Terra Galleria Photography

New National Monuments Book – Help Me Choose Title!

I am excited to announce my new book, to be published on September 25, 2021 (National Public Lands Day). I am incredibly thankful for all the people in this country who have helped set apart and protect our public lands, and for the support of all my patrons and readers who have made it possible to continue to do work in them, a privilege made all the more special by the circumstances of this year.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the President the authority to proclaim national monuments as an expedited way to protect areas of natural or cultural significance. From the north woods of Maine to the cactus-filled deserts of Arizona, national monuments include vast lands that rival the national parks in beauty, diversity, and historical heritage.

In 2017, an unprecedented executive order called for the review of 27 national monuments, 22 consisting of lands in the continental United States and 5 of oceanic waters. Back then, I encouraged readers of this blog to speak up for our public lands. At that time, I had been only to half a dozen of the national monuments under review. Since then, I have visited each of those 22 land-based monuments, most of them multiple times and with enough depth to do for them what I did for the national parks in Treasured Lands. At the end of the post, I am including an image for each of them, a link to read related blog posts, with more on the way. I am honored that Ansel Adams award-winning photographer, filmmaker, author, and environmentalist Ian Shive, the only non-government person to have visited all the “visitable” marine national monuments, has agreed to provide images and writing about them.

This is the first book to open our eyes to each of those land and water areas under review. Located in 11 states and two oceans, they comprise most of the large national monuments. Combining hundreds of photographs with essays from each of the citizen conservation associations caring for those national treasures, the book comprehensive portrayals help readers understand what is at risk.

Those places, mostly under the Bureau of Land Management supervision, are under the radar and still offer considerable opportunities for solitude and adventure compared to the national parks. However, limited visitor information was available. Accompanying the collection of scenic photographs is an invaluable guide including maps of each national monument with carefully selected attractions keyed, as well as extended captions describing the locations of the photographs. Inviting the readers to experience for themselves those sacred lands and discover the remnants of cultures that thrived there, the book gives us hope that the last wild places in America remain untamed.

You may have noticed something quite important missing from the book description above: the title. I am still trying to decide on this, and that’s where your input would be helpful. There are some ideas below you can vote on, but what I’d appreciate even more are comments and other suggestions – even different combinations of words. Thank you. Click here to answer the poll if you do not see it below. Happy Thanksgiving!


Basin and Range

Bears Ears

Berryessa Snow Mountain

Canyon of the Ancients

Carrizo Plain

Cascade Siskiyou

Craters of the Moon

Giant Sequoia

Gold Butte

Grand Canyon-Parashant

Grand Staircase Escalante

Hanford Reach

Ironwood Forest

Katahdin Woods and Waters

Mojave Trails

Organ Mountains Desert Peaks

Rio Grande Del Norte

San Gabriel Mountains

Sand to Snow

Sonoran Desert

Upper Missouri River Breaks

Vermilion Cliffs

Bonanza Springs – Car troubles in the desert

At Bonanza Springs, the only water source of its size in more than 1,000 square miles of arid desert in Mojave Trails National Monument, willows and cottonwoods line up a small canyon for half a mile. The watering hole is a great place to camp and observe Mojave Desert wildlife sipping from the spring. We can only hope that nothing happens to it if the company Cadiz Inc goes ahead with plans to pump groundwater from a nearby aquifer. Bonanza Springs is located about 25 miles east of Amboy on Route 66. From there, it is only 3 miles on Danby Road, which is nothing more than a rocky and sandy single track, but believe the BLM when they say a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle is required. If you are interested in reading more about my car troubles, the story that I wrote onsite while waiting for the tow truck is included below.

Having left San Jose in the morning, I arrived at the parking lot marked by fences and picnic tables with left than half an hour left before sunset. Distant subjects need stronger light, so before the light started to fade, I headed up a trail that lead views of the oasis from a distance. As the sun went down, I walked back to the oasis, using the soft light for closer images that emphasized the organic shapes.

I had driven almost 500 miles on that day, but it was the last 3 miles that would become something to remember.

The BLM warned that the road to Bonanza Springs in Mojave Trails National Monument is for 4WDs. The NPS often says so for any dirt road, but the first clue that the BLM were more serious was right at the start of the road. Although I was expecting it, when the GPS driving app said to turn left, I wasn’t sure that what I saw was even a viable roadway. I drove past it a short distance before realizing that indeed it was the road and it would be rougher than I’d liked.

Less than a mile in, there was a small wash with big rocks. I hit the brakes to have more time to look how to best navigate around them. When I hit the gas pedal again, I got a sick feeling as the wheels started to spin. I tried to reverse with the same result. The sand wasn’t deep nor fine, but this was sandy enough to get stuck. Since this was the very first day of the trip, I felt stupid. I realized that I forgot to pack the shovel, and instead reached for the backpacking trovel – the one used to dig a cat hole for bathroom needs. I dug some, tried again to move the car to no avail. After adding small rocks, I was able to back. I decided it was nothing but a temporary setback and continued, making sure to keep momentum. This was tricky, as there were quite a few big rocks, so a combination of high clearance and 4WD would have been much welcome.

It had taken me less than fifteen minutes to deal with the incident, and I was glad I still had an hour before sunset. Eventually, the road eased up a bit, and I arrived at Bonanza Springs and stayed until dark. The oasis is extensive and a rare sight in the desert. Getting out of the site at night, I made a wrong turn and missed the road. Non-roads and roads are easy to confuse in the desert. After walking back with recorded GPS breadcrumbs on hand, I got back on track. I wondered whether to come out the same way, as I had glimpsed an alternative. Danville Road (yes, this 3-mile stretch of single track had even a name) intersected what appeared to be a wider and better-maintained road that was tempting, but just after a hundred yards, a section appeared sandy under the headlights. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t. I turned around and got back to Danville Road.

As I was making good progress and felt confident, I saw a large rock. I thought I’d have enough clearance and decided to straddle it rather than driving around. It would have worked, except that the tracks were of the same fine gravel that caused me trouble on the way in. With the tires sinking a bit, the vehicle became high-centered. Again, it was less than a mile from the pavement, and now that it was dark, I could see lights of settlements. But I knew nobody would come and help me, so I’d have to extricate myself. I reached out for the manual in order to locate the jack. I looked around for rocks to prop it on. I managed to lift the front left tire off the ground, making it possible to fill the space with small rocks. Now the car was no longer touching the big rock. All I had to do was revert the car, and drive around the rock. Upon reaching the old highway 66, having self rescued twice, I felt good.

I was not out of the woods though – if you could say that about driving in the desert. Old Highway 66 was officially closed. There were plenty of signs and posts warning of its closure, but you could drive around them. Sometimes, there were bridges over a wash, in which case the posts would span the entire width of the bridge, but in that case, there was a track going down the wash and around the bridge. People live along the road and have been using it, although it has been years since it was officially closed. I had driven that road two years ago, so the road status would not normally have worried me, but this time, the dashboard started displayed an alarm that read “maximum rpm 3000” with some warning signs. I noticed that no matter how I floored the gas pedal, I couldn’t go faster than 55mph on the totally empty road. Worried of breaking down on a closed section of road, I breathed easier when I drove past the last “road closed” sign and reached I-40.

A few miles later, I took exit 120 for Water Road to look for a camping spot. Water Road is paved for a quarter-mile before splitting into dirt roads that I had driven the previous spring looking unsuccessfully for dense stands of Bigelow Cholla Cacti. Numerous places on the web mention it is the largest such collection in California, but back then, I hardly saw any before turning around because the road was degrading.

A commercial truck was parked there, as well as a fellow traveler heading out from the bushes. I thought about parking nearby on the pavement but stuck with my plan to get away from highway noise by driving a dirt road for five minutes. However, after just two minutes of driving, the dashboard now flashed a “low oil pressure, do not drive” sign. I began to understand what happened, and although the dirt road was well graded, I didn’t want to become stranded out of the pavement. I located a spot to pull out, did a u-turn, and parked for the night. When I crouched down to look underneath the engine, sure, there was an alarming oil leak.

When I called Lanchi, I only casually mentioned that I hit a rock and the car wasn’t happy. I blamed the European carmaker, WV, for producing such a fragile SUV. As she gave me a “I told you so, this is why I am always worried with you”, I refrained from providing more hairy details, promising to have the rental agency take care of the car. I went to bed and set up my alarm one hour before sunrise time, hopeful that the car would be able to make it less than five miles to the spot along I-40 that a BLM land manager had indicated as a good spot to see the dense stands of Bigelow cacti that had eluded me before. I could not help but marvel at the stars.

In the middle of the night, doubts flashed. Would the car even start? What if it broke down on the interstate? Upon waking up in the morning, I noticed headlights in the distance. Just as I headed out of the bushes, a truck drove by, just like I had driven by the other fellow last night. I envied his ground clearance. My car started, but to my concern, the engine made clicking noises. I kept my speed to the minimum. By a cosmic coincidence, just as the wheels reached the pavement, it came to a sudden stop. Although later It would restart, at this point it did not. Maybe it signaled that the interstate wouldn’t be a safe place to break down?

Although it was 45 minutes before sunrise, there was a group of half a dozen cars gathered there, getting ready for an off-road outing. I waved to them but didn’t even think about asking for help, since it was clear that my only option was to ask Thrifty for a replacement vehicle. I called at about 6:15. When the call ended after quite a few holds, the operator told me to call back at 8, when local agencies would open. They offered a Nissan Versa, but I insisted that I needed an SUV. Even after this misadventure, I still wanted to do more driving on dirt roads, and I had not even packed a tent since I had planned to sleep in the car. The operator agreed to provide one, and when asked for an estimated time, hazarded 2 hours and a half with the caveat that I’d have to wait for a confirmation from AAA. I had rented the car from Thrifty, but at 6am the day before nobody manned their counter, so it was Hertz that provided the car, and now the operator thanked me on behalf of Budget.

I thought that the directions towards the location I had given could not be more clear, but I received another call to confirm them, and yet another. The latter one was from the driver at last. He asked me to use an app to share my location with him. I told him I would have to figure out how to do so, but in the while, if he would tell me where he was located, I would provide him rough directions so he would be headed the right way. His reply Ontario, more than 3 hours away! So much for the day! As the temperature rose to the 90s, there was no shade around. A FedEx truck came for a rest, it’s engine running loudly suggesting the comfort of AC. Instead of being annoyed by the delay, I still felt gratitude that other humans were working to deliver me another car, even it was all my fault.

Steps behind the image: Echo Crater

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is an immense, well-preserved and diverse volcanic landscape with remarkable features spanning 1177 square miles in South Central Idaho. Most visitors spend all their time in the National Park Service (NPS) Developed Area. Although only a small 16 square miles, that part of the monument lives up to its name, is it does include most of the monument’s facilities, among them a visitor center and a well-equipped campground. Since Craters of the Moon is not among the high-profile NPS units, I was surprised that in September the campground had filled out. Of all the areas in Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, the NPS Developed Area has the densest concentration of natural features. They are reached via a 4-mile loop drive leading to short and well-marked trails.

For an iconic photograph, I sought a high point to picture the vast expense of the monument combined with a defining volcanic feature, but the choice in the Developed Area is limited. To protect resources, off-trail hiking is strictly regulated there – footprints in cinder remain for a long time, so summits such as North Crater are closed to hiking. From the one summit that is open to hiking, Inferno Cone, the Loop Road was too prominent. This led me to look into the Wilderness Area where by definition, there would be no roads. The NPS Wilderness Area (68 square miles) borders the NPS Developed Area to the west, east, and mostly south for a stretch of about 10 miles. Both areas are part of Craters of the Moon National Monument as it was established in 1924, before the huge expansion of 2000. After a bit of research, I determined that Echo Crater would be a promising destination. The crater rises high enough above the Snake River Plain to offer an extensive view of the surrounding landscape. Even if the photos posted by previous hikers were not great, they showed distinctive features that in better light could make a compelling middle ground. I determined that sunrise would be the best time, since I would be photographing towards the NW towards the Developed Area with Big Cinder Butte as a focal point, an angle that would provide good illumination with a bit of cross-lighting.

Craters of the Moon Wilderness is one of the most easily accessible designated wilderness areas in the country. It starts just 0.75 miles from the Tree Molds parking lot, and is accessed via the Wilderness Trail, which is almost flat. The 5-mile trail, ending at a crater called The Sentinel, passes next to Echo Crater about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. The NPS indicated that Echo Crater is a popular backpacking destination, but since the day before was so windy, there is no water there as the volcanic soil is porous, and a backpacking permit is required, I thought it would be simpler to approach it as a day hike. On Sept 25, the sunrise was at 7:24am, so I set up my alarm clock for 4am. The wide trail was easy to follow at night, and as it grazed the crater in pre-dawn, I bushwacked along the steep flank straight east to the top. With sheer walls below me, and a drop of several hundred feet on both sides, the view was even better than I anticipated. In the soft and directional light that occurs 15 minutes before sunrise, I made a satisfying photograph without a close foreground (opening image).

For a second composition to be made after sunrise with more vivid colors, I looked for a foreground to illustrate the beautiful texture of the volcanic rocks, and I also wanted to put more emphasis on the remarkable red cinders of the crater. I scrambled along a ridge and found a triangular shape that I used as foreground. However, it cut into the crater, making the picture difficult to read.

I moved a few steps to the right, which by the way is easier said than done, as the ridge was steep, narrow, and exposed. The foreground rocks now don’t interrupt the shape of the crater, however they don’t detach cleanly against the cinder slope due to the dead tree sticking out.

I lowered the camera by about one foot, thus hiding the dead tree behind the foreground rock. The diagonal of the rock originates from the lower left corner, making a better leading line. The composition is now established, and I just need to wait for sunlight. It was already past sunrise time, but the sun was still behind a bank of clouds on the eastern horizon.

I made the photograph just when the first rays of sunlight reached the crater. The sun was still partly occluded, resulting in light bright enough to enliven the landscape, yet soft enough to reveal all of it.

Less than one minute later, hard shadows have already obscured the crater, as well as broken the cinder cone slope. If I had waited for the sunlight to come before establishing the composition, that interval probably might not have had been enough fore me to get it right. Time to move to a different composition!

Treasured Lands wins Three Photography Awards

Having won in each of the 8 competitions entered (although it took two tries for the Indie Book Awards), I was running out of book awards in which to enter Treasured Lands. I turned to photography award competitions that have a “book” category and entered 4 of them.

What is the difference? For a book award, you send out copies of the book. That makes it possible for the book to be judged as … a book – the whole enchilada, with its physical realization, printing, design, flow. The photography award competitions let you submit only digital files, and not a whole lot of them. Three of those I entered use the same software that limit you to 8 jpegs, including the book cover. 7 spreads is barely representative of a 480-page book. They let you also upload a PDF, but the file size limit is so small that the option was useless for me: even after aggressive image compression, I could not even generate a PDF for the entirety of one of the 7 parts of Treasured Lands. So although the entry is called “book”, it is actually judged as a photo series. I entered the same spreads (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) in all 4 contests.

The outcome? Treasured Lands did not place in the Canadian Applied Arts Photo Illustration Awards. It was awarded the “nature book” Honorable Mention in International Photography Awards, Silver in Moscow International Foto Awards (MIFA), Gold in Prix de la Photographie Paris (PX3).

In the poll, readers unanimously agreed that the additional category in Foreword and the Grand Prize in Indie should be counted separately, so that was 10 awards. 13 is sometimes considered a lucky number, so I am done with entering Treasured Lands for awards. Hope it will not bring bad luck!

Paddling the White Cliffs of the Upper Missouri River

Floating the Upper Missouri River in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a great trip, offering the opportunity to connect with a time when the landscape of the West was wild, surrounded by unique and spectacular scenery. It is an easy multi-day adventure that doesn’t require much experience nor effort to arrange. This article explains the basics and details the highlights of the most remarkable White Cliffs section.

The River

The Upper Missouri River is meant to be paddled like Lewis and Clark did. Unlike modern travelers, Lewis and Clark traveled the river upstream, an indication of a placid river. It is indeed forgiving and does not require paddling experience. On the other hand, it is not great for motorized travel. Motorboats are strictly restricted and the riverbed is so shallow that you’d want a jetboat. The Upper Missouri River is Class I with no whitewater rapids. The only difficulty I found was that some landing spots were very muddy. Most boaters prefer canoes for carrying large items such as coolers to make camping more pleasant. Being more used to kayaks, I rented a double kayak, which had enough room for me to toss in my full-size photo backpack and my drone backpack, in addition to camping gear, food and water. I didn’t use dry bags, nor did I find it necessary to wrap my backpacks into waterproof plastic bags.

Logistics

Logistics aren’t difficult. Guided trips are available during the summer. If you’d rather go on your own, Missouri River Outfitters in Fort Benton offers canoe and kayak rentals. Conveniently, you pick up your boat at the departure point and leave it at the take out point. For a reasonable fee, they can also drive your car from the departure point to the take out. The developed campsites where I stayed had vault toilets and fire rings, and sometimes 3-walled shelters. Besides the usual camping preparations, you need to bring your own water. The Upper Missouri cannot be treated adequately by boiling or filtering because of sediment in the water and extensive cattle in the area. The BLM provides an excellent 65-page Boater’s Guide with detailed river maps. A printed copy can be bought online or obtained at the BLM visitor center, but I found it easier to keep track of river miles by GPS.

Time

Most river trips take place from mid-June to early September, and during that period campgrounds can be busy. The shoulder seasons extending a month on either side of the main floating season offer far greater solitude, but the weather is more dynamic and temperatures could drop down to near freezing – two pluses as far as I am concerned. The river flow is about 3mph, faster and higher in the spring, slower and lower in autumn.

The central section, from Coal Banks Landing (river mile 41.5) to Judith Landing (river mile 88.5) consists of 47 miles of river. Some people do the trip in 3 days, but most chose 4 days, and I even met a party who took 7 days. Even with 4 days, staying at the 3 popular developed camps, getting up before dawn and finishing well past sunset every day, and paddling quite hard, getting blisters on my hand, I felt that I could have used more time for hiking because there is so much to see around the river corridor.

Little Sandy

At Coal Banks Landing, a helpful BLM volunteer named Jim helped me carry the kayak to the water and go over the trip. He recommended that I stop at Little Sandy (river mile 46.7) to see ancient tipi rings, a reminder that the area has a long history with native Americans. I landed as soon as I saw the campground, but when I went looking for the tipi rings, the surrounding didn’t quite match his description. I found some rocks on a perfectly flat spot with commanding views of the river, but their shape was only vaguely related to the circles I was expecting. After getting into the kayak, once I floated downstream, I saw terrain matching the description at the other end of the campground – they can be pretty long. I landed and hiked back, only to find a creek between me and the campsite. Not wanting to get my feet wet, I strenuously paddled the kayak upstream. A short stroll above the campground, there were several perfect circles of stones. Robert, a fellow Californian traveling solo (for the 4th time!) who was camped there told me that they were in fact too perfect: modern visitors have added stones to them unlike at the undisturbed site I came upon earlier.

Burned Butte

I arrived at Burned Butte (river mile 55) with less than 30 minutes before sunset. In my rush to land, I had reached a spot that was so muddy that I struggled not to get my rubber boots sucked in. I then made a cross-country beeline for the top of the igneous rock plug, only to find the slope to be too steep and slippery to climb further. I didn’t get high enough before sunset for a good perspective on the river, but going down, I noticed a user trail. Although it was past sunset, I decided to investigate. It led me around the cliff for great views of the river. I was glad I had not given up, as the post-sunset glow turned out beautiful thanks to the clouds. After a few photos, I made sure to go back to my boat before dark, paddling a mile to the camp by moonlight.

Eagle Creek

When I arrived at Eagle Creek Boat Camp (river mile 56) in the dark, not wanting to miss the site, I floated too close to shore and I kept getting stuck on gravel bars. As I eventually landed at the first campsite, a group came to shore to let me know they were using it, and helpfully suggested another location downriver. The most popular destination on the river, the site faces impressive white cliffs well-lit at sunrise. I got up at 4:30 am, after the moon had set, to start an extremely promising night-to-day time-lapse, but sleepy as I was, I used the wrong settings. Next time, I’ve to make sure I don’t forget to review the first images of the sequence. After breakfast, hiking downriver into a narrowing canyon, I scrambled into Neat Coulee, a slot canyon where sandstone has been carved into fantastic curves and shapes (2 miles round trip). That is more the type of scenery that one expects in the Southwest, but I noticed that instead of smooth sculpted walls, those were full of knobs. I focussed on such a section, selecting one where the warm glow of reflected sunlight contrasted with the cool colors that open shade get from the blue sky. Hiking upriver from the camp, after crossing Eagle Creek, I found a site with petroglyphs etched in sandstone cliffs (1 mile roundtrip).

Hole-in-the-Wall

Hole-in-the-Wall, a natural hole within a vertiginous sheet of freestanding rock is one of the most iconic rock formations in the monument. It lies about a mile downriver from the Hole-in-the-Wall Developed Boat Camp (river mile 63) and after an easy approach on the flats, requires some rock scrambling to reach via its top. Even more impressive than the hole, the forest of pinnacles to the east, best lit in the afternoon, presented great depth and complexity in a spectacular setting high above the river. I wished I had arrived earlier at this world-class site to have time to find better viewpoints, especially since it was so windy that I was hesitant to venture out on exposed perches like the plank-like top of the rock. When the moon suddenly rose, I hurriedly scrambled to find a composition with it, and also to shelter my camera from the wind, as the telephoto lens I now used to make the moon appear bigger would be sensitive to vibrations. I had friended a group of three from Montana (Daniel, Jason, Jeff) and they were worried when I showed back to camp way after dark, but this was par the course for me, as when the moon became too bright relative with the landscape, I photographed with it as a substitute for sunrise. That turned out to be a good idea, since clouds moved in unexpectedly during the night. There was fantastic color in the sky for a few minutes before sunrise, when the sun illuminated the clouds from below, and after that, it was all overcast.

Valley of the Walls

The section of river from Hole-in-the-Wall to Dark Butte (river mile 69.8) is graced with the most notable geological wonders in the monument. At Valley of the Walls (mile 66.5), opposite the famous Seven Sisters rock formation, creeks have carved a spectacular canyon. As it is not obvious from the river or during the steep cross-country hike, getting a good view of it from the top of the hills was a rewarding surprise. After a difficult landing, I had started hiking under heavy overcast with nobody else in sight. Since I noticed the light getting brighter, I hanged out at the top in anticipation for the sun to come out, and it did. But that ate up my time for Dark Butte. After a short hike there, I hopped into the kayak to make sure I wouldn’t get to the next camp too late, and just arrived as it got dark.

Slaughter River Boat Camp

Past Slaughter River Developed Boat Camp (river mile 76.8), the character of the monument starts to change as white cliffs are replaced by rugged badlands. The camp is facing some of the last cliffs on the river. The shore next to the campground wasn’t inspiring, as it was somehow muddy and full of footprints, but by hiking half a mile downriver, I found a nice gravel spot. As I was photographing straight towards the east, I knew I had to photograph right at sunrise, before the sun in my back would be strong enough to cast a long and noticeable shadow. That section of the river had more cottonwoods, and therefore more foliage color than I saw on previous days.

More images of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

Crossing the Missouri River by ferry in the middle of nowhere

Along the 149 miles of river in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the monument lands surrounding the river grow larger and wilder as we move from west to east. From Fort Benton (river mile 0) to Coal Banks Landing (river mile 41.5) the river is mostly surrounded by grassy meadows and agricultural lands, with not much to explore beyond the river corridor, an exception being Decision Point and Wood Bottom. The section from Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing (river mile 88.5) is the most popular thanks to its white cliffs and great hikes. It will be the subject of the next article.

The eastern part of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

From Judith Landing to James Kipp Recreation Area (river mile 149), the boundaries of the monument extend well beyond the banks of the river into rugged badlands that include several Wilderness Study areas. The character of the monument changes not only because white cliffs are replaced by badlands, but also because the river becomes less developed and traveled. Floating the section from there to James Kipp takes 4 or 5 days, but it is possible to get a quick glimpse of its terrain without a boat. The Bullwacker Road north of the Missouri River was the main avenue into the eastern part of the monument, but it is no longer accessible to the public. South of the Missouri River, the unpaved Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway starts from Winifred and briefly enters the monument. It requires 4WD to traverse. The site described in this article, not even marked on the BLM general map, also requires extended driving on an unpaved road. However, although it descends quite steeply into the river valley, the road may be passable by a carefully driven sedan in dry weather.

The McClelland-Stafford Ferry

Between the Loma Bridge and James Kipp Recreation Area, only the bridge at Judith Landing built in 1982 spans the Missouri River. However, drivers may cross the river at two additional locations using cable ferries that inject a sense of adventure to a road trip, as they are a throwback to another era – the McClelland-Stafford Ferry has been running from the 1920s. They operate 7 AM to 7 PM, Monday-Saturday, and 9 AM to 5 PM Sundays, about May 1 to Nov 1, depending on conditions, and are free. A diesel motor powers the ferry, guided by a drive cable spanning the river. The most popular of the two is in Virgelle. The McClelland-Stafford Ferry (river mile 101.8) is located in the middle of nowhere, 16 miles north of Winifred. I arrived from the north. As I passed the ferrryman’s house, he saw me and hopped on his ATV to operate the ferry. Otherwise, I would have used a call box to summon the ferry. Once we reached the south shore, instead of doing an empty trip back to his house, he pulled out a chair and started fishing from the ferry, waiting for cars to arrive from the south. On the busiest days, in August, there are about 10 crossings a day.

The Old Army Trail

On the north side of the river, next to the ferrryman’s house, there is a small campground and the trailhead for the Old Army Trail (5 miles round-trip, 900 feet elevation gain). The jeep road was built in 1869 to aid in the recovery of the cargo from a sunken steamboat. It is now one of only two designated trails inside the 377,346-acre national monument – the other is at Decision Point. After a section along the river leading to the site of the wreck, the trail climbed steeply to a ridge offering sweeping views of the Breaks before ending at a private property gate with menacing no trespassing signs. I started hiking at night so that I would be able to catch the sunrise high up, instead of being in the flat section of the trail within the valley.

When to go

The road should not be attempted even by 4×4 vehicles in wet weather. Roads in the area become impassable when wet (from snowmelt or precipitation) because they are laid on very sticky soil called “gumbo”. Some mentioned to me even helicopters getting stuck. Central Montana’s climate is continental with low annual precipitation. Winters are cold with snow and sub-freezing temperatures from mid-October to April. From mid-May to June, the landscape is green and flowers bloom, however rain and mud are likely, and mosquitoes can be bad. July and August offer consistently dry weather with highs in the 90s. Fall colors, seen mostly on the cottonwood trees that dot the riverbanks, and the return of possible inclement weather start in mid-September. This year, the weather remained perfectly dry during my visit in late September/early October, but at the same time last year, there was snow on the ground.

More images of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument’s accessible spot

The longest river in North America, the Missouri River flows for 2,341 miles from Western Montana to St Louis, where it joins the Mississippi River. In 1976, a 149-mile section of the Missouri River in Montana was one of the first river segments to be protected with the Wild and Scenic River designation. Lewis and Clark of the Corps of Discovery traveled this part of the Missouri River during their expedition in 1805. Besides some cattle grazing, it remains much the same as it was back when they passed through. Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument protects that last free-flowing section of the Missouri River and 375,000 acres of surrounding plains, bluffs, cliffs, and badlands. The word “Breaks” is a geographical reference that describes those rugged landforms eroding (“breaking away”) from uplands to the river bed below.

The monument stretches for about 90 miles from Fort Benton in the west to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge to the east, with the river meandering for 149 miles. Many campgrounds, both primitive and developed, are situated on the riverbanks. Those located at each of the landings previously mentioned are developed and accessible by road. The closest towns with travel amenities are Winifred to the south and Fort Benton to the west. The later, more historic and touristy, is in the monument. It is home to the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center where you can obtain trip planning information, and to Missouri River Outfitters who provides boat rentals, shuttles, and guided trips on the river. There is also a bed and breakfast in the historic settlement of Virgelle, close to Coal Banks Landing.


(click on map to enlarge)

Naturally, the monument is best seen by paddling a canoe or kayak down the river, this will be the subject of a subsequent article. Most places of interest are very difficult to access without floating. Roads to them can be very rough and become impassable during wet weather because they are made of clay. They also traverse private lands, requiring landowner permission to access. However, besides the landings, there are a few places of interest that are accessible by road, and this article is about the most easily accessible of all. If you don’t have much time and want a glimpse of the monument without floating or significant driving on dirt roads, that would be the spot. Although it appears modest, there is much to photograph there.

Decision Point

Traveling upstream, the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed for 10 days at this site, at the confluence of the two rivers, trying to determine which one may lead them towards the Pacific Coast. They made the correct decision to follow the south fork, which is the Missouri River, naming the north fork the Marias River. Along the Loma Bridge Road, a 0.25-mile interpretive loop trail tops a bluff with excellent high views of the confluence and a river island. Despite the proximity of the small town of Loma which is within eyesight, the area has retained a peaceful pastoral character.

In landscape photography, timing is often essential. Here’s how my timing at Decision Point turned out. Mid-morning of the day of my evening visit there, I started from Wapi Park in Idaho, about 500 miles away, including some pretty rough roads – just driving the 70-mile Arco Minidoka Road can take all day. Upon exiting the I-15 at Great Falls, although the car’s dashboard showed I would reach Loma with about 50 miles of gas left, I decided to spend maybe 10 minutes for a gas stop. It turned out I arrived about 10 minutes late at the top of the bluff for the “late afternoon” light. On that day, the sunset was at 6:11 PM, and I had gotten there at 5:35 PM. However, as often is the case, a hill was blocking the light, throwing large parts of the scene in the shade. In doubt, it is preferable to plan to photograph with the sun not too low on the horizon. When shooting towards the east, the light of sunset is generally reliable: the excessive contrast is gone, and a band of color in the sky enlivens the horizon, however the lack of directionality makes it a bit flat. Past sunset time, the directionality comes back in delightfully soft light, but the color of the sky is gone. The main view (another is above) is towards the north-east. Because of that, I had come at sunset when it would be mostly front-lit. At sunrise, it is slightly backlit. I returned the next day in the early morning because you never know. The backlight made the sky is a bit bright, but the light on the land and trees was beautiful.

Wood Bottom

Just north of the Loma Bridge over the Missouri River, a 0.7-mile road leads to the Wood Bottom Developed Public Access Site (river mile 20.3). It is the first developed campground and boat launch after leaving Fort Benton. The float to or from there is often arranged as a day excursion. Both roads are surfaced with gravel, making them accessible in all weather. After photographing at Decision Point until dark, I initially tried to get to the Wood Bottom campground using Google Maps, but this didn’t work as the app pointed to a road at the top of the bluffs, leaving me quite perplexed as despite “you have arrived”, I struggled to make out anything in the dark. I located the correct road using a detailed BLM map.

The site is located at the base of tall bluffs that catch the first light of sunrise. It offered nice river-level views, but in the immediate vicinity of the campground, I struggled to find spots where a footpath along the edge of shore wasn’t too visible. As the light was progressing, I tried to hide it behind grasses, then excluded it from the composition, but eventually by walking a distance, I was able to find a more pristine spot that allowed me to include more of the shoreline.

More images of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

Two photographs: dull light v. dramatic light on the grasslands

Large and distant subjects generally need strong shadows to define their shape. For photographing grand landscapes, there may be nothing more discouraging than an overcast day, confirming the adage “dull light, dull photos”. But is it true? This article compares two photographs of an understated subject in two extreme light situations: overcast and sunrise.

The centerpiece of Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is the cave, but for photographers, the main attraction may well be the extensive grassland that covers more than two-thirds of the park’s surface, as it is one of the last remaining sections of the original prairie that once covered a huge area of mid-America. This section of prairie would not have been preserved if it weren’t for the network of caves that lie underneath. At Bison Flats, just south of the junction with the visitor center road, a very open prairie lies along Hwy 385. Ecological importance and visual appeal can diverge, and the prairie is not what you’d call a spectacular subject.

During my first visit there, it was raining all the time. Some say that the sweetest sound is that of raindrops falling on the tent since it means that one can stay in the sleeping bag without regret. I resisted the temptation and got to work at sunrise time. It was clear that the clouds would not clear anytime soon and there would not be even a hint of sunrise color, but some gradations were present in the sky, as opposed to a uniformly overcast sky. Every small detail like that counts, and I considered myself vindicated for not sleeping in.

The grasses exuded a fresh, damp smell that beckoned me to linger a bit longer and take a more attentive look. I identified a diverse blend of tall and short grass species. Even in those dreadful conditions, the allure of the grasses inspired me to pull out the camera and make a large-format photograph. From a distance, the grasses all look the same, but I recognized patches with different color characteristics and looked for local color contrast. I used a wide-angle lens and positioned the camera so that the grasses arranged themselves in a flowing way. Combined with a low viewpoint, the wide-angle lens added depth to the image by creating perspective with the strong decrease in size of the receding blades of grass. It made the background elements very small, but they were still resolved enough, as this type of flat subject is perfectly focussed from front to back with a bit of tilt. The distant trees helped provide a crucial focal point and counterweight.

To see how this photograph works, let us compare to another version of the same scene. Another year, I returned in better weather, hoping for less flat light. I headed to the same location for sunrise, when the light would be at its most dramatic, maybe a necessity for such an understated subject. Using the same focal length and a similar viewpoint and composition, I looked for a position that would utilize the dramatic play of light and shadow the best. A spot with prominent shadows in the foreground helped highlight the texture of the prairie as the low sun grazed it laterally, making each individual blade of grass stand out.

What makes the blades of grass stand out in that second photograph is their shape, detached against darker shaded areas. The differences in color within the grass are not visible at all, as they are overwhelmed by the warm light of sunrise. Instead, the photograph relies on the color contrast of two large image areas, the warm prairie and the cool sky. In the first photograph, despite the lack of shadows, the blades of grass are still well-differentiated from each other thanks to the color contrast between the light greens and the rust colors. The overcast light revealed those, and even more subtle color differences, making this photograph more intricate. Overcast light doesn’t highlight nor define anything, but it also doesn’t hide anything, so in the end, it offered more possibilities.

The two images of the same scene are clearly different in mood. Although I thought the overcast image may be richer, in the sense that it rewards an extended viewing with more to see, for Treasured Lands, I chose the sunlit version for its drama that makes it more immediately appealing, and also because it fit better with other images. In the book he and Kate Jordahl produced on the occasion of a gallery exhibit, curator Geir Jordahl chose the overcast image. Which image do you prefer, and why? (if you do not see poll question, click here)

A Backpacking trip into the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park

Continuing the Alaska dreaming and remembering started with the springtime backpacking trip in Lake Clark National Park, I am re-publishing here a longer account of a more arduous autumn backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park, illustrated with photographs all captured on 5×7 large format film. It was one of my wildest and most memorable experiences.

We took off from Bettles during a short weather break in the evening. As vast expanses of tundra and taiga rolled beneath, a circular double rainbow began to follow us. The beauty was incredible, but the flight in the four-seater plane was so bumpy that we were glad to reach our destination, a narrow circular band of water known as Circle Lake – and AI-based deblurring was necessary to salvage photos. The pilot helped us unload our backpacks to the grassy shore, instructed us to come back one week later to the same point to be picked up, and was quickly on his way. Still dazzled by the flight, we waved to the plane. A few minutes later, the noise of the engine disappeared to leave place to absolute silence. The sense of isolation was powerful. We were told by the rangers that you must be totally self-sufficient here, that there would be no help to be expected. You might not even be found.

Gates of the Arctic National Park, covering much of the Brooks range in northern Alaska, is one of the finest wilderness areas of the world. With a surface area of 8.4 million acres (336 thousand squares kilometers), it is four times the size of Yellowstone, twice the size of Connecticut, and only slightly smaller than Switzerland. What is remarkable is that such a large chunk of land has remained one of the most remote and unspoiled places in the world. No roads lead into the park, and it is a hard trek to get from the Dalton highway (a rough unpaved road opened to access the oil fields of the arctic coast) into the park interior. Most people charter a plane to fly into the park, either a floatplane or a plane equipped with oversized tires for landing on gravel bars. The main transportation center for the Brooks range is Bettles, which can be reached in summer only by flight, usually from Fairbanks. After landing on the gravel airstrip in Bettles, it is easy to understand why Alaska is America’s last frontier. Although the town is incorporated, it is no more than an airfield surrounded by a few dozen buildings. There is a lodge, a general store, and the National Park Service visitor center. The ranger gave us a briefing about bear encounters but declined to provide trip planning information. The main purpose of the NPS was to keep the park a wilderness, and they wanted each person to discover their own path, rather than ending up all in the same spot. With only 8,000 visitors in the year 1999 prior to our visit (as opposed to 386,000 for Denali and more than 3 million for Yosemite or Yellowstone), and no facilities such as marked trails or campsites, it is indeed still possible to have the feeling of being the first humans ever to set foot in the park. It is still possible to be the first person to expose a large format sheet of film of some of the views there. During our week-long trek, we would meet only two other hiking groups, yet we backpacked in one of the most frequented areas of the park. One of them was composed of two guides and a photographer. He had hired both of them so that he would have to carry only his photographic gear. I found that this would have been unnecessary for me: in spite of carrying about half my body weight (my friend, Shosh, was a small woman and couldn’t take more than her normal share), after a couple of days I would adjust to the load and the terrain.

The place strikes you immediately as being a most wild and natural place. From where we stood, past the lakeshore, we saw no tracks in the tundra. I proceeded to put my backpack on. I couldn’t lift it with my hands high enough to shoulder it. I had to find a mound of vegetation high enough for me to sit underneath it. At the beginning of the trip, the backpack weighed about 67lbs (30 kg). There was about 25lbs of camera gear and film, 28 lbs of gear to survive in harsh conditions, and nine days of food. Before the trip, I was wondering how I would fare in those conditions. The other backpacking trips where I carried the large format camera were only four days long, in the mild and dry climate of the Sierras or the Plateau, and on-trail. I began to learn the harshest aspect of Arctic hiking. Most of the ground in Arctic regions is permanently frozen as permafrost. During the summer, there will be a layer of thawed soil at the surface, allowing plant growth. In the moist areas, found in low-lying terrain such as the valley were we landed, the permafrost is close to the surface, and the melting creates an ocean of mud among which tufted mounds of grass called tussocks provide a more solid footing. Walking is done by hopping from one wobbly tussock to another, trying to avoid missing and spraining your ankle or sinking in the mud when a tussock gives way under your feet. We understood why one shouldn’t plan to cover more than one mile per hour. On such a terrain, it is also difficult to find a good campsite.

However, despite the late hour, I was not too worried about getting to one before the nightfall. The park is situated well above the Arctic circle. For a period of about a month in mid-summer, the sun never sets. We were already in mid-August, which in the Arctic is already the fall season, but there was still daylight past 11 pm. There was a sense of freedom in being able to forget the clock. One more aspect of modern life had become irrelevant. We found in the boreal forest a spot carpeted by thick moss, and set-up the tent.

The term “arctic” sometimes evokes the idea of a white wasteland roamed by polar bears. While it is true that for most of the year temperatures averaging -20F (-30F) at lower elevations freeze the landscape, during the short warm seasons, the tundra puts a display of color unlike anything I saw before. In the eastern hardwood forests of America, the colors are in the trees. Here the color is just everywhere. The next day, a bright sun highlighted the fall colors. Pockets of willows and aspens dotted the landscape with yellow patches, while the unforested hills around us were vibrant with a variety of red hues. These brilliant reds were the tiny leaves of berry plants. After a few days of freeze-dried food, we became very fond of the fresh and sweet taste of the blueberries, which were found in abundance at the lower elevations. Unlike in the mountains I was used to, there was no bare dirt at all. Every patch of ground was alive, covered with cottongrass and sedges, mosses, or a variety of other dwarf plants. They kept getting tinier and tinier, as we gained elevation, but never lost of their diversity. Looking at my feet while hiking, I’d marvel at the beauty of the small patterns. It was a bit tiring because you’d sink at every step into what feels like a sponge rubber, yet the softness felt nice. Tripod stability was another matter. The limiting factor in rigidity would be the sponginess of the ground, regardless of how flimsy your camera or tripod is. While making an exposure, you wouldn’t dare to breathe, for fear of not standing perfectly still, and causing the ground to shift. We became more proficient at recognizing dry tundra from moist tundra. Dry tundra is dominated by mat-forming shrubs and is often found on higher, well-drained terraces. Walking on dry tundra was much more pleasant than hoping on tussocks, and we made faster progress. Every hour or so, when I saw an interesting place to photograph, we would put our packs down, my partner would relax for a while, while I would expose a few images. On a road trip, I just tend to drive around and rush to be at the right place with the right light (if predictions were to be accurate). Here, there was a sense that I’d just have to photograph what was there and now, and be content with it. At most, we could wait a little for conditions to change, and I would use that time to unload my three film holders and reload them. There was less pressure to find an image, it would have to come naturally.

After reaching the Arrigetch creek, we found some faint and intermittent trails. We wondered which ones were made by animals and which ones were made by previous hikers. Sometimes, it was comforting to recognize a footprint made by a boot in the mud, but usually the footprints all belonged to animals. One day, as we struggled through thick willows, we found a relatively unobstructed path where branches had been broken by something bigger and stronger than a human. Instants later, we saw a very large dark-furred animal. Shosh panicked, as she thought it was a huge black bear, but soon, we were reassured by the sight of antlers. It was a moose. We stayed away, as they can become aggressive at this time of the year which is their rutting season. Almost every day, we would see big sharp-clawed tracks and wonder where the maker of those tracks was.

Like all of Alaska, the park is home to a number of bears, both black and brown. The brown bear, or grizzly, is among the earth’s largest predators, but in the Brooks Range, they are largely, although not exclusively, vegetarians, eating berries, sedges, and other plants. Not exclusively. When they’re hungry, grizzlies will try anything. Fortunately, because of the resources needed to sustain life are so sparse, there is only an average of one brown bear for every 100 square miles of habitat in the Arctic. Moreover, man’s presence in the park is so minimal that none of the wildlife is accustomed to man, so that a bear, whiffling something as foreign as humanity would likely turn tail. However, in order to avoid surprising a bear, Shosh kept yelling and talking, and we were careful to use proper food storage methods.

Two days after our landing, we arrived at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks. The park covers much of the Brooks Range, which is the northernmost major mountain range in the world. The range is so vast that each of its mountains has a different character, however, the Arrigetch Peaks area is considered by many to be the most spectacular part. Arrigetch means in Athabascan “fingers of a hand outstretched”. We were surrounded by gothic black granite spires and pinnacles reaching haphazardly into the clouds. There was a feeling of being at the beginning of the earth. The ice-rimmed sheer walls gave us the impression of being in Yosemite before the dawn of humanity. An Eskimo legend relates that when their creator Aiyagomahala died, he stuck his frozen mitten to the ground at the head of the Alatna Valley; the frozen fingers turned into granite spires to remind his people of their creator.

We set up a base camp and planned to spend the next few days doing day hikes into three of the valleys surrounding the peaks. This would be much easier on my back since I would just have to carry the camera gear. Each of the valleys had a different character. In the first one, we hoped onto steep boulder fields. In the image I made looking down the valley, the overcast sky and the thin layer of fresh snow, contrasting with the dark walls and the lichen-covered rocks, contributed to create a most severe and frigid atmosphere. The highlight of the second valley was turquoise lakes whose deep colors stood out against the dark surrounding rocks. In the third valley, we saw beautiful high tundra vegetation. The weather remained overcast all the time, and while this helped bring out the colors of the tundra, I wished the summits of the peaks would clear out. There was a mystery in all those steep peaks disappearing into the clouds, but I think I captured this feeling only in one image, a difficult exposure made at the end of a long day when I had only one sheet of film left in my pack.

As we were cooking dinner at dusk next to a stream, we saw one caribou running down on the other side of the stream, then another one, then several others. Soon we witnessed for several minutes an almost continual flow of animals. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them. It was too dark to take a picture, and on this trip, I had decided to concentrate on landscape photography and therefore left behind my telephoto lens, so I just savored the moment. The park is crossed by the Caribou of the western arctic herd estimated to be 200,000 animals, as it migrates through the park from wintering grounds south and west of the park to calving areas northwest of the park and to summer range north of the park. The weather was constantly changing, and rainbows seemed to appear and disappear everywhere. This was at times frustrating with the large format camera since the conditions would often change in the eight minutes it takes me to set-up the camera and be ready to expose the film. Although we were merely at 3000 feet (1000 meters) elevation, an overnight storm brought a layer of fresh snow. Since we were camped at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks, the view was only a few steps from the tent. I had the luxury to wait for hours for the summit of the mountains to come in view. This never happened completely during the three days we were there. When I saw a possible clearing, I gave up breakfast, hurrying to set up the camera with excitement, and waited. Half an hour later, in a brief window that lasted only minutes, the clouds lifted enough for an evocative monochromatic image of the black vertical walls entirely plastered with snow. I thought of how lonely this range was. So few of these thrilling mountains had been visited by people, fewer still had been climbed to their summits. Only a few had names.

It’s a wild place, Gates of the Artic National Park.

Image upsizing with Topaz Gigapixel AI

If you are making prints, sooner or later you’ll have to upsize the image file. Even with such a basic task, there is much to be gained by using appropriate apps. In this post, the third and last in a series devoted to the Topaz suite of AI-based tools, I examine Topaz Gigapixel AI upsizing capabilities and limits using a pair of images of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Capture

The photographs look straightforward enough, but if you look around the Internet, you won’t see them replicated often for such an iconic subject. This is because creating such an alignment of the city skyline with the bridge required a quite distant and un-intuitive viewpoint near the Pt Bonita Lighthouse, more than 2.5 miles away from the bridge. I photographed it in January 2004 with a 70-200mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter on a newly bought Canon EOS Digital Rebel, resulting in a focal length equivalent of 450mm for the vertical image. I’ve since returned several times to the same spot with better gear, but never observed again the glassy water that created the reflection of the bridge. The San Francisco Bay is not a top sailing spot for nothing. This left me with a meager 6 MP file. Upsizing images is almost never necessary if they are to be displayed online, or even used in magazines or books.

By the way, that was the coolest book cover: the publisher created a half-inch deep 3D cut-out from the horizontal version of the photograph, which worked really well with this scene because the telephoto had collapsed the scenes into slices of depths. On the other hand, upsizing of images files is necessary for making large prints if they are to support close distance viewing. If you send an image with low resolution to a printer, the printer driver applies its own upsizing, which may be inferior to app-based upsizing and leaves you without control of the process and the output sharpening – my Epson 9800 does best when fed with native resolution files (360 ppi).

Photoshop/Interpolation Upsizing

When you open Photoshop’s Image Size window, there are now no less than 8 choices of resizing methods under the pulldown menu next to “Resample”. Some of them are labeled “enlargement” or “reduction” so you know which ones are appropriate for the task. I have found the differences to be quite minor, with “Bicubic smoother” generally, but not always, the best. No single method always gives the best results – Adobe would have dropped others! Unfortunately, Photoshop is not offering Lanczos resampling which may often be the best interpolation method. If you want to try it, one of the more popular apps implementing it is the free IrfanView. Resizing by interpolation works roughly as follows: the pixels are spread out, and then an algorithm is used to fill in the spaces in between. If an edge transition takes place over, let say 3 pixels, in the image resulting from a double enlargement, that same edge transition takes place over 6 pixels regardless of the interpolation method used. That makes the edge more gradual, therefore it doesn’t appear as sharp. That is a problem because edges contribute most to the perception of sharpness. Here is the 100% pixel view of a Transamerica Pyramid crop with 4 times upsizing in Photoshop:

Genuine Fractals Upsizing

There are a number of third-party apps for resizing. Prior to trying Topaz Gigapixel AI, I had settled on Genuine Fractals, which was renamed Perfect Resize and then ON1 Resize after its acquisition by onOne Software. I believe it was the best upsizing app for a decade. Genuine Fractals works by transforming the image data into a vector representation that is independent from resolution (hence “fractal”). You can think of it as a collection of polygons. When you enlarge the image, the surface area of each polygon is enlarged, but not their edges. As a result, Genuine Fractals did a great job on keeping edges sharp, preventing lines from getting jagged, and keeping curved lines smooth. I found it a significant improvement over Photoshop in making large prints. Here is the 100% pixel view of a Transamerica Pyramid crop with 4 times upsizing in Genuine Fractals:

Edges are cleaner. There are two limitations. For some images, the polygonal structure could become visible, which of course looked artificial. More critically, Genuine Fractals did not provide an actual improvement in resolution, and therefore didn’t help with textures. Excessive enlargements caused a bit of a “cartoon” effect with sharp edges but missing texture. That was because Genuine Fractals cannot create detail that is not there.

Topaz Gigapixel AI Upsizing

By contrast, like its cousin Topaz Sharpener AI, Topaz Gigapixel AI works by basically rebuilding a synthetic image based on the input image and the prior knowledge of a huge number of images of the world. The app mobilizes that vast amount of information to add detail beyond what was available in the original image. Here is the 100% pixel view of a Transamerica Pyramid crop with 4 times upsizing in Topaz Gigapixel AI:

The results are at another level. The app has cleaned out the noise, that even at midday and base ISO was still present in the Canon file – that was an early DSLR. If you look at the leftmost cable, you can now clearly see that it consists of two strands that were not resolved in any of the two previous enlargements. In this case, I know that Topaz Gigapixel AI was “correct” since those strands do exist, even though they were barely resolved in the original image.

Ground truth comparison

To assess how the apps do against ground truth, instead of enlarging the original, we are going to reduce it and then re-enlarge it back so we have a reference image to compare to. We will use the following crop, viewed at 100% pixels:

For comparison, the following image has been reduced to 50% size (therefore discarding half of the linear data), and then upsized back by 2 times by Photoshop interpolation. A bit of loss of detail is visible and the image is softer.

The following image has been reduced to 50% size and then upsized back 2 times by Topaz Gigapixel AI. If anything, it resulted in an image sharper and with more detail than the original.

The following image has been reduced to 25% size (therefore discarding 75% of the linear data), and then upsized back by 4 times by Photoshop interpolation. As would be expected, the loss of detail is severe.

Upsizing back 4 times by Topaz Gigapixel AI results in an image with sharp edges and credible detail, although there are a few artifacts where the app “guessed wrong” and in places it created details that wasn’t there.

Reducing and upsizing the image by a factor 6, both break down, however, the bridge pillar, an area where there was still enough data to work with at that scale, is still rendered sharply by Topaz Gigapixel AI in the bottom image.

Using Topaz Gigapixel AI

When Topaz Gigapixel AI works, there is nothing that compares. But it doesn’t always work and can do strange things – for instance on dark images. So how to make the most out of it? What I recommend is to always examine carefully the entirety of the enlarged image at high magnification and look for artifacts. If you find any, you can replace the defective areas with an enlargement made using a more conservative method. Here is another real-world case that occurred when I was preparing a print just last week. The photograph is from an another ocean shore across the continent, at Acadia National Park’s Sand Beach. Crowded during the day as it is the only sand beach in the area, it is deserted at dawn, when the photograph was made. As the naturally occurring shutter speed of 1/13s kept just the right amount of motion in the surf, it is important to render the land as sharply as possible. The original file, created with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, was 5616 pixels wide.

To make a 30×45 inch print at 240 ppi, I needed a file of 10800 pixels wide, almost a two times enlargement. Like we’ve seen with the Golden Gate Bridge, the file enlarged by Topaz Gigapixel AI (top) is sharper than the original file and the file enlarged by Photoshop (bottom).

However, if we look at the sand, we discover unatural patterns.

To remedy this, I made an enlargement of the same size using Photoshop. Prior to the resizing, I applied sharpening tailored to the sand, since that would be the only portion of the image to be used.

I loaded both images as Photoshop layers. By switching on and off the layer, it is easy to compare the two renderings. I masked the sand portion from the Topaz Gigapixel AI image to keep the sand portion of the Photoshop-enlarged image. Applying Topaz Gigapixel AI successfully on a range of images, including film scans, may involve a bit of experimentation with some other processing, especially denoising and sharpening, and local processing, but I have found it well worth it, as the gains can be spectacular. They have allowed me to expend my print offering sizes from old images.