Terra Galleria Photography

Tripod Tales – (almost) all the tripods I have used and what I’ve learned about them

When I photographed in the Alps in the early 1990s, I didn’t even own a tripod. My camera support of choice was a clamp that could attach to the adze of an ice-ax. Upon arriving in America in 1993, one of my first purchases was a tripod. Many photographers have wasted money by starting with flimsy tripods, but at that point, I already knew enough to go directly to a good one. Today, there is a dizzying array of tripod offerings. At that time, the choice was essentially between Gitzo (twist lock, expensive) and Bogen (flip locks, economical). Even though I was envious of how fast my roommate folded his Bogen, it was an easy choice, given how everything Galen Rowell did influenced me. In this write-up, I’ll tell you why I moved from one tripod to the next, and in the process quickly outline the strengths and weaknesses of each of them.

Gitzo

In 1993, Gitzo’s line of tripods was quite simple. They came in series from the smallest to the largest, denotated by a number from 0 to 5. Within each series, you had a choice between 3 sections and 4 sections. The larger tripods (series 3 and up) offered a choice of a regular, geared or no center column. I bought their series 2, 4-section tripod. Only one year later, Gitzo announced the first carbon fiber tripod, the Mountaineer (initially only available as a series 2). It promised a savings of one-third the weight, better mechanical characteristics, and no hands frozen by contact with bare metal. Its price of several times more than the aluminum model, was unheard of for a tripod. However, the innovation was irresistible, and I quickly made the switch. I bought a 3-section tripod rather than 4-section. For general use, the more compact folded size of a 4-section tripod was not worth the additional setup time and the diminished rigidity caused by one more joint and smaller leg diameters.

I would supplement it with a series 1 tripod primarily for travel and a series 3 for large-format photography (Gitzo 1325, 2035 grams; with RRS BH-55 head, 2900 grams). I tried to use the series 1 for a while on trips with long hikes, even with my 5×7 camera. After making a photograph at the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I secured the tripod to my backpack. As I shouldered it in a swinging motion, the tripod detached itself and fell into the raging waters. My large-format camera was now useless without a tripod, and I scrambled up the gully quickly to try to catch a sunset photograph at least. The Gitzo series 1 weighs 1160 grams versus 1440 grams for the series 2. Remembering my times with the series 1, I did not think the savings in weight were worth the loss in utility and subsequently used the series 2 even for long hiking and traveling. When working closer to the car, the series 3 was my choice, especially on windy days when its improved rigidity made a difference.

The Mountaineer tripod lasted me until the early 2000s when it became inoperable. It was all my fault. Among other outings, I had taken it on a two-week kayaking trip in Glacier Bay National Park. Due to the lack of space on the kayak, I lashed it on the kayak’s hull. During a trip to France, I walked into the Gitzo factory in the suburbs of Paris, looking for service for its overly tight legs. The technician explained that they had swollen due to repeated exposure to saltwater. I made a mental note to always rinse my next tripod (Gitzo 1227), basically an evolution of the same model, after any use in saltwater.

One of the inconveniences of the Gitzo twist locks is that you always had to make sure you unfold or fold the legs in the proper order. If the sequence was wrong, the legs would spin frustratingly. Each time I handed the tripod to a non-photographer friend trying to be helpful, they never succeeded in locking the legs. Although using the correct sequence had become second nature for me, after a few years of Gitzo introducing an anti-leg rotation system, I upgraded to a Gitzo GT2531 (discontinued, current is GT2532) because my old tripod’s operation was no longer as smooth as when new, with one leg lock tending to slip.

A few years later, that tripod began to develop a problem I didn’t have at all with my previous Gitzos: the pivots at the apex became loose. Curiously, tightening the screws (with an annoyingly non-standard key) did not help. My brother-in-law, a mechanical engineer, tried all sorts of ideas to fix that problem of floppy legs, but the issue always re-occurred once in the field. In the while, Gitzo had been acquired by Manfrotto, and their technical support was irresponsive. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to fix that tripod by cannibalizing parts from my older (the one without anti-leg rotation) tripod. Meanwhile, I needed an entirely functional tripod and the premium price of the Gitzos did not seem justified anymore.

Induro

By the early 2010s, several manufacturers offered Gitzo-inspired tripods. You could tell it was so because of their nomenclature, which closely followed the Gizo series numbers. Needing a second tripod for a winter trip to Alaska, I bought an Induro CLT-203. The 2 stands for series 2, and the 3 for the number of sections. A series 2 from Induro had weight, leg diameters, and heights quite similar to a series 2 from Gitzo. Although a bit heavier (1575 grams) and maybe a tad less rigid than the Gitzo 2531 (1440 grams), it appeared reassuringly well built. It came with nice extras such as a carrying case, built-in foam tube covers that are great in freezing temperatures, interchangeable feet, all for a lower price than the Gitzo. Since I anticipated using it in the snow, I purchased specialty snow feet that included baskets similar to the ones found on ski poles. One evening, I set up a medium telephoto for a long exposure of the road at dusk. I waited for a car to drive by so that the red of its tail lights would make a red trail against the blue tones of the snowy landscape. After reviewing the image on the LCD, I was disappointed that it wasn’t sharp due to motion blur. Traffic is not too frequent along the George Parks Highway, so it took a while to make a second and third attempt, with the same results. By that time, the window of opportunity with the right light levels was gone – and we were freezing. Just as a test, I borrowed my friend’s tripod to photograph the empty highway, and the image turned out sharp like the one he previously made.

When using the Induro in the snow for northern light exposures up to 15s, the images were sharp. However, I couldn’t shake up the memories of the evening on the George Parks Highway, and upon coming home, I returned the tripod. It was only several years later that I thought of a possible explanation for what had happened. The snow feet, instead of ending with a rubber tip, had metal tips and somehow they may have been responsible for amplifying vibration, rather than the tripod itself. To be continued…

Feisol

After returning the Induro, I bought a Feisol CT-3342, another series 2, 3-section tripod. It had three immediately appealing characteristics. It came with a center plate rather than a center column, could fold in reverse around a small ballhead (my choice was the Markins Q3i) for compactness, and at 1200 grams was lighter than both the Gitzo (1440 grams) and the Induro CLT 203. At first, I could see only one drawback besides the less solid build. The angle at which the legs spread was too small. I suppose the manufacturer designed it that way to claim a taller working height – an important consideration for a tripod without a center column. But that made the tripod less stable and more vibration prone than it would have been with a larger spread angle. In the field, another weakness proved more annoying. The tripod seemed to be more affected by grit getting into the lock systems than the two others. When I took it into water-filled slot canyons during my trips to Zion, I had to disassemble it and clean it several times a week to keep the legs operating smoothly enough.

During one of those canyon explorations, as I was swimming through a long watery passage, I flipped around to swim on my back – easier this way with a substantial backpack, and this keeps your hands out of the freezing water. When I emerged from the water, I noticed that the Feisol was gone. It had fallen into the water from my backpack. Me and a companion returned into the water to try to fish it out, but the water was too murky, deep, and frigid. My tripods do not seem to like water! Although I think the Feisol would work fine in clean environments such as cities, for nature photography it was too sensitive to dirt. That’s unfortunate because there is still no lighter full-size tripod on the market. It is actually lighter than several of the “travel tripods” that do not even approach it in stability and usability.

I gave Induro another try, and it has been working OK as my primary tripod, requiring less cleaning than the Gitzo. The legs do have a tendency to loosen at the apex, something never happened with the earlier Gitzos even after years of use. However, this is quite workable since tightening the screws using the same hex key as the one for the quick-release plate fixes the problem for weeks.

Leofoto

Maybe because of aging, during my long hikes, I did not feel like carrying the Induro and sometimes headed out without a tripod. This led me to look again for a lighter tripod. After extensive market research, I think the Leofoto LS-224C is the most lightweight, usable tripod, especially combined with its included ball head. The legs weight only 725 grams, and the total weight with the ballhead is 900 grams. For comparison, the Induro with the trusty RRS BH-40 ballhead is 2100 grams, while Gitzo with the Markins Qi3 is 1820 grams. The Leofoto is also an excellent value at $220.

Sure, it doesn’t extend to full size, but besides the comfort of not having to crouch, eye-level is rarely the most dynamic way to position a camera. Galen Rowell modified all his small Gitzo tripods by removing the center column and sawing off its locking mechanism. I think he would have been appalled by the much-hyped (and expensive at $600) Peak Design travel tripod that requires you to extend the center column every time. On the other hand, he would have been pleased with the absence of a built-in center column on the Leofoto. Center columns can be helpful since they provide a significant height extension with little added weight. Leofoto offers an interesting solution in the form of a center column that screws into the tripod platform. It takes more time to install it than just extending it like with other tripods since you also need to unscrew the ballhead. However, when you don’t need it, it doesn’t degrade the tripod’s stability, and of course, you can leave it home to save 105 grams. I only wished that, unlike the Feisol, they would have designed it with a wider leg spread angle. Nevertheless, the Leofoto is nowadays what I carry on backpacking trips or as a second tripod.

My current tripods: Leofoto LS-224C, Gitzo GT2531 with Markins Q-Ball Q3i, Induro CLT-203 with RRS BH-40, Gitzo 1325 (for sale, contact me if interested) with RRS BH-55.

Our National Monuments pre-order – National Public Lands Day

Last Thanksgiving, I announced a new book depicting all the national monuments subject to the review of 2017. We missed the initial target release date of National Public Lands Day today. However, I am pleased to confirm that Our National Monuments will be published on, or before Nov 2, with a special pre-publication offer starting today.

Our National Monuments breaks new ground as the first photography book entirely dedicated to America’s national monuments. While the book includes only a subset of them (the 27 monuments at risk from the review), they comprise the vast majority of the large, park-like monuments. I am so grateful to 27 local citizen associations caring for those national treasures to make Our National Monuments the first book with their perspective, to former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for her first foreword, and to Ian Shive for his photographs and words – they made it possible for this book to be the first to depict all the marine national monuments. I reprised the innovative format of Treasured Lands that combined an art book and a guidebook, depicting each national monument in depth through a selection of representative highlights with keyed maps and location information. There is much there, but I won’t elaborate further on the book’s contents since details and more spreads are provided on the book’s website.

Treasured Lands was the almost accidental byproduct of more than two decades of explorations driven by a desire to experience the diversity of the national parks and photograph them in large format. After the review, President Trump eviscerated Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in December 2017. I immediately resolved to take action the only way I knew by visiting and photographing the 22 land-based monuments. I had the concrete goal to publish a book that could help conservation organizations raise awareness of those lands. Leaders of the Conservation Lands Foundation, the umbrella organization for many community-based advocates participating in the book, have confirmed how useful Our National Monuments will be for their efforts. To be most impactful, this contribution had to come out in the two-year window when a debate about protections of those lands could be re-opened and political action taken. I had to complete the project within just three years. The pandemic made it more challenging, but embodying the principle that public lands are open to the public, at least the BLM national monuments remained freely accessible. The pandemic also complicated publication logistics, resulting in significantly increased costs, but I plowed ahead to ensure a timely publication.

Treasured Lands, conceived as a tribute, is now in its 6th printing. Its success stems from being a best-in-its-class book on a popular subject. The lands and waters depicted by Our National Monuments are quite obscure – if they can even be identified as such from the book title by most people. Therefore, I do not expect the book to be as commercially successful. Selling out the copious first printing would only cover my writing and publishing time at minimum wage. As for the travel, that I was privileged to have spent months in those beautiful landscapes was in itself enough of a reward. On the other hand, the general lack of awareness of those lands is also why I felt this book is needed. I hope to inspire readers to discover, visit, love, and protect those beautiful and critically important public lands. On National Public Lands Day, we appreciate the lands that belong to all of us and maybe try to give back by volunteer work. Our National Monuments is my gift to our public lands and those who care for them.

Special pre-publication offer

To reward you for your patience with the delay and thank you for your support, I am offering the following bonuses until Nov 2 with a pre-order on Amazon:
  • Extended electronic version (PDF) of the location notes with full maps in a mobile-friendly format. Unlike for Treasured Lands, notes will provide practical travel information not available in the book. The full price will be $35.
  • Set of 22 digital images (4K), one for each land national monument (personal use only). I occasionally receive high-res images requests for electronic display and generally price them at $20/image for quantity orders.
  • Detailed photography notes with field considerations and complete capture/processing settings for each of the 22 digital images.
  • Discounts on signed copies ($20 off) and collector editions ($45 off / $60 off). More information about them here. With the later discount, your (extra) Amazon copy comes essentially for free, but even the former lets you buy signed copies at a low price – only $7.5 over wholesale – that makes for great gifts.
To take advantage of this offer, pre-order the book on Amazon and email me the receipt.

Our National Monuments back cover

The front cover of Our National Monuments features a photograph from Ironwood Forest National Monument located in Southern Arizona made with a super-telephoto lens. The twenty-two land national monuments in the book have fewer geographic diversity than the national parks. Within that range of possibilities, I chose an image as different as possible for the back cover. By contrast with the Sonoran Desert, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon is the lushest of the twenty-two monuments, and the image was photographed with a super wide-angle lens. Instead of filling the back cover with marketing copy, I felt it would be more appropriate for an art book to print a photograph with no text besides the indispensable barcode:

I had traveled by myself for most of the national monuments project, except on three occasions. Cascade-Siskiyou was one of them, as Ashland-based noted photographer and educator Sean Bagshaw went hiking with me. Although it was late June, the afternoon temperatures were unseasonably cold. Once we got on the ridge of Boccard Point (trail directions) the steady wind cooled us further. I could see that Sean was feeling the chill, so I appreciated very much that he was willing to hang out until sunset, even though as someone who lives barely more than a dozen miles away he could come back at any time. There was still quite a bit of time before total darkness, but I decided to wrap it up quickly. I set up for one of the last photographs of the day.


f/11

The last rays were coloring the clouds with the sun had already below the horizon. They were covering much of the sky, so it was quite dark. The bright yellow flowers added a bright counterpoint to the generally cool tones. The problem is that the stiff wind caused them to move constantly. A lull would not come soon, and the color was quickly vanishing from the clouds. I needed an aperture of f/11 to get both the flowers and the background in focus, but it resulted in a shutter speed that was too slow to freeze the motion of the flowers. In a field of wildflowers, a few blurred flowers can add dynamism to an image, but here, with so few flowers, each such a focal point, I felt their blurriness to be a distraction.


f/5.6

I could have increased ISO, but that would have resulted in a less detailed image. I could also have made an image with a slightly out-of-focus background at a wider aperture and higher shutter speed (above). Compare the difference in the following 50% detail view – you can click to enlarge.

Instead, I aimed to create a flawless image with a little help from digital tools. My solution was a focus stack with a wider aperture. Although not a single exposure, I feel the photograph remains true to the scene, standing for an image that a high-quality, high-ISO camera would have captured in a single exposure.


Focus stacked with Helicon

I made two exposures, one focused on infinity and the other on the flowers, with the intention of blending them. For the first one, I stopped down the lens to its best-performing aperture, f/8. For the second one, I used f/5.6 that resulted in a shutter speed of 1/25s, fast enough to render the flowers sharply. Usually, the specialized Helicon Focus software produces better results than Photoshop’s focus blending, but not in this case.

There was significant ghosting in the foreground, as can be seen in this the detail view above – you can click to enlarge.


Focus stacked with Photoshop

Photoshop rendered an image that looked better. When reviewed on-screen, it passed my initial scrutiny. I have often found that details easily missed on a screen jump at me on prints – resulting in much-wasted paper. I hadn’t printed that image, and when the proofs came back, I immediately noticed the artifacts in the top right corner resulting from the wind blowing the tree branches to two different positions between the two frames. The highest branch exhibited ghosting. To fix the problem, instead of relying on software, I blended the two frames manually, loading them in layers and adjusting their visibility with the brush tool.


Focus stacked manually

The differences are hardly noticeable when viewed on the internet and even less so on a quickly scrolled social media post. I suspect all the single-frame approaches with high ISO or f/5.6 would have resulted in an image acceptable for most viewers. However, to an attentive reader, not to mention a photographer, the defects would be apparent even at the relatively small print size of a 10×12 book page of Our National Monuments. With the hope that my images can hold and reward attention, I strived for better craft. You never know what an image may be used for.

Hiking with camera and tripod

In a previous post, I explained why the main situation when I will not use my tripod for landscape photography is when hiking a long distance. Whether the hike is “long” is a personal and subjective assessment. In this post, after discuss how I handle the camera and tripod on the trail, I’ll give as few examples some choices I made in recent years while photographing Our National Monuments.

How to carry the tripod

There are three ways to carry your tripod:
  • Hand carry is my preferred method for any short hike, or a section of a hike when I photograph frequently. It offers the most flexibility for moving around, as you can switch hands, carry the tripod collapsed (better maneuverability and balance), or extended (quicker to use). You can rest your hands by cradling the tripod under an arm. If needed, you can also hold it by the top as a walking stick, for instance, to balance yourself on rocks while crossing a stream. When I hand carry the tripod for any distance, usually I do not like to leave the camera attached, as the combination feels too heavy. Instead, I carry the camera over the neck and shoulder with its strap.
  • Over shoulder provides better support and therefore is more suitable for carrying the camera mounted on the tripod. For even better support provided you are on a wide trail, you can close two legs together, open the third leg, and distribute the weight on both shoulders. I am not a big fan of carrying the camera mounted on the tripod because it encourages you to set up the tripod first thing, whereas I prefer to find the viewpoint first and set up the tripod last. Therefore, I rarely use that method, except when I am in such a hurry that I want to avoid folding the tripod – mounting/dismounting the camera is almost instant with a quick-release system.
  • Attached on backpack is my preferred method on long hikes when photography is unfrequent. The main reason for that is that I like to use hiking poles for long hikes, especially on steep terrain and/or cross-country, and those require that both hands are free. When switching to hand carry, I have either to fold the poles or hold both of them with the other hand. I guess some photographers do not like the extra time required to take the backpack off and open the tripod. I welcome the opportunity to relieve my back from the weight of the backpack, as opposed of having it weight on me while I am composing.

Two mountain hikes

Try to guess for which hike I carried the tripod:

I did not carry the tripod for the first hike, although it was significantly easier. It is because of timing. I did not plan to linger on the mountain at sunset, but instead to drive home that night. Arriving at the summit in midday, there was plenty of light to handhold even a telephoto lens. The most marginal exposure was a forest scene in cloudy conditions where I needed to stop down a 50mm lens to f/22 for depth of field, resulting in an exposure of 1/25 sec, ISO 400, all manageable numbers.

On the second hike, by starting at 2:30am, I got on the Devils’ Backbone at dawn, where I anticipated that the ridge would offer great views. The exposure for the first picture was 17mm, 20 sec at f/8, ISO 100. I carried the tripod attached on the backpack until the ridge and first light, then hand-carried it until about one hour after sunrise, then put it back on the backpack. On the way back, I stopped at San Antonio Falls that I photographed in the shade in the late afternoon. As is often the case for waterfalls, I wanted to be able to use a slower shutter speed, in this case, 95mm, 1/4 sec at f/13, ISO 100 for the second picture. I probably would not have been able to make the low-light images and waterfall images without the tripod, so it was worth the extra effort.

Two long hikes

Try to guess for which hike I carried the tripod:
  • Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument: Started and ended at night, 20 miles round-trip, flat.
  • High Creek Camp, San Gorgonio Mountain, Sand to Snow National Monument. Started in the morning, ended at night, 14 miles round-trip, 4000 ft elevation gain.

I carried the tripod for the first hike. I anticipated that the canyon would be full of photographic compositions and most of them would occur with the brightest element being the canyon walls lit by the relatively dim reflected light bounced by other walls. Indeed, the first exposure above made at midday was 1/13 sec at f/8, and the second in the afternoon 0.5 sec at f/11, both ISO 100. My timing also meant that I would be in the canyon at pre-dawn and past sunset. You can see more of those photos by following the link. Despite the longer distance, it is also the easier hike of the two, because it is flat: elevation gain always trumps distance.

I did not carry the tripod for the second hike. It was more strenuous and I didn’t anticipate too many photo opportunities. When I started, I thought there was a good chance I would have to turn around without summiting and even before reaching treeline, because it was winter and I did not have crampons. That is exactly what happened when above High Creek Camp, some 2.5 miles before the summit, the slopes became too slippery to continue safely, especially with no one else on the mountain. This would possibly leave me only with views obscured by trees. Sure, one can always make an “intimate” photograph, but then there is no need to hike that high. In fact, that’s just what I had done at sunrise time on a two-mile hike – with tripod (exposure for snowy forest: 70mm, 1/5 sec at f/16, ISO 100). That was why I started hiking the mountain only in the morning. And in case I ended up summiting, this would have been a brutal hike of 5500 feet elevation gain. However, I did find a few openings between trees and timed my hike to be near sunset time there. Half an hour before sunset, exposure was a comfortable 65mm, 1/80 sec at f/9, ISO 250. I hiked down to the next opening that I had spotted. The sunset image below is one of the last photographs I made on that day. Did image stabilization save the day?

Shooting straight towards the sun in the west, the shutter speed was 1/400s at f/8.0 ISO 100. Who needs a tripod?

National Park Service Visitor Guides: A Brief History

A case could be made that the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrates today its 105th anniversary, would not have existed without the National Park Portfolio. In the early years, park rangers and guides were enough to provide guidance to the small number of visitors. However, as the visitation grew and visitors became more autonomous, another type of publication grew in importance: the visitor guide. The National Park Portfolio was the foundational publication of NPS, however, the map and visitor guides have become its most defining publications.

The first thing handed at the entrance station, it explains how to use the park, as well as telling its story. Beyond its utility, mirroring the place, it served as a physical embodiment of the park, a memento of visits to many. There is much to be learned about the history of the parks in studying older visitor guides, as exemplified by the evolution of our attitudes towards bears. In this article, I will insead focus on the evolution of the designs. So that you have a baseline to compare cover designs, this will be illustrated with visitor guides of two national parks, Yosemite and Grand Canyon.

Like the National Park Portfolio fascicules, the first national park visitor guides issued by the NPS were stapled booklets of the size of the common book format of the era, 6×9 inches, sometimes referred to as “octavo”. Initially, there was one for each of the 9 parks included in the Portfolio, plus Wind Cave National Park and Hot Springs Reservation. The covers were designed conservatively, with serifed type, centered and laid out symmetrically. The information on the cover, beyond the name of the park and its state, included additional details such as the names of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and NPS director, caption and credit for the cover photo, the opening season for the park, and the year of the booklet. Besides minor variations in the information included and in wording (“General Information”, “Rules and Regulations”, “Circular of General Information”), the design remained basically the same for more than a decade. The booklet was stapled in a curious way, with the staples placed 1/8″ from the spine from the first page to the last, and then a cover page of a glossy stock with photos glued over the spine.

By the end of the 1920s, the number of national parks had grown to 21, and the number of visitor guides to 17. Starting from 1933, all subsequent booklets were stapled through the spine. From 1933 to 1942, the NPS reduced the amount of information on the booklet covers, eventually dropping all the additional details beyond the name of the park and the state from the cover. The number of pages decreased, with the most bureaucratic contents being dropped to make room for more practical visitor information. At the same time, the amount of design increased, with each year (except 1935 and 1936) bringing a new cover design adopted uniformly through all the national parks. Some years even saw more than one design. The effort to improve the booklets in such a directed way reflected the new considerable means acquired by the NPS as the result of the New Deal and the 1933 reorganization.

No new visitor guides were issued during the war, and after it ended, in the free-wheeling post-war years, uniform design standards were relaxed (much more so than is apparent from our two examples). In 1946, out of the 26 national park visitor guides, 12 were 6×9 booklets and 14 had a narrower 4×9 format. By the mid-1960s, all had transitioned to a fold-out brochure with the narrower format. Not only it was more practical to carry, but also, once unfolded, it allowed for a larger map. However, the way the brochures was not uniform way. Some folded both ways onto a single sheet, others folded only along one direction, usually along two panels, with staples holding spreads together.

1966 marked the completion of the “Mission 66” project that focused on park infrastructure – much of each still the backbone of many parks – the only time besides the New Deal years when the NPS was fully funded. The mid-60s saw not only the introduction of color on the visitor guide covers, but also, for some parks, they featured for the first time graphic design rather than photographs. Others continued to use photography, but often in a more abstract way, featuring a close-up rather than a wide landscape. This was the period with the most creative diversity in design among the covers.

Maybe as a reaction to that kaleidoscopic approach, in the late 60s, a new design standard, nicknamed “pocket guides” or “minifolders” emerged for most parks (35 of them) – although not adopted by all of them. The cover consisted of a colored plain background. Reflecting the slowing rate of economic growth and the increase in park visitation, the brochures were more spare and economical. They folded both ways to an unprecedented small format of 3 1/4″ x 5 5/8″ and most of them opened to a size 10 1/4″ x 16 1/4″ map once unfolded, leaving relatively little room for information on the other side. For some parks such as Yosemite, the pocket guides design lasted until the 1980s, when all the visitor guides transitioned to the “Unigrid” standard described next. Other parks such as the Grand Canyon experimented with a return to a larger format, now folded both ways, in order to accommodate more information. Thus visitor guides continued to reflect the spread-out nature of the park system.

This started to change in 1977, when renowned designer Massimo Vignelli introduced the Unigrid standard. The most visible characteristic was the black band at the top with large white sans-serif type (initially Helvetica) for the park name that today remains one of the main “branding” elements of the NPS. But more important was the grid itself, based on the 8 1/4″ x 4″ panel corresponding to fold lines that could flexibly be used in single-width or double-width combinations and repeated up to six times in height. Standardized among all NPS units, the new system not only contributed to a unified visual identity but also allowed for a cost-effective way to mass-produce an array of brochures of different extents, making it possible to carry an amount of information as comprehensive as needed for a particular park. The first unigrids appeared in 1979, and by 1996, all the national parks had fully transitioned to the new system. Although Vignelli made many other contributions that affected our everyday life, he recognized that

… of all the projects I have worked on during my long career in design, this one has affected more people than any other …
With its consistency and effectiveness, the Unigrid came to embody the mission of the NPS to make the parks accessible to the people.

I have been collecting NPS visitor guides with an eye towards compiling a combined history of the NPS and of graphic design. My 28 years of travel to the national parks has resulted in a voluminous collection, but since I started in 1993, I was missing the pre-unigrid visitor guides. Unlike books, they are ephemera that were given away, not cataloged, and overall quite elusive. If you have some for which you’d like to find a good home, especially from those NPS units that are currently designated national parks, I’d appreciate it if you let me know!

Tripod: to carry or not to carry?

When I started landscape photography in the 1990s, I could not imagine working without a tripod. The medium of reference was Fuji Velvia, 50 ISO, and there was no image stabilization. Even on bright midday, deploy a polarizing filter and stop down for depth of field, and you come perilously close to the limits of hand-holding speed. Now one can routinely crank ISO into the four figures. Moreover, the most recent mirrorless cameras claim five f-stops of stabilization built into the camera body: with wide-angle lenses, shutter speeds of a quarter or even half a second can result in usable images. So has a tripod become dispensable?

For more than a decade, my primary camera was a 5×7 inch wooden large-format camera. With those, hand-holding is not even a realistic option, not only because of the bulk, weight, and slow shutter speeds but mainly because there is no separate view finding device, unlike on the “press cameras” used by photographers such as Weegee. Once you configured the camera for exposing film, there is no more viewing of the composition as the film holder blocks the ground glass view. For a few years, when working less than a mile from the car, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the Zone VI tripod. The thing, basically a surveyor tripod, weighted 16 pounds, plus a 4-pound pan-tilt head. I got wiser with age, realizing that burdening oneself with equipment is not the way to enjoy your surroundings. Yet, more often than not, I find myself carrying a tripod. Why?

Working deliberately and with precision

Back then, I adopted large format photography mainly for the promise of higher image quality. But in the long term, long after digital capture had caught up with large format film, I had progressed from the habits I acquired by working with the large format camera. The process forced me to slow down and to work more deliberately. If your camera is too easy to use, you can pretend it is cumbersome. A tripod helps going in that direction. In general, I photographed at most a dozen compositions per day with large-format film because I had to make each one count. Similarly, when working with a tripod, I produce fewer frames than handheld, but usually with a higher “keeper rate.” This saves much time in editing.

Getting the camera set up on the tripod does require some effort, especially on uneven terrain, so before committing to a particular position, I take the time to evaluate the alternatives through my eyes. Does moving a few feet left, right, back, forth make a difference? How about a lower viewpoint? You sometimes read that working hand-held liberates your creativity because you are freer with viewpoints. Not so. You evaluate all viewpoints, and only after you make a choice does the tripod gets set up.

Once the camera is on the tripod, you are relieved of the task of holding the camera in a stable way. It is much easier to take your time evaluating every aspect of the composition, one at a time, such as frame edges since you can more easily make minute adjustments in framing and decide in an exacting way what to include or exclude. The process has resulted in more precise and stronger compositions for me.

Mastering time

With the composition established, I can wait as long as needed for desired conditions: the breeze to die down so that vegetation is rendered without motion blur, the clouds to complement the landscape, and the light to fall on the right spots. Meanwhile, I can even explore other possibilities with a second camera, knowing that if the conditions converge, all I have to do is click the shutter of the camera already set up. Suppose I want to free myself entirely from having to attend that camera. In that case, I can even set up a time-lapse sequence that serves a dual purpose: stills and motion. And for capturing any nature video, a stable platform is a must.

In wildlife photography, interesting behavior is often crucial and requires much patience to capture. Besides the stability demands placed by longer lenses, those telephoto lenses are heavy. Who can hand-hold such a lens closely trained on a bear while waiting for them to make that split-second salmon catch?

In landscape photography, some subjects benefit from even longer exposure time than image stabilization can provide. Depending on the camera and lens used, it may be possible to hand-hold in a hit or miss way (meaning resulting in a fraction of usable images, for numbers with a 50mm lens on Canon EOS R5 and Sony Alpha 1, see this test) until a quarter to half a second, which is already incredible. But pre-set shutter speeds go beyond 1 second on every camera for good reason. By the way, am I the only one to wish that camera manufacturers would provide pre-set shutter speeds longer than 30s rather than forcing you to use Bulb? Moving water can often benefit from those multi-second exposures. They are mandatory for the night starry sky. Some of my favorite light occurs at dawn before sunrise and dusk after sunset. The darkness makes multi-second exposures necessary.

Achieving ultimate image quality

You’ve spent a serious amount of money on cameras and lenses. Having the camera on a tripod ensures that you make no compromises so that image quality is the best that you can achieve with your equipment. This may or may not be important to you, but personally, I still view the print and printed page as the ultimate expression of a photograph. Defects not visible in a screen-sized image become very apparent in print.

Without the tripod, you have to balance all three components of the exposure: fstop, shutter speed, and ISO. You’ll probably try several combinations, and make several “assurance shots” as well. That takes away time and energy that could be spent instead on composition. With the tripod, you just use your desired settings without second thoughts. You can shoot at base ISO that always results in better detail and less noise than higher ISOs. You can stop down the lens as needed for depth of field without worrying about the resulting slow shutter speed. Sharpness is less likely to be reduced by camera vibration. Focus can be refined manually by checking 100% magnification without distracting vibration and making comparisons. Tilt and shift lenses can be appropriately adjusted.

It is possible to use multi-frame techniques such as exposure bracketing and focus stacking. While the former is becoming less valuable with the sensors increasing dynamic range, the latter has only grown in utility with the sensors increases in resolution. Thanks to Photoshop’s auto-alignment, it is quite possible to hand-hold and bracket exposures if you use fast shutter speeds, a fast shooting rate, and automated exposure bracketing. However, if you don’t have automated focus bracketing on your camera (my Sonys do not), creating a focus stack handheld is a more uncertain proposition.

How I deal with it

I always have a tripod in the car. There are two types of situations when I leave it there. The first situation is if I do not anticipate making a photograph where one of the three criteria above is of importance. A simple and straightforward composition. A bright day with no particular time exposure requirements. Undemanding image applications. However, quite a few times, unanticipated opportunities have presented that made me regret the choice and come back to get the tripod. So that it doesn’t happen, I generally carry the tripod but do not feel an obligation to use it. Adding it to my camera backpack doesn’t prevent me from working fast, only slightly heavier. Better to have it when needed if taking it is not too much of a burden.

This brings us to the second situation when long hiking is involved. If you spend so much more time hiking than photographing, is it worth it to carry heavy equipment when any additional pound reduces the enjoyment of the hike, knowing that it makes a decisive difference only for a fraction of the photographs you may make? Burdening yourself on the trail also wears you down physically, a condition not conducive to creative work.

Even though, while I find the compromises in precision and image quality that come from hand-holding quite workable with modern cameras, if I anticipate finding myself out in dim light at a key location or photographing a significant amount of moving water, I will still make sure to bring a tripod, even if a smaller one than normally used. It is a game of guessing probabilities of the tripod being justified. Since we are talking about guesses, do you think the following image, among the last I made on a long day of hiking, would justify the tripod? Look for the answer in a follow up post.

New Outdoor Photographer cover article

I am honored that for the second consecutive year, the summer issue of Outdoor Photographer includes my photographs in its opening article and on the cover.

The June/July 2021 issue was themed around the national parks, and I was lucky to receive my subscriber’s copy just a few days before I left for the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, as it also featured an excellent article by local photographer Randall Sanger about the waterfalls of the New River Gorge. The format of my article was similar to last year’s: a selection of 10 national parks. Last year’s idea was to pick 10 parks that were not amongst the most famous, yet had a unique feature – don’t they all anyways? The title for this year’s article is “10 Favorite National Parks” with the reading line “A selection of my most-recommended parks for nature photography from across the U.S.” Both were provided by the editor, but the article is actually not a “top 10” list. If anything, the fact that I avoided repeating any of the national parks in last year’s article by itself may have been enough to skew the list.

Based on their merits alone, it would be difficult to draw a top 10 list, just because they are so different, which is why I have refrained from the popular exercise of ranking the parks from “best” to “worse”. However, the list does include my favorite national park. Based on the park merits alone, that would be even a more difficult pick than a “top 10” list, but based on my relationships with the parks, it is an easy choice. Yosemite is my sentimental favorite because it was the first National Park I had heard of and visited, the park that drew me to California, and because of all the time, I have spent there on repeated visits, not only photographing, but also hiking, climbing, and skiing.

The idea behind this year’s list is best captured by the words “from across the U.S.” What fascinated me so much about the national parks and compelled me to try to visit all of them was the diversity of nature found within the system. Each park represents the highest type of its particular environment, yet collectively they are all are interrelated. As this country encompasses an entire continent, its national parks represent such diversity of eco-regions and climatic extremes. There are several other ways to organize a book about the national parks: by alphabetical order, date of first designation, date of establishment as a national park, geographic type, states, or even visual flow. But the organization by region has always sounded the most natural, and I thought carefully about the division in Treasured Lands. The article used a similar organization, except that without the need for balance, 10 is a more round number than 7. Some regions chosen in Treasured Lands (for instance “Pacific Coast and Mountains” or “Rockies and Prairie”) split naturally. Therefore, for the article, I picked one park each in those ecoregions: Pacific Coast, Sierra Nevada, Colorado Plateau, Desert, Rocky Mountains, Prairie, East Coast, Gulf Coast, Alaska, and the Tropics. The criterion was that each of them would offer some of the most numerous and diverse subjects to photograph among its peers. The entire article is available here.

I commented before on the particular constraints of cover images, and this year’s choice is another case in point. More striking and unique images were considered, but the editor thought that they didn’t communicate “National Parks” for the newsstand buyer. They felt that the one chosen, besides meeting other design criteria, did communicate that. I was asked if I had a variation with more sky, but since I didn’t, the designer found a way to make it work. It was a bit of a challenge to tell a behind-the-scenes story for that image, but I was greatly helped by being able to easily pull out the entire output of that afternoon in Lightroom – better than a contact sheet. As simple as it may look, as long as any image is made deliberately, there is a story behind it.

Zion National Park is famous for its sheer cliffs and narrow canyons, but it is also a remarkable oasis in the desert. One of my favorite places to photograph water and lush vegetation is the popular Emerald Pools Trail, where waterfalls flow over walls and alcoves. Lower Pool is a flat, 0.5-mile one-way hike from Zion lodge; each of Middle and Upper Pools adds another 0.25 miles and a 200-foot elevation gain. In previous autumn visits, I had found colorful foliage, as red maples are abundant. However, the waterfalls were a trickle. I was hoping for spring runoff in mid-May. Although better than in the autumn, the waterfalls turned out not to be raging – one would need to come during a storm.

Hiking back from Upper Pool, I noticed a composition made possible by the higher viewpoint, with green new leaves contrasting strikingly with darker conifers and red cliffs. Although straightforward looking, it needed particular light conditions to work. The area is front-lit in the morning and shaded in the late afternoon. With the sun in the back, the rock walls on the canyon’s other side were too bright when sunlit. Thanks to fast-moving clouds, I didn’t have to wait too long for thin clouds to soften the light, reducing the contrast to a manageable level. I hurried to photograph while there was an opening of blue sky above the cliffs. A few minutes later, it was gone, replaced with a less appealing overcast sky.

National Park Bears

In Oh Ranger!, Horace Albright, the second National Park Service (NPS) director writes:
The bears are, without doubt, the greatest single attraction in the parks, at least from the visitor’s point of view.
Maybe this is why a story about a woman facing charges over a bear encounter in Yellowstone National Park made it into national media headlines today. From reports, I understand that she got out of her car and stood on the edge of a parking lot when a mother grizzly and two cubs were closer than the park-mandated distance, then maybe didn’t retreat as they approached until a charge captured on video. After that video when viral, the National Park Service when as far as posting a “Wanted” notice on Facebook and Instagram:

Yellowstone National Park rules advise to:

Keep at least 100 yards (93 m) from bears at all times and never approach a bear to take a photo
One should always abide by rules, yet I wondered if at a time when parks are stressed by record visitation while facing understaffing and underfunding, vigorouly pursuing such violations are the best use of the service’s resources. Reading the unecessarily harsh comments, you get the impression that the woman’s actions were incredibly reckless and put her in an extremely dangerous situation. However such a bluff charge rarely results in a mauling (what to do during a bear attack attacks, bear attack statistics). Looking at how attitudes over bears in national parks differ in other places and times provides some perspective.

Katmai

When you think “bears in national parks”, the place that comes to mind is Katmai National Park. The park is largest bear protection area in the world and home to the highest concentration of brown bears, especially around Brooks Camp. It is routine there for people to come close to bears, and not only when they are on the viewing platform. When walking from the campground to the main viewing platform, in more than one occasion, a bear came out of nowhere from the dense forest and crossed the trail a short distance front of me. The first time, I thought about nothing else than trying to retreat slowly and keep my distance, but the second time, I had got used to the situation enough to snap a quick picture with the normal zoom on my camera – given that this was 2001, probably a 28-135mm.

The fellow paid me no attention. On that same trip, I would have an even closer encounter. The rules (misstated by Herzog in Grizzly Man) are:

1. Approaching a bear or any large mammal within 50 yards is prohibited.
2. Continuing to occupy a position within 50 yards of a bear that is using a concentrated food source, including, but not limited to, animal carcasses, spawning salmon, and other feeding areas is prohibited.
I interpret that to mean you can legally approach a bear with 50 yards (to take a photo?) and then stay in place in some circumstances if the bear walks towards you. As I relate in this post about my second visit to Brooks Camp, bears do approach you, very close. Even though I had a camera in hand, I was too shaken to take a picture until he turned away. When the next day, I chatted about that experience of being followed and cornered by a bear, a ranger casually remarked with amusement “aren’t you glad that during the day we are here to direct your movements?”

Bears in Katmai are coastal brown bears. They are the same genetic species as the grizzly bears living in Yellowstone and other interior areas, however the ecosystem aren’t similar, and the two have different temperaments. Coastal brown bears are tolerant of other bears and humans. The odd story of Tim Treadwell is told in at least two books and two movies. He literally lived and camped around bears for 13 summers before eventually running out of luck. Had he carried bear spray, he would have survived the rare predatory bear encounter that took his and his companion’s lives on the night before their departure. Besides a few infractions (such as not moving his camp around every five days, wildlife harassment, improper food storage), his stays were entirely legal. Interior grizzlies are more territorial and aggressive. Yet, the sort of close proximity that Treadwell had with bears was routine in the early years of Yellowstone National Park, as we’ll see next.

Yellowstone and Yosemite, early 20th century

Besides the National Parks Portfolio, my shelf also includes every book about the national parks published in the early 20th century. I enjoy reading them and observing the shifts in our thinking that occurred within a century. Most of the original editions can be obtained inexpensively if you search carefully.

The most entertaining of those books is Oh Ranger! (1928) whose quote opened this article. Unlike other books about the national parks, Oh Ranger! is mostly about people in the parks. One of the more striking shifts concerns the bears. Here is the start of the book’s first chapter:

“OH, Ranger, can I take your picture with a bear?”

“Just a minute, ma’am, until I show this gentleman where to go fishing.”

“Where’s a bear, now?”

“Well ma’am, there was one in these woods an hour ago. Maybe we can find him.”

Five minutes devoted to the finding of a wild bear.

“Oh, Ranger, that’s a lovely bear! Stand closer to him, won’t you? Would you mind putting your arm around him? It would make a peachy picture. We’d just love it.”

“Sorry, ma’am, but it’s against regulations to hug the bears.”

“Oh, pshaw! Why do they have such foolish regulations? Well, just pretend to be feeding him something.”

Knowing the ways of bears, the ranger declined to “pretend.” He produced some molasses chews and actually tossed the food to the bear. It is dangerous business to try to fool a bear about food, and he should never be fed from the hand.

Click! Click! Click!

Another ranger was immortalized in picture, for the ninetieth time that day.

“It’s all in the day’s work,” explained the ranger.

The “dangerous business to try to fool a bear about food” is elaborated on in the third chapter entirely dedicated to bears:

“Fooling a bear” is something that just shouldn’t be done. To illustrate, there was a bear in Yellowstone known as Mrs. Murphy. There had been several complaints about Mrs. Murphy, who was accused of nipping visitors’ hands and feet, so a ranger was assigned to shadow her for a day and see what was happening. He reported as follows:

One Sagebrusher, for the sake of a picture, held some bacon in his mouth and coaxed the bear to remove said bacon from his mouth. He got his picture and also escaped without injury. That Sagebrusher was lucky.

Another tried to make Mrs. Murphy jump for candy, like a dog. Now a full grown bear weighs about as much as a kitchen stove and is not built for jumping. So—Mrs. Murphy reached up, knocked the man’s hand down so that she could reach the candy. That frightened the tourist considerably, but he escaped without injury. He, too, was lucky.

A Dude, with no candy or food, held out his hand as though there were candy in it. Mrs. Murphy became annoyed at being spoofed and she nipped the man on the toe. He retaliated by kicking Mrs. Murphy on the nose, which is a bear’s most sensitive spot. She responded by whacking the Dude with her paw. He was bruised but not badly hurt. He was lucky.

Fully two score people fed Mrs. Murphy and her cub that day in the proper way, by throwing candy to her, and were entertained for hours by the bruins with no incidents nor accidents.

The only innocent visitor to suffer injury was a Dude who, disregarding a ranger’s warning, insisted upon walking between Mrs. Murphy and her cub, to take a snap shot of the cub. Apparently believing her cub in danger, Mrs. Murphy rushed the Dude, tore out the seat of his pants, and, as she thought, saved her cub. The Dude rode the rest of the day in a blanket to hide a certain blushing and over-exposed portion of his anatomy.

After receiving this report, the superintendent decided that Mrs. Murphy was no more guilty than the Dudes and Sagebrushers who attempted to fool her with food that did not exist.

That chapter (“Speaking of Bears”) is chock full of stories about interactions between visitors, rangers, and bears, each more hair-rising than another for a modern reader. In the book, Horace Albright, a key figure in NPS history, seems to condone visitors feeding the bears. Here is a picture of him (reproduced in the National Geographic’s centenial book of 1916: The National Parks: An Illustrated History) taken by the first official NPS photographer George Grant during Albright’s tenure as Yellowstone superintendent:

The cover of the official Yellowstone National Park visitor guide even shows a tourist getting a bear to stand on their hind legs by feeding them from an open-top automobile:

Curiously, the official NPS policy, for instance as stated inside the same visitor guide seems to be in contradiction:

BEARS Even the big grizzlies, which are generally believed to be ferocious, are proved by our national parks’ experience to be inoffensive if not molested. […] It is contrary to the park regulations to molest or tease the bears. […] The brown, cinnamon, and black bears […] are playful, comparatively fearless, sometimes even friendly. They are greedy fellows, and steal camp supplies whenever they can. Visitors, however, should not feed the bears.
Albright, in the same spirit as his mentor Mather, loved anything that brought publicity to the parks and knew that tourists loved bears. What the NPS objected to was not to feeding the bears, but to visitors feeding them for safety reasons – not out of concern for the bears. Unsurprisingly, visitors suffered dozens of bear-related injuries every year. The 1933 visitor guide to Yosemite National Park has this (emphasis added), which seems to corraborate the ranger’s method of bear feeding:

Warning about bears. Do not feed the bears from the hand; they are wild animals and may bite, strike, or scratch you. They will not harm you if not fed at close range
It is OK if the feeding is done by park staff, as explained in Oh Ranger:
In Yosemite National Park […] the feeding of the bears is made a great event. In the evening just after dark, Dudes, Sagebrushers gather on the slopes, across the river from the pits. All is quiet and dark. Suddenly the lights are flashed on, revealing the “salad bowl,” with any where from half a dozen to a score of bears growling and feeding as the bear man dumps numerous garbage cans of supper for them. A tree stump in the middle of the platform is painted with syrup each evening and there is great rivalry among the bears to get at this.
The section “Education Service” of the 1933 visitor guide to Yosemite National Park indeed mentions on the summer schedule:
The bears are fed every evening at 9:30 at the bear pits, and a short talk is given on animal life in Yosemite.
Every guide from 1932 to 1939 includes the same. It is unclear if this was left out from the 1940 guide because the practice was discontinued or because of the change in format of the guide. The new format accomodated less text, and the focus changed from rules and activities to a description of the park. The 1933 booklet includes two fold-out maps. The one of Yosemite Valley shows “Bear Feeding Platforms”:

In addition, the 1931 visitor guide to Sequoia and General Grant National Parks indicates a similar practice:

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

The “Bear Pit” is the name give to the spot on the Circle Road at the garbage incinerator where many bears gather to feed on camp garbage. The best time to see them is from 5 to 7 p.m. when an attendant is on hand.

This is illustrated on the booklet’s last spread:

The NPS first wildlife biologist was George Melendez Wright. His life was cut short by an automobile accident at just 31. Yet, during his brief career with the NPS, he instigated many impactful changes, leading the agency from a focus on the scenery and visitation to a focus on science and conservation. One of them was to phase out the feeding of bears for entertainment. The Yellowstone visitor guides of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s each feature on their cover a warning about bears that becomes increasingly strict. However, it was not until the 1970s that bear feeding ceased entirely in Yellowstone, when now-ubiquitous bear-resistant trash containers were installed. We have come a long way.

Location sharing & Our National Monuments surveys results

Thank you again for the answers and comments on the multiple surveys of this winter. Now that Our National Monuments has been printed (but not yet bound) and the rush is over, I am sharing the results and commenting on the choices made.


Location sharing

Treasured Lands set a precedent for information sharing, but the national monuments are lands with very different rules of engagement from the national parks. Although the Organic Act of 1916 assigned dual missions of conservation and recreation to the National Park Service, it can be argued that the idea of parks “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (as found in the law establishing Yellowstone National Park and written on the Yellowstone Arch) came first, with their preservation serving the goal to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Stephen Mather, the man responsible for the creation of the National Park Service, and its first director, envisioned them as places of mass tourism, and there are few strategies he passed over in order to attract more visitors – the constituency for the fledging parks. By contrast, the national monuments are for conservation. The absence of infrastructure means no trash cans, restrooms, boardwalks, or paved trails that help reduce impact. Also lacking is the “soft infrastructure” of rangers. Compared to national parks, they are generally less developed, accessible, popular, or documented. The poll appeared in this post about location sharing.

Readers who answered the poll share my concern in publicizing locations such as those often found in national monuments. For inclusion of locations or directions, I made a judgment based on resilience to visitation for places ranging from well-publicized places already mentioned in guidebooks to personal finds. Eventually, all locations selected felt into the “already documented” category – although that doesn’t mean you’ve heard of them already! I generally excluded locations not mentioned either by the managing agency or a conservation organization dedicated to the monument. For each of the monuments, I have tried to consult with such an organization and asked if they had objections over my write-up. There was none, and an organization director even told me that the places they recommend to visitors are exactly the ones I listed – without prior coordination. I trust that people who actually care for the lands would know best.

Petroglyph or pictograph sites are found in almost each of the national monuments in the book. However, vandalism is a particular concern, so I have been selective in mentioning them or in providing directions, even though a former conservation organization president lists GPS coordinates for specific panels. For instance, while researching Rio Grande Del Norte National Monuments, I found out about petroglyphs located close to a well-known trail. They turned out to be quite remarkable, but when chatting with a volunteer, I learned that they had purposely refrained from putting trail signage for the petroglyphs. I didn’t include a picture nor mentioned those petroglyphs in the book.

Information in the book

When I conceived Treasured Lands, many in the book industry were skeptical that I could produce a combined art book and (somewhat) guidebook, but the art director Iain Morris found a way to make it work by separating the pictures and information. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough when I wrote that Our National Monuments uses the same format as Treasured Lands. If there were no information pages, there would be none of the things that were more popular such as “Info: natural history” or and “Author’s experience”.

Besides that misunderstanding, my plan for the book was mostly in agreement with the readers’ interests. There was already a lot of information about the national parks, so my writing on the information pages of Treasured Lands emphasized the “Photographic odyssey” aspect, and someone reading them cover-to-cover could learn quite a bit about landscape photography. On the other hand, there is little published information about the national monuments. Our National Monuments is the first photography book dedicated to them, and if published only two months earlier, would also have been the first national monuments “guidebook”. Therefore, I wanted the text to be mostly about the national monuments and to educate readers about what makes them so special.

Although I have tried my best, I realized that there were people certainly more qualified than me: the “Friends” groups, aka conservation organizations made of local grassroots activists that advocate for those lands, help protect and popularize them, and in many cases were instrumental in the establishment of those national monuments. Conservation starts with community. Places are best protected when a group of local citizens leads the advocacy efforts. I am immensely grateful and honored that a citizen organization has accepted to lend its voice to each of the 27 national monuments in the book. Besides contributing the essays, many have helped plan trips or offered comments that improved this book. The only difference in design with Treasured Lands is that to accommodate their longer essays, the opening page for each national monument is text only. To see pages of the book, head to OurNationalMonuments.com.

In building a constituency for any lands, there is always a balance to be struck while making information available. The editor I hired for this project had a prominent role in conservation. An overwhelming majority (85%) plan to use the information for travel planning, but only a minority (45%) thought the “practical aspect” was more important than “interesting to read”. A majority (67%) expressed interest in an electronic version. That, with the votes on topics, convinced me to prepare two slightly different versions of the information pages, one for print, and the other for electronic distribution. Unlike for Treasured Lands for which the text was identical, the PDF will be expanded with practical details such as directions.

About that subtitle

Selecting the title was relatively easy. I eventually preferred “Our” to “The” or “America’s” to emphasize how those public lands belong to every American. I liked the echo of John Muir’s Our National Parks (1901), the first book about the national parks.

From the beginning, the working title for my project had been “monuments at risk”, which was logical because the project originated as my reaction to the previous administration’s attack on the national monuments. Therefore, for the subtitle, my first thought was to emphasize that aspect with words like “at risk, endangered, under threat”. However, my distributor warned me that this carried negative overtones that could hurt book sales. It turned out that readers also agreed in round one since none of those subtitles were popular at all.

A second idea was to emphasize another character of those lands with the words “less traveled, unknown, undiscovered, overlooked, unseen”. My wife quickly suggested “The Parks Less Traveled” in that vein. I thought it was descriptive and intriguing at the same time. Intriguing with the wit and poetic reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Descriptive with the suggestion that those are lands similar to the national parks, and the fact that of all the five, “less traveled” is the most accurate. However, it was brought out that the word “less” is a tough sell in a title because of the implication, even subconscious, that these lands are lesser, which is the opposite of the intent. I tested that idea by conducting two polls in round 2. In the first one, this concern was mentioned.

In the second one, it was not.

As expected, the outcomes were different, but even for those made aware of the concern, “The Parks Less Traveled” remained viable, because “less traveled” was seen as such a positive. I refined the most popular option in the first survey, “America’s unknown treasures” into “America’s hidden gems”. “Hidden” was more precise than “Unknown” and evoked discovery. “Gems” has connotations of exclusivity, and is a more subtle reference to Treasured Lands, and also to the foreword writer, former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who oversaw the designation of 11 of the national monuments in the book. I posted the finalist round 3 poll from the blog and three different social media accounts, with essentially split results.

I interpreted the results as indicating no strong preferences from readers because both of them are strong subtitles. At this point, the question was no longer which subtitle would sell the book best, but rather which one would do the most justice to its subject. I leaned towards “The Parks Less Traveled”, as “America’s Hidden Gems” sounded a bit bland and overused. In fact, when I mentioned the later to my distribution manager, the first thing she did was to look up the words in a database. She pointed out that others had used them in various titles, however, my use was OK since it was a subtitle rather than a title, and my title was unique enough. However, both my editor and art director preferred “America’s Hidden Gems”, mentioning that the play of words in “The Parks Less Traveled” could appear borderline cheeky for such a serious book, that “America” was necessary to attribute properly “Our”, and that the cover image was already sufficient to convey the park-like quality of the national monuments. What tipped the scale in favor of “America’s Hidden Gems” were the opinions of two people from the conservation community, the former executive director of a major Friends group, and a board member of the Conservation Lands Foundation, the main national advocacy organization for the BLM national monuments. They liked the idea of “gems” to emphasize that these are less traveled, less known, but still very valuable – maybe something unconsciously not conveyed by “less”. They expressed reservations about confusing monuments and national parks. Since those are the people involved in the stewardship of our national monuments, I was happy to let them have the final say. In the end, I felt that “Hidden Gems” honored our precious lands better.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve wrap up

An eclectic wrap-up on New River Gorge National Park with more details about logistics (including a map with all locations in this series keyed), my timing, final impressions, the result of the image choice poll, and a bonus location.

Logistics

The closest major city is Charleston WV, 50 miles away, but I flew into Charlotte NC because of better flight connections. On the way to the park, I bought $60 of groceries, including 6 gallons of water. Besides gas and car rental, that was the extent of expenses for this trip.

There are so many entry points that the area is a bit of a maze. The Park Service cannot possibly have entrance stations everywhere, which is maybe why no entrance fees are charged. This moderate-sized park has no less than four visitor centers, however some are seasonal, and only the one near the New River Gorge Bridge was open. The staff provided excellent maps, including a comprehensive trail guide.

Few roads follow the inside of the gorge for any significant length. The most scenic are the Fayette Station Road under the New River Gorge Bridge and WV-7/20 to Sandstone Falls. Visiting multiple locations involves getting in and out of the park, driving slow rural side roads, often very narrow and winding. That was more time-consuming than I expected given the size of the park.

The only accommodations in the park consist of eight campgrounds near the river that are all primitive, with no water and vault toilets. The upside is that they are all first-come, first-serve, didn’t fill up while I was there, and were all free. The downside is that trains run all night in the gorge, and when you are in the bottom of the gorge in a tent, their sound resonates loudly. The very active railroad is part of the region’s history, but it is a big distraction in a national park. The nearby state parks, Babcock, Hawks Nest, and Bluestone, are surprisingly more developed, with facilities dating from the Civilian Conservation Corps, including lodging. Fayetteville is the closest town with amenities. The city of Beckley offers more accommodation options.

Bonus Location (11)

Only about 50,000 of the New River Gorge’s 70,000 acres are federal land, so there are private enclaves, towns, and even a state park within the boundaries. How does that work? Anything included in the boundaries is “authorized” to be part of the national park, but becomes so only after the land has been acquired.

Babcock State Park, one of the oldest parks in West Virginia, is located within the boundaries of New River Gorge National Preserve, but managed entirely independently. The well-developed 4,000-acre park features log cabin accommodations and campsites. Its Glade Creek grist mill from downstream is the most photographed scene in West Virginia, especially with autumn foliage. The front of the mill with the waterwheel faces east, but shadows make the light spotty in the early morning. I photographed it after the sun had disappeared behind hills in the afternoon. 

Timing

Since the beginning of this century, I’ve strived to visit new national parks shortly after they were (re) designated. In 2013, I showed up at Pinnacles at dawn on the first day it opened as a national park, and for White Sands, I made an effort to be inside at the very moment it became a national park. In early 2020, I had anticipated that New River Gorge National Park and Preserve would be established in the winter. Eastern parks are mostly woodlands that look stark when the trees are bare. When planning my April 2020 trip to Washington DC for NPCA’s Salute to the Parks, I had intended to drive to West Virginia to photograph New River Gorge “pre-emptively” so that I would have photographs with foliage on the trees in my archive, to complement the images resulting from the anticipated winter trip. However, that event got canceled, and the winter coincided with a peak of the virus.

I run two accounts on twitter. I’ve manually posted and interacted on my personal account @terragalleria since 2009. I started @treasured_lands in 2017 as a way to promote Treasured Lands and it is a semi-automated account. Comparing the follower counts of those two accounts is quite instructive. The followers of @terragalleria decisively thought that flying in December wasn’t worth the risk:

Maybe the followers of @treasured_lands don’t “know” me as well and therefore cared less about the risks to me and my family, which would explain that they were more equally split: My age bracket became eligible for the vaccine in April, but I waited two weeks for the California system (myturn.ca.gov) and my provider (Kaiser) to give me an appointment, to no avail, before finding one at the Santa Clara County website. I got the first dose of the vaccine on April 13. My estimate is that at the Levi’s Stadium, there were about 1,000 in the line in front of me. It stretched for 1.5 miles – I used a GPS app to track its length. The three weeks until the second dose, that was almost wait-free, and the two weeks of precautionary wait put my trip right in the middle of May.

In terms of timing with respect to seasons, I could have done worse. Snow covers the ground from at least mid-November to mid-March, and winter days range from mild to surprisingly frigid. A ranger told me that days with high temperatures 10F are not uncommon. Summers feel hot because of high humidity. This leaves spring and autumn as the most pleasant seasons. Even mid-May was a little warm for my taste, with high temperatures in the upper 80s. Wildflowers appear at the end of March, but trees leaf only in mid-April at the bottom of the canyon and early May at the rim. I was a bit early for rhododendrons and mountain laurel that peak at the end of May and early June, but there were already quite a few blooms. Spring is the wettest season, and because of that, chances of seeing an inversion with a sea of clouds are excellent. Autumn would be another great time to visit, with the color peaking around the third week of October.

Final image choices

Thank you again for voting and commenting on the Grandview image. I closed the poll after 100 answers – that’s the limit for the free polls on surveynuts.com, still much better than the 40 answers of surveymonkey.com.

Many mentioned the esthetics, mystery, and the special moment captured in A. That was narrowly edged by the more descriptive quality of C, and I was glad I dug C out, since C is preferred to D by a ratio of 3:1. It’s a difficult choice to make between A and C since both have merits.

For the back cover image, the Bridge works probably the best with the type thanks to its uniform sky, and has the advantage of immediately saying that New River Gorge is in the book. However, I am not totally sanguine about including an image with such a prominent structure, and I also prefer to show something that is not already included in the book. The Sandstone image has a composition similar to the one in the book, with the only difference being the time of day. That’s good, but since it was difficult to decide between A and C that have a vastly different character, I decided to use C for the main chapter image and A on the back cover – C was preferred to the dawn sea of clouds by a ratio of 3:1.

Final impressions

The third Saturday of October is Bridge Day, West Virginia’s largest single-day festival, during which thousands gather on the bridge to watch BASE jumpers. BASE jumping is generally illegal in all National Park Service units, and Bridge Day is the only time and place when it is legal. I didn’t know much about the New River Gorge besides Bridge Day. The park surprised me pleasantly. I thought it was one of the “best” among those designated in the 21st century. Gateway Arch is clearly the black sheep. Congaree, Pinnacles, and especially White Sands have beautiful natural features, but not much variety. Cuyahoga Valley and Indiana Dunes are semi-urban parks. They are all small parks – considering that most of White Sands is not visitable because of military activities. Only Great Sand Dunes, which shares with New River Gorge the distinction of being a National Park and Preserve in the continental U.S. compares if you count the preserve part. Besides parks in Alaska and parks in the continental U.S. that are islands, Great Sand Dunes is the 5th less visited park. New River Gorge is already the 22nd most visited national park. For good reason. I am looking forward to returning sometime in the autumn.

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