Archive for April, 2011

Memorials and monuments

Friday, April 29th, 2011
Memorials and monuments

It seems like everywhere you turn or face in Washington, D.C., there is a monument or memorial.  Of course, it is no accident; the city was designed that way.  The original part of the city now known as the National Mall was based on a 1791 plan for a “grand avenue” designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  His plan was supplemented by landscape architect Andrew Francis Downing in the early 1850s.  Then, in 1901, the McMillan Commission, inspired by L’Enfant’s plan, finalized the vision of what is the National Mall today.  Standing on the western side of the mall, where the Lincoln Memorial stands, you can look east, lining up the reflection pool, the Washington Monument and the Capitol building.

Several monuments and memorials have risen to join the main features of the mall in the last thirty years.  In 1982, the Vietnam Memorial was installed on the northwest side of the mall near the Lincoln Memorial.   Standing south of the reflecting pool, the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated in 1995.  Both the Vietnam and Korean War memorials are easy to miss, nestled in the grand trees that surround the reflection pool area.  In contrast, the World War II memorial stands out in the open on the far east side of the reflecting pool, with lit columns and brightly-lit fountains making it stand out as a new, dominant feature on the Mall.  It was dedicated in 2004.

I had a grand vision for a morning photo, looking east from the Lincoln Memorial, with the colors of dawn and the Washington Monument reflecting in the reflecting pool.  When I arrived at 5:30 in the morning, about a half hour before sunrise, I realized instantly that my vision would not come to pass.  There was no reflection pool.  That vision of Jenny running into the water during a Vietnam War protest, yelling “Forrest! Forrest!” would not have happened if they were shooting “Forrest Gump” now.  They would have had to rewrite the scene.  The pool has been emptied in order to conduct repairs and renovations to the foundation.

So, I turned my attention toward Abraham Lincoln. I managed to capture a few images before people started to arrive; about eight or so photographers, working their way around the memorial, doing various hand-held captures at the memorial.  I thought perhaps they were all part of a local camera club.  It turned out they were all taking part in a National Geographic photography workshop.  What?  A National Geographic workshop and nobody – not a single one of the participants – is using a tripod.  I cannot think I have ever attended a photography workshop where there was anyone in the group not using a tripod.  Tripod use is a cardinal rule in photography, especially shooting in low-light conditions.  Sure, you can crank up the ISO and open up the aperture to do hand-held photography, but you dramatically increase the noise in the image and lose the depth of field that is crucial for architectural photography.  But, hey, it was not my workshop.

Brief stop at the South Rim

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011
Brief stop at the South Rim

I fit just enough time in my Arizona trip for an overnight stay at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.  I had never visited the South Rim before, and wanted to take the opportunity to scout some locations in the hopes of returning some day.  I found out the hard way that it is nearly impossible to scout the South Rim in such a short period of time.

The Grand Canyon runs roughly east-to-west, with some twists and turns here and there.  This means that in order to capture the light at the correct angle in the morning or evening, each location will have a preferred time of year to photograph.  The sun does not always set in the west or rise in the east.  Depending on the time of year, it may rise in the northeast or the southeast, and set in the northwest or southwest.  This will in turn change the angle of the sun vis-à-vis the intended subject.  In the Grand Canyon, this is complicated by the steep canyon walls.  Thus, in order to get that glorious reddish first light on a subject, you need to be at the right location at the right time of year in order to have the sun rise at the right location to where it will shine down into the canyon at first light.

Based on recommendations by a photographer who had been to the South Rim many times, I selected the Desert View pullout for sunset and Yavapai Point for sunrise.  Unfortunately, neither provided the result I was looking for.  I think this is perhaps because the photographer said these were good locations for winter, but had not considered how much the sun angle changes as the seasons transition through spring and into summer. While they were great for shots looking directly into the sun for sunset or sunrise, neither provided the light on the subject that I sought.  For Desert View, by the time the sun started to produce the warm, reddish hues that make evening light magical, most of the subject was in shadow.  For sunrise, at first light, there was only a tiny sliver of light that shone on the subject.  But, about twenty minutes after sunrise, there was plenty of light washing across the scene at Yavapai Point; it simply was not the magical first light that photographers get up early to see and capture.

But, the visit to the Grand Canyon did bring with it a couple of other lessons.  First, I will never, EVER, visit the park in the summer.  There were already too many people visiting there for my taste, and it was only early April.  When I drove into the park at 5:00 a.m., one of the entrance gates was already staffed.  I cheerily greeted the park ranger at the gate, and joked, “Wow, this is the earliest staffed park gate I have ever seen.”  When he did not respond, I queried, “So, how early do you staff the gate?”  When I thought I had misheard his rather perplexing response, I asked him to repeat it: “I’m not allowed to tell you that.”  Wow, I thought.  Do I really want to visit a park that is so paranoid about getting all of its entrance fees out of its millions of visitors that they are secretive about when they staff the gates?  But I think that photographically, the dead of winter might be more interesting, as well. I always find that snow adds a great contrasting element, especially with the red colors of the rock and the blue of the sky.  I have found this to be true during my visits to Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter.

Second, I learned that the thing that we treasure the Grand Canyon for – its visual beauty – is being seriously undermined by pollution, primarily from southern California.  While I am accustomed to seeing some hazy landscapes in the summer in Alaska, that is from our frequent forest fires.  It is not a constant state of being.  But the Grand Canyon is constantly inundated with pollution, with some days being worse than others.  I think I was there on a good day, based on some of the photos they had on display at the Yavapai Point Geology Center.

These images and more are available in my Newest Images gallery.

Around the Page and Glen Canyon area

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
Around the Page and Glen Canyon area

The desert southwest is simply magnificent country.  Sure, Alaska is pretty amazing, don’t get me wrong.  But we do not have the diversity of rock formations that you can find in the desert southwest, particularly in canyon country.  (Note, another magnificent area for rock formations is Joshua Tree National Park, California.)  During my visit to northern Arizona, I spent some time exploring various rock formations south of Page near Highway 89, and then across the Colorado River over on the Utah side of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

As with most landscape photography situations, the best time to photograph was at first light and last light, with clouds and storms not only adding drama but frequently injecting the colors necessary to make the image successful.  I often find that the landscape composition will be more interesting by incorporating various “rules” of composition.  One such rule or guidance is to create what is called a “near-far” composition – placing a prominent image in the foreground while showing the expansive landscape in the background.  Another such rule or guidance is to use leading lines to draw the eye of the viewer into the subject.

All of these images and more are now available in my Newest Images gallery.

Slot Canyon Country

Monday, April 11th, 2011
Slot Canyon Country

One of the reasons you go to Page, Arizona as a landscape photographer is that it is centrally located to access several very accessible slot canyons in the region.  Slot canyons are formed primarily through flash flooding and severe winds, whipping through and carving deep into sandstone bedrock.  Given that water is the primary force shaping slot canyons, it is no wonder that the many forms within these slot canyons are rather fluid in appearance.

Most people who come to Page looking for slot canyons visit Upper Antelope Canyon, located on the south side of State Highway 98 near the Navajo Generating Station, a massive, three-stack coal-fired power plant.  Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are located on Navajo land, requiring a minor entry fee of $6 plus a guiding or usage fee.  With Upper Antelope Canyon, called Tse’ bighanilini (“the place where water runs through rocks”) by the Navajo, our guiding fee of $40 went to a family-owned Navajo guiding operation.  Our guide was Jamie, who did a great job at pointing out photo-worthy features, keeping other tourists at bay while our shutters were open, and assisting in moving our camera bags along with us.  Upper Antelope may be the more expensive of the two Antelope Canyons, but it is the most visited because it is flat and wide.  I found it to be my least favorite of the three slot canyons I visited during my trip.

Lower Antelope Canyon, called Hazdistazi (“spiral rock arches”) by the Navajo, in contrast, is entirely self-guided.  Unlike the two hour limitation for Upper Antelope Canyon, the fee for Lower Antelope Canyon (just on the other side of the highway from Upper) included four hours of time in the canyon.  (This four-hour coverage was being reduced to two hours shortly after our visit, but you could still stay longer so long as you paid an extra five dollars – well worth it.)  Lower Antelope can be challenging to maneuver in when you are carrying a tripod and camera and toting around a backpack-style camera bag on your back.  You enter the canyon through a narrow slot in the ground (as opposed to a wide, walk-in entrance at Upper Antelope) and then make your way down into the canyon through a series of metal ladders and steps, all of which are rather steep.  Almost immediately, though, I was struck by how different and more diverse the compositions were in Lower Antelope.  I ended up spending over three hours in the canyon, limited only by how the light had become rather unfavorable, as it was approximately 12:30 when I left the canyon.  Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit the canyon.

My third visit, and second favorite canyon while in Page, was to Waterholes Canyon, accessible from a trail starting at mile marker 538 on Highway 89.  I had visited there the last time I was in Page in October 2001 with my friend Andrew VonBank.  My memories from that first visit were that while it was a cool hike into the canyon, there was not much to photograph.  My ability to find so many more compositions during this visit is a testament to how much I have grown as a photographer in the intervening 9 1/2 years.  Like Lower Antelope Canyon, the best time to visit Waterholes is early in the morning.  I started my hike into the canyon at 7:00 a.m.

The reason for the early morning or late afternoon visit to these canyons is the time of year and the angle of the sun.  What makes slot canyon photography successful is when you have direct sunlight that is shining against one wall, and reflecting light onto another.  You do not want to photograph any compositions that include the sky, as the exposures are long in the canyon, sometimes as long as thirty seconds.  Instead, you want to compose and crop in-camera in such a way that you are seeing both shaded and reflected light areas, thus providing the contrast of cool and warm tones.  Sunny skies mean clear skies and the deep shade of blue that comes with them.  That blue reflects in the shaded areas of the canyon, providing blue and purple hues.  The reflected light is always a warm gold or reddish-orange.

To get the long exposures necessary to be successful, select an ISO no greater than 100, set your aperture to f/22 or greater, and adjust exposure compensation in such a way to avoid clipping at the highlights or shadows.  If you are not getting long enough exposures, add a polarizing filter or neutral density filter to slow down your shutter even more.

All of these images are available in my Newest Images gallery.

A cloudy start

Friday, April 8th, 2011
A cloudy start

So, after twenty hours of travel – sixteen by air (which includes a seven-hour layover in Seattle) and four on the road – I found myself in colder weather than I had left behind in Anchorage.  Given that my last impression of Phoenix was 100 degree weather in early May, I was a bit surprised.  It got worse when I arrived in my destination of Page, tucked away in the far northwest corner of the state.  I spent my first evening photographing some wonderful tilted sedimentary strata and juniper trees near milemarker 538 on Highway 89, just south of Page.  It was rather bitterly cold and windy, with an unappealing overhanging blanket of overcast sky.  Don’t get me wrong, cloudy skies are not necessarily bad for landscapes.  As long as there is texture in there, it can be made to work.  So, I did what I could to minimize the skies: cropping out the bleak gray as much as possible, while still leaving some sky, and minimizing the “hot spot” of the overcast by using a 2-stop graduated neutral density filter.

The next morning started out bleak.  The plan was to photograph the sunrise down at the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, near milemarker 545, only two miles south of Page.  But I awoke to falling snow, which, by the time I got to the parking lot at the trialhead to Horseshoe Bend, it was thick and blowing sideways.  But, one of my standing orders for photography is to not allow bad weather to deter my plans.  While the skies did not part and the sun did not come out, at least it stopped snowing and the clouds lifted to allow me to photograph the Horseshoe Bend and its features.  The soft light made for some nice, even lighting over the landscape.

These images and more are available in my Newest Images gallery.