Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Day in Mojave National Preserve

Life on Kelso Dunes, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.

The Mojave National Preserve is an easy drive of about 2 hours from Joshua Tree National Park. It's particularly convenient in the Winter, when you can shoot sunset in Joshua and still get to Mojave in time to get a decent amount of sleep before sunrise. Camping isn't allowed a the main parking area at Kelso Dunes, but there's an area where primitive camping is allowed by a grove of trees about .8 mile beyond the dunes and a short distance to the right.

After sunrise on the dunes I stopped at the historic Kelso train station and explored several abandoned houses nearby.

Next I moved on to catch the 1:30 tour of the Mitchell Caverns. A state park within the national preserve, Mitchell Caverns, one of the first cave systems I've visited that allows tripods.

I had just enough time after the tour for a quick stop to wee the Ring Trail at Hole in the Wall, then move back towards Kelso to catch the the local Mojave Joshua Trees (a distinct subspecies) at sunset.

As I was driving from Kelso towards the town of Baker, the crescent moon was setting, adding a nice end to a long, productive day of shooting.

Joshua Tree National Park

As my alarm went off in the Hidden Valley Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, it looked like it was going to be completely overcast, so I almost didn't get up. I figured that I might still get some decent cloud reflection shots at Barker Dam, so I got up anyway and headed the short distance to the trailhead. It's a good thing that I did go, because the clouds started breaking up rapidly, just in time for a decent sunrise show.

After catching some nice sunrise cloud shots at the trailhead, I headed down the trail towards Barker Dam. A short way down the trial the sun came out briefly, illuminating the rocks and offering tree silhouettes.

When I arrived at the reservoir, there were some stunning cloud reflections that I could quickly capture by moving around the edge of the water.

On the Road Again

To prepare for wildflower season in the deserts of Southern California, I decided to take a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Red Rocks State Park, and Death Valley National Park.

The first leg of the trip would be the drive down of about 550 miles. To break up the drive and get a few shots on the way, I decided to try to catch the current storm breaking up in Yosemite National Park. This shot of sun rays was taken in the foothills near Oakdale in California's Central Valley, on my way to hopefully catch sunset in Yosemite.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Would Anyone Use HDR? It's Unreal!

Tree on Fire, originally uploaded by Jeff Sullivan.
I see that question a lot posed online, in discussion groups, even under photos. To me liking Photoshop but not liking HDR would be analogous to liking wrenches but not liking hammers. Sure, many people wield HDR poorly, but many carpenters wield a hammer poorly too... what could that have to do with hammers? In other words, what does a poor result have to do with the (value of or utility of) the tool?

Many people vilify HDR; I don't get it. Most people play guitar poorly, but that won't keep me from enjoying the work of many talented guitarists. Of course everyone's entitled to their opinion and their own tastes. If classical music fans want to say, "Ugh, I think I hear a guitar in that piece!", or photography fans want to say "Ugh, Galen Rowell used graduated neutral density filters!", that's their privilege. Surely HDR software will get better and better at expanding dynamic range while producing unobtrusive results, and as that value is delivered for more and more shots, I'll have terabytes of exposure-bracketed images to draw upon.

I find HDR a useful tool about 80% of the time, with maybe 5-10% of all shots I choose to keep being simply not possible without it.

My example above is pretty obvious, and results like that may be an acquired taste, but can you identify which of the following photos was processed with HDR software and which were not?

Sunset at Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra, California

Merced River Calm
Fall colors reflectig in the Merced River, Yosemite National Park

Half Dome and fall double rainbow around sunburst in Yosemite Valley

Perhaps more to the point, which do you like better?  If you can't tell how an image was produced, does the process or tool used matter?  As I browse folders of processed results, I often can't tell how my images were produced until I look at the file name.  Those images where the processing does not speak louder than the subject, those are the successes.

As for whether or not a result matches an original scene, no photograph does (unless the entire scene is pure white or pure black).

Consider the scene's brightness. An original scene contains light in a range of up to 17 stops, our eyes can handle 13 stops, a film camera can handle about 11 stops, the best full frame digital cameras at most 8-9 stops. Most of the digital cameras with small format sensors that most people shoot with are probably closer to 4-5 stops. How do you restore some fraction of the shadow and highlight detail in those 8-9 lost stops of light, if not with High Dynamic Range techniques?

Then consider the color. The CCD sensor has one range of colors that it can sense. The RAW format it saves the file in has another range of colors that it can store. The monitor you display it on has yet another. Eventually the image gets converted to 8 bit JPEG format for printing, trying to represent the infinite shades of natural color while preserving only 256 levels of color for red, green, and blue. Then the printer, which uses a subtractive CMYK color scheme of Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and blacK (which doesn't match or directly overlap any of the other color spaces used along the way).

Then consider human perception. Our brains try to assign the brightest thing in a scene to be white. That's we have to have our cameras and software adjust images to a certain "white balance" (strictly a human perceptual distortion). The ambient light available when viewing an image (outdoors in sun, shade, under incandescent light, flourescent, etc) seriously affects our perception of the result as well.

Our eyes and brains are not carbon copies from person to person. Some people report noticeably different perception even from eye to eye. There's truly no such thing as "reality" when it comes to white balance and human color perception.

So given the essentially insurmountable issues at every step of the process, how can anyone claim to produce an accurate copy of a given moment? What would that even mean... accurate to an electronic device, to one person, or to which subset of people, and under which ambient lighting conditions for viewing?

Must we "go with the flow" and pretend with the charlatans that accuracy is possible (or even a desireable goal), or is it safe to observe that the "just as it happened" emperor truly has no clothes?

To each his own though... everyone is entitled to like or not like something for any reason or for no reason. HDR simply happens to be one tool that I find not just extremly useful, but indispensible. I'd sooner part with even basics like UV filters and circular polarizers.

If photographers aspire to be some sort of sterile recording device, then they can be replaced by webcams nailed to trees or doorjambs. The very definition of art requires human involvement and influence... a departure from sterile reality. Exercise your human side, your artistic side... any departure from the fruitless pursuit of perfection will set you free.

If you decide to buy Photomatix HDR software, I do recommend the version with an interface to Lightroom and Photoshop, to give you the most control.  You can get a 15% discount by using the coupon code JeffSullivan when you by it from its publisher HDRsoft:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Landscape Photographer

Knowing that there would be a full moon over the weekend, I looked up the moon rise time and confirmed that it was 98% full, and rising about a dozen minutes before sunset, so it would be high enough in the sky to be in sunset shots. I needed a low, distant horizon so local hills wouldn't block the moon. I also wanted a subject about 1000 feet away so I could zoom in to 200mm or more to get the moon large in the frame, and have the other subject present and in focus as well.

I chose Mono Lake, but decided to start the day in Truckee so I could catch sunrise at Lake Tahoe. I drove to Sand Harbor State Park on the Nevada side, but it doesn't open until 8am, so I used another turnout not far away. The moon was just setting across the lake. The sunrise came on gradually over the next 20 minutes, and I tried to move around over the icy, snowy shoreline rocks to get some good perspectives (sample result above).

Next stop was Starbucks in Minden to check out my dawn results. After appeasing my coffee cravings while performing a few quick edits, I was back on the road. While passing Topaz Lake in Nevada, I noticed that the valley was full of smoke, which gave the light an interesting dreamy quality.

Then it was on to Travertine Hot Springs in Bridgeport to soak in a hot spring, sip a beer, and contemplate the upcoming sunset shoot. (A photographer can never be too prepared.) A nice family dropped by with their 85 year old grandma, who kept threatening to skinny dip. It seemed like a good time to move on...

Upon arriving in the mono Lake area, I first took a walk a the County Park access point, which was convenient and had some interesting reflections and lighting as the shadows of the Sierras reached out into the lake.

I arrived at my target site on Mono Lake with minutes to spare. My DeLorme GPS has a Sun/Moon feature that confirmed the moon rise time, but it also shows a compass with the Sun and moon on it, so I could point the sun symbol towards the setting sun and there was an arrow pointing to the approximate place on the horizon where the moon would come up. I walked a couple of hundred yards until I could line that forecasted rise spot up with the tufa limestone structures that I wanted to shoot. By the way, you can get a Java program for cell phones that support Java that will do the same thing (most phones know your approximate location info from the position of local cell towers, some provide location based services using a GPS signal).

The moon started to peek out over the hills right on time, and I adjusted my tripod position maybe 6-12 feet to place the moon where I wanted it in the scene. I started with a 70-200mm lense and gradually worked my way up to a wide angle lens as the sunset darkened and spread across the sky.

Mono Lake Sunset Moonrise

With sunset occurring so early in the Winter, you have plenty of time to capture it then change locations for some night shots. On the way back to Truckee I stopped at Lake Tahoe again to shoot a few frames under the full moon.

Join me June 3-6, 2009 to catch the full moon rise at Mono Lake and to pursue other stunning images in the dramatic Eastern Sierra landscape, with classroom sessions on photographic technique and digital imaging postprocessing. I'll also be offering an optional extension into Yosemite National Park on Sunday, June 7:

I'll also offer a Fall Colors tour of the Eastern Sierra in October (dates TBD). Contact me for details, or to get on my announcement list for future workshops.

Happy New Year from Death Valley!

Sure I had just visited Death Valley a couple of weeks eralier, but is it possible for a person to bask in the golden light in that endless landscape, or gaze up at those infinite stars too often?

This image was captured only steps from one of the most popular viewpoints in Death Valley National Park, yet I've never seen photos taken from this perspective. Of course I had to descend a slot canyon and climb down a 12' dry waterfall, then find another way out after dark... but having gotten out, I now know the easier and safer way to get there!

Heavy morning frost on Eureka Dunes. The dunes are among the tallest in the United States, yet they are isolated enough from the rest of the park that I've never seen a Death Valley photography tour that visits them, even though the site is one of the most photogenic in the park.

A jet from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station approaches the campground at Eureka Dunes in Death Valley roughly 150 feet off the ground.

I often see these kinds of layered dune patterns in sandstone in Utah and Arizona, but this time I found them in sand dunes, before they've turned to stone!

Mosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon

Kids will help you find arches in the Alabama Hills.

Kids will also demonstrate the best use for arches in the Alabama Hills.

This was an exposure of nearly 4.5 minutes giving the clouds that soft, streaking look, and at f/22, giving the moon the star effect.

I don't yet have dates nailed down to offer a Death Valley tour this year, but if you're interested in going, contact me and we may be able to work something out. I'll probably be visiting in March when wildflowers will add color to the park's incredible landscapes. Most photography tours to Death Valley don't visit the Eureka Dunes or The Racetrack, arguably the two best sites in Death Valley. I can't imagine visiting the park without them!

Last 2008 Visit to Mono Lake

Placeholder for more trip photos and text to be added shortly...

Join me June 3-6, 2009 to catch the full moon rise at Mono Lake and to pursue other stunning images in the dramatic Eastern Sierra landscape, with classroom sessions on photographic technique and digital imaging postprocessing, including Lightroom, PhotoShop and Photomatix HDR. For seminar attendees I'll also be offering an optional extension into Yosemite National Park on Sunday, June 7. For more details: