Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Salton Sea Birds

A few photos from my visit to the Salton Sea.

While I was traveling around Arizona and California this winter, I had more than a few opportunities to do some photography. At the Salton Sea in California, which I visited in mid January, I spent much of a day photographing the birds along the salty water or walking on the barnacle beach. For most shots, I used a 70-300mm Nikkor lens on my Nikon D7100 DSLR. I thought I’d share the best of them in a quick “postcards” blog post here.

I suppose I should say a few things about the Salton Sea. It’s a strangely beautiful, highly saline lake in the middle of the desert in southern California. It’s surface is roughly 235 feet below sea level. It was formed years ago when the Colorado River flooded and jumped its banks, pouring water into the low-lying desert for about 16 months. There are no outlets; the lake is fed by irrigation runoff and kept level by evaporation. The salt level rises steadily. The beaches are not sand; they’re barnacles. The place is home to more than 300 species of birds, many of which are migratory. The visitor center has a lot of good information with friendly, knowledgeable staff. I would definitely visit again. You can learn more on Wikipedia and the Salton Sea Authority website.

Here are the bird photos. One of these days, I might get back into this blog entry to add captions with the names of the birds. If you know any that aren’t named here, please comment to let me know and I’ll add a caption.

Salton Sea Birds

Salton Sea Birds

Seagull at Salton Sea
Seagull at the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Birds

White Heron at the Salton Sea
White Heron at the Salton Sea.

White Pelicans
White Pelicans at the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Birds

Salton Sea Birds

Seagull at Salton Sea
Seagull at the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea Sunrise
Birds flying at sunrise over the Salton Sea.

Snowbirding 2017: Astrophotography

Practice makes perfect. I’m practicing.

I have more than the average amount of free time in my life and I like to put it to good use doing and learning things. Last September, I took an astrophotography class at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. You can read about the class and see some of the photos I took during our field trip in this blog post.

What I learned about shooting the night sky is that it’s very easy to do if you have the right equipment. Fortunately, I do: a DSLR with full manual mode, a very wide angle (10mm) lens, and a sturdy tripod. The hardest thing to do is to find skies dark enough to see enough stars to make the effort worthwhile.

We had dark enough skies in the North Cascades, despite ambient light from the nearby dam and occasional passing car. I don’t have dark enough skies at home, though — the glow from Wenatchee is surprisingly (and disappointingly) bright. And although I camped at more than a few places that should have been dark enough for night sky photography, most weren’t.

Or if I found a place that should have dark enough skies, the sky was overcast while I was there. Or the moon was in the sky, illuminating it so only the brightest stars showed.

Cibola
I like this shot of my RV parked on the levee along the Colorado River. I had to crop it square to get rid of the light from the town of Cibola, which is still in the shot.

I did have some success back in January when I camped out along the Colorado River near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona. I shared one of those photos in a blog post about the campsites I’ve been finding.

The one I didn’t share was a bit more challenging and I’m not sure if I successfully pulled it off. (Maybe you can tell me?) The bright point of light in the sky is Venus. I wanted to catch its reflection in the Colorado River, which I did. Unfortunately, although it was long past sunset, there was still a bit of a glow to the west. I think it’s from towns and homes off in the distance, but who knows?

Venus Reflected
It’s nearly impossible to include the horizon in a night photography shot without some sort of glow from terrestrial lighting.

I got a chance to practice again in Death Valley National Park, on my third night in the park. The first two nights were too cloudy and the moon was nearly full anyway. But the third night offered a window of opportunity between the end of twilight and before the waning gibbous moon came up. I was parked in Greenwater Valley with some mountains behind the camper. It was very dark outside and the sky was full of stars. I took eight shots. I think these two are the best.

Death Valley Night Sky
This was my first shot of the evening with the camera pointed pretty much straight up. It features the Milky Way with the Pleiades near the center and Orion’s Belt almost cropped off the top.

Death Valley Night Sky
In this shot, I pointed the camera up above the mountains behind the camper. You can see the big dipper just above the horizon. Once again, there’s the glow from something out there; it’s not the sun because I was pointed east.

I think photos are more interesting with something in the foreground. The one with my camper works for me. So does the one with Venus and its reflection. I guess the challenge is going someplace with something interesting to frame in the foreground and possibly “light paint” it with a lantern or something. It wouldn’t take much. The only light in my camper in the above shot was from a single tea light candle burning on the dining table inside. It looks as if I have multiple lights on!

I enjoy doing this, although I admit I’d likely enjoy it more with companions on the same sort of mission. Because my remote shutter release doesn’t work — I think it needs a new battery (again) — I have to use the camera’s self-timer as a shutter release. That adds 10 seconds to a 30 second exposure with about 30 seconds of processing time before an image finally appears. A lot of time standing around by myself in the dark. The field trip I took at the North Cascades class was a bit more of a crowd than I like, but at least it kept things interesting.

I hope to get at least one more chance to experiment with this kind of photography on my trip, but I’m not sure when. Most of my remaining destinations are not well known for their dark skies. I’ll see how I do.

Photography: The Right Place at the Right Time

It’s kind of like the stars needing to align just the right way to get the best shot.

Practice Makes Perfect
This reminds me of a podcast I was listening to in the car just yesterday on my way back to Wickenburg from Winslow. It’s an episode of Freakonomics radio which discusses practice as a way of becoming an expert at anything. If you’re interested in learning or getting better at a skill and like to understand the science behind how things work, I recommend “How to become Great at Just About Anything.”

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine — we’ll call her Jane — shared a photo on Facebook. She’s an amateur photographer turning pro and has begun to sell some of her work. Other work has appeared in various publications. I’ve known Jane since she first took a serious interest in photography and it’s no exaggeration to say that her work has come a very long way since those early days. Many of the photos she shares now are absolutely stunning. Practice makes perfect — or at least helps you get closer to perfect.

Anyway, the photo Jane shared that day was one of those where she caught the light on her subject just right. It was one of her best shots — in my opinion, anyway — and I complemented her. I also added the comment, “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.”

I don’t remember her exact response, but it was something like, “It’s a little more than that.” I suspect that I’d offended her and I certain didn’t mean to. But I’ll stand by what I said and make an attempt to prove it with an example. I’ll also share some of my philosophy about photography.

What Makes a Photo Great

The way I see it, a photo can’t be truly great unless the photographer nails three components: subject, composition, and light.

Subject
The subject of the photo is what the photo shows. It should be something beautiful or notable or interesting in some way. Beautiful is pretty straightforward, although I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Notable is what I think about when using photography to document something, for example, the way a bridge cable attaches to a support or the design of a water fountain. (Yeah, I’m sometimes fascinated by silly things like that.) Interesting covers a lot of ground. The pattern of sand after a wave has come by is interesting. Paint peeling off a wall can be interesting, too. It’s part of the photographer’s job to make the subject something that speaks to us in some way, something that makes us stop and look and think. A good photographer can do that with just about any subject using the other two components.

Composition
Composition refers to the way the photographer arranges the subject and its surroundings in the camera’s frame. You may have heard of the Rule of Thirds and it’s a great thing to keep in mind when composing a photograph. But that doesn’t mean a photo can’t be great without following that rule. One of the differences between a good photographer and someone who haphazardly snaps dozens of photos in hopes that one will be good is that a good photograph can figure out where to stand and which lens to use (or how to set a zoom lens) and how to hold the camera to get the best composition more often than not. I should add here that a good photographer does not need to rely on cropping to get the right composition; she should be able to compose right in the camera. (One obvious exception to this rule is when a photo’s desired aspect ratio is unsupported by the camera; for example, a square photo would require cropping.)

Light
Of course, photography absolutely depends on light. Without light, there would be no photography — after all, that’s what the camera’s sensor (or film in the old days) records. What so many amateur photographers don’t understand is that there is good light and bad light. Natural light changes with the weather and time of day. Blue hour or twilight light is, as the name suggests, bluer and dimmer than daylight. Golden hour light tends to be redder and softer, casting longer shadows. Midday light is often harsh and bright, flattening out the scenery. Beyond that, light can be direct or reflected or shadowed — sometimes all in the same composition. A good photographer using natural light — for example a landscape photographer like Jane (and me) — understands the importance of light and makes a special effort to photograph the subject at the best time.

Get all three of these right and the photo will be great. Get two of these right — for example, subject and composition or subject and light — and the photo might be good, but it won’t be great. Get just one right and the photo won’t be very good at all. (We’ve all seen these — think vacation photos uploaded en masse on Facebook.)

Being a Serious Amateur
I call myself a “serious amateur” photographer and I don’t use that phrase lightly. I see it this way: An amateur is someone who snaps photos without bothering to try to make the photo great. Good is good enough. A serious amateur is someone who understands what makes a photo great and puts a conscious effort into trying to make great photos. Each shot, objectively reviewed, is a step (hopefully up) on the learning ladder. Good is never good enough.

The trick is to objectively assess how good you’ve covered each of these components. And that’s a Catch-22 in itself: if you’re not a good photographer, you likely won’t be able to objectively critique your own work. That’s part of how practice makes perfect. Keep trying, keep comparing, keep objectively trying to figure out what could be better in each photograph you make. If you’ve got a good eye and you’re honest with yourself, you’ll get better all the time.

Right Place, Wrong Time

This past weekend, I was up in the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in Northern Arizona. This is an amazing place for landscape photography, with the broad desert scrubland of the Painted Desert punctuated by deep canyons, flat-topped mesas, and towering buttes. The west end of the Navajo Reservation is where red sandstone formations laid down when oceans covered the Four Corners region meet and merge with dark brown lava flows emerging from the multitude of volcanic cones north and east of Flagstaff. That’s where an explorer with a vehicle capable of tackling rugged roads can find the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River.

Grand Falls Terrain
Nothing better illustrates the way the two landforms come together at Grand Falls than a satellite image like this one. You can clearly see the reddish rock of the painted desert butt up against the lava flows. One flow forced a bend in the river around it; the falls come right after that bend and then cut into the rock joint, forming the Little Colorado River Gorge. (The Colorado River flows east to west here.) Want to study this for yourself? Use Google Maps to Search for Grand Falls, Leupp, AZ.)

As a subject for photography, the Grand Falls is a crap shoot. I’ve seen the falls completely dry without a single drop of water flowing over the long shelves of rock. While that might be interesting to some folks — geologists come to mind — I personally lack the skills to make it interesting enough to qualify as a great photo. I’ve also seen the falls with water thundering over its entire breadth and mist rising up into the sky. When the water is flowing it’s always reddish brown from sandstone silt it picks up along the way, thus giving it the nickname “chocolate falls” or “chocolate milk falls.”

So timing is vital when visiting the falls. It nearly always runs with spring runoff from the mountains far to the Southeast, so spring time is the best time to visit if you want to see water. It also may run from monsoon rain in July and August — depending on weather, of course. But it was January — too cold for runoff and no monsoon rains. We did, however, have a good rainstorm on Friday night. And my trip to the Hopi Reservation put me just over an hour away. It was worth a try.

I was lucky. The falls were at about half flow: certainly interesting enough for some photos. So I had a good subject.

I spent about an hour shooting from various points along its south shore. I would have crossed the river to shoot from the other side, but there’s no bridge and the crossing looked a lot muddier than I was willing to try, even in my big four-wheel-drive truck. My ability to compose my shots was limited by where I could stand to shoot and the lenses I had with me. Although the photos here are from my phone’s camera, I did have my Nikon and three lenses with me. To fit the entire falls into the shot, I wound up using my 10-24mm zoom lens. This gave me a huge amount of flexibility as far as framing was concerned. I did the best I could and believe I got some interesting compositions that showed off the geology with manmade objects to indicate the scale — after all, Grand Falls is actually taller than Niagara Falls. So I was relatively satisfied with my compositions.

Light was another story. I arrived at midday, which would have been horrible on one of those perfectly clear, blue sky days Arizona gets so often. But it wasn’t a perfect day. It wasn’t even a nice day. I’d driven through fog to get to the falls and the low clouds had lifted only a few thousand feet above me. The light was soft but colorless. The sky was gray. The air felt wet.

Now I know that lots of photographers like the kind of soft light that was all around me that day and I know it’s hard to make a bad landscape photo on a day like that, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. Still, you can’t adjust natural light; you have to take what Mother Nature delivers. So I did what I could. I got a bit excited when, about 30 minutes into my visit, the sun began shining down the canyon past the falls. I watched the soft sunlight creep up towards the falls, hoping it would give me the kind of spotlighting I’d seen downriver. I waited. I was at the right place — or as close to it as I could be — and I was willing to wait a while for the right time.

It didn’t come. The gap in the clouds closed up. Everything returned to the even flat light. I took a few more shots, got back into the truck, and left. The rain started immediately.

Grand FallsHere’s my favorite unedited cell phone shot from the visit. Note the sunlight on the canyon wall at the top left of the photo. I was waiting for that light to get to the falls, but it never did. The Nikon version of this shot shows a wider field of view and the composition is a bit better.

So did I get a great shot of the falls? I don’t think so. I did get a good shot, though. And, for a while, I was satisfied with that.

Right Place, Right Time

Until the next day. It rained (and snowed) again overnight and I figured there might be more water going over the falls. I was leaving La Posada in Winslow (where I was staying) and another trip to Grand Falls would only take me an hour or so out of my way. I knew that if I didn’t at least try it, I’d regret it forever. After all, how often do I get up to that area of Arizona with a sturdy vehicle and time on my hands?

There was some fog along the way, but not much. The sky was clearing and blue sky was poking out. There was definitely sunlight but it was filtered through lighter clouds. Soft yet bright light. It was still early in the day — not long after 9 AM — but long past golden hour. (I’m not sure whether golden hour would have been golden anyway; the clouds were still thick around sunrise.) As I drove the last 10 muddy, bumpy roads, plowing through puddles that would swallow a Smart Car, I wondered whether the angle of the sun would cast deep shadows across the falls.

Of course, that’s a whole other aspect of light. The angle of the sun determines where the shadows will be at various times of the day at various times of the year. It was winter, not long after solstice, so the sun was nearly as low in the southern sky as it would be. And it was morning, so it would be low in the southeastern sky. The falls faced southwest, with a canyon wall to the south. Would that canyon wall cast deep shadows at that time of the day? How long was I willing to wait there for the right light?

Turns out, I didn’t have to wait at all. The light was damn near perfect when I arrived. (Perfect as far as I was concerned, anyway.) The sky was an interesting mix of patches of blue with clearing clouds. The falls had about the same amount of water flowing over, which was okay.

Grand Falls
This is nearly the same composition, although for this shot I got down into a crouch to include some sunlight-illuminated plants in the foreground. (The crouch also allowed me to block the floating garbage patch at the base of the falls (ick!) with a rock formation.) The light was nice and soft and really added color to the shot. And because it was a soft light, the shadows cast by the wall of the canyon weren’t deep enough to screw up the exposure. This shot is also unedited, from my iPhone.

Is this a great photo? Some people might think so. I’m certainly pleased with it. But I can always do better. I just have to try.

But what it really illustrates is that it’s not enough to be in the right place for a good photo. You also have to be there at the right time. While I might not have been here at the “perfect” time to shoot a “perfect” photo, the timing of my second visit was much better than the timing of the first.


Related Posts:
I’ve written a bit about this before. Check out the following posts:

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Grand Falls

The Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River is a waterfall that formed where the Little Colorado River cuts through layers of sandstone where that rock meets ancient lava flows. The fall are indeed “grand” — when the river is flowing. But more often than not, when I’ve flown over in the past, the water was just a trickle and the falls weren’t very Grand at all. 

Located about ten miles from pavement on a gravel road that switches from washboard to mud to the crushed volcanic rock used so often for road beds here and back to washboard more times than I can count, the Falls are within the Navajo Reservation in Northen Arizona. The are not easy to find without directions or the help of a GPS; there are no signs. GoogleMaps got me there and even then I almost missed the turn for the parking area. It was only because I knew what I what I was looking for — the shaded lookouts and pit toilet building — that I was able to navigate the final quarter mile and avoid Google’s misdirection.

The sky was overcast — I’d actually driven through thick fog for the first five or so miles from pavement — and the day was gray. But the Falls were flowing — no surprise considering the rain overnight — and putting on quite a show for the handful of intrepid tourists who had made their way to the site. Reddish brown water, heavy with silt, cascaded over the wide rock shelves, filling the air with thunderous sound. It’s no wonder the Grand Falls are nicknamed the “chocolate falls”; as one friend who saw the photo I posted on Facebook said, “It looks like chocolate milk.” 

I took photos from several angles, walking right up to the edge of the cliff more than a few times. These shots were from my iPhone and include a panorama image, but I also had my Nikon with me and made use of my 10-24mm lens to fit the whole Falls in. We stayed for about an hour. At one point, I thought the sun might break through — it was shining down canyon — but the clouds moved quickly to close the gap. It was just starting to rain when we left.

I need to note here that the Falls are a lot grander in the spring, when runoff fills the river with water. On those days, you can see mist rising from the Falls long before you reach them. Don’t be disappointed if you come and find them nearly dry.

Grand FallsGrand FallsGrand Falls

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Tsakurshovi

As I blogged elsewhere, I have a collection of five Hopi-made traditional style kachinas. I bought all of them over a period of 3 or 4 years in the early 2000s. Over time, due to aggressive dusting by a cleaning lady and multiple moves between my old AZ home and my new WA home, they were slightly damaged. Since I planned a trip to Winslow, which is about 60 miles from where I bought them, I shipped them to AZ for repairs. I picked them up today. 

I bought them at a shop called Tsakurshovi (and no, I can’t pronounce that) on Second Mesa, 1-1/2 miles east of the Hopi Cultural Center. I had a nice visit with Joseph & Janice Day, the owners, who opened the shop just for me before leaving on a trip to New Mexico. While I was there, I bought another kachina for my collection (and almost bought another one!), which I neglected to photograph before Joseph packed it up for me. I did, however, remember to take some photos of the shop’s interior. The place is tiny and jam packed with kachinas and other works of art. 

I can’t recommend this place enough. If you go, tell them Maria the Helicopter pilot sent you. 

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: La Posada, Part 1

For the past four or five years, I’ve been wanting to spend New Year’s at La Posada, a historic Route 66 Fred Harvey Company Hotel designed by one of the southwest’s greatest architects, Mary Colter. Every year, I book a room for two nights and every year I cancel my reservation. I was on track to make it last winter when truck trouble delayed me up north. But this year I was determined to come. I even turned down two other New Years Eve invitations for spending the evening with friends.

What’s the attraction? A few things draw me here again and again. First, the history of the place and its ties to the railroad and southwest tourism. Next, the ability to see an active restoration — heck, the first time I came here in the early 2000s, only the restaurant and a handful of rooms and public spaces were open! Now this work in progress is nearly done and I’ve gotten a chance to watch its progress with my occasional visits throughout the years. Then there’s the restaurant, the Turquoise Room; I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of my top 10 favorite restaurants in the U.S. and finally, there’s the artwork, not only by resident artist Tina Mion but by others, as well. The gift shop is full of work by local artists and much of it decorates the walls throughout the hotel.

Anyway, I was up early this morning (as usual) and took the opportunity to snap a few images of the public spaces. I’ll add more in another post. 

If you’re ever in the area, I urge you to stop in.

Inside La Posada Inside La PosadaInside La PosadaInside La Posada

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Yarnell Hill Sunset

I happened to be driving from Prescott to Wickenburg around sunset when Mother Nature put on a good show. I stopped at the little rest area/lookout point on the downhill side of Yarnell Hill for a better look and a photo. 

I first stopped at Yarnell Hill around sunset way back in 1995. That was the year I’d decided I was sick of the New York Metro Area’s harsh winters and spent three months in Arizona. I lived in a tiny apartment in Yarnell that season and the road between Congress and Yarnell was one I’d take regularly on a trip to Wickenburg or Phoenix. 

Much later, after I moved to Wickenburg with my future wasband, the road and its viewpoint were on a regular route between Wickenburg and Prescott and points beyond. As I stopped for this shot, I had a crystal clear memory of stopping in the parking area on a summer day after a motorcycle ride to Prescott. We’d douse ourselves with whatever water was left in our water bottles, relying on evaporative cooling for the last 20 miles in temperatures that were often above 100 degrees. Soaking wet in the parking area 1500 feet above the Sonoran desert, we’d be bone dry before we got home. 

It was cold and windy when I stopped for this shot. I watched the fading colors from the comfort of my truck. But I remember how the spot was on all my previous stops, with the sound of the wind or of cows in the dairy farm far below. Quiet desert solitude and a view that goes on for miles and miles, all at the side of the road.