Creative Light Blog

Milky Way and Star Trails at Teter Rock

Star Trails over Teter Rock, Flint Hills of Kansas,
Star Trails over Teter Rock, Flint Hills of Kansas,

 

Back during a September evening the forecast for the  night sky was clear for the Kansas City area.  So I thought I’d head out to the Flint Hills on the Kansas side to a place called Teter’s Rock for some night photography.  The Flint Hills encompasses a region in eastern Kansas and north-central Oklahoma.  It features a band of rolling  hills and grasslands with wide open skies. A place where in the spring  you might see storms developing 50 miles away.  In this area you can easily escape the light pollution of the city in search of a dark sky for star photography.  While the dark skies are great for night  photography, you have to really search for something to effectively use as s an interesting foreground element.  Enter Teter Rock.

Teters Rock is a group of stones standing as a tribute to a man, James Teter, who owned the land where a small community developed around some oil fields.  Of course the community is long gone and all that remains are these standing rocks on some high ground that represented what was originally intended as a guidepost for homesteaders searching for the nearby Cottonwood River.  The original stones are long gone but the current day monolith was erected as a tribute to James Teter, while most any other sign of the former community is long gone.  Teter Rock now offers a great foreground object to include in a composition while photographing the night skies of Kansas.

Arriving on site,  I began to evaluate the area for possible compositions.  The sun was just about to set so I caught a few quick shots of the setting sun through the openings of the rocks comprising the Teter monument.  I then explored positions facing north to determine where to best set up  to place the rock in relation to the North Star, which would be the center of rotation of my star trails.  My initial objective  was to plan for a length of time to take multiple exposures to later stack together to show the resulting star trails over Teter Rock.  There are always small things to consider on the horizon, such as a flashing strobe on a distant tower, glow from a small town in the distance,  should I position my camera closer to the ground for  a lower perspective, and other considerations.   The camera I had available to me this night was my Canon 5DSR.  This camera is a great choice for landscapes because of its high pixel count, allowing for very detailed images.  However, because of the higher pixel count it does not perform as well at high ISO settings often associated with night  photography.  But it is the only camera I had available at the time so I chose to use it to actually test its performance in these conditions.

When taking star trail images you won’t necessarily need to higher ISO’s such as 3200 or 6400.  In fact I will often start out around f/4, ISO 400, 4min on a dark night without a moon.  I might take a couple of test shots to fine tune my exposure.  With desired exposure and composition determined, I set the intervalometer for no more than 4 min exposures and fire it off , sit back in my rag chair and enjoy a beverage and snacks, and just let it go.  I had allowed for only a 1 sec interval between exposures and used a total of about 60 exposures to create the star trail shot above.

The crescent moon, which provided a small amount of ambient light, began to get low on the horizon as the night wore on.  The brightest portion of the Milky Way, easily identified by its proximity to the constellation Sagittarius, was still about 15-20 degrees above the horizon.  I could now reposition and try a few Milky Way shots above Teter Rock.  Now this is when I really expected to run into problems with noise in my images because of having to increase my ISO.  Using a  Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens  my strategy was to stay as low as possible on the ISO to mitigate the

Setting Sun at Teter Rock, Flint Hills, Canon 5DSR
Setting Sun at Teter Rock, Flint Hills, Canon 5DSR

noise and rely on the speed of the lens to capture the needed light.  I knew that by using my 24mm and  applying the 500 rule ( 500 / focal length of lens = max exposure time)I should keep my exposure time to no longer than about 20 seconds to render the stars as points of light in the image.  Nonetheless, I decided to push the exposure to 30 seconds considering I kept my ISO at 1600 in lieu of the 3200 or 6400 I might have otherwise chosen using my Canon 5D Mark III.

 

2016_09_teeterrocknight_0074_dxo-edit-copyAll things considered, the images I came away with were quite acceptable after post processing, and to my surprise the noise was very manageable. You can see, however  in the 100% magnification of the Milky Way image of why you should be mindful of your exposure time when your objective is to capture stars as points of light.  While the image viewed at normal magnification looks acceptable, when magnified it clearly shows the elongated rice-shaped stars resulting from the earth’s movement over that 30 seconds.  Where this would really become obvious is if you decided to make a large print.  The lesson here is that you should always consider the 500 rule in these cases and even do a test shot and  then magnify the result  in your LCD to be sure your stars are both in focus and your exposure is within limits to produce stars as points of light.

The prime season in the Northern Hemisphere to view the Galactic Core of the Milky Way is from March to October, with best viewing between April and July.  While the Milky Way is still visible throughout the year, the brightest portion of the core will be below the horizon from November to February.

I CONDUCT SEVERAL NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS DURING THE SUMMER MONTHS IN THE KANSAS FLINT HILLS AND HOPE YOU WILL SUBscribe TO MY BLOG TO GET PLANNED DATES OR REVIEW LATEST POSTS AND TECHNIQUES.  YOU CAN ALSO VISIT MY WEBSITE FOR ALL SCHEDULED WORKSHOPS AT WWW.CRAIGMCCORDPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT AS I AM INTERESTED IN ANY FEEDBACK.

 

Appreciate the History of a Place you Photograph

Each Spring and Fall I conduct photography workshops in the Missouri Ozarks.  The focus is on the Ozark National Scenic Riverway   and the mills, springs and rivers in the vicinity of Shannon, County Missouri.  During my fall pre-workshop scouting, I came across a small cemetery at Akers, MO.  Noticing it was established in 1861, I had to stop and explore a little further.  I believe many photographers are drawn to  old cemeteries, much like they are to old barn structures and abandoned buildings.  There is something about the mystery of the history associated with these things that we find intriguing as photographers.  As we click our camera shutters we contemplate what stories these places could tell us.  Years ago, when I was a young officer in the military, my commander would tell me how he always explored the history of a new place he visited.  He wanted to have a feeling for why streets or small towns had certain names.  Sometimes what was discovered was quite interesting.  Made for some nice trivia, if nothing else.

I explored the Akers Cemetery in part because it was established the year the American Civil War broke out.  Or as some southern boys would call it, “the war of Northern aggression”.  As expected I found one

Akers Cemetery, Shannon County, MO

gravestone of the era, that of 2nd Lt John Calvin Welch of the 9th Mo Infantry, CSA (Confederate States of America).  There were small fresh confederate battle flags placed at each side of the gravestone and some rather fresh looking, albeit artificial, flowers at its base.  It was clear current day family still visits his grave site and honors his service and sacrifice for what some post war writers would call “the lost cause”.

With a small bit of research I found that John Calvin (“Jack”) Welch was the father of 7 children.  He enlisted in 1861 with Freeman’s Company, Missouri state militia for six months, after which the union forces captured and took him to Alton Illinois, where he was held prisoner until September 1862.  Later he enlisted as a First Sargent in  Co. FM,  9th Mo. Infantry.  After fighting in the Battle at Pleasant Hill, LA, in 1864, he was promoted to 2nd Lt.  He served under the command of Gen J. Shelby who surrendered to union forces at Shreveport, LA in June of 1865.  After the war he returned to Missouri and farmed and was later elected County Collector.  He died at the age of 74.

Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, MO

The image here of Klepzig Mill in Shannon County, MO also has an interesting history, which I will highlight in later blog.  Having photographed this area for a number of years now, I have come to meet some very interesting and friendly locals.  Several Klepzig ancestors have contacted me over the months and  have talked of the mill and earlier times when the Klepzigs lived in the area and worked the mill.  More to come on that in the future.

Next time you venture out into new areas, do a little research.  What you find might not only be interesting but might offer some good leads on subject matter.

 

It’s Not Always About the Golden Hour

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Oxbow Bend, Grand Tetons, WY Canon 5DS R, 1/50 sec, f/14, 24 – 105mm @ 105mm, ISO 100

 

How often do we hear the mantra “It’s all about the Golden Hour” or another explaining how the “Blue Hour” is where the most beauty hides.  Others may insist that landscape photographers should best use the middle hours for scouting and taking combat naps to ready for the next golden hour.  While all these statement have some validity, I would posit that one can often lose out on some fabulous opportunities if you adhere to this guidance too literally.

Take for example the image above photographed at the iconic Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons National Park.  Every morning hordes of photographers, some of which have traveled from around the world, gather to photograph this location at first light.  And to be sure, this is an ideal time to catch some beautiful light slowly begin to paint Mount Moran and the fall colors along the Snake River.  After the morning show, many go on about their way to grab a shot at some other site on the way back to breakfast or their favorite Starbucks beverage in Jackson.  Maybe that is why when I arrived at this spot around 10 am there was hardly anyone around.  Seeing this I immediately pulled in my workshop group to take advantage of these near perfect conditions.  The clouds, the stillness of the air, and the beautiful light on the fall colors worked together to serve a perfect image well beyond the golden hour.  Certainly a little serendipity played a role, as within about 15 minutes of our arrival a breeze came up which created ripples on the river, completely eliminating the reflections.  The image opportunity was gone.

2016_09_tetons_0702-edit-copyAnother example is the Tetons and Golden Willows Image.  This again was taken during a period many photographers might be having lunch, photographed around 11:30 am.  Now to be fair, the overcast light does act as a diffuser and enables soft even light without harsh shadows you might otherwise have during this time of day.  Which brings up another point I make of exploiting these conditions to expand your shooting day.  No, you may not get that beautiful sunrise or sunset but I guarantee you will find many compositions that otherwise may have simply  not worked in other lighting conditions.

The Jenny Lake image was a long exposure taken a little later in the afternoon around 4pm.  Surely not the golden hour but it was late enough to be getting some depth creating shadows in the mountains.  I wanted something more than just an afternoon shot of the lake and mountains so I grabbed my trusty Lee Big Stopper 10 stop ND to create this 239 second exposure.  This created the motion in the clouds and also really smoothed out the lake to provide somewhat a semi-reflection of the mountain.  It also produced a sense of sereneness to the overall scene.

Jenny Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 239 sec, f/22, 24-105mm @ 24mm, ISO 100
Jenny Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 239 sec, f/22, 24-105mm @ 24mm, ISO 100

Again using the Lee Big Stopper, I went for a similar effect at String Lake.  This time the effect was slightly more subtle but still effective.  The image was taken at 1:30 pm and did necessitate some consideration of shadows for foreground elements.

 

 

String Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 350 sec, f/22, TS-E24mm
String Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 350 sec, f/22, TS-E24mm

 

 

Even with the bright afternoon light you can still get some interesting, story-telling images while otherwise on your midday scouting mission. The image, “Boots and Bones” offers an example. Taken at 12:40pm It could be argued that this images best works during this period, as it adds to a feeling of a desolate place and the harsh life of early ranchers of the area.

Boots and Bones, Grand Teton National Park, Canon 5DS R, 1/13 sec, f/16, 24-105mm @ 38mm, ISO 100
Boots and Bones, Grand Teton National Park, Canon 5DS R, 1/13 sec, f/16, 24-105mm @ 38mm, ISO 100

So, don’t sell yourself short by ignoring times other than the often mentioned “Golden or Blue” hour.  There are great opportunities throughout the day, not just the edge of day.

SIGN UP NOW FOR THE 2017 FALL COLORS WORKSHOP IN THE GRAND TETIONS, SEPTEMBER 21-25, 2017.  DETAILS HERE:  TETON WOKSHOP

 

A Follow up to the Perseids Meteor Shower

This year’s Perseids Meteor show was said to peak on August 12th.  In these parts the sky conditions on evening of the 11th and early morning of the 12th not ideal for sky watching, to say the least.  I was  to lead a workshop the evening of the 13th (early morning of 14th) in hopes of catching some of these elusive and brief glimpses of  a few Perseids rocks lighting up our sky.  The good news was the forecast was for clear skies for two nights running.

The night before our officially scheduled meteor workshop, and friend and I ventured out into some uncharted, or at least unfamiliar to us, areas of the Flint Hills.  After much driving in search of a good location, we finally opted for a spot offering at least the potential for some dark skies.  The coyotes were already beginning to howl so we figure we may as well stake out a spot.  Soon after dark we actually spotted the Space Station lighted up and traveling across the night sky.  Very interesting to watch as it moves and flickers across the sky.  Then it quickly fades and disappears.

We settled on a  location that was simply a gravel road, typical of this area of Kansas, which was oriented North/South.  I set up in the center of the road facing north, thinking I would compose a somewhat symmetrical composition with the north star directly above the road trailing off into the distance.  My thought was that even if I did not capture any meteors, I could stack enough images to create star trails above the road as it vanishes into the distance.

Star Trails in the Flint Hills Creating almost a vortex view drawing you into the Image
Star Trails in the Flint Hills Creating almost a vortex view drawing you into the Image

Any thought of Milky Way shots were quickly dashed as we had a bright 75% waxing gibbous moon and the Milky Way completely washed out as it followed the moon slowly across the night sky.  So we set up facing North, realizing that Perseids meteors would likely come from the North East.  While I did make several adjustments for exposure and composition, I finally settled on about an ISO of 1200 at 2.8 with my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.  The Rokinon is a great lens for night photography but it is strictly a manual lens.  I had previously  focused on the moon to ensure a lock on infinity and taped my focus ring down with gaffers tape to avoid accidentally moving it in the dark.  I set my  intervalometer for 2 sec intervals to minimize any gaps in star trails,  and in order to keep my stars as points of light for a single image, I kept my exposures to no longer than 20 seconds, based on the 500 rule (500/focal length = max exposure for stars as points of light).

Very soon after getting set up Murphy dropped by.  That is Murphy as in Murphy’s Law.  My intervalometer quite working.  Great!  As it turned out the battery was dead.  Should have checked it ahead of time.  Good news…I had another intervalometer.  You should always consider the possibility of our old nemesis  Murphy arriving on scene.   Preparation and equipment redundancy is always a good thing.

Perseids Meteors. Stacked Image with Layers adjusted to reflected more accurate position of the meteors
Perseids Meteors. Stacked Image with Layers adjusted to reflected most accurate position of the meteors

As the night wore on, we did see some meteors and were lucky enough to catch a few in our images.  The image posted here is a composite showing a number of small meteors over a period of time.  In order to complete this image I had to stack individual frames as layers in Photoshop.  Then using Free Transform, slowly rotate each layer around Polaris as a reference and get the stars aligned because of the movement of the stars in the sky over time.  After alignment, I would paint in only the meteor on the background image.  This placed the meteor in a relatively accurate position in the sky.  The whole process is not really that difficult but likely a subject of a future blog.

The Milky Way Chases the Setting Moon
The Milky Way Chases the Setting Moon

Now as the early morning hours approached and the moon began to set, it was possible to take advantage of the darkening sky to catch a Milky Way image.  Usually this time of year in our area  the brightest portion of the Milky Way rises above the horizon to the South.  As the hours progress the view of the Milky Way moves toward the west.  This day as the moon set the Milky Way became most visible toward the West.  Using what I had to work with for foreground and some slight lighting assist I was able to catch a last image of the night, or morning, depending on how you viewed it.

StackResults-Edit copy
Star Trails over the Lower Fox Creek School, Flint Hills of Kansas

On the second night, we had an excellent foreground element, the Lower Fox Creek School House at the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills.  Impacting our exposures, however, was  a 82% waxing moon that would not set until after 3 am.  It did nonetheless provide some natural light for the landscape and  school house in our compositions.  An occasional vehicle traveling along Hwy 177 would also throw a little light (sometimes a lot) into our compositions.  We would also at times paint a little extra light on the schoolhouse, or shine lights through the windows on the opposite side to give the appearance the schoolhouse had interior illumination.

Below is a star trail animated time lapse of the school house.  Hope you enjoy.  Please tell me what you think in your comments below.

All-in-all I believe everyone came away with some nice images, albeit without much success in our quest for a Holy Grail, sky illuminating meteor.  I speculate combined with the moonlight, and that we were probably 48hrs beyond the official peak, we had the odds stacked against us.

Lessons Learned:

The Need for Preparation:  Exploring an unfamiliar area an hour or so before sunset on night one is an example of what not to do.  This was not a workshop night but it serves as an example of why it is important to do some pre-planning or scouting before you venture out, especially when you may not have a chance for a do-over.  We ended up having to settle on a spot, not choose a location based on factor which might have increased the chances of some great images.  Now it is true I was able to composite an okay image showing several meteors, but still not the best of circumstances.  Aside from good old fashion pre-scouting, there are many apps available to assist in planning.  The Photographer’s Ephemeris is one, but there are others to help in predicting moon/sun placement, tides if you are on the coast, moon phases, sky maps and more.

Use of Filters:  For most night photography I would say not to use any filters.  I often see photographers using UV filters over their lenses.  When asked why, the best answer they can give is the camera store salesman suggested it for lens protection.  I would often respond, “So, I guess that advice increased his/her sale, right?.  Bottom line I am not a proponent  of UV filters, or any filters, without a specific intended affect on the image being created, with only one exception.  That is to protect from environmental issues such as rain, mist, blowing sand, etc.  That shouldn’t be too much an issue during night photography, unless  you are photographing a thunderstorm.    I have used a Hoya cross star filter get a slight cross star effect on a couple of the brightest stars.  Occasionally I might use a enhancing filter if I am photographing the Milky Way to bring out a bit of additional color in the Milky Way cluster.   But most times it just naked glass.

Combating Dew:  Everyone seemed to adhere to the advice of bringing along some hand warmer packets to wrap lenses to mitigate the inevitable dew formation.  Some think that if there is a slight  breeze you won’t have a problem with dew forming on your front lens element.  This is not true.  Unless maybe you are in the high desert with no humidity you are likely going to have to deal with this issue.  Small towels also proved quite useful in protecting the camera itself from becoming wet with dew by simply draping it of the body while it clicked away exposures of the night sky.  Regardless of precautions it is always good practice to check you lens occasionally.  Last thing you want is half your shots, especially the one with the huge meteor, to be fuzzy because of a wet lens element, so have some microfiber cloth on the ready.

Equipment Familiarity:  I always see this issue come up in workshops.  Make sure you are familiar with the functions and menu’s of your camera and other devices.  I guarantee you that good old Murphy will tap you on the shoulder just at the most unexpected  time.  It is very difficult to try to resolve problems in the dark when you cannot find the right menu, or otherwise try to troubleshoot a problem.  And there will be problems.

Headlamps:  Aside from what you might use as a light painting tool, a head lamp or some small flashlight is a must, if for no other reason than safety.  However, your headlamp should have the red light option and you should wear it around your neck as opposed to on your head.  The will prevent the inadvertent light activation from ruining someone’s shot or their night vision.  The red light on low illumination preserves your night vision and can still provide sufficient illumination for safe movement.  Another option is if you have a smart phone, you can use it’s screen as a low light illumination to allow you to see some camera settings and even for movement without disturbing other photographers around you.     

A Place to Lay Your Head:  The down side to doing night photography is you don’t get much sleep.  If you camping in the back country, not a problem.  If however you have traveled two hours to escape the city lights it’s nice to have someway to lay your head back and catch a snooze while your intervalometer is clicking away.  I have finally located what I think may be a solution I intend to use on my next venture out.  It’s a Kamp-Rite Tent Cot.  It can also be used as a lounge chair simply to relax as you watch the night sky.

Kamp-Rite Tent Cot
Kamp-Rite Tent Cot

 

 

 

Will be posting upcoming workshop for star trails to include a post processing  seminar for both night images and time lapse techniques.  Contact me if Interested.

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Photographing the Perseids Meteor Shower

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I am gearing up tonight to photograph the Perseids meteor shower.  Will be trying over the next couple of night but the best prospect will be Saturday night the 13th based on my anticipated location in the Flint Hills of Kansas.  The actual peak will be tonight and tomorrow early morning hours; however the weather/sky conditions are not predicted to cooperate.  Saturday night in the Flint Hills it is forecasted to be clear in the late hours and as the moon sets after 2am, I am hoping for the best opportunities.  Can’t expect much sleep that night but will hope for the best.  I thought I would throw out a few tips if you are hoping to capture this event.

Recommended Equipment and Misc Items: 

  • DSLR Camera (obviously)
  • Wide angle Lens
  • Tripod
  • Large capacity memory card (16 gigs or higher)
  • Intervalometer or locking cable release
  • Extra Batteries
  • Dew heater.  Many folks will use the air-activated hand warmer packets you can get in most sports stores.  If you fasten these around the barrel of your lens it will help prevent dew from forming on your lens.  You can use rubber bands, a strip of Velcro, or other means to fasten them to your lens.  I use an item called the Lens Muff , made by Kevin Adams, Digital After Dark.  Handy thing for you
    Lens Muff from Digital After Dark
    Lens Muff from Digital After Dark

    bag if you do night photography at all.

  • Headlamp or small flashlight.  It’s ideal to have a headlamp with the red light option so you don’t spoil yours and everyone else shot with a sudden blast of bright light.
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Small cloth towel.  This is drape over your camera to keep the dew off.
  • Lawn chair.  You could be up for a few hours.  May as well be comfortable.
  • Bug spray
  • Cooler for snacks and beverages

Background on Perseids:  The meteors we hope to catch are really nothing more than tiny bits of dust or slightly larger particles burning up in our atmosphere.  This particular shower, the Perseids, is a result of the Earth’s passage through the ice and debris associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle.  The intersection of the Earth’s path with this debris occurs every summer and emanates from the constellation  Perseus, from which the shower gets it’s name.

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Perseus and Cassiopeia shown in relation to one another. The yellow blob is the approximate are from which the meteors will emanate

Where to Look:  The meteors will emanate from the direction of Perseus in the northern sky.  Perseus is south of the constellation Cassiopeia.  I know, that probably does  not help much.  Actually though, after you see a few of these constellations in the night sky you will always be able to spot them.  Cassiopeia looks like a big sideways W of bright stars.  And once you recognize Perseus, you will always remember what it looks like and easily spot it.  The are between Cassiopeia and Perseus should be roughly where to expect the meteors to  appear but you may see them anywhere in the night sky.  Probably the easiest way to  find Perseus is with one of the numerous IPhone and Android apps which are available for free download.  Google Sky Map is a good one, Stellarium is another, but there are several good ones out there.

Technical Considerations

Cable Release:  Ideally you will want to have an intervalometer. it will make your life easier.  The intervlometer will allow you to control the exposure time, length of delay between shots, and the number of shots through one group of settings.  Some cameras allow this capability within the camera or by using a smart phone app through wi-fi.  Alternatively you can purchase a generic one at a camera store.  Since you exposure times should be 30 sec or less, you could likely get by with a normal cable release set in the locked position to shoot continuous.  Some type of cable release will almost be a necessity.

Lens Choice:  Remember this is a lot about the sky.  You need a good deal of sky in  your composition to increase chances of capturing meteors.  Wide angle is the order of the day, and it should be fast, f/2.8 or faster.  I would say a focal length of 24mm or wider, based on a full-frame sensor.  Some say if you are too wide, e.g., 11 -1 4, the meteors are less impressive.  This makes some sense because of the stretched perspective.  However, you are getting more sky so I guess it is a balancing act and a personal choice.  I  will be using my Rokinon 24mm f/1/4.  My decision is based on its speed.  My 14mm or 16mm f/2.8 would do fine but I am opting for the little extra speed of f/1.4 and sacrificing a little field of view.  Why is the speed so important?  There will likely be many faint meteors that you might not even notice with you naked eye but with the faster speed lens your sensor might pick them up.  It’s all about increasing your chances.

ISO and Exposure Times:  If we were in a New Moon phase, I would say your ISO would be anywhere between 1600 and 6400 with an exposure time  between 15 and 25 seconds, much as if you were taking pictures of the Milky Way.  However, because we will have a 78% waxing gibbous moon, the ambient light will be a factor.  Expect to do a few test exposures to find the best combination of aperture/time/ISO to fit the conditions.  That being said, you want to keep your exposure times to 30 seconds or less.  Not only because you want the stars to register as points of light, but faint meteors will be lost in the sky-glow at higher exposure times.  Once I have my exposure I will set my intervalometer to fire continuously with only about 2 seconds between exposures.

The moon will provide a little ambient light for the landscape  and any foreground elements you may have.  After around 2am the moon will have set and the sky will be darker and this period of the night we might expect to see more meteors.  This might also require adjusting your exposure as you approach this time as well since you will be losing the moonlight.

A Foreground Element:  Speaking of foreground, I feel it advantageous to have some type of foreground element, e.g., old barn, rock formations, interesting grouping of trees, etc. Simply a picture of the night sky with a meteor, while it might be neat, will not likely have strong compositional value.  A good foreground provides that compositional element and context. Doing this, however, is not without some important considerations. Keeping both the stars and the school in sharp focus could be difficult at a wide aperture setting.

Focus: There are two approaches to dealing with focus. It is very important that we have our stars in sharp focus and to do this we must focus on infinity. There are a couple of ways to do this at night, some easier than others. The good news is that there will be a moon to focus on and then set your lens to manual focus. Now, if you are using an ultra wide angle lens like 14mm you may be good to go, depending on how close you are to the foreground. What I expect to do if I am close is actually be sure I refocus and get one good sharp image of the foreground which I can later blend in with the sky images. Simply use of you hyper focal distance may work okay, depending on your focal length and how close you are to you foreground.

White Balance: I would manually set your white balance.  You might select Auto White Balance as we begin shooting and there is still some light, this is fine. However, after it really gets dark, I prefer shooting around 3800 Kelvin. This tilts the balance to a more blue sky rather than the muddy brown or orange tint you sometimes get with AWB at night. You can also set your white balance to Tungsten to accomplish a similar temp. You can always fine tune later in post if you are shooting RAW. This brings up another issue.

RAW vs JPEG: I strongly recommend you shoot RAW. Shooting RAW will give you the most flexibility in post processing. Shooting JPEG results in an image that has been already compressed and much of the data information as been discarded through the compression. If you must shoot JPEG I would recommend you set your camera to shoot both RAW + JPEG, if your camera gives you this option.

Batteries: Make sure you have plenty of batteries all FULLY CHARGED. We will be shooting a lot of frames and the last thing you want is to run out of battery power.

Final Thoughts:   If you are lucky and capture a bright fireball in one of our images, you have an image that could truly stand on its own. If on the other hand you capture single small meteors you can load your photos in photo-editing software and create a composite showing the multiple captures. You may also be able to create a little time-lapse sequence based on your total image sequence. This would show the stars rotating, clouds moving, and possibly a few meteor flashes. Some good options to consider for post processing and stacking might include: Star Stax and Deep Sky Stacker.

I look forward to following up this post with some great images.  Hope to see some of yours as well.

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Through the Woods – A Sleeklens Review

The Objective:  Recently the folks at Sleeklens contacted me with a request to do a review of one of their products.  The Sleeklens founders were apparently dissatisfied with the products that offered what they called quick-fix or “all-in-one” approaches to using Lightroom and Photoshop products.  As a goal they set out to create real and useful tools that photographers could use to facilitate and quicken their workflow.  Among their repertoire of products are a number of presets and brushes for a range of photographic styles to be used within Lightroom and Photoshop applications.  Being principally a landscape photographer, Sleeklens asked that I give a review of their “Through the Woods” Lightroom presets, which is part of their Landscape Essentials Workflow bundle.

The Task:  As we all know, many Lightroom and Photoshop plugins contain presets.  To be perfectly honest I have never been a big fan of presets; however, I was willing to explore this “Through the Woods” workflow to see if in fact was really worth the bother. 

So if I am to be convinced at all I thought I should start off with something really challenging.  After scanning through some earlier images from Bandon, Oregon, I chose as my first challenge a well underexposed image at the mouth of the Coquille River.  I had framed the Coquille River lighthouse between some old pilings and

Coquille River Lighthouse Unprocessed RAW image
Coquille River Lighthouse
Unprocessed RAW image

rocks along the river’s bank as foreground elements.  This particular images was well underexposed.  Until now this image remained in my outtake folder, likely to never be process and maybe even deleted.  I show here both the original raw file and the finished image, after using the Sleeklens workflow. 

 

 

 

Coquile River Light House, Finished image with Sleeklens workflow
Coquile River Light House,
Finished image with Sleeklens workflow

Not bad considering what I had to work with. I used several of the presets, which are stackable, and then fine tuned using their landscape brushes

Next I picked one rather easy, just to see how fast I could get it de. Again, this was of the Coquille River lighthouse. This first shot you can see was a little flat and just not much of great light. It certainly

Coquille Rive lighthouse Before Sleeklens workflow
Coquille Rive lighthouse
Before Sleeklens workflow

needed a little punch. After a quick application of a preset, followed by some slight application of a clarity brush, I had a much more pleasing image in literally a few clicks.

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Coquille River Lighthouse and Driftwood Finished using Sleeklens workflow
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Kansas City Skyline RAW unprocessed image

My next effort was using a recent unprocessed image of the Kansas City skyline and using the Through the Woods workflow start to finish. This image was a long exposure of about 60 seconds using a Lee Big Stopper. While using the Big Stopper allowed for the longer exposure by blocking light, it does not block UV light, resulting often in a cooler cast. This is on issue to tackle in post processing, with I was easily able to accomplish using the Sleeklens workflow.   I will look to fill shadows as well as part of my post

 

 

 

 

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Kansas City Skyline Cropped and finished using Sleeklens workflow

As you can see in the finished version of the Kansas City Skyline, the image has shadows filled, good tonal clarity, and a corrected color balance to complement the finished image.

For a final example I took another under exposed shot of some Pacific coast sea stacks at Bandon, Oregon.  As one might expect this could be a good example of an image to use the delete key as your first post processing action.  But let’s see if anything can be done with this seemingly hopeless capture.

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Bandon Sea Stacks, Bandon, Oregon Unprocessed RAW Image

While the sky looks like it may have some potential, the foreground appears well underexposed.  Going to work on this I used several of the Through the Woods presets and finished using selected brushes to ad some vibrance  to the sky and some targeted tonality adjustments on the seas stacks and to add some tonal clarity.

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Bandon Sea Stacks, Bandon, Oregon Processed using Sleeklens workflow

Conclusion:  The Sleeklens folks developed these workflows to help in easily adding color, light and detail to your images using some categorized, preset recipes, all while increasing the speed and efficiency of your workflow.  The “Through the Woods” LIghtroom workflow offers 50 landscape presets and 30 brushes, all categorized in a manner making it easy to quickly pick ones to accomplish your intended task.  These presets work on both RAW and JPEG images; however, I would highly recommend sticking with RAW.  You will be somewhat limited in how far you can go with JPEGs because they are already compressed files and there is not as much digital information to manipulate.

One of the really nice things is the presets are stackable.  One does not totally cancel out a previously applied preset.  Moreover, you are not stuck with just the effect of a given preset or brush.  You can still adjust your Lightroom sliders to fine-tune the adjustment.  Even after using the presets and brushes, you can still go into Lightroom Basic Panel and make further adjustments.  You have  complete control.

I said initially, that I am not a big fan of presets.  However, what Sleeklens has created in their workflow products is demonstrably value added.  I have included their Landscape Bundle as valuable addition to my post processing toolbox.  I highly recommend you give them a try.

Take a look at Sleeklens here

 

 

Adding Depth and Context to Your Images

Jenny Lake, Fall afternoon, Grand Tetons National Park, WY Canon 5DSR, 24mm, 239sec @ f/22, Lee Big Stopper

The Challenge

One challenge we as photographers have in creating images that really engage the viewer is often related to our ability to convey a sense of depth in a medium that is only two-dimensional. That is not to say that a two-dimensional photograph cannot be effective. But often such images are intimate landscapes, or studies in patterns, lines, microcosm in nature and even some grand vistas. But in many cases creating depth is an effective way to engage the viewer and guide them through an image, holding interest and in many ways providing context for your subject.

We actually borrow many of the same techniques artists have used for centuries in painting and drawing. In photography while our tools to accomplish this are similar, our methodology is necessarily different because of our medium. The photographer must arrange existing elements within the frame of a photograph in a somewhat symbiotic fashion to create a sense of depth. This is often critical to the success of many landscape photographs. So what are some of the techniques we should consider as we create images?

Including Foreground Element

Use of a supporting foreground element in your photograph is a favorite technique I try to use quite often. This in part is based on my earlier days using 4×5 view camera and the influence of one of my favorite landscape photographers, David Muench, whose work I believe in part guided the development of my personal photographic style.

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Blacktail Ponds Overlook, Grand Tetons National Park, WY EOS 5DSR, 24mm, ISO 200, 1/20 sec @ f/16

While a foreground element adds to the complexity of a composition, you should not pick any foreground element. Ideally, it should help support your main subject in some way. Also, take the time to fine tune your composition. What I mean is consider how close you should be the any foreground object. Sometimes I will tell a workshop student that when you initially think you are close enough, move still closer. The closer you are the larger the object appears in relation to the background element. This forced perspective cue helps create depth.

Don’t however forget the mid-ground. This is another factor that supports the importance of fine tuning your composition. Sometimes the height of your camera is vital to effectively guiding your viewer into the image. While getting low can be quite effective in gaining a desired perspective, it also minimizes the mid-ground. The mid-ground is often important to provide a visual progression or stepping stone toward your background element. If you are too low, you might eliminate the mid-ground. If too high, you may end up with too much dead space in the mid-ground, hence the importance of fine tuning.

Leading Lines

Sockeye, Newport Marina, Newport, Oregon EOS 5DSR, 16mm, ISO 400, 1/125 @f/10
Sockeye, Newport Marina, Newport, Oregon
EOS 5DSR, 16mm, ISO 400, 1/125 @f/10

I think most everyone has heard the mantra about leading lines. When you think about it, everything in nature is made up of lines. A meandering stream is actually comprised of two lines, one on each side of the stream. A tree is defined by two lines, one on each edge. Lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Nature is replete with lines and other geometric forms. So in the case of lines, they are often easy to find but be careful in how you use them. To be used most effectively, they should lead the viewer into the image, and in some cases toward the main subject. But most importantly they should support engaging the viewer to explore the image entirely. One mistake photographers make is choosing leading lines that lead the viewer right out of the image.

Of all leading lines, the diagonal line is by far the most powerful. They convey a sense of power and motion. By far they are more dynamic and can give a sense of motion, either upward or downward. When used in conjunction with vanishing point perspective they can be quite effective in directing the eye toward a certain area of the composition and providing that sense of depth.

 

Choice of Lens

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Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon EOS 5DSR, 16mm, ISO 100, 1/6 sec @ f/22

Often someone will ask me what my favorite lens is. After the quick response “the one on my camera”, I go on to say really it is my wide-angle, particularly my 16-35 mm. This ultra-wide angle lens is really great for emphasizing a foreground and using a small aperture to amplify the sense of depth. So I am always looking for opportunities to pull it out of the bag. However, often my 24-105 at the wide end is sufficient in a lion’s share of cases.

One thing to remember when using wide angles is to resist getting too much in the frame. Often times when first getting use to wide-angle perspectives is to include far too much in the composition. After all, by its very nature it includes more and you may have a tendency to want to include as much of the beautiful scene in front of you in the shot. Resist this temptation. A wide-angle lens stretches perspective making objects seem farther apart, while a telephoto will compress elements. As such you should strive to fill the frame when using your wide-angle.

 

Shoot Vertical Orientation at 45° Downward Viewpoint.

Spring outflow, Alley Spring, Shannon County, Missouri EOS 5DSR, 31mm, ISO 200, 3.2 sec @ f/22
Spring outflow, Alley Spring, Shannon County, Missouri
EOS 5DSR, 31mm, ISO 200, 3.2 sec @ f/22

I really don’t mean exactly 45°. The point though is that if you turn your camera to a vertical orientation with a wide-angle lens, tilted slightly down, you can often use this wide perspective to really maximize foreground and leading line techniques while filling the frame. It also alters your focal plane in a way that somewhat mimics a tilt function utilized in large format cameras or modern tilt-shift lenses. This will help get the most of your depth of field and help give prominence to a foreground element, increasing the three-dimensional feeling of the image.

Depth of Field

Appropriate depth of field is critical in landscape photography. If you have a foreground element, taken the time to ensure your composition had a good combination of supporting elements, waited for the right moment and light, it all could be for naught if your depth of field was insufficient to provide sharpness, or apparent sharpness throughout your image.

Selecting the proper aperture and focus point is a key process in preparing to take your image, once you have determined your composition. In fact I suggest to my workshop student that when they have decided on a composition they should first ask themselves, what aperture do I need for this shot? Why this question first? Well, your

Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, MO EOS 5DSR, 24mm, ISO 100, 1.6 sec @ f/22
Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, MO
EOS 5DSR, 24mm, ISO 100, 1.6 sec @ f/22

aperture governs your depth of field. So, if your shot has a prominent foreground element, for example, you know that you need a lot of depth of field to maintain near/far sharpness. Knowing that a smaller aperture (larger f-stop number) will give you this, you decide on say, f16. The next questions is where do I need to focus.

On the focus point, many will say focus 1/3 into the scene. This is based on the point that when you are focused at the hyperfocal distance, your depth of field will extend from half the distance to your focal point to infinity. Personally, while the “focus 1/3 way into the scene will work at times, I find it better to determine the closest point you must have in focus ( near part of your main foreground element) and focus at a point twice that distance. Now, among other things that affect the depth of field is how close you are to the foreground element.

If you are extremely close to your foreground and your background is a distant mountain, you may find that the mountain, even with an aperture of f22 may be a little soft. However, this would likely be acceptable in most cases because with a wide-angle shot, the perspective will still provide enough apparent sharpness for the distant mountain. But you cannot usually get away with a soft foreground element in a landscape image.

Layering and Overlapping

Mount Hood, Oregon EOS 5D Mark III, 400mm, ISO 100, .3sec @ f/11
Mount Hood, Oregon
EOS 5D Mark III, 400mm, ISO 100, .3sec @ f/11

Layering or overlapping can also aid in guiding the viewer through a scene, often encouraging one to view from bottom toward the top. Often you see this in aerial perspective where more distant objects take on a lighter or hazier appearance with less detail. Our mind tends to translate this as those objects being farther away, aiding in feeling of depth.

Vanishing Point

Use of vanishing points to direct the eye is somewhat related to scale. It is a linear perspective in which the point in the distance at which objects become too small to see. Think of railroad tracks that seem to come together in the far distance. We often us vanishing points in

Old Cabin at Falling Springs Mill, Oregon County, MO EOS 5DSR, 46mm, ISO 200, 30 sec, @ f/22
Old Cabin at Falling Springs Mill, Oregon County, MO
EOS 5DSR, 46mm, ISO 200, 30 sec, @ f/22

photography to help direct the eye, using the diminishing scale effect. Vanishing point perspective naturally forms a triangle, which is one reason triangle shapes in nature can act as elements to direct the viewer.

The Context

Considering some the techniques listed above, as well as others, there is additional value in adding that sense of depth and guiding the viewer through your image. You will find that you are not merely “taking a photograph” of a tree, stream, mountain, waterfall, etc., you are adding the context to support the story or feeling you are trying to convey through your final image.

 

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UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FOR 2016/2017

 

Doctor’s Inlet and Little Black Creek…An Old Memory and a Roadside Branch

Little Black Creek Pano
Little Black Creek Pano

 

Couple of times a year I try to get down to Orange Park, Florida to visit my  mom who turned 90 yrs old this past December.  She is doing quite well and I hope I have her energy and heath  when I get to her age, if I make it that long.  Orange Park is just south of Jacksonville, where I grew up.  On my sojourns to Florida I of course always bring along my camera gear and look for new photographic opportunities while there.  Not far from mom’s home is a small community of Dr’s Inlet, which is along a small finger off Doctor’s Lake off  the St. John’s River.

While driving along CR 220 toward Dr’s Inlet I came upon a something I immediately recognized from my childhood.  A sign along the roadside among some old live oaks read “Whitey’s Fish Camp”.  I immediately remembered a time when I was young that my dad used to boat in this area along the St. John’s River and we stayed overnight here on one weekend boat outing.    I recall an old cook coming out of the camp restaurant in the evening and he would

Trash and debris just off the road along Little Black Creek
Trash and debris just off the road along Little Black Creek

entertain the guest by playing wooden spoons like some type of musical instrument with is hands.  I was impressed.   It’s interesting how small things imprint on your mind from childhood.

Just down from Whitey’s I noticed a small branch as I crossed an overpass.  It turned out to be a section of Little Black Creek, another offshoot of Black Creek and the St. John’s River,  just south of Dr’s Inlet.  It looked quite interesting and seemed to exemplify the area’s character.  The water was motionless and the creek had a thick growth of oaks, cypress and sweetgum along the banks.  It was early morning light and the air was quite still, so I had to stop and explore.  I donned my Think Tank harness and belt packed with several lenses and filters, slung my tripod over my shoulder,  and began my exploration.  Unfortunately, in areas like this just off of the highway you’ll find where people have often dumped trash and other items.  This was no exception.  Old tires, a sofa, beer cans, what looked like a washer fluid reservoir from an old vehicle, and other items were scattered about.  I just shook my head in dismay and continued deeper into the thicket to make my way along the creek.

Almost swampy bank of Little Black Creek
Swampy-like bank of Little Black Creek Canon 5DSR, 8 sec, f/16, ISO 200, 24-105mm @ 38mm

As I hiked along the cypress knees, sweetgum balls, and oaks, I could see there was not really a shore line.  It was really more like a swamp.  I could imagine running across maybe a poisonous cotton mouth snake along my walk, or some tropical spider like those I remember from my childhood.  Snakes I have a healthy respect for but spiders just plain creep me out.  Taking my time, moving slowly, I was able to explore possible photographic compositions and stay vigilant for the creepy crawlers.  As I began to photograph a fisherman floated by in his small jon boat.  “Catching anything”, I asked.  “Only a gar so far”,  he replied.  I wondered to myself, what the heck is he going to do with a gar?  Not my kind of eating.  Anyway, he soon moved down stream and I was back to my creative exercise.

Large cypress trees were a dominant feature
Large cypress trees were a dominant feature along the creek Canon 5DSR, 13sec, F/16, ISO 100, 24-105mm @ 35mm

 

I thought a pano shot of the opposite bank might work well to give a feel of the character of this area.  With the perfectly still water I was able to capture the reflections of the tropical like forest along the banks of this creek.  Looked like a good place for a gator to hang out, which would not be unlikely in some of these areas.

A few more images and I noticed the light was changing.  I’m thinking now it’s time for a trip to Starbucks.  I will have to return another time to continue to explore this area.  Certainly some good possibilities and the nearby Whitey’s Fish Camp serves up some great gator tail appetizers.

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Sunburst breaking through the forest as light begins to change

The Annual Prairie Burn

Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn
Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn

The annual Flint Hills prairie burns are again under way.  We are approaching the end of the season and I have posted a few images from this year’s burn workshops.  Background information is reposted from an earlier blog.

Where and What are the Flint Hills?

The Flint Hills – Big sky, expansive landscape, and a horizon that stretches on forever is the beautiful four-million-acre swath of land in eastern Kansas makes up about 80 percent of what is left of the world’s tallgrass prairie, according to the Nature Conservancy. The prairie’s is composed of mostly Big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass, and a geology of limestone and shale.  Historically it was known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills.  Zebulon Pike was an explorer who first coined the name Flint Hills after entering in his journal about “very ruff flint hills”.  It was suggested that over time Flint Hills had a better ring to it than something like Bluestem Pastures.

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Dusk on the Burning Prairie

A Bit about the Flint Hills

It’s written that clay soil and cherty (flint) gravel is what saved the Flint Hills from the plow, While there were some areas used for agriculture during the period between the Civil War and the 1900’s, much has been turned back into pasture. Among Flint Hills folklore, author James Kindall, suggested the Osage Indians, after having been displaces for the third time to what is not the Flint Hills, were pleased about its unsuitability as farmland as the tribe was unlikely to have to move again.

Why do they Burn?

The Prairie Burns
The Prairie Burns

Prairie fires are essential to maintaining the unique ecology of the flint hills. Native Americans used fire on the prairie to generate new growth that attracted bison. And later, with the arrival of cattle in substantial numbers in the 1860s-1870s, burning and grazing, as key range-management methods, have helped maintain the structure and function of the tallgrass ecosystem.

Without the burning practices the prairie, which provide nutrients and help the grasses grow, would become mostly a scrub forest of essentially Eastern Red Cedars and would have little practical use for anything. As such, the ranchers have a springtime ritual, which sustains the lush grasses for the cattle and has come to provide unique and beautiful opportunities for photography. While the winter and spring weather will determine when the burns take place, it usually happens during a period around mid-March through the latter part of April. Last year the burn took place following a two-year hiatus because of drought conditions; though, high spring-time winds can also cause ranches to cancel or postpone  planned burns.

Prairie Burn Photography Workshops

For the last couple of years Craig McCord Photography Workshops teamed with Manhattan Kansas photographer, Jason Soden, conducting several exclusive prairie burn photography workshops. It is really a joyful experience, not only for the great photography involvement, but to get to know the ranchers and their way of life. These folks are true Americans that love their simple but  hard working  lifestyle and are happy to share their stories and experiences with visitors.

Photographers work their creative magic during the burn
Photographers work their creative magic during the burn

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While photographing the burns it was a pleasure to watch young rancher-to-be children participating in the springtime prairie burn ritual. Then later they played and roasted hot-dogs as the elders prepared the cowboy meal for our photography group. As we relaxed around the camp fire enjoying our cowboy meal of pulled pork and all the fixings, including homemade cookies and brownies, we discussed photography and prepared to venture out for the second burn of the day, the dusk burn. This time of day for me is the most exciting, as the flames reach toward a red setting sun that creates cowboys silhouettes against the backdrop of the burning prairie.

This year we are again we  hosted  Flint Hills Prairie burn workshops. First, with the Cowboy Way Ranch, in Westmorland, KS, and a second at the Clover Cliff Ranch and Bed and Breakfast in Elmdale, KS. The Cowboy Way Ranch is a 1,000 acre working ranch offering great photography during the burn, which will be March 19th.  Our final burn workshop this year at the Clover Cliff Ranch is just days ahead.  We are looking forward to another fantastic exclusive photography event.  If you wish to participate in next year’s prairie burn workshops, send me an email at craig@craigmccordphotography.com and I will make sure you get on the list.

Look for Fresh Perspectives

 Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge,
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge

 

This is a classic shot of Multnomah Falls in the popular Columbia River Gorge.  This  highly scenic gorge area replete with lush green trails and beautiful waterfalls is located just outside of Portland, Oregon.  The are begins at the western end of Troutdale, Oregon.  The really scenic drive is along the Historic Columbia River Highway which parallels I-84 east and provides fantastic views of numerous cascading waterfalls and overlooks.  There are well maintained trails along this stretch that lead you to some iconic waterfalls, many within short hikes.

Multnomah Fall #2, Columbia River Gorge, OR
Multnomah Fall #2, Columbia River Gorge, OR

 

There is so much to photograph in the area but it is still easy to take images of the same vantage points we all have soon so many times.  I’m guilty of the same sin, but once we get that shot, we should try to push ourselves to find a different perspective, something to show our own brand on the subject.  Now, this is not always easy for a number of reasons.  Sometimes, such as in the case of Mulnomah Falls,  limitations of access or simply unaccommodating  terrain offers obstacles to overcome.    Nonetheless, continue to push yourself and you might be surprised at the result.

Multnomah Falls Trail, Columbia River Gorge, OR
Multnomah Falls Trail, Columbia River Gorge, OR

After taking a number of what I would call classic compositions of these falls, I moved up the trail and with a little effort  came up with the perspective in “Multnomah Falls #2.  It was not easy because it was hard finding an area where I could get proper clearance for the composition I wanted. After this shot,  I went on then to try to find  supporting images to tell the story of the falls and the trail to the upper part of Multnomah.  Every image does not have to be a fine art piece.  Think of it as a set of images to support your main image and convey a sense of what it would be like for others yet to visit this beautiful area..

 

 

Hope you can join me in June for a fantastic photo adventure along the Oregon coast between Bandon and Newport Oregon.    Oregon Coast, June 4 -12, 2016 Details