Terra Galleria Photography

White Sands Dusk: Film versus Digital

My only goal for the afternoon of December 20, 2019, was to make one photograph that I had been working towards since I arrived at White Sands National Monument, two days before: the ocean of white dunes colored by soft light of dusk, on the evening it would redesignated the 62th national park. It would have to be photographed on 5×7 large format film. More than a quarter-century before, what inspired me to start my national parks quest was the prospect to be the first to photograph all of them on 5×7 film. As national parks #59 (Pinnacles), #60 (Gateway Arch) and #61 (Indiana Dunes) were added, I continued that streak, and I had traveled to New Mexico to keep this aspect of project continuity alive.

There was only one composition because by the time I completed the exposure, after waiting for the sky overhead to become dark enough that most of the illumination would come from the western horizon, bringing strong directionality to the light, it was too dark to recompose and focus on the ground glass. There is no preview in the camera, and it was not until long after the journey has ended that I could hold into my hands the result. Before that moment, I had to unload my film holders into a light-proof film box, mail it to a processing lab (no lab in the San Francisco Bay Area deals anymore with the finicky large format transparency film), and wait with a mixture of anxiety and trepidation for the transparencies to be shipped back. When I placed the transparency on the light table, I was astonished by the color. This is the uncorrected scan.

Although the film I had been using had an expiration date in the 20th century, I had kept it frozen all the time. I had bought a second freezer just for the purpose of storing that film now long discontinued. The images I made earlier in the day did not exhibit any noticeable color shift, so I assume the film performed normally, and that’s just how it rendered the fading quiet light with a long exposure. The film has been physically there, and did what it was supposed to do, so that’s one truth. I thought it was beautiful, but eventually, I worried that the way it interpreted the scene looked too surreal. After closing my eyes, I tried to remember what the sunset felt like on this evening, another truth. Using Photoshop I neutralized some of the color cast with a level (individual channels) adjustment layer and a color balance adjustment layer, then increased the contrast with a curve layer, resulting in the finished file below.

For comparison, here is the finished digital photograph that you saw in previous blog posts. That exposure is also an interpretation of the scene, resulting from contrast adjustments in Lightroom (Exposure -0.20, Contrast -20, Highlights -80, Whites +70, Blacks -50) with +10 Clarity and Vibrance and a medium contrast curve. Although done independently, and with a different piece of software, they produced a result with striking similarities, but noticeable differences. A performer is indeed identified by his performance, no matter the scores. The choice of color balance (Temp 6,900), resulted in a warmer rendition. I didn’t feel like going as far with the film image because of the place where it started.

There is as much difference between the finished digital photograph and the RAW file below as there is between the scan and its derived finished file, with the RAW file looking much duller.

The film was 5×7 Fuji Astia, while the digital was the Sony A7R mk4. Both have enough dynamic range, and if you inspect the transparency and file, you’d find that film has a small edge in detail.

Film versus Digital

Since the introduction of the first practical DSLRs at the beginning of this century, there has been endless film versus digital debates, with often passionate arguments for both sides. Since I’ve never chimed in, I though that you may be interested in my current thoughts on the matter. I am well-placed to have an objective opinion since I am part of both camps. I’ve photographed on large-format film since 1993 and occasionally continue to do so, with the same camera in all those years. Having added to my arsenal a 3MP Nikon Coolpix 990 in 2000, 6MP Canon EOS 300D in 2003, and 16 MP Canon EOS-1Ds mk2 in 2004, I think I can fairly claim to have been an early digital photography adopter – although second-generation because I don’t feel the need to beta-test at my cost.

Digital photography proponents often argue that digital is far superior. The metrics being considered are not always mentioned. While this was not always the case, in 2020, I agree with that statement for all the practical metrics: flexibility, ease of learning and use, portability, workflow speed, image quality for a comparable format, and total cost for a reasonably prolific photographer. So besides specialized uses (alternative processes, very long exposures, panoramic formats, etc…), why would one want to use film?

With one exception, this would be for intangible reasons, which, while not easily quantified or measured, are nevertheless real. That exception would be absolute image quality in a single shot, because while digital nowadays provides much higher resolution for a given format (for example full-frame vs 35mm), the largest digital sensors are limited to about 2.3 x 1.7 inches (6cm x 4.5cm, the film 645 smaller “medium format”) while 8×10 inch cameras and film are readily available. If high resolution is desired, when the cost of the high-end digital medium format systems is factored in, large-format film becomes a sensible proposition for the art photographer whose production volume is limited. Before the 2019 Fuji 100 GFX, no sensibly priced camera matched the resolution of 5×7 film.

I emphasized “single shot” because if multiple image techniques are applicable and acceptable, then all the technical advantages of large format cameras can be overcome by compositing. Not enough resolution? Assemble images into a panorama. Not enough depth of field without the tilt controls provided by large format cameras? Focus stack. Unsufficient dynamic range or abrupt highlight clipping? HDR. However, all those techniques rely on post-processing and take the digital workflow even further from the film workflow.

That workflow is one of the main reasons for working with large format film in this day and age. This type of photography encourages a deliberate approach that places a priority on planning, selectivity, composition, and execution in the field. I was initially attracted to large format photography for technical reasons, but in retrospect, what mattered the most was the discipline I learned and the resulting growth. The way of working retains a distinct purity and materiality.

Even with smaller formats, the results are different because film has a different way of responding to light than digital, as the example in this post has illustrated. Something seemingly as simple as the way Fuji transparency film such as Velvia or Astia reproduces colors turns out to be very difficult to replicate with digital tools. Before the advent of digital photography, when the silver gelatin print was the standard, there were a number of practitioners of “alternative processes”, which was anything but silver gelatin. Nowadays, all analog processes are alternative. In artistic pursuits, it can be beneficial to do something different from what the mainstream is doing, and at the same time to be working in a process steeped in the history and traditions of the medium.

As mentioned before, all of this is quite intangible, but there is one area where things could be quantified. If you look at the landscape work done at the upper echelons of art photography, by which I mean recognized by art institutions such as museums and galleries, I think you will find that compared to mainstream photography, a disproportionate amount of it is still done using film. Maybe there is a good reason?

Pisgah: how to photograph a cave with a single light

Caves open for tours geared towards the general public, such as those found in national parks, generally have paved paths and beautifully installed lights. What sometimes makes them difficult to photograph are restrictions like the prohibition of tripods. Outside of those caves, there is a whole world of undeveloped caves that offer a wild and unrestricted experience. The challenge is that they are pitch dark, so it is entirely up to the photographer to light them up. Until I tried the breakthrough technique described in this article, I found lava tubes particularly difficult to light because the darkness of the lava and the shape of the tube. Even if you don’t plan to explore an undeveloped lava tube, the same technique can be used to light any dark space, including outdoor scenes at night.

Lava tubes are created by lava moving a great distance under the surface. Once the lava subsides, what is left is a subterranean corridor shaped like a subway tunnel. The depth of the tube makes it difficult to illuminate it properly with a single light source. Because of the quick fall-off of light, if areas close to the light are properly exposed, the rest of a long tube quickly fades into darkness. One could try to bring a caseload of lights, but trying to crawl through often tight passages with a lot of equipment can be a chore. Fortunately, with the technique I am going to describe, you need only one light.

Since the cave is totally dark, in theory, it would be possible to capture a complex photograph in a single shot by turning on the light to illuminate a section of the case, turning it off and walking to the next section, turning it on again, rinse and repeat. However, the chances of messing up the shot and also of tripping in the dark are high. Merging exposures in post-production provides much more control. Here is how I acquired the following set of exposures, working solo. With the camera set up on a tripod, I walked to a spot to place the Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern, walked back to the camera to start a long exposure. After the exposure ended, I kept moving the light to a new spot for a total of a dozen exposures, half of which I ended up using. In each of those exposures, most of the tube remains shrouded in darkness, making it an unsatisfactory stand-alone image.

Next, I load all those files in a stack of Photoshop layers. Except for the base layer, I change the blending mode to “Lighten” (“Screen” works too and produces a slightly stronger effect), which has the effect of creating a composite using the brightest parts of each image. The addition of each layer brings more depth to the scene.

A crucial advantage of combining exposures via layers that you can choose which exposures to use, by checking or unchecking layer visibility, thus instantly turning each light on and off at will and after the fact. You can also easily modify each layer to turn the light off locally. For instance, I found the right edge tended to pull the image out of the frame due its brightness. By creating a layer mask and painting dark on the mask, the parts where I wanted to suppress the light, I darkened the edge.

Likewise, I found the bright lights on the ground in the midway distracting and removed them with another layer mask.

Here is the image with all the layers tweaked. If you look at the tube’s floor, you’ll notice that there is a long crack underneath, that I have highlighted by placing the light below the floor level. However, that light is a bit too bright, competing with the back of the tube.

To reduce its brightness, all I have to do is change the opacity of its layer from the default 100% to 70%, resulting in the final image.

A word about the location. Mojave Trails National Monument features an abundance of remnants of a volcanic past, the most well-known being the Amboy Crater. Pisgah Crater is also quite impressive, but it is marred by past exploitation – the resulting road can be driven to the top of the crater. Because of that, what interests me most in the area are the surrounding lava flows, which are home to more 300 unmarked and undeveloped lava tubes up to 1,300 feet in length. The lava tube that I used as example, called the “Glove Cave” is the most commonly visited in the area, yet I didn’t see anybody else there.

Is the Sonoran the most diverse of the North American Deserts?

Part 5 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

When reading descriptions of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, you come across a lot of statements that

the national monument is the most biologically diverse of the North American deserts
for instance, from the BLM that manages the national monument, although what such a sentence exactly means is unclear. What is clear is the origin of the statement, which is the Sonoran Desert National Monument Proclamation of January 2001. As often happens on the Internet, that statement has since been copied all over the place, despite being so poorly worded.

The most literal reading of the statement making sense is that Sonoran Desert National Monument is the most diverse property amongst its peers (national monuments? protected parklands?) located within a North American desert. However, more likely, the author meant that the monument is a particularly representative area of the northeastern (U.S.) part of the Sonoran Desert, which itself is the most biologically diverse of the North American deserts. Would that be correct? In particular, is the Sonoran the most diverse of the North American Deserts? Of the four major deserts in North America, the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan, only the two latter could be candidates for most biodiversity. The Great Basin and Mojave have cold winters with below-freezing temperatures, which is one of the main impediments to biodiversity.

Sonoran or Chihuahuan?

A Google search for “sonoran most diverse desert” yields 1,290,000 results, whereas “chihuahuan most diverse desert” produces 1,590,000 results. This is, of course, not an accurate way to answer, but what is interesting is the large number of results. There simply aren’t that many people qualified to answer the question. The vast majority of sites simply repeat the information that appeared in an authoritative source. The first task is therefore to try to find a few such sources.

Several of them report that the Sonoran is the most biodiverse desert in North America, for instance Encyclopedia Britannica, Center for Biological Diversity, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and National Park Service (NPS). From the two last sources, respectively:

The Sonoran Desert has the greatest diversity of vegetative growth of any desert in the world (Nabhan & Plotkin 1994)

The Sonoran Desert is thought to have the greatest species diversity of any desert in North America

However, if we look at what those two same sources, WWF and NPS have to say about the Chihuahuan, we find respectively:
The Chihuahuan desert is one of the three most biologically rich and diverse desert ecoregions in the world, rivaled only by the Great Sandy Tanmi Desert of Australia and the Namib-Karoo of southern Africa (Olson and Dinerstein 1998)

The Chihuahuan Desert is considered the most diverse desert in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most diverse arid regions in the world

If seemingly authoritative sources do not agree with themselves on which of the two is the most diverse, maybe we need to dig a bit deeper. One way to do it would be to examine the credibility of references cited, but that is difficult for someone not in the field besides generalities such as scientific journals (ex: Olson and Dinerstein 1998) having a more stringent peer review process than scientific conferences (ex: Nabhan & Plotkin 1994). A better way is to look for hard data, that is numbers.

Searching for numbers

There are many ways to define “most diverse”, however an unambiguous one is to count the number of species. Going back to the NPS:
The Sonoran Desert is home to at least 60 species of mammals, more than 350 bird species, 20 amphibians, some 100 reptiles, and about 30 species of native fish. More than 2,000 species of plants have been identified in the Sonoran Desert.
The Chihuahuan Desert boasts as many as 3,500 plant species…The Chihuahuan Desert is home to more than 170 species of amphibians and reptiles… 110 fish species in the region … The Chihuahuan Desert supports a large number of wide-ranging mammals (more than 130 species) … The Ecoregion supports around 400 bird species

This would seem to settle it convincingly in favor of the Chihuahuan, but maybe we can try to confirm those numbers from different sources? To simplify, we will look only at the most significant, number of plant species. Surprisingly, I could not find more than a few references for the Chihuahuan. The WWF in this page confirms the NPS count of 3,500 with a reference, but in that page, it is 3,000. The only definitive way to find out the correct number would be to establish a flora species list and count the number of entries. However, I was not able to locate such a list online.

Information is more abundant for the Sonoran. Among others, the number 2,000 is also mentioned by Center for Biological Diversity, a BioScience article, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

This desert also supports many other life forms, encompassing a rich spectrum of some 2000 species of plants, 550 species of vertebrates, and unknown thousands of invertebrate species.
The latter reference is a chapter written by noted plant expert Mark A. Dimmitt, for the well-reviewed book A Natural history of the Sonoran Desert that appears to be the major work on this subject, conducted at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. By the way, if you are in the Tucson Area and have any interest in the desert, a visit should be high on your list. It is a world-class combination of museum, zoo, and botanical garden. You can easily photograph several desert-dwelling species in natural-looking environments, and their extensive collection of desert plants is well-labeled for identification.

Desert versus Desert Regions

However, in that exact same book, we also find in the introduction by Gary Paul Nabhan:
It is home to 130 species of mammals, more than 500 kinds of birds, 20 amphibians, 100 or so reptiles, and 30 native freshwater fish. Perhaps as many as 3500 native species of plants occur within the Sonoran Desert proper
Wait, the later number seems to exceed by quite a margin the 2,000 found before. Can we find that higher number anywhere else? Friends of the Sonoran Desert does mention “4,000 species of Sonoran Desert plants”, and the Wikipedia explicitly lists 4004 species by name, which seems to be about the most unambiguous way to count them there is. Their source? Work from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, supervised by the same Mark A. Dimmitt (as director of Natural History for the museum) who, as we saw, had mentioned the number 2,000.

At this point, it seemed natural to reach out to Mark Dimmitt for an explanation of this seeming discrepancy. I am grateful to him and his colleague Tom Van Devender for their comments.

  • The number 2,000 originated from the meticulous research reported in the Desert Museum’s book A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. It represents the number of plant species found in the Sonoran Desert.
  • The number 4,000 represents the number of plant species found in the Sonoran Desert Region (or Ecoregion, to use a term introduced by the Nature Conservancy) which encompasses the Sonoran Desert itself plus the included and surrounding biological communities that influence it. The database in Wikipedia is not up to date and with new research the number can increase significantly. A recent publication El conocimiento florístico actual del Noroeste de México: desarrollo, recuento y análisis del endemismo by Joe Luis Leon de la Luz and others in Botanical Sciences 96(3): 555-568, 2018 finds 5,865 taxa.
Unfortunately, the Sonoran Desert and the Sonoran Desert Region are often confused, even in the publications and maps of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, even by a scholar well-known in his field (the 3,500 native species of plants aren’t likely to occur within the “Sonoran Desert proper”). It is often difficult to figure out which one is actually referred to. The same could be said for the Chihuahuan Desert and Chihuahuan Desert Region. Notice how often the term “ecoregion” appears in the references previously mentioned for that desert. While drawing a line around the Sonoran or Chihuahuan isn’t hard, most of the diversity within the line would come from all the little mountain ranges (the Sky Island mountain ranges in the Madrean Archipelago) rather than from the desert itself. Patrick Alexander compared the situation to “trying to understand the composition of the dough in a chocolate-chip cookie from data about the chocolate chips”. The deserts and desert regions are not easily separated. The ambiguity of the original questions makes it difficult to answer.

The Chihuahuan Desert is not as well studied as the Sonoran Desert, which had the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where the research was very active and then the Madrean Discovery Expeditions. Both Mark Dimmitt and Tom Van Devender are not aware of a reliable published plant species list for the Chihuahuan Desert/Region similar to those that exist for the Sonoran Desert/Region, and an email inquiry with colleagues did not turn out new lists. The best that could be found was a 1987 unpublished summary of the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert Region by Jim Henrickson that counted 3,576 taxa. Since that number closely matches the number provided by the NPS for the Chihuahuan Desert, and given the confusion between the two, it could be that the NPS referred to the Chihuahuan Desert Region rather than the Chihuahuan Desert. Although older, that number is quite a bit smaller than the 5,865 for the Sonoran Desert Region. Tom Van Devender thinks that given its larger size, it is possible that the Chihuahuan harbors more species. This reminds me of the claim that New Hamphire’s Mount Washington has the worst weather on Earth. I can easily think of other mountains with more severe conditions, but they are not home to a weather station, so worst recorded weather may be accurate. While the Chihuahuan awaits more cataloging, for now the Sonoran Desert Region would have the largest documented diversity.

Part 5 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Ironwood Forest National Monument’s Ragged Top

Part 4 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Although a primary helper of biological diversity, the desert ironwood tree for which Ironwood Forest National Monument was named is hardly a visually impressive feature. On the other hand, independently from its remarkable biological diversity, you cannot miss the prominent 3,907-foot Ragged Top, with its jagged shape rising high above the surrounding flats and slopes. In this post, I discuss photographing the crown jewell of the monument from various viewpoints using contrasting pairs of images, all photographed within a hundred yards from the road.

The main artery in Ironwood Forest National Monument is an unpaved loop around the main mountains. Silverbell Road, the south branch, is pretty rough and winds mostly outside of the monument’s boundaries, with the views towards the monument at times marred by a mining operation on the south side of Silver Bell Peak. The more interesting part is the north branch, easily passable with a regular car, which offers varied roadside views of Ragged Top. After the road makes a curve towards the north, you get your first views of Ragged Top, straight to the east. For the next mile, the mountain presents a nice triangular profile. When using even light to photograph with a wide-angle lens (30mm) to also include the wildflowers on the desert floor, the mountain looked distant. It was easy enough to frame it tightly with a short telephoto lens (115mm) in stronger light. Distance is not really a factor when you can switch lenses. Some equate landscape photography with wide-angle lenses, but longer lenses are a useful tool to keep in mind.

About a mile from the T-junction with Sasco Road, you’ll find the Silverbell Group Site, which is the most developed camping area in the monument. Which isn’t saying much, since all the facilities I saw were a row of portable toilets. They would be removed during the night, leaving me puzzled for a moment at dawn, as I stumbled out half-asleep from my car. The camping area is surrounded by magnificent saguaro cacti. Before moonrise, I captured the stary sky and used a camping lantern to illuminate the saguaro cacti. To include a vast area of the night sky I used a super-angle lens (16mm). This made Ragged Top look very small, but its ragged profile was enough to add a focal point to the horizon. I was ready to go to bed, but hanged out a bit waiting for the full moon to rise. After it did, only few stars remained visible, but because of the strong illumination it provided for the landscape, sky and land came naturally into balance. Treating this as a landscape photograph, to keep a more natural perspective, and avoid the wild convergence of the cactus, I switched to a less extreme wide-angle lens with shift capabilities (24mm). The mood had changed dramatically, and I had adjusted the composition accordingly.

About midway between the two previous locations, near a cattle guard, Silverbell Road comes to its closest point to Ragged Top, which from there is at a south-south-west orientation and looks more like a rock wall. The bajada (broad alluvial slope) at the north base of Ragged Top is one of the most densely vegetated upland desert areas in Arizona, and I to illustrate that, I tried to find a viewpoint to balance the need for a clear view of the mountain with a rich foreground of vegetation. Going from a moderate wide-angle lens (35mm) to a normal lens (60mm) helped emphasize the height of the mountain better. The later required stepping back, and it was not easy to find a spot with no tall shrubs obscure the plants in the foreground. I eventually photographed from across the road to take advantage of the clearing it offered. In the early morning, large parts of the mountain were in the shade, but by mid-morning, the higher sun lights the face better, and clouds formed. The earlier time is not necessarily the best.

From near that point, a secondary, one-lane road heads up the slope towards the mountain, with a few pullouts suitable for camping near the end. Like many mountains within the Sonoran Desert, Ragged Top harbors considerably more biodiversity than the desert floor. Its volcanic soil hosts more than 400 species, more than two-thirds of the total number of species growing in the monument. I had read that the BLM discourages climbing Ragged Top from January 1 through April 30 during the Bighorn Sheep lambing season, but I was hoping to at least circumnavigate Walcott Peak (adjacent to Ragged Top). However, I was disappointed to see signs and fences discouraging any hiking beyond the road and abided the voluntary restriction. From there, due to the proximity, Ragged Mountain looked foreshortened rather than towering as it does from the main road. However, it was close enough that I could frame it with a super-wide angle lens (20mm) without it appearing too small, and this allowed me to get close to brittlebush flowers to make them a prominent foreground. By waiting for passing clouds to project shadows on the land, I was able to differentiate elements of the picture from each other. With the flowers in slightly dimmer and softer light, the mountain shone more brightly. Even in midday, there are changes in light worth paying attention to.

Having seen how more towering Ragged Top appeared when photographed from a further distance with a telephoto lens, I was intrigued when Jack Dykinga told me that his favorite viewpoints were on a road even further than the Silverbell Road. That road is Sasco Road, and I hadn’t thought of it before because it lies mostly outside the monument. To access it from I-10, you must ford the Santa Cruz River, which may require a high-clearance vehicle, but you could access with a regular vehicle from Silverbell Road, especially since the part of the road with the best views of Ragged Top are the last (westmost) three miles. I explored those three miles in the afternoon, marking half a dozen promising locations with my GPS to return to with better light. It turned out that one of them was a favorite of Jack. I didn’t remember his photo, but out of many thousands saguaro cacti I happened on the same ones as he. Working with telephotos (around 130mm), the challenge was to balance the cactus in the foreground with the mountains in the background using just the right amount of overlap. Unfortunately, the sky was more cloudy than I would have liked – forcing me to include more ground and less sky in the composition – and stayed that way. However, right at sunset, a bit of light came in through an opening in the clouds to illuminate the mountain crest for a few minutes so I was glad I didn’t give up. Only first attempt…

More photos of Ironwood Forest National Monument

Part 4 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

A Tree in Ironwood Forest National Monument

Part 3 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Of all the North American deserts, the Sonoran Desert is distinguished by its trees – the Joshua Tree growing in the Mojave is a yucca and lacks wood. Desert ironwood trees (Olneya tesota) grow only in the Sonoran, where they are one of the biggest and oldest plants. The ironwood is the “desert tree of life” as the size of its canopy makes it a great perch for birds and its density creates a milder microclimate facilitating the growth of other plants (230 species have been recorded). In the harsh desert, ironwoods provide oases of sheltered habitat with more organic matter, lower temperatures, but also less frost. Like all the disparate trees also named ironwood, the desert ironwood has a iron-like wood of exceptional density that sinks in water. Compared to the saguaro which is protected throughout Arizona and got its namesake national park, the desert ironwood didn’t get much love until Ironwood Forest National Monument was established near Tucson in 2000. Due to the pourous granite soil composition, the area protected by the monument supports some of the highest densities of ironwood trees in the Sonoran, and those trees have more ecological associates there than anywhere else this phenomenon was measured.

You’d think that with the name of the monument, ironwood trees are everywhere, but author Laurent Martres wrote in his excellent Photographing the Southwest: Volume 2 – Arizona that he didn’t see any of them! One problem is that the ironwood tree is very had to tell apart from the much more common mesquite tree, which is not limited to the Sonoran Desert. From a distance, little distinguishes them, so you have to come close and examine their leaves, a rather time-consuming endeavor. The star plants of the Sonoran are the striking columnar cacti such as the giant saguaro cactus. Despite their crucial ecological role in the desert, ironwood trees are not particularly visually remarkable, except during the short period of time when they are in bloom. This can occur anytime from late April to June, but not every year yields abundant blooms. Since the monument was named after them, I stayed constantly on the lookout for them on four different days, but the following is the favorite image I was able to make.

The desert is usually a place of sparse vegetation, but it wasn’t that easy to find a well-isolated ironwood tree. With an eye-level viewpoint, branches merge with the background, so I wanted to photograph the tree from a low vantage point to detach as much of it against the sky as possible. This eliminated trees surrounded by scrub, as well as viewpoints from which the horizon wasn’t low enough. Although the density of ironwood trees is higher near Ragged Peak, it was at an outlying area, near Cocoraque Butte that I eventually found a nice specimen that met those conditions. Cocoraque Butte is an archeological site that is unsigned and unmarked, and getting there required driving badly rutted tracks that necessitated a high-clearance vehicle. I first saw the tree in the afternoon, and I went photographing the nearby petroglyphs, making a mental note to return to the tree after sunset.

During daytime, in sunny conditions, shadows from direct sunlight would obscure part of the tree or break its organic shape, while in cloudy conditions, the bright white sky would be unappealing. At twilight, after the sun has set, the light becomes soft, but unlike what happens in cloudy conditions, it has directionality. The more you wait after sunset, the more directionality there is, as the western horizon stays relatively bright, while the sky above grows darker, eventually taking on a beautiful color with a gradient. The challenge is that the light becomes quite dim. I was lucky that this particular evening was windless, making it possible to take 30 second exposures. I didn’t want to increase ISO beyond 400 since the photograph would rely so much on fine detail. This resulted in an aperture of f/7.1, not enough to keep the tree and the distant landscape within the depth of field, even with the 24mm focal length. I made two exposures, one focussed on the tree, the other on the hill, and merged them. On a large version, you can make out each individual leaf as well as a range of tones.

Part 3 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

15 More Classic Color Nature Photography Books

A follow up to 15 Classic Color Nature Photography Books, this list explores photography books that may be less part of the classic nature photography canon or somewhat push the boundaries of the medium. Many are also defined by a completist, encyclopedic scope. As before, each of the titles is part of my personal collection and has my highest recommendation. New or out-of-print books may be obtained easily by following the (affiliate) links to Amazon.

Shirō Shirahata: The Alps (1980)

When I first saw the French version of this book, I was already a seasoned alpinist, but only a budding photographer. It made such a strong impression on me because I was intimately familiar with the mountains portrayed in its first part, yet they captured their grandeur in a way other photos just didn’t. At that time, I knew little about light and nothing about large format photography. More than thirty years later, I can say with confidence that Shirahata, who went on to photograph other ranges such as the Himalayas, is one of the finest mountain photographers ever.

Freeman Patterson: Portraits of Earth (1987)

After contrasting the Nanibian Desert, a familiar stomping grounds for Patterson when it wasn’t on the map the way it is now, and the Arctic environment of Ellesmere Island, the book moves to environments closer to his East Coast home, taken as representative of what everybody could find near their own. The quiet and personal images of nature are accompanied by writing alternating ecological messages with comments about photography – the later full of the insight of someone who authored several best-selling instructional books on photography and visual design. It all blends together to celebrate the art of seeing the earth.

The Legacy of Wildness: The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum (1993)

Unlike other nature photographers, Ketchum graduated from art school with a MFA and was known for his work as a curator, as well as the pioneering use of Cibachrome for large prints, before concentrating on his conservation projects. He remains the only photographer with images based on nature extensively published by Aperture (7 books). Although his location-specific books, especially those about Alaska, were more influential in environmental advocacy, I like this retrospective because it gives a good mid-career overview of his varied bodies of work.

Joel Meyerowitz: Bay/Sky (1993)

Meyerowitz started as a 35mm street photographer but eventually was even more influential photographing with a 8×10 camera as part of a group of photographers who accelerated the acceptance of color photography as a formal art form in the 1970s. The idea of making a series of photographs about the horizon between sea and sky has been since pushed to its conceptual limit by Sugimoto and Misrach, and otherwise seems quaint nowadays. However, when Meyerowitz made those luscious images over a decade, at various times of the day and weather, from the same vantage point, with the same camera and lens, it was the first exploration of this idea and remains one of the most compelling.

Harold Feinstein: 100 Flowers (2000)

When I first saw this book, I could not understand how Feinstein was able to depict flowers with such resolution and depth of field. I eventually learned that he had used a flatbed scanner instead of a camera. He would go on to publish seven more books using that technique: roses, tulips, orchids, one hundred butterflies, one hundred seashells. Feinstein had begun his career as a teenager, and by 1949, when he was 19, Edward Steichen had purchased his work for the permanent collection of MoMA. His humanistic 35mm B&W photography was exhibited in the most prestigious museums, but it is not until his 70s that he achieved commercial success with his color “scanography”. It is never too late to learn new cutting-edge techniques and re-invent yourself!

Bill Atkinson: Within the Stone (2004)

Atkinson effortlessly pivoted from a computer whiz (he was a designer for the software and graphical user interface of early Macintosh computers) to one of the first digital photography gurus. I am still grateful for Bill’s generosity in making available some of the first Epson printer profiles in the mid-2000s. His photography is characterized by attention to colors and textures in abstract compositions of small natural scenes. That disposition culminated when Bill noticed brilliant colors in petrified wood. He devised special glare-free lighting and then borrowed from international collectors thousands of polished rocks that he depicted as abstract paintings with a large-format digital scanning back. The resulting book boasts the best color reproduction I have ever seen achieved on press because, for the first time, Bill applied the color management and profiling techniques that he’d pioneered with inkjet printers to an individual printing press.

Joel Sartore: The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals (2017)

It may seem a bit curious that the most popular nature photography project ever, if measured by the success of this book, related publications, and films, was conducted not in the wild, but in zoos and wildlife rescue centers. It couldn’t have been done otherwise, since it is about creating studio portraits with excellent lighting and uniform backgrounds (an idea that dates back at least to James Balog’s “Survivors” of 1990), and it prioritizes species facing extinction, many of them barely or not at all surviving in the wild. What sets apart Sartore’s project is its scale, as he aims to photograph most of the species under human care. By late 2019, after 13 years of work, Sartore had photographed about 10,000 animals. Each of them presented specific challenges. The book, instead of trying to be an exhaustive catalog, cleverly pairs animal portraits in illuminating ways. I asked Sartore why he didn’t try to crowdsource the project. The answer: he didn’t trust others to photograph the animals without harming them.

Subhankar Banerjee: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land Hardcover (2003)

In 2000, Banerjee left a scientific career and soon after boldly spent 14 months in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, producing the most comprehensive photographic documentation of one of the last intact ecosystems on earth, as well as of the associated indigenous cultures. The influential work helped put on the map a distant land that most never heard about before and would never visit. It raised public awareness of the threats caused by global warming and oil drilling, especially after an attempt by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to censure an exhibit of the photos caused a controversy that brought even more attention to it. However, two decades later, the fight to preserve the ANWR still goes on.

Olaf Otto Becker: Broken Line (2007)

Becker, who was once a painter, worked for four years and covered thousands of miles solo in his small boat to create these photographs of the coastline of Greenland with an 8×10 camera. The resulting seascape images, made with long exposures in the peculiar light of Arctic midsummer night have a unique ethereal and melancholic beauty.

Paul Nicklen: Polar Obsession (2009)

Born and raised on Baffin Island, Nicklen is uniquely connected to the polar regions, having mastered since childhood the art of surviving that has allowed him to brave unimaginable hardships on his daring expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic. What makes Polar Obsession one of the most extraordinary books of wildlife photography is how incredibly up-close he captured the diverse wildlife, not only on land and ice but also underwater in the most freezing seas.

James Balog: Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest (2004)

Balog, with whom I had the honor to share an exhibit more than a decade ago, is a unique mix of conceptual artist, nature photographer, and adventurer. This book delivers on the promise of his title, using multi-image mosaics of varied types, and the occasional artificial backdrop, to depict 92 superlative tree specimen in a new way. The most impressive among them are the new perspectives on giant sequoias and redwoods obtained by assembling thousands of frames photographed by rappelling down neighboring trees. If you can, find the 2004 first edition from Barnes and Noble (ISBN 0-7607-6216-3) whose oversize trim gives justice to the detailed mosaics.

Rachel Sussmann: The Oldest Living Things in the World (2014)

For over a decade, Sussman has worked rigorously with biologists to identify living organisms whose ages range from several millennia (trees of unitary growth) to hundreds of millennia (aspen colonies, sea grass meadows, bacteria of clonal growth). She then traveled to all corners of the world from Greenland to Antarctica in a quest to photograph them. The muted and straight images, captured on medium format film in the age of digital, have a hard-to-define contemporary quality different from other books on this page, that matches well with the fascinating personal, scientific and environmental narrative of the book.

Carr Clifton: Wild and Scenic California (1995)

As an adopted Californian, it would be hard to not include a pictorial from my state. Although he had traveled far and wide, Carr Clifton was born in the state, continues to live there, and more than half of his books are about California. Wild & Scenic California presents his ideal of an untouched wilderness, and is a great example of the apex of 4×5 nature landscape photography in the late 20th century. There are many other California portfolio books, including from Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, Tim Palmer, David and Marc Muench (the two later have better writing and structure), but none I’ve seen present those two characteristics together.

Tim Palmer: Rivers of America (2006)

Living for 22 years a nomadic life in a van, Palmer has paddled more than 300 rivers in North America. This book draws from his collection of river photos from all across the country, the most complete from any single photographer. Besides the enormous geographic scope, the selection of photos presents a superb range of moods. In addition, a committed environmentalist, Tim is as apt at writing as he is at photography.

Charles Cramer: Yosemite (2016)

That this long-awaited, diminutive book features some of the most exquisite photographs of Yosemite is hardly surprising given that Cramer is widely recognized in the photographic community as one of the best color printmakers and he has has been working in Yosemite for more than 40 years. If you don’t know his work, you may be surprised by his intensely personal vision focused on the intimate landscape. Charlie told me that “like a vampire” he eschews direct sunlight. He once hiked to the Diving Board, which is no small effort. Most people (including me) would try to capture the grandeur of Half-Dome’s face but instead Charlie focussed his attention on a lone small tree growing on the face.

QT Luong: Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks (2016)

It may seem shameless to add my book as a 16th bonus title, but in doing so, instead of making any claim about the work, I rely solely on sale numbers as an indication of future classic status. As a publisher, I have access to industry data suggesting that when it is all done, sales of Treasured Lands will possibly surpass all other books on this page except for one. They have already surpassed the opus magnums of some of the most well known names in this field. For publicly accessible data, you could compare the number of customer reviews on Amazon. Update: Out of print, but signed copies still available

Any other favorites?

Sonoran Desert National Monument Guide: Part 2

Part 2 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Although quite obscure in the big scheme of things, the locations in Sonoran Desert National Monument that we visited in the first part of the article are the most obvious because they are along the monument’s designated trails. Those trails predate the monument and ironically, their presence means that the corresponding wildernesses, North Maricopa Mountains and Table Mountains, have more development and visitation than the rest of the monument. Outside of the wildernesses, there are plenty of other lands where one can explore by wheels and on foot, and find even more solitude.

Vekol Valley

Sonoran Desert National Monument is bisected by I-8. While you cannot stop along the interstate, there are a few exits that deserve the southern part of the monument. I’ve mentioned the main access point at Exit 144 to the Vekol Valley Road. Vekol Valley is a strikingly large flat plain full of cactus. To appreciate its size, one needs a higher viewpoint. While Table Top Mountain is high, it is separated from Vekol Valley via foothills and therefore distant. On the other hand, there are smaller peaks that rise directly from the plain. The most easy to access is Lost Horse Peak. Although it is quite prominent from I-8, from there it appears like any other hill. However, when I studied the map, I realized its remarkable position. To find it, take Exit 140, Freeman Road, and turn east, following a short section of road paralleling I-8, looking towards the south for a prominent hill. The only trails in Sonoran Desert National Monument are the four ones mentioned previously. There is no trail to Lost Horse Peak, but it is an easy hike across a wash and then flat desert for less than a mile, and then a moderate scramble to the top. The elevation gain is only about 300 feet, but since you are overlooking directly the plain, the perspective is spectacular.

Starting my hike in the late afternoon, I chose to make my way up the peak on its west side so that I could photograph the desert plants in backlight. I stopped down the lens to f/22 to create a sunstar as the sun came to the edge of a cloud. As I got higher, the view of the plain and its cactus opened up, and in my compositions I began to give it more weight. The summit offers a great 360 panorama. I had planned to arrive there half an hour before sunset, but the compositions that I found on my way up made me late, and I was barely able to photograph the eastern side before the light faded away. Naturally, it was dark by the time I got back to my car, but since Freeman Road is only half-a-mile from I-8, the spot was too noisy for my taste, and I drove back towards the Sand Tank Mountains.

Sand Tank Mountains

Typically, national monuments are open for grazing. Sonoran Desert National Monument is unique in that its proclamation stated that grazing south of I-8 was not compatible with the preservation of its features. Unlike in other places, the fences that you see around the monuments are meant to keep the cattle out. However, it is only relatively recently that the grazing permits were revoked by the BLM. On the other hand, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, the third largest military reservation in the United States, used exclusively for air combat training including bombing, was established in 1941. The south-west corner of Sonoran Desert National Monument is part of the Barry M. Goldwater Range. With the area withdrawn from ground activities, its vegetation has not suffered from grazing. Access to that part of the national monument requires a permit, but fortunately, it can be conveniently obtained online automatically via luke.isportsman.net (the former name of the range was “Luke”) by filling in a form and watching an orientation video.

The great landscape photographer Jack Dykinga had tipped me about the Sand Tank Mountains, and suggested that I enter through a gate 4 miles west of the Freeman Road Exit, recognizable with an abandoned gas station, marked as “Big Horn Station” on the map. In more urban areas, you would not even be thinking about crossing an interstate highway, but here, just opposite the gate, the divider is interrupted by a paved section just for that purpose. The gate is closed, but unlocked. I gave access to a road quite rough that definitively required high clearance, and narrow enough that there was no place to pull out. Guessing that nobody would come at night, I parked the car at a road intersection, where there would be space for another vehicle to get by, and even though the sky was a bit cloudy, diminishing the visibility of the stars, I took advantage of the total lack of light pollution towards the south to set up a time-lapse.

With daylight the next morning, I saw how dense the Saguaro cactus forest was. Those cactus typical of the Sonoran Desert are omminpresent in Sonoran Desert National Monument and rival the forests in Saguaro National Park. I scrambled up a small hill to depict their extent. For the wide-angle views, I shifted the 24mm TSE lens to preserve the parallelism of the columnar cactus. While the same effect can nowadays be achieved in processing, it results in a significant loss of resolution, since you have to frame very loosely to account for the image areas that are lost when applying perspective corrections. That is assuming that you are able to previsualize a satisfying composition this way. It was difficult to find spots to walk without stepping on plants or flowers. Due to the lack of grazing, the vegetation was significantly more diverse and dense than elsewhere in the monument. In the moments when clouds would reduce the contrast, I switched from photographing wide landscape to close-ups. Further south, the road degraded, and since I was driving a compact AWD SUV in a very remote place, I turned back, but was still grateful to have gotten a glimpse of this beautiful area.

Part 2 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Sonoran Desert National Monument Guide

Part 1 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in North America – or maybe not, see discussion in the last part of this series. Thanks to the national park designation, the most well-known track of Sonoran Desert consists of Saguaro National Park whose two units straddle the city of Tucson. However, the largest unbroken tract of Sonoran Desert resides south of Interstate 8 and extends into Mexico. The U.S. part in southern Arizona includes the Barry Goldwater Range, Cabezza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. An attempt was made to establish a Sonoran Desert National Park encompassing all those areas and more there, but all we got instead as a departing gift from the Clinton Administration was the much smaller Sonoran Desert National Monument in 2001.

Still, at 776 square miles, it is a sizeable piece of untrammeled land, compared to the 143 square miles of Saguaro National Park. Sonoran Desert National Monument is large enough to include three wilderness areas and three distinct mountain ranges with a wide variety of terrain. In this article, we will successively visit a flat valley closely surrounded by mountains, a mountain top, a large plain covered with saguaro cactus, and foothills with rich vegetation. Like many in the West, it is managed by the BLM. Facilities are quite limited by any standards, as the monument was established for conservation rather than visitation. Here is the official BLM Sonoran Desert National Monument page, and here is a more detailed one from the BLM’s National Conservation Lands program.

For navigation, download this more detailed map from 2016. It is geo-referenced for use in apps supporting geo-referenced PDFs – my choice is Avenza. Note that it differs from the one linked via the above site, which is more recent (2020) but maybe isn’t geo-referenced as its filename doesn’t begin with “GP”.

Maricopa Mountains

Besides I-8, the Maricopa Road between Gila Bend and Mobile is the only paved road within Sonoran Desert National Monument. Along that road located between the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness and the South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness, you will find only desert with no development and the same can be said of the South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness.

The only facilities in the area are at Margies Cove, in the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness, and they are the most accessible facilities in the monument. The Margies Cove West Trailhead has parking for a dozen vehicles, three campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, a toilet, and an information station with a display of the map that I linked to above. There is no water, so you must be sure to bring enough, including for an emergency. It is best reached via an unpaved road from Hwy 85, rutted but accessible to passenger cars with careful driving. It took me about 20 minutes. If you come from the north, stay on 85 when Google Maps suggests another more difficult road starting from a landfill and then look for a paved spot to cross the divided highway. Here is BLM’s Margies Cove information. Unlike what you’d expect, that page is not linked from any of the two BLM Sonoran Desert National Monument pages referred above. How did I find it? Following a tip from a BLM ranger, I typed “Margies Cove” in the search box. The search box, rather than browsing, is the way to access most of BLM’s information.

The Margies Cove Trail is a 9-mile route and can be extended with the 6 miles of the Brittlebush Trail that connects two-thirds of the way – the Brittlebush Trailhead can no longer be accessed by road. The term “Cove” refers to a flat valley closely surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was struck by the lushness of the desert floor, which was covered with grasses and even tiny ferns unexpected in the desert. The trail is a easy and pleasant walk. I hiked only a section and from what I saw, it didn’t offer a great deal of diversity of terrain since it was all mostly flat. On the two days when I was there, the weather was rainy. Besides the inconvenience of having to struggle to keep the camera dry, rain in the desert is actually a treat, with a softened luminosity that is quite special. While strong light is preferable for the saguaro cactus, the soft light made it easy to photograph the smaller desert plants.

Table Top Mountains

The Table Top Wilderness is home to the only other facilities in the monument. The Table Top Trailhead is equipped in a way similar to the Margie’s Cove West Trailhead. Getting there requires a high clearance vehicle for the rough last 4.5 miles after the left turn – the first 7 miles in Vekol Valley are easy. You’ll first come across the South trailhead for the 7-mile Lava Flow Trail (BLM info), which travels in a relatively level way at the base of hills, and a short distance afterwards, the Table Top Trail (BLM info) at the end of the road. It took me an hour to drive from Exit 144 (Vekol Valley Road) on I-8.

The Table Top Trail climbs to the top of Table Top Mountain, the high point in Sonoran Desert National Monument characterized by a flat top volcanic summit, gaining more than 2000 feet elevation in less than 4 miles. The last mile is the steepest and the trail, quite good before, gets a bit rough there. Near the base of the mountain, the trail traverses forests of saguaro enlivened by abundant brittlebush. Once the steep switchbacks begin, the views over the surrounding desert became as spectacular as I had hoped when I had rented a SUV so that I could get to the trailhead. They were better from the switchbacks than from the summit itself, and that’s where I planned to be at sunset time, before hiking back to camp at night.

The next morning, I got up by dark. The mountains around the Table Top Trailhead face the west and are well lighted at sunset. However, the light at sunrise is more challenging, as the sun rises behind the mountains. Since the campground is located in an area that is quite flat, I hiked cross-country to a nearby hill for a more elevated view that reveals more of the land and offers more compositional opportunities. I photographed in predawn with the colors of the earth’s shadow on the western horizon. After the sun rose, the hill was in the shade, whereas the plain was lit. In distant views, I included shadows to add visual interest. I took advantage of the shade on the hill, that would soon disappear on that sunny day, for intimate views of the varied desert vegetation. I noticed a striking cluster of five saguaro trees, but they were still in the shade against a sunlit plain, so I waited for the sun to reach them. Since the image relied so much on the repetition of vertical lines, I used a lens with shift to keep the cactus parallel. It was supposed to be a sunrise session, but by the time I went down the hill, it was past 10 AM. However, looking back at the hill, I noticed that it was now grazed by the sun. I switched to a telephoto lens, using a polarizer to darken the lava rocks by suppressing their glare. The backlight made the yellow brittlebush glow while creating a halo of light around the cactus.

The previous post is illustrated with more images of the Table Top Wilderness and provides context to this one.

Part 1 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Traveling to Public Lands in Times of COVID-19

Summary: An account of a road trip in the desert at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and some thoughts on public lands and national parks as places for self-isolation. All images are from the Table Top Wilderness I visited during this trip.

The Plan

I had planned the Sonoran Desert trip for a year. In March 2019, I had just returned from the new Indiana Dunes National Park and was scrambling to try to update Treasured Lands. By the time I was ready to go, I had prioritized destinations further north, after which the temperatures in the desert had already risen too much. More importantly, the springtime desert bloom, which takes place in the Sonoran during the month of March, was over. Since the desert is such an arid place most of the year, the presence of those blooms enlivens the landscape considerably and I felt it essential to showcase the land at its most beautiful.

Before the event was postponed for a year, I was going to Washington, DC at the beginning of April to receive a conservation award, so a mid-March trip would have to be short to reduce my time away from the family. A direct flight to Phoenix from San Jose is a quick hour and half, as opposed to an eleven hour drive. In addition, renting a car at the destination made sense because this time I needed a vehicle with better off-road capabilities than my Prius. The BLM access map for the Table Top Mountains features a prominent box with “High Clearance Four-Wheel-Drive Vehicle Required”. I looked for independent confirmation of this fact, and sure enough, on alltrails.com, a user commented

When the sign says “high vehicle ground clearance required”, believe it! … Depending on the recent weather you will need a 4×4 and even a vehicle with a lift.
Flying raises eyebrows in some circles concerned with carbon footprint, but for the solo traveler, it is actually better than driving with anything but the highest efficiency vehicle. According to this calculator, a flight from San Jose to Phoenix results in 0.214 tons (428 lbs) of CO2, whereas driving a 25 MPG car (a reasonably efficient SUV) for the 700 road miles results in emissions of 700 lbs of CO2.

Less time and less impact seemed to make the choice easy, but by the start of my trip, March 10, COVID-19 (JHU global visualizer, USA numbers, advice from Wuhan CDC) was becoming a growing concern, with more than a thousand U.S. cases confirmed, although shelter-in-place imperatives were still not well understood at that point and any directives were still a week away. I opted to rent a compact SUV in San Jose. Concerned for the safety of a Uber ride, my wife dropped me at the car rental agency. I wiped all the contact surfaces and used generous amounts of spray alcohol. Besides the usual camping and photography gear, I loaded the car with ten gallon-size jugs of water and enough food for ten days, as I usually do so that I can devote all of my time to photography without the distraction of having to look for meals or refilling water bottles. For mutual protection, this would alleviate the need for any interactions with the local communities.

The Trip

I stopped only at interstate-side gas stations. I would pump gas normally, but took care not to touch my face nor clothing. I would then walk into the gas station. A few times at the beginning of my trip, I ordered a sandwich. It was not necessary, but I liked a bit of fresh food for a change. At the end of the trip, I contented myself with the food I had brought. My last stop would be the restroom. After washing my hands thoroughly, I’d get a paper towel, and use it to grab any handle I needed to pull on my way to the car, before disposing of it. Once seated in the car, as an added precaution, I’d wash my hands again with a Purell dispenser bottle. Along the Arizona highways, I did not notice any significant differences in travel. At the only “trail” of the obscure Agua Fria National Monument, a large group of adults and children were tightly clustered.

My main objective for the trip was to photograph Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument. Both are ran by the BLM and quite undeveloped, with dispersed camping the norm. Dispersed camping refers to camping on public lands away from developed recreation facilities. Unless an area is explicitly posted as “closed to camping”, it is open. In my case, camping consisted of just pulling out of the road and sleeping in the car, but for those who are setting up a tent, it is preferable to use an existing site in order to avoid creating new impact. The few campgrounds where I stayed were remote enough that I was surprised to even see other cars midweek, although there were never more than two of them. In one case, I went further on the road rather than parking close to someone else.

When I arrived at the Silverbell Group Camp, since there was not even a picnic table and nobody else was present, I wasn’t sure it was indeed a campsite until I saw a row of portable toilets. After dark, a truck pulled in and parked closer than I liked. Well before dawn, I was awakened and worried by loud noises, but managed to go back to sleep. After stumbling out of my car at dawn, still half-asleep, I made a beeline for the toilets. It took me a while to realize they were gone. I went back to the car and grabbed my shovel. For car camping, no need to use a fancy backpacking-style trowel. A full-size shovel lets you dig a deep hole to bury the solid waste much quicker. I never liked the idea of burying toilet paper. In the distant past, I would burn it, but now I find it cleaning, safer and quicker just to throw it in a garbage bag. During my entire time on public lands, I used a bathroom only once, after which I realized it was better for everybody not to do so. It’s the desert, there were no woods there, but after heading out toward the bushes, I didn’t have to worry about touching contaminated surfaces, nor any worker would have to clean a facility and eventually remove the waste that instead will help fertilize the ground. Likewise, when you pee in the soil, micro-organisms will break up the organic matter. Just avoid doing so on plants or rocks.

There were no visitor centers or rangers around, no brochures nor guidebooks, so I had to do my research and figure out where to go. Sonoran Desert National Monument has only four established trails in its 776 square miles. On two different days, I did not see a single hiker on the Margie Cove Trail, whereas on the Table Top Trail, I crossed paths just with one middle-aged couple. Most of the time, I would hike off-trail. Ironwood Forest National Monument doesn’t even have officially designated trails anyways. I felt that I self-isolated effectively during my time in the Sonoran Desert, with several entire days when I didn’t even come within sight of another person. The outdoors can be a very safe area to avoid the spread of the virus. In hindsight, the timing of my trip was marginal, but after the peak of crisis is over, the mode of travel I described can help keep all of us safer in a new world. With a bit of preparation, it is not difficult for anyone to execute such a trip. Until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, that may be how we have to travel to public lands.

The Coronavirus

Yet, I cannot recommend travel to public lands as a way to self-isolate. Our public understanding of COVID-19 has evolved dramatically in a period of barely more than a week. Now stay at home, or at least local to one’s county, has been widely embraced, but the much-praised New York governor initially resisted it after California put in place a shelter-at-home order on March 19. When it happened, I headed home, pulling in my driveway that evening. Since then, I’ve been to the grocery store only once, with a mask and much caution.

I travel in an unusually spartan and self-contained manner that some reasonable people could call lonely – or loony. But travelers who do not do the same will have contacts in the local communities where they will use the amenities. This puts those often older communities at unacceptable risk of contamination, and since those communities are small and remote, their resources are limited compared to urban areas. Even trail associations have recommended that long-distances hikes on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail be postponed because of the risk to communities during resupplies. It is not just about the obvious lack of doctors, hospital beds or ICU units, but also mere non-perishable groceries that even a self-prepared photographer had to shop for. If in San Jose I could not buy pasta (other than lasagna) at my usual large chain grocery store, how is a rural small store supposed to stay stocked? Open spaces are important because people need to get out of their house for recreation. Generally, it is much easier to maintain adequate social distancing in open spaces than it is in urban spaces or indoors. However, accessing the more remote areas could require extended travel and contacts with remote communities, and this has to be strictly avoided. In the less remote areas like local parks, there might still be enough visitation that one has to be very careful about distancing.

Unlike the largely undeveloped BLM lands, the national parks are attractive to many because they are remarkably easy to access for such pristine areas. One could say that the NPS has made wildlands suitable for mass tourism. This tends to draw in different types of visitors, who in average do not have the capacity for self-sufficiency required in order not to increase risks to the local communities and park workers. The mayor of Estes Park, a city who exists as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, has asked the Secretary of the Interior to close the park. In addition, the infrastructure in national parks is designed to funnel visitors to limited spaces such as visitor centers, overlooks, and trails. It is a challenge to stay 6 feet away from others on a crowded trail that is 3 feet wide, and some places do not allow off-trail hiking. One could argue that Death Valley National Park, as the largest national park in the lower 48, offers plenty of opportunity for distancing, and hiking cross-country there doesn’t result in adverse environmental impact. But for each person who parks their car at random along the road and heads out into the desert, how many will congregate at Zabriskie Point or use the facilities in Furnace Creek? Visiting Death Valley National Park safely means traveling as I did in the desert national monuments. Skilled wilderness travelers do not need national park infrastructure and can instead go to the national monuments and other public lands that offer plenty of underappreciated wonders.

On my way home, I made quick stops at three small NPS sites. Arriving at park opening in Tonto National Monument, I was disappointed to see all the trails closed, especially since during the hour I spent on the parking lot to photograph a distant cliff dwelling with a telephoto lens, I noticed only a single other car showing up. The rangers said that later in the day, I would not be alone, and indeed I understood their wisdom when I went to Montezuma Castle National Monument, which was fully open except for the visitor center. The trail was worryingly packed, and this observation confirmed my fears. On the other hand, Tuzigoot National Monument was fully closed at the gate. You would think that it means each park superintendent has full authority to act, but no. The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, NPS regional director, and NPS directors were all overruled by the Secretary of the Interior when requesting a closure. The first reaction of the Secretary to the outbreak has been to wave the entrance fees in the NPS system, as announced in person by the President, repeating – in worse because the NPS personnel, as well as visitors is at risk – the mistake made when the administration kept the national parks open during the government shutdown. Although my work aims to encourage people to visit their national parks, it saddens me to have to join the call for a closure and postponement of trips.

The Road Trip

I initially came to the U.S. in 1993 for a postdoc of 2.5 years on a J-1 visa, with the understanding that I would return to France at the end of the period, where a post would be waiting for me at the research institute where I did my graduate work. However, when 1995 rolled, I changed my mind. I had begun to visit the national parks and photograph them with my 5×7 large format camera, and I wanted to continue doing that, even though those days a lot of my free time was spent trying to climb big walls in Yosemite, with a few occasional road trips in between.

Since at that point, no matter how interesting the science, I already valued my time spent in the outdoors more than that spent in the office, I chose a career in academia, over the more lucrative corporate paths that were plentiful in the Silicon Valley for a Computer Science graduate. I was hoping that academia would give me more flexibility for personal time. Since I had no family and had always lived frugally, even a less than full-time salary would be enough to fund my other endeavors. With that in mind, I took a job in the Artificial Intelligence Center of SRI International in Menlo Park. This tour of SRI by Robert Scoble gives an idea on how interesting the work there could be, and here is my SRI web page, unchanged from the day I would leave the Institute, a dozen years later.

My J-1 visa was expiring, and SRI had applied for a new H1-B visa on my behalf, but to collect the new visa, I had to go abroad as it could not be granted inside the country. My new employer mentioned that most people in my situation would travel to Canada for that purpose. It was mid-October, and my new job would not start until late in November, so that left me more than a free month. I planned a wide-ranging road trip, east into the desert, north to the Canadian Rockies, west to the Olympic Peninsula, and south down the Pacific Coast.

I had done road trips in the west before, but since I was always accompanied by friends or relatives they were often a motel-based affair with a schedule only partly conductive of photography. That trip was different because it was the first time I traveled by myself for such a relatively long period of time, living from my car and campgrounds as I went from one national park to the next. I discovered the freedom that the open road can offer, and the purpose that a trip focussed solely on photography can bring. On that most formative extended outing, I developed most of the routines that I still use to this day when I travel the American wilderness, and I visited more national parks new to me than I had done in the 2.5 years before combined.

In particular, Yellowstone National Park made a strong impression on me, as I experienced it at its wildest, short of a winter visit. I got there in early November, just a few days before the park would close for the season. The park was mostly deserted. Only a few cars were parked on the huge lot near Old Faithful – of all the people, my girlfriend’s ex came out of one of them. Although I had climbed Denali, I was not prepared for the temperatures in the park, and had to drive back to Jackson to buy a down jacket. The frigid temperatures enhanced the thermal steam, coated the trees near thermal sources with ice, and a dusting of snow differentiated both sides of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. A number of images of the park from this trip a quarter-century ago remain some of my favorites and those illustrating that post made their way into Treasured Lands.

Unfortunately, not all images remained. Among the possessions in my car, I considered the most valuable to be the small pouch containing my exposed film, both 5×7 sheets and 35mm rolls. When I eventually arrived in Calgary, my first city stop since leaving home, it felt natural to carry the pouch with me wherever I went instead of leaving it in the car. Take your valuables with you! As I walked into the US Consulate General to collect my new visa, I thought only briefly of the X-ray machines. In those days, it was understood that hand-inspection of film at airport security was not really necessary, but only a precaution taken against the cumulative slight fogging that might occur if your film is x-rayed many times over. Unlike with digital, with film, you never really knew what you got until you got your film back from the lab. Three weeks later, after driving back from the lab, I opened with tremendous anticipation the film boxes. Most of the photographs from before Calgary were ruined with heavy random patterns. Sometimes you lose, but nothing is really lost if you are willing to start again. I vowed to go back, and boy, have I done so.