The subtle art of floating away – twilight at Crater Lake National Park

Summertime at Crater Lake tends to be either perfectly clear or hopelessly cloudy, and the few days I spent at the lake this past summer were no exception. In reality, what I was seeking was a perfect mix of clear and cloudy, enough clouds to blow up with color in the pre-dawn light and provide some mysterious drama, but enough clear patches to have a sprinkling of stars shining through. Of course my best-of-both-worlds hopes didn’t materialize, so I’ll happily attempt to get that shot another time: it’s just another excuse to make a trip to Crater Lake.

Technical details:

This is three exposures taken chronologically as follows: The first was taken for the stars, the second was taken for the sky, and the third was taken for the land, all before the sunrise.

Other notes:

In the next couple of weeks I’ll be announcing my 2016 workshop schedule, which will include either one or two workshops at Crater Lake in which I’ll cover my techniques for sunset, twilight, and full-on night photography. I’ll be covering these techniques via lecture in a classroom setting, then field work at Crater Lake National Park, and then back to the classroom for post-processing.

If you’re interested in learning these techniques from me, I urge you to sign up for my workshop newsletter over here. These workshops are set up in a small-group format, and I try to teach my techniques both as a technical and as an artistic (fine art) endeavor.

Additionally, if you prefer to strap on some snowshoes and capture Crater Lake with a coat of white snow, I am available for private lessons this winter at Crater Lake–message me for details.

Crater Lake's rim glows in the pre-dawn light as stars sparkle overhead. Prints available here. Click for larger view.

Crater Lake’s rim glows in the pre-dawn light as stars sparkle overhead. Prints available here. Click for larger view.


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The holdout – photographing sea stacks at Samuel Boardman State Park (Oregon)

I don’t often get an opportunity to photograph Oregon’s beautiful southern coast, so when my crowded schedule cleared a bit earlier this week I seized the moment and made the long drive. Known for its numerous state parks and its indefatigable sea stacks, the southern Oregon coast is a seascape photographer’s playground.

During the light of day, the dirt trails that cut through Samuel Boardman State Park are safe enough, if you pick your route carefully, can avoid tripping over exposed tree roots, and have shoes with good enough grip to avoid dirt-skiing down a hill and launching into the churning ocean.

But as is often the case, at night the coast’s hidden coves and thickly wooded trails turn inky black and shadows become impenetrable. The speed of foot travel becomes highly dependent upon the luminosity of your headlamp, and some scrambling, including climbing ladder-like tree roots upward, is required. And if you’re like me, occasionally, when you shut off your headlamp and wait for your camera’s long exposure, you’ll wobble and gyrate in the dark, feet rooted in place to ensure that you don’t take an ill-fated step in the wrong direction in an effort to check your balance.

In other words, this isn’t a place to visit with someone you even remotely suspect of harboring a grudge against you. Luckily for me, I was joined by Matt Newman, a talented southern Oregon photographer who had a little more experience with Samuel Boardman’s trails than I had and was willing to show me around a bit.

Technical details:

This is a blend of three images all taken in low-light conditions. The first was a very long exposure taken half an hour post-sunset with a neutral density filter to ensure that a certain amount of natural long-exposure saturation occurred in the twilight sky. The second was taken just a few minutes later without an ND filter to ensure that some of the darker areas of the photo had adequate shadow detail. The third exposure was taken just for the stars.

Breaking waves sound like thunder as the sun sets on a misty evening in Oregon's Samuel Boardman State Park.

Breaking waves sound like thunder as the sun sets on a misty evening in Oregon’s Samuel Boardman State Park. Click the photo for full size. Prints available here.


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An ode to disappointment (or RIP, little quad copter)

The Pacific Northwest has more capes than Comic-Con, each of them with exotic and descriptive names. But my favoritely (not a word) named cape (a headland or a promontory of large size extending into a body of water, usually the sea, in case you wanted to know the definition) has to be Cape Disappointment, an area on the southwest Washington coast that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to beautiful views of lighthouses, but has been known to have terrible weather. And sometimes it even eats quad copters.

Last week’s weather forecast for the coast looked incredible–almost too perfect. Clear skies and low humidity promised an amazing view of the night sky. I learned a long time ago that there’s no such thing as a slam dunk when it comes to night photography in Oregon or Washington, but every forecast I saw said that it couldn’t get any more clear.

On my way, a thick marine layer met me in Seaside and left me briefly concerned, enough that I almost turned around after over an hour of driving. However, the skies cleared and my spirits soared as I neared Astoria. I clicked through my mental checklist of photos that I was going to take at Cape Disappointment that night while crossing the Astoria-Megler bridge into Washington. Nothing could stop me. However, after arriving at the North Head parking lot at Cape Disappointment, I was met with a surprisingly hard wind that only got worse whens I made my way through a grove of trees to an open bluff where the lighthouse sits.

I set up my gear, but several blurry photos informed me that my normally sturdy tripod couldn’t hold steady during the 40-mph gusts, even with my 20-some pound backpack hanging from it as ballast. My grand plans were being blown away. I realized that a lot of the compositions I wanted simply would not be available to me because I was too exposed.

I had to find cover from the wind, so I sought out different compositions and eventually found a couple spots that offered some protection, at least to the point where my tripod was no longer quaking. I took my sunset photos, and then recomposed for twilight and waited.

Shortly afterward, a couple of guys with a quad copter showed up. The sun was below the horizon, and the sky was darkening quickly. I watched them trot by the path in front of me over to the lighthouse, eager to prepare their drone (I’m assuming there was a camera of some kind on board) for what would’ve been a beautiful set of aerial photos. The sun’s remaining light was breathtaking, and the lighthouse itself was beautifully lit. It was a perfect evening. Except for the wind.

After a quick setup, the quad copter took off, reaching about 50 feet in altitude. Then it began to list like a boat taking on water as the winds quickly pushed it away from North Head, until it was hanging 100 foot above the ocean. The guy flying the drone had no way to put it down without crashing it into the sea, so he kept it aloft until it was over Deadman’s Hollow and Long Beach and was probably over half a mile away. As it got dark, I lost site of the drone. The guys left soon thereafter–presumably to look for their missing equipment–with noticeably different body language from when they had arrived.

I waited around for the stars to come out, and then I grabbed a few more photos, but I was still having a lot of problems with the wind. A couple hours after sunset the winds still hadn’t died down. My eyes were dry and irritated, my face felt chapped, and my equipment and I were covered in blown sea spray. I decided to pack up and leave. I turned my back to the wind and let it propel me down the path back to my car. As I walked the dark trail, far down below on Long Beach I saw a couple of flashlights scanning the sands. They still hadn’t found their drone.


The North Head lighthouse glows at twilight, Cape Disappointment, Washington.

The North Head lighthouse glows at twilight, Cape Disappointment, Washington. Prints available here.

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Rainier blows up

My six-year-old son and I both agreed that this was a “top-10 sunset.” I know that a six-year-old’s opinion doesn’t usually hold much weight, but my son’s seen a few sunsets in his day. This one exploded for nearly 45 minutes, bathing us in various shades of orange-red light.

At home, he routinely interrupts me from staring at my computer monitor so that he can excitedly drag me to our west-facing window and point out some pink-purple clouds. “Our favorite sunset colors” is a topic of conversation that has regularly come up in the past few years. Last summer we spent nearly three weeks on the road, staying up late, waking up early, checking out over half a dozen national parks, and talking a lot about photography. This summer we didn’t make it out quite so much.

Every once in a great while I feel a tinge of envy when I see posts from young, single photographers who have the opportunity to run off at a moment’s notice. While they chase sunsets, I’m often chasing kids around a playground. While they breezily travel to far-flung locales on a whim, I’m intricately planning out how I can get away for a night.

And every once in a while I find myself in the right place for a take-your-breath-away, the-sky-is-on-fire sunset. Long ago I thought it would be a good idea to carry a camera to capture those moments so that others could appreciate them, later. But it’s also nice to have a small person at my side who stops poking at the dirt with his stick to yell, without any pretense, “this is incredible,” not because he’s been coached to do such a thing, or because he feels that the exclamation is expected of him, but because he’s thrilled to be there in the moment, seeing an incredible sunset. With me.

Mt Rainier bathes in soft light at sunset, as the White River runs below.

Mt Rainier bathes in soft light at sunset, as the White River runs below. Click to view full-size photo. Prints available here.

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A night with an old friend

"Equilibrium," a whitebark pine hangs on the rim of Crater Lake by its roots, while the Milky Way spins overhead.

“Equilibrium,” a whitebark pine hangs on the rim of Crater Lake by its roots, while the Milky Way spins overhead; prints available here.


I took a physical geography class years ago, and the main thing I took away from it was that wind and water are the Earth’s primary erosive forces. And Crater Lake’s not lacking for either of them.

Crater Lake in summertime is very different than Crater Lake during any other season, mostly because the place is buried in snow from early fall through late spring (if not longer). To a certain extent, that snowy winter coat protects some of the native trees and plants. But the water resulting from 10 feet of snow melting can move a lot of soil around. Once the trees are unburied they’re subjected to Crater Lake’s infamous wind. When the wind gusts at over 30 mph, the top layer of that volcanic soil takes flight, and you can feel its sting against your shins (if you happen to be out there in shorts) or even your arms and face. In these harsh conditions, figuring out the reason why many of the rim’s whitebark pines have become denuded of their bark over time doesn’t take a lot of imagination.

Unfortunately, man’s presence further accelerates the process. We move soil (both inadvertently and on purpose), trample plants that would better secure the soil to the ground, and some of us will even climb on some of these ancient trees in order to get a good selfie. The phrase “loved to death” springs to mind, but I would never begrudge anyone the opportunity to experience Crater Lake’s beauty in the same ways that I have (although I’ve never climbed any trees in the park).

At some future point, this spot may be closed to the public so that restoration can take place. At some other future point, this tree will likely fall into the crater, a (hopefully) natural act that was to some degree partially hastened by my many trips to photograph the tree. And at some long future point, if diseases like blister rust and insects like the mountain pine beetle win out, whitebark pines on the rim of the lake will cease to exist at all.

These seem like slow-moving or outright invisible processes, but I’m always surprised at the changes I see in these trees year over year: an extra twist in the bark, a more-exposed root, a fracture in an exposed root that was likely caused by a human’s weight. It’s these little changes that motivate me to go check in with these old trees, my old friends, to see how they’re holding up. And in the process I take another photo and make another memory.

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TWAN Earth and Sky Photo Contest (third place!)

Big news, everyone! I’m delighted to announce that my photo “A raising of the hackles” won third place in The World at Night’s (TWAN’s)¬† 6th annual Earth and Sky Photo Contest. This is really exciting for me because, for one, I see TWAN as doing important work: It’s easy to point out the differences among all of us (and when I say “us,” I mean the people of the world), but it’s much more difficult to show how alike we are and to reveal how much we have in common. TWAN blends science and the arts to deliver the message that we all share the same night sky, not just visually in the form of stargazing but culturally as well.

Second, I look up to this organization and its members and photographers greatly. If you follow the link to the TWAN page take a moment, scroll down, and check out the contest judges and their work–impressive stuff.

Third, night-sky photography is still a niche form of photography, a subgenre of a subgenre, but it’s gaining in popularity every day. Even in the last five years, I’ve seen a major change of behavior among landscape photographers: They’re sticking around after the sun goes down. I was at a popular location at Mt St Helens Saturday night, and I swear I only saw two photographers leave after the golden hour. At least 15 photographers stuck around to shoot stars. Five years ago, those numbers would’ve been reversed. This TWAN contest represents the very best of my favorite type of photography and is an annual benchmark to see how high the bar has been raised. It’s an honor to be included.


The moon and the Milky Way rise over the eastern horizon of Crater Lake on a frozen winter night. Prints available.

“A raising of the hackles,” third place winner, Beauty of the Night Sky category, The World at Night 6th annual Earth and Sky photo contest. Big, beautiful prints of this photo are available for purchase here.

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Mossy Grotto Falls

“A return to splendor”

I really had to restrain myself from titling this one “Where the sun don’t shine.” This is the (in)famous Mossy Grotto Falls on Ruckel Creek (Columbia River Gorge, Oreegon), and this was during my first visit, which happened to be solo. This is one of the more verdant areas I’ve been to, and I can’t help but think my springtime visited was well-timed, with really amazing moss, some great-looking ferns, and very little visual evidence that others had recently visited.

Finding my way there wasn’t something I’d classify as “easy,” despite directions from photographers (I’m looking at you, Terence Lee) such as “take the trail that goes to the right” where there’s absolutely no obvious trail.

This off-trail portion didn’t so much require a willingness for adventure as much as a willingness to embrace poison oak with open arms. And ticks. Anyway, after I descended a fairly steep rocky chute with a bunch of loose rocks, downed trees and branches, and some vines, I made my way back to the creek, which I followed to this falls.

By this time it was mid-morning, so there was a fair amount of harsh lighting streaming in from the sun. This required two exposures–one that captured most of the dynamic range and another that was about three stops lower to re-collect the exceptionally bright highlights. After a couple of attempts, blending the exposures with luminosity masks proved to be too difficult, so I manually blended the exposures. Further post-processing mostly involved extensive contrast adjustments using luminosity masks. Finally I pulled out an unused and fairly underexposed frame so that I could mask in non-moving ferns in a couple of places, although for the most part this little grotto was breeze-free.


Mossy Grotto Falls is resplendent in its spring greens.

Mossy Grotto Falls is resplendent in its spring greens; click to view full size; prints look beautiful if I say so myself, and they’re available here.

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An evening at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is windy. Despite the malfunctioning weather display at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center claiming 1-2 mph wind speeds, the whole time I was exploring for this photo I was blasted with unrelenting (I’m estimating here) 25 mile-per-hour winds, with the occasional 10-second-long gust that caused me to check my balance. Strangely, the wind pummeling me was out of the south (to the camera’s left), whereas the clouds moving over the Panamint Range (the mountains pictured here) were moving from west to east. Of course, I was at around 200 feet below sea level, and the highest point of the Panamint Range rises 11,000 feet higher.

Several times I left my car on the side of the road and trudged the quarter mile or so into the Badwater Basin area, going to a point where I didn’t see many other footprints. I spent about three hours on the flats, scouting different areas and compositions and exploring the strange mud formations. Eventually, when I found what I was looking for, I just took a seat and waited for the light to get better.

At one point while I was shooting (or as most people call it, “waiting”), a large flying bug buzzed by my ear. It was completely out of control, carried away with the wind, its body turned 90 degrees from the direction it was actually traveling. The insect’s undersized wings did nothing to change its large body’s direction, no matter how madly it flapped. Several more bugs “flew” by in the same manner. It was tragicomic.

Without a book to read or an Internet for my phone to connect to, I started thinking about the bugs, wondering if they got frustrated with the wind. Their task was Sisyphean, but it occurred to me that they probably didn’t care. With the ability of ants to carry hundreds of times their own body weight over their heads, I doubt there’s an analog for Sisyphus in the insect world. These tiny careening bugs of Death Valley were supposed to fly, so they did, regardless of the outcome or the progress. As I sat there, waiting, I started to see value in going about my daily tasks with bug-like effort.

The clouds crowding the western horizon looked like they were going to pummel the sunset into oblivion, and despite my new-found resolve to go about my photography in a bug-like way, I started to get a little bummed. Eventually, though, the light got weird-interesting, not perfect or even what I had imagined good light looking like in this particular setting. But small holes in the clouds created bright, sharply defined rays of light over the mountains, just enough goodness that I was able to appreciate it in the moment and feel like my efforts to get to this spot had not been wasted.

I started thinking about how this tiny bit of joy mixed with relief was very un-bug-like. Those flying insects I saw earlier probably feel no joy when they overcome an obstacle or meet a goal. Sure, they likely don’t feel defeated by setbacks, real or imagined, but don’t these setbacks amplify feelings of accomplishment if goals are eventually met? And even if the goals are never met, isn’t there some merit in perseverance or in actively, consciously cultivating a cast-iron resolve? And besides, has anyone ever seen a colony of ants pause to admire a nice sunset?

A denuded branch sits on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park.

A denuded branch sits on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Prints available here. Click for larger size.

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The Pillars of Rome and Milky Way

I just got back from a week-long roadtrip around southeastern Oregon with my family. We had a great time despite breathing a lot of desert dust, doing a little damage to both our car and our tiny camping trailer (southeastern Oregon is not kind to people or vehicles in general), and getting skunked (photographically speaking) for the first half of the trip.

One of our stops put us in Rome, Oregon, a tiny valley hamlet along the Owyhee River. There wasn’t much to the place, really. There’s a boat put-in for the river, a general store with gas and some camping (and one of the top-5 worst cups of coffee I’ve ever sipped), and a chunk of land north of town called “The Pillars of Rome,” where surprisingly unique and interesting rock formations erupt from the ground and tower over the dusty landscape, which is mostly filled with scrub brush and cows. The crumbly clay structures have a number of fossils embedded in them and apparently were a landmark to pioneers, who likely paused for a moment to admire their grandeur before deciding that there was no way they were going to homestead anywhere near there.

Because our gazetteer had a tiny camping symbol at the BLM’s boat put-in, we assumed we could trailer-camp there, although a gate at the gravel road’s entrance and a sign near a grassy spot stating “Do not place tents on grass – Day Use Only” hinted that maybe our gazetteer was wrong. The only other option was camping at the general store half a mile down the road. We decided to roll the dice and camp at the boat put-in anyway, knowing full well that there was a chance that I would return from shooting in the middle of the night with the car and find that the gate would be closed, thereby preventing me from getting back to our camp trailer and my family. It wouldn’t have been the first time I would’ve slept in my car, but luckily it never came to that, as the gate was still open when I got back.

And this was a good thing, as the general store, for some reason, had lit their camp area to near-daylight proportions with the use of two extremely bright sodium-vapor lights. The lights were so bright, actually, that when they turned on a little past sunset, I thought the BLM’s boat put-in had lights in its parking lot. But no, these were lights from the general store. Half a mile away. I’m not sure how anyone in the general store’s RV park got any sleep without blackout curtains and sleep masks.

Despite the obnoxious lighting practices of the general store, Rome has some extremely dark skies, which is great for photographers like me who enjoy photographing the night sky. The result of one of my photos is below.

Technical details: This is two exposures, one for the sky and one for the foreground, taken back to back, and blended carefully in Photoshop. This is the true position of the Milky Way at the moment in time in which the photos were taken.


The Milky Way over Rome, Oregon.

The spring Milky Way wheels through the dark skies of tiny Rome, Oregon, where just north of town the rock formations “The Pillars of Rome” impose on the dry landscape. Prints available here.





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The alpha and the omega – Finalist in the Smithsonian’s 12th annual photo contest

Exciting news! My photo “The alpha and the omega,” a shot of North Cascade National Park’s Liberty Bell Mountain shot at sunset, is a finalist in The Smithsonian Magazine’s 12th Annual Photo Contest. We’ll find out at the end of the month how it did, but in the meantime, if you’d like to assist me in winning $500 for the “Reader’s Choice prize,” I would appreciate your assistance in voting for my photo. Just follow the link here, add your email address, and voila! Good things could happen!


A stream meanders through a meadow, North Cascades National Park.

A stream meanders through a meadow at sunset, North Cascades National Park.

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