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Arizona’s Top 3 National Monuments Part 2

7 Jul

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Arizona is brimming with enchanting places to explore including over a dozen national monuments. This is the second of a three part series on my favorites, including the pros and cons, best times to visit, and other key travel tips.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

A long, winding dirt road pierces the desert floor leading toward a crest of crimson cliffs. While speckles of jubilant yellow dot the hillsides, this is a foreboding place. Chiseled by arroyos and protected by chollas, views fan out beyond the unseen international border. Despite the crusty terrain, the ride is smooth and the warm, dry air is surprisingly fresh.

By mile four, undulating gardens of distinctive cacti animate the landscape. In the fading light of day, these haunting figurines mimic the human form. Normally, the patriarchal saguaro rules the Sonoran but in this lonely pocket of country features a rival. The banana-shaped organ pipe cactus is not as tall as the saguaro but much wider. While common in Mexico, organ pipe are only found in this US park, which is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

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At nearly 331,000 acres Organ Pipe Cactus NM is the largest national monument in AZ with 95% of the land designated wilderness. Park visitors can explore via two scenic loop drives. The Ajo Mountain drive is the most popular and scenic. It is a 21-mile, one-way loop that traces the base of the mountains before circling back toward the visitor center. Across the highway is the Puerto Blanco Loop, a 37-mile drive through mostly open desert and gaping views. Other rough 4WD roads are options for longer stays and seasoned visitors.

The park has several official hiking trails but the premier trek is summiting 4808-foot Mount Ajo, the areas highest peak.  This is a full-day hike, partially off-trail totaling 9 miles with a cumulative elevation gain of 2800 feet. Definitely not for beginners. A shorter and easier option is hiking the trail from the campground to the visitor center. Enjoy pleasant views of the mountains while traversing through copious cholla gardens. There are a few benches along the way.

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The exceptional Twin Peaks Campground, featuring 360-degree views, was fully remodeled less than ten years ago. There is reliable vacancy nearly year round. If interested in hotels, find a few in the town of Ajo about 35 miles away.

Summers at Organ Pipe Cactus NM are hot. The ideal times to visit are between November and early April with pleasant daytime highs and cool nights. Delicate ground flowers such as poppies and owl clover flourish in late February and early March. The strength of annual blooms vary and flowers wither when daytime highs exceed 85 degrees. Saguaros and organ pipe cacti don’t bloom until May.

Dining choices are also limited. There is a convenience store and small diner in Lukeville, a military-border town about seven miles away. Purchase a few snacks and cold water at the visitor center, otherwise, it’s a lengthy drive to a restaurant.

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If you are interested in seeing the best of Organ Pipe Cactus NM consider joining me on a group workshop. Due to high springtime demand of my private tours,  I’m assembling a 3-day group event in March of 2018. If interested, message me for more information.

 

Photographing Ice Lake

16 Jun

In addition to hiking, my book also includes a photography section for each lake. This provides useful information for both the serious shooter and the casual looking to improve his or her (smartphone) shots. While each chapter is unique, topics include instructional, technical and creative advice. Also discussed are nearby points of interest, strategies for finding the best composition and more.

You might learn something that isn’t obvious too. For instance, notice the distance from the water in the picture below. It’s about a half mile and 500 feet of elevation away. In many spacious basins, it is challenging to explore everywhere in one visit. That’s why tips on where to go help.

Below is partial excerpt for a popular location in the San Juan Mountains. July and August are the perfect times to visit. For an amazing experience, consider personal instruction and guidance by yours truly this year! Find more information about this here.

Exertion Point

Ice Lake Basin, Colorado, August

Capturing or witnessing Upper Ice Lake Basin’s signature alpenglow is an exclusive experience available to those willing to spend the night. Golden Horn is the most iconic peak and befittingly shows off the best display of crimson morning light, both before and immediately after sunrise.

During times of peak wildflowers, compositions are plentiful. The most iconic shots feature alpenglow reflections and successful ones accentuate form. Consider shooting at an intimate tarn as opposed to Upper Ice Lake. Sunrise images won’t display the lake’s vivid color, which needs direct midmorning light. Be sure to bracket shots or use a graduated neutral-density filter.

Another alternative is shooting Ice Lake’s hefty outlet stream. Several sections of rippling cascades offer excellent vantage points. These dynamic compositions usually do not include the lake. Use a wide-angle lens and try blending for depth of field.

Perhaps skip the water altogether and fill your foreground with a bouquet of splashy wildflowers. This works best on still mornings and emphasizes spectacle. Whatever you choose, the best plan is staying more than one night to ensure the greatest opportunity for success.

Sunrise is not the only time for mesmerizing photography. Midmornings on partly cloudy days also yield outstanding results. Remember to use a polarizer and shoot when the groundcover is in partial shadow. Even in harsh midday light, the lake photographs well with a smartphone.

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Hiking Hope Lake

10 Jun

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Below is an excerpt from my new book, Capturing Colorado: Hiking & Photographing Lakes of the San Juan Mountains. Celebrate summer with a definitive guide to Colorado’s finest range. Find out more about this exciting guide here.

Clouds play hide-and-seek amid unearthly red peaks and motley fields of flowers en route to Hope Lake. The price to pay for this special occasion is a paltry one – 2.5 miles and 1500 feet of altitude gain. A relative drop in the bucket compared with the taxing work necessary to reach other locations with similar scenery. Hiking is part of the allure, making this adventure an ideal choice when exploring near Rico and Telluride.
Begin on level dirt venturing through a shaded forest before reaching a hillside gulley. The streambed is wide and shallow but floods after heavy rains. An unobstructed presentation of a looming crest soon appears. Accentuated by the chattering sounds of water, these stately sights impress.
Effortless hiking continues for over a mile, including a brief downhill stint on a series of meandering switchbacks. Views progressively improve with shimmering Trout Lake and the unorthodox skyline of the Lizard Head Wilderness afar. Twenty-five minutes of walking brings the confluence of two major waterfalls and the trail traces them upwards. A wooden sign marks the beginning of this climb, which is a natural resting spot. Nearby, a tree-covered ravine makes an enchanting place to investigate.
The final push takes place on moderate switchbacks through a timber canopy and open understory. An occasional window offers compelling views of an imposing peak. Walk on soft ground while enjoying the roaring sounds of water splashing down the mountain.
Above the trees, enter a medium-sized meadow with unbelievable vantages of the burnt-orange slopes of 13,897-foot Vermillion Peak. Enjoy outstanding views of this mysterious mountain amid dizzying scenery. Wandering forward toward a notch in the hills, catch your first glimpse of soothing Hope Lake. You may find yourself wondering, “Is this place real?”

Leaving for Frozen Yellowstone This Week

16 Jan

I am preparing for my first photography trip of 2012 to  Yellowstone National Park. Later this week, I’ll arrive in Bozeman, MT  where I’ll spend nearly a week exploring the frozen tundra of Yellowstone in search of interesting landscapes and wild animals. While I have spent some time in Yellowstone during a snowstorm, it was during the fall and not the frozen heart of winter.

My experience in dealing with sub-freezing temperatures is limited and I am not exactly sure what to expect. Considering that I have lived in Arizona for the past 16 years , I am not used to hardcore winter photography where temperatures can drop below zero.

Just minutes before a huge snowstorm hit Yellowstone Lake

Just minutes before a huge snowstorm hit Yellowstone Lake, captured in early October

Because I’ll be assisting another photographer in leading a large group – I don’t exactly have the autonomy I normally do on a photography excursion by myself.  However, I am still hoping to come away with some quality images. Currently, the weather forecast looks like snow, snow and more snow so I am not sure how that is going to translate into landscape images, which I favor over wildlife scenes.  My goal is to push the bounds of my creativity and hopefully come up with something unique, especially if the light is less than spectacular.

Any suggestions or tips for dealing with the cold weather are greatly appreciated. I have hand and feet warmers, but I am still not sure how equipped or prepared I am in dealing with the frigid temperatures.

Finding Your Creative Vision Part 3 – The Black and White

5 May

“Both the grand and the intimate aspects of nature can be revealed in the expressive photograph. Both can stir enduring affirmations and discoveries, and can surely help the spectator in his search for identification with the vast world of natural beauty and wonder surrounding him.”
— Ansel Adams

Contemporary landscape photography is dominated by digital images of saturated and vibrant color. The popularity of this style is obvious and it oftentimes overshadows the traditional and subtle effectiveness of just using black and white. However, by no means is black and white photography passe. Today, we’ll discuss some of the most important processes involved in capturing and presenting your images in black and white.

Having a Vision

One of the most critical steps for the photographer to think in terms of black and white. What I mean is at the time of capture you should be envisioning a black and white finished product for your photograph. While this doesn’t always have to be the case, it certainly does help. You may be wondering, how does one go about developing this type of mindset?

One key is for the photographer to focus on finding black and white compositions when they are in the field. A prime way of accomplishing this is through the careful examination of subject matter and light. Black and white photography is most effective when there is a full spectrum of tone between white and black with many different shades of grey. Two common means of illustration are the primary colors of the subject and/or the light during the time of capture.

This is an image of Yellowstone Lake taken at the beginning of October as the area’s lovely fall weather was deteriorating into the freezing grip of winter. The water level here was low thus exposing many of the rocks in the lake. During capture, it was very cold and windy and a huge snow storm was moving in. The colors were fairly mute and because it was in the late afternoon and extremely overcast I knew this would lend well to black and white.

Once again, the key with black and white is to offer the viewer the full spectrum of tones so the eye can easily differentiate between the shades. Form is also accentuated in black and white. The effective use of contrast to emphasize form is often a key to the aesthetic success of your image. Here I like the forms of the rocks in the water. I also like the powerful U-shape formed by the exposed bank in the lake.

Styles

Stylistically, several types of prominent landscapes translate well into black and white photography. Here is a short list to keep in mind next time your are in the field: aspen trees, dead trees, raging creeks, sand dunes, barns, and snow capped peaks.

Processing

While this blog post was not designed to get into the specific technical aspects behind black and white processing, I will briefly discuss a couple important factors. How and when you convert your image to black and white is a subjective call. I’ve experimented with it several ways and I don’t particularly have a preference. It can be done at the beginning or end of your work flow and by a number of different ways in the same programs. (There are also third party plug ins that effectively facilitate the conversion too). If you are looking to have a finished product in both color and black and white I suggest just convert and tweak at the end of your work flow, unless you want to completely edit the picture twice.

Finally, the white balance you choose will also affect your image’s final appearance. What color tone do you want? A neutral grey? Blue? Or maybe slightly yellow? Those are subjective calls and a lot depends on personal preference and what you are trying to communicate…
For example, look closely at the image below and then compare to the one above. Notice the difference in the tone? The Yellowstone Lake shot is bluer, while the image beneath is more of a neutral grey.

Hopefully this post provided you with a little creative inspiration and approach to capturing and presenting your images in black and white, until next time have a great weekend!

Tucson Barrio

27 Jan

Joyce and I are back from an awesome weekend in Tucson. I have to say that here  in Phoenix, the city of Tucson sometimes is portrayed negatively and unfairly (in my opinion) by many of the local print publications. It is unfortunate because Tucson has a ton of character on its streets that  really isn’t as evident here in the valley. Although it has grown dramatically in the past ten years, it still maintains the feel of its Spanish roots. Tucson has also down a good job of preserving historic sites. The Mission at San Xavier del Bac just south of the City is a shining example painstaking preservation efforts. In addition, Tucson has some killer mountains on all four sides and probably the best saguaro forests in the country. Saguaro National Park is a must do trip on any visit to the Tucson area.

Today I want to talk about the Tucson barrio.  As many of you may know, I volunteer for Friends of Arizona Highways Photo Workshops. It was through the Friends organization that I first learned about this  amazing place. They do a workshop there in the spring and reading about this place captured my imagination.  I’ve always been interested in photographing doors and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. The brilliant colors and unique architectural features in the barrio are mesmerizing.

With a weather forecast of clear, blue skies all weekend long I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to capture some urban art in the heart of the “Old Pueblo.”  Joyce and I spent several sunrises there capturing the colors and atmosphere of the unique barrio. Below is one of my favorite images from the trip….

I prefer the distressed look on the abandoned properties as opposed to the cleaner presentation of many of the remodeled homes in the area

Joyce captured some fantastic shots too. Even though this home is remodeled, I think the light shining in the middle of it really makes this shot for me. It is definitely one of my favorites…

The barrio is a really cool place if you are interested in this type of photography. We felt the best location was in the vicinity of Stone and Cushing streets in downtown Tucson. If you are ever in the area, it is definitely worth a look. My next post will most likely be on Monday, until then, have a fantastic weekend!

Day Four – Tips, Techniques, and Insight into Making Stunning Photos

20 Sep

Today we will talk about one my more recent images, taken at Bryce Canyon this past May called, “Bad Moon Rising”.

Ambient sunset light glows on the hoodoos, spires, and pinnacles in Bryce Canyon UT while an incredibly orangish-yellow full moon rises in the opposite direction.

 

 Location: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Technical Info: Canon 5D MK2, 70 – 200 F/2.8, F/10, ISO 100, 1 second exposure

Filters: .6 Lee GND (Hard)

Processing: Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS4

 Creative Process: This image is really about being at the right place at the right time. When visiting Bryce Canyon make sure you take a full arsenal of lenses because you never know what is going to inspire you next. I was shooting in the other direction when my fiancée informed me the moon was coming up.

I quickly scrambled to this view-point, composed the image, added a grad to reduce the light in the sky, and began taking pictures. During that time, one thing I kept in mind was the amount of exposure time. I knew I needed to have a relatively short exposure because the moon was rising over the horizon very quickly. I didn’t want it to be blurred during capture.

Most of the time, I have a default aperture I use when taking pictures. This varies from lens to lens and according to the focal length of the scene. For standard shots such as this with my 70-200 F/2.8 lens, I like to use an F/10 aperture. I believe this gives me the clearest image at any aperture setting on the lens. Using the higher aperture allows me to take quicker photos with less exposure times. I kept the ISO at 100 and was still able to have just a one second exposure. I was also bracketing my shots.

 I used two exposures to blend this image. For my base image, I used the image correctly exposed for the moon and sky. I then blended in the brighter exposure – accurately depicting the colors of the hoodoos, rocks, and trees. Initially, I began processing in the opposite direction, trying to use the base image as the one for the rocks and blend back in the moon. However, the moon was moving during capture and from frame to frame, so I was unable to successfully blend that way  – leaving me with a halo around the moon from where it had moved.

Like many landscape images, this was a spontaneous one. There wasn’t any real location scouting or planning. It is important to be flexible and keep an open mind for opportunities and be ready to take advantage of them when they do arise. Also, I am in the initial stages of offering a 3 day workshop to Bryce Canyon in the summer of 2011. Check back on my website  later this week for more details. I hope you found this article informative.  helps. Please contact me  if you have any other questions.

Day Three – Tips, Techniques, and Insight into Making Stunning Photos

19 Sep

Today, we are going to examine the creation of one of my favorite images of last year called “The Master of Light”.  This is certainly not a personal reference, but a divine one.

Fading sunlight illuminates the huge meadows surrounding the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park.

Location:  Yellowstone National Park, WY

Technical Info:  Canon 5D Mk2, 24 – 105 F/4,  F/22,  ISO 50, 4 second exposure

Filters:  Hoya Warming Polarizer, .9 Singh-Ray GND (Soft), .6 Lee GND (Hard)

Processing: Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS4

Creative Process: I arrived to view this scene shortly before sunset after a day of backpacking through Bechler River Canyon. It was a virtually cloudless day until I saw a storm developing in the distance around the Grand Tetons. We had crossed this meadow on the way into the canyon so I was familiar with the area. I knew I wanted to condense the size of the massive meadow and try to  make the mountains an integral part of the composition. I framed the back side of the Grand Teton between the trees and used the cattail as the foreground to frame the river. I maxed out the focal length on my lens and loaded on several filters.

I used the polarizer to reduce the glare of the water and bring extra contrast to the sky. I then used several graduated neutral density filters to reduce the brightness in the sky into a manageable dynamic range. Because the light was the best almost immediately when I arrived upon the scene; I didn’t have much time to work. I was able to capture two different frames before the meadow fell completely into shadow.

I used the low aperture and ISO to lengthen the shutter speed as much as possible, wanting to smooth out, yet show movement in the water. Because the storm was gathering quickly, you can also see movement in some of the clouds as well. Overall, it was one of the better scenes I captured in 6 weeks in the park and I am looking forward to spending more time in this area in the future. If you have any questions regarding this image or any others please feel free to contact me anytime.

Day Two – Tips, Techniques, and Insight into Making Stunning Photos

18 Sep

Today we are going to examine the details behind possibly my best shot of last year called, Celestial Alignment. The title comes from the fact the Lord literally hooked it up that morning and elements all fell into place perfectly for a stunning image.

Location: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Technical Info: Canon 5D mark 2, 16 – 35 L/2.8, F/22, .8 exposure, ISO 160

Filters:  .9 Singh-Ray GND (Soft), .6 Lee GND (Hard)

Processing: Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS4

Creative Process:  I captured this image during the one night I spent at Bryce Canyon NP last year. Talk about a blessing! We arrived at the park the day before as storms were moving through the area. The shooting was good during the afternoon as well as for sunset. The following morning we arrived at Sunset Point (better for sunrises IMO) and I began walking and composing images. Because there were no clouds obscuring the horizon, the pre-dawn light was pretty intense, so I stacked a couple of grads on my camera. I knew from my test shots that a single graduated neutral density filter would not be enough to capture the full dynamic range of light, even while bracketing. (For the most, using graduated neutral density filters at Bryce Canyon is straight forward because of the even horizon).  As the light began to change, we continued to move along the rim of the canyon. I generally knew where I wanted to shoot because I had scouted the location the day before. I also had a pretty good idea of where the sun was going to come up at because of the light in the sky. As the sun appeared, I found myself in the right place at the right time well prepared to capture the fleeting scene. All in all, the light lasted maybe 5 minutes and I was able to create plenty of images in that time.

I used an aperture of F/22 to create the sunburst effect as the sun moved over the horizon. I also bracketed my exposures by 1 1/3 stops allowing me plenty of “wiggle room” so when editing I had the full dynamic range of light to properly replicate what I saw in the sky. The hardest part about editing images of Bryce is balancing out the contrast in the red rocks with the contrast in the trees.  Also, not clipping the red channels in the rocks can be problematic. Overall, this image came out extremely and I am fortunate to share this story with you.  I hope you found it useful. If so, please let me know!

A Sure Fire Way to Improve Your Landscape Photography….

21 Aug

I am feeling compelled to share this tip with you before the weekend and my hope is that you’ll find this advice solid, useful, and rewarding. Before we start, I’ll admit I am guilty of skipping around on my blog posts and this one is no exception. As a result, I will continue my last series about sharing your photographs online next week.  Allow me to briefly provide you some context  for this post and where the inspiration came from. Lately, I have returned to many images already in the archives or previously posted to reprocess in hopes of a better result.  So far, I am very pleased with the results.  This has been a season of less travel for me, and  I haven’t taken what I consider to be a major trip (more than a week in the wilderness) pretty much all year. 

Being grounded in society like this really helps provide perspective on my time outdoors;  it is something that I cherish, relish, and value very much. Sometimes, when you out there so long (at least for me) one can get a little desensitized to the special meaning of their surroundings. While reworking some of these older images and through feedback from posting them online, I’ve seen once again how incredibly spectacular some of the places are that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. 

That brings me to the topic of this post:  Want to be a better landscape photographer? Well, besides enrolling in a photography workshop (another post at a later time, improve your research skills.  It dawned on me that I rarely just show up and luck into a great photograph. For me, it is much more than that – it takes time and efficient planning.  For your convenience, I am including a list on the steps I go through when planning a trip, and the questions that cross my mind and that I need to answer in order to move forward. (Not all steps will be applicable to everyone) 

1. Dates: When are you going to go? How much time can you spend on this trip?  This is pretty much my first step in planning a trip. I’ve got to decide when and for how long. We all have extenuating circumstances that help dictate or shape the dates of our trip – so I normally don’t precede any farther until I can confidently answer both these questions. 

2. Location:  For me, the location is always determined by the date and the amount of time I can spend on the trip.  Most of the time, I drive. For instance,  if the trip is less than three days, I won’t go out of state. If it is for a week, I’ll drive further to parts of a neighboring state like California, Utah, Nevada, or Colorado. If it is two or more weeks, I’ll consider driving somewhere like Northern California or Wyoming. The second part of this equation is the time of year: Obviously, we aren’t taking any backpacking trips in the Sonoran Desert in July and I am not planning on driving to Wyoming in January either. I generally try to maximize the season. That means go where the going is best….     

3.  Specifics:  The first two steps are pretty obvious. This step is where the rubber meets the road. It’s good to get a little dirty here.  I start with maps. Normally, AAA state road maps work best as the wilderness areas are well-marked in green. For instance, if I am going to Yosemite, I might look also at the areas around Yosemite to see if there is any interesting worth checking out. For some parks, like Yosemite, a lot of your options are decided by which way you’ll be driving so I like to determine that first so it gives me a clearer path of direction. (Excuse the pun) 

Along with all my maps my hiking book collection is an indisposable resource for my photography. This is just part of the collection...

 

 

So now you now where you want to go, when you want to go, for how long you are going, and which way you are going to be driving. Now the hard part; what are you going to do when you get there? For the sake of time, here’s a list of recommendations, advice and questions to think when planning this important leg of your journey. 

1. What are my physical limitations and what do I feel comfortable doing? 

2. If backpacking, do I need a permit and should I reserve one? Where do I get the permits? What are the best campsites?  What are the camping restrictions? 

3. What dangers do I need to be aware of and educated on?  (Wild animals,  flash floods, creek or river fording, unmaintained trails,  precarious climbs) 

3.  Which camera equipment should I bring?   

4. Where are the best places to stay should I need a hotel? 

5.  What is the elevation gain/loss of the hike? How many miles will I be traveling? 

1. Buy and study the guide books – the more research you do the better. 

2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – don’t be too ambitious in your planning, allow for layover days and for days just to explore the area (just make sure you have the right area) 

3. Monitor the weather reports 

4. Spending time learning the topography of the land and learn or read about when are the best times to shoot. 

5. Get there early and stay late if possible. 

6. Schedule layover days for scouting expeditions 

7. Make safety a priority & have fun!!

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