A few days ago I went with a group of friends to meet up with Tara Magpusao in Tuolumne Meadows. She had just completed hiking a big portion of the John Muir Trail on a solo adventure. Debbie and I had hopes of photographing Elizabeth Lake since it was fairly close by and the conditions were absolutely perfect. It was a wonderful surprise that Tara and some of our other friends were willing to keep hiking with us for the next few miles.
The original plan was to get to Elizabeth Lake much earlier, scout around, and wait for the light to be right. A car mishap thwarted that idea hours earlier near Pleasanton, California. I probably knocked this loose somewhere in the Hollister back country on a related trip a couple of days earlier.
The idea was to get there with enough time to spare so that we could cook some dinner while waiting. It’s only a 4.6 mile hike but with all of the photography gear, dinner, cook kits, etc that meant lugging around something over 25 pounds of gear uphill to about 9500 feet. That’s just 900 feet in elevation from our starting point but I really start feeling the change in altitude once I’m over 9000 feet. (Side note to my friends everywhere else in the world: yes I know “feet”, “miles”, and “pounds” are stupid. I wish we could adequately use the metric system. Funny thing is that when I go running I think in terms of meters for shorter distances.)
I’ve been doing more landscape photography using telephoto lenses recently. They’re very good not only for bringing the subject closer, but also for isolating the subject. In this case the sky above wan’t very interesting, so I planned to crop it out in camera to include more granite and less bland sky above the subject. This was photographed using a Canon 5d Mk III and a Canon 70-200 f/4; f/16 at 200mm. I wanted the trees in the foreground while the granite in the background would have enough detail to be visually interesting. I probably could have done this at f/8 but at the moment I wanted a bit more detail in the background than f/8 would have given me at 200mm.
It’s no big secret that I love being physically active, outdoors, and probably doing something that takes some real effort. Yesterday I joined a group of friends for a long day hike to Berry Creek Falls nestled deep in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This is one of my very favorite California State Parks not only because it’s historic and stunning, but hey it’s also just a few miles from my home.
Usually when I do this hike I go lightweight and I carry a smaller Canon Rebel XT. That poor little thing finally met its demise late in 2018. We had a good run. I went heavy this time to photograph the falls. When I’m carrying my gear with a plan that means I’m using my 65 liter backpack. I can strap my better tripod to it, carry lunch, plenty of water, a couple of lenses, a warm jacket, emergency gear etc. The weight is just under what I’d carry for a 2 day backpacking trip. This time I used everything but the jacket.
The Artistic Photographs
Photographing this waterfall is both easy and difficult. There’s a viewing platform that’s nice and stable. It’s a long day hike to get here and the condition of the trail will vary depending of recent weather and park funding. This can technically be done with a small travel tripod and a reasonable quality camera. The trick is getting here in quality light. If you start hiking around 9 you can expect to arrive about 11 or 12. On a clear day that makes for a high contrast snapshot that’s not especially pleasant to the eye. Today was overcast and about as close to perfect as you can get near noon. One of the fun details is the prisms that occur. I shot this one with my Canon 5d Mk III, a 3-stop ND filter on my favorite Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod.
I like to help tell the story of the folks hiking the trail. It’s fun for me, fun for them, and gives everybody a keepsake from the trip.
Tara led Sunday’s hike. She’s fun, outgoing, energetic, and all around good people. She’s training for the John Muir Trail section of the Pacific Crest Trail which she expects to take 3 weeks.
Not everything goes to plan. A few minutes after this this fun snapshot @misfittany slipped and the sole of her boot completely fell apart. This is why I carry so much stuff. Today’s gear to the rescue? The cord I use to hang food up in a tree so the critters don’t get it.
For 45 seconds I watched the sun’s light move across Half Dome like a flashlight sweeping across the north face. I wasn’t remotely prepared for this. I was all setup with a telephoto when what I really wanted was my wide angle. I made do with what I had ready to go. Then I saw that storm coming with 4+ miles to hike back in the dark. This was one long, incredible day that I will never forget.
This is a photograph reimagined from a hike out to North Dome with my bud Gary Crabbe in Oct 2016. I had my Canon 70-200 f/4 ready to go with the plan of getting a nice shot of Gary against Half Dome. Then the sun poked between the clouds, lighting up the granite face in a way that I can only hope comes across in this series of photographs. I knew I didn’t have the camera/lens combination that I really wanted for this moment since it was unexpected. So, I filled the frame and ran with it.
I want to do more of this kind of thing. Much, much more.
I spent a fair amount of time with Lightroom and Photoshop to bring the colors about the way that I want to get across. There are competing color temperatures in this so it needed a lot of tweaking. Admittedly there’s still a touch of green that I’m not crazy about in the sky. The funny thing is that there are a lot of reflective surfaces here: the granite, snow, clouds etc. All of these reflect more blues from the sky than you’d really imagine. Bringing that back down to something believable takes some effort (and masking in Photoshop). The foreground is this blazing warm tone: oranges, purples, reds as the sun shone across it. Meanwhile the snow in the background is under cloud cover and is reflecting a lot of blue.
This was shot in a couple of years ago now, and my memory of how it looked isn’t nearly as accurate as how it felt. So here I am trying to bring across how it felt.
A few minutes ago a friend of mine asked about the hike back. That was a great question, so I’ll post my response to Anita here:
We got about a mile before it got genuinely dark. That was a good thing because honestly that first mile it’s kind of hard to pick the trail back up since we were on exposed granite. We made a lot of noise (talking etc) to keep the critters uninterested. By the time we got to the cars it was pretty obvious that we were in for a really good storm. We made it to a little camp site in El Portal where we rode out one hell of a lightning storm. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly. That’s the truth.
There’s a fairly well known spot in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park referred to as the Garden Of Eden. Rather than my usual workout at the gym I went for a weighted trail run. Granted the “weight” was my camera pack and tripod.
Colorful Diversion Dam
A dam is in place to keep the river diverted in a more controllable manner. Folks have been using this as a canvas for years and the current “selection” is pretty colorful. My goal here was more than going for a run; I was also scouting the area for an upcoming private photography lesson.
Why yes, I do the occasional private workshop.
Contact me about a workshop some time! The workshops are fun, inexpensive, and run 2-3 hours. We get out and explore locations like the Garden Of Eden not only because are they beautiful, they are also very good object lessons. Shutter speed, depth of field, wide angles, and on top of that you had to hike a little so you had to earn it.
This is one of those stories that feels like it deserves a much longer post. For the past few years my cousin Debbie and I have ventured into Yosemite looking for wildflowers in the spring. This year was a little different. We had a little extra time, we were excited about exploring parts of Yosemite that we’ve never really spent much time in, and we were both in really good physical condition.
I found a good deal on a stay at the Wawona Hotel (now known as the “Big Trees Lodge”) so we could hike up to Chilnualna Falls. We did our research, and had some pretty good ideas. We both also felt up to the challenge of carrying our favorite gear.
The stretch goal
We had a stretch goal depending on how long it took us to get to the main fall. Above the waterfall are the streams that flow into the falls themselves. I wanted to visit here mostly because it seemed like it would be remote and uncrowded. That was an understatement. We encountered very few people the whole trip and none at all after passing the main waterfall. We had this place to ourselves and it was glorious.
Actually getting to our stretch goal destination was something of a comedy of errors. Note, that’s absolutely normal for us. The trail was washed out and we had to do a little bushwhacking. That meant getting creative crossing yet another stream then essentially losing the trail once we got to the other side. Thankfully some hikers before us stacked up some stone ducks pointing the way.
The primary goal
The primary goal was of course Chilnualna Falls. We backtracked our way here with a minimum of mishaps. I envisioned a long exposure of the water rushing over the middle cascade and flowing to the lower cascade behind me. I had a very wide angle in mind. 17mm on a full frame Canon is really wide and distortion was expected. I liked it and ran with it.
I switched lenses to my Canon 70-200. For some reason I chose to bring my obnoxiously heavy 70-200 f/2.8. In retrospect my 70-200 f/4 would have been a better choice for any of a dozen reasons, but hey this is what I brought and fitness-knucklehead me, I was up for carrying it.
Time to go.
We stayed for a while and enjoyed the place until it was obviously time to go. We needed to hussle back downhill before we ran out of daylight entirely. Along the way I couldn’t help but stop and photograph the beautiful scenes unfolding in front of me.
My tripod was strapped to my pack and I just didn’t have time to dawdle much. The remaining shots where hand held at higher ISO. These were moments that I just wanted to capture. It was something of an attempt to take this home with me and remember the experience.
While passing these last scenes I could here the voice of Gary Crabbe reminding me these words of wisdom:
If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better shoot it again