My most recent trip was returning to Seattle in early October. The purpose of this visit was that one of my Kauai friends wanted to go to a Seattle Seahawks football game for his birthday, plus my dad was also turning 80 the following weekend and I wanted to celebrate it with him. It had been several years since I had experienced fall, so I also planned on visiting the North Cascades. I drove up to the Methow Valley with my buddy Tom and we spent 2 nights in a friend’s beautiful cabin near Mazama. The weather was ideal with clear blue skies and crisp autumn air. One afternoon, I decided to revisit a location where I had photographed one of my favorite abstract images almost 20 years ago. I found this fallen leaf tranquilly marooned along the river’s shore and maneuvered my camera into position to include the contrasting yellow-orange trees and blue sky reflection. I especially like the water ripples in the reflection that add another dimension to this beautiful composition.
This summer, I also visited Seattle after flying back and forth to Juneau. I enjoy being back in my old stomping grounds during the increasingly warm summers. Unfortunately, the downside to that nice weather is dry conditions in the Cascades that lead to forest fires and lots of smoke. I eventually pulled myself away from my prolonged SeaFair boating lifestyle to visit Mount Rainier National Park. Stephen Matera invited me to join him on a day trip and we decided to hike up to Spray Park to photograph wildflowers. Neither of us had been up there to shoot for who knows how long, so we thought it would be a great location to revisit. As we hiked up into the alpine meadows, we grew increasingly concerned that something was off. In places where we would normally anticipate seeing lush fields of wildflowers, we saw only brown, dried up plants. We scouted a number of locations and still could not find any significant displays to photograph. We discussed how this time of year should be the peak bloom, but only saw the odd signs of lupine, asters, and paintbrush hiding in the shade of trees. One particular meadow that in previous years had been remarkably productive for photos was just a tangle of nothing. I was resigned to not even take my camera out of my backpack, but kept scrambling around searching for anything to photograph. Eventually, I found this small display of avalanche lilies that made a strong foreground as the sunset illuminated Rainier’s icy summit. I had always wanted to create an image with these typically early season wildflowers and was lucky that there was almost no wind to move them around during my longish exposure.
It has taken me almost 6 months to make peace with this image and process it. Of course, a little backstory is required after a statement like that.
When I started building and flying my own drones last year, I was motivated to photograph interesting aerial abstracts during my travels without having to hire an airplane. I scoured Google Earth for interesting topography and then set out to photograph it. One of the locations where I envisioned flying my hexacopter to produce an image was above the mudflats where the Nooksack River flowed into Bellingham Bay. The satellite views showed an intricate network of braided channels that I thought looked like a painting.
So, back to the difficult part about processing this image. On my second attempt to fly over this landscape, I had secured a permit from the Lummi tribe to walk out on the mudflats. My dad joined me on a gorgeous day in May with ideal flying conditions. I was feeling confident and flew my drone farther and higher than I had ever flown before (roughly 600m out and 100m up) to compose this image. On my second flight of the day, my hexacopter unfortunately experienced a sudden and rapid descent into the terrain below. Ouch. I could see that my hexacopter was sticking out of the water, so after a lot of effort to reach it I recovered it. The submersion damaged most of the electronics and flooded my camera, but at least the memory card was recoverable and the SuperX flight controller is waterproof. Upon reviewing the blackbox data, I discovered that the reason for the crash was a loss of power to one of my motors which upon inspection showed a poor solder connection which I blame on the Chinese manufacturer. I hope that you agree that this is an exciting application of technology used to produce a beautiful image.
I hiked up to the Coleman Glacier on Mount Baker several times over the past month hoping to fly my remote controlled hexacopter. Earlier this week, all the conditions that I had hoped for finally aligned. The clouds suddenly and dramatically parted just as the sun set on the western horizon and there was almost no wind. I only had a few minutes to get in the air above the glacier and photograph this dramatic perspective.
On Tuesday, the weather was overcast, but potentially clearing in the late afternoon, so I took a chance and drove up to Mount Baker for the third time in a month. It is a 12+ hour round trip from my house, so it is a big commitment requiring a lot of optimism. I hiked up to Heliotrope Ridge to look down onto the Coleman Glacier and was surprised to still find wildflowers blooming. This group of fireweed seemed particularly nice for early September. I set up my camera and crossed my fingers that the clouds would lift in time for sunset. Just as I had hoped, the clouds parted 15 minutes before sunset and the scene was flooded with golden light.
A few weeks ago, I spent an amazing 3 days photographing our resident orcas with my good friends Ken, Stuart, and Robin. I’ve never put much effort into photographing them here in the Northwest, mostly because there are too many whale watching boats and legal restrictions on observing them. So, we were surprised and delighted when we had the orcas all to ourselves from late afternoon through sunset every day. Not only were the seas calm and the light amazing, but the orcas were very active as demonstrated by this breaching orca!
It seems that years of hard-work and dedication are paying off. My 10 year anniversary of being a full-time photographer is coming up this June, and I have experienced a lot of editorial success lately, including my new hiking and backpacking photography article in the May 2011 issue of Popular Photography. In the article, I share my secrets for creating dramatic images away from parking lot viewpoints. Most readers are never going to travel to the ends of the Earth and spend weeks camped out like I do, but hopefully my article will motivate more photographers to get more exercise, enjoy nature, and find their own unique images rather than settle for the same-old viewpoints. I created the double-page opening image of Forbidden Peak at sunset while backpacking in North Cascades National Park. It was a long hike up to Sahale Arm where I camped for several nights with some friends. If you are motivated, I highly recommend this backpacking trip high into the North Cascades. The views are some of the best that can be found in Washington. I created this image with my Pentax 67II medium format camera, Pentax 90mm f2.8 lens, Singh-Ray Warming Polarizer, tripod, and Fuji Velvia 50 film. I scanned it on my Imacon Photo scanner and adjusted the masterfile in whatever version of Photoshop I was using at the time. Readers will also note that I included a photo of my Fstopgear Tilopa BC packed with all my equipment spilled out that I currently use to create landscape photos.
Picture Lake is one of the most iconic, and thus photographed, locations in my home state of Washington. The reflection of Mt Shuksan from the lake on a clear day is postcard perfect. In September, I returned to Picture Lake for the first time in a several years while instructing 2 private photography tour clients from Mexico. They had never been here before, so they were giddy with the perfect shooting conditions. Over the years, I have sold my original medium format film image of this scene numerous times, but I prefer this updated digital photo to the original. I created this image with my Canon 5DmkII, Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE lens, and Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density filters on a tripod with minimal processing in Aperture 3. As always, the secret ingredient of this image was lots of patience waiting for hikers to walk out of the scene and a perfect reflection when the breeze stopped blowing.
The most important thing I teach my photography tour clients is how to anticipate a shot. Let’s use my new image of the fall colors on Mazama Ridge as an example of when to shoot. When I was at Mount Rainier National Park last Friday, the sky was clear blue without a single cloud on the horizon. I knew that the best image in these conditions would be when the angle of the sunlight was a few degrees above the horizon and still yellow or orange in color. Experience has taught me where the sun would go down, but I confirmed my guess by using my SunSeeker app on my iPhone. I wanted to shoot this scene as the sunset light settled into the trees and danced across the foliage in front of my camera. The tree shadows added some mystery to an otherwise beautiful but non-dramatic scene. This light only lasted for about 30 seconds before the foliage went into complete shade. I used my Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE lens along with my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer and 2-stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density filter to create this image using only 1 exposure which required minimal processing.
Last week, I helped 2 photography clients from Mexico City experience and shoot Washington’s fall colors. With all of my travels out of state, I no longer have as much time to shoot when I am home, so it was nice to do some photography in my old stomping grounds in the Cascades. For some reason, every time that I have been out shooting in the last month, I have experienced clear blue skies which has made dramatic light conditions very difficult to find.Of course, there are worse things than driving around in the mountains on sunny days. On the first day of our time together, precipitation clung to the North Cascades as I drove up I-5 to Picture Lake. I thought that our timing would be ideal for photographing fall colors and was not disappointed. As the clouds swirled and briefly parted late in the afternoon, my clients and I were able to photograph Mt Shuksan’s perfect reflection. The sun sets behind a mountain ridge at about 4:30, causing the foreground and trees on the opposite side of the lake to usually become too dark, but on this afternoon the lifting fog helped to soften the harsh shadows. I used my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer slightly backed off from full polarization along with my Singh-Ray 4-stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density filter placed above the foreground foliage to balance the exposure. I also chose to photograph this scene with my Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE lens in order to keep Mt Shuksan from becoming too small in the overall composition while still being able to have enough depth of field at f16 to include the foliage along the shore in the foreground.