Terra Galleria Photography

Guide to Giant Sequoia National Monument: Southern Unit

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

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

(click on map to enlarge)

Belknap Complex

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

Right past a cabin next to an interesting footbridge made of a giant fallen tree, and just along the property fence of the next cabin (#22), an overgrown trail starts. Once on the hill, it becomes fairly easy to follow, although very steep in places, climbing 1.2 miles to a ridge where it joins the Bear Creek Trail that starts next to the Coy Flat Campground. On the way, the trail passes a few large sequoias, but the best is yet to come. Going up (east), the Bear Creek Trail leads in another 1.5 miles (elevation gain from Belknap Campground: 2,200 feet) to the upper McIntyre Grove. That hillside grove is pristine, very open, and features many densely clustered large sequoias, making it possibly the most scenic sequoia grove outside of a national park. I had timed my arrival for the late afternoon, knowing that the best time to photograph the trees would occur right after sunset, when the light would become even. When the sun was still out, I photographed backlit so that the shape of the trees would not be broken by distracting bright spots, and as a bonus, was able to position the camera for a sun star. Afterward, I moved to the west side of the trees. The hillside faces the west, and receives the glow occurring after the sunset. The soft light brought out the tree’s texture and color. In both cases, I used the shift of the Canon 24mm TSE lens to keep the trees parallel, and made sure to include trees at different distances to provide a sense of scale, as well as depth.

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

Trail of 100 Giants

By contrast, the paved Trail of 100 Giants is the most popular attraction in the monument, as it is short (1.5 mile loop), almost flat, and meanders amongst a lot of seriously big trees in Long Meadow Grove – although not quite a hundred. You can park either at the adjacent Redwood Meadow Campground, or a picnic area. The later was filled up with cars by 9am. Although the sequoias are impressive, with many trunks on the ground, stumps, gathered wood, and sparse undergrowth, the grove sometimes reminded me of a lumber yard. However, unlike the interpretive signs written from a forestry perspective, a meadow with a flowing creek provided a respite from the less-than-pristine environment.

The Needles

The Needles are a cluster of massive sheer granite formations. I first visited them in 1993 for some excellent rock climbing. However, everybody without fear of heights can walk to the top by scaling a series of dizzying staircases. The reward is to reach a working fire lookout with a 360-degrees view. Its location, at an elevation of 8,245 feet was selected for the great view over the entire region, including the Golden Trout Wilderness and Kern River Canyon. To get to the trailhead for the hike (5 miles round-trip, 500 feet elevation gain), turn east on unpaved Forest Route 21S05 a mile south of Quaking Aspen Campground, and continue for 2.5 miles.

Dome Rock

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

Kern River

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

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

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

The Next Generation Indie Book Awards aims to be the “Sundance” for indie books – small presses, larger independent publishers, university presses, e-book publishers, and self-published authors. It is the largest such international awards program with over 70 categories, evenly split between fiction and non-fiction. Unlike other award programs, they accept books with a copyright date spanning three years, which makes it very competitive. The 2020 edition received thousands of entries from 38 countries and all 50 U.S. states. By far the most well-known honoree was, unfortunately posthumously, Kobe Bryan, a finalist for two books meant to inspire underprivileged children through sports. Organized by the Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group, the program is not-for-profit and offers genuine prizes and recognition. The awards ceremony is normally held as a gala, and was originally planned to take place at Chicago’s Newberry Library, to coincide with the American Library Association Annual Conference, but this year was, what else, a virtual edition. Grand Prize Winners are invited to deliver an acceptance speech. Fast-forward to the 1:10:20 mark to watch me in the Facebook Recording.

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

On the Outdoor Photographer Cover

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

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

Covers and Type

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trillium Falls

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

Deblurring a film image with AI-based apps

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

The capture

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

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

Applying Topaz AI Sharpener

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

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

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

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

Pre-processing with Neatimage

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

Pre-processing with Topaz DeNoise AI

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

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

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

Final Results

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

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

Update: What about DeNoise’s sharpening?

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

To compress the perspective and include all of the palm trees, the Quad, Stanford Memorial Chapel, and the hills, I used a telephoto lens, standing in the middle of the street with a tripod. This is not a situation amenable to very careful technique. The photograph was made less than an hour before sunset as the buildings are north facing and in the shade for most of the day, so shutter speed was slow. While examined under a 4x loupe, the slide looks fine. However, after making a 12×18 print, I noticed a bit of softness, and re-processed the image with visible improvement in the print. In the comparison below: left is the original image, middle is sharpening with Topaz DeNoise AI, right is sharpening with Topaz AI Sharpener after Topaz DeNoise AI.

Click on image for a pixel-level view.

Update 2: A worst case

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

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

Click on image for a pixel-level view.

Black Lives Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Falling Man and Newspaper Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold Butte Peak: Southern Nevada’s untraveled view

Among photographers, Gold Butte National Monument is renowned for its surreal Little Finland area, but it is only an area of about one square mile. With its huge 468 square miles, the monument has much more to offer, and a good way to appreciate its vastness is to hike to a mountain top. For a rewarding and relatively easy outing, there is no better choice in the monument, and possibly in Southern Nevada, than the namesake Gold Butte Peak.

Driving to Gold Butte Townsite

Visitors must be totally self-sufficient, since Gold Butte National Monument is lacking water and services of any kind, including cell phone coverage. There is no other parkland so far where I have seen more off-road vehicles of various types. In my visits I have also never seen a regular car beyond the end of the pavement at the popular Whitney Pocket site. This stretch connecting Interstate 15 to Whitney Pocket is not your usual paved road. I was laid 50 years ago, and since then has become riddled with potholes and chunks of missing asphalt requiring constant vigilance. Even an eminently capable Jeep Wrangler was subject to a flat tire. However, with careful driving, you can embark on the adventure described here with almost any type of car. I felt perfectly comfortable driving a Prius. Past Whitney Pocket, the unpaved but well-graded Gold Butte Road leads in about 20 miles to the Gold Butte Townsite. The dirt road at first felt like a relief from the paved section.

In 1905, the precious metal was discovered on Gold Butte Peak, hence the name. In the short interval before the mines were depleted and abandoned in 1910, the population of Gold Butte Town, established in 1906, had peaked at 2,000. Residents lived in tents because of the expense of bringing lumber into such a remote area. None of the few buildings such as the post office or saloon remains, but one can still find scattered historic mining and ranching equipment, gravesites, and (gated) mineshafts.

Gold Butte Peak Hike

Past the cattle guard, turn left onto a secondary road, and at the corral stay left. I camped at a wide area with trees (36.28322, -114.19226), and that’s where one should park unless you have a narrow off-road vehicle. Shortly after, the road narrows and squeezes between two large characteristic boulders.

From there, it is a hike of less than 4 miles round-trip to the peak with 1200 feet of elevation gain, steep but almost entirely on a good trail, or a very rough road suitable only for ATVs, depending on your point of view. Once I found the two boulders, I had no difficulty following it in the dark, as I was aiming to be on the summit for sunrise. The road ends with a turnaround at a saddle, less than 150 feet below the summit. From there, a steep but easy scramble over rocks leads to the summit.

For such a small mountain (4,992 feet), the 360-degrees view from Gold Butte Peak, right at the heart of the monument, is varied and impressive. Encompassing desert terrain, close and distant other mountains, and Lake Mead, it is one of the best in southern Nevada. I heard a few ATVs below, but by the time I hiked back to the Gold Butte Townsite, I hadn’t seen anybody.

Devils Throat

Driving way back to Whitney Portal, I made a 0.5-mile detour to check out Devils Throat, a sink hole about 120 feet wide and deep that formed when the roof of a large cave collapsed. Imagine standing at that spot in the middle of the flat desert plain at that moment! The crumbling sides of the sinkhole have kept collapsing, swallowing various fences. For that reason, the current chain-link fence is so far that it is difficult to have a good look from the ground, and it is a bad idea to jump the fence for a better look, so the drone was handy. I photographed from a backlit angle such that the sinkhole walls were all in the shade, with no parts lit, so that the shape of the sinkhole coincided with the visual mass of the shadow.

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 (compared to negative film) ? 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