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All That Glitters

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

With kids, practicality often wins out over idealism.  When I camp, I would much rather be completely alone on a sage flat or next to a small mountain lake than in a campground choked with campfire smoke, people on cell phones, and car alarms gone wild.  However, with a 4-year-old, having a flush toilet and running water is sometimes just…well…easier.

So we found recently found ourselves in said campground on an end-of-summer trip to the Sierra Nevada.  I had plans to photograph a few locations nearby that I scouted earlier in the summer and was excited to be back in the Range of Light.  But, pulling into our campground, I was distracted by a large group of my favorite tree–aspen–on the hillside above our campground.

It will be a month or so before photographers descend by the hundreds on the eastern Sierra, but I didn’t really care that these trees weren’t yet showing their golden set of leaves.  Aspen groves have a distinct smell; something about the trees, the grass, and the leaves on the ground gives a very unique and comforting fragrance.    After dinner on our first night, my wife and son went to bed early so I walked alone for a long time, enjoying the different “sections” of the grove–interspersed with sagebrush–each one idiosyncratic, each one with its own personality.   I made some images, trying to capture the temperament of the trees, whether they were twisted and weather-beaten, or growing straight and true towards the sky.  Visiting this grove felt almost like visiting an old friend.

Vertical pan blur of aspen trees (Populus tremuloides)

Aspen Grove I, September 2012

As I wandered further from my campsite, I thought about how the eastern Sierra is crawling with photographers year-round, yet I did not see another set of tripod legs or hear any clicks of the shutter anywhere around me.  Again, in about a month, that won’t be the case here.  “Why are these poor trees ignored for most of the year,” I wondered to myself.

Then I thought that perhaps this is the gift these trees have given me.  If for only one night, I can stand among them, or lay in the grass watching the stars overhead and be completely alone–completely welcomed by the calm and the silence–even if I do have to camp in a “real” campsite.

There is refuge here, and I’m not talking about refuge from a few rogue campers.  There is refuge for the soul.

Stars over an aspen grove in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Aspen Grove II, September 2012

Unsolved Mystery

Monday, October 31st, 2011

It was just another evening in the desert.

My Dad and I, along with another friend, were visiting the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness along the Arizona Strip for a couple of days of photography and hiking.  Although it was August, the heat wasn’t too bad, if you stayed in the shade during the hot part of the day.  With evening coming on, we emerged like lizards from our burrows to enjoy the final vestiges of our vacation.

The plan was to hike back to an interesting rock formation we had found earlier in the day for some night photography.  After shooting sunset, and moving into position, we waited for darkness to fall.  In August, that happens slowly, so after our cameras were set up, we went for a short hike.

As stars began dotting the sky, returning to “our spot” seemed like a good idea.  Cresting the final ridge, and looking down, we saw a very unusual sight.  The rocks near our equipment were glowing red, and we could see small red lights moving around them very quickly!  Watching in amazement, the lights moved faster and faster, and although we could see no figures, it seemed almost as though the lights were dancing in the evening light.

Almost as soon as they began, the lights disappeared.  For three grown men, it took us a while to get the guts to return to our gear.  Without any discussion at all, it seemed like a good idea to pack up and go.  Although we’d marked GPS waypoints to help us over the two miles back to the car, we didn’t seem to need them, and we sure didn’t look back!!

When I got home, I began looking at the files on my memory card and saw the most curious thing–whatever it was making those lights, also made a few images.  A supernatural photographer?  Perhaps.  I did some homework, and found reference to a group of spirits in the area–los espectros de las animas–the specters of lost souls, who sometimes haunt visitors in the area, although they’re seen rarely.

The next time you venture into the wilderness and think you’re alone, you might think again.  You never know what may be lurking under the cover of evening skies….

Light painting at Dali Rock

Supernatural, August 2011

Happy Halloween from Alpenglow Images!


Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

After the grim nature of my last post, I thought I’d share some of the positive wildlife encounters that can be had in the desert.  Last summer, a friend and I discovered huge number of common poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) that roost on the roads in Joshua Tree National Park after dark.  As a kid I remember nighthawks–another member of the Nightjar family–that would swoop through the evening sky, scooping up insects with their oversized mouths.  So, the discovery of these poorwills was welcome and nostalgic.


A Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Common Poorwill I, May 2011

I assume the poorwills–which are ground-dwelling birds–roost on the roads for a clear view of the sky, and the insects they are hunting.  They fly upwards, grab their prey, and return to the ground fairly quickly.  They can also be quite tame, when approached by a car.  By getting out slowly and crawling on my belly with a short telephoto lens, I was able to get within about 7 feet of this poorwill before it flew away, letting me get a couple of intimate portraits.

One thing that’s evident here is the amazing camouflage these animals have–they blend in very well to their surroundings, making such an open roost probably quite safe.  In addition to that, you can see the large eyes (great night vision) and “feelers” around the mouth, to help locate prey in the very immediate vicinity.

With summer approaching, keep an eye out for these charming birds on the roads!


A Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Common Poorwill II, May 2011

Kangaroo rats galore!

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

In my opinion, kangaroo rats are among the most charming of all animals.  Their cheeks–usually stuffed full with seeds–and their huge hind feet make them adorable in my opinion.  Those namesake feet are also useful: when combined with their long tails, kangaroo rats can be extremely fast and agile, which is useful when you are avoiding predators like owls and rattlesnakes.

I gained an appreciation for kangaroo rats when I was helping one of my professors in graduate school trap Ord’s and Panamint kangaroo rats for a project he was working on.  When we released the animals, they would sit in our hands, almost not wanting to leave.  Indeed, it was hard to walk away from those big black eyes, and that cute face.

In southern California, we have several species of kangaroo rats, and they can be fun to photograph.  Near my home, the most common are the Dulzura (Dipodomys simulans) and the Stephen’s kangaroo rats (D. stephensi).

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys simulans)

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys simulans), August 2010

Stephen's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi)

Stephen's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi), July 2009

Yeah, I know, they look pretty much the same.  Most species of kangaroo rats do.  In fact, if an expert on these little creatures hadn’t confirmed their identity for me, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  These photographs were taken less than one mile from each other; the Dulzura k-rats like rocky country, and the Stephen’s k-rats like open, grassy areas.  In fact, the chosen habitat of the Stephen’s kangaroo rat is probably partially responsible for the fact that its Federally-listed as an endangered species.

You see, open grassy areas are also the preferred habitat of housing developers.  As huge areas of land have been cleared for new housing in southern California, habitat is being taken away from these small creatures.  While some people had serious problems with the idea that a ‘rat’ was being protected by the Federal government, I hope you can see that this little creature is much more interesting and charming than your typical rat.  To see all of my Stephen’s kangaroo rat images, click here.  To see all of my Dulzura kangaroo rat images, click here.

If you venture further into the Mojave Desert toward Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll find the Merriam’s kangaroo rat (D. merriami).  Again, you’ll see there’s not much difference between this species and the other locals, but apparently enough genetic distance exists to warrant the creation of a new species.

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat, Joshua Tree National Park

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami), November 2009

While photographing nocturnal creatures can take a bit of getting used to, and may take one or two tries until you figure out a system that works for you, the rewards are definitely worth it–fantastic photos of these charming little rodents!

Minaret Lake

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

“To the south of Mount Ritter are some grand pinnacles of granite, very lofty and apparently inaccessible, to which we gave the name of ‘the Minarets.'” –California Geological Survey, 1868

I’ve always loved the view of the Minarets from Minaret Summit, behind Mammoth Mountain.  When the opportunity came up to hike into Minaret Lake, at the base of these fantastic spires, I jumped on it.  The Minarets are an arête, a high, thin ridge formed when two glaciers work toward each other, back to back.

The hike into the lake is somewhat demanding, gaining about 2200 vertical feet over 7.8 miles.  We arrived in Mammoth about 1pm, and after catching the shuttle to Devil’s Postpile National Monument, we were able to hike into the lake by 7pm.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to spend much time, as this was a spur trip from our goal of hiking the last 1/3 of the John Muir Trail.  We had to leave again by 9am the following morning, giving me time to photograph only one sunset and sunrise.  I would have liked to spend a few more days at this location alone!

Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

Minaret Lake evening, July 2010

Minarets, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

The Minarets at night, July 2010

Minarets and hiker, Ansel Adams wilderness, California

Self-portrait, Minaret Lake, July 2010

A strange visitor at Badwater

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

This weekend, a friend and I drove to Death Valley National Park.  I had heard there is currently water in Badwater Basin, and wanted to see it, as well as photograph it.  Since Death Valley usually does not get enough rain to allow for standing water in the basin, this is a rare event (since January 1, Furnace Creek has received over 2″ of rain).  On Friday, we arrived at Badwater about 3pm, and immediately headed to the West Side Road in search of photo opportunities.

On Friday, another storm moved into the area.  In my experience, bad weather can either lead to amazing light conditions, or to very poor conditions for photography.  Unfortunately, in this case, it was the latter.  There wasn’t much of a sunset on Friday night.  However, after dark, we headed back over to the Badwater parking area and walked out on the salt flat.  Because conditions were poor for star trail photography, my friend and I did some light graffiti–one of his newest hobbies.  I have to disclose that I really did nothing here, except for stand behind the camera, but this one is called ‘Badwater Blooms’.

light graffiti on Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

"Badwater Blooms", Death Valley National Park, February 2010

As we were experimenting with different bloom configurations, the strangest thing happened.  We thought we were alone on the salt flat, but off in the distance, we could make out a figure walking towards us.  Ours was the only car in the parking lot, and no one had arrived, so we tried to say hello, thinking the person may be lost or need help.  The figure didn’t say anything, but as it got closer to us, a bright light appeared behind it, and the figure disappeared, almost as quickly as it had appeared.

I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared.

a strange silhouette in Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

A strange visitor, Death Valley National Park, February 2010

Was the visitor from another dimension?  Did it exit through a portal that’s only open when Badwater Basin is full of water?  I’m not sure.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much better light the next morning; in fact, we had really poor light.  However, Saturday night, we had the best light I’ve had in quite some time.  I’ll share those images in my next post.

You can see all my Death Valley images here.

Photo of the Month-February

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I really cannot believe that January–1/12 of 2010–is already behind us.  It seems like just yesterday we were all sharing our favorite images of 2009, and we’ve already created so many fantastic images this year.

Here in southern California, the weather is already starting to feel spring-like.  Around my house, the hillsides are turning the vibrant green that will be with us until April.  There’s talk of a decent wildflower season after our epic rainfall totals during the last couple of weeks.  While our spring will have moved into summer by the time the rest of the nation begins theirs, I’m looking forward to all of those spring time photo outings–the ones where you (should) take just a few moments to bask in the warm sunlight, or in a grass-filled meadow.  I’m also looking forward to hopefully fitting in our annual trip to Death Valley National Park this year.

If you haven’t been, Death Valley is a pleasantly deceiving national park.  The idea of “DEATH Valley” brings to mind a barren landscape that’s, to put it bluntly, boring.  Anyone who’s been there will tell you the opposite.  Its an amazing park, encompassing many ecosystems, and several natural wonders.  What amazes me is how much diversity is present in a relatively small space.

One of my favorite places in Death Valley is the Racetrack Playa, where the famed “racing rocks” are found.  The playa itself is a very flat surface; its altitude varies only a few centimeters across its 1-mile length!  When the playa is wet (as it probably is now), it makes a very slick surface, and high winds push the “racing rocks” along, leaving tracks that remain after the mud has dried.  Many of the rocks are quite large, and I’m happy I haven’t been on the playa during the winds that are capable of pushing rocks that heavy–I would guess there would have to be gusts in excess of 80 or 90 mph!

This month’s photo is a star trail shot I took in April 2009 on the Racetrack.  It is a composite of about 25 2.5-minute shots, stacked using Photoshop.  I wanted to include the north star–Polaris–in my shot, so I had to look for a rock that had a northerly trajectory–apparently there aren’t many!

racetrack star trails

Star trails on the Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, April 2009

G. Dan Mitchell, an excellent San Francisco Bay Area photographer, has recently been writing a couple of very informative and comprehensive guides to visiting Death Valley.  You can see them here and here.  Mac Danzig, who has an amazing Death Valley portfolio, also has taken the time to write an excellent guide to Death Valley here.

You can see all of my Death Valley photographs here.

The evolution of an image, and the value of critique forums

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Like any artist or hobbyist, photographers spend a lot of time learning skills to make themselves better–they want to make their images better, they want to better define their vision, and, alas, they try to make their websites better too.  In the midst of all the things out there to help you improve your photography, a very simple move you can make is to start participating in an online community that includes image critique forums.  Both Bret Edge and Justin Reznick have recently blogged on this topic, but I wanted to throw my $0.02 in, with a slightly different twist.

I began participating in photo critique forums over at in 2005, not long after I started shooting.  At the time my images were pretty bad–by all measures, they simply weren’t that good.  While I did receive some constructive feedback, I mostly got images bashed by non-nature photographers.  They weren’t trying to be mean, but as I said, the images were pretty bad.  However, in 2006, I discovered and began participating in earnest.  My photographs, well, they still weren’t good, but I quickly became part of a community that helped me learn to improve not only my technique behind the camera, but also my post processing skills as well.

There are many important steps you can take to help improve your photography, and I believe that participating in a forum is one of them.  If you decide to participate, you SHOULD expect to put in just as much as you get out of it.  In other words, you need to participate, not just post a photo now and then, expecting everyone to fix your problems for you.  Also, you SHOULD feel free to ask questions.  In my personal experience, the forums I participate in are filled with people way more knowledgeable than I am, and I know I’ve looked like a doofus more than once with my questions.  While they may be snickering, people are always very nice in answering questions.  You also SHOULD have fun with it.  Although we are critiquing others’ photographs, forums are really a celebration of what we love doing: photography. Embrace that.

That said, if you decide to participate in a forum, you SHOULD NOT take it personally if someone says they don’t like one of your photos.  Ideally, that person would give you some reason as to why they don’t like it, but if they don’t it shouldn’t matter.  Photography–like any art form–is highly subjective, and if someone says s/he doesn’t like it, it shouldn’t stop you from liking your photo.  Beauty in photographs goes way beyond the surface, and viewers cannot always detect the special meaning behind a photograph. With that in mind, you SHOULD give critiques as you would want to receive them.  Not only will receiving critiques make you a better photographer, critiquing others’ photos will help that as well.  In that sense, participating in a forum will help crystallize your own photographic vision.  Finally, you SHOULD NOT be intimidated or threatened by other peoples’ outstanding images (yes, I know of people who feel very threatened…that for every good image someone else makes, they lose business….hogwash).  I feel honored to be able to share my work with these fantastic photographers; their work continues to inspire, motivate and humble me.  That’s the way it should be: photographers should encourage and inspire one another…not compete.

So what does the title of this post have to do with all this?  I write the above because I know what a valuable resource photography forums are, and I’ve just had (yet another) experience that proves it to me.  Last November, I made a quick run out to Joshua Tree National Park, with the intention of photographing Arch Rock.  That night, I took a star trail image, with the arch as the main subject, but I could never get it to work for me…something about the processing just looked “off”.  Last weekend, I saw a similar image of another arch, and thought, “Hey, I’ve got a shot very similar to that…maybe I can get it to work for me!”

When I got home, I pulled up the RAW file and processed it.  I wanted the arch to have a very warm feel, as I’d painted it with my headlamp, and I wanted it to stand out against the sky.  What I ended up with was a cool effect, but not what I remember seeing.  I posted it to and, while everyone agreed it looks cool, it just seemed a little too bizarre.

Arch Rock at night, Joshua Tree National Park, Californi

Attempt 1, Joshua Tree National Park, California, November 2009

Even with city lights nearby, I do not remember the sky looking that golden…er…pumpkin…that night.  While it occurred to me to use some layer masking, Alister Benn made some invaluable comments in guiding me on re-editing this image.  Alister is a master of night photography, and with his comments in hand, I re-edited the image, really making it pop.

Star trails over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Star trails over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, California, November 2009

What I didn’t do is make a bombastic, unrealistic image from a RAW file.  I used valuable comments from a critique and discussion forum to process an image so that I had a realistic representation of the scene.  Many thanks to Alister, and to all my online friends for making for making this a great community of photographers!

The Rise

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Today’s post comes from my new friend and fellow photographer Jay Goodrich.  After reading my post on Topophilia, Jay contacted me with his interest in contributing a story about how the landscape of southern Utah has touched him.  You can read his story, The Rise, below, as well as enjoy some original images from Jay.  Additionally, make sure to check out Jay’s photographs here, and subscribe to his blog here.  Thanks Jay!

The Rise © Jay Goodrich

I stand in the middle of a valley surrounded by rock formations. I can not see any of them yet, but I know they are there. It is so dark that I can not even tell if there are any clouds lingering to add to the drama of photography this morning. Red earth all over my shoes, my clothes. It is in my hair, my nose, my ears, and even my eyes. It was a little windy yesterday. I look to where I think the horizon is but I see nothing but a big black void. There is not a soul around, it is completely silent. I am for once, early. I head to the back of my truck to grab my backpack and my tripod. The rear bumper is covered in a layer of red powder about an eighth of an inch thick. I write “wash me” in it. As I open the door the dust stirs into little tornados before it falls back to the earth. My pack and tripod have traces of the deep maroon powder all over them as well. I stumbled upon this place yesterday afternoon.


I am a bit tired. I spent the evening shooting star trails only to realize that morning was going to come way too soon. There is a crispness in the air, it tingles as it enters my nose. It reminds me of that sound you hear when a person bites into the perfect fall apple. A little pop, followed by a sweet aroma; I can just taste the explosion of flavor. Vapor crystals leave my nostrils and mouth and scatter as far as I can see. I hope that my mission is going to yield imagery that ties over my soul for awhile – this is my last day here.

I pull the Petzl lamp out of my pack and wrap it around my head. I turn it on, throw the pack onto my back, adjust the straps and buckles, sling the tripod onto my shoulder with one hand, and close the truck door with the other. More dust scatters. I start to walk into the belly of monuments and darkness. I am now the only light source.


As I stumble to my location, a calm comes before me. It was like I donned that old comfortable shoe that was completely molded to the contours of my sole. I began to run on auto pilot. The light was starting to fill the sky. At least, enough that I could see those rock formations. They were looking a little pink. This place is so magical. I knew that would change as the sun began its race to the other side of the planet. It always starts as pink, or tan, something very subtle and muted, pastel. And depending on the atmosphere, the day could become, gold, yellow, orange, red, crimson, maroon, or any variant there of, a perfect contrast to that deep blue fall desert sky. The formations – sharp and jagged to smooth and bulbous. Why this place over any other? The mountains are my home, but this place speaks to me like no other.


As the sun begins to come up there is a slight breeze. It is the souls of those rock formations coming alive, they are looking for warmth as am I. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end, like it does when I feel the gentle kiss of my wife. My pupils dilate. I feel the eye muscles tighten. The sun is showing her face ever so slightly. The warmth begins to bathe me and all of my surroundings. The crystals from my breath fall away closer to their origin. I quickly realize It is going to be a golden rise. Everything is covered in hues of yellow and orange. I look through my viewfinder one last time. God I love this place. And click.


The beauty of star trails

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

I’m hoping sometime soon to write a blog post about star trails, but until then, I’d like to share an image from my recent Sierra Nevada trip.  This is similar to one that I posted earlier, but instead of showing static stars in the night sky, it shows star trails, over the course of about 25 minutes.

Mobius Arch startrails, Alabama Hills, CA, October 2009