Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Oregon Photography Tour: Mt. Hood to Painted Hills

On the morning of my second day, before leaving Mt. Hood, for old times' sake I had to have breakfast in Timberline Lodge. Timberline Lodge is a massive timber structure built as a Work Projects Administration (WPA) project to help employ people following the Great Depression. The lodge is filled with handmade furniture, rugs, and other items made by unskilled workers, under the guidance of skilled craftsmen. One of the most impressive parts of Timberline Lodge is the Great Room, featuring an octagonal, 3 hearth stone fireplace that rises several stories to the timber-framed roof above.

The breakfast was great, perhaps in part because my alternative had been to cook on a campstove on a wet table in the rain!

As a side note, if you've seen The Shining, you may recognize Timberline Lodge, as it was used for many of the exterior shots.

A trip to nearby Trillium Lake to catch Mt. Hood's reflection was fruitless due to cloud cover, so I got back on the road. After an overcast and rainy morning on Mt. Hood (picking ripe wild huckleberries was great, but not what I was in the state to do), I knew that I had to head further out towards Oregon's dry interior. I'd head first towards the Bend/Redmond area and let the weather steer me from there.

By Madras I could see threatening storm clouds hovering over the Cascades in the Mt. Jeferson to Bend/Mt. Bachelor area. I knew that the John Day Mountains reached heights in the 9000 foot range and I had never gotten out there while I lived in Oregon, so I aimed for the center of the state. I had seen a picture of the Painted Hills unit of John Day Fossil Beds, and it seemed to be a reachable goal for sunset.

I explored the hills under overcast skies for a while in late afternoon, then the clouds broke up as sunset appoached. I used a circular polarizer on my wide angle lens to help capture definition in the clouds, also bracketing exposures so I could use HDR processing

There wasn't much happening in the sky until I reached a ridge that gave me a great eastward view of the bare hills, with a massive thundercloud on the horizon behind them. The range of light from the brightest sun-lit clouds to the hills they were shadowing on the ground was enormous. I'd need a long exposure for the detail on the hills, a graduated neutral density filter to bring the sky closer to the hills in exposure, three exposure bracketing to allow for additional HDR processing if needed. I also used various combinations of a Tiffen Enhancing filter and a Cokin Sunset filter to help the clouds hold color for the shots I would send through HDR processing. As it turned out, the exposures were too long and the clouds were moving too fast to use a typical 3 shot HDR sequence. For this result I tried every combination of two shots to identify the best one, then further noise-reduced and color-corrected the HDR result in Photoshop Elements. To think that some people think that all landscape photographers do is show up and trip a shutter!

To further enhance the realism of my shots I often perform the best possible edit that I can muster on the best single exposure, then blend that in with my most realistic HDR result. The HDR version contributes shadow and highlight detail, while the single exposure helps enforce natural color tone and light intensities.

As the setting sun started painting the cloud orange and touching the broken clouds above, to the west the sun shot rays of orange between mountaintops and onto the underside of the clouds above there as well. Not wanting to miss either spectacle, I was running back and forth across the ridge alternating a couple of shots in each direction, capturing vertical and horizontal compositions while bracketing exposures and varying filters and combinations.

After a night in a campground near the Painted Hills, with rain still forecast for the Oregon Coast, I set my sights for a large area on my Oregon map marked "sand dunes" out by the dry Fossil Lake, near Fort Rock and the town of Christmas Valley. What could be a safer place, I thought, than sand dunes near a dry lake, for a photographer spending a rainy week in Oregon?