Thursday, February 27, 2014


As I've lamented in the past, it's really difficult getting a decent angle to photograph canyoneering trips, especially people on ropes as they rappel down a cliff or waterfall. I'm either shooting down on their heads or up at their butts. And neither view is all that exceptional. On a recent trip to Coffin Canyon in Death Valley, I had a rare chance to go down a separate rope, lock off (meaning, wrap the rope around my rappel device in such a way that I'm basically stuck there) and photograph my friends as they went by. This meant having to carry a (really heavy) 300-foot rope up a long, steep approach to the top of the canyon and using one of the few permanent anchor bolts in the entire park (they're illegal, actually, but this one has survived). 

Considering this was a nearly 200-foot rappel, there was plenty of dramatic air underneath them and canyon in the distance for good shots. Even rarer, I got pictures of me dangling from the rope as I was doing all this. I had to bring a second camera body and long lens just for that purpose (ah, the things we do for a semi-selfie). The lens I used on the rope was a 16-35 set as wide as possible because I was pretty close to everyone as they rappelled past me, plus I wanted to get as much of the canyon in the shot as possible to show just what a spectacular place it was. If I hadn't gone for the wide shot, it would have just been a picture of someone on a rope with no context. Big deal. 

So there I am dangling about 180 feet above the ground, I'm finished shooting and I have to release in order to go down the rope. My camera was hanging off my hip with a Black Rapid strap and vulnerable to whacking against the hardware on my harness. But the bigger thing is yanking the rope out from the rappel device so I can slither down the rope. When you do that, you jerk down a few inches, just enough to scare the bejoobies out of you, especially when, as I said, I was hanging 180 feet off the ground. My suggestion to anyone who wants to try this is practice, practice, practice before getting into extreme canyons like this. Just a suggestion.

There I am on the right, braced against the rock as I shoot Annette on the rope. It looks comfortable enough, I guess, but remember, I'm high off the ground.

The resulting shot. The sun visor on her helmet is a handy add-on she wears. I was so close to her, you can see my pants leg in the lower right corner.

Jerri on the same rappel. Notice how Rich who's belaying her at the bottom is teeny weeny tiny. Directly below her is a vertical wall of rock that turns into an overhang.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Revisiting Old Photos

There's an interesting contradiction about photography. On one hand, making a picture can be a once-in-a-nanosecond opportunity where the action or the light is so ephemeral, if you miss it, it's gone forever. (Of course, there's something to be said for having memories that exist no where but in your brain, full of emotions and movements that no camera can duplicate.) On the other hand, once you've nailed that shot, you can reinterpret it over and over, changing the artistic emphasis with everything from color balance (including going to shades of gray) to lightening some elements and darkening others to cropping to even changing the sharpness. And let's not forget the manipulations that involve cloning out unwanted distractions or combining exposures to compensate for extreme contrasts in the scene.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with going back to a photo when I realize it can be done differently, perhaps better. Sometimes this is because my artistic vision has evolved or maybe it's just because the processing software has improved to the point where I can accomplish a look that wasn't technically possible before.

For years, I went out to various wild locations to photograph moonlit landscapes. I published several how-to magazine articles for people who wanted to try it themselves and a couple of travel pieces for those who just preferred to experience the calming, occasionally introspective nature of sitting under a full moon without worrying about camera gear.

The other day, I came across some scans of this old work, shot on a Bronica SQ-A medium format camera and transparency film. At the time of the first prints I made, I was somewhat pure about the final product, finishing the picture so that it looked like the original film version. With a 20-minute exposure, I was usually able to get a picture that looked vaguely like a daylight scene but not quite (star paths don't appear in the sky at two in the afternoon.)  This worked for me at the time because the pictures had a weird sense of place that was partly literal and partly mysterious. But now I'm not so sure I like that interpretation and I redid some of the pictures. I like them better with a definitive look of nighttime.

What I did was import the tif files into Lightroom, increased the blacks and clarity, decreased the highlights and added a light vignette. Much better! (Of course, five years from now, I might change my mind and do something else.)

"Devastation Trail, 8:45 p.m." The difference is from the original isn't huge but to my eyes it looks more like how it felt to stand there at night.

"Near Hidden Valley, 10:15 p.m." I wanted to emphasize the lit rock juxtaposed against the bright star path so I darkened the exposure, added black and a heavy vignette.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Kid Musings

Thatcher wandering down the trail in Caballero Canyon, Tarzana. A minute later he was asking me about sword swallowers, machete swallowers and grenade swallowers. I pointed out that the last one would only be good for one performance, to which he agreed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bailey Canyon

Bailey Canyon, which is in the San Gabriel Mountains and just above a pleasant neighborhood in Sierra Madre (near Pasadena), has a little bit of everything for a pleasant canyoneering trip. There are about 13 rappels, but none of them terribly difficult or long. It has an overhang or two to negotiate, and a few slippery down-climbs. Usually, there's a stream running through it with plenty of waterfalls, but right now it's almost bone dry with the current drought. So, the operating word here is pleasant. Unfortunately, it's not real photogenic, so taking pictures there is usually a little challenging. For this trip, I didn't go after the big, grand canyon landscapes, but stayed small, close-up. A lot of times that's more fun, anyway.

It was a dark, overcast day, so I shot almost exclusively at ISO 6400 just to get decent shutter times. Having done the canyon several times before, I knew all I needed was a 16-35mm lens and my favorite glass, the 24-70mm. I got lazy and didn't pull out a flash, but I probably should have. But that's just the tool side of things. It's really about showing my friends interacting with each other and the canyon. And they've gotten so accustomed to me pointing a camera at them, they barely pay attention. I become a fly on the rocks.

Poison Oak

Friday, February 7, 2014


After a few hundred rappels in all sorts of conditions from watery to cold to cold water to desert to abrasive rock, I'm retiring my ATS rappel device and just purchased a new one, which I'm breaking in tomorrow. Okay, you don't really break in rappel devices. That implies they'll work better after a few uses. You want them to do their best right from the beginning. In any event, this one has been worn out. The silvery furrow to the left of "ATS" is deep enough (about a third of the way through the metal) that I don't feel safe using it. My friends all use a device called a Pyranha but I've always preferred this gizmo and until someone comes up with something better, I'll continue with it. They do get scratched up, though, that's for sure.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Los Angeles River

I figure good photography should have, at the very least, the quality of expression. In other words, I take pictures to show how I feel about the world around me. Sometimes that translates into relating a sense of place or my fascination with the way light strikes a scene or just the shapes within a scene.

On occasion, Gloria and I will go for walks in the Reseda neighborhood ending up on the bike path along the Los Angeles River, which is pretty much a concrete ditch otherwise known as a flood control channel. I always bring my camera looking for pictures that allow me that expression—how I see the world and what makes it interesting to me. Sometimes that means details, sometimes juxtapositions of elements and other times that sense of place.

Here are a few recent shots.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hades Canyon

Canyoneering is a great, wonderful, beautiful, adventurous kind of sport. Well, I call it a sport. It's athletic, at the very least, and requires a certain nerve. After all, you hang from a rope over lots of air a dozen or more times during a trip, making your way down and over all sorts of unpredictable obstacles. There are sometimes gushing waterfalls, slippery cliffs and deep pools that add extra elements of risk and surprise, not to mention beauty. 

And, actually, it's that last item that makes me want to return again and again to the canyons here in Southern California or Death Valley or Utah. And because you're in a remote place, otherwise inaccessible without ropes and rappelling gear, that beauty starts to feel a little proprietary. In other words, no crowds to share it with. It's all yours for the day.

Trouble is, photographing a canyoneering trip can be really, really challenging. I'll be surrounded by a lovely landscape and amazing action, but to get that stored away on a camera isn't easy. Some of it's technical. Usually I'm working with impossible contrasts in light—the canyon is usually pretty dark and shady, while the upper reaches of the rock and the sky are bright. Can't squeeze both into the same picture without under-exposing or over-exposing one. Often, I can tighten up the composition so I'm just shooting in the shade, but not always. And the shade itself is so dark, I have to crank up the ISO to noise-producing heights. (Not that I care too much about the noise; a sharp picture at ISO 6400 is worth more to me than a blurry one at ISO 400.)

There are other considerations besides the mechanical ones. My friends and I are not ones to rush through a canyon, but in order to finish before it gets dark requires a fluid coordination of setting anchors, rappelling, pulling down ropes, down-climbing, setting up the next anchor and so on. I can't always ask for even 10 minutes to get into position for a shot. When I have that kind of time, decent angles are hard to find. I discovered when I first got into canyoneering that all I shot was either from the top of a rappel looking down at the person on the rope, or up at them from the bottom. That's because most of the rappels are in narrow gouges in the rock formed by running water and it's physically impossible to get any other angle but down or up. Occasionally, I've been able to set up a second rope on a stout anchor, go down, say, five feet, lock off on the rope and shoot but that's rare.

This brings me to my last trip, which was Hades Canyon in Death Valley National Park (the canyons there are almost all named to bring out demonic, hellish images: Coffin Canyon, Purgatory Canyon, Styx Canyon). This was our first trip through Hades, so I didn't know exactly what to expect (it turned out to be a rugged landscape), but I knew that I wanted  pictures that were more than just my buds on a rope. And because I figured we would finish this one after dark, I had in mind a picture of someone rappelling at night, headlight on, with a deep blue, twilight sky above. This meant bringing a tripod so I could hold the camera long enough to record the sky while popping off a flash to illuminate the person. 

I got lucky. On the second to last rappel (we were, strangely enough, approaching a point as well where we would descend below sea level), the nearly full moon had risen high enough to show above the canyon walls. I went down first, set up my tripod and asked Rich, who came down next, to hold a flash about 20 feet away from me and pointed at Jerri as she came down (the flash was triggered with a Pocket Wizard wireless device). You can click on the image to make it larger which I highly recommend.

(I also used the remote flash on the first picture on this post so I could expose for the bright rock in the background and still see Jerri on the rope.) 

Another goal I had was to show what it's like going down the canyon as it gets darker.

In this shot, I bracketed five different exposures to get the brighter, sunset sky along with the much darker foreground. I then blended two of the best exposures into one for the final.

Lastly, the one I had in mind all along. It didn't turn out quite as well as I had envisioned, but not bad. If you look closely you can see stars in the sky. This definitely wouldn't have been possible without a tripod.