Terra Galleria Photography

Visiting America’s National Monuments, the Parks Less Traveled

Are you looking for new landscapes away from the crowds of the national parks? Are you seeking a more adventurous and out-of-the-beaten-path experience? If so, how about a visit to America’s national monuments?

National monuments: what are they?

Ask a person on the street to name a national monument, and you will probably hear about the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, or memorials commemorating our presidents and war veterans. So what’s in there for those who seek to immerse themselves in nature? In the United States, the term has a more specific meaning and, at the same time, includes features more general than built landmarks. Defined by a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act, national monuments are federally protected areas containing objects of historic or scientific interest. The main difference with national parks is administrative. The President can swiftly proclaim national monuments with only a signature, thus providing expedited protections, whereas only Congress can establish national parks.

As suggested by its name, the Antiquities Act was initially meant to protect native archeological sites. However, the first national monument was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a natural feature of geologic interest. Congress had been debating over the Grand Canyon since 1882, but even as commercialism was running unchecked, by 1908, it had not yet acted to protect that quintessential American wonder. President Theodore Roosevelt did, by proclaiming the Grand Canyon a national monument. Since 1906, 16 presidents have used the Act to preserve some of America’s most treasured public lands and waters. Half of today’s national parks were first protected as national monuments.

Two landscape-scale national monuments

While some national monuments fit within an acre, others protect entire landscapes with natural features as extraordinary as those found in national parks. In some sense, those landscape-scale national monuments could be seen as national parks in waiting. An excellent example is Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument located in Southern Utah. At 1,880,461 acres, it is significantly larger than Grand Canyon National Park (1,217,403 acres). Within its plateaus descending in vividly colored stair-steps from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon, the monument protects significant paleontological sites, making it a scientific treasure trove. However, for the visitors and photographers, the attraction is its extraordinary geology of cliffs, badlands, hoodoos, natural arches, and canyons.

Nearby Bears Ears National Monument shares many characteristics with Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument: its location in Southern Utah, its size (1,353,000 acres) larger than Grand Canyon National Park, and wondrous red rock country with even more immense vistas. However, it is primarily a cultural landscape. Hidden in its labyrinth of canyons and mesas are more cliff dwellings and tribal artifacts than any other area in the American West, including some of the most iconic ruins on the Colorado Plateau. Both monuments marked milestones in conservation. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, proclaimed in 1996 by President Clinton, was the first national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), marking the evolution of the nation’s largest land caretaker towards conservation. The Hopi, Navajo, Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute agreed to set generations-old differences apart to petition for the protection of their ancestral lands. In response, in the waning days of his presidency, President Obama proclaimed Bear Ears National Monument in 2016, the first national monument initiated by native people and co-managed by them.

National monuments at risk

National monuments are much less known and visited than national parks, but those two just have been in the news since 2017. In the spring of that year, President Trump signed an unprecedented executive order to review all the national monuments created through the Antiquities Act since 1996 that were larger than 100,000 acres. The review’s objective was to determine if former presidents had abused their power and if the protections curtailed economic growth. It targeted a total of 27 out of the 35 larger national monuments, including 22 national monuments across 11 states, in addition to five even larger marine areas. The public comment period of the summer of 2017 generated 97% support for the national monuments under review. Yet, on December 4, 2017, the President ordered size reductions to the two national monuments located in Utah mentioned above.

In January 2018, I resolved to take action the only way I knew, by hiking and photographing the 22 land-based national monuments in the review. I found a broad cross-section of natural environments, covering a significant portion of the American landscape. Totaling about 11 million acres, they ranged from the north woods of Maine to the cactus-covered deserts of Arizona. Besides their vastness and diversity, their natural features rivaled those in our beloved national parks. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows. The monument also houses unique world-renowned rock formations like The Wave and the White Pocket. Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves than Sequoia and Kings National Parks. The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine.

I spent months in repeated visits, immersing myself in those sacred lands and discovering remnants of cultures imprinted on the ancient landscape. So many of those monuments were previously unknown to me. I reasoned that those areas were vulnerable because the general public did not know about them and thus was not moved to defend them. This inspired me to publish a book that could help conservation organizations raise awareness of those lands. To amplify the call for conservation, I invited those who advocate for these national monuments to present their perspective. I am so grateful to 27 local citizen associations caring for those national treasures for contributing their voices, to former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for her foreword, and to Ian Shive for his photographs and words that give readers a glimpse of the almost inaccessible marine national monuments in the Pacific. The result is the first photography book entirely dedicated to America’s national monuments. While it includes only a subset of them (the 27 monuments at risk from the review), those comprise the vast majority of the large, park-like monuments. Our National Monuments: America’s Hidden Gems is the first in-depth portrayal of those parks less traveled.

Freedom to roam

After spending a big part of the previous quarter-century photographing the national parks, I was surprised by the freedom offered by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) national monuments. Freedom from crowds, from rules, and expectations.

The national parks, set for “benefit and enjoyment of the people,” are generally equipped with a convenient infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, and interpretive trails. Set up for mass tourism, they can bring in mass visitation. For example, this year Arches National Park was frequently full and closed to new entries by 9 am. People instead head to nearby Canyonlands National Park, but even there, securing a spot at sunrise for the iconic Mesa Arch requires arriving well in advance. Next year, you will need a reservation to enter Arches National Park. By contrast, when I photographed three of the better-known natural arches in nearby Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, I had the entire place to myself. 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 Dunes Wilderness in Mojave Trails, I saw many animal tracks but no human footprints, aside from my own.

During the worst days of the pandemic, national parks locked their gates. Embodying the principle that public lands are always open to the public, national monuments never closed, providing much solitude and solace. The heavy visitation of national parks made it necessary to enforce strict rules. You often have to “commute” a long distance to photography spots as no car camping is allowed outside developed campgrounds. In many national monuments, you can camp almost everywhere you like. Unlike in Grand Canyon National Park, in adjacent Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, I could drive right to the edge of the chasm and pitch my tent a few yards away from where I made my sunset, night, and sunrise photographs. Drones are strictly prohibited in national parks, but they are allowed in the national monuments managed by the BLM and the USFS.

Many national parks places have become such over-photographed icons that finding a fresh composition has become as challenging as securing a spot. The national monuments offer new landscapes whose more subtle scenery invites exploration to get to know and love. The absence of postcard views and overwhelming features frees you of pre-conceptions that hinder personal discovery.

Explore the national monuments

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. With freedom comes the need for personal responsibility, independence, and self-reliance. As their development is minimal, national monuments can test your preparation and self-sufficiency. Many 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. With no visitor centers nor rangers around, no brochures, nor guidebooks, the first obstacle in my explorations was to find information.

Our National Monuments: America’s Hidden Gems provides you with the starting point I wish I had for planning trips. Coffee-table books about places often left me frustrated of being in the dark about the locations depicted. With my previous book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, I had aimed to create a book that inspired and informed. Each photograph came with extended practical travel and photography notes, including facts on the parks’ natural history or anecdotal observations about my experiences. Although people in the publishing industry were skeptical that this combination of an artbook and guidebook would work, the book won twelve national and international awards and is also a best-seller in its sixth printing. My new book, Our National Monuments reprises this innovative format, depicting each national monument in depth through a selection of representative highlights with keyed maps and location information. Because those lands are not as popular as the national parks, I do not expect the new book to be as commercially successful. But, on the other hand, the general lack of awareness of those lands is also why I felt this book is needed, a sentiment echoed by the grassroots conservation organizations that care for those critical landscapes. Our National Monuments is my gift to our public lands and those who care for them.

On October 8, 2021, President Biden finally restored the two national monuments in Utah – and one in the Atlantic Ocean. Was it all a bad dream? Republican politicians in Utah are gearing up for a lawsuit to challenge the restoration. The 2017 presidential attack on them reminded us of John Muir’s appeal that “the battle for conservation will go on endlessly.” It reminded us that since 1906, America’s boldest efforts in conservation have been through the proclamation of national monuments. It prompted me to set out to see for myself the magnificent landscapes of the parks less traveled. I hope it prompts you to learn about our public lands’ hidden gems and embark on your own journey.

Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument

In the early 2010s, I heard about a campaign to establish Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument. I was immediately intrigued. The land, located north of Santa Cruz and south of Davenport, would potentially become the national monument closest to my home in San Jose, CA. The conservationists, led by the Sempervirens Fund achieved their goal in early 2017, but it was only last week that I got the opportunity to set foot on Cotoni-Coast Dairies. Still, it was a “preview” well ahead of the official opening to the public planned for next summer.

There is actually no Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument. Part of the actions taken on the last week of his presidency, the Jan 12, 2017 proclamation by President Obama did not establish Cotoni-Coast Dairies as a new national monument, but instead an inland expansion of the California Coastal National Monument. Maybe America’s most odd unit of protected land, the California Coastal National Monument is a paradox. Scores of people see it every day, likely more than any other parkland in California, yet it is unknown to most people. Virtually none of the people who see it ever set foot on its lands. Although spread out over more than 10,000 square miles, as proclaimed by President Clinton on Jan 11, 2000, the California Coastal National Monument totaled only 600 acres of land, less than one square mile. All of this is because as the monument extended for 12 nautical miles along the entire 840-mile California coastline but includes only the islets and rocks above mean high tide within that large area. On March 11, 2014, President Obama had added 1,665 acres of onshore lands to the California Coastal National Monument, but the 5,800 acres from the Cotoni-Coast Dairies are by far the largest onshore additions.

The lands were once inhabited by Indigenous Peoples known as the Cotoni (pronounced Cho-toe-knee), part of the Ohlone of the larger SF Bay Area, and then exploited by the Coast Dairies and Land Company, a Swiss dairy operation, hence the name. After farming activities ceased, a nuclear power plant and later a luxury home development were considered, but fortunately those projects did not succeed. Eventually, the Trust for Public Land acquired the property. They transferred the 407 coastal acres west of Highway 1 to California State Parks, who manages them as an extension of Wilder Ranch State Park, and the 5,800 inland acres east of Highway 1 to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

I am thankful for the invitation to the guided hike, which was organized by the Conservation Lands Fundation (CLF) and led by representatives of the two of its Friends Grassroots Network organizations, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust and the Santa Cruz Mountain Trails Association. The later organization had broken ground for the trails on the same week. They expect to be able to open trails to the public by the summer of 2022. The process of planning and obtaining approval from all parties is much more lengthy than the trail building itself. From what I have seen, it will be well worth the wait. I learned from the former organization about the land’s native heritage, its human-impacted ecology, and the field methods being used to make an archeological inventory. So far, ground samples were made at 2,500 locations. About 10% of them yielded artifacts, but don’t expect them to be arrowheads or pottery shards, they are mostly traces of human occupation like shellfish. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band are the descendants of the Ohlone. Due to the infamous SF Bay Area costs they now live far away, but the Amah Mutsun Land Trust hopes to involve them in all aspects of the monument development.

The lands consist of a mix of grassy coastal terraces and forested hills cut by steep river-carved canyons. Due to prior land use, both by Indigenous Peoples who conducted controlled burns, and then the farming operations, the area is more open than its neighbors, offering great ocean views, especially from the edge of the terraces. By contrast, the canyons presented lush vegetation, dominated by live coast oaks, whereas the hills further inland are home to redwood trees. It all adds up to a fascinating mosaic in a small area (9 square miles).

The hike lasted just two hours. Noticing that I had my camera out, other participants often asked if I got good pictures. Given that we started at midday, that walking, listening to the informative commentary from the various representatives, chatting with them, with friendly CLF staff and other invitees did not leave much time for photography, all I could say was “we will see”. You are seeing them now, as those photographs illustrate this account. I hope that despite the hasty circumstances, they still inspire some to discover this new gem for themselves. I cannot wait for the official opening and will be back.

Georeferenced PDF maps

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that stewards most of the lands in Our National Monuments doesn’t have a reputation for being visitor-oriented like the National Park Service (NPS). With a few exceptions, there are no visitor centers within their national monuments, and often not any at all. The website blm.gov is not designed for user-friendly navigation (hint: use the search box to locate information). However, the BLM is good at making available georeferenced PDFs for many of the areas under their management. What are georeferenced PDFs and how do you use them?

Georeferenced PDFs

PDF is an excellent format for maps because it can encode vector objects. For maps, this presents two advantages: unlike raster (pixel) objects, their resolution is unlimited and the file size is relatively small. In 2017, the PDF 2.0 (ISO 32000-2) standard made PDF dramatically more useful for maps with a set of geospatial extensions: added information (metadata) relates the image to coordinates.

The PDF map encompasses the entirety of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, an area larger than Grand Canyon National Park. When zoomed in with the GoodReader app, the half-mile trail to Mt Logan is clearly visible.

The PDF format is the standard for printable documents, from a one-page flyer to entire books – the printer for Our National Monuments expected a PDF from me. It is in wide use, with free readers readily available. Both Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader (version 9 and up) support georeferenced PDF, letting you find and mark coordinates or make distance measurements. The real payoff is when you open georeferenced PDFs with a GPS-connected app on a device like a mobile phone: the app can use the GPS to indicate your position on the map. Since the PDF is a document that you have downloaded to your device, you do not need any cell signal to make it work, which is critical in the backcountry.

Avanza Maps App

My primary GPS app for offline navigation is Gaia GPS (review). The Swiss Army knife of GPS apps, it offers a lot of features, but reading georeferenced PDF is not one of them. By far, the most popular mobile app to read georeferenced PDFs is Avanza Maps, available for Apple iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Avanza Map has a number of features such as waypoints, track recording, and measurements. However, since I already use the more sophisticated Gaia GPS for those, I deploy Avanza Maps mostly for its basic function of following my position on a map, which shows up as a blue dot. The app is free but has in-app purchases.

Avanza Maps Store

There are two ways of getting maps into the app. The easiest is to use the built-in Avenza Map Store, which is the most extensive map collection I have seen, with almost a million maps of all kinds. Many of them are free, and that includes a fair amount of BLM-produced maps, as well as maps produced by the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation near my home. There is also a huge selection of paid maps from well-known vendors such as National Geographic or Garmin/Delorme that retail for a price comparable to their print maps, which is to say quite a bit for a digital download. The collection is well-organized and easily searchable by location or by keyword. Those who know how to create georeferenced PDFs can even offer their own maps for sale on the map store. An excellent example are the maps from Redwood Hikes.

Importing maps

The other way to get maps into the app is to import maps obtained from your own sources. I am going to take the maps in the Our National Monuments mobile PDF as an example, but the steps detailed below are the same for any PDF map that you find online. Although those maps are already embedded in the document and can be fully zoomed, they don’t offer the georeferenced functionality when viewed in a standard PDF viewer. The download links are there so that you can import the maps to Avenza Maps. Many of those maps are not available from the Avenza Map Store. I have included them in the Our National Monuments mobile PDF because unlike for national parks, for which there are quite a few apps with offline maps, no such resources were available for national monuments.

The catch is that while there is no limit to how many Avenza Map Store maps can be stored your device, the free plan lets you store only 3 imported maps at a time. If you want to store more than 3, you need a subscription ($30/year). Since I’ve never had the need to use more than 3 maps at a time, I’ve found an easy workaround against this limitation: store maps using another app’s file system, import a map from that file system into Avenza Maps as needed, delete it from Avenza Maps when no longer in use. I’ll detail step-by-step how I do that for the Our National Monuments mobile PDF on Apple iOS. My preferred PDF reader GoodReader ($3) is convenient for that use because it also includes an easy-to-use file management system for storing the maps, but there are plenty of other solutions.

Step-by-step instructions

Tap “Manage Files” in Goodreader and “+FOLDER” to create a folder, for example “MapsGeo”.

For each of the maps you want to store, while you have an internet connection:

  1. Navigate to the URL of the map you want to store. For example, in the Our National Monuments mobile PDF tap a “Download georeferenced PDF” link.

  2. Tap the Download icon of Goodreader (leftmost bottom).

  3. Tap the “X” on top left as many times as needed to see folders in “My Documents”. Tap on the “Downloads” folder. You should see the map you just downloaded. Tap “Manage Files”, select the map with the circle on its left, tap “MOVE”, navigate to “MapsGeo” folder if needed, tap “Move 1 item here”.

To import a stored map into Avenza Maps (does not require an internet connection):
  1. Tap “+”

  2. Tap “From Storage Locations”

  3. Tap “GoodReader” to choose app

  4. Tap “MapsGeo” to choose folder

  5. Tap the map you want to import. It will be ready for use in Avenza Map.

To remove a no-longer needed map from Avenza Maps, sweep to the left from My Maps view to reveal the “Delete” button.

I hope that this relatively little known tool is useful to you in your exploration of our public lands. I don’t have any experience with platforms other than iOS, but I suppose they offer apps with equivalent functionalities. If there are other apps on any platform you prefer, please feel free to share for the benefit of other readers.

Thankful for our national monuments

I am thankful to still have my health, the support of my family, for the vaccine and with it the ability to gather together with all loved ones. I am thankful for the support I receive from you, my readers. There are, however, bigger things. On December 4, 2017, following a review, President Trump had ordered size reductions to two national monuments located in Utah. Bears Ears went from 1.3 million acres to nearly 230,000, only 15% of its original size. Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced by roughly half, from almost 1.9 million acres to about 1 million. This unprecedented attack on our public lands prompted me to embark on a journey to all the 22 national monuments under review, culminating with the release of Our National Monuments two weeks ago, a book that I had announced one year ago to this day. The project has consumed me for four years, so naturally, I am thankful for the change of administration and Secretary Haaland’s actions, leading to President Biden’s restorations of the two national monuments to their original size on Oct 8, 2021.

President Biden stated during the signing ceremony “This may be the easiest thing I’ve ever done so far as president”, yet it took him 258 days from his inauguration to fulfill this campaign promise. I guess the political process is never easy. President Biden also went a step further from merely reversing Trump’s actions, issuing new proclamations (Bear Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante) that are not merely repeats of the originals, mandating new management plans, and including language that may pave the way for phasing out grazing rights. On that day, he also made the first presidential proclamation of Indigenous People’s Day. It may not be a coincidence that the restoration of Bears Ears embraced indigenous knowledge and honored tribal leadership in both the protection and management of this living landscape. When President Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, neither protection of sacred sites nor tribal access for traditional uses were mentioned. Both were central in the Bears Ears proclamation of 2016, and both have been incorporated in the new Grand Staircase-Escalante proclamation.

Besides the two Utah monuments, President Biden also restored protections to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, proclaimed by President Obama. The 2017 national monuments review included five marine national monuments. I am thankful to photographer Ian Shive for his work that allows us to glimpse places that would otherwise be inaccessible to us, and his collaboration in Our National Monuments. A screening of the Jean-Michel Cousteau PBS documentary Voyage to Kure inspired President George W. Bush to proclaim the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument, the first national marine national monument, and at one time the largest protected area in the world. He would follow up that designation with the three other marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean. However, they were not meant to become visitor destinations.

On the other hand, the national monuments managed by the BLM and the USFS embody the principle that public lands are open to the public, in a spirit of freedom and exploration as American as the lands themselves. As they never closed during the pandemic unlike the national parks, I am thankful that the isolated experience provided me much-needed relief over the past two years. I am thankful to the BLM and its personnel who has been working for 75 years to protect our nation’s public lands. Conservation starts with community. Places are best protected when a group of local citizens leads the advocacy efforts. I am thankful that citizen organizations have lent their voices to each of the 27 national monuments in Our National Monuments. I am thankful for the 11 national monuments proclaimed under Secretary Jewell’s watch and for the foreword she wrote for the book.

Now that they have been reversed, were the presidential actions of 2017 just a bad dream? This attack on our national monuments had a few beneficial unintended consequences.

It reminded us of the importance of the Antiquities Act. Used by 16 Presidents from both parties, its versatility made it a cornerstone of preservation in America. I am thankful for the thirty national parks that were first protected as national monuments. Scientists back a new goal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030 to protect the earth’s climate and biodiversity. I am thankful for our new extensive parklands with federal protections, which over the past half-century, have all been national monuments, almost all BLM. To preserve the future of public lands, we must protect the Antiquities Act as vigorously as our lands.

It reminded us that fragile landscapes, struggling with a changing climate and surging visitation, need informed management based on the long term and for the benefit of the country as a whole. They must not become political fodder in a divided nation, changing with each new presidential administration. It reminded us of John Muir’s appeal that “the battle for conservation will go on endlessly.” I am thankful that many realized that we can no longer take designations for granted and worked so hard for the current outcome. As citizens who care for lands that belong to all of us, we need to remain vigilant and involved. It prompted me to set out to see for myself the magnificent landscapes of the parks less traveled, an experience borne of disheartening circumstances, but for which I am eventually thankful. I hope Our National Monuments inspires you to embark on your own journey, and if the experience enriches your life, you will help ensure the same experience is available for our children and grandchildren. Happy Thanksgiving!

Return to JMT backpacking

This spring, I returned to an adjacent segment of the John Muir Trail, a quarter-century after my first visit. How did things change, particularly with respect to photography? Although I carried my 5×7 camera, my first backpacking trip about 25 years ago was mostly a fun outing with friends on a short section of the John Muir Trail (JMT). Since then, I’ve gone backpacking on more occasions as part of my project to photograph the national parks. Those trips weren’t mainly about walking and spending time in the wilderness, but rather about accessing and photographing destinations whose depth in the backcountry made them unpractical to reach during day trips. Having released Treasured Lands in 2016, the next year, when I climbed the Grand Teton, I did something that had become rare outside of family trips: embarking on an outing whose main purpose was not photography. I was looking forward to more of those mountaineering trips. However, the end of the year 2017 brought the reductions in size to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I needed to go back to work, starting a new place-based project centered on national monuments in early 2018. By June 2021, after six extremely busy months of writing and designing, I had finished the work on Our National Monuments, and it was time for a long-due vacation. Was there a better choice than the John Muir Trail?

After hiking the trail solo, my brother-in-law Nhon, wanting to share it with family members, offered to take them on the trail the previous year. However, his plan of 20-mile days turned out to be too ambitious for the others. The group bailed at Devils Postpile. After two weeks of rest, some of them went back to the trail, but beset by altitude sickness, blisters, stomach issues, and exhaustion, they exited early again. This year, the plan was to restart where they had left off at Kearsarge Pass. This was precisely a section of the trail I had not hiked at all before except for the descent from Mt Whitney to Trail Crest. With a more reasonable plan of 10-mile days, about 44 miles with 12,000 feet elevation gain in five days, with the promise to carry our food and collective gear (including a tent for comfort), I convinced my wife to join, although she had not gone on any backpacking trip since the birth of our children.

That southern section of the John Muir Trail is demanding. Between Kearsarge Pass and Trail Crest, it offers no escape routes. The trail’s altitude is consistently high to the point that another brother-in-law, Phuong, despite having hiked more than 600 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to Kennedy Meadows in the weeks prior was still feeling the effects of altitude. Several sisters felt nauseated and could not eat enough. As the trail crosses the highest point of the entire Pacific Crest Trail at Forester Pass (13,153 ft, 4,009 m), hiking in early June, we were concerned about dangerous snow-covered sections. Fortunately, the snowpack this year was the lowest I have ever seen, and we breathed a big sigh of relief upon reaching the pass. Even though it turned out that the John Muir Trail is quite hard, a notion vividly conveyed in Ethan Gallogly’s The Trail.

JMT, Kings Canyon National Park

However, that fact facilitated my photography endeavors. On long-distance hikes, making fine photographs is a challenge for several reasons. Carrying photography gear is only one of them. All the others had switched to ultra-light gear. Not following the hiking scene, I was the only one using a traditional internal frame backpack from Dana Designs weighing more than 6 pounds empty, but I think it was necessary to carry my load. With the bear-resistant canister, tent, and sleeping bag, my backpack was full, although I had kept the photography gear to almost a minimum. I had brought one Sony A7R4, 24-105mm f/4 and 12-24mm f/2.8 lenses, and the Leofoto small LS-224C tripod (described here), the later mostly for night photography and timelapses. Accessories were limited to half-a-dozen batteries and a polarizing filter. Compared to the 70 lbs backpacks I carried at a younger age, the 40-50 lbs weight seemed reasonable, yet compared to other family members, it was towering high, and each time I stopped, I could not wait to take it off my back. As I aged, I was definitively grateful that equipment has become much lighter for somewhat comparable image quality.

Even if you were to photograph with a phone, you’d still be subject to the main challenge, which is timing. You are rarely at the right time with the most favorable light since the need to progress dictates your schedule. The time to photograph with the least constraints is in the evening, but since each day we woke up before dawn to make an early start, on those long summer days evening photography ate up precious sleep time. We were a group of seven. When you hike with a group, you don’t want to make others wait for you. But when you stop to photograph while hiking, within just a few minutes, the group has moved surprisingly far from you. On that trip, I was able to cope with this situation only because of the fitness I maintain – those runs every other day when at home paid off. Usually, I carried the camera around my neck with a Photoflex Galen Rowell-branded waist camera pouch (long discontinued) to distribute its weight and prevent it from bouncing, making access quick. The other lens stayed on the top of the backpack in a pouch. On sections of trail where I did not expect photographing, I also stuck the camera, in its pouch, on top of the backpack. During the day, I handheld all the photographs. This was possible because of image stabilization since stopping down and using a polarizer eat shutter speeds. My wife and I trailed the group, and after stopping to photograph, I was able to catch up with her within minutes. Still, I had to find compositions quickly.

I made about 900 exposures. In the end, except for the sore shoulders, I felt that photography didn’t detract from my experience in the wilderness, but that the additional challenge made it more interesting and alleviated the unnatural pace of hiking with others. Having spent recent years in more arid and lower-elevation lands, I had somehow forgotten how beautiful the High Sierra was. The photographs are far from conveying the entire experience, which is also made stronger by the effort and difficult times. Yet, they can serve to awaken memories not depicted, and that’s why we cherish them.

JMT, Sequoia National Park

The Backpacking Trip

I first connected with the wilderness on the high peaks of the Alps. Besides the setting of that world new to me, mountain climbing captivated me because of the intense concentration it fostered. During technical ascents on steep faces and ridges, there is nothing but you and the mountain in mind, as the only concern is reach the summit and not to make a fatal move. Focussing on rock and ice, I felt part of a limitless universe. I did not think about how limited was the theater in which my outings took place. The Mont-Blanc Massif, the crown jewel of the Alps, is sandwiched between the sizeable towns of Chamonix in France and Courmayeur in Italy, only 13 miles apart from each other.

Those mountaineering outings were mostly two days affairs. The first day – or afternoon, you would hike to a mountain hut. The western Alps are home to a dense network of those structures. They range from full-service hostels with meals accomodating more than a hundred and located on trails accessible to families, to tiny shelters precariously perched on mountain ridges reachable only by serious alpinists. What they have in common are bunk beds and thick, heavy blankets. You don’t have to burden yourself with even a sleeping bag. That helped make possible ascents of uncommon length and difficulty. The second day you’d get up in the wee hours, hopefully summit and then descend all the way back to the valley. I remember only a handful of times when my outings spilled over a third day and only two forced bivies. One took place in 1989 when, during the first recorded solo ascent of the Jaccoux-Domenech route to Mont Blanc (trip report in French), I arrived in the vicinity of the hut at night and could not locate it. The other was two years later on a ledge when we didn’t climb fast enough on the Bonatti Pillar of Les Drus – a landmark route since then totally obliterated by a series of huge rock falls in the summer of 2005, caused by global warming.

After I climbed Denali in 1993, everybody I met in America assumed that I had a huge backpacking experience. You may be surprised to learn that the Denali ascent was my first multiple-night outing carrying a tent and a sleeping bag. Because of the Arctic environment and the peculiar logistics of dragging a sled on the glacier, going up and down the main camp twice to ferry supplies, and then waiting for a weather window, I view it more as an expedition than a backpacking trip. Back from the Mountain, during my spare time, I embarked on a series of multi-day big-wall climbs in Yosemite. In that vertical world of high cliffs, I watched the hours pass and the shadows move across the valley below during the lengthy belays. However, I was mostly stuck on a very steep rock, making very slow progress upwards. In my days in the Alps, I viewed hiking as mostly a way to approach a climb. Because of all the new scenery I saw in the national parks, I began to spend more time on trails, but that was limited to day hikes.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1995 that I embarked on a multi-day backpacking trip. Like for my first visit to Yosemite and to Death Valley, the trip was organized by students from the UC Berkeley outdoor club CHAOS. This particular memory was brought out because my friend Ethan from the CHAOS days just released this week his promising debut novel, The Trail, which takes place on the John Muir Trail. That first backpacking trip also took place over four days on the John Muir Trail, or more precisely, a short section of its 211 miles, common with the Rae Lakes Loop, but starting from the east side via Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass and exiting at Sawmill Pass.

Maybe it was a fortuitous coincidence that for my introduction to the High Sierra, I hiked a segment of the trail that mile for mile contains some of the most stunning scenery in a mountain range famous for stunning scenery. It is not for nothing that it is one of the most popular hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, if not in the entire Sierra Nevada according to the National Park Service. Our itinerary covered less than 40 miles. Yet there was so much more terrain variety and natural delights close at hand than at the places I concentrated on as a climber. Streams, meadows with wildflowers, trees contributed to creating a gentle wilderness. All the cares of the world were gone, as all I had to do was to walk and camp, freeing my mind for looking.

Mild weather also helps make the Sierra Nevada a great introduction to backpacking. Sunny skies grace the range 300 days a year, and not needing to carry a tent not only lightened my backpack but also increased my sense of connection with the wilderness as I slept under the stars, completing my immersion in the Range of Light. The only thing I could have done without were the droves of mosquitoes at sunset! In those years, I was fit enough that carrying my 5×7 camera, a series 2 tripod, and a 35mm camera in addition to the backpacking gear didn’t feel like a burden. The trip gave me the confidence that I could carry it anywhere in the wilderness for my fledgling project to photograph the national parks. Hiking with the group, there were only a few times I could set it up – including all the photographs on this page. I returned from the trip with only a dozen different exposures. But I didn’t mind, because I felt that they captured the impressions of a new experience in nature and a new beginning.


“Flip-ma” is how you pronounce the acronym for the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976. Today marks its 45th anniversary. What is it, and why should we care?

America’s public lands represent 640 million acres, managed by four different agencies. The oldest of them is the US Forest Service (USFS), established in 1905 to manage the National Forest System (192 million acres) and “use these lands wisely for the present and future generations” via forestry, grazing, and mining. The National Park Service (NPS) is the most well-known and beloved, but out of the four, they manage the smallest area (79.8 million acres). By contrast with the USFS, the NPS mission is to:

conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
That mission was assigned to the NPS at its creation in 1916 through a federal law called the National Park Service Organic Act. In addition, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages for conservation the National Wildlife Refuge System (95 million acres of land, plus oceanic waters). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the lesser known agency and its mission is less obvious. What makes that agency important is that overseeing 248 million acres, about 10% of the land surface of the U.S., it is the largest land caretaker in the country. The FLPMA could be viewed as the BLM’s organic act – its mission statement as a government agency.

To understand the lower-profile status of the BLM, we must go back to its history as caretaker of leftover lands. After World War I, public lands in America fell into three categories. The USFS forests for multiple uses, the NPS parks for conservation and recreation, and the rest of federal lands. The general policy was to continue “disposing” of them under the auspices of the General Land Office by sale to private interests, states, or transfer to another federal agency. However, due to their ruggedness and aridity, nobody wanted to buy those lands for development or farming, and the technology for locating fossil fuels had yet to be invented. Nor was there any interest in putting them in national forests or national parks. In 1934, Congress determined that they had interim value (pending disposal) for grazing and established the (Taylor) Grazing Service to arbiter rights. In 1946, the General Land Office and Grazing Service merged into the Bureau of Land Management, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

In 1976, thirty years after its establishment, the BLM was finally assigned a mission with the FLPMA (full text). Today, the vast majority agree that public lands that belong to all Americans should remain in public ownership and not be made available for sale. During the frontier years, the West was for grabs. Given that states lack the resources to manage them effectively, even today, the transfer of federal lands to the states would eventually result in the sale to private interests. Repelling thousands of out-of-date land management laws, including the Homesteading Act of 1864, the FLPMA stated for the first time that:

public lands be retained in Federal ownership unless […] disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.

Today, we recognize the intrinsic value of the BLM lands for public use. It was the FLPMA that formally established the policy of managing those lands in a resource-oriented, multiple-use way, to:

protect the quality of the scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values; where appropriate, protect and preserve certain public lands in their natural condition; provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use.
Not only does the BLM manage more public lands than any other federal agency, only a tiny portion of them (currently less than 15%) is protected – as opposed to 100% for the NPS and USFWS and 25% for the USFS. Therefore, the BLM lands offer the most significant conservation opportunity of our times. We could make considerable strides towards the 30×30 initiative of conserving 30% of our lands and waters by 2030 by just increasing the percentage of protected lands with the BLM system. The FLPMA paved the way for that to happen by recognizing the conservation value of those lands.

If the BLM was to transition towards a conservation-minded agency, per Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt’s vision, it needed to receive something to conserve. That something came in 1996 with the proclamation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the first national monument assigned for management to the BLM. In 2000, the establishment of the National Conservation Lands under the care of the BLM created our newest network of protected lands. They would include almost all the landscape-scale national monuments proclaimed after 1996, adding a total of more than 7 million acres of newly protected lands, more than in any other system. The Antiquities Act (discussed at great length here) made their proclamation possible, but without the framework of the FLPMA, we wouldn’t have protected most of the national treasures that are the subject of Our National Monuments.

Calf Creek, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, photographed in 1996 on 5×7 film

Tripod Tales – (almost) all the tripods I have used and what I’ve learned about them

When I photographed in the Alps in the early 1990s, I didn’t even own a tripod. My camera support of choice was a clamp that could attach to the adze of an ice-ax. Upon arriving in America in 1993, one of my first purchases was a tripod. Many photographers have wasted money by starting with flimsy tripods, but at that point, I already knew enough to go directly to a good one. Today, there is a dizzying array of tripod offerings. At that time, the choice was essentially between Gitzo (twist lock, expensive) and Bogen (flip locks, economical). Even though I was envious of how fast my roommate folded his Bogen, it was an easy choice, given how everything Galen Rowell did influenced me. In this write-up, I’ll tell you why I moved from one tripod to the next, and in the process quickly outline the strengths and weaknesses of each of them.


In 1993, Gitzo’s line of tripods was quite simple. They came in series from the smallest to the largest, denotated by a number from 0 to 5. Within each series, you had a choice between 3 sections and 4 sections. The larger tripods (series 3 and up) offered a choice of a regular, geared or no center column. I bought their series 2, 4-section tripod. Only one year later, Gitzo announced the first carbon fiber tripod, the Mountaineer (initially only available as a series 2). It promised a savings of one-third the weight, better mechanical characteristics, and no hands frozen by contact with bare metal. Its price of several times more than the aluminum model, was unheard of for a tripod. However, the innovation was irresistible, and I quickly made the switch, reselling my not-so old tripod. I bought a 3-section tripod rather than 4-section. For general use, the more compact folded size of a 4-section tripod was not worth the additional setup time and the diminished rigidity caused by one more joint and smaller leg diameters.

I would supplement it with a series 1 tripod primarily for travel and a series 3 for large-format photography (Gitzo 1325, 2035 grams; with RRS BH-55 head, 2900 grams), both carbon fiber. No going back to aluminum! I tried to use the series 1 for a while on trips with long hikes, even with my 5×7 camera. After making a photograph at the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I secured the tripod to my backpack. As I shouldered it in a swinging motion, the tripod detached itself and fell into the raging waters. My large-format camera was now useless without a tripod, and I scrambled up the gully quickly to try to catch a sunset photograph at least. The Gitzo series 1 weighs 1160 grams versus 1440 grams for the series 2. Remembering my times with the series 1, I did not think the savings in weight were worth the loss in utility (less stable, smaller height) and subsequently used the series 2 even for long hiking and traveling. When working closer to the car, the series 3 was my choice, especially on windy days when its improved rigidity made a difference.

The Mountaineer tripod lasted me until the early 2000s when it became inoperable. It was all my fault. Among other outings, I had taken it on a two-week kayaking trip in Glacier Bay National Park. Due to the lack of space on the kayak, I lashed it on the kayak’s hull. During a trip to France, I walked into the Gitzo factory in the suburbs of Paris, looking for service for its overly tight legs. The technician explained that they had swollen due to repeated exposure to saltwater. I made a mental note to always rinse my next tripod (Gitzo 1227), basically an evolution of the same model, after any use in saltwater.

One of the inconveniences of the Gitzo twist locks is that you always had to make sure you unfold or fold the legs in the proper order. If the sequence was wrong, the legs would spin frustratingly. Each time I handed the tripod to a non-photographer friend trying to be helpful, they never succeeded in locking the legs. Although using the correct sequence had become second nature for me, after a few years of Gitzo introducing an anti-leg rotation system, I upgraded to a Gitzo GT2531 (discontinued, current is GT2532) because my old tripod’s operation was no longer as smooth as when new, with one leg lock tending to slip.

A few years later, that tripod began to develop a problem I didn’t have at all with my previous Gitzos: the pivots at the apex became loose. Curiously, tightening the screws (with an annoyingly non-standard key) did not help. My brother-in-law, a mechanical engineer, tried all sorts of ideas to fix that problem of floppy legs, but the issue always re-occurred once in the field. In the while, Gitzo had been acquired by Manfrotto, and their technical support was irresponsive. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to fix that tripod by cannibalizing parts from my older (the one without anti-leg rotation) tripod. Meanwhile, I needed an entirely functional tripod and the premium price of the Gitzos did not seem justified anymore.


By the early 2010s, several manufacturers offered Gitzo-inspired tripods. You could tell it was so because of their nomenclature, which closely followed the Gizo series numbers. Needing a second tripod for a winter trip to Alaska, I bought an Induro CLT-203. The 2 stands for series 2, and the 3 for the number of sections. A series 2 from Induro had weight, leg diameters, and heights quite similar to a series 2 from Gitzo. Although a bit heavier (1575 grams) and maybe a tad less rigid than the Gitzo 2531 (1440 grams), it appeared reassuringly well built. It came with nice extras such as a carrying case, built-in foam tube covers that are great in freezing temperatures, interchangeable feet, all for a lower price than the Gitzo. Since I anticipated using it in the snow, I purchased specialty snow feet that included baskets similar to the ones found on ski poles. One evening, I set up a medium telephoto for a long exposure of the road at dusk. I waited for a car to drive by so that the red of its tail lights would make a red trail against the blue tones of the snowy landscape. After reviewing the image on the LCD, I was disappointed that it wasn’t sharp due to motion blur. Traffic is not too frequent along the George Parks Highway, so it took a while to make a second and third attempt, with the same results. By that time, the window of opportunity with the right light levels was gone – and we were freezing. Just as a test, I borrowed my friend’s tripod to photograph the empty highway, and the image turned out sharp like the one he previously made.

When using the Induro in the snow for northern light exposures up to 15s, the images were sharp. However, I couldn’t shake up the memories of the evening on the George Parks Highway, and upon coming home, I returned the tripod. It was only several years later that I thought of a possible explanation for what had happened. The snow feet, instead of ending with a rubber tip, had metal tips and somehow they may have been responsible for amplifying vibration, rather than the tripod itself. To be continued…


After returning the Induro, I bought a Feisol CT-3342, another series 2, 3-section tripod. It had three immediately appealing characteristics. It came with a center plate rather than a center column, could fold in reverse around a small ballhead (my choice was the Markins Q3i) for compactness, and at 1200 grams was lighter than both the Gitzo (1440 grams) and the Induro CLT 203. At first, I could see only one drawback besides the less solid build. The angle at which the legs spread was too small. I suppose the manufacturer designed it that way to claim a taller working height – an important consideration for a tripod without a center column. But that made the tripod less stable and more vibration prone than it would have been with a larger spread angle. In the field, another weakness proved more annoying. The tripod seemed to be more affected by grit getting into the lock systems than the two others. When I took it into water-filled slot canyons during my trips to Zion, I had to disassemble it and clean it several times a week to keep the legs operating smoothly enough.

During one of those canyon explorations, as I was swimming through a long watery passage, I flipped around to swim on my back – easier this way with a substantial backpack, and this keeps your hands out of the freezing water. When I emerged from the water, I noticed that the Feisol was gone. It had fallen into the water from my backpack. Me and a companion returned into the water to try to fish it out, but the water was too murky, deep, and frigid. My tripods do not seem to like water! Although I think the Feisol would work fine in clean environments such as cities, for nature photography it was too sensitive to dirt. That’s unfortunate because there is still no lighter full-size tripod on the market. It is actually lighter than several of the “travel tripods” that do not even approach it in stability and usability.

I gave Induro another try, and it has been working OK as my primary tripod, requiring less cleaning than the Gitzo. The legs do have a tendency to loosen at the apex, something that never happened with the earlier Gitzos even after years of use. However, this is quite workable since tightening the screws using the same hex key as the one for the quick-release plate fixes the problem for weeks.


Maybe because of aging, during my long hikes, I did not feel like carrying the Induro and sometimes headed out without a tripod. This led me to look again for a lighter tripod. After extensive market research, I think the Leofoto LS-224C is the most lightweight, usable tripod, especially combined with its included ball head. The legs weigh only 725 grams, and the total weight with the ball head is 900 grams. For comparison, the Induro with the trusty RRS BH-40 ball head is 2100 grams, while Gitzo with the Markins Qi3 is 1820 grams. The Leofoto is also an excellent value at $220.

All the other tripods mentioned (besides the Gitzo series 1) extended more or less to eye level without center column (54″, 137cm), but the Leofoto LS-224C is quite a bit shorter (46″, 116cm). This can be excused because besides the comfort of not having to crouch, eye-level is rarely the most dynamic way to position a camera. Galen Rowell modified all his small Gitzo tripods by removing the center column and sawing off its locking mechanism. I think he would have been appalled by the much-hyped (and expensive at $600) Peak Design travel tripod that requires you to extend the center column every time. On the other hand, he would have been pleased with the absence of a built-in center column on the Leofoto. Center columns can be helpful since they provide a significant height extension with little added weight. Leofoto offers an interesting solution in the form of a center column that screws into the tripod platform. It takes more time to install it than just extending it like with other tripods since you also need to unscrew the ball head. However, when you don’t need it, it doesn’t degrade the tripod’s stability, and of course, you can leave it home to save 105 grams. I only wished that, unlike the Feisol, they would have designed it with a wider leg spread angle. Nevertheless, the Leofoto is nowadays what I carry on backpacking trips or as a second tripod.

My current tripods: Leofoto LS-224C, Gitzo GT2531 with Markins Q-Ball Q3i, Induro CLT-203 with RRS BH-40, Gitzo 1325 (for sale, contact me if interested) with RRS BH-55.

Our National Monuments pre-order – National Public Lands Day

Last Thanksgiving, I announced a new book depicting all the national monuments subject to the review of 2017. We missed the initial target release date of National Public Lands Day today. However, I am pleased to confirm that Our National Monuments will be published on Nov 9, with a special pre-publication offer ending on that day.

Our National Monuments breaks new ground as the first photography book entirely dedicated to America’s national monuments. While the book includes only a subset of them (the 27 monuments at risk from the review), they comprise the vast majority of the large, park-like monuments. I am so grateful to 27 local citizen associations caring for those national treasures to make Our National Monuments the first book with their perspective, to former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for her first foreword, and to Ian Shive for his photographs and words – they made it possible for this book to be the first to depict all the marine national monuments. I reprised the innovative format of Treasured Lands that combined an art book and a guidebook, depicting each national monument in depth through a selection of representative highlights with keyed maps and location information. There is much there, but I won’t elaborate further on the book’s contents since details and more spreads are provided on the book’s website.

Treasured Lands was the almost accidental byproduct of more than two decades of explorations driven by a desire to experience the diversity of the national parks and photograph them in large format. After the review, President Trump eviscerated Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in December 2017. I immediately resolved to take action the only way I knew by visiting and photographing the 22 land-based monuments. I had the concrete goal to publish a book that could help conservation organizations raise awareness of those lands. Leaders of the Conservation Lands Foundation, the umbrella organization for many community-based advocates participating in the book, have confirmed how useful Our National Monuments will be for their efforts. To be most impactful, this contribution had to come out in the two-year window when a debate about protections of those lands could be re-opened and political action taken. I had to complete the project within just three years. The pandemic made it more challenging, but embodying the principle that public lands are open to the public, at least the BLM national monuments remained freely accessible. The pandemic also complicated publication logistics, resulting in significantly increased costs, but I plowed ahead to ensure a timely publication.

Treasured Lands, conceived as a tribute, is now in its 6th printing. Its success stems from being a best-in-its-class book on a popular subject. The lands and waters depicted by Our National Monuments are quite obscure – if they can even be identified as such from the book title by most people. Therefore, I do not expect the book to be as commercially successful. Selling out the copious first printing would only cover my writing and publishing time at minimum wage. As for the travel, that I was privileged to have spent months in those beautiful landscapes was in itself enough of a reward. On the other hand, the general lack of awareness of those lands is also why I felt this book is needed. I hope to inspire readers to discover, visit, love, and protect those beautiful and critically important public lands. In Treasured Lands, I tried to highlight lesser-known parks and sometimes lesser-known corners of well-known parks. The new book goes a step further in highlighting lesser-known lands. On National Public Lands Day, we appreciate the lands that belong to all of us and maybe try to give back by volunteer work. Our National Monuments is my gift to our public lands and those who care for them.

Our National Monuments back cover

The front cover of Our National Monuments features a photograph from Ironwood Forest National Monument located in Southern Arizona made with a super-telephoto lens. The twenty-two land national monuments in the book have fewer geographic diversity than the national parks. Within that range of possibilities, I chose an image as different as possible for the back cover. By contrast with the Sonoran Desert, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon is the lushest of the twenty-two monuments, and the image was photographed with a super wide-angle lens. Instead of filling the back cover with marketing copy, I felt it would be more appropriate for an art book to print a photograph with no text besides the indispensable barcode:

I had traveled by myself for most of the national monuments project, except on three occasions. Cascade-Siskiyou was one of them, as Ashland-based noted photographer and educator Sean Bagshaw went hiking with me. Although it was late June, the afternoon temperatures were unseasonably cold. Once we got on the ridge of Boccard Point (trail directions) the steady wind cooled us further. I could see that Sean was feeling the chill, so I appreciated very much that he was willing to hang out until sunset, even though as someone who lives barely more than a dozen miles away he could come back at any time. There was still quite a bit of time before total darkness, but I decided to wrap it up quickly. I set up for one of the last photographs of the day.


The last rays were coloring the clouds with the sun had already below the horizon. They were covering much of the sky, so it was quite dark. The bright yellow flowers added a bright counterpoint to the generally cool tones. The problem is that the stiff wind caused them to move constantly. A lull would not come soon, and the color was quickly vanishing from the clouds. I needed an aperture of f/11 to get both the flowers and the background in focus, but it resulted in a shutter speed that was too slow to freeze the motion of the flowers. In a field of wildflowers, a few blurred flowers can add dynamism to an image, but here, with so few flowers, each such a focal point, I felt their blurriness to be a distraction.


I could have increased ISO, but that would have resulted in a less detailed image. I could also have made an image with a slightly out-of-focus background at a wider aperture and higher shutter speed (above). Compare the difference in the following 50% detail view – you can click to enlarge.

Instead, I aimed to create a flawless image with a little help from digital tools. My solution was a focus stack with a wider aperture. Although not a single exposure, I feel the photograph remains true to the scene, standing for an image that a high-quality, high-ISO camera would have captured in a single exposure.

Focus stacked with Helicon

I made two exposures, one focused on infinity and the other on the flowers, with the intention of blending them. For the first one, I stopped down the lens to its best-performing aperture, f/8. For the second one, I used f/5.6 that resulted in a shutter speed of 1/25s, fast enough to render the flowers sharply. Usually, the specialized Helicon Focus software produces better results than Photoshop’s focus blending, but not in this case.

There was significant ghosting in the foreground, as can be seen in this the detail view above – you can click to enlarge.

Focus stacked with Photoshop

Photoshop rendered an image that looked better. When reviewed on-screen, it passed my initial scrutiny. I have often found that details easily missed on a screen jump at me on prints – resulting in much-wasted paper. I hadn’t printed that image, and when the proofs came back, I immediately noticed the artifacts in the top right corner resulting from the wind blowing the tree branches to two different positions between the two frames. The highest branch exhibited ghosting. To fix the problem, instead of relying on software, I blended the two frames manually, loading them in layers and adjusting their visibility with the brush tool.

Focus stacked manually

The differences are hardly noticeable when viewed on the internet and even less so on a quickly scrolled social media post. I suspect all the single-frame approaches with high ISO or f/5.6 would have resulted in an image acceptable for most viewers. However, to an attentive reader, not to mention a photographer, the defects would be apparent even at the relatively small print size of a 10×12 book page of Our National Monuments. With the hope that my images can hold and reward attention, I strived for better craft. You never know what an image may be used for.