motion while maintaining a reasonable ISO of 3200.

The second image was composed near the shore of the lake a day later. Well after sunset, but while a little color remained low on the north-west horizon, an arc of whispy clouds appeared high in the sky. I think they are noctilucent clouds (high ice clouds in the mesosphere, visible only when illuminated by sunlight below the horizon), although it is unusual to see them so far South. The clouds presented a beautiful spectacle in themselves, and I was struck by the similar geometries of the atmospheric and galactic phenomena in my two photos.


Now, about that ethical lapse... On my drive up to Mono Lake I had stopped for the night on the volcanic tablelands above Bishop, and there met another photographer at the skyrock petroglyph. While waiting for the light, our conversation fell to discussing the use of Photoshop to construct composite images; for example to pair the sky from one image with landscape from another. I opined that such extreme manipulation was cheating, and that I did not do it! However, both the above images are in fact composites, but perhaps a sufficiently minor transgression to appease my conscience.

I took the shots for the Milky Way photo before the crescent moon had set, hoping that it would provide enough light to illuminate the lake, but a check of the camera screen showed that was not the case. To solve this problem I set my alarm for 4:30am, and re-photographed the exact same scene when the first glimmers of light and color appeared on the eastern horizon. A composite of the night and pre-dawn images thus provided both a sharp sky and a clearly outlined image of the lake with added color. The result looks perfectly natural, although it would not fool an astronomer.

I took the cloud photograph after I had returned to my campsite, several hundred yards from the lakeshore. Reviewing this later on the computer screen the image of the sky was captured nicely, but the lake was reduced to a mere sliverat this distance and the composition lacked any foreground interest. Thus, I thought to blend the cloud shot with a photo I had taken only minutes earlier while down at the lake.

So, two breaches of my usual ethics, but mitigated because in both instances the sky and land components of the composites were captured from essentially the same locations, looking in the same direction, and within minutes or a few hours of one another. Whatever, the final images are improved, and better convey my impressions of the scenes at the time.


#64 - June 2014

"Candystripe boulder: South Coyote Buttes, Arizona"

Even by the standards of the Colorado Plateau, the Coyote Buttes in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument contain some of the most intricate and fantastically colored sandstone formations on the planet. There are two sections of the Buttes; North and South. Although only a few miles apart they have different characters, and are accessed by very different routes. The North Coyote Buttes contains the famous 'Wave' formation, and while the trailhead is easily reached by a regular car, actually gaining access is difficult because of a permit system that is swamped by the large number of people wishing to  visit this popular area. Instead, I prefer the Southern area, in particular the Cottonwood Cove section. This sees few visitors, likely in part because it has no single iconic feature such as the Wave, but more so because access involves many miles of deep sandy trails necessitating a stout 4wd vehicle. Different to the Northern section, there are fewer wide sweeping vistas, but instead an intricate landscape with numerous intimate features to be discovered around every corner.

Among the most striking features are colorful striated bands that twist their way for hundreds of yards through the sandstone, crossing patches of pink and yellow 'brain' rock, and curving around teepee formations. The bands sometimes intersect isolated boulders and, even more remarkably, the banded striations continue through the boulders. This month's photo features the most spectacular of these striated boulders.

In composing the picture, my first, and most obvious aim was to place the boulder in context of the continuing stripe as it travelled across the level sandstone floor and then up and across colorful brain rock. One possibliity was a low shot, with the boulder in the foreground, and the brain rock as a distinct background with the curve of the stripe above and mirroring that of the stripe in the boulder itself. Instead, however, I took a higher viewpoint, positionined so that the stripe at the top of the boulder appeared to merge with its continuation on the rock floor. By tilting the camera I could then align the stripe to follow a classic sinusoidal curve, diagonalling across the frame to lead the eye from boulder to brain rock. Although the horizon ended up very crooked, that matters little here, as the subject is so abstract that there are few clues as to what actually is level. In full sunlight the scene is much too contrasty, with a deep shadow cast be the boulder. I thus waited until after shortly after sunset to take this shot, so the rock would be gently and uniformly illuminated by the warm light in the Western sky. 

Bonus photos: some other nearby striated boulders.

#63 - May 2014

"Gentoo colony and sea shells: Antarctica"


Did you know that the color of penguin poop can tell you what they are eating and how they are faring?  Pink-brown means that the penguins are eating plenty of shrimp or krill, which is usually abundant and easy to catch. If the guano is white, it means the penguins are eating fish, which is considerably harder to catch than krill, and therefore is energetically more expensive to eat. Finally, if the guano is green, the penguins are eating algae. This is usually the sign of a bad year for the penguins. [Link to Yahoo answers]

What's that got to do with photography?  Well, I was struck by the resemblance of these Antarctic gentoo penguin colonies to an old-fashioned sepia-toned print. The penguins were obviously doing well on a plentiful diet of shrimp or krill, and because our visit was early in the season the colonies were nicely isolated among pristine snowfields.

Antarctica offers an abundance of photographic subjects. Often too many; there is a temptation to take a few hasty shots and then move on because what you next encounter might be better than what is already in front of the lens. In this case, however, I thought the wide view of the colonies before the sea and background mountains was worth spending some time to wander around on the lookout for a good composition. A small rock shelf offered a higher viewpoint, and I was happy to find a pool near the edge. Sea shells in the pool added foreground interest, and with a polarizer to reduce glare from the water they showed up well, with a complementary color matching the penguin poop.

The final image has a muted color palette, which does indeed achieve my notion of a sepia-print effect. In terms of composition, I placed the camera so that the diagonal line of the rock would trace the outline of the near colony and divide the picture into two, yet with the curve of the shells creating a leading line toward the colony to unify foreground and background. My usual approach when selecting subjects and compositions is to simplify as much as possible; to reduce the photograph to its essentials. It is much easier to create  an effective result in that way. Here, however, there is quite a lot going on - mountains, penguins, the isolated sepia 'islands', lichen, shells - with no single feature to arrest the eye.  But having followed a route of increasing simplification for several years, I sometimes try to reverse course and experiment with greater complexity.  This month's photo, I think, does hang together despite including several disparate elements. Viewed at a distance, or as a small thumbnail, the overall pattern is attractive. A close-up view reveals interesting details to explore.

#62 - April 2014

"Pampas grass, fog and clouds"

If you have ever driven up Highway 1 between LA and SanFrancisco, you will likely identify the above photo as having been taken at Big Sur, even though no recognizable landscape features are present in the image. Instead, the tall fronds of grass are a conspicuous sight along Big Sur coastline, scattered densely across the steep hillsides falling to the ocean. Pampas grass is iconic of Big Sur in the same way the tumbleweed is to the desert southwest: although, curiously, neither plant is native to the U.S., originating respectively in the Andes and Eurasia.

My aim in creating this picture was to capture the feeling of an early, winter morning high above the Big Sur coastline in a simplified, semi-abstract manner. Just three elements - the grasses, a fogbank out across the ocean, and whispy clouds echoing the curves of the grass.

I had camped out for the night along the Nacimiento-Fergusson road which ascends into the mountains through the Los Padres National Forest, and drove down at first light to a switchback a few hundred feet above the main highway that provides a sweeping view north and south along the coastline. That morning the beaches were obscured by fog, so instead of attempting grand scenic compositions I focused on more intimate details, using the fog as a backdrop to isolate the grasses. After wandering up and down the road I found a clump of fronds that were relatively clear of surrounding weeds and clutter, and set up my camera with the tripod fully extended so they would be framed entirely agains the fog, without intercepting the horizon line. The sky looked as if it would provide an interesting counterpoint to the grasses, but I had to wait a while before the rising sun brought some color. By that time, the cloud formation had drifted and no longer lined up well, so I took two shots, panning round to center the clouds so I could later align them in Photoshop.

For the final composition I chose to place the horizon dead center; deliberately breaking the usual commandment to avoid symmetry and follow the 'rule' of thirds. I thought the sky deserved equal precedence with the land, and thus arranged them as if a dyptic - two images that could each stand alone, but in combination evoke a certain tension yet complemented and echoed one another.

#61 - March 2014

"Penguins and Elephant Seals in a Katabatic Sandstorm"

Among the many millions of digital photos that are taken every day, how can one hope to create an image that is unique in some way?

One approach depends upon the photographers skills and vision; applying a unique composition or perspective before pressing the shutter button, or specialized subsequent post-processing. Another way is simply to be present (with a camera!) at a unique place, preferably under unique conditions. This month's photo is an example of the latter case, and was taken at St. Andrew's Bay in South Georgia, at about the same time as the featured photo for December 2013. Few people are fortunate to be able to visit the vast king penguin colonies on South Georgia, and a landing at St. Andrew's Bay was to be a 'big day' on our Ultimate Antarctica tour with Jo van Os. As it transpired our time with the penguins was cut short by the development of fierce katabatic winds which, however, gave the opportunity to photograph under extreme conditions as the wind kicked up a sandstorm on the black sand beach.


The following excerpt from the trip logbook of Jo van Os tells the story...

November 14, 2014—St. Andrews Bay

At 0300, Monika and Joe Van Os had scoped out the early morning weather situation. The sky was filled with broken clouds, a photogenic sunrise looked possible, the wind was favorable for a landing, and wave swell was moderate. Our landing was a “go.” By 0400 we commenced the landing on the legendary beach at St. Andrews Bay. Just prior to our departure, “bio-secure” breakfast sandwiches and snacks were available in the ship’s lounge to eat on board or to take ashore.

By 0430 the 50 participants who opted for the early morning landing were ashore and experiencing the spectacle of St. Andrews—the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia and the island’s largest and most populated elephant seal beach. Safety instructions were given as well as rules for the engagement of wildlife on this sweeping 1.8-mile (3 km) long beach. Clouds forming on the low horizon precluded a dramatic sunrise. People fanned out in all directions, some heading to the far distance to visit the king penguins, others working the shoreline where penguins were heading out to sea for their morning foraging expeditions, while several photographers concentrated on fighting and mating elephant seals. Still others headed into the interior to shoot introduced reindeer before their expected removal from the island, sometime in 2014.

By 0600 the wind had picked up strongly with hints of katabatic gusts blowing bursts of dry sand across the beach. This barely dampened the spirits of our photographers and most kept on shooting—unfazed.

By 0700 the beach and the bay were experiencing a full-blown gale. Strong westerly winds and 60-70 mph katabatic gusts created blasting sandstorms across the beach and our safety became more of a concern as Joe Van Os, on shore, and Monika, aboard the Ushuaia, monitored the situation. The 0800 landing for our remaining passengers who had stayed onboard for breakfast was postponed due to the hazard of mounting sea swell on the ship’s gangway and the possibility of drenching waves during the Zodiac operation. Despite the blowing sand, photography on shore continued and unique images of South Georgia wildlife emerging from a fog of blowing sand were undoubtedly created. It is a testament to the quality of today’s camera equipment, that little damage to cameras and lenses by the blowing sand was reported.

By 0900 it was obvious that, despite inviting blue skies and sunshine, the persistent strongly gusting wind presented a safety issue and the entire shore party was collected and gathered together for an orderly departure from the beach. With a potential threat of a Zodiac flipping by the off-shore wind, several staff or seamen remained in the Zodiac as human ballast for the return trip from ship to shore after passengers were offloaded. By 1000 all passengers and staff were back on board Ushuaia.


#60 - February 2014

"Icelandic Aurora"

Another 'atmospheric' photo for this month's selection - one taken at the other end of the Earth from January's photo. Indeed, within just three months we have visited both arctic and antarctic regions, returning a week ago from Iceland.

Winter is a special time in Iceland. Tourists are few, the landcape is snow-covered, and the light from the low sun can be gorgeous. And, there is always the chance of seeing the aurora borealis. That chance, though, tends to be low; even though the solar cycle is now near its peak. During three visits over the past three years we have seen the aurora on only three nights. Our first visit yielded the brightest and most spectacular displays, but at the time we were driving on a desolate section of road lacking any interesting foreground subject to add interest to photographs. Our second visit yielded nothing. So, maybe third time lucky this year? The Icelandic Met Office has an excellent website predicting auroral activity and showing cloud cover across the island. All looked good for the second night after we had arrived in Iceland, with auroral activity predicted at 5 on a 0-9 scale and clear skies - but then, just as it got dark, the activity prediction was abruptly dropped to 1 (quiet). The next few days were socked-in, with heavy cloud cover and gale-force winds. Only on our penultimate night in Iceland did there seem a good chance seeing good auroral displays, and that required an unplanned drive of 200 km from Reykjavik to an anticipated window of clear sky over South Iceland.

On the roadI was thinking about possible locations location that might provide interesting terrestrial foregrounds to complement photos of the aurora, and decided to head for the black sand beaches near the small town of Vik. The latitude of Iceland is sufficiently high that the aurora typically appears almost overhead, rather than low on the northern horizon. . To the east I could then hope to capture auroral dsplays over the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar; to the west the promentary of Dyrholaey with its summit lighthouse; and to the north the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. After a meal of excellent lamb cutlets at the N1 gas station in Vik we settled into our sleeping bags in the back of our rental SUV. My iPod chimed Marimba at 4:00am, when the half-full moon had diped below the horizon, and a glimpse through the iced up windows showed stars and a hint of green; promising enough to don Muckboots and antarctic clothing and wriggle out into the freezing but still night.

I had expected that the best aurora was likely to be to the north, over the glacier and with the possibility of capturing reflections in the lagoon between the beach and mainland.Instead, activity seemed to be concentrated in an arc stretching directly overhead, so I walked some way along the beach to get some distance from the cliffs that blocked the view to the east. Then, it was a matter of deciding how close to the ocean I dared set my tripod. I wanted to frame shots with surf in the foreground to reflect the auroral light, but was well aware that infrequent and unpredictable rogue waves might carry surprisingly far up the beach and swamp over the top of my boots. As it happened, I stayed dry and had to grab the camera and run for it only once. I stayed out for about three hours, taking hundreds of shots as the auroral patterns constantly changed while trying to capture good displays timed to coincide with nice patterns of receding surf and the rotaion of the lighthouse beam. The photo above is my favorite from the night, as it includes both red and green auroara together with arcing and ray-like formations.

For a few minutes I also noticed a very different pattern of auroral activity that I had not seen before; several discrete tear-drop patches of green that were asynchronously pulsing in intensity with a period of a few seconds.A Google search for 'pulsing aurora' revealed that I was lucky to observe this relatively rare phenomenon, whose mechanism has been elucidated in a recent Science paper.

Some technical notes.

I was photographing using a Canon 5D Mk3 camera with a 14 mm f2.8 Rokinon lens. The latter is an excellent choice for auroral photography. Aurorae span over a vast are of the sky so a super-wide lens is best, and although the Rokinon lens costs less than a sixth of the Canon equivalent, its quality is very high. Although it lacks any electronic controlsof focus or aperture that is not a limitation for night-time photography as the lens needs to be used wide-open anyway, and can be pre-set to focus on infinity (which actually reads close to the 10 ft mark on my lens!). Perhaps the main limitation with the Rokinon lens is its wierd 'mustache' distortion, but although that is a big problem for architectureal photography, no one is going to notice if aurorae are distorted! Auroral displays change surprisingly rapidly, and my experience is that exposure times longer than about 4 s blur the finer details. For very bright displays that is not a problem, but although the aurorae were beautiful this night, they were relatively dim, necessitating an ISO setting of 12,000 even with an f2.8 lens. By eye the greens were vivid, but although the camera captured the reds I could not see them at the time.


#59 - January 2014

"Antarctic Rainbow"

Nearing the end of our Antarctic voyage, I woke early on Nov. 24 and was on deck well before the wake-up call for breakfast. We had cruised the previous day through the Lemaire Channel under heavily overcast skies, but this morning sunlight was streaming through breaks in the clouds and the air was completely still. I was greeted by the calmest, silky waters that we had seen on the entire trip, which appeared inky black, and became even more so when photographed through a polarizer. The only disruption was the ships wake as we cruised at low speed, making beautiful ripples highlighted by reflections from the snow-covered shoreline of Paradise Bay. I was occupied creating semi-abstract compositions of the ripple patterns when a rainbow began to appear below some brooding clouds. By good chance, the rainbow was almost dead astern, and as the ship's course began a gradual turn the wake began to curve around to line up nicely with the rainbow's end. Then, it was just a matter of waiting and taking several 'insurance' shots while hoping that the rainbow would not fade before the ship moved into an optimal alignment. In fact, the right half of the rainbow did disappear. Nevertheless I preferred to frame the shot as a wider landscape view rather than cropping to portrait orientation to encompass only the illuminated segment of the arc. I feel that the snow-covered hill and its reflection give a horizontal balance to the vertical symmetry of the rainbow and wake and help communicate a sense of place; while the mirror-calm water adds contrast to the ripple patterns.

#58 - December 2013

"King penguins in surf"

As promised, penguins for this month's photo. Rather delayed, as I am working through a backlog of nearly 10,000 photos taken on a trip to Antartica and South Georgia.

This picture was taken on what was probably the best day of our voyage - certainly the most exciting day. We had landed at 4:00 am at St. Andrew's bay on South Georgia. The early start was in anticipation of a golden sunrise, but that was not to happen. Nevertheless, the overcast light was great for photographing the (literally) hundreds of thousands of king penguins in colonies stretching along the beach and up toward the glaciers. Through the morning the weather worsened, and by about 10:00 am katabatic winds were gusting up to about 60 mph. We were signalled by the ship's horn to return immeiately to the landing site to evacuate the beach, but no one heard the signal over the roar of the wind , and people gradually straggled back having decided on their own that conditions were getting bad. Only a single zodiac was operating to ferry us, and that needed two extra crew members at all times to act as ballast to avoid flipping over in the strong surf, so I was waiting a long time to return to the ship.

However, that did provide for some exceptional photographic possibilities. The wind was so strong that it was difficult to remain standing, or to hold the camera steady, but the penguins appeared quite unfazed. Dense groups of king penguins weere still waddling down the beach through a sandstorm and swimming out through the surf and blowing spray. As usual, bad weather made for good photography, and this image captures something of the arduous environment in which these plucky and entertaining birds live.


#57 - November 2013

"Abandoned shack below the Eastern Sierras"

Just a quick catch--up for November, as I have been away for a month in Antarctica and South Georgia. December's photo should be posted soon, featuring penguins or icebergs!

The photo was taken on a trip along Owens Valley timed to catch fall colors in the cottonwoods and aspens. I had been photographing sunrise at Mono Lake, and was driving along highway 350 toward the famous Whoa Nelli Deli near Lee Vining for breakfast. A low cloud/mist had come down over the mountains, completely hiding the Sierras, although the valley was in bright sunshine. But very suddenly the mist began to dissipate, revealing lines of golden cottonwoods curving along the stream courses, and crisp mountain slopes dusted with recent snowfall. I stopped to photograph through gaps in the mist but, as usual, the problem was to find some foreground interest. A few miles further a dilapidated shack, conveniently placed right by the road, nicely filled that need. The photo above is basically just a 'grab shot', taken without much premeditation. I did try a few different compositions, altering the placement and perspective of the shack relative to the mountains, but the first ended up being the best. A polarizer helped bring out the colors and the contrast of the mist against the sky, and I needed to do very little work in post-processing other than cloning out some obtrusive fence posts.

The theme of a weatherbeaten shack/hut/barn against snowcovered mountains is a veenerable photographic cliche; but I have to admit quite liking this photo, and a print of it hanging outside my office door has gained more appreciative comments than have most of my more deliberately-formuated photographs.


#56 - October 2013

"Monument Valley Cloudscape"

Another photo from the archives (taken four years ago this month), and another example of trying to come up with something new from a much-photographed location.

The picture was taken from John Ford's point along the loop road through Monument Valley; a scene made famous in many Western movies. The landscape with all those orange/red sandstone buttes and mesas is spectacular, but they need something else added to make a good picture. Often, that something involves some diligent searching to pick out a sufficiently interesting foreground subject from the generallydesolate desert floor. The pair of rocks by the parking lot at the visitor center have fulfilled that purpose for generations of photographers from Ansel Adems on! On this day, however, the late monsoon season weather was putting on a good show, and the rapidly changing sky was rivalling the landscape for visual impact. The wonderful, frilly-edged cloud in this month's photo developed quickly while I was some way from my car, with only a mid-range 'walk-around' lens on the camera. Even with the lens fully zoomed out the cloud was too big to fit into a single frame. Not wanting to risk losing the shot by going back to get a wide lens, I took three overlapping vertical frames to stitch together afterwards. In addition to blending the images in Photoshop, I did some post-processing to give more depth to the foreground. As originally captured, the lighting here was rather even and flat. To create a more three-dimensional feel I copied an artifice used on some topographic maps, lightening elevated areas and darkening shaded slopes.

#55 - September 2013

"Emergent Island - Lake Powell"

Back again to the archives for this month's photo - a favorite from several years ago, a print of which hangs on our wall at home.

The photo was taken from Alstom point - a long, bumpy ride along a dirt road to a high promentory with superb views across Lake Powell. The lake is not really a 'lake', but rather a giant reservoir impounding the waters of the Colorado river and swamping what used to be Glen Canyon. The reservoir began to fill in 1963 following completion of Glen Canyon dam, and reached its high water mark in 1980, overtopping the spillway. Since then drought conditions caused the water level to fall precipitously, reaching a low point in the winter of 2005. Photographs taken during high water years show red and yellow sandstone cliffs forming a color contrast with the deep blue of the lake, but more recently the scene is marred by the bathtub ring left on the rocks by the receding water. My visit was in 2006, when the water had dropped about 150 ft below its high point.

Nevertheless, a good sunset with the wind in the right direction to blow away pollution from the Navajo power plant produced a spectacular vista of glowing sandstone. After taking the requisite picture postcard scenic shots, I started looking for different and less literal ways to to capture and communicate the scene by using a long telephoto lens to isolate tiny sections. Golden reflections from the sunlit Gunsight Butte directly across Padre Bay caught my eye, and zooming in revealed a tiny island that had recently emerged from the depths as the water level receded. I framed the shot to exclude the cliffs (and the bathtub ring), creating an almost abstract composition consisting almost entirely of diffuse reflections with the island as the only solid, sharp subject. Light winds were constantly changing the patterns of the reflections, so I took several shots over a few minutes, ultimately selecting one where a band of still water below the island framed a reflection of the very top of the butte.

My hope is that this photo works on multiple levels: as an almost abstract composition of colors and form with the island providing just enough clue as to the physical setting; and as a metaphor for our reliance on the erratic and unpredicable flow of the Colorado river. The water level rose almost 60 ft over five yearsfrom the date of my photo , but has now (2013) dropped back to about the same level. The little island will be once more emergent!


#54 - August 2013

"Moai by moonlight"

A return to the archives for this month's photo. I usually select a recent image, but I realised I had never featured anything from Easter Island; a place that is very high among the most evocative locations I and my wife have been fortunate to visit.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is the most isolated inhabited island on earth. This lonely place contains one of the world's most spectacular .collections of archaeological wonders - the moai or stone statues. These were largely carved at a single quarry, rano raraku, where they can still be seen in various states of completion. Many.mysteries remain, however, regarding how they were transported miles across the rugged terrain of the volcanic island, and how they were finally errected on the ceremonial platforms (ahu). All the moai (except those remaining to be transported from the quarry) were toppled during tribal battles soon after the first European discovery of the island in 1722, but some, notably at Tahai, Tongariki, and Ahu Aviki have been restored in modern times.

Our preferred time to visit the moai was well before dawn. There were no fences or forbidding signs, and the moai at rano raraku are left in much the state as when they were abandoned by their makers. We could walk among and right up to the moai, and at that time of the morning there were no other people. Just a few peacable wild horses, who made good use of the sharp chins of the moai to scratch the backs of their necks. Sitting on the grass under the dim sillhouettes of the moai in the cool stillness there was a very tangible sense that the ancient peoples who carved these figures were somehow still present: a slightly shivery feeling that I have experienced also on hiking to remote and little-known Anasazi ruins on the Colorado plateau. This sense of 'connectedness' to a place or time can only happen with quiet and solitude. Sites such as Mesa Verde and Angkor Wat, with their teeming tourists and regimented tours, strike me as only a more authentic Disneyland. The architecture, craftsmanship and sheer scale are impressive, but I find more emotional connection and reward from discovering even a small granary or single room Anasazi dwelling. Perhaps the isolation of Rapa Nui will protect it from development and over-visitation?

Back to the photograph. How to convey something of this feeling in a mere flat image? For most of the photographs I took of Rapa Nui - including the most successful ones - I used light-painting to highlight the moai against a moonlit or dawn-light landscape. This approach retains a sense of mystery that is lacking in full daylight, and gives more control to bring out features in the carving and provide a three-dimensionality. I used a halogen dive-light, which gives a powerful yet diffuse beam with a more pleasingly warm color balance than led flashlights. The photo is of one of the moai on the slopes of the rano raraku quarry, fully carved and upright, but now waiting for eternity to be transported to its intended ahu.

I was honored when my photo was chosen by Pavel Pavel for the front cover of his book describing experiments revealing how the moai were transported from the quarry to their final destinations.

"Local legend says that the statues arrived at their current locations by themselves - that they actually 'walked'. Several expeditions visited the island during the last century, trying to work out how the early Easter Islanders transported the moai statues. When the Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl announced his plans to conduct more field work on Easter Island in 1986, he did not know his expedition would be joined by a young Czech engineer, Pavel Pavel, who would eventually make the moai statues walk.

Mr Pavel had followed the research and experiments on Easter Island since 1981 and came up with a theory. With the help of his friends he cast a 4.5 metre tall concrete statue weighing 12 tonnes. In the South Bohemian town of Strakonice, they conducted a trial. They fastened ropes around the top of the head as well as around the base of the bust and through a system of tilting and twisting Mr Pavel and sixteen other people were able to move the statue forward. In this manner the experimental moai wriggled forward as if it were "walking". Whereas 180 people pulling a statue on its back had been used during Thor Heyerdahl's experiment on Easter Island in 1956, only 17 people were needed for Pavel to transport a "walking moai".

Thor Heyerdahl invited Pavel Pavel to join the KonTiki Museum expedition to Easter Island in January 1986 to try out his experiments on an original statue. It worked well and the mystery was solved" - or maybe not quite?

#53 - July 2013

"Ponte del Diavalo by floodlight"

Ponte della Maddalena (Italian: "Bridge of Mary Magdalene") is a bridge crossing the Serchio river near the town of Borgo a Mozzano in the Italian province of Lucca. One of numerous medieval bridges known as Ponte del Diavolo, the "Bridge of the Devil", it was a vital river crossing on the Via Francigena, an early medieval road and important mediaeval pilgrimage route to Rome for those coming from France. The bridge is a remarkable example of medieval engineering, probably commissioned by the Countess Matilda of Tuscany circa 1080-1100. It was renovated circa 1300 under the direction of Castruccio Castracani. The largest span is 37.8 m. (Wikipedia)

This spectacular bridge ranked high among the list of attractive subjects I hoped to photograph during a recent visit to Tuscany, but it presented some problems in creating a good image. However, photographic difficulties are basis for many of my selections as 'Photo of the Month'. Just occasionally I might find a great subject under great lighting, so that all that is required is to press the shutter and upload the photo with very little post-processing needed. But then there is nothing much to write about... In this instance the difficulties lay in both composition and lighting. Access is severely hindered by a railway running along the west (left) bank of the river, and by a narrow, busy road along the east. The only safe place to set up a tripod was from a small parking area, from where I tried to get the best possible view from the top of the parapet. Not actually difficult, but I felt constrained in having little freedom to compose the shot.

The second aspect concerned the lighting. During a first mid-day visit under full sunlight the bridge looked rather mundane and lost in its surroundings. Noticing floodlights mounted along the river banks I had better expectations for a night shot, and we returned during the late evening anticipating a time when the remaining natural light might balance the floodlit bridge. The question then was whether the floodlights would actually be turned on. For several frustrating minutes they remained off, while the remaining light in the sky faded. Eventually one, two and finally all four lights came on but, even more frustratingly, they would erratically extinguish and re-ignite. I wanted a long (30s) exposure to blur the ripples in the river and get a nice reflection, and took several shots before getting one where all the lights remained on. But then a further problemn was that the lights on the far side of the bridge were deep orange mercury bulbs, whereas the near-side lights were of a much higher color temperature. Even on the camera lcd screen it was horribly apparent that the lighting on the bridge came out as a lurid and most unattractive green with a white balance setting that gave a realistic blue sky and pleasing orange backlight. Producing the final image thus took some time in Photoshop, principally using a masked layer to selectively adjust the color temperature of the bridge where it was illuminated by the white-green floodlights.

#52 - June 2013

"Lightpainted tufa under lenticular cloud sunset: Mono Lake"

The tufa towers in Mono Lake were created underwater, and are visible only because much of the water flowing into the lake was diverted to the thirsty mouths of Los Angeles. By themselves the tufa formations are intriguing, but in harsh sunlight photographs come out looking very mundane. Around dawn and dusk it is a different matter, and the lake can take on a very otherworldly appearance. Even then, though, the lighting matters very much, and a dramatic sky really helps complement the tufa as a strong second subject. On a recent trip to the lake I was thus heartened to see a classic 'Sierra Wave' cloud formation developing over Owens Valley. I arrived at the South Tufa area in the late afternoon, when the bright edge of the cloud provided nice silhouettes against the tufa pinnacles; but the pallette was almost monochrome. The real action would have to wait until close to sunset, and I had good hopes as the sky to the west was completely clear.

The photo above took some pre-planning. I wanted to make the cloud an equal co-star with the tufa, but its north-south orientation did not line up well with the most attractive formations. After some wandering around I settled on the formation pictured above, waded out into the lake (having thought to bring my wellies) to get clear reflections without the clutter of stones and mud at the lake edge, and set up camera and tripod. I took several shots as the light changed toward sunset, but at that time the tufa appeared as just a black silhoutte. So, I waited as the light faded, until it was dark enough to be able to use a powerful Maglite led flashlight to 'light-paint' the tufa. A gel over the flashlight nicely warmed the color of the rock, and a 30s exposure both gave time to evenly illuminate the formation and blur the waves in the lake into a silken, reflective sheen. The final image is thus a blend of two shots, taken about an hour apart, and manually merged in Photoshop.

#51 - May 2013

"Fairy Castles : Bryce Canyon"

Bryce Canyon must be high on the list of the most visited national parks in the US. The eroded hoodoo formations are striking and iconic, but it is the lighting that makes Bryce truly unique.

This comes about because Bryce is not really a canyon, but rather a series of east-facing amphitheaters. The viewpoints are up on the rim, so you are looking down onto the formations, and directly into the rising sun. Such backlighting would normally cause big problems for photography, because the intense direct light from the sun would overwhelm and render foreground subjects as mere sillhouettes. But here the downward angle of view allows the sun to be excluded from the frame, so that the hoodoos fall within a sensible exposure range. The real magic though is created by reflected light. Bryce is at an altitude of over 8000 ft, and catches the very first rays of the rising sun. That soft red light then diffusely reflects off the white and orange sands of the amphitheater, illuminating the hoodoos so that they almost seem to glow with an inner light.

It is easy - too easy - to come away from Bryce with a collection of excellent photos. It is much harder to come away with anything original. The walls of the visitor center and Ruby's Inn are lined with spectacular and inspiring photographs; the challenge is to find something a little different. I usually pass by Bryce two or three times a year. It lies a one-days drive from my home, and I often stop there overnight on my way to or from destinations further in Utah. I can camp for free in the forest immediately outside the National Park boundary, sleep in until just a few minutes before sunrise, and still get to one of the overlooks in time for frst light. On recent visits I have concentrated on using a long telephoto lens to abstract distant features, rather than focusing on the iconic and much-photographed formations directly below the rim. This month's photo was taken with a 400 mm lens, looking across from Sunset Point toward features in Fairy Canyon. By eye these appeared insignificant and lost in the bright sunlight, but through the viewfinder they shone with a mysterious luminescence. To get a sharp image I used a tripod, switched on live view to act a a mirror lockup, and selected a 10s timer delay to let any vibrations die down after pressing the shutter button. That delay also allowed me to move round and use a hand to shield the lens from direct sun, as the lens hood alone did not completely block the light. Even so, the image out of the camera appeared rather washed out, mostly due to haze in the air over the long distance at which the shot was taken. However, global and local adjustments in Photoshop brought up the contrast nicely, allowing the glowing hoodoos to really 'pop' againt the shadowed background.

#50 - April 2013

"Entangled Oaks - Capitol Reef N.P."

On a recent trip over the University holiday I journeyed through southern Utah at the end of March. I was hoping that spring would already have arrrived - that the cottonwoods would be fluorescent green and the fruit trees in Capitol Reef would be in blossom. But no; the tail end of winter lingered on, and all the trees were bare. However, that can make for some attractive photographs, particularly in redrock country where backlit branches stand out against the dark, shadowed canyon walls.

The subjects in this photo are a pair of ancient, wonderfully twisted and intertwined oak trees, growing in a meadow close to the old barn in Capitol Reef National Park. I was there early in the morning, soon after the sun had risen above the canyon wall. Looking directly into the sun, the backlighting accentuated the tangles of small branches, while reflected light made the trunks positively glow. I wanted to frame the scene in an almost abstract manner, and wandered around exploring various combinations of position and focal length to find a composition that would eliminate everything apart from the trees themselves. Flare from the sun shining directly into the lens was a problem, but easily fixed by removing my usual in-situ polarizer and using a hand as a shade.

The end result is a rather complex photograph, without any single focal subject, but I feel it succeeds as an interesting mix of textures and colors, and as a sort of visual maze. The trees are so intertwined, that it is fun to try to trace out which branch belongs to which tree!


#49 - March 2013

"Bixby Bridge and Big Sur Coastline"
Complexity vs simplicity

I usually strive for simplicity when composing a photograph. Images that emphasize just a few subjects and cut out the clutter of the real world tend to have more impact. Indeed, there is a natural progression in the evolution of a photographers skills toward ever simpler and condensed compositions. Sometimes, however, it is good to make a U turn, and try to make a complex composition that still manages to hang together. This month's photo is an example; though one created more by chance than initial intent.

I was driving along then Pacific Coast highway north of Big Sur. The road is narrow and wriggly, demanding full attention, but I noticed a spectacular view of black cliffs layered with mist and pulled off onto a convenient dirt shoulder to have a better look. It was only then that I realized that, in addition to the natural coastline, Bixby Bridge was hiding coyly in the background. And, even better, there was a sea arch in the foreground. I walked around to find a viewpoint that nicely lined up the natural and man-made arches, and selected a focal length of 400 mm to achive a tight composition. Then it was just a matter of waiting for a big wave to break before pressing the shutter. The two birds sillhouetted against the wave were a pleasant discovery after I got home and looked at the image on the computer screen - I had not noticed them when taking the shot.

The final result is a quite complex picture, There is no single subject, and the eye wanders between the bridge, sea arch, wave and birds. But, I think it works, in part at least because the bands of mist and reflections from the sea break the image into several receding layers. Long telephoto lenses compress perspective, and there are certainly no leading lines in this image to provide a sense of depth. But, the distinct layers of diminishing contrast provide a three-dimensionality - akin to Japanese paintings - and allow the viewer to consider each in turn. The sea mist, brightly back-lit by the early morning sun, is a crucial element in the image, serving to define the layers. I returned the following morning to the same viewpoint, but there was no mist, and the magic was gone.


#48 - February 2013

"Zebra dust trails at sunset"

To be effective, a photograph needs to have at least two distinct elements. One is (usually) the subject of the photograph - what you are photographing. But, to have any deeper meaning or 'wow' factor there needs to be something extra. In the case of wildlife photography there is a natural progression. At first it is satisfying merely to capture a decent static portrait of a new bird or animal. After all, that is difficult enough as the subject is inclined to fly or run away. Soon, however, there is an urge to shoot more intersting pictures; for example, the challenge may become that of catching interesting behaviors or composing to place the subject in the context of its environment. And, as exemplified by the title of my website, a common theme in my photography is to capture a chosen subject under optimal light.

During our visit to Etosha National Park last summer there was no shortage of spectacular Namibian wildlife, but lighting was problematic. Access to the park is strictly regulated, and everyone has to be within the fenced camps at night. The gates open and close strictly at sunrise and sunset, so we always seemed to be spending the times of golden light waiting for the gate to open, or driving frantically back to camp before it shut. One evening, though, we returned early, and went down to the viewing area by the waterhole. The main attraction here is watching animals approach at night under floodlights, but the waterhole at Okaukeujo also gave a good view across the surrounding plains, looking directly toward the setting sun. As animals walked toward the waterhole they kicked up dust cloud, which caught the light as the sun sank to a red orb in the thick African air.

#47 - January 2013

"Gold and Blue Ice Cave"

This month's photo was taken on an Ice Cave tour guided by Einar at Local Guides. We visited Iceland in December, and the weather was heavily overcast and raining on ther first day we met up with him. Although the ice cave we visited was architecturally impressive, it lacked any real color. However, by the next morning the sky was clear, and Einar took us to a much more beautiful cave, with a second entrance that aligned with the rising sun to create a wonderful golden glow contrasting with the blues and greens of light filtering through the ice.

Ice caves present some unique photographic problems, and as this was my first time, I was not sure how best to solve them. The space is confined, so I took my widest lens, a 14mm on a full-frame camera (Canon 5DIII). Then, to handle the extreme contrast range I bracketed 3 exposures for each shot at 2-stop intervals, and manually blended these to create the final image. Perhaps the biggest problem though was finding and setting up good compositions. To get a wide field of view I found that I mostly had the camera hard up against the back wall of the cave, making it difficult to see what was in the frame through either the viewfinder of the live-view screen. Compounding that, the floor of the cave alternated between irregular blocks of slippery ice, glutinous black moraine dirt and silty, ice-cold water, making avoidance of injury and immersion a higher priority than optimizing the camera angle.

Enough excuses! The photo above was my favorite, and perhaps the only one where I can claim a deliberate composition, rather than a random shot hoping that a super-wide lens would capture something interesting. My aim was to combine the diagonal slant of the ice formations together with contrasting colors progressing from white through green and blue to gold. As a neuroscientist, the bizzare, brainlike formation at the top right appealed to me, and I framed the shot to juxtapose it against the golden light entering through the lower tunnel and highlighting the group of figures. I usually don't include people in my landscape work, but here I felt that they helped (indeed, were vital) to provide scale to what would othervise be an utterly abstract scene.

#46 - December 2012

"Sandhill crane in flight"

Last month's photo was a deliberately blurry bird against a black background. For contrast, this month features a sharp shot of a bird againt a white background.

The image was captured during a recent visit to Bosque del Apache, where the over-wintering sandhill cranes take pride of place on the wildlife reserve. My visit coincided with the annual Festival of the Cranes, so the photographer count was also very high; and the density of white super-telephoto lenses correspondingly great. My longest lens is a 100-400mm, and I was feeling quite out-gunned by massive 600 and 800mm rigs on gimbal mounts, but took advantage of my much lighter set-up by concentrating on hand-held shots of birds in flight. I had both 7D and 5D MkIII cameras with me, and was interested to compare their respective merits for this type of photography. The crop-factor 7D gave me an equivalent 640mm lens for tighter framing, but the focus on the 5D is much nicer, and its lower noise allowed use of higher ISO settings corresponding to about a 2-stop faster shutter speed.

Cranes are elegant, if gangly birds, and although they are somewhat skittish and difficult to approach closely, they compensate for that in sheer size with wingspans up to 7 ft. Nevertheless, I ended up with many hundreds of shots of cranes and only a few 'keepers'. Other than choosing a location from which to shoot, relative to the wind direction and the , pond or field to which the birds are approaching, there is not much you can do in terms of deliberately composing a photo. Everything is happening too fast, and it is just a matter of firing off a burst of shots and seeing later what you might have captured. Any editorial and artistic comesafterwards in terms of selecting the best images and processing them.

Two features of this month's photo appealed to me. Firstly, the bird was positioned against a uniformly white sky. Often, it works well to include some (out-of-focus) background for perspective, but here I liked being able to abstract the crane and present it against a pure white backdrop simply by tweaking the highlight levels. Secondly, I liked the graceful curves of the nearmost wing and feathers. The exposure and sharpness were good straight out of the camera, and the only other processing I applied was to lighten the underside of the far wing to bring out more detail, and to subtly increase the color saturationand warmth.

#45 - November 2012

"Egret blur"

Canon 5D MkIII; 100-400 @ 400mm, f5.6; 1/15s; ISO 3200

My selection of this month's photo was triggered by a recent article by Mike Johnson in The Online Photographer, in which he contrasts the notion of image quality with image properties.

"What does that mean? When it comes to photographs, a "property" is what I call "quality" without the value judgment attached. And with a much broader range of possibilities. Sharpness is the most highly prized, the most widely accepted, image virtue. But who says an image has to be sharp? Some are, some aren't. Some sharp images look like crap and some sharp images look great. Unsharp images, ditto—sometimes that can look good, sometimes not. It depends.

Sharpness is a property that suits some pictures and not others. Some photographers treat it like a virtue, as if possessing more of it confers ever more glory and honor upon them. Granted, it's somewhat more difficult to make a photograph work when it suffers from unvirtuous properties—you have to be sensitive to the effect those properties have, the way they function visually, and how well they suit a particular picture and its message, instead of being just plain clueless about all those things. And in order to achieve the virtuous properties, your equipment, materials, and techniques need to be capable of it. There is a certain—slight—honor in that, I suppose."

So, I present an image that is almost completely blurred: deliberately unvirtuous in quality, but I think virtuous in properties. At least, I like the final result - but you can decide whether there is honor to be attributed.

As is often the case, the actual taking of the shot was a mix of planning and serendipity; and being an action shot of a bird, the balance was shifted toward the latter. I had set off well before dawn to drive to Huntington Beach, intending to photograph the offshore oil rigs at sunrise before continuing on to the bird reserve at Bolsa Chica. But the parking meters along PCH were blocked off, so I arrived at Bolsa Chica earlier than intended. The light was still dim, requiring a high ISO setting and long shutter speed to get any photos at all. Of necessity I thus decided to try for motion blur photographs of the birds. Happily, a snowy egret obliged by coming in to land in front of dark foliage close by. I was able to pan my camera along its approach, and grabbed a couple of shots of its final approach. Looking through the viewfinder at birds in flight everything is changing too fast to know what shots you are going to get, but reviewing the image afterwards on the camera screen showed one promising frame.

The image on the left shows the unprocessed photo straight out of the camera.

Good aspects: I particularly liked the sinuous curves and feathering of the blurred wings; the entire bird is in the frame, without clipping wing edges or feet; the dark and featureless background nicely contrasts against the white wings and yellow feet to create an abstract portrait of the egret.

Problems: way too much empty space on then left, but not enough 'breathing room' below and to the right of the bird; although the wings are deliberately blurred, I would have liked the head and eye to be sharper; the vegetation is an unappealing olive green.

The RAW file was thus a good starting point, but was going to need a good deal of processing to yield the final result I wanted. I began by cropping out the left of the frame, then increased the canvas size along the bottom and right edges and used the context-aware function in Photoshop to fill in the blank areas.

Then it was time to deal with the most troublesome problem, the egret's head. Blurred photos are most effective when something - even a tiny detail - is sharp. Unless you are really talented it otherwise looks as if you messed up the focus rather than making a deliberate choice. In the case of birds (and people) it is the eyes that need to be sharp; and that was not the case here. So I cheated. I had another, sharp, photo of a perched egret from later that morning, so I made a copy of the head and, after many tweaks of levels, sizing and puppet-warping, adjusted it as a new layer aligned on top of the blurred bird. Using a layer mask I then painted through with a transparency brush, keeping about 80% opacity around the eye and beak while fading to complete transparency toward the back of the head and neck.

Finally, some finishing touches. I applied some selective local contrast enhancement to enhance the edges of the wings. And, to remove the background color and some color casts in the wings I desaturated the entire image, masking off only the orange feet and yellow region around the eye. The final result is thus an almost monochrome portrait, giving added emphasis to the small splashes of bright color.


#44 - October 2012

"Dichotomous Aloe with Crepuscular Rays: Namibia"

The main attraction in this month's photo is the light: the crepescular rays ("God-rays") radiating out into the sky. These are formed (Wikipedia reference) 'from a single point in the sky, specifically, where the sun is. The rays, which stream through gaps in clouds or between other objects, are columns of sunlit air separated by darker cloud-shadowed regions.' To make them visible, there must be something in the air (e.g. mist, particulate matter) to diffract and scatter the sunlight. In this case the dramatic rays were created by the thick, hazy layer of dust that was continually present during our recent visit to Namibia. Most of the time I regarded this as a nuiscance, because it rendered sunrises and sunsets very muted and robbed long-distance views of contrast. But, on one day the sky filled with clouds, and the haze redeemed itself by bringing these rays into being.

Crepescular rays are, in fact, parallel to one another (the sun is a long distance away!), but because of perspective appear to diverge from a vanishing point; an effect that becomes more pronounced when the sun is near the horizon. I had been watching the rays through the afternoon as they became more dramatic and colorful with the approach of sunset, and was on the lookout for a suitable forground to supply a terrestrial reference. Not so easily found in the arid Namib desert, but fortunately we were close to an excellent example of an Aloe dichotema (quiver tree) with exposed forking branches forming a nice mathematical series.

In terms of composition I usually like to keep thinks very simple, and that was very easy here because, apart from the one tree, there was absolutely nothing else for miles around in the barren desert to clutter up the photo. I used a 24 mm lens to encompass a wide swath of the sky and got low to the ground to sillhouett the tree agains the light. The only remaining issue was then the framing and positioning of the tree in relation to the rays. Given the radial symmetry of the light the obvious solution was to place everything dead center, though I did take other shots as insurance in case I later preferred an offset composition. [I could have wished for a reflecting pool below the tree to create a perfectly circularly symmetrical image: but as this was the dry season in one of the most arid countries in the world, that was not a possibility!]. Of course, one of the first 'rules' of composition states that you should never place the main subject in the center, but my experience is that it gives extra emphasis when a subject allows me to spectacularly break the rule.

The taking of the photo was straightforward, as the sun was hidden behind the clouds and attenuated by the haze, so there was no need for a graduated ND filter. But, on opening up the RAW file, the imaged looked too 'flat', failing to capture the vivid scene I remembered. Even after some global tweaking to apply an S curve to enhance contrast it still did not 'pop'. As a final step to bring out the rays I duplicated the image, applied a quite strong unsharp mask with wide radius to bring up the local contrast on the background layer, and then selectively painted through transparency on the top layer using a soft brush to bring out the rays without exaggerating the clouds or tree.


#43 - September 2012

"Deadvlei - photograph or painting?"

Any photograph can be analyzed in terms of four essential elements: subject, composition, lighting and post-processing. Their relative importance may vary enormously. Sometimes, as in much journalistic photography, the subject is all-important, and any manipulation after the fact is strictly taboo. Sometimes the lighting is the main point, and the subject is merely secondary. Sometimes a striking alignment or geometry in the composition takes precedence. As for post processing, I would rank that last. I am suspicious of attempts to generate a striking image in Photoshop starting from an unpromising original capture.

Although an outstanding image might capitalize on only one of the above elements, it obviously helps if all four contribute in their different ways. Which brings me to this month's photo of the month, taken during a recent trip to Namibia. The subject is clearly the star attraction, but I hope I have been able to add more by careful choice of lighting conditions, composition and processing.

Subject. The photo is of the Deadvlei ('dead lake') within the Sossusvlei sand dunes of Namibia. This is a clay pan, formed during an earlier time when ephemeral rainwater pools allowed camel thorn trees to grow. When the climate changed, drought hit the area killing the trees, which are estimated to be about 800 years old. The dry conditions have preserved the wood, but it has become blackened by the intense sunlight. Surrounding the pan on three sides are enormous red sand dunes, said to be among the highest in the world. The contrast of black skeletal trees against the red dunes and white clay creates an iconic subject for photographers: easily ranking with the Grand Canyon and Delicate Arch among the 'top-ten' worldwide landscape photo locations, but with the advantage of being remote and less well known.

Composition. The Deadvlei already has an otherworldly feel about it, and my aim was to create an almost abstract image, sufficiently detached from reality that it had the appearance of a painting or Japanese woodblock print more than a photograph. My main artifice was to use a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and photograph at some distance from the trees so that the dune on the far side of the pan towered over the trees, allowing the sky to be excluded from the frame and thus exclude that reference to reality. Then, there was the matter of choosing which particular trees to include. The highest density of trees is found at the northern end of the pan where the hiking trail enters, but I favored the opposite side of the 'forest' where the trees are more sparse and allow for a simplified composition. In particular, there is a small grouping that includes some wonderfully sinuous trunks. By moving around, sideways, toward and back from this group I was able to find an angle where the trees were attractively arranged, and which gave a good separation without their branches appearing to overlap. A final choice was the height from which to take the shot, which determined the ratio of dune- to- pan in the final image. I took several captures, ranging from holding the camera overhead to lying flat on the ground. Among these I chose the composition you see above, taken from normal standing height, which gives a sense of depth and three-dimensionality to the spacing between the trees. I wanted the dune to provide a colored backdrop, but without detail that might distract from the trees. It is not apparent from the photo, but the dune lies quite a long way behind the trees. Thus, by using a relatively wide aperture (f 5.6) I could slightly blur the dune (and the plants growing on it - the small yellow dots), while keeping all the trees in good focus.

Lighting. The orange/red of the dune is a major part of the image, contrasting with the slightly blue-white of the clay pan. The intense color comes from both the red sand itself, and the warm sunlight shortly after dawn. The sun rose behind a large dune immediately at the back of me, casting a shadow line that descended down the opposite dune. I took the photo just before the shadow reached the clay pan, when the distant dune was evenly illuminated, but the pan remained in shadow. This took some logistical planning, because the entrance gate to the National Park opens only about one half hour before sunrise, and it is 60 km from the gate to Deadvlei, with the last section involving a 4wd drive in low-ratio first gear through deep sand followed bya hike across the dunes. On our first morning I missed the best light having got lost on the walk in, but was able to scout for locations and on the second day was in place with a little time to spare.

Post-processing. The image already looked great straight out of the camera, but I applied a couple of subtle tweaks to provide further enhancement. The first was to deal with the texture of the clay pan, which has a blocky, hexagonal appearance, rather like the Racetrack of Death valley. I felt this was somewhat distracting, and introduced a mundane reality into my intended abstraction. After experimenting with selective Gaussian blurs, I discovered a better treatment by applying a negative 'clarity' setting in Adobe Camera Raw. This gave a mistlike appearance over the pan, but needed careful adjustment to avoid creating obvious halos around the trees. Secondly, reflected light from the dune was warming the pan, whereas I had hoped for a marked color contrast between the dune and shadowed areas illuminated by the blue sky. The final photo is thus a blend of two image files, separately processes in Camera Raw to tweak down the color temperature and add 'negative clarity' in the lower half of the frame.


Full disclosure. I cannot claim my phototo be an entirely original concept. Before leaving for Namibia I had seen this photo of Deadvlei taken by Frans Lanting for National Geographic - indeed, it was a major inspiration for me wanting to visit the location. Although I had not remembered the details of his image, I was interested to find after comparing our photos that we had both chosen the same group of trees. However, we have different interpretations. Frans closely cropped his image so that the outer branches are amputated, whereas I wanted to show the trees in their entirety and emphasize the dune towering above them; and he chose a lower perspective, giving a more two-dimensional appearance. You may also notice that my photo is left-right flipped. I thought this gave a more pleasing 'flow' to the composition; but it is a manipulation that would likely be impermissible for National Geographic!).


#42 - August 2012

"Bristlecone pine by reflected light"

Bristlecone pines are the oldest living organisms on the planet, and can be found in abundance at altitudes around 10,000-11,000 ft in the White Mountains of California. Indeed, the White Mountain Bristlecone Pine Forest includes both the largest and the oldest individual living trees. Photographically, however, it is the dead trees that hold most attraction for me. The exposed branches are gnarled and twisted as if expressing the millennia of harsh conditions the trees have endured. Moreover, the wood weathers to a beautiful orange sheen, and it is often the color and texture of the trees that I find myself trying to capture, rather than just the shapes.

This point was brought home a few years ago, when I met up with a husband and wife team photographingt Patriarch Grove, at the very upper altitude limit of the bristlecones. The husband was photographing on medium format black and white film, and was interested only in shapes. He got to sleep late in the mornings, and was out mid-day wandering around at leisure to scout out the best compositions. In contrast, his wife was up well before dawn, scurrying in below freezing temperatures to make best use of the golden light before and just after sunrise.

Sunrise is, in fact, usually better than sunset at Patriarch Grove, because the setting sun is obscured by a high hillside early in the evening before it takes on much color. Given a clear sky to the east, on the other hand, sunrise brings a deep red glow to the trees for just a fleetingly brief few minutes. But, there are still some possibilities in the evening, and on a recent visit I was primarily on the lookout for the quality of light on the bristlecones. with their shapes only a secondary factor. Direct sunlight was uninteresting, but sunlight reflected from the ground onto the shadowed side of the trees created a much warmer glow. This is a standard technique for photographing in narrow slot canyons, where the aim is to avoid direct light at all costs, and frame the picture so the only illumination comes from light reflected and difused from the canyon walls. Not so easy, though, for isolated trees on an open landscape.

To create this month's photo I took advantage of the shaded face of the facing hillside as a background, and gradually worked my way up the opposite slope, staying just above the advancing shadow line while moving from side to side to intersect interesting trees along the way. The bristlecone pictured above had both an interesting and compex form, and was catching beautiful light reflected from the hillside above and behind me. Although dim as compared to direct illumination, by getting very low to the ground I could frame the tree to stand out well in contrast to the deep shade of the opposite hillside and the already fading sunlight on the near foreground. Technically, the only problem was that I was shooting stright into the sun, which was only just above the top of the frame. For once, I remembered to first remove the (flare-inducing) polarizer that usually lives on my lens, and used my hand to shade the lens from the sun. That, together with the remarkably good flare-resistance of the Canon 24-105L lens gave an excellent, contrasty final result.

#41 - July 2012

"Compare and contrast: Rock pinnacles 5000 miles apart"

The 'Four Kings' : Devil's Garden,
Escalante/Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah

Old Man of Storr :
Isle of Skye, Scotland

Two photos for the price of one this month. Both have groups of rock pinnacles as the main subject; both have plants as foreground subjects; and both are examples of extreme near-far compositions. They were captured within a month of each other, but at locations nearly 5000 miles apart. As exam questions during my undergraduate studies in Britain often used to begin "Compare and contrast...".

First, a similarity. Both photographs have interesting landscape features as their main subject. But, a photograph that contains only a single subject is likely to be dull unless that subject is truly exceptional. Something in addition is needed to makean interesting image- for example, spectacular lighting, a complementary foreground/background, or striking composition. At the times I took these shots the lighting was merely meh (as our youngest son would put it), and the skies were either utterly boring (left) or just passable (right). So, I went looking for foreground interest, deliberately seeking small, attractive subjects that would allow an extreme near-far effect. This is something of a contrivance: you don't normally go around looking at things with your head on the ground and eyes a few inches from spiky cacti! But, with care to avoid a totally artificial appearance, the effect can be dramatic. A technical problem then is achieving a sufficient depth of field to encompass the scene. Here I used a tilt/shift lens; specifically the Canon 17 mm TS-E L lens. The foreground plants are just a few inches from the camera. With a conventional lens on a DSLR camera it would not have been possible to maintain sharp focus to the much more distant rocks, but by tilting the lens down relative to the sensor I could obtain a gradient of focal plane from bottom to top of the image to match the progression of the scene into the distance.

The photo on the left is of an iconic group of sandstone pillars in the Devil's Garden, located in Utah's Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. I call them the Four Kings; though they may have some other 'official' name. I had photographed the Kings before at sunrise, when they take on a beautiful orange glow, and on a recent trip to hike the Escalante canyons stopped off to scout out other possible compositions. A group of flowering prickly pear cacti stood out as a nice foreground, but as the mid-day light was harsh I resolved to come back after my hikes for a sunrise shot. On returning, I found one error in my planning. The flowers had closed up during the night. But, it still seemed worthwhile to continue. I mounted the camera (5D mkIII) on my tripod, lowered almost to ground level, and used the lcd display to roughly frame the composition. Setting up to use a tilt/shift lens is a fiddly business. Adjustments include the tilt angle, shift, focus and camera angle; all of which interact in non-intuitive ways with one another. Using a magnified live-view image to check focus made it much easier, but I was glad I had allowed plenty of time before the sun was due to rise. The first rays of sunlight then revealed a second error in my planning. My previous visits had been in winter, when the rising sun casts an even light on all four Kings. But now it was late May, the sun was much further to the north, and the leftmost two monarchs were in shadow. Nothing much I could do about that, and even a return visit in January would be to no avail as the cacti would not be in bloom! To make the best of it, I brought up the shadow detail on the rocks in post-processing to reduce the contrast differential. In the end, not quite the photograph I had planned for, but one I am happy with.

The photo on the right is of another iconic group of rocks; the Old Man of Storr and his pointy neighbors on the Isle of Skye. I had got out of bed at 3:00am hoping to photograph the rocks sillhouetted against the sunrise (which comes early that far north), but after much scurrying up and down steep, muddy paths failed to find a good angle. Before heading back to our b&b for a full Scottish breakfast (with local black pudding), I hiked round to the other side of the Old Man to a viewpoint that placed him before the distant Sound and hills of Raasay. A cloudy sky provided a chiaroscuro effect contrasting with fleeting light from the now well-risen sun. But something more was still needed to make a good image, so I scrambled up the steep hillside looking for a suitable foreground. A boulder covered in orange lichen fit the bill, and as a bonus, there was a plant with vivid green leaves and purple flowers just in front. Again, an extreme near-far composition, and I had my tilt/shift lens with me to accomplish this. What I did not have was my tripod; lost, along with all our other luggage, when our flight to the UK was delayed, cancelled, rescheduled and delayed yet again. (Thank you, American Airlines!) So, it had to be a hand-held shot. Not easy, lying on my tummy trying not to roll down a steep slope of wet grass, adjusting the little knobs on the lens while keeping the camera level and the composition composed.Most problematically, there was no way I could use live-view to critically set the focus, so I took my best guess through the viewfinder, and hoped that a small aperture (f18) to maximize depth of field would accommodate any errors. Also, I took many shots, slightly varying focus and position, so I could later select the optimal image.

In conclusion, neither photograph is quite what I had envisaged when setting out for these locations, but you have to go with the flow and accept what you are given. Both images have some failings, and individually I am not sure I would have chosen either as a 'photo of the month'. However, together they make a nice pair, with remarkable similarities yet contrasting two utterly different enviroments of desert and wet moorland.


#40 - June 2012

"Transit of Venus"

Not a single photo this month, but a montage of several shots of the transit of Venus that was visible over California on June 5th, 2012. As usual, you can click on the image above to download a high-res file of the complete montage.

The transit was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture some unique images (I had missed the 2004 transit); but also presented some problems, both aesthetic and technical.

Aesthetic concerns arose because the transit is basically a small black dot moving across a bigger white circle - as in the top set of images. Deeply humbling because the little black dot is a planet nearly the size of the Earth, but as a photograph, not much to look at. With just regular photographic gear there is no way I could compete with the spectacular multi-spectral images captured by the NASA orbiting solar observatory, so I was looking for a way to introduce a terrestrial element into my photos to make them more interesting.

During most of the visible transit the sun was high in the sky, well above any distant features on the horizon. But, airborne objects were fair game. Conveniently, the hill behind my home provides a clear view to the northwest out over the ocean, and the track of the sun nicely crossed the flight path of airplanes departing from John Wayne (SNA) airport. So, I mounted my tripod, set the camera to high-speed motor drive and patiently waited, repositioning every few minutes as the sun dropped down, hoping for a coincident intersection. I had anticipated some difficulty as I was only a couple of miles from the flightpath, and at that distance the commercial jetliners spanned almost the full width of the sun. But luck was with me, and a small two-prop plane transited the sun at exactly the right incidence to complement Venus. The middle-left image above is a 'straight' shot; absolutely no Photoshop trickery! A little later, a commercial jet intersected the sun. This time the alignment was not so good. The plane crossed near the top of the sun, and I did not get a single capture with the entire body of the plane sillhouetted. The final image is thus a composite of two shots, respectively capturing the front and back sections of the jet - and I moved it lower down to create a more attractive composition. A bit of a cheat, but I like the result for the way the sunlight catches the jet exhaust.

At the very end, the sun dipped into a bank of haze (smog?), and took on a nice color as well as distorting into interesting shapes. The lower photo above was my very last view of the transit, heralded by a flock of birds.

Technically, difficulties arose because the sun is very bright, and Venus is a very small dot. To counteract the first problem, I stacked photographic 6 and 8 stop ND filters for a total attenuation of nearly 10,000x (OD 4). With the sun high in the sky, that gave an exposure of 1/2000s at f16, ISO 200. A fast shutter speed to minimize an blurring from camera shake, with an aperture large enough that diffraction would not be a problem. Toward sunset the sun dimmed appreciably, and I progressively removed the filters, ending with the sunset photo above with no filters and an exposure of 1/800s at f8. That means that the sun at the horizon was only about 1/80,000 times as bright as when high in the sky at 3:00pm. A testament, perhaps, to air quality in the L.A. basin! Althogh numerous websites warn that ND filters may not adequately block UV and IR light, I had no problems with either the camera or direct viewing through the eyepiece. To resolve the small dot of Venus I combined my longest lens (100-400 zoom) with a 1.4x teleconvertor on a camera (Canon 7D) with a 1.6x crop factor, for an equivalent (35 mm) focal length of 900mm. With that magnification the sun moved remarkably quickly through the frame, and needed frequent realignment to keep it centered.

The coincidence of experiencing an annular solar eclipse (i.e. a transit of the moon) and a transit of Venus within just a couple of weeks of one another got me thinking about how long one might have to wait to experience a dual transit: perhaphs to capture a 'Disney-like' photo like that at the left (which, of course, is a Photoshop composite). I am sure NASA can calculate the exact date of the next such occurrence, but as a rough estimate I started by assuming that transits of Venus occur roughly every 60 years. Solar eclipses (of any type) are much more frequent; about two per year if you are willing to travel anywhere on earth to view them. Given that an eclipse lasts around 2 hours, that means the probability of an eclipse at any given instant of time = 2hr/180 days, about 1/2000. Thus, a dual transit might be expected about every 60 x 2000 = 120,000 years. This calculation assumes that transits occur randomly and independently, whereas the orbits of the moon and Venus are highly periodic, but the number should be in the right ballpark.

120,000 years is a long time in human terms, but surprisingly brief in astronomical/geological time. There must have been many simultaneous transits throughout the history of the earth. Perhaps the dinosaurs saw one; but they probably did not take much notice.... year

#39 - May 2012

"Dinosaur Egg"
Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

An effective photograph should convey more than merely a depiction of what is in front of the camera. A distinction between a photograph and a mere snapshot is that the former should give a sense of emotion; what it felt like to be at that place at that time. One way to help achieve this is by use of black and white imagery. By throwing away color information the image is immediately abstracted - it becomes more of an interpretation and creation of the photographer than a realistic depiction of a scene. And, following from that the photographer can indulge in tonal mani[pulations that would appear artificial and exaggerated in a color image.

This, at least, was my intention in the photo above. The scene is of a remote area known as the 'egg factory', deep within the Bisti/De-Na-Zin wilderness in northern New Mexico. The wilderness is an extensive badlands of eroded, often exceedingly muddy clay soils, which is beloved by photographers on account of its fantastical rock formations, but likely holds little attraction for other visitors. Indeed I have usually found myself to be the only person there.

The rocks and clay are are a dull brown, so most photographs of Bisti are taken right at sunrise or sunset when they pick up a nice warmth, contrasting with blue/magenta shaded in shadow area. However, on my most recent visit the light was not cooperating, and thin hazy clouds masked the sun right down to the horizon. Together with a biting cold wind and the two mile, trail-less hike back to my car, the gloomy light added to a sense of foreboding. To capture this feeling, I selected a feature that truly resembles a giant, dessicated reptilian egg, lined it up with the position of the sun, and waited until a thinning in the cloud let a little sunshine penetrate to cast faint shadows. A three stop graduated ND flter tamed the bright sky, and I deliberately set this a little below the horizon line, so that the distant landscape would be darkened to give a sense of mystery. The resulting image as captured was still rather 'flat', so I applied some local tonal adjustments to brighten and sharpen the ripples on the 'egg', and to accentuate the backlighting from the sun.

#38 - April 2012

"One good tern ...."
Forster's tern courtship display : Bolsa Chica Wetlands


For the last few weeks, the Bolsa Chica wetlands have been taken over by terns. They are attractive and lively creatures, but are not the easiest birds to photograph given their relatively small size and highly erratic flight patterns. I do most of my bird photography hand-holding a 100-400 lens, to be able to more easily track birds in flight. However, on a previous weekend I had noticed that Forster's terns often landed to perch on a wooden post close enough to the pedestrian bridge to frame a tight photo, and ended up spending much of the time focused on the post waiting for something to happen. The problem, though, was that I needed to keep looking through the viewfinder to keep the post in the frame, and thus could not anticipate when a bird might be approaching until the last minute when it entered the frame. On my next visit the marine layer was socked in with light was too dim and grey for effective flight photography, so I decided to try a different ploy and set up the camera on a tripod, pre-focused on the top of the post. Then, I could stand next to the camera holding a remote release ready to fire off a burst of shots when I anticipated a bird might be approaching to land. Two hours of waiting were rewarded with a one-second sequence as a Forster's tern approached his mate, who was already perched on the post, to feed her a tasty smelt in a courting ritual.

#37 - March 2012

"Apocalyptic cloud: Iceland"

The landscape features in Iceland - waterfalls, glaciers, larva fields etc - are usually the main attraction. But sometimes the sky becomes the subject, and the land plays a secondary role in the composition. Although situated far north, the Gulf Stream ensures a relatively temperate climate. But westerlies bring a continuous succcession of storms directly across from Greenland, so the weather is highly changeable and unpredicable, with strong winds common. There is a saying that if you don't like the weather in Iceland, just wait a few hours. That is great for photographers. "Bad weather makes for good photographs". Many times I have found that it is the sky that is the main subject of my images: brooding black clouds sometimes appear almost to explode apart; shafts of sunlight diagonal down through small breaks; vivid double rainbows contrast agains grey sky; the underside of clouds glowing red from the low-angled sun.

This month's photo was taken as we drove over a back road crossing the mountains of the Reykjanes peninsula on the way to the gastronomic Christmas buffet at the Blue Lagoon. A small sign pointing along a snow covered dirt road pointed to an abandoned church site. Wandering round the fenced site failed to reveal any sign of a church, excepting for a lone cross partly buried in a snowdrift. Nothing much to photograph from a landscape perspective, but the rapidly forming cloud formation was something else. I waded through the snow to line up with the cross, taking a circuitous path to avoid footprints that might mar the composition I envisaged. Once in place, it became apparent that the cloud was too vast to fit in a single frame even with a 10 mm lens, so the final photography is a composite of two shots, for the ground and the sky, using a 30s exposure to blur the cloud movement and enhance the otherworldly feel.

'Apocolyptic' seemed a good title for the forbidding squall, but in fact it was quite innocuous, and heralded the clearing of a storm, not its onset. By the time we reached the Blue Lagoon the sky was clear, and we bathed under the stars in the geothermal waters before a sumptuous dinner.


#36 - January/February 2012

"Jokelbergs on the beach"

My New Year resolution to keep up to date with the Photo of the Month has come to naught - already it is the middle of February, and I am only now posting the first photo of 2012. This is not for want of new images to feature, as a trip to Iceland before Christmas was both memorably enjoyable and photographically productive.

Thus, my first selection for the year is from perhaps THE top photographic location in Iceland; Jokulsarlon. The main feature here is a lagoon, into which icebergs calve from a glacier descending from the Vatnajokull ice cap. The bergs drift around in the lagoon, slowly melting until the pass out to sea along a narrow channel. But, they are not done then, as the tides and waves may wash them back up onto the black sand beach. Photographically, the jewel-like bergs contrasted with the jet black volcanic sand make a subject at least as intriguing as the lagoon itself.

Many photographs of the Jokulsarlon beach feature long-exposure images of bergs at the edge of the sea, with receding surf blurred into dream-like patterns. That was not to be on our December visit. Firstly, an account by Varina Patel described her disastrous experience just a month earlier, when a rogue wave brought her down, resulting in a damaged knee and destroyed camera and lens. Secondly, all the bergs had in any case been washed up to the high water mark, and the surf (which appeared innocuous) was breaking far down the beach. Thus, on this visit I had to be content with creating less dynamic images. In consolation, the winter sun rose and set well to the south and out to sea, rather than behind the mountains as in summer. Daylight lasts only a few hours during the depths of the Icelandic winter, but the 'golden hour' stretches throughout this time as the sun barely picks itself up above the horizon. If the clouds cooperate, this can make for spectacular skies. I was lucky on this occasion, when a clearing in the south west allowed the late afternoon (3:00pm!) sun to shine through and catch drifting clouds overhead. To capture the photograph above I selected my widest (10 mm) lens and positioned the tripod low down and close to a grouping of attractive bergs. Even with that lens, I could not encompass enough of the sky, and the final image is a blend of two shots, with exposures set independently for sky and foreground. In both cases I used a 6 stop ND filter to give a 30s shutter speed to blur the surf and the drifting clouds.

# 35 - December 2011

"Juniper and monolith at Joshua Tree "
and the problems of photographing an icon

I find Joshua Tree National Park to be a difficult place to photograph. Which is strange, because it is the location of several of my favorite photographs; including the banner photo of the Evanescent Light Galleries. Much of the difficulty likely arises because Joshua Tree has few 'iconic' features - the likes of Delicate Arch, Horseshoe Bend, Half Dome, et al - where all you need do is plant your tripod to get a striking trophy shot. Instead, there are endless rocks and Joshua trees, individually appealing but none which stand out above the others. You need to work harder to create a memorable image, or have the luck to be there during superb light.

One exception, in a small way, is the happy confluence of a twisted juniper tree and a pointy rock monolith above campsites at Jumbo Rocks. They make an attractive composition, and by getting right down on the ground with a wide lens the tree can be made to frame the much larger rock. But, the scene has been photographed countless times and that raises another problem. How to create a different vision of a clichéd icon?

On an earlier visit I had photographed with nice sunset light just catching the tree and rock, and used a long exposure to blur the cloud movement to add some drama (photo at right). Not bad, but I thought I might be able to do better, and was happy when Eric proposed an overnight trip to try to photograph by moonlight.

Well, that idea did not work out well. After a 3:00am departure from home we arrived at Jumbo Rocks to a completely overcast sky, with just glimmers of the moon showing in entirely the wrong place. The clouds remained for much of the day, but began to clear toward evening, raising hopes of good sunset light. There is only one small spot where the tree and rock line up, so at first Eric and I played tag carefully setting up and removing our tripods, giving each of us a few minutes to shoot as the light changed. The best conditions came several minutes after sunset, as wispy clouds to the South behind the rock lit up. No time then for tripods, as the light wasfleeting. We took turns lying flat on the ground, shooting hand-held and hopefully keeping the horizon level while holding steady enough to get sharp shots. By this time the rock and tree were shaded, forming sillhouettes against the sky. We were both therefore using fill-flash to add light; in my case using a warming filter in front of the flash. We had the thought of using two flashes to separately illuminate the tree and rock, but Eric is a Nikon guy and I use Canon, and the two won't talk to one another to synchronize. So, I cheated a little after the fact, and in the final image above blended in an earlier shot when the rock was still gently lit by the setting sun.

In terms of composition, I had zoomed out to the widest setting (10 mm) on my lens to encompass as much of the sky as possible, and that had the result of also including the rounded boulder next to the tree, adding an extra element and nicely contrasting shape. Fortuitously (meaning I did not plan or even notice notice when shooting, but only after viewing later on the screen), the clouds gave the appearance of emerging, mist-like, from the foliage and trunk of the ree. In post-processing it was obvious that the filtered flash light had imparted too much red onto the tree in the original RAW conversion, so I toned that down, while correspondingly boosting saturation on the sky and applying some selective sharpening to accentuate the clouds. Overall, I was striving to create a slightly surreal impression, not simply what I observed at the time - even with my head on the ground!



#34 - November 2011

"Portrait of two snowy egrets "
and thoughts on a new camera focus mode

Egrets are easy birds to photograph. They are white, elegant and big! An additional attraction at Bolsa Chica is that they are well acclimated to people, so you can approach quite closely without them becoming spooked. Mostly, I lke to capture birds in action - flying, landing feeding... But sometimes a simple, 'posed' portrait is nice.

The photo above resulted when two snowy egrets landed together on the railing of the bridge, and perched companionably side by side. It was a quiet morning in terms of human visitation, and the birds allowed me to slowly advance and get a well-framed composition with a 400 mm zoom backed out to around 300mm. The sun was low in the morning sky, catching the birds with a warm light slightly diffused by thin clouds, while the far bank of the wetlands remained in shadow. I positioned myself to get a fairly high angle, so as to contrast the bright plumage against a dark and non-distracting background. To further blur the background, and to keep a fast shutter speed as I was shooting hand-held, I kept the aperture wide open. But, that then introduced the complication that the depth of field was too shallow to have both birds in sharp focus at the same time.

A way around this problem is to take two shots at different focus settings, and blend a final image in Photoshop or Helicon Focus. Easy enough with a static subject and a tripod-mounted camera, but more difficult with live subjects and hand-holding. My technique is to first frame the composition as I finally want it, and select a single focus point that lines up with one subject (the nearest bird in this instance). Then I move the camera to reposition that focus point on the second subject (the more distant bird), half-press and hold the shutter button to lock focus, move back to the original, desired composition and capture a shot. Next, I fully release the shutter button, briefly half-press to lock focus now on the second subject and then fully press to take the second shot. Provided that the birds have not moved in the interval between the two shots, and that I held the camera steady, all should be well when merging the two images.

But, for this approach to work, it it is best that the interval between the shots be as short as possible, and doing this manually it is difficult to get much faster than a second or so. Instead, it seems that it should be possible to automate a 'through-focus' function in the camera, analogous to the way in which it is possible to obtain a bracketed sequence of three different exposure settings in very short time using the motor drive function. For example, after enabling a custom menu function, a half-press on the shutter button would cause the camera to determine the nearest and furthest focal distances among the array of focus points (or on a previously selected subset of points). A full-press would then expose two shots in quick succession at these two focus settings - or even a sequence of shots at intermediate focal distances, interpolated taking into account the aperture settting. As far as I can see, current generation DSLR cameras already have all the requisite hardware. Implementing such a through-focus function should merely be a matter of firmware programming.

#33 - October 2011

"Proxy Falls, Oregon "

Waterfalls are one of the main attractions of Oregon for a photographer, but I found it surprisingly difficult to capture good shots of most of the ones I visited. A large part of the problem arises because most falls in the State seem to be tucked at the bottom of very steep, densely forested gorges. Although good trails lead to the falls, there is usually just a single viewpoint, looking directly across to the fall, and often partly obscured by tree branches. Robust fences, steep, loose and muddy terrain and impenetrable vegetation all conspire to make it almost impossible to seek out any composition beyond the most obvious.

I thus found it a refreshing change to discover that the gorge leading to Proxy falls opened out into a wide, boulder filled bowl, providing - at the expense of cold wet feet - many photographic possibilities. And, by good fortune, I had timed my hike so that the falls were still in shade, but shafts of sunlight were starting to pass through trees on the far rim. The falls cascade over a wide area of basalt shelves, but my favorite images came from close up details, abstracting just small parts of the cascade.

Photographing at the base of waterfalls presents a couple of practical difficulties. One is the constant spray, which can quickly deposit drops on the front of the lens. I use a protective filter, and carry several dry cloths to wipe this immediately before taking a shot. The problem, though, is compounded by the need to use fairly long shutter speeds, of the order of a second or so, to blur the water flow and create an attractive 'angel hair' appearance. Drops may catch on the lens during event this time, and make fuzzy spots on the image. My solution is to take several exposures, cleaning the filter between each. With luck, at least one shot will be clear; and if not, two images can be blended to mask out blured areas.

In the photo above, I composed using a sharply delineated fern growing on moss-covered rocks to provide a foreground to the whispy water flow, and sunshafts playing at the top of the frame gave both a color contrast to the vivid green and an orthogonal directional contrast to the diagonals of the rock and main cascade of the water. I took duplicate shots, focused for foreground and background, anticipating the need to do a focus blend to get sufficient depth of field. But, on reviewing the images on the computer screen, it turned out that a single shot at f13 worked just fine.

#32 - August/September 2011

"Mistbow: Bandon Harbor "

In photography it is often - if not always - the light that is more important than the subject. The images above are a good example; a relatively mundane scene of old wooden pilings in a harbor transformed by unusual lighting.

I was in the small town of Bandon on the Oregon coast to photograph the famous sea stacks at sunset; but that was hours away. More to kill time than with any hope of getting good shots I went down to the end of the harbor, where there is a view of the lighthouse across on the far jetty. Well, that would be more correctly phrased as 'there should be a view', as the entire scene was enveloped in thick mist, with visibility down to a few yards. However, the mist soon started to thin to a 20 foot band above the water, with blue sky above, and the sun immediately behind me broke through to refract as an aetherial mistbow. The apparition did not last long, but I had time to frame several compositions using the sharply defined pilings as foreground to the softly outlined light. I like both of the two images above, but perhaps prefer the more complex composition of the second. The slanting pilings form a tangent leading the eye to the arc of the mistbow, and their angularity counterbalances and contrasts withthe light bow.

A curious feature of mistbows and fogbows is that they appear completely white, entirely unlike the spectrum of colors revealed by rainbows where sunlight refracts from raindrops or from the spray of waterfalls. Wikipedia confirmed my intuition that the lack of color results because of the exceedingly small size of the suspended water droplets, and according to a NASA explanation "The fogbow's lack of colors is caused by the smaller water drops ... so small that the wavelength of light becomes important. Diffraction smears out colors that would be created by larger rainbow water drops." Further, a Google search pulled up a charming letter on the subject of mistbows published in 1888 in the journal Nature. (As a research neuroscientist, I can only wish that it was as easy nowadays to get a letter published in Nature!)

" IN a letter to the Times of January 12, Prof. Tyndall calls attention to a white mist bow, which he has seen on one or two occasions, and mentions its rarity of occurrence. It may therefore be of interest to record that I witnessed a similar phenomenon on January 9 last. My point of view was an elevated band-stand at the head of Weymouth Pier; the time 11 a.m. The air, as on the occasions mentioned by Prof. Tyndall, swarmed with minute aqueous particles, i.e. was foggy, and on looking away from the sun, which was shining weakly, I saw a well-defined white bow cast upon the mist. The bow appeared to be about 60 feet distant. My point of view being high, a full semicircle was visible. It was, as may be imagined, a beautiful and graceful object. "

The lack of color in the mistbow prompted me to prsent the final images in black and white. The only real color in the shots (see the thumbnail of an original capture below) was the blue sky, and I felt this detracted from the image rather than adding anything, with the color contrast drawing attention away from the main subjects. I processed the images using a simulated orange filter to darken the sky; providing a greater contrast to the mistbow and distancing the scene from reality to enhance the eerie mood that I felt at the time.


#31 - June/July 2011

"Anvil Cloud: Salar de Uyuni "

I have been dilatory the last couple of months in updating photos - so here, on the last day of July, is a new image to play catch-up for both June and July. Hopefully, soon to be followed by August's Photo of the Month...

The photo above was again taken during our trip to Bolivia. The undoubted highlight of the tour was the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar is the largest salt flat in the world, encompassing some 40,000 square miles: rather similar to Badwater Basin of Death Valley, but following a large dose of steroids and elevation to an altitude higher than the summit of Telescope Peak. Our visit was timed to coincide with the end of the rainy season, when the Salar is flooded to a depth of a few inches, creating a huge 'mirror of the sky'. We stayed for three days, based at a remarkably luxurious hotel built of salt, and venturing onto the Salar each day for sunrise and sunset shots. As it transpired, our first evening was the best. Arriving at the hotel, the sky was largely cloud-covered, with thunderstorms over the mountains to the West. At first I wasst not optimistic about photo possibilities, thinking that the clouds would block the sunset. But, as we drove out on land cruisers onto the flooded Salar, realized that the sun would set clear of the clouds and, indeed, that the spectacular sky and its reflections were likely to yield the most spectacular images.

Photographing on the innundated Salar presented some practical problems. Although the water is only ankle deep, it was very salty and very cold, necessitating a pair of Wellington boots. And, it seemed best to decide on exactly what gear to take before leaving the land cruiser, as dropping a spare lens was not to be contemplated. Given the expansive clouds, I set of with a single camera, ultrawide zoom and tripod, wading slowly toward a promising group of salt cones well clear of other photographers and their tripods.

The giant anvil-shaped cloud, together with the color contrast of blue sky and lower clouds catching the setting sun make this one of my favorites out of many other shots taken that evening. The only improvement I could have wished for was still water to provide sharp reflections, but a stiff breeze was raising ripples. To make the best of this, I used a strong ND filter to give an exposure time of several seconds, blurring out the ripples and giving an aetherial feel to the reflections.

#30 - May 2011

"Flamingo feather in the Altiplano "

In a recent post, Guy Tal wrote" Your images should provide viewers with an experience they could not have had, and would never have seen or felt, if it were not for your sharing it with them. If someone could have produced an identical image to yours by simply being there at the same time, it also cannot be considered art (as in the product of an artist rather than a craftsman)... No matter how beautiful or powerful the feats of nature you photograph, if all you do is record them using photographic media without introducing your own sensibilities into the final product, they are not art! "

That pretty well sums up what I try to achieve in my photography – though, of course, whether I succeed with even a few images is another matter. This month's photo is one example where I deliberately set out to create an image that might convey more than a simple snapshot of a spectacular scene.

We were traveling on a photo safari with Joe van Os, and stopped by a lagoon high in the Altiplano on our first day in Bolivia. The obvious subjects were the hundreds of flamingos feeding in the shallow waters, set against the backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes. But, the birds remained far out in the lagoon. Too far for even a long telephoto lens; and in any case the world already has an ample supply of stock flamingo photographs. My usual approach when arriving at a new location, particularly those which do not seem immediately promising, is simply to wander around slowly, scanning for interesting features and compositions. In this instance, my meanderings turned up a lone feather, a discovery which prompted the idea of using it as a metaphor to convey the immense scale of the landscape in which the flamingos live.

Super-wide lenses are good at conveying scale, but only if a close foreground object is included in the frame. Thus, I carefully floated the feather in the shallow water, and lay flat out in the gunky mud of the shoreline to position the front of the lens just a few inches from the feather and almost touching the water. Two separate shots were clearly going to be needed to compose the final image – both to focus separately on the feather and distant background, and to encompass a sufficient span of the dramatic sky, which I envisaged as a complementary part of the composition.

In capturing the initial shots and subsequently blending and post-processing them to create the final image I had several themes in mind: to communicate an immense scale of distance from the feather, through the distant birds, to the mountains and overarching sky; to contrast the blue sky with the complementary ochre of the lake bed, and the red tip of the feather; and to create a visual pun between the down of the feather and the soft feathery clouds.

But, a picture should not need written explanation. You can decide whether the image succeeds on its own merits, and whether it meets Guy Tal's criteria.

#29 - April 2011

"Flamingo take-off "

This image was captured during a 'Photo Safari' to Chile and Bolivia, led by Joe van Os. One of our first locations was Lake Chaxa, a shallow saline lake in the Atacama desert fed by water from the Andes. The lake itself is not so attractive, but it is home to three of the World's six species of flamingos. Our visit began with an early morning breakfast at 5:30 am, so as to drive to the lake and be first in line at the gate to the National Park when it opened at 7:00am. I had presumed that this was simply to get us in position during the golden light around dawn. But, it turned out that there was a further motive...

Flamingos are quite skittish, and even at Chaxa where the birds are well accustomed to people, they need to be approached with care, otherwise they fly off, never to return that day. As Joe instructed us, the trick is to stay together in a tight group, advance a little way, stay in position for a few minutes, then keep repeating this process. We eventually got to a good distance and set up tripods ready to photograph. At this point another tour group arrived and, posessing only point-and-shoot cameras rather than our collection of long telephoto-equipped dslrs, naturally wanted to get closer. However, the fact that we were physically blocking the narrow path, together with Joe's strong moral influence, deterred them for a while, allowing us to get good shots of the feeding birds. Eventually, though, the level of frustration grew too great, and one of the newcomers set off on his own toward the flamingos, making them visibly restless.

That turned out to be the opportunity for my favorite shot of the morning. There was plenty of advance warning allowing me to focus on the birds and prepare for them to take flight. My object was to try to capture the dynamics of flamingo takeoff. As with other large birds, this takes a lot of energy; long legs frantically striding to gain speed, and wings flapping to gain lift. Feeling that a fast shutter speed would merely freeze this action, I selected a slow speed of only 1/60 s, and panned the camera as a pair of flamingos took off, shooting a sequence of captures at 8 fps until the camera buffer filled. Only one of the resulting 15 frames came out well - but one is enough. The bird's heads were decently sharp, but with legs and wings blurred by their motion, and with the background similarly smeared into a uniform abstraction by the camera movement as well as by the narrow depth of field. Just a couple of Photoshop manipulations remained to produce the final image. The two flamingos were a little too far apart in the original shot, so I moved them closer together. And, a salt bar introduced a distracting background streak at the very top of the frame, so I cloned that out, replacing it with an extension of the pastel reflections of the lightening sky.


#28 - January/February 2011

"Bixby Bridge "

One of my usual places to camp (for free!) while visiting the Big Sur area lies a few miles along the old coast road, high up in the Los Padres National Forest. The road starts next to Bixby Bridge, so I often stop to photography this iconic feature of the Pacific Coast Highway when returning in the evening. This year I had a particular excuse, having received a new Canon 17 mm tilt/shift lens as a Christmas present. (Thank you, Anne!). One of the functions of the lensallows 'perspective control'; by shifting the lens it is possible to keep l features such as the bridge pillars truly vertical in the photo, without the convergence that would otherwise result from tilting the camera to include the full depth of the canyon.

Dusk is a good time to photograph the bridge, as the lights of passing cars can be used to highlight the roadway. This is a matter of timing, and some luck, to balance the fading daylight with the tracings of the car tail lights. It typically takes about 45 seconds for cars to cross the bridge and disappear out of sight around the following corner, so that sets a minimum exposure time. Then, it is a matter of opening the shutter as a southbound car enters the bridge, and hoping that headlights from a northbound vehicle do not wash out the shot. Not so easy, as most traffic is heading north at night toward the campgrounds and hotels of Big Sur and Carmel. However, my recent visit coincided with a full moon, giving unlimited time to wait without worrying about rapidly changing light. The final image above is a blended composite of three exposures: one with the lens tilted up and exposed for the sky; a second tilted down and exposed for the bridge, without traffic; and a final shot timed for two southbound cars crossing the bridge in convoy.

#27 - December 2010

"Canyon Dweller"
A praying mantis in the depths of Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is a narrow, deep and sinuous slot canyon located on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. It has become an icon among photographers because of the way sunlight bounces from the sandstone walls to create a wonderful yellow-red glow and abstract patterns. Given some care with exposure settings (and a day when the canyon is not packed with tourists!) it is easy to come back with a collection of great phorographs. The trouble is that the canyon long ago became a photographic cliche. The first time you see an Antelope canyon photo it is stunning; but after a while all the images, even those taken by the photographic greats, start to look rather alike. I can only envy the pioneers, including Galen Rowell and Alain Briot, who first 'discovered' the canyon and could present their work to a fresh and unjaded audience. Antelope canyon thus falls into a category together with other icons such as Delicate Arch and the view from Deadhorse Point which are fun to photograph, and a necessary addition to the repertoire of a photographer of the American Southwest, but from where you don't expect to achieve more than the classic 'trophy' shot.

That said, the canyon (lower Antelope in particular) is a fun place to explore, and offers a welcome opportunity to have a subject where the lighting is good for photography in the middle of the day. I had stopped off to break the journey while driving from Zion to Cedar Mesa, and spent a few hours wandering up and down the canyon looking for the 'glow'. I was getting cold (this was mid-November) and starting to think about mole enchiladas in Page, but rather than climbing out the set of ladders leading from the bottom of the canyon decided to take a last trip up through the canyon. One section had rather nice light, and as I squeezed behind a boulder to get a wider view I discovered that I had company - a startlingly green preying mantis. I suspect he did not want to be there, and had been blown down by strong winds the previous day. But, there he was, sitting on the boulder, presenting a remarkable foreground for a unique shot of the canyon.

How to get the photo? That presented several, interrelated problems. It's dark in the depths of the canyon, requiring exposures of around a second that really need a tripod for sharp results. But, space was tight - not enough to set up my tripod properly so I ended up with just two legs jammed against the boulder. Next, a preying manis is small, the canyon is big,, and I had only a wide-angle lens which needed to be within just a few inches of the green guy to get the proportions and composition right. That raised the issue of depth of field; how to get both insect and canyon in sharp focus?. I could not stop down the lens very far while keeping a reasonable exposure time, and I suspect that even the smallest aperture would not have sufficed. So, my ploy was to take two exposures, focused separately for the preying mantis and the canyon, aiming to blend them later in Photoshop. This is not cheating! - just a means to overcome a technical limitation. For those who might suspect the final result as being no more than a Photoshop artifice, HERE is a link to a straight conversion of the original RAW file, and HERE is one of many failures. Last problem, my subject would not keep still. Although I used a mild fill-flash to highlight the green guy, I wanted him mostly illuminated by the natural light filtering down from the sky overhead to avoid that unnatural 'caught in the headlights' apearance. Digital to the rescue. I took about 50 shots, and ended up with two where he stayed still enough to come out acceptably sharp. Luckily, one of those two also gave a nice composition, wth the green guy appearing to admire the view of the canyon. He was probably getting fed up with me by then. He kept scurrying over the top of the boulder, but I had found I could get him to back up to where I wanted by putting my hand an inch ahead of him. At the end I wondered about trying to take him back out to a more hospitable above-ground environment, but decided not given the difficulty of safely transporting him up narrow ladders while also carrying camera and tripod. I hope he may have found some insects to snack on down there...

Update, September 2011. This photo was used as the cover artwork by the Journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization


#26 - November 2010

"Fleeting Dawn Color over Racetrack Valley"

Racetrack Valley is not the easiest of places to get to. Even the most straightforward approach involves nearly 30 miles of driving along an extremely washboarded dirt road - and just getting to the start of the road 50 mile drive north through Death Valley from the visitor center at Furnace Creek. The reward is the other-worldly experience of the racetrack itself ; a vast, completely flat lakebed, dotted with the famous moving rocks. It is not uncommon to find a few photographers scouting for the most appealing rock trails, but they all tend to disappear as soon as the sun falls behind the mountains and casts the racetrack into shadow, heading back for the long drive to the comfort of a distant motel. Better to camp out though and shiver through a cold night, as the best photographs are to be found at the edges of dusk and dawn light.

This month's photo was taken before sunrise, during a fleeting minute for which whispy clouds lit up in red striations. Fleeting indeed, but I was lucky to be close to a good rock, and quickly lined up a shot so that its 'snail trail' nicely mirrored the curve of the clouds. The shot was taken looking due south, at right angles to the sun, so a polarizing filter greatly enhanced the contrast between clouds and sky. An undesirable side-effect in a wide-angle view like this is that, because the polarizing effect varies with angle, the sky comes out very uneven. That was mitigated here since the clouds filled most of the frame, and some post-processing in Photoshop finally evened out the blue tones. A separate problem was the extreme contrast range between the lakebed and the brightly lit sky. A graduated ND filter would have worked well given the perfectly linear horizon, but there was no time to retrieve a filter before the light faded. Again, Photoshop to the rescue.

# 25 - October 2010

"Towers of the Virgin at dawn - two interpretations"

The Towers of the Virgin are one of the iconic photo locations in Zion National Park. These red sandstone rock walls face almost due East, and light up beautifully with the rising sun. The classic view is from the back porch of the Zion museum, and it is usual to find a small cluster of tripods lined up ther before daybreak each morning. But, there are two problems with this viewpoint. First, everyone takes their photo from here, so how do you create anything different from hundreds of other images? Second, the foreground is downright uninteresting. Two low ridges stay in shadow for a long time after sunrise and make a nice frame for the Towers, but below them is only an open scrubby area, without much in the way of discernable, yet alone interesting features. The two photos this month are my attempts to come up with something a little different.

The image above was captured before sunrise on a very cold early January morning. A big storm had cleared only the previous day, leaving a nice dusting of snow on the rock. I try to get to sunrise locations well ahead of the time when the sun will actually crest the horizon. That allows time to scout for good compositions. And, as was the case here, the light was actually better before than after sunrise. A red glow in the East provided a nice, subtle and diffused light, coloring the sandsone a deep red without creating harsh shadows. Better still, the date was close to a full moon, which was setting directly behind the Towers. When I first arrived the moon was still quite high, and in my initial shots was far too bright in comparison to the rest of the scene. However, as it approached the horizon the moonlight began to be dimmed by some low, hazy cloud, and of course the rocks brightened with the approach of sunrise. Once you have the camera, it costs nothing to take photos, so I took shots every minute or so,while moving the tripod to line up the setting moon with a notch between two of the Towers. My favorite was when the moon had just started to be eclipsed by the rocks, taming its brightness and producing a nice 'moonstar' effect with the lens stopped down.

I like this image; but still there is the problem of the nondescript foreground...

Thus, a return visit to the same location for another sunrise. This time in September - so no need for gloves, shivering, and warming the camera battery agains my stomach to keep it alive. But, what to do about the foreground? I left the usual huddle of photographers by the museum, and set out to explore. No success at first, just scrubby brush everywhere, and a cluster of park service buildings among the trees at the far end of the open area. Then I came across a small burn area, and in the middle a single cluster of datura; striking (but toxic!) flowers that bloom in the evening and wilt with the first rays of the rising sun. A foreground subject at last, suggesting a composition with the white flowers contrasting with the yellow/red of the Towers catching the early sunlight. But, not so easy to set up, representing an extreme case of a near-far composition with rather small foreground subject and a very big background subject. I wanted the flowers to really fill the frame, and collapsed the tripod flat on the ground, with a super-wide (10 mm) lens just a few inches back from the closest flower. Next, how to deal with two technical problems? There was no way to get enough depth of field to have both flowers and rocks in sharp focus, even with such a wide lens fully stopped down. And in any case a strong breeze was blowing the flowers vigorously, so a wide aperture would be needed to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion. My solution was to make multiple exposures, focusing first on the Towers, and then on the flowers. That also allowed use of different exposure settings to better capture the wide contrast range between the sunlit rock and the shaded foreground. I took many shots of the flowers, to increase the chance of a sharp capture between wind gusts, and to have some choice among slightly different positions of the flowers. Compositions with wide lenses like this change enormously with very slight movements, and it was hard to judge what might work best when the camera was only six inches above the dirt. The photo above was created in Photoshop by blending a background shot with a shot of the flowers when they lined up nicely with the outline of the trees in middle distance. I also like the beetle on the closest flower, though I had not noticed it at the time. In retrospect, my only regret is that I should have taken an additional exposure focussed to blend in the middle distance, which is confusingly blurred in contrast to the sharp foregrouns and background.

Click on either image above to download a full resolution file.

#24 - September 2010

"Perseid meteor shower"
A first attempt at astrophotography

Gadgets are fun! Although the essence of photography is aesthetic, it is always nice to have a new lens or camera body to play with and provide motivation to get out and experiment . However, my new toy this summer was not an item of camera gear per se, but rather a motorized equatorial mount intended for astronomy.

The idea came from viewing a spectacular image of the Milky Way as a backdrop behind a bristlecone pine tree, taken by Tony Rowell and exhibited in the Mountain Light gallery in Bishop. What made this photo especially remarkable were the sharply-focused bright stars, the intensity of the stellar clouds in the galaxy, and a 3-D effect that made the tree appear to 'pop-out' of the frame. Click HERE to see for yourself. After some pondering, I figured out that all of these effects came about because the photo had been exposed while the camera tracked the movement of the stars (or, more correctly, tracked against the Earth's rotation against the stationary stellar background). Capturing photos of the stars with a fixed camera otherwise presents a dilemma. Short exposures don't capture much light, but exposures longer than a few seconds or tens of seconds blurr out the stairs, giving an unattractive appearance as elongated streaks (but very long exposures can be used to generate nice star trails). Although you can try increasing the ISO setting to shorten the exposure, this gives more noise; and using a wide aperture (small f#) lens introduces the problem that the depth of field may not be enough to have stars and foreground in focus together. Tracking the stars solves these difficulties, allowing exposures of many minutes at reasonable ISO and aperture settings. And, as a by-product, it gives that 3-D effect. Foreground objects appear as a black sillhouette while exposing for the stars, and move across the image as the camera tracks so that the trailing edge appears to cast a graded shadow onto the sky. After stopping the tracking motor, the foreground can then be 'painted-in' using a hand-held flashlight, and the shadow provides the 3-D illusion.

So, I had to get my own tracking mount and try this for myself. After some research on the web, I ordered an Orion Astro View equatorial mount and single axis motor drive; a mid-size amateur system chosen because it looked strong and stable, but not realizing how heavy it is! At least I could remove the weights intended to counterbalance a heavy telescope. The only other modification was to machine an adapter to remount the ballhead from my regular tripod so it would be level at the latitude of Californmia.

Fortuitously, the mount was ready just in time for the Perseid metor shower, which this year peaked close to a new moon, ensuring dark skies. My chosen location was the Alabama Hills, a site with very low light pollution and where zero cloud cover was almost guaranteed. Moreover, I anticipated that the Mobius rock arch would provide a striking and unique foreground. But, I was not alone in that thought. Shortly after arriving together with my son Robin, who was helpfully acting as assistant and sherpa to carry all the gear, another set of flashlights approached out of the dark, revealing Tony Rowell himself together with his sherpa. A nice coincidence indeed, and a good opportunity to get some tips from the expert. The problem however, was that there was not really enough space for two tripods at the perfect vantage point, and since Tony was there to make a time-lapse movie for the noble purpose of promoting designation of the Alamama Hills as a National Monument I left the arch to him after a couple of shots, and wandered off into the rocks to try to catch meteors.

Setting up for astrophotography is quite a job, given the pitch darkness and hand-numbing cold at 2:00 am. Align the mount exactly with the North star, and then don't trip over the tripod; set the interval timer to the correct exposure; check ISO and bulb settings on the camera; make sure the lens is still focused at infinity when there is nothing bright enough to focus on; frame the shot when it is too dark to see anything through the viewfinder; check the drive motor is set for the Northern hemisphere, turn it on, remember to turn off at the end of the exposure; then take a few more shots light-painting the foreground for subsequent blending with the star shot in PhotoShop. I ended up with a lot of duds, but imagine I will get the hang of it with practice.

I count the photo above as a good success for a first try, the result of numerous 5 minute exposures while shivering for about 2 hours. The frequency of meteors was quite low - most shots captured none, and I never got more than one meteor trail per exposure. Thus, the final image is a cheat, blending 3 long-exposure shots each with a single meteor, together with a final short exposure to paint-in the foreground rocks. The orange glow comes from the lights of Lone Pine,

#23 - August 2010

"Moonset over the Sand Tufa"

Sometimes it is possible to create a landscape photograph which, athough entirely 'straight' and unmanipulated, looks as if it was shot nowhere on Earth. The first requirement is, of course, to find somewhere that is truly unusual. Among the most surreal locations I know of are the sand tufa of Mono Lake. Unlike the better known carbonate tufa formations in and around the water-line of the lake, the sand tufa are small structures, only two or three feet high, but are sculpted into fantastically delicate filligree patterns. Owing to their delicacy, the sand tufa are not widely advertised, and are infequently visited; I happened upon the scene above only by chance explorations.

The second requirement to evoke an 'other-worldly' atmospher is to shoot under unusual lighting. Indeed, the natural grey color of the sand tufa appears rather mundane under full sunlight. But, catch them at the edge of light, an hour or so before sunrise and it is a different matter. The saturated blue of the (almost dark) sky casts a diffuse overhead illumination, while the faint orange glow in the east preceeding the rising sun casts a sbbtle, contrasting front light. This visit was also timed around a full moon, providing a highlight in an otherwise uniformly blue sky.

I often like breaking the 'rules' of composition, and here placed the moon directly in the center of the frame - also framing the tufa so as to align as a V pattern centered on the moon. My aim was to create a symmetry that would draw the eye into the picture, but with enough variation and asymmetry in the formations themselves to maintain interest. To emphasize the tufa I used a wide-angle lens, getting close, and setting the tripod as low as possible in a small depression. The composition is quite critical, as movements of the camera by a only a few inches make a big difference. Working on soft sand also introduced the complication that I needed to anticipate in advance where I might want to photograph, so as to avoid leaving footprints that would quite destroy the otherworldly affect.

Click on the image above to download a full resolution original.

#22 - June/July 2010

"The Raptor Stalks at Night"

Light-painting provides a way to highlight only those elements of a photo that you want and, to a limited extent, introduces to landscape photography the freedom of lighting available to studio photographers. I tend not to use flash guns very much: with a camera-mounted flash the light is harsh and directional, and the complications of setting up remote flash units and diffusers are off-putting. Instead, I find the simpler means of 'painting-in' a subject using a hand-held flashlightto be more satisfying and to allow greater freedom. You can open the camera shutter, then run off to the side to provide directional lighting; stay in one place to create sharp shadows and edges,; or move around to blurr the apparent light source to obtain a more diffuse illumination. And, with a tightly focused beam, you can selectively highlight just those parts of the composition that you want, and with filters even paint different subjects in different colors.

Of course, all this must necessarily be done at night, when the light is dim enough to allow long exposure times, and the light from a flashlight is sufficient to overwhelm any ambient light. However, a totally dark, black sky is generally not attractive, so light-painting is best done during fairly brief windows of time a couple of hours after sunset or before sunrise when sufficient blue remains in the sky to balance the artificial light and provide an exposure time sufficiently long (about 30 s is good) to enable some control of the light-painting. Setting the exposure is a matter of taking a camera reading for the ambient light, and then trial and error to adjust the artificial flashlighgt illumination. This technique must have been difficult to impossible to apply before the advent of digital cameras, but now it is just a matter of looking at what you have captured on the screen and adjusting accordingly. Light-painting works best with subjects at moderate distances up to around 100 ft from the camera, as beyond that the available light from flashlights falls off too much. 'Million candlepower' lamps can extend the range, but my experience is that their battery life is severely restricting. My usual sources are a halogen 'dive lamp' intended for scuba diving which gives a powerful, broad, and fairly warm beam, or a high-powered LED Maglight that emits an amazingly collimated, intense white/blue beam. Colored gel filters taped on the flashlight allow the color temperature of the light to be adjusted or, with some loss in intensity, to provide a provide a pure monochromatic illumination.

The photo above captures one of the fantastical rock formations at Little Finland. The image was taken about two hours after sunset, on a night with a full moon to give a background fill when color remained in the sky (visible to the camera, but not by eye at that time). A red gel on the flashlight gives a striking color contrast with te sky, and turns a natural (if unique) landscape into an almost abstract composition.

#21 - May 2010

"Lindisfarne Castle and pebble beach"

Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is a small island off the East coast of Northumbria in the North of England. At least it is an island some of the time, being connected to the mainland by a causeway that becomes flooded as the tide rises. Thus, it is necessary to schedule day trips to the island with some care, and in summer it becomes overrun with tourists when the tide is out. The opportunity of an overnight stay provided a very different perspective. A tranquility settles over the island, and it becomes possible to feel some of its ancient history dating back to the founding of the priory in 635AD and the role of Lindisfarne in spreading the Christian message throughout the world.

As well as the Priory, Lindisfarne boasts a castle, not as ancient, originally built around 1550 during wars between the English and Scots and subsequently much remodelled. It is spectacularly situated on an isolated whin stone hill, the highest point on the island, making a most obvious subject for photography. My wife and I were staying for one night in a small B&B in the village, and the previous afternoon I had reconnoitered the island looking for promising vantage points. My favorite for a potential morning shot was a point on the coast where a pebble beach curved gracefully toward the East, leading the eye naturally to the distant castle. Early the next morning I tiptoed quietly out and through the village well before dawn, under a largely overcast sky, but broken by thin gaps holding promise of color during sunrise.

The tide was well out, exposing a wide swath of attracive brightly hued pebbles. I set my tripod low and fitted a super-wide (10 mm EFS) lens for a near-far effect to exaggerate the closest rocks and composed so the line of the beach formed a diagonal from the corner of the frame toward the castle. I set a small lens aperture to both achieve a wide depth of field and give a slow shutter speed to blurr the small waves, and waited patiently (but cold) for the light. Soon some nice red streaks appeared in the sky, while the sea and pebbles remained largely illuminated by diffuse grey/blue light from the clouds. An extreme range of intensities between the sky and the beach needed taming with a 3-stop graduated ND filter held horizontal along the horizon line, which is why the castle appears dark and almost a pure sillhouette. However, even though aritficial, I think the dramatic contrast with the bright sheen on the sea adds to the mood of the photo.

Click on the image above to download a full resolution file

#20 - April 2010

"Northbound Tracks"
Star circles and moving rocks at Racetrack Valley

Nightime provides some interesting opportunities for photography (see HERE); even when there appears to be no light! Digital cameras have improved greatly in terms of sensitivity and low noise over the past few years, so it is now possible to take photos even by starlight. Hovever, this does require long exposures, and a problem is that the stars move (or, rather, the Earth rotates) surprisingly quickly, so that images of stars start to become smeared out with exposures exceeding a few tens of seconds. On the other hand, that can be turned to interesting effect by capturing images over very long (hours) times, so that the stars trace out their own trails.

The end result depends upon which direction you are looking. To the East or West, near vertical streaks result. Due North is more interesting as (in the Northern Hemisphere), stars then appear to circle around the North star, Polaris. This is a neat effect, but of course one 'star circle' photo is going to look exactly like another. The trick then is to contrast the stars with some terrestrial foreground feature. My aim in the image above was to combine the mystery of the heavens with the mystery of the moving rocks of Racetrack Valley. The rocks are mysterious in that they leave trails behind on the flat lakebed, but nobody has ever seen them move! Thus, star trails and rock trails in the same photograph.

Before sunset I used my GPS to locate the direction of true North, and then went looking around the lakebed to find some rocks with trails heading in that direction. There are numerous moving rocks near the southern end of the playa, and I was pleased to find a pair heading at just the right bearing. While still light I set up the camera with a super-wide lens pre focused to infinity, and took a shot that I could later use to blend the foreground into the final image. Then came the waiting. The moon was almost new and would not rise until near dawn, but even so several hours passed before the sky was dark and the stars shone bright and crisp. No need to be uncomfortable though, as I had taken a sleeping bag and mat, drink and dinner. Indeed, it was quite an experience to lie out with the moving rocks as silent companions and watch the stars emerge. Around 10 pm I started the remote interval timer that controled the camera and, my job done, settled down to sleep.

Some technical notes: Getting the star trails to trace out long arcs needs an exposure of several hours. This is one instance where film cameras still have an advantage over digital. The shutter on older, 'mechanical' cameras can be left open indefinitely without running down the battery! Also, the reciprocity characteristic of film actually becomes an advantage as compared to the perfect linearity of digital sensors. . Background light in the sky registers only faintly on film during a long exposure, whereas the continual movement of the stars means that their trails are not subject to reciprocity failure. This is good, as the night sky is not as dark as it appears, and even in the remote backcontry of Death Valley light pollution from distant cities still intrudes. A solution for both problems with digital cameras is to take several successive exposures of medium duration, rather than a single much longer exposure. Then, if the battery fails, all is not lost; camera noise, which accumulates with length of exposure, is minimized; and there is less build-up of background light. The photo above is a composite of nine 20 minute exposures set using an interval timer, which I later combined as layers in PhotoShop using the 'lighten' blending function, and finally merged with a separate shot of the foreground rocks.

Click on the image above to download a full-resolution original in a new window.

#19 - March 2010

"Rainbow on Upper Yosemite Falls"

The easy way to spot a lion in a Kenyann game reserves is to look for a cluster of Land Rovers. The easy way to look for good photographic subjects in Yosemite Valley is to look for a cluster of tripods.

Thus it was that I spotted a huddle of tripods, and accompanying photographers under the forest to the side of the road near Sentinel bridge early in the morning of Presidents' day. While driving it was not easy to tell where all the expensive white lenses were trained, but it seemed worth stopping to find out. The answer revealed itself through a clearing in the trees: the angle of the rising sun was just right to create a rainbow in the spray at the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. Well known, I am sure, to locals, but something of which I had not previously been aware. A thin cloud attenuated the intensity of the color that day, but forearmed, I went back the next morning, to find a clear sky, more saturated colors, and a blessed lack of other photographers.

The time window for capturing this phenomenon is only brief, since the rainbow rapidly moves downward with the rising sun and is lostas it sinks below the spray. Also, the waterfall needs to be in direct line with the photographer and the sun, and it seems that February is the optimal time of year to achieve the best alignment of altitude and azimuth of the sun, together with a good flow of water down the fall.

The refracted light from a rainbow is fully polarized, so I used a polarizing filter to enhance contrast and saturation by selectively darkening the rocks and trees (conversely, the rainbow can be completely obliterated by misalignment of the polarizer!). A tree with interesting profile provided a nice sense of scale and foreground interest, and I moved around a little to vary the relative positions of tree and rainbow. Other major variables were the changing ways in which the water cascaded down the fall and the patterns of spay kicked up by the wind. It is hard to predict the results, so I prefocussed a composition, locked up the mirror, and captured numerous shots triggered by cable release while looking directly at the fall, not through the camera. I also played with varying the shutter speed, to either capture the texture of the falling sheets of water, or to blurr the motion. The photo above is my favorite from among more than 100 shots captured that morning: for those interested in the technical details, Canon 7D, ISO 100, 100-400 at about 300mm, 1/125 s.

As always, click on the image above to download a full-resolution original file.

#18 - February 2010

"Pfeiffer Arch Sunset"

Pfeiffer Beach (not to be confused with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park) is located in the heart of Big Sur and is one of the favorite beaches in all of Big Sur. To help keep it secluded there are no signs from the main highway, and getting there involves an extremely acute turn onto a mostly single-track road that meanders for a few miles to the trailhead. The big attraction for photographers is a rock formation just beyond the low-water line that is pierced by a square-cut arch. In winter the setting sun aligns to cast a shaft of light through the arch highlighting, according to the tide,the breaking surf or the sandy beach. Even at the right time of year, much depends upon the particular conditions of weather and sea. The Big Sur coast is notorious for dense fog, and that is what I encountered on a previous visit (see Photo of the Month for November 2008. However, on a subsequent visit in November 2009 the sky was clear, a heavy surf was running, and sunset coincided with high tide.

Indeed, the waves were breaking high up on the beach, leaving only a narrow strip of sand for the several assembled photographers to set up their tripods and jostle for the perfect alignment. My favorite image above was selected from among about 200 frames shot as the sun slowly sank toward the horizon and the beam of sunrays gradually lengthened and became more intensely red. As each wave hit the rock it would completely fill the arch, transiently blocking the sun, but then leaving a fine mist that became beautifully backlit. I experimented with various angles either side and directly in front of the arch, but ended preferring an oblique view to provide a diagonal composition, and ensure that the glowing mist in the arch was not burned out by direct sunlight. Shutter speed was another important variable, and I tried settings ranging from a few hundredths of a second to a few seconds, not knowing in advance what might produce the best result. Viewed afterwards, the slow speeds gave the most pleasing effect, capturing the motion in the waves and giving an 'angel hair' effect on the water draining down the rock. However, having smashed my strong ND filter, the slowest speed my camera would accomplish even with the lens fully stopped down and the lowest ISO setting was about 2 seconds. That had the problem that an individual exposure captured the sunlit wave crests for only a short distance as they rode up the beach, leaving large areas of uniform, dark water. Thus, the final image is a composite, created by blending three successive exposures of a single wave.

Click HERE to download a full resolution file of the image, and HERE to view other images of the Pfeiffer Arch.


#17 - January 2010

"Zion Christmas Tree"

Commentary on the first photo for 2010 begins in exactly the same way as for the last photo of the month in 2009: "Sometimes you go to a location with a definite image in mind, and come away with something entirely different."

In this instance I was driving with my family through Zion National Park on our way home after a Christmas vacation intended to visit Anasazi ruins on Cedar Mesa had been thwarted by unusually deep snowfall and strorm. Of course, having given up, the weather then turned beautiful, and I was on the lookout for subjects to salvage some photos from the trip. There had been a fresh snowfall the previous night, and the deep red rock faces of Zion were attractively patterned with snow. Given the harsh sunlight of mid afternoon, shots of shadowed faces catching reflected light seemed the best bet, and we stopped just after passing through a narrow canyon section on the eastern plateau leading to the tunnels down to the main canyon. I got some images, which turned out not to be very special. But, walking back to the car I spotted some trees far away on a high ridge that were intensely backlit by the sun hitting ice rime and snow on the trunk and branches. By good chance, the angle of the sun was such that the shadow of the ridge exactly intersected with the road , and by walking up and down to get the correct alignment it was possible to hide the direct sunlight behind the ridge while preserving the backlight on the most photogenic tree.

The photo was taken using a 100-400 mm zoom at 400mm, handheld as the tree was so bright as to allow a 1/2000 shutter speed at f8. Very little post-processing - the image is pretty much as captured by the camera. But, as with any photograph, it is impossible to convey the intensity of the original scene.


Click HERE to download a full resolution (7 MB) image in a new browser window/tab.

#16 - December 2009

"Polychromatic cloud and sand dune"

Sometimes you go to a location with a definite image in mind, and come away with something entirely different.

The publication earlier this year of a new and extensive guide to hiking in the backcountry of Western Death Valley National Park provided some interesting reading over the summer, while waiting for temperatures in the desert to drop enough to make actual exploration comfortable. Among the many remote locations described in the book, first on my list to visit was the 'Hidden Dunes', located behind a mountain range on the West side of Eureka Valley. I had made several trips to photograph the better known dunes at the South end of the valley, but hidden dunes appealed particularly as it seemed likely that they would be little visited, and that the ridges would be unmarred by the usual trails of footsteps.

Getting there required a two mile drive over a rough and inconspicuous 4wd trail, ending at a dry well by the wilderness boundary. Then a three mile hike across the desert floor and a gradually rising alluvial fan toward a low notch in the mountains, above which the top of a dune was just visible. Passing through the notch is an 'Alice through the looking glass' experience, as the vast open panorama of the valley changes to a close-up view of a dune rising steeply ahead. Once on top, the dunes spread out for a mile or more, along a ridge line paralelling the mountains.

My initial aim was to photograph shortly before sunset, when the low angle of the light would accentuate ripple patterns on the sand. But, the Hidden Dunes are not good for that, as high mountains to the West throw them into shadow early, before the angle and color of the sun are optimal. Instead, the hike in, and the hike back out in darkness navigating by GPS, were salvaged by the sky. A storm was forecast to arrive later that evening, and was preceded by wonderful cloud formations. This month's photo shows a 'polychromatic' cloud, refracting multiple colors from the sun. The effect arises from hexagonal ice crystals in high cirrus clouds, and gives rise to related photogenic phenomena including rainbow clouds and sundogs.

And, yes... The colors in the cloud are real, not a Photoshop artifice.

Here is another image of the cloud taken a few minutes earlier. It began as a single formation, then split into four before dissipating.

I am not sure which of these two images I prefer. The shape is more interesting in the 'quadruple' cloud; but the colors are not as intense.

Click either of the images to download a full-res 18 Mpixel original.

#15 - November 2009

"Grand Canyon lightning"
The consolation shot

This month's photo was taken while returning from a trip to Monument Valley (see October photo of the month). On my last day at Monument Valley the dawn brought grey, overcast skies. I had been wondering whether to remain until that evening to get an even better alignment of the shadow on the East Mitten, but thought there was little chance of a clear sunset and, having already spent two days in the Valley, decided to start traveling back home. My original plan was to stop at Coal Canyon on the Navajo reservation for sunset photography, but when I got there the sky was still black, and I did not want to intrude on a Navajo herding cattle near the overlook. Plan B was to continue on, and stop for the night in the forest just outside Grand Canyon National Park. I was in no hurry, as the chances for good light that evening continued to look slim and, indeed, rain set in as the road climbed higher into the forest. However, about 30 minutes before sunset, the clouds started to clear from the West. As I reached the park entrance station the undersideof a great arc of dark storm clouds suddenly lit up bright pink, and a vidid rainbow appeared to the East. Too late! The sun was just touching the horizon, and by the time I got to the first canyon overlook at Desert Tower, the light had faded. As I walked down to the rim, everyone else, including many carrying tripods, was heading back to their cars. Overheard snippets of conversation were along the lines of "...miserable wet day; but that rainbow made up for it".

But, maybe all was not lost. A fading red glow from the sunset bathed the cliffs in a diffuse, warm light, and flashes of lightning played out across the distant Painted Desert. I stayed, the only person left at the overlook, as the light faded, the night grew cold, and shutter times lengthened enough to give a reasonable chance of catching a lightning strike. I took about 40 shots, and most failed to capture a strike. The photo above is a composite of two 30s exposures, selected from the time when the balance of light from the sky and the lightning was optimal.

I am happy with this image - but often wonder what I might have been able to capture if I had been just 15 minutes earlier.

Click on the image above to download the full-resolution orignal; click HERE for more photos of the Grand Canyonm

#14 - October 2009

"Monument Valley Mittens"
The 1500 mile shadow

The Mittens are a pair of rock formations in Monument Valley, almost exact mirror images of one-another, and the first thing that visitors see after pulling into the parking lot of the Tribal Park. Given that they have been photographed by landscape artists of the calibre of Ansel Adams, it is hard to come up with new interpretations of this classic scene. But, one opportunity presents itself for just a few days in the fall and spring of each year. The Mittens lie close to a West-East axis, with the West Mitten slightly to the south. Thus, when the timing is right, the setting sun casts a shadow of the West Mitten directly on the East. Moreover, the shadow of the West Mitten from that angle fortuitously falls within the profile of the East mitten, rather than casting the whole formation into shade.

When, then, are the right dates to observe this spectacle? Google Earth provided the answer, with a high-resolution map allowing me to measure the angle between the Mittens. Next, the US Navy conveniently provide a website that can calculate tables of altitude and azimuth angles of the sun for any day of the year at any place on Earth. This indicated that September 12 th or 13th should be optimal. Corresponding dates in Spring would also work, and indeed might stand a chance of better weather, but I usually have teaching committments then. So, a good excuse for a quick trip to Northern Arizona. The trouble is that Monument Valley is a fifteen hundred mile round trip from my home. A long way for a shadow...,

UPDATE - I returned to Monument Valley at the same date in 2010. Storm clouds covered the sky, and I held little hope of seeing the shadow again. But, just a few minutes before sunset a window opened in the sky to the west, creating a nice chiracuso contrast between the highlighted formations and the dark clouds and shadowed foreground.

#13 - September 2009

"Rainbow and church in Iceland"
Homage to Galen Rowell

This image makes a great computer desktop! Click these links to download for screen resolutions of 1600 x 1200 or 1900 x 1200.

Living in Southern California we don't get much rain, and hence rainbows are a rarity. Going on vacation in Iceland thus made quite a change. Lots of rain, and quite some time sitting in the car watching it come down, but more than compensated for by excellent light and cloud formations on the edges of the storms. This photo was taken near the end of our stay, while driving up into the interior after hiking in the rain to Glymur, the highest waterfall in Iceland. A few gaps were starting to appear in the clouds, and an intense rainbow formed against the grey sky. Initially the road passed along a featureless valley, and rather than stopping and photographing the rainbow in isolation, I thought it better to keep on going in the hope that some interesting foreground would appear before the it faded. Indeed, around the next ridge a classical Icelandic rural church appeared in just the right place!. The composition brought back memories of Galen Rowell's most famous image of a rainbow over the Potala Palace in Lhasa . But, it was merely a chance alignment and not any conscious decision to replicate his composition. Certainly he had the better shot and a more majestic subject; and whereas he had to run two miles gasping for oxygen at 15,000 ft altitude, I merely had to wander a hundred yards down the road in light drizzle.

#12 - July-August 2009 2009

"Two long-billed curlew"
The making of a magazine cover photo

(click on the image to download a full-resolution original)

Photographing birds is mostly a matter of getting close enough, and then firing off numerous shots in the hope of capturing some interesting composition or action. Also, it helps to isolate the birds from their background to eliminate distracting clutter. A good way to achieve this is to get right down to the ground, and shoot at 'bird's eye' level. Using a wide-open long telephoto then ensures a nice blurring of the background. However, when shooting from a beach toward the water, the downward slope of the sand means that the background will be filled with surf, which can marr the picture even if well out of focus. In this case, I was fortunate to be on the beach at Morro Bay during a heavy fog, which provided a featureless backdrop giving almost a white-screen' effect. I was also lucky in that the curlew that I was originally photographing was joined by another, and for a brief moment the two lined up in a nice composition, accentuated by the tasty morsel (whelk?) on the beach that the foreground bird was about to eat.

The photo above shows my final image, after some fairly strong tonal adjustments to bring out the color and texture in the feathers, as in the raw file the birds were dark sillhouettes against the fog.

Each year, the Journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) holds a photo contest, and chooses images from among the top pictures for use as cover illustrations. They do a very good job of reproducing the selected photos, which are printed full page with minimal overlying text. I thought my curlews shot might have a good chance of being selected, but first needed to make some adjustments to match the orientation and aspect ratio of the Journal page. So, a little Photoshopping... Move the whelk in to allow for a tight vertical crop around the birds, and flip the image horizontally to leave a blank space at top right for the Journal masthead. The imaga at left shows the final result as published.


#11 - March 2009

"Snow Goose Blast-off "

(click on the image to download a full-resolution original - and click HERE for more photos from Bosque del Apache)

Some photographs are the result of much pre-visulaization and methodical composition. Others are pure luck. This month's photo is an example of the latter.

While attending a meeting in Albuquerque in early February, I took the opportunity to visit Bosque del Apache, a wildlife refuge by the Rio Grande about 100 miles south of Albuquerque. The reserve is famed for the vast numbers (tens of thousands) of snow geese and sandhill cranes that overwinter from around November through to late February. The photography opportunities were remarkable. From almost an hour before sunrise till well after sunset, this is a bird photographer's paradise. The highlight of the day, however, comes early. Before sunrise great flocks of geese erupt simultaneously after roosting overnight in the ponds and take to the air with a beating of wings as loud as approaching freight trains on the nearby railroad. This is an amazing spectacle, but difficult to photograph as it usually happens while still quite dark. On one morning, though, I was lucky. The geese took off in the twilight, but sooon after landed and congregated in one corner of the pond by the 'flight deck' observation platform. They then stayed there, contentedly bobbing in the water for the next hour, despite being surrounded by a hundred photographers. Like everyone else I was positioned along the bank, armed with a long telephoto lens waiting for the eventual erruption. I don't know what was the final trigger, but a few of the geese at the edges of the mass started to swim outward and suddenly, within a couple of seconds, thousands of birds were airborne. Everything happened so fast there was no hope of deliberately composing a picture. I had just set the camera on fast motor-drive and servo AF, and filled up the buffer with a burst of shots aiming roughly into the mass of birds. All but one of the resulting images were unusable - a blurry mess of wings and cut-off necks. By luck, however, I count the photo above as a good success. The heads of two geese are nicely framed and are in reasonable, if not tack-sharp focus. And, the closely packed motion-blurred wingtips contrast with 'frozen' splashed water droplets to convey a sense of the dynamics and sheer density of this unique event.


#10 - February 2009

"Joshua Tree Reflections"

Click on the image to download full resolution (~25 M pixel) original)

What makes a good photograph? Subject, lighting, composition, and technical excellence all factor in. Following on from the theme of January's photo, the first two ingredients are very much a matter of being at the right place at the right time, and this month's photo is one such instance. Joshua Tree National Park is a great place for photography, combining the unique forms of the Joshua trees themselves with warm granite rock formations. Usually it is a hot, arid place, but heavy snowfall in the desert a few days before Christmas gave a very different appearance; further enhanced by crystal-clear blue skies with fantastical lace clouds. A good subject then, and under most unusual conditions. How to do it justice?

A recent article by Ken Rockwell emphasizes the importance of composition: where do you put the camera?, how do you frame and select the elements within the image? A common mistake is simply to walk around, always shooting photos at eye level. A more interesting approach is to select unusual viewpoints - to take photos that communicate a view that most people would not 'see' even if there at that same place and time. Reflections make a nice example, as even small rainwater pools can make for expansive images provided you get right down to ground level. Indeed, the photo here was captured using only a small 'puddle' of melted snow at the side of the road. At normal eye level it looked just like a small, muddy puddle, with a large expanse of tarmack behind - but with the camera almost touching the water the puddle became a giant reflecting mirror. This is one instance where I find the 'live-view' feature of recent DSLR cameras to be very helpful. Before, I would have been lying flat in the mud, trying to squint through the viewfinder to compose the picture. Now, I can simply crouch down, keeping dry and mud-free, composing with the lcd screen.

A further aspect of composition has to do with symmetry. The 'rule of thirds' holds that key features, such as the horizon line, shoud be placed either about one third up or down from the edges of the frame; but certainly not in the middle. For reflections, though, I often find it works better to break the rule, and put the horizon dead in the middle. The perfect vertical symmetry is certainly more eye-catching. Here there is also an interesting horizontal semi-symmetry, with the two rock formations straddling the center Joshua tree. But not quite symmetrical, and the left-to-right lines of diminishing outcrops and trees contrasted with the expanding lines of cloud formations lead the eye across the picture.


#9 - January 2009

"Double waterfall and icicles at the Emerald Pools"
F8 and be there

Steve Cossack runs a series of photography workshops entitled 'F8 and be there'. That title encapsulates the view that the main thing in landscape photography is to be at the right place at the right time. The 'F8' simply refers to what is likely to be the optimal lens aperture. In other words, don't worry too much about the technicalities; it is the subject and the lighting that matter. However, this presupposes that you have a camera with you at the time! Having found myself on several occasions gazing at a great sunset but without a camera, my requested Christmas present this year was a new Canon G10. This 'point-and-shoot' camera is small enough to carry in a (large) pocket, yet can create 15 megapixel RAW files, and has received excellent reviews.

Thus, when faced with a steep and icy dawn hike to the Emerald Pools in Zion Canyon, I decided to leave my heavy camera backpack with SLR gear and tripod behind in the car, and to take only the G10. My objective was the lower Pool; which does not live up to its name, as there really is no pool. Instead, however, a stream cascades over an overhang creating multiple falls - and best of all the trail passes below the overhang and behind the falls. I had previously photographed here in autumn, catching the falls as they were lit by the rising sun against a background of fall colors in the cottonwood trees. Now, in the middle of Winter the trees were bare, but the lack of color was compensated by fantastic fringes of icicles hanging from the lip of the overhang. Alone at this early hour, I scouted a good position to capture the free-falling water, and waited for the sun to rise over the opposite side of the canyon. But, there was a problem. Although the G10 zooms to an unusually wide angle (28 mm equivalent) for a 'pocket' camera, that was not enough to frame the entire height of the falls; and moving further away destroyed the composition. My improvised solution was to treat this as a vertical panorama, taking three sequential (handheld) shots trying to move the camera along a near perfectly vertical axis. The images were captured just as the sunlight back-lit the falls, while the back of the overhang remained deep in contrasting shadow. To avoid complications I took this initial series of shots using the tree to block direct sunlight from the lens, and then took an additional shot with the sun just peeping between the branches to create a 'sunstar' effect. Some subsequent work in Photoshop then created the final 25 megapixel stitched image, which you can download at full resolution by clicking HERE. Amazing for such a tiny camera!

#8 - December 2008
"Mt. Whitney and Alabama Hills"
The problem with photographing the beautiful

Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak after recent snow (click on image to download 30 Mpix panorama)

A recent article by George Barr raised the problem inherent in photographing beautiful places; how do you ever compete with the real thing? And if you can't, why bother?

One option is indeed not to bother - and George's photography is aimed very much at finding beauty in subjects that to the casual eye may indeed not seem to posess much inherent interest or beauty. But, that is rather limiting, and to photographers of lesser skill it would seem that there might be a higher chance of coming out with a great image if you start with a great subject. The problem, of course, is that the great subjects (Delicate Arch, El Cap and so on) have already been photographed so many times, and by so many great photographers that it is hard to impossible to come up with some new interpretation. In his article, George discusses several several strategies that have been historically used to produce an image with some novely, and which conveys something in addition to and different from what a visitor might directly experience at that location. Such stategies include isolation only a small part of a grand scene, selection of unusual viewpoints, and post-processing (e.g. conversion to black and white) of the original photograph). The simplest, however, is merely to photograph the subject in exceptional conditions. It may (and has!) been argued that this reflects more on the photographer's perseverence and willingness to get up very early in the morning rather than his photographic skills; but surely that deserves some reward, and can result in a nice image.

Which brings us to this month's photo - a panoramic shot of Mt. Whitney and the Sierras behind the Alabama Hills. Being the highest peak in the lower 48 states this is cliched subject, but I hope the photo above has some freshness to it. Download the full-resolution original and see if you agree.

I had noted the composition on earlier visits while driving along the Movie Road through the Alabama Hills, and pictured an early morning shot with the sun on the mountains but with the foreground rocks sillhouetted in black shadow. During a recent Thanksgiving visit the conditions were promising, an earlier storm having dumped snow on the mountains and leaving the sky crystal clear. However, I spent too long photographing at Mobius and Lathe Arches, and by the time I drove along the road, sunlight was just touching the rocks. A little disappointing, but it's best not to get locked into preconceived notions, and just to take what is offered. Indeed, I think the result came out better than if the rocks were mere black outlines - but I will try that next time and see.


#7 - November 2008
"Seaweed swirls - enhancement or manipulation''

c (click on image to download full-res original in new window)

Thoughts about this month's photo were prompted by recent articles reporting that the Pentagon had manipulated a photo of the first female four-star general by digitally replacing the background (boring office furniture) with an image of the stars and stripes. So, given the ease with which this can be accomplished using Photoshop, what is an acceptable level of manipulation?. For news reportage, the threshold is generally and appropriately set at zero. The image should reflect what is there, with nothing added or taken away. But what about landscape photography - particularly that which aspires to be "fine-art"? The threshold here is far less defined, and has been (and contines to be) the subject of much discussion. A reasonable viewpoint would be to say that the degree of 'allowable' image manipulation depends upon the photographer's intentions, the viewer's expectations and, in particular, what information the photographer may communicate to his/her audience. Differing examples include Michael Fatali ("no computer imaging ... only natural light") and Alain Briot ("of course my work is manipulated").

A starting point is to realize that no photograph accurately depicts the scene in front of the camera. The colors in a photo are modified by the camera's jpg processing or the raw conversion algorithm; perspective is altered by use of wide or telephoto lenses; a 3-dimensional environment is rendered in two-dimensions; etc. Images as they come straight out of a camera (digital or film) typically look rather 'flat', and some processing is needed to get them looking more like the photographer's remembered perception of the scene. But, beyond that, what might be acceptable in terms of adding or subtracting elements, or processing beyond merely adjustments to curves, color balance and saturation? The photo above can serve as an example of my own philosophy.

The picture was taken at Pfeiffer State beach in Big Sur, when returning from a conference in Monterey. I had been hoping to photograph the famous sea arch with the setting sun casting a light beam through onto the breaking surf. No such luck. As is often the case the beach was beset by thick coastal fog, so I turned my attention to other subjects. The tide was high, with waves washing among clumps of seaweed, presenting a nice opportunity for long-exposure photos to capture the 'dreamy' swirls as the foam from receding waves swept out. In itself, this is already a form of image manipulation. Our eyes and brain work at about 30 frames per second, so we percieve the motion of the waves and cannot integrate over long times as a camera can. But, that alone was not enough to produce the fnal image. Problematically, the most visually interesting clump of seaweed on the beach did not line up with the sea arch - as I envisioned for the final picture - and attempts to move it came to nought as currents were in the wrong direction directly in front of the arch. Eventually, a particularly big wave washed the seaweed out to sea. What to do? Let Photoshop solve the problem!. I had several long-exposure shots of the foam and seaweed, so it was easy enough to blend a foreground image with a separate image of the arch. Indeed, why not go a bit further? In all of the seaweed images, the currents carried swirl of the receding foam either to the right or left - giving an unbalanced appearance. Thus, the final photo is a composite of two shots taken during successive waves (luckily, the first wave did not appreciably move the seaweed). Final step, follow the motto for good photos of 'cut the clutter'. There are smaller rocks either side of the arch rock which rather disrupted the composition, so I cloned them out. The net result is a photo that (I think) succeeds in capturing my intent at the time. It is not intended to be a realistic depiction of a particular place. Rather, a semi-abstract composition conveying a certain mood, and a different way of looking at the world. Hard to put into words - I hope the picture itself speaks to you.


#6 - October 2008
"Mono Lake Tufa - two moods, one subject''

A common saying about photography is that we are not capturing an image of a subject; rather we are capturing light. I think this is exemplified by the two photos above, showing exactly the same subject from almost exactly the same viewpoint, yet expressing very different moods because of a 30 minute difference in time of day and a change in cloud conditions.

The subject is a formation of Tufa towers in Mono Lake. These unique faetures were created underwater, and are visible only because much of the water flowing into the lake was diverted to the thirsty mouths of Los Angeles. By themselves they are intriguing, but in harsh sunlight photographs come out looking very mundane. Around dawn and dusk it is a different matter. The topography of the lake does, however, present some problems. The tufa is found mostly along the southern shore; where views West to the setting sun are blocked by high mountains of the Sierras, and Eastern views of sunrise are cluttered by low hills and an indifferent shoreline. The formation shown here s thus one of my favorites, being nicely isolated at some distance out into the lake, and with a viwepoint giving a North-East perspective to better catch the light.

The upper photo was taken soon after the sun had set behind the Sierras when the clouds were nicely lighting up. The sky was still bright, and I used a 2 stop graduated filter to tame the exposure and bring out the reflections in the water. A classical 'calander' type shot; nice enough (I think!), but merely capturing what the scene looked like at the time.

The lower image, my favorite of the two, conveys a more mysterious atmosphere, and is a case where the camera captured something that was not apparent by eye. This requires previsualization (anticipating how the camera will 'see' what comes through the lens), a little technical trickery, and some luck. The key to the surreal atmosphere was a long (30 s) exposure time. This has the effect of blurring out ripples in the water to give a misty appearance; but more important here it has the same effect on rapidly moving clouds. A second trick was to provide some fill light from a hand-held flashlight. The tufa formations would otherwise (as in the top photo) remained as black sillhouettes, but a little artificial lighting highlights them and brings up the nearby rocks at the lakeshore to provide foreground interest. The art is to balance natural and artificial light to create a natural looking effect - somewhat hit-and-miss procedure, but greatly aided by the ability to immediately view the results on the screen of a digital camera.

And another impression of the same tufa formation... Taken a year later, at dawn on a day made hazy by wildfire smoke. The tufa appear to 'float' in a featureless void, neither water nor air.

Click on any of the images above to open a full-resolution copy in a new window/tab. Click HERE to view many more images of Mono Lake. TThe key to the suhe

#5 - August/September 2008
"Huntington Beach Oil Rig"

All my previous 'photos of the month' have, in one way or another, featured a piece of rock. So, time for a change. This month a man-made artifact close to home; one of the oil rigs off the coast at Huntington Beach. Two renditions of the same subject, under very different lighting conditions and conveying different moods. Both were captured using a 400 mm lens. The sunset image was taken with the camera down at beach level, perilously close to the surf line, to dramatize the breaking waves. Given the bright, backlit sky I could use both a fast shutter speed to 'freeze' the waves, and a small aperture to keep the distant oil rig and the close wave in focus together. This photo has been in the Evanescent Light galleries for a couple of years, and has been one of my best sellers, in surprising demand from oil exploration and supply companies for use in catalogs and advertising materials.

The pre-dawn photo is a recent image, captured at about 5:15am on an August morning when the sky was blanketed by the marine layer. It is one of a series, taken over the course of about 30 min, which best balanced the featureless pre-dawn blue of the sea and sky with the warm colors of the lights on the rig. I stopped down the lens to f8 both to maximize sharpness and to give an exposure time of about 20s so as to blur the reflections in the waves. Unlike the sunset photo, this was taken from high up on the bluffs; a vantage point providing a more extensive foreground and, given the slightly misty conditions, allowing the sea and sky to blend seamlessly.


I never got around to adding a new photo for September, so instead here is another capture of the same oil rig; now taken at dusk with a setting crescent moon. I had timed this visit to Huntington Beach three days after the new moon, but was disappointed to find that I was a little late, and that by the time the moon sank close to the horizon virtually all color from the setting sun had faded, and the sky was almost completely black. The photo here is thus a slight cheat, in that I combined an image captured earlier using the 'lighten' blend option in Photoshop layers to add color to the sky.



#4 - June/July 2008
"Little Finland Arch"

The best light for photographing the sandstone formations of the Southwest is indirect: when the sun's rays are reflected into the image from an adjacent rock wall to accentuate the golden red color of the rock and give a pleasently diffuse illumination. A classical example of this technique is photography in slot canyons, as illustrated below by the image of Antelope Canyon. Another famous example is the sunrise view of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, where the rising sun hits a vast rock face below the arch, casting a golden glow on its underside. However, that location is too famous, and even in the middle of winter a group of photographers can be found each clear morning blocking all the good viewpoints with their tripods!

Thus, I was pleased to find a 'miniature' Mesa Arch while visiting Little Finland - an extremely remote and little-known region of amazingly eroded and fancifuul sandstone formations in Southern Nevada. The arch is much smaller than the Canyonlands version - only about 5 ft across - but lights up beautifully as the sun rises over the opposite hillside and hits the rock face below the formation. Moreover, the arch itself is patterned with much more attractive erosion flutings than is Mesa Arch itself. To add more interest, I also tried to catch a 'starburst' as the sun cleared the top of the arch. There are two tricks to make this work. First, the lens needs to be stopped down to its minimum aperture to project a pattern of the iris blades. Second, it is important not to capture the full disc of the sun, as that washes out the image and projects ugly reflections from the lens elements. Instead, the photo needs to be framed so that only a tiny part of the sun hits the lens. This is rather trial and error; so I took several handheld shots varying the camera position slightly, and later selected the best one.

Click HERE to download a full res image of Little Finland Arch, and HERE to see the real Mesa Arch


#3 - May 2008
"Uluru Cascades"

Uluru (Ayer's Rock) is the iconic symbol of Australia's 'Red Centre'. In December 2007 I was fortunate to be invited to speak at a meeting of the Australian Physiological Society, and afterwards took the opportunity to travel to Alice Springs in the company of my colleague and good friend Dirk vanHelden. We rented a 4WD camper van with which to explore the outback, and drove through the McDonnel ranges south toward Uluru.

The famous rock is a magnet for photographers, and is usually captured at sunset and sunrise, when it takes on a spectacular sequence of color changes. However, to be honest, this has become very cliched, with hundreds of nearly identical photos published on the Web. More so, visitors are tightly corralled, and confined to just one defined 'sunrise' viewing area, and another for sunset, so it is difficult to find any original viewpoint.

Thus, after taking the obligatory sunset shots, I felt a little let down. But all was rescued the next day, which served to reinforce David Muench's maxim that "bad weather makes for good photography". Morning dawned grey and overcast, and we made use of the unusually cool conditions to set out on the 6 mile hike around the base of the rock. Shortly the clouds grew darker, it started to drizzle, and then to pour down in earnest. After some delay small trickes of water began to course down the rock face, and gradually these grew into roaring cascades that overflowed the pools at their base, and flooded across the path. This is a rare occurrence in the outback in the middle of summer! A ranger passed us exclaining that she had never seen anything like it before.

So, a great subject for unusual photographs; but the problem was a complete lack of any shelter under which to take my camera from its secure haven in my (waterproof) Lowe backpack. Any attempts were first thwarted by raindrops on the lens, and then when the interior elements of my mid-range zoom completely fogged up.

The solution came when we finally returned, completely soaked, back at the van. This provided the necessary shelter from the now torrential rain, and the distance from the perimeter road to the rock allowed use of a (non-fogged) telephoto lens. A problem shhoting from a vehicle, however, was that compositions were restricted to places along the roadsite where there was a clear view unobstructed by trees, and where it was possible to safely pull off the road. The photot here with two cascades framing a dead tree ended up as my favorite. Basically a 'straight' shot, using a polarizer to reduce reflections from the rain-slicked surface, a mild saturation boost to enhance the deep red of the rock, and a curves adjustment to compensate for the loss of contrast through the heavy rain.

#2 - April 2008
"Antelope Arch"

Antelope canyon is a small slot canyon on the Navajo reservation just outside Page, Arizona. It is bisected by a major highway, and lies close to one of the largest, and most polluting caol-fired generating plant in the country, so the immediate surroundings are not auspicious. Nevertheless, it has been a favorite subject among photographers since its 'discovery' some 20 years ago. The reason is that the depth and geometry of the canyon are just right to bounce sunlight off the sinuous sandstone walls to create a wonderful inner glow. Very deep, narrow canyons, such as Buckskin Gulch, allow little light to penetrate to the bottom, and have a dark and gloomy feel. On the other hand, shallower canyons like Spooky and Zebra are too brightly illuminated by direct light, so that the walls largely reflect only the true color of the sandstone. Although the rock of Antelope Canyon is itself only a nondescript orange/brown, it comes alive when sunlight falling directly on one wall reflects multiple times to cast a faint, but brilliant orange glow. Moreover, wonderful color contrasts are created by juxtaposed areas that receive either reflected sunlight, or take on a blue/cyan cast from the cloudless sky.

The trick in photographing slot canyons is to master the extreme contrast range. Indirect light filtering into the canyon is quite dim, necessitating exposures of a second or more, but any direct sunlight hitting the rock, or view of the sky, completely blows out the highlights. So, the art is to frame pictures to just exclude such highlights. Inconveniently, this usually seems to involve camera angles requiring the photographer to lie flat on his back on the canyon bottom, squeezed into a nook so that an overhang of the near wall blocks out any direct view of the sky. Such was the case with the photo above, taken in Lower Antelope Canyon. I had wandered uo and down the length of the canyon a few times scouting for interesting combinations of light and rock form, and was taken by this composition where a sinuous hollow in the back wall framed glowing rock high on the opposite face of the canyon. A wide-angle (16 mm) lens nicely took in the arch, and stopping down the lens to get good depth of field necessitated an exposure of about 1 second. However, there was no space to set up a tripod. Instead, I took the shot hand-held, pressing the camera agains the rock for stability.

While browsing through Michael Fatali's online galleries after returning from this trip, I noticed that his 'Centerfold' image was taken from almost exactly the same viewpoint; though with very different framing. How he managed to set up his 8x10 view camera to get the shot remains a mystery to me, as I struggled to get my small DSLR into position! Click HERE to compare our disparate visions of the same piece of rock (Click on 'view Portfolios, then select 'Stone Cathedrals' and scroll down to the 'Centerfold' image).


#1 - March 2008
"Stalking the Yosemite Firefall"


Horsetail Fall is an ephemeral waterfall high on the cliff face of El Cap. In Yosemite Valley. Sometimes, and only sometimes, it pus on a fantastic light display, catching the dying red rays of the setting sun as the rocks either side plunge into shade. If anything captures the meaning of 'Evanescent Light', this is it!

The first photographer to capture and popularize the 'firefall' of Horsetail fall was Galen Rowell, and it is often said that no one since has done it better. Maybe so; but there is plenty of incentive to get your own photo, and maybe do it differently.

Capturing the firefall demands some planning, and a lot of luck. A first requirement is that the setting sun is aligned well. This happens only in Winter, with the optimal time being around the middle of February. By early March the lower part of the falls go into shadow before the sun is low enough to produce a red glow. Second, there must obviously be a clear sky to the West. Finally, there needs to be a good flow of water over the falls. The catchment area is fairly small, so this needs either a period of recent heavy rain, or a good snowpack with a few days of preceding warm weather. Some years the firefall never happens, and when it does, prime light last for only ten or fifteen minutes. On average, the firefall is present for perhaps only one or two hours per year!

The Photo of the Month here was taken on Feb. 16, 2008. I had been following the Yosemite weather forecast, together with updates on the Yosemite Blog and View from the Little Red Tent, that all pointed to good, clear conditions that weekend, following several warm days. The omens looked promising enough to justify the 800 mile round-trip journey from Irvine. Arriving in Yosemite, the next choice was where to shoot from. The classical view of Horsetail is from near the El. Cap picnic area, replicating Galen Rowell's image, and shown in this image I took the previous year. This time around I decided on a change, and selected a location on the far side of the Merced River with a clear view through the trees of the falls. The extra distance provides a surprisingly different perspective. The view from the picnic area shows the top of the cliffs silhouetted against the sky – nice if there are some high clouds to add interest and color, but otherwise leaving a big blank area at the top of the photo. In contrast, the view across the river reveals the snow slopes that rise steeply above the cliff top, giving the illusion through a telephoto lens of a viewpoint almost level with the falls, instead of looking steeply up from thousands of feet below.

Arriving at around 4:00 pm there were already around a dozen photographers staking out their few square feet of meadow to set up tripods. Then, it was just a matter of waiting and hoping, stamping around in the snow to keep warm. The photos below illustrate the progression of the light, as the sun swings round to the North casting a growing shadow from the nose of El Cap across the rocks to the left of the falls. On this day the falls became a silvery cascade at about 5:20pm, turned deep red by 5:30, and were extinguished by the setting sun at 5:41. So, not much time to get good shots.

My aim was to produce a high-resolution image by stitching together several frames, taken with a 10 Mpixel Canon 40D and 100-400 lens zoomed in to about 200 mm. I set up using a RRS panning clamp and rail to focus the camera on the falls, and then lock everything down while allowing free movement along the vertical axis. With these settings, three shots nicely covered the height of the falls, with generous overlap for subsequent stitching. A final ingredient for a good photo involves enough wind to kick up a good amount of spray, otherwise the falls themselves appear as only a narrow ribbon of light. That was present, but I worried that changes in the spray pattern between successive shots would cause problems, and took photos as quickly as the two second delay on the mirror lockup would permit. In the end, the photomerge and blend functions in CS3 did a fine job.

Click HERE to download a full-resolution (24 Mpixel) file of the 'Firefall' image.

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