Terra Galleria Photography

Capitol Reef National Park: the Rim Overlook Trail

Among the cornucopia of natural environments found on the American continent, maybe the most unusual are those of the Colorado Plateau, where a convergence of geology and climate has created landscapes without equal anywhere else. When asked about my favorite national parks, I’ve always felt the list would not be complete without one of the nine parks on the Colorado Plateau. Up until ten years ago, that choice was invariably Capitol Reef National Park. One of the reasons I liked the park so much was the opportunity to discover fantastic landscapes removed from the crowds in a relatively easy way, such as at the Strike Valley Overlook. You have be willing to leave the pavement, but you don’t need a particularly rugged vehicle: my Subarus of the 1990s – with less clearance than today’s models, were enough. In the last decade, I managed to travel more remote areas of Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Zion national park, so my fondness for them has grown, but Capitol Reef National Park retains its appeal. In this article, together with comments on photography, I will describe a favorite hike that shows that you don’t even have to venture away from the highway to appreciate what the park has to offer. Can a trail that is never more than a quarter-mile from a state highway as the bird flies offer a backcountry experience? Read on to find out.

Less than a quarter-mile from the trailhead, the trail forks. The left branch takes you to the Hickman Natural Bridge, which will add a mile and half to the hike. They are well worth it, since the close views of the bridge are much better than those you will get from the Hickman Bridge Overlook on the Rim Overlook Trail from which the bridge merges into the surrounding cliffs. By the way, hiking only to the bridge and back is about 2 miles round-trip with 400 feet of elevation gain. The Hickman Bridge was named that way because it was shaped by flowing water unlike natural arches. Its size is quite impressive, at 125 feet high and 133 feet long. The bridge is ensconced among ridges, therefore is not particularly well lit at sunrise nor sunset. Morning light illuminates the bridge best because a ridge blocks the sun in midafternoon. The cramped location necessitated a wide-angle lens.

Since the trail makes a loop passing below the bridge, I could easily photograph both of its sides. I preferred looking downhill as the bridge framed a larger landscape. On days of variable cloudiness, if you don’t like the light conditions, you need to wait for a short amount of time for them change. I made my exposure when a passing cloud partly dimmed the sun light on and around the bridge. Its darker tones conferred visual mass to the span that both contrasted with the distant rock domes and stood out against the mid-tones of the cliff and ground, while the white cloud highlighted the space within the bridge and its lower edge.

Besides the great views, I enjoyed the Rim Overlook Trail’s primitive atmosphere. It is narrow and unobtrusive, with several sections when you walk directly on slickrock, yet the hundreds of well-spaced cairns make it reasonably easy to follow. Hiking feels more adventurous than following a well-used path. The trail is steadily graded, so the 1,000-foot elevation difference from the trailhead felt easy to gain. That grade of about 15% corresponds to the monoclinal tilt of the Waterpocket Fold, which is plainly visible on the south rim across the Fremont River Canyon.

At 2.25 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the Rim Overlook in the late afternoon. At that time of the day the cliffs of the Waterpocket fold are well lit. Located on the edge of the cliff with a vertiginous 1,000-foot drop, it offered a bird’s-eye view of the Fremont River Valley, the Fruita orchards, and the Gifford Homestead. One of the factors that differentiate Capitol Reef from other Southwest parks is the presence and accessibility of the fast-flowing Fremont River that gives rise to a delightful riparian habitat in the desert. During the month of October, the color accent created by the autumn foliage of the cottonwoods was striking. I photographed the wider view with the strongest possible light, when no clouds obscured the sun, so that the contrast and brightness of the landscape counterbalanced the sky. For a tighter view with the sky excluded, the softer light of a passing cloud brought some subtlety (see opening image).

When traveling through the Southwest, I always enjoy staying at the campground located in the historic orchard. Their mature fruit trees provide a welcome respite from the rocky and dry landscape common in the region. As customary at overlooks, after photographing wide views, I switched to a telephoto lens to look for details in the landscape. Using my longest focal length of 400mm, I focussed on the pattern of fruit trees that exhibited more varied colors than the cottonwoods, using a composition based on diagonals for a dynamic image.

The trail continues for another 2.4 miles and 500 feet of elevation to the Navajo Knobs, a summit that offers an expansive 360-degree panorama. On my way to the Rim Overlook, I had noticed a striking peak called Pectol’s Pyramid on the south rim. After determining that the striking structure is best lit in the late afternoon, I had kept hiking, planning to photograph there on my way back. Since the trail was not only primitive, and therefore potentially tricky to follow in the dark, but also full of interesting details, on that day, instead of pushing forward to reach the Navajo Knobs near sunset time, I turned around. Although it is an out-and-back trail, I felt no monotony, as the view facing each direction was quite different. Walking back in the late afternoon, the sun lit brightly the Waterpocket Fold and white sandstone domes, one of which gave its name to the national park. Front lighting can lead to flatness and lack of perceived dimensionality, but this was remedied with the contrast in light bestowed by the shadow of a cloud.

When framing Pectol’s Pyramid tightly, I timed the exposure for when the shadows from the setting sun were about to creep up the face. The maximal side-lighting and contrast from direct illumination emphasized the structure of the peak.

Less than a mile from the trailhead, the ground was littered with the curious black volcanic boulders found in many places in the park. In a wide-angle photograph, their dark and rounded shapes at the bottom contrasted with the sharp and light triangles of the Pectol’s Pyramid and other distant rock formation at the top. In the middle, the V-shape of the lighter rocks formed a light line linking both components. Immediately after sunset, the light was a bit flat, but fifteen minutes later, it regained some directionality. Yet, it was now even enough to reveal all elements of the picture, while before sunset the foreground would have lost in deep shadows.

The trailhead for the hike is located just off UT-24 between Torrey and Hankville, 2 miles east of the visitor center, on the north side just before a bridge over the Fremont River. While it is in the national park, you don’t even have to pay an entrance fee. Despite its ease of access and moderate length, the Rim Overlook Trail remains my favorite in the park. Last time I visited, at the height of the fall colors, I hardly saw any others hikers on the trail. Despite its frontcountry position, I found the trail has retained a marked backcountry character.

Yellowstone: the other Grand Canyon

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park. When President Grant signed the Act of Dedication (you can read its brief text here) on March 1, 1872, setting aside Yellowstone “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”, the first national park in the world was established. Yellowstone National Park is internationally renowned for its geothermal features, and also its wild animal population. They are not by any means the only wonders in the park. As early National Park Service visitor guides put it:
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone affords a spectacle worthy of a national park were there no geysers.

Since this was a land that almost nobody on the East Coast had seen with their own eyes, artist representations were instrumental in the establishment of the park. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey had brought along his 1871 survey of the region a photographer and a painter. While the photographs by William Henry Jackson helped convince that the geothermal wonders were real, the colorful sketches of Thomas Moran captured the imagination. As romantic as they appear, their colors are highly accurate, and so are their depiction of geological elements. Released at about the same time as the establishment of the park, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Moran’s first large-scale painting was immediately bought by Congress for display in the U.S. Capitol and became popular with the public (discussion by Smithsonian American Art Museum curators). As wonderful as they are, the geysers and other hot water phenomena do not inspire the kind of sublime awe described by Nathanial Langford, a member of General Washburn’s expedition in 1870:

The place where I obtained the best and most terrible view of the canyon was a narrow projecting point situated two to three miles below the lower fall. Standing there or rather lying there for greater safety, I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature.

Thomas Moran would go on to paint many of the landmark western landscapes, including several national parks, but recognizing the significance of his particular connection with Yellowstone, he adopted the new signature of T-Y-M – with “Yellowstone” his new middle name! As can be seen in this selection of Moran’s Yellowstone work from the NPS, the artist who sought to associate with Yellowstone the most had a favorite subject in the park, to which he returned time and time again: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

The modern “Unigrid” national park visitor guides have all featured geothermal features on the cover, with the picture of Old Faithful Geyser gracing the current one. However, a look at older visitor guide brochures from the years 1935 to 1974 reveals that out of 20 different illustrated cover designs, 14 featured the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, invariably pictured with Lower Falls.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona is simply referred to as “The” Grand Canyon, being by far the largest and most impressive of all the canyons in the country. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’s claim to fame is different. While it has a respectable size, 20 miles long, 800 to 1,200 feet deep, and 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide, making it the most impressive geological feature in the park, what causes it to stand out among all canyons are the colors. The primary rock in the canyon is volcanic Rhyolite, which erodes into fantastically jagged formations. Hydrothermal activity, still visible in the form of steam, was responsible for altering the rock into a rainbow of hues. Adding to the interest are the two waterfalls of the Yellowstone River after which the park was named, Upper Falls (100 feet high) and Lower Falls (300 feet high).

Inspiration Point

Overlooks along the north and south rim drives offer sweeping views and different perspectives. When Nathanial Langford experienced the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as quoted above, he was standing at a spot that no longer exists, Promontory Point. In 1975, about a century after his visit, an earthquake of Richter scale 6 caused the promontory jutting into the center of the canyon to collapse and its remaining tip to become unstable. Still, the closest you can get to the old Promontory Point, Inspiration Point, offers an impressive view of the canyon from where you look almost straight down to the Yellowstone River a thousand feet below. The steep slopes are deeply carved, at places forming jagged rocky spires. When viewed on a sunny midday, yellows and whites dominate, however, softer light makes more visible a profusion of hues spanning the entire spectrum from reds and oranges to yellows. Since the days were sunny, I photographed from the late afternoon when the lower angle of the sun highlighted textures, to the early evening, when the even light reveals the colors.

When I visited in the 1990s, as I was primarily photographing with the 5×7 large-format camera, my main focus was on capturing “big picture” expensive views that give you the sense of being there. However, there also are endless opportunities to create more abstract images by focusing on the details of the landscape from any overlook. Inspiration Point is located on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. From Canyon Junction, follow Grand Loop Rd south for 1.2 miles and turn west (left) on the one-way N Rim Dr and then after 1.3 miles west (right) onto a 0.8-mile spur road. It’s a short 0.1-mile stroll to the overlook.

Artist Point

From Inspiration Point, you can barely see a waterfall in the distance, as it is partly hidden by the canyon wall. That waterfall is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, by far the most spectacular of the two waterfalls in the canyon. Plunging 300 feet, twice the height of Niagara Falls, it is the largest waterfall in the park, and one of the most impressive features of the canyon. There are several excellent views of the Lower Falls.

Artist Point is the most iconic viewpoint in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From there the steep canyon walls perfectly frame the waterfall located about a mile away from you, making it possible to depict the canyon with its most notable feature. The waterfall flows year-round and even at its lowest flow there is still plenty of water. From my several visits, I made my favorite image on the very first one, on an October overcast day after a recent snowfall. The freezing temperatures amplified the thermal steam from the canyon, whereas a dusting of snow critically differentiated both sides of the canyon. Placing the river two-thirds on the right created an asymmetrical balance between the lighter left side and the heavier right side. Not only the softer light reveals more of the colors, but also the flatter light resulted in a painterly quality in which all the textures stood out. Naturally, I excluded the bright overcast sky from the composition.

The waterfalls are facing east, so on sunny days, morning generally provides better light on them. On a clear summer morning, the blue sky was perfectly exposed, but it did not add much interest besides rather disharmonious color contrast. Its presence lends a different feel to the image, but I preferred the composition with the sky excluded. This caused Lower Falls to attract the eye as one the brightest area. As the early morning sun was grazing the right side of the canyon, it created an alternation of diagonal sunlit ridges and shadows more remarkable with its contrast than the uniformly lit left side, so I filled most of the frame with it, its large visual mass counterbalancing the waterfall. Artist Point is located on the south rim at the end of Artist Point Road that starts 2.2 miles south of Canyon Junction just past the Chittenden Memorial Bridge over the Yellowstone River, and it is a short stroll to the overlook.

Closer Lower Falls Views

For a closer view of Lower Falls, you can try Lookout Point, on the north rim – on your way to Inspiration Point, also a short stroll. If you’d like to explore more viewpoints, you can hike the 3.3-mile section of the North Rim Trail between Upper Falls and Inspiration Point. Little of the canyon is visible from the roads besides the overlooks. I made the photograph in pre-dawn light. At that time, there were no shadows or excessive contrast in the canyon, yet the light was directional enough to provide some shading and differentiate the two sides of the canyon, lending depth to the scene.

The Brink of the Falls Trail, as it names implies, takes you to the brink of Lower Falls from the north rim, but while you will come closest to Lower Falls, you will be above its back and therefore without a view of the waterfall. The closest view is from Uncle Tom’s Trail, named after the nickname of H.F. Richardson, a Bozeman, MT resident who built a primitive version of the trail on which he guided visitors for a fee from 1898 to 1906. They had to be ferried across the Yellowstone River (the bridge over the Yellowstone was built in 1903) and then grab ropes to negotiate the steep terrain. Nowadays, the trail is much safer but remains quite unique and strenuous, with 500 feet elevation loss in just 0.7 miles. Paved switchbacks lead to a vertiginous steel staircase of 328 steps built down the south wall of the canyon and descending 3/4 of the way down its height. That is the lowest you can descend into the canyon, where off-trail hiking is prohibited. You cannot longer get to the vantage point pictured on the cover of the historic visitor guide with a white cover (on the second row). The trailhead is on the south rim along Artist Point Drive.

The water volume varies between 5,000 gallons of water per second in the fall and 60,000 gallons of water per second in the spring. In 2016, to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, we went on a family road trip to Yellowstone. On that early summer visit, I timed my visit for late morning, hoping that the sun in my back would produce a rainbow in the mist of the fall. Sure enough, the rainbow was there. However, the lower part of the trail was drenched unlike during my fall visit. Having left the spinning rain deflector at home, it was too wet for photography, and I had to content myself with a dryer viewpoint further up. Clouds were moving quickly across the sky, and I waited for a moment when their projected shadows on the canyon walls made the waterfall and mist stand out in light.

Our National Monuments wins five national book awards

Spring is the time for several of the major book awards to be announced, and I am honored that Our National Monuments has won five national book awards.

IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards – Arts and Photography Silver Medal Administered by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), for more than 30 years, the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards is the most established and widely recognized national award program for independent publishers. The program has a number of unique features. Over 170 librarians, booksellers, and design and editorial experts – most of whom have decades of book industry experience – judge the books submitted. The judging process takes close to six months, beginning in September and continuing into March each year. It is ran by a non-profit organization, and each entrant receives judging feedback. IBPA received nearly 1,900 entries for the 34th annual program, a record number that surpassed the previous record of 1,750 set just a year earlier.

Foreword INDIES Book of the Year – Coffee Table Books Gold Winner Founded in 1998, Foreword Reviews is the only independent media company completely devoted to independent publishing. They define the term more broadly than others as it includes all but the “Big 5” – Rizzoli won the award several times. Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards recognize the best books published from independent presses and self-published. This year was one of the most competitive years ever. Over 2,700 entries were submitted in 55 categories, with Foreword’s editors choosing approximately 10 finalists per genre. Those finalist books were then mailed to individual librarians and booksellers tasked with picking the Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Honorable Mention winners.

National Indie Excellence Awards – Photography Winner The National Indie Excellence Awards (NIEA) is a national award contest open to recent English language books in print from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. Established in 2005, NIEA’s entrants are meticulously judged by experts from various facets of the book industry profession including publishers, editors, authors and designers.

International Book Awards – Winner in the category Photography The 2022 International Book Awards received thousands entries from all over the world from all areas of the publishing industry: mainstream, indie and self-published. Placing in this year’s awards means that one has surpassed 80% of entrants. From the number of books with a placement in the category Photography (five), only the top 4% are winners.

Nautilus Book Awards – Photography and Arts Silver Winner With the motto “Better books for a better world”, Nautilus Book Awards recognize books that promote conscious living & green values, spiritual growth, wellness, and positive social change. Nautilus is one of the few major book award programs that welcomes entries from the full range of the publishing spectrum from author self-published to large publishers. The program celebrates books that inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities and global citizens. Past award recipients include Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra, and the Dalai Lama.

Those contests operate by submission rather than nomination. I had previously identified the most established and prestigious book awards relevant for a photography book and submitted Treasured Lands, eventually winning a total of 12 awards (10 book awards in 8 contests and 2 photography awards). Naturally, I submitted Our National Monuments for the same book awards, skipping the photography awards this time. The book did not place at the PubWest Design Awards and Independent Publisher IPPYs, however, it was featured in Independent Publisher Magazine with an article by former Book Awards Director Jim Barnes. It was also a finalist at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. At the one program for for which it was nominated rather than submitted, the OWL Awards, Our National Monuments was shortlisted – OWL is difficult because there are only a dozen winners in total.

Given that it took me less than four years from start to publication for Our National Monuments, its awards haul is more than honorable. It is the first book published from scratch by my own publishing imprint, Terra Galleria Press, but that does not mean that I worked by myself. Gary Crabbe, Geir Jordahl, and Kate Jordahl helped narrow down more than 2,500 images to my 300 in the book, paving the way for the work of art director Iain Morris, without whom this book would not be as beautiful. Stephen Trimble and Dayton Duncan made valuable comments on earlier drafts of the introduction. Editor Nicole Croft brought her deep knowledge of the subject matter to clarify my writing. Thank you to all of you.

Kīpahulu: one-square mile tropical paradise

Haleakalā National Park protects two areas of the island of Maui. The contrast between them always amazes me. The nearly freezing temperatures, barren lava soil, and sea of clouds of the 10,000-foot-high Haleakalā Crater couldn’t be more different from the paradisiacal tropical pools, jungle, and waterfalls found at the ocean’s edge at Kīpahulu. Despite its small extent of slightly more than one square mile, Kīpahulu has so much to offer.

Haleakalā summit and Kīpahulu area lie only a dozen miles away as the crow flies, but several hours by road. That is why many visitors to Haleakalā National Park miss that outstanding area. Most who make it there drive the Hana Highway on the north side of the island, a very scenic and twisting road whose 60 miles take about 3.5 hours to drive – in addition to one hour from the summit. The most direct route between Haleakalā summit and Kīpahulu is the less traveled Pi‘ilani Highway in the south, which has a rough, unpaved section that is passable by regular cars in dry weather.

Ohe‘o Gulch

Ohe‘o Gulch is famed for its Seven Sacred Pools (a purely made-up promotional name, as there are more than seven pools and they have never been sacred), which are a set of beautifully tiered pools situated in a lush environment. I closed my eyes to take in the fragrance of the tropical vegetation. During the day, on my first visit in the early 2000s, swimmers often swarm the pools, but at sunrise, I felt so contented to have this lush paradise to myself. To find upstream views in which the waterfalls are visible, I hiked the 0.5-mile Kuloa Point loop trail until I found a viewpoint above the pools. I set up the camera well before sunrise and waited for the moment when the light from the eastern horizon was strong and directional, but before the sun would rise, as the contrast and cast shadows would detract from the scene’s serenity. Eliminating the bright skyline focused the attention on the pools.

The pools that form the Seven Sacred Pools are separated by waterfalls. In the past, visitors had great fun jumping from one pool to the next. However, following accidents and lawyer-encouraged lawsuits, the NPS has banned all jumping. Since the highest settlement was related to a flash flood, if there is even a remote chance of rain in the mountains (quite common given the area’s lushness), the NPS prohibits not only swimming but also all access to the pools. On my first visit to the area, the flow was low. I used a multi-second shutter speed to render them as a smooth and substantial ribbon. On a return trip, the volume was considerably higher. In order to convey a sense of the flow’s power, I used a shorter shutter speed of 1/15s that retained some texture in the water and suggested rushing water.

With all this water, it would be easy to overlook the vegetation, which was unlike anything I’d seen before. The gulch is home to numerous Pandanus trees. Their large fruit resembles a pineapple, but their roots forming a pyramidal tract are even more striking, especially when emerging from a thick mat of the long leaves – traditionally used for basket making, clothing, and even shelter. The monochromatic character of the photograph emphasized all the textures.

The Coast

The second attraction of the area is the coast. With clouds portending a possible brilliant sunrise, I sought a low position to include more sky in the composition. I scrambled down the rocks into the gulch. On that day, the tide was high, so the beach was hidden. I stayed back in the gulch, using the stream draining into the ocean as a leading line for the composition that is all about extreme contrast of light.

On another visit, the tide was low, allowing me to set up on the black sand beach at the mouth of the gulch. Another difference was the dark stormy sky that mostly blocked the sun. I looked for a composition of turbulent water to match its brooding and tumultuous character. With no direct sun, the image is more about textures and subtle light effects such as the reflection of bright clouds into the waves. After experimenting with several shutter speeds, I found that 1/6s (made possible by using a 4 f-stop ND filter) worked well to convey the power of the ocean with just enough blurring to suggest motion.

In the early morning, I looked for views of the ocean and entire shoreline from a higher viewpoint on the bluff. When you think about tropics, images of the turquoise ocean gently lapping against a sandy beach may come to mind, but waves always break powerfully there, creating foamy water. I timed the image for a breaking wave to create a diagonal leading line.

Pointing the camera in the opposite direction, I established a composition with the tropical forest and the lush slopes of the Haleakala Crater in the distance. I carefully observed the dance of the light on the slopes as clouds changed in quick succession and made the photograph when shadows created contrast and delineated the ridges. I had been standing on almost the same position as for the previous image, and this was just a few hundred yards from the pools. What a spot!

Pipiwai Trail

The Pipiwai Trail (4 miles round-trip; 600-foot elevation gain) is possibly the best hike on the whole island of Maui, because of the variety of tropical sights encountered along the way. You will first find a view of Makahiku Falls plunging into the pool below you. This was photographed on my second visit, when the water flow was high.

On my first visit, the waterfall was just a trickle, and as a result my favorite image was of the pond below. Photographing it without the waterfall is not a bad idea anyways, as it allowed for a bit of mystery.

The trail takes you along a delightful tropical environment full of fragrance. Wild ginger abound. Goyave fruits were maturing, and my mother picked up quite a few delicious ones. She was planning to bring back some to California, but at the airport, agricultural inspection detected them through x-rays and confiscated them. Unusual plants grew everywhere, from small endemic ferns to an enormous banyan tree.

Bridges take you over Pipiwai Stream, offering views of several falls. At this point, at about a mile from the trailhead, you’ll enter the first of three bamboo groves, each growing progressively higher and denser. It ends up quite dark as the bamboo tower up to 40 feet over your head. With the wind causing the bamboo to make clanking sounds as they brushed against each other, walking through the forest path was a completely zen and magical experience. Nature’s chimes!

The Pipiwai Trail ends at the 400-foot Waimoku Falls, which drops along lush cliffs. It is maybe the most beautiful waterfall on the island of Maui and certainly the tallest one accessible from the ground. For a better view, I scrambled on the hill to the right of the falls. Framing tightly the waterfall without its brink or outlet pool and pointing the camera straight – with the aid of the large-format camera rise – to keep maintain the cliff’s verticality suggested a pure wall of green. However, as great as the waterfall is, it is the sum of sights on the trail that makes it so special, rather than the destination.


The subjects encountered on this hike benefit from soft light. Since the tall bamboo makes the forest so dark, you may find a tripod useful, it also helps in photographing the moving water.

The town of Hana, a dozen (very slow) miles away, has travel amenities, but typically for the island, there are no budget options. During my two previous visits to the area, I stayed at the nearby National Park Service campground, one of the most pleasant I have seen: a verdant grassy meadow without pavement directly overlooks the Pacific Ocean. There is no water at the campground, but you can refill your containers at the visitor center. Sites were available on a first-come, first-serve basis until the spring of 2022.

Now, like at many others, you need to make a reservation on recreation.gov. As an indication of the popularity of the campground, there is a limit of 3 nights stay per month. Reservations open up 30 days in advance. Planning a Maui trip to share the place with my family, when I checked the recreation.gov, except for one lone site, everything in the next 27 days was reserved. The closest campground outside of the park is at Wai’anapanapa State Park (a free account with the state of Hawaii is required to view the reservation system) and it even has 12 housekeeping cabins, but that facility is also popular. Unlike me, plan accordingly!

The steepest ratings drop

The rollout of the third edition of Treasured Lands possibly established a new record for the steepest drop in Amazon ratings ever, an unfortunate development not warranted by any reasonable standard. To explain what happened, this post elaborates on two seemingly disparate subjects: the workings of the Amazon rating system, and book binding.

Amazon ratings and reviews

The previous editions had accumulated 578 ratings. A rating on Amazon consists of a number of stars, with one being the worse, and five the best. The total (more on that later) broke down to 203 ratings for the first edition and 375 ratings for the second edition. Each of the two editions had the same size, 3 printings of 5,000 each, so why the difference?

Counterintuitively, it was quite remarkable (and not accidental) that the first edition got more than 203 ratings, which at the time, was the same as 203 reviews. I am grateful for any of you who wrote one. For comparison, according to publishing industry data, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s companion book to their popular series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea has sold over 200,000 copies since its publication in 2009. Yet the book has received “only” 229 reviews. A review means that the customer writes comments about the product, which only a very small percentage are willing to do. As part of writing a review, they also assign a rating.

The second edition was released in the summer of 2019. In late 2019, Amazon launched a new “one tap review” system. Previously, in order to leave a rating, customers needed to write a review, which is why I wrote that previously ratings and reviews were the same. With the new system, to leave a rating, customers need to only tap or click the corresponding number of stars provided that they had bought the product from Amazon. Writing a review is optional. Naturally, the new ease of providing ratings led to the fast growth of their numbers, although at the expense of quality, since ratings with comments are more informative than ratings without.

Customers who have not bought the product from Amazon can still leave a rating, but they are required to write a review like before. Reviews by customers who bought the product from Amazon are labelled as “verified” and carry more weight. In the past, it was possible to post a comment as a response to a review, making it possible for other customers to rebut unfair reviews, or for the publisher to directly address issues, but that feature was removed in 2021.

In terms of rating values, the two previous editions had obtained an average rating 4.9 out of 5, which is about the practical maximum for any product with significant sales, as there will be always a few outlier negative ratings to prevent a perfect 5. At the beginning of this month, the average rating for the third edition was 1 out of 5, which is the absolute minimum – in some reviews, customers write that they wish they could give a zero-star rating, but they can’t. That is a drop from the almost highest rating to the absolute lowest. It was only possible because the previous ratings were so stellar, and the new ratings so dismal, probably setting a record for largest drop ever. So what happened?

Book binding

The first customer to write a review received a copy with some pages bound in an incorrect order. Although they noted that the issue affected only a small number of pages (16 out of 492), they gave a 1-star review.

That review was particularly damaging because its early date and the accompanying image are more likely to make it stick and be the first review that customers see. However, it is still fairer than some abusive reviews I have seen where the customer left a 1-star review because the product was damaged in transit due to improper packaging from Amazon! When I ship books, I package them in bubble wrap or with crumbled paper and double boxes, and I always make sure they are not loose nor that impact to the box would dent them. However, Amazon just throws books in a box with maybe some less than useful air packs.

When pages are mixed up, customers tend to assume it is a printing error that affects the entire edition. See for example this review from the second edition from a customer of Amazon Germany, whose choice of rating was, in my opinion, more adequate:

In fact, in book printing, there are so many checks at different points in the process that such a printing mistake would be almost impossible. However, books are mass-produced, at a remarkably low cost for what they represent, and not all copies are perfect. There are some lemons.

In that particular case, most likely the issue was caused by misfeed occurring when the book was bound. The feeding is done manually, so mistakes are possible. It can happen that the machine fails to grab one of the multiple booklets that make up the book. You can see the process in the video below (more here)

That is why 16 of the pages of the books were affected. That is exactly one such booklet, called a signature. What is a signature? Books are not printed page-by-page – this would be too inefficient, but rather on larger sheets of paper that include 8 pages on each side. After folding and trimming, you get a booklet of 16 pages. This was illustrated in that video, scroll to 2:15 (more here)

As an aside, that customer of Amazon Germany eventually contacted me, and I determined that his book had exactly two signatures messed up. I offered to provide a replacement book, but he preferred to keep his copy because of the annotations he made. Although ripping a book apart and sending the two signatures across the Atlantic Ocean ended up costing more than replacing a book, that’s what I did. It would have been nice if he revised his misleading review. If you have a production issue with your book, I will replace it for you even after the retailer return period has passed. Since seeing that May 26, 2022 review, I made sure to check the books that I am sending out directly. None of the more than two dozen copies had any issue.

Selling on Amazon

I wish it wasn’t the case, but nowadays, the vast majority of book sales take place on Amazon, and even more so for relatively expensive books like Treasured Lands. There is no realistic alternative marketplace for mass distribution. The company does live up to its motto of being exceptionally customer-friendly. For sellers and publishers, they are not so friendly. To begin with, they buy books at a wholesale discount of 55%. Adding other hidden fees results in a split of 40/60 in favor of the retailer. If you need them, publisher communications are the exact opposite of customer communications: the channels are obscure and it takes a surprising amount of back and forth to get anything done. They also appear to suspend seller accounts for seemingly arbitrary reasons, and it takes many hoops to get them reinstated.

I’ve observed that customers still buy copies of the second edition, although the out-of-print book is offered way above list price, rather than the up-to-date third edition, which is offered at a discount. Sales are much slower than they were for the second edition at the same time of the year.

The main reason is that the second edition has 578 ratings with an average of 4.9, whereas the third had 1 rating with an average of 1! As of this writing, the customer with the defective book had the diligence to update his review with the mention that he received a flawless replacement copy, however, his rating is unchanged. Two 5-star reviews came in, but an average rating of 3.5 is still very poor on Amazon (the average product rating is 4.4). Amazon reviews and ratings are currently one of the most important factors in book sales.

Treasured Lands Third Edition

The third edition of Treasured Lands has just arrived (order your copy). Although differences are not as many as between the first and the second edition, they were still enough for my distributor to request a new edition rather than another printing – overall the seventh.

The New River Gorge chapter

The main difference is the addition of a new chapter for New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the 63rd national park. In a previous series of posts, I discussed at length the selection of the main image of that chapter using input from readers. As nice as individual pictures are, they feel short in telling a story about a place when compared to a series of images. A series is not only a carefully selected set of images, it also has a sequence where the order of the photographs contributes to their meaning. One of the reasons why books are such a great medium to present photography is that they lend themselves naturally to sequencing and grouping images.

The way the eleven images were chosen, besides their individual merit, is that each of them had to represent one of the eleven locations that I selected to be representative of the park. They also had to complement each other on the page, so that quite a few constraints to satisfy.

Treasured Lands obviously doesn’t have the same ambition as The Americans, but still, I put thought in sequencing images. Here are some of the considerations I took into account to organize the four spreads of the new chapter.

  1. The chapter opens with three images that are each of a different size, photographed at three different times of the day (midday, midmorning, dawn), and show the gorge from three levels: river, rim, and intermediate mid-valley.
  2. The first spread signals a scenic park with significant human history artifacts. Even in the river bend view, a railroad is visible. It contributed much to opening this region in the 19th century and is one of only few active railroads within a national park. The first image is a roadside view, the second a short stroll to an overlook. The format of the opening spread is identical for each park. It is important to maintain consistency for those things through a book.
  3. The second spread is about the human footprint in the gorge. It juxtaposes historic and modern structures – the New River Gorge Bridge was built in 1974. In the grid of four, the upper rows include rails small (a coal cart at Keymoor) and large (the railway curiously close to the facades of Thurmond), the lower row includes conveying devices long (the 1,400-foot Nattalbug conveyor) and short (the water flume of the Gristmill in Babcock State Park). Locations here are a mix of roadside and hiking. The left column shows structures related to mining – the main historic activity in the area, the right column shows the facade of buildings that are not mining structures. From a design point of view, I placed the two more colorful images diagonally, with the swath of red from the conveyor linking them. On any spread, the right page catches more attention than the left one, so I put the more intricate content there. Wanting to emphasize the similarity in the subjects rather than their contrasts, I aligned the left image with the grid on the right rather than making it a full bleed.
  4. In the third spread, we immerse ourselves into nature, without a trace of man, and we get deeper in the park. Unlike for the initial spread, those are more concealed locations, and getting there requires more hiking. Because of the diagonals and position of the greens at opposite positions, the two vertical images complement each other. Their quietness contrasts with the spectacular sight of Sandstone Falls, amplified by the full-bleed presentation. Although as a standalone image I liked the sunset version of Sandstone Falls (below), the color clashed too much with the greens, so I chose this more muted version. Since the full page image was previously on the left, it was natural to move it back to the right for variety.
  5. Last, my favorite image of Kaymoor was of the forest reclaiming the powerhouse in an eerily evocative ghost town. For the conceptual symmetry mentioned above, I used the image of the coal cart in the grid of four instead. I snuck that image in the information page to complete the cycle of natural and man-made.

More data

The information spread for each park opens with data about that park. I’ve added three pieces of data that quickly convey significant information.
  1. For areas that received protections before being designated a national park, some argue that the date when they first received protections is more significant than the date when they were (re) designated a national park. When applicable, I now provide both: the initial establishment year and initial name are listed in addition to the year of designation as a national park. For instance, for White Sands National Park, that line reads “Established: 1933 (National Monument), 2019” meaning that the area was first protected as White Sands National Monument in 1933 and became White Sands National Park in 2019. Besides being a small piece of history, it is a useful reminder of the central role of the Antiquities Act in American conservation: about half of our national parks started as national monuments.
  2. Each park is located in relation with a nearby city to help pinpoint it at a glance and also indicate the closest major airport. All the cities have international airports except Jackson WY, even though the Jackson Hole Airport is the busiest in Wyoming – it has the distinction of being the only airport inside a national park.
  3. The highest point in each park, and its elevation are listed. Elevation varies wildly between parks, with the three highest in Alaska (Denali, Wrangell-St Elias, Glacier Bay; resp. 20,310 feet, 18,008 feet, 15,300 feet) and the three lowest in Florida (Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Everglades; resp. 9 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet).

Other minor changes

I’ve tried to keep the information in the book current. As record-setting numbers of people continue to visit our parks, crowded conditions have led to a degraded visitor experience, including traffic jams, overflowing parking lots, and some people even turned away at entrance gates. Among other updates, it is mentioned in the relevant chapters that some of the popular parks have started requesting reservations for entry, for instance:
  • Yosemite National Park. From late May to September, a day-use reservation or lodging/camping booking is required for entry.
  • Glacier National Park. A reservation or service booking is required to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road from 6 am to 5 pm in the summer.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park. From late May to mid-October, entry from 9 am to 3 pm requires a reservation. For the Bear Lake area, from late May to Mid-October, a specific reservation is required from 5 am to 6 pm.
  • Acadia National Park. From late May to late October, a reservation is required to drive the Cadillac Summit Road from 4 am to 8 pm.
Besides keeping information current, there are a few minor updates or improvements here and there. Although I liked the Promenade image in Hot Springs National Park quite a bit, I split that page to add two photos that illustrate other aspects of the park. By splitting the map with an inset, I can now show the entire extent of the park and at the same time a detail of the main sites at Bathhouse Row.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the price. The inflation calculator indicates that an item costing $65 in 2016 (first edition of Treasured Lands) costs $78 in 2022. The book has gone from 456 pages to 492 pages, a 8% increase, so that would be $85. Largely due to Covid, the cost of shipping a container from Asia to the U.S. warehouse have increased from less than $7,000 to more than $24,000. Even in 2016, Treasured Lands was an incredible value compared to other photography books. The price remains $65, a bargain for readers, but clearly not sustainable. If you haven’t done so yet, get the book at a great price before the inevitable increase!

Grinnell: Hiking to Glacier National Park’s only accessible glacier

Glacier National Park, which celebrated its anniversary this week (established May 11, 1910) pays homage in its name to glaciation. However, although the work of past glaciers can be seen everywhere in a landscape that owes its shape to ice, its present glaciers are quite elusive. Follow me on the trail that is by far the best option to see one of them at a close distance.

The park’s glaciers are quickly vanishing due to climate change. In 1850, there were 150 glaciers; today, there are 25. Glaciologists have predicted that if current climate trends continue, all the glaciers in the park may disappear by the year 2030, so you may want to see them while you can!

Ironically for a park named that way, Glacier National Park isn’t the easiest place to see a glacier. Places further north such as Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, especially the Columbia Ice Fields in Banff/Jasper not that far away, offer massive glaciers at low elevations. In the continental United States, Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and North Cascades National Park have more prominent glaciers. In Glacier National Park, if you know what to look for, you can view a few glaciers from the road with binoculars, the easiest to spot being Jackson Glacier from Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, 5 miles east of Logan Pass.

Looking for a closer view? Over a century ago, when the park was first established, glaciers were much more accessible. They have since retreated dramatically, and only three in the park remain readily accessible to the day hiker: Grinnell Glacier, Jackson Glacier, and Sperry Glacier. The latter two are tough hikes (16 miles and 20 miles round-trip respectively). To get as close to the glaciers as possible, Grinnell Glacier is by far your best bet. Relatively strenuous, but still accessible to many, it is my favorite trail in the park, offering much more than the glacier: lakes, waterfalls, wildlife.

The trail gains 1,600 feet over 11.6 miles round-trip, but during the months of July and August, you can cross Swiftcurrent Lake via shuttle boat, walk a short, paved path to Lake Josephine and board another boat to its western end, saving you 4 miles round-trip. The higher portions of the trail remain snow-covered until the end of June and usually are clear of snow in mid-July. However, on years of high snowpack, the trail may not be entirely clear of snow until the end of July.

From Lake Josephine, I made a 2.6-mile round-trip detour on a flat trail to check out Grinnell Lake. I thought the view I would get later from above would be more special if I had dipped my toes in the lake. From its shore, its turquoise hue is visible in the distance, whereas in the clear water the color of the pebbles typical of the park’s lakes dominate. After making wide-angle photographs, I looked at details.

Along the trail, there are great views from above of Grinnell Lake, and the higher perspective and distance reveals the turquoise jewel that it is. For that, direct sunlight has to reach the water’s surface. I was glad that knowing that the hours close to midday can work better for some subjects, I did not wait until later. On my way back, during the supposed “golden hour”, the water lacked that striking color. If you pass something that you think you might want to photograph and say to yourself “I’ll do it later”, stop now and photograph it because when you get back, it won’t be the same.

Grinnell Glacier used to cover the point where the trail ends, but as I stood at the trail’s end, the glacier, which was quite a distance away, appeared tiny, and a new lake, Upper Grinnell Lake, was taking its place. It was as if the glacier was melting before my eyes. Since 1966, it lost almost half of its surface area.

Walking unroped on a snow-covered glacier is dangerous because a snow bridge may collapse, leading to a deadly fall into a crevasse beneath. I didn’t attempt to go further, not that reaching the glacier appeared straighforward. Up until half a decade prior to my hike, in the early 2000s, park rangers led hikes onto the glacier, but one year, a person hiking independently died from a fall into a crevasse. Since then, no guided hikes have taken place.

Resting on a northeast face, the light on the glacier and mountain face is tricky most of the day for a photograph of the whole scene. They are well lit only from sunrise to early morning, but you’d have to start hiking very early (well before the 8:30 AM first boat departure) to be there in time. After that time, the mountain face is partly lit, and the shadows break the shape. I framed a wide view in a way that minimized the shaded area, then for a stark play of light and shadow, timed a moment when icebergs stood out against the shadow (opening photograph). But for much of my time, I concentrated on smaller scenes where it is always easier to find favorable light. Framing the icebergs released by the glacier into the lake, I used the contrast of the partly sunlit walls and lake in the shade to my advantage, as sunlit water would not have given rise to those reflections.

In the afternoon, the best bet for a wide view would be a moment when clouds would reduce the contrast, but the day was mostly clear. I still wanted to create a more complex picture including all the components of the scene: the glacier, waterfall, lake, icebergs, and wildflowers. I waited for the sunlight to disappear from a larger portion of the scene, large enough to include all those elements in the unified light of open shade.

Although the light might have improved further by sunset with lower contrast, enabling me to photograph an even larger scene, I did not feel like waiting because I had read that many grizzly bears frequent the area, and I was hiking alone. I was worried about surprising one at each bend in the trail, but instead, I saw several bighorn sheep.

As much as I would have loved to spend more time with the sheep, I needed to minimize my time hiking in the dark. Still, I could not avoid hiking in the thick forest around Josephine and Grinnell Lakes in pitch-black darkness. I talked loudly to myself so that any bears would hear and avoid me. I had rarely felt as much relief when I reached the trailhead parking!

Steps behind the image: Mt Shuksan

As the light progressed towards the evening, I improved the composition of a most iconic scene through foreground refinement. This installment in the series “Steps behind the image” differs from the previous ones as it was made of published images of an icon rather than digging into archives. I had released the images that led to the final, prefered image because they show the scene in a different light.

Despite preserving some of America’s most beautiful mountain landscapes, North Cascades National Park is the second least-visited national park in the continental U.S., behind the remote and roadless Isle Royale National Park. This is because the park itself is managed as a wilderness without facilities and almost no road access, accessible only to hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers. However, there are excellent views from developed and accessible areas adjacent to the park. None in the entire North Cascades National Park Service Complex is as iconic as the view from Picture Lake, located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Near the end of Mount Baker Highway (SR 542), on the west side of the park, a one-way loop circles a pond. The mountain reflected in the pond is Mount Shuksan, sometimes said to be the most photographed mountain in North America – there are other more plausible candidates.

From any point on the east shore of the lake, the view looks similar, and that may lead one to think that all photographs of the reflected mountain are essentially the same. However as is often the case, there are small details in craft that differentiate images. In particular, while the background remains essentially the same, every foot of shoreline offers something a bit different. It is often remarked that when you made an “intimate” photograph of a smaller scene, it is more personal because more unique. In a larger scene, the foreground component is that smaller scene, and you are presented with the additional challenge to connect it to the distant elements.

I first came to the site at midday. Technically, the picture was straightforward as everything was well-lit. Photographing with my large-format camera, instead of pointing the camera down, I shifted the image down to keep the trees parallel, and as usual, a bit of tilt helped render both foreground and mountain sharply. Feeling uninspired by the light, I didn’t work hard in selecting the foreground. I settled early for something with a lot of detail and color. It had several issues: quite busy, distracting bright areas in the left corner, some overlap with the mountain reflection, and a weak connection with the mountain in the background. However, it does capture the feel of midday with pleasant greens and blues.

There is more than Picture Lake in the area. Continuing a few miles to Artist Point at the end of SR 542 and hiking a short trail to the east toward Huntoon Point along the Kulshan Ridge leads to less common views of Mt Shuksan. After scouting around, I still returned to Picture Lake in the late afternoon because I felt there was more potential. Besides the ease of access, it is not iconic for nothing! By that time, the contrast between the sunlit mountain and the lake in the shade necessitated a few technical tricks. First, I had to use a graduated neutral density filter to balance the exposure. Then, as I suspected that the flowers might still turn out too dark, to bring out their color, I used a flash that I had to synchronize manually since like for the three other photos on that page, I was photographing with my large format camera. In metering the flash, I made sure to keep it dim enough that it would not look obvious or unnatural.

Most of my work was in improving the composition with a more deliberate choice of the foreground. After walking along the shoreline, I found one that was not only simpler but also connected with the mountain better, providing visual unity to the photograph. The tips of the flowers form a triangular shape that rises steeply from the left and more gradually from the right. This shape echoes the shape of the mountain. The vertical lines of the flowers, well detached against the water, echo that of the spruce trees, well detached against the brighter mountain. Having disparate image elements that visually relate to each rather than being simply juxtaposed brings cohesion to the photograph.

In the previous photograph, the shade in the lake area help bring out the reflection on the mountain, and also creates a separation in tone between the distant line of trees and the mountain, adding depth to the image thanks to another layer. However, the light on the mountain is so bright that those shaded areas appear dark. As the sunlight gets dimmer, the contrast is reduced. While I was waiting for that to happen, I refined the composition further by moving the camera by less than one foot. Small changes in camera placement can make a big difference! I included a little more of the flowers so that their visual mass balances the mountain better, and also echoed its shape more. I also reduced the overlap between the flowers and the rocks in the lake. By having the flowers and the mountain reflection create a frame around the middle rock, I transformed it into a unifying focal point for the entire image. I was now satisfied with the composition. The Treasured Lands exhibit project is horizontal. You could argue that a vertical composition cropping out the right might be stronger. However the shape of the flower tips wouldn’t complement the mountain’s as well, and there are also lines there that lead to the mountain.

The sunset light had illuminated the mountain beautifully in warm tones, but instead of calling it done, I decided to wait until dark to see if the light would not improve further past sunset time. Sometimes it does, and that was the case that evening. Fifteen minutes after sunset, the color is better. The overall softer contrast reveals the hues of the vegetation more vividly. The lake beautifully reflects the more saturated color in the sky. The reddish color of the alpenglow on the mountain matches that of the flowers better, contributing further to the cohesiveness of the photograph. I walked out satisfied that although there are countless images of the scene, I had applied myself enough to make maybe one of the more finely crafted examplars, and certainly the one I liked the best.

Why America’s National Parks Are (Still) Great

Almost thirty years ago, what drew me personally to America’s national parks was its diversity of natural environments. On the occasion of this year’s National Parks Week, I reflect on what generally made America’s national parks so special and if contemporary changes, especially in visitation, have affected any of that.

The first national parks

To begin with, America’s national parks were the first fully realized expression of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone and for all time.

Nature reserves had been maintained in Europe for centuries to protect hunting grounds for use by kings, nobles, and later the rich and well-connected. By contrast, national parks are a fundamentally democratic idea. They are administered by the government but belong to all citizens. The 20th century even saw many examples of wealthy people donating land to the government for the purpose of establishing or expanding a national park. The establishment of the first national parks was a pivotal moment in the story of how we, the American people, made the decision to keep nearly one-third of our land in our collective ownership as public lands. Yet, the vast majority of the public lands could use stronger protections.

While the idea of resource protection – be it wildlife or even hot waters – predates the national parks, the protection of Yosemite and Yellowstone marks the recognition that there is value in preserving the land itself in its natural state instead of developing it. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone as the first national park. However, it was an accident of history that made Yosemite a state park in 1864 and Yellowstone a national park in 1872. Those public land protections mark the start of the modern conservation movement. Today, as the world is urbanizing at an accelerating pace, we need breathing spaces and nature more than ever. We also need to keep lands and waters in their natural state to combat climate change.

The best national parks?

The national parks may or may not be “America’s Best Idea” depending on one’s perspective, but there is no doubt that they were a very good idea that has been adopted worldwide. More than a hundred countries have national parks. What makes the system of national parks of America so special among the world’s offerings? There are three factors.

Timing. Europe had cathedrals and castles, but America was a blank slate. National parks would become America’s national landmarks and provide its citizens with a sense of pride. They are a focus of domestic tourism, and especially of that quintessentially American experience, the road trip. When the first national parks were established, the continent was still being explored and largely unsettled. We still had the historic opportunity to set large wild areas apart. The longer nature is left alone, the more it thrives. Yellowstone was preserved for the hydrothermal features, but wildlife is now very abundant, more than when the park was established. In the 1930s, when few lands were available in the East compared to the West, parks were made of reclaimed lands. They have now reverted to wilderness. A park unit established as late as Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (1974) has seen a drastic transformation from an environmental disaster area to a vibrant restored landscape.

Geography. America’s Park system is at a scale of a continent. All the landforms you can imagine are there: coastlines, mountains, canyons, plains. The geological diversity is tremendous. All climate zones are represented: from tropics to arctic, from rainforest to desert (even in the same park). This leads to great biological diversity. Each park is a unique ecosystem, yet they are all interrelated. All the national parks established prior to Acadia National Park (1919) were in the West. Over the course of the 20th century, they would encompass more of the continent and include more samples of each of its corners, but there are still major ecoregions missing among the designed national parks.

Management. Those two natural advantages alone would not have been enough. The example of Yosemite had shown that back in the 19th the state of California was not a very good caretaker. Activists such as John Muir urged the conversion of Yosemite into a national park (1890) with the promise that the federal government would be a better caretaker. Yet, at first, enforcement of national park protections was rather inconsistent. To remedy that situation, the National Park Service (NPS) was established (1916) as a government agency with the mission: to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” It is a dual mission with contradictory objectives: conservation and providing access, but the NPS has done a very good job. Protections are strong, with no high-impact activities allowed. Most areas are maintained as wilderness. In other areas, there is excellent visitor infrastructure for mass tourism. The National Park Service pioneered concepts now taken for granted and copied anywhere else such as visitor center, park ranger (professional, knowledgeable, friendly), official park brochure (looking at their design history gives an idea of the sophistication), interpretive programs, scenic drive, overlooks with interpretive signs. As a result, the parks have this rare combination: they are mostly pristine but quite accessible. It is partly because everybody can easily visit that the parks have developed a constituency. The resulting wide popular support across the political spectrum is what keeps them funded and protected.

Are the national parks loved to death?

Maybe the most significant change from the early days of the national parks is the growth in visitation – from 5,000 annual visits at the beginning of the 20th century to 5 million in 2016 for Yosemite alone. National Park Week not only highlights our well-deserved appreciation for the National Park Service but also encourages people to connect with their national parks. Is that a good idea, at a time when the press and social media are filled with stories about overcrowded parks?

First, we have to ask what is negatively impacted. For the developed areas of the parks, despoilation has already taken place irremediably when the park infrastructure was built. More infrastructure built for mass tourism actually mitigates global impact. Official trails reduce the impact of cross-country travel and user trail networks; restrooms and garbage cans prevent toilet paper from flying everywhere and waste from littering the landscape. Past a million visitors, it isn’t clear that another half-million is going to harm the environment that much more. What is most degraded, rather than the park, is the visitor experience. However, are visitors really concerned about crowding? They certainly keep coming to the more popular parks despite the well-publicized visitation numbers, and despite the fact that less popular national parks and other public lands are available to them. For the most popular areas, the NPS is extending the practice of requiring advance reservations for entry, and while inside the park, of using shuttles rather than private cars – another example of infrastructure reducing global impact. While this removes the spontaneity of trips, I think the overall improvement in visitor experience makes it a sustainable compromise. Other measures in the same vein can be taken to mitigate adverse consequences of visitation, but what we need for them to happen is above all increased funding.

When I see crowds, part of me is pleased to see that people are loving and visiting their parks. I do not feel frustrated because in most parks, I could find ways to avoid the crowds, be it by timing, hiking, or going to less popular areas. There are many parks that do not suffer from over-visitation, and even within popular parks, there are often quiet parts. More importantly, a place of great power almost by definition cannot be easily stripped of its power. If you feel that sharing the beauty of a landscape with a mass of people diminishes its beauty, doesn’t it imply that such beauty wasn’t that powerful in the first place? On the other hand, doesn’t the fact that you can appreciate the beauty of a landscape through a photograph indicate that you can separate the experience of taking in the landscape with that of standing alongside many? Even on that most popular of walks, the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, standing on the bridge in the wet mist of the spring runoff still feels raw and wild. The increase in visitation of our national parks does require some mitigation measures, but rather than threatening their core mission, it is a measure of their success, and something worth celebrating this week.

Are Composite Photographs Truthful?

Assembling parts of two or more images into a photograph is a long-established technique that I have occasionally used for technical purposes. This piece looks at the history of composite photographs and details my own approach to composites. Finding my own finished photographs composited into a new one in a USA Pavilion Expo exhibit was something different and led me to wonder about the truthfulness of the result.

Composites are nearly as old as photography

In popular culture, the practice of compositing images is associated with digital techniques (“she photoshopped him into the picture”), but many photographers are familiar with the work of Jerry Ueslmann which was created entirely in the traditional darkroom starting from the 1960s. Its surrealistic imagery is powerful, yet it is hardly technically pioneering. Composite photography had already reached a sophisticated stage of development in the 1850s, just a few decades after the invention of photography, so it is a practice rooted in the traditions of the medium.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, 1865

Most modern black-and-white films are panchromatic, meaning that they are sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light, reproducing a scene close to what it appears to the eye, obviously minus the color. The film’s primary sensitive components, silver halide crystals, are naturally sensitive to the blue portion of the spectrum. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that dyes were added to extend the silver halide crystal sensitivity into the green and red portions of the spectrum. Before, 19th-century emulsions were orthochromatic – overly sensitive to blue and less sensitive to colors like yellow and red. The extra sensitivity to blue resulted in skies being overexposed compared to the landscape. As a result, photographs made on the survey expeditions of the 1860s and 1870s had a recognizable esthetic. Gustave Le Gray is credited with making two different exposures on two different negatives and then printing them together on a single sheet in order to create a realistic rendering of the sky. Through the 19th century, most landscape photographers, including Eadweard Muybridge and Peter Henry Emerson, have resorted to compositing in order to expose properly both the land and sky.

Eadweard Muybridge, Valley of the Yosemite from Mariposa Trail, 1873

From there, it was a short matter of time before photographers used a different sky. As Henry Peach Robinson writes in Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869):

It rarely happens that a sky quite suitable to the landscape occurs in the right place at the time it is taken […] These difficulties are got over by combination printing […] the result will depend, to a very great degree, upon the art knowledge of the photographer in selecting a suitable sky…
In landscape photography, only two photographs needed to be joined in a fairly simple way, at the horizon, but composites in people photography are more complicated. Even today, when I make a group photograph, obtaining a consistent good pose and pleasant expression for each individual remains a challenge, when a single blink can marr the entire photograph. Imagine how hard it must have been in the days when slow film required sitters to remain still during the long exposure times, not to mention the depth of field issues associated with large format cameras. What started first as a way to alleviate those technical problems turned for photographers such as William Notman, Henry Peach Robinson, and Oscar Gustave Rejlander into a new creative endeavor, as exemplified by Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life, a photograph that combined over thirty captures to create a complex allegorical tableau. Naturally, at that time, heated debates rose about manipulation and truthfulness. This article on Artform offers a thorough discussion of composite imagery in the 19th century.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Two Ways of Life, 1857

In the early 20th century, Surrealists used photo montages to create disturbing images that clearly didn’t represent reality. Starting at the end of that century, digital technology enabled more complex compositing. In photomosaics, a great number of images are assembled by software to create a new pattern when viewed globally, while the component images remain identifiable in a close-up view. The technique is often used for commercial imagery, but Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers is maybe the best-known art project using it. Another favorite innovative use of digital compositing is the Day to Night series of Stephen Wilkes, which seamlessly juxtaposes moments from 24 hours. In all those images, the compositing is obvious to the viewer. The rest of the article is about composite photographs crafted to make them appear as realistic images. Photographers such as Marc Adamus popularized the approach in nature landscape photography. For the past few years, mainstream photo-editing software such as Photoshop offer the option to replace the sky with a stock image by a single click, therefore automating a technique discovered more than a century and half ago.

Technical composites

A first category of composites aims to overcome the technical limitations of cameras in order to produce a higher-quality picture. While the resulting image shows more detail than a single shot, it could have been created as a single shot of technically lower quality. I consider them to be a part of the evolving photographic process. Yet, in the context of photojournalism, they are not considered acceptable, even though black and white photography, despite purposely erasing content by removing information, is. In this section, I am surveying each of the main techniques and my approach to it.

Exposure composites capture a range of light that is too large for a single exposure by merging the best-exposed parts of a series of photographs where the only variation is exposure. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is one algorithmic way to do it by creating an HDR file with more bits than the standard eight representing colors on digital devices, then “tone mapping” it back to an eight-bit file. For some photographers, the effect resulting from tone mapping is part of the technique’s appeal, but their unrealistic appearance never resonated with me. Instead, I made frequent use of exposure blending, which instead relies on manual local selections to get the best-exposed parts, and when done carefully, achieves a more natural appearance. With the advent of high-dynamic-range sensors pioneered by Sony, a single exposure is sufficient to capture the entire range of light except maybe in some situations with the light source included in the image. However, brightening the shadows can introduce noise, so if the goal is the best possible tonal quality in a print, exposures composites are still a useful tool.

Focus stacks extend the depth of field beyond what is possible with a single exposure. Images otherwise identical but focused at different depths in the scene are merged by selecting the best-focused parts of each. Modern high-resolution sensors reveal imperfectly focussed areas more than earlier, lower-resolution sensors. The higher resolving power also means that the loss of resolution caused by diffraction when stopping down lenses occurs at larger apertures. In the 2000s, I rarely resorted to focus stacking, with the exception of my Sand Grains series, but nowadays I find it essential in order to take advantage of the full resolution modern sensors have to offer. However, this is not to say that the resulting photograph is not possible without focus stacking. You’d be able to make the same picture, but you couldn’t enlarge it as much before the viewer would notice that some parts are out of focus.

Panoramas merge images taken consecutively from the same viewpoint to create a wider view. As implied by the name, they are usually in an elongated, panoramic format, not only for esthetic reasons but also because it is technically easier to create panoramas made of a single row of images. Images with extreme angle of views (from 180 degrees up to 360 degrees) must be rendered with a non-planar projection such as a cylindrical or spherical projection, in which some lines in the scene will be rendered as curves in the image. Those could not be created with single-shot cameras and lenses. However, most of the panoramas have a smaller field of view and could be captured by photographing with a rectilinear wide-angle lens (angle of view up to 135 degrees for a 9mm lens) or fish-eye lens (angle of view up to 180 degrees) and then cropping to a panoramic format. For instance the foremost competition dedicated to panoramas, the Epson Pano Awards, accepts anything with an aspect ratio exceeding 2:1. Cropping an image doesn’t feel as satisfying as extending it, since panoramic images feel inherently more complex. The reason they are assembled by merging longer focal length images is to increase the resolution – up to so-called gigapixel images. Although tedious compared to large-format photography, the technique has the potential to produce even more detailed images. If mere resolution is what I am after, given the savings in costs, impact, and burden, I find it a workable alternative.

Sometimes, what appears to the user as single captures are in fact image composites because cameras implement compositing without user intervention. Many phone cameras (including Apple iPhone and Google Pixel) automatically create an exposure composite from a quick burst of images when they sense a high-contrast scene. They are also capable of creating a panorama in real-time by scanning the scene. Frame averaging is a lesser-known type of composite, in which almost-identical images are combined pixel by pixel in order to reduce high-ISO noise. The technique is most often deployed by astrophotographers in order to allow shutter speeds fast enough to capture point stars, with a bit of realignment to compensate for Earth’s motion between frames. However, the Google Pixel phones implement it automatically in a sophisticated way with their “Night Sight” technology. As computational photography’s capabilities grow, we can expect an increasing number of single captures to be in-camera composites.

Compositing across places: the Dry Tortugas image

I find it useful to make a distinction between the composites discussed above, and the second category of composites where elements of images captured at different times or viewpoints are merged together. Such creations circumvent a fundamental attribute of photography: that an exposure captures a specific place at a specific point in time. The goal goes beyond creating a simply technically better picture. Let me illustrate the discussion with a particular example. The image of Dry Tortugas National Park that was displayed in the Expo USA Pavilion definitively belonged in that category. It was assembled out of three images made during a trip detailed here.

Upon arriving at Loggerhead Key at midday, we anchored the boat a few hundred yards from the pier on the south side of the islet, and I immediately photographed the Loggerhead Light, well lit with the sun in my back. I framed the striking lighthouse with the 24-105mm zoom set to a short telephoto focal length (75mm).

We landed at the pier with a dinghy, walked across the island to the north side, and snorkeled at the Little Africa Reef, which had the densest density of corals at a shallow depth I’ve seen so far. My underwater housing doesn’t let me adjust the focal length of the lens, and by default, I had set it at 24mm.

After returning to the boat, while the others relaxed, I got back in the water with my housing and lens still set to 24mm to experiment with under/over water images. By then, it was mid-afternoon. The sun was illuminating the lighthouse from the side – Note its size in the picture. It didn’t penetrate into the water as much as before, and at the spot where we had safely anchored, the water was deep, both factors resulting in no visible corals.

At the time I had licensed the images to the USA Pavilion designers, I was a bit puzzled that they had picked three views from Dry Tortugas National Park, as it is the third less-visited national park in the continental US. When I saw the exhibit panel, past the initial surprise, it made perfect sense from a design viewpoint. Combining two vertical frames and a transition section achieves a vertical resolution roughly equivalent to that of the highest megapixel medium format cameras. Moreover, the composite image holds visual interest from the very bottom to the top. This matters because it is the only image in the exhibit where visitors can have a close look at the bottom, from the base of the staircase, and at the top, from the second floor of the room.

Fiction or Truth?

While I have made many composites, they are almost all “technical” and very few are of the second category. One way their degree of manipulation could be characterized is by how much time has elapsed between the exposures, and how disparate their locations are. In my continued pursuit of truthfulness, I have limited myself to composites with a stationary camera and exposures separated by a short amount of time.

The composite Dry Tortugas image used photographs that were taken at three separate points in time, over the course of three hours, at two distinct locations on each side of the island, and using two different focal lengths. There is no location on Loggerhead Key from which you could see exactly what it depicts, so it does not correspond to a real experience. It is therefore a fiction.

However, I thought that the composite image did a better job at representing what that national park is about than any of the single-capture images alone. Dry Tortugas National Park is an unusual national park, as it is 99% underwater (100 square miles). At the junction of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, its corals are particularly diverse and vibrant. The tiny islets (100 acres) called “keys” are home to remarkable structures. Most of Garden Key is occupied by Fort Jefferson, the largest brick structure in Western Hemisphere. Loggerhead Light is inactive, but was said to be “a greater distance from the mainland than any other light in the world” and once housed the brightest light in America. Although the park is biologically rich, the structures are the primary reason why the national park (initially Fort Jefferson National Monument) was established.

Human visual perception does not work like a simple camera, but is inherently computational, creating effortlessly “technical composites”. The brain can merge seamlessly and dynamically a vast dynamic range of light, far and near objects, minute details and broad field of view. Could it be the case that the same could be said of memories and places? We don’t take in everything in one glance. We absorb parts at a time and build the whole in our mind. Time and time again, great literature shows that fiction can get at the truth even when stories are all made up, that it can convey a greater sense of truth than the truth itself.

As a photographer, I can happily rely on multiple images in a sequence to tell a place’s story, but the exhibit – among other use scenarios – called for a single image per park, and a composite made ample sense. Yet unanswered questions arise. Should such composites be labeled so? Do viewers even expect the image not to be a composite? If they learned so, would they feel deceived? Would a visitor who, inspired by the composite image has made the arduous trip to Loggerhead Key, be disappointed not to be able to observe exactly the scene depicted even though they experience each of its components? Can composites be truthful?

I’d appreciate to hear your thoughts, but if you prefer, you can also answer a multiple-choice poll.

Thank you to Cecilia for the picture of the Dry Tortugas panel