Striking Gold: Maroon Bells Peaks Reflecting in Maroon Lake
I'm just back from an intensive 9-day photo trip to Colorado. Overall, the trip was great, though the weather was not cooperative for about half of the daylight hours. Bad weather can create the dramatic skies that are highly desired for landscape photos, but rain, snow and heavy fog can be especially challenging when distant mountains are a primary subject.
At the top of my distant mountains list were the Maroon Bells, a pair of fourteeners (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) located in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area near Aspen. These tree-less, maroon-colored peaks are generally considered the most-photographed mountains in North America. They are most-photographed for good reasons. The mountains are beautiful, the scene in front of them, including Maroon Creek Valley and Maroon Lake, is beautiful and the access is very easy. Getting this picture into the portfolio, however, was definitely not easy.
I mentioned that access to the beautiful Maroon Bells scene is easy. The hike from the relatively-small parking lot to Maroon Lake is a short one. I carried about 50 lbs. of gear to the lake in a Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator Backpack and a Think Tank Photo StreetWalker worn as a front pack. But, this hike is the easy part of getting this photograph.
There are basically two ideal sections of the Maroon Lake shoreline to shoot from with a limited number of photographers fitting into them. Getting the perfect location requires you to be there before the other photographers wanting the same easy-to-get-to location (just getting a parking space can be a challenge). Factor a 30 minute drive from the nearest hotel to the early arrival time requirement at the parking lot (a limited amount of campsites are available closer to the location) and the result is a very early AM alarm. By the time this photo was taken, there were nearly 100 photographers standing beside Maroon Lake, and I assure you that many did not have optimal shooting positions (just hanging out with this many friendly, enthusiastic landscape photographers makes this trip worth the effort).
Aspen in their brilliant yellow (and red) fall foliage colors were my other primary photography target for this trip. There are only a handful of days each year when the aspen trees are at their peak, so the timing of this trip has to be perfect. Locals can simply watch the foliage reports and make the drive (just over 4 hours from Denver) when the trees are peaking, but the rest of us need to plan ahead with airline ticket purchases, hotel reservations and vehicle rentals. My strategy was simple: plan the trip for peak foliage dates from recent years. In Aspen, this strategy worked perfectly for me. Some trees were beyond peak and some remained green, but most were at or near peak color. Though this is a highly desired location most of the year, the peak foliage definitely factored into the large crowds I encountered.
To get the peaks of the Maroon Bells to glow at sunrise requires a clear sky in the east during sunrise and to get a perfectly clear reflection of the peaks requires no wind. I was not hopeful during my 2 hour lakeside wait. Unlike many of the other mornings on this trip, the sky was perfectly clear. But, there was enough of a breeze blowing to create mirror-reflection-destroying ripples in the water. A moment before this photo was captured, the lake became a giant mirror and remained nearly flat for the next 3-4 hours (this duration is unusual for Maroon Lake) until the sun lit the entire valley floor below.
With the right scene unfolding in front of me, capturing the right framing and exposures became the next challenge. The framing was not hard (it is hard to go wrong at this location), but the exposures required more attention. With direct sunlight hitting the mountain peaks and the light-absorbing evergreens in deep shade, there was a significant amount of dynamic range to be captured. Using a multiple exposure HDR technique was the key to capturing the entire scene and all I had to do in the field was to insure that, for each final image, I had proper exposures captured for the highlights (shorter exposure) and for the shadows (longer exposure).
Back home in the studio, the processing work was much more difficult than capturing the right exposures in the field. Blending the two RAW images into a natural-looking HDR image was a complex process. I'd be embarrassed to say how many revisions I've made to this image, and while I have many variations that I like, I can't say that I am completely satisfied yet. This is my favorite revision today.
The iconic photograph of the Maroon Bells reflecting in Maroon lake with an apron of brilliantly-colored aspen trees lining Maroon Creek Valley was high on my bucket list and checking this line item off was my highest priority for this trip. No, this photo is not going to be unique (at least not completely unique). A lot of other photographers (close to 100 from this day alone) could have this or similar photos in their portfolios (if they executed and processed properly). I enjoy looking at photos taken by others, but this one is mine and there is something special about having iconic images in your own portfolio and having photos you created hanging on your walls. The memories these photos hold are part of their specialness. This particular image does not tell much of a story, but the story behind the image is big. That my father joined me on this particular trip was part of the specialness.
Because this shot was a priority, I allotted the most trip time (two full days and an additional half day if needed) to the Aspen area. The first morning was perfect (I shot from the side of the lake until about 11:00 AM and in the valley most of the day) and the second morning was an exact duplicate of the first until a breeze picked up just after sunrise (I moved to other shooting locations at this time – as planned).
Lakeside, I was simultaneously shooting with two complete tripod-based setups (one under the other when space was tight or to better protect tripod legs from accidents). With all of the effort and timing coming together perfectly and with the short duration of mountain peaks being lit, two rigs allowed me to maximize my take-home. This particular image was captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and one of the best landscape lenses ever made, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM Lens. They worked perfectly.
35mm f/11.0 .3s ISO 100
Pilings, Brooklyn Bridge Park, NYC Skyline during Blue Hour
With a seven hour round trip drive included, fitting the PDN PhotoPlus Expo trip into 24 hours makes for a huge day. Increase the drive time to 10 hours (thanks to traffic), include a 1 hour wait at the show admission line due to a system outage (yes, I was preregistered), attend seven planned meetings plus a dinner meeting and I am left searching for a word that means much bigger than huge. Perhaps mammoth?
Still, with the show floor closing at 5:00 PM and rest seeming so unproductive, I decided to plan a shoot between the show and the dinner meeting. This year, I headed over to Brooklyn Bridge Park near Pier 1 (in Brooklyn) to the pilings shown in this picture.
I got onto the shoreline rocks beside the boat ramp and positioned the camera so that the opening between some of the pilings curved into the frame. I adjusted the focal length (with some mostly minor variety used) for a good size balance between the buildings and the pilings. An ultra-wide angle would emphasize the pilings while a standard or short telephoto lens would place more emphasis on the buildings. Another consideration is the levelness of the camera. With the camera vertically level, the buildings toward the sides of the frame remain vertically straight in this image.
The Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM Lens mounted to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III was the perfect choice for this scene. Perfect for both the angle of view/focal length range and for the impressive image quality it provides.
I was in position in front of the piers as the sun set. While I have images captured during sunset that I like, including the sun against the horizon with the last sunlight of the day reflecting on the water, the city lights were not showing at this time of the day and the colors were not as attractive to me as the late blue hour example shown here. I also have some shorter exposures of this scene, but the choppy river did not attract my eye like the buttery-smooth blurred alternatives. I used neutral density filters and adjusted the aperture slightly (between f/8 and f/11) to keep my exposure times at or near 30 seconds as sunset turned into blue hour and then into dark. I started with a 6-stop ND, moved to a 2-stop ND and removed that filter as darkness came.
While this may seem like a long time to shoot a single scene, this was the shot I wanted and I wanted a variety of options to choose from. I was shooting 3 bracketed frames (this is an HDR image) with the longest exposure at or near 30 seconds in duration and I had long exposure noise reduction enabled, meaning that dark frames were captured for an equally long period of time. This means that I was spending several minutes for each potential final image. With exposures that long, one cannot predict the large boats and other detractants that will possibly influence an image and I threw away some frames for this reason. In the end, I had a nice amount of images, but not a crazy number.
Likely, only a few of the images from this shoot will see the light of day. But, I really like those few images and consider the time and effort well spent. I can cross "Pilings at Brooklyn Bridge Park" off of my location bucket list.
The day started at 5:00 AM and ended at 2:45 AM the next morning. The overall results from the day, including the meetings and the show, were totally worth the effort.
30mm f/8.0 30s ISO 100
Sunrise at the Portland Lighthouse
While it is painful to get up early enough to photograph the sunrise in early summer (4:20 AM in this case), early summer is the right time of the year to photograph the Portland Lighthouse and the distant Ram Island Lighthouse from this angle with the sun in the frame.
With the middle daughter accompanying me, I arrived at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth, ME just before sunrise. I selected one specific composition to concentrate on during the prime shooting minutes, timed the rotating lighthouse light, bracketed exposures and, when capturing the foreground rocks being hit with the first light rays of the day, adjusted focus to a closer distance.
This image is composed primarily of three source images run through a complicated manual HDR process with manual focus-stacking. After the big effort made to capture this image (a long drive in addition to the early alarm), I was anxious to see how this photo turned out. It was the first-processed from my recent photo trip to Maine. I'm happy with the result – it was definitely worth my effort.
I'm also very happy with the 5Ds R and 16-35 f/4L IS combination. I can say that they "rock".
16mm f/11.0 1/13s ISO 100
Mudjin Harbor, Middle Caicos, Turks and Caicos
Warning: You might want to go here. "Here" is Mudjin Harbor in Middle Caicos (Turks and Caicos, British West Indies), where there are surprisingly few people and the scenery is amazing. Capturing my attention for the large part of a day were the large cliffs and the rugged landscape bordering the brilliant turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean here. And, who is the landscape photographer that can pass up a cave framing the ocean?
By moving deep into this cave and zooming the Canon EOS 5Ds R-mounted Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens out to 16mm, I was able to completely frame some of the most-beautifully-colored water found anywhere.
Caves are (usually) very dark and that was case here. This image is composed of three separate exposures – one for the water and sky (slight blinkies in cresting waves), one for the cave walls and another for the upper right portion of the cave wall as it was even darker and needed some detail brought out. With a handful of exposure variations available, I experimented with differing cave wall brightness during post processing. In the end, I opted for noticeable walls, but not bright enough to distract from the idyllic beach and water scene being framed.
Because the sun is constantly moving, multiple exposures intended for combining via HDR that include a shadow line should be captured in quick succession due to that line moving. The always moving and always different waves determined the primary exposure timing. The other exposures were simply captured very close in time to the primary ones.
A circular polarizer filter played an important role in capturing this image, making the sky and water colors pop.
16mm f/11.0 1/50s ISO 100
Finding Southwest USA Landscape in Pennsylvania
My life does not currently afford me to constantly be flying to exotic locations, so I'm continuously looking for opportunities closer to home to give photo gear a workout. One landscape type not readily found in my home base of Pennsylvania is the water-eroded bare-earth look so common in the American Southwest. After gaining permission to photograph at a local limestone quarry after hours, I came upon a huge screenings pile (a small mountain really). The fine stone was fast-eroding and the erosion created a very Southwest-appearing landscape.
After scouting the pile and trying many good perspectives, I came to prefer this one. I moved in close to one of the wider areas of non-erosion and framed to let the strongly-contrasting lines (courtesy of shadows from a late-day sun) move through the frame in a pleasing manner. I didn't use the widest focal length available to me to prevent the background details from becoming too small.
If I hadn't told you, where would you have said this image was captured?
27mm f/11.0 1/30s ISO 100
The Power of 16mm Perspective
The right perspective can make a crane's hook appear larger than the crane itself. The hook, being large in the image, captures the viewer's immediate attention. But, the crane in the background adds interest and provides reason for the hook being there in the first place.
16mm f/16.0 1/40s ISO 100
Adams Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park
Being only a short walk from a small parking lot makes Adams Falls the easiest of the named Ricketts Glen State Park falls to access. Because this falls is not close to the other falls, special effort must be made to capture it on a day with multiple falls on the to-do list. On this rainy day, I spent some time at this falls before heading deep into the park on the falls trails.
The beauty of Adams Falls is very apparent on first arrival, but some composition challenge needs to be addressed before capturing your trophy shot here. A composition that works for me is to use an ultra-wide focal length positioned close to the foreground rocks. I oriented the camera so that the upper flow of water was contained within the frame and horizontally positioned approximately 1/3 of the way into the frame. At about 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the frame, the vertical water flow widens and transitions to a horizontal flow that leaves the right side of the frame narrowly visible. This composition leaves the water nearly completely framed within rock, though still consuming a large percentage of the frame.
A cloudy day combined with a circular polarizer filter (consider it a requirement for waterfall photography) meant that a long, water-motion-blurring 1.3 second shutter speed could be used at an ideal-for-depth-of-field (and sharpness) f/11 aperture.
16mm f/11.0 1.3s ISO 100
Renting the Hall: Violin Recital
If you rent the hall, you likely have a lot of flexibility in choosing a shooting position. In this case, my location choice was the front row.
Being in the front row opens up new possibilities for wide angle compositions that incorporate the stage without having audience in the frame. I'm always a fan of the leading lines provided by wood stage flooring and the sound panels in the ceiling provide a balance to the bright floor. With a manual exposure dialed in (the lighting was constant), I simply framed and waited for the preferred bow arm position to press the shutter release.
20mm f/4.0 1/60s ISO 2000
Pilings, Brooklyn Bridge Park, NYC Skyline at Sunset
Brooklyn Bridge Park is a great location to photograph Manhattan from and I found the pilings by Pier 1 to be a great foreground. By arriving well before sunset, I was able to work out what I felt were the ideal compositions prior to prime time, including sunset and the blue hour.
A manual HDR technique was used for this image. A shorter exposure was used for the area around the sun and for the direct reflection of the sun on the water (to retain the small wave texture in the foreground reflection). To increase the water smoothness (there was lots of boat traffic), a neutral density filter was used to permit a significantly increased exposure time. I had both a 2-stop and a 6-stop ND filters in use, but (sorry) ... I don't recall which were used for this image.
Shooting at this time of the day produced a very different result than just one hour later.
19mm f/11.0 6s ISO 100
Dealing with Wind During an Independence Pass Sunset
Independence Pass is at 12,095' elevation on the Continental Divide in the Sawatch Range in Colorado. The top of a really tall mountain is often a great location choice for photographing (or just watching) a sunset, but the best photo (or view) is not always directly into the sun to the west. Really great sunsets also light up the eastern sky and on this particular evening, a storm to the east provided great color over the stark landscape at this pass.
A wide angle landscape photo composed of rock and clouds and captured on a tripod generally would not need ISO increased to 200 to maintain a 1/25 second exposure just to retain sharpness. But, the wind was ripping across the top of this mountain and I was not comfortable even with this 1/25 shutter speed.
There are various ways to deal with wind when photographing, but a solid tripod setup is the first key. Without any other protection from the wind available at the location I was shooting from (such as a vehicle or building), I opted for my frequently-used technique of holding my coat open around the camera and much of the tripod. The coat greatly reduces the amount of wind hitting the camera, yielding a potentially much sharper image – though it leaves me quite cold sometimes. The picture lasts far longer than my coldness.
16mm f/8.0 1/25s ISO 200
Incoming Storm Over Dragon Cay, Mudjin Harbor, Middle Caicos
Storms on the horizon and mostly cloudy overhead. That is what I saw when I stepped out of the Middle Caicos villa well before sunrise. While I admit that going back to bed seemed like a good (and justifiable) option, I knew that storms could bring desired drama and resisted that urge. While a sky completely covered in rainstorm was not of interest to me on this morning, I saw enough breaks in the clouds to give hope for some dramatic skies and I stayed with the plan.
Mudjin Harbor is my favorite location in the causeway-connected North and Middle Caicos islands (Turks and Caicos Islands are just north of Haiti and Dominican Republic). The cliffs and beaches in this location are stunning and the color of the water is among the best anywhere. The close-to-shore reef system brings entertainment in terms of waves and many small ironshore formation limestone rock islands dot the landscape, including Dragon Cay (Dragon Island) as seen here.
At this resolution, it is not especially easy to recognize the dragon lying in the water, but the rightmost large rock is shaped like a horn-nosed dragon head with its body (including shoulders and hips) flowing to the left and followed by its tail. A goal for this trip was to capture some images that included this fun land formation in them and having a nearby villa was part of the plan implementation.
A big attraction of Mudjun Harbor is a pair of caves and one of the caves faces the beast. A great and popular compositional technique is to frame a subject within its surroundings and one of my favorite natural frames is the opening of a cave. In addition to making a good frame, this particular cave offered a couple of additional benefits on this morning.
First, the sustained wind speed was just over 30 mph and gusts were reaching 50+ mph. That is fierce enough to blow a camera and tripod over and strong enough to make it difficult to even stand up, let alone frame and capture a sharp image. It is strong enough to make a painful whistle across one's ears and strong enough to blow salt water deep inland (causing, minimally, front lens element clarity issues). I was able to get deep enough into this cave to essentially eliminate the wind factor.
You can see the other issue approaching in this image. A small-but-significant rainstorm is close and on direct course for my position. The cave offered shelter from the rain and allowed me to photograph continuously as it approached and hit.
The word "cave" is often used to describe a dark venue and though these cave walls were brighter than many, they were quite dark and the backlit clouds were much brighter. This scenario means that an HDR technique was required. Two images with different exposures were manually (painstakingly in this case) blended in Photoshop to achieve the result seen here.
Obviously, this rainstorm was back-lit by the sun and direct sunlight on rain holds promise for another highly valued, loved-by-everyone landscape photography element that I'll share later.
16mm f/8.0 1s ISO 100
Turquoise Clouds, Wild Cow Run, Middle Caicos, Turks and Caicos
When the clouds become turquoise, you are probably in a great place.
The day started out with no clouds in the sky. After having photographed for 6 days straight prior with good results, I was looking for more than what a clear sky would deliver, so some scouting was the task at hand. The selected location for the day was Wild Cow Run, at the end of Middle Caicos. From my base location in Whitby Beach, North Caicos, this meant a drive through most of North Caicos, across the causeway and through most of Middle Caicos. Then, at the end of the road, a 4x4 road was traversed until going further becomes impossible.
Your reward for this drive is one of the most beautiful beach locations in the world with seldom another person seen. I had hiked about a mile out when some nice clouds began forming on the horizon. Seeing great images beginning to materialize, I ran and swam back to the vehicle, grabbed a Canon EOS 5Ds R with an EF 16-35mm f/4L IS Lens mounted, threaded a circular polarizer filter onto the lens and put the setup in an EWA marine underwater housing.
I know, an underwater housing does not make sense for capturing an above-water image of beach, water and clouds, but ... you may have noted the "swam" part when returning to the vehicle. I had to swim (fins, snorkel and mask) through a channel with a swift tidal current to reach the island with the beach I was targeting. I was not using the camera underwater, but the housing was perfect for the water transportation to the scene.
Once across the water, I removed the camera from the housing, stowed the housing (and snorkel gear) high on shore and hiked over sand and shallow water to reach the desired location. The huge expanse of sand and shallow water had my greatest attention. I was looking for angles and heights that would work best while keeping the clouds in pleasing locations within the frame. The clouds were moving in rapidly and I was shooting quickly, monitoring mostly my manually-set exposures from time to time, keeping the brightest parts of the clouds nearly blown.
What I wasn't noticing was that, as the clouds came closer, they began reflecting the amazing fluorescent turquoise colored water behind the reef, which was located a distant 1.4 mi (2.25 km) from shore at this location. Upon uploading my images for the day, I realized that the clouds, as they came in closer than the reef, had picked up a very strong color reflection from the water below. The result was something I had not captured before, turquoise-colored clouds.
Photography (usually) rewards effort – effort pays off. It was definitely worth the effort of a round trip to the vehicle to add this (and many other similar) images to the collection. I'll leave the "foresight to take the camera with me the first time" topic for another day.
16mm f/9.0 1/125s ISO 100
Inside The Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Teton National Park
The Chapel of the Transfiguration is a little chapel with big character. And, the view out the window of this Grand Teton National Park place of worship is surely distracting to anyone attending a service here.
After waiting for a clear moment in the (relatively light) crowds, I squarely-positioned (or nearly so in a questionably-square old building) the Canon EOS 5Ds R-mounted Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens in front of the window and captured an exposure-bracketed set of images ready for manual HDR processing.
With the mildly-complicated post-processing work completed, the dark building still seems like a dark space but the easily-visible log lines lead the viewer's eyes to the centerpiece, the window-framed Grand Teton mountain range fronted by fall-color glory and a silhouetted cross.
This camera and lens have been one of my most-used combinations since they were released. The image quality they deliver is simply impressive and the range of angles of view provided by 16-35mm are extremely useful, especially for landscape photography (or perhaps interior architecture photography in this case?).
16mm f/11.0 .5s ISO 100
Ricketts Glen Falls
Ricketts Glen State Park, near Benton, PA, has 28 named falls including the namesake Ricketts Glen Falls. If you don't mind climbing down from the trail and don't mind placing your tripod in the water, Ricketts Glen Falls is an easy location to get a keeper. Pick a cloudy day and use a circular polarizer filter.
What is the ideal exposure duration for motion-blurred water? That answer is both situational and personal preference. In this location, my personal preference is around half a second. Experiment to learn what works well and what doesn't. Watch the details in the water (typically air bubbles) go from sharp to smeared to an indistinguishably smooth color as exposure times increase. When the right amount of blur is obtained, that is the right shutter speed.
35mm f/11.0 .5s ISO 100
Dog Catching Ball
Summer is perhaps best known for heat and when the heat is great, it is most comfortable to be in an air-conditioned building or ... to be wet. The latter sounds more fun to me, but ... water and electronic camera gear are at odds with each other. Unless you have a waterproof housing for that gear.
While the high end dedicated rigid housings are very nice and may produce better image quality, a PVC underwater housing such as those made by EWA-Marine are far more affordable while still allowing unique photo opportunities.
In this photo, I was standing near the side of the pool with camera ready. Because capturing the perfect position of a normally thrown tennis ball is very challenging, I opted for a toss-straight-up technique. The dog wanted the ball, but didn't want to jump into the water to get it. I tossed the ball straight up so that it stopped moving at the ideal height and just far enough out so the dog couldn't reach it. The latter part mattered because it was game-over when the dog caught the ball and ran away with her prize.
Make this the summer that you waterproof your camera. Add wet shots to your portfolio. Capture the fun memories of the summer water activities. Get an underwater housing.
Read also: Underwater Photography Tips for Snorkeling.
22mm f/6.3 1/1250s ISO 400
Maroon Bells Reflection
When presented with clear blue skies, I often avoid having significant sky coverage in my frame. But sometimes, blue is beautiful.
With a bright, evenly-colored background, the top of the mountains being hit by the morning sunlight creates a strong, eye-catching line. The strong contrast of the mountain shadow creates a second strong line. Take a great scene and reflect it to get symmetry with the result often being greater than twice as good as the image without a reflection.
The choice of focal length is always very important for composing an image. In this case, the twin peaks of the Maroon Bells were of primary interest to me. A focal length that makes these peaks large in the frame will best emphasize their over 14,000' size. I captured many frames using longer focal lengths, but I also liked seeing the bigger picture. With a mirror-calm water surface large enough to reflect the entire scene, I took advantage of the wider angle focal lengths available in the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens on this morning.
When not to use a circular polarizer filter: at sunrise or sunset, with a wide angle focal length being used and large amounts of blue sky in the frame, it is unlikely that I have a CPL filter mounted on my lens. A CPL filter used with a low sun angle and lots of evenly-toned blue sky in the frame is a perfect recipe for very uneven darkening of the sky, a look that is generally not appreciated.
This is a complicated HDR image based on three differently-exposed source images. Removed from this image was a line of other like-minded photographers.
22mm f/11.0 1/8s ISO 100
Top of the Rock, New York City
I recently had the opportunity to photograph from the top of the Rockefeller Center, from the observatory decks named "Top of the Rock". The view from this location is excellent and the imagery waiting to be captured is eye-catching, but there are some things you should know before you go. I have posted a guide to help you maximize your time at this location along with many tips that can be applied to other similar locations.
The Ultimate Guide to Photographing at Top of the Rock (and Tips for No Tripods Allowed Locations)
This image was captured at 16mm with the amazing Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens, a great choice for this location. And, the Feisol TT-15 Mini Carbon Fiber Tabletop Tripod made this 2 second shot possible.
16mm f/5.6 2s ISO 100
The 10-Step Recipe for a Christmas Tree Photo
1. Install Christmas tree and clean up (this is the hardest step)
2. Wait for dark
3. Mount the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens on a full frame DSLR camera
4. Mount the camera to a tripod, zoom out, move in and level the camera (both pitch and yaw)
5. Turn off all regular lights, turn on all Christmas lights.
6. Take some test shots to determine that 15 seconds at f/16 (to get the starburst effect from the lights) and ISO 200 is right
7. Wait for the kids to go to bed (to avoid any floor vibrations)
8. Shoot until you run out of new composition ideas
9. Brush your teeth
10. Make one more attempt at finding new compositions.
My family and I wish you and your family a very "Merry Christmas!" May all of your photos be amazing!
16mm f/16.0 15s ISO 200
Ben Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia, PA
The Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, PA has been on my to-photograph list for a long time and earlier this year, I was technically able to check this attraction off of my list (I decided to keep it on the list for images from a different angle).
Having not been to this location before (aside from driving across the bridge), I needed some daylight time to scout for the evening's photos. I knew the basics of the area based on my research, but onsite finalization of the plan is usually needed. Even though very far from the bay and roughly 90mi (150km) from the Atlantic Ocean, this location on the Delaware River is tidal. I knew that there was a tide and that the tide would be going out during my shooting time (incoming tides require more concern). What I didn't know was the significance of the water level change. My scouting determined that locations close to the early evening water appeared best and I had lots of flowing water in the foreground for the image I envisioned.
As prime time approached, I watched the water level rapidly decrease a significant amount until my side of the river became nearly empty. There was nothing I could do about the situation and I was not about to attempt walking out into the quicksand-like muck. As photographers must always be ready to do, I embraced what I had to work with. The good news is that, as the water level dropped far enough, I had wet mud and pools of water that nicely reflected the bridge and city, creating a look that I may like even better than the image I had visualized.
On a good day, Philadelphia is an over-3-hour drive for me. The ideal time of the day to photograph the city lights with at least a little color in the sky is only a small fraction of that time duration. Life is busy and when it comes to good images, more is rarely worse than less. If you are a professional photographer, you count on your images for your income. If your primary income is not generated by photography, you probably cannot spend as must time in the field as you wish. To maximize your image volume relative to effort expended, perhaps close to a doubling effect, run two complete camera setups.
If you read my Canon EOS 80D review, you saw an image showing one angle of the Ben Franklin bridge. With a very short period of time to capture images and each image taking approximately a minute to capture (a 15-30-second exposure followed immediately by a same-length long exposure noise reduction process), having at least a second complete camera and tripod setup nearly doubled my images for this evening. While the 80D and Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS USM came out of the MindShift Gear BackLight 26L later in the evening, I mostly used the 5Ds R and EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II on a Gitzo GT3542LS with an Arca-Swiss Z1, set up close to the bridge.
About 100' (33m) to the north, I had another 5Ds R mounted to an EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens on an Gitzo GT1542T Traveler with an Acratech GP-s Ball Head as my second primary camera and lens combination.
I very frequently utilize a pair of cameras when shooting landscapes and cityscapes before sunrise, after sunset or even when working with strong neutral density filters under bright sunlight. The process is simple. I find a unique composition for each camera. Upon finishing one camera's setup and triggering the shutter release, I run to the other camera (well, I sort-of ran and stumbled over the big rocks in this case) and did the same. By the time I return to the first camera, it is usually finished or nearly finished with its processing. I quickly evaluate the image captured, make any adjustments I feel are warranted and repeat the process.
If running two camera setups not immediately within reach, safety for the gear must be considered. I wouldn't call the area below the Camden, NJ side of the Ben Franklin Bridge the safest I've been in. It was dark, there were no other people around and I kept a very close eye on the second camera setup, watching for anyone sketchy approaching. Having the cameras setup this far apart gave me very different perspectives of the bridge and city vs. simply different framing of the same perspective. The 5Ds R would permit strong cropping to achieve a similar framing adjustment, so I wanted something completely different from the second camera.
With so many images that I like captured that evening, I struggled to pick out one to share (part of the problem of having perfectionist tendencies). Three months later, I forced myself to pick one. This was it. Hope you like it and hope even more that you can increase the number of great images that you capture.
30mm f/11.0 15s ISO 400
Sunset at Three Mary Cays, Turks and Caicos
Mixing brilliant turquoise-colored water with a dramatic sunset is not so easy. The ideal light to bring out the water color is from a high overhead sun and that is of course not available at sunset. However, the water in some locations is amazingly colored enough to still show turquoise even at sunset. Three Mary Cays in North Caicos is one such location.
Most of the west side of North and Middle Caicos islands is inaccessible without a boat, leaving few good locations for mid-winter sunset photography (with the sun setting farther north mid-summer, more northern locations can work well at this time of the year). Of those remaining locations, the shoreline by Three Mary Cays presents very nice winter sunset views. And, the shoreline and islands all have the character I was looking for.
Three Mary Cays is amazingly beautiful and also amazing is how seldom it is photographed by serious photographers. Online scouting revealed very few images and I spent two evenings watching the blazing ball drop into the Atlantic Ocean at this location with no one else as far as the eye could see.
While the cloud moving over the sun helped significantly with the brightness balance in this image, I still opted to use an HDR technique to balance the overall exposure.
It has become rare for me to photograph landscapes without the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens in the pack. This lens delivers amazing results every time. Well, at least every time I do my part of the job correctly. It is hard to believe that my other primary piece of landscape kit, the 5Ds R, is now over 1-year-old. #lovingthiscamera.
16mm f/11.0 1/40s ISO 100
Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
My pre-trip research placed Peyto Lake, along the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, high on my to-photograph list. With a strong glacial flour flow in the summer, this lake takes on an amazing turquoise color, with Caldron Peak and Mt Patterson providing exclamation marks behind it.
To get the high sun position required to light up the lake color, a late morning or early afternoon-timed shoot was determined to be best. Of course, summer is the peak tourist season for this location and tourists come here in droves (and buses) ... and this time of day seems to be best for many non-photographers as well.
Combine this common timing with a relatively small viewing area at Bow Summit and, even though a hike is required, the place was packed. Upon working my way to the front corner of the platform, I took some photos but soon determined that somewhere below deck would work better. Even down there was challenging with people sometimes walking up and sitting right in front of the camera. Patience paid off when a thunderstorm rolled in and created some great drama in the sky and contrast on the lake. No, even the approaching thunderstorm did not chase the crowds away, but patience and my position worked out for the capture of an image that I was happy with. Then, I ran back to the safety of the SUV.
The Canon EOS 5Ds R and the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens were the perfect combination for this location. The Gitzo GT1542T Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber Tripod (now GT1545T) and Acratech GP-s Ball Head were my choice for their light weight, small size and rigid support. As usual for middle-of-the-day landscape photography, I was using a circular polarizer filter for this capture.
16mm f/11.0 1/80s ISO 100
Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park
The weather on much of this day in Banff National Park ranged from poor to terrible (including wind and strong thunderstorms). I knew that, if the rain at least mostly stopped, this was the perfect time to visit Johnston Canyon. The ground would be wet and colors would appear very saturated with a circular polarizer filter cutting reflections. The lighting would be void of hard shadows and ... would (somewhat) reach into this cave.
Johnston Canyon is typically packed during the short summer tourist season, but a late-in-the-day arrival timed just after a heavy thunderstorm (waited in the SUV for it to pass) meant that the trail was nearly void of people. Also, few people venture down the steep, slippery (at least when wet) slope to this cave and very unique land formation at the bottom of the canyon. A downside of the late day start meant that I had to run most of the trail, stopping only long enough to grab the occasional photo.
My initial plan (if I could find the cave in the first place) was to include the top of the interesting chunk of land in the frame, but that view included a bit of sky in the background. I went ahead and captured that set of images, but was undecided about the extreme difference in brightness the sky created. To eliminate the sky from the frame, I moved back/up into the large but shallow cave until the top of the cave blocked the sky.
As I find so often to be the case, the Canon EOS 5Ds R and the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens were the perfect combination for this landscape situation.
19mm f/8.0 5s ISO 100
Wilcox Peak, Jasper National Park, Alberta
The Wilcox Pass Trail is one of the highest-rated trails in Jasper National Park (Alberta, Canada). While I have not hiked most of the trails in this park, I have hiked a lot of trails and can say that this is one of my favorites.
The 6.8 mile round trip hike (we stretched it closer to 10 miles) starts just below the tree line and quickly ascends above it into the alpine meadows. From that point on, the views are continuously excellent. The Athabasca Glacier, a significant toe of the Columbia Icefield, is always visible to the west and a multitude of mountain peaks surround the entire area.
For this hike, I opted to go light on the gear. I packed a single Canon EOS 5Ds R and a pair of lenses (Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens) into a MindShift Gear BackLight 26L (I'm loving this pack – it goes everywhere with me) along with other essentials including food, water and additional clothing (always recommended when hiking at high altitudes – and needed on this hike).
If I hike this trail again, I will have a second camera body along as I spent too much time changing lenses. The primary driver for the lens changes were frequent wildlife encounters and telephoto landscape photo ops interspersed with wide angle landscape opportunities. To take advantage of all situations, I was constantly changing between the two lenses I brought.
Yes, another camera body would have added a bit of weight to my kit (the reason I didn't take it), but I probably exerted more energy changing lenses than I would have simply carrying the additional camera body. And, changing lenses at a high altitude often means wind, which often means risk of dust finding its way onto the sensor, leaving spots in the images. Fortunately, the 5Ds R did a great job of avoiding the dust and I had no cloning tasks to add to the post processing of this hike's take home.
I selected this image to share with you because I like how the lines in rock and the clouds point (lead the eye) to Wilcox Peak. As you likely already guessed, the 16-35mm f/4L IS was used to capture it.
Absent from my short gear list above is a tripod and for weight reasons, I was sans tripod on this hike. While the 1/80 second shutter speed may seem easily hand-holdable at 16mm even on a 5Ds R, that was not the case as the wind was very strong. Image stabilization proved quite valuable to me in this situation.
16mm f/11.0 1/80s ISO 100
The Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Teton National Park
There are few churches with a view comparable to that from The Chapel of the Transfiguration in Grand Teton National Park. I'm thinking that this view would be a strong distraction from the sermon.
The next time you visit Grand Teton National Park, make sure that The Chapel of the Transfiguration is on your to-photograph list. It is as attractive outside as it is inside. Morning is the best time of the day to photograph at this location as the tall mountains go dark when the sun sets behind them. A visit timed for the right week (late September) results in brilliantly colored aspen trees for the mid-ground layer of interest (though the aspens are only barely visible in this image).
Obviously, I went inside to capture this photo. My goal was to see the mountains through the window while capturing most of the interior of this little log-constructed church. My preference was to see the mountain peaks in the window and this meant a low shooting position at the back of the sanctuary was required. That position seemed to work well for the rest of the scene, so I went with it.
Though a steady stream of people were coming through the little church, there were enough breaks that patiently waiting was all that was needed to capture a wide range of exposures. Because the dynamic range was extreme, the wide range of exposures were required. I later used a manual HDR technique to composite several of those images into a balanced final result.
The Canon EOS 5Ds R and EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens were the perfect combination for this photo.
16mm f/11.0 2.5s ISO 100
After the Storm, Rainbow Over Mudjin Harbor
I recently shared an image showing an Incoming Storm Over Dragon Cay. That image came with a promise. My promise was to share the loved-by-everyone landscape photography element that a back-lit rainstorm holds promise for. A back-lit storm, once passed, becomes front-lit and that is the recipe for a rainbow, the referred-to strongly-desired element.
As soon as the rain stopped, I left my cave shelter (going out into the high winds) and there was the rainbow, complete with supernumerary bands (a stacker rainbow) and a slight second/double rainbow. I found a vantage point offering a photogenic view looking away from the sun (as that the requirement for the rainbow to be visible). I mounted a circular polarizer filter to the excellent Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens, framed the scene, rotated the filter to get the brightest rainbow and captured a series of images.
It was a great feeling to have confidence that some solid keepers were on the memory card as I drove back to the villa for second breakfast. I saw at least one rainbow on every day of this trip, saw several of them on most days and was able to capture some of them in nice photos.
Of course, seeing many rainbows means that there were many storms. Planning enough days at a location can be the key to successful outdoor photography – just to make sure that you get some storms worth photographing. Of course, one can never spend enough time at some locations.
16mm f/8.0 1s ISO 100
COLORado Gold: Maroon Bells Scenic Area
Revisiting a classic: I shared an image similar to this one some time ago, but a publication needed this scene in a 16:9 aspect ratio, meaning that a wider-angle capture was required. Since I was making the effort to process another image from that trip (and it is fall), I thought I'd share here as well. I'm also sharing this image because the Maroon Bells Scenic Area is one of the most beautiful locations I've seen.
Maroon Bells has many great landscape image components. Start out with a pair of tightly-positioned fourteener mountain peaks (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) with great character. Mix in some of the most-brilliantly-colored trees on the planet along with beautifully color-contrasting and photogenically-shaped spruce trees. Add light from a clear-sky sunrise just reaching the mountain peaks while the namesake maroon rocks remain in the shade with the cooler lighting emphasizing their color. Take all of that and double it with a reflection in the clear, often-still Maroon Lake that also happens to have some bright green algae growing in it.
Capturing the image was easy. The lake is only a short trek from the parking lot. Setup the tripod, focus and switch to manual focus mode, establish final scene framing, lock down the ball head and capture a burst of exposure bracketed images (the burst strategy is helpful because that sun line is moving down the mountain faster than it may seem). That sounds easy (and it was), but capturing the exposure stack was just the final bit of effort required to capture this image.
Getting a position for one's tripod at the side of Maroon Lake during peak leaf color at sunrise is far more challenging. This particular location gets one of the largest crowds of photographers I've seen outside outdoors. An extremely early alarm is required after, for most of us, a long trip to get to the Aspen, Colorado area in the first place. While photographing alone in the wilderness may seem more appealing to you, the folks on the lake shore (most of them at least) are very friendly and fun to hang out with as daybreak unfolds.
Another challenge awaits your arrival home. Manually processing the HDR stack of a scene with brightness ranging from direct sunlight transitioning immediately to shade on into deep shade (such as within the spruce trees) is a remaining challenge required for this image.
As so often is the case with photography, all of the challenges were worth conquering to get the image, many of them in this case.
A reflection can double the beauty of a scene and a second camera setup can often double (or at least significantly increase) the number and variety of images captured at the optimal time of day. When photographing a scene such as this, one that requires significant effort and has a high reward potential, I generally have two cameras on tripods simultaneously capturing the moments. In this case, the lenses mounted were two of my favorites, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens and the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens. While the choice of a "wider-angle" image may lead your guess to the model used here, both had the 24mm focal length used here available to them and I didn't have much reason to choose one over the other for this specific image.
24mm f/16.0 .8s ISO 100
Photographing Large Ferns in the Fog, Shenandoah National Park
When the fog is present, contrast is significantly decreased and heavy fog can reduce visibility to very short distances. While in Shenandoah National Park for two days in the spring, heavy fog was the only visibility I had. The dozens of turnouts and trails designed to show off spectacular views of the mountains and valleys far below all had the same view. White fog.
When this happens, one option is to find close subjects. With close subjects resulting in less light-scattering fog between the camera and subject, good color and contrast is retained. The large patches of bright green ferns were one such subject that always catches my attention in the spring in Shenandoah National Park. Fog scatters light in all directions, creating very even lighting even deep in the woods.
The one problem remaining was a light breeze. Some of the ferns I was photographing were waist high. With a big sail and a small stem, these ferns moved in even the lightest breeze. I would rather the slight motion blur in the lower left fern blade not be there.
Options for dealing with the subject motion were limited. Embracing the movement and allowing the subject to become blurred is an easy one. Results vary when using this technique.
Waiting for short breaks in the breeze was option I worked on. Taking many shots was another, trying to catch a fern at the end of its motion.
Making shorter shutter speeds available by increasing the ISO setting is another good option. This option results in increased noise in the image, but sometimes a scene can be captured at a low ISO for the stationary subject and then at a higher ISO setting to keep the moving parts stabilized. The two (or more) image can then be stacked during post processing with only the in-motion portion of the frame being shown for the high ISO capture.
Using a narrower aperture offers the same shutter speed advantage with reduction of DOF being the penalty.
A last method I was working with involved placing small temporary Y-shaped twigs at the base of the closest ferns (the ones moving across the most pixels) to help stabilize them. A Wimberley Plamp is a good tool for this purpose.
Moving farther away from the moving branch and/or using a wider focal length make the moving subject smaller in the frame which means they cross over imaging sensor pixels less rapidly which means they are sharper in the final image.
Remove the light-cutting circular polarizer filter can help establish faster shutter speeds, though this is not often a good choice for landscape photography.
While on the fog topic, note that CPL filters very significantly cut through fog.
The difference can be very noticeable.
Rotate the filter to turn on or off the fog effect, obtaining the look you want.
Old Boat on Bambarra Beach, Middle Caicos, Turks and Caicos
While exploring Middle Caicos, I came across this great little old boat on Bambarra Beach. I opted to go wide and move in close, emphasizing the boat relative to the rest of the landscape. As I worked the scene, I continued to move in closer and lower until ... cue the pelican ... I settled on this shot.
The Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens is a great beach and seascape lens option, with or without a tripod.
Whether or not to use a circular polarizer filter when using the widest angles of this lens on a full frame body (and similar angle-of-view-equivalent focal lengths on APS-C format bodies) is a question that one must ask themselves. At very wide angles, a CPL filter can create an unevenly-darkened sky and tastes for such vary widely. One strategy is to shoot in the middle of the day. A high sun places the most-darkened portion of the sky evenly over the horizon. This provides a more-evenly darkened sky within the frame, as seen in this image.
While there is some gradient in this sky, I much prefer the CPL look and the high sky-to-boat contrast over the lighter sky (which naturally has some gradient even without the filter).
16mm f/11.0 1/100s ISO 100