Archive for June, 2011

Blood-sucking freaks

So after the relatively bug-free California environment I get back up here and am basically in a cloud of mosquitoes every time I set foot out of the house.  This time of year being a woodland photographer really sucks.  Literally.  Between the mosquitoes and the ticks I’m down a pint.

No.  Not really.  But they are so distracting and annoying that more than once I’ve given up and fled.  Running in a backpack with an 8-pound tripod is really not something I recommend.

Still I’ve had an idea brewing around in my head a while and braving the blood-sucking hordes is just something I had to do.

I’ve always loved mountain laurel.  Growing up there were a few huge bushes in our yard and when you’re little there’s nothing better than crawling in among the fantastically twisted trunks and hiding.  Like a little private world which as a kid is a pretty rare thing.

These days I value them for other things.  In winter they add a nice touch of color with their seemingly everlasting green leaves.  In spring they can help frame and give dimension to a forest landscape.  Early summer though, is when they really shine.  Those delicate white blossoms with their secret pink tracery.  The stuff of fantasy and just a wee bit Asian…like those beautiful paintings of cherry blossoms.  So after walking through Purgatory Brook earlier this year I knew I’d have to go back when they bloomed.  I visited about 10 days before this shoot and all the blossoms were out, but still clenched like tight little bonnets.  Now though, they’re out and lining the banks and trails.

My goal and initial vision was to try for landscapes featuring the brook and the plants.  As I explored the area though I became aware just how difficult it was going to be since you can’t really move the bushes or the brook.  Few compositions worked without a great deal of effort and contortions on the part of me and the tripod.  But it was worth it.  I may even go back.

I spent a lot of time on the banks looking for compositions.  Even climbing out onto big boulders in the middle.  Not much was really working you know?  Something was off.  It seemed like to capture the jungleyness of the area was to introduce a lot of chaos into the shot.  But as I worked the scenes things started to come together.

Overall I wanted to show the relationship between the water and the laurel.  How the laurel seemed to hug the banks even though it grows all over the woods here.

After a while I started to isolate blossoms as they cantalevered out over the rushing stream.  Lucky for me the day was relatively still wind-wise and I could get medium long exposures.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen photos of mountain laurel shot like this and even though they’re a bit strange, I like them.  It’s how I see them at Purgatory Brook.

As the light changed and the clouds thinned I got a bit of translucence in the leaves which was a bonus, really.  Contortions, mosquitoes and almost falling in the brook aside, I’m pretty pleased with how these came out.  I had a rough idea of what I wanted and as I worked the location it came together.  I think this is how I work best; a loose framework for the images, something definite in terms of subject, but execution can remain to be seen.

Processing-wise I fiddled with the light balance to warm them up, gave the greens and yellows a touch of luminance.  Some got more clarity, some less to emphasize the gauzy quality of the flowers.  Others got minimal sharpening and noise reduction, some cropping.  I think all of them had the vibrance turned down a bit; after the rains the color was so saturated it just looked unreal although it was intense.

Anyway, that’s it for the moment.  I’ve got a few more shots of giant rhododendron to do once they blossom.  That shoot is going to be challenging, but I’ve been thinking about it for months.  I hope they bloom soon.  Everything is so weird this year.  Some things are late, some are early.  Crazy.


Desert Blooms

May in California is wildflower season and the high desert of the eastern Sierras is no exception.  I took tons of photos, but due to the harsh light, relentless wind and time constraints (who can wait forever for the wind to die down on every single shot?) most of them are for my reference and remembrance only.  Some did work out well though I wasn’t able to identify most of them.  I had a book and have used the internet, but still their IDs elude me.  If anyone definitely knows what some of these are, feel free to add a comment.

Desert Prince's Plume

No ID, I loved the morning light through them though.


Shot at dawn, no ID, they were everywhere, like grass.

No ID, found on the slopes of Black Point by Mono Lake

No ID, found on the rim of the Panum Crater by Mono Lake

No ID, but the backlighting was awesome at dawn

No ID, I loved their shy quality and the little droopy bits

Most of these are unbelievably tiny and I can hardly believe they survive, much less thrive, in such seemingly harsh conditions.  So different from the wildflowers in New England, but gorgeous none-the-less.  I spent  a lot of time oohing and ahhing over them.  It was hilarious and I felt really bad that I kept saying ‘Just one more’ to my stalwart husband.  He’s a gem, he is.

So, if anyone knows what these are, chime in.

Mono Lake and Musings on Travel Photography

So I’ve been thinking about this blog post and putting it off because I didn’t have an angle, a theme or a cohesive idea to pull it together.  As with a lot of my writing it just needed time to brew, like a good pot of French Press coffee.  (Four minutes with 200 degree water and fresh ground Starbucks coffee, preferably a darker roast like Sumatra (my current fave) or Italian roast.)  After a few days, I realized what’s really been rattling around in my head – the differences between travel photography and home turf photography.

A little while ago I wrote about The Art of the Do-Over and how that takes some of the pressure off getting the “perfect” shot.  And in the Are We Blind article I showed two shots of the same waterfall separated by about a year of serious shooting.  Knowing that you can easily go back to a location and get the shot you missed is an immense comfort.  You can control the light by watching the weather.  You can control the time of day you shoot.  You can control the equipment you have with you.  And last, you bring your experience and knowledge to the shoot; you know what you’re after and you know the location from having shot it before.  All really fine circumstances, but travel photography is different.

Spacegirl Blues

Travel photography is loaded with pressure.  With angst.  Will I get that iconic photo?  Will I be able to document what it was really like to be in this place?  Will I just get “tourist snaps”?  Will I find some hidden wonder no one’s ever shot before?  Will I get up for the perfect sunrise?  Will I have enough memory cards?  It’s a crazy, anxiety producing time for a serious photographer, even when it’s supposed to be relaxing.  Oh the things we do to ourselves.

There’s an old adage that says familiarity breeds contempt, but I try not to let that happen.  Familiarity can also breed ideas and a level of comfort with the area that the travel photographer doesn’t have.  My biggest hurdle on vacation is not being familiar with the location.  Oh sure you can use online maps and specialized programs like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, but they can only do so much.  Like when you drive and drive to reach a sunset location only to find the river in shackles provided by the Los Angeles water department.  Or when you get up before the sun and drive to what you think will be the perfect beach only to find there’s a huge fence and the gate is locked.  Yeah, that kind of thing.  Being a native is a tremendous advantage in any setting and I can see why photographers hire guides to help them find the best locations.  But I’m on vacation, not a photo shoot and I have to be mindful that my husband has different ideas about fun and relaxation.  Learn to let it go if a shot just doesn’t come together perfectly.  If a location doesn’t turn out to be as good as advertised.  If you have to make do with something other than your ideal.  Let.  It.  Go.

Gemini Spacecraft

And then there’s the weather.  You’re only going to be in that spot for a short amount of time so you take what you get.  Hopefully it’s something you can manage and work with instead of against.  I ruined one whole vacation’s worth of shooting by fighting the light instead of managing it to advantage.  Clouds don’t show up for your sunrise…find something else.  Too much cloud cover for your sunset shoot?  Harsh light all day?  Wind?  Rain?  Snow?  Freezing temps?  Ah the joys of travel photography.

That’s when flexibility is key.  I’ve heard it said that the best way to get good images is to have a shot list and plan them in advance.  All well and good except that you’re planning with in a finite box of perfect conditions.  Ha!  We all know Mother Nature’s sense of humor and unless you have a lot of time and an unlimited travel budget, chances are you’re not going to get the shot you envision.  That’s when the ability to see photographs on the fly comes in so handy.  I did that pretty well on my last trip to CA and tried to do it on this one.  Experience and a solid foundation of good photography practices will be something to lean on in times of trouble.  Think of it as your fallback position.  Fallback onto solid, traditional compositions and subjects that are dictated by what you see, not what you want to see.  Remember what I said about letting it go?  This is when you do it.  Be flexible and let it go if you can’t accomplish it.

Songs for Future Gods

So along with setting a shot list that you can be flexible about, it’s important to set expectations, too.  Study the weather.  Look at the elevation.  Check out the terrain.  Know where the light is coming from. Go to your favorite photography forums and see what threads have been posted about where you’re going.  Post your own thread asking for advice.  Check out blogs from local photographers or pros who have been to the area.  Oh what did we do before the internet?  Seriously, it’s so much easier now and so there’s no excuse for not being prepared when you get there.  Just knowing what the typical day is like where you’re going is a huge advantage.  This will help you visualize ahead of time and you won’t be surprised about what you find.  Think of it as sending an advance team.

Riders of the Dawn

After years of bringing the kitchen sink with me on vacation, now I travel with minimal gear.  It’s rare that I find myself wishing for something I didn’t have.  But what if you do need something that you didn’t bring?   If you are lucky enough to be in an area that has a decent camera store, you might be able to talk your way into a quickie rental.  Or if you’re traveling with other photographers who use the same brand, you can always beg or borrow.  Mostly though understanding your own photography is your answer.  Analyze what you use, really use, not just own.  Think about what you want to produce while you’re on vacation and pack accordingly.  On this trip I brought an older telephoto lens because I don’t have any new Olympus tele-zooms.  Having gotten decent results with it before, I thought it would work.  Unfortunately the camera out-resolves it and I didn’t get a single useful image with it.  Maybe I should have brought the one I have more experience with, but I brought the 180mm because I so rarely use it.  And vacation is not the time to be learning or perfecting techniques.  Work on that when you can have an easy do over.

Interstellar Communique

What about fun?  What about relaxing?  What about enjoying a place without having to photograph every inch of it?  Knowing when enough is enough is so important.  I’m not a street photographer and so my instinct to bring a camera with me into town to get breakfast is weak.  Sure I thought of doing it, but I didn’t because that’s my time.  My relaxation time.  My time to just sit with my husband, laugh, eat and find the course of the day.  Being with a single-minded automaton is a real drag and who wants to be that person?  Putting the camera down and experiencing a place is sometimes more important than snapping away.  Sometimes the camera is a barrier to being, just being in a location.  More than once it’s happened that I come away from a place without a sense of it…I was too busy looking through the viewfinder.


Oh jeez that was rambling, wasn’t it?  Here’s a summary to better prepare for a “once in a lifetime” location –

  1. Study the location remotely – weather, light, terrain and choice locations are all available online to help you get a feel for a place
  2. Be flexible – chances are the perfect conditions will never present themselves and you have to be able to envision good photos on the fly using what you see, not what you want to see
  3. Bring gear that suits your style – don’t try to break out of your zone on vacation, bring equipment that enhances your viewpoint not what disrupts it
  4. Fallback to the familiar – can’t make the original images you want, fallback on tried and true techniques and compositions; imitate the masters, they earned that title, find out why
  5. Work with what you have – if you can’t get to a spot or find conditions different from what you expected, exploit what you find and work it hard, let go of your preconceived photo
  6. Put the camera down for a while and really feel what it’s like to be where you are and with the person beside you – don’t let the camera be a barrier to fun

I’m not Ansel Adams but…

An online photographer friend said that he doesn’t do much black and white landscape work because he feels he needs the color to be there because it was there.  I agree with him up to a point.  No, I’m no Ansel Adams, but I do like how a black and white photograph can work when the major elements come together.

My job as a photographer is to make you see, not just make you look and I’m afraid that color sometimes gets in the way of that.  It makes you look, but often you still can’t see.  Our wondrous human brains are really keyed to color.  So much so that I can force you through a photograph the way I want you to experience it without you even knowing.  Sometimes that works, but sometimes we are distracted by color.  We don’t see the other “hidden” strengths of a photograph unless we’ve spent a lot of hours studying them and getting past the ‘ooh pretty colors’ thing.

Another online photographer blog I follow features a lot of monochrome images of the Eastern Sierras and while I am not emulating his style, I was mindful of how he presented things with his photos.  This country was made for B&W as the early landscape photographers have shown.  As a non-native, I didn’t make intimate portraits of high desert and snowy mountains.  Instead I tried to capture what awes me about the western United States.  My husband and I love it out there and I can only think of two major vacations spent east of the the Mississippi.  So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite B&W images from my trip –

Rock Creek Lake in Inyo County.  Still in the grip of winter in late May.  I had to stop the car and shoot this.  The clarity of the air was amazing.  It was cold, sunny and invigorating.  Incredible that the lake ice is just breaking up.

Next is a microscape (what, you thought I gave those up?) featuring some tiny flowers that looked like stranded water lilies to me.  They were on slopes where we stopped on our way to the bristlecone pine forest.  It’s probably 9,000 feet in elevation here and there were still patches of snow in the shade.

Near Mono Lake (post coming, I promise) are the Mono Craters, remnants of the volcanoes that created the valley eons ago.  Snaking through the desert are many roads winding around sagebrush and poking into canyons.  A year or two ago they had a fire and, boy, was it eerie.  Nothing living as far as you could see.  No sound except the incredibly fierce wind that picked up handfuls of pumice dust and flung it.  Good thing there was no need to change lenses.  Processing-wise I didn’t really do anything to this one.  I liked the conversion the way it came out and I left it pretty much alone.


Believe me when I say this was by far the best road we’d been on since leaving the pavement that day.  It’s West Portal Road and it used to lead to mining camps that sprang up in the 19th century.  Now it leads to other roads that wind their way into the canyons of the Mono Craters.  I felt that a sepia tone would work really well here and low and behold –

This next one is Convict Lake.   The water is a crystal aqua blue and so clear that I wished for a wider angle lens to get more of the submerged rocks in the shot (this was at my widest 12mm or 24mm in 35mm film terms).   The lake was named after an incident in 1871, where a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City. A posse, led by Sheriff Robert Morrison, encountered the convicts near the head of what is now Convict Creek. Morrison was killed in the encounter, and Mount Morrison was named after him.  That’s it on the left.  I never did really capture the color of the water and so with it being so-so and a distraction, I deleted it.

This next one was taken just as we started to climb Black Point on the shores of Mono Lake.  It’s a volcano remnant, too, and a quite easy climb.  The pumice here is very dark and despite the sky being a brilliant blue, I decided on monochrome to bring out the texture and highlight the huge tonal range in this photo.  I messed with some color sliders as usual to bring up some contrasts and used the graduated filter a bit, too.

I didn’t envision each on in monochrome specifically, but I knew instinctively that pretty much anything I shot would work as long as it had white and black and so…

Desert Visitor – me!

To many people the word desert conjures up images of dunes, rippling sand, cactus and brutal temperatures.  While some of that might be true, many deserts are far from that.  Their lushness and color just might surprise you.  Even though I’ve never lived near one, I’ve always loved the desert.  High desert especially.  That’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the west.  The immensity of it just gets to me.  The ever-changing face of it.  Here are some of my favorite desert images from my recent trip to California.

First is a sunset taken just outside Bishop at the start of Silver Canyon.  Unfortunately no clouds came to play so I was very glad the earth brought its own colors.

Pastel Hills (Silver Canyon)

I just love this next one.  It’s the same sunset, but with the hill in shadow and the sun lighting up that terrifically fluffy plant.  I have no idea what it is, but I love it.  I think it’s the ribbon of trail leading up and out of the frame that makes it so magical for me.


Ok, so this next one isn’t so much desert as mountains, but in the Sierras they go together.  The colors in this are just amazing and again, made up for the lack of clouds.  I think this is my first ever shot of alpenglow – that pink glow of wonderfullness on the snowy peaks.

Alpenglow above the desert

Of course the desert is not all soft colors and gentle hills.  It’s mostly a harsh environment that takes willpower to survive in.  Except for the sunrise shot, the others were all taken with a pretty stiff wind blowing. So much so that my long exposures lack clarity because my lightweight, travel tripod wasn’t heavy enough.  That wind was nothing.  A few days later in Mono Basin we had steady wind in the 20 mph range with frequent gusts up to 50mph.  Unreal.  It made it very difficult to deal with and I worried that my camera would be clogged.  The grit flew everywhere!  Up my nose. In my eyes.  I swear it took 10 minutes to rinse my hair in the shower that night.  Mostly it was pumice from the volcanoes that created this whole valley.  It’s so light that it flies in wind.

Anyway, these next two shots are taken right near the Mono Craters.  It was one of the only times the harsh light actually worked in my favor.  The fire was recent; in the last couple of years and not a thing is growing yet.  Nothing.  Zip.  It was pretty creepy actually because other than the unrelenting wind, nothing moved or made a sound.  No birds.  That was the most noticeable. Compare it to the next shot where the desert has come back after a much earlier fire.

A Dead Heavy Day

The proximity of a big lake, mountains and desert makes for some extreme weather.  No doubt these clouds had something to do with the wind.  Aren’t they great?  Like the clouds that hid the alien ships in Independence Day.

It Came from the Skies

Not the most intimate of portraits. Believe me I felt my visitor status the whole time I was out there.  So overawed by it all I had very little time to really get to know it.  Besides that I had to balance my photography with our vacation and not drive my ever-patient husband crazy.  Only once during the whole trip did I feel my photo mania irritated him, so I dialed back and we were good.

Bodie, CA – The Disney World of Ghost Towns

This was the first place we visited on our way down from Reno.  We planned to go there during the trip, but not so soon.  However, we found ourselves very near to it so decided to switch up the schedule.

I knew going into it that it would be kind of a zoo, tourist-wise (worse even than Rhyolite), and I only lost my patience once or twice.  After that we moved out of the normal flow of people and ran sort of counter to them.  It made things easier on me.  I hate to be crowded, edged, pushed or otherwise dogged through my travels.  Even if it’s not deliberate on the part of other people it bothers me.

Given ideal circumstances, this place would be a delight to visit.  It’s supposedly been preserved exactly the way people left it, but I’m not really buying that.  Some of the houses are set up like aliens came and took everyone.  Things are a bit too artfully arranged if you know what I mean.  Even so, it was a fascinating look into a mining town during the boom years.

I won’t go into the whole history of Bodie here since there are many other good websites for that.  I’ll talk about the challenges of photographing it instead.  I was very disappointed by the available light.  I’d been hoping to access the park close to or during civil twilight, but it’s not open anywhere near those times.  So I had to deal with harsh, high altitude desert light.  Hm.  My first mistake was not bringing my tripod for the interior shots.  I should have gone to get it, but I was disappointed and cranky and it made things worse than they needed to be.  That’s seriously a problem for me, but that’s for another post.

I tried stepping outside of the traditional though and I think I did an ok job.  Here’s a shot of a house on the mill side of Main street.  It was fenced off as a lot of the area is on that side of town and I couldn’t approach it.  So I decided to focus on its isolation.


Post-processing wise I started with a LR preset (I forget which one) that altered the white balance and color hues just a bit.  I also used the adjustment brush here and there to focus attention on the house and give the hill some contour.  The sky I left as scornful as it looks.  For me it helps me envision how difficult life probably was in Bodie.  Those patches of white on the hills in the shot below are snow.  The town lies at 8300 feet and so it takes a long time for snow to melt.  Plus this was a banner accumulation year.  Most of the buildings were buried completely, with only the church and similarly tall buildings visible above the snow.

I imaging that if you came upon it from a distance, on another nearby hill looking down at it, you might think it was an oaisis.  A refuge of sorts from the unforgiving desert.  I think you’d be wrong though.  Even with a church, I don’t think it had much of haven about it.  California mining towns rarely did.



I spent a little time on Main Street where the farrier, machine shop, hotel and store stand along with the fire station.  Later in its life, Bodie had a small gas station as well.  You can see it reflected here in the hotel door.

Reflections of Bodie

This is my favorite image of Bodie.  I was surprised that the lens focused to infinity on the glass; it too fooled by the image presented there, and the door frame was rendered out of focus even though it’s less than an inch from the glass.

I really wish I could have gone into the hotel.  Great stuff in there including a pool table and stuffed animal heads over the bar.  Mostly though I just waited for people to get out of the shot.  If they’d been less garishly dressed, I could have left them in, but as it was they didn’t add anything to the shots, only detracted so I waited.

As you can see the light is really contrasty.  Shadows everywhere and I was less and less inspired as I walked through the town.  Plus my husband was starving and lunch was in the car.

I did want to visit the cemetery though so we ate quickly and I went up there.  By that time though, he was anxious to go and giving me the silent treatment so I rushed through and didn’t really explore it at all.  One of the only touchy times for us on this trip.  As I said, I have to balance relaxation for him and photography for me.  Time to time they don’t coincide exactly and I have to back off. I’d have  liked to explore more of the town, but it was near to park closing hour and we didn’t want to get caught in a parade, so we left early.  It wasn’t too great a disappointment though.

Here are a few more images that I did manage to produce.

Couch Trip

You are getting very sleepy...

Two Tears in a Bucket

Star by Star Declined