The Great Smoky Mountains is a popular destination for travelers as well as photographers. It is the most visited national park in United States. In the age of flickr and 500px though, it lacks eye catching vista to attract viewer’s attention. But its beauty has occupied my heart for many years that I finally had a chance to pay her a visit.
My wife and I camped in the Smoky for five nights. Among all the areas in Smoky, Cades Cave is probably the most popular place. Each morning before the gate open at 7:00, cars line up outside with every driver praying God to wake up the park rangers a little earlier. Sometime they do, sometime they don’t, sometime they over sleep. Just like everything else in the Smoky, it has its own pace. Smoky is not for people who are in a hurry.
One needs great patience to appreciate the beauty in the Smoky. I quickly drove around the Cades Cove in the early afternoon when we arrived, the thought of an over sized suburban forest preserve came to my mind. Under the bright sun, I can’t see anything interesting to take my camera out. Still, I came back to it. The fog was so dense next morning that I can hardly see anything in front of me. It was still dark an hour after sunrise. The following morning was rainy, and the next morning had no fog at all. Most of us would give up by now. But I decided to keep going at it, partly because of my stubbornness.
Patience was finally rewarded. It was a perfect morning. Plenty of fog but just the right amount to let light through. The light was so soft that I felt like I was in the fairyland. I drove to the spot I picked before and quickly framed this shot with road and fence converge with the arch formed by the trees. The composition was already in my heart.
After taking the shot, I drove to another spot I had in mind as fast as I could. Now the sun is much higher up in the sky. Fog started to fade while heavy clouds moved in. I decided on my composition and patiently waited for the light. The sun only peeked out of clouds for a few seconds. But that was enough to make the whole cove to glow!
The Smoky’s beauty is subtle, one needs patience to appreciate.
I visited Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico again in December of 2014. The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes each winter. This is a place so dear in my heart that I have visited many times in the past. I have never left empty handed.
After I arrived at the refuge, I photographed at various locations the first day and figured out where birds were overnight. The behavior of birds was different each time I visited. This trip was not different either. So purpose of my first day was largely for scouting out the area. There were not many birds in the refuge this year. However, on the way back to my hotel in the evening, I saw hundreds of sandhill cranes stayed on a pond at road side. Therefore I decided to come back here to photograph them in the morning.
I arrived at the scene an hour before sunrise next morning. I could see lots of cranes over the pond but no snow geese. I setup my gear on a Jobu Heavy Duty Gimbal and patiently waited in the dark. Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal is a Gimbal head our friend at Jobu Design asked me to evaluate. It was the first time I used it in the field.
Just before sunrise, I heard loud noise from the east. I saw the sky was blanketed with snow geese. There must be thousands of them. They circled around the pond and started to land on it in a very orderly fashion. I immediately started photographing them. The light at predawn hour was very dim. Instead of increasing iso and shutter speed to freeze the action, I deliberately slowed down the shutter speed to about 1/15 second to capture the motion effect of the wings. It is a technique I used often. Many of my published works were done with this technique.
The landing process took about 15 minutes. Almost at the instant when the last snow goose landed, all of them took off at the same time without any warning. I took me by total surprise. Fortunately, I was constantly capturing the landing action. All I had to do was continue to shoot. It was such a breath taken moment. The birds were so densely packed in the air that one could not see much of the sky. I always wonder why they don’t collide with each other. The takeoff lasted a few seconds, then all of them were gone. Apparently, this pond was used by snow geese as some sort of station ground to wait for all geese to arrive.
It was such a memorable experience that I decided to come back again next morning. I decided to do something different the second day. I brought a second camera with a wide angle lens mounted. I wanted to capture the environment when the snow geese took off.
It was a predictable event this time around when thousands geese arrived and started landing. I photographed landing scene as usual with my telephoto lens. But this time the birds did not take off immediately. They waited for another half an hour. When they finally took off, they did not take off all together. Instead, they took off in large groups. I photographed with my wide angle lens as each group of birds flying over my head.
I always capture images in RAW format to acquire as much information as possible in the field, even when I photograph wildlife. Memory cards are so cheap these days that I carried several 64GB cards with me so that I never have to worry about running out of storage. Back at home, I open them up Adobe Lightroom to make some global adjustment with exposure and color temperature before I send them to Adobe Photoshop for detailed adjustment. Here I would adjust contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc. During post processing, I converted “Dream Landing” into a monochrome image to enhance the dreamy effect.
I have photographed snow geese at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge a few times before and I have witnessed the massive snow geese take off. But this was the first time I photographed them up close. It provided me a good opportunity to try something more creative. I often pre-visualize when I photograph landscape, but wildlife photography is largely a spontaneous sport. This was one of the rare moments I pre-visualized in wildlife photography. I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot. It was photographed with composition and technique just like landscape photography. Is it a wildlife photo or landscape photo? It does not matter. When I saw my picture on the back of my camera, I knew I nailed it.
On a side note, Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal (Jobu Design) performed admirably. It levels well. Pan and tilt operations are amazingly smooth. It is definitely a keeper.
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
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.
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.
And plenty of action even the light is not the best.
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.