Monday, December 31, 2012

2012, 2013 and the Subway

First of all Happy New Year! The end of another year has come. We're all a bit older and wiser now (right!). This time of year one can't help but look back at and take stock in what we have, and what we have lost. We look at the good times, and think about what we have learned from the bad. I would say most people regard each year with bittersweet romanticism - we remember the good times, and try to forget the bad.

This year was no different for me. In February I lost my 100 year old grandfather, then in May my 15 year outdoor cat Mary, disappeared. Then a month later my 13 1/2 year old dog Max was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and had to be put down. I'm still wrestling with the guilt (I know, I know) of that one.

Although those things make me feel a bit melancholy, the year had some great times and landmarks. I helped my partner and girlfriend Kristi open her own Pilates business, which has been quite successful in the first 6 months. The renovation on my house was officially complete (are we ever really finished though?). My dad bought a rental property, which I have been charged with the task of renovating as well ( oh boy ). This year I signed a contract with Allstar Grand Canyon Tours agreeing to display my images on their website and promotional material, in exchange for free tours and transportation to the canyon. I've enjoyed months and months of displaying and selling my work from a small gallery in Vora Financial's offices in downtown Flagstaff. Plus, I had some wildly enjoyable adventures in Arches, Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, Escalante, Bryce and Zion.

Photographically speaking those wild adventures translated into some of the best images of my life. Looking back at my blog posts from the last year, you can see the fruits of my labor. Ansel Adams was quoted as saying that a photographer is lucky if he takes 12 significant images over the course of a year. This was of course before the digital revolution, and the keeper rate is arguably way more than that for the average photographer. Honestly I haven't yet completed the processing of all my images from last year, so I'm not going to follow suit and post my top favorites. They are already posted right here in my blog.

What I have posted today is my favorite image taken in Zion National Park. It was made in the canyon of the Left Fork of North Creek in the most popular area called the Subway. It gets its name from the under cut and tubular looking sandstone formation formed by the creek and years of flooding and erosion. Only about a quarter mile long, it's one of those favorite icons of the southwest. We went in late November aiming for the last bit of fall trying to capture its colorful leaves. You have to get there early, and hope for a bit of sunlight to capture the sun bouncing off the canyon walls (kinda looks like train headlights in a Subway). Although I did take some standard compositions of the area, I tried to make an original composition of an oft photographed subject.  I hope you like it, and as always, feel free to comment. I hope you have a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Snow on Red Canyon

Well since the end of the Mayan Calendar hasn't spelled the end of world, I can safely say Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Kwanzaa. This is the time of year where we spend time with our loved ones, and think about whom we have lost. Somehow this year feels a bit different. Our trajectory as a society is taking us down roads that can only be described as questionable. People are realizing that the farther we get from our roots and nature, the closer we get to greed, power, corruption, and violence. What I really wish is that people take this time for introspection and retrospection. We all need to take a close look at ourselves, and learn to lead by example. As we have been granted another 5,125 years lets make it better than the last.

This image is from Red Canyon located between Zion and Bryce Canyon. The temperatures dropped quickly the third week of November and left 5 inches of snow on the canyon. The storm clearing out brought puffy clouds and a nice fresh blanket in contrast to the red rock.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Paria Rimrocks - Toadstools of Escalante

Just outside of Big Water, UT and almost across from the Paria Ranger station is a small parking lot. Park there. You will be treated to a very unique experience. I've passed the sign dozens of times driving between Lake Powell and Kanab and never stopped to see what it was all about. Always in a hurry, never time to smell the roses. This trip I made a special point to not only visit, but stay the night. Kristi and I were on our way to Zion, but didn't plan on arriving there until Monday. I decided to make good use of our extra time and visit the Paria Rimrocks Toadstools of Escalante National Monumnent. The sun was hanging low in the November sky when we arrived late Saturday afternoon. By the time we hiked the mile or so up the wash to the formations, the golden hour had already begun. I was hoping to have the place to myself, it being the off season and all. But cars kept pulling into the parking lot. snapshooters and photographers piled out and began making their rounds, visiting the attractions like a carnival arcade.

I have gotten used to this. The constant influx of gawkers, tourists and picture takers have inundated the wild west. We're all like minded individuals, out there to experience nature and take a little bit home with us, I thought to myself. It was getting a bit frustrating, though, waiting for the people to get off the formations and step out of the frame. I'd just have to set up a composition and wait. Getting away from people wasn't why I was there anyway. After all, we were pretty much at a roadside attraction. No, I was there to experience a rarity. To view the effects of the passing of geologic time: the curious erosion of the soft under layer of rock leaving caps of a harder red rock on top. To meet the silent statues that have stood against rain and snow and sun and wind for eons. To feel for ourselves the relentless glare of the sun slowly and methodically softening and cooling. From white to yellow to orange to pink. To see the long shadows creating definition, emphasizing every grain of sand and stalk of weed. To watch the reflections from the cliff faces illuminate both sides of the formations in pastel shades of brilliant color. We're here in nature's light show, it seems fitting there should be an audience. It's much better paying attention to the light anyway. Soon the sun went down and the people clammered back in to their cars, off to their hotel rooms. I smiled.

We were on Bureau of Land Management land. This meant we could camp in our camper right there in the parking lot. Now we had the place to ourselves. After little dinner and some liquid libation I began to set up for a midnight foray. Earlier in the evening on our way back to the van I tried to use my iPhone to determine the best vantage point to shoot the Toadstool Tower, as I like to call it, at night. There was definitely no cell coverage, so my star tracker software would not receive any telemetry. I'd have to do it the old fashioned way. Believe it or not I still carry in my bag a compass, a whistle, and a first aid kit, even for a mile. Don't get too reliant on technology, it might not be there when you truly need it. I found that by crawling down to the bottom of the wash I could look up and probably get Polaris in the shot. Now all I had to do was find the spot in the dark. I awoke around midnight as if my internal clock (or bladder) knew the best time to make a star trail photograph. There was no moonlight that evening and I got a little lost. I ended up hiking up the wash rather than the ridgeline where the trail went. A standard night photo in this case would require a low ISO, about 15-20 four minute exposures, and some light painting on the subject. Normally I use an intervolometer cable release for my night photography then stack the exposures in Photoshop. But this night I wanted to try something new. I'd seen night photos of the Mittens using film ( a la Kerrick James)that seemed to have a lot more color in the sky. I wanted to try something similar with what most new digital cameras have built into them called Dark Frame Subtraction, or high ISO noise reduction. Basically once you turn it on it takes a second frame at approximately an equal shutter speed with the shutter closed. The closed shutter exposure will reveal a noise pattern to the camera. That noise pattern after the shutter is released is used by the camera, and subtracted from the original image, all done with in camera software.

What I didn't know was how long a shutter speed or how high an ISO to use. To be honest, experimenting out in the field is a bit risky. I should have tried this at home. I spent three hours in the freezing cold trying to get it right. By the time I had gotten back to the van, the water for the dog had frozen in the bowl. I had chosen to use ISO 3200 for 33 minutes using my 15mm Pentax Limited lens at F4. When I reviewed the shot in the LCD it looked completely blown. The histogram was pegged to the right. I should have used 1600, I thought. It was too late, I sure wasn't going back. I had already taken the camera down and packed it in my bag while it was taking it's 30 minute dark frame. I wasn't about to gear back up and head back out. Deep down I was hoping to perform some sort of miracle rescue with Photoshop. Boy was I surprised when I got worked! I reduced the exposure in Lightroom by about 3/4 then took it into Photoshop, masked the star trails and added a blended layer in screen mode for the rocks. The amazing thing was there was no moonlight, or light painting. All the light you see on the rocks were from the stars. Then there was the colors in the sky from the reflection off the atmosphere, another pleasant surprise. The problem with using DFS is you have to wait for the camera to take another exposure of equal length before you can view it on the LCD. I felt like I was using film again. I'd have to wait until I developed the image before I knew if it would turn out or not. Boy, using a compass, and waiting to develop an image. Hello fifteen years ago! Who needs technology anyway.