Terra Galleria Photography

The nuts and bolts of making a photo book: reviewing the Treasured Lands printing

Once an author/photographer has sent images and text files to his publisher, the book-making work is usually over. However, even after a publisher has sent files to the printer, they still have to ensure that the book is produced to their standards. The best way to do so is to send a representative to the printing plant to approve the book pages right as they come out of the press. Clearly, in the spring of 2020, the pandemic precluded that option. The only possibility left was to approve various printouts sent (at a high cost) via Fedex international packages.

The 2019 printing was a second edition, which meant that there were substantial changes. By contrast, the 2020 printing to be released this month differs from the previous one by only six new pages and some minor text corrections. Yet, there were six rounds of printouts to review. It is not often the case that a publisher gives a window into this process. If you are curious about what is involved behind the scenes in printing a photo book, and what are the components of such a book, check out the videos below, where I have documented four of those rounds, straight from my home to yours.

Dummy, proofs, bluelines (YouTube link)

Dust jacket proofs (YouTube link)

Endpapers, F&Gs, signatures (YouTube link)

Dust jacket running sheets (YouTube link)

Treasured Lands honored in 2020 International Book Awards

The second edition of Treasured Lands is the award winner in the “Photography” category of the 2020 International Book Awards. Here is the complete list of winners. I am honored to be listed alongside Pope Francis, winner for the categories “Children’s Religious” and “Religion: Christian Inspirational”.

Some criticize those awards because they offer so many separate categories to enter. True, International Book Awards isn’t in the same league as the National Book Award. Yet, even with 92 categories, since there were more than 2,000 entries in the 2020 edition, to win you have to beat out 95% of your fellow entrants. With the following in hand, I also am running out of good award competitions to enter:

Winner of 2017 Independent Publisher “IPPY” Award for Best Coffee-Table Book.
Winner of 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Arts/Photography Book.
2016 Nautilus Award Winner, Silver in category Photography/Art.
Winner of 2017 National Indie Excellence Awards for Best Photography Book.
Winner of PubWest Design Awards 2017 for Best Photography Book.
Foreword INDIES Book of the Year 2017: Nature Gold Winner.
Foreword INDIES Book of the Year 2017: Travel Silver Winner.
Grand Prize Winner of 2020 Next Generation Indie Book Awards for best non-fiction book.
Winner of 2020 Next Geneneration Indie Book Awards for best Coffee Table/Photo Book.
2020 International Book Awards: Winner in the category Photography.

Question: Do you count those as 8 awards or 10 awards? If you don’t see poll question below, click here.

Inside my General Purpose Camera bag: What I carry, Why, and How

Vision is better, but it can be an elusive topic to discuss or teach. On the other hand, talking shop is sure fun, and without gear, there are no photographs. In this post, I’m going to show you the gear inside my camera bag, why I selected it, and how it is organized.

This is the bag I carry for most of my outdoor photography outings as of summer 2020. I prefer to leave permanently all the accessories inside, rather than risk not having them in time of need. The weight of the bag, with all pictured equipment (including the 4 pictured lenses) is about 10.5 kg (23.5 lbs) and I break it down below by categories of equipment. Most of the time, add 2.1 kg (4.5 lbs) for camera support, plus any additional hiking/outdoor gear, food and water, for a total weight in the 13.5-18 kg (30-40 lbs) range.

F-stop Satori Bag

I’ve been using the F-stop Satori as my main camera bag since 2014. Back then, at 62 liters, it was the largest bag they made. It is now discontinued and falls between their current Tilopa (50 liters) and Sukha (70 liters) models. Before the Satori, I tried the Tilopa. While my photo gear fit, I found it too cramped to also carry outdoor gear for a day-long hike. Desert hikes require 2 or 3 quarts of water alone. F-stop was gracious enough to authorize an exchange. In the current line, the Sukha would be my choice. If the top and front pockets are not loaded, the Satori barely meets U.S. airline requirements for carry-on, but I don’t know about the Sukha. F-stop bags had two novel features, since then much copied: they open on the side you wear, and you can easily swap different internal carrying units (ICU) to configure the bag. I almost always use the largest ICU, the X-large. Non-photo items like food, water, extra layers of clothing, go in the top and front pocket. Multiple attachment points and straps on each side and on the front are for carrying tripod(s), umbrella, hiking poles, and sometimes camping gear. At about 1,950 grams without ICU, it is not exactly a lightweight bag, but the weight is acceptable given its carrying comfort and versatility.

ICU

I’ve configured the ICU so that I can carry two camera bodies with lens attached, including the largest I use (the 100-400) and this leaves room for three more lenses in addition to the two attached to the cameras. Here is what always goes inside the ICU (7,250 grams with 24 TSE):
  • Two Sony A7R4 cameras, with Arca-compatible L-plate and neoprene straps. I switched from Canon to Sony in 2015 for image quality, innovation, and mirrorless. I prefer to use two bodies to minimize lens changes, because Sony mirrorless cameras are very susceptible to sensor dust and lack effective dust removal. Also, my A7R2s were capricious, and I’ve had on more than one occasion a camera go on strike for a few days without notice. Carrying a second body provides peace of mind.
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4, hood. My bread-and-butter lens, versatile and sharp, is used for more than half of my images, and I suppose in a pinch I could limit myself to just this lens. The 70-105mm range is much more useful to me than a faster lens, which is also heavier. The only drawback is excessive vignetting at 24mm (Review).
  • Sony 16-35mm f/2.8, hood. Very sharp up to 24mm, it is wide and fast enough for night astro-landscape photography and accepts filters unlike the wider zooms.
  • Sony 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, hood and Arca-compatible replacement foot – tripod color greatly helps in windy conditions. Sharp over the entire focal range. Again, the 400mm reach is much more useful to me than a faster lens.
  • Sony 1.4x teleconverter for the 100-400. Worth carrying despite infrequent use because it is so small.
  • 4-inch square ND filters: 10 f-stop ND (Lee) and 4 f-stop (Hitech). Mostly for long exposures of water. The Lee Big Stopper has a cold color cast, but that is easily neutralized in processing.
  • Lee 4-inch square filter holder, with 77mm and 82mm adapter rings for using the above.
  • Extra rear lens cap and body cap.
Additional specialty lenses can include:
  • Canon 24mm TSE f/3.5 lens with Metabones adapter (pictured). I almost always carry it both for its ability to preserve the parallelism of parallel lines by shift (perspective correction in processing degrades image quality and alters composition) and to extend the apparent depth of field by tilt.
  • Venus Laowa 15mm/f2 This manual focus/aperture lens is the best compromise for astro-landscape photography. Sharp, almost as fast and much smaller/lighter than the Sigma 14/1.8, reasonable coma.
  • Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8. Extremely sharp, light and small, AF.
  • Voigtlander Apo-Lanthar Macro 65mm/f2. The sharpest lens in the Sony system, even edging the 55mm f/1.8. Macro up to 0.5x makes it a better choice for nature photography. Shot wide-open, it produces shallow depth of field with sharp in-focus areas. Focus and aperture are manual, but all electronic aids are available unlike with Venus lenses. My main reservation is that the solid all-metal construction makes it quite heavy.

Back flap

The F-stop bag flap pockets are rather small, they have just enough room for filters and SD cards (180 grams):
  • Extra 64MB memory cards. Unlike Lexar, the Sony cards have a low failure rate. My main cards are the Tough G series, which are the fastest cards. I also carry M series, which are slower, but rarely need to use them on trips of less than a week. For me 64MB is a compromise between not having to manage too many cards and not having too many eggs in the same basket. With shooting split between two cameras, it lasts me a week.
  • Firecrest ultra slim 77mm polarizing filter to minimize vignetting on the Sony 24-105.
  • Hoya Pro1 77mm polarizing filter (for the 100-400 and TSE lenses)
  • Hoya Pro1 82mm polarizing filter (for the 17-35). I store all filters in plastic B&W filter boxes.

Main Compartment Side

On the left of the ICU, there is a bit of space meant for a water bladder. Instead, I use it to store emergency/weather outdoor gear that stays there permanently (600 grams).
  • Generic first aid kit (REI), to which I have added: toilet paper, foil survival blanket, water purification pills, various medical pills, blister treatment.
  • Emergency kit in a small (RSS) neoprene pouch: Mini multi-tool (Gerber Dime, 12 tools), loud whistle, lighter, navigation-grade compass, flashlight with spare battery (outputting 132 lumens, the Titanium Innovations CA1-TI is very bright for its size and weight).
  • Ultralight shell jacket: Berghaus Hyper 100 is the lightest waterproof/breathable 3-layer hooded jacket made, it weighs an incredible 125 grams and packs very small. On a sunny summer day, although wise, it always felt overkill to pack my other mountaineering-grade jacket. Now I don’t have to think about it, as I always leave it in the bag. Tip: if you buy one, order a size up your normal size.
  • Storm Jacket camera cover. I use it mainly when leaving the camera out for a night time-lapse, against condensation or unexpected rain. Its 80 grams puts in perspective the weight of the jacket.

Main compartment top

The X-Large ICU takes most of the main compartment, so there is not much room left there. I store the following camera accessories (300g):
  • Accessory kit in ziplock: lens cleaner fluid, extra microfiber cloth, quarter, allen wrench, square Arca plate, gaffer tape (similar to duct tape, but removable) wrapped around pen, rubber band, white balance spectrally neutral card, CR2025 battery, emergency camera battery.
  • Giottos large rocket air blaster: useful not only for cleaning sensor and lenses, but also getting water droplets out of the front element. Worth the bulk, as the smaller sizes do not deliver a blast strong enough.
  • Sony wireless remote commander: connect by Bluetooth so no need for cable, more reliable than IR and works from a reasonable distance. It stays paired so it is ready to use. Thankfully, A7R4s have a built-in intervalometer.
There is enough room left to add a complete (folded) spherical panoramic head.

Lid pocket

I carry food and small pieces of clothing (like hat and gloves) in the lid. I use its pocket for general-purpose equipment (205 grams) and batteries (160 grams).
  • Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro Charge. A most versatile small piece of equipment, it serves as a flashlight or lantern with adjustable light levels, and a phone charger (More details).
  • Rechargeable headlamp. There are quite a few lights in my kit since when heading out in the afternoon, I invariably seem to come back after dark. Besides hurting myself, my biggest risk is to get lost at night.
  • Short micro-USB and Apple mobile cables (in Ziplock).
  • Sharpie and pen.
  • Microfiber cloth. It is useful to have more than one, as in rainy weather they quickly get saturated with water after wiping lenses.
  • 2 camera batteries. Sony OEM batteries are 2-3 times more expensive than third party batteries but alleviate compatibility concerns and warning messages.
  • Photo IDs, cash, credit card in ziplock.
This bag represents my standard kit, typically for working on land in a national park or monument without overnight backpacking, when the main purpose of the trip is photography. I use a simplified kit for international travel, family trips, backpacking, or some long hikes. If there is interest, I will show it in a future article. On the occasions when I pull out my large format camera, such as when a new national park is established, I’ve stuck with the same gear bag for more than twenty years, except that I now use a different 35mm system.

Guide to Giant Sequoia National Monument: Northern Unit

Because it is wedged between areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the northern unit of Giant Sequoia National Monument, is more traveled than the southern unit. When driving highway 180 (Kings Canyon Scenic Byway) between Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, or the Generals Highway between Grant Grove and Sequoia National Park, many visitors don’t realize that they are not in Kings Canyon National Park but rather in Giant Sequoia National Monument. However, relatively few venture outside of the highways. Apart from the road linking the Princess Campground on Hwy 180 to the Quail Flat Campground on the Generals Highway via Hume Lake, roads are unpaved. They are closed in the winter and spring, generally from late November to June. Many National Forest campgrounds are available, and so are basic travel amenities in small communities within the monument, including gas, food, and lodging. You could also stay in the nearby national park lodges and campgrounds.

Converse Basin Grove

The Converse Basin Grove was reputed to be the finest and largest sequoia grove in the world. However, only a dozen of the giants survived the late 19th century historic logging period. One of them is the Boole Tree. Because it has the largest diameter (36 ft) of any living giant sequoia, it was once considered to be the largest tree in the world. By volume, it is the 6th largest and has the distinction of being the largest tree in a national forest. Ironically, it was named not for a general or president, but rather for Franklin Boole, the lumber supervisor who oversaw the cutting down of the rest of the grove. Was he a deserving choice? There are tales that he specifically spared the tree so that it would be named after him, but the most plausible explanation for the tree’s survival is that harvesting a tree that large was not economically practical because of the breakage in falling. Unlike redwoods, sequoia trees are brittle. Those magnificent trees often end up as toothpicks and fence posts. Why the tree was named after Boole still remains a mystery.

I was excited to see a photograph on Wikipedia depicting the Boole Tree towering above smaller trees and prominently isolated against the backdrop of the High Sierra, unlike any other significant sequoia tree I know. Hiking counter-clockwise, I found the tree on a spur trail after a mile (450 feet elevation gain) on the interesting 2.5-mile Boole Tree Loop Trail punctuated by numerous large stumps, burned trees, and wildflowers. The rest of the loop provides views of the Kings River gorge and the High Sierra.

The grove, once cut to the ground except for the Boole Tree, has recovered remarkably well, but as a result, I was disappointed to find that the giant, located in an east-facing bowl, is surrounded by tall century-old second-growth that obscure distant views of the entire tree. This left only the distorted view from the base, from where I could barely make up the characteristic tip of the tree, a thick, leafless snag. On visits to the tree on two different days, I didn’t see anyone on the trail. The experience was more personal than around the well-known sequoias in the nearby national parks where railings are necessary to protect the trees. I squeezed into a burn scar, getting inside the tree. Afterward, with nobody around to disturb, I sent out my drone in the air, from which the tip of the tree and the High Sierra came into view, but the base of the tree was obscured.

On the way to the trailhead, the 2.5-mile FS 13S55 unpaved road (about 5 miles north of Grant Grove Village on Hwy 180) passes aptly named Stump Meadow. The boneyard of sequoia stumps provided a vivid reminder of the industrial-scale destruction that took place in the Converse Basin Grove. Shortly before, another unpaved road branching out of Hwy 180 leads in 2 miles to the 1-mile round-trip trail to the Chicago Stump, named so because the tree, once the second-largest in the Converse Basin Grove, was sawed into sections and reassembled at the Chicago World’s Fair. It now has the distinction of being the largest tree ever cut down.

Indian Basin

Princess Campground is the nicest and most easily accessible campground nearby. It borders a large, beautiful meadow, and includes the trailhead for the Indian Basin Trail (1-mile loop) where you can see more giant stumps.

Kings River Gorge

On the way to Cedar Grove, after a precipitous drop, Hwy 180 follows the dramatic gorge of the Kings River, arguably the deepest river cut canyon in the country. My favorite views within the gorge are looking east, just before the road descends to the river near Boyden Caverns. Although often labeled “Kings Canyon National Park”, they are from the national monument and no national parklands are visible from there. The developed marble cave can be visited on a 1-hour tour. No tripods are permitted, and the formations are backlit, making photography a challenge. Past the bridge, the road continues at river level, offering many views of the tumbling river that I find impressive when it is swollen by spring runoff. Three miles before Kings Canyon National Park, south-facing 80-foot Grizzly Falls lies a short stroll from a picnic area. It is reached by the sun from late morning to mid-afternoon.

Buck Rock Lookout

The lookout building, perched atop a granite dome and accessed via a series of vertiginous stairs totalling 172 steps was constructed in 1923. It is historically significant as one of the three surviving early live-in cabs, but is still a working fire lookout, normally open to the public June-October during the “business hours” of 10:30 am to 5:00 pm – as of this writing, no visits are permited because of the coronavirus. Outside of those hours, parts of the staircase are open, or you can just stand on a nearby rock. To minimize disturbance to the fire looker, please refrain from flying drones outside of the business hours, or at close proximity to the lookout! The location of fire lookouts is selected for great 360 degree views over the region, and Buck Rock Lookout indeed offers a superb view of the Great Western Divide. Only the Needles Lookout rivaled it in the area, but it was lost to fire. Drive 8 miles on Generals Highway from Hwy 180, turn left on the Big Meadow Road (FS 14S1), turn left onto FS13S04 which becomes quite rough for a passenger car on the last 1.5 miles, and walk past the gate 300 yards. Continuing on the Big Meadow Road at the fork leads to the meadow of the same name.

Guide to Giant Sequoia National Monument: Southern Unit

Giant sequoias grow only along a narrow band on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California and I clustered in about 65 to 75 groves, depending on how you count them. Three groves grow in Yosemite National Park. The vast majority of them are located within a 70 mile long stretch centered around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, the national parks aren’t the only places to find giant sequoias. They are also found on National Forest lands. Unlike the national parks, that are primarily for preservation, National Forest are “lands of many uses”. While in recent times sequoias have been left standing, the other conifers around them have been logged, and sometimes clearcut. Giant Sequoia National Monument was designated in 2000 to protect no less than 33 sequoia groves by stopping the deforestation around them. As expected, the groves in Giant Sequoia National Monument are not as pristine as those in the national parks, however, the individual trees are just as impressive, and much less crowded.

The monument is divided into two units separated by Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The northern unit is in the Hume Lake Ranger District. The larger southern unit, in the Western Divide Ranger District, is mostly visited via a well-maintained loop from Springville to California Hot Springs via highway 190 and the Western Divide Highway (M107) along which most facilities and attractions are located, including most of the hikes to old-growth sequoia groves in the monument. This article is about the southern unit. The next one is about the northern unit.


(click on map to enlarge)

Belknap Complex

Located just outside the town of Camp Nelson, the small but popular Belknap Campground is the only drive-in campground located within a sequoia grove. Its location is made even more scenic by two creeks. Making a right turn at the entrance, I passed two bridges that lead to a trail linking quaint cabins that lent a sense of scale to the giant sequoias growing next to them.

Right past a cabin next to an interesting footbridge made of a giant fallen tree, and just along the property fence of the next cabin (#22), an overgrown trail starts. It took me quite a while to find that start, and the USFS description said:

Should you loose the trail, proceed up-slope to the top of the ridge (about 1/2 mile, but it will seem like 5 or 10) where you will meet the fairly well maintained COY FLAT – BEAR RIDGE TRAIL (31E31)… If you are still on the trail…
However, once on the hill, I found the trail fairly easy to follow, although very steep in places, climbing 1.2 miles to a ridge where it joins the Bear Creek Trail that starts next to the Coy Flat Campground. On the way, the trail passes a few large sequoias, but the best is yet to come. Going up (east), the Bear Creek Trail leads in another 1.5 miles (elevation gain from Belknap Campground: 2,200 feet) to the upper McIntyre Grove. Because of a continuous logging activity since the late 19th century, there are not too many unlogged groves in Sequoia National Monument. The hard-to-access, hillside location may have helped save the upper McIntyre Grove from the saw and dynamite. Even if the sequoias themselves have not been cut down, I prefer to see them surrounded by old-growth. Hillside groves are generally more open, affording a more clear view of the trees. In addition, the upper McIntyre Grove features many densely clustered, unusually large sequoias. All of this results in what is arguably the most scenic sequoia grove outside of a national park, at least among the trail-accessible ones. I had timed my arrival for the late afternoon, knowing that the best time to photograph the trees would occur right after sunset, when the light would become even. When the sun was still out, I photographed backlit so that the shape of the trees would not be broken by distracting bright spots, and as a bonus, was able to position the camera for a sun star. Afterward, I moved to the west side of the trees. The hillside faces the west, and receives the glow occurring after the sunset. The soft light brought out the tree’s texture and color. In both cases, I used the shift of the Canon 24mm TSE lens to keep the trees parallel, and made sure to include trees at different distances to provide a sense of scale, as well as depth.

Since there was some effort to get there, I stayed out a few hours afterward to also make night photographs, using a flashlight to illuminate the giants. The two trees seen between the twin trees add much depth and interest to the image. Since it was not possible to light up well both foreground and background trees from the same viewpoint, I combined two exposures using the cave photography technique I previously described. To exaggerate the perspective, maximize the size of the opening between the twin trees, and include the stary sky, I used the widest angle lens I carried (16-35mm) and placed the camera just a few feet from the base of the twin trees. Even though it was a June week-end, I didn’t see any other hiker on this outing.

Trail of 100 Giants

By contrast, the Trail of 100 Giants is the most popular attraction in the monument, as it is short (1.5 mile loop), almost flat, and meanders amongst a lot of seriously big trees in Long Meadow Grove – although not quite a hundred. You can park either at the adjacent Redwood Meadow Campground, or a picnic area. The later was filled up with cars by 9am. Although the sequoias are impressive, with many trunks on the ground, stumps, gathered wood, and sparse undergrowth, the grove sometimes reminded me of a lumber yard. The interpretive signs were even written from a forestry perspective. However, a meadow with a flowing creek provided a respite from the less-than-pristine environment. While the experience there cannot compare to, let say the Upper McIntyre grove, the Trail of 100 Giants has a high reward/effort ratio. It makes it possible to see a large number of amazing trees on a trail easily accessible to families with strollers or people with mobility limitations, since it is entirely paved, except for one section. That section was also paved, but had been obliterated when a huge double sequoia tree toppled over in 2011, an event captured on video. The area with the downed trees was closed for safety reasons, but when I visited, it had re-opened and you could go around the trees on a user trail.

The Needles

The Needles are a cluster of massive sheer granite formations. I first visited them in 1993 for some excellent rock climbing. However, everybody without fear of heights could walk to the top by scaling a series of dizzying staircases. The reward was to reach a working fire lookout with a 360-degrees view. Unfortunately, the lookout was destroyed by fire in 2011 and staircases were removed in 2019. There are still views stretching to Mt Whitney along the approach hike (5 miles round-trip, 500 feet elevation gain). To get to the trailhead, turn east on unpaved Forest Route 21S05 a mile south of Quaking Aspen Campground, and continue for 2.5 miles.

Dome Rock

For a more easily accessible view of the valley, from which you can also see the Needles, you can walk 0.25 miles to Dome Rock after driving the short Forest Route 21S05 starting 3.5 miles south of Quaking Aspen Campground. The top of the rock is flat, so the best views and foreground elements are at the edge of the rock, but you have to be careful because there is a sheer drop and also some may be rock climbing just below.

Kern River

This tumbling mountain stream originating near Mount Whitney marks the eastern boundary of Giant Sequoia National Monument. Where route M-99 crosses the river, you’ll find a large parking area with a boat ramp, a good view of the river from the pedestrian bridge that leads to a river-level trail. Half a mile up M-99, South Creek forms a waterfall.

Read part 2: Northern Unit

Treasured Lands wins Indie Book Awards: best non-fiction book of 2020

I am honored that the second edition of Treasured Lands has won not only the category “Coffee Table Book/Photography” in the 2020 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, but also the non-fiction Grand Prize, which means it was named best indie non-fiction book of 2020. More details are in the press release (shorter published version). Here is the citation from a judge:
An unbelievably, richly gorgeous tome 25 years in the making, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks is an unforgettable deep-dive of a journey across the astonishingly varied landscapes of the U.S., every page suffused with reverence for the beauty and majesty of the natural world. Breathtaking photographs paired with detailed information (such as noteworthy geography and hiking routes) make this a showstopping visual treat for the eyes, both for armchair travelers and those who hope to visit in person one day.

The Next Generation Indie Book Awards aims to be the “Sundance” for indie books – small presses, larger independent publishers, university presses, e-book publishers, and self-published authors. It is the largest such international awards program with over 70 categories, evenly split between fiction and non-fiction. Unlike other award programs, they accept books with a copyright date spanning three years, which makes it very competitive. The 2020 edition received thousands of entries from 38 countries and all 50 U.S. states. By far the most well-known honoree was, unfortunately posthumously, Kobe Bryan, a finalist for two books meant to inspire underprivileged children through sports. Organized by the Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group, the program is not-for-profit and offers genuine prizes and recognition.

The awards ceremony is normally held as a gala, and was originally planned to take place at Chicago’s Newberry Library, to coincide with the American Library Association Annual Conference, but this year was, what else, a virtual edition. Grand Prize Winners are invited to deliver an acceptance speech. You can see it in the context of the virtual awards ceremony by fast-forwarding to the 1:10:20 mark in the Facebook Recording or below:

When the first printing of Treasured Lands came out in 2016, I submitted to seven award programs, and won six. The miss was the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, so even just winning a category award would have been gratifying. I’d like to believe that the improvements I made to the second edition helped. Persistence definitively did!

Signed copies of the second printing with 62 national parks including White Sands are available for pre-order with free shipping.

On the Outdoor Photographer Cover

I am honored that the July 2020 issue of Outdoor Photographer includes not only as the opener my 32-page article “10 Unique National Parks”, but also features my image on the cover. Read my musings on cover images, as well as comments on the image.

Outdoor Photographer is the gold standard of magazines dedicated to nature and travel photography, and I’ve been a reader since the late 1990s, still remembering fondly the Galen Rowell columns from that time. Getting a cover shot is pretty hard. Over the last twenty years, I have licensed more than 5,000 images, yet I have only a few dozen covers to my credit. Not counting smaller contributions, that is my third full-length article in Outdoor Photographer (OP) or the fourth if you count a profile. The previous times I had submitted candidates for the cover without success. Is there something lacking with my photography? Not necessarily.

Covers and Type

Obviously, there is only one cover photo for a publication that may include a lot of interior photos. A cover image also has to work well with type. For instance, OP’s editor-in-chief Wes Pitts once wrote to me:

For covers, we’re looking for something that has space at the top for the OP logo and isn’t too busy on the left hand side where the main blurbs are typically placed. We also like them to be colorful and not too dark.

The flipside of those considerations is that cover photos are not necessarily the best photos. When paging through magazines, I often found stronger images inside. They would just not work well as a cover. I was pleased to see this observation corroborated by none other than Annie Leibowitz. In At Work, she reminisces not letting Cornell Capa use a nude pregnant portrait of Demi Moore for an exhibition at the International Center of Photography. She didn’t think that cover image for Vanity Fair was a “good photograph per se”, elaborating:

It’s a magazine cover … There are different criteria for magazine covers. They’re simple. The addition of type doesn’t destroy them. Sometimes they even need type.

Book covers are subject to fewer constraints than magazine covers. Type is often restricted to the title and author’s names, and can be chosen and placed to complement the photograph. Yet, during the design phase of Treasured Lands, of the hundreds of images in the book, we felt that only a handful were suitable for the cover. And then, there is no denying that the type diminishes the image. When in a recent conversation, I told Jack Dykinga that the cover image of Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau was my favorite of his, he replied that the publisher thought highly enough of the image to print the book cover without any type, a rarity. How many books in your library share that characteristic?

The observant reader may have noticed that one element of clutter that is not present in the OP cover is the barcode. That is the quarantine edition. Due to concerns with delivery and printing, OP has elected to temporarily switch over to electronic delivery. While it is personally disappointing to me that there is no printed copy of this particular issue, and maybe to readers that the issue will not be available on the newsstands, some trees were saved, and electrons being cheap, subscribers get to enjoy a 32-page page article with generous double-spreads, while printed issues have only 64 pages. The article can be read on OP’s website.

Trillium Falls

I was pleased that rather than an icon, OP chose an image of a lesser-known spot, Trillium Falls, in Redwood National and State Parks, itself in the bottom half of national parks per visitation. Nowadays, even lesser-known spots are abundantly documented, and you’ll find plenty of photos on the Internet. What you will not find, however, is my composition. Since the image was photographed almost 20 years ago, it was a bit of challenge to remember how I worked the scene, but surprisingly, looking at other photos helped jog memories. Most of them are made from the footbridge that provides a straightforward view of Trillium Falls. From that high and distant vantage point, the perspective must have appeared static, so I tried to do more, which meant walking down to place the tripod right into the creek. Besides leading lines and sense of height, the close foreground helps create depth in the photograph via a strong perspective with the stream shrinking from the width of the image in the foreground to a small ribbon in the background. In other photos, the fallen log in the streambed is quite distracting, but my viewpoint transforms it into an intriguing shape. When faced with an already pleasing subject, ask yourself what more can you do!

Deblurring a film image with AI-based apps

Located north of Arctic Circle, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the ultimate wilderness park in the country. Absent any facilities such as trails, signs, or campsites, it is often possible to feel that you are the first human ever to set foot in the park. No roads lead into the park. You could trek from the Dalton Highway, but it is a long way to the more scenic areas. Most visitors charter a bush plane to fly into the park, choosing either a floatplane for landing on lakes or a plane equipped with oversized tires for landing on gravel bars. The main gateway is Bettles, which can be reached in summer only by air, usually via Fairbanks, the closest major city, 200 miles south. So on that very long day, it was San Francisco to Anchorage, Anchorage to Fairbanks, Fairbanks to Bettles (via mail plane), and then Bettles to Circle Lake, after waiting for the clouds to lift.

The capture

During the bush flight, propeller noise prevented any talking. Once we landed my friend’s first reaction was “awful”, as she was constantly battling air sickness from the bumpy flight. My first reaction was “beautiful”. Taking off in a weather break and flying within a rainstorm, we were treated to double rainbows alternating with clear views over meandering rivers in vast mountain valleys. But the flight was indeed bumpy. With the plane swinging wildly, I tried to time my shots for the endpoints of each swing, like the high points with zero velocity reached by a pendulum. My camera was loaded with 100 ISO slide film (Fuji Provia) and since we had taken off after 9 PM, the sun was not at its brightest, although you wouldn’t guess it from the photographs. Even at maximum aperture, and despite using one of the first image stabilized lenses (the Canon 28-135 IS that was introduced two years before), many of the images showed some blur. I tried to correct them with several pieces of software, including the filters built in Photoshop, and Blurity, but had no success.

My preferred image from the flight was the Alatna River Valley above. I liked the way it boldly featured the meanders in a diagonal composition. Since their real width is about the same, their diminishing size in the image give a perspective clue that creates a sense of depth. Five years ago, after making a test print at the actual full-page size for Treasured Lands, I concluded that even at 12×10 inch size, its softness was noticeable, and instead used the following image, that is not as strong but was sharp.

Applying Topaz AI Sharpener

However, this spring, Outdoor Photographer requested again the Alatna River Valley image for a feature I’ll write about in the next post. I could have proposed the alternative image instead or advised them not to print it too large, but this would have meant infringing on their creative decisions and also admitting I failed at producing a technically sound image. So instead, now armed with AI-based image processing apps that were not available five years ago, I tried to reconstruct a sharper image. First, here is a 100% pixels crop of the original image, taken from the horizon, about one third from the right image edge.

I applied Topaz AI Sharpener in “stabilize” mode, where the app performs deblurring rather than what is normally called sharpening (the default mode). The app had been successful on all images I had processed before, and it did deblur the edges, but the result is way too noisy with the default settings.

Pushing the noise reduction slider all the way to the right helps, but there is still a lot of noise.

What went wrong? All the other images processed before were photographed on digital cameras, whereas this one is a scan from film. I can only assume that since the AI network was not trained using film images, it had no way of knowing that grain was not an image element and therefore amplified it. Since grain was what caused the sharpening to fail, the next idea is to try to remove, or at least reduce grain before trying to apply sharpening.

Pre-processing with Neatimage

Neatimage is an app that I had been using for a decade and half to reduce grain when making large prints from 35mm film, and I kept getting better results with it than with more recent noise reduction apps. It works by analyzing the image to create a noise profile, and has many options to fine-tune the result. The following two crops show the result of applying Neatimage, and then Topaz AI Sharpener.

Pre-processing with Topaz DeNoise AI

Topaz Labs has a recent AI-based noise reduction app, called Topaz DeNoise AI, so let see how it compares to the venerable Neatimage with the default settings. The following two crops show the result of applying Topaz DeNoise AI, and then Topaz AI Sharpener.

DeNoise reduced the grain quite a bit, but when Topaz AI Sharpener is applied what little grain is left is considerably amplified. However, pushing the noise reduction slider all the way to the right (100%) in Topaz DeNoise AI did totally remove the grain, even though, unlike Neatimage, Topaz DeNoise is meant to combat digital noise. This was a bit of a surprise since the noise slider in Topaz AI Sharpener was not particularly effective. The following two crops show the result of applying Topaz DeNoise AI, and then Topaz AI Sharpener.

Even though the controls in the Topaz apps are limited, there are still a few sliders to tweak, and one could spend quite a bit of time doing so. One should certainly not reject an app based on its default settings. I also experimented with a third Topaz Lab app, Gigapixel AI, but we’ve seen enough apps in this post, so that’s something I may write about in the future.

Final Results

Both images pre-processed with Neatimage or Denoise AI at 100% and then with Topaz AI Sharpener are grain-free and reasonably sharp-looking. However, the strong grain removal necessary for Topaz AI Sharpener results in a lack of texture in smooth areas that make them look a bit artificial. After adding 3% of Gaussian noise in Photoshop, the results look more natural. Here are the original crop, sharpened Neatimage and sharpened DeNoise AI with noise added.

There are subtle differences, but both look appear a significant improvement. I was glad that I took the time to reconstruct the image, since Outdoor Photographer ran it as a double spread. Expect a change in the 6th printing of Treasured Lands

Update: What about DeNoise’s sharpening?

Topaz DeNoise AI has its own sharpening slider, however, it is meant to counteract the loss of detail caused by noise reduction rather than address the sources of blur like motion or defocus. So while it does help a bit, it is not a substitute for applying AI Sharpener. For a change, I will use a second example, Stanford University.

To compress the perspective and include all of the palm trees, the Quad, Stanford Memorial Chapel, and the hills, I used a telephoto lens, standing in the middle of the road with a tripod during the brief interval when the traffic lights were red. This is not a situation amenable to very careful technique. The photograph was made less than an hour before sunset as the buildings are north facing and in the shade for most of the day, so shutter speed was slow. While examined under a 4x loupe, the slide looked fine. Even after scanning it and posting images on the web, I did not notice any issues. However, after making a 12×18 print, I saw a bit of softness. Prints are a more demanding medium than a computer screen, and will ruthlessly reveal defects. I re-processed the image with visible improvement in the print. In the comparison below: left is the original image, middle is sharpening with Topaz DeNoise AI, right is sharpening with Topaz AI Sharpener after Topaz DeNoise AI.

Click on image for a pixel-level view.

Update 2: A worst case

In the two examples, the motion blur was rather light. Here is an example with more severe blur, again from an aerial photography scenario. I’ve learned the hard way that one needs seriously fast shutter speeds, in the 1/500s to 1/1000s. On my second trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, in January 1998, I chose to go by seaplane instead of ferry so that I would be able to make an aerial photo, which best captures the unique position of Fort Jefferson covering most of tiny Garden Island in the middle of the ocean. The pilot agreed to circle the island once. As foolish I as it may now sound, my primary goal was actually to photograph with my large format camera. Suffice it to say, this did not work out well. Afterward, I still grabbed a quick photo with the 35mm camera, just in case, but it was still set up with aperture priority at f8, and with the polarizing filter, even midday, the shutter speed wasn’t as high as it should have been. Way to mess up what should have been a straightforward shot!

You can see in the comparison below, even at a small size, how blurry the image before processing (left) is. About fifteen years ago, a customer ordered a print. At 12×18 size, it was awfully blurry. Having made the print, I felt bad signing it, but I sent it nevertheless, thinking that the worse that may happen is that the customer would return it (all of my prints are covered by a one-year 100% money back warranty), I’d apologize and pay shipping both ways. I was surprised she didn’t. Maybe the technical standards of photographers are too high?

Click on image for a pixel-level view.

Black Lives Matter

At the start of 2020, nobody could have imagined that we’d see the pandemic flu of 1918, great depression of 1929, and riots of 1968 rolled into the first half of a single year. They are all linked together. Although it has been a time of fear and anxiety, I kept posting about photography and public lands because I assumed that you were interested in my insight on those topics, not in my politics. It happens to be a field I follow closely. By the way, my preferred source of information and commentary is electoral-vote.com, remarkably maintained by a pair of university professors rather than the usual pundits. Those who don’t consider themselves political may consider how the issue of race defines our country.

With all the suffering, pain, and anger, it has been difficult to concentrate on photography and writing. I felt I needed to educate myself about the issues, first the coronavirus, and then the injustices that continue to plague our nation. I spent long hours trying to listen to all the voices, decipher the history, make sense of the facts. I felt that by comparison photography was almost trivial and irrelevant. Even the national parks didn’t seem to be America’s Best Idea anymore when you weight them against the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act. Yosemite National Park has personally brought me so much joy, but is it more important than the landmark amendments to the Constitution that gave all citizens equal protection under the law?

Living most of my American years in affluent Silicon Valley suburbs, my first clue that something was askew for African Americans was that I encountered so few of them in our national parks, and more generally in outdoor activities. Audrey and Frank Peterman’s Legacy on the Land make the same observation from a Black couple, mentioning in passing the dangers of being in the minority and out of place. It was more than a decade after I started to visit the parks that a conversation with Yosemite park ranger Shelton Johnson explained that puzzling fact. He considers the rejection of the natural world by the black community to be a scar left from slavery. The bond with nature that always existed in Africa was taken away by the horrible things American slave traders did to the Blacks in rural America. What I enjoyed so much, they’ve been robbed of.

While we certainly need equal access to the benefits provided by nature and the outdoors, the more urgent concern is the murder of Black people in this country, including the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The later has been a catalyst because it was particularly abhorrent, and has been particularly well captured on video. However, if like I did, you take the time to inform yourself, you will find that for each murder caught on video, many aren’t well documented. Black people are disproportionately affected by this violence, and they’ve been telling us about it for a long time. Martin Luther King said “riot is the language of the unheard”. This is our test to see if we can hear.

My father, during his youth, had fought against French colonialism. He taught me much about racial-based oppression. While all people of color have suffered from it, a most famous Vietnamese man wrote almost a century ago “it is well-known that the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family”. I will always favor compassion and side with the oppressed. It would have been safer to stay away from controversial topics, but I felt a moral duty to state that Black lives matter and to stand in solidarity with those working to fight racial injustice. However modest my audience is, I am still privileged to have one at all, and I felt a responsibility to speak out. Silence is acquiescence. By joining our voices, we can make a difference.

While it may take a long time to address the institutional causes of racial inequality and injustice, as they run profoundly in a country built on original sin, where emancipation was followed by sharecropping, lynching, segregation, and discrimination, we stand a chance to correct in the medium term the problem of police brutality. The last few weeks have shined a bright light on it, since police have responded to mostly peaceful protests with more police brutality, often in plain view of cameras and assaulted journalists. Police (and the military) are often glorified as heroes. If so, why does a woman calling the cops on a Black man was widely understood to put the life of the man in danger? The police are just an assortment of people, although one funded by American taxpayers to the tune of $114.5 billion per year. Some are truly dedicated to public service, others may be attracted to a well-paying job (with authority, from which it is difficult to get fired. And here resides a weakness of the system: police rarely face real consequences for their abuses, due to the legal leeway that they need to perform their jobs in an excessively armed society, the blue wall that even “good cops” abide by, and police unions. The latter presents a tricky conundrum since any policy needs to balance worker protections and accountability.

We can seize the moment to enact significant changes in the recruitment, training, funding, and oversight of policing in this country. There are two components to effecting change. One of them is strong political action, which requires broad consensus, and electoral victories. The evolution of public opinion over Black Lives Matter has been quick and positive over the past few years, but we still must be careful in our messaging not to alienate potential allies. While some of the more radical slogans could be rationally justified, they are likely to be misunderstood, often on purpose.

Protests are the other component. People are generally resistant to change. Platitudes from politicians calling to come together may sound appealing, but they are a prelude to perpetuating the status quo. Protest is what has brought social change to America. In an ideal world, it would be peaceful. However, violent expressions of anger or subversion by opportunistic elements are not enough to diminish their legitimacy since there is no alternative. Beyond Black Lives Matter, the protests are about reinventing American democracy, but given the particular history of this country, equality has to start with racial justice. I did not join in due to coronavirus concerns for my elderly in-laws who live with us, but I am proud that my daughter went. To everyone who marched for justice and equality, I want to say thank you for bravely taking the risks to make your voices heard. We’ve already seen positive change, and I hope that the year 2020 finishes better than it started.

Photos: Southern Poverty and Law Center, Montgomery, Alabama. Selma-Montgomery march memorial and Brown Chapel, Selma, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Site Visitor Center, Atlanta, Georgia. National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Alabama. Birth Home of Martin Luther King Jr, Atlanta, Georgia. Does the sequence make any sense?

Searching for Falling Man and Newspaper Rock

Although the landscapes and rock formations in Gold Butte National Monument are striking, one of the main reasons for establishing the monument was to preserve the artifacts left by the Moapa band of Paiutes (or Nuwuvi) who have lived in this area for some 3,000 years. They include some of the most impressive petroglyph panels in Nevada. Just a few miles from Whitney Pocket, you can see an exceptional concentration of them at the Falling Man site if you know where to look.

There are more than two thousand archeological sites in the monument. Signs of the way early humans adapted to this harsh desert are observed as agave roasting pits, alcoves with blackened roofs, pottery shards, but the most impressive artifacts are the more than 400 petroglyphs panels. Besides being a national treasure, they represent sacred ancestral history to the native people, so please don’t touch the petroglyphs, which are damaged by oils on our hands.

To get to the Falling Man Site from Whitney Pocket, drive back north for 1.4 miles, turn left (southwest) into the unpaved and narrow Black Butte Road and continue for 1.9 miles to a parking area with a fenced trailhead. That road is rough enough that I engaged 4WD on my first visit. The guidebook instructed to walk 0.3 miles to the Falling Man petroglyph. After the first 0.2 miles on a well-used trail, I arrived at an amphitheater of rocks and was disappointed to only find a few faint petroglyphs before it was time to move on. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have expected to find the major petroglyphs without better directions. For instance, Kenneth Clarke, the author of a book about rock art in Nevada, needed at least three trips to locate the two panels in this post. His article contains also useful historic information and conservation guidelines.

On my second visit with a regular car, although I kept ready to turn around, I reached the parking area almost without scrapping my car’s undercarriage on rocks. Because of my failure in locating the petroglyphs the first time, I had loaded in my GPS app (reviews) a set of coordinates provided by ecologist and environmental activist Jim Boone at his website birdandhike.com, the definitive resource on the desert around Las Vegas. I am not generally a big fan of providing coordinates, but if someone who is a steward of the area is willing to do so, who am I to decline? Once in the field, I regretted not to have also downloaded the photos and directions. Once you get to the end of the trail, the open terrain gives way to a jumble of rocks, where you need to scramble up and down, and although the area is quite small, it is chaotic enough that I had trouble to orient myself. In particular, the easiest route to the Falling Man goes through a non-intuitive small rock tunnel. Instead, I went around the rock wall, down a gully, and then up a steep slope to rejoin the ledge where the tunnel ends.

By that time, it was late afternoon. The Falling Man petroglyph was in the shade, but the high dynamic range of the Sony made it possible to try to include it in the context of its landscape in a single exposure. In order to give more prominence to the petroglyph in the wide-angle photograph, the camera had to be close to it, and since the petroglyph is located high on the wall, my tripod was not tall enough, which would have made HDR a bit more difficult. I used the tilting back LCD and strenuously held the camera above my head, positioning it right in the penumbra of the cliff’s edge so that a sun star would be formed.

Afterward, I began to look for the Newspaper Rock panel. Although my GPS indicated that it was only 200 feet away, when I went looking for it in a direct line I found myself staring down a small cliff. I downclimbed into a small adjacent canyon to try to approach it from the north at the bottom, but could not locate any petroglyphs. With little sunlight left, I wandered around to look for other petroglyphs, that I photographed just as the sun was setting over the horizon, and then went back to the trailhead, not wanting to be caught in the jumble of rocks at night. I was initially planning to look again for the panel the next morning, but once back to the trailhead, noticing the almost full moon and how close the Falling Man glyph was from the trailhead, after eating a little, I decided to give it another try by flashlight in the late evening.

This time, after making my way back to the Falling Man, I tried to approach the presumed position of the Newspaper Rock from the south. Since the area is full of cliffs, this lead me to a circuitous route along a ledge, through an amphitheater of rocks with some petroglyphs, down a ramp with depressions carved by water, and then a dry wash. Approaching the marked point, I was elated to at last see the panel, carved on the face of a huge boulder. Previously, I had been almost on the top of that boulder, and then on the other side of it. Many archeological sites have a Newspaper rock, but this one of best I have seen, with its multitude of petroglyphs clearly etched. I particularly liked that rather than being on the face of a cliff, the panel was stretching for the entire length of a boulder’s face. With the full moon, when exposed properly, the photograph almost looked like daylight. But unlike during daylight, I could easily modify the light. I used a lantern to fill-in the shadow cast by the boulder’s top, creating a glow to emphasize the panel. Later, as clouds began to arrive, not only they helped animate the sky, by obscuring the moon they helped create a darker, more nocturnal mood, and I made the panel stand out more by increasing its relative brightness.

Having determined that the panel faces south, but that the sun would not reach it until maybe an hour after sunrise, the next day I headed straight to the Newspaper rock while it was still night, with the goal to photograph mostly in the pre-dawn light. The pre-dawn sky was not as colorful as I had hoped, with only a very faint earth’s shadow, however by using the lantern I was able to create color contrast that went from strong to subtle as the daylight grew brighter. This ancient art was so much more powerful in the wild than it would have been encased in a museum. As the sun rose behind, I felt a profound sense of sacredness.