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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

S

S

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

Return to the Racetrack. No, the tracks don’t disappear with the next rain.

A Raccing Rock

A Racing Rock. The Racetrack is for rocks, not cars.

Back in September of 2016 I visited the Racetrack and really had quite a reaction to the inconsiderate vandalism that had happened there. Some people had driven all over the playa, including in at least one spot over the tracks of racing rocks themselves. This is a unique spot on the entire planet, and driving is not allowed here. I was not prepared for that post to go viral, and I ended up being interviewed by the very kind Domenica Davis via Facebook Live on the Weather Channel’s page and my post was republished in Petapixel and reference in DPReview and other places.

Here’s a few other things that have happened since then.

Death Valley National Park posted on Facebook about the damage, including a traced map of some of the tracks across the entire lake bed.

News outlets like the LA Times published articles saying “Federal investigators have identified a suspect believed responsible for a frenzy of high-speed driving across “Racetrack Playa,” a remote dry lake in Death Valley National Park” after which I have not seen any further updates.

I heard a rumor that someone had laid new tracks around Christmas 2016 but I had not seen any photos or posts or articles about it.

Other kinds of vandalism have happened, such as defacing of historic inscriptions, which Death Valley also posted about on Facebook. A van drove out onto the salt flats at Badwater and got stuck. This is another place where tracks can last a really long time.

I visited the park three times, twice in January and once in February when Badwater flooded. Badwater when flooded is one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen, and home to the most incredible sunset I’ve so far witnessed in my lifetime. I hope to write posts about those visits at another time. A bunch of other priorities kept me from coming back to the Racetrack, however, until Memorial Day weekend. Plus, if Badwater was flooded that meant Racetrack Playa was likely flooded too, or at least wet, and you do not walk on it when it is wet. I wanted to go there with the specific purpose in mind of revisiting the damage that inspired so much anger last September and to see what the historically wet 2016-2017 winter has done to repair the damage, if at all.

Armed with GPS coordinates of photos I took last fall, I went straight for the Racetrack on Saturday, May 27th. I said some words to a car full of naive visitors in Panamint Valley who were feeding coyotes (DON’T!), and helped a family who had a minivan in need of a jump in Stovepipe Wells where it was nearly 110 degrees before finally I made the long dirt trek to one of my favorite locations in the world. Late May is already getting to be quite hot in Death Valley. I don’t like to come here when it is hot, but at least at nearly 4,000 feet elevation the Racetrack would only be in the mid 90’s.

Getting to the heart of the matter, I’m going to detail five kinds of vandalism that has happened around here, starting with the most obvious.

1. Vehicle Tracks

This is what greeted me in September 2016:

Tracks from the start

Tracks from the start

As you can see, tracks fly away right from the parking area. At first, in May it seemed a little more hopeful:

No tracks... for the first few feet

No tracks… for the first few feet

From this vantage point, we were looking good. I wondered if the NPS had done some rehabilitation of the area right next to the parking area, but all hope quickly faded away.

Just a few feet away toward the Grandstand, it begins.

Strange tracks leading towards the Grandstand, 2017

Strange tracks leading towards the Grandstand, 2017

September 2016 looking towards the Grandstand

September 2016 looking towards the Grandstand

I tried to recreate exactly the photos I took in September, but alas a few factors were at work. First, I think the GPS from my phone was not very reliable when I took many of those photos. Second, there is definitely MORE damage than I remember from then, making tracks mixed up. And third, I quickly became overwhelmed with the quantity of tracks. So the next photos are all from the damage around the Grandstand, mostly between the Grandstand and the parking area. This damage is NOT part of what the National Park Service traced on their GPS map overlay.

Current damage as of May 2017:

So many tracks

So many tracks, May 2017

more..

more..

Strange double-track winding in from northwest

Strange double-track winding in from northwest

Double track gets really close to the Grandstand

Double track gets really close to the Grandstand

All over

All over

Deep circles

Deep circles

Fresh looking motorcycle track crosses the older car tracks along with many footprints

Fresh looking motorcycle track crosses the older car tracks along with many footprints

Look how deep the car tracks are, and also all the footprints

Look how deep the car tracks are, and also all the footprints

Footprints are just as bad as car tracks! I’m glad the footprints didn’t venture far. Not all of the area around the Grandstand is currently in a ruined state, but most views to the East are polluted heavily by tracks. By my estimation, some of these tracks are new compared to my visit in September and others are the same. I wasn’t able to line up any exact photos of 1:1 damage between the two dates. However, I knew that Death Valley had posted that GPS map of some of the tracks and they were on the far east side. So I ventured out there to find those tracks as a measure of whether or not repair had happened this winter. More than 3/4 of a mile away from my car I found my answer. These next two photos are from the August 2016 joy ride that the National Park Service publicized not long after my viral blog post.

August 2016 tracks in May 2017

August 2016 tracks in May 2017

August 2016 tracks in May 2017 II

August 2016 tracks in May 2017 II

It’s safe to say NO, TRACKS DON’T DISAPPEAR AFTER “THE NEXT RAIN.”


These August 2016 tracks were very much not gone and judging by their depth they will be around quite awhile. Maybe years. If you think about it, it makes sense. The lake bed surface needs to soak to be vulnerable to reforming. Gentle winter rains are not going to come down with enough force to cause the sediment to stir up enough to fill in those deep vehicle grooves. Perhaps a violent summer thunderstorm could help, but it’s going to take some time before these scars heal. This is one of the driest deserts on the planet.

From the Grandstand I moved on to the middle parking area. This area was an absolute mess in 2016:

Middle parking area adjacent, 2016

Middle parking area adjacent, 2016

To my astonishment after the Grandstand I found that here some of the tracks were either largely repaired or diminished, or perhaps my phone GPS logged the wrong location. That’s not to say I didn’t find tracks there.

Tracks at the middle parking area 2017

Tracks at the middle parking area 2017

After this brief stop at the middle, I moved to the final parking area which is the one closest to the most rocks.

Car tracks heading straight out towards many rocks

Car tracks heading straight out towards many rocks, 2017

My heart sunk at the sight of this. I figured it didn’t bode well for this scene from September:

Car track crossing rock path 2016

Car track crossing rock path 2016

I tried to navigate to this exact spot but I couldn’t find it despite having GPS coordinates. Where it was supposed to be there was no trail: no car trail and no rock trail. Since I took those photos with my phone, I think the GPS coordinates were possibly off quite a bit. I’m hoping it was repaired. I wondered around quite a bit and did not find any car trails that made it still into the main area of rocks. This has me yet again wondering if the NPS did some work out there to try to help repair the damage, or if nature was able to do a little healing at this end of the playa.

More 2016 rock adjacent damage that I was unable to locate

More 2016 rock adjacent damage that I was unable to locate

2. Footprints

You’ve already seen some pretty terrible footprints by the Grandstand parking area above, but there were plenty of other footprints at the south end too. DO NOT GO OUT ON THE PLAYA WHILE WET. Footprints can be just as bad as the tire tracks and last just as long, spoiling the experience for others who want to enjoy this magical place. A large cluster of footprints near the main rock parking area didn’t extend too far out but did go more than 1/4 mile out to some rocks. Whoever did this is incredibly inconsiderate.

Nasty footprints wandering off onto the playa

May 2017: Nasty footprints wandering off onto the playa

What a mess

What a mess

Who wants to see that? Those are going to be there awhile. Please don’t do this. Posted signs say not to walk on the playa when wet for this reason.

3. Fake rock trails

Fake rock trails? Yes. This is a new form of vandalism I had not previously imagined. It seems some people arrived at the Grandstand on the north end and had no idea most of the rocks are at the south end. Perhaps frustrated and lazy, they opted to attempt to make their own fake trails using available rocks. You can tell they are fake because they just scratch the surface. I’ve been to the Racetrack more than enough times to easily spot this stupid faking. The ice floating on the water drags the rocks along, and the marks they leave on the surface even with small rocks has a well defined channel unlike these surface scratches. Look at this stupidity:

Fake rock trails, sigh.

Fake rock trails, sigh.

Don’t do this. My only comfort is maybe it’s good that such inconsiderate people didn’t make it to where the rocks really are.

4. Moving or Removing Rocks

Yes, people steal the rocks. This is a crime. Don’t move or steal rocks please.

Missing rock

Missing rock

Where is the rock? It’s gone. When the rocks move, they leave trails. They only don’t leave trails when they are picked up and moved by humans. It’s heartbreaking and sad that people would do this. I’ve heard stories, and thankfully I have never witnessed anyone taking a rock myself. This photo is from 2008, so it’s not a new phenomenon, sadly. Apparently some people, before it was documented how the rocks move, thought the rocks themselves had some kind of mystical properties. The only mystical properties I hope the stolen rocks have is that they act as a curse upon the people that took them.

5. Defacing Rocks

While in the 8+ months since I first saw the massive extent of damage to this incredible unique place I reached a calm where my blood wasn’t boiling in documenting all this, but it still boils for this last one. This rock hasn’t moved since last September and there’s no word about any search for the awful people who did this. “D” and “K” should be banned from all national parks for life with this level of offense. The lake bed will heal one day. The rocks will not. These letters are chiseled into the rock, deep!

Defaced rock

Defaced rock, May 2017

Where’s the emoji for infinite rage? That’s what this makes me feel.

Final Thoughts

The Racetrack right now is still heartbreaking. Maybe that’s because in the past I’ve only seen some occasional footprints here, which in the long intervals between my visits have been repaired over a timeframe of years. There is just a whole new influx of selfish visitors reaching this place in recent years I guess. I fear it will get worse. Since the news stories and articles, the National Park Service I read was exploring various ideas to improve or change the Racetrack in response to these crimes including increased ranger patrols, volunteers, re-configuring the road, erecting barriers against cars, or other ideas. I should note that the massive proposed budget cut to the National Park Service certainly won’t help. Please contact your representative and encourage them to increase rather than decrease NPS funding! We need for the NPS to have the resources they need to protect our special places.

I haven’t seen any news reports about any charges in the case of the joyriders who left the tracks. I don’t know what direct evidence there is. The damage at the Racetrack has definitely made it harder for me to convince myself to make the trek out to the Racetrack. I’m not the only one to ponder whether visiting the Racetrack is even worth it anymore. (Note that link is an article from 3 years ago)

I find this valley to be absolutely spectacular though, even if the rocks were not there. So there’s definitely enjoyment to be had. If the bad people can stay away long enough and thus not cause more damage, eventually the surface of the lake will be repaired. In my head I keep going back to the magic of the first time I ever visited this place back in 2008. There were some really amazing tracks back then. Recent rock moving events have not produced such varied trails and I am ever hopeful for a really nasty and chaotic winter here so that really interesting new rock tracks can be naturally carved. It is a dynamic place but the change is slow, as evidenced by the deep trails from last summer still easily visible.

If you see someone defacing this place, document and report it. Especially if it’s the special type of jerk who would chisel into one of the rocks. That’s inexcusable. This is a special place. Help protect it!

One last bonus: there was one really unexpected thing I saw on this most recent trip to the Racetrack. It brought a smile to my face even.

Great Egret on the Grandstand

Great Egret on the Grandstand

At sunrise on Sunday I went to the Grandstand for a change. And while I approached it I saw something that at first I figured was a person. But then it flew away as I got closer. It was a Great Egret. I think a very confused one. I don’t know what would lead such a water dwelling huge bird to end up at a dry playa in Death Valley National Park on the cusp of summer, but it was neat to see this magnificent creature here. As I explored it would fly away to another part of the Grandstand, keeping an eye on me. It never ceases to amuse me that such neat creatures with clear air superiority are so skittish about us gravity constrained humans. Death Valley is full of surprises, I hope when you visit you are pleasantly surprised.

10 Favorites of 2016

It’s that time of the year again. It’s the time of year when we like to collectively examine what has transpired within this unit of time measure of a year. Our collective demarcation of an Earth solar orbit is a significant time scale for us humans, and thus I will attempt to decide on this year’s “10 Best” within that framework as I have been doing for several years now. If nothing else this exercise is great for forcing me to look back on where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and to prioritize images that stick out for one reason or another. For many years I have been largely captivated by Death Valley. I do truly love that park, but by far the dominant National Park for me was Yosemite. But before we get to Yosemite, we start far closer to home in Venice where a stroll to the beach after a storm produced this moment.

Sunset Between El Niño Storms

Sunset Between El Niño Storms

It had rained for several hours until finally, just at sunset, this winter storm back on January 6 broke and the sun shone through in warm sunset tones. The basketball courts of Venice Beach were covered in a thin layer of water that acted as a mirror, broken up by the subtle relief in the court surface as the water drains away. A couple of sea gulls also provide extra breakup.

Dawn Under The Pier

Dawn Under The Pier

Next up we have a return for me to a familiar favorite place: Manhattan Beach Pier. I have loved this pier since the moment I laid eyes on it for the first time in 1996. One day, a number of years ago, I discovered how interesting it can be at night. This time, I arrived just before dawn. The pre-dawn light lifted the sky out of darkness while the odd mixture of lights on the pier provided a colorful palette.

< Horsetail Falls

< Horsetail Falls

My first trip to Yosemite for the year was a trek to the “fire falls” of Horsetail Falls in February. With this annual event, the sun shines through a small gap to the west to light up Horsetail Falls off the side of El Capitan. This event requires certain wet conditions to be met as the falls only flows after relatively recent storms. I tried to get a perspective away from the hordes of photographers in the valley. While I didn’t quite get to the spot I really wanted, I did watch this < formation drift up the face of El Capitan until it reached this alignment. Ultimately I found this more interesting than any of the fire falls photos I made this trip and it remains one of my favorites of the year.

Steam Dream

Steam Dream

If you follow my photography you might find the regular landscapes are on occasion interrupted by my love of steam trains. The San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society earlier this year had a night photography session during the brief time that they had their magnificent locomotive, Santa Fe 3751, at the Fullerton Railroad Days event. I wasn’t really expecting a show but wow did they put one on! They lit the fire back on this oil burning locomotive and spent some steam through the cylinder cocks (out the sides) and the dynamos on top and of course out the smokestack. Some flash photography was coordinated but by far my favorite shot I’ve yet taken of a steam locomotive is this one with no flash but just a long exposure.

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Wide Edition

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Wide Edition

What can I say about these next two. Yosemite! Like my 97 Switchbacks At Night, these two images feature a well known trail traced by light at night. Unlike that project, this one is done digitally. These images are a shared copyright with friends Sean Goebel and Wade Meade. Spearheaded by Sean, we hauled a ton of gear up to the top of Mount Watkins while Wade scaled Half Dome alone in the dark. Filmed from across the valley with a variety of cameras and lenses, these two images are my versions of the stills, one wide and one closeup. Processing was labor intensive to minimize noise and to remove dozens of airplane trails, but the results were worth it. Check out the time lapse video too. The views of Yosemite Valley from up there were incredible.

Into the Sunset

Into the Sunset

This next image is one of the most remarkable sunsets I’ve ever seen in my time in southern California. I was fortunate enough to escape the day job for a few moments to run down to the beach. Just as the sunset was peaking a surfer walked up and started to head into the waves in the fading but spectacular light.

Super Moonset

Super Moonset

The so-called “super moon” sets over the waters of the Pacific Ocean at dawn in this surreal image. I was down at Manhattan Beach Pier and had almost given up on shooting for the morning when I saw how strange the moon looked just as it was setting on the horizon line. On a Sony a6300 at 400mm, the 600mm equivalent view shows the bizarrely distorted shapes of the moon and the equally strange colors of the ocean reflecting the morning pastel colors of a newly rising sun. It’s just so weird and thus it has remained one of my favorites this year.

Warp Speed at Tunnel View (Black and White Edition)

Warp Speed at Tunnel View (Black and White Edition)

In my final trip to Yosemite of the year, I headed in knowing that an incoming storm was likely. After watching a very nice sunset at Tunnel View, I stayed to try to capture the rapid movement of the clouds above. I ended up utilizing a 10-stop neutral density filter to elongate the exposure to a little over two minutes. This allowed the clouds to streak across the sky in the direction of their movement. After first processing this in color I later switched to black and white and love this version quite a bit more.

Sunrise at the Gates of the Valley

Sunrise at the Gates of the Valley

And finally, we have sunrise the next morning at the place I always think of as “Gates of the Valley” due to the photo by that name of the most famous of landscape photographers. Getting up at 4:30am was worth it. Hope had not been great for this particular morning, but a break in the clouds to the East made for a few minutes of color explosion across the sky. I’ve been staring at this photo as my desktop for weeks and have really grown fond of it.

So there you have it. As of this moment anyway, there are 10 favorites for 2016. I hope you have enjoyed them and I can’t wait to share more images with you in the future. Happy new year!

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