Terra Galleria Photography

Landscapes where I Live, in Monochrome

At last, I am releasing a body of work featuring landscape photographs made where I live, which means within half an hour from home. And if that wasn’t enough of a change in the practice of someone known for large-format photography of national parks and other public lands all around the country – itself a subset of extensive travels spanning five continents, I altered my photography process and then chose to present the images in black and white.

The continuity with my work in parklands is that, as briefly announced before, I made each of the new photographs while hiking within a local park or preserve. Galen Rowell had remarked in Bay Area Wild (reviewed here) that the Bay Area’s greenbelt rivals that of the country of Costa Rica, a much-touted eco-travel destination. Although only a small slice of the Bay Area’s diversity, I am fortunate to be able to access more than twenty nature parks within a half-an-hour drive from my home in San Jose, California. Over the past year and a half, we visited those oakland and chaparral habitats more than sixty times. On this page, I am showing twenty-five photographs, like on a short roll of film with the extra leader shot. They are from nineteen of the local parks, approximately from north to south:

  • Mission Peak Regional Preserve,
  • Ed Levin County Park,
  • Rancho San Antonio County Park,
  • Stevens Creek County Park,
  • Fremont Older Preserve,
  • Lexington Reservoir County Park,
  • Heintz Open Space,
  • Santa Rosa Open Space,
  • Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve,
  • Alum Rock Park,
  • Joseph Grant County Park,
  • Almaden Quicksilver County Park,
  • Santa Teresa County Park,
  • Calero County Park,
  • Canada del Oro Open Space Preserve,
  • Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve,
  • Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve,
  • Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Ranch County Park,
  • Uvas Canyon County Park.

The Process

With the sole exception of the San Jose city skyline captured at dusk with the 100-400 lens on a tripod from Rancho San Antonio County Park, I made all photographs with the trusty 24-105 lens handheld, and more or less at midday.

Why midday? I made the photographs during family hikes, generally of about five miles, where the main purpose is having a good time exercising in nature. Initially, when it was only my wife and me, sometimes we went in the afternoon aiming to be at home before dinner time. Last year we were joined by two of my wife’s sisters. Although they prefer mornings, this group of night owls doesn’t care for sunrises, as early winter mornings are chilly, while in the summer the sun rises way too early. Anyway, unlike national parks, city and county parks are not open around the clock, and for most of the year, the sun is quite high in the sky when they officially open in the morning. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. For a long time, I have embraced the challenge of photographing at midday, even in the places that would appear less conducive to this approach. There is value for one’s creative growth to try to do work in less favorable conditions.

Why handheld? During all my life, while traveling, I have often stopped the family either on the road, the street, or the trail to photograph. Those periods of time invariably felt short to me, but long to them. For the recent family hikes, I made a change, resolving not to make anybody wait for me. We sustain a brisk pace of about 2.5 miles per hour, with a picnic midway. As I never backtrack while walking, I try to anticipate possibilities before they present themselves, which is part of pre-visualization – seeing what does not yet exist. Once I walk a hundred more yards, this tree will stop merging confusingly with that valley but instead detach itself against a more uniform hillside. It is great a exercise for the mind. When the anticipated composition appears, working purely by instinct, I make only minor adjustments to its framing. Taking up large-format photography in the early 1990s changed my photography practice by forcing me to become more deliberate and contemplative. Trying to photograph the landscape quickly and with no second chances shakes up again my process. There is value for one’s creative growth to do work with self-imposed constraints, and also in trying new things. Even though I always feel that I took the picture quickly, it is surprising how much one finds themselves behind on the trail in less than a minute. I then walk faster or jog to catch up with the group. It is also a great exercise for the body.

Black and White Photography

I hesitated to present this work in black and white, a first for me although these days I sell about the same number of prints in black and white as I do in color. The primary function of a photograph is to describe what is in front of the camera, and there is no denying that a color photograph offers a more complete description of the world. Although in the Bay Area the changes brought by the seasons are more limited than elsewhere, our hills turn from electric green to golden and then brown over the course of the year. Although unspectacular our autumn foliage (autumn colors in black and white?) still adds accents, feelings, and beauty to the landscape. On the other hand, unlike in other places such as the Colorado Plateau, our landscapes are not filled with colors that one would have any difficulty imagining. Presenting the work in black and white links it to a rich tradition of landscape photography, elevating those modest scenes by emphasizing their formal and abstract qualities over our everyday perception of them.

Do you think that the monochrome photographs in this body of work are missing something? I would be grateful if you answer this single question below, and even more so if you would say why you think so in the comment section at the end of this post. As with every time there is a poll I may not comment further to avoid influencing answers.(click here if you don’t see the question below)

Wynn Bullock Books

Wynn Bullock (1902-1975) worked almost exclusively near his home in the Monterey Peninsula, yet in his pursuit of what exists in the world beyond ordinary perception, he created mysterious photographs that reached a universal, almost metaphysical quality. Their metaphorical meaning reveals the extraordinary behind the surface of things. In the mid-1990s, Moe’s bookstore shelves prominently displayed his just-published major Aperture monograph. Although his vision was opposite to my literal approach to photography, the work immediately caught my attention. It was the second book of black and white photography that I bought – the first one was The Portfolios of Ansel Adams.

My previous surveys of books by photographers who influenced me (Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, and Galen Rowell) listed titles mostly about a specific subject, generally a place. In contrast, retrospectives are a collection of an artist’s greatest hits. Wynn Bullock’s books consist almost exclusively of retrospective monographs. To understand why, we should start with the fact that his initial career was as an internationally acclaimed lyric tenor. He took his first photos in 1929, but it was not until 1938 that he fully embraced photography by enrolling at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. To support his family, who initially lived in a trailer, Bullock operated a commercial photography business – often associated with Ford Ord – which occupied a large part of his time until he stopped taking assignments in 1968. His carefully considered seeing did not lead to a prolific output compared to other photographers working in the Monterey Peninsula such as Ansel Adams or the Westons, who sometimes overshadowed him. His photographs were never about specific subjects or places, but rather they concerned themselves with universal qualities such as space and time, the unity of opposites, and the distinction between existence and its perception. Although visually and thematically diverse, rather than forming distinct bodies of work, each of his photographs is part of a wider oeuvre. His first book The Widening Stream (1965) appeared quite late in his career and contained only 13 photographs, each faced with a short poem by Richard Mack. It wasn’t until 1971 that his first major monograph was published, and he would make his last photograph in 1973.

As of 2024, there are four major retrospective monographs devoted to Wynn Bullock’s work. All of them are out of print, but readily available on the used book market, at low cost except for the last one. Because their contents are relatively similar, comparing them provides instructive insights on the different ways one presents photographs in a book. For the sake of completeness, this article also briefly mentions all the other significant Wynn Bullock monographs.

There are a total of 349 reproductions in the four books drawn from a pool of 181 photographs. 81 appear in only one book, 50 appear in two books, 34 appear in three books, and 17 in all four books:

  • Light, 1939
  • Old Typewriter, 1951
  • Driftwood, 1951
  • Woman and Thistle, 1953
  • Woman and Dog in Forest, 1953
  • Burnt Chair, 1954
  • Del Monte Forest, 1956
  • Woman’s Hands, 1956
  • Stark Tree, 1956
  • Log and Horsetails, 1957
  • Navigation Without Numbers, 1957
  • Tide Pool, 1957
  • Child on Forest Road, 1958
  • Erosion, 1959
  • Sea Palms, 1968
  • Leaves in Cobwebs, 1969
  • Pebble Beach, 1970
In addition, the following appear in the three later books, but were created after the printing of the first book:
  • Point Lobos Rock, 1970
  • Sycamore Tree Scar, 1971
  • Tree Trunk, 1971
  • Rock, 1973
  • Wood, 1972
  • Wood, 1973
Many of those photographs and others can be viewed on the Wynn Bullock Estate website. In the spirit of the “meta-list”, one can count a selection for a book as a vote for a photograph’s importance. If a photograph appears in three books, one could consider that the only book that doesn’t include it “missed” an important photograph.

Wynn Bullock (1971)

Scrimshaw Press was an independent publisher of fine art books operating out of San Francisco from 1969 to 1976. The wilderness photographer Dave Bohn, a multi-talented creative about whom I may write in the future, was one of its principals. After looking at the seven photographs in the catalog of an exhibit that Bullock just had at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1969, Bohn immediately phoned Bullock to offer him a book. During the course of a single day, Bohn, Wynn Bullock, and his daughter Barbara selected the photographs, falling in agreement for all but one. Barbara would get involved in all the subsequent Wynn Bullock monographs either as a writer, editor, or consultant. Bohn spent the winter with those selections in a remote cabin in (then) Glacier Bay National Monument, where he designed the book. Nowadays, ambitious photographers with fewer than ten years of work feel that they need a book. Bullock first exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1941 and regularly had shows in prestigious institutions worldwide since. Yet his first major monograph came at age 69 due to that fortuitous happening. Check out this remarkable video of an interview with Bohn and Bullock discussing the book.

Tide Pool, 1957. Top: Scrimshaw (note bleeds), Morgan & Morgan; Bottom: Aperture, High/Texas. Click to enlarge

Wynn Bullock is a well-crafted production with a tipped-in illustration on the cloth cover (10.25″x12.25″) under an acetate jacket. Inside, the attention to detail manifests itself in the use of two different paper stocks, a semi-glossy paper for the plates, and a matte paper for the introduction by Barbara Bullock and afterword by Dave Bohn, printed by letterpress. The reproduction quality is quite good, especially considering when the book was printed. The book is divided into four decades (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s), and adding further pauses, a few spreads consist of quotes from Bullock without images. Wanting to avoid the staidness of a catalog-style book, Bohn’s layout mixes image sizes ranging from quarter-page to double-page spread and also mixes bleeds in an unconventional way. In order to focus the attention on the images, the designer omitted photo titles and page numbers. As a result, photographs aren’t easy to reference. I was nevertheless able to determine that of the book’s 64 photos, 10 were not reprised in the three other books, and that the Scrimshaw Press book “missed” (in the sense defined earlier) 13 photos, including some of my favorites. Of those 13, the 6 previously listed had not yet been created. However, its production values, quirks, and debut character make it an endearing book. I was lucky to find a copy with the signature reproduced as the header of this article.

Wynn Bullock. Photography: A Way of Life (1973)

Willard Morgan introduced 35mm Leica photography to the United States in 1928, was the first picture editor of LIFE Magazine, and the first director of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art. Together with noted photographer Barbara Morgan, they founded Morgan & Morgan, a publisher of photography books that appears to have been active until 2004. Morgan & Morgan published a series of monographs uniform in a general format surveying the work of a single photographer. Like the previous title, the book starts with an introduction by Barbara Bullock which is also mostly about Wynn Bullock’s philosophical approach to photography. That essay lays out in more detail and with examples the four creative periods of Wynn Bullock’s life, spliting them with more precision than plain decades (1938-48, 1948-57, 1957-68, 1968-), however, the sequence of plates is continuous.

Child on Forest Road, 1958. Top: Scrimshaw, Morgan & Morgan (note brightness and contrast); Bottom: Aperture, High/Texas. Click to enlarge

Of the four books reviewed, Morgan & Morgan’s Wynn Bullock. Photography: A Way of Life has the smallest trim and the lowest reproduction quality. However, it is a solid reference book. The format is similar to that of a catalog, concluding with the usual list of plates, biography, bibliography, exhibitions, and collections. All the plates are reproduced with the same white margin and at the same size, half-page for horizontals and full page for verticals – a drawback of the 8.5×11″ format of the book. Their sequencing is mostly chronological. The last reproduction in the book, Wood, 1973 would turn out to be Bullock’s last photograph. Out of the book’s 88 photos, 62 did not appear in the Scrimshaw Press book, the last 20 because they are more recent. 26 photos would not appear in the two subsequent books, and 7 were “missed”, including Child in Forest, 1951. The book has the distinction of being published during Bullock’s lifetime while not preceding any new work. As announced by Tree Trunk (1971) on its cover – can you figure out the double reversal?, it is particularly strong on images of his later period, which are more abstract and anthropomorphic. A selection of six of those later images would be included together with six paragraphs of writing by Bullock in the handcrafted artist book The Photograph as Symbol (1976), the first title of The Artichoke Press, issued in an edition of 200.

Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape. Photographs 1940-1975 (1993)

Aperture is a non-profit organization founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Barbara Morgan, Dorothea Lange, and others to publish fine art photography, a concept new at that time. They published a Wynn Bullock (1974) monograph as volume 4 of the series “Masters of Photography” and reissued it several times. That series, which is still in print, comes in a small trim and with only 96 pages. Because of that, and also that Aperture subsequently released the more substantial monograph Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape, I do not count the “Masters of Photography” book as a major monograph on the same level as the four reviewed in this article. The same can be said of the diminutive Wynn Bullock (2001) monograph in Phaidon’s 55 series.

Barbara was clearly close to Wynn, but in the essays in the two previous books, she refrained from biographical details, which photographer and writer Shevelev does not. Reading that after meeting Edward Weston in 1948, Bullock bought exactly the same 8×10 equipment that Weston was using before starting photographing in Weston’s style, made me feel better about my own imitative impulses. Bullock’s mature images could not be confused with Weston’s! And that he was able to flourish artistically only after his re-marriage to Edna, or that models in his nudes were frequently his daughters underscored the importance of a supportive family in one’s creative pursuits. Barbara was physically uncomfortable posing for the cover photograph Child in Forest, 1951. Yet she would go on to author Wynn Bullock Photographing the Nude: The Beginnings of a Quest of Meaning (1984) with editing by Edna. Edna took up photography a year after Wynn’s passing, resulting in Edna’s Nudes (1995) from Capra Press, the publisher of two of Dave Bohn’s books.

Stark Tree, 1956. Top: Scrimshaw, Morgan & Morgan; Bottom: Aperture (note spread), High/Texas. Click to enlarge

Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape shares several similarities with the Scrimshaw Press book: an identical trim and a few double-page spreads that make the design more dynamic, a design often used for a vertical format book with many horizontal images. The use of white margins and of Bullock quotes facing photographs (rather than other quotes) feels more classical, while discreet image titles are helpful. Using a less chronological and more visual sequence, true to its subtitle, the book puts more emphasis on the landscape. Out of the book’s 86 photos, 13 did not appear in the two previous books, including Let there be Light, 1954. Besides Child in Forest, 1951, Steichen’s landmark exhibit “The Family of Man” included as its opener Bullock’s beach moonlight photograph that came to be known after its caption in the exhibit, “And God said, let there be light – Genesis 1:3” and was the most popular in the entire show. Curiously, the famous photograph was omitted in the two previous books. It is reproduced here as a spread. Of all the four books, Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape was the best at featuring the consensus images for which Bullock is best known, “missing” only one.

Wynn Bullock: Revelations (2014)

Co-published by the High Museum of Art and the University of Texas Press, Wynn Bullock: Revelations, the catalog of a traveling exhibit that opened at the Museum in Atlanta did not need to qualify its claims to be “the most comprehensive assessment of Bullock’s career” with “in nearly forty years”. To start with, the publication features more plates (111) and pages (196) than any other, and its 11×11″ square format gives equal presence to vertical and horizontal images. Benefiting from 21st-century technologies, the reproductions are excellent. The book has all the apparatus that one would expect from a formal catalog: a clean presentation with image titles, a detailed illustrated chronology, and the usual lists. In the introduction, curator Abbott tries to shed new insights into the artist’s work through his relationship with science, an idea at the core of Bullock’s latest monograph Relativity: Wynn Bullock and Albert Einstein (2017), a most exclusive volume with platinum prints issued in an edition of 15.

Woman’s Hands, 1956. Top: Scrimshaw, Morgan & Morgan; Bottom: Aperture, High/Texas (note pairing). Click to enlarge

Only three spreads disrupt the conservative one-image-one-page format. It would seem that the consensus among book designers is that Woman and Dog in Forest, 1953 needs to be seen large since that photograph is reproduced as a double spread in all of the books except in Morgan & Morgan – which does not include double spreads. The two other spreads serve to open and close the color light abstractions section. The format avoids interrupting images by the gutter, while a few bleeds with vertical images add a bit of variation. Within that format, the image sequence is enlivened by judicious pairings and groupings, for example photographs that revolve around a portal. The book introduces 40 photographs not seen in the three previous books (60 not seen in the Aperture book), and “misses” only 4. Those photos are mostly experimental work. In images from the 1940s, before his decisive encounter with Edward Weston who taught him the value of straight photography, Bullock relied on sophisticated solarization techniques (for which he would get a patent!) and also tried abstract photographs of light – paying homage to what he thought as a unifying force in the universe. In the early 1960s, he extended those abstract photographs of light to color slides but felt that they could not be reproduced adequately with current technologies. That work was published by the Bullock Estate as Wynn Bullock: Color Light Abstractions (2010) but is included here for the first time in a retrospective monograph, making it indeed the most comprehensive of its kind.

2023 in Review and Happy New Year

In 2023, I mostly continued last year’s break. I focused on photographing close to where I live but also started to get back to faraway trips.

I shifted to photography near home for many reasons. On the personal side, I wanted to spend more time with family, and also reduce my environmental footprint. There were even more motivations on the artistic side, a coincidence with the end of an era. I liked being able to return to a location time and time again, finding beauty in mundane and overlooked places where nobody photographs. I’ve been thinking about the evolution of the concept of wilderness, shifting from perceiving untouched landscapes as sacred and separate to acknowledging them as integral parts of the human-influenced environment where I live. Besides nearby nature preserves, I paid attention to urban parks ranging from the Coyote Creek Trail where I’ve compiled a substantial body of work to disparate places such as Berkeley’s People’s Park. Besides photographing the home itself, one cannot be much closer to home than in the following photographs. I took the first images while walking out of my backyard, along a creek, and into nearby hills on a beautiful early February morning. The last one from later in the month when the wet winter treated us to rare snow, was captured less than two miles away from home.

A bit further, but still neighboring the Bay Area, I made multiple visits to Ford Ord National Monument in the south during winter and spring. Although mostly viewed by the locals as a recreation area, I found that a closer look revealed a worthy nature preserve with interesting biodiversity where the subtle but diverse landscape included several Central Coast ecosystems. In the north, I traveled to Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument, which of all the great parklands included in Our National Monuments is the closest to home. Although my timing for wildflowers was a bit off, I hiked several trails new to me in total solitude.

These days, I am mostly recognized for landscapes in America’s public lands, but I have also traveled and photographed extensively in Asia. I find that continent much cheaper than Europe, more exotic, more friendly, and the jet lag works in my favor. Despite my love and reverence for nature, from time to time, I find a radical break in pace and environment most stimulating. It was good to resume international travel with the family for the first time since 2019 on the occasion of an April trip to Tokyo. The most pleasant discovery was Enoshima Island which despite being only an hour away from Tokyo’s urban core felt like a world away, with an interesting mix of the spiritual and the kitsch, the ancient and the modern, and of nature and man-made.

On October 14, 2023, an annular eclipse moved through the U.S. West, the last of its kind visible from the country until 2044. Due to a mental episode, the trip to Japan with teenagers had turned out way more challenging than we expected, so I was surprised that when I proposed a road trip to watch the eclipse, the kids were excited enough that they did not mind the 1400-mile drive and outdoor living. At the last minute, we chose a location that would work for everybody in Great Basin National Park. Despite difficult conditions, I managed to make photographs and a time-lapse of the eclipse.

For more than five years, I’ve been trying to travel to Alaska in the fall to finish my national park projects, but something always got in the way. First, it was the urgency of the national monuments, then the pandemic, and in 2022 the weather. Although the latter wasn’t that promising in 2023, feeling the call of the wild, my friend Tommy and I decided to give the trip the go. Despite the frequent rain, after a quick impromptu visit to Denali National Park, our outing to Gates of the Arctic National Park via Anaktuvuk Pass was a satisfying wilderness and human experience, and in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, besides hiking a spectacular trail with views and history, I lucked out when I made the elusive night photograph for which I had come.

Fittingly for a year where I have photographed nature locally more than before, the last highlight occurred at Point Reyes National Seashore. Friends from the UC Berkeley’s hiking club came together for a 30th-anniversary reunion. On that last backpacking trip of the year at the edge of the winter rains in mid-December, we went strolling on the beach at night to have a good time, not expecting to see anything. Again, nature gifted wonderment, leading to my first time I photographing bioluminescence in the surf. At the end of a year that had turned rather dark, it was also a reminder that light can be found in unexpected places.

If you have read so far, my sincere thanks for your interest in my work. I wish you and your family a happy new year 2024 full of happiness, health, joy, peace, and wonder.

Autumn in Alaska: Images in Passing

I wrap up my Alaska autumn write-ups with a set of images that I made quickly from the air or from the road while traveling from one park destination to another, together with a few tips for photographing that way.

For various reasons, I had focused – again – on national parks. The 8 national parks in Alaska by combined surface area (71,074 square miles) dwarf the rest of the 55 national parks (27,131 square miles), or put it differently, they represent 72% of the total surface areas of U.S. national parks. Yet they form only about 10% of Alaska’s surface area (663,268 square miles), which is to say that in a state as sparsely populated (population below 800K) there are plenty of undeveloped landscapes.

The easiest way to survey those immense landscapes is by plane. In Alaska, a lot of the transportation that is done by road in the continental U.S. is performed by small planes: there are 6 times more pilots per capita (about 1%) in Alaska than in any other state. Chartering planes for aerial photography can be expensive, however, whenever I travel to Alaska, I always seem to end up on some scheduled flights. Whenever I board any flight, I get ready to photograph. The first thing is to make sure that I have my camera handy and not packed away, with enough battery power and plenty of memory. I try to assess the plane’s configuration and sit next to a window with minimal obstruction from the wing, struts, and propellers. Unless there is a particular subject that I don’t want to miss, I prefer to be on the side opposite to the sun, as photographing through backlit windows creates flare issues and make dirt or scratches more visible. On small planes, mitigating reflections from the other windows is essential. My preferred way to do so is by packing an oversized rubber hood. For other ideas, see tips for photographing through windows. Once in the air, it is essential to pay constant attention and anticipate, as compositions may be gone in seconds. The selection of images above was made during the flight from Anaktuvuk Pass to Fairbanks.

The selection of images above was made on a 90-mile section of the Richardson Highway during the drive from Wrangell-St Elias National Park to Fairbanks. Photographing roadside is easier than from the air, but you have to be in the right state of mind when you are looking for photographs rather than just motoring along, conversing, or listening. There is much less inertia when I can anticipate a composition, slow down, and pull out just in time than if I speed past it, to be left debating whether to turn around – especially with travel companions who are not photographers. A delicate balance has to take place between taking time on the road, and arriving at my destination in time, especially if not being late is critical. Recognizing that the journey matters and trying to leave some room for serendipity, even if I have a schedule, I try to give myself buffer time for a bit of photography along the way. Those roadside stops do not have to be time-consuming if you limit their spatial and temporal extents. With one exception when I strolled a little to look for a better foreground, I took all the photographs above while standing next to the road. Photographing the landscape with a telephoto lens is faster than with a wide angle lens, since variations are often obtained by pointing the camera and zooming, instead of by changes of viewpoint that require walking. Adding to the transitory character of the season, my favorite situations during the drive were when the light was transitory. I did not wait for the light to change, but instead tried to take advantage of the convergence of light and scenery as it happened in front of my eyes. When such a convergence takes place, the visuals can be as spectacular as any in the national parks. We can only hope that this part of the country remains wild forever.

Autumn in Alaska II, part 5 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

An elusive night photograph inside Wrangell-St Elias

Summary: Last fall, I made an unusual photograph at one of the most iconic locations in Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Read practical details about that location, the challenges of making that particular photograph, and how I processed my files to make the most out of the opportunity.

Autumn is my favorite time to visit Alaska because of the fall foliage and absence of bugs. A third reason has become personally important: I have been seeking to make a landscape photograph with stars in each of the national parks. It is not an easy proposition in Alaska. See how many night photographs made within Wrangell-St Elias National Park you can find on the Internet.

The location

Planning a night photograph in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, my primary destination was the trail along the Root Glacier north of Kennicott where I made one of my first large-format photographs of the park more than twenty-years ago (above). A hike not to be missed for any visitor to Wrangell-St Elias, it offers the most iconic landscape views in the park as it overlooks the glacier from a close distance with towering mountains behind. The moderate nature of the trail makes it easily the most popular in the area, if not the entire park. From that trail, adventurous folks can explore the Root Glacier or even cross it and then scramble up Donoho Peak. An official camping area about 1.4 miles from Kennicott along the trail facilitates night photography. The National Park Service (NPS) calls it the “Jumbo Creek Campground”, but amenities are few. Coming from Kennicott, you cross Jumbo Creek on a tiny footbridge – the year-round stream provides drinking water, after which you’ll find in that order a bear box, a few small primitive sites, and a toilet quite far up the trail, past the junction with the path descending to Root Glacier. The camping spot, suitable even for beginning backpackers, provides an inexpensive base for exploring the Kennicott area – by contrast rooms at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge start around $300 per night.

To get there, you drive the McCarthy Road, which takes 2 – 2.5 hours although it is only 61 miles long. Despite what you sometimes read, I’ve driven the road round-trip four times with a rental sedan and never experienced any issues. Past the end of the road, there is no vehicle access for visitors. Instead, you walk or bike across the footbridge. From the footbridge, it is about half a mile to McCarthy where most of the amenities are located, or 5 miles to Kennicott, the site of some of the most impressive abandoned mining structures anywhere, and the starting point for great trails. There are two routes to walk from the footbridge to Kennicott, but none are particularly rewarding. The current road offers some views but is quite dusty and has vehicles driving along. The Wagon Road Trail, a former road, is enclosed in the forest with no views at all. However, about a mile from Kennicott, it skirts a historic cemetery with a nostalgic atmosphere that is well worth a round-trip hike from Kennicott.

The challenges

Even in the summer, the access to some Alaska national parks can be daunting. In the winter, which is half of the year in Alaska, seriously frigid temperatures and snow make it an order of magnitude more difficult. By mid-April, daily high temperatures may remain below freezing, but there is already no longer any night as defined by conditions darker than astronomical twilight. In the summer, visitors enjoy moderate weather and twenty-four hours of daylight, but the absence of total darkness means no starry skies. It is not until late August that darkness returns and October may already be the beginning of winter. This left part of September as the best window for my trip. Why not the entire month? In 2023, the full moon occurred on August 30, and until September 8th, the moon did not set at all during nighttime. It was at least a half moon, bright enough to dominate the night sky.

Yet, September presented specific logistical challenges. First, it is that it is considered by many Alaskans to be the best month for outdoor activities and in particular, is prime hunting time. Before our flight to Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was delayed because of busy pilots, we found several stores sold out of essential outdoor items. When we returned from the park, we were not able to find a single hotel room in Fairbanks and had to settle for camping out with our soaked gear.

As previously mentioned, neither the old nor the new road (whose junction is shown above) are great walks. Visitors usually catch a shuttle from the bridge or McCarthy to Kennicott. During the visitor season, shuttles run hourly or better from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. The NPS website mentions that a timetable is posted at the shelter near the bridge that serves as a shuttle stop, however on September 16, we could not find any such document. I was wondering if the shuttle was still running but decided to complete one hour of waiting. The shuttle came. The driver announced that everything in McCarthy and in Kennicott had already closed and that the last shuttle run of the season was going to take place in a few hours. So the second challenge of a September visit is that in the second half of the month, when the fall foliage is at its peak, you will have to be self-sufficient, including walking the 5 miles each way between the bridge and Kennicott unless you can hitch a ride. It was unusual have the mining town and seemingly the entire area to ourselves with nobody in sight.

The third challenge is that September is the rainy season in Alaska, so the sky can be cloudy for long periods. We had booked a flight, but upon seeing the rainy weather forecast two days before, we cancelled and rebooked it for a week later. Using air miles on Alaska Air made it a breeze as the airline doesn’t charge any fees. Yet, even with the better weather forecast, during the previous seven nights, I hardly saw any stars at night but plenty of rain. The day before our hike to the Bonanza Mine, we had walked along the Erie Mine trail in intermittent rain under a constantly overcast sky. We bemoaned the weather even more because the northern lights were supposed to be particularly active that night, even at the relatively southern location of Wrangell-St Elias National Park.

The day of the Bonanza Mine hike was partly cloudy, which was a huge improvement over the previous days. Even though the clouds had blocked the sunset, as we hiked down to camp in the evening, I was excited to see patches of clear sky through which stars were showing up. We reached our camp after 10 pm, before the astronomical twilight which was at 10:30 pm this evening. It had been a long day that started well before sunrise, so the first thing I did was to stop at the bear box to start dinner for my friend and me. While eating, I kept an eye on the sky, trying to assess whether the conditions were improving or degrading. When it appeared that cloudiness was increasing rather than decreasing, I quickly went back to the trail to establish a composition with the glacier and Donoho Peak using the 12-24 f/2.8 lens set at 19mm. Instead of a single exposure, I set up a 50-frame timelapse with an exposure of 8s, ISO 12800. After a quick trip to the bear box to grab more food, I set up a second composition in the direction of the Chugach Mountains. By that time the clouds had almost entirely covered the sky, and in the middle of the 50-frame timelapse, it started raining. Realizing how short the window of time had been, I regretted slacking up by not having set up my camera earlier. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the elusive opportunity and confident I had enough material to work with. The next day, we hiked back to the bridge in the rain.

The processing

I had captured the images with the intention to run them through Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS) (discussed in this night photography primer) and was pleasantly surprised by the results. As expected, SLS has considerably cleaned up the noise for the land portion of the image, as can be seen in the comparison between the stacked image from ISO 12800 frames and a single ISO 6400 image:

I had assumed the software is meant to work with cloudless skies when stars are visible in all the frames, and was unsure of how well it would work with a sky full of fast-moving clouds. It turned out that it tracked the stars successfully while averaging the clouds, resulting in a satisfying blur akin to a long sky exposure.

When I compared the stacked image to individual frames, I noticed that stars that were present in some individual frames had disappeared from the stacked image, probably because there were more frames when they were obscured by clouds than frames when they were visible. I divided the images into two stacks of 25 frames to which I applied SLS:

The first resulting image displays stars on the left that become obscured in the second image. On the other hand, a cloud in the upper right corner obscures the sky in the first image, but has cleared in the second image. By compositing those two stacked images, I could present more stars than in the 50-image stack. That is a similar idea to blending images to remove people (#5 in this article). It runs contrary to the idea of capturing a scene at a single moment in time, but so do the star stacking techniques. I tinkered with different groupings, eventually finding that dividing the images into 4 groups of 12 worked best, with the land taken from the global stack. Looking at the four intermediate stacks, you can notice that in the last image of the series of four, the upper right corner is clearer in the last image of the series of two:

The final image, emphasizing the stars in accordance of the project of which it is part, is shown below. When I stood at the scene, after setting up the timelapse, I had taken my eyes away from the sky. At the time, I thought that there was a bit of light pollution, which in retrospect was unlikely since the closest city in the north is Tok, which lies 125 miles away and has a population of 1200. It was only after I color-corrected the images on the computer that I happily realized that the glow was the aurora, making the image even rarer. Photography is a generous medium!

Autumn in Alaska II, part 4 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park’s spectacular Bonanza Mine Trail

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park combines spectacular glaciated mountain scenery with well-preserved remnants of mining history. A well-mapped, although strenuous way to experience this unique mix is to hike the Bonanza Mine trail, maybe the best trail in the national park with the most hiking trails in Alaska.

Because of their low visitation and the National Park Service’s (NPS) policy to favor backcountry exploration in those parks, the Alaskan National Parks have very few official trails relative to their immense size. We saw in the previous article that not only Gates of the Arctic National Park has been set up to be devoid of official trails but also the rangers do not provide itinerary recommendations. All the official trails in Alaska’s national parks combine for less than 200 miles – for comparison, Yosemite has more than 750 miles of trails. More than half of those trail miles are located in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, making it a great choice for those who prefer not to wander out cross-country. Although I have not hiked every trail in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, from my research and five visits to the park, I would guess that the Bonanza Mine Trail is the most rewarding of them. With a 4,000 ft elevation gain and about 9.5 miles round-trip (to the ridge), it is a relentless ascent, but well worth the effort. It is a contender for the best trail in an Alaskan national park.

At first, the Bonanza Mine Trail didn’t look so interesting. It starts as an uphill 4WD road used by residents to drive to their private properties included in the park – other visitors are not allowed to drive motorized vehicles. As the first half of the trail is in the forest, trees block the views. Mosquitoes would be an issue in the summer. On the other hand, it was easy to gain elevation at a quick rate since the grade and footing were easy with few occasions to pull out the camera. If I was to return, I would start at night to hike this section of the trail in the dark so as to witness the sunrise higher up and enjoy the better morning light conditions at the top.

Once I reached the tree line around 2 miles from the trailhead, fantastic views opened up, and it was difficult to limit the number of stops for photography. The Chugach Mountains lay to the south, with the lakes formed by the Root Glacier moraine in the foreground. To the north are the Wrangell Mountains, dominated by Mt. Blackburn (16,390 ft), the fifth-highest peak in the United States. Those east-facing mountains are front-lit in the morning and backlit in the afternoon. Below are the converging Kennicott and Root Glaciers. The only other nearby location with a better view of them is the summit of Donoho Peak, but getting there requires much more than trail hiking: crossing the Root Glacier and scrambling up steep scree. Above are craggy peaks, dotted with historic mining structures that add a human dimension to the wild landscape. Note that from the other high trail nearby, the Jumbo Mine Trail requiring a comparable effort, ridges block many of the views available from the Bonanza Mine Trail.

Because the trail gains 4,000 feet of elevation, it traverses several vegetation zones, which were beautiful in mid-September. At middle elevations, trees displayed vibrant foliage, and I photographed with a bit of backlight to emphasize their brilliance. Higher up, the berry plants turned the tundra a mosaic of colors, for which I preferred the soft light that came after sunset. It was the only time on the hike that I missed my tripod as I had to crank ISO to 1600 to be able to stop down the lens enough (f/11 at 1/30s). At that time of the year, all services in McCarthy and Kennicott are closed, which is a pity considering that it is the best time of the year to hike. We had the long trail to ourselves, not meeting a single other person during a full day of hiking, however, we had to be entirely self-sufficient. Note that before July, snow may cover the upper portion of the trail.

At about 3.25 miles from the trailhead, the drivable part of the road ends at a breakover tram tower. The road, which was built in the 1950s to access the Bonanza Mine reaches the mine directly, but its unmaintained section above the tower is rocky with difficult footing. The footing is much better on the well-used path that follows the valley and then climbs steeply. The trail skirts waterfalls of Bonanza Creek and crosses a small creek from which water could be obtained. Various artifacts and remnants of mining structures regularly dot the landscape. Most noticeable were towers for a tram that carried the ore and miners down to Kennicott. The Bonanza Mine’s setting, in a high cirque of mountains, is impressive and brings immediately to mind the hardship endured by the miners who worked at such an inhospitable location starting from the early years of the 20th century. Being part of one of the richest copper ore deposits ever discovered which yielded over $100,000,000 in profit, the now ghostly evocative mine deserves its name. In the afternoon, the structures are backlit from the trail and then in the shadow of a ridge, so I wished we had lingered less on the trail and arrived there earlier. I photographed the tram towers as silhouettes against the valley and for the Bonanza Mine I took advantage of clouds that softened the light.

The Bonanza Mine, sitting at an elevation of 5,865 feet, is 4.25 miles from the trailhead. In the continental United States, the elevation would be modest, but keep in mind that the starting point of the trail at 2,000 feet is already above the lower part of the Root Glacier! Since the buildings are unstable and partly collapsed, we heeded the NPS warnings and did not spend time trying to explore them. Instead, we kept going up to the ridge above them by following a faint user trail. For a little additional effort (0.25 miles and 150 elevation gain), with views opening up to the north, the panorama was sweeping. It was one of the most spectacular viewpoints accessible from a trail I have seen in Alaska. As is often the case from mountain summits, after making wide-angle photographs, I worked to isolate portions of the landscape. In the only direction without distant mountain views, striking rock pinnacles flanked Bonanza Peak above us, and in that case, my favorite photograph was made with a wide-angle lens (below). We spent five days camping in the park, and for this hike, I had picked the day with the most sunny weather based on the forecast, which turned out accurate. On the days immediately before and after our hike, we would have been standing inside the clouds with no views. Verizon allowed me to get weather updates, whereas my friend had no coverage with AT&T and T-mobile.

Looking closer, it was easy to understand why people underwent all this effort to build those now-abandoned structures in such a remote location. The rocks displayed such vibrant colors from the mineral copper deposits. Although the scenery around was so impressive, it was this logical, yet unexpected find that captured my attention for a long time. I scurried around with my eyes fixed to the ground until it was time to head down. Departing in the morning from the Jumbo Creek campsite instead of from the trailhead next to the Kennicott Mill (unmarked, but located between the large wooden bridge over National Creek and the mill) added about 3 miles and 200 feet elevation gain to the trail for a total of 12.5 miles with 4,200 feet gain. We spent about 15 hours, with the balance I normally strive for, about half the time for hiking and half of the time for photography. A well-spent day on the trail!

Autumn in Alaska II, part 3 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Gates of the Arctic National Park via Anaktuvuk Pass

Gates of the Arctic National Park attracts two seldom-overlapping categories of visitors: some are on an express trip to tick off their bucket list of national parks, while others seek an extended wilderness adventure. As a result, visits lasting a few days are rare. Last September, my friend Tommy and I made such a visit using the native village of Anaktuvuk Pass as a starting point.

Most people view Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of the finest and largest wilderness areas in the world, as a place expressly set up to be devoid of human presence. However, for millennia, native mountain Eskimo people have sustained a nomadic lifestyle revolving around the caribou migration on this land. Contact with modern life led the Nunamiut to settle Anaktuvuk Pass in 1949. The village is named after a broad mountain pass from which the Anaktuvuk River originates, and which is on the caribou migration route. With a current population of 300-400, it remains the only Nunamiut settlement in existence, which in itself makes it a worthwhile destination.

If you look at the map of Gates of the Arctic National Park, there appear to be two main pieces of land to the west and the east, joined by a thinner band that includes Anaktuvuk Pass. The initial proposal for the park considered two distinct units, separated by a north-south corridor comprising Anaktuvuk Pass. In the 1970s, villagers welcomed the establishment of the national park on their lands as a protection against outside development. Besides constituting the largest land conservation bill in history by protecting 106 million acres, the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act of 1980 uniquely recognized the right of residents to continue a subsistence lifestyle in the newly established national parks, defining subsistence as:

Customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of non-edible by-products of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption; for barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption; and for customary trade.
The village of Anaktuvuk Pass, although included within the park boundaries, was designated as an inholding, which means that it is a private enclave surrounded by park lands but not subject to park regulations. The current boundaries of the inholding and a special non-wilderness park area were finalized in 1996 to allow residents to pursue their subsistence activities using motorized vehicles such as the amphibious six-wheeled and eight-wheeled all-terrain Argos ubiquitous in northern wet areas of the world, which are banned elsewhere in the park. The three types of lands: privately owned (light yellow), non-wilderness park areas (darker green), and wilderness park areas (lighter green) can be clearly seen in the map detail.

Since no roads reach Gates of the Arctic National Park, Anaktuvuk Pass has become a popular way to access the park. The village is equipped with a public-use airport that has even its own IATA code, AKP. This airport is served by scheduled flights, mostly Wright Air Service from Fairbanks ($190 per person each way), bypassing the need for expensive charter flights common in Alaska bush travel. You can leave luggage at their office, the planes carry camp fuel or bear spray, and the staff is professional. The morning of my trip, I had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. in the rain and we had driven from the main campground of Denali National Park to Fairbanks, stopping at a Walmart parking lot to repack for the flight. My friend Tommy returned the rental car at the Fairbanks International Airport terminal. Less than fifteen minutes before the departure for Anaktuvuk Pass, he could not find a taxi to get back to the Wright Air Service hangar located in the general aviation area. A friendly staff member gave him a ride.

On weekdays, Wright Air Service operates two flights that carry mail and vital supplies to the village. After the plane lands at Anaktuvuk Pass airport, it is quickly surrounded by native people in all sorts of vehicles visibly excited at the prospect of unloading goods. There are two lodging options and a free camping area, but visitors who do not venture into the wilderness generally come for a day trip. The morning flight left Fairbanks at 9 a.m., arriving in Anaktuvuk Pass at 10:45 a.m. Since there is also an afternoon flight whose schedule is more variable (ours left at 4:30 p.m.), day-trippers have several hours to wander the village streets, buy lunch at the grill (Nunamiut Corporation Camp Kitchen) or grocery store (Nunamiut Cooperative Store), strike up a conversation with the locals, tour a Arctic vegetable garden, and pay a visit to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum which showcases Nunamiut culture and to the National Park Service Anaktuvuk Pass Ranger Station that holds the sought-after park passport stamper.

However, those few hours are hardly sufficient to set foot in the national park. Many think that since Anaktuvuk Pass is included in the boundaries of Gates of the Arctic National Park, just by landing they are already in the park, but the fact is that Anaktuvuk Pass is an inholding: privately owned land that is not part of the national park area despite being surrounded by it, as a close examination of the official park map will confirm. That land, owned by a native corporation, extends for a significant distance in some directions. The closest national park boundary is about 2 miles northwest of the village, with a 600-foot elevation gain. Like in many Arctic flat areas, the tundra around Anaktuvuk Pass is wet. Because the permafrost (frozen soil), clay, and rock block surface drainage, there is standing water everywhere, and the only way to keep your feet dry is to balance yourself on unstable tussocks, which are like inverted potted clumps of grass without the pots. Hiking cross-country on the wet tundra and its ankle-busting tussocks is a lot of work compared to hiking on a trail or other solid surfaces. Do not count on hiking more than a mile per hour in that terrain. Corporation lands and some non-wilderness areas are crisscrossed by a network of unofficial ATV trails that make hiking easier – at the expense of the wildness, however, I do not know if there is such a trail towards the northwest, considering that the terrain around Soakpak Mountain, reminiscent of the mountains surrounding Banff in the Canadian Rocks (located at the “R” of RANGE on the detail map), is quite steep – also limiting hiking options.

When I first visited Gates of the Arctic National Park in 2000, I was surprised that the usually helpful park rangers declined to suggest specific itineraries. The rationale is that they want to spread land use by having visitors pick routes independently rather than concentrate on specific areas. They have a point. When I mentioned to the ranger stationed at Anaktuvuk Pass the date of my backpacking trip to the Arrigetch Peaks, he told me that I should be glad that I went back then, because in recent years a continuous user trail had been created. In most other places, this would be seen as an asset, but one of the reasons people come here is to experience untrammeled wilderness with no trace of human activity. In most other places, seeing dozens of hikers on a week-long outing is normal, but for Gates of the Arctic National Park, it is a circus. I had spoken via phone to the same ranger, and indeed he did not want to provide ideas for a short, four-day outing out of Anaktuvuk Pass. However, after I had pored over maps and identified a hiking area, he confirmed its quality and explained the local rules: you can hike through and even camp in corporation-owned public access easements only on your way to federal park lands, but cannot use them for base camping. Apart from the reluctance to suggest an itinerary, the ranger was friendly and informative, making sure to lend us bear spray. With one notable exception, we did not encounter a single other person once we left Anaktuvuk Pass. To leave the same opportunity for solitude to future travelers, I will conform to local standards and not disclose our exact itinerary.

That exception was Jim, a native subsistence hunter with whom we rode on an Argo midway to our destination. Tommy and I took off in the rain from Fairbanks. For the entire duration of our flight, we did not see the mountains as they were socked in a low layer of clouds before landing in a drizzle at Anaktuvuk Pass. Since the season had been unusually rainy, we didn’t look forward to trudging through the low-elevation wet tundra where even the ATV trails were muddy. Because Wright Air had canceled the Sunday flights, our trip to Gates of the Arctic had been cut short by a day. Upon walking onto the airstrip, Tommy immediately noticed the eight-wheeled Argo and proceeded to convince Jim to give us a ride, eventually negotiating a very reasonable compensation for this time and gas. Jim also packed his riffle and ammunition in case caribou would show up. This didn’t happen – they are usually around town during October, however we got a sense of his hunting abilities when he spotted and identified a bear on a high ridge with his naked eyes, whereas even with binoculars Tommy and I were not able to find the creature. The bumpy but fun Argo ride was a highlight of our trip, and so was learning from Jim about his life in the Arctic mountains. I was amazed at the variety of terrain that the machine was able to navigate, basically anything on the tundra, including sharp banks, rivers, and deep mud. No wonder the Park Service had to craft a carefully balanced agreement with the native corporation to limit their use to a specific area.

After following a broad valley, we arrived at the mouth of a drainage too steep and vegetated for the Argo. We bid goodbye to Jim and proceeded to climb up the drainage. Although we were less than four miles from the village, it was at this point a distant memory. Since we were in an area expressly withdrawn from designated wilderness to accommodate subsistence use, in theory, we could have seen traces of human activity, but this was never the case, and the land was as wild as any I had seen. With visibility limited by the weather, and with no trail to follow, I looked a lot at my feet, constantly marveling at the beauty of the ground, where each square inch was delicately alive in a different way.

Since it was all unknown terrain with no prior descriptions nor trails, I had mapped a straightforward route that reached an unnamed mountain lake nested in a cirque of mountains by following its clear cascading outlet creek. Not only there would be no chances of getting lost, but also we’d be guaranteed access to water all the time. The key to easy hiking is to find the right distance to the creek. Too close often results in more brush and rocks, but too high causes you to go up and down ridges.

It was mid-September, a great time for hiking in Alaska because of the cooler temperatures, lack of biting insects, and autumn color. Occasional snow is possible, but not deep enough to strand the backcountry traveler. I was hoping to use the lake as a base camp to ascend the surrounding mountains, but when we got there, they were engulfed in clouds. One evening, after our camp dinner, the clouds lifted enough to show that recent snowfall had made the mountains tricky to climb without better equipment. Clouds moved back again, but when I woke up the next morning, the lake surface near the shore was covered with a thin pellicle of ice, the tundra was coated with frost, and the mountains were clear for the first time. The temperatures were in the mid-20s degrees F at dawn. The lake was located around 4200 feet elevation and the mountains culminated at slightly above 6000 feet, but the dusting of fresh snow made them feel more grand and wild.

On the way back to Anaktuvuk Pass, we enjoyed a day without rain and the sight of mountains that had been hidden in the clouds before. Anaktuvuk Pass is located at the edge of the north slope of the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in America. The boreal forest reaches its northern limits a few dozen miles to the south. The absence of trees in that area of the park conferred it a distinct character from the park areas I had visited before. For Tommy’s first, and long-awaited trip into Gates of the Arctic National Park, I was pleased that despite its short duration, it was such a satisfying adventure and a great way to experience the park. In the mountains, we had the feeling of having entirely stepped away from civilization, whereas in the village we briefly connected with a different culture and way of life.

Autumn in Alaska II, part 2 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Photographing the Annular Solar Eclipse of Oct 14, 2023

The solar eclipse of October 14, 2023, was an “annular eclipse”, which happens when the moon passes entirely in front of the sun, but the lunar disk is too far from the earth to cover the entire sun, leaving a “ring of fire” around the moon. When I photographed such an eclipse in 2012, I prioritized an occurrence at sunset in a national park, from which the ring appeared as a crescent rather than a complete circle. I was therefore eager to watch the full “annularity”. More importantly, my immediate family was not with me when I executed an ambitious plan for the total eclipse of 2017. Since the next annular eclipse in the U.S. will be in 2046 and this event occurred on a Saturday, it was worth having the kids skip a few days of school. They were excited enough that they did not mind the long drive and outdoor living. We chose a location that would work for everybody in Great Basin National Park. Read on to see how I photographed there despite challenging conditions.

Choosing a destination

The path of the eclipse included several national parks and an even larger of national park units with intriguing possibilities, but most of them were located near the Four Corners (AZ/UT/CO/NM), a bit too far for a short road trip during a school week. I narrowed down the choice to three destinations: Crater Lake National Park, Great Basin National Park, and the Black Rock Desert – the site of Burning Man near Gerlach, NV. My first choice was the latter, because it was the closest to our home in San Jose, CA, and offered easy logistics. Dispersed camping is allowed anywhere on the playa, which would offer a landscape that might complement the eclipsed sun.

Three days before the celestial event, I checked the forecast for cloud cover. My favorite apps for that purpose are windy.com (not to be confused with windy.app which requires an expensive subscription to access the most valuable data) and meteoblue.com. Both, crucially for photography and sky watching, indicate the thickness of clouds at different altitudes. The forecast for eclipse day at the Black Rock Desert and at Crater Lake was very cloudy. The further east one went, the better it got, with just a few high-altitude clouds predicted for Great Basin National Park. I quickly devised a new five-day trip plan with stops at Lake Tahoe and Yosemite to break the driving days. We would drive to the park through NV-50, dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” and back through NV-6, which is even more remote – within the 300 miles between Ely, NV and Lee Vining, CA, there is only one town with any services, Tonopah, NV.

Having made a last-minute change of plans, I didn’t expect to find any lodgings in Baker or Ely, especially since the National Park Service stated that it has been fully booked for up to 18 months in some cases. On Oct 13, traveling from Reno, we didn’t arrive in the park until the late afternoon, by which time all the park campgrounds were filled up. Like in most other national parks, car camping outside of established campgrounds is strictly prohibited within Great Basin National Park. However, the park is surrounded by public lands run by the Bureau of Land Management where dispersed camping is authorized anywhere. To minimize impact, it is nevertheless preferable to use existing sites, and we found one marked on the Gaia GPS map next to an abandoned corral and a tiny outhouse with a great view. The evening was promising, as no clouds obscured the night sky, one of the darkest in the country.

Choosing a viewpoint

My first idea was to view the eclipse at Lexington Arch. The trail ends at an opening on the west side of the arch, so although the sun would be a bit high (27.5 degrees above the horizon), it may be possible to frame the sun through the arch’s opening. However, the park service indicated that a high-clearance vehicle with at least all-wheel drive, but preferably 4-wheel drive was necessary. In addition, there have been multiple washouts along the road that have pushed the trailhead farther back, resulting in a 6-7 mile hike.

As an easier alternative, my second idea was to photograph the eclipse from the west shore of Stella Lake with the composition also including Wheeler Peak and the ridge of the mountain cirque (to the left of the photograph below) filling up the gap between the horizon and the sun. There were a few issues. Although the Google Earth Pro light simulation based on a digital elevation model showed that at the time of annularity, the sun would have cleared the ridge of the mountain cirque, I could not guarantee with absolute certainty that the ridge would not be blocking the path. In addition, we would have to hike in a hurry more than a mile in the forest and then wait at 10,400 ft elevation in potentially freezing early morning temperatures.

My wife was relieved when I abandoned that plan out of concern for the family’s experience. We could have watched the eclipse from the campsite, but since we got up at sunrise before 7am, I thought that we might as well drive further up the mountain to the Mather Overlook inside the park. We parked along the short spur unpaved road leading to the overlook and could take in the view of the valleys below and of the sky from the comfort of the van.

Besides the views, a benefit of watching the eclipse from high in the park was that we got a head start over the folks watching from below. After it was done, we easily found a parking spot at the trailhead at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Road. Once we finished hiking the Bristlecone Grove/Alpine Lakes Trail, we noticed a long line of several dozen cars waiting along the road. Since the parking lot was full, rangers let one car in only when one car got down. As Great Basin National Park is normally one of the least crowded national parks, something like that would not happen on a normal day, but it was eclipse day!

Photographing the eclipse

Not wanting to watch the eclipse through an electronic viewfinder, and reasoning that capturing the changing phases of the eclipse would be more interesting than any single moment, I set up two time-lapse cameras on tripods. The first, using a wide-angle lens (24-105mm set at 32mm) would capture the eclipse within the landscape, whereas the second, with a telephoto lens (100-400mm with a 1.4x teleconverter for an effective 560mm) would provide a close-up of the sun. Although it is often stated that solar filters are necessary to avoid damaging your camera sensor, I figured out that this applies only to telephotos, since people photograph sunbursts with wide-angle lenses all the time. With the solar filter (Baader Astrosolar Safety Film cut to fit a square holder) the exposure for the sun was 1/100s at f/8, ISO 400.

When we arrived, the sky was clear, and we watched the moon make the first contact with the sun through eclipse glasses at 8:07am. However, as the partial eclipse grew, clouds started to move in. By 9am the sun was totally obscured by a cloud. For the next fifteen minutes, we bemoaned that it was in the wrong spot since most of the sky elsewhere was clear. I stopped the time-lapses and considered driving to a different spot, but at about 9:16am, with only eight minutes left until the beginning of the full eclipse, the clouds thinned and we could intermittently see the veiled sun through them. It was a better viewing experience than a clear sky because eclipse glasses were no longer necessary. We could take in the sun, clouds, and landscape at once. I removed the solar filter from the telephoto lens, resulting in reasonable exposures between 1/500s and 1/1000s at f/8, ISO 100.

At 9:24am, the beginning of annularity, the moon made second contact with the sun, and the entire moon was in front of it. The eye easily tracked the ring of light in the sky, with the clouds adding a sense of motion that was mesmerizing – and would have made a great video if I had brought a third camera. However, I was disappointed that the wide-angle time-lapse did not convey the experience. You can barely see the sun in it because there were so many other bright spots in the clouds. Likewise, in a straight photograph, you have to look carefully to locate the ring of light, although on a reasonably large print it would have a solid presence even with the sun presented at its real size. However, a wide-angle composite would not work well when the sun played peekaboo with clouds.

Naturally, in the telephoto time-lapse frames, the sun was prominent. Their more abstract character also make it possible to raise the contrast. During a total eclipse, the moon’s disk is totally dark, like a black hole in the sky, while the entire landscape darkens dramatically with a 360-degree sunset along the horizon. By contrast, during an annular eclipse, the light from the ring continues to illuminate the sky and the land. This eclipse was unique in that clouds were just thick enough to see the sun through. In front of the moon’s disk, those clouds danced, which was a mesmerizing and beautiful effect. There was no darkness like during a total eclipse.

The image below is a composite of six frames (including the two previous photographs from the beginning and end of the total annularity) at intervals of about two minutes, from 9:19am to 9:32am. I have not altered the pixel values, including the position and magnification of the sun, so it depicts accurately the size of the sun (via a 560mm lens) and its motion across the sky. My processing consisted of loading the individual frames in Photoshop layers with the mode “lighten” and creating a layer mask for each of them to set local transparency by painting, eliminating the brightest clouds that would have otherwise interfered with the suns.

Processing the time-lapse

I had photographed the sun close-up with the longest focal length that I had access to. The drawback of that choice is that the sun moved across the frame in a relatively short period of about fifteen minutes, after which I had to reposition the camera, placing the sun in the lower left corner. If the sky had been cloudless, realigning and extending the frames for a linear motion of the sun would have been relatively straightforward, since photographing the sun with the correct exposure through the solar filter renders the sky pitch black.

However, each of my frames had clouds in it, and even after selecting only 25 minutes of timelapse (from 9:16 to 9:41) I needed a frame of 16000×12000 pixels to encompass all the individual frames (9504×6336 pixels), which meant that each of the individual frames had to be extended in a seamless way by that much. Earlier this year, Adobe had brought generative AI to Photoshop, with the new Generative Expand” feature. After you expand the canvas, if the prompt is left blank, Generative Expand fills the empty space with AI-generated content that blends with the existing image. Since this was the first time I tried this feature, I was very curious to see how it would work.

Although what you see above is weird, I was impressed that out of the 150 frames I processed, almost all of them were expanded plausibly. Those were the handful of exceptions. While the first four somewhat make sense, the fifth is something out of this world! After editing by hand those odd frames, fixing some errors that I made while capturing the sequence, and then reducing the luminosity of the clouds in some frames, I assembled a time-lapse – with frames 16000 pixels wide, which was the upside of my approach. Because of the frame extensions, it is not entirely truthful, yet the most important components, the sun, its motion, and surrounding portions of the sky are accurate. Nevertheless, I think that the timelapse gives a good sense of the memories one may have of this cosmic coincidence, as seen that day from Great Basin National Park. My main regret is to have used a 10-second interval, which was too long. Next time I’ll reduce that by half. By the way, if the animated GIF below doesn’t render well on your system, try the video, which has HD resolution.

If you photographed this eclipse, I’d enjoy seeing what you came up with. Otherwise do not forget the total eclipse of April 8, 2024. The next one in the U.S. will be in 2044!

Denali Uncomplicated: The Savage Alpine Trail

A single road penetrates Denali National Park. While it is 92 miles long, only the first 15 miles are paved and open to personal vehicles. If I was to hike only one trail along that section, the Alpine Savage Trail would be my clear choice. Until the summer of 2026, it is also the best trail in the entire park.

The Park Road

The Park Road crosses the Savage River at mile 15. At the eastern end of the bridge, rangers stationed at a checkpoint kiosk make sure that only park buses and a few holders of hard-to-get permits can proceed. Anyway, as of this writing, even with the park buses, the public cannot reach by road the most spectacular areas such as Polychrome Pass, Eielson, and Wonder Lake (see my write-up on the logistics of visiting Wonder Lake) In the summer of 2021, the acceleration of a landslide at Pretty Rocks (Park Road Mile 45.4) that had been going on for years caused a portion of the road to collapse to the point that adding hundreds of truckloads of gravel into the slumping road was no longer sustainable. The Park Service closed the road at mile 43 and is building a bridge to bypass the landslide, which is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2026. This makes the bus rides on the unpaved portion of the road less attractive, and the only way to access the Wonder Lake area is via a charter flight to Kantishna where pricey lodges operate in inholdings. Once you arrive at the Savage River, you will have seen the entire section of Park Road that you can drive, and you’ll be at the top trailhead.

The Trails

Like in other Alaskan national parks, there are not that many designated trails in Denali National Park. Part of the allure of hiking in the park is to make your path in the vast tundra. Of all the maintained trails, the most rewarding are the two that start at the Eielson Visitor Center (Thorofare Ridge Trail and Gorge Creek Trail) but being located at Park Road mile 66, they are not currently accessible. Most trails are found along the section of road open to private vehicles, particularly the visitor center area. The easy Horseshoe Lake Trail (3 miles, 300 ft elevation gain) and longer Triple Lakes Trail (9.25 miles one-way, 1800 ft elevation gain, or out-and-back from Hwy 3 with 6 miles round-trip and 1,150 elevation gain) lead to pretty lakes located at the periphery of the park. The McKinley Station Trail (3.2 miles round-trip, 100 ft elevation gain) follows Riley Creek. However, maybe you’d like to see more mountainous views in this park. The Mount Healy Overlook Trail (5 miles round-trip, 1,800 ft elevation gain) climbs to an overlook from which you can barely see the top of Denali. Most of the trail is forested, so the main attraction is the overlook, but from there, the views of the Alaska Range mountains are distant as Denali National Park is 78 miles away. This leaves the Savage Alpine Trail as the best current hiking option. Even when the park road is fully opened, it is the top choice for sweeping views of the park without spending much time in the park or having to make a reservation for a bus since its trailheads are located along the Park Road before the Savage River.

The Savage Alpine Trail

From the Savage River area, you are 15 miles closer to Denali than from the entrance, which isn’t that significant considering that we are talking 63 miles instead of 78 miles. What makes the trail more attractive than the Mount Healy Overlook Trail is that you are hiking entirely above the tree line with more varied and interesting terrain. It is a 4-mile point-to-point hike with two trailheads: the Mountain Vista Picnic Area (Park Road mile 13) and the Savage River parking lot (Park Road mile 15) next to the Savage River and near the Savage River Check Station. The latter has room only for two dozen cars. By the time I got there in the late morning, it was full, however, I found space at a parking lot on the other side of the river, just past the checkpoint. That second parking lot was probably meant for people who continue on Park Road by foot or bike, but the rangers allowed it to be used for overflow parking. To hike the entirety of the trail, you’d have to walk two miles along the park road or ride the free Savage River Shuttle. Keeping things easy, I hiked to the highest point on the trail from the Savage River parking lot and went down the same way (3.5 miles round-trip, 1700 ft elevation gain). The first portion of the trail consists of steep switchbacks with views of the Savage River Valley. After less than a quarter mile and 200 ft elevation gain, a rocky knoll already provided considerably more expensive vistas than the trailhead and also helped frame the landscape. It would be a good spot to photograph Denali with a long telephoto.

After about 0.7 miles and 750 ft elevation gain, a first overlook along a rocky ridge provides panoramic views. Due to the foothill mountains, there are only a limited number of spots along the Park Road from which Denali is visible, but the higher elevation of the Savage Alpine Trail provides good views of the mountain if the weather is clear – a big if. When I started the hike, the skies were mostly clear, however, Denali was not visible from the parking lot. By the time I got to the first overlook, clouds had moved in, obscuring the distant Alaska Range mountains, including Denali. I finished the hike in light rain. Yet, the views were still spectacular.

The trail continued to gain elevation at a more modest rate. At a trail split a mile later, the upper branch is an unofficial trail, whereas the main train descends to a second overlook area with rocks. Except for some alpine terrain, in areas of lower latitudes fall colors are confined to leaves on trees and shrubs, but in Alaska fall colors are also found on every tiny leaf on the ground, making the tundra a striking crimson carpet from a distance, and a tapestry of color at a closer range. At the park entrance near Riley Creek, on Sept 9, the aspen trees were barely starting to turn yellow. However, at Savage River, the fall color was nearly at its peak.

Taking advantage of the soft light, I started to concentrate my attention on the tundra. Each square foot of it is alive with incredibly diverse miniature plant life. One could spend hours looking at the ground.

Before Mount McKinley National Park was established in 1917, the American public had learned about the proposed park through an article in the January 1917 issue of National Geographic Magazine titled A Game Country Without Rival in America. Having previously hiked mostly cross-country in the park, I was surprised by the popularity of the Savage Alpine Trail, on which I saw many dozens of hikers. Yet, even such heavy trail traffic didn’t seem to scare away the wildlife. Dall sheep stayed high above, but ptarmigan birds scurried in large numbers very close to the trail.

The uncomplicated logistics of hiking the Savage Alpine Trail were just what we needed for a quick improvised visit. Although the terrain was familiar, the trail gave a satisfying sample of Denali National Park, which I have now visited at least one time in each of the four last decades and five different months.

Our initial plan was to fly to Anaktuvuk Pass the day after arriving in Fairbanks. However, Wright Air Service had canceled the regularly scheduled commuter flight because all their pilots were engaged in charter flights that day. Instead of hanging out in Fairbanks, we decided to spend a day (and two shortened nights) in Denali National Park. September is a busy hunting season in Alaska. After driving out of the airport in Fairbanks, the first thing we did was to look for an isobutane fuel canister for my camp stove since you cannot fly with them even in checked luggage. At the Fred Meyer supermarket close to the airport, the camping fuel shelves were empty. The staff suggested we check the other store on the other side of town. It had a few camp stove canisters left, but they were all of the incompatible Coleman type. Since it was past 11 pm, we were about to give up, when we drove by Walmart. A single isobutane fuel canister was left on the shelves. Traveling light for this trip, the only insulated garment I had packed was a down jacket, but seeing how rainy the weather was, second thoughts agitated me. The day after Denali National Park, I returned to the huge Walmart to look for a fleece jacket. I bought the last one left in the entire store, an ill-fitting XL.

Autumn in Alaska II, part 1 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Autumn Colors in Black and White

Creating photographs of autumn colors in black and white may sound like an absurd idea. Besides the paradox, isn’t black and white photography best deployed in those instances where the subject lacks strong colors? And isn’t black and white’s ability to exaggerate drama – unfettered from the need to present a realistic rendition of a scene – more suitable for bold and moody scenes with dynamic light? Photographs centered around fall foliage tend to be of forest scenes, which are often understated and soft. And finally, wouldn’t you be simply missing out?

Thankfully, in the digital age, the latter is the least of our concerns. There is no need to set out in the field to create black and white photographs. It is not even necessary to conceive of black and white photographs in the field. When working in digital, there is no practical technical advantage in capturing images in black and white over converting color images to black and white in post-processing. You stick to color for capture. While browsing through your archive, you can safely try out black and white using the software. Several offerings include sophisticated tools for translating colors into tones with a level of control exceeding what the most proficient darkroom practitioner could muster with a black and white film. By utilizing all the color information, you can adjust the brightness and contrast of the black and white image by mobilizing the luminance of each of the colors in the scene. As a case in point, all the images that illustrate this article were originally captured on color slide film, scanned in color, and then converted to black and white using the Black and White adjustment layer of Adobe Photoshop. Those are fairly common compositions, but presenting them in black and white offers a different take.

As a result of your experimentations, you may find that transforming those natural scenes to black and white can open new avenues of creativity and achieve worthwhile artistic goals. Fall colors are often so prominent that they get in the way of noticing other attributes of the subject such as shapes, patterns, and textures. Sometimes, the photograph is more about those attributes than about the color, and eliminating color puts back the emphasis on them. In a fall foliage scene, it can be the case that everything is so colorful that nothing stands out. Converting the image to black and white can favorably trade a variegated, but uniform color palette for a more dynamic set of greyscale tones with amplified contrast. Although the resulting image does not exhibit directly any of the brilliant foliage colors, it still critically depends on their prior existence to create its symphony of tones. An image that could be only made in the fall? A fall color photograph!

Emphasizing shapes and textures

Smith Springs. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas.

Guadalupe National Park in West Texas is not a location most think about when chasing fall color, but if you have missed most of the season, it is an excellent choice since the color lasts until mid-November due to the southern latitude. Despite the aridity of the surrounding desert, hidden water sources deep in incised canyons sustain a wondrous variety of deciduous trees whose fall colors rival even New England. The great photographer Alex Webb writes that “color is emotion”. Indeed, the colors often present in fall foliage elicit strong emotions that may be beyond the point you are trying to convey in a photograph. I was mostly attracted to the lyrical lines of the twisted dark trunks set against the bright foliage. When I made the photograph, recognizing that what caught my attention was not primarily the leaves, I did not photograph during a lull, but instead during a breeze that blurred them a bit. After converting the image to black and white, with the distraction of the joyful yellow colors and emotionally intense red colors gone, the shape of the trunks took center stage.

Horseshoe Park. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The fall foliage displays of the American West are generally dominated by aspen trees, and Rocky Mountain National Park is no exception. While aspen in fall foliage are always a striking sight, in that particular scene, it is their brightness in the landscape that makes them so noticeable rather than their hue, an acid shade of yellow adjacent to green. That hue didn’t provide much color contrast against the surrounding greens both of the aspen not yet turned and of the conifers. I magnified the focus on the pattern of horizontal layers of the photograph by eliminating the distraction of color, and instead created interest through a complete range of greys, which is often the key to a successful black and white photograph. That approach worked well because each of the layers exhibited a block of fairly consistent tone. I translated the yellows of the turned aspens into bright values and the light greens of the not yet turned aspens into medium greys, both contrasting with the darker tones of the conifers. A simple desaturation would not have produced that effect. For more details, refer to the final entry in this article.

Kaibab Plateau, North Rim. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

More than 90% of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park head to the South Rim. The North Rim is almost a different park with a much quieter atmosphere. It is 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim and wet enough that the Ponderosa Pine forest that dominates both rims is intertwined with stands of aspen. I noticed the vertical pattern of their graceful rectilinear white trunks and their fuzzy light foliage standing out against the dark greens of the evergreens on a steep hillside. In my conversion to black and white, I darkened the conifer’s greens so they would recede. Adjusting the tones of the yellow leaves, I made sure to hold them back midway between the darks of the conifers and the whites of the trunks so that the tones of the trunks would remain much brighter. They stand out more against the aspen leaves than in the color version, creating a three-tone composition that exactly corresponded to the patterns.

Forest near Windigo. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

The color version of this forest floor close-up exhibits an exquisite color palette, but it can still feel like a documentation of a subject that appears common, even if the image was made in an uncommon place, Isle Royale National Park, the most remote and least visited national park in the continental United States. Sometimes, by just being in such places, you begin to notice little things that you may have other passed. The black and white version feels more like an artistic interpretation, different from our everyday perception, and therefore more mysterious. The composition borders on the chaotic, but without eye-catching color to grab a viewer’s attention, there is less information to sort out, and we see more clearly the intriguing graphic expression of the shapes, both opposite and repeated.

Amplifying natural tonal contrast

Ottawa National Forest, Wisconsin

When one thinks about fall foliage photography, the subjects that come to mind are trees, close or far. If you have timed your trip later than fall foliage peak or if a strong overnight storm has stripped all the branches bare, don’t despair, since fallen leaves can also offer great opportunities for dynamic black & white photographs at all scales, from sizeable forest scenes to close-ups. The scene in Ottawa National Forest, Wisconsin could be found in many places. What makes the photograph dramatic is the contrast between the dark surface of the pond and the bright spots of the leaves, especially the fallen leaves that create texture in the pond. Although I had used a polarizing filter to darken the pond surface, the color version did not display much contrast and looked a little flat. In the black and white version, I was able to increase that contrast considerably without making the image look unnatural. As a black and white photograph is by its nature a departure from reality, there is more latitude for interpreting a scene with aggressive processing.

Hogcamp Branch of the Rose River. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

The Appalachian Mountains are one of the prime locations to observe fall foliage on the east coast. Most visitors equate Shenandoah National Park with its 105-mile Skyline Drive and overlooks. However, leaving the car to hike down a trail along a poetically named river revealed a multitude of cascading streams invisible from the road. Although the scene of a creek and mossy boulders would be beautiful in all seasons, the fallen leaves added another measure of interest. As they are brighter than the rocks and moss, they created an eye-catching polka-dot texture all over the image. With enhanced contrast and no color to detract from the tones, the conversion emphasized this texture. Harsh light is often beneficial for black and white photographs because it creates heightened contrast. However, when photographing a forest scene, harsh light is difficult to work with because it tends to create bright spots in unwanted places, and the shadows often break organic shapes. In general, to photograph such intimate forest scenes, soft light is more favorable. This applies even more so in black and white when we don’t have the benefit of color continuity to delineate and separate subjects. Photographing in soft light, you rely on natural tonal contrast to provide a starting point that can be emphasized by a black and white conversion.

Left Fork of the North Creek. Zion National Park, Utah

An oasis in the desert, Zion National Park’s canyons are home to lush deciduous vegetation. On the way to the famed Subway, I hiked past a unique six-inch-wide crack that channels most of the flow of the Left Fork of the North Creek. Leaves turn color because the disappearance of the chlorophyll pigments reveals the other pigments. With fewer pigments overall, fallen leaves have a lighter tone. In a color photograph, their brightness can be distracting, particularly when they are almost bleached of color. However, the leaves energized the black & white version by adding focal points with high contrast and a sense of depth as they recede in size from the bottom of the image to its top.

Using color to create tonal contrast

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota (original color capture)

Like most of the entire Upper Midwest, Voyageurs National Park is a quiet destination with fall foliage displays equal to the better-known locations further east. One of the main attractions of photographing fall foliage scenes is that with the right timing, before the peak, you can capture a varied color palette that can include anything from greens to yellows, oranges, reds, and purples. At first, it may seem that those images would not work as well in black and white. Color contrast in fall foliage can be strong, whereas greyscale contrast may not be there, causing elements to blend and resulting in a lifeless photograph with weak separation. For instance, in this close-up of the branches and leaves, the contrast between the complementary reds and greens is striking in color. However, with a straightforward conversion to black and white (desaturate), there is little separation in the greyscale between the red leaves and the green leaves, as they have a similar tone in black and white. Generally speaking, color contrast is easier to find than tonal contrast, which could be one of the reasons that color photographers appear to be more productive in the field than black & white photographers in terms of the number of photographs captured. With added tone contrast, the resulting image would still hold interest thanks to the dark linear branches standing out against the foliage’s exuberant texture, but we can do better and recapture the color contrast as tonal contrast.

Straight black-and-white conversion by basic desaturation

When using black and white film, a workaround to this problem has been to use colored filters. They affect the way colors are translated to black and white. Each filter lets through its color of light and blocks to some degree other colors. For instance, a red filter lets reds through and blocks most greens and blues, resulting in reds being rendered in light tones and greens and dark tones. When working in digital, I recommend that you use a RAW format, which captures a full-color image and then perform the conversion to black & white in processing, where you can make adjustments in a finer and more flexible way than is possible with filters. Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro offers the equivalent of those filters, and more importantly, fine adjustments targeted by tone ranges. With software such as Adobe Lightroom, Camera Raw, or Photoshop, the control over each of the colors in the scene is even finer, as you can easily set the relative tone brightness for each of them. In the example, I mapped the red leaves to light tones, making red leaves glow, while the green leaves were mapped to darker greys, adding depth to the image. This type of contrast adjustment is possible to create only in the fall since in spring and summer, the vegetation is a fairly uniform hue of green. Using this approach, you are fully taking advantage of colors in the fall for your black & white photographs! There is no reason you cannot have it both ways: a seducing color image, and a dynamic black and white photograph.

A more refined black-and-white conversion with mapping colors to tones

This article initially appeared in the Sept 2022 issue of Outdoor Photographer Magazine. Due to challenges that would eventually result in the magazine ceasing publication it was not printed but delivered only electronically, so many subscribers had missed it.