Friday, May 30, 2008

Under the Stars

The night skies of the Big Bend country are dark. Thy are very dark. The nearest cities are hundreds of miles away. This area is so dark that the University of Texas has the McDonald Observatory in the nearby Davis Mountains (by nearby I mean 150 miles away).

On dark clear nights you lose count of how many stars you see. The sky is so full of bright stars the constellations are hard to spot.

I often photograph here at night, especially in stretches of cloudless weather or even by the light of the moon.

This image is taken from a small hill looking west some time after dark. The stars are visible across the sky, yet the camera picks up just a hint of orange (not seen with the naked eye) on a lone cloud. The V notch of Santa Elena Canyon can be seen in the image too. You can also see a faint band of light that almost looks like it is coming out of the canyon. That is not an errant flashlight- it is Zodiacal light. This is an astronomical phenomenon that can only be seen in places of dark sky.

And for that-Big Bend is perfect.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Grapevine Hills

The balanced rock in the Grapevine Hills of Big Bend National Park is one of the signature images of the area.

I have photographed it once several years before, but decided to make another go of it this past spring. Since I was staying at Cottonwood, I knew it would be an hour drive and at least a 30 minute walk. I left very early in the morning to give myself plenty of time. I left the parking lot for the one mile hike in the dark by the light of the moon and stars. I had my backpack with the 4x5, a small bag with the DSLR and two tripods. The moon was so bright I did not use the headlamp. I followed the braided wash up into the hills and then the path as it twisted up to the balanced rock.

One thing about the rock is there is very little space for the "classic" image. You are wedged in between two rocks and some cactus. I got the spot and set up. It was so dark I had to go place my headlamp on a rock for a focus target. Then I went right for a star trail image and photographed right through the sunrise.

What a great place and while the classic image is a narrow spot there are other images all around. As I waited for the sunrise with the 4x5, I worked other possible images with the DSLR. A little slow photography and a little fast photography. With plenty of images to look through at home.

This view here shows the 4x5 set up at the classic view in the early light. The camera is hot and I am working on a slow exposure. If anything I wish I could have made more.
Note to self-take more images.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sometimes Things Don't Work Out

Sometimes things do not work out as planned in photography.

I had seen these rock fins on the western side of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. They are volcanic dikes that look like walls. I have often wanted to get a good image with them but have never had the right conditions. I saw an area that looked like it might be promising and there were just a few clouds but I hoped for a nice image.

I parked the vehicle and started walking toward one through the brush. Normally cross country is pretty easy in deserty country as the plants have decent spacing between them. However after a few hundred yards I got to a small wash that was thick on either side with thorny brush. It was only a few feet thick but it was one tangled wall and being the desert-everything had thorns. I tried walking length wise hoping for a gap but no dice. I went back to the vehicle and drove farther down the road finding a better angle to get to a rock fin. I saw another gully to cross and dropped into the dry streambed with hopes to get close.

I was closer but this gully was about five feet deep with thick brush and looked like it was also difficult to get to. Luckily I found a small series of ledges off a side stream I could climb out of and get to the rock fin.

The slope up to it was very steep and loose with gravel. The fin was angled off what I wanted. I could not get a good down the length of the fin image.

Two hours of stumbling through brush and I could not get the image I wanted. You can see the image I got in the above photo. The clouds had moved out of the image and the leading lines just were not there.

I made exactly one image and then packed up and headed back to the vehicle. Drove on thinking the evening was a bust. As the sun was setting in the distance I saw a backlit Ocotillo. It was too far out for the 4x5 and my wide angle views, but I did manage to get a few nice snaps of it with a long lens on the DSLR.

The image I had been wanting just did not work, but a fluke chance brought me an image I could only happen upon. I got a pretty decent image. I guess things worked out after all.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Camera in Action

People often want to know what it is like to work with a large format camera. I usually just smile and say it is about the same as a 35mm camera, just bigger.

But it is really so much more.

Large Format, gives you the ability to do more than any DSLR or 35mm could. I can make so many adjustments that I have full control of the image in a way you could never have with any other kind of camera.

As a landscape photographer that allows me to have what amounts to infinite focus-the rock at 6" to the mountain at 6 miles and everything in between. It allows me to keep lines straight on a tree trunk or to make them wonky. It puts the photographer farther into the realm of photography than anything else.

The image here is of the camera set up on Terlingua Creek in Big Bend National Park as I was photographing the creek. This somewhat of a 3/4ths view lets you see some of what the camera can do. I am using my longest lens, a 210mm (about equal to a 60mm if you use a 35mm camera or a full frame DSLR). Note I am using most of my rail and with this 30cm rail could not use a much longer lens. Also note the bellows is the soft leather wide angle bellows which works nicely with this lens although it is about the limit of length too. The camera is pointed slightly down as I am photographing the stream. The rear standard is raised-this lowers the view so I am seeing even more stream and less sky. The rear standard is also tilted back-this most basic of movements helps bring the entire stream into sharp focus. Finally note the Quickload holder is on the top. That means I unclipped and rotated the ground glass. This allows me to flip between vertical and horizontal compositions without moving the camera (can't do that in 35mm). It keeps the camera centered over the tripod too. It is also something that takes just about two seconds to do-so it is quick and easy.

I am ready to take the image. All I would need to do is set the lens and get a sheet of film.

Further note, this camera is entirely mechanical and manual. From focus to setting the lens, to using the cable release it is all manual. You even need a separate light meter. It does not get much simpler than this. It also does not get as much of open ended creativity as this.

You should try one.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Terlingua Abaja

Lower Terlingua Creek running over rocks at sunrise.

The view here is upstream to the north. Low hills that dot the western side of Big Bend National Park can be seen in the distance. At one time these were settlements along this creek as well as the shade of many cottonwood trees. History also tells us most of the trees were cut down for the ranches and mines in the area. Today mostly just rock and a trickle of water remain.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Subtlety on Terlingua Creek

Water is an amazing thing. That seems like such a simple and obvious statement, but it is true.

Especially for a photographer. Or when you are in the desert. Then water takes on a whole new meaning. .

In this parched land water is a precious gift. As a photographer I know water can lead me to magical locations, great scenes and reflect the big light of sunset.

In Big Bend the Rio Grande is the main body of water. It carved the majestic canyons, creates the border, and its big turn or bend gives the park its name.

Terlingua Creek is another such body of water. It flows clear, shallow, and simple down the western side of the park. It is probably ignored or forgotten by most people unless it is flooding and blocks the trail into Santa Elena Canyon.

This little creek intrigues me. I really like the thin shallow ribbon like quality of how it flows. I like the clear quality of the water. I like the fact others ignore it. I also like that throughout most of its course you can look south and see the imposing ramparts of the Sierra Ponce in the distance.
I was walking along the creek in the afternoon and found several nice dark streaks on the rock and decided that it could be the source of a nice image. The next day it was clear but I decided to try for the creek. I started walking in the dark with my pack, a shoulder bag, and two tripods. I found the spot in the dark and set up the big camera with the thought of getting a starlight image. .

After one long 15 minute exposure, I set to work on the morning image. As the light grew in the sky I made several images of the creek and rocks.

I was not working the huge scene as much as I was working with a simple ripple of water on rock in a shallow stream with a big wall beyond.

Subtle. Simple. Superb.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

At Work in the Desert

Here is a slightly different angle for me. Instead of taking a picture of the scene the camera is taking a picture of-it is a picture of camera itself and what it usually looks like when I am making an image.

Always on a tripod. Always. Using a ND Grad. The Grad filter is half dark and half clear. It allows me to "hold back" a bright sky so I can even out the exposure on the sky and the ground. Those little filters do more for the landscape photographer than any other. In this set up I probably have the polarizer on too, but since it is behind the grad, it might be hard to see.

You might also notice that the front camera standard is raised slightly. That allows me to exclude foreground and still keep perspective. It is much more effective than tilting the whole camera back and a major feature of a view camera. The Fuji Quickload Holder is on the back of the camera and the silver packets on my pack are the Quickload film-Velvia, of course.

That is a pretty typical location set up. A pack full of gear, a tripod, and the big camera.

Note- the mountains in the background are the Christmas Mountains (of frequent news). I hope they can be added to BBNP and I look forward to making a visit to them.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Sierra Ponce

Looking down river and down the length of the Sierra Ponce. The near vertical wall rises 1500 feet and runs for miles. The Rio Grande has carved its way through this over eons.

This view is right where the river exits Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio hooks a quick right and follows the wall for a mile or so before turning southeast though the desert.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Wait 15 Minutes

There is an old saying in Texas that if you do not like the weather-wait 15 minutes. Boy is that ever true.

I awoke to cloudless skies one morning and left camp trying to decide where to go. I thought with totally clear sky that the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon would be good. As I started the 10 minute drive I began to see clouds. I parked at the canyon entrance and as I gathered my gear I noticed the sky was completely clouded over.

This changed everything. I now had thoughts of a big sunrise filling the sky so I walked up the hill into the canyon and hoped to face east.

I found a great view, set up the camera and waited for the dawn. The sky never went orange. The clouds had moved so fast that it was a cool gray dawn.

Then just as the sun rose the clouds began to part behind me and clear sky began to happen again. That was when I made this image. Within another 20 minutes the sky was clear again.

I did not get the dramatic sunrise I wanted, but I sure had an interesting sky. From clear to cloudy to clear in about an hour.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Turn Around

Here is another image taken overlooking the Rio Grande. This view is about 90 degrees right from where my last post was. I may have moved the tripod 6 feet. Maybe.

The view is west toward Santa Elena Canyon. You can see the "V" notch where the canyon cuts through the Sierra Ponce(the big 1500' tall wall you see). It is about 8 miles up river from where I am.

It was late afternoon and the clouds were starting to build with the hopes of a great sunset. Every direction had something interesting. I was not sure where to start, to stay here all evening, or to move to one of several different close by areas. Sometimes having alot of options is not a good thing.

So I started by taking a picture and then turning around to see what else was there. Next thing you know-it's sunset.