Category Archives: Southwest

Snow Geese Takeoff

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.

Dream Landing

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.

Group Action

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.

Take Off

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.


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.


  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

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.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape

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 a huge group. 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. I waited about half an hour for this event to happen while patiently kept the spot focus on the snow geese on the ground.  When it happened, I fired away some 10 shots over one second.  Among them, this was the only one where the snow goose was unobstructed.  I waited for another 45 minutes or so.  It happened again.  This time I caught a pair of snow geese.  I waited there until sunset, but the blackbirds never returned.

The Great Escape

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 wanted to place the snow geese among a contrasting background of numerous blackbirds before I took this picture.   So my focus was always on the snow geese while I was waiting for arrival of the army of blackbirds.  I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot.  Fortunately, I did not have to wait too long for it.  When I saw my picture on the back of my camera, I knew I nailed it.

The difficulty of taking this shot was to capture the right moment and to keep the focus on the snow geese.  The large amount of blackbirds can easily confuse the focus system of a camera.  It happened so quickly that it is almost impossible to take this shot spontaneously.  I kept my spot focus on the snow geese who were standing on the ground, and patiently waited.  When the moment came, my concentration was on this single snow goose, completely ignored the blackbirds and fired away in high speed.

I titled the pictures as “Escape” because I want to convey a feeling that innocent snow geese escaping an overwhelming dark force.

Night at South Coyote Butte

Under the Stars

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.

Return to White Pockets

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:
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.

Morning Surprise

Journey into White Pocket (5) – Morning Delight

Morning Delight

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.