First Astrophotography – Pine Nut Mountains, NV

First Astrophotography – Pine Nut Mountains, NV

I have long wanted to try photographing the Milky Way. I wasn’t too sure how it would turn out, but I liked the idea of getting out in the dark of the early morning and giving it a try. I’d messed around as a geeky teenager trying to photograph galaxies and nebulae by attaching my SLR to a Meade telescope. I still keep the 30-year-old mount adaptor, but I don’t remember any of the images turning out as we anxiously reviewed negative strips we got back from our local photo developer. I can still locate most of the common dark-sky objects, but this morning I just wanted a picture of the Milky Way; and, I’d heard that DSLRs made it pretty easy to capture one.

I decided I’d get up at 3 AM and head over to the Pinyon Trailhead. I could see the Milky Way easily enough. The moon had set long ago and the sun was a couple hours away. I’d prepared by investing in a  20mm, f/1.4 lens, having reviewed several tutorials about astrophotography. I wanted wide-angle and a fast, light-grabbing lens. At the trailhead, I set up my tripod, pointed my 80D at the Milky Way, cranked up the ISO, and hit shutter for a 10-second exposure. Wow, that’s cool. A bright, well-defined Milky Way and its receding core appeared on the LCD screen. It was beautiful, and nothing like what I could see with my unaided eye. I experimented with various exposure times and ISOs until settling on 15 seconds and an ISO of 3200.

The first astro image. The Milky Way over the Pine Nut Mountains. I’d yet to learn about the helpful creativity of foreground interest. 15 sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

Working the RAW files in Lightroom, I tried to create the relatively clear images of the stars and dust of our galaxy. Although I was amazed at the outcome, I will need plenty of practice to get images that capture the feeling of a dark night and the deep sky. It takes imagination and creativity because you can’t see and experience the image like you can when you capture a landscape, even when you process nature scenes to communicate the feeling and experience of a place and its light.

Learning the astro cliché, a headlamp selfie. 15 sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

A Photo and Geo Recon, Grass Valley, NV

A Photo and Geo Recon, Grass Valley, NV

Sunset on weak lenticulars rolling over the northern Toiyabe, cold night ahead at Bob Scott Campground. 1/100, f9, ISO 200

It seems months since I managed to sync into my calendar and set out on a Basins recon. I’m rather compulsive about keeping a calendar, hoping to establish and maintain discipline across work, exploration, and arts I pursue and enjoy. I’m not typically successful, however, at keeping to my calendar. We all know how things creep or crash in to capture our attention. Local photography excursions have been limited to about once a month, and my goal of incorporating practiced photography into my geographical research needs similar attention. I have an on-going project in Grass Valley, Nevada, so I’m feeling good that I could get on the road today, on schedule, and into the Basin. Of course, a potent spring storm arrived overnight and the rain was steady as I left for the office, camp trailer in tow. The storm cleared during the day, but a gusty wind remained, not letting up as forecast. I was able to leave the office a little after 2PM and pushed by a tailwind, I jumped on Highway 50 eastbound for central Nevada.

It was something of a challenging drive as what started as a helping wind shifted to crosswinds and the occasional stiff headwind. The truck powered onward without difficulty, but I watched the gauge shrink quickly as gas mileage dropped into single digits between Fallon and Austin. But it’s not really the driving with the trailer that is difficult. It’s the stopping. As the remaining storm squalls played the sky along the mountains, I find it difficult to be spontaneous. I can’t simply pull off the highway or drop onto a backroad; it’s the primary drawback of towing the trailer. It’s a problem whether I’m gouging around on a landform recon or trying to capture images of a developing scenes when the highway just isn’t the foreground I’m looking for! I’ve ignored this problem, however, by focusing on the benefit of having the trailer as basecamp. Planning camps as hubs from which I can traverse a region with relative freedom—carrying my camp in a camper shell or roof-type tent seems like a greater burden, though I certainly don’t mind an outback tent camp when an excursion calls for it. With the trailer, the drive will sometimes force me to miss the occasional stop, but I try to note things I’m passing in hopes of planning a future, focused trip.

Light plays in the clouds of a fading storm over Bob Scott Summit. 1/1000, f5, ISO 200

The temperature is forecast to drop to 18°F (-8°C) tonight and that means the storm has passed and the sky is clearing. I’m out to continue reconnaissance and investigations in Grass Valley. I’m a member of a multi-disciplinary team studying the archaeology and human ecology of early people in the central Great Basin. My task is to identify landforms where early archaeology might be preserved and document changes in the landscape and environmental conditions that may have influenced patterning in the archaeological record. I work closely with archaeologists interested in behavioral ecology and culture history and collaborate with them as we design research strategies, field surveys, and archaeological excavations. This work allows me to get deep into the Great Basin, where I can get a feel for the landforms and processes that relate to the discovery and study of the past environments, paleo-landscapes, and the archaeological record. Becoming a better documentary and landscape photography is part of this geographic journey. It’s all the same, really.

 Here are a few images from the three-day field reconnaissance to Grass Valley.

Standing stone, weathered plutonic rocks of Grass Valley, NV. 1/200, f8, ISO 100

Rooted stone. This reminded me of the power of trees, rooted in a forest. I wandered among this odd outcrop of plutonic, granitic rocks, shooting hand-held. 1/400, f8, ISO 100

Climbing a small hill for an overlook of the former lake basin, I came across a small outcrop. At its summit I captured images of ancient limestone seabed with my point-and-shoot. The Canon Powershot 110 remains my primary photo-documentation camera. It works relatively well compared to many of the point-and-shoot cameras I’ve used in the past. I’m often surprised I can’t tell much difference when reviewing the images on screen, but I’m starting to re-think my field process. I do see the benefits of the 80D for controlling depth-of-field and taking advantage of the clarity across wider and longer focal lengths. Does the portability of the 110 outweigh (inverse pun intended) the advantages of the DSLR? In the near future I’ll be re-thinking my approach to differentiating my field research documentation from my landscape photography. Or maybe I should consider it one in the same. 1/60, f8, ISO 125 (Powershot 110s capturing RAW)

I simply like the texture and contrast in the intimate, almost abstract, outcrop images. 1/80, f8, ISO 80 (Powershot 110s)

OK, now this is fun. My hike attracted the attention of a small group of pronghorn antelope. I approached them slowly as the walked toward a vantage point where they could keep an eye on the lone figure (me) in the sage. I haven’t had a long lens all that long but I knew this is the use-case that I had in mind. I made a mistake with the wide-open f-stop (f4), realizing that at full 200mm images are going to be soft (a bit out-of-focus). But this is still one of my favorite images. The pronghorn peer in all directions, with the big buck marking me closely. The scudding clouds, compressed as a background, make the photo work. I’ll hopefully remain a bit calmer next time, so I can get the settings correct. 1/2500, f4, ISO 100

Yesterday’s snow drapes the Simpson Park Mountains above Grass Valley. The leading line of the two-track trail, leading over grassy beach berms of pluvial Lake Gilbert, drew my attention to this composition. The compression evident in the 70-200mm lens emphasizes the snow-covered mountain slopes rising above the valley. 1/2500, f4, ISO 100

Something completely different, for good luck. 1/50, f8, ISO 100

Mt. Callaghan, northern Toiyabe Range. The haze of a dusty sky made the foreground slopes glow in the late afternoon sun and I enjoyed the pattern of snow in the gullies and alcoves off the summit. 1/50, f14, ISO 100


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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