Friday the Thirteenth

I suppose it is bad luck when the morning brings temperatures much lower than they should be for this time of the year. This morning I heard the news reader mention that the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ has returned. I took my iphone out on the deck this morning along with bird seed for some extremely fluffy chickadees, redpolls and pine grosbeaks. I stopped for a photo of our deck thermometer. It is the coldest morning of the year so far and January has come and gone.

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

But for me the photographic silver lining in this Friday the 13th cloud is the potential for some good window frost photos from the back window of the garage. We have an unheated garage and the back window looks out on an expanse of snow covering the lawn. My woodshed casts a blue shadow for the first hour or so of morning after sunrise. In addition there is a band of dark spruce trees behind the lawn so I have a choice of backgrounds ranging from pale blue to dark. Sure enough the frost feathers had formed. I remember Dennis Fast lamenting that he has lost the opportunity to photograph the buildup of window-frost that occurs on cold mornings now that he has a newly renovated sunroom with more modern air-tight windows.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Achieving sharp macro photos is one of the biggest technical challenges for this project. I have to improvise a support for the camera and lens in the optimum position for these photos. I need to support the camera during exposures on a rather unstable wooden workbench. I found that a beanbag on a milk crate, shimmed if necessary to prevent wobble, works better than trying to set the legs of my tripod on the workbench. The micro lens has very limited depth of field, even at f22, so to achieve sharpness everywhere in the frame I need to position the camera and lens so that its sensor is absolutely parallel to the window frost. I use extra boards under the milk crate to add or subtract height depending on where I need to frame the frost, choosing the nicest swirls against a blue or dark background. The backgrounds are so distant that at f22 they remains soft.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

For my frost photography I use a 200mm micro Nikkor with or without a close-up diopter (for extra magnification) that can be attached in front of the lens. The D800 produces such large files that any one can be judiciously cropped if necessary and still produce a Tif of adequate size. I always shoot RAW with a manual exposure of about 0 to +1 depending on the background. I prefer manual White Balance that I can adjust afterwards too. I use my hand to dampen the camera into the bean bag. I use Mirror lockup and a cable release to further ensure sharp results. After each exposure I check the histogram and zoom to 100% on review to assess sharpness (there is a menu setting that activates a button for this action).

Working inside the garage keeps me out of the wind but it is still very cold so I need to dress warmly and use gloves to handle the camera. I like the Freehands photography gloves with flip-back fingertips (held back with neat magnetic buttons). Once I finish I wrap the camera in a big plastic bag and let it warm up inside the house. In a few hours the beautiful frost feathers will sublimate off the window.

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

The Bones of the Earth

Grapevine Mountains badlands

Grapevine Mountains badlands

We visited Death Valley this January, camping for five nights at Furnace Creek. With moderate temperatures in the winter this national park is a popular destination for tourists, especially on weekends therefore it is wise to make reservations ahead of time.

 

Eroded formations near Zabriskie Point

Eroded formations near Zabriskie Point

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range

Death Valley National Park is a landscape photography mecca. I was well prepared for my first visit since 1990, having purchased an excellent e-book guide for the park, as well as having drooled over many fine photos made by various other photographers in books and on-line over the years. The dry hills are fantastically eroded by wind and, ironically, rain. It’s one of the driest places on earth with very little vegetation. The valley floor has weird formations created from mineral laden water that flows into the valley but has nowhere to drain and quickly evaporates. Years ago the famed California photographer Galen Rowell made reference to ‘the bones of the earth exposed’ when describing an image he made in Death Valley.

 

Cottonball basin- salt and mud patterns caused by  evapouration from an endorheic pond

Cottonball basin- salt and mud patterns caused by evapouration from an endorheic pond

US Desert Landscape

As I drove the park roads (it is an enormous place to visit) I was immediately attracted to the brown hues in Death Valley, seen in eroded hills and mountain ranges, sand dunes, hardpan and in more intimate abstract images of the basins in the valley floor. Brown is a colour emblematic of earth hence the term ‘earth tones’ we often see referred to in home décor and fabric descriptions.

 

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud tiles

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud tiles

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud and sand

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud and sand

Photographers often search for more vibrant colour like red, orange and green. As I write this I bask in the warm glow of several hundred images made during the northern Ontario autumn, where reds, oranges and golds predominate. But in Death Valley I found that brown, while more restrained and less vivid, certainly symbolizes the ‘bones of the earth’ on display.

 

20 Mule Team Canyon

20 Mule Team Canyon

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range Artists Drive with creosote shrubs

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range Artists Drive with creosote shrubs

Please enjoy this selection of my images celebrating the colour brown as it is found in many of the landscape formations in Death Valley.

Mosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon

Cottonball Basin polygons at sunrise

Cottonball Basin polygons at sunrise

near Mesquite Sand Dunes

near Mesquite Sand Dunes

Amargosa Range badlands

Amargosa Range badlands