Stillness at Walker Lake, NV

On any other day I might have composed this image with a neutral density (ND) filter and a long exposure. Today, however, even the vast Walker Lake was a reflecting pond. Although the composition initially included the distant mountain range, this image worked best as a close crop on the tufa-crusted boulder. 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I approached Walker Lake from the south at sunset, good timing after a long day’s drive. I have traversed this highway many times and spent some time on the lake, but I had never seen the glass-like stillness of this large remnant of pluvial Lake Lahontan. Amazed, I decided I needed a break from the windshield and turned off Highway 93 at Sportsmans Beach. I found the boat-ram perched far above the lake, even after the very wet winter.

I considered setting up on the roadways of the camp and picnic ground overlooking the lake, but the vast body of water and mostly clear skies dwarfed the Gillis Range in the distance. I was still enamored with the potential for wide images (and have not lost the bias for the wide favorite composition), but could tell that the blue lake and blue sky in a wide shot was not what I wanted. I was drawn to the calm of the lakeshore. Grabbing my monopod and 80D, I jogged down broad beach to the water. The light was turning toward its golden-hour peak but a few mid-level clouds in the west where about to shut it down, attenuating any later reflective drama.

I set up a few compositions on the reflective shore area and then turned to occasional bursts of color on the mountain-front of the Gillis Range. I found several reflection compositions, but most where too busy with jumbly boulders and swamped tumbleweeds. It wasn’t until I zoomed in (and ultimately cropped in post) that I captured the close-up magic of what I felt in the calm and silent shore.

I tried some wide-angle reflective images but they feel unbalanced and lack much interest. I like the Gillis Range panorama  but only because I have climbed to its summit, otherwise the photo has no real subject. The contrasty mountain view is the color pallet I really like, but the foreground, or basic lack thereof, muddles the shades of the faraway desert hills. Looking back, I also think I could have used a lower ISO setting to get rid of a small amount of low-light noise; it seems I didn’t trust the monopod, further revealing my inexperience with exposure settings.

A four image panorama of the Gillis Range. Not the best composition. I’d hoped for colorful sky, but mid-level clouds to the west blocked the setting sun. Still, I’ve always liked the Gillis Range. 1/400 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I love the color pallet and contrast of desert mountain ranges. I hate not finding a foreground to go with the distant hills. Probably too much uninteresting sky here too. 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Walking back toward the truck in fading light of the beach, I found some intimate compositions of coyote tracks and sandy erosion. On the day, I may be most happy with these simple, monochromatic images. A worthwhile stop, all in all.

Although nowhere to be seen, a young coyote led me up the beach. 1/30 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

With the sky a disappointment, I looked for those intimate landscapes, shapes on the ground. 1/400 sec, f/9, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Seascape Photography is Difficult — Stinson Beach, CA

An open beach on a calm morning is basically a simple pattern generator. No big breaks, just repeated wave-sets, steady and calming. The sun had just cleared the headlands, getting first-light on the foam. 1/100 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Every couple years the Far Western team of directors gathers for biannual retreat to re-group under our core principals and plan for the future. It is an intense long weekend of collaboration and brainstorming. Our biannual retreat is long tradition of organic growth and excellent motivation.

The 2017 retreat had an auspicious beginning. One of the larger, intense storms in a series driven by a well-established atmospheric river deluged the coastal ranges, making for difficult travel and dramatic conditions on the beach. Our rental was cold and leaky, but we settled in to work against the storm. The storm cleared by the second morning.

In the midst of our gathering there is ample time to explore the beach and the hills of the Marin Headlands. The coastal landscape provides the opportunity to practice in an unfamiliar environment. This images reflects my early attempts at coastal photography in a variety of conditions — from the storm’s morning-after to the brightness of a weekend sunrise. The images also archive the immaturity of my processing skills. As always, it was important to be out there, experimenting and trying to capture the motion of the ocean and the serenity of the beach. 

Before sunrise on the morning after the storm; my first attempt at a seascape long exposure; really, my first long exposure ever. I purchased a 6-stop ND filter especially for this morning. I struggled with focus while using the filter, and battled the fog while processing, but I do like the mood that came through. This is not a compelling composition, however. 2 sec, f/8, ISO 200; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Another long exposure try with a bit more emphasis on processing for what the scene looked like; it’s less blue and I used a slightly faster exposure to isolate the clouds and fog. Or that’s what I thought I was doing. Very fun morning getting to know my camera, and getting my feet wet in the rising tide. 1 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I was still learning my camera (I still am) and had probably jumped to long exposures and neutral density (ND) filters prematurely. My focus and depth-of-field feels off, especially when viewing the images a year later. The compositions are working better, but Stinson is not a dramatic landscape. It is basically a long, crescentic curve of sand, but the openness is calming. I would like to learn to express that story.

This is the photo that taught me about zooming in on a composition using a basic cropping tool in processing. It was one of the first photos taken with my new 70-200 lens; with the APC sensor of the 80D, the focal length is effectively 360mm. Very cool. 1/200 sec, f/11, ISO 200; Canon 80D, 70-200 f/4L.

You cannot pass up a brilliant, post-storm sunset at Stinson Beach. After waiting for over an hour, I wasn’t sure the sun would get through the mid-level clouds; I almost wasn’t ready when it did. There isn’t any foreground interest, but I like the two people (and two gulls) for scale. 1/25 sec, f/11, ISO 200; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I tried to catch some light on the breaking waves but that over-exposed the sky. A graduated filter in processing helped, but I don’t care for the subdued sky when the reflecting blue in the water is a more accurate expression of the morning sky. I like the image because it reminds me of the morning, but the processing is heavy-handed. Seascapes are difficult. 1/250 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Please let me know which long exposure you prefer in the comments below. And comment on any of your experiences with seascapes, I’m looking forward to getting back to Stinson, and elsewhere!  

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Deep Freeze at Bridgeport Reservoir, CA

Inversion fog forms misty strata above Bridgeport Reservoir. A seven-shot panorama of the Sawtooth Range, Sierra Nevada. Focused on the structure to emphasize the softness of the frosty background. 1/500 sec, f/5, ISO 200; Canon 80D, 18-135 mm.  

I discovered YouTube. Silly me. I had, of course, spent hours browsing YouTube content, mostly checking out concert videos or while solving some home repair puzzle. But now the puzzles of Lightroom had sent me searching for tutorials and that, in turn, allowed me to stumble upon a couple channels that suddenly inspired me even further.  I found Thomas Heaton and Nick Page. These guys – Thomas from the northeast of England and Nick from the Palouse in eastern Washington – are pros with a knack for teaching and sharing their photographic inspiration and talent, along with their joys and their occasional failures. It’s dangerous binge material, not to mention the rather serious gear-envy with every “what’s in my bag” video. However, to avoid the danger, it is better to follow the inspiration and get out to photograph some landscapes, just like my new mentors.

So, I’m up in the pre-dawn of a brutally cold Saturday morning driving happily, once again, the dark two-lane of Highway 395. Driving through here a couple weeks ago in a deep snow storm, I thought the sunrise on the Sawtooth Range of the Sierra from the perspective of Bridgeport Reservoir would challenge me. It’s an expansive range, with a ragged high-point I climbed many years ago; and with the frozen conditions and new snow this should be fun!

Knowing the reservoir was frozen, I wanted to use it and the lifting fog to highlight the range in the first sunlight. That was the plan, and it worked out pretty well.  What I didn’t anticipate was just how cold it was going to be. First, I could not find a good place to park due to the plowed berms along the highway; the road crews had worked to clear the highway after the recent storm but they didn’t see the need or have time to create convenient photography pull-outs. Dropping into 4x4 Low, I made myself a parking spot where I thought the turn-out to the reservoir dam might be. Oh, and it was now -16F, so the cold smacked me hard when I jumped out of the truck. Luckily, I loved the viewpoint and thought I had several good compositions I could capture just short distance from the truck – maybe I could even climb back in with the heater running once things were set and I waited for the light. The sun was unlikely to ever reach me, so ambient warmth was not coming soon.

I had my new tripod and remote cable trigger so I was ready to be a real landscape photographer, and I was earning it! I’d even cut the finger off one my gloves so I could work the touch-screen on the camera and easily adjust the buttons. I did not, however, plan on losing the feeling in that finger!  It soon felt and looked like a dried-out, pink eraser on an old No. 2 pencil. I could not feel a thing, that finger was useless. But the light was coming, and it was awesome.

I tried several tricks that Thomas and Nick had touched on. With the highlight being a seven-image panorama that I stitched together in Lightroom. I wasn’t able to work with anything in the way of foreground interest, but the control building at the dam is a cool feature of the pano, and the scene from the frozen lake is about the space. I was very happy with this first outing with a tripod, having weathered the brutal cold common in the Bridgeport basin.


The pre-dawn chill at Bridgeport Reservoir. I think the panorama at sunrise a few moments later captures the expansive valley better; a multi-exposure pano provides the wide view that can, at first, feel limited in a crop-sensor camera. I should have gone for a greater depth of field here, compensating with a longer exposure given that I was using the tripod.  1/30 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200; Canon 80D 18-135 mm. 

Sunrise on the Sawtooth Range and Matterhorn Peak, Sierra Nevada, above Bridgeport Reservoir. Starting to think clearly about my camera settings, and emphasizing some depth. The freezing inversion keeping some softness in the distance. Climbed a couple Class 5 pitches to the Matterhorn summit (left peak) in 1994, on a much warmer day. 1/400 sec, f/11, ISO 200; Canon 80D 18-135 mm.

As the sun hit the reservoir near me, the ice reflections mirrored the freezing mist beyond the frosty tree. This drew my attention away from the distant mountains, and toward the nearby shore. It’s a simple in-camera zoom and reduction in depth of field that alters the composition from the preceding image — augmented by a slight addition crop in post-processing.  Along the with panorama, this one captures the deep freeze of the winter morning at Bridgeport Reservoir.  1/1250 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200; Canon 80D, 18-135 mm.

Some small steps forward with Lightroom processing, especially syncing and working with the panorama creation. I also saw the benefit of cropping and zooming. I’ve somehow since lost the RAW files from this outing, however. The Canon 80D performed flawlessly in the cold, and I remembered to let it warm slowly in it’s bag for the several hours of driving later that morning. Plopping the cold camera on the desk in the warmth of home may have allowed water vapor to condense in the lens or elsewhere. Don’t do that.

The upper layers of my fingertip actually fell off after turning black several days later. Frost-nip on the exposed portion, the result of a smart move altering cold-weather gear and stepping into the deep freeze. I never had that happen to me in the mountaineering days; I had to wait to experience that while standing on the edge of a frozen lack with a camera, on a tripod, and pointed at a mountain. Perfect.

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Oh, I can process images? — An Odd Start

Death Valley is a common target of landscape photographers, and it’s a wonderful laboratory of earth processes, holding magnificent dunes and vast alluvial fans, along with the lowest elevation bottomlands in the US. It is as unforgiving in environment as it is in testing a newbie photographer.  I shot this at 1/8000 at f/3.5 ISO800, and I have no idea why… 

It is difficult to imagine, over a year later, not processing images, letting JPEG settings baked into whatever digital camera I was using dictate the photographic output. It has long been so cool to have immediate access to images, accepting that they looked “good enough”, that I never thought to concern myself with the fact that my composition did not match my impression of the scene or subject. I guess I did not even think to think that I could alter that – it had not even crossed my mind. I was mostly doing basic documentary photography any way, but can I not do that better?

In the early days of my landscape photography journey, everything seemed new and it was all an experiment and I was seduced by the joy of learning—I still am. I had been scheming my move into “better” photography with Daron, a friend and research colleague, who’s photos I enjoyed. Passing through his place in Las Vegas, Nevada, I showed him my new camera, along with a few photos from my recent Hope Valley excursion. He immediately explained a little bit about RAW files and post-processing in Lightroom. He was not deep into processing yet either, but he was at least one big step ahead of me.

I dove into my camera’s settings, shifted the file type to RAW, and headed home with the intent of downloading Lightroom, ordering a tripod, and continuing the journey. But first a stark, harshly lit road trip through Death Valley, Panamint Valley, and Owens Valley where—on the road to a project site I needed to visit—I jumped out of the truck to snap a few photos. I was so enthralled with taking a few RAW photos, thinking Daron had turned me on to something magically important—I simply failed to consider basic camera settings and had some atrocious results. I have no idea what I was thinking at the time. It was a bright sun-drenched day and my ISO seems to have been stuck on 800 and my aperture drifted toward wide open. This combination, therefore, required a super-fast shutter speed and produced rather poor depth-0f-field. I had absolutely no experience with post-processing so I wasn’t pushing things for some kind of effect, I just didn’t know what I was doing. The images here show some of my early processing; creatively learning Lightroom and Photoshop (the common tools of post-processing) is its own journey, and I had not started down the long road yet.

I have cropped this to salvage something from a terribly noisy and overly blue scene of the alluvial fans of eastern Panamint Valley. Our photographic journey can be a very long road.

If I’m going to photograph alluvial fans emanating dramatically from the Sierran mountain front, I may want to compose for the fan. It is completely lost here.  But at least I’d found the ISO button and dropped it down to a more suitable ISO200. 

I do like a few of the compositions I captured on the drive, but only because they emphasize the physical geography and geomorphic processes—here, the aeolian dust of Death Valley and the alluvial fans of Panamint and Owens Valleys—that I am most interested in photographing for documentary and creative purposes. There are some long roads in the images, maybe a conscious suggestion of my journey. I would like to find compositions and conditions that portray these interesting and dramatic features of the Great Basin (and elsewhere), as I continue my scientific investigation of past and present landscapes. But first, I need to take some basic steps of better photographic technique, composition, and practice. A lot of practice, with the camera and in my processing…

Let’s keep going…

DCraig Young

First Day Out: Hope Valley, CA

On my first day practicing Landscape Photography, I had no idea what Lightroom was, and I shot only JPEG like I had with every other point-and-shoot digital I had owned. My first attempts at Lightroom were pretty bad, and maybe some dramatic clouds would have saved me from the unsubtle vignette. Plenty of room for learning…

It seemed I was the only car in the darkness, on Highway 89 in the pre-dawn of New Years Day, the first day of 2017. I had packed my snowshoes and was looking forward to my first outing with my new camera, the capable-looking Canon 80D that I had recently picked up at Gordon’s Photos in Carson City. Sometime over the past few months, in the field with my S110 point-and-shoot, I felt the urge to up my game in landscape photography. I knew early morning light in the mountains helped the magic happen and I was ready to kick off the new year by nurturing something that felt like a growing passion. I have always enjoyed dark early morning highways. The dashed yellow lines ticking into the high-beams with a freshness of recent awakening; very much the opposite of driving into night after a long day of highway.

A pre-dawn dashboard, a dark roadway split by a high-contrast yellow line, and a travel mug of home-brewed coffee, these easily entice me to get up and get out—so here I am. Driving past Woodfords, California, along the West Fork of the Carson River, climbing into Hope Valley. I was headed to Red Lake at the valley’s southern end. I would snowshoe a short segment of the historic California Trail, climbing toward  Carson Pass, to overlook the frozen lake with a sunlit view of the Carson Range with its three-pointed crown at the peaks of Freel, Jobs, and Jobs Sister.

Still, not another car. And that’s probably a good thing given that anyone I encounter may simply be driving off their New Years’ shenanigans on a swervy mountain highway. A bad way to start 2017 for both of us. But I make the Red Lake turn-off below the switchbacks to Carson Pass and the tires crunch into a snow-rutted parking area at the dam. The wind is up as sunrise approaches and I gear up against the cold as much as possible then strap on the snowshoes. The excitement of my new camera warms my hopes for the coming light. My excitement, however, soon turns to puzzlement. This is more difficult than I thought.

The sunrise highlights the Carson Range and nearer summits, but they are light-years away in a relatively wide lens—I thought we used these for landscapes? The sky is perfectly clear—where is the alpen glow and drama that I see on all the calendars? My very necessary gloves (it was 4° F at sunrise) make some of the camera controls a bit fiddly—gloves off, gloves on, gloves off, gloves on—and I’m not at all clear what all the controls on the 80D do. I should have taken some more time to get acquainted with the camera in the warmth of home. My photos on the back of the camera don’t look any different than the photos I took on my point-and-shoot, maybe worse.  On the other hand, it is so good to be out here in the brisk, quiet ring of a cold wind on a mountainside. That’s the thing that resonates. I can learn the camera, I hope, and I’m suddenly very curious and intrigued as I begin to remember a few things that go into capturing images. This is fun.

I wanted to think this was merely the tip of a monstrous pine, but the wind-blown grass gave it away. The light is not good, but I can see I was composing around the negative space. I like that.

On the edge of the forest I heard voices, Slavic voices. I stepped onto the ice and was sure I had gotten lost. A Siberian lake maybe? Where’d I go off trail? Just the boys out for some ice-fishing.

Is this some dramatic light? Not really. And trying to make it so in Lightroom ruins the JPEG. Don’t do this. -Pickett Peak east of Hope Valley.

Learning a little, bit by bit. Telephoto compression can be nice. And, wow, I can push a button and get black-and-white. Seems silly, but I remember laughing out loud. Embarassingly late to the show.

I’d seen the glassy, moody water and knew how it was done. But you aren’t going to get there hand-held, especially after my morning espresso. Doesn’t mean you can’t try.

I simply liked this ice…

I shot this at f/11, trying to get the colors to stand out. That’s not how it works, I’m thinking. I still have trouble gauging the aperture settings for a particular depth of field, even though I understand it a bit more (I think). What I got right here: f/11 kept all the pine needles in focus (I often get too shallow when opening up) and the longer focal length softened the background nicely. What I got wrong: lines going every which way with needles against grass, but…

Looking back on it now—I’m revisiting these first trips and journal entries several months later—my complete inexperience, with the camera and what most photographers take for granted in post-processing, is almost funny. I did not own a tripod. I did not know what a RAW image file was. I did not know that processing software like Lightroom existed. I could not have explained the exposure triangle of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to anyone, even though I had taken some nice pictures in the past, relying heavily on “P-mode” and simple speed adjustments. I gradually thawed during this first, cold morning, learning by watching the results on the camera back, and captured at least one image that still makes me smile.  

Running Man. This one I still love. Great shapes, good detail, and soft background. Got lucky just walking back to the car…

We all start somewhere. I emphasize that it was those few hours in the early morning, wandering in the forest, across the frozen lake, and along the shining river, while kindling the possibilities in the camera (could be any type of camera) in my hand, that transformed me ever so slightly into a chaser of light.

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