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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.

Find Your Creative Vision Part 4 – Abstract Images

10 Jun

This week’s blog is on how to to craft successful abstract images in landscape photography. We will talk about what to look for, how to express yourself, and also discuss technical tips in the field. I also want to give you a brief professional update as a lot is going on. We recently returned from a wonderful eight day trip to Oregon. More on that in a later blog. Next week we are preparing for our first trip to San Diego to participate in the renowned La Jolla Festival of Fine Arts.

Today our focus is on abstracts. Abstracts offer a lot of opportunity for a number of reasons and make a fine addition to any landscape photographer’s portfolio. To begin, abstract images are less contingent upon spectacular light. In many cases soft, diffused light works best. This is usually true for abstracts involving plants and trees. Depending on the size of your subject and the photographer, wily shooters can use their bodies, jackets, reflectors or anything else capable of casting a shadow on their subject matter. So sometimes you don’t even have to wait for the light!

In other instances, photographers use the reflected glow of the sun to help add drama and color to their images. This works best while shooting in slot canyons or while shooting intimate scenes of water that capture the varied colors of reflected light. Below is a demonstration of how different kinds of direct light can affect the color quality of abstract images.

Taken in the morning

Taken in the afternoon

Taken in the afternoon

Abstract photos normally normally rely on repetition or pattern. This can be expressed in colors, lines, shapes and accentuated by depth. This type of image best allows the photographer a means to express him or herself creatively in ways that will set them apart from others in the field.

I used a high contrast interpretation of this mescal agave plant to accentuate its dominant features and colors.

Another critical consideration is the photographer’s technical execution in the field. This can be the make or break difference in determining the dramatic impact of the image. Considerations such as what aperture to use to showcase depth of field, what kind of exposure works best to capture the subject matter and it colors, will using a filter, like a polarizer, help improve the scene? These are all personal choices left up to each photographer. The best advice I can give is just to experiment with local subject matter. My best abstracts have all been local. There is something about familiarity when it comes to abstracts that has really helped me find my style. It difficult to put into words, I guess it is more of an instinct than it is a tangible quality.

For instance, I live in the desert. So when I am out and about I am looking at desert landscaping and watching the plants for patterns or shapes that interest me. I might find one that I like and maybe the scene doesn’t work or I don’t have my camera gear, but it gives me an idea of something that interests me that I continue to look for in the future. That’s my suggestion to you. When you are around mundane subject matter, pay attention to the little things – even if you don’t get shots it can inspire you for the future.

Saguaro Bulbs

Speaking of which, I hope you find this article inspiring. Please let me know if you do!

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!

Lost in the Desert Part Three – The Rescue

15 Feb

Sometime during the day, one hearty traveler ventured into the camp while I was attempting to summit Mica Mountain starting from the campground. I don’t recall the individual’s name, but he traveled alone and did not use any kind of shelter – he just slept in his bag. I thought this was unusual because it was quite cold and windy. He also told me that winds the preceding evening were strong enough to knock over one of the oldest and largest saguaros in the area.  We spent some time talking and getting to know one other that night and discussed traveling out together the following morning.

I can’t remember exactly how the events  unfolded, but I believe the following morning this individual decided to break camp earlier than we had planned. Unfortunately, I was still in the process of breaking down my camp and wasn’t able to accompany him. I think I left approximately an hour after he did. That’s really when the trouble started.  In and around the campground, there are a number of use trails, and it is difficult to discern which is the main trail leading out of the camp. I am not exactly sure where I got lost, but I think it happened pretty quickly.

One of the  interesting things about Saguaro NP East is  housing developments abutt the park boundaries. So when traveling in and out of the mountains,  many of the distant views are of residential areas. I think this gives the traveler a false sense of security because everything looks closer than it is, and it is impossible to tell the lay of the land.  At times, it almost looks like you can reach out and touch the houses, but they are much further off than they appear. Another major mistake I made was using these homes as a guide point to determine which way I should be traveling.  I’ll try to describe to you what happened next….

Instead of following the ridgeline down and off the mountain at approximately a 45 degree angle, I descended straight down a 90 degree angle.  Needless to say, before I realized  I was traveling in the wrong direction, I had already passed the point where it made sense for me to try to turn around and retrace my steps. I wasn’t even sure if I could find my way back if I tried. Part of the problem was there were a considerable amount of game trails in the wilderness and I was deceived into believing that I was traveling on an actual hiking trail. I saw an astonishing amount of deer during this adventure.  At one point, I must have spooked a herd of nearly 50, right in the middle of day, just galloping through the groves of giant saguaros. It was really quite a site.

Once I realized that I was lost, my game plan was to follow the washes down and out of the wilderness. Often times, the washes represent the path of least resistance. Occasionally, they cliff out and you are forced to circumvent around. That happened a couple of times, and I basically resorted to bushwhacking through some nasty desert terrain. By this time, my water supply was quickly dwindling. I had a couple different plans for my water. One strategy that I’ll sometimes use is to hold the water in my mouth for as long as I can without swallowing, which keeps your breathing passages hydrated and moist. If had completely run out of water, I knew that I could probably find some stored in the park’s many barrel cacti and would not hesitate to cut one open if my life depended on it.

That ended up not being the case, but I was a complete mess by the time I wandered off the mountain. I never saw a single soul during the entire length of my descent, which took about twice as long was what it should have taken. My thighs to my ankles were completely covered in scratches ranging from one to five inches in length. It literally looked like I had been attacked by a wild animal. By the time I reached the base of the mountains, I ended up in a remote section that had just a single trail. That trail eventually led out and I ended up soliciting a neighbor for some water and the use of their phone.  As it turned out, I was a good 15 mile drive from my car when I should have been able to walk right off the trail and throw my gear into my trunk. I called the park for assistance, and they sent a ranger out to drive me back. After searching all my stuff for “petroglyphs,” he returned me to my car. It was the only time I had to be “rescued” and I was thankful  I made it out in one piece. It was quite the adventure!

Lost in the Desert Part Two

8 Feb

I arrived at the barren Juniper Basin campground, nearly seven miles from the trailhead, to have my pick of campsites. I was the only one there.  By this point, I was at about 6,000 feet in elevation and there were patches of snow just starting to appear. There was a small stream near the campsite, with just enough running water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. There was also an outhouse, bear boxes (bears in the desert!), and fire pits. My goal for the following day was to hike to the summit of Mica Mountain at 8,666 feet.  This was an ambitious goal, as getting there involved a round trip hike of nearly 20 miles.

That night, the winds were some of the hardest I  have ever experienced in the backcountry. As I understand it, over 60 mile per hour winds were whipping through the mountains. I could hear the wind coming before it smacked into my tent. The next morning, after a breakfast of soup and dried peas, I readied myself for the long day ahead. Because it was the middle of December, I was dealing with one of the very shortest days of the year. Daylight was certainly at a premium. I was also leery about starting too early because of the weather and running into any potential predators, specifically mountain lions, which are known to frequent the area. 

It was  beautiful day and I encountered just a few small hang-ups along the way. Specifically, around the area of Tanque Verde Peak, where I lost sight of the trail and spent close to a half hour trying to find it. That incident set me back a bit. The snow got deep as well, and it was quite a different scene when I arrived at Manning Camp.

I want interrupt here for just a brief moment and apologize for not having any pictures. I checked my old hard drive earlier today and cannot find the images from this trip. Anyway, Manning Camp is a high camp used by the park service as a backcountry HQ. It is located at about 8,000 feet near a number of intersecting trails.

I knew I didn’t have far to go to get to the summit, just 1.4 miles and in the end I decided to be prudent and turn around so I could get back before dark. This part of the story reminds me of an image I took of an eight point buck just lying in the snow, not 25 feet from the trai. It didn’t even flinch when it saw me coming. It just laid there and chilled. So cool! I’d love to share it with you, oh well…not today I guess. Anyway, I arrived back at camp safely an hour before dark, fueling skepticism in my mind that I could have summited the mountain and returned safely in time. No matter, I really didn’t want to potentially cross paths with a mountain lion at dusk anyway.

To my surprise, there was one other adventurous soul setting up camp upon my return….to be continued on the next post.

Wild Moments #3 Lost in the Desert – The Expedition Pt. 1

3 Feb

In December  2004, I ventured into the Rincon Mountains of Saguaro National Park East for my first solo backpacking trip. It was a trip that I’ll never forget. For those of you that don’t know, the Rincon Mountains are part of the “sky islands,”   a group of mountain chains in the Coronado National Forest of southeastern Arizona that draw their name from the extreme biodiversity found within the topography.  The largest of the sky islands is Mt. Graham. At 10,720 ft, it is also the third highest peak in the state.

The Rincon Mountains top out at 8,664 feet, but draw distinction as being some of the roughest mountains in the state. A few years back, I read a book about hiking the Arizona Trail and the author claimed the Rincons, which traverse the state from north to south, were the most difficult part of the 772 mile hike.  Although there are over 100 miles of trails in the Rincons, there is one trail that serves as the artery into the park. It’s called the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail and it’s the one most backpackers use. It is an 18 mile trail (roundtrip) that journeys on the spine of the Rincons into the heart of the mountains. From its terminant, it is a manageable day hike to reach the top of the mountains.

I started out in mid morning on a typical December day. Temperatures were in the high 60s and it was sunny and relatively warm. At the trailhead, the topography is lower Sonoran desert. You’ll see a veritable display of plants such as saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cacti as well as mesquite and palo verde trees amongst others. As the trail begins to climb, the topography soon changes.  Lower Sonoran desert gives way to high Sonoran desert and the larger cacti soon disappear. They are replaced with large boulders, wild grasses, and more trees. (If you are interested in the different biotic zones of this hike, you’ll find more information here)

By the time I reached camp near the seven mile mark, the temperature had dropped about  15 degrees. There were patches of snow at the campsite. When night began to fall, the wind picked up considerably and  the temperatures plummeted. Backpacking in the Rincon Mountains is not for the faint of heart. This was just the beginning of my adventure…(I’ve got my pictures from this hike on another hard drive and I will update this post with a few shots before my next post.)

Tucson Road Trip…#3 Wild Moments Preview, and the Super Bowl

20 Jan

I am leaving tomorrow for a four-day road trip to Tucson aka, “The Old Pueblo”. We have a full itinerary planned starting with an afternoon stop at Saguaro National Park West, where I’ll hopefully shoot sunset.

It is supposed to be clear all weekend, keeping that in mind, I have some ideas to expand my portfolio.  These include photographing some of the city’s old buildings, structures, and churches as well as possible stop at the Biosphere 2. Tucson is full of activities and there is no shortage of other places to visit as well (Sabino Canyon, Chiracuhua National Monument, Bisbee to name a few) Saturday afternoon we plan on returning to Saguaro National Park East – The Rincon Mountain district to shoot sunset. It will be only my second time in that district of the park, and my first since a solo 3 day/2 night backpacking trip there in December of 2004.

It was that trip which inspired Wild Moment #3 entitled “Lost in the Desert”.  Together we’ll revisit the highlights and lowlights on that adventure sometime next week, probably around Wednesday or Thursday!

On Sunday, we have mostly an open itinerary and we want to get back to our hotel room sometime in the afternoon to watch the NFL Championship games. And since this is my blog,  I am going to talk about the games a bit. Both should be excellent. I am going against conventional wisdom and picking the Bears vs Steelers in the Super Bowl.  Personally, I think the Bears are getting a bit disrespected as a 3.5 point home dog, although I can’t say that I trust Jay Cutler to win a big game.  Not only that, but Aaron Rodgers looks practically unstoppable. He is an amazing quarterback.  Somehow, with a slightly better running game, more team playoff experience,  and home field advantage I think the Bears pull this one out by a field goal 23 – 20.

In the AFC, I think the Jets have been running their mouths too much and I expect a bit of a let down from the Patriots game last week.  Both teams played one another about 6 weeks ago and it was the best game I saw all season. The Jets pulled it out as time expired on the Steelers and I just can’t see that happening again. I think the Steelers pull through at home and beat the Jets 19 – 14.

We’ll be watching the games, but if sunset looks good I am skipping out and heading back to the park for another photography session. I sure hope that is the case. Please check back early next week as I should have some new images up on the website and my next blog post “Lost in the Desert” by the end of next week. Have a wonderful weekend and God Bless.

Wild Moments in the Wilderness Close Call #5: Quicksand

9 Jan

During my wilderness travels, there haven’t been too many things more startling than stepping into an area you think is solid, only to instantly sink up to your knees in sand or mud. It’s stepping in quicksand and it has happened to me on several occasions in Zion National Park. The first time I encountered quicksand was during a through hike in the Narrows with a buddy of mine about four and a half years ago. I was aware of the potential hazard, but it is very difficult to perceive where the danger is, meaning you basically have to experience it. When you step in quicksand you are generally taken off-balance because your momentum is stopped cold. So while you think you should be walking, you’re not, resulting in a mild whiplash type of effect. In this instance, I stepped almost up to my thighs and lost one of my boots in the process. Luckily, I was able to retrieve it, regain my composure, and move on.  Make no mistake about it, stepping into quicksand requires quick thinking.

While in Zion this past fall, I had another near miss with quicksand, only this time it was in swift moving water that was almost waist deep. As I was moving slowly into the water to try to set up for a picture,  I could feel the sand give out much too quickly underneath my feet as I lightly stepped into the deeper section to test the current. Immediately I knew it was trouble and backed off. This wasn’t something you could see, as it was actually beneath the water in some fairly deep rapids.  A serious situation in which in an unsuspecting person could have conceivably been seriously injured or drowned.

Dangerous Times - This was the area that had the quicksand. I wanted to get into those rapids, but what lurked beneath made it much too dangerous.

In another instance during the same trip, I was walking through a canyon in Zion’s eastern section near the Checkerboard Mesa, where I carelessly stepped into a shallow patch of quicksand. This instance was quite surreal because I was in a side canyon and was intently searching my surroundings for photo opportunities.  As I walking, the ground looked solid and I was looking up and boom, right up my knees in quicksand!

This time I really banged up my shin and almost ruined my camera which I was carrying on my tripod.  The quicksand caught me so off guard I actually put my camera down in it for a split second, getting dirt and sand in its controls. It took more than a week for my shin to heal, another half hour to clean my camera, and my shoes to this day still stink from that episode.

Bottom line is,  make sure you are educated on the areas where quicksand is a potential hazard. Be aware and mentally prepared for any encounter.  I keep a very level head in the wilderness, but I’ve been caught off guard several  times. If you get stuck, don’t struggle or wiggle to get out. Try to free up one leg at a time or if you are up to your waist, lift yourself out and roll onto the mud.  Remember it’s the first 30 seconds after it happens where you can really get yourself into trouble, especially if you are carrying expensive camera equipment. Be sure to use a hiking stick to probe areas that lock suspicious. Be alert and prepared and have fun! I hope you enjoyed this post, if so, please let me know. I’ll post later this week with number four.

Understanding the Scene – Colorado Fall Foliage Part 2

9 Oct

Yesterday we ended the first part of this post by talking about the exposure values of the left and right hand side of the scene. For this scene, I simply used a .6 graduated neutral density filter and bracketed my exposures. Because the intensity of the light was changing so fast, my camera was having difficulty accurately metering the scene. The meter was constantly jumping around. 

Eventually, I underexposed the scene resulting in a slightly less than ideal exposure for the darkest values of conifers on the right hand side. Fortunately, this wasn’t a major factor. I still was able to retain very good detail and resolution in the darkest parts of the image although ideally, I would have liked to pull an additional + 1/3 stop out of those values.

Processing

I used two different exposures and processed them the same way in Adobe Camera Raw. I ended up using my lightest exposure because remember, I underexposed the scene, so with the bracketing. this exposure ended up being just about correct anyway.

This is the 100% crop of the darkest shadow values within the scene. You can see I've retained the detail in the conifers fairly well with just a slight drop off in light along the very edge of the frame.

This is the 100% crop of the darkest shadow values within the scene. You can see I've retained the detail in the conifers fairly well with just a slight drop off in light along the very edge of the frame.

When I process multiple raw files, I normally try to keep them as consistent as possible, so I kept the temperature and tone the same for both files here. For this scene, I employed a very cool temperature to help offset the amount of yellow. Following that, I open both images in Photoshop and copy the  dark exposure on top of the correct exposure. I then used a layer mask to blend the exposure, specifically the “hot” aspens on the right side of the frame. Once the blend was completed, I saved the file and started with general contrast adjustments to the entire scene. This was a basic levels adjustment.

For this scene,  I wanted to open up the shadows a bit more to accentuate the reflection of the conifers. I used the shadow/highlights feature to complete that. I normally don’t use this  feature, simply because it can be very destructive and give your images an unwanted “HDR” look where everything gets dimples so to speak. I created a copy of my background layer and then carefully scrutinized the results before moving on.

Once I was satisfied with that, I started working on selectively adjusting the contrast within the scene. The largest area of contrast that needed adjusting was the foreground, which was much too light. Once that was completed, I moved onto the reflection in the lake, specifically in the middle of scene.Following that, I moved onto a few other areas within the scene,  most notably the yellow highlights and dark greens far up on the mountain.

Once I finished the contrast,  I started selectively adjusting the color. The one thing I normally like to do is to pull cyan out of the image. Here, I performed that in the yellows channel. What that did was give the yellows in the aspens just a bit of an orange tinge to them, making them in my opinion,  more appealing. Finally I saved the master image, and reduced and sharpened for the web.

Web Sharpening

This image was fairly tedious to sharpen for the web. The greatest obstacle here was the peak, which almost continually was showing haloing, probably from sharp shadows on its edges. It took several attempts before I was satisfied with my results.  I used several adjustment layers of sharpening, turning them all off for the sky and peak. Generally speaking, foliage doesn’t sharpen well for the web. So be very careful when sharpening items like pine and aspen trees. Less is normally more here. That is pretty much it!  I hope this tutorial is helpful to you and if it is,             please let me know. Also,  feel free to email me if you have any other questions. Have a wonderful weekend.

Michael

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.

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