Monday, November 30, 2015

In the Guadalupes

The Guadalupe Mountains are one of my favorite mountain ranges.  They rise out of the desert of west Texas and reach heights of almost 9,000'.  Those high peaks hold aspen and pines like one might find farther north in the mountains around Taos.  The canyons shelter maple trees, a relic of the last ice age.  The entire mountain range is also an ancient reef.  Yes, the Guadalupes used to be at the bottom of the ocean.  Imagine the Great Barrier Reef thrown almost two miles up into the sky.

The highest peaks are in Texas and preserved in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but the range move north into New Mexico.  The peaks are not quite as high but the western escarpment is still a couple thousand feet tall and runs north for many miles until the Guadalupes and Sacramento Mountains blend together.

The area in New Mexico is national forest and there are several places where access is possible.  I approached the escarpment from the west and made my way up into the forest and a campsite right on the rim.  

From here I had a view looking north, west, and south of the escarpment, desert, and mountains.  It is a big view here with a lot of sky.  As I wrote in my last post, I had considered packing up to Guadalupe Peak to photograph the sunset and stars from there but the call for thunderstorms had me alter my plan.

I have hopes that we will get clear skies at night so I can photograph the Milky Way.

As the afternoon wore on the signs of clouds building up let me know I made the right decision not to be on the summit this day.

Right at sunset the clouds became a thunderstorm centered over the high peaks and I watched lightening streak from the clouds.

I photographed the sunset from my vantage point and kept an eye on the sky around me to watch for bad weather.

It got windy but the storm stayed away to the south.

The sunset faded in the west and the storm kept growing and spreading out toward the west.  The stars began to shine in the night sky and I watched the show of li

ght and lightening until the Milky Way was visible.  The sky was broken clouds where the Milky Way could peek out and be seen.  I set to work framing up images with the sky and the distant storm.

On occasion I even caught a lightening in an image.

I stayed up for a few hours making images before calling it a day and fell asleep with a view of the rim and the sky.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Exploring the Lost Mesa

Over the Labor Day holiday I went west for a quick trip.  At first I had thought of backpacking up and camping on Guadalupe Peak, but in the days leading up to the trip it was forecast for thunderstorms I changed my plans to not be on a summit in a thunderstorm.  I like being outside but I also do not like to put myself in unsafe situations.

So I modified the trip to spend a night on the Lost Mesa and then a couple of nights around the Guadalupe Mountains.

September in the southwest is the monsoon season when the tropical activity of storms and hurricanes pushes moisture and rain into the area.  So September is usually the greenest time of the year here.

I found there were a few wildflowers, the grass looked healthy, and the ocotillo had leaves and were green.

Tlaloc Man Petroglyph on the Lost Mesa
The plan was to look for petroglyphs and then campout to see the Milky Way.  We got there and did a good hike checking out some of the rock art that you can find on boulders in the area.  There are several good examples to be seen here and I photographed a few favorites.

Knowing it would be dark skies until about midnight and that the Milky Way would be about due south, we picked our camp to take advantage of what a good night image might be.

After watching an ok sunset, I set up my tent and waited for dark.  The clouds seemed to be building and when it got dark they covered enough of the sky to make it difficult to see the stars.  Still there was just enough gaps I was able to get some of the Milky Way in the images.

I stayed up for a few hours photographing the night sky and occasionally my tent (one of the reasons I love a yellow tent is how it glows in a night image).

The clouds were mostly gone by sunrise but there was some nice morning light the next day.

After the sun rose and we lost the interesting light, we broke camp and headed toward the Guadalupe Mountains.  It would be a few hour drive but I had some ideas on a possible camp and off we went down the dusty roads.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Nights on the Nolan River

As the year progressed in 2015 and the months went by, I kept trying to photograph the bluff on the Nolan River for a particular image I had in mind (see the prior post).  On nights that did not happen I would try to photograph other sections of the Nolan River that had easier access and that would remain above the rising levels of Lake Whitney.

Farther upstream of the best area are more rocky sections, another bluff, and a great old stone railroad trestle. 

In the spring months I knew I might be able to frame the Milky Way above the trestle.  So on one of those predawn mornings where the river was too deep and fast to wade to the bluff, I went to the trestle.  Here the access is easy with some good rocky areas to shoot from and remain above the higher moving waters.  That is the top image here.

I would end up trying here on a couple of different mornings.  Since you need dark skies to photograph the Milky Way you are limited to those times when the moon is not in the sky.  So we could not try every weekend, but would give it a go when we could even if it was cloudy as you never know if the clouds will part long enough to get even one image.

So sometimes we were able to get the shots, other times were were not able to.  Every day and every attempt is different.  You do what you can with whatever conditions you find-that is just the nature of being a landscape photographer.

So over the course of the summer I kept trying to get to the bluff and kept having one thing or another keep it out of reach.  Each morning I would have to adapt and go to a different location or wade as far as I could get and take images.

It was both a fun and frustrating year which finally paid off in October with getting the image! (again see last blog post).

It is late in the Milky Way season as we approach the time of the year where we do not see the galactic core but there is still the less bright spiral arm to photograph and then the anticipation to mid-February when the Galactic Core reappears in the east just before dawn.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Nolan River Milky Way-Nine Months of Trying

Nolan River Bluff
One of my favorite areas to photograph here in north Texas is the Nolan River south of Fort Worth.  This is a small river that runs through just two counties (Johnson and Hill) before joining the Brazos at Lake Whitney.  The Nolan runs through some nice little hills on what is often a rocky bed and has a few sections of limestone bluffs.

Add in the fact it is also just far enough away from the Metroplex to see the Milky Way in the night sky and you might see why I like it for photography.

I can be there in just under an hour from my home making it a great location for sunrise or for a 3am departure to photograph the Milky Way before sun up.

I had some great success photographing the Milky Way there last year  Nolan River Blog Post    and hoped to get a chance to photograph there again.  I also wanted to see what my Sony A7S camera could do.

Well 2015 was a year in frustration in getting to the area I wanted to get to.

High water is too fast and deep
I knew in February I might be able to capture the Milky Way in the eastern sky just before sunrise.  I went down under partly cloudy skies but at the bluff it was 100% cloud cover.

In March I went down and it was raining.

In April I went down after a few days of rain and found some partly clear skies but the river was in flood stage from the rain and I could not get to the bluff.

In May we had epic rains in north Texas and the Nolan had a flood the crested some 25+ feet above the normal river level.  After the flood passed I tried again and found Lake Whitney had so much water it had backed up into the Nolan River and some of the surrounding bottom land and we could not even get to the river.  The trail in the trees disappeared into the dark water of the lake.

Lake Whitney backs up into surrounding creeks
June was much the same.  We could now get to the river but it was still far too deep to get to the area I wanted.  I went as far to go buy chest waders hoping I could wade along the bank but found the water at least 6 foot deep.

By July the water had receded some and I went back about 3 in the morning with chest waders  but still found it too deep.  I just was not comfortable going into 4-5 foot deep murky water in the dark with camera gear.

August was much the same.  The lake level was slowly going down but remained too high to get to where I wanted to get to.  There is another section of bluffs that remained above the lake level and we visited them in the late summer instead Nolan River Bluff
I can see the bluff but cannot get there

In September I was able to get to the river and get partially where I wanted to go but a side creek was still deep enough and muddy enough to not cross it.

Finally in October the lake level had dropped to what I thought might work.  But by now the Milky Way was so late in its season that it looked like going at sunset would be the best bet.  I was hoping there might just be enough of the bank showing to walk there and at worse walk along some rock ledges in just a few inches of water.

Could not get to the bluff but I got this shot along the river
That was exactly the conditions we found.  The lake/river level was far above what we had seen in 2014 still but it allowed us to get to the bluff.  Several of the rocks I had used for compositions were still under a few feet of water so we had to adapt.  We also found a large boulder had fallen from the bluff and was partially blocking the main ledge.

It was a clear day so there was no sunset to photograph.  However when it got dark we were able to see the Milky Way was in the south-southwestern sky and started photographing it.

We stayed for a few hours and as it swung around more westerly I was able to get the top image here looking down river.

It was a very tough year of many attempts and much frustration trying to photograph the bluff this year.  From clouds, to rain to floods, to full lakes were all things that made it difficult but in the end perseverance made it happen.

Those are just the things you deal with as a landscape photographer.  It can be difficult and then one day it all works.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hawaii by Helicopter

One of the more popular ways to tour and see Hawaii these days is by helicopter tour.  There are tour operators on most of the islands and there are a variety of tours you can take.

I was able to tour the West Maui Mountains and the Molokai coast by air and it was quite a sight.

The views you get and the locations you can see are something you cannot experience any other way.

I am far from an expert on photographing from the air or for that matter any moving object.  I usually work on a tripod and take pictures of rocks and trees.  I joke I take pictures of rocks since they move in geologic time.  :-)

Now I was going to be photographing from a moving object that has natural vibration and through a plexiglass windscreen.  This was going to also require me to be hand holding the camera.

Here was the setup I went with:  One camera with just one lens.  I only had one camera (the Sony A7S) and used the wide view of the Nikon 20mm f/4 I have adapted for it.  This is a small and easy to use combo.  I like a wide view so I thought I would go with it.

For camera settings, I set it on Shutter Priority which had me set the shutter and then it do the rest.  Now since the Nikon is a manual focus and manual aperture lens, I set the aperture, the focus to infinity and then it left the camera with one adjustment to make- ISO.  It was just point and shoot and let the camera do the work.

Shutter to 1/1000 in Shutter Priority

Aperture of f/8 to maximize depth of field, sharpness, and speed

ISO set to Auto ISO

So I had a fixed shutter speed of 1/1000 and a fixed aperture of f/8 which meant the camera would adjust the ISO for each shot.  

This worked great with well exposed images.  The ISO would vary from about 400 up to about 3200.  On some cameras ISO 3200 might make you cringe but on the A7S they all looked as good as ISO 100.

I also set the camera for burst firing.  This allowed the camera to fire off a burst of images which can also help sharpness.  Since you are always moving it also means each also had a slightly different composition.

BTW, no polariser when shooting through a window as the plexiglass messes it up.

So over the approximately one hour flight we flew up to see waterfalls in the West Maui Mountains.  We flew over to Molokai and saw Elephant Rock along the way.  We went along the Molokai sea cliffs which they say are the tallest sea cliffs in the world (Molokai split in half millions of years ago with part of the island sliding into the sea and now rubble spread across the bottom of the North Pacific).  We went over to the coral reefs on the other side of the island and then back over to Maui where we crossed over into the upper Iao.
Valley.  Finally back to the Maui heliport.

The views were amazing and the images turned out surprisingly well.  I was not sure this would work or I would get anything.  I was very impressed with the results and the sights too.  The camera did great and my settings allowed me to just take pictures and let the camera do the rest.

Although the entire trip was incredibly scenic, I think my personal favorite part was the views of the Molokai sea cliffs and could have easily just gone up and down that area for hours.

An excellent way to end the trip.