Sunday, July 26, 2015

Snowy Range Nightscapes

One of the great off the beaten path mountain locations is the Snowy Range of southern Wyoming.  Incredibly scenic with easy access and basically no crowds.  Imagine an area with steep granite peaks rising right out of pristine alpine lakes.

It's the type of location you normally have to backpack for three days to get to.

At the Snowy's that is 50 yards from the parking lot.........

Yes, seriously.  

How can something super scenic like this not be jam packed with people?  Easy, it's in Wyoming and not Colorado.  Just a couple hour drive and thousands of less people than you would find in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I have visited several times and when a recent opportunity came for a visit I jumped at the chance.  I had to be in Fort Collins, Colorado (just north of Denver) and arrived a day early.  My plan was to drive up to the Snowy Range, see sunset, see the Milky Way, campout, watch sunrise and then drive back to Fort Collins.

That is not a lot of time yet I had hopes for enough clouds for a big sunset, clear sky for the Milky Way, and then a great sunrise.

I got up to the Snowy's and found a NFS campsite right near the top of the pass.  Afternoon clouds were building and some developed into showers off in the distance.  I caught a few interesting images (I will post those later) but was really waiting for the night.

Darkness takes a long time to arrive this far north and at this elevation.  In Texas you need about 90 minutes between sunset and astronomical twilight.  Here it is two+ hours.  Meaning it did not get dark enough to see the Milky Way until almost 1030pm (and with sunrise at 530am it meant the stars were fading by 330).

Being a morning person it was a struggle to sit through the gathering darkness but after ten as the stars shined in the sky I began to get energized to start making images.

There is a great view at the Snowy Range where a little creek exits Lake Marie with a mountain rising out of the far shore.  The view is north-northeast.  That is the opposite direction where the best part of the Milky Way is but I was hoping I could still pick it up.  

However, I was too late in the summer and the view was not there.  I was able to do a few images with the fisheye lens but it was not the shot I wanted.

I moved around to a couple of different angles and then a few other spots nearby.

The sky was outstanding, the Milky Way was shining brightly in the dark mountain skies above Wyoming.  Green air glow was also seen as streaks in the sky.  It was so bright that it almost looks like an aurora.  

I photographed a few different views at some lakes and then visited a small alpine lake with pines on the far side where it all came together.  The Milky Way was bright and the air glow with it combined into the scene of the trees and reflected water to truly wow me with what I was seeing on the back of the camera.  It is the top image here.

I also kept seeing occasional flashes and when I headed back to camp saw it was very distant thunderstorms that were easily 60-100 miles away and the lightning was causes flashes in the sky.

The night was everything I was hoping to find staying up here on top of the pass and it did not disappoint.

I went around and was up until about 1am.  By then I was very tired having been up almost 24 hours.  I made my way back to the tent I had set up and fell quickly asleep.

I would be up and out again by 4am.

You can see more nightscape images from this trip in my galleries:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ghost Mountains

The center of Big Bend National Park is the Chisos Mountains.  They sit smack dab in the middle of the park and are the only mountain range contained entirely in any national park.  

Chisos roughly translates to Ghost Mountains and the range lives up to it.  Since they rise out of the desert lowlands to heights approaching 8000' they are an island of a cooler and wetter climate than the surrounding desert.  

They also can create their own weather.  Clouds often form along the peaks and ridges of the range.  Wind often kicks up sand and dust giving them a ghostly appearance.  Fog can even form in the winter months.

All of those things can lead to some great images.  

I turn my cameras to the Chisos on a regular basis on my trips to Big Bend.  This trip was no exception.

I had camped over near Rattlesnake Mountain with the hopes of capturing the Chisos and the rising Milky Way.  The campsite is open desert but has a good view to the west.  After a nice still night I woke up to calm and clear.  I broke camp and had a ten minute drive to my chosen spot.  As I pulled out of camp at 3:30am the wind hit like a wall.  By the time I got to my spot in was blowing at 30-40mph.  The Chisos already were already disappearing into the dust.

I could barely make out the Milky Way.  I set up the camera and made a few images.  The lights from the lodge up in the Basin made an eerie site as it shined out of the dusty sky.

The wind was so strong I decided to forego setting up two cameras and just had one.  

I made a few images and decided the dust was too much for the distant image.  I decided to drive up into the Basin and see what I could get.  It was still windy but the dust was not as bad.

I got a few images.

The next day we returned to the Chisos right after sunrise and found clouds moving among the peaks and I was able to grab a few more images of the clouds and peaks.

As always I am constantly amazed at the conditions and the light here in the desert.  The mountains and the light were constantly changing and I got a few more nice images.

I left the mountains behind and walked away with a few more nice images of the ghostly qualities of the Chisos.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rocky Nightscapes of Big Bend

The Big Bend night sky is amazing.  It is a dark location that is a long way to a city.  It is a great place to see and photograph the night sky.  It is also a place of dramatic mountains, interesting rock formations, and deep canyons that all can make interesting photographs.

When you combine those interesting ground locations with those dark skies you can get some fantastic nightscape images.

Over the last few years I have found that many of my favorite landscape locations make great night photography locations too.  I especially like the way interesting rock formations look with the Milky Way glowing in the night sky.

Luckily, Big Bend has a lot of rock formations.

In the area of the Grapevine Hills is the famous balanced rock.  It is a very popular sunrise location in the park.  Well popular in the Big Bend sense in that several photographers go there every week or so.  But nothing like say  Yosemite or the Grand Canyon where 500 people might be at the same spot for sunset every night.

The balanced rock is a great sunrise image.  It also makes a great night image!

It is about a mile or so walk from the trailhead to the rock.  We camped nearby at a backroad site and were able to get there with plenty of darkness to photograph the Milky Way before the sun rose.

The rock, takes on a whole new view in the dark of the night under the stars.  I blogged about it last year too  Balanced Rock Under The Stars 

This year, I again went to the rock and set up a couple of images.  See the top image here.

I also explored some of the other areas where the rocks made interesting formations.  Light painting rock formations with the night sky above them gives them a whole different look and makes a pretty unique image too.

Each morning saw me visiting different spots and seeing what adding the night sky to a scene would do.

These rocky pinnacles being my favorite shot.  I had gotten a shot here last year that I really liked and had been looking forward to returning and trying other possibilities.  I again found clear sky with a rising Milky Way.  I set up two tripods with two cameras and would photograph different possibilities.  I worked different ways of light painting, sometimes shining a flashlight and other times bouncing it off my jacket.  I also used the red led light on my headlamp.  Each gave different results and different looks.  In the field it was experiment and do one after another.  Other than checking for blown highlights or missing a section I just was making images.  I knew I could choose the best at home on the computer.

Those mornings chasing rock formations were very much fun and have added a whole new dimension to the trip.  Spending a week in the park was fun, long, and tiring (from lack of sleep out shooting the Milky Way), yet I already am thinking of my next trip and what possibilities might be.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Secret Slot Canyon

Last year I had been looking at Google Earth around some areas of Big Bend National Park when I spotted something that I thought might be a narrow canyon.  It was!

I explored it in 2014 and covered it here in my blog  Secret Slot Canyon 

This spring I returned to the canyon to again explore what it had to offer.  Although I am sure a few others have walked through it, I have never seen it mentioned in any publication nor images posted from it.

Where you start into the canyon there is little sign of what is to follow.  It looks like nothing more than a sandy wash.  A few turns ans the walls begin to grow until you are in a 40' deep and narrow canyon. 

As we made our way into the canyon we found while the geology of it looks pretty much the same some of the plants have really grown with one particular cat's claw bush making getting around it a sticky affair.

The deeper you trek you find a few sections even overhang above you.  It is not quite what you would expect to find in Texas and seems almost Utah like.

As the walls get taller the canyon it become more fun and a nice little canyon experience.  The canyon is often only 3 or 4 feet wide at the bottom.  The bottom is sometimes rock, sometimes sand, and sometimes rocky.  The canyon has some narrow sections that get very narrow and then it will widen out to 10-15 feet before narrowing back down again.  

Those overhanging areas make it seem even narrower as you see just a band of sky.

This last spring I had rented a Sony A7R for the trip, wanting to test out a 36mp camera in Big Bend.  I have a Canon to Sony adapter that allowed me to use my Canon lenses on it.  That works but it also makes the camera rather bulky and seem front heavy.  Wanting to travel light and try the camera with a smaller lens, I took the A7R camera but used my crop sensor NEX lenses on it.  Those lenses are much better sized for the body making it very small and compact.  However they do not have a big enough image circle to fill the sensor.  So the image you get is about half of the frame.  Normally that might be bad, but with the 36mp of the A7R I was able to get about a 17mp image still.  Since my normal little NEX6 is a 16mp it really works out pretty similar.

So I put the little kit lens as well as the fisheye to work and ended up getting some nice images as I explored the canyon.

Because of the rains over the winter we eventually got to some water obstacles.  I had to navigate up and around some rocks so I could complete the canyon to the chock stone boulder and get the picture from the top.  It was a good way to spend a couple of hours and I even got a few neat images.

All in all the canyon part is maybe 200 yards long.  No not very big, especially when Santa Elena Canyon is 1500' deep and 8 miles long.  Still it is a neat off the beaten path kind of place and one I think is a great find.  It is certainly one I put on my list to visit again and again.