I was at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico in January 2012 to photograph snow geese. The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese each winter. Also, there must be tens of thousands of Red Winged Blackbirds there.
When I was photographing snow geese one afternoon, I noticed a group of blackbirds at distance. They travel in huge groups. The way these blackbirds move is like a rolling dust ball. While the birds at front of the group land, the birds in the back of group take off, fly over the group and then land at front. The process continues on so that the whole group moves like a huge ball rolling around the farmland.
I was photographing a group of snow geese in front of me. When I saw these blackbirds at distance, I knew these blackbirds might scare off the white geese when they roll over them. So I prepared and waited. Half an hour later, the blackbird ball rolled over snow geese and
scared them off. I caught the lone geese among the black geese.
South Coyote Buttes is less famous and less popular than its counterpart at north. But it is no less intriguing and far less overwhelmed by photographers. I had fortune to secure some permits and camped right outside of the area last spring.
I determined to shoot Milky Way at South Coyote Buttes. But the problem is that Milky Way was only in the position I wanted after midnight, while the moon rose before midnight and stayed up until morning. It was my understanding that one cannot photograph Milky Way under the moon because the moon light will simply overwhelm the Milky Way. But that did not stop a diehard landscape photographer. I scouted out the location during the day, got up at 2:00am and hiked about one mile in the sand to the destination. Unfortunately, the theory was right. The moon was too bright that Milky Way became too faint. I did again the second night. The moon was less bright and Milky Way was more visible. That offered me some encouragement. The third night was the last night of waning crescent. I hiked in there again at 2:00am. After the first test shot, I realized that I have achieved the right light balance between foreground and Milky Way that I could photograph both in one exposure. The moon was far away from the Milky Way and dim enough not to overpower it. In the meantime, there was still enough light to illuminate the foreground.
One of difficulties of photographing in the darkness is to determine the composition when foreground elements were not visible through view finder. I used a powerful flashlight to illuminate the foreground while I looked through view finder, then took a couple of test shots with 10sec exposure at ISO 6400, and made fine adjustment after each shot. When the final composition was determined, I set the manual focus at infinity and made the first exposure with f2.8, 30sec, ISO3200. 30 second exposure time was chosen to minimize the movement of stars. By coincidence, the foreground brightness came out to be just as I liked.
With f2.8 and focusing at infinity, I was concerned about the depth of field. To ensure the sharpness of foreground element, I decided to make a second exposure to improve image quality. I doubled aperture to f5.6 to increase depth of field, reduced ISO to 1600 to reduce noise, and reduced focus distance to about 5 meters to make sure the foreground was in focus. I did the math and figured out that I would need 8 times more exposure time to achieve the same brightness as my first exposure. Therefore, 240 second of exposure time was determined. In the meantime, I tilted the camera down slightly to include more foreground.
The picture was blended with two exposures. I loaded both images into two separate layers in Photoshop. First exposure was loaded on top and the second exposure at bottom. The brightness of two layers was identical. After aligning the layers, the next step was simply erasing the foreground of top layer to reveal the foreground from the layer below.
South Coyote Buttes is like a place on another planet. A picture of the night scene can capture my imagination. The Milky Way, the foreground rock formation, as well as shooting stars (maybe) helped to enhance the surreal feeling.
So, to make a fine image, persistence is the virtue. Always go out to try again if the first attempt failed. Do not give up even if you have to defy conventional wisdom.
During my trip to White Pockets last year, I often stood on top of the hills and looked at the beautiful South Coyote Butte at distance. I was tempting to leave White Pockets a day earlier and go to South Coyote Buttes. Then the thought of going through the desert terrain again made me hesitate. I finally decided to stay at White Pockets so that I could spend to photograph it thoroughly and leave the South Coyote Butte for another trip. It turned out to be a smart decision.
A permit is need to get into South Coyote Buttes. There are 20 permits available each day. Ten of them are available online three months ahead of time on BLM web site: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/paria/coyote_buttes/permits.html.
Another ten are available as walk-in each morning at local BLM office. For a photographer like me who flies half way across the country to get there, I don’t want to count on the walk-in permits. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get a few days of permits online. There goes my journey to South Coyote Buttes this spring.
My choice of going there in late April to early May was based on the temperature variation. In this season, day time high can be in the 80′s F and night time low can be at low 30′s F. Any hotter weather will make day time hike in the desert exhausting, any colder weather will make camping uncomfortable. I followed my plan just like last year – flew into Las Vegas, rented a jeep, got supplies along the way, and drove straight to South Coyote Buttes. Once we went off road into the desert, I realized that the trail condition was much better than last year. It might have rained recently. The sand was not very dry that drive was fairly easy. We made a quick decision to go to White Pockets for a night, since we went in there a day early.
The drive was much easier than last year, it made me more relaxed behind the wheel. When we reached within two miles from White Pockets, I felt a little uneasy because the sand appeared to be drier and drier. Just when that thought went through my mind, the jeep ran into a ditch and stopped. The number one rule of driving in the deep sand is that you can’t stop the car. I knew I was in trouble. When I got off the jeep looked underneath, I realized that the ditch was fairly deep that the sand in the middle of trail pushed against bottom of the jeep. I took out the shovel and started digging and putting old blanket and bushes under the wheel. Four hours later, the jeep did not move an inch. Now it was getting close to dusk, we decided to camp by the road side and figure out what to do tomorrow.
All the sudden, I heard my wife’s exciting voice: “cell signal!” We knew there was no cell signal in this area from our past experience. So we both turned our phones off after we entered desert. Sure enough, there were very faint signal on both our phones. I got online immediately, found the nearest towing company and called them. “Sure, we can come to pull you out. But it takes an hour and half to get there. It is too late. We can come at the day break. Do you have enough food and water?” the voice at other end asked. “No problem. we can survive a week with the supply in my jeep”, I assured him.
It was a peaceful first night in the desert, knowing we would be rescued next morning. I was so exhausted that I slept until the sun came out. A while later, a jeep with monstrous tires showed up. It took the guy less than ten minutes to pull my jeep out of the ditch. At this point, I decided to give up White Pockets and head straight to South Coyote Buttes. I followed the towing jeep out of White Pockets area. The guy jumped off his jeep and pointed to a trail, “this road leads to South Coyote Buttes. You shouldn’t have any difficulty getting there”. He waved at me and took off.
Four hours of sweat, a wasted day, and $500 of towing bill later, I failed to reach White Pockets. I felt some sadness since I don’t know when I will return again. However, once the South Coyote Butte came into the sight, I immediately forgot my disappointment. I was thankful that we were safe to enjoy another nature wonder. Life is full of disappointment and excitement.
I had been planning to drive up the Lake Michigan coast to photograph those lighthouses in the winter. But we had an unusually warm winter last year. I had to give up the plan. This year, I was watching the weather every week, hoping for a bad wintery weather. A cold front finally went by at end of January. I decided to give a try, even it started to warm up over the weekend.
Frankfort, Michigan was a deserted town in the middle of winter. When I arrived under a heavy snow, the huge resort we checked in probably only had five guests. I am sure I was the only photographer in town. I scouted the area and waited for the gloomy sky to clear. Well, it didn’t clear next morning. There was a plan B. My wife and I decided to head up Old Mission Peninsula for a wine tour instead. This area in Michigan produces some of the finest wines in the country. Fortunately, the taste of wine does not depend on the weather like the photography does. We have never visited so many wineries in a single day.
On the way back to the hotel near dusk, I saw a glimpse of hope. There was a slim gap in the thick cloud at horizon towards west. I drove directly to the pier, put on the cleats, grabbed my gears, headed out to the icy pier. But the sun never came out. I decided to shoot into dark regardless. After a few shots, the light turned blue. There was enough light escaped through the gap in the cloud so that the magical blue hour was visible to the camera sensor.
There is hope in any situation.
When I ventured into White Pocket last spring, one of the areas that caught my immediate attention was these unique sandstone ridges on the ground. They appeared to me like an amphitheater from another planet. I started to work on it as soon as I arrived there. This area slopes towards east, it became obvious to me that the best time to photograph here is at early morning when the sun just lights up the sandstone. After trying various compositions, I determined my favorite angle – shooting the scene with a vertical towards north so that the sandstone ridges lead to the hills at distance.
I arrived at the scene every morning before sunrise. However, I was facing the common dilemma in landscape photography – the light. For three days, the sky towards north was featureless. My composition will not work without an interesting sky because that is where these ridges lead viewer’s attention to. So, I decided to camp one more night before I give up and go back home. The fourth morning when I got out of the tent, the sky was so cloudy that I could not see the stars. But I still hiked in there, even knowing the chance of a good sunrise is slim.
The magic happened at sunrise. The cloud at east opened a narrow gap to let the sun lit up whole sky. I was there, and ready. No need to think about composition and camera settings. I knew exactly what to do. I quickly took a few shots with various exposure compensations. Five minutes later, the light faded away and never returned.
Two exposures that were used for the final image were taken with 16mm, f16, iso200, one with 1/8 second exposure for the foreground, and the other with 1/32 second for the sky.
I loaded both images into two separate layers in Photoshop, with the darker exposure at bottom and the brighter exposure on top. I carefully selected the sky of top layer and deleted it, then merged two images together. More post processing was done to enhance the color and contrast. The result is exactly what I hoped for. The light and composition came together. The light adds warm glow to the sandstone, while the ridges lead attention to the sky.
So, tips of the day are:
In an uncertain or high contrast light condition, always take several pictures with various exposure settings to capture the entire range of light. Memory is cheap but opportunity is priceless.
Don’t give up too easily. The last moment at scene might turn out to be the best moment. But when the moment comes, you better be ready.
Crane is a graceful creature that captures my imagination. Each winter, I take several trips to Jasper Pulaski Wild Life Refuge in Indiana where tens of thousands of cranes congregate in the area during winter migration. They take off at dawn and return at dusk. One can hear them from a couple of miles away. The sight of thousands of cranes taking off at the same time always keep my heart pounding.
The first attempt of photographing bird in flight is to freeze the motion with high shutter speed of at least 1/500 second. But I want a different effect to reveal a sense of motion. My answer is to photograph the bird with a slower shutter speed. How slow? It depends on how fast the bird moves. After many attempts, I found that a shutter speed somewhere close to 1/20 second is ideal for a large bird like a crane. At this shutter speed, the wings will be blurry to the extent that shows movement, but not too slow that becomes a featureless smear. Photographing bird in flight with slow shutter speed is harder than it seems. The challenge is to keep the other parts of body, especially the head, relatively clear. Otherwise, the whole image will look like an out of focus waste. This requires a steady camera support, good panning technique, a lot of practice, and even more luck.
I have my camera supported with a Wimberly Sidekick, which allows me to pan smoothly. The camera is set to continuous focus, and I start to lock on the object, preferably the head, a couple of seconds before I pull the trigger. After a sequence of high speed burst is over, I still follow through with a continuing panning motion. Even so, 90% of the images are total waste that will be deleted immediately after I transfer them to the computer. But when I am lucky, there will be one that captures my imagination.
The “decisive moment”, according to Henri Cartier-Bresson, “it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” A “decisive moment” is what elevates a photograph to a higher level. One of Bresson’s most iconic images, the man leaping over a large puddle and touching it with his heel, showed the “decisive moment” turn an otherwise ordinary image into a master piece.
It is fairly straight forward with photojournalism and wild life photography to capture the moment. In landscape photography, I feel that the “decisive moment” is what gives a photograph its soul. A major problem with landscape photography is that an image is reproducible. Once an image becomes reproducible, it loses some of its value and visual impact, no matter how hard one tries with composition. What is a decisive moment in landscape photography? It could be a special moment in light situation, weather condition, season or movement.
During my recent trip to Oregon, my first stop was Cannon Beach. This is a beautiful place by any standard. However, Cannon Beach and its famous sea stack have been shot to death. I don’t know how many millions of photos have that rock in the frames. My chance of capture anything unique is fairly low. Then, one night, I was wondering on the beach at sunset. The sunset was not spectacular, but I did not leave. 15 minutes after the sunset, the sky at west became more interesting and I noticed orange reflection on the wet sand. As the wave retreated, it left behind wet sand as smooth as a mirror. At an angle towards the west, the reflection was the most visible. With each wave, the reflection left behind was different. I quickly setup my tripod and started to compose the image. I chose a position where the distant light house was in between two rocks that were closer, and more importantly, to avoid that famous sea stack on the beach. I tried several times to time my exposure at the right moment when waves advanced on the beach. Finally, I captured one moment where reflection was at the exact position as I wanted. 15 minutes later, the light started to fade away and the show was over.