24 December 2009

If Mr. Claus was Fully Employed in 2009...

Let's imagine the various agents (titans and minions alike) that run (and are run by) our financial empire were able to control their greed, perspective and the genie that was let out of the regulatory bottle. Let's suppose the Great Recession didn't happen and the fully and gainly employed numbers were increased by just one. Let's pretend that money is (almost) no object and that Santa was feeling especially generous this Christmas. Let my imagination run amok and daydream about what would be most cool to find under the tree tomorrow? Yes, photo gear no doubt would rate highly.

Being an avid Pentax user (are there any more of us out there?) I would love to find a K-7 waiting for me, especially now that Mrs. Claus can buy it at a reduced price at B&H Photo. Based on what I've read, this body is a significant improvement in a number of ways on the K20 which was a quantum jump over the previous K10. I own both of the latter but would like to have both of my primary shooters as similar in resolution as the K7 and K20 are (both 14.6 mp).

I have a pretty complete flight of lens for my Pentaxes but there are a few gaps that are begging to be filled. One of those is a fast, "normal," auto-focus prime lens that is a super portrait performer and allows creative opportunities for compositional and
bokeh wing-stretching. Either the Pentax 55mm f/1.4 or the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 would make this photo-camper oh so happy. Another lens I have been eying for some time is Sigma's 10-20 f/3.5. Yes, I know I have Sigma's 12-24mm and it is a very nice lens with an incredible sweep of perspective. But the 10-20 is faster with a fixed aperture and importantly permits the use of filters on the end of the objective. All good reasons for Santa to drop one under my drooping tree.

I would also love a lens to cover the range 18-135mm or even 18-250mm. For Pentax photographers the choices are pretty much relegated to Sigma: either the 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 or perhaps the 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3. Either of these lens -- and especially the latter -- would allow me to walk-about with one one or two less lenses. That counts when traveling abroad or hiking in the desert.

There is finally a point-and-shoot for photographers: the
Leica D-Lux 4 and yes, it is high on my list. It's not cheap, but it is a Leica and based on everything I have seen and read, it is a mighty tiny camera.

Of course any digital photographer these days needs post-processing power. I drum my fingers waiting for my old (last year's model) PC running XP to process my 40MB HDR files, not to mention my 120MB TIFF scans. So, yes, I would also like an Apple Mac Pro...preferably the
3GHz 8-core model with 12GB RAM...please...oh and maybe the 30" Apple Cinema Monitor?

I think I just tipped the balance with that last request and I don't want to be on Santa's Bad Karma list. It's easy to daydream but some of the above will indeed creep into my kit bags. For this Christmas I'll make due just fine with my current gear and computers and the lot and just settle for one little old thing under the tree...

07 December 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part IV

We had already captured two sunrises that were beautiful, but essentially very similar: gray-purple pre-dawn glow
giving way suddenly to a glorious orangish glow followed by the bright white of day. No clouds to give a brilliant pyrotechnic orgy of color with harkened angels singing hallelujah. The forecast was the same (no clouds) so that, coupled with Dan's overworked knee, persuaded us to sleep in. Relatively speaking...

We had one destination this last morning in Zion: return to the Horseshoe bend and photograph the beauty of the riparian curve prior to the harsh light dropping upon it. Fortunately that deep swath of the Virgin River -- below Angel's Landing -- stays in shadow long after the sun has officially risen. We pulled into the large parking lot just after 8:30 took separate paths down to the river and consequently worked the river individually and in our own private fashion. For me, I wandered upstream and with the aid of my (almost) knee-high mud boots crossed to an island (of sorts) and was able to set up for some very nice shots of both the upriver cliffs in golden light and the deeper shadows down river toward the Great White Throne.

ally I worked my way to where Dan was: shooting an old fallen tree that we had "discovered" two days earlier, when we had first visited this area. It is a scenic beauty of a downed giant, with whitened trunk and branches reaching plaintively to the far cliffs, or so it seemed to me. Regardless, the tree made a wonderful subject to work around and photograph from various angles, some images and angles more interesting than others. The sun continued to creep down the high cliff walls and we felt that we had played out this certain bit of heaven on earth as much as we could: it was time for our 'ritual' of real coffee at the Mean Bean Coffee House before checking out of both our motel and Zion National Park.

For a final photo op, we stop at what remains of the Mormon ghost town of
Grafton. Of the 4 buildings still extant, the schoolhouse-cum-church and the Alonzo and Nancy Russell Home -- the latter a two-story ranch house with quite a bit of square footage for a town of this size -- are in the best condition. Across from the Russell home is a more ramshackle structure identified as the Louisa Foster Russell Home. It would be forgettable but for the original adobe fireplace that still stands. A last stop at the graveyard on the way out of town reminds me of just how tenuous life was
a mere century and a quarter ago: killed by Indians, taken by diphtheria, drowning, a swing accident (!) that killed two teenage girls, etc. A lot of tragedy for such a small town, but hopefully leavened with a fair dose of happiness and the simple pleasures that were unique to Western frontier life.

Dan spins some classic 70's rock on our way home (Supertrtamp, Steely Dan, Lee Michaels, Malo) and I ponder why it took me so long to return to Zion. Twenty-seven years between visits is a bit much. I could say that it has something to do with the NPS' anti-dog policy. Or the fact that the Parks can be incredibly overrun with tourists. Or, that I had been seeking a more primitive experience that is better sought and realized in Wilderness Areas. Or maybe that we have been having too much of good time exploring Europe. Or, I could just say "stuff happens," leave go of over-analyzing, and promise to return NEXT year. Yeah, that works.

03 December 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part III

Another early morning, another bad pot of coffee. Regardless, we're out the door by 6:15 with our destination just 10 minutes up the road: Courtyard of the Patriarchs.

I was set to scramble down to the river for what I thought would be some nice valley-and-river sunrise shots, but Dan gently suggested that we head up the hill behind us for a grander view of the Patriarchs. And, yes: he was right. A short asphalt 'trail' leads to a viewpoint -- already manned by a photographer -- so we clambered up higher and higher. We finally reached a glorious spot probably 100 meters higher than the road, unobstructed by trees (no mean feat) with almost a 180° view of the ramparts in front of us. We had again arrived in time to capture the pre-dawn glow I so like. Soon the sun's rays hit the top of the cliffs and how quickly the light changed. From a soft, warm, orange-ish fuzz to bright yellow and quickly (too quickly!) -- once the shadow curtain has completely fallen -- to a harsh white light. I capture the progression of the sun's path on the far walls in both color and IR, before we and the dawn quit.

Down the hill and to the Virgin River we go, as I originally wanted. Good thing that Dan suggested uphill for the sunrise: the view of the Patriarchs was significantly blocked from the river side. I capture a few nice reflections in the rapidly flowing river and manage to lose one of my tripod's rubber foots in the soft, enveloping mud. (Note to tripod manufacturers: do something about this. Do I have to super glue all of those rubber buggers?)

Next stops, the ranger station to pick up a permit for The Subway and then some real coffee again at Mean Bean Coffee House. The Subway has become one of those iconic locations that we so love to discovery and then love to death. What Delicate Arch is to Arches National Park, The Subway is becoming to Zion, or so I submit. In its favor, it is a slog of a hike from the Left Fork trail head, as I find our fairly quickly. This and the permitting system which limits the number of people in the canyon on a daily basis, prevents hoards of casual hikers from cluttering up the view and experience. A short 15 minutes from the trailhead we start the steep 250 meter descent to the Left Fork of North Creek. The guidebooks suggest you wander upstream looking for trails on either side of the fortunately low creek. We do this and it is a slow 4 mile hike to the first set of miniature falls that mark the near-beginning of The Subway proper.

The creek itself is beautiful with high sandstone walls on either side that keep us almost perpetually in the shade. We see occasion rockfalls that look quite recent and I am reminded how nothing is static; that this landscape is dynamic, just on a scale difficult for us to appreciate. We encounter a fellow explorer/photographer at the first set of small cascading falls. Up until this point the solitude was sublime. Proceeding a bit further upstream we encounter another photographer who has lugged a heavy 8 x 10 large format camera and has it positioned with his almost equally heavy tripod over a joint in the sandstone that is overflowing with rushing water.

the corner lies The Subway, certainly one of the most amazing canyons I have seen. The approach to the narrow funnel is long and I can only wonder at the force of water that courses through during flash floods. Dan tells me that the log in in this image was further upstream the last time he was here.

The pools coupled with the strangely warm glow of the Subway itself make extremely compelling photographic subjects. I spend well over an hour within a 10 meter square area composing and shooting long exposures, trying to capture the unique nature of this space. The rock is wet, slick and tricky to walk on and soon my feet are chilled to the bone (as they say) and I need to seek the sun of the outer canyon while Dan works his 4 x 5. The day grows long and based on Dan's previous experience (best left to him to tell) and advice, you don't want to be caught in the canyon after dusk, so we begin to head downstream.

Some of the cascades are still partially in the sun and make interesting visual compositions but the dappled nature of the water and rock don't translate well via a camera.
However, the sun continues to drop an
d we reach a stretch of shaded creek that is absolutely gorgeous and amazingly rich with copper tones. Dan has to practically drag me away from the scenes and the logical part of my brain says "go, fly with the light!" or some such poetic nonsense.

The slog out is long but our way is helped by the discovery that the main section of the unmaintained trail stays pretty much on the right-side (faced downstream) of the creek and so our journey is quicker than our way in. Nonetheless, the sun has already set by the time we reach the base of the cliffs and the steep climb out of the canyon. Up, up, up we go.

I pass a young man sitting on a rock who asks for water (which I give, having drank little of it myself) and wonder
s aloud whether he can make it. I tell him that he is less than 45 minutes from the trailhead and victory will surely be his soon. (The drill sergeant in me wants to add: "if you stop complaining, get off yer arse and start putting one foot in front of the other!" - but, I refrain.)

Once on top, the last 1/2 hour goes quickly but not without a wee bit of confusion. In the gloom of post-dusk, my night-adjusted eyes can follow the trail through the junipers with no problem until I reach a wash where tracks go in every which direction. I can't really recall the wash when we hiked in some 6 hours earlier, but I make a decision to continue out of the wash on the now faint and fading trail, which of course turns out to be the correct decision. At the trailhead, wishing for a beer (ALWAYS pack a cooler with beer for trail's end, dude!) I watch the moonrise and capture a last night shot.

Dan's knee is killing him (2 weeks shy of surgery) and so it's an early night and dinner back at the motel restaurant, the Switchback Grill. Not bad at all and the beer is cold.