Shooting Joshua Tree with David Muench

We did Joshua Tree on our final location day. JT is the national park in the Coachella Valley and is about an hour away from Palm Springs, either up 62 through Yucca Valley for the north park entrance or down the 10 Freeway to get to the south entrance at Cottonwood Springs entrance. On the first day we did the Cottonwood entrance.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Our first main stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Chollas are fairly large bushes and there’s an area in the park where they spread for half a mile or more. We showed up there at about 5:30 and the evening light had a nice glow.

David likes to work with backlit scenes and it was a nice shot from that direction.


But I saw some chollas in the other direction that took the eye in and that shot worked at least as well. Both were shot at F-14 since I had close foreground elements to keep sharp.


We headed up the park road for several more miles and stopped for another shot location. This one wasn’t on the itinerary so we didn’t have much time. But I found a boulder field that had a Georgia O’Keefe style rock I used for my foreground element. Shot at 16mm to capture the whole scene:


I also got some nice caucus blooms in the evening light:


Sunset Shot

The final stop of the day was further northwest, in the Hidden Valley area. From here there’s a great view of the western mountains and some of the best Joshua Trees in the park. It’s a spot you can get truly iconic images at. And pretty much everyone got a great shot or two.


Joshua Tree: Day Two

On our second day at Joshua we couldn’t do early morning or sunset shots because we needed time to edit our work for the Thursday presentations. So we went up to Joshua by the northwest entrance. The light was flat but we managed to get some nice images anyway.  David was particularly interested in getting some flower shots. The juxtaposition of lush flowers in a desert location is enticing.


Compare the light on this one with the sunset-lit blooms from the day before. I actually prefer this one. But there’s a trick to it. This shot was taken at 11:30, the worst light in the day. But the group had set up a studio situation — putting the cactus in shade then blasting it from the right with light from collapsible reflectors someone brought.

We also discovered a service road just before the Hidden Valley campground with yucca trees in bloom and a boulder-strewn canyon.



Roller Derby Photos


Marina and I headed to Torrance last night to watch the Beach Cities team, a roller derby group my buddy Mindy is associated with. My perceptions of the sport are dominated by what I saw on TV growing up: super-theatrical roller skating on a banked track, girl-on-girl fights, whipping a sleek jammer around (or under) the opposing team, and gals being flipped over the track railing by hip-blocks. It was like Professional Wrestling for tough gals.

And it was a bit subversive back then. The old Roller Derby had all the camp and theatrics. But look deeper and you saw women getting aggressively physical with each other. Pushing, jamming, showing 70s Middle America in-your-face aggression. By women. You didn’t see that kind of thing back then except in tough neighborhoods. It wasn’t appropriate. And this stuff was getting broadcast nationally on a Saturday afternoon. Talk about changing social perceptions.

The current sport isn’t that. It’s still got campy elements — the names, the makeup choices. And there’s still aggression. But it’s not over the top act-out like the old 70s stuff. Now it’s women in costumes competing in a tough sport. A bit less entertaining but refreshing, honest female competition.

We had a great time. Sloppy and hard to follow and real. Plus it’s a community level sport — just one where women , big or small, engage in a level of physical contact that is still rare for women in our society.


I’d hate to skate against this member of the San Diego team (even if I could skate).


The Beach Cities bench


Not sure of her job but I love the style sense.

Real officials:


The jammers wear stars on their helmets. They’re the only ones who can score and they do that by lapping the rest of the players on the field.AN8A1488

Some of the action reminded me of a rugby scrum — but with a nice difference.AN8A1568

At other times, you wondered if things might be getting a little too personal.AN8A1503

All in all, an evening of good clean fun. And the home team kicked butt — Go Beach Cities!

Photographing Action: Telling a Story

Action photography isn’t a huge focus for me. The folks who do it for a living have highly specialized gear so they can work in low light and get a razor sharp focus on the core moment. They spend hours standing around in arenas with bad sound systems trying to find some order into the chaos of a fast moving sport. But doing sports photography right is a superb skill and last night I got to try my hand at one of the toughest sports challenges there is, roller derby.

From a photographer’s standpoint, there are a few key challenges: seeing and getting the key moment in focus and using technique to tell the story. Action photography is all about story; capturing the moments of human experience. But how do you get the story into a shot? Here are a few Photography 101 ideas.

1. Shoot a LOT. The pros put the camera on continuous shoot mode and then get wall to wall coverage of each key moment. A sport like roller derby is just too fluid to see it all in real time. Plus whoever you’re focused on in that moment will have about 15 facial expressions in that 2 second time frame, from brain dead to blinking to distracted to fully engaged.

Shooting a lot also allows you to look at the group dynamics in each shot and pinpoint which shot is central to the story. For example here’s a sequence that shows one of the San Diego jammers trying to get past the Beach Cities defender.


Here the scene is just starting to unfold. The ref is moving into place. But the jammer (teil green helmet with a star) is hidden by her defenders.


Now in shot 2, our intrepid jammer comes out looking for the opening. But Pigeon won’t be easy to get past.


Now it’s jammer vs. defender, mano a mano (as it were). And, of course, this shot has been cropped to point the action around the defender in blue.

2. Crop. The idea is always to crop by zooming, right? To give the best level of resolution. But that’s not always possible. And lots of folks don’t realize that the crop is the easiest tool to get rid of distractions, define the compositional elements and capture the human moment.

Initial shot


Not a bad image. I like the dynamic between jammer and ref. But I was half way around the rink so notice how much clutter there is. I’ve set the F-stop to 3.5 to pull my subject away from that busyness. But that big sign is still stealing focus and so are some of the audience members.


Just this basic crop pulls the composition together. Our heroine is squarely in the Rule of Thirds sweet spot. And the crop allows us to see what she’s feeling so much more clearly. I also cheated just a bit. I darkened the background in Lightroom. Now there’s a story here. The Beach Cities jammer has just scored a point and she’s looking over at the pack to size up the situation.

3. Make a choice. One issue many photographers don’t do is make the hard choice. People toss all kinds of crap onto their Flickr sites and if the audience doesn’t see any difference between shot 1, 2, 3 and 4 they will get bored. For example here are two moments when the two teams are in a densely packed scrum.


Here the Beach Cities gals are trying to keep the San Diego jammer (behind on the far left) from breaking through. The shot  shows the physical dynamics fairly well and it’s good enough to post.

Here’s shot 2:


With this shot the stakes are higher and I cropped in closer. The jammer, umpires and half the team have been cropped out. That means a simpler shot that’s more focused. And the chaos of roller derby is stripped away to show a personal moment for each woman.

Shooting Zion: The trail up to Subway

The Subway slot canyon is one of the iconic locations for American landscape photographers and I made it one of my core Zion recommendations in the Utah parks book. But there are lots of great shots on the trail up to Subway that give a sense of the area — and that I couldn’t fit in the book.


“If you want to shoot Subway, be prepared for some serious hiking. The park literature says, “This strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike requires route finding, stream crossing, and scrambling over boulders.” That description doesn’t begin to cover it. Essentially, you’re following a stream up the canyon to Subway. But this is a wilderness area, the trail isn’t marked….”                      from the book

At the beginning of the hike, you head several hundred feet down a steep trail till you get to the stream at the bottom of the hill. This bottom area is a canyon with bit of a trail on one side of the stream or the other leading up-valley to the Subway slot. And as the park literature tells you, there is “route finding” involved in figuring out the easiest was up this canyon. Classic understatement.

The bottom section of the hike wasn’t as interesting for me as a photographer. But in the last third of the hike, the canyon narrows and the only way up trail is over one or another of the numerous waterfalls — like the one above. I’m using the word “trail” here but by now, there is no trail. You’re walking up the stream bed for most of this section.

So the bottom line is, expect your shoes to be wet a lot. But also expect some excellent photo locations. The quiet spot below was a bit of a dead end– there’s no easy way over the boulders. But it was a nice detour.


This spot is closer to Subway:


By now the valley walls are too steep to hike so you have to make your way carefully over the algae-covered rock layers of the stream.

When you get to the spot below, you’re at the “cave” entrance.


Notice the way the walls curve at the bottom. That’s the reason Subway gets its name — because the erosion has carved a Subway-like groove in the rock.

It may not be obvious from the picture but the valley floor is all stream bed. At this time of year (mid-October), the water’s only an inch or two deep. In spring, water flow cranks up and can be an issue for hiking.

On the right side of this section of stream bed there’s a long fissure in the rock bottom that is a popular landscape photography subject. I chose a shutter speed of 1/10 sec at F-4 in order to enhance the sense of flow:


Now you’re ready to enter the slot canyon and start the shoot:


The guy with the tripod is standing in the general area where most Subway shots are taken from.

Here’s one of my alternative Subway shots:


The image I use in the book is a more abstract rendering of this unique slot canyon. But this version gives a better sense of the environment within the cave and the way the slot curves into the light.

My book version is here:

You can see David Muench’s shot of Subway as at the bottom of this page in his portfolio:

My new book goes into far more detail about the Subway trail, best time of day to shoot and the various composition issues. And I do similar treatments for 6-8 shooting locations in each of the Utah parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. But that’s all you get in this shameless teaser.

Expect the book in May

Zion NP: The Road Less Traveled

The new travel/landscape photo book I’m doing is focused on getting 6 or 8 of the classic shots in each of the Utah National Parks: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. That meant that many of the lovely photo locations couldn’t be included. Zion in particular has a number of locations that are a bit off the beaten path. Here are a few.

Big Bend Area


Just west of the Big Bend bus stop is a grassy field between the river and the road. This shot (above) looks south towards the Weeping Rock area. The trail up to Observation Point and Hidden Canyon starts off up that mountain just left of center.

Same area (below) but looking south west towards the Angels Landing  area.


Heading down pass this grassland towards the read rocks gets you to the Virgin River. Looking south and down river:


Looking upriver towards the Temple of Sinawava:AN8A0336

Hidden Canyon

There’s also a fun hike that starts off at the Weeping Rock bus stop. You start off on the trail towards Observation Point but part way up that first set of zig-zags, take a right and follow signs for Hidden Canyon. It has a bit of vertical elevation but is far easier than doing Observation Point.

Shot from Hidden Canyon trail. Parts of this trail have an iron chain you can hold onto. But its never a nose-bleed hike like the one to Angels Landing.


Book Cover_Blog

Zion NP: The Road Less Traveled

While preparing the Utah parks book, I discovered all kinds of photo locations that are a bit off the radar screen.

I did an entire evening light session with Seth Hamel, a photo guide working in the Springdale/Zion area. Here are a couple of spots he took me to. Far side of the Zion River Valley:


This spot didn’t make it into the book because I try to focus that project on photo locations that aren’t hard for the photographer to get to on their own. And this spot requires a bit of travel on a 4-wheel vehicle, it’s on BLM land. Just for reference, Utah Route 9 runs along that plateau and adjacent to those low peaks on the far side of the valley. So Hurricane, Utah, is in the area off to the far left.

This shot was taken in the hills just east of Springdale, Utah. From Route 9 heading towards Zion, you take one of the roads off to the left and head up and past a residential area.


Those of you who’ve been to the Zion Valley may recognize the view. These peaks are what someone at Court of the Patriarchs would see on the west side of the Valley.

I did an extensive interview with Seth Hamel for the book. He has some great insights on how to shoot the Valley and on composition in general. Here’s a few of his thoughts on shooting the area:

Shooting Zion can be a challenge, especially the contrast issues with the bright canyons and the shade. It’s tough for an outsider to know where the light will be good and when. I can be precise as to where to be and when to shoot – the time of day, the right season.

Another thing is, Zion is getting a world-wide reputation. So pros and advanced camera folks have Zion images in their portfolios. That means a lot of locations are overdone.

And as the local pro, I know some obscure areas, locations with great scenery that no one else is shooting. And having a quiet place to shoot gives the photographer an intimacy that changes the quality of an image.

After all, photographers want that emotional connection to a spot. And that’s easier when you’re alone and not stacked up next to 5 other tripods.

Seth and I also did a day-long photo session in The Narrows. And having someone along who knows where the best light is for that time of year was a huge help. His experience meant I just needed to focus on getting the shots I wanted.

I will do a blog on the ins and outs of working with various photo guides — including the great landscape photographer David Muench, in a few days. I have a 4 day session with David starting this Sunday. Some of his iconic shots can be found here:


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Utah Parks Book: Notes on Adjusting Shutter Speed for Shooting a River

Zion is the most popular of the Utah National Parks. And the classic location of the Virgin River and Watchman is likely the most photographed. When shooting a river or stream, the flowing water can evoke various moods depending on how you adjust your shutter speed.

Getting There: Zion NP is in southern Utah about 40 miles off of Interstate 15. You get onto Utah Route 9 and at the far end of the resort town of Springdale, you’ll find the park. For most of the year, the park is accessed by the park buses. So park at the Visitor Center, hop on the shuttle and get off just after the Canyon Junction bus stop (just past the bridge over the river). Walk back to the bridge and set up on the south side and away from the road.

The shot is of the river below, and in the distance, The Watchman, one of the iconic Zion peaks. The best time for the shot is sunset. If you just want the picture, you don’t need a tripod. But if you want to play with shutter speed, you kinda need a tripod and a cable release (or you camera’s timer function).

So let’s assume we’ve found a spot on the bridge and gotten a composition and zoom level we like. (I talk about lighting and composition in the book and that’s too much to put into a blog post.) What might our initial shot look like with no special shutter speed chosen:


Focal Length-32mm, F-6.3, Exposure 1/40th of a second

Notice that at 1/40, the stream is totally frozen, no discernible blur. You’re getting lots of colors in the water from the trees and sky. And every little ripple and detail of that stream is clear.

Now let’s crank up the shutter speed to half a second:


Focal Length-40mm, F-5.6, Exposure .5 second

Now, don’t look at the photographer who wandered into my shot. And I won’t tell you what all the photographers on the bridge were saying while he stood there for 20 minutes. We’re just looking at the water.

And at half a second, the water no longer has as much detailing. You’re eye doesn’t get as caught up in the minute ripples. But there’s still plenty of detailing in the surface of the stream. In fact if I hadn’t added the shutter speed setting, the viewer would assume this image is pure stop action.

Now lets go long.


Focal Length-32mm, F-22, Exposure 8 seconds

Obviously 8 seconds is a lot. And you can’t make this shot work if there’s any wind. But the river still looks like a real river. All the standing waves are there as are the reflections. But the minute texturing of individual waves is gone, especially in areas without rocks.

Essentially what we’re doing is showing the eye how a river looks in time. In fact, we could take a shot with a 60 minute shutter speed and we’d still see the same set of standing waves. And subjectively, the shot does evoke more of a timeless feel than it did with a faster shutter.

Is the shot as “honest” as one with a fast shutter? Is a slower or longer shutter speed more true to life? That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is, how does the viewer respond to a given image. If the change doesn’t seem weird or “fakey” to the viewer then the photograph will work for them. — The willing suspension of disbelief, to quote Aristotle.

The second question is, what’s the effect I’m going for? That’s ultimately what matters. I go back and forth on how much I want to push the shutter speed. For some river situations, a slow shutter focuses too much attention to the turbulence. But in a slow moving river that’s not an issue. Generally most viewers don’t mind the effect.

But this is just one element in a larger set of artistic considerations. In this shot I was trying to capture a feeling I have about Zion, that when I come, I’m in a timeless place. And the image gives me some of that feeling– a tranquil river flowing through a place that has been this way always.

But each of us has to make that shutter speed choice (and all our compositional issues) based on the mood we want to share in that shot. And there’s nothing wrong with exploring your choices.

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Italy Book: Getting a Handle on the Rome Churches and Their Art

Folks who’ve been to Italy know that one of the cool thing about the churches is that you get to see great art in the places they were created for. I guess you can theoretically do that here in the USA. But here, you don’t have many churches that want to spend that much for their art, or great artists who want to paint a ceiling for 16 years. In Italy, you step into some off-the-beaten-path church and there’s an alter piece by Titian or a sculpture by Bernini.

The Sistine Chapel is the prime example of this. An entire ceiling that captures the spiritual and artistic understanding of Michelangelo. It’s like seeing our cultural DNA mapped out over our heads. Of course, with the massive crowds, your Sistine Chapel experience is also reminiscent of wading through a Tokyo subway station.

In contrast, many churches in Rome or Venice can still offer an intimate and even spiritual experience. You can sit there and take in the space and the art in your own time. Add a bit of prayer or meditation and you can almost imagine yourself a part of a 16th Century congregation.

And as I think through where I’d like to go in Rome next month, I’ve been reading up on a couple of books that cover the churches and the art they hold. The Churches of Rome by Beny and Gunn has some great details about the churches with text that walks the reader thorough the various historical eras.

The book is a great reminder that these places of worship have been displaying the core religious, artistic, architectural and cultural trends in Rome for 2,000 years.

Churches of Rome by Grimal and Rose doesn’t get into the historical details and is more issue oriented. But this book has amazing shots of the churches by Caroline Rose. Both books help to fill in the blanks for anyone who wants the context of these artistic repositories.

The Challenge

The challenge for me (or anyone) planning a trip to Rome is twofold. First, which churches are worth a visit? I’m spending more time in Rome than most tourists and I’ll return several times before the book is done. But I do a photo shoot at each church. And it takes time to breath in a location and capture its spirit. So which of the 200+ churches to cover?

The second challenge is more complicated – the context. If you saw several of Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings side by side with zero context, your initial reaction might be, “What’s with this guy? He’s doing the same exact painting over and over but with different colors.”

But, realize that those Monet paintings were experiments in light and perception and you start to go deeper into the dynamics of the art work. This issue plays out at the churches of Rome on far grander scale.

Decoding the Art

One of the huge travel with art and travel is decoding what you’re taking in. All those pictures start to look the same – even if you understand composition. Because every single work of art has a story, an artist who lived that experience, an economic system that supported him or her, and a cultural history. That’s why so many people take tours, to get the backstory.

For example, lets just look at one church that was in my new books. San Clemente because a church when a pre-existing Roman building was consecrated some time before 385. This Roman building was built on top of a Second Century Mithra temple (shown in Caroline Rose’s photo). The Mithra cult involved sacrificing bulls as you can see.


Then a new church got built above the old one in 1108. Back then, they used to pile up the rubble from old ruins in the area and continue up. It saved on demolition costs. The church of San Clemente was restored in the 1700s, probably to deal with structural problems and more importantly, to add frescos that would evoke the Church’s current Baroque approach to religious art. The Catholic Church became more disciplined in the artistic messages they put in their churches after the Counter-Reformation.

Here’s Caroline Rose’s photo of the upper church.


What you’re seeing here is a floor structure and tiles from (I believe) the 12th Century. That amazing gold colored mosaic behind the alter is also from that initial 12 Century construction –builders often kept mosaics from the earlier version in these Roman churches. The columns, upper windows, side wall paintings and ceiling fresco are from the Baroque era.

All that kinda works for me – if I don’t look too closely at the ceiling. But a mosaic from 1100 lives in a whole different universe from a fresco from 1700. In 1100, perspective hadn’t been invented yet. The piously flat faces of Jesus and the saints in the mosaic are so unlike the ceiling fresco with all the cherubs and saints floating around in Heaven.

The point is, just having that bit of knowledge helps me to decode that church and its artistic history. And knowing what I’m seeing helps clue me into the subtleties of the architecture and the art works.

Big Island Hawaii Locations

Just got back from the Big Island — the name folks in the state of Hawaii give to the island of Hawaii. It’s bigger than all the rest of the state put together and also the point of lowest latitude in the whole US of A.

For a photographer, there’s lots to like about the Big Island: active volcano, great beaches, a multitude of climates and altitudes. Having regular lava flows into the ocean has also created some intriguing black sand beaches.

Rainbow Falls, Hilo

Rainbow Falls is on the west side of Hilo

Kohala Coast Hapuna Beach Park Hapuna Beach Park

Father and Daughter, Hapuna Beach Park

Father and Daughter: Hapuna Beach Park, North Kohala

Hapuna Beach Park

This southern section of Hapuna Beach Park is a great spot for snorkeling. But the area leading out to the coral has plenty of underwater lava.

Waipio Valley OverlookWaipio Valley Overlook

Tidal Pool

Tidal Pool: Part of the Hilton complex in the North Kohala area

Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach is at the bottom west side of the island. The warm sand is a favorite spot for sea turtles.

Driving in a Car

One of those obvious truisms is that the person in the driver’s seat gets to know the landscape of a place more than the other folks along for the ride. Nothing too complicated about that notion. If you’re driving, you’re going to be working off some sort of mental map.

The same thing happens with travel to a new place. If you’re the one who researches the upcoming vacation, really gets in the weeds, you start to own that place. I think that’s why whenever I return to a spot my family and I visited , my memories of it are a bit vague if I wasn’t in on the planning.

Now I’m in the process of planning a trip to Italy. And I’ve decided to take that process to a deeper level — actually rank which spots are more important to me. I’m not doing it because I’m one of those anal folks who needs to know where he’s going to be at any given moment. But I’m starting to discover the power of being in the driver’s seat.

When I do get to that place, I like to improvise a bit — take time with a shopkeeper, find out how business is, maybe even pick their brain. I’ve found that going off script is where the cool stuff tends to happen. But in the back of my head I have an idea of which churches museums or photo locations could be of interest. And just that bit of in depth knowledge makes me more likely to have a travel experience that will have a bit of lasting value.

What I do goes beyond reading Rick Steves. I have a real respect for his travel approach. But this trip is for me. And I don’t really give a crap if everyone and his brother is going to the Louvre. I have to own what I do when I travel.

I need to get in the driver’s seat in terms of exploring my own sensibilities, figure out what gets my creative and personal juices going. For example, photography is a keep element in my experience of a place. If I can take time to breathe in that spot, watch the light, enjoy the people, then I can get a good photo. And in going through that process, that shooting location becomes an artistic experience.

If I’m on a tour and we have five minutes before we’re on to location #37, the chances of me getting good pictures (and enjoying the experience) are minimal. I might as well be taking pictures as we drive by.

And of course, when you travel, you never have as much time as you’d like. Hence, I do research beforehand. I look at the photos other folks have gotten at that spot. I read up on which artist has a painting in this church. I don’t make decisions about where to go yet. But I put all the background info into my creative brain and see what gets me stoked. And hopefully, when I get to that place, my experience is more multi-faceted.

So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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