Terra Galleria Photography

Quick guide to roadside photography in North Cascades

A reader wrote to me: “I’m 81 years young and my mobility is some what limited . I’m asking for your help finding photo op shots along route 20 in the North Cascades that are on or close to the road. Again I hope I’m not being nervy and I thank you for any help you can provide.”

I’ve chosen to reply here to this email for a few reasons. National Parks Week is beginning this week-end, so I’d like to inspire anyone to get out and explore our parks. Many entries in this blog give may give the impression that the most inspiring places in the parks are hard to reach, and far from the road. The fact is that they are just the places I write about because they interest me most at this moment. Besides my appetite for unusual experiences, wildness, solitude, and discovery, I’ve already driven almost every park road in the past. One of the characteristics of the US National Park road system is that it was, for the most part, engineered to make many great natural signs accessible to motorists. If you must limit your photography to roadside sights, there are awesome subjects to be found along National Park roads.

North Cascades is an excellent case in point. North Cascades National Park proper is managed as a wilderness without facilities and almost no road access, accessible only to hikers, backpackers and mountaineers. However, there is plenty to see roadside around the park proper, in the larger North Cascades National Park Service Complex. The main thoroughfare through the area is the North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20), which runs in Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The Cascade River Road branching of highway 20 reaches into North Cascades National Park for only 5 miles, but should not be missed. A worthwhile detour to the north west, the most iconic view of the North Cascades is found at roadside Picture Lake, located in the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20)

Due to the low snow year, in 2015 the Washington State Department of Transportation re-opened State Route 20 to all traffic on Friday, April 3, the earliest opening in a decade.

Just before the company town of Newhalem a side road leads to the park visitor center. On the way, you cross a one-way bridge over the Skagit River. In the autumn, fall foliage brightens the shore, and salmon swim upriver.

A short stroll right behind the visitor center leads to a distant view of the Picket Range. You can explore the moss-covered rain forest along a few easy trails there.

Observed from a vertiginous grated bridge along Hwy 20, Gorge Creek Falls cascades 242 feet down a narrow lush gorge. It is best photographed in open shade rather than direct sunlight, which means early morning or late afternoon, since the gorge is south-facing.

Along the highway, watch for reflections in the striking green-turquoise waters of Gorge Lake.

Less than a mile east, after a small tunnel, a unmarked multi-tiered waterfall cascades in a gully which is bordered with trees that turn yellow in autumn. You can park at a pull-out slightly east, on the lake side, and walk back a short distance.

Near a bridge a quarter-mile past the Colonial Creek Campground, you will find a lake-level view. From there, you can photograph either towards the north looking at Diablo Lake or towards the south looking at Thunder Creek. That scene works well with fog and low clouds.

From the roadside Diablo Lake Overlook along Hwy 20, you stand high above Diablo Lake, surrounded by steep forested peaks. My favorite view looks towards the west. At sunrise, a thin layer of fog floated above the lake.

Mid-day light brought best the milky blue color of the lake caused by glacial runoff. In the late afternoon, the view is backlit.

A few miles further east, the Ross Lake Overlook provides a distant view of this long lake. The unusual Ross Lake Resort consists of cabins and bunkhouses built on log floats. You can get to its remote location, you can get there by boat and resort truck.

Outside the national park, my favorite stop is at Washington Pass. A quarter-mile east of Washington Pass Overlook, look also for a tiny lake on the south side of the road. The closest parking spot is on the north side of the road.

Cascade River Road

The first third of Cascade River Road road is paved. Beyond that, a well-graded section, passable by any car, leads past two campgrounds to the Cascade Pass Trailhead, 23 miles from Marblemount. The road typically opens by the end of June, except in heavy snow years. It closes after the first winter snows in October.

On the way, you will several opportunities to photograph the North Fork of the Cascade River flowing through lush old-growth forest. Bigleaf maple adds color accents in the fall.

At the road terminus, the view opens up. The trailhead to Cascade Pass is one of the most beautiful trailheads you’ll see. Look for a hanging glacier, and tall waterfalls descending like ribbons from ridges below jagged peaks.

Picture Lake

Near the end of Mt Baker Highway (Washington state Hwy 542), on the west side of the park, a one-way loop circles a pond aptly known as Picture Lake. Because of the nearby ski area, the road is open year-round. The mountain reflected in the pond is Mount Shuksan, sometimes said to be the most photographed mountain in North America. The boundary of North Cascades National Park was specifically drawn to include Mount Shuksan, which lies four miles away. This most iconic scene can be successfully photographed at any time of the day and in a range of conditions, however, mid-afternoon to sunset provides the most balanced light.

In one of the most rugged and wild parks in the continental US, even if you are not ready to climb over steep passes, you can find excellent views from the more developed and accessible areas of North Cascades National Park Service Complex!

See more images of North Cascades.

The wild side of Virgin Islands National Park

For most visitors, Virgin Islands National Park is defined by the beaches on the north shore. However, although the whole island of St John is only 20 square miles – 7 miles long, 3 miles wide, it offers a great variety of terrain besides the iconic beaches. In this post, I will describe my explorations of the wilder and less visited south shore of St John.

Ram Head

St John is known as a tropical paradise, but unlike the rest of the island, the south-east tip is arid and dominated by desert plants such as cactus and agaves. Ram Head, at the southernmost point of St John, at the top of high cliffs, offers spectacular views of the wildest part of the island amidst the blowing wind and the sound of the waves crashing 200 feet below you. The trail is 2.4 miles RT with steep and slippery sections. It begins at the eastern end the beach at Salt Pond Bay Beach, climbs a hill before descending at sea level to a blue cobblestone beach, then climbs again to a cactus-covered hillside at the top of Ram Head Point.

Yawzi Point and Lameshur

The short 0.5-mile Yawzi Point trail at first doesn’t look promising. However the small rocky headland situated between Great Lameshur Bay & Little Lameshur Bay where it ends has great views on both sides.

When you reach a cactus overlooking Little Lameshur Bay, be sure to continue over a short, sketchy section above Little Lameshur Bay to reach the headland. Due to the range of orientations, there are good possibilities at any time of the day.

Because of the remote location, nearby Little Lameshur and Great Lameshur beaches are quiet. To get there, you need to negotiate a 1-mile dirt road with large potholes filled with water. They are easily passable by a high-clearance vehicle but could be marginal for a passenger car.

Petroglyphs and Reef Bay Sugar Mill

The Reef Bay Trail descends 900 feet from Centerline Road over 2.1 miles (one-way) to the shore at Reef Bay, where the extensive Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins are found.

You will be hiking in a dense forest with no views, passing some impressive trees in the first (wet) section, before traversing a dryer section with a different vegetation.

1.6 miles along the trail, a 0.3-spur leads to the Reef Bay Petroglyphs, carved into a 70-foot tall rock face situated right above the pool that provides unique reflections. If it has rained recently, an ephemeral waterfall drops in the pool behind. If they are dry, splashing a bit of water from the pool into the petroglyphs improves the contrast. Cloudy conditions are best, otherwise the panel faces east.

Reef Bay Trail is the most difficult trail on the island, and considered by the park to be a “backcountry trail”. Pay particular attention to where you are coming from near the junction with the Petroglyph trail. On my way back, as darkness was falling, I followed the wrong ravine and ended up hiking cross-country for a while before at least finding the trail again. Hiking back is tougher than the distance indicates, because of the steep trail and tropical heat and humidity. The park organizes guided hikes that include a boat pick-up at the beach, so that you don’t have to hike back. As an alternative, you can get there by hiking the Lameshur Bay Trail, about the same length as the Reef Bay Trail but with less elevation change.

Does those explorations sound appealing or would you rather spend your time at the beach ?

More photos of Virgin Islands National Park.

The Hidden Beauty of Sand Grains

One of the wonders of nature is that, if you look close enough at just about anything, you will find unexpected wonder. In this new series of images, I examine the microscopic world of sand grains. High-magnification photography reveals beauty and variety normally hidden to the naked eye.

Can one really “See a World in a grain of sand” as poetically written by Blake ? In those images, we do get a good glimpse of the both surrounding environment and the impressive erosion processes. They have, over geological times, ground massive mountains as well as formerly living organisms to miniature gemstones less than a millimeter in diameter.

Pieces of quartz, feldspar and mica resulting from the breakdown of granite often form sand from mountains. In the Colorado Plateau, the sandstone shaped into world-famous whimsical formations produces extremely fine-grained, pink sand. Sand from a volcanic rock is dark. White sands of tropical coral beaches feature an assortment of reef animals: fragments of brightly-colored corals, seashells, and sponge spicules.

The story is told not only by the material composition of the grains of sand, but also their size and smoothness. Recently deposited sands such as those found in a mountain stream are angular, but after centuries of rubbing together, the grains of sand dunes become smooth and rounded, like tiny pebbles.

Because the size of the sand grains is an integral part of this story, I have kept the magnification constant within this series. The width of each frame is 7mm (1/5 of full-frame 35mm) corresponding to exactly 100 times magnification in a 20×30 inch print.

Naturally, the technical challenges of photographing subjects the size of table salt grains are considerable. At 5x magnification, depth of field is microscopic (0.04 mm or 40 microns at f/17). At the same time, the effective f-stop of a wide open f/2.8 lens becomes f/17, so if you stop down even moderately, diffraction very quickly ruins any sharpness. Those small effective apertures potentially result in slow shutter speeds, while, at this extreme magnification, the tiniest vibration causes image blur.

Although I have photographed several samples in California, Hawaii, Florida, as well as more exotic locations, many of my images of sand grains are part of my National Parks project. They constitute another sustained look at the diversity of the natural environment within the US National Parks, one that I hope is new to you. I think that it is the ultimate expression of the idea of “telling a large story with a tiny subject”, going well beyond my series The Ground.

In the future, I plan to offer an interactive display (similar to the 360 panoramas) to let you know explore at full magnification those images. I may also share my off-the-shelf, field-usable set-up. In the while, I’m inviting you to check out the shapes, textures, and colors of some sand grains found in Acadia, American Samoa, Arches, Crater Lake, Dry Tortugas, Great Sand Dunes, Haleakala, Olympic, Virgin Islands, Yosemite. Are you able you identify the corresponding national parks?

(for answers browse this page)

More High-magnification images of Sand Grains.

Six Coastal Highlights of Redwood National Park

Because the star attraction of Redwood National Park are – what else ? – the redwood forests, it is easy to overlook the coastal part of the park. However, Redwood National Park is only one of two US National Parks where you can drive to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. You’ll find there a very wild coast. With little hiking, you can discover a great variety of settings to photograph. In this post, I’ll describe from South to North the highlights of this coastline which stretches for no less than 65 miles in Northern California.

Gold Bluffs Beach

You’ll likely come to Gold Bluffs Beach as part of a visit to Fern Canyon where you walk between 50 feet high vertical walls solidly covered with ferns. The beach itself is sandy (unlike many in the area which are gravel), wide and empty.

A bit inland, there are tall grass and weathered logs, as well as bluffs that catch the last light of the day. You access Gold Bluffs Beach via the narrow and unpaved Davison Road (trailers prohibited). You can stay at delightful campground right on the beach, which feels very remote.

By the way, the color in the first image came seemingly out of nowhere as 10 minutes before the whole sky appeared gray, as seen in the second image. Be ready and don’t give up!

High Bluff and Klamath River Overlooks

A pair of narrow spur roads, respectively on the south and north sides of the Klamath River (near Klamath) lead to high overlooks above the ocean from which you can try to look for whales. From the High Bluff Overlook, at the end of Coastal Drive (large vehicles prohibited) you look at a wild section of the coast, including the landmark Split Rock, which is beautiful at sunset.

With lucky timing, from the 600 feet elevation of the Klamath River Overlook (large vehicles not recommended), you could stand above a low layer of coastal fog. The light on the river mouth is normally best at sunset, but sunrise (and moonrise) creates more dramatic backlight on the fog.

False Klamath Cove

False Klamath Cove is the only spot along Hwy 101 where you can easily access the beach, which is roadside. Be sure to keep an eye for it, as Hwy 101 borders the ocean for only about half a mile, between Lagoon Creek and Wilson Creek picnic areas.

Best photographed at sunset, False Klamath Cove offers several interesting elements: two streams flowing into the Pacific, innumerable boulders standing in the surf, and off-shore sea stacks. I prefer either the north end or the south end of the beach, as there are more features than in the middle of the beach.

Hidden Beach

Nearby Hidden Beach (situated 1 mile south of False Klamath Cove) presents even more possibilities: driftwood, boulders, tidepools, and an off-shore tree-toped sea stack. On each of my visits, I’ve had the secluded cove to myself. The shortest trail (1.4 mi RT) starts just west of the motel opposite Trees of Mystery, a few miles south from False Klamath Cove. The nearby lagoon has some interesting lilypads which are easy to photograph at any time of the day.

Enderts Beach

Enderts Beach Overlook, reached from Crescent City, provides a great view of the steep cliffs to the south and Crescent Beach to the North. In the springtime, the hills are covered with wildflowers. The best light on the cliffs is at sunset. However, mid-morning light will bring out better the turquoise color of the ocean on a clear day while mid-day light can even work, backlighting the fog.

A 1-mile RT trail winds down to Enderts Beach, following a high bluff with great overhead ocean views, then passing a valley filled with alder which are striking in winter. At the south end of the beach, you’ll find the richest tide pools in the area. To explore the intertidal zone, be sure to check tide tables, and arrive at a minus tide. I found out the hard way that moderate tide might not be enough to uncover the pools, especially if high surf pounds the beach.

For a change from the redwood forest hikes (the best of which are possibly in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park), the coast of Redwood National Park has much to offer. What are your favorite spots there?

Three great hikes and a drive in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is less known than its southern neighbors. However, if you take the time to visit this park, you’ll find some of the most scenic redwood groves anywhere in a setting which feels wonderfully remote. In this post, I’ll highlight my three favorite trails in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Redwood National Park is confusingly called “National and State Parks” as it is administered jointly as a federally owned Redwood National Park and three California State Parks. From south to north, they are Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Jedediah Redwoods. Jedediah Smith Redwoods features the least developed, most pristine and dense old-growth forest of the three state parks. Situated inland, near the Smith River, rather than on the coast, it is often filled with sunlight.

Howland Hill Road

The 9-mile Howland Hill Road is the next best thing to hiking a trail in the park. You drive through an old logging road that is unpaved but well-graded (not recommended for large vehicles). You can almost roll down your window and touch giant trees from your car. As the road winds above a river valley, in some places you will stand a hundred feet above the base of the redwoods. You can capture the height of the trees without tilting your camera up and causing them to converge. To find the road, head east out Crescent City, turn right at the fork. Dawn is a great time for this drive.

Stout Grove

Many consider Stout Grove (flat 0.6-mile loop) to be the most beautiful stand of redwoods anywhere. Thanks to rich sediments from the Smith River, some of the largest and densest trees grow there.

The understory consists of western sword ferns above clover-like redwood sorrel. No small trees hide the giants, which contributes to a cathedral-like feel. Although soft light always works well, thanks to a break in the canopy over Mill Creek, between 4pm and 5pm in the summer, the sun slants into the grove beautifully. The Stout Grove trailhead is on a short spur of Howland Hill Road, two-thirds of the way from the west end.

Boy Scout Tree Trail

The Boy Scout Tree Trail (5.2 miles RT) is an outstanding hike ending at the tallest waterfall in the entire Redwood National Park. The trail is more about the journey than the destination.

The waterfall may not be that impressive, but the abundance of huge trees set in an interesting variety of environments along the trail is. No other trail that I know offers at the same time a pure redwood plain grove, an upland redwood grove, and a mixed-species forest dotted with gigantic redwoods. As a bonus, no highway noise can be heard from the trail, unlike most of the trails in Redwood National Park – a long and skinny park. I met only two other parties during my hike. The trail starts on the north side of the Howland Hill Road, about 2.5 miles from its west end.

Simpson-Reed Trail

If you are not paying attention, all the redwood forests may look similar, but they each have a distinct character. The Simpson-Reed Grove in Jedediah Redwoods State Park is quite from the two previous trails. It looks like a jungle rainforest, with growth on every available surface. Fallen redwoods act as nurse trees. Moss and lichens cover hemlock trees. The trailhead is a bit tricky to find. It is not along Hwy 199, but rather hidden on Walker Road, on the north side of Hwy 199.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is the most unspoiled redwood park, so there are relatively few trails. What are your favorite redwood trails (there or elsewhere) ?

Lights for Night Photography: What I Use and Why

Night photography requires the right tools, chief amongst them lights. After trying many, I’ve settled on a diverse arsenal of lights. The capabilities of some of them will surprise you. In this post, I will point out to a number of inexpensive high performance items that I use and can help enhance your long-exposure night photography.

Left to right (in order of brightness): Multi XM-L flashlight, Dual-battery XM-L flashlight, Single-battery XM-L flashlight, LED lantern, Headlamp, XP-G2 flashlight, Keychain quarter-size light.

Multi-purpose small lights

Before photographing at night, you have to get there in the dark, so I’ll begin with the lights that I use mostly to light up my way. They can also be used to illuminate subjects. I’ve lost track of the number of times when I started a trail mid-day, but found myself lingering until sunset. It was dark was the hike back! Regardless of the time of the day, I always carry two tiny lights in my backpack, part of the emergency kit. If I anticipate not returning until after dark, I add one or two headlamps to the kit. All weights include batteries.
  • Keychain quarter-size light (8 grams, 4 lumens) They are so tiny that there is no reason not to always carry one. Despite their size, they are definitively bright enough for hiking on the trail. They provide a broad and somehow dim light that can be useful for illuminating foregrounds. Besides the keychain, I stick them to zippers on camera bags and tents. The best of them is the Photon Freedom which features multiple modes, including brightness control. They are also available in red. I have owned a number of them. However, replacing the batteries was a chore and my kids tended to misplace them. Nowadays, I use cheap keychain lights that cost less than a battery purchased separately. Be sure that, like the linked model, they have a switch that does not require you to hold a button to keep the light on.
  • XP-G2 flashlight (15 grams, 135 lumens) This little-known light has an incredible brightness to weight ratio. Powered by a single AAA battery, it is small enough to carry on a keychain, yet it is brighter than most headlamps and flashlights, thanks to its Cree XP-G2 LED. There are three increasing light levels (with decreasing run times). At the maximum level, the light will run only about an hour, so I carry a spare AAA in the emergency kit. I own the original, the Titanium Innovations Illuminati, however other less expensive similar lights have become available.
  • Headlamp (75 grams, 125 lumens) For hiking, I prefer to hand-hold the light. I find that the cross-lighting gives me a better perception of the terrain. Wearing a headlamp on your head is like using on-camera flash: no shadows, no depth. However, headlamps are indispensable for situations when you need to free your hands, such as scrambling or operating equipment. Because bright light levels will drain the battery quickly, a headlamp with multiple light levels is preferable. Some of them offer a red light mode that is useful for photography. Red light preserves your night vision much better than white light. After using white light, you need to wait several minutes for your eyes to re-adjust to the dark. The Petzl Tikka+ meets all those requirements. It uses 3 AAA batteries. Three decades ago, Petzl was the first manufacturer to make headlamps reliable enough for mountaineering.

Multi XM-L flashlight, Dual-battery XM-L flashlight, Single-battery XM-L flashlight, Headlamp, Keychain quarter-size light, XP-G2 flashlight

Bright flashlights

To illuminate distant subjects, the general-purpose lights are not bright enough. Sometimes, you also want to get even light by bouncing the light on the ground or rocks behind you, rather than illuminating your subject directly. Bouncing requires a lot of power since most of the light is absorbed or reflected in the wrong directions. For those applications, you want a more powerful flashlight, usually designed for search/rescue or police/military use. Those flashlights are blinding, especially by night. If you’ve never used one of them, you’ll be surprised at how bright they are.

Many of them are powered either by the CREE XM-L T6 LED or the CREE SST-90 LED. The SST-90 is the brighter of the two (3,000 lumens), but its larger emitter surface area requires a larger reflector and, therefore, a bigger lamp. Its increased amperage creates a lot of heat and drain, requiring large batteries. The XM-L is more efficient but only capable of around 1000 lumens in practice. Because of the high power requirements of those LEDs, almost all of the flashlights built around them run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, rather than the common AA or AAA batteries.

The main differentiator amongst those lights is the quality of the heat sink. Chinese-made inexpensive lights, such as those I use, have less efficient heat sinks that reduce light output and sometimes cause the light to shut out. However, they cost only a small fraction of the price of high-end lights made by US brands such as Fenix, Nitecore, or Streamlight. The specifications are more important than particular models, as branding varies. Their advertised output is greatly exaggerated. Instead, I’ve indicated my estimate – still pretty bright for the size and price!

  • Single-battery XM-L flashlight (175 grams, estimated 500 lumens) The UltraFire E17 flashlight provides good output and excellent functionality, including 3 light levels, strobe, SOS, and a zooming reflector which let you narrow the beam to a very narrow spot for precise light-painting. This is the lightest and most compact bright light you’ll likely find. It uses the 18650 lithium-ion battery (with a provided spacer) and in a pinch, 3 AAAs power it with reduced output.
  • Dual-battery XM-L flashlight (265 grams, estimated 800 lumens) The Trustfire Z5 flashlight has identical functionality, but by using two 18650 batteries instead of one, it provides a slightly higher output, making it an excellent compromise between brightness and size/weight.
  • Multi XM-L flashlight (610 grams, estimated 2500 lumens) The TrustFire TR-J18 has 7 XM-L LEDs. The 8,500 lumens number written on the lamp is based on CREE’s maximum ratings multiplied by 7. It assumes maximum current of 3 amps. The batteries in the lamp simply cannot provide the current to run the 7 LEDs near 3 amps. The lamp runs at a lower (and more efficient amperage), which is why its actual output is much lower than the advertised output. Even though, this easily hand-held flashlight is brighter than many car headlights. However, it lacks a zooming reflector, which reduces its usefulness for distant subjects in spite of its brightness. Thanks to a removable extension, it takes 2 or 3 26650 lithium-ion batteries. 18650 batteries can be used with an adaptor that is provided, but will lower the performance.


When possible, rather than paint with light (moving a hand-held light source), I prefer to use a fixed light. The results are more repeatable than with light painting. It is also the only way to illuminate a scene for a time-lapse.
  • LED lantern (865 grams, 240 lumens) The Rayovac Sportsman lantern provides good brightness in a relatively small and lightweight camping lantern. It is powered by three D batteries that are quite heavy, but last up to 40 hours. You can use three rechargeable AA batteries with adaptors if you don’t need the long battery life.


This post has focussed on continuous lights, which are the most practical for long-exposure night photography. Speedlites (camera flash) are a totally different type of light from flashlights and lanterns. They generate an extremely powerful (maybe 100,000 lumens) and very brief burst of light (typically 1/1000s at full power). This short duration allows you to freeze motion, making them indispensable for photographing people or animals at night.

However, their total light output is much less than what is given by flashlights during a long exposure, because total output is a product of brightness by duration. A modest 100 lumens light projects as much light in one second. You cannot expect to light up a large scene with a single flash burst. You cannot light distant objects with them. The other drawback of speedlites is that you don’t see how the scene is lighted.

They can still be useful for light painting, provided that you walk around and flash your subject from a close distance using multiple angles while the camera is set for a long exposure. The speedlite needs to be used in manual exposure. If the exposure turns out too bright, you simply turn the flash down or step back.

  • Manual Speedlite: you probably already own a speedlite, but if you don’t, and intend to use the flash only in manual mode, I recommend the Youngnuo YN560 IV. Except for the TTL functionality (available in other Youngnuo models), it surpasses the speedlites made by Canon or Nikon that cost many times more.

Left to right: Nitecore IntelliCharger i4, 26650 Li-ion battery, 18650 Li-ion battery, AA Eneloop battery, AAA Eneloop battery


Lights, especially bright ones, are power-hungry. Rechargeable batteries are much more friendly to the environment than single-use batteries. They also cost less to use in the long run.
  • Standard AA and AAA sizes Low-Discharge Nickel Metal Hybrid batteries (LD-NiMH) are rechargeable batteries which can be as “ready-to-use” as single-use batteries. The main drawback of rechargeable batteries has been self-discharge. They lose up to 10% of their charge during the first 24 hours, and up to 1% per day after that. LD-NiMH batteries are sold pre-charged, and hold up to 80% of their charge for a year after charging, so you don’t have to think about them until you want to use them. I’ve been using the Eneloop AAAs and Eneloop AAs. After you’ve recharged them only 4 times, they cost less than single-use batteries.
  • Cylindrical lithium-ion batteries The high power requirements of the bright flashlights make using AA batteries in them impractical. Lithium-ion batteries pack much more power and aren’t that bigger or heavier. The typical NiMH AA battery weights 25 grams and provides 2000mAh at 1.2 Volts, resulting in energy storage of 2.4 watt-hour. An 18650 lithium-ion battery weights 50 grams, and can provide 4000mAh at 3.7 Volts, for an energy storage of 14.8 watt-hour. That’s 6 times more energy for only double the weight. The batteries in this family are designated by five-digit numbers, where the first two digits are the diameter and the two following digits are the (approximate) height, both in millimeters. The “protected” batteries include an internal circuit to prevent over-discharge and short-circuit damage. For each form factor, several capacities are available. I use the highest capacity batteries available for each type: 26650 4000mAh and 26650 6000mAh. Their main drawback is that batteries and chargers are not readily available, and likely would be used only in your lights.
  • Battery charger A bad charger will shorten battery life. Many chargers apply the same charge to all the slots. Charging a mostly full battery on the same circuit as a mostly empty battery damages both. You want a charger that (a) monitors and displays the amount of charge left in the batteries (b) charges each battery independently, in the case of a multi-slot charger. In addition, Ni-Mh and Li-ion batteries have different chemistry, that require specific charging, so you want a charger that (c) can handle both types, (d) automatically identifies the battery type.

    The Nitecore IntelliCharger i4 meets all those requirements. It will charge anything from a small AAA to a fat 26650 (although only 1xxxx batteries are mentioned as compatible). You can even charge different types at the same time. In addition, the charger accepts multi-voltage inputs from AC 100 to 240V, as well as DC 12V, making it usable anywhere.

Flashlights with orange filters


The light from most white LEDs has a slightly blueish tint that looks artificial. CTO (Color Temperature Orange) convert from white LED sources (color temperatures 5000-7000K) to the equivalent of a 3200K Tungsten source. For my flashlights, I made warming filters that slide over my main light’s heads using orange gels and black gaffer tape. For the lanterns, I just wrapped the gel around the transparent part. The filtering material consists of both the following gels, depending on how much warming I want: I don’t use other colored gels, but I’ve seen interesting results obtained with red, blue, and purple gels. Filters will eat some light, so starting with a bright light is useful.

Close-up of home-made orange filters


As you’ve seen if you’ve clicked the links, excellent lights for night photography do not need to be expensive. I’ve found them very useful and hope they will be to you too. Since the proof is in the pudding, for some examples of my night photography, see: Southwest Tour Under Changing Moon Phases, Year 2013 in Review and Parks Night Favorites, as well as other posts tagged with “Night”. By the way, I’ve written this post after receiving questions by email about my previous redwoods light painting post.

If you have any questions, I’d be grateful if you ask them in comments instead so that I can share the answer with other readers. What are the lights you’ve found most useful for night photography?

Light Painting the Redwood Forest

When you think about natural subjects for night photography, things like the rock formations or bristlecone pines of the southwest often come to mind, not the redwood forest. In old-growth groves, the dense canopy obscures most of the night sky. I made so many visits to Redwood National Park in the 1990s that I haven’t returned there for a decade. In the while, digital photography had opened up new possibilities. When I revisited Redwood National Park last month, I was excited to try to photograph at night.

During the day, except when the forest is in dense fog, the light in the redwoods is often a challenge. Like in most other forests, sunny conditions are difficult to work with. The large contrast between sunlit areas and shadows appears as the main problem, but what I find even more problematic is that the shadows themselves break the organic shapes, creating a choppy impression. The soft light of a cloudy day is preferred by many. However, it limits the composition possibilities since you have to exclude the sky, which would otherwise present itself as an overexposed bright spot, distracting the eye from the trees.

At night, you start with a blank canvas. By bringing your lights, you can illuminate the dark groves with more brilliant light than you’ll ever be able to see in the daytime. Instead of showing up as a bright spot, the sky turns an intriguing dark blue. Because of the three-dimensional character of the subject, using a fixed light source creates uneven lighting. The best solution here is to illuminate the subject selectively with brushes of a hand-held light, a technique known as light-painting. The groves of Redwood National Park are particularly favorable for night photography since a short stroll from your car will often take you into the heart of magnificent groves. You will most certainly have them for yourselves! Here are some tips if you’d like to try your hand at light-painting in the forest.

How to compose. To photograph at night, you will need a tripod able to support your camera vibration-free for long exposures. Since it can difficult to see the composition well, the easiest is to operate by trial and error, adjusting the camera position and orientation after checking out the previous image on the LCD.

My settings. I prefer a wide-angle lens (from 14mm to 24mm) and found that exposing at 30s, ISO 1600, wide open works well. This exposure time ensures that any stars present will not exhibit significant trailing. It is also short enough for multiple attempts, which are usually necessary for light painting. Longer exposure times would allow you to use lower ISOs for a cleaner image.

Use a bright light. A powerful flashlight will allow you to reach the canopy and distant trees. With the previous settings, a headlamp is just not bright enough. I have a few different flashlights that are all based on the XM-L T6 LED. The one used for these images uses single LED for a light output of about 1600 lumens. For comparison, the maximum output of the Petzl Tikka+, which is quite bright for a headlamp, is 140 lumens. Other flashlights use multiple XM-L LEDs for even brighter output. One drawback of the LED lights is that the light is quite cold, giving the scene a nasty “electronic” look. I combat that problem by sticking a yellow-orange warming gel over the light.

Create cross-lighting. While illuminating the scene, do not stand next to the camera all the time, as the alignment of light and lens will create flat light, comparable to on-camera flash. Instead, for most of the illumination, stand sideways from the camera as far as you can to create cross-lighting, which helps define the shapes. You can prevent unwanted strong shadows by illuminating from both sides of the camera or adding a brief flash of front lighting.

Vary illumination duration. The light that a subject receives is inversely proportional to the squared distance to the light. That means that nearby subjects receive much more light than distant subjects. To avoid overexposing them, illuminate areas near you much more briefly than further areas. With the settings above, anything more than a couple of seconds of light on the background is too bright. A flashlight with a narrow beam helps to light more selectively, for example distant trees framed by nearby trees. Don’t worry about getting the illumination levels perfect everywhere, as you can always dodge and burn in processing. All the images on this page are single exposures.

I hope you’ve been inspired you to try something new. Please share your results. Do you have any favorite tips about light-painting the forest ?

Photographing Fall foliage in Olympic National Park

Part 4 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Last October, I visited Olympic National Park to photograph autumn foliage. In this post, you will find out about the places where I found the best color, as well as my tips for photographing in the rain.

The Olympic Peninsula home to the lushest temperate rain forests in America. When you think about the rainforest, you think about a world painted all shades of green. However, the trees that support the iconic hanging mosses are mostly big leaf maples. Like all maples, those trees turn brilliant color in the autumn. Set amongst a sea of dark greens, the yellow leaves produce small, but striking color accents. The Eastern forests are so full of warm colors that sometimes you just see a wall of color. It is the contrast and interaction between colors that gives a color image interest. Sometimes, more interaction happens with fewer colors, which is the case in the rain forest in autumn.

Besides the big leaf maples, color in the Hoh Rainforest is also provided by vine maples. Unlike the big leaf maple, their smaller leaves tend to provide clusters of color, rather than the accents of the individualized leaves. Those two images are from the Hall of Mosses Trail (0.75 mile) which have both.

For most of the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington) low elevation forests, and for the west side rainforests at Olympic, late October usually is the best time for fall color. However, I found most of the big leaf maples past peak on Oct 17-19 last year. I learned later that fall color started a bit early, but overall wasn’t great that year.

As implied by its name, along the Maple Glades Trail (0.5 mile) in Quinault, you will see plenty of majestic maple trees. The most colorful leaves were high up. Usually, cloudy conditions and soft light are much preferable to sunny days for photographing the rain forest. However, shooting up works better in sunny conditions with a blue sky than with a cloudy sky. I took advantage of a half-day weather break to create this image, unexpected for the Olympic rain forests in its perspective and color.

Although autumn color in the rain forests disappointed a bit, I found much more of it in the Sol Duc area of Olympic National Park. My favorite roadside spot was the bridge over the North Fork of the Sol Duc River. It’s the only bridge over the river on the road to Sol Duc, situated about 1/3 of the way in.

Sol Duc Falls (1.6 mile RT), is the most beautiful amongst the easily accessible waterfalls in the park, dropping 50 feet into a narrow gorge in a lush forest setting. The flow is good year-round. On the way, about 0.3 miles from the trailhead, I photographed a small stream, where in the spring water would cascade over mossy rocks. Late in the season, the stream had dried out, but the scene remained beautiful.

Although it was raining hard all day, I was able to keep myself and my camera backpack mostly dry by carrying an umbrella. I carried a rain cover for the camera, but did not use it, as it makes it difficult to change lenses. The forest I was hiking in cut all the wind, so the umbrella was sufficient to keep the camera dry. Since I always photographed on a tripod, I could operate the camera with one hand and hold the umbrella with the other hand with the proper ballhead friction settings. Whenever I needed to use both hands, I inserted the shaft of the umbrella into the collar opening of my rain jacket, letting the umbrella sit on my rain hat. Drops of water on the lens front element are inevitable and will show on the image as a fuzzy blob. To prevent them, I made sure to use a micro-fiber cloth to wipe out the front element of the lens before each shot. A small cloth quickly get saturated with water and becomes useless at drying a lens, so I carry a 10 inch by 10 inch cloth for rainy days.

After photographing a whole day in the rain, my lenses had trapped a lot of moisture. It didn’t dry because I was sleeping in the car where the air was damp and cool. When I photographed at dawn in the forest (with a bit of light painting), this did not affect the image because it was still cold.

However, as the temperatures warmed up during the day, internal condensation started to cause fogging and blurring. Upon discovering the problem, I immediately returned to the car, cranked the heat, A/C, and ventilation to the maximum, and placed the lenses on the dashboard. After less than half an hour, the lenses were totally dried, and I hiked back for a re-take. In retrospect, I kind of like the eerie and impressionistic effect, and I am glad I did not delete the pictures! What do you think of it?

More photos of Olympic National Park Fall Colors

Part 4 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Autumn in the Rain, Mount Rainier NP

Part 3 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Last October, I visited Mount Rainier National Park during two days of continuous rain. In this post, you will find out about the subjects I was able to photograph in those conditions, including some of the best fall foliage and waterfalls in the park.

After getting out of the ferry from Stehekin at sunset time, I drove immediatly towards the east entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Since the sky was still clear in Lake Chelan, I was hoping for some night photography at Tipsoo Lake. However, as I drove up towards Chinook Pass, it began to rain so heavily that I was barely able to see the road. This would set the tone for the next days of steady rain. Unlike at some other parks, the campgrounds in Mount Rainier all close in late September. The day before I flew to Seattle, the long-term weather forecast looked iffy, so instead of a sedan, I had rented a mini-van. In my experience, many US rental mini-vans are US-made cars in which all seats can be collapsed into the floor, offering much more living space than a SUV of equivalent size. I found a pullout that would put me at a sufficient distance from the roadway, and crawled to the back of the car, where there was plenty of space for sleeping, without even having to shuffle gear around.

In the morning, the visibility was almost zero. If this would have been my first visit to the park, I would have been disappointed not to see the Mount Rainier, but since it was my 7th visit, I was content with looking for more intimate scenes. Faced with rainy weather, you can stay in your room, or you can make the best of the conditions and find plenty of photographs not possible on a sunny day. Rainy weather provides excellent light for forest and waterfall scenes. I had come to the park in autumn only once, and this was in September. Being mid-October, I was hoping to find more autumn color at lower elevations in the south-east corner of the park. As this side of the park receives less rainfall than the western side, I thought it may be a good choice in rainy weather.

I had read that the East Side Trail had great waterfalls and cascades. However, I wasn’t keen on hiking its entire one-way 9 miles in the rain, especially since very light traffic would make hitch hiking a ride back difficult. Instead, I checked both ends of the trail, where waterfalls are accessed through short hikes. You want to be able to dry out a bit in the car! At the north end, I parked at the Owyhigh Lakes trailhead, situated on the west side of Hwy 123, half of mile south of the bridge over Deer Creek. After hiking down about a quarter of mile, I found an impressive viewpoint over multi-tiered Deer Creek Falls, next to the trail, above a sheer drop. I continued down the trail to the bridge over the creek, but did not find views.

At the south end of East Side Trail, I hiked to Silver Falls. There are several ways to get to this waterfall, but the shortest (0.6 miles RT) is down from a trailhead on Hwy 123 south of Stevens Canyon Entrance.

In between those two short hikes, I parked at a pullout next to the bridge over Panther Creek, and hiked down to the creek. Wearing shorts and river shoes (an odd combination with top rain jacket and fleece!), I walked into the riverbed for a less common perspective. Despite the creek not being glacier-fed, I found the water freezing, even with neoprene socks, so I did not wade to the cascades that I had spotted in the distance.

In mid-October, plenty of vine maple added bright touches of yellows and oranges to the dark forests of the area.

Mushrooms seemed to be growing everywhere. Those ground views (part of this series) were the most easy photographs to make in the rain. Since the camera was pointing down, I didn’t have to worry about the front element of the lens getting water drops. I’ll write a bit more about photographing in the rain in the next post.

After a restful night at another pullout (no night photography because of the rain), I started the next day by walking down the closed road to the Ohanapecosh campground in order to photograph the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center for my series The Window. I was pleased to be able to stay out of the rain under the building’s roof while doing so, before hiking the half-a-mile loop to the hot springs. Although they were not particularly beautiful, some steam was visible in the cold and damp air.

The Ohanapecosh area harbors some of the largest old-growth trees in the park. A 1.5-mile RT trail leads to the Grove of the Patriarchs, situated on an island on the Ohanapecosh River, accessed through a fun suspension bridge. The grove features some seriously impressive big trees, whose size reminded me of the California redwoods.

Although the grove is small, and spent hours there to find compositions that would hide the boardwalk. The soft light was great and rain brought out colors in the old-growth forests.

Although I found good autumn color in the grove, the most colorful spot was on the shores of the Ohanapecosh River from the north end of the island.

On the way back, I noticed those Maple trees leaves and branches lining up Ohanapecosh River along the trail, that I had missed in my haste to get to the Grove of the Patriarchs. Remember that the journey is as important as the destination and keep looking!

Driving west, I noticed a colorful carpet of ferns before Steven Creek Canyon. The TSE-24mm served double-duty of keeping the foreground ferns – which were less than a foot from the lens – sharp with tilt and the background trees parallel with shift.

Stevens Canyon was the only place in the park where I found autumn foliage on distant hillsides – as opposed to within a forest. Although it was raining steadily, since the wind was blowing from my back, keeping the camera and lens dry were not a problem.

A short distance up the road from the trailhead to Comet Falls, Van Trump Creeks drops 40 feet at Christine Falls. Its proximity makes it a great subject for a rainy day, but you can easily miss it because it is under the road bridge just below. A stroll starting from the southeast side of the bridge leads to a viewpoint from which you can frame the waterfall with the bridge. I tried compositions with and without the bridge, but liked the ones with the bridge better because they were more specific.

Less than a mile from the junction with the Paradise road, a large parking lot gives access to Narada Falls. It is normally a popular attraction, but on that day the lot was empty. On the way to the falls, you pass its feeding stream. During my previous visit there, I did not even stop. However, on that rainy day which made the trees recede in the distance, I found it just as fascinating the the falls itself.

A short but steep trail (0.4 miles RT, 200 feet elevation) leads you down for close views of the waterfall dropping in a steep amphitheater. Although the light was similar to when I photographed Narada Falls a decade and half ago, I returned to see if I’d photograph it differently than a decade and half ago. I did. Do you find your compositions change over time ?

More images of Mount Rainier National Park

Part 3 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Year 2014 in Review and 2015 Greetings

I wish everyone a year 2015 full of happiness, health, and success. My sincere thanks for your continuing readership and interest in my photography.

In order to explore some of the corners of the National Parks that had escaped me so far, in 2014, I was going to engage in more water-based adventures: rafting, canyoneering, scuba diving. As you’ll see, this didn’t quite work as well as I had hoped. I’ve still kept water (in one form, or another) as the theme of this eclectic selection of images.

Moonset over Shwedagon Pagoda and Kandawgyi Lake, Yangoon, Myanmar

I spent most of January in South-East Asia, first leading a photo tour in magical Myanmar. For details, see the the 6-part Myanmar photo tour diary. After the photo tour, I visited family in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, during which time I added images to the series HCMC, a work which attempts to come to terms with Vietnam’s history.

Aerial view of salt marsh. Palo Alto, California

In February, I began to experiment with drone-based aerial photography using a DJI Phantom 2. Here is the first 360 aerial pano I made above my home with the standard GoPro camera. This is a natural extension of the ground-based 360 Degrees Spherical Panoramas explained here. I started to modify the aircraft to carry a much better (for stills) Ricoh GR camera. In the spring, results with early iterations of the new rig, such as this one, were promising enough.

Site of JFK’s assassination. Dallas, Texas

In late March, I took my first trip ever to Texas that didn’t consist of flying to El Paso to visit the West Texas National Parks (Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains). The occasion was to attend Fotofest in Houston, to seek feedback about a new direction I’ve been exploring in the National Parks – for an example, see The Window. It was the first portfolio review that I attended, and I found the experience very rewarding. During Fotofest, I photographed Houston. After my portfolio review sessions, I drove the “Texas Triangle” delimited by the cities of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, which I found to each have a distinct character. See the gallery of images of Texas I made in about a week.

Lithodendron Wash, Black Forest Wilderness. Petrified Forest National Park

In late April, I traveled to Flagstaff, AZ. It was supposed to be a flight, but as a snowstorm closed the airport, I arrived there by airline bus from Phoenix. I obtained an overnight backcountry permit at Petrified Forest National Park. Regulations stipulate that you need to leave your car at least one hour before park closing time. They are strictly enforced! As I was still fiddling with gear at that time, a ranger voided my permit on the spot. Next day, I managed to check out the Black Forest Wilderness as a day trip.

River-level view of red walls in Marble Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

Petrified Forest was a prelude to the 12-day Grand Canyon by raft workshop that I was co-leading with Oliver Klink. Unfortunately, after an excellent first half of the trip, I was injured while riding the Horn Creek Rapids and had to be helicoptered out. For most of May and June, I was in pain and unable to move much, resulting in cancellation of canyoneering plans. By the end of June, I had improved enough to be able to make a quick trip to Yosemite, with the assistance of my wife, to be interviewed by Al Jazeera America for a short Yosemite Grant 150th anniversary report also featuring Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams, although you can see on the video that I was far from recovered.

Palm trees on Salomon Beach. Virgin Islands National Park

In August, we took a family trip to Cozumel. Afterwards, I revisited St John, Virgin Islands. The most interesting part of the trip was to explore the secluded south side of the island. However, I found the “tropical atmosphere” I was looking for on a beach only a mile from the island’s main town, Cruz Bay. Although one of the most pretty beaches in Virgin Islands National Park, it is relatively quiet because of the need to hike to get there. The tree on the left is quite small, I sat down on the sand for this composition, to make sure its palms didn’t overlap with the trees fringing the beach. My bad luck with water continued. I brought a underwater housing for my Canon 5Dmk2, carried at great effort and expense (Spirit Airlines charges outrageous fees for the third bag). It flooded on my first dive, ruining the camera – and any prospect of subsequent underwater photography. Despite this glaring miss, I’m still proud of my gallery of pictures of Virgin Islands National Park.

Aerial view of reef, Elliott Key, and Biscayne Bay. Biscayne National Park

Back in Florida, Biscayne National Park hadn’t found a new concessionaire in a year, so there was no public transportation to the islands. I couldn’t find any affordable boat to rent, even with help of friends from Miami. Instead, I hired a pilot for an hour of aerial photography. As great as drones are, they don’t get you there like a plane.

Meadow fire and moon rising. Yosemite National Park

On September 7th, I heard of the Yosemite Meadow fire on Twitter and saw a few dramatic photos on the 8th. Unlike others, the fire happened in the scenic heart of the park, next to Yosemite’s icon, Half-Dome. I drove to Yosemite, making a time-lapse video as well as photographs.

Lake Chelan, Stehekin, North Cascades National Park Service Complex

In October, I returned to the Pacific Northwest to try and capture autumn foliage in this part of the country. My timing worked well for the North Cascades Alpine Larch, which I was even able to photograph at night on the last dry day of the trip. I also reached my second goal, an autumn visit to Stehekin, arguably the most remote community in the lower 48 states, on the final days of the year with services.

Confluence of North Fork and Sol Duc River in autumn. Olympic National Park

In both Mount Rainier, and Olympic National Park, it was raining steadily. I didn’t see a single sunset nor sunrise, but the soft light was great for capturing the foliage as rain brought out colors in the old-growth forests. A blog post will follow, in the while, see images of Olympic National Park fall colors.

Aerial view of Bay Bridge, downtown, and piers. San Francisco, California

I had lost some motivation in flying the Phantom 2 due to the NPS ban. It wasn’t until the summer that with great help from my brother-in-law Nhon Vo (a mechanical engineer by trade), I had a better Ricoh GR rig. By the autumn, we had a complete solution including tilt control. I used it to create the photograph that illustrates Seasons Greetings, as well as this Ricoh GR 360 aerial pano that I invite you to compare resolution-wise to the one made in February with the GoPro.

As I reflect on the past year, I realize that despite difficulties that initially led me to view it as a disappointing year, I have been more privileged than most. Part of my job, I visited several great destinations worthy of being on a lifetime list. I expanded technical skills to include drone aerial imaging, and found some validation for a more conceptual approach to photography I’ve been pursuing for a few years. Although I still feel some pain in my shoulder, I’ve regained enough functionality that my therapist discharged me in December. I am grateful for 2014, and I wish you also found reasons to be grateful too. Looking forward to a great year 2015!