I recently did an interview with SmugMug talking about my decision to quit my job two years ago and focus exclusively on travel and photography (and not so much, as is apparent, on this blog). So, please read it if you’re interested in what I’ve been up to the last two years: http://news.smugmug.com/2013/06/07/quit-your-job-and-run-for-the-hills-ron-coscorrosa-speaks-out/
I haven’t written a blog post in over a year – and it’s not because I have nothing to say (I do!), but I have been incredibly busy traveling, photographing, and moving from Seattle to Denver to move in with my girlfriend (and gifted nature photographer) Sarah Marino. All great things and all much more important than keeping this dark lonely hole of the Internet universe partially illuminated. Also, and this is the real reason: I’m lazy.
So instead of writing about all of the great things that have happened in the last twelve months I’ll just briefly recap the year by showing some of my favorite photos that I have processed to date.
Many people are doing their “12 favorites of 2012″, so in order to be different, and because I can’t edit photos, I’m going to show my 20 favorites of 2012 (20 is in 2012 too, damn it!).
The photos are arranged in chronological order with the location above each photo. For larger versions of the photos, please go to my photo gallery.
It’s only the second afternoon of my trip and already I have no idea where the hell I am. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.
I crawl out of the sleeping bag in the back of my car, peek out of the window, and eventually I remember: West Yellowstone!
The previous night I watched Great Fountain Geyser erupt at 11 PM, all by myself, lit only by the light of the stars. It was the sound, not the sight, that alerted me to its presence, and I really hoped that I was outside the spray zone, and I was (but it was in mine, Yellowstone indeed!). The night before that I was racing from Seattle to make sunrise, and did, with five minutes to spare and no speeding tickets.
I’m in Yellowstone, the sixth time in two years, for a single purpose: to photograph fall colors in Colorado. While there aren’t a lot of Colorado fall colors in Wyoming (even in peak years) it’s only a few hours from Yellowstone to Colorado, and a natural stopping point on the way from Seattle.
All my non-photographer friends told me I should go to New England for fall colors. I told them New England can suck it, I’m going to Colorado. Where in Colorado? I didn’t know, but I knew John Denver wasn’t full of shit and was going to prove him right.
The colors are late this year, but I don’t really care when they peak, I just want to be there when they do. It should only take a few weeks. I have all the time in the world, and while that’s still not enough, it’s as close as I’m going to get.
Now it’s eight weeks and 12,000 miles later and I’m back at home with a handful of photos, a head full of memories and wondering what the hell just happened. I’m hoping it won’t be the last time.
From that foggy afternoon in Yellowstone until my return home, I would visit Grand Teton NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Western Colorado (Aspen, Ridgway, Crested Butte, Telluride, and points in between), Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Great Sand Dunes NP, Mesa Verde NP, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock in New Mexico, The Bisti Badlands Wilderness, White Sands National Monument, Saguaro NP and the Sonoran Desert near Tuscon, Red Rock country in Sedona, Grand Canyon NP (south rim), Havasu Falls, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, House on Fire and Fallen Roof ruins near Cedar Mesa, Monument Valley in Arizona, Lower and Upper Antelope slot canyons near Page, Horseshoe Bend, slot canyons near Escalante (Utah), Death Valley, and the Columbia River Gorge.
I said my main goal was to photograph the fall colors in Colorado. That’s actually not true. My main goal was to be flexible and go wherever I felt like going. Colorado was the start, but not the end. There is no end.
I drove on pavement, gravel, dirt, sand (red, brown, and white gypsum), snow, ice, and mud. Well I didn’t actually drive on mud, but I slid on it pretty damn good. I didn’t get stuck once and I’m going to attribute that to skill even though luck deserves all the credit.
I only got lost when following my GPS.
I was 12,000 feet above sea level in Colorado and almost 300 feet below it in California. I experienced temperatures ranging from 0F to 105F, and dressed so that I would be uncomfortable in any temperature.
I slept in motels (a few nights), a tent (many nights), and my car (most nights). I had no reservations, anywhere.
I showered. Rarely.
I had cold food and hot food but mostly bad food. Except for the free food, free food is always good food.
I met many old friends, made a few new ones, and didn’t lose any that I’m aware of.
I had weeks of complete solitude and peace and weeks with friends, laughter, and a different kind of peace.
I made a few jokes, some happened to be funny, most happened to be vulgar.
I saw uncountable crimes against photography and only a few of them were mine.
I had one lens spontaneously break, at Havasu Falls, ten miles down canyon. I had one tripod break. Somewhere. I fucking hate tripods. All of them.
I had bison surround my car when I was 200 feet away from it.
I herded cows with my car, more than once, and I also heard cows in the act, more than once.
I saw geysers, mountains, rivers, sand dunes, ruins, sandstone (rocks, arches, canyons, slot canyons, and hoodoos), forests of aspen and saguaro, salt flats, playas, waterfalls, the milky way, a couple full moons, and not a single ocean. I saw beauty both spectacular and subtle and it was everywhere.
But mostly I realized that experiences are the only possessions worth keeping and time the only price to pay.
Townes Van Zandt said that living on the road will keep you free and clean. He was only half right, but got the part that matters.
There are only three months left in the year and I haven’t been anywhere, or rather I’ve been to the same everywhere, which may as well be nowhere. There’s a point in here somewhere.
The point is (I think) that I’ve been negligent in visiting new places.
There’s always a delicate balance between depth and breadth.
The best images almost always come from places I know well, not just because I’m maximizing my chances of having good light with repeated visits (but that certainly helps), but because there are no distractions. I know where things are. I know how to get there and how long it will take. I know what types of shots are possible for the given conditions.
The problem, of course, is that I think I know more than I actually do. I settle into a pattern. I stop being creative and start being reflexive. Reverence loses ground to disappointment. With experience it becomes easier to spot this trend happening and, if I’m lucky, to stop it. But the threat is always there and will sneak up on me if I’m not paying attention.
Which is why it’s important to visit new places. To be overwhelmed and confused and in awe. To not know where to start or what to do. To lose any preconceived notions. To be inspired. To try and tame the chaos and also to fail so that you can get it right the next time, and most importantly, to piss off the locals by getting epic light on your first visit!
So I’m going to hit the road. I’ll be visiting some places I know well (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), some places I only know superficially (Arizona and Utah) and some places I don’t know at all (Colorado and New Mexico). I’ll be trading the volcanoes in the Cascades for ragged peaks of the Rockies; the autumn vine maples, mountain ash, and huckleberries for the gold and crimson aspens; evergreens for sagebrush; wet beaches and waterfalls for the desert and sand dunes, and brown dirt for, well, red dirt.
Lessons I’ve learned in my familiar territories will still be applicable to these new places. The inspiration I get from these new places will allow me to see the old places in a new way.
There’s really nothing to lose (except sleep, money, and gas – but I was going to lose those anyway). I’ll return armed with memories, experiences, a huge backlog of photos that will take forever to process, and, if I’m lucky, no speeding tickets that I can’t bribe my way out of.
“Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously. He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously.” — Bob Dylan
A Crazy Idea
I have spent twenty of the last forty-eight hours driving, covering over one thousand miles, fueled only by a single sub sandwich, a banana-nut muffin, and a few bottles of grape juice. I started in Jackson, Wyoming and am now at Eunice Lake in the northwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park, one hour away from sunset.
I am not alone.
I inflict this sort of torture on myself all the time, alternating between extremes of food deprivation and disgusting gluttony, spending endless hours driving and even longer periods without sleep. Normally I don’t notice, and this time is no different. I’m always focused on getting the photo or just getting away. Food and sleep can wait.
Ana, who shared my diet (though she was able to make her sandwich last over a period of twelve hours beating my less impressive total of five minutes) hasn’t collapsed, and just asked in passing if I had a Clif Bar available. Of course! About a dozen of them. Two miles away in my car. I did have some lens wipes, spare batteries for my headlamp, and numerous other items of the non-edible variety with me in my bag. You know, stuff I might need.
Even though she is Slovenian, the look she shoots me is universal: What the hell did I get myself into?
At this point, a few thoughts are running through my head.
The first and foremost is disappointment at being informed that I too was hungry.
The second is that when traveling with others, one should compromise or at the very least empathize with their companions. I realized that thus far my idea of compromise was to act like I was alone and the other person wasn’t there.
The third thought is that for all my indifference to the plight of my companion, my only penalty was a brief sideways glance, and that maybe, just maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
The crazy idea I’m referring to wasn’t going 48 hours on an empty stomach (that wasn’t the idea, that was just something that happened). No, the crazy idea was agreeing to spend ten days with someone I had never met in person.
Planning the Trip
After learning of my voluntary unemployment, Ana approached me to see if I was interested in spending a few days shooting with her in Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Her employer, SmugMug, was having a week-long company retreat in Jackson, and she figured it made sense to extend her visit to the US another week to take in some of the spectacular scenery before flying back to Europe.
I said I would be interested as long as she was OK with switching Grand Teton and Yellowstone with Mt. Rainier, which is much more photogenic in August. She had the option of returning on a Friday or a Monday, I told her to pick Monday so that we would also have time to visit Olympic National Park, or anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest depending on weather and conditions.
I agreed first, and only began to rationalize my decision later.
I knew that Ana was willing to get up at crazy hours, willing to camp and forgo luxuries like showers, hot running water and cooked food, that she was in good shape (climbing mountains and hiking in Slovenia), and that she was passionate about landscapes and photography. She had a good sense of humor (which I strictly define as anyone who laughs at my jokes). I reasoned that if she was already 75% crazy, I could bring out the other 25% over the course of the trip.
Even with that, I realized I was taking a risk. Any minor personality mismatch would be magnified over the course of ten days. Even best friends (and spouses!) can find out quickly that they were not designed to travel together. There would be long hikes and even longer drives. We would be trapped with each other with no polite means of escape.
So I rolled the dice and hoped for the best, or at least the ability to tolerate the worst.
Notice how I didn’t even mention all the risks that Ana was taking? That’s that empathy thing again.
I Told You Rainier Was Better Than Grand Teton
I met Ana for the first time and some other friends who worked at SmugMug for sunrise at Grand Teton soon after making the fourteen hour drive from Seattle. After sunrise the SmugMug employees had to work, so I napped for the first time in several days.
A few hours before sunset Ana and I headed out in an attempt to find a captivating and original perspective on the Tetons. There were only a few small clouds in the sky, opposite the direction of the mountains. We encountered a small herd of bison positioned in exactly the wrong spot for any decent photographs. We drove around on dirt roads and found some cool red hills that were just outside the park with a scenic power line in the foreground.
The outing was a spectacular failure as far as capturing any riveting landscapes or even wildlife portraits. After we were done, neither of us wanted to kill the other, so we were off to a better start than our photographs would indicate.
Before we left, I put on my macro lens in an attempt to come away with a photo worth keeping.
Stars Now, Sleep Never
I wanted to sleep, I really did.
My friends were going to photograph the stars, but the logistics were complicated (they needed an extra tripod – I have one!), an extra intervalometer (I had two!), two cars (my car can fit everyone!). So I decided to join them and put the sleep off for some time into the future while Ana remained busy in Jackson saying farewell to all her coworkers that she met for the first time in person just a few days before.
It only took me about a dozen shots to make sure I had the focus correct (night photography is fun!). Having achieved that elusive goal, I left the intervalometer alone to do its work for over an hour while I shivered in the cold Wyoming wind and watched the moon rise behind us illuminating the most iconic mountain range profile in the United States.
The Road Trip Begins (Negative Seven Minutes Early)
I set my alarm for 5:00 AM. Ana woke me up at 5:37 AM. So much for alarms.
Our plan was to leave at 5:30 AM to shoot sunrise in the Tetons if the weather looked promising, if not, we would head directly to Yellowstone to photograph Moose Falls, Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Mammoth terraces, as well as anything else that captured our attention along the way, before heading to the Palouse in eastern Washington for sunset.
It was to be another cloudless day in the Tetons so we skipped sunrise and headed straight to Moose Falls in Yellowstone. The falls looked great, with plenty of water even for late summer and a layer of fog on top (they were missing the snow and autumn colors that I had on my previous visit, so I chose not to process any of the photos).
After Moose Falls we drove to the Fairy Falls trailhead to allow us to get a higher perspective on the spectacular Grand Prismatic Spring. In order to get that perspective, you have to scramble off trail and up a steep slope of loose dirt. Ana ended up with a bloody head after (loudly!) banging it on a tree that came out of nowhere, and the ground swallowed one of my 77mm lens caps when I wasn’t looking (much like the Merced River in Yosemite did the year before).
The views more than made up with it. The spring was dramatically side lit and the colors were indeed prismatic, as advertised.
We tried for some more close up perspectives of Grand Prismatic before heading to Mammoth. The light was harsh at both places so I knew I wasn’t going to be keeping any photos, but Ana remained cheerfully enthusiastic.
Race to the Palouse
When we got back to the car it was apparent that we were running a little tight on time if we were going to catch the Palouse at sunset, and we still were operating on empty stomachs. We got some food and gas just outside the north entrance and an hour later were heading west on I-90.
The GPS said we were going to be forty minutes late to sunset, but I figured I could cut at least ninety minutes off that estimate by averaging 15 mph over the speed limit. I had a lead foot and a radar detector, and I told Ana that she would have to be prepared to flirt with any cops if we got pulled over.
We managed to pass every car between us and the Palouse but several annoying construction zones slowed us down considerably. There were no cops and even less flirting. By the time we pulled into Steptoe Butte State Park we had about 10 minutes before sunset (peak light starts about thirty minutes before sunset). We rushed out of the car and setup our long lenses and managed to grab a few shots before the sun disappeared below the horizon.
Car Camping (Literally)
There are no campgrounds that are convenient to Steptoe Butte State Park. By myself, this dilemma is easily resolved by sleeping in the car, which is surprisingly comfortable (and warm) when the back seats are folded and all my crap moved to the side. The logistics with two people are slightly more complicated (everything has to be moved to the front seats). I was armed with a spare sleeping bag and a promise to behave myself. Ana was fine with this arrangement, which greatly simplified the logistics (and reduced the cost) of the trip.
For the first night in ages I slept for almost eight hours, and a few minutes after my purposefully shrill alarm went off, we were both outside shooting only a few feet from where the car was parked. There was excellent side light as expected, and some wonderful abstract patterns in the harvested fields.
When we were done shooting, a group of photographers showed up with thousands of dollars of gear, just in time to miss the peak light by twenty-five minutes. These people are everywhere.
To The Temple (Rainier)
Our campground reservations at Rainier began that afternoon, so we headed west, making a quick thirty minute detour to Palouse Falls which is always stunning but not particularly photogenic at 9:30 AM. We didn’t even have the pleasure of stepping on (or seeing) any of the numerous rattlesnakes that call Palouse Falls home.
All of the trails at Paradise were covered in snow (unprecedented for this late in the season), which meant the best sunset spot was two hours away. We quickly set up camp at Ohanapecosh and then drove two hours to Mowich Lake intending to shoot at Eunice Lake for sunset.
Food Is Overrated
We quickly made it up the two mile trail and bushwhacked our way to a view of a cloudless, but beautiful, Mt. Rainier reflecting in the still waters of Eunice Lake.
There was no one to enjoy the sunset alpenglow besides us and a solitary pika.
We made it back to the car, and thirty minutes later, to the first hot food in forty-eight hours. I drove the two hours back to our campground, and told Ana to sleep and to only wake up if I started to drive off the road. This was immediately after I told her the old joke: “I want to go as my grandfather did, quietly and in his sleep, and not like the passengers in his car, screaming.”
My soothing words failed to ease her mind and she remained awake the entire drive back.
Rainier Throws A No-hitter
After a comfortable night in the spacious (2-room!) tent we woke up to completely overcast skies.
Our campsite was about 4,000 ft. below our intended spot for sunrise (Reflection Lake), and I knew there would still be a chance of decent conditions up there. As we were a few miles from the lake we finally cleared the fog layer and noticed much to our delight a large lenticular cloud on top of Rainier, some other fantastic clouds surrounding it, and a clear horizon to the east where the sun would be rising. This had all the makings for an epic sunrise, and it did not disappoint.
It was by far the most colorful sunrise I had seen at Rainier, out of dozens, and it was Ana’s first! The only equivalent experience in my life happened when was a kid. My parents and brother and I went to a Seattle Mariners game and brought along our aunt, who went to her first baseball game ever. Randy Johnson threw a no-hitter.
The color had peaked on the clouds so I suggested that we head back down the road to try and catch that fog we saw when we came up. It was still there and we came away with some more good shots on what ended up being our most productive day at Mt. Rainier.
Now That Is The Rainier I Know
At sunset and sunrise, Rainier was hidden beneath a thick layer of clouds.
Taking advantage of the overcast conditions, the next morning we made the hike to Comet Falls, my favorite waterfall in the park. On the way back to Ohanapecosh we visited several more waterfalls trying to take advantage of the fleeing overcast light, including Christine Falls, Narada Falls, an unnamed cascade near Stevens Creek, and the large and impressive Silver Falls, though by the time we finished the clouds had all but disappeared and the light was to contrasty for good waterfall photos.
For sunset, we again made the long drive to Mowich Lake, this time to photograph Spray Park, which has numerous reflective tarns and at the right time of the year, wildflowers. What it didn’t have on our visit was a view of the mountain, which was stubbornly shrouded in fog.
We stopped to photograph Spray Falls (arguably as impressive as Comet Falls) as well as the mossy creeks nearby. I wasn’t happy with any of those shots so I tried some impressionistic shots of the forest.
For sunrise, we went to Upper Tipsoo Lake, an extremely popular spot for good reason, it’s all of 200 feet from the road and is almost always still enough to capture a reflection of one of the more attractive faces of Rainier as it is bathed in sunrise alpenglow.
The alpenglow was great, as expected, and was preceded with some nice pastel colors at dawn, but like Moose Falls, Mammoth, Eunice Lake, and Comet Falls, I had already photographed it under better conditions.
The Wild Pacific
That was our last time photographing Rainier. We quickly packed and headed to Seattle to wash up, eat real food, and copy our memory cards over before taking a ferry across Puget Sound on the way to Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park.
Ana asked if we could swim at the beach. Ha! This is the Pacific Northwest. Nothing about the beaches is conducive to swimming, the temperature (of the air and the water), the wind, the huge variation between low and high tide. Even the sea stacks are so cold they grow hair (which some people confuse with “trees” or “vegetation” but we locals know better). There were no swimming trunks or bikinis on this beach. I did say that there was a lagoon at Ruby Beach if she wanted to splash around (and I would be more than happy to document the experience with my super telephoto lens) but I recommended against it unless she wanted to shiver all throughout sunset.
After visiting both sides of the beach, we settled on the north side. High tide would be just after sunset placing the water line right on the sea stacks on that side of the beach. Remarkably, we were completely by ourselves the whole time, except for the fleeting company of a bald eagle.
Just after sunset, Ruby Beach put on a light show that was more intense than any that I had ever seen on the Olympic coast. Again, this was on Ana’s first ever visit!
I performed the soon to be nightly routine of trying to find a level spot to park the car before we slept in it, and again I failed. I swear this was on accident and as long as I’m not under oath, I’ll stand by that.
At sunrise we had the entire beach to ourselves. The sunrise was actually pretty good, but was still dwarfed by the brilliance of the previous night’s sunset. Our original itinerary was to camp at Second Beach the next day and shoot sunset and sunrise there, but we knew it was unlikely that we would eclipse the conditions we saw at Ruby Beach. If I was by myself, I likely would have tried, but knowing that Ana was on a fixed schedule it made sense to try and capture as many things as possible, and save the other beaches for some future trip.
Off to Oregon
And that’s how we ended up at Crater Lake, eight hours and five-hundred miles away. This would be the final state on Ana’s first trip to the US, which included California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and finally Oregon.
Before getting to Crater Lake I needed to get an oil change, as I had driven 5,000 miles since the last one only two weeks earlier.
The conditions upon arriving at Crater Lake were great, with large puffy cumulus clouds and crystal blue water. Near sunset, all the cumulus clouds disappeared, as they have a nasty habit of doing in the Pacific Northwest, but the dazzling pastel dusk colors twenty minutes after sunset compensated for the lack of clouds.
We found another non-level place to park the car for the night, and got up early to shoot the sunrise, which was similar to sunset (no clouds with good colors at dawn), but I preferred the compositions we had at sunset.
I was looking forward to the banana pancakes at Crater Lake Lodge when Ana informed me that it was my birthday. Who knew?
Instead of sticking around Crater Lake, we headed to the Painted Hills near Prineville, OR. When discussing routes back to Rainier from Jackson I told Ana we could hit the Palouse or the Painted Hills, but not both. It turns out I’m a liar.
We were hoping for thunderstorms to materialize (as they were forecast), but they never did. Instead the entire area was choked in smoke via a nearby forest fire. This was actually OK as the hills look great when side and front lit by the sinking sun, even when there are no clouds, especially when shooting abstract shots with a super telephoto lens. We had about eight hours to kill before sunset, and attempted to nap outside on the manicured grass near the visitor center in the 90 degree temperatures. We were partially successful at napping, but very successful at being annoyed at all the ants that were crawling on us.
So far on the trip we had been good about shooting sunset and sunrise at the same location, minimizing driving while tired and at night. The Painted Hills are almost always more impressive at sunset, so we broke our rule, and headed to the Oregon Coast, specifically Cannon Beach and Ecola State Park. We arrived shortly after midnight, after a long and tedious drive through central Oregon and a windy mountain pass near Mt. Hood.
Ecola State Park has one of the best views on the entire Oregon coast. The light was mediocre at sunrise, but excellent twenty minutes before at dawn. After the dawn light had peaked we saw another photographer with thousands of dollars worth of gear show up.
The weather was unseasonably warm and Ana wanted to sunbathe having missed her opportunity at Ruby Beach. She has this weird notion that people are supposed to play and relax on the beach instead of suffer and freeze. I didn’t have any better plans so we spent the afternoon walking a few hours on the crowded beach.
Originally we were thinking of photographing Cannon Beach at sunset, but the low tides coupled with heavy foot traffic put a damper on our plans. I suggested that we head south to Cape Kiwanda to see what it’s like, it was further away than expected so we agreed that we would just take whatever we could there.
Of all the places we visited, Cape Kiwanda was the only place I had never been to before. I knew about the sandstone cliffs and the crashing waves. When we got to the beach, it was extremely crowded and there were cars parked on the sand! What kind of stupid place was this?
We climbed the sand dunes to the north and found the sandstone cliffs (on the wrong side of a “do not cross” fence). Flocks of pelicans were flying and diving into the beach. Even at low tide waves were crashing impressively into the sandstone cliffs below. All of the people were on the beach below, we had the cliffs to ourselves.
Cape Kiwanda ended up being a completely different experience than Cannon Beach and any of the other beaches in the Pacific Northwest that I have visited. The light was not spectacular, thick clouds all but eliminated any color, but like Ana, I didn’t have any better photos of this place so I’ll keep the shot for now, and unlike her, I’ll be able to return shortly to try again.
Summer in Seattle
Cape Kiwanda was the last natural landscape we shot on our trip. After getting back to the car we drove for four hours back to my apartment in Seattle, spent a few hours washing away the sand and filth, and got up early to photograph downtown Seattle and the Space Needle from Kerry Park at sunrise. As was the case with nearly all sunrises on the trip, the dawn colors were better than those at sunrise.
We caught up on sleep and then we did a walking tour of Seattle, Ana with her SLR, me with my iPhone and a bad impression of a tour guide. After being gone from Seattle for all of August I was elated that summer had finally arrived, the skies were blue and the weather was warm. During our ad-hoc tour we visited Glazers (a camera shop – it was on the way!), Lake Union, Seattle Center and the Space Needle, Olympic Sculpture Park, various piers along the waterfront, and Pike Place Market (for five seconds) before walking back to my apartment.
For sunset, we decided on the 12th Ave. bridge, which shows the winding curves of the I-90 and I-5 freeways in front of downtown, and by the time we left there were almost a dozen tripods, by far the most I’ve seen from that location.
Until Next Time
Monday morning I got up early, this time not to photograph sunrise, but to deliver Ana back to Slovenia. I dropped her off at the airport and said “until next time” not knowing if there would be a next time, and if there was, when it would be.
During our brief time together we managed to cover over three thousand miles in ten days, visiting Grand Teton, Yellowstone, the Palouse, Mt. Rainier, Olympic National Park, Crater Lake, the Painted Hills, the Oregon coast and Seattle. The distances were vast and and scenery was great but the time was far too short. By the end of the trip I was no longer worried that our personalities would clash, but I was worried that it was going to come to an abrupt and sudden end before I was ready for it to. We were having fun and had only begun to scratch the surface. I had found another photographer who was as passionate for landscapes as I was, who shared the same feelings of exuberance and joy at being able to be in them, and who knew that temporary lack of comfort is a trivial price to pay for the experience.
I’ve spent most of my life counting the ways in which I’m different from everyone else, so it always comes as a surprise when I find people who are like me. Perhaps I just need to start looking a little harder. And maybe start in Europe.
It’s 4 AM on a Friday and I’m standing in Ansel Adams’ footsteps.
I don’t mean that I’m on my way to a legendary landscape photography career, I mean that I am literally standing where Ansel stood when he took one of the most iconic landscape shots ever, The Tetons and the Snake River, in 1942.
Ansel had the benefit of short trees revealing the graceful curve of the Snake River and left us all with the burden of trying to top his shot. I’ve been here a half-dozen times before and haven’t come close.
Instead of standing in Ansel’s footsteps I should be napping. I have an hour before my friends will meet me for sunrise, and I haven’t had more than four consecutive hours of sleep in three days and have been awake for over twenty-four hours straight. I’ve just driven fourteen hours from Seattle to Jackson, stopping only for gas in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Dillon, Montana. Including this trip to Jackson, I have driven over 2,500 miles in two weeks.
There are no clouds, so I already know sunrise is going to be a bust. Even though it’s an hour before dawn the sky is too bright to photograph the stars. I’m out here anyway, leaving the warm womb-like comfort of the car for the cold sagebrush-perfumed Wyoming air, ostensibly reserving the best spot for later, but really just happy that I have the view to myself for now. Hopefully there will be some nice pastels at dawn.
A few days earlier, in what now seems like an eternity, on a Sunday afternoon, I picked up fellow photographer and friend Koveh at the airport in Seattle for a week of shooting Mt. Rainier during peak wildflower season. The cold weather in July had different plans. There was more snow at Paradise (the most prolific spot for alpine wildflowers at Rainier) than had ever been recorded this late in the season. Paradise was off the table for lush wildflower meadows for this trip (and possibly the year), but macros, waterfalls, reflections, and star shots at night were still available.
We setup camp and short on time our only option for sunset was at Paradise. We found a small patch of snow-free glacier lilies (which really should have gone to seed a month earlier) facing the Tatoosh range, but the Tatoosh was cloaked in clouds through sunset. Despite being on Mt. Rainier we couldn’t see any part of it. Our only company was a lone marmot. The snow was keeping the humans away as much as the wildflowers.
We woke up for sunrise, but the clouds were thick as predicted by the forecast so we made the two-mile hike up to the always impressive Comet Falls. We passed patches of tiger and corn lilies which were at peak, again, a month later than normal. The falls were gorgeous as always, but there were patches of snow that by now would normally be melted. After bushwhacking our way to the creek down a steep crumbling slope to photograph the falls, we headed back on the trail to photograph the dew-covered corn lilies.
During the midst of our corn lily photographing ecstasy we were joined by another friend and photographer, Danny, who had been racing around Mt. Rainier trying to meet up with us. We decided to head back up to the falls once more (Danny for his first time ever) and take a few more photographs. Soon after, Koveh and I left Danny barefoot in the chilly creek while we went back down trail to find those tiger lilies, the most photogenic of all wildflowers on Mt. Rainier.
Back at the trailhead we hit a few more roadside waterfalls and noticed the sky was clearing (the forecast said this wasn’t supposed to happen today). We found food, an internet connection, and a forecast that had changed dramatically from the day before. Our best sunset opportunity of the trip, should the forecast be trusted (and based on historical precedent, it really shouldn’t be, ever) was going to be that night. Having more faith in the forecast than warranted, we made the two and a half hour drive ending with a long and bumpy dirt road to Mowich Lake, parking at the trailhead for the four mile round-trip hike to Eunice Lake.
After hiking through the forest and trudging through the snow on the lake basin and doing some more bush-whacking, we were on the steep slope facing the mountain, with the beautiful alpine lake in the foreground. There really should be a trail to this spot.
There was a slight problem: we couldn’t see the mountain.
Based on previous photographs we thought we had the best spot nailed down (we were each about twenty feet from each other), but it was impossible to tell. The steepness of the ridge made waiting very uncomfortable and moving more than a few feet a long and tedious task. We waited for over ninety minutes and witnessed a spectacular sunset, lighting the clouds in brilliant hues of red and pink.
There was still a slight problem: we still couldn’t see the mountain.
Finally, just after sunset, the clouds started to clear, and we were treated to some great pastel colors at dusk coupled with an elusive view of Rainier.
After having dinner at an all-night diner in Buckley, we drove ninety minutes to Grand Park for sunrise. Grand Park is a nine-mile round-trip hike to a surprisingly flat and vast wildflower meadow with an up close view of Rainier (having a similar angle on the mountain as at Sunrise). None of us had ever done this hike before, but recent trip reports indicated that the wildflowers could be promising. As far as we knew no one had photographed this spot at sunrise. We got to the trailhead in time to nap for ninety minutes (without sleeping bags, and because there were three of us, no way to recline in the car).
The alarm went off but I wasn’t sleeping anyway. We saw that it was 40 degrees outside, but thought we would warm up on the hike so we didn’t worry about it. Two hours later when we were in the large and flat wildflower meadow we realized the temperatures had dropped to below freezing. I was in shorts and a wet (from sweat) cotton t-shirt. I put on a fleece jacket and hoped that my fingers and toes wouldn’t freeze off.
The wildflowers, specifically lupine, were everywhere, but they were also frozen, and many of them had started the process of going to seed already (the cold temperatures weren’t helping). As the forecast predicted there was no cloud cover, but as we predicted, there was nice alpenglow. This is definitely a spot to try again next year.
After trudging back to the car, and driving two hours back to the campsite, we slept. Each of us had been up over 24 hours with just a sliver of restless sleep, hiking over 17 miles in the process.
For sunset we found a patch of roadside lupine in front of the Tatoosh at Paradise, but no clouds to go with them, and we napped at Reflection Lakes waiting for it to get dark enough to photograph the mountain and stars under moonlight.
After the star trails, Danny departed for work later that day, and Koveh and I drove ninety minutes to Sunrise for a cloudless sunrise. The wildflowers at Sunrise were at peak (but not nearly as lush in the direction of the mountain as those at Paradise usually are).
Bummed at the prospect of no clouds for the rest of the week, we had a quick nap at our campsite, and made the four and a half hour drive to Ruby Beach at Olympic National Park for sunset. There weren’t good clouds there either, and it was nearing low tide, meaning no wet sand for reflections and a shoreline that was behind some of the more impressive sea stacks. Fortunately I brought a long lens and was able to come away with some abstract shots of the sun reflecting in the sand. After sunset we stuck around to view the Milky Way, but the residual light from sunset and the rising moon made the photographs less impressive than the experience.
After sunset we drove through Port Angeles and up the windy road to Hurricane Ridge for sunrise, hoping to find a good patch of wildflowers in front of the Olympic Mountains in the dark. We failed. Much of the lupine had peaked, and that which hadn’t wasn’t in a good location. Obstruction Point Road was open but didn’t have any obvious patches viewable from the road. The deer, like always, were everywhere, and I had one pose for me for a few minutes.
A few hours later, and after a much needed breakfast, we were in Seattle. I dropped off Koveh, went home and copied all my photographs to my computer and took my first shower in several days.
15 hours later and I was still in Ansel’s footsteps, now joined by my friends and also a Japanese tourist wearing a moose hat.
You have to be pretty crazy to be wearing a moose hat.
Earlier I wrote about the particular shortcomings of my camera, the Canon 5D Mark II, mostly concerning issues of durability and usability.
Using a relative basis of comparison, it is an outstanding camera. Judging it in absolute terms though, it, like every other camera on Earth, falls far short. The ways in which it (and every other camera) is deficient extend beyond mere usability, they actually limit creativity. There are shots I can visualize that are either not possible at all or are only possible with an unacceptable level of quality.
There are also some shots today that while technically possible, are extremely tedious (involving exposure blends for dynamic range, selective focus and focus stacking, changing ISO levels for foreground vs. background, extensive noise reduction in post, and other convoluted machinations I would rather not have to worry about).
I’m not going to concern myself with the current limits of technology, affordability, or any other practical concern. Instead I will describe an ideal future state, one in which photographers are only limited by their brain and not the crude instrument they work with – a future with no trade-offs.
A single camera exposure should be able to capture the full range of human vision (this is usually quoted as between 10-14 stops, today most cameras capture less than 10 stops). How that exposure is processed for low dynamic range devices (prints, monitors, etc.) is a separate decision that can be deferred at processing time (as it is today, but using only a single exposure rather than multiple exposures).
Being able to capture the full dynamic range with a single exposure will:
- Eliminate completely the need to bracket exposures for dynamic range for high contrast scenes.
- Eliminate the need for metering. The camera would simply capture the full dynamic range and you can decide in post what parts to use.
- Enable high contrast images with subjects that are likely to move between successive exposures (such as wildflowers, waves, wildlife, humans, or automobiles).
- Eliminate completely the need for GND filters. I don’t use these anymore preferring exposure blends, but there are some cases where a GND is still necessary, such as a high contrast scene with a long (say greater than 30 second) exposure that has cloud movement and a reflection.
- Enable timelapses for high contrast scenes where the contrast ratio changes over time (for example, being able to transition from night, to dawn, to sunrise).
Depth of Field
Focusing and depth of field should be post-processing decisions. Something like this is already underway, so it might not be too long before this is common. The implications of this are far reaching:
- Auto-focus becomes unnecessary.
- Photographers will be able to concentrate on subject, composition, and light, and not worry about focus, even in low-light situations.
- Not only will you be able to easily achieve maximum depth-of-field (often desired in landscapes), but you would be able to, using software, to selectively decide which frames are in focus and which aren’t. You can approximate the same thing today using multiple exposures and exposure blends, or by using a tilt-shift lens, but only to a limited degree, and it’s tedious.
- You will be able to focus-stack using a single exposure, useful to achieve large depth-of-field on moving subjects, or subjects which currently have very limited depth of field (for example, macro subjects).
- Large aperture lenses which are used only for narrow depth-of-field (and not used to decrease exposure times) would no longer be necessary.
Aperture, ISO, and Exposure Times
Aperture and ISO will both be irrelevant in the future.
The primary use of aperture today is to control depth-of-field. That’s no longer necessary with the depth-of-field changes described above. That leaves four other uses for aperture that I can think of: sharpness (diffraction reduction), vignetting reduction (by using smaller apertures), diffraction stars (for the sun, city lights, etc.), and controlling exposure time.
- Sharpness. Usually a lens is at its sharpest stopped down one or two stops from its largest aperture, and diffraction begins to affect sharpness at smaller apertures. This is simple – make the lens equally sharp everywhere! Easier said than done, I know, but I don’t care about what’s easy.
- Vignetting reduction. This one is likewise simple, there should be no vignetting at any aperture.
- Diffraction stars. There could be metadata recorded in the image capture that would allow the diffraction stars to be controlled in post-processing.
This leaves exposure time. Exposure time is also tightly coupled with ISO. Large apertures for short exposure times, small apertures for long exposure times. High ISO for lower exposure times (with increased noise), low ISO for for longer exposure times (and less noise).
Since the only thing left for ISO and aperture is exposure time, we can get rid of both of them, and just set the exposure time.
If I want a five minute exposure of the sun, or a 1/8000th second exposure of the Milky Way, it should just work, and there should be no noise either (if you want noise, add it in post-production). The camera can internally darken bright scenes (think of it as using an internal virtual ND filter), or internally increase the rate at which it captures light (equivalent to the ISO of today, except with no added noise).
What this means:
- No aperture or ISO settings, ever. They’re completely unnecessary.
- Since aperture doesn’t exist, no need to have fast (large aperture) lenses.
- Noiseless night photography. You will be able to have a properly exposed (and non-moving) Milky Way photo with a real foreground with a single exposure.
- Tripods won’t be necessary except for long exposures (this would be possible today if high ISO shots weren’t filled with unacceptable noise).
- You will be able to take static star shots at any focal length (and not worry about star movement) as exposure times can be as small as you want them to be.
- No exposure math!
This one is obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: cameras should have a much much higher resolution. High enough that a wide angle shot of a cityscape should be equivalent to what you would need now by stitching 1,000 separate exposures together. This would allow for single exposure panoramic shots that are large enough to print huge, even after cropping, and also allow for subject movement without blending artifacts.
Some other things that cameras in the future should fix. These don’t affect what shots are possible, but they do affect what shots are easy, and also would allow you to maximize opportunities.
- Only one lens: You should never have to switch lenses, ever. One lens (or whatever this magical future thing will be called) should cover all necessary focal lengths, from super-wide and fisheye, to macro and super-telephoto. Having to switch lenses doesn’t affect creativity, but it does limit your opportunities (you are physically limited by how much weight you can carry, and also how quickly you can switch lenses if, say, a wildlife subject is nearby when you were shooting wide angle landscape photos). This would also solve the sensor dust problem.
- Size: Cameras should be small and light weight, even with the single lens and the higher resolution.
- Polarizer Filters: A polarizer filter should be built in to the camera, and you should be able to turn it on, off, and rotate it as necessary.
- Weather Sealing: The camera should be able to shoot in extreme weather conditions, including sand storms, low temperatures, pouring rain, waterfall spray, and be able to handle temperature variances without condensation destroying the camera. While we’re dreaming, let’s make it capable of taking photos underwater without needing any additional apparatus.
- Rain deflector: The camera should have a built in rain deflector so I can shoot waterfalls without having to wipe the lens all the time.
- No memory cards: The camera should be able to upload images it takes in real time to an off-site redundant storage on the internet, eliminating the need for memory cards altogether. Obviously this requires other infrastructure to be in place not related to cameras, but it will happen eventually.
There are currently three variables in play that affect exposure: exposure time, aperture, and ISO. Of these the only one that needs to be determined in the field should be exposure time. Depth of field should be a post processing decision (eliminating need for aperture). The camera should be able to automatically darken or brighten the subject as necessary, with no noise penalty (eliminating the need for ND filters and ISO). A single exposure should be able to capture all dynamic range, eliminating the need for metering and exposure bracketing.
All of this would open up a new range of creative possibilities. Long exposures with narrow depth of field, short exposures with high depth of field, selective focus for moving subjects, gigantic prints of dark subjects like the Milky Way with no noise, the list is endless.
I probably won’t be around to see all of this materialize, but I’ll definitely be around to complain about it until it does!
Beneath the thick external layer of sarcasm and indifference there exists an even deeper layer of sarcasm and indifference.
Beneath that layer exists this.
One of the many reasons I quit my job was that it would allow me to take risks with my photography. I could leap first and worry about landing later. I would have the freedom to fail. There would always be tomorrow.
Instead I’ve fallen into the familiar and comfortable pattern of scouring the western US for (often inaccurate) forecasts aiming to capture a previsualized image, driving for hours to get to my destination, and then repeating the entire process again, sometimes as soon as the next day.
Waiting three days for the right conditions to materialize seems impossible, but that’s only because I’ve bought into the myth that there are right conditions. There is no such thing as bad light, there are only bad photographers and bad photographs.
I need to start using my eyes more and stop letting my brain get in the way. I need to find creative ways of capturing and communicating the emotion of a scene rather than just recording its literal appearance. I need to start getting uncomfortable. At the very least I need to use the forecasts only as a mechanism for encouraging me to go somewhere and not as an excuse to leave or give up.
There is a cruel trick that my mind likes to play: The more often and (supposedly) competently I do something the more dissatisfied I am with the result. I can fool just about everyone but myself.
When the weather and my stubborn inflexible brain are in alignment and I get the conditions necessary to capture my visualized image, I’m rarely happy with it. I see it as derivative, boring, or falling short of my imagined ideal. The strong emotional high of the experience is dulled by my clumsy attempts to record it. Anyone able to drive 10 hours and be up at 4:30 in the morning at this spot could have gotten the same thing or better. My only talent is endurance. There is nothing exciting or groundbreaking happening here. This isn’t art.
I know that this is (usually) an irrational and emotional position. But it doesn’t matter what I know, it matters how I feel. The human race has been feeling a lot longer than it has been thinking. Bridging that gap for some people is easy. For me, there is no rational way to dig myself out of an emotional hole. I’m too close to it to view it objectively and all I’m left with is how I feel.
So my response has always been to keep moving. To trade the feelings of failure for miles, my current location with a new one, the being here with the getting there and letting the emotional highs of the experience carry me, all while hoping someday to be able to communicate those experiences with photographs, or at least start to be able to fool myself as well as I’ve been fooling everyone else.
Note that this isn’t a cry for help or a solicitation for sympathy or encouragement. This is just meant to provide insight into my thought process. Reading it again it sounds depressing as hell (and it is!), but my frustration is only in translating my experiences into equivalent photographs. If I didn’t enjoy the experiences I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve seen many awesome spectacles of nature the past two years and I am extremely grateful for having that opportunity. I’m just hoping the photographs will catch up (once in awhile they do, not has often as I would like). I don’t really believe that anyone who is completely happy with what they are doing or where they are at can actually make any progress or produce anything of value. Struggle is part of it. Without the lows there are no highs, there’s just mediocrity.
Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer any more than owning a typewriter makes you a novelist.
Sorry about that, let me use an example from the current century…
Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer any more than owning a baseball makes you Nolan Ryan.
Damn missed again. OK, one more try….
Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer any more than having a blog makes people care what you write.
There we go!
There’s a joke I like to make:
“The reason I buy an expensive cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, and other gear is simple: so that when I’m out in the field and fail to capture a compelling image, I can lay the blame solely where it belongs… on mother nature!”
I have a shorter version that goes like this:
They’re both true.
I have a Canon 5D Mark II camera. I’ve owned this camera (or rather a version of it – I now have two) since December 2008. It’s by far the best camera I have ever owned. It’s arguably the best camera for landscape photography that Canon makes.
It’s also not good enough.
I use four criteria when evaluating any camera:
- Physical design, durability, and reliability
The first two categories are annoyances. They don’t prevent images from being captured, they just make the process more tedious. The last two categories do make images (of acceptable quality) impossible to capture, place limits on photographer creativity, and also happen to affect every single camera on Earth. As such they’re a larger topic and I’ll cover them in a separate post.
I started off whining about my beloved Canon 5D Mark II so let me start doing that again. Note that the reference for all of these complaints is natural landscape photography, which for me means natural light, on a tripod, using manual focus (so I will completely ignore any issues with external flashes, image stabilization, or autofocus).
Physical design, durability, and reliability
The Canon 5D Mark II is not (nor does it claim to be) a weather-sealed camera. It suffers from large temperature variances (which cause condensation to form inside the camera) and external moisture (from rain, snow, or waterfall spray). Both these sources of moisture break the electronics of the camera, sometimes permanently.
Temperature variances can be accommodated by placing a ziplocked bag around the camera (and lenses) so that they adjust to the ambient air temperature without condensation. Rain and spray can be mitigated as well (using plastic bags, rain covers, and other inconveniences), but this threat cannot be eliminated completely unless you choose to never photograph in the rain, snow, or near waterfalls.
This camera demands to be babied. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I shoot in heavy rain and waterfall spray all the time. I’ve had my camera go out of commission several times due to external moisture issues, this is even after covering it up when I wasn’t shooting. A camera body shouldn’t need to be as large and heavy as a 1D in order to be weather sealed. Given the number of professionals that shoot with this body the lack of weather sealing is a real issue. I know I treat my gear harder than just about everyone, but that’s because I’m more worried about capturing a compelling image than hoping my camera can survive a little temporary spray from a waterfall.
To be fair, I have used the camera in temperatures ranging from -15F to 122F and it had no problems performing in those extreme temperatures. But add a little water to the mix and watch out.
There is no shortage of usability issues with this camera, most of which could be fixed with software updates. Here are some that come to mind.
- Exposure bracketing. Currently you can bracket three exposures. 99% of the time that’s one exposure more than I need to capture sufficient dynamic range. This means that I either take a third wasteful exposure or that I use manual and adjust the shutter speed between each paired set of exposures. Dumb! Just let me bracket two exposures (better yet, let me bracket an arbitrary number of exposures). Also we should be able to bracket an arbitrary distance between exposures, not just up to two stops.
- Exposure compensation. Currently you can set the exposure compensation to +/- 2 stops (the Canon 1D series supports +/- 3 stops). There are times when I want to use exposure compensation more than two stops, so why not allow it? Why have a fixed number line at all? As I scroll to the left of -2, -3 should show up, as I keep scrolling, -4 should show up (and likewise when compensating in the opposite direction). Exposure arithmetic is fun, but not that fun.
- I realize that some people like that fat dial for switching between Av, Tv, M, and Bulb exposure modes. But it is extremely rare that I iterate between exposure modes on the same shoot (one of the main reasons I do this is when going from M to Bulb, and that’s because of another usability stupidity I’ll describe next). I do often switch from horizontal to vertical orientation, doing this will often cause the dial to flip from Av to Tv. It would be good if there was a custom function to disable this dial and set in the camera. I would actually be fine if the dial was gone altogether, but I’m likely in the minority.
- Limiting in camera exposures to 30 seconds. This really doesn’t make sense. I would like to be able to exposures of any length in the camera without requiring an intervalometer. Other intervalometer features should be supported in camera as well (including delays between the first exposure, delays between each exposure, duration of each exposure, and number of exposures). For any exposure that needs to be over 30 seconds, I’m again forced to do exposure arithmetic and need an intervalometer or remote switch.
- I should be able to use the LCD screen (and related functions) when the camera is in the middle of an exposure (this is most often needed when shooting a long series of exposures at night, it would be good to check that, say, the lens hasn’t fogged up or something else stupid has happened when you’re devoting 2 hours to a shot).
- Disable mirror lockup automatically when the camera is in the Bulb exposure mode, or at least have a custom function to enable that behavior. There’s nothing quite as awesome as waiting 4 minutes for an exposure to finish when you realize all you did was flip the mirror.
- The exposure mode should be viewable in the viewfinder, as should the focal length and focus distance.
Those are all things that annoy me about my specific camera, they’re all fairly minor and they’re all within the realms of current technology to fix (and could all be addressed with the Canon 5D Mark III).
There are other feature and quality issues that affect every camera, many of which aren’t going to be addressed within the next 15 years let alone the next camera release, and I’ll get to those in a future post.