Terra Galleria Photography

Wild Basin: Trail of the Waterfalls

Away from the main road and communities, the relatively little-known Wild Basin area offers a quieter experience in Rocky Mountain National Park, perfect for a cloudy day if you enjoy photographing moving water.

Following a peaceful forested stream, you can photograph four diverse waterfalls within a 6 mile RT hike (950 feet elevation gain).

Since your main subject is flowing water, you should bring a tripod. It lets you use long exposures to render water as a smooth flow. Using a polarizer, I found that at ISO 50 (lowest available on my camera) and f/11-f/16, I could get exposures in the 1/4s-1s range, which smoothed the water while retaining some texture. The polarizer has the additional benefit of removing the surface glare from wet rocks. This makes them darker, creating contrast with the flowing water.

Despite all this water, I had trouble to find something to drink. In September, there were plenty of room in the USFS Olive Ridge Campground where I stayed, close to the Wild Basin entrance. However, there was no running water. Although the official NPS map states that water is available at the entrance station, I found it had been turned off there. I certainly didn’t want to drive 14 miles to Estes Park just to refill my water bottles! In the nearby small community of Allenspark, businesses were closed in the early morning. Fortunately, an innkeeper helpfully pointed me to a public source of water. Called Crystal Springs, it is located by the Allenspark business route Highway 7 up the road from the Fawnbrook Inn. The water is filtered directly from a mountain spring, keeping a delightfully fresh taste.

Copeland Lake

Shortly past the entrance station, Copeland Lake offers a decent roadside view with the reflection of Mount Copeland in the early morning. On that mostly cloudy day, I waited patiently for a bit of sunshine.

Copeland Falls

The first waterfalls, Lower and Upper Copeland Falls are less than 0.5 mile from the trailhead. North St. Vrain Creek drops only about fifteen feet there, but there are many compositions possible along the secondary trail that follows the creek between the two waterfalls. Even on a sunny day, if you arrive early enough, the creek will still be in the shade.

Calypso Cascades

Calypso Cascades is 2 mile from the trailhead, and is most easily photographed from the footbridge. Taking advantage of the autumn’s low flow, I also tried to scramble on the rocks for a different composition with a closer foreground. The staircase-like succession of drops should be a spectacular sight earlier in the season.

Ouzel Falls

The last waterfall, Ouzel Falls, is one of the most spectacular in the park. Ouzel Falls is quite distant from the bridge, but you can leave the main trail just before it, and follow a user trail to the base of the waterfall. Ouzel Falls faces south-east.

Cloudy weather works best for most of this hike. In such weather, I focussed on a close-up of Ouzel Falls, whereas in more sunny conditions, I would have tried to include it as part of a larger landscape.

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Four Lakes in Four miles: a Rocky Mountain National Park Classic

Bear Lake is one of the classic locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. The popular destination is the start of a moderate trail that takes you to four lakes of different character in less than four miles (RT). This post gives tips for photography along the not-to-be-missed trail.

You can can park nearby and circle Bear Lake on a flat trail. As it is easily accessed and is a major trailhead, Bear Lake can become crowded during the day, requiring the use of the free shuttle. As I arrived before dawn, I had no problem parking. Since, based on previous visits, I prefer the afternoon light there, in the morning, I bypassed Bear Lake for the lakes further up the trail, and photographed it on the way back.

Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake (1 mile RT, 225 feet elevation gain) is partly covered with water lilies. You can photograph towards the continental divide in the morning, however only the tops of the peaks are visible. In the afternoon, distant Longs Peak is well illuminated and visible from the west shore. You’ll also find several openings on the trail above Nymph Lake with good views of Longs Peak.

Dream Lake

Dream Lake (2.2 miles RT, 425 feet elevation gain) is at the ideal distance from Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak, which are prominent from there, but not too close. Since it is said to be the most photographed lake in the park, it can be useful to show up before sunrise to claim your spot for the classic composition near the outlet.

Emerald Lake

The peaks rise straight from Emerald Lake (3.6 miles RT, 625 feet elevation gain), which makes the setting awe-inspiring, but more difficult to photograph – super-wide angle needed! An easy scramble up slabs left of the trail gave me a higher viewpoint. Like for Dream Lake, the best light is from sunrise to early morning. Afterwards, the face of Hallet Peaks goes in the shade.

Bear Lake

Compared to the lakes along the trail, Bear Lake has less of an alpine character. It feels a bit ensconced, especially at the point when you first come upon the shore, with Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak partly hidden.

However, if you walk counter-clockwise a short (0.25 miles RT) distance to a boulder field on the north shore, you’ll find a more open view which includes Longs Peak in the distance. Rocks provide a foreground and cut the waves for better reflections. Longs Peak is better lit at sunset, but sunrise can sometimes work.

From there, if you are up to scrambling up the boulder field, you‘ll discover a fine view from high above. From an opening between trees, you can photograph the lake in the middle ground, and Longs Peak in the background. The spot is most remarkable in the autumn, when yellow-colored aspens border the field to the west, and orange-colored aspens border it on the east. The aspen are sunlit from the morning to mid/late afternoon, and go in the shade at sunset – which is fine if you can control the dynamic range.

Continuing counter-clockwise along the shore, views of surrounding mountains disappear, but the slope where you found the boulder field and aspen makes for fine reflections in autumn.

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An Iconic Lake and Nondescript Aspens: Revisiting the Bear Lake Road

Bear Lake Road is the most popular area of Rocky Mountain National Park because it gives quick access to locations which are representative of the beauty of the park. It had been a decade and half since my last visit there. In the while I had been traveling to less crowded parts of the park. However, I wanted to refresh my memory for the benefit of readers of my upcoming book, and also update my photos of the area which were shot on 35mm film – not those in this post, which are all large format. This post revisit in detail two contrasting spots along the Bear Lake Road.

Amongst the lakes situated along Bear Lake Road, Sprague Lake is the easiest to access. It provides a view of the Continental Divide which is one of the most iconic in the park. It is the first lake you’ll encounter on the road. The other trailheads further up the road often fill up in the early morning, requiring you to use the free shuttle. At Sprague Lake, parking is easy. Little hiking is required, which makes it a convenient sunrise location. When you come upon the shoreline, you’ll see the east side. Unless there is a spectacular sky on the east, you’ll want to continue counterclockwise until you can look towards the west towards the Continental Divide.

I kept walking (about a quarter of a mile) until I reached the east end of the lake. There were many photographers on the lake shore, but I was surprised to see that most of them had set up closer to the trailhead. I think the further east you go, the better the perspective is, because you are further from the western shoreline. This makes the peaks stand out above the trees, which also appear smaller compared to the peaks. You can see that be comparing with the night photo I made on the way.

The other benefit of photographing from the east end of the lake is that you can find boulders in the water to help anchor the composition. One photographer was camped near what I thought was the round boulder I used for a foreground a decade and half ago. I tried to find an alternative before concluding that, back then, I had indeed picked up the “best” spot. I asked the photographer the permission to set up next to him. Upon closer examination, I remarked that there was a second, flatter rock on the left. When I mentioned to the photographer that I did not remember it, he told me it had been there for a long time.

The light was weak at sunrise, but it would have been a bad idea to pack and leave, as the light improved in the following hour, in conjunction with some interesting clouds. Upon returning home, I checked my 1999 image (marked 2008 because it is the date of publication). Sure enough, the flat rock wasn’t present, maybe due to the higher water level in the springtime.

While I expected to be able to find the spot of my 1999 Sprague Lake image, I wasn’t so sure about the forest scenes that I photographed in the fall of 1998. The former is one of the park’s icons, whereas the latter is a scene which seemingly could be found anywhere. I remembered spending several hours at a mere boulder field surrounded by aspen on both sides, that offered many different compositions. I was particularly attracted to a few small trees growing close together out of the boulders, which had colorful leaves. However, at that time, I didn’t take note, nor did I memorize the location.

Driving up the Bear Lake Road, I noticed a steep boulder field on the north side, about 0.7 miles before the Glacier Gorge trailhead. There is room for a few cars in the curve and more at the nearby Prospect Canyon pull-out.

I scrambled up the boulders, and here they were, my old friends. Out of all the trees in the park, I had found the same nondescript aspens I had photographed seventeen years earlier!

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In Search of a High Viewpoint over Great Sand Dunes: Mount Herard

Possibly the most rewarding destination in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, Mount Herard offers to off-trail hiker fantastic views over the the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the dune field. Read more about this seldom-visited peak, and find detailed directions to navigate to the summit.

There are no established trails in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve that give good views of the dune field from higher. One can find such a view slightly outside the park, at the Zapata Falls Recreation Area, 8 miles south of the national park. You can photograph right from the edge of the parking area. More varied forest foregrounds are available near the waterfall (1 mile RT), if you are willing to scramble a bit on the slopes above. However, the dunes are a bit distant from there and the perspective reminiscent of the entrance road.

Although information about hiking up Mount Herard – the prominent 13,345 feet mountain that dominates the dune field – is scarce, I figured it out that the summit would provide a more striking view. Mount Herard is of modest elevation by Colorado standards, but it soars a full mile above the Great Sand Dunes.

Starting from half a mile west of Medano Pass – reached through the Medano Pass Road (an adventure by itself), a trail reaches Medano Lake (8 miles RT, 2000 feet elevation gain). The lake is situated in a dramatic cirque of mountains below Mount Herard. From there, the summit of Mount Herard towers impressively above you. If you stopped there, the hike would already be worth it.

Morning light illuminates the cirque of mountains around the lake best. Since I had returned from the Sand Creek Lake hike quite late the day before, and I planned to summit in the late afternoon, I started at a relatively late time. When I arrived at Medano Lake, the cirque was backlit and the sky cloudy. I didn’t try to photograph it. Instead, I planned to use the same trick as before: photographing with the rising moon as a substitute for morning light.

When I started on the trail, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to go to the summit. Because of my sprained ankle, the most I had walked all summer was a 2-mile stroll on the sidewalk. At the beginning of this trip, I felt tired after the shorter hikes I had done in Rocky Mountain National Park. Summiting required an additional 1800 feet of elevation gain without the benefit of an established trail. This makes for a total hike of about 3,800 feet elevation gain, and about 10 miles RT.

However, I knew that it was the easiest time of the year for this hike. Most of the year, the Medano Pass Road is closed. In the early fall, there is no snow on the ground and no risk of thunderstorms. While pausing on the shores of Medano Lake, I was able to trace a moderate route to the summit. Once I started, I was pleased to see that I’d be hiking on alpine tundra rather than rocks. Luck favors those who try. After less than fifteen minutes of cross-country hiking, I ran into a fairly good user trail, which happened to follow exactly the route that I had traced! At that point, I knew I would be able to make it.

To find the user trail from the start, look for it from the established trail when it skirts the smaller (northernmost) of the two lakes, climbing diagonally the slope to the northwest. It becomes less defined at a wide saddle, although cairns continue to mark the way up a narrower saddle, then a steeper and partly rocky ridge that leads to the rounded summit. Here is my GPS track for the day.

The view in all directions were well worth the effort. The Crestone group lies to the north, the Blanca mountains to the south. The summit is flat, but by hiking down a bit to the southwest of the summit plateau, I took in an extraordinary perspective on the dune field – the best high view in the park. It was indeed much better than from Zapata Falls because you are considerably closer and higher. From there, the 750 feet dunes look small. Like from points below, the light on the dune field is best in late afternoon, which is when I had timed my arrival.

I lingered on the summit until sunset. On the way down, hiking poles were of great help on the steep ridge. It was reassuring to have a GPS track to follow in the dark thanks to Gaia GPS. By the time I got back to the Medano Lake trail, the moon had risen. Instead of continuing down the trail, I made a short detour to photograph the lake as I had planned. This capped a great day in the mountains which was all the more satisfying because of the uncertainty with which it had started.

Part 3 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

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A Most Tricky Scenic Drive: the Medano Pass Road

If you are wondering what you’ll find in the mountains behind the Great Sand Dunes, and don’t care for hiking on trails, you may consider driving the primitive Medano Pass road. Not your vanilla scenic drive, traversing its tricky terrain requires the proper vehicle and a bit of planning. The reward is the opportunity to discover the often overlooked mountain environment of the park, particularly glorious in autumn.

The Medano Pass road is only 22 miles long, however it usually takes 2-3 hours to drive. The Park Service says that a high-clearance, 4WD is required. They state that “Mini-SUVs, wagons, and all-wheel drive vehicles will get stuck”, and based on my experience, I believe them. Although I’ve been on much more difficult roads (such as Teapot Canyon in the Maze of Canyonlands), I find that the combination of deep sands, creek crossings, and rocky and steep sections presents a unique challenge. Here’s the NPS detailed Medano Pass road guide. The road is usually open from Memorial Day week-end through the first serious snows in October.

Starting from the west side, the first obstacle you encounter is a 4 miles section of soft sand, between the aptly named “Point of No Return” and the “Sand Ramp Trail”. The sand is pretty deep in some places. In June 1999, I was driving a Jeep Cherokee, a capable high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, but as it was my first time driving in such conditions, I failed to keep the momentum going and got stuck. I got lucky that, a group of hikers helped me by pushing the car. After that incident, I did not dare to stop in the sandy section, missing out on some great views of the dune field from the east.

Between the west end of the road and Medano Pass, there are 8 places where Medano Creek crosses the road. There are no bridges, so you must ford the creek. On that June drive, I found the crossings very intimidating. Some were so long and deep that I was always afraid that the car would not make it. The creek was flowing strong, and you could not see the bottom – which fortunately is rocky rather than muddy. The park rangers drive Jeep Wranglers equipped with snorkels for good reason. However, on my second visit, in September, the crossings were easy in the low water conditions.

Complicating matters further, a rocky roadbed near the pass requires full tire pressure, whereas in some conditions, dropping tire pressure may be necessary to increase traction in the sandy sections. Unless you carry an air compressor, it is best to drive the road from east to west, as a free air compressor is available at the western entrance to the road. The eastern end of the road starts on County Road 559, along Hwy 69, about 16 miles south of Westcliffe, and is marked with a sign.

Remembering my difficulties in the sand fifteen years ago, and given that the vehicle that I rented (AWD with 8 inch of ground clearance) was less off-road worthy, I played it safe by driving from the east and returning that way. I skipped entirely the sandy section by turning back before reaching it. The rangers had discouraged me to even attempt that itinerary with my vehicle. I saw less than a dozen other vehicles, all of them pretty rugged. Another driver commented that the road was rough for my Ford Edge. However, I had no difficulties.

The drive was particularly rewarding in late September, when the golden aspen provide some of the most colorful fall foliage I’ve seen in any of the western national parks. The most beautiful section was near Medano Pass. There are also great views of Mt Herard near Medano Pass, with the best light being at sunrise and early morning. You can camp at a number of designated primitive campsites along the road. They are secluded and never fill up, unlike the Pinyon Flats campground, which was full on a late September week-end. Last, but not least Medano Pass is the trailhead for Medano Lake and Mt Herard, which will be the subject of the next posting.

Part 2 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

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Sand Creek Valley, the remote corner of Great Sand Dunes NP&P

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is known for the tallest dunes in North America. However, they are just the centerpiece of a diverse environment which includes the entire natural geologic and hydrologic system of the dunes. If you interested in little-photographed and beautiful mountain terrain in Colorado, read about my foray in Sand Creek Valley, the remote corner of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, where I found scenery very different from what you’d expect from the park.

Many photographs of the Sand Dunes include as a background the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains, which rises above 13,000 feet in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The sand dunes form only a quarter of the parkland (the national park part), while the mountains dominate the rest (the preserve part). Great Sand Dunes was established as a national Monument in 1932, protecting only the main dune field. National Monuments generally preserve a single resource. By contrast, National Parks generally preserve a variety of resources, up to an entire ecosystem. Great Sand Dunes was expanded into a national park and preserve four times the size of the national monument in 2004.

Despite their surface area, the mountains receive a tiny portion of the visitation in the park. It’s a difficult access. I had traveled to Great Sand Dunes four times before, but my only foray in the mountains was one drive along the Medano Pass road in June, which turned out to be so intimidating that I made only a few stops along the way.

As of September 2015, I thought that the lack of images of the mountains of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was one of the largest hole in my coverage of the 59 US national parks. I had also done quite a few warm-weather trip and was itching for the mountains. I hoped that the rented SUV in Denver would be more off-pavement worthy than our cars. It was disappointing to discover that all the mid-size vehicles on offer had only AWD with moderate clearance, not the high-clearance 4WD which the Park Service deems necessary to travel the more rugged roads in the park. Only the larger, full-size SUVs had 4WD.

My first objective was to check out the Music Pass and the Sand Creek Lakes, which are said by the NPS to have stunning alpine scenery. The pass was given this poetic name because musical sounds are supposedly heard when the wind blows over the surrounding mountains.

The distance as the crow flies from the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center to the Music Pass trailhead is only about 10 miles. However, if you avoid the Medano Pass Road, as I did, you have to make a huge detour. The recommended route by Google Maps, via US-160 and CO-69, which minimizes driving on unpaved roads, takes 143 miles! This can be shortened a bit using a shortcut through unpaved roads through Pass Creek Pass. Those unpaved roads are well-maintained. To my surprise, the navigation app “Here” (details) gave me accurate directions through them, although it was a bit disconcerting to be directed from one unpaved road into another for a while. If you don’t use the app, the easiest way to find that trailhead is to follow CO-69, 4.5 miles south of Westcliffe. Turn west on Custer County Road 119, also known as Colfax Lane, and head south for 6 miles to a T intersection, then turn left. After a short jog, the road makes a hard right and reaches a USFS campground located at the Grape Creek Trailhead.

The ranger had told me that because of the lack of clearance of my vehicle, I would have to park there. However, it was past mid-day, and I wasn’t keen on the additional 5 miles (RT) of hiking (1500 feet elevation gain), so I pressed on to the end of the road. The roughest section was right before the end of the road. Despite some steep terrain and rock ribs, my rented Ford Edge (ground clearance 8 inches) had no difficulties. Even though the parked vehicles were serious off-roaders, I noticed that a Subaru Forester had made it.

The Music Pass Trailhead, on USFS land, lacked trail signs and had several trails going in different directions. Since my destination was west, I started hiking that way, and quickly found a proper trailhead with a map and register. After starting in the forest, the trail enters Great Sand Dunes National Preserve at Music Pass, a mile from the trailhead. There are great views as the trail begins its descent to upper Sand Creek Valley. After you enter the NPS land, you’ll find adequate trail signs at all the intersections. 1.5 miles later (0.3 mile beyond the junction with lower Sand Creek trail), it splits. Continuing straight, the right branch leads to Upper Sand Creek Lake (1.7 miles from fork). I followed the left branch to Lower Sand Creek Lake (1 mile from fork).

As I got out of the dense forest, the sight of towering Tijeras Peak less than half mile from the lakeshore is quite impressive. However, I photographed mostly intimate scenes on the shore of the lake, enlivened by autumn foliage on the shrubs. In the late afternoon, the lake was entirely shaded by Tijeras Peak. Contrarily to what the ranger had told me, morning light would have been preferable.

However, not to worry, it was a full moon. What I like about full moon nights is that if I wait less than an hour after sunset, the rising moon will illuminate the landscape the way the rising sun does. I can photograph sunset and the equivalent of sunrise within an hour!

As a bonus, this was the night of the total moon eclipse. I had given up on trying to photograph it, as the terrestrial elements in the park do not align well for a composition that includes a rising moon. However, I enjoyed the fact that it provided me with the light of all the phases of the moon within the span of a couple of hours. When the moon was eclipsed, I was able to photograph a bright Milky Way above Lower Sand Creek Lake. As I hiked back to Music Pass, the full moon illuminated brightly the landscape of upper Sand Creek Basin, making it a pleasure to walk in the quiet night.

Part 1 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

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Photographing Biscayne National Park from the Air

In addition to water visits, I spent an hour in the air to photograph Biscayne National Park from an airplane, and another one from a drone. This post offers quick aerial photography tips, illustrated with photographs that reveal perspectives on the park not visible from the ground.

Aerial photography offers two benefits: access to places not easily accessible from the ground, and an unusually high perspective that can help tell a story

For the first reason, I have photographed from the air in most of the Alaskan national parks, as well as places like Canyonlands National Park and Everglades National Park. Biscayne National Park, just a dozen miles from Miami, at first doesn’t seem like a remote place, but you need a boat to visit, and since Sept 2013 there are no concessionaire services.

Flat places lack high viewpoints from which you can see the lay of the land. The flatter a place, the more it benefits from a high perspective. This makes the Florida parks subjects that are particularly suitable for aerial photography.

Chartering a plane isn’t as expensive as it sounds. Most flight schools in the US can get you in the air for about $200/hour in a small plane. They often operate small Cessnas which work well for aerial photography. They fly at a slow speed (for a plane) have high wings, and side windows that open. Helicopters are more suitable for aerial photography, thanks to their slower speed, lower flight altitude, and possibility to fly with the door removed, but they are more expensive.

I prefer the back sit rather than the passenger seat, as it allows me to shoot on both sides rather than only towards the right. The front side window opens, but not the back windows. With no passenger, I can still access the front side window from the back seat. If not shooting towards the sun, using the techniques described in How to Photography Through Windows yields clear images through the back windows, provided that they are reasonably clean and scratch free. Just make sure to have the pilot clean them before take-off, or ask permission to clean them. Those windows are made of plexiglass that scratches easily, so use microfibre or chamois skin cleaning cloth.

The main challenge of aerial photography is to get sharp images. I shoot close to wide open, and set the ISO so that I can maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/500s. Since the subjects are distant, the polarizing filter is essential for reducing haze. Be prepared to shoot a lot and anticipate compositions, since at the speed a plane is traveling, viewpoints change very fast. It is essential that you have enough room on your memory card, and to have a spare battery! Two camera bodies will allow you to switch from wide-angle to telephoto faster so you’re less likely to miss something.

Drone aerial photography is an alternative to airplane and helicopter aerial photography that is gaining in popularity. The advantage is low cost, and the possibility to fly at lower elevations. The main limitation is that you need to get close to your subject on the ground, since you can control the drone only within half a mile, with a mile being an extreme situation.

In addition, drones are banned in National Parks whereas there are no limitations on plane and helicopter flights. However, the ban means no take off, landing, and operation, but not no overflights. I made the photographs of the Convoy Point shore by standing in adjacent Homestead Bayfront Park. I see aircraft and drones as another set of useful tools to keep in your photographic arsenal. Give them a try!

Everglades Mosquitoes and Cypress Domes

The NPS website states “Camping at the southern tip of Everglades National Park is an experience to remember!”. I indeed vividly remember camping at Flamingo on my first trip to the Everglades in January 1998. Although it was during the relatively bug-free winter, that night I was overwhelmed by the mosquitoes. I had never gotten as many bites in my life before. I wowed not to camp at Flamingo again, moving for the next night to the Long Pine Key campground. I found the mosquito level to be quite acceptable there, compared to the Flamingo campground.

Having recently discovered the beauty of the summer season in the Everglades, this year, I came back to the park for the third year in a row during the summer. 17 years after my first night there, I eventually returned to the Flamingo campground. September, at the tail of the wet season, is the time of the year when the mosquitoes are at their worst, as highlighted by a mosquito meter at the visitor center.

Sane visitors could not be found anywhere. Although the Flamingo Campground has more than 300 sites, I did not see a single other person camping there. What brought me there – besides the fact that the less buggy Long Pine Key campground is curiously closed in summer ? I hoped to capture great sunset and sunrise clouds, and in between a time-lapse with thunder storms over Florida Bay – something you don’t see in winter. At least, I was pretty sure nobody would steal my unattended camera!

After Boca Chita Key, the score was: mosquitoes 1 – QT 0. I wanted to see how I would do with better preparation, which meant bug jacket, bug pants, and Deet only on hands (I dislike the toxic stuff). It turned out that I spent a better night in the tent than I did at the hotel, because there was no need for noisy AC. In the small volume, it was short work to kill the mosquitoes that had followed me. Even score. The most annoying time was in the car. Mosquitoes would hide in all corners. Driving with all windows open didn’t get rid of them at all. I neutralized them by cranking the AC and fan to max (60F). The combination of temperature and airflow prevented them from biting, but I had to roll down the window frequently to warm up, and, each time I got out, my glasses would fog instantly.

During my time in the park, because of mostly overcast conditions, I explored the cypress domes more than anything else. I’ve written before about the wonderful experience of walking into a cypress dome. The most accessible large dome I’ve found is 1.2 miles to the west of the Pa-hay-okee turn off, on the south side of the road. You can step in the dome within a minute of getting out of the car.

This helped because this time, I was also carrying my underwater housing – that I had brought for diving in the Keys. It was overkill – a lighter system such as those described here would have been preferable. I was interested not only in the primeval beauty of the domes, but I also tried to capture how the trees grow out of water. The merging of the trees and the water was what made those forests unique to this part of the world. I sought of ways to merge visually the above water and the underwater.

A day on the water in Biscayne National Park

I just returned from a trip to Miami. Why did I find myself there in summer again ? The Miami Country Day School (MCDS) is hosting my National Parks travel exhibit in the Sol Taplin Gallery as part of their “Campaign for the Arts” until Oct 10. They invited me to visit for three days to talk with the students, in both large and small groups.

Summer is not my favorite time to be in Florida, but I was intrigued by the prospect of talking with students – I had previously exhibited only in galleries and museums. The new experience did not disappoint. The gallery was beautiful and the hosts extremely gracious. The best was that as I shared my experiences with students of various ages, I was touched by the candid comments they made directly, and rewarded that the photography moved them. Thank you to Jenny Knight, Yvonne Moyer and Jonina Pitchman for making this happen.

The one thing the Florida summer is favorable for is water activities. No cold fronts and fewer winds normally mean calmer waters and better water visibility. I mentioned to my hosts that I would like to re-visit Biscayne National Park. A concessionaire there provides island transportation to Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key outside of summer, as well as snorkeling trips year-round. However, in September 2013, the park’s concessionaire went out of business overnight and had not been replaced since. The lost of the concessionaire is more problematic than at other parks, because it means that to explore the park besides Convoy Point, you need your own boat. Water occupies 95 percent of the park’s surface area.

(photo at right by Alyssa Larson)

The school put me in touch with the adventurous and kind Larson family, who offered to take me out on the water for a day. Their son, Max, who attends MCDS fifth-grade has already visited more than a third of the national parks! Glenn, who operates a marine construction company knows the area well, and Alyssa (working with 35mm and MF film!) suggested an early departure. They went out of their way to help me, borrowing their friend’s boat – based at a sumptuous mansion in Coral Gables – to shorten the water trip. I am so grateful to them for taking me to areas that I wouldn’t have been able to visit by myself.

We started at Boca Chita Key, a small island with a picnic area and a harbor popular with boat owners. It is home to the most recognizable landmark in the park, the Boca Chita lighthouse, as well as a few historic buildings.

Looking to explore for nature subjects, I was eager to check out the nature trail that circles the island, but since we didn’t bring insect repellent, the others declined to come with me. I found out why when the mosquitoes swarmed me along the trail.

I (very) quickly photographed a few small isolated mangroves east of the campground area, and ran back to the dock, having suffered what felt like hundreds of mosquitoes bites within a quarter of an hour. No more island landings for the day!

At this time of year the water is normally glassy in the morning, getting breezy mid-day and windy in the afternoon. However, on that day, the wind had already picked up in the morning. After stopping at two reefs where the conditions were poor for underwater photography, we headed back to the keys. The water was also full of jellyfish, which appeared out of nowhere since the visibility was so low. The salt water worked wonders for the mosquito bites, but now it was time to avoid being stung!

The keys to the north of Biscayne are solid, but those in the south are penetrated by water, in the form of lagoons, channels, and creeks. The concessionaire doesn’t provide transportation to the southern keys, so the area is best explored by private boat. It would have been easy to get disoriented and lost while navigating their maze-like network.

The southern Biscayne keys are an excellent place to explore the mangrove shores. The water was considerably more clear than at Convoy Point. Mangrove shores are not thought of as swimming areas, but there is much to see underwater by snorkeling.

Besides dense schools of juvenile fish, I was surprised to spot the largest angelfish I’ve ever seen below the root system of the mangroves.

When taking the underwater photos, I made the mistake of not using a close-up diopter filter on the lens because I was thinking mostly about the split above/under water images. The filter is used when shooting with a dome. Without the filter, the above water part is sharper, but the under water part is less sharp. As I ended up photographing mostly under water, those images lacked sharpness despite stopping down to f/22.

Instead of making the images available at full size, I reduced the pixel dimensions to 2,000 wide. I went back to Biscayne NP, at Convoy Point, to photograph more underwater images in the mangroves, but, predictably, the water wasn’t as clear. That was a tough lesson learned during a photo opportunity difficult to reproduce, but on the positive side it gives me a reason to try and come back…

More images: Boca Chita Key, Southern Keys, Underwater mangroves.

Three How-to Landscape Night Photography Books reviewed

The history of night photography stretches back to the early 20th century, all the way to Alfred Stiegliz. However, it is only in the last decade that, ignited by advances in digital cameras, natural landscapes (as opposed to man-made structures) have become a popular subject for night photography. Making a natural landscape photograph that captures at the same time the beauty of the night sky requires much knowledge, and more careful planning and technique than daytime photography.

The three books reviewed in this article aim to teach all of this to you. I can recommend each of them without reservation. Despite the inevitable overlap, there are singular elements in each of the books, and each author has a distinctively different approach.

They are not for photography beginners, as they assume you can shoot in manual mode with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and that you are familiar with post-processing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Despite being tightly focussed, skipping the basics, and skipping photography of man-made environments, they are still substantial books with no fluff. There is much to learn there!

Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night by Alister Benn

When published in March 2012, it was the reference book about its subject, covering a vast range of topics from preparation to field techniques and exposure, both single and multiple.

Alister Benn takes a somehow philosophical approach to photography, which is reflected in the book – and the choice of Guy Tal for the foreword. He tries to avoid getting bogged down in too technical considerations, which makes the book friendly for beginners. Besides the foundational knowledge and techniques of night photography, Seeing the Unseen touches on visualization and composition, but doesn’t dwell much on gear or processing. Subjects covered range from relatively basic and strongly worded advice (such as the useful high ISO test shot) to more advanced considerations such as the rarely discussed use of GNDs filters at night or how to orient yourself to find the kind of star motion you are after.

Recognizing that photography starts with light, Benn uses the different types of light available at night as a guiding framework for much of the book. He starts by categorizing those types as different parts of the night and of the lunar month, and proceeds later by explaining how to evaluate and then capture scenes in each type of light. Although some readers might find that this mode of presentation a bit disjoint and redundant, it does make sense. Besides the technical data, each of the inspiring images – made in many locations around the world – also identifies the type of light under which it was created.

I noticed an emphasis on the moon and its phases, as well as the blue hour. Benn advises to shoot in the evenings for the first weeks of the lunar month (new moon to full moon) and at predawn for the last two weeks, resulting in images that are fairly bright. As the title indicates, this is a book which deals substantially with capturing the terrestrial landscape.

Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night is a 96-page ebook with about 24,000 words, designed like a traditional book (facing vertical pages) but with many pages consisting of relatively short paragraphs. It is available both as a PDF on the author’s site ($15) or as a Kindle book on Amazon ($8) – which doesn’t provide high resolution images unlike the PDF.

Nightscape: A Complete Guide to Photographing Under the Night Sky by David Kingsham

David Kingsham made his mark as a photographer of the night sky. Those two words are fittingly included in the subtitle of the book. It distinguishes itself by its sensitivity and attention to capturing the beauty of the starry night sky (a style sometimes referred to as “astro-landscape photography” when little moonlight is present. Within that focus, the treatment is deep and full of useful tips.

Recognizing that preparation is key, Nightscape (2014) starts with two excellent section on understanding the night sky and its variations. I read for the first time about “airglow” there. Post-processing is strongly covered, with the book featuring the most detailed exposition I’ve seen anywhere of how to process photos in Lightroom (a set of LR presets are provided by download) so that they depict accurately the colors of the night sky, including colors of the stars.

Although the tone makes it very accessible and appealing to the photographer with no night photography experience, Nightscape touches advanced multiple image techniques, which the author acknowledges were necessary for nearly all images in the book. Their coverage is rather brief, but all the essential ideas are there and many links are provided. The book ends with a complete step-by-step tutorial on creating some of the most tricky night images: meteor showers with multiple meteors composited. This very specialized section appears a bit out of place compared with the rest of the book, which is a relatively light read, especially since it relies on Photoshop, which is not used elsewhere. However it gives the reader a good taste of the complexity of some images and the work behind them.

As part of the excellent Craft and Vision offerings, Nightscape: A Complete Guide to Photographing Under the Night Sky emphasizes craft over gear, however it does mention all the useful specialized equipment, even the fog filter. Like the other C&V titles, it is an affordable ($12) PDF with horizontal pages designed to look particularly attractive on the computer screen, with legible typography and large, beautiful photographs (with technical data but nothing else) resulting in 120 pages, although the word count is also about 24,000.

Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors by Grant Collier

Although Collier’s Guide to Night Photography is the most recent (2015) book about this subject, Grant Collier is a long-time practitioner of the genre, with 12 years of night photography experience, starting in the film days. I’ve long admired his Arches National Park work, in which night views reveal a new vision of familiar scenes, so I was pleased that Grant sent me a review copy of his guide to night photography.

Collier’s Guide to Night Photography at the same time covers more topics and goes into more depth than other books on the same subjects. As a night photographer with some experience, it was clear to me that the advice and tips in the book come from the numerous hours spent in the field. It is the night photography book from which I have learned the most. I wish it was available when I started. Despite the amount of advanced material, the night photography beginner will also benefit from the book thanks to the clear, concise, and no-nonsense writing.

Some of the most impressive photographs by Collier are his unique multiple-image panoramas. It is a technique he perfected to overcome the technical limitations of early digital cameras. The two previous books have made the case for why multiple image techniques can help realize one’s vision of creating images that can’t be achieved with a single shot. However, only Collier’s book goes into detail about how to blend and stitch images together – maybe the most intriguing material the book for advanced photographers, together with light painting and star trails. The last chapter goes beyond Lightroom in detailing Photoshop techniques. As those take a lot of explaining, more can be found in a companion video offering.

Another difference with the previous books is that Collier goes beyond the generic, not hesitating to discusses specific gear by brand and model, such as lenses, various lights for light painting, and equatorial mounts. He also list specific resources, such as weather, star, aurora websites and apps.

The images used to illustrate the techniques are very varied and all superb. Besides the expected technical data, they are presented with a brief, but informative technical comment about the main challenge they posed, making them suitable for learning by example.

Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors is published both as an ebook ($18.95) and a paperback. ($29.95). Because of that, the design is that of a traditional book, with dense paragraphs: the book has more words (75,000 words) than its 160 pages would suggest. That’s what makes it possible to be so comprehensive and detailed.

Did you read any of those books ? Are there others that you would recommend ?