I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season, and are off to a good start with the new year. I spent the last two weeks exploring Northern California and Southeastern Oregon, driving over 3,000 miles overall. While the driving wasn’t terribly exciting, I did get to see some incredible, and truly remote, places. The first installment of what will be a series of I think three posts, is from my time in Northern California. As winter sets in, millions of ducks, geese, and cranes make their way south for warmer climes. They settle in with great numbers in just about every large lake along the central valley of California and Southern Oregon. One such spot is the Klamath Basin, home to the Lower and Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, and Tule Lake NWR. What makes this area special is that it is prone to freezing over at some point in the winter, making life hard for the waterfowl that have chosen to spend their winter days here. Bald Eagles all across the Western US have figured this out, and descend by the hundreds on this little area, hoping to scavenge sick and dying ducks. The Bald Eagle is typically considered a regal and noble, and perhaps even intelligent bird – it is, afterall, our national bird. Ironically, they have none of those qualities. They are lazy, slow, and not particularly clever. The Eagles in Klamath perch on the ice around small bodies of open water (which the ducks keep from freezing with their own body heat), just waiting for one to keel over to provide an easy lunch. I suppose you could consider that clever, but really, these birds are just opportunistic scavengers. A fitting national bird after all, I suppose.
“Bald Eagle” ~ Tule Lake, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x tc, tripod
Exposure: iso 800, f/13, 1/1600th
Notes: I’m not quite sure why I used iso 800, but with a bright image like this, properly exposed, there’s hardly more noise than at iso 100 with the 5D2. I took 4 exposures with different focus settings and blended the images using Helicon Focus to achieve full depth of field.
Be sure to check out the larger view.
Just to the south of the Klamath Basin is one of California’s least visited parks: Lava Beds National Monument. The park sees a scant 100,000 visitors each year. Compare that to Yosemite’s impressive 4 million. So, if you are looking for a place with solitude, and exciting places to explore, perhaps this is the place for you. The best stuff in Lava Beds is actually underground, in the form of lava tube caves. A lava tube is typically a cave anywhere from just a few tens of feet, to over a mile long, ranging in diameters from squeeze holes to the size of airplane hangers. They are formed during lava flows, as the edges of the flow cool off, forming a protective crust around the river of molten rock. The solidified lava acts as insulation, allowing the lava to keep flowing for miles. Over time, collapses form in the tubes, allowing access. Photographing in the tubes is rather challenging – as you might expect it gets quite dark inside. Some of the long or multi level caves are dark enough that not a single photon manages to make it down, creating a true black out experience, should you choose to turn off your headlamp!
“Purgatory” ~ Lava Beds National Monument, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure 1: iso 200, f/11, 1.3 sec
Exposure 2: iso 200, f/11, 8 sec
Exposure 3: iso 200, f/11, 25 sec
Notes: despite the huge dynamic range, necessitating three exposures, hand blending the images was relatively straightforward.
The park is home to over 700 lava tubes, and each one has its own character. Some are round and elegant, others blocky and slowly falling apart. The most intriguing ones are “ice caves” in addition to being lava tubes. Some have permanent ice formations, while others are just temporary winter wonders. If you stumble upon the right cave you can find fascinating ice floors, ice stalagmites, icicles, and glittering frost, even in the heat of summer! Several decades ago one of the caves (Merril Ice Cave) had a large enough permanent ice floor that an imaginative land owner built a resort nearby, installed some lights, and rented ice skates out so people could skate the smooth icy floors deep underground! Unfortunately, many of these large permanent ice structures have significantly reduced in size in the past half century. Still, there are some spectacular sights to be seen.
“Frozen Candles” ~ Lava Beds National Monument, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, LED lamp
Exposure: iso 200, f/18, irrelevant exposure length
Notes: I spent two hours trying to get all the ice forms illuminated properly in a single exposure, and nearly got it, but ended up needing to use two additional exposures to ensure even lighting. No tricks here, just lots of trial and error.
Perhaps the most impressive ice cave is the Crystal Ice Cave, which does in fact live up to its name. The walls are coated in glittering hoar frost, and gigantic ice formations are found all throughout this triple layer cave. I’d liken the experience to a limestone cave, only the structures are made of ice! For roughly the past decade the cave has been closed to the public, except on Saturdays during the winter months. On these special days you can get access as part of a group tour of up to six people. I was lucky enough to be on one such tour the day after Christmas, with only two other participants, and was astounded by the icy beauty. Unfortunately they won’t let you bring a tripod in, not just because of the bulkiness and potential of damaging structures.. but if you’re bringing a tripod, you’ll probably hold up the tour, which is already 3-4 hours long. Fortunately some of the caves had some exciting formations that I could photograph at my leisure. Photographing ice structures like these in the dark is not an easy proposition – I spent anywhere from 2-5 hours per image to get the lighting just right. It certainly is a fun experience, particularly for those interested in the creative aspects of artificial light use (check out Steve Sieren and I’s lightpainting workshop just a month away, there’s still some spaces if you’d like to join us!).
“Apoptosis” ~ Lava Beds National Monument, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, LED lamp
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, irrelevant exposure length (3 min)
Notes: I spent about 5 hours total in utter darkness trying a variety of illumination techniques. Ultimately I settled on holding the flashlight just above the ice, moving it throughout the frame during the exposure to give even illumination through the ice itself. The blue ice forms on the surface were illuminated from the side at the end of the exposure (single exposure). What you see here is about 2-3 feet thick of permanent cave ice, with volcanic rocks trapped in the ice, and lots of thin little air bubbles throughout the frame. Be sure to view the larger image on my website.