New Blog Home!

January 14, 2010

I’ve moved my blog to a new, more aesthetically pleasing, and faster home:

Art in Nature Web Journal

All the old content is there, and the feeds/subscriber list should have been updated. If you experience any trouble, please do let me know. New content coming soon!

The Frozen Underworld

January 8, 2010

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.

Happy Holidays!

December 23, 2009

I wanted to wish you all a happy holiday, whatever it is you may celebrate. Personally, I simply celebrate the fact that we get time off during this wonderful part of the year. I’ll be spending several days with my parents in the cold North of California looking for Bald Eagles, followed by a week of exploring in Oregon, hopefully with some fresh snow somewhere in the mix.

I’ll leave you with two new images, the first being from my previous trip to Owens Valley. I have a soft spot for those swaying grasses, and when they catch the low angle light from behind, they really come to life. Meanwhile the fall colors contrasted nicely with the turquoise Rabbitbrush.

“Dancing in the Sun” ~ Owens Valley, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2 mkII, 70-200mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/18, 1/6th sec

I recently revisited this older image to get back into the mood for bird photography, as it’s been quite some time. I took this image of a Short-eared Owl a few years ago in Ithaca… I hope I can still handle the cold as I could back then! Two years in Southern California tends to make you go ‘soft’.

“Short-eared Owl” ~ Ithaca, NY
The Tech: Canon 20D, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/1250th

Lastly, here’s one of the more beautiful Christmas trees I’ve ever found – from a snowy adventure last year! Be sure and save some time this holiday season for a peaceful wintery walk in the outdoors, I don’t know about you, but the holiday traffic is driving me crazy, and I can’t wait to be out in the boonies. See you next year!

“Winter Sequoias” ~ King’s Canyon NP, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.4 sec

Too Cold for Color

December 9, 2009

This past weekend friend and photographer Eric Good and I headed out to the Eastern Sierra with high hopes of photographing Mt. Whitney in its early winter glory. The weather, however, was not terribly kind to us. While the temperatures were only supposed to drop to 8 degrees F, the blowing winds were going to reach 65mph where we planned to camp. We ran into another adventurous fellow who was on the way out – his tent had been flattened by the winds. As we made it out of the gully to lower boy scout lake, we saw the menacing winds for ourselves, furiously whipping snow into the air. As much as it pained us, we decided this really wasn’t the time to camp up there… I’ll have to return some day for another go. It’s always better to admit defeat and live to see, adventure, and photograph another day, than to throw in all your chips for one reckless gamble. As hard as it is for a driven nature photographer…

Winter winds on Mt. Whitney (right most peak).

Fortunately, Mt. Whitney isn’t far from some other incredible places, so we still managed to get some photography in, in addition to our chilly adventures. The incoming storm, predicted to arrive on Sunday afternoon, didn’t quite show up on time, but it did provide some inspiring lenticular clouds – the famous Sierra Wave, which often forms over Owens Valley.

“Alien Signals” ~ Alabama Hills, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 30 sec
Processing: two exposures blended, the foreground was shot earlier in the evening under more light at iso 100 to maximize detail and minimize noise.

“Sleeping Stones”~ Alabama Hills, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 10 sec

We also made a stop in Death Valley to explore a remote, and pleasantly lush canyon. Green rushes, brilliant fall colors, and gushing waterfalls – it was hard to believe this was Death Valley! On the way in we ran into a group of Wild Burros, no doubt frequent visitors of this desert paradise. Burros were introduced in the 1500’s by the Spaniards, originally coming from Africa where they were known as Wild Asses. I’ve seen Burros in Death Valley several times, but never this close and cooperative, even the light couldn’t have been better! It must be a rough life out there for them.. not much in the way of food or water, and plenty of hot sun.

“Wild Burros” ~ Death Valley, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 100-400mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 400, f/13, 1/125th

The canyon wasn’t all pristine and paradisaical, no… there was a burned down ore processing area with singed and bulging batteries. Plans had been made for one of them, but the rest of the mess, I’m not sure about.

“Removal Planned” – An abandoned battery awaits the clean up crew… 10 miles from the nearest hard road.

It’s been quite a while since I posted a black and white, no reason really, it just hasn’t happened. Ironically this trip my three keepers were all best suited to monochrome – I hope you enjoy the change. If you must get a color fix you can see another Burro here. I’m sure more colors will be on the way, though with winter approaching and fall just about behind us (yes, in California fall lasts well into December!), it might not be until spring (which of course starts in late February, here at least) that I’ll find some truly colorful scenes again.

If you would like to get either prints or calendars in time for the holidays, don’t delay!

Desert Wanderings

December 4, 2009

Well, I left you with a cliff hanger last time, so I figured I should share my post-thanksgiving view with you before I depart for the icy Mt. Whitney this weekend. I have had a fascination with using long telephoto lenses for providing a unique viewpoint since taking my Bristlecone image titled “The Graveyard“, though haven’t found many opportunities to use the technique. So when I figured out where and how I could get such an image of the Death Valley dunes I knew I had to try. I suspected this image would work best at dawn, but I had a practice run at sunset, which already got me fired up. The following morning I awoke to find one of the most promising sunrise skies I’ve seen in quite a while. With such a sky I thought I shouldn’t let it go to “waste”, and headed down to the dunes proper to find a wide angle composition. After five minutes hike into the sand I realized my mistake: not only would I not find a pristine expanse of sand to photograph (there were footsteps everywhere, as usual), but that fantastic sky would provide the best light on the dunes themselves that I could hope for by reflecting the orange and pink light. I hustled back to my distant perch, and took in the sandbox from afar as the clouds began to glow under the sunrise light.

“The Sandbox” ~ Death Valley NP
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4xtc, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 5 sec

I spent the rest of the morning exploring remote slot canyons, and came across this marble sculpture of a dry fall that caught my eye. Rock hopping up the canyons and slipping down the falls brought back good memories of the annual trips I used to make here with my parents. They were supposed to be here, but car troubles kept them at home, along with my thanksgiving dinner.. oh well, the sand, I mean light, made up for it!

“Marble Sculpture” ~ Death Valley NP
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/18, 8 sec

Being restless, I decided to head to the Alabama Hills in the hopes of photographing some beautiful round boulders I had discovered earlier in the year. As I drove into the hills I was struck by an astounding display of unsuspected fall color. I had never been to this area at this time of year – and hadn’t seen pictures or reports of the fall color there either. I suppose most photographers abandon the concept of fall once the aspens have passed their prime halfway through October. And then don’t return to the East side until the winter magic sets in. As the sun set behind the Sierra Crest, the last backlight it cast on the rabbitbrush and other desert plants brought them to life like I’ve never seen before. What a marvelous and colorful plant community! Be sure to view the larger version on my website!

“Flames of Fall” ~ Alabama Hills, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 100-400mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/30th sec
Processing: 3 image (vertical) stitch. I had to clone out two small powerline poles. Maybe I should have cut them down instead.. perhaps if there was just a bit more Edward Abbey in me.

Thanks for all the kind words on my Zion trip, it was a most incredible place.. one I hope to return to more frequently. Fortunately it’s not all that far from California!

Zion Adventures II

November 30, 2009

Time to return to my trip to Zion about two weeks ago. Typically I try to avoid “iconic” locations, as not only do you find lots of people there, but it’s much more difficult for me to get into the photographic process when I’ve been blinded by so many previous compositions. Also, many of these iconic places simply do not match up with my style – but a few spots in Zion I simply had to see. Fortunately I was a little late in the season, and saw remarkably few people. After stopping by the Zion Adventure Company to pick up a drysuit and some canyoneering boots, I headed out into the Virgin River Narrows. It’s really quite a remarkable place: towering sandstone walls trap you in the chilly waters, sometimes waist or chest deep (hence the drysuit). Most of the trees had just about lost all their fall colors, in fact, only one retained its full coat of yellow.

“Colors on Charcoal” ~ Virgin River Narrows, Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 5 sec

One of my favorite moments of the whole trip was about half an hour that I got to spend watching and photographing one of the countless American Dippers I encountered throughout the Narrows. This one was particularly cooperative, and let me get within six feet or so to get this wider angle image. While it certainly isn’t my most dramatic or aesthetically pleasing image from the trip, it is one of my favorites. I think it captures the experience of being there vicariously through the Dipper – I recommend viewing the larger version!

“Dipping in the Narrows” ~ Virgin River Narrows, Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 400, f/4, 1/100th sec
Make sure to see the larger version!

Since I had my drysuit on, I decided I might as well take advantage of that, and squeeze into a narrow slot Guy Tal had showed me the day before in Zion’s high country. This seldom visited slot gets so narrow you almost get stuck… while chest deep in water!

“Adventure Awaits” ~ Zion National Park, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/14, 30 sec

The following morning I set out on what must be one of the most coveted places in the park among landscape photographers: the “subway”. This incredible formation is located in the Left Fork of North Creek, about 4 miles or so in – 4 miles of scrambling, wading, and route finding. As I headed out in the morning the temperature read about 15 degrees F, fortunately I still had that drysuit, as I certainly didn’t want to get wet in that kind of weather! Finally seeing this place, which I had seen so many images of before was not disappointing: one of the few places where it truly lived up to the promise of all the pictures I’ve seen. I had the place to myself for the next 4 hours that I spent exploring the pools, scrambling upstream a little ways, and yes, watching yet another American Dipper! Just 15 feet away he was foraging in the crystal clear pools, picking out grubs from the sandy leaf matter at the bottom. Unfortunately it was too dark to get any great images, but it was an inspiring experience to say the least. If you, too, are a fan of Dippers I suggest you read through John Muir’s notes a friend of mine sent me: the Water-Ouzel.

It took quite some time taking in the character of the place, and getting past all the compositions I had seen previously, before I was finally able to frame my own impressions of the place. Every edge and surface in that hall of sandstone is curved, round, and sensual. I wanted to emphasize that using this simple composition. The second image is a little less predictable – I used an underwater housing and hopped into the main pool to get a truly intimate experience with the icy waters. I’m looking forward to trying this half under/half over water experience in the future!

“Water Sculpture” ~ The Subway, Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 15 sec

“Submerged” ~ The Subway, Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, EWA marine underwater housing
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 2 sec

On my way out I noticed the light was dancing beautifully over the red sandstone and the famous “crack” – a section of sandstone where the water has carved a nearly perfect slit. I used a shorter shutter speed to capture the refreshing character of the flowing water. The maple leaf, of course, appeared in just the right spot 😉

“Red Refreshment” ~ Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 800, f/18, 1/6th sec
Notes: the high iso was necessary to “freeze” the water movement.

That’s all from Zion.. I can’t wait to get back to red rock country though, and I’m sure it will happen next year sometime. A late happy Thanksgiving to all you “Americans” – I hope your dinner was tastier than my can of spicy chili and beans. But I sincerely doubt you had a more inspiring view the following morning than I did!

Creatures of the Night

November 23, 2009

I’ll take a brief break from my Zion images to share one from today’s adventure. I went “owling” in the San Gabriel Mountains with a local owl expert, in hopes of seeing some of the more uncommon owls around. We started an hour before dusk, using call playbacks to try and find a Northern Pygmy Owl. It wasn’t until we were deep in one of the canyons alongside a babbling stream, that we finally heard one hooting quietly from the dark foliage. We spent 45 minutes or so trying to find the little guy, without any luck. By this time it was very dark – time to start looking for our primary interest, the Spotted Owl. Within minutes of playing back a few deep hoots, we were greeted with a strange screeching sound. Soon after which, some more recognizable hoots confirmed: we had a pair of Spotted Owls! And they were very close! It didn’t take long before we found them, and we were treated to some fantastic looks.

“Spotted Owl” ~ San Gabriels, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x tc, 580 exII flash, better beamer, tripod/sidekick
Exposure: iso 3200, f/5.6, 1/50th
Notes: I was trying some alternate flash methods, which necessitated the higher iso, though those did not work out. While I have some exposures at iso 400, the curious look in this one was the best. Thanks to the 5D2’s iso performance (given proper exposure), the noise is a none-issue. The exposure time for flash work like this is irrelevant, since all the light comes from the flash.
Processing: I darkened the backdrop significantly, to reduce the “flashed” appearance. Also, Spotted Owls are notorious for their “red-eye”, I opted to adjust the reds to a more natural looking pale yellow to remove the “evil” look.

The Spotted Owl is an IUCN near threatened species, so we were very fortunate to get to see them so well. The California subspecies, such as the ones we saw, are not quite as threatened as the Northern subspecies, which makes its home in old growth forests of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Still, these birds don’t have it easy with the frequent wildfires tearing through the landscape, in addition to habitat encroachment by the growing cities. After watching them for about 10 minutes we started back, so as not to stress the birds any more. On the way back we had two close encounters with Screech Owls, however, they were too shy to pose for more than brief glimpses. Meanwhile Great Horned Owls hooted from their hidden perches. Needless to say, it was a fantastic experience to hear and see so many owls in the dead of the night. Owls hold a special place in my heart, and in the hearts of many, because their mysterious nocturnal lifestyle, curious nature, and almost human faces. It’s always a joy to get to hear and see them!

Canyon Whispers

November 19, 2009

It hasn’t been out of neglect that it’s been so long I’ve been able to post new images or stories – I simply haven’t gotten the chance to get out and photograph! Fortunately last weekend I was finally able to get away, and met up with friend and photographer Guy Tal in Zion National Park to catch the last breath of autumn. On Saturday we started out in a seldom visited portion of the Kolobs region, where most of the trees had already lost their coat of leaves, leaving them dancing like ghosts in their deep hall of sandstone. Aside from the welcome chirps of the canyon birds, we had the silent place to ourselves; a very refreshing change from Pasadena for sure.

“Canyon Whispers” ~ Zion National Park, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 1.3 sec

After refueling at Oscars (prime destination for delicious sweet potato fries, and more), we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the high country – the eastern side of the park (read: away from the tourists) – in search of elusive maple leaves, wispy trees, and intimate sand/stone-scapes. The forecast for snow came through, almost, and we were treated to a light shower of gropple – a schizophrenic mix of snow and hail. The storm was the trailing edge of earlier rains that had created some marvelous mud patterns.. everywhere we stepped, there was something to see. Nearby maple trees graciously supplied some brilliantly crimson leaves, which seemed to fall in just the perfect places, every time without fail, it was uncanny!

“Maple Designs” ~ Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.6 sec

Most photographers, and leaf peepers I suppose, try to time their visits for fall color viewing to “peak color”. I, however, found the dwindling leaves which exposed the expressive trees’ form to be a much more evocative sight. The twisted forms of the gray/blue scrub oaks and maples came into view behind their veils of color.

“Confetti” ~ Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 70-200mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 1/6th sec
Notes: You can see a much larger version here, for maximal details!

Finally, we decided it was time to move on up the canyon to see some hidden petroglyphs carved in the smooth sandstone. A few larger trees populated the drainage, among them several ponderosa pines. I was fascinated by all the shades of red – all we seem to have here in Pasadena is shades of gray and brown – so when this scene, anchored by the stately pine emerging from ghostly maple forms, set against a smooth sandstone studio quality backdrop, I knew just what to do!

“Red” ~ Zion NP, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 2 sec

We finished off the day with some fine beers and scotch around a crackling fire. And that was just day one! The following morning Guy had to take off, but I spent another two days exploring more of the park, which I’ll be sure to share with you soon.. less chaotic wispy trees, and more simple sandstone forms. One teaser: it was mid November… there were icicles on the canyon walls… and I jumped into several pools of emerald waters, camera in hand! Yes, I’m completely serious.

Exciting News!

October 23, 2009

It’s been quite a while since I last updated – so sorry! The last few weeks have been incredibly busy, with all sorts of exciting things going on. First, I launched my new website, which you should take a look at if you haven’t already: Art in Nature Photography.

Second in exciting news is the announcement of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, where I was fortunate to have three of my images selected: “Life Among Giants” recieved runner-up in ‘Animals in their Environment’, “Frozen Paradise” was highly commended in ‘Wild Places’, and “The Spring Explosion” was highly commended in ‘In Praise of Plants’. You can see the full collection of winning images here: BBC Awards.

This competition is one of the most prestigious in nature photography, and this year they received 143,135 entries from 94 countries. I imagine it’s quite challenging to pick through all those photos! Needless to say, I’m incredibly excited about this. I’m currently in London, having just attended the magnificent awards ceremony next to the dinosaur in the Natural History Museum. The display is fantastic, and if you happen to be in London between now and next April, I highly recommend you see the exhibit. It is their single most popular annual exhibition (for good reason!).

Before leaving on my trip to London I did have a chance to go on a quick trip before the fall season was over, and headed up to Lake Tahoe to see the marvelous wonder of spawning Kokanee Salmon. These landlocked salmon are not native to California, but were introduced to Lake Tahoe in the 1940’s, and have flourished since. Every October 10’s of thousands of these beautiful fish make their way up Taylor Creek to spawn. The river is literally full of fish, it’s quite the spectacle!

“Salmon Spawning” ~ Lake Tahoe, California
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 100-400mm, polarizer, tripod
I don’t currently have access to the technical details

Unfortunately I am too busy to write up stories about the other images from the trip, though there isn’t much to tell. This year the aspens’ fall color all over the western US has been somewhat disappointing, though I had a chance to try a few creative experiments, which you can see on my website: recent photos.

Lastly I will be having a series of 7 images on display at the Brewed Awakening Cafe in Berkeley, CA throughout Nov and Dec. There is no official opening, but if you happen to be in the area during that time, please stop by and check it out! The coffee + pastries are great too! More details on my website: Show at Brewed Awakening.

A Granite Paradise

September 24, 2009

The thought of “paradise” usually conjures up warm sunny beaches, palm trees, lush green waterfalls, and tropical birds. But there is a certain beauty and purity that I find in the barren Sierra alpine zone that moves me more than the typical vacation destination. For me, the ability to see for miles and miles over empty rock piles, rugged peaks, and cold blue lakes brings with it a calming sense of freedom, awe, and inspiration. And yet I’ve found that capturing that depth with a two dimensional photograph is exceptionally challenging. Most mountain images I’ve seen and taken all “stop” at the mountains – be it a classic pointy peak, or a rugged range. When I think of the High Sierra, I think of miles of explorable terrain. Sitting on a cool chunk of granite I could spend hours roaming the landscape with my eyes, but the truly exciting part, is that I could (and do) then actually walk there (ok, perhaps scramble and climb sometimes).

This past weekend friend and photographer Steve Sieren and I made a quick trip up to the Sierra highcountry to experience, and photograph, just that. I wish we could have stayed for a week, but alas, one night was all we had. Before starting our trek we spent some time exploring the early signs of fall color near North Lake and Bishop Canyon, which has started at higher elevations (10,000 feet).

“Autumnal Grace” ~ Eastern Sierra, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, ford explorer, headlamp
Exposure: iso 400, f/8, 25 sec
Notes: While the lighting may appear relatively natural, this was taken around midnight, using the high beams on my car (parked a hundred yards away), and a headlamp to ‘paint’ light on the tree. The distant and low angle of the car headlamps provided a uniform light, not unlike low angle sunlight. Meanwhile I used the headlamp to supplement the primary light to highlight certain portions of the tree, and provide some fill light to even out the shadows that I wanted to.

“Autumn Dancer” ~ Eastern Sierra, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1.3 sec

Saturday morning we parked at the trailhead at 7,400 feet and started the long trek up into the barren high country of the John Muir Wilderness. On our way up several hikers coming down asked as, “you know how bad this trail is, right?”, “do you know what the word eternity means?” After 3 hours of non-stop switchbacks, we were finally over the first hump. Fortunately some clouds were brewing, meaning that we weren’t subjected to the hot Owen’s Valley sun all the way up. After passing two more lakes we left the trail and climbed the last 1,500 feet off trail over rough talus fields, until finally we arrived at our destination: the Royce Lakes Basin at 11,700 feet. What an incredible place! The giant blue lakes are surrounded by some of the most picturesque peaks in the Sierras, and an endless expanse of granite talus fields; alpine beauty at its finest. We set up camp and headed off to find spots to photograph at sunset. Mine involved another 700 foot climb, to just under where Feather Peak became worthy of some technical gear. On the steep granite slabs a plethora of water stains provided one of the most exciting mountain foregrounds I’ve ever had the opportunity to use. Meanwhile clouds were dancing over the two peaks, catching slowly evolving evening light. It wasn’t, however, until after sunset and the formation of the brilliant pink Earth Shadow, that the scene crystallized in my mind as one of the most beautiful mountain sights I’ve witnessed. If you look carefully, you can see the White Mountains (across Owen’s Valley to the East) between the two peaks and under the white cloud bank, 40 miles away as the Ptarmigan flies (there weren’t any crows around).

“Granite Paradise” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, 3-stop soft GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/13, 4 sec

The following morning we turned our eyes to the spectacular Merriam Peak, surely the granite diamond of the Sierras. The crystal clear skies and calm waters made for a memorable High Sierra morning. On the way back to the tent, a pair of Ptarmigans proved to be cooperative. There’s really nothing alive up there, other than some faded patches of grass, a few fish, and those birds. A rough life, but I can’t blame them for sticking it out up there – what more beautiful place to call home?!

“Sierra Diamond” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, 3-stop soft GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 8 sec

“Ptarmigan” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 70-200mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 400, f/4, 1/400th sec