The suspension on my truck needed repair, and I found myself in Page, Arizona, for a week in May. The famous Antelope Canyon is located a few miles east of Page on Arizona Highway 98.
There are two Antelope Canyons, one called North Antelope Canyon and the other (you guessed it) South Antelope Canyon. The north canyon is more strikingly photogenic, but any slot canyon is going to have its attractions.
At the time I visited there were five independent Navajo companies offering tours of South Antelope Canyon. Three of these companies are in Page, and they each have a fleet of “shuttle vehicles” – trucks or jeeps modified to carry a dozen or so passengers in the back end. They make regular stops at the motels and RV campgrounds to pick up visitors who want to see the canyon. Many times I saw these vehicles full of passengers going to or coming from the canyon between mid-morning and late afternoon. Two other companies have their operations centered adjacent to the highway near Antelope Canyon, one right at the wash to the canyon’s entrance, and another just a little further east on the highway.
When I told the entrance booth attendant (yes, they are well organized) at the first field company that I wanted to concentrate on photography, she recommended that I proceed east to the second field company as they tend to specialize more on photography. I appreciated her willingness to send me to a competitor, and it was a mark of good cooperation between these independent companies.
Prices are higher during the hours that the sun is directly overhead and therefore casting light into the canyon. Prices for every visitor is higher for the tour at this time of day. Special “photo tours” are also aimed at this time, and tour members get to stay about an extra hour (2.5 hours instead of about 1.5 hours); for this they pay approximately double. Tours earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon are slightly less than the “high noon” tour.
Antelope Canyon has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I was willing to pay nearly double for a higher quality photographic experience. In the end, however, all it really got me was more time in the canyon as well as my own personal sand thrower (read on).
The canyon is located approximately one mile down a wide, sandy wash. It takes speed and know-how to travel the length of the wash without getting stuck in the soft, deep sand.
All of the water that sometimes fills the wash during a heavy thunderstorm in the summer months (they call it their “monsoon season”) comes through the narrow Antelope Canyon. Such a storm may affect the canyon 2-3 times each summer. It is the water from these storm events that has created and sculpted the canyon. Needless to say, one does not want to be in the canyon during a storm, as the water may rise 15 or more feet along the canyon walls.
My Photo Experience in North Antelope Canyon
My first hint of what was in store for this photography experience could be seen in the parking lot: more than a dozen shuttle vehicles were parked after disgorging their passengers. I knew the canyon was only about 150 yards in length (1.5 football fields long) and that it was narrow (sometimes only about three feet), so that meant a lot of people were crowded into a relatively small area. I was correct.
Shuttle Vehicles Parked at the Entrance to North Antelope Canyon All photographs in this post were taken with a Canon 1DsMkIII and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II lens. You don’t change lenses in the canyon!
Entering the canyon was almost a mystical experience; such is the nature of seeing a natural icon for the first time. Smooth, sculpted forms layered with colors of gold, red, purple, brown, and white were striking beautiful. So many possible compositions could be seen just standing near the entrance, and it got even better as I proceeded on. I just wanted to find a composition, set the exposure to about 15 seconds, shoot, and do it all over again with a different composition. Some walls were receiving light, some were in deep shadow, and some were in transition. It was spellbinding.
But setting up for such a composition was exceedingly difficult. All of the visitors were in groups with a guide, and I first had to wait for an area to clear before I could get a shot. The canyon is a two-way street, and frequently after one group had cleared the area by going further into the canyon, a returning group would come around the corner while my shutter was open. I had to crank up the ISO to make for a shorter shutter time. I also learned to take a couple of “exposure shots” while people were still in the area so I could more quickly get the shot when an area was clear.
I had elected to take a geared head (Arca-Swiss D4) so that I could more precisely frame a desired composition. That was a mistake, because speed was more important than precision. I missed shots while loosening knobs, framing, tightening knobs, and then making fine adjustments – a returning group would often enter the area or a faster group would pass me from behind while I was fiddling with the tripod head.
In addition, I was never alone with my guide. Invariably I was shooting with 5-8 other photographers, and we often had to overlap our tripod legs so that everyone could fit in the shooting area. The guides facilitated this as best as they could. The guides also did their best to keep their group on the move. Even though they may have been representing different companies, I was impressed with the coordination (and comraderie) among the Navajo guides.
One interesting problem was that the beams of light entering the canyon from above had a special allure to some visitors (much like the moving rocks on the Race Track in Death Valley). Many insisted on having their picture taken while standing in a beam of light. You can imagine the light contrast in such a situation: the person is in a high-powered spotlight, while the surroundings are in deep shade. There was no way to make that work, but many people would lag behind their group and keep us from shooting while they posed for a picture. One young lady must have been a model, because she kept giving her photographer friend all kinds of poses over the course of several minutes. I couldn’t resist, and this is what I recorded:
Wait! The last group hasn’t yet left.
O.k, the contrast might be a bit high, but your routine is great.
What sparkling eyes! That’s a keeper for sure.
So that was one basic aspect of photographing in Antelope Canyon during the peak hour: there were many, many people. I spent far more time waiting to shoot than actually shooting. Waiting for five minutes and shooting for one minute was not uncommon.
Another distinct aspect of photographing in Antelope Canyon when the sun is overhead is that the guides emphasized the beams of light over the sculpted forms. I suppose that’s only natural when the light is present for a relatively short time during the day, and it’s not present at all during the winter months.
So how does one photograph a beam of light, something that can’t even be seen except for a blown-out spot where it hits the canyon floor? You throw sand into it. For the brief moment (~5 seconds) that sand and its accompanying dust is in the beam, the sand/dust makes the beam visible.
There was sand flying everywhere! All of the guides were throwing sand, and being on a special photo tour meant that I had my own personal sand thrower. I soon learned that if one opened the shutter too soon when the sand was still concentrated in one portion of the space, it would reflect almost as much light as the sand on the floor where the beam was hitting. I had to wait for the “decisive moment” when the sand had settled and the dust lingered for just a second or two to get a good shaft of light in the photograph.
Here’s what I mean:
A beam with little to make it visible except for the light on the canyon floor (the photos of the young woman above are really the best examples, because no one was throwing dirt on her):
Little dust in the air.
Open the shutter too soon, and I would catch the mass of sand still high in the air:
Shutter opened too soon. The light beam comes in two pulses.
If too much was thrown by the guide and I opened the shutter while this mass was still in the air, it resulted in a very solid ray:
Too much dust and shutter opened too soon. Reminds me of a Vulcan death ray.
If I waited for a few seconds (it settled out pretty fast), I might get a more ethereal look, which is what I wanted:
Better timing and perhaps a better look.
One more quick series. Here I opened the shutter too soon:
Shutter opened too soon.
Too much dust and dirt in the air:
Too much debris in the air.
A somewhat better spirit beam:
A more spiritual beam, perhaps.
But there are three prices to pay for all of this throwing of sand. One is a very dusty camera and lens. I often felt sand raining down on my face. Sometimes a guide threw more sand onto the group of photographers than into the beam of light. When I emerged from the canyon, I could see a layer of red dust completely encircling my lens mount and many of the buttons and dials on the camera body. Most of this could not be blown off, and I spent over an hour using a fine brush to wipe the dust away. When you think of how many grains of dust it takes to affect a photograph, this was a daunting task.
The second price that is paid is the artificiality of the resulting photograph. While sand being blown into the canyon from above is a natural occurrence, this amount and this degree is way beyond normal. It just wasn’t a natural canyon when this was going on.
The third price to be paid for a lot of sand throwing is, IMO, a diverting of time and attention from photographing the natural beauty of the colorful sandstone forms within the canyon. I think sandstone is one of the most interesting and photogenic rocks on the planet. I had just come from Zion, and a short time after leaving Page I returned to the eastside of Zion just for the sandstone. The sandstone in Antelope Canyon is the most three-dimensional sandstone I’ve ever seen, and the lighting is unique. To diminish this aspect of the canyon so that sand can be thrown into beams of light is not how I would choose my time if it were mine to choose, but I could not be free of the mass of people who shared my space in the canyon. I did find some spaces and compositions that emphasized the sandstone over light beams, and these are some of my favorites:
Sandstone Walls #1
Sandstone Walls #2
Sandstone Walls #3, vertical
Same wall as previous, but horizontal aspect.
Sandstone Walls #4
Sandstone Wall #5, detail
Sandstone Walls #6
I received a note from a photographer friend who said he visited Antelope Canyon back in the early 1980s before it was “discovered” and became a photographic icon. He drove to the mouth of the canyon by himself, shot with a view camera, he was the only person in the canyon, and he left when harsh light beams started to spoil his compositions.
Antelope Canyon is an economic boom for many of the Navajo of the area, and I don’t think I’d operate it any differently if I were in their shoes. The price for a single or small group of photographers, widely spaced with ample time for shooting, would have to be very high to match the revenue obtained from the very large numbers of tourists who just want to visit a famous place, perhaps have their photo taken in a magical light beam, and come away with a few photos to remind them of a wonderful experience.
It’s still a wonderful area to photograph, but the task is difficult and the experience is lessened due to the sheer number of people. I’d go again, but I might choose the first tour in the morning, and I’d strongly consider visiting during the winter months when the tourists are largely gone. The light beams would be gone as well, but the incredibly sandstone formations would still be there. I wonder what the quality of light during these times would be?
My first impression of Zion National Park in Utah was made in January, 2011 (described in an early posting here), and I concluded the place was an icicle. It was beautiful, but the trees were bare and ice was everywhere. I didn’t stay long, but I knew I wanted to come back.
After I sold my house in Walla Walla (after three years on the market) and moved into my camper for the duration, I made my way to Zion after a slow trip down the Oregon coast in April. I arrived on April 12, 2013, about a week or so after most of the trees had leafed out — very good timing on my part.
Zion has two campgrounds, one that usually requires reservations (Watchman Campground) and another (South Campground) that is first-come. Here’s a tip for getting a campsite at South Campground without having to wait for the current occupants to actually leave: Very early in the morning, the campground hosts pull the paper stub from the clip posted at each campsite. If the post clip has no paper stub, it means those people are leaving sometime before 11:00. Anyone wanting a campsite could fill out the small envelope available at the campground entrance, tear off the stub and place it in the empty clip on their desired site (if the current occupant are up and around, it would be best to talk with them first), and then simply wait in a nearby place (picnic area, overflow parking area) for the site to become vacant. That beats driving around hoping to be in the right place when someone leaves, especially when other would-be campers are doing the same thing.
For those not wanting to camp, there are a variety of places to stay in the adjacent town of Springdale, within walking or biking distance from the campgrounds.
Between the end of March and the first part of November, travel on the scenic drive that goes to the heart of the park is restricted to shuttle busses — private vehicles are not allowed. However, private vehicles can drive as far as the bridge over the North Fork of the Virgin River (this section includes the Human History Museum and a wonderful morning view of the Towers of the Virgin sandstone cliffs), and private vehicles can continue on Highway 9 through the tunnel to the east side of the park. Large vehicles, including my camper, must pay a $15 fee to go through the tunnel, because the tunnel has to be closed to traffic from the other direction to allow a large vehicle to drive down the middle of this relatively small tunnel. Those who are staying at the Zion Lodge get a special pass that allows them to continue on the scenic drive only as far as the lodge. Accommodations can be made for people with handicaps to travel the entire length of the scenic drive in their own vehicle, but from my experience at Zion such permits are very limited. [Side note: I'm handicapped and have a handicap parking decal, but I'm able to get about on my own most of the time, and that's true of a vast majority of holders of handicap parking decals, in my opinion. The use of such decals greatly exceeds the true need, again in my opinion and experience.]
Good news: the shuttle system works marvelously, and it’s a wonderful alternative to a roadway jammed with cars and RVs. The hub of the shuttle system is a very short walk from both campgrounds, and the system also connects with downtown Springdale so those staying there can just leave their vehicles parked during their entire stay at Zion if they wish.
The busses leave every 10-15 minutes, and they are never crowded (based on my April experience) as they are in the Grand Canyon (based on my subsequent April experience). The busses stop at a number of established locations and trailheads on their way to the north end of the scenic drive. Passengers can embark or disembark at any of these stops, and the ride is free. I think the shuttle system has greatly enhanced the experience at Zion.
Shuttle bus on the scenic drive. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 17mm T/S lens.
The sandstone peaks and cliffs are some of the tallest in the world. The beauty of sandstone is simply incredible: such a diversity of colors, textures, angles, and shapes! Some of my favorite photos are these:
Zion sandstone, somewhere along the scenic drive. The trees provide a scale perspective. Hasselblad H4D-40, HC100mm lens.
Abraham, one of the three patriarchs. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Contrasting cliffs, near the Big Bend on the scenic drive. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Bad weather often makes for good photography. On a warm spring day that started out with blue skies, Zion had a small snow squall followed by shifting fog in the afternoon. It was a wonderful time to have a camera, and the rest of the day was a lot of fun.
Fog and sun in Zion. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Small peak shrouded in fog. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Fog and formations. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
I got up early on several mornings to photograph stars. At the end of the campground, I found a clear area that allowed a view of The Watchman towering above. Light from the town of Springdale made the mountain more visible. I also found that the dense portion of the Milky Way galaxy came up from the horizon about 5:00 a.m. at this time of year, just before the first light of the sun started to dim the stars. I don’t do many shots like this, and it was much fun despite the early hour (or maybe even because of being active while everyone else slept).
Watchman at night (i.e., Night Watchman). Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 50mm f/1.2 @ f/1.6 for 20 seconds.
Another diversion in Zion National Park is rock climbing, and rock climbers could be seen on walls all around the park. Shuttle drivers would often slow down to point them out to passengers. I am content to stay on the ground looking up through a viewfinder.
Rock climber (below and to the left of center). Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
The most memorable and unique hike I’ve ever taken was done on this trip to Zion when I climbed to the top of Angels Landing, one of the best-known hikes in the park. Because of my inability to walk long distances or carry heavy loads, I left my big cameras in the camper and took only a cell phone camera. The iPhone 5 camera did remarkably well, and I’ll save that for another post. Below is a photograph of Angels Landing (tall peak in the center) with the Virgin River in the foreground.
Angels Landing and the North Fork of the Virgin River. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens.
This description centers on the main scenic drive in Zion National Park; it’s where the majority of park visitors experience Zion. The northwest portion of the park, reached by traveling I-15 north to Exit 40, is called the Kolob Canyons. I visited there one afternoon but didn’t do any hiking. When I return to Zion, I will spend more time here, as I’ve read of some relatively easy and beautiful hikes (especially the Taylor Creek trail).
Another long road through the park leaves from the town of Virgin and is called the Kolob Terrace Road. It’s an unpaved road that is impassible when wet, and I didn’t want to travel a road like that while carrying a heavy camper. Next time I’ll unload the camper and take a look at that part of the park. There is a primitive campground toward the end of the road.
Finally, many people enjoy walking up the North Fork of the Virgin River, beginning about a mile (on a paved path) past the last shuttle stop on the scenic drive. I don’t do well on uneven, slippery surfaces, especially with camera equipment that doesn’t like to get wet, so I’ve never had this experience at Zion. Still, I’ve seen some families with youngsters returning from a hike in the river, and they were in great spirits from the outing.
The east side of Zion, past the tunnel on Highway 9, offers a very different feel and look from the scenic drive. There is less vegetation, and the sandstone formations are beautifully different than those in Zion Canyon. I want to get more photos of that area before I try to describe it in pictures — yet another visit and another blog post.
Let me know if you have any questions about Zion, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
It is commonly known that the direction in which a culture reads can affect how people in that culture view photographs. Here in the U.S. (or more broadly the “West” in geopolitical terms), we read from left to right, and top to bottom, or more precisely, from the top left corner to the bottom right corner.
When we look at a photograph, especially one without a commanding visual center or dominant element, we will typically scan it from left to right, based on our style of reading.
A short time ago I posted a photograph on photo.net, my favorite on-line photography discussion site. The photograph is shown below, and it consists of a series of lines of new crop vegetation on a sweeping hill that intersects visually with other hills in the background.
Gardena Hills, Sweeping Down. Hasselblad H4D-40, 210mm f/4 HC lens.
I received a very helpful comment on this photograph. The person who commented said it made his eyes work “harder” than they should have to. The natural tendency is to follow the lines of the foreground hill downward from left to right (“reading” the image), at which point the eyes reach the right-hand edge and leave the frame. To get back to the photograph, the eyes must “pick themselves up” and re-enter the frame at the top, move back to the left, and follow the upward sweep of the hills in the background.
By flipping the photograph horizontally, the eyes would take a different path. With this new orientation, the eyes would naturally “read” the photograph by following the lines upward from left to right. But this time, instead of running out of the frame, they would first encounter the intersecting hills that are coming down to meet the foreground hill. From that point, they would more easily shift and “zag” in the opposite direction to the background to take in the remainder of the photograph.
Garden Hills, Sweeping Up. Hasselblad H4D-40, 210mm f/4 lens.
This simple change enhanced the overall image, IMO, simply by making it easier to read, based on the way that our culture scans and reads text.
Making the horizontal flip was easy to do technically, but it was harder for me to do as a landscape photographer. The second photograph, the one that is easier to read, does not exist in real life. One cannot drive from Walla Walla to Lowden on US-12, turn south on the Lowden-Gardena road, and eventually find what I have shown in the second photograph. Instead, one would find what I have shown in the first photograph.
This bothers me somewhat, and it gets to the heart of what is sometimes debated with great passion among landscape photographers: Are we documenting the wonders that we see in our travels, or are we presenting artistic interpretations of the wonders that we see in our travels?
The answer to this varies widely among landscape photographers, with many nuances along the way. Personally, I tend to want my photographs to be based on the experiences I’ve had, not on the way that I wish the landscape had presented itself.
On the other hand, I’ve never experienced a black-and-white landscape, yet I enjoy sharing those photographs. My wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses both distort the landscape in ways that I’ve never seen with my eyes, yet I enjoy sharing those photographs as well. I’ve never seen a silky smooth waterfall, nor have I seen a perfectly crisp waterfall with individual drops visible, yet I can create those by adjusting the shutter speed of my camera, and I enjoy sharing those photographs.
While the camera seldom records reality, it can come closer than any other art form with which I’m familiar. But how far are we willing to take a landscape photograph from what we’ve seen to our artistic interpretation of what we’ve seen, especially in this day of the computer when digital manipulation is so easy? Every photographer has his or her own answer to that question, and our responses usually evolve over time as we create, share, and discuss photographs.
Wind Turbines. While the subject is turbines in Washington State, these were actually photographed in California between Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs. Hundreds of turbines are found in this area, and the setting sun made the image irresistible. Nikon F100, telephoto lens, Fuji 100 Pro film.
Wind turbines are relatively new ways to generate electricity in a sustainable manner that has less damaging effects on the environment. While they may be “greener” than burning coal or natural gas, they do have some environmental consequences. Hundreds or thousands of birds and bats are killed each year when they fly into these structures, especially during long migrations at night. Wind power officials are aware of this, and studies are conducted prior to construction to try to select areas to site wind farms that are not primary migration routes for birds, especially large birds of prey like hawks and eagles. When I worked for the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, we worked closely with power companies to develop siting and construction policies that would minimized the environmental impacts of wind turbines, and those policies were a model for the nation.
Wind turbines really started kicking in Washington State at the beginning of this century, and many hundreds of turbines have been constructed over the last 20 years. Living in Walla Walla in the SE corner of the state and surrounded by wheat fields, I’m often “desperate” for new things to photograph, so I spent several days photographing turbines near Walla Walla (actually located just over the state line in Umatilla County of Oregon) and near Dayton, WA, about 30 miles east of Walla Walla. My goal was to capture some of the aesthetic views offered by wind turbines, although some contend these giant structures, so visible at the tops of ridges, will always be a visual detriment to the natural landscape. How one reacts to the sight of wind turbines is very subjective, and IMO each is valid.
While wind turbines come in a variety of sizes and designs (evident in my opening photograph), those in this part of Washington State consist of three rotating blades, and they are huge!
Typical wind turbine near Dayton, Washington. Canon 1DsMKIII, Zeiss 50mm f/2 ZE lens.
A few statistics I gathered from web sites: The turbines in this area number 204 (Hopkins Ridge owned by Puget Sound Energy, and Marengo I & II, owned by PacifiCorp). Each turbine tower is 221 feet tall and weighs 77 tons. The blades are each 129 feet in length, weigh 7 tons, and rotate about 15-17 revolutions per minute. The total weight of each wind turbine structure is 223 tons, and each can produce 1.8 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 460 households over the course of the year. Considering there are a number of similar wind turbine farms in the state, this adds up to a considerable amount of generating power.
My goal was to capture some of the interesting photographic aspects of wind turbines. Using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 B&W conversion software, I created a more romanticized view of the turbines (these are located just across the Oregon State line, west of Milton-Freewater). Most turbines have restricted access, primarily for safety reason, but some allow a close approach.
Wind turbine near the Oregon-Washington state line. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 16-35mm II f/2.8 lens.
Most of the turbines are constructed on farmland leased from local farmers. Even though the wind farm may cover thousands of acres, the actual footprint of the turbine itself is very small. Farmers benefit by receiving financial income from the lease, new roads to move their farm equipment between fields, and an ongoing ability to farm the area very close to each turbine.
Wind turbines in a wheat field, a very typical situation. Canon 1DsMKIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
Wind turbines can have different aesthetic appeals. I managed to capture four in the same rotational cycle, and it reminded me of a squad of soldiers led by a commanding sergeant:
Five synchronized turbines. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Some of the most appealing photographs of wind turbines for me appeared when evening fog moved into the valleys and climbed toward the ridge tops as the sun set on the western horizon:
Rising from the fog. Canon 1DMkIv, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
A close-up of one turbine with others rising through the fog had particular appeal:
Rising from the fog II. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Zooming out a bit added some farmland in the foreground, creating a slightly different look:
Turbines in farmland with fog. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.
My fascination with the fog made me forget all about the nearly full moon that would be rising that evening, and I was shocked and dismayed when I looked to the east and saw the moon already well above the horizon. I quickly drove to a pre-scouted location to get some turbines for the foreground, although it wasn’t exactly as I had planned:
Rising moon and turbines. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.
Later in the evening, as the light was fading quickly, I photographed a much darker turbine with the moon in the background (all of these are single shots with no post-processing to balance the light — it’s pretty much how it looked to my eye):
Nearly new moon in late twilight. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.
By far my most exciting and rewarding experience photographing wind turbines occurred when I made the short drive to the wind farm near Milton-Freewater, Oregon (I believe it’s the Vansycle Wind Project owned by NextEra Energy Resources). When I was driving to the wind farm, the sky was clear blue and the day was beautiful (although blue skies are generally not the best for landscape photography). A short time later, a storm started moving in from the west, and some of the most dramatic cloud formations I’ve ever seen marked the forefront of the storm. I wanted some wind turbines in the immediate foreground, but the closest ones were a short distance behind me and on private, gated land. Therefore, I used a longer lens and included a wind farm located in the distance. In the end, I like this larger assemblage of wind turbines at a smaller size relative to the clouds, because I think it better communicates the size of the storm. I converted the photograph to a toned B&W using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 software.
Wind turbines about to be tested by an approaching storm. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 210mm f/4 lens with 1.7x converter (284mm equivalent in 35mm terms).
A nearby radio tower also showed off the power and beauty of the approaching storm:
Radio tower and approaching storm. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 35-90mm f/4 lens.
I find that clouds make all the difference when photographing wind turbines. Converted to B&W, some striking photographs can be made:
A line of wind turbines and brush strokes of passing clouds. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 210mm lens with 1.7x converter (284mm in 35mm terms). I really like the H4D medium format digital camera for high ranges of light like this, because it has an amazing ability to capture a broad range of light (HDR photography with its inherent challenges is often not needed).
Five turbines against a turbulent sky. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
Three turbines against a turbulent sky. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.
A slower shutter speed will reveal some motion of the turbine blades, and this can be very appealing. A shutter speed that is too fast will simply make the blades appear slightly out of focus, while a shutter speed that is too slow will allow the blades to move to the extent that they “disappear” from the photo. A Goldilocks approach of “just right” is needed, but that depends on the rotating speed of the turbine blades. I photographed these turbines using a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds:
Motion in turbine blades. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 50mm f/2 lens, 1.3 seconds.
The whole point of the wind turbines is to produce electricity, and I wanted a scene that captured this notion:
Wind turbines and electrical power. Canon 1DMkIv, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
While flying birds and bats may be adversely affected by the presence of wind turbines, ground animals are apparently unaffected. This deer asked for its picture to be taken with ghostly turbines rising through the fog in the background, and I obliged:
Deer and distant wind turbines. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Finally, a quick word about wind turbines versus windmills. “Wind turbine” defines structures that are used to produce electricity. “Windmill” defines structures that are used to move mechanical devices, such as grain-grinding machines and water pumps. I photographed this derelict windmill against a crescent moon some time ago. Since then, a couple more blades have been lost. Soon it will be just a tower with a hub, a relict of the past:
Windmill and crescent moon. Pentax 645NII, lens unknown, Velvia 100 pro film.
I like to peruse the galleries and postings of several Internet forums to admire photographs, see how other photographers approach a subject, and gain general knowledge of techniques as well as inspiration when going out on my own.
Yesterday I came across an original and truly unique way to create “atmosphere” when photographing a back-lit tree. Often we rely on lingering fog or heavy morning mist to provide something that sunlight will hit to produce the ethereal look we’re after. But what is a photographer to do if there is no fog, if the humidity is low, or if there simply is nothing in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight?
One ingenious photographer found a novel solution. Get a battery-powered leaf blower and the largest sack of flour you can carry, go behind the tree you want to envelop in dazzling sun beams, and use the leaf blower to spray the flour as high as possible to create a “flour fog” around the tree. This will definitely give the sunlight something to strike in the atmosphere, and when you quickly run around to the other side of the tree where you had previously set up your camera (flour is denser than mist, so you have to work relatively fast), the tree will be surrounded by an atmosphere like nothing you’ve seen before.
If the settling flour starts to coat some of the adjacent plants and create a white film, a backpack sprayer filled with water can quickly clean the plants sufficiently to remove the “snow in summer” effects caused by the flour.
This technique is best applied on a calm day. Whether you want to try this in a national or local park or other location where numbers of people pass by is debatable. It has not yet been proven, but I strongly suspect that park administrators will be less impressed with your ingenuity than with the mess that it will cause. You could try arguing that flour is a food source for little critters, but most places frown on visitors feeding the wildlife.
Still, for sheer originality, you’ve got to hand it to the photographer who first thought “What if…” when walking down the aisle of a grocery store.
In late 2010, Hasselblad USA had a special promotion in which it would include a lens of one’s choice when a Hasselblad medium format digital camera was purchased (that’s the gist of it; I didn’t see the ad, so I may have some of the details wrong). At the time, I was waffling over my love affair with film (discussed in a previous post), and I decided to purchase the Hasselblad H4D-40 along with the Hasselblad 35-90mm f/4-5.6 lens.
Despite the fact I was getting a very expensive lens nearly for free, I was still paying more than I had ever dreamed of paying for a camera body. I don’t earn money from my photography, and for many that’s a significant reason to not spend so much on any photography equipment.
Nevertheless, I made the leap. Now, nine months later, if I had it to do over again, with the advantage of knowing what I know now, I would make the same leap without hesitation. This post, while not a full review or evaluation, will provide my initial thoughts regarding the H4D-40.
The outstanding attribute of the H4D system is, IMO, the tonal range the camera is able to capture in a single exposure and which the Phocus software is able to bring out from the digital file. The first time I came to appreciate this is when I took a photo of some storm clouds, and the light varied from very bright clouds in the sky to wheat fields in shadow on the ground. I was impressed when I looked at the histogram after taking the shot, and I was astounded when I saw the image on my computer screen and later in a print. That first photo is shown here:
Storm clouds above Skyrocket Road Near Prescott, WA. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 35-90mm f/-5.6 lens.
The camera came with two PDF manuals, one covering the camera and the other covering the software (Phocus) that brings photos from the camera, makes corrections and edits to the digital files, and then saves them in a designated place (it does more than that, but that’s its main function).
I found the camera manual to be well-organized and fairly easy to understand. I also found the camera’s menu system, in which options regarding the functions of the camera can be selected, to be fairly intuitive. Navigation through the menu system has not been difficult, I’ve been able to easily access my most used function (2-second timer, a.k.a. 2-second delay in raising the mirror to the actual opening of the shutter to make the exposure after the shutter button is pressed), and I’ve easily transferred lens focusing from the shutter button to another button on the back of the camera. Much of this is important to many photographers who do a lot of photography.
The camera handles well in my hands. I always shoot from a tripod, but I would anticipate no difficulty using this camera hand-held. The only handling difficulty I may have is removing the lens with one hand, simply because the lens barrel is relatively large and it can be difficult to get a good grip, press the lens release button, and twist the lens off in one motion, especially if the camera is on an elevated tripod. Fortunately, the lens does not have to rotate far before it disengages from the body; this seems to be a characteristic of Hasselblad cameras, because the same was true of my Hasselblad 501cm film camera. Note: I have fairly large hands and I like to lift weights; a more diminutive, less strong person may find themselves using two hands to change lenses and to mount the camera on a tripod.
If I had a complaint about the body, it would be regarding the battery. A fully charged battery will generally last just for a medium-long day of shooting, and then it requires a number of hours to fully recharge when plugged into an electrical outlet. This is in strong contrast to the battery on my Canon 1DsMkIII which seems to last for days of shooting and then recharges in relatively short order. Sorry I can’t quantify this, but it’s a very distinct difference. As a result of this characteristics of the Hasselblad battery, I carry two such batteries as well as a battery holder that can run the camera with three CR123 lithium batteries.
A second complaint that I hear from some Hasselblad owners is the relatively poor resolution of the LCD screen on the back of the camera. It can be very difficult to get a good view on that screen of the photo that has just been taken, even with hardware improvement that was recently implemented to improve screen resolution and function. However, I’ve never used a screen to evaluate the adequacy of a photograph except in the most gross sense. Instead, I use the screen for the histogram, and I don’t expect this to change even with an improved screen. I use the screens on my Canon cameras in the same manner.
My experience with the Phocus software has had its frustrations. I must quickly add that the software is more integrated into the characteristics and use of this system than I’ve found in any other camera system I’ve owned. It’s hard for me to think of the camera by itself; the Phocus software is a very significant component of the Hasselblad system.
In general, I’ve found the software manual to be less clear than its hardware counterpart. Most especially, I’ve found the software to be less intuitive; it just doesn’t seem to manage the files in the way that I would expect. It has been a struggle to get the images where I can view them, select some and discard others, and then save the edited image and it’s RAW original in a specified location. It took a few months with the camera to have a photo session that went smoothly from start to finish when processing photos.
Despite the difficulties I’ve had understanding Phocus software when files are being moved around, I’m incredibly impressed with the ability of the software to bring out the most from a RAW file to a finished photograph. Processing a file that’s on my screen has been relatively easy, intuitive, and very thorough. I’m sure there are features that I have not yet discovered, but what I have found has sometimes made any additional processing with Photoshop completely unnecessary. I will soon have a very smooth and powerful workflow as well as two great partners in hardware and software.
An aspect of the Hasselblad system that was new to me is the ongoing relationship that is expected between the new camera buyer and the Hasselblad dealer. To help with my difficulties in understanding Phocus, I should be going to the dealer who sold me the camera. That’s a relationship that I’ve never had or expected after purchasing any previous camera system. The problem I have in this regard is that my camera was a special leftover from Hasselblad’s promotional program of 2010, and only a single dealer in Detroit had a deal like this available when I decided to make the leap. My dealer, therefore, is in Detroit. Perhaps I should have or still could initiate that on-going relationship, but I have not yet pursued it.
I started out using my “old” “V” lenses from the 501cm film camera by purchasing an adapter that enabled their use on the H4D. However, they were manual focus only and required a cable to be attached to the sensor in order to be fully functional. This was a hassle, and I soon made it my goal to use “H” rather than “V” lenses; most of the “H” lenses are designed and meant for use on the H4D and other Hasselblad “H” cameras.
New “H” lenses are expensive. Fortunately (at least for me), new lenses seem to experience a sharp decline in value when they leave the camera store; it’s somewhat like buying a new car. All of my additional lenses (28mm HCD, 100mm HC, 150mm HC, 120mm HC macro, 210mm HC, 300mm HC, and 1.7x converter) have been purchased used, in excellent condition with relatively low activations (number of times the lens has taken a picture), for about 50% of the price of a new lens (37% at the low end and 67% at the high end). As a result, I feel that I have a nice range of lenses for not a huge outlay of funds, and I’d be able to recoup most of my lens costs if I had to sell my equipment in the near future.
I’m finding the H4D to be somewhat overlapping in its functions as a landscape camera with my Canon 1DsMkIII. The fact that I also have a Canon 1DMkIV makes the 1DsIII have an advantage only at very wide angles. However, when traveling to faraway destinations for once-in-a-lifetime trips, I would prefer to have two camera bodies that use the same lenses. For that reason alone, I plan to keep both Canon camera bodies.
I once said I had all of the camera equipment I would ever need. That was two camera bodies and several lenses ago. I’m thrilled to be using the H4D-40, and the Canon bodies complete it in special ways. This time I really mean it when I say that I have all of the camera equipment I will ever need. Except maybe for lights if I try my hand at portraiture. Except maybe for extension tubes if I want to get serious with macrophotography. Except maybe for a really nice walk-around camera for non-photography trips (if such a trip exists). If my photography is ever exceptional, it will be in this sense of the word.
I’ve always enjoyed photographing forests, especially in the interior under the forest canopy. It can be a so-called “mess” with trees of various sizes, fallen logs, shrubs of all kinds and sizes, and groundcovers that vary from delicate clovers to strongly-defined ferns. Finding a composition that is “aesthetically pleasing” amid this chaos is a challenge that I greatly enjoy.
Two of my favorite forest interiors have been the Kestner Creek Natural Area near Lake Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula and the Carbon River area in the northwest portion of Mount Rainier National Park, both in Washington State. I’ve written about Kestner Creek in a previous posting on this blog.
The Carbon River area of Mount Rainier National Park receives a large amount of rainfall, and the vegetation resembles that of a temperate rainforest. This contributes much to the area’s qualities for photography.
Carbon River Area Temperate Rainforest. Canon EOS 20D, Canon 300mm f/4 lens.
A road five miles in length begins at the Carbon River entrance to the park and ends at the Ipsut Campground, from which other trails begin. One section of this road washed out in 2006, and a decision was made to keep the road permanently closed to vehicles but open to hikers and bikers. This decision was a boon to photographers, because the road extends through the temperate rainforest. I’ve spent many hours photographing along the road, but now I don’t need to be aware of and step aside for passing vehicles intent on getting from point A to point B.
Carbon River Road. Canon EOS 1DsMkIII, Canon 135mm f/2 lens.
A short nature loop begins at the Carbon River entrance and is a nice introduction to what lies beyond. Boardwalks cross wet areas where skunk cabbage grows in the early spring, and bridges crossing small streams are attractive photographic subjects in themselves.
Boardwalk through wet areas. Canon EOS 20D, Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens.
Skunk cabbage. Nikon F100, lens unknown.
Bridge across a small stream. Nikon F100, lens unknown.
Walking down the road toward the campground, the nature of the temperate rainforest unfolds on both sides. The tangle of moss-covered trees and limbs, downed logs being taken over by groundcovers, shrubs (especially vine maples and devil’s club) making off-trail or off-road passage difficult, all make for the mess and beauty of the old-growth forest.
Complexity and beauty of an old-growth temperate rainforest. Canon 5D, Canon 24-70 f/2.8L lens.
The thick tangle of groundcovers, shrubs, and downed logs makes off-trail walking very difficult. Hasselblad 501cm, 120mm makro lens.
The challenge is to find compositions in this “mess” that have aesthetic appeal. Canon 5D, 24-70 f/2.8L lens.
The dense tree canopy causes lower limbs to die, but they often persist and become covered with moss. Pentax 645NII, 80-160mm lens.
Ferns are best at the end of June and beginning of July. Canon EOS 20D, 16-35 f/2.8L lens.
In past years, I always preferred to photograph forest interiors under cloudy skies. It was then that the light in the forest would be more evenly distributed, and the range of light would be within the capabilities of the camera to capture in a single exposure. Therefore, the resulting photographs would not suffer from blown highlights or deep shadows within the same frame.
Now that I live on the eastern side of the state, my opportunities to photograph in the Carbon River area are much reduced. During a recent visit, I was happily photographing along the road when the late fall / early winter sun peeked over the south slope and began to throw stronger light into the forest. Rather than pack up and call it a day (this was the only day I had), I decided to work harder to incorporate the light into the photographs. That meant that larger areas with a wide range of light values would not be possible. Instead, I had to concentrate on smaller areas in which a relatively bright spot could be a desired focal point. It was a new way of photographing the forest interior for me, and I really liked the results — it gave me a new kind of forest-interior photograph.
Early Autumn in an old-growth forest. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad HCD 35-90mm f/4 lens.
Vine maple stretches across a shaft of sunlight in front of shaded trees. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad HC 150mm f/3.2 lens, cropped to square.
Spots of light. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad HC 150mm f/3.2 lens, 1.7x converter.
Turning vine maple stand in sunlight against a shaded background. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad HC 150mm f/3.2 lens.
Yellow vine maple stand in sunlight seem to form a spiral staircase. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad HC 150mm f/3.2 lens + 1.7x converter.
Overcast skies or a combination of sun and shade provide their own unique opportunities for great compositions within a forest interior. When the quality of light changes, it just requires a different strategy to find a striking photograph of the forest interior.
I took a serious interest in photography in 1971 when I bought my first 35mm film camera, a Miranda Sensorex. I can still remember being amazed that I could actually adjust the shutter speed and aperture to suit the conditions — a whole new world of taking pictures was opening up to me.
I took that camera to the Philippines in 1972 when I joined the Peace Corps. During my service there, I switched to a Konica AutoReflex camera that had the option to automatically set the exposure (a feature that I used exactly once). Film was sent to Australia for developing, and I received a box of slides back in about two weeks.
My best adventure with 35mm film began when I returned to the U.S. in 1974 and got into Nikon cameras, first with a Nikkormat. That camera still remains one of my favorite cameras, in memory at least, simply because I got to know it so well, especially how the meter was reading the scene. Of course, there was no instant feedback regarding exposure, so one had to learn how to make good exposures simply by knowing how to best operate the camera. Even though exposure bracketing was often recommended, 95% of the time my first exposure turned out to be the correct one, and I threw away the exposures that were 1-stop under and 1-stop over.
I continued with a variety of Nikon cameras and lenses over the years. The culmination came with one of the best values I’ve ever had in a camera, that being the Nikon F100. It was a strong, reliable camera with many of the features of Nikon’s top cameras but at a much more reasonable price. My favorite lens was the Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D zoom lens. While the range of the zoom was limited, the image quality was outstanding, and it was my best walk-around lens. The 24mm focal length was another favorite, as was the 80-200mm.
When film was to be developed, I drove to Seattle and dropped the rolls off at Ivey-Seright for their 3-hour processing. I then drove up to REI, parked for free in the garage, went to the book section to select several trail guides or photo books, and settled in a comfortable chair by the fireplace to read and get inspired while my film was being developed. That was heaven.
But heaven didn’t last forever. Ivey-Searight, like a lot of other local photo processors, went out of business when digital became well established. REI started charging for parking, and they turned their comfortable “reading room” into the children’s play area. Life was no longer the same.
For several years I shot film as well as digital. As film cameras dropped in price, I was able to move up to medium format. A Pentax 67 was my favorite camera for some time, but the weight of the system became an issue, especially out on mountain trails. I switched to the Pentax 645NII and a range of zoom lenses, and it was a much-loved camera for many years. Like the Nikon F100, I’ve felt it was one of the best values in film photography: great quality at a relatively low price. Along the way, I also tried large format (4×5) photography, and while I liked the quality, the process of getting several images along a trail was slower than I wanted. In addition, I couldn’t afford $50 to $100 for a drum scan of a single transparency, and scanning on a consumer flatbed scanner seemed to be a terribly weak link that detracted from one of the most significant advantages of large format: image quality. I gave up large format, tried a medium format rangerfinder in a Mamiya 7II (superb optics, undesirable handling characteristics for me), enjoyed a Hasselblad 501cm and some superb optics for about a year (the square format challenged my vision, something I enjoyed immensely), but finally settled back with the Pentax 645NII.
During this time digital technology evolved at a tremendous rate, and I moved through a series of digital cameras, eventually switching to Canon for their wider array of lenses and somewhat better prices. Even though digital technology was improving, I still preferred film, especially Fujichrome Velvia (strong colors) and Astia (more neutral colors, wider exposure latitude).
I scanned my film on a Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 scanner. I had purchased one of the first Nikon 8000 scanners when they were introduced, and it was a great scanner for 35mm and medium format that I enjoyed immensely.
But a ball had started to roll down the hill, and new advances in digital technology seemed to come at the expense of the world of film. Some films were discontinued, but most important to me was the decline and essential disappearance of 220 format with only 120 remaining. I have never understood why photographers would want to put in a new roll of film twice as often while out shooting, but 120 was the only format that could be found for the films I liked to use.
While film had a decided advantage over digital for some time when it came to image quality, the evolution of digital technology began to blur the distinction, at least for my eyes. The nail in the coffin came when Nikon ceased the manufacturing of their medium format scanner (which by now had been upgraded to the Super Coolscan 9000). With this news, I managed to purchase one of the very last 9000 scanners available in the country, thinking at the time that my use of film would continue for many years.
Shortly after I purchased the Nikon 9000 scanner, the reality of film really hit me: no local labs, 2-week turnaround in getting film developed, no 220 film available for the brands I liked to use, and questionable image-quality superiority to digital. I also appreciated some of the distinct advantages of digital, which for me included immediate histogram feedback, very rapid “developing” and image availability, and ability to change ISO on the fly. Another nail in the coffin came when I had the rare chance to purchase a superb medium format digital camera in the form of a Hasselblad H4D-40 and the new 35-90mm zoom lens for much less than the market price at the time. While the cost was still shockingly high, I felt that if any digital camera could come close to replacing what I had enjoyed in film, it would be this camera.
With the nail firmly driven into the coffin, I sold all of my film cameras and lenses, scanned my remaining transparencies and sold the Nikon 9000 scanner, and acquired a few more Hasselblad H lenses to round out the H4D system.
Today I use primarily the H4D-40 for my landscape photography. While I haven’t had the camera for very long (at this writing), I’m impressed with its dynamic range as well as the integrated software, Phocus, that is an important part of the system. I’ll write more on that in the future. I also continue to use the Canon 1DsMkIII which can take advantage of a much wider range of focal lengths in the lenses, and I’ve acquired a back-up body with a Canon 1DMkIV which I really look forward to using to photograph birds in flight and other fast action.
Film still has a future, and I know I could have used film for the rest of my life if I had really wanted. The Nikon 9000 scanner would have served me well for the rest of my life. However, I just came to appreciate the image quality and workflow of digital cameras more than that of film cameras. Despite the popular perception, I have found digital photography to be exceedingly expensive, simply because the technology is changing and improving so rapidly. It was a cash outlay I was willing to make because of the importance of photography in my life. I think I’ve reached a plateau in digital photography where I’m going to be satisfied with my current cameras for many years to come (any photographer who reads that last line will certainly smile).
As a tribute to my decades of involvement with film, here is the last transparency I scanned before parting with the scanner. It’s a photo of a marvelous sunrise near the Sweetgrass Hills in north-central Montana. The composition is nothing to write home about, but I intend to stitch several photos to make a panorama that I hope will hold more interest.
Sweetgrass Hills Sunrise, Montana — Nikon F100, Fujichrome Velvia 100
Also attached is one of the last photographs I made with film, taken during my last photography trip to the southwest during January-March, 2011. It was one of my favorite photographs of the entire trip.
Joshua Tree Granite (near Jumbo Rocks Campground) — Hasselblad 501cm, 120mm makro lens, Fujichrome Astia
Thus ends my love affair with film.
On the photography website of photo.net we recently had a lively discussion regarding a very flowery description of the photographic process written by an unknown person and appearing in a 1966 edition of Life Magazine. The flowery description and ensuing discussion can be found here. Of the many posted comments (most aimed at the original poster who commenters assumed, incorrectly, had written the prose himself), one comment in particular stood out in my mind. It was written by Mark Drutz, who offered the following thought:
“If you are saying that a photograph has a meaning beyond what was intended by the photographer, I agree. A photograph is a bit like an inkblot. We each can see something in it that others, including the person who took it, does not see. We all perceive things, including photographs, through conscious and subconscious filters that affect the way we perceive them.”
I thought that was a very good summary of how we all view photographs, largely at a subconscious level. There is such a great range of human experience and therefore individual interpretations of the artistic expression embodied in a photograph. People make different kinds of photographs for different reasons, people view this diversity of photographs from very different points of view, and any number of interpretations or feelings may be generated among viewers by a single photograph. It’s sometime surprising what thoughts and emotions our photographs may generate in our viewers.
This is yet another reason why I find the world of photography to be such a fascinating as well as challenging endeavor. It helps to explain why I enjoy devoting my time and energy (and, with the purchase of a new camera system, my limited financial resources) to photography. I suspect other photographers may feel the same, although it may take a statement like that made by Mark Drutz to bring this to a more conscious level.
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Chiricahua National Monument Rock Columns. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 makro lens.
The name “Chiricahua” conjures up images of the wild west in my mind, formed by Saturday matinee westerns when I was a kid back in the 1950s in the small town of Glasgow in northeast Montana. I finally had the chance to hike and photograph in the Chiricahua National Monument in the southeast corner of Arizona during my six-week trip to the southwest in January-February, 2011.
The most prominent feature of the Chiricahua National Monument are the many rock pinnacles and spires that rise up like a dense forest made of stone. To the Chiricahua Apaches, these were the “standing up rocks.” The area began to form 27 million years ago when the nearby Turkey Creek Volcano deposited ash over many hundreds of square miles. The hot ash melted together and formed layers of rock called rhyolite. But there were cracks and joints in these layers of rock, and over millions of years the forces of ice, water, and wind gradually eroded the softer portions, leaving behind the relatively harder columns of rock that we see today.
Neil and Emma Erickson were Swedish immigrants who settled in this area in 1888. Their eldest daughter, Lillian, and her husband, Ed Riggs, opened up the area to tourists by converting the original homestead into a guest ranch. Faraway Ranch, as they called it, operated from 1917 to 1973, and during that time Ed Riggs laid out a marvelous system of trails that were then constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The ranch and surrounding area became a national monument in 1924 to help protect its natural values for all who want to visit. Today, the monument is managed by the National Park Service.
I stayed at the Bonita Canyon campground, just a short distance past the visitor center on the single paved road that enters the park. It was late January, and there were a lot more vacant campsites than occupied sites. While there were small patches of snow in some of the shaded areas and ice on the highest trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, I found the weather to be relatively mild and the days very pleasant.
I hiked to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, nearly 2 miles roundtrip, where a fire lookout is maintained, but I didn’t find the views any more spectacular than could be seen from the trailhead and other roadside viewpoints. Much of the trail was in the shadow of the mountain, and ice was a problem in many areas. The fire lookout was locked, of course, but it was of interest to me because I spent two months on a lookout tower in northwest Montana during the summer of 1967 — perhaps the best summer I’ve ever had.
Sugarloaf Mountain. Note the lookout tower at the top. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 makro lens.
I stayed a week, and most of my time was spent on the loop trail that begins at Echo Canyon near the end of the road at an elevation of 6780 feet. In my initial walk down the trail, I was struck by how well-designed it was — the trail took a hiker to so many interesting formations and views. It was clearly laid out with great care, and I later learned it was designed by Ed Riggs, and he considered it his life’s greatest achievement.
The views across the small valleys were among the best ways to see the stone columns. Morning light was best for photography.
Rock Columns, Echo Canyon Trail. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 makro lens.
Rock Columns, Echo Canyon Trail, a little bit closer. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.
Rock Columns, Echo Canyon Trail, closer still. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.
The Echo Park Canyon trail (1.6 miles long) connects with the Hailstone Trail (0.8 miles long) that travels along the lower reaches of a canyon below the rock columns. The views up the hillside provide a different perspective.
Rock Columns, as seen from Hailstone Trail. Pentax 645NII, 80-160mm lens, Velvia 100 film, scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
Rock Columns, as seen from Hailstone Trail. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 lens, three shots stitched in CS4.
The third leg of the loop trail back to the trailhead was, for me, just a walk back to the starting point. It’s unfortunate, I think, that this least interesting portion of the loop trail is named after the trail designer, Ed Riggs. It is 0.7 miles in length, and the elevation gain is modest.
On successive days, I would usually stay on the Echo Park Canyon trail at a very slow pace, going as far as the light would allow. When the sun got too high in the sky for “good” photography, I just turned around and enjoyed the sights from the other direction while looking for compositions that I might try the next day.
I also varied my photography by taking a different camera system each day. I used a Canon digital, a Pentax 645 film camera, and a Hasselblad 501cm square format film camera. It was quite interesting how the camera I had in my hand helped shape my mind’s eye for different compositions. On these trips, I looked for more unusual compositions and the smaller elements that make Chiricahua so unique.
Balanced Rock. Hasselblad 501cm, lens unrecorded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
The Grotto. This is space formed at the bases of several rock columns. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24mm f/3.5 T/S lens.
Boulder and Snag. Hasselblad 501cm, lens not recoreded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
Balanced Rock. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 lens.
Pillar and a Tree Becoming a Snag. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24mm f3.5 T/S lens.
Silhouette and Sun Rays. Hasselblad 501cm, lens not recorded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
There is a longer trail system that begins at the end of the road, loops through some of the most interesting rock formations in the monument, sends a spur to “Inspiration Point” for a view down the valley to the west, and then continues down through the trees to the Visitor Center. One very nice aspect of this trail and of the National Park Service itself is that a shuttle is provided to take hikers to the top for a one-way, largely downhill trek through these areas. The length of this trail varies from about 7 miles up to about 10 miles, depending on the various trail options. My artificial joints start talking back to me on hikes that exceed about five miles, so I didn’t get to see the sights in this part of the monument.
However, I did set out very early one morning with flashlight in hand to Inspiration Point. I managed to make it to the point just as the sun was cresting the horizon. Unfortunately, the sky was clear blue and the entire scene was fairly bland. No photos were to be had. The high point for me happened on the way back. As I looked ahead on the trail, I spotted a Chiricahua Fox Squirrel, a species that is found nowhere else in the world but in these small mountains.
The Chiricahuas are “islands in the sky,” and some species inhabiting them are not able to cross the lowland deserts to reach other high-altitude areas. They have become isolated on these “islands.” Over time, they begin to differentiate genetically (i.e., they evolve), and the lack of genetic exchange eventually leads to the formation of a new species. I didn’t even try for a photograph; just the experience of seeing such a rare animal for a brief moment was enough to make the hike worthwhile.
Even though the sunrise at Inspiration Point was less than inspirational, the next morning I drove to the end of the road at Massai Point before sunrise. I watched the earth’s shadow slowly descend with the first light of the sun following it.
Chiricahua Sunrise. Pentax 645NII, Pentax 200mm SMC-FA lens, Fujichrome Velvia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
Another interesting formation that can be seen from this location is the profile of a face, which according to many is the outline of the great Apache warrior-chief Cochise.
Cochise Profile. Pentax 645NII, Pentax 300mm SMC-A lens, Fujichrome Velvia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan scanner.
I also spent a long morning at the Faraway Ranch that was the cherished home of Lillian and Ed Riggs. It is now maintained by the National Park Service as an historic site. On this day I just wandered around the grounds, imagining the decades spent here by the Riggs and their many guests.
Faraway Ranch. Hasselblad 501cm, lens not recorded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
Doors to a Shed. Hasselblad 501cm, Hasselblad 120mm CFi f/4 lens, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
Fence Post and Barbed Wire. Hasselblad 501cm, Hasselblad 120mm CFi f/4 lens, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
Wheelbarrow at the Ready. Hasselblad 501cm, Hasselblad 120mm CFi f/4 lens, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.
A final word about the National Park Service staff at the monument: One of the staff was a photographer, and she was very helpful in suggesting the best places and times for photography (Echo Canyon Trail in the morning!). Other staff I met in the campground, on the trails, at the pullouts, at the Visitor Center, and at the ranch were equally pleasant and helpful. They have recently upgraded the facilities throughout the monument, and that made the stay all the more pleasant.