Life Among Giants

Welcome! I’ve decided to start a web blog to share the stories of the adventures I have while seeking and photographing art in nature. I will also share the techniques I use, in case they may interest you. Of course feel free to email me.

Having just graduated from Cornell University this past May, I’m now on a 4 month vacation until I return to being a student – this time a graduate student at CalTech. In those 4 months I will be exploring the Pacific Northwest, including Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and perhaps a few places in between. I will have limited internet access, and certainly no access to my primary computer and monitor. As such the images presented here are preliminary edits, and should be regarded as works in progress – I just didn’t want to have to wait until September to start sharing my adventures! I will be uploading my images to a gallery inaccessible from my regular homepage, but you can access it here.

Last update before getting on to the new adventures – for those of you that haven’t heard, I recently had my first image publication, in Living Bird! At some point in the near future this should come online, otherwise try to get your hands on a paper copy of this beautiful magazine and you’ll find my photo of this Anna’s Hummingbird accompanying an article on why their tails make a funny little squeak during their aerial display dives. Also, on the opposing page is a short story on my research in hovering flapping flight, concerning the construction of a successful flapping hovering machine, not unlike a mechanical hummingbird of sorts.

\"Here Comes The Sun\" ~ Anna\'s Hummingbird ~ Mt. Diablo St. Park, CA
“Here Comes The Sun” ~ Anna’s Hummingbird ~ Mt. Diablo St. Park, CA.

Now, on to my first adventure!

The first excursion of the summer was to King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. My parents conveniently just finished building their vacation/retirement house in squaw valley (not the skiing place) about 45 min from the park entrance, which makes the logistics nice and easy. So after spending a night at the house, my dad and I headed to the park to go backpacking for a few days.

Sequoias are magical any time of year, but particularly so in late May, when the Dogwoods are blooming. If you have never seen the famous groves of these giant trees, then be sure to put it on your list of things to do. Sequoiadendron giganteum are the largest trees in the world by volume, and can reach up to 300 ft high and 30 feet in diameter; they are a spectacle to behold. There are about 75 groves of these magnificent cinnamon colored trees on the West side of the Sierra Nevada, and all but eight are in the Sequoia/King’s Canyon region. Walking through the forest, and coming upon these trees, is like finding ancient spirits (they can be up to 2,000-3,000 years old!), watching over the rest of the world. One of the largest groves is on Redwood Mountain, and in the adjacent canyon. Here you find groves of the orangy-red wonders along a small creek banked by all sorts of smaller plant life, including the Western (Pacific) Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii.

The name Dogwood has nothing to do with dogs, in fact, it comes from the word ‘Dagwood’ – the wood was used for making daggers, skewers, and other narrow pointy things requiring hard wood. The flowers are most magnificent, like snow flakes scattered through the spring forest. When found near the Sequoias, the color contrast between the red bark, white flowers, and green leaves is nothing short of spectacular.

Naturally, my goal for this trip was to find and photograph some of these special places. Redwood canyon is a lesser visited area, despite it’s beautiful scenery, so it seemed like the perfect place to go exploring. After scouting out nearly every Sequoia on and off the trail, in the entire canyon, I found what I considered the most photogenic scene. Then I waited, until the light was right. Generally speaking this occurs in the last hour of light, and even the hour (usually half hour) of twilight after the sun has set. While clouds had moved in by this time and the sky was mostly overcast, the cloud cover was still thin enough that the source of light was distinctly directional. After a delicious dinner of pesto pasta and sundried tomatoes my dad and I headed back to my spot.

Dogwoods among Sequoias.
“Dogwoods Among Sequoias” ~ King’s Canyon NP, CA.
The Tech: Canon 5D, Canon 24-105L f/4 IS @ 96mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 6 sec
Notes: On the 5D iso 100 vs 200 hardly makes a difference in noise, and when entering long exposures in the multiple second range, I like to use iso 200 if there’s any chance of subject movement. In this case I wanted to minimize the chance of any of the blooms moving during the exposure. Always check your depth of field, especially with longer focal lengths! While the sky was mostly overcast, the polarizer still had a significant effect in bringing out the colors – never leave home without it!

Those burn marks you see on the tree are caused by fires – Sequoias are particularly adapted to fires due to their thick spongy fire resistant bark. Some trees can have entire caves or tunnels through them and continue living quite happily (or so it seems). Their cones in fact need intense heat, such as that caused by fires, to open and release the seeds. This helps the saplings start unhindered by other plant life that would compete with them for light and nutrients. While I was working on this shot, my dad explored the nearby area for strange things, as he is wont to do. And he found one – an evil wild witch of the woods, turned to wood by some forest dwelling elf.

Wild Witch of the Woods
“Wild Witch of the Woods” ~ King’s Canyon National Park, CA.
The Tech: Canon 5D, Canon 24-105L f/4 IS @ 80mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 30 sec
Processing: Light burn and desaturation all around the face to make it pop more
Notes: I always compose my images without a tripod, take some test shots at high iso, and then put my tripod in position and try to match what I had found. This is particularly important when working at close quarters (and even more so with wide angle lenses), as the precise position and focal length can have dramatic changes on the composition. Working while attached to a tripod removes your freedom, and can thus hinder your finding the perfect composition. Lesson to learn: always use your tripod, but only after you know exactly what your composition is! (and take test shots, your memory isn’t as good as the camera’s).

After a cold nights sleep (for me at least, as I was testing out a new sleeping quilt that wasn’t quite warm enough for the conditions), we got up and went exploring in the morning light. In these large forests the air is very humid and cold, in the mornings in particular. Just think about how much water those giant trees must displace from the ground to the air – quite a bit! Morning explorations turned up nothing new, and soon we headed back up the canyon side and on to one of the ridges. While there were some other groves here, the dogwoods had mostly disappeared – they seem to be rather picky with regard to location. Soon after we left this magical portion of the woods to look for another. There are still other secrets here waiting to be explored further one day, including underwater caves, and disappearing pools and springs.

The image I was most after, was on showing the scale of the Sequoias (without a human element), the character of the forest, and of course a flowering Dogwood. If you have ever tried photographing the woods, you understand how difficult it is to portray the disorder and chaos in an orderly and aesthetically pleasing 2 dimensional manner. If you haven’t, I suggest you try it. We headed to the more famous areas, unfortunately where nearly all the tourists end up. Not far from the main ‘giant grove’ we found a quiet meadow devoid of any visitors that was truly the epitome of giant trees, meadows, streams, granite boulders, and of course, flowering dogwoods. Now the trick was to find a ‘perfect’ composition. After much exploring, I settled on one scene. The sky was partly cloudy and hazy, perfect for forest photography. As the sun descended in the sky, warm hazy streaks of filtered light entered the scene, providing depth and character to the woods. Then a few deer appeared in a nearby meadow. I gently herded them in the right direction, until they were close to the patch in my image. Then I waited. About half an hour later, they stood there perfectly, grazing happily, and feeling minute against the giant Sequoias next to them. This was the moment I was looking for (and need my real computer to properly edit).

Life Among Giants
“Life Among Giants” ~ Sequoia National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, Canon 24-105L f/4 IS @65mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 2.5sec
Processing: Lots of burning and dodging using multiply, screen, and contrast adjustment layers to get the dynamic range right (still needs work). The deer would clearly have moved in 2.5 seconds, thus I used an additional exposure at iso 800, f/16, and 0.3 sec to capture them, and masked that into the primary image.
Notes: Always consider moving subjects, be they animals, flowers, or water. If you need to stop the motion, you can use multiple exposures to reduce the noise in the rest of the image by using a lower iso. Remember, forests are best photographed on cloudy or hazy days, but ideally (depends on the scene of course) there will be some light streaming through late in the day – but you need some clouds or haze as direct sun will still be too strong.

After spending the night at our house, we headed back into King’s Canyon, this time driving along the King’s River towards Cedar Grove. The canyon is quite a sight, similar in ways to Yosemite, except without Half Dome, El Capitan, and the famous waterfalls – but there’s also less people! Here, by the cold and clear flowing King’s River, after our lunch, we happened upon our first bear of the day. (We’d seen one yesterday in giant forest too, actually). This bear, however, turned out to be particularly cooperative. It was a young bear, not a first year cub, but certainly not full grown either. After following it for a while, watching it graze in the meadow, my battery died. I quickly ran back to the car and got a new one (never forget your spare.. and keep it in your pocket!). After it got used to me I was rewarded with very close looks, and eventually it even took a nap, within about 10 feet of me!

Black Bear
“Black Bear” ~ King’s Canyon National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, Canon 100-400L IS @190mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 1600, f/5.6, 1/80th
Processing: Burning and dodging while being careful not to destroy the black fur in the bear! The final image will also require some noise reduction on the background.
Notes: Take advantage when you can get this close to a bear!

And one of me in action, thanks to my dad, who thankfully seems to enjoy my taking pictures as much as I do! –

Photographing Bear

During the rest of the day we saw two more bears. One beautiful male, with golden honey colored fur and a white chest patch – but he didn’t want to be photographed. Later that evening we saw a strange brownish colored one, who seemed to be entirely oblivious to its surroundings – perhaps partially blind too. Being on the other side of the river it was difficult to get an exciting image. Other animals evaded the camera as well throughout the trip, including several Western Tanagers, Black Headed Grosbeaks, and Mountain Quail. Still in store for me are the countless alpine lakes and jagged peaks, but those will have to wait until next year. This summer I am focusing on the more northern states, which are further from my future home in Pasadena, which is but a 3-5 hour drive from many of the trail heads!

Next time look for adventures in northern California, hopefully including Redwoods, Rhododendrons, and Roosevelt Elk. Thanks for reading, and let me know if you like this format!

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5 Responses to Life Among Giants

  1. Edie Howe says:

    Floris,

    That is one of the best bear images I’ve seen in a long time! Congrats on a wonderful capture.

  2. Monika Derrien says:

    Hey Flobs! This was a really interesting narrative to read — an engineer who can write well, wow! Great photos, too –I especially like the Wild Witch in the Woods — it kind of looks like a hybrid troll/hyena from the Lion King. I was talking to Julia yesterday, and she said you might crash at her place at some point in Portland. I was considering a trip that-a-ways, so perhaps we can coordinate.
    Can’t wait for updates! Miss ya.

  3. Claus says:

    fantastic pictures….. love it!

  4. wendysalter says:

    Hello Floris – so aptly named, and this must be what you were born to do – for you are an amazing photographer. Your photos are so beautiful, special, they made my heart leap. Thank you for your blog – a special space. I have some photos too, poor by your standards for I am a point-and-click artist. I am in the process of putting protection on some ancient trees. see ‘Trees’ on my blog, if you like.
    Keep going with your art/craft/work/love/play.
    Wendy.

  5. Irene says:

    Hi Floris,
    I visited the wildlife photographer of the year exhibition in London this weekend and loved your image of the ‘deer in the grove of giants’. For me, it stood out as the most stunning image in an outstanding collection. I was with my seventeen year old daughter who is newly enthusiastic about photography and she also loved the shot and I’m sure that it will inspire many others too. Congratulations,
    Irene Croal

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