Archive for Zion National Park

Day 3 – Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , on 12 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

Leaving Zion National Park

We slept in a little, then hit the visitor’s center on our way out. Our route was back out the North-East entrance of the park, through Kanab, Utah. Clouds had rolled in, so we stopped strategically to take a handful of retakes, killing about an hour along the way. What a difference it made to have clouds in the sky!

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This is looking in the opposite direction, toward the tunnel entrance:

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Red Canyon

Along the route from Zion to Bryce Canyon is Red Canyon, part of Dixie National Forest. It’s a small place, but colorful. Red Canyon’s soil is a dark red like Sedona, AZ, which makes for a very picturesque contrast with the green foliage and blue skies – especially if it’s lightly cloudy.

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Just inside the entrance to Red Canyon is a feature with short trails to photo vantage points and great panoramic vistas.

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Bryce Canyon National Park

We arrived at Bryce Canyon around 2:00, stopped by the visitor’s center for some guidance and souvenirs, then went straight out to start shooting. We worked our way down all of the observation points and trails, managing to hit the last one well before sunset. But where it had been around 70 degrees in Zion, it was closer to 40 in Bryce – when the sun was behind the clouds, I really felt it!

The weather was lightly cloudy, transitioning to mostly cloudy as the day wore on; at times we’d lose our light, but within a few minutes we’d have a handful of seconds to shoot with hard light. So, it took some observation, patience, and preparedness to get the shots in. There was still enough light to shoot when the sun was behind clouds, but the light became so soft that a lot of the definition in the rocks was lost.

Here’s a view into one area of the Bryce Amphitheater and its army of “hoodoo”, or stone towers.  There were hints of the hoodoo in Red Canyon, but they’re super-concentrated here in Bryce Canyon.

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Bryce Canyon has several viewing areas, with various angles on the amphitheater and surrounding valleys.  It also has several hiking trails that take you down amongst the hoodoo, but then you can’t see the forest for the trees.

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I have another 7-shot panorama of the hoodoo that my different panorama stitching programs are having a devil of a time with.  My guess is the patterns in the hoodoo are too similar, and the software can’t align the shots.  That’s going to take some manual intervention in PTgui to map the alignment points.  (I’m not sure you can do that in Photoshop.)  Here was Photoshop’s attempt, aborted after several minutes of full CPU:
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At the end of the day we checked into Bryce Canyon Inn, a little motel with individual cabins. It was quite a pleasant surprise! For under $100 a night, the accommodations were very nice, with excellent woodwork – wood walls, exposed rafters, nicely constructed and furnished.  (You can tell I’m a woodworker.)

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Because we hit all the points in Bryce so quickly, and the conditions were so ideal, we decided to cut a day off our schedule and head to Canyonlands / Arches day early. The motel was very accommodating, and we were able to move our reservation up in Moab as well. Depending on how much time we need in Arches and Canyonlands, we thought we might make it to Glacier National Park in Montana as well. Little did we realize…

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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

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Day 2 – Zion National Park

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , , on 12 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

The next morning our plan was to follow the sun.  The North-East end of the park would get the earliest light, while the South end would get the last light of the day.

Our first stop was about 45 minutes before dawn, near a hill called Checkerboard Mesa.  This hill and an adjacent cliff would be the first point of interest to be lit by the sunrise.  There was an observation area with parking, but as typical you couldn’t see the whole panorama from one point without trees obscuring the view.  Solution: get to higher ground.

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Across from the observation area was a small hill that had been carved out for the road.  That gained about 30 feet of elevation so we were now looking over the tops of the trees.  In the uncropped version of the panorama (see below), you can see how the elevation made a difference compared to the parking lot below.

It was a brisk 27 degrees as we started our setup, with a breeze and no sun.  I’d remembered a heavy coat and hat, but managed to leave my gloves in the hotel; the sun couldn’t come up fast enough!

For the image above, I shot with a 24-70mm at about 30mm.  I used the same 6″x7″ GND filters I’d bought for the wide-angle lens, adding an adapter to attach it to the 77mm filter ring on this lens.  However, what I didn’t think through is the fact that on a longer lens a much smaller section of the filter would be used, making the soft edge of the GND much softer.  Plus the design of Lee’s adapter is a little odd – it’s well made, but designed to pop off the lens a little too easily.

This is a a shot of the Checkerboard Mesa from later in the day, and you can better see the unusual cross-hatch texture that gives it its name.  Truth be told, I probably should have shot the panorama image above a little later to expose this detail, but in my mind’s eye it wasn’t the main subject of the panorama so I didn’t give it as much consideration as I should have.

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Further into the park was a small tunnel that I was able to shoot during a short break in the traffic.

DDD_1666And some really interesting patterns in the stone.  I shot this one thinking it might make an interesting abstract, or desktop wallpaper.  A little later in the day would have yielded a bit more definition via shadows.

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Further in, we came across some wildlife grazing.

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In the center of the park, just outside the long tunnel is a wide panorama (the tunnel is behind me here).

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Next, we hiked to an area known as the Narrows, an upper section of the Virgin River where the cliffs are vertical and, well, narrow.  This Northern area of the main park is only accessible by shuttle, which runs about every 5 minutes. The hike from the shuttle stop is about a mile along a paved path.

These photos were part of an experiment. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) The photo on the left was taken without filters.  The one on the right was a test with two filters. One filter was a 0.6 (2-stop) hard-edge GND diagonally lined up with the shadow line on the left, to make the right side of the image darker, allowing the overall exposure to be increased to expose the shadows on the left.

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The other filter was a Hitech-Formatt 10-stop neutral-density filter.  It did what it should by extending the exposure time 1000x, turning a 1/30-second image into a 30-second image, which blurs the flowing water.  However, the filter also adds a strong color cast that’s proven difficult to correct.  It also has a real issue with even the smallest of reflections in the lens.  That filter’s going to take a bit more work to be useful.

At the end of the day, we camped out early to capture the sunset.  Our vantage point was a bridge at the South end of the park, with an exciting wrinkle – the bridge was plenty wide, but had no sidewalk.  We had to stay close to the edge and watch our backs; buses came pretty close more than a couple times.

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I intended a few things for this pano that didn’t quite come off – first, I shot it for HDR, but I didn’t like the results (so what you see here is from 6 single exposures).  Second, I was hoping for more of an orange glow – this didn’t happen until the last 10 minutes of sunset, when the shadows had swallowed everything except the far peak.  And third, I’d composed for a taller shot to capture more of the stream in the foreground, but had to crop it out because there was too much clutter on the sides (e.g., capturing the edge of the bridge, people standing, parked cars, etc.); this was due to shooting from the bridge.

Some Thoughts on on Shooting Panoramas

For a bit of technical discussion, here’s the uncropped version of the image above, which gives a better idea of how the shots were taken. This panorama is comprised of 14 images, and then cropped to a 6:1 ratio (which is 4x wider than a typical photo).  That’s a pretty skinny panorama; usually I strive for a 3:1 ratio.

DDD_1610-Pano-BTSSomething that’s not obvious is that these images were all shot in portrait orientation – i.e., camera vertical.  This takes a lot more shots to compose the final image, but it leaves you with many more pixels for a large print.  This final image is 20,000 pixels wide, which means it could be printed 7 feet wide at 240 pixels per inch – you could put your nose on the print and still not see pixels.  However, it does make for big files – this one’s over 300MB.

On a technical note, you can see that my tripod wasn’t very level, judging by the curved edges of the stitched image – that’s a good way to cripple your cropping options on a panorama; I got lucky this time because the subject was particularly wide. The hairlines you see in the image show where Photoshop selected from different frames to stitch the image together. (Normally I use a product called PTgui to stitch my panoramas, but I’m giving Photoshop CS5.5 a try for this trip.)

A few comments on my technique for panoramas… Focus is set on the main subject using spot-focus, then switched to manual.  Exposure is always Manual mode; the aperture is fixed at f/11 or f/16 for most of the shots on this trip for deeper depth of field, and shutter speed is adjusted to control the exposure.  ISO is set to the native value for my camera (ISO200).  I also have the camera set for 14-bit capture (instead of 12-bit), which yields a little more dynamic range.

No HDR bracketing was done for this image – just one shot per frame.  Exposure was set so the brightest point in the frame (the cliff face) was just barely warning about blown highlights in my camera’s LCD preview – this yields the most detail form the shadows without losing the highlight detail.

When I shoot for panoramas, I overlap each shot by 50%, which gives the software the most material to correct lens distortion; I also always shoot an extra frame on each end for the same reason.  I don’t use a panorama head on my camera, so objects in the foreground do get distorted, and when composing an image I need to plan for that cropping.  (If you search on the keywords “entrance pupil”, you’ll find explanations for this.)

And Some Thoughts on Printing Panoramas

The challenge with printing panoramas is that many shops don’t offer the shape you need, or they charge a premium. My solution is to layout multiples of the same panorama in a single file, then trim them to size myself.  Your local FedEx Office (Kinko’s) has roller cutters in their public area that can trim up to 48″ sheets.

DDD_1610-Pano PrintHere are the steps I use in Photoshop:

  • Open the image
  • Image | Image Size | 24 inches @ 300 pixels/inch – for a final image that’s 24″ wide
  • Add copyright text
  • Right-click on the Background layer and select Layer from Background – this keeps the layer from resizing when the canvas is resized
  • Layer | Merge Layers – to combine the text and photo
  • Image | Canvas Size – set this to the actual dimensions of the print paper
  • Duplicate the image layer, and drag the copy downward while holding the shift key to keep them aligned
  • Add 2-pixel hash marks with the pencil tool, to make the end cuts easy to align
  • Image | Mode | 8 bits/channel – to support the JPEG file format.
  • Edit | Convert to Profile | sRGB – all printers will work with sRGB; if I have a printer-specific ICC profile, I’d select it here instead.
  • File | Save as in JPEG at the highest quality setting

The reason this photo doesn’t go edge-to-edge on the print above… the large-format printer I use has a 1/4″ white border around the sheet, and I want my image printed to the edge without having to trim the 1/4″ edge and yielding an odd-sized print. So, instead of printing three 5″x30″ images on a print, I’ll do four 4″x24″ images.

And a finishing touch… when trimming the prints, they get handled a lot; I wear gloves to keep fingerprints off the photo.  Latex would probably work, but I use cheap cotton inspection gloves from Grainger.

Oops!

And just to show that things don’t always work smoothly, here’s Photoshop’s attempt at stitching a 6-frame panorama that had been processed through a trial copy of Photomatix first.  Although the same HDR settings were used on all the images, there was apparently a lot of difficulty in auto-aligning them – this looks like something from the Star Trek episode where the transporter was malfunctioning.

DDD_1858-HDR-FailI’m a slow adopter of HDR, and this was a trial at doing both HDR and panorama stitching by first processing the images in HDR and then stitching them.  PTgui does both at once, but I don’t like the look of its HDR; I have Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2 as part of the Nik Collection, but at least their presets disagree with my tastes as well.  So far, I’m liking the look of a couple Photomatix presets (e.g., Smooth 2), but I clearly have some kinks to work out.

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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

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Day 1 – Zion National Park

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , on 10 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

Our trek started at 7:00am in Phoenix, Arizona. Having already been to the Grand Canyon and the slot canyons in Page, AZ, our first destination was Zion National Park in southern Utah.

The weather was fantastic for the drive, and this section of the country has an amazing variety of colorful terrain. Along the way was the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, on the northern edge of Arizona just West of Page, AZ.

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On our first trip to Antelope Canyon, we stayed in a motel at the foot of these cliffs in Lee’s Ferry, AZ – not exactly a fancy room, but man what a view! (Our motel room was half of a single-wide trailer home, but that’s a story for a different post.)

We only made one stop along the way at a vista just inside the Arizona border with Utah. As much as anything, it was an opportunity to give our new 150mm (6-inch!) graduated neutral-density (GND) filters their first run. We’d each bought a set of these jumbo filters and the associated holder for Nikon’s 14-24 lens – because of its shape and field of view, a special filter holder is needed for this lens, along with 150mm x 170mm (6″ x 7″) GND filters. We figured out quickly that it was going to be tough to tote these giant filters, and handling them without smudging or scratching would take patience.

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While I liked the vista, it doesn’t really make for a great photo – the cliffs are too small in the distance, with humidity muting the colors and contrast. I’d also used a mild “0.3” (1-stop) soft-edge GND filter on the sky, so the effects were more subtle than I like. As the trip progressed, I’d swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and use much darker filters – up to a 1.5 (5-stop) GND, which worked fabulously on storm clouds.

Between Kanab, UT and Zion were some very scenic landscapes. If only these clouds had followed us into Zion! Later, we would gain a strong appreciation for having clouds in the shot – they make a huge difference in the impact of an image.

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It pains me to say this fantastic shot was taken with an iPhone4, and not my DSLR. (It’s actually 2 stitched photos, taken while we were driving 65mph.) Not that I’m biased against my phone camera – it’s very handy – but this photo is too grainy for more than web use. I’d been taking snapshots with my iPhone as we drove, to capture interesting scenes for a photo map we could build from the GPS data captured by the phone. This is one case I wish I’d pulled out my DSLR instead.

We arrived at Zion around 4:30pm local time, about 8.5 hours after we began. Being late in the day, our priority was to get setup and scout for the following day’s shots. We bought an annual US Parks pass at the entrance and took a drive through the park, taking snapshots from the car along the way – noting what looked interesting, and what time of day would give the best light/shadows.

Something that struck me was the contrast in landscapes; it’s like the park has two personalities. At the northeastern entrance, the stone is mostly white with sparse brush; suddenly, it transitions to a dark reddish-brown stone with evergreen trees. And the strata in the stone isn’t horizontal – it points in all different directions; geologists believe this is because it originated as giant sand dunes that became compressed and infused with minerals.

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Also impressive is a mile-long tunnel cut through the mountain, allowing the main road to pass through the park. Clearance in the tunnel is so narrow at points that traffic must become one-way anytime an RV-sized vehicle needs to pass (which is pretty frequent).

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On the far side of Zion is the small town of Springdale, Utah, which is literally outside the park’s Southern gate. We booked the trip late and during Zion’s high season, so we were lucky to get a budget motel there. Mind you, a “budget” hotel in Springdale is $90/night, and La Quinta and Quality Inn are the only major chains in town. But the view at sunset was pretty awesome…

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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

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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!

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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

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