Friday, March 20, 2009

The West is Red

Last fall I took a photographic tour with friends of the major parks in the states of Nevada, Arizona and Utah. I flew into Las Vegas where I spent the night and took the opportunity to take photos of the city. To the right is an example; it looks like a sea full of jellyfish but is really the ceiling at the Bellagio, one of the many casinos in the strip. The next morning I departed to the Grand Canyon via Hoover Dam. Since I was at the dam last time, photographing the spill side is difficult now since they had installed a glass wall that does not allow anyone to bend over the rail to shoot down.

The Grand Canyon is almost as I saw it last 28 years ago. There is no photograph that can really capture the magnitude of its size or the rainbow of colors. I spent 2 days here and the best time to photograph are at sunrise and sunset. The rest of the time just drive around trying to find sites to photograph later at the times of best light. In the nearby town of Tusayan there is a National Geography Society (NGS) Theater with one of those huge screens showing the wonder of the Canyon. And if you are an aspiring landscape photographer, you can get a tour and lessons there from the NGS experts. I did notice that there is a haze in the air that do not recall from my first visit. There is no way I could remove it with a filter or by using Photoshop that I!!!
Next I went to Bryce Canyon where thousands of hoodoos form rows of towers than remind me of medieval castles in Europe. This park again is at its best early in the morning and the place to go is Sunrise Point, that overlooks Bryce Amphitheater; it is big enough so there is no rush to get a choice photographing spot. Once the sun breaks, you can walk down into the Queen Garden Trail which is not a difficult one to negotiate. This trail is very rewarding, offering opportunities to photograph the Twin Bridges in one of the small canyons and Wall Street (no brokers here). During hours of the day not conducive to photographing it is worth to drive to the the various points but making sure to return in time to Sunset Point to catch the sun going down. In the image to the left, gullies can be seen between the fins that support the hoodoos, the pillars of rocks. These are created by chemical and water erosion.
Fast running water carries the soil away and seeps in between the cracks of the rocks where its freezing and thawing action shapes of the hoodoos.

In the way up to Arches, I stopped at Kodachrome Basin, a state park, named after the famous Kodak film by an NGS Expedition back in the last century due to the contrast and vivid colors found in the area. There are several monolithic sand pipes as high as 170 feet. The one featured to the right is an HDR image of the pipe known as Chimney Rock; the same rock was photographed by the NGS and appeared in the National Geographic magazine issue of September of 1949. If you check the magazine, there is no noticeable change in the rock other than the color, mine is not as red as the one published. There is a sign by the rock providing the above information as well as a photograph of the rock. There are arches in this park as well as other colorful mountain ranges, one can be seen to the left of the Chimney Rock in the photo presented. On the way to this park there are lots of interesting sites to photograph such as abandoned all houses and at the Park Headquarters, large number of mule deer can be seen at sunset. After departing this park late, I was lucky to get the last hotel room left at Hanksville to spend the night.

Arches National Park was the next destination, another site that I previously visited, and the air
was clear and not hazy as experienced
at the Grand Canyon. Stayed at Moab
that was a sleepy town at this time of the year, with lots of restaurants but most of these were closed for the season. Arches is a magical place with great opportunities to get stunning images with a bit of patience, a tripod, the right lens and camera. I said patience because even in the fall, there were many visitors, and to get a great photo, one must wait for them to move. To the right is an image of Delicate Arch, the result of the magic of HDR photography.

Nearby at the the Canyonlands National Park is the famous Mesa Arch. This is a place photographed by the "Who is Who" in the world of landscape photography and I am sure you have seen it several times. The morning I was there, there were photographers lined up along the length of the arch with no space to spare. Some with large format view cameras, doing it the old way. Aspiring wannabees like me had to sneak in between the huge tripods under the threats that if "you touch my tripod I will...". Well, I survived without being impaled and got a sample photo to the right.

Finally I reached Zion National Park, a magical place. There were trees, grass, waterfalls and red was not the dominant color of the landscape. I got here when the trees were at their peak of fall colors and the weather was perfect. I spent most of the time photographing the Lower Fall in the Emerald Pools Trail, this is the largest and most photogenic than the Middle and Lower Falls.
This was my favorite site of the whole trip and samples for you to judge are below (sorry but I am having a terrible time lining up the images in the Blog).

I called this Blog the "West is Red" because red is the predominant color in that part of the country. I had a difficult time trying to adjust the color in the images to eliminate the ever present red cast. And finally, I must thank my photography mentors Ed and Manuel, who patiently waited for me past sunset every day, and did not leave me behind.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frogs of Costa Rica

Whenever anyone think about Costa Rican frogs, the red-eyed ones come to mind. Frogs are not easy to photograph and very difficult to find. I spent hours looking for them and listening to their calls, and when I got close enough, they stopped calling. The best time to look for them is near water just after sunset where they start looking for mates and food. They can be found on leaves but most frequently underneath them, making their photographing most difficult. I went out 5 nights and was able to find frogs only twice. I set up my camera in aperture priority at f 8 or 11 and ISO 400 with a 150 mm micro lens and a shoe mounted flash set to Hi Speed Sync. I rigged the flash with a Petzl Tikka XP attached with Velcro to the top of the flash so that I could illuminate the subject for focusing. I also used a diffuser attached to the front of the flash. The 150 mm lens gave me about a foot of distance to work with. The focusing was done manually by moving the camera back and forth until I could see the frog's eye more or less in focus; I left the fine focusing to whatever I could obtain from the depth of field achieved from using small f stop openings. Needless to say, lots of shots were wasted.

Although I had been to Costa Rica several times, I photographed these frogs in November, which is considered the rainy season there; I do not of the odds of finding frogs at other times of the year. These frogs seem to stand still at times but in occasion they move constantly making their photographing very difficult. All the time I was with them, they did not appear to be interested in eating but in finding mates. The male will seat in a choice leaf and inflate its throat like a balloon and sings to his heart contents until the girls came around. Some of them took a look at the charmer and keep going; maybe his serenade was not to their liking. I was lucky to get a mating pair, they did not mind me at all; the female will move around carrying the male on her back; this situation took as long as an hour.
Of course not all the frogs were of the same species and I found the one to the right the most appealing.
He was very tenacious and stayed calling for mates for a long time but I did not see if he was successful in attracting mates. Frogs are having a difficult time now a days and it is blamed to the greenhouse effect. They seem to be mostly affected by viruses, fungus and other agents. There is not a real consensus as why this is happening but their disappearance will be a great loss since they feed mostly in insects and they in turn are eaten by birds or humans (in the case of bull frogs.)

Costa Rica is a photographers' paradise with a diversity of ecological niches in the mountains, the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, which are quite different. I found the Pacific most rewarding when it came to photography. Birds are the major attraction for photographers and there several ecological reserves available with nice forests and accommodations. Transportation is a challenge due to the conditions of the roads, particularly in the rainy season, when the roads may get washed away by flash floods. A four wheel drive is highly recommended as well as a GPS since most streets and road are lacking road signs. And beware, you never know when a frog may mistake you for a meal.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Antelope Slots

Last fall while driving from the Grand Canyon towards the Arches National Park, I passed by the town of Page, Arizona. Coming into town, I saw a sign pointing towards the Antelope Slots and another in the opposite direction pointing towards the Horseshoe Bend. I continued down the road to visit Lake Powell and then stopped at the town for lunch. Much to my surprise found lots of shops selling tours to the Upper and Lower Slots. I have no idea of what these were until I went to one of the tour offices and saw the picture of the slots. These images are very unique to anyone in the photo world. I got a ticket and to the Upper Antelope I found myself going in an open truck with two benches facing back to back. Upon arrival, I was unloaded in the company of about 9 other adventurers and taken to the entrance of the slot, where we were given a lecture as to how to behave and related safety concerns. The entrance to the slot is just like walking into a cave. In the summer of 1997, eleven tourists were drowned when caught by a flash flood inside the slots. You are given about 2 hours to go through the Upper Slot in the company of a guide. Being my interest photographing the Slot, I stayed behind and photographed them to my delight. This type of photography requires the use of wide angle lenses, a full frame SLR, and tripod is a must due to the low light. Using the tripod was cumbersome due to the narrow passages inside slot and the curvature of the walls. The results were incredible; two images are to the left. You have probably seen images of the slots in which there is a ray of sunshine coming down from the top creating a unique effect. Most of these images are created by the photographers. While there, there was a British photographer with his assistant creating the "sun beam" effect. This was done by the assistant throwing handfuls of sand into the air so that the dust will be hit by the light creating the beautiful effect. That was nice for them but no for me; it destroyed the clean air within the slot creating a dusty atmosphere. After visiting the Upper Slot, there was no option but to stay one more day to photograph the Lower Slot. The next day, I arrived at the Lower Slot about 9 AM and stayed till about 2 PM. Here there are no guides and you go on your own; photographers get to pay an extra fee that it was worth it. To enter this slot you must go down a set of narrow stairs that were difficult to negotiate carrying a tripod, the exit is just like walking out of a cave just like in the Upper Slot. After returning home from this trip I read about other photographers tips as to when to photograph these slots who recommended that noon time is the best time when the sun is overhead and one gets the best light. I would say that anytime between 9 AM and 3 PM are great time to get the light play within the slots. I will also say that the best time to go would be in the late fall and winter to avoid the summer heat and the tourist season. When leaving the Lower Slots I noticed two large smoke stacks; these belong to a large coal power plant. I wondered why locate such a facility here when there is so much electric power being generated by the hydroelectric generators at the Lake Powell Dam.

Upon departing the Upper Slot the day before, I took a short drive to Horseshoe Bend located in the Colorado River down from Lake Powell. This was an amazing geological formation create by the meandering river creating oxbows as it eroded the sandstone. I arrived there late in the afternoon and the light was against me so I decided to come the next morning. I arrived about 5 AM in darkness which revealed a starry sky. While waiting for sunrise I proceeded to photograph some the constellations and in particular my favorite one, Orion. When the sun began to break I set my tripod and camera at the "edge" and hoped for it not to tip over and held to it by the cable release. I did not move the camera until I left about 9 AM. Early at sunrise is the best time since as the sun rises, the illumination pattern change. I did take hundreds of images of the formation and took series of photos to experiment with High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. The image above is the result of HDR. It is time consuming but the results are worthwhile. Page, Arizona is a well worth stop full of wonderful sights. They even have Balloon Festival every year. Highly recommended.