Terra Galleria Photography

National Park Bears

In Oh Ranger!, Horace Albright, the second National Park Service (NPS) director writes:
The bears are, without doubt, the greatest single attraction in the parks, at least from the visitor’s point of view.
Maybe this is why a story about a woman facing charges over a bear encounter in Yellowstone National Park made it into national media headlines today. From reports, I understand that she got out of her car and stood on the edge of a parking lot when a mother grizzly and two cubs were closer than the park-mandated distance, then maybe didn’t retreat as they approached until a charge captured on video. After that video when viral, the National Park Service when as far as posting a “Wanted” notice on Facebook and Instagram:

Yellowstone National Park rules advise to:

Keep at least 100 yards (93 m) from bears at all times and never approach a bear to take a photo
One should always abide by rules, yet I wondered if at a time when parks are stressed by record visitation while facing understaffing and underfunding, vigorouly pursuing such violations are the best use of the service’s resources. Reading the unecessarily harsh comments, you get the impression that the woman’s actions were incredibly reckless and put her in an extremely dangerous situation. However such a bluff charge rarely results in a mauling (what to do during a bear attack attacks, bear attack statistics). Looking at how attitudes over bears in national parks differ in other places and times provides some perspective.

Katmai

When you think “bears in national parks”, the place that comes to mind is Katmai National Park. The park is largest bear protection area in the world and home to the highest concentration of brown bears, especially around Brooks Camp. It is routine there for people to come close to bears, and not only when they are on the viewing platform. When walking from the campground to the main viewing platform, in more than one occasion, a bear came out of nowhere from the dense forest and crossed the trail a short distance front of me. The first time, I thought about nothing else than trying to retreat slowly and keep my distance, but the second time, I had got used to the situation enough to snap a quick picture with the normal zoom on my camera – given that this was 2001, probably a 28-135mm.

The fellow paid me no attention. On that same trip, I would have an even closer encounter. The rules state:

1. Approaching a bear or any large mammal within 50 yards is prohibited.
2. Continuing to occupy a position within 50 yards of a bear that is using a concentrated food source, including, but not limited to, animal carcasses, spawning salmon, and other feeding areas is prohibited.
I interpret that to mean you can legally approach a bear with 50 yards (to take a photo?) and then stay in place in some circumstances if the bear walks towards you. As I relate in this post about my second visit to Brooks Camp, bears do approach you, very close. Even though I had a camera in hand, I was too shaken to take a picture until he turned away. When the next day, I chatted about that experience of being followed and cornered by a bear, a ranger casually remarked with amusement “aren’t you glad that during the day we are here to direct your movements?”

Bears in Katmai are coastal brown bears. They are the same genetic species as the grizzly bears living in Yellowstone and other interior areas, however the ecosystem aren’t similar, and the two have different temperaments. Coastal brown bears are tolerant of other bears and humans. The odd story of Tim Treadwell is told in at least two books and two movies. He literally lived and camped around bears for 13 summers before eventually running out of luck. Had he carried bear spray, he would have survived the rare predatory bear encounter that took his and his companion’s lives on the night before their departure. Besides a few infractions (such as not moving his camp around every five days, wildlife harassment, improper food storage), his stays were entirely legal. Interior grizzlies are more territorial and aggressive. Yet, the sort of close proximity that Treadwell had with bears was routine in the early years of Yellowstone National Park, as we’ll see next.

Yellowstone, early 20th century

Besides the National Parks Portfolio, my shelf also includes every book about the national parks published in the early 20th century. I enjoy reading them and observing the shifts in our thinking that occurred within a century. Most of the original editions can be obtained inexpensively if you search carefully.

The most entertaining of those books is Oh Ranger! (1928) whose quote opened this article. Unlike other books about the national parks, Oh Ranger! is mostly about people in the parks. One of the more striking shifts concerns the bears. Here is the start of the book’s first chapter:

“OH, Ranger, can I take your picture with a bear?”

“Just a minute, ma’am, until I show this gentleman where to go fishing.”

“Where’s a bear, now?”

“Well ma’am, there was one in these woods an hour ago. Maybe we can find him.”

Five minutes devoted to the finding of a wild bear.

“Oh, Ranger, that’s a lovely bear! Stand closer to him, won’t you? Would you mind putting your arm around him? It would make a peachy picture. We’d just love it.”

“Sorry, ma’am, but it’s against regulations to hug the bears.”

“Oh, pshaw! Why do they have such foolish regulations? Well, just pretend to be feeding him something.”

Knowing the ways of bears, the ranger declined to “pretend.” He produced some molasses chews and actually tossed the food to the bear. It is dangerous business to try to fool a bear about food, and he should never be fed from the hand.

Click! Click! Click!

Another ranger was immortalized in picture, for the ninetieth time that day.

“It’s all in the day’s work,” explained the ranger.

The “dangerous business to try to fool a bear about food” is elaborated on in the third chapter entirely dedicated to bears:

“Fooling a bear” is something that just shouldn’t be done. To illustrate, there was a bear in Yellowstone known as Mrs. Murphy. There had been several complaints about Mrs. Murphy, who was accused of nipping visitors’ hands and feet, so a ranger was assigned to shadow her for a day and see what was happening. He reported as follows:

One Sagebrusher, for the sake of a picture, held some bacon in his mouth and coaxed the bear to remove said bacon from his mouth. He got his picture and also escaped without injury. That Sagebrusher was lucky.

Another tried to make Mrs. Murphy jump for candy, like a dog. Now a full grown bear weighs about as much as a kitchen stove and is not built for jumping. So—Mrs. Murphy reached up, knocked the man’s hand down so that she could reach the candy. That frightened the tourist considerably, but he escaped without injury. He, too, was lucky.

A Dude, with no candy or food, held out his hand as though there were candy in it. Mrs. Murphy became annoyed at being spoofed and she nipped the man on the toe. He retaliated by kicking Mrs. Murphy on the nose, which is a bear’s most sensitive spot. She responded by whacking the Dude with her paw. He was bruised but not badly hurt. He was lucky.

Fully two score people fed Mrs. Murphy and her cub that day in the proper way, by throwing candy to her, and were entertained for hours by the bruins with no incidents nor accidents.

The only innocent visitor to suffer injury was a Dude who, disregarding a ranger’s warning, insisted upon walking between Mrs. Murphy and her cub, to take a snap shot of the cub. Apparently believing her cub in danger, Mrs. Murphy rushed the Dude, tore out the seat of his pants, and, as she thought, saved her cub. The Dude rode the rest of the day in a blanket to hide a certain blushing and over-exposed portion of his anatomy.

After receiving this report, the superintendent decided that Mrs. Murphy was no more guilty than the Dudes and Sagebrushers who attempted to fool her with food that did not exist.

That chapter (“Speaking of Bears”) is chock full of stories about interactions between visitors, rangers, and bears, each more hair-rising than the other for a modern reader. In the book, Horace Albright, a key figure in NPS history, seems to condone visitors feeding the bears, although the official NPS policy, for instance as stated in the contemporary official Yellowstone National Park visitor guide of 1927 differs:

BEARS Even the big grizzlies, which are generally believed to be ferocious, are proved by our national parks’ experience to be inoffensive if not molested. […] It is contrary to the park regulations to molest or tease the bears. […] The brown, cinnamon, and black bears […] are playful, comparatively fearless, sometimes even friendly. They are greedy fellows, and steal camp supplies whenever they can. Visitors, however, should not feed the bears.
Albright, in the same spirit as his mentor Mather, loved anything that brought publicity to the parks and knew that tourists loved bears. What the NPS objected to was not to feeding the bears, but to visitors feeding them for safety reasons – not out of concern for the bears. Unsurprisingly, visitors suffered dozens of bear-related injuries every year. Found in Oh Ranger:
In Yosemite National Park […] the feeding of the bears is made a great event. In the evening just after dark, Dudes, Sagebrushers gather on the slopes, across the river from the pits. All is quiet and dark. Suddenly the lights are flashed on, revealing the “salad bowl,” with any where from half a dozen to a score of bears growling and feeding as the bear man dumps numerous garbage cans of supper for them. A tree stump in the middle of the platform is painted with syrup each evening and there is great rivalry among the bears to get at this.
I could not find a trace of that activity in the contemporary Yosemite National Park visitor guides, but the 1928 visitor guide to Sequoia and General Grant National Parks has this:

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

The “Bear Pit” is the name give to the spot on the Circle Road at the garbage incinerator where many bears gather to feed on camp garbage. The best time to see them is from 5 to 7 p.m. when an attendant is on hand.

The NPS first wildlife biologist was George Melendez Wright. His life was cut short by an automobile accident at just 31. Yet, during his brief career with the NPS, he instigated many impactful changes. One of them was to phase out feeding of bears for entertainment. However, it was not until the 1970s that bear feeding ceased entirely in Yellowstone. We have come a long way.

Location sharing & Our National Monuments surveys results

Thank you again for the answers and comments on the multiple surveys of this winter. Now that Our National Monuments has been printed (but not yet bound) and the rush is over, I am sharing the results and commenting on the choices made.


Location sharing

Treasured Lands set a precedent for information sharing, but the national monuments are lands with very different rules of engagement from the national parks. Although the Organic Act of 1916 assigned dual missions of conservation and recreation to the National Park Service, it can be argued that the idea of parks “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (as found in the law establishing Yellowstone National Park and written on the Yellowstone Arch) came first, with their preservation serving the goal to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Stephen Mather, the man responsible for the creation of the National Park Service, and its first director, envisioned them as places of mass tourism, and there are few strategies he passed over in order to attract more visitors – the constituency for the fledging parks. By contrast, the national monuments are for conservation. The absence of infrastructure means no trash cans, restrooms, boardwalks, or paved trails that help reduce impact. Also lacking is the “soft infrastructure” of rangers. Compared to national parks, they are generally less developed, accessible, popular, or documented. The poll appeared in this post about location sharing.

Readers who answered the poll share my concern in publicizing locations such as those often found in national monuments. For inclusion of locations or directions, I made a judgment based on resilience to visitation for places ranging from well-publicized places already mentioned in guidebooks to personal finds. Eventually, all locations selected felt into the “already documented” category – although that doesn’t mean you’ve heard of them already! I generally excluded locations not mentioned either by the managing agency or a conservation organization dedicated to the monument. For each of the monuments, I have tried to consult with such an organization and asked if they had objections over my write-up. There was none, and an organization director even told me that the places they recommend to visitors are exactly the ones I listed – without prior coordination. I trust that people who actually care for the lands would know best.

Petroglyph or pictograph sites are found in almost each of the national monuments in the book. However, vandalism is a particular concern, so I have been selective in mentioning them or in providing directions, even though a former conservation organization president lists GPS coordinates for specific panels. For instance, while researching Rio Grande Del Norte National Monuments, I found out about petroglyphs located close to a well-known trail. They turned out to be quite remarkable, but when chatting with a volunteer, I learned that they had purposely refrained from putting trail signage for the petroglyphs. I didn’t include a picture nor mentioned those petroglyphs in the book.

Information in the book

When I conceived Treasured Lands, many in the book industry were skeptical that I could produce a combined art book and (somewhat) guidebook, but the art director Iain Morris found a way to make it work by separating the pictures and information. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough when I wrote that Our National Monuments uses the same format as Treasured Lands. If there were no information pages, there would be none of the things that were more popular such as “Info: natural history” or and “Author’s experience”.

Besides that misunderstanding, my plan for the book was mostly in agreement with the readers’ interests. There was already a lot of information about the national parks, so my writing on the information pages of Treasured Lands emphasized the “Photographic odyssey” aspect, and someone reading them cover-to-cover could learn quite a bit about landscape photography. On the other hand, there is little published information about the national monuments. Our National Monuments is the first photography book dedicated to them, and if published only two months earlier, would also have been the first national monuments “guidebook”. Therefore, I wanted the text to be mostly about the national monuments and to educate readers about what makes them so special.

Although I have tried my best, I realized that there were people certainly more qualified than me: the “Friends” groups, aka conservation organizations made of local grassroots activists that advocate for those lands, help protect and popularize them, and in many cases were instrumental in the establishment of those national monuments. Conservation starts with community. Places are best protected when a group of local citizens leads the advocacy efforts. I am immensely grateful and honored that a citizen organization has accepted to lend its voice to each of the 27 national monuments in the book. Besides contributing the essays, many have helped plan trips or offered comments that improved this book. The only difference in design with Treasured Lands is that to accommodate their longer essays, the opening page for each national monument is text only. To see pages of the book, head to OurNationalMonuments.com.

In building a constituency for any lands, there is always a balance to be struck while making information available. The editor I hired for this project had a prominent role in conservation. An overwhelming majority (85%) plan to use the information for travel planning, but only a minority (45%) thought the “practical aspect” was more important than “interesting to read”. A majority (67%) expressed interest in an electronic version. That, with the votes on topics, convinced me to prepare two slightly different versions of the information pages, one for print, and the other for electronic distribution. Unlike for Treasured Lands for which the text was identical, the PDF will be expanded with practical details such as directions.

About that subtitle

Selecting the title was relatively easy. I eventually preferred “Our” to “The” or “America’s” to emphasize how those public lands belong to every American. I liked the echo of John Muir’s Our National Parks (1901), the first book about the national parks.

From the beginning, the working title for my project had been “monuments at risk”, which was logical because the project originated as my reaction to the previous administration’s attack on the national monuments. Therefore, for the subtitle, my first thought was to emphasize that aspect with words like “at risk, endangered, under threat”. However, my distributor warned me that this carried negative overtones that could hurt book sales. It turned out that readers also agreed in round one since none of those subtitles were popular at all.

A second idea was to emphasize another character of those lands with the words “less traveled, unknown, undiscovered, overlooked, unseen”. My wife quickly suggested “The Parks Less Traveled” in that vein. I thought it was descriptive and intriguing at the same time. Intriguing with the wit and poetic reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Descriptive with the suggestion that those are lands similar to the national parks, and the fact that of all the five, “less traveled” is the most accurate. However, it was brought out that the word “less” is a tough sell in a title because of the implication, even subconscious, that these lands are lesser, which is the opposite of the intent. I tested that idea by conducting two polls in round 2. In the first one, this concern was mentioned.

In the second one, it was not.

As expected, the outcomes were different, but even for those made aware of the concern, “The Parks Less Traveled” remained viable, because “less traveled” was seen as such a positive. I refined the most popular option in the first survey, “America’s unknown treasures” into “America’s hidden gems”. “Hidden” was more precise than “Unknown” and evoked discovery. “Gems” has connotations of exclusivity, and is a more subtle reference to Treasured Lands, and also to the foreword writer, former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who oversaw the designation of 11 of the national monuments in the book. I posted the finalist round 3 poll from the blog and three different social media accounts, with essentially split results.

I interpreted the results as indicating no strong preferences from readers because both of them are strong subtitles. At this point, the question was no longer which subtitle would sell the book best, but rather which one would do the most justice to its subject. I leaned towards “The Parks Less Traveled”, as “America’s Hidden Gems” sounded a bit bland and overused. In fact, when I mentioned the later to my distribution manager, the first thing she did was to look up the words in a database. She pointed out that others had used them in various titles, however, my use was OK since it was a subtitle rather than a title, and my title was unique enough. However, both my editor and art director preferred “America’s Hidden Gems”, mentioning that the play of words in “The Parks Less Traveled” could appear borderline cheeky for such a serious book, that “America” was necessary to attribute properly “Our”, and that the cover image was already sufficient to convey the park-like quality of the national monuments. What tipped the scale in favor of “America’s Hidden Gems” were the opinions of two people from the conservation community, the former executive director of a major Friends group, and a board member of the Conservation Lands Foundation, the main national advocacy organization for the BLM national monuments. They liked the idea of “gems” to emphasize that these are less traveled, less known, but still very valuable – maybe something unconsciously not conveyed by “less”. They expressed reservations about confusing monuments and national parks. Since those are the people involved in the stewardship of our national monuments, I was happy to let them have the final say. In the end, I felt that “Hidden Gems” honored our precious lands better.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve wrap up

An eclectic wrap-up on New River Gorge National Park with more details about logistics (including a map with all locations in this series keyed), my timing, final impressions, the result of the image choice poll, and a bonus location.

Logistics

The closest major city is Charleston WV, 50 miles away, but I flew into Charlotte NC because of better flight connections. On the way to the park, I bought $60 of groceries, including 6 gallons of water. Besides gas and car rental, that was the extent of expenses for this trip.

There are so many entry points that the area is a bit of a maze. The Park Service cannot possibly have entrance stations everywhere, which is maybe why no entrance fees are charged. This moderate-sized park has no less than four visitor centers, however some are seasonal, and only the one near the New River Gorge Bridge was open. The staff provided excellent maps, including a comprehensive trail guide.

Few roads follow the inside of the gorge for any significant length. The most scenic are the Fayette Station Road under the New River Gorge Bridge and WV-7/20 to Sandstone Falls. Visiting multiple locations involves getting in and out of the park, driving slow rural side roads, often very narrow and winding. That was more time-consuming than I expected given the size of the park.

The only accommodations in the park consist of eight campgrounds near the river that are all primitive, with no water and vault toilets. The upside is that they are all first-come, first-serve, didn’t fill up while I was there, and were all free. The downside is that trains run all night in the gorge, and when you are in the bottom of the gorge in a tent, their sound resonates loudly. The very active railroad is part of the region’s history, but it is a big distraction in a national park. The nearby state parks, Babcock, Hawks Nest, and Bluestone, are surprisingly more developed, with facilities dating from the Civilian Conservation Corps, including lodging. Fayetteville is the closest town with amenities. The city of Beckley offers more accommodation options.

Bonus Location (11)

Only about 50,000 of the New River Gorge’s 70,000 acres are federal land, so there are private enclaves, towns, and even a state park within the boundaries. How does that work? Anything included in the boundaries is “authorized” to be part of the national park, but becomes so only after the land has been acquired.

Babcock State Park, one of the oldest parks in West Virginia, is located within the boundaries of New River Gorge National Preserve, but managed entirely independently. The well-developed 4,000-acre park features log cabin accommodations and campsites. Its Glade Creek grist mill from downstream is the most photographed scene in West Virginia, especially with autumn foliage. The front of the mill with the waterwheel faces east, but shadows make the light spotty in the early morning. I photographed it after the sun had disappeared behind hills in the afternoon. 

Timing

Since the beginning of this century, I’ve strived to visit new national parks shortly after they were (re) designated. In 2013, I showed up at Pinnacles at dawn on the first day it opened as a national park, and for White Sands, I made an effort to be inside at the very moment it became a national park. In early 2020, I had anticipated that New River Gorge National Park and Preserve would be established in the winter. Eastern parks are mostly woodlands that look stark when the trees are bare. When planning my April 2020 trip to Washington DC for NPCA’s Salute to the Parks, I had intended to drive to West Virginia to photograph New River Gorge “pre-emptively” so that I would have photographs with foliage on the trees in my archive, to complement the images resulting from the anticipated winter trip. However, that event got canceled, and the winter coincided with a peak of the virus.

I run two accounts on twitter. I’ve manually posted and interacted on my personal account @terragalleria since 2009. I started @treasured_lands in 2017 as a way to promote Treasured Lands and it is a semi-automated account. Comparing the follower counts of those two accounts is quite instructive. The followers of @terragalleria decisively thought that flying in December wasn’t worth the risk:

Maybe the followers of @treasured_lands don’t “know” me as well and therefore cared less about the risks to me and my family, which would explain that they were more equally split: My age bracket became eligible for the vaccine in April, but I waited two weeks for the California system (myturn.ca.gov) and my provider (Kaiser) to give me an appointment, to no avail, before finding one at the Santa Clara County website. I got the first dose of the vaccine on April 13. My estimate is that at the Levi’s Stadium, there were about 1,000 in the line in front of me. It stretched for 1.5 miles – I used a GPS app to track its length. The three weeks until the second dose, that was almost wait-free, and the two weeks of precautionary wait put my trip right in the middle of May.

In terms of timing with respect to seasons, I could have done worse. Snow covers the ground from at least mid-November to mid-March, and winter days range from mild to surprisingly frigid. A ranger told me that days with high temperatures 10F are not uncommon. Summers feel hot because of high humidity. This leaves spring and autumn as the most pleasant seasons. Even mid-May was a little warm for my taste, with high temperatures in the upper 80s. Wildflowers appear at the end of March, but trees leaf only in mid-April at the bottom of the canyon and early May at the rim. I was a bit early for rhododendrons and mountain laurel that peak at the end of May and early June, but there were already quite a few blooms. Spring is the wettest season, and because of that, chances of seeing an inversion with a sea of clouds are excellent. Autumn would be another great time to visit, with the color peaking around the third week of October.

Final image choices

Thank you again for voting and commenting on the Grandview image. I closed the poll after 100 answers – that’s the limit for the free polls on surveynuts.com, still much better than the 40 answers of surveymonkey.com.

Many mentioned the esthetics, mystery, and the special moment captured in A. That was narrowly edged by the more descriptive quality of C, and I was glad I dug C out, since C is preferred to D by a ratio of 3:1. It’s a difficult choice to make between A and C since both have merits.

For the back cover image, the Bridge works probably the best with the type thanks to its uniform sky, and has the advantage of immediately saying that New River Gorge is in the book. However, I am not totally sanguine about including an image with such a prominent structure, and I also prefer to show something that is not already included in the book. The Sandstone image has a composition similar to the one in the book, with the only difference being the time of day. That’s good, but since it was difficult to decide between A and C that have a vastly different character, I decided to use C for the main chapter image and A on the back cover – C was preferred to the dawn sea of clouds by a ratio of 3:1.

Final impressions

The third Saturday of October is Bridge Day, West Virginia’s largest single-day festival, during which thousands gather on the bridge to watch BASE jumpers. BASE jumping is generally illegal in all National Park Service units, and Bridge Day is the only time and place when it is legal. I didn’t know much about the New River Gorge besides Bridge Day. The park surprised me pleasantly. I thought it was one of the “best” among those designated in the 21st century. Gateway Arch is clearly the black sheep. Congaree, Pinnacles, and especially White Sands have beautiful natural features, but not much variety. Cuyahoga Valley and Indiana Dunes are semi-urban parks. They are all small parks – considering that most of White Sands is not visitable because of military activities. Only Great Sand Dunes, which shares with New River Gorge the distinction of being a National Park and Preserve in the continental U.S. compares if you count the preserve part. Besides parks in Alaska and parks in the continental U.S. that are islands, Great Sand Dunes is the 5th less visited park. New River Gorge is already the 22nd most visited national park. For good reason. I am looking forward to returning sometime in the autumn.

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

Photographing Grandview Point in New River Gorge

Thank you for providing feedback on images of New River Gorge. In this post, I go into more detail on the morning when the top contending photos were made, discussing their circumstances and differences.

Grandview Point was my first destination in New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. On the first morning there, the fog reached above the rim, obscuring views of the gorge. Instead, I photographed in the forest, always a treat in the fog. I stayed around until the fog burned out. Those conditions, at the edge of the fog, often produce dramatic sun rays when photographed backlit. However, as beautiful as they are, those images do not inform about the New River Gorge.

By the time the fog had lifted, the sky was totally clear. The sun, backlighting the gorge, soared a bit too high. I spent half-a-day scouting the entire area. Starting from the Main Overlook, the 3.2-mile (round-trip) Canyon Rim Trail offers more choices of viewpoints and ends at the Turkey Spur Overlook, a rock offering 360-degrees views. I identified the two most promising viewpoints: the Main Overlook and the North Overlook.

I returned the next morning at dawn. The inversion was low enough for me to stand over the sea of clouds, however clouds on the eastern horizon diffused the sunrise. The contrast at sunrise was still challenging, but I later managed to make a few exposures with the large format camera. For this trip, I was severely limited because I had forgotten to pack a set of graduated neutral density filters. They are not part of my regular kit. I do not use them anymore for digital photography, but transparency film has much less dynamic range and a very narrow exposure latitude – a very unforgiving medium! I dust out my large format camera whenever a new national park is designated. Since I wasn’t there when New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was established unlike when White Sands National Park was established, I didn’t know if I would be the first to photograph the 63 national parks. Given that not too many folks these days try to photograph all national parks on large format film, I could still maintain my streak to be the first in doing so.

Having been there twice, I was tempted to skip Grandview Point on the morning of my last day in the park and visit another location at dawn. However, because it is a location with such potential and easy accessibility, I returned a third time, to find yet another inversion. Those seem to be a frequent occurrence in the spring, therefore morning fog is quite representative of the area, and inversions are not that common elsewhere, especially at non-marine areas of such low elevations. In the new edition of Treasured Lands, I now include all the highpoints, and on that occasion, I realized that Grandview is only 2,517 feet high. I was glad I went back since that third visit resulted in the top contending images. I started at the Main Overlook. It offers the clearest view of the horseshoe bend from a rock slab. A band of clouds was again present in the eastern sky, but it was smaller than the previous time, letting in some colors at dawn. Just when the sun emerged above those clouds, I photographed an image with a discreet sun star as it edged the clouds. Those sun star images always have the allure of capturing a unique moment in time. Besides the sun star, there is not enough light from the sun to really light up the landscape, which remains in beautifully soft light like at dawn. This image was the second most popular in the poll (30% of votes, cropped to 4×5 below).


A

Moments later, as the sun emerged from the clouds, I photographed a more dramatic image in stronger light that was the third most popular (15% of votes) – that was #2 in the poll. As appealing and evocative as those images with the inversion were, they only partly show the gorge, and there lies a difficult choice.

An issue with the Main Overlook is that the rock slab is marred by carved graffiti. In the heat of the moment, I didn’t always remember to exclude them from the composition (for instance in image #2 previously mentioned). I decided to continue the morning session at the North Overlook. While the view of the horseshoe bend from there isn’t as clear, a foreground of flowering vegetation was available. Mid-May was a bit early for the rododendrons, but a few were already blooming, with more budding. After I got there, the low fog started breaking up. I made an ultra-wide composition (12mm, #4 in the poll) before setting up the large format camera for a tighter composition (24mm, similar to #8 in the poll), I liked that moment because the river began to be visible, while there was still some fog, making for what I thought was an intricate photograph. On the other hand, it isn’t as legible as others. An experienced photo editor liked the tighter composition, but not the ultra-wide. He felt that the bright area of the sky high and centered kept the eye running on the middle of the frame. I think he is right, but I miss the left side of the bend on the tighter composition. It completes the horsehoe bend that is a unique landscape feature of Grandview Point. Based on the poll, this image was not a top contender, but sometimes just cropping an image can dramatically improve its composition, so I am giving it a second chance. Does this crop intermediate between 12mm and 24mm improve the image enough to make it a contender?


B

Once the fog breakup starts, it occurs quite fast. By the time I had finished making the large-format photographs, the fog had almost entirely dissipated (#9 in the poll). Shortly after, the light was also changing again, as the band of clouds on the left expanded to cover the sun and sky on the right. I made a photograph at 14mm while some of the mist was still hanging out and while the high clouds had not yet covered the entire sky. Like for the previous image, I had raised the tripod at a maximum height so that the river could be seen above the rhododendron plants in the foreground. Note that unlike the previous image, this one is not vertically cropped, which means that I had also adjusted the composition in the field like I did by cropping the previous 12mm image.


C

After photographing different compositions, the clouds had moved in to cover the entire eastern sky, making the light even, with barely an hint of fog left. I went back to the horseshoe bend composition, and realized that I could separate the foreground and the river better by moving a step forward to the edge of the slope and handholding the camera high – there was no way to place it in that position with my tripod. That image was the most popular choice (37% of votes, “D” below). I had initially skipped the image “C” in my edit because I remembered have taking steps to improve the composition from it, but forgot about the change in light. Ideally, I should have thought of this composition tweak for a clearer view of the river while the atmosphere in “C” was still there, but I didn’t. So now it is a choice, which one wins?


D

In the previous poll, I had presented the images full-frame, but that didn’t take into account that in Treasured Lands the main images are presented full bleed on a 10×12 inch page, therefore with an aspect ratio of about 5:4 instead of 3:2. Therefore, in this post, I have presented the images horizontally cropped to 5:4. Moreover, the main image is not standalone, but instead is part of a spread that will most likely use the river-level view of the New River Gorge Bridge. Of the four images considered now, the sunrise seems to pair with that image the worse, but maybe would work well for the back cover? That spread itself is not standalone, but rather is part of a set of three meant to feature the locations in the two previous articles. If the image was standalone, certainly it could not have been “A” because of the need to illustrate the gorge. I’ll let you judge if the images in the other spreads illustrate it sufficiently. This post has shown you how complicated it can be to choose a single image for the book, so I will just skip discussing the choice process and show you the result for the last three spreads. The back cover offers another spot for a New River Gorge image. Currently the results for that poll stand at Bridge 40%, Grandview 23%, Falls 37%, but that particular dawn Grandview image ranked low in comparison to A and maybe that viewpoint deserves two images of a different character?

Here are finalists for the first spread:


A



B



C



D


Here are the last three spreads:




The survey is closed. Thank you for voting, and see results in the next post!

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve: Five Unexpected Sights

When I planned my well-awaited trip to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, I was expecting to photograph the landscapes of the New River Gorge and the most famous landmark in West Virginia, the New River Gorge Bridge. What I didn’t expect to find were so many historic structures that the place often felt like an open-air museum of America’s early industrial days. I knew that the New River was famed for its whitewater, but I did not expect so many waterfalls ranging from stream cascades to a 1,500-foot wide waterfall – the widest in any national park. This article, companion to the previous one about classic sights of the New River Gorge details those unexpected sights.

Kaymoor (6)

The New River Coalfield was one of the most prosperous coal mining regions in the country, with dozens of mines located in the gorge. Its coal was renowned for its low smoke emissions. Kaymoor was one of the biggest coal mines in the area. It drew workers from all around the country who lived in a company town of more than 100 houses. Because the NPS did not remove vegetation, the site offers the evocative atmosphere of ruins reclaimed by the jungle, making it one of the most eerily beautiful ghost towns in the area. As a forest scene, it is best photographed on cloudy days. Kaymoor had multiple levels, once accessed by workers via a steam-powered “mountain haulage” tram. The Kaymoor Miners Trail (2 miles roundtrip, 760 feet elevation loss) travels that same steep terrain. In the first half, switchbacks lead to the remnants of the Keymoor mine, where safety signs reminded me how dangerous the job was. In the second half, a wooden staircase with 821-steps next to the rails of the dangerous-looking tram leads to the old coal processing structures, abandoned train tracks, and old coke ovens. 

Nuttallburg and Keeney’s Creek (5)

For centuries, the gorge remained inaccessible along its entire length. In 1873, the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) railroad opened this isolated part of West Virginia. That year, John Nutall became the second mine owner to ship coal using the recently completed railroad. From 1920 to 1928, the famous industrialist Henry Ford leased the mine. He updated its equipment, designing and building many facilities still standing today, including the remarkably well-preserved 1,385 feel-long conveyor that descends from the hill to a tipple above railroad tracks. The mine would operate until 1958, and in 1998 the Nuttall family transferred ownership of Nuttallburg to the National Park Service (NPS). Almost fifty towns sprang up along the New River in response to a growing nation’s need for coal, but none is as complete as Nuttallburg, one of the prime coal-related historic sites in the United States. I explored the bottom of the site and its impressive structures via short and flat trails, accessed through a road passable by passenger cars, although sometimes one-lane and unpaved. On the way, that road follows Keeney’s Creek, where I noticed beautiful cascading waterfalls. The mine entrance at the top is best accessed through Beauty Mountain Road on the rim. 

Thurmond and Dunloup Creek Falls (7)

Acting as a hub for the mining communities within the gorge during the heydays of coal mining, Thurmond was the busiest depot along the entire C&O line. Its two banks, used by coal barons, were the richest in West Virginia. Although settled in 1844, the quintessential railroad town wasn’t accessible by road until 1921. Its commercial district still lacks a road, and its buildings curiously stand just a few yards away from the rail tracks where trains still thunder. Using a perspective-control lens, I maintained the parallelism of their west-facing facades in the image. In its prime, Thurmond had 500 residents. At the 2019 census, the population was four, making it the smallest town in West Virginia. However, the historic train depot is still active and serves as an Amtrak stop to New York or Chicago. Thurmond is reached via WV-25, a narrow and winding road that follows Dunloop Creek. About 8 miles from US 19, look for 20-foot Dunloup Creek Falls, a waterfall with a good year-round flow. The road reaches Thurmond by crossing the New River on an odd single-lane car and train bridge combined.

Glade Creek and Kate’s Branch Falls (10)

Despite following a steep canyon, the 6-mile long trail (1,400 ft elevation gain) along Glade Creek, one of the longest in the park, is easy, as it uses an old railroad bed. For all of its length, it hugs Glade Creek, along which swimming holes alternate with cascading waterfalls, including Glade Creek Falls, about a mile from the lower trailhead near the New River. I soaked in the peaceful atmosphere created by the constant sound of moving water and the green foliage. A polarizing filter helped make the tiny cascades stand out from the darkened water. The excellent official hiking guide provided by the New River National Park and Preserve indicates that Kates Falls is “one of the park’s hidden gems and only accessible by a long hike on Glade Creek Trail.” However, Glade Creek Trail has two trailheads, and I figured it out that from upper trailhead, it was a much shorter 2.4-mile roundtrip. Access to the upper trailhead is via the rough and unpaved CR 22 road off WV-9, 0.5 miles from I-64. Although the NPS recommends 4WD, I could drive a regular vehicle in dry conditions. The picture in the hiking guide was likely made in early spring when rainfall was abundant. When I got there, I immediately noticed how low the flow was in comparison. That is the problem with expectations! They lead to disappointments. But after I let go of the expectations and that sat there for a while, I began to appreciate the Japanese-garden, zen-like quality of the waterfall for what it was. I soaked in the serenity of the place, an ambiance different from what rushing water would have provided. Lined up with ferns and lush vegetation, the Glade Creek canyon is one of the most humid areas in the park, making it a great place to look for wildflowers. It is also one of the best destinations in the park for backpacking and fishing. Note that of all the ten sites featured in those two articles, it is the only one located in the national preserve.

Sandstone Falls (9)

What makes Sandstone Falls such a spectacular sight despite its modest drop of 15-25 feet is its 1,500-foot width. The largest waterfall on the entire New River is also the widest I have seen in any national park. For its whole width, the river drops here in a stairstep cascade, broken by mid-river islands. They are home to one of the region’s most unique ecosystems, the Appalachian Riverside Flatrock Community, best explored along the 0.5-mile Island Loop Trail on the island on the side opposite to the falls. A quarter-mile-long boardwalk and bridge system links the islands, offering easy access and multiple viewpoints from which I could see the falls at a distance. However, traversing the last 0.15 miles for a close view of the waterfall was a bit more adventurous. I followed a user trail from the end of the boardwalk and crossed no less than three streams. From the western shore of the last island, I stood in awe right at the edge of the all-encompassing raging water, and composed with a wide-angle lens. The falls benefited from the soft light of open shade in the late afternoon, while sunlight still highlighted the hills. Sunset had a more colorful sky, but the slower shutter speed rendered water with less texture. Sandstone Falls is less than two miles from the Sandstone Visitor Center as the crow flies, but by road, it took more than half an hour of scenic driving. You drive south on WV-20 to the historic town of Hilton before crossing the river and heading north on the opposite bank on the only road in the park that closely follows the river. 

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

New River Gorge National Park: Five Classic Sights

The only thing new with New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is its status as our latest national park. The river is very old, and New River Gorge National River had long been known as an East Coast outdoors activities hub offering diverse activities including whitewater rafting with Class V rapids, excellent rock climbing, and even BASE jumping from the landmark New River Gorge Bridge. I was surprised to discover that the park has something for everyone: scenery, biodiversity, history, recreation. Located hundreds of miles from any big city, New River Gorge is not a day trip destination, which is good since in almost a week, I was far from being able to see everything. This article details the sights I expected to see in the park: the New River Gorge Bridge, and the great views of the New River Gorge.

The New River Gorge

The longest and deepest canyon in the Appalachian Mountains, New River Gorge has been cut by a river that is, despite its name, one of the oldest in the world. The river course was set before the Appalachians formed 60 million years ago. Flowing across the Appalachian Plateau, not around it or from it unlike the other Appalachian streams that run west to east, the New River cut into the mountains faster than their uplift rate, carving a gorge 1,400 feet deep at Grandview Point. The steep gradient generating its erosive power makes it one of the finest whitewater rivers in the eastern United States. Over 50 miles within the park, it drops 750 feet – by comparison, the Mississippi River drops 1,500 feet over its entire 2,300-mile course. The New River runs from south to north. Together with the diversity of niche habitats due to topography, the unusual orientation serves as a corridor for species, leading to a biodiversity hot spot.

The National Park and Preserve

Formerly designated a National River, New River Gorge (114 square miles) is long and thin, stretching for 33 miles from Ansted in the north to Hinton in the south, however never more than a few miles away from the river. A first national park redesignation bill introduced in 2018 wasn’t successful because of local opposition, mostly due to the fact that national parks do not permit hunting on their lands. The next year, the West Virginia congressional leadership put together a national park and preserve redesignation bill. Unlike national parks, national preserves permit hunting. They are mostly located in Alaska, where hunting is a way of life, with the only “national park and preserve” in the lower 48 being Great Sand Dunes. Even though the “National Park” part is only 9.4 square miles, representing less than 10% of the park, some still lamented about the loss of hunting grounds as unacceptable, but the bill passed. Although very small, the “National Park” part nevertheless includes the main attractions: the Lower Gorge around the New River Gorge Bridge, Thurmond, Grandview, and Sandstone Falls. Fayetteville is the closest gateway town with amenities. The first four locations in this article are all located in the Lower Gorge, and a short distance from Fayetteville, while the fifth is further south.

New River Gorge Bridge (1)

  The iconic 3,000-foot bridge is the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third-highest bridge in the United States. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, a short boardwalk leads to an overlook for close-up views of the bridge. A 178-step walk down to an observation platform leads to a better view. The bridge shortened cross-gorge travel time from over an hour to less than a minute.  The old cross-gorge route starting in Lansing is now a steep and curvy scenic drive called the Fayette Station Road, crossing several times below the bridge. Many visitors jump out of their cars for a quick shot as the road traverses the smaller Tunney Hunsaker Bridge. It is an excellent spot for an unobstructed view of the Bridge’s full span, and in order to spend more time, I walked back from the riverside parking from which the bridge soars 875 feet above. The sky had been cloudless, however, as I was driving up and out of the gorge, I noticed afternoon clouds moving in. I drove again the mostly one-way road for a second chance. If the conditions improve, just photograph again! The top of the bridge is open to pedestrians only on Bridge Day, however you can take a guided tours along the 24-inch-wide catwalk under the bridge for vertiginous views.

Long Point (2)

  Long Point  is a narrow ridge extending above the canyon, offering views on both sides of the valley, and especially towards the north and the New River Gorge Bridge, only half a mile away. It is my favorite perspective of the bridge, as the unobstructed view is perfectly symmetrical and beautifully shows the bridge in the context of the gorge. Fifteen minutes before sunrise, under a delicate pastel sky, the softness of the light revealed the textures and colors of the forest canopy without distracting shadows, while its directionality differentiated the slopes that make parts of the canyon from each other. I was glad I woke up before 4 am to hike the 3.2-mile (roundtrip) trail along which I found budding Mountain Laurel.

On that morning, I was feeling a bit tired from the jet lag and a long day starting at 5:30AM and ending around 11:30PM, so I decided not to lug out my large-format camera. I came back the next morning for what I assumed to be a sure large-format photograph, only to find the bridge swathed in low fog.

Endless Wall (3)

  The most popular hiking trail in the park is the 2.4-mile Endless Wall Trail. It was voted by USA Today readers in 2015 as the country’s top national park hike even though New River Gorge was not yet a national park. If the first trailhead is full, try the second, but do not park along the road, where your car may be ticketed or towed. The serene Eastern Hemlock forest transitions to rhododendron tunnels after Fern Creek, a stream that creates several hard-to-reach waterfalls below. Given the relatively dry conditions, I did not attempt to bushwhack to them. Several side paths lead to the edge of the cliffs, and sometimes to metal ladders that allow rock climbers to reach the base of the cliffs. You can either complete the loop between the two trailheads by walking an additional half a mile along the road, or hike round-trip to Diamond Point, located mid-way, a promontory atop the cliffs that offers high views of the gorge towards the northwest, west, south, and southeast, making it good for sunrise and sunset. From there, I understood why the trail is called that way, as the high wall of Nuttall Sandstone cliffs stretched into the distance, disappearing around the bend in both directions. 

Beauty Mountain (4)

  Beauty Mountain isn’t really a mountain, but instead a stretch of sandstone cliffs running along the eastern rim of the gorge a thousand feet above the river. Located right at the park boundary, Ram Head is an unmarked spot popular with locals for watching the sun set over the gorge, as it offers a panoramic view for a 5 minute stroll. A woman set up a hammock and a group brought a guitar, creating a festive ambiance, but numerous ledges allow visitors to spread out. To find even more viewpoints, you can hike two-third of a mile along user trails following the cliffs. Take the Edmond-Lansing Road off US-19 and turn right after 3 miles at Edmond, then right again after half-a-mile at the tiny Edmond Post Office. Park after 1.4 miles near a T-junction, respecting the nearby private properties.

Grandview (8)

  Aptly named Grandview includes the highest overlook on the gorge rim, the Main Overlook located 1,400 feet above the river. A short stroll from a large parking lot with a seasonal visitor center, that overlook offers the most spectacular view of the gorge that I have seen, as the dramatic horseshoe bend of the river below is clearly visible.  Starting from there, the 3.2-mile Canyon Rim Trail offers more choices of viewpoints, including the North Overlook, where I found pink rhododendrons to frame the views over the gorge. Although it was early, many were already blooming in mid-May. The east-facing overlooks are great locations to watch the sun rising over the gorge. Inversions that leave you above a striking sea of low fog filling up the gorge frequently occur at that time, making it my favorite to photograph grand vistas. There are many other compositions possible (two open this article), but for the images below, I have selected only wide-angle views of the horseshoe bend – for which I made good use of a 12-24mm lens. Each of those images show something different. Earlier, the light is better, but later, the break up of the fog (that takes place surprisingly fast once it begins) reveals more of the gorge.


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  The survey is closed. Results in this post.

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

13 tips for sharp photographs with a telephoto lens

Using case studies of the first images in Our National Monuments, I’ve touched on why one would want to use a telephoto lens for landscape photography and that even getting a sharp image can be a challenge. This article presents 13 tips in no particular order for overcoming this challenge. All images in the article were photographed with the Sony FE 100-400 lens for Our National Monuments, but not used in the book.

Check Sharpness

Shots can look great at a glance on the LCD, but turn out unusable in print because they were not sharp enough. Checking the camera LCD at 100% magnification to see if your shot was sharp before moving on to the next one is always a good idea to prevent disappointments. That practice is all the more important in telephoto photography because there are so many reasons why telephoto images may lack critical sharpness. If you notice that images are not sharp, then it is time for some of the adjustments described below.

Mind focus and depth of field

One reason why it is more challenging to get sharp images with telephoto lenses is that the depth of field area is so much smaller than for normal and wide-angle lenses. Any imprecision in focusing shows up. Manual focusing at 100% magnification is the most reliable way to proceed, but if you use autofocus, but sure to check if it is perfect. For an indication of how narrow the depth of field area can be, refer to the example in this article, where it was explained that with a 340mm lens on the Sony A7R4, even at f/22, the depth of field area including infinity starts half a mile away, meaning that you cannot have any object closer to half a mile and infinity in perfect focus at the same time.

Consider focus stacking

At a longer focal length, getting a foreground and background both in focus can be impossible. Stopping a lens down to f/22 is not optimal because it results in degraded image quality due to diffraction. In addition, the requirement to use a slow shutter speed makes the capture more vulnerable to vibration. A useful alternative is to merge exposures made with different focus points at f/11, a feature automated by Photoshop.

Time for better air clarity

Air clarity is an overlooked issue with telephoto photography. Often with those compositions, even the closest subjects can be far enough that image degradation due to air quality is quite noticeable. On a hot afternoon in the desert, looking in the viewfinder of a telephoto lens, you can see distant elements vibrating due to air convection. Even in windless conditions, if you take a picture in those conditions, nothing at a distance comes out sharp. In the cooler temperatures of the morning, the air is often more clear, and that is often the best time for telephoto work. In addition, at dawn and dusk, when the sun is not out, haze is much reduced.

Use a polarizer

Haze consists of particles in the air that reflect light, reducing contrast and desaturating colors. A polarizer makes the haze disappear because it cuts reflections. The more distant the subject, such as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from its Northwest rim, the more haze there is, which makes a polarizer particularly useful for telephoto shots.

Use a sturdy tripod

The main reason for unsharp telephoto images is unwanted camera motion. Handholding a telephoto lens with successful results is difficult. Those lenses are often large and heavy. Small camera movements affect the composition. You need faster shutter speeds for sharp images, with the general rule that you need an exposure time in seconds faster than 1/F, where F is the focal length in millimeters. This is difficult to attain in low light, particularly if you stop down and use a polarizing filter. In the slightest of breezes, even a tripod that works fine for normal lenses is not enough to stabilize a telephoto lens. Typically, I use a series 2 tripod and a medium-size ball head. However, that combination is often insufficient for a telephoto. On road trips, I pack a series 3 tripod and a full-size ball head. While I don’t like to hike too much with that setup, it works fine for roadside photography and short hikes. I have found it makes a significant difference for telephoto lenses.

Use a tripod collar

Tripod collars are often used on telephoto lenses to reduce the strain on the lens mount caused by a heavy lens with a long lever arm. That is a good enough reason since the strain could result in long-term misalignment of the lens mount. The issue relevant to this article is that without a tripod collar, the offset of the center of gravity degrades the stability, and the lever arm of wind pushing the lens is larger. Most high-end telephoto lenses come with a built-in tripod collar. Lesser telephoto lenses don’t, but you can buy a third party collar for them. Once I added a tripod collar to the Sony 70-300, I noticed a higher success rate, whereas before I often struggled to get sharp images. However, in terms of weight and bulk, the difference with the better Sony 100-400 became minimal.

Stabilize the tripod

Even though a light tripod is not optimal for telephoto photography, sometimes that’s all you got. You can somehow make it into a heavier tripod. Many tripods come with a hook at the bottom of the center column or the platform, from which you can hang weights, such as your camera bag or a shopping bag that you load with rocks. Another related technique is to apply downward pressure to your tripod. The easiest is to press on the top of your camera with a hand, but you can also step with your feet into a strap attached to the center column or platform. Note that while those solutions address the lack of mass of the tripod, they don’t address its lack of rigidity, hence the “somehow”.

Use a remote release

Unless you use an extremely sturdy tripod, pressing the shutter will result in some camera vibration. For normal lenses, with a self-timer delay of 5 seconds (but not 2 seconds!) the vibration dies down enough, but in my experience, for telephotos, 10 seconds is more appropriate. The problem is that quite a bit can happen during those 10 seconds, including a gust of wind picking up. And there are those situations when the shot needs to be timed, for instance for a wave. A remote release alleviates those issues.

Time for the wind

Telephoto lenses are particularly sensitive to the wind because of their physical size and magnification. If you pay attention to the wind pattern, you’ll notice that it is almost never uniform. There are gusts alternating with calmer periods. Try to release the shutter during a lull. It can take a lot of patience, but such lulls often happen.

Shelter from the wind

Not only the wind is not uniformly distributed in time, but the same also applies in space. When I stepped up on the summit ridge of Dona Anna, the wind hit me with full force, but by descending a few meters the downwind side of the summit, I found enough shelter to photograph at sunset. Even a tree can offer enough shelter. Getting lower to the ground usually results in lower wind speed, so just lowering your tripod can help, with the additional benefit that a lower extension means higher rigidity. Besides taking advantage of terrain configuration, you can shelter your camera with your body. Among many other useful applications, an umbrella makes an excellent wind shelter. For roadside shots, I have used my car as a shelter, either by pointing it towards the wind and standing behind the rear hatch or even by shooting from a seat.

Crank up ISO

If you are not able to get out of a stiff breeze, unless you have the beefiest tripod, there are always going to be some vibrations. The shorter the shutter speed, the lesser their impact. Everything else being equal, you can get shorter shutter speeds by increasing ISO. Increasing the ISO from base 100 to 400 in the daytime doesn’t result in significant noise and loses only minimal detail, but it divides your exposure time by a factor of four.

Take multiple exposures

In some situations, you may not have the time to check at 100% magnification that the shots are sharp, maybe because there are quick changes not to be missed, such as the sun cresting above the horizon. That is a case where making redundant exposures can be useful to increase the chance that you got a usable shot.

Telephoto lenses in landscape photography

Landscape photography is often associated, or even equated with the use of wide-angle lenses, however, this can lead to formulaic compositions. Telephoto lenses may seem like the province of wildlife photography, however alternating with them brings new creative opportunities for landscape photography, as illustrated by the two opening images of Our National Monuments, compared to their wider counterparts.

For many years, I was heavily influenced by the near-far compositions of David Muench: a graphic and impactful foreground subject, with mountains in the background, all often below a dramatic sky. Photographers such as Galen Rowell would embrace that esthetic. His most used wide-angle lens was a 24mm, with the occasional 20mm, but since then the short end of the 16-35mm lens has become a standard, with focal lengths of 14mm, and more recently 12mm fairly common at a wide end of a zoom. Wide-angle photography was one of the main reasons I turned to a large-format camera – which is severely limited for telephoto lenses. There is much to be said for this approach. It helps place the viewer into the scene, depicting everything that someone standing there may see, naturally creating a sense of depth. But if you process them the same way, images can end up looking all the same.

Telephoto lenses are heavier to carry and more challenging to use than wide-angle lenses. They require a more careful technique. Since they amplify the effects of vibration, even in a small breeze getting a sharp image can take quite a bit of work. Depth of field is limited, particularly so with high-resolution sensors, so focusing has to be very precise, and even though the closest element may seem far at hundreds (or maybe thousands) of feet away, focus stacking could still be necessary to get everything in focus. Compositions need to be more precise, as small changes have greater effects. You have to look harder for them, as they form only a small portion of your field of view.

The latest point is maybe what makes telephoto landscape photography so compelling: when you pick up a small portion of the scene, you direct the viewer to something that you found interesting but they may have missed. This makes those shots intrinsically personal. A group of photographers standing at the same scene with a wide-angle lens are much more likely to produce similar images than if they were using a telephoto lens.

Packing 60+ national parks in Treasured Lands was such a challenge that almost each image had to represent a different location. Our National Monuments had more room, and I could use more images to represent single locations. In two cases, the difference between images was only the focal length.

During the afternoon I spent at a petroglyph site in Ironwood Forest National Monument, besides close-ups of petroglyphs and flora, most of my compositions consisted of wide-angle photographs with etched rocks in the foreground. At sunset time, I made one more such photograph at the widest setting of my 16-35mm lens. The foreground includes the main mountains in the monument, Silver Bell and Ragged Top. However, being located more than 20 miles away and only about 4,000 feet high, they appear tiny on the horizon. Because of my awareness of that mountain, I still noticed the distinctive profile of Ragged Top, the crown jewell of Ironwood Forest National Monument. With the 100-400mm lens, between two wide-angle shots, I zoomed into the peak for a single shot at 340mm. Although the resulting image is just a crop of the previous image, it is entirely different. The perspective looks natural enough that without comparison, I suspect you wouldn’t have known it was made with a super-telephoto lens. A bit of cropping enhanced the image’s symmetry, making it an excellent cover image for Our National Monuments.

Here’s a technical detail that illustrates the depth of field issues with telephoto lenses. When I photographed the image, I thought that the cactus in the foreground were far enough that they would be subjects at infinity, like the mountains. I therefore used an aperture of f/8. On the Sony A7R4, diffraction begins to limit sharpness after f/6.7. On the LCD, the image looked sharp enough, but when reviewing the image at 100% on a computer screen, it turned out that the mountain was a bit soft because of insufficient depth of field. Applying Topaz Sharpen AI worked well. You’d think that the difference would not be noticeable on a 10×12 inch print (the size of the book), and indeed the original image looks acceptable, but my daughter was able to tell the difference between two test prints viewed side-by-side. Using this Depth of Field calculator with the circle of confusion 10 microns appropriate for the Sony A7R4 61 MP full-frame sensor (2.5 times the pixel pitch 3.76 microns as explained here), we find a hyperfocal distance of 1,450 meters for 340mm and f/8. The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance you can focus on and still have perfect infinity focus. All this means that in this case, to get perfect infinity focus, I would have had to focus close to mile away! Would stopping down to a sharpness-degrading f/22 have helped? The hyperfocal distance would still be over 800 meters, or half a mile.

In Our National Monuments, there is a second pair of images where one is a crop of the other. Photographed from the summit of Snow Mountain in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, the comparison is even more striking because the two focal lengths are not that different. The wide image was photographed at 54mm, which by today’s landscape photography standards is quite long, and the telephoto image was photographed at 240mm. The graphic quality of the latter made it a good choice for the half-title page, the first image inside the book. One of the challenges with telephoto lenses is to create a sense of depth, as the perspective that helps create it with wide-angle images is now compressed. In this case, depth is created by atmospheric perspective, the drop off in warmth and contrast occurring naturally with distance, and it would have been ill-advised to apply a “dehaze” correction.

For some different landscape images, challenge yourself to use a telephoto lens.

QT Luong honored with Robin W. Winks Award from NPCA

Founded by the same people who started the National Park Service, the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) is a century-old conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members. The NPCA holds an annual gala called “Salute to the Parks.” during which various lifetime awards are presented. In the past, the event took place in Washington, DC but the 2020 edition was cancelled and the 2021 edition was virtual, live streamed on April 14. Each year NPCA identifies an individual or organization that through the arts, media, or academia effectively and consistently communicates to the American public the values of the National Park System and the national park ideal.

I am so grateful and honored to have received the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of the National Park System, presented “for inspiring the public to protect our national parks by capturing the essence of the natural world through photography.”

I am humbled to join an esteemed group of past recipients including TV journalist Tom Brokaw, artist Maya Lin, scientists Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, documentarians Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, authors David McCullough, Terry Tempest Williams, Doug Brinkley and James MacPherson, In particular, only two photographers received the award before, David Muench and Tom Mangelsen.

The entire presentation (11 minutes) is here, with my acceptance speech (5 minutes) starting at 5:15.

Our National Monuments introduction sequel

Thank you to everybody who commented on the beginning of my introduction to “Our National Monuments”. If you get the book, you’ll find that I have taken your comments to heart: I’ve re-organized and streamlined it. Here is the final part that I didn’t include because that was already quite long. Thank you also for your comments about the subtitle. I am now down to two final choices. I’d appreciate it if you would vote for your favorite. Here is the cover image:

III

I watched in helplessness as the administration eviscerated the protections of two of the largest and most beautiful national monuments to pave the way to extract oil, coal, and uranium. In January 2018, I resolved to take action the only way I knew, by hiking and photographing those 22 land-based endangered national monuments. Even though I had been photographing America’s public lands for a quarter-century, many of those monuments were unknown to me. I spent months in repeated visits, immersing myself in those sacred lands and discovering remnants of cultures imprinted on the ancient landscape. The enriching experience increased my motivation to help protect those places by raising public awareness. To amplify the call for conservation, I have invited others who work closely with these national monuments to voice their perspective. More than ever, we need our public lands as wild places for our spirits. We conserve what we love, and we love what we understand. I hope to inspire you to learn about our public lands’ hidden treasures and experience them yourself.

In contrast with the national parks, I was surprised to find the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) national monuments to be so wild, with even fewer facilities than I expected. The first director of the NPS, Stephen Mather, envisioned the national parks to incorporate spectacular scenery and drive mass tourism. It required an infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, developed campgrounds, and interpretive trails. By contrast, Secretary Babbitt intended for the BLM national monuments to protect scientifically significant areas, accommodating dispersed recreation as one of the multiple uses supported. In the spirit of community-based cooperation, the BLM encourages visitors to rely on the surrounding communities and provides only minimal visitor services within the monument. Even road-building is limited. Many national monuments do not have a single paved road. I needed to rent a 4WD vehicle several times to access some of them. Even then, I still ended up with five flat tires over three years, sometimes in incredibly remote areas. Edward Abbey would have smiled.

Despite a dozen visits to Death Valley National Park, I could never find the Mesquite Sand Dunes devoid of numerous footprints from other visitors. At Cadiz Sand Dunes in nearby Mojave Trails National Monument, I saw many animal tracks but no human footprints besides my own. The last time I attempted to drive to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the road was closed by rangers due to congestion. During four days in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, there were so few cars, less than a handful, that I frequently stopped in the middle of the road to photograph the exquisitely beautiful fall foliage. Photographers crowd famous natural arches in Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Securing a spot at sunrise or sunset can require arriving well in advance. Each time I photographed three of the most famous natural arches in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I had the entire place to myself.

As the crown jewels of our public lands, the national parks are home to places of superlatives that overwhelm at first sight. Many of them have become icons of our natural and cultural heritage. The often starker and more subtle landscapes of national monuments invite exploration to get to know and love. Because the natural features are less prominent, it was easier to pay attention to the small details that make up the ecosystem. I found the absence of postcard views conducive to personal discovery.

Our national monuments are unique places with different rules of engagement. The heavy visitation of national parks necessarily led to strict rules, fences around champion sequoia trees, and scenic overlooks. Although one is expected not to enter ancient ruins out of respect, there are no such fences on national monuments. They offer more flexibility to experience the great outdoors. You can hike with your dog and camp almost anywhere. Unlike in Grand Canyon National Park, you can drive to the Grand Canyon rim in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and pitch your tent at the edge of the chasm. As the national parks become ever more popular, the BLM and USFS national monuments’ vast open spaces offer us places of solitude and inspiration. The rugged experience gives us a sense of the western frontier, where personal responsibility, independence, and self-sufficiency are qualities that matter, where unlimited opportunities for exploration and adventure under a wide blue sky leave you endless room to be your own person. Tread lightly, conserve loudly.

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