Monday, December 29, 2014

Making Lemonade

There's a Chinese proverb that it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  It's one of my favorites.  As a photographer I curse a lot -- usually because what I had hoped to be a great shot possibility fizzled.  A "Black Friday weekend" trip to Seattle and Portland pretty much handed me a bunch of lemons in terms of photo opportunities.  A lot of heavy rain and localized flooding.

So, what do you do when you're handed a bunch of lemons?  Make lemonade, if you can!

North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E1 and 50-200mm lens.

It was a challenge to keep the camera and lens dry enough to record an image successfully.  Only a few attempts were worth it.  This was one of them.

On my way back to Seattle the weather cleared and I headed for Tumwater Falls, a privately owned park with a waterfall.  Too late.  Gates closed.  But as I drove away I saw golden light on the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.  Eureka!

Washington State Capitol, Olympia, WA
Fujifilm X-E1 and 50-200mm lens

Neither of these above images were the photographs I thought I would be shooting that day.  In life, as well as photography, you will be handed lemons.  Are you going to complain of thirst or make lemonade?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Waterfalls...getting "flowy" water

Horsetail Falls
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm
It's no secret -- I love waterfalls.  I love photographing waterfalls.  And while photographing waterfalls isn't quite rocket science there are a few basics to follow to get good images.

The first, of course, is to have the right hardware for the job.  In addition to your camera you should have it mounted on a good ballhead which in turn should be mounted onto a good tripod.  A circular polarizing filter is essential for minimizing glare and reflections.  A remote shutter release helps with camera stability while photographing.  A graduated neutral density filter can be employed to tone down "hot spots" in the sky or in the water.  Plastic bags and a microfiber cloth will help keep your camera and lens dry (waterfalls can have enormous spray).

Photographing water basically has two extremes -- very fast exposures to stop action and longer exposures to give water what my friend and teacher Willard Clay likes to call a "flowy look."  Most people want waterfalls to look "flowy" which means longer shutter speeds.  It's hard to shoot slow in very bright light so waterfalls are best photographerd right after sunrise, right before sunset or on an overcast day.  The cable release will help minimize camera movement to ensure a sharper image. 

With all of these ducks in a row just remember to "shoot slow for the flow."

Ponytail (Upper Horsetail) Falls
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

I try to shoot waterfalls at various times of the year.  The force of the water in the spring after the snow melts is usually quite powerful -- but so, too, is the spray that can frustrate a good photograph. It's often a losing battle just to keep your camera and lens dry.  Go too late in the year and your waterfall may be just a trickle of water.

Snoqualmie Falls, Washington
Fujfilm X-E2, 18-55 mm

Snoqualmie Falls -- a half hour or so east of Seattle -- can be photographed at any time of the year. This shot a couple of weeks ago would have been more more challenging in the spring when the spray could soak you and your equipment.

A good waterfall photograph requires the right gear, the right light and the right attitude:  "Shoot slow for the flow." 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Failing Art … or Failing To Teach?

Latuourell Falls
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm XF lens

As a child I was a failure in some ways -- or so said my report cards.  My penmanship was so wicked that I began typing in the second grade (not a bad life skill).  I was hardly coordinated in physical education (but in my 30's I took up running -- until my knees exercised veto power). "Industrial Arts" was another flop.  I never quite got the hang of using the plane although in later years I've assembled lots of furniture, built shelves, painted, repaired plumbing and electrical work and wired telephone and cable ports.  And in "art" I couldn't draw worth a damn.  

I had many great teachers -- many who remained lifelong friends.  Yet I still wonder how much of the desire to learn was killed off by an insistence on competitive orthodoxy rather than by trying to develop the abilities that were there.  When teachers did that the results were almost always successful. What if one of those art teachers asked, "Have you considered taking up photography?"  I ponder that from time to time in between shots.  Instead of focusing on what I couldn't do well what if they had tried to ascertain and develop the things that I could.

Guy Talbot State Park, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm XF lens

Clearly I couldn't draw a forest scene or a bird but the elements of composition and light in photography are part of "art" -- so why was that overlooked way back when?

Reddish Egret
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Canon EOS 7D, 500mm f/4L

Thankfully today there is more awareness of students who may be "differently able."  The push for "standardized" testing and evaluation of students ignores that not everyone learns the same and that good students may have different abilities.  Education is more than staying within the lines or getting the right answers on a multiple choice exam.  It's about preparing a student for life.  

I still can't draw worth a damn.  And frankly, I don't give a damn.

Pine Glades Lake, Everglades National Park, Florida
Nikon 1 V1, Nikkor 10-30mm

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Cumberland Falls -- Kentucky's Gem

Corbin, Kentucky's claim to fame is that it's the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the finger-licking artery-clogging fast food pioneered by Col. Harlan Sanders.  But a nearby gem is Cumberland Falls State Park, a state "resort" park worth a visit even if dining in its lodge is a step or two below its West Virginia cousins.

It's a short walk from the parking area to the viewpoint overlooking the falls.  I don't recommend shooting from close in because of vandalism and dumping trash that simply isn't very photogenic.  Moving back eliminates that problem.

Cumberland Falls, Fujjifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

Several times a year the night sky will allow for "moonbow" shots.  Also not a bad place for fall color and sunrise shots, particularly on a foggy day.

Almost Heaven - Blackwater Falls, West Virginia

There's an interesting misperception about scenic photography that someone these great shot opportunities somehow mysteriously happen and occasionally it's true that you'll wind up in the right place at the right time with the right camera and lens combination at your disposal.  Most of the time, though, the better places require planning, a healthy dose of logistics and being there when the light is right (and sometimes that light may only exist for a matter of seconds).
Blackwater Falls, Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm, circular polarizer

One of those places where some grueling logistics pays off is Blackwater Falls located in the West Virginia state park of the same name which is about a four hour drive from Washington, D.C.
If you arrive right at sunrise you will walk down a total of 214 steps (mercifully they are in manageable segments) to a boardwalk with an upper and lower viewpoint.  You may have a half hour or so to work with unless you luck out with an overcast day but even with limited time you are not likely to have an unproductive day.
Navigating those steps can work up an appetite.  A "bonus" to photographing here is that there is a nice state park lodge with a restaurant that features a good reasonably-priced breakfast buffet.
The best times to shoot here are in the spring and fall.  You might not think of West Virginia as a fall color hotspot but it rivals northern Wisconsin and Michigan as well as New England.  Canaan Valley State Park is a stone's throw from Blackwater Falls with great fall color potential -- and another nice lodge with a breakfast buffet!
There aren't a lot of nature photography opportunities closer to Washington, D.C. but Great Falls of the Potomac National Park near McLean, Virginia is a worthwhile stop at sunrise and sunset.  Come at any other time of the day and be prepared for harsh light (unless the skies are overcast) and large crowds.  Some of my best shots here come well after sunset.
Great Falls of the Potomac, Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

Although this can be shot wide a telephoto lens will allow more experimentation and cropping.  The Great Falls Tavern is a good place for dinner after sunset. 

McWay Falls -- Big Sur's Stellar Achievement

How many waterfalls empty into an ocean?  Not many.  But one of the most attractive is McWay Falls located in California's Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

This is rugged Big Sur territory -- a nearly three-hour drive south of San Francisco best made in the pre-dawn hours so that you can be in place to capture the waterfall just after sunrise. 

There aren't many available viewpoints.  You park your vehicle after paying the $10 daily admission fee (save your receipt in case you go to another California state park that day) and make a short hike under California 1 to an overlook trail.  What you see is a beautiful waterfall on McWay Creek that empties onto a short beach abutting the Pacific Ocean.  Although this can be shot wide I find a tighter composition works well.

I worked this with both the Fujifilm X-E2 with the 18-55mm lens (top) and the X-E1 with a 55-200mm lens (above), both with circular polarizers.  Originally the waterfall cascaded directly into the ocean but after a 1983 fire and 1985 landslides, the topography of McWay Cove was altered, forming an inaccessible beach. The 80-foot waterfall now meets the ocean when the tide is in.

Unless you hit this location on an overcast day it won't be long before the sun pops out and makes photography less manageable.  I left just before this happened but going back up the highway I saw the sun creating some fog on the ocean.

The drive back up California 1 takes you into the scenic towns of Carmel and Monterey.  In the evening, the trip back from an unproductive sunset attempt at Half Moon Bay found this scene off the highway which yielded an almost monochromatic image.

On a sunny day there will be a lot of "dead time" between sunrise and sunset.  Not a bad time to explore the area. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tremont -- "Hidden" Gem of the Smokies

Middle Prong, Little River, Tremont Road
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

Driving into the Great Smoking Mountains from the west entrance at Townsend, Tennessee gives visitors two choices at the "Townsend Y" -- turn left to follow the Little River Road toward Elkmont, Gatlinburg and the east entrance at Cherokee, North Carolina or make a right and head off into Cades Cove.  If you do the latter in less than 60 seconds you'll come upon a left turn which, if you heed its call, will take you on a short drive on Tremont Road along the Middle Prong of the Little River. 

The picturesque river winds on your left while wildflowers and an occasional cascade may appear on the right.  This is arguably the nicest drive in the park with no heavy traffic as you meander along.  In addition to the scenery, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont has been connecting people of all ages with nature at its residential conservation education facility for 45 years.  Spruce Flat Falls is a mile or so upward from near the dormitory and dining hall. 

As you meander you'll likely find fishermen, artists, photographers and others enjoying the calm and beauty of this slightly-off-the-beaten-path part of the Smokies.  Do visit there.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

You have not lost him.

Foothills Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm

I ran into one of my photography mentors this weekend.  He said this hasn’t been a good year – he recently lost his father to whom he was very close.  I offered my condolences and we went on our ways.  Time didn’t allow me to finish my thoughts.

When my father died – four years after my mother passed – a priest told me that now I was orphaned.  Not a particularly great feeling but one we’ll all experience.   At the funeral, however, an old family friend who also “lost”  his dad told me that I had not really lost him.  Sam went on to explain what he meant and it made a lot of sense then and still does 16 years later.

So Bill, you haven’t really lost your dad.  Sure, your’re not going to be able to have a midnight phone conversation or go to a ball game.  I get that.  But he is here and with you.

He’s with you 24/7/365 every time, celebrating your successes and consoling your failures.  He’s with you every time his inspiration encourages you to do the right thing and his caution advises against a bad choice.  When you fix or replace something that broke, it’s his voice guiding you on how to do it.  

That voice said things that you may occasionally repeat when you give advice.  I heard it last week when I was buying some stocks – my dad cautioning “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”  Or, after opening the gas and light bill, recalling his first visit to my home when I lived “up north” (northern Wisconsin) when he noticed how cold it was inside and that “it’s different when you pay your own [utility] bill.”  I shot back that with electric heat each room is controlled individually and that “the bathroom is always set at 72 degrees because nobody likes a cold place to shit.”

If you pay attention, you’ll hear that voice – and most of the time the advice will be spot on.
Trillium, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm, Nikon 5T

At my dad’s funeral I remarked that one of the signs of entering adulthood was when hearing “you’re just like your dad” is no longer an annoyance but rather a compliment.  And I remembered my first personal encounter with empathy when I was in high school and my dad called me to pick him up from the emergency room because he’d been in a car accident.  The irony of that role reversal – how difficult it must have been for him to make that call – was not lost on me.

How many times do we dads politely smile when we’re given another shirt or tie but that’s not what we really want.  At my age when I want something I usually go out and get it – you can’t buy me what I need.  But as a father I know that the one thing we want above all is for our children to be happy, successful and free from want and pain.  When we know that they can survive on their own we can relax because we know our job is done.  That’s what we want and need – our children’s success because in many ways we live vicariously through them.

A restaurant owner in Canada was chided by his accountant son for how primitive his business records are.  “How do you know if you’re making a profit?” he asked.  The father replied that, “When your mother and I left the old country all I had was my pants and the shirt on my back.  Now we have this restaurant and a nice home.  Your sister is a doctor, your brother a lawyer and you are a chartered accountant.  We have wonderful grandchildren.  When I subtract the pants and shirt on my back, that’s my profit.”

Bill, you haven’t lost your dad.  As a person of faith you know that he’s merely "relocated" but nonetheless he lives – through you.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spring - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Trillium, Little River Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 50-200mm, Nikon 5T

Columbine, Little River Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 50-200mm, Nikon 5T

Morton Overlook before sunset, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fujifilm X-E1, 50-200mm, Nikon 5T

Spring just makes you feel better.  The air smells better.  The color begins to return.  New life renews itself.  I know I am ready for spring!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bill Fortney, Pope Francis, dynamite fishing with a game warden, photography and life

Photographic guru and author Bill Fortney (http://www,, recently retired as Nikon professional markets rep, makes no apologies for his strong allegiance to Christian principles and faith.  Bill doesn’t beat you over the head with it but rather he is simply an expert in his own story.  Plus, as a former teacher, Bill is a darn good story teller.

 It’s easy to say, as I often do, that as photographers we are simply recording in our own way that which God gave us.  But that’s not the only correlation between photography, faith and life.

Portland Women's Forum State Park, Oregon
 So many times photographers will walk away from what they view as a less than perfect shot or get so caught up on one lofty track than the simple beauty at your feet is overlooked.  While we should aim for the most perfect images possible is the quest for perfection – sometimes inane quibbling over such things as whether using a filter defiles an image – causing us to overlook the gifts God gave us?  Do we sometimes look too hard for perfection only to walk away empty-handed?

Pope Francis has become one of the world’s most influential people not by loftiness but by simple, humble truths.  He didn’t toss out centuries of Catholic teaching but rather put the mission of the church as being a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints – a place gloriously tattered and bruised from being in the streets with God’s people. 

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

Does the quest for perfection – again, not necessarily an improper goal – obstruct the ability to find beauty even in the imperfect?  Does the fear of being less than perfect keep us from realizing all of our potential?

A game warden was invited by some friends to go fishing.  Having a slow day one of them decided it was a good idea to get the fish to come up out of the deep so he lit a stick of dynamite.  The stunned warden exclaimed, “You can’t do that!!!”  One of his buddies handed the dynamite stick to the warden and said, “Are you going to talk or are you going to fish?”

So, does everything have to be perfect?  Do you want to be in a stuffy museum or doing God’s work in your community?  Are you going to talk or are you going to fish?

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Are you ready?

Brown Pelican, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel, FL
Nikon 1 V1, 30-110mm

Photographers often face a challenge when a shot possibility comes up and you simply don't have the right gear available.  Lots of good shots are lost that way. 

In January I made by annual trip to Sanibel, Florida to shoot at the famous Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a venue where Hurricane Charley left its mark and photography hasn't been quite as good since.  I had wound down after the sun became too intense and put my "big gun" Canon 500mm f/4L lens in the trunk of the rental car when I saw this pelican nearby.  Luckily I had my Nikon 1 V1 mirrorless camera in the car.  I quickly mounted it on the tripod and got this one.

While the refuge is still a mandatory stop for bird photographers the shooting possibilities are a fraction of the pre-Hurricane Charley days.  I was heading back to my hotel in Fort Myers when I saw a few birds hanging around the west side of the Sanibel Causeway along the Gulf of Mexico.  This egret was particularly patient as all I had to shoot with at hand was the V1.

Egret, Sanibel Causeway
Nikon 1 V1, 30-110mm

I might not have grabbed these shots had I not had the V1 ready and available when the "big gun" just wouldn't work out.  Be ready.  Be on watch.  You never know when something unexpected will come your way.

Getting "flowy" water -- it's a matter of time!

Latourell Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm

Most of my photography is of waterfalls, cascades, lakes and streams.  There are certain "tricks of the trade" photographers use to create attractive images involving water.  With some exceptions, we want the water to appear as the great landscape photographer Willard Clay described as "flowy."  You can see the impact of that in the above shot from the Columbia River Gorge.  A slow shutter speed created a "flowy" look in the water. 

Many folks photograph waterfalls in bright sunlight -- usually a big "no no" -- because they are there at the wrong time.  Bright light means faster shutter speeds and generally harsh, unpleasing images.  An overcast day is ideal but, barring that, then consider getting to the waterfall area at or just after sunrise and within an hour of sunset.  Your camera will need to be on a tripod and you should use a remote shutter release to eliminate blur from vibration.  A waterfall image often means seeking the best of both worlds -- maximum sharpness for what needs to be sharp and the right amount of "flowy" water.

This isn't to say that we always want "flowy" water in an image.  Freezing the action with a high shutter speed can work in the right situation, such as in this wildlife "chase" scene:
Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah
Canon EOS 20D, 500mm f.4L, 1/160 sec. @ f/4

1/160 second was enough to stop some of the action.  I didn't want all of it completely frozen as it might dilute the impact of the scene.

Experiment with different shutter speeds to see what works best for you.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Starved Rock State Park - St. Louis Canyon

St. Louis Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Utica, IL
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm 
Hitech 2-stop graduated neutral density filter

I left home at 3:30 a.m. today to photograph the waterfall in St. Louis Canyon located in Starved Rock State Park.  Unfortunately the water flow was tepid, though not a trickle, and wildflowers in bloom delayed.  Nonetheless I had the canyon to myself for an hour and came away with a few shots.

Starved Rock is 140 miles from Kenosha, a few minutes south of Interstate 80 (exit 81).  From the parking area it's a 15-20 minute hike to the falls.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What's a photograph of a theater doing in a nature photography site?

North Bend Theater, North Bend, Washington
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm
If there was an "endangered species list" for American communities movie many houses would be on it.  Television, DVD recordings and on-demand video services killed off many and many of the rest may succumb to technology demands of the industry that will mothball hot projectors and endless reels of film in favor of hard drives and digital projection.
Progress, however, comes with a price -- a cool $100,000 -- money that many already struggling theater owners don't have.  With the deadline for digital conversion rapidly approaching the days of the local movie house are numbered but not for the 6,000 people in North Bend, Washington (about 30 miles west of Seattle).
The community came together to raise money to save the 1941 art deco North Bend theater which, in addition to movies, is a venue for many community events. 

Snoqualmie Falls - Power for the people

Snoqualmie Falls, Washington
Nikon 1 V1, 10-30mm

When you think of Seattle you think of Stabucks, the Space Needle and Microsoft -- not waterfalls.  But just a half hour west there's Snoqualmie Falls which helps produce hydroelectric energy.  Over one million people visit it every year.  For me, it's a "required stop" whenever I am in the area.  Often a shot of the falls is complicated by heavy spray from the falls -- not an issue this January.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

He is risen! Happy Easter! Alleluia!

Bodie, California
Canon EOS 30D, 24-105mm
Luckenbach, Texas

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Good Friday

Episcopal Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Canon EOS 7D, 24-105 f/4 L

Luke 21:36: "Be always on the watch"

What does spirituality have to do with photography?  A lot, actually.  The natural world is God's gift to us, encouraging us to be good stewards.  And we are called to always "be on watch."  For the photographer, it also means keeping your eyes open for beauty in the least likely places:

Coming back from a morning shoot at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia I stopped at a rest area along I-66.  Coming out of the men's room I saw this image and raced back to the car to get my camera and tripod before the sun washed out the color.  I saw better flowers at the rest area than in the park!

Everglades: And then there were birds

When I haven't been back to a place for an extended period of time I tend to forget why that was.  In the case of the Everglades it's the toll that hurricanes extracted  -- destroying countless trees and even wiping out the Flamingo Hotel.  On the Anghina Trail -- where bird photography was often like shooting fish in a barrel -- the pickings were slim and the alligators more scarce.
Of course, what would the Anhinga Trail be without its namesake:

Also resting up for a busy day of fishing was this Cormorant:

And while the pickings were indeed slim, it always makes my day to find a green heron:

While these birds will let you get relatively close you can't stand in front of them.  That's why these images were taken with a Canon 500mm f.4L lens on a Canon 50D camera attached to an Arca-Swiss Z1 ballhead on a Gitzo 1228 tripod.

Pine Glades Lake: Chasing The Light

In all of my trips to Everglades National Park I hadn't ventured much off the main road until this winter when I heard of a good spot for sunset and sunrise shots -- Pine Glades Lake.  A few minutes ride on a bumpy and muddy road led to a photographic feast illustrating how a few minutes difference in the light dramatically changes the image -- and how even when the sun goes down it doesn't automatically mean packing up and leaving (but bring plenty of Off! if you stay).
Shot as the sun was heading down:

Three minutes later:

And I am happy I didn't leave then.  15 minutes later, after sunset:

For such a small shooting venue there were many shot possibilities.  I made sure to be there at sunrise the next day.  It wasn't a "knock your socks off" sunrise but beautiful in its own right:

And the Off! was heavily sprayed on me to get the sunset shot before heading out and getting ready to return home:

I went to the Everglades in search of bird shots on the Anhinga Trail but those weren't as plentiful as in years past.  The heavy Canon gear and big telephoto lenses gave way to the much smaller and lighter Nikon 1 V1 mirrorless camera for these scenic shots which illustrate what a few minutes difference can make in photography.  So many people will grab a quick snapshot and not wait for what might be a better -- or at least nice -- image a few minutes later.  Chasing the light is what it's about.

Artist's note:  There are a few "tools" used to take images like this.  First, the camera must be secure and level.  The V1 was attached to an L bracket which allows it to be used in the vertical and horizontal positions.  The L bracket (Really Right Stuff) is attached to a ball head (Arca-Swiss Z1) which is attached to a tripod (Gitzo 1228).  A B+W circular polarizer helps reduce glare and the Hitech two stop graduated neutral density filter tones down the "hot" sky to balance the image.  A "double bubble" spirit level was used to get the image as level as possible and, lastly, to reduce vibration and improve sharpness, an electronic remote shutter release activated the camera shutter instead of putting my hand on the shutter release button.