Tag Archives: photo

Surprises out west: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Last week, I traveled through eastern Colorado, hitting Pike’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes. But the biggest surprise was a tiny national monument in central Colorado—Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Florissant Fossil Beds has provided fossils to the scientific community for over 100 years; an estimated 40,000-50,000 specimens of some 1500 species. As a visitor, you learn about how the fossils at Florissant formed and the era from which they came. The visitor center is full of great science and amazing fossils. A fossil learning lab is open from 1PM to 3PM. The most impressive part, though, are the massive petrified redwood stumps. The largest is 41 feet in circumference and about 10 feet high.

Scientists started coming to Florissant to document fossils in the 1870s. Unfortunately, tourists flocked to the site as well, fascinated by the redwood stumps and petrified wood. Once upon a time, petrified wood littered the landscape. Now, visitors take in the big stumps alone. The biggest stump has two blades still embedded in it, remnant of when someone tried to chop it up to sell pieces out east. Two tourist companies staked out the site and competed bitterly over traffic. One left nails at the other’s entrance; they also literally got into a shooting match.

Federal protection came very late for Florissant. Despite calls for conservation going back at least to the 1890s, it took until the 1969 for the site to gain national monument status. Before that, people wanted to divide the site up for houses. Environmentalists faced down bulldozers. Standing in the empty fields of Florissant, over an hour west of Colorado Springs and really in the middle of nowhere, it was hard to imagine why the area needed more houses. By contrast, Petrified Forest National Park gained National Monument status in 1906. When you visit Arizona’s Petrified Forest, they will tell you how much petrified wood has left the park through tourism—Petrified Forest is still littered with petrified wood while Florissant is not.

I learned a lot about fossils and fossil formation at Florissant Fossil Beds. I marveled at the great tree trunks, wondering how many more must lay still buried around me. But I think I was most struck by the story of conservation at Florissant Fossil Beds. The monument covers the fight to preserve Florissant, but it can’t editorialize. Florissant is a microcosm of when capitalism and general human interest don’t align. Many of our national lands tell the story of where the human interests won. Florissant tells a story where that interest emerged on top at the very last possible moment; I felt wistful wondering how many marvels wandered away with all the care of a tourist buying a souvenir shot glass.

If you find yourself in central Colorado, stop by Florissant for a visit. The stumps are truly other-worldly. I learned a lot about fossils. And I took a pleasant hike through an alpine meadow in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The park implores us to imagine what the meadow was like 30 million years ago when the valley was in the flow path of a volcano. I also found myself imagining the place as a virgin bed of paleontology 150 years ago.

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41 foot circumference petrified tree stump

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Pike’s Peak!

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HDR: Nik Software is now free!

Last week I posted about using software to merge HDR or High Dynamic Range images. Well, just a few days ago, that software went from $150 to free. So that means an awesome refund for me, and even more incentive to try Nik Software for everybody else. Nik Software includes an HDR merger and a variety of effects ranging from black and white to faux vintage. I’ve had the package for three weeks, and I’m still finding new and exciting aspects.

I spent the weekend in northern New Mexico and Taos. I’m behind on everything, but I still couldn’t wait to assemble a few images. Without comment, here they are below. Happy photo editing!

High Dynamic Range photography: beyond Photoshop

Have you ever taken a picture where the brightest areas were lost to white and the darkest areas were lost to black? It’s an old photographic challenge with fun new solutions.

For over a century, photographers have used clever techniques to incorporate large brightness ranges in images.  Ansel Adams used dodging and burning to compress the dynamic range of film to the smaller range possible on paper. For challenging scientific shots, scientists produced film with three layers, each capturing a different film speed. Today, given multiple exposures of a scene, computers can auto-merge the best parts of each image in a process called tone mapping. The resulting shot has become known as an HDR or High Dynamic Range image. In just the last decade, the process has become much simpler and more useful.

Photoshop is the most famous of the merging softwares, but it isn’t the best. For years, I wrestled with Photoshop’s clunky and artificial looking HDR outputs. If you think of HDR as a pejorative, Photoshop may be why. Fortunately, there are other pieces of software out there that do a better job. I recently purchased the Nik Software package, which includes HDR Efex 2. I have several hundred old captures that I gave up on in Photoshop that are new and exciting and beautiful again. If you’ve ever tried making HDR images and felt disappointed, you should check out the market again. The results from HDR Efex and Photomatix are glorious. Happy tone mapping!

A note to Mac users: as of March 2016, the HDR Efex plug-in for Lightroom does not always work. I had to email the company and get them to send me a module file. Their email was detailed enough to suggest that this bug is common. With the module file, it was an easy fix, so contact the company if you too encounter this challenge.


HDR Efex (left) and Photoshop (right)

In the case of the cave image, I vastly prefer the HDR Efex image. The Photoshop controls aren’t intuitive, and even their built in presets mostly look awful. Some of the Nik presets are too extreme for my usual preference, but many of them look great immediately. In the case of the waterfall image, I prefer the HDR Efex image, but I don’t dislike the Photoshop image. The light is more exciting in the HDR Efex image, and I did it quickly and easily.


I’ve had HDR Efex for about three weeks. The first two weeks are free with a fully functional trial copy. Below are some of the images I’ve assembled. I’m pretty happy with it so far, especially after years of feeling uninspired by Photoshop’s HDR function. Happy photographing!

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New Mexican travel post cards

I love the old-fashioned posterized postcards that many of the national parks have. Whenever I visit a park, I go hunt for postcards. I have a wall of 4×6 frames of postcards. Whether they are the old WPA posters from the 30s or the modern versions, I adore them.

Sometimes, I would go to a park, and they wouldn’t have any. So naturally, I had to make my own. Now I do it everywhere I go. Below are from my grand trip last weekend through southeast New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, and White Sands National Monument. I also visited Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, a BLM property, and River of Fires BLM site, but no postcards there as of yet.

Happy travels!

Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district. Near Moab, Utah.Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district. Near Moab, Utah.Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district. Near Moab, Utah.Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district. Near Moab, Utah.Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district. Near Moab, Utah.Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district. Near Moab, Utah.

Science Fiction and the West: Part 2

The western landscape is absurd. There are massive towers of rock, ancient ruins, and strange colors. There are fields of lava and dunes of drywall. In a recent post, I talked about how the west evokes much of the science fiction I read. Well, I went driving again, and I found more science fiction in the west. Specifically…


Underground kingdoms

Carlsbad Caverns lie under southeast New Mexico. At any moment, I imagined that goblins would pour out of the ceiling and down columns around me. Carlsbad evokes visions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Cthulhu, and Middle Earth. Right now, the elevators at Carlsbad are offline, so you must walk down into the gaping natural entrance. If you are a science fiction enthusiast, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you are on a journey to somewhere of lore.

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The Great Room in Carlsbad Caverns.


 

Strange pieces of history

There are some silos out west that look exactly like daleks. This one is by the city of Alamogordo. Nearby, I found a scrap yard full of derelict missiles and circuitry. Seriously, where does one find a silo shaped like a scifi creature next to cruise missiles other than science fiction and the west? (Okay, maybe the Ural Mountains.)

At first, it seemed rather extraordinary to find a missile sitting in a scrap yard a mile outside a mid-sized city, but this is the storage yard for the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Still, I prefer to think that giant daleks roam New Mexico, and they have missiles!

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A real life Canticle for Leibowitz

East of Albuquerque is the Salinas Mission National Monument, a set of three missions from the 1600s. The sites were inhabited by pueblo indians going back centuries. After the Spaniards arrived, they built missions to convert the indians. They also functioned as part of the salt trade, which is where the name “Salinas” comes from. After the pueblo revolted in the late 1600s, the sites were forgotten, and only rediscovered in the mid 1800s.

I visited the Gran Quivira site this weekend. It contains a pueblo village that once held 2000 people, a completed church, and an extremely large incomplete church that was in construction at the time of the revolt. From the site, you can see for miles around. There are a few ranches, but few other signs of inhabitance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I just reread A Canticle for Leibowitz. And wow did Gran Quivira evoke the book. The ruins of a church next to a town, just like the abbey next to the town of Sanly Bowitz. From the site, one could see a pilgrim traveling the road. Overhead, the sun bakes all. Okay, so the book was set in Utah, but it felt real to me!

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Salinas Mission National Monument–the Gran Quivira Site.


White Sands

Have I written about this place enough? It’s a bunch of dunes literally made from powdered drywall. I think I’m in love. It’s Tatooine, Mars, Arrakis, and Vulcan.

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And that was all in just one long weekend. If my former state of Virginia was for lovers, then New Mexico is for romance.

 

Altering reality in wide angle

Wide-angle lenses are lenses that, as the name suggests, capture a wide angle of view. They’re great for fitting a wide scene into a single shot. A wide-angle lens can catch a long parade marching down the street, spreading to left and right; it can catch a massive sprawling mountain range.

Wide-angle lenses can be tricky, too. Humans don’t see in wide angle, so these images are distorted and unnatural to our eyes. Sometimes, that’s a feature.


Wide Angle to make something feel large

Large things loom. Whether that large object is your parents when you’re a child, a huge skyscraper, or a thunder cloud, big objects have a sense of hanging over you. Wide-angle lenses can capture that sense, even for modestly-sized objects.

Below is a shrine at the Albuquerque Botanical Garden Japanese Garden. It’s maybe 15 feet wide and 15 feet high. But with the help of wide angle, it can fill a whole frame. The top frame is as a 16mm wide-angle lens captures the shot. All the lines that should be straight are curved, because this lens is a type of wide-angle lens called a “fisheye”. This could be the desired effect, or you can correct the curvature, as in the second picture. This time, I was pursuing the second image. Sometimes, the other is the goal. That’s one cool thing about digital photography–both are available in any given image.

The shrine at the Japanese Garden

Shrine at the ABQ Biopark Japanese Garden, with fisheye distortion uncorrected.

The shrine at the Japanese Garden

With corrected perspective.


Wide Angle to capture a wide scene

This one’s obvious, but still awesome. Some images need a lot of space. Sometimes, you can get a wide-angle image by stitching several traditional images together. But as in the top image, only a single capture can catch the ducks taking flight.

In the bottom image, the angular distortion from the fisheye lens is fine uncorrected, because there are no straight lines on that rock to betray the distortion. And the wide angle here allowed me to get the sun in the frame. The distortion to the sun here is called a “sunstar.” You can get them by shooting with small apertures, which leads to light diffraction. Here’s a nice brief article if you want to learn more about sunstars.

ABQ Biopark Japanese Garden wide angle, ducks taking flight

The pond at the Japanese Garden

Bisti Badlands and Sun Star

A rock formation at Bisti Badlands


Wide Angle for composition

Wide-angle lenses give a photographer different options in guiding the viewer’s eye in a photograph. You may have heard that long lenses compress depth, thus why they are pleasing for portraits. Wide lenses exaggerate depth. The righthand side-view mirror on cars is slightly wide-angle. This is why “objects may be closer than they appear.” Your side-view mirror has exaggerated the sense of depth.

Additionally, wide-angle lenses can focus on nearby objects. My 85mm lens has a minimum focal distance of 1 meter. My 70-200 varies from 1 meter to 1.5 meters. My fisheye can focus nearly up to the point I bump into the subject.

Both of these factors give the photographer different creative freedoms when composing with a wide-angle lens.

In the first image, I found this hanging rock fascinating. I put my lens right next to this rock when I shot, but because of the exaggerated depth, it doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as the shot was. The rocks in the background are only a few feet away, but they feel more distance. Here, I also employ the wide angle to make the rock loom large. That hanging arm was no more than 3 feet long.

In the second image, the ability to get close to the statue in the foreground meant I could fill more of the frame with it. And I can fit the building comfortably in the background. So I can make a relatively small object the same size in the capture as a large object.

Rock formations in the Bisti Badlands

Rocks and sun at Bisti Badlands

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University of New Mexico campus, and statue of school mascot, the Lobo

 

Did I miss anything? I love a good photo discussion, so let me know!

Science Fiction and the West: Part 1

Three events inspired this post: 1) I reread A Canticle for Leibowitz, set in future Utah, for the first time since moving west, 2) a member of my scifi club out east joined wordpress (check out his blog here), and 3) I visited the fantastic Bisti Wilderness Area in northwest New Mexico. All at once, I was reminded of sharing the west with friends out east, and confronted with the west in future fiction and the west’s natural absurdity.

I pondered my bookshelf. The genre is not as teeming with western themes as one might think of a genre that grew up side-by-side with the cowboys and indians craze. There’s Joe Haldeman’s Worlds, which briefly depicts a future lawless Nevada. I thought of an Ursula Vernon short story and a series by R.S. Belcher that I have yet to read. But nothing else. It seemed odd. Then I saw all the books about Mars—in many ways, they are books about the west. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Philip K. Dick’s hallucinogenic Martian books, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land… whenever Mars is a character, it feels a lot like the west.

And it’s no surprise that the Mars of fiction feels like the west. John Carter was filmed in southern UtahTotal Recall filmed in Nevada. Robison Crusoe on Mars filmed in Arizona and Death Valley. It’s more than just superficial: NASA has tested rovers at White Sands National Monument, because the dunes are similar to those on Mars. NASA even brought a piece of rock to Mars from New Mexico on the rover for calibration purposes.

This post is just the first on this topic. I’ve lived in the west for six months now. I’ve traveled it only a little. I need to read the science fiction of the west, the science fiction of Mars, and to experience the natural surreality of this land. But for now, I leave you with the science fiction west.

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