Terra Galleria Photography

Examples: Two Nature Landscapes Processed in Lightroom

I have often been asked about the processing I apply to my digital images. For the first time, I will provide two examples. The first one exemplifies the light processing typical of most of my images, while the second one illustrates how just a few processing steps can transform a difficult capture.

My processing tools have evolved over the years. Nowadays, I use almost exclusively Adobe Lightroom for preparing images for the web. The software is very efficient for bringing most RAW images to a satisfactory state (equivalent to a “work print” of old), and that stage of processing is the focus of this blog. Lightroom is the only processing app that most photographers will ever need, and it does so much more than processing. To take full advantage of its capabilities, and to maximize image quality, it is necessary to save camera images in the RAW format rather in jpg.

Example 1: light processing

Both images are from my previous post about the Carrizo Plain. The first image is from the Temblor Hills. My attention was caught by the patterns of alternating colors, and I used a short telephoto (85mm) to focus on the gully and compress the ridges. My goal here is to make those patterns stand out well.

Here is the straight raw file, with none adjustments applied.

Raw files are pretty flat by design, so for almost all files, I start with a default S-shaped tone curve to increase the global contrast, and also +10 of “Clarity” to increase local contrast. In addition, for nature scenes, I add about +10 of both “Vibrance” and “Saturation”. This is of course a matter of personal taste, and varies with images, but it is often too tempting to push those sliders too much, to the point that color and contrast become unrealistic. One way to find the right amount is to refer to a set of existing images that you like. It is easier to judge that an image is over the top when compared with a group of images than when viewed individually. My reference is transparency film such as Velvia, which are vivid but remain realistic.

The image was shot around 4:30pm, and the light was warmer than at mid-day. Auto white balance accentuated the effect, resulting in an image which is too yellow, with the blues mutted and insufficient separation between green and yellows. This was fixed by adjusting the color temperature “Temp” from 4,450 to 3,925.

At this point, the image is satisfying, but it can use a bit of “pop”. From the left side of the histogram, you can see that there are no black areas in the image, and therefore the full range of tonalities is not used. Unless you have a light key or dark key effect in mind, using the full range of tonalities will yield a richer image. And for many images, having a pure black area adds depth, whereas pure whites are distracting, as the eyes are attracted to the brightest area of a given image. I moved the “Blacks” slider to -0.55, so that the three RGB channels are about to get clipped. This darked the image, so I compensated by moving “Exposure” to the opposite value, +0.55. I made sure highlights were not clipped in any channel.

Example 2: difficult capture

The second image is from a sunrise on the Carrizo Plain. I wanted to convey the impression of standing in a rich carpet of wildflowers stretching as far as the eye can see towards the horizon in a vast valley. I shot a Canon TSE-E 24mm II on a Sony A7R2 with Metabones adapter. The TSE-E lens has a tilt control analogous to that of a large format camera which allows to keep both foreground and background in sharp focus while using a moderate f/stop. The exposure was 1/15 sec at f/11, ISO 200.

Here is the raw file, with the same default adjustments as before applied. The image looks dark because it was exposed to preserve all the light information in the scene rather than attempting to be faithful to it. As you can see in the histogram, the highlights are not clipped, and shadow clipping is minimal. With my other cameras such as the Canon EOS 5Dmk3, brightening the shadows would have resulted in excessive levels of noise, so I would have resorted to blending two or more exposures. The Sony A7R2 easily captures all the dynamic range in a single frame, and my goal is to reduce the extreme contrast in the scene.

First, as in most scenes with extreme dynamic range, I move “Highlights” to the lowest possible value -100. I then adjust “Exposure” with an eye for the sky, to +0.75.

Using the “Shadows” would do the job of brightening the foreground, but it would also brighten the sky, so I create a graduated filter with “Shadows” at +100, with the goal of adjusting only the foreground at the exclusion of the sky. The foreground is still a bit too dark, so I also increase “Exposure” to +0.40 in the filter. I make sure not to brighten the foreground too much in relation to the sky, since we expect the sky to be brighter.

The massive use of “Shadows” had resulted in an image with weak blacks, so I clip “Blacks” with a -35 value. Because the scene is a sunrise, the scene is just emerging from darkness, so I clip the blacks more than in the previous image.

The final step is color correction to neutralize the blueish color cast. For reference, I take a white balance eyedropper reading on the white petals of the tidytip flowers (the daisy-like flowers) which calls for “Temp” 5,400 and “Tint” +40. Applying the correction to the whole image affects the color of the sky in an unwanted way, so I split it between the “Basic” panel and the graduated filter.

For the vast majority of images, that will be the total amount of processing I do. However, some images require more interpretive work. Preparing images for print also involves more fine-tuning to translate the image from the digital image seen via a computer screen to paper. The differences between the transmissive medium and the reflective medium often results in prints that “look too dark” or “not as sharp” with careless printmaking. For both tasks, I use the much finer controls provided by Photoshop, but that’s not a topic anybody could fit into a single post!

Carrizo Plain National Monument Super Bloom

Most of the times a barren-looking grassland, the little-known Carrizo Plain came to life thanks to the abundant rains of last winter, to become the site of a “super bloom”, with some of the best wildflower displays I had ever seen in California. Find out where I discovered the best blooms in this vast and beautiful national monument.

Where is the Carizzo Plain?

The Carrizo Plain is a valley enclosed between the Caliente Range and the Temblor Range, located west of the Central Valley and Barkersfield, about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. The remote land was used for ranching until 1988, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy partnered to protect what was the largest single native grassland remaining in California. In 2001, President Bill Clinton established Carrizo Plain as a National Monument. The place remains little developed and you need to come prepared. There are absolutely no services within fifty miles, most of the roads are unpaved – some can become unpassable when wet, the only accommodations are two primitive campgrounds without potable water, and the visitor center opens only from December to May, Thursday through Sunday. I liked the isolation, remoteness, and opportunity for solitude, at least on week-days. The monument is administered by the the BLM, and unlike in those overseen by the National Park Service, there are less restrictions. You are also allowed to camp anywhere in the foothills surrounding the plain, and drone flights are permitted.

Valley floor wildflowers

The plain consists of the flat valley floor, which is 50 miles long and up to 15 miles across. It evokes a mini Death Valley with its vast open space, absence of trees and summer heat. However, for a short period of time in March and April, the place comes alive with flowers if winter rains had been abundant. Although last year was supposed to have El Nino conditions, the rains came this winter. This spring, some portions of the plain were covered in carpets of wildflowers so dense that despite my best efforts I could hardly avoid trampling a few.

I found some of the most diverse flower mats along the southern part of the Simmler Road, with a mix of tidytips, daisies, goldfields, coreopsis, and phacelia. Wide-angle views gave prominence to foregrounds and helped express the diversity of the bloom, as individual flowers are differentiated. Unlike the California poppies, those flowers fully open without full sun, so I made sure to be there at pre-dawn.

The densest carpets I saw were along the Soda Lake Road close to the Selby Campground. From a distance, the plain at times appeared a solid yellow, and I favored a longer lens to photograph them in order to emphasize the density of the bloom.

Temblor Range wildflowers

The Temblor Range separates Carrizo Plain from the Central Valley. It consists of rolling hills with an elevation up to 4,000 feet. While the color on the plain often consisted of acres of flowers, the bloom on the hills consisted of patches, but they appeared more colorful from a distance, and I tried to find a way to get closer.

Besides the higher elevation, the bloom on the Temblor Range hills appeared colorful and diverse because the flowers there tended to grow in uniform patches rather than mixture of species. From the base, this made the hills appear as if someone had painted them.

I drove the entire Elkhorn Road, and the most remarkable spot I found was a hill located about four miles north of Hurricane Road. From Elkhorn Road, the hill may appear close, but is a steep 1,400-foot elevation gain in 2 miles via a good user trail that starts at a gate. The views over the plain and diversity of angles made the effort worthwhile.

From a distance, I assumed that the orange flowers would be California Poppies, but they turned out to be the less common San Joaquin blazing stars. Yellows were mostly hillside daisies, and purple phacelia. I visited in mid-April 2017. The color was still bright, although the peak must have occurred a few weeks earlier.

More than wildflowers

Most people in California had not heard about the Carrizo Plain until this year, when the “super bloom” was widely publicized. My friend told me that crowds were huge during the week-ends, with lines up to half-an-hour for the two bathrooms at the visitor center. A few years back, I hardly saw anybody. There is more to discover in Carrizo Plain than wildflowers. The Carizzo Plain National Monument extends for 390 square miles, larger than half of the National Parks, but the boundaries of the monument are quite natural, as they follow the valley and surrounding mountains. The area is unique enough and rich enough in natural resources that there was once a proposal to nominate it for a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Soda Lake is the largest alkaline lake in Southern California, concentrating salts as the water evaporates, and leaving mineral deposits that look like baking soda. The other main geological feature is the San Andreas Fault, which is particularly visible in the southern part of the monument. The human history includes remnants of several historic ranches, as well as the archeological site of Painted Rock.

The other side of the Temblor Range includes the huge Kern County oil fields, which are the third largest in the country – the cover image of Burtynsky’s Oil was photographed there. This has led some to speculate that there might be some potential for oil there, but in decades past, drilling there had never been commercially viable. Despite that, Carizzo Plain National Monument is one of the national monuments under review. I hope that the photographs on this page help make the case that this beautiful land is worth protecting.

More pictures of Carrizo Plain National Monument

Treasured Lands Exhibit in San Jose CA, June 2017

Treasured Lands: Photographs of National Parks will be on display in San Jose CA for the next month.

I am particularly pleased with this chance to engage with my local community, since I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1993, and in San Jose since 2002. Of all places in the U.S., I came here when I moved from France because of the proximity to Yosemite.

Installation in progress, May 22

The Yosemite Grant of 1864 was the first time any nation had set aside a large tract of natural land for all people and for all time, and it would pave the way for all national parks. Currently, California has nine of them, more than any other state, and the most recent, Pinnacles National Park, is located only one hour and half away from San Jose. Considering also the prominent contributions of John Muir, it could be argued that the national parks originated from Northern California. With such an history and proximity to many of them, national parks have long been important to the local community.

Although last year’s National Park Service Centennial was an occasion for celebration, this year is a time of concern, as America’s public lands have become a topic in the nation’s political conversation. I view my work as a much-needed reminder of the beauty, lasting value, and importance of our treasured lands.

Installation in progress, May 23

For the first time, South Bay Area residents have the opportunity to view this traveling exhibit of each the 59 US national parks. The exhibit returns home from its national tour that included venues such as the Museum of Science, Boston. It will be on display from May 26, 2017 through June 26, 2017 at the Art Ark Gallery in San Jose, CA.

During the events, I will also sign my new book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, which won four national book awards in the last two months. Copies will be available for sale if you’d like to support me.

Opening Reception and Book Signing: Friday, June 2, 2017, 6pm-9pm.
Artist Talk and Book Signing: Wednesday, June 14, 2017, 7pm.

Free entrance. The best times to visit are during the two events, but the gallery is also open by appointment. Address: 1035 S. 6th Street San Jose, CA 95112. More information: artarkgallery.com

I would be honored to see you there!

Speak Out for Our National Monuments under Review

The Department of the Interior is reviewing the protected status of 27 national monuments. After explaining what they are, I will be giving the perspective of a photographer of the national parks, with the hope that it will encourage you to speak out for the national monuments.

People know what a national park is, but they often don’t know what a national monument is. They differ in three ways: how they are established, what they protect, who runs them.

First is the way they are established. Congress establishes national parks and national park system units, but only national monuments may be proclaimed by the President. As of this writing, 16 presidents of both parties have proclaimed 157 national monuments using the authority granted to them by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The land has to be already owned by the federal government, it cannot be privately owned nor state-owned – so none of them are “federal land grabs.” There is a very good reason for allowing executive action: legislative action may be too slow to prevent irreversible resource degradation. The first bill to protect the Grand Canyon was introduced in 1882, but it wasn’t until executive orders were placed that the area became protected. The idea of the Antiquities Act of 1906 came when John Lacey (a conservative Republican) saw first hand the looting of archeological sites in the Southwest that was happening while Congress was still debating.

National monuments have varied contents. Many national monuments contain objects and man-made structures, but the language in the Antiquities Act, mentioning “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest” allows for protection of natural resources as well. The history of the Antiquities Act application confirms that. Twenty five of our most prized national parks were first protected as national monuments, starting with the Grand Canyon. Of all the national parks designated since 1969, only two were not national monuments before: National Park of American Samoa and Cuyahoga Valley. The first has a special status as it is made of lands leased from Samoan villagers, while the later is the only national park which ever originated from a national recreation area. And although some national monuments are small, others were some of the largest protected lands in the country.

Here is the list of the national monuments that became national parks:

  • Acadia
  • Arches
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  • Bryce Canyon
  • Capitol Reef
  • Carlsbad Caverns
  • Channel Islands
  • Death Valley
  • Denali
  • Dry Tortugas
  • Grand Canyon
  • Grand Teton
  • Great Basin
  • Great Sand Dunes
  • Joshua Tree
  • Kenai Fjords
  • Kobuk Valley
  • Lake Clark
  • Lassen Volcanic
  • Olympic
  • Petrified Forest
  • Pinnacles
  • Saguaro
  • Wrangell-St. Elias
  • Zion
In its time, the establishment of some of those the national monuments has been met with much opposition. Critics turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Nowadays, few dispute the value of the resulting national parks. Clearly, time and time again, the Antiquities Act has provided us with some of our most iconic and treasured lands, areas that define America in the eyes of the world.

Yet, two recent executive orders by President Donald Trump are questioning the legitimacy of national monuments created since 1996. The Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, has been instructed to review 27 national monuments designated by the Antiquities Act over the past 21 years to look for “abuses” of the act. Here is the relevant memo.

All national parks are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centennial last year. The NPS has the strictest protection standards of any agency, but not all national monuments are managed by the NPS. There are currently 129 national monuments, and they are managed by eight federal agencies, sometimes with a co-management agreement. NPS manages the most (88), followed by Bureau of Land Management (27), US Forest Service (12), and Fish and Wildlife Service (8). Here is the list of the national monuments under review:

  • Basin and Range BLM
  • Bears Ears BLM/USFS
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain BLM/USFS
  • Canyons of the Ancients Colorado BLM
  • Carrizo Plain BLM
  • Cascade Siskiyou BLM
  • Craters of the Moon (2000 expansion only) BLM/NPS
  • Giant Sequoia USFS
  • Gold Butte BLM
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant BLM,NPS
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante BLM
  • Hanford Reach FWS/DOE
  • Ironwood Forest BLM
  • Mojave Trails BLM
  • Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks BLM
  • Rio Grande del Norte BLM
  • Sand to Snow BLM,USFS
  • San Gabriel Mountains USFS
  • Sonoran Desert Arizona BLM
  • Upper Missouri River Breaks BLM
  • Vermilion Cliffs BLM
  • Katahdin Woods and Waters NPS
  • Marianas Trench CNMI/Pacific Ocean FWS
  • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts NOAA, FWS
  • Pacific Remote Islands FWS
  • Papahanaumokuakea NOAA, FWS
  • Rose Atoll FWS
Some concerns that prompted the review are “The effects of a designation on the available uses of designated Federal lands, including consideration of the multiple-use policy of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act”. Out of the 27, only Katahdin Woods and Waters is primarily managed by the NPS. The BLM is quite open to mixed uses.

Over the past two decades, I have concentrated my efforts on the national parks, which as my readers know, provided me much joy and changed my life. However, I was able to take time away from that project to visit half a dozen of the national monuments under review. I am not going to pretend that I know them in depth, but I have seen enough that I can affirm that they match national parks in beauty and richness. In fact, there are efforts underway to redesignate Craters of the Moon National Monument as a National Park. So at stake here is the future of lands that are deserving of becoming our next national parks.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Carizzo Plain National Monument, California

Giant Sequoia National Monument, California

Calf Creek Falls, Escalande-Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah

Newspaper Rock, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

The Wave, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona

As part of the review process, the public is being invited to submit comments on the review. The comment period opened yesterday and will end July 10, 2017, except for Bears Ears National Monument – a prime target of the review – for which comments must be submitted before May 26, 2017. Blink and you’ll miss it. I hope you take some time to speak out for our national monuments.

More Than Bears at Brooks Camp: the Dumpling Mountain Trail, Katmai National Park

Visitors to Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, come for the bears, and few are even aware of the Dumpling Mountain Trail. However, the hike offers superb scenery and an environment very different from the Brooks River. Follow me up the mountain on an autumn day with changing weather.

As the first part of the trail wandered up in the woods, at each turn I yelled out loudly to warn the bears of my arrival. Brooks Camp has one of the highest concentration of bears in the world, and you don’t want a close encounter with a surprised one. I nevertheless enjoyed the subtle tapestry of autumn colors found in that forest, quite different from the taiga that grows at more northern Alaska latitudes.

Brooks Camp is forested, with few views besides the lakeshore, but after about 1.5 miles (about 800 feet elevation gain) along the Dumpling Mountain Trail, I got the first open view over Naknek Lake, the largest in Katmai National Park, 40 miles long and up to 8 miles wide. I watched the play of wind over the lake’s surface until a calm patch reflected the hilltop.

Shortly after coming out of the woods, the terrain changed abruptly from forest to tundra. Since it became open, I enjoyed the panoramic views and was relieved not to have to call out for bears. Although the trail starts right from the campsite, for the entire day, I saw only another party up there, and they stopped at that overlook.

Alaskan autumn tundra is so colorful that from a distance, you could easily think that the ground is covered with wildflowers. Nowhere else does the Albert Camus quote apply as well: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

Amidst the spectacular Alaskan scenery, it is easy to forget to delight in the smaller details. A close look near my feet revealed a wealth of colors and textures surpassing an abstract expressionist painting. And the fresh berries were a welcome change from granola bars.

The further up the trail went, the more faint it became, until it was easier to just aim cross-country than to try to follow it. The more colorful the tundra became too. In mid-Septembers, the colors were at their peak.

One of the reasons I like to climb mountains is to see what is on the other side. From the flat summit of Dumpling Mountain (8 mile round trip, 2,440-foot elevation gain), I glanced at unnamed lakes. The weather had been variable all day, and I could observe rain showers dancing in the distance, before having to put on rain gear.

On the way back, the rain stopped and the sun peeked from below the clouds for a few minutes, lighting up the Brooks River, which joins Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Despite being only one mile and half, the Brooks River is known worldwide for its bears.

The sky closed out again, but not before the last sunray of the day pierced the clouds, creating a rainbow which despite its small size added a striking accent to the scene. Not wanting to be caught on the trail in the dark, I hurried up.

Autumn in Alaska: Part 9 of 9: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Day Trip to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai

While nowadays visitors come mostly to see the bears, Katmai National Park was established as a National Monument in 1918 to protect the site of the 1912 Novarupta eruption, the largest volcanic blast of the twentieth century. It buried a valley in pumice and ash and its surface was steaming with thousands of fumaroles, hence its new name, Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The fumaroles are gone, but the valley remains a harsh environment to explore in depth, however, a glimpse into this surreal world can easily be had on the day trip described in detail in this post.

On the road

A converted 4WD school bus departs daily around 8 AM from Brooks Camp for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and returns around 4 PM. Traveling along, a ranger provides interpretation and guides a hike. Since the number of spots on the tour is limited, it is advisable to make advance reservations ($88/person without lunch), especially in July. The trip to the Three Forks Station is 23 miles from Brooks Camp on the only road within the park, and takes between one hour and half to two hours, depending on stops. At an overlook a few miles before the destination, you could see what the once-verdant Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes would have looked like before the eruption.

Three Forks Station

The Three Forks Station is an interpretive shelter overlooking the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where the ranger explains the area’s geology and then you have a sandwich lunch if you bought one. In retrospect, I would have skipped it and ate snacks instead, since this would have freed up at least a previous half-an-hour for photography. The deck of the Three Forks Station, overlooking the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, offers distant views that show clearly that the eruption buried the floor of the valley in 700 feet of pumice and ash, instantly transforming the once-lush place into a desert. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Katmai remains one of the world’s most active volcanic areas, featuring more than 14 active volcanoes.


For a closer glimpse of this volcanic landscape, hike down into the valley on a trail surprisingly well-maintained for such a remote location. You can go on the ranger-led tour or on your own. After about 3/4 of a mile, you come to a fork in the trail. The right (E) branch leads in 1/2 mile to the Convergence Overlook, where the valley’s three main rivers, Knife Creek, the River Lethe, and Windy Creek converge to form the Ukak River. The valley floor is mostly flat, except where the rivers have cut gorges up to 100 feet deep

Ukak Falls

The left (NW) branch leads to Ukak Falls in about a mile. There, the Ukak River, wide at the confluence, flows in a narrow channel cut into harder rock. Ukak Falls isn’t tall, but due to the narrowness of the stream, the power of the water is quite impressive. In other places, the age of cliffs and canyons would be counted in hypothetical hundred thousand, if not million of years, so it is remarkable that those can be dated precisely to just about a hundred years ago. In just a century, harsh weather has cut those deep canyons into the soft layers of pumice and ash.

While the ranger-led group turned back, I poked a bit more downstream of Ukak Falls, and was pleased to discover a viewpoint from which the cliffs towered right above the Ukak River without obstruction from vegetation. The Three Forks Station is at about 1,300ft elevation, while the Ukak Falls is at 500ft elevation, so one has to hike 800 ft elevation on the way up, for a total distance of about 4.5 miles. Since we had less than 3 hours, you can see why it may make sense to skip lunch.

The day trip visits just the edge of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where plants are taking root again, but the heart of the valley remains a desert. This time, my stay was short, just enough for my friend to have a quick look, but in July 2001, I had embarked on a weeklong expedition there, and wrote about the tough adventure in Treasured Lands.

Autumn in Alaska: Part 8 of 9: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Grizzlies in Autumn, Katmai National Park

Most visitors to Katmai National Park come for bear viewing during July to see thousands of salmon jumping over Brooks Falls, sometimes straight into a waiting bear’s mouth. The autumn is a much less known time to visit, but it is also great, providing a quite different experience.

Brooks Camp is one of the most reliable places for seeing a large number of bears up close. Services are offered from June 1 through September 17.

Summer in Brooks Camp

In June, the salmon run hasn’t yet started. In July, salmon swim in massive numbers up the Brooks River towards their spawning grounds, with the peak of the salmon run occurring in the middle of the month. This is the only time of the year to try and capture images of a brown bear catching a salmon flying midair. At that time, bears are most numerous, and so are people. See my detailed description of bear viewing at Brooks Falls in July that covers all the bear viewing basics.

The main logistical difficulty is booking a place to stay in Brooks Camp during the salmon run window of late June through late July. The small lodge often sells out a year in advance, and you can’t camp within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls, except at the designated campground, which also fills up fast. The viewing platforms are often full. When that happens, a quota is set. A ranger takes your name for a waiting list, and after you get in, calls you out after one hour. During my July visit, shooting shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers, there was no room to even spread out the tripod. Besides other bear viewers and photographers, the salmon run also attract a lot of fishermen who are standing in the river.

Fall in Brooks Camp

August is a quiet month along the Brooks River. It is often empty of bears because the density of salmon is low, and those present are still energetic and therefore difficult to catch. At that time, bears seek smaller streams in the area with higher salmon density. In September, sockeye salmon are spawned out and dying, making them easy to catch. At that time, bears return to the Brooks River, and they are still fishing. The scientific name for this feeding phase is “Hyperphagia”, when the bears try to put on the last pounds before their winter hibernation.

Usually more than thirty bears hang out in the Brooks Camp area during the fall. Early in the season, the bears look fairly ratty, but after a summer of feeding, they look big and fat again, with more shinny and full coats. Like most mammals in North America, they look their most magnificent in the fall.

During the summer, most of the bear activity takes place at Brooks Falls, and in the fall, it is still a great place for bear viewing, with an occasional fight even taking place. Occasional means that it’s the only one I saw out of 3 days of (part-time) bear-viewing. However, a lot of activity takes place at the lower platform near the mouth of the Brooks River, where the behaviors are more diverse. I also find the scenery more appealing there, and in addition, mid-September brings beautiful fall foliage to the area. The weather at that time of the year is often more cloudy and rainy than in summer, but that is not a problem for bear photography.

Maybe the factor that makes an autumn visit such a great experience is the relative lack of crowds. One month in advance, there were still plenty of campsites open for online reservation. Even at midday, the Brooks Falls platform was never full, and therefore never subject to a time limit. The fact that you could move freely from platform to platform and never have to wait for a spot to free up made for a very relaxed experience.

The summer season winds down mid-September in Alaska, with most places shutting down, and Katmai is no exception. Although the campground remains open, on September 17, the visitor center and lodge close. More importantly, all scheduled flights also stop, which means that you need a more expensive charter flight to get there. I wished I could have stayed longer when I boarded the very last scheduled flight of the season. Just an hour before, we were still stuck on the other side of the Brooks River, as a napping sow and bridge had closed the footbridge!

A close encounter

All the photographs above were made from bear viewing platforms which are bear proof. However, with that many bears roaming around, encounters on the trail are likely. Generally, rangers are pretty good at preventing them by closing trails when necessary, but they cannot be everywhere. An evening, I was walking on the road east of the Lower River Platform (map) for landscape photographs. That road leads east to Nakek Lake, with a small bay of Naknek Lake on the north, and a pond on the south. A large bear stepped on the road behind me, on the west. With no escape path possible, I kept walking towards the lake, trying to stay calm, as the bear followed me steadily. At the end of the road, I had nowhere to go. Seeing that the bear was heading towards a gravel bar to the north, I did my best to get out of his way by moving to the south side of the road. The creature did not even give me a look, and kept walking, a road width from me. Although I had my camera out (with a wide/normal lens) during the whole episode, I was too nervous to take a picture. Only when the bear was at a safe distance on the gravel bar, did I switch to a telephoto lens to photograph him. However, reflecting on the intense experience, I felt privileged to have been able to visit one of the few places in the world where humans can coexist peacefully beside the bears in their own natural habitat.

Autumn in Alaska: Part 7 of 9: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Treasured Lands wins IPPY and IBPA Benjamin Franklin book awards

I am honored that Treasured Lands has won not one, but two of the most respected book award competitions in the independent publishing world.

This was especially gratifying because although I have had three books of photography published before, Treasured Lands is the first for which I was in total control. Besides providing the photographs and doing the pre-press imaging work, I envisioned the concept for the book with an initial design, wrote all the text except for the foreword by Dayton Duncan, worked on the maps, and participated in the final image selection and book design. However, much of the credit goes to the great art director Iain Morris of Cameron Books, as well to the rest of the team, mostly publisher Chris Gruener, editor Jan Hughes, and designer Melissa Greenberg.

Treasured Lands won the Gold Medal for the category “Coffee Table Books” in the 2017 Independent Publisher Awards. The “IPPY”, as it is known in the book publishing industry, is the world’s largest book awards competition, with more than 5,000 entrants, running now for 21 years.

Treasured Lands won the Gold Medal for the category “Arts and Photography” in the 2017 BPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Administered by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), For nearly 30 years, the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards have been regarded as one of the highest national honors for small and independent publishers. Over 150 librarians, booksellers, and design and editorial experts – most of whom have decades of book industry experience – judge the books submitted to the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. The judging process takes close to six months, beginning in September and continuing into March each year. At the end of the process, every entrant receives written critiques from the three individual judges who reviewed their book.

That Treasured Lands got recognition from the independent publishing community is significant, since the project would not have come to fruition without independent publishing, but this would have to be a subject for another post.

If you haven’t got your copy yet or would like to stock up for gifts, note that Amazon currently has the book at an incredible 50% discount. I even placed an order for myself there!

Lake Clark National Park on the Go

Lake Clark National Park is the third less visited of America’s 59 National Parks. Lack of road access may contribute to that. My summer visit used a chartered floatplane to travel deep into the park’s backcountry. On a recent 2.5-day visit aimed at seeing some of the park in the autumn, I limited explorations to the immediate area surrounding Port Alsworth. Find out how despite the town being the largest and most easily reached community within the park, you can have a quick and excellent wilderness experience nearby.

Traveling to the park

Flying anywhere else into the park requires a charter plane, but Port Alsworth is a large enough community (population 159) to be serviced by regularly scheduled flights from Anchorage, which are more affordable than charter flights – as of 2016, the cost was $540/person round-trip. That would be our only expenses in the park. The arrival in Port Alsworth disconcerts, as you land on an unpaved airstrip next to a hangar. However, a walk along the runaway (watch for planes!) brings you soon enough to the familiar sight of a national park’s visitor center. Together with the adjacent historic exhibit, it is the only facility in the park operated by the National Park Service, and they besides information, they will provide you with free bear canisters loans, which are mandatory for camping in the backcountry.


Unlike national parks in the continental U.S., many Alaskan national parks include private in-holdings, which means private lands surrounded by public lands. Much of the lands around Lake Clark are private, including Port Alsworth. Half-a-dozen private lodges offer comfortable stays – at a cost typical of Alaska, and there is a private campground within walking distance from the airstrip. The sites cost $50/night, however, they include tent enclosures with clear roofs and mosquito netting for walls, as well as firewood, potable water, and showers. If you ask your air service, they will point you to a spot next to the runway where you could pitch your tent for free, but backcountry camping provides a much nicer experience.

Lake Clark

There isn’t much to see in Port Alsworth since all the lands are private. The only access to Lake Clark is via an easement (a trail with public access on otherwise private land) situated at the West end of the north airstrip, the one located closest to the lake. It leads to a pebble beach next to a stream where you may see salmon. Other than that, to explore Lake Clark, you’d need to rent a watercraft from an outfitter. Kayaks and motorboats are available. Past the General Store, located towards the East end of the south airstrip, you will find the trailhead for the only maintained trail system in the park.

Tanalian Falls Trail

The 5-mile round-trip (300-foot elevation gain) trail to Tanalian Falls passes tundra meadows, birch groves, and beaver ponds frequented by moose and waterfowl along the lower Beaver Pond Loop. On the way back, you can take the other branch of the loop, called the Falls and Lake Trail for a higher view. Although the trail is mostly forested, on a rainy day, I found an opening between the trees for a layered composition including beaver ponds and Lake Clark.

The falls are fed partly by runoff, so they are most robust in early summer. They are only about 50 feet, but quite wide and dramatic. The view from the base, reached by a short spur trail, includes the sky, so it works best when the falls are well lit, which is in the afternoon, as they are west-facing. For a different perspective, you can walk the other spur trail to the brink of the falls.

Kontrashibuna Lake

By hiking another mile round-trip from the falls, you’ll reach beautiful Kontrashibuna Lake. It is smaller than Lake Clark and offers compositions with mountains situated at a closer distance. A trail hugs the north shore of the lake. After hiking in steady rain, I was elated that the clouds broke for a short instant. But after a quick photo, I had to rush to take opportunity of the dry moment to pitch my tent because I knew the rain would return soon.

The Kontrashibuna lakeshore features the best backcountry campsites around Port Alsworth, and the closest one was even equiped with a bench and a campfire spot nearly next to the water. There are a few canoes there too, but they belong to the Port Alsworth community and are not for public use. The site lies only slightly more than 3 miles from Port Alsworth, yet you will feel you are camping in the wilderness, save for the occasional sounds of air traffic.

Tanalian Mountain Trail

If you are ready for a strenuous hike, from the junction with the Beaver Pond Loop, the Tanalian Mountain Trail is 4.8 miles round-trip with a steep 3,250-foot elevation gain. It starts in a lovely deciduous forest. The autumn color display was superb at the end of the second week of September.

From the mid-point of the trail up to the top, the trail gets more faint, as the forest gives way to tundra, which also turns shades of gold and crimson in autumn. On one side, fantastic views open over fifty-mile long Lake Clark. Port Alsworth and Tanalian Mountain are situated approximately in the midway the Lake Clark, and this is the view looking Northeast.

On the other side, the views are over serpentine Kontrashibuna Lake and its turquoise-colored waters. Having such a high viewpoint gave me a different perspective on the park that I didn’t even get during my previous week-long backpacking trip during which we did not hike up mountains – upon returning to the civilization of Port Alsworth, we did not feel like tackling one and turned around at the falls.

The narrow summit offered a fantastic 360-degrees view, with a glimpse of the active Iliamna Volcano in the distance. I lingered on Tanalian Mountain until one hour before sunset so that I would reach timberline just at sunset time.

I was happy that for the first time in more than a week, the sky was clear enough to let in a golden glow over Lake Clark that I photographed looking Southwest before going back to the woods.

Descending in the forest by night, I needed to be careful not to lose the lightly used trail, getting back to camp around 11pm, after a few night photographs on the way. Since the instant we set camp for two nights to the time we broke the camp, we didn’t see a single other person, and that included our time on the trail during the day. It would have been easy to hike the same trails starting from Port Alsworth, but camping by the lake elevated the experience to make it one of my most satisfying two-day trips.

More photos of Lake Clark National Park

Autumn in Alaska: Part 6 of 9: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Which is the Best Photo of Horsetail Fall Firefall?

I wrote previously about finding a new view of Horsetail Fall, Yosemite “natural firefall”. The high vantage point let me frame the waterfall in a rich wide-angle composition that brought me much satisfaction. But would most people consider it to be “better” than the classic photograph? What would their relative preferences say?

On the day I finally photographed Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall firefall, I had started to hike late. The first reason is that the day before, I had already scouted the location and figured out my favorite composition. More open views were available from spots below the wall, on a high scree slope with a large opening above the trees. From there, no rock wall obscured Cathedral Rocks from nicely balancing El Capitan for a “reverse Tunnel View”, and those spots were also much safer from falling ice and rocks. The photograph below was made after sunset, when the glow was gone.

Although getting close to the rock wall obscured Cathedral Rocks, this was more than compensated for by the foreground seasonal waterfall providing depth to the image, and with the frozen crust, an additional contrast of fire and ice. That would have been enough, but like to find something extra. That less obvious ingredient was the reflected glow on the wet rock, and to capture it with breathing room, I needed to stand right at the base of the wall, at the most dangerous spot. Refer to this post for the resulting image.

My second reason for starting late was that on the previous day, a Thursday, there was only another photographer at the location. Maybe because it was a Friday, the next day, to my surprise, the number had grown to at least two dozen. Most of them appeared to frame the open view, but I noticed a few including the waterfall, and subsequently, a friend pointed out to me two such shots posted on Flickr, although without the left glow. Small world! The number of photographers up the hill was still a far cry from the hundreds gathered in the two much smaller viewing areas on the valley floor.

It could be some had scrambled up the slope so that they would escape the circus, but maybe they also went up for the wider view, which would have indicated that my thinking was far from unique amongst dedicated photographers. The firefall had been shot more than forty years ago, and I had seen hundreds of images so it was a familiar sight to me, although I had never seen it in person before. Like for other well-worn subjects, I thought it would be more interesting to state its presence without making it the obvious and sole center of attention of the photograph. Compare the bold framing of El Capitan by Carleton Watkins, and the more sophisticated photographs by Ansel Adams, or look at how many current renditions of landmarks use a wide-angle composition where said landmark occupies a relatively small portion of the frame.

One of the advantages of positioning yourself for a wide-angle view is that you can always shoot a tigher composition from the same vantage point, while the reverse isn’t true. Because the firefall lasted only a few minutes, I did not have time to change my position to shoot the “reverse Tunnel View”, however I briefly switched from a wide angle lens (35mm) to a telephoto lens (300mm) to shoot a more direct composition of the firefall filling the frame.

I did not think much of that image, which was not the main goal of my outing, but nevertheless posted it on social media sites. On Instagram, the wide-angle composition got 213 likes versus 99 likes for the tight view. But on Google+ the wide-angle composition got 115 likes and 2 shares, while the tight view got 173 likes and 13 shares. Those numbers represent a small sample and may not be meaningful, but what if they were? I tried to think, past my initial puzzlement, about the implications.

If you had never seen the firefall, the tighter view would be more impressive because it gives you a clearer representation of the event in all its glory. And if you came to see the firefall, the tighter view would remind you more of what you came to see. Instagram is a platform entirely dedicated to sharing photos, and as such its demographic includes a high proportion of photographers. Google+ is a more general-interest platform whose typical user is much less likely to post photos.

Most dedicated nature photographers are aware of the firefall, but the general public is not. For photographers, the firefall is a mature subject for which an indirect approach is preferred since a straightforward photograph seems unoriginal. For the general public, the firefall is a not mature subject, and they may prefer a direct, textbook-like representation. Even if they have been at the event, it is the awesomeness of it that they remember. As a photographer, it is easy to overestimate the exposure, and therefore maturity of a subject, especially if one’s social interactions are mainly with other photographers. This could be why the iconic views of the national parks can be dissed by some photographers, while they continue to be admired by the general public. The photographers want to see the photograph, but the general public wants to see the subject. Some photographers cringe at slot canyon photographs, but in the while Peter Lik makes milions out of them – even from a single print sale, but that would be another topic. Besides being an art, photography is a form of communication, and one cannot ignore the composition of their audience.

Did you experience instances where your audience’s reaction did not go with your personal preference? And was the wide-angle composition the best photo of Horsetail Fall Firefall?