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10 Favorites of 2018

Another year has come and gone. And wow, what a year it was. This year, I was fortunate enough to check off several bucket list items from my list. I’m well aware that one of those items, the eruption of Kilauea, was a highly destructive event for many other people, and my heart continues to go out to all of those affected. I am in awe of the natural beauty and raw nature I witnessed. All told, including time lapse frames, I shot more than three terabytes of RAW files this year, which is a new record. Storage is really starting to become an issue as I deal with (and back up) more and more data each year. I have marked over 2200 images as “picks” among the nearly 48,000 raw files. In my own super simple organizational hierarchy, I define an image flagged as a pick in Adobe Lightroom to be one that is worthy of further exploration and is potentially postable online when I circle back later and look at the picks with more scrutiny. From that 2200…. I have whittled it down to just ten. Is this ten the correct “best of 2018”? Maybe? I’ve been sifting through my images from this year for weeks and I’m just going by feeling at this point. Perhaps in a month I’ll read this post and think “oh no I should have included that other image instead” or “what was I thinking?” I could for instance easily fill up a 10 best list with just images of red hot molten lava in Hawaii, or another top 10 list of just Yosemite Valley under fresh snow. But I forced myself to just do 10 overall, and for better or worse here they are. We start first in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, which is a park I had been wanting to visit for years and just somehow never got there until the New Year. In fact, I sat at the campground in Valley of Fire and compiled last year’s 10 best while in the park.

The Fire Wave Dry Fall

The Fire Wave Dry Fall

On this trip to bring in the New Year of 2018, I had a brand new lens in my collection that I was eager to try out. That lens is the Canon 11-24mm f4L. It is an incredibly wide wide-angle lens, with a rectilinear (not fisheye) focal length of just 11mm and a field of view of an enormous 126mm. I’ve seen a lot of views of this location, called the Fire Wave, and I think so far as I can tell my 11mm composition here looking over the dry fall is pretty unique. Add to that the soft light and gorgeous sunrise clouds and perhaps you can see why I selected this image alone of all the ones I took on that trip (which also included Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef).

Fast forward to March and the stars aligned for me. On the night of March 2nd, an amazing alignment happened. A winter Yosemite snowstorm bringing snow to the valley floor at just 3800 feet was coming and it was going to coincide with a weekend that I could escape my day job. Not only would I get to experience a rare snowfall event in the valley, but it was going to be a big one. After work on Friday night I drove my car up north, sleeping in my car at a rest stop for a few hours before finally arriving at the park around 7am. Between 18 and 24 inches of fresh snow were in the park. Every single tree branch and granite wall was completely covered in snow. In short, it was a true winter wonderland and I felt as though I had stepped inside an Ansel Adams photograph. Narrowing all the images I took on that Saturday and Sunday is difficult, but I come back again and again to this other ultra-wide image from along the banks of the Merced River. I keep coming back again and again to this image and staring at it, getting lost in the puffs of white snow that cover every rock.

Snowy Gates and the Merced River

Snowy Gates and the Merced River

I cannot wait to come back to Yosemite one day in the snow again. It was just amazing. And speaking of snow, I came back just two weeks later for another storm, but this time I stayed a little further south and went to Sequoia National Park. Just like Yosemite, for years I had wanted to visit the great red trees in the snow. And at long last, I did. I captured this image of the General Sherman, the largest tree by volume on the Earth (no slouch for height either). The way the red bark stands out against the white snow is truly a superlative experience.

The Largest Tree on Earth

The Largest Tree on Earth

By far my most incredible photographic experience in 2018, indeed in my entire life, came at the end of July. For years I have wanted to see the lava lake on Kilauea. I wanted to visit hopefully before my friend Sean Goebel left the Big Island. I was working like crazy trying to finish the visual effects of a movie at my day job when in May the eruption began. During long hours at work I watched as fissures started to crack open in the Lower East Rift Zone, and the webcams of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as the lava lake drained completely from sight. After the lava lake drained from view earthquakes and explosions started happening at the summit, and then finally lava started erupting in Leilani Estates. I watched endlessly the videos of the eruption, including streaming live webcams at my desk while I toiled on the movie. I resolved to go to Hawaii just as soon as I could, but my hope that I could witness Kilauea in action were dim as I ended up arriving more than 90 days after the start of the eruption and the previous similar eruptions had lasted at most 88 days. But at last on the 93rd day of the eruption, as it was already winding down, two friends and I flew a charter helicopter from Paradise Helicopters over the lava rivers and the ocean entry.

Luminous River

Luminous River

Having never flown before in a helicopter, let alone one with no doors over a lava river, the experience was incredible. Here we see the view looking towards Fissure 8, the eruptive point for the majority of the lava. The molten river of basalt reached as much as 1300 feet wide near the source before breaking into braids in the same manner that a water river does. At its height, 26,000 gallons per second were effusing from the fissure where lava was expelled at 18 miles per hour. The flow was hot enough and the flow was fast enough to remain molten all the way to the ocean 8 miles away without crusting over. We were not allowed to fly lower than 3,000 feet, but all I can really say is wow!

Laze Dragon

Laze Dragon

I could post dozens more photos from the air, but I’ve chosen to limit myself to just one lava shot from the air, and one lava shot from the water for the purpose of this list. Having seen the eruption by air at sunrise, later the same day we made our way by boat to the ocean entry. Through very choppy water in which our 40 foot boat took flight over the top of a wave, we arrived at the bizarre and otherworldly scene of boiling oceans and fresh land. Clouds of saltwater steam, hydrochorlic acid, and tiny particles of glass stream into the air. This unfriendly mixture is called “laze” and is not something you want to spend time in. The USGS likens it to a cloud of diffuse battery acid. The trade winds were constantly blowing the laze inland when we were there, and it would form into interesting shapes at times. I managed to capture this moment where it, in my mind, formed a dragon hovering just above the hot land at sunset.

Lasing the Universe

Lasing the Universe

The next day my friend took us along to the summit of Mauna Kea to shoot night photography and time lapse of the observatories there. At 13,800 feet, the view of the night sky is quite amazing up there, and in this view three of the telescopes, Keck I, Keck II, and Subaru, stand out against the stars in a 15 minute exposure. The two Keck telescopes were using their high powered lasers for use with their adaptive optics systems. These systems act in essence like noise cancelling headphones but for atmospheric distortions. Faintly just to the right of Subaru Telescope is a green laser coming from the top of Mauna Loa. With freezing temperatures and clear skies high above the tropical warmth and rain down below, it was an amazing experience. We could see the lava river from up there too.

Papakōlea Beach Star Trails

Papakōlea Beach Star Trails

Continuing with the night sky in my first visit to Hawaii, we spent a sleepless night photographing at Papakōlea Beach at the southern end of the Big Island. In this view, nearly two hours of two minute exposures have been added together to get the view looking north over the little bay. The green sand beach is at the left just under the North Star and the swirl of stars around it. On the right some clouds and half a moon provide illumination of the landscape. This was one of very few star trail photos I managed to take this year.

The Road and the Rainbow

The Road and the Rainbow

From Hawaii this list veers into more familiar territory, with one of my favorite places: The Alabama Hills. I have long held this little section of Movie Road to be special, even before it became a star of Instagram photos galore. This fall after shooting sunrise at one of the arches I was heading back to camp when a rainbow appeared. I pulled over and composed this image, which I think captures the spirit of this place on a fall morning. A storm hovers over the Sierra Nevada crest and the rocky landscape of the Alabama Hills granite looks just magnificent in the morning light.

Sierra Daybreak

Sierra Daybreak

On the theme of “I’ve been wanting to shoot X for years” we come next to North Lake in the Sierra Nevada. This lake is perhaps the most popular single fall color spot I can think of in all the Sierras. And for years I have wanted to be there in the fall when weather happened, since in the fall the odds of weather happening on a day of the week when I can intercept it are very small. And that storm would have to happen too in the small window of when color is at its peak. Well just like the stars aligned for Yosemite snow, they aligned for a dusting of snow and fantastic morning light for me here. It came down to 50-50 between this image and this one. From one moment to the next I honestly could swap either of these into the list.

Fall in the Alabama Hills

Fall in the Alabama Hills

I don’t know how many times I drove past this tree before finally taking note of it in fall 2017. Lots. But that fall I ventured over to see and photograph it, and while it was pretty neat the tree itself was a little past prime then. In fall of this year however the time was right. This lone cottonwood was in its full prime golden color. Last year I didn’t quite figure out how to get the composition I really wanted. This year I made it happen. I stood on top of a rock and pointed my camera crookedly on the tripod towards the tree. Then I used the whole tripod to extend the camera up above my head and to the left, clumsily looking at the camera’s view through my phone. I framed Mount Whitney to the left of the tree and clicked the shutter before reeling the tripod back down. I gave it a few tries before I achieved the image I was after. I think perhaps I will be returning here in other seasons to see how this tree looks. I feel like this image captures fall there quite perfectly, with afternoon light providing backlight for the glorious color of the leaves.

That concludes my list for this year. It’s fun to go through the mental exercise to really force yourself to cut through what you may consider to be the best of the year. From over 2200 to just 10 is quite challenging. I could easily do a top 100. In fact I have a best of 2018 gallery on my iPad that is just over 200 images. It’s just been that great of a year. I hope you have had a great year too. I look forward to what new adventures await in 2019. And let’s just say my new year’s resolution is to write more blog entries, seeing how the last one was the 10 best of 2017. I will make time to write more. Happy New Year!

10ish Favorites of 2017

10ish favorites of 2017

It’s the end of the year. Literally. As I write this, I’m sitting at the picnic table of my campsite in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. This year I had an overwhelming desire to get away to start the year. I am overdue for a proper solo road trip, and I was determined to take advantage of the time away from the day job to start the year far from the city where I spend most of my days. After spending far too short time visiting family over Christmas, I finally mustered my over-stuffed Xterra onto the highway this morning, on December 31st. On to the list!

Sparkling Salt Flats By Starlight

Sparkling Salt Flats By Starlight

The year started off with spectacular flooding in Death Valley National Park at Badwater. I last witnessed this phenomenon in 2011 and it produced some of my all time favorite images. The park was magical this last winter, and we begin our chronological list with Badwater by star light. To the extreme detriment of my boots, I waded out into the cold salty waters at sunset, where I ran into fellow photographer Jay Tayang, and then returned around midnight after the moon had set for some self portrait action. In addition to that, I shot a few pure star light shots, and I really like the way this looks.

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Moving on to the next image, I found this scene unfolding as I was literally moving on from Badwater to… I don’t remember where. This scene unfolded on the other side of the valley and I quickly pulled over and shot it as the crack in the clouds beamed down onto the gentle slopes of alluvium in the Panamint Range. You always have to be watching what is happening with the light around you, especially when there is weather. Non-cloudless days are more the exception rather than the rule in Death Valley, and while I try to anticipate what is going to happen based on experience, this would be hard to predict.

Break in the Clouds

Break in the Clouds

Having taken sunset and sunrise shots at Badwater with the shallow flood, one of the mornings I headed for higher ground. I went high up to Dante’s View, more than a mile above. However, somewhat comically I noticed that the very top of that drive was in the clouds. Nevertheless, I was committed, and set up a couple of cameras anyway hoping for a break in the clouds. To my delight, for a brief moment the cloud roof lifted just enough to peer at the shimmering reflection in the waters down below. The clouds right in my face were still in the shadow of the Black Mountains, and thus were colored deep blue being illuminated by the sky. Looking down at the reflection below, you can make out the reflected direct sunlight of the clouds towards the far side of the Valley, providing a sharp contrast with the shadow blue world I was still in. It didn’t last long before the roof descended down again, but this resulting image is one of my all-time favorites. Although it is also a very frustrating one as the camera sensor turned out to be extraordinarily dirty.

Sunrise in the Badlands

Sunrise in the Badlands

After the waters receded in Death Valley, hope of a superbloom emerged. However, since Death Valley had its superbloom in 2016, the seed bank was depleted, and the superbloom was left to other areas that didn’t go off in 2016 such as Anza Borrego Desert State Park near the Salton Sea. I had always wanted to go to this park, and the promise of a superbloom there was a powerful lure… for me and about a million of my closest friends. Ben Horne I recall was also turned off by the hordes and moved on. So, brushing the flowers aside, I hit up Fonts Point for sunrise and it was magical. The clouds lit up red like fire over the eroded wonder badlands of this neat park.

Spilled Paint

Spilled Paint

While the crowds turned me away from Anza Borrego for flowers, Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom sucked me right in. What a neat place! Another photographer had a famous photo of this place during such a bloom referring to it as “Where God Spilled the Paint.” I definitely agree that it does look like spilled paint, and I captured some for my own. My two weekends here were dramatic, with me helping to rescue a stuck vehicle in the mud the first visit and then witnessing and helping another driver who catapulted in reverse a few hundred feet down a ravine on the next. See the video of that here.

Sand Fortress

Sand Fortress

Next up is an image of some of the unusual tufa of Mono Lake. These are sometimes called the “sand tufa” because they seem to be made of sand and are far smaller than their carbonate cousins famously lining the lake. I’ve tried before to capture these little sand cities, which remind me of Paolo Soleri’s arcologies. They truly seem like they could be cities out of a scifi movie.

Great American Eclipse Over Sawtooth Lake

Great American Eclipse Over Sawtooth Lake

And of course, the Eclipse. This image is from our pool of images from the 36 hour time lapse of the Great American Eclipse as seen over Sawtooth Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooh Mountains. This was my first backpacking trip outside of California and it was amazing. The landscape there is stunningly beautiful. When the eclipse totality arrived, I was unprepared for how awesome it was. Like a light switch going off, a faded daylight suddenly turned into twilight with a 360-degree sunset encircling us. It was incredible, and I hope to repeat this experience in 7 years when another Great Eclipse comes to North America.

Fall Color Along Bishop Creek

Fall Color Along Bishop Creek

Over the years I’ve made many, many trips to the Eastern Sierras chasing fall color. I’ve had mixed results from this, and have always wanted to get a great image of the color along one fo the forks of Bishop Creek. I finally got a composition that I liked, with the reflected canyon light providing soft color and the shade allowing for nicely blurred water. I like how the tree trunk bits point into the water.

Too wide

Too wide

Right Side

Right Side

Middle

Middle

Left Side

Left Side

Number 9 is a sort of 4-way split. It’s all the same sunset, but the full pano is just overwhelmingly wide. I needed to switch to a 16mm or wider lens in the vertical position to capture the feeling of it a bit better, but instead I have broken it into 3 chunks which each show about 60 degrees of view horizontally. Really I’d like to include a whole bunch more from this sunset, as it is one of the most amazing ones I’ve seen.

Anticrepuscular Rays from Owens Lake

Anticrepuscular Rays from Owens Lake

Number 10 is this capture of the anticrepuscular rays from Owens Lake. I had no idea this was a thing that could happen until I looked over and noticed it happening the very next day after the sunset pano I was just discussing. Some fog and dust near the ground was thick enough to catch the rays bouncing up from the sunlight reflected from the surface of Owens Lake. It was an incredible unexpected sight amid an intense and beautiful sunrise.

Dad and I and the Milky Way

Dad and I and the Milky Way

And finally, a bonus. A self portrait of my father and I in the White Mountains. We visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and after dinner I set about to take a photo of the two of us with the Milky Way. It was such a treat to take him with me on a little photo trip and I can’t wait to do it again.

Well that about does it. I can’t wait to see what photo adventures 2018 brings. So far, in Valley of Fire, it’s off to a tremendous start.

January 10, 2018 - 1:04 am

Cable Route of Half Dome Posters and 2018 Calendars Now Available and Framed Print Sale!

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night 18×24″ Posters and 2018 calendars are here! Check them out. Posters are on sale, 20% of for this Thanksgiving week only! Get yours here

Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Printed
The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night 18x24 Poster

Get your 2018 Calendar here!

2018 Calendar Cover
2018 Calendar Back, Printed2018 Calendar Cover, Printed2018 Calendar January2018 Calendar Back

Framed prints are also 20% off this week! I am losing money on these. See the prints available at my online store.

Happy Thanksgiving!

2017 Epson International Pano Awards

This year I entered eight panoramas into the 2017 Epson International Pano Awards. I entered all eight into the Amateur competition, while also entering the Half Dome pano into the Open competition. The results this year are that five out of the eight panos in the Amateur competition achieved Bronze rating. Here are the winners:

Last Light on Half Dome

Last Light on Half Dome

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Dante's Dawn

Dante’s Dawn

Splash of Sunrise

Splash of Sunrise

A Winter Sunrise at Badwater

A Winter Sunrise at Badwater

Looking forward to next year’s contest!

The Cable Route of Half Dome, at Night

We won runner-up in the People and Space category at this year’s
Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition!

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night

Tweet announcing our win1

Tweet announcing our win!

That’s right we WON! I am humbled and honored to say that we won runner-up in the People and Space category for the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year. This is incredible! It is a huge honor win second place in this category, competing with so many amazing photographers from all over the planet. Right now I just don’t know what else to say. Below is a write-up of that trip which was just over a year ago. And I say “we” because this photo was a group effort and we all share equally in the resulting images.

So what do you do when your friend proposes a backpacking photo adventure to capture a night hike up the Cable Route of Half Dome with the Milky Way standing tall right above it? Well of course you go. My friend Sean Goebel proposed this idea last year and it was exciting. I had gone with Sean and other friends back in 2014 to essentially re-do my 97 Switchbacks At Night photo of the Mount Whitney Trail but with our small army and 8 cameras shooting digitally instead of with film. The trip was a success, though I never gave it a proper blog write up. Similarly I have not done a proper write up of this trip until now. Our collaboration led to time lapse and stills from our 5 cameras that we employed to capture one of North America’s crown jewels under the spectacular night sky. Wade Meade, who hiked Mount Whitney in the dark for us in 2014, would climb Half Dome in the dark for us on this trip. Above you can see my version of our close-up shot, with an exposure time totaling 64 minutes. More on that later. We were not sure that our luck would hold weather-wise. We were prepared to make two attempts, but in the end we were successful on the first try. Check out the time lapse:

Half Dome Night Timelapse from Sean Goebel on Vimeo.

The wide view:

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Wide Edition

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Wide Edition

The Milky Way:

Milky Way Over the Cable Route

Milky Way Over the Cable Route

Capturing Half Dome at night with the Cable Route visible meant setting up on the east side. We settled upon Mount Watkins. This 8500 foot granite edifice provided the perfect view, unobstructed just across Tenaya Canyon. From there to the floor of Yosemite Valley is a nearly vertical 4,000 foot drop. The round dome to the right is North Dome, which was too much of a straight-on view for what we were after. In the background center of the image is Glacier Point, which is revealed by all the car lights in the time lapse in the wide view. Olmsted Point, which has similar views of Half Dome, was ruled out as too far away and the view too obstructed by Mount Watkins among other bits of granite and trees.

Google Earth view of Watkins and Half Dome

Google Earth view of Watkins and Half Dome.

As Sean states in the video, we hauled in the end 5 cameras and tripods plus all our assorted backpacking gear and water over a 5 mile hike with 1800 feet of gain up to the summit of Mount Watkins. Two cameras were dedicated to time lapse, and 3 cameras were dedicated to capturing stills, or longer exposures that would be added together to make the stills. For cameras, we had the following:

Canon 6D with Rokinon 24mm F1.4. – Time lapse camera for wide view of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Glacier Point
Canon 5D Mark III with Zeiss Otus 85mm F1.4 – Rented, ridiculously sharp lens getting the close-up view of Half Dome for the time lapse
Canon 6D with Rokinon 50mm F1.4 – Camera capturing vertical images of the Milky Way over Half Dome but also time lapsing to capture the light trail
Sony A7R Mark II with Zeiss 25mm Batis F2 – Capturing long 8 minute exposures for the wide view of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Glacier Point to stack into star trails
Sony A7R Mark I with Zeiss 100mm Milvus F2 – Capturing long 8 minute exposures for the Half Dome closeup view to stack into star trails

For the time lapse cameras we had LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries powering the cameras all night and for the Sony cameras we just had a stack of Sony batteries since those cameras use lots of power. All told, our packs combined between camping gear and cameras totaled over 110 pounds, or about 55 pounds each. You feel that weight in ever step I can tell you! As it became dark, Wade was making his way from the valley floor up the back around Half Dome to get to the start of the Cable Route. We could communicate vie walkie talkie, telling stories and signaling when it was time to ascend or descend. In addition to his headlamp, Wade had a small lantern to help light up the trail around him in all directions as he hiked. There was no one else around hiking Half Dome at night that we could see. He had the whole thing to himself and enjoyed that quite a bit.

Post processing entailed adding the 8 minute exposures together for the sky and light trail, and averaging them for the ground to reduce noise. Grouping lots of images into one Photoshop file so you can combine them as an Smart Object for averaging makes for very large files (more than 10GB) and I am going to save detailed description of that tedious task for another post. My Sony cameras made a lot of noise! But in the end the images speak for themselves.

Here are some more views from along the way.

Dayligh view from Watkins

Daylight view from Watkins

Cloud's Rest (right) and Tenaya Canyon

Cloud’s Rest (right) and Tenaya Canyon

Yosemite Valley, 4000 feet below

Yosemite Valley, 4000 feet below

North Dome and Beyond

North Dome and Beyond

Last Light on Half Dome

Last Light on Half Dome

And finally a parting look

Half Dome Sunrise

Half Dome Sunrise

Tree Over Half Dome

Tree Over Half Dome

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