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Vermilion Cliffs

For years I’ve wanted to get back in to an area called “White Pocket” in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to explore and photograph. It’s a place with just surreal rock formations, but the sandy roads back to it are known to eat regular cars, and until I got the 4Runner I would not have been able to get there.

Fast forward to Presidents’ Day weekend 2020 and I threw my memory foam mattress in the back of the 4Runner and headed out to Vermilion Cliffs. The plan was a little vague, but definitely included White Pocket… and then maybe Page AZ or Goosenecks, but maybe staying more in Vermilion Cliffs if I was lucky enough to win permits in the walkup lottery for Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) or South. “The Wave” is a stunning rock formation that is very popular with hikers, travelers, and photographers. Access is limited to 20 people per day–10 through an online lottery three months in advance and 10 through a walkup lottery the day before in Kanab, Utah. Hundreds of thousands of people apply each year.

I drove straight through from San Diego to Kanah, Utah, arriving late Thursday night to sleep next to some reservoir outside of town, but up early in the frosty morning (19 degrees!) to head over to the BLM field office for the lottery. Parking was awful and people were everywhere… but not for the lottery, I had lucked into the annual hot air balloon festival which was launching from the field across from the field office.

Because it was a holiday weekend, the turnout for the permit lottery was massive–192 people in 73 groups. Lottery winners were drawn by the use of a spinning wire cage with numbered balls inside. On the third or fourth spin for Saturday, a ball came flying out of the cage, skittered across the floor, and came to rest under a desk. “This one must really want to go!,” the ranger said, climbing under the desk. It did! It was mine! And somehow I became known as “that guy who just showed up and won the lottery on his very first try”–as I heard from four or five people out in the wilderness over the next three days (“aren’t you that guy…??”).

I also managed to get a permit for Coyote Buttes South for Sunday–not nearly as popular as Coyote Buttes North, and requires a 4WD vehicle to get there, but still beautiful. Then White Pocket on Monday, and back home on Tuesday.

Here are some highlights from the trip:

At the annual Balloons & Tunes Roundup in Kanab, Utah, on February 14, 2020
At the annual Balloons & Tunes Roundup in Kanab, Utah, on February 14, 2020
At the annual Balloons & Tunes Roundup in Kanab, Utah, on February 14, 2020
At the annual Balloons & Tunes Roundup in Kanab, Utah, on February 14, 2020
The Wave at Coyote Buttes North in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
The Wave at Coyote Buttes North in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
The photographer at The Wave in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
Clouds above Coyote Buttes North, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formations in The Boneyard at Coyote Buttes North, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formations in The Boneyard at Coyote Buttes North, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formations in The Boneyard at Coyote Buttes North, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formations in The Boneyard at Coyote Buttes North, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formations at Coyote Buttes North, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hoodoos at Cottonwood Cove in Coyote Buttes South, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formation at Cottonwood Cove in Coyote Buttes South, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
Hoodoo overlooking the valley at Cottonwood Cove in Coyote Buttes South, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formation and tree at White Pocket in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formation at White Pocket in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rock formation at White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Cow path at White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rocks and tree, White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Rocks and tree, White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs near White Pocket in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Wildflowers at the Imperial Sand Dunes, California
Wildflowers at the Imperial Sand Dunes, California
Wildflowers at the Imperial Sand Dunes, California
Wildflowers at the Imperial Sand Dunes, California

Night Sky Adventures

I’m just back from two quick trips in rapid succession which focused on trying out new lighting techniques for night photography–first two nights in Death Valley, then three nights in Yosemite.  It was a time of extremes:  the first weekend found me in Death Valley at -282′ elevation, 116°F in a windstorm with 50 MPH gusts, but staying at a very lovely resort with comfortable bed, poolside drink service, and a very nice shower.  The second weekend I was sleeping in the back of a rented Ford Explorer with no mattress or pad, at 8,150′ elevation and roughly 35°F, bathing by swimming in the Merced River (so cold that your body burned after being in for 60 seconds), and worrying about whether every noise in the night was a bear about to rip open the back of my car in search of the toothpaste that I shouldn’t have had in the car (but had no bear bin to put in).

Both were fabulous trips and photographically interesting–even if the toll for the two trips was one window ripped off our car in the Death Valley windstorm, one cracked iPhone screen when the resort valet dropped my phone (while being nice enough to take a family photo), one broken lighting tripod (left in the Yosemite trashbin before I departed–it was a total loss), one camera malfunction where the remote trigger port seems to no longer work (which is NOT a good thing on a night photography trip!!), and one lost light panel battery.  Yes, it was an adventure!

What was I up to?  In the past, my night photography has generally been all about finding the darkest night that I could possibly find and sometimes lighting foreground objects using a variety of highly diffused or reflected flashlights (or even, once, battery operated tea candles!).  The technique is called light painting and it’s all about finding a flashlight bright (or dim) enough for your foreground object, diffusing that light, perhaps trying a bunch of different color temperature lights, and then a whole light of trial and error waving the light around in varying directions for varying numbers of seconds.

This year I am trying two techniques that are new to me:  (1) several variable light temperature, variable intensity light panels that I set up on tripods at some distance from the foreground objects and simply leave on continuously, and (2) moonlight.  In the past, I’ve avoided moonlight because it washes out the stars, but there is a fine line where you can pick up just a small amount of moonlight that provides a natural foreground lighting without washing out too much of the night sky.  Or at least that’s the theory!

In Death Valley, I ended up only having one night to shoot… the second night was at the tail end of the windstorm and the sky was full of dust & sand, and my camera would have been sandblasted.  There I played with the light panels in the sand dunes.  In Yosemite, I had three nights of shooting at a total of five locations, making use of both the light panels and moonlight–which varied from very low on the first night to considerable on the third night.

So, with all of that, here are my selections from my recent night photography adventures… with some technical notes…

The Milky Way arches over brush growing in the sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Lit by a single light panel at lowest setting off to the right.

Milky Way over the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Lit by a single light panel at lowest setting placed on the top of the next sand dune behind the camera.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  The trees on the far side of the Merced River are lit by a pair of light panels set at 50% intensity, one 100 feet upstream and another 100 feet downstream.  The granite cliffs are very subtly lit by just a sliver of a moon. Note that you can also see two lights from climbers on the right edge of El Capitan.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on a partial moonlit night. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  Two nights after the shot above, here the mountains are lit by considerably more moonlight… but so is the night sky, with fewer stars visible than on a fully dark night.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on a partial moonlit night. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  This shot is the same as the one above, but with the two light panels added to light the foreground trees.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on a partial moonlit night. Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Unlike the other shots on this page, which are single exposure images, this is an 11-shot composite image experiment for noise reduction.  Taken on the night with the most moon–same as the two above.

Half Dome as seen from Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite National Park at night with the Milky Way above. California, USA.  Shot on night #3 in Yosemite, with more moon, and with two light panels at lowest setting–one aimed at each bank of the river.

The Milky Way behind the classic tree at Olmstead Point in the high country of Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  Lit by roughly a half-second flash of the light panel at lowest setting.

The Milky Way behind the classic tree at Olmstead Point in the high country of Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Lit by roughly a half-second flash of the light panel at lowest setting.

The Milky Way over Tenaya Lake in the high country of Yosemite National Park. California, USA.

The Milky Way over Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls as the crescent moon sets. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.

2018 Red Tide

It seems like every five years or so there’s a really strong red tide here in San Diego that is made up of the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra, which causes nasty low-visibility reddish water during daylight… but the most amazing neon blue glow at night! A good red tide is spectacular underwater (turn off all your lights, wave your hands around, and watch the water sparkle!) and a lot of fun above water also–find a dark part of town and just watch the waves break. I haven’t yet figured out how to photograph the red tide below water, but you can get some pretty cool & abstract shots above water.

Here are my favorites from tonight’s outing. I may add more or swap in others as the red tide continues.

My favorite moment of the night came at the end, after a particular car had been parked with its headlights shining out onto the ocean for at least 20 minutes–ruining the chance for anyone near him to see the amazing display. I stopped off & tried to contain my annoyance and just let the guy know that there was something great going on and his headlights made it impossible to see it… and he’d probably enjoy it, too, if he turned his headlights off. The guy completely flipped out after he turned off his headlights… he seemed to think that it was one of the most amazing things he’d ever seen… and he’d completely missed it for the first 20 minutes… right there in front of him!

The last couple images have some mixed colors–with reds mixed in with the neon blues.  I don’t know if that’s real and/or because of the very high ISO that I tried out at the end and/or because of the guy’s headlights off at the distant right side of the frame.

View large & enjoy the details!  SCROLL DOWN (there are images below!)

See also:  2011 Red Tide photos

The dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra causes breaking waves to glow bright blue at night off the coast of San Diego, California, USA.

Super Blue Blood Moon

The Super Blue Blood Moon total lunar eclipse of January 2018 from the West Coast of the United States — have you ever seen more hype or adjectives applied to the poor old moon??

“Super moons” aren’t a whole lot more than a media thing. The moon is very slightly closer to the Earth, but not so as to make it appear huge. If you see a “super moon” photo where the moon just looks massive, someone has faked the shot! Blue moons aren’t a physical thing–nothing is different about the moon on a blue moon. Blood moons… now there’s the fun! Blood moons occur on total lunar eclipses, when the moon looks quite red during totality. A blood moon I can get excited about!

This is the fifth total lunar eclipse that I’ve photographed. It’s fun to watch the moon disappear, and visually it’s quite nice during totality–with the red color. I’ve shot lunar eclipse time series. I’ve shot lunar eclipses with a whole lot of glass, so the moon is huge in the photo.

The total lunar eclipse of April 2014, shot with 1,000mm of lens

I’ve also done a fair amount of full moon photos. Perhaps my favorite full moon photo of mine is the shot I got about five years ago of the full moon setting behind the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla. That shot was very difficult to get and was shot from a LONG way away with 900mmm of glass. To get the moon so big in a shot, you need a lot of lens.

The full, blue moon sets at sunrise behind the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California.

So as we approached this Super Blue Blood Moon, the thing on my mind was: can I get the moon behind the Mount Soledad Cross during the total solar eclipse? A lot of research and scouting the ground later, my answer was “no, I could not.” At least not from such a great distance that I could use 1,000mm of lens and make the moon huge. However, I did think that if I went down into the canyon behind Mount Soledad, I could probably get the angle about right to put the moon near the cross when it was low-ish in the sky in the middle of totality… with about 400mm of lens. So not a huge moon, but not too small!

Fast forward to the morning of January 31st. Up at 3:30 AM and over to Mount Soledad. I pull up in the early early dark… and there are dozens of cars already there! Oh, no!!! I had told no one about my plans, except one person that I trust and him just late the night before. Had someone arranged one of those annoying photography workshops?? I gathered my gear and walked in to the cross. It was a lovely morning and the crowd was in a great mood. Sounded more like a party. In perhaps the single most important rule of photography, that you never know until you get there, I kept going past the cross and down into the canyon… and there was NO ONE else there! Happy happy, joy joy. I had the place to myself until well past the when the moon was at the right elevation for the shot down there, when a second guy showed up. He had shot down at Balboa Park for the start of the eclipse and then rushed up to Mount Soledad to try to get a second shooting location in. He didn’t make it, but was nice to talk to for a bit.

The only real bummer was that the cross was not evenly lit. When I first arrived, there were no lights on it. Didn’t it used to be lit at night? But then a floodlight from the lower left was turned on, causing strange diagonal lighting throughout all of totality when the moon was low enough to get near the cross itself. Here is one of my early favorites:

A total lunar eclipse behind the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California, USA. “Super Blue Blood Moon” of January 31, 2018.

Finally, as I climbed back up out of the canyon, the sky started to lighten during what’s called “blue hour” (which really is only about five minutes!) just as I rejoined the party near the cross, so I stopped to grab a shot there as well:

A crowed gathers at the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California, to watch the “Super Blue Blood Moon” total lunar eclipse set. January 31, 2018