Death Of A Phone

So you know what makes seascapes cool? It's a wide angle shot that's super close to a rock with a nice tide splashing around it. You know what that means though - you're going to get wet.

No big deal then right? Well salt water is death to cameras, tripods, and anything electronic. My Nikon, thank god is weather sealed and can stand just about anything. Gitzos (tripod) too are almost indestructible. My phone though, is apparently very fragile.

One big wave hit me and that was it. My phone I thought, safety being in my pocket, would be fine but a small bit of water got into my pocket which was enough to brick the screen.

What I wasn't prepared for was how much I freaked out. Not having a phone on a trip meant no navigation, no PhotoPills, no music, no Instagram.

Limekiln State Park, Big Sur

Slackers Hill, taken with a Note 8 - at least the camera is pretty good.

I freaked out so much I marched over to T-Mobile to drop $1000 on a Samsung Note 8. Well they didn't have any in stock so I had to deal with a $150 piece of crap. Deal with it I did, for one day, when I went back to get one that got freshly shipped in.

There are two morals of this story: carry a dry case when going near the ocean and keep my old phone on a trip as backup. Maybe a third, try and learn to drive without Google Maps for once!

Night Vision

Once you’ve seen one sunset, you’ve seen them all. While I don’t really believe that, it does have some truth to it. Sunsets grow on trees; they’re everywhere and while a really good one will elicit a wow, most of the time it just seems like standard fare.

What elicits that wow on a regular basis then? For me, it’s staring up at a dark sky, seeing the billions of stars, seemingly lighting up the pitch black dead of space. The best way for me to describe it is like a dark cold room; frightening and alone. Turn on a warm lamp though and have that room suddenly transform into a cozy, intimate corner for you to relax in. Being alone in a remote area with a dark sky is kind of like being in that dark room but as soon as you point your head up at all those small bright lights in the sky, you really just calm down and think that little corner of the earth is your own little living room.

Don’t take my word, go somewhere away from all the light pollution and be dazzled by all the stars in person.

Monument Valley in winter, pointed North.

Juniper & Monolith - Joshua Tree, CA

One place becoming one of the more iconic shooting locations in Joshua Tree, is The Juniper & Monolith (at Jumbo Rocks Campground). When I went, the Milky Way would potentially be right next to the Juniper after sunset. Sunset would be the time to go then; clouds would mean the sunset picture would be on point and no clouds would mean a killer Milky Way shot.

I got no clouds, so a standard sunset picture was to be. I arrived with buckets of time which was spent fiddling with my tripod and getting the focus right, being as I was so close to the tree. No way I would be able to focus in the dark, so I marked where the lens was in focus at f/16 and didn’t move the camera all night.

Sunset Pic - nice & easy edit!

With a good half hour burned, I proceeded to setup my other camera for a time-lapse, which I’m sure I’ll never get around to editing. I still think I had 30-40 minutes till sunset left so I paced waiting for the show to start. The other side of the monolith did look like a good shot too, with a sun-star and all. I took a crappy picture with my cell phone (no way I was gonna move my dslr now) but it did look much better in person (for next time maybe).

Sunset came and went, burning red skies and all. My camera wasn’t pointed there, so I just enjoyed the show. Then it started to get dark and it was time to get what I came for.

There are a couple of ways you can take the shot with the stars. First, you have to deal with the focus distance. I had the camera way too close to get the tree and infinity both in focus. I could either focus stack or back the camera away, to get everything in focus. I chose to go with a focus stack, with one exposure at f/16 focused at the juniper and another at infinity focused at the stars. The composition was way better but it did have the drawback of a very complicated edit afterwards.

Now that the focus distance was sorted I could deal with the lighting of the juniper and the monolith. I had three choices; take an image at blue hour, take a long exposure with the ambient light at twilight, or light-paint it. I chose light-painting at blue hour, which I really shouldn’t have done - it made merging the two exposures in Photoshop a big pain in the ass.

With a bright blue hour foreground and added light from the light-painting, adding the Milky Way when it was completely dark looked just too unrealistic. I ended up having to use a Milky Way shot that I took at the tail end of blue hour, with a lot of the color still in the sky but a much less visible galaxy.

Big lesson learned though; either take a long exposure blue hour shot to merge with a blue hour sky, or take a light-painted shot past astronomical twilight under similar ISO setting as the other shot you want to merge it with. I did take a light painted shot when it was dark but for some reason I took a way too underexposed one compared with the Milky Way shot - no way those two where going to be merged successfully.

So I did more or less get the image I wanted. I did spend a lot of time deciding what images to merge and then going in meticulously with a paintbrush to paint in the layer mask. I went through the whole sound and dance with a focus stacked image in Cholla Gardens too. It’s gonna be a long time before I take a focus stack image again! Starting to get jealous of those in-camera photographers, with their bags of filters and easy Lightroom edits.

Final Image of The Juniper, Monolith & Milky Way.

The Narrows

I don’t think I’ve ever been as frustrated as trying to plan and actually hike the Narrows, in Zion National Park. With an unusual warm front in about the whole the country this winter, there has been a large amount of snow melt coming this February. That meant the Narrows was closed for for a while as the water flow exceeded 150 cubic feet per second,  I complain but at least I wasn’t in California dealing with the 200 year flood.

The thing is, not only do you need a low water flow rate in the Virgin River but also some nice sun beating down into the canyons in the Narrows, for good photographs. I got one; the slow flow rate but got jibbed on the sun.

You know what though, it was my first time in the Narrows and it was an amazing hiking; an almost empty slot canyon, wading through a reasonably fast flowing river, in the cold February waters. I didn’t really get any great pictures but I got something better, an amazing experience.

Sometimes the photograph isn’t worth it; sometimes it’s just worth looking around and being thankful you're not in the dreaded cubicle.

Orderville Canyon - a side hike to the main Narrows route