Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Road Trip - Day 3

The Black Hills area of South Dakota offers an amazing amount of things to see and do. Enough diverse attractions keep anyone happy no matter what your interests are. With the limited schedule we were on, I had planned several days worth of sightseeing and photography in one long day. June 13th started pretty early. Most of the attractions we wanted to see where in the Rapid City area about 40 miles south. There are a number of wonderful ad reasonably priced hotels in that area, but I stayed in Deadwood for the atmosphere and ambiance of the town. I had planned a route that would circle us back to Deadwood through Sturgis. The early first stop of the day was Custer State Park.

At 71,000 aces, Custer State Park is the second largest state park in America. There are extensive hiking trails and other numerous outdoor activities available at the park. The park has excellent lodges and campground facilities. With a limited amount of time, we concentrated on the 18 mile wildlife loop through the park. For the nature and wildlife photographer in me this offered the best chance to get the types of photos I was looking for. The park has about 1500 Bison roaming free, and they are a magnificent sight to observe. The park has a big herd of wild burros, but with the tourists feeding them constantly, they are sure friendly when you stop. One of my best wildlife photos from that drive was finding this Meadowlark sitting on a rock singing as loud as he possibly could. A Canon 400mm telephoto lens was perfect for filling the frame with him while not even leaving the drivers seat.

Driving through Custer State Park gives you a good sense of how this land looked a few hundred years ago before so many humans moved onto the landscape. Springtime is perfect to find the baby animals that have recently been born. The cutness factor is pretty high when you can get good photos of the babies. The adult mammals are shedding their winter coats and look pretty ragged at this time of the year though.
From there it was on to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is an ongoing project for the past 55 years or so. It is the largest mountain carving project in the world. Entirely funded by private donations, it will dwarf Mount Rushmore in size and scale when it is completed. I wished I would have had the time to take the bus trip up the mountain for a closer look, but with a 400mm lens I could get some good close-up shots from the visitors center. The photo I took here replicates one I saw in the advertisements for this place. The statue outside is a replicas of what the finished sculpture will look like. I just lined them up and shot this with a wide angle lens to fit it all in the frame. Here is the link to the offical site:

 The next destination of the day was Mount Rushmore. The Needles Highway, South Dakota Highway 87, between Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake is a superb scenic drive with its winding roads and granite tunnels. When it is crowded it is slow going with the bumper to bumper traffic, but worth it for the views. I could see storm clouds building now by the afternoon hours. When we arrived at Mt Rushmore it had clouded up and started raining. We ate lunch and waited it out and got some clearing skies within an hour or so. I did not take the guided hike up the mountain, so all my photos were from the visitors center area. I liked this one after I converted it to a B&W.  I know most people are familiar with Mt. Rushmore, but if you have never been to see it, make a point of paying a visit. A great symbol of our country and it gave me goose bumps to stand and admire it.
As we left Mt. Rushmore I could see that the break in the weather was over and a big storm was building. We made a stop at Bear Country USA which is a drive-thru wildlife park. I was hoping to possibly get some good photos but the storm caught up to us as we entered the park. We drove through in the rain and tried to wait it out but it looked like it was going to be bad for quite some time. I did manage this shot of an Arctic Wolf as he sat on a grassy knoll in the rain. He was pretty scarred up from fighting with the other wolves.

Deadwood South Dakota lies in a deep gulch high in the Black Hills One of the west's wildest gold rush towns has the distinction of being on the National Historic Register in it's entirety. I regrettably did not take many photos of my short stay in Deadwood. I was out enjoying the town and trying to cover my wife's losses at the slot machines by winning at Blackjack. (Luckily I did) The locals are a colorful bunch, and at night time it can get still get pretty wild in Deadwood.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Road Trip Day-2

Day 2 of our road trip, June 12th, started under very gloomy and rainy skies. We were heading west from Mitchell South Dakota with the next stop to be Deadwood, South Dakota. Now distance wise this is only about 315 miles, but I had planned to spend a good deal of the day driving through Badlands National Park. I was forced to pass up on many areas that I would have liked to visit due to time constraints. Driving west on I 90 through South Dakota I had to pass on stopping at places like Fort Pierre and Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. The most frustrating part was not being able to control the weather. Upon arrival at Badlands, it was still gloomy and cloudy, but the rain was tapering off.
I was a little frustrated because I had hoped to get some really good landscape images from the park. But after getting into the park the rain stopped, but as you can see from the photos the sky was still very dark and ominous. But as it turned out, the clouds and ugly skies made for some dramatic landscape scenes by creating an all together different mood than I had planned on. I only had a small window of time to visit on this trip so I knew I had to make the most of it. Fortunately my wife and friends were very tolerant of me wanting to stop and take photos often.
Badlands was established as a National Monument in 1939, and designated as a National Park in 1978. The park encompasses 244,00 acres and has about one million visitors a year. The park contains the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the country. The park is also considered one of the world's richest mammal fossil beds. You could easily spend several days exploring and seeing all the sights and activities available there. But if you are on a short schedule, the best thing to do is drive the highway 240 loop through the park. This will allow you to see much of the most scenic areas and have plenty of places to stop for photos.

As I continued to drive and stop often to do some landscape photography, I notice some breaks in the clouds. It appeared that the weather gods were going to possibly give me a break and I might get to see some good light yet on this day.
Then suddenly there was some dramatic breaks in the clouds and blue skies and rays of sunlight started filtering through. I was nearing the end of the hwy. 240 loop and was now on the west side of the park. I took a side road to find this large prairie dog village in the grasslands area of the park.                                                                                                   
Prairie Dogs were almost wiped out at one time by ranchers as being a pest, and their dens were dangerous to livestock and horses when then ran and stepped in a den hole. But they were given government protection and are making a strong comeback. To see a large village of this creatures is a real sight. Hundreds and hundreds of them sitting near the entrance's to their dens ever on guard for the many threats they face.

Another fixture of the west is the Pronghorn, or Pronghorn Antelope, although it is not a true Antelope. Out west there seem to be more Pronghorns than there are humans. With all the vast open land they are visable and plentiful as you drive along the highways of the west.

At the point we exited the park, we were at Wall South Dakota. If you have ever been through this area, or are planning a trip in the future, another slice of Americana is the Wall Drug Store. Just like the Corn Palace in Mitchell, it is one of those places you must stop and experience. Once you have been here you may not stop again, (I won't) but you have to do it once to say you have been there. They have signs along all the major highways for hundreds of miles advertising the Wall Drug Store. Kind of like driving in Florida and seeing all the signs for Ron Jon's Surf Shop. This tourist attraction has grown over the years and has turned into a sprawling maze of rooms and stores that ecompass an entire city block. If you have kids you will have a tough time getting them to leave here. Here is a good link with more information on the Wall Drug Store.

After that stop it was on to Deadwood South Dakota. Why Deadwood? Can you say casino hotels!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Road Trip

Two words that will make my day. Road Trip! In this day and age of compressed vacations and sometimes reasonable airline fares, many people now abhor travel by vehicle for any extended trips. Not me, I was raised on family vacations where each summer my father would pack us in the car and we would see as much of the country as we could. No Interstates back then, so you actually got to see towns and local scenery. I remember driving Rt. 66 all the way to California and back. Even if it is just a one day trip, I enjoy getting off the beaten path and just driving old highways and country roads. so this past summer my wife and I took a road trip with some friends of ours. I look forward to the day I have plenty of time and don't have to rush, but like most people I only have so much vacation time and on this trip, I was trying to squeeze what should have been a month long trip into 10 days. So sit back and enjoy the view because we will cover a lot of ground.

June 11, 2009 we left Edwardsville and drove to Mitchell South Dakota. Why stop at Mitchell? Because it is home to the world famous Corn Palace. The Corn Palace is just one of those must see attractions that is a great piece of Americana. The World's Only Corn Palace is Mitchell's premier tourist attraction. Some 500,000 tourists come from around the nation each year to see the uniquely designed corn murals. The original building was built in 1892, and the current building is the third to be built, each being bigger and replacing the previous one. The Corn Palace is decorated with several colors of dried corn and grains creating murals. The theme of the murals is changed regularly. The building itself is used for several purposes including a basketball arena the local high school prom, trade shows, staged entertainment, and the Shriner's Circus.

Admission is free, and it is very interesting to learn how each year they redo the entire outside of the building with specially grown colored corn and other crop plants. The design is also changed annually. There have been an amazing amount of famous entertainers and politicians that have appeared at the Corn Palace.
Many unique events are held at the Corn Palace each year including the South Dakota State Basketball championships. USA Today Newspaper rated the Corn Palace as one of the 10 best places to watch high school basketball.
So what else is there in Mitchell. There is the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. The Prehistoric Indian Village is an archaeological site where scientists are excavating a Native American village, believed to be ancestors of the present Mandan residing in North Dakota, that is buried near Lake Mitchell. The excavation site is unique in that it is enclosed by an Archeodome, a climate controlled building built over the excavation, that allows scientists to continue their excavation year round. There is also a small museum of Native American art and history nearby. There was not enough time to visit that site as it was late and we were leaving early in the morning. You could probably see all there is to see in a full day, but after driving 12 plus hours, we only had a few hours to see the Corn Palace.

 Mitchell is a town of about 16-17000 residents. They do have some nice historic homes and looks like many well kept towns I have visited. They did have a nice Cabela's store along the highway that was next to my hotel.
Although not your average storefront in the Midwest, you know you are in the true west when you start to see places like this along Main Street. I love it when you can go to the general store, saloon, and casino all in one stop. Heck, there is still a place to tie your horse up out front. So yes, Mitchell is my kinda town.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Memories of Elvis

Elvis Presley may not be alive and well, but his memories live on due to his amazing music. There are many individuals who do Elvis impersonation shows, and I have seen quite a few of them over the years. Go to Vegas and you may see several at various clubs or theaters there at any given time. Fortunately the St. Louis area is blessed with one of the very best I have ever heard. Steve Davis does an amazing job recreating not only the music, but every little nuance and detail of the life of Elvis Presley.

Steve tours nationally and does shows from small productions to his full blown band with several acts, backup singers , and a complete horn section. January 8th is the birthday of Elvis Presley. Every year Steve does a big production show at the Pageant Concert Hall in St. Louis. A few years ago I agreed to photograph his concert. I had never photographed a big concert in a venue like the Pageant and I was very apprehensive about doing a good job for him. I learned very quickly that concert photography is extremely difficult. The lighting is a nightmare with everything from intensely bright white hot spotlights to near pitch black darkness. The activity on the stage is frenzied at times and requires a pretty high shutter speed to freeze the action. This requires constant adjustments to your camera settings to try and get the best exposure.

I am issued an all access pass, so this allows me backstage to photograph before the concert starts and to scout good shooting locations before the start of the concert.. I photograph from every angle and location possible to give him a broad range of photographs to choose from. This is a big concert and runs over 2 hours long. The Pageant is a great venue, and when they pack'em in will hold about 2400 people. During a concert like this I will shoot about 300-350 photos
Steve not only has superb vocals and sounds like Elvis, but he has the look, mannerisms, and whole Elvis persona to make his show very special. His interaction and involvement with his fans help make his show so special. Sadly I do not get to enjoy it very much as I am concentrating so hard on the photography.


My enjoyment comes when I sit down in front of my computer to edit the images. I turn up the Elvis music and try to make my photographs look as good as I possibly can. I shoot everything in RAW format. This allows me to make adjustments to the photos in Adobe Photoshop that would not be possible if they had been shot in jpeg format. It takes me far longer to process each image from these concerts, but so far I have been pretty happy with the end results. I shoot all of them in color, but certain ones I will convert to B&W when I think it would look better that way. Steve has used many of my photos for his  merchandise and advertising.

So if you are in the St. Louis area around January the 8th, 2010, this is a show I highly recommend. If you see this big funny looking guy running around with cameras taking pictures, it will probably be me. Don't laugh, just stop me and say high.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vegas Baby!

Although I am not of big fan of large cities or big crowds, one of my favorite places to go for a few days is Las Vegas. Yes, I do enjoy the gambling, but there is actually a lot of other great things to do there. My wife and I have been going to Vegas for many years. It was actually very reasonable to fly to Vegas and stay in a luxury hotel . Over the past few years it had gotten much more expensive to not only stay, but show prices and meals are no longer reasonable for my budget. But I still have been going at least once a year in September to attend the National Association of Photoshop Professional's conference held yearly at the Mandalay Bay Casino and Convention Center. (A tough job, but somebody's gotta do it)
As a photographer, you will love Las Vegas for the endless possibilities it provides for you. Since I love the long exposure night scenes and colorful images, welcome to heaven. After you have lost your hard earned money in the casino, grab your camera and tripod and head out for some night shots. It is not difficult to find a suitable composition as the entire length of Las Vegas Blvd. is a circus show on steroids.

You can photograph everything from the entire New York skyline to the Eifel Tower. The worst problem is dealing with crowds if you have a tripod set up and you are trying to shoot long exposures. The streets and sidewalks are still jam packed at 3:00am. A daylight walking trip also provides many great scenes and interesting thing to photograph. Having been to Las Vegas so many times now, I spend far more time trying to make some good images than I do inside a casino.
Here is one of my favorite photos that I have from my trips to Las Vegas. The New York New York Casino is located at the intersection of Las Vegas Blvd. and Tropicana Ave. I took this shot just after the sun went down below the horizion. I love how it brought out the blue twilight color of the sky.
So what do you do on the plane ride home from Vegas after a Photoshop World Convention? Why you take a photo out of your plane window, download it onto your laptop, and then practice the skills you just learned by creating your personal Southwest Airlines poster.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Food Chain

As a nature and wildlife photographer I spend countless hours outside photographing and studying nature. Besides knowing all the technical stuff to make your camera work and give you a proper exposure, knowing your subject's behavior is extremely important. This allows you to know when something is going to happen that will make for a much more dramatic shot. When you first start photographing wildlife, you are happy to just get a nice exposure with sharp detail on your subject while it is in a static pose. Soon that is not good enough and you want some dramatic action. This is where knowing the animals behavior will allow you to anticipate the shot and capture some great action. The great thing about digital is you can take as many photos as possible and just delete what you do not need. In the films days this was a very expensive endeavor to make so many exposures to just get one or two of the peak action captures.
I have been fortunate to witness some amazing scenes while spending all those hours in the field. What has always fascinated me is the cycle of life, and where everything fits on the food chain. In fact one of my favorite quotes is "I am glad I am very high up on the food chain" My first foray into the food chain started in high school when I learned to scuba dive. Making my first dive in the ocean made it crystal clear that I was nowhere near the top of the food chain, and once I entered the water there were many things way bigger than me that could eat me.
My next sense of where I fit in on the food chain was backpacking in the back country of Yellowstone National Park and being in Grizzly Bear country. No bear spray back then. You wore a couple cow bells and talked out loud so they could hear you coming.
A good reminder of my place on the food chain occurred when I captured this 9-10 foot alligator chomping on a Horseshoe Crab. I had been squatting down at the water's edge in Ding Darling NWR to photograph some birds close by. Suddenly he came to the surface about 25-30 feet in front of me and started chomping away. Being the good photographer, I didn't flinch and kept shooting until my buffer was full and then shot some more. The gator finally spit out the crab and slid below the surface. I was eagerly checking my camera to see if I got any good shots. Suddenly several of those National Geographic shows popped into my head and started playing back. You know, the ones where the gators charge out of the water and grab the unsuspecting animal at the edge that was there to drink. They drag them under and start the death roll while ripping them apart. At that point I was back pedaling and got back up on the road ASAP.

It is not always pretty, and in reality it is often gory and bloody when you watch all creatures struggle to survive and pass along their genes to the next generation. But it is fascinating to see how they overcome much adversity to survive and thrive. But one mistake, or lax moment, can make them just another link on the food chain for a creature that is higher than them. I have come uncomfortably close a few times to being a link on that chain, but hopefully I will be around to document some of the action for a while longer.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Who Gives A Hoot

There are about 200 different species of owls worldwide. They are found in all regions of the Earth except Antarctica most of Greenland, and some remote islands. Though owls are typically solitary, the collective noun for a group of owls is a parliament. The first owl  pictured here is a Barred Owl, and is a common owl found in the mid-west around here. This is a vocal owl and the one you probably here most often at night.

Owls have large forward-facing eyes and ear-holes, a hawk-like beak, a flat face, and usually a conspicuous circle of feathers, (facial disc), around each eye. Although owls have binocular vision, their large eyes are fixed in their sockets, as with other birds, and they must turn their entire head to change views. Most birds of prey sport eyes on the sides of their heads, but the stereoscopic nature of the owl's forward-facing eyes permits a greater sense of depth perception necessary for low-light hunting.

The owl pictured above is a common Barn Owl. The Barn Owl is one of the most wide-spread of all land birds. They are found on all continents (except Antartica).  Owls are farsighted and are unable to see anything clearly within a few centimeters of their eyes. Caught prey can be felt by owls with the use of filoplumes, which are small hair-like feathers on the beak and feet that act as "feelers". Their far vision, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good. Contrary to popular myth, an owl cannot turn its head completely backwards. It can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction; it can thus look behind its own shoulders, with a total 270-degree field of view
The owl pictured above  is a Short-eared Owl. This is another owl species that can be found in our area. Generally it is nocturnal, but often become active 30-60 minutes before sunset. Much of the owls' hunting strategy depends on stealth and surprise. Owls have at least two adaptations that aid them in achieving stealth. First, the dull coloration of owls' feathers can render them almost invisible under certain conditions. Secondly, serrated edges on the leading edge owls' remiges muffle an owl's wingbeats, allowing its flight to be practically silent. Some fish-eating owls, for which silence is of no evolutionary advantage, lack this adaptation.

This cute little fellow above is a Northern Pygmy Owl. They are not native to this area and can be found in the Rocky Mountains west to California. The Northern Pygmy Owl is a tiny, woodland, diurnal Owl that is most active between dawn and dusk. This little guy is usually about 6-7 inches in height.

So how did I get such amazing closeups on these owls? These are all captive owls that I have photographed at various bird sanctuary's, zoo's, or raptor rehabilitation centers. They are difficult, but not impossible to photograph in the wild.  The single best resource for information on owls that I have found on the internet is called The Owl Pages. Here is the link.

This is a Spectacled Owl, and can be found in South America

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Edwardsville Watershed Nature Preserve

Most nature photographers have favorite places they go to photograph at on a regular basis. Mine happens to be the Edwardsville Watershed Nature Preserve. This is a 47acre site that once was the city's sewage lagoon. Formally closed in 1986 due to a new facility being built, the property sat until 1990 when John and Kay Kendall had the vision to turn it into a nature center. With help from the city, many organizations, and private citizens, The Edwardsville Watershed Nature Preserve was built. It is an amazing piece of property that contains woodlands, wetlands, and wildflower prairies'. A mile long trail winds around the property with a nice elevated concrete walkway in the wetland area. This allows for great access for people to see the habitat up close, and it makes a great base for a photographer's tripod.
I am currently serving on the board of directors as the Vice-President. This is a really great place to practice the art of nature photography. I mostly due macro photography here since there is a diverse amount of subjects to photograph. Insects of all types and wildflowers are my main target, but there are plenty of other creatures that you will cross paths with.
Early mornings and late afternoons would be a good time to find me down there. I love to get eye to eye with my subjects, so you may find me in some unusual positions or places in an attempt to capture the best image possible.  I have friends that also enjoy photography so sometimes we will have a a herd or tripods working. If you are interested in coming down to the center and want some advice or help with your photography, drop me a line.

One day I decided I wanted to capture Barn Swallows in flight. Trying to track and photograph these little flying jets was impossible. Then I noticed one on the deck railing and another making high speed passes to harrass it. I focused on the stationary bird and froze the action with a 1/2000 second shutter speed. The background is the lake.

You can find and photograph an amazing spectrum of subjects if you look close enough. Here is the link to the Nature Center's website

Have a great weekend,