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.
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.
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Mass Take-off of Snow Geese. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
As a wildlife biologist and landscape photographer, I had long wanted to visit Bosque del Apache (“Woods of the Apache” in Spanish) Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque and near the town of Socorro, New Mexico. This 57,331 acre refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, provides habitat for over 375 of birds during the year as well a mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. It is best know as prime wintering habitat for thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes, and many species of ducks, and people “flock” from all over the country between November and mid-February to witness the grand spectacle provided by this great concentration of large birds.
The bird activity is centered in 3800 acres of the Rio Grande floodplain and 9100 acres of actively irrigated farmland and wetlands. Outside this “wet” area, the refuge also contains over 44,000 acres of arid grasslands and foothills.
I drove my pickup and camper to the refuge in mid-January, staying at the Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park just on the outskirts of the refuge. I normally photograph landscapes, and landscapes don’t move; bird often do. I was using a Canon 1DsMkIII, which is a great camera for landscapes. The best cameras for photographing birds in flight (BIF) are those that can take a whole bunch of photos in a very short period of time (e.g., 7-10 frames per second). That’s because the position of the birds wings and the spatial relationships of the birds to each other changes very rapidly, and it may be only a very brief instant when all of the factors come together to provide the most interesting or aesthetic photograph. I soon learned that my particular camera wasn’t up to the task of rapid firing. I could squeeze off 3 or 4 shots before the camera would pause to transfer those images to the compact flash card (I was shooting in RAW). Within the Canon lineup, a Canon 7D or 1DMkIV (as of 2/2011) would have been a better choice for photographing BIF. However, some folks were getting great shots with point-and-shoots that they held out as masses of birds were taking off, so one shouldn’t get too hung up on equipment to photograph and enjoy Bosque del Apache.
Much of the photography is concentrated during two periods during the day: in the early morning when the birds (particularly snow geese) take off, and again in the evening when the birds return to the protection of shallow ponds to spend the night.
Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes in Morning Light. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.
The morning departures of snow geese are often explosive, with thousands of birds suddenly taking off en masse and with resounding calls and beating of wings. Evening returns can sometimes produce similar displays as the birds land, then take off again to wheel around and land again, as if they are debating the best place to stay for the night. Even during the day when large groups of birds gather to feed in the fields, the approach of an eagle or a coyote can cause the birds to suddenly take to the air, as shown in my opening photograph above.
Morning Take-off of Snow Geese. Sandhill cranes are left behind for the moment. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Snow Geese Heading to Distant Fields. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm lens.
Each morning I could see a line of car headlights coming in from Socorro, bringing people to witness and photograph the morning lift-off. However, the refuge is large, and the birds frequently spend the night in different places and in several large groups. If one is fortunate to find a large group of birds, and if the conditions in the sky are good (blood-red clouds are ideal), and if the birds wait long enough for light to fill the sky before they leave, then good photographs may be had. But that is a lot of “ifs.” The same is true of the evening returns; luck plays a role in being at the right place at the right time as the birds return for their evening roost.
Snow geese typically take off and return in large groups. Sandhill cranes, on the other hand, are more independent creatures, and they typically move about in small groups or just a few individuals.
It’s great fun to arrive at the refuge in the pre-dawn hours, listen intently to try to determine where the snow geese might be massed, and to get to that spot in time for the lift-off. It’s also a great time to photograph sandhill cranes in the early morning light.
Sandhill Cranes in Pre-Dawn Light. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.
Sandhill Cranes Stirring as the Sun Rises. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Sandhill Cranes in Morning Light. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
The morning lift-off of the snow geese is usually over in a matter of minutes. The departure of the cranes extends over a longer period of time, providing greater opportunity to photograph small groups taking to the air.
Two Sandhill Cranes Taking Flight. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
During the day, groups of both species come and go among the fields that are actively managed by refuge personnel to provide food (grain) for the birds. Geese and cranes will not enter a field of standing grain because of the possibility that predators (primarily coyotes, although when I was there a mountain lion was also on the refuge) might be lurking. Therefore, refuge personnel cut just enough grain to supply the birds for a few days, and this is repeated throughout the winter. By growing grain on the refuge, it lessens the impact the wintering birds have on other farming operations in the area.
When snow geese move from one area to another, they often do so in multiple waves. If they are traveling long distances, they can reach great altitudes. The result is a spiraling wave of multiple layers of snow geese descending on a field.
Waves of Snow Geese Descending. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
Both species also move about during the day in small groups, and it’s great fun to be stationed at one of the viewing platforms and, like a WWII gunner, try to “pick off” these birds as they fly by.
Snow Geese. A shallow depth of field was used so that only one bird would be clearly defined. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 set at f/4.
Two Sandhill Cranes. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
Four Snow Geese Wheeling Around to Land. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
Sandhill Crane. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
Two Snow Geese Not in Synch. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
I found my two greatest challenges photographing BIF were 1) getting the birds in focus, and 2) having the birds positioned “correctly” in the frame. I had a tendency to put a bird right in the middle of the frame. However, it’s generally better aesthetically if the bird is flying into the frame. If two (or more) birds were flying by as a group, I tried to focus on the lead bird, putting it in the middle with the other(s) follow behind.
At the end of the day, birds drift back to their preferred ponds in groups, with the cranes often coming in singly or in pairs. If the light in the sky is good, it can provide an hour or more of challenging entertainment of photographing the birds.
Snow Geese at the End of the Day. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.
Sandhill Crane on the Downstroke. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Trying to Slow Down. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens.
Cruising In. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Time for Evening Reflection. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
There are many other photo opportunities at Bosque del Apache. I tried to get a photo of returning birds flying across the face of a rising and nearly full moon, but didn’t quite make it. I just missed a diagonal line of about seven snow geese flying across the moon, but I wasn’t quite in position. Still, half of the enjoyment is the challenge of trying.
Please, Just a Little Higher! Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
Once while watching the geese and cranes feeding, three coyotes wandered out into the field. Now a coyote has no chance of catching a healthy bird in this open environment, and the coyotes know it and the birds know it. I think the coyotes were just feeling playful and wanted to show everyone who was “top dog.” The geese and cranes backed away until they looked like spectators along a football field, with the coyotes trotting down the center toward the goal posts.
Spectators to Mischievous Coyotes. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Eagles and other raptors were plentiful, and they were quite used to people stopping to take their photo.
Raptor Scanning the Fields. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
Canada Geese were present in small numbers, and once I managed to get lucky with the light to make a nice image.
Canada Geese at Sunrise. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Finally, a brief word about the operations of the refuge. I thought the refuge was wonderfully designed to provide for the birds as well as the people who came to enjoy the birds. The road system was well constructed, the roads allowed for people to stop anywhere without blocking traffic, gaps had been cut into some of the dense vegetation around many of the ponds to allow visual access (this work was done by local photographers volunteering their time), some ponds were more isolated and some roads were seasonally closed to reduce people-pressure on the birds, water was carefully controlled to manage the birds and the vegetation, and as previously mentioned, crops were grown and cut specifically for the waterfowl and cranes. In addition, there were trails into the drier portions of the refuge for people who wanted to hike and see other vistas. Being a former wildlife biologist with a state agency, I was impressed with the Fish & Wildlife Service operations and of the many volunteers who donated their time to make this one of the premier wildlife refuges in the country.
Wide, well-maintained roads with gaps in the vegetation for viewing. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss 50mm f/2 lens.
Irrigation canals and controlled water distribution. Canon 1DsMkIII and Zeiss 50mm f/2 lens.
Numerous viewing decks throughout the wet portion of the refuge. Canon 1DsMkIII and Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.
Cultivated fields on the refuge to provide food for the birds. Canon 1DsMkIII and Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.
It was a great time, and I hope to be able to return.
Sunset. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24mm f/3.5 T/S lens.