The desert’s of Utah provide some of the most diverse landscapes fit for photography than most any other place in the United States and possibly in the whole world.
I may be a bit biased as the Utah wilderness deserts and canyons have become a part of who I am through years of hiking and exploring. Through years of exploring I’ve developed an understanding of these unique landscapes.
I would call this an abstract. There’s no references within the photo to give the viewer scale. It’s more about tones and patterns in the landscape than it is a representation of the whole of the scene. It gives no indication of where or when it was made. It’s not about documenting. It’s about using a small component of a grand landscape to give the viewer more to imagine or to ponder. The end goal of this photo is to provide something aesthetically pleasing to view.
This photo was made using my 70-200mm lens at 140mm. I was perched high on a 400 foot edge looking over this incredible desert floor.
Nikon D850 – Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII Focal Length – 140mm Shutter Speed – 1/80 sec Hand Held w/stabilization Aperture – f/8 ISO – 800
Situated between Capitol Reef to the west, the Henry Mountains to the south, the San Rafael Swell to the north and the San Rafael desert to the east. This butte is a popular spot for both Photographers and OHV (off highway vehicles). This situation has created a conflict of sorts as the landscape has tracks through it. This causes a challenge in the hope of getting a pristine photo of this location.
The most common method of photographing this beaut of a butte is from the air via a drone. From the air the tire tracks are plain to see. It takes some time to repair the photo by cloning out the tracks.
This is a scene that I have been wanting to photograph for a while now but with this being a pretty common location for landscape photographers, it’s a little difficult to create something unique.
I had the opportunity to go there last week to photograph this area, including Factory Butte. Because I only had a couple of days there I didn’t have the epic skies that I had hoped above this landscape.
I brought this photo up and decided to try to process it into something, anything to justify the time that I spent there – and the time spent repairing it. I took a lot of time working on the foreground but when I was done that plain, blank sky stared at me. I almost hit delete.
Now I have always said that the reason people will drop in a sky is because their time is limited and the time spent at a location didn’t produce the results that were hoped for. This was the exact situation that I was in with this image. As I sat there carefully brushing out tire tracks that blank sky taunted at me.
Once I was done with the foreground repair I saved the file and then decided to play with some different skies and boom. I saw this.
I have always said that if a photo is a composite I’m just fine with it as long as the artist is honest and transparent about it being so. I’m not one to criticize a person’s creative expression. All I ask for is honesty.
And so in my attempt at transparency, I explain the process that I went through to create this image for you. This is a composite of two images combined to create the image that I had hoped to create naturally.
I have a new camera. It’s become my favorite camera. If not my favorite it is certainly the one that I’ve been using the most. It even makes phone calls.
If you haven’t figured it out already, I have reached the annual and inevitable point of obsolescence of my cell phone. I fight the thought of this being a ploy to sell me a new phone every four years, but if I’m being honest, it’s something that I always look forward to. It’s not because the manufacturers have improved reception or call quality on the phone. Both aspects seem to be no different than they were four years prior when I upgraded to my previous phone. What I always look forward to is how the latest camera upgrades perform. This go around I picked up a new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and I love it.
I’ve owned a cell phone for practically their whole existence. I then used a Motorola brick at work in the early 1990’s and then progressed through the flip phone era to the modern-day smartphones. I remember when the first camera came out as a feature in the better flip phones. It was a dreadful little camera that took very small, out of focus and grainy photos. It was completely impractical. It was more of a novelty than a practical camera. At that time point and shoot cameras were popular for taking snapshots. Today very few people have or need for a point and shoot camera as our phones have easily replaced them.
My first cell phone camera created an image that was a 484 pixel x 364 pixel 14 KB file which yielded a 1 ¼” x 1 ⅝ ” photo. My newest cell phone has a 9000 x 12000 pixel 14 MB image that will print a 30” x 40” photo. The device features a 108MP uncropped primary camera, a 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera, two 10MP telephoto cameras (3X and 10X optical zoom), and a 40MP selfie camera. This means that when you zoom in the image will be made using a lens to magnify the scene and not enlarged digitally which tends to break the image apart. This particular cell phone that I’m using has three separate lenses to pull this off.
Another feature that cell phones have these days is the ability to use what’s called Pro Mode. Pro Mode will allow you to switch the phone camera to manual which gives you the ability to adjust the settings – Primarily shutter speed, and ISO, and to save the file in a Raw format. When set on Automatic the camera will take the photo and process it according to presets that are programmed into your camera. When it’s set to Manual you can create and process your photo in the method that gives you the look that you want. There are programs/applications that you can use on your camera to process and save the photo.
You might ask why you would need a camera if a cell phone can take such incredible photos? The answer is that it’s about sensor size and not about megapixels. The pixel size on the cell phone is .8 micrometers while the pixel size on my professional camera is 4.35 micrometers. Why is this important? It’s important in dim lighting. Larger pixels gather more light. A cell phone will do fine for photos in optimal light but once the lighting becomes a challenge the camera will be challenged. As a matter of fact when the cell phone camera is in night or low light mode it will use what’s called binning to merge nine pixels into one, effectively making it a 12 MP sensor. And furthermore, a larger sensor will be able to gather more information which will make a sharper and clearer image. The simple answer is that it’s not realistic to expect a sensor the size of 8mm to perform as well as a camera with one that’s 35mm in size.
I haven’t mentioned the video capability of the cell phone. It could be a whole separate article. It boasts the ability to record 8K video. It can record 3840x x2160 at 30p but can also record 1920 x 1080 at up to 120p which can give you the ability to record super slow motion.
I’m finally excited about the camera on my cell phone. I have been having fun with it. In the past I would try but the image quality when I was through was discouraging. I relegated the cell phone to snap shots of friends and family and snaps of times that I wanted reminders of. Because the photos and the video from this camera are so good, I’m more willing to try to be creative with it. Will it replace my professional camera? Not at all but it will allow me to get rid of all of the point and shoot cameras as well as all of the various video cameras that I have accumulated over the last few years. Cell phone cameras are starting to stand on their own as a viable option for quality imagery.
Alaska is a special place for my wife Darlene and I. We return as often as possible. We recently had the opportunity to return to spend five days with a small group of photographers to show them the beauty of the state.
We visited the Kenai Peninsula in our search for wildlife, especially bears, where we spent time at the Kenai and the Russian Rivers. We saw huge red-sided Coho salmon making their way upriver to spawn. We also photographed loons at Skilak Lake. We were disappointed that we saw no bears but it was a day full of adventure and breathtaking scenery nonetheless. The Chugach Mountains, Kenai Mountains and the scenic Turnagain Arm dominated the scenery that we enjoyed as we travelled the Seward Highway.
On our second day we took an excursion boat out of the coastal town of Seward. We cruised through Resurrection Bay into the ocean. It was drizzling with some fog but it didn’t keep us from standing out in the clean ocean air photographing dreamscape like images of the rugged, forested Alaska shoreline and the Kenai Fjords towering rock Chiswell Islands. We saw wildlife including sea lions and a myriad of sea birds, puffins and bald eagles. We even had a humpback whale surface right next to our boat, raising its tail above the water. We then travelled to the face of the Aialik Glacier to watch the calving of the ice into the sea, while harbor seals floated on the dislodged chunks of ancient ice in an attempt to avoid being eaten by Orca whales.
On day three we travelled north into the massive Talkeetna Mountains with their jagged peaks and glacial scoured valleys, green with tundra and decorated by scattered late season wildflowers. We explored Hatcher Pass and the dilapidated Independence mine. As we travelled through Hatcher Pass we photographed sweeping vistas and aqua blue-green glacier fed rivers.
We eventually met the Parks Highway and turned north to our second lodge located in Talkeetna, an eclectic little tourist town south of our ultimate destination, Denali National Park and Preserve. As we drove we passed through Broad Pass with forests stunted from the harsh winter conditions that they must endure to survive. The incredible scenery was dotted with beaver ponds that mirrored the foothills of the Alaska Range on their still surfaces.
On our last day we arrived at Denali National Park and Preserve early to another wet, drizzly day. We boarded the park bus and started our journey through the park, enjoying some of the most majestic scenery in the world in spite of the clouds and fog that came and went through the day. We saw, and photographed, ptarmigan, caribou and grizzly bears in the distance along the way. We eventually made it to the Eielson Visitor Center deep in the park where we watched two grizzlys grazing on the tundra in the fog on a high ridge above us. When we left the visitor center the bears had made their way down the ridge to a hillside very near the road. Our bus stopped and we photographed them until they crossed over the hillside and out of our view. We were able to take some incredible Denali grizzly bear photos.
After an uneventful but scenic ride back to the park entrance we left the bus and then went to have a warm meal. As we ate we talked about the two things that the group wanted to photograph but wasn’t able to, a moose and the massive Denali, the third most prominent mountain peak in the world.
We finished dinner and made our way south on the Parks Highway toward our lodge in Talkeetna. We had gone approximately 10 miles when we came across a bull moose near the side of the highway munching on the vegetation. We pulled over and carefully positioned ourselves to get the moose photos that the group had hoped for. We didn’t mind that it was along the side of the road.
The weather had been mostly clouds, drizzle and some rain throughout the week. Not enough rain to spoil our fun but enough to obscure the view of “The High One” Denali. We all went to bed on the last night of the workshop feeling satisfied for the amazing week, but a bit disappointed in not being able to see the mountain, our last piece of the puzzle.
The next morning was one of reflection on the week that we had just spent. Tired but satisfied, we packed our luggage in the van and proceeded to leave our lodge and make our way back to Anchorage. We left under a clear blue sky that morning. We drove up the road to a viewpoint with a clear view toward the Alaska Range, the home of the elusive Denali. We stood in front of a majestic crystal clear view of a pure white snow covered Alaska Range and standing head and shoulders over its neighboring peaks we finally saw Denali.
Our Alaska adventure was complete. My friends could hardly believe the week that we had. They left for home on their flights filled with memories that will last a lifetime and camera memory cards full of reminders.
I remember a quote that I had read when I was a boy that has stayed with me my whole life. Robert Baden-Powell is quoted as saying, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it…” He was referring to being a good human, but in this day and age of increased recreational use of the outdoors, it is being used more as a way to increase the awareness of the proper care and use of our public lands. “Leave it better than you found it” is the new “Leave No Trace”. Those of us who care must do more than leave no trace. We need to try to offset the effects of those who won’t.
When the coronavirus came it changed almost every aspect of our lives. People started working from home. The travel restrictions cancelled a lot of people’s vacation plans. Cruise ship and air travel became impractical, as did hotel and resort stays. Even movie theaters and public places such as restaurants saw a dramatic decrease in business or were closed completely. With these restrictions came a new form of vacation trend, visiting the open outdoors. Everyone, including many who had never spent time in Nature, headed out to hike and camp seeking something other than sitting inside until the coast is clear.
Hiking and camping have seen a huge surge. Lawrence Lujan, the United States Forest Service (USFS) public affairs specialist is quoted as saying, “The visitation that we typically saw on the weekend, we were seeing during the week. And the visitation that we typically saw during a holiday weekend, like the Fourth of July, we were seeing on weekends.” What once was a weekend activity became one that was being done any day of the week.
The inevitable problems that come with the increased use of recreational lands are mostly wear and tear, but there are those who aren’t familiar with how to care for the outdoors, or just don’t care, that create other problems. Off trail hiking in sensitive terrain, off road driving or parking in restricted areas, trampling vegetation, illegal or abandoned campfires, vandalism and leaving trash behind have all increased.
The increase of visitation to the outdoors isn’t all bad news. With more people coming out to these beautiful natural places comes the appreciation of these places by more people. Typically, when someone visits a special place, one that they connect with and fall in love with, they are more apt to put forth an effort to preserve it. Volunteerism has increased with the increase in visitation but it’s not enough to offset the effects of the public loving these places to death. Everyone needs to accept the responsibility to help care for the land that we use as we use it.
So how can we leave these places better? Many times it’s just a matter of carrying a trash bag in your pack to gather trash and litter others leave behind. Volunteering with organizations that help to develop and maintain these places is becoming essential, and popular. If you’re unable to volunteer, donating to these organizations helps them greatly – I support groups such as Trailkeepers of Oregon. We need to teach our children by setting an example for them to follow. Also raising the awareness of those that you associate with to adopt the Leave it better principle of outdoor use.
Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to care for these special places. It’s up to us to assume that responsibility and apply it to how we use our shared public lands.
Like a House on Fire – Night Photography in Central Oregon.
Exploring Central Oregon is always fun for me. I really like seeing the remnants of the old buildings of farms and barns that have seen their better days. These old rustic structures are photogenic in most any light but I like to find ones that might look good in a night photo. Central Oregon is a great place for night shots. The skies are dark and the stars are bright.
This photograph is a good example of the beautiful and dramatic night photos that one can create from a day of exploring Central Oregon. This dilapidated old home turned out to be a good subject for a Milky Way photo. The way that I created this was to use two photos blended in post. I took the photo of the house before it got completely dark and the Milky Way photo way after it turned dark, close to Midnight.
The foreground is a single exposure while the Milky Way sky is 5 exposures combined to minimize noise. I used the Sky Replacement feature in Photoshop to help with the blending.
I will never forget the first time that I saw the Northern Lights. It was on my first trip to Alaska. I’m talking a real, bright, dynamic display straight above my head and not a faint glow off on the distant horizon like I have seen in Oregon in the past. In Oregon the Aurora could barely be seen with the human eye but was clear to the camera’s sensor after a relatively long exposure.
Photographing the aurora in Oregon required that I set the exposure at around 15-20 seconds on average because of how dim that they were. There was no real definition in the glow nor was there any discernable movement in the light. It was mostly a colorful glow.
My first real experience with the aurora was on a trip to Alaska to visit my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, who was living near Palmer in a cabin on the edge of the Knik River. My flight arrived at Anchorage at approximately 11pm. Darlene came to pick me up at the airport before we drove to her cabin, arrived there at around midnight. We were sitting in her dining room discussing the lay of the land that surrounded her home when I asked if it would be practical to take a midnight stroll to the river. She said that it would be fun so we grabbed our tripods and cameras and off we went.
It was a moonlit night, which would completely cancel any chances of seeing an aurora in Oregon, but I hadn’t even considered that there would be a chance of seeing it anyway. Off we went down a path and through the forest that lined the edge of the river. As soon as my eyes had adjusted to the night and we were about to emerge from the trees I could see a beautiful green light in the sky. When we got to the beach at the edge of the Knik River I was amazed by the scene before me. In front of us was the placid and mirror like water of the Knik River and just beyond in the distance stood the rugged peaks of the Chugach Mountains and above it all was the most incredible aurora. The lights were a vivid green and were moving like curtains in a soft breeze. Over my right shoulder was a moon illuminating the scene. The whole scene was reflected in the surface of the river that slowly flowed past in front of us. Of course I was completely blown away by the view and didn’t know if I should stand and watch it or divert my attention to photograph it. Of course I set up and proceeded to take some photos.
My approach to setting up to get the photos was to start with some longer exposures. That’s the approach that I would take for most any night photos, and was my experience with the aurora here in Oregon, but when I reviewed the photos and looked closely at them the definition of the curtains that I saw was gone. The aurora looked like just a big green cloud or something similar. Then it occurred to me that the lights were moving and were blending together during the long exposure. I thought that I should use what I’ve learned about photographing a moving creek. If I expose longer the water smears. If I want to freeze it I want ta fast shutter speed.
At that point I started to raise my ISO and shorten my shutter speed. I also made sure that I didn’t underexpose the shots. By making sure that the photos were exposed properly, and wouldn’t require me to raise the exposure in post, I would reduce the chance of ISO noise from using a higher ISO. That’s something that I can’t stress enough. It is better to use a higher ISO and to expose the photos properly than to use a lower ISO and underexpose the shots and then raise it in post. When you raise the exposure of an underexposed photo the noise will be greater than one with a higher ISO that was exposed brighter.
Next make sure that you check your exposure by using the histogram. There are two reasons to keep an eye on your histogram. The first is to make sure that you’re ETTR – Exposed To The Right, as much as possible and to make sure that you’re not over exposing the aurora. On exceptionally active auroras the light can be quite bright.
And so the short answer to the question about how to photograph the Northern Lights would be to use a shutter speed that is as quick as possible. I wouldn’t recommend exposing longer than 2-3 seconds in Alaska, and 10-20 seconds in Oregon, for instance. It’s acceptable to use a larger aperture opening (f/2.8-f.3.5) to bring more light in, which will help to shorten your exposure time. And last but not least don’t be afraid to raise your ISO. In the case of the aurora it would be better to have a more defined aurora than one that is smoothed together from a long exposure.
The last thing to remember is that although you’re using a quicker exposure to capture the lights, the exposure times will still be too long to hand hold so don’t forget to bring your tripod.
Use as fast a shutter speed as possible
Use an open aperture
Raise you ISO
Use your histogram
Use a tripod
And don’t forget to take time to just watch and experience the incredible light show.
I am glad to be known more for my landscape photography than I am for any other photography style or genre that I dabble in, although I certainly do not limit myself strictly to landscapes, it’s what drew me back to photography in the beginning. This brings clients to me who want a unique heirloom portrait of themselves in the outdoors. As a landscape photographer I have many locations in the back of my mind that would work for the photos that my clients expect from me.
This photo is an example of one such session. The clients wanted a photo of themselves with Mount Hood behind them. We were fortunate to have a window of time when the skies would be clear, and a view of the mountain could be had. I chose White River Snow Park on the east side of Mount Hood. The park is busy, but we did well, and I can always take out the errant person in the distance with a clone brush tool in Photoshop during post processing. We walked up to an area with some trees which gave the photo the feel of being at the edge of a wilderness forest with the incredible mountain in the distance. The scene gave a sense of solitude to the feel of the photos even though there were people all around us.
I took a series of photos varying my focal length from 24 millimeter to 35 millimeter according to the composition that I was trying to achieve. They all turned out fine, but I had a vision in my head of a photo with the couple in the foreground with Mount Hood looming large in the background. An effect that I could not achieve with a wide-angle lens. I had this idea before we arrived and as we drove into the parking area, I surveyed the location to find a place to get the shot. I knew this location very well and so I drove right to where I knew that I would have the best luck in creating the photo. We did not have to walk far, fortunately, as the couple were surrounded by snow and dressed in their wedding clothes.
Once we had finished the photos, and were about to return to our cars, I asked my clients to stay behind with my assistant while I returned to my car to change lenses and take a photo of them from there. They were up on a ridge of snow above where I had parked with Mount Hood positioned perfectly behind them. As I stood in the distance, I mounted my 200 mm lens to my Nikon D850 and then zoomed in to 160 mm to compose the frame. I then stopped the aperture down to f/14 for a clear depth of field. Once my assistant had posed the couple, I took the shot. I had used a method of enlarging the mountain, in this case five miles distant, to fill the frame to give the illusion that the subject is much closer to the background than they were. I and my clients were pleased with the outcome.
Understanding your location and the capability of your gear makes it easier to visualize a photo prior to arriving at the location. And visualizing your photoshoot prior to the day of the event will allow you to be more prepared and to be more relaxed once you go to work. In addition, knowing the capabilities of your equipment will allow you to understand basic concepts or methods such as lens compression to create more compelling photographs.
Although our adventures were severely limited in 2020 we were able to make it to Alaska for our annual workshop. It took a lot of work to arrange including several covid tests, quarantining and a lot of common sense, hand sanitizer/washing hands and a lot of carefulling. And I’m so glad that we did though. The year would have felt like a total failure otherwise.
This year’s Alaska trip was one of the most memorable visits that we’ve had and I attribute it to the time that we spent with the grizzly bears on the Kenai River. When you spend several days in close proximity to a particular family of Alaska grizzly bears you start to become emotionally attached. In the four days that we spent watching and photographing them we all fell in love with this bear family. Their ultimate demise cemented their memory in our minds forever.
While we were there one of my workshop participants nicknamed them The Candy Family due to their caramel and chocolate colors. Sadly this family was dead within a week of us leaving. The momma and one cub were killed on the road the follows the river as they were crossing. Soon after a second cub was killed at the same spot. The third baby was put down by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game because it wouldn’t leave the scene and was deemed a hazard. All of us in the workshop were devastated when we heard the news. There’s more information about this sad news HERE.
To have these photos in my portfolio is a dream realized. Being around real live Alaska grizzly bears and photographing them has been a dream of mine for a very long time. This was the second time that I’ve been able to photograph the bears at a close distance and I’m looking forward to doing it again during next years workshop. Perhaps you’d consider joining us on our 2021 Alaska Adventure.
This is a series of the bears that I wanted to share as ten of my best, or favorite, photos of 2020. I will post ten of my favorite landscape photos soon. I hope that you enjoy them. Happy New Year my friends. Please be safe while driving and watch for wildlife.