Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Raptors

Winter is a good time to find raptors on the hunt in New Mexico. After a visit with family near Albuquerque, exploring a few new counties in the north east quadrant of the "Land of Enchantment" promised the possibility of new landscapes and maybe some bird photography. Tucumcari is in Quay county and north of Quay is Harding county where we find the metropolis of Roy which is surrounded by the Kiowa National Grassland. There are a few lakes in the area, Ute Lake and Conchas Lake being the largest. Lakes often harbor migratory birds and the grasslands nourish large numbers of rodents that forage all winter and they, in turn, attract raptors.

A visit to Ute Lake at sunrise found the lake covered with fog that slowly burned off as the day progressed. Wind frost coated the bushes at the edge of the lake and the honking of Canada geese echoed over the water.

Waiting on the shore for a while was rewarded with a good view of many groups of Canada geese flying out of the lake on their way to forage for breakfast.

Driving to Roy revealed that none of the towns along that route north of Logan have much to offer in the way of lodging, gas stations, or eating establishments although there are the bare minimum (one gas station and one restaurant open in Roy). A trip along NM state route 120 west from Roy led to the Canadian River Valley (about 600 feet deep) where the Canadian river was found to have ice on it but wasn't particularly photogenic, at least not in this photographers opinion. The surrounding grasslands seem to be mostly grazing lands and would perhaps be more attractive in summer. However the raptors were everywhere, particularly the hawks and kestrels. About every quarter mile along the road there would be a hawk on a utility pole or a kestrel on a wire. More rare were great horned owls and I didn't see any eagles.

The raptors were successful, I watched an American kestrel catch and eat some kind of rodent. A closer shot would have improved the image but this guy didn't trust the photographer enough to let him get too close. As ever, click on an image to see a larger version.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Grab Portraiture Learning Curve

As Bogart famously remarked, "Here's looking at you, kid". Photographs containing people and animals hold a particular interest for us. This is specially true when the the subject is looking at the camera.

Finding that I like to shoot candid portraits has meant learning more about color correction. For example, in the image below the photo was taken very quickly (a few seconds at the office Christmas party) in an environment where the lighting was a combination of tungsten lights, two kinds of fluorescent lights, and a large north facing window on a blue sky day. Here is what the jpeg looks like right out of the camera (set on auto color balance):

Anna's face is too blue on one side and too yellow on the other and the exposure (set to aperture priority auto exposure) is a bit dark. Correcting the overall image (raw file) color balance didn't give me a satisfying result so masks were necessary to correct some areas of the image differently from other areas (mostly on the face). The color of a human face, and a very young human face in this example, is a challenge because of the subtle shading and the curves that give shadows and highlights which are often illuminated by different light sources. I can see why portraits are usually made in a studio where the light is carefully controlled. After correcting the color as best I could and working on her eyes a little (brightness, contrast, saturaton) and the overall brightness and contrast of the image, the result is more pleasing, at least to this photographer (oh yes, I fixed the mark on her face too):

Other situations are a little easier, color wise, but the time element can be another obstacle to getting the shot. This example was taken outside on an overcast day (single light source). The young lady below had just gotten her face painted at the 4th avenue street fair this last Sunday. I asked her if I could take her photograph, she said "yes", looked at me for about two seconds, and then went back to talking with her friends. I got two frames but in the second one she was already turning away. Again, spending an hour in a studio makes a lot of sense to get the composition right.

This is one of the things that draws me to photography, learning how to do things better and better. For years, black and white was the medium I learned about, exposure, contrast, focus, and depth of field were important but color balance wasn't a consideration.

Both photographs taken with Canon 5D mk II and Canon 135mm f/2 lens. Both images taken at f/2.8. As ever, click on the images to see larger versions.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

San Pedro Owl

I wanted to get out of town this weekend but various issues at work conspired to keep me from getting out early as planned. However, this time of year I don't have to go far to find something interesting and weather that I enjoy. In the summer, longer treks are needed to find nice weather (I like coooool!) and the sun is high in the sky making the light harsh most of the day. In the winter, we have excellent weather in the Tucson area and the sun is lower in the sky.

Various birds winter in the area along the San Pedro river, not far from here, and the rain we had earlier in the week promised the possibility of more water. Hunting for birds with my camera is great fun so I headed down to the Fairbank crossing, east of Ft. Huachuca, south-east of Tucson. The parking area at Fairbank is a nice place to park while exploring along the San Pedro but the authorities now have a gate they lock at dusk which isn't good for photographers because we often get back to the car after dark when out photographing at sunset.  Fortunately, on the west side of the bridge, there are a couple of wide areas were one can pull off the road without the threat of being stranded. I parked in one of these and wandered down to the river.

Hiking north, down river, I hadn't gone very far when a suspicious lump in one of the trees got my attention. A 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter on a 1.6 crop camera body gave me quite good magnification and I found that the lump was a great horned owl relaxing in a shady area of the tree. After taking a few shots from where I was, (the bird was small in the viewfinder and backlit by the setting sun), I approached in a zig-zag fashion, never moving straight toward the bird and took a few frames each time I stopped. Still the bird was backlit and the images were poor. Finally, when I was quite close, he spread his wings and nonchalantly flew to another tree.

He was still backlit in his new location. Again I approached cautiously, and got a few more images before he took off again and flew to the other side of the river.  Fortunately, the river isn't very deep and I had my waterproof hiking boots on so I waded across and approached again.  This time he was situated with better light on his front side and I got some better images. Click on the images to see the larger versions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Depth of Field, San Xavier

I bought a new camera lens recently, a 135mm f/2 Canon lens. This will be my new portrait lens on my full frame camera body. Saturday, I wanted to try out the lens but I got a late start so I couldn't go far and decided to go to one of my favorite local places for photographs, the mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson.

Built between 1783 and 1797, the church is one of the older structures in the area and, being a plastered adobe and rock structure, is under constant maintenance and restoration.  Currently, there is no scaffolding on the outside of the church. The interior, having undergone recent restoration, is now in excellent condition.

I've always been drawn to the mortuary chapel at San Xavier where visitors light votive candles, say prayers to Our Lady of Sorrows (Virgin Mary), and make devotional offerings. I took a few photographs in the chapel experimenting with the shallow depth of field I get with my lens set wide open at f/2.  The short telephoto focal length also compresses depth a bit giving me the ability to pick out one statue from a group of small statues (ISO 200, 1/10 sec.).  Click on images for larger versions.

Outside the church, it was a fairly cloudy day and I shot various images of the church and grounds, as well as some images from "Grotto Hill" east of the mission. One of my favorite areas from which to shoot the crosses on top of the church is the back, or north side. Here there is a multi-arched entry through which I get a good view of the main dome of the church with the front bell towers behind. On this evening I noticed some mourning doves sitting on a metal arch in the garden area. I photographed them with the church behind but set my aperture to f/2.8 to throw the background out of focus and emphasize the birds (ISO 200, 1/160 sec.).

Later that evening, as the sun set, the clouds really lit up with orange and red light.  I went up on Grotto Hill and shot the church against the sunset, although now I stopped down the aperture to f/11 to keep focus throughout the scene (ISO 200, 1/5 sec.).

Friday, December 4, 2009

Variations on a Cat

Last night I had a meeting of the Transit on the Move liaison committee, which is working on the streetcar system we are building in Tucson. The meeting was held downtown at 5:30 PM so, because I'm adverse to driving in Tucson traffic between 5 PM and 5:30 PM, I went down a bit early and had some time on my hands. I almost always have my camera with me these days, you never know when something interesting will pop up. Since I was in the area of the Tucson "Arts District", where I know there are a number of interesting old buildings and the time of day was near sunset, I went for a short walk around the area to see if I could see anything of which to make an image.

I photographed a couple of interesting doorways and a couple of old buildings. As I walked I saw a number of house cats walking around. When I see them I always make a little "pshh, pshhhh" sound with my mouth which makes them look at me. These were all very relaxed cats, in no particular hurry to get anywhere. Finally, I was taking a picture of a large group of starlings sitting on utility wires when I saw a large cat comfortably sitting on the corner of a 5 foot fence. This cat meowed at me and was at eye level, so I went over and scratched it behind the ears and it was purring a bit. A very content cat. I had my 5d mk II with an 85mm f/1.8 lens which is almost perfect for portraits so I made a few images of the, very cooperative, cat.

This lens' close focusing ability is somewhat limited on a full frame camera for portraits of small things. I can't fill the frame with the head of a baby or head of a cat, it just won't focus close enough. On an APS-C sensor camera it is a different story and I find it great for head shots. I have a 135mm f/2 on order! Anyway, I did my best with the cat. I was shooting wide open at f/1.8 so my depth of field at closest focus was probably about a third of an inch, I had to focus as best I could on the cat's eyes and let the rest of the image go soft (except for a few whiskers that crossed the focal plane). As ever, click on the image to see a larger version.

I was playing around with the images and, as part of my post processing, I always sharpen the image a little. When I sharpen, I put the image into "Lab" colorspace, select the "brightness" channel, sharpen that, and then return the image to "RGB" colorspace. One of the side effects of this workflow is that I get to preview the image in black and white. When I started this cat processing, I didn't think black and white would be a good treatment for the cat because I liked the yellow color of the cat's eyes and the sprinkling of reddish fur in the cat's fur coat. However, when I had one of the images in Lab colorspace for sharpening, I liked the emphasis on textures and shapes I saw in the B&W version. I picked an image that had good sharpness on the cat's eyes and whiskers, and made this black and white portrait of the kitty.

Too bad I'm slightly allergic to cats, they make good photographic subjects!

Monday, November 23, 2009

See the Flames

Friday night there was a "hot air balloon glow" event on the mall at the University of Arizona to benefit the Tucson Community Food Bank. I brought in my tripod and an extra lens to photograph the event although I ended up not using the tripod and I only used my 50mm lens. The things I found the most interesting at the event were the people I met there and the fire!

I've always enjoyed fire, bonfires, campfires, etc. as long as people and property aren't threatened. When we were young, my brother and I made gunpowder from scratch and used it to make fireworks. They weren't very good but we had great fun making a mess and a lot of smoke.

Fire, because it's in constant motion and is often much brighter than its environment, poses an interesting photographic challenge. Fast shutter speeds allow you to capture details of the fire you wouldn't see with the naked eye. The photograph below, of the flame used to start filling a hot air balloon, was taken at 1/4000th of a second. The speed of the shutter "freezes" the flame, showing all the intricate shapes as well as the blue and orange parts.

Click on the image to see a larger version. In the original, 21 megapixel, version there is an amazing amount of flame detail. I'll post a tightly cropped version of this flame soon on my web site. The image was shot with a Canon 5D mk II and a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/2.8 and ISO 3200.

A slower shutter speed, on the other hand, allows the fire to blur a bit and look more liquid. The next shot was made later in the evening when most of the daylight was gone so my exposure times were longer because I was still depending on my automatic exposure which was set to center-weighted. The darker surroundings meant the exposure control slowed the shutter, thus over-exposing the fire, smearing it out, but giving some detail to the background.

Same camera and lens, still at f/2.8 and ISO 3200 but now the shutter speed was 1/60th of a second.

This fire, of course, was what made the balloons glow. Some of the balloons (there were seven balloons in all) were made of dark fabrics and didn't glow very brightly even when it was dark. But a few were made of lighter, more translucent fabric and glowed like lanterns when the the flame was on. Unfortunately, the best glowing balloon, a yellow one with a saguaro on the side, had to shut down early because the wind was sufficient to make it unstable and they didn't have enough people/weight to control it.  They had to put it away before it was really dark. The second best balloon for glowing and seeing the fire is shown below. This was late enough that the sky was almost black and my center weighted metering on the camera saw the frame filled with bright balloon and gave me a shutter speed of 1/800th of a second, freezing the fire inside the balloon pretty well.

Same camera, lens aperture, ISO, etc. as before.

Thanks to Guy McArthur for alerting me to this photographic opportunity. I'll have to go to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta next year and photograph some more fire!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Feel the Cold

I live in Tucson Arizona and I'm a heat wimp! I suffer in the hot, moist weather we get during our "monsoon" in July and August, and I think it is too hot from about May to late October. Winters are "nice" here but I miss snow even though I've not spent many years living with snow.

I was up in the White mountains of Arizona last weekend, on my way back from photographing in Petrified Forest National Park. I got up early and headed up hill from Springerville AZ, on route 260 to where the road runs along level at about 9100 feet and it was cold. There was a bit of snow the day before and there were dull gray clouds hanging low enough to enshroud the tops of the small hills in the area. The temperature was about 10F and the wind was blowing with gusts up to 25 mph.

I had planned to photograph the light sprinkling of snow in the morning light, with the little sparklies you see when the sun is at the right angle. I've always enjoyed shots like that. But no, that wasn't the world mother nature spread before me, she was showing me what cold is like. And I was enjoying it.

I've photographed this line of aspens at the edge of an open field of grass in the summer when the leaves are green and they blend in with the background pines. I've photographed them when they are brilliant with the golden leaves of fall. I've even photographed them when there was much more snow on the ground, but the sun was shining. This image is all about the cold.

I often see photographs of cactus taken around Tucson, particularly the saguaros and I like a lot of those images but I often can't really tell if the weather was cold or hot when the photo was taken unless, of course, there is snow on the cactus. And even then, it might well be above freezing when the image was made. Communicating a sense of the environment is an interesting puzzle to solve when photographing. Some subjects really tell you about the environment, particularly images with ice and snow in them. Blue is often the color of cold, but red can be autumn leaves and other non-hot things.

When I was looking at the color balance in these two photographs, I decreased the amount of blue in the images and I noticed that, when I made the snow nice and white, they didn't look as cold. I put a little blue back in but not as much as I saw in the raw files as they came up in lightroom. As ever, click on the images to see a larger version.

Ahhh, photos to look at when it's 110F in Tucson in July!

Camera data:
photo 1: Canon 5D mk II, Canon 85mm F/1.8, 1/5 second at f/11, ISO 400
photo 2: Canon 5D mk II, Canon 85mm F/1.8, 1/25 second at f/16, ISO 400

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Petrified Logs, Jasper Forest, Petrified Forest National Park

I've only been to Petrified Forest NP once before to take photographs. I'd been there a couple of times when I was much younger and found it to be a boring place, no huge mountains or deep canyons or underground caves! Now I wonder around and am amazed by both the landscape and the beautiful petrified logs that can be found weathering out of the soil, this is a strange place!

Today was windy and cold and mostly cloudy.  When I thought about photographing rocks it made me think of photographing flowers because they can be similar photographically. I want to capture the colors and avoid harsh shadows so cloudy days and sometimes shade are good for flowers and I think the same can be said for colorful rocks.

I hadn't stopped at the "Jasper Forest" last time I was photographing here. Now I think it is the best place because of the landscape and the beauty of some of the logs.  These logs are short, not nearly as long as the ones at places like "Long Logs Trail" near the south entrance. However, I find the colorful cross-sections more interesting than the shear mass of the really big logs.

I still have a lot of post processing to do but here is one image. Taken with a Canon 5D mkII and a 17-40 f/4.0 lens.  (I would have put a 17mm tilt-shift lens to good use today if I had one.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day of the Dead Procession

I went to the "Dia de los Muertos" procession Sunday night in downtown Tucson.  This is a time for family and friends to pray for family members who have died.  The procession in Tucson is anything but solemn, most of the people seemed to be having fun.  I was amazed by the size of the procession, the number of spectators lining the streets, and the free outdoor performance that happened at the end of the procession.  Photographing without a flash was a challenge, I was shooting with a Canon 5D mk II and a Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens.  I had a monopod attached to the camera but because of the crowds, I often had to lift this off the ground to get above the heads of some of the other onlookers. Of course, the subjects of my photographs were in constant motion as well so I felt I needed a shutter speed of at least  1/100 second.  To reach this goal, I shot in an area where there were some street lights (low pressure sodium, a color balance problem), shot at ISO 3200, and kept the aperture open to f/2.2.  The contrast between the various masks and other constructions against the night sky was another difficulty.

I ended up with about 50 useful photos, out of a few hundred, and a couple of pretty good HD videos.  Many of the images I got were blurred for one reason or another, mostly camera or subject motion.  I probably should have shot at ISO 6400 or higher but then the quality of the images begins to be compromised.

A lot of the people in the procession had simply painted their faces and added black shadows around their eyes, nose, and mouth to give a skull-like impression but there were quite a few that had obviously spent quite a lot of time putting together costumes and display pieces for the event.  I'll post more photographs later but I'll add a couple to this blog post.  The first image is of a skull mask that was raised above the procession on a pole.  I like the design of the mask and the painting on it.  The small skulls radiating from the mask had lights inside them and the "candles" in the eyes of the mask where illuminated.

For the second image, I wanted to show something unusual.  A lot of what I saw consisted of skulls of various kinds, black and white, some using face paint and others made from paper mache.  The sun face/skull pictured here struck me as out of the ordinary in an already unusual and creative landscape.  Perhaps, just because of the color, I'm not sure, but I liked it.  As ever, click on images to see larger versions.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Photographing at work

This last week, I was asked to photograph an event at my place of employment and to take a group photo of some of my co-workers.  I've been showing my photography around at work for a couple of years and have had friends ask me to photograph their grandkids, which I've done gladly because I love to photograph children, but I hadn't been asked to take photos that will be used in annual reports and web pages for the laboratory.  Today, another friend of mine told me I really should go photograph at the "Dia de los Muertos" procession tomorrow night. People, at least locally, are beginning to think of me as a photographer, I like the feeling.

The event I photographed was a public outreach event from the Lunar and Planetary Lab to a fifth grade class from an elementary school.  The children (about 12) got a chance to examine a collection of meteorites, make their own comets using dry ice, water, soil, and a collection of other ingredients similar to those found in real comets, and make small impact craters in tubs of flour layered with other colored powders.  These were smart kids who were very engaged in the process, listened well to instruction, expressed themselves clearly, and had a lot of fun in the process (what kid doesn't have fun with dry ice?). The photo below shows two girls with a ziplock bag full of comet ingredients, the white cloud above the bag is condensing CO2 and water vapor escaping from the bag.

Adam Showman, one of the professors here at the lab, wanted a photograph of him and his graduate student group.  This was also fun to do, we tried a variety of locations and shot about 15 photographs indoors, outdoors in the shade, and outdoors in the sun.  The photograph below was, I think, the most successful of the group because it captures a little of the personalities of the people in the photograph, and the background indicates that the subjects are involved with planets (although a background with Jupiter in it would have been more appropriate to the work they do, the 3D poster of Mercury works well I think.

Most of these shots were indoor shots without flash.  For those of you interested in camera details, both shots here were made with a Canon 5D mk II and a Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens.  The first shot was made at f/2.8 at 1/125 second and ISO 800, the second was made at f/2.8 at 1/160 second and ISO 1600.  Click to images to see larger versions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Vision Incarnate

I read a sample chapter in duChemin's book, VisionMongers, and it got me thinking about photographic vision, craft, and equipment.

Twenty years ago, in discussions on the internet news group, "", I was involved in a conversation about "art" and "expression" in photography.  At the time I was using a collection of used film cameras in various formats and was developing my own film and printing my own images in my darkroom.  I was dismayed at the number of photographers for whom the photographic equipment seemed to be the focus of their interest, rather than the vision and communication involved with the pictures produced.  I said something like: "Equipment shouldn't be so important, an artist's vision will transcend the medium used to express that vision."

Lately, I've been shooting photographs with modern 35mm digital SLR cameras and have been spending quite a bit of time thinking about equipment, more than I used to.  I have a camera body that gives me a digital image containing 21 million pixels and some of the very finest lenses, I have autofocus, autoexposure, auto color balance, all kinds of tools to help make my life easier.  I worry that I've become too distracted by the technology I use to express myself.  I do feel that I'm making some good photographs, and the technology helps make them easier to capture, but part of me still harkens back to the artist who can make art with whatever materials are at hand.  Sigh.

So, I recently got a new cell phone and it has a camera in  it.  The camera is fixed focus, fixed focal length (3mm), allows the user to have some control over exposure and white balance, probably has a fixed aperture (f/2.8), and an unknown shutter speed.  The images contain about 1,300,000 pixels.  This got me thinking about trying, as others have done, to limit myself to this little camera (not all the time, though, I'm not that much of an artist!) to see what happens.

In my last set of images posted to my web site, I have a photograph of an old school bus rusting away in a field in New Mexico that got me thinking about why I took the image.  I decided that I liked thinking of the idea of all the years that school bus delivered children to school, probably in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Who where those people?  What experiences did they have on the bus?  Where are they now?  It's like a little piece of history, one that nobody writes about in history books.

Today, I walked over to a nearby neighborhood park that I know is very well used and looked at the playground equipment and thought again about the history, how many children had slid down the big slide and where are they now.  There is evidence of many coats of paint on that old slide that have been warn off by all the little hands gripping the  rails, the bed of the slide is smooth and shiny from regular use but when I was there, nobody was around.

Here is an image, taken with my cell phone looking down that slide, post processed in photoshop to make it black and white.  As ever, click on the picture to see the larger version.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Chains" and "Rattlesnake"

Yesterday, I spent the morning in the Page, Arizona area.  I was taking a "photographic" tour in the Antelope Canyon area at 10 AM so I wandered down to Lake Powell at sunrise.  There is a day use area just south of the bridge across the canyon called "The Chains" where you can park and wonder around on the slick rock and go down to the lake's edge.  I photographed in this area for an hour or so and it was quiet and peaceful for a while until the airplanes started flying and the power boats started their journeys on the lake.  Apparently, there are quite a few tours you can take by small aircraft and one of the popular times to fly is just after sunrise.  I photographed smooth rocks that have weathered out of the sandstone, animal tracks in the sand, sandstone shapes and the lake itself.  The photo below gives a wide angle view of what one sees standing on the shore of Lake Powell at this time of day before the boats take to the water and make a lot of waves.

Later on, I went over to Antelope Canyon for my tour.  This area has become a very popular place since I was last there.  When I last visited, probably 14 years ago, I had to go to a particular gas station, hire a Navajo guide, and be driven out to upper and lower Antelope Canyon.  Now there is an entrance station where you pay $6 to get in to park at upper Antelope and there are rows of trucks, each able to carry about 14 people, waiting to take you on a tour.  The first hour of my tour was going along with the less expensive, non-photographic, tour.  When I was at upper antelope, there were about 5 tour trucks there from various tour companies around Page.  In the canyon itself, not a very big place, there were at least 60 people, and it was very difficult to take any photographs without people in them.  One strategy I saw a lot of people using was to point their cameras up at the "ceiling" of the canyon.  However, this approach gives very high contrast images because the upper areas of the canyon are illuminated by the sun while the lower areas are in deep shadow.  For the second half of my 2 hour tour, I was dropped off, by myself, at a smaller canyon, called "Rattlesnake", for about an hour.  This small canyon is much harder to negotiate than the larger Antelope Canyon, but I had it all to myself!  Rattlesnake is harder to negotiate as it has some small drop offs and very narrow areas to squeeze through.  I took the following photograph in Rattlesnake of a nose of sandstone that jutted out into one of the "rooms".

The "regular" tour of Antelope costs $25 and the "photographers" tour is $40. My recommendation for visiting Antelope is to go on a week day, perhaps there will be fewer people then.  Also, if you go when the sun is more overhead, you will see more of the shafts of sunlight that come down through the crack in the "roof".  This time of year, the sun is too low on the horizon to get these shafts. As ever, click on the images to see larger versions on my web site.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Glen Canyon Dam at Night

I'm in Page, Arizona tonight.  I have a photographer's tour of a couple slot canyons tomorrow with a Navajo guide.  I wondered over to Glen Canyon dam to see what sort of night photos I could get.  There was nobody around the visitor's center and it was closed.  There were a couple of guards walking around on the dam and they would shine their flashlights around once in a while.  I took a few exposures, mostly at about 35-45 seconds at f/11, ISO 400.  The photo below shows almost the entire dam as well as some of the machinery at the base of the dam and the water flowing out the bottom.  The distortions are courtesy of a 17mm lens on a full frame camera.

To show the scale, the image below is a full resolution crop of the right center of the image showing the pickup trucks parked down by the generating structures. (click on photos for larger view)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Acoma and photography

I went to visit the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico again after many years.  It is one of the longest continuously occupied human communities in the United States.  The last time I visited was about 15 years ago and things have changed in the intervening years vis-a-vis photographers. Most importantly, to me, tripods are no longer allowed, period.  You can take a camera but you must have a tag attached to it and if you don't take one of the tours you have to pay a $10 "camera" fee.  If you do take one of the tours, which is the only way to get up on the mesa, the camera fee is included ($20).  Photography is not allowed inside the mission church or the graveyard outside the church. (click on photos to see a larger image)

The problem I have with tours when doing photography is that I can't take my time to setup photographs, wait for changes in light, think about composition, etc.  However, when a tour is the only way to go, I'll give it a try.  The controls I have are, when to go.  On this day, we went on the last tour of the day which started at 5 PM and ended around 6 PM, with sunset at around 6:40 PM so the light was farily good and there were only some puffy white clouds in the sky.

On the mesa, water is collected in catchment basins because there is no municipal water service.  This means there are pools of water in various places around the community which gives an additional interesting atmosphere to the place.  I  photographed some of the houses along one of the streets with one of the water pools in the forground.

In one area of the village, I was watching a bunch of ravens flying in the updrafts caused by the wind hitting the edge of the cliffs along the edge of the mesa.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sometimes fall color isn't what you expect

Visiting various places in New Mexico, I was looking for fall color today. The skies were in large part overcast and Sierra Blanca (11,981 feet) had its head in the clouds most of the day.  Although most of the taller trees had lost their leaves in the wind over the past few days, some of the smaller and closer to the ground shrubs and plants were showing fall color.  These were most prevalent in areas that have had forest fires in recent years.  In the case of fire, low shrubs and scrubby trees are the first things to replace the pine and fir forests.  Many of these seem to be able to hold onto their leaves through the wind storms.  This photograph was taken south of Ruidoso, New Mexico along the road from Cloudcroft.

In Capitan, NM, I saw an old school bus rusting away in a field north of town.  The yellow of the bus reminded me of the opportunities to photograph the yellow aspen trees I had missed.  It also reminded me of the simplicity of the days when children rode busses like this one to school.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Photographing fall colors when the wind blows

The wind has been blowing for a couple days here in Cloudcroft, and a lot of the colored leaves have blown off the aspen trees, rocky mountain maples, and even a lot of the oaks.  They also had rain night before last which didn't help.  So, what to photograph to document fall here in the Sacramento mountains?  Well, a lot of the leaves are still here, they are just on the ground and can give an interesting backdrop for foreground objects, for example, the trunks of the trees.

I went for a hike on the Osha trail this afternoon.  This is just west of Cloudcroft on state route 82 across the road from the train trestle.  It is an easy 2.5 mile loop hike and takes the hiker through aspen groves, maple groves, pine and fir groves.  From it one can see down into the Tularosa basin to White Sands NM.  I photographed various trees, views of the leaf covered trail, and some landscapes.  My best result is the photograph below showing a Rocky Mountain Maple tree surrounded by its discarded leaves.

The Lodge at Cloudcroft, NM

I'm staying at "The Lodge at Cloudcroft" in New Mexico. I came here to photograph at White Sands National Monument and to see what kind of fall color I could find in these Sacramento mountains. I haven't found any outstanding fall color yet because we've had some overcast skies and high winds which have blown some of the leaves off the trees. I've seen some very colorful oaks and maples but only isolated individuals. There are some yellow aspen groves but the ones I've seen that still have leaves aren't very accessible.

I've been coming to the lodge here in Cloudcroft since I was about 10 years old and it really hasn't changed in all those years. Most of my visits in the past have just involved eating in the dining room, a beautiful experience, but this time I thought I'd stay a couple of nights. October is part of their "off season" so the rates are reasonable and the rooms (1899) are beautiful and have been updated with modern conveniences (modern bathrooms and excellent fast wifi).

Here is a photo of the front of the lodge, taken a few minutes ago:

The lodge was built as part of the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway which was a logging railroad.

The interior is kept very authentic with a comfortable lobby, excellent restrurant, gift shop, swimming pool, and pine trees and aspen trees all around.  The town of Cloudcroft is small but has a small grocery, a couple of bars, and at least one gas station.

Things to see near here are the Sacramento Peak Observatory (a solar observatory), Apache Point Observeratory (3.5 meter, F/10),  White Sands National Monument down near Alamogordo, and very nice mountain country.

Here is a photograph of the lobby of the lodge:

White Sands contains dunes of gypsum that are white and is extensive enough to spend quite a bit of time exploring.  I find summer a bit hot at White Sands but I   would certainly recommend a fall-winter-spring visit.

I'll post a photograph I took last night at the monument to this blog post.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Astigmatism and Color Fringing, Sigma 50mm f/1.4

I went out to Chiricahua National Monument yesterday to try some sunset photography but got there too late and ended up taking some night images at Massai Point. The moon is at first quarter so I knew I wouldn't be able to get the sort of deep sky images that I enjoy taking but figured it would be a challenge to see what I could get with the moon up. I try to take exposures that are either short enough so the stars in the sky don't smear too much or long enough so they make long trails. Lately, I've enjoyed the short exposure (< 45 seconds) shots so I tried some of those. I wanted to get some of the Chiricahua rocks clearly exposed and found that in the light of the first quarter moon I needed to shoot at a fairly wide aperture to keep the exposure times short. Both of the images shown here have ~35 second exposures taken at an aperture of f/1.6.

I've been pleased with the results I've gotten with my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens on my Canon 5D mk II but I hadn't paid close attention to some of the lens distortions that show themselves when shooting star fields. This first image shows a couple of the rocks near Massai point illuminated by the moon and with stars in the background sky.

In this image, in addition to the rocks and bushes, you can see a lot of stars in the sky, a galaxy, and a couple of satellite trails. If you look closely, you will also notice some distortions in the stars in the upper left and lower right. (click on images to see larger versions.)  This is meriodional astigmatism and it gets worse the closer to the corners of the field you get. I found this effect easier to see in the following image which shows a distant view of Cochise Head from Massai Point.

Look at the top of the image, the stars are distorted so they look like little line segments oriented tangential to a circle centered on the image.

I also noticed that some of the stars looked more red than they should be and closer inspection shows that there are red/cyan fringes around the very brightest stars.  This happens all over the image, not just near the edges.  I'll show a couple of full resolution crops from the second image below.   The first full res crop shows the meriodional or tangential astigmatism and is taken from the top left of the Cochise Head image.  The second crop shows the color fringing and is taken from the center of the same image.

Apparently, night sky imaging at wide apertures requires extremely fine lenses!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ghost Beads for a Bellagonna

I went up to the Navajo reservation over the weekend. This time of year I'm getting tired of the heat in Tucson and I want to go somewhere that I can find cool weather. I've always enjoyed staying at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle, AZ near Canyon de Chelly so I made my way there.

I've been to the Chinle area many times and have lots of photographs of the canyon at various times of year as well as photographs of nearby areas so I was looking to do something different. I enjoy photographing people but find it more difficult than landscapes or wildlife. My main problem is shyness I think, it is difficult to ask a stranger if I can take their portrait. Native Americans are even more difficult because some of them are very sensitive about photography. There are usually a number of venders selling jewelry along the rim of the canyon as well as at White House ruin on the canyon floor. I decided to try to photograph some of the venders in both places. I ended up photographing five Dineh (Navajo) people. I promised to send them the results either by e-mail or prints by ground so I got their names and addresses.

Pearl Joe's daughter had jewelry spread out on a blanket in front of her car at the Tunnel overlook. Pearl sat in the back seat of the car stringing juniper seeds and turquoise beads into necklaces and bracelets. Pearl told me juniper seeds are also called "Ghost Beads" and keep away bad dreams and evil spirits, hang them on your bed post at night and you'll never have a bad dream. I wonder if they work for a Bellagonna (non-Navajo person) like me? I bought a small string of seeds, we'll see. Pearl was a little shy about having her photograph made, she told me people try to make money from her photograph or make a painting from the photograph and sell that. I told her I wasn't doing that and that I was just trying to learn to take better people pictures. She let me make her portrait. (click on the photos for a better size image)

Don Charley is a flutist and not shy at all. At the age of 29, he is trying to make his career playing traditional Dineh flute music. Unlike Pearl Joe, who doesn't use a computer much, Don studied web design in college, has e-mail, a myspace page, and other modern social connections. He was trying to sell CD's of his music and not having too much luck in spite of his long and complex sales pitch. I didn't buy a CD but I did promise to send him a couple of photographs that he could use on his web site with my blessing and that was enough to peak his enthusiasm. In talking to Don and his girlfriend (didn't get her name) I learned that young Dineh have trouble staying in Chinle because there are no jobs around. In particular, the distance to the nearest Wal-Mart was mentioned. The Gallup Wal-Mart is pretty far away and if you can't get a job there, you might have to go all the way to the Wal-Mart in Flagstaff! I photographed Don playing his flute.

A while later I hiked down the trail to White House Ruin and talked to, and photographed, a few venders who were waiting for the tour jeeps to arrive. White House is one of the main stopping points and breaks for the passengers of the half day jeep tours that leave from the Thunderbird Lodge. Delores Sam lamented the fact that the tour goes up Canyon del Muerto first before it comes down Canyon de Chelly so the venders in the more northern canyon get the first crack at the tourists. I very much enjoyed sitting in the cool shade under the cottonwood trees having an interesting conversation in the beautiful canyon.

I'm very slowly learning a few Navajo words and know a handful. I discovered, on this trip, that even the few I've learned, some I've learned wrong! I learned to say "Hello" as "ya-tah-HAY" somewhere, but it is "ya-eh-Teeh" instead. I'm not good with languages.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chasing storms and galaxies

I looked at the weather map Saturday afternoon and decided there might be some thunderstorms in south-east Arizona that evening so I loaded my camera stuff and "sleeping in the car" stuff into the outback and headed east. It looked like the storms would be near Sierra Vista, but when I turned on the Sierra Vista turn-off just west of Benson, AZ, it didn't look promising. The storms looked better further east so I headed for Willcox. I had read on the web about a little visited BLM picnic area called "Indian Bread Rocks" south of Bowie, AZ on the east side of the Dos Cabezas Mountains and I figured I could sleep there.

When I got near Willcox, it was clear that there were storms north of the city so I followed N. Fort Grant Road as the sun set and it grew dark. When I got, probably, 15 miles north of Willcox, I found a dirt road I could turn off on, and it wasn't raining there, and I had a good view of some of the storms so I figured I'd photograph some lightning. Well, lightning photography is tricky, you have to make sure you get your focus set right, etc., autofocus won't work on a black sky! Here is one of the photos of lightning, I need more practice doing this, too bad the monsoon has fizzled this year.

After the storms started winding down, I headed for Willcox for a bite to eat and then out to "Indian Bread Rocks". To get there, you go south from downtown Bowie, under I-10, drive through a few miles of pistachio groves, turn right on a nice graded dirt road, and then drive a couple more miles to the picnic area.

As expected, there was nobody there and everything was quiet and very dark. I appreciated the outhouse and garbage container and, while walking around, noticed that the sky was very clear and that I could see the Milky Way quite clearly. The brightest part of the galaxy in the sky was to the south so I set up the tripod again and took a few time exposures. I had read that if your exposure is longer than 30 seconds, the stars will streak too much to make a nice image. Of course, you might WANT star trails. I tried a few different exposures and tried to get the camera focused properly. Thank goodness for "live view" on the 5D MK II and the zoom, you can set the focus quite accurately. The best image was a 20 second exposure taken at f/1.6 with my 50mm f/1.4 Sigma lens. In hindsight, I should have done some wide angle shots too with the 17-40mm lens. Here is the image:

I had a somewhat restless night in the car wondering if anyone would show up and chase me away, wondering if any large animals lived in the area, and what kinds of insects live there. But my fears were unfounded and the night was cool, quiet and peaceful. The next morning I tried to take some sunrise photos but there were clouds veiling the sun in the east.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mixing work and play (photography)

This last week I attended a meeting in the Denver area and gave a presentation about some new software we are developing for planning observations with the VIMS instrument (Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) aboard the Cassini spacecraft. Since one of the people on the science team is a photographer friend of mine, I decided to take a few extra days so I could photograph on the way to Denver, while in Denver, and on the way home.

My path took me first to Moab, and the slick-rock country of south-east Utah. I visited Moab 15 years ago and went to see some of the sites while I was in the area but didn't bring back many pleasing photographs from that trip. This time I visited new places I hadn't been to before in Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky), and Dead Horse Point state park. Here is a sunrise photograph I took at Dead Horse Point looking toward the La Sal mountains. I used a wide angle lens (17mm on a full frame DSLR, f/11, 1/13 sec) to emphasize the broad expanse of the landscape. The color on the upper clouds only lasted about a minute.

Next, I drove to Denver and gave myself a couple of days to explore the mountains nearby. The most interesting place I went was to the top of Mount Evans (14,250 feet above sea level). Amazingly, there is a road to the top and my friend Roger picked me up at 5 AM and we got up there before sunrise. It is a beautiful place to be and there is a surprising amount of wildlife. We saw mountain goats, yellow-bellied marmots, pica, and ptarmigan. Here are two photographs, one showing the landscape (looking south-east from near the top just after sunrise, 28mm, f/16, 1/50 sec) and one showing a mom goat and her kid (300mm, f/11, 1/250 sec).

The next day I visited Brainard Lake recreation area west of Boulder and did a hike around Long Lake. On the way in I stopped at a small lake covered with water lilies named Red Rock Lake and photographed the sunrise over the lake (40mm, f/11, 1/320 sec).

After the meeting, on the way home I drove late into the night to get to Almogordo, NM so I could get up early and photograph at White Sands National Monument. They don't open the gate there until 7 AM which is a little late for the sunrise but fortunately there were quite a few clouds in the east which helped with the light a bit. I plan to revisit the area later this fall when it is a bit cooler and camp in the park so I can get some images earlier in the day. This photo features some of the insect tracks I saw in the sand. They had had some rain on previous days which changes the texture of the sand a bit.

When I get a chance to go though my photos and process more of them I'll post them on my website at