Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Zion Subway

In much of Zion, 'limited access' means having to deal with the shuttle system providing transportation to specific locations in the main canyon.  For those willing to venture off into the wilderness, however, there's the Left Fork of North Creek, and a spot referred to simply as "The Subway".

A wilderness permit is required for entry into the Left Fork region. During the summer months, permits are awarded via a lottery. In late fall and winter, the lottery is not used and permit reservations are easier to secure. There are two approaches. The first, 'from the top', requires rappelling and mountaineering gear. The second, 'from the bottom' only requires a willingness to get wet and stay that way for the day. I recently enjoyed a cold, wet hike to the Subway following this approach.

When I arrived at the Left Fork parking area to start my hike, there was a fresh blanket of snow beautifully covering the desert landscape. The past couple of days had been dreary, but skies were now blue. The walk to the canyon was beautiful. To my surprise, there were more animal footprints than those from people in the fresh show. Soon I arrived at the steep canyon descent. I could tell that returning up canyon would be difficult, but that is an understatement.

Once in the canyon, I began hiking up the Left Fork, ignoring the common wisdom that trying to stay out of the water was a waste of time. I wore neoprene socks and pants, but with temperatures in the forties, I hoped to stay dry. It wasn't long when I slipped on a boulder and got thoroughly dunked. My first lesson was the basalt boulders were much more slippery than the red sandstone boulders. From then on, I avoided water when sandstone was available, but walked in the water when nothing but slick black rocks were present. Occasionally there were trails on one side of the creek or the other that would keep me out of the water for tens of yards. Those were awesome stretches. After a couple of hours, the canyon narrowed considerably and the route became wetter and more difficult. Then, alas, the entrance to the Subway was visible.

Entrance to the Subway in Zion National Park

The area accessible for visitors was more limited than I expected. After precariously walking through the Subway tunnel, which is coated in slick algae and running water, the slot canyon promptly gets very narrow with pools way too deep to swim in November. But the available section was quite spectacular from both downstream and above. From downstream, there are small waterfalls descending the rock surface toward several pools. 

Zion National Park Subway waterfalls

From the top of the Subway, the beautiful light is visible reflecting off the tunnel walls. It is very slippery in this section, and there is no place to get out of the water. I quickly realized the futility of bringing extra lenses. There was no place to change them while in the water. But a 24-70mm was a good choice to have on the camera.

The Subway in Zion National Park

Time passes quickly in the Subway. It is so beautiful it's hard to stop taking pictures. There were five other people there while I was present, and none of them seemed ready to leave either. But I packed up to go, remembering the remnants of an unauthorized campfire I spotted in the canyon, where someone perhaps got stuck for the night. As soon as I began working my way downstream through the canyon, the others followed and we all hurriedly tried to exit before darkness fell. Along the way, two of the people told me they had done the same hike just a few days earlier and had to climb out of the canyon in the dark. Although they began their hike today earlier, the higher water from the recent snow made the hike take considerably longer.
By the time I reached the spot for climbing out of the canyon, darkness had indeed fallen. Three of the other hikers were also there, sharing a single headlamp. Fortunately I too had a headlamp, and we worked our way up the canyon side in pairs, each pair with a light. It was still far more difficult than I expected to discern the trail, and on multiple occasions we had to backtrack and try different routes. At that point I wished more human footprints were present, since they were helpful for finding our way out. Eventually, we all exited the canyon safely with a tremendous experience and hopefully some good shots!

Technical Info:
All three shots were taken with a Nikon D800E and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. Each image was HDR processed from three shots. The first was done at f/8 and 24mm. The second two were at f/11 and 24mm and 27mm, all at base ISO. Exposure times are slow with the low light in the canyon, and a tripod is essential for all shots in the Subway.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Teton Dawn at Schwabacher Landing

There are several iconic spots not to be missed on any visit to Grand Teton National Park. Schwabacher Landing is one such spot. On still autumn mornings, the warm first light of the day gently illuminates the high Teton peaks protruding upwards from the Teton Valley floor. The Snake River splits into multiple braided channels, and beavers have conveniently constructed multiple dams along the eastern-most river channel, producing still water only occasionally disturbed by the plentiful wildlife stopping by for a morning drink.
From left to right, South Teton, Middle Teton, Grand Teton, Mt. Owen, and Teewinot Mountain are all visible above the autumn foliage and in the still water reflections as the sun steadily rises and the alpenglow light descends down the peaks toward the valley. While this spot is truly spectacular, it is not a spot for morning solitude. Be prepared to share the experience with many dozens of other photography enthusiasts and professionals who begin claiming spots along the river bank well in advance of the arrival of the morning sun. For those wanting solitude with their alpenglow light, see the post about Taggart Lake below. 
Dawn at Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton National Park

Technical Info:
Virtually all alpenglow shots require use of some post processing technique to compress the wide dynamic range of these scenes into a single image. Most commonly, HDR processing is used. In this case, with the morning light extending downwards near the valley floor, a 'luminosity mask' was used as an alternative to HDR processing. Two images were captured with a Nikon D800E and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens (focal length - 42mm, ISO100, and an aperture of f/8). One image used an exposure of 1/40s and a second image used an exposure of 1/80s. The majority of the image incorporates the shorter exposure, with the luminosity mask blending in the longer exposure for the darker area containing the foliage. The resulting final image is a better representation of what human eyes can see with our superior dynamic range.

Monday, September 28, 2015

First Light at Taggart Lake

Over the years I've done many alpenglow shots in the Tetons. Since the mountain peaks protrude upwards well more than a mile above the valley floor, the morning sun hits the peaks while the valley below is still mostly dark (called morning civil twilight). Since this first light emanates from the sun along the horizon, the resulting light is rich with warm tones not seen when the sun climbs higher in the sky. So to get an unfamiliar alpenglow shot, I decided it was time to hit one of the Teton backcountry lakes. Taggart Lake seemed an obvious choice, since it's a relatively easy hike. The hike also gets lots of day traffic (one of those "hello...hi...how are you" hikes), which hopefully would reduce the risk of encountering a grizzly in the dark. I recall my closest grizzly encounter when Grizzly #760 grabbed a flash out of my open camera pack before dawn at Oxbow Bend in 2013. Wildlife is quite active while we humans typically remain warm in our beds.

So with my plan set, I camped in a frequently used spot along the foothills on the east side of Teton Valley. When I awoke in the darkness at 7000 ft, it was 38°. As I drove down into the valley, I watched the outside temperature gauge in my truck drop steadily. Yay! Not that I wanted to suffer through freezing temperatures, but the fact that the temperature was dropping as I went lower meant the air was very still... and that lake surface would be perfect for a morning reflection.

When I got to the parking area, it was still completely dark. The sounds of elk bugling rang out from all directions. First light on the mountains was about 30 minutes away. Time to hike in the dark for what I recalled was about a mile, but is actually 1.6 miles. So flashlight in hand, I began walking in the dark. As I continued on the path, a couple of small birds kept landing a few yards in front of me on the trail and hopped forward as I followed. As soon as I would get close, they would fly forward about another ten yards and resume hopping along until I got close again. I couldn't tell what type of birds they were, but I hoped they were leading me toward something great.

As I continued along, visibility continued to improve. I thought I must be fairly close, and it wasn't long until the first light would hit the peaks. Then I saw a sign post - Taggart Lake 0.5 mile. I got a bit worried when I realized I had that much more to hike. There wasn't much time. I thought about running. But running through fairly dense woods in grizzly country while nearly dark isn't a particularly good idea. So I just walked fast. And sure enough, I made it to the lake about 5 minutes before the first light hit the Grand Teton.

Alpenglow light on the Tetons along Taggart Lake

After spending about twenty minutes shooting as the light worked its way down the mountains, I figured since I was already there, I might  as well head to nearby Bradley Lake, just about a mile and a half from Taggart, climbing over a glacial moraine that separates the two lakes. Obviously I wouldn't get the first light there too, but the air remained calm and the reflection should be nice. So up and over the hill I went. After descending from the top of the moraine down to Bradley, it was perfectly still and a spectacular scene. Maybe another time I'll make it there too for first light.

Bradley Lake Morning Reflections

After finishing shooting at Bradley, I began the hike back to the parking area. The sun was climbing higher and higher in the sky. Before long, I saw the first of the morning hikers heading toward the lake. "Hi...good morning...how are you?".

Technical Info:
The Taggart Lake shot is an HDR (high dynamic range) composite of three shots taken with a Nikon D800E and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at f/9, ISO100, and a focal length of 27mm. The dynamic range in nature of such a scene, with bright sun on the peaks and the foreground still mostly dark necessitates the use of HDR processing to 'shoe-horn' the dynamic range into something adequately represented in a digital image. Without HDR processing, the peaks would be overly exposed and the foreground almost black. The HDR process doesn't have to produce the grungy appearance commonly associated with this type of processing. It can be a simple tool allowing our cameras to better match what we see with our eyes.

The Bradley Lake shot was produced from two shots taken with a Nikon D800E and a 16-28mm f/2.8 lens at f/9, ISO100, and a focal length of 18mm. With the sun higher in the sky for this shot, HDR processing was not needed. The dynamic range of the scene was approximately what the camera was capable of capturing. The dark rocks along the lake shore, however, were very dark in a single exposure of 1/100s. So a second shot with an exposure of 1/50s was taken, and a luminosity mask was used to blend the foreground of the lake shore of the longer exposure into the overall image with the shorter exposure. Employing luminosity masks takes a bit more practice than simply using HDR software, but can produce a more natural look when the dynamic range of a nature scene is close or just exceeds the capability of a camera.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Idaho Autumn

The Intermountain West does not have the diversity of deciduous tree species present in New England that affords that region such spectacular fall scenery. Much of our autumn color comes in yellow/orange tones from aspen trees. One local region benefits from an additional color splash - along the Palisades Reservoir in eastern Idaho. In that area, there are mountain maples occasionally interspersed with the aspens that provide vibrant red tones. The maples generally peak a bit before the aspens, which can provide for a beautiful color combination, with aspens along a continuum from green to yellow, mixed with peak red maples.

Now is the time to witness this treat of nature. To enjoy it in person, drive on US Hwy 26 past the dam for the Palisades Reservoir and watch closely in the ravines on the uphill side of the road. There are several locations rich with the red maple color. There are maples present occasionally along the Snake River Canyon well into Wyoming, so it's a nice autumn drive to leisurely savor.

Technical Info:  The above shot was taken with a Nikon D800E with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at f/8, exposure of 1/200s at ISO 250. Focal length was 45mm.  Basically adjust exposure time such that any wind moving the leaves is minimal within the exposure. Note that usually in landscape photography, we are trying to create the illusion of depth as we transform a three dimensional view into a two dimensional image. In this case, I capitalized on the loss of the depth dimension to produce a 'wall' of color. The hillside definitely slopes upwards in person, but that slope is largely unapparent in the resulting image.

Happy Shooting!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lake Sherburne Dawn

The Many Glacier District of Glacier National Park is a great place for alpenglow shots when the first light of the day hits the mountains. There are good shooting spots along Swiftcurrent Lake, Fishercap Lake, and of course Lake Sherburne. Here's one from the shore of a still Lake Sherburne.
Alpenglow light on mountains behind Lake Sherburne in Glacier National Park

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lake McDonald Sunrise

 Glacier National Park is such an amazing place with so much beautiful scenery. I just returned from 10 days there, and already want to head back for more. Here's a scene from along Lake McDonald at sunrise, from the Apgar campground. Not a bad place to wake up early. :)

Sunrise along Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Majestic Tetons

 Yesterday morning was beautiful in the Tetons, with spotty clouds and some low-lying fog in front of the mountains. This panorama is from the Signal Mountain Summit, overlooking the valley and revealing the majesty of this spectacular mountain range.

Panoramic view of the Tetons in Grand Teton National Park