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.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Colorado River Boat Ride

I’d only intended to spend one night at Willow Beach Campground, in preparation for about a week off the grid in the Turtleback as I make my way to Sacramento for my late winter/early spring work. Recharge batteries, dump wastewater tanks, fill fresh water tank, take a good, long shower. Normal prep stuff.

But when I saw the boat rentals and the smooth surface of the Colorado River at the upper end of Lake Mojave in Black Canyon, I thought it might be good to stick around for another day. And when I realized that the Arizona Hot Springs, which I blog about in another post, might be accessible from the river, I added a day to my campsite reservation. 

(That’s the beauty of traveling without a ball and chain; you can change your plans at any time and not have to listen to anyone whining about it.)

I rented the smallest boat they had for half a day and headed out at around 11 AM with Penny, my camera, a towel, and a packed lunch. I may have been the first power boat up that section of the river that morning — the water was completely smooth and glassy. The canyon started out wide, with lots of water fowl that scattered on my approach. But it soon got narrower and narrower, with canyon walls towering over the water. I had flown over this part of the river several times over the past 15 or so years and it’s beautiful from the air. But it might be even prettier from the water with the canyon walls reflecting on its surface.

Here are a few of the photos I took that morning. I’d hoped to do some exploring on the way back, but I spent too much time at the Hot Springs and had to get the boat back by three. Next year, I hope to bring my own boat on my snowbirding adventures.





Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Arizona Hot Springs

I need to start off by saying that these hot springs were, by far, the absolute best hot springs I have ever visited in my life.

Tucked away in a slot canyon less than a half a mile from the Colorado River, Arizona — or, more properly, Ringbolt — Hot Springs consist of three “tubs” created by using sandbags as dams between the canyon walls. Hot water emerges from cracks in the walls to fill the first tub with very hot water — so hot I couldn’t sit in it. The water cascades over the sandbag dam to the next tub, which is cooler. The same happens to fill the third tub with even cooler water. (According to one regular, water temperatures are 102 to 115 degrees F.) Each tub had a gravelly sand floor and various depths, the deepest part being perfect for submerging up to your neck while sitting on the ground. The water was clean and algae free. There was no slime or nasty sulphuric smell. Although there may have been as many as a dozen people there at a time, it was never what I would call crowded.

This Hot Spring is accessible by a long, 2 mile hike down a trail from route 93 or by a much shorter hike up from the Colorado River. This physical limitation in access is likely what keeps it so pristine; there was absolutely no litter.  I choose the river route and rented a boat to make the 10 mile river trip up from Willow Beach. The boat trip was beautiful with many interesting spots along the way — I’ll save that for another set of postcards.

Here are a few pictures that I took along the hike to the hot spring and at the spring itself. The hike started on a dry beach and soon entered a narrow slot canyon with ever-growing trickles of warm water. There was a bit of scrambling up rocky cascades, some of which were slippery. The trickiest part of the whole trip was getting Penny up the 20 foot ladder to where the tubs were.

Along the trail to the hot spring.


There were a few places where we had to scramble up Cascades of warm water.


This 20-foot ladder was securely fastened to the canyon walls.


The third, coolest tub was the first one we reached.


The shallow end of the third tub had very warm water from the second tub.

Penny watches from the dam at the end of the third tub. She did swim twice in that tub, although she didn’t like it.


The first and hottest of the tubs was the last one I reached. I didn’t soak in it at all.


Our lunch spot just downstream from the tubs.


We spent more than two hours at the springs. I soaked mostly in the deep ends of the second and third tubs. The first tub was simply too hot for me and just about everyone else. The people who were there were mostly young and outdoorsy — I might have been the oldest one there! I very much enjoyed the company of three medical students from Syracuse who were making the most of their trip to Vegas for a convention. I also had a great conversation with a local who told me about another hot spring I might pass near in my travels later this week.

Return to Burro Creek

And another [safer] flight under the bridge.

Back in November 2014, I blogged about the time I was in a helicopter that flew under the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93 at Burro Creek. It was probably on my mind back then as I was reviewing log book entries for a book I’m working on about my flying experiences. I just re-read that post and I do recommend it. It’s short — for me, anyway — and tells an interesting story that gives you some insight into the minds of helicopter owners and pilots.

Burro Creek Bridge
Plenty of room to fly under, no?

Anyway, yesterday I drove north on Route 93, starting my annual migration from my snowbirding stay in Arizona to my late winter/early spring work site in the Sacramento area of California. (Yes, my seven-month “vacation” is nearly over.) I gave myself about 10 days to make the trip and planned stops along the Colorado River near the Hoover Dam, Death Valley, and possibly Lake Tahoe. Or the California Coast. I don’t really know yet. One of the things I like most about my life these days is my unfettered ability to make and change plans on the spur of the moment.

I’d been thinking about the drive for a while, wondering what stops I could make along the way. Burro Creek was a no-brainer. There’s a BLM campground down along the creek about a mile or so off Route 93. I’d considered stopping there for an overnight stay on my way south from Vegas in November but had ultimately chosen a different route that kept me on the Colorado River. The campground isn’t much — in fact, the water is turned off there so the bathrooms are closed up and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to use the dump station — but it does have ramadas (shade structures) at each campsite, along with picnic tables and a nice desert garden. And plenty of hiking opportunities.

Burro Creek Bridge
A view back toward the campground, looking southwest. That’s Route 93 south of the bridge in the distance.

Burro Creek Campground is about an hour north of Wickenburg, which is where I’d spent the previous two nights. Perfect timing for a break on my estimated three hour drive to Willow Beach on the Colorado River near Hoover Dam. I pulled in, drove down the cracked asphalt road to the campground, and parked in the day use area so the campground host wouldn’t try to hit me up for camping fees.

The Burro Creek Bridge — or should I say bridges? — is clearly visible from the campground. It’s a pair of two-lane truss arch bridges that are about 680 feet long about 390 feet over the floor of Burro Creek’s canyon. The first bridge was built back in 1966 and carried all northbound and southbound traffic. In 2005, as part of route 93’s widening project, they built a second almost identical span right beside it. The new bridge now handles northbound traffic while the old bridge handles southbound traffic. I’m glad they built a matching bridge. It really helps preserve the aesthetics.

Burro Creek Bridge
The two bridges are nearly identical, despite being built 40 years apart.

(A side note here: Route 93 between Wickenburg and I-40 near Kingman had the local nickname “Death Highway” because of the number of deadly accidents — often head-on collisions — that occurred there when it was just one lane in each direction. Widening it was long overdue since it handles nearly all auto and truck traffic between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Parts of it are still one lane in each direction. You can learn more about Route 93 in Arizona on Wikipedia.)

I had done a photo shoot of the new bridge back in 2005 with an aerial photography professional. It was a memorable flight, mostly because he did the shoot with a pair of Hassalblad medium format film cameras. These are extremely costly cameras and the reason he had two of them was so that when he finished shooting a roll of film, he could switch to the other camera instead of fumbling at an open aircraft door to reload film. I think each roll only had 12 shots. I distinctly recall hearing the mechanical sound of the shutter and his manual winding of the film though the intercom system since the microphone was so close to the camera. I orbited the bridges several times. I know he was disappointed with our timing; the second span wasn’t quite done but yet it wasn’t open enough to be dramatic. There was just a narrow gap maybe 50 feet wide in the middle of the roadway. We should have arrived about two weeks before for a more dramatic shot or two weeks afterward for a completed span.

I was thinking a lot about that photo shoot as I walked down to the creek with my Mavic Pro flying camera tucked away in my day pack. The construction company — or Arizona Department of Transportation? — had flown the photographer in to Phoenix from somewhere in the midwest for the shoot. He’d rented a car and drove to Wickenburg. I flew him up there with the doors on, then landed in the construction area to pull off his door and stow it in the back seat. We’d done the flight, circling around and and around. It was midday, but there were still shadows because of the angle of the sun in the deep canyon. I’d landed again to put the door back on and then we’d headed back to Wickenburg. The only reason we hadn’t done the whole flight with the door off was because I could get better speed in transit with the door on and it was at least a 30-minute flight. I’m thinking the whole job was about 1.5 hours of billable flight time, but without consulting my logbook, I can’t be sure. Total cost of those photos? Easily a few thousand dollars.

Burro Creek Bridges
Really. Nearly identical.

I walked as far as I could — at least a half mile — getting almost under the power lines that spanned the canyon just southwest of the bridge. I was hoping to be on the other side of them so I wouldn’t have to worry about them interfering with drone operations, but Burro Creek was running full and fast and I’d gone as far as I could without getting too close to the canyon wall. I spread out my collapsable landing pad in one of the few boulder-free areas, and got to work setting up the Mavic and its controller for flight. I have it down to a science at this point and it only takes me about five minutes from the moment I take it out of the bag to the moment everything is powered up and the Mavic is in GPS mode.

Mavic Operator
I grabbed this image of the video on the Mavic’s return flight. I circled where I’m standing with the landing pad. You can see the campground behind me.

I couldn’t tell how far above the canyon floor the power lines were. I knew they were lower than the bridge, but I also knew that we’d flown under them. They had to be at least 100 feet up. Still, when I launched the Mavic I kept it just 50 feet up until I knew it was on the other side of the wires. (I now estimate they’re at least 150 feet feet from the canyon floor, but likely more than 200.)

I spent the next half hour or so flying around near the bridge. I flew over it once and under it three times. I didn’t want it to distract drivers on the road, so didn’t fly anywhere where the average driver would see it. I had to bump up the maximum altitude for the flight over the bridge, but I figured that was okay because I was still within 400 feet of either the bridge roadway or canyon walls. Certainly nowhere where a manned aircraft should be flying — although I think I’ve already established that it was where a manned aircraft could be flying.

Burro Creek Bridge
This photo was shot from under the power lines.

I switched batteries after two flights and used up 20% of the second battery before finishing up. Penny had very patiently waited nearby. She doesn’t mind the drone or its bee-like buzzing but stays clear of the landing pad when it’s coming or going.

When I was finished, I powered everything down, replaced the Mavic’s gyro lock and cover, and folded it up. Within a few minutes, I was ready for the return hike with everything stowed away in my day pack again.

I got a bunch of video shots, as well as some still shots. This blog post shows off mostly screen grabs from the video. Launching from the stream bed inside the canyon limited what I could do, keeping in mind that I had to keep the Mavic within sight during the flight (per FAA rules).

I think that if I’d launched from up alongside the roadway, level with the bridge, I could have gotten the same shots that Hassalblad photographer had captured twelve years before — for a lot less money. But there really wasn’t a good place to launch from that wouldn’t distract drivers. And it isn’t as if this was a real mission. It was just more practice.

I wonder what that Hassalblad photographer is doing these days. I seriously doubt he’s still using those cameras to take aerial photos.

Snowbirding 2017: Life at the Colorado River Backwaters

Back at the backwaters.

For the second year in a row, I’m camped with some friends in some BLM land south of Ehrenberg, AZ, right along the Colorado River. This year’s site is on the north side of an inlet into some channels that parallel the river on the otherwise dry side of a levee. We’re on a peninsula across the inlet from where we camped for a while last winter. My friends preferred this spot because it gets sunlight earlier in the morning; the other spot is in the shadow of some 200-foot high cliffs to the southeast for too much of the morning. Sunlight is everything in the winter, especially when you’re getting most of your power from solar panels.

The Backwaters
A look down at this year’s campsite from the top of the cliffs to the southeast. Our site, which is just about dead center in this shot, consists of my truck camper, Janet’s little pull trailer, Janet’s workshop tent, and our two vehicles. (My truck was with me at the top of the cliffs when I shot this photo.) The “backwaters” is the forked channel on the right side of this image.

The site is somewhat remote: seven miles from pavement. Other than the folks camped out across the inlet and the occasional camper driving in to see if this site is occupied, we’ve got a lot of privacy and solitude. Across the river is an RV park that’s remarkably quiet, although they do have a bunch more lights than I wish they had. The sky is not nearly as dark as I’d like it to be; this is not the place I’ll be doing any astrophotography.

We’ve had guests. My friend Rebecca joined us for two nights at the beginning of my stay and Janet’s husband Steve just joined us today for the rest of our stay. We’ve also had a few visitors: another snowbird named Mike who’s staying with his wife in the first campsite we had last year has come by for brief visits and Janet’s artist friends Karen and Steve who camped with us in our second campsite across the inlet last year came by today to help troubleshoot an electrical issue I was having with my camper. (Turns out I have a bad battery and will get it replaced on Sunday.)

Life is very laid back around here. There is no schedule.

I wake up, usually before dawn, and if I’m lucky — which I usually am — I’ll get a 2-bar LTE signal on my iPad so I can catch up on the latest political craziness on Twitter and check in with friends on Facebook. I very rarely check email.

I’ll roll out of bed around dawn and might be more motivated to do so if we’re having one of our spectacular sunrises. That’s when I’ll go down to the beach in my pajama shirt, sweat pants, and slippers with my phone to try to capture a shot that beats the last best one I took. Janet sometimes gets down there before me and sometimes doesn’t.

Sunrise
I don’t think a sunrise photo will get much better than this. And yeah; I shot this with my iPhone 7.

Then back to my camper to make coffee with the immersion coffee maker someone talked me into buying. (They’re right; it does make the best coffee without electricity.) I’ve got a technique where I boil water in a glass kettle on the stove with my empty coffee cup as a sort of lid. That speeds up the boil while thoroughly heating my cup so my coffee stays hot extra long.

I’ll keep busy by writing up the previous day’s journal entry or a blog post or reading something interesting in the New York Times or Washington Post. Janet usually has her coffee out by the fire pit and if there are still embers from the previous night’s campfire, will get another fire going. Usually there isn’t.

Fishing
We went fishing this morning. It was supposed to rain, but it turned out to be a beautiful day.

What follows varies from day to day. Janet usually either goes fishing or paints — she’s an artist — and sometimes does both. I usually putter around the RV, neatening it up from the previous day, then try to get some serious writing done — I’m working on a memoir about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot and I’m really procrastinating a bit more than I should be. Sometimes I go fishing with Janet. (Today I actually caught a small bass; although it was large enough to keep, we tossed it back. The fish were literally jumping out of the water.)

Truck on the Hill
Janet shot this photo from our campsite of me and my truck atop the cliff.

The other day I drove to the top of the cliff southeast of our campsite. I wanted some photos for this blog post (see the photo at the top) and I also wanted to see if my truck could make it. (It could.) Last year, I chickened out near the top and walked the rest of the way; this year, I took it all the way to the top. The drive is no easy task in a truck the size of mine; there’s a very steep, narrow gravel “road” to climb followed by a winding pathway that sometimes goes through some very deep sand. It’s all about four-wheel-drive, good tires, momentum, and knowing when it’s safe to stop.

Blue Heron
I must have shot 20 images of this blue heron from the driver’s side window of my truck with a 300 mm lens. This one is the best, although I think it might benefit from a touchup in Photoshop.

I’ve done some photography. This is a desert riparian area so there are some water birds. Mostly duck-like birds — I really don’t know exactly what they are — and at least one blue heron and one white heron. The other day I got a bunch of really nice pictures of the heron, no small task because he seems to spook very easily. When he does, he makes one hell of a racket as he takes off into the air, usually landing within a quarter mile for a new hunting spot.

We also go boating. Janet brought a river raft rowboat that can seat both of us comfortably for fishing. I also brought my kayak and have gone paddling with Penny. We do all this in the backwater channel. Sadly, the water level is very low this year — “they” are supposedly working on either canals or docks or possibly both so they’re limiting what comes through the Parker Dam far up river. Last night, for some reason, the water level was very high. But this morning it was low again.

Once in a while we’ll go into town. There are actually three towns:

  • Ehrenberg, AZ is Exit 1 on I-10. There’s a truck stop on the south side of the road and a “resort store” on the north side. The resort store is where we buy fishing licenses, refill water bottles, throw away our garbage, and dump RV tanks on the way in or out of our campsites. They also sell Mexican ice cream pops, which are a cheap and amazing treat. And worms for fishing. We go there two or three times a week, usually on our way in or out from somewhere else. It’s about 8 miles from our camp. The post office is also there; that’s where we get our mail forwarded via General Delivery.
  • Blythe, CA is a few miles west of the Colorado River off I-10. That’s where we do grocery shopping, usually at Smart and Final, although there is an Albertson’s. There’s also an excellent Ace hardware store, an O’Reilly’s auto supply, a K-Mart, and a Walgreens. Other than that, Blythe is a sad little town and I can’t see any other reason to visit it. (Sorry, Blythe, but I do tend to tell it like it is.) I do know its airport, on the west side of town, very well since that’s where I nearly always stop for fuel for my helicopter when flying along the I-10 corridor between California and Arizona. Smart and Final is about 12 miles from our camp.
  • Quartzsite, AZ is Exit 17 on I-10. That’s a hopping place in January, full of rock shows and art shows and RV shows and all kinds of booths to buy all kinds of useful and junky stuff. It’s what brings Janet to this area of Arizona; she displays and sells her artwork at the Tyson Wells show that runs concurrently with the big RV show at the second half of January. (There’s another show going on there now, so Janet has to wait; she waits out on BLM land where camping is free and life is mellow.) I like Quartzsite because it’s weird and I can always find something neat to buy for my truck or my RV or my home. Last week I bought some fossils. This week I bought a little DC water pump I can use to transfer water from my 6-1/2 gallon water jugs to my camper’s water tanks. Next week, I’ll buy new batteries for my camper and possibly an additional solar panel. (Yes, Quartzsite does see a lot of my money; I bought a cool neon sign there last year and my old 5th wheel trailer back in 2010.)

Between Quartzsite and Ehrenberg is the Chevron station with cheap diesel and gas; that’s where Janet and I fuel up if we need to. (We don’t usually because we really don’t go far.)

In the late afternoon, we regroup for dinner. We share cooking duties. Our main goal these days is to empty our refrigerators and freezers. I brought a ton of frozen food from home and we’ve been eating some of that. We had nice little filet mignons the other day. Janet makes various dishes — she made an excellent chicken with quinoa dish the other night and we had pan-fried panko-crusted bass (that she caught, of course) one night last week. I always seem to have ingredients for a salad. I think we’re having pad thai chicken for dinner tonight; Janet has the noodles and chicken and I have the pad thai sauce and other ingredients.

Sunset
At sunset, if there’s a show I’ll go out and take photos from the levee. I shot this on my second night here. That’s the Colorado River with California on the other side.

Campfire
We have a campfire every night.

By the time dinner is ready, the sun has gone down. Janet usually has a fire going before it gets dark. We sit in front of the fire and eat, drink wine, and chat. Very relaxing. After dinner, we’ll spend a while longer in front of the fire with our dogs in our laps. Sometimes the sky is full of stars. The nearly full moon rising the other evening was a real show-stopper.

Moonrise
Moonrise from our campsite.

We’ll each turn in to our campers between 8 and 9 PM. Sometimes I’ll write up my journal entry for the day. Other times I’ll just relax in bed with Twitter or a book or a crossword puzzle. Then it’s lights out. If it’s a clear night, I can see the stars through the big sunroof over my bed.

It’s a very simple, very quiet, very mellow existence here. This year, I’ll be at the backwaters for a total of nearly two weeks. It’s quite a change after my month-long stay in a friend’s guest house in Wickenburg.

From here, I go to San Diego with friends. I might spend a night at Glammis Dunes near Yuma, hoping to get some good photo opportunities if the sand isn’t too disturbed by tire tracks after a holiday weekend. On the way back, I’ll visit various hiking spots near Borrego Springs and possibly Joshua Tree National Park. Then I’ll be back at Quartzsite for the RV show. I’ll camp out in the desert near town and make daily trips in to visit the shows and check out the RVs. I’m in the market for a tiny toy hauler; who knows what I might come home with?

And who knows where I’ll go from there? I have another month to kill before my seven-month vacation is officially over — and even then I have the ability to do some travel before I need to be back home with my helicopter in May.

But the Colorado River Backwaters is one of my favorite destinations for off-the-grid camping. I look forward to coming back every year I travel south for the winter.

Snowbirding 2017: Fossil Shopping at Desert Gardens

Too beautiful to pass up.

I’m camped out in the desert south of Ehrenberg, AZ these days with friends. On Friday, I went into nearby Quartzsite with my friend Rebecca. She wanted to meet up with her friend John, a jewelry maker who sells raw rocks, gems, cabs, and jewelry at the Desert Gardens rock show in the southwest corner of town.

I’d only been to Desert Gardens a few times and every time there had been just a handful of scattered vendors on the dusty flat show grounds. Nothing to impress me. But Friday was different. The official show had begun and all vendors were present and accounted for. It was a rockhound’s paradise, with all kinds of rocks, gems, and minerals on display and for sale.

John’s booth had a nice mixture of things. His jewelry is exquisite. He has a real eye for design and there were more than a few pieces I would have bought if I had the money — they were not cheap — and someplace to wear them.

While he and Rebecca chatted, I wandered through the show with Penny, stopping here and there to look at things that interested me. While I do think a lot of the raw, unprocessed rocks are interesting, they don’t interest me nearly as much as pieces that have been cut and polished. There was plenty of that to see, too.

But what really interested me were the fossils. My wasband had collected two that we displayed in our old living room. I’d left them behind — after all, he’d bought them, not me — and I can’t say I really missed them. They were interesting, but not worth lugging up to Washington. One was a flat rock with the skeletal remains of a fossilized fish. Someone had “enhanced” the fossil, making it easier to see. The other was a large ammonite — a nautilus-shaped creature — that stood upright like a carved rock paperweight. I always worried that it would fall over and break the glass-topped coffee table.

I need to stress here that although I think fossils are interesting, I’d don’t have any overwhelming desires to own them. At least I didn’t. Until Friday.

That’s when I saw fossils presented in a new way in a shed turned into a fossil shop at Desert Gardens.

First was the ammonite. Each one had been cleanly cut in half vertically to show the inside, which had been polished. The colors and textures and patterns were amazing. And I found it incredibly appealing to have both halves of the fossil — not just one. There were dozens of them at the shop in a wide range of sizes and prices, ranging from $5 all the way up to more than $100. I wanted one that would fit inside my little curio cabinet at home. Here’s the one I wound up buying later in the day.

Ammonite-Inside
Here’s the inside of the ammonite fossil I bought.

Ammonite-Outside
And here’s the outside of the same fossil, which was also polished.

Next were the fossilized leaves. There were a handful that caught my eye and were within my price range for what was, effectively, a rock. As the guy who owned the booth told me, the rocks are nodules that they heat and then thrown in a freezer. The sudden change of temperature causes them to split, revealing any fossils inside. He saw the ones I was looking at and then said, “Did you see these over here?” I hadn’t. They were magnificent, but also a bit more money than I wanted to spend on a rock. Still one of them, an annularia, was just too beautiful to pass up. I asked him for his best price and he knocked $10 off. I bought it.

Annularia Fossil
The annularia fossil I bought. It’s about seven hinches long.

They wrapped everything up in paper and even put the annularia in a box. I took them out when I got back to my camper just to photograph them. Then I stowed them away in the wine box I’ve been using to store acquisitions during my travels. I’m looking forward to unpacking that box and putting my finds on display at home.

If you’re in Arizona or southern California, I highly recommend Desert Gardens from now until about mid-January as a place to find rocks, minerals, and fossils. Later in the month, half the vendors go south to Tucson, leaving the show in Quartzsite a bit sparse. They return in February for a while, but I really think the best time to shop for rocks in Quartzsite is now. Get on over there and see what treasures you can find.

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: