Terra Galleria Photography

Four Camera Systems to Photograph In and Above Water

A particular equipment challenge occurs when you are photographing mostly above water, but you may be briefly drenched or submerged in water. To address a range of needs, I review four camera systems that I’ve used in those situations, in increasing order of complexity, cost, and image quality.

There is an entire industry dedicated to underwater photography. However, most underwater camera systems are overkill, and often not even usable in situations when most of the photography is above water, but the camera may also be submerged at a shallow depth, such as in rafting or canyoneering.

Phone: Moko flexible case

These days, the most commonly used cameras are phones. During our descent of Zion’s Mystery Canyon, everybody in our group (except me) took pictures only with a phone. It is easy to make a phone waterproof while maintaining its picture-taking functionalities.

In a pinch, a good ziplock bag protects a phone against a short submersion. Somehow surprisingly, the touch screen works just fine. An inexpensive IPX8 certified waterproof case uses the same idea, with a thicker plastic and a more reliable locking mechanism which is claimed to work underwater down to 98 feet.

Point & Shoot camera: Olympus TG

A mid-range P&S camera is a step-up in image quality, flexibility, and ruggedness. However, unlike for a phone, putting a camera in a waterproof bag reduces its functionality, as controls become difficult to operate. The solution is to buy a amphibious P&S camera, which does not require an enclosure.

Almost each major brand offers one. When I bought my first waterproof P&S camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, I relied on reviews emphasizing image quality and functionality. It died on the first trip, an easy Hawaii vacation. The one thing that you want to make sure is to buy a camera which is actually waterproof. With similar small sensor sizes, all those cameras yield comparable image quality.

When I looked for a replacement, I eliminated all the cameras that had any reviews on amazon with owners complaining about leaks. This led me to the Olympus TG-2. So far it is still working. Being shockproof and crushproof it is good for lending to the kids or to my wife! We can assume the current Olympus TG-4 is as durable, and offers better images- it has RAW capture that the TG-2 lacked.

Premium compact: Sony RX100 with Meikon UW housing

The Sony RX 100 ushered in the area of “premium compact” cameras. Its relatively large 1-inch sensor, RAW capture, and relatively good lens let it capture images significantly better than P&S cameras (some say almost DSLR-quality) while remaining pocketable. There is only one camera in this class which is waterproof, the Nikon 1 AW1, but, as you can see in the 1-star reviews, there have been complaints of leaks.

Instead of going this route, I bought an underwater housing for my RX 100. Being designed for scuba diving, those are tough, rigid boxes sure to keep your camera dry! They are dedicated to a specific camera model, and equipped with buttons and dials designed to match almost each of the camera’s controls.

Underwater housing for larger cameras are extremely bulky and heavy. This is not a problem underwater where they become weightless, but it makes them unsuitable for use above water. However, the RX 100 is so small that its housings are only the size of a chunky compact, very manageable above water. The other issue with underwater housings is that they are usually quite expensive: the ones sold by UW specialist Backscatter range from $475 to $1,250. However, in the case of the RX 100, the Chinese manufacturer Meikon makes an affordable housing sold with various branding. Similar housings are available for the RX 100 II, RX 100 III and RX 100 IV cameras.

Compared to the more expensive housings, the Meikon’s controls are not as smooth, and there is no way to rotate the central dial in the back, however by assigning carefully custom controls, it is possible to operate all significant functions.

DSLR: Outex

To shoot with your DSLR in a wet environment where the camera might be briefly submerged, there are only two solutions that I have found to be practical.

You can keep your camera in a small dry bag. When you want to photograph, you take it out of the dry bag. When there is a risk of submersion, you seal the dry bag.

If you want the camera to become waterproof so that you can keep it deployed at all times, the best solution I have seen is the Outex system. The Outex is IP08 tested, which means it can be submerged to depths of 30 feet, good enough for anything but scuba diving.

The other bag-based systems (such as EWA-marine) use a clear heavy vinyl. This let you see the dials, but the rigidity of the material makes it problematic to use any controls on the camera or lens other than the shutter release. A photographer I know liked it to “trying to use a camera with mittens designed for subzero conditions”. By contrast, the rubber used in the Outex is flexible enough to give reasonable access to controls above water. On the other hand, the Outex is totally opaque, so you need to be familiar enough with your camera that you can operate it without looking at the controls!

The Outex is a modular system. The basic system consists of a cover, optical lens, viewfinder adaptor, and viewfinder lens, all fitted to your camera body and lens (about $400). You need to be careful when ordering components, since Outex does not accept returns. If you don’t want to have to purchase multiple optical lenses, you should make sure to get the largest filter thread size you need, then adapt to smaller lenses with a step-down ring. Choose also carefully the main cover. For instance, the basic cover, with openings just at the front and back, cannot be converted for tripod use. If you ever plan to use a tripod, you need a cover with a hole for the tripod adapter.

Installing the Outex takes some effort, as you have to pull and stretch it over the camera so that it passes into openings that are smaller than it. You also have to make sure the pressure rings are properly screwed. It takes me about 10 minutes, so it’s not something you can take on and off easily.

For a while, I was frustrated by a serious design flaw: the viewfinder lens and adaptor does not stay in place in its slot. Once it falls off, it’s difficult to see through the viewfinder and it’s tricky to put back on, making the unit barely usable. However, I solved the issue with an easy (in hindsight) DIY solution: wrap a string around the top of the adaptor, tie it to the tripod mount in order to prevent the viewfinder lens from sliding up, keep the tension with a cord lock. Other problems which cannot be fixed are that the dials aren’t easy to turn (especially in the water), the viewfinder lens prevents access to some buttons, and it is not easy to see the viewfinder if you are wearing glasses.

In spite of those limitations, the Outex works. It kept my Canons dry while splashed by the rapids of the Grand Canyon and while wading in the pools of the Zion Canyons. I would not hesitate to use it again for similar outings.

Have you photographed in such situations where you most of the photography is above water, but the camera may also be submerged ? What was your equipment choice ?

Five ways to photograph the Zion Narrows (and other places) without people

The Zion Narrows are amongst the most unique hikes in America. For details, refer to my post: National Parks Photo Spot #10: Zion Narrows (whole series here).

The downside of accessibility and awesomeness is popularity. Compared to the canyons mentioned in the previous posts, the Zion Narrows can feel downright crowded. For photography, this is a problem, because the canyon is the “trail”. Yet, on a summer visit, I was able to make photographs without people in them, and even find some measure of solitude. Here are five ways to do so.

Hike further

If you want to see fewer people, hiking further always works. The Narrows are no exception. There, the threshold appears to be the Orderville Junction, which is only about 1.5 miles from the end of Riverside Walk. Most people turn around here, so if you continue, you’ll find considerably fewer people. Even at the Imlay Rock, only about 0.5 miles from the Orderville Junction, hiking traffic was sporadic.

Start early or stay late

During the summer, you cannot drive your car into Zion Canyon, but instead you must use the park’s free shuttle. The system has been great for relieving traffic congestion, but limits the day hike window. In the summer, the first shuttle starts at 6:00am from the visitor center. The last one leaves from the Temple of Sinawava at 9:15pm (schedule here). When traveling up canyon, I’ve noticed that the shuttles before 7:30am are quite empty.

The last shuttles are quite full, but it doesn’t mean that day hikers stay late in the Narrows, as the setting is more intimidating than regular trails. Hiking back from the Imlay Rock at around 6:45pm, I was rewarded by the experience of having the whole Narrows by myself. I didn’t see a single other person until the trailhead at the bus stop. I certainly had to work fast, but I still had enough time to make long-exposure photographs at several spots, and catch the 9:00pm bus – leaving myself a bit of a margin.

Photograph close-ups

Even when there is an almost continuous stream of hikers in the middle of the stream, if you photograph only one side of the canyon, you will find that most will have the courtesy to walk behind you.

Use a very long exposure

Sometimes, the light dictates you to photograph at a particular time of the day. If people in the scene are moving, they will not register in an exposure which is much longer than the time they stayed in the scene.

Blend multiple exposures

If you cannot use a shutter speed slow enough (for instance because it is quite bright and you forgot your ND filter) and waiting for all people to clear out from your picture takes forever, you can turn to Photoshop. It’s my last resort option, but at least, there is a way which doesn’t require too much work.

Erasing people from a single frame with the clone tool can be extremely time-consuming because you have to re-draw the background behind them. My preferred technique consists of using multiple exposures with the camera on a tripod and then blend the images. You just need to take enough pictures that each spot is free of people in at least one picture.

This example uses three pictures, and combines the right of picture 1, the middle of picture 2, and the left of picture 3. In Photoshop, layer the pictures, align them, then use the eraser tool on the people in relevant layers. It works like magic! You can also try File > Scripts > Statistics > Median (Photoshop Extended or CC required) to do the same automatically, but in my experience this works well only if you have at least a dozen pictures.

Although the examples in this post are from the Narrows, where it is more difficult to exclude people from the landscape than on regular trails, the ideas are applicable to other locations as well.

Zion Canyons: Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Hidden and Echo Canyons: a pair of easily explored canyons in Zion

In the heart of Zion, Hidden and Echo canyons give you a good taste of the varied off-trail adventures to be had in Zion’s backcountry, as you explore a lush hanging canyon and a narrow slot, easy enough for hiking, but wild enough to feel out of the beaten path.

Unlike the previously described canyons, route finding is straighforward, as you can hike to the entrance of the canyon on a good trail. Although some scrambling over boulders is required, it is not as intimidating as in Keyhole Canyon. You can normally hike Hidden Canyon without getting your feet wet. In dry conditions, you could hike Echo Canyon without wadding in water.

The trailhead for both canyons starts at the Weeping Rock trailhead (7th stop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle). At the beginning, you will be following steep switchbacks along the popular Observation Point Trail.

Hidden Canyon

After about 0.5 miles on the Observation Point Trail, you come to a junction. Turn right towards the path less traveled. Unlike the Observation Point Trail, the Hidden Canyon trail doesn’t lead to a spectacular viewpoint. Instead, the trail takes you to the mouth of a narrow hanging canyon. There are a few exposed sections equipped with chains and stair steps. Because the trail stops at the canyon entrance (1 mile from trailhead, 800 feet elevation gain), exploring the canyon gives a good taste of backcountry hiking. You have to contend with a number of obstacles, however you cannot get lost between the narrow walls.

The canyon is full of possiblities for photographing intimate scenes. You’ll pass surprisingly lush plant communities, fern and moss-covered walls, and a small arch on your right, 0.5 miles into the canyon.

Although you can go about a mile to the base of a dry fall, most hikers will want to stop shortly after the arch, when the climbing over rocks on your left becomes quite exposed and awkward. Going up may look easy, but we had to help some hikers to go down, which is always more difficult, as the ledge is slopping and it is difficult to see your feet.

The light in the canyon is best in mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when the sun doesn’t reach directly into the canyon bottom. At those times, the soft glow of light, reflected off the canyon walls, fills shadows with a warm color. Earlier and later in the day, only the tops of the canyon rims are lit by sunlight and the depths are in deep shadow.

Echo Canyon

At about mile 2, after passing through tall walls, the Observation Point Trail crosses a wash. If you continue up the trail, you will soon reach a tunnel-like section, with a mysterious dark slot right at the edge of the trail, below you. That slot is Echo Canyon. Hidden Canyon is no longer a secret, but few know about Echo Canyon.

To enter it, walk right into the canyon at the wash. During a dry summer, you can continue for up to 2 miles! However, the water level in the canyons was quite high last June (as seen in Pine Creek Canyon). Since I wasn’t ready to wade this time, I contented myself with photographs from the entrance. Like for Keyhole Canyon, a full exploration of Echo Canyon requires technical canyoneering.

Zion Canyons: Part 4 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

A non-technical slot in Zion: Keyhole Canyon

If the previous posts have awakened your interest for Zion’s slot canyons, but you don’t want to engage in technical canyoneering, read on. Keyhole Canyon, which I describe in detail, may be the best opportunity for adventurous hikers to explore a beautiful small Zion slot without swims or rappels.

Dominated by slickrock, Zion Plateau, the area of the park east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel along Highway 9, has a different character from Zion Canyon. At a first glance, what strikes you is the more open scenery. However, Zion Plateau also conceals unexpected places where you can experience narrow canyons close and personal.


Start of the approach up the bowl. Head towards hoodoo in the center of the picture.

Keyhole Canyon is possibly Zion’s most accessible narrow slot canyon. The approach time is only about 15 minutes, with great views. The canyon has two distinct parts. In the photos, our group is wearing wetsuits and harnesses in anticipation for the second part (west), which involves rappels and is wet, cold, and dark. You will not need such gear if you do only the first part (east). It requires only off-trail hiking and scrambling, with a bit of climbing. You will need to pack your gear so that both of your hands are free. The reward is to adventure in a beautiful location out of the beaten path that gives you a taste of Zion’s technical canyons.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 40mm, f/8.0 1/40s, ISO 1000

The first part of Keyhole Canyon isn’t very dark compared to other canyons, so hand-holding your camera is possible. However, a tripod will allow you ensure a sharp image with better depth of field and e a lower ISO for a cleaner image. Since those may not be readily visible in a web-sized image, I’ve indicated some of the camera settings used in the early afternoon.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 27mm, f/8 1/30s, ISO 1250


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 24mm, f/16 0.6s, ISO 100

Before going, be sure to check the weather forecast, and do not enter the canyon if precipitations threaten since the canyon is subject to dangerous flash floods.

Directions

Park at a north-side pullout at mile 1.7 from the east entrance kiosk, and walk west along the road for 0.2 miles. Hike up for about 0.25 miles a steep slickrock bowl north to a pass with a hoodoo. Scramble down carefully a steep and loose gully on the other side, grabbing roots and branches. The slot will be on your left.


Start of the descent in the gully

In the narrow slot, you’ll face obstacles such as jammed boulders and logs, that you will have to downclimb for heights up to your body. If you squeeze yourself between the narrow opposing walls, you will be safe! However, a 10-feet rope or sling could be useful for lowering bags or helping members of your party go faster.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 19mm, f/8 1/15s, ISO 2000

Depending on the conditions, you may have to wade through potholes of water that can be waist deep. Plan accordingly by wearing shoes and clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. A camera carried in a backpack shouldn’t get wet, but it is always safer to use a dry bag.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 23mm, f/16.0 0.8s, ISO 100

When the canyon opens up again to a sandy wash, after about 0.2 miles, turn around, since the second part requires technical canyoneering. You’ll climb up the obstacles that you downclimbed. The light can change fast in those narrow canyons, so even though the section of canyon was short you might see something new on your way back.

Zion Canyons: Part 3 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

The bowels of the earth: Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon

Each of Zion’s canyons have an individual character. While Mystery Canyon was long, diverse, lush, and open, Pine Creek offered a hauntingly beautiful subterranean experience in a surprisingly cold slot canyon, with an incredibly lucky find.

In Zion National Park, the soft sandstone rock has been eroded by flash floods into narrow crevices which can look like caverns from the inside. Pine Creek Canyon let you travel the bowels of the earth in claustrophobic passageways and huge chambers that allow only a glitter of glowing light into their depth.

The twisting slot canyons trap pot holes of water which remain frigid because the sun never reaches them. I was surprised to find out that even when the temperatures in the desert soar in the 100Fs, the water in the subterranean canyons remains cold enough that without protection such as wetsuits, it would be very easy to get hypothermic.

Last year, I had planned to descend Pine Creek Canyon with my brother-in-law, but because I got injured while rafting the Grand Canyon, he went alone. He had found Pine Creek Canyon mostly dry. It turned out that because of a mid-May storm, Pine Creek Canyon had ten times more water than last year. Sections that were totally dry last year were so deep that the women in our group had to swim. I love how those changes remind us that our planet is living and unpredictable.

My inspiration for descending Pine Creek Canyon was Floris Van Breugel’s photographs of the “Cathedral” chamber. However, when we got there, the light wasn’t quite right. With the water in the pool below so deep that even my full-size tripod didn’t keep the camera above the water, I gave up on trying to wait.

In the subsequent dim corridor, the high water created a mesmerizing setting. I walked with water up to my shoulders, holding the tripod extended above my head to keep the attached camera out of the water. A waist deep section allowed me to set up the camera for a long exposure.

The highlight of our visit was to find a pair of juvenile owls perched on a sculptured log – perfectly still during the 1s exposure. Who said that a 24mm lens isn’t appropriate for bird photography ? As we moved across the glowing chamber, their body remained totally motionless, but their eyes tracked us intently.

The easy approach and exit combine with the canyon’s beauty to make it the Zion canyoneering classic. Not to forget the fun of swims and rappels! On the last one, you hang from the rope for 100 feet without touching the rock.

In the depth of Pine Creek Canyon, you may feel in the wilderness, but the canyon parallels the Zion tunnel and the Canyon Overlook Trail. It is remarkable to be able to explore a place so close to civilization, yet so different, truly a hidden wonder.

More photos of Pine Creek Canyon
More photos of Zion Canyoneering

Zion Canyons: Part 2 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Zion’s Mystery Canyon

Zion is a land of deeply cut and narrow canyons. With a few exceptions, their beauty cannot be seen by hiking. On my last trip to Zion, by descending some of the “technical” canyons that require the use of ropes and harnesses, I sought to experience parts of the park seen only by few visitors, such as Mystery Canyon.

Exploring technical canyons combines hiking, climbing techniques, and swimming into the sport of canyoneering. The reference resource for canyoneering in Zion is Tom Jones’ Canyoneering USA. Tom named Mystery Canyon as his favorite Zion canyon, because it “has everything”.

We started the day on the East Mesa Trail, which travels isolated forests and meadows atop a flat plateau to the east of Zion Canyon. Mystery Canyon involves a lot of hiking in a surprisingly verdant canyon beneath sheer walls, alternating between open and narrow sections that provide a wonderful diversity of scenery.

Besides exploration, the fun of canyoneering consists in using various techniques to pass obstacles. Rappels are necessary when you encounter large drops. We did a dozen rappels in Mystery Canyon. The first series are encountered in the Rock Narrows, when the character of the canyon changes to sculptured narrows.

Unlike some canyoneering routes, Mystery Canyon is relatively dry. The most spectacular rappel of the day took place in a large alcove. Since I was one of the two most experienced climbers in our group, I went first. I made sure to put my camera away in a dry bag, since I knew that this rappel would land into a pool (called Mystery Springs). However, this wasn’t enough to prepare me for the experience of rappelling straight into a pool too deep to stand. My first reaction upon entering the cold water, still attached to the rope, was “Now what ?”. I figured out that with the large backpack I was carrying (containing my dry bag, tripod, and an extra rope), my best option was to swim out on my back.

Our journey which started on a gentle plateau, ended up in the Zion Narrows. Mystery Canyon has a perfect finale, the rappel along Mystery Falls – the first landmark that you see when you hike into the Narrows. I was elated to see this familiar sight from a new perspective.

Our group had beginners that did very well on this long day. Canyoneering is quite accessible, provided that you travel with experienced partners. Unlike climbing, the focus isn’t on difficulty, but rather on exploration.

More photos of Pine Creek Canyon

More photos of Zion Canyoneering

Zion Canyons: Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

GPS Apps for photographers

GPS can be a very useful tool for a photographer to reach locations and keep track of them. After finding out about the value of having a GPS app on my iPhone during a close call in the desert, I researched carefully many GPS apps. In this post, I survey the 8 most useful apps I’ve come across.

Links point to the iPhone/iOS version, which is the one I tested, however besides Topo Maps and GPS Tracks, all the reviewed apps are also available for Android.

With hundreds of GPS apps available, there is no doubt that using your phone as a GPS offers you more versatility than a dedicated GPS unit. In addition, a phone offers a larger screen, and network connectivity, all in a lighter package. They can be housed in hard/waterproof cases if desired. I’ve used a flexible waterproof case to swim in Zion’s wet canyons. Carrying a small battery charger ensures that you do not run out of battery in the middle of nowhere. My favorite is this credit-card sized charger because it has integrated cables and its size makes it possible to charge a phone carried in a pocket.

Google Maps

Google Maps (free) works very well for everything but some backcountry travel, especially with a few tricks which aren’t well-documented.
  • Google provides the best search and directions of any apps for driving (turn-by-turn) and walking. Last January, amongst all my apps (including an automobile Garmin unit), it was the only who could find the recently relocated entrance of Olompani State Historic Park near Novato, CA.
  • Terrain and Satellite Views are available. Use terrain view for visualizing the topography. It even shows trails. Even if it is not a true topographic map suitable for backcountry travel, the app sometimes has data that it can use to guide you along a trail!
  • You can save maps for offline use via a hidden feature: enter “ok maps” into the search box when viewing the area you want to save. There is a relatively small limit on the size of the area that can be saved, so the app still works best with a network connection.
  • You can save locations (tap on location and hold until a pin is dropped on it, swipe up to save) with all information linked to your Google account. Refer to them at google.com/bookmarks
Google Maps has no importing capabilities and can handle only individual locations, not tracks.

Here

Depending on your preferences and skills, on the trail, you may or may not rely on a GPS app. The pace of hiking leaves plenty of time to deploy traditional navigation tools – which many believe to be more reliable. However, I’ve found GPS indispensable on the road, particularly in unfamiliar cities.

Here (free) is a recent navigation map from Nokia which is great for offline travel on roads and streets, with directions for both driving (turn-by-turn) and walking.

  • The main benefit of Here is that you can download map sets for offline use without a connection. Even if you have a connection, you can save precious data usage if you have an economical plan like me. Unlike with Google Maps, you can download maps for entire continents, countries, or states. The USA map takes 4.4 GB. Last May, I used the Vietnam map (176 MB), which was very precise and complete, even on the Con Dao Islands, some of the country’s most remote territories.
  • The display is the most elegant and flexible of any of the navigation apps I’ve seen, with adaptive labeling of streets, neighborhoods, and even 3D buildings.
Compared to Google Maps, the main limitations is the absence of terrain view and trails. Satellite views are available, but require an online connection. Locations can be saved, but not exported.

TomTom USA

TomTom USA ($25) is an offline app which brings to your iPhone the familiar solid but slow interface of an automobile GPS unit. I purchased it before becoming aware of the slicker and free Here. It does have one advantage: the well-curated database of points of interest by categories can be easily searched in the vicinity of any location.

Topo Maps

The vast majority of GPS apps are not designed for outdoor use such as hiking, which requires the ability to store topographic maps for offline use.

Topo Maps ($8) has only one map source (scans of old paper 1:24,000 USGS maps for the US and 1:50,000 NRcan for Canada) and only one navigation functionality (waypoints, no tracks). However within its limitations, it has the cleanest interface of any of the hiking GPS apps. The price includes access to any of those maps. It lets you easily download them for offline use and navigate with an excellent distance/bearing tool.

Maplets

Maplets ($3) is only a map viewer, with the ability to view your location on the maps which have been calibrated. It lets you easily download (no extra charge) for offline use a variety of official park maps created by US national, state, county, and city agencies. Those visitor maps often complement topo maps, featuring information not present on them.

GPS Tracks

Phone camera pictures are automatically geotagged with GPS coordinates. Several point and shoot cameras also offer this functionality. It is a shame manufacturers have omitted it from most DSLRs, requiring (if available) the use of a cumbersome external GPS receiver mounted on the hot shoe. If you wish to geotag images, the alternative is to record a track, and then write the GPS data in the RAW files via time-stamp synchronization. Adobe Lightroom has offered that feature for a while.

From Dec 2014 to April 2015, I’ve used GPS Tracks ($8) with satisfaction, recording 75 tracks.

  • GPS navigation precision option let you optimize either accuracy or battery life. With the lowest accuracy option, I’ve been able to track for 12 continuous hours on the iPhone 6, and the tracks have remained quite precise.
  • Tracks can be auto-synchronized on Dropbox.
  • The app presents plenty of data about tracks and has an excellent player for reviewing them in detail.
GPS Tracks can also be used to create and navigate to waypoints, but unlike for the tracks, which work cleanly, the waypoints functionality is quite confusing. There are a number of offline maps offered, but they require a subscription – an unfortunate feature of many apps, so I haven’t tried them, using the app exclusively for tracking.

When I was on Santa Rosa Island, the app froze. This doesn’t seem to be an exceptional occurrence, as instructions mentioned the issue (database corruption) and the fix. However, since it involves saving data and reinstalling the app, I was not able to use the app for the rest of my stay on the island. Brian Matiash, who introduced me to GPS Tracks, also experienced tracks not properly saved.

Runkeeper

As the name implies, Runkeeper (free) is designed to keep track of running workouts, producing a neat mile-by-mile split of your running pace. However, it also works well for recording tracks, as they are auto-synchronized to the cloud and can be downloaded from there. I’ve used Runkeeper to record more than 50 tracks, so far without any problem. If all you need is a tracker, the price of the app makes it well worth trying.

Gaia GPS

Apps reviewed so far perform only a set of tasks (map viewing, waypoint-based navigation, track recording). Gaia GPS ($20) is the best option for a all-in-one outdoor GPS app.
  • The swiss-army knife of outdoor GPS apps, it lets you create, import, and export waypoints as well as tracks, and supports navigation to them.
  • You have access to a fantastic selection of outdoor maps for download at no extra charge. Those include satellite images from 4 sources, road maps, street maps, bicycle trail maps, and high-resolution topographic maps, as well as a number of specialized maps, such as those produced by the NPS. I was impressed to see how accurately some maps depicted a network of unpublicized trails on private land near my house.
  • Gaia Cloud lets you synchronize, share, and discover maps and tracks.
  • The interface is clean, especially considering the rich functionalities.
  • There are several options to maximize battery life. The app is said to be able to track for a day.
So far the only problem I’ve experienced with Gaia GPS is that the tracking turned out to be quite poor in the canyons of Zion National Park. To be fair, the combination of switchbacks on steep terrain and narrow canyons is challenging for any GPS. However, when I tried GPS Tracks in Zion, it recorded a less erratic track than the Gaia tracks.

I hope that you’ll find some of the apps reviewed useful. Do you have any favorite GPS apps that I have not surveyed here ?

Close call at the Ibex Dunes

Before moving on to the marine environment of Channel Islands National Park for an awesome change from Death Valley and its 100F temperatures, I concluded my short stay in the desert with a visit to the remote Ibex Dunes. Read about this location, and how tech nearly got me lost.

Amongst the five sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, the Ibex Dunes are the second-easiest to access, after the world-famous Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Few visit them. What probably contributes to the low visitation is their position in the very south-east corner of the park, two hours away from the central attractions of the park. There are also no campgrounds nor facilities nearby – backcountry camping is allowed. From late afternoon to mid-morning the next day, I did not see another person around, which added to the sense of wilderness. That’s one time I wished there were a few fellow campers around, though.

To get to this wild area, you need to drive only about 10 miles of unpaved road. That road, called Saratoga Springs Road, starts on the west side of Highway 127, 26 miles south of Shoshone or 30 miles north from Baker. I missed it at first because the intersection is not signed. It is the only road leading west in the vicinity and is near a historic marker, south of Dumont Dunes. From there, after 5.8 miles, turn north onto a smaller road and follow it for 2.7 miles. At the next intersection, the main road turns left for Saratoga Springs. Continue right for about a mile to an area where you can pull out to your right. Further, the road crosses deep sands that require 4WD.

Unlike other dunes, the Ibex Dunes do not form a continuous dune field but instead consist of distinct patches that stretch for about two miles. The southern section has one large dune – the tallest in vertical rise of the Ibex dunes – and more scattered smaller ones further south. The tall dune is about 1.5 miles (one-way) from the road. There are no trails, but it is straightforward to hike cross-country towards the dunes.

The return trip is less straightforward, especially at night, because you need to to find your car! There are no natural landmarks, everything looks similar, and with rocks and shrubs on the way, you cannot see as far as you would in more open and flat terrain.

Because of the warm temperatures, I didn’t start to hike until an hour before sunset. At sunset, the dunes receive directly the warm light of the setting sun as the terrain is open on the west. Usually, I don’t rely on GPS for critical navigation, but given the nondescript terrain I thought it would be my best option. I marked the position of my car with a Garmin hand-held GPS and made sure that there were plenty of batteries left. Ten minutes into the hike, I thought that maybe I should have left a flashlight turned on at the car, but since I was already a bit late, I continued towards the dunes instead.

I initially planned to do some night photography at the dunes, but about an hour after sunset, strong winds kicked up out of nowhere. With the sand flying around, stinging me, reducing visibility, and threatening to get everywhere in the camera gear, there was no point in hanging out any longer. I promptly descended the dunes and hiked across the valley, turning the GPS on from time to time to check my bearings.

At about a quarter mile from the target, although it was pitch dark on that moonless night, the terrain looked more rugged than I remembered, requiring a bit of scrambling over ravines. When I arrived at the target position, I could not believe that no car was in sight! I tried to comb the area around the target position in a circular pattern. Even the dirt road was nowhere in sight. The night wasn’t cold, but it was windy, and I carried only a light jacket and had little water left. Tired of walking in circles, I sat down to evaluate my options. It had been almost two decades since my last forced bivy!

Then, I remembered that my iPhone was running an app called “GPS Tracks”. I had started the app to create a GPS track that I would later use to geo-reference the photos by synchronizing the time stamps in Lightroom. Although it is not a navigation app and I did not mark waypoints, I found that it did show my position, together with the track. By trail and error, I was able to walk towards the start of the track. I found my car, a stunning quarter mile from the target point marked on the hand-held Garmin.

Due to last night’s near miss, and late return, I did not feel like getting up by dark. Anyway, the Saddle Peak Hills, a cluster of desert mountains situated close to the dunes to the east, block the sunrise. I started after sunrise to hike towards the northern section of the dunes, which is longer and higher, but not as stark.

With careful positioning, the morning sun was still low enough to reveal textures. Returning in mid-morning, I had no problem to locate the car by sight. I then checked out Saratoga Springs, a surprisingly marshy environment in the desert.

The Saratoga Springs road is well-maintained. It should be passable by any car in normal conditions. However, like many desert roads, it is quite washboarded. My strategy on those roads has been to drive fast. Past a certain speed the washboard frequency doesn’t “resonate” anymore, so the drive feels smoother.

However, this time, maybe I ran out of luck. Or did I? When I arrived in Baker, after photographing the tallest thermometer in the world, I stopped at a gas station. One of my tires was completely flat.

What I learned: test GPS viewpoints, do not rely on a single device, and if possible, use a low-tech navigation method. Anything else you would have done differently ?

Alternative Icons in Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is defined by its sand dunes, playas, salt flats, and badlands. Last April, I spent a few days in the park and photographed each of those iconic features, however not at the classic locations usually associated with them. I never saw another photographer. Read this post to learn about the alternative locations I visited.

Salt pan: the Cottonball Basin

Death Valley is the only National Park to feature extensive salt flats. They are formed there because, in this desert, the rate of water evaporation exceeds the rate of water precipitation. The salt pan around Badwater and Devil’s Golf Course is the largest and most well-known. However, last April, I found the whole Badwater area to be brown and dirty-looking. The salt pan along the West Side Road wasn’t much better. To produce beautiful polygons, the basins need to be flooded, but the last time this happened was 2010.

The Cottonball Basin, being close to Salt Creek (the wettest area in the park), fared a bit better. That’s the only place where I could find decent salt formations, although not polygons. I drove about 5 miles north from Furnace Creek on CA-190, parked on the side of the road. Starting about an hour before sunset, I hiked cross-country towards the west for approximately a mile, heading towards the glistening areas in the distance. I was careful to avoid wet areas in order to avoid leaving noticeable footprints, and I hope that if you visit, you’ll do the same!

Mud Playa: the Panamint Valley

Playas are dried lake beds. Many exist in Death Valley, while they are quite rare in other National Parks. The most famous is the Racetrack, because of its moving stones, but it is quite out of the way. Recent road conditions make tire punctures much more likely than in the past when I drove there four times with various passenger vehicles, including a Toyota minivan.

The Panamint Playa is quite extensive and much easier to access. It is bisected by CA-190 between miles 3.5 and 4.2 east of Panamint Springs Resort and extends for many miles in both the northern and southern directions. Late afternoon lights up the Panamint Range. I parked at mile 4 and wandered on the north side.

Badlands: Twenty Mule Team Canyon

Zabriskie Point being an icon (see my tip on finding a better viewpoint), the platform is crowded at sunrise.

Nearby Twenty Mule Team Canyon feature badlands that easily rival those found at Zabriskie Point. Unlike at Zabriskie Point, you are not limited to a platform and its surroundings, but instead drive a 2.8-mile one-way dirt road (passable by any car) which offers you a variety of viewpoints. I saw only a couple of other cars from dawn to well after sunrise. The entrance of the road is 3.6 miles south of CA-190 from Zabriskie Point.

Sand Dunes: Ibex Dunes

Dead in the center of the park, conveniently located near Stovepipe Wells, the Mesquite Flat Dunes are one of the prime attractions of Death Valley for photographers and non-photographers. The popularity makes it very difficult to escape footprints and to exclude people walking on ridges. By contrast, I didn’t see a single other car at the Ibex Dunes, nor did I notice any footprints other than mine. I still managed to ruin a good potential composition by trampling a ridge! However, this was the least of my worries, as I’ll elaborate on in the next post, which will also give more details about those dunes located in the south-east corner of the park.

Death Valley National Park is so large that it is easy to find the same subjects that people photograph at iconic locations at those, and other out-of-the-beaten path locations that let you make your discoveries.

Is there a little-known location in Death Valley that you’d like to share?

New Series: “The Sign”

As I became more aware that National Parks nature are also a human construct, in parallel with my nature work, I have been working on a few series that examine how the components of this construct direct the way we look at nature.

I’ve introduced before The Window, in which we turn our back to the landscape and look at a building. The Sign is a dual series in many ways, however it is more humorous.

In The Sign, we face and look directly at the landscape from a designated overlook. The man-made element consists of an interpretive sign which occupies a small portion of the picture, but frames and dominates the way we perceive its space. As the sign includes a pictorial depiction of the land, a dialogue takes place between the land and its representation or interpretation. That representation can be literal or stylized, in direct correspondence or shifted (either in space or time – look how hillsides in the Virgin Islands have become more desirable locations for homes), limited to more names, or making invisible information available.

I see the new series as an extension of my thorough celebration of nature in the National Parks. To emphasize the continuity, I have presented those images with the same color slide film palette. The common organizing principle is that within the series, each image is from a different national park.

See the whole series.