Wednesday, November 9, 2016


It always amazes me that even against insurmountable odds life finds a way to live. Located atop of Dance Hall Rock down the Hole in the Rock Road in Escalante National Monument, this area supports about a half dozen trees like this. The great photographer Guy Tal made this locale famous in his book Intimate Portraits of the Colorado Plateau. I made this image on an overcast day in early spring. Many of the dirt roads were still closed and impassable this time of year, and indeed some of the higher elevations still had a foot or more of snow. Dance Hall Rock is an interesting formation that makes a natural amphitheater.  The rock got its name from the 19th century Mormon Settlers that used it to hold square dances.  You can sit there and just imagine the sound of fiddles, guitars and banjos echoing throughout the canyon.  Petticoats spinning, and girls giggling at young men courting their hearts out.  Just as the Mormon settlers did, this tree ekes out a living in this high desert environment, persistent against the odds.

Lady in a Tub

Lady in a Tub

The last leg of our Escalante loop found us in the Valley of the Gods, just outside of Mexican Hat, Utah.  It's a great place to get the feel of Monument Valley, without the crowds.  It's a sixteen mile loop that winds through red sand stone monoliths.  You can take a self guided tour and drive the loop in about an hour, or stay in one of the few campsites overnight. Since we were coming from the Burr Trail up north we had to progress down the perilous switchbacks called the Moqui Dugway. Just at the bottom of the hill is the road to Valley of the Gods.  Of course the sign only faces the opposite direction so we soon discovered that we past the turn off.  We realized after consulting the GPS and map that we had to turn around. We were running out of time,  the sun was going down,  already making the most beautiful glow on the rocks. It wasn't long until we found a great campsite at the edge of a mesa.  I took the opportunity to capture some sunset images.  After a little dinner and campfire, we settled in this gorgeous area.  Just as dusk had fallen I began to realize the 3/4 moon was beginning to become visible along with Venus.  It was a large orb floating in a beautiful gradient blue sky, perfectly aligned with one of the famous monoliths, the so-called Lady in a Tub.   I snapped images, as Kristi watched the moon slowly lower itself below the horizon.  The light was such that I was able to capture some detail in the moon's shadow.   The moon travels quickly and I had to find a shutter speed that froze the motion, and capture enough light to keep it from being blurry.  We left the next morning during the sunrise, but I captured some more images on the way out. Only having spent one night in the Valley of the Gods, I was blessed with a spectacular display of light for the duration. My only regret was that we didn't spend another night there.  We definitely will be back though.

Valley of the Gods

Notom Window

Sometimes a new feature comes along that really makes your work easier. This is the case with the latest update to Lightroom. Adobe just released a new version of Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC 2015, depending on your subscription model. Along with adding the ability to access your graphics processor to speed the Develop module, the other features are what got me excited. They added a new HDR and Panoramic features, among others. I just had to try them out with images from my last trip to Escalante. The first image below was made by light painting the foreground rocks with a large Mag Lite. I like the incandescent warm color that this flashlight emits. I used my Nikon D800e on a high iso to capture the static stars at 20mm f2.8 iso1000 for 30 seconds. I also used a cooler colored headlamp behind the arch to illuminate the underside, to better accentuate the hole. Another image was made for the startrails. In this case my settings were 20mm f2.8 iso100 for 30 minutes. I had my camera set on dark frame subtraction or long exposure noise reduction. This is where the camera takes a photo of equal length to read the noise level from the sensor, then in camera subtracts this level from the previous image. This allows me to take a long exposure with relatively low noise. Now I could have spent some time blending the two exposures in Photoshop, something I had become adept at. But this time I thought I'd try the new HDR function in Lightroom 6. Typically this function would be for high dynamic range scenes, bracketed in camera for the different exposures; darks, midtones, and highlights. This time I got a wild hair, and thought why wouldn't it work for nightscapes.

Well it turns out it did work, and pretty well. The cool thing Adobe did with this feature was use the camera RAW data, and export it as another RAW format DNG, or digital negative. The algorithm used ALL the data from the two exposures. It recovered details in all but the darkest shadows, and seamlessly blended the startrails right over the static stars. How it knew to do that without complex masking, I may never know. What I do know is that I can take this new DNG file and more fully bring my vision to reality using the rest of the filters and brushes offered in Lightroom. When you preconceive an image you would like to make, it takes time and thought to bring it to fruition. It has often been said that making of an image is a two part process. The first being the creative process. This is the process where a photographer must understand his tools enough to realize what could be done to make a successful image. At that point the photographer can free himself to experiment, and to loose ones self in the moment. It can also be that point when you can have a vision. A vision of how this image could look by the end of the second part of the process. The second part of this process is the developing process. This is done in software and it is used to finalize that vision into a polished piece of art. This new version of Lightroom is making steps to really aid photographers by saving them time and letting them focus on the vision and not on the software or time consuming processes. Nice.

Alstrom Point

My first introduction to Alstrom Point was from a photograph I had seen at an art fair in Flagstaff. The artist had a gorgeous triptych of Gunsight Butte at dusk printed on large clear coated aluminum panels. It left such an impression on me that I decided I had to go there and create my own version. After doing some research I realized that the trip wasn't just a short hike from a parking lot off the road, like the infamous Horseshoe Bend. It was a full blown adventure, much like Toroweap or Point Sublime in the Grand Canyon. Such adventures require some research and careful planning for both weather and road conditions. Travel too early in the season and you run the risk of road closures due to mud & snow, too late in the season and it's well, hot. Hot and no access to the water. I decided to take the trip in mid-March during Spring Break, so it could coincide with my girlfriend Kristi's time off from teaching school. It was also the inaugural official maiden voyage for the completion of a dream project.  I just completed a camper van build.  Its a four -wheeled drive Ford Econoline van that I installed a pop top from a VW Eruovan Westfalia. You can find the build out detailed in my blog: Topographic Escapades- Meet Jupiter After a year of painting, welding and cabinet building it was time to go on our first adventure. For fifteen years Kristi and I have been camper-vanning in a 76 Vw Campmobile. It was great, but this new van will let us go even further off the beaten track, in more comfort and with more convenience than before.  It wasn't the shake down cruise, that was back in October to the North Rim. No, this was the full on sink or swim Atlantic crossing. Alstrom Point was the first night's destination on a loop trip through the Escalante -Grand Staircase and Capitol Reef areas in southern Utah.

  Besides the information I gathered from the internet, including TOPO maps GPS coordinates, and driving instructions I stopped at the BLM Visitors center in Big Water, UT. They were able to provide me with more information, better driving directions and road conditions for not only Smoky Mountain road, but other roads in Escalante National Monument. Plus they have other interesting stuff like fossils and interpretative displays. The road to Alstrom Point is considered a class 3 high clearance vehicle road.  It starts out of Big Water and winds 25 miles to a point high over Lake Powell with a view of Gunsight Butte and the sacred Navajo Mountain.   The road was well maintained for the first fifteen miles or so, the next five were pretty rutty, and the last five out to the point was on rough slickrock and really slow going. Just after leaving Big Water you have to cross Wahweap Creek. At the time, there was probably six inches of water in the creek and I splashed right through it. I can imagine at different times it could range from being dried up to raging from monsoonal moisture. Here the gravel road is graded and smooth. You can make some good time, but don't forget to look around.

There are some very interesting buttes and cliffs made of a mixture of blue/gray and red rocks. If you are savy you may be able to find some hoodoos and toadstools worthy of stopping and photographing. Eventually the road begins to narrow, and become rutty. You will pass some turn offs to some hiking trails, and Ice Cream Canyon, one of the few places you can drive down to the water and camp on the beach. A few years back I took that route in my 4-Runner. You will definitely need four wheel drive low and to air down there, as the drive is in deep sand. Calling a tow truck will cost several hundred dollars, so the proper equipment and knowledge is invaluable. Eventually you will come to a sign pointing the way to Alstrom Point. The road actually gets smoother here as you drive the top of the mesa toward the point. Soon you will arrive at some slickrock. You can probably take a passenger car to this point, but I wouldn't try to go any further. There is a small view point that would make a good place to park and hike the remainder 2 miles.

If you keep going the trail proceeds up hill in a mixture of slickrock and sand. This is where you need at least a high clearance vehicle and momentum. There are some less popular view points to consider visiting, but we kept on, playing leap frog with some side by side ATVs all the way to the end. Not having lashed down the fridge and cabinets properly, we hit a huge bump and dumped the all the contents onto the floor. Two beers broke open and were hissing streams of beer all over. Should have put some duct tape on...doh! Not to be defeated, we quickly drank the remainder of the beer, cleaned up and crawled our way to the point. The view was spectacular. We stood there with the other members of the ATV party exchanging platitudes and quips. One gentleman asked how we liked the camper van, and another asked where we'd be staying the night. My response was "Right here Baby!" Then I told them about the beers breaking open, and we all had a little laugh. It wasn't long before they left and we had the point to ourselves. We set up camp and settled in. Kristi prepared dinner, and I began photographing until well after sunset.

I traversed the point back and forth looking for different angles to shoot. My gear consists of a Nikon D800e, and two lenses, an ultra wide 14-24mm f2.8 and the all purpose 24-120mm f4 zooms. I mounted the camera on a large sturdy Gitzo tripod, worthy of such heavy glass. I like to work a scene with one lens, then switch to another lens, then move on repeating the lens on and off procedure. Probably not the most efficient method but when I get to work, I enter a creative zone where feeling and emotion drive the creative process. I could zoom in on Gunsight Butte with one lens then take in the whole scene with the wide angle. I am constantly experimenting with foreground inclusion or isolating a particular point of interest. I also made some panorama images with both the wide and all-purpose lenses.

When using an ultra wide lens there is a certain amount of wide angle distortion that has to be corrected in post- processing. Sometimes there may be too much distortion, or cropping to be done to make an effective image. Another way around this is to take multiple shots and pan the camera from shot to shot, then blend them together at home with software. You have to be careful to have the shots overlap about one third of the frame. This lets the software identify and match like features, then align the images into a string, or panorama. I like to tilt the camera to the portrait orientation for this method and capture a series of vertical shots, all the while trying to keep the horizon level. The more images and data collected in the field, the better chance you have of creating a successful image at home on the computer.

Alstrom Point is what I would consider a sunset destination. Sunrise would keep Gunsight Butte in shade, while overexposing the sky. This scenario is almost impossible to deal with due to the limitations of the dynamic range of a camera. Sunset, however, positions the sun behind the camera and illuminates the scene and sky with a much narrower range. Once the sun goes down, then the real magic begins to happen. You can leave the shutter open for longer periods of time, and capture colors not even seen with the naked eye. If you were to continue into the night be sure to have clear skies. You can capture a beautiful array of stars and even the Milkyway. Don't be concerned with light pollution from Page. If you are facing East, the city will be behind you and may even help to illuminate the buttes. The Alstrom Point trip was a trip that rivaled the Tuweep campground of the Grand Canyon. A remote corner of Lake Powell will treat the adventurous spirit with the best that the Southwest has to offer. Beautiful sunsets, sweeping vistas of layered canyons, buttes reflecting in the water of Lake Powell and if you're lucky, a bit of solitude. There are no facilities there, and if you do decide to camp for the night please follow the leave-no-trace edict. Alstrom Point is still un-spoiled, so please show some respect if not for Mother Earth, then for the families that will come to visit after you.