Terra Galleria Photography

A Tree in Ironwood Forest National Monument

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

Of all the North American deserts, the Sonoran Desert is distinguished by its trees – the Joshua Tree growing in the Mojave is a yucca and lacks wood. Desert ironwood trees (Olneya tesota) grow only in the Sonoran, where they are one of the biggest and oldest plants. The ironwood is the “desert tree of life” as the size of its canopy makes it a great perch for birds and its density creates a milder microclimate facilitating the growth of other plants (230 species have been recorded). In the harsh desert, ironwoods provide oases of sheltered habitat with more organic matter, lower temperatures, but also less frost. Like all the disparate trees also named ironwood, the desert ironwood has a iron-like wood of exceptional density that sinks in water. Compared to the saguaro which is protected throughout Arizona and got its namesake national park, the desert ironwood didn’t get much love until Ironwood Forest National Monument was established near Tucson in 2000. Due to the pourous granite soil composition, the area protected by the monument supports some of the highest densities of ironwood trees in the Sonoran, and those trees have more ecological associates there than anywhere else this phenomenon was measured.

You’d think that with the name of the monument, ironwood trees are everywhere, but author Laurent Martres wrote in his excellent Photographing the Southwest: Volume 2 – Arizona that he didn’t see any of them! One problem is that the ironwood tree is very had to tell apart from the much more common mesquite tree, which is not limited to the Sonoran Desert. From a distance, little distinguishes them, so you have to come close and examine their leaves, a rather time-consuming endeavor. The star plants of the Sonoran are the striking columnar cacti such as the giant saguaro cactus. Despite their crucial ecological role in the desert, ironwood trees are not particularly visually remarkable, except during the short period of time when they are in bloom. This can occur anytime from late April to June, but not every year yields abundant blooms. Since the monument was named after them, I stayed constantly on the lookout for them on four different days, but the following is the favorite image I was able to make.

The desert is usually a place of sparse vegetation, but it wasn’t that easy to find a well-isolated ironwood tree. With an eye-level viewpoint, branches merge with the background, so I wanted to photograph the tree from a low vantage point to detach as much of it against the sky as possible. This eliminated trees surrounded by scrub, as well as viewpoints from which the horizon wasn’t low enough. Although the density of ironwood trees is higher near Ragged Peak, it was at an outlying area, near Cocoraque Butte that I eventually found a nice specimen that met those conditions. Cocoraque Butte is an archeological site that is unsigned and unmarked, and getting there required driving badly rutted tracks that necessitated a high-clearance vehicle. I first saw the tree in the afternoon, and I went photographing the nearby petroglyphs, making a mental note to return to the tree after sunset.

During daytime, in sunny conditions, shadows from direct sunlight would obscure part of the tree or break its organic shape, while in cloudy conditions, the bright white sky would be unappealing. At twilight, after the sun has set, the light becomes soft, but unlike what happens in cloudy conditions, it has directionality. The more you wait after sunset, the more directionality there is, as the western horizon stays relatively bright, while the sky above grows darker, eventually taking on a beautiful color with a gradient. The challenge is that the light becomes quite dim. I was lucky that this particular evening was windless, making it possible to take 30 second exposures. I didn’t want to increase ISO beyond 400 since the photograph would rely so much on fine detail. This resulted in an aperture of f/7.1, not enough to keep the tree and the distant landscape within the depth of field, even with the 24mm focal length. I made two exposures, one focussed on the tree, the other on the hill, and merged them. On a large version, you can make out each individual leaf as well as a range of tones.

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

15 More Classic Color Nature Photography Books

A follow up to 15 Classic Color Nature Photography Books, this list explores photography books that may be less part of the classic nature photography canon or somewhat push the boundaries of the medium. Many are also defined by a completist, encyclopedic scope. As before, each of the titles is part of my personal collection and has my highest recommendation. New or out-of-print books may be obtained easily by following the (affiliate) links to Amazon.

Shirō Shirahata: The Alps (1980)

When I first saw the French version of this book, I was already a seasoned alpinist, but only a budding photographer. It made such a strong impression on me because I was intimately familiar with the mountains portrayed in its first part, yet they captured their grandeur in a way other photos just didn’t. At that time, I knew little about light and nothing about large format photography. More than thirty years later, I can say with confidence that Shirahata, who went on to photograph other ranges such as the Himalayas, is one of the finest mountain photographers ever.

Freeman Patterson: Portraits of Earth (1987)

After contrasting the Nanibian Desert, a familiar stomping grounds for Patterson when it wasn’t on the map the way it is now, and the Arctic environment of Ellesmere Island, the book moves to environments closer to his East Coast home, taken as representative of what everybody could find near their own. The quiet and personal images of nature are accompanied by writing alternating ecological messages with comments about photography – the later full of the insight of someone who authored several best-selling instructional books on photography and visual design. It all blends together to celebrate the art of seeing the earth.

The Legacy of Wildness: The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum (1993)

Unlike other nature photographers, Ketchum graduated from art school with a MFA and was known for his work as a curator, as well as the pioneering use of Cibachrome for large prints, before concentrating on his conservation projects. He remains the only photographer with images based on nature extensively published by Aperture (7 books). Although his location-specific books, especially those about Alaska, were more influential in environmental advocacy, I like this retrospective because it gives a good mid-career overview of his varied bodies of work.

Joel Meyerowitz: Bay/Sky (1993)

Meyerowitz started as a 35mm street photographer but eventually was even more influential photographing with a 8×10 camera as part of a group of photographers who accelerated the acceptance of color photography as a formal art form in the 1970s. The idea of making a series of photographs about the horizon between sea and sky has been since pushed to its conceptual limit by Sugimoto and Misrach, and otherwise seems quaint nowadays. However, when Meyerowitz made those luscious images over a decade, at various times of the day and weather, from the same vantage point, with the same camera and lens, it was the first exploration of this idea and remains one of the most compelling.

Harold Feinstein: 100 Flowers (2000)

When I first saw this book, I could not understand how Feinstein was able to depict flowers with such resolution and depth of field. I eventually learned that he had used a flatbed scanner instead of a camera. He would go on to publish seven more books using that technique: roses, tulips, orchids, one hundred butterflies, one hundred seashells. Feinstein had begun his career as a teenager, and by 1949, when he was 19, Edward Steichen had purchased his work for the permanent collection of MoMA. His humanistic 35mm B&W photography was exhibited in the most prestigious museums, but it is not until his 70s that he achieved commercial success with his color “scanography”. It is never too late to learn new cutting-edge techniques and re-invent yourself!

Bill Atkinson: Within the Stone (2004)

Atkinson effortlessly pivoted from a computer whiz (he was a designer for the software and graphical user interface of early Macintosh computers) to one of the first digital photography gurus. I am still grateful for Bill’s generosity in making available some of the first Epson printer profiles in the mid-2000s. His photography is characterized by attention to colors and textures in abstract compositions of small natural scenes. That disposition culminated when Bill noticed brilliant colors in petrified wood. He devised special glare-free lighting and then borrowed from international collectors thousands of polished rocks that he depicted as abstract paintings with a large-format digital scanning back. The resulting book boasts the best color reproduction I have ever seen achieved on press because, for the first time, Bill applied the color management and profiling techniques that he’d pioneered with inkjet printers to an individual printing press.

Joel Sartore: The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals (2017)

It may seem a bit curious that the most popular nature photography project ever, if measured by the success of this book, related publications, and films, was conducted not in the wild, but in zoos and wildlife rescue centers. It couldn’t have been done otherwise, since it is about creating studio portraits with excellent lighting and uniform backgrounds (an idea that dates back at least to James Balog’s “Survivors” of 1990), and it prioritizes species facing extinction, many of them barely or not at all surviving in the wild. What sets apart Sartore’s project is its scale, as he aims to photograph most of the species under human care. By late 2019, after 13 years of work, Sartore had photographed about 10,000 animals. Each of them presented specific challenges. The book, instead of trying to be an exhaustive catalog, cleverly pairs animal portraits in illuminating ways. I asked Sartore why he didn’t try to crowdsource the project. The answer: he didn’t trust others to photograph the animals without harming them.

Subhankar Banerjee: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land Hardcover (2003)

In 2000, Banerjee left a scientific career and soon after boldly spent 14 months in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, producing the most comprehensive photographic documentation of one of the last intact ecosystems on earth, as well as of the associated indigenous cultures. The influential work helped put on the map a distant land that most never heard about before and would never visit. It raised public awareness of the threats caused by global warming and oil drilling, especially after an attempt by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to censure an exhibit of the photos caused a controversy that brought even more attention to it. However, two decades later, the fight to preserve the ANWR still goes on.

Olaf Otto Becker: Broken Line (2007)

Becker, who was once a painter, worked for four years and covered thousands of miles solo in his small boat to create these photographs of the coastline of Greenland with an 8×10 camera. The resulting seascape images, made with long exposures in the peculiar light of Arctic midsummer night have a unique ethereal and melancholic beauty.

Paul Nicklen: Polar Obsession (2009)

Born and raised on Baffin Island, Nicklen is uniquely connected to the polar regions, having mastered since childhood the art of surviving that has allowed him to brave unimaginable hardships on his daring expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic. What makes Polar Obsession one of the most extraordinary books of wildlife photography is how incredibly up-close he captured the diverse wildlife, not only on land and ice but also underwater in the most freezing seas.

James Balog: Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest (2004)

Balog, with whom I had the honor to share an exhibit more than a decade ago, is a unique mix of conceptual artist, nature photographer, and adventurer. This book delivers on the promise of his title, using multi-image mosaics of varied types, and the occasional artificial backdrop, to depict 92 superlative tree specimen in a new way. The most impressive among them are the new perspectives on giant sequoias and redwoods obtained by assembling thousands of frames photographed by rappelling down neighboring trees. If you can, find the 2004 first edition from Barnes and Noble (ISBN 0-7607-6216-3) whose oversize trim gives justice to the detailed mosaics.

Rachel Sussmann: The Oldest Living Things in the World (2014)

For over a decade, Sussman has worked rigorously with biologists to identify living organisms whose ages range from several millennia (trees of unitary growth) to hundreds of millennia (aspen colonies, sea grass meadows, bacteria of clonal growth). She then traveled to all corners of the world from Greenland to Antarctica in a quest to photograph them. The muted and straight images, captured on medium format film in the age of digital, have a hard-to-define contemporary quality different from other books on this page, that matches well with the fascinating personal, scientific and environmental narrative of the book.

Carr Clifton: Wild and Scenic California (1995)

As an adopted Californian, it would be hard to not include a pictorial from my state. Although he had traveled far and wide, Carr Clifton was born in the state, continues to live there, and more than half of his books are about California. Wild & Scenic California presents his ideal of an untouched wilderness, and is a great example of the apex of 4×5 nature landscape photography in the late 20th century. There are many other California portfolio books, including from Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, Tim Palmer, David and Marc Muench (the two later have better writing and structure), but none I’ve seen present those two characteristics together.

Tim Palmer: Rivers of America (2006)

Living for 22 years a nomadic life in a van, Palmer has paddled more than 300 rivers in North America. This book draws from his collection of river photos from all across the country, the most complete from any single photographer. Besides the enormous geographic scope, the selection of photos presents a superb range of moods. In addition, a committed environmentalist, Tim is as apt at writing as he is at photography.

Charles Cramer: Yosemite (2016)

That this long-awaited, diminutive book features some of the most exquisite photographs of Yosemite is hardly surprising given that Cramer is widely recognized in the photographic community as one of the best color printmakers and he has has been working in Yosemite for more than 40 years. If you don’t know his work, you may be surprised by his intensely personal vision focused on the intimate landscape. Charlie told me that “like a vampire” he eschews direct sunlight. He once hiked to the Diving Board, which is no small effort. Most people (including me) would try to capture the grandeur of Half-Dome’s face but instead Charlie focussed his attention on a lone small tree growing on the face.

QT Luong: Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks (2016)

It may seem shameless to add my book as a 16th bonus title, but in doing so, instead of making any claim about the work, I rely solely on sale numbers as an indication of future classic status. As a publisher, I have access to industry data suggesting that when it is all done, sales of Treasured Lands will possibly surpass all other books on this page except for one. They have already surpassed the opus magnums of some of the most well known names in this field. For publicly accessible data, you could compare the number of customer reviews on Amazon.

Any other favorites?

Sonoran Desert National Monument Guide: Part 2

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

Although quite obscure in the big scheme of things, the locations in Sonoran Desert National Monument that we visited in the first part of the article are the most obvious because they are along the monument’s designated trails. Those trails predate the monument and ironically, their presence means that the corresponding wildernesses, North Maricopa Mountains and Table Mountains, have more development and visitation than the rest of the monument. Outside of the wildernesses, there are plenty of other lands where one can explore by wheels and on foot, and find even more solitude.

Vekol Valley

Sonoran Desert National Monument is bisected by I-8. While you cannot stop along the interstate, there are a few exits that deserve the southern part of the monument. I’ve mentioned the main access point at Exit 144 to the Vekol Valley Road. Vekol Valley is a strikingly large flat plain full of cactus. To appreciate its size, one needs a higher viewpoint. While Table Top Mountain is high, it is separated from Vekol Valley via foothills and therefore distant. On the other hand, there are smaller peaks that rise directly from the plain. The most easy to access is Lost Horse Peak. Although it is quite prominent from I-8, from there it appears like any other hill. However, when I studied the map, I realized its remarkable position. To find it, take Exit 140, Freeman Road, and turn east, following a short section of road paralleling I-8, looking towards the south for a prominent hill. The only trails in Sonoran Desert National Monument are the four ones mentioned previously. There is no trail to Lost Horse Peak, but it is an easy hike across a wash and then flat desert for less than a mile, and then a moderate scramble to the top. The elevation gain is only about 300 feet, but since you are overlooking directly the plain, the perspective is spectacular.

Starting my hike in the late afternoon, I chose to make my way up the peak on its west side so that I could photograph the desert plants in backlight. I stopped down the lens to f/22 to create a sunstar as the sun came to the edge of a cloud. As I got higher, the view of the plain and its cactus opened up, and in my compositions I began to give it more weight. The summit offers a great 360 panorama. I had planned to arrive there half an hour before sunset, but the compositions that I found on my way up made me late, and I was barely able to photograph the eastern side before the light faded away. Naturally, it was dark by the time I got back to my car, but since Freeman Road is only half-a-mile from I-8, the spot was too noisy for my taste, and I drove back towards the Sand Tank Mountains.

Sand Tank Mountains

Typically, national monuments are open for grazing. Sonoran Desert National Monument is unique in that its proclamation stated that grazing south of I-8 was not compatible with the preservation of its features. Unlike in other places, the fences that you see around the monuments are meant to keep the cattle out. However, it is only relatively recently that the grazing permits were revoked by the BLM. On the other hand, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, the third largest military reservation in the United States, used exclusively for air combat training including bombing, was established in 1941. The south-west corner of Sonoran Desert National Monument is part of the Barry M. Goldwater Range. With the area withdrawn from ground activities, its vegetation has not suffered from grazing. Access to that part of the national monument requires a permit, but fortunately, it can be conveniently obtained online automatically via luke.isportsman.net (the former name of the range was “Luke”) by filling in a form and watching an orientation video.

The great landscape photographer Jack Dykinga had tipped me about the Sand Tank Mountains, and suggested that I enter through a gate 4 miles west of the Freeman Road Exit, recognizable with an abandoned gas station, marked as “Big Horn Station” on the map. In more urban areas, you would not even be thinking about crossing an interstate highway, but here, just opposite the gate, the divider is interrupted by a paved section just for that purpose. The gate is closed, but unlocked. I gave access to a road quite rough that definitively required high clearance, and narrow enough that there was no place to pull out. Guessing that nobody would come at night, I parked the car at a road intersection, where there would be space for another vehicle to get by, and even though the sky was a bit cloudy, diminishing the visibility of the stars, I took advantage of the total lack of light pollution towards the south to set up a time-lapse.

With daylight the next morning, I saw how dense the Saguaro cactus forest was. Those cactus typical of the Sonoran Desert are omminpresent in Sonoran Desert National Monument and rival the forests in Saguaro National Park. I scrambled up a small hill to depict their extent. For the wide-angle views, I shifted the 24mm TSE lens to preserve the parallelism of the columnar cactus. While the same effect can nowadays be achieved in processing, it results in a significant loss of resolution, since you have to frame very loosely to account for the image areas that are lost when applying perspective corrections. That is assuming that you are able to previsualize a satisfying composition this way. It was difficult to find spots to walk without stepping on plants or flowers. Due to the lack of grazing, the vegetation was significantly more diverse and dense than elsewhere in the monument. In the moments when clouds would reduce the contrast, I switched from photographing wide landscape to close-ups. Further south, the road degraded, and since I was driving a compact AWD SUV in a very remote place, I turned back, but was still grateful to have gotten a glimpse of this beautiful area.

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

Sonoran Desert National Monument Guide

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

The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in North America – or maybe not, see discussion in the last part of this series. Thanks to the national park designation, the most well-known track of Sonoran Desert consists of Saguaro National Park whose two units straddle the city of Tucson. However, the largest unbroken tract of Sonoran Desert resides south of Interstate 8 and extends into Mexico. The U.S. part in southern Arizona includes the Barry Goldwater Range, Cabezza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. An attempt was made to establish a Sonoran Desert National Park encompassing all those areas and more there, but all we got instead as a departing gift from the Clinton Administration was the much smaller Sonoran Desert National Monument in 2001.

Still, at 776 square miles, it is a sizeable piece of untrammeled land, compared to the 143 square miles of Saguaro National Park. Sonoran Desert National Monument is large enough to include three wilderness areas and three distinct mountain ranges with a wide variety of terrain. In this article, we will successively visit a flat valley closely surrounded by mountains, a mountain top, a large plain covered with saguaro cactus, and foothills with rich vegetation. Like many in the West, it is managed by the BLM. Facilities are quite limited by any standards, as the monument was established for conservation rather than visitation. Here is the official BLM Sonoran Desert National Monument page, and here is a more detailed one from the BLM’s National Conservation Lands program.

For navigation, download this more detailed map from 2016. It is geo-referenced for use in apps supporting geo-referenced PDFs – my choice is Avenza. Note that it differs from the one linked via the above site, which is more recent (2020) but maybe isn’t geo-referenced as its filename doesn’t begin with “GP”.

Maricopa Mountains

Besides I-8, the Maricopa Road between Gila Bend and Mobile is the only paved road within Sonoran Desert National Monument. Along that road located between the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness and the South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness, you will find only desert with no development and the same can be said of the South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness.

The only facilities in the area are at Margies Cove, in the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness, and they are the most accessible facilities in the monument. The Margies Cove West Trailhead has parking for a dozen vehicles, three campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, a toilet, and an information station with a display of the map that I linked to above. There is no water, so you must be sure to bring enough, including for an emergency. It is best reached via an unpaved road from Hwy 85, rutted but accessible to passenger cars with careful driving. It took me about 20 minutes. If you come from the north, stay on 85 when Google Maps suggests another more difficult road starting from a landfill and then look for a paved spot to cross the divided highway. Here is BLM’s Margies Cove information. Unlike what you’d expect, that page is not linked from any of the two BLM Sonoran Desert National Monument pages referred above. How did I find it? Following a tip from a BLM ranger, I typed “Margies Cove” in the search box. The search box, rather than browsing, is the way to access most of BLM’s information.

The Margies Cove Trail is a 9-mile route and can be extended with the 6 miles of the Brittlebush Trail that connects two-thirds of the way – the Brittlebush Trailhead can no longer be accessed by road. The term “Cove” refers to a flat valley closely surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was struck by the lushness of the desert floor, which was covered with grasses and even tiny ferns unexpected in the desert. The trail is a easy and pleasant walk. I hiked only a section and from what I saw, it didn’t offer a great deal of diversity of terrain since it was all mostly flat. On the two days when I was there, the weather was rainy. Besides the inconvenience of having to struggle to keep the camera dry, rain in the desert is actually a treat, with a softened luminosity that is quite special. While strong light is preferable for the saguaro cactus, the soft light made it easy to photograph the smaller desert plants.

Table Top Mountains

The Table Top Wilderness is home to the only other facilities in the monument. The Table Top Trailhead is equipped in a way similar to the Margie’s Cove West Trailhead. Getting there requires a high clearance vehicle for the rough last 4.5 miles after the left turn – the first 7 miles in Vekol Valley are easy. You’ll first come across the South trailhead for the 7-mile Lava Flow Trail (BLM info), which travels in a relatively level way at the base of hills, and a short distance afterwards, the Table Top Trail (BLM info) at the end of the road. It took me an hour to drive from Exit 144 (Vekol Valley Road) on I-8.

The Table Top Trail climbs to the top of Table Top Mountain, the high point in Sonoran Desert National Monument characterized by a flat top volcanic summit, gaining more than 2000 feet elevation in less than 4 miles. The last mile is the steepest and the trail, quite good before, gets a bit rough there. Near the base of the mountain, the trail traverses forests of saguaro enlivened by abundant brittlebush. Once the steep switchbacks begin, the views over the surrounding desert became as spectacular as I had hoped when I had rented a SUV so that I could get to the trailhead. They were better from the switchbacks than from the summit itself, and that’s where I planned to be at sunset time, before hiking back to camp at night.

The next morning, I got up by dark. The mountains around the Table Top Trailhead face the west and are well lighted at sunset. However, the light at sunrise is more challenging, as the sun rises behind the mountains. Since the campground is located in an area that is quite flat, I hiked cross-country to a nearby hill for a more elevated view that reveals more of the land and offers more compositional opportunities. I photographed in predawn with the colors of the earth’s shadow on the western horizon. After the sun rose, the hill was in the shade, whereas the plain was lit. In distant views, I included shadows to add visual interest. I took advantage of the shade on the hill, that would soon disappear on that sunny day, for intimate views of the varied desert vegetation. I noticed a striking cluster of five saguaro trees, but they were still in the shade against a sunlit plain, so I waited for the sun to reach them. Since the image relied so much on the repetition of vertical lines, I used a lens with shift to keep the cactus parallel. It was supposed to be a sunrise session, but by the time I went down the hill, it was past 10 AM. However, looking back at the hill, I noticed that it was now grazed by the sun. I switched to a telephoto lens, using a polarizer to darken the lava rocks by suppressing their glare. The backlight made the yellow brittlebush glow while creating a halo of light around the cactus.

The previous post is illustrated with more images of the Table Top Wilderness and provides context to this one.

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

Traveling to Public Lands in Times of COVID-19

Summary: An account of a road trip in the desert at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and some thoughts on public lands and national parks as places for self-isolation. All images are from the Table Top Wilderness I visited during this trip.

The Plan

I had planned the Sonoran Desert trip for a year. In March 2019, I had just returned from the new Indiana Dunes National Park and was scrambling to try to update Treasured Lands. By the time I was ready to go, I had prioritized destinations further north, after which the temperatures in the desert had already risen too much. More importantly, the springtime desert bloom, which takes place in the Sonoran during the month of March, was over. Since the desert is such an arid place most of the year, the presence of those blooms enlivens the landscape considerably and I felt it essential to showcase the land at its most beautiful.

Before the event was postponed for a year, I was going to Washington, DC at the beginning of April to receive a conservation award, so a mid-March trip would have to be short to reduce my time away from the family. A direct flight to Phoenix from San Jose is a quick hour and half, as opposed to an eleven hour drive. In addition, renting a car at the destination made sense because this time I needed a vehicle with better off-road capabilities than my Prius. The BLM access map for the Table Top Mountains features a prominent box with “High Clearance Four-Wheel-Drive Vehicle Required”. I looked for independent confirmation of this fact, and sure enough, on alltrails.com, a user commented

When the sign says “high vehicle ground clearance required”, believe it! … Depending on the recent weather you will need a 4×4 and even a vehicle with a lift.
Flying raises eyebrows in some circles concerned with carbon footprint, but for the solo traveler, it is actually better than driving with anything but the highest efficiency vehicle. According to this calculator, a flight from San Jose to Phoenix results in 0.214 tons (428 lbs) of CO2, whereas driving a 25 MPG car (a reasonably efficient SUV) for the 700 road miles results in emissions of 700 lbs of CO2.

Less time and less impact seemed to make the choice easy, but by the start of my trip, March 10, COVID-19 (JHU global visualizer, USA numbers, advice from Wuhan CDC) was becoming a growing concern, with more than a thousand U.S. cases confirmed, although shelter-in-place imperatives were still not well understood at that point and any directives were still a week away. I opted to rent a compact SUV in San Jose. Concerned for the safety of a Uber ride, my wife dropped me at the car rental agency. I wiped all the contact surfaces and used generous amounts of spray alcohol. Besides the usual camping and photography gear, I loaded the car with ten gallon-size jugs of water and enough food for ten days, as I usually do so that I can devote all of my time to photography without the distraction of having to look for meals or refilling water bottles. For mutual protection, this would alleviate the need for any interactions with the local communities.

The Trip

I stopped only at interstate-side gas stations. I would pump gas normally, but took care not to touch my face nor clothing. I would then walk into the gas station. A few times at the beginning of my trip, I ordered a sandwich. It was not necessary, but I liked a bit of fresh food for a change. At the end of the trip, I contented myself with the food I had brought. My last stop would be the restroom. After washing my hands thoroughly, I’d get a paper towel, and use it to grab any handle I needed to pull on my way to the car, before disposing of it. Once seated in the car, as an added precaution, I’d wash my hands again with a Purell dispenser bottle. Along the Arizona highways, I did not notice any significant differences in travel. At the only “trail” of the obscure Agua Fria National Monument, a large group of adults and children were tightly clustered.

My main objective for the trip was to photograph Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument. Both are ran by the BLM and quite undeveloped, with dispersed camping the norm. Dispersed camping refers to camping on public lands away from developed recreation facilities. Unless an area is explicitly posted as “closed to camping”, it is open. In my case, camping consisted of just pulling out of the road and sleeping in the car, but for those who are setting up a tent, it is preferable to use an existing site in order to avoid creating new impact. The few campgrounds where I stayed were remote enough that I was surprised to even see other cars midweek, although there were never more than two of them. In one case, I went further on the road rather than parking close to someone else.

When I arrived at the Silverbell Group Camp, since there was not even a picnic table and nobody else was present, I wasn’t sure it was indeed a campsite until I saw a row of portable toilets. After dark, a truck pulled in and parked closer than I liked. Well before dawn, I was awakened and worried by loud noises, but managed to go back to sleep. After stumbling out of my car at dawn, still half-asleep, I made a beeline for the toilets. It took me a while to realize they were gone. I went back to the car and grabbed my shovel. For car camping, no need to use a fancy backpacking-style trowel. A full-size shovel lets you dig a deep hole to bury the solid waste much quicker. I never liked the idea of burying toilet paper. In the distant past, I would burn it, but now I find it cleaning, safer and quicker just to throw it in a garbage bag. During my entire time on public lands, I used a bathroom only once, after which I realized it was better for everybody not to do so. It’s the desert, there were no woods there, but after heading out toward the bushes, I didn’t have to worry about touching contaminated surfaces, nor any worker would have to clean a facility and eventually remove the waste that instead will help fertilize the ground. Likewise, when you pee in the soil, micro-organisms will break up the organic matter. Just avoid doing so on plants or rocks.

There were no visitor centers or rangers around, no brochures nor guidebooks, so I had to do my research and figure out where to go. Sonoran Desert National Monument has only four established trails in its 776 square miles. On two different days, I did not see a single hiker on the Margie Cove Trail, whereas on the Table Top Trail, I crossed paths just with one middle-aged couple. Most of the time, I would hike off-trail. Ironwood Forest National Monument doesn’t even have officially designated trails anyways. I felt that I self-isolated effectively during my time in the Sonoran Desert, with several entire days when I didn’t even come within sight of another person. The outdoors can be a very safe area to avoid the spread of the virus. In hindsight, the timing of my trip was marginal, but after the peak of crisis is over, the mode of travel I described can help keep all of us safer in a new world. With a bit of preparation, it is not difficult for anyone to execute such a trip. Until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, that may be how we have to travel to public lands.

The Coronavirus

Yet, I cannot recommend travel to public lands as a way to self-isolate. Our public understanding of COVID-19 has evolved dramatically in a period of barely more than a week. Now stay at home, or at least local to one’s county, has been widely embraced, but the much-praised New York governor initially resisted it after California put in place a shelter-at-home order on March 19. When it happened, I headed home, pulling in my driveway that evening. Since then, I’ve been to the grocery store only once, with a mask and much caution.

I travel in an unusually spartan and self-contained manner that some reasonable people could call lonely – or loony. But travelers who do not do the same will have contacts in the local communities where they will use the amenities. This puts those often older communities at unacceptable risk of contamination, and since those communities are small and remote, their resources are limited compared to urban areas. Even trail associations have recommended that long-distances hikes on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail be postponed because of the risk to communities during resupplies. It is not just about the obvious lack of doctors, hospital beds or ICU units, but also mere non-perishable groceries that even a self-prepared photographer had to shop for. If in San Jose I could not buy pasta (other than lasagna) at my usual large chain grocery store, how is a rural small store supposed to stay stocked? Open spaces are important because people need to get out of their house for recreation. Generally, it is much easier to maintain adequate social distancing in open spaces than it is in urban spaces or indoors. However, accessing the more remote areas could require extended travel and contacts with remote communities, and this has to be strictly avoided. In the less remote areas like local parks, there might still be enough visitation that one has to be very careful about distancing.

Unlike the largely undeveloped BLM lands, the national parks are attractive to many because they are remarkably easy to access for such pristine areas. One could say that the NPS has made wildlands suitable for mass tourism. This tends to draw in different types of visitors, who in average do not have the capacity for self-sufficiency required in order not to increase risks to the local communities and park workers. The mayor of Estes Park, a city who exists as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, has asked the Secretary of the Interior to close the park. In addition, the infrastructure in national parks is designed to funnel visitors to limited spaces such as visitor centers, overlooks, and trails. It is a challenge to stay 6 feet away from others on a crowded trail that is 3 feet wide, and some places do not allow off-trail hiking. One could argue that Death Valley National Park, as the largest national park in the lower 48, offers plenty of opportunity for distancing, and hiking cross-country there doesn’t result in adverse environmental impact. But for each person who parks their car at random along the road and heads out into the desert, how many will congregate at Zabriskie Point or use the facilities in Furnace Creek? Visiting Death Valley National Park safely means traveling as I did in the desert national monuments. Skilled wilderness travelers do not need national park infrastructure and can instead go to the national monuments and other public lands that offer plenty of underappreciated wonders.

On my way home, I made quick stops at three small NPS sites. Arriving at park opening in Tonto National Monument, I was disappointed to see all the trails closed, especially since during the hour I spent on the parking lot to photograph a distant cliff dwelling with a telephoto lens, I noticed only a single other car showing up. The rangers said that later in the day, I would not be alone, and indeed I understood their wisdom when I went to Montezuma Castle National Monument, which was fully open except for the visitor center. The trail was worryingly packed, and this observation confirmed my fears. On the other hand, Tuzigoot National Monument was fully closed at the gate. You would think that it means each park superintendent has full authority to act, but no. The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, NPS regional director, and NPS directors were all overruled by the Secretary of the Interior when requesting a closure. The first reaction of the Secretary to the outbreak has been to wave the entrance fees in the NPS system, as announced in person by the President, repeating – in worse because the NPS personnel, as well as visitors is at risk – the mistake made when the administration kept the national parks open during the government shutdown. Although my work aims to encourage people to visit their national parks, it saddens me to have to join the call for a closure and postponement of trips.

The Road Trip

I initially came to the U.S. in 1993 for a postdoc of 2.5 years on a J-1 visa, with the understanding that I would return to France at the end of the period, where a post would be waiting for me at the research institute where I did my graduate work. However, when 1995 rolled, I changed my mind. I had begun to visit the national parks and photograph them with my 5×7 large format camera, and I wanted to continue doing that, even though those days a lot of my free time was spent trying to climb big walls in Yosemite, with a few occasional road trips in between.

Since at that point, no matter how interesting the science, I already valued my time spent in the outdoors more than that spent in the office, I chose a career in academia, over the more lucrative corporate paths that were plentiful in the Silicon Valley for a Computer Science graduate. I was hoping that academia would give me more flexibility for personal time. Since I had no family and had always lived frugally, even a less than full-time salary would be enough to fund my other endeavors. With that in mind, I took a job in the Artificial Intelligence Center of SRI International in Menlo Park. This tour of SRI by Robert Scoble gives an idea on how interesting the work there could be, and here is my SRI web page, unchanged from the day I would leave the Institute, a dozen years later.

My J-1 visa was expiring, and SRI had applied for a new H1-B visa on my behalf, but to collect the new visa, I had to go abroad as it could not be granted inside the country. My new employer mentioned that most people in my situation would travel to Canada for that purpose. It was mid-October, and my new job would not start until late in November, so that left me more than a free month. I planned a wide-ranging road trip, east into the desert, north to the Canadian Rockies, west to the Olympic Peninsula, and south down the Pacific Coast.

I had done road trips in the west before, but since I was always accompanied by friends or relatives they were often a motel-based affair with a schedule only partly conductive of photography. That trip was different because it was the first time I traveled by myself for such a relatively long period of time, living from my car and campgrounds as I went from one national park to the next. I discovered the freedom that the open road can offer, and the purpose that a trip focussed solely on photography can bring. On that most formative extended outing, I developed most of the routines that I still use to this day when I travel the American wilderness, and I visited more national parks new to me than I had done in the 2.5 years before combined.

In particular, Yellowstone National Park made a strong impression on me, as I experienced it at its wildest, short of a winter visit. I got there in early November, just a few days before the park would close for the season. The park was mostly deserted. Only a few cars were parked on the huge lot near Old Faithful – of all the people, my girlfriend’s ex came out of one of them. Although I had climbed Denali, I was not prepared for the temperatures in the park, and had to drive back to Jackson to buy a down jacket. The frigid temperatures enhanced the thermal steam, coated the trees near thermal sources with ice, and a dusting of snow differentiated both sides of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. A number of images of the park from this trip a quarter-century ago remain some of my favorites and those illustrating that post made their way into Treasured Lands.

Unfortunately, not all images remained. Among the possessions in my car, I considered the most valuable to be the small pouch containing my exposed film, both 5×7 sheets and 35mm rolls. When I eventually arrived in Calgary, my first city stop since leaving home, it felt natural to carry the pouch with me wherever I went instead of leaving it in the car. Take your valuables with you! As I walked into the US Consulate General to collect my new visa, I thought only briefly of the X-ray machines. In those days, it was understood that hand-inspection of film at airport security was not really necessary, but only a precaution taken against the cumulative slight fogging that might occur if your film is x-rayed many times over. Unlike with digital, with film, you never really knew what you got until you got your film back from the lab. Three weeks later, after driving back from the lab, I opened with tremendous anticipation the film boxes. Most of the photographs from before Calgary were ruined with heavy random patterns. Sometimes you lose, but nothing is really lost if you are willing to start again. I vowed to go back, and boy, have I done so.

Kilbourne Hole Volcanic Crater: Photographing a Hole in the Ground

From a photographic point of view, a shallow depression in the ground didn’t seem too promising, but since from a geological point of view, Kilbourne Hole is one of the most unique and little-known natural features of the Southwest, I nevertheless decided to spend half a day checking it out, part of my explorations of the “Desert” part of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument which complements the “Organ Mountains” part.

Kilbourne Hole is not your usual volcano. Although the expense of desert that surrounds it is pancake flat, the crater isn’t visible from a distance, because unlike a classical cone volcano, it doesn’t rise in elevation at the rim. Kilbourne Hole is a prime example of an uncommon maar crater. Instead of a lava eruption, what took place there is a steam explosion caused by magma superheating groundwater to forceful pressures. Little material was emitted except volcanic gas. That explosion left only a mile-wide shallow depression in the ground that looks like the result of a meteorite impact. Due to its resemblance to craters on the moon, astronauts from the Apollo missions came here to train.

The BLM website gives directions that sound complicated, but surprisingly, Google Maps provided accurate navigation. It involved driving for an hour on nondescript dirt roads that were all unmarked. Fortunately, I didn’t see any other vehicles, since in places this would have required backing out until you could get out of the narrow roadbed to make room for another car to pass.

The app led to a spot that looked random rather than a trailhead or viewpoint, and since I was driving at night, I could not see much. However, a stroll confirmed that I had arrived near the crater’s rim, and I went to sleep wondering what I would see in the morning. I got up early to photograph in the light of pre-dawn since my experience is that depressions are often best photographed at twilight when there are no harsh shadows to break up or obscure the features of the land. Although the light works until sunrise, my favorite time was just before sunrise. There is a short moment when the earth casts its own shadow on the atmosphere, resulting in a dark blue band in the sky, low on the horizon, below a glowing pink band known as the “Belt of Venus.” I initially tried to contrast the dark volcanic rock with the crater’s lighter tones, and then got closer to the rim over slippery badlands for a view peering directly over the crater floor. As soon as the sun rose, the character of the scene changed dramatically, with the crater now in deep shade. I played with the contrast between the light and shade by looking for shrubs whose tops were grazed by sunlight. While the resulting photographs are interesting, they do not provide a clear depiction of the crater, unlike the twilight images.

High clearance wasn’t needed, although for the last miles close to the rim, it was reassuring to have. On the other hand, if one wanted to circumnavigate the crater by vehicle, it would be needed. Instead, I chose to hike along a portion of the crater, which is a better way to be attuned to the differences in terrain. At the spot where I photographed at dawn, I was standing on badlands, but I later happened upon basalt cliffs. Only a few dozen yards separate the two photographs above. For the second one, I took an inventory of the visual components: the flat crater floor, cliffs, slope, and tops of balsalt cliffs, and tried to fit them into a single composition.

I eventually made my way to the bottom of the crater by scrambling on steep slopes, which are only a few hundred feet high, trying to avoid the more slippery parts. The flat floor didn’t hold much visual interest, and I headed towards the eroded cliffs. Seen close, they looked more imposing than from the rim. The two photographs above were made within a quarter of an hour. The first one, from the crater floor, shows the delicate colors of the cliffs in contrast to the foreground vegetation. Because all the frame was in open shade, the original contrast was low and could be increased into a bright image. The second one, made from partway the slope, evokes the cliffs rather than depicting them, preserving some of their mystery. The brightness of a sunlit foreground would normally overwhelm a subject in the shade, but this was not the case because I photographed dark lava rocks and vegetation backlit. Not too bad for a hole in the ground!

When I drove out of Kilbourne Hole, I initially tried to use Google Maps, since the app had served me well on the way in. However, with little signal, directions did not load. I had other off-line navigation apps on my phone, but they kept leading me to gates that were closed with ominous “No Trespassing” signs. I record GPS tracks essentially for geo-tagging, but since the previous night I did not plan to photograph, I had not recorded my track through the maze of dirt roads. Eventually, I was able to remember my itinerary of the previous night. I made a mental note to keep the GPS on whenever I drive on dirt roads, so that I could easily find the way back.

Photographer’s Guide to White Sands National Park

As a thanks for your readership, here are the entire notes from the White Sands National Park section of the upcoming Treasured Lands reprint. I would appreciate it if you vote in the one-question poll for your favorite spread, and also report any errors.

Like Bryce Canyon National Park, White Sands National Park is moderately sized and centered around a single geological feature that is unique and visually stunning. Remarkable plants add to the interest. The white sand dunes draw photographers from around the world because they are so photogenic. They are a great place to exercise one’s creativity because there are so many elements to photograph but no iconic locations. I enjoy the possibilities to explore freely without the impacts caused by off-trail hiking, easily escape the crowds, and find solitude.


Dune Drive leads from the visitor center to the heart of the dunes in 8 miles along which vegetation density decreases and dune size increases. The first 5 miles are paved and the last 3 miles are hard-packed sand, suitable for any vehicle. Out of the 5 official trails in the park, one is a boardwalk, and three are hiking routes in the dunes marked by metal posts at distant intervals. After parking at one of the designated pull outs or lots, you can wander anywhere on the dunes. Walking 15 to 30 minutes from the road and away from the trails is enough to find dunes devoid of footprints. As it is easy to become disoriented in the dune field, orient yourself to the surrounding mountains. GPS is very useful, but due to interference caused by the military, it can be unreliable. The White Sands Missile Range, site of the first nuclear explosion, surrounds the park, which occasionally closes for a few hours during missile testing. Half of the park is a cooperative use zone shared with the military. The park opens at 7 am and closes about an hour after sunset. To photograph at night or at sunrise, there are two options. You can obtain a highly-coveted first-come-first-serve permit to stay in one of the park’s 10 backcountry campsites – no car camping is allowed. Or you arrange in advance for a paid special entry permit. The city of Alamogordo, 16 miles away, forms a good base.


In the desert, temperatures can vary as much as 50 degrees during a day. Late autumn to early spring offers the most pleasant temperatures for hiking with mild daytime temperatures, although nighttime temperatures can dip well below freezing. In the spring, wildflowers and vegetation come alive, but that is also the season with the strongest winds. Summer, from early July through September, brings average daytime temperatures above 95 degrees and monsoon rains accompanied by dramatic skies and another round of wildflower blooms. Fall offers clear skies, and the cottonwoods foliage turns in early November.

Playa Trail

The Playa Trail (0.5-mile round-trip, green markers), doesn’t lead to dunes. Instead, it is the only freely accessible trail in the park from which you can see a playa, which is a shallow depression that fills temporarily with rainwater from storms, mostly during the monsoon season. The ever-changing nature of the playa, which can be white, brown, filled with crystals or water, make it a worthwhile quick stop. If the water is abundant, you may observe wildlife early in the morning there. Stay on this trail to protect the cryptobiotic soil crust. The much larger Lake Lucero playa may be visited on monthly, seasonal ranger-led tours.

Dune Life Trail Area

Dunes Drive can be divided into three sections. The first section, from the entrance to Interdune Boardwalk, is characterized by lots of vegetation, but small dunes. The Dune Life Nature Trail (1-mile loop, blue markers) travels along the edge of the dunes where the desert scrub meets the gypsum sand. Although animal life is elusive, I saw plenty of tracks on the sand. On the other hand, plant life is abundant, interesting, and often overlooked. It includes isolated cottonwoods that surprisingly adapted to the sands. More of those trees can be found west of Dunes Drive near the end of the pavement.

Transition Area

The second section of Dunes Drive, from Interdune Boardwalk to the Backcountry Loop Trail, is characterized by an attractive combination of sizeable dunes and vegetation, most notably soap yucca plants. Of all the plants in the park, the soap yucca is the most iconic because its distinctive shape and color provide a stark contrast with the white sands. In late spring, it displays large cream-colored blooms on stalks, and later in the season, the dried blooms are strikingly dark. Although the dune field appears full of them, finding a nicely isolated and healthy-looking yucca standing in a patch of sand with intact dune ripples required a lengthy search. It is useful to scout the area at midday and use a GPS to mark spots where you’d want to return at sunrise or sunset because due to park regulations, those windows of time are short. By heading straight from the entrance to a pre-scouted spot, I was able to catch a scene at first light. Hiking away from established trails makes it easier to find pristine dunes without footprints. To do so, you could park at the pullout on the west side of the road past the Sunset Stroll meeting area. However, if you are worried about getting lost and prefer to follow a trail marked with poles sticking out of the sand, placed at intervals regular enough that one can go from one pole to the next, you can walk the Backcountry Camping Trail (2.2-mile loop, orange markers).

That trail is typically used by backpackers to access their campsite. The closest one, #9, is barely more than half a mile from the trailhead. Backcountry camping lets you experience a sunset without the need to hurry to get out of the park, and an early set up for sunrise the next morning. The sky above the park is quite dark, so it is excellent for photographing stars. Camping is a strictly regulated affair. Because of the possibility of closure due to missile testing, there are no advance reservations. Competition for the ten sites, which are assigned, can be fierce, with aspiring campers lining up right at park opening time. The park service requires campers to set up their tents before dark and prohibits hiking at night because it would be so easy to get disoriented.

Heart of the Sands

The third section of Dunes Drive, past the Backcountry Loop Trail, is characterized by the largest sand dunes, and almost no soap yucca plants nor other vegetation on the dunes. With no plants to balance the dune compositions, what I look for there are high viewpoints to illustrate the immensity of the dune field. Unlike in Death Valley or Great Sand Dunes, the gypsum dunes are not that high, topping around 60 feet. The tallest dune is about 15 minutes west from the Alkali Flat trailhead.

During the day, you could hike the whole 4.5-mile Alkali Flat Trail loop signed with red markers. Skirting the edge of the largest playa in the area, it goes up and down numerous steep dunes, making it the longest and most difficult trail in the park. However, spots more than 30 minutes from the parking lot are not practical for photographing the sunset and twilight, since you need to give yourself time to get out of the park before it closes. After the sun goes down in White Sands, there is a magical time during which you’ll want to photograph rather than hike, and this means setting up relatively close to your car if you are not camping. The soft light emphasizes the sculptural qualities of the dunes. When photographed backlit, the dunes take a surreal blue color, whereas in other directions, the delicate colors of the sky reflect off the white sands. It is easy to overlook the flats between the dunes, but besides their shrubby vegetation, they are laced with curiously curved ridges that from a distance could be mistaken for tire tracks, but are entirely natural: they are the remnants of migrated dunes.


Please have a say in the choice of the images for the White Sands National Park section in the next printing of Treasured Lands. The section consists of three spreads. The first spread is settled as follows.

There are four choices for the two last spreads:





Which spreads do you prefer? If you do not see window below, click here.

Part 1: The First Photographs of White Sands National Park?

Photo Gear for Sale

Trying to clean up my closet, I have assorted gear for sale: Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others, you name it. Even if you are not looking to add to your kit, some of the information may be of interest. email me for photos, more details, or to make an offer.

Canon EF teleconverter 1.4x. $175. Good condition. Works with L tele lenses and TSE lenses.

Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art, Canon EF mount. $700. Excellent condition. This is the widest f/1.4 lens available, and as such a great choice for astro-landscape photography. It is sharper (and wider) than both the Canon and Bower 24mm f/1.4. This particular lens has been handpicked out of 3 samples after rigorous automated optical testing.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 IS L. $600. This was my bread-and-butter lens when I used the Canon EF system – I’ve since switched to Sony and use an equivalent lens. This particular lens has been handpicked out of 4 samples after rigorous automated optical testing. It is in perfect mechanical condition, but the front element has a few pin-size scratches. They do not affect the image in any way, and I never felt it necessary to replace the lens, especially since it takes quite a while to do the testing and locate a good sample.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 IS. $250. The first lens to introduce image stabilization – we’ve come a long way. With its good optical quality, reach, and light weight, it was my preferred telephoto choice for hiking. The 100-400 is more than twice its weight, while the 70-200/4 has a reduced reach. This particular lens has been handpicked out of 3 samples after rigorous automated optical testing. It is in perfect mechanical condition, but the front element has a hair-size scratch, again something that was not an issue.

Ikelite Underwater housing kit for Canon 5D mk2 $1,600. Includes everything you need to shoot with a wide-angle lens: housing, Modular 8″ Dome Assembly and Extended Port Body, Strobe DS160, Charger, SA-100 Ball Socket Arm & Digital TTL Sync Cord, and Pelican Case suitable to shipping as check-in luggage. Ikelite is the least expensive reputable brand of housings, and they provide great service. Their housings are as reliable as any other major brand. The reason they are relatively inexpensive is that they are made of polycarbonate. Aluminum housings are smaller and the controls (knobs, shafts, etc) seem to work more precisely, but the price difference is substantial and probably not worth it unless you dive frequently. I’ve used this housing to make all the underwater photographs in Treasured Lands, and I am selling it only because it’s been a few years since I used my Canon gear.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 $400. Damaged, sold as is. When mounted on a Nikon body, aperture and AF appear to work OK. This lens was dropped, and as a result, the optics went out of alignment, resulting in images that are partly unsharp. Here are two full-resolution examples shot wide-open: example 1, example 2. Unfortunately, when I checked those images on the LCD, at normal magnification, they looked just fine. It wasn’t until I went home that I noticed the sharpness defect. The location was the Whitmore Overlook in Grand Canyon, and it takes so much effort to get there that I don’t see myself returning soon. So the lesson is to check images at 100% before you leave! The Nikon is a great lens, especially for night photography, but it is quite heavy especially for mirorless, so instead of getting it fixed, I am now using for that purpose the lighter and slightly faster Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/2 in combination with the versatile 16-35mm f/2.8.

Novoflex Nikon G to Canon EF adapter. $75. Good condition. This is a “16:9 edition” adapter (description here) named after the technical lens site 16-9 . Back then, Canon made the only good full frame cameras, but all their wide-angle lenses were mediocre. 16-9 found the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 to be the best wide-angle zoom made at that time – it is still one of the best. They developed the adapter specifically to use that lens on a Canon EF body. Being a “G” lens that controls electronically the aperture, the 14-24 f/2.8 doesn’t have an aperture ring, so this required a special adapter with the capability to stop down the lens via a specially designed lever.

Bower 24mm f/1.4, Nikon Mount. $300. Good condition. Manual focus, manual aperture. A good night sky photography lens. I once owned the Canon 24 f/1.4 L II, which was considerably more expensive, but sold it because the Bower (also marketed as Rokinon or Samyang) turned to have much less coma. Coma is the bane of star field photography because it is almost impossible to correct in processing. Unlike for the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, I could have gotten the Bower in Canon mount, but I chose the Nikon version since with the adapter below, there is no loss in functionality. Nikon lenses can be mounted on Canon EF bodies because they have a larger mount, but not vice-versa.

Vello Nikon to Canon EF adapter. $20. Good condition. Allows mounting of a manual focus, manual aperture Nikon lens (such as the above Bower) to Canon EF. The adapter is so small and thin that you just forget that it’s there.

Case Remote with cable for 5D mk2/mk3 $100. Provides remote control via smartphone (YouTube review). Unlike with other remotes, you can crucially see the image live on your phone’s screen. That capability is built-in with the Sony cameras.

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD Lens for Sony A. $650. Until last year, this was the best choice for a super-tele zoom for Sony, as explained by Brian Smith. Although it is not a native FE lens but rather a Sony A lens, it is still a native Sony lens so it works better than other third-party lenses, provided you use the following adapter. If you have $2,000, the new Sony 200-600mm is a better choice, however, this Tamron is a decent alternative for a fraction of the cost and not a bad choice if you don’t use a super-tele often enough to justify the price of the Sony. Optically, in the 200-400 range, it is comparable to the much more expensive original Canon 100-400, which was my workhorse tele lens for a long time, but (obviously) it can go to 600mm without a teleconverter, making it a very versatile lens for wildlife – I used in Katmai for the bears. That copy was hand-picked out of 3 samples.

Sony LA-EA3 adpter. $175. Mount a Sony A lens on Sony FE body with fast and accurate PDAF AF-C and AF-S with Wide, Center and Flexible Spot Focus Areas.

Ricoh GR. $400. If you are OK with a fixed lens (equivalent to 28mm), the Ricoh GR is still one of the finest pocket cameras. The ergonomics are outstanding with easy access to all important controls, and the image quality phenomenal for a 16MP camera. In fact, thanks to the exceptionally sharp lens, images are better than those made with a Canon 5D mk3 and 24-104 f/4, and I have made and sold a 30×45 print out of one of them. This camera shows minimal wear and works perfectly. Sold with original packaging and all accessories, except that I am providing a third party battery charger instead of the original charging cable that required you to plug in the camera to charge the battery.

Sanho Hyperdrive COLORSPACE UDMA 2 480GB. $225. This is a standalone, battery-operated device with a color screen that allows you to back up memory cards without the need of a computer. I prefer this device to a computer because it is lighter, smaller, faster to operate, and requires less power. I easily carried two of them for total redundancy, whereas it would be a drag to carry two computers. If you carry one computer and several drives, the computer’s failure would make it impossible to do further backups. Read about my hard-learned lesson on backups. The only limitation with this particular device is that it doesn’t support SDXC. I had to upgrade to the UDMA 3 for that, but if you are using CF cards or older SD cards, the UDMA 2 will work just fine.

Gitzo 1325 mk2 tripod. $300. Series 3 carbon-fiber, with 3 legs section and a large apex. Folded Length 26.4 in, Height Range 4.33 – 58.27 in, weight 4.5 lbs. Rock solid. Good condition, but note that the joints (which were not anti-twist, so require you to operate them in the right order), have become a bit sticky, something that can probably be fixed by a thorough cleaning.

Arca-Swiss Monoball B1 Ballhead. $250. Many scratches, but solid operation. For many years, the Arca-Swiss Monoball B1 Ball Head has been the standard by which all other ball heads are judged. I find that lighter ball heads are sufficient for my needs, but if you are looking for a heavy-duty one, that one is silky smooth and super solid.

Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly Complete Kit. $600. Just a few years into the time-lapse trend (that I joined for a while), standards raised dramatically with camera motion. What made it possible was the Stage Zero, the first commercially available dolly with integrated time-lapse controller. Dollies have since become more slick and refined, but the Stage Zero remains a workhorse which is almost impossible to break even shipped as checked-in luggage (in a ski bag, included). The original kit has a single 6 foot rail, but I include a second identical rail and hardware to join them for a total of 12 feet travel. Mine came with a connector cable for Canon, but with the appropriate cable, the controller works with other systems as well. Using this has given me a new appreciation for those with the dedication to lug this thing over long distances. It works fine close to the car, though, and if you’d like a proven dolly to try to take your time-lapses to the next level, that’s a fun piece of gear!

The Organ Mountains – Searching for a View

National parks often consist of mountains. This isn’t surprising since mountains are the most spectacular landforms and the elevation range that they span lends itself to biodiversity. New Mexico’s two national parks, however, do not comprise significant mountains. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is known for its underground wonders. While surrounded by mountains, White Sands National Park is located in a flat basin. Instead, the most spectacular mountains in New Mexico are the Organ Mountains, the crown jewel of the southern Rocky Mountains.

Consisting of four detached units around the city of Las Cruces, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument protects no fewer than five mountain ranges, the Robledo Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas, and Doña Ana Mountains (which together form the Desert Peaks), the Potrillo Mountains, and of course the Organ Mountains. The later, although they form the second smallest unit, are by far the most impressive mountains in the monument, reaching almost 9,000 feet in elevation, with a rise in elevation of 4,000 feet over three miles, making them one of the steepest mountain ranges in the continental U.S.

The East Side

The only developed campground in the national monument is the Aguirre Spring Campground on the east side of the Organ Mountains. I arrived there by night. The next day, I set out at pre-dawn to hike the Pine Tree Loop Trail (4.2 miles, 1000 feet elevation gain), rated by hikingproject.com as the best trail in the monument. Shortly after the trailhead, I came to a fork. The left (E) branch seemed to be leading away from the mountains, whereas the right (W) branch headed towards them. I took the later, only to realize that it kept following the bottom of a ravine with heavy tree cover. The light of sunrise was striking the peaks above me, but by the time I reached open views of them, it was long gone. As I continued on the loop, I understood that the other branch would have placed me with open views right at about sunrise time. That was a mistake I could have avoided by studying detailed topographic maps of the trail beforehand! I was also expecting desert terrain, but the elevations, ranging from 5,700 feet to 6,700 feet, were high enough that I was hiking in a lush Ponderosa pine forest habitat, with also many deciduous trees. Early spring or late autumn would have been even beautiful.

Back to the trailhead, as I drove through the rest of the loop road, I realized that the Organ Mountains looked more towering from there than from the trail, because from the trail, you are too high and too close, which results in the peaks appearing foreshortened. They were better detached against the sparse desert vegetation than against the forests. But by then it was late morning, and the peaks were getting in the shade. In general, it is preferable to arrive at a new site by daylight and scout for sunset than to arrive at night, since the sunrise would have to be photographed without prior scouting. However, I was traveling close to the winter solstice for White Sands National Park. At that time, the sun sets before 5 pm, and being on a short trip, I was hoping to be more productive by driving at night rather than settling down for such long nights.

The West Side

The Organ Mountains are more often observed from the west side, because that is where Las Cruces is situated. From the I-10 freeway, they tower strikingly in the distance, the steep spires indeed resembling the pipes of an organ. The most popular destination on the west side is the Dripping Springs natural area where a visitor center is located at the base of the most dramatic section of the Organ Mountains. From there, many hike the Dripping Springs Trail (3.2 miles round-trip, 470 feet elevation gain) that leads to historic ruins and a waterfall. However, this trail is too close to the base of the mountains if one is to capture their grandeur. In the late afternoon, I drove down from the visitor center and made a few photographs near a picnic loop on the north side of the road. However, even from there, the mountains didn’t look as majestic as I remembered them from the freeway. I drove further down, and turned right (N) on Baylor Canyon Rd. That was about the most distant spot I could get from the mountains while staying on a road located within the national monument. Since the spires would look flat if I photographed with the sun directly in my back, I continued north of the main group of spires in order to benefit from a bit of cross-lighting at sunset.