Thursday, October 29, 2009

How to photograph Utah's iconic landscapes - North Window Arch

This is the second in a series of How-to articles about photographing the most iconic landscapes in southern Utah. Earlier we looked at how to shoot Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, and now we'll examine the North Window Arch in Arches National Park, a short drive away. Both are best shot in the morning, right at sunrise, so they make a perfect pair to photograph over the weekend, one on each morning.

While the North Window probably isn't the most popular arch to photograph in Arches National Park, (Delicate Arch takes that honor) it's one of the best. The North Window perfectly frames a view of Turret Arch and the expansive red rock landscape westward towards Canyonlands National Park.

The east side of the arch catches morning sun, with the richest colors ocuring right at sunrise. Turret Arch, seen through the window, is touched by light right before the North Window, and the distant canyons a moment before that. Like Mesa Arch, being set up and ready before the sun rises is the key to catching the best light. The North Window is a short, half mile walk from the car, making it an easy access, early morning photo. Here's a link to the exact time of sunrise.

You'll want a tri-pod for tack-sharp images in the low light. A wide angle lens is necessary to frame the window and take in the whole scene. Also consider adding a polarizing filter to your lens, it will make the skies in your photo a deeper blue and add to richness in the color of the rock. Here's the settings from my camera for the photo above: ISO 400, shutter speed: 1/180 of a second, f-stop f6.3.

There's a small elevated ledge east of the North Window where it's easy to line up Turret Arch through the "window frame." On weekend mornings don't be suprised to find other photographers there with you. After all, this is one of the iconic images of Utah.

Getting there: From Moab, drive north on Hwy. 191 for five miles. Turn right into Arches National Park and continue 9.2 miles to the turn-off for the Windows Section. Turn right just past Balanced Rock and continue to the end of the road and the trailhead for The Windows and Turret Arch. Hike less than half a mile to the North Window, walk through the window to east side and scramble up to a small ledge to shoot through the North Window frame.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

How to photograph Utah's iconic landscapes - Mesa Arch

Utah is home to some of the most unique geography in the world. Inside its borders are five different national parks, all of which display parts of the mind-boggling beauty of the red-rock desert in the southern part of the state, known as the Colorado Plateau. The sandstone of the Colorado Plateau has been wildly sculpted by millions of years of rain, wind and geologic upheaval into a collection of domes, canyons, arches, bridges, hoodoos, and other geologic formations only found here, in our little corner of the planet.

The rock forms are so fascinating and strangely beautiful that visitors naturally want to photograph them. People travel from all over the world to experience Utah's national parks like Arches and Canyonlands and take photos of the rock "sculptures". We're lucky enough to have them right here in our backyard. A few of these rock features attract the most attention from visitors and photographers, and have been elevated to an iconic status by appearing repeatedly in print. From billboards to glossy coffee-table books, to park brochures, you'll see these spots representing the beauty of the Colorado Plateau. If you've ever wanted your personal photos to measure up to the published images that drew you to the southern Utah in the first place, read on.

Here's a look at how to photograph one red rock country's most published icons, Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch sits like a window frame above an awe-inspiring drop in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. The "window" looks out over thousands of feet of air, an intricately carved canyon floor, sandstone towers, and a landscape that can't be acurately conveyed with words alone. Trying to fit all this onto a digital sensor the size of a postage stamp can be quite the challenge.

Timing is everything at Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch faces east and therefore is best photographed at sunrise, right as the sun's rays first illuminate the orange-red rock on the underside of the arch. The sandstone towers down in the canyon will be dramatically backlit at sunrise, making for a compelling middle-ground in the image. The best light lasts only about 15 minutes before the sun climbs higher into the sky and the dramatic colors start to fade. Be there and be ready. Arriving 15-30 minutes before sunrise will allow plenty of time to find the best angle to shoot from and get set up for the short window of opportunity. This means an early wake-up call, but it's worth it. Here's a link to the exact time of sunrise.

Bring a tri-pod and wide-angle lens to help capture the scene. A tri-pod is important because it will steady the camera in the early morning light. You'll want to shoot for the maximum possible depth-of-field to ensure sharpness throughout the image. An f-stop of f/22 or higher is ideal. Tri-pods also help with composition because they force you as a photographer to think about where to position the camera, what to include in your shot, and what to leave out. A wide-angle lens is taylor-made for capturing Mesa Arch. With a wide-angle lens, between 12-35mm in length, you'll be able to capture the full arch, plus the vista below.

Getting there: Mesa Arch is located eight miles south of the park entrance in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. From Moab, drive north on US Highway 191 for nine miles and turn left on State Route 313, following signs to Canyonlands National Park. Continue on State Route 313 for 22 miles to the north entrance of the park. From the park entrance continue another eight miles to the turnoff for Mesa Arch on the right side of the road. Turn right and drive a short distance to the parking area - Mesa Arch Trailhead. Hike the half-mile loop to Mesa Arch. Allow 10-15 minutes to hike into the Arch. Don't be late for sunrise!

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Capturing the Orionids Metor Shower with your camera

The annual Orionids Meteor Shower is near its peak and can be seen in the night sky around the world. The week long meteor shower is caused by the earth passing through a trail of tiny debris left by Hailley's Comet when it passes by earth every 76 years. The earth passes through this debris trail each October, causing a meteor shower as the particles flare up in the earth's atmosphere.

Watching meteor showers can be fun, but capturing a fleeting astrological event with your camera can be even more exciting. With clear to partly cloudy skies forecast for the next several days, this a great opportunity to capture this rare event on film. Here are some quick tips on shooting the night sky (and meteor showers).

Taking photos of the night sky requires some basic photographic equipment. First off, you'll need a tri-pod or camera mount (a car window mount works great for chilly nights) that can hold your camera completely still for long periods of time. You'll also want a camera that allows you take long exposures - anywhere from five seconds to five hours. Any SLR camera or digital SLR camera should qualify, as well as many mid-level to high end point and shoot camera.

Take your photo equipment to a dark area away from major light pollution. Think country roads, far from the city. Mount the camera on the tri-pod and observe the sky. The Orionids Meteor Shower should be visible in the direction of the constilation Orion, appearing in the southern sky. Because you can't predict exactly when and where the shooting stars will occur, open your camera's shutter for long exposures and see what happens. Do this using the "Manual" (M) exposure feature on the camera and adjusting the shutter speeds. Use an f-stop of f/4. Try bracketing your exposures for varying lengths of time. Start with 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 min and so on. For exposures longer than 30 seconds use the Bulb (B) setting and hold down the shutter manually or with a cable release cord. Because there is very little light in the sky aside from the stars, all these different exposures will produce acceptable photos. Pick the best looking exposure and continue to shoot at the best shutter speed. While the camera is recording the shower, watch closely where the most meteors are falling. Adjust, experiment and have fun!

For a more in-depth description of star photography read my article Shooting the Stars on my website

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hunting Idaho's delisted wolves

Hunting Idaho’s delisted wolves - its legal, but not everyone is happy about it

Gray wolves: Is there a more controversial species in North America?

Wolves have always seemed to generate an emotional response in people. From the classic Russian children’s book (1936) and musical piece by Sergei Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf, to the Three Little Pigs fairy tale (1840’s), wolves have been a feared part of the natural world. These stories paint a portrait of wolves as clever, cunning, scary, and even evil. In both stories they are clearly a species to be feared. Our modern culture’s attitude towards wolves, reflected in these oft repeated stories, has led to the dramatic decline of wolves in North America, particularly in the Lower 48 States. Through hunting, trapping, and poisoning wolves were all but exterminated from everywhere in Lower 48 States outside a few isolated pockets near the northern borders of Minnesota and Montana. In 1974, gray wolves were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

With wolves absent from the Rocky Mountain ecosystem for many years, wildlife managers began to point out that wolves actually played a positive (and irreplaceable) role in these natural systems. There was an overpopulation of deer and elk, and many of the animals were unhealthy, malnourished, or sick. There were no natural predators culling the herds. And hunters, who had effectively replaced the wolves at the top of the food chain, usually killed the strongest animals sporting the biggest trophy racks, rather than the weak and sick.

In 1987, the US Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a recovery plan for wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, starting by reintroducing the wolves in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995. The plan also included the reintroduction of wolves in other Rocky Mountain States like Idaho and Montana. The program has been hotly contested by ranchers, who understandably fear that wolves will kill livestock. Environmental groups on the other hand, have praised the program as a much needed step towards a better balanced natural system in what they consider to be one of country’s strongholds for biological health, the Northern Rocky Mountains.

The reintroduction program has been largely successful from a biological standpoint, and there are now about 1,500 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, according to Idaho Fish and Game. The wolves have been closely watched, with 84 different wolves in 50 different packs outfitted with radio collars.

On May 4th, 2009 wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List and individual states took over management of the wolves. In Idaho, wolves are being managed under the Idaho Wolf Population Management Act as big game, similar to black bears and mountain lions. Hunting of wolves is being allowed in Idaho this fall with many hunting zones opening September 15, and the rest on October 1st. All zones will be open until December 1st or until the zone’s quota is met. The state quota for the season is 220 wolves. The new law also allow any owners of livestock to "dispose" of wolves that are molesting or attacking livestock without a permit.

While it may sound as though recovery is complete and all is in order, there is a heated debate about whether the wolves are being managed responsibly. 29 wolves have been killed in Idaho this year, according to this story in the Idaho Mountain Express out of Ketchum (Sun Valley). For those people who have spent time in Ketchum or Stanley, the wolf was killed in the Eagle Creek Drainage north of Ketchum. Ketchum may be the most “wolf-friendly” town in Idaho. The Phantom Hill pack is well known in town because the animals don’t seem afraid of people and were often spotted near town last winter.

The wildlife advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, along with 12 other conservation groups filed a lawsuit asking the courts to reverse the removal of the Northern Rockies gray wolves from the Endangered Species list. Here's their take on the situation according to Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife:

"After working more than 20 years to restore wolves here, it’s a thrill to see the wolf population finally on the threshold of recovery with more than 1600 wolves in the region. However, we cannot ignore that this delisting plan fails to protect their future and would allow states like Idaho, which has demanded that all wolves be removed ‘by any means necessary,’ to decimate the population to less than a few hundred wolves. We need a delisting plan that allows the wolf population to thrive while addressing the needs and concerns of our regional residents."

The debate continues to heat up, especially now that wolves are being actively hunted. While our society may no longer be asking "who's afriad of the big bad wolf?" There certainly is plenty of discussion about whether or not we want him around. What do you think? Tell us in the comments thread.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fall Outdoor Photography Tips

Fall Outdoor Photography Tips

Fall is perhaps the best season for outdoor photography. The leaves are changing colors, the temperatures are ideal, and snow has started to adorn the mountains, creating dramatic backgrounds and colorful palettes for landscape photographs.

But trying to capture the colors of autumn with your camera can be frustrating. All too often you return home, pull up your shots on the computer, and feel disappointed. Somehow, those colors seemed more vibrant when you were shooting them than they look on your monitor. What happened?

If you've had an experience like this, here are some ideas to help make your fall photographs look more like what you see in your mind’s eye.

Look for close-ups. Often when we see a beautiful scene, we want to capture the whole landscape. We point our camera towards a distant vista and shoot away. And that's exactly how the photo feels, distant and boring. During fall, try a different tactic. Fall colors tend to be clumped together in specific tree species. Usually, it’s these small patches of trees that draw our attention, but relative to the entire landscape, they only make up a fraction of the scene. Try focusing on the highlights of color. Pick out the brightest leaves and focus your attention (and lens) where that color dominates. Don’t worry about the big picture, really concentrate on the color and detail. Think small and keep the composition simple.

Fill the frame with color. If you have a macro lens for your SLR, or a macro setting on a point and shoot, use it. Crop out all other distracting elements except the beautiful color. Look for patterns, abstract shapes, and variations in color that you’ll only notice in the details. Try using a shallow depth-of-field by using an f-stop with a low number (2.8, 3.5, of 4) and really focusing on the subject of your image. Let everything that’s not important become blurred.

Find leaves with light shining through them. Look for the rich warm colors created by backlit leaves. When the sunlight shines through leaves the colors seem to glow. Try shooting out from underneath or behind trees. Use the colorful trees to frame the entire landscape.

Use fall color as a background element. Find a different subject, and let the fall colors add to a soft background. Maybe it’s your friends, your dog or a mountain reflecting in a lake, but let the fall colors add a subtle element to you image rather than take center stage. Take the pressure off the colors and let it feel natural.

Use motion and blur to paint with color. By panning your camera on a moving subject with slow shutter speeds, you can stretch a colorful background into something more. Find a place with colorful trees and photograph a moving subject in the foreground. Mountain bikers, trail runners, playing kids, flying birds, there are endless possibilities. Try using a little fill flash (in rear-sync) to make your foreground image sharp. And take lots of shots – that’s the beauty of digital!

Try shooting when it’s cloudy. Cloudy days act as natural light diffusers. The clouds are effectively a huge soft box for the sun. They reduce contrast and eliminate pesky shadows. It’s like having a photography studio outside. Fall colors seem more vibrant on overcast days, so take advantage of the gloom! Remember to change the white-balance setting on your camera to “cloudy”, it’ll give those images a warmer, more appealing feel.

Finally, get out! Just because there’s a little snow in the mountains doesn’t mean you should stay indoors. Get out and shoot, that’s the only way to take great pictures!