Posts made in Special Places


On Not Giving Up Too Quickly

Early Snowfall in the Eastern Sierras

Two years ago, I made a Fall Color trip through California’s eastern Sierras, and was rewarded with a fantastic show.  I planned for this year’s return trip hoping for a repeat performance.  I closely watched all of the leaf-peeper reports for several weeks, and most were saying that autumn colors were building throughout the area, from Sonora Pass near Bridgeport to Bishop.

Since peak colors appear on slightly different dates, depending on local conditions and weather, there is no “perfect” date to be there.  I envy people who live nearby and who can make a quick hour’s drive on short notice.  I don’t have that option, so I picked October 20th as the target date again this year.

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Vista House Inspiration

Along the Columbia River, Oregon

I’ve mentioned before how much I gain from Brian Matiash’s weekly OnOne “Perfect Inspiration” series (  In each episode, Brian uses a shot that may not, all by itself, be jaw-dropping.  But he concentrates on adding an incredibly creative slant to the post-processing and some personal insights to achieve a really “inspirational” result.  Several episodes back, he featured a shot he’d taken of the Vista House at Crown Point along the Columbia River just east of Portland.

It just so happened that I was leaving for a 4-day trip to the Columbia Gorge the very next day after seeing the episode.   So I quickly adjusted the route since I was very taken not only by the setting and subject, but by Brian’s creative “Blending Fantasy with Reality” rendering of it.

For reference, the Vista House is located above the Columbia along the scenic, historic Columbia River Highway (GPS: 45.540067,-122.244294).  Vista House was designed by Samuel Lancaster as an observatory looking up and down the Columbia, and to make the wonders of the gorge accessible to the area’s visitors.  The opening panorama above is the view of the Columbia from the Vista House.

Brian chose his vantage from the nearby Portland Women’s Forum parking lot.  I couldn’t imagine that I’d find a better spot, so I shamelessly put my tripod legs in the same holes (although the one I used is from a slightly different vantage point in the lot).  You should watch his video ( to get the full impact of how he converted what would otherwise have been an interesting but straightforward HDR series of shots into a very cool final result.

He said that he wanted to, “…infuse [into the shot] a sense of fantasy and otherworldliness.”  If you’ve seen OnOne’s advertisements in many of the photo magazines, it will be familiar to you.  I just loved his final result and wanted to try for my own fantasy version.

So, deciding that I’d try the sincerest form of flattery, I shot a similar set of images at a slightly later sunset and used my image to learn from his tutorial.

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HDR at the Rail Museum


A Day at the Orange Empire Railroad Museum – Perris, California

I’ve toyed with High Dynamic Range, or “HDR”, photography off and on for a few months now, but I’ve resisted fully going down that road. It’s very common now to hear the term “HDR” touted as though it was the latest cure-all for ignoring what used to be careful lighting, thoughtful composition, and the tedium of waiting out, or searching out, a scene that was within the tonal range of the camera’s capabilities.

In the days of film (B&W especially) and Ansel’s Zone System, we could readily hit a 9-stop range, and maybe even push it some. With today’s typical digital sensor limitations of 5 stops, or 5½ at best, those shots we chased or had to wait for are not within the range of the cameras that most of us have today.

Thus opened up the HDR world. I lagged behind for quite a while trying to avoid 8-stop or greater scenes, or more troublesome yet, trying to light interior or wide-range shots with flashes, reflectors or other traditional fill-light magic.

I still find myself bristling when I hear someone say, “Just use HDR and bracket it”, as though tht will magically cure a bad or highly contrasty image. It’s sort of like when a scene didn’t materialize without content conflicts or compositional mistakes, the catch-phrase became, “Oh, just Photoshop it out!” I hated it before, and I hate it now. (And I really hate to hear “Photoshop” used as a verb!)

But slowly, and with no small amount of coaxing and coaching from some of the those whose opinions I value, most notably my good friend and mentor, Robert A. Hansen (, I began to see, like much that I had grudgingly come to accept in the digital world, that HDR is just another of those techniques that can be used either badly or to combat and bend the limitations of our equipment and situation. So, I’ve decided to give it a fair try for a while and see what happens.

I went on out to the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, home of the world’s largest rail junkyard, to give HDR a good try. I remembered my former trips to OERM from the Ilford and Tri-X days as a great location for details, shapes, forms, shadows and, of course, subject matter that wasn’t everyday. And, I figured that there would be plenty of opportunity to shoot images that were well beyond a 5-stop range and still had plenty of interest in the darker, or highlighted details.

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Yellowstone — Winter Awesome!

More earthquakes than any other place on earth with the exception of California, two-thirds of the world’s geysers, 4,000 bison that languish during the warmer months but plod and struggle to survive in the brutal winters, coyotes stalking a meal, and the world’s first national park – this, and so much more, is Yellowstone National Park.

Did you ever go to Yellowstone in the family wagon when you were a child, most likely during the warmer summer vacation months?  If so, and if your only experience with Yellowstone is during the sunshine and “combat” months of massive tourism, then you’ve not seen it in all its grandeur and awesomeness.

Our January workshop group, purposely limited to a small group, started after the drive from the Bozeman airport to the park’s northern entrance near Gardiner, Montana.  It is one of only three entrances to the park that are open during the winter months and the only one that can be driven by private vehicle to any of the open resorts.

Our stay of two nights at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel bracketed a day’s 30-mile round trip drive east (over the only roadway open in the winter) through the Lamar Valley to Tower/Roosevelt.  Lamar Valley is basically the only area within the park that is maintained and drivable in the winter and filled with stands of bison, occasional antelope, and a coyote or two along the way.

From Mammoth Hot Springs, we traveled the 50 miles south via our chartered Alpen Yellowstone Guides snow-coach.  As an aside, these wonderful and colorful contraptions were made by Bombardier in the early 50s and have since been used in the park as winter transport (wheeled and private machines are prohibited in the winter).  A plug here for Alpen Guides ( ).  Alpen Guides is  a permitted private concessionaire for Yellowstone NP headquartered in West Yellowstone.  They are wonderful, personable, extremely knowledgeable and very accomodating in tailoring route/schedule choices.  Contact Spring Binfet there at( 800) 858-3502 for charters or scheduled tours.

Four of the next five days (one R&R day to process images and kick around Old Faithful Village) took us on the lower loop, the upper loop, along the Firehole River, the Grand Canyon Of the Yellowstone, all with many, many stops for waterfalls, wildlife, steaming pools of color, geysers and fantastic natural abstracts of snow, trees, shadows and forms.

In the winter, the light drops dramatically on all but the sunniest of days, yielding to a subdued gray.  But on those days, don’t give up or curse the light (or lack thereof).  The gray and white of winter can turn what might seem a somber day into one that has its own special brand of drama and just cries out, “monochrome images!”Of course Old Faithful is the best known feature in Yellowstone.  She erupts every 92 minutes or so.  A prediction for the next show is made by the park staff following each eruption and is posted at several locations throughout the park.  You never know what each eruption will bring.  The light, the wind, the variations in the eruption, and even the occasional presence of bison on the geyser’s flanks, all add to the mystery and power of this amazing sight.  Whether gray, pastel or bright, the light always paints her with an ever-changing personality, and whether rendered in color or monochrome, each eruption presents its own opportunities for interpretation.

Bison are in abundance throughout the park and are encountered often along the meadows, walking the roads, on warmer ground near the geysers and even parking lots.  They are such fantastic and massive animals that their stoic winter nature is very misleading.  They can be dangerous and the anger of a cow guarding her calves is not something that one would want to chance.  But their plight for survival in the winter seems to take precedence over everything else other than the most aggressive human intrusions.  They hold the right-of-way throughout the park, and the Park Service’s imposed boundary of 25 yards from wildlife is almost impossible to keep since they regularly walk the roads.  The operating rule that humans must stay in their stopped vehicles until the herd passes made the top hatches of our snow-coach invaluable.

Our one unfulfilled hope was to see and photograph one of the wolf packs that roam the valleys in search of prey and whose tracks we saw multiple times.  But their howls that made their way to us from the windy distance were the only contact we made with them.

But, other wildlife abounds.  Coyotes, while more cautious than the bison, still went about their way, hunting for food and sometimes seeming to pose for a few quick shots before disappearing into the wood just as quickly and quietly as they arrived.

The Firehole and Gibbon Rivers are home to flock after flock of Trumpeter Swans and geese.  Several areas are set aside as off-limits beyond the roadside as nesting reserves.  With our long lenses, we were able to make some very good shots even from the mandatory distances.  The beautiful white swans, aside their young grey Cygnets, seemed to be in a constant stationary swim against the wind and river current.  It was a special treat to see the occasional flutter and flap of wings before they flew several hundred yards to safer ground away from a nearby coyote, or perhaps to separate themselves from our group.  And of course, as they lifted, the inevitable tree was directly in the lens’s line of sight!

Yellowstone is almost 3,500 square miles in size (larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined), and it feels even more massive in the winter.  The Yellowstone Caldera (there are actually three, the most recent being from the cataclysmic eruption over 600,000 years ago) is something like 30 miles by 45 miles!  This is volcanic country, and the constantly steaming ponds, seeping springs, and geyser eruptions are an ever-present reminder that this land is one in motion and somewhere not too far below the surface lurks one of nature’s most active zones.  And of course Old Faithful is the widest known geyser, but not the only one that defines this park’s volcanic identity.


The summer sunshine brings all the crowds even as it brings the brighter skies.  But there is something very special about the winter.  The mornings are quieter, sometimes with ground fog, always with the mystique of steam, and often a much moodier setting.   Bison in the haze, clouds backlighting the erupting geysers and steaming (up to 200°) ponds and springs, and of course, heavy, heavy snows, must be experienced to be appreciated.

So, thank you President Grant and the 42nd Congress for giving us Yellowstone as the first national park, our U.S. National Park system, and “America’s Best Idea”.By the way, be sure to keep your lenses as protected as possible from geyser steam settling and freezing on them.  Geyser steam contains silica which will leave a film and can bond with the lens glass, and it is extremely abrasive.  If this should happen, leave the film in place until you can rinse  it carefullywith a light stream of warm water (yes, water since most of today’s quality lenses are very tight) to dislodge any silica deposits.  Then very, very carefully clean the lens, first by blotting with your microfiber, then wiping.  Cleaning lenses and sensors is another topic for another blog tip.

I’ll be planning for another Winter Yellowstone Adventure trip next year, so if you think you might like to sieze a wonderful opportunity for an amazing and target-rich photographic experience, leave a comment.



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“Old Prairie Church” Wins Contest Award


I’m really jazzed!   My image of “The Old Prairie Church” has been awarded First Place winner in the annual Cowboys & Indians Magazine’s® photography contest for the Landscape category.  Pardon me for puffing up a little, OK?

The Old Prairie Church

The image that won the Landscape category is “The Old Prairie Church”.  The location is the historic Eaves Ranch just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  This working ranch has a section that was used for the filming of a number of movies and TV westerns, going back as far as “The Cheyenne Social Club.”

I was with a group from Moose Peterson’s Digital Landscape Workshop Series (check out Moose’s website at ), and we had combed the old movie set for “western” shots for our portfolios.  The afternoon had been filled with cowboys, horses and even the old jail.

It was late in the afternoon on a day that had threatened with rain (snow back in Santa Fe) and some wind.  Then, just before the sun dropped below the  Sangre de Cristo mountains, a break in the clouds gave way to a brilliant, low-angle lighting of the old church, back-dropped by spectacular clouds and ensuing sunset.  And for a brief few moments, the image before me spoke volumes about the lonely prairie, the single church that kept faith, and how beautiful the simplicities of older days are, even for those who might not be from the West.

Moose, thanks for the great opportunity to stand there and to grab what is already one of my favorite shots.

Cowboys, Indians, Award, Prairie, ChurchIf you’re not familiar with Cowboys & Indians Magazine, it is the premier magazine of the West, highlighting western and ranch life and the people and places that make up that special part the American West.  It typically features one cover personality that is prominent in western film, literature or history along with other articles and stories for those who have an appreciation of western lore, wildlife, scenery, architecture, music and even poetry.


But once each year, the focus is on some of the most interesting and high-quality photography of the West that can be found anywhere in one place.

I know,  I know, it sounds like I’m just spouting off about a publication that chose to give me a little recognition.

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Fall Colors in the Eastern Sierras

I can’t quite let go of the colors of Fall and the smell of Autumn woodsmoke, even though Winter has clearly set in, and Christmas is here.   What better time to go back a few weeks and bring up some of the results of my October trip to the Eastern Sierra.

No, the western states don’t have the same reds and purples, at least in terms of intensity, that New England and the Mid-Atlantic have.  Yet, the yellow brilliance of seas of Aspens mixed with the lingering green and silver of their trunks, contrasted against California’s snow-covered High Sierra mountain range, is a breathtaking site (and a playground for landscape photographers).  Talk about target-rich environments!  The Eastern Sierra,  although less heralded in most circles than its Colorado, Utah and other cousins, is a wonderful and relative easy place to find many colorful and interesting places to set up your tripods.

Start your planning for this location for about the third week of October.  Remember that Fall starts usually later at this latitude vs. the better known northern venues.  I picked October 21st this year, and I hit it absolutely perfectly.

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