Hoping for just the right amount of clouds

Sand Dune Sunset

Landscape photography is most interesting at sunrise and sunset.  Photographers talk about the golden hour, the 30 to 40 minutes before the sun dawns over the horizon and again just as the sun is setting and for the next 30 to 40 minutes.  When the sun is low, there is wonderful light.  At this time of day, the red rocks of the southwest seem to glow from within.  Landscapes seem to come alive.  However, the rocks and trees and bodies of water are usually only a part of the picture.  The sky is also an important component of image.  After a beautiful sunny day, you would expect that photographers would find ideal conditions for some early evening photography.   However, clear skies do not necessarily produce the most pleasing images.  Instead, photographers hope for some clouds, but not so many that they cloak the horizon.  A clear horizon and a scattered set of clouds can be extremely beneficial.   The clouds provide a surface that can reflect the first or last rays of light.  Under the right conditions, the sky can seem to light on fire.  The color in the sky can bring beautiful drama to photographs.

After a mostly clear day spent walking the dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah, we set up for some sunset pictures of the dunes.  In the late afternoon, a fairly thick layer of clouds developed.  We set up to photograph some dunes in the east, hoping there would be a break in the clouds and the last rays of sunlight would generate a beautiful glow to the hills of sand.   The time of the sunset came and we didn’t get the effect that we were expected, but turning around and surveying the hills to the west, we discovered that the clouds had lifted a little from the horizon and we were going to be treated to a little evening color.

The picture above was captured with a Canon 5D Mark III, with a Canon EF 24 – 105 lens at a focal length of 40 mm with a 2 sec exposure and the aperture set at f/16.

Getting Motivated

This winter, we have been making a more concerted effort to get out for some photography day-trips.  We realized that we needed a project to focus our efforts.  To that end, we assigned ourselves a project to create a photo book about hiking the Spring Mountains, with particular focus on Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, which is a 30 minute drive from Las Vegas.  I don’t know if the book will ever come to fruition, but it has been a good motivator to get us out hiking.

Finding the motivation to get out for some photography on the weekends can be a little difficult.  We have always enjoyed hiking on the weekends.  It helps clear our brains and the fresh air and exercise feel great.  However, the extra challenge of planning some photography and getting out early for sunrise (or staying out late for sunset) can be a bit of a psychological and logistical hurdle.  By the time we finish a five day work week at our “paying” jobs, we often find it difficult to scrape up the energy and brain-power to concentrate on our creative hobby.  Weekends can also mean accomplishing a few of the chores that don’t get done during the week.  A big part of the challenge is thinking up new places to hike that have attractive photo opportunities.  Selecting a long-term project, like the Red Rock Book, creates focus for our hiking and photography, so it takes a lot less mental energy to get us out there with the cameras.

We recently changed the knapsacks that we use to carry our photography gear.  We switched to Mindshift Rotational-180 Horizon backpacks.  Most of the gear that we need for a day trip is all packed in the bags.  We can literally grab our packs and a couple of bottles of water and go.  Of course it still requires that we charge the batteries and make sure that we have memory cards ready and in the cameras.   However, we make a habit of doing that after we return from each day of photography.

Having a specific set of photographic goals and photo kit that is ready to grab-and-go helps us to overcoming the psychological and logistical hurdles.  We have found that we have a better attitude about getting out to capture great images.


Shiny Pebble Photography


I hate to say it, but I have become a “shiny pebble” photographer.  It is a curse!  My 2016 resolution is to stamp out “shiny pebbles” in my photography!  So what is a “shiny pebble” photographer?  It is a photographer that spends the time, effort and planning to be in the right spot at the right time to get the spectacular picture but gets so mesmerized by the  other possibilities that he/she ends up taking a bunch of mediocre pictures and most likely misses the “wow” image that we all try to obtain!

A few weeks ago, Corinne and I took a hike from our neighborhood toward some distant hills to the southwest.  We realized that the best time to take photographs of the area would be at sunrise.  However, it would be a hike of an hour or more to the best location.  Getting to the place that might offer the best composition during a pre-dawn hike would be too challenging if we didn’t have it scoped out first.  So, the initial hike was to find the “right” spot.   We started the hike in the late morning and we checked out several viewpoints before we settled on the one that seemed to be the best.  I took a few photographs with my smartphone so that I would have a good sense of the composition that I wanted to set up when we came out with our camera gear.  Corinne had used the “Map My Hike” application on her smartphone so that we could find the selected viewpoint again.

On December 30, we got up at 4:30 am and headed out in the dark for the previously discovered out location.  We arrived before dawn and had several minutes to set up our cameras for the planned composition.  Next, we had to have patience.  It was cold.  Corinne paced around to keep the blood circulating.  As the sun began to rise, a nice rosy glow slowly developed on the hills.  I had to keep to my original plan and not get distracted.  “Remain focused”, I told myself.  “Stick to the plan and don’t get distracted by shiny pebbles”.   That morning, I got the shot I planned.  It was nice, not excellent, but I was happy that I had the discipline to not stray because any other photos that morning would not have let me capture my best potential shot for the morning.

So, my 2016 pledge is to do the planning and make the effort to get to the right place at the right time and focus on creating the composition that I have in my mind.    I believe that the result will be more images with the “wow” factor!

Winter Wonderland

Moon Rise over Bryce Canyon 2
Each December between Christmas and New Years Day, we try to get away for a camping trip to enjoy two of our passions, hiking and photography.  This year, our original trip to southeast Arizona had to be modified at the last minute due to time restrictions.  Rather than abandoning our trip entirely, we made last minute plans for a much shorter 5-day trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southwest Utah.  It was a cold trip and while we were visiting Bryce Canyon there were a couple of days of heavy clouds and snow flurries.  Despite the weather, we did enjoy some hikes and managed to capture a few photographs.  To display our images, we created a slideshow which we posted on YouTube.com. The link to the video is provided below. We hope you enjoy this selection of some of our favorite photos.

Bryce/Zion Video


December Surprise at Lake Las Vegas

Mountains at sunset
Fall color reflection at Lake Las Vegas

Corinne and I wanted to capture some seasonal lights and were on the prowl for a place that had a small town feel.  We thought Lake Las Vegas and the Montelago Village might provide the scenery we were seeking.  We were wrong but our natural tendency to “shoot what we find” kicked in and we ended up making several very nice urban images (see http://gallery.zfrontierphoto.com and select our “NEW!” gallery to see some of those images).

The landscape image with the waning light on the hills and fall colors reflected in the lake was a completely unexpected scene.  The sun was setting but it was providing very harsh reflected light off of the buildings.  Corinne was working hard to try to use the reflected light to capture a shot of a pedestrian causeway across the water.

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Corinne’s work at photographing the buildings

Uninspired by my initial shots, I looked around for something else to do.  I noticed that the sun was lighting up a small hill across the lake.  Unfortunately, the sky wasn’t all that interesting; no clouds to break up a great expanse of blue.  However, the last of some fall colors in a group of trees across the lake were being warmed by the setting sun and the breeze had become very calm allowing the trees to reflect in the lake.

I tried a number of locations along the bank.  I wanted to crop out as much of the urban structures to leave only the landscape.  I also wanted to get the effect of the sun warming the top of the hills without the hill or sky overwhelming the photograph.  Finally, the key element was to get a nice reflection of the trees in the water.  I worked on a number of different versions trying to get the tree more or less crisply reflected.  In the end, I decided that the slight fuzzy reflected trees appealed to me the most and most accurately represented what I was seeing.

If I were to print this image, I would probably crop out a little more of the sky out of the picture because it is just not adding much.  However, I would want to keep the water in the foreground balanced.

Technical details: The picture was taken just before sunset on December 15, 2015.  The camera was on a tripod and a shutter release was used.   The camera was a Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens.  The focal length was 80mm at f/22.  The ISO was set at 100.  The shutter speed was 1.3s with a 0.33 exposure compensation and the white balance was set on Cloudy.  We shoot to capture both JPEG and RAW image formats.  So, the “picture style” associated with the JPEG image (version shown above) was set to Landscape, slightly modified to increase color saturation.

That’s a great shot! How did you get it?

Seattle park path
Seattle Park Path  —  Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 24 mm, f/20, 0.6s, ISO 100

We have increasingly had questions about how we captured some of our landscape, boating and urban images. To that end, we thought we would share some pictures and provide descriptions of the settings we used.

Corinne and I predominantly shoot with Canon 5D Mark III digital cameras. Our workhorse lens is a Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4 L IS lens. We do use other lenses and we will identify these when we make a change. We also shoot with a Canon EOS 60D digital camera. This is a crop sensor camera. Our earlier images are captured with this camera.

Being landscape photographers, we are almost always shooting in conditions of low and reflected light with longer exposures. To avoid camera shake, our cameras are almost always on tripods (Benro carbon fiber tripods with B2 heads) and we use shutter release cables. We also use a number of filters, including Singh-Ray circular warming polarizers and an array of Lee neutral density filters.

We are very much from the camp that says get the very best image you can from the camera. Therefore, we do very little post-production editing. Our editing might include some adjustments to exposure or adding a little more contrast to the sky. We are more akin to photojournalists. We believe that our photographs should show what others could see if they visited the same place (assuming they want to get up at 4:00 AM, hike in the dark and deal with any kind of weather). Occasionally, we will edit out a sign or wire that we just couldn’t shoot around.

Although we often try to get shots at dawn and sunset (the golden hours), the reality is that sometimes we are faced with shooting in the middle of the morning. This means that we need to be flexible. Trying to create an image of a beautiful vista in the harsh midday light of the desert won’t generate a satisfying result. Therefore, we will often shift our thinking to capture images that will be attractive based on the light and the available subject matter.

To get the most out of the camera, it also means that we have to be very familiar with the settings. We shoot in Aperture Priority mode most of the time. When we are in the Pacific Northwest and trying to capture shots of wildlife, we will switch to Shutter Priority mode. In low light conditions, we may use full manual or bulb mode.

We try to capture images with strong compositions. Since I am completely color blind, a beautiful vista of fall color just doesn’t have the impact on me that it does for others. So, if the composition is not pleasing, I am just not that interested. Although we are familiar with many of the rules of composition, (e.g., use of leading lines, rules of thirds, etc.), we continue to work to incorporate these rules in ways that we hope will improve the quality of our images.

We take a lot of pictures, but show less than 1% of the images we take. Because we like to experiment, we find a lot of ways to “not” shoot an image. So, in the posts that follow, we may include some images that are not as strong as others that we really like. There are sometimes good stories about the image that we tried to get.

We hope you enjoy the posts to follow.

Valley of Fire State Park Excursion

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The first thing you need to know about camping at Valley of Fire State Park during the Thanksgiving holiday is that it is busy.  The campsites in the park fill up quickly.  We arrived on Wednesday around 10:00 am.  The park staff at the west entrance gate told us that there were only a few primitive camping spots left at the Arch Rock campground.  However, we boldly decided to take a chance and drive through the Atlatl campground where there were some sites with electrical and water hookups.  To our surprise, we found an open campsite with hookups.  The campsite had a pretty significant grade; regardless, it became our home for the weekend.

Our goal for the weekend was to capture some pictures for our photographic portfolio.  We had a loose plan to capture some landscapes photos in the morning and at sunset and maybe try for some moon, light painting and star photos after dark.

We were traveling with our elderly dog Prince, so our photography had to accommodate his schedule.  There was a time when Prince would have been up for long hikes into the desert and been happy to have been up from sunrise to sunset.  Now, at 14 years old, he finds our hiking schedule too aggressive.  So, getting up early in the morning for a dog walk before we head out with cameras makes it difficult to plan any photo sessions at dawn.  After Prince’s walk, we can leave him in our RV for his morning nap and we set off for our planned hikes.  We returned each day at noon and spent time with Prince for another dog walk and sitting out outside at our campsite.  Then after dinner, we could get out for another photography session.

On our first evening at Valley of Fire, we went a short distance from our campsite to Arch Rock.  We had done a little research and reviewed the location in the early afternoon.  The full moon was going to rise shortly after dark on an angle that might allow us to shoot it using the Arch as a frame.   Although we had nailed the planning, our equipment was not quite up to the task of getting the photo we wanted.   The moon was full and bright, but our flashlights were not sufficient for lighting up the foreground of The Arch.  We did capture a couple of nice pictures with the moon backlighting The Arch.  After of couple of hours of working the scene, we were both cold and it was time to retreat to the trailer for a hot drink.

ValleyOfFire CS 046

On Thanksgiving morning, we hiked the Prospect Trail.  This is a wonderful trail that can be followed to a junction with the White Dome Trail.  We planned a shorter 2 mile walk up into the pass where there are a series of interesting rock formations.  We had planned to spend about an hour among the rocks, but in the end we spent the entire morning working around the rocks.  The light was pretty good for mid-morning and finding great compositions was challenging and fun.

Friday morning we had planned to do two hikes, one on the Duck Rock Trail and one on the White Dome Trail to shoot the slot canyon once the sun was a little higher in the sky.   It was a short hike out to Duck Rock.  Unfortunately, at the time we arrived, the angle of the sun and thick cloud layer made shooting very difficult.  We tried to capture a decent image from a bunch of different angles. We walked to the far side of Duck Rock (it doesn’t look like a duck from that side) and we even hiked up an adjacent hill but nothing we did resulted in a composition that we liked.

Before we returned back to the car, Corinne suggested we continue down the wash to see if there might be something of interest a little further along the trail.  We scored!  Being open to walking a little farther can be the biggest factor in finding wonderful landscape subjects.  Less than a quarter mile down the trail, we ran into a series of natural tanks.  These are depressions that hold water.  Tanks are rare and important to the desert habit.  They provide water for local wildlife.  From the rock ledges above the tanks, the entire valley opened up providing a very interesting vista. 

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The geology in the area is very colorful.  We spent hours moving around the rocks, trying different compositions.  We spent so much time at Duck Rock Trail that we never made it over to White Dome Trail.  It was getting on to early afternoon and it was time to return and spend time with Prince.

Friday night found us out doing some light painting of the rocks near the campground.  Shawn gets a kick out of creating unexpected scenes on the rocks.  Corinne was more interested in getting a photo of star trails.  Unfortunately, right after we decided to switch from light painting to star photos, a cold wind started to blow.  Even with heavy cameras and excellent tripods the camera shake was very obvious.  Furthermore, the temperature dropped from being merely cold to uncomfortable!  It was time to retreat to the RV for a hot drink.

ValleyOfFire SS 132

On Saturday, we returned home to Las Vegas.  It was a short but fun trip.  Now it is time to see if we can make the most of the photographs we captured.

South Loop – A Favorite Hike


It’s Saturday morning and the tea is prepared in our travel mugs and the dog has been dressed in his collar.  Saturday mornings are for hiking.  It is the favorite time of the week for the whole family.  We head off to one of our very favorite hikes which we call the South Loop.  The hike is actually along a portion of a favorite bike trail network in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (RRCNCA) called the Cottonwood Valley Trails.  It is located on the south side of Blue Diamond Road, between Las Vegas and Pahrump.  If you come from Las Vegas and pass the turn for Blue Diamond and RRCNCA, you should be able to easily identify the turn-off because it is only substantial dirt road heading south before you go over a mountain pass (Mountain Springs Summit).  The road is identifiable by a dirt parking area with a primitive toilet.   We like to park in a small dirt lot that is about 0.75 miles down the gravel road on the east side.   

The trail is open to mountain bikes, hikers, and horseback riders.  From the parking area, you can either take the loop trail north or south.  We prefer the southbound direction because it is usually counter to the direction of the bikes and it provides us with good visual warning when they are heading our way.  The bikes come down some very steep sections and some riders appear to be operating at the limit of their capabilities.  Although the trail markers indicate that bikes are to defer to horses and walkers, this is rarely the trail protocol.  Bikes expect the walkers to get out of their way.  That said, many riders have expressed their appreciation of us stepping off the trail and allowing them to continue through. 

As you travel south, you will gain several hundred feet in elevation.  The topography and vegetation is very nice through this area.  From the parking area, you start in a desert valley and then as you head south you go through a canyon with some large shrubs and junipers.  Many years ago, there was a fire in the canyon, but now the vegetation is returning.  So you will see a mixture of burnt and fallen down Joshua trees and new younger plants.  When you have gained about 250 feet in elevation, you will arrive at a level area with a large juniper tree.  Here the trail splits. If you continue south you will come out to a wider trail that heads slightly to the west.  This trail connects with the gravel road that you drove in on (but much further south of the parking area).  You can either follow the gravel road back or cross the road and continue west onto a longer loop trail that will take you back to the parking lot.  This loop option will take you about 3 to 4 hours to complete (assuming you walk at a moderate pace).  Most often, when we arrive at the split in the trail, we choose the left trail.  Immediately we follow a series of switch-backs up to Badger Pass, the saddle between two hillsides.  It is possible to take a smaller hiking trail to the North that heads to one of the summits.  Typically, we continue east and then north down the trail.  As we head down, we follow a lovely valley that opens up to some desert meadow areas.  In the spring, there are many yellow and purple wildflowers along the trail.  On one occasionally, we were fortunate to see a bighorn sheep on the rocky hillside watching us walk by.   In the meadow, there is another fork in the trail.  If you head west, the trail will return to the parking lot.  If you continue north, you will eventually arrive at the large paved parking lot on the north side of Blue Diamond Road where most of the bike riders park their cars.

This is a lovely morning walk.  It requires a little bit of energy as you gain a fair bit of elevation.  However, the trail is easy to find.  The bikes have worn a pretty big groove in the trail and good walking shoes are a necessity.  In the spring the trail has a lot of flowers.  As summer comes on, you will also see many lizards that lay out in the sun to warm themselves.  It is not unusual to see desert hares and coyote as well.  In the spring, the canyon and valley on either side of Badger Pass is rocking to the tunes of birds passing through to their summer homes.

 We have also uploaded a video of a recent hike.  We hope you enjoy it!



China Ranch Date Farm

China Ranch Date Farm in Tecopa CA is an unusual oasis in the Mojave Desert. It is about 85 miles west of Las Vegas and it is an easy day trip. It is also a short drive from Death Valley National Park. We visit the date farm approximately once a year to have a short hike along the creek and to enjoy a nice date milkshake afterwards. We use the trip to stock up on the many varieties of dates (an excellent natural sweetener for smoothies and baking) and a loaf of date bread or two usually falls in the bag. The store also has a variety of locally made art, semi-precious stones and antiques. All in all the store is a very pleasant browsing opportunity.

YouTube Video

China Ranch History

The legend goes that a Chinese man came to this canyon after many years of working in the Death Valley borax mines. He developed the water, planted fruits and vegetables, and raised meat for the local mining camps. It became known as Chinaman’s Ranch. The water at China Ranch is sourced from Willow Creek. Sometime in 1900, a man named Morrisonarrived and apparently he ran the Chinese farmer off at gun point and claimed the Ranch for his own. Since then, the canyon has had many owners and has fulfilled many different purposes,including a fig farm, cattle ranch, hog farm, alfalfa farm, and others. In 1970, the property was purchased by Charles Brown Jr. and Bernice Sorrells, the son and daughter of area pioneer and long-time State Senator Charles Brown of Shoshone. It remains under the ownership of these families today. The date grove was planted from seed in the early 1920’s by VonolaModine, youngest daughter of Death Valley area pioneer RJ Fairbanks.

Over the years, several national magazine companies as well as movie studios have taken advantage of the fantastic scenery here as a back drop for their projects. The scenery available includes austere badlands, lush desert oases, palm orchards, rocky gullies and canyons, a running desert stream, historic buildings, and others. In 2001 Paramount Studios used China Ranch for the desert scenes of their hit movie "The Sum of All Fears", starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman.


In March and April both the male and female trees produce a dozen or more large brown flower pods which split open to reveal the flowers inside. The long stems of male flowers, heavy with pollen, are gathered and placed inside the female flowers to assure complete pollination. One male tree can supply enough pollen for 40-50 females. By mid May, the developing dates on the female plants are marble sized and the flower stalk has grown to a length of 4-6 feet. In late August the bundles are nearly full-sized, but are still green and immature. Depending upon the variety, the dates will now turn either bright red or golden yellow. At the farm, the dates are covered with heavy paper wraps to protect them from rain, birds, and sunburn. In the fall, the fruit is fully ripe, turning either deep brown or jet black, and softening and sweetening into luscious fruit. The harvest season lasts from September through December, as each of the different varieties ripen. Typical adult trees will produce100-300 pounds of fruit each season.


A trail guide at the China Ranch gift shop list several hikes in the area. Their web site (http://www.chinaranch.com/) also lists 6 hikes, including the short 200 yard creek trail that has nice interpretative signs and the more ambitious 4-mile Slot Canyon trail.

The Slot Canyon Trail is a four mile round-trip hiking and equestrian trail that leads to a unique and interesting canyon. To get here, take the Amargosa River Trail, from China Ranch, to the Amargosa River. Go north, along the T&T railroad grade, to the rock-lined side trail, leading west. Follow this trail a short distance to the river, cross the river, and follow the wash, up along the west bank. Cross the river with care. This is a shallow river, and you should have no difficulty. Continue up the wash, which ends in a narrow and twisted "slot canyon," with vertical walls.

The Amargosa River Trail was established on the historic T&T railroad grade, through Amargosa Canyon. The only trailhead available to access the Amargosa River trail is located at the China Ranch Date Farm. This trail retraces portions of the Old Spanish Trail. Six miles of trail are maintained up the canyon to the north. This includes a two-mile loop trail from China Ranch to the confluence of Willow Creek and the Amargosa River, and then back up the east side of the creek. The nearly level grade provides easy hiking and horseback riding opportunities.

The Amargosa River begins in Nevada, draining several thousand square miles of central Nevada. It flows south into California for over 100 miles, then it flows north for 80 miles, ending its journey at Badwater in Death Valley. Along the way it is fed by numerous freshwater springs, geographically isolated from other areas. The Amargosa River is often called the “hide and seek” river because of its inclination to travel underground, occasionally resurfacing to create lush oases surrounded by a harsh dry desert environment. The Amargosa River is one of only two perennial rivers in the Mojave Desert, and one of the only free flowing desert rivers in the US southwest.