Terra Galleria Photography

Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park

Of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, Santa Rosa Island offers by far the largest area to explore. Backcountry logistics and the size of the island make it difficult to see it all. However, by staying two nights at the nice campground, I covered a good amount of territory on day hikes within 48 hours. Although the island looks barren from a distance, it harbors a great variety of rare plant species and beautiful sights that I’ll illustrate in this post.

Transportation

The park concessionaire, Island Packers, provides boat transportation to all the islands. A day trip doesn’t leave you much time on land compared to the sailing time, which is about 3 hours to Santa Rosa Island each way.

The crossing is scenic, with frequent marine life sightings for which the boat stops.

Camping

Except for beach backcountry camping (mid-August to December), and private research stations, the only place to stay on the island is the campground. It is located 1.5 miles away from the landing pier, in a canyon relatively sheltered from the wind. Motorized transportation is not available to visitors. I brought two backpacks. I packed the first one, with camping gear and food like for a backpacking trip. The second one, to be used as a day bag, was a camera backpack (F-stop Gear Satori). Lugging both to the campground was no worse than the coolers and surfboards carried by other campers.

The campground has water (not all campgrounds on the Channel Islands do), and even flush toilets, a nice surprise in such a remote location. In normal years, there are even hot showers, but they were turned off due to the California drought. A wind shelter marks each of the campsites. It proved indispensable since, during the whole stay, winds were howling at solid 30 knots, with occasional stronger gusts. I visited in April even though springtime is the windiest because I was hoping for wildflowers and greenery. However, lack of rain meant that springtime had peaked one month earlier than usual.

Black Mountain

After carrying my backpack to the campground, to take in a measure of the island’s size, on the first afternoon, I hiked to Black Mountain. The straight round-trip hike from the campground is 8 miles RT. I made a loop through Cherry Canyon, Telephone Road, and Soledad Road. Although combining those trails in this order added quite a few miles, it added variety.

Most of the island is barren. However, the canyons are home to a varied native vegetation. Up until 1998, the island was owned by the Vail and Vickers ranching company, whose cattle grazed most of the island, except for the canyons.

At 1298 ft high, Black Mountain offers expansive views in all directions. To the north, Santa Cruz island appears close. San Miguel Island is visible to the west, and the Soledad Peak range to the south.

Santa Rosa Island is home to two unique forests. Island Oaks, a subspecies found nowhere else on earth, grow below the summit. They form what is called a “cloud forest” because it is sustained by the moisture collected by the island mountaintops.

The forest provided a relative welcome break from the wind, but it was time to leave. I had to keep a brisk pace to stay warm. Fortunately, my itinerary let me to go down by dark through the easiest route, the well-maintained Soledad Road, rather than Telephone Road, which has become a steep, sometimes overgrown trail.

Water Canyon Beach

If you don’t feel like taking a long hike, Water Canyon Beach is just 1.5 miles RT from the campground. Even though, it is most of the time deserted and has enough subjects to keep you occupied for a while.

The 2-mile long white sand beach is bordered by cliffs and adorned with dunes and a stream at the mouth of Water Canyon. The first light of sunrise normally illuminates the beach, but the weather was mostly cloudy, so I returned on the next day too.

Lobo Canyon

After I had got back to the campground for breakfast, the rain started. Since it was still early in the day, I took a nap. As the weather did not seem to improve, I resolved to start hiking towards Lobo Canyon (13 miles RT from campground) despite raindrops that were flying horizontally at me. Midway, the rain abated, but not the wind. I was happy to find some shelter from it in Lobo Canyon.

Lobo Canyon harbors a riparian environment along a year-round stream that makes it a surprisingly lush place, full of native plants.

In contrast with Water Canyon Beach, the coastline at the mouth of Lobo Canyon is rocky and precipitous. It was well lighted in the late afternoon.

Since I preferred soft light, I photographed the strikingly sculptured sandstone canyon walls on my return hike near sunset. I returned again to the campground at night, but this time with the wind at my back.

Torrey Pines

The other unique forest on Santa Rosa Island consists of Torrey Pines that natively grow only there, and near San Diego. I photographed them along a loop trail (5 miles RT from campground) which climbs on a hill for good views of the coast. Morning light was excellent for framing Becher Bay with the pines.

I wished I had another full day to explore the eastern tip of the island, however, with the boat pickup rescheduled to 1pm, it was time to pack and ferry the gear back to the pier. National Park visitation is about 330,000, but most make it only to the mainland visitor center. Only 10% set foot on the islands. Do you plan to be one of them ?

View more images of Channel Islands National Park

Amazon Cloud Drive for Photos: Review and Alternatives

Amazon recently made a splash in the cloud storage space by offering a plan that looks irresistible for photographers: unlimited photo storage including RAW files support for just $1 a month. In this post, I evaluate the service, expose its shortcomings, investigate possible workarounds, and suggest alternative ways to backup your photos.

Backups are not optional

The importance of backups cannot be overstated. Hard drives come only in two states: failed, and not yet failed. Think that a RAID system will protect you against hard drive failure? When I was working at SRI International, we had a RAID controller fail. All the drives in the array were fried.

So you are making multiple backups in your studio or house. Unless you house them in a fire-resistant, unmovable safe, your data is still at risk in case of a catastrophic event such as a burglary, your house burning down, or being flooded. To secure your data, you need an offsite backup solution.

Enters the Cloud. Your files are uploaded through the internet. They are stored in corporate-grade data centers, often with redundancy across multiple states. Amazon has been a pioneer with their Cloud services, which power many technology startups. Amazon Cloud Drive Photos looked such a good deal at $1/month. That’s what Apple charges for a paltry 20GB! Let see how it works in practice.

Terms of Service

Amazon states “You may use the Service only to store, retrieve, manage, and access Your Files for personal, non-commercial purposes using the features and functionality we make available. You may not use the Service to store, transfer or distribute content of or on behalf of third parties, to operate your own file storage application or service, to operate a photography business or other commercial service, or to resell any part of the Service.”

However, I could not imagine them looking at individual photos to determine whether they are of family and friends or instead constitute commercial photography. An inquiry with Amazon clarified that Amazon Cloud may be used for archiving purposes, regardless of the commercial nature of the photographs. Their concern is probably transmissions to third parties, which could potentially eat up bandwidth.

The Interface

Currently, the only advertised desktop access to Amazon Cloud is via a web browser. The Terms of Service explicitly prohibit to create a better solution. The “Photos & Video” view is unusable. It lets you view only the entire archive, sorted by date. Generating the preview thumbnails is glacially slow if the files are RAWs or TIFFs.

The “All Files” view is usable: you can view and manage folders and files in a way similar to a computer filesystem. After clicking on “+”, you can choose the destination folder and upload multiple files or even a hierarchy of folders by dragging them into the browser.

Upload Speeds

I enjoy a fast cable-based connection (Comcast) with 12.Mbps uploads, as measured by speedtest.net. In theory, I could upload 5.4BGB per hour, 130GB per 24 hours, or 1TB in less than 8 days. In practice, the upload speed to Amazon Cloud Drive turned out a respectable 4.8GB per hour. However, it took 12 days to upload the first 1TB!

This is because you cannot just drag the folders and walk away. At seemingly random times, the service interrupts the upload and asks you to login again. At that point, you have to figure out manually which was the last uploaded file, and then restart the upload.

Upload Errors

Of more concern, some files will not upload correctly. In that case, the browser informs you, and you can re-upload them – if you can catch the warming.

The problem is that if your upload was interrupted, as described before, instead of seeing the warming, you will be looking at a login window. In that case, you will not see the warning, as there is no log of upload errors.

No Folder Synchronization

If the counts for the number of files match, all is well, but otherwise finding the missing files is a purely manual task. Compounding the lack of a log, Amazon provides no utility to compare a list of files on Amazon Cloud with a list of files on your computer. If I could copy and paste a list of filenames from an Amazon Cloud folder, it would be easy to write a script to perform the task. However, while you can select multiple files from the browser, you cannot paste them. A quick examination of the app code even suggests that Amazon has designed it to disable that functionality.

No File Synchronization

Unlike a desktop app, the browser has no way of knowing if a file on your computer has changed, and therefore that its backup needs a refresh. When you re-upload a whole folder which has already been backed-up, the app will detect the presence of an identical file only after the corresponding file upload is completed. There is no time saved compared to uploading the folder from scratch. This makes the service only suitable for backing up archives, not work in progress.

The deprecated Amazon Cloud Drive Desktop App

Amazon used to provide a desktop app named “Amazon Cloud Drive” which offers synchronization. It is no longer linked, but you can download it using the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine.

When launched, this app creates a folder named “Cloud Drive” in your home directory, then tries to synchronize this folder with your Amazon Cloud Drive. For most people, this will be unpractical since the contents to be synchronized have to reside on the “Cloud Drive” folder. If you uploaded the contents of several external drives to Amazon Cloud Drive, then the app will attempt to download all those files into the “Cloud Drive” folder, which is probably not what you want! There appears to be no easy way to control what the Amazon app is doing since after initial set-up, it just runs in the background. It doesn’t even have a menu or a way to stop (other than using system tools).

The odrive App

odrive promises to be an app bringing together a variety of Cloud services. Amazon Cloud Drive is included amongst them. Initial testing showed that the app works indeed with Amazon Cloud Drive. Unlike the Amazon Cloud Drive App, you can control what drive is doing: when and what to synchronize.

The big limitation is that it also creates a folder (named “odrive”) in your home directory, then all synchronizations appear to be limited to that folder. Links will not work, so you cannot use it to synchronize data that resides elsewhere.

Alternative Cloud services

Amazon Cloud Drive got me curious about other Cloud backup services. There are quite a few around (quick overview). I am trying Backblaze. It offers a combination of low cost ($5/month per computer), unlimited backups, and synchronization through a nicely featured app which let you select external drives. I am currently evaluating the service on their 15-day free trial, but this doesn’t sound too good: “Backblaze should be able to complete your initial backup in 30 days. If your initial backup is estimated to take longer, then Backblaze may not be the best solution for you”. Crashplan has similar features with better recovery options, plus the option to send a hard drive to speed up the initial backup. However, it is limited to 1TB, less than 1/10th of my data.

Update: in 15 days Backblaze managed to backup only 1.2GB. Besides that, they require you to keep external drives plugged in, otherwise will delete the corresponding data. Fail. Trying Crashplan next.

My offsite backup method

Before Amazon got my attention with their seemingly aggressive offer, I hadn’t seriously considered Cloud backup. Not only I had calculated that the initial backup would take between three months and six months, but I have had for years in place a system that seems reliable enough.

I mirror periodically each of the main data drives that are not yet full on a minimum of two external drives. One of them is kept attached to the computer so that I can easily keep it synchronized to the corresponding main data drive. The other one is kept offsite, at a relative’s house that I visit at least once a month. On each visit, I bring the backup drives that I had at home, and swap them against those at the relative’s house. At any time, the data resides on three drives, with one of them being offsite. Restore is just a matter of driving to my relative’s and retrieving the drive. Once a drive is full and considered an archive, I store the two backup copies at two different offsite locations.

Conclusion

Amazon Cloud Drive Photos lacks proper software for automating uploads and synchronizations, leaving possible holes in your backup. However, the cost is low, especially considering that the service is not tied to a particular computer. It is also included in Amazon Prime, so if you are a subscriber, it is worth using as an additional backup. You can never have too many! For not much more, other services offer a more reliable solution – within the limitations of Cloud backup: reliance on an external provider and network connections.

What offsite backup method is working well for you ?

Saguaro National Park: five days and $314

This March, I visited Saguaro National Park in less than five days, inclusive of travel from home. A fairly extensive National Park photography trip doesn’t need to be lengthy nor expensive! To illustrate this point, in this post, rather than describing the locations visited, I will detail my itinerary, logistics, and costs, which totalled $314 all-inclusive of transportation, food, and lodging costs.

During the week before the trip, a front was creating overcast conditions that I tried to avoid. On March 17, satisfied with the forecast that I monitored closely, I booked a flight into Tucson using 25K American Airlines miles. You can earn 50K miles just by signing up for an AA Advantage credit card and spending $3,000 in the first three months. Miles often let you book a flight at the late minute, so you are in control of conditions.

Day 1: travel & Mica View

Mid-day on March 19, I flew from SFO to Tucson. Total airfare cost: $136 (award processing, 1 checked bag RT @ $25 each way). Traveling “light”, I packed my gear in two bags. Two cameras, six lenses, and electronics fit into an F-stop Gear Satori backpack. I hauled the rest in a wheeled Eagle Creek duffel bag that I kept under 50lbs. It included camping gear, two tripods, and the Phantom 2 quadcopter in a Think Tank bag. The Satori fits into the overhead bins of regular planes but is too large for regional planes. I slipped out the ICU (“internal carrying unit”) and its fragile contents, which easily fit into the overhead bin before gate-checking the shell.

As I did not anticipate difficult weather nor rough roads, I rented a compact car (Hotwire) for $110. I would end up using only one tank of gas: $22. I had a bit of extra time before my planned evening shot in the park. I spent it buying snacks at a gas station ($9) and taking aerial pictures of the striking military airplane graveyards south of Tucson.

In the late afternoon, I hiked the Mica View Trail (2 miles RT) in the Rincon Mountain (East) Unit of Saguaro National Park. Since it was cloudy, I did not hang out for night photography.

Instead, I went to a grocery store to stocked up on food for the rest of the trip. I spent $30 on a loaf of garlic bread, a loaf of orange bread, bananas, cans of vegetables, chips, Gatorade bottles (they double as excellent water bottles), and energy/snack bars, all foods that do not require a cooler. The weather was warm enough not to warrant bringing a stove, which makes locating suitable cartridges time-consuming. However, feeling a bit chilly, I bought pizza and breadsticks ($8) that I ate while driving. Recent rains had created flooded sections on the unpaved road to the trailhead, which was quite unsettling in the darkness of night. However, I made it to the Miller Creek Trailhead where I slept under the stars next to the car ($0) on National Forest lands, which are not restricted like NPS lands.

Day 2: Rincon Peak day hike

The NPS site says “for those with a taste for adventure, as well as a couple of extra days, we recommend a trip into the Rincon Mountains Saguaro Wilderness Area”. A single day gave me a good taste of that area.

Rincon Peak (8482′ elevation) is the second-highest peak in the range, about 200 feet lower than the tallest peak, Mica Mountain, but the view from the top was said to be much better. Along the trail, I discovered an aspect of the park that most visitors miss. On average, less than one person/day visits Rincon Peak. The window for this hike is limited by snow in winter and heat in summer.

The varied environments included chaparral, riparian areas with flowing streams and both deciduous and coniferous trees, sub-alpine forests, culminating at a peak with 360 degrees views. Starting the 16-mile RT hike (4500+ feet elevation gain) trail at 9:30 am, I took a nice nap mid-day at the Happy Valley Campsite under the shade of pine trees, and finished around 11pm. Given the late hour and the convenience, I slept again at the trailhead.

Day 3: Cactus Forest Loop Drive

The Rincon Mountain (East) Unit opens at 7am, which is too late for sunrise. I rested and arrived in the morning for a day of driving and short hikes. My favorite was the 1st mile of the Tanque Verde Trail where I photographed at sunset.

The East Unit’s main gate closes at sunset. Afterward, I drove to an unsigned, foot-only entrance along Broadway Boulevard, from which I was able to re-enter the park along Mica View trail for the night photographs I missed two days before. I then drove to the Tucson Mountain (West) Unit, grabbing a veggie burger ($7) along the way before sleeping on public lands ($0).

Day 4: Tucson Mountains hike and Signal Hill

To be positioned high on the Tucson Mountain slopes at first light, I started hiking the King Canyon Trail in the dark at 5:30. I caught the pre-dawn light mid-way the Sendero Esperanza Trail. The Sonoran desert can be incredibly lush and beautiful under the right conditions!

Arriving at Wasson Peak through the Hugh Norris Trail, I hung out until the afternoon to wait for the light to improve. Killing some time was needed since total hiking distance was just 9 miles, 2000 feet elevation gain.

By the time I reached the section of the King Canyon Trail I had crossed at night, the late afternoon light was nice. After a brief stop at the Visitor Center to check out the light for the series The Window (not optimal), I proceeded to Signal Hill. I arrived early enough to capture the sunset light there, before setting up an all-night time-lapse.

Day 5: Scenic Bajada Loop Drive

I hiked the Valley View Overlook trail (1 mile RT) at sunrise and continued to explore the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive by car.

I wrapped the trip at the Visitor Center. For the first time in the series, I was able to superimpose almost exactly the reflexion of a natural feature (the Saguaro cactus) and its depiction inside the visitor center.

At the Tucson airport, I re-packed my bags in the shade of the rental car terminal and caught a mid-afternoon flight, arriving at home in San Jose past dinner time.

My trips to the national parks are not vacations! In less than five days, I had explored the two units of Saguaro National Park in more depth than most visitors would ever do, not only driving the scenic roads, doing several short hikes but also reaching two of the main summits in the park, all at minimal expense. Do you also find that National Parks trips can be done with little time and money resources ?

See images of Saguaro National Park

Quick guide to roadside photography in North Cascades

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

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

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

The North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cascade River Road

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

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

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

Picture Lake

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

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

See more images of North Cascades.

The wild side of Virgin Islands National Park

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

Ram Head

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

Yawzi Point and Lameshur

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

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

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

Petroglyphs and Reef Bay Sugar Mill

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

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

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

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

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

More photos of Virgin Islands National Park.

The Hidden Beauty of Sand Grains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(for answers browse this page)

More High-magnification images of Sand Grains.

Six Coastal Highlights of Redwood National Park

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

Gold Bluffs Beach

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

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

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

High Bluff and Klamath River Overlooks

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

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

False Klamath Cove

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

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

Hidden Beach

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

Enderts Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howland Hill Road

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

Stout Grove

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

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

Boy Scout Tree Trail

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

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

Simpson-Reed Trail

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

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

Lights for Night Photography: What I Use and Why

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

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

Multi-purpose small lights

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

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

Bright flashlights

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

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

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

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

Lanterns

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

Speedlites

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

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

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

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

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

Batteries

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

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

Flashlights with orange filters

Filters

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

Close-up of home-made orange filters

Conclusion

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

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

Light Painting the Redwood Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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