Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

The Steve McCurry Kerfuffle

Light trail, Arches NP, Utah

Light trail, Arches NP, Utah

“Once more, into the breach”.

Sorry, William.  But your famous line from Henry V seems to apply here.  Once again we’re going to debate the ethics of photo-manipulation.  The recent disclosure that National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry apparently “altered” a number of published photographs caused a bit of a stir.  The discovery that the famous photojournalist – the creator of “Afghan Girl” (1980, I think?) – was moving objects around, doing selective cloning, erasing people, and heaven knows what else in post-processing seems to have generated some serious shockwaves.  Photographic purists didn’t like it.  It just isn’t the kind of thing a “real” photojournalist should be doing.  Rearranging, or completely eliminating, what’s actually in front of the lens is, to them, a no-no.  

Another tempest in a teapot.  Again.

Not that I’m taking sides here.  I honestly don’t care what anybody does – or doesn’t do – with their photographs.  Even photojournalists.  So long as they don’t create an image that they want me to believe is a faithful representation of what they saw when it’s not.  If, for example, someone were to create a photograph from Area 51 that appeared to “prove” that flying saucers and aliens were “real” (when no such evidence actually exists), and then plastered that image all over the internet and social media (thus creating about a zillion converts who all now believe we’re being invaded) he or she has, in my opinion, crossed the line.  My line, anyway.  Your line might be different.        

I mean, who cares what the photographer does?  We all follow some kind of process when making photographs.  A process that usually goes from what your eye sees to what the camera records to what the computer outputs.  Or from what you see to your phone to wherever you want to send it.  The process, whatever it is, belongs to you.  There are no rules.  Nor are there any rules for the viewer.  Art, in all of its forms, is roughly analogous to the Wild, Wild West.  You can be your own hired gun.  You are your own law.

As soon as you look at my “light trail” image above, for instance, you know it’s not real.  It’s not a “faithful” depiction of what your eye would see in real-time.  It’s simply a long exposure that shows the reflections of a lot of headlights but effectively removes the individual cars from the image.  It’s what I wanted.  So you see what looks like a curving trail of light.  A manipulation?  Absolutely.  An in-camera manipulation of light.  For me, a metaphor for the millions of people who visit Arches NP, or any other park, during the year.

Want to remove people from a photograph?  No sweat.  A long exposure can do that too.

Canyon Cascade, Watkins Glen SP, Watkins Glen, NY

Canyon Cascade, Watkins Glen SP, Watkins Glen, NY

Although technically this one was done a little differently.  I couldn’t do a long enough single exposure to make the people wandering through completely disappear.  So I set the camera at the longest exposure time possible and took a series of identical shots.  When I got them all into the computer I opened them in Photoshop as layers in the same image.  Then I had to select them all, turn them into a Smart Object, and stack them.  If you do all that you can then pick the Smart Object stacking mode.  For this type of image “Median” seems to work best.  Magically, the people all disappeared.  If I’d had a strong enough ND filter (10 stops?) it would have been a lot simpler.  One exposure would have cleared the walkway.  

Either way, it’s a kind of correction.  I wanted one thing and the camera saw another.  So I corrected it.  There were always people there.  I suppose I could have waited for a clear moment, but it would have taken a while.  They just kept coming.  And for this image I wanted the walkway clear.  In essence, it’s a composite.  A composite of 5 nearly identical images.  

By the way, if you know something about the history of photography you may remember that early photographers sometimes captured urban landscapes.  In almost all of them you get the impression that the place was a ghost town.  There are no people.  Unless, of course, they were stationary throughout the exposure.  That’s because the plates the photographer was using required fairly long exposures, even during the daytime (ISO’s of about 10 or 20 maybe?).  So anybody walking, riding, or in any way moving just disappeared.  So these guys were doing exactly what I did.  The only difference is that they had to do it.  There was no choice.  But as far as I know no one has accused them of posthumous “photo-manipulation”.  

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone claiming that people who are doing astrophotography are photoshopping their images.  Everybody seems to love a good Milky Way photograph.  But anyone who’s done them knows that they’re usually heavily edited.  The idea is to make those little pinpoints of light as bright and as colorful as possible.  They don’t come out of the camera that way.

The question, I think, is this: Is there a line to be drawn and if there is, who draws it?  When does corrective or creative editing become unethical editing?  Or even criminal editing?

I don’t know.  But if there’s a discussion to be had, that’s what it should be about.  I really don’t think Steve McCurry’s editing should have generated any more than a collective yawn.             

     

     

Sand in a very old Hourglass

Navajo Sandstone, Zion NP, Utah

Navajo Sandstone, Zion NP, Utah

Were it not for some very large ancient sand dunes, Zion NP would not exist.  Most of the formations in the park are made of Navajo sandstone, a rock type that formed in the Jurassic Period (roughly 150 million years ago).  At that time, the southwestern area of what is now the United States sat in the earth’s dry trade-winds belt (only 10 to 30 degrees north of the equator) and was even warmer than it is now.  It looked a great deal like the Sahara Desert looks today.  Then, over millions of years, tectonics caused northward movement and the sand fossilized, leaving some of the most awe inspiring rock formations you’ll ever see.  Most of the “good stuff”, I think, is found in the eastern end of the park, between the east entrance and the Zion Tunnel.

Crossbedding, Checkerboard Mesa, Zion NP

Crossbedding, Checkerboard Mesa, Zion NP

Entering from the east, one of the first things that visitors see is Checkerboard Mesa.  I’ve been at this spot numerous times, always fascinated by the reactions of “first-timers” who’ve never seen these kinds of formations.  What you’re looking at is the result of a process called crossbedding.  When this area was just sand dunes – an area, by the way, that covered more than 100,000 square miles – sand particles would ride the wind up the leeward side of a dune and collect on top.  When the weight of that “collection” became unstable, the sand would fall down the sharper slope of the other side.  This process was repeated over and over again.  When the sand hardened into rock, the result was what you see here.  You can actually see the individual layers of crossbedded sand.  The wind direction, if you’re wondering, was from left to right.

 

A more friendly Slot

Slot Canyon, eastern end of Zion NP

Slot Canyon, eastern end of Zion NP

No need for any special equipment in this slot.  You might have to scramble over a few boulders now and then or wade through a little water, but there’s no rappelling.  Even I can do it, and I’m getting old……..

Actually, this particular slot canyon is part of the same system as Pine Creek Canyon; a fairly long wash (or draw) runs from the eastern edge of Zion to the Zion Tunnel area, where it drops down into the main canyon of Zion and into the Virgin River.  Slots like this are created as the water (and rocks and trees and other debris) cut through Navajo sandstone cliffs.  It’s not all like this, of course.  The draw sometimes widens into a wide, flat, boulder strewn area where the sandstone cliffs have been significantly eroded or were never there in the first place.

Water seeping through red sandstone, Zion NP

Water seeping through red sandstone, Zion NP

In some places you can see water seeping into the slot from the cliffs themselves.  The sandstone is porous, so rain that falls on the tops of the cliffs will eventually find its way to the bottom.  It then leeches onto the ground, forming small (or even large) pools of water that help nourish plant and animal life.

Slot canyon walls, Zion NP

Slot canyon walls, Zion NP

And then there’s the color.  In some places the walls exhibit various shades of red, yellow, brown, and blue.  Yes, blue.  At least that’s how it looks in places.  I suspect it’s a form of “desert varnish”, but I’m not sure.  Sometimes you just have to stand there and stare at it.  And if you stand still enough, and it gets really, really quiet, I swear you can hear water moving through the rock.

Rock deposits in the slot, Zion NP

Rock deposits in the slot, Zion NP

One of the most fascinating things (to me, anyway) as I wander through slots like this is the ubiquitous presence of rock piles.  If you happen upon a point where the draw makes a turn you’ll find scenes that look like this.  The side of the slot that the water hits will be extremely smooth, like it’s been polished.  There will also be a fair amount of fine sand, with rocks on top of it.  And some of the rocks are fairly large.  The big one in the foreground of this image is roughly the size of a football.  So it’s heavy.  These rocks didn’t fall from the top of the cliff, either.  Water brought them to this point, and then dropped them when it slowed down making the turn.

While I wouldn’t want to be in this canyon during a flash flood, I have to say I wouldn’t mind witnessing such an event.  That has to be something to see.

My apologies to anyone who’s seen any of my previous posts about slot canyons.  I have a feeling I’m repeating myself here.  But guess what?  Next time I’m at Zion I’ll be down here again.  It always looks different, especially after there’s been heavy rain.    

 

  

Pine Creek Slot

Looking down at Pine Creek slot canyon, Zion NP

Looking down at Pine Creek slot canyon, Zion NP

This is one of those places I’d like to explore but most likely never will.  It’s the upper end of Pine Creek Canyon and is probably the most popular “technical slot” in Zion NP.  This image is a view from another popular trail (The Overlook Trail) that runs along the rim of the canyon and eventually takes you to some spectacular views of the lower part of Zion.

In case you didn’t know, it’s a technical slot because it requires rappelling gear to get from one end to the other.  Some of the rappels are as long as 60 feet.  Since I’ve never done that, and since my wife would probably kill me if I announced that I wanted to learn how to do it, it ain’t going to happen.

For anyone who is learning, though, this is a great place to do it.  The narrows that you see here are relatively short in length and it’s an easy canyon to get into.  

East end of Zion Tunnel

East end of Zion Tunnel

All you have to do is park near the east end of the Zion Tunnel and then walk down a short sandy bank and under the bridge that leads into the tunnel (shown here).  Soon after, hikers will reach a point where rappelling is required.

Oh, you’ll also need a permit from one of the two Visitor Centers.  The permit fee depends on the size of the party.

  

 

Some Desert Friends

Female Bighorn with twins, Zion NP, Utah

Female Bighorn with twins, Zion NP, Utah

For me, photographing wildlife is not what I’d call a personal “passion”.  It’s enjoyable, but I can take it or leave it.  Except when it comes to these guys.  My wife and I love Bighorn Sheep.  And one of the best places to find them, I think, is in the upper plateau (eastern) region of Zion NP.  We’ve been to Zion many times and I can’t remember a trip where we didn’t see any Bighorn.  There’ve been trips when we weren’t close enough to get any decent photographs, but we’ve always managed to see at least one or two climbing around in Zion’s red rocks.

On this last trip we got really lucky.  We’d just climbed out of our favorite slot canyon area and were relaxing by the Jeep when we saw a number of sheep coming down the side of a nearby cliff.  What was most interesting was that there were some youngsters in the group.

So I got out my longest lens (420mm with the crop factor applied) and got as close to them as I could.  Maybe too close.

Busted! Spotted by a Bighorn, Zion NP.

Busted! Spotted by a Bighorn, Zion NP.

Not the best composition, but I love the “expression” on this one.  He (or she) had just spotted me and for a few seconds didn’t seem to know what to do.  So we just stared at each other for a while.

A very young Bighorn, Zion NP

A very young Bighorn, Zion NP

I’m not sure how old these youngsters were, but what amazed me was their ability to navigate the rocks and cliffs.  Apparently a talent that they’re born with.

A more regal pose, Zion NP

A more regal pose, Zion NP

I think this guy might have been the alpha male in the group.  He seemed to be doing most of the sentry duty.  But I’m not sure.  Heck, sometimes I have a tough time telling the males from the females………

In any case, I couldn’t have asked for a better pose.  The eye is clearly visible, the neck is turned, and the location is perfect.  Most importantly he’s not eating!  More than anything, I think, an eating animal makes for a poor photograph.

Another good pose, Zion NP

Another good pose, Zion NP

There’s one other problem with wildlife photography:  to get a few good images you have to take a lot of them.  It’s not like you can ask them to stand still while you’re setting up.  While the images posted here are decent, I’ve got a lot, lot more of Bighorns eating grass or bushes, or pictures where they suddenly turned around and I got a great shot of their butt.  And I’ve even got one where my subject decided to take a dump.  But I certainly can’t complain.  I’d invaded their turf, not the other way around.

 

Stars and Moonlight, White Sands NM

Milky Way and White Sands NM

Milky Way and White Sands NM

This is an image I could see in my head before we ever packed up the Jeep and started west this past February.  I knew Milky Way “season” had begun, I knew that there would be a quarter moon setting behind me, and I knew the moon would “light up” the white sand given the exposure I would need for the stars.  The only real question was figuring out what I wanted to use for foreground.  So I was very eager to get to Alamogordo, NM, and to White Sands National Monument.  A photograph was waiting for me.  

But I never got it.  The picture you see here isn’t real.  The bottom portion is, in fact, part of White Sands NM and that’s certainly the Milky Way hanging above it.  Unfortunately, they’re two different images taken in two different places.  The Milky Way image is from Death Valley.  

Photoshop strikes again.

Actually, not getting the photograph – the real one, I mean – was pretty much my own fault.  My research was a little less than adequate on this occasion.  I assumed that getting into the Monument between sunset and sunrise wouldn’t be a problem (I needed to be there about 3:30 AM).  With few exceptions, National Parks – and Monuments – are open 24/7.  Most can be accessed at any time.  Just drive through the gate and do your thing.

Not at White Sands.  While I was there the gate wouldn’t open until 7:00 AM (opening and closing time changes as sunrise and sunset times change).  So I went into the Visitor Center and asked a Ranger how to get in during “off-hours”.  She handed me a pamphlet titled “Photography Before or After Hours FAQ”.  After reading one of the first sentences I knew I was in trouble:

“At White Sands NM we share our boundaries with the U. S. military at Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range.  Due to security issues, the monument has specific posted hours of operation”.

There are two ways to get around this.  The first is to camp in the park in one of ten backcountry sites.  For me, not an option.  I have no camping gear.  The second way involves filing some formal paperwork and then waiting at least 3 days for “approval or denial” of your request.  Then, if it’s approved, you have to pay $50 for every hour – or part of an hour – that is earlier than the posted opening or later than the closing.  If I wanted to be inside at 3:30 AM, for example, that would be 3.5 hours early (200 bucks!).  And the payment has to be in some form of cash.  No checks or credit cards.  

Not to mention the fact that if you’re more than 10 minutes late to the gate the ranger assigned to open it for you will “go about their duties”.  No money will be refunded.

So scratch that option.  I wasn’t going to get my picture.  Not a real one, anyway.   I briefly considered parking on the road and hiking in but quickly rejected that idea.  Who knows how seriously they take their “security issues”?

I kinda like this picture, though.  I had to relearn some Photoshop techniques that I hadn’t used in a long time, but it worked out pretty well.  Heck, maybe I’ll print a big one and hang it on the wall.  

Or maybe I’ll send a copy to White Sands and tell them I snuck in.  And then wait for the FBI to show up…….  

When the Fog Rolled In (Part II)

Fog in Bryce Canyon (edited version)

Fog in Bryce Canyon (edited version)

Generally speaking, I usually don’t do photographic “sequels”.  Once I publish  images that I want to share, images relating to a certain time and place, I rarely go back to pick out a second group from the same set.  If I didn’t pick them at the outset it’s likely that I didn’t think they were as good as the ones I did pick.  And even if I do change my mind I probably won’t redo the same post.  It just seems to me that doing so is just a tiny bit redundant.

But there are always exceptions – to everything.  For about a week now I’ve been going through images from the same fog event, especially looking at the ones that I initially thought were really bad.  The reason I didn’t like them is because they were dominated (tonally) by a bright white background.  The fog, that is.  And I’ve always hated “white skies”.  Uniformly blue skies aren’t my favorite, either, but white backgrounds, for me, are pretty much intolerable.  In this case the fog was brightly lit, by the sun, from behind.  Which kind of turned everything else into dark silhouettes.  Straight out of the camera the image above looked like this:

Bryce Canyon fog (Unedited)

Bryce Canyon fog (Unedited)

In my opinion, that’s just ugly.  There’s very little color and worse, there’s almost no texture in the rock formations.  And honestly that’s not what I remember seeing.  It is, however, what the camera’s sensor saw.

Fortunately, all of the detail is still hiding there in the original RAW image.  I just needed to coax it out.  And I do like the resulting, edited image.  It almost looks like a scene from one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.  Every time I look at it I expect to see an Orc or two peering back at me.

Here’s another resurrected image:

Snow and fog in Wall Street, Bryce Canyon

Snow and fog in Wall Street, Bryce Canyon

And one more:

Fog envelops Bryce Canyon

Fog envelops Bryce Canyon

Again, all of these photographs looked very dull and very bland straight out of the camera.  If I’d exposed for the orange hoodoos I would have blown out all of the white snow and fog.  My only option was to make sure I was capturing in RAW file format and then make the necessary adjustments in post.  Which is what I do all the time.

Not that any of this is news.  I think most photographers do exactly the same thing.  But it would have been a different story (for me) if I’d only captured JPEG’s or if I’d only had my iPhone.  Just sayin’………….   

  

When the Fog Rolled In

Fog entering Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

Fog entering Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

I mentioned in a previous post that we saw snow falling in Bryce on our second day there.  It happened early in the morning (shortly after sunrise) and only lasted about 30 minutes.  My initial thought was to get out to the amphitheater area as quickly as possible.  It seemed to me that the hoodoos just might have received a “sugar coating” of snow.  With the sun beginning to make its appearance, the effect would likely be photogenic.

Unfortunately, there was no sugar coating.  New snow had accumulated in flat areas of the canyon, but not on any of the spires.  Still, it was a beautiful sight, and one that I essentially had all to myself.  There had been a few people there when I arrived, presumably to photograph sunrise.  But they’d left or were in the process of leaving.  So I just wandered along the edge, enjoying the view and the silence.

As I stood there looking toward the east and the breaking clouds, I noticed that some of those clouds seemed awfully low.  And then I realized that those “clouds” were rolling over the eastern edge of the amphitheater and down into the canyon.

Not clouds, I thought.  Fog.  Fog was rapidly forming to the east and heading in my direction.  The snow that had fallen must have brought the air temperature and dew point within 4 degrees F of one another.  Creating Radiational Fog.  A rare event in the southwest.

Fog rolling through Bryce Canyon

Fog rolling through Bryce Canyon

Being a greedy SOB, I began hoping for a little something extra.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen photographs of the effect or not, but on occasion fog will fill a deep canyon (even the Grand Canyon) so completely that you can’t see down into it.  It looks like a bathtub filled with water, except that the “water” is really fog.  Well, no cigar this time.  But I loved it anyway!

Fog enveloping Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon

Fog enveloping Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon

Eventually the fog arrived on the west edge of the canyon, just below the entrance to the Navajo Trail and near what is perhaps Bryce’s most iconic hoodoo: Thor’s Hammer.

All in all, an experience much better than “sugar coated” hoodoos.  Although that would have been nice, too.

 

     

Not a Single Wildflower

Snow in Bryce Canyon

Snow in Bryce Canyon

It’s only about a 6 hour drive from Death Valley to Bryce Canyon, but the change in environment is dramatic.  While Death Valley sits at sea level (or below), Bryce is at roughly 8,500 feet.  Kind of a big change.  Where one is dry and warm, the other can be downright chilly – and snowy – especially in March.

And we weren’t disappointed.  We did find a fair amount of snow.  In fact, fresh snow fell on the second day we were there.  Maybe not as pretty as the “super bloom” we saw in Death Valley a few days earlier, but snow on red rock has its own special charm.  It also keeps the tourist count down.  We practically had the place to ourselves.  For an ornery old coot like myself, that’s a good thing.

The Living Desert

Wildflowers, Death Valley NP

Wildflowers, Death Valley NP

Flowers, flowers, and more flowers.  An unusual sight most of the time in Death Valley.  If you see them, it will be in the Spring – but only if conditions are right.  And this year conditions were definitely favorable.  Death Valley saw a fair amount of rain over the past few months.  Here you see a large patch of Desert Gold up on a hillside (near Natural Bridge), with the salt basin and the Panamint Mountains in the background.  Note the snow still visible on the high peaks. 

A threat of rain, Death Valley NP

A threat of rain, Death Valley NP

Rain was still a threat, in fact, the first two days we were there.  We got hit with “sprinkles” a couple of times, but no heavy rain.  Most of the precipitation  appeared to be restricted to the higher elevations.

Some tall Desert Gold, Death Valley NP

Some tall Desert Gold, Death Valley NP

Desert Gold was by far the most common wildflower in the park.  What made this year unusual was (1) the number of them, (2) the size of the flower, and (3) the height of the plant.  Most were much taller – with bigger blooms – than normal.

Something different

Something different

There was some variety, though.  I’m not sure exactly what this one was (a flower expert I’m not), but it was certainly pretty. 

Down the road, Death Valley NP

Down the road, Death Valley NP

It was difficult, in my opinion, to capture in a photograph the extent of this wildflower explosion.  Your eyes seemed better able to record these vibrant colors than the camera’s sensor.  This view, taken along the road to Beatty, NV, was simply striking when we first saw it.  The flat area in the distance was very yellow and very bright.  An amazing sight.  But this image just doesn’t capture what I remember seeing.

I guess you just had to be there………

 

 

 

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