Terra Galleria Photography

Processing Tip: Highlights and Shadows in High Contrast Scenes

In this post, using images from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for which I had described the location, I demonstrate two of the processing steps I use most frequently for high contrast scenes. Both consist of somehow counter-intuitive, but extremely simple and effective, opposite slider moves. Although this post is illustrated with Adobe Lightroom, those controls are available in most processing software, including the native Photos app on the iPhone – although the range of those controls are limited by the sensor and jpeg capture.

Oak Flat

My presets include +10 of clarity, vibrance, and saturation, as well as mild S-curve for more contrast. You can see that in the RAW file, the land is extremely dark, but as shown by the histogram, the exposure is correct, with the highlights close to clipping. There is strong vignetting, and I start by applying the profile as detailed in this post.

I move the exposure slider to the right, which has the effect of brightening all tones, until the land to be bright enough.

The sky is now too bright, but this is easily taken care with the highlight slider to the left, which brings it to the desired brightness by darkening highlights. With those two simple opposite moves, we are done with the sky.

The land is still too dark, and this is fixed with the shadow slider to the right, which brightens the shadows. After the move, the land has the desired brightness, but the image looks “washed out”. The reason is that it lacks deep shadows, as can be seen by the gap at the left of the histogram.

I move the black point by pushing the black slider to the left. The last pair of moves (shadows to right, darks to left) is not something one might have naturally tried, because you are doing two opposite moves that brighten and darken the shadows, but it is very effective.

Warner Point

The second image, photographed just before sunset, has even more contrast, with deep shadows, but you can see that the raw file captures the entire range of tonal values, with just a little shadow clipping and none for the highlights. By the way, note that I have used a white application background as always.

After increasing the exposure and darkening the highlights, the sky and sunlit areas look fine. You generally want to avoid saturated highlights. The eye is drawn to bright areas, and you don’t want to direct it to a place lacking in detail. Lightroom recovers highlights by default to the point that they are no longer clipped, but this is not always enough to bring enough detail in them. Unless the scene has low contrast, I find that darkening highlights most of the time bring some additional texture and color, so I almost always try the slider to see what it does.

I adjust the land with the opposite shadows/black moves. To find out how much to move the black slider to the left, I aimed to clip a significant number of pixels to the left, as can be seen in the histogram. Unlike clipped highlights, clipped shadows are generally beneficial. We expect shadows to be black. An area of pure black in the image helps brings more depth to all the tones.

Modern digital cameras, such as the Sony A7R3 used for those two images, produce files with a tremendous dynamic range. Although bracketing and exposure merging will still yield the highest quality files, for all but the most demanding applications such as very large prints, a single RAW capture and the few simple processing steps described above are enough to handle almost all situations.

Indiana Dunes National Park: Chicago Tonight, Final Spreads and Thoughts

Chicago Tonight

I was honored that WTTW, the Chicago area’s PBS affiliate which is one of the most-watched public television stations in the country, aired a story about my visit to the Indiana Dunes, produced by multiple Emmy-winning Jay Shefsky. The four-minute Chicago Tonight piece, which is very accurate, took about two hours to film and it was interesting to see how Jay was paying attention to every detail while never looking into the viewfinder himself. You may have heard of a Chicago photographer named Vivian Maier. Jay Shefsky broke her story.

Thoughts and poll results for image choice

Most of the Treasured Lands book was laid out in a period of several months with back and forth between me and designers. As explained in a previous post, for the Indiana Dunes chapter, I had less than a week after returning home from the trip. Therefore, I chose to play it safe by creating three spreads each with very clear thematic and visual ties about the dunes, the lakeshore, and the biodiversity. The dunes are what the park is named after. The lakeshore described the park before its redesignation, is what attracts most visitors, and its shelf ice is what impressed me the most. The biodiversity is one of the key rationales for the redesignation.

The specific spread I asked about in the poll was the second one, about the shore. Consistent with the rest of Treasured Lands, it takes place in four different locations spanning the park: Dumbar Beach, West Beach, the beach at the end of the Paul H. Douglas Trail, and the one below Mt Baldy. Images describe various states of icing. Visually, they are unified by the aligned horizon (this necessitated a bit of cropping of the photos) as well as two secondary diagonal lines that converge in the center of the spread. A second organizing idea is the progression of the center of interest from the water/top to the land/bottom: the iceberg in the lake, the hole in the shelf ice, the beach, the dune grass. Let see how each image functions with respect to those ideas.

I feel that image 1 is more static because of the parallel horizontal lines. Its subject matter, the mixing of beach sand and shelf ice, is less easily recognizable, making it more abstract. I like its formal quality as a standalone image very much, but within the spread, it lessens the effect of the converging lines.

By contrast, the diagonals in image 2 are quite steep. They make the image very dynamic, maybe a bit too much compared to the slope of the other diagonals. Besides showing the beach, the image also includes some of the dunes. This ties the spread to the previous one, which is about the dunes, but it makes the second progression (from water to land) a bit less clear. I wish I had photographed it with slightly less steep diagonals, and that is a case in point for varying compositions when photographing with a publishing project in mind, because you don’t exactly know which composition will work better together with other images.

Image 3, actually a crop of a horizontal image, does have the milder diagonals, which you can see prolonging those of the rightmost image, as well as the emphasis on the beach, but there is no denying that as a standalone image, it is not as strong as it doesn’t draw you into the scene the way image 2 does, precisely for its milder diagonals and lack of a foreground. I was hesitating between this, and image 2.

Thank you for everybody who participated in the poll. As one can suspect from the comments, votes overwhelmingly favored image 2. My experience as a bookmaker is that while the book is more than its component images, often you cannot fit some images that are individually strong into the sequence or design. In this case, image 2 works well enough, and I will follow the popular choice. The final four Treasured Lands spreads for Indiana Dunes National Park are at the end of this post. They are in the form of proofs that I already received from the printer, within a month of the re-designation, which means that I met the challenge! I was pleased that an Indiana Dunes park ranger wrote me “As an avid photographer who has taken thousands of photographs of the dunes, I am incredibly impressed and happy with the photos that you have chosen. It really shows off the spirit of Indiana Dunes in the winter.”

Thoughts on the new national park designation

Did Indiana Dunes deserve to become a national park? Visitation is irrelevant, and the historic intent of 1916 is mitigated by the fact that the place was developed so much in the while. Regardless of one’s opinions on this question, it is difficult to dispute that well-traveled visitors to the national parks will rank Indiana Dunes near the bottom rather than near the top of the list of national parks. Unlike Gateway Arch, Indiana Dunes is not an anomaly, but simply an extension of the trend for redesignating small areas as national parks which started with Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2000, and also gave us Congaree National Park and Pinnacles National Park (all three usually ranked in the bottom tier with Hot Springs National Park) – while they are still vast areas of the country, for historical reasons mostly located in the west, that have not yet received this level of recognition. The name “national park” brings prestige to an area and attracts non-local visitors. People are attached to their local places, and many of them have actively fought to protect them. That struggle is never ending, and I am happy for the local conservationists to see that the area received the recognition and additional protection they feel it deserves.

However, whether the benefits to the area compensate for the overall devaluation of the “national park” brand by “grade inflation” remains an open question. What do you think? Every area, no matter small or understated, is in some way unique, but think a national parks should satisfy two criteria. First, it is a landscape-scale natural area with numerous notable features, as per NPS guidelines. Second, it forms a superlative example of its type of landscape, if not the best, whatever it might be. The mix of environments and biodiversity found in such a small area as Indiana Dunes is certainly remarkable, but is that a relevant criterion when the obscure Berryassa Snow Mountain National Monument has biodiversity comparable to the entire Sierra Nevada, home of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks?

I can think of two ways the new national park could have been better. The first possibility would have been to include Indiana Dunes State Park, which is surrounded on all four sides by Indiana Dunes National Park. The state park was established in 1925, way before the lakeshore, and features the most spectacular remaining dunes in the area. The 1966 law that established Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore directed the NPS to seek the acquisition of the state park, which falls within its authorized boundaries, but Indiana has never agreed even to a joint management agreement similar to the one that established Redwood National and State Parks. The second possibility would have been to combine the four national lakeshores into a Great Lakes National Park with four separate units. There are quite a few national parks that consist of three or more non-contiguous units. Channel Islands National Park, Acadia National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park come to mind. The three other national lakeshores on the Great Lakes, Apostle Islands, and Sleeping Bear Dunes are larger, and in my opinion, more scenic than Indiana Dunes. The combination of the four of them would have resulted in a top-tier national park.

Regardless of what could have been, personally, I am glad that I got to visit a new place, one which is not located in the West, and which do not consist of mountains for a change. Natural and geographic diversity is what prompted me to visit all the national parks, and Indiana Dunes National Park does contribute to it!

More pictures of Indiana Dunes National Park

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

Indiana Dunes: National Park Diversity Beyond the Lakeshore

Indiana Dunes National Park ranks a respectable 13th of all the 61 national parks by number of visits (averaged over the decade 2008-2017). Most of those visits last a few hours: to be precise, according to NPS statistics, an average of 3h 15 min – the 8th shortest. Those hours are in general spent at the beach. Because those beaches are busy in summer, seeing them deserted and covered with snow and ice was already an experience that went beyond the ordinary, as most people who visit Indiana Dunes miss the incredible shelf ice. However, there is much more to the park than the lakeshore, and this was one of the justifications for re-designating Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park – national parks have multiple resources.

The Dunes

First, the namesake dunes. They are not as sculptural as those found in the desert, because they are mostly covered by vegetation. I saw grass-covered dunes, shrub-covered dunes, pine-forested dunes, and oak-forested dunes. Although low grass-covered dunes line all the beaches, there are only a few high dunes located near the shore. The 1-mile loop Dune Succession Trail at West Beach is possibly the best short hike in the park, as the trail illustrates the four stages of dune development, and due to the proximity to Lake Michigan, its 250 stair steps lead to an excellent high view of the lake and of active dunes. About two hours after sunrise, the sun was high enough to illuminate the landscape, yet low enough to create interplay between light and shadows. I timed my photograph for the moment when the shadow of the ridge fell entirely within a patch of sand, resulting in an unbroken shape.

The most spectacular dune in the park is Mount Baldy. Its name indicates that it is a bald dune, with sparse vegetation opening up sweeping views over the lake. Rising 126 feet off the beach, it is one of the tallest lakefront dunes anywhere, and it is also the most active in the park, burying black oak trees as it moves 4 feet per year.

Mount Baldy was the park’s main attraction, however, following an incident in 2013 when a boy disappeared into a mysteriously formed hole (he was rescued), it was closed for safety and stabilization. Since 2017, dune visits are limited to ranger-led hikes. The half-mile trail that leads around the dune to the beach has no such restrictions. As the lake side of the dune is north facing, snow from the day before still lingered, contrasting with the dune grass.

There is no need to go beyond the parking lot to see the striking inland side of the dune. In fact it is on the verge of covering that lot. To leave some of the mystery of the scene intact, instead of depicting the whole dune, I focussed on a small area where trunks and shadows created a graphic composition of lines.

Biodiversity

The redesignation proposal emphasized that more than 1,100 native plant species make the park the fourth most diverse plant ecosystem, only behind the much larger Great Smoky Mountains, North Cascades, and Grand Canyon. That diversity is directly linked to the dunes. As the last great continental glacier retreated 12,000 years ago, fluctuations in water level of the newly-created lake resulted in successive series of shorelines and dunes. The space between the dunes was filled with wetlands. The juxtaposition of the dry environments of the dunes and wetlands, has created diverse habitats. Moreover, the glacier that left the dunes, flowing from the north, transported several northern species to the region. It is a park where you can see orchids, carnivorous plants, and cacti in a small area. It can appear difficult to capture that biodiversity in the middle of the winter, but even the bare vegetation forms conveyed some sense of it.

Fresh snow fell during my visit, and although you’d think that it would hide the land’s diversity, I thought that on the contrary, it helped outline the vegetation. For instance, by blanketing the ground in white, it highlighted the remnants of autumn color in the leaves. The featureless blank sky, usually the bane of landscape photography, helped to that effect. I made it part of the composition by echoing its line with an angled line of snow in the foreground.

Trails

There are 14 trail systems with lengths from half a mile to over 6 miles, and they allowed me to sample the diversity of environments in the park beyond the beaches and sand dunes: prairies, globally rare oak savannas, wetlands, forests, and rivers. The bill that redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park also renamed Miller Woods Trail as Paul H. Douglas Trail. The 3.4-mile round-trip hike is a good introduction to the diversity of the park, as it winds through several of those habitats. The rarest of them is the black oak savanna, in which oak forests meet western tallgrass prairie. Only 0.02% of this globally endangered habitat remains in the Midwest.

The 4.7-mile Cowles Bog Trail is the most rugged and scenic trail in the park, and also its most diverse, combining expansive wetlands, some of the steepest dunes in the park, and Lake Michigan. Starting at the Greenbelt Trailhead south of the Cowles Bog Trailhead provides a more open view of the namesake wetland where Henry Cowles from the nearby University of Chicago conducted his pioneering work that helped establish ecological science in the early 1900s – he literally put “ecology” into the vocabulary. Walking with photographer Kyle Telechan from the Chicago Tribune, I whined with him about how the markers left by scientists marred the atmosphere of the photos. However, looking back at the photographs, I found them to be a useful reminder of the legacy of scientific inquiry that took place in the park, and also that the area is still a rich ground for study today. For that reason, I included one of them in the Indiana Dunes chapter of Treasured Lands.

I wish that the new designation will make beachgoers realize that there is a full national park to explore there, and that it will be the start for a rewarding journey through many of them. While the beach and sand dunes will always be the park’s primary draw for the public, I hope that these images will inspire you to experience more of our latest national park, even in winter!

More images of Indiana Dunes National Park

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

Indiana Dunes National Park: Impressions from the Shore

Congress redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park, our 61st, on Friday, February 15. I was initially hoping the reach the park before sunset on Monday, but Chicago International Airport and the park are located on opposite sides of Chicago, and I had landed just in time for rush hour.

The Shore in winter

My destination that day, West Beach, is the most developed of the park beaches, with a parking lot for more than 600 vehicles, a bathhouse, and lifeguards in the summer. As I arrived there after dark, the huge parking lot was empty and snow-covered for a very different impression. Upon walking to the beach, I was astonished by the arctic beauty and the strangeness of the lumpy ice formations illuminated by the full moon. I had seen a lot of ice in the mountains, but this was new to me.

I was glad that despite temperatures balmy for the area (in the 20Fs, whereas the “polar vortex” had brought wind chills of -50F a few weeks earlier), I had packed my expedition-grade parka. The frigid wind and solitude contributed to the impression of wildness, despite the smokestacks present on both sides, and the distant Chicago Skyline. if not for the full moon, its brightness would have overwhelmed the picture. At the end of the 19th century, Henry Chandler Cowles, a professor at University of Chicago and ecology pioneer, developed the theory of ecological succession from research conducted in what was to become the national park, bringing scientific attention to the area.

The next morning, I started the day at the opposite end of the park, at Mount Baldy. The half-mile trail hugs a steep section of the dune for a dramatic view high above the beach. Unlike at West Beach, the shelf ice extended continuously into the lake as far as the eye could see.

I returned a few days later to West Beach at dawn. More informed about the nature of shelf ice and the potential danger presented by the formations, which are not as stable and solid as they look, I hesitantly and carefully made my way towards an opening in the ice, using my tripod to probe the ice for thin spots and holes.

Large format film photography today

You can notice in this low-quality scan (a digital picture, actually) the film holder frame indicative of a large format film photograph. However, this was not the first large format photograph I made in the new national park:

These days, I photograph mostly in digital, however for project continuity, whenever a new national park is established, I will pull out my large format film camera out of the closet, and also pull some film that expired in the 20th century out of a secondary freezer that I bought for the express purpose of storing film – although it is now overflowing with food. Since at that time I was not aware of anybody having done it, the goal to photograph all U.S. national parks in large format was what inspired me to embark on this odyssey, more than a quarter century ago. For that reason, I have striven to keep that streak intact when the 58th, 59th, 60th, and now 61st national parks were established. Given how few photographers nowadays work with large format film, this is a goal I am fairly sure to accomplish provided that I keep going. Nice to have a fail-safe claim! In fact, I am not even aware of anybody else who has photographed more than 53 national parks in large format. However, my real claim is to try to be the first photograph all the U.S. national parks, regardless of camera type. I, and a few other folks who follow this sort of thing, believe that I did just that on Feb 18, so I will assume that to be true until proven otherwise.

A missive from a fellow traveler to the national park

Upon returning, I received a phone call and this email from Bob Harback of Flanagan, Illinois:

I got a great break getting hired early with very high seniority at a car factory about 31 years ago, By taking an average of at least a month every year, my wife Julie and I have been able to spend over 2 years on the road through our nearly 24 years of marriage. We are honored to join QT as one of the first couples to visit all 61 of our national parks on February 23, 2019. (Indiana Dunes National Park) He left there the day before we got there. Our story started nearly 24 years ago when my wife suggested we see some national parks on our 24 day journey out west. Little by little we had gotten to 19 National Parks without even knowing about passport stamps. We had zero stamps when Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan put on their famous documentary. I told my wife, there is so much more out there. So, every chance we got, we visited all the parks again, getting all the stamps this time. We had been fortunate with good health to get to the 60th national park a few months after the Gateway Arch became a National Park in 2018. Our good luck continued on Feb 15th of this year when the Indiana Dunes became a national park. We only live 2 hours from the dunes so on February 23 we got to put our 61st stamp on our master sheet, along with our picture in front of each national park sign along this incredible journey. The rangers there told us we were the first couple to get to all 61 parks. We even sent a postcard stamped that day from Indiana Dunes to Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan in appreciation of their inspiration. We cannot wait for QT’s book to come out August 1st. Along with QT, we have endured tidal wave, avalanche, and earthquake areas, along with African bee, rattlesnake, dust storm and 15 degree slope areas. We were so remote in Alaska above the arctic circle, we even picked up eskimos at a stopover on one of our 14 prop plane trips! One incredible 23 year journey!! We suggest you see as many national parks as you can, there are no disappointments!

Press

I’ve mentioned in the previous post that there was quite a bit of pressure this time, unlike at the other parks where I made an average of five visits. Although media interest in my park visits started more than a decade ago, it reached a new level this time. I ended up doing four media interviews and turning down more requests. This consumed a fair amount of time, but I still managed to visit 6 beaches and hiking 8 trails, some multiple times. The film photography angle is what intrigued WGN-TV in their story Photographer completes mission to capture every national park on film (again), but interestingly the Chicago Tribune focussed on a different angle: Photographer stalls printing of book to get images of Indiana Dunes, America’s newest national park.

Reader poll

Which leads me to a very quick poll for you. Here are three choices for the Indiana Dunes spread which depicts the shore in the new edition of Treasured Lands. Which one do you prefer and why? You can click on images to enlarge.


1


2


3

(Click here if you don’t see survey).

More images of Indiana Dunes National Park

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

Indiana Dunes National Park Comes at Challenging Time

One of the consequences of the government shutdown is that we just got Indiana Dunes National Park, our 61th National Park. Let me explain a bit. In the 115th Congress, the Indiana congressional delegation pushed hard for the change of designation for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which enjoyed wide local support except for the lone dissenter, environmental law professor John Copeland Nagle (2017, 2019). However, at a summer 2018 hearing, P. Daniel Smith, acting director of the National Park Service, testified that the agency prefers to use the “national park” label for units that contain a variety of resources and encompass large land or water areas (consistent with my discussion), and the bill expired with the 115th Congress at the end of 2018 as all un-resolved bills do. Locals were determined to make it happen, so at the start of the 116th Congress, the bill was promptly re-introduced in both the House and Senate, but normally those things take a while. Having monitored the two bills that were not even out of commitee, I was shocked to see this: How could have they gotten fast-tracked so dramatically? In order to provide funding for the government, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019, which is an “Omnibus Appropriations bill” with a hodgepodge of provisions that, unlike other bills, had to be signed promptly by the President in order to prevent another shutdown. One of those provisions redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park.

The 1st edition of Treasured Lands sold out of its three printings in two years and two months. Used copies sell for more than the list price of a new copy, while new copies retail for double the list price. I was therefore eager to get the second edition out as soon as possible and had been working for a few months to this effect.

Besides new images and location descriptions such as those above (Cataloochee and Elkmont in the Great Smoky National Park), what distinguished the second edition from the other reprints was that it would be up to date with all the then 60 national parks, but that was before Feb 15. You may think that “stopping the presses” happens only in the movies, but I had to call my printer to almost literally do so, and it was not for some newspaper but a 472-page high production quality book.

So far I have only made the maps. Besides “Indiana Dunes National Park”, note the shaded relief, absent from the NPS map:


(click on map to enlarge)

Here is a detail of my general map of all the National Parks. Note that unlike the corresponding NPS maps and those who re-use it, my map provides the outline of all the parks, rather than a dot for the small parks:

From a quick look at the map, which park is north of the other?

This matters because Treasured Lands orders parks from north to south:

Although on the map, because of the projection it would appear that Cuyahoga Valley National Park is north of Indiana Dunes National Park, in fact the southernmost point of Indiana Dunes National Park (Melton Road, latitude 41.59) is north of the northernmost point of Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad Rockside Station, latitude 41.39).

You can also see on this table of contents that I have allocated 8 pages for Indiana Dunes National Park. I have little time to fill up those pages, since I am hoping to have advance copies to sign during an international exhibit this spring (the general release will be later in the summer). My publicist has promised images to the media – for which I will be doing quite a few interviews, including newspaper, radio, and TV. Unlike for my other national park visits, the pressure is high. I have never been to the park, which I expect to be one of the less spectacular of all, it is now winter there with all vegetation bare, and the weather looks iffy during my projected 3-day visit. Quite a challenge.

That last weather forecast was from a day before I flew out to Chicago on Monday. I take it as a good omen that in the few hours after I learned about Indiana Dunes National Park, on Friday two people emailed me for entirely unrelated reasons: a friend from Louis-le-Grand high school now living in Chicago, and a naturalist who used to work at Indiana Dunes. Stay tuned to see how I did!

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

Longing for the Night in Petrified Forest National Park’s South Wilderness

Unlike all other national parks that are open 24 hours a day, Petrified Forest National Park’s gates close at night, an extraordinary measure necessary to prevent theft of petrified wood – a serious problem. Petrified Forest National Park, despite his sizeable area (146 square miles, 38th largest national park) is also one of a handful of national parks without a campground. However, all this does not mean that the park is solely a day use area.

Petrified Forest National Park includes two wilderness areas open for overnight backpacking. No reservations are taken, but rangers issue permits for free in both the visitor centers at the northern and southern entrances, even for a trip that starts on the same day. Those backcountry permits are not a pass for roaming freely in the park after hours. In particular, permit holders need to park overnight at two specific locations and are not authorized to drive their cars when the park is closed. Instead, the permits are meant only for staying in the wilderness areas. You need to have left your car well before the park’s closing time. When you sign the permit this is only one item amongst the long list of usual leave-no-trace backcountry rules. Because of that, on my first attempt to go backpacking there years ago, I did not pay enough attention to that detail. I found out that the National Park Service enforces the rule seriously. After securing my permit in the morning, I went for a day hike and eventually parked my car at the pullout meant for backpackers, maybe two hours before park closing time. A ranger was already parked at the pullout. As I was taking my time re-packing my gear for the overnight outing, the ranger approached me to notify me she is canceling my permit because I was supposed to have left my car already.

Because of that experience, for my second attempt, I made sure to start early even though I’ve been told that the new regulations are less strict: permits just need to be picked up at least an hour before park closing. You need to indicate which of the six backcountry zones you would be camping in. Five of those are in the North Wilderness, including the Black Forest, which is Zone 2. Since I had previously hiked in the North Wilderness, I chose instead to hike into the South Wilderness.

I headed towards the Puerco Ridge. Being free to roam the backcountry, with nobody around is a treat, as after seeing something intriguing in the distance, I could simply hike over and check it out. As sunset was approaching, I climbed up a ridge for a higher view of the surrounding badlands and watched the light change. Since the climb was rather precarious, I made sure to get down before it was too dark.

Why did I want to do an overnight trip in Petrified Forest National Park, when, given the size of the park, it is possible to reach any part of it on a day hike of fewer than 15 miles? My main goal was to work towards a goal to photograph each of the national parks at night. As beautiful as the badlands I found were, I had been surprised to see almost no petrified logs in the Puerco Ridge area. I wanted the night photographs to be representative of the park, and therefore to include some. Maybe it would have been a smarter idea to stick to a pre-scouted area such as the Black Forest, and my curiosity for new places had given me a disservice? Fortunately, I knew that the day use area along the Longs Logs Trail has large concentrations of petrified wood, so I was confident that by walking southwest, I would find some. I hiked cross-country for a few hours in that direction in the dark, following the easier travel routes formed by dry washes, until the bright spot of my flashlight shone into sizeable logs.

The bright core of the Milky Way rises towards the south. With the proximity of I-40 to the south of the North Wilderness, I thought that light pollution may be an issue there. I had hoped that the area south of the park would be wild enough, but I was disappointed to find out that the light from inhabited areas was distracting from the South Wilderness which is close to the southern edge of the park. Another lesson learned!

Off the Beaten Path in Petrified Forest National Park’s North Wilderness

Petrified Forest National Park at first doesn’t appear to be prime hiking territory since the park features relatively short trails that lead to areas of concentrated petrified wood. Because of the open terrain in many of them, it can be difficult to exclude other people from your photos. However, if you are willing to venture off trail, there is much more to discover.

The northern region of the park forms its largest wilderness area. Without maintained trails, it offers plenty of solitude. The petrified wood here is younger and darker than the specimens found in the more frequently visited regions of the park, hence the name Black Forest. I began the journey from the Wilderness Access Trail that starts left of the Painted Desert Inn. Since it is visible from the Black Forest, I used it as a useful visual landmark to find my way back. Even a short hike down is rewarding, as you walk through badlands brilliantly colored by iron oxides, away from the crowds.

Once I reached the bottom, the developed trail gave way to a user trail leading to Lithodendron Wash, a large drain through the Black Forest. Although the wash was mostly dry, it was unexpected to find water running through the desert, and I could imagine the wide flow during a flash flood.

While there is much room to explore and make your own discoveries, the destination for most day hikers is the Onyx Bridge, a 30-foot-long log spanning a small wash. Unlike the Agate Bridge which is supported by a concrete reinforcement, the Onyx Bridge’s surrounding are wild, however the knee-high span isn’t all that impressive.

This off-trail hike is about 4 miles round trip with a 300-foot elevation gain on the way back. The Onyx Bridge is about 0.2 miles northwest from the second bend of Lithodendron Wash along a side drainage. If you are interested in finding the bridge, you should download the hand-out with a map and directions. I recommend using GPS, because although I arrived in the vicinity of the bridge by following directions, it was the GPS coordinates provided on the map—N35 06.515 W 109 47.531 (NAD83)—that enabled me to eventually locate it. During my entire hike, I did not meet a single person once I left the established trail.

I was happy to find the bridge, but as is often the case, the journey through wild terrain turned out to be more rewarding than the destination. Being able to wander anywhere you see something that piques your interest is a treat. Unlike desert parks with delicate cryptobiologic soil or mountain parks with fragile alpine tundra vegetation and wildflower-covered subalpine meadows, Petrified Forest’s ground is quite resilient and for that reason, the National Park Service encourages off-trail hiking. As of this writing, the park’s home page is entitled “A Place for Discovery” and Off the Beaten Path Hikes are prominently featured. By the way, another example of the lessened restrictions in the park is that unlike most, they do not prohibit pets anywhere!

Treasured Lands Book Survey

If you bought a copy of Treasured Lands, I thank you for your interest in my work and your support. I would be even more grateful if you would participate in the following nine-question survey, which should take only a few minutes. As a small token of my appreciation, all respondents are eligible for a drawing to win free signed copy of the second expanded edition that will be published this summer.

If you do not see the question below, or if you prefer to view all the questions on a single page, please click here.

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Photobooks 2018: Favorites

I’ve maintained the photobook meta-list for six years (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017) and it’s been gratifying that some in the photography community found it useful. This month, Alec Soth asked me where the 2018 meta-list was. I happily referred him to the list maintained by Viory Schellekens. Last year, I noticed that she had been compiling a 2017 meta-list that was better in any way than mine: more meticulous, informative, and complete. Among other improvements, Viory identifies individuals and lists being counted for each book. Since the result of this effort is meant to be objective, I have decided not to compile the meta-list going forward. And since this effort consumes so much time, I am grateful that Viory has taken it over. My engagement with the meta-list is not entirely finished, though, as this year instead of aggregating lists I author my first favorites list consisting of ten books published in 2018, and two reprints.

Barbara Bosworth: THE HEAVENS, Radius Books. Photographs of the moon, sun, and stars are not only remarkable for the way they were made, with a 8×10 camera – the last photographic instrument I’d think of today for this endeavor in spite of my fondness for large format photography, but even more so for the sense of wonder and mystery enabled by this difficult process. Like The Meadow with the same format, it is a beautiful and intricate book.

Sally Mann: A THOUSAND CROSSINGS, Abrams. The most extensive survey of Sally Mann’s work to date is not a mere retrospective but instead a book with a curatorial point of view focussed on themes central in the artist’s oeuvre, explored through a combination of classic as well as unpublished recent photographs and a lot of scholarly essays. The massive catalog is a bargain compared to other photobooks.

Todd Hido: BRIGHT BLACK WORLD, Nazraeli Press. Iceland has become a popular photographic destination, however, Hido’s dark and moody photographs are easily identified as his. At the same time, in his first venture beyond America he has also extended his concerns with environmental overtones.

Stephen Strom: BEARS EARS: VIEWS FROM A SACRED LAND, George Thompson Publishing. Strom’s stark and radical vision with its emphasis on distance and aridity may be a little counterproductive to the cause of the book, however having photographed the place myself, there is no denying that he managed to find an original way to depict the natural landscape.

Naoya Hatakeyama: EXCAVATING THE FUTURE CITY, Aperture. Hatakeyama life work consists of a multi-faceted examination of the city as a transforming organism, ranging from its source materials to the architecture. This retrospective does an excellent job at pulling all the stands of this endeavor together.

Guido Guidi: PER STRADA, Mack. Exploring familiar territory near his home and along the Via Emilia, Guido Guidi has created images of common places that are extraordinary in their precision.

Max Pinckers: MARGINS OF EXCESS, Self-published. Pinckers has carved an odd niche between the conceptual and the documentary, examining photography’s authenticity and objectivity in the process. His latest project intertwines reality and fiction at a new level as it tells the story of six people who have created their own truth.

Richard Mosse: The Castle, Mack. Mosse turns a military-grade thermographic camera that can image a human body from 30 kilometres away back towards the state, picturing their response to the global refugee crisis. The heat maps assembled from hundreds of video frames are strikingly reproduced on panoramic gatefolds using silver ink on black paper to produce an unusual object.

Deana Lawson: DEANA LAWSON, Aperture. This gorgeous monograph is simply designed and the premise, staged environmental portraits of black people, looks simple enough, but there is a lot going on in those photographs.

Oliver Klink: CULTURES IN TRANSITION, True North Editions. Klink has gone beyond travel photography by repeatedly traveling into remote corners of Asia armed with insider contacts to seek authentic moments, and by crafting exquisite B&W Piezography prints. The edit confers a universal human dimension to a book printed to such uncompromising standards that the plates sometimes exceed those prints.

Michael Schmidt: WAFFENRUHE, Koenig Books (reprint). Schmidt’s 1987 masterpiece shows how Berlin felt at a critical historical juncture using an intensely personal visual vocabulary.

Ralph Gibson: THE BLACK TRILOGY, University of Texas Press (reprint). Gibson’s forged a singular path through his seminal books self-published in the early 1970s, three of them are compiled in this publication. He innovated by pairing photos in order to create parallels that enhance the mysterious narrative emanating from the surrealist and dreamy photographs.

Big Wall Climbing in Yosemite

Back to the beginning of the year 1993, I knew almost nothing about the U.S. national parks. However, I knew that Yosemite was home to a 3,000 feet high cliff called El Capitan, the tallest in North America.

Although El Capitan was my reason for moving to California, finding a partner for the climb proved to be challenging because as a newcomer, I hadn’t yet inserted myself into the local climbing community. Besides, the type of climbing involved was also new to me, and nobody would trust an outsider, and especially a European, without “big wall” experience. Just like America has many more wilderness areas than Europe, America’s cliffs are in general wilder too. In places such as Yosemite, climbers need to be more self-reliant, putting in place and removing their own protection, a practice called “trad (traditional) climbing”, as opposed to “sport climbing” prevalent in France, where permanent safety equipment such as bolts are already in place.

The normal sequence is to prove yourself on several shorter big walls and then Half-Dome, before attempting El Capitan, the big one. However, I learned the tricks from a book, was able to recruit my partner Frank from France, and in April 1994, after a one-day warm-up on Washington Column, we tackled the Nose of El Capitan in four days. I discovered there a vertical wilderness a new scale, just like during my Denali climb, I had discovered mountains at a scale new to me.

Yosemite is the birthplace of this big wall climbing. Two characteristics distinguish this form of rock climbing from others. First, the verticality and difficulty of the route requires the use of “aid climbing” for all but most elite climbers. This means that instead of using gear only for protection against the consequences of a fall (as in “free climbing” where you grab only the rock), you use that gear as a means of progression – in other words, you pull and step on gear because the natural holds in the rock are not enough for you. Since you carry so much gear and have to place it too, it entails a slow progression. Second, the route difficulty, combined with its length normally requires more than a single day to complete the climb. This, in turn, means that you need to be hauling everything you need to live on the wall. Supplies, hardware, and shelter can add up to hundreds of pounds. Most notably, you use folding platforms called “portaledges” for sleeping. They are pretty comfortable, but better not roll in your sleep.

In aid climbing, it is not unusual to spend one or even several hours on a single pitch (the vertical extent of a length of rope). Time flies for the lead climber, but not so for the belayer, who is sitting at the same spot all that time. Besides daydreaming, I had plenty of time to watch how shadows changed as the sun moved across the landscape in the course of the day, and how the light changed the appearance of the rocks and meadows below. As much as I loved the exposure and the position big wall climbing got me too, I was beginning to yearn to move more freely into the land.

It is quite difficult to photograph climbing well if you are not a climber yourself. One of the keys is to be at the same level as the climber or above, not below, where non-climbers are usually stationed. But it is also quite difficult to photograph your own climb, as you lack the mobility to find different angles, and often are actually too close to the action. And so, in 1999, my last outing to El Capitan was at the request of a sponsored climber from Italy who needed a record of his ascent of the Reticent route, which then the most difficult big-wall route on El Capitan. I backpacked to the top of El Capitan from the Tioga Pass Road, set up several ropes and rappeled down to complete the task. I was there as a photographer rather than as a climber.

Credit: Robert Nicod

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at my lectures and gallery openings is “What is your favorite National Park ?”. Based on their merits alone, it would be difficult to say, because they are so different. However, for sentimental reasons, I reply “Yosemite” without hesitation. What makes it special to me is that it was the first National Park I had heard of and visited, and the time I have spent there on repeated visits, many of them spent on big walls.