Terra Galleria Photography

Berryessa Snow Mountain Superbloom?

The April trip to Japan and its aftermath made me miss the California wildflower season, which due to the winter’s abundant rains, was a super bloom. In early May, figuring out that Southern California would be long past peak, I went on pursuit of wildflowers in Northern California. The northern part of the state doesn’t have famed wildflowers areas such as Antelope Valley or Carrizo Plain, but I thought that my best chance beyond the Bay Area would be in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and adjacent areas. The official Bureau of Land Management (BLM) signage for the monument should not prominently include California poppies for nothing, right?

Zim Zim Fall

Tuyelome (pronounced too-lee-OME-ee) is a grassroots conservation organization working in the Northern Inner Coast Range of California that was instrumental in the establishment of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Its name is a Lake Miwok Indian word that means “deep home place”. Nate Lillge from Tuyelome, who had authored the introduction for Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument in Our National Monuments suggested wildflower areas. The pictures from a hike he had led to Zim Zim Fall looked promising, as California poppies carpeted the slopes even on that dry year. I picked up that hike for my first destination.

From the west shore of Lake Berryessa, I turned onto the Berryessa-Knoxville Road, which is always a delight to drive if you take your time. The quintessential backroad, it is narrow and windy, but also remarkably quiet and beautiful. The pavement was even rougher than I remembered it, with so many deep potholes that it required the same precautions as an unpaved road. By the time I got to the trailhead, a small pullout on the east side of the road 24 miles later, I had not seen a single other vehicle. Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is a patchwork of state and federal lands under the supervision of a medley of agencies. The Zim Zim Fall hike takes place on lands that are managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The trail starts on the west side of the road beyond a green gate. I quickly reached a creek crossing. Since I read that there were a lot of them (I would count ten), I did not attempt to keep my shoes dry by stepping precariously on rocks, but instead walked straight into the streambed. When I got to the second crossing, I was glad for my prior decision, since this time, there was no way not to get wet feet. After the wet winter, the stream level was probably higher than average. Fortunately, unlike when I hiked the Paria Canyon, the temperature was moderate enough that my wet feet were not uncomfortable, and I felt no need to change socks. The stream crossings added a little adventurous note to the easy hike.

The trail is an old ranching road that follows the Zim Zim Creek along a gentle valley, crossing meadows below rolling hills. While at no point the wildflowers were dense enough to form a carpet, I found a few nice-looking patches, which is enough for a photograph. The grass was a lush green. Was it outgrowing the flowers? Or was I past peak?

About three miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a sharp right turn and starts gaining elevation more steeply – if you continue straight, tough bushwhacking takes you to the base of Zim Zim Fall. As the official trail traverses the side of the valley opposite the waterfall, excellent distant views are available. The waterfall faces East and is sunlit in the morning.

Half a mile after the turn, a single-track trail leads steeply down to the base of the waterfall. As the main trail continues to gain elevation, views over the Zim Zim Creek Valley open up. I hiked to a saddle about four miles from the trailhead (elevation gain 800 feet). From there, it is possible to come back along a ridge for a loop, but since I had not checked out the waterfall’s base, I backtracked instead. By that time, the weather had turned cloudy, and it was dark enough that stopping down to f/11 and using ISO 50 was enough to slow the shutter speed down to 1/20 seconds to smooth the water. At least, I didn’t carry the tripod for nothing. Zim Zim Fall is one of the most accessible, year-round waterfalls in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Although I did not find a super bloom, the hike turned out to be very rewarding. Maybe it was because it was a weekday, but by the time I returned to the trailhead, I hadn’t seen a single person. It was only after the Berryessa-Knoxville Road turned into the better-maintained Morgan Valley Road at a pass marking the monument’s boundary that I encountered other cars on the road.

Indian Valley and Walker Ridge

North of CA-20, the character of the monument changes, as shrubs and conifer forests replace grassy oak lands. The unpaved Walker Ridge Road is the best road in the monument for panoramic vistas, offering terrific views across barrens, including Mt. Diablo, the Sierra Nevada, Mt. Shasta, and Mt. St. Helena. At a closer distance, the monument’s namesake Snow Mountain, as well as Indian Valley Reservoir are prominent. Walker Ridge Road starts on the north side of CA-20, about 12.5 miles from the junction with CA-53 to the west or 6.2 miles from the junction with CA-16 to the east. The last time I drove with a Subaru, I found Walker Ridge Road well-graded and quite easy. It could be because this time I came with a Prius, which has some of the lowest clearance of any sedan, or it could be that the road had degraded due to the abundant winter rains of the 2022-23 winter, but this time, although I had no issues, I needed to drive with great care. The few other people I encountered all drove high-clearance 4WD vehicles.

About 5.2 miles from CA-20, a secondary road leads west towards Indian Valley Reservoir, a large artificial lake offering recreational activities such as boating and fishing. Its 300,000 acres fall within the larger Indian Valley/Walker Ridge Recreation Area. I found the road closed before reaching the Indian Valley Reservoir Campground. About a mile and a half up the road, the Blue Oaks Camp offered 6 campsites with picnic tables, fire pits and vault toilets, but no water. Pulling into the campground and intending to go to sleep early, I was wary of the other campers’ music, and instead drove down the road again.

Unlike in national parks, dispersed camping outside of official campgrounds is generally permitted in national monuments. I found a nice pullout overlooking the lake where previous occupants had built a fire ring. While the water was boiling for my dinner, I made a few night exposures. The sky, which had been cloudy for most of the day, had cleared and the moonlit scene was rendered by the camera similarly to a daylight scene with a few stars. To render them as points with a 24mm f/2.8 lens, I kept the exposure to 10s, resulting in a ISO of 800. I tried out the new AI-based noise reduction available in Lightroom 12.3, and it did an excellent job, easily as good as the specialized Topaz DeNoise. Since it is included in Lightroom, give it a try if you haven’t yet! Hopeful for good light at sunrise, I went to bed cowboy-style, sleeping on the ground rather than inside my cramped car. The forecast had called for mostly cloudy weather, but no rain. Half an hour before sunrise, I was awakened by raindrops. I retreated into the car and went back to sleep, regretting not having taken advantage of the moonlight and window of clear early night sky to make more compositions.

After the rain stopped, I walked down the closed road to the campground, which is quite large and ideally located at the lakeshore. Right at the water’s edge, I found a few clusters of California poppies. Although far from spectacular, they were still the best I had found in the monument. However, it was still early in the morning and quite chilly, so the flowers had not opened.

I drove back to Walker Ridge Road, and not far from the junction with the Indian Valley Reservoir Road, I started a hike on the east side of the road to explore the serpentine barrens on foot. Serpentine is a rare bluish-green rock derived from the earth’s mantle. Soils formed from serpentine rocks lack certain elements required by most plants, prompting adaptations resulting in species not found anywhere else.

The area has two prominent rock formations called Signal Rock and Eagle Rock that can be both visited via a loop of about 8 miles. It was a bit confusing because of a large number of intersecting trails of various widths, some narrow single-tracks, and others jeep roads. I was glad that I had a GPS app. The terrain was definitively not a good place to look for wildflowers. Upon arriving at Signal Rock, I was unimpressed by the formation, but before leaving, I decided to do a scrambling circumnavigation to see what I could find.

From its other side, the rock loomed more impressively, and I saw a few clusters of sunflowers. It is very rare that I set my 12-24 zoom at its widest setting, but that was one of the occasions that called for such a radical perspective, as it would make the sunflowers prominent enough in the photograph to give it life by contrasting them against the dark rock and creating a Z-shaped visual path leading up to the otherwise modest pinnacle.

I didn’t find anything close to super bloom I was looking for, but I had met the secondary goal of my trip, which was to find out what the proposed addition to Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was about. Walker Ridge Road, Signal Rock, and Eagle Rock are currently adjacent, but not included in the monument. The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument Expansion Act introduced in the Senate on March 7, 2023 aims to change that by adding nearly 4,000 acres to the 330,000-acres national monument. Even without the native cultural concerns, given how spectacular the views on Walker Ridge Road are and how rare are serpentine habitats, this is well overdue!

click on map for larger version

Seeking Lee Friedlander’s Signature

We joke that if my wife had a haircut, I would not be able to recognize her. But I did well in identifying Lee Friedlander. His facial features had not changed that much since the year 1994 when he took his self-portrait in Tokyo, which was prominently displayed in the gallery. Besides, he was the only person wearing photography equipment. What appeared to be a small 35mm film camera hung around his neck, fitting for such a voracious photographer. I was wearing my trusty F-stop Gear backpack that must have weighed thirty pounds as usual, but there were no cameras inside.

The Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco on that day held an opening reception for the exhibit Lee Friedlander Framed by Joel Coen. Friedlander is of course one of the few greatest living photographers, his career spanning more than sixty years. His work is the subject of more than fifty books, and they keep coming up, with two titles already announced for 2024. Ansel Adams is associated with wild landscapes, Cartier-Bresson with street photographs, Avedon with portraits, and other greats are mostly known for a limited range of subjects, but remarkably, Friedlander has made his mark on almost every genre of photography. Unlike other contemporary photographers, his oeuvre includes an extensive body of work on the natural world which is quite distinctive. How did he pull that off? Mostly with a highly peculiar, chaotic, and off-kilter sense of composition that can be viewed as his signature style. The exhibit highlights Friedlander’s signature compositions through a curation that draws connections between images through their formal elements and framing. Joel Coen, the curator, is not unfamiliar with slanted visions of America that uncover the mysterious within the ordinary. With his brother Ethan, he is one of the two Coen Brothers whose films include classics such as Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007). I wondered if I would be able to learn something about Friedlander’s way of seeing through the new selection.

When it comes to famous photographers, I am an admitted groupie. For more than fifteen years, I have been attending gallery openings, lectures, photography fairs, and book signings to meet admired artists. I collect photography in the form of books rather than prints. Except for rare hand-made “artist books”, they are mass-produced. Therefore, I feel that a signature, which comes from the hand of the artist, helps confer them the status of art objects. While I buy signed books – and also go out of my way to make available my books signed for those who care – I much prefer to receive a signature directly from the artist. I once read on Jeffrey Ladd’s blog that upon discovering on eBay copies of books he had signed the day before, Joseph Koudelka was disgusted and vowed not to do any book signings again. Since then, I always ask for an inscription. It lowers the resale value but provides a memento of a brief connection. Sometimes, they are a simple “To QT”. Other occasions were more surprising, such as when Alec Soth made witty sketches in each of the books I brought, or when Paul Caponigro wrote a thank you note for coming to his lecture.

In 2015, my daughter was already developing an interest in the arts. I had made my way to the Fraenkel Gallery with her in tow. After we looked for the French conceptual photographer Sophie Calle without success, I assumed that she had disappeared into the private spaces of the gallery, maybe to meet with collectors. Not wanting to exceed the patience of a ten-year-old, we left. On Saturday, May 5, 2023, coming by myself shortly after the official beginning of the reception, I was determined to hang out for as long as it would take. But it didn’t take long to locate Friedlander. I introduced myself, expressed my admiration, and thinking that it would be a busy afternoon for him, quickly asked if he would sign books. With a faint smile, he said that he couldn’t because he had to go somewhere. Indeed, he quickly moved into the gallery’s backrooms.

I went back to looking at the work on the walls, trying to understand Joel Coen’s choices. Three of the walls were adorned with just three prints each, whereas the bulk of the exhibit was a salon-style assemblage of prints stacked up to three rows. Some of the common formal structures, such as the splitting by posts or the use of frames were easy to spot, but maybe because of the hanging order, others eluded me until I watched in a second room a slide show put together by Coen that made the formal relationships crystal clear. Besides its sequencing and grouping of images, the slide show also presented key examples not part of the exhibit, which had about 45 prints. Coen had remained in the public room of the gallery, and after expressing my appreciation for divulging the logic behind his curation, we had a personable conversation. Among other things, he mentioned that Friedlander didn’t like crowds, which I could certainly sympathize with.

Guessing that Friedlander would not reappear for a while, I took a walk through the building. Remembering how the 49 Geary building, one block from Union Square, was a thriving art gallery complex with about twenty different galleries, I was shocked to discover that the building was largely empty. I knew that Themes and Projects (formerly Modernbook) had long left the building. I missed their owners who were so generous with advice when my wife and I had briefly operated an art gallery at the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica – the other long-established West Coast gallery complex. Robert Koch Gallery was still hanging in there but had to move to a smaller space. In total, only five galleries were left. Elsewhere in San Francisco, the acclaimed Pier 24 museum/collection is closing, also because of the high rent. Maybe like in other industries, only the top do well. Fraenkel is the top photography dealer on the West Coast, and the event shows why he has earned his reputation. I was grateful that they kept doing exhibits and public receptions rather than turn into a by-appointment-only affair.

Back to the Fraenkel Gallery, I studied some favorites more. Out of curiosity, I looked at the price list, where a wide disparity – $9,500 to $35,000 – was in evidence. Certainly, it wasn’t correlated to print size, nor could be explained by edition numbers since Friedlander is one of the rare photographers of his caliber not to limit prints. It seemed like the more valuable prints were the older ones in terms of printing year rather than capture year, with a bonus added when those two dates were close to each other. I lingered in a third room consisting of prints by other gallery artists that used some of the same formal devices as the Friedlander photographs. I leafed through the just-released exhibit catalog and found out that its sequencing followed exactly the slide-show, and included all the additional images not on display, for a total of about 70 plates. Some Friedlander monographs may benefit from a tighter edit, but in this Coen did a perfect selection. It was difficult to resist buying such a beautifully printed book (I am still having second thoughts), but the reason I was lugging my Fstop Gear Satori was that it was the smallest bag I had that would fit my collection of Friedlander books, including the oversize The American Monument and the (too?) massive MOMA 2005 retrospective. I realized that in bringing all of them, I had been overly greedy, so after Friedlander re-emerged, this time I asked if he would sign just one book. He replied “No. I am finished for today.”

At first, I was disappointed. In fifteen years, nobody had denied me a signature. The “worst” was when the Gagosian Gallery didn’t allow inscription requests to William Eggleston, who on that day seemed to require much encouragement to continue the book signing. There are plenty of signed Friedlander books on the market. But I subsequently remembered reading from Maria Friedlander that back when he was self-publishing his seminal Self-Portrait (1970), although a gallery was his best customer for the books, he had refused to sign them, resulting in discontinued orders. I thought that at age 88, he must have felt tired by the event, especially if he had felt obligated towards Jeffrey Fraenkel. Their relationship dates from the early 1980s, when he was the second artist exhibited by Fraenkel – the first was Carleton Watkins whose photographs Fraenkel acquired by bidding against the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had led to such beautiful books for all to enjoy, of which Lee Friedlander Framed by Joel Coen is only the latest. Lee and Maria Friedlander had been married since 1958, before I was born. My two favorite images in the exhibit were two unconventional portraits of her – Maria, Southwestern United States (1969) and Maria Friedlander, Las Vegas, Nevada (1970). As they exited the gallery, I was touched to see them constantly holding hands. After all, I didn’t go home empty handed.

Enoshima Island

During a recent stay in Tokyo, I discovered a different side of the metropolis, only an hour away from its urban core. Though popular with the locals, the island of Enoshima would be easy to miss. It just unfamiliar and quirky enough to make a trip here – easily done in a day – feel like a world away from the city.

Despite its small size of about 4km in circumference, Enoshima Island offers multi-faceted attractions. The island has a modern side with a yacht harbor that has hosted the sailing events for two Olympic Games (1964 and 2021) and the Enoshima Island Spa, a hot springs establishment. However, most of the sights are on a forested hill that can be explored only on foot, via a network of stairs, walkways, and illuminated (paid) escalators.

Learning about the mythology that surrounds its history enhanced my appreciation of the island, as the story served a a common thread for the places visited. Kokei, a Buddhist monk, recorded island lore concerning its beginnings around 1047. The enormous five-headed dragon Gozuryu tormented the town of Koshigoe for a millennium. A heavenly maiden, the goddess Benzaiten (or Benten), descended from the clouds following ferocious storms and terrible earthquakes. A mystery island – Enoshima – appeared from the depths just as she reached the water’s surface; this island would become her home. The Gozuryu adored her at first sight and requested her hand in marriage. However, Benzaiten was aware of the dragon’s misdeeds and informed him that she would only consider his proposal if he made a promise to reform its ways. Gozuryu then committed himself to guarding the territory he had previously ravaged. The dragon eventually transformed into a hill so that he could continue to protect the godess even after his death. As a result of this legend, Enoshima is a special location for weddings. In modern times, the Bell of the Dragon was erected on the island. Lovers who fasten a padlock to the gate and ring the bell are said to be forever together, much like the two deities in the legend.

According to history, Enoshima Shrine’s origins date back to 552. The Hojo clan, which ascended to power during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), places great value on the temple. Legend has it that when Hojo Tokimasa, the first regent of the Kamakura shogunate, allegedly went to the shrine to pray for prosperity, a mystery woman (Benzaiten) gave him a prophecy. Tokimasa decided to use the three dragon scales she left behind as his family’s coat of arms. Because of the island’s connection to this most enigmatic of animals, dragons dragons are everywhere on the island. Although I did not try to photograph all the instances, it was fun to try to spot them. The Enoshima Shrine is composed of multiple structures. There are three main ones, Hetsunomiya, Nakatsunomiya, and Okutsunomiya, and a number of smaller ones spread all over the island.

Historical records state that the initial shrine was erected on the island’s backside, where erosion had cut out the Enoshima Iwaya caves, which have significant historical value. Older locals who grew up in the region recall how no one dared risk venturing inside the caves; only the brave would even dare to get near them. Nowadays, two of the caves are open to the public, leading respectively to the birthplace of Enoshima Shrine and to a gaudily illuminated statue of the dragon Gozuryu.

Enoshima had already grown to be a popular destination for pilgrims and worshipers by the Edo Period (1603-1868). Today, although foreign tourists do not show up in large numbers as the island is not considered a major travel attraction, it is touristy and busy all the time with local visitors – the kind of place I like to check out when traveling abroad because of their fun, relaxed and often quirky atmosphere. There is some measure of authenticity, yet a foreign visitor with a camera does not stick out. Right at the island’s entrance, after a bronze tori gate, souvenirs and all sorts of local food delicacies are offered on bustling Nakamise Street. The most popular appeared to be tako senbei, a rice cracker made by pressing a whole octopus flat.

By contrast, the top of the island is capped by the serene Samuel Cocking garden which contains a variety of flowers, tropical trees and modern sculptures. It was named after a British merchant who owned the area in the 19th century. Rising from the garden, the Sea Candle is a 60-meter tall lighthouse that doubles as a 360-degree panoramic observation platform. It is said to offer an excellent view of Mt Fuji on clear days, but I visited on a rainy day. Except for those views, I was actually pleased with the soft light of the day that worked better for most subjects than a sunny would have. I had no trouble to keep my camera dry thanks to an umbrella I purchased at a souvenir shop for less than $5.

With the mix of the spiritual and the kitsch, the ancient and the modern, and of nature and man-made, I found that the island packed a lot in a relatively small area. Surprisingly, Enoshima Island is only about an hour from central Tokyo (Katase Enoshima) and as such makes for a great excursion away from the city. Enoshima Island is part of Fujisawa, a coastal city that serves as a beach resort also popular for surfing and sailing. Its Enoshma Aquarium is one of the most popular in Japan, with outstanding displays showcasing the marine life of the adjacent Sagami Bay and beyond. Most visit Enoshima Island as a day trip, but for a more relaxed experience, we stayed overnight at a ryokan minutes from the train station and from the bridge to the island.

People’s Park

Earth Day is a global event celebrated every year today, April 22nd. It is a day to raise awareness about environmental issues and take action toward creating a more sustainable future. Since National Park Week is held in conjunction with Earth Day, given my longtime association with public parklands, in past years, I have taken the occasion to celebrate our national parks. This year’s post is instead about a specific urban space, People’s Park in Berkeley, California.

The presence of nature close to where we live provides numerous benefits to our well-being. While distant and large protected areas such as national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas are essential for conservation, it is local green areas that provide opportunities for people to connect with nature on a regular basis, thus contributing to community well-being. They are essential for promoting physical and mental health through exposure to nature. They play a part in environmental sustainability by filtering pollutants and reducing heat island effects and carbon emissions. They help sustain biodiversity and can provide local food sources.

One such local green area is People’s Park, south of the University of California (UC) campus in Berkeley. Its history well-detailed in the Wikipedia, and recognized by a National Register of Historic Places designation is closely tied to the anti-war, civil rights, and counter-culture movements of the 1960s. Yet, almost by its nature, it has always been a precarious and contested place.

Upon acquiring the 2.8-acre piece of land by eminent domain and clearing it, the University had plans to build student housing and a parking lot, but due to a funding shortage, the site had remained in a destitute state. On April 20, 1969, following a call in the community newspaper Berkeley Barb to beautify and utilize the vacant lot, a hundred people came and began to lay sod. Within a month, community members and activists built a green public park where free speech could flourish. The anniversary of the People’s Park therefore roughly coincides with Earth Day – which first took place on April 22, 1970.

In the 1960s, the University was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and a center of student activism. Ronald Regan had been elected governor in 1966 by riding the backlash against it with the promise to “clean up the mess in Berkeley”. He considered the creation of the leftist park a direct challenge to the property rights of the university, of which he already disapproved the tolerance of anti-war student demonstrations. On May 15, 1969, a day remembered as “Bloody Thursday”, workers accompanied by police armed with tear gas and shotguns loaded with birdshot were sent to tear down and fence the park. In the ensuing violent attack on the large crowd of protesters, a man was killed and many seriously injured. The Governor called a National Guard force of 2,700 that subsequently occupied Berkeley for two weeks. However, after another protest, the Berkeley City Council voted to lease the park site from the university in 1972, officializing the status of the park.

Like the battle for conservation in the words of John Muir, the battle for People’s Park has been never-ending. Over the years, the park has faced numerous challenges and threats of closure, but it has remained a vital community space and a hub for activism and social justice. It was home to a natural stormwater management system, a communal vegetable garden, and various activities such as art classes, film screenings, concerts, dances, and cookouts. In a context of gentrification, community members and activists have fought to protect the park from development and commercialization, and it continues to serve as a space where people could hang out for community support, engagement, education, and advocacy.

Upon arriving in America, I lived for three years in Berkeley. Having fond memories of this time, I kept following news about the city. I read about the latest development plans from the University of California, and the resulting protests and legal challenges. Finding myself in Berkeley at the beginning of this month to help with a field trip for the school my son is attending, I took the opportunity to pay a visit to People’s Park. It had been a long time since I last set foot there. Still, I remembered a thriving urban woodland. I was shocked to find the space sparsely forested and littered with many felled tree trunks that included a large palm tree and several redwoods. Graffiti-scrawled heavy machinery was stationed, as well as several tents housing homeless residents.

For decades, the camera has spurred me to see more of the world. After attending a BBQ dinner with the school group at Cesar Chavez Park near the Berkeley Marina, I returned to Telegraph Avenue and strolled around to look for photographs. At first, I hesitated to walk into the park at dusk, as it appeared forlorn and dark. However, I heard a young woman cheerfully calling for people to get a meal if they were hungry. I was not feeling satiated since the school BBQ dinner didn’t have much vegetarian food, and I also wanted to strike up a conversation to find out what was happening to the park. It turned out that a local reporter also came later to interview the activists – unsurprisingly, she asked better questions than I did.

I learned that the current threat to the park, a construction project announced in 2018, was the most serious in its history since Bloody Thursday. Its goal is to build housing for up to 1,100 students and supportive housing for 100 low-income people – that the activists dismiss as being too expensive to be useful. The ostensively liberal Berkeley City Council seems to agree with the University’s plans. The park’s ecosystem was most recently damaged in the summer of 2022 when backed by yet another contingent of police in riot gear, the University illegally cut down about 50 trees in the middle of the night.

Authorities have deliberately allowed the park to deteriorate to garner public support for its destruction. For instance, a water pipe issue was left unfixed so that the park had no water supply for weeks, the doors of the bathroom shut were welded shut, and lights were turned off, making the site hazardous for elderly residents and unwelcoming for visitors. If students stayed away from People’s Park because it appears a scary place as it did for me at first, they would not become part of the park’s constituency or learn about the plight of its users.

The pair of activists had kept the meat separated from the delicious vegetables. I shared the free home-cooked meal with two residents. One of them offered pot that I politely declined. Sitting in the friendly company of those strangers, I was glad that I didn’t let the first impressions keep me away. Since my daughter had applied to UC Berkeley, I could personally understand the University’s desire for extended enrolment and need for student housing. Yet, there are nine alternative sites on which they could start building right away without opposition, so why the instance on reclaiming People’s Park? Indeed, as reported on People’s Park website, in the latest decision in the legal fight, the Appeals Court found in February 2023 that UC’s Environmental Impact Report did not adequately analyze feasible alternative sites. Unlike others, People’s Park is a historic landmark, and a well-established center for mutual aid. University officials must have felt that such an unruly and (currently) unsightly place a few blocks away from the prestigious campus was a nuisance, but I felt a liveliness absent from the neat suburb where I live.

In keeping with today’s occasion, People’s Park is one of the last green spaces in the most densely populated Berkeley neighborhood. Due to the abundant rains of the year, a profusion of wildflowers of all colors was blooming. I imagined how, with a bit of care and attention, the place could become again a beautiful public commons, whereas once an open space is gone, it is lost forever. Don’t we all need more, not less open space?

Reducing depth of field by focus stacking in Almaden Quicksilver

With its live oak and chaparral-covered foothills, Almaden Quicksilver County Park, located minutes from the suburbs of San Jose, at first resembles the other nature preserves ringing the Silicon Valley. However, at their height, mercury mining operations that took place there (quicksilver is another name for mercury) made the site the second-most productive mercury mine in the world, yielding nearly 84 million pounds. Starting in 1847 and for three decades, it may have been the nation’s most significant mineral resource, as it was essential in producing explosives for the Civil War and in amalgamating gold during the California Gold Rush. Carleton Watkins, arguably the most important landscape photographer in history, documented the site quite extensively.

Back then, 1,800 miners and their families lived in the area, but almost nothing remains of the structures that housed them. A number of mining structures still stand, of which the Almaden Quicksilver Chimney is one of the most prominent. Starting from the Hacienda Trailhead where a rusted collection of mining equipment is on display, sitting on a hill and surrounded by trees, the chimney quickly comes to view. Built in the 1870’s, it was used to release dangerous sulfur fumes from the Hacienda reduction works below.

Despite the fact that much of the region is now covered with thicker vegetation than in the 19th century, there are still numerous traces of the once-active mining hub. The most impressive is the rotary furnace that was built in 1940 to provide mercury for munitions during World War II and remained active until 1976, when mining operations ceased at the site. More than 100 abandoned mine entrances can be found in the park, together with sporadic pieces of machinery, foundations, and deteriorating roads that have left a lasting impression on the landscape. For safety, all of them have been sealed, with the exception of the San Cristobal Mine. I read that it was possible to enter the tunnel for a short distance, but was disappointed to see the entrance closed with a grid. Perhaps if I couldn’t enter the dark passage to experience what I imagined to be heavy and humid air, I could at least take a picture to remember this quick peek into the past?

While it was possible to insert a phone lens in the interstices, the grid pattern was only about half an inch, much smaller than any full camera lens front element. I knew right away that I would put to good use the automated focus bracketing of my new Sony A7R5 camera. Not only focusing manually a stack would have been quite tedious, but also the camera support was less than rock solid. In order to blur the grid to the largest possible extent, I had placed the lens as close as possible by resting its front against the grid, with the two other support points provided by two tripod legs. Touching the camera to re-focus would have risked minute changes in the camera position or lens focal length.

To illustrate how I made it work, first here is a picture taken with a 35mm focal length at the f/11 aperture I would normally use to ensure front-to-back sharpness. One can see how to tight grid pattern strongly intrudes into the picture, which is not especially desirable because the grid is contemporary.

35mm, f/11

As the aperture is opened up, the grid gradually gets thrown out of the depth-of-field area of the lens and starts to fade, but even at the lens widest aperture of f/4, it still remained quite visible.

35mm, f/8

35mm, f/5.6

35mm, f/4

Depth of field is inversely proportional to the square of the focal length, so by framing the tunnel more tightly, with a 60mm focal length, the depth of field is much diminished.

60mm, f/11

60mm, f/8

60mm, f/5.6

60mm, f/4

By f/4, the grid is sufficiently out of the depth of field area that it has become almost invisible. However, the shallow depth of field also means that only a slice of the scene, the traverse planks with the words, appears in focus. The solution is to do a focus stack with each of the component images captured at f/4. Even though the closest element of the scene, the plank at the top of the photo, is not that close, getting everything in focus still required 36 frames. Stacking them with Helicon Focus led to the final image after a few quick processing steps in Lightroom.

Focus stacking is normally used to extend the depth of field. In this example, I used it to selectively reduce it, which had the effect of making the unwanted grid magically disappear. The same technique could be used to blur a background while keeping a subject with extended depth entirely sharp.

Snow in Yosemite Valley

Today marks the official start of the spring, while the weekend saw the re-opening of Yosemite National Park. The park had been closed since February 25, the second longest closure in memory – floods in 1997 closed the park for over two months. The closure of this winter was caused by unusually deep snow. On February 28, 40 inches of snow had accumulated in Yosemite Valley, a record for the date. Higher elevations had received more than 180 inches.

While those higher elevations are covered by snow each winter, snow is not a given in Yosemite Valley. Located at an elevation of around 4,000 feet, the valley hardly receives any snow some years. Typically, most winter storms blanket the mountains surrounding the valley with snow but leave the valley itself looking bleak and muddy. Seeing the valley floor covered with snow is a relatively rare treat, and even rarer is the sight of everything covered with snow. Perhaps right after a winter storm is when Yosemite Valley is most picturesque. Snow clings to every branch and rock, as mist fills up the air. Those were the conditions when two of the most well-known photographs of Yosemite were made: Ansel Adams Clearing Winter Storm (1944) in black and white, and Galen Rowell Clearing Storm over El Capitan (1973) in color.

Since my first visit in February 1993, I had been regularly returning to Yosemite Valley, not only for rock climbing but also to photograph. However, for several years, despite dozens of visits, I remained disappointed with the results of my efforts and felt I didn’t manage to capture any of the valley’s magic. Inspired by the two photographs above-mentioned, I decided to try a new approach. At that time, I was working as a computer scientist, so my excursions to Yosemite had always been at pre-planned times, on weekends except for the occasional longer big-wall climb. In the winter of 1998, I figured out that I could not just show up and hope something interesting may happen, but that instead, I should watch the weather conditions in order to come when something was happening. Naturally, that “something” was a clearing winter storm.

For my first post-storm visit, I left my home in Menlo Park, CA shortly before sunrise. The most direct route to Yosemite is via Oakdale and CA-120, but the highway climbs over to 6,000 feet elevation near Crane Flat before descending to Yosemite Valley. With fresh snow in the offing, I drove instead CA-140 via Mariposa, following the lower-elevation Merced Canyon and entering the park at El Portal (1,940 feet), near its lowest point. Delighted to see the first light highlighting a wonderland of fresh snow at Midpines, the high point of CA-140, I stopped to take a few pictures. When I arrived in Yosemite Valley in the late morning, I immediately regretted that pause. As the sun had already been up for a couple of hours, the snow was melting and falling from the trees. Most of them were bare of snow. High up the cliff, mist was still swirling along the rock walls, and a dusting of snow could still be seen. I quickly pulled out my large-format camera and used the longest lens I had, a 450mm lens (roughly equivalent to 90mm on full-frame) to frame a tight composition. The photograph is memorable to me because it was the first I made of a clearing winter storm in Yosemite. Without obvious landmarks, it evokes the power of the place. Yet, I immediately realized I had to adjust my timing for the next time.

Winter is the season when Yosemite receives the most precipitation. I was given a second chance that same winter when another storm with a snow level below 4,000 feet was forecasted to clear during the night. Because I was working in a research institute, it wasn’t a problem to be out of the office on a weekday. Leaving home in the middle of the night, I arrived at El Capitan Meadow, my favorite spot in Yosemite Valley, before the sun reached it, and immediately began to plan my photographs. For my first composition, I used a normal lens and included two focal points: the frozen oak tree detached against the sky on the right, and the snowy top of the Leaning Tower peeking between the masses of Lower and Middle Cathedral Rocks that attracts the eye with its brightness and contrast despite its tiny size – in a large print frozen trees are visible on the peak. In the summer, the shaded rock walls would look lifeless, but the fresh snow clinging to their steep faces created a beautiful tint by reflecting the blue sky. After setting up the large-format camera while El Capitan Meadow was still in the shade, I waited for the sun to arrive and made the exposure less than a minute after the entire meadow was lit.

Afterward, in a state of flow, I promptly switched to a longer lens for a study in textures, isolating a cottonwood tree caressed by the early morning light at the base of Middle Cathedral Rocks whose north face was strikingly blanketed by snow. The pine trees added a subtle hint of green, noticeable because of the homogeneity of the skyless composition dominated by the blue of open shade. Walking a few hundred yards to the bridge, I used the widest lens I had for that camera (a 90mm lens, equivalent to 18mm on full-frame) to include the entire scene with the two iconic rock formations, the Merced River, and El Capitan Meadows, taking advantage of wispy clouds.

This wintry moment turned out to be as fleeting as I expected it to be. Within an hour of the sun’s appearance, the conifer trees were already more dark-green than white. With snow on the ground, but not on the trees, the ground of a meadow appears distractingly bright compared to the rest of the scene. I drove a few minutes to the Valley View where I could use a foreground of rocks and water instead of a snowy meadow. Although the snow had been melting fast, not everything was lost as some mist was still hanging out high along rock walls while clouds remained wispy enough to echo the snow on the distant meadow and peaks. Unlike others, the image is of course a well-worn composition, but it was still the most satisfying I had made at that location.

I left the valley in the late morning, returning to work in the mid-afternoon with a broad smile. For the first time in five years, I was pleased with the way a Yosemite photography session had turned out. It could just be that with my penchant for climbing snow-covered peaks, a mountain scene without snow was missing an element that resonated with me. But I think it was a pivotal moment because, besides the experience and beauty I was privileged to witness, I felt that I had made something happen. The morning was productive. The two first images on this page turned quickly among the first set of prints (made in Cibachrome) that I ever sold.

Photo Gear For Sale

I have too much gear in my closet that others could put to good use: Sony, Canon, etc… email me for photos, more details, or to make an offer.

Sony Alpha

Sony/Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS. $475. Designed by Zeiss, this was the best of the first-generation Sony zooms. An excellent lens, its optical performance is almost on par with the much more expensive Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM that I am now using. It is smaller and lighter, making it great for travel and hiking. Scratches on front element, a few scratches/wear marks on the barrel (its curled metal finish was easier to scratch than current plastic housings). Like for most of my lenses, this particular lens has been handpicked out of 3 samples after rigorous automated optical testing similar to that reported here.

Sony/Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4. $395. Also designed by Zeiss, it was inferior to the Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 as per my own review, but it is smaller and lighter for travel and hiking. Although I had the 24-105, when I climbed the Grand Teton, I packed the 24-70. Optics fine, a few scratches on the barrel (its metal finish was easier to scratch than current plastic housings). Handpicked out of 3 samples.

Sony FE 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G OSS. $700. The first Sony mirrorless lens to reach 300mm. A good performer, although at the long end not on the same level as the more expensive Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM that I am now using. A lighter and fairly compact lens (for a telephoto), it is great for travel and hiking. Optics and cosmetics fine. Handpicked out of 3 samples.

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD Lens for Sony A + Sony LA-EA3 adapter. $695. Until the much more expensive Sony 200-600m was released, this was the best choice for a super-tele zoom for Sony, as explained by Brian Smith. Although it is not a native FE lens but rather a Sony A lens, it is still a native Sony lens so it works better than other third-party lenses, provided you use the included adapter. Optically, in the 200-400 range, it is comparable to the much more expensive original Canon 100-400, which was my workhorse tele lens for a long time, but (obviously) it can go to 600mm without a teleconverter, making it a very versatile lens for wildlife – I used in Katmai for the bears. Handpicked out of 3 samples. The Sony LA-EA3 adapter let you mount a Sony A lens on Sony FE body with fast and accurate PDAF AF-C and AF-S with Wide, Center and Flexible Spot Focus Areas

Canon EF

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 IS L. $395. This was my bread-and-butter lens when I used the Canon EF system – I’ve since switched to Sony and use an equivalent lens. This particular lens has been handpicked out of 4 samples after rigorous automated optical testing. It is in perfect mechanical condition, but the front element has a few pin-size scratches. They do not affect the image in any way, and I never felt it necessary to replace the lens, especially since it takes quite a while to do the testing and locate a good sample.

Canon EF teleconverter 1.4x. $150. Good condition. Works with L tele lenses and TSE lenses.

Ikelite Underwater housing kit for Canon 5D mk2 $1,500. Includes everything you need to shoot with a wide-angle lens: housing, Modular 8″ Dome Assembly and Extended Port Body, Strobe DS160, Charger, SA-100 Ball Socket Arm & Digital TTL Sync Cord, and Pelican Case suitable to shipping as check-in luggage. Ikelite is the least expensive reputable brand of housings, and they provide great service. Their housings are as reliable as any other major brand. The reason they are relatively inexpensive is that they are made of polycarbonate. Aluminum housings are smaller and the controls (knobs, shafts, etc) seem to work more precisely, but the price difference is substantial and probably not worth it unless you dive frequently. I’ve used this housing to make all the underwater photographs in Treasured Lands, and I am selling it only because it’s been a few years since I used my Canon gear.

Case Remote with cable for 5D mk2/mk3 $80. Provides remote control via smartphone (YouTube review). Unlike with other remotes, you can crucially see the image live on your phone’s screen. That capability is built-in with the Sony cameras.


Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 $200. Damaged, sold as is. When mounted on a Nikon body, aperture and AF appear to work OK. This lens was dropped, and as a result, the optics went out of alignment, resulting in images that are partly unsharp. Here are two full-resolution examples shot wide-open: example 1, example 2. Unfortunately, when I checked those images on the LCD, at normal magnification, they looked just fine. It wasn’t until I went home that I noticed the sharpness defect. The location was the Whitmore Overlook in Grand Canyon, and it takes so much effort to get there that I don’t see myself returning soon. So the lesson is to check images at 100% before you leave! The Nikon was a great lens, especially for night photography.

Novoflex Nikon G to Canon EF adapter. $65. Good condition. This is a “16:9 edition” adapter (description here) named after the technical lens site 16-9 . Back then, Canon made the only good full frame cameras, but all their wide-angle lenses were mediocre. 16-9 found the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 to be the best wide-angle zoom made at that time – it is still one of the best. They developed the adapter specifically to use that lens on a Canon EF body. Being a “G” lens that controls electronically the aperture, the 14-24 f/2.8 doesn’t have an aperture ring, so this required a special adapter with the capability to stop down the lens via a specially designed lever.

Bower 24mm f/1.4, Nikon Mount. $200. Good condition. Manual focus, manual aperture. A good night sky photography lens. I once owned the Canon 24 f/1.4 L II, which was considerably more expensive, but sold it because the Bower (also marketed as Rokinon or Samyang) turned to have much less coma. Coma is the bane of star field photography because it is almost impossible to correct in processing. Unlike for the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, I could have gotten the Bower in Canon mount, but I chose the Nikon version since with an adapter, there is no loss in functionality. Nikon lenses can be mounted on Canon EF bodies because they have a larger mount, but not vice-versa.


Gitzo 1325 mk2 tripod. $250. Series 3 carbon-fiber, with 3 legs section and a large apex. Folded Length 26.4 in, Height Range 4.33 – 58.27 in, weight 4.5 lbs. Rock solid. Good condition, but note that the tube locks (which were not anti-twist, so require you to operate them in the right order), have become a bit sticky, something that may possibly be fixed by a thorough cleaning.

Arca-Swiss Monoball B1 Ballhead. $225. Many scratches, but solid operation. For many years, the Arca-Swiss Monoball B1 Ball Head has been the standard by which all other ball heads are judged. I find that lighter ball heads are sufficient for my needs, but if you are looking for a heavy-duty one, that one is silky smooth and super solid.

Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly Complete Kit. $500. Just a few years into the time-lapse trend (that I joined for a while), standards raised dramatically with camera motion. What made it possible was the Stage Zero, the first commercially available dolly with integrated time-lapse controller. Dollies have since become more slick and refined, but the Stage Zero remains a workhorse which is almost impossible to break even shipped as checked-in luggage (in a ski bag, included). The original kit has a single 6 foot rail, but I include a second identical rail and hardware to join them for a total of 12 feet travel. Mine came with a connector cable for Canon, but with the appropriate cable, the controller works with other systems as well. Using this has given me a new appreciation for those with the dedication to lug this thing over long distances. It works fine close to the car, though, and if you’d like a proven dolly to try to take your time-lapses to the next level, that’s a fun piece of gear!

Sony A7R5 vs A7R4: technical review from a landscape photographer’s perspective

When Sony announced the fifth iteration of its high-resolution camera, the A7R5 (or A7R V) its AI-based autofocus got the most attention. Action photographers also benefit from faster data handling and a much larger buffer. Video saw several improvements, including UHD 8K with 10-bit capture. However, the sensor and stills resolution are unchanged from its predecessor, the A7R4 (A7R IV). Like others who mostly photograph landscapes, my initial reaction was going to skip this expensive upgrade because most of what it brought had little relevance to my work. However, I took a closer look, and after a few weeks of testing decided to keep the camera. Read on to find out why.

Besides being relevant for photographers trying to decide whether to upgrade, this in-depth write-up provides technical tidbits to those interested in current camera technology and shooting methods (for instance, the image stabilization results are quite instructive) as well as a few practical tips for A7R5 owners.

First impressions

Body and LCD. Compared to the A7R4, the A7R5 gains a bit of weight (723g vs. 665g) and thickness, but the base plate is identical and I can re-use the A7R4 L-bracket. Some of the thickness is for a new and clever rear-body flip LCD screen mechanism. The A7R4 screen could tilt only along the horizontal axis, whereas the A7R5 gains three axes of rotation, making it possible to position at almost every angle. The A7R4 screen was good for low and high shots. The A7R5’s is also useful for self-portraits, vertical images, and aiming the camera straight up from a mid-size tripod. You can even store it entirely away from view. In addition, it now supports full touch-screen functionality, including touch shutter.

Top: A7R5 (notice flexible flip screen and new menus). Bottom: A7R4

Viewfinder.The larger housing accommodates a big viewfinder which has a great 0.9x magnification (with a normal 50mm lens) comparable to the superb viewfinders of the film area that made looking through a SLR camera a joy. Peering into the A7R4, with its 0.78× magnification, the difference is striking. However, if you have trouble seeing the entire big viewfinder without moving your eyes, you can choose a lower magnification (Setup > Finder/Monitor > Viewfinder Magnification), although it would be nice if there were more choices to fit every eye. It also helps that the finder’s resolution increased from 5.76 Mp to 9.44 Mp, resulting in an unprecedented viewing quality for a digital viewfinder. This has to be enabled by Setup > Finder/Monitor > Display Quality>High, which is not compatible with Setup >Finder/Monitor > Finder Frame Rate > High, so you have to choose between high resolution and high refresh rate.

Top: A7R5. Bottom: A7R4

Buttons and dials. The layout of the controls is almost unchanged, which is a good thing. Two minor changes were maybe unnecessary but eventually inconsequential, and one is a definitive improvement. At first, I was alarmed that the C1 and video start buttons had been switched, breaking 8 years of habits, but then found out that they can be reassigned. The exposure compensation markings made it possible to zero its value without looking at a screen, but Sony dropped them because that dial can now be assigned a different function. There are even more customization options than before, to a point that may be overwhelming for some. The choice between stills, video, slow/quick modes is now made through a secondary mode dial, which usefully decouples them from the choice of the main exposure modes (P/A/S/M/presets) when recording video and creates independent video presets.

Menus. The redesigned menu layout is an improvement in terms of the organization over the A7R4, making browsing rather than memorization possible. Sony’s menus have gotten better over the years, but that also means that they have constantly changed. Although the grouping of functions is more logical, some things remain unintuitive. For instance, when deploying the Bluetooth remote RMT-P1BT, you would think that all the relevant settings are under the Network > Bluetooth menu, but it is not enough to turn the Bluetooth function on and do the Pairing there, you also need to go to the Network > Transfer/Remote menu to enable Bluetooth Rmt Ctrl.

Beyond those external changes, there is a more powerful image-processing engine. Besides making possible faster operation, it supports useful new features. This article focuses on the four of them that help improve image quality:

  • Lossless Raw Compression
  • Focus bracketing
  • Improved Image Stabilization
  • Motion-compensated Pixel Shift

Lossless Raw Compression

The first new feature of the A7R5 that caught my attention on its specs sheet was the availability of lossless RAW compression. What is it and why?

When the A7R was released, using a compression algorithm, Sony kept the RAW files to a reasonable size, comparable to other manufacturers. Unfortunately, unlike competitors, Sony’s compression algorithm was lossy, which means that the full data captured by the sensor could not be recovered from it by decompression. Their compression algorithm (explained here in great detail) works by rounding pixel values, and this can introduce visible posterization under some circumstances. In practice, artifacts occurred in uniform zones near high contrast areas. Brightening shadows made them more noticeable, such as in the example below.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2018. Sony A7R2, 24-105mm, compressed RAW. Compression artifacts are visible on both the left and right sides of the window frame.

Although some photographers have never observed such artifacts, they are easy to reproduce. In fact, I didn’t have to go anywhere to take such a picture, I had just to stand behind my desk! See the detail on the bottom left:

San Jose CA, 2023. Sony A7R5, 24-105mm, Left: Compressed RAW. Right: Lossless compressed RAW

Sony listened to users by releasing an uncompressed RAW option via a firmware upgrade for the A7R2 in September 2015. This format preserves all the sensor data and avoids compression artifacts, however, it remains less than ideal because the file sizes are huge. For that reason, I continued to mostly use compressed RAW, which is entirely adequate for most scenes, switching (or often forgetting to do so) to uncompressed RAW for high-contrast scenes.

File sizes with uncompressed RAW, compressed RAW, and lossless compressed RAW (unmarked default)

Finally, in 2021, Sony took advantage of the new processing power of its flagship A1 to introduce a lossless compressed RAW mode. In such a format, similar to a ZIP file, decompression allows you to expand the compressed file back to all its data, while the lossless compressed file is smaller than the uncompressed file, but not quite as small as a (lossy) compressed file, as seen in the example above. New with the A7R5, the lossless compressed RAWs can be recorded at smaller sizes of 15MP and 26MP in case you need the RAW format but not the full size of 60MP. Those files, downsampled from 60MP, are not subject to Bayer interpolation (see later section), and therefore higher-quality than native files of the same size such as those captured in APS-C mode.

Focus bracketing

Another feature that had been available in other brands and lacking in Sony cameras was automated focus bracketing. By automatically taking a series of frames focussed at different distances, the camera creates a stack that can then be merged by post-processing (I use Photoshop or Helicon Focus) for extended depth of field not possible with a single picture by the process of focus stacking. Individual frames can be captured at “optimal” apertures of f/5.6 or f/8, preserving image sharpness that is compromised by diffraction at smaller apertures, but doing so requires even more frames than if a smaller aperture was used. The technique has been indispensable in medium-format digital cameras even when their resolution was below 30 MPs, and as full-frame cameras easily surpass that territory, it can help unlock their full imaging potential.

San Jose CA, 2023. Focus stack, Sony A7R5, 55mm lens f/11. The closest point was located at 1.8 m. Selecting step size 4 resulted in 17 frames automatically captured.

Left: Focus-stacked image. Right: frame focused at the hyperfocal distance (4.5 m) and stopped down to the smallest aperture of f/22. At infinity (top), the focus is adequate, but details are blurred by diffraction. The close flowers were not within the depth of field area, which means that it is not possible to get everything in this image sharp with a single frame. Click to enlarge.

Taking the series of frames by focusing manually is tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone, especially in those situations where dozens of frames are necessary. Sony’s lack of automated focus bracketing was partly alleviated by third-party triggering devices or apps. For instance, the app Shutter, brought automated focus bracketing to the A7R4 and more recent cameras (but cannot support earlier cameras such as the A7R3). The app works, but has two major drawbacks: it depends on control via iPhone, and it is extremely slow, taking about 9 seconds between each frame. Keep in mind that a close-up focus stack can easily involve several dozens of frames and take several minutes. The A7R5 is the first Sony camera with built-in focus bracketing. It is easily accessed as one of the drive modes and operates at a more reasonable speed of about 0.4 seconds between frames. A drawback of making it a drive mode is that it cannot be combined with other drive modes such as exposure bracketing or pixel shift (unlike with Shutter). Fortunately, if like me you generally use the self-timer (another drive mode) instead of a remote release, you can combine it with focus bracketing by a custom option: Shooting > Drive Mode > Bracket Settings > Selftimer during Bracket.

You set up a near focus point, relative step width from 1 to 10, and the maximum number of shots up to 299, then upon shutter release the camera keeps taking pictures at increasing focus distances until the focus reaches infinity or the number of pictures reaches the set maximum (which I set up at a high 100 by default since the camera will stop automatically upon reaching infinity). In determining the actual step width, the camera takes into account both the aperture and the focal length, so you don’t have to factor those in your choice of the relative step width. Depth of field is proportional to the f-number and inversely proportional to the squared focal length. Opening the aperture by two f-stops divides the actual step by approximately two, doubling the number of frames. Doubling the focal length divides the actual step by approximately four. For an example, see the table below that indicates the number of frames in the stack with a close focusing point at 1.2 m (4 feet) which isn’t even that close – the Sony 24-105 focuses down to 0.4 m. Those numbers can be pretty large with longer focal lengths.

Relative step width 1 2 4 8
f/8 24 mm 8 7 6 4
50 mm 64 51 34 21
100 mm 252 195 129 78
f/16 24 mm 5 5 4 3
50 mm 33 25 17 11
100 mm 126 97 65 40

Number of frames in focus stack as a function of relative step width, focal length, and aperture

Choosing the optimal step width requires experimentation and I am still trying to figure it out, but in general, the standard default 4 seems to works well. With 8 steps, there is no focus banding, but contrast/resolution appears a bit lower. Unless you want to deal with a massive number of frames, it doesn’t seem to be a good idea to go to the smaller steps, especially with longer than normal focal lengths.

Sony’s implementation is no worse than competitors, but unlike Shutter‘s, it does not let you select the far point. This wastes a number of frames, especially in macro situations, and you cannot know in advance how many frames will be taken. In addition, I have sometimes seen a bit of variation between the faraway frames of stacks, which could indicate that the camera doesn’t reliably reach exactly infinity. That defect doesn’t make the focus bracket feature unusable, but it might be prudent to add to the stack a picture manually focused at infinity.

iPhone screenshot with Shutter App

When shooting large stacks, the much larger frame buffer (583 RAWs vs. 68 RAWs for the A7R4) is helpful. At first, the option to create a new folder for every focus bracket series appeared useful, until I realized that the file numbers start at 0 for each series. Apparently, quite a few designers think it is a good idea since the same thing happens with the panoramic series on the DJI drones, but I much prefer to have distinct file names for every image.

Improved Image Stabilization

Sony claims that a new system with a precision up to a single pixel level has enabled “up to 8-step compensation effect for stills” but this number refers to obscure CIPA standards. Besides the fact that Earth’s rotation limits stabilization performance to 6.3 stops, does anybody seriously expect image stabilization to be that effective? Eight stops separate a shutter speed of 1/400s and a shutter speed of 1/3s. On the other hand, Sony claimed 5.5 stops for the A7R4, so maybe there is some actual improvement. Since I didn’t find any actual measurements on the internet, I set out to figure out how much of an improvement there is.

To obtain each data point, I photographed ten times a frame-filling SFR Plus Auto target and ran Imatest to measure how sharp the frame was. The lens was the excellent Sony 55mm f/1.8 lens with aperture set in the f/4 – f/5.6 range. ISO was in the 50 to 800 range. The camera was hand-held with my left hand supporting the lens. I took each picture independently with reasonable (but not maximal) care, in single frame mode. Images were captured in RAW and exported from Lightroom with all sliders zeroed. The numbers reported are the average over 38 measurements within a frame of MTF 50 values (in LW/PH), which correlate well with image sharpness. To provide you with a reference point and put findings in perspective, here are how those numbers vary when the 55mm lens is stopped down while shot on a tripod at ISO 100.

In case you are worried about the effect of ISO variation on the measured hand-held results, I evaluated that variation by also photographing on a tripod so that by cancelling the influence of shutter speeds, the only variable left was ISO. Going from ISO 50 to ISO 800, MTF 50 went from 2610 to 2470, which is a (surprisingly?) relatively small variation.

Since the Sony 55mm lens does not have image stabilization built-in, it comes only from the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) system of the camera. I went through all four combinations of cameras (A7R4/A7R5) and IBIS on/off. Each point in the table and graph below is obtained by averaging measurements taken over ten frames.

Sharpness as a function of shutter speed.

The data isn’t perfect since ten frames are not that much, and trying to characterize the performance of IBIS with a single number is over-simplistic as what is being measured is the probability of getting a sharp image rather than image sharpness. However, there are still useful observations to be made.

  • As expected, sharpness decreases as shutter speeds slow down, and measurements with IBIS off for each camera are similar.
  • For any shutter speeds below 1/400s, there is degradation in sharpness compared to shooting at 1/400s (or on a tripod), regardless of whether IBIS is used or not. Keep in mind that this is a 55mm lens, for which traditional wisdom recommends a hand-held speed of 1/60s or faster.
  • Even at 1/200s, IBIS improves image sharpness. The improvement increases as the shutter speed drops.
  • Down to 1/25s, with IBIS, sharpness remains high (but your assessment may vary).
  • IBIS on the A7R5 outperforms the A7R4 by a fairly consistent margin from 1/100s to 1/3s.
To find out the number stops improvement at a given shutter speed, we look at the MTF50 value with IBIS off and then find the slower shutter speed that yields the same exact MTF50 value with IBIS on. As this number varies with shutter speeds, it is a simplification to account for the performance difference with a single number. However, for a large portion of the graph, that number is consistent enough that we can read it as about 2 1/3 stops for the A7R4 and 3 1/3 stops for the A7R5, therefore a one-stop improvement: not anywhere close to the claimed values, but still significant.

Determining the number of stops gained with IBIS. Solid arrows: A7R5, dotted arrows: A7R4.

One could argue that landscape photography is best done from a tripod, but there are many situations when I choose to photograph hand-held, either for flexibility, trying to keep pace with non-photographers, or because I left the tripod behind for a long hike.

Motion-compensated Pixel-Shift

The Sony A7R3 introduced two pixel-shift modes for tripod use. The camera captures a series of additional frames as the sensor shifts by a few microns within the focal plane. Those frames were then composited in Sony Imaging Edge desktop software to yield images with improved resolution. How does that process increase resolution?

Bayer Pattern (courtesy of Colin M.L. Burnett)

A color pixel is supposed to be a location with a value for each of red, green, and blue (RGB). However, those values are not sensed by almost all modern cameras. Instead, they use a black-and-white sensor covered in a Bayer pattern of R,G,B filters. Instead of all three colors, each site only detects the brightness of one color. RAW demosaicing software, either in-camera for JPG generation or on the desktop, must make an estimate (interpolation) as to what the values for the two missing colors are. The exception are the Foveon (acquired by Sigma) sensors which use three layers to capture true RGB values at each pixel site. Because those values are captured rather than interpolated, they produce three times the amount of data as Bayer sensors. Foveon claimed that this translates to an image as detailed as one captured with a Bayer sensor with three times the number of pixels, but a more estimates puts one full-color pixel as equivalent to between 1.7 and 2.1 Bayer pixels.

In the first Sony pixel shift mode, the idea is to overcome the limitations of the Bayer interpolation by capturing full color information at each pixel. The Bayer filter is fixed, but the sensor moves. The shift is of exactly one pixel, and four images are captured to obtain a readout of the R, G (twice), B values for each pixel site by sampling all the positions of the 2×2 Bayer grid. The software composites those images to create an image of identical size but of higher fidelity, with true RGB values at each pixel instead of interpolated RGB values. Using the most conservative estimate 60 x 1.7, I expect such an image to be at least equivalent to one produced by 100 MP camera such as the Fuji GFX 100s.

The Voigtländer Macro Apo-Lanthar 65mm, maybe the sharpest lens in the Sony system (and possibly all of 35mm photography) illustrates what is possible with a top lens, but I was curious to see if anything could be gained with a less stellar lens, such as my bread and butter Sony 24-105mm zoom set at the same focal length. A feature that works only for high-performance lenses is not as useful. Let’s do a bit of pixel peeping!

Sony A7R5, Voigtländer Macro Apo-Lanthar 65mm, left: single frame, right: pixel shift composite of four images (click to enlarge)

Sony A7R5, 24-105mm, left: single frame, right: pixel shift composite of four images (click to enlarge)

Even with the zoom, there are subtle but visible improvements. I also tried another scenario with less than optimal imaging: high ISO. In the indoor scene below captured at ISO 4000, you can see that not only the pixel shift composite has better resolution (see how the label “Harmonia Mundi” of the Monteverdi CD becomes legible), the noise is also significantly reduced.

Sony A7R5, Voigtländer Macro Apo-Lanthar 65mm, left: single frame, right: pixel shift composite of four images (click to enlarge)

The gain in resolution obtained by making a panoramic composite seem larger and that approach more straightforward, however with pixel shift, you simply use a different drive mode and press the shutter once. Until you decide to create the pixel shift composite, no additional work is involved over a single-frame image. The drawback is having to use the clunky Sony Imaging Edge software and manage much additional data. Unfortunately, when activating pixel shift mode, the RAWs have to be recorded uncompressed. Why this is the case is puzzling given that pixel shift images are captured at a modest 2 frames per second. Another inconvenience is that pixel-shift RAWs generated by Sony Imaging Edge are stored in a proprietary .ARQ format file (fortunately supported by Adobe Lightroom) that is close to 500MB each, which appears unnecessarily large. Pixel-shift TIFFs are 180MB like single-frame TIFFs but lose the flexibility of RAW files. I’d use the ARQs at an intermediate stage for applying corrections that benefit from the RAW controls such as white balance or highlight recovery. Unlike panoramic composites, with pixel shift composites, there is no need to recompose, deal with parallax, or with motion.

Motion? With the A7R3 & A7R4, even minute pixel-size motion in the scene (such as leaves on a tree) caused artifacts. That made pixel shift largely unpractical for outdoor scenes, to the point that I never bothered with the feature. All of this totally changed with the A7R5 as the 3.5 version of Imaging Edge software now has the game-changing option “Stabilize a composite image if it contains a moving object”. Since the processing takes place on the desktop, it is unclear why the software cannot perform this option for A7R4 images, but that is a fact prominently stated. Besides the A7R5, the only other eligible camera is currently the A1. Given how well it works, I hope that in the future Sony will offer an option to have pixel-shift images merged in-camera like the Panasonic S1R or Olympus E-M1. If that is not possible, at least Imaging Edge could have an option to create pixel shift composites in batch. Automatic detection within a folder (like Autopano does) should be easy to implement since the meta-data already identifies pixel shift component images.

“Deghosting” would be a more precise term than “stabilization”: it appears as if when the software identifies an area with motion between the component images, instead of attempting to composite RGB values, it corrects the motion simply by using the pixels of a single frame (with Bayer interpolation). If the camera moved, even by a few pixels, then the composite defaults to the first frame. The process works very well. Compare those two images taken from my window, the first with the motion correction turned off, and the second with the correction option turned on. On this windy day, there is no need to enlarge the image to see what happened without motion correction. On the other hand, less obvious, and therefore harder-to-spot artifacts show up at pixel level as cross-hatching. Even with close inspection I did not see any of those in the image with motion correction.

San Jose CA, 2023. Sony A7R5, Voigtländer Macro Apo-Lanthar 65mm, pixel shift composite of four images (click to enlarge). Top: motion correction off, Bottom: motion correction on

A second, more ambitious pixel shift mode is present. Its idea is to achieve sub-pixel accuracy by shifting the sensor by half a pixel to all four half-pixel positions within a pixel, quadrupling the file size and resolution. For each of the four positions, an intermediate full-RGB image is created using the 4-pixel shift method, so in total 16 images are captured. Like with the 4-pixel shift method, this is all activated by a single shutter press. However, capture time and storage are quadrupled to a whopping 2.2 GB for the 16 component images, and 723 MB for the composite image. The benefits are less obvious: achieving the full benefits of sub-pixel sampling requires everything in the imaging chain to work at a sub-pixel accuracy. Although there is sometimes an improvement over the 4-pixel shift, I found it difficult to assess, partly because it is tricky to directly compare images of vastly different sizes. Since this article is already quite long, I will spare you more pixel peeping.

Little Things

Timed Bulb. Like many digital cameras, the A7R4’s longest timed shutter speed was 30 seconds. To time a longer exposure, you needed to use remote control. The A7R5 brings longer timed exposures. If you use the BULB setting from the M mode as before, a stopwatch runs in viewfinder or monitor. If you turn Exposure>BULB Time Settings to On, you can program the length of the exposure from 2 seconds to 15 minutes (but why not longer, for example for star trails?). Note that this works only in mechanical shutter mode (Shooting > Shutter/Silent > Shutter Type). However, I wish Sony would have simply extended the shutter speed dials by 1/3 stops increments beyond 30 seconds.

Full-time DMF Sony has supported in all Alpha cameras a DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode where both AF and the focus ring are active, however, in that mode some important functions were disabled. With the option Focus > AF/MF > Full Time DMF, the focus ring is always active regardless of the focusing mode (this was one of the selling points of the Canon EF Mount!).

White balance sensor With the addition of a new front-facing external light sensor (already present in early Nikon DSLRS), automatic white balance is more accurate than before. Even if you are using RAW, this can save time on color correction.

Greyscale Imatest SFR target, photographed with auto white balance. Left: A7R4. Right: A7R5

Dust control With small film cameras, dust wasn’t much of an issue because each frame was a new piece of film. Because of their sensors, DSLRs were much more vulnerable to dust, but at least there were a mirror and a shutter to stand between the lens mount and the sensor. In the Sony Alpha cameras, the absence of a mirror and a short flange distance left the sensor very vulnerable to dust. Using a brand A7R2 in 2015, I was shocked to see more than a dozen dust spots in each frame after a two-day architectural assignment mostly indoors. The Canon 5Dmk3 automatically activated piezo crystal ultrasonic vibration of the sensor at every power cycle. This almost alleviated the need for sensor cleaning compared to the 5Dmk2. By contrast, the Sony cameras from the A7R2 to the A7R4 used the IBIS system to shake the entire sensor assembly on demand. I wondered if Sony did not make that automatic because they wanted to minimize an action which is mechanically quite violent, like a cell phone vibrating. With the A7R4, it appears that only the filter glass vibrates to shake off the dust. Time will tell if this works better, but there is a second improvement, one that I had been calling for since the A7R2: if you turn the option Setup > Setup Option > Anti-Dust Function > Shutter When Pwr OFF, when you switch the camera power switch to off (which I always do when changing lenses), the shutter will close to cover the sensor. It is probably a good idea to clean the shutter with air from time to time before the dust can make it onto the sensor.


The A7R4 already had the best resolution and dynamic range of any digital camera, short of medium-format. Testing showed no change in still image quality in the A7R5 – if anything, an increase in noise was measurable but insignificant. The A7R5 adds many new or improved features. Although several of them are mostly aimed at action and video shooters, and outside the scope of this partial review, there are a number of other improvements that matter to landscape photographers. While none of them in itself is a breakthrough, except maybe usable pixel-shift for those who wish to achieve medium-format quality through computational photography, together they add up to a fully matured camera which has remedied the weaknesses of earlier Sony cameras. For this reason, I felt that the A7R5 was a worthwhile upgrade. If this review was useful to you, please consider buying the A7R5 from my affiliate links at Amazon or B&H.

Visiting the National Park of American Samoa: Tuitula

Despite its small size, the National Park of American Samoa is one of the most beautiful parks of the system, graced with stunning white sand beaches, pristine coral reefs, towering sea cliffs, and lush, forested mountains. American Samoa, in the Southern Hemisphere, right in the center of Polynesia, is the southernmost US territory and the only one south of the equator. This makes the National Park of American Samoa the most faraway of the 63 National Parks, the reason why it is one of the least visited despite its great appeal. During the pandemic years, travel to American Samoa was almost impossible because of draconian restrictions. They eased up last summer, so you can again start planning to visit this unique park. The first (and for most, only) part of the park you will visit is located on the main island of Tuitula, and in this article, you’ll discover what I saw there.

The unusual name of “National Park of American Samoa,” rather than “American Samoa National Park,” reflects its status unique in the national park system: its lands are all leased from Samoan villages of Fitiuta, Faleasao, Ta’u, Olosega, Ofu, Afono, Vatia, PagoPago, and Fagasa that are the true landowners. The lease agreement was signed between the American Samoa Government and the National Park Service in 1993 and is valid for 50 years. It marked the intersection of two widely different land tenure systems—the South Seas matai communal land arrangement kept by oral tradition, and the Western record-based.

Samoa is thought to be one of the original homelands of the Polynesian people, according to oral traditions and archaeological findings. 90% of people in American Samoa are either Pacific Islanders or Samoans. The majority of islanders speak Samoan as their first language, and they practice the Fa’asamoa (Samoan way of life). Many Samoans still maintain a close connection to their natural surroundings and rely on the ocean, coral reefs, and tropical rainforests for food and traditional rituals. The park is home to numerous significant cultural artifacts that are closely related to both the past and present of the Samoan people. Besides the scenery and ecosystem, perpetuating Fa’asamoa was a reason why the park was established. The Samoan people are some of the most friendly and welcoming I have encountered. A visit is a great opportunity to discover the vibrant and welcoming Samoan culture. The National Park Service even facilitates a homestay program which I took advantage of during my visit to Tau Island.

The Basics

The Samoan Islands are 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,800 miles northeast of New Zealand. They include the U.S. territory of American Samoa and the independent nation of Samoa. The only way to fly to American Samoa is with Hawaiian Airlines. The trip from Hawaii (Honolulu) to Pago Pago takes five hours and is offered on a biweekly schedule.

The park spreads over units on three islands, Tuitula (2,500 acres of land and 1,200 acres of waters) Ta‘ū (3,700 acres of land and 1,100 acres of waters), and Ofu (70 acres of land and 400 acres of waters). Ta’ū and Ofu are two of the Manu’a islands, that lie some 60 miles east of Tuitula and can at times be challenging to travel to, as the availability of commercial flights to the Manu‘a Islands has varied in the past years. All visitors arrive via Tuitula, which is the only developed island, even though it is not set up for tourism like the Pacific resort islands. Unlike the Manu’a islands, it had the usual travel amenities: car rentals (not from national brands), hotels, restaurants, and stores. The parkland on Tutuila Island makes up around one-sixth of the entire island and is situated in the northern center of the island.

The national park visitor center is located in the harbor area, in the direction opposite to the park from downtown Pago Pago. Besides its excellent exhibits and very friendly staff, it is not to be missed for those who try to visit each of the national parks. If one contents themselves of a visit to the Northwest Alaska national parks consisting of a stroll from a quick bush plane landing, then the National Park of American Samoa is the most difficult to visit of them all, which is why many save it for last. If so, the park rangers there will provide you with a certificate of completion! Don’t forget to ask for precise directions to help you find trees with clusters of fruit bats.

The Coast

If you are used to visiting national parks by driving in, you won’t find yourself in unfamiliar territory, as there is one scenic road inside the Tuitula Unit. That road, Route 006, enters the park past the village of Afono, and although doesn’t stretch in the park for more than a few miles along the coast, it is very scenic. Along it, you’ll find lush tropical vegetation, inviting sandy beaches, and higher views over water from the bluff.

Vatia is a quiet village with clear waters that offer good snorkeling, and homestays are possible. After driving past Vatia to the end of the rough road, which is marked as a hiking trail on the map, a short stroll leads to a beach with large round pebbles. From there, you’ll discover in both directions the most spectacular coastal views on the island. Since that side of Vatia Bay faces the east, I made sure to come at sunrise. On two mornings I witnessed very different conditions. On a stormy morning, I photographed the green hills to the south as silhouettes in a composition full of atmosphere and drama. A long exposure brightened the ocean water, linking it to the sky while creating a strong contrast with the dark rocks of the beach. On a clear morning, when the sun rose over the South Pacific, it illuminated the 400-foot cliffs of Pola Island to the north, covered with lush vegetation, as the waves filled the air with warm moisture. Recalling the Polynesian creation stories about the origins of the Samoan Islands, I imagined I was witnessing the morning of Creation itself. A shorter shutter speed preserved both the form and motion of a wave with an exposure timed so that it would form another line leading the eye toward the cliff.

The Mountain

The Mount Alava Trail is the longest and most well-marked hike on the entire island: 7 miles round-trip, with a 1,000-foot elevation gain from Fagasa Pass to the summit. The hike allows you to immerse yourself in the island’s lush mountaintop rainforest. Samoa’s palaeotropical (Old World) rainforests are unique within the national parks because they are closely related to those of Asia and Africa, as opposed to the neotropical (New World) forests of the Americas. The trail follows a four-wheel-drive track, climbing to the summit of Mount Alava (elevation 1,610 feet). The summit can also be reached by a shorter, but much steeper route (5.6 miles round-trip; 1,610-foot elevation gain) from the Vatia village, involving steps with ropes for balance.

When I arrived there, clouds blocked the views. Pago Pago receives the highest annual rainfall of any harbor in the world. As I learned from previous days that the island’s weather can change quickly, I stuck around, photographing close-ups of tropical flowers in the soft light. My patience was rewarded when the clouds began to break apart. After the strongest Specter of Brocken display that I ever witnessed – centered around my own silhouette, gaps started to reveal distant ridges, creating atmosphere.

As the trail follows the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the park, the views are spectacular in both directions. When the clouds parted way, I was treated to views of Pago Pago Harbor on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

There used to be a cable-supported tramway that across the harbor up to the summit. This tramway, which was finished in 1965, was built to give television technicians a route to go to the TV transmitters installed atop Mount Alava for maintenance. Up until 1992, when a cyclone severely damaged it, it was also utilized by locals and schoolchildren, particularly the villagers from Vatia on the north Pacific coast. The tropical heat and humidity makes the Mount Alava hike tough, but that off-the-beaten path activity was hugely rewarding.

Happy New Lunar Year of the Cat/Rabbit

Today is our Lunar New Year, the Tết 2023 – a word infamous in American history for the 1968 offensive during the Vietnam War. From our family to yours, happy new year, and may your dreams come true.

As implied by its name, Lunar New Year is based on the lunar calendar, which is the oldest calendar owning to its simplicity: you just needed to glance at the clear night sky to figure out where you are in the month. It is based on the 29.5-day moon cycle: first day of moon is 1st of the month, full moon is 14th day of the month. The drawback is that twelve lunar months add only up to 354 days, less than one full solar year. To avoid getting out of step with the seasons, the Chinese had to add a 13th month approximately once every three years – kind of like a super leap year, making it a “lunisolar” calendar. This drawback led to the adoption of the Julian, and then Gregorian calendars.

Lunar New Year is often referred to as Chinese New Year, but the terms are not exactly equivalent. Chinese New Year incorporates specific elements from ancient Chinese culture and, on the other hand, some countries celebrate Lunar New Year on a different date and with different customs. Because of the historic influence of China over Vietnam’s history, Chinese New Year was passed on to the Vietnamese and has stayed quite intact. The main difference is in the animal zodiac, which runs on a twelve-year cycle. The Vietnamese have replaced the Rabbit with the Cat (much to my chagrin) – and also the Ox with the Buffalo, seemingly indicating a common motivation to honor agriculturally useful animals.

Other traditions are similar, such as dragon and lion dances, setting off firecrackers, and giving red envelopes holding money to children. We also dress up in the Vietnamese traditional national garment, the áo dài, a long (“dài”) split tunic worn over silk trousers, in modern times by girls and women. Our extended family sets up two lineups ordered by age, one for the adult women, the other for the children. Each child then offers a greeting to each adult before receiving their red envelope. In the pandemic years, we had refrained from indoor gatherings, so it was great to resume the tradition. I have traveled around the world to witness traditions like that in various cultures, but they are also taking place in suburban homes in America.

Naturally, I also try to photograph my family, although in retrospect I wished I would have devoted much more effort than I did to this project, despite the subjects recalcitrance. Sally Mann set the bar so high that it felt unreachable, but I later realized that just showing the passage of time in a consistent way could have artistic value. I have not shared images beyond a circle of friends and family, but since I have published so few images last year, today, I am making an exception. At some point, I might release this work in black and white, but due to the eye-catching hues in play here, I have kept the colors to convey the festive occasion.

Chúc mừng năm mới 2023!