After a longer than expected journey to the ever sacred countryside of the California Eastern Sierras due to road closures in the wake of punishing winter rains, we finally reach the valley floor of Yosemite. Arriving, we head straight for the daily campsite and get lucky in securing a site to bed down later tonight – it should get down to the mid 20*F by the time sleepy time rolls around.
Killing a few hours until nighttime, this winter’s snow melt is in full force as the waterfalls are spewing streams of gushing water from the surrounding walls of granite. Settling on a spot beside the shores of the Merced River with tripods setup, all you heard is the water calmly rushing past a fallen branch a few feet from shore. Ommmmm … no humans with just an occasional visit from grazing deer. Peace. As the sun begins to lower itself behind the granite monoliths from behind and all around, the star of the show begins to isolate itself from its competing peaks, reaching for the last bits of sun rays. Temperatures are dropping steadily sitting in the shade and the layers of clothing begin to appear. Not wanting to leave this surrender spot (not to mention missing golden hour), we prepare ourselves a mountain fresh gourmet meal. There’s nothing quite like scraping a 2-sided spoon/spork/knife instrument against the inside of a foil bag of chicken fettuccini alfredo sauce! What a feast I tell ya! It helps to have a portable water boiler to reconstitute your food. Full bellies, we wait for sundown.

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Calle Lily Alle

For a number of years now, when I first happened upon images online about this area down along the coast of northern California, I’ve been pining year after year to capture this rare event. What event? Well … first off, I’m not a big flower kinda’ person when it comes to making images. I don’t make special efforts to seek and find flowering blooms – it’s just not all that inspiring to me. But, plunk me down into the desert during wintertime where there’s a “Super bloom” happening and I’m already planning to be there, I’m all in!

I digress …

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Still looking fresh

Same goes for this little slice of paradise in a deeply covered revine somewhere alone Highway 1 just south of Carmel Valley about 15 or so minutes. Perhaps that’s why it has taken me so long to finally make the effort to scope out this place. So, driving along Hwy 1 like a lost dog, attempting to follow as many bread crumbs folks on internet sites have left behind in their wisdom to help others find this place, affectionately known as Calle Lily Alley. Why? Well, it’s filled with blooming Calle Lily’s – you know, the kind of white fleshy platters with a yellow plumes coming out of the middle during full bloom (otherwise curled like a roll of paper towels) you typically see during Easter Sunday and perhaps at funerals as well. It’s completely different when you see them growing in the wild in all their glory as they shoot skyward to grab a few hours of sunlight. Remember – they’re set in a deep revine. The unique thing about this revine is fresh mountain water makes it way to the ocean as there’s a steady little stream rushing water onto the beach/ocean not but a couple hundred meters westward – where fresh water turns into seawater. The ground is moist and soggy underfoot along with lush green shrubs and plants that flank both sides of the revine – spare the occasional Poison Oak shrubs.

Since I wasn’t in the area to specifically shoot this – more of a “while I’m here” kinda thing. I only brought my walk around camera (Fujifilm x100F), no tripod, filters or anything else to assist me in any attempt to getting creative, so I was fixed to one focal length at 28mm. Having so, it challenged me to work the revine as creatively as possible – not being able to zoom wide or in tight. I actually had to use my feet to zoom in and out – go figure!

I finally found the revine about 5pm’ish and stuck around until about 6pm or so. I really wanted to stay for sunset to grab the Golden Hour, but I had a hungry someone waiting for me in the car. The time I was there, the lighting was still a bit harsh for my liking, but felt it was a good enough first visit. Two last points of notice … shoot with your widest angle lens, work on crafty compositions and definitely wait it out for sunset … until next year as this event starts around mid-March and lasts about a month or less. Many blooms were starting to wither and brown around me.

Bang bang!

America’s Independence Day (4th of July) is always filled with choices … go to a party, go to a BBQ or get to an iconic viewing platform for a fireworks display – all take some degree of committed effort of which this year, I had the desire, but little motivation to doing any of them for some strange reason. Not sure why. Hearing the bangs and booms from last nights fireworks display after the A’s game at the Oakland Coliseum – yes, it was heard quite clearly from the safety of my home some 20 minutes away, I wanted to photograph some sort of fireworks from an armchair position. This was just not going to happen.

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Sparkler-like plumes

So … go the Berkeley Marina? Oh no. That Frontage road would’ve been hellaciously crowded. How about the Marin Headlands for the Crissy Fields show? Oh no. That would’ve taken waaaay too much motivation and commitment, plus I was too late for that anyways. What about shooting across the Bay from TI? Oh no. I didn’t want brave the bridge traffic. Perhaps the Alameda County Fair fireworks spectacular? Oh no. Reading the planned road closures, I didn’t want anything to do with that area either!

Bah firebug, I might as well just stay home and wish for next years motivation. Then, a friend told me of a small show in Livermore. Oh yes. Perfect for my indecisiveness as this day wore on. It’s been years since I’ve been downtown (Livermore) and was pleasantly surprised how quaint it has become. A fair amount of folks were hanging out along the main part of town – certainly more than anticipated. As 9:30pm rolled around, it was about  a 20 minute show shot from the top floor of the downtown parking garage.

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Not the largest of displays, no huge flowering blooms or smily faces or heart shaped explosions, just a good ‘ol old school medium sized display that seemed to fit the venue and location perfectly. No clouds with a slight wind to carry the smoke away to ready the sky for the next set of explosions. Instead of the typical round balls shaped blooms, these were more the rocket style – like fancy (and much larger) roman candle bursts.

I first started out shooting with my film camera, shot 15 or so frames before switching to my trusty digital SLR. Mounting it on the tripod, manual focus set and untouched (from there), 64 ISO and Intervalometer attached and juiced up with the last setting to Bulb, it was just a matter of timing from there. Being more sprays than booms, it took a few frames to kinda’ get the handle of firing the shutter at the most opportune times to capture the falling projectiles and newly rocketed ones to create light trails in the sky. Fireworks can be shot many different ways, my camera settings were quite a bit different at the start and had to adjust to the current conditions (originally ISO 100, f8, 1/5″). You just have to recognize a few things to make refinements in the heat of the moment.

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Beginning of the Grand Finale.

Unnaturally Natural.

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Rounding the bend, this is your welcoming scene!

It was almost too perfect. Clear blue skies. Mild gusts of wind – enough to stir about the Pacific Ocean. Low tides. Somewhere in the coastal Sea Cliff shores looking back at the Golden Gate Bridge, is a chaotic yet peaceful roaring of the mighty Pacific. The sounds of waves crashing against each other as they make their way inland. At the shoreline, large sea pebbles chatter loudly in their resistance to be taken back out to sea.

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Evidence of Man’s intrusive nature within nature.

The surrounding natural beauty is broken up by these strange large manmade structures that line the shoreline in sporadic fashion and finished off with another one of man’s skilled handiwork … graffiti. Huge rebar infused cement blocks are scattered here and there and begs the question … where did they come from? With no explanation kiosks, I can only imagine that they were once some sort of lookout structure used long ago to protect the mouth of the SF Bay some 80 or 100+ years ago. Some hate them. I used to. But, it’s evidence of man’s existence and how it lives within the natural world – good and bad. Although they largely resisted the relentless pounding from the ocean, their slow decay will likely take a few lifetimes to bring back this pristine coastline. But for now, I actually think it enhances the area in some strange way … I guess I like the juxtaposition of the two extremes of the natural vs. unnatural. A contrast of sorts. The more I explore these parts, the more evidence of human intervention sadly presents itself.

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With the cloud quick rolling eastward, blue skies disappear and the scene turns almost monochromatic

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Tidal changes reveal the underbelly of the shoreline.

Having been to these general location a number of times, I thought to capture moments in slow motion. Being a bright sunny day (before the clouds started to roll in), stopping down all the way, I had to twist on my trusty 10-stop ND filter as was still limited to a maxed out shutter w/o going into Bulb mode! But, this was my goal … full well knowing that what the outcome of the ocean will look like – pushing it down to a virtual mist.

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Sun going down. ND filters off … it was time for a little nighttime fun. Play with fire! Even with my pyromaniac tendencies, I couldn’t do what these folks do. Leave it to the professionals, right? Here’s the scene … location: Palace of Fine Arts, SF with winds gusting and swirling about. Temperatures dropping quickly to around the high-40’s (f), and of course fire! Spells disaster in my book. Four fire dancing artists perform for 40+ crazed photographers with cameras, flashes and tripods capturing flashes of brilliance (no pun intended) as they wowed the senses for 2+ hours. Think fire circus and Rock Horror Picture Show combined into one! It was awesome! Silly me, I failed to bring along a flash as I was stricken with blinders syndrome and didn’t think to tote it along to capture and freeze motion. So, I suffered through it having to only capture slow-mo movements of the flames themselves. Nonetheless, I was fairly satisfied with what I was able to come up with given my limitations. I bounced back and forth in fiddling with ISO, f-stops and shutter speeds to capture these flaming moments.

What’s the Point?

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The anchor point of the southern span of the Golden Gate Bridge, this fortress has stood the test of the salty sea.

It’s been here a while. At the gateway and the most westerly opening of the SF Bay stands the world renown Golden Gate Bridge only about 80 years old is anchored (on the San Francisco side) by Fort Point. Nearly twice the age of the GGB, Ft. Point once served as America’s premiere defense from foreign invasion from marine and submarine attack.

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Inside one of the stairwell turrets, a view through a weathered window peers out towards a lookout tower.

Today, it’s a nationally protected monument. Today, under the clear blue sky, folks in row and sail boats took advantage of relatively calm ocean currents – even (albeit a bit crazy) a lone surfer near the shoreline made attempts to catch the occasional riptide before crashing into boulders not but 300ft. away.

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The stars and stripes are flying half-mast in show of solidarity with Brussels in the wake of a national attack on their sovereignty.

This gave ample opportunity to capture ocean movement – if you didn’t mind challenging the ocean’s unpredictable thunder as the incoming current smashed up against the low-height sea-wall. Being such a bright day, a 3-stop ND was a must while 1/3″ was enough to convey water movement and create some pretty awesome sea sprays.

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Going up or down?

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Fireworks during the daytime! Water never disappoints.

Valle de los muertos

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Mojave’s ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ trail leads you through some pretty spectacular landscape.

A quick stopover in Mojave National Park was a perfect way to start off my desert adventure. Seemingly having a much more  remote feel to it (than Death Valley, if that’s even possible), most worthwhile sights take considerable effort to get to. Having only a day, I chose the Hole-in-the-wall site. From one of the main roads, you turn-off onto a dusty dirt road for several miles before reaching the visitor center. Although an easy drive (luckily renting an SUV), if you happen to breakdown, there’s little around but … well … desert and never once did I ever see a Park Ranger cruising around. It would’ve been several hours for someone to come along to ask for help – and yes, there isn’t any cellular coverage either. You’re pretty much in a black hole as far as that goes! I think I need more time here as there are a few more things worth checking out. But for now, it was a good introduction. I chose to stay in a little (seriously little – blink and you’ve passed it) “town” called Nipton, at the … wait for it … Nipton Hotel. The hotel itself has around 8 rooms and 3 or 4 tent cabins – which is where I chose to stay the night. At the time, the restaurant next door was not operational, so the nearest restaurant was back over the CA/NV border in

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Mojave’s Joshua Tree reaching for the Milky Way toward Orion.

Primm at about a 20min drive. Mostly, Mojave has nothing but Joshua Trees and photographing them on each of the day is really where it all happens. Onward …

In California, one of my favorite national parks is Death Valley. One would normally think … Death Valley? It’s just a desert full of sand! Before visiting for the first time nearly 2 years ago, I thought the very same. There is so much diversity throughout the park that its  like having several parks combined it’s that different. You can be driving along one of the main roads (take Badwater Rd., for instance), have salt flats on one side and the other a multi-colored mountainous range or a lava rock field on the other.

Driving too fast along the main roads inside the park – like Badwater Rd and I190, you will surely miss many things. My suggestion, as long as you’re not trying to get somewhere at a particular time, is to make frequent stops along the way. Pulling over to the shoulder of these roads (and most all

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Mushroom Rock is the name given – it’s located right beside the road and easily missed if you’re not scanning around.

others) affords you much exploration and reward. One such “thing” is a particular lava field that has a curiously odd shaped lava rock that has a skinny neck that stands about 12ft high. Not terribly exciting, but cool nonetheless to see/photography – look for low angles pointing upwards with the sun to your back so you can get enough contrast reflecting off of the black rock.

Nearby, you have mountains on one side and flats on the other – each giving you something worthwhile to explore. This year  was a special year in the park as with the wet winter brought above average rain, it also brought several flowers to bloom as well. This once in 10 years (or so) occurrence has been coined “Super Bloom” for not only the variety, but also the abundance of various desert flowers to take root and show off their beauty in the January-March timeframe before the dry season begins. By the time I arrived, many of the varietals where sparse, leaving the valley predominantly yellow. The Desert Gold flower was in fairly good groupings throughout the park with sporadic smatterings of purple, pink and white blooms as well.

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Roads blanketed by Desert Gold flowers.

The following images were taken throughout my 3-day stay in the valley. Many more images, of course, but I pulled only one from each location. I had shot with my Fujifilm X-T1 w/10-24mm lens as well as my Nikon D810 w/Sigma ART 24-105mm lens. Wanting to go on the “lighter” side (camera kit), I chose these two kits for specific reasons. I knew I needed a wide angle, yet needed somewhat of a zoom reach. These 2 lenses went from 67mm to 82mm in size, so I just brought adapter rings so that I can interchange my filters. It must more economical that buying different sizes and having 2, 3 or 4 times the amount of filters. It works well. And, my lens choices were spot on. I didn’t want/need anything else. The only thing was I had to carry 2 different sets of batteries, but wasn’t nearly as heavy as more lenses for sure!

 

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Zabriskie Point in late morning. Beautifully warm toned landscape amidst cool tone mountains in the background.

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Mesquite Dunes is by far the one of the center attractions. Walking/searching for pristine sand can be a challenge.

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Devil’s Golf Course in later afternoon. Nice contrast of shadows and cool/warm colors. Golf anyone?

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A patch of sparsely growing purple Desert 5 Spot’s nestled in a deep canyon.

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Artist’s Palette will surely awaken your visual senses with the colors of the rainbow. Be sure to get out and have a wander up into the canyon.

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A view of Natural Bridge midday. A walkabout the canyon is well worth the time.

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Dante’s View will surely impress – good any time of the day, but sunrise or sunset is stunning.

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Sightings of rare pools of water can be had if you’re just watchful enough.

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A field of Desert Gold’s reaching for the last bit of sunlight before wilting in the hot desert sun.

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Badwater salt flat wasn’t as well defined as the last time I walked this crusty/crunchy terrain, but equally as impressive into the post sunset of the Blue Hour … don’t forget a torchlight and your bearings to your car or you’ll be wondering lost for hours.

Ready, Set, Fire!

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Vantage point, plan B during NYE 2015. (typical pyrotechnic capture)

Fireworks that is. Strange, but after spending 5 years in China, I finally got the opportunity to shoot fireworks … in San Francisco, CA no less! Go figure, right? Fireworks were invented in China thousands of years ago and my many quests in seeking out those awesome flowering gunpowder blossoms throughout China, I came away greatly disappointed. I could never time the few opportunities right and when I did, it was so crowded with gazillion people, that I couldn’t get close enough to get a full view of them let alone photograph them either.

With a little luck, one of the most senseless of American sports, and probably the most popular, is (American) Football.  (American) footballers, please don’t hate – I just don’t particularly like where the sport has gone in the last 15 or so years, but that’s just my

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Vantage point, plan B during NYE 2015. (typical pyrotechnic capture)

opinion … read on. It just so happens the championship game was being held about an hour south of San Francisco in Santa Clara. Seeing as Santa Clara is neither here nor there (in between San Francisco and the famed tech capitol, Silicon Valley), the NFL decided to keep all of the festivities, except for the game itself of course, in the City by the Bay. Part of the pre-game events, amongst others was a weekend kickoff which included … you guessed it … Fireworks! Since my return, I wanted to shoot NYE fireworks from a particular location

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Vantage point, plan B during NYE 2015. (typical pyrotechnic capture)

that included the Bay Bridge. So, just before the stroke of midnight, I began my quest only to be thwarted by traffic on the approach to the bridge. Ditching out of traffic at the last exit before being stuck past midnight (on the bridge), I head out to see if Plan B was a good option … actually, it was my only option. With 15 mins to spare, I get lucky on location.

I still, however, hadn’t satisfied my location quest for fireworks across the San Francisco Bay until the other day. Thanks to the Superbowl, I finally had my chance to shoot pyrotechnics from my much sought after and elusive location.

What I’ve learned in photography is that every genre has a price to pay if you want to capture what you have in mind – that price is time. Time in learning (the technical Time in planning. Time in researching. Time is getting there and time in waiting. The wait is typically long (often quite boring I might add). When “that time” comes, you need to act and react quickly to the events of the ‘now’. Whatever it is … a sunrise, a sunset, lights beams that skate across a room or surreal sky, a passing light that sheds side lighting that wraps perfectly around your subjects face – all require your undivided and full attention to the artistic nature of photography. Using the hardware (camera and lens) as aSBFW1 tool to create
your art, you must first and foremost have a good command of the technical aspects and the relationships between key elements of your kit. Having studied, experimented, failed and persevered though more experimentation, it affords you to take what most will do and tweet it to create something unique. Be it original or upon seeing out in the photography world, you still need to learn and practice it.

I like to experiment. In fireworks, it’s all about getting just the right amount of light to hit the sensor as to not blow out your highlights yet dragging the shutter enough to get that light trail while the explosive bloom begins its descent downward. Timing is everything like most things and starting your image capture is critical. Once you’ve dialed this in, it’s jufw3st a matter of making captures after captures. I, however, am just not satisfied here and started to experiment with a slightly different take on capturing fireworks – in camera, of course! If you look close enough at some of these captures on this page, the blooms are not quite the usual light trail streaming evenly downwards, they appear more funnel-like – a definite unique twist. I first saw this on the internet and practiced and experimented to see if I could replicate it. Whatever technique you use to capture pyrotechnics, shutter speed should be your first setting to consider. Too short and you don’t get the nice blooming effect from the explosion (and your ISO will be cranked up a little too high). This will be adjusted from your first few frames. Next is ISO, which is essentially the first setting to determine – start at 100 or 200 and work your way up accordingly, keeping in mind that lower is better for overall image quality yet high enough to achieve your desired results. Then, of course there’s your aperture or F-stop which could be anything that support the previous 2 settings – try f5.6 for starters.

I love educating folks who genuinely have a desire to improve themselves – not just to get any particular shot. When people ask, “What are your settings?” What most are really asking is “How do I get the shot?”. One setting may get you THAT shot at that moment, but if you don’t know why it is the way it is (camera settings) and how to adjust on the fly and know what it’ll take to replicate it the next time (and adjust even more), then you truly don’t have a solid understanding how a camera works. I mainly shoot in Manual Exposure mode instead of any of the program modes mainly because it affords me to not only control my output, but constantly challenges me to always to be aware of what I’m doing.

As with most, I am a perennial student and am always learning and practicing my craft. I had 6 minutes to do so this one evening (the other 6 minutes were spent capturing the ‘usual’ way of making images of fireworks.). I found myself switching back and forth with the 2 very different techniques; only through an understanding of my gear and how to manipulate it was I able to capture anything worth keeping – I consider myself lucky this evening … enjoy.