Goodbye My Friend – Fred Topalian

Only a couple of you reading this knew Fred Topalian.  Fred opened a camera store in St. George, Utah two years before I moved down there from Provo, UT – in 1985.  When I would travel to SG to work occasionally, while attending BYU, I would often stop into Camera Country on Bluff Street and buy film and camera equipment from Fred. When I moved to SG in 1985 I spent a lot of time at Camera Country, talking with Fred about all types of photography and running my personal strategy for becoming a full-time photographer past him. We where both raised in California, him in SoCal and me in NoCal, and while our personal lives weren’t that similar – our love of photography was. He had worked as a photographer in Las Vegas for awhile before moving to SG.  He was 7 years older than me and had insights into the business of photography and life in general, that I always had appreciated.

Fred later moved Camera Country to St. George Boulevard, then years later built a custom commercial building farther east on SG Boulevard. The walls of his store were lined with old cameras he had collected, local photos, and in southern Utah his store became the go to location for all things photography.  New and used equipment, lighting stands and strobes, tripods, bags, backdrops, and 1 hour processing – not to mention a source of information and experience. As I advanced in photography I met a number of people at his store that had a big influence on me – none bigger than the editor of St. George Magazine, Lyman Hafen.  SGM began running my photos and articles (2 Covers) and even had a “wildlife page” dedicated to one of my images each issue.  I owe my initial success in southern Utah to Fred, his friends and clients became mine.

Over the years we became fast friends.  We went out shooting together exploring the nearby mountains and the Arizona Strip country, played golf, water-skied, drove quads around Pine Valley Mtn –  and just had a good time.  Fred was always an upbeat person, telling stories, and commiserating when things weren’t going right for either of us.  When he left town on vacation or to learn about some new Noritsu 1 hour machine he was buying, I watched his store. He promoted me as a nature photographer and did everything he could to help me succeed – from slide film and processing at cost, to deals on equipment, and tips on business tactics. Even as late as 2010 he tried to put together a photography show for me to do in southern Utah for his old clients.

As the years passed our lives went in different directions, as they so often do.  I moved north to Cache Valley, Utah and eventually opened a photography studio in Providence to go along with my freelance magazine work, while Fred married Kim in 1993 and settled into a happy, fulfilling life. They traveled together, worked together, and enjoyed their cabin at Pine Valley Mountain.

Digital photography eventually did in the 1-hour printing business, and online camera retailers made buying equipment cheaper elsewhere.  After many decades in southern Utah, Fred eventually was forced to close Camera Country.  But Fred continued on successfully, building homes and flipping houses in the hot SG housing market – and then he ran into health issues.  Pancreatic Cancer isn’t kind or slow and it eventually claimed his life, just two weeks ago in St. George – surrounded by Kim and the kids and grandkids.

When I saw Kim’s Facebook post about his death I was deeply saddened.  It had been a couple of years since I’d stopped into his home in Washington, next to St.George, to visit about our lives and catch up.  For a decade after I had moved north whenever I was passing through for a photo safari in southern Utah, or on my way to California, I would stop by the store and we would go to lunch.  He had stories about his kids, I had stories about mine. But as life got busier even those brief visits gradually stopped. A couple of years ago we visited on the phone – so I knew about his health issues. He did all he could to stay with Kim and the kids for as long as possible.

Kim and Fred

There was no cell phone technology back in the 80’s and 90’s – so quick grab images and selfies that are so common today were non-existent then.  I looked through tens of thousands of images and found 2 of me – that Fred had taken, and one image of him and Kim that he had sent me as a Christmas Card – that thankfully I had kept.  I wish I had an image of the two of us.  One that Fred had taken was of me standing along a sandstone cliff where we were rappelling over the side shooting a great horned owl cave nest – one of my favorite images, taken in 1986. Thanks for not letting go of the rope, Fred.

Brent Paull, by Fred Topalian 1986

Our friendship was stretched out over 35 years, and has traveled through the national and state parks and dusty back roads of southern Utah, but it ended for now with that Facebook post. I attended his wedding to Kim at Pine Valley Mountain in 1983 and shot a few wedding images of them, it was a typically beautiful blue-sky southern Utah day.  Unfortunately, I missed his memorial service while in Colorado on a recent photo safari.  I feel a bit guilty now of not having told him enough how grateful I was for his friendship.

Fred was a great friend to everyone, but was an especially loving husband to Kim and to their kids and grand kids. There is no doubt in my mind that is how Fred would have wanted to be remembered by everyone.
Goodbye my friend.  BRP

 

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A Thousand Words – The Coming of the Fall Elk Rut

There are few things I look forward to as much as the autumn elk rut in Yellowstone National Park.  While my home in California is still hot (though cooling, especially in the morning) the long drive north brings higher elevations and changing colors. With the Colorado Autumn Safari coming days before the Yellowstone Fall Safari – I’ve had at least a few days to acclimate … and it does feel good.  No matter how many great landscapes I shoot in Colorado, and the wildlife, Yellowstone is the best….the best.

My anchor image of a bugling bull elk in a snowstorm was taken last year in the park, just north of Mammoth Hot Springs near the campground.  The weather report had predicted a snowfall of 4″ to 6″, but the snow didn’t stop until there was 12″ on the ground – and the common yellow fall grass had been morphed into a winter wonderland.

This image was a flashback to all the years when snow fell during the fall elk ruts.  If I had to guess I would say I saw snow at the end of September or early October about every 6 years – so over my 35 years of Yellowstone photography its only happened 6 times.  Sometimes the snow would close park roads, like it did last year around Mammoth.  It wasn’t until the afternoon when the plows had cleared the roads enough for them to open back up.

I’ve done blog articles about how to know the size of an elk’s rack (LINK) and have talked at length about the marvel’s of Yellowstone’s fall, especially in 2011  (LINK) but the snow and cold makes such a difference in elk rutting activity for photography.  One of my first photography targets when I was starting out in the early 1980’s was rutting bulls, the bigger the better.   This image (above) shows one of the best rutting displays I have ever seen   The bull crossed a meadow in the Madison River Valley on a frigid morning, constantly bugling, tearing up the fall grass, spraying urine on himself – all to make an impact on a small herd of nearby cows. Other bulls moved away from him, not willing to meet him head-on in a fight, relinquishing the cows.  Between bugles he did an inordinate amount of grunting and bellowing.

With cold weather not just the elk rut increases in activity, but also the other animals preparing for either their rut, or for winter survival. Bears enter a phase called hyperphagia where they eat and drink non-stop, putting on needed fat to survive their coming hibernation.  Other animals like foxes will cache food, remembering each spot when hunger or lack of hunting success strikes during the winter.  Ungulates like elk, deer, and moose live on dried out autumn grass and shrubs, like willows and aspens.

Another bull (above) moves out of a forest of pines to challenge for the rights to breed after an autumn snowstorm in 2012, about a mile west of Canyon Junction.  This guy, for all his bravado, retreated from the cows when approached by the dominant harem bull – which unfortunately, also approached through the pines blocking my angle for images.  Sometimes the best shows (and bugling) are put on by satellite bulls that have to try to pick off cows from the dominant bulls harem.  It’s all about rack size when it comes to dominance.  However, since elk can’t count points and only estimate the size of their own rack – I’ve seen small 6×6’s run off bigger bulls because of their aggressive display and willingness to fight.

This image (above) is mis-labeled as a winter image, but actually it was shot on film in the fall of 1996. It was later published in BUGLE Magazine.  I know it was fall because it was shot along Indian Creek south of Mammoth Hot Springs, when that road south would have been closed in the winter.  I especially like the background river, his trail in the snow, and the bull’s shadow on the snow revealing that it was shot in the late afternoon, since I was looking north when I took this image.

Besides the show being put on by the bull elk, strong fall weather also makes for dramatic landscape images as well as increased animal activity.  After a long summer season there is finally an edge of cold weather seeping into the park’s valleys, and in the mornings it can have quite a bite to it.  Even without a large snow storm the nearby peaks will get a dusting of snow from passing fronts.Cooling temperatures throughout the Yellowstone Plateau means morning fog along the rivers and around the lakes, like in this image of a 7×6 bull elk drinking in morning light along the Madison River.  The fog, like shallow snow, melts quickly when the temps begin to rise later in the morning.

Never let the weather stop you ……… never.  The only weather I’m not inclined to leave my truck to shoot in is a torrential rain – and that’s mainly to protect my camera equipment.  Severe cold, snow squalls, sprinkles or light rain, snow on the road, thunderstorms, even high winds can add an interesting element to otherwise ordinary images. When clients ask me about the potential weather for a Yellowstone safari, I tell them it will possibly snow (fall and winter and spring) daily, rain daily, and there will be thunderstorms daily – but there will also be blue skies and perfect conditions everyday sometime – so never worry about the weather.This grizzly image was taken on spring day in early June.  A quick moving storm front dropped about 4″ of snow overnight in the Soda Butte Valley near the Trout Lake trail head, and just as quickly melted by 11am – showing only green grass. One of my personal favorite images because the grizzly is watching 3 of my sons run to my left to shoot video from a slight hill.  Fun.  Only a lush, green Yellowstone spring offers better wildlife photography than a chilly, possibly snowy, Yellowstone Fall. Irregardless, I will be there.  BRP

 

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Macro Images in the Digital Age

Back in the late 1980’s I was particularly fascinated by macro photography. At that time I was shooting an Olympus OM-4T camera body and my macro lens was a Vivitar 100mm 1:1 lens.  In time I added an Olympus T-28 Macro twin-flash system that mounted to the end of the lens and provided adjustable directional lighting – kind of like movable studio lighting on rolling light stands.  The OM T-28 system allowed me to point one of the flash units at the subject, and the other flash unit at the background – both units controlled by a unit that sat on the camera’s hot-shoe and performed the TTL (through-the-lens) function of image exposure control.  With some practice I learned how to compose images that looked more naturally lit – without the black background so common when using single light sources on macro subjects.

I define macro photography as an image of a small subject taken in order to emphasize it through magnification. Some like to say the image has to have a ratio of 1:1, or life size magnification, to be true macro photography …. but I don’t, that excludes too much.  For me, it’s all about composing an image to emphasize it through magnification – at any level, even 1:4 (quarter life size) or 1:8 (one eighth life size).  While a true macro lens like either Nikon’s 105mm f2.8 1:1 macro, or their 60mm f2.8 1:1 macro, or Canon’s similar lenses will go life size, you don’t have to rack it out that far in order to shoot macro images. The Mexican Blue butterfly (below) was shot at about 1:6 life size so I could include the Prairie Clover.  

The side-by-side comparison (above, both shot on Kodachrome 64) of a Mexican Blue photographed with just a single flash (left), versus two flashes (right) from the OM T-28 twin flash.  A single flash, up close on a macro subject, would yield a black background if the background was any distance away.  Many professionals shot macro images in the studio, using multiple lights, under very controlled conditions and rarely ventured into the field with multiple flashes.

While film was a tremendously limiting medium back then, it was the only game in town.  About the highest ASA (ISO today) film you could use was 400 – and it was poor.  The four 35mm films I primarily shot were Kodak 64 Pro, Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji Provia 100 (sometimes pushed to 400), and Kodachrome 200. On the 120mm medium format side I rarely shot anything but Fuji Velvia 50 roll film.  These were all slide films – magazine photo editors weren’t likely to accept any negative films, just slides – or “chromes”. They were better quality films, had a higher contrast ratio and more importantly, put on a light table an editor could see exactly what he had and could edit through many images quickly.  Another drawback to film was there could be no mistake in exposure….zero….none.
High contrast, mid-day lighting in the lizard image (above, shot on Fuji Provia 100) was a definite drawback in producing a quality macro-type image. By using the twin flash (below) lighting could be improved and produce a better quality image with more even lighting. Digital photography has become a game changer for macro photographers.
Once you get an idea of how macro lighting (flash) will affect the look of the image you can more carefully look for subjects that will benefit from it.  In today’s digital photography world, with the ability to alter the subject’s highlights and shadows in processing, and with much greater latitude in choosing an ISO appropriate for the lighting conditions – macro photography couldn’t be much easier.  While macro photography has transitioned from film to digital – getting close to your subject has never changed.When I evolved from Olympus (a system I loved, but not large enough in terms of equipment and lens options) to Nikon, and then from film to digital, the need for flash decreased.  Flash didn’t go away, but it was needed as often.  With an Fx sensored camera, like a Nikon D4s or Canon 1Dx, the ability to push iso levels above 1600 reduced the need for flash in many lowlight situations.

One thing that hasn’t changed has been the need for depth-of-field (dof) in macro images where the subject is very close to the lens.  All the images shown so far were taken at f16 – a very small f-stop producing maximum dof, but at the cost of shutter-speed, which is where the flash came in providing extra light. Being able to shoot macro subjects at ISO 1600 (digital) instead of ASA 100 (film) is a 4 stop increase in ambient light hitting the subject at the same f-stop, negating the need for flash in many situations.Today it takes a tripod and a reasonable iso setting to get an image in nearly impossible lighting conditions. The Mountain Lady’s Slipper (above) image was taken in near total deep forest darkness. It was shot at f11 at iso 3200 at a shutter-speed of 1/30th second using my Induro tripod. No flash, no reflectors or fill of any kind. That image would have required a full second of exposure on film or more, which for an image with detail up-close, would have required many images – even with a tripod – to guarantee success.
This is another image(above) that would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, back in the days of slow-speed film.  Shot in the field in Death Valley National Park, the afternoon wind blowing a gale – yet, a high iso, an appropriate f-stop, and hand held due to difficultly maneuvering a tripod still resulted in a great macro image. Still, this is a true 1:1 life size macro image.

So given that macro photography has become much easier with our modern equipment and image processing abilities – that leaves one final key – and that is learning how to look and find great macro subjects.
While not strictly a macro image (above), it is a macro subject – a small piece of a bigger subject. I was working through some folded and eroded sandstone up on the roof in Zion National Park, near Checkerboard Mesa when I stepped over this Gambel’s Oak leaf. I didn’t touch or move it – just shot it with my medium format Mamiya camera as it was.  Macro photography is about seeing small.  Zion can be overwhelmingly big, with broad landscapes and rock monoliths that take your breath away – but I had my knee pads on and I was prepared to look small.

Digital photography allows us to crop-in to an image, increasing the apparent magnification without actually using a macro lens, or even getting close.  As sensors grow in pixels our ability to crop-in even farther increases – that wasn’t true with film. The grain in the film emulsion was such that any cropping-in highlighted the grain (think noise in digital photography) and decreased the quality of the image.  In other words, you had to get in close with a macro lens to produce a macro looking image on film.  No more.
This sharp, colorful image of tiny mustang clover in Sequoia National Park is just a small piece of a much larger image showing a 16″ x 24″ patch of flowers.  This cropped-in image shows about 2″ x 3″ of that larger image.  I did shoot this with a 60mm f2.8 1:1 macro lens, but at about 1:8 magnification.  In other words, I wasn’t shooting the lens at its maximum close focusing ability.  You might ask, “why not?”

One aspect of macro photography is working distance – how far the camera is from the subject.  Getting close to a butterfly sounds good, but if it means immersing yourself in the bushes with its other insect life (think bees, wasps, spiders, etc) then it doesn’t seem so attractive.  Using a longer lens, standing back farther and then cropping in can result in just as dramatic an image without the squeamishness of a close approach. The same is true if your subject is snakes and lizards … things that bite.
As a wildlife photographer I don’t carry my macro lens with me in the field – I usually leave it in my truck unless I know I will use it. No sense carrying more weight than I have to – the 500mm f4 lens and tripod are heavy enough. So there are times (above) when I’m seeing macro images  and only have my 500mm lens, so I shoot them with that.  This image was taken with my 500mm telephoto lenses at minimum focus distance – and I know that because I had to back up 2″ to get it in focus.  And then for this final image I cropped-in and discarded about 50% of the whole image. The final presentation here is at about 1:4 life size.

There are other ways to turn your standard lens into a macro-workable lens. The two most common are close-up screw-in filters that come in different magnifications, and extension tubes that move the lens farther from the camera body thus increasing magnification. The filters are less expensive, but easier to lose and get fingerprints on. The extension tubes come in different lengths, have no glass in them (they just move the lens farther from the body) but in using them you lose the longer focus of the lens … no focusing to infinity. Both of these methods (there are others as well – bellows, reverse mounting lenses, etc) are workable, but time consuming. I have a 8mm extension tube that I use on my 500mm lens occasionally and it works pretty well on meadow butterflies.

No matter what lens you use, straight or in combination with filters or tubes, there is an amazing world down at ground level – you just have to go down on your knees or stomach to find some of them. BRP

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A Personal Note

Today, I’m sitting in the Denver Sheraton Hotel, my wife attending meetings about the software her ambulance company uses, and I’m staring out the room window to the west, towards the not-to-distant Rockies. The mountain ridges are capped in snow, and probably will be for another month or two, maybe longer. The foothills are lush green and a warm breeze is gently blowing through downtown Denver this mid-may day – people seem to be out in force on the streets below.  But the crowds are impersonal, walking with their heads down, keeping to themselves, doing whatever it was they needed to do in downtown Denver.  Like so many others the mass of people only made me uneasy, and miss the quiet of the mountains that much more.

Emmett-Utah

Evan, Jason and Emmett, me (May 2018)

Jackie and I spent the other night in Glenwood Springs on Interstate 70 at a favorite hotel, ate at a favorite restaurant, and enjoyed the springlike conditions, blooming trees, and calling songbirds along the nearby trail that follows the Colorado River.  The natural beauty was similar to so many other places we have seen, and are drawn too – but none of our kids live here – and we could never live here for that reason.  Secondly, having lived in Montana and Utah for many, many winters – I know my wife’s tolerance for extreme weather conditions would be sorely tested.

Leaving Glenwood Springs we drove through Winter Park and up to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) where we photographed an agreeable black bear. Last May we were in Winter Park for a little family reunion. One of my son’s, a marine stationed in Okinawa, was out to Denver with his family for a wedding on his wife’s side. Jackie and I rented a cabin in Winter Park and invited my other sons and their families to join us for a short reunion. And while we didn’t get all the wives and grandkids, still it was fun visiting.  During that reunion we all piled in the vehicles and drove up to RMNP, also seeing the years first black bear, as well as moose, elk, coyotes, bald eagles, and osprey. On the drive to Winter Park last year we were buried by 24″ of snow that surprised us, but really it just made the reunion that much more memorable. We had to shovel out the cabin, go for cold walks in the snow with the grandkids, and enjoy some snowball fights. I wimped out going outside and getting into the sauna with my four sons – they got to visit for the first time in years and I enjoyed letting them – having dad in the sauna would have no doubt changed the conversation.

Boys-Colorado

Ryan, Jason, me, Evan, Matt

My wife and sons have accompanied me on hundreds of trips into the mountains, whether the Rockies, the Wasatch, or the Sierras – as well as to both coasts and the deserts of the southwest. We are a family of wildlife people – sometimes we just watch, sometimes I’m shooting – but we are all spotters and watchers. I used to pay the boys $1 (hey, they were young) for the first one to spot a mammal on our yearly summer trips to Yellowstone. They have all been on the ground with bears, moose, elk, wolves, great gray owls – and all the other critters we have encountered and photographed together. As the girls have married my sons and joined the clan they had to adapt to that unique family dynamic – and to their great credit they have.

The reality is that life takes us down different paths. Certainly my path has changed directions so many times that it would take a dedicated GPS compass to track all the twists and turns. And while I have settled into a pretty stable and consistent life pattern, there is no doubt that more stops/starts, goods/bads, and other course changes are ahead – that’s the only way it could be for any of us. In my 58 years I’ve found that the good times blend together forming a calm mosaic, smooth except for the bad times that jut out like pins and needles every now and then. No one gets out of this life without their share of love and pain, happiness and sadness – but it does seem to gradually moderate as the years pile up.

There isn’t a day when I don’t think about our kids decisions, relationships, children, health, or their jobs.  But it gets easier, and as the weeks, months, and years flow by they all seem to be on great life paths – moving forward, gaining more education, moving to better jobs, successfully living their lives.  But there is a constant thread that goes through their personalities – a familial link to either their mother (Kelli, Mark, Scott, or Lisa) or father (Evan, Matthew, Ryan, and Jason) that forms a bedrock foundation to their lives.  I witness it with my wife’s kids, my wife witnesses it with my son’s.  Sometimes Jackie and I seem to float in an sea of goodwill and love that our children provide us with.  Occasionally we act as referees, but mostly we just laugh at their antics, stories, and memories of growing up with us.

Brent-Jackie-3

Brent and Jackie

I trace my love of wildlife back to my mother.  As a kid we took vacations to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or to our cabin in Felton.  She was quite the wildlife spotter, and for many years enjoyed coming on summer vacations to Yellowstone and Glacier with us – always concerned equally about the boys looking for animals and having their seat belts fastened.  She is nearly 80 now, her mobility reduced by neuropathy in her feet, and her memories fading with advancing dementia.  But while she might have forgotten how long she has been retired or what countries she has traveled to, she is all present when you talk to her – especially sharp about her kids and the things she finds important.  She has no trouble talking finances or politics, her significant other Joe, or the fact that she does not like having a car anymore.

Mom

Mom – Patricia L Paull

About a year ago I was showing her wildlife images on my phone (mom is NOT online so there is no browsing my website images or blog articles) when she saw an image of a bison mother with her calf walking under her chin, in a protective stance.  Something in that photo resonated with her, and I thought it had to be that she felt that it reflected her and us .  I eventually had the image printed 24″x 30″ on steel and it replaced a “coconut people” painting she got from Haiti 30 years ago that had hung above the bed in her guestroom.  On her living room table are two books I published on wildlife photography in the American West. My favorite image of us is from my days at BYU in Provo, Ut, about 1984.  Mom had flown out to visit and we went skiing at Alta Ski Resort outside Salt Lake City.  In the image we are in red ski jackets holding our skis and standing in the parking lot at the end of the day, smiles all around.

bison
Just before I started this blog article, when I first got up this morning, I did a search for birding hotspots in the Denver area, tomorrow being my agreed upon photography day.  My son Ryan lived and worked in Denver after graduating from college, meet his wife Karlie here, but eventually his work as a contract analyst for a Defense Contractor took him to Huntsville, AL.  He knows the ski slopes but probably not birding locations.  My oldest son, Evan, bunked with Ryan for awhile here when he did an internship in Denver while getting his electrical engineering degree.  They spent time in RMNP, and running up and down mountains in the nearby Front Range doing things brothers do.  With Matt transferring back to Quantico, VA from Okinawa son it won’t be long before another reunion is possible.

Tomorrow morning when I head out at dawn to my searched out birding locations around Denver I will reflect back on my wife and family, on the support I receive from them, and on the wildlife adventures we have all shared and enjoyed.  Places like Yellowstone seem legendary, or even mythical to some, but to us the park is a comfortable home-away-from-home, a place where memories and adventures date back to the beginning of their lives.  We are all at ease in the mountains.  There is a web strung between us all, and when experiences and encounters happen to one of us, the vibrations find their way to the others – through pictures or stories. I received a letter from my 9 yr old granddaughter, Juliette, living in Okinawa the other day.  We write little one page letters back and forth and she is unabashedly bold.  She stated she wanted me to take her to go photograph wildlife when they moved back to the States … it couldn’t be any other way between any of us. BRP

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A Thousand Words – Wild Horses

There are times when being a wildlife photographer has its rewards. In September 2005 I was hired by a natural resources company to travel to the Ute-Ouray Indian Reservation in the northeast corner of Utah to photograph wildlife. There were two reasons they wanted this done: First, they wanted to document the reservation’s wildlife and provide a stock library of images for use in marketing the beauty of the reservation via calendars, postcards, etc.  Second, they wanted images that showed how well the natural resources company integrated into the lands of the reservation, which they had leased for natural gas exploration, and they wanted images of the local wild horses (feral horses) and the helicopter elk collaring operations that were ongoing.

After getting the information I needed (and payment, in advance) about where and when, my last request was to have an assistant come along.  They agreed and I had a good friend of mine, Casey Bell of Providence, Utah – come along. Here is the anchor photo for this blog article.

Our Indian guide met us at the designated spot and we followed him back into the mountains in the dark until we got to the operations center around sunrise. There were about 20 people there, among them the helicopter team pilots (father/son), a cook, a couple of executive industry types, about 6 invitees to witness the elk collaring operations, and about a half dozen Indian’s employed as the jumpers. Besides the pilot of the chase helicopter, there was a guy shooting the net gun, and two jumpers who leaped from the helicopter once the net had captured the elk to restrain it and begin the collaring procedure.

I was in the front right seat of the photography helicopter, a Huey, with the door off and secured by a seat-belt harness. The sliding door in the back was open as well. The pilot and I could talk on the intercom system and I would suggest direction and angles to best keep the action fully in the sun.  The horses (above) were actually running up and over the ridge in this image – though it appears like flat ground in this image.

The chase helicopter (with a Vietnam War-era pilot) would dart into the trees when they spotted the elk and try to drive them into the open sagebrush areas. It was amazing to watch how effortlessly the helicopter twisted around stands of aspens and pines, the elk 20-30 feet below. Again and again the pilot would maneuver into position so the guy with the net gun sitting behind him, could lean out of the helicopter for a clear, close shot.

In the photography helicopter the vibration was terrible, as shown by the unsharpness of the image above. I was shooting handheld primarily with my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens and my Nikon body.  But this wasn’t in the day of VR (vibration reduction technology) or of high ISO quality sensors.  Shutter-speed at a relatively low ISO (200) was dependent upon whether the sun was out or the clouds, and almost all these images were taken at either f2.8 or f4.  Behind me Casey was shooting with a wider lens, probably a short zoom – though I can’t remember which now.

There were times when we carried out very slow orbits above and to the side of the chase helicopter as it worked the elk. After a couple of hours (and a trip to the portable gas tank for the helicopters) I thought my shooting technique improved and I was getting more quality images. Once we ran out of elk we split from the chase helicopter and began the search for the wild horses that ran throughout this area, north of I-70 and the Book Cliffs, south of Roosevelt and Fort Duchesne, Utah – and west of Colorado. From the air the country was spectacular in typical fall colors.  Sometimes the horses wouldn’t break from the pinyon pines and aspens, so we landed and pursued the images on foot.

With the horses very active we moved from one small herd to another. Probably my favorite encounter was with a group of four – a stallion with a white main, two mares, and one colt of the year. We were on the ground working through meadows of deep sagebrush trying to get into position with the light when the horses began a slow approach – the stallion first followed by the others a short distance back. He was magnificent with rippling muscles and a long, flowing mane – and he acted aggressively towards me from the moment he started in our direction.  There were no physical charges, just a lot of annoyed looks and some muscle twitching.

We photographed bison, elk, wild horses, sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, wildflowers, and mule deer, as well as some scenic landscape images. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of airplane and helicopter commercial photography jobs – and I have to say that I have liked them all.  I had never spent any time in these mountains previously.

While the horses weren’t native wild horses – they were feral horses, escaped from ranches, wagon trains, the US Calvary back in the day – and some might have had mustang blood in them, descendants from the Spanish horses the first Europeans brought with them when the explored this country.  Today it’s hard to not think of these horses without thinking of the Indian cultures that first captured and trained them. When I think of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, or the Blackfeet – I just naturally think of the horses that were part of those cultures as well.

Not far south of the 1.3 million acre Ute-Ouray Indian Reservation is Nine Mile Canyon, east of Price, Utah. The canyon, which stretches for about 30 miles going northeast, is lined with thousands of petroglyphs etched in classic Fremont Panels, dating back to the Fremont Indian culture, and some maybe back as far as the Anasazi Indians – the ancient ones. As I finished this photography job I couldn’t help but feel history all around me.  BRP

 

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Win the Image Processing Battle

There is nothing easy or quick about doing a reasonable job of image processing.  But fully 50% of the quality of your image comes from correct processing, or you lose that 50% doing only a fair job . Once I get talking about image processing I can rattle on for hours – which reminds me I’m doing a Photoshop for Photographers class at my home in Tulare, CA on Friday, April 27 from 11am to 3pm. $60.

Adobe Photoshop CC can be streamlined to work quicker – so here a couple of ways:

1. Set up and Save your Desktop so the important things are quickly available – this is called your Workspace.  Here is a screen grab of how I set my working palettes up in Photoshop. My Actions Palette is open as shown.  The middle strip contains more seldom used tool palettes – like History (top), Character, Paragraph (because I add text to a lot of images), Notes, and Swatches. On the right are the working palettes as shown.  Now, you can drag palettes you don’t need out of the original palettes when they open and click on the X to close them.  You can always reopen them by selecting them under Window, then dragging them back to a palette you want to add them to.  The edges will turn blue to show the program is ready to add an individual palette – like Navigator, to the the existing palette, like Histogram – as shown here.  This is just the first step in preparing your Workspace.

Workspace Figure 1

The second step is to go through your menus and assign a color (I use red) to menu selections you frequently select.  For example, I almost never “Save” something, I’m always using the “Save as…” command so I don’t overwrite an original photo file. So, I went into Edit > Menus and assigned the “Save as…” command which is found under File,  the color red:

Workspace Figure 2

Then, after closing Menus and going to the File > the “Save As…” looks like this:

Workspace Figure 3

The advantage here is your eye goes right to it, allowing you to choose it quickly and accurately to save time.  Now you could remember the shortcut key to that command (Shift+Ctrl+S), but most people don’t seem to want to remember short cut keys. I have about 15 commands “red” so I can select them quicker.  Now, in both the Edit > Menu and Edit > Toolbar palettes you can tweak not just colors, but shortcut keys, as well as the layout of your toolbar, which is on the left side of the screen for me.

Workspace Figure 4

Now comes the final step to laying out your workspace so it is more functional for you. Go to Windows > Workspace and click on “New Workspace”. Give it a name, as you can see in my screen grab I call mine “Brent’s Workspace”.  In the New Workspace palette make sure you check the boxes for saving the Keyboard Shortcuts, Menus, and Toolbar settings as part of the Workspace.  Tricky.

Workspace Figure 5

Workspace Figure 6


You can always make changes in the future, more tweaks, and then go to New Workspace again and give it the same name, and click “yes” when it asks you about over-writing your old workspace.  For those of you who spend a lot of time going beyond just photography into the graphic arts, etc – you might have a different workspace for each of your different applications. Every time Photoshop opens it will open with your last Workspace ready.

2).  The second way to speed up image processing so your workflow doesn’t become an almost instant headache – is to use Actions in your workflow for the repetitive/common keystrokes you perform on most images.  At the top of this article in the first image example you saw my Action Palette with a lot of individual buttons, all color coded, again – so my eye goes immediately to the set of Actions I need – like Blue for Exposure Actions or Red for Sharpening Actions.

For those of you who Don’t want to learn how to create Actions (it is simple, but just another thing to learn) I have a version of my Actions available on my website on the Tips and Tricks page – here is a link to that page:  LINK

In the center column, second selection down it says “Download Actions”, click on that and the Actions will download to your computer’s download folder, found on your computer. The file is the AWP Actions file, which is a .ATN file, just 16kb in size.  See example below:

Actions Figure 1

Once downloaded, the process is just another series of steps in order to load them into your existing Actions palette. They will appear below the “Default” Actions that Photoshop has included for you – they are basically worthless for photography processing – so I just deleted the whole folder “Default” and only have mine there now. Just close the “Default” folder and drag it to the garbage can at the bottom of the Actions Palette. This is done after taking it out of Button Mode.

Ok. So let’s take a look at the Action’s palette with it’s control box open, to open the control box you simply click the button at the top right, here it is in a red box.  To make changes to your Actions you MUST take it out of Button Mode. If you haven’t messed with Actions before it probably isn’t in Button Mode anyway, but if it is, click Button Mode so there is no checkmark by it.

Actions Figure 2

Now it should look like this (Figure Actions 3.

Actions Figure 3

My personal set of Actions (Brent’s Actions) has many more Actions than the set you can download (AWP Actions.atn) because many of my Actions are specific to me, some for cropping to Instagram size, some for templates, copyrights, etc.

Now, with Button Mode unchecked, go down to the “Load Actions” (See Figure Actions 2) and click on it. When the dialog box opens, go find the AWP Actions.atn file in your download folder. Click Load when you are done.  If you want to see the steps included with each Action, click on the arrow next to the name to see what it is doing.

Now the Actions will appear. Go back to the control tab and click on Button Mode.  Now the Actions will appear as color-coded individual buttons.  You are welcome to add to, delete from, create new – or do anything you want with these actions.

Actions Figure 4

To delete the ones you may never feel you will use, just highlight it, and drag it to the Garbage can (in red box) at the bottom of the Actions Palette.  (See Actions Figure 4).

These two steps – Creating A Workspace and Actions – will greatly speed up your workflow  and you will Win the Image Processing Battle.  I will go step-by-step over how to create new Actions in my next blog article.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – The Wolves of Yellowstone

Over the years since the gray wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone – the winter of 1995, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of encounters have occurred with photographers. I have seen many amazing images and always get a tad jealous of those who live close to the park and are able to put in enough days to be rewarded with great wolf images. In the 23 years between then and now I’ve seen the wolves at least a hundred times, usually at an unphotographable distance. But occasionally, just occasionally – they come into range. For us wildlife photographers those moments are gold – an instant adrenaline rush that causes us, or at least me, to immediately leave the road, park the vehicle, exit and shoot – in one blur of motion.

Here is my anchor image for this article – it comes from my very first quality wolf encounter in March of 2005. This black male wolf and it’s very pregnant gray female partner (not in image) were kept from an antlerless bull elk that the black wolf had killed in Soda Butte Creek. During the night 6 coyotes moved onto the elk carcass and would not give it up.  Had the female not been pregnant then the odds would have favored the wolves reclaiming the elk, but in this image two of the coyotes kept up a harassing action and the wolves left unfed.
My very first encounter was during the winter of 1996. I was in Lamar Valley chasing river otters when the first echoes of wolves howling reached my ears. It was a sound the mountains in Yellowstone had not heard in about 80 years, but I’m sure they had never forgotten. As I faced east at the far west end of Lamar Valley, just outside Lamar Canyon, the Druid Pack was running the ridge to my left, coming west – while down along the Lamar River the Rose Creek Pack was running east. In one broad panoramic I could see more than a dozen wolves, from two different packs, heading in opposite directions.
Scanned from a 35mm slide, this was about the best image I got of that first encounter. Over the years from 1996 to 2005 I had other encounters, but none close, and none produced the kind of images I wanted.  Wildlife photography is a fickle thing – one day serving up encounters that simply stun us with their beauty, while leaving us barren for years (unfortunately) with just a hope for an encounter. Some photographers are on a quest to shoot certain species, and some have a bucket list of species that they can only gaze at longingly. I’m just lucky – you spend enough hours in the field and you get lucky. Skill comes into play during those lucky moments – testing our ability to remain calm, shoot with a purpose, make the right exposure moves, trust the equipment, and endure until the encounter rightfully ends.

In late May 2006, I had another good wolf encounter along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley. A pack of wolves were spread out along the far bank of the river but traveling in my direction.  Snow had fallen that night and blanketed the river’s shoreline giving the images a wintry look, though snow was gone by 1pm and the green grass of spring was evident. I saw them at enough distance to race to a spot, park, and get down to the bank of the river on my side in order to give myself at least a chance at some good images.
More encounters followed until September 2008 when I had an encounter that finally added some behavior/interaction images that I had long sought. My safari group was traveling south from Swan Flats, close to North Twin Lake, when we encountered a pack of wolves feasting on an elk that had evidently been killed earlier that morning. The road was somewhat elevated above the meadow and the ranger kept us fairly close, standing on the forested hillside indicating the line we couldn’t cross – so we shot through tiny gaps between pine branches down to the meadow.  All I know is somehow it worked.
There were about 5-6 wolves working the carcass and moving around, sometimes out of view, dissecting parts of the elk to eat at leisure somewhere off in the tall autumn grass. They were wandering around, eating and resting, when the Alpha female and her 5 month old puppy paused for only a moment next to each other. It was a striking image. While the Alpha male had a collar, the female did not – her size and strength apparent in every step.
Over the next five years I had about two dozen other encounters – some defending carcasses in rivers, some following other wolves through valleys or up hillsides, a couple of wolf in far meadow kind of moments – but nothing close and nothing that really was a story-telling encounter. In June 2012 my safari group and I were returning to the park from Cooke City and breakfast when, about 300 yards from the Soda Butte picnic site and bathroom we encountered a lone gray wolf, standing in the willows by Soda Butte Creek. Standing only 25 yards away, across the river from us, it seemed oddly lackadaisical – giving us not much more than a glance.  Later that day we saw the wolf in the meadow opposite the picnic site, but across the river.
About a month after this safari I saw an article about the death of a Yellowstone wolf. It stated that wolf 271M had died of natural causes in early June, 2012 – one of the first wolves to die that way, and not from inter-pack disputes. It had a photo of the wolf, this wolf, 271M and easily identified by the fur color around his eyes.
The dates is wrong it was taken June 6, 2012 – this wolf’s last full day on earth, dying in the spring grass and sagebrush, under a warm sun, in an area that had always been his home. It was the kind of story-telling image I had always hoped for.  BRP

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My 2017 Favorite Photos of The Year

While this is always a fun blog post to create, scoring my own shots is difficult to do – not because I’m easy on myself, but because I’m extremely critical of my own shots. After judging so many contests my own images seem to pale a bit. I had originally edited out of the mass of shots about 68 images to pick my favorite 25 from – and while many of those not selected are very good images – they lack the kind of impact that I would expect in contest submissions – so I graded them out, just like I would others. Remember, these are my favorite images – you might have others.

As would be expected, my Yellowstone (spring, fall, winter) safaris added the most images to the top 25 – at 7, while my other frequent safaris (bobcats, Sequoia bears, and Bosque del Apache NWR) added 3 each. There is no doubt in my mind that if I could get to Texas more often it would place more images into the top 25 than the 2 that are represented here. The degree of difficulty in photographing birds resulted in 11 images in my favorite 25. Here are the images, in descending order, with a brief description of each:

#25  Cinnamon Black Bear Sow in Grand Teton NP.
We encountered this sow and her two cubs along the Pacific Creek backroad in Grand Teton National Park – and after about 25 minutes shooting the cubs she decided to come and check out her cubs and the photographers to make sure we were all playing nicely. The next day we encountered a boar grizzly in the same area, justifying her concern for her cubs safety.

#24  Cinnamon Black Bear Cubs scooting down a tree in Sequoia NP.
We literally stumbled upon these cubs high up this pine after we saw the sow guarding the bottom (ok, she was sleeping initially) of this pine tree near Huckleberry Meadows. There were three cubs, but the third was a quick climber and beat the other cubs to the bottom.

#23  Red Fox eyeing the mouse he had just captured in Yellowstone NPThis image, and the image selected #13, are part of the same encounter, shot just seconds apart near Pebble Creek, in Yellowstone’s Soda Butte Valley. The degree of difficulty in which these foxes hunt in winter just makes you want to applaud them for their successes.

#22  Sandhill Crane landing in a pond at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.
Taken this past January (I just got back from another safari to Bosque a week ago) I like the strong graphics in this image. Sunset light reflecting on the pond surface and the wide wing stretch make this a fun, dramatic image.

#21  Great Horned Owl take-off at Butterbredt Springs, CA
My late March, early April safari to photograph these owls is difficult at best.  Shooting inside the trees is an iso challenge that requires exact panning in order to limit not just camera vibration but subject movement as well. The owl looks serious as it leaps off a branch with blood from its recent snack still staining the feathers around it’s beak.

#20  Vermilion Flycatcher on the Morongo Bird Safari, CA.
High winds and swaying plant stalks created a lot of blurry images while I was attempting to shoot this male Vermilion Flycatcher – but I’m persistent, and I shoot an incredible number of images in each attempt – hoping for a successful shot like this.

#19  Full Moon and Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM
Sometimes you have to stretch your camera’s abilities a bit. We arrived at a sunrise pond in the darkness, lit only by moonlight, and found these geese flying through. It took only a few seconds to determine iso 25,600 and +.5 eV would at least give me a chance.  Some lucky manual focusing (to dark for AF) resulted in an image impossible to capture at night in any other way. Remember, to my eyes we were in complete darkness except for the light from the moon.

#18 It’s Never to Cold for a Coyote to be out Hunting in Yellowstone NP.
What attracted me to this particular image was just how healthy this coyote appears at the most brutal time of the year for Yellowstone wildlife – the dead of winter. The late afternoon sun gave me just a little color to pop his face and neck as he smelled for voles and hunted for his next meal near the Phantom Lakes area of the park.

#17  High Key Tundra Swans in Lower Klamath NWR, CA.
A classic white-on-white image taken of these Tundra Swans as they set their wings inbound for a frozen pond filled with their friends. This image was taken at +1 eV (exposure compensation) to keep the whites white. I really like how the exposure turned out, with just enough color to detail the swan’s chests.

#16  Beautiful Morning light on this attentive Sow Black Bear in Sequoia NP.
This is the sow from selection #24 of the cubs descending the pine. There is no hiding or sneaking up on these animals – be who you are and the animals will except you or not, but pretend to be a predator and they will flee for sure. The meadow behind her was full of purple shooting star flowers (which overexposed somewhat) and the rising sun lit just a bit of her face adding definition to the image.

#15  One Coyote’s Dominant Behavior on the Utah Raptors Safari, UT.
The other coyotes in the pack are out of frame, but this guy wanted to demonstrate his best, most aggressive game face should any of the others decide to compete with him for food. Antelope Island State Park in the middle of the Great Salt Lake is one of many great wildlife locations in northern Utah in the winter.

#14  Grizzly Mom and her Cubs watching us in Yellowstone NP.
I like this grizzly family image because it portrays them how they are – sometimes they aren’t on the hunt or search for food – sometimes they just want to relax and watch the world around them. Shot above Mammoth Hot Springs on the terraces.

#13  Skydiving Red Fox in Yellowstone NP.
These creatures are amazing. This red fox triangulated the distance under the snow to the deer mouse he could hear eating or scratching on the unseen sagebrush.  He calculated the height he would have to leap to in order to penetrate (with his nose and face) the snow that deep to have a successful capture – which he did, as seen in selection #23. Amazing.

#12  Crested Caracara coming around in Laredo, TX
I shot this image just a few days at my friend Butch’s Rocking R6 ranch about 25 miles north of Laredo. We had up to 6 Caracara’s flying around at one time, interacting, fighting, and doing aerobatics – so I like this moment a lot.  Most raptors don’t give you the time of day, and your encounters are measured in mili-seconds – but this encounter was much better and longer.

#11  Western Bluebird take-off on a Bobcat Safari, CA
These colorful, quick little birds – common throughout the west – make for great subjects that can test your quickness and accuracy with a camera. The only way to capture images like this is to shoot in bursts and cross your fingers.

#10  Black-crested Titmouse in Laredo, TX
These two images (selections #10 and #11) are partially included because of the degree of difficulty in capturing songbird images that are more than just snapshots. This titmouse is not only displaying his magnificent crest, but the moment he moved up the branch into the light amid the armored thorns of this mesquite tree made the image that much more impactful.

#9  A winter Weasel (Ermine) in Yellowstone NP.
There is no way to just find these little guys – you just have to get amazingly lucky. We stopped to ask some guys relaxing along the frozen road in the Soda Butte Valley if they had seen anything interesting when this weasel suddenly appeared surprising all of us. I parked and began shooting as fast as I could, handheld, knowing that the encounter would only last seconds. I’ve never seen a faster animal move through snow. We got about 2 minutes before he disappeared in a blur.

#8  Lunchtime for a Bobcat on a bobcat safari in California.
This Botta’s pocket gopher proved to be no match for this bobcat.  After a quick attack and kill, the gopher proved to be a mouthful for this bobcat to gag down right in front of us. Photographing action like this is rare, so getting a good, clean image of it boosted this image high into my list of favorite 25 images.

#7  Sandhill Cranes facing off at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.
This is a shot that is difficult to get, even with 20,000 cranes flying around Bosque every day. Moments of behavior in perfect light seem to last a second or two, but these two put on an amazing display of mating behavior and exhibited their dancing talents, fanned feathers, and jumping ability over-and-over again. The intricate feather colors and detail make this one of my favorite shots.

#6  Snow Plover Chick and Camouflage – Ventura, CA.
Among those participating in this safari, the beach hike of about 1.5 miles came to be known as the Ventura Death March. It was about 82 degrees, 100% humidity – and just exhausting at the time.  However, this was the reward – a brief minute or two with a newly hatched Snowy Plover chick that had followed its parents down into this particular stretch of beach. The extremely small size, camo patterned back and head – and the degree of difficulty in carrying a big lens/camera/tripod – make this one of my best. Only a mother feeding it a minnow could have been better (which I’m sure someone reading this probably has – but don’t send it to me…….lol).

#5  Drake Ruddy Duck mating behavior at Kern NWR, CA.
Slapping his blue beak on the water, tail feathers erect, and “bubbling” means this drake Ruddy Duck is trying to show off for the ladies nearby. Again, perfect light and interesting behavior go well with excellent color.

#4  Sow Black Bear defending the tree her cub are up, in Sequoia NP.
A male bear (a boar) had made a nearby appearance and that prompted this sow to climb the same tree her cubs were up, both for her own protection and to protect them. The size of the tree and the bear put a certain perspective on this forest scene.  At the time I shot this we had not seen the cubs yet, who were much, much higher and invisible to us.

#3  Stalking Bobcat on a bobcat safari, CA.
I had seen a bobcat about 125 yards away in a thicket of willows near San Benito Creek. Instead of driving away, I stopped in the shade of a handy oak tree and began using my little mouse squeaker to try and entice the bobcat out of the heavy brush. Surprisingly, it worked and the bobcat came towards my truck full of loud shooting cameras – and it kept coming. The squeaker (now held inside the truck and squeaked less often the closer it got) made the bobcat overlook the people and their loud cameras ripping off hundreds of images for an almost certain squirrel meal. As the bobcat approached to  about 25 feet another car passed us on the road and scared the bobcat back to the willows – but we had an amazing encounter.

#2  A Happy Summer Red Fox in Yellowstone NP.
The only reason this isn’t my #1 favorite image is that I started out in wildlife photography shooting big-game animals for hunting/nature magazines. This red fox, probably the most photographed red fox in Yellowstone (near the Yellowstone Picnic Site), decided to permit us a few minutes at point-blank distance.  After shooting this image I changed over to video and shot a great 45 second video of him rolling over and pawing at his head, cleaning his face, etc.

Here is a link to that 45 second  video on Youtube:  LINK

#1  Bugling Bull Elk in a Yellowstone Snow Storm.
There are few encounters more dramatic than a rutting bull elk, bugling, amid a snowstorm in Yellowstone. With his harem of cows nearby, this bull trotted to-and-fro driving off satellite bulls that tried to separate cows from his group. The grittiness of the rut is shown in the snow and mud on his antlers, spiked there during moments of rutting frenzy tearing up trees and bushes, but also in the falling snow and blanketed background. This image was taken below Mammoth Hot Springs in the meadows adjacent to the campground there. The piercing, guttural bugle makes the hair stand up and the power and stamina of these animals is evident as they move easily through their environment. Getting shots like this reminds me of why I became a wildlife photographer, and of many of my first published images back in the ’80’s.

Fun stuff.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – The Crystal Mill (CO)

If you haven’t photographed the iconic Colorado location, known as The Crystal Mill, then you have missed out on one of western America’s most classic shots. To be honest, I photographed it for the first time last year (2016) as part of my Autumn Colorado Landscape Safari. While I’ve done many of these autumn safaris in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (Ouray, Telluride, Delores, Silverton, Red Mtn Mining District, Million Dollar Highway, Ralph Lauren’s Double RL Ranch, Last Dollar Road, etc) – I had never ventured farther north until 2016.

We headed north out of Ouray to Delta, Colorado, then turned northeast on Highway 92, in Hotchkiss we turned north on Highway 133 – eventually crossing scenic McClure Pass and dropping down to County Road 3, turning south to the community of Marble where the road to the Crystal Mill begins. This is a small community that has a nice little lake next to it, Beaver Lake, with Osprey and fisherman both doing the same thing. The road leads around the lake and then signs direct you to continue on County Road 3 towards the ghost town of Crystal.  Before you get that far you will have traveled about 4.5 miles to a wide spot in the road, wide enough to park 8-10 vehicles, locates you on a bluff directly opposite the Crystal Mill.  Here is my establishing photo for this blog article.
When we first got to the lodge where we were staying – the guy parked next to it stealing there wifi signal – told me my 4×4 Ford F-150 would never make it. We went to visit with a Quad/Jeep Rental business specializing in Crystal Mill visits and that guy told me we would make it just fine. That’s all I needed and we were off. It was a brutal road to say the least. While most of the road just requires very slow speeds and 4-wheel drive to negotiate the ledges and rocks, there were stretches where the road side bordering the Crystal River was precipitously vertical down to the river.  Hmmmm.  Heights and narrow roads don’t stop me so we ambled along, being tossed to and fro inside the truck, until an hour after starting we reached the parking area for the Crystal Mill.

While the nearby Crystal River is extremely scenic, arrayed with the yellows and reds of a brilliant autumn, I never for a second thought to stop and shoot anything as I was white-knuckling the drive.  On the trip in and out I bottomed out the skid plate only once or twice and didn’t rock scratch the sides even once – not sure how I avoided that but I did. The road is so tight that other vehicles coming in my direction required both of us to perform amazing auto gymnastics in order to pass. At one point an old woman driving a quad – possibly drunk, stoned, or both – or just a local infuriated by visitors – came at me head-on stopping close enough to smack my bumper and yell for me to back up. Since I was coming down a steep grade and turning sharply to the right, I think it was her job to backup the quad. She cursed me, and my friend Gary Kunkel talked me out of drawing my Beretta and returning fire (just kidding here, calm down) and we motored on with a simple bird sighting.
There were about 6 vehicles parked in the small parking area, which did have a bathroom, and everyone was concentrating on their photography – the Crystal Mill was stunning. The Crystal River wraps around the old compressor station, previously known as the Sheep Mountain Power House – which supplied compressed air for machinery operations at the nearby Sheep Mountain Mine. At one time a turbine of sorts was located down the wood funnel and in the river – but it no longer reaches the river.  The building has been restored somewhat, which cables and pilings keeping it on the cliff above the river, but the turbine is long gone – and probably the compressor inside as well.

Behind the Crystal Mill is a gorgeous forest of aspens, displaying amazing colors at this time of the year – and they lead back to mountains and snow-capped peaks. When we first arrived the scene was absolutely breathtaking, and we just kind of stood there in awe. The clouds crossing the sky brought full color, then shaded color to the old mine building. But  the quality of light didn’t seem to matter – the quality of the scene was worth every foot of the rough drive and ferocious quad crazies. While we had heard it was run down and not visually stunning anymore (clearly another unemployed local trying to deter visitors and their money) it was anything but that. Other than standing at the Grand Canyon and witnessing rising thunderheads and a lightning storm at dusk … I have never seen any landscape as cool as this.

The photography was pretty straight forward. I used both my 18-35mm wide angle and my 24-120mm medium zoom on my Nikon D4s body (FX sensor), along with my ever present Induro Tripod. Since there is water in the image I used a polarizing filter to minimize reflections in the foreground pool – and this rendered the green in the water perfectly. As is usual for me, I used 5-shot bracketed images that were 1/2 stop apart, editing out the close-but-no-cigar images and keeping the close to perfect ones. There is no hdr imaging here, I’m just not a fan of that look. Processing the digital raw files in Photoshop was also straight forward. I selected the correct lens profile in Adobe Camera Raw (the program probably picked the lens for me), adjusted the shadows and colors a bit and then opened the file in Photoshop. After some sharpening, the only additional step I took was to create a new layer, lighten it about 1.25 stops, hide it with a black mask, then paint in (with white) the heavily shadowed areas of the building until I thought people might notice my work. BRP

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A Thousand Words – A Gray Fox to Remember

Surprise is a common occurrence for wildlife photographers, maybe the most common occurrence. While you can make educated guesses based on past experiences, about timing, or locations, or weather – still, the shock of a great encounter always amazes me, and this gray fox encounter was no different.

After living in St. George, Utah from 1985 – 1990, and making a hundred photo trips to Zion National Park – spending hundreds of days shooting landscapes, slot canyons, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, songbirds, butterflies, cactus, and wildflowers over the course of 35 years (today) – it wasn’t until November 3, 2011 that I finally ran across an elusive gray fox. My anchor image for this post is the image below.
Most folks know that gray foxes are almost, almost entirely nocturnal. Hunting, mating, raising young, or just schmoozing with other foxes is all done in the dark. While populations exist throughout north and south America, the western United States have really become a dominant area for this fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus – the widest ranging member of the canid family and the only member of the dog family that can climb trees.

Given that I have spent thousands of days in the field I would have thought this moment would have come earlier, however, gray fox weren’t on my radar that day in Zion, so I was surprised when the encounter happened. I had just arrived in southern Utah that afternoon, the day before my photo safari was set to begin – and after dropping off my luggage at the hotel in Springdale I headed into Zion for a quick look.  My intended subjects were mule deer bucks and desert bighorn rams – both of which were entering their respective rutting seasons. As usual I headed up to the roof first to check on the bighorn sheep. Zion’s “roof” is the area that runs along the highway east of the long tunnel, through the short tunnel, and out to the East Gate of Zion.  The road passes the entrance to Zion Canyon, then switchbacks as it climbs past the East Temple, through the tunnels, along the White Cliffs, and past Checkerboard Mesa to the entrance gate.

There were sheep about, though I didn’t see any large rams and I didn’t take any photos before heading back down the mountain to turn into Zion Canyon.  The shuttle service into the canyon either hadn’t become mandatory yet, or had ceased operations for the winter season because I drove in. The road curves along the Virgin River for a ways, passing the massive rock monoliths of the Court of the Patriarchs and entering Zion Canyon proper.  Meadows filled with cottonwood trees are to the left and right, and after a short distance you pass the Zion Lodge on the right, and the old horse tie-ups on the left, leading to the bridge over the Virgin that begins the Angel’s Landing trail head.

In early November Zion Canyon shadows out early in the afternoon, the sun retreating west over the ridge formed by the West Temple, Towers of the Virgin, and the Court of the Patriarchs – by mid-afternoon the light becomes dim. I headed into the canyon about 4:15pm, there wasn’t much traffic, and I was completely absorbed in my search for mule deer.  Sometimes the bucks will be laying down, resting, alone or near their does – so my attention was both to the meadow grasses and into the cottonwoods, oaks, and maples that line the canyon.

At about 4:24pm I had just passed the Lodge and was nearing the Grotto when I saw unrecognizable ears off in the grass. The ears screamed “bobcat” at first, but within a minute I had parked, tripoded-up, and closed the distance on those ears. At 4:25 I took my first shot (below) of a gray fox, turned away from me laying in the grass, but with his ears rotated backwards to listen to me coming towards him.
The color and shape of those ears were wrong for a bobcat (though I can spot bobcats at pretty good distances when only their ears are visible) and I began shooting this gorgeous gray fox.  When I realized what it was I got that nervous, heart beating faster, energy coursing through me.

At about 30 yards the fox got up and meandered through the cottonwoods away from me, did some log walking, and crossed the empty road, moving into heavier cover. Given this was my first gray fox there was no way a little movement was going to slow me down. I kept a respectful distance but didn’t allow the fox to loose me in the gathering darkness. I think the fox had been asleep when I found it, and now it was casually looking for a new place to bed down to await full darkness with fewer people.
We crossed about 50 yards of meadows before reaching the cliffs, cliffs that go straight up 2000 feet or more. At the base of the cliffs, before climbing up a ledge, the fox paused to watch me continue my approach – it was my first really clear shots. It was so dark by now that I was up to iso 3200 on my Nikon D3s body, and shutter-speeds were continuing to drop.
After a few minutes of posing and contemplation, the gray fox expertly climbed the sandstone cliff above the valley out-of-sight.  Thinking my encounter had ended I waited a minute and was about to leave – when to my utter astonishment the fox reappeared, curled up right on the edge of the ledge, and with his face wrapped up in his tail closed his eyes and went back to sleep. He was 18 feet above me.

My camera wouldn’t focus in the increasing dark so I quickly went to manual focus and ripped off another sequence of images. When I stepped on a stick the noise got the fox’s attention and up popped his head, eyes open for a brief second, giving me my anchor image. I left him as I had found him, asleep.  It was 5:10pm, encounter over.  BRP

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