It’s summertime at the Oregon coast, and the sun set 20 minutes ago. The horizon still glows warm, a perfect soft breeze blows your hair from your eyes, and churning waves drum at the base of the sandstone cove where you’ve watched the sunset with friends. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth wave you hear a heavy, hollow ka-whump, and a six-foot wall of water jumps vertically, just an arm’s length in front of you, only to crash straight down. These are the sandstone bluffs of Cape Kiwanda, a strange juxtaposition of tranquility and chaos.
It’s Monday morning, and I’m just sitting around the house sipping some Folgers (we ran out of the good stuff, so I’m drinking the “camping coffee”) and getting ready to roll up my sleeves and do some work on my website. That is, of course, a lie: I can’t roll up my sleeves, because every since the cast was removed from my arm last Friday, I’ve been in a fairly involved (and expensive) elbow brace. The reality of my situation is slowly starting to sink in: Recuperating from tendon repair is a lengthy process, and I’m only now checking my blind spot while merging onto the road to recovery.
Yesterday I had a reminder of just how precarious my situation is after I tripped going up the stairs at my house and instinctively extended both arms to catch myself. The result was painful, but it did help to scare me straight, so to speak. I’m not a clumsy guy by any means, but at this point it wouldn’t take much to undo what took my orthopedic surgeon over an hour and several thousand dollars to accomplish in the first place.
Unfortunately, that means that, in the interest of not getting myself (or more specifically, my triceps tendon) into trouble, I probably won’t be taking many photos during the month of November. And I especially won’t be going out at night, when the infinitesimal risk of injury increases slightly. It’s just not worth the risk. I really feel pretty good, so it’s going to be difficult to be patient.
So instead, I’ll likely be going through old photos for most of the month. And this is one of them.
This is one of Crater Lake’s famous whitebark pines that rim the lake. As far as views go, it’s doing much better than about 99.9999% of the other trees in the world. Unfortunately, pine beetles, a fungus called blister rust, and a changing climate have taken their toll, and many of these trees are dying off. As you can see, this one’s dead. What you probably can’t see is that a good part of its root system is exposed, and this thing’s going to topple one of these days.
This tree’s been photographed a lot. I should probably capitalize that–this tree’s been photographed A LOT. I alone have spent more time with it than any one person should spend with a tree. Because of this fact, some photographers would stay away from this scene, stating that the act of photographing it can only result in an “unoriginal” photo. I, of course, disagree with that philosophy.
Right now, in Portland, a similar debate is unfolding around the famous Japanese maple at the Portland Japanese Garden. Its leaves are changing colors, and photographers are converging from all over the world and queuing up for a photo of it. The environment is a little circus-like, with long lines, bad behavior, and a whole lotta landscape photographers loudly “declaring” (mostly via social media) that they’d sooner spike their 14-24 f/2.8G lens like a football than be caught taking a photo of such a popular subject. Ironically, it wouldn’t take much of a portfolio review coupled with a quick Google image search to uncover any number of landscape photography clichés with their name attached to it.
You see, I definitely value originality when it comes to landscape photography, but I’m not sure I value it over beauty. There’s a reason that people are drawn to these trees. And it’s the same reason people enjoy butterflies, beer advertisements featuring models, and America’s national parks system: They’re beautiful, and people like beauty.
So how does a creative person who values originality and individualism express their unique vision of an over-shot subject? (Never mind that this question ignores the question of when exactly a landscape subject becomes “over-shot,” that’s a debate for another time.) To me, it’s easy–I work harder to find unique conditions (light, weather, etc), unique angles, and a unique way of post-processing the photo. I work harder to make the photo say something, to mean something. In short, I work harder.
Because saying that you’d never photograph a certain tree, a certain view, or something as ubiquitous as the Milky Way (and yes, the self-righteous declaration of “I’d never shoot the Milky Way!” is becoming a more common refrain) is easy. At best it’s a declaration of the limits of your vision as an artist. At worst it’s an admission of creative laziness.
I’m hard-pressed to think of something I would never photograph. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to my vivid imagination or the fact that I quit using hyperbolic words like “always” and “never” a long time ago. The pursuit of my vision probably won’t lead me to take a photo of a McDonald’s any time soon, but I can think of several scenarios in which I would take that photo. From a creative standpoint, nothing’s off limits. And nothing should be.
This was from two exposures, taken about 20 minutes apart. The first was to capture the landscape detail, including the quickly fading sunlight that was warming the white bark of the pine tree. The second was to capture the sky. Both photos were taken with the same focus, aperture, and ISO (100). Only the exposure time changed.
Part of the reason I was able to get so many stars in the second, “sky” shot, despite only waiting 20 minutes after the “land” shot was the nature of the southern sky when I took this photo. The bright “stars” on the right side of the sky are actually Saturn (top) and Mars (bottom). In the middle right, you can see part of the constellation Scorpius, with the star Antares. And in the rest of the sky is the galactic center of the Milky Way (albeit one that is washed out by so much ambient light), which has a number of other bright stars in it. In short, these stars appeared much more quickly during twilight than many of the other stars in the sky.
One of my self-imposed autumn jobs (and by “jobs,” I mean “fun project that I’m looking forward to”) is to photograph as many of the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls as possible. Since moving back to Oregon I’ve suffered a kind of photographic procrastination when it came to these waterfalls. I mean, they’re always going to be there. So why photograph them right now?
Well, the simple answers are a) I have the time and b) I’m tired of leaving all this beauty unphotographed (by me, anyway). Recently, I realized that I was spending a lot of time and effort searching for great photographs when huge amounts of untapped photography potential were a little over a half hour’s drive from my home. I’m lucky enough to live just a quick drive from these places. Let’s get to photographing them, says I!
So the “project” kicked off a couple weeks ago with yet another trip to Oneonta Gorge. And last week I managed to check off a waterfall that I’d never visited before: Fairy Falls.
Fairy Falls is a 2-mile roundtrip hike from the Wahkneea Falls trailhead (which itself is just half a mile from Multnomah Falls). Despite it being a short hike, it’s uphill to the tune of about 800 vertical feet.
I had heard rumors about a Lego brick mortared somewhere into the walls along the trail, but despite being so focused on the wall that I nearly walked off the trail a couple of times, I saw no such thing. Is this a real thing? Or is this one of those sadistic attempts to befuddle and potentially kill distracted hikers?
After a series of switchbacks that leads to an overlook of the gorge (known as Lemmon’s viewpoint), the trail continues up, crossing Wahkneea Creek several times over photogenic footbridges.
It’s not too much longer before Fairy Falls itself cascades right next to the trail. It’s impossible to miss. With low pre-wet-season water levels, there wasn’t a lot of mist coming off the falls, although I’m willing to bet that this thing is quite the mister during the rainy season. I’ll be back to photograph it in a couple of months, without a doubt.
“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
These night photos are truly labors of love. When I think of all the mini-hardships I’ve endured…the freezing nights, the never-ending sleep-deprived hikes, the long drives in the dark (and the resulting collisions with wildlife), the hours spent standing around because the ground is too cold and too hard to sit on and I didn’t pack a chair, the nights I’ve forgotten to pack a snack, the mornings in which I can’t make it back home without stopping multiple times for terrible truck-stop coffee because it’s still too early for the little drive-thru coffee shops to open…sometimes I wonder why I do go out for these photos at all.
I definitely don’t take these types of photos for the money. In fact, it has been quite a while since I’ve sold a print of the night sky. I do it because these photos sing to my soul. I love taking them. I love processing them, re-processing them. I still find joy in these Buzzfeed-like lists titled “20 AWESOME photos of the night sky!” and find myself wasting 4 or 5 minutes scrolling through the entire list of photos taken by my contemporaries, even though I’ve seen nearly all of the photos before. I love looking at the photos of other talented photographers who go out and document their sky. I am particularly enamored by the southern hemisphere’s skies–they look so different than the ones I’m used to here in Oregon. When I see those Magellanic clouds and their upside-down galactic center I’m instantly transported somewhere foreign and exotic.
Anyway, the galactic center of the Milky Way will be retiring shortly (around here, anyway), but there’s still a lot of great night photography that can be done. And so tonight, some dark beer, college football, and some padron peppers stuffed with sausage and cream cheese and wrapped in bacon have won out over another night in the cold, camera clicking away. But I’ll be back out there before too much longer.
I first heard of Oneonta Gorge shortly after I moved to the Portland area four years ago. The place is like catnip to local photographers. A non-photographer had billed it as a “fun hike,” a designation that doesn’t even come close to describing just how amazing the scenery is and how immersive (no pun intended) the Oneonta hiking experience is.
With its storybook (or, more likely nowadays, epic fantasy film) setting, Oneonta gives off an in media res vibe as soon as you’re between its tall walls. Except that Oneonta itself is the star of the show, and you’re simply a hiker-photographer sent from central casting.
At mid-day, sunlight sets the mossy walls aglow, salamanders can be seen crawling near shadowy pools, and a cool oxygen-rich breeze blows through the canyon–and all of this is set to the echoing score of an endlessly cascading waterfall.
Although Oneonta can be crowded in the summertime, particularly on warm weekends, there’s usually not a lot of foot traffic in there. Part of this is the barrier to entry: a large, oddly stacked logjam. At 10-12 feet high and 30 or more feet deep, the logjam is not to be taken lightly. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how dangerous a slip and fall could be here: One good clunk of your head on the way down, and you’re unconscious in ten-feet-deep water, with no way for anyone who witnesses the accident to give you a hand, much less recover your body. But in the summertime, when water levels are low, the rest of the hike is easy–save for “the deep part.”
About halfway back to the falls is “the deep part,” an area about 20 feet long where the water gets, well, deep. In the summertime this area rarely requires a swim, even for short adults. This place can be tricky for photographers like me, though, who ford this area while carrying thousands of dollars of gear over their head. On all my trips into and out of this area, I had never really had problems going through this part. Until recently.
On my way back from the back-area waterfall, while carrying my pack and all my gear over my head in armpit-deep water, I bumped into a rock with my foot as I was stepping. Unfortunately my momentum continued carrying my upper body forward, and I attempted to take one more step to correct my balance, again encountering the same rock that impeded me the first time. Apparently it was a much larger rock than I realized. Despite frantically kick-starting a large underwater rock in an effort to catch my balance, my entire gear bag (water-resistant but NOT waterproof), which was safely overhead, ended up going in the water. Somehow, against all odds, this 20-pound-bag managed to float long enough for me to quickly retrieve it after resetting my feet.
As I lifted the dripping bag over my head I was doing a mental tally of the cost of replacement, the photographic equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes, and I noted how much heavier my bag was now that it had taken on water. As soon as I had the opportunity I got to a semi-dry place (not easy to find in Oneonta), and unzippered the bag so that I could check the contents and begin properly weeping. To my surprise, even though the entire outer nylon shell was soaked with water, only a few drops of water had actually made it in, probably through the zipper itself.
To say I was relieved was an understatement.
Anyway, the rest of the hike out was uneventful, and I’ll be rethinking my no-drybag-needed policy for future outings in that gorge. If you live in the Portland area and haven’t checked out Oneonta (and have good enough balance to climb over the logjam unassisted), I urge you to do so before the autumn rains begin. You won’t regret it. Unless you drop your electronics in “the deep part.”
Photography is not for the impatient. Even less forgiving for wait-haters is astrophotography, particular in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. Last winter I longed for new views of the galactic center of the Milky Way, but I had to wait a painfully long time before I could get back out and try out some new techniques (both in-field and in post-processing). Throughout the spring, banks of clouds stretching hundreds of miles wide would roll in with the new moon, frustrating stargazers and star photographers all over the region.
This year, I vowed to save a number of my Milky Way photos back for the winter of 2014/2015 so that I would have something to process. And then, months after this decision, I thought long and hard about my course of action. And then I asked myself: Why? What am I waiting for?
So yesterday I did what enjoy: I dug up some old files of the Milky Way and an abandoned house that I had photographed in May, processed them, and shared them with the world. And I drank some dark coffee (a whole pot of it, in fact). And I listened to music, probably too loudly. And I had fun doing it. Funny how that works.
Somewhere in the subtext here (as well as the title of the photo) is a lesson on waiting to do something you enjoy. I’ve chosen to live a life in which I express part of myself through photography, and these photos juxtaposing ancient stars and not-nearly-as-ancient homesteads make me think (and feel) deeply about the permanence of the things we humans build in our environment, the transitory objects we think of as durable and long-lasting. Stargazing (even if its via a photo) affords us a rare opportunity to reflect on our tiny place in an impossibly giant universe.
Anyhow, in the interest of learning more about this section of the sky, I’ve also included a labeled version of the photo for your perusal. Click on it to make it large. Enjoy!
Star party at Cape Kiwanda
Terence Lee and I had been shooting some stars at the sandstone bluffs around Cape Kiwanda when we packed up our gear and trudged out, sand in our shoes, and saw a group of about 20 twenty/thirty-somethings gathered around a bonfire, having what seemed to be a great time on the beach.
I walked up through the darkness to the edge of the group. They still hadn’t seen me because they were focused on the bonfire itself, and I did my best not to freak everyone out when I announced my presence by asking if I could take their photo.
A handful of them said something that sounded like “sure,” so I positioned myself in some grass farther inland so that I could shoot at them with the Milky Way behind them.
The conditions were challenging, to say the least. I had some wet grass very close to my lens, and the dynamic range between the center of the fire and the moonless night had to have been roughly 3,000 stops of light. The shot above is three bracketed exposures: one for the foreground, one to control for lens flare, and one for the night sky. I had to do a little dance in post-processing, but I eventually got the job done.
After I had packed up, thanked everyone, and started walking off, someone in the group asked if I wanted to shoot them playing with their sparklers. I really didn’t, but several folks insisted that I did, so I got my gear back out and took the obligatory sparkler photo (below) shooting back toward my original position. You can see Terence still lurking like a ninja in the background on the left.
Until next time!
“Eschew the monumental. Shun the Epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.”
― Ernest Hemingway
I’ve been sorting through some old files and decided to finish this one, which I’d given up on months ago. I had apparently decided at the time that it wasn’t perfect. The willow tree in the upper left corner had waved around during the long exposure, leaving an indistinct smudge that was pretty much irreparable. In fact, many of the trees in the photo had been moving in the wind. I had blown out the highlights in the park lamps and hadn’t properly bracketed another exposure so that I could fix that. There were little light flares all over the place.
But the problem was that I still really liked the photo. Cathedral Park at night is beautiful. I liked the warmth of the streetlights and the way they lit the park’s grass. The composition spoke to me. The blue-hour glow gave me a good feeling. I liked the photo when I took it, and I liked it when I tried to post-process it. But as I pixel peeped the file at 150%, I discovered to my horror that it wasn’t perfect. So I gave up on it.
Over the past year I’ve been getting much more selective about the photos I post. At some point, despite being (in my own mind, anyway) a free-thinking and creative person, the Prevailing Attitudes of Modern Digital Landscape Photography had seeped their way into my head. The PAoMDLP names, among other things, the following commandments:
1. Though shalt focus stack so that every pixel of your digital photo is so tack sharp that you can make prints the size of small moons, even though you will never, ever make a print the size of a small moon.
2. If thou findest out that something in your photograph has moved or blurred, thou shalt clone it out immediately.
3. If thou cannot clone out said moving object, thou must delete the file in an expedited manner.
4. Self-expression shalt always play second fiddle to posting perfect photos and retaining a perfect online portfolio.
I could go on and on about the quest for “perfect” sunstars and the expensive lenses that must be used to achieve them, the tragedy of clipped shadows or highlights, the 500px groupthink that has left us with technically perfect but emotionally sterile photographs instead of creative art, the gearheads who claim that an extra 1.7685 stops of light will help them create “better” photographs…but I’ll probably save those for a blog post that I started on months ago but still remains only partially written.
Instead, I’m just going to declare that I’m done with the pursuit of perfection, of only posting the most epic, wow-worthy photos. Don’t get me wrong, my goal is to do my best to deliver high-quality images. But why hamstring myself by limiting my creativity to a bunch of “rules” that I never agreed to in the first place? Even in the most beautiful settings, I don’t see a perfect world, so why would I attempt to convey perfection?
Until next time!
Your phone’s alarm clock jolts you awake. Your back aches, but you finally slept well for about an hour and a half, anyway.
You sit up, turn the alarm off, and put the phone in your right cargo pocket of your pants. It’s dark and finally quiet, save for the gusting winds gently rocking your car. Your mind clears, and your heart rate jumps. It’s time to shoot the stars.
You pick up your wallet and put it in your back pocket; your flashlight goes in your left cargo pocket; your keys go in your right-front zipper pocket; your headlamp goes around your neck. Everything’s organized, sequenced; you’ve done this routine dozens of time and can do it with your eyes half closed, in the dark. You open the car’s back door to put on your shoes and step out into the gravel parking lot. Cold air rushes in, defogging the windows. The dome light on your car doesn’t come on–you turned it off a couple of years ago to help save your night vision.
Upward, the sky’s filled end to end with gleaming stars. You take a brief second to admire them, and refocus. You put on your long-sleeve shirt. You pick up your trusty 15-year-old wool sweater that you were using as a pillow and put that on too. You throw on your jacket, which has your shutter release in the right pocket, gloves thin enough to work your camera’s controls in the left pocket. You put on your neck gaiter and stocking hat and slide your headlamp up from around your neck onto your head, over the stocking hat. The headlamp’s still off–you’re still trying to save your night vision, always trying to work in the dark as much as possible.
You grab your backpack and tripod, close the back door of the car, and beep it locked with a twinge of guilt at possibly disturbing campers who were keeping you awake just a few hours earlier.
You start hiking. Quickly the terrain goes from safe and well-traveled to right along the edge of a gaping canyon. Below you–maybe 100 feet–is a 200-foot waterfall flowing at its spring rate–a high volume. The waterfall’s roar blots out every other noise in the night. The white noise of waterfalls and wind occupies nearly all of your senses; your eyes see only basic shapes in the blue-black geography around you land and pinhole lights in the sky. Cold creeps into your body at your extremities.
You can feel a small rumble beneath your feet. You set your tripod down, and as you release your grip you can feel it humming. You inch closer to the edge of the cliff, thinking about the crumbling piles of basalt several hundred feet below. You wonder about how long ago they fell. Two thousand years? One hundred fifty years? Five years? News reports of recent earthquakes in southern California and Mt Hood flash into your brain. You wonder how long the rock below your feet would stay put if the earth started to shake.
You look through your eyepiece; because you’re shooting with a wide lens, the edge of the cliff is in the bottom of your frame. You need to move closer. You turn on your headlamp (there goes your night vision, but you’re not going to risk getting any closer in the darkness), double-check the edge of the cliff again, take a deep breath, and move your tripod as close to the edge as possible. Holding onto your tripod with your left hand so that it doesn’t fall off the cliff, you carefully check the bubble level to make sure its level.
You turn your head lamp off and vow to not take a single step–certainly not a step forward, but also not to the left or directly behind you, where the ground falls away to a large crack, and then, of course, a long tumble.
You aren’t prone to vertigo, but your head swims in the pitch darkness. You can’t escape the feeling that you’re floating in space. The ground is a flat, detail-less black. You renew your vow not to take a single step, to keep your feet planted exactly where they are. Don’t… move…
You line up the shot–your eyes have adjusted, thankfully, and you can just barely differentiate the deep black of the canyon from the not-quite-as-deep black of the horizon.
You trip the shutter, in the dark, alone, and start counting along with the timer…one…two…three…
I’ve been re-processing a number of my old photos lately. A while back I received an IPS monitor as an early Christmas present; as someone who had struggled to find the black point and a reasonable level of contrast in the night sky, this monitor was a great addition to my post-processing tool set. I can’t account for your web browser or your monitor’s color profile, but I’m much, much closer to printing exactly what I see on my monitor. For me, as always, it’s still all about the print.
Additionally, my thinking has slowly evolved when it comes to deep, detail-less shadows (or even not-so-deep shadows) in night photos. Years ago I relied on the heavy lifting of the shadow and/or blacks slider in Lightroom 4 or 5 to pull detail out of these darkened corners. But Lightroom (and Adobe Camera Raw) are strong medicine, and just because you can pull sliders all the way to the left or right doesn’t mean you should. Lifting shadows too much often gave me undesirable results (purple blotching and noise, for instance), which resulted in even more time spent post-processing.
Slowly I’ve worked away from the I-have-to-have-detail model, at least when it comes to night photography. I’ve come to accept that the night will have shadows–sometimes shadows so deep and dark that they’re completely impenetrable.
This photo of Delicate Arch (in Arches National Park) was originally put online in early July of 2013. It was EarthSky’s image of the day for July 10th.
For me, this was a throwaway or “sketch” shot. I was pretty sure that this was the composition that I wanted, since I loved the leading lines of the sandstone bowl that led to the arch itself. What I wasn’t sure about was the periphery–I couldn’t really see anything at the edges of my frame through the viewfinder, so I took a handful of shots to see what my camera saw.
A couple closer to the arch (who was already there when I arrived) was shooting, so I did my best to stay out of there way. This is, or at least should be, a common courtesy among night photographers, within reason of course. (If they had shot uninterrupted for another half hour, I would’ve politely tried to work my way into their space.)
There had been a lull in the action as the couple pored over their photos on the back of their camera, so I set up another sketch shot and tripped my shutter. Just then, I heard him giving her instructions which amounted to “walk up to the arch and then shine the flashlight at it from below.” So she turned on the flashlight and walked up to the arch, just as he said.
At first, as I watched her walk up to the arch in the middle of my photo, I was a little annoyed, since I hadn’t really gotten a clean shot yet and was hoping to get one without extraneous lighting. But, at the same time, it was just a sketch photo, and they were there first.
As soon as I reviewed the image, though, I saw that her path up to the arch was arch-like itself. I made a mental note that the photo hadn’t been completely ruined and kept shooting.
This is part of the reason that I seldom, if ever, delete photos off my memory card in the field. I can’t imagine how disappointed I would’ve been had I decided to get rid of this photo in the spur of the moment because “she ruined my photo.”
The next day, after reviewing those images, I saw that not only had the image not been ruined, but that the woman’s path made the photo much more interesting to me. With the flashlight’s arc, a level of metaphorical meaning had been achieved. Additionally, the photo seemed to illustrate the magic of a long exposure–that random events (usually, moving lights) don’t necessarily ruin long exposures at night. In fact, they often add to the image.
I shot several photos of Delicate Arch with the same composition, but without any lighting. I like the photos and will probably post one sometime soon. But, to me, the addition of the flashlight and the human figure changed the photo’s entire meaning. This was no longer just a photo of one of the most-photographed sandstone arches in the southwestern United States. First off, it documented the process of night photography–it was a photo of a photo. Further, to me, the photo commented on the difficulty of escaping the “maddening crowds” in our national parks system. Even after a mile plus of night hiking near steep drop-offs.