Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Monument Valley

This past fall I took a road trip out west and visited some amazingly beautiful places that were very inspiring. I spent a lot of time in central and northern Arizona visiting national forests, parks, and wilderness desert areas. Sedona was beautiful, and the Grand Canyon is one of the most amazing natural wonders on the planet. As I moved north into southern Utah, I had been longing to return to a place I had briefly visited on a family vacation a very long time ago. Monument Valley.

Hwy. 163 coming into Monument Valley from the North
If you have ever watched the movie Forrest Gump, the scene where he stops running across the country was shot in this exact spot in the photo above. Highway 163 running south from Mexican Hat UT. into Monument Valley. In my opinion, one of the most iconic scenes you will ever see while driving on a road trip.
Massive Sandstone Mesas and Buttes rise from the desert floor

This area is a place you may feel very familiar with, and yet you have never been there. This area was discovered by Hollywood director John Ford in the late 1930's and there have been parts of over 70 major movies filmed in the area, along with countless television commercials and videos . So in your subconscious you have been here many, many times. But I highly recommend that you visit it in person. Like the Grand Canyon, this place must be visited in person to truly appreciate the stark beauty of the landscape. I spent three days here and wished I had at least a week.

Massive Butte with a daylight moon
For a landscape photographer this area is a pure paradise. Monument Valley lies within the 16 million acre Navajo Indian Nation

Along HWY. 163 south of Monument Valley
There are only a few options for lodging in Monument Valley. I stayed at The View Hotel, owned and operated by the Navajo Indians. This is the only hotel located inside the tribal park, and I highly recommend staying there. A bit pricey, but the view from your balcony is just amazing.

View from my hotel room balcony of the Mittens and Merrick Butte
If you just do a Google search on Monument Valley, you will find many links with all kinds of information you would need to learn more and plan a trip. My goal is not to rehash all that information here, but to inspire you to really consider visiting this place with my photography.

The North Window

I also highly recommend signing up with one of the local Navajo Indian guides for a tour. You can drive much of the area on a rough dirt road, but they have access to areas that are restricted unless you are with a guide. They provide great insight and information you would not get just driving it yourself.

The View Hotel, Monument Valley UT.

Three Sisters Rock Formation

The tough part of visiting Monument Valley as a photographer is trying to photograph as much as possible in the limited time you have. The desert light is extremely harsh within a couple hours of sunrise so starting very early is a must. Sunrises and sunsets there are spectacular if the weather cooperates.

Clouds add dramatic textures to the sky
A Monument Valley Sunset

I found a real sense of peace and rejuvenation in Monument Valley. While I was wandering alone in the early morning darkness or late afternoons looking for the perfect landscape photo opportunity, The desolate beauty and remoteness of this place are inspiring. I just wish I could have captured it better than I did on this trip. I know I will be back again.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is That A Flamingo?

Roseate spoonbill -  Platalea ajaja

 Is that a Flamingo you are taking pictures of? That is a question I hear on a regular basis every time I visit the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. What makes Ding Darling NWR such a great place is that it is a drive through wildlife park, and this allows many people to drive up and be very close to the many species of birds that are found in the refuge.  With Sanibel Island being a prime vacation spot, you have quite a few visitors to the refuge that might otherwise not be inclined to visit a wildlife refuge. With a polite smile and a suppressed laugh I say "No, those are Roseate Spoonbills". While many species of the birds have grown accustom to the human presence, Spoonbills are much more leery and tend to stay farther away. So I and many other photographers need to use some pretty big lenses on our cameras to bring them in close. This attracts attention and brings out the questions when they see the pink plumage. So for someone that is not familiar with birds, they assume the birds are Flamingos.
Spoonbill at Ding Darling NWR
Once you identify the birds as spoonbills, you can usually count on numerous followup questions. While I am at times amazed at some peoples total lack of knowledge, I do enjoy helping people out and giving them some useful information.  When you tell people that Flamingos are not really native to the U.S. they don't want to believe you. They just assume that since they have seen millions of the plastic ones in residential yards, they actually are native residents here.

Captive Caribbean Flamingos in a preserve
When you look at the birds plumage you can see how people can make the assumption that they are Flamingos. But that is where the similarity ends. One look at their overall body structure and beaks makes identification easy. In my recent trip Ding Darling NWR I spent five days there photographing birds. I was asked at least a dozen times. "Are those Flamingos?" While I was photographing birds one morning I was talking to one of the numerous volunteers who help assist people with information and show them birds through spotting scopes. I asked him how many times he is asked about the Flamingos. He laughed and said at least 10 times a day.

Caribbean Flamingo

Roseate Spoonbill
Both Species are beautiful birds in there own uniques way. Many species of birds look very similar, and many times it takes an expert to make an identification. But in this case, even I know the difference between a Spoonbill and a Flamingo.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Scenes from the Grand Canyon

A cold and cloudy morning hike

Many people visit the Grand Canyon, and if you have never had the chance to visit, put it on your must do list. I had visited a very, very, long time ago as a youngster on a family vacation. As an adult I had always wanted to go back, but it just never seemed to work out. I had flown over it many times on trips out west and watched countless programs on television. It does not matter how many films, television programs, or amazing photographs you see of the Grand Canyon, they do not begin to convey the size and beauty of one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. You must see it in person to truly be awed.
Sunrise on the South Rim
As a photographer I was hoping for Mother Nature to give me some ideal weather condition to try and create some amazing photographs. But one of the few things you cannot control as a photographer is the weather. I struggled with some very cloudy and overcast skies much of my short three day visit. If I am anything, I am persistent. I was out shooting as long as there was light, and I took every advantage when there was some breaks in the clouds that allowed some good light to come through.
A Mix of Sun and Clouds Create Amazing Patterns
I spent all three days on the South Rim area and plan to hit the North Rim on my next visit. One could easily spend at least a few weeks here just hiking all the trails and being rejuvenated by the beauty and peacefulness you find here.

Amazing South Rim View

Building Clouds In The Late Afternoon

Heavy Clouds Obscure The Setting Sun

I will not give you any facts or information on the Grand Canyon. There is more than enough of that available from  hundreds of sources. My goal is to inspire you to go if you have never been, or make you want to go visit again.
 I still have a few hundred photos to sort through and process from the trip. I will be back, but I can now say I have been and experienced and fully appreciate what a truly wondrous place the Grand Canyon is.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Scenes from Sedona

On my most recent road trip to Arizona several weeks ago I went to Sedona to visit this exceptionally beautiful region. My regret is that I was only spent one day there. I had to drive about 90 miles north to get there and, and left before I really had a chance to explore and see it well. On my next trip to Arizona I plan on spending several days in Sedona to better explore and photograph the area.

Bell Rock,  Sedona AZ
As a photographer you want to be there at first light to get that beautiful soft light of that golden hour. Unfortunately with having to drive a great distance from my base, and traveling with non-photographers who would not want to get up at 4:30 am to drive there before sunrise, I arrived like most other tourists in the late morning when it was already crowded. 
Red Sandstone Rock Formation, Sedona, AZ
So I had to crawl through the bumper to bumper traffic to get around the area and see the main attractions and sights. During the time I was there the light was extremely bright, but you just have to deal with it and try and do the best you can with the very limited time you have. 
Rock Formations and Clouds, Sedona, AZ.
I love Black and White photography and have started converting some of the shots I took on this trip to B&W. Luckily the light was very bright but not to harsh and I had great clouds to add texture and depth to the beautiful blue skies. Many of those shots look better after being converted.

A View of the Valley Below
 If you are planning a trip to Arizona, I highly recommend spending at least a couple days here. The beauty of the landscape is just amazing. I will be back to more throughly explore and photograph the landscape in Sedona.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Photographs From The Road

Hwy. 88 in the Superstition Mountains
 Recently I went on an 18 day road trip to Arizona and Utah. I had intended to post photos and information on my blog every few days as the trip progressed. I drove about 5000 miles in that time through 8 different  states. I was trying to squeeze what should have been a 3 month trip into that small window of time that I actually had. The good thing about a trip like this is you get to see a lot of scenery and visit many interesting places. The downside is that you do not have the time at any place to really stay and explore it totally. When I visit somewhere new I would much prefer to have more time to throughly explore and learn all that I can and photograph the location.

A bridge on Hwy. 88 climbing into the mountains

With all the places I wanted to visit on this trip, and so little time to do it, I did a lot of driving and quick visits to many locations. I took more photos on this trip that I care to reveal because many people would laugh and tell me I am crazy unless they were a serious photographer. I did some wildlife photography, but the vast majority of my photos on this trip were shots of the amazing landscapes. Although I shoot digital, and always in color, I love to convert manyof the southwest landscape scenes to Black and White.

Abandon Building Outside Roswell New Mexico

I was driving into Roswell New Mexico when I noticed this abandon building sitting alone in he middle of no where. There were no signs to indicate what it may have once been. I stopped and photographed it from several angles and bracketed some exposures for an attempt to do an HDR image. My problem was it was in the middle of the day and the sunlight was extremely bright with not a cloud in the sky. When I was looking at the images, I was not real happy with them. Plain and boring to me. Then I tried the conversion to B&W but was not happy with the plain sky. In a stroke of creativity I darkened the blue and cyan channels to create this totally black looking sky. With some further tweaking in the various color channels, it now appears that it was taken at night with a bright moon light. A good Photoshop save of an otherwise drab photograph. No idea what happened here, but I think the aliens from nearby Area 51 may have been involved.


Monday, October 11, 2010

The Bald Eagle

Although I am not looking forward to winter due to the cold, damp, and generally miserable gray skies of the midwestern weather patterns, it does bring the return of he Bald Eagles. Since I am geographically located very close to the Mississippi River and the lock and dam in Alton, IL., this creates a a great place to view and photograph a good concentration of eagles. As the eagles move down south to avoid the frozen north, they congregate along the river. Eagles main diet are fish, and they need open water to feed.

Bad Eagle Taking flight
Although you can find eagles all up and down the Mississippi River during the winter months, the greatest concentrations of them can be found at the numerous lock and dams along the river. The reason for this is that even when the weather is extremely cold and the river freezes over, the waters around the locks are still open. As the water comes through the dam, many fish are stunned or killed. The eagles feed on these easy pickings. This makes for superb bird watching and photographing these beautiful birds.

After catching a fish it was attacked by another eagle and forced to drop it

Eagles are very opportunistic and will routinely attack other eagles to steal the fish it has just caught. The photo above was captured at the Alton Lock and Dam, and the background is the lock wall where barges pass through. They will also catch and eat other birds or small animals out of necessity to eat.  

Taking a catch back to the perch to feed
In order to really get great photographs of these birds you are going to need a lot of focal length to reach them and fill the frame. Generally you will need about 400mm of focal length or greater to reach them as they fly out over the river. Occasionally I have gotten good shots with my 70-200mm and 1.4 extender attached when they fly close to where I am standing. Many times they will sit in the trees along the river which allows people to stop and get some closer views. 

Watching the river from the top of a tall tree

This eagle in the photograph above was sitting very high up in the tree watching the river. The angle shooting up from the ground was to steep in for a long telephoto lens. The tree was right next to the Clark Bridge in Alton, so I climbed the embankment and got up on the bridge ramp to get to nearly eye level to take this shot. After dodging some traffic, I was able to get some some great shots of this eagle. Although there was some good distance between us I was using a Canon 800mm lens that I had gotten on loan from Canon Professional Services to try out. That big lens made this an almost full frame capture.

Here is a great link if you want to learn more information about the Bald Eagle.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Central Illinois Landscapes

 In a recent post I comment on the challenges of doing landscape photography in my area of the world. While I would love to do more of the iconic scenery that can be found across this great county, I can find excellent scenes to photograph close to home. These are photographs I created within a close radius of my home.

Clark Bridge, Alton IL. at sunset

Goshen Rd. barn and building storm clouds

Goshen Rd. Sunrise

The barn in this sunrise scene is the same barn in the B&W above it. Amazing how the same scene can be photographed from different perspectives and angles to create many unique photos of just this one subject.

Fading Away Rt. 16 and Rt. 127, Hillsboro IL.

With Illinois being such a large agricultural state, the mostly pancake flat central part of the state has many of these old barns that are no longer being used because modern farming has made them obsolete.
They are usually left to rot away until they collapse and get burned or hauled away. I love to photograph them. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


Probably my two favorite words to hear are road trip. You will never have to ask me twice, nor will I think about it for more than a nano second. I love to travel and going by vehicle is by far the most enjoyable for me. I am heading out soon for a 18 day driving trip to Arizona and back. I would love to have unlimited time to do a very leisurely trip that allowed me the luxury to stop, explore, and photograph everything of interest to me, but then I would be gone forever. So I will be trying to cram what I would love to be a three month trip into a much shorter time frame.

I80 near Cody, WY.

I love to get off the Interstate and travel at a much slower pace to see the all the unique scenery and attractions that this country has to offer. This current trip will have me going to Arizona where I have a condo rented for a week in Cave Creek. Cave Creek is about 45 miles north of Phoenix.  From that base I will be able to drive to many of the places I want to photograph.

Old Rt. 66, Litchfield, IL.
There are a a few stretches along the route I am taking where you
can find much of the old historic Rt. 66 left. I am hoping to be able to have time to stop and photograph some of the iconic scenes and buildings that are such a big part of this piece of American history.

I am also planning a two day stop on the South rim of the Grand Canyon. Luckily I was able to find lodging at one of the national park lodges located there that is managed by Xanterra. From there I am headed for a two night stay at Monument Valley. The View Hotel is a fairly new hotel, and is the only located in Monument Valley. I am hoping to be able to get some great landscape photos on this trip. 

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Planning the trip is both enjoyable and agonizing. While I pour over the maps and books to research where I want to go and what I want to see, I must make tough decisions as to what gets cut out of the trip due to time constraints. I still have to finish the route back from Arizona, but I am fairly certain I will head up through Colorado. Sadly I will not have much time left to spend exploring that amazing region. I will be heading out on Oct. 14th and back on the 31st. I am hoping to do some posts from the road if I can.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Photos of the Day

It is now officially fall and the weather appears to be changing to more fall like conditions this weekend. This is a great time to start planning for where you want to go to photograph and capture the fall colors. Where I live in the central part of Illinois across the river from St. Louis MO. may not be considered the best place in the country to photograph beautiful fall landscapes, but there are some amazingly beautiful scenes to be captured. I just have to work a little harder to find and capture those scenes.

Sugar Creek Bridge located near Glenarm IL.

The Sugar Creek Bridge is located in Southern Sangamon County IL. just south of Springfield near the small town of Glenarm. This is one of the only covered bridges left in Illinois and is on the National Historic Register. This is about an hour north of where I live and I have photographed this bridge in all the seasons.

Administration Bldg. Pere Marquette State Park
This log building is the administration building located at the entrance to Pere Marquette State Park located just north of Grafton, Illinois. Located on the bluffs overlooking the Illinois River, This beautiful park is a great place to capture the colors of fall. To get to this park from my house you drive Route 100 along the Mississippi River. This route is designated as one of top 100 most scenic drives in the country. It is a great drive, but in the fall it is stunning.

The biggest problem for me is not having enough time to get out and photograph all this scenery. As the days get shorter I am usually confined to weekends to get out, and there is always other things to do. Also the weather in the mid-west can affect the colors and duration of the season. Many times fall is short and drab due to unfavorable weather. The beautiful scenery is there for me, I just have to get out there and work harder to capture it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Photos of the Day

This is a Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar feeding on Swamp Milkweed. I shot this very early in the morning at the Edwardsville Watershed Nature Center. Monarch butterflies are some of the most unique butterflies in the world due to their annual migration from the eastern half of the United States to central Mexico.

Monarchs feed entirely on the various species of Milkweed plants. Milkweed is poisonous to other creatures, and this makes the Monarch poisonous for them to eat. This affords them a pretty good level of protection from many other creatures that would normally eat them.

Adult Monarch Butterflies will continue to feed on Milkweed plants and other nectar plants as well. I photographed this feeding adult at the Edwardsville Watershed Nature Center.  I have attached a link to a website that has extensive information covering the Monarch Butterfly. These fascinating creatures are a joy to observe and photograph.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Photo of the Day

                                   Busch Stadium, St. Louis MO.

This is a note on why you want to learn to do post processing work on your photographs. I see so many people buying and using really good quality cameras these days, but they really never learn how to use the camera properly to get the most out of it. The cameras now are getting really good and do turn out some very good photos right out of the camera. But, the photo can always be improved in some type of post processing software. I personally use Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended, but there are numerous programs that will do a good job for you. For people that are just getting into photography and want to really learn to edit and enhance their work I have been recommending Adobe Lightroom. Designed for the photographer in mind, it does a great job editing and cataloging your photos. And it is cheaper and easier to learn than Photoshop.

This photo was 6 images shot handheld in the vertical orientation. I knew this would be very difficult due to the deep shaded areas of the stands and the very bright skies. I took the 6 photos allowing about a 50% overlap on each photo to give Photoshop plenty of image to align with. I metered the brightest area in the middle of the scene and then shot manual exposure to avoid allowing the camera to change any settings and make the exposures off to compensate for the darker areas to the sides. there was about 4 stops of light difference from the shadows to bright sun, so I figured I would be able to keep much of the shadow detail and bring it up in post processing. Photoshop does an amazing job stitching photos together. Normally I would use a tripod and do a better job, but I was forced to do this quickly as I had to walk down the aisle to the front row of the upper deck and shoot between batters so I did not bother any of the fans.

Photoshop can align and compensate for you not being able to be as precise as if you were on a tripod. The are no seams in this and it turned out better than I expected for doing it in about 20 seconds. I was able to bring up the darker areas of the stadium, and also tone down the bright sky in post processing. The compression to size it down darkens it quite a bit, but on my 25 inch calibrated monitor it looks pretty good.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sometimes Breaking The Rules Is OK

As an avid macro photographer I really try to follow the rules, recomendations, or accepted guidelines to create the best photographs possible. My macro lens is a Canon 180mm f3.5 L series lens. It is very heavy, built like a tank, and when used properly, will give you amazing colors and detail.  Generally I like to add my 1.4 extender to push the focal length to 252mm. This allows me to have frame filling compositions on small subjects without having to get nearly as close as you would have to with a short focal length macro lens. The longer focal length also does a much better job of creating the beautiful bokeh (blurred backgrounds) when there is seperation between you subject and the background.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Compass Plant Flowers

With my macro setup, it is usually mandatory that I use a tripod. Normally I am shooting early in the morning or late in the evening when the light is low and soft. The drawback is I end up shooting at very slow shutter speeds. Also at these times there is less chance of a breeze to create movement. So generally as long as your subject is stationary, you can get some really sharp detail in your images. I use a cable release for the shutter, and I also use mirror lockup to further reduce vibrations and create the sharpest shot possible. I will shoot the subject and vary the f stop setting to try and keep my subject sharp but further blur the background. 

Gray Hairstreak Butterfly

Many short focal length macro lenses (50-100mm) are light weight and give you a much better chance of getting off the tripod and getting some really good hand held macro shots. All the camera manufacturers have a variety of macro lenses in their lineup, and all the after market lens makers such as Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron do to. I am not going to give advice on them as everyone has differant needs in a macro lens. My choice was based on wanting the very best lens available that would give me great colors, bokeh, and razor sharp detail. The trade off is it is heavy, and not really good for doing hand held macro work. It is slow focusing in auto mode, but most macro lenses are. If you are doing precision macro you are generally manually focusing anyway.

 Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly on a native Thistle Flower

The other day the weather finally broke here in the mid-west with much cooler temps. and the humidity also dropped offf quite a bit. This has made the past few days very enjoyable. I had to stop by our local nature center to drop off some photos on a CD for them and I noticed the place was swarming with butterflies. They were in a feeding frenzy and the flowers were covered with several varities of them. This was just to tempting to pass up as a nature photographer. I really did not have much time, but I had my camera in the car but no tripod. Another issue was it was pretty breezy and the flowers were blowing all over the place. Normally under these conditions I would try to capture these with my 70-200 f2.8L IS lens with the extender on it. Being a fast lens and image stabilized, I have had some decent success taking butterflies with that setup.

Fiery Skipper Butterfly on Purple Cone Flower

The interesting thing was it was around 11:30am and very bright and sunny. Normally under the hot humid conditions the light would be harsh and contrasty. This day it seemed bright but acceptable to try to use my macro lens. I set my ISO to 400, my f stop to f8, and then I went to AI Servo mode and continious shooting mode. The same setup you would use for photographing sports or birds in flight. Crazy for macro work right? In the bright sunlight I was getting shutter speeds from 1/1000 to 1/2000. I was hoping the Servo tracking mode would somewhat keep up with the blowing flowers. Again my macro lens is slow in auto focus and tracking but I thought I would see if I could get some images that were acceptable. So in a short time I shot about 200 frames. Very difficult conditions to try and do serious macro work in. Knowing my equipment vey well and being able to read the light was helpful in at least getting a few acceptable images.  I came up with these four images as the best I could get after some post processing in Photoshop CS5. 

So there are general rules and acceptable guidlines for many things in photography, but you should always push the rules and occasionally break them all just to see what happens. Sometimes you mess up bad, but digital is cheap! Then sometimes you create something amazing. I was pretty happy with these under the conditions I shot them in.

So where is Scott next week.? This Friday 8-27-10, I am attending a one day Adobe Photoshop class in St. Louis. On Tuesday 08-31-10, I am headed to Las Vegas to attend the Photoshop World Convention for three days. I will try to post from there if time permits.  

Friday, August 20, 2010

Destin Florida

I took a family vacation to Destin Florida with the intent of taking a short break from writing a daily blog. 2 1/2 months later I finally started back. Taking time to write a daily blog got to be to much, so I have decided to limit it to once or twice a week depending on what is happening in my life. It would be ideal to have more leisure time to travel, photograph, and write about my adventures. But reality set in, and like most people I still need to work to support my travel and photography addicition.

I did not expect to get in a lot of nature and wildlife photography on this trip with the family, so mine time alone was limited to the very early mornings. What is interesting about Destin, and all beaches on the panhandle of Florida is that the beaches run east and west. The sunrises and sunsets are actually behind you over the bay area when you are out on the beach. If you want that classic orange ball sun rising or setting into the water you have to shoot it in the bay between the barrier beach and the mainland. You can still create some amazing scences with the early morning light, it is just not your classic shot with the sun being in the frame.   

The beaches along the Florida panhandle are really some of the most beautiful you will find. The quartz sand is bright white and very soft. The waters here are clear and warm. It is an ideal place for a family beach vacation. There are many entertainment activities, restaurants, and shopping locations in the many towns along the panhandle.

What was frustrating for me as a nature photographer was the lack of birds and other wildlife to photograph on the beach. I guess I am pretty spoiled going to south Florida so often where the birds far outnumber the people. Don't get me wrong, there were some birds around, but they were far and few between. Even in the early mornings at first light there was not much to photograph except the overall scenery. A couple mornings I even drove down to some protected national seashore beaches were no development is allowed. I did see and photograph some birds and other wildlife, but I was dissapointed with the overall numbers and results of those trips. So I just concentrated on the seascapes.


One evening a large thunderstorm started building right offshore out in the Gulf of Mexico. The light show put on by mother nature was spectacular! I was able to set up my tripod on an elevated deck overlooking the beach and capture the best lightning shots I have ever taken. Since it was so dark I simply had my camera on complete manual settings. I shot at ISO 100 with an apeture of f11 using a wide angle lens. Shutter was set to bulb and a electronic shutter release as used to trip the shutter. Many of the exposures were around 30 seconds that the shutter was open until I captured a big lightning strike.

 I spent five days in a friends beachfront condo and had a great time. Having your family together on a trip like this makes it very special. I know that I would never get tiredof living on the beach. I love the mountains, but those eary morning walks on the beach are the best.