Eight Things I Love About Being a Nature Photographer

Dramatic storm light pierces through clouds to illuminate a formation known as The Castle above Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

Dramatic storm light pierces through clouds to illuminate a formation known as The Castle above Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

Being nature photographers gives us access to things most people will never see and experiences many will never understand.  A brief exchange about such things with two other photographers on twitter led me to ponder on this for a while.  I came up with eight things I love about being a nature photographer.  I know there are more, and I’m sure you’ll all have some excellent additions to the list.

1. Seeing the natural world around me in a more intimate way than those whose eyes don’t appreciate the nuances of light, texture, shadow and form.
2. Sunrises and sunsets in the mountains, canyons and deserts.  Nuff said.
3. Being able to share the visual beauty of those sunrises and sunsets with those who weren’t able to enjoy the moment with me.
4. Getting excited when I hear a good storm is headed my way.
5. Sitting alone, in the middle of the most beautiful nowhere anyone has ever seen, watching shadows lengthen and waiting for those few glorious moments when the light is just right for making an image.
6. Knowing where and when to find the best wildflowers, the best fall colors, the best waterfalls, the best mountain views, the best alpine lakes, the best wildlife, the best…ah, you get the point.
7. Meeting all the really amazing people I never would have met if I hadn’t been addicted to nature photography.
8. All the amazing places I’ve been that I wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t on the prowl for new and exciting locations to photograph.

So, there’s my list.  I’d love to hear some things you love about being a nature photographer.  List ‘em in the comments below!

To Make a Photograph…Or Not?

As nature photographers it is often our goal to seek out unspoiled wilderness and pristine subjects to share with the world through our imagery.  Many of us like to think that in doing so we are helping to create awareness for these areas and potentially increasing conservation efforts.  Is it possible, though, that our images have exactly the opposite effect?  Could it be that our photographs increase traffic, which in turn raises the environmental impact upon an area?  If so, is that a reason not to make an image or at least, not to share that image with the world?

These are questions to which I don’t have the answer.  I ask them now as a result of events I experienced last year upon discovering a small Native American ruin in Arches National Park that even the rangers didn’t know existed.

I was off exploring a vast wilderness of slickrock well away from the roads and crowds and iconic locations within the park.  While scrambling around I quite literally stumbled upon a small granary tucked into a secluded alcove.  Unlike most granaries in the Moab area, which are crumbling into decay, this one was nearly perfect.  Mud mortar still held together red sandstone rocks comprising the walls and every stone was in place – not one had fallen.  A large black widow web covered the small opening, glistening in the mid-day sun.  I shined a headlamp through the portal, revealing several small, dried corn cobs scattered about the dirt floor.  Imagine the thrill!  I immediately extracted my camera from its pack and began working the scene until I was satisfied that I’d created a portrait worthy of this neat little ruin.  I quickly packed up my gear and headed back to my truck, anxious to download the images and share my bounty with friends, strangers and the rest of the world on a few internet photography forums I frequent.

I made a pit stop at the visitor center to inquire about the ruin.  I showed the photos to several rangers, none of whom were aware of it’s existence.  What a jewel I had found!  Out the door I went, still in a hurry to show off my latest find.

At home I downloaded photos and chose the best image to post online.  Within a week of posting the photo I received no less than a dozen emails from other photographers asking me to disclose the location.  I had no intent of telling anyone where to find the ruin.  Not because I wanted to keep it to myself.  Rather, I have seen how other ruins have become, well…ruined, when their location is published and oft-visited by hikers and photographers.  I didn’t want the same to happen to this perfect little granary, perched high on a cliff overlooking a beautiful canyon.

I began to feel a bit disgusted with myself.  Did I post the photo for an ego boost, a sort of “look what I found and you didn’t”?  Was my photo going to be the reason for the demise of the granary now that people knew it was out there, waiting to be discovered?

I decided then and there that occasions arise when maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t make an image.  Or, at the very least, if we choose to press the shutter button we don’t do so with the intent of creating a photograph for public consumption.  Perhaps it is best to let some images live in our memory or on our hard drive, waiting to be rediscovered only by us.

Are there times we should choose to put away the camera or just not share an image with the world?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the “comments” section below.

Long-Term Review and Comparison of Four Backpacks for Outdoor Photographers

If you’ve been an outdoor photographer for more than a few minutes you’ve likely already encountered the conundrum faced by almost every single one of us: how do I carry my photo gear while hiking?  Do I wrap it in a jacket and stuff it in my daypack?  Do I wear it around my neck and then work out the kinks later at the chiropractor?  Maybe I should pack it into a rolling suitcase and tow it down the trail?  Don’t laugh – I’ve seen it.  While you could settle for any of these solutions there are far better alternatives available to us these days.  In the last couple of years an assortment of backpacks have been brought to market that allow outdoor photographers to carry camera gear in an organized and protected manner while also providing room for hiking essentials like water, snacks and extra clothing.  So now the dilemma is, which photo backpack do I choose?  Well folks, I’m here to help you answer that question.

I obtained backpacks from four of the premier manufacturers of photography packs: f-stop gear, Lowepro, Clik Elite and Mountainsmith.  Each company agreed to provide me with a backpack to use, abuse and review.  That was six months ago.  Since then I’ve loaded up each pack with my camera gear and used them in the mountains, canyons and deserts of Utah and Wyoming.  I didn’t feel like I’d get to know the packs if I only used them once or twice.  I wanted to put in some time with each pack, hence the extended review period.

There are no winners or losers here.  Backpacks are a subjective thing and for me to say that you should all run out and buy pack “X” would just be silly.  We’re all built differently and we have different needs, so the point of this review is to help you identify a pack that is most likely to satisfy your individual requirements.

I tested four packs for this review: f-stop gear Tilopa BC, Lowepro Rover Pro 35L AW, Clik Elite Contrejour 35 and Mountainsmith Borealis AT.  For reference, I’m 5′9″ tall with a 32″ waist, 30″ inseam and a 19″ torso, which is the most important measurement when determining correct pack size.  I don’t travel light.  On any given day hike I’m usually lugging around a 25-30 pound backpack.  Finally, I always carry my camera with one lens attached in a Clik Elite chest pack.  I carry the rest of my gear in my backpack, including three extra lenses, a 550EX flash, a set of Pocket Wizards, three filters, extra batteries. a HoodLoupe, a collapsible 5-in-1 reflector, and a few small, miscellaneous items.  This set-up provides me with immediate access to my camera without first having to remove my backpack.

Before we dig into the comparison, let’s review some terminology and things to know when shopping for a pack.  The suspension is the overall system that attaches the pack to your body, which includes the shoulder straps and hip (or waist) belt, as well as whatever structure connects all the straps to the pack.  Some brands use plastic sheets while others use aluminum or plastic rods.  The hip belt is a belt (usually padded) that wraps around your hips and buckles in the front at a point that is typically just below your belly button.  A good backpack suspension system will transfer the majority of the pack weight to your hips – not your shoulders.  For a more in depth look at backpack technology and a great tutorial on how to properly fit a pack, check out “Backpacks: Adjusting the Fit” on the REI website.

Lowepro Rover Pro 35 AW ($299)

Lowepro is the grandfather of the photo backpack business.  They’ve been manufacturing packs for over 40 years and have outfitted some of the most influential photographers in modern history.  However, until the recent release of the Rover Pro 35AW and its bigger brother, the Rover Pro 45AW, I didn’t feel their packs truly met the needs of outdoor photographers who spend hours trekking through difficult terrain with camera gear on their back.  I’ve logged many miles with the Rover Pro 35AW and I’m here to say, Lowepro’s got a keeper.  The single most important factor in determining whether I love or hate a pack is how my back feels after a long day on the trail.  The Rover Pro 3AW fits me well and afforded a very comfortable carry.  An adjustable shoulder harness allowed me to fine tune the fit but the pack won’t provide an optimal fit for those with torso lengths greater than 19″.  The Rover Pro 35AW ships with one modular removable camera case that includes a second, small pouch for accessories such as extra batteries or filters.  On the downside, the camera case was too small to carry ALL of my extra gear.  An integrated rainfly is included and stows into its own compartment on the bottom of the pack.  It is easy to access and deploy.  A tripod attachment system on the side of the pack provides a stable method of transport for that critical piece of nature photography equipment.  If you prefer to carry your tripod in the middle of the front of your pack, you’re out of luck as there’s no good way to do it.  There are small bungee straps on the front panel that allow you to stow trekking poles or an ice axe when not in use.  If you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an ugly pack, fret not: the Rover Pro 35AW is quite handsome without drawing undue attention to itself and your expensive gear.  The pack includes a dedicated pocket on the side for a water bladder, which is cool, except that it will only fit a small bladder.  Pockets on the waist belt for the win!  I honestly don’t know why every single backpack on the market doesn’t have pockets on the waist belt as they are the perfect place to carry small stuff that should be easy to access like snacks, lip balm or even a point and shoot camera.  There’s even a stretchy shove-it pocket on the front of the pack.  A few things I wasn’t crazy about: the hip belt straps are excessively long and hang down to my knees when the belt is cinched tight.  The lid pocket is so small that it’s pretty much full with only a headlamp, a couple granola bars, a pair of gloves and a Leatherman stuffed inside.  Accessing your camera gear via the front panel requires you to lay the pack on the ground with the back panel and shoulder straps in the dirt, mud or snow, guaranteeing that you’ll get your back dirty when you put the pack on again.

All things considered, the Rover Pro 35AW is a top performer with many great features from a respected company with a reputation for building high quality gear.  The adjustable harness means this pack will fit a wide variety of photographers, excepting those who are really long in the torso.

Clik Elite Contrejour 35 ($359)

The Clik Elite Contrejour 35 is the only pack in this review that provides two ways to access your camera gear: from the side or via the back panel.  Side panel access allows you to keep the pack slung over one shoulder as you swing it around to retrieve your camera.  I didn’t use this feature because I carry my camera in a chest pack but for those who don’t, I can see how this could be a useful feature.  With no adjustable harness the pack is more limited in the range of torso sizes it will fit.  It was borderline too small for me as the waist belt had a tendency to ride up and off my hips while hiking.  The Contrejour 35 is rated at 29.5 liters (which is strange given the 35 in the name) but it seems much more roomy with a large, padded camera bay, a seemingly bottomless main compartment that can be accessed from the top or the side, a large front pocket with two memory card pouches and yet another small, zippered pocket in the main compartment.  There’s an integrated rain fly on the bottom of the pack for when the weather turns wet.  A dedicated bladder compartment on the back panel holds large bladders and is easy to access for refills but my Camelbak 100 ounce bladder gave it an odd, semi-rounded shape when full of water that made for an awkward fit.  I think a different bladder brand with a wider profile might mitigate this issue, though.  My Induro CT213 tripod carried well along the side of the pack with the legs tucked into a deep, stretchy mesh pocket.  If you’re a skier or snowboarder, the Contrejour 35 has straps on the front for attaching skis or a board.  There are no pockets on the waist belt nor is there any good way to carry a tripod on the front of the pack.

If the Contrejour 35 fits you I think you’ll be quite satisfied.  Access is the name of the game as all pockets and compartments are easy to get into and two of them even provide two ways to get to your gear.  Materials are top-quality, there’s a ton of room for camera gear and hiking essentials, and it’s all assembled into a nice looking package.

Mountainsmith Borealis AT ($189)

At $189, the Mountainsmith Borealis AT is the most affordable pack in this review.  The design team at Mountainsmith has learned a thing or two about how to make a good backpack over the last 30+ years and they’ve infused much of that knowledge into the Borealis AT.  It’s got the best tripod carrying system of the bunch with a fold-away reinforced pocket that seems indestructible.  The camera compartment is located at the bottom of the pack, is heavily padded to protect your gear and opens in a unique clamshell design that provides totally uninhibited access to your equipment.  But, since the tripod is carried on the front of the pack you have to remove the tripod to access your camera gear.  I appreciated that the interior is bright yellow, making it nearly impossible to lose small parts.  The Borealis AT has a padded laptop compartment and several additional pockets that will make even the biggest organization geek happy.  Sadly, none of these pockets are very big which means I can’t recommend this pack for all day epic outings.  I tried stuffing my Mountain Hardwear puffy jacket into the biggest pocket and after a bit of cursing it finally fit, but it took up the entire space.  My biggest misgiving with the Borealis AT is that it simply doesn’t fit my torso.  The waist belt wrapped around my belly – not my hips.  On a positive note, there are two small pockets on the waist belt and it is well padded.  The Borealis AT fit my wife’s 16″ torso perfectly, so it could be an ideal pack for anyone with a small torso.  The Borealis AT comes with a rain fly that fits neatly into its own pocket at the top of the pack but is a little more challenging to deploy because of a narrow zippered opening.  There’s no dedicated bladder pocket but the laptop compartment (without a computer in it!) worked just as well.

Bottom line: if you’re short of torso or budget you should take a hard look at the Borealis AT.  Very high quality materials, a super stable tripod carrying system, a reasonable price and several other thoughtful touches make this pack a worthy competitor.

The backpack reviewed was a 2012 model.  A new version is now available that is claimed by Mountainsmith to address some of the issues I mentioned. I have not tested this new pack and can not confirm their claims.

f-stop gear Tilopa BC ($405)

The f-stop gear Tilopa BC is the biggest pack in this review at a monstrous 48 liters.  At that size, you’re bound to see the pack weight skyrocket as you stuff it full of gear.  Luckily, the Tilopa BC is up to the task of carrying ridiculous loads in comfort – if it fits.  It’s a perfect fit on me but it’s way too big for my wife and since the harness isn’t adjustable if it doesn’t fit, you’re out of luck. The Tilopa BC utilizes a modular Internal Camera Unit, or ICU, to carry and organize camera gear.  Available in a range of sizes this modular approach allows you to customize the pack to suit your needs.  Access to your camera gear is through the zippered back panel, which helps to keep the area of the pack that contacts your body free of dirt and debris.  The lid pocket is big enough to hold most of the “Ten Essentials” and what doesn’t fit there, will surely fit in either the huge main compartment, the large front pocket or the other, smaller front pocket.  There’s an integrated bladder pocket on the inside of the main compartment and MOLLE straps on the hip belt that make it easy to attach extra pockets.  The bottom and front of the Tilopa BC is lined with Hypalon, an extremely durable and abrasion resistant material that stands up well to rough granite and slickrock.  Tripods can be carried on either side of the pack or the front but the side pockets are so shallow that my tripod feet frequently slip out.  There are two small bungees on the outside of the front pocket that allow you to carry trekking poles or an ice axe.  A small pocket on the bottom of the pack is designed to stash a rain fly, which does not come with the pack, but can be ordered for an additional $15.  Honestly though, when you’re paying $405 for a pack, I think it should come with a rain fly…and waist belt pockets.  Maybe even a llama to carry the load.

The Tilopa BC is a full featured pack that carries a ton of gear and heavy loads in comfort – if you’ve got a medium to long torso.  It’s well made, durable and offers many options for customization through the use of interchangeable ICU’s and additional pockets that can be added to the waist belt and shoulder strap.  If the price doesn’t turn you off, the Tilopa BC is an exceptional pack.

With all the great pack options on the market today it’s easier than ever to carry your photography gear into the backcountry.  I hope this post helps you find the right pack that helps you get even more enjoyment out of photographing nature!

Moments and Memories

Squaretop Mountain Reflecting in Green River at Sunset, Wyoming

Squaretop Mountain reflects in the Green River at sunset as an afternoon storm clears in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming.

Last summer my family and I packed up our travel trailer and headed north to Wyoming.  We had no plan, no itinerary.  Only a few vague ideas and a whole mess of maps and guidebooks.  We wandered through Dinosaur National Monument and then followed a lonely highway across rolling hills that eventually gave way to the Wind River Mountains, a range easily equal to the Tetons in rugged beauty but without the national park crowds.  The Winds, as they’re known to locals, invite exploration.  Dirt roads penetrate flanks of the range from the east and west, winding through fragrant sagebrush meadows and climbing higher past stands of aspen trees to alpine lakes and frigid mountain streams.  In summer, colorful wildflowers dot the landscape below skies that begin each day clear and blue before afternoon thunderstorms arrive with dramatic ferocity.

We followed a dirt road a few miles before stumbling across an idyllic campsite.  A warm creek fed by a nearby hot spring cascaded over ledges before emptying into the Green River, itself surrounded by grassy meadows so green they looked fake.  We parked the trailer next to a fire ring left behind by previous campers and continued up the increasingly corrugated road to Green River Lakes.  According to my topographic map, granite peaks rose dramatically above the lakes and would certainly create interesting opportunities for photography.

Almost to the lakes I spotted a calm section of the river just below the road with views of Squaretop Mountain and other nearby peaks catching late afternoon storm light.  My own personal philosophy for landscape photography holds that one should never pass a sure thing for a maybe thing.  This was a sure thing.  I parked the truck and scrambled down to the river’s edge, all giddy with excitement at the scene before me.  My wife chased our son around in a futile effort to prevent him from taking an unintentional dip in the river.  I hurriedly set up my tripod and used my borrowed Nikon D800 (thanks BorrowLenses.com!) to make the image you see above.

I discovered the photo again recently while digging through my archives.  Upon seeing it, I was immediately transported back to that moment, swatting at mosquitoes in the chill evening air, listening to my son laughing and, eventually, splashing in the river, the happy sound of a solid shutter click.  That’s the great thing about photographs.  They allow us to remember those all-too-rare special moments in time when nothing of the outside world is of concern.  No bills to pay, no errands to run – leaving us to relish the enjoyment of time well-spent.

Simple Joys

Jackson Biking on Rusty Spur Trail

My son, Jackson Edge, rides a section of the Rusty Spur trail at Bar M near Moab, Utah.

Earlier this year my wife and I won a GoPro Hero 3+ in an online contest.  The little camera sat in a box on a shelf in my office until a couple days ago, when I finally removed it from its packaging, charged it and read enough of the instruction manual to get started.

Today I took my 5 year old son, Jackson, mountain biking on a singletrack trail near our home.  We’d ridden the trail numerous times before.  I knew that Jackson enjoyed speeding up and racing through one particular curved section of the trail, trying his hardest to kick up a “turkey tail.”  What’s a turkey tail, you ask?  It’s a rooster tail.  But when you’re a kid and your favorite movie is Free Birds, it’s a turkey tail.  So, I mounted our new GoPro on a chest harness and we set out for our ride.

As we approached the curve I pressed the shutter button and the GoPro started taking photos every half second.  Jackson and I sped through the curve and, upon exit, Jackson loudly proclaimed “I crushed it, Dad!”  We stopped and high-fived, shared a small bag of jelly beans and then cranked our way through the rest of the trail.

Back at home I flipped through all the images and found myself smiling wide when I got to this one.  There was Jackson, a tiny little turkey tail spraying off his rear tire.  It was a proud Dad moment, to be sure.  Perhaps even more important, though, was the realization that I’d made an image for the simple joy of it.  Not to print large and hang in my gallery.  Not to sell to an outdoor magazine or some tourism agency.  Just to have a photograph to help me remember and cherish a wonderful morning riding bikes with my best friend.

Bear Therapy in the Tetons

Grizzly bear #760 walks through a wildflower filled meadow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Grizzly bear #760 walks through a wildflower filled meadow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

I’ve had an odd relationship with bears for all of my adult life.  Living in the Sonoran Desert during the formative years of my hiking and backpacking career it was common to cross paths with rattlesnakes.  Consequently, I respected the venomous creatures but harbored little to no fear of them.  Bears, on the other hand, were the thing of nightmares.  They were malicious creatures intent on dragging me out of my tent for a late night snack.  It wasn’t a matter of “if” it would happen, it was “when.”  My fear paralyzed me to the point that one night, while car camping in Flagstaff with an ex-girlfriend, I left our tent after hours of sleeplessness to lock myself in our truck.

Always on-guard with bear spray in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming.

Always on-guard with bear spray in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming.

I knew I wasn’t being rational.  I knew there wasn’t a bear in the woods somewhere that had heard through the grapevine about a tasty little dude in Phoenix.  I read every book I could get my hands on that dispensed bear safety wisdom.  It didn’t help.  Mind you, I’d never actually seen a wild bear.  But that didn’t matter.  Bears were put on earth to eat me and that was that.

Then, in 2000, on my first trip to Grand Teton National Park, I shared a trail with a bear.  Five bears, actually.  Five beautiful black bears who would forever change my relationship with the ursine world.  That same ex-girlfriend and I were hiking to Amphitheater Lake when two young women came around a bend in the trail, their eyes as wide as Frisbees, and breathlessly told us that a mama bear and two cubs were just up the hill.  They wasted no time passing us and continuing down the trail, in the opposite direction of the bear family.  I unholstered my bear spray, clicked off the safety and started slowly walking up the trail.

I saw the sow first.  She was standing dead center in the middle of the trail.  She slowly turned her head to look at us and her expression made it clear that we’d come close enough.  Only 50 yards stood between me and the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen.  We slowly backed away and when the bear was comfortable enough with our distance, she averted her gaze.  Just then, two little cubs wobbled out of the brush and gathered around Mom.  We watched the bears walk the trail uphill for a short distance and then disappear into woods.

I stood there in silence.  Neither of us spoke.  I holstered the bear spray and after some time, a few minutes perhaps, we resumed our upward trek.  Two switchbacks later we saw another bear throwing large clumps of earth as it dug for grubs or possibly roots.  It was right next to the trail, even closer than the first bears.  We stopped at our switchback and hikers coming downhill queued up at the one just above us.  We waited and waited and waited for the bear to finish digging.  Eventually, it did and we passed a dozen or so hikers headed downhill, all of whom had massive grins stretched across their faces.

We made it to the lake and enjoyed a hiker’s lunch in the sun before heading back downhill.  Very near the spot where we’d seen the sow and cubs we again found ourselves in the company of a bear.  This bear was young, maybe two or three years old, and surprisingly small.  It was standing on the trail above a woman who was taking a break just off-trail.  She was digging through her pack, oblivious to the fact that a bear was sniffing the air only a few feet above her head.  We didn’t want to yell at her as we were afraid it would spook the bear.  Instead, we stood quietly and watched, ever hopeful we weren’t about to witness a mauling.  The bear ambled away and began munching on vegetation alongside the trail.  A trail runner coming uphill ran right by the bear, close enough to smack it on the butt if he was so inclined, and rushed past us.  The bear didn’t flinch.  Again we waited for the bear to move and again the bear was living life on his own time.  We watched as several other hikers walked right by the bear and finally decided that maybe we should do the same.  So, we did.  And the bear didn’t budge.

Those encounters must have been therapeutic.  I no longer fear bears.  I respect them.  I hold them in the highest of reverence.  But I don’t fear them.  I don’t lie awake in my tent, panicking every time the wind rustles a few leaves.  I enjoy the quiet, fleeting moments in the mountains when I and a bear occupy the same meadow.  I understand now that bears, for the most part, do not want to make a meal of me.

Melissa, Jackson and I recently spent a few days in the Tetons.  On our first afternoon in the park we found ourselves trapped in the middle of a bear jam near Oxbow Bend.  Traffic wasn’t budging so we sat in the truck and watched a grizzly bear move increasingly closer to the road.  I grabbed my camera with 70-300mm lens attached and made a few images through the open window.  Park rangers soon arrived and somehow managed to get traffic moving in both directions.  Leaving the bear behind, we passed bison and deer, elk and pronghorn, before rolling into town for dinner at the Merry Piglet.

I saw the same bear the next morning.  It was a brief encounter and at much more of a distance.  But it was quieter.  The tourists weren’t awake yet.  Only a handful of die-hard wildlife watchers lingered on the side of the road with high powered spotting scopes and lenses that cost more than my truck.  We each enjoyed our time with the bear and when he disappeared into a willow thicket, I drove off into the clarity of a summer morning.

2015 Utah Scenic Wall Calendars In Stock!

2015 Utah Scenic Wall Calendar

I am excited to let you all know that our 2015 Utah Scenic Wall Calendar is in stock and available for purchase!  These calendars are big (11″ x 14″), printed in stunning full-color and feature 13 photographs of Utah’s gorgeous and diverse landscapes.  Like deserts and arches?  They’re in there.  Canyons?  Got ‘em.  Mountains?  Yup.   I’m particularly fond of the cover.  The Watchman is perhaps Zion National Park’s most recognizable feature and is commonly photographed from “The Bridge” with the Virgin River flowing below it.  On the evening I made the cover photograph an intense thunderstorm that rocked the park all day long serendipitously broke up right at sunset.  The spectacle of light that followed was one of the most impressive I’ve ever witnessed.  I feel lucky to have been there with my camera to record the moment for others to enjoy.

My 2015 Utah Scenic Wall Calendar is available for $11.95 plus shipping or at The Edge Gallery in Moab.  They’re great gifts for clients, teachers, friends, families…heck, even enemies!  Most importantly, you’ll be supporting a small business and helping me fund future trips to keep making beautiful images to share with you.  And for that, I am sincerely appreciative of your support.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR 2015 UTAH SCENIC WALL CALENDAR 

Autumn in Canyon Country Landscape Photography Workshop

Autumn in Canyon Country Photography Workshop

I’m thrilled to announce that this year I’ll be co-leading a landscape photography workshop in Moab with my friend and fellow photographer, Jason Hatfield.  Join us October 9 – 12, 2014 for an intensive three-day workshop in some of the Southwest’s most incredible red rock scenery including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.  This is an exciting opportunity to learn from two passionate and experienced workshop leaders in one of the most desired locations in the U.S.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR OUR AUTUMN IN CANYON COUNTRY PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP

The workshop will begin on the afternoon of Thursday, October 9 with a meet and greet in the lobby of our sponsor hotel, the brand new Comfort Suites in downtown Moab.  We’ll take a few minutes to get to know one another before departing for a group dinner at a popular local restaurant.  After dinner we’ll depart for an immersive field session at sunset at an iconic location in Arches National Park.

The next two days will be a whirlwind!  On Friday we’ll awake early to make the trek up to Dead Horse Point State Park to photograph sunrise over my favorite view in the entire Moab area.  Here the Colorado River does a u-turn 2,000′ below with an endless vista of cliffs and canyons stretching as far as the eye can see!  After our field session we’ll return to town for a short break before retiring to a comfortable meeting room at a local hotel for 4 hours of hands-on digital darkroom instruction.  We’ll utilize the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop software, as well as Nik Software plug-ins, to help workshop participants learn to “process” their RAW images for maximum impact.  An afternoon break will be followed by another field session at sunset at one of many dramatic vistas in the area.

Saturday’s schedule follows the same format as Friday’s with exciting new locations for the  morning and evening field sessions.  We’ll use some of our classroom time to do a group image critique, which is an exercise that workshop participants frequently find to be one of the most fun and valuable aspects of our time together.  Each participant will choose one or two images to share with the rest of the group.  Jason and I will lead a discussion about the images, helping each participant to understand how deconstructing a photograph leads to a deeper understanding of creating dynamic imagery.

On Sunday, we’ll photograph sunrise at a location not far from town.  This will allow us to return to Moab and wrap up the workshop early in the morning, giving all workshop participants the opportunity to begin traveling home at a reasonable time.

Below are a few questions I am frequently asked about my group photography workshops.  They should answer most of your questions but if not, please don’t hesitate to email me.  I’ll respond within a day or two unless I’m on the road with limited access to email.

How physically demanding is this workshop?  The longest hike we’ll do is the trek to Delicate Arch, which is 3 miles round-trip with an estimated elevation gain of 600′.  This is an optional location.  Those who don’t want or can’t make it to Delicate Arch will go with either Jason or me to another location that does not involve much physical effort.  Most of the locations we’ll visit are only a few minutes from a parking lot.

Where should I stay? We’ve negotiated a great rate for our workshop participants with Comfort Suites, the newest hotel in Moab.  Your rate is $138/night.  The hotel opens for business on June 10 and I will have information about making reservations at that time.

What gear should I bring? Rather than make assumptions about your gear, I’ll tell you what I carry every time I head out into the desert to make images.  I use a Canon 5D Mark III as my main camera and the following lenses in order of how often I use each lens: 24-105mm lens, 16-35mm lens, 70-300 mm lens, 15mm fisheye lens.  My 24-105mm lens is the workhorse and is probably used 70% of the time.  A sturdy tripod and reliable ballhead are absolutely critical.  The only filters I carry are a circular polarizer and a solid neutral density filter.

Do I need a laptop and if so, what software should I have on it for the classroom sessions? We will be using the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as the Nik Software plug-ins.  Right now, the latest versions are Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC.

Can I bring a spouse/friend/pet iguana?  Sure, but unless they’re a registered (paid) participant we can not allow them to join us in the field or in the classroom.  Primarily, this is due to our insurance requirements.

Where is the closest airport? There is a small, regional airport just north of Moab called Canyonlands Airfield.  Many people fly into Grand Junction, CO, which is about 1.5 hours from Moab.  The closest major airport is in Salt Lake City, 3.5 hours away.

What is the weather like in October? Spring and fall are generally very temperate, although Mother Nature reserves the right to change her mind.  Most likely, we’ll experience daytime temperatures in the 50′s and 60′s and overnight temperatures in the 30′s.

Do you have all the necessary permits to legally conduct photography workshops in and around Moab? Yes!  I have permits from Dead Horse Point State Park, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and the Bureau of Land Management/Moab office.  Jason and I are both certified in basic first aid and CPR.  I also carry the required liability insurance.  I invite you to contact the local land management agencies to inquire about my permit status, if you’re so inclined.

Why should I take a workshop with you and Jason instead of photographer XYZ? Jason and I are passionate about helping other photographers break through creative barriers and learn to create images that meet their own, unique visions.  We will not utilize our time together to pad our own portfolios.  We’re there to work with you, not make our own images.  We’ll both bring our gear into the field but we only use it to demonstrate concepts or ideas to our workshop participants.  YOU are our #1 priority.  Every participant will receive personal attention and instruction during every field session.  Still not convinced? Take a look at my Trip Advisor page to see why former workshop clients give me a 5 star rating!

Registration is currently open.  Please visit my website to register for the Autumn in Canyon Country landscape photography workshop.

 

Photographer’s Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor's Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor’s Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

I first visited Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park in 2005.  Melissa and I spent a half day touring the overlooks before unanimously deciding that we were unimpressed and should move on to a more interesting location.  In 2012 I was passing by Bryce Canyon on a motorcycle trip when something compelled me to give it another shot.  I rode through a summer monsoon storm along the scenic drive to the end at Rainbow Point, stopping at each overlook to enjoy the view.  I don’t know what inside of me changed but this time, I was awestruck.  I called Melissa and convinced her we needed to plan a trip to Bryce.  She reluctantly agreed.  We came back with our son later that summer and she too was surprised to find herself fascinated by this marvelous canyon.  We camped for two days and hiked among the fanciful hoodoos.  I’ve gone back a couple more times in the last year and am already eagerly planning another trip.

You would think it relatively easy to create beautiful photographs at a place this scenic.  You would be wrong.  Bryce Canyon is a complex place.  Finding a cohesive composition in the right light requires careful study.  Though I’ve visited a number of times I have exactly one photo from Bryce that I consider print-worthy and only half a dozen or so that are marketable (excluding outdoor adventure photographs).  With this post I hope to share a few lessons I’ve learned over several visits that may help to increase your chances of producing quality images.

General Strategies for Photography at Bryce Canyon National Park

The vast majority of overlooks at Bryce Canyon face more or less east so in the morning you’re essentially shooting into the sunrise.  Yes, there are exceptions at some of the side canyons but generally speaking you’ll greet the morning sun head on.  Use this to your advantage!  The light that Bryce Canyon is famous for is that soft, warm glow of reflected light and at Bryce it is strongest at sunrise.  The red hoodoos and badlands absorb sunrise light and bounce it onto the backsides of hoodoos, filling in shadows and giving the entire scene an amazing radiance.  Use a small aperture (i.e. f/16 or smaller) to create a sunburst just as the sun creeps above the horizon.  If you’re including sky in your composition be prepared to deal with the extreme dynamic range between bright sky and darker canyon.  In the past I used graduated neutral density filters.  Now I blend exposures by hand using luminosity masks and am far more pleased with the results.

Don’t stop photographing right after sunrise.  Mid to late-morning is also excellent as you’ll still find wonderful reflected light even hours after sunrise.  This is also a good time to utilize longer focal length lenses to isolate hoodoos or features inside the canyon for a more intimate view.

Afternoon and sunset is a more challenging time to photograph at Bryce Canyon.  The setting sun casts long shadows into the canyon at most overlooks and only the tops of the hoodoos are bathed in light.  Don’t give up though!  Ten to thirty minutes after sunset you may find a pastel pink and blue sky appear above the canyon – Earth Shadow – and a soft glow upon the landscape.  This light is exquisite and very easy to work with as it is low in dynamic range; you can usually record the entire scene in a single exposure.  Clouds may also offer an opportunity for sunset photography as they bounce light into the canyon, filling in some of the shadows just enough to prevent them from completely blocking up.

Choosing the right lens for photography at Bryce Canyon can be challenging.  You will be tempted to go wide by the seemingly endless views but beware of distortion that causes hoodoos on the edges of the frame to bend outward.  I’m not suggesting that you keep your wide angle lenses stashed away – just know that you will need to make some perspective corrections in post-processing.  There are a couple of ways to avoid this: use a tilt/shift lens or stitch two or more frames together to create a single image.  If I had one, a tilt/shift lens would be my first choice.  If you choose to stitch photos together I recommend that you use a moderate focal length of around 50mm and shoot in a vertical orientation.  This technique is often used to create panoramic photographs but if you only use two or three frames you can create an image with a normal aspect ratio.  Another benefit to this technique is that the final image will likely be of a higher resolution than a single-frame photograph.  Go ahead and make those large prints!  Jim Goldstein wrote an excellent tutorial titled “Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography” that I highly recommend for those of you who are new to this technique.

Every season has something to offer at Bryce Canyon.  Spring temperatures are very pleasant and wildflowers begin to bloom, adding dashes of color to the landscape.  In the summer, dramatic storm clouds build almost every afternoon.  Aspen leaves turn bright yellow in fall and contrast sharply against dark evergreens.  Winter snows create unique and peaceful scenes and also drive away most tourists but be prepared for brutally cold conditions.

Locations to Photograph at Bryce Canyon National Park

What Bryce Canyon National Park lacks in size it more than makes up for in opportunity, which is to say that you’ll find yourself in a target rich environment the moment you cross into the park.  Familiarize yourself with the park before you arrive by visiting the Bryce Canyon National Park website.  Here you can read the aptly named park newspaper, “The Hoodoo“, which also contains valuable information about hiking trails and a good map that provides a birds-eye view of the park.  For a map with more detail I highly recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated topo map, #219.

Locations that follow are listed in the order in which they appear as you drive through the park beginning at the park boundary just outside of Bryce City.

Fairyland Canyon

I only discovered Fairyland Canyon last year and have yet to make a dynamic image there.  That said, I believe this relatively small overlook has tremendous potential.  The hoodoos below are densely packed into the canyon with Boat Mesa rising to the south.  In August I found colorful rabbitbrush blooming alongside the trail and ominous monsoon storm clouds in the sky.

Sunrise Point

You don’t need solid detective skills to deduce that Sunrise Point is a great spot to photograph sunrise.  However, it is also one of the better spots for sunset photography.  Sunrise Point is on the northern side of Bryce Amphitheater, which is also overlooked at Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points.

Sunset Point

I find the views from Sunset Point a little more interesting than those from Sunrise Point.  I wouldn’t call them better – just different.  Sunset Point is a very popular overlook and is often crowed with tourists.  Despite the name, I don’t recommend it for sunset photography unless you’re lucky enough to have great clouds to bounce light into the canyon.  There are some good opportunities here for panoramic photography.

Thor’s Hammer

A short walk down the trail from Sunset Point delivers you to an exceptional view of Thor’s Hammer, perhaps the most famous hoodoo in Bryce Canyon.  I’ve photographed Thor’s Hammer at sunrise, mid-morning and after sunset and all are good for photography.  The image at the top of this post was made 10-15 minutes after sunset using a 24-105mm lens at 47mm.

Wall Street

While you’re at Sunset Point you might as well hike the Navajo Loop that descends into the canyon through Wall Street.  It’s a steep hike but passing below towering walls glowing with reflected light is not-to-be-missed if you’re in shape to safely do the hike.  Look for an impossibly tall pine tree framed on two sides by huge canyon walls – this is an iconic location for photography at Bryce Canyon.

Inspiration Point

This is my favorite viewpoint at Bryce Canyon.  It’s fantastic at sunrise and early to mid-morning but may also offer some great options for sunset photography.  I also find this to be the best location for panoramic photography.  Instead of walking up to the designated overlook veer left and walk along the Rim Trail until you find a perspective that grabs your attention.

Bryce Point

Bryce Point is my second favorite location in the park.  It is on the southern side of Bryce Amphitheater and provides views looking mostly north and east.  It’s great at sunrise and, depending on the conditions, you may find some good sunset opportunities.

Rim Trail

If you enjoy hiking, the Rim Trail runs between Fairyland Canyon and Bryce Point, passing each overlook along the way.  I can’t recommend this hike strongly enough.  Along the way you will pass endless views into the canyon, many of which are as good, if not better than, the designated viewpoints.

Natural Bridge

I like to photograph Natural Bridge (technically an arch, not a bridge) in mid-morning.  The sun is high enough in the sky that it nicely illuminates the features around the arch and bounces ample light onto the underside of the arch, giving it a nice, warm glow.  This is a difficult area to work as you must stay behind the railing and there are a few small trees that require you to be creative with your composition.  But, it is a fascinating location.

Agua Canyon

Agua Canyon affords spectacular views looking east into the massive expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  Directly in front of the overlook are a couple dramatic hoodoos, one of which, The Hunter, is quite similar to Thor’s Hammer.  I’ve not been at this location for sunrise but I suspect it could be good.  Late-morning light fills the canyon below, eliminating harsh shadows, and sheds light onto The Hunter.

Rainbow and Yovimpa Points

Admittedly, I’ve never photographed at either of the two viewpoints at the very end of the park road.  I find the views less impressive and more open overall.  That said, I do believe there is potential at both overlooks.  At Yovimpa Point you are looking roughly south, which may offer impressive sunset opportunities.  Rainbow Point faces north and east.  You may find good light in the morning or afternoon.  The Bristlecone Loop is a relatively easy 1 mile loop that passes some interesting bristlecone pine trees.  These trees often make interesting subjects for intimate and abstract photographs in soft light.

Inner Canyon

Pick a trail, any trail, that descends into the canyon and start hiking.  It won’t take long and you’ll be surrounded by huge canyon walls, funky hoodoos, arches and twisted old trees.  The entire character of the landscape changes dramatically when you immerse yourself in the canyon.  Some of my favorite inner canyon hikes are the out and back to Tower Bridge, Queen’s Garden Loop and Peek-A-Book Loop.  You will find interesting subjects to photograph in any season and at any time of day.  A word of caution: it’s always much easier going down than coming back up and the park may close trails throughout the year due to ice, snow and/or rockfall.

Wildlife

If you’re a long lens kind of person you’ll find an ample supply of wild creatures to photograph.  Deer, pronghorn, squirrels and a variety of birds are all commonly seen.  Meadows between Bryce Point and Swamp Canyon are often populated by grazing deer among the pines.  Less common but also native are black bears, bobcats and porcupines.

By no means is this a comprehensive guide of every location worth photographing in Bryce Canyon National Park.  Rather, it is a starting point. I wrote it with the hope that it might save you some time and effort as you plan a trip to this most amazing location.  Enjoy!

Looking for some visual inspiration? Here’s a gallery of my photographs of Bryce Canyon National Park.

COMING SOON: eFotoGuide – Essential Guides to Photographing the National Parks and Beyond

An Adventure Tyke in the Valley of Fire

Not too long ago my friend and fellow photographer/dad/outdoor dude Greg Russell wrote a touching blog post titled “Little Mentors“.  I encourage you to read his post but if you don’t have time, the general idea is that we as adults stand to learn much from spending time in nature with children.  They needn’t be your own kids but I strongly encourage you not to randomly adopt one on the trail. Kinda creepy.  At any rate, Greg’s post inspired me to write one of my own about a recent family adventure.

We spent Thanksgiving week camping, hiking and exploring in Nevada’s gorgeous Valley of Fire State Park.  It had been a while since we’d gotten out as a family for more than a few hours.  Work and other obligations have a way of invading our lives, conspiring to prevent us from spending time with those we love.  The weather was perfect and we shared the park with only a handful of other visitors.  My son, Jackson, whom we have affectionately dubbed the Adventure Tyke, is now 2 1/2 years old.  He has boundless energy and I wish it was contagious.  From the moment he wakes to the moment his blue eyes close he’s on the go, charging ahead at 110 MPH.

On our first full day in the park we hiked the 1.5 mile loop at White Dome.  The trail passes an old movie set, climbs and descends sand dunes and passes through a short but scenic slot canyon – a highlight of the trip.  Hiking a mile and a half in as scenic a place as Valley of Fire shouldn’t take more than an hour, even with multiple stops to make photographs.  Being that Jackson is never short on energy we decided to let him start the hike under his own power.  Two and a half hours later, we were back at the trailhead with one exhausted little hiker.  He surprised us by hiking the entire loop on his own!

Of course, everything we passed was of great interest to him.  He would stop and play in the sand, pick up rocks and make me carry them, point out prickly cactus and, in the slot canyon, he announced that there was a tiger just around the corner.  Yes, a tiger. Must’ve been the rare Mojave tiger that lives only in colorful slot canyons and toddler’s imaginations.  We did see a bighorn sheep scampering over a giant mound of slickrock, which Jackson thoroughly enjoyed.

As one who came into photography in the late 90’s from a ten year “career” in endurance sports, where the entire point is to move from point A to point B as fast as possible, it goes without saying that in the last twelve years I’ve gotten slower.  Becoming a photographer caused me to slow down and look at the world differently.  I learned to appreciate the small things – a play of light, tangled branches among colorful leaves or subtle reflections in a gentle creek – all things I would have rushed past several years ago.  Becoming a Dad has slowed me down even more.  When you’re 2 1/2 and outdoors exploring nature, everything is new and interesting and deserving of a few moments of your time.  At times it can be agonizing, like when you’re running late for sunset and you’ve got to stop to thoroughly inspect the 1,000th lizard of the day.  More often than not, it’s a blast.  It brings me mountains of joy to see my son interacting with and enjoying nature.  He wears a perpetual smile when he’s outside.  As a result, I do too.

We’ve all heard the phrase “kids are sponges”.  They’re also mirrors.  Everything we do and say, they do and say.  Jackson loves nothing more than to peer through the viewfinder of my camera and to press the shutter button, usually in rapid fire succession so it sounds like a machine gun going off.  He loves it so much we bought him his own camera, which you can see in the photo above swinging from his backpack.  He points that camera at anything and everything, and I’ll be darned if some of his photos aren’t pretty freakin’ good.  I’ll never force him into anything but if his interest in photography (and motorcycling!) persevere I’ll be the proudest Dad on the planet.  In the meantime, I plan on enjoying every last second in the great outdoors with my little Adventure Tyke.

If you’re a new (or not so new) Mom or Dad who wants to adventure outdoors with your kids, but you’re not quite sure how to start, my wife runs an awesome site called Adventure Tykes filled with tips and ideas to help motivate, inspire and teach you how to get started. Check it out!