Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sacred Canyons Of The Southwest

I began traveling and photographing in 2008, beginning with a trip to South Africa. Since then I have been to a lot very special places, each with its own unique beauty and intrigue. But a few of these places are extra special for me and hold a very dear place in my memory. Some of these places are extraordinarily beautiful and enchanting, while others have a sacred quality that is simply captivating and sets them apart from the rest.

One of these special sacred places is Upper Antelope Canyon. It is both extraordinarily beautiful and sacred. I had seen pictures of this canyon for years and was yearning to visit and photograph it. Finally, in 2010 we made a family trip to Page, Arizona, on the shores of Lake Powell. Antelope Canyon is very near Page and is very easy to access.  Making reservations with a guide in Page, we made straight for the canyon located about three miles out of town.

A Deeply Sacred Navajo Indian Canyon

Even though visiting is done along with of many other visitors crowed into the narrow slot canyon, one still gets a sense of the deep sacredness in this canyon. I can only imagine what it must have been like in years past when one could visit this canyon alone.  I yearn to sit in the solitude it offers, to pray, chant, or to simply be still and listen to sound of its silence, watching the changing light.

Most of the time I spend in Upper Antelope Canyon I am looking up. The canyon was formed by flood waters and the tops are very narrow with the canyon widening toward the bottom as it is eroded and made deeper by the intermittent floods. Light comes in the narrow opening at the top and bounces off the canyon walls as it descends to the canyon floor. The color of the light progresses from warm yellow hues at the top to cooler blue hues toward the canyon floor. These colors mixing with the red of the sandstone provide an enchanting array of light and form.

On this trip I was in the canyon for about an hour, not nearly long enough to satiate me. I determined to return again and spend considerably more time, not only here but in other slot canyons in the area, like Lower Antelope and Water Holes Canyon

Notes for the Photographer:

Images taken with a 16mm lens on Canon 5D, Mk II. Tripod, cable release, manual mode. Be prepared to protect your camera from falling sand/dust.  And do not to change lenses in the canyon.

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy A Return To Antelope Canyon

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Touching Andromeda

There is nothing quite like being with the night for several hours uninterrupted, alone and with no artificial light. When I was shooting stars at 11,000 feet in the White Mountains I stood looking up from sundown to around 3 am. It was exhilarating. At that altitude you see the stars with such clarity and there are so many of them! It is simply awesome. In fact, there were so many stars and they were so bright I could walk around in the dark without a flashlight.

When the night got dark enough I turned on my camera and pointed it in the direction I had been gazing for the past hour or so. I set the camera to expose for about 30 seconds. In that amount of time the camera’s sensor picks up considerably more light from the stars than I can see with the naked eye. This is a picture taken looking toward the southern horizon where the center of the Milky Way can be found in the constellation Sagittarius. Look at the tremendous number of stars!

These kinds of images are best captured with a wide angle lens shooting as wide as the lens will let you.  To figure out how long to expose without creating star trails,  divide the focal length you are shooting into 400, the result will be the number of seconds you can expose without creating visible star trails. So, for instance, a 20mm lens can expose for 20 seconds.  If you have never taken nighttime images of the stars,  you will be amazed at what your camera is able to capture!

The immensity is hard to fathom.

In fact, with a 16mm lens I picked up a visible image of Andromeda, our neighboring galaxy! I didn’t realize that was even possible and didn't know I had captured it until I saw the image much later on my computer. Here’s the image, I named it “Touching Andromeda” because the tip of the limb of the Bristlecone Pine is just touching it. Look closely and you will see the disk of the galaxy.

This is one of the many reasons why I love photography: it gets me out into the world in such a way that I am continually reminded of what a wondrous universe this is. So much beauty and mystery all around us, a beauty that is seemingly impossible, yet wonderful, and glorius and captivating.

Standing under this amazing canopy of stars I can feel the perspective: one little pinpoint of consciousness observing something so immense and grand, and beyond comprehension. And so BIG! Those stars I am looking at are so far away that none of them are where they were when their light left: what I am seeing is history, a snap shot of how things were eons ago. For instance, that image of Andromeda took 2.5 million years to get here, at the speed of light! 186 thousand miles a second times 2.5 million years.

And we can take pictures of it in the night sky!  Oh, my.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Star Trails In The Patriarch Grove

I am standing alone in the dark at 11,000 feet in the Patriarch Grove of Bristlecone Pines in the  White Mountains of California. One of the least light polluted places in the US. The sun has been down now for quite a while and I am thinking night is in full swing. The stars are out, getting bright and clear. The North Star is visible and all of the stars of the Big Dipper are coming into view. I turn on the camera and point it toward Polaris, the North Star. It is going to be a four minute exposure. The time passes slowly. Finally the red light goes off, and I see the captured image in the viewfinder on the back of my camera. Oh my, where did all that light come from?

The stars are popping with brightness

If you leave a camera on for a while it will pick up light you don’t notice with the naked eye. You may think it is dark, but the camera sees so much better than we do.  On this occasion it was absorbing all of the last remaining light as the sun sank farther and farther below the horizon. I waited a while longer and begin to notice the difference between what I thought was darkness and what I see now, real darkness. Now the stars are just popping with brightness. It is time to begin a two or three hour sequence of shooting 4 minute segments. Four minute shot, one second pause, four minutes shot again, and repeat for two hours. These sequences can be set  up to go all night long if you want.  In fact, some photographers will set up their cameras and leave them running all night, coming back in the morning to collect their gear. I choose to do a couple hours worth, keeping my camera company all the while. With two hours of shooting I’ll have about 30 four minute frames; if I go an extra hour I’ll have 45. How long I stay will depend on how cold it gets! The next day, all of those little segments will be put together in Photoshop to create one single image showing the continuous light tracks of the stars.

Here is one from the Bristlecone Pine Forrest that night in the White Mountains. About two hours worth of star trails.

For the Photographer:

You can get a foreground object, like this Bristlecone Pine, in your shot in a couple of ways. One is to take shots of it while there is still enough daytime light. Then leaving your camera perfectly still on your tripod, wait for night to start shooting the star trails. The other way is to light paint the object after dark. This is done by turning on the camera and shining a flashlight on the object. Only a very brief amount of light will do.  Try experimenting a few times and  when you have captured the look you want, proceed to taking pictures of the star trails. Putting it all together after the shoot is a bit technical but well worth the effort.  And the real payoff is being able to hang out with the stars, and meteors and the grandeur of the Milky Way.  On the night this shot was taken, the space shuttle flew over.   What a sight to see!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lessons From Photography

The beauty of a thing depends almost entirely upon what perspective you choose to view it from. I am looking at an image I took of Queen’s Bath on the island of Kauai. I think it is beautiful. Lovely colors, water spilling over the rocks into a pool - the Queen’s Bath - making lovely doily like patterns on the surface. Yet, the other day I saw a picture of the same scene from a completely different angle, taken in the middle of the day in full, harsh light. From that angle in that stark light there was nothing attractive about the Queens Bath. It was kind of disappointing, and for awhile it affected my perception of this scene: which was the “real” Queens Bath? Is this it this one or the other?

I had to remind myself that I can be fooled by these things. Just because something is not so beautiful from one particular angle does not mean it isn’t beautiful from another. Same place, same person, same experience viewed just a little differently and it is transformed from not so great to wonderful. It is up to me as a photographer to find the perspective I find most beautiful, capture it with my camera, and then share the beauty I witnessed. I choose to choose the view that shows the most beauty, wonder, and enchantment; the view that lifts my spirit and deepens my appreciation of the beauty that is all around us.

My hope is that by capturing this beauty and sharing it with others, they will be able to experience some of the joy and exhilaration that I experience. We have been given such a treasure, such an amazing gift. I don’t think I will ever tire of witnessing its beauty.

You may also be interested in reading The East Side of the Sierras is Beautiful