Terra Galleria Photography

The White Pocket

The Coyote Buttes are the most sought after area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, and as such are subject to quotas and permits. If you didn’t win one, a great alternative is to visit the White Pocket, which for now does not require a permit despite being in my opinion equally impressive and otherworldly.

Previously known only to photographers and local ranchers, the White Pocket came to prominence after photos were published in National Geographic Magazine in 2012. As an indication of its growing popularity, in April I had been traveling in various areas of the Arizona Strip for about a week, and never saw any other people near each of the very scenic spots where we camped, but there were more than half a dozen cars parked overnight at the White Pocket trailhead.

As with Coyote Buttes South, the catch is that to get to the White Pocket you need a high-clearance 4WD. I don’t own one. Since I can access maybe 95% of the destinations of interest to me with a Subaru, to minimize my environmental impact, I have refrained from buying a less fuel-efficient vehicle. But the 5% kept intriguing me, and on that trip, to tackle some of those challenging roads, instead of driving from home, I flew to Las Vegas and rented a 4WD. Since the goal was some serious off-roading, I didn’t rent a random 4WD, but made sure to reserve a Jeep Wrangler, which is by far the most capable off-the-shelf vehicle you can find, with its high clearance, geometry, a combination of power and lightweight, undercarriage protection, among other features. Specialized car rental companies will provide you a well-equipped one, but at a high cost. Mainstream car rental companies will not guarantee a Wrangler nor any specific car, only a SUV. Fox Rent A Car in Las Vegas is located off the regular car rental terminal and doesn’t provide the greatest service (more on that in subsequent posts), but they do have Jeep Wranglers for cheap.

(click to enlarge)

My friend had tried to visit earlier in the year with a Jeep Grand Cherokee but he did not stop at the BLM office to get road advice and ended up having to turn around because of difficult road conditions, compounded by mud. The BLM visitor center in Kanab provided an extremely useful map, which I have reproduced above. By comparison with the direct road he attempted, the longer BLM-recommended road (in yellow on the map) turned out quite easy, and the Wrangler cruised with no difficulties. At the White Pocket trailhead, I noticed that drivers had made it there with a variety of 4WD SUVs. The next day, however, we followed the direct route from White Pocket to Cottonwood Cove that includes a segment marked as “most difficult” on the map, and while we made it without having to deflate tires, the Wrangler struggled quite a bit on the uphill sections of deep sand and would almost certainly have gotten stuck had I lost momentum during some of the turns.

What is the reward for the challenging drive? The White Pocket, a short walk from the trailhead, is only about half a square mile and you can walk across in fifteen minutes, but within that small area, it easily compares square foot for square foot to the most interesting areas in the Southwest, including the Coyote Buttes and its “Waves”. It is a landscape photographer’s dream.

Not only rocks are incredibly twisted, but also the red sandstone is capped by an unusual white layer, after which the entire area was named, creating great contrasts. That layer is also more resistant to foot traffic than the striations and ribs of the Wave, so I was less hesitant to wander freely around. This may also explain why the BLM has so far not restricted the area. However, this may not last, so my advice is to visit it while you still can!

The Third Wave

In 2001, 18 years ago, even though it was a cold and rainy day in the middle of winter, there was already some competition to visit the Wave in then recently designed Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. And on such a day, my wife and I were surprised to be asked for our permits on site, near the rock formation which has since become world famous.

In April this year 2019, the next day was also forecast to be rainy, but having learned that there is much more than the Wave in the Coyote Buttes North permit area, I entered the lottery. Currently, 20 hikers are allowed into Coyote Buttes North each day. Half of the permits are awarded months in advance through an online lottery, and the other half are drawn for the next day via a daily 8:30am walk-in lottery taking place at the BLM visitor center in Kanab, Utah (details).

On that day, the odds of winning the lottery turned out to be slim: 144 applicants for 10 permits. But my main goal in coming to the building was not to seek a Coyote Buttes North permit, but instead a Coyote Buttes South permit, which is subject to an identical quota. I was assigned #1 for that second lottery, which takes place around 10am after then Coyote Buttes North lottery, and with only 14 applicants, the odds of winning were much better!

Besides not including the Wave, another reason for the lesser popularity of Coyote Buttes South is the remoteness and longer drive not accessible to all vehicles. Besides the rocky spots, there are spots of deep sand and the tracks are often deep with a high ridge in the middle, sometimes combined with inclines. Although there are quite a few roads where 4WD is recommended but actually not necessary, this is not the case here, and from what I’ve seen an AWD vehicle will not make it. Together with your permit, the BLM provides you with a map indicating mileage and road numbers, which I have found adequate to navigate the confusing maze of primitive ranching roads in the area provided you keep track of distances, since the road numbers are surprisingly well marked on metal posts.

Coyote Buttes South is a large, 1700-acre permit area. The two trailheads and main formations are about 3 miles apart on foot, and as the shortest road between them (5.5 miles) is not recommended because of deep sand, it took an hour and half to drive the 18-mile BLM-recommended route. Of the two trailheads, Paw Hole is the most accessible, and close to the teepee rock formations. It is only 2.5 miles from House Rock Valley Road, and without a 4WD vehicle, one could hike that distance. Evening light there would be best, but the day was overcast. That nevertheless brought out the incredible color saturation of the teepees.

The other official trailhead, Cottonwood Cove, requires more difficult driving, but there is a much larger variety of rock formations to explore. We encountered only one other party during our day. A user trail leads in a half mile to the first teepee rock formations next to a pond. From there, the trail vanishes and you need to scramble over rock and sand.

The light wasn’t great that day, to say the least, but I could nevertheless ascertain that Coyote Buttes South compares quite well to the Coyote Buttes North. Coyote Buttes South is one of the marvels of the Southwest, and a good example of an area which is under the radar not because of lack of merit, but rather because it is overshadowed by a better known area. With a bit of research, there is still much to find. I noticed quite a few whimsical rock towers, but since the day was overcast, I hoped I could have photographed them against a more attractive sky.

I hiked in the northwest direction for about a mile before turning back in steady rain. Half-way, a spot at the edge of a terrace offered a higher viewpoint over a lower terrace, mitigating the need to photograph against the cloudy sky. After scrambling down, we found the formation called the “Third Wave” – the “Second Wave” is located in the Coyote Butte North permit area, not far from the Wave.

The Third Wave is smaller than the Wave. When you first see it, the formation isn’t that impressive, but it would be have been a mistake to turn around without looker further. Like at the Wave, the striations are quite fragile, and it is important to leave them as you found it so that others may have a chance to enjoy them. This means avoiding trampling as much as possible. I walked across the formation only one time before going back.

That was enough to find an angle from which, thanks to the arrangement of swirls and striations, the Third Wave stood out. It has more rainbow colors than the Wave, and the rain intensified them, as can be seen by comparing the dry and wet portions of the rock. Like I did when I photographed the Wave, I excluded the blank sky from my compositions. The images below result from a very slight change in viewpoint, with four different focal lengths ranging from 17mm to 100mm. Which one do you prefer?





San Juan Islands: Lopez Island

This post made possible by Secure Data Recovery, scroll to bottom to read how.

Although the closest from the mainland by ferry, Lopez Island, the third-largest of the San Juan Islands, is the most rural and laid back of the three major islands. In a place where coastal access is limited by property rights, Lopez Island has quite a few public easement hikes (directions).

Shark Reef Sanctuary

The rocky coastline at Shark Reef Sanctuary is west facing, making it an excellent place to watch the sunset. The trail through the thick forest carpeted in salal leads to the coast (0.25 mile) and ends (0.5 mile) at a rocky and grassy bluff framed by windblown shore pines.

Iceberg Point

Iceberg Point is the second largest of the many discontinuous tracks of land that make up San Juan Islands National Monument. The most direct route to Iceberg Point is 3 miles RT, but longer loops are possible, as there is a network of trails. Starting in the late afternoon, the first part of the trail, in a tunnel of trees, was in the shade. I crossed path with a group of hikers, and for the rest of the day didn’t see another person. Near Iceberg Point, the sun streamed into the forest, creating a different atmosphere.

Iceberg Point juts out on the west, offering a 270-degree panoramic view over water. From the same spot, within minutes, I photographed in two opposite directions. Towards the setting sun, I looked for silhouette elements in the high contrast image, and I found a rock rib in the water whose curve echoed the distant mountain. I augmented it by framing the image with a small portion of the foreground coastline that added another repetition of that motif. Pointing the camera in the opposite direction, I looked for texture in the softer image, which I found in the rocks catching the last rays of sun and the water with floating seaweed.

The night was near full moon. At the beginning of the evening, towards the east, I could include it in the landscape while there was still enough light for an exposure short enough not to overexpose it. As it rose up, the moon became bright enough to enjoy hiking by night. A long exposure made the scene look almost like daylight, with the twist that the western sky still displayed residual colors from the sunset.

Watmough Bay and Point Colville

Watmough Bay is a beautiful pebble beach in a cove next to a high cliff, only a third of a mile flat stroll from the parking lot. Low tide uncovers the beach, which is mostly submerged at high tide. Mt Baker is normally visible from there, and the Photopills app indicated that sunrise would be a good time, as the sun would rise above the bay in the gap between the two headlands. However, the morning was foggy and I looked for monochromatic compositions emphasizing shape.

Shortly before reaching the beach, there is a user trail on the right (south) that leads to a headland via a forest, eventually ending at a private property. 470-feet Chadwick Hill on the north side of the bay is said to offer a fantastic view, but on the morning I was there, the summit was engulfed in fog. I concentrated on smaller scenes, as they work well with soft light.

Not far from there, an easy 2-mile loop trail through a lush forest lead to Point Colville. In clear weather, the headland features a panoramic view extending from Mt Baker to the Olympics, but with the marine layer present, I used instead an islet called Castle Island as a focal point for the picture. Although the peak of the wildflower season occurs in May on the island, a few clumps of summer flowers added a color accent to an otherwise subdued color palette. The area including Watmough Bay, Chadwick Hill, and Point Colville forms the largest tract of land in San Juan Islands National Monument, and althought it was summer, for the entire morning I hardly saw anybody.

Thank you to Secure Data Recovery for making this series of posts possible. If you remember, I lost a week of photos from memory card failure. After that post appeared last fall, a representative from Secure Data Recovery contacted me to offer pro-bono recovery. I sent in my failed card and a new card for data transfer. My technologist friend was skeptical that they would succeed. However, they did, and this winter I got back all my files on the new card, with not a single one missing or corrupted. Well done and thanks!

San Juan Islands: Orcas Island

This post made possible by Secure Data Recovery, scroll to bottom to read how.

Much like California’s Channel Islands, the San Juan Islands are a mountain range that became submerged. As the largest of the San Juan Islands, and the only one with any significant elevation, Orcas Island offers the most varied opportunities for nature photography.


Eastsound is the only sizeable town on Orcas Island. While on San Juan Island, you ferry lands right in Friday Harbor, on Orcas, it lands at one end of the island, and Eastsound is located in the middle. Unlike in California or Oregon, and like on the East Coast, there is no public access to beaches in Washington. North Beach Road in Eastsound leads to one of the few spots on the island with public coastal access.

However, the most interesting spot I found for nature photography nearby was a mere two hundred yards from Main Street. Indian Island is an islet located in East Sound, the fjord-like body of water adjacent to Eastsound. In general, it is a quick paddle, but there are 40 days per year when during a minus low tide, it is possible to cross on foot from Eastsound to Indian Island in knee-deep water. Since I was carrying my camera bag, I made sure not become trapped by the incoming tide. I circled the islet shore in fifteen minutes and found a range of orientations, and in spite of its diminutive size there was more to see than rocks.

Indian Island is part of San Juan Islands National Monument. When looking at the map of this curious national monument, with the legend “National Monument Boundary: Designation applies to BLM lands within this boundary”, at first I wondered where the national monument is. It is easy to miss because its surface area is diminutive, only about 1,000 acres (1.5 square miles), and that surface area is distributed among approximately 75 separate sites, most of them islets like Indian Island.

Moran State Park

Moran State Park, established in 1921 and Washington’s fourth-largest state park, is the gem of the San Juan Islands. Culminating at 2,409 feet, the park offers varied terrain that includes old growth forest, lakes, and waterfalls. The 5,000-acre park includes 30 miles of hiking trails and five lakeside campgrounds with 151 campsites that must be reserved in advance in the summer.

The most popular attraction in the park is the summit of Mount Constitution, where a stone observation tower provides an extra fifty feet of elevation for a panoramic view that includes Mount Baker and the Olympic Mountains. The top of the tower is open, but it is a rather small space that I made sure not to hog by not spreading the legs of my tripod, and folding it when I was not taking pictures.

A trail circles Mountain Lake. Starting from the South End Campground, a steep trail (0.7 miles, 300 feet elevation gain) leads to Sunrise Rock that overlooks Cascade Lake. Despite its name, this isn’t a great sunrise spot, as the sun is blocked by the mountains, but around an hour after sunrise, the scene is beautifully lit. Mount Constitution would be a great sunrise spot, except that the Mount Constitution Road is locked at night (with a ranger chasing you down at dusk) and doesn’t open early enough.

Near the beginning of the Mount Constitution road, another short trail hugs Cascade Creek, leading to four waterfalls set in an old growth forest. I found the most photogenic to be the first one, Rustic Falls, as it was enhanced by a huge toppled tree. The second one, Cascade Falls, at 75 feet tall, is a much taller drop, but during my visit, it was cluttered with a jumble of fallen logs.

Thank you to Secure Data Recovery for making this series of posts possible. If you remember, I lost a week of photos from memory card failure. After that post appeared last fall, a representative from Secure Data Recovery contacted me to offer pro-bono recovery. I sent in my failed card and a new card for data transfer. My technologist friend was skeptical that they would succeed. However, they did, and this winter I got back all my files on the new card, with not a single one missing or corrupted. Well done and thanks!

The San Juan Islands: San Juan Island

This post made possible by Secure Data Recovery, scroll to bottom to read how.

The San Juan Islands, located in the northern reaches of Washington State’s Puget Sound, eighty miles north of Seattle, are a delightful destination. Comprising beautiful scenery of woodlands and shoreline, their atmosphere has remained pastoral and relaxed. This series of posts will describe highlights from the three largest of those islands, starting with the most populous, the namesake San Juan Island. It takes only about 15 minutes to cross the island from east to west, and 30 minutes from south to north.

Getting there

The San Juan Islands form a vast archipelago located in the Salish Sea, with over 450 islands, but only the four largest – San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw, are accessible by public transportation. Getting there is part of the fun. When I rode the ferry, it immediately made me feel like I was on a vacation. The ferries are part of the Washington State Ferry system (website).

They are large (accommodating as many as 150 vehicles), affordable, and easy to use. While loading and unloading you only need to drive forward into lanes wide enough for semi-trucks. They run through the day with eight departures, and during my trip in July arriving half an hour before departure time was sufficient during mid-week to get into the ferry from the islands. However, for the departure from Anacortes, I took advantage of the new reservation system which allows you to secure a slot for your car for a specific ride. If your visit coincides with a weekend, you definitively will want to do so if leaving Anacortes on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings and returning on Sunday afternoons. When visiting multiple islands, the easiest is to start with the furthest (San Juan), because all tickets are round-trip even though you are charged only for the westbound fare. On your way back to Anacortes, you can stop at any of the other islands and re-board when you want, and you won’t even need to show your ticket.


Friday Harbor, a ninety-minute ride from Anacortes, is the largest town in the San Juan Islands, with lodgings, restaurants, and other services such as the only movie theater on the islands. During summer, it is recommended to make advance lodging reservations. I did not stay there, but I checked out the scenic harbor while waiting for my ferry, after parking my car in the nearby ferry lane. As the town is settled on a hillside, by wandering around the streets, I was able to find a high viewpoint. The second largest town on San Juan Island is the resort of Roche Harbor, where you will find the San Juan Islands Museum of Art Sculpture Park with more than a hundred sculptures in a nature preserve setting.

Most of San Juan Island is rural and consists of farmlands, and there is one farm that stands out, Pelindaba, thanks to its several acres of lavender fields, which bloom from mid to late summer. Using a telephoto for a tight composition resulted in depth of field too shallow to encompass both foreground and background even at the smallest aperture, so I used focus stacking, combining photos focused at different distances.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

In 1859 the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over possession of San Juan Island after a pig was shot. That pig belonged to the Hudson Bay Company and was rooting in the garden of an American. The dispute was eventually resolved without resorting to violence. Today you can visit the historical British and American camps at two separate sites on the island. Besides the building, the American camp park also offers a 3-mile hike (longest on the island) to Mount Finlayson.

Cattle Point

South from American Camp, Cattle Point offers sweeping vistas of grass-covered dunes, with the backdrop of nearby islands, the Olympic Mountains, and the Salish Sea. The area has been included into the recent San Juan Islands National Monument to protect one of the last native prairie ecosystems in the Salish Sea. At sunrise, the low light helps define the prairie that you can walk via a network of trails, and in the summer, wildflowers including California poppies are present between the grasses. East of the lighthouse, you can go down to the shore on a slippery user trail.

Having arrived there in pitch dark night, I wondered at first how to reach the lighthouse. You have to walk south from the Cattle Point Interpretive Area parking lot a hundred and fifty yards along the road to a trailhead, and then half-mile on trail. The Cattle Point Lighthouse isn’t particularly photogenic when seen close, and there was a rope fence around the hill on which it sits, but from a distance, it provided a nice focal point. I photographed it from as far as one mile away. It was visible from a roadside pullout with interpretive signs, but from there the lighthouse merged with the island in the background, a problem that I solved by hiking up the hillside opposite the road.

Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park features a rocky coastline lined with colorful madrone trees. The San Juan Islands are one of the best places in the world to observe whales from the shore, and Lime Kiln Point State Park is said to be a particularly good spot for watching orcas – sighting records are posted at the lighthouse.

The photogenic lighthouse offers a range of compositions from both sides. Its west-facing orientation makes it one of the best choices on the island for a sunset. Twenty minutes after sunset time, the colors to the west intensified. The light became dim enough that the lightouse’ light stood out, as I made sure to time my photograph with the rotation of the beam. One of the three campgrounds on San Juan Island is located three miles north of Lime Kiln Point at San Juan County Park.

Thank you to Secure Data Recovery for making this series of posts possible. If you remember, I lost a week of photos from memory card failure. After that post appeared last fall, a representative from Secure Data Recovery contacted me to offer pro-bono recovery. I sent in my failed card and a new card for data transfer. My technologist friend was skeptical that they would succeed. However, they did, and this winter I got back all my files on the new card, with not a single one missing or corrupted. Well done and thanks!

Processing tip: Brightening in Lightroom Explained

Brightening an image in Lightroom with sliders looks like a straightforward task, yet there are two ways of doing it, and they can yield very different results, as illustrated with images and stepcharts. This framework is also used to examine the most useful Lightroom slider.

Brightening an under-exposed image

This image of the White Cliffs in Hanford Reach National Monument is too dark. The abundance of empty space on the right of the histogram indicates that there is a lot of room for brightening.

The most natural way to brighten is is by adding exposure, right? However, as you can see below, moving “Exposure” to the right results in an image which looks “washed out”, even though there is still plenty of room at the right of the histogram, which means that the highlights are far from clipped.

Instead of using the “Exposure” slider, let’s use the “Whites” slider. Even if we slide it to the right to the point where there is a bit of highlight clipping, the image looks much better!

Analyzing the effect with a step-chart

To understand what is going on here, let’s use the stepchart below, where the leftmost patch is pure black (0), the rightmost patch is pure white (255), and steps are in equal increments of 5%.

To create an under-exposed image, we reduce the brightness of the stepchart by 50%.

When we brighten it with the “Exposure” slider, notice how the spikes on the right, which correspond to the bright patches, tend to bunch together. The consequence of that is that those bright values lose differentiation, as the bright tones merge together. That, and not clipping, is what causes highlight detail to be lost.

If we brighten the image further with the “Exposure” slider, the effect becomes even more pronounced.

Now if instead we use the “Whites” slider, the spikes are more evenly distributed. The dark values are less separated than with the “Exposure” slider, but the bright values are more separated, in fact about the same as the dark values, with the mid-tones receiving the most separation, which is what we generally want, since they are the most important in the image.

If we brighten the image further, to the point where the brightest highlights match those in the image brightened further with the “Exposure” slider, we can see that better highlight separation is still retained.

Brightening a normally exposed image

This forest scene from Cuyahoga Valley National park is almost correctly exposed, with highlights quite close to the right edge of the histogram, but it still looks a bit dark.

However, if we move the “Exposure” slider to the right, we can notice that the bright greens in the image have now lost detail and look too bright.

You’d think that by brightening something with a slider called “Whites” would negatively affect bright areas, but they actually hold more detail compared to brightening with the “Exposure” slider.

In the finished image, to recover even more highlights, I’ve moved the “Highlights” slider to the left in the opposite direction from the “Whites” slider, a move that will be more clearly seen in the next example.

Brightening while maintaining highlight detail

This waterfall from Cuyahoga Valley National park is also almost correctly exposed, but still looks a bit dark.

The “Exposure” slider brightens the dark and mid tones, but the highlights lost detail.

We recover them by moving “Highlights” to the extreme left, illustrating again why Lightroom’s “Highlights” is one of the most efficient tools at your disposal in the digital darkroom. While it is also possible to move “Highlights” to the right to brighten light tones, there are better ways to do so. Therefore, when using Lightroom, I always move “Highlights” only to the left.

The highlights now look a bit dull. This is remedied by a “Whites” move – which I use almost exclusively to the right. That Whites/Highlight opposite move is similar to the Shadows/Blacks opposite moves described in the previous post

To understand what is the effect of this combination, let’s go back to the stepchart. Compared to the previous stepchart, moving “Highlights” to the left has the effect of creating more separation between the bright values. The brightest highlights have almost not been darkened, but the other highlights have, and therefore the range of highlight is larger than before, which is what creates the impression of better highlight detail.

To gain insight into the effect of sliders in your processing software, I invite you to download the stepchart and observe how the histogram changes when you move them, like we did in this post.

Processing Tip: Highlights and Shadows in High Contrast Scenes

In this post, using images from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for which I had described the location, I demonstrate two of the processing steps I use most frequently for high contrast scenes. Both consist of somehow counter-intuitive, but extremely simple and effective, opposite slider moves. Although this post is illustrated with Adobe Lightroom, those controls are available in most processing software, including the native Photos app on the iPhone – although the range of those controls are limited by the sensor and jpeg capture.

Oak Flat

My presets include +10 of clarity, vibrance, and saturation, as well as mild S-curve for more contrast. You can see that in the RAW file, the land is extremely dark, but as shown by the histogram, the exposure is correct, with the highlights close to clipping. There is strong vignetting, and I start by applying the profile as detailed in this post.

I move the exposure slider to the right, which has the effect of brightening all tones, until the land to be bright enough.

The sky is now too bright, but this is easily taken care with the highlight slider to the left, which brings it to the desired brightness by darkening highlights. With those two simple opposite moves, we are done with the sky.

The land is still too dark, and this is fixed with the shadow slider to the right, which brightens the shadows. After the move, the land has the desired brightness, but the image looks “washed out”. The reason is that it lacks deep shadows, as can be seen by the gap at the left of the histogram.

I move the black point by pushing the black slider to the left. The last pair of moves (shadows to right, darks to left) is not something one might have naturally tried, because you are doing two opposite moves that brighten and darken the shadows, but it is very effective.

Warner Point

The second image, photographed just before sunset, has even more contrast, with deep shadows, but you can see that the raw file captures the entire range of tonal values, with just a little shadow clipping and none for the highlights. By the way, note that I have used a white application background as always.

After increasing the exposure and darkening the highlights, the sky and sunlit areas look fine. You generally want to avoid saturated highlights. The eye is drawn to bright areas, and you don’t want to direct it to a place lacking in detail. Lightroom recovers highlights by default to the point that they are no longer clipped, but this is not always enough to bring enough detail in them. Unless the scene has low contrast, I find that darkening highlights most of the time bring some additional texture and color, so I almost always try the slider to see what it does.

I adjust the land with the opposite shadows/black moves. To find out how much to move the black slider to the left, I aimed to clip a significant number of pixels to the left, as can be seen in the histogram. Unlike clipped highlights, clipped shadows are generally beneficial. We expect shadows to be black. An area of pure black in the image helps brings more depth to all the tones.

Modern digital cameras, such as the Sony A7R3 used for those two images, produce files with a tremendous dynamic range. Although bracketing and exposure merging will still yield the highest quality files, for all but the most demanding applications such as very large prints, a single RAW capture and the few simple processing steps described above are enough to handle almost all situations.

Indiana Dunes National Park: Chicago Tonight, Final Spreads and Thoughts

Chicago Tonight

I was honored that WTTW, the Chicago area’s PBS affiliate which is one of the most-watched public television stations in the country, aired a story about my visit to the Indiana Dunes, produced by multiple Emmy-winning Jay Shefsky. The four-minute Chicago Tonight piece, which is very accurate, took about two hours to film and it was interesting to see how Jay was paying attention to every detail while never looking into the viewfinder himself. You may have heard of a Chicago photographer named Vivian Maier. Jay Shefsky broke her story.

Thoughts and poll results for image choice

Most of the Treasured Lands book was laid out in a period of several months with back and forth between me and designers. As explained in a previous post, for the Indiana Dunes chapter, I had less than a week after returning home from the trip. Therefore, I chose to play it safe by creating three spreads each with very clear thematic and visual ties about the dunes, the lakeshore, and the biodiversity. The dunes are what the park is named after. The lakeshore described the park before its redesignation, is what attracts most visitors, and its shelf ice is what impressed me the most. The biodiversity is one of the key rationales for the redesignation.

The specific spread I asked about in the poll was the second one, about the shore. Consistent with the rest of Treasured Lands, it takes place in four different locations spanning the park: Dumbar Beach, West Beach, the beach at the end of the Paul H. Douglas Trail, and the one below Mt Baldy. Images describe various states of icing. Visually, they are unified by the aligned horizon (this necessitated a bit of cropping of the photos) as well as two secondary diagonal lines that converge in the center of the spread. A second organizing idea is the progression of the center of interest from the water/top to the land/bottom: the iceberg in the lake, the hole in the shelf ice, the beach, the dune grass. Let see how each image functions with respect to those ideas.

I feel that image 1 is more static because of the parallel horizontal lines. Its subject matter, the mixing of beach sand and shelf ice, is less easily recognizable, making it more abstract. I like its formal quality as a standalone image very much, but within the spread, it lessens the effect of the converging lines.

By contrast, the diagonals in image 2 are quite steep. They make the image very dynamic, maybe a bit too much compared to the slope of the other diagonals. Besides showing the beach, the image also includes some of the dunes. This ties the spread to the previous one, which is about the dunes, but it makes the second progression (from water to land) a bit less clear. I wish I had photographed it with slightly less steep diagonals, and that is a case in point for varying compositions when photographing with a publishing project in mind, because you don’t exactly know which composition will work better together with other images.

Image 3, actually a crop of a horizontal image, does have the milder diagonals, which you can see prolonging those of the rightmost image, as well as the emphasis on the beach, but there is no denying that as a standalone image, it is not as strong as it doesn’t draw you into the scene the way image 2 does, precisely for its milder diagonals and lack of a foreground. I was hesitating between this, and image 2.

Thank you for everybody who participated in the poll. As one can suspect from the comments, votes overwhelmingly favored image 2. My experience as a bookmaker is that while the book is more than its component images, often you cannot fit some images that are individually strong into the sequence or design. In this case, image 2 works well enough, and I will follow the popular choice. The final four Treasured Lands spreads for Indiana Dunes National Park are at the end of this post. They are in the form of proofs that I already received from the printer, within a month of the re-designation, which means that I met the challenge! I was pleased that an Indiana Dunes park ranger wrote me “As an avid photographer who has taken thousands of photographs of the dunes, I am incredibly impressed and happy with the photos that you have chosen. It really shows off the spirit of Indiana Dunes in the winter.”

Thoughts on the new national park designation

Did Indiana Dunes deserve to become a national park? Visitation is irrelevant, and the historic intent of 1916 is mitigated by the fact that the place was developed so much in the while. Regardless of one’s opinions on this question, it is difficult to dispute that well-traveled visitors to the national parks will rank Indiana Dunes near the bottom rather than near the top of the list of national parks. Unlike Gateway Arch, Indiana Dunes is not an anomaly, but simply an extension of the trend for redesignating small areas as national parks which started with Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2000, and also gave us Congaree National Park and Pinnacles National Park (all three usually ranked in the bottom tier with Hot Springs National Park) – while they are still vast areas of the country, for historical reasons mostly located in the west, that have not yet received this level of recognition. The name “national park” brings prestige to an area and attracts non-local visitors. People are attached to their local places, and many of them have actively fought to protect them. That struggle is never ending, and I am happy for the local conservationists to see that the area received the recognition and additional protection they feel it deserves.

However, whether the benefits to the area compensate for the overall devaluation of the “national park” brand by “grade inflation” remains an open question. What do you think? Every area, no matter small or understated, is in some way unique, but think a national parks should satisfy two criteria. First, it is a landscape-scale natural area with numerous notable features, as per NPS guidelines. Second, it forms a superlative example of its type of landscape, if not the best, whatever it might be. The mix of environments and biodiversity found in such a small area as Indiana Dunes is certainly remarkable, but is that a relevant criterion when the obscure Berryassa Snow Mountain National Monument has biodiversity comparable to the entire Sierra Nevada, home of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks?

I can think of two ways the new national park could have been better. The first possibility would have been to include Indiana Dunes State Park, which is surrounded on all four sides by Indiana Dunes National Park. The state park was established in 1925, way before the lakeshore, and features the most spectacular remaining dunes in the area. The 1966 law that established Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore directed the NPS to seek the acquisition of the state park, which falls within its authorized boundaries, but Indiana has never agreed even to a joint management agreement similar to the one that established Redwood National and State Parks. The second possibility would have been to combine the four national lakeshores into a Great Lakes National Park with four separate units. There are quite a few national parks that consist of three or more non-contiguous units. Channel Islands National Park, Acadia National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park come to mind. The three other national lakeshores on the Great Lakes, Apostle Islands, and Sleeping Bear Dunes are larger, and in my opinion, more scenic than Indiana Dunes. The combination of the four of them would have resulted in a top-tier national park.

Regardless of what could have been, personally, I am glad that I got to visit a new place, one which is not located in the West, and which do not consist of mountains for a change. Natural and geographic diversity is what prompted me to visit all the national parks, and Indiana Dunes National Park does contribute to it!

More pictures of Indiana Dunes National Park

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

Indiana Dunes: National Park Diversity Beyond the Lakeshore

Indiana Dunes National Park ranks a respectable 13th of all the 61 national parks by number of visits (averaged over the decade 2008-2017). Most of those visits last a few hours: to be precise, according to NPS statistics, an average of 3h 15 min – the 8th shortest. Those hours are in general spent at the beach. Because those beaches are busy in summer, seeing them deserted and covered with snow and ice was already an experience that went beyond the ordinary, as most people who visit Indiana Dunes miss the incredible shelf ice. However, there is much more to the park than the lakeshore, and this was one of the justifications for re-designating Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park – national parks have multiple resources.

The Dunes

First, the namesake dunes. They are not as sculptural as those found in the desert, because they are mostly covered by vegetation. I saw grass-covered dunes, shrub-covered dunes, pine-forested dunes, and oak-forested dunes. Although low grass-covered dunes line all the beaches, there are only a few high dunes located near the shore. The 1-mile loop Dune Succession Trail at West Beach is possibly the best short hike in the park, as the trail illustrates the four stages of dune development, and due to the proximity to Lake Michigan, its 250 stair steps lead to an excellent high view of the lake and of active dunes. About two hours after sunrise, the sun was high enough to illuminate the landscape, yet low enough to create interplay between light and shadows. I timed my photograph for the moment when the shadow of the ridge fell entirely within a patch of sand, resulting in an unbroken shape.

The most spectacular dune in the park is Mount Baldy. Its name indicates that it is a bald dune, with sparse vegetation opening up sweeping views over the lake. Rising 126 feet off the beach, it is one of the tallest lakefront dunes anywhere, and it is also the most active in the park, burying black oak trees as it moves 4 feet per year.

Mount Baldy was the park’s main attraction, however, following an incident in 2013 when a boy disappeared into a mysteriously formed hole (he was rescued), it was closed for safety and stabilization. Since 2017, dune visits are limited to ranger-led hikes. The half-mile trail that leads around the dune to the beach has no such restrictions. As the lake side of the dune is north facing, snow from the day before still lingered, contrasting with the dune grass.

There is no need to go beyond the parking lot to see the striking inland side of the dune. In fact it is on the verge of covering that lot. To leave some of the mystery of the scene intact, instead of depicting the whole dune, I focussed on a small area where trunks and shadows created a graphic composition of lines.


The redesignation proposal emphasized that more than 1,100 native plant species make the park the fourth most diverse plant ecosystem, only behind the much larger Great Smoky Mountains, North Cascades, and Grand Canyon. That diversity is directly linked to the dunes. As the last great continental glacier retreated 12,000 years ago, fluctuations in water level of the newly-created lake resulted in successive series of shorelines and dunes. The space between the dunes was filled with wetlands. The juxtaposition of the dry environments of the dunes and wetlands, has created diverse habitats. Moreover, the glacier that left the dunes, flowing from the north, transported several northern species to the region. It is a park where you can see orchids, carnivorous plants, and cacti in a small area. It can appear difficult to capture that biodiversity in the middle of the winter, but even the bare vegetation forms conveyed some sense of it.

Fresh snow fell during my visit, and although you’d think that it would hide the land’s diversity, I thought that on the contrary, it helped outline the vegetation. For instance, by blanketing the ground in white, it highlighted the remnants of autumn color in the leaves. The featureless blank sky, usually the bane of landscape photography, helped to that effect. I made it part of the composition by echoing its line with an angled line of snow in the foreground.


There are 14 trail systems with lengths from half a mile to over 6 miles, and they allowed me to sample the diversity of environments in the park beyond the beaches and sand dunes: prairies, globally rare oak savannas, wetlands, forests, and rivers. The bill that redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park also renamed Miller Woods Trail as Paul H. Douglas Trail. The 3.4-mile round-trip hike is a good introduction to the diversity of the park, as it winds through several of those habitats. The rarest of them is the black oak savanna, in which oak forests meet western tallgrass prairie. Only 0.02% of this globally endangered habitat remains in the Midwest.

The 4.7-mile Cowles Bog Trail is the most rugged and scenic trail in the park, and also its most diverse, combining expansive wetlands, some of the steepest dunes in the park, and Lake Michigan. Starting at the Greenbelt Trailhead south of the Cowles Bog Trailhead provides a more open view of the namesake wetland where Henry Cowles from the nearby University of Chicago conducted his pioneering work that helped establish ecological science in the early 1900s – he literally put “ecology” into the vocabulary. Walking with photographer Kyle Telechan from the Chicago Tribune, I whined with him about how the markers left by scientists marred the atmosphere of the photos. However, looking back at the photographs, I found them to be a useful reminder of the legacy of scientific inquiry that took place in the park, and also that the area is still a rich ground for study today. For that reason, I included one of them in the Indiana Dunes chapter of Treasured Lands.

I wish that the new designation will make beachgoers realize that there is a full national park to explore there, and that it will be the start for a rewarding journey through many of them. While the beach and sand dunes will always be the park’s primary draw for the public, I hope that these images will inspire you to experience more of our latest national park, even in winter!

More images of Indiana Dunes National Park

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

Indiana Dunes National Park: Impressions from the Shore

Congress redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park, our 61st, on Friday, February 15. I was initially hoping the reach the park before sunset on Monday, but Chicago International Airport and the park are located on opposite sides of Chicago, and I had landed just in time for rush hour.

The Shore in winter

My destination that day, West Beach, is the most developed of the park beaches, with a parking lot for more than 600 vehicles, a bathhouse, and lifeguards in the summer. As I arrived there after dark, the huge parking lot was empty and snow-covered for a very different impression. Upon walking to the beach, I was astonished by the arctic beauty and the strangeness of the lumpy ice formations illuminated by the full moon. I had seen a lot of ice in the mountains, but this was new to me.

I was glad that despite temperatures balmy for the area (in the 20Fs, whereas the “polar vortex” had brought wind chills of -50F a few weeks earlier), I had packed my expedition-grade parka. The frigid wind and solitude contributed to the impression of wildness, despite the smokestacks present on both sides, and the distant Chicago Skyline. if not for the full moon, its brightness would have overwhelmed the picture. At the end of the 19th century, Henry Chandler Cowles, a professor at University of Chicago and ecology pioneer, developed the theory of ecological succession from research conducted in what was to become the national park, bringing scientific attention to the area.

The next morning, I started the day at the opposite end of the park, at Mount Baldy. The half-mile trail hugs a steep section of the dune for a dramatic view high above the beach. Unlike at West Beach, the shelf ice extended continuously into the lake as far as the eye could see.

I returned a few days later to West Beach at dawn. More informed about the nature of shelf ice and the potential danger presented by the formations, which are not as stable and solid as they look, I hesitantly and carefully made my way towards an opening in the ice, using my tripod to probe the ice for thin spots and holes.

Large format film photography today

You can notice in this low-quality scan (a digital picture, actually) the film holder frame indicative of a large format film photograph. However, this was not the first large format photograph I made in the new national park:

These days, I photograph mostly in digital, however for project continuity, whenever a new national park is established, I will pull out my large format film camera out of the closet, and also pull some film that expired in the 20th century out of a secondary freezer that I bought for the express purpose of storing film – although it is now overflowing with food. Since at that time I was not aware of anybody having done it, the goal to photograph all U.S. national parks in large format was what inspired me to embark on this odyssey, more than a quarter century ago. For that reason, I have striven to keep that streak intact when the 58th, 59th, 60th, and now 61st national parks were established. Given how few photographers nowadays work with large format film, this is a goal I am fairly sure to accomplish provided that I keep going. Nice to have a fail-safe claim! In fact, I am not even aware of anybody else who has photographed more than 53 national parks in large format. However, my real claim is to try to be the first photograph all the U.S. national parks, regardless of camera type. I, and a few other folks who follow this sort of thing, believe that I did just that on Feb 18, so I will assume that to be true until proven otherwise.

A missive from a fellow traveler to the national park

Upon returning, I received a phone call and this email from Bob Harback of Flanagan, Illinois:

I got a great break getting hired early with very high seniority at a car factory about 31 years ago, By taking an average of at least a month every year, my wife Julie and I have been able to spend over 2 years on the road through our nearly 24 years of marriage. We are honored to join QT as one of the first couples to visit all 61 of our national parks on February 23, 2019. (Indiana Dunes National Park) He left there the day before we got there. Our story started nearly 24 years ago when my wife suggested we see some national parks on our 24 day journey out west. Little by little we had gotten to 19 National Parks without even knowing about passport stamps. We had zero stamps when Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan put on their famous documentary. I told my wife, there is so much more out there. So, every chance we got, we visited all the parks again, getting all the stamps this time. We had been fortunate with good health to get to the 60th national park a few months after the Gateway Arch became a National Park in 2018. Our good luck continued on Feb 15th of this year when the Indiana Dunes became a national park. We only live 2 hours from the dunes so on February 23 we got to put our 61st stamp on our master sheet, along with our picture in front of each national park sign along this incredible journey. The rangers there told us we were the first couple to get to all 61 parks. We even sent a postcard stamped that day from Indiana Dunes to Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan in appreciation of their inspiration. We cannot wait for QT’s book to come out August 1st. Along with QT, we have endured tidal wave, avalanche, and earthquake areas, along with African bee, rattlesnake, dust storm and 15 degree slope areas. We were so remote in Alaska above the arctic circle, we even picked up eskimos at a stopover on one of our 14 prop plane trips! One incredible 23 year journey!! We suggest you see as many national parks as you can, there are no disappointments!


I’ve mentioned in the previous post that there was quite a bit of pressure this time, unlike at the other parks where I made an average of five visits. Although media interest in my park visits started more than a decade ago, it reached a new level this time. I ended up doing four media interviews and turning down more requests. This consumed a fair amount of time, but I still managed to visit 6 beaches and hiking 8 trails, some multiple times. The film photography angle is what intrigued WGN-TV in their story Photographer completes mission to capture every national park on film (again), but interestingly the Chicago Tribune focussed on a different angle: Photographer stalls printing of book to get images of Indiana Dunes, America’s newest national park.

Reader poll

Which leads me to a very quick poll for you. Here are three choices for the Indiana Dunes spread which depicts the shore in the new edition of Treasured Lands. Which one do you prefer and why? You can click on images to enlarge.




(Click here if you don’t see survey).

More images of Indiana Dunes National Park

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