Terra Galleria Photography

How to Convert Digital Files for Printing: Step by Step Example of RGB/CYMK Conversion

A main technical obstacle in making great prints from digital files is that you are translating an image viewed through the transmissive vehicle of the computer screen to a physical medium which is reflective. In this article, I explain with examples how to compensate for that difference, using as a step by step an improved page in the just released second edition of Treasured Lands.

Fundamental media differences

Modern digital cameras, like film, capture a very wide range of colors. That range is called the gamut. Monitors emit red, green, and blue (RGB) light to create colors, which are added together to generate the pixel color. On the other hand, on paper colors are created by absorbing light with pigments, and the process is subtractive, since adding more pigments results in less light being reflected. Because the process is opposite, opposite colors are used: cyan, magenta, and yellow, with blacK used to enable darker colors (CMYK).

The pigments are subject to physical limitations, so they always reproduce a narrower range of color (a smaller gamut) than available on the screen. This is particularly true of the offset printing presses used for books. For instance, Adobe RGB has a gamut volume of 1,207,500 whereas Fogra39, which characterizes the offset printer used for Treasured Lands, has a volume of 402,100. This means that two-thirds of the colors available in Adobe RGB simply cannot be reproduced in Fogra39. The same limitations apply to a lesser extent to photographic prints, including laser prints and inkjet prints. So even if you are not preparing a book, you can use directly the tips in this article when crafting a fine print. Just replace “convert to CYMK” by “convert to printing profile” in the descriptions and you are set.

Out of Gammut Color: Rododendrons and Redwoods example

Page 49 of Treasured Lands is an image from Redwood National Park in California. If you come between late May and mid-June rhododendrons are in bloom. From an esthetic point of view, although they are very small in the image, the color accent they add is important because their pink create such a contrast with the dark green woods.

By the way, one of the things that attracted me to large format photography 25 years ago is that with the high resolution of large format film, I didn’t have to frame the flowers tight for the detail to be there. The image on this blog may lack detail, but on the printed page, it is readily seen. That is because the image in this post has only 600 pixels across (a level of details equivalent to the thumbnails in the book) but the image on the printed page has the equivalent of 4287 pixels across (12.25 inch at 350dpi).

In my original transparency, as well as in the scan, the blooms are bright. However, if you look at the first edition of Treasured Lands, those blooms look a bit dark. What happened?

Because it had taken so much time to find a publisher (a story for another article), we had to rush the first edition of Treasured Lands in order to release in time for the NPS Centennial. Under this intense time pressure, when the publisher assured me that I could provide them the files in RGB and they would take care of the conversion to CYMK, I acquiesced.

For that image, it turns out that the blooms were out of gamut, meaning that the inks could not reproduce the colors of the blooms, a saturated and bright pink. In that case, to simplify things a bit, the automated RGB to CYMK conversion maps the unprintable color to the nearest printable color, which was a darker pink.

With more time and care, that outcome was entirely predictable. Having taken charge of the entire pre-press process, I fixed it in the second edition of Treasured Lands, whose reproductions are overall more accurate. How?

Setting up soft-proofing

When you work in a color-managed workflow, you use a digital file called an ICC profile to characterize each of your devices. Monitor calibration creates an ICC profile for your monitor. ICC profiles for prints depend on the printer used, and on the printing medium. Sophisticated vendors provide you with an ICC profile for the precise type of print you are making. Once you have downloaded and saved the profile in the appropriate folder on your computer, you can use Photoshop to preview your print by applying the profile, which is called “soft proofing”, as opposed to “hard proofing” with an actual print.

First, save a soft-proof setup (View > Proofup > Custom) with the relevant profile (in my case, Coated Fogra39). The “Rendering intent” specifies how out-of-gamut colors are reproduced. I recommend creating two setups, one with “Perceptual” and the other with “Relative Colorimetric”, Black Point Compensation should be enabled for the later. When you preview the image, you can visualize which one produces the best results. In general, Relative Colorimetric works best. You should use Perceptual only if an important color changes too much using Relative Colorimetric because that Perceptual akes more of the whole picture shift, whereas Relative Colorimetric will shift only a few colors.

Using soft-proofing

Once your soft-proof is set up, you activate it by selecting it (View > Proof Set up > Your_Proof_Name), and then toggling “View > Proof Colors”. As you see below, once activated (checkmark next to “Proof Colors”) the preview shows correctly that the blooms get darker compared to the original file before soft-proofing.

Sometimes, when you soft-proof, you get the impression that the image is dying in front of your eyes. It is because you have a side-by-side comparison, but eventually the relative balance within an image matters more that absolute color. Here is my recommended workflow to optimize the conversion:

  • Bring image in RGB and duplicate it
  • Apply CYMK soft-proof to the duplicate
  • Tweak soft-proofed image (duplicate) so that it “feels” as close to the RGB (original) as possible, using adjustment layers so that the effect can be easily turned on and off for comparison
  • Save the tweaked image separately
  • For production, flatten layers, convert it to CYMK, apply appropriate sharpening
Note that some people convert the image to CYMK and then try to tweak the converted image to feel close to the RGB. I advise against that approach. If problems occur with gamuts, the damage is inflicted at conversion, so tweaking afterwards will not help!

Fixing the rododendrons

For our image, after playing around with hue, saturation and brightness, I determine that in CYMK, although I cannot have saturated light pinks, I can have either saturated dark pinks, or less saturated light pinks. Since color cannot, nor should not exactly be matched between different mediums, what you try to preserve is how the image feels, so that is a subjective decision. Since the feeling that I want to preserve is the brightness of the blooms in the dark forest, I opt for the later. I select the pinks in the image and then selectively desaturate them with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (see “Hue/Saturation 1, Layer Mask” on title bar). Here is the image with the tweak, and without proof.

When I apply the proof (note “CYMK Relative Colorimetric” in title bar) the blooms do not become significantly darker compared to the image without soft-proof. Although I have lost a bit of the color of the original, I have gotten around the limitations of the medium to make a print that now conveys the brightness that struck me when I was in the forest.

Two more examples

Intense greens were famously captured by Fuji Velvia, and well captured by digital cameras, but they are challenging in CMYK. In the first example (page 91 of Treasured Lands), you can see that with the default CMYK conversion, the structural texture of the corn lily leaves in Sequoia National Park is barely visible, whereas it has been restored in the custom conversion with lowered saturation. The cave image on the same spread also illustrates the exact same issue.

In the second example (page 208 of Treasured Lands), the default CMYK conversion renders the right part of the colorful cloud above El Capitan in Guadalupe Mountains National Park as a uniform blob. Reducing the saturation and shifting slightly the hue in the custom conversion for the second edition brought back the subtle detail from that superb sunset. See also the other sunset image on the same spread.

What was happening in both examples is that when several distinct out-of-gamut colors get mapped to the same in-gamut color, what in the original image exhibited gradations and texture will be reproduced in the print as a more uniform color area, losing fine differentiations. Since saturated colors are much more likely to be out of gamut than unsaturated colors, often slightly desaturating the problematic colors is enough to fix the problem. In fine printmaking, often less is more!

Treasured Lands Second Edition – An Inside Look

The second edition of Treasured Lands has just been released (order your copy here). That it was the fourth printing in three years shows that the book was successful enough to just reprint without changes. Nevertheless, with each new printing, I had been trying to improve the book. Changes in the second and third printing were small and maintained the page count. With the fourth printing, the sum of them became significant enough to warrant calling it a second edition rather than just a fourth printing, with a new ISBN number. This post summarises the differences while giving at the same time a broad overview of the production process.

Two new national parks

Treasured Lands first publication was timed for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the summer of 2016. Since then, two additional parks have been designated: Gateway Arch National Park in February 2018, and Indiana Dunes National Park in February 2019.

Because they are the newest additions, even though they are among the smallest national parks, I have dedicated four spreads (8 pages) to each of them. Inserting a single page entails changing the multiple references by page numbers for each subsequent page in the book, including in the index, which alone has more than 2,000 lines. At least that wasn’t an issue when I changed the back cover to an image of our latest national park. As of this writing, Treasured Lands is the only photography book to include all 61 U.S. national parks.

Additional locations and photos

I felt that the first edition was a bit unbalanced towards the West Coast – since I live there, I know those parks better. The addition of the two new national parks helped restored the balance. In addition, I have also inserted a new two-page spread for four other midwestern and eastern national parks:
  • Voyageurs National Park
  • Isle Royale National Park
  • Shenandoah National Park
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park
They were the result of re-visits I did after the book was first published. Some of them were intended to refresh my memory. It is easy to get all the Skyline Drive overlooks mixed up if you don’t have very precise notes! There were also new sights, such as the extraordinary synchronized fireflies. Those additions bring the total number of additional pages to 24. If you compare both editions side by side, you will notice that the new one is slightly thicker. The additional pages and higher quality materials make the book weight increase from 7.4 lbs (3360g) to 7.8 lbs (3545g).

More changes

A number of changes and additions were also made within existing pages, bringing the number of new locations described to 28. I’ll highlight a few of those changes since they would be more easily missed than page additions.

For Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I added one waterfall location, and illustrated it by swapping the top left image in the main spread. This caused the bottom left image on the same spread to feel out of place, so I swapped it as well. I gave one of the replaced images its own page on the information spread, where the larger reproduction size made it possible to appreciate its texture better – this necessitated a change in aspect ratio. The initial page had an interesting backlight theme, yet I think the new spread is more harmonious.

For Joshua Tree National Park, I described an existing location in more detail, adding a thumbnail for illustration. Several other changes were to the text only, in order to make the information more accurate and up to date. Treasured Lands at first appeals because of the photography, but the book contains more than 140,000 words, the equivalent of a 400-page paperback. In January, I conducted an online survey of readers, and was surprised that most of the respondents had read more than 50% of the book’s writing.

Conversely, there are places where I replaced images to improve the design of spreads with minimal text change, such as for the Mesa Verde National Park spread. When you just have one image per spread, like in many art books, you have to worry only about sequencing, but multiple images in a spread are more demanding, since you have to make sure they work well together.

Maps revised

One of the elements that sets Treasured Lands apart from other books is the maps. Some of the few criticisms of the first edition concerned them. An Amazon customer mentioned that they were “not graphically consistent across all Parks”, and David Leland Hyde found them “a bit hard to read due to their tiny type font”. For this edition, I revised each of the maps to address both concerns. Suffices to say for now that this was a complicated process. It is not possible to see the fonts on such small images, but you can readily see in the previous section some of the changes in color scheme.

The image above shows a set of printer “bluelines”. They are a photocopy-quality (as opposed to reproduction quality) mock-up of all of the pages that allow for checking contents in printed form, and I laid out them together visualize the consistency of the maps across the different parks.

Color revised

The previous printings were high quality, but there was still some room for improvement – heard that before? I re-processed individually each image in the book. The details about RGB to CMYK conversions are the subject of another article that you will want to read if you are making fine art prints. For now, let’s look at an overview of the process. Once the bluelines have been approved, the printer sent me a set of digital proofs, one for each page in the book. Those are inkjet prints that simulate precisely what the press output would look like. I used for reference a previous printing of the book, as well as prints made on my Epson 9800. I marked the corrections to be made on each relevant page, and sent the set back to the printer. Click on image to enlarge and see if you would have agreed with my correction.

The printer sent me a second set of proofs for the pages where I had requested corrections. Although express Trans-Pacific shipping isn’t cheap and the printer charges for proofs, it is easy to go overboard on this process and do multiple iterations. Fortunately, with the delay caused by the inclusion of Indiana Dunes National Park, there was time pressure, so I limited myself to two rounds. After the final proofs were returned, they would be used as a reference by the pressmen to match the output of the printing press. Click on image to enlarge and see if you can spot the differences.

A new publisher

At this point, you may wonder why I had been doing all this complicated design and production work, instead of the publisher. The answer is that to release this edition, I established my own publishing company, unsurprisingly named Terra Galleria Press, accompanied by new printing and distribution agreements.

Because of my previous particular “hybrid publishing” agreement with the excellent local boutique publisher Cameron+Company, I had considerable control, at the cost of a high investment. The resulting royalty share made it possible to offer the book for a relatively low price (for what you get). However, in the past, for each change, I had to instruct an editor, sometimes wait for a designer to get involved, while they were understandably busy on other projects. Communications with the printer and distributor also had to be relayed. By taking charge of the production, I was able to act more efficiently. This enabled me to stop the printing and add a new national park chapter in less than two weeks. I also suspect the publishing team’s patience would have been taxed by my numerous incremental revisions and the resulting back-and-forth.

Since I believe that more than ever, this book should be on every table, with one middleman out, I was able to keep the retail price the same $65 despite the rise in production costs and this insistence of my publishing consultant that it was a $80 book. However, taking total charge of the publishing means that even more so, the investment and risk fall squarely on me, while I am the tiniest of publishers. As a consequence, I depend more than ever on readers to pass the word around. I would be grateful for your help.

Visiting Anhui’s Ancient Villages

Shanghai is China’s most populous and properous city, while Mount Huangshan is China’s most well known national park. As the country is marching towards urbanization and industrialization, traditional villages have largely disappeared or changed during the last century. Located in South Anhui province, Hongcun and Xidi are rare surviving examples of those traditional villages.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the villages are now popular attractions, and I recommend to combine them with a visit to nearby Mount Huangshan. They have been developed quite tastefully and their character is well preserved, making them an excellent place to appreciate China’s history and traditions.

Both villages were built by successful officials or merchants returning home and were a model of conventional Chinese village construction from the 14th and to the 20th centuries. The overall layout and architecture retain the original features of traditional non-urban settlements of China created during a feudal period. They share a similar architecture and street plan, with most streets being narrow alleys which are very picturesque. The size of the villages make it possible to see everything within a few hours of walking. Within each village, you’ll also find a number of historic buildings, mostly large halls, open to visitation.

The villages are surrounded by mountains and remarkable for the utilization of water in a different way. Hongcun is famous for its two pools, the Moon Pond in the center of the village and the larger South Pond. The reflections evoke coexistence and the harmony of man and nature and are an inspiration for hundreds of art students who descend daily in the village to sketch and paint. Maybe because of this classic scene, Hongcun is very busy for most of the day. In the evening, shops remain open quite late, and lights adorn the streets.

Xidi is built along and between three streams running east-west, and those streams running within the village’s streets make them distinctive. Xidi was noticeably quieter than Hongcun, especially in the early mornings and late afternoons, which made for a nicer experience. I saw many residents engaged in traditional activities such as working in the nearby fields, which came as a surprise given that the village is a tourist attraction.

A hill south of the village, as well as a multi-storied hotel within the village, whose rooftop is accessible for a small fee, give access to interesting bird eye’s views that let you have a good look at the distinctive rooftops.

For both villages, visitors park in a large lot outside. No private vehicles are allowed into the villages, and the only motorized transportation you’ll see are service vehicles used by villagers. To navigate the narrow streets, they are the size of a golf cart. A few hotels and hostels are tucked inside the villages, some of them quite hidden away from the main streets. Staying there allows you to enjoy the relative quiet of early morning before the opening of the shops (most of them sell traditional crafts) and the arrival of tour groups. In photographing streets, while I try to avoid including tourists, I look for villagers.

Many ancient-looking areas in China have been re-built or restored for tourism. The ancient villages of Anhui are the real thing, and despite the development, you can still catch glimpses of traditional village life there.

More images of Hongcun
More images of Xidi

Cloudless in the Yellow (Huangshan) Mountains

The scenery of steep peaks and ancient pine trees emerging out of mist and floating above a sea of clouds is an iconic subject in Chinese representations of the landscape. Since the Tang Dynasty around the 8th century, the inspiration for these paintings is the most famous of the Chinese mountains, Mount Huangshan, or Yellow Mountains, which has been called ‘the loveliest mountain of China’. Does the reality live up to those images?

Mount Huangshan is a granite massif consisting of 36 separate peaks, culminating above 1,800 meters. It is located about 450 km east of Shanghai and 250 km east of Hangzhou. In the past, long-distance bus travel was necessary, but a few years ago, high-speed train service and flights to the gateway town of Huangshan City have become available. No private vehicle is allowed into Mount Huangshan scenic area, instead, you board a bus that takes you to a trailhead or cable-car station.

Even though the cable cars save you about 2-3 hours of steep walking, once you get to the top, you’ll have to do a fair amount of walking to explore the complex of peaks, and most of the trails are up and down with steep stairs. From the cable-car station, it took an hour to walk to our hotel, so I was glad that I packed light. Most visitors stay at the base of the mountain, where hotels are affordable, and visit the mountain as a day trip. However, there are a few hotels located on the top of the mountain. Staying there let you to easily catch sunrise and sunset and enjoy some relatively quieter hours, but this comes at a cost. For a party of three, the least expensive room we were able to find at the Beihai Hotel cost over $400 (for comparison, a nicer double room within walking of the Bund in Shanghai cost $75) and meals were quite pricy.

From a photographic point of view, the key to great photographs on Mount Huangshan is the right amount of legendary low clouds. This is one place where weather is the subject. Inside and near the hotels, I saw many photographs displayed. Hardly any of them did not feature low clouds or mist. Without them, the mountain just doesn’t have the same allure and mystery, however, when the cloud cover is too dense, you don’t see anything at all. It usually takes more than a day to observe the right conditions. Low clouds form during or after rainy days. The area is very moist, and I saw a sign indicating that they were present on average 3 out of 4 days. The most favorable period is September to May, as summer tends to be drier. I visited at the beginning of May.

As the first day was mostly overcast and without low clouds, I focused mostly on the flora, especially the shurbs in bloom. We hiked in the late afternoon to Purple Cloud Peak. The scenery from there wasn’t great, but the location would have offered a view of the sun setting, and as such was quite popular despite the steep climb, even though the conditions were not promising at all. As expected, no color occurred at sunset. The second day was more clear, but it was still lacking low clouds. With no precipitation in the forecast for the next few days, and given the high cost of the hotel, we decided to spend only one night at the top.

For sunrise, we went to the viewpoint named “A Monkey Gazing at the sea” after a characteristic rock, planning to arrive there half an hour prior to sunrise. This was a big miscalculation! A photographer in our party had already been to Yellow Mountain four times, and I assume that in his previous visits, such timing had proved adequate, but not this time, probably due to increasing popularity. As the viewpoint is less than fifteen minutes from the Beihai Hotel, the limited number of spots with a view of the eastern sky were already all staked. I had to content myself with a photograph in a different direction, isolating a few pinnacles with a telephoto lens. It looks like the other visitors were there to watch the sunrise. Merely a few minutes after the event, they began to leave, after which I was able to squeeze in and make a few photographs with some color in the eastern sky, although my compositions were limited by the available positions.

Half an hour after sunrise, the overlooks were mostly empty. I found that on this cloudless day, photographing backlit was the best way to create a bit of atmosphere thanks to the receding ridges. Backlight also helped emphasized characteristic shapes, both of the rock pinnacles and the uniquely local Pinus Huangshanensis which clings precariously clinging to cliffs.

As the day progressed, crowds grew steadily again. Guides used amplified speakers to herd large tour groups. Cell phone service was working in most places, with a strong signal. When I made a phone call to my wife, with all the voices in the background, she thought that I was in some kind of public market rather than on the top of a mountain! Yosemite’s Mist Trail sounded quaint in comparison. It is ironic that all the misty images from Mount Huanghuan evoke the peace and solitude of nature, whereas the place, as the most famous mountain in China, is a prime example of a location overran by Chinese mass tourism. And this was a weekday in May. I can only imagine what a weekend of summer would have been.

Besides the multiple cable cars and several large hotels at the top of the mountain complex, porters are available to carry luggage and even visitors on sedan chairs. They also shoulder all the food sold on the mountain, which may explain its high cost. Some tourists, instead of the hiking gear expected in such a place, wear chic clothing so they look good in photos. The trails are all paved with excellent craftmanship that includes guardrails, drainage system, and traction-maximizing texture. Compared to U.S. national parks, that level of development was striking and certainly contributes to the high visitation. On the other hand, erosion and litter were well-controlled, and it looks like the authorities have managed to achieve some level of protection for the place in spite of its popularity. The natural beauty remains extraordinary, even on a cloudless day.

Photographing the Bund in Shanghai

It could have been difficult to know where to start in largest city in the world, with a population of 24 million. However, Shanghai has a clear focal point, called the Bund, full of iconic photographic possibilities. The Bund refers to a roughly mile-long promenade along the west side of the Huangpu River, where you can glance China’s past on one side and China’s future on the other with plenty of life on the promenade itself.

From the mid 19th century to the second World War, the Bund was the site of a foreign concession to the British and American governments. Western interests built a row of magnificent European-style buildings that housed foreign banks and hotels. The Beaux-Arts style architecture is an incongruity in China, and the stately buildings are particularly striking at night when illuminated.

Across the Huangpu River lies the modern skyscrapers of the Pudong district, which form the particularly futuristic skyline, made iconic by the Oriental Pearl Tower. From approximately half an hour after sunset to 11PM (which gives you half an hour before the sky is dark), the Pudong district skyscrappers are illuminated, with the Oriental Pearl Tower and other skyscrapers enlivened by lights of changing light show – compare the colors in the two skyline photos of this post. The Huangpu River makes a sharp bend at that spot, which gives the impression that the skyline lies on a Manhattan-like island. At dawn, the buildings have only few lights, but their silhouette against the dawn sky is striking.

The skyline views from water level are excellent, but higher viewpoints are also available from rooftop bars. One of the best is the Vue Bar on the 32nd floor of the Hyatt hotel. It has an outdoor terrace with excellent views, accessible for a cover charge of 110 yuan, which includes a drink. The catch here is that tripods are strictly prohibited. I had to check mine at the entrance. With modern cameras, even night hand-held pictures are possible, but for better image quality, I used my camera bag as an improvised bean bag on the ledge. A clamp or table-top tripod would have been preferable.

Situated at the north end of the Bund, there are also two other structures of interest. The People’s Memorial is a communist-style structure symbolizing three riffles leaning against each other. The concrete structure is a bit bland by daytime, but is illuminated a striking red at night. The Garden Bridge, built with steel imported from England at the begining of the 20th century, was the first metal bridge in China.

The Bund is not just a great place to photograph buildings of various types, it is also a great location for people watching and street photography. Although at dawn the place is strangely quiet, shortly after sunrise older men show up with elaborately decorated kites. One of them flew three Chinese flags along the kite’s line, prompting salutes to the flag from passerbys. Individual and groups exercised via Tai-Chi, jogging, or gymnastics. In the evening, the place becomes an even more popular evening stroll for many, and you should make sure to join the crowd!

Photographer’s Guide to Havasu Canyon – Now and Then

The Havasupai Indian Reservation, home to the “people of the blue green water”, is located in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon out of the way from the South Rim. The oasis with waterfalls dropping over red rock into turquoise pools is a uniquely enchanting location in North America with a Shangri-La quality reinforced by the significant effort necessary to get to, as the main waterfall and campground is 10 miles from the trailhead. In this article, I provide current 2019 logistics updates and contrast them with my experience of 20 years ago.

What?

The highlight of the canyon is 100-feet Havasu Falls, located 2 miles downstream the village. The classic elevated side view cannot be missed as it is found along the trail, and from the base you can photograph the falls with beautiful travertine terraces in the foreground. From time to time, flash floods rearrange the configuration of the falls. A particularly big one occurred in 2008, after which Havasu falls lost its distinctive two separated parts, as well as many travertine terraces.

Mooney Falls, 0.5 miles farther down, is twice as high (200 feet) and a starker simple ribbon enclosed in a steep bowl. After the two tunnels, there is a high view from the trail with travertine stalactites as foreground. To photograph the fall from the bottom, you’d need to go down a nearly vertical section using ladders and chains, so good footwear and free hands are necessary. Keep in mind that Mooney Falls is named after a prospector who died while trying to find a way down to the bottom of that waterfall.

The waterfalls are in the shade in the early morning and in the late afternoon. As often with waterfalls, shade provide the most foolproof conditions. They are sunlit from late morning to mid-afternoon, with the most even light at midday. During the warm months, you are likely to see many people in the water at the base of Havasu Falls except early and late in the day.

There are a total of 5 waterfalls. Less than a mile downstream from Supai village, Upper and Lower Navajo falls are on your way to the two main waterfalls. 2.5 miles downstream from Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is wide and drops in several tiers. With the 2019 mandated 4 days/3 nights campground stay, a good plan would be to hike in the first day and out the last day, and devote each of the full days to Havasu/Navajo Falls and Mooney/Beaver Falls.

When?

The creek’s flow doesn’t vary much during the year, but the deciduous vegetation of the canyon does. Trees turn green in April and May. Spring and summer have verdant vegetation, and the greens add to the visual appeal of the canyon. However, they are also the most popular times. In warm weather, people are likely to be found hanging out in the pools at the base of Havasu Falls for most of the day. Summer (June, July, August) temperatures can reach 100F-115F and there are risks of flash floods during the monsoon season, which extends to September.

Autumn is quieter and brings moderate temperatures and fall colors in October and November. Winter is the quietest season, during which overnight freezing temperatures are possible, which is not an impediment for photography. Although many trees are bare, I still found some remnants of autumn colors in the canyon.

How?

Getting a permit

As detailed in the final section, back twenty years ago, I just showed up at the campground. Since then, regulations and fees have steadily increased. At one point, you were allowed to come to the campground without a reservation, but you’d pay a double fee. Since 2016, you must come with a reservation either at the lodge or the campground, and it doubles as a permit. You need to present a photo ID and reservation at the tourist check-in office to obtain a wristband, and nobody is permitted to proceed past the village without a wristband. Reservations are highly competitive and fill up quickly after the opening time, so be sure to keep current with the latest registration process and mark the relevant date in your calendar.

Sleeping

The lodge is located in Supai village, requiring a 4-mile roundtrip hike to the falls, but in addition to not having to carry camping gear, you can find food and restaurants in the village. In 2019, reservations opened on June 1, 2019 for the year 2020 with a price of $440 per room per night (for up to 4 people), plus a permit fee of $110/person. All reservations were processed by phone only. See the official site for details.

The campground is located 2 miles downstream from Supai village, and is very conveniently situated between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls. Campsites are not designated, but one should minimize impact by using existing sites. The cost has increased dramatically over the last few years. Back in 2017, there was a permit fee of $60 and a camping fee of $25 per night for each person. In 2018, the permit fee rose to $110. In 2019, this changed to $100 per night (+$25 for week-ends) inclusive of the permit fee, but with a new minimum stay of 3 nights. The price hike hasn’t lessened the demand. Reservations opened on February 1, 2019 at 8am for the entire calendar year, and I read that they sold out in just a couple of hours. All reservations are now processed online only at havasupaireservations.com. Creating an account is necessary to access the detailed and useful information available on the site and to make a reservation.

Getting there

Havasu Canyon is situated outside the limits of Grand Canyon National Park and far west out of the way from the South Rim. The trailhead, called Hualapai Hilltop is a 3.5 hours drive from Las Vegas or Flagstaff. Hualapai Hilltop is located at the end of Indian Road 18, 60 miles from the turnoff from Route 66, 7 miles east of Peach Springs, Arizona, which is the nearest town. Even lodging there fills up fast.

From Hualapai Hilltop, the trail descends about 1,000 feet in the first 1.5 miles, and then the other 1,400 feet in the remaining 8.5 miles to the campground and main falls. There is no water and little shade along the way. The well used trail is easy to follow and as scenic as classic Grand Canyon National Park trails. Hiking early in the morning is a must in warmer months, but note that per current regulations, night hiking is prohibited.

Unlike for most locations 10 miles from the trailhead, there are options to make the journey easier. Helicopters are used as a means of transportation for tribe members, and after they are done giving rides to them, they offer rides to visitors ($85 one-way) on a first come, first serve basis. Signing up early in the morning is enough to guarantee a ride later in the day.

The pack animals issue

Pack animals are also available, either in the form of horse rides or mule trains which can carry bags. Given the general poverty of the area, it is not entirely surprising that compared to the strict NPS standards under which the national park concessionaires must operate, the animals work in conditions which have been described as abusive by some witnesses. This appears to have been going on for a long time, but it is only recently that a group has documented and publicized the abuse, presenting a compelling case for not using pack animal services in Havasu Canyon. Hopefully, they may have effected some change, judging from the site havasupaireservations.com that now handles pack mule reservations. They mention “New in 2019: […] significantly higher standards for Pack Mule care and welfare”, as well as limitations on sizes, weight, and prohibitions of hard-sided items (such as coolers) that could help.

Although not exactly welcome, an attentive look at the village’s dwellings reveals third-world living conditions, unfortunately all too frequent on Indian reservations. Those seem to get less attention on social media than the animals. As the pack animal services provide much needed revenue to the tribe, havasupaireservations.com recommends to hire pack animals as a way to enhance one’s experience. There is a delicate balance to be struck between economic development and conservation there. Having seen the degradation of other places, I would have to disagree with the approach of trying to make the place accessible to many, especially given the social media fueled explosion in popularity of Havasu Canyon. People who have acquired the ability to visit unassisted a location 10 miles from the trailhead are simply more likely to have also learned to be more respectful of the environment and to be more aware of “leave no trace” principles.

My Experience then

Twenty year ago, packing camping gear and my large-format photography equipment, I was planning to buy food at the village, but by the time I got there at dusk in the short days of winter, I was disappointed to see all stores and restaurants closed. At the campground, I didn’t see anybody else, and as a result, became the prime target for one of the many stray dogs that wander around. It was so aggressive that to keep it quiet, I had to give it one my few energy bars, the only food that I had left.

I spent the next day photographing the falls on an empty stomach. After the morning session, I waited until afternoon for soft reflected light. By the time I got back to the village, stores were closed again. Out of food, I decided to hike out at night, but a few miles from the village, I encountered a man and an elderly woman who were having trouble on the trail because their flashlight had died. Since I had only one light, I couldn’t give it to them. I retraced my steps with the villagers to Supai before hiking out, arriving back at Hualapai Hilltop well after midnight. Although shorter than I wished, it was quite the memorable experience!

Vast and Ancient: Basin and Range National Monument

The Basin geographically defines the state of Nevada. That word may confuse you, since it is included in Great Basin, Great Basin Desert, Great Basin National Park, Basin and Range Province, Basin and Range National Monument. What are they, and how do they relate to each other?

The Great Basin is like a huge bowl. No water falling into this area reaches the oceans, which is remarkable considering its size, one-twentieth of the United States. The Great Basin Desert, the northernmost, highest, and coldest of the four North American deserts (the others are the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan) occupies most, but not all of it – to the south the Mojave desert overlaps the Great Basin. Basin and Range refers to another geographic phenomenon. The stretching of the earth’s crust and block faulting has created hundreds of sharp and narrow mountain ranges generally running in a parallel way north to south, alternating with wide and flat desert basins, forming the Basin and Range Province. It just happens by coincidence that the Great Basin is part of the Basin and Range Province. Great Basin National Park protects one of the tallest of those ranges, the Snake Range, where thanks to the high elevation, one finds alpine lakes, forests, and bristlecone pines. However, those attractive scenery elements make up only a tiny portion of the Great Basin so that the terrain of Great Basin National Park is not typical of the Great Basin. Other conservation areas in the Great Basin encompass more mountain ranges. However, rather than the ranges, most of the region consists of the basins, their endless sage flats rimmed by pinon-juniper woodlands. Because of the ease of access, the basins are more developed than the mountain ranges, with extensive mining and secretive military activities taking place. Basin and Range National Monument is representative of the Great Basin, as it protects the two last undisturbed of those basins, Garden Valley and Coal Valley, as well as the connecting mountain ranges.

Located about a hundred miles north of Las Vegas, Basin and Range National Monument was designated in 2015, on the same day as Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, and is one of the most remote, least known, and empty areas of a state famous for its emptiness. It makes Great Basin National Park, the 10 least visited national park (the 4th least visited in the continental U.S.) sound outright popular and famous by comparison. During my entire visit, I saw only a few other cars, and nobody that I know had heard of it.

The monument protects a large array of resources, as expected from its sizable area of 704,000 acres (1,100 square miles), stretching 50 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west. It is almost ten times larger than Great Basin National Park (77,180 acres). The two basins in the monument connect eight mountain ranges, three of which are entirely contained within the national monument. The vast area is home to a diverse geology that includes remarkable rock formations. It would seem that many parts of Nevada look similar. However, besides being almost undisturbed, what makes Basin and Range National Monument remarkable is a number of remarkable cultural resources spanning the range of North American human history, all in harmony with the huge landscape. Three major archeological areas (White River Narrows, Mount Irish, Shooting Gallery) feature countless ancient petroglyphs as old as 4,000 years. There are also remains of 19th-century settlements and abandoned mines. Traditional ranching practices continue. Starting in 1972, the land artist Michael Heizer has been working on “City”, one of the largest sculptures ever created, more than a mile long, which, when completed next year (2020), will open to the public as part of the national monument – visitors are unwelcome while it is still a work in progress.

Currently, the national monument is entirely undeveloped. You will find no facilities like visitor centers, restrooms, campgrounds, and no paved roads. However, this does not mean that it is difficult to access. Surprisingly, unlike the locations described in the five other posts of this series, the unpaved roads are generally wide, well graded and easily passable by any vehicle. There are only a few road signs, so following the map requires some attention since all the roads look somewhat similar, but my navigation apps were able to identify them. In a few places information panels with a map of the monument offer precious information not found on the BLM website. Like in most monuments managed by the BLM, there are no entrance fees nor restrictions on dispersed camping. The opportunities for solitude are tremendous.

I initially had planned to spend the better part of a week there, but the call of the super-bloom further south was irresistible, and instead I went only on a quick exploratory trip. I started at the White River Narrows Archeological District, which is the most easily accessed part of the monument, with petroglyphs in the setting of a narrow gorge. I drove Seaman Wash Road to a natural arch highlighted on the national monument’s onsite map. There is no established trail, 38.1944757°, -115.2592076° is the closest point accessible by car via Coal Valley North Road and then a one-lane access road marked by a single wooden fence post on the left shortly before the turn NW. It was then back via Mail Summit Road before visiting the Mt Irish Archeological District, where the road climbed higher and was significantly more rough than the others. Petroglyphs there are carved on boulders rather than on cliffs. I hope that the following photos inspire you to explore for yourself this vast and ancient wilderness where there is much to discover. I am already planning a return trip after the opening of “City”. Take your time, as with most other Great Basin locations, this is not often love at first sight!

Part 6 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Afton Canyon: the Unknown Grand Canyon of the Mojave

Only a few miles removed from Interstate 15, Afton Canyon remains hidden and unknown to the millions that speed across the desert. Last year, I abandoned my plans to explore Afton Canyon at a river crossing after estimating a depth of more than 18 inches. This year, I came equipped with a Jeep with which I embarked on a series of off-road trips, determined to see what had eluded me.

The Afton Canyon Road

The quickest access to Afton Canyon is from the west, by leaving Interstate 15 at the Afton Road exit (Exit 221) between Barstow and Baker, 36mi from Barstow and 26mi from Baker. A well-graded unpaved road leads to the canyon floor at the Afton Canyon Campground in 3.5 miles. Right past the campground, you come across the obstacle after that had stopped me, a section of more than a hundred yards of road flooded by the Mojave River, an unusual sight in the desert. Although the river itself is extremely shallow, that section was more than knee deep.

That crossing is the only serious obstacle, as other fords were much shorter. For the length of the Afton canyon, you could follow several different tracks. If you follow the best one, you could make it with any high clearance vehicle, however, as it is not always clear where to go, I was glad to have good off-road capabilities, for instance when I drove along the riverbed, which is often the most straightforward of several routes.

I had spotted on the map a road that lead back to I-5 from the eastern end of the canyon, but it looked quite rough. By chance, I encountered a caravan of off-roaders who were all driving vehicles with impressive lifts – my only human encounter in Afton Canyon. They discouraged me from continuing, so I backtracked via the Canyon to I-5. Maybe because this time, emboldened by the ease of the morning’s crossing, I went too fast, or maybe because water levels had changed at midday, water seeped into the car despite its high clearance. Lacking better tools, I spent fifteen minutes to scoop out most of it with an empty can, but the floor of the car remained damp for almost a week.

The Mojave River

For much of its course, the Mojave River runs underground, and Afton Canyon is one of the few places where it reliably runs on the surface, a rare sight in the desert. It is no more than a thin ribbon of water, at most a few inches deep, and flowing slowly, but its absolute clarity was mesmerizing, especially in that arid environement. The photographic challenge was to find a stretch without tire marks, as many had driven along the riverbed.

Given the trickle of water, it would be quite surprising that the Mojave River had carved such a large and deep canyon, sometimes nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”, with sheer walls more than 300 feet high. Back 15,000 years ago, the huge Lake Mannix drained, creating the unlikely canyon.

Side Canyons

Although from a distance those canyon walls look monolithic, they are full of nook and cranies that reward off-trail hiking. The run-off from the surrounding mountains has cut fascinating narrow secondary canyons.

The road runs on the north side of the Mojave River, but noticing tracks on south side, I forded the river and followed them to reached what looked like an unmarked trailhead. I followed a desert wash and was soon surrounded by steep badlands eroded from conglomerate rock.

On the side, what looked like detached rock flakes were the entrances of a few narrow slots. They were just a few feet wide, and several stories tall, and littered with boulders that made the progression strenuous. Unlike the Navajo sandstone slots of the Colorado plateau, the walls were not smooth, but instead knoby.

I looked for an area where the sun had reached the opposite upper wall, creating with its reflected light a warm glow. Even though it was midday, I was glad I had brought the tripod with me, since with the lens stopped down for depth of field, the exposure was several seconds.

I have seen more spectacular canyons, but that I discovered this one by roaming around without guidebooks – inexistent for the area anyway – and directions made it more special.

Part 5 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Nevada’s Little Finland

Since Bear Ears National Monument was controversially reduced by 85%, Gold Butte National Monument, which happened to be designated on the same day of Dec 28 2016, is the most recent large national monument. Gold Butte National Monument protects almost 300,000 acres of Nevada, northeast of Las Vegas, bordering Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the west and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument on the east. The vast national monument preserves a large portion of the Mojave Desert, petroglyph sites, and a small but truly special area called Little Finland.

Whitney Pocket

A rough paved road leads to Whitney Pocket in 21 miles from NV 170 south of Mesquite. The area reminded me of the Mojave part of Joshua Tree National Park, since many Joshua trees grow there among interesting rock formations. However, while the rocks in Joshua Tree National Park are metamorphic, those in Gold Butte National Monument are red sandstone striped with rainbow colors like at Valley of Fire State Park. Some of those rocks shelter primitive campsites with no water where you can stay for free and without a permit.

Past Whitney Pocket, the pavement ends. If you are not interested in our off-roading mis-adventures and just want to read about the fantastic Little Finland destination, skip the next section.

Fun With Tires

Robert Hitchman, in his Photograph America newsletter ominously recommends “a friend or two along with a second high-clearance vehicle. Four-wheel-drive, all-terrain tires, full gas tanks, and radios for communication”. However, Little Finland is only about 40 miles (one-way) from the I-15 freeway, and although the area remains very remote, there are now a few signs to help you navigate. During the drive, I remarked to my friend that the route wasn’t really difficult, and that in a pinch I could have driven it with a regular passenger car. It was therefore a strange turn of events that fifteen minutes after arriving to our destination, we noticed that one of our tires was deflating.

The situation had a deja vu feeling. Just the day before, as we were driving back from Whitmore Canyon Overlook, at the Bar 10 ranch, I congratulated my friend on negotiating the bumpy road without punctures despite of our less-than-adequate tires, and took over the driving. The rest of the drive back to St George through the Arizona Strip is a tedious and well-graded road that offers no obstacles, and I was fairly certain that I did not hit any rock, so I was incredulous when the dashboard of the Jeep warned of low air pressure in the left rear tire. However, when the air pressure reached half of the normal value, a visual inspection quickly confirmed that a tire change was called for. Back in town, we barely made it to a tire shop before closing time. They determined that the tire couldn’t be repaired because it had suffered structural damage rather than a puncture. They didn’t have a replacement because of its odd size, but suggested we try the Jeep concessionaire in town. The next day, we found out that the concessionaire did not have the tire, and that it would need to be shipped from Los Angeles, stranding us for a few days because of the week-end. Although we had noticed quite a few Jeeps driving the streets, a replacement tire was elusive. We had tried to contact the car rental company, but each call resulted in a wait of 15 to 30 minutes, after which we were told that the tire would be our responsibility because the tire thread left was above their threshold, and that we’d have to come back to Las Vegas. After much arguing, we resolved to the 120-mile drive, but when we emerged from the Virgin River Canyon area which does not have cell phone service, we got a message consisting of a tire shop address in St George. We drove back to town again, and were able to at least buy the replacement tire.

Nobody had been in sight since we left the pavement at Whitney Pocket, but since it was already late afternoon, we decided to go and photograph. We would worry about the tire later. Sure enough, when we came back to the car at night, that right rear tire was totally flat, and when we would go back to the tire shop the next day, the diagnosis would be the same as for the other one: structural damage. The mechanic mentioned that the most frequent cause was a factory defect, but it seems improbable that this caused two tires to fail on consecutive days. Since both were rear tires, my friend hypothesized that they might have been damaged on the Whitmore Canyon Overlook road, since it is easier to control the angle of contact with rocks on the front tires than on the rear tires. The mystery remains, but the lesson seems to be that tires not specifically designed for all terrain driving, as provided by rental companies, can easily get damaged.

I normally travel solo, but on that trip, I was glad to have come with a friend. Those tires are quite heavy, and it would have been quite the struggle to have to handle them by myself. As you can see in the video, replacing a tire on uneven, soft terrain isn’t straighforward. The jack did not extend high enough, so we had to lower the car and get some rocks underneath. But since we had removed the flat tire, there was nothing to support the car, so we had to replace it temporarily. Some trial and error!

Little Finland

Needless to say, with no spare tire left, we made a beeline towards the paved road and the tire shop in St George. Fortunately, we had reached our main off-road objective, which was the area called Little Finland. New York City (Italian population 1.8M) has Little Italy, San Jose (Vietnamese population 100K) has controversial Little Saigon, but why would one find a concentration of Finnish people in Nevada? Also known as Hobgoblins’ Playground, or Devil’s Fire, the area has nothing to do with the country Finland, and “Land of Fins” would be more descriptive. It is a small area, of maybe a square mile, but it contains rock formations that are unique even in a region – the American Southwest – known for its geology.

Erosion in the sandstone layers has created countless twisted detached thin fins of stone with intricate shapes unlike anywhere else I’ve seen before. Most are quite small and when photographed at eye-level, they merge with the background, whereas a low camera angle detaches them against the sky, and a wide-angle lens allows you to get closer for a more dynamic perspective.

The fins are located on a small mesa that slopes towards the west, and are bordered by a tall hill blocking the sunrise on the east, two reasons to photograph the area in the late afternoon. Driving out at night could be tricky, and I recommend instead to spend the night at the base of the mesa. I took advantage of the oblique Milky Way that occurs in the springtime to match the diagonal line of the receding fins. To illuminate the rocks, I placed a Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern on the roof of the car. Even though the car was parked some distance to the mesa, my initial setting for the light’s brightness was too high, and I had to walk down to dim it to match the Milky Way’s brightness.

Part 4 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Treasured Lands in China

Before being a book, Treasured Lands was the name of my traveling exhibit of large format photographs of American’s national parks, which has now shown in museums and galleries across the US. Last month, I traveled to China on the occasion of the first international exhibition of Treasured Lands.

The venue was the Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum in Ningbo. You probably have not heard of that city before, and neither did I. However, Ningbo has an urban population of 3.4 million, more than any US city besides New York and Los Angeles. Ningbo is one of China’s oldest cities and is located 140 miles south of Shanghai. The Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum, together with the Ningo Museum, is located in a large city park. Both buildings were designed by Wang Shu, the first Chinese citizen to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize – considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel prize for architecture.

Comprised of now 61 framed 24×36 prints, one for each national park, Treasured Lands requires quite a bit of wall space. The museum features a beautiful space large enough to fit Treasured Lands without any print stacking. When Treasured Lands debuted at our (since closed) Terra Galleria Artworks gallery within the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, more than a decade ago, in order to enliven the sequence and break the monotony caused by the uniformity of the print sizes, I included a few larger prints. In a work with a fixed format, be it an exhibit or a book, introducing a few outliers can do wonders.

Back then, the largest inkjet printers could output at a maximum of 44 inch wide. I included a 40×60 inch Yosemite print and other large prints. However, in order to make it easier to ship the traveling exhibit, I dropped those larger prints from subsequent installations, leaving it to the host venues to produce larger prints if desired. Only two of them, the National Heritage Museum and the Museum of Science in Boston, did so as exhibit openers. I was therefore delighted to see that Mr Lai, the curator of the Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum had selected four prints to be printed larger, and the current availability of 64-inch inkjet printers meant that they could now be reproduced at an impressive 60×90 size which does justice to the detail contained in a 5×7 transparency.

Following the opening reception, I delivered a lecture at the Ningo Museum. Since copies of the second edition of the Treasured Lands book had just been printed in Shenzhen, I thought it would be an easy matter to get some shipped to Ningo for that occasion, but it turned out to be unpractical due to Chinese export regulations. Many attendees nevertheless lined up after the lecture to have the invitation postcard autographed.

I am very grateful to Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum, the curator Mr Lai, the staff, the leaders from the cultural community, and the organizer and interpreter Mr Lam for their hard work. I am very honored to have received this invitation from the city of Ningbo and the People’s Republic of China. Thank you to Yon Zhan Daily, and also Singto Daily, for reporting.

The National Parks are one of the greatest ideas that originated in America: that the nation’s most beautiful places should be preserved for everyone, and in perpetuity. America’s national parks would be a model for the world. China has one of the oldest civilizations on earth, however, America’s development is much more recent, because of that we had more opportunities there to preserve lands in a wild state. The difference between the two countries is instructive. There are about 200 national parks in China, but it was not until the later part of the 20th century that they were designated, whereas Yellowstone, was established in 1872. On this year which marks the 40th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between China and the US (the title of this post is a reference to John Adams’s first opera) I felt humbled to be given this opportunity to promote international friendship by representing and helping spread “America’s Best Idea”.