Tag Archives: California

Top Ten Destinations in the West

Well, What Sea?

Well After Sunset Along the Pacific Coast


I know my top ten may not be the same as your top ten. After all what interests me may NOT interest you (though for the life of me I can’t think why not!)  As a Landscape Astrophotographer I tend to gravitate to interesting views, unusual geology, natural landscapes and places where the sky is dark and clear at night.  I’m not a city guy. The chance that you’ll find me in a tavern or night club is extremely slim.  And while I do appreciate great architecture, and (ancient) history you’re much more likely to find me on a mountain top or along the shoreline or in the desert. Forests feel crowded to me unless they are surrounded by granite, basalt, sand dunes or lava.  Flat is usually boring.

I also want to be frank that this list is based on the places *I* have been. There is an equally long list of places I have NOT been but where I wish to go.  I’ve also narrowed this list to Nevada, California, Western Utah and Arizona. I am listing my destinations in order of the eye appeal and “spiritual oneness” I get from visiting them.  I’ve also provided some hints what seasons are best, and the amount of effort it takes to reach these places.

 

    1. Nightfall at Cathedral PeakYosemite National Park.  There is a really good reason Yosemite is so heavily visited. The first time I drove into the valley with the family I went slack-jawed. It is hard to imagine how beautiful Yosemite is. And the first time I stood on Half Dome – long before permits are required to make that hike – I literally wept – and not just because the hike was arduous, but because the view makes the heart flutter.  You feel tiny and the granite feels big and solid.  Yosemite is a very large park and there are four primary areas to visit.
      A> The valley which in the summer is overrun with tourists, and noise and distractions but quiet and beautiful when snow laden in the winter.  The summer is also when the mighty Yosemite Fall becomes a whimper. To really be astounded the best time to visit Yosemite Valley is in the early spring.  Late April to Early May.
      B> Another area of Yosemite worth visiting is the entire Tioga Pass road: especially Tuolumne Meadows area. There is awesomeness nearly everywhere along the 54 miles of road and it is always less busy than the valley. Warning: Tioga Road (Hwy 120) closes November through May.
      C> A third place that is justly popular for its scenic splendor is Glacier Point. The road to this amazing overlook is also closed in winter.
      D> And finally there is Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Impressive, but not as impressive as the huge trees elsewhere in California e.g. in Big Basin State Park.
      There are also many, many spectacular landscapes to be seen far from anywhere a car can go. Some of the most rewarding views of Yosemite require backpacking into the High Country, like the photo above which is Cathedral Lake – a trail from Tioga Road.


    2. Reaching for the Sky Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is a small town with plenty of restaurants. But at the doorstep of Lone Pine are the Alabama Hills – bizarre rounded rock formations many of which you have probably seen before in movies like Planet of the Apes and car commercials and westerns.  It’s a gorgeous landscape with so, so many places to explore. There is plenty of quiet in Alabama Hills and there are many places to roll up and enjoy the dark skies and the fantastic rock formations. Rising out of Alabama Hills is mount Whitney – the tallest mountain in the United States – the lower 48, that is.  Alabama Hills is lovely in any season – prefer late fall – but beware the summers can get hot. 100 degrees Farenheit is not unusual.  A high clearance vehicle is definitely a plus if you want to go on some of the dicier roads, but not needed for the main roads.  There is a good reason we offer workshops here. It’s awesome.

    3. Mono Lake South Tufas before Dawn [4776] *Explored*Mono Lake near Lee Vinning, California.  Mono lake has a very alien vibe due to the tufa formations that have been revealed because of Los Angeles’ thirst for water.  Mono Lake has grown touristy – it’s not unusual to see a busload of photographers disembark and jostle for the best spots to set up a tripod. Despite that, Mono Lake is well worth a look. Not far from Mono Lake are other interesting attractions like Bodie – a ghost town, June Lake and the June Lake Loop, and the entire stretch of the Eastern Sierras all the way down to Alabama Hills. Any season is good to visit Mono Lake, but winters are harsh and cold.

    4. Dream Highway [C_071601]Big Sur. Big Sur is the name of a town in about the middle of a region loosely defined by a long stretch of winding Pacific Coast road (Highway 1) that runs from Carmel, California all the way down to Cambria. The Hearst Castle which is an interesting historical, artistic, and cultural anomaly can be found in San Simeon. The road hugs tall mountain cliffs with sheer drop offs into the often churning Pacific Ocean below. If I have to pick a favorite spot in Big Sur that’s easy. Pfeiffer Beach.  Often in the summer in particular Big Sur can be cold, foggy and windy, but really any time is good to go. If you’ve never dipped a toe in the Northern California Pacific Ocean, don’t expect it to be warm EVER.  Big surf comes in the winter – from November to February. Accommodations along Big Sur are scarce, expensive and heavily booked especially when school is out. And there are LOTS of destinations worth visiting: Point Lobos, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

    5. Famous III [C_035478]
      White Mountain, near Bishop, California. If you want to see the most amazing and oldest living things on the planet you will need to drive up White Mountain to the Patriarch Grove or at least to the Schulman Grove.  And while Bishop to the West and Nevada cities to the east are doing their best to light pollute the skies, it is still well dark there and you will see the Milky Way if you look.  Like many other places, the road is often closed in the winter, but it usually closes later than the Sierra roads and opens sooner.


    6. The Overlook at Zabriskie Point 7118Death Valley National Park.  First you need to know that Death Valley is HUGE. And yes, it is extremely hot from late spring to mid fall. But the spring flowers can be amazing and the scale of the place is hard to fathom.  And while it is a desert, you may be shocked at how colorful it is. As with many places in the west, the most desolate and difficult to reach areas of Death Valley are the most interesting: the Racetrack Playa, the peculiar Darwin Falls, Eureka Dunes and Dante’s View.  Expect to travel hundreds of miles to see all these things and to pay a princely sum on gasoline.  If you go, you had better visit Zabriskie Point – sunrise is better than sunset at the point. Accommodations are hard to find.  If forced to choose between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, Death Valley wins easily.

    7. Watching the Watchman [42-011228]Zion National Park, Hurricane, Utah. I’ve visited Zion in the winter when snow and Navajo Sandstone conspire to make a beautiful landscape, and in the summer. I preferred the winter. My wife took this photo.

    8. Snow Flocked Bryce Canyon [IMG_151594]Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately I have only visited in the winter. It was drop dead gorgeous with the snow and the hoodoos.

    9. The Colorado River Makes A Grand ArcHorsehoe Bend. The scale and grandeur of this magnificent bend in the Colorado river is every bit – and more – breathtaking than any vista I’ve ever seen in the Grand Canyon. And Horsehoe Bend has the great advantage of being very close to the Antelope Slot Canyons and Page, Arizona. Page is a large enough city to rest and resupply in. Lake Powell is nearby, too. Horsehoe Bend is “just one place” and is easily accessible with about a 1/2 mile walk from the road.

    10. The Goodbye Look [5-001753]
      Antelope Valley Slot Canyons. On Navajo tribal lands it’s worth every penny you might be charged for a tour.  When you stroll through this majestic place – even if you do so amidst throngs of tourists you’ll find it hard to not feel a oneness with the beautiful and intimate windswept colors and curves.


    11. Black Rock Desert, Gerlach, Nevada. If you look up the definition of desolate, this place might well be mentioned in a footnote.  Unless you make the mistake of going during the Burning Man festival in which case this empty flat dry lakebed ringed with modestly sized mountains becomes a sprawling metropolis of what seems like a zillion people. Or so I’ve been told. The good news is it is still very dark here.  It did not make my top ten, but it did beat out the rest of our list.

    12. Lake Tahoe – Many places around this picturesque lake to drink in photos and views.
    13. Mount Shasta – Right off highway 5 going north/south you’ll find vistas, waterfalls, and some remarkable history and views.
    14. Lassen National Park
    15. Sedona, Arizona – Hard to argue with the wind sculpted Navajo Sandstone all around.
    16. Tucson, Arizona – Not only are there desert stretches, the Saguaro National Forest, Mount Lemmon, and the Santa Catalina Mountains, but also Kitt Peak Observatory and many dark areas around. Unlike, e.g. Phoenix which is Las Vegas – like in its light pollution intensity.
    17. San Francisco – As cities go, San Francisco has many lovely vistas and landmarks. Especially from, e.g. the Marin Headlands.
    18. Seattle – like San Francisco, Seattle has some great views, landmarks and vistas. They are a little harder to find because of the heavy forests all around. But when it is clear enough to see the Space Needle, Mount Ranier, or the snow covered Olympic Mountains, it is awesome.

    How Do These Rank Against my Top 7 Most Beautiful Places in the World?

    I’m not as well-traveled as some, but I’ve been quite a few places. Here are my top 7 most gorgeous places to be – ranked from 7th to 1st.

    • Horsehoe Bend, Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Antelope Slot Canyon, Navajo Lands near Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Petra, Jordan.  The ancient, expansive and elaborate hand carved tombs of this ancient Nabatean city are winsome. And to make the stay even more pleasant the many Bedouin people I met while there made me feel very welcome.
    • Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California.  Described above.
    • Patriarch Grove, White Mountain, California. Described above.
    • Thira/Oia/Firostefani, Santorini, Greece
    • Granite Park, Inyo National Forest, California. On my GPS I put “Saw God here” – it was THAT awesome. Granite Park is well above the tree line at about 11,000 feet and it will take a serious back-packing effort to reach it.

Got a top 5 super favorite place in the west we did not list? Please comment (and include a photograph).

Star Trail Creation – Step By Step

Originally Published: November 19, 2012
Last Revised: March 3, 2017

I dredged this one up out of the archives. Many people ask me “how do you do those star trails, Steven.”  If you want a grand overview of the process, my Treatise on Star Trails is a good read. However here I reveal step-by-step how I create a star trail image from the first shots to the finished image. The method shown below is for creating simple (lighten mode) star trails. If you want to do some fancy effects, please take a look at our Advanced Stacker Plus.

Here we go.

South Side [C_009842-75br]

Photo 1: Quickly stacked image which is a composite of thirty-three 6-minute 500 ISO exposures and one 30 second, ISO 2000 exposure.

The above is my first quick attempt at creating a star trail, and following is summary of how I created it.

It starts with the test image and continues with the exposure set. For background on how to navigate the various shooting choices, see: the summary Stacker’s Checklist. The theory about selecting exposures may help.  And there is a two-part series that addresses the difficulties you may encounter. See Part 1 and Part 2. If you’re curious how I get the stars to form circles, this article will provide the information.

I usually start with a short (30 second or less), high ISO exposure to gauge several things: 1. How well framed my subject is, 2. How sharp the focus is, and 3. What I may need to adjust to control the sky-glow.

Photo 2: First, image: ISO 2000, f/2.8, 30 seconds.

After taking the first image, I realized two things: one is that the trucks passing were providing helpful light on my foreground – but not always illuminating the entire thing.  The other is that the exposure (ISO 2000, f/2.8, 30 seconds) was under exposed.  I needed to at least double the exposure to 1 minute. Let me stop for a moment. Those of you who don’t do much night photography are thinking “Whoa from 30 seconds to 1 minute is a huge difference.”  But no, it’s not. It’s only one f-stop. It is no different from changing a daylight exposure from 1/200 of a second to 1/100 of a second.

Starting with an exposure at 1 minute, 2000 ISO f/2.8 as a starting point I calculated an  ISO 500, 6 minute exposures at f/3.5. Here is how: A 1 minute exposure at ISO 2000 is equivalent to a 4 minute exposure at ISO 500 (500 is 1/4 of 2000).  Changing the aperture from f/2.8 to f/3.5 drops the light by about 33%, so I increased the exposure from 4 to 6 minutes.

I set my camera to record in RAW and my interval timer to take 5 minute, 59 second exposures every 6 minutes. I pulled out my reclining beach chair, a sleeping bag and slept while the camera clicked.  Below are a few of the shots. Note how the light changes from passing trucks!  You can also see the counter-clockwise rotation of the Milky Way. The last shot was taken as twilight approached is too bright to use because the sky is losing contrast and the light on the cliff is looking flat. I did not include that last shot in the stack.

Photo 3: Collage of some of the photos used in the stack.

I downloaded all the images from my card to my Incoming folder which is organized by date.  I used Digital Photo Professional to pull up the images, applied a bit of contrast enhancement, a slight exposure increase (1/3 of an f-stop), and a very slight noise control over the entire image. I exported in Landscape style which adds a slight saturation increase (Photoshop Saturation and Vividness) and modest sharpening. I cloned the recipe to all the photos and exported them into a “RedRockEast” folder in a temporary directory.  I could have done all these things with ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) or Lightroom.  In this case I didn’t have to do any white balance adjustments because I had preset the camera to approximately 4100K.

I then dragged and dropped all the exported (JPG) images onto Image Stacker which took about 3 seconds per image – less than two minutes to create a result. My option for Image Stacker was “Brighten” mode. I could have used the Star Circle Academy Stacking Action in Photoshop instead and the result would have been identical.  The stacking action takes about the same amount of time, but is more versatile and can even use raw images. (Note: StarStax is a program that supports Mac, Unix and Windows and works well, too!)

Photo 4: First Results stacking 34 images in Image Stacker by Tawbaware – this is effectively a 3 hour, 24 minute exposure.

The result was a little dark and flat so I used Picasa 3 to increase the exposure (called Fill Light), highlights and shadows – each by about 1/4 of the scale, and I warmed the photo by slightly tweaking the white balance (Color Temperature). That was all I needed to get the image shown in Photo 1.

Screen Shot 1: Picasa Adjustments

One obvious problem with the result is that the combination of the early short exposure with the sequence of shots left a gap. There really was no reason to include the first shot.

I want the cliff to pop a bit better, so my next course of action was to work on improving the foreground.  I found all the brightest shots of the cliff face (e.g. when the trucks were lighting them), and combined them using additive stacking to brighten them and averaging to reduce the noise. Remember that “brighten mode” (Lighten in Photoshop) does not brighten anything – what it actually does is select the brightest pixels at each location from each of the images in the stack.  The brightest pixels may also be noise! Using averaging reduces the noise significantly – but it will not remove “hot” pixels; we will address those later.  Fortunately Image Stacker has an option to stack and average. All you need do is specify the divisor.  If you have 10 images and specify a divisor of 10 then you are simply averaging. But if you specify a divisor of, say 5, then you are averaging AND effectively increasing the brightness by about 1 stop.  I used 12 images and a divisor of 3. And I made the same adjustment to the result in Picasa as I showed in Screen Shot 1. But I wasn’t happy with the result – the foreground still wasn’t bright enough.

Next I took 10 of the brightest images and Stacked them (additive).  After tweaking shadows and brightness in Picasa I got this:

Photo 4: Additive stack of 10 images.

Now my foreground is better, but I have created a new problem. The sky is over-bright and the hot pixels and the noise are significant as shown in a 100% crop below.

Screen Shot 2: 100% view showing Hot Pixels and noise (white speckles)

The hot pixels here have a purple fringe to them. Sometimes hot pixels are tinged red, green, blue, white or gray. I will fix hot pixels in my next to last step using the clone stamp (Picasa’s retouch) or the healing brush in Photoshop.

While the noise is obvious at 100% I think it will be fine so I am not going to address it.  If I later find the noise intolerable I will go back and stack more images and average them. Or I may return to the original images and apply stronger noise reduction in Digital Photo Professional and re-export them.

My next task is to remove the over-bright sky from the Photo 4, above. Sky removal is rather easy with the wand selection tool in Photoshop. I select all the sky and fill with black after making a few more tweaks to contrast and color.

Photo 5: Sky removed and replaced with black.

Since I now have a black sky version with the foreground as I like it, I can include this frame in any other stacks I make, and my foreground will be just as I want it. If I were working entirely in Photoshop, I would not have to fill with black, I could just use the result as a layer with only the foreground revealed by a mask.

To complete the process, I restacked 33 images together with the sky-less foreground image (Photo 5). Some more minor shadow and color temperature tweaks and some spot corrections of the few hot pixels (there were about 15), an addition of my copyright and this is the result:

Photo 6: Final Image

Since I had all the images for the stack, I was challenged on Flickr to also make a time-lapse video. This video below also helps to illustrate how stacking works. I collected the original thirty-three 6 minute exposures and cropped them to HD format (1920 x 1080). I then created and a sequence of stacked images using the intermediates option of Star Circle Academy Stacking action and joined them into an animation complete with a lovely snippet of the song Kidstuff by Acoustic Alchemy. In my next column, I’ll show how to create the time-lapse animation.

Red Rock Dancing *Explored 03-03-2011*

If you would like hands on experience and instruction, you can join us at a StarCircleAcademy Workshop

Learn from the HDR Pro

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.  Were it not for what I learned from my friend and mentor, Harold Davis, my Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 win would not have happened.

Photon Worshippers  **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

It is really just not possible to capture the wide range of exposure latitudes without post processing. Moreover processing with traditional tools does not result in as pleasing a result. It took application of the Hand HDR blending technique I learned at one of Harold’s workshops (and from his book) to make the image possible.  I hope you’ve also noticed that the image above bears none of the hallmarks of “typical HDR” imagery.

Harold is teaching an HDR workshop on March 24, 2012 in Berkeley, California. For details please see “Photography with Harold Davis”  Harold has a book on the subject scheduled to publish in July, 2012. You can pre-order it now for a quite modest price.  The Hand HDR techique is also covered along with several other powerful tips in his book The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post Processing.

A Line in the Sand [C_035604-8PSb]

Here is the same subject using automated HDR processing:

In Another Universe [5_019718-23hdr]

And another example that “screams” HDR with its “gritty” texture and surreal look.

That Sinking Feeling [C_035617-21de]

But you do NOT have to make images like that. You can if you wish. Harold will show you both!

If you’d like to see all of my images of and around the marvelous location, take a look here.

Yet Another Day Done

It’s all about the altitude. Nothing improves my attitude like a little good old fashioned altitude. Air under me, a vista, and a bit of solitude.

My only regret on my most recent trip up this mountain is I didn’t take advantage of the very clear skies to attempt star trails. On the other hand, the wind was whipping the straps on my pack into my face and other body parts so camera stability was going to be suspect.

I have a huge backlog of creative ideas from this pinnacle at the South Eastern Edge of the San Francisco Bay. The place is called Mission Peak Preserve and it is for me an absolute jewel. It’s existence is a testament to the vision that some have pursued in keeping parts of this very urban area natural and rugged, and the generosity of many landowners to contribute large expanses of hilly and mountainous terrain into eternal naturalness.

This also happens to be one of the few wilderness areas that is open after sunset – until 10 pm in fact. Nothing quite prepares you to watch the fading glow of a fiery sunset be slowly replaced by hundreds of thousands of shimmering man made lights.

It helps that it takes some serious, well intentioned effort to gain the altitude. A steep trail awaits you no matter which direction you approach from. And the reward for your sweat is a view with solitude since many hikers scurry down the mountain as soon as the sun dips below the horizon… long before the best color and the spreading man made light improves the view.

Some co-workers and Night Photographers set out with me for the Hang Glider Launch Area on Mission Peak. Why this area? Why not? I’ve been all over Mission Peak, but never at this area for sunset. It’s about 700 feet lower in elevation than the summit, but it allows a 180 degree view of the San Francisco Bay, including downtown San Jose (not this direction, of course). However there is not a lot of interesting foreground here as it is gently sloping.

The road along the foothill at the right is Mission Boulevard. On the distant horizon is Mt. Tamalpais which is in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge – 47.5 miles from this location.

In the foreground with noticeably different colored lights is Ohlone College.

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