Terra Galleria Photography

Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS Lens: Detailed Comparative Review

Summary: The possibly first in-depth review of the new Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS lens, comparing it for reference to the Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L lenses using precise and reliable measurements.

A much anticipated lens

When I started to photograph with the Sony A7R2 in the summer of 2015, the selection of Sony FE lenses was quite limited. You could count them on the fingers of both hands: Sony 28mm f2, Sony Zeiss 35mm f2.8, Sony Zeiss 35mm f1.4 ZA, Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8 ZA, Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f4 ZA OSS, Sony 70-200mm f4 ISS, Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS, Sony Zeiss 24-240mm f3.5-6.3 OSS and Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f4 OSS. Sony has certainly made impressive progress in expending this lineup in the last two years. It now includes 28 lenses, 14 zooms lenses and 14 prime lenses.

Their latest offering, the Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS Lens is the lens I have been waiting for literally since I started using the Sony Alpha system.

First, although back in 2015 the Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f4 was the better of the three trans-standard zooms on offer, it isn’t a great lens, especially for one bearing the Zeiss name. I found it a step back in optical performance compared to the equivalent Canon offerings. The blog of Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity photographer Brian Smith is a must-follow if you want to keep up to date with the latest Sony FE developments. In his post Are Sony FE Fenses as Sharp as Canon & Nikon Glass? the sharp-eyed reader can notice that all sorts of lenses are compared using DxO Mark scores, but the category 24-70 f4 is missing.

Second, when I was shooting Canon, my go-to-lens was the 24-105 f4L. I had been using it for a decade, since it was introduced in 2005, and such an habit is hard to die. I am sure the Sony 24-70 f2.8 GM is outstanding, but having used a 24-70 f2.8 in the past, I much prefer the additional reach and lighter weight of a 24-105 f4. I almost never shoot wide-open, so I don’t care for the beautiful bokeh of a f/2.8 lens. In addition, I also prefer a 100-400 lens to a 70-200 lens, and the former pairs better with a 24-105. My photography is outdoors and often required me to carry gear all day for long distances in the wilderness, in particular for my recent Treasured Lands photography book about the 59 U.S. National Parks.

When Sony announced the FE 24-105mm f4, after Brian mentioned in a tweet that it was much improved over the FE 24-70mm f4, I promptly pre-ordered three copies to test, so this is likely the first in-depth review of this lens you’ll read. Why three copies? My past experience of testing lenses has taught me that sometimes sample-to-sample variation is quite significant, to the point that it compares with model-to-model differences.

Specifications compared with Sony 24-70mm f/4

The size and weight of the Sony 24-70 f/4 made it a delight to carry. The Sony 24-105 f/4 is larger and 50% heavier, but offers 75% more focal range, so that’s a reasonable trade-off, especially considering improvements in magnification, aperture (more blades result in smoother bokeh), and controls. It is extremely similar in appearance to the first version of the Canon 24-105 f/4, with almost exactly the same size, weight, finish, and controls – the current version of the Canon is larger, though.

24-105 f/4 24-70 f/4
Close focus 1.25′ (38 cm), 0.31x or 1:3.2 magnification 1.31′ (40 cm), 0.2x or 1:5 magnification
Diaphragm blades 9 7
Stabilization Switch on lens, controlled by lens No switch on lens, controlled by camera
AF Fast and silent. Switch on lens, controlled by both with priority to MF Fast and silent. No switch on lens, controlled by camera
Size 3.28 x 4.46″ (83.4 x 113.3 mm) 2.87 x 3.72″ (73 x 94.5 mm)
Filter size 77mm 67mm
Weight 1.46 lb (663 g) 15.03 oz (426 g)
Construction Plastic barrel, rubberized rings. Plastic barrel with metal finish, finely indented metal rings.
Price (11/2017) $1,300 @ amazon $1,100 @ amazon

Operation

Like with other Sony FE lenses, the focus ring functions like an electronic dial, not physically connected to the lens, and there is no focus markings. Focusing is internal and doesn’t extend the lens. The lens is not parfocal, which means that when you zoom, the focus changes, however that change is minimal. The lens extends when zooming in. The zoom ring is solid and doesn’t suffer from zoom creep even pointed straight up or down.

AF is quick and silent. The lens is equipped with optical stabilization, which works in conjunction with the IBIS system. A button on the left side of the barrel can be customized. Compared to the Sony 24-70 f/4, the 24-105 f/4 also gains two switches for stabilization and AF. Those switches behave quite differently on the A7R2.

  • Stabilization is controlled only by the switch on the lens. The body cannot turn it on or off. I find that unfortunate. Currently, I have my two custom modes on the dial set up for hand-holding and working on a tripod. The hand-holding setup turns stabilization on, while the tripod setup turns it off – using stabilization on a tripod reduces image sharpness in a small but measurable way. With the 24-105 f/4, in addition to turning the dial, I’ll have to remember to operate the switch on the lens.
  • AF is controlled by both the switch on the lens and the camera. However, AF is active only if both lens and camera are switched to AF. I find it all too easy to brush the switch on the camera by accident and put the camera in manual focus mode, so I would have preferred that the lens switch has priority over the camera.
I hope that Sony will allow a different behavior via a future firmware update.

Visual comparison

The main issue with the 24-70 f/4 is that corners and edges are rather soft, and stopping down does not improve them. Let’s see if the 24-105 f/4 is an improvement by looking at a section of my photography library. The detail is a 600×400 pixels crop of the upper right shelf, the one with the small books.

Below is a 100% detail view of pictures from the Sony 24-70 f/4 at respectively f/4, f/8, and f/16. Notice how the title of the book with the grey spine, the author of the André Kertész book, and the Chinese characters are unlegible at all apertures.

Below are pictures from the Sony 24-105 f/4 at respectively f/4, f/8, and f/16. Even wide-open is already better than the best from the Sony 24-70 f/4. Stopping down improves image quality further, and at f/16, diffraction degrades it.

Below are pictures from the Canon 24-105 f/4 (Metabones adapter) at respectively f/4, f/8, and f/16. Sharpness is better than the Sony 24-70, but not as good as the Sony 24-105, and there is more chromatic abberation than in any of the two Sony lenses.

MTF Measurements

Visual evaluations are all good if you don’t have better, but measurements are more precise and remove any subjectivity. I used a target and software from Imatest, the leader in image quality measurement. Based on photographs of the target, Imatest automatically computes measures of lens performance.

This resulted in a lot of data, here is how to read it:

  • The five sets of graphs are for the focal lengths 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, and 105mm.
  • In each set left quadrants (A,B) are two different copies of the Sony 24-105 f/4 lens. Top right (C) is the Canon 24-105 f/4 lens. Bottom right is the Sony 24-70 f/4 lens
  • Each quadrant represents lens performance for the five f-stops between f/4 and f/16.
  • Red is image center, green is part-way, blue are corners, and black is a weighted average of the three previous values.
  • The value plotted as bars in the graphs is MTF 50, a good indicator of sharpness.

A wealth of information can be found in the graphs above, but here are a few general observations. Some will be well-known to some readers, but are worth repeating for others.

  • Aperture. Lenses are sharpest at middle apertures (sharpness is limited by abberations at wide apertures and by diffraction at smaller apertures. In fact, by f16, all lenses perform almost the same, which is why I didn’t bother to make measurements at f22). If given the choice, use a middle aperture such as f8.
  • Corners vs. Center. Center sharpness is always better than corner sharpness. At wide apertures, sharpness is less uniform across the image, with corners lagging behind. Stopping down often improve corners more than the center, making sharpness more uniform.
Here are some specific observations:

We find that there is a small, but measurable sample-to-sample variation between the two different copies of the Sony 24-105 f/4 lens. The sample A is clearly better. For the sake of presentation simplicity, I have omitted graphs from the third sample, but they are in the same ballpark. Based on experience testing other lenses, Sony’s quality control is better than average, since I have seen larger sample-to-sample variation.

The first set of graphs at 24mm validate what we observed visually: that Sony 24-105 f/4 has the best corner performance and it keeps improving as the lens is stepped down, and Sony 24-70 f/4 has the weakest one, with no improvements brought by stopping down. The Canon is in between the two. The Sony 24-105 f/4 performs great at f/8 and 24mm, my most used combination!

Based on visual observations, I expected the 24-105 to measure better, but the magnitude of the difference at all focal length surprised me. To be totally fair, the Sony 24-104 f/4 is new out of the box, while my 24-70 f/4 has been knocked around quite a bit. I didn’t baby it while climbing mountains. It is possible that its alignment was off. This has happened before. One time, while testing new lenses, I included my Canon 24-104 f/4 for reference and noticed that its performance wasn’t as good as what I remembered measuring in the past. I sent the lens to Canon Professional Services for checking, and sure enough, they found that it needed re-alignment!

Distortion

Like many trans-standard zooms, the 24-105 f/4 is not particularly well corrected for distortion. It suffers from barrel distortion at its shorter focal length, and pincushion distortion at the longer focal lengths. This is readily observed on the images of the Imatest target, respectively at 24mm and 105mm.

In practice, this is easily corrected in software such as Lightroom with lens profiles. However, you have to make sure that the compositions was not too tight to the image edges to leave room for the lost pixels. Here are the measurements from Imatest.

Sony 24-105 f/4 Sony 24-70 f/4 Canon 24-105 f/4
24mm -3.5% -3.5% -3%
35mm 1.5% 2.1% 1.1%
50mm 3.1% 4.1% 2%
70mm 3.5% 4.3% 2%
105mm 3.1% 2%

Example images

I took a quick mid-day walk at Alviso. The two last photographs were made from the same viewpoint to illustrate the difference in field of view between 105mm and 70mm.

Conclusion

The wait has been worth it. Sony finally gets it right for this supremely versatile lens. Optical performance is much improved compared to the Sony 24-70 f/4, in particular with respect to the main weakness of that lens, corner sharpness. It also compares well with the Canon 24-105 f/4L. Definitively recommended! This review required a lot of work and attention to detail. If you have found it useful, consider buying the lens from my affiliate link at Amazon. Thanks!

Drone Photography with the DJI Phantom 4 Pro

Lessons learned with the Phantom 2

I’ll start with a bit of background that will help make clear what is remarkable with the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, and also give prospective users a hard learned tip. Drone videos have captured the attention of audiences, but although video is the most natural application of drones, they also offer game-changing opportunities to the still photographer. I have been quietly experimenting with drone photography since late 2013, shortly after the DJI Phantom 2 came out. Model aircraft have been around for a long time, but flying them required a lot of skill. The computer-based control of drones made it possible to fly them out of the box. The Phantom 2 was the first ready-to-fly drone on which you could practically mount a camera with satisfying image quality. DJI pioneered of consumer drones with its Phantom and remain the leader, as evidenced by the failure of several crowd-funded drone companies.

Like its predecessor, the Phantom 2 was meant to carry a GoPro, however with inspiration from Eric Cheng and help from my mechanical engineer brother-in-law, I designed a custom, 3D-printed mount that made it possible to fly a Ricoh GR while controling the tilt angle or shutter. The Ricoh GR remains an excellent camera for its size, even by 2017 standards. The DIY rig provided great image quality at fraction of the cost of larger drones, in a considerably more portable and less intrusive package. It mobilized the largest possible sensor camera in the smallest possible aircraft.

There were two main limitations. First, besides the shutter, there was no way to control remotely the camera settings. More importantly, with the Phantom 2 already struggling with the weight of the GR, installing a gimbal was out of the question. In my first iteration of the rig with the camera directly mounted to the aircraft, I needed shutter speeds above 1/800s to ensure a sharp image. This went down to about 1/30s with the installation of vibration dampeners, and then the platform mounted on the landing gears.

My Phantom 2 reliability had been declining over time. The main reason had been my improper handling of the batteries. Since they take more than two hours to charge, I often fully charged them to be ready well ahead of shoots, and kept them charged if because of conditions the flight did not take place. But those LiPo batteries absolutely need to be stored about half-full otherwise their performance degrades. A degraded battery may appear half-full but doesn’t provide enough voltage to sustain flight. Try not to panic when the aircraft begins to auto-descend while being a long distance from you and a safe landing area! In many cases, I was able to bring it back by pushing the throttle up, but this situation still caused a few crashes, which in turn may have damaged the flight system. In the end, I did not dare flying my Phantom 2 unless the area was entirely devoid of people.

The Phantom 4 Pro and its accessories

When I decided to retire the Phantom 2, the choice was between Mavic Pro, Phantom 4 Pro, and Inspire 2. The portability of the Mavic Pro was very tempting, but eventually I chose the Phantom 4 Pro as the best compromise between image quality and size. With the basic Phantom 4 Pro model, you use your phone or tablet as a display. I bought instead the Phantom 4 Pro+ version where the remote controller comes with its built-in display. The main advantage is quick deployment: you don’t have to attach the display, and since the screen is way brighter than a phone, it is usable without a shade. I don’t have to manage a separate device, since charging the controller also charges the display. It is challenging enough to keep my iPhone charged! The drawback is that the android-based hardware isn’t as good as some phones, and more importantly, it doesn’t support third-party apps that can provide functionalities not included in DJI’s app.

Given my previous experience, the new DJI battery hub that keeps the batteries at the optimum charge level for storage was a must-have accessory. Beware of third-party hubs that offer the charging capability but don’t have a storage mode. On the other hand, third-party car chargers work just fine and can be connected to the DJI hub. DJI claims a flight time of 30 min, but in practice I limit flights to a bit more than 20 minutes. Although they are expensive, I suggest getting at least 3 batteries. They come in a standard 5300mAh and a “high capacity” 5870mAh, which is the one I recommend.

The Phantom 4 Pro and all accessories fit in a Think Tank Airport Accelerator, together with a Sony A7R2 and three zooms covering focal lengths from 16mm to 300mm. If I need to carry a more extensive camera system, I dedicate an entire backpack to it and carry the Phantom 4 pro in a small shoulder bag.

Imaging capabilities

The Phantom 4 Pro is the first Phantom equipped with a camera including a Exmor 1-inch sensor, similar to what is found in a Sony RX100 camera. By contrast, the Phantom 4 and Mavic Pro have a 1/2.3 inch sensor comparable in size to that of a camera phone. Although the image quality from the Phantom 4 Pro is a step down from the GR with its APS format, it is a class above most compact cameras and certainly all camera phones. DJI’s current top-of-the line ready-to-fly drone, the Inspire 2, uses the micro 4/3 format, which sits between 1-inch and APS.

Since the Phantom 4 Pro uses a 20 MP camera with a relatively small sensor (the full-frame Canon 5D mk3 had only 22 MP), images get noisy at higher ISO. Fortunately it is often possible to use lower ISOs even in dim light because the stability of the aircraft and 3-axis gimbal that compensates for aircraft motion allows for sharp images at low shutter speeds. That may be the most significant improvement in terms of imaging over the Phantom 2 generation. Shutter speeds of above 1s are now possible, so it is like having a tripod in the sky. Unless you use a bulky and expensive gyrostabilizer, those shutter speeds are not even possible from a manned aircraft. It also helps to use RAW files, and DJI conveniently provides them in the universal DNG format. All the camera settings are accessible during flight via the remote controller.

Transmission and Flight capabilities

Back in the Phantom 2 days, to see on a screen what the aircaft was seeing, you had to install your own video link independently from the remote control link, and those third-party add-ons provided barely adequate resolution and transmission distance. In the summer of 2014, this changed with the introduction of DJI Lightbridge, which offered full HD video transmission at distances of up to 3 miles. Back then, Lightbridge was also an add-on, and cost an extra $1,400. Nowadays, Lightbridge 2 is installed on all generation 4 models, even the Phantom 4 which as of this writing is discounted below $900.

The flight capabilities and integration are a tremendous improvement over the Phantom 2 generation, which is remarkable because it’s been only 3 years! The new flight technology now includes not only GPS, compass, and gyroscopes, but also radar, obstacle avoidance stereoscopic cameras, and visual tracking, making flying an almost foolproof matter.

The controller will warm you if you are attempting to take off from a restricted area such as the vicinity of an airport (although I use beforehand Airmap for planning purposes), or if the aircraft needs recalibration.

The main precaution is to make sure that you are taking off from an area which is clear within GPS tolerances, and that a GPS home point has been acquired. This ensures that should the aircraft need to auto-return, it will do so safely. The aircraft will automatically return home if the signal is lost or if the battery is low, but in doing so it takes only distance into account, so you should keep some margin to account for headwinds. I plan to land with about 20-35% of battery remaining. Although the aircraft is equipped with obstacle detection, I generally try to fly high enough that there are no obstacles, but as I’ll discuss later that’s not only for safety.

Looking for new perspectives

As a result of improved safety, I felt comfortable flying above busy Waikiki in Hawaii on my first trip with the Phantom 4 Pro. The appeal of aerial photography is the ability to see places from a vantage point otherwise inaccessible. Waikiki is built on the site of a former swamp. You drain a swamp by digging a canal around it, and there are no high-rise buildings on the side of Waikiki opposite to that Ala Wai Canal canal. Similarly, since the viewpoint is above water, aerial photography is the only way to photograph Waikiki skylines rising above the ocean. For those images of buildings, I find the convergence caused by the moderate down tilt of the camera distracting. Since a tilt-shift lens isn’t an option, the perspective controls of Lightroom came to the rescue.

Perhaps the most unique perspective made possible by drones is the ability to look directly top down. You cannot do that from a fixed structure since the structure itself would be showing in the photograph, and as a aircraft passenger, you’d have to lean out of the aircraft while it is doing a steep bank, quite the uncomfortable position. Creating those photographs with a drone is easy, and their graphic nature often intringing.

Because the blade noise might inconvenience some, if people are present, I avoid flying low. All of the images on this page were made from a relatively high elevation. The drone would be barely audible in quiet conditions, and at the ocean side, its noise is drowned by the surf. Some people, including drone pilots, object to flying at all above people or roads, but curiously they have no objection against manned aircraft doing so. Yet no lightweight drone crash has resulted in a single fatality – a study showed that significant head injuries are unlikely even with a direct hit. People have been killed in their beds by falling aircraft. I’ve found that many people who enjoy looking at drone photographs object to having a drone hover above them. Would you be amongst them or are you tempted by the new photographic opportunities?

Giving Thanks

On this Thanksgiving, besides the usual gratitude for family and friends, I’d like to extend my thanks to all the people who have helped make the Treasured Lands project a success. My heartfelt thanks to every person who helped along the way.

For most of the project, my travels have been solitary, but I appreciated company when I had it. Thank you for sharing some amazing experiences. Traveling with a photographer can be an ordeal for non-photographers, so thank you for putting up with me. Although I’ve have been able to access most of the places by public or chartered transportation, a few times I needed a little extra help, so thank you for those who have taken me places, in particular on the water.

Numerous individuals in the National Park Service, from rangers to superintendents, have personally provided me guidance and help, sometimes going beyond their duty. I would like to thank not only them, but also every man and woman in the agency for the job they are doing in preserving and making those treasured lands accessible to the public.

I am grateful to all my photography agents, clients, collectors for providing the support that made the project possible, and I’ve felt privileged to work with organizations that do so much to preserve and enhance our parks. Thank you to my photo tour participants for the opportunity to learn from each other, and to the guides for the impeccable arrangements.

The participation in a major documentary film has impacted my career, and I am indebted to the producers for their continued help. I am honored that many galleries and museums have made this work available for the public to view, and to have received so many invitations to speak about my photography odyssey, sometimes in front of large audiences. Thanks to everyone who attended my talk, I enjoyed being given the opportunity to inspire you.

Several persons more experienced than me have been a bountiful source of wisdom and publishing knowledge. The book would not have been published in a timely manner for the NPS Centennial without their encouragement, advice, feedback, help with choice of images and of words. The publishing team was a pleasure to collaborate with. Working overtime on an impossibly short deadline, they were able to bring tangible form to my vision of a book that is extensive in scope and complex in organization.

As challenging as creating a good book is, making it a commercial success is even more difficult. Thanks to everybody who helped spread the word about Treasured Lands. A group of illustrious photographers, each of them a source of inspiration and admiration for me, has been kind enough to lend their trust and authority to the book by writing an early endorsement before seeing the final product. I am grateful to members of the national press for their interest in the work, and to other photographers who later generously took the time and effort to write a review, a blog post, or to conduct an interview. Everybody who rated the book on online stores, shared an announcement or social media post, or simply told friends about the book, was helpful. And of course, thanks to the thousands who were interested enough in my photography or the national parks to buy what is currently one of the most expensive books of nature photography.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

New Deal on Visiting the Kamokuna Lava Flow in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Accessing lava flows along the coastal plain of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park required an arduous trek during my 2013 visit, but a newly road opened has changed everything. Find why how the lava flows have never been more accessible through practical details gathered during my visit to the Kamokuna lava flow this summer.

The new emergency road

In 1959, the Chain of Craters Road connected the main entrance of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with the tiny town of Kalapana, located along the coast, east of the park, in 26.5 miles. For most of his existence, a section of the road has been buried by new lava flows from Kilauea, the world most active volcano. That section consists of a 8-mile stretch along the coast. Since the best place to observe lava flows is that same section of the coastal plain, if the flow occured in the middle of the stretch, to see it one had to hike 4 miles one way (as I did in 2001) on trail-less and rough terrain formed by hardened lava. A tough hike!

In 2014, the buried 8-mile coastal section of the Chain of Craters Road between the park and Kalapana was rebuilt as a gravel emergency road – at a cost of between $5 millions and $12 millions depending on sources. It was meant to assist residents of lower Puna in case their access roads are cut off by lava from Kīlauea Volcano, but was partly buried again by lava in 2016. The road was not intended for visitor use. The 5.4-mile section within the park is gated and closed to motor traffic, but you are free to walk it or ride a fat-tire bike, speeding up access to the lava flows on the coastal plain.

Hiking or riding to the lava viewing area

On the park side (west), since no commercial activity is allowed, not much has changed. However, the Kalapana side (east) has seen drastic changes. There is now a huge lava viewing parking area west of Hwy 130, where visitors park along the road for up to half a mile. To reach it, continue on Hwy 130, even when the pavement ends. The area is lined up with vendors. Some are open from 4am to 10pm, and besides food, drinks, shaved ice, and souvenirs, offer bike rentals, and even a shuttle. As of the summer of 2017, the lava viewing area is about 4 miles (one-way) from the parking area, and it takes only 30 minutes to ride with a bike, whereas it was a difficult 2-3 hour hike before. Hiking on the road is also much easier than on a hardened lava field.

Past the parking area, the road is open only to residents and their guests. It continues for less than 2 miles to a gate which is locked. If you take the shuttle, that’s where you will be dropped. Some local off-the-grid residents (amongst them “Doc” with the octagonal house) offered parking on the south side of the road for $20, which you leave in a jar. There were also a few honor system roadside stands there with coolers and fruit.

From that first gate, you need to walk or ride a bike. It takes slightly more than 2 miles to an official viewing area set by the National Park Service, and in the summer of 2017, you could not continue further on the road, since the active area was closed for safety. On the way, you’ll pass the last portable toilet and another gate at the eastern boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about 0.75 miles from the first gate.

The emergency road is two-lane 22-foot-wide and well-graded, easy for all cars and bikes with reasonably fat tires, but it has a few hills and since the rental bikes do not have gears, some visitors have to push them. It is impossible to get lost on the road, and you can easily follow it at night. Off the road, the terrain is much more difficult to walk. The official viewing area is very close to the road, but to see lava flows, when I was there you had to wander inland off the road for more than a mile.

In 2013, the daily number of visitors to the ocean entry was in the low hundreds, most of them with a guide. In 2017, that number must be in the thousands and included many families with children. Even after the sun had set, people were still starting to hike or ride from the lava viewing parking area. At sunset, you definitely feel part of a crowd, and at that time, park rangers were present at the official viewing area and even had drinking water available for unprepared visitors. Of course, you shouldn’t count of it and pack plenty for this hike in tropical weather with no shade. At sunrise, despite more pleasant temperatures, the place is much quieter, with only about a dozen present.

Viewing and photographing lava

Besides the foot access, most of my extensive write-up about photographing the lava ocean entry still applies.

The National Park Service (NPS) had closed the Kamokuna lava ocean entry area because 26 acres of the lava delta had collapsed in the winter. Just fifteen minutes before it collapsed, rangers had chased away visitors from that section, which was already roped off. These days, the NPS would rather err on the side of safety, for instance closing entirely the area around the Halemaumau Crater whereas in the 1950s, visitors came in long lines of cars to witness lava fountains in the Kilauea Iki crater from the rim.

Sony A7R2, Tamron 150-600@500mm, 1/80s at f/6.3, ISO 3200

As a result of the lava ocean entry closure, in the summer of 2017, the Kamokuna ocean entry point was more than half-a-mile away from the official viewing area. This made photography quite challenging, because you need to use a long telephoto lens (I used a 150-600mm) which is sensitive to vibrations, the area has always steady tradewinds, and the lava is most visible in times of low light, which requires longer exposures. Since it was a family vacation, I carried a medium weight series 2 tripod, but I wish I had a much more solid one! Despite high ISO, the images I made after dark had shutter speeds lower than 1/50s and were ruined by vibration. Although I was hoping for better viewing conditions, at least I was glad to be able to easily take my children to a spot where they were able to witness a lava ocean entry, however distant, with their own eyes.

Somy A7R2, Tamron 150-600@200mm, 1/80s at f/5.0, ISO 3200

Lombard Street: Variations on a Difficult to Photograph San Francisco Landmark

Lombard Street in San Francisco has a one-block section with eight hairpin turns known as the “crookedest street in the world”. Although one of the most famous sights in the city, it is also one of the most difficult to photograph.

Other subjects are open to a wide range of interpretation, but there is no mystery about what a good photograph of Lombard Street should do: depict how crooked the street is. That is not an easy task because there is no publicly available high vantage point from which to do so. Most postcards were shot from a private residence. From the bottom, the best one can do is to stand on a driveway just off Leavenworth, in the NE corner, and this is too low to show the red-brick street.

Canon 1Ds3, EF24-105mm @ 65mm, 1/80s at f/9.0, ISO 200

My favorite image from the bottom was made with a telephoto lens. Although the street is not in view, the cars heading down at various angles form an odd graphic motif that suggests the underlying street geometry.

Canon 1Ds3, EF100-400mm @ 235mm, 1/60s at f/13.0, ISO 200

By daytime, the view from the top is rather unsatisfying, because the street’s geometry is not legible, but this changes at night, with the light trails of car tail lights materializing the curves in a long exposure.

Canon 1Ds3, TS-EF45mm, 25s and 5s at f/1.4, ISO 200

Several years later, aerial photography naturally provides the high viewpoint needed to reveal the hairpin curves, with drone technology making it affordable and easy to deploy at the spur of a moment.

DJI P4P, 24mm, 1/30s at f/4.0, ISO 400

At dusk, light from the car headlights, and a bit of motion blur enliven the image. The straight-down composition provides the graphic abstraction of an unusual perspective. This was made possible by the amazing stability of the latest generation of drones with 3-axis gimbal-mounted cameras, which can shoot sharp exposures at a one-second shutter speed, at which one would be hard-pressed to get a sharp handheld image.

DJI P4P, 24mm, 0.5s at f/4.0, ISO 100

The drone camera cannot be turned sideways, so to make this vertical image I tilted the camera and assembled the three resulting shots in Lightroom, creating a very wide vertical field of view that shows well the street in the context of the city and bay.

DJI P4P, 24mm, 1/6s at f/4.0, ISO 1600

When I made a comparable picture just three years ago, high-quality drone photography was still a pioneering activity requiring DIY equipment, but in that short period of time, easy-to-use off-the-shelf equipment has made it accessible to everybody. Exciting times!

QT Luong Recognized by California State Legislature

Fairyland: Bryce Canyon’s Overlooked View and Trail

Easily missed, but aptly named Fairyland Point offers quiet, a great view, and the trailhead for one of the best hikes under the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park.

On the way to the renown viewpoints over the Bryce Amphitheater such as Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, and Inspiration Point, most visitors miss a turnoff in the forest on the left side of the road, just past the park entrance. The turnoff is located before the fee station, so you can visit for free. That turnoff leads to a 1-mile road ending at Fairyland Point. The overlook is 100 feet away from the parking lot. It is the easiest to access of all the viewpoints in the park, except in winter when the side road leading to it is closed. Fairyland Point is a small overlook, and there is parking room for only about twenty cars. It is so easy to miss that I had no problem to park and almost had the place for myself at sunrise, with no other photographers around.

Fairyland Point

The view from the Fairyland Point Overlook is characterized by a combination of densely packed and well-detached hoodoos which lie below the overlook, but not so low as to appear distant. From the overlook, you are looking directly East. Right at first light, the backlit hoodoos appear dark. Five minutes later, there is a bit of light to illuminate them with reflected light, but lens flare is unavoidable.

The secret to many of the great photographs of the Southwest canyons resides in reflected light, and Bryce Canyon in no exception. Fifteen minutes after sunrise, there is enough reflected light to make the hoodoos seemingly glow from within. In order to avoid lens flare while shooting directly towards the low-angle sun, I first photographed with a telephoto lens. With its narrow field of view, I was able to shade the lens with my hand without it showing up in the picture.

About one hour after sunrise, with the sun higher, I was able to use a normal lens to frame the entire canyon. Note that although Fairyland Point Overlook is small, you can hike down the first quarter-mile of the Fairyland Loop Trail for different angles on that dense section of hoodoos.

Fairyland Loop Trail

As wonderful as the views from the rim are, they are only a small part of the experience that Bryce Canyon National Park offers. Hiking under the rim allows you to get close to the hoodoos, see them from a different perspective, and appreciate their scale. The Fairyland Loop hike totals 8 miles, for an elevation difference of about 1,000 feet. The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow even without a map. Its first part consists of the Fairyland Loop Trail (5.3 miles) which winds its way under the rim, offering a different perspective on the hoodoos, mixed with an abundant amount of green trees.

At about mid-way the loop, a spur trail leads to the base of a slope topped by Tower Bridge, named so because its boxy shape is reminiscent of the famous Londonian landmark.

I scrambled on the steep and very slippery slope to reach the arch. Framing the landscape via the opening was quite precarious because I needed to back away and lower the viewpoint to detach the arch’s span from the mesa, but the other side was even steeper.

Before going back on the spur trail, I walked a bit off trail along a mostly dry creek with just a trickle of water. The creek supported a more diverse vegetation than the conifers that dominate this high-elevation park, and I was delighted to add a few images to my quest for fall foliage in national parks.

The second part of the loop consists of the northernmost 2.7 miles of the Rim Trail, which like its name indicates, follows the canyon’s rim. The hoodoos there are not as dense as in other parts of the Rim Trail, especially along the Bryce Amphitheater, but the rabbitbrush made for a foreground not usually associated with Bryce Canyon.

Like Fairy Point, the Fairyland Loop sees less traffic than other below-the-rim trails. Athough with the exception of the start of the trail, the hoodoos are not as dense as along the Sunset Point trails, the Fairyland Loop made for an excellent day hike with a great diversity of scenery.

November Exhibit in San Francisco, Speaking, and Exhibit Tip

Upcoming Exhibit

I am honored that photographs from Treasured Lands will be on display during November at the California State Building in San Francisco. The State Building is located on Civic Center Plaza, next to the San Francisco City Hall, and is the seat of several state institutions, including the Supreme Court of California. The exhibit is open to everyone, but please leave your weapons at home 🙂 since like many government buildings there is a security check at the entrance. I hope to see you at the reception.

Hiram W. Johnson State Building
455 Golden Gate Ave,
Great Hall (Lobby)
San Francisco, CA 94102

Dates: November 01, 2017 to Nov. 30, 2017
9 AM-5 PM (Closed on Saturday and Sunday)

Reception and Press Conference: November 1, 2017, 3:30 PM -4:30 PM

I am very grateful to the honorable chairwoman Fiona Ma for sponsoring the exhibit and to Herby Lam for organizing it.

Speaking

Except for NANPA, I didn’t plan any presentations, but I kept getting invitations and ended up delivering quite a few of them. I really enjoyed inspiring attendees through a direct connection. Instead of making occasional announcements in this blog, now have a dedicated Speaking Page where upcoming events are listed. I hope that at some point you’ll find one near you live. If not, please feel free to contact me if you’d like to organize one!

Palo Alto Art Center, photo by Xavier Cohen

Exhibit Tip

Almost all my exhibits have been in galleries and museums, but other places have walls not designed to support prints, like the marble walls in the California State Building. The traditional solution is to use easels – like at the Palo Alto Art Center above. However, there is an alternative method with the following advantages:
  • easier to break down and store,
  • look more contemporary than easels (which are associated with paintings),
  • display prints straight vertical, whereas with easels they are at an angle,
  • display prints on both sides if in middle of room.
The idea is from my wife Lanchi, and I haven’t seen it used by anybody else. Here is an installation example:

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

What is the hardware? Garment racks! They are inexpensive. Here is a close-up:

National Parks: What’s in a Name?

I have seen quite a bit of confusion about how many national parks there are in America, and what distinguishes them from other public lands, including state parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and other units managed by the National Park Service. In this article, I break down the names of the public lands and examine the significance of the designation for the 59 national parks.

The national parks and other public lands

The Yosemite Grant (1864) marked the first time a nation had set aside a large tract of pristine land for all people and for all time. Even though the notion of public land and its preservation dates back further, the national parks would be their first tangible embodiment. Yosemite was initially administered by the state of California and became a national park in 1890. Yellowstone (1872) happened to be the first national park because at that time, Wyoming was a territory and not a state, so Wyoming could not administer Yellowstone.

The creation of national parks set up in motion a vast movement to preserve public lands. State parks are similar to national parks, but the main difference is that they are under state rather than federal administration. The first state park, Niagara Falls State Park was established in 1885 in New York. As of today, there are more than 10,000 state park units in each of the 50 states. In addition, parks are also maintained by local government entities. All those parks are quite clearly named “state park”, “regional park”, “county park”, etc..

America’s federal public lands, owned equally by all Americans, have expended well beyond the national parks. They now cover about a quarter of the U.S. land (618M acres) and encompass many types of lands all with the word “national” within their name. They fall mostly into four systems, depending on the agency that manages them.

  • The National Park Service (NPS) manages the National Park System (84M acres), with 417 units, including 59 national parks. Although it is the most well-known land management agency, responsible for some of the country’s most famous landmarks, the NPS manages the smallest amount of land. The NPS mandate is both to keep landscapes unimpaired for future generations and to offer recreation. NPS lands are at the same time more regulated and more developed than others. They are discussed in more detail in the rest of the article.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages the National Wildlife Refuge System (96M acres), which consists of 562 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. Like the NPS, the focus is both on conservation and recreation, with both being more wildlife-centered than NPS lands. 86% of FWS land is Alaska. In the continental U.S., FWS land consists mostly of wetlands, and are often closer to cities than other public lands.
  • The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages the National Forest System (193M acres), which comprises 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The USFS has a multiple-use mission, and their lands allow extractive activities such as logging, grazing, and mining, as well as a wider range of recreational activities. Many national forests are located near national parks. Unlike the other three federal land agencies, the USFS manages a significant amount of land in the eastern U.S.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the National System of Public Lands (245M acres). Most of BLM lands were not set aside but inherited, are nameless, arid, and intended for multiple use, like USFS lands. However, a small subset of “flagship” BLM lands are designated by Congress and intended for conservation and recreation, forming the National Landscape Conservation System (32M acres) that includes 873 federally recognized areas, including national conservation areas. BLM lands are situated almost exclusively in western states.
Any of the lands above can also become a wilderness area (“designated wilderness” or simply “wilderness”) by congressional designation. This provides for an additional layer of protection on top of their current status. Wildernesses are managed to preserve primeval character without permanent improvements (such as roads) or human habitation. wilderness study areas are set aside by the BLM as part of the National Landscape Conservation System while awaiting for their confirmation or dismissal as designated wilderness.

Eldorado National Forest

The National Park System

As of this post, the National Park Service (NPS) manages a total of 417 units, including both natural, cultural and historic resources of national significance. Each of them is called a “National Park System Unit“, or “National Park System Area”, or “National Park System Site” but since this sounds a bit long, some refer to them as “national park” or even “park” for brevity. A better abbreviation would be “park unit” or “park site”, because in the strict sense, “national park” refers to a specific designation. It’s not a matter of capitalization (eg: “417 national parks v. 59 National Parks”) since the correct usage is that “National Park” is capitalized only when it is a proper noun (eg: “Acadia National Park”).

If you look at the National Park Service website, the terms they use are all over the place, which supports the idea that “national parks” is just a shortcut rather than a systemic use. In other words, if all the units were “national parks” as some argue, why wouldn’t the NPS always use the term “national park” to refer to them? Compare the NPS text:

How many areas are in the National Park System?
The system includes 417 areas

What is the largest national park site? Smallest?
Current information on acreage for units across the National Park System

What is the most-visited national park?
View a list of the most-visited sites in the National Park Service

with:
How many national parks are there?
The system includes 417 national parks

What is the largest national park? Smallest?
Current information on acreage for national parks

What is the most-visited national park?
View a list of the most-visited national parks

National Park System units include a total about 25-40 designations, depending on how you count them. Those include but are not limited to:

  • National Park
  • National Monument
  • National Preserve
  • National Historic Park
  • National Historic Site
  • National Memorial
  • National Recreation Area
  • National Seashore
  • National Lakeshore
  • National River
  • National Battlefield
  • National Battlefield Park
  • National Battlefield Site
  • National Military Park
and there are many variations. Just looking at the four types of military sites give you an idea of how confusing the nomenclature is. Personally, I’d favor three designations, one for primarily natural resources (maybe national scenic site), one for primarily cultural resources (maybe national historic site), and national park. National monuments are different because they can originate from presidential proclamation, and they can be managed by other land agencies than the NPS. A national monument ran by the NPS should be either a national scenic site or national historic site, while non-NPS national monuments could keep that designation.

Point Reyes National Seashore

National Parks: the name matters

Amongst the 417 park units, there are currently 59 national parks. Those who call the park units “national parks” sometimes refer to those 59 national parks as “named national park”, “full national park”, “full-fledged national park”, or “national park with full status”. This in itself is an admission that there is a difference between them and the other types of units. That difference is the name.

In theory, since the National Park Service General Authorities Act of 1970, all park units have the same legal status and protection. The collection of 417 park units is a system of equals. However, as Yogi Berra would say “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” If the designation name did not matter because “all park units are national parks” like some argue, why did so many national monuments saw their initial designation changed to national park? This started with the Grand Canyon (national monument: 1908, national park: 1919), and since then a total of 25 national monuments have been redesignated as national parks. And if the designation name did not matter, why are there several campaigns underway to upgrade the designation of Chiricahua National Monument, Craters of the Moon National Monument, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, amongst others? The effort needed is not insignificant, as it requires clearing legislation in Congress, no easy taks in a climate of increasing partisanship and legislative gridlock. Only Congress (House and Senate) can designate a national park.

This report on the campaign to rename Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore states:

A U.S. House committee has advanced a plan to change the name of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore so that it reflects the reality that it is a “national park.” … The Indiana Dunes already is a national park. This measure would make that clearer to tourists and local visitors by renaming it Indiana Dunes National Park … “I hope that the full House considers this important legislation as soon as possible, so that we can quickly begin to harness this national recognition of the Indiana Dunes…”
First, note that Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore already has “National” in it, so it is the “national park” label that brings recognition. Second, the idea that “Indiana Dunes is already a national park” would be self-defeating. It applies to other units as well. By that logic, all of them should all be renamed “national park”, not just Indiana Dunes. But if all the 417 units are renamed national parks, then how is that going to increase the recognition amongst them? If you look at H.R.1488 – Indiana Dunes National Park Act, a long list of specific reasons is given why Indiana Dunes deserves to renamed a national park. The author of the bill recognizes that the national parks form a select group and intends for Indiana Dunes to join them based on merits.

Chiricahua National Monument

National Parks: How do they differ from other units?

Since the very start of the National Park Service, the national parks were recognized as the crown jewels. While there are controversies about other public lands, nobody disputes the value of the national parks. Stephen Mather’s National Parks Portfolio (1916) included 8 national parks plus the Grand Canyon, which at that time was a national monument only because legislation to establish it as a national park had failed to pass. Subsequent NPS-sponsored editions of the National Parks Portfolio illustrated most national parks extensively on several pages, while only a paragraph was devoted to each national monument. In doing so, the NPS was comfortable with some park units being more equal than others. More recently, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, who as historians have certainly a deep understanding of the National Park System, told its story mostly through the national parks, at the exclusion of other park units. In the companion book to the film, they made sure to include one landscape photograph (by me) for each of the 59 national parks, and none for the other park units. Although the recent official position of the NPS is that all units are equal, this hasn’t been always the case, and the perception from the public and media has been that the national parks form a select group.

What sets the national parks apart? According to the NPS nomenclature, “Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas.” By contrast, for instance, “a national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.” This official explanation implies that national parks, being larger and more diverse, are more valuable. The NPS at one point argued against redesigning Pinnacles as a national park because the park unit did not “include the full range of resources usually found in national parks”. The same reservations are even more valid regarding Indiana Dunes. At the same time, the explanation allows for the inevitable exceptions (note “generally” and “usually”). Some of the exceptions stem from the way national monuments are established. Some of them stem from regional differences, for instance one would not expect a Midwest national park to match the natural resources of one located in Alaska, yet as a system representative of America’s nature, one would like to have a national park in the Midwest. There will also be exceptions that result from the whims of history.

The prestige of the national park designation attracts more public attention. There are quite a few books about the national parks, but only one covers all the NPS units. This prestige has been earned by the fact that historically, almost all national parks are large and diverse areas where international visitors could spend a week, something which could not be said of most of the NPS units. However, the recent renaming efforts were meant to bring more tourism to the local communities. I think this is a questionable reason for designating a national park. The mission of the NPS is to preserve the most unique sites in the country, not to increase tourism to particular areas, which is by definition a concern of local political interest, not national interest. Moreover, economic development should be viewed as a benefit of protecting beautiful lands, not the reason for doing so.

Although there is nothing in legislation which says explicitly so, in practice, national parks are subject to more regulations. Activities that consume resources such as extraction, hunting or off-road vehicle use are generally prohibited in national parks while authorized in other park units. Many of the Alaska national parks consist actually of a “national park and preserve” with the national preserve explicitly created to allow resource-intensive activities.

I mentioned before that “national park” is often used for brevity instead of “National Park System Unit”. Some favor the term not only for brevity, but also to emphasize the equal status of all park units. To follow this logic to its natural conclusion would mean dropping all the confusing designations altogether and call all units “national park”. Are you ready for a Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Park (the townhouse where the wounded Polish freedom fighter lived, 0.02 acres) alongside Yellowstone National Park? How about a President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Park? Does anybody seriously believe all park sites have the same significance? In any system of equals some entities are more equal than others. Some park units are clearly international attractions, and some are not. Although from an administrative point of view, all units are equals, it is clear that some are more valuable than others, and it is not unreasonable to distinguish them with a name. Calling all units national parks would dilute the significance of our most special places. An award doesn’t confer any special rights to anyone, besides calling themselves an award-winner, but that does not make it an insignificant nor useless label. I think the “national park” label, we are simply recognizing with a name what is a reality on the ground.

Yellowstone National Park

Would you agree that “national park” should be reserved for a selected group, or should all NPS units be called that way?

Exploring Isle Royale National Park by Water

Isle Royale is a roadless national park more than forty miles long, and exploring it in depth on foot requires backpacking or long hiking days, which contributes to its reputation as an involved place to visit. A little known alternative way to explore the park is by water, which allows you to make short work of destinations that are quite far to hike to or to get to locations inaccessible to hikers. In this post, I will describe the options available from Rock Harbor, which is the most popular and scenic of the two entry points into the park.

Canoeing & Kayaking

Ferries can transport canoes and kayaks for a fee. With your own kayak, you can go wherever you please, but the hazards presented by open waters make it an endeavor for experienced paddlers only. Lake Superior is almost like an ocean with a rocky coastline, cold water temperatures, sudden squalls, and possible large waves.

If you don’t have your own, the Rock Harbor Marina rents canoes and kayaks. They are stored at the floatplane dock on Tobin Harbor, and their use restricted to safe Tobin Harbor, which is only about 4 miles long from Three Mile to Scoville Point. I found a canoe most useful for going to Lookout Louise. Since we were carrying photography backpacks, we found their canoes to better choices than their kayaks for keeping gear dry.

Boating

To go further than Tobin Harbor, I rented a aluminum 14 feet long fishing boat with a 15 HP motor from the Rock Harbor Marina. Like with their canoes and kayaks, there are restrictions on where you can go. You have to stay in Rock Harbor, between Moskey and Scoville Point (12 miles), and you cannot go around Scoville Point into Tobin Harbor. The landings have to be at a dock, and those are marked with the letter “D” on the NPS map. Within those limitations, here are the three most rewarding destinations I have found.

Tookers Island is a very small island, however, it has two camping shelters from which you can catch sunsets and sunrises with a few steps. The small size allows easily photography in each direction over water, with neighboring islands adding interest to the compositions. This makes Tookers Island maybe the most scenic place to camp in the entire park. Isle Royale’s campgrounds are unique in the National Park system in that 19 out of the 32 campgrounds are equipped with shelters which make camping unusually comfortable. They consist of three-sided wooden structures with a roof, the fourth side being an insect screen with a door. All shelters are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and we found out the hard way that Tookers Island is quite popular with boaters. They had claimed all the two shelters by the time we arrived.

The Edisen Fishery dock gives access to three diverse day-use sites, and although it is on Isle Royale, there is no access from the trail system. The historic commercial fishery is situated right from the dock.

The left trail leads in 0.25 miles to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, oldest on the island (1855). The first floor features a museum, and I climbed the staircase to the room that used to house the light for a relatively rare high view of the coastline.

Following the right trail for about 0.4 miles, we arrived at the historic Bangsund Cabin, which is the base for the longest continuous wildlife study in the world. That study of the predator-prey population interaction of the wolves and moose has been going on for more than five decades. The population variation is well captured by a system of differential equations. Back in college I first heard of Isle Royale in math class through those equations. At that time, I had no idea where the place was located. The study is currently carried on by Rolf Peterson, with help from his wife Carolyn (Candy) Peterson. Both proved to be gracious hosts. Rolf enjoys showing visitors their vast collection of moose antlers and skulls, and both welcomed us into their home to discuss Rolf’s research and other moose-related topics.

At the end of Moskey Basin, next to the dock, a small peninsula provides a scenic location to catch a sunrise. Some of the shelters in the nearby campgrounds face directly the water. It took about one hour by motorboat to go from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor Marina, and this is because of two no-wake areas. This was followed by a 30 min floatplane flight, a 6-hour drive, a 5-hour flight, and a 1-hour ride, and I got home in San Jose in the late evening!

Tours

Isle Royale National Park comprises more than 450 surrounding islands, and the most remote of them is Passage Island, separated from Isle Royale by several miles of Lake Superior waters, enough to accommodate a commercial shipping lane. Passage Island is not grazed by moose, so its denser vegetation makes for an interesting comparison with Isle Royale’s. To travel the open waters off limits to rental boats, we booked a guided excursion on the tour boat M.V. Sandy, operated by the Rock Harbor Lodge. For families and anybody who would rather not operate their own watercraft, guided excursions on the boat M.V. Sandy includes trips to Lookout Louise and the Edisen Fishery, with a schedule that varies according to the day of the week.

If you add the availability of the lodge, campground shelters, and water transportation, with a bit of planning, you can explore quite a bit of Isle Royale with less effort than its reputation as difficult-to-visit wilderness would lead you to expect.