Friday, September 15, 2017

Tonga: Vava'u Landscape Photography -- Part One: Beaches

landscape photography of Tonga beaches at Euakafa
Euakafa Beach is just one of many stunning deserted beaches.
This articles is about Tonga Landscape photography in Vava'u.  I recently returned from a 10 day trip in these beautiful islands.  Because there is no information on photography in the island group of Vava'u, Tonga, I want to share what I have learned.  In this article I will focus on many of the incredible beaches.  They are clean, empty, private, gorgeous and unspoiled.  These are reached by boat.  Many of the islands in Vava'u group are uninhabited and the only way to really get around is on the water.

I will give my best beaches a ranking from number one and on down just for fun and for interest!

#1:  Best beach in Vava'u Tonga:  Ngau and its' neighboring isle of Taunga.
This stunning beach is actually a stretch of sand reaching from one island to another.  At low tide one can walk without getting feet wet.  When the tide is a bit higher, wading from one beach to the other is equally fun.  Sand dollars are everywhere and you can easily leave with 10 or 20 "dollars" in your pocket if you want.  
Beautiful Island of south pacific
Ngau Lagoon has green and blue waters and endless sand.
Ngua sandy deserted island in Vava'u Tonga
Coconut Sprouting on Taunga Beach with Ngau in the distance!
#2:  Best beach:  Euakafa Island
Euakafa beach stretches forever and a walk along this beach is a walk into paradise!  On the southwest side there is a lava-rock tunnel to explore.  Coconuts and many other fruits grow along the jungle which borders the beach.  Snorkeling here is wonderful as well.
Vava'u best beaches Euakafa
Euakafa Beach is unforgettable!
Euakafa beach with green waters and sailboat.
Sail to the special beach of Euakafa.  The waters here are green and blue.
#3 Best Beach:  Maninita Island
This beach is unique because it is the most southern small island in all of Vava'u.  It is entirely inhabited by birds.  Circumnavigating the entire island takes a delightful 20 minutes.  Alternatively, one can cross the island through the center jungle and see all the birds flying over your head and hear them squawk.  The beach here is rougher sand and I have never seen any location with more hermit crabs.  They are everywhere, a crawling living beach.  Getting here is half of the fun as you will pass many small deserted islands along the way.  This is one of the few places where I felt like I was at the edge of the world.
Vava'u Maninita tiny deserted island
Maninita Island:  Swim ashore and explore!
Maninita beach in Vava'u Tonga.  Sail to reach this paradise.
Bird foot prints are the only marks on this beach!
#4 Beach Beach:  the Blue Lagoon at Foeata
This place is simply gorgeous.  The sand here is like powdered sugar in the texture and almost as white in color.  It is so soft I wanted to make my bed here forever.  The shallow sandy approach allows one to basically walk from your boat all the way to the beach without getting your head wet.  This is a great place for a picnic.  This beach is more discovered than the first 3 so you will probably have some other boats around and maybe some other visitors on the beach.  It won't be crowded however.
Tonga's Blue Lagoon
Sailboat and the Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon landscape photography in Tonga
Picture of Paradise at the Blue Lagoon in Tonga
#5 Best Beach:  Ofu
Ofu is a clean beach with tons of seashells and friendly fishermen.  Here I found the best shells of the trip, many on the southern part of the beach.  This is wide, lovely, protected and pleasant!
Ofu island beach with palm tree and calm waters
Ofu Island Beach and Palm Tree
#6 Best Beach:  Nuku Island
Nuku Island might rank higher on this list if we had a sunny day on my visit here.  The small deserted island is gorgeous and this has a large sand bar on the north side to swimming and lounging.  It's very lovely.  I came on a cloudy day, which may knock this beach down a couple of points.
Sandy beach of Nuku Island Vava'u Tonga
Nuku Beach has everything:  great sand, clear waters, palms, shells and deserted!

Best Beach Honorable Mention:  Port Maurelle
No pictures of this lovely beach but it is certainly worth a visit.  Great snorkeling here too!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Artist's Point, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with waterfall
Artist Point, Yellowstone National Park looking up at Lower Yellowstone Falls
In contrast to my previous post where I was all alone, at the incredible Artist Point in Yellowstone Park I had to wait for 30 minutes before I could find a place to park my car.  Then I walked out and was able to get away from civilization a bit to enjoy the spectacular view from artist point.  I've been here at sunrise when I had it entirely to myself.  I have also, in the middle of the day, such as on this occasion, and share the view that with many others.  Yellowstone National Park is a melting pot of all nationalities coming to enjoy the recent nature.  Under any circumstance, it is worth the visit.  I came with my family on this occasion but still enjoyed the photography.  If coming alone and primarily for landscaping purposes, I would suggest rising early or staying out late.  You will not be disappointed at this location.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Artist point, looking downstream across the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Wolf Creek, Madison Mountain Range, Montana

Wolf Creek in the Madison mountain range, Montana
Wolf Creek extends up to snowy mountain tops of the Madison National Forest
Landscape photographers go to many of the same places.  In Montana I had the opportunity to explore the Madison National Forest in the area of Wolf Creek.  This is known for bears, elk and being far off the beaten path.  Hiking up to peak, both the wind and the views were spectacular.  This is a photograph taken looking into Wolf Creek.  The mountaintops were covered with clouds and snow.  Summer in Montana can be a spectacular fleeting moment.

Kanarra Creek Ladder Before and After

old ladder at Kanarra Creek
The Old Ladder:  Only for the Brave
The Kanarra Creek ladder Is a man-made structure that makes this wonderful canyon more accessible to visitors.  The ladder by itself is also very photogenic.  Or, shall I say it used to be photogenic?  Having gone up Kanarra Creek over several years time, I noticed the change.  The top picture is of the old ladder.  It is entirely made of wood.  Some of the rungs were small, loose and slippery.  You may notice that the steps stop well before the top of the log.  The old ladder required a very large last step to get to the top and this portion of the log was very wet and slippery.  You can see that in the picture!  I slipped and nearly fell on this once myself.

Two or 3 years ago this ladder was enhanced by removing all of the wooden steps and replacing that with a metal ladder that is directly attached to the log.  The metal steps have teeth and texture so that they are not slippery and they go all the way to the top.  This is a much easier ascent.  However I feel like some of the aesthetic qualities of the original ladder have been lost.  Such is "progress".
the new Kanarra Creek ladder is safer
New Ladder:  Safer but not as photogenic

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Kanarra Creek Waterfall and Camera Orientation

utah's kanarra creek waterfall landscape photography
Kanarra Creek Waterfall in the Springtime:  lots of water and green trees.
One of the first, if not THE first, decision a photographer must make is how to hold the camera. Horizontal or vertical?  Landscape or portrait?  Up and down or side to side?  With the old cameras, the default was landscape.  With the advent of cell-phone photography, portrait orientation has become much more popular.

In my case, I don't want the easiest or most convenient shot when I have all day to compose a shot.  I want the most aesthetic shot, the one that shows off how amazing my surroundings are.  Sometimes the choice is obvious.  Sometimes it is not.  With Kanarra Creek's 3rd waterfall, the portrait shows more of the lovely red cliffs above.  With landscape orientation, the path of water is shown better as it leaves the pool at the waterfall base.  Both are good so in this case I took 2 shots.

A compromise is a square photo.  For some reason, those have a strange look to me when used in landscapes.
southern utah waterfall at Kanarra creek
Kanarra Creek:  this is the 3rd waterfall on the hike.

Barren Winter in Montana

Small cabin on an empty plain at sunset
Barren Winter:  yellow stubble for grass and a hidden sun
A winter visit to Montana afforded me an opportunity to shoot my little remote cabin in subzero temperatures.  Wind and rain made things cold indeed.  The large cloud did not however spoil the sunset because some golden yellow rays came down between the cloud and the mountains.  Grass was short, dead, awaiting summer temperatures to revive.  

Herzog and De Meuron Building

photographing the Herzog and De Meuron Building south beach Miami
Exit:  The only word on the floor and on the slanted column
Herzog and De Meuron Building is an unassuming parking structure in South Beach Miami.  Over several years it has attracted photographers and models because of the fascinating columns, background city and modern design.  Located right on Lincoln Avenue, it's an easy walk from Taschen bookstore into the parking building.  Each floor is unique.  Here are a 3 of my takes.
Modern Stairs in the Herzog and De Meuron building
Modern Stairs
neon lights in modern architecture
3, 4, 5

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Abyss Pool in Yellowstone: some photography musing

Abyss Pool on a partly cloudy day at West Thumb Geyser Basin.  Without people.
Abyss Pool at West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone
Abyss Pool violently erupted in the 1990s before settling into a placid phase.  This green goddess is one of the most beautiful pools in the entire park.  Like many pools in Yellowstone, the colors defy description and even photography is challenged to show the brilliance and full spectrum of greens on display!

I chose this as my Photo of the Month pick for June because of the wonderful colors, the clouds sweeping across the sky, the absence of humans and the balanced composition.  This was my best landscape shot from Yellowstone this year.

Some Technical Information:
To photograph such colors I used a polarizing filter to reduce the surface reflection.  This allows the greens underneath to shine better.  
I shot 4 vertical pictures from left to right with identical aperture and shutter speed and then stitched these photos together in Photoshop back home.  My widest lens, the 17mm, does not accept photo filters.  That polarizer is truly required here, so I shot it at 24mm in 4 frames.  

Exploring around Yellowstone is a reality-check, a miraculous discovery, time travel and much more.  West Thumb Geyser Basin is a highly recommended stop if you are in the Park.

Tiny Flowers in the Peaks District

Flower Field in the Peaks District:  Stone walls, sheep and lovely skies add to the scenery.
What do you do when something very small catches your eye?  How do you photograph minuscule objects while simultaneously including the greater landscape?  These challenges generally call for at least 2 things, usually 3:
1.  A wide-angle lens which can include so much in every directions.
2.  Very close proximity to the tiny object.
3.  Narrow aperture is third, which is necessary to show everything sharply in focus.  An open aperture could focus on the small object while blurring the background.

This lovely small yellow-orange flowers in the Peak District challenged me greatly.  So small at only a centimeter each, I doubted my ability to really show them off.  Setting my tripod at its' lowest height, nestling into the grass, getting down, crawling around, moving a few longer wet grass shoot away from the lens is how I hoped to succeed.  I shot many exposures to account for wind movement in the grass and for my bent-over yoga-like pose needed to see through my viewfinder.

This fine stone wall and building are located just down the canyon from Winnat's Pass in the Peaks District as you enter the town of Hope in Derbyshire.  This area is such a beautiful region!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Far Up Right Fork of Zion's North Creek there is an Oasis

Landscape photography in Zion Right Fork North Creek with pines trees and flowers and waterfall
Waterfall, flowers and redrock located in Zion's Right Fork of North Creek
Ever since hiking to Double Falls in 2011, I have wanted to return and explore further.  I made it happen this year and hiked all the way into the deepest part of the canyon possible without ropes, harnesses and such:  Barrier Falls.  While Barrier Falls is not particularly scenic, seeing the "Barrier" remains quite an accomplishment because the hiking here is so slow, rocky and wet.  The last mile is pure bushwhacking and bouldering.

Below Barrier Falls, this smaller and idyllic pool and waterfall are located.  The waters are cool on my legs.  I'd often wade up to my thighs and sometimes higher.  I loved the sound of falling water on the rocks and a breeze through the trees.  No other disturbances in this remote location.

I loved these little red flowers.  As I saw them, I wanted to include them somehow in a grander photograph of the surroundings.  Getting very low and very close to the flowers allowed me to frame plenty of the flowers in-line with the waterfall and a towering pine tree.

I knew keeping everything in focus would be impossible because some things were so close and others were so far.  I took 3 shots, focusing on the near points, mid-points and distant points each time.  Back home I merged these 3 shots in Photoshop to create an image that is sharp near to far!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Yellow Rock, Utah: Sunset in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Sunset atop Yellow Rock, Utah, Southwest USA
Yellow Rock within Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is one of many fabulous natural beauties!
Yellow Rock, Utah remains one of the most unique and beautiful locations I've ever visited.  I've traveled in pursuit of great photo locations for 12 years now and Yellow Rock remains one of the most photogenic in memory.  I visited this remote location once, in 2008 (before blogging, so I thought it deserved a blog post now).  After 9 years, this photo remains one of my favorite.  I'd ascended the monolith, huffing and puffing, until I reached the top.  I searched around, looking for good photo subjects.  I discovered this wavy line of white and deep purple etched on the yellow sandstone.  Just about this time, sunset happened and the last sun rays shone on the distant cliffs and clouds.

Processing note:  This photo was before HDR and multiple exposure blending.  I shot with a Lee graduated neutral density filter to balance out the exposure.  Later I developed this in photoshop with small adjustment using the screen and multiply layers.

This year I will return and hope to photograph a scene equal to or better than this old gem from a great hike.  

Friday, April 14, 2017

Beachy Head Photography Guide: White Cliffs and Surroundings

Red and White Lighthouse in United Kingdom
Beachy Head Lighthouse, as seen from the cliffs high above
Beachy head is extremely photogenic.  Some pictures of those massive white cliffs are instantly recognizable as England.  They are featured in several movies.  Though the "white cliffs of Dover" are what we learn in school, Beachy Head is what we see in the pictures.  Dover is a bit further east but not as spectacular.

What is there to photograph here?
1.  The White Cliffs of Beachy Head can be shot in isolation or with some of the sea birds to give sense of scale.
2.  Coast Guard Cottages -- these are further west and require a circuitous drive but the view with the white cliffs in the background is unparalleled!
dawn at the coast guard cottages with white chalk cliffs
Coast Guard Cottages and the White Cliffs at
Beachy Head, United Kingdom
3.  Birling Gap -- This looks west towards those Coast Guard Cottages and shows the "Seven Sisters".
View of Birling Gap and Seven Sisters
View towards Birling Gap (lighthouse in distance) with
Seven Sisters -- the chalk cliff peaks
4.  Beachy Head -- the cliffs directly above the lighthouse are spectacular, scary and straight down!  Don't get too close to the edge.  It doesn't look very stable to me.
Beachy Head Chalk Cliffs and Green Grass
Chalk Cliffs at Beachy Head.  The lighthouse stands in the
sea at high tide.  At low tide the land stretches out to it.  
5.  The Beachy Head Lighthouse.  I captured this in many shots but found the isolated shot with the house surrounded by the angry ocean to be my favorite.

And nearby:
1.  The Long Man of Wilmington
Long Man of Wilmington Chalk Drawing Hill
Long Man of Wilmington, near Beachy Head, UK
2.  Lovely photogenic village of Alfriston.  This little town stole my heart.  It's picture perfect and has most-welcoming residents.  Do stop by and visit their lovely church.
Church and Cemetery with flowers in Alfriston, UK
Alfriston Church and Graves with beautiful flowers

Sunday, April 2, 2017


Gordon Smith shooting a wedding
Using the 5D Mark IV is a breeze.
I got a new Canon 5D Mark 4 (5D Mark IV) 6 months ago.  I’ve put my Canon 1Ds Mark III into semi-retirement.  I thought it might be worthwhile to compare the two exceptional cameras.  If it’s possible to love a piece of magnesium alloy housing mirrors and computer chips, then I loved my 1Ds Mark III.  I still do. 

After shooting for half a year, I discovered my new 5D Mark IV can do everything my 1Ds Mark 3 did and more.  What can it do better than the 1Ds Mark III?  Here’s my much-anticipated list of my favorites:


10.  Touchscreen can be used for menus, zooming, shutter, focus and much more.
9.  Optional battery grip:  you can go "big camera" or "small camera" as you prefer.
8.  Fast frames per second with a larger buffer for those large files.
7.  Multiple Speedlite control remotely from the touchscreen!
6.  Self timer option allows multiple exposures.  You set the frames and interval to whatever you want.
Photographer Gordon Smith in the United Kingdom

5.  HD and 4K movies.  Heck, any movies are better than no movie mode at all that I previously had.
4.  ISO that lets me shoot in the dark.  Previously my ISO limits were 1600.  Now it’s nearly infinite with choices of 3200, 6400, 12800, 25600 and even more.  This is a big plus and the image quality at these higher ISO is vastly improved!
3.  auto ISO choice makes quality shots quick and easy.  That was very handy at a recent wedding shoot.
2.  Built-in level within the viewfinder.  Never shoot a slanted horizon again!
1.  GPS tagging photos automatically.  As a landscape photographer, I love this feature!

photographer Gordon Smith

Hell Hole Canyon Beauty

Tree with purple blossoms in Hell Hole Canyon, Utah
Purple Blossoms of Spring as seen on the Hellhole (or Hell Hole) Trail in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is a vast area north of St. George.  The reserve was initially formed, in part, because of the desert tortoise.  These seldom-seen residents are a threatened local species.  The reserve status protects this land for recreational use and I’ve enjoyed several jaunts into various parts of the reserve.  Some have famous names like Yant Flat or the Vortex.  Others are unknown. 

On this day I hiked into an unknown area named “Hell hole” because of the miserable heart in the summer.  My visit had clouds and rain and I felt it more like a desert garden than a pit of despair.  I know that a waterfall can appear from the high cliffs if it rains enough.  I hoped for a waterfall appearance . . . but got something different. 

The trail heads up a wash on the west side of Red Mountain.  The sandy going makes for slow travel.  Raindrops falling on and off had me donning and doffing my rain jacket several times.  The sheer cliff walls get closer and closer until you cannot go any further.  The hike ends at the cliffs. 

This furthest-possible location holds some beautiful scenery.  A handful of healthy cottonwood trees hide beside some muddy watering holes.  In March they are freshly green and vibrant against the sandstone backdrop.  After taking a few pictures here I explored a bit more and found my greatest prize:  a large bush blooming with purple flowers.  Desert blooms are rare and beautiful events.  This tall bush was at peak for color and evenly covered with blossoms on every branch!  Even more unique, there wasn’t another bush like it anywhere.  I photographed several angles and perspectives in the light rain and left feeling satisfied that’s I’d captured something rare and wonderful.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

West Rim Trail, Zion: Backpack and Photography

landscape photograph over the West Rim Trail in Zion
East Temple as seen from the West Rim Trail
The West Rim Trail is one of the top backpacking trips in all of Utah.  It is the best and most renown backpacking trail in Zion National Park.  For over a decade I've had it on my wish list and never seemed to get things started.  Finally I made a short bucket list of things to do, short enough that I could accomplish some of these things each year.  I have less than 10 things on this list.  West Rim Trail made the list and I finally stopped making excuses and instead took those days off work.  Time to stop planning and start doing.

The Permit:
I went as a walk-in to the ranger station at 6 AM, waited in line and got my lucky top-choice campsite:  # 5.  Why #5?  Campsite 5 is right in the middle of the hike, it's right on the edge of Phantom Valley, it's right where I wanted to be for sunset and sunrise.  And I got it.  Yes!  Campsites 4 and 6 are also on the plateau but were reserved in advance online.
Two hiking women in Zion National Park
Lava Point Trailhead:  13.5 or 14.5 Miles to the Main Zion Canyon on the West Rim Trail.
Pictured are my sister-in-law and my wife.
The Hike:
Starting at Lava Point at over 7,000 feet we began the long gradual hike toward Zion's main canyon which is near 4,000 feet.  The first few hours are pretty, nothing spectacular.  The hiking is easy with a gradual downhill journey.  At about 3 miles, we got a fantastic view into the Left Fork of North Creek.
West Rim Trail and south guardian angel
First View into the Left Fork of North Creek
and South Guardian Angel

Women backpack high over cliffs in Zion, Utah
West Rim Trail:  the Viewpoints and Views become more numerous and better throughout!
This is just the beginning of the amazing scenery to come.  The trail hugs the canyon edge the rest of the hike.  There are a few ups and downs but the big rise comes up to Horse Pasture Plateau.  Here we passed a vacant campsite 6 and reached #5.  The views from #6 to #4 all look down onto the spectacular Phantom Valley.  I spent my sunset hour shooting over this valley.  We had a quiet camp that night and I again shot over the Phantom Valley for sunrise.  Inclined Mountain, South Guardian Angel, North Guardian Angel and the great Right Fork were some of the more prominent landmarks.

Zion West Rim Trail landscape photography
West Rim Trail sunset photograph

West Rim Trail Zion National Park, Utah
Inclined Temple as seen from the West Rim Trail at dawn
During my wandering north and south along the rim, I discovered that campsite 4 was also vacant.  We had the whole plateau to ourselves.

West Rim Trail Camping and Tent
West Rim Trail:  Camp Site 5
(On a side note, I feel that it's so wrong that these coveted campsites got reserved months before by people who never came.  I can understand that plans change, but there ought to be a way to release those campsites to people to really want to backpack.)

I never sleep that great while camping, especially on the first night.  The campsite is pretty basic with a log or two for sitting and some rocks in a rectangle around our tent site.  You must carry all your water and can only fill up at natural springs.  Our first and only opportunity for this would be at Cabin Springs, a few miles ahead.  We broke camp in the morning and kept hiking with great views all on our right (to the West).
panorama from West Rim Trail Horse Pasture Plateau
Panorama of the Views from Horse Pasture Plateau over Phantom Valley.  Campsites 4 - 6 each share this massive view!
Hiking along this section is very easy, flat, smooth.  The scenery is world class!  Spectacular tall pine trees grow atop the mesas and straight out of the cliffs too.

After Cabin Springs, the trail descends on a path cut into the stone cliff!  There are switchbacks cut into the cliff that make a pathway about 3-5 feet wide which allowed us to hike single-file down into a hanging valley above the main canyon floor.  We passed Behunin Canyon at the bottom of the switchbacks.  It is here that we began to see day-hikers coming up from Angel's Landing.  The closer we got to Angel's Landing, the more neighbors we had.
High mesa and cliffs in Zion, Utah
West Rim Trail looks down on all these finger canyons:  Phantom Valley on the Right, Behunin Canyon on the Left.

Hiking switchbacks in West Rim Trail, zion
Burnt Tree over West Rim Canyon.  Before
long the trail drops down to the lowest point visible.

View from Cabin Springs:  the trail is down there.  Look for it skirting in and out of the shadows!
This is the hanging valley above Scout's Lookout but below Horse Pasture Plateau.
Switchback cut into the sandstone on the West Rim Trail
West Rim Trail Switchback

Some parts of the switchbacks are more sketchy than others.  Here's a scary part: see the trail?  Cut into the cliff face with a huge death-drop on the right side?  Yeah.  This is unforgettable!  We came down that!
Tall trees in Zion national park
Typical scenery below Cabin Springs and
the switchbacks with tall Pines and Cliffs
This section is also very scenic but the trail is part of the scenery here instead of on top of it all.  Just before Angel's Landing, the West Rim Trail makes its' only prolonged uphill climb.  Once on top of this last obstacle, it's all downhill.  You're looking down on Angel's Landing and my footsteps got heavy, reckless and quick.  Before long, we crossed the Virgin River and were waiting for the shuttle to take us back to the parking lot where we'd spotted a car.
West Rim Trail ascending to Cabin Spring
West Rim Trail just higher than Scout's Lookout and Angel's Landing.  The trail on the right is headed
up the West Rim Trail.  You can see the trail cutting diagonally up from the lower left of this
picture.  That's the beginning of the ascent to Cabin Springs.  It get much steeper later on.
My Take:
West Rim Trail won't disappoint.  5/5 Stars!  It's challenging without being technical, long enough to escape the crowds without being too long.  It's perfect.
Most beautiful place in Zion national park.
West Rim Trail Photography and Backpacking