Utah’s ‘Big Five’ in Winter

Fountains of Bellagio with the Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

Fountains of Bellagio with the Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

For the second time in three years Brenda and I travelled to Las Vegas to watch international curling- the Continental Cup of Curling that pits 6 North American teams against 6 World teams over the course of 4 days. It’s similar to a Ryder Cup/President’s Cup (golf) in this case featuring Olympic level teams at the Orleans Arena.

Mesa Arch in winter, with morning fog, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Mesa Arch in winter, with morning fog, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Snowy landscape at Green River overlook, Canyonlands Nationa Park, Utah, USA

Snowy landscape at Green River overlook, Canyonlands Nationa Park, Utah, USA

Driving that far, I decided to combine the Vegas visit with some winter photography in State and National Parks nearby. There are 5 famous National Parks in the state of Utah. We towed our trailer with the intention of camping in parks like Zion and Capitol Reef which keep campgrpunds open during the winter. I was under no illusion that it could be cold and snowy and this year’s El Nino seemed to ensure that notion by amplifying winter in that part of the continent. Ontario, on the other hand, was experiencing a mild winter- the first first brown Christmas I have experienced in a long time, but the west seemed to be getting its share of snow and cold temperatures.

Balanced Rock with fresh snow, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Balanced Rock with fresh snow, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

As a photographer I was looking forward to seeing the fabled red rock canyonlands of Utah with snow and winter conditions. After all, it is a high desert, with little precipitation and the region has been photographed extensivley over the years during the more tourist friendly seasons, so I was hoping for some unique images. It was our first visit in twenty five years (!) and I was not disappointed. Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef were blanketed with fresh or recent snowfalls. Some of the trails and viewpoints were icy and slippery but a pair of slip on ice grips made the footing safer.

Hoodoos and winter snow from Inspiration Point at dawn, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos and winter snow from Inspiration Point at dawn, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos with winter snow and ice fog at dawn, from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos with winter snow and ice fog at dawn, from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

The snow and cold temperatures drove us into motels at times especially at Bryce Canyon when one of California’s winter storms moved east and dumped about 40 cm of fresh snow, driven by a howling wind. At its peak the weather resembled the worst of what we can get in January in Northern Ontario. But the roads are well maintained in Utah. The only exception was the main park road in Bryce, closed temporaily past the first couple of viewpoints. The park service did an excellent job under the prevailing conditions, maintaining the road in to Sunset Point and even snow-blowing the viewpoint paths.

Alpenglow in Zion Canyon-Towers of the Virgin, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Alpenglow in Zion Canyon-Towers of the Virgin, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Ice formations along the Pine River with Zion Canyon wall reflections in open water, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Ice formations along the Pine River with Zion Canyon alpenglow reflections in open water, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

The Big 5 National Parks of Utah were not our only ports of call. For more images of the parks and other locales in the Grand Staircase please visit these galleries on my 500px site. https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/utah-s-big-five-in-winter and https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/red-rock-country-winter-2016.

Snow dusted canyon walls in the Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Snow dusted canyon walls in the Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Recent snow in the high desert featuring Twin Rocks, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Recent snow in the high desert featuring Twin Rocks, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

 

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Revisiting a subject and locale

Happy New Year dear readers. All the best in 2016.

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

At this time of the year it is customary for many to conduct year-end reviews, whether they be sports stories, news stories, movies or books but for me I’m going to finish 2015 by exploring my Close to Home theme from the standpoint of revisiting a favourite location and subject, in this case one that I have neglected for several years.

Ice coated grasses on the banks of a small stream

Ice coated grasses on the banks of a small stream

Flowing water and ice formations

Flowing water and ice formations

It’s important to stay fresh, to keep exploring new dimensions in nature photography. Returning to the same subjects time and again puts one at risk of being labelled repetitive and not willing to take chances by exploring new approaches and subjects. There’s a risk of becoming stale and staying safe with tried and true. A risk of becoming boring and bored. As Freeman Patterson puts it “Inspiration begins with work” Can an old subject still be inspiring?

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle. I noticed this as I walked toward my second stream.

Nothing stays the same in nature and my approach to nature photography continues to evolve too. That is the beauty of nature photography. Changing seasons, ecosystems, climatic patterns together with the photographer’s evolving vision and technique make for an unending photographic potential. My earlier images of these places were created largely from slide film so I did not have the luxury at that time to change the look of an image simply by changing my ISO and therefore the shutter speed for the exposure. Sometimes a longer exposure time works best, sometimes short exposure times produce more pleasing results. And the instant feedback from the review screen allows me to decide what is working best or go in a different direction.

Trapped grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped grasses in an ice-covered puddle. Before I photographed the second stream and its tiny waterfall I photographed this large puddle with trapped grasses.

In this El Nino year I decided to revisit a couple of nearby locales because I thought the conditions would be roughly similar to what made them great years ago: below freezing temperatures, no snow and plenty of runoff from recent rain. Usually I visited these locales in late autumn, not so close to Christmas as I did this year, for streamside ice and flowing water photography. I forced myself away from the computer and drove along Gibson Road toward two small streams. I was not disappointed. The flowing cold water and cold air created numerous beautiful and intricate ice formations along these streams. Along the way I noticed a scenic on the rocks that caused me to pull over but I quickly became attracted to patterns in a roadside puddle where I then spent most of my time exploring the ice patterns with a macro lens (lead image).

Ice coated grasses around a small waterfall

Ice coated grasses around a small waterfall

Later I visited another small runoff stream on Jarvi Road, one that I have photographed off and on recently, but more in springtime when the moss is green. The small birch twig trapped in the ice was not there before. The moss was duller at this time of the year but there was so much water and the ice formations were exquisite.

Ice coated grasses and flowing water

Ice coated grasses and flowing water

Ice build-up around a birch tree branch

Ice build-up around a birch tree branch. New this year.

 

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

Christmas Images

Seasons greetings, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to one and all!

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

After the family traditions on Christmas morning have been attended to there is sometimes an opportunity for me to do some nature photography, something that I always ask permission from the family before venturing forth, sometimes just on the deck, sometimes in the driveway, never too far from home nor for too long.

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

 

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas is one of the quietest days of the year to be outside. The winter weather over the past 8 years- the time period from which these images were chosen- has been variable in the extreme. Cold days, El Nino warm days. Days with little snow but morning frost and days with beautiful fresh snow. This year is promising to be gloomy and wet but I am hoping the rain turns to snow in time.

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

 

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

Through these past 8 years, when the conditions were excellent and the light was magical, I knew I had to forgo some of the family traditions and take time to make some pictures. Please enjoy these images made on a very special day.

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Ice formations along Junction Creek

Ice formations along Junction Creek

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

Garden grasses

Garden grasses

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Spring is Here

I live in Northern Ontario so even though Spring officially arrives around March 20 I know from experience that March is a winter month. A few years back our Science Centre had a spring equinox party- greet the sunrise and celebrate- except that is was -30℃ that morning. Last year was unusually warm and we were spoiled. After enduring a long and seemingly arduous winter (but fairly normal stats-wise, according to Environment Canada) we were longing for warmer days and no snow as March ended.

 

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A varying hare one day before the first day of spring

A varying hare one day before the first day of spring

I’m always on the lookout for photo opportunities, especially during unusual weather. Some recent personal encounters with nature and my resultant photos could be ‘blamed’ on the quirkiness of a slow spring.

For the first time our maple tree dripped sap and it froze to become an icicle on the tree branches. In other years I have observed chickadees, sapsuckers and squirrels sipping at the drips, but this year things were different. The extremely cold overnight and early morning temperatures froze the dripping sap. I observed chickadees hovering below the dripping ‘sap-sicle’, trying to get a drink. I set up the tripod and long lens and attempted to photograph the action. Out of about 600 frames I captured 3 or 4 like this one. I was frustrated by extremely brief, sporadic encounters, but the keepers were very satisfying.

Chickadee sipping from maple 'sap-sicle'

Chickadee sipping from maple ‘sap-sicle’

I have never had much luck photographing varying hares (snow bunnies) in their white winter fur coats. They are active mostly at night and tend to hide under trees during daylight. These rabbits do become more visible and approachable in early spring. This year I had very approachable hare around the advent of the equinox but with all the snow yet to melt and more coming down, I was fortunate to finally capture some decent white rabbit pictures.

The Easter Bunny, posing near the house.

The Easter Bunny, posing near the house.

Finally with only remnant patches of snow, receding ice in the lakes and ponds and returning birds, I ventured out one early morning to a nearby beaverpond. Because the temperature was well below 0℃ there was abundant frost even though geese were calling and ducks were flying into the pond. When frost is backlit, at a certain angle, it refracts into frozen rainbows of colour. I decided to use a long lens with its shallow depth of field to throw these circles of colour in the background into out-of-focus blobs of colour, turning a rather mundane scene into a late winter-early spring wonderland.

A marsh rush with frost and rainbow refractions in the background

A marsh rush with frost and rainbow refractions in the background

Working the Winter road in Yellowstone

Yes, I know it’s summer and we are trying hard to forget winter, but I am always a few months behind in my image editing so here is a posting that re-visits the winter of 2012.

Dead snags and snow above Canary Spring

After five days of exciting and productive winter animal photography (blog post coming) at Animals of Montana near Bozeman in late February-early March Brenda and I drove to Gardiner for some winter photography along Yellowstone Park’s only open road. The 50-mile road from Gardiner’s Roosevelt entrance to Cooke City is maintained by the Park Service with plows and sanders to allow the residents of Cooke City access to Gardiner and beyond. While the road is well maintained it does have steep, slippery sections, especially in areas that do not have much exposure to the sun. Elsewhere, winds drift snow across the road, especially in the Columbia Blacktail Deer Plateau. Occasionally the drifts block a lane thus requiring attention from maintenance crews. Driving with winter tires is recommended. Some pull-outs are kept clear and many of these will be occupied by wildlife (wolf) watchers with spotting scopes. Winter visitors may also opt for snow-coach tours into the interior from Gardiner-Mammoth or from West Yellowstone.

Coyote (Canis latrans) Trotting along Park Road

One of Yellowstone’s major animal attractions is the grey wolf, re-introduced to the ecosystem in the mid 90s. Casual visitors such as us have little opportunity for close encounters. Most of my sightings have been distant. We were lucky this time with two encounters at close range, one of which turned into a ‘grab-shot’ photo opportunity. The lone wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle and I had time to set up the long lens before it ambled off. Normally Park rules prohibit approaches closer than 100 yards, but in this case the wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle. Unexpected crossings like this emphasize the need to drive with care and be observant. It’s important to have a camera within reach and bean bag or window mount too.

Lone wolf walking on Columbian Blacktail Deer Plateau in late winter

Of course we had to endure (with envy) the ‘you have been here yesterday’ comments from other visitors. Wolves had killed an elk in the Gardner River Valley. Coyotes, magpies and ravens were scavenging the carcass by the time we passed by.

I regard myself as a generalist photographer. While I enjoy wildlife photography I don’t let it dominate my approach to seeing nature. I am also attracted to landscapes, flora and abstract subjects. I try to balance my photography when I make short visits such as this to exotic locales like Yellowstone. It saves me from being disappointed at not seeing or photographing the ‘star species’ and often yields just as satisfying images.

Thermophyllic algae and bacteria encrusting dead grasses in an Upper Terraces hot springs at Mammoth

Even though 2011-12 had such a warm and unusual winter we were fortunate to have fresh snow in early March. Over four days we experienced variations in weather, from clear skies to near-whiteout snow squalls. Gardiner is not very busy at this time so motels were inexpensive and rooms were available, although we did reserve ahead. The Park closes winter operations into the interior by mid March and we were surprised to see that establishments like the Mammoth Hotel actually close up for a few weeks while interior roads are plowed and made ready for the spring tourist visitation.

A herd of elk (Cervus elaphus) walking in a line on a snowy slope on the Columbia Blacktail Plateau

Please visit my 500px pages for a wider selection of images, including: Yellowstone animals and Yellowstone Scenics. We will be travelling west shortly so I will be taking about a month-long break from blog posting, unless I have some time and Internet access.

Bosque not always for the Birds

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is the winter home for thousands of waders and waterfowl. The visitor center boasts the bird counts and the snow geese, sandhill cranes and ducks number in the tens of thousands. It is a magnificent spectacle, drawing nearly as many birders and bird photographers (slight exaggeration). The bird photographer needs to arrive an hour or so before sunrise just to secure a decent vantage point for the awesome ‘blast offs’ or fly outs by the geese and later the cranes as they take off to feed in nearby grain fields.

This is what the photographers come for.

Dawn Blast off- Ducks and sandhill cranes

We had the ‘pleasure’ of photographing Bosque under unusual winter conditions. Sure, the refuge gets snow on occasion but never in the amounts, coupled with the extreme cold temperatures as we experienced in early December this year. Our Bosque veteran tour leaders, Gordon and Cathy Illg remarked that not only have they never seen conditions like these before, they have never seen pictures of conditions like these before.

Frosted cottonwoods near the Flight Deck

While I love photographing wildlife I am also partial to landscapes, plants, and abstract patterns. The unusual conditions created by that memorable winter blizzard persuaded me to divert my attention from the birds, for periods of time, to capture some amazing scenes, without feathers. Here is a small selection I hope the reader will enjoy.

Frozen crane ponds with the Chupadera MountainsFrosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Cottonwood at dawn

Frosted sunflower seed heads near icy pond

Frosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Frosted cottonwood with sunstar