Carson River Morning

Carson River Morning

Waiting for spring. Salix stems along the Carson River, as we watch for the warmth of sunrise. 1/2 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Up early for a quick trip out to the Carson River. The river is swollen with early run-off, but the morning held a winter chill and little promise of photographer’s light. Dez and I wandered the banks where I first tried to capture some images of the setting moon. Those turned out terrible! I could not get anything interesting in the foreground without turning the moon into a singular, glaring bulb of light.

But soon the sunrise began to take shape and add a bit of color over Prison Hill. I set up at the water’s edge and composed to get the red stems of the willows playing with the red reflected in the water and the clouds. I felt pretty happy with the result.

Looking back (2018.11.13): I’m happy with my early try, but I over-processed the sky, mixing saturation with graduated filter. 

A frosty pond with resident ducks, a cropping exercise to highlight the cold and resilient avifauna. 1/30 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I actually prefer the second image. There is more of a story here. The duck couple are safe in their home on the pond, regardless of the otherwise frozen morning. I want to look for more of this.

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Black Rock Desert Recon

Black Rock Desert Recon

Dendritic, tree-like, drainages form in each drying polygon as puddles dry, and a few square centimeters of playa becomes a whole other world. When the sky doesn’t add to the story, look close. 1/1250 sec, f/5, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

The Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada is the epitome of expansive space as its vast playa, the remnant lakebed of pluvial Lake Lahontan, rolls off the horizon in all directions. I have been wandering and researching this awesome landscape since the 1980s. Although popularized by denizens of Burning Man – a conceptually nice idea, run amok by human desire for community and expression, that which, it seems, cannot be created at home – the desert playa and its surroundings hold a place in my heart. It is also a splendid research laboratory for investigating the paleogeography – geology, climate, and culture – of a vastly changed landscape.

Anyway, Black Rock Desert photography has transformed into street photography set in somewhat ephemeral Black Rock City. Burning Man imagery dominates any search for any genre of Black Rock photography. That’s fine, the event produces compelling and evocative images. But the Black Rock is more than Burning Man, and I hope to remind myself, and others, that there is beauty and drama beyond the now lost utopia of Burners. A primary goal is to make the desert and its surroundings a focal point of my photographic journey. We’ll see where it takes me…

Limbos and Kumiva Peak. Stopped along the highway to watch the sunrise and take first images with new telephoto lens. 1/13 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

Not that this quick trip really initiates anything, but it was my first time out to Black Rock with photography in mind. There had been some late winter storms in the previous few days, but the light did not reward me. My opportunities were somewhat narrow as I also needed to recon an archaeological site for an upcoming project, a long drive for a single day out – days still short here in the late winter.

I was hopeful as this this was my first day in the cold desert with my new 70-200 mm f/4L lens. I didn’t make a lot of use of it, still too focused on the wide compositions in a big space; I see now that this should change, especially on days when the sky doesn’t add to the story. I did pause along Winnemucca Lake at sunrise to capture the Limbo Range and Kumiva Peak. The colors of the distant foreground, salt grass on the playa margin, make the image work for me.

The town of Gerlach, NV, is small against the Granite Range. 1/160 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Anansi’s Trail. Playa track after fleeting rain. Tried dozens of compositions to capture the metallic curve on the Black Rock Playa.  1/80 sec, f/14, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Near Trego Hot Springs, I walked onto the playa where I really wanted to capture the water-filled path and the curve of the former lakebed. I tried several different compositions of the same pattern, working hard to catch the mirage shimmering on the edges of any distant boundary. Finally, I cropped the far-away mountains, were former shorelines cut into volcanic rocks, to highlight the metallic S flowing to the middle horizon. An ephemeral day on the playa.

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Stillness at Walker Lake, NV

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

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

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

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