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 home...it 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.