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Backpacking and Photography in the Petrified Forest National Park

13 Jun

Exploring the Painted Desert and Black Forest areas of the Petrified Forest National Park

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“The Wanderers” Early morning dappled light in a remote area of the Petrified Forest

The Petrified Forest National Park lies along the remote eastern border of Arizona near the small railroad town of Holbrook. Surrounded by the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni Indian Reservations, vast rolling badlands feature copious amounts of petrified wood. A paved road connects two visitor centers. The drive between features various landmarks, overlooks, pueblos, mesas and other Route 66 curiosities.

The park closes at sunset and does not have a campground. The only way to spend the night is by backpacking. Entrance fees are $20 and backcountry permits are free. Of course, bring plenty of water!

Timing your visit to this arid high-desert playground is tricky. Expect 40-degree differences between highs and lows. There are no perfect months for weather. Late spring and early fall are top choices for comfortable days and chilly nights.

The mission of my June 1st visit  to successfully capture the full moon. We choose to enter the backcountry from the unnamed trail near the Painted Desert Inn (historic landmark) in the northern sector. There are no topographic maps available at the visitor center and a GPS is highly recommended.

After setting up camp, I settled upon a rocky perch ringed with various geologic oddities overlooking crimson badlands for the sunset session. Light was harsh and a 400 mm lens would have been useful. Photography was tricky especially finding suitable foreground compositions and capturing adequate depth of field.

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“Extraterrestrial Flapjacks”

 

As the light waned I was almost to busy pursuing my goal of the perfect shot to notice the absence of the full moon. The sky was ninety-percent clear but obviously it was hiding somewhere. I could not even see a source of light! As I packed up my belongings writing off another opportunity to capture one of my favorite subjects…the moon peeked out behind the veil of thick clouds. I worked quickly to capture the scene and to my delight to develop an adequate rendition of my experience.

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“Lunar Fortress”

As the night progressed the clouds thickened and when I awoke I knew that it would be a fantastic sunrise.  The color appeared quicker than anticipated as I scrambled up a steep, clay mesa behind our campsite near a wash. While I had not scouted this spot the night before, I was pleased with the unending views as well the abundant petrified logs.

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“Primordial Firewood”

While I expected the sky to clear, a fresh new layer of clouds flew into the scenery. I climbed higher above the badlands for a bird’s eye before settling on a distant location. I predetermined a safe way down and knew that I’d have just enough to time to capture the best light.

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“Solitary Awakening”

While the day heated up we ventured out for one last round of sight seeing before returning to our vehicle. The desert smelled of rain and distant storm clouds confirmed our senses. I had difficulty finding the location I had visited earlier but stumbled upon miles of other enticing scenic interests. I’d love to learn about your favorite interpretation of my experiences. Thanks for reading and sharing!

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“Day of the Sky”

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“The Long Wood”

5 Insider Tips on Renting Cars for Your Next Adventure

11 Oct

Autumn is the perfect time for road trips and renting a vehicle can save gas and prevent needless wear-and-tear. For those of us with wanderlust this can be invaluable. Here are five tips to save money, time, and headaches the next time you need a rental car.

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  1. Aim for the Sweet Spots – Rule #1 when renting vehicles – not all days cost the same. Week-long rentals generally offer the best bang for your buck. For instance, if you are renting for four or five days a week-long rental could be the same price or just a few dollars more. Likewise, many rental agencies offer specials on weekends. However, expect to pay more on holidays or during local events like concerts or festivals. Similarly, most locations have “peak” seasons for charging premium prices. For instance, rates spike in Phoenix in March for spring training. Having flexibility when planing your next adventure can save you cash.
  2. Use Costco Travel – This one is not free as a membership costs $60/yr. However, if you are renting four or five cars annually this can pay for itself. Costco Travel aggregates all the coupons for Enterprise, Avis, Budget,  and Alamo and automatically applies them to your reservation. This saves you countless hours searching the web for the latest coupon codes or deals. While some “discount” companies like National, Fox, and Dollar are not covered – these prices provide a benchmark if you want to search elsewhere for better prices. Hertz is the only major company not covered that has locations away from the airports.
  3. Reserve Early and Double Check Later – To secure the best rates try reserving at least three weeks in advance. In fact, I recommend making the reservation as soon as your trip plans are solidified. Earlier is usually better as prices tend to rise as more demand for that date occurs. However, prices also occasionally drop. It may be worth investing 5 to 10 minutes of time to double check prices as your next trip approaches. You could end up saving 50 bucks or more!
  4. Coverage Choices – I use American Express when renting cars because it covers my insurance. Make sure you have proper coverage in place without paying the extraordinary prices rental agencies charge. If necessary, call your insurance agent to find out what your policy covers. If you need to purchase coverage have the clerk explain everything as there are multiple levels of coverage including some that you may not need.
  5. Watch for Bait-n-Switch – This usually pertains to the class of cars. Because there are so many: economy, compact, intermediate, standard, and full size the differences can be vague. Some cars and SUV’s seem too fit into two categories. Rental companies will occasionally put you in a lower class of vehicle and then try selling you on an upgrade. This “upgrade” is actually what you are paying for in the first place! If necessary, be prepared to pull up the company website which shows and describes the class of vehicles. Additionally, companies will try selling “fake” upgrades. For instance, when renting a Jeep from the airport in Hawaii I was asked by the clerk if I’d like to upgrade to two-door model for $60. I let him explain the benefits and politely refused. When I got my vehicle I was able to choose a two-door one anyways!

If you have any other tips, stories, or if this post was helpful to you I’d love to read them in the comments section below.

Endless Journey

5 Tips for a Better Backpacking Trip

6 Oct

For many October represents the last month for backpacking without traveling. Here in the Southwest, it is the beginning of the backpacking season. Whether you live close to the mountains, forest, ocean or desert, these are five tried-and-true backpacking tips to help you get more out of your next adventure.

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Off-trail backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness

  1. Pack Smarter – One way to maximize your travel load is to pack items that have more than one use.  For instance, mix olive oil in hot food for extra calories and  use it as a nighttime facial moisturizer. Likewise, a trowel is primarily used to dig latrines but can also come in handy in emergency situations. Carefully selecting multifaceted items helps keep pack loads lighter because you can do more with less. Traveling lighter also makes hiking more enjoyable.
  2. Invest in a Better Sleeping Pad – It’s amazing how many people still carry the old-school foam sleeping pads. While ultralight, inflatable sleeping pads are more expensive, it’s a worthwhile investment. Not only will you sleep better but you’ll be warmer as high-end inflatable pads are insulated and keep you off the ground. Improving your sleep quality in the backcountry means a more enjoyable experience and you’ll think more clearly too.
  3. Count Calories – Packing the right amount of food is an art and taking the time to stay organized pays back dividends. How much is too much? To save money, starting purchasing food several weeks before and stockpile. Visit a variety of grocery stores to get the best deals. Once your cache is complete, divide the food into days by meticulously counting  calories per package labels. Two-thousand calories per day is sufficient. Store in bags and label each day. Bonus tip: consume your heaviest and bulkiest items first. If buying dehydrated meals like Backpacker’s Pantry – buy in bulk to save money. These meals last for years.
  4. Cut Labels and Packaging – The majority of cutting will be performed on food packaging. Cut the ends without compromising freshness. If the original packaging is too bulky (usually bags) repackage altogether (except for jerky). Also be sure to cut the labels off of your tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. Labels and packaging add up. You could save between 12 – 15 ounces easy.
  5. Mental Preparation – I am huge proponent of mental preparation. Study the weather reports and comb over topographic maps. Make sure you know the elevation and distances for each leg of the trip. Identify an areas on your hike where the trail could be faint or a creek crossing difficult. If finding water is an issue, this is where you need to plan accordingly. Most adventures hold surprises and mental preparation could be the difference between having fun or making a serious blunder.
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Taking in a backcountry sunset in the South San Juan Wilderness

September Decisions

14 Sep

Autumn, the time when the weather cools, school starts, football returns, the leaves change and fall, and everyone’s lives get a little busier. This is notably true for landscape photographers as the fall is a consensus “favorite” season for many shutterbugs.

Late September is an unpredictable time as the last days of summer usher in a wide variety of atmospheric conditions. Humidity decreases, so does the bugs and crowds, creating innumerable possibilities for those fortunate enough to travel.

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I was hoping to revisit my favorite waterfall while in Yellowstone. This shot was captured in September 2009.

I find myself currently in this position with my girlfriend who works for a major airline, the opportunities are endless to explore new places. The plan was to return to Yellowstone, as September is known as the “golden month” in the world’s first national park. However, the upcoming weather forecast is calling for below normal temps and extended periods of precipitation (rain/snow mix), which makes backpacking less fun.

Long story short we decided to look elsewhere. Some of the places we considered were Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park (ME), Blackwater Falls SP (WV), Cathedral Gorge State Park (NV), Lassen Volcanic NP and Channel Islands NP (CA), and now the search continues. We still haven’t decided on a destination although it is now looking like California again. What places do you recommend during this time of year?

In other news, I am back in editing mode working on my new releases gallery. Most of the images will be from summer backpacking trips around the San Juans as I am diligently working toward a printed version of my book. However, you’ll also discover images from other states too. It is a work in progress but check back regularly for frequent updates and happy leaf peeping!

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A high key black and white image from Yellowstone Lake in early October

 

 

 

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.

 

Arizona’s Top 3 National Monuments Part 1

26 Jun

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

Canyon De Chelly National Monument

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A gaping chasm of sandstone reveals a lush valley with zigzagging patterns of stately cottonwood trees. Hidden in this oasis are myriads of ancient ruins, linking the past to present. My strongest impression is indulging in the palpable silence of sunrise while standing on the precipice of a sheer 1,000-foot cliff. A whispering breeze slices through the stillness of this lonesome landscape. Carefully navigating the rocks only inches from certain death invigorates my soul. Occasionally I hear from a companion, a cawing raven struggling in the cross currents.

Canyon De Chelly is the premier national monument in Arizona and a top-shelf scenic attraction. Established in 1931, the Navajo Nation owns this national historic treasure. A series of roads surround it connecting unique vistas with interesting names and stories. Getting around may confuse first-time visitors as Canyon De Chelly actually comprises four canyons and features complex geology.

Many viewpoints feature wide, sprawling platforms perfect for scrambles and exploring. It is easy to find solitude among the many nooks, overhangs, and ledges. However, there is only one public trail in the park. A 1.2-mile route (Whitehouse Ruins Trail) leads down a winding rock passage from an overlook to the valley floor. Further exploring is prohibited without a Navajo guide. (Easily book a private or public sightseeing tour near the visitor center. Prices are negotiable.)

The most iconic landmark is Spider Rock, a lone, towering spire in a secluded basin that shimmers at sunset. A brief 10-minute walk introduces the best views but some sight lines are obscured by dense foliage and dangerous outcroppings. Local residents (a.k.a.) outgoing canyon dogs sometimes tag along for fun. The Spider Rock Overlook is about a half-hour drive (16 miles) from the visitor center and campground.

 

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Photo by Dean Hueber see more of his work here

 

In addition to the campground, other lodging options include an in-park hotel and several others in nearby Chinle, a town of about 5,000 people. The privately owned Spider Rock Campground adds the unique experience of staying in a Navajo hogan. A three-day stay is a perfect introduction to this spellbinding place. Canyon De Chelly is a true four-season park with fall colors usually occurring toward the end of October. It is a five-hour drive from Phoenix or about fours from Albuquerque, NM.

 

 

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.

The Top Three Western States for Landscape Photography

19 Sep

As landscape photographers, we all have different visions and reasons to shoot the subject matter we chose.  At times, the experience of traveling to these places is as lasting a memory as some of the images that I create.  The following is my personal list of western states that I enjoy the most for landscape photography,  some interesting statistics, and characteristics that embellish them.

1. Colorado

Land Mass – 104,000 square miles or 8th largest in the country

Population – approx 5 million  or 22nd most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including the entire western border from Dinosaur National Monument to Grand Junction and Cortez

Pro’s:  Arguably the most scenic mountains in the US accompanied with superior wildflowers, and the most prolific autumn foliage in the Western United States. Diverse topography featuring many southwestern geologic features including sand dunes and red rock.  Summer monsoons and early autumn storms make fine art landscape photography possible at almost any time of day.  More accessible roads and fewer hiking and camping restrictions than found in most states.

Con’s: No access to beaches or coastline, eastern part of the state is flat, ATV’s are very popular and disruptive to solitude

Summary:  There is no better place in the United States to photograph than Colorado if mountains are your subject matter of choice.  Here you’ll find more than 60% of the 14,000 ft. peaks located in the United States. That’s more than twice as the next state Alaska, which is more than six times its size! Addition, Colorado also boasts some of the most dramatic weather in the country, hence the name colorful Colorado. In the summer months, the afternoon skies are littered with clouds during its monsoon season. Fall arrives early in the alpine areas and it is typical to get snow during peak fall foliage. This phenomenon is uncommon or not possible in most other states. Spring brings budding aspens and wildflowers in the foothills of its ranges. A true four season state, Colorado offers the best of the best for alpine scenery mixed with enough topographical diversity and southwestern reds to make every connoisseur of the landscape a happy camper.

2. California

Land Mass – 163,700 square miles or 3rd largest in the country

Population – approx 37.2 million, which is  the  most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including most of the areas south of San Francisco to San Diego, most of the Sierra Nevada’s and the Channel Islands

Pro’s: The most diverse topography, best alpine lakes, longest coastline, largest island, best sand dunes, tallest mountain, highest waterfall, and most national parks in the country.

Con’s: Poor air quality/smog, overcrowded parks, state running out of funds and tourism is being affected

Summary: The most obvious choice for number one, due to its sheer size and location California finishes a distant second on my list. While the Sierra Nevada’s offer some of the best backpacking in the world, there are too many clear days and way too many bugs to rate it ahead of the mountains in Colorado for landscape photography.  Air quality can also be an issue there, as it is in states desert park’s like Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  Yosemite and its sister parks King’s Canyon/Sequoia offer big views, lakes, trees, waterfalls and certainly crowds. In the spring, the Mohave Desert is joy to photograph as is the eastern Sierra during all seasons. California’s coastal ranges from Santa Cruz to Santa Monica are arid, homogenous and somewhat uninspiring.  However, its beaches offer as much opportunity as anywhere in the country. The Golden State is a place landscape where photographers have to work much harder to get original, high quality landscape shots.

3.Utah

Land Mass – 84,900 square miles or 13th in the country

Population – 2.7 million residents or 34th in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited: 80%

Summary: Utah seriously challenges California for the number two position on this list. I gave the nod to California for its diversity and size, but Utah probably offers more bang for the buck and as a whole is arguably a more photogenic state.  Utah’s most famous scenery comes from the southern part of the state, some of which it shares with Arizona like Monument Valley and the Wave. One also can’t forget the Subway, the Watchman, Mesa Arch, Zebra Canyon, the Narrows, Calf Creek Falls and Delicate Arch as well many others…From its famous national parks to the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains in the north, Utah offers world-class scenery throughout.  Its diverse climate and landscape makes it an excellent choice for visitors year round.

Pro’s: Most iconic southwestern landscapes in the country, easy to find solitude, five national parks, slot canyons, fall foliage, deserts, above average wildflowers and excellent alpine scenery.

Con’s:  High entrance fee’s to state parks, no access to coastline, middle part of the state is generally uninteresting, ATV’s very popular

Honorable mention: Wyoming, Oregon

Not included in these rankings: Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico

I’d love to hear some other opinions on this subject whether you agree or disagree. Please feel free to chime in!

Top Internet Websites for Trip Planning

4 Jul

One of the questions I was asked in a recent interview about photography was in regards to how I did my research to  information for the places that I go.  We’ve covered this topic before and today I thought it would be helpful  to list the top websites that I use for trip research. Most of these are pretty obvious, but I’ll explain to you how I use them.

Google
There are a couple different ways to use Google for Internet searches. The web search is the obvious primary function. The search topics I look for are the names of hikes or places and pictures.  One useful feature of this site  is the Google Images. This is an excellent way to find information. Not only is the search done by pictures, but it takes the user to the landing pages of those images. Sometimes this kills two birds with one stone. Instead of searching for articles containing your keywords, you do a keyword search on pictures and clicking on the image takes you to information on the pictures.

Amazon
For online book or map purchases, I believe Amazon is the best retailer. The navigation features of the website are user friendly, they offer suggestions for related products, and the prices and customer service are generally very good. I almost always use Amazon to purchase maps and guide books for areas outside of my home state, where it is harder to find information at your local bookstore.

Flickr
Flickr is probably my favorite site for obtaining or viewing images on places I am interested in visiting.  It is not necessary to have a membership in order to search and see results on their site. You can see my Flickr page here.

You Tube
I like this site for hard to find areas, especially when it comes to backpacking trips. Videos often times give even more significant and realistic impression of the places you are trying to research.

Nps.gov
NPS has several useful features that are sometimes worth checking out depending on when and where you are traveling. Each park has its own website so the layout and usefulness varies from site to site. Thus some sites have information and navigation features that are easier to use and find than others. The top reasons I visit are for viewing general park maps, getting contact information for the ranger stations, useful links for the weather and activities, and checking the park’s webcams.

Weather.com
In the last ten days before a trip, there is no site that gets more use than this one. The only other site that has a longer extended forecast is accuweather.com Other weather sites that I frequent are weatherundergound.com, who also has the best mobile site for weather and weather.gov, which is the national weather service’s web page that also gives the most detailed information available on issues like forest fires and storm advisories.

Trip Advisor.com
This is my default site for doing research on hotels and places to stay. I think Trip Advisor has the best and most honest reviews online. To books the hotels, it usually works best if you just go to the hotel’s actual website. Another useful site that I usually refer to for reviews is hotels.com, although I don’t trust the reviews on it nearly as much. It has a useful search feature of organizing hotels by cost, which is normally very accurate and current, and includes last minute deals.

I hope you had a wonderful holiday and found this information helpful.  If there are any websites that you love to use that I didn’t include please feel free to let me know. It always rewarding to hear from users!

Finding Your Creative Vision Part 2 – Seasonal Images

28 Apr

The difference between a seasonal image and the grand scenic (see last post) is the subject matter is based primarily on and around the seasonal element within the landscape. In other words, it is the time of year that makes the image.

The most common images that come to mind are forest scenes. The forest makes excellent seasonal subject matter, especially trees captured in the brilliance of fall, or draped in snow, or possibly cloaked in their freshest colors of the spring. Let’s take a look at one of my personal favorite seasonal images.

This was captured back in the fall of 2006 during my first and only visit to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Without the water, I probably wouldn’t have taken this shot, but it is the time of year that brings this image to life. Let’s dissect the composition.

First, the most obvious aspect of the image is the light shining through the yellow foliage in the background. This leads the viewers eyes through the scene and it also creates a powerful v shape in the background forest, accentuating form. (That shape is somewhat mimicked by the shape of the rock ledge spillway in the foreground) .The color of the trees also help convey depth to the scene by breaking up the monotony of the towering green rhododendron in the mid ground.

Lastly, look at the leaves on the moss covered rocks. The burnt orange/brownish colors compliment the green of the rocks and provide more visual interest as well. Combined with the background, this type of scenery is only evident diuring a small window of time each year. In my opinion, that is the distinguishing feature of this image – the season.

In this image, taken in Colorado last fall, I used the thinning aspen trees to create depth and accentuate form while utilizing the yellow and green color combo again. Another scene available only during the late fall. This image is inherently much more abstract than the previous one.

In summary, the seasonal image doesn’t utilize the drama of nature’s finest moments to the extent the grand scenic does. Skies may or may not be part of the scene and if they are, there is usually no dramatic color. From a creative standpoint, the seasonal image often plays to the photographer’s resourcefulness in finding a composition where others might not see one. After all, it is hard to miss a grand scenic! While the use of light is vitally important in all landscape photography, the grand scenic is heavily dependent on spectacular light, while there is a greater range of acceptable light when composing a seasonal image.

Stayed tuned for the next segment of Finding Your Creative Vision, hopefully I’ll have that to you by Monday or Tuesday. Have a great weekend!

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