Terra Galleria Photography

Paddling the White Cliffs of the Upper Missouri River

Floating the Upper Missouri River in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a great trip, offering the opportunity to connect with a time when the landscape of the West was wild, surrounded by unique and spectacular scenery. It is an easy multi-day adventure that doesn’t require much experience nor effort to arrange. This article explains the basics and details the highlights of the most remarkable White Cliffs section.

The River

The Upper Missouri River is meant to be paddled like Lewis and Clark did. Unlike modern travelers, Lewis and Clark traveled the river upstream, an indication of a placid river. It is indeed forgiving and does not require paddling experience. On the other hand, it is not great for motorized travel. Motorboats are strictly restricted and the riverbed is so shallow that you’d want a jetboat. The Upper Missouri River is Class I with no whitewater rapids. The only difficulty I found was that some landing spots were very muddy. Most boaters prefer canoes for carrying large items such as coolers to make camping more pleasant. Being more used to kayaks, I rented a double kayak, which had enough room for me to toss in my full-size photo backpack and my drone backpack, in addition to camping gear, food and water. I didn’t use dry bags, nor did I find it necessary to wrap my backpacks into waterproof plastic bags.


Logistics aren’t difficult. Guided trips are available during the summer. If you’d rather go on your own, Missouri River Outfitters in Fort Benton offers canoe and kayak rentals. Conveniently, you pick up your boat at the departure point and leave it at the take out point. For a reasonable fee, they can also drive your car from the departure point to the take out. The developed campsites where I stayed had vault toilets and fire rings, and sometimes 3-walled shelters. Besides the usual camping preparations, you need to bring your own water. The Upper Missouri cannot be treated adequately by boiling or filtering because of sediment in the water and extensive cattle in the area. The BLM provides an excellent 65-page Boater’s Guide with detailed river maps. A printed copy can be bought online or obtained at the BLM visitor center, but I found it easier to keep track of river miles by GPS.


Most river trips take place from mid-June to early September, and during that period campgrounds can be busy. The shoulder seasons extending a month on either side of the main floating season offer far greater solitude, but the weather is more dynamic and temperatures could drop down to near freezing – two pluses as far as I am concerned. The river flow is about 3mph, faster and higher in the spring, slower and lower in autumn.

The central section, from Coal Banks Landing (river mile 41.5) to Judith Landing (river mile 88.5) consists of 47 miles of river. Some people do the trip in 3 days, but most chose 4 days, and I even met a party who took 7 days. Even with 4 days, staying at the 3 popular developed camps, getting up before dawn and finishing well past sunset every day, and paddling quite hard, getting blisters on my hand, I felt that I could have used more time for hiking because there is so much to see around the river corridor.

Little Sandy

At Coal Banks Landing, a helpful BLM volunteer named Jim helped me carry the kayak to the water and go over the trip. He recommended that I stop at Little Sandy (river mile 46.7) to see ancient tipi rings, a reminder that the area has a long history with native Americans. I landed as soon as I saw the campground, but when I went looking for the tipi rings, the surrounding didn’t quite match his description. I found some rocks on a perfectly flat spot with commanding views of the river, but their shape was only vaguely related to the circles I was expecting. After getting into the kayak, once I floated downstream, I saw terrain matching the description at the other end of the campground – they can be pretty long. I landed and hiked back, only to find a creek between me and the campsite. Not wanting to get my feet wet, I strenuously paddled the kayak upstream. A short stroll above the campground, there were several perfect circles of stones. Robert, a fellow Californian traveling solo (for the 4th time!) who was camped there told me that they were in fact too perfect: modern visitors have added stones to them unlike at the undisturbed site I came upon earlier.

Burned Butte

I arrived at Burned Butte (river mile 55) with less than 30 minutes before sunset. In my rush to land, I had reached a spot that was so muddy that I struggled not to get my rubber boots sucked in. I then made a cross-country beeline for the top of the igneous rock plug, only to find the slope to be too steep and slippery to climb further. I didn’t get high enough before sunset for a good perspective on the river, but going down, I noticed a user trail. Although it was past sunset, I decided to investigate. It led me around the cliff for great views of the river. I was glad I had not given up, as the post-sunset glow turned out beautiful thanks to the clouds. After a few photos, I made sure to go back to my boat before dark, paddling a mile to the camp by moonlight.

Eagle Creek

When I arrived at Eagle Creek Boat Camp (river mile 56) in the dark, not wanting to miss the site, I floated too close to shore and I kept getting stuck on gravel bars. As I eventually landed at the first campsite, a group came to shore to let me know they were using it, and helpfully suggested another location downriver. The most popular destination on the river, the site faces impressive white cliffs well-lit at sunrise. I got up at 4:30 am, after the moon had set, to start an extremely promising night-to-day time-lapse, but sleepy as I was, I used the wrong settings. Next time, I’ve to make sure I don’t forget to review the first images of the sequence. After breakfast, hiking downriver into a narrowing canyon, I scrambled into Neat Coulee, a slot canyon where sandstone has been carved into fantastic curves and shapes (2 miles round trip). Hiking upriver from the camp, after crossing Eagle Creek, I found a site with petroglyphs etched in sandstone cliffs (1 mile roundtrip).


Hole-in-the-Wall, a natural hole within a vertiginous sheet of freestanding rock is one of the most iconic rock formations in the monument. It lies about a mile downriver from the Hole-in-the-Wall Developed Boat Camp (river mile 63) and after an easy approach on the flats, requires some rock scrambling to reach via its top. Even more impressive than the hole, the forest of pinnacles to the east, best lit in the afternoon, presented great depth and complexity in a spectacular setting high above the river. I wished I had arrived earlier at this world-class site to have time to find better viewpoints, especially since it was so windy that I was hesitant to venture out on exposed perches like the plank-like top of the rock. I had friended a group of three from Montana (Daniel, Jason, Jeff) and they were worried when I showed back to camp way after dark, but this was par the course for me, as I photographed with the full moon as a substitute for sunrise. That turned out to be a good idea, since clouds moved in unexpectedly during the night. There was fantastic color in the sky for a few minutes before sunrise, when the sun illuminated the clouds from below, and after that, it was all overcast.

Valley of the Walls

The section of river from Hole-in-the-Wall to Dark Butte (river mile 69.8) is graced with the most notable geological wonders in the monument. At Valley of the Walls (mile 66.5), opposite the famous Seven Sisters rock formation, creeks have carved a spectacular canyon. As it is not obvious from the river or during the steep cross-country hike, getting a good view of it from the top of the hills was a rewarding surprise. After a difficult landing, I had started hiking under heavy overcast with nobody else in sight. Since I noticed the light getting brighter, I hanged out at the top in anticipation for the sun to come out, and it did. But that ate up my time for Dark Butte. After a short hike there, I hopped into the kayak to make sure I wouldn’t get to the next camp too late, and just arrived as it got dark.

Slaughter River Boat Camp

Past Slaughter River Developed Boat Camp (river mile 76.8), the character of the monument starts to change as white cliffs are replaced by rugged badlands. The camp is facing some of the last cliffs on the river. The shore next to the campground wasn’t inspiring, as it was somehow muddy and full of footprints, but by hiking half a mile downriver, I found a nice gravel spot. As I was photographing straight towards the east, I knew I had to photograph right at sunrise, before the sun in my back would be strong enough to cast a long and noticeable shadow. That section of the river had more cottonwoods, and therefore more foliage color than I saw on previous days.

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Crossing the Missouri River by ferry in the middle of nowhere

Along the 149 miles of river in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the monument lands surrounding the river grow larger and wilder as we move from west to east. From Fort Benton (river mile 0) to Coal Banks Landing (river mile 41.5) the river is mostly surrounded by grassy meadows and agricultural lands, with not much to explore beyond the river corridor, an exception being Decision Point and Wood Bottom. The section from Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing (river mile 88.5) is the most popular thanks to its white cliffs and great hikes. It will be the subject of the next article.

The eastern part of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

From Judith Landing to James Kipp Recreation Area (river mile 149), the boundaries of the monument extend well beyond the banks of the river into rugged badlands that include several Wilderness Study areas. The character of the monument changes not only because white cliffs are replaced by badlands, but also because the river becomes less developed and traveled. Floating the section from there to James Kipp takes 4 or 5 days, but it is possible to get a quick glimpse of its terrain without a boat. The Bullwacker Road north of the Missouri River was the main avenue into the eastern part of the monument, but it is no longer accessible to the public. South of the Missouri River, the unpaved Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway starts from Winifred and briefly enters the monument. It requires 4WD to traverse. The site described in this article, not even marked on the BLM general map, also requires extended driving on an unpaved road. However, although it descends quite steeply into the river valley, the road may be passable by a carefully driven sedan in dry weather.

The McClelland-Stafford Ferry

Between the Loma Bridge and James Kipp Recreation Area, only the bridge at Judith Landing built in 1982 spans the Missouri River. However, drivers may cross the river at two additional locations using cable ferries that inject a sense of adventure to a road trip, as they are a throwback to another era – the McClelland-Stafford Ferry has been running from the 1920s. They operate 7 AM to 7 PM, Monday-Saturday, and 9 AM to 5 PM Sundays, about May 1 to Nov 1, depending on conditions, and are free. A diesel motor powers the ferry, guided by a drive cable spanning the river. The most popular of the two is in Virgelle. The McClelland-Stafford Ferry (river mile 101.8) is located in the middle of nowhere, 16 miles north of Winifred. I arrived from the north. As I passed the ferrryman’s house, he saw me and hopped on his ATV to operate the ferry. Otherwise, I would have used a call box to summon the ferry. Once we reached the south shore, instead of doing an empty trip back to his house, he pulled out a chair and started fishing from the ferry, waiting for cars to arrive from the south. On the busiest days, in August, there are about 10 crossings a day.

The Old Army Trail

On the north side of the river, next to the ferrryman’s house, there is a small campground and the trailhead for the Old Army Trail (5 miles round-trip, 900 feet elevation gain). The jeep road was built in 1869 to aid in the recovery of the cargo from a sunken steamboat. It is now one of only two designated trails inside the 377,346-acre national monument – the other is at Decision Point. After a section along the river leading to the site of the wreck, the trail climbed steeply to a ridge offering sweeping views of the Breaks before ending at a private property gate with menacing no trespassing signs. I started hiking at night so that I would be able to catch the sunrise high up, instead of being in the flat section of the trail within the valley.

When to go

The road should not be attempted even by 4×4 vehicles in wet weather. Roads in the area become impassable when wet (from snowmelt or precipitation) because they are laid on very sticky soil called “gumbo”. Some mentioned to me even helicopters getting stuck. Central Montana’s climate is continental with low annual precipitation. Winters are cold with snow and sub-freezing temperatures from mid-October to April. From mid-May to June, the landscape is green and flowers bloom, however rain and mud are likely, and mosquitoes can be bad. July and August offer consistently dry weather with highs in the 90s. Fall colors, seen mostly on the cottonwood trees that dot the riverbanks, and the return of possible inclement weather start in mid-September. This year, the weather remained perfectly dry during my visit in late September/early October, but at the same time last year, there was snow on the ground.

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Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument’s accessible spot

The longest river in North America, the Missouri River flows for 2,341 miles from Western Montana to St Louis, where it joins the Mississippi River. In 1976, a 149-mile section of the Missouri River in Montana was one of the first river segments to be protected with the Wild and Scenic River designation. Lewis and Clark of the Corps of Discovery traveled this part of the Missouri River during their expedition in 1805. Besides some cattle grazing, it remains much the same as it was back when they passed through. Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument protects that last free-flowing section of the Missouri River and 375,000 acres of surrounding plains, bluffs, cliffs, and badlands. The word “Breaks” is a geographical reference that describes those rugged landforms eroding (“breaking away”) from uplands to the river bed below.

The monument stretches for about 90 miles from Fort Benton in the west to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge to the east, with the river meandering for 149 miles. Many campgrounds, both primitive and developed, are situated on the riverbanks. Those located at each of the landings previously mentioned are developed and accessible by road. The closest towns with travel amenities are Winifred to the south and Fort Benton to the west. The later, more historic and touristy, is in the monument. It is home to the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center where you can obtain trip planning information, and to Missouri River Outfitters who provides boat rentals, shuttles, and guided trips on the river. There is also a bed and breakfast in the historic settlement of Virgelle, close to Coal Banks Landing.

(click on map to enlarge)

Naturally, the monument is best seen by paddling a canoe or kayak down the river, this will be the subject of a subsequent article. Most places of interest are very difficult to access without floating. Roads to them can be very rough and become impassable during wet weather because they are made of clay. They also traverse private lands, requiring landowner permission to access. However, besides the landings, there are a few places of interest that are accessible by road, and this article is about the most easily accessible of all. If you don’t have much time and want a glimpse of the monument without floating or significant driving on dirt roads, that would be the spot. Although it appears modest, there is much to photograph there.

Decision Point

Traveling upstream, the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed for 10 days at this site, at the confluence of the two rivers, trying to determine which one may lead them towards the Pacific Coast. They made the correct decision to follow the south fork, which is the Missouri River, naming the north fork the Marias River. Along the Loma Bridge Road, a 0.25-mile interpretive loop trail tops a bluff with excellent high views of the confluence and a river island. Despite the proximity of the small town of Loma which is within eyesight, the area has retained a peaceful pastoral character.

In landscape photography, timing is often essential. Here’s how my timing at Decision Point turned out. Mid-morning of the day of my evening visit there, I started from Wapi Park in Idaho, about 500 miles away, including some pretty rough roads – just driving the 70-mile Arco Minidoka Road can take all day. Upon exiting the I-15 at Great Falls, although the car’s dashboard showed I would reach Loma with about 50 miles of gas left, I decided to spend maybe 10 minutes for a gas stop. It turned out I arrived about 10 minutes late at the top of the bluff for the “late afternoon” light. On that day, the sunset was at 6:11 PM, and I had gotten there at 5:35 PM. However, as often is the case, a hill was blocking the light, throwing large parts of the scene in the shade. In doubt, it is preferable to plan to photograph with the sun not too low on the horizon. When shooting towards the east, the light of sunset is generally reliable: the excessive contrast is gone, and a band of color in the sky enlivens the horizon, however the lack of directionality makes it a bit flat. Past sunset time, the directionality comes back in delightfully soft light, but the color of the sky is gone. The main view (another is above) is towards the north-east. Because of that, I had come at sunset when it would be mostly front-lit. At sunrise, it is slightly backlit. I returned the next day in the early morning because you never know. The backlight made the sky is a bit bright, but the light on the land and trees was beautiful.

Wood Bottom

Just north of the Loma Bridge over the Missouri River, a 0.7-mile road leads to the Wood Bottom Developed Public Access Site (river mile 20.3). It is the first developed campground and boat launch after leaving Fort Benton. The float to or from there is often arranged as a day excursion. Both roads are surfaced with gravel, making them accessible in all weather. After photographing at Decision Point until dark, I initially tried to get to the Wood Bottom campground using Google Maps, but this didn’t work as the app pointed to a road at the top of the bluffs, leaving me quite perplexed as despite “you have arrived”, I struggled to make out anything in the dark. I located the correct road using a detailed BLM map.

The site is located at the base of tall bluffs that catch the first light of sunrise. It offered nice river-level views, but in the immediate vicinity of the campground, I struggled to find spots where a footpath along the edge of shore wasn’t too visible. As the light was progressing, I tried to hide it behind grasses, then excluded it from the composition, but eventually by walking a distance, I was able to find a more pristine spot that allowed me to include more of the shoreline.

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Two photographs: dull light v. dramatic light on the grasslands

Large and distant subjects generally need strong shadows to define their shape. For photographing grand landscapes, there may be nothing more discouraging than an overcast day, confirming the adage “dull light, dull photos”. But is it true? This article compares two photographs of an understated subject in two extreme light situations: overcast and sunrise.

The centerpiece of Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is the cave, but for photographers, the main attraction may well be the extensive grassland that covers more than two-thirds of the park’s surface, as it is one of the last remaining sections of the original prairie that once covered a huge area of mid-America. This section of prairie would not have been preserved if it weren’t for the network of caves that lie underneath. At Bison Flats, just south of the junction with the visitor center road, a very open prairie lies along Hwy 385. Ecological importance and visual appeal can diverge, and the prairie is not what you’d call a spectacular subject.

During my first visit there, it was raining all the time. Some say that the sweetest sound is that of raindrops falling on the tent since it means that one can stay in the sleeping bag without regret. I resisted the temptation and got to work at sunrise time. It was clear that the clouds would not clear anytime soon and there would not be even a hint of sunrise color, but some gradations were present in the sky, as opposed to a uniformly overcast sky. Every small detail like that counts, and I considered myself vindicated for not sleeping in.

The grasses exuded a fresh, damp smell that beckoned me to linger a bit longer and take a more attentive look. I identified a diverse blend of tall and short grass species. Even in those dreadful conditions, the allure of the grasses inspired me to pull out the camera and make a large-format photograph. From a distance, the grasses all look the same, but I recognized patches with different color characteristics and looked for local color contrast. I used a wide-angle lens and positioned the camera so that the grasses arranged themselves in a flowing way. Combined with a low viewpoint, the wide-angle lens added depth to the image by creating perspective with the strong decrease in size of the receding blades of grass. It made the background elements very small, but they were still resolved enough, as this type of flat subject is perfectly focussed from front to back with a bit of tilt. The distant trees helped provide a crucial focal point and counterweight.

To see how this photograph works, let us compare to another version of the same scene. Another year, I returned in better weather, hoping for less flat light. I headed to the same location for sunrise, when the light would be at its most dramatic, maybe a necessity for such an understated subject. Using the same focal length and a similar viewpoint and composition, I looked for a position that would utilize the dramatic play of light and shadow the best. A spot with prominent shadows in the foreground helped highlight the texture of the prairie as the low sun grazed it laterally, making each individual blade of grass stand out.

What makes the blades of grass stand out in that second photograph is their shape, detached against darker shaded areas. The differences in color within the grass are not visible at all, as they are overwhelmed by the warm light of sunrise. Instead, the photograph relies on the color contrast of two large image areas, the warm prairie and the cool sky. In the first photograph, despite the lack of shadows, the blades of grass are still well-differentiated from each other thanks to the color contrast between the light greens and the rust colors. The overcast light revealed those, and even more subtle color differences, making this photograph more intricate. Overcast light doesn’t highlight nor define anything, but it also doesn’t hide anything, so in the end, it offered more possibilities.

The two images of the same scene are clearly different in mood. Although I thought the overcast image may be richer, in the sense that it rewards an extended viewing with more to see, for Treasured Lands, I chose the sunlit version for its drama that makes it more immediately appealing, and also because it fit better with other images. In the book he and Kate Jordahl produced on the occasion of a gallery exhibit, curator Geir Jordahl chose the overcast image. Which image do you prefer, and why? (if you do not see poll question, click here)

A Backpacking trip into the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park

Continuing the Alaska dreaming and remembering started with the springtime backpacking trip in Lake Clark National Park, I am re-publishing here a longer account of a more arduous autumn backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park, illustrated with photographs all captured on 5×7 large format film. It was one of my wildest and most memorable experiences.

We took off from Bettles during a short weather break in the evening. As vast expanses of tundra and taiga rolled beneath, a circular double rainbow began to follow us. The beauty was incredible, but the flight in the four-seater plane was so bumpy that we were glad to reach our destination, a narrow circular band of water known as Circle Lake – and AI-based deblurring was necessary to salvage photos. The pilot helped us unload our backpacks to the grassy shore, instructed us to come back one week later to the same point to be picked up, and was quickly on his way. Still dazzled by the flight, we waved to the plane. A few minutes later, the noise of the engine disappeared to leave place to absolute silence. The sense of isolation was powerful. We were told by the rangers that you must be totally self-sufficient here, that there would be no help to be expected. You might not even be found.

Gates of the Arctic National Park, covering much of the Brooks range in northern Alaska, is one of the finest wilderness areas of the world. With a surface area of 8.4 million acres (336 thousand squares kilometers), it is four times the size of Yellowstone, twice the size of Connecticut, and only slightly smaller than Switzerland. What is remarkable is that such a large chunk of land has remained one of the most remote and unspoiled places in the world. No roads lead into the park, and it is a hard trek to get from the Dalton highway (a rough unpaved road opened to access the oil fields of the arctic coast) into the park interior. Most people charter a plane to fly into the park, either a floatplane or a plane equipped with oversized tires for landing on gravel bars. The main transportation center for the Brooks range is Bettles, which can be reached in summer only by flight, usually from Fairbanks. After landing on the gravel airstrip in Bettles, it is easy to understand why Alaska is America’s last frontier. Although the town is incorporated, it is no more than an airfield surrounded by a few dozen buildings. There is a lodge, a general store, and the National Park Service visitor center. The ranger gave us a briefing about bear encounters but declined to provide trip planning information. The main purpose of the NPS was to keep the park a wilderness, and they wanted each person to discover their own path, rather than ending up all in the same spot. With only 8,000 visitors in the year 1999 prior to our visit (as opposed to 386,000 for Denali and more than 3 million for Yosemite or Yellowstone), and no facilities such as marked trails or campsites, it is indeed still possible to have the feeling of being the first humans ever to set foot in the park. It is still possible to be the first person to expose a large format sheet of film of some of the views there. During our week-long trek, we would meet only two other hiking groups, yet we backpacked in one of the most frequented areas of the park. One of them was composed of two guides and a photographer. He had hired both of them so that he would have to carry only his photographic gear. I found that this would have been unnecessary for me: in spite of carrying about half my body weight (my friend, Shosh, was a small woman and couldn’t take more than her normal share), after a couple of days I would adjust to the load and the terrain.

The place strikes you immediately as being a most wild and natural place. From where we stood, past the lakeshore, we saw no tracks in the tundra. I proceeded to put my backpack on. I couldn’t lift it with my hands high enough to shoulder it. I had to find a mound of vegetation high enough for me to sit underneath it. At the beginning of the trip, the backpack weighed about 67lbs (30 kg). There was about 25lbs of camera gear and film, 28 lbs of gear to survive in harsh conditions, and nine days of food. Before the trip, I was wondering how I would fare in those conditions. The other backpacking trips where I carried the large format camera were only four days long, in the mild and dry climate of the Sierras or the Plateau, and on-trail. I began to learn the harshest aspect of Arctic hiking. Most of the ground in Arctic regions is permanently frozen as permafrost. During the summer, there will be a layer of thawed soil at the surface, allowing plant growth. In the moist areas, found in low-lying terrain such as the valley were we landed, the permafrost is close to the surface, and the melting creates an ocean of mud among which tufted mounds of grass called tussocks provide a more solid footing. Walking is done by hopping from one wobbly tussock to another, trying to avoid missing and spraining your ankle or sinking in the mud when a tussock gives way under your feet. We understood why one shouldn’t plan to cover more than one mile per hour. On such a terrain, it is also difficult to find a good campsite.

However, despite the late hour, I was not too worried about getting to one before the nightfall. The park is situated well above the Arctic circle. For a period of about a month in mid-summer, the sun never sets. We were already in mid-August, which in the Arctic is already the fall season, but there was still daylight past 11 pm. There was a sense of freedom in being able to forget the clock. One more aspect of modern life had become irrelevant. We found in the boreal forest a spot carpeted by thick moss, and set-up the tent.

The term “arctic” sometimes evokes the idea of a white wasteland roamed by polar bears. While it is true that for most of the year temperatures averaging -20F (-30F) at lower elevations freeze the landscape, during the short warm seasons, the tundra puts a display of color unlike anything I saw before. In the eastern hardwood forests of America, the colors are in the trees. Here the color is just everywhere. The next day, a bright sun highlighted the fall colors. Pockets of willows and aspens dotted the landscape with yellow patches, while the unforested hills around us were vibrant with a variety of red hues. These brilliant reds were the tiny leaves of berry plants. After a few days of freeze-dried food, we became very fond of the fresh and sweet taste of the blueberries, which were found in abundance at the lower elevations. Unlike in the mountains I was used to, there was no bare dirt at all. Every patch of ground was alive, covered with cottongrass and sedges, mosses, or a variety of other dwarf plants. They kept getting tinier and tinier, as we gained elevation, but never lost of their diversity. Looking at my feet while hiking, I’d marvel at the beauty of the small patterns. It was a bit tiring because you’d sink at every step into what feels like a sponge rubber, yet the softness felt nice. Tripod stability was another matter. The limiting factor in rigidity would be the sponginess of the ground, regardless of how flimsy your camera or tripod is. While making an exposure, you wouldn’t dare to breathe, for fear of not standing perfectly still, and causing the ground to shift. We became more proficient at recognizing dry tundra from moist tundra. Dry tundra is dominated by mat-forming shrubs and is often found on higher, well-drained terraces. Walking on dry tundra was much more pleasant than hoping on tussocks, and we made faster progress. Every hour or so, when I saw an interesting place to photograph, we would put our packs down, my partner would relax for a while, while I would expose a few images. On a road trip, I just tend to drive around and rush to be at the right place with the right light (if predictions were to be accurate). Here, there was a sense that I’d just have to photograph what was there and now, and be content with it. At most, we could wait a little for conditions to change, and I would use that time to unload my three film holders and reload them. There was less pressure to find an image, it would have to come naturally.

After reaching the Arrigetch creek, we found some faint and intermittent trails. We wondered which ones were made by animals and which ones were made by previous hikers. Sometimes, it was comforting to recognize a footprint made by a boot in the mud, but usually the footprints all belonged to animals. One day, as we struggled through thick willows, we found a relatively unobstructed path where branches had been broken by something bigger and stronger than a human. Instants later, we saw a very large dark-furred animal. Shosh panicked, as she thought it was a huge black bear, but soon, we were reassured by the sight of antlers. It was a moose. We stayed away, as they can become aggressive at this time of the year which is their rutting season. Almost every day, we would see big sharp-clawed tracks and wonder where the maker of those tracks was.

Like all of Alaska, the park is home to a number of bears, both black and brown. The brown bear, or grizzly, is among the earth’s largest predators, but in the Brooks Range, they are largely, although not exclusively, vegetarians, eating berries, sedges, and other plants. Not exclusively. When they’re hungry, grizzlies will try anything. Fortunately, because of the resources needed to sustain life are so sparse, there is only an average of one brown bear for every 100 square miles of habitat in the Arctic. Moreover, man’s presence in the park is so minimal that none of the wildlife is accustomed to man, so that a bear, whiffling something as foreign as humanity would likely turn tail. However, in order to avoid surprising a bear, Shosh kept yelling and talking, and we were careful to use proper food storage methods.

Two days after our landing, we arrived at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks. The park covers much of the Brooks Range, which is the northernmost major mountain range in the world. The range is so vast that each of its mountains has a different character, however, the Arrigetch Peaks area is considered by many to be the most spectacular part. Arrigetch means in Athabascan “fingers of a hand outstretched”. We were surrounded by gothic black granite spires and pinnacles reaching haphazardly into the clouds. There was a feeling of being at the beginning of the earth. The ice-rimmed sheer walls gave us the impression of being in Yosemite before the dawn of humanity. An Eskimo legend relates that when their creator Aiyagomahala died, he stuck his frozen mitten to the ground at the head of the Alatna Valley; the frozen fingers turned into granite spires to remind his people of their creator.

We set up a base camp and planned to spend the next few days doing day hikes into three of the valleys surrounding the peaks. This would be much easier on my back since I would just have to carry the camera gear. Each of the valleys had a different character. In the first one, we hoped onto steep boulder fields. In the image I made looking down the valley, the overcast sky and the thin layer of fresh snow, contrasting with the dark walls and the lichen-covered rocks, contributed to create a most severe and frigid atmosphere. The highlight of the second valley was turquoise lakes whose deep colors stood out against the dark surrounding rocks. In the third valley, we saw beautiful high tundra vegetation. The weather remained overcast all the time, and while this helped bring out the colors of the tundra, I wished the summits of the peaks would clear out. There was a mystery in all those steep peaks disappearing into the clouds, but I think I captured this feeling only in one image, a difficult exposure made at the end of a long day when I had only one sheet of film left in my pack.

As we were cooking dinner at dusk next to a stream, we saw one caribou running down on the other side of the stream, then another one, then several others. Soon we witnessed for several minutes an almost continual flow of animals. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them. It was too dark to take a picture, and on this trip, I had decided to concentrate on landscape photography and therefore left behind my telephoto lens, so I just savored the moment. The park is crossed by the Caribou of the western arctic herd estimated to be 200,000 animals, as it migrates through the park from wintering grounds south and west of the park to calving areas northwest of the park and to summer range north of the park. The weather was constantly changing, and rainbows seemed to appear and disappear everywhere. This was at times frustrating with the large format camera since the conditions would often change in the eight minutes it takes me to set-up the camera and be ready to expose the film. Although we were merely at 3000 feet (1000 meters) elevation, an overnight storm brought a layer of fresh snow. Since we were camped at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks, the view was only a few steps from the tent. I had the luxury to wait for hours for the summit of the mountains to come in view. This never happened completely during the three days we were there. When I saw a possible clearing, I gave up breakfast, hurrying to set up the camera with excitement, and waited. Half an hour later, in a brief window that lasted only minutes, the clouds lifted enough for an evocative monochromatic image of the black vertical walls entirely plastered with snow. I thought of how lonely this range was. So few of these thrilling mountains had been visited by people, fewer still had been climbed to their summits. Only a few had names.

It’s a wild place, Gates of the Artic National Park.

Image upsizing with Topaz Gigapixel AI

If you are making prints, sooner or later you’ll have to upsize the image file. Even with such a basic task, there is much to be gained by using appropriate apps. In this post, the third and last in a series devoted to the Topaz suite of AI-based tools, I examine Topaz Gigapixel AI upsizing capabilities and limits using a pair of images of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Capture

The photographs look straightforward enough, but if you look around the Internet, you won’t see them replicated often for such an iconic subject. This is because creating such an alignment of the city skyline with the bridge required a quite distant and un-intuitive viewpoint near the Pt Bonita Lighthouse, more than 2.5 miles away from the bridge. I photographed it in January 2004 with a 70-200mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter on a newly bought Canon EOS Digital Rebel, resulting in a focal length equivalent of 450mm for the vertical image. I’ve since returned several times to the same spot with better gear, but never observed again the glassy water that created the reflection of the bridge. The San Francisco Bay is not a top sailing spot for nothing. This left me with a meager 6 MP file. Upsizing images is almost never necessary if they are to be displayed online, or even used in magazines or books.

By the way, that was the coolest book cover: the publisher created a half-inch deep 3D cut-out from the horizontal version of the photograph, which worked really well with this scene because the telephoto had collapsed the scenes into slices of depths. On the other hand, upsizing of images files is necessary for making large prints if they are to support close distance viewing. If you send an image with low resolution to a printer, the printer driver applies its own upsizing, which may be inferior to app-based upsizing and leaves you without control of the process and the output sharpening – my Epson 9800 does best when fed with native resolution files (360 ppi).

Photoshop/Interpolation Upsizing

When you open Photoshop’s Image Size window, there are now no less than 8 choices of resizing methods under the pulldown menu next to “Resample”. Some of them are labeled “enlargement” or “reduction” so you know which ones are appropriate for the task. I have found the differences to be quite minor, with “Bicubic smoother” generally, but not always, the best. No single method always gives the best results – Adobe would have dropped others! Unfortunately, Photoshop is not offering Lanczos resampling which may often be the best interpolation method. If you want to try it, one of the more popular apps implementing it is the free IrfanView. Resizing by interpolation works roughly as follows: the pixels are spread out, and then an algorithm is used to fill in the spaces in between. If an edge transition takes place over, let say 3 pixels, in the image resulting from a double enlargement, that same edge transition takes place over 6 pixels regardless of the interpolation method used. That makes the edge more gradual, therefore it doesn’t appear as sharp. That is a problem because edges contribute most to the perception of sharpness. Here is the 100% pixel view of a Transamerica Pyramid crop with 4 times upsizing in Photoshop:

Genuine Fractals Upsizing

There are a number of third-party apps for resizing. Prior to trying Topaz Gigapixel AI, I had settled on Genuine Fractals, which was renamed Perfect Resize and then ON1 Resize after its acquisition by onOne Software. I believe it was the best upsizing app for a decade. Genuine Fractals works by transforming the image data into a vector representation that is independent from resolution (hence “fractal”). You can think of it as a collection of polygons. When you enlarge the image, the surface area of each polygon is enlarged, but not their edges. As a result, Genuine Fractals did a great job on keeping edges sharp, preventing lines from getting jagged, and keeping curved lines smooth. I found it a significant improvement over Photoshop in making large prints. Here is the 100% pixel view of a Transamerica Pyramid crop with 4 times upsizing in Genuine Fractals:

Edges are cleaner. There are two limitations. For some images, the polygonal structure could become visible, which of course looked artificial. More critically, Genuine Fractals did not provide an actual improvement in resolution, and therefore didn’t help with textures. Excessive enlargements caused a bit of a “cartoon” effect with sharp edges but missing texture. That was because Genuine Fractals cannot create detail that is not there.

Topaz Gigapixel AI Upsizing

By contrast, like its cousin Topaz Sharpener AI, Topaz Gigapixel AI works by basically rebuilding a synthetic image based on the input image and the prior knowledge of a huge number of images of the world. The app mobilizes that vast amount of information to add detail beyond what was available in the original image. Here is the 100% pixel view of a Transamerica Pyramid crop with 4 times upsizing in Topaz Gigapixel AI:

The results are at another level. The app has cleaned out the noise, that even at midday and base ISO was still present in the Canon file – that was an early DSLR. If you look at the leftmost cable, you can now clearly see that it consists of two strands that were not resolved in any of the two previous enlargements. In this case, I know that Topaz Gigapixel AI was “correct” since those strands do exist, even though they were barely resolved in the original image.

Ground truth comparison

To assess how the apps do against ground truth, instead of enlarging the original, we are going to reduce it and then re-enlarge it back so we have a reference image to compare to. We will use the following crop, viewed at 100% pixels:

For comparison, the following image has been reduced to 50% size (therefore discarding half of the linear data), and then upsized back by 2 times by Photoshop interpolation. A bit of loss of detail is visible and the image is softer.

The following image has been reduced to 50% size and then upsized back 2 times by Topaz Gigapixel AI. If anything, it resulted in an image sharper and with more detail than the original.

The following image has been reduced to 25% size (therefore discarding 75% of the linear data), and then upsized back by 4 times by Photoshop interpolation. As would be expected, the loss of detail is severe.

Upsizing back 4 times by Topaz Gigapixel AI results in an image with sharp edges and credible detail, although there are a few artifacts where the app “guessed wrong” and in places it created details that wasn’t there.

Reducing and upsizing the image by a factor 6, both break down, however, the bridge pillar, an area where there was still enough data to work with at that scale, is still rendered sharply by Topaz Gigapixel AI in the bottom image.

Using Topaz Gigapixel AI

When Topaz Gigapixel AI works, there is nothing that compares. But it doesn’t always work and can do strange things – for instance on dark images. So how to make the most out of it? What I recommend is to always examine carefully the entirety of the enlarged image at high magnification and look for artifacts. If you find any, you can replace the defective areas with an enlargement made using a more conservative method. Here is another real-world case that occurred when I was preparing a print just last week. The photograph is from an another ocean shore across the continent, at Acadia National Park’s Sand Beach. Crowded during the day as it is the only sand beach in the area, it is deserted at dawn, when the photograph was made. As the naturally occurring shutter speed of 1/13s kept just the right amount of motion in the surf, it is important to render the land as sharply as possible. The original file, created with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, was 5616 pixels wide.

To make a 30×45 inch print at 240 ppi, I needed a file of 10800 pixels wide, almost a two times enlargement. Like we’ve seen with the Golden Gate Bridge, the file enlarged by Topaz Gigapixel AI (top) is sharper than the original file and the file enlarged by Photoshop (bottom).

However, if we look at the sand, we discover unatural patterns.

To remedy this, I made an enlargement of the same size using Photoshop. Prior to the resizing, I applied sharpening tailored to the sand, since that would be the only portion of the image to be used.

I loaded both images as Photoshop layers. By switching on and off the layer, it is easy to compare the two renderings. I masked the sand portion from the Topaz Gigapixel AI image to keep the sand portion of the Photoshop-enlarged image. Applying Topaz Gigapixel AI successfully on a range of images, including film scans, may involve a bit of experimentation with some other processing, especially denoising and sharpening, and local processing, but I have found it well worth it, as the gains can be spectacular. They have allowed me to expend my print offering sizes from old images.

Turquoise Lake to Twin Lakes Backpacking Trip

With long-distance travel somehow curtailed, it is time to reminisce about past experiences and long for the day when they will be possible again. Today marks the 56th anniversary of the Wilderness Act that provides the highest level of protection for America’s lands. One of my favorite wilderness journeys of the last two decades was the leisurely Turquoise Lake to Twin Lakes backpacking trip of June 2001 in the Jay S. Hammond Wilderness within Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. We experienced spectacular and wild country in a surprisingly easy trip that I can warmly recommend to any self-sufficient backpackers.

The first reason the trip was easy is that Lake Clark National Park is in Anchorage’s “backyard,” about an hour away by small plane, and you are dropped at your entry point into the wilderness by floatplane, a common practice in the Alaskan national parks, but generally not permitted in the national parks of the continental United States. For the background on Lake Clark National Park and more details on the logistics, check out this post focusing on Turquoise Lake. Five minutes from the drop-off point, our first camping spot at the mouth of Turquoise Lake, on its east end, was so beautiful that some people might enjoy just relaxing there for a couple of days.

The jagged peaks of the Telaquana Mountains rose above a wide gravel bar toward the east, catching the last light of the day. We explored the two valleys at the base of the Telaquana Mountains on the east of the lake via day hikes. The southern valley was wider and flatter, and we hiked along the rushing river until a distant waterfall came into view. The northern valley was steeper, and we ended following a moraine to a glacier. There were no trails, nor any trace of humanity, but also no way to get lost, as we just walked on the valley floor until deciding to turn around.

After three nights at the mouth of Turquoise Lake, we followed its south shore and set up camp for our fourth night near the west end of the lake, where a small peninsula jutting into the lake provided a view with excellent reflections of the mountains. Lake Turquoise is aptly named, for glacial silt colored the water a surreal, robin-egg blue that was a joy to see. At midday, because the sun penetrates the water, its color is more vivid than during the golden hours. I looked for a foreground of rocks that created a transition from the shore to the lake, keeping the lines horizontal to multiply the number of layers in the image. I then waited for the clouds to move in alignment with the mountains. A composition is most cohesive when the foreground is tied to the background in some way. I was particularly pleased that the four partly submerged rocks in the water mirrored the four clouds in the sky. I chose the image as the main photograph for Lake Clark National Park in Treasured Lands.

We left Turquoise Lake to head over the tundra, which in June was green and dotted with wildflowers. Between Turquoise Lakes and Twin Lakes, about 9 miles apart, open views stretched over vast expanses. As we saw a bear in the distance, we reassured ourselves that in the open landscape a close encounter was unlikely. Having gotten around the mountains, we could follow more or less a contour line to our next destination and enjoyed the freedom to walk on trail-less tundra where each step was soft underfoot. Although it was all wonderful, two landscape features stood out: a valley with a stream flowing and the arrival at Twin Lakes where we saw trees again. We enjoyed our fifth and last night in the wilderness near our pick up destination, the outlet stream at the northwest end of Twin Lakes. I photographed in the late afternoon and in the morning right a few steps from the tent, the opening and closing images of this post.

The second reason the trip was easy is that hiking took place on a high plateau. In Alaska, wet areas are full of tussocks which are ankle-twisting large knobs of soil that rise out of the mud and have grass growing out of them. Like potted plants without the pots, their tops are broader than their bottoms. Walking on that terrain entails hopping from one wobbly tussock to another. The plateau was high enough that we didn’t have to contend with those dreaded tussocks, and since it was above tree line, there was no bushwacking and open views made navigation straightforward. All the previous landscape photographs were captured on 5×7 film, and that made for a relatively heavy backpack although it was a short trip in moderate weather. I also carried a 35mm for the pictures of our group of four.

More on the National Parks Portfolio

In 2016, I described the National Parks Portfolio. If you haven’t done so, please be sure to read that article for context. This week, on the occasion of the 104th anniversary of the National Park Service, I am tracking the publication history of what is arguably the most important publication ever produced by the agency.


After looking at many copies, I identified two printings of the 1916 National Parks Portfolio with distinct characteristics. All the booklets inside are entirely identical. The only difference is in the wrappers that serve as portfolio covers. One of them has a wrapper consisting of thin, dark, cardboard wrappers. The back cover features a seal with the lettering “NATIONAL PARK SERVICE – DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR” surrounding an eagle with wings outstretched in front of a mountain. The wrappers from the other printing are lighter cardboard covered by cloth on the outside, with no seal in the back.

My hypothesis is that the printing without the seal was the first printing, whereas the printing with the seal would have been made after the National Park Service (NPS) was officially established on August 25, 1916. National Parks Portfolio was issued as part of a campaign to establish the National Park Service, so it would have been odd to feature the seal of an agency not yet established. Stephen Mather or Robert Sterling Yard would have decided that since a new edition was coming in 1917, in late 1916, it was enough to keep the booklets the same and just add the seal to the wrapper to acknowledge the new agency.

However, curiously, that seal appears to have been used in print only in 1916. All subsequent printings of National Parks Portfolio, as well as all other early government-issued publications such as individual national park brochures, bear the seal of the Department of the Interior, generally a bison, but also sometimes an eagle profiled against the sky. The only other publication I have seen with that seal is the second edition of Glimpses of our National Park, a free booklet written by Robert Sterling Yard to provide an overview of the main national parks. It was issued in May 1916, therefore predating the establishment of the national park service, but since it had a total print run of 400,000, it is possible that my copy is of a printing issued after Aug 25, 1916. Although the seal is nowhere to be found in print after 1916, as documented in National Park Service Uniforms – Badges and Insignia 1894-1991, it was the basis for the badges worn by NPS rangers from 1920 to 1970 – after 1970, badges also became based on the Department of the Interior bison seal.


The second edition of the National Parks Portfolio was one of the first publications of the National Park Service. The name of the agency was present on the front page of each of the booklets, and it is attributed to “Government printing office” instead of “Scribner Press”. One of the goals of the National Parks Portfolio was to make the national parks known to the people of the country, and therefore it was widely distributed free of charge. While Glimpses of our National Park continued to be distributed free of charge like today’s individual park brochures, the second edition of National Parks Portfolio cost 35 cents in the initial format with separate booklets, but was also offered as a hardcover bound book for 55 cents (one 1917 dollar is the equivalent of 20 dollars in 2020).

Besides the substitution of some photographs, the main change was the addition of a 10th 36-page booklet describing the new national parks established in 1916 and early 1917, as well as national monuments. Prior to the re-designation of Gateway Arch National Park, Hot Springs National Park was considered by many to be the black sheep among the national parks. We see here that Hot Springs, although not even yet designated as a national park, was given more prominence than Hawaii National Park consisting of modern-day Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala, Mt McKinley National Park renamed Denali National Park only in 1980, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

1921 and beyond

The National Parks Portfolio would undergo four more editions, each issued only as a bound book with a major revision by Isabelle Story in 1928 for the 5th edition:
This revision was made necessary by the many changes that have occurred in the national park system during the past twelve years, and by the changing styles, which made obsolete many of the pictures with a human-interest note.

In […] 1916, only 356,097 people visited the national parks. Since then, however, the visiting list has steadily mounted higher and higher, until in the 1927 year 2,354,643 visitors saw the national parks.

Stephen Mather passed in 1930. In the 6th, and final edition of National Parks Portfolio, the new NPS director Horace Albright would pay homage to him, revealing the story behind the first edition:

To Stephen T. Mather, first Director of the National Park Service, is due the greater part of the successful development of the national park and monument system. The issuance of the first National Parks Porfolio in 1916 was his personal accomplishment. No Government funds were available for such a publication. Mr Mather, however, knew that some such book was necessary if the parks were to be made known to the people of the United States. He, therefore, interested seventeen western railroads in the project and with their contribution of forty-three thousand dollars had the National Park Portfolio prepared and published. A year later the government took over the publication of the Portfolio.

Here is the summary of the different editions, with a link to scan of each of them if you wish to compare them:

  • 1st (1916) 218 pages, free
  • 2nd (1917) 262 pages, $0.55
  • 3rd (1921) 266 pages, $1
  • 4th (1925) 270 pages, $1
  • 5th (1928) 270 pages, $1
  • 6th (1931) 274 pages, $1.5

Collecting Photography Books: A Primer

Revisiting my photography book collection has brought me much enjoyment during the lockdown. A dozen years ago, as the business of photography was good, I used the disposable income to start collecting. In this article, I summarize what I wished I knew back then, not only as a photographer and book collector but also from the perspective of a former art gallery owner and current publisher.

Why collect photography books?

The prevalent digital consumption of photographs cannot replace the viewing of photography in print. Seeing original prints at exhibits is irreplaceable, but there are only so many museums and galleries even in a major metropolitan area such as the San Francisco Bay Area. Photography books, defined as books where the message is primarily carried by photographs, are the most practical entry into a photographer’s work. Unlike magazines, they are physical objects of beauty, with superior production values such as materials, design, and printing. The sequencing, layout, and combination of images and text add layers of meaning and complexity beyond single photographs. Books from a lasting record of works of art. They can rise to the level of works of art themselves, but unlike the art in the museum or gallery, that is a piece of art that you can hold in your hand. The simplicity and materiality of the book provide an experience altogether distinct from electronic media. Book pass through ages. In our personal lives, they are often loaded with sentimental value. It can be argued that without books, there would be no modern civilization.

There are many approaches to photography book collecting that are equally valid. Two ends of the spectrum are to collect solely based on personal taste, ignoring any other external opinions, and to collect based solely on rarity, seeking vintage first editions in excellent condition. I took a middle road, seeing photography books as a vehicle to discover more about photography and deepen my knowledge of its significant artists. I was not trying to build an egg nest with the collection, because I wanted foremost to focus on contents and buy books according to interest rather than as an investment opportunity. However, there is no denying that the mercantile aspect of the hobby can be fun and educational, as it mobilizes quite a bit of knowledge: you have to do your research, budget and prioritize your acquisitions. It could be profitable: once I noticed that Mack was going to re-issue Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens, therefore ensuring my continued access to the work, I resold for $1,000 the copy of the Rat Hole Gallery edition bought for less than $100. Note, however, that monetization is always uncertain (the stock market is for that!), and there are indications that the book market is softer than it used to be. Unlike book dealers, even if they seek appreciation in value, collectors generally do not seek to monetize it. Like in all collecting the process can be more satisfying than the resulting ownership.

Photography books have become highly collectible over the last two decades, thanks to a recent appreciation and recognition of that particular medium, and maybe nostalgia for physical objects. Some books can quickly become worth more than their list price. Once I understood that carefully chosen books can be resold for a profit if needed, I was less hesitant to spend serious money that way. There were years when I spent more on books than on photography gear. I sometimes bought multiple copies to resell as a way to finance the hobby, a trade of sorts. While that mercantile aspect of collecting should remain secondary to the love of the books, it is by far the easiest to explain and quantify, kind of like the technical mechanics of photographs, and that is why I will focus on it. The definition of a collectible is: worth more used than what it cost new.

The value cycle

The factors that make any given object collectible are scarcity and demand. Because of the need for quality reproductions, photo books cost much more to print than other books, and therefore they are more expensive. Higher prices result in demand often too small to justify a large print run. Except for some popular coffee-table books, a print run of a few thousand copies is considered large for a photography book. At the same time, although small, the demand often remains steady. Eventually, copies become scarce and valuable. The cycle for desirable books goes like that:
  1. Book is sold near list price upon release, as novelty is a major selling point.
  2. Once the novelty wears out, deep discounts (50% is not uncommon on Amazon) become available. In industry jargon, the book has gone from “frontlist” to “backlist”: in catalogs, it is no longer fully described, but merely listed.
  3. Copies are mostly sold out from the warehouse and large booksellers. At this point, they are available only via independent bookstores, and on Amazon via third-party sellers rather than Amazon itself. Prices start to rise back to list price.
  4. Book is collectible, with new copies offered for increasing multiples of the original list price, and used copies in excellent condition not too far behind.
Buying at stage 1 guarantees that you get a copy at list price but at that point, it is possible that the price will go down and the book will not become collectible. A book entering stage 3 is likely to reach stage 4, so for those collectors that focus on the “collectible” aspect, this may be the safest time to buy. If at that point you are still on the fence, if do not buy and later you find yourself wanting the title, it may no longer be affordable, or even available at all.

For maximum savings, the best time to buy the books is in stage 2. However, some coveted books never go to this stage and instead quickly sell out upon release and become collectible. This can go pretty fast. Despite its print run of 5,000, the first printing of Treasured Lands (2016) sold out in less than a month. Watching the pre-orders, I initiated a reprint before the book even hit the stores. Despite the book not checking most of the usual collectibility factors, in the few months between the fourth printing running out and the fifth printing’s availability, the price of a new copy rose to more than three times the list price, while damaged copies sold over the list price. Pre-publication copies of Alec Soth’s Broken Manual sold at art fairs such as Paris Photo. By the official publication date, not a single copy was available from the publisher. I passed on the limited edition available from the artist because it was priced in the high hundreds of dollars. Copies now start at $6,500.

Other books never leave stage 2, and their price keeps dropping over time, as there is no demand. My first book, Beautiful North America retails for a fraction of its list price. That book was not my best effort: I only provided images as required by the publisher. Given the target market of discount stores, their effort in editing, design nor printing quality wasn’t the greatest. I regret this book, and in that case, it would seem that the market’s assessment of its value is correct. However, there also are plenty of absolutely great books that never become collectible and can be bought at bargain prices.

Factors to look for

Authorship. Generally speaking, books that are a compilation of images by several photographers, especially if derived from stock libraries, lack an authorial voice and therefore are seldom considered works of art. That is the case of many coffee-table books. Exceptions include vernacular photography when curated in some clever way (as pioneered by Mandel and Sultan’s Evidence) and some exhibit catalogs.

In 1975, The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was a rare revolutionary exhibit. Even though published 35 years later, the exhibit survey was a much sought after record of it.

Significance/appeal of the artist and work. Work by artists without institutional art world recognition (exhibited in museums and galleries, reviewed in major publications) is less likely to be collectible and the same principle applies to their books. Some artists have such a reputation and manage so carefully their editions, that almost every one of their books becomes collectible. For a given artist, their earlier work or first breakthrough publication is often more sought after. If their career is, sometimes unfairly, defined by a publication, like Robert Frank by The Americans, it is no surprise that demand for that particular publication will be higher.

Although more than 50,000 copies were printed, after Robert Frank’s passing, demand for The Americans quickly drove used copies to more than five times the list price. Reprints have since then reappeared for the work, but not for the monumental catalog of the exhibit dedicated to the book.

Printing quality. Some older books, such as Brassai’s Paris de Nuit used to great effect the photogravure printing process to produce rich and sooty blacks. However, generally speaking, photographic printing quality made such great strides in the 1980s that most books published prior look mediocre compared to recent books. The newer books therefore provide more enjoyment even though they may not be as valuable as the older, rarer books. Some publishers are known for their uncompromising attention to printing quality. In a publisher’s output, not every book is of the same quality. Within their commitment to publishing most of William Eggleston’s work, Steidl’s Chromes volume set was exceptionally well printed, whereas the follow up Los Alamos is just very good. Word has gotten out, and the former is more sought after.

After finding a copy of the first edition of the Portfolios of Ansel Adams, I was disappointed by the printing quality compared to the modern version. After reviewing several, I found out that the big jump in quality occurred between the 1st edition (1977) and the second edition (1982). Their advertising on the cover page was justified.

Elaborate Productions. A lot more goes into book production than printing quality, and this can include special materials for casings, unusually large trims, of which the most well-known example is Helmut Newton’s Sumo, elaborate slipcases, fold-out pages, and unconventional types of binding. For books that exist both as hardcover and softcover, the former is always preferable.

A family-owned publisher like Nazraeli pays individual attention to every book, tailoring design, materials (such as the bamboo boards for Michael Kenna’s Hokkaido), slipcases, trims (Jeff Liao’s Habitat 7 is 24×12 inches, edition of 500) to fit each body of work and create a unique object.

Size of the print run. Everything being equal, the smaller the print run, the more valuable the book. Coffee-table books destined to the general public often have large print runs above 10,000. As a photography contributor to the two latest National Geographic books about national parks, I received a contract that stated a print run of 50,000 each. On the other hand, many publishers specializing in “artsy” photography books, especially in Europe, issue print runs in the hundreds. Being geared for the collector market, they often specify the edition size, a piece of information generally not available otherwise. Because of the cost of setting up offset presses and lack of other economies of scale, the smaller the print run, the higher the production costs per unit, and therefore the higher the retail price. In measurable terms such as page per dollar, those books can be an order of magnitude more expensive than mass-produced coffee-table books. Even though those editions are not limited in the sense that the publisher leaves to door open for a reprint, in practice, they rarely occur because demand is limited to collectors.

The copyright page of both those diminutive titles states that they are issued in an edition of 500.

Publisher. Books from some publishers (for example National Geographic) are hardly ever collectible, while almost everything that some other publishers put out is. This is simply because the later’s productions always check the four criteria mentioned above so they become known for publishing significant artists, in exquisitely crafted books of generally short print runs. This in turn generates prestige that attracts the best, a self-reinforcing loop. Steidl was the gold standard, with their art publishing program partly funded by some other aspects of their publishing enterprises, but while they remain a major force many contemporary photographers seem to have migrated to Mack. Non-profit publishing, a model that works well for photography books, is represented by museum or university presses, and associations such at Aperture and Radius. The later puts out books representing a great value given their production quality. The renewed interest in the photography book and the increased accessibility of publishing and printing resources has led to a profusion of very small publishers, whose work often surpasses that of more established ones. Some of the most prized books are artist books, sometimes made by hand.

Lodima Press, a small publisher created by a pair of fine art photographers, has used up to 600 line-screen whereas 175 line-screen (which requires 350 PPI) is standard – the Brett Weston portfolios, containing only about a dozen images each, retailed for $60 or more.

Limited editions. Sometimes, concurrently to a trade, unlimited edition, a limited, numbered edition of the same work is offered. Those books are certainly more valuable, but I normally pass on them because they can expensive, especially if the offering includes a print. I find them worth it when the limited edition is a different and more appealing presentation of the work.

Chris Killip’s Here Comes Everybody came in two editions. The trade edition looks like any other photo book. The limited edition (300 copies) is an elaborate production that resembles a photo album with tissue overlays and tipped-in plates, recreating the way the book originated.

First editions. Editions refer to a book being re-issued with substantial updates, a different presentation such as softcover vs. a hardcover, or a different publisher. They are more relevant to guidebooks or technology tutorials, but even art books are sometimes re-issued with additional images or commentary. Editions are often mentioned as part of the title. Printings refer to the book being re-issued in identical or near-identical form. They are indicated on the copyright page. If you don’t find a mention such as “2nd printing”, there may be a series of numbers on the copyright page such as “10 9 8 7 6 5 6 5 4 3 2”, with the last number representing the printing. Sometimes, only the year of the printing is indicated, and you need to research the printing history of the book to figure out which printing it is. Even if a book has a large total print run, the number of copies of the first edition and first printing (sometimes abbreviated as first edition) can be much smaller, which makes it valuable to collectors seeking rare books.

When Steidl reissued Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, I bought a copy to use for reading, as my 1952 first edition copy was literally falling apart. Despite the availability of the reprint, the value of such a tattered copy didn’t fall, while copies in excellent condition continued to command high prices.

Condition. Everything else being equal, in the collector world, a book’s condition is the most important factor in determining its value because even if an old book is not particularly rare, a copy in excellent condition is. From worst to best, the following terms are used: poor, fair/acceptable, good, very good, near fine, fine/like new, new. Most collectors consider that “good isn’t good enough”, and seek books in condition at least “very good”: minor signs of wear, but no tears and no markings. It is important to take good care of one’s books. The better the book is, the more likely one is to share it with others, so the more likely it will get worn out no matter how careful you are. For this reason, some collectors like to buy two copies of titles they are excited about, one to read, and the other to keep in pristine condition, under the publisher’s shrinkwrap.

Three printings of the same book (John Muir’s Our National Park) in fair, good and fine condition.

Removable elements. Some books were issued with a dust jacket. When buying used, a bit of research is necessary to figure out if that was the case, since dust jackets are often missing from used offerings. A first edition (later printing) copy of John Muir’s Our National Parks with a dust jacket is worth ten times more than one without. Because of the book’s size, the dust jacket for Edward Weston’s My Camera at Pt. Lobos is frequently damaged, so a dust jacket in excellent condition is particularly rare. To separate photographs from captions or commentary a separate booklet may be included, for instance when the book is printed full bleed like Sebastio Salgado’s major projects.

Quite a few Japanese books include belly bands. Easily lost or damaged, not mentioned by the publisher, they sometimes contribute to most a book’s value.

Signed copies. There is a saying that the difference between a poster and an art print is the artist’s signature. It is not entirely true, because the printing process matters a great deal. Still, an artist’s signature helps in conferring to a book the status of an art object. Some signatures are rarer than others, and this varies from book to book. The very social Ansel Adams signed many more books than Edward Weston. When My Camera at Pt. Lobos was published, Edward Weston was sick with Parkinson’s disease, so signed copies are extremely rare. The proper spot for a signature is normally the half-title page – the page where the only type is the title. Signatures can be obtained at lectures, gallery openings, and of course book signings. Pre-signed copies are sometimes available from the publisher or a gallery. Inscribed copies include, in addition to the signature, an inscription to a person. When the person is not of particular note, the inscription devaluates the signature, however, when they are, the inscription makes the book a valuable “association copy”.

I like my books personalized as a memento of a connection with the artist. A book just signed may have a higher resale value, but I plan to hold onto those.

What to collect?

If you buy books that you like, whether they appreciate doesn’t matter. With experience, you will be able to spot good books, well-made, and with inspired works in any genre, collectible or not. However, if you stick only to your present interests, you may be missing a lot of the vast world of photography. There are so many photography books out there that knowing where to start can be daunting. Anybody who studies literature reads through a list of classics. Photography has also its classics, representing a consensus of curators and critics.

In the 20th century, the history of the photography book was kind of hidden within the history of photography. Since the beginning of this century, its narrative as a full medium has emerged. In 2001, Andrew Roth published the first authoritative English-language study of photography books, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. Three years later, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger vastly expanded Roth’s survey with The Photobook: A History (Volume I), followed by Volume 2 (2006) and Volume 3 (2014). Those foundational works form an excellent introduction to photography books and feature a wealth of titles in an engaging format. Note, however, that their selected books share the authorial stance of an extended essay and a specific social/cultural theme, leaving out for example most of the American modernists, and omitting many genres. Three that interest me are landscape, including nature landscape (surveys: Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, Galen Rowell, 15 more classic color nature photography books), nude, and all photographer retrospective monographs. All those books about books except Parr/Badger Volume 3, have become collectible themselves. Unfortunately, they have also caused many of the books featured to rise in price and become quite expensive. It wouldn’t be the worse idea to buy Volume 3 now and see which of the books mentioned are still reasonably priced. The success of the Parr/Badger series has spawned several books surveying a particular region or country’s photography books.

For reviews of new titles, blogs are your best bet. Some of my favorites include 5B4, PhotoBook Journal, Collector Daily, and Photo Eye. To see what titles caught the attention of the blogosphere in a given year, refer to an initiative called the “photobook meta-list” that attempts to aggregate many “best of the year” lists. The first photobook meta-list was created by Marc Feustel in 2011. I subsequently maintained the meta-list (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017). Since 2015, Viory Schellekens has been compiling another meta-list, and discovering that hers was more meticulous and informative than mine, I decided to pass the baton. Here are the links to Viory’s lists: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019. In the winter of 2016, Source Magazine used the methodology of the meta-list to create a list of the greatest photobooks of all time.

Where to find books?

Amazon offers discounts on new titles and free shipping, but their packaging is often inadequate, frequently resulting in bumped corners and other damage. They sell photobooks as commodities, unlike the bookstores specializing in photography books such as Photo-Eye in Santa Fe or Dashwood Books in NYC. Those stores are run by people who know and love the medium, and are often able to procure hard to find books, foreign titles or signed copies. If a title sells fast via other channels, the publisher may not send copies to Amazon at all, since of all bookstores, Amazon terms are the most unfavorable to publishers. As a result, if you placed a pre-order or order on Amazon for that “hot” title, by the time you realize that it will not be fulfilled, the title may already have entered collectible territory.

If you are knowledgeable, you can sometimes find bargains browsing used bookstores, and also make trades. However, the better the selection, the better the owner will be aware of the value of their books. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Moe’s Books in Berkeley has the best selection. Such places are particularly valuable because you get to see in person many books. Their number has been declining, as the market has been moving away from brick-and-mortar towards online.

Although not specializing in photography books, used bookstore networks such as Abebooks, Alibris, and Biblio give access to reliable professional used booksellers, especially those affiliated with the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, whose meticulous descriptions can be relied upon. The best way to mobilize those vast resources is to use the bookstore meta search engine Bookfinder.com. I try to buy books directly from artists when possible in order to obtain a signature. It also helps them financially, since a book sold through retail earns the author only 5-10% of the list price. If you really get bitten by the photography book bug, you may want to travel attend some of the fairs and festivals dedicated to the medium that takes place annually. Collecting photography books is a great hobby that I highly recommend provided that you don’t plan to move too often.

Mount Baldy Insomnia

Mount Baldy, officially named Mount San Antonio, is the most well-known mountain in Southern California. The 10,068-foot peak, named for its treeless top, is the highest point in the Los Angeles area. It can be seen from anywhere in the city, forming a spectacular backdrop in winter when it is snow-covered and requires mountaineering skills. The peak is usually clear of snow from late May to October.

It takes only half an hour to drive Mount Baldy Road from the freeway in the city of Upland to the start of Falls Road at Manker Flat, an indication of how close to the city such a big mountain is. From there, the two main routes climb 3,900 feet to the summit. The Baldy Bowl Trail (4.5 miles one-way) ascends steeply the southwest side of the mountain amidst tall trees and towering slopes, passing about midway the Sierra Club Ski Hut where a small stream runs. To follow the Devil’s Backbone Trail from Manker Flat, you first hike 3.5 miles (1,550 elevation gain) up a dirt road to Baldy Notch. From there, the trail follows an airy and exposed ridge for 3.5 miles (2,350 feet elevation gain) to the summit. As a shortcut resulting in the shortest route to the top, you could ride to Baldy Notch on the Mount Baldy ski lift that starts up the road a quarter of mile past Manker Flat. Combining the two routes results in the challenging 11.3-mile Mount Baldy Loop. Hiking clockwise let you descend via the more gradual Devil’s Backbone.

In order to beat the heat and crowds of summer, as well as catch the first light high up on the mountain, I started at 2:30am. Since I preferred to hike in the dark the least interesting section of the trail, which is the road to Baldy Notch, and to greet the sunrise at a location with open views, I hiked the loop counter-clockwise, which placed me on the Devil’s Backbone at dawn. I passed a tent at the start of the ridge, in which backpackers were still sleeping. I suppose seeing the ski resort only at night was not too much of a loss. Later in the day, there can be a line of hikers, but in the early morning, I rejoiced at having such a popular trail to myself. Not too many insomniacs. Reaching into alpine elevations, and punctuated only by sparse twisted ancient trees, it offered superb views.

The Mount Baldy hike starts by following paved Falls Road for 0.6 miles up (275 elevation gain). When the pavement ends and the road turns sharply to the right, a dirt path to the left leads to the base of San Antonio Falls, a 150-foot tall multi-tier waterfall with year-round flow. In the summer, many yuccas bloomed on the surrounding slopes. I timed my arrival for the late afternoon, when the waterfall, which is south-facing, got in the shade. Since it is such a short hike, I had to wait patiently for a window of time when its base was clear of families.