The alpha and the omega – Finalist in the Smithsonian’s 12th annual photo contest

Exciting news! My photo “The alpha and the omega,” a shot of North Cascade National Park’s Liberty Bell Mountain shot at sunset, is a finalist in The Smithsonian Magazine’s 12th Annual Photo Contest. We’ll find out at the end of the month how it did, but in the meantime, if you’d like to assist me in winning $500 for the “Reader’s Choice prize,” I would appreciate your assistance in voting for my photo. Just follow the link here, add your email address, and voila! Good things could happen!

 

A stream meanders through a meadow, North Cascades National Park.

A stream meanders through a meadow at sunset, North Cascades National Park.

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About Phaedra – An icy, foggy morning at Lost Lake

In late January I got it into my head that I was going to get my earliest winter Milky Way photo to date. So after a bit of research (mostly the Internet variety, although I did place a call or two as well) I discovered that the road to Lost Lake would probably be clear, so Chip MacAlpine and I headed up there to shoot some stars and catch sunrise. (Coincidentally, we also ran into fellow landscape photographers Justin Poe, Tula Top, and Terence Lee just before dawn.) Our plan for capturing Milky Way then sunrise went swimmingly until a curtain of fog descended into the lake, totally obscuring just about everything and turning a morning with some small potential totally gray.

The title of this photo comes from the Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra duet “Some Velvet Morning.” This song (not to mention Hazlewood and his body of work) has held my attention for quite a while. Simply put, the song’s weird. I’m not going to reprint the lyrics to it here, since I’ve embedded it below, but the lyrical content of the song is nebulous at best, and the song’s parts alternate between Ennio Morricone spaghetti western and (and I’m thinking of Nancy Sinatra’s part specifically here) psychedelic bordering on outsider. Wikipedia tells me that the song’s single peaked at #26 in January of 1968, which further blows my mind. And that moustache.

Wikipedia also tells me that Phaedra is a figure in Greek mythology whose name means “bright.” She’s also the granddaughter of Helios, the Greek god of the sun, which sheds a little more, ahem, light on the meaning of “Some Velvet Morning.”

As an aside, I think my favorite version of “Some Velvet Morning” is Lydia Lunch and Rowland S Howard’s. It’s a fairly faithful rendition, except for the scaled-down instrumentation, but there’s something about the way Howard times and emphasizes the word “straight” that tilts the song’s meaning just a bit.

Technical details: This is a blend of two exposures. The first was my sky exposure, taken during the crepuscular light when most of the Milky Way had disappeared. I then left my camera and tripod in about 18 inches of partially frozen lake water for half an hour before taking my second exposure, for the foreground. This foreground exposure also captured a bank of fog that rolled into the area, pretty much blotting out the entire scene in just a few minutes. The quality of the light changed pretty rapidly during the fog-out, so I had to make some creative decisions in the final photo, interpreting the scene as it would have existed had the crepuscular light and the fog existed in the same moment rather than half an hour apart. In other words, it was pretty fun putting this together.

 

The glow of twilight collides with a thick fog bank over a frozen Lost Lake. Mt Hood can be seen in the background. Prints available. Click for full version.

The glow of twilight collides with a thick fog bank over a frozen Lost Lake. Mt Hood can be seen in the background. Prints available (check out my “night and stars” gallery or contact me for details). Click the photo for the full-size version.

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A raising of the hackles – a night-sky panorama of Crater Lake

Backstory

Note to readers: Skip to paragraph 3 if you don’t want to hear about the last time Matt Newman and I got together to take some photos.

I’m just going to get right into it: The last time I went with Matt Newman on a photo outing, we had a finely detailed plan to capture Broken Top (one of the Cascade’s more interesting-looking peaks) at sunset, twilight, and with the Milky Way over/behind it. The plan required an overnight, as you might imagine, so one summer weekend afternoon when the weather was favorable, laden with our overnight gear, we left the trailhead and started making our way toward our overnight destination. Only a couple hours later, we met a group of soaked hikers coming down the trail who told foreboding stories of extreme weather, including hail. Matt and I nodded, expressed our sympathies, and continued on our way.

Long story not much shorter, Matt and I ended up spending approximately four hours on a rocky ridge above two large valleys less than a mile from the mountain we’d come to photograph. In one valley there was supposedly a lake, which was our photographic destination. I say supposedly because, like Broken Top itself, which was less than a mile from where we were, we never saw it. The entire valley just below us was a roiling sea of fog and mist, like a dry-ice-filled punchbowl at a party. And from the direction of this valley came sustained 35 mile-per-hour winds, with the occasional gust intense enough to nearly knock me off my feet. The other valley, away from the mountain we’d hoped to photograph, was totally clear, and fog and mist pushed by these winds crested the ridge where we were hunkered down and dropped away into the opposing valley. This pattern went on for hours, with each of us thinking that, surely, eventually, the misty-foggy valley would clear and we’d be able to take our photos. It never did. And because my body acted as a kind of fog filter between the two valleys, I froze. And I didn’t get a single photo from the trip.

Fast-forward to last weekend, and Matt Newman and I again made plans, this time to snowshoe into Crater Lake for an opportunity to shoot the Milky Way with the moon. I had wanted to shoot from here because it has a great view of Wizard Island, and I thought the perspective it offered would allow me to do a panoramic that would include a great deal of the lake as well as the arching Milky Way. Shooting Crater Lake is (in my opinion) exceptionally difficult, and if your aim is to capture the lake’s entire expanse, only the widest of ultra-wide lenses are up to the job. But the resulting distortion caused from using that wide focal length have some undesired effects, including a rounding of the horizon and a flattening of some of the geographical features around the lake. In an effort to address these problems, I decided to shoot with a wide (but not ultra-wide) lens and stitch together a panoramic.

So there was my plan. And things went really well in the theoretical part of this trip. It was in the actual doing it part of the trip that things didn’t go so well.

Looking back, I can blame some of my lack of preparation on just being out of the game. I’ve been mostly home-bound for the past four months as a result of a couple of elbow surgeries. And I have some other excuses as well. But I think that the main reason this snowshoe trip killed me is because I underestimated what was required.

I habitually carry way too much weight into the backcountry, so this time out I made a kind of pulk out of a plastic kids’ sled. My goal was to pack my 65L backpack full of my camping stuff, and then just pull it on the sled. Then I would wear my photo-gear backpack. The “ease” of this method of backcountry travel fooled me into continually adding more and more unnecessary junk (including a six-pack of beer, which was something I’d never done before, two hardcover books, and bunch of food that I didn’t end up eating), until I was essentially carrying and/or pulling 70+ pounds of gear.

The sled worked fairly well for the first couple miles of snowshoe travel, but its center of gravity was a bit high, and so I had some rollover problems. After about the fourth rollover, I noted that my backpack smelled suspiciously like beer. A minute of freak-out unpacking later, and I was able to visually and tactilely confirm that the reason my pack smelled like beer was because one of the beers had apparently exploded during a sled rollover, leaving 12 ounces of IPA to go nowhere but inside my pack.

At the time, the only clothes I was wearing were my pants and a short sleeve shirt. It was 60 degrees out and a perfect bluebird day. Every other piece of clothing I packed, all of my fleece and wool and layers designed to keep me warm during the cold overnight, were in that backpack. And they were now covered in beer.

I pulled several items out of the bag and strapped them to the top of my sled, and we continued on. We simply didn’t have a lot of time to make much of a fix, much less stop for something to eat (we had both skipped lunch) or even drink (both of my water bottles were awkwardly strapped to my pack). And just for good measure, the altitude was also causing me some problems, as I continued to pant and trudge along in my snowshoes.

About 15 minutes after sunrise we finally arrived at our stopping point. I hung up a couple of beer-covered clothing items so they would dry. I had just set up my tripod and was getting ready to pull out my camera when I realized that I was missing several other items of clothing–these were, of course, the jacket and shirt that I had strapped to the top of my sled in an effort to dry them. And even worse was that my hat and gloves were in my jacket pocket.

Without thinking much about it, I left Matt at our camp spot and took off back down the trail. I’d gone about a quarter of a mile before I realized a few things. First, I was still in my t-shirt, and the sun had just gone down. It was going to get cold quickly. Second, I had left my flashlight back with my gear. It was going to get dark quickly.

With the urgency of the situation increasing, I decided to run. In showshoes. I ran about half a mile before I found my jacket, my long-sleeve shirt, and the bungee that had been holding the items to my sled. Glad that finally something had gone my way, I walked the three quarters of a mile back to our camp, as the last of the twilight’s light faded.

It was at this point that I started not to feel well. My hip flexors, which had been merely sore before, now felt like frayed rubber bands being stretched to the brink of snapping. I was nauseous and tired. And as the temperature began to go down and the wind started to pick up ever so slightly, I decided to see if my wet clothing had dried. It hadn’t.

Not only had it not dried, it had frozen. But I had no choice, so I put on my beer-frozen base layers, hoping my own body heat would unfreeze and then dry the clothing. Which it did, after about 12 hours of wearing them.

At this point I probably should’ve forced myself to eat something, but instead I decided to set up my tent and lie down for a little bit. After about an hour, I began to feel better, though still exhausted, so I drank a little more water and got up to set up a timelapse and then retire for the evening. The wind then picked up markedly, and my tent, which was about 10 feet from the edge of the caldera, began to buck and flap. I decided to move it to a more secure area, not realizing that I had placed my tent on a large rock, a mistake that would haunt me over the next five hours or so.

At this point I realized I had brought the wrong tent stakes, so I relied on my body weight and my gear to hold the tent down. This worked with the bottom of the tent, but not so well with the sides of my tent, which flapped loudly all night and occasionally slapped me in the face, limiting my sleep to somewhere around half an hour. It was like trying to sleep inside one of those dancing balloon-men that you see at used-car lots. But I was too tired and cold to get up and do anything. And I was worried that if I did get up and do something, my tent would fly away.

After one of the worst nights of attempting sleep in the past decade, I finally got up about 45 minutes before my alarm went off, only to discover that the moon was already rising. Somehow I had goofed on my celestial timeline, so instead of waking up half an hour early for the shot I wanted, I was now actually about 5 minutes late. I grabbed my camera and checked the last shot from my timelapse on the back of my camera, only to realize that my quick release plate on my camera had slipped over the course of the past several hours, resulting in a strange 45-degree tilt, effectively rendering the 700 frames I had just shot absolutely, totally useless.

Without a doubt, the universe was officially conspiring against me.

When I went back to my tent to change out my photo gear, I realized that my tent, which still had my keys, my phone, and all of the other photo gear that hadn’t been used in my timelapse, had begun to blow away with everything inside. I set my camera down and ran after my tent, grabbing it before its next revolution, and pulling it to a somewhat sheltered area, which happened to also be a tree well. For the next five minutes I wrestled around inside my tent, which was inside a tree well, first trying to find a light so that I could make some sense of the jumbled contents of my tent.

Satisfied that my tent was going to stay in the tree well and not blow away, I grabbed my gear and walked over to a viewpoint about 100 feet away. I had planned on exploring the compositional possibilities of the area around me, but that pretty much went out the window with me waking up late, so I found a spot that had interested me earlier and got to work.

Things improved slightly from this point. My body heat and the 30 mile-per-hour wind eventually dried my clothes out, although I smelled like beer. I felt like I had gotten a couple of good photos, although I’d missed shooting at twilight the night before and sunrise that morning so that I could attempt another hour of sleep. “Attempt,” being the functional word.

Thoroughly defeated, reeking of beer, and with the hip flexors of an octogenarian, I decided that I couldn’t stay a second night (as I had originally planned), so I packed up my stuff for an early morning departure back to the Rim Village parking lot. I ate a quick pre-packaged breakfast and drank 8 ounces or so of icy water while Matt packed up his stuff. That miniscule meal didn’t do much for me, however, and after nearly two hours of snowshoeing back, I pretty much hit the wall, dry heaving and snowshoeing at the same time for the final quarter-mile push to the parking lot.

I’m now 36 hours removed from this Sufferfest and feeling quite a bit better. My hips now feel like those of a man in his 50s rather than his 80s, which is a slight improvement. The beer has been washed from all of my clothes. Most importantly, I’ve now gotten a full night’s sleep. And I’m already planning the next time I’ll go back….

Technical details

This is a panorama taken with 8 vertical frames shot at 24mm. Aperture was unrecorded. RAW processing was accomplished in Lightroom. The stitch and post-processing was completed in Photoshop. I actually took a separate, stopped-down exposure for the moon, just in case I wanted a better “moon star,” but I ended up preferring the moon as it was captured with a nearly wide-open aperture.

 

The moon and the Milky Way rise over the eastern horizon of Crater Lake on a frozen winter night. Prints available.

The moon and the Milky Way rise over the eastern horizon of Crater Lake on a frozen winter night. Prints available.

 

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“Reclamation” – Behind the scenes of a night-sky panoramic of Mt Hood

If night-sky photographers were to have an off-season (and they could certainly use such a thing, to catch up on sleep if nothing else), the winter time would most likely be it, at least in the northern hemisphere.

From about November through February, much of the galactic core of the Milky Way (the colorful, dust lane-riddled part of our galaxy) lies below the horizon, at least where I live in Oregon.

Of course, the absence of this singular feature of the night sky doesn’t stop me from going out and taking photos. I could probably write a separate blog post on my and other night sky photographers’ fixation on the galactic center and how winter night-sky shooting may even be preferable to shooting during other times of the year, but I’ll save that for later. Suffice it to say, between the long nights and the cool temperatures (which are better for creating low-noise images), the winter’s a great time for night photography.

But I have to admit, like plenty of other photographers, that first glimpse of the Milky Way’s mysterious glowing center on my camera’s LCD is exciting.

So color me giddy when I was able to get my first glance of this feature of the Milky Way in 2015 last weekend. For this trip up to “the mountain” (Mt Hood, for those of you who don’t speak Portlandese), I was able to convince fellow night-sky photographer Chip MacAlpine to join me. Actually, “convince” is probably the wrong word, since it doesn’t take a whole lot of prodding for Chip to drop everything, sacrifice some sleep, and head out into the wilderness for some photography.

While we’re on the topic of “wilderness,” while technically it’s in Mt Hood National Forest, Lost Lake’s hardly feels like wilderness, especially from the vantage point of this shot. Because of the lack of snow this year, the road up to the lake’s still open, although I was warned by a ranger that fallen trees haven’t been removed. So I was a little worried that our trip up to the mountain was going to be foiled by a downed tree blocking the road, which luckily didn’t happen.

For me, the greatest obstacle in my way was the fact that I had just had surgery a week and a half before on my left elbow, which was still bothering me at the time. The next-greatest obstacle was the tiny window I had in which to actually get this shot. Half an hour isn’t a whole lot of time when you’re taking multiple long-exposure photos, and although I would’ve had a slightly smaller window of opportunity the following morning, the forecast was for cloudy skies. In short, I had half an hour to get this photo or I’d have to wait until the following month.

Technical details: For those of you wondering, this panorama was created with six vertical photos, all shot with the same fairly standard settings: 15 seconds at ISO 6400. My aperture was unrecorded. I made some basic RAW adjustments in Lightroom, before exporting the files to PS6 for stitching. After that, I did some cropping and a little bit of careful warping to correct for perspective. Then I did my usual post-processing workflow, which includes luminosity masks for self-feathered selections.

Title details: The title of this photo is an allusion to several things: First, it’s kind of a play on the lake’s name. Second, it refers to the galactic center of the Milky Way, which has been hidden for the past few months. And third, it’s a comment on my own healing process and what has been required for me to (hopefully) live a life with a little less pain in my day-to-day activities.

Prints details: This print will be available as a 20×40 limited edition print on aluminum. With 50 total prints made, pricing is variable depending on the print’s number in the series. Use the contact me form below-right for details. I’m in the process of ordering this one for my own house, and will post the photo as soon as I can make it happen.

The galactic center of the Milky Way slowly rises behind Mt Hood, as seen from a frozen Lost Lake in mid winter.

The galactic center of the Milky Way slowly rises behind Mt Hood, as seen from a frozen Lost Lake in mid winter. Limited-edition prints available; contact me for details.

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Beyond Daylight’s Borders, Joshua Tree National Park, Part 1

Over this winter break (I speak in school terms, since many of my vacations are planned around school schedules), I had the opportunity to spend a little less than 48 hours in Joshua Tree National Park.

Getting away on photo-only trips is one of my guilty pleasures. I love my family. I enjoy my family, and I enjoy travelling with my family. My kids have been travelling since they were tiny and do less complaining on eight-plus hour car rides than most adults I know. My son was about a month old (and mostly asleep) when we did our best to hold him up against a blank background for his first passport photo.

On most family trips, in an effort to allow me to focus on photography, my wife does pretty much everything: herding the kids and making sure they have food, water, and warm clothing; cooking meals; checking into and out of campground. I, on the other hand, do what I usually do: I fret over the time, struggle with compositions and equipment, and when the light starts to get good (and even when it doesn’t), I run around like a fool, alternately cheering and cursing myself aloud.

So in late December, when my wife and I were given the opportunity to make a quick mid-winter run to Joshua Tree with no kids, I had the slightest, tiniest twinge of guilt for a half second before I screamed “yes!” and immediately started packing the car.

A few hours later, we ended up in Joshua Tree just after sunset, missing what photographer’s called “the golden hour,” that hour of light before sunset when the lighting gets more interesting. This would bother many photographers, who choose to do the bulk of their shooting during this day, but it didn’t really phase me. The vast majority of the photos I took in the park (and I took around 2,000 or so) were taken, as the title suggests, beyond daylight’s borders. This is representative of my work in general–I guess I just find the world to be interesting during these times.

After quickly queuing up at the park’s northern entrance so that I could flash my annual pass, we made a beeline for the Jumbo Rocks area, because a) I know it be photogenic based on other photos I’d seen and b) because it was relatively close and the light was dimming quickly.

Created in 1994 (making it the dry, prickly grandson of Grand Canyon NP and the twin brother to Death Valley NP), Joshua Tree NP is named for the ubiquitous Joshua Tree, a type of yucca that grows at elevations between 1,300 and 6,000 feet. The Joshua Tree is notoriously slow-growing, with mature plants only growing an inch a year or so. This fact makes some of the park’s specimens wildly impressive, as I saw a few of the trees stretching over 20 feet in the air, likely making them around 150 years old. Even more curious to me was the fact that these things seemed to have bark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more tree-like plant that wasn’t a tree.

Aside from the noble and photogenic Joshua Tree, the upper part of the park is littered with giant smooth boulders, which make for both great climbing and great (in my opinion) photography opportunities. In many parts of the parks there are no trails, and visitors are left to spend hours (like my wife and I did) picking their way through a maze of strewn boulders, prickly chollas, and interesting geology. This fun stuff (and I’m not talking about the cholla when I say “fun”) was readily accessible: In fact, many of the campgrounds were situated very close to these boulder fields, making it a rock-climber’s paradise.

This was both good and bad for me. On one hand, there seemed to be plenty of parking close to the areas I wanted to photograph, which often isn’t the case in our national parks. On the other hand, the parking was limited to certain hours, and those hours were when I was not going to be shooting. But, with a little problem solving, I was able to find a workaround.

I kept shooting through the blue hour and twilight, until eventually nightfall. Eventually, as a result of my unfamiliarity with the park and the freezing cold (the overnight temperatures were below freezing and the winds were gusting around 30-35 miles per hour), I gave up taking photos, and we went to get a few hours of sleep before sunrise.

 

 

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Joshua Tree – Venus’s Belt 1,” available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Joshua Tree – Venus’s Belt 2,” available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Joshua Tree – Venus’s Belt 3,”available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Pterodactyl rock,”available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Jumbo rocks morning 2,” available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Jumbo rocks morning 1,” available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Reconciliation,” available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

Fine-art photography of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Waiting for the wobble,” available as a fine-art print; contact me using the form below-right for details.

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The seventh wave recedes, Cape Kiwanda

Stars emerge over the ocean along the Oregon coast.

“The seventh wave recedes, Cape Kiwanda” Click to view larger. Prints available (use the contact me form below to inquire).

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.

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“Dream seeding,” a whitebark pine at Crater Lake

A whitebark pine at Crater Lake at twilight

Dream seeding; a whitebark pine leans over Crater Lake for a better view; available in 11×14, 16×20, and 24×30 print sizes

Personal details

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.

Photo details

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.

Technical details

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.

Further notes

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.

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Fairy Falls, Columbia River Gorge

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.

The trailhead sign at Wahkeena Falls.

The trailhead sign at Wahkeena Falls.

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?

The trail up to Fairy Falls.

The trail up to Fairy Falls.

I never saw that stupid Lego brick. Does anyone have a photo?

I never saw that stupid Lego brick. Does anyone have a photo?

 

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.

The trail as it nears Fairy Falls.

The trail as it nears Fairy Falls.

 

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.

Filtered sunlight from near the base of Fairy Falls, Columbia River Gorge; prints available (use the "Contact me" form below).

“Cascadia’s throne.” Click to view larger. Prints available.

"Fairy Falls, low flow, split toned," prints available (use the "Contact me" form below).

“Fairy Falls, low flow, split toned.” Click to view larger. Prints available.

Filtered sunlight from near the base of Fairy Falls, Columbia River Gorge.

“My personal raincloud” Click to view larger. Prints available.

Fairy Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. Prints available (use the "Contact me" form below).

“A part in the veil.” Click to view larger. Prints available.

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Thundering water, singing darkness at Palouse Falls

“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

 

-Pablo Neruda

 

A waterfall flows as stars sparkle overhead, rural Washington state.

Palouse Falls’ spring flows thunders at night; prints available (use the ‘contact me’ form).

 

 

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.

 

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I dropped my camera (bag) in the water in Oneonta Gorge

Rocks sit beneath a waterfall in Oneonta Gorge

Lower Oneonta Falls, in Oneonta Gorge. Prints available (contact me for details).

 

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.”

 

A pile of rocks sits at the edge of Oneonta Gorge, with the waterfall Lower Oneonta Falls in the background.

A pile of rocks sits at the edge of Oneonta Gorge, with the waterfall Lower Oneonta Falls in the background.

Hikers make their way through the creek in Onenta Gorge.

Hikers make their way through the creek in Oneonta Gorge.

Piles of rocks with a waterfall in the background

Rock cairns sit at the edge of Oneonta Gorge, with a waterfall in the background.

 

 

 

 

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