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Treasured Lands, and our national parks

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

“Laws change; people die; the land remains.” – Abraham Lincoln

As a nation, we have made the decision to set aside large areas of land that remain largely free of development for the sake of saving them.  This land comes in the form of national monuments, wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges, and of course our national parks, which have been called America’s best idea.  In 2016, the National Park Service, which manages our national parks, celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Indeed, each year, families, hikers, backpackers, photographers, and other tourists flock to our 59 national parks to see all that America has to offer, and it was truly a landmark year, worthy of grand celebration.

One of the most noteworthy things to appear in 2016 was QT (Tuan) Luong’s book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks. Containing more than 500 photographs, 450 pages, and weighing in at 7 lbs, Treasured Lands is Tuan’s labor of love. Tuan is the only photographer to have made large-format images in every single national park, and the images in this book represent 20 years and hundreds of visits to all of them.

I first met Tuan on Photo.net discussion forums when I was just beginning taking photos, nearly 15 years ago. He weighed in on topics that varied from computers, to cameras, to photography locations. Then, as now, he has shown himself to be a master of the craft, the true consummate professional.  So, when I read about the upcoming publication of his book, I knew it would be wonderful, and it is.

My first national park experience was at the Grand Canyon, backpacking with my Boy Scout troop. I was in junior high school, and we visited during spring break; it was snowing hard on the South Rim when we arrived. As many first-time backpackers and novice campers are, I was woefully underprepared and remember putting plastic grocery sacks over my socks in an attempt to keep them dry, among other things. Hiking into the canyon the next day felt incredibly treacherous on the ice that had formed overnight (in hindsight, it probably was), but cold and wet, I hiked on. However, I also remember the feeling of the sun at the river the next day; it warmed me and rejuvenated my soggy spirits. When we finished the trip, I couldn’t wait to get back to it…to backpacking, to the Grand Canyon, to as many national parks as I could visit. I was sold.

Since that Grand Canyon trip, I’ve backpacked the Grand Canyon several more times, and have spent countless hours in many of our other national parks. Yet, while the Park Service’s 100th anniversary is a landmark occasion worthy of celebration, it’s left me feeling a bit conflicted. Just before Christmas, I waited in line for nearly an hour to get into Joshua Tree National Park; in 15 years of visiting, I haven’t waited in line a single time. Zion National Park is considering a lottery system to determine who gets to visit the overcrowded canyon on any given day. Arches National Park has lines of cars reaching almost back into Moab from its entrance station several miles north of town.

Visitation to our parks is at a record high. Americans are visiting their parks. I can’t help but think that it leaves the Park Service in a bit of a conundrum on their 100th anniversary. They are tasked with preserving our national treasures, but at the same time ensuring access for the public, and those two tasks often don’t overlap. Park and Interior Department officials must be asking themselves, “at what point have we loved our parks to death, and how do we avoid it?” As a photographer who works in the national parks, how am I contributing to this? How are places–like Zion or Joshua Tree–that have traditionally been places of refuge for me going to change with this surge in visitation?  None of these things is easy to reconcile, but Tuan’s book gives me hope, and a fresh perspective.

One piece of advice I would give to aspiring photographers is to look at as much photography as possible. Critique it, make lists of things you like and don’t like. Take notes on composition, lighting. This is the reason I became involved in the forums on which I met Tuan in the first place, but it’s sound advice, I think.  However, this practice of critique can often be taken so far that photographers fail to let great photographs inspire them; Tuan’s images are indeed technically sound, but for someone who has had a quarter century love affair with our national parks, they serve the greater purpose of inspiration. Looking through Treasured Lands, I felt a deep happiness inside of me. These treasured lands will indeed remain for a long time, to be celebrated by generations to come.  Thank you, Tuan, for that reminder.

cover photograph of treasured lands book by qt long

Tuan has been a friend for a long time, but I have no financial interest in the success of Treasured Lands. It is simply a lovely book that you will enjoy for hours.

Chaos Theory

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

In walking around southern California, I notice many people are starting to doubt the legitimacy of the rain this record El Niño was said to bring us.  Fair enough…we’ve had only one honest storm so far, but meteorologists say it is really just starting to come into its own. Despite not rearing its head too badly yet here, much of the Sierra Nevada is already at 100%+ of snowpack, and wildflowers are starting pop up in the desert.  More on that in a minute though.

At the end of fall, right before Christmas, I made a quick trip to the Grand Canyon.  While there, I got to experience a fairly stormy day on the south rim, complete with howling winds, whiteout conditions and closed roads.  A couple of images from that trip easily made my Favorites of 2015.  Then, Jackson Frishman and I headed to Death Valley National Park, and the weather was equally spunky.  There was no snow in the valley, but there was plenty of rain, great clouds, and even a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and Death Valley so closely together in time is sort of a surreal experience.  As if I had lost it, I quickly regained my appreciation for deep geological time.  Nearly 75 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny, the Colorado Plateau was pushed upward nearly two miles and the Colorado River (which flowed from the newly formed Rocky Mountains) started to cut into the rock, forming the Grand Canyon.  Today, the river has cut about as deeply as it can go–to the basement Vishnu Schists–giving us a look back in time about 1.7 billion years.

Death Valley’s geologic story is a bit more complex (and violent), but as the Vishnu basement rocks in the Grand Canyon were being formed, Death Valley was already in a state of unrest, with rocks in certain areas being twisted and folded.  One area of particularly complex folding has been dubbed the “Amargosa Chaos” and is found in the southern end of the Black Mountains.  Fold, fold, fold…then separate.  That’s how the Basin and Range Province creates its mountain ranges–plates are pulled apart until they tilt upward creating massive mountain ranges with deep valleys between them.  In this part of North America, as John McPhee writes, the continent is literally being pulled apart.

You also start to understand a scale of spatial immensity in these two places.  While the Grand Canyon is typically thought of as the “deep” canyon at around 6,000 feet, it’s got nothing on Death Valley, which is over two miles deep (at its deepest).  If you’re not interested geology (I know…how can you not be?), it might be just as easy to stand in awe of both of these places, allowing yourself to feel small, both as a part of the landscape, and as barely-a-blip in geological time.

It’s worth noting briefly that while spring on the Grand Canyon’s rim is a few months off, it’s already happening in (especially) the southern end of Death Valley.  Jackson and I saw fields of Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) that created a wonderful lace-work pattern among the volcanic rocks in the southern Black Mountains.  All of the other usual suspects were starting to bloom as well, but are several weeks off from peak.  Hopefully some dreary, drizzly conditions continue in Death Valley, and it’s got the possibility of becoming a very good year for wildflowers.  Jackson has several photos and more commentary on his blog as well.

A winter evening at the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Death Valley mountains and wildflowers

Stormy winter morning on the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Salt Creek Hills, Death Valley

Chasing Set

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

“You will then…quickly discover the music and poetry of these magnificent rock piles…each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.”  — John Muir


Every so often a place will catch my eye and after just a little research, “Hmmm that place looks interesting!” turns into a bit of an obsession. This is probably why I’ve always liked maps so much: I can imagine what a place is like, and after I’ve been there, I can mentally put individual rocks and trees on the contour lines.  This obsession isn’t driven so much by photography, but by how remote and unvisited it is.  There’s something calming about unplugging and getting far, far away.

I’ve had my eye on the Coxcomb Mountains, a small but surprisingly imposing mountain range near the California-Arizona border, for a little over a year.  After they caught my eye, I started reading the few trip reports I could find, trying to correlate them with topographic maps.  In late January a friend and I made a long day hike into the range, and it was exactly what I’d hoped for: no trails, no sound, and no easy access point.  I returned a couple of weekends ago for an overnight backpack.

Coxcomb Mountains Sunset

The mountain ranges in the Southwest deserts are basically very big piles of boulders–the Coxcombs rise over 3,000′ from the bajada.  Their canyons are choked with rocks and boulders that have come down from the high peaks during floods and winter freeze-thaw cycles.  There’s a special kind of chaos here in the desert, and after being in places like this, it’s no wonder that in Egyptian mythology Set is the god of both the desert and chaos.  Making a coherent photograph out of the disorder would require me to climb to one of the high points in the Coxcombs to confront Set on his terms.

Sunset on Dyadic Point, Coxcomb Mountains

There’s no available water to speak of in the Coxcombs, so I spent only one night, hauling in about six liters of my own water.  After a four-mile hike across the bajada, I started working my way up a canyon, towards Tensor Point, one of the three high points in the Coxcombs that make up “Aqua Peak.”  The panoramic view from the top is impressive, and one can see the San Bernardino Mountains nearly 100 miles to the west, as well as ranges that stretch into Arizona.  Additionally, the views of the Pinto Basin, in Joshua Tree National Park, are outstanding.

After sunset, I spent a couple of hours with a somewhat pesky deer mouse, and finally fell asleep.  I woke up the next morning with no deer mouse but with a thick blanket of clouds.  After breakfast, I packed my gear up and arrived at the car just about the time rain started to fall on the desert in earnest.

I’ve never had much luck making any sense of the desert’s jumbled boulder piles in a photograph.  While they’re beautiful to look at, they’ve never translated well to photographic compositions for me.  Being on top of Tensor Point allowed me to step back from that chaos and compose images that seemed to make it all fall into place.  After a nine mile cross country hike through boulder piles and thick cat’s claw, I realized that maybe to make sense of the chaos, you must fully immerse yourself in it.

A dew-covered world

Monday, September 9th, 2013

This last weekend, my family and I visited the eastern Sierra for an event I was attending.  We had a few extra hours on Saturday afternoon and decided to drive up to Tuolumne Meadows.  On our way up Tioga Pass, I wondered if we would see any evidence of the Rim Fire.  Highway 120, which connects Yosemite’s high country to the Valley is currently closed, so it was very quiet in Tuolumne Meadows, and as I expected, a very large smoke plume was evident across the western and northern skies.   As evening arrived, the wind shifted and heavy smoke moved into Lee Vining Canyon, filling the Mono Basin.

Negit Island Mono Lake

Negit Island and smoke from the Rim Fire

Although it’s now 80% contained, the Rim fire has been burning since mid-August, and has charred over a quarter of a million acres, making it one of the most destructive fires in California’s history.  Fire is becoming more and more a way of life in the West, but in the face of a blaze this size, outdoor enthusiasts, photographers, hikers, and simply the general public have stood in awe and horror as fire crews scrambled to get the upper hand in hot and dry conditions.

Unlike most people, when I think of Yosemite, I don’t think of the Valley.  I think of Tuolumne Meadows and the granite domes, Mts. Dana and Gibbs and the Cathedral Range (one of my favorite mountain chains anywhere).  This is the Yosemite I know.  Standing there on Saturday, looking at the smoke, something didn’t feel right.   I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

In the face of such destruction, whether it’s a forest fire or something more personal and human, we experience a visceral suffering.  Pico Iyer had a wonderful op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, “The Value of Suffering,” in which he concludes that with love and trust, maybe we can be strong enough to witness suffering, and freely admit that we will never get the upper hand over it.

To put it another way, consider the interesting Japanese word nen.  Nen is the smallest unit of time any human being can experience, and in any nen one can return to something, anything…whether it’s a breath, partner, path, or choice.  This decision to return is the foundation of Zen practice.

In any nen–whether watching the Rim Fire from a distant Tuolumne Meadows or thinking about a loved one, we have the choice to return.  I don’t want to distract from the mess that the Rim Fire has caused and allude to any single benefit, but we are an angry enough world as it is; it’s time to return to a more compassionate path and be thankful for the dew that covers the meadow each morning.

Mono Lake sunset

Black Point Fissures and smoke from the Rim Fire

The Preservation of Us

Monday, July 15th, 2013

“Dammit!”

I never thought I’d roll an ankle so badly that it would bring me off my feet, but as I hit the ground after slipping from the curb, I let out a cry of both frustration and pain, certain I’d broken a bone.  Suddenly my typical Saturday morning run had become anything but, as I sat there trying to figure out if I could move myself or not.  In an instant, visions of every single hike and backpacking trip I had been planning for the summer ahead flashed through my mind, and suddenly vanished.

“Maybe it isn’t that bad,” I thought to myself as I got to my feet and started to limp towards home.  “Maybe I can get it to loosen up if I walk for a while.”  It sort of worked–in my stubbornness, I ended up running nearly 5 miles home, but as soon as I took my shoe off, my ankle swelled to the size of a softball.  “That’s no good…I really should go to the emergency room.”

Fortunately there was no break, just a sprained ankle.  As I left the emergency room, I wanted to ask, “So, how long until I can go backpacking?”  I decided that this wasn’t the most intelligent question a person on crutches should be asking, so I kept it to myself.


I’ve been rereading Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild over the last few weeks; I read it for the first time right after high school and it is one of the few books I have revisited more than once.  Everywhere you look today there is literature about why this wilderness and that wilderness should be protected and preserved.  Turner’s book focuses on the experience of the wilderness rather than the wilderness itself.  How do we interact with wild places?  He asks, and answers, in very clear terms why we need wilderness, and what it comes down to has nothing to do with the place itself.  It’s the experience.  We need wild places for our own well being.  I think this is the wildness that Thoreau referred to in his now famous quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

In many ways, I find myself living a life I did not always intend on having.  It’s not that I don’t want my family or my home or my job, or that I am trying to run from adult responsibilities.  However, I am a worrier by nature, and in the rush, rush, RUSH of everyday life, I find it increasingly absurd that I worry about things which I have no control over.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.  Those words echo through my head because I realize that while some people may feel anxiety over going into the backcountry (you know…survival and all that), my worried mind becomes calm.   The longer I am away and the further from roads I go, the more quieted I become.  Wilderness makes me kinder, gentler, sweeter.  This must be a coveted quality: no other place I can think of, and only a select handful of special people in my life have ever had that affect on me.

So it was that as I sat there that morning with my ankle throbbing in pain that I saw my precious trips to the wilderness slipping away.  The nearest trip was only 15 days away–a much anticipated backpacking trip into the High Sierra with an old friend.


Over the next few days, I was largely immobile. My crutches frustrated me, my foot bruised worse, and I just did not see how a backpacking trip would happen.  I spoke on the phone with my friend who, understandably, had reservations about heading into the backcountry with someone who could get reinjured very easily.  We decided to go on a “test hike” four days before our scheduled departure.  In the days leading up to that test hike, I rested as much as possible (despite what my overactive brain was telling me to do), and I began to heal noticeably each day.  While I still had to be very careful where I placed my feet, I managed to get through a 6 mile test hike with no problems.  We cautiously agreed that the Sierra trip was on.

Four days and 45 miles later, with the help of an amazingly solid ankle brace, hiking poles, and the patience of my friend, I finished our trip with zero pain or discomfort.  I joked with another friend before leaving that the backcountry always seems to “heal” me, and while I am pretty sure the backcountry had nothing directly to do with this, I was active, careful, and in a positive state of mind–all of which are ingredients for a properly functioning immune system.

I’ve said before that the wilderness is where I go to heal, both figuratively, and now literally as well.  However, what strikes me more than anything was my state of mind on my drive home.  With so much weighing me down before leaving, I felt remarkably free of burdens, worries, or fears.  I think this happens somewhat naturally when we boil life down to its essentials:

wake up,

make food,

walk,

make food,

go to sleep,

repeat.

Yes, we need wilderness, but we must interact with it as if our lives depend on it.  Because they do.  Talk about putting things into perspective.

In wildness is the preservation of us.

Fin Dome at Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park

 

A Canyon Offering

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Once I got to the ground, I laid down on the cold Navajo Sandstone, preparing to belay  my friends who would be joining me by rappelling over 300 feet into this remote canyon nestled deep inside the Colorado Plateau.  A few minutes ago, on the canyon’s rim, the morning sun warmed me, but now as I lay on the cold rock inside of this deeply shaded crevasse, I become chilled quickly.  Laying on here, I quickly realize that sandstone makes a crummy pillow, and it is my body that is forced to conform to the curves in the rock, not the other way around.  Still, although I have never been to this particular place before, I feel comforted and relaxed by my surroundings and I wonder to myself, “How much is it possible to love a place?”

My friends have joined me now, and the rope has been retrieved.  In a sense, we are now cut off from the world.  For the next several hours, we will work our way through the obstacles in our path.  Of course we will laugh (a lot) and enjoy each others’ company, but for me it is also a time of quiet contemplation, walking alone for brief periods as I soak up my time here.

Canyon Abstract 1

Inside of a canyon, we must embrace the notion that we are very small beings in a very large world.  It is one thing to be awed by a large ponderosa pine that has become lodged twenty feet up between a canyon’s walls.  It’s entirely another to return the next year only to find that the tree is gone, vanished.  Trying to understand the force that a flash flood exerts as it moves through a place like this is utterly impossible.  To escape from these forces inside of a canyon would be equally impossible: we would be crushed and our bodies washed away like the ponderosa pine.  Yet the rock endures, over time becoming more sensuously curved and beautiful in spite of (and because of) the nature of the destructive forces that shape it.

Canyon Abstract 2

We spend much of our time in everyday life searching for the bigger picture.  As I walk through the canyon, I can see pine trees hundreds of feet above me, and  I know that the world is going on “up there,” but I am not a participant in it today, however I have fallen into rhythm with the canyon, engaged in life down here.  There is something strangely liberating about surrendering to a world that rapidly–and voluntarily–becomes small and very focused.  As a reward for relinquishing my place in the world today, I am treated to some of the most sublime light imaginable.  Before my eyes, the canyon’s walls shift between shades of red, orange, purple, magenta, and blue that seem to exist only in dreams.  I can feel the peace deep inside of my soul.

Visitors to pretty much any national park in the American southwest will get a taste of canyons, whether they look in from the top of the Grand Canyon, or upward at the towering sandstone cliffs in Zion.  Of the millions of visitors to these and other parks each year, very few will experience a canyon close-up, and still fewer will get to experience the silence that true solitude can offer in between these extraordinary sandstone walls.

I am, I’m unashamed to say, in love with this place.

Canyon Abstract 3

The nature of loss

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve often (somewhat seriously) joked that the only reason I’d want to be the President of the United States is because of the Antiquities Act.  This law enables the President–with the swipe of a pen–to protect our nation’s “antiquities” by declaring a national monument.  Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the bill into law, used the Antiquities Act to create Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Grand Canyon National Monument, which would later become a national park.  Most boys want to be an astronaut when they grow up; I wanted to create national monuments.

Today is the 105th birthday of Utah’s first national monument: Natural Bridges.  The monument protects three large natural bridges, including the world’s second largest, all of which are carved out of beautiful, white, Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  Two relatively untamed canyons come together in Natural Bridges, and between the large arcs of stone, Ancestral Puebloan ruins are also protected, standing sentinel over these canyons as they have for hundreds of years.  Natural Bridges is out of the way and remote, located in one of the darkest nighttime areas of the United States, earning it the title of the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence, but on the birthday of Utah’s first national monument, a group of congressmen–one of whom is from Utah–will begin a hearing in an attempt to undermine the framework of the Antiquities Act.  If passed, this body of legislation would require an act of Congress to declare a national monument as well as remove restrictions on land use within national monuments.  In Nevada, the Antiquities Act would become null and void (as it is in Wyoming currently).  My fear is that in today’s hyperpartisan congress, these changes would make it virtually impossible to use this law as it was intended.

What strikes me even more deeply is the fact that I see the world changing.  We are developing land and extracting natural resources at a rate which is simply unsustainable.  As a nation, we are slowly but surely abandoning wild places, which is opposite of the notion on which we built our country.  Wallace Stegner wrote in his now-famous wilderness letter, “We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.  The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

Much has been written on the value inherent in preserving these places and I can’t begin to reiterate all of it here.  You can read about clear cuts, pipelines, and mining all day.  However, I can’t help but think there’s something deeper happening which we must examine.  The material impact of our society on wilderness is obvious, but what about the impact of wilderness on us?  Does it no longer move us?  Are we no longer in awe of what’s “out there?”  Are we simply missing the bigger picture?

What’s the connection to photography?  Honestly, I’m still working on this.  As landscape photographers, we have the ability to inspire people, to make them want to see places that they might not otherwise see.  We have the ability to become an impassioned voice.  It’s worth considering, and it beats the alternative.  The loss of nature will eventually force us to examine the nature of loss one way or another.


If these mountains die, where will our imaginations wander?  If the far mesas are leveled, what will sustain us in our quest to be larger than life?  If the high valley is made mundane by self-seekers and careless users, where will we find another landscape so eager to nourish our love?  And if the long-time people of this wonderful country are carelessly squandered by Progress, who will guide us to a better world?  — John Nichols


When I was a boy I didn’t want to be an astronaut; I wanted to be in the wilderness.  I still do.

Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Through the Grama

Monday, February 25th, 2013

For February at 6500′, it’s a warm day–about 40 degrees–and the sun makes it feel even warmer as we hike across the windswept grassland plateau.  Snow still blankets the north-facing slopes, but the rest of the ground is free of snow, soft, and slightly muddy in places.

Everywhere, almost literally, signs of elk abound; I have never seen so many turds and tracks in one place.  This small plateau must be great winter ground for them.  I haven’t seen (or felt) any invasive Drooping Brome (Cheat Grass) in my socks all day, only native Bouteloua (Grama Grass).  Here on the Colorado Plateau, where some areas have been grazed extensively, that must be one sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Through the Grama we hike, our heavy packs weighing us down more and more, until–finally–the east rim of the Grand Canyon reveals itself to us.


Last weekend, Jackson Frishman invited me to join him on a trip to visit the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.  Jackson’s proposal was ambitious: nearly 40 miles of hiking in 2.5 days, with no water along the route (we had to carry our own water cache).  He introduced it to me as a hare-brained plan, and honestly that’s all he needed to say to get me on board.

Jackson told me he wanted to visit the confluence because the Grand Canyon Escalade–a proposed tourism development on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, which overlooks the confluence.  If the project passes, it would include a tram from the rim down to the Little Colorado River (read more about Escalade here, here, and here).  For me, it was a good time to familiarize myself with this area, learn a little more about the proposal, as well as to visit the Grand Canyon again; I began my backpacking life there, and the Grand Canyon evokes many special memories for me.

Reflected light in the Colorado River

On Friday night, we discussed the final plans over beers and enchiladas, and it was clear that the stress of planning the trip had turned into excitement for what lied ahead.  We started out on Saturday morning; our packs were weighed down with a couple of extra gallons of water for the return hike.  We dropped the water underneath a couple of stiff piñon boughs to keep it from freezing, as well as to keep it away from the ravens which were surely watching us.  As we got closer to the park service boundary with the Navajo Nation, we found an old hogan, with a missing west wall; the doorway of a Navajo hogan faces east to receive the morning sun and it’s good blessings, and when someone dies in a hogan they are carried out through a hole that has been knocked in the west wall, then the home is abandoned.

After several more miles, we crested a hill and scared a large herd of maybe 200 elk out of a drainage.  They must have known about a water source that we didn’t.  We watched the elk until they disappeared into the horizon and would see them several times over the next couple of days.   The final push to the east rim was tortuous; buttes on the north side of the Colorado River were visible, but they never seemed to get any closer.  However, finally, after what felt like hours we arrived at Cape Solitude.

little colorado river arizona

Solitude indeed.  We had not seen any other human footprints all day, and aside from a windbreak built from rocks, our campsite showed no sign of other humans at all.  In the second-most-visited national park, solitude can be tough to come by.  It’s a special feeling to have a piece of the Grand Canyon all to yourself.

We woke up to a windy but beautiful sunrise the next morning and hiked back to our water cache (thankfully untouched) from the day before.  After rehydrating, I was happy to hike to our second night’s camp, closer to our trailhead, but with another private view of the canyon’s rim.  Horned larks flitting through the sagebrush and elk were our only company.  The next morning Jackson and I returned to our cars, shared a couple of cold beers, and parted ways.

sunrise at the confluence of the colorado and little colorado rivers


We hiked through the Grama–through a healthy ecosystem–to a part of the Grand Canyon only a few people get to see.  Elk tracks went right up to the rim.  I wonder if they admire the view from time to time?  In my twentieth year of visiting the Grand Canyon, I still stand in awe of the vast landscape, and can’t help but wonder if some of that awe would be diminished if I could take a tram all the way to the bottom, or if–consequently–the elk tracks didn’t go all the way to the rim.

sunset on the little colorado river gorge

P.S. You can also read Jackson’s post and see his image of Cape Solitude at his blog here.  His blog is always worth a visit, with fantastic writing and wonderful imagery.

Two new ‘Wind’ images

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In January, I introduced my wind portfolio, a black and white set focusing on shape and form, and celebrating landscapes that have been created (in part) by wind.  I am happy to add two new images to that portfolio.

View from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, May 2012

The Grand Canyon is a place that has been shaped by the powerful erosional forces of wind and water for millions of years.  Attracting millions of visitors a year, it is truly one of the seven wonders of the world, and has always captivated me.  At sunrise and sunset, the receding hill layers create depth not only in the landscape, but in the imagination, and it is difficult for me not to imagine John Wesley Powell exploring this canyon for the first time, being completely awed.


“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

–John Wesley Powell


The second image is an intimate landscape from Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  If you have been in southern Utah in spring, you know the wind can blow, and you have have even felt sandblasted a time or two.  How do you think the sandstone walls feel?  The walls of this alcove have been shaped by grains of sand being blown against it for hundreds, probably even thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Beautiful cross-bedding patterns have been exposed, creating some very powerful lines.

A sandstone alcove

Sandstone Alcove, June 2012

My Wind Portfolio is special in that 25% of the sales of these prints is donated directly to the Wilderness Society and I offer special pricing when you purchase more than one image from the portfolio.  Please click here to view the entire collection.

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part II

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about my opinion regarding “rules” in photography.  In short, I believe it is okay to manipulate exposure or crop (for example) in order to take an image from visualization to the final product.  In this post, I would like to revisit the image I introduced last time and dissect it a bit.

Navajo Sandstone Cliffs

Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

In the field

I am not normally a “grand landscape” sort of photographer; I tend to focus more on intimate scenes.  However, when I saw these cliffs, what initially struck me was the fact that the buttresses were receding away from me.  Although the mid-morning light had eliminated some of the shadows, I liked that each buttress was casting a bit of a shadow on the buttress behind it.  This alternation of light and dark creates a wonderful sense of depth in images, and was a compositional element I wanted to take advantage of here.

Another confession: guys like me do not normally score skies like this.  Cloudless blue skies are the story of my life.  However, on this particular day, I was loving these high clouds; they were constantly changing and they added a great geometric element to the scene.

For me, the decision of how to balance the composition was pretty easy, and despite the fact I like to think of myself as a rebel, I roughly divided the composition into thirds. I wanted the sky to be the star of the show, so I gave it 2/3 of the frame, and I let the cliffs occupy the remainder.  I like sagebrush, and wanted to leave some foreground in as well; this also gives a good visual “root” for the cliffs to sit on.

To expose the frame, I had a couple of choices.  To underexpose would have meant preserving the shadows that attracted me to the scene.  But, it would also introduce shadows to the foreground, which I did not really want to do.  The alternative I had was to overexpose to the point where the shadows were not as dark while maintaining detail in the rest of the frame.  You have probably heard the phrase, “expose to the right;” that is what I chose to do here.  Phil Colla has a concise and clear explanation of the technique here.

You can always darken a scene in post-processing, but to lighten it up risks introducing noise.

To get the exposure I wanted for the lower part of the image, I had trouble preserving detail in the bright white clouds, so I made two exposures, 1 stop apart from each other.

At home

I opened the RAW files together, and in Adobe Camera RAW I adjusted the images based on the vision I had in the field.  After opening the images in Photoshop, I continued this process.  First I blended the images using a technique I learned several years ago from Younes Bounhar.  You can read about it here.   After checking carefully to make sure the images had aligned properly and there were no artifacts, I made my initial adjustments largely using Nik’s software plug-ins.  The two I used here were the ‘Tonal Contrast’ filter (in Color Efex Pro), and then I used Silver Efex Pro to get the black and white conversion I wanted.

I do not have a lot to offer in terms of strategic choice on this (I did what looked best to my eye), but I only made subtle adjustments and I made careful choices based on my vision.  In choosing the black and white filter, I made sure to keep  the detail in the clouds, but also to make them stand out.  I also kept an eye on the tonal contrast between the sagebrush and the beginning of the cliffs.

I applied a global curves layer, and then used separate levels to mask the cliffs, and selectively darken the shadows.  I saved the TIFF file (with all of the layers), and then flattened, sharpened, and saved a JPEG for the web.

The beauty of image processing is that there is definitely more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.  When you start with a creative vision, you learn ways to arrive at the final product in post-processing.  As you gain experience, you build skills that will eventually become a tool kit that you can selectively choose from when you process more challenging images.