From Toadstools to the North Rim

It’s a little after 5:00 AM as I am driving South from Kanab Utah towards Page Arizona. The darkness is occasionally punctuated by a flash of lighting. Misty rain sometimes turns to a torrential squall. Am I nuts?

Is that a rhetorical question? Of course I’m nuts. I’m a photographer.

They say “bad weather makes the best photos” but in the desert Southwest, bad weather also makes flash flood warnings. I plan to hike up a canyon to a rock formation called the Toadstools. I have never been there before but I have passed the pullout at the trailhead. I hope the canyon is wide enough for me and the creek that formed it as the creek will probably be running fast.

The rain stops as I continue South. I can just begin to see grey clouds emerging from the darkness above. This is promising. As I pass mile marker 21, I slow down and start scanning the left side of the road for the pullout. There it is.

After the first few yards, the trail disappears. There are multiple possible tracks but rain has washed out any footprints. I can hear the sound of water rushing to my right. As I continue up the canyon, I see that the path I have chosen appears to cross the creek, but there is a fainter track on my side. Eventually, I come to a place with few options to proceed so I backtrack and cross the creek. I find a spot that is only about four feet across and jump. The creek is only about six inches deep and four to six feet across, so I am not in any danger of washing away, just getting soaked. Again, there are multiple possible tracks on this side but no clear trail. I guess people mostly walk up the dry creek bed and make their own trails on either side.

Further on, I come to a cliff on the right side of the canyon where the creek has undercut the cliff. I have no choice but to backtrack and cross the creek again.

Fortunately, this whole hike is only a half mile each way and it is bordered by canyon walls so I can’t get lost. The canyon is also wide enough so a flash flood can’t over run the width of it. My biggest concern is slipping on the mud and breaking or spraining something.

Further up the left side of the creek I come to another dead end and have to cross over again. The canyon has narrowed and I now see a trail marker post ahead. While I am happy that the path is now clear, I see that I have to walk a narrow section about 10 feet above the creek. Normally, I wouldn’t be concerned about walking on a foot-wide trail but this is slippery mud. A fall here would be serious. I place my feet carefully and keep my weight balanced over my feet.

Once safely across that section, the trail climbs and soon reveals the first hoodoo. It looks fabulous! As I climb up towards it, I get out my camera and take a shot of it against the grey sky.

Toadstool Hoodoo Pre-Dawn

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Once up on the shelf beside it, I see other hoodoos a short way beyond. I pick my way across the muddy plateau, which is surprisingly slippery though it is not steep and take more shots.

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While up by a cluster of small toadstools, the sky suddenly gets lighter. I look up to the east and see sun rays fanned out above the clouds. Now I am excited! I rush back to the big hoodoo (as fast as I can on slippery mud) and position myself so the rays are coming up behind these hoodoos. Fantastic! All the stress of the morning getting here is paying off.

Sun Rays Behind Toadstools

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The rays are still happening so I change position. Excellent!

Sun Rays Framing the Tall Toadstool

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The sun is just about to break the horizon line of the cliff. I quickly set my aperture for f16 to catch the star pattern of the rays and line up the shot as the sun emerges.


Sunburst at Toadstool Hoodoos

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The sun rays have faded but the sky is starting to turn blue and the color of the rocks is brightening. I set up a time lapse of the tallest hoodoo and settle into a moment of relaxation. I go back to the other hoodoos and get some shots with better light.

Phallic Toadstool

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Big White Toadstool

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Cluster of Toadstools

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Amazingly Delicate Tall Toadstool

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After a while, I hear a group of hikers coming up the trail. They tell me that they have tickets to hike to The Wave today (over 300 applicants enter a lottery for 20 spots) but can’t get there because a raging creek is blocking House Rock Valley Road. They are here passing time in the hopes that the flood will die down soon. I wish them well.

Within a half hour, another group of hikers arrives. I am glad I was here early. While I would have liked the safety and companionship of a friend on the hike in, I very much enjoy the beauty of nature in solitude. I decide to pack it in and head back to the car. In case you want to see the Toadstools in person, look for this marker on highway 89 between mile marker 19 and 21.

Sign from the Road

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Toadstool Time-Lapse

Leaving there, I decide to check out the trailhead to another set of hoodoos. These hoodoos are unusual in that they are white. I don’t plan on actually hiking to them as it is a 9 mile round trip up an arroyo and there is more rain coming this way. Turning left towards Page on highway 89, I stop at the Grand Staircase Escalante Visitor Center to ask for directions. The helpful ladies behind the counter tell me that the road to the trailhead is right across highway 89 from the visitor center. They give me a map with directions and other helpful information. They reaffirm my decision not to try that hike today. I recommend stopping there for weather and trail updates if you want to make that hike.

Driving back towards Kanab, I cross over the Paria river and am surprised to see it running full. It had only looked like a sandy wash every other time I passed by. Of course, I have to document that.

Paria River in Flood

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Continuing on towards Kanab, I decide to take a little detour on the dirt road to the Pahrea townsite. The buildings washed out years ago but the cemetery is still there and the hills surrounding that little river valley are beautifully banded in whites and purples (the purple color is from manganese deposits in stagnant, shallow seas). Of course the road is muddy but surprisingly much less so than the last time I went there.  The light isn’t as good as my previous trip so I decide not to walk down into the valley (the steep road is much too slippery for me to contemplate driving). I decide instead to use my drone to capture a sense of the place. (By the way, I am careful to only use the drone if I am confident I am not violating the law, privacy or disturbing wildlife.)

Former Site of Pahrea Ghost Town

Back in Kanab, I get to work processing photos. I also take a nap as the eight hour drive from Los Angeles yesterday plus the 4:30 AM start to my day are getting to me.

After a nap and a shower, I head towards a new restaurant in Kanab that I saw yesterday as I drove into town. The place is called Havana Cabana and they advertise Cuban food. Since I can get good Mexican food elsewhere and the other restaurants here are pretty pricy, I decide to give it a try. I am glad I did. I get a plate of rice, black beans, well seasoned chicken, a small pile of salad and salsa with fried plantain for about ten dollars. I will eat here again.

Havana Cabana

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After dinner, I head out to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park to shoot the sunset. When I arrive, the sun is already setting and most of the dunes are marked with the footprints and trails of sand boarders and dune buggy tracks. I see one dune about a half mile away that looks untouched. If I can get over there in time, the curved peak of that dune will align with the rising moon so I head off across the sand.

The moon and I arrive at the same time for a lovely alignment. I am pleased with the compositions.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Rising Moon

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Can't Decide Which One I Like Better

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The following morning, I pack up and head out to the North Rim. I will meet with Adam Schallau to join his 4-day Monsoon and Moon workshop. I have never met Adam before but I had read an article of his several years ago about photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon. I tried to do that two years ago at Bryce and the North Rim but was not successful. It takes considerable skill or luck to be in the right place to safely photograph lightning. As they say, “The one thing everyone had in common who was killed by lightning was that they thought it wouldn’t happen to them.” Since all the limited accommodations at the North Rim sell out in minutes, I couldn’t find a place to stay. I looked online for other options and saw Adam was offering this workshop. I looked at his portfolio and liked what I saw so I signed up.

I emailed Adam to say that some of his images remind me of paintings of the American West by Albert Bierstadt and others of the Hudson River School of the Arts, particularly in the way that he would let the sky go all the way to white, giving his images a luminous quality.

Adam replied that indeed, he is inspired by that school of art and tends to expose to the right (slightly over-expose his images) to both get that luminous effect and also to get a cleaner (less noisy) image. I had heard of exposing to the right but have tended to expose to the left (darker image) to ensure getting detail in the sky and other highlights of my images. I figured I can always bring up the dark areas in Photoshop but can’t recover detail in the sky if I didn’t capture it in camera. I have noticed that the dark areas tend to have a lot of noise (speckles of color and grain) but I was willing to sacrifice that for the highlights. Adam suggested doing multiple exposures of varying times to capture the full range of detail in both highlights and shadows but always keep the ISO at 100.

For those who don’t know, ISO is the digital equivalent of what used to be known as “film speed” or “sensitivity”. In other words how much light is required to make an image. “Faster” film was used to capture images in darker environments. With digital cameras, higher ISO serves the same function by increasing voltage to the sensor, making it more sensitive to light. The problem is that higher ISO also increases the amount of random electrical disturbance that the sensor records as part of the image. This is called “noise” and appears as grainy texture and speckles of red or green color. I have spent a lot of time in Photoshop trying to get rid of that grain.

I arrive at the North Rim around 11:00 AM and head out on the Bright Angel trail. I am due to meet Adam and the other participants at 3:00 PM so I have plenty of time to walk the trail and try to get some time lapse sequences. There are plenty of clouds in the sky, so a time lapse should be interesting. One thing I want in a time lapse is the movement of clouds but not the movement of nearby foliage or people. Today is not windy. That helps but I will also frame my images to I have rocks in the foreground, not bushes or trees. Foliage in a time lapse looks jittery. People and animals in a time lapse appear to be racing around, making the sequence anything but relaxing. The lack of wind is great but people are harder to control. Despite setting up my camera so that I am looking away from the trail, people keep walking off the trail, climbing rocks and getting into my frame. I finally place my camera right next to the edge of the cliff. No one can get in front of that without risking a thousand foot drop.

People Climbing Off Trail

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Bright Angel Time-lapse

I recognize Adam as he comes up to meet me in front of the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge. We are soon joined by three other participants and we head out to Cape Royal for our first sunset together. If you have never been there, the road to Cape Royal is forty five minutes of winding, two lane road. Other than the Bright Angel trail right in front of the lodge, all the best viewpoints require driving that road. We will be driving that road twice each day for the next four days. Cape Royal projects out into the canyon farther and has a much better canyon view for sunset than anywhere else on the North Rim. I have been out there many times so I am not surprised that Adam suggests we go there.

When we arrive, Adam says, “We are going to the Wedding Site. Have you ever been there?”

“No,” I say pleasantly surprised. I am learning something new already.

Adam leads us out on an unmarked and poorly defined trail out the back side of the parking lot. We arrive at a ledge overlooking a thousand foot drop with a great view of Wotan’s Throne from an angle I have never seen before. Adam steps out on the ledge within a foot of the edge and addresses us.

“We will set up our tripods here, in a row so we aren’t in each other’s way. What we are looking for is the glow on those red cliffs below and shadow on that white cliff to your left so the highlights don’t distract from your subject. The clouds and shifting angle of the sun will make this scene look better or worse as the light changes. Set your ISO at 100 and increase your time to get optimal exposure. Increasing ISO compresses the color data your sensor can capture in the dark areas of your image.”

(There’s another thing I didn’t know. "This workshop is going great", I think to myself. )

“You will probably want to bracket your images. Oh, and by the way, set your picture profile to “neutral”. Otherwise, the image you see on the back of your camera will be a jpeg that has been color enhanced. To see the raw data, neutral is the way to go.”

Once again, I think to myself I am learning a lot here. I have never used picture profile as I always shoot in RAW. I didn’t know it was affecting what I can see on my display. The other workshop leaders I have traveled with in the past served primarily as guides to the best locations at the best times for the light. They may have had a lot to teach me about the optimal use of my camera but I never thought to ask and the instructors probably assumed I knew what I was doing. This is a different workshop.

Looking at how close the cliff edge is to my tripod legs I am wondering about my aperture. Should I tighten it up to f11 to get detail all the way front to back. I ask Adam.

“I would set it to f8. That will be sharpest for most lenses,” he replies. “The general rule is 2 to 3 times the widest aperture.”

I ask Adam if I can set up a second tripod to do a time lapse. He points me to a ledge a little higher up and out of the way of our frame.

I use my Sony A7R4 for still images as it has a 62 megapixel sensor. In addition to the settings Adam already suggested, I set up a 5 shot sequence of exposures, each a full stop apart, with a 2 second delay to allow any camera shake to settle after I have pressed the shutter button. I have to say, ISO 100 does make for a cleaner image.

Adam also says, “When you look at the histogram after you have taken your image, look at all the colors. You don’t want any of them to clip.” (over-expose) “If you just look at the histogram when you are setting up your shot, all you will see is the whites, not the separate colors.”

Once again, something I didn’t know about how my camera works. The clouds and setting sun work their magic on this remarkable location. The images are grand in scale, detail, color and emotion. I am really happy.

After the sun has been down a half hour and we have put away our gear, Adam says, “We are getting some of the best light right now. Look at how those cliffs glow in the dusky light. The blue hour after sunset or before dawn gives some of the best light.”

I know he is right but don’t want to unpack and set up again. Lesson learned. Some of my best photos have come after all the other photographers have packed up and left.

“Tomorrow morning we will meet at 3:45 and come back out to a view of Angel’s Window for sunrise.”

"Okay", I think. I hope my alarm clock works.

Wedding Site Afternoon

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Wedding Site Sunset

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The Actual Sunset is to Our Right

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Driving out the Cape Royal road in the dark, I see the temperature gauge hovers around 50 degrees. Just before the last winding section of the road, we pull over at the wide spot opposite the Cliff Spring trail. This viewpoint wasn’t what I was expecting.

We gather our gear and head up a short trail towards to rocky edge of the canyon. Being on a cliff edge in the dark is not my idea of comfortable but I am settling in when Adam says, “There is a viewpoint down below that is better for a tall person like you.”

“Great,” I think sarcastically to myself. As if this isn’t sketchy enough.

We hike down another 30 feet to a jumble of rocks below and I set up my tripod. I don’t want to lean over the edge to see just how far the drop is. Doesn’t matter anyway. Whether it’s a hundred feet or a thousand I’d be just as dead if I went over.

Adam says, “Set up your camera in portrait mode with an aspect ratio of 16 to 9. We are just looking at the glow on the face of Angel’s Window and how that contrasts with the blue mountains in the background. One of the lessons of the Hudson River School is to have the foreground be warmer colors and the background cooler. That and the hazy blur created by distance is part of what gives depth to an image.”

“True enough,” I say. “Distant mountains look blue to purple. I guess the longer, warmer wavelengths are attenuated by the atmosphere.”

With everything set up, I take a few test shots. The pre-dawn glow does look good. I never would have thought to pre crop an image by setting up an aspect ratio. Normally, I figure I can always crop later but the advantage is that it allows me to frame the image in real time. Another thing learned.

Angel's Window Dawn

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As the sun begins to shine on the cliff face, I try a few more compositions. Eventually Adam says, “Okay, we are done for the morning. Everyone go get some breakfast. We will meet again at 3:30 this afternoon and come back out here for the sunset.”

I drive up the last short, curvy section of road to the Cape Royal parking lot and get my breakfast out the car. I walk out to a bench with a lovely view of Angel’s Window and eat in the quiet of the morning. There is only one other person in the area. I see him briefly about a quarter mile away. What a lovely and serene moment!

After eating, I get out my Gitzo ball head, A7S3 and practice some video moves on Angel’s Window and elsewhere on the Cape.

Cape Royal

I also go out to the Wedding Site and find that there is indeed a wedding site near where we were shooting last night.

The Sign

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The Seating

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The View

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“We are going to stop along the road out to Cape Royal and try a technique called Intentional Camera Movement or ICM,” Adam says when we gather for our evening session.

Soon, we have all pulled over in a little dirt parking area and pulled out our gear. Adam addresses us. “Use a medium to long lens like a 70-200mm. Set the ISO to 100 and aperture as small as possible so you can get your time up to around 2 seconds. Don’t bother to focus. Use your ball head tripod if you have one. Set a 2 second timer for your shutter release. Point towards the sky just above the trees, press your shutter release and let the camera drop down so you are exposing the trees.”

It all seemed a little nuts to me but I gave it a try.

After awhile Adam says, "Now try stopping the movement of your camera part way down to get some parts of the scene in focus."

I try that and see it does get an interesting effect.

Tree Smear

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Yellow Flower Mist

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“Okay,” says Adam. “Let’s head up to Cape Royal and prepare for the moonrise. This being the full moon, it will rise at sunset, giving soft light to both sides of Wotan’s Throne.”

With that, we get back in our cars and head out. Arriving at the end of the walk to the tip of the point, Adam indicates that we should climb over the railing and go out on the ledge below. I am somewhat skeptical about how close we should go to the edge of the cliff but I take off my backpack, hand it over and climb between the railings. I like to stay my body length away from the edge unless I am sitting but Adam seems perfectly comfortable standing within a foot of the edge.

Adam Standing on the Edge

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Regardless of the exposure to the cliff edge (or perhaps because of it), the view is stupendous. Ahead and to my right is the setting sun. It will be about a half hour before it actually touches the horizon and in the meantime, streamers of light are filtering up through the clouds and down into the canyon. Forget the moonrise. This is epic!

Epic Sunset from Cape Royal

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“Behind and to your left, the moon will rise just to the right of the cliff edge by the observation deck,” says Adam. “Hopefully, the light from the moon and setting sun will give a nice balanced illumination to Wotan’s Throne below.”

I set up my two tripods then my A7S3 for time lapse and my A7R4 for the detailed landscape shot to come. My workflow with two cameras is feeling more routine now.

Sunset from Cape Royal

The next morning before dawn finds us again on that ledge at Cape Royal, watching the light of the moon illuminate the West side of Wotan’s Throne just as the pre-dawn light illuminates the East side. This is the exact reverse of the shot we did last night in terms of the lighting. I am feeling more comfortable out on that ledge. I don’t know how far the drop is just over that edge but we are standing a mile above the river with the vastness of the Grand Canyon spread out below. At it’s widest point, the Grand Canyon is 18 miles wide. We can’t see the entire length of it but the canyon extends 277 miles. We are standing at the highest point. It is an awe inspiring view. Though I feel how small I am in comparison, I also feel connected to and a part of the vast panorama around me. This is starting to be my happy place.

Wotan's Throne Moonset at Sunrise

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After again eating my pre-made breakfast at a view of Angel’s Window, I decide to stop at Point Imperial on my way back to my cabin. The view to the East there is hazy with smoke from wildfires in Northern California. I try a few compositions utilizing that haze. While there, I notice a large bird soaring around the canyon. I go back up to my car and get out my Gitzo ball head tripod and attach my Sony 200 to 600 mm lens to my A7R4. I’m going to try and capture some images of that bird flying across the landscape.

Every five to ten minutes, the bird makes another pass. I can tell it is a raptor by the down curved beak but I can’t be sure which one. It looks a lot like a turkey vulture but it doesn’t have a red face and wattle.

After the third pass, I notice that it often flies directly overhead. My tripod doesn’t allow me to shoot directly up so I unhook the camera and plan to shoot freehand. That lens gets pretty heaving over the next ten minutes but finally the raptor appears and eventually swoops overhead. I quickly focus and shoot a couple of bursts before it passes beyond my reach. I know I have a couple of close ups I can use for identification purposes.

Later, I check with a cousin who is a birder. She says it is probably a juvenile turkey vulture. That would explain the lack of facial color. Adam also replies to an earlier email and confirms my cousin's identification.

Looking over my earlier shots from the tripod, I see different coloration on the face and conclude that I also photographed a zone tailed hawk.

Looking further, I see that my first shots caught a red tailed hawk.

Juvenile turkey Vulture

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Zone Tail Hawk (White Beak with Black Tip)

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Later that afternoon, we are out again at a pullout along the road to Cape Royal. Adam says, “This afternoon, we are going to do more intentional camera movement.”

I think to myself this isn’t something I’m interested in doing. Maybe I can just go out on the Cape, do a time lapse and we can meet later.

“Today though, we are going to do it without tripods. Set up your camera like before but try moving in a figure eight pattern or circular pattern and see what kind of images you can create.”

Okay, I think, I’ll give it a try.

After a few images, I can see that this is a lot more interesting. Some images are like a wash of watercolors, some have subtle textures that might be good as a background for a double exposure.

I take one of tree bark that I like and show it to Adam. He says, “Hey everybody, look at this.” Turning to me he says, “You can be my teaching assistant.”

Color Wash

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Spinning Tree Bark

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With that encouragement, I keep at it until we are ready to head up the rest of the way to Cape Royal.

Once out on my new favorite ledge again, Adam says to me and the other participant who was willing to go beyond the guardrails, “Tonight we are going to use the light of the rising moon to light the East side of Wotan’s Throne while the afterglow of the setting sun will light the West side of the canyon. What we are hoping for is that it will get dark enough for the Milky Way to appear while it is still light enough to see the canyon.”

That’s a tall order. Between the afterglow of sunset and the beginning of a full moonrise, that is a lot of light. What we have going for us is altitude and minimal light pollution from man-made sources but it remains unlikely that it will be dark enough to allow an image of the Milky Way.

Adam recommends a 24 mm f1.4 lens in portrait position to frame Wotan’s Throne and the Milky Way but I have a lot of trouble getting accurate focus on the stars. They look a little soft. I zoom in and try manually focusing but turning the focus wheel has no effect. "What’s that about?" I think to myself. I ask Adam for help and he locates a button on the side of the lens that switches between manual and automatic focus. I feel like an idiot for not checking that myself. Oh well. I guess I am an idiot. No need to pretend differently.

Even with the lens in focus, the field of view is too small for the stars to appear as pinpoints. They are creating trails at 15 seconds exposure time. I need to use a wider lens.

As I am preparing to change lenses (not an easy task in the dark while standing on the edge of a cliff) I see a flash over my left shoulder.

“Lightning” says Adam.

The moon is rising through some clouds and periodically I see the clouds illuminated by flashes of lightning. I quickly set up my A7S3 with a zoom lens and start rolling video.

While looking at his phone, Adam says, “Wow. That lightning is over New Mexico.”

I guess we can see over the curve of the Earth because we are at high altitude and so is the lightning. Anyway, it’s beautiful with the rising moon.

Lightning and Moonrise at Cape Royal

Back to changing lenses and getting focus. I put on a manual focus Sony 20 mm, f1.4 lens, so there is no button that disables manual focus. This or my Elixir 15mm f2.8 are what I usually use for astrophotography. The other participant is packing up and heading back to the car, seeing the moonlight is washing out what little of the Milky Way is visible. I figure I have just a few minutes to try before the moon is too high. I set up my camera in landscape orientation, ISO 3200 (which allows me to have a shorter exposure time), acquire focus and set the time to 8 seconds. I can’t afford to bracket the shots because the stars are moving. I take 5 landscape oriented shots, stacked in a vertical panorama from the cliff at my feet up to infinity and turn off my camera. I either have it or I don’t. The way the light is changing, I don’t have another chance. When I get back to the cabin an hour later, I stay up another hour compositing and developing the image even though I have to get up again before 4:00 AM for the sunrise shoot. I just have to know how it turned out.

I am delighted with the result.

Milky Way over Wotan's Throne

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This last morning, we are driving out the same road towards Cape Royal but instead of turning right towards the Cape, we continue straight to Point Imperial. It’s colder this morning. At one point, my temperature gauge reads 36 degrees f. Who would have thought it could get down nearly to freezing in August? When we get out of our cars, there is a strong wind coming up the canyon and blowing in our faces from the direction of sunrise. Despite the wind, there is a lot of haze in the air.

Adam says, “Climb over this little retaining wall and line up under these trees. We are going to focus on Mount Hayden. We want to zoom in close so use a 70-200 mm zoom or something like it.”

The light is murky so the colors aren’t that strong but we play the hand we are dealt. The images on the back of my screen are not great. I have aligned Mount Hayden with a distant peak, placing them both on the right “thirds” line. I don’t mind the murky light. I’m still happy about my Milky Way shot last night.

Later when developing the images, I select one of Mount Hayden that was over-exposed (shot 5 brackets) and just move the "black’s" slider to the left when developing the image. This brings out the color and definition in the exposed parts of the image but leaves the rest under-exposed. I like the result. It has that romantic Hudson River School look. You could call this “developing to the right” because as Adam reminded me, exposing to the right just gives more information to the camera’s sensor. As long as the whites aren’t clipped, you can develop the image so that the histogram sits in the middle. In this image I clipped the whites and left them blown out in the final image.

Whatever you call it, I like it in this case. My eye wants to see into the white to make out the faint details. It adds a quality I call "mystery" to the image. We are attracted to images that suggest something we can't quite see or understand. It makes us continue to look. The limited color palette of this image also simplifies it, reminiscent of the elegant simplicity of Japanese art. 

Mount Hayden Developed to the Right

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When the sun is fully up, Adam says, “Okay, this is the official end of the workshop. You can join me for breakfast or if not, I’ll see you next time.” A few hugs later, I am on the road. From Point Imperial, it’s almost 11 hours of driving to get back home. I hope to make it at least as far as Las Vegas. I’m too tired to drive all the way. This has been a great trip. The feeling of standing on the cliff a mile above the Colorado river, seeing the sun set, the moon rise, lightning in distant clouds and the Milky Way will stick with me for a long time to come. I feel so lucky to be alive.

Best, David

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