Symphony of Sunset

I went up to Lake Superior National Lake Shore with a couple of friends last October to photograph fall color.  We wondered in the forest for a couple of days.  The fall color was rather unimpressive, so we decided to head to the beach.  This is a place I visited a few years ago.  What always intrigues me here is a tiny waterfall on the Miners Beach.  It is only about 4 feet high and rather ordinary.  In upper Michigan where water falls are abundant, many people probably won’t bother to take the camera out of bag.  However, the real attraction is the rock underneath the falls.  At sunset, the rock is lit up by sunset. The ledges of rocks turns into golden lines that lead to the water fall.

This time, we photographed sunset as usual. Just when the light started to fade away and we were ready to leave. The whole sky towards west explored in red and Lake Superior water looked like on fire. At that moment, blue, red and golden lights came together signing a nature’s symphony with the tiny water falls stood proudly on the Miners Beach. I quickly took a few more shots of my favorite water fall before the light totally faded away. It was one of the most spectacular sunsets I experienced. I looked at my LCD screen and smiled.

This picture was published on 1x.com and Earthshots.org in April, 2014

Symphony of Sunset

Make Accessories Easily Accessible – A Review of MindShift Filter Hive

As a landscape photographer who often hikes a long distance and photograph in harsh environment, I always found difficult to figure out the perfect system to carry my camera gear, and to make the gear easily accessible at the same time.  I usually carry 2 camera bodies, 2-3 lens, flash and all sorts of accessories in the field.  Backpack is the only sensible way to carry all these gears.  But the problem with backpack is the lack of accessibility.  I have to constantly put the backpack down to take things out and put them back in.  A belt system would have the advantage of easy accessibility, but carrying my heavy camera bodies and lens on the belt for a long hike has never appeared to be feasible to me.

A couple of years ago, I derived a method to use a combination of belt and backpack system. I carry most of my accessories on the belt, in front of my body.  This includes round ND filters and polarizers, rectangular GND filters and holder, flash, remote, and GPS etc.  I chose a ThinkTank Thin Skin Belt so that it is not so thick at back where backpack rests.  It has been working out fairly well.  When I arrive at a scene, I only need to open the backpack to get the camera, and put away when I am done.  I don’t have to open the backpack again when I am shooting.  All filters I need are easily accessible in front of me.  This is particularly helpful when I am standing in the water or mud where I have no place to put down the backpack.

I bought a Lowepro Filter Pouch 100 to carry rectangular GND filters and holder, and a Tamron M.A.S. Filter Belt Pack to carry round filters.  While they are functional, I realized a big problem while using them in the field.  These cases are not really designed to carry outside of a camera bag.  The lids do not have zippers.  When I photograph in the desert environment, wind-blown sand and dust can easily find their way into the cases and stick onto the filters.  Additionally, Lowepro Filter Pouch 100 is too big for 4×6” filters, there is a lot of wasted space in it.  I was searching for another filter case and found MindShift Filter Hive.

MindShift Filter Hive with ThinkTank Think Skin Belt

The Filter Hive is the first case designed to carry both round and rectangular filters together.  It is made of tough and light weight material.  It holds up to six 4×6” rectangular GND filters and a holder as well as six round filters up to 82mm diameter.  All my filters now fit into a single case without the need to carry two separate cases.  It saves some space around my belt to carry another pouch for other small items such as batteries and flash light.  The lid is zipped tight to protect filters from elements.  There is a small zipped pocket at front.  This is where I keep my camera remote, etc.  An added benefit of Filter Hive is that the padded insert is completely removable.  If I don’t want to carry Filter Hive on the belt, I can take out the inset (with filters in it) and pack it in my backpack.  The case is sensibly sized, there is no wasted space inside.

I am a big fan of ThinkTank products.  They are usually very well made.  MindShift follows the tradition and makes some innovative products.  MindShift Rotation 180 Professional and Panorama backpacks are two of the most interesting backpacks on the market.  Unfortunately, MindShift Rotation 180 Professional is about 2 lb heavier than competition.  For a landscape photographer who hikes a long distant to make a shot, 2 extra lb is a deal breaker.  MindShift Rotation 180 Panorama is much lighter, but it is not roomy enough to fit my needs.  I hope they will trim some weight off MindShift Rotation 180 Professional and come up with a lighter version, just like F-stop did to their popular F-Stop Loka backpack.

Update: I just took it through three days of down pour in Columbia Gorge.  It managed to keep my filters dry.

Photographing Ding Darling

Florida is not just popular for “snow birds”, it is popular for all kinds of birds.  One of the hottest attractions for bird photographers is J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island near Ft. Meyers.  The refuge is part of the United States Wildlife Refuge System. It is famous for its migratory bird population.  Most photographers will find plenty to shot along the four miles of Wildlife Drive that takes you through mangrove tree forests and tidal flats.  What makes a photographer’s life even more interesting is that Sanibel Island is a tourist attraction by itself, with nice beaches and good restaurants, although most choose to go straight to the beaches.  It is a relaxing place to be while I don’t take pictures, and certainly makes it easy to convince my family to come along.

The hours of operation is my principle complaint.  The refuge opens at 7 a.m. and closes at sunset.  It also closes every Friday.  I anxiously waited outside of the gate every morning, watched the sun rising behind me, missed the best light of day, and the best bird action of the morning when most of birds take off together from the tidal flats they spent the night at.  Well, U.S. government is not known to be photographer friendly.

Nevertheless, Ding Darling is a bird photographer’s paradise.  What is remaining after 7:00am is still enough to give any wildlife photographer a real treat.  There are plenty wake up calls after 7:00am.

Wake up Call

And plenty of action even the light is not the best.

Just Caught a Crab

The most intriguing bird at Ding Darling is probably the Spoonbill.  God must have thought the feathers are too pretty.  He gave her an ugly head to be fair to the entire bird species.  Nevertheless, I love her just for her feather.

Pink Panther

Bald Eagles on Mississippi

The bald eagle is American national bird because of its association with authority and statehood.  Its majestic beauty and great strength attract thousands of bird watchers and photographers to the Mississippi River bank, where bald eagles feed on the fishes near the dams during winter months.

I always come to Loc & Dam 14 on Mississippi each winter.  Like anything else in nature, it has been hit or miss.  Sometimes, I can only see a couple of eagles flying far and away for a whole afternoon.  Two weeks ago, I hit the jackpot.   It had been a harsh week that temperature stayed in single digit for the entire week.  A heavy snow covered field that eagles had nowhere else to find food supply but to come to the unfrozen open water under the dam.  The light was great and the action was none stop from the time we arrived around 11:00am to sunset.

Here Comes the Fish

I have photographed bald eagles catching fish over Mississippi hundreds of times.  But at the moment it races down to the water surface to grab the fish, it has never failed to electrify my brain and keep my heart singing.  This is the moment that is worth photographing for a lifetime as it my heart praises the creator of this magnificent creature.

Good Catch

Crabapple in the Snow

Crabapple is one of the most common trees in Midwest.  But in the world of long and hash winter, crabapple is like a spice on an otherwise tasteless dish.  It had been snowing for a couple of days in Midwest.  I finally can’t take it anymore.  So I decided to go out to Morton Arboretum to photograph some crabapple trees to brighten up my day.  Just when I was photographing this tree, strong wind blew the snow up in the air, helped me to filter out distracting elements at distance.

Crabapple in the Wind

After hundreds of crabapple pictures on my hard drive, I decided to try a new angle.  So I put my tripod on a higher ground over a smaller tree.  The flip screen of my Sony A99 comes handy when I compose the picture from underneath.  At this angle, the background is finally pure.

Fire in the Snow

Angel’s Hair

Zion National Park is gem in the rough southwest desert. It is a popular destination for tourists as well as photographers. I have visited the park many times. What made me to go back to Zion National Park again and again was not its towering mountains, it was the Virgin River that cuts through the valley kept my creativity flowing. The valley is very narrow, the water flows rapidly and the cliffs on both sides are nearly vertical. When the sun shines on the red rock cliffs, their reflection on the river creates interesting colors and patterns.  I could walk along the river bank an entire day to search for inspiration and never got bored.  The texture of water and the color of reflection change rapidly every moment.  I often spent half an hour just to stare at the water in front of me.

I always try to arrive at the scene at least half an hour before sunrise. At Zion National Park, it means getting up early to catch the first bus into Zion Valley. My plan was to photograph the mountain at sunrise. I took some pictures at sunrise. But I was disappointed because there is no cloud in the sky. The sunrise was not spectacular. But I did not leave.

Shortly after sunrise, the sun lit up the red rock cliff like a fire. Because there is no cloud, the light was extremely intense and the color of red cliff reflected on the river was so rich that the river in front of me looked as if it was painted in red. My attention was immediately attracted to the reflection on water.  After stared at the reflection for a while, I suddenly visualized the hair of a beautiful woman floating in front of me.

I quickly acted upon my new found inspiration.  I put my telephoto lens on the camera, mounted camera on my tripod and started to experiment with different shutter speed. My experience told me I should use a fraction of a second shutter speed in this situation.  The water would look too milky with long shutter speed, and too static with short shutter speed.  After some test shots, I finally settled at 1/4 second, where the texture of water started to look like hairs. Once the shutter speed was decided, the choice of other exposure parameters became simple. I had to maintain a large depth of field to keep the image sharp throughout, so I set the aperture at f/13. At this point, light was very intense that I had to lower ISO to 50 to get proper exposure. I would add a neutral density filter in front of the lens if ISO50 were still not low enough.

The river runs fast that the texture in the water changed rapidly. Every photograph looked different. I kept chasing after the reflection on water and photographed until the color faded away.

Back at home, I chose this picture out of nearly one hundred pictures I took at the scene because I like the white water stream that created contrast red reflection and its position in the frame. The post processing started with some general adjustments to contrast and brightness.

One difficulty I ran into immediately was the bright areas on water that made color looked washed out. Here I created a dodge and burn layer, then used Tony Kuyper Luminosity Mask Actions to create luminosity masks over light areas. I chose a brush tool with about 10% luminosity and then darkened bright areas by brushing black color on the dodge and burn layer. This helped me to recover details in highlight region to enhance the smooth texture in the water.

HINTS

  1. Always pay attentions to details. In an iconic place where grand landscape is dominate; study the surround in great details will lead you to pleasant surprises.
  2. Any light is good light for a specific purpose. Don’t give up when you think the light is not as good as you expected.
  3. Use shutter speed as a creative tool. When photographing moving subject, always experiment with various shutter speed to achieve different effects.
  4. Never stop imagine. Imagination is the source of creativity.

 

Angel’s Hair

Storm Chaser

Storm Chaser

When I arrived at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a thunder storm was approaching fast. I decided not to climb up the great sand dune, but shot from foot of the dune instead to avoid the lighting and heavy rain.  Just when I was trying to find my composition, two brave young men went right pass me and climbed all the way to the top.

The rain was pouring and lighting was none stop.  As I put away my equipment, I couldn’t stop turning my head to watch these two brave souls.  What was the view on the other side of dune?  It was only reserved for the challengers.