Cape Cod Sunset, A Study in Tools Wednesday, Oct 15 2014 

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit Cape Cod, Massachusetts for the first time. It’s a place of quiet fishing villages, trendy tourist destinations and hip hangouts. Since it’s a peninsula, it’s also a very convenient destination for both sunrise and sunset photography – on multiple days, I was able to shoot both golden hours.

In this post, I present three shots taken within moments of each other, with three different cameras. It was a sunset shoot at Rock Harbor, not far from the city of Orleans, MA. The extremely low tide left many tidal pools and exposed sand dunes and grass patches, so there were plenty of ways to experiment with composition.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Film Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Film Camera

First up is my massively reliable medium format camera, Mamiya 7, which was loaded with the legendary Fuji Velvia 50 film. The metering for a sunset scene is never easy, and for a contrasty film like Velvia, I wanted to preserve the highlights, but the shot still ended up quite underexposed — most of the foreground is just too dark. On the other hand, the setting sun and the sky at the horizon have a great color to it, and I love the dark fluffy clouds on top set against the still bright sky. The composition of the foreground is also pleasing, with the patch of grass in the tidal pool. As usual for a shot done on Velvia, I didn’t do much post-processing; I tried to improve the shadows a bit, but not to the point where the photo becomes too grainy.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Digital SLR Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Digital SLR Camera

A few moments later, the sun finally set, but the sky was still pretty bright. This shot was taken by my digital camera, Canon 7D, at the widest setting on my 17-40mm f/4L lens. The composition seems a little different, lower to the ground, and the horizon falls closer to the rule of thirds. The bluish tint is typical for the “blue hour”, but there is still some reddish hues to add interest to the shot. As in the film shot, the tidal pool provides a great reflection, and I like the ripples in the sand, too. I would have liked some more color in the photo, but it still has a nice moody quality – of the three shots, it would probably work the best in black and white. And speaking of quality, even at ISO 800, there is almost no noise or grain in the image.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Smartphone Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Smartphone Camera

Finally, we have the humble smartphone camera; I had with me the Droid Ultra and its 10 megapixel camera, which is more than decent. I metered for the brightest part of the image and let the automatic settings fall where they may. As it happens, I like this shot the best, and it’s partly because of the very wide native format of the camera, which works well with the scene. It’s also very bright, but nothing seems too blown out. There is some chrominance noise in the clouds, but other than that, the shot looks very sharp and clean. I posted it on my Instagram page in its cropped form.

In the end, no one shot is significantly better than the others, but this exercise helps me compare how different cameras see the same scene, so that I can use them more efficiently next time.

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Utah Rocks, Part II: Thor’s Hammer Monday, Dec 9 2013 

In my previous post from the Bryce Canyon National Park, I mentioned a rock formation known as Thor’s Hammer. It is one of the countless “hoodoos” in the main amphitheater of the park, but possibly the most imposing and easily recognizable.

Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

It gets its name from the shape at the top of the spire; through some fortunate geological coincidence, the sedimentary rock at the top of the spire is harder than the one below it, so it eroded less over eons, resulting in the characteristic shape. The rock is porous and the water that seeps in the microscopic cracks expands and contracts during endless daily freeze-thaw cycles, carving stone into hoodoos in the process. Geology meets mythology, you might say.

To get this photo, I simply walked down the path just under the Sunset point. It’s about as close as you can get to the Hammer, as it sticks out from the slope of the canyon. The rising June sun paints it a bright orange color while most of the rest of the amphitheater is still lit indirectly. One thing I love about the amphitheater is the shades of orange and red that it creates as light bounces around in the tight spaces in between the hoodoos.

It seems like Hammer has three siblings who live next door, but they are bunched together, and we’ll see over the next few millenia whether they turn into something quite as imposing as the Hammer. Who knows, maybe by that time the endless freeze-thaw cycles of Bryce Canyon would end Thor’s Hammer as we see it today.

Thor's Hammer At Night

Thor’s Hammer At Night

As it happens, I walked this path around midnight the previous night. The Moon was full and high up in the summer sky and it lit the amphitheater beautifully. There were even guided midnight hiking tours, where visitors got to see a very different Bryce Canyon. I took several digital shots, and was reminded of an old technical problem; without a remote shutter release, I could only take 30-second exposures, unless I wanted to hold my finger on the shutter button for an extended period of time. On top of that, I had to use a pretty narrow f/11 aperture setting, to keep everything sharp, since camera has a hard time getting focus lock in such low light conditions. As a result, I bumped the ISO on my Canon 7D camera to 1600, but it all worked out nicely — photo is sharp and not too noisy, and offers a different perspective of this great looking rock.

Utah Rocks, Part I: Bryce Canyon National Park Friday, Oct 11 2013 

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of my favorite places to watch the sunrise. It’s more of an amphitheater than a canyon, and it’s facing east, so the morning sun lights up the endless rock formations known as hoodoos. The resulting color palette is a sight to behold.

Sentinel, Bryce Canyon National Park

Sentinel, Bryce Canyon National Park

I shot sunrise at Bryce on two separate earlier trips, but when I decided to attend a conference in Las Vegas in June 2013, I knew I would want to do it again. And so, after the conference wrapped up, I rented a car, and made the 4-or-so-hour drive into the mountains of Utah.

I stayed only two nights, which meant two attempts at a sunrise. The first morning I stayed at the rim and shot pretty much the same composition as I did a few years ago. As it happens, that’s been one of my most successful photos ever, so I didn’t improve on it.

Sentinel, Without the Hikers

Sentinel, Without the Hikers

The second morning I decided to walk down the trail and among the hoodoos. The shot was set up so that the Thor’s Hammer, a famous rock formation, was behind me. In front of me was the slender spire called The Sentinel, and some rock cliffs on the right. The horizon to the east was muddled with some clouds, but in a fortuitous moment, the sun shone through and lit the cliffs perfectly.

Sentinel, Without the Sunlight

Sentinel, Without the Sunlight

As it would turn out, in that fortuitous moment, two hikers leisurely walked into the bottom right corner of my frame. Since my Mamiya 7 is a rangefinder camera, I didn’t notice them through the viewfinder, but the lens definitely did, since it sits down and to the right from the viewfinder. I didn’t feel like editing them out until I’m ready to display the photo at an exhibit or something, so I took another shot, shown here in the smaller format. The composition isn’t quite what I’d like, but the colors are still spectacular. In fact, they look even more saturated here due to the fact that I scanned that frame with a little less care than the main photo above.

Another bonus shot is of the same composition, taken while the sun was obscured by the clouds. It’s just another proof of my “Formula” for a successful shot, which states that you need only Fuji Velvia 50 film and “golden hour” sunlight; the subject almost doesn’t matter. Here’s the same subject under two lighting conditions only moments apart, and while it looks nice on one shot, it really comes alive in the other.

Agathla Peak, AZ Wednesday, Oct 3 2012 

When I decided to start the 365 project, I realized I will have to recycle some of the photos I have been posting over the last 5 or so years on my Flickr page. The tougher challenge would have been to actually post a brand new photo every day for a year – and that may be something I can look into next year.

I balance that by often posting more than one photo in each blog post. So, today, I wanted to share three photos from one of the most surprisingly magical places I visited.

Agathla Peak, After Sunset (digital)

Agathla Peak, After Sunset (digital)

This is Agathla Peak, sometimes called El Capitan, and it is a volcanic plug just south of the border between Utah and Arizona. My friends John, Tyler and I were on our way to the Monument Valley a few years ago and couldn’t help seeing this fantastic piece of rock protruding from the ground.

After shooting a sunset at the Monument Valley, we stopped by Agathla on our way back to Page, AZ. That’s where the first photo was made – I made it with my Canon 20D digital camera. Because I didn’t have a remote shutter release, I had to limit the exposure to 30 seconds, using the ISO of 400 and even lightening the photo in post-processing.

Agathla Peak, Day (film)

Agathla Peak, Day (film)

A year later, the three of us were joined by our friend and photographer Scott; this time Agathla wasn’t going to surprise us. We made sure to have enough time to stop there in the afternoon. The second photo was shot on medium format Velvia 50 film, and you see it here pretty much the way it looks like on the slide. I was very proud of it – the composition was great and the moment captured was lovely. Just look at those clouds!

Agathla Peak, Night (digital)

Agathla Peak, Night (digital)

Speaking of clouds, the third photo was taken later that night; the wind was moving the clouds exactly over the tip of Agathla, which became very evident on this 5-minute exposure. That’s no typo – this shot is lit by nothing except the Moon, and it took 5 minutes to get enough light to the camera sensor. You can even see the star trails – that’s how much the stars moved while the photo was being taken. You can tell I was ready to take this photo by the fact that I bought a remote shutter release for my Canon 20D.

Don’t let this rather technical post diminish the fact that this place is just fantastic. It’s nothing but a rock sticking out of the ground, but the combination of its ruggedness and the relative serenity of its immediate surroundings creates a very dramatic image, at any time of day. Or night.

Forum, Rome, Italy Thursday, Sep 27 2012 

The day I went to the Coliseum with my lovely sister was a day that would break lesser travelers in two. Keep in mind, this is after we spent a day exploring squares and alleys of Rome, and wrapped it up by eating gelato at Trevi Fountain; and then another day of intense sight-seeing, which included a bus tour, more walking, and a late dinner.

Forum, with the Temple of Saturn on the left

Forum, with the Temple of Saturn on the left

So, on this day, we walked half a mile or so to catch a bus to take us to Coliseum. After spending several hours up and down the amphitheater, the next destination was going to be Palatine Hill, with all its archeological riches, including the Foro Romano, or Forum.

I may have forgotten to mention that all these days were early July days, with temperatures pushing 100 degrees (or, for European purposes, close to 40). But, the thing about Rome is that it makes you forget how exhausted you are, because it comes at you from all sides with such awesome sites and sights that you forget about everything but how impressed you are with this city.

Arch of Septimius Severus

Arch of Septimius Severus

To me, this was nowhere more evident than at the Forum. This whole area is essentially one large archeological dig that’s still very active. I’ve seen a hole in the ground that was dug up only a few years ago to reveal an elaborate system of rooms that seems to revolve around a central pillar, and a sign next to it which said that not even the scientists fully understand what they found. To have something like that discovered so recently, in the middle of Rome, a stone’s throw from Coliseum, is really remarkable.

And so we pressed on, until very late in the afternoon, walking in footsteps of ancient Romans, through their marketplaces and temples, under their arches, by their columns, next to their walls. No kind of photograph can quite tell the story of how cool it is to be there, even on a 100-degree day.

 Temple of Vesta

Temple of Vesta

This place is my favorite city in the world.

Numbered Beaches, Olympic National Park, Washington, USA Monday, Mar 19 2012 

As I mentioned before, in August 2011 I visited my friend and photographer Tyler in Seattle. He was kind enough to provide me with a tour of nearby National Parks, which he documented quite well over the last few years since he moved into the area.

One day, I’ll tell you a sad story about a very nice sunrise at Mount Rainier, but this story, far less sad, begins later that same day.

After breakfast at Rainier, we broke camp and took a few hours drive west to a quaint little town of Forks, WA, made famous by some teenage vampire novels you may have heard of. We stopped at a few places along the way and took some photos, but the main goal was to get to the Second Beach, a secluded place on the western side of the Olympic peninsula, in time for the sunset.

Third Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

Third Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

And we did, or so we thought. The First, Second and Third beaches are adjacent lagoons, each with its own trail leading back to the main road to La Push, WA. But, since it was an afternoon of a long day when we drove by, we didn’t realize we took the trail for the Third beach until we hit the sand, a mile or so later.

Twilight-themed signs at a restaurant in Forks, WA

Twilight-themed signs at a restaurant in Forks, WA

Which was just as well, because it was a perfectly lovely place, and the dying light of the day provided great back lighting to the distant sea stacks. I started a new roll of Fuji Velvia film with two sunset shots, of which I prefer this one, with more dramatic clouds and nice reflection in the water. I wish I had a longer lens than the normal 80mm on my Mamiya 7 medium format camera, or that I were closer to the distant sea stacks, but it still ended up being a very nice photo.

We went back among the werewolves and vampires (see phone camera photo), regrouped and tried again in the morning to find the Second beach. When we got there, I saw why Tyler wanted us to go there in the first place. Massive sea stacks dominated the landscape, and an extremely low tide revealed many of the smaller rocks, and billions of muscle shells clinging on to the rock.

Second Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

Second Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

Spoiling the fun were the Pacific Northwest clouds which obscured the rising sun. We still tried to make the best of it and trotted around the beach and among the rocks, and made a few photos along the way. I changed films from the high-contrast Fuji Velvia to the lower contrast Ilford Delta 100. The overcast sky and the lingering fog gave the scene a moody feeling, which I ended up enjoying.

Although remote, Olympic National Park is well worth the trip – in this post, I didn’t even mention the central part of the park with rainforests, river valleys and dramatic waterfalls, like the Sol Duc Falls. By the time we got back to civilization, the weather cleared up very nicely. As a bonus from the visit, during our stop at a Starbucks I ended up picking up Hugh Laurie’s excellent CD “Let Them Talk“, which I like almost as much as these photos.

Half Dome, Sunset No. 4 Saturday, Jun 26 2010 

I have photographed Half Dome innumerable times, but it is never the same Half Dome, never the same light or the same mood. – Ansel Adams

My main image of Yosemite was El Capitan, with Half Dome being only a distant second. Nevertheless, after five days in the park, I didn’t even realize that we shot Half Dome during each of the five sunsets. We snapped dozens of shots more, from the valley, from the Mist Trail, and from anywhere else we could. It quickly became the focal point of the trip, the main star of the show. Some of those shots are coming soon, but I wanted to post this one before all others.

Half Dome, Sunset No. 4

This was Sunset No. 4, when we drove up Glacier Point Road, but only to the trailhead to the Sentinel Dome. After an easy 1-mile hike, we came to the bare granite clearing at the top of Sentinel Dome, which towers over all of the Yosemite Valley and offers unbelievable 360-degree view of the Eastern Sierras.

We got there early enough and snapped around, but then the sky lit up and the golden hour followed. This shot follows The Formula, which says it’s not even that important what you shoot during this kind of light. But, the glory of Half Dome just elevates this to another level.

Another reason I like this shot so much is that it was taken with my 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, which was simply in love with Half Dome. Several great closeups of the peak are waiting to be posted soon. Until then, here’s a bonus shot, taken 15 minutes after the one above. The sun has set, but the clouds were glowing in shades of pink, and some of that light was reflecting on the stony face of Half Dome. If you ever get a chance to witness the sunset from Sentinel Dome, don’t miss it.

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