Away from the Woods

I’m always in search of strange, unique, and lesser visited locations… But they’re hard to find, since they’re not really advertised (once they are, they’re no longer unique and lesser visited..). So in order to find such places you simply have to go exploring, or know someone who knows of such a spot and tells you about it. (That’s a subtle hint for you to tell me of exciting unpublished places that I can explore!). So it’s no surprise that I went in search of an ice cave in a remote lava tube when I stopped by some friends, Rick and Carol, for a few days on my way home from Northern CA. These lava tubes form when an insulating crust forms on the top of a low viscosity lava flow, and leaves behind a hollow tube once the lava has all flowed through. In some places these tubes collapse, thus providing a point of entry. At higher elevations the interiors of some of these caves can be cold enough that winter ice will persist throughout the summer, forming icicles, ice crystals, ice stalagmites (growing on the ground) and other permanent slabs of ice.

On a tip from my friends I headed out to check out this one cave, which was particularly interesting. In addition to the icicles, crystalline ceilings, and ice-agmites, which were clearly starting to slowly melt away, there was one very large slab. Judging from the pictures Rick had taken last year, this piece hardly changes from year to year, a sort of underground miniature glacier (about 5 feet tall, 3-5 feet wide, and 15 feet long or so). The odd shape looks a bit like the prow of a boat, and the best explanation I can think of is that it is shaped by the prevailing convective winds in the cave. It is of course pretty chilly inside – otherwise the ice wouldn’t last! The transition from the 80-90 degree weather to the cool and dark interior of the cave was quite refreshing. I even had to put on a pretty warm jacket to stay comfortable for the two hours I spent slipping and clambering around inside.

A place like this is of course really dark, so there’s not nearly enough natural light to take a picture without artificial lighting (even with a really long exposure). A flash doesn’t create a pleasing effect (besides, I sold mine as I never found the effect to be pleasing), unless using multiple flashes, diffusers, reflectors and a team of assistants to set it all up, so I went back to a technique I’d played with a few times before: light painting. Using a hand held flashlight I ‘painted’ the scene for about 3 minutes while the camera’s shutter was open. This provides soft and even lighting throughout the scene.

Ice Cave

“Glaciated Lava” ~ Remote Lava Tube in Northern California
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 21mm, tripod, remote programmable cable release (well, I use that for all my landscapes, but here it’s particularly relevant)
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 3 min *(see note below)
Notes/Processing: This image was actually formed in two seperate exposures, one of 2 minutes and one of 1 min. During that time I ‘painted’ the scene with a hand held flash light. After reviewing the image on my camera I noted one spot that was a bit dark in the bottom right corner, so I did a second exposure and concentrated on that area. Layering them on top of each other in photoshop as ‘lighten’ layers simulated a 3 min exposure. Other than that there was some burn/dodge, color balancing, and of course a friendly boost in saturation to bring out the colors.

Now, what’s a post without some local wildlife, eh? While staying with my friends Rick and Carol in Hat Creek, I headed out to the nearby pond to see if I could find some birds. I had a pretty exciting evening, which started with following a few Black-headed Grosbeaks through the brush, and finally getting good look at one – a pretty skinny and hungry lookin’ boy by the looks of him! This was particularly satisfying for me, as I’d been seeing these since my first adventure in Sequoia and King’s Canyon NP’s, but never managed to get close enough.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak ~ Hat Creek, CA
The Tech: Canon 20D, 500 f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/125th
Processing: Darkened background a bit, and lightened the head a little

Next were a couple birds that didn’t particularly want their photos taken, including a few Lewis’ Woodpeckers, which have a beautiful purple chest and burgundy face patch. I also heard a mob of blackbirds harassing what turned out to be the local Great-horned Owl, but never got a chance to get close enough for a picture. While looking around for the owl again I heard something scream, and turned to find what ended up being a Bald Eagle flying towards me! Generally I like to shoot birds in flight hand held, rather than being restricted by my monopod.. but there was no time to release the monopod. As you can imagine, I was quite happy when I reviewed the images and found that the eagle was in the frame and in focus and properly exposed (with warm very late afternoon light!) for the entire flyby, which had taken me completely by surprise!

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle ~ Hat Creek, CA
The Tech: Canon 20D, 500 f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, monopod
Exposure: iso 1600, f/5.6, 1/1000
Processing: While the eagle was entirely in the frame, it wasn’t in the most aesthetically pleasing location. As such I added some sky on the top and left, to give him some room to fly in. While I have no qualms making such an edit, rest assured that I would never do something like adding in the moon or some other scenery – that would be entirely false.

On my brief stop at home in Walnut Creek, CA, I of course made a point to go birding in the fading afternoon light in Mt. Diablo State Park, which is about 200 yards down the road. The pair of resident White-Tailed Kites were about as usual, this time with some fledglings circling around, looking for tasty rodents and harassing the odd Red-Tailed Hawk. A coyote was howling dramatically, but stayed out of range from the camera. While I was looking for wildlife, I was also scouting out potential landscape spots, and was paying close attention to the light, as usual. I happened upon a particularly mesmerizing stand of California grasses (I believe they’re Wild Oats, please correct me if I’m wrong). The blue light on the grasses in the shade formed a lovely contrast to the golden hills behind them, and I couldn’t resist looking for a pleasing composition.

Golden Grains
“Golden Grains” ~ Mt. Diablo State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 20D, 500 f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, monopod
Exposure: iso 200, f/5.6, 1/100th
Processing: I processed this one with low contrast and high saturation to bring out the soft warm feeling (generally contrast is proportional to saturation, so in order to maintain the correct color I had to bring the saturation up as I brought the contrast down). Light burn/dodge here and there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this story, with subjects a little different from the ancient forests I explored for the previous two weeks. If I’m lucky, and get an interesting sunset, I’ll get to add another unique spot I had scouted a few days ago where the water table meets some collapsed lava tubes to form small oases in lava land. Then I’ll go on to Oregon, where I will explore some known, and some unknown, creeks along the Colombia River Gorge, before heading up to the enchanted valleys of Olympic National Park! So if you missed the trees and beaches, no fear, they will return soon, followed by magical mountains…

2 Responses to Away from the Woods

  1. carol says:

    Excellent Floris! I read your blog all the way through to date and look forward to seeing ( and learning) more from your travels this summer.

  2. MacClaus says:

    Great to read. Have fun!

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