Category Archives: Landscape

Night at Big Sur – When Life Takes Detours

I spent a few days in September of 2014 to photograph the Big Sur region of California’s central coast.  A small waterfall called McWay Falls at beach attracted my attention.  I decided to stay with it to shot the sunset.  Big Sur, however, is known for its constantly cloudy, foggy weather.  The evening hour around sunset was predictably cloudy.  The sunset was disappointing.  But I still stayed a couple of hours after sunset, hoping the cloud would clear up so I can take some night shots.  The magic did not happen.  So I left scene to drive back to my hotel in Monterey Bay.While I was driving on the twisting mountain road, all the sudden I felt that there were some stars visible in the sky.  I pulled over.  To my delight, the sky was clearing up.  I went back to my hotel, slept two hours, got up and drove an hour in the dark back to the waterfall.  Now the sky was totally clear.  It was so clear that I can see Milky Way with my naked eyes.  I knew this was my lucky day.
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 I spent so much time there the previous day.  So the composition was straightforward even in the complete darkness.  I took two shots, one for the sky and one for the foreground.  I tilted camera upward slightly for the sky shot to include more sky while tilting it down for foreground shot, with the intention to stitch them together for a 1:1 aspect ratio.  After taken the shots, I realized that foreground was too dark.  So I left the camera on the tripod untouched, and waited another two hours or so in the dark.  At about one hour before sunrise, it started to have some light in sky and foreground became visible to the eyes.  I took the third shot, just for the foreground.  Back at home, I stitched first two shots together and cropped the image to 1:1 ratio.  Then I aligned the third shot just to blend in the areas I wanted to show more foreground details.
Almost a year later, in July of 2015, I went up to Big Sur again with two friends from California. We checked in at a hotel at south end of Big Sur before we head out to photograph sunset.  Big Sur was cloudy as usual in the evening.  We stayed a couple of hours after sunset to see if the sky will clear up like it did for me a year ago.  This time, I was not so lucky.  We started to drive back to hotel in disappointment.Our fortune got even worse a couple of miles away from the hotel.  A construction crew blocked the Highway 1 to repair the road damaged by a landslide.  No one was allowed to pass between 10:00PM and 7:00AM.  The crew told us to take a detour.  Not just any detour – a three hour detour.  We had to drive north and then head east across the mountains to reach another highway to go south.  It was already midnight.  What choice do we have?  We started our journey onto the mountain road.When we reached the top of mountain, we saw stars! The Milky Way was so clear that I can almost reach out to touch it.  To make things even more interesting, dense low fog rolled in from the ocean, filled up the valley in front of us.

Rivers of Sky

Rivers of Sky

Life is full of detours, we just need to learn to appreciate every moment.

 

Beauty of Subtleties

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.

Fairyland

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.

Good Morning

 

 

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

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.

Flying under Stars

Flying under Stars

It was so windy at South Coyote Buttes that I could not sleep well the first night we camped out there.  So I got up at 2:00am and crawled out of the tent.  The night in the desert is always colder than what you are prepared for.  I put on all the cloths I can find, still couldn’t stop the constant shivering.  But the cold air will not stop a diehard landscape photographer.  I headed out anyway.  After half an hour of hiking, my body and spirit were finally warmed up to the task ahead of me.

I knew exactly where to go and what to shot in the dark because I did my homework during the day.  I set my tripod down, took a couple of test shots with high iso and quickly determined my composition.  I wanted to include all the foreground elements as well as the clouds and stars.  So I decided to take two shots and stitch them later.  I did not want to see the start trails in picture, so a 30 second exposure is the maximum I can use.   I tilted camera up slightly and took the exposure for the sky.  The second exposure was for the foreground.  I tilted camera downward slightly to include the foreground elements.  For the foreground shot, I was not limited by exposure time.  So I reduced iso to reduce noise and reduced aperture to gain depth of field.