Archive for Accidental Photo Adventure

Day 7 – Grand Mesa

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , on 07 November 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

So far this trip we had a trend of grand landscapes – mountain ranges, canyons, etc.  Now, we were shifting gears, and the adventure really began.  We were venturing “off the map” – away from designated landmarks and toward discoveries of our own.

Mapping the Course

We decided to head East into Colorado, and for the first time we didn’t really have a destination in mind.  Instead, we had a theme – fall foliage.  On an idea, I’d found an article in one of the Colorado papers from a couple weeks prior. It listed a bunch of places to see fall colors, and estimated the leaves would be turning right about now.  It seemed our timing was accidentally perfect.

Taking pointers from the article, I mapped out a dozen sites in Google Maps and started to piece together a route from Moab.  A bunch of sites got cut from our list because they were too far out of the way, or only accessible via long dirt roads.  But even the shortened list was a pretty good selection.

Grand Junction AAA

On the first leg, we headed in the general direction of Northwest Colorado, ending up in Grand Junction where we hit the AAA office for some maps and local advice.  It was there we transferred the Google map to a good old fashioned paper map using a highlighter – paper being much more reliable than mobile Internet access in the mountains.  (Something that many folks don’t realize: if you’re a AAA member, you can get free maps and guidebooks at any branch.)

The storm that’s crossing the central US is starting to roll in, but so far we’re still ahead of it by about a day.  We have no idea where we’ll stop for the night, but we’re trying to avoid ending the day in any of the many ski resort towns – there’s no sense in over-paying for our room.

Our course would take us diagonally to the Southeast toward the middle of the state, passing first through Grand Mesa, the connecting with a highway that’d take us back Northeast in a zig-zag pattern across the state.

Grand Mesa

Heading toward Grand Mesa we had our first near-miss with wildlife. OK, well it wasn’t really a near-miss… we had plenty of room to brake, but suddenly an 8-point buck was sauntering across the highway right in front of us!  Big guy, too.  We’d been debating for days whether to get a GoPro Hero3 video camera for the dashboard – at this point, we regretted not having it.

As we got to Grand Mesa, a dark storm was rolling over the peaks.  It added a great dramatic element to the photos, but it also made the light challenging.

“Did you see that?” “Yeah, we gotta go back and shoot that!” We were on the hunt, and it totally changed the dynamic of our trip. Instead of having the next destination programmed into our GPS, we were on high alert the whole time, scouting for photo ops at 60 miles per hour.  This is one such opportunistic shot – a small valley running parallel to the highway:


The above image is an HDR comprised of 5 shots at 1/3-stop increments. It’s actually very close to the primary frame in the set – partly because my tastes in HDR are very conservative, but also because I applied strong graduated neutral-density (GND) filters to darken the sky when the images were shot.  As the trip wore on, I came to prefer a soft-edge GND between 3 and 5 stops (0.9 to 1.5), which was achieved by using an 0.9 GND and adding a second 0.3 or 0.6 GND.

The clouds offered even more dramatic skies as we continued across Grand Mesa.  Driving up one side of the ridge, the storm was coming toward us:


As I work more with Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2, I’m continuing to refine my custom presets.  In the image above, I moved my post-HDR tone-curve tweaks from Lightroom into an HDR preset, which both reduced the number of steps in my workflow and improved my consistency.  I really, really wish I’d shot this image as a stitched panorama to yield super high resolution.  But as it was, we barely got to make our shots before the rain came down.

We continued our trek across Grand Mesa, driving through the storm and coming out the other side of the mesa. We were looking at the back-end of the storm, and the scene was completely different but equally spectacular:


And yet another very colorful image as we headed back toward the storm.  I’m thinking this one is destined for a canvas print, and may be my best shot of the trip:


It’s said that “luck is preparation meeting opportunity”, and this is a perfect example.  As we were nearing a junction in the road, my colleague pulled over to take a phone call.  I literally shot this next image handheld out the car window, using the doorframe as my stabilizer.  Of course, I did still have GND filters on the front of my lens.


All this goes to prove that good weather is boring, and foul weather makes for great images – you just have to endure it.

Change of Plans

Well, it’s not as if a change of plans was unexpected.  We really had just a rough idea what we wanted to do, and we were improvising one step at a time.

The idea for today was to make it back up to the top of the state, near the main freeway, before heading southeast through Aspen the next day.  However, the day got long and we found ourselves about halfway along that route, in the town of Paonia.

McClure Pass was next on our list and just up the road, but there wasn’t going to be much light left. We checked rates and found it cost half as much to stay where we were for the night. So, we’d spend the next day at McClure Pass, and then head through Aspen. The only challenge: the storm was going to hit overnight, so the weather might be pretty bleak, and the foliage might be hidden beneath snow.

After Aspen, we’d try to make it to Colorado Springs by nightfall.  There we’d find the Garden of the Gods park. And maybe some train scenery. Perhaps even a drive to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Fortunately, the only motel in the area was not only a reasonable price, but pleasant too.  It’s a family operation, run by a charming little Polish lady.  We’d been fortunate to land in their off-season – after July, but before the ski resorts opened.

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But even more surprising was the Italian restaurant where we had dinner in Paonia.  At the rear of the very unassuming Flying Fork Bakery is a garden, through which we entered the Flying Fork Cafe.  This place truly is a gem – it could easily have been a high-end boutique restaurant in a major city, but instead it was hidden away in this little town deep in Colorado. My colleague is a bit of a foodie and he travels regularly to Italy, and he was pretty darned impressed by the place.  Needless to say, it’s highly recommended.



Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument Valley | Day 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio



Day 6 – Monument Valley

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , on 27 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

Plan B

We got a good night’s sleep and started the day late.  Checking the news, it was obvious the parks closure wasn’t ending soon. We ate breakfast at a local pancake house for the second day in a row, enjoying a mix of carbs and protein to fuel the day. A bit of work was done on photo editing and we debated a list of things to photograph that would let us salvage our trip and the time off. Fortunately, we hadn’t booked hotels further along our route – it looked like we were not only re-routing, but cutting a week off our itinerary too.

We toyed with the idea of continuing up to Wyoming anyway – surely the Tetons could be photographed from outside the park.  And Yellowstone had roads running through it, so perhaps it wouldn’t be completely closed.  And the hotel had plenty of vacancy last we checked.

Those ideas got cut short by a tropical storm that had hit the Pacific Northwest and was working its way across the central US, dumping heavy snow right where we planned to go, and spinning up tornadoes along our return path. Plus, the hotel was now nearly full from campers who’d been kicked out of the parks. We took the hint and scratched the northern two-thirds of our itinerary permanently off the list.

Plus, we’d already paid for the night, so what could we do as an out-and-back day trip?  The answer: Monument Valley.  About 3 hours’ drive to the South and West from Moab, Monument Valley isn’t a national park – it’s on the Navajo indian reservation.  It was on our itinerary originally, en route from Zion National Park to Canyonlands, but we’d removed it because it added like 6 hours of driving; under the circumstances, the extra drive wasn’t a big deal now. We decided to set out, with a goal of shooting at sunset.

Mexican Hat Rock

The road from Moab to Monument Valley is lightly traveled, so cresting a hill we couldn’t help but notice several cars pulled off the road.  We’d stumbled upon a nondescript but interesting rock formation known as Mexican Hat Rock – no fanfare, just a street sign.


This image demonstrates something I found pretty frustrating for the length of our trip – power lines. They mar beautiful landscapes, and Photoshop isn’t much help.  Quite a bit of retouching with the famed Content-Aware Fill just couldn’t yield normal-looking results; in the end, I gave up and left them as-is.  Before taking this shot, I actually hiked up and down the road to find a better angle to eliminate the power lines.  Had I known they couldn’t be easily removed in Photoshop, I would have hiked in past the power lines and accepted a different composition.

Mind you, I don’t have an issue with the need for power to cross these beautiful landscapes, but it seems that the paths they’ve chosen are frequently poor. Lines cut across amazing vistas when they could have been routed slightly differently and preserved a fantastic view.

Editing this photo, I was reminded of an idea to eliminate these kinds of foreground objects – shoot from two slightly different vantage points, so the foreground objects fall in different spots of the composition.  “Abusing” panorama software to align the two images, I’m thinking the content from one could then be easily cloned onto the other to paint over foreground objects, making them disappear.  I didn’t shoot material to try that technique here, but it’s on my to-do list now.

Monument Valley

We arrived at Monument Valley in mid-afternoon, about 3 hours before sunset. The first thing to note is that the valley is full of Goliath-sized monuments, not just the iconic pair you see most often.  Given the timing, there was a choice to be made – cruise around and look for interesting angles to shoot, or stake out a vantage point and wait for the sunset lighting to cast dramatic shadows across the valley.

There’s a dirt road circling the main monuments, so a lot of angles are possible; however, we were driving a low-clearance car that didn’t exactly fit with the notion of “off-road”.  We opted to pay our admission and setup camp at the visitor’s center, which incidentally has an excellent display of history on the Navajo’s critical role as code-talkers for the US military during World War II.

Yes, instead of doing something unique, I wanted to shoot a cliché photo – and from the visitor’s center, no less. It sounds pretty lame, but the visitor’s center offered an excellent vantage point of the two extremely-popular “mittens”. I had an idea of the shot I wanted, which would be in the last minutes of sunset as the shadows grew long. This also meant that I was only getting one photo out of the entire day’s trip, so I was going to invest the effort to get it.

Three hours early, we setup our cameras to stake out our spots, meanwhile drawing curious looks and questions from other tourists because of our camera rigs – most notably, the 6×7″ graduated ND filters fastened to the front.  A drawback to setting up so early: someone’s got to watch your gear when you need to run to the bathroom.  That’s when it’s nice to have a shooting buddy.

IMG_1309 IMG_1310

You’ll notice my camera bag is clipped to the bottom of my tripod – this serves two purposes: first, it adds stability and lowers the center of gravity, reducing vibration and the chance of knocking the tripod off a cliff; second, in high-traffic areas, it straps everything together, making it extremely unwieldy if someone had ideas of stealing something.

These first two shots are for comparison to show how the color of the light shifts to become “warmer” as the sun reaches the horizon – this is the so-called Golden Hour, and it’s a good reason to bring a tripod.  To benefit from this effect, you wouldn’t want to shoot a color calibration card in this light – that’d negate the orange color shift.  Instead, you’d shoot a color reference when the sun was high in the sky, and use the same value for all the shots (these are both set to 5500K).  Both of these shots have roughly the same exposure, but you can see how the color is very different in the shot just before sunset; the other was taken 90 minutes earlier.



I took a different approach for this shoot and captured a *lot* of images.  I expected to post-process it in HDR, and possibly even composite images from different times during the sunset.  I set the camera to bracket 9 shots at 1/3-stop intervals, so I’d be able to draw out the shadow detail without it looking extreme.  Primary exposure was slightly under-exposed for the directly-lit monuments, with bracketing ranging from 1-1/3 stops brighter to 1-1/3 stops darker.

There weren’t clouds or other objects being overexposed, and I used a 2-stop (0.6) graduated neutral-density filter to darken the sky to about the same exposure as the subject. So, I didn’t bracket to recover highlights, I did it to add detail to the shadows in the foreground.  As the lighting changed, I adjusted the shutter speed to maintain about the same exposure on the monuments.

Adding to the HDR, I used an interval timer to fire a bracketed burst every 20 minutes at first, progressively shortening it to every 15 seconds at the end of sunset when things change quickly – and, yes, I ended up with a ton of shots.  To make this work, the camera is set for continuous high-speed shutter – on a Nikon, if you hold the shutter release to fire continuously during bracket mode, the camera will automatically stop shooting when the last shot of the bracket has been taken.  Using this behavior, the interval timer was set to do a bulb exposure (i.e., hold the shutter release down) for several seconds.  I also use this technique without the timer, because it’s much easier than remembering how many shots of a bracket have been fired.

The final image was processed first in Lightroom as a bracket of 9 shots from 10 minutes before sunset.  Those shots were then merged to HDR (and tweaked some more) using custom settings in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2.  The final image was auto-imported back into Lightroom where a few more adjustments and cropping were done.  I’m pretty pleased with the end result, which doesn’t look artificially HDR to me, but conveys a wide range of lighting.


The drive back to Moab was uneventful, but very dark and solitary with no other cars for miles at a time.  In the middle of nowhere, we stopped at an A&W restaurant and bowling alley (!) at a gas stop.  They’d just closed for the night, so we bought up the only thing they had left: some very greasy fried chicken that’d been under a heat lamp most of the night.  Opinions were mixed on whether we would have been better off to go hungry for another hour.


Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument ValleyDay 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio


Day 5 – Dead Horse Point

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , on 17 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

Arches National Park

“Welcome to your national park.  Now go home.”

Yep, it happened.  It’s October 1, 2013, and the new US federal budget didn’t get approved.  In the most visible immediate impact, all national parks were closed.  Apparently roads, overlooks, and campgrounds stop working without funding.

This was the scene at the entrance to Arches National Park in Southeastern Utah, with park rangers barricading the entrance and turning away traffic:


I’ll spare you a political rant, but I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the lack of common sense being applied – this almost seems designed to make the public irate.  In many cases, more effort was being spent to deny access than just to allow it to continue.  E.g., barricading and patrolling open-air monuments and memorials.  Locking rest stop toilets that are literally nothing more than a toilet seat over a large hole in the ground.  Among the petty actions, the National Park Service even took down its website, claiming it “wasn’t being maintained”.

Plan B

Anyway… we decided to hang out in the motel for the morning in case the politicians came to an agreement and the disruption was short-lived.  As the day wore on, it became evident that we needed to make other plans.  And so did other folks – by mid-morning, the area was already losing massive amounts of business; one hotel had 3 tour buses cancel immediately, costing 50% of their bookings.

We took the opposite approach and extended our stay by an extra night, holding onto hope that sanity would prevail and we could resume our itinerary.  Meanwhile, we considered other activities for the next couple days.

Dead Horse Point State Park

As luck would have it, we’d passed a turnoff on the road to Canyonlands.  It was for one of Utah’s state-run parks, and it had an entirely different vista of the canyons below – essentially, it overlooked the upper section.

And, boy, were they busy.  By some accounts, they had 10 times their normal volume of visitors.  I’m sure this was greatly influenced by their proximity to both the town of Moab and two major national parks.




Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument ValleyDay 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio


Day 4 – Capitol Reef, Canyonlands

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , on 14 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

Capitol Reef National Park

After a light breakfast in the motel lobby, we’re back on the road.  Capitol Reef kept coming up as a notable place to visit, so we mapped a route through it on the way to Canyonlands.  It’d only cost us about 90 minutes, plus we’d started to wonder how many national parks we could hit in one road trip.

Near the entrance, it wasn’t obvious how Capitol Reef got its name, but we were fascinated by the contrast in rocks.  A deep red base topped by very white boulders.



The red soil was odd, like slate or shale – thin, brittle layers:


Past the visitor’s center, the scene starts to explain the name – here’s Capitol Rock:


A bit further, and the “Reef” part of the name starts to make sense – the canyon walls look like Swiss cheese.




Canyonlands National Park

We reached Canyonlands later in the day, and sunset was approaching by the time we reached the furthest observation point.  There were several observation areas along the way, but I think the point at the end of the road gave the best view by far.

An easy half-mile hike from the main viewing platform was a less obstructed view with a nice panorama of the valley below, and the canyons beneath.  It was about an hour before dusk, and the shadows were starting to grow longer (and also add some depth to the landscape). I doubt this vantage point would be good at sunrise; not only would you be shooting toward the sun, but a lot of the shadows would fall where you couldn’t see them.


We were staying in nearby Moab for the night, and Arches National Park was just outside town.  By the time we reached town, it was dark and we were hungry.  After dinner, we toyed with the idea of popping into Arches, but then decided against it since we wouldn’t be able to see much anyway.  Besides, the politicians weren’t going to let the US federal budget expire and shutdown the federal government overnight, right?  Surely, they’d reach a compromise at the last minute…


Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument ValleyDay 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio


The Accidental Photo Adventure

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 07 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

Road Trip Map

A friend and I ventured out on a 17-day photo safari. What unfolded was very different than we planned, and a lot more exciting!

My shooting partner is a consultant-for-hire, and we’d long discussed taking a photo trek after he wrapped up a multi-year project. The plan was to do a road trip and hit a bunch of US National Parks while he drove his car home cross-country. No family, just photographers, so plenty of patience for the speed of the art.

The plan was to start in Arizona, go through Utah (Zion, Red Canyon, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonland, Arches, Monument Valley), up to Wyoming (Grand Tetons, Yellowstone), then Montana (Glacier), the Dakotas (Mt. Rushmore, Badlands), and through Nebraska (farmland) to Omaha where I’d fly home. 17 days, 3000 miles, and 10 national parks. Originally, the plan included Death Valley, but that was nixed due to the logistics and cost of a 4-wheel-drive vehicle to get where we’d want to shoot.

It was all going smoothly until the 5th day of our trip – October 1, 2013. That’s the first day of the US Federal fiscal calendar, and the national parks were all closed because the politicians hadn’t approved the next year’s budget. At the same time, a tropical storm that hadn’t been in the forecast started to make its way from the Pacific across the central US, leading to heavy snowfall and tornadoes along our route.  We found ourselves suddenly improvising our entire itinerary day-by-day.  Here’s the route we ended up taking:

Road Trip Map Actual

We’d planned to stay in motels along the way (rather than camp), but only the first two cities had been booked. Originally, this was because hotels to the North had excellent availability, they wanted as much as 7 days notice for cancellation, and our itinerary was still flexible. This proved more fortunate than we could have predicted.

What follows is a story that’s not so much about photography, but rather the trip from a photographer’s perspective. I’ll be adding the pages below as I process photos, for a little extra personal motivation – if you subscribe, you’ll get notified when they’re posted. I hope you enjoy it!


Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument ValleyDay 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio