Saturday, April 22, 2017

Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande

Santa Elena Canyon and Rio Grande
Big Bend National Park is the true end of the road.  There is no happening upon it while passing through.  You have to want to get there to be there.  

If you are lucky enough to get here, you will find a big landscape with desert, mountains, and the canyons of the Rio Grande.  You will also find some of the darkest sky in the lower 48.

This is a landscape and nightscape photographers dream park that I visit multiple times a year returning to places I know yet a park I am always finding new locations.  

One of my favorite locations in the park is Santa Elena Canyon.  This is the crown jewel of the park and one not to miss at sunrise.  If there is any clear sky in the east the canyon will light up and glow orange at sunrise.  Standing on the banks of the Rio Grande staring up at the 1500' walls of the canyon (and likely having it to yourself) is an awe inspiring experience.

Making the shot #VantagePoint
I was in the park this last winter and could see there were nice clouds in the sky foretelling a great sunrise.  So I decided to adapt and shoot out of the canyon rather than into it.  I packed up my gear in the dark, forded Terlingua Creek at the mouth of the canyon, and hiked up the hill leading into the canyon.

There I set up to shoot out of the canyon, the Rio Grande, and the distant Chisos mountains.

I brought two tripods and two cameras with me.  I had my big Gitzo tripod with my Sony A7R and I bought my little Sirui tripod with my Sony A7S.  This allowed me to have two different lenses at anyone time.  I like having options.  The small size of the camera really calls for small lenses and I use a few small primes to keep a compact package.

Even though I also shoot 4x5 large format film camera, I really like small cameras with big capabilities  All of my Sony cameras are that way, giving me amazing capabilities in a tiny, easy to carry camera.  I am impressed with what even my Android device can do these days.  Technology is moving fast and giving us cameras that can do things we never thought possible.  

I have seen information on the new Light L16 Camera from  With multiple lenses and sensors, different focal lengths, Android operating system, and more, I was intrigued.  This looks like a lot of camera in a tiny package and one I would like to try in the field.  

Rio Grande Sunrise in Big Bend
The folks at asked me to participate in their #VantagePoint project to talk about some of my favorite photo locations and getting the shot.  I had to go with photographing the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park.  By the way you can participate too.  Tag your shots with #VantagePoint.

The top image here is taking in the wide view from my Sony A7R with Voigtlander 15mm lens.  ISO 100 at f/5.6 for 1/3 of a second.  My goal was to capture as much of the scene as I could.  Get the canyon walls, river, mountains and as much sky as I could.  The little Voigtlander is a great match for the Sony A7R and has become my favorite combo.

The middle image is me set up with my smaller Sirui tripod, with Sony A7S making images.  People always ask me what it is like in the field, so here you can see me in action.  Yes, my little tripod really is this small.

The bottom image is from the Sony A7S and Sony 55mm lens.  ISO 100 f/5.6 for 13 seconds.  Although I am really a fan of wide angle lenses, I wanted a tighter crop of the river, mountains and early light.  Here I was able to get that by swapping out to the Sony 55mm lens.

Photography is an adventure, so get out there with your camera and find and share your #VantagePoint.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Exploring the Tetons

Exploring Grand Teton National Park and chasing images in the day and night.  After a couple of nights in Yellowstone, I moved camp south to the neighboring Grand Teton National Park.  I had several areas picked out for sunrise images and some locations I wanted to do some night photography.

Having waited until the fall I knew the Milky Way would be more in the southwest and west in the night sky which would open up some options to do some of the classic views of the Teton Range at night with the Milky Way beyond.

I was hoping to do Oxbow Bend, Schwabacher's Landing, Snake River Overlook, and maybe a few other spots.

All of those locations are great in the morning.  They could also be good at sunset if there were clouds.  Finally all of them would work with the Milky Way too if it was clear.

As always with landscape photography there is the weather factor and it could be clear or cloudy.  I was prepared for both and hoped for the best.

As luck would have it I was able to photograph several locations and get good light at sunrise, some Milky Way images, and then have some good hikes.

Sunrise is always a good time for the what the first light will bring to the Tetons and this trip was no exception.  Even on a mostly clear day, low fog made for a great shot of the Tetons.  I also caught a rainy morning at Schwabcaher's Landing with great soft light.

The Milky Way images worked out too with night images of the Tetons over Jackson Lake, Schwabacher's Landing and Oxbow Bend.

As always the park had a lot of people and the famous overlooks can be crowded, so while I will visit them, I often go looking for more solitude and had a spot along Jenny Lake all to myself for a sunset in the rain one day and a night of Milky Way images another.

The Tetons also let me make good use of differing lenses.  My favorite night lens is the fisheye but the 24mm and 55mm lenses worked well to bring the mountains closer and make the Milky Way bigger in the frame.

After four nights there I was exhausted from the long days and being up half the night chasing the Milky Way.  I had several very good images from the trip and had seen some amazing sights.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Yellowstone by Night

In the fall of 2016 I made a trip to Yellowstone timed for the new moon and a plan of photographing some locations in the park with the Milky Way.  I was there at the end of the season in late September as the park was starting to shut down.  My original idea had been to photograph both the Firehole River area while camping at Madison and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone while camping at Canyon Village.  Well, I was too late in the season and Canyon Village was already closed.  So I modified my plan to stay two nights at Madison and spend both nights photographing the Firehole River area.

I arrived in the park with just enough time to pitch my tent and then drive along the Firehole River.  I caught a nice sunset along the way and arrived at Grand Prismatic Spring as the last of the tourists were leaving.  I knew in the daytime this place was packed, but I walked on the boardwalk up to the spring and had it all to myself!

I knew once it got dark the Milky Way would be visible right over the spring and I waited for Astronomical Twilight and true night.  Sure enough the Milky Way was rising (or actually setting) right over the spring.  I sat there and made images as the temps dropped into the 30's and the spring put out steam.

What turned out to be a great surprise is that there is a Geyser right behind Grand Prismatic Spring and I was able to photograph it with a view to the north.  Now the Milky Way is not as bright that direction (see my last post for more on that) but with the steam plume it puts out it looked awesome!

As I photographed I noticed a strange light on the northern horizon.  There are no cities that direction for many many miles so I was not sure what it was at first.  Then looking at my camera images, the light was green.  I was witnessing the northern lights!!

Wow!  Wow!  Wow!

It was right on the horizon but it was the an aurora (AKA the northern lights).

I ended up there for a few hours photographing both geothermal features and finally was so tired I called it a night.  And what a night it was.  Milky Way, Geysers, Aurora.......Wow.

The next day I explored the area more and found a small side loop that went to the White Dome Geyser.  It has a nice cone.  You could be very close to it (maybe 40 feet) and the geyser was erupting every 30-40 minutes.  I knew this was the spot for that night.

I returned at sunset and photographed the only few clouds in the sky and the geyser.  Again I had the location to myself!  It was nothing like being one of thousands watching Old Faithful.   After it was dark, I waited for the eruption and had two cameras ready.  I could hear coyotes howling, I kept an eye out for bears (none) and watch the sky in awe. When it finally happened I was able to get three or four shots with each one during the eruption.

I did both some light painting and some just the stars.  I got another set of images I could have only hoped for, an erupting geyser under the Milky Way.  

After that I made a few stops along the river on my way back to camp picking up a few more images.

In two nights in Yellowstone I ended up with images I had hoped for but was not sure I could get.  What a way to start a trip.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Milky Way in the Night Sky

Summer Milky Way and Galactic Core
The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in.  It is also HUGE!  Both in actual size and how large it is in the sky.  I often photograph it with a fisheye lens it is so big!

Finding the Milky way in the night sky is actually pretty easy.  Go outside and look is the simple advice.

Ok, maybe it is not quite that easy........  The Milky Way is visible every month of the year but you really need dark sky to see it.  That means getting away from the city and it helps when there is not a bright moon in the sky.  

Really you can observe it about three weeks a month with just a few days either side of the full moon being less than good viewing conditions.  Of course the days around the new moon will give you the longest nights of dark sky and are the best time to see the Milky Way.

Winter view Spiral Arm
So go outside at night close to the new moon helps.  But just because you can see stars it does not mean it is dark enough.

After sunset you need to wait for astronomical twilight which is roughly 90 minutes after sunset.  It takes the sky that long to get dark.  Then in the morning about 90 minutes before sunrise you begin to lose the night sky.

It also helps to find dark sky.  Get away from the city.  You need at least 30 miles.  At that distance I can see the Milky Way but often get light pollution.  When you find true dark sky areas then the magic of the night sky really appears.  Google dark sky map or light pollution map to find some sites like DarkSiteFinder to see maps of light pollution.  If you live east of the Mississippi River in the US or pretty much anywhere in western Europe you see very little dark sky.  Those west of the Mississippi or in western Australia can find some very dark sky.

Another thing to know is the Milky Way is visible at different times of the night and in different parts of the sky in different times of the year.  Make sense?

We can see the galactic core of our galaxy which is the best and brightest part of the Milky Way.  It runs between the constellations Sagittarius (also known as the Tea pot)  in the southern half of the sky in summer and Cassiopeia in the north.  Cassiopeia spins around the North Star opposite the Big Dipper.  We can also see one of the spiral arms of our galaxy between Cassiopeia (still in the north) and Orion in southern half of the sky in winter.  The spiral arm is not near as bright as the galactic core but it can be seen. Especially if you find very dark sky.

So here in February, if you go outside about two hours after sunset in a reasonably dark sky area you will see the spiral arm of the Milky Way from the northwest.  Remember this is the less bright part.    Look for Cassiopeia and Orion.  If you went back outside at 5am you would start to see the galactic core rise in the east right before night faded.

In June if you went outside about 11pm you would see the galactic core rising in the east and be visible the rest of the night.

In October if you went outside two hours after dark you would see the galactic core setting in the southwest.  The Milky Way will still be visible but the best part is now below the horizon.

Galactic core in the west in the fall
In December if you went outside after dark you would see Orion rising in the east and the Milky Way going to the northwest toward Cassiopeia and beyond.  Again the best part has set but it is still visible.

A general rule I use is in the spring the Milky Way is best visible in the morning in the east the week after the new moon.  In the fall it is best visible to the west in the evening the week leading into the new moon.

Check out apps like Stellarium, Google Sky, Photo Pills and many others to help you see and find the night sky.

Want to learn more about the Milky Way?  Check out this by NASA on our Galaxy:
NASA on the Milky Way

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is considered one of the natural wonders of the world.  Teddy Roosevelt famously said there is no way to improve it, it was already so perfect.  Today it sits as one of the most popular national parks and undoubtedly one of the crown jewels of the NPS.

I make regular visits to the Grand Canyon to photograph it.  I have visited both the north and south rims.  I have yet to make the trip to the bottom, but it is on my list of things to do.

In May of 2016 I went west with a plan of spending a couple of nights in the park at the south rim before driving over to Zion.

My plan was to visit some of my favorite viewpoints for Milky Way images, sunrises and sunsets.

Do understand that this is a busy park. So busy that west of the lodge you have to take a shuttle bus to access the points.  That is actually  good thing as it cuts down on traffic and parking issues at the overlooks.

I had a plan to drive the rim east of the lodge where several of my favorite viewpoints are.

I went out around 0400 to Grandview knowing it had a grand view to the east.  sure enough the Milky Way was arched over the canyon and I was able to photograph it over the depths of the canyon.  The canyon is very dark during the new moon and on prior visits I got nothing but black inside it.  However having switched to the Sony A7S for my night work, I hoped I would be able to capture detail in the canyon.

Sure enough the images I was getting showed the ridges, domes and temples in the canyon.  I was able to use both my fisheye as well as other lenses for some fun images.

As night faded I went farther east to Lipan Point to await sunrise.  Here there are three views to the river as well as the desert.  It is also one of the less popular spots meaning I can often have it to myself.  

Clouds were building in the east and I was treated to an amazing sunrise.  Probably the best one I have gotten in this park.

I spent time hiking the rim.  Here is where the shuttle is really great.  Walk as far as you want and then catch the shuttle bus back.

I spent my second morning at the south rim walking the rim looking for the right spot.  The clouds did not look like a great sunrise was in the making but I happened to be at the right spot when the sun popped out between the clouds making for some great morning light.

All in all two nights are never enough for this spot.  Despite the crowds it is still a place I like to keep returning too and I am already working on that next trip.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

South Rim of the Chisos

As part of my spring trip to Big Bend I had planned to do an overnight backpack to the south rim of the Chisos.  The south rim is high in the back country and sits about 2000' over the desert below.

I wanted to camp there on the rim and photograph, sunset, the Milky Way and the sunrise from the rim.

Many people day hike the rim from the Basin, but is is 14-17 miles depending on the route.  We planned to spend the night in SW4 which is very close to the rim.  Now for an overnight in the Chisos Mountains, we planned on carrying two gallons of water each.  That was for being gone just 24 hours.  We hit the trail about 1030am, hiked, camped, photographed, and hiked out getting back to the trailhead at 1030 the next day.  We came back empty.  

Bivy Sack and Sleeping Bag
Now 2 gallons of water is 17 pounds.  That was the bulk of my weight carried.  It was heavy going up but gone going down.

The 7 miles to SW4 took about 3 hours.  We are strong hikers and made it there with a few breaks.  It stayed clear and with the dry desert air we drank a lot of water.

At camp, I set up my bivy sack and sleeping bag.  On these single night trips, I forego a tent and carry the much lighter (and smaller) bivy sack.  Some people might just sleep on the ground, but this is Texas.  Between, snakes, scorpions, skeeters, and ticks, I want netting between me and them.  The bivy has that, although there is little room in them.

We watched the sun go down, had supper, drank water to stay hydrated and fell asleep looking up at the stars above.

South Rim Sunset
I was up about 0330.  It was chilly.  I put on my jacket, grabbed the gear and went to the rim.  The Milky Way was shining over the sky.  I set up along the rim and made shot after shot.  I did some light painting and then some without.

The vast distance is so dark, I might be on the edge of the planet staring off into space.

As the dawn approached I prepped for sunrise.  There were still basically no clouds and I did what I could with the light I had.

It was still amazing to watch.

After that it was back to camp, a granola bar, a liter of water and then packed up for the trip down.  We were on the trail about 0845 and in the parking lot at 1030.  Just in time for lunch in the lodge in the Basin.  A plate of enchiladas and a big glass of water!

What a way to end the trip!

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 Year in Review

A review of my photography year for 2016.  This marks the fourth year in a row I have done a Year in Review.  You can check out my past YIR for 2013, 2014, and 2015 here Year in Review

2016 has been a very good year for me in photography.  I have gotten to see some great light, experience some wonderful dark skies, saw the aurora for the first time, and finally got a stamp in my passport!

The year in photography always starts for me going out for sunrise on January 1.  It is a tradition I started in 2000 and shows no sign of ending.  I have yet to get a great image at sunrise on January 1 but that has never bothered me.  Just getting up to greet the sunrise on New Years Day has become one of my favorite traditions.

January saw me out photographing locally and it also took me to Salt Lake City.  There I got to catch a sunset and sunrise on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake.  What a super location.  Just a 30 minutes drive from downtown SLC and you are on an island that with snow looks very, very far away from anywhere.  Almost other worldly.  In a way the water, ice, and snowy peaks looked like something almost polar.  Add in seeing a few bison and it was a great winter experience.

February and March had me photographing locally.  February marks the start of Milky Way photography season as the galactic core becomes visible again.  In February it is just for a few minutes right before dawn and I have been visiting a spot on the Brazos River where I can see it rising in the east.

March also took me to San Diego and San Bernardino.  It was not a photography trip and the traffic in So Cal is so bad I was never able to get to the mountains, when I got to La Jolla I was able to get out to see one sunset with the waves crashing on the rocky coastline.  It turned out to be a good sunset and made up for a few days of traffic frustration.

April brings bluebonnets to Texas and I spent a few days in search of wildflowers and sunrises.  The clouds did not cooperate on most of my drives but finally I did catch one very good sunrise and added another good bluebonnet picture to my collection.

I also did a trip to New Mexico and west Texas.  A quick visit to the Guadalupe Mountains.  Followed by a night on the Lost Mesa specifically for a Milky Way image.  Yes, I planned a trip and a drive of hundreds of miles for one image.  Then I drove down to Big Bend to spend a week in the desert.  I planned this trip for the new moon and am glad I did as we had little in the way of good light and lots of clear sky.  It made from some good changes for the Milky Way.

In Big Bend, I also did an overnight backpack to the South Rim of the Chisos.  Two gallons of water weighs about 17 pounds and I had to carry that much for just an overnight.  Well worth the weight as I was able to sit on the rim and stare off into the distance.

May took me on a trip to the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks.  These are both very popular parks (for good reason).  I did a few hikes and caught an incredible sunrise at the Grand Canyon that made the trip.  I was also able to get a few Milky Way images from the Grand Canyon that I really liked.  I had wanted to see what my Sony A7S could do with the dark of the canyon and as always it came through with some great images.  On a no moon night, the canyon is normally too dark to be anything more than black on an image, but the might little A7S sees in the dark!  In Zion I did get in a few hikes, but did not get to wade the Narrows as the river was too high from spring snow melt.

As summer heated up I turn my attention to night photography.  Texas in the summer is hot, green and usually very clear skies.  I then plan new moon trips out to photograph the Milky Way.  I spent many summer nights out wading in the Nolan River chasing the Milky Way.  Standing there in water in the dark looking at the stars is fun.  If I get lucky I also see some lightening bugs.

Late summer I was in Ohio and went to to explore the Hocking Hills area south of Columbus.  Some great areas of dells, creeks, hills and small waterfalls.  Made for a great evening to get out with my camera in a completely new area.  This was one of those times I was not really on a photography trip but as I seem to always do, I took my little NEX6 kit with tiny Sirui 025x tripod which gives me a great travel kit so I can get some good images in a place.

Summer always seems such a long slow season here in Texas then fall just goes very quick.  Labor Day always marks the start of camping season for me as it begins to cool down at night.  I start chasing fall color, do some travel, and before you know it Christmas is here.   
September had me off to Wyoming for a week.  I put together a solo trip into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  I timed it for the new moon and went specifically to get in some Milky Way photography in both parks.  I had several images planned.  The parks are beginning to shut down then and a few campgrounds were already closed but I was still able to see sights I wanted to see.  I caught an epic sunset in Yellowstone followed by a couple of nights where I stood out by thermal features in the dark with the Milky Way
shining above.  I even caught some bright green on the northern horizon.  It was my first siting of the northern lights!  Yellowstone at night was better than I could have thought!  Two nights was nowhere near enough and I know I need to go back.  The Tetons were also super for night photography.  In September the Milky Way is already in the southwest right after dark allowing me to get some great views of the Tetons with the Milky Way.  Now in neither park did I see a bear.  I had my bear spray and standing out there in the dark alone, I am always cautious and alert but no bears this trip.

I was only home a week from Wyoming in Early October and then was off to Alaska!  I had a week to visit Juneau and Anchorage.  This was my second trip to Alaska and it remains as fantastic as I remember it.  This was my first trip to Juneau and I got to see the Mendenhall Glacier.  It is just a few miles from town and is a short walk.  One of the things I hoped to see on the trip was the aurora.  After seeing a glimpse of them on the far horizon, I was hoping to see them in the sky above me.  Two clear nights in Juneau and nothing.

After making the hop upto Anchorage I was also hoping to see them but again there was nothing. We would drive out north of Wasilla around 10pm and look and look but nothing.  Finally one morning I was up about 0400, walked outside and saw the whole sky was dancing green with the aurora.

It was an incredible sight.

I stayed up the rest of that night taking images.  Alaska had wow'd me again. I am already giving thought to going to back to Alaska or Iceland in winter to photograph them again.

Late October saw me depart for one more trip.  I had been building my entire year around one trip and after what seemed like an eternity I boarded a flight to Scotland!  Like many people I have a list of "someday I will go there" places.  After years of thinking about those kind of trips, I decided to do one, got a plane ticket and went.  The Scottish Highlands is a place that has always fascinated me and so I built the trip around it.  Two weeks camping in the Highlands in the cold, wind and rain.  It was another solo trip as everyone thought I was crazy going then.

I loved it.  

It rained every day.  I only saw the stars twice.  I was very glad to have Gore-Tex boots as it was muddy, wet, mucky ground everywhere.  I ate porridge, fish+ chips, and scones a lot.  I camped by a haunted castle for Halloween.  

Rather than try to see it all, I picked four areas in the Highlands: Glencoe, Isle of Skye, Torridon and Assynt.  I spent about 3 days in each location.  That allowed me to explore some different areas and see some different sights.  If anything, I wanted an additional day in each area.  

All fours areas had great sights as well as castles to see.  While I am a landscape photographer, I am also fascinated by history and intrigued by castles.  So I visited several including photographing a supposedly haunted one on Halloween night.  No ghosts seen.

The mountains, rivers and waterfalls were a sight to see.

I am still looking through all the images.

It was an incredible trip and I know I will be going back again.

After a few months of travel, I spent the remaining few weeks of the year close to to home chasing fall color in north Texas.  I was afraid I would miss it this year while I was in the UK but it was a few weeks late.  I got some good days along the Trinity River, in our Japanese Garden and on drives south of Cowtown.

I sit here typing this on December 23rd (Festivus!!) planning a few last days of photography for 2016.  I will be out on Jan 1 again to welcome 2017.  I am also already putting dates and locations on the calendar for next year.  Places like Zion, Bryce, Big Bend, and maybe even Iceland.

Thankful for the what I was able to do in 2016.  Looking forward to the new year and new opportunities!

Happy Holidays and the best for the New Year!