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A flooded Badwater Part II

Triple Portrait at Badwater

After my first visit to a flooded Badwater, I knew I had to get back as soon as possible. The impact of the water there compelled me to make every effort to come back. I was still riding a wave of excitement at the images that I was able to capture using my experience and pure luck to be at the right place at the right time. This time I brought two close friends with me to share in the experience. Although I do enjoy the solitude of my photographic passion, it is also great to share the experience. Not having the Friday off from our day jobs, we made the long drive in the dark of Friday evening to prepare for a sunrise at the flooded Badwater. I had shot sunset there twice the previous trip but not sunrise (with some regret). With an evaporation rate of 128 inches a year (about 77x the precipitation rate), I knew I needed to get back fast if the water was going to still be there. The mild temperatures of the Death Valley winter had kept the water there longer than I thought already and there was no telling how long it would last. Fortunately, as you can see, the water was very much still there.

Quiet symmetry

Before sunrise, you can see the very shadow of the Earth as it is chased away by the light. Here I’m looking at a pair of other photographers over by the park’s pull off for Badwater. You can see their little specs on the right of the image. Earth’s gorgeous blue shadow can be seen to the left. Sunrise was imminent.

Day

We watched the quiet light on this windless morning until the sun reached all the way down the Panamint Range. The reflections were a perfect mirror. After the light became more harsh, we decided to have some fun doing some self portraits with the reflected water. Our triple self portrait is at the start of this post. Setting the camera to repeatedly take photos, we walked out and held still so that all the ripples would vanish (about 5 minutes). Then we had some fun.

Over there!

Running on Water

We had a blast, and at the end we were all covered with salty deposits from the splashing water. These photos are challenging because of the light. The entire world around us and the reflections in the water are powered by direct sunlight. Where we were standing was in complete shadow from the Black Mountains behind the camera. Producing anything other than a silhouette stretched the limits of my 5D2’s dynamic range. That’s me on the left!

Eventually, we headed in for breakfast to decide where to head next. I usually like to stop at the 49’er cafe in Furnace Creek for a nice big breakfast after running around in the valley all morning. After breakfast, a trip to Dante’s View was in order. This would allow us to get a complete overview of just how much water there was at Badwater and allow us to scout where to head next. And as luck would have it, clouds were building. From a mile up, the extent of the water was made clear. Click for a much bigger version of this panorama.

Death Valley Panorama from Dante

The clouds were moving by quickly, casting shadows on the valley floor. I made a time lapse video of the action:

It was beautiful. Looking down below we spotted something weird.

An alien hand reaches into the water

We were certainly disturbing the mud was we walked through the water in the morning. What we didn’t realize was just how visible that would be from above! Here you can clearly see the tracks we made through the water. It looks like an alien hand reaching out from the shore. Fortunately are marks were not permanent as they would disappear once the silt settled, later to be covered with white salt when the water was gone.

The views below were crazy. The water increased contrast throughout the valley, emphasizing twists and turns of the water as it snaked its way to the lowest place in North America.

Snakes on a plain

Looking down into a brownish reflection of the clouds above, you an make out the main path that park visitors take in the lower right of this image, and our alien hand on the left.

Cloud reflections in a flooded Badwater

With the cloud cover, we resolved to head back down to Badwater for what could turn into another amazing reflected sunset. On the way back down, a section of the mountains caught my eye.

Folds of rock

Here you can see the tortured history of the valley laid bare. It’s hard to imagine the forces that would take layers of solid rock and bend them 90 degrees.

Again the skies of Death Valley blessed us with a wonderful reflected sunset (click for bigger)

Extra glow sunset at Badwater

It’s a bit hard to describe what it felt like to be there, standing in a motionless mirror of water while this incredible show happens before your eyes. The reflection really makes it almost like you’re floating in space around planet sunset. It’s really awesome and I hope my photos can convey that on at least some small level. After the sun had set, it became self portrait time again. This is actually one of my favorite pictures from the trip. There are four of me here.

Badwater Self Portrait

Here is a comparison to show the extent of the flood and what it looks like without any water. In March I returned for a third trip to Death Valley, and once again looked down on Badwater. The view then was completely different. A vast white field of fresh salt deposits replaced the reflecting lake.

Dante

Dante

Poof! The water was gone in just two months. With 6 inches of water (maybe a little more) in January, that’s over 1/2 inch a week sucked up into the dry air.

Here are a few more pictures from this wonderful trip

Salty shores and morning haze

Soft shades of erosion

There’s much more to talk about with Death Valley this year, particularly in the realm of star trails. Check back for some more updates from this amazing place.

Tales of a flooded Badwater

Badwater branch

Badwater. The name itself communicates the quality of any water found at this location in Death Valley National Park: bad. The water is incredibly salty. Too salty for any life to live. Perhaps this is the source of the name Death Valley. This place is the deepest spot in the dried up lake bed of ancient Lake Manly. As the water dried up, the salts and minerals of that formerly massive lake gradually accumulated into the salty mess that is spread out throughout the playa for miles around Badwater. Badwater is also the lowest place in North America, lying 282 feet below sea level.

I first visited Death Valley in 2008. I was really starting to break back into my photography after several years of neglect. A friend of mine invited me along on a photo trip and then it was love at first sight. Growing up in the flat lands of northeast Indiana, I had never seen such a harsh, desolate and beautiful landscape. It was really akin to going to another planet. In places there is no plant or animal life to be seen in any direction. The imagination can run wild. One of the photographers in the group had visited Death Valley in 2005 after the “100 year rains” that year. As you can see in this satellite imagery, a small fraction of Lake Manly reformed. The water was so deep that you could actually kayak across the valley becoming the first humans likely to have done this in the history of the Earth. After hearing the stories and seeing images of this flooded landscape, I made a resolution in my mind to revisit Death Valley often, and especially if the flood returned.

Fast forward to December 2010. Southern California experienced a huge drenching rain storm that lasted several days and stretched way up the state. I anxiously looked at the spotty weather radar of Death Valley’s surrounding areas. The rain was very much like I remember in 2005 in southern California, so I was hoping that the valley would be experiencing a similar repeat. At the time, however, I was working like crazy, had family visiting from out of town and then was myself traveling out of town for the holidays. I was determined to go to Death Valley at the earliest possible moment. I flew back to California on January 6, and in the early hours of January 7 I was on the road.

I was not disappointed.

Driving into the park, from the south, I soon started seeing signs of water. The Amargosa River was flowing.

The flowing Amargosa River into Badwater

Continuing on, I found puddles along the road, and even this bizarre river lined with salt which wound off into the distance where I could make out several square miles of water ahead.

A river runs through it

Usually when I visit Death Valley, I will head out into the salty playa around Badwater and north of Furnace Creek in search of puddles of water for reflections. This was water unlike anything I’ve ever seen there. This was not quite 2005 levels, certainly, but the water stretched for miles. Near the actual Badwater turnout in the park, the water was a near perfect mirror. There was no wind at all.

Black Mountains symmetry

Taking a friend’s advice to heart, I had picked up some rubber waders to walk out into the cold water. One might think that Death Valley would be warm, but in the wintertime it gets quite cold at night, and the water does not retain lots of heat. I had planned to set up camp and come back to shoot sunset, but I never made it to camp before dark. I waded out into the water to catch my first mirror reflected sunset:

The wonderful mirror

Amazed at what I saw, I made a plan for the following morning. I thought wrongly that if Badwater had that much water, perhaps the area where Salt Creek impacts the West Side Road would have far more extensive flooding than usual. Unfortunately, it did not.

The river of Salt Creek

It was a nice and quiet sunrise, but I was not satisfied as most winter visits to Death Valley can yield similar images at this location. I headed back to Badwater and shoot the picture at the very top of this post. I then visited an area of the Mesquite Dunes that I have not previously visited, and then headed back to Badwater to wade once again out into the water. Having camera gear over a lake of salty water (much saltier than the Ocean) is a very precarious place to be. Salt water kills electronics and cameras and lenses. It’s highly corrosive, and thus lens changes out there are quite a challenge. Nevertheless I made a few lens changes out there and managed not to drop any gear into the water.

For my second sunset at Badwater, I didn’t know what I was in for. The one the night before I thought was ok, but sometimes it’s just really hard to predict what the clouds are going to do. This was definitely one of those times. I was out early with the late afternoon light. The water again was like glass. No wind! Symmetrical compositions were everywhere.

Afternoon Badwater Symmetry

So, I waited. I practiced the art of standing perfectly still in the water so as to not cause ripples. If I moved my feet, ripples would emanate from my feet and it would take 5 minutes before they would clear to the point where they would not show up in a shot. To shoot sunset, I knew I would have to keep my feet planted and twist at the waist at most. I planted the tripod into the salty mud in a place that I could shoot panoramas. I waited. Finally the sun dipped below the Panamint Range, and still I had no idea about the visual treat that was about to unfold. And then finally, it happened.

Sunset Symmetry

WOW! The sky exploded with color! A dark, symmetrical explosion of color that stretched 180 degrees burst into the sky. I frantically clicked away the shutter. I shot panorama after panorama as the light changed, carefully twisting my body only at the waist (as ripples would have ruined the reflection) and shooting in many cases blindly to the sides. I would pause ever few seconds and just stare wide-mouthed at the scene before me. It was the single most dramatic sunset I’ve ever experienced. Truly amazing. And, I feel as though I captured it. Click below to view the panorama on black (and there is a larger size than that on flickr as well).

WOW

I was blown away. I stayed until it got dark, and just was mesmerized by the experience. I said “Thank you!” aloud to the landscape, and I was nothing but smiles. I headed back to camp. This night would not be a usual one, however. I had plans for the darkness. I had shot some star trails the night before at the Devil’s Golf Course. I headed out again to do the same at Badwater. I went to sleep at around 7 pm. I woke up at midnight. I headed straight for Badwater in the darkness. The moon was not up at all. I went to the same peninsula from where I had shot the sunset a few hours before. Alone in the dark I carried my camera gear out to see what would happen. I set up a couple of film cameras for some multi-hour exposures, and set up my 5D2 for some quicker star trails. I set the timer to wait a couple minutes and then take a 45 minute exposure. I waited then in my car, in the dark. With the long exposure noise reduction feature on modern DSLRs, I knew I was in for another 45 minutes of wait time once the exposure was made. As soon as the shutter closed I waded out into the water and retrieved my camera. I left the film gear out there and drove to Zabriskie Point thinking I would do another digital star trail shot while the film cameras continued to soak up the light. When I got to Zabriskie, I waited for the camera to produce the image. When it did I nearly flipped. There in the dark on my tiny little 3″ screen was this:

Star Trail Symmetry

Instantly any thoughts of shooting more star trails anywhere else evaporated like a cup of water in a Death Valley July. I raced back to Badwater and plopped the camera back in a nearly identical spot, and this time aimed to include the North Star.

Star trail reflection on a windless night

For the second time in less than 12 hours, a flooded Badwater in Death Valley had utterly blown me away. Amazingly, both of these shots were taken with virtually no wind. In the second one, at the very end of the exposure there is some wind causing ripples which broaden the reflected star trail lines, but overall it’s a near perfect reflection. This is a side of Death Valley that I had never seen. I had never seen star trail pictures with perfect water reflections before. The second star trail image is my most viewed image on flickr. It has the highest “interestingness” rating there in my work as well, and was (along with the “WOW” panorama) in the “Explore” section for the days they were posted.

After shooting the star trails, I should have stayed and shot sunrise there. I had other ideas though and headed for the dunes for my morning. While there were no reflections to be found amongst the piles of sand, there was one additional thing that I had never seen before here. There was frost in the sand.

The edge of frosted sand

The frost added some interesting highlights to the sand in the morning light.

Orange frosted dunes

After one final 3-mile hike into the center of the valley near Salt Creek, I headed back to home. I was nothing but smiles even through the hours that I was behind the wheel. Waking up at midnight did make for a seriously long day, but the rewards will last me a lifetime.

My next post will detail my return trip just two weeks later, and then after that I have some exciting trips to Joshua Tree, and Channel Islands to share. Stay tuned.

Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney viewed from Lone Pine in March 2010

Mount Whitney viewed from Lone Pine in March 2010

More than four years ago as I was driving through the wonderful Owens Valley. Mount Whitney caught my attention. More specifically, I had read about it somewhere and for some reason it stuck in my mind. I wasn’t sure which mountain was Whitney. I knew approximately where it was, but it didn’t stick out like I had imagined it would. Well, the reason it doesn’t stick out is because it’s further back behind other peaks. It does stick out but from the floor of Owens Valley it’s not obvious that it is the tallest peak in the Sierras, and indeed in the lower 48 states. For whatever reason this mountain stuck in my mind and I began researching it and discovered you can climb it by trail – no hanging off ropes, just hiking. I decided I would do that one day, although I had never been backpacking and had never climbed a mountain of any height.

Fast forward to 2009. I had chatted with a friend about my desire to climb Whitney. He had climbed it and a thought emerged of going up together along with some other friends. I sent in permit requests based on dates that he might be available. We got permits for late May, but realized there was probably considerable snow still up there at that point and due to changed work status for the both of us, the plan fell apart.

In 2010 a couple things changed. More resolute than ever, I elected to make sure that I knew what I was doing so I wouldn’t have to rely on a guide. I signed up to take the Wilderness Travel Course, (WTC) offered by volunteers from the Sierra Club. This was a 10-week course about what is needed to safely travel in the wilderness. I learned about backpacking in any kind of weather, carrying the correct food and items and navigating with map and compass. It was a fantastic class. I met a lot of great people and really enjoyed the outings, whether it was rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park or snow shoeing on Mount Pinos. I can’t recommend enough learning about how to be out there safely. Things are a lot different when you are out there away from civilization.

From May to November, the number of people allowed on the Mount Whitney Trail is capped. This is done to keep the trail from becoming both the 405 of the Sierras and a landfill. To obtain a permit, you must participate in a permit lottery. You must mail in a form in February to Inyo National Forest. In 2010, four of us put in applications for Mt. Whitney permits, and two of us got them. I was offered a spot on one of the trips, and the date was set! We requested three day permits. This would allow us to hike up to camp, summit, and then hike out on the third day. This seemed the best way to go about it. Throughout 2010 I trained. I climbed local 100-foot staircases as many as 15 times in a session. I participated in extreme boot camp. I went on other trips to Rock Creek Lake and Big Pine Lakes. I did training hikes on Mount Baldy. And finally, the permit time arrived. August 30 – September 1.

Being the photographer that I am, carrying my DSLR on any of these trips has been a minimum requirement. During WTC I tried a couple of different cases, but finally settled on a Clik Elite chest pack. Using this pack kept the camera in easy reach when climbing, and helped counterbalance a little the weight of the my main backpack on my back. I wish it could attach directly to the backpack instead of using it’s own harness, but it’s been a good compromise so far. Given the magnitude of the hike – 22 miles round trip and over 6,100 feet of elevation gain – I opted to leave my tripod behind. I regretted this, but wanted to make sure I actually made it to the top. So, the entire kit was my Canon 5D Mark II, 24-105 f4L IS, and some extra cards and batteries. The next time I return to the mountain, I will be bringing my tripod, and probably my 16-35mm lens as well, or who knows what else. Whatever my legs can carry!

Here is a Google Earth map of the route to the summit. This is based on my GPS data. Click for a bigger view. From the portal at 8600 feet to the summit at 14,508 feet is approximately 11 miles with a total of about 6,100 feet of elevation gain along the trail.

GPS track view from above the portal

GPS track view from above the portal

GPS data view from above the summit

GPS data view from above the summit

Elevation profile from my GPS data for the whole Whitney Trail

Elevation profile from my GPS data for the whole Whitney Trail

The start of the trail at Whitney Portal is a beautiful area. It’s covered in a beautiful forest and the granite peaks of the Sierras surrounding this deep valley.

Just a little into the hike

The view looking forward a little ways past the start

This first picture is the view looking up from just above the start of the trail. The trail actually starts with you walking away from Whitney as you switchback up on your way to that upper valley in the center.

Big green view

Even from here, the valley floor is almost a mile below. Soon this green section will disappear from view.

This is the view from almost the top of this section of the trail. The last big green view looking down into Owens Valley below.

Green trees and a hint of blue

Trees near Lone Pine Lake (the blue in the image) - just below 10,000 feet

From just under 10,000 feet there is a diversion you can go on over to Lone Pine Lake. You can see a tiny bit of the blue through the trees.

A deer on the trail

A deer not concerned by hikers just before the entrance to the Whitney Zone

This deer was hanging out munching on some grass.

Entering the Whitney Zone

Entering the Whitney Zone. Permits are required from here on

Lone Pine Lake

The mirror reflection of crazy blue Lone Pine Lake. It looks like a giant sapphire jewel against the surrounding terrain.

Bighorn Park

Bighorn Park - site of Outpost Camp, the lower camp on the Whitney Trail.

There are two camps along the Mount Whitney Trail. Outpost Camp is a little over 10,000 feet and is adjacent to Bighorn Park. The camp is actually in the forested area to the left.

The waterfall into Bighorn Park at Outpost Camp

The waterfall into Bighorn Park at Outpost Camp

Mirror Lake Panorama

Mirror Lake panorama. Fish in the lake kept the surface from being absolutely still

Heading up from Outpost Camp we come upon Mirror Lake. This was a lunch stop for us as we relaxed in the shade.

At the tree line

At the tree line: The Needles are just peeking from behind the foreground ridges

The last few trees before we enter the moonscape of the high Sierras

Well above the tree line

Definitely above the tree line now. The Whitney crest is coming into view

Trailside Meadow shows us some snow

Trailside Meadow shows us some snow at around 11,000 feet. Still another 1000 feet to get to Trail Camp

Another rest stop. Climbing was getting harder as the air got thinner.

Consultation Lake

Passing Consultation Lake in elevation to get the last few hundred feet to Trail Camp

Consultation Lake comes into view as we narrow in on Trail Camp. Really looking forward to making it to camp at this point. Trail Camp is the upper camp on the Whitney trail and was our destination for the night. Our immediate neighbors included the guys from Modern Hiker.

Last Light at Trail Camp

The last bit of the sun shines over Trail Camp on the Mount Whitney Trail

I was happy to catch the sunburst as the last light disappeared from above Trail Camp. I was delighted when I was able to catch the sunburst as the first light reached us at Trail Camp the next morning.

First light at Trail Camp

First light at Trail Camp. The Sun's rays just crest to hit me with direct rays

Wotan

First light shines on Wotan's Throne at my campsite in Trail Camp

My tent. Steaks are useless here in this barren landscape. My tent is tied to a bunch of rocks and is placed behind this ledge for some hopeful wind protection. This is a 2.5 person tent, but really that means 1 person and gear.

Mount Muir Dawn

Mount Muir is the tall peak in the immediate area of Trail Camp. The view from Trail Camp at dawn

Heading into the infamous 99 switchbacks

Heading into the infamous 99 switchbacks

From Trail Camp begins a section of the trail referred to as the 99 switchbacks. This section zig zags back and forth to reach the notch a little left of center. From here to the summit is around 5 miles. I shot a time lapse video of people heading into the switchbacks. Check it out in HD as the people get really tiny in frame.

Trail Camp lake and Consultation Lake

Trail Camp lake and Consultation Lake

Here is a view looking down at Trail Camp. Consultation Lake is coming into view as is the Owens Valley floor.

The infamous railings

The infamous railings on the switchbacks. It's a long slope down on the right.

“The ropes” or railings. This section of the trail has often been referred to as being somewhat treacherous. No problems on our trip.

Looking back at the railings

Looking back at the railings. Note the ice

Zig zag zig zag

Zig zag zig zag. Trail Camp lake gets smaller and smaller as we wind up.

There are a lot of switchbacks! I lost caount in the 20’s and gave up. I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

When does it end!

When does it end!

The tiny black dot is a person just left of center standing out into the blue.

At last, Trail Crest is in sight

At last, Trail Crest is in sight

A significant milestone on the trail. Trail Crest

A significant milestone on the trail. Trail Crest

Trail Crest! 13,600 feet.

The Other Side!

The other side! At last a view to the other side of the Whitney Crest, and the beginning of a venture into Sequoia National Park from the east side. No park entry booth here!


A 360 degree panorama from Trail Crest. Click and drag to pan. Right click for full screen option.

The other side panorama

The other side panorama

From Trail Crest we head down, the first time on the trail we lose elevation on our way to the summit.

The end in sight

The end is in sight. The broad top of Whitney is in view and contrasts with the rocky terrain on the back side of Mount Muir.

Guitar Lake

Aptly named Guitar Lake more than 2000 feet below us.

At last! The summit hut!

At last! The summit hut!

The Smithsonian Hut on the summit of Mount Whitney is in site. We’ve made it!

Whitney summit plaque

Whitney summit plaque. Note that the trail was built 1928-1930, but the hut was built in 1906.

Imagine building this trail at the end of the 1920’s!

Victory is mine!

Victory is mine!

Here I am at the top. A bit weary, but feeling awesome with a sense of accomplishment!

Start and finish in one view

The start of the trail is at the end of the road in the dense forest dead center. The end is where I'm standing.

360 degree panorama from the summit of Whitney. Click and drag to pan. Right click for full screen option.

It was really amazing to stand there. After a four year desire to make it I had accomplished my goal. It was a great feeling. We hung out on the summit for something like an hour before heading down. I had the worst headache in the world due to the altitude, but was otherwise fine.

Looking back at Trail Camp from the summit

Looking back at Trail Camp from the summit

The broad back of Whitney and the Needles

The broad back of Whitney and the Needles

Whitney and the Needles make me imagine a giant cookie cutter has carved out the face of these immense peaks.

Treeline Lake

Treeline Lake naturally is right about at the treeline

The larger of Hitchcock Lakes

The larger of Hitchcock Lakes

One last view into Sequoia National Park

One last view into Sequoia National Park

The jagged shadow of the Needles over Trail Camp

The jagged shadow of the Needles over Trail Camp, and one photographer's shadow

I didn’t sleep well the first night, but I did sleep better the second night after summiting Whitney. And, I did so with a smile on my face.

Dawn at Trail Camp

Dawn at Trail Camp

First Light on Whitney

First light illuminates the face of Whitney

Sunrise at Trail Camp is spectacular. Whitney is the flat top on the right, which due to perspective appears shorter than the needles that are closer.

Consultation Lake panorama

Consultation Lake panorama

Another view of Consultation Lake

The view going back

The view going back is a bit different. Still well above the treeline

Back at Trailside Meadow

Back at Trailside Meadow

Below the treeline again

Below the treeline again

Mount Whitney from the portal road

Mount Whitney from the portal road. Hard to believe I was standing up there the day before.

A Rear View of Whitney

Mount Whitney in my rear view. Until the next time

For 2011, my application is in. I want to come back with a lot more camera gear to capture some amazing pics. I hope you’ve enjoyed my recounting of this epic hike. Special thanks to my friends Ron and Sarah Rebensdorf for letting me come along on their permit last year!

My 20 favorite photos of 2010, or something close anyway

What a year this has been. I have traveled to places I previously never even knew existed. I have climbed mountains and enjoyed incredible views (including Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states). I’ve gazed upon turquoise water and glaciers, watched lightning dance in the desert, and experienced the winter wonderland that the Eastern Sierras can be. I’ve visited beautiful coasts and quiet redwood forests. More than 16,500 exposures fired this year. From that it has been difficult to narrow down my favorites, but I have come to a list that I am pretty comfortable with. I will say that many of these trips were made possible by the Wilderness Travel Course offered by the Sierra Club. This class opened my eyes to many many more photographic possibilities and to explore those possibilities safely. I highly recommend this class! Fully half of these pictures were taken on trips related to WTC class, or from class trips directly.

Now, onto the pictures. These are arranged in chronological order.

Magical Light

Magical Light

My sole trip to Death Valley in 2010 yielded one of the most amazing lighting moments I’ve ever seen. When I took this photo, a band of clouds behind me was blocking the sunlight from hitting the dark hills, while allowing direct sunlight to illuminate the salt encrusted mud formations that were closer to me. The result was this wild razor-thin slice of sunlight sandwiched between clouded hills and then rendered symmetrically from the water’s reflection. It was, for lack of a better word, magical.

Snow-coverd Pine

Snow-coverd Pine

This wonderful little tree stood out in near white silhouette from the fog and falling snow beyond. I encountered this tree on a snow travel day with WTC where we learned to walk with snow shoes. I loved the simplicity of a black and white interpretation of what was nearly a monochromatic scene anyway.

Rock Creek Lake Panorama
Panorama at Rock Creek Lake

Be sure to click on the flickr link to view the panorama much larger.

This scene was the view just above our camp during the “snow camp” trip at the end of WTC class. To experience the beauty of the Eastern Sierras at the end of winter was quite the treat. All my friends said I was crazy for camping in the snow, but it is truly an amazing experience.

Flying in Formation Over Arch Rock

Flying in Formation Over Arch Rock

Oh, Anacapa. Our troubled adventure to this island didn’t quite work out the way we had intended, but nevertheless I’m thankful to have this image above all others from that day. These great pelicans were traveling towards the rock as our boat idled so we could look at seals. I fired off a series of shots to try and see what they would look like over the rock itself. This was the prize exposure from the bunch. For this I was at the right place at the right time.

Photonic Symphony

Photonic Symphony

Misadventure at Anacapa allowed us to spend a morning near Gorman, CA investigating the California poppy fields and other wildflowers that were in bloom. The clouds were moving crazy fast. We were not sure at first if we would get any interesting skies at all since it was so gray further south in Los Angeles. But, I’m glad we went out anyway because the incredibly dynamic light made for some awesome images. Here the sun was dodging in and out of the clouds extremely fast (check out the scene at the end of that linked video). I waited until the foreground trees were in full sun with the hills behind in shadow and snapped off this picture, black and white fully in mind.

Magic Hour

Magic Hour

This last July I picked up a shiny new piece of glass, the venerable 100-400m Canon zoom lens. Like anyone would want to do, I set out to try and find something to take pictures of with this new acquisition. So, I headed on my bike to the beach to see what I could see. On my way back from my long bike ride, this scene presented itself to me. A dark cloud hung over Santa Monica and Malibu (while it was sunny from Venice on south). This dark cloud had a hole at the Santa Monica Mountains where the sun beamed down in what we call “god rays” in visual effects. In the foreground, big waves smashed on rocks and surfers waited to ride. I spent quite awhile waiting for the perfect shot before I finally moved on. I must have fired off 400-500 pictures seeking “the shot,” and this is the one that was my favorite.

Sequoia Sun Flare

Sequoia Sun Flare

Many, many years ago I paid a very short (perhaps tragically short) visit to Sequoia and Kings Kanyon National Parks. This summer I had the awesome opportunity to go camping there with friends. And naturally that meant hauling all my camera gear along. I was rewarded with a number of memorable images. I also got to see far more bears than I thought I would, including a close encounter within about 15 feet. This image is of a nice couple Giant Sequoia redwoods in Kings Canyon National Park. Fire had damaged and split the trunk of one of the trees, leaving a crack perhaps 30 feet tall or more. In the lower part of the crack there was a little notch like a tiny window, and I just happened to notice the sun was around that area. So, with a little move over I got the sun in the notch, and through the lens flare created with the sun and the f/18 aperture it created this nice big sunburst from the notch. This is I think my favorite picture from that trip. I love these trees!

Temple Crag from Second Lake

Temple Crag from Second Lake

Big Pine Lakes – Few things I can say other than “wow” about this stretch of the John Muir Wilderness. It’s just a magical place. The glacial water has millions of tiny suspended particles in it which gives these lakes their incredible hue. Here I am in this picture, standing in awe looking at this landscape. The rocky mountain before me is Temple Crag, a photogenic 12,999 ft temple of granite. Never before had I witnessed a landscape such as this with my own eyes.

Temple Crag's Chin

Temple Crag's Chin

I’ve always been a fan of the black and white landscape, having studied the works of famous photographers like Ansel Adams. This is my favorite black and white from the trip to Big Pine Lakes. These are snow fields at the base of the immense cliff face of Temple Crag, which I have dubbed its chin.

Last Light at Trail Camp

Last Light at Trail Camp

A nearly 4 year old goal – to climb Mount Whitney was fulfilled this year. Though I haven’t yet written up the blog article I intend to, I can at least say that it was a really incredible trip. The scenery is wonderful and the sheer physical challenge was exhilarating. This image is one I was happy to get. A little sunburst right as the sun (and its warmth) disappeared behind the edge of the Eastern Sierras, which I matched with this one of a little sunburst as the first rays of light broke over the Sierras to our east.

Joshua Tree Star Trails

Joshua Tree Star Trails

I love star trails. This one just happens to be one that I like from Joshua Tree National Park. This exposure was 30 minutes long as was taken on a backpacking expedition to summit Quail Mountain, the tallest peak in the park.

Thunderstorm and Star Trails I

Thunderstorm and Star Trails I

This image was a total surprise. While on that same expedition, I awoke really early to find a developing thunderstorm to our southeast. Our group had been caught in one in the first hours of our hike the day before, and I was weary of this one as it had tons of lightning activity. Since I did not have my full size tripod, I relied on my little Gorillapod focus for this (as well as the star trail shot above). I set the exposure for 5 minutes at f/5.6 and aimed it at the storm. I had no idea what I would get, but lo and behold I was blown away at the resulting image. Unfortunately, with my headlamp on, I wondered into the shot in the foreground forcing me to crop that part out. However the rest of the image is very lovely indeed, and motivated me to continue trying to capture lightning well into the morning.

Joshua Tree Lightning 6

Joshua Tree Lightning 6

And speaking of lightning, I had always wanted to capture lightning photos. I had never really had the opportunity in the Midwest growing up. There was just too much stuff to clutter the foreground and block the view, and there was also too much haze between the storms and myself to get a clear shot. This morning in Joshua Tree was different. I was able to capture lightning as I never had before. I set the camera to continuously take photos while myself and my fellow hikers packed up our tents to get out of there before a storm could find us. I made a couple of adjustments as the morning light began to brighten our world. This was my favorite lightning strike photo from those attempts. The lightning here is striking a little over a mile away.

Solitary Joshua Tree

Solitary Joshua Tree

Later in the morning on that same trip I saw this scene before me. I loved the sky and the backlight on this solitary tree, a few hundred feet from a forest of his brethren. I just loved the quality of light and the low level fog from the rain the night and day before.

Frosted creek, near North Lake, CA

Frosted creek, near North Lake, CA

In my time in southern California, I have been wanting to seek out fall color aspen trees to photograph. Work seems to always interfere with this quest, but I was determined this time. Leaving much later than I had intended, I still made an 860 mile road trip in two days, crisscrossing the Sierra Nevada range through Yosemite and visiting the eastern flanks lf the Sierras in search of their aspen groves.

Moonburst and firelight

Moonburst and firelight

Here is an image I love and purposely planned for in short order. While attending the graduation from WTC I shot a couple images of our large group camp. I then also noticed that the rocks around where I was standing were illuminated by our large campfire. I swung the camera around and made an exposure. The intense red and the moonlight were fantastic! The moon was sinking fast so I made another exposure, but this time the fire had died way down and the foreground rocks had lost their presence. So, I made another exposure and ran down to flare up the fire just as the moon was passing behind the crest of the rocks. I stopped down to f/11, the smallest aperture I dared in the dark light, to try and maximize the starburst effect like I had done on the Sequoia shot above. The exposure time of 13 minutes was a total guess based on the previous few. The result turned out great. The moon made a moonburst pattern just as I wanted, and my only complaint is that I didn’t let it go a little longer to get more light on the foreground rocks.

Red rocks and star trails I

Red rocks and star trails I

With the pure excitement of the moonburst shot fresh in my mind, I ventured around the camp to take more firelight pictures, and this is my favorite of that bunch. Star trails in the blue sky behind and moonlight and firelight combined on the rocks in the foreground.

Fern Covered Tree

Fern Covered Tree

Oh what a tree! This amazing tree greeted my father and I as we ventured into Muir Woods National Monument for the first time in 12 or so years. The soft backlight of these ferns was magical to behold. I had fond memories of this place from my sole previous visit, and this new one left me with the same awe and the same feeling of serenity.

Redwood Calm

Redwood Calm

This was my last picture as we left Muir Woods. Something about this view stopped me and compelled me to take one last photo. The light was nearly gone, as the sun had set and we were proceeding through twilight. This scene was just so peaceful that I couldn’t pass it up. I think the totally diffuse, soft light captures the feeling I felt at the time. We were basically the last two people in the park and I just soaked up the silence of the forest while I patiently awaited this long exposure to complete. The redwood forests are truly great places on Earth.

Pre-flight check

Pre-flight check

Finally, a sunset image from the wonderful El Matador State Beach. I was capturing images from this sunset for awhile this fine evening. A group of three cormorants were waiting out the sunset on a rock. I took some wider views of them before deciding to frame up a closeup. Once I zoomed in, the first bird decided to take off. This was followed by the second. And finally the third one was getting ready to go. I had missed the shot I wanted but was able to capture the final bird as it stretched its wings before taking flight. I think it made for a fantastic image and a nice one to round out my 20 favorite pictures from 2010. At least that’s what it was when I arbitrarily cut off my quest. When I next look through the library, I’m sure I’ll come up with another 5, 10 or 20 favorites in an instant.

So there you have it. I hope 2011 turns out even better. My horizons have certainly broadened this year, so the sky is the limit you could say for next year.

What do you think of my selections?

December 29, 2010 - 3:56 pm

Kristen - These are awesome pictures, Kurt! I think the ones with the firelit rocks are my favorites (I also really love the sunburst through the redwoods). Reading about how each picture was made makes them all the more compelling.

December 29, 2010 - 4:02 pm

edinblack - Pictures look great! Found this through your Twitter.

December 30, 2010 - 5:01 am

Kurt - Thanks Ed and Kristen!

A Scene at Muir Woods revisited some 12 years later

I have been a lover of trees for as long as I can remember. My back yard growing up was basically a section of forest. I loved being in forests and smelling the autumn leaves turning. I loved their different shapes and colors and smells. The greatest of trees it seemed were the redwoods. In my back yard growing up we had 3 or 4 dawn redwoods. These were relatively small as they were very young. I had read about the great coastal redwoods but had never seen them until in 1998 I made a trip out west. In this trip my dad and I made a stop at Muir Woods, and being a photography lover I had my Mamiya 645 with me. As we walked that wonderful grove, I made several pictures that to this day are some of my favorite photos that I have ever taken. Below is one of those images.

Arched Tree, Muir Woods, CA 1998

Arched Tree, Muir Woods, CA 1998

Walking along the trail I was fascinated by these trees that will fall over and then keep growing in their new orientation, sprouting limbs straight up from the fallen log in cases. These stood and fell in the shadow of the wonderful redwoods around. This one had somehow grown into a near perfect arch and stopped me in my tracks. The combination of the arch with the redwoods all around was instantly a must-shoot composition. After some searching around I found a spot that seemed to minimize the impact of the wooden boardwalk in the background and emphasized the arch. This is that picture. The light was soft and beautiful, emphasizing the colors.

Just recently I had the opportunity to revisit Muir Woods for the first time since that trip in 1998. I hit the loop and made my way through. We only had about two hours of light left, but I soon recognized the spot, or nearly anyway, where I had taken that arched branch photo all those years before. This time I did not have my Mamiya (I had forgotten it in the car! Next time I will not forget). Instead I had my my trusty Canon 5D Mark II which is my standard operating camera these days. Armed with cell phone service in the park I suddenly had the idea to try and take the same photo again. I had located the spot by memory, but couldn’t quite get the angle right. I called up a copy of the film image on my phone and did the best I could to get the right angle. What I got is pretty close. It’s definitely the same general position. However, you can obviously tell the landscape has changed! A whole new crop of leaves has enveloped the foreground and right side of the image. Looking at the two side by side, it seems as if the right most trunk had fallen over in the camera’s direction and then sprouted up all those branches and leaves. So, the picture I took all those years ago is not possible anymore. The foreground clutter just doesn’t give you the same effect. The arched tree is still there, growing slowly. In coming years it will no doubt look much different still.

Arched Tree, 12 years later

Arched Tree, 12 years later, 2010

Muir Woods is a magical place to me. My first exposure to the mighty coastal redwoods. I hope everyone has the opportunity to visit the redwoods somewhere one day. Stay tuned for more images from Muir Woods as soon as I can process them!

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