Nica Surf

I spent all of last week on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.  Admittedly, this was less a photo trip and more about the surf (one of my other passions in life).  I usually find a way to mix in some photo time, and the rocky reef which made for excellent waves would turn into a photographic wonderland at low tide.  That’s what I call win-win.

It just occurred to me that surfing is a lot like nature photography.  I would wake up super early for a morning session (the so-called dawn patrol) and then paddle back out for a sunset session in the evening.  Timing is key.  Being out on the water during the golden hour can be a very peaceful, contemplative experience.  Except for those times when a big set rolls in, and you’re forced to paddle as hard as you can to avoid being pummeled into the reef.

Like photography, surfing requires a lot of patience and you’re really at the mercy of the weather conditions.  When the waves are bad, it can feel like an enormous waste of time.  If you’ve watched Step Into Liquid or The Endless Summer or any of the other popular surf movies, you might think that surfing is all about this soulful, almost meditative state that you just fall into by virtue of being in the water.  Some call it the stoke.  Personally, I think that’s a bunch of overly-romantic hogwash.  I’d say that surfing is no different than photography.  When the conditions are poor, it can be pretty frustrating.  But when the conditions are right…  A perfect wave is an amazing experience indeed.

Hemorrhoids Reef

If you’re wondering why this reef is called Hemorrhoids, allow me to explain.  It’s a shallow, powerful reef break that also goes by the name Meat Grinders.  I’ve read that it’s Nicaragua’s version of Pipeline (the famous break on Oahu’s North Shore).  You can tell a lot about a break based on the name.  Banzai PipelineMavericks.   A few years ago, I surfed a wave in Bali called Lacerations.  This isn’t Malibu, and falling is not recommended.

Each evening, as the tide would drop, Hemorrhoids would transform into a slabby shelf of tide pools and rocky outcrops.  I set up for some long exposures at sunset, using the incoming waves to create a wash effect over the reef.  It was a bit unnerving to think that earlier in the day, I was paddling a few feet above these rocks.

Nica Reef

Nicaragua Sunset

If you’re interested in seascape photography, I’d recommend that you experiment with different shutter speeds and just shoot a lot of images.  Fill up that memory card!  It’s really hard to figure out what shutter speed will work best, and the difference between 1/4 second and 1/2 second can make or break a photo.  I like the above image for it’s crispness, and I used a fast shutter to freeze the incoming wave.  I captured the image below a moment later (same beach, just a different angle of view).  The 1/2 second shutter created a pastel, dreamlike effect that reminds me of a water color painting.

Sea Wash

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit most of the countries in Central America, and Nicaraguans seem to carry themselves differently than the rest. Perhaps they aren’t as accustomed to tourism like the Ticas to the south.  Or, it could be the systemic corruption of their government (no doubt exacerbated by decades of U.S. influence).  It could be the poverty; I just learned that Nicaragua overtook Haiti as the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere, with per capita income of less than $500 a year.  I got a sense of their fierce independence and, in subtle ways, their distrust of foreigners.  The people of this beautiful country seemed to exude a raw emotion that I haven’t seen before.  Surf and photography aside, this is the real reason that I travel.  I always return home with a different perspective on life, and renewed appreciation for the comfort, convenience, and opportunity in America.  I also feel a bit of envy for those that live in these wilder, undeveloped places.

Return to Managua

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A Somber Sunrise

My wife and I spent last week on the beautiful island of Maui.  The Hawaiian Islands are one of our favorite places to relax and unwind, and there’s something about the lifestyle here that makes me feel at home.  This trip started off great.  We got a direct flight to Kahului and a few hours after leaving San Diego, we were dipping our toes in the tropical Pacific, with bellies full of fresh mahi-mahi.

Wailea Beach

I didn’t intend for this to be a photo trip, but I brought along my tripod in case an opportunity presented itself.  For some strange reason, I had trouble sleeping the first night, so I decided to drive to Iao Valley State Park just before dawn.  The road that leads to the park was gated, but I had my headlamp and was able to walk the final mile.  I wanted to be there for sunrise, after all.  There are lots of feral cats in Hawaii, and it was spooky as I hiked up the dark road, with so many pairs of eyes watching as I passed by.

Iao Valley is a sacred place to Hawaiians, and is the site of King Kamehameha’s final battle that would unite the entire island chain.  Legend has it that hundreds of Maui warriors lost their lives in this valley, causing the river to run red with blood.  I couldn’t help but contemplate the history and spirituality of the valley as I hiked up towards Iao Needle.  The creepy cat’s eyes, watching silently, added to the mood.

Iao Valley Sunrise

It drizzled lightly as dawn approached.  Low clouds hung over the valley, but they began to break apart as the sun crested the horizon.  For just a moment, a wonderful golden light illuminated the entrance to the valley, while the mountains around me remained in deep shadow.  A minute later, the light turned flat and lost all its drama.  Turning around 180 degrees, I looked up towards Iao Needle, a lava-pinnacle that rises 1,200 feet from the valley floor.  Surrounded by foggy mist, the needle looked very photogenic indeed.

Iao Needle

My wife and I spent the next few days having fun in the sun, doing what most tourists do while visiting Hawaii.  We hiked to some waterfalls, snorkeled with turtles, and sipped piña coladas while relaxing on our lanai.  Each evening, we would find a nice vantage point to watch the sunset, and we were treated to some nice ones.

Wailea Sunset 1

Wailea’s beaches don’t offer much in the way of interesting foregrounds, but sometimes, that’s just fine.

Wailea Sunset 2

Wailea Sunset 3

Things would change on Thursday evening.  We were eating a late dinner and flipping through the TV when news of the earthquake in Japan broke.  We spent the next few hours glued to the TV, watching the terrible events as they unfolded before our eyes.  I felt a hit in the gut that reminded me of the way I felt as I watched the towers fall on 9/11.  Even as I write this, nearly a week later, there could still be people who are trapped beneath the rubble, hoping to be rescued.

Tsunami Warning

Around 11 pm, the evacuation sirens in Wailea started going off.  Surprisingly loud, there was something very creepy about the siren as it wailed on and off through the humid night.  We could hear the shorebreak crashing along the beach, and there was a strange mix of abstract danger and excitement.  Was this really happening?

The tsunami was scheduled to arrive at approximately 3 am, so my wife and I decided to take the opportunity to drive to the summit of Haleakala for the sunrise.  I had been there many years ago, and it is a sight to behold, despite feeling a bit like a tourist trap.  It can get crowded, and it’s far from a wilderness experience.  But, if getting to high ground was in order, Haleakala at 10,023 feet would probably be safe.

Haleakala Nightscape

We arrived well before dawn, and it was very cold and windy at the summit.  I wasn’t exactly prepared for this!  Lacking warm clothes, I tripled up on board shorts and wore all four of the t-shirts I had available.  We were high above the clouds, with a wonderful view of the clear, dark sky.  The Milky Way was visible, and I believe the brightest “star” in the above image is actually Jupiter.  The curved foreground isn’t due to lens distortion; it’s the bowl-shaped crater below the summit and silhouetted clouds in the distance.

The Rising Sun

This was a particularly sublime but solemn sunrise. The Pacific Ocean, obscured by clouds, was wreaking havoc below.  There is awesome beauty and peacefulness in Mother Nature, and at times, gut-wrenching tragedy.

Sunrise at Haleakala

When the sun finally broke through the clouds, I felt a sense of optimism and hope.

A few hours later, we were back in southwest Maui.  Driving into Kihei, there was a buzz in the air and you could tell that something was different.  People were moving about and the beaches were empty.  The main road was covered in mud and minor debris, and kids were scooping small fish out of a flooded park.  There didn’t appear to be any real damage, though.

I wish I had spent more effort documenting this, but it didn’t really occur to me at the time.  I walked around Kalama Park very briefly, taking some snapshots of the flooded areas.  An eyewitness told me that the main road in Kihei “looked like a river” when the tsunami struck earlier that morning.

Kalama Park

Seawall

This is the seawall along Kalama Park.  The waves breached this wall, flooded the park, and flowed along South Kihei Drive (pictured below).

South Kihei Road

Fishing in the flooded park

We returned to San Diego the following day, with the people of Japan in our thoughts.  These events remind me that the geologic forces which build the mountains and carve the canyons that I so love to photograph, are the same forces which are responsible for so much death and destruction.  This is the reality of life on planet Earth.

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Return to Redwood Mountain

If you read my last post, you know that I recently left a bunch of gear in the Sierra backcountry.  My Sequoia adventure ended a bit different than planned, but I made it home safe and came away with some nice images.  All things considered, it was a fantastic experience.  It was simply breathtaking to visit the big trees in such beautiful, but harsh conditions.

I was left with an uncomfortable knot in the pit of my stomach, though.  The weather system that forced me to tuck tail and run was now settled over the Sierra, dumping several feet of snow.  A second storm was in the forecast, and I started to worry that my gear would be lost until the spring melt-off.  The weather window I was hoping for appeared to have slammed shut.

There would be a few days between these storms, but the Generals Highway was still closed.  The main issue was access.  Looking at a map, there appeared to be a solution.  I would park at the locked gate near Grant Grove, and then hike down the road and back towards Redwood Mountain.  With a fun cross-country shortcut, the round-trip mileage would be manageable; doable in a day.  I convinced my buddy Steve to join me, and we drove to Fresno earlier this week.  We would get in and out on Tuesday.

Redwood Mountain

As expected, the Generals Highway was closed and we parked at the gate.  I was relieved to see that the road had been plowed, which allowed us to travel quickly along this first section.  What I had billed as an exciting gear-rescue quickly morphed into a photo trip, and my non-photographer friend rolled his eyes each time I would stop to set up my tripod.  No big deal; we hiked the John Muir and Wonderland Trails together and he’s used to this sort of thing.

Sunrise on Redwood Mountain

Winter's Blanket

We made fast progress along the ridge above Redwood Creek, and eventually split from the road and began heading down a steep slope towards the bottom of the canyon.  The powder was soft and deep, and going downhill was a blast.  If only we had snowboards!

Snowshoe Trail

After a bit of cross-country tramping, we found the Redwood Creek trail and continued along the snow-covered path.  This trail had been obscured by forest litter on my earlier visit, but now it was easy to follow this relatively clear swath through the forest.  I kept an eye on my GPS, and I watched with excitement as we got closer and closer to the waypoint that marked the location of my tent. 1 mile, then 0.2 mile, 800 feet, 500 feet…  This had become an all-out treasure hunt.

I recognized a few of the trees and knew we were getting close.  Then, I spotted the grip from one of my trekking poles sticking out from the snow.  Success!  I had used my poles to stake out the tent fly, and the grips must have been three feet above the snow when I left.  The rest of the tent was buried, with two small bumps suggesting its aluminum frame hadn’t buckled completely.

My Tent

Digging out the tent was easy, but the stakes and trekking poles wouldn’t budge.  I had packed the snow down with my boots when staking it out, and they were now firmly encased in ice.  We chipped away at the stakes and removed them one by one.  As it turns out, there is an easy way to remove stakes from packed snow, and it involves drinking lots of Gatorade and careful aim.  I discovered this preferred method while extricating the last stake, which was especially stubborn.  Note to self, for the future.

Success!

Thankfully, all of my gear was still clean and dry.  The tent had buckled across the middle, but would be salvageable.  I noticed that the water in my Nalgene bottle was still in liquid form, with only a few thin ice crystals at the surface.  Like an igloo, the buried tent had insulated everything from the sub-freezing temperatures all week.

After packing everything up, we began the steep slog back to my truck.  Navigation wasn’t an issue since we were able to follow our own inbound tracks, but it was slow and tedious.  The skies turned overcast, and fog slowly filled the canyon.  This made for some interesting photo ops, and I was pleased.  I had recovered my gear, and with a few hours of daylight remaining, I’d have time to make some more images (much to Steve’s dismay).

The Red Giants

An Intimate View

Redwood Creek Trailhead

I caught up with Steve at the trailhead, where he had been waiting for over an hour.  As usual, he mocked my passion for photography and began hurling insults in my direction, complaining that I had tricked him into coming.  I returned his fire with snowballs and chunks of ice, and we worked through our differences like a pair of 6-year old kids.  A few hours later, we were back in my truck and on our way home.

These back-to-back trips have temporarily quenched my thirst for winter photography, but I know that won’t last for long.

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Redwood Mountain Grove – February 2011

A winter excursion into the Sierra Nevada has been high on my photographic to-do list for a number of years.  Specifically, the western edge of Sequoia National Park, which is home to the world’s last remaining groves of giant sequoia.  Hiking into the wilderness in the dead of winter isn’t to be taken lightly, especially when solo, and I knew a trip like this would require some planning.  My goal; to photograph the magnificent sequoia trees under a blanket of fresh snow.

With a few snow trips under my belt, I felt up to the task.  Winter backpacking might seem like old hat to some, but I’ll admit that the thought of spending several nights in the wilderness, alone and in inclement weather, still intimidates me.  These adventures help me grow as a person, though, and I always seem to learn something about myself when I face new challenges.  All the drama aside, this trip was going to be a lot of fun.

The weather forecast called for two days of moderate snowfall, followed by clearing skies.  This was the opportunity I had been waiting for.  I would drive into Sequoia National Park and park near the trailhead, spend a few nights in the backcountry, and then return to my truck and exit via the freshly-plowed road.  The Generals Highway between Grant Grove and Lodgepole closes during storms, and can remain closed for weeks at a time if the conditions warrant.  In other words, you need to get in before a storm arrives, and you’ll be stuck unless the weather clears.

I arrived in the afternoon and parked at the turnout for Quail Flat, near the junction with unpaved and unplowed Forest Route 14S75.  I installed snow chains on the rear wheels of my 4WD, kicked the tires for good luck, and began hiking down the unplowed road.  The snow was firmly packed and I made fast progress in boots.  After two miles of uneventful plodding, I made it to the Redwood Mountain trailhead.  The trail marker was almost completely buried in snow, and I donned my snowshoes.

Redwood Mountain Trailhead

The weather was good, but shortly after I began my descent into the canyon, it took a turn for the worse.  It started to rain lightly, and I decided to stop and unpack my waterproof jacket and pack cover.  Wet clothing is an uncomfortable nuisance in the summer, but can be legitimately dangerous in winter conditions.

Despite my efforts, it was impossible to follow the trail and I started heading cross country, using my GPS and map as a guide.  I learned to navigate using a map and compass, and I still find it easier than relying on a tiny GPS screen.  My GPS device does come in handy when I need to pinpoint an exact location, or retrace my route.

Picking my way through the forest wasn’t easy, and scrambling over obstacles while wearing snowshoes is pretty low on my list of fun activities.  Have you ever tried climbing over a fallen sequoia trunk the size of a school bus?  Neither have I.  Five minute detour.

After a couple of hours, I had made some real progress and found myself deep in a grove of giant sequoias.  A cold, light rain filtered through the canopy, and I suddenly felt as if I had been miniaturized.  Standing at the base of these ancient trees, one cannot help but contemplate the insignificant nature of human existence.  It occurred to me that, in the context of Earth’s geology, even these giant trees are nothing more than a fleeting wisp of ephemeral beauty.  A few pockets of big trees remain, the rest having been wiped out by advancing glaciers, climate change, and more recently, commercial logging.  Millions of years from now, the Sierra Nevada itself might erode away, or become a vast sea mount under the Pacific.  I stood at the base of a fire-scarred tree and felt it’s soft bark with my hands, and for just a moment, insignificant or not, time stood still.

The rain continued in fits and starts, and I decided to make my camp near Redwood Creek, so that I would have access to a convenient water source.  I packed in extra fuel so that I’d be able to melt snow for drinking water, but dipping my bottle into the ice-cold creek would be easier and more satisfying.  As I normally do when hiking in the Sierra Nevada, I collected my water and drank it raw and unfiltered.  I’ve never gotten sick, and while there are some acknowledged risks, I’ve come to believe that it is quite safe (provided one uses good judgment in selecting a water source).

I staked out my tent, ate dinner (freeze-dried lasagna), and retired for the evening.

Sometime after midnight, it began to snow.  It was a heavy, wet snow, as if someone was dripping a melted slushy over my tent.  When I’m half-awake, the unexpected sound of snow sliding off the top of the fly sounds alarmingly similar to a bear attempting to enter my tent.  Other than a moment or two of heart-pounding panic, the night passed peacefully as I drifted in and out of sleep.

As dawn approached, the snow began to fall in large, clumped flakes.  Peering outside, the forest started to transform before my eyes.  I spent the morning watching from my tent, as the ugly undergrowth and tree litter slowly became covered with soft pillows of snow.  The temperature inside my tent held at a steady 36 degrees, though it was certainly colder outside.  Around 10 am, I dashed outside to shoot a few pictures, but quickly retreated since it was impossible to keep snow off the lens.  It snowed hard all day, and all I could do was lie there in relative comfort, watching as the landscape changed around me.  By evening, I admit that I was starting to go a little stir-crazy, but then it got dark and I allowed myself some of the syrah I had packed in, and I drifted off to sleep.  During the night, I would occasionally force myself to go outside and shovel the accumulating snow away from the sides of the tent.  I learned that lesson on my ’09 trip to Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  Allowing one’s tent to become buried in snow is poor style (and not very smart).

Sequoia Snowfall

By the next morning, I had been confined to my tent for 36 straight hours.  Mind you, this is a single-person tent that is roughly the size and shape of a tall coffin.  I am not very claustrophobic, and I do possess a bit of patience, but this was definitely testing the limits of my sanity.  It was still snowing hard, but I decided that I simply had to get outside and move around.  Rather than head deeper into the forest and risk getting lost without my gear, I decided to gather up a few essentials, my camera and tripod, and retrace my route back towards the trailhead.  Everything was covered in fresh snow, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the route back.  I left the rest of my gear inside the tent, which I zipped up tight.  I would return in a few hours, or so I thought…

Forest Path

It took me a couple of hours to make it back to the trailhead, and the fresh snow made the navigation a bit easier.  Whereas I was forced to scramble over and around obstacles on the way in, now I just floated over them on my snowshoes.  It even stopped snowing for a while, a bit of sun broke through the clouds, and I was able to take some proper photographs.  The richly colored bark of the sequoia trees stood out in stark contrast from the rest of the forest.  A beautiful winter wonderland.

Winter's Glow

The Giant Forest

Soon enough, it started to snow again and I was forced to pack away my camera.  Rather than return to my nylon coffin, I decided to hike the additional 2 miles back to my truck.   I wanted to check the road conditions and, time permitting, drive the 5 miles to Grant Grove Village to get some hot coffee.  More than anything, I wanted to spend as much time as possible outside and moving around.  I arrived at my truck and quickly realized that this storm was dropping more snow than the forecast had predicted.  I used my shovel to dig it out a bit, got it running, and was just able to drive out of the turnout and onto the highway.  A few minutes later, I crossed paths with a plow operator who was headed in the opposite direction, and he waved me to stop.  To my dismay, I learned that the Generals Highway was gated and locked just ahead.  The road was closed in both directions, and he would need to escort me back to the gate, if I wanted to leave.  I explained to him my situation – that my gear was still at the bottom of Redwood Canyon – and that I intended to drive out in a couple of days, once the weather cleared and the roads were plowed.   I was surprised to learn that the updated weather forecast called for heavier snow through the weekend.  The highway would likely remain closed for a week, or even longer.

I took this opportunity to mutter some choice expletives.

Returning to my tent to retrieve everything would take several hours, and the plow operator wasn’t about to wait for me.  Although I had stashed extra food and blankets in my truck for emergency use, I really didn’t want to spend a week stranded on the side of the road.  I suppose I could leave my truck and snowshoe my way out, but that wasn’t exactly a solution, either.  No, I would have to follow the plow out the Grant Grove exit, and return to recover my gear sometime in the near future.  Talk about a change of plans!

Look of Frustration

I made it home early the next morning.  Replaying the day’s events in my head kept me wide awake during the 7-hour drive back to San Diego, and I compiled a mental checklist of all the items I had left behind.  Miscellaneous camera gear, including an expensive wide angle lens.  My tent and sleeping pad.  My sunglasses, bear canister, and trekking poles (which I used to help stake the tent fly out).  Extra fuel and socks.  The top compartment of my backpack.  Did this really just happen?

As I write this, I feel a mix of irritation and mild amusement at the situation.  On one hand, I am extremely lucky that I decided to hike back to my truck, otherwise I might have been stuck for who knows how long.  As soon as the highway reopens, I plan to return with a shovel and dig everything out.  Apart from the long drive, that might actually be fun.  I’m curious to see if the tent holds, and whether a bear or other animal tries to get at my food.  I’m not too concerned with theft, because in all likelihood, my tent is completely buried under snow!  Thankfully, I happen to possess the GPS coordinates to find it.

Stay tuned for an update.

Redwood Mountain Grove

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A Photographic Box of Cracker Jack

Recently, a new acquaintance Arun Manohar asked if I’d like to join him on a photo outing to the Algodones Dunes Wilderness.  I visited these dunes for the first time a few weeks ago, and I’ve been anxious to return.  There is something spontaneous and exciting about shooting a new area, but familiarity plays an important role when photographing an interesting landscape.

On Friday afternoon, I made the decision to skip the trip.  The weather report called for clear skies, and though a skilled photographer should still be able to make some nice images, it would certainly make things more difficult.  Furthermore, a camping trip would have me back in San Diego with little time to prepare for our annual Superbowl party, which is really just an excuse to get together with friends and eat lots of good food.

So, on Saturday evening, I sat in front of my computer feeling unmotivated and guilty.  I should be out under the stars right now!  What if a freak storm moved in, and the conditions turned epic?  Oh well…

Sipping some hot tea, and lacking any real agenda, I began searching through some old folders on my hard drive.  The first thought that crossed my mind, as I inspected these files from ’06 and ’07, was my relative lack of technical skill back then.  I guess that should come as no surprise, but it was rather shocking to look through so many files that were grossly out of focus, shot at an inappropriate aperture or shutter speed, or worse.

Delete.  Delete.  Delete.

Then, just as I was starting to feel really disgusted with myself, I came across an image that forced me to take my finger off the delete key.  I leaned forward in my chair, with a quizzical look on my face, and opened Photoshop to take a closer look at the RAW file.

Do my eyes deceive me, or is that an image of Colorado’s famous Dallas Divide?

Dallas Divide, Colorado

Indeed, hidden amongst the hundreds of lackluster images from my 2008 trip to Colorado, here was a potential gem.  Dramatic light, rich Autumn color, and proper focus and exposure to boot!  I’m not exaggerating when I say that discovering this image felt a bit like reaching into a box of Cracker Jack and pulling out a brand new Singh-Ray grad ND filter.  Hey – I have to insert the photography humor wherever I can, so cut me some slack.

The image above is exactly the type of grand Colorado scenic that I had in mind when I planned that trip in 2008.  I returned with a few keepers, but I’ve always been disappointed since the grand scenics from Kebler Pass and the other hotspots fell short of my expectations.  I dare say that this is my favorite image from the trip, and it only took me three years to discover it.

After the Dallas Divide image, I felt a sudden rush of excitement.  What other images might be hiding on my hard drive?  Perhaps this weekend would be productive, after all.  Certainly not in the way that I expected, and undeniably lacking in the “commune with nature” aspect of a photo outing, but productive, nonetheless.

Upwards

Soon, I found another Colorado image that appealed to me.  This type of photo isn’t terribly original or creative, which might be the reason I ignored it back then, but I am glad to have rediscovered it.  There’s something so peaceful and uplifting about these golden aspens, reaching towards the clear blue sky.  I am a more confident photographer now than I was three years ago, and I am happy to include this image in my portfolio.

Reviewing these old files taught me two important lessons.  First, that my eye for composition and my creative vision seem to be evolving as I grow as a photographer.  I hope that’s a good thing.  Though I’m able to trace a clear style back to my earliest images, I’m definitely learning to see and appreciate the beauty in more simple,  elemental compositions.  Looking through my old files is, in a way, like examining a familiar photo album with a new pair of glasses.

Kelso Dunes

The second lesson I learned, is that I’m simply much better at editing and post work.  Every image I shoot starts as a RAW file, or multiple RAW files, as in the case of the image below.  Editing in Photoshop is a very important part of my workflow, and learning to use these digital tools takes time and practice.  Over the last few years, I’ve learned a great deal from expert photographers such as Tony Kuyper, among others.  The image below is a hand blend from two separate RAW files; one exposed for the forest and the other for the bright peaks and sky.  I remember trying to edit this image after I returned from my ’06 trip to Banff, but I didn’t have the tools to pull it off.

Banff Overlook

This raises an interesting question.  The anti-Photoshop traditionalist might use the above information to denigrate the authenticity of my Banff Overlook photograph.  After all, this image didn’t even exist until a few days ago.  Does the fact that I lacked the skill and digital techniques to successfully process this image in 2006, take away from its impact or authenticity today?  I really hope not, but I can see why it might raise the question.  If anything, this example serves to illustrate how the digital workflow is far from a magic cure-all.  One does not simply snap a lousy picture, input data into Photoshop, and out pops a beautiful landscape photograph.  I have yet to meet an expert at Photoshop, who was not already a highly skilled photographer.

The Enchantments

This last image isn’t very old at all.  I shot this in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness a few months ago.  Like the others, I overlooked this image until now.  I was so focused on photographing the golden larches in The Enchantments, I must have passed over this relatively simple sunrise.  Now that some time has gone by, and I’m no longer suffering from larch fever, I find the balance and light in this composition to be very nice indeed.

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ISO and Noise Performance: Canon 5D Mark II

I’m not much of a pixel-peeper, and I tend to shrug and yawn at in-depth technical reviews of the latest DSLRs and their performance.  Nearly any current prosumer or “professional” DSLR is capable of taking amazing pictures.

While I admit I’m a bit of a gear head (I recently upgraded from the original 5D to the 5D2), I find esoteric discussions on the hyperfocal distance, circle of confusion, etc. rather boring.  Understanding these topics is important at some level, but I don’t think they contribute mightily to my ability to make nice photographs.

Noise performance, and how it changes with ISO setting is one of those topics that is important, though.  A recent post by my friend and fellow photographer Scott Lawson got me thinking about this, and I decided to set aside some time to run these tests on my 5D2.  I’m sure these tests have already been performed, but there is something educational about walking through the steps yourself.  Every camera is different, so you might find it useful to try this out on your own equipment.

The setup - the red box is the area I evaluated for noise performance

I placed my tripod at the top of the stairs, set the camera to aperture-priority mode (f/5.6), and then used a cable release to take a succession of identical pictures (RAW files).  I started at ISO 50 and continued through ISO 100-160-200-320-400-640-800.  I stopped at ISO 800 since that’s the upper limit of what I normally use in the field, though the camera goes much, much higher.

If you’re familiar with ISO, you know that each jump (i.e. 100 to 200, 200 to 400, and so on) is equivalent to a full stop.  Canon cameras apparently offer intermediate ISO values such as 160, 320, and 640, which I suppose represent fractional increases in these stop values.  I found it interesting that the shutter speed didn’t change from ISO 160 to 200, or from 320 to 400.  There must be some sort of in-camera exposure compensation going on, and these fractional values are probably just a marketing trick to advertise increased ISO range.  It’s hard to tell, but I think I can see a tiny increase in noise between ISO 640 to ISO 800, even though the aperture and shutter speed is identical.  Is this due to in-camera noise reduction?  I guess that’s a question for Chuck Westfall (tech guru at Canon USA).

First, I imported all eight pictures into Photoshop and adjusted the white balance, which was way off.  I have a 400 gallon reef aquarium, and it casts a bright blue light throughout the house.  The actinic lighting on the aquarium tends to wreak havoc on the 5D2’s auto settings.

Reef Aquarium - just for fun

Next, I selected an area in shadow (where noise tends to be worst) and made identical 100% crops of each image.  This allowed me to easily compare the noise at different settings.

In the field, I usually shoot at ISO 100, 200, or 400, depending on conditions.  Noise increases with ISO, and it’s generally recommended that you use as low an ISO setting as possible.  On a newer camera like the 5D2, I’ve been working under the assumption that noise performance is still very good at ISO 400, so if there is ANY worry of wind blur or camera shake, I’ll just dial it up.  Yes, this results in more noise, but those extra two stops can really help to keep things sharp.  If I’m shooting a tree on a windy day, or my tripod is standing in a flowing river, I think it’s a fair tradeoff.

In fact, when I’m shooting wildlife or other moving objects (like surfers) I sometimes dial ISO as high as 1600 if conditions warrant.  Things start to get a little noisy at that level, but sometimes that’s the only way you can freeze motion.  Obtaining sharp focus is almost always more important than avoiding noise.

Mule Deer at ISO 800

My point is this; there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to selecting an appropriate ISO setting.  Many books and online tutorials will tell you to use the lowest possible ISO, but there are plenty of circumstances where you should break that rule.  Don’t be afraid to take advantage of your camera’s technology; it exists for a reason.

So, let’s examine the results.  These are unedited 100% crops from my 5D2:

ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

To my eye, ISO 50 and 100 are virtually identical (just a slight edge goes to ISO 50).  Noise starts to increase at 200 and is quite noticeable by 800.  Remember, these are 100% crops and we’re pixel-peeping here.  If this was a 16″ x 24″ print, these crops would represent an area about 1.5″ x 1.0″ in size.  That’s pretty tiny.

Approximate size in real life, 16" x 24" print ISO 100 LEFT - ISO 800 RIGHT

More important, check out the difference in highlight detail between ISO 50 and 100.  I’ve read that ISO 50 will clip the highlight detail by a full stop, and this appears to be true.  There doesn’t appear to be any benefit to shooting ISO 50, and losing that detail at the bright end is actually pretty concerning.  Again, I wonder why Canon bothers offering this ISO expansion, if it actually decreases image quality.  Go figure.

ISO 50 Highlight Detail

ISO 100 Highlight Detail

You might be able to see the clipped highlights in the first picture.  Identifying this sort of thing becomes easier with practice.   If you examine the brightness histogram for each image, you can see that the image shot at ISO 50 is clipped at the right.

ISO 100 - unclipped

ISO 50 - clipped

 

I’ve often read that noise tends to hang out in the blue channel, and I confirmed this by examining and comparing the individual color channels.  I won’t post the images here, but suffice to say that the blue channel was the most noisy by far.  If you use noise reduction software as part of your digital workflow, this is important to keep in mind.

At the end of the day, I feel confident that noise performance on the 5D2 is excellent.  If making small prints or viewing images on a computer monitor, I don’t think noise is an issue whatsoever, even as high as ISO 1600.  At larger print sizes, I believe ISO 400 is a perfectly viable option, and ISO 800 is acceptable if you include some sort of noise reduction in your workflow.

This is important to keep in mind, because many of us who shoot landscape photography tend to get wrapped up in the minutiae required to obtain sharp images.  We use sturdy tripods, mirror-lockup, cable releases… the list goes on and on.  We take these steps so that it’s possible to make large prints, if we so choose.  It isn’t necessary, and sometimes it can be detrimental, if you follow these same rules and habits in all photographic situations, though.

When I’m shooting a casual family get together, or even a special occasion where I know my photos won’t be printed at 20″ x 30″, I will gladly use ISO 1600 (or higher) to help get the shot.  If I’m shooting indoors and without a flash, what sense does it make to sacrifice a sharp image for the sake of noise – noise that you won’t ever see because the pictures are destined for a web album or as 4″ x 6″ prints?

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A Question of Reality

A recent conversation with my mom left me feeling a bit dejected.  She had been looking through my new website and she complimented me on all the nice photos, but then she asked, “Are all those photos for real?”  Yikes!  One of my biggest fans was calling me out!  Are your photos real, or were they manufactured in Photoshop?

It’s a legitimate question, though, and the fact that my own mother was curious enough to ask suggests that a lot of other people must wonder the same.  I wasn’t offended, but I was definitely interested in learning what specific attributes led her to question the authenticity of my images.  “The colors,” she replied.

After some clarification, my mom explained that she simply hasn’t witnessed such spectacular colors or light in real life.  That’s what left me feeling slightly sad and dejected.  As a nature photographer, I am frequently outdoors during the golden hour – that magical period of the day when the sun is low and the landscape is bathed in rich, gold light.  Most everyone has witnessed a stunning sunrise or sunset, but if you’re standing on your front porch, or driving in your car, are you able to fully appreciate the fantastic light and color as it dances across the Earth?

Encinitas, California

Nature photographers seek these moments out, and with some practice and patience (and some luck) we hopefully find ourselves immersed in a beautiful landscape, camera in hand. Indeed, these moments do happen, and the colors are very real.  These are the moments that inspired me to become a photographer, in the first place.

But, as photography moves from film to digital, and the use of computer processing (the “digital darkroom”) becomes ubiquitous, people who haven’t witnessed these moments firsthand might legitimately question the authenticity of a photograph.  That’s fair.

Rather than rehash the tired debate over the ethics of digital processing, or the pros and cons of using Photoshop, I want to take this opportunity to examine some of the most special moments I have experienced as a photographer; these are moments and images that might lead some to conclude that I am a photoshopper (whatever that means).  It saddens me to think that these images, which represent very real, and often breathtaking moments in my life, might be viewed as fake or disingenuous.

A Magical Sunrise

The West Temple, 7:04 am

Without a doubt, the image above represents a sunrise that I will remember for the rest of my life.  I was very fortunate to have caught this brief moment at all, since I was lying in my tent, half asleep, as it began to unfold.  I have witnessed light like this only a handful of times in my life, and on this morning I was lucky enough to be in Zion National Park.

As sunlight travels through the atmosphere to reach our eyes, it is scattered by all manner of compounds.  Gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide.  Particulates in the air such as dust and smoke and pollen.  Even the rising heat from the surface of the Earth.  When the sun is low on the horizon, the light we see has traveled through a thicker atmosphere, and is scattered in such a way that we see the reddish-orange part of the spectrum more so than the blue.  This casts a beautiful light across the landscape, and it’s the key to an especially romantic sunset.

What happens when you combine this orange sunrise light with the clearing skies that follow a thunderstorm, a smoky forest fire hundreds of miles away, and red sandstone cliffs that rise thousands of feet into the air?  You get the glowing, almost surreal image you see above.  Indeed, this was a magical moment and a fantastic light show that few people will witness firsthand.

The West Temple, 7:05 am

Approximately 75 seconds after I shot the first image, notice how the light has changed.  Dramatically! The clouds have darkened and have lost their magenta cast, the lower portion of the cliff is in dark shadow, and the glow on the upper cliff has grown even more intense.  This is a copy of the RAW image file, straight from the camera with no adjustment to color, saturation or contrast.  The white balance is the same as in the previous picture. It’s almost too colorful and saturated!

The West Temple, 7:11 am

A few minutes later, and the light is distinctly softer and more diffuse.  The sky has lost any trace of color, and only a hint of orange glow remains.  Again, this is the RAW file.  The scene is pretty, without a doubt, but it has lost its magic.

The West Temple, 7:16 am

The last image I shot before packing up my tripod and heading back to bed.  Twelve minutes have elapsed since I made the first photograph, and the difference is striking.  No amount of Photoshop wizardry is going to transform this photo into a winner.  Yet, it’s a virtually identical composition, using the same camera, lens and settings, and taken just minutes after the first image.  Remarkable.

This series of photographs illustrates the drastic change that can come over the landscape in a very short period of time.  Pressing the shutter release NOW or waiting until THEN can have an enormous impact on the final image.  I usually press the release now, then, and as much as possible in-between to increase my odds of getting the shot!  On most mornings, sunrise light will peak with color for several seconds or for as long as a couple of minutes, but nowhere near as intensely as in the example above.

There is a reason why a nature photographer will arrive at her location well before the crack of dawn, and is so meticulous in her planning and prep.  It’s so that she will be ready to capture a fleeting, ephemeral moment like this.  Sadly, these moments are few and far between.  I suppose this is what makes them so special.

An Amazing Sunset

This next series of photographs is much like the first, except that we’re dealing with an amazing sunset on the other side of the planet.  I shot these images at Railay Beach, Thailand in 2007.  As the sun sets, the sky progresses through a similar range of colors, just like the Zion sunrise.  The first two images are straight RAW files with no adjustment to saturation or contrast.

If you’ve got a keen eye, you’ll notice that I adjusted my composition to exclude the boat that is seen floating near the left side of the first picture.  You’ll also see a few dust spots in the first two pictures, which I haven’t bothered to clone out.  Notice what a stunning difference there is between the first and last pictures, taken only three minutes apart!

Thai Sunset, 6:35 pm

Thai Sunset, 6:37 pm

Thai Sunset. 6:38 pm

The difference between the last two photos is subtle, but you’ll notice that as the color in the sky peaks, the surface of the ocean reflects a much more intense orange-pink.  The smooth sheet of receding water helps to accentuate this effect, by reflecting more light during the last exposure.  The color of the sky also changes, just as it did in the Zion images.

The last image has been photoshopped, however.  I would prefer the term processed or edited, which carries a less negative connotation.  I have adjusted the color, contrast, exposure, and saturation in the final image.  As you can see, the difference is subtle; I haven’t concocted colors or pasted in clouds.  Without looking at the last two images side by side, you would be hard pressed to notice a difference.

Aside from the beautiful sunset, this particular night stands out in my memory because I was without a headlamp, and the rising tide forced me to scramble, wade and swim over a rocky headland to get back to my hotel on the other side of Railay Beach.  Took a couple of hours, as I recall.

To be fair, there are some images in my portfolio where you would most definitely notice a striking difference between the RAW file and the final, processed image.  Still, I hope that even those images still appear realistic.

My goal, as a photographic artist, is to capture and create images that might spark an emotional reaction in the viewer.  To be effective and compelling, I believe my images must appear natural, honest, and within the realm of reality.  This does not, in my opinion, exclude the use of Photoshop or any other digital technology, so long as these techniques help me to reach my goals.  While I have profound respect for other artists whose photography tests the boundary between reality and fantasy, it is not my personal style (though I acknowledge I am influenced by such amazing work).

In my next post, I will examine several images and techniques that some might say are outside the acceptable range of “realistic” nature photography.  Just for fun, I’ll leave you with two final images.  One is virtually unedited and straight out of the camera, with relatively little processing in Photoshop.  The other is one of the most manipulated images in my portfolio.  See if you can guess which is the more processed of the two.

Bird Rock at Sunset

Dune Experiment in B&W

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