Dare to take just one Lens!

If on your next dream excursion you could take just one lens, which would it be? Would you opt for a wide angle zoom so useful in capturing those grand landscapes? Or would prefer the versatility of a mid-range zoom that usually includes in its range everything from a moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto? Although versatile, this lens leaves many bored because it has inadequate range to provide dramatic emphasis to the foreground and also because it is not long and powerful enough to compress and isolate a distant subject. Perhaps instead you would choose a long telephoto lens which would allow you to find within the grand landscape a multitude of potential subjects without having to move around much at all. Or perhaps you would reject all of three three options from the holy trinity of lenses and choose instead a Macro lens to bring to your eyes the often hidden beauty of the micro world.

Jade Vines
105mm 2.8 Nikon Macro Lens @F3.5, Focus Stacked Image

Although at first this might seem more like a hypothetical exercise, it actually is not. We should all, beginning and experienced photographers alike, periodically travel with just one lens. Although conventional wisdom often associates creativity with the freedom of no barriers and unlimited choices, creatives have long known that creative bursts are just as likely to come through working with limitations. Why is this so?

Young Tree in a Forest: Mid Range Zoom at 70mm @ F9

Introducing limitations to the process of image making is the ultimate defense against creative block. With one lens–we now have fewer choices to make in creating a compelling image. This reduction of choices helps inspire us to see the world in different ways, moving us out of our comfort zone, which allows us to tap into new sources of creativity! Who would have known that the best way to expand our horizons is working within often self imposed limitations? If we instead work with a full array of lens choices, we may never take the extra steps necessary to make a single lens work, for example moving closer or further away from the subject with a mid range zoom or simplifying a cluttered landscape with a telephoto perspective. By way of analogy from the world of music, one would never think that a musician who opts to play a song using a classic acoustic piano is any less creative than another musician who instead chooses instead an electric piano with a full array of synthesized sounds. In fact, just the opposite may be true. The same holds true for the world of photography. We should never prematurely judge a photographer as somehow less creative because he/she chooses to work within the limitations of one or two lenses. Taking along just a single lens will provide the added advantage of reducing the weight of our backpack, making us more agile and nimble in the field!

Ever Returning Spring
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM Wide Angle Zoom at 30mm, Focus Stacked
Flock of Birds
Sony 10-400 GM Telephoto Zoom @400mm

The Trinity of Zoom Lenses

The Trinity of Zoom lenses is very popular today and for good reason. One can fulfill the vast majority of photographic requirements with these three lenses. The three lenses include a wide angle zoom, mid-range zoom, and telephoto zoom. Popular focal lengths for each of these zooms are 16-35 mm for a wide angle zoom, 24-105 for a mid-range zoom, and a 70-200 (or 100-400 which I prefer) for a telephoto zoom. There is overlap in the range of each of these zooms which is a good thing because it reduces the need to change lenses too often. Frequent changing introduces the possibility of getting dust on the sensor and perhaps more importantly missing out on a decisive moment. Some photographers may opt for a somewhat wider wide angle zoom, for example 12-24mm . I own the Sony 12-24mm extreme wide angle but it seldom gets used because most of the time I can create a superior image with a less extreme focal length. There are times, however, when we definitely need to go wider, but these times are so rare that taking along an extreme wide angle zoom as ones only lens may not be the best choice. In addition to the holy trinity of lenses, we will also want to consider a dedicated macro lens as a single lens option.

Wide Angle Zoom

A wide angle zoom is typically the first lens a beginning landscape photographer buys after purchasing a camera with a standard mid-range zoom lens. He/she wants to go wider and perceives that the kit zoom is not wide enough to effectively capture grand scenes. Disappointment, however, often follows because using this lens effectively will require much practice in developing ones skill set. We are not just capturing wide angle scenes with this lens, but creating compelling compositions that provide a visual flow from major foreground elements, to the mid-ground and background. Lets reviews some of the Pro and Cons of the Wide Angle Zoom.

This lens has received a bad rap lately. Many perceive that the use of this lens to capture grand scenes, especially icons, results in too many quickly captured images that are visually similar and lack creativity. This may be true for the initial spotting of the scene and taking a quick picture, but zeroing in and fine tuning the composition is another mater entirely. Used properly this lens is one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding lenses to use. A wide angle zoom , skillfully used, can also highlight your unique vision for the scene even if it is a often photographed location. Another criticism I frequently hear is that with a wide angle zoom one can only pick out one or maybe two compositions for a scene. This criticism reveals more of a users lack of knowledge or experience in the creative use of the wide angle zoom, than it is an accurate assessment of the lens’s potential. As we will soon see, when one gets low and as close as possible to the foreground, even micro movements can and will result in substantially different compositions. The possibilities are virtually limitless. With a wide angle zoom, I can pick out in most situations as many as ten different compositions which is likely a point at which few would even want to venture beyond!

Rising from the Clouds
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @ 18mm, focused stacke

A wide angle zoom definitely requires slowing down as one gets very close, often within inches from the foreground and finds a visual flow from the foreground, to the mid-ground and background. I have been known to spend up to a couple hours in the field fine tuning my wide angle compositions. When the camera is this close to the foreground, a couple of inches this way or that can dramatically alter the composition. One needs to study thoroughly the scene especially the visually predominant foreground to eliminate or reduce visual distractions. It is almost as if one has in the foreground an intimate or macro scene within the larger scene. The larger scene provides context to the image, but it is the foreground that will make or break the image. Getting this close, usually will also require focus stacking. If one focuses on a very close foreground the rest of the scene will not be in focus even at F-16. If one focuses one third into the scene, which is usually the mid-ground, then the foreground will not be in focus.

Sony 16-35 4.0 Lens @20mm Focus Stacked

A wide angle zoom can also be use to uniquely capture just the main subject without a blending of foreground, mid-ground and a distant background. With the lens inches away from part of the subject, the distortions and exaggerations of perspective of this lens can be put to work to bring out the character of the subject as is evident in the image below of a Japanese Maple, titled Spider-man.

Spider Man
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @F16

There are instances where a 16-35mm wide angle zoom will not be wide enough to capture both the foreground and background, but those instances are rare. The temptation is to go wider than one needs to go, but for most images one can create a more compelling composition with visual impact through selection of a less extreme wide angle of view. In order to do this, however, one is going to need to get real close, focus stack, and set the tripod up at the right height Although one wants to get a low as possible, going too low will potentially take the mid ground out of view resulting in a less than pleasing composition.

Extreme wide angles can render in certain situations the background and also the mid-ground insignificant and in these cases should be avoided. While it is true that to a certain extent we can correct these distortions through warping in Photoshop, I personally believe our aim should always be to get the image proportions as close as possible to the desired result in camera. Some minor warping will enhance the image, but I can usually spot aggressive warping (or perspective blending using lenses of different focal lengths) because it often calls attention to itself and just does not look natural.

One Enchanted Evening
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @29mm focus stacked

Next is an instance where an extreme wide angle was definitely needed to give adequate emphasis to both the foreground leaves and the background of the waterfall. I used a 12mm lens, but as previously mentioned I find such instances rare.

Zen Moment
Sony 12-24 4.0 @F14

Wide angles excel in scenes where one wants to create a sense of three dimensionalality through rendering objects in the distance smaller. This is closer to how our eyes actually see the world. Our eyes also tend to scan the scene, looking down and close to the foreground and then out at the larger scene, similar to a near far composition.

Garden in Paradise
Sony 16-35 2.8GM @19mm

If one elects to only take a wide-angle zoom along for the creative challenge of this blog post, it is good to know that most of these zooms extend out to 35mm which some consider closer to a normal focal length. When I use my wide angle zoom I tend to keep it on the camera and frequently move out to its maximum 35mm focal length. With some slight cropping of a 35mm image one can easily create images that are more similar to images taken by a 50mm lens. One can do quite a bit with just a wide angle zoom lens!

Mid Range Zoom

I have met a large number of photographers who admit that they almost never use a mid range zoom. This lens lacks some of the allure of a wide angle zoom that can drastically alter spacial relationships through the exaggeration of the size of foreground elements. It also lacks the power of telephoto zooms that can dramatically compress layers in small portions of a distant scene. Nevertheless, both near far compositions and compression of layers within the scene are possible with the lens. In many ways this is the most challenging zoom lens from the trinity to use and the one that many accomplished photographers eventually come back to as their lens of choice. Although one of my specialties is near far compositions, well over half of my images taken in the past year are within the mid zoom range of 24-105mm.

Lets review some of the pros and cons of mid range zooms

Because the mid range zoom lacks some of the drama that comes easily to wide or telephoto zoom, it forces us to think harder about our compositions and the placement of elements within the scene. This is especially true of grand scenes, but it is also true of more intimate scenes.

I wish I was an Island in the Fog
Sony 24-105 @F7.1, 57mm
Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
Sony 55mm Lens @F4.0 Focus Stacked

There are several excellent professional photographers currently active where the mid-range zoom is their lens of choice, one of which is David Thompson. David is known for his excellent compositions and photo processing skills. Although he always exercises restraint in processing and gravitates toward the less dramatic mid range of focal lengths, he is creating some of the most visually compelling and photographically excellent images out there today.

Bayou Impressions by David Thompson

The mid range is also the focal length range that would be consistent with the images from classic landscape artists, the Hudson River School, and landscape painting icons such as Albert Bierstadt. The more extreme wide angle and highly compressed telephoto perspectives evolved more with the advance of lens technology for photography in the later part of the twentieth century.

Valley of the Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt
We seldom see in Bierstadt’s images the modern day dramatic emphasis of foreground made possible with wide angle lenses. Distant mountain always loom with grandeur in his paintings and he directs our eyes toward the middle of the scene. His paintings would almost all fall within the range of a mid-range zoom.

Most large format photographers also work with equivalent focal lengths that would be well within the range of a modern standard mid range zoom lens. About as wide as one would go in 4 X 5 large format photography is 90mm which is roughly equivalent to 27mm in full frame photography. About as long as one would go in large format photography is 300mm which is roughly equivalent to 89mm in full frame photography. Ansel Adams, who was actually primarily a 8 X 10 photographer, shot primarily in what would be a 35mm equivalent range of 28mm to 80mm. None of this is to suggest we should all aim to emulate the perspectives of these icons from the past, but many of us continue to be inspired by their work and want to include some of their influence in our own creations. Would our own photography take new and better directions if we more often said yes to the mid-range zoom and resisted the temptation for always reaching for lenses in wide angle and telephoto ranges, especially the more extreme reaches of these ranges? Personally I feel we would all benefit from this, especially if we have already spent significant time dabbling in photography using wide angle and telephoto zooms.

A mid-range zoom is often thought as the range that most closely approximates human vision, especially when we are talking about focal lengths with an angle of view of about 40% to 60% which would correspond to the portion of the zoom range on a full frame camera of about 35mm to 60mm. Contrary to popular belief, however, human vision has a very expansive angle of view of about 130% which would be a very extreme wide angle lens. Human eyes, however, are quite different than a lens with large portions of our field of view being blurred and only the central portion sharp. This central portion of our field of vision does correspond to lenses in the 35mm to 60mm range.

Holding on to Paradise
This image of Picture Lake and Mt. Shuksan was taken with a 35mm focal length which provides a well balanced emphasis on the foreground while still maintaining a reasonably large view of the peak. Opting for a wider angle in this case would result in a very diminutive peak and reflection that may not be visually as striking. It is noted that 35mm is also the equivalent focal length used in most cell photo cameras today.

Human vision, however, has far more in common with video than it does with a still camera with the human eyes constantly scanning the scene, focusing on different points , and our brain integrating this information into what we perceive as vision. What is important is that the mid-range focal length typically captures images that will be the closest to what we and others who we share images with will recall seeing on location. Although from a creative perspective we are not always wanting to bring to the viewer an image consistent with their own perception, sometimes we are. In those cases we should be using a mid-range zoom, employing the art and craft of photography to create compelling compositions, and skillfully processing these images. Our fans will instantly recognize a shared vision of the location, but they will still be amazed at our photographic and artistic ability to transform the scene into photographic art.

Hiking in the Fog and Bear Grass
We do not always need a wide angle zoom to create near far compositions. I created this image with a 24-105mm lens at 32mm
Mount Baker at Sunset
We do not always need a long telephoto to isolate a distant peak. This image of Mt. Baker was taken with a 83mm focal length which would be well within the range of most mid-range zooms.
Lupines in the Forest
I captured this image with a 41mm focal length which allowed me to feature the beautiful lupines prominently in the foreground and still have sufficient compression in the scene to visually a convey a sense of a forest in the background. With the selection of a wider focal length, the forest would be much more dispersed and loose its sense as a subject in the image.
Mount Adams Mountain Glory
This image was take with my mid range zoom fully zoomed out to 105 mm and provides an example how a mid-rage zoom at its longest reach can provide a telephoto perspective.

Telephoto Zoom

The telephoto zoom is typically the third lens a beginning photographer purchases after a kit standard mid-range zoom and then a wide angle zoom. Although this lens, with its ability to isolate subjects and compress space, opens up manifold opportunities for visual expression, it often it does not get nearly as much use as it should until a photographer further progresses in their photographic journey. This is likely due to the fact that it takes some time to develop the skills to make this an effective tool in capturing landscape images. In this regard you will want to ask yourself, what is it you like about the scene? What parts of the scene affect you more at an emotional level? Then scan the scene with your eyes without using the camera to pick only details that are consistent with what you like about the scene. Only then reach for the camera with telephoto zoom lens mounted and attempt to isolate the subject. Here are some of the pros and cons of the Telephoto Zoom.

With a telephoto zoom we can pick out many compositions within the larger scene–small vignettes or abstracts that allow us capture some of the essence of the larger scene. If you are more of the lazy type, you need not move far at all to work this lens, and from a given location facing lets say a range of mountains with overlapping ridges one could easily pick out as many as one hundred or more compositions. In such a situation it is far easier to do this with a telephoto than either a wide angle zoom or a mid range zoom. It, however, takes real skill to zero in on the one or two vignettes that result in the most visually compelling images and this skill takes considerable time and practice to develop. In this regard one needs to just get out there and with just the telephoto zoom lens, practice, practice, practice! Dare to take just one lens! If the telephoto range does not already figure prominently in your portfolio, going out in the field with just the telephoto zoom mounted to your camera for a day may be just what the doctor ordered to bring new life and creativity to your images.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
Sony 100-400 GM @101m

Telephoto zooms compress layers within the scene often giving them more or less equal visual weight and what we are left with are beautiful patterns of light and shadow, and lines and shapes. This can be seen above in the nearly monochromatic (gold) image of the sand dues. It can also be seen in the next image titled Family Farm that adds color to the mix taken above the Palouse wheat fields. The red color of the farm house immediately attracts ones attention as a contrasting element in the scene.

Family Farm
Nikon 200-500 @500mm

In the image below taken at a 183mm focal length I focused out toward the center of an alpine lake to capture a beautiful abstract pattern of the melting ice. Telephoto zooms excel at picking out such abstract compositions.

Spring Thaw
Sony 70-300 @183mm

In this next image I was actually at a fairly close range of less than 10 feet from a canyon wall and used a telephoto lens to capture this wonderful pattern of the rocks with diagonal accents. These patterns would be easy to miss just walking through the canyon, but if one slows down one can often spot these small vignettes that come to life through a telephoto perspective.

Rock Tapestry
Nikon 70-200 F4 lends @155mm
Forest Carpet of Clouds
Nikon 200-500 @500

In the above image, Forest Carpet of Clouds, I not only used the telephoto zoom to isolate the forest and create some simple layers of fog, forest and clouds, but I also included some fairly prominent negative space to give the composition a more minimalist feel without distractions. The telephoto zoom range is the best for more easily removing distractions in an image.

Telephotos are also excellent for exaggerating spacial relationships especially those in the far distance. In the image below the mountain looming very large on the horizon is Mt. Baker. If you saw this scene in person the mountain would be a fairly insignificant element in the distance. Even the church on the right would seem very small to the naked eye. With the use of a 400mm focal length, however, I am able to compress the layers within the scene and give the most weight to Mt. Baker in all of her majesty.

Sony 100-400 GM @400mm

Of course the telephoto effect need not always be this pronounced and sometimes all that is needed is some moderate compression like in the next scene of Gig Harbor in Washington State taken with 156mm focal length.

Gig Harbor Sunset
Sony 100-400 GM @156mm

Macro Lens

When weight is not much of a concern, on special occasions I will pack my complete trinity of Sony lenses: a 16-35 2.8 GM wide angle zoom, 24-105 4.0 mid range zoom. and my latest addition the 100-400 GM telephoto zoom lens. But I do not consider this array complete unless I also pack my Sony Macro 90 mm 2.8 lens. On the most special occasions I will only use the Macro lens and wonder why I even took the others! With the macro lens we can open up the often unseen world of small things and easily create unique images that you are unlikely to find in any other photographer’s portfolio. Lets review some of the pros and cons of the Macro Lens.

Orchid Face
Sony 90mm Macro

Although any one of the three lenses from the trinity could potentially be used as a Macro lens, they will not work as good as a dedicated macro lens for this purpose. A true macro lens will have a magnification ratio of 1 to 1, in other words it can capture in focus a small portion of the scene with the size of the object corresponding exactly to the sensor size of the camera. The 24-105 lens would work in a pinch and when one is trying to save weight this would definitely be worth considering as an option. But by way of contrast, the 24-105 closest focusing distance is 15 inches with a magnification ratio at this distance of .32. The closest focusing distance of the dedicated macro is 12 inches (a good working distance) and the magnification ratio at this distance is 1 to 1. The macro lens also has a flatter field which allows better edge to edge sharpness . The zoom lenses all have more of a curved field with critical sharpness only found in the center of the lens. With macro compositions we are often (not always) featuring patterns where it is desirable to have edge to edge sharpness.

Canadian Dog Wood
The flat field of the Sony 90mm Macro was excellent for capturing edge to edge sharpness in this image.
Prayer Plant Leaves
90mm Macro Lens

Of course we are not always interested in edge to edge sharpness and macro lenses, which usually come with a maximum aperture opening of 2.8, are excellent for blurring backgrounds and minimizing distractions at close focusing distances.

Bog Gentium
Sony 90mm Macro

One of the beauties of macro photography is that one can use this lens in all kinds of light all day long, even when conditions would be far less than optimal for one of the other lenses from the trinity. Not only will the lens excel at capturing smaller worlds, but the lens will be able to uncover worlds within small worlds opening up new avenues for creative expression. For this next image, I shot hand held at F 2.8 and took numerous images in manual focus using my body to move the camera in and out of focus. My goal was to capture just a small part of the image in focus with the rest cast in a beautiful bokeh. Using a higher ISO and with the camera’s vibration reduction on, I did not need to use a tripod. In this kind of situation a tripod may actually get in the way of finding the perfect composition through a process that involves a great deal of experimentation. This iterative experimentation is best done hand held.

Tiny Autumn Leave
Although these look like flowers they are actually the tiny leaves about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. It is a rockery plant growing on micro thin soils covering granite rock boulders at Mt. Baker. Sony 90mm Macro

Although I often prefer to shoot with wide open or nearly wide open apertures for macro photography, I will often take multiple images and then make a decision in post processing which parts of the image I want sharp and which parts to remain blurred. The next image of some tiny Mountain Laurel Flowers in the North Cascades provides an example.

Mountain Laurel
Sony 90mm Macro


I am making the pledge to use the macro lens as my sole lens on trips into the cascade mountains in the coming year. I am sure it will open up new paths for creation of beautiful images to round out my portfolio. Which single lens will you pick for your next adventure to help you break through to a new creative frontier? Ironically by limiting your choices, your creative horizons may now appear more clearly and seem almost limitless. Once you make your single lens choice, you may find out just like I have many times, that the path to creative growth often involves voluntarily placing limits on your choice of a lenses.

Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact

“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 1, 1836) 

During our current digital age with the predominance of social media as the primary way images are now shared, the life span of a popular image can often be measured in just days and sometimes even in hours.  This is not surprising when one considers that the average time a typical person looks at an image on social media is measured in just a few seconds or less.  Yet even in this fast moving environment, where fame and glory evaporate like rain on hot desert sands, some images have staying power and create their own legacy-these are “Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact”.

This article will discuss in depth each of the following topics that collectively will help you create inspiring images with lasting impact.

  1. Emotion
  2. Self Expression
  3. Story Telling
  4. Light
  5. Color
  6. Contrast
  7. Composition
  8. Gestalt

Before discussing each of these, however, I would like to introduce my concept of a shared vision.   Nature images that have staying power put forward a vision that is shared by both the originator of the image, the Photographer, and the viewer.  The attributes of the image invite the viewer to participate in the photographer’s vision.  American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson provides us with some insight into how this is possible.  The process starts by finding who we are as a person, our authentic self.  Emerson and two noteworthy legends he influenced, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir pointed out the way.  We must recover our authentic self through separating ourselves from societal influences and immersing ourselves in nature.  Emerson thought nature always points to soul and spirit, the invisible world, that is the source of all creation.  This may sound somewhat far-fetched to some, but in my experience working and collaborating with some of the best nature and landscape photographers, most have confided in me that that there is more to the world than what is seen, and it is this something extra, an often idealized or romanticized vision of nature, that they want to include in their photographic creations.  Because photography, which is anchored in the moment and physical world also points to the universal world of spirit, others can join in and share in the photographer’s vision.  Emerson saw a circular and fluid path between Nature, the Self, and Spirit.  The conventions and distractions of society can keep us from noticing this flow, but experiencing this continuum is available to all who approach nature on her own terms.


Shared Vision

(Unified Field of Consciousness–One = Many)

picture chart r1

I will now discuss each of the eight topics.

(1) Emotion


Wenatchee River and Lake0723

Autumn Moods

When someone views one of your images they always have an emotional response, but this response is not always strong and and a viewer’s interest can easily wane.  Images with a lasting impact, however, will evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer.  There are many reasons why this may be the case.  Perhaps they visited this location or a similar location and your image brings back positive memories.  Or like in the image above, the mood and atmosphere of the image transports the viewer into a realm of mystery that spurs their active imagination.  The viewer pictures him or herself walking into the scene experiencing the sense of awe and mystery of the place as if they were actually there.  For more on the active imagination see Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.

“The world is but a canvas for our imagination.” Henry David Thoreau

Next time you are out photographing ask yourself what emotions you feel as you are taking in the beauty, wonders, and mystery of nature.  Do you feel uplifted with a sense of joy, or does these scene bring up darker feelings of  fear or sadness?  Does the scene exude a sense of peace and tranquility, or does it exude more of sense of strong motion and power?  Whatever emotion you feel, try to convey this in the image, both at the moment of capture and in post processing.


(2) Self Expression

“Going into the woods is going home”–John Muir

“Be yourself, no base imitator of another, but you best self”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a sense when reading the profound works of Emerson, Thoreau and John Muir that the path to finding our authentic self and expressing who we are deep down inside goes through nature and the wilderness.  We recover our true self in quiet moments immersed in the solitude of nature.  Once there, nature provides a mirror to our soul and spirit.  But the process of self recovery has a few conditions.  We cannot recover our authentic self if we approach nature as something to be consumed–locations and photo-ops to be checked off our bucket list.  Finding ones self in nature and expressing our true self in our images require that we experience nature on its own terms without any preconditions or desire to control her wildness.   Nature also demands that we eventually come to her on our own without any intermediary–workshop leaders, photography gurus, and the like.  We come alone because we can only understand her secrets through the powers of our direct intuition.  For more on finding your authentic self see my blog post Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self . 

Baker in the Rain091

Rainy Day Autumn Dream

I spent a weekend at Mt. Baker last September but did not see the mountain once.  The thick cerebral layer of clouds and constant heavy rain moved me into a self reflective dimension with this image of the Bagley Lake Bridge best expressing my emotional state.


(3) Storytelling

“Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.”
Emily Dickinson

Images that come with a story almost always have a more lasting impact than images that do not.   Sometimes the story arises naturally from the composition of the image, such as two lovers waking along the beach into the sunset.  Other times the story is provided in a short written narrative.  Stories are successful because they provide context to the image and invite viewers to go deeper into the image and explore how it relates to the narrative.  Sometimes a good title for an image is all that is needed to give additional context to the image that is largely already self-sufficient in telling a story.  Ideally the written story and story told through the path of  light and image composition compliment or even  mirror each other.  Viewers love a good story even if it is brief.  Some of my stories for landscape images have to do with the challenges that often come with getting the shot.  But I also have stories that have to do with the history of a landscape.   Often stories that have the most impact reveal how a landscape awakens an experience at a personal level that is often shared by others as well, such a journey to one’s ideal home as in the image below.  These stories are more archetypal in nature and contain visual metaphors that point to common experiences.  With all types of stories, the story not only helps lead the viewer into the image, but also helps reveal what the photographer was thinking and feeling at the time of capture.

Indian Henry0545-HDR

Walking into  a Dream


(4)  Light

Three Forks Dog Park Autumn0097-HDR

Remains of Autumn

On this evening beautiful intense front light at low angle came through a crack in the clouds strongly illuminating the trees, clouds and reflections.  The clouds also reflected light back onto the scene.

We live in a time when many of the images that rise to sudden popularity were taken in conditions of underwhelming light.  I personally have watched and listened to a few well known video tutorials where the author even indicated that good natural light is not necessary because it can be created in Photoshop.  Often these tutorials start with images where the directional and nuanced lighting is for the most part absent except for perhaps some lingering light in the sky such as images taken just before dusk.  The reason to start there is because it is easier to manufacture the needed light for these images through painting through a masking in Photoshop.  I have noticed recently, however, a trend recently where the best landscape photographers are now featuring images with beautiful and often subtle natural light.  One of the reasons for this is that we have become numb to the countless spectacular images manufactured in Photoshop with once in a life time epic lighting.  The images now lack context and no longer stand out as they all blend into a vast uniform commonality on platforms such as 500px and Instagram.  It is important to note that Transcendental Nature Photography has no prohibition on introducing sources of light that were not there to begin with, ultimately there are no rules.   The Transcendentalist just wants to preserve the relationship with nature as it is experienced and intuitively grasped, because it is this connection that points to soul and spirit and ultimately a shared vision.

Maple Pass481-HDR

Autumn Magic:  About 15 minutes before sunset front to side lighting came through an opening in the clouds providing spotlighting to the ridge tops and a warm glow to the grayish clouds that reflected light back down onto the mountain ash bushes and Lake Ann.

Images that have staying power and lasting impact will be anchored in the natural light that was present at the moment of capture.  The reason for this hearkens back to our earlier discussion of “Shared Vision”.  We always start with nature as it presents itself in the here and now.  This is what provides us as a mirror to our authentic self and also what transports us and our viewers into a shared world of soul and spirit.  This does not mean we cannot enhance the lighting that was in the original scene.  If fact, this is necessary to poetically evoke the feeling of nature as the manifestation of the world of soul and spirit.  But the idealization and or romanticizing of the experience of being in nature always maintains a “down to earth” anchor in this physical world even as it points to an invisible world beyond.

Morning Dew

Morning Dew :  At sunrise I shot this image looking directly at the sun that provided back lighting to the tulips and morning dew.

The quality of the light is determined by its angle, direction, color and intensity.  Shooting directly into the sun at a low angle may provide dramatic back lighting of elements in the scene.  Side lighting at a low angle is best for revealing textures and contrast.  Front lighting at low angles can transform a scene when channeled through a small opening in dark clouds.  Diffused light from an overcast sky can help rein in excessive contrast and emphasize subtle colors and textures.  Before sunrise the lighting is cool but transitions to warm as the sun rises.  As the sun sets the lighting gets warmer but eventually transitions to cooler tones.  This is why the feel of sunrise can be quite different than sunset.  How does the movement and transition of light along with the interplay of light and shadow correspond with your own internal landscape and emotional state of being?  Through timing, image framing, and post processing can the external and internal landscapes be brought into a closer union?  We associate light with illumination: the ability to see, consciousness, awareness, and transcendence.  By way of contrast darkness and shadows can represent a limited ability to see, the subconscious, the unknown, and feeling stuck in one’s personal world.  Light and its effect on the physical landscape can be thought of as a metaphor that illuminates inner or even transcendent vision.  The possibilities for the effect of light on an image are endless.  Learn how to read light and you are well on your way to mastering landscape photography.


(5) Color

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Autumn at Spirit Falls

In this image the blue green Red Orange Colors are complementary and green to yellow orange colors are harmonious.

Blotches of bright and saturated color are one of the first things we see in an image which helps explain why certain images capture immediate attention and instant likes in popular social media platforms.  It does not take long for many photographers to catch on to to this as they bring overly saturated color into their images through processing.  After all the average attention span when scrolling through images on social media is only a second or two and color (along with high contrast) is often what wins out given this short period of time.   The problem with these images, however, is that upon closer inspection they do not hold our attention long.  Images, however, with rich, nuanced and carefully selected colors are something our eyes can rest on and explore for longer periods of time and perhaps we can even bring into our homes as wall art.

Although perceptions of color can be subjective and also tied to cultural beliefs,  there are some archetypal and universal responses to color, both positive and negative, that seem to transcend personal and cultural beliefs.  Colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility.  Colors on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colors and include blue, purple, and green. These colors are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference.  Complementary Colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and produce lively attention-getting contrast.  Adjacent colors on the color wheel, such as red, orange-red, red-orange, and orange are harmonious.  There is red in all four colors.  The likeness results in pleasing harmony.  Colors can also have many subtle attributes that invite the viewer to explore the image further including tint (any color + white), tone (any color = grey) and shade (any color = black).  Excessively  high saturation levels can result in the lack of color gradations with fewer  variations of  color shades, tints and tones.

Next time you are out in the field and framing a composition ask yourself what effect are the colors in the scene having upon you?  Are one or more of these colors not consistent with your current emotional state?  Will more selective framing of the scene reduce the number of potentially clashing colors?  Does the intended framing  include complementary colors or harmonious colors, or perhaps some of both?

To a certain extent the color balance, hues, saturation, tints, tones, and shades can be modified in Photoshop.    It is usually best, however, for colors to also have a good grounding in the actual scene and to keep processing modifications of colors more on subtle side of the spectrum.  In processing one can decide which color/s to bring the most attention to and use lower saturation levels on the other colors.  But some of the grace and naturalness of the scene along with its connection to the soul and spirit will be lost with drastic alterations of hues or saturation levels.

(6) Contrast

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North Cascades Aspens

I used my 300mm lens to achieve a compressed perspective of these Aspens that were at some distance away from the dark cliff in the background that was in shadow.  I accentuated the contrast between the Aspens and the dark cliff to achieve a better level of contrast helping make the image pop.

There are two types of Contrast: Tonal Contrast and Color Contrast.  Tonal contrast refers to the difference in bright and dark areas in a photo. Color Contrast  refers to the way colors interact with each other.  In this topic I am primarily concerned with Tonal Contrast.  Contrast can be both at a macro level with the differentiation of the subject from the background and at the micro level helping to reveal important details in the image.  Both macro and micro tonal contrast can help create a sense of depth and a multidimensional aspect to the image.

Maple Pass640-HDR Color Boost Liberty Bell Reflecting Pond

Micro tonal contrast in this image helps make it work.  Micro contrast is especially evident in the trees and clouds, and to a somewhat lesser extent on the mountain and the red huckleberry bush.


Although contrast in an image can help an image pop and direct the viewers attention to the subject/s and follow a path of light, it can easily be overdone.  My experience with my own images and looking at those of others that have staying  power and are also brought into people’s homes as wall art confirms that in most cases more subtle applications of contrast create the best images.  We do not need a sledge hammer to our heads to direct our attention to what to look at in the image.  Excessive contrast (often made possible through the aggressive application of luminosity masks and corresponding curve adjustments) can distract from the organic feel of the image and its connection to the time and place that is the source of our inspiration.  But sensible and somewhat restrained enhancements of contrast showing the path of light, separation of of subject/s from background, illumination of gradations of tonal values, and application of a subtle vignette work wonders and can set the image apart.

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Cavanaugh Pond Tree Reflections

Some images cry out for lower contrast, as is the case here with the trees and reflections on a foggy day at Cavanaugh Pond close to my home in Renton Washington.


(7) Composition

Image composition is simply the arrangement different subjects and visual elements in the frame.  A successful composition will provide a visual path through the image that directs the viewers attention on the subject/s and elements the photographer considers most important.  In compositions with lasting impact the viewer will not only be guided through the scene, but his/her eyes will also thoroughly explore the image, moving around all parts of the frame to fully appreciate both the whole image and all of its parts.  Ask yourself:  Is my image strong enough for eyes to wander through all elements of the scene?  This is what will happen once an image is hung on a living space wall where it will be looked at again and again.  Landscape photography differs from studio  photography in that we have limited or no flexibility to alter the physical elements within our chosen framing for the scene.  But the Landscape is far more expansive than the studio and there are a multitude of if scenes within scenes and even scenes at the micro level.  From all of this we can make an almost infinite number of composition choices.  Sometimes just moving the tripod a couple of inches can create an altogether different composition.

Nature provides exceptions to every rule.  Margaret Fuller

Guy Tal offers three concepts for thinking about composition in the field: Framing, Perspective and Balance.  I have found these three concepts match very well my more intuitive method of approaching composition and will use them to discuss my approach to composition.  It is important to recognize there are no absolute rules in composition.  While rules such as the “Rule of Thirds” or the need to identify a “Primary Subject” help us to get thinking about composition, they are not absolute mandates.  Creation of a good composition is ultimately a more of an intuitive process that flows organically from our experience of the scene.  We know good composition when we see it even if it cannot be attributed to specific rules of composition.  In this regard we do not look for specific features such as leading lines or foreground elements first and then compose the shot around this.  The composition should always start from our experience of the scene, our emotional response, our intuition about its meaning, and ultimately our intentions for the image–these are the compositions that will have lasting impact.


Rock Tapestry

Rock Tapestry

In this composition using a 200mm lens at close range, I chose to emphasis a very small area of the slot canyon wall.   This allowed me to create an abstract image featuring diagonal lines, somewhat analogous geometric shapes, and patterns of colors.

Framing.  The single most important decision one makes in composition is framing–how much or little of the scene to include in the image frame.  When approaching the scene it is best to at first not even take out the camera.  How does the scene make you feel?  What are the elements in the scene that you are attracted to?  What are the elements of the scene you do not like and can these be eliminated or deemphasized?  Does the scene stir up memories–joy or sadness?  Does the scene leave you feeling calm and peaceful, or is there more of a sense of energy and motion associated with changing conditions? Once you have an idea of your intentions for the scene use your hands or better yet your imagination to build a frame- then think about which focal length would best match your rough framing and intuitive grasp of the scene.

Perspective. Once you have identified the initial framing of the scene, it is now time to determine where best to position yourself relative to the scene.  Much of this exploratory work can also be done without a camera.  Get down low, and then perhaps even lower as in right on the ground.  How does the scene look from different vantage points?  If shooting with a wide or normal angle lens, get closer then move away from foreground objects.  Often  movements up and down, forward and backwards, and to the left or right can result in major differences in the composition including its sense of depth.  A very low perspective will provide maximum emphasis to foreground elements but may lack the height necessary to fully appreciate leading lines to a primary subject or place too little emphasis on the mid-ground.   Are both your foreground and mid-ground elements equally important or is it more important to place maximum emphasis on the foreground that might also be your primary subject?  The key is to keep moving around the scene exploring different alternatives before setting up a tripod with camera for fine tuning of the composition.  For more on framing and perspective see my blog post Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty


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South Falls Magic Mushroom Discovery

In this image there are two main subjects, the mushrooms and the waterfall.  I chose a very low and close perspective to give primary attention to the mushrooms underneath and seemingly looking out to South Falls.  The mid-range gets only low to moderate emphasis in this image.

Balance.  Image balance is about the placement of the subject/s and elements in the fame to achieve to a natural flow and rhythm.  In a well balanced image distractions will be eliminated or minimized, there will be no competing elements, and there will not be excessive negative space.  If there is a primary subject, attention will be brought to it through the use of light, contrast,  and somewhat more saturated color.   There will be a visual flow to the primary subject through the use of leading lines, contrast and or a path of light.  In wide angle images, there will be a natural and flowing transition from the foreground to the mid-ground and background portions of the image.  Often balance is achieved through simplification, but more complex and even somewhat chaotic scenes can still be balanced through various methods including darkening and desaturating portions of the scene that need less emphasis and more importantly through the use of  gestalt principles (more on this in the next topic).

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Autumn Cascading Meadows

Color transitions and where the rocks meet the autumn meadow provide a sense of cascading diagonal lines that lead the eyes through the foreground and mid-ground portions of the scene to the overlapping ridges beyond.  The overall result is a great sense of depth in the image and an overall well balanced composition.


(8) Gestalt

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Boardwalk through a Mossy Bog

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever wondered  why one image will inspire us to see beyond the arrangement of subjects and objects within a frame and another will not?  Both images are arranged through composition techniques, but only one of the two will move us beyond the literal interpretation of the scene so that we can share in the photographer’s vision  and what inspired him/her in the first place.  Gestalt theory provides us some clues.

Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.  Gestalt helps explain how our vision works in grouping elements into more unified groups and associations.  Our eyes and the corresponding processing of vision in our brain work much different than the lens of our camera.  We can look into the chaos of a forest and still see a fundamental unity, the camera initially cannot.  Often normal vision is identified as what one would see through a standard 50mm lens.  But in  reality our vision is far different from this.  Our eyes move around and within blinks of the eye we go from seeing the world wide to narrow to panning the scene almost simultaneously.   This is our perception creating unified images in our mind that seem to evaporate when  looking through the viewfinder of our camera at a static image.

There are certain principles of the Gestalt theory of perception that can help us in creating transcendent and unified images.

Similarity.  Objects and elements that are similar are perceived as a group.  Types of similarities include shapes, diagonal lines, curves, textures,  colors, the amount or color of light, and shadows and highlights.  It is important to note that these attributes do not need to be identical and in fact it is often better that they are not because this is more consistent with the flow of nature’s often imperfect order.   For example our mind will still group together objects with a roughly circular shape even if they are different sizes and dimensions and occur in different parts of the scene.

Proximity.  The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group and these objects do not necessarily need to be similar.

Continuation.  The principle of continuation refers to the mind’s tendency to see complete forms even if a picture is incomplete, partially hidden by other objects, or if part of the information needed to make a complete picture in our minds is missing.  The mind assumes that lines extend beyond the edges of the frame.  An example of this is a trail or boardwalk disappearing in the distance (as in the image above).  In the landscape photo this principle helps create a sense of depth (along with the use of a wide-angle lens) as the mind believes that the boardwalk continues beyond its vanishing point.

Closure.  The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle. With time one can recognize shapes in a scene that may not be apparent at first and integrate these shapes with other similar shapes in the scene to create a visual thread that helps tie together and unify the image—think of this as visual poetry.  Seldom is image making a precise lesson in geometry but rather has more to do with identifying somewhat similar shapes, patterns and colors that can create a balanced whole.


Autumn Passage

Some Gestalt unifying gestalt principles can be seen in this image.  There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Lake Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left.  The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group.  The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and the peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground.  The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation).

Emergence. Emergence is somewhat different from the other Gestalt principles in that it is something that one sees after initially grasping the unified whole image.  Emergence is about going deeper into the image to appreciate the details, subtle gradations of color and light (recall our discussion about micro contrast).  This flies in the face of those who argue that details do not matter and suggests that once the whole is recognized we need to give the viewer a place to go for awhile to discover more about the riches of the image.  Emergence is a necessary gestalt principle for images with lasting impact.  Emergence can be seen in the above image, especially in the foreground, with the details in the granite rock and subtle gradations of color and tones in the foliage.  It can also be seen in the forests and rocks of Lichenberg Peak.



Images that have lasting impact go beyond the faithful recording of Nature’s handy work.  Some refer to this difference as one between documentary and expressive photography.  I prefer to think about it as moving toward transcendental photography.  Transcendental photography moves beyond the individual subjects and objects in the image, beyond the faithful recording of color and light values,  and even beyond the image where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The transcendent image instills an emotional reaction and evokes an appreciation for still another dimension, the soul and spirit of a place and time and offers the viewer a shared vision.  For more on inspiration and vision see Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision  The image has strong composition attributes that invite the viewer to come into the image, listen to its story, understand its visual metaphors and explore both the whole image and its subtle and nuanced details. The viewer shares in the creator’s inspiration and participates in the creator’s vision .

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.  Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 4 1836)

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.  Each particle is a microcosm and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 5 1836) 


Spirit Angels in the Forest

Spirit Angels in the Forest

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Multi-Day Backpacking and Photography

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir

Multi-day Backpacking can provide an immersive experience into the wonders and mysteries of nature providing a powerful source of inspiration to the photographer that is rarely available in trips of shorter duration.  What I have noticed on my many multi-day trips is that it takes at least a couple of days to disconnect from the concerns of the day to day world and tune in to the subtle heart beat of nature’s calling.  At day three the wilderness almost seems like an extension of oneself, and this is soon followed by the realization that we too are nature.  The American Transcendentalist Emerson established nature as the liberator of our creative self.

“Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature – Chapter 3: Beauty, 1836) 

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Walking into a Dream: This  view is looking out to the patrol cabin and Mt. Rainier from Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, one of my favorite places along the 100+ mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier National Park.  Although it is possible to do this trip in five days, for photographers I recommend a minimum of 10 days.  I did the trip in 11 days and wished I had more!

Our true nature is that of creativity, but often it is difficult to hear its calling when we are following instead the drum beat of our jobs, societal expectations, and desires to be popular on social media.  What better way to cut loose from these muffling sounds, and listen instead to the still small voice of nature?  Tune out to all this clutter and noise and  tune in to nature and creative renewal as part of a multi-day backpacking trip!  The rewards of this experience will pay dividends once you are back navigating through the day to day concerns of your life and will be spiritually transforming.  Although we cannot all realistically spend most of our life immersed in the wilderness, we can carry this experience back with us through the renewal of our spirit.  This spirit can be creatively renewed again and again through annual pilgrimages to the back-country with multi-day backpacking trips.


Glacier Peak 2017 Images1896 copy

Tda-ko-buh-ba Sunrise: Beautiful pasque flowers gone to seed and Image Lake awaken to a rosy sunrise underneath Washington’s most remote volcanic peak, known by the Suak Indian Tribe as “Tda-ko-buh-ba”, but also known as Glacier Peak. This location in the Glacier Peak Wilderness comes as close to heaven on earth as anything my imagination can possibly conjure up. Looking out across the meadow and lake to Glacier Peak one feels the pure essence of a wilderness area, an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people, and where we are just visitors who cannot remain in a place of such unspoiled beauty.   We reached this location on the third night of our backpacking trip making this trip an obvious choice for a multi-day backpacking adventure.

In this blog post I will discuss the following: (1) Why a Photography Oriented Multi-day Backpacking Trip, (2) What to Carry, (3) Camera Gear, (4) Getting in Shape, (5) Selecting a Team, (6) Finding Your Photographic Vision, and (7) Destinations.  The chart below contrasts a typical backpacking trip with a photography oriented backpacking trip.

Typical and Photography Multiday Backpacking

Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography.   This means frequent stops along the trail and organizing the schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset.  Breakfasts on photography backpacking trips are usually eaten late and dinners early because it is important to keep the mornings and evenings open for photography.  Most movement from place to place will occur during the middle of the day arriving at the next camp well in advance of  the evening hours which means keeping daily backpacking distances reasonable where possible.



Rivers Bend, Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, Oregon.  To properly experience the vast Eagle Cap, a multi-backpacking trip is essential. This particular valley originally looked quite unremarkable to me and I struggled to come up with a compelling composition.   This area of Eagle Creek is not typically thought of as an iconic site.   But as I explored further down the valley I saw this bend in the river that caused me to think back on Ansel Adam’s image of Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons.  I attempted to photograph Oxbow Bend a few years ago but I felt I was recreating someone else’s composition.  But here in the Eagle Cap, I had no such concern.  The same emotional impact I felt when viewing Ansel’s Oxbow Bend image I now felt with even greater intensity and this helped to provide the creative energy I needed for this image.

What to Carry

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds. This challenge is especially hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry a full array of  backpacking gear, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod.  For a multi-day backpacking trip, we will of course need the ten essentials, but will need to go far beyond this if the trip is going to be an enjoyable and a worth while experience.


Ten Essentials

(1) Navigation (map and compass)
(2) Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
(3) Insulation (extra clothing)
(4) Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
(5) First-aid supplies
(6) Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
(7) Repair kit and tools
(8) Nutrition (extra food)
(9) Hydration (extra water)
(10) Emergency shelter

The following heirarchial criteria will help guide us to the selection of the right equipment.

(1) Need
(2) Function
(3) Light Weight/Ultralight
(4) Bulk
(5) Cost
(6) Style

For every item that we pack one must ask if this item is needed and what function does it serve?  If there is no need that has to do  with protecting us and keeping us safe from the elements, that item may need to go into the nice to have but not necessary list that we keep to a bare minimum–for example camp chairs, bulky and heavy solar chargers, etc.  Although it is important that equipment is light, it is also important not to be so obsessive about reducing weight that one compromises a basic need and function.  For example, taking a minimalist first aid kit for a group of six people for a week or more in the wilderness is not a smart idea.  Accidents can and do happen even to the most prepared and an appropriately sized first aid kit will be required.  The same goes for backpacks.  It often takes weight to carry weight.  One of the most frequent complaints I have heard from ultra light backpackers with camera gear is that their backpack is so uncomfortable and is disproportionately distributing the weight to their shoulders rather than hips.

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Here Comes the Sun: On a cold, cloudy and misty day in the middle of October, the sun likes to tease us, occasionally with breakthroughs, instilling hope, of a clearing to come. These hopes are usually dashed but I love the drama, and would go to the Enchantments again and again to experience it!  The Enchantments are best approached as part of a five to eight day Multi-day Backpacking Trip.  When in this much beauty, why would anyone want to leave sooner?


It is not only important that the equipment be light but also of low bulk.  This allows us to use a smaller backpack that is typically lighter and better balanced on the body.  Light and ultralight equipment can be expensive but sales can often be found at the REI Garage and Backcounty.com.  Although style is a consideration, style needs to flow naturally from need and function if it is going to find a place on our equipment list.

Every time I get prepared to go on a major backpacking trip I methodically go through this list before the trip and gather all the equipment together, checking off items one by one.  At the end of the trip I do a post trip analysis of what items I did not use and consider revising the list for the next trip.


Equipment List

Equipment List



Awakening: While camping on Copper Ridge I woke up to this sunrise with the fog quickly rising from the valley below. A few minutes later the entire ridge was engulfed in fog. Copper Ridge is located in North Cascades National Park and is typically reached as part of a 4 to 7 day backpacking trip that also includes Whatcom Pass. This area receives a large amount of rain and fast changing weather even in the summer months which presents its challenges but also some great photographic opportunities. 


Camera Gear

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that I find most useful on most multi-day backpacking trips is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a macro lens that also doubles as a telephoto lens.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R3 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, and a Sony 90mm 2.8 macro lens. The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground details in the grand landscape composition and the macro telephoto works perfectly for flowers, small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  and wildlife at a relatively close range.  With the Sony A7R3 one can easily switch to cropped mode making the macro lens effectively a 135mm telephoto.  One may want to substitute a 70-200mm 4.0 zoom for the macro lens and perhaps bring a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide angle for stars, but do not fall for the temptation of bringing any more than 2 or 3 lenses.  For more on the use of wide and telephoto lens perspectives in the field check out my blog post: Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty

My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighs less than seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additional three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  As previously mentioned, bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.  The chart below compares the weight of the newest Sony A7R3 and Nikon 850 cameras for equivalent systems.

Sony versus Nikon


Lozier Lake, Wind River Wyoming. Honorable Mention and in the Top 100 finalists for Natures Best/Smithsonian Wilderness Forever Contest.  Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness Area is one of the best locations for planning a major Multiday Backpack that I know of.

I recommend that you store the camera, lenses, and accessories in a small F-stop ICU.  This fits perfectly into the Kangaroo pocket of my Gregory Baltoro 75 backpack.  I do not recommend backpacks specifically designed for camera equipment and gear from companies such as F-Stop, Lowe Pro and others because they do not carry multi-day backpacking loads nearly as well as conventional backpacks from Gregory  or Osprey.

My Sony A7R3 with 16-35 4.0 Lens and 90mm macro in a F-Stop Small ICU



The Gregory Baltoro 75 Backpack: Notice the large Kangaroo Pocket on the front that easily accommodates a small F-Stop ICU. 


There are two very important photography equipment requirements in multi-day backpacking that I have found many people do not think about until the need becomes apparent.  The first requirement is that you will need a camera available at all times while actually on the trail backpacking.  The second is that once at camp you will need some means to conveniently carry your full frame camera equipment and tripod around.

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Maroon Bells Secret Garden:  A flower meadow basks in the glow of the warm evening light at dusk somewhere below Buckskin Pass in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado. Although most people know the Maroon Bells primarily through the post card image of Maroon Lake, the wilderness area actually spans a large area that offers multiple opportunities to frame a unique composition. You will need to go backpacking, however, to find these spots. I took this image as part of a seven day backpacking loop trip over four 12,000 foot passes. This was one of the best backpacking loop trips I have ever taken and mid July is excellent to experience the flowers in full bloom.


Photographic opportunities abound on a multi-day back trip while actively backpacking on the trail,  but to take advantage of these opportunities you will need quick access to a camera.  Although there are many ways to carry your interchangeable lens camera while backpacking, personally I have found all of these ways somewhat awkward and inconvenient when carrying a multi-day backpack.  I have also noticed that when backpackers use such devices as a holster, a chest pouch, or a shoulder mounted peak one,  the  use of these devices is typically only temporary and then the user gets tired of their awkwardness and into the main backpack the camera goes.  What I recommend is to carry a second camera: a high quality and light weight point and shoot camera that fits easily into a pocket, such as the Sony RX100.   This is the camera you use while hiking from point to point while carrying your multi-day backpack.   It only weighs 8 ounces, has the full array of both manual and automatic controls, and is capable of capturing excellent images and raw files.  As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you!  Once at camp of course you will use your larger full frame camera.  Although an I-phone or the like is good for an occasional snapshot, especially those that include people, the ability to manually control the RX100 along with its much larger sensor size coupled with malleable raw files, makes this camera a better choice for most applications.


Sony RX100

Many backpacks now come with a secondary built in day pack that can be used to carry a full frame camera, lenses, tripod, and a few essentials once you are at camp and in the field.  I pack my camera in a small F-Stop ICU that fits in a Kangaroo Pouch of my Gregory Pack.  Once at camp I take the ICU out and put it into the pack within a pack that is included with the Gregory.    For an even better option, Marmont also makes an excellent ultralight pack called the compressor that weighs 8 ounces that can accommodate an F-stop ICU, lunch, extra clothes and gear, a water bottle and a tripod.  Although some people just empty out their larger pack and use it as a day pack, in my opinion this is awkward, limits mobility, and also forces one to put all unneeded gear now somewhat disorganized  inside the tent.



Getting in Shape

Many people are very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their multi-day backpacking adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive prior conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of two to four thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area: Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Multi-day Backpacking experience.  The getting in shape experience also includes trying out some of the equipment you will be using in the field ahead of time, especially items like Hiking Boots that need to be broken in and a Tent that you need to be able to pitch quickly without the need to follow written instructions.

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Ediza Lake Sunrise:  The Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, approached from the Eastern Sierra, affords splendid opportunities for multi-day backpacking.  But be prepared for a variety of challenging circumstances including river crossings, the elements, and some cross country travel.  On this trip I encountered one of the worst hard driving rain storms in my life that finally passed over shortly before taking this image.


Selecting a Team

For multi-day backpacking trips I recommend keeping the number of participants at a small number, at the most five or six, to make sure each of the photographers has a quality experience and participants are not stepping over each others toes trying to get the image.  Keeping the team size small will also help reduce the footprint on environmentally sensitive areas–as always our motto is to tread lightly and leave no trace.  For more on the potential impact of photographers on the environment see Wilderness Gone Viral.  Participants should also be carefully screened as this is physically challenging, and not everyone may be in sync with the pace, rhythm, and goals of a photography oriented backpacking trip.  Non-photographers can participate in the trip and there are even some advantages of having their presence.  They can offer a counterbalance to the often overly driven demeanor of photographers, reminding us to slow down, and appreciate the natural world for what it is, without always trying to immediately shape the experience into an image.  Non-photographers can also provide needed logistical and other support to the photographers, but as mentioned, they must be OK with the trip being primarily oriented around photography.


Colorado’s expansive Wemminuche Wilderness Area home to some of the best Mult-day backpacking.

Finding your Vision

Although a multi-day photography trip is oriented around photography as one of its primary goals, finding your vision for the area will require that you meet nature on its own terms.  Before even reaching for the camera, take a deep breath, look around, engage all of your senses and imagination in tapping into the heart and soul of nature.  What are the elements of the scene that you find most interesting and how do they effect you at both mental and emotional levels?  What feelings, memories, and perceptions does the scene and these elements bring to the surface?  This is not an activity that spans just a few moments of time but is a meditative state that can span hours.  Be sure to arrive at the scene well ahead of time to do this necessary inner work before launching off on a photo tirade.   This meditation will provide the necessary support for giving your personal vision expression in a photographic image.  More on this can be found on my  blog post “Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self” and a  related post Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.


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Morning Mist: First light over a misty Lake Lacrosse, Olympic National Park. No matter which route one takes, this lake is about a 20 mile plus hike, making it suitable only for a multi-day backpack for maximum enjoyment.  I approached this area as part of a east to west trek through the park involving the use of a shuttle service.



There are many excellent destinations for a Multi-day backpacking trip and I have provided images of many of them throughout this blog post.  Two that I highly recommend and I have written blog posts about include Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments and Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop.  The Enchantments are best accomplished in about a five to eight day trip to fully immerse yourself in this awe inspiring area and assimilate its beauty.  I recommend going in fall when the Larch Trees turn gold.  The Glacier Peak Wilderness loop trip is best done in early August when wildflowers are at their peak and you will want to have a minimum of seven days scheduled and ideally more to experience this heaven on earth.  Be sure to visit the blog posts above for more on these areas.

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Goodbye My Friend:  The Enchantment’s Leprechaun Lake as we were leaving an approaching snow storm.  Fall time backpacking in the Enchantments involves extra preparations for cold weather and the use of microspikes to safely walk on potentially slippery surfaces.


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Ripples along the Lyman Lake Shore.  This image is from my multi-day backpacking trip to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in August. What a beautiful and restful place to camp after going up and over Spider Gap and the Lyman Glacier!



Multi-day backpacking can be a powerful source of new found inspiration with complete immersion in nature for a week or more, an opportunity to temporarily disconnect from the day to day routine and distractions, and connect to Nature, one’s Authentic Self, and source of all creativity.

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere, the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling, vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” John Muir-Sierra Club Founder.

Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination

Of all the different landscapes I have in encountered in my many journey’s throughout the US and the world, there is none that moves and inspires me more than the feeling I get when walking just above mist, fog and clouds moving through a Pacific Northwest Forest.  I just love photographing in these conditions. With the fast changing action caused by fog, mist and clouds mingled with light moving through the forest canopy, possibilities for compositions seem almost endless. It is almost as if the forest is a blank canvas mirroring ones internal thoughts, dreams and visions, all captured through the lens of the camera and later processing.


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Spirit Angels in the Forest

In this blog post I will discuss will discuss several factors that go into the creation of the Forest in the Mist image including (1) location ; (2) state of mind ; (3) equipment: (4) technique; (5) active imagination; (6) composition, and (7) processing.


(1) Location

Although most of the images in this blog post were taken at a single location, Poo Poo Point in the Issaquah Alps, one can find similar opportunities throughout the Pacific Northwest.  I find the best locations for shooting are along the ridges of the foothills and first flank of peaks of the cascades, with forests trailing down to the wide open valleys below.  The valleys are important because they are the first to fill with fog and then when the morning sun rises, the fog and mist lift and rise moving in a constantly changing fashion through the trees as the mystery of an ethereal world comes in and out of view.

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Island in the Fog


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Forest Carpet of Clouds


(2) State of Mind

Making images of forests in the mists is not as much about exact locations as it is about ones state of mind.  As previously mentioned, one can  find these vistas just about anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, but will you be ready for the mystery and recognize this ethereal beauty when it arises?  Many will likely answer this question with a resounding yes, but the true answer is likely not nearly so forthright.  One needs to be in the right state of mind.  Looking out at this foggy and misty world through a long telephoto lens one is no longer pondering the wide open grand landscape, but rather a very small section of the macro world.  Scenes transpire and evaporate into evanescence in a matter of seconds and then reappear in different shapes and forms in a seemingly endless cycle.  Looking at such drama is like looking through a window into ones own soul.  What attracts you to this small section of the misty landscape rather than another?  A rational approach to answering this question may not get you very far.  With the environment changing so fast there is no time to precisely compose.  One is not so much aware of things here as they are, but rather ones experience of a fast changing landscape.  And with this much movement and change, our experience of the scene will direct where our attention goes and ultimately the moods and emotions inherent in the images.  Presence and stillness are required, a willingness to let go and go with the flow, and to be a part of the flow.  In essence, we become part of the landscape, with our inner self, emotions, and feelings moving freely through the mist of the forest.



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(3) Equipment

The equipment I recommend for capturing beautiful moody and atmospheric images of forests in the mist includes a full frame digital mirrorless or DSLR camera and a long telephoto zoom lens.  For most of the images in this series I used a Nikon D810 along with a Nikon 200-500mm 5.6 lens.   Although the Nikon 200-500 is one big beast of a lens weighing approximately five pounds and being 10.5 inches long, it is not nearly as heavy as its F 4.0 counterparts.  The lens has a very capable Vibration Reduction (VR) which can be used even when the lens is resting on a tripod which is very important because even the slightest movement of the lens can create blur with a telephoto zoom this large.

Although one can of course also compose images with other focal lengths such as wit a 70-200mm zoom or even a wide angle zoom, it is a long telephoto zoom that is going to maximize your flexibility in capturing the best compositions in the field.  The best compositions are most often very small areas of the larger scene best captured at focal lengths of between 400 mm to  about 700 mm.   Even small movements left, right, up or down, will result often in entirely different compositions.  Using these large focal lengths will also create a pleasingly compressed perspective.  This will transform a scene that at shorter focal lengths would appear rather flat with  major areas of dead space to something with well placed composition elements filling more of the frame.  Although the Nikon lens only goes to 500mm, going beyond this can  easily be achieved by either shooting in cropped sensor mode or by simply cropping the image in post processing.  The quality of the files from the Nikon D810, Nikon D850, Sony A7R2 and A7R3 can easily handle cropping by as much as 50% or even more.


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Lost in the Forest

(4) Technique

One must keep in mind when discussing technique in photographing forests in the mist that technique is all in service of creating images that are also projections of our own inner vision.  As previously mentioned, the images are not of the scene as it is but rather our experience of the scene.  More on this when we discuss the “Active Imagination” and how this relates to creating images.  But clearly there are actions of a more pure technical nature that warrant review that will help us harness our vision.

I always scan the scene first with my own eyes looking for areas of interest.  Remember areas of interest will be fleeting, but one may still look for the dominant recurring patterns in the scene by answering the following questions: (1) which direction is the mist moving –up from the valley, or down from the ridges? (2) What sections of trees come in and out of view? (3) Are the trees deciduous or evergreen or some of both?  (4) do the trees follow the lines of ridges and are these lines curved or straight? (5) Are there islands of trees separated by fog, mist or clouds?  (6) Where is the source of light and how is it penetrating the clouds and mist?  (7) Is there a layer of clouds over the fog and mist? (8) What colors, texture and tones are present?  Once I have an understanding of the answer to these and related questions I will only then mount the lens with camera attached to the tripod.

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Behind the Scenes PC Stuke Sowie


Long telephoto lenses will magnify the impact of any movement of the camera and lens resulting in blurry images.  A long telephoto lens needs to be mounted onto the sturdiest tripod you can reasonably carry using a tripod color as the point of attachment and not the camera itself.   This will help reduce the chance of shake and vibrations associated with the use of a very long and heavy lens.   If possible it is best to mount the lens on the tripod with the legs only partially extended minimizing the use of the extended legs that are smaller in diameter.  This will result in a sturdier tripod less effected by movements caused by wind.  Never use the tripod’s center column unless absolutely necessary.

Additional steps to reduce vibrations and any camera and lens movement include the following: put the mirror in lock up position (or use a mirrorless camera), use a cable release in combination with a self timer, and enable use of electronic first curtain shutter.   Electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) used either with mirrorless or with the DSLR mirror up makes it so the start of the shutter motion isn’t even mechanical (the camera basically just starts recording the exposure because the shutter is already up, so there are fewer parts moving to create vibration.   Even with mirror lockup on a tripod and proper technique, without EFCS enabled it’s easy to get blurry results at certain shutter speeds (from around 1/100 to 1 second) with long lenses.  With the EFCS enabled, use a 3 second exposure delay mode combined with the 2 second self timer (5 seconds total) and a remote, and that will be  enough time for camera and lens to settle.

To even further reduce vibrations cause by wind experiement with the use of VR.  VR on newer lenses have either a tripod mode or the lens automatically detects the use of a tripod.   Try taking images with and without VR.  Use of VR will often  make a huge difference for the better, other times it seems to make things worse.  Finally experiment with the use of different ISOs.  I always take a series of images at several different ISOs.  I always start by attempting to use the cameras base ISO because ultimately if conditions are sufficiently good this will result in the best file.  In order to ensure success, however, I also try ISO 400 and even ISO 1000, especially when shooting in low light, to get at faster shutter speeds that may be less succeptible to the impact of any camera and or lens movement.

Once the camera is mounted on the camera and you are ready to shoot, start at the widest focal lenght  because it can be very diffcult to find and isolate your intended subject at 500mm.  Alternately look at the subject with your eyes and through the viewfinder until you lock on the subject and then move to the desired longer focal lenth.  Remember the scene will be fleeting  and the cluods and mist may be moving fast so you will need to repeat this process again and again during the shooting session.


Active Imagination

“Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.”  Carl Jung

Forests in the Mists offer a fertile playing ground for the Active Imagination and finding the inner source and drive for creativity.  For the Active Imagination to come into play it is necessary to let go for a period of time of our conscious attempts to deliberately control every step of the photographic process and enter a state of flow.  The first stage of the active imagination is like dreaming with open eyes.  Active imagination is a method of assimilating unconscious contents  (dreams and fantasies) through some form of self-expression, in our case photography.  With a constantly changing landscape with the mist and clouds moving through the forest coming in and out of view, it is difficult if not impossible to be too deliberate in our actions because if we do, the scene will evaporate before our eyes before we have a chance to capture the image.

In the second stage of Active Imagination, we go beyond simply observing the images, consciously participate in them, taking notice of emotions and feelings, and  honestly evaluating what they mean about oneself and a willingness to act on these insights. This is a transition from a merely perceptive mode to one of judgment.  It is in this second stage where the craft of photography comes into play for the creation of art that is not only part of ones immediate experience and personally meaningful,  but is also is connected to the the physical world, forest in the mists.  This is like a dance between our conscious and unconscious self, with neither being in total control.  What emerges from the dance is a stronger sense of self, and a visual metaphor for the dance, in the form of a photograph that is art.

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Stairway to Heaven



Composition can be very challenging in an environment where nothing is still and scenes are fleeting, but it is not impossible if one is not overly judgmental.  Remember this is a play between the fantasies of our unconscious mind and our conscious self.  One must be willing to dance, not getting too attached to precisely formulated and deliberate actions.  I take many images, one right after the other, looking for composition elements such as lines, curves, repeating shapes, a balance of warm and cool tones, and layers of interest that will help provide a sense of depth to and otherwise compressed telephoto perspective.  This is not the time for just taking just one or two sequences of images as many do at an iconic grand landscape scene.  This is also not the time for being overly critical of oneself, but just to engage in the flow and dance of creative photography.  There will be time for curating and reducing the number of images to a manageable level later.  But even here one must be careful not to overly curate.  These images will provide insight into your own soul and creative journey.  Many, not just a few, will provide the visual trail that leads to a better understanding of your authentic self.  Your viewers will have a much better sense of who you are as a person and your journey through viewing a more complete portfolio.  For a more on Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for your Authentic Self click here.

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Layers and Tiers of Clouds and Trees


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Trees Floating on Clouds



Usually I can capture all the dynamic range I need with either my Nikon D810 or Sony ARR3 camera and do not need to exposure blend.  In raw development, however, I will often use a graduated filter to reduce exposure to the upper par of the scene.  In difficult cases I will double process the image, one image processed for highlights and the second for the shadows or darker parts of the scene and then blend the two in Photoshop.   A key processing step for Forests in the Mist is global and local area adjustments of white balance.   I will first decide if I want to give the entire scene a warmer or cooler tone and then apply a global adjustment if needed.  I will then, however, selectively cool or warm up different parts of the scene paying close attention for where the source of light is in the image.  The portion of the image closer to the light source may need warming up, and the portion further away may need cooling down to get at the contrast between warm and cool light that is consistent with my experience of the scene.  I may also add either globally or selectively a little more magenta to the image if it has a green bias.  In raw development I will open up the shadows moderately and make sure the image has sufficient brightness.  I generally do not play with the clarity and haze adjustments at all unless there are local areas of the scene that need a little boost because there is little or no definition.  These scenes are naturally rendered soft so the grunge look is neither neither or desired.

In Photoshop my main adjustments are for contrast using Luminosity Masks.  For this I usually start with the lights using a curve adjustment with a multiply blending mode and then raise the center of the curve.  I will then adjust the darks and mid-tones using levels adjustments to improve the contrast in the image and get the image to have more pop.  I then will consider applying a light Orton effect if needed (the scene is already inherently soft due to atmospheric conditions).  I may or may not sharpen the image depending upon how shapening effects the image.  Too much texture or micro contrast in a Forest in the Mist image is not necessarily a good thing where a softer less contrasty image usually works best.  If I need to do a color adjustment this comes last but usually with the contrast adjustments in the previous steps the image already has good color.



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Behind the Veil of Nature’s Mystery



If you are looking for new avenues for creativity in your photography consider taking a walk into Forests in the Mist.  This mystical forest is ripe with mystery that is fertile ground  for unleashing creative forces through the Active Imagination that will not only find their way into your images but also help you develop a more evolved sense of your authentic self .  This more evolved self will most resonate with network of friends and acquaintances who will be able participate in your artistic journey through your images.


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Misty Forest

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Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop

The Spider Gap -Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area of Washington State, USA ranks as my favorite multi-day backpacking trip of all time.  This is a land that although not far from the greater Seattle area truly embodies the essence of a wilderness area, “an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people, and where we are just visitors who cannot remain in a place of such unspoiled beauty.”  Here is a land with vast ancient old growth forests that extend as far as the eye can see up wild river valleys.   These forests suddenly reach equally large and expansive high mountain emerald green meadows filled with a vast variety of wildflowers in a kaleidoscope of colors.  Here is a land where glacier remnants of the ice age provide the access route over gaps that lead one to the very heart of a wilderness experience with chains of turquoise blue mountain lakes, endless trails and landmarks with names like Flower Dome, Fortress and Chiwawa Mountain, Suiattle River, and Middle Ridge.   At the center of of it all is paradise itself at the tranquil and peaceful Image Lake that sits underneath Washington’s most remote volcanic peak, known by the Suak Indian Tribe as “Tda-ko-buh-ba”, but also know as Glacier Peak.  Here is a land where you can get directly in touch with the elemental forces, beauty and mystery of nature; and find your long lost destiny everywhere in the wilderness that surrounds you.  Welcome to heaven on earth!

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Glacier Peak and the Image Lake Basin

The Glacier Peak Wilderness area  is a 566,057-acre, 35-mile-long, 20-mile expanse of land located northeast of Everett Washington, just south of North Cascades National Park, and about twenty miles northwest of Leavenworth Washington.  The area is characterized by heavily forested rivers and streams, steep-sided valleys, and dramatic glacier-crowned peaks.  The dominant geologic feature of the area is 10,541-foot Glacier Peak. It is the most remote major volcanic peak in the Cascade Range and has more active glaciers than any other place in the lower forty-eight states. Glacier Peak is a volcanic cone of basalt, pumice, and ash which erupted during periods of heavy glaciation.

I have ventured into the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area countless time during my life, visiting Image Lake six times and completing this loop twice, most recently in a Sierra Club trip in a 2017 trip led by Mike Bolar and Leah Maddoff.   I find the Sierra Club outings well organized, generally supportive of my photographic goals, and my thoughts on wilderness and conservation resonate well with the club’s goals and participants.   In the future I plan on leading my own Photography Oriented backpacking trip in this area.  I never tire of visiting this area and each time the wilderness presents itself to me a new and fresh way,  providing inspiration for  the further development of my photographic vision.

In this post I will discuss visiting and photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area along the Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop including the following topics: Basic Route, Getting there, When to Go, Photography Oriented Backpacking, Finding your Vision, Conditioning, Importance of Packing Light, Camera Gear, and a Day by Day Itinerary.  In the day by day itinerary I will provide some insights and guidance for photographic opportunities, subjects and compositions.

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Image Lake Morning Light

Basic Route 

The loop trip spans a distance of 44 miles.  I recommend that you do the loop trip counter clockwise entering in through Phelps Creek and heading up through Spider Meadows to Spider Gap.  The reason for this is that you will need to go up and over the Spider Glacier and if the the snow is too hard to navigate safely the trip will need to be cut short.  Better to do this at the beginning of the trip than toward the end where it would take days tor a return trip back to the car.  The two times I did this loop trip in August the snow was not icy , but every year is different and one needs to take the necessary precautions. Once at Spider Gap the route descends the glacier down to Upper Lyman Lakes, over to Lyman Lake, out to Cloudy and Suiattle Passes, over to Image Lake and then out through Buck Creek Pass and back to the Car.


Getting There

From Everett head east on US 2 for 85 miles to Coles Corner. (From Leavenworth travel west on US 2 for 15 miles.) Turn left onto State Route 207 (Lake Wenatchee) and proceed 4.2 miles to a Y intersection after crossing the Wenatchee River. Bear right onto the Chiwawa Loop Road, and after 1.3 miles turn left onto the Chiwawa River Road (Forest Road 62). Proceed for 22 miles (the pavement ends at 10.8 miles) to a junction. Bear right onto FR 6211 and proceed for 2.3 very rough miles to the trail head at the road’s end (elev. 3500 ft).   For the last 2.3 road miles I recommend at a minimum cars with all wheel drive and higher ground clearance such as a Subaru Outback or Forester.  The hike ends just north of the Phelps Creek Campground, requiring a 3-mile road walk back to your car at the end unless a shuttle is arranged.  On my last trip we left a couple of cars at the Phelps Creek Campground and took a couple of other cars to the trail head allowing us to shuttle people back and forth eliminating the need to hike the road back up to the trail head.  Parking is limited and often not available at the trail head on weekends so I strongly recommend starting this loop trip around the middle of the week.

When to Go

The best time to go on this trip and experience the wildflower bloom at or close to peak is from fourth week of July to about the middle of August.  The wildflower bloom changes from year to year but I have found on most years this is the best window of opportunity.  In early  July there will be significant snow still in many areas of this trip so I do not recommend going then.  Glacier Peak also has fabulous Fall color so another possibility for scheduling a trip around autumn colors is the last week of September through the first week of October which typically is an “Indian Summer”.  Going later than this carries a greater risk of inclement weather.

Multi-day Photography Oriented Backpack

My recommended itinerary is organized entirely around the concept of a photography oriented multi-day backpack.  Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography.   This means frequent stops along the trail and organizing the schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset.  Breakfasts on photography backpacking trips are usually eaten late and dinners early because it is important to keep the mornings and evenings open for photography.  Most movement from place to place will occur during the middle of the day arriving at the next camp well in advance of  the evening hours which means keeping daily backpacking distances reasonable where possible.  For multi-day backpacking trips I recommend keeping the number of participants at a small number, at the most five or six, to make sure each of the photographers has a quality experience and participants are not stepping over each others toes trying to get the image.  Participants should also be carefully screened as this is a physically challenging backpack and not everyone may be in sync with the pace, rhythm, and goals of a photography oriented backpacking trip.

Finding Your Vision

Although this trip is planned around optimizing photographic opportunity, it is important to note that the antecedent conditions for creative photography and finding ones own vision are experiencing nature on its own terms and getting in touch with one’s authentic self.  The descriptions and recommendations offered here are only guides, a starting point if you will.  The expression of your personal photographic vision for Glacier Peak will come about through the intersection of your own inward journey with material world and spirits of nature.  More on this can be found on my recent blog post “Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self” .

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Liberty Cap from Buck Creek Pass



Many people are very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive prior conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of two to four thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Glacier Peak Loop experience.


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View at Sunrise from Image Lake Camp


Importance of Packing Light

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds. This challenge is especially hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry a full array of  backpacking gear, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod. On this loop trip you will also need to pack Micro Spikes which weigh about one pound and and least one trekking pole for going up and over the Spider Gap Glacier.  One needs to think carefully through what one brings along because every ounce counts.   I strongly recommend to photographers to carry an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, rain gear, clothing etc.  But this does not mean accepting significant compromises in functionality.   Ultralight gear can be expensive, but there are deals to be  found at the REI Garage, Backcountry.Com and other outlets.   Although reducing weight is essential for comfortable backpacking and a enjoyable experience, make absolutely certain that you pack all the ten essentials.   In a future blog post on Multi-day backpacking I will include a complete equipment checklist that I use to plan every one of my multi-day backpacking trips.


Ten Essentials

(1) Navigation (map and compass)
(2) Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
(3) Insulation (extra clothing)
(4) Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
(5) First-aid supplies
(6) Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
(7) Repair kit and tools
(8) Nutrition (extra food)
(9) Hydration (extra water)
(10) Emergency shelter


Camera Equipment

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that is most useful along the loop is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a macro lens that also doubles as a telephoto lens.  A light weight normal focal length fixed lens will also be useful in creating tight compositions of Image Lake with Glacier Peak on the horizon.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R2 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, a Sony 90mm 2.8 macro lens, and a Sony 55mm 2.8 lens.  The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground details in the grand landscape composition and the macro telephoto works perfectly for flowers, small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  and wildlife at a relatively close range.  One may want to substitute for the 55mm 2.8 a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide-angle lens for stars.  But do not fall for the temptation of bringing any more than 2 or 3 lenses. My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighs less than seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additional three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  Bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.

There are two very important photography equipment requirements in multi-day backpacking that I have found many people do not think about until the need becomes apparent.  The first requirement is that you will need a camera available at all times while actually on the trail backpacking.  The second is that once at camp you will need some means to conveniently carry your full frame camera equipment and tripod around.

Photographic opportunities abound on this trip while actively backpacking on the trail,  but to take advantage of these opportunities you will need quick access to a camera.  Although there are many ways to carry your interchangeable lens camera while backpacking, personally I have found all of these ways somewhat awkward and inconvenient when carrying a heavy multi-day backpack.  I have also noticed that when backpackers use such devices as a holster, a chest pouch, or a shoulder mounted peak one,  the  use of these devices is typically only temporary and then the user gets tired of their awkwardness and into the main backpack the camera goes.  What I recommend is to carry a second camera: a high quality and light weight point and shoot camera that fits easily into a pocket, such as the Sony RX100.   This is the camera you use while hiking from point to point while carrying your heavy backpack.   It only weighs 8 ounces, has the full array of both manual and automatic controls, and is capable of capturing excellent images and raw files.  As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you!  Once at camp of course you will use your larger full frame camera.

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Wildflowers and a Mossy Stream leading to a Cairn and Upper Lyman Lakes
Image shot on the fly with my pocket camera, Sony RX100

Many backpacks now come with a secondary built in day pack that can be used to carry a full frame camera, lenses, tripod, and a few essentials once you are at camp and in the field.  I pack my camera in a small F-Stop ICU that fits in a Kangaroo Pouch of my Gregory Pack.  Once at camp I take the ICU out and put it into the pack within a pack that is included with the Gregory.  Although some people just empty out their larger pack and use it as a day pack, in my opinion this is awkward, limits mobility, and also forces one to put all unneeded gear now somewhat disorganized  inside the tent.


The recommended Itinerary for a this photography oriented backpack is shown in the chart below.

Mileage Chart

Here is a basic map of the loop trip route.

Map 1


Day One: Phelps Creek Trail Head to Spider Meadows

The first day of your backpacking trip gently climbs and winds its way through old-growth forest and after about 5 miles reaches beautiful spider meadows.  Some great camping spots that also offer protection from wind are located in the forest just to the east of the beginning of the meadow.  This puts you very close to the most photogenic spots which tend to be located more toward the beginning of the meadow.  Water is readily available from Phelps Creek which runs through the meadow from north to south on the east side.  I recommend that you arrive at Spider Meadows on a weekday because the meadow can be very busy with weekend campers due to its relatively ease of accessibility.  I am not sure how the meadow received the name, but the meadow is anything but creepy, and in fact I found it abundantly peaceful, serene, and beautiful.  Please note,  I also did not see a single spider during my two visits!

The meadow contains a variety of wildflowers including Valerian, Purple Asters and Indian Paint Brush which bloom from mid-July through August.  Good near far compositions can be achieved using a wide angle zoom, placing the tripod low and inches away from a cluster of flowers.  Explore the meadow looking for tighter clusters of either a single or variety of flowers with leading lines, patterns and or transitions through the meadow and out to the peaks on the  horizon.  Although both early and evening light is good in the meadow, I found evening light to be be best in this deeply recessed meadow that sits below Phelps Ridge and Red Mountain towering above.


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Spider Meadows
21mm, 1/8s, ISO 400, a focus stack of 5 images at F11


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There is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.
– Thomas Jefferson  22MM, F16, 1/25s, ISO 200


Day Two: From Spider Meadows to Lyman Lake

This day will be the most thrilling and adventurous of the entire journey, taking you through the entire length of Spider Meadow, crossing Phelps Creek, up a series of steep and abrupt switch backs to the foot of Spider Glacier.  At this point it is time to put on the Micro Spikes to follow what will undoubtedly be a boot beaten path through the snow up to Spider Gap, 7,900 feet in elevation.  Then it is a long descent down the glacier until finding cairns at the base of the glacier close to Upper Lyman Lakes.  Follow the cairns on a sketchy trial past Upper Lyman Lakes until finding the well developed trail to lower Lyman Lake, your campsite for the night.

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Backpackers heading up to Spider Gap

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From Spider Gap looking down to Upper Lyman Lakes

Although this is likely the most adventurous part of the multi-day backpacking trip, it is also the one the demands the most caution.  Typically the snow in late July and early August is reasonably soft and not hard.  But if the snow is icy it is may not be safe to travel without crampons, an ice ax and knowledge of self arrest techniques.  Since you are already carrying extra weight for your camera gear you will likely not be carrying also an ice ax.   Both times I did the loop trip the snow was reasonably soft in August and all that was required were Yak Tracks or Micros Spikes.  I strongly recommend metal Micro Spikes because they afford a higher level of traction than the rubber Yak Tracks.  Also helpful is at least a single light weight trekking pole for balance and to probe the snow ahead of you to make sure it is solid.  If the snow is icy do not attempt going up and over Lyman Glacier and just settle for camping below the gap.

Although both horizontal and vertical compositions work well, I found the vertical perspective works the best to balance the foreground, mid-ground and background elements.  The best images usually come from balancing important foreground details with the larger scene using a moderate wide angle lens.  Drifts of flowers and moss, snow drifts, and rocks all help lead the eye down the mountain side to the beautiful Turquoise waters of Upper Lyman Lakes and further out to the peaks on the horizon including Bonanza and Chiwawa.   To give adequate emphasis to the foreground details you will need to get lower which may mean temporarily taking off your backpack to compose the shot (or you can be a masochist like me and just stoop down with heave pack on!).

Once a well developed trail to Lyman Lake is found, continue your descent to the juncture with trail 1286 and take a left going to a bridge that crosses the outlet of Lyman Lake.  In the summer of 2017 this bridge was damaged but still crossable one person at a time.  Continue walking north around the lake going left again at a sign that says camps.  There are some excellent camps with views looking all directions at an inlet stream on the west side of the lake, about a half mile in on the camp trail.  Photographing Lyman Lake can be tricky as this lake is deeply recessed with strong shadows even at early evening or morning.  Explore the lake shore going to the north for the best wide angle compositions that will include interesting foreground details.  Take at least two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the sky, to make sure you have adequate dynamic range for post processing.

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Lyman Lake Evening Light


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Lyman Lake Shore- A Horizontal Perspective


Day Three: From Lyman Lake to just below Cloudy Pass

Head back to the main trail 1279, going left uphill toward Cloudy Pass.  This will be a very short hike of only 2.6 miles and 700 feet elevation gain.  One may be tempted to just skip this altogether and head to the crown jewel of Image Lake.  But I strongly recommend that you include this beautiful wildflower meadow just below Cloudy Pass in your trip agenda.  This will be one of the most productive areas for creative photography with great sunset and sunrise images from Cloudy Pass,  looking out to the east at Bonanza and Chiwawa Mountains, and to the west to Plumber and Sitting Bull Mountains.  In addition to the grand scenic opportunities of this area there will be ample time for capturing more intimate scenes of the meadow itself.   The camp area will be found about 300 feet before Cloudy Pass where the meadow flattens out off on the right side of the trail.  A small stream for water travels through the meadow.  Look for existing campsites and a durable surface and as always, leave no trace.

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“The hills are alive with the Sound of Music”
Lyman Lake from Cloudy Pass


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Looking to the West form Cloudy Pass, Fog Bank at Sunrise


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Cloudy Pass flower Meadow


Day Four and Five (layover day): From Cloudy Pass to Image Lake

After your sunrise photo shoot, break camp and head back up to Cloudy Pass and descend down to the west until you find a trail intersection.  Take the one that goes to the left that is called a “Hiker Shortcut”.   It will rejoin the main trail that will connect with the Pacific Crest Trail at Suiattle Pass which is not particularly photogenic.  At this point you will have traveled about two miles.  After a short distance on the Pacific Crest Trail turn right onto the Miners Ridge trail for a two night side trip to the crown jewel of our trip, Image Lake, about 3.5 miles from Suiattle Pass.  The Miners Ridge trail to Image Lake steadily climbs up a series of switchbacks and eventually breaks out into a very large mountainside meadow that goes as far as the eye can see with Glacier Peak always in full view.  In late July through the middle of August this meadow rivals the Paradise flower fields in its magnificence and splendor and you will want to have a camera constantly in hand.

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Flower Fields and Glacier Peak from the Miners Ridge Trail


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Miners Ridge Bouquet of Flowers


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Full Expanse of Miners Ridge

Camping is not allowed around Image Lake itself to protect the fragile meadows and also to help ensure that everyone has a quality experience and can  enjoy the lake without looking at tents pitched everywhere around the lake (as was the case  long ago).  I strongly recommend that photographers plan on staying two nights at Image Lake.  There are several reasons for this: (1) it increases the chances that you will  experience good lighting and weather conditions.  It would be a frustrating to say the least to travel this far and miss out and good photographic conditions; (2) the area around Image Lake and back toward Miners Ridge abounds in photographic opportunities and one needs ample amount of time to explore these areas and compositions, (3) you have arrived at a paradise and heaven on earth, enjoy it!; and (4) for those who just cannot stay put there is an about 8 mile round trip trail to the extremely remote Canyon Lake that also has views of Glacier Peak!



Return to Oz

Return to Oz

In the above image a  image a somewhat ominous and at same time auspicious long standing wave cloud rises like a tornado along side Glacier Peak and Image Lake just before sunrise. Weather events like this one obviously do not happen often, but your odds of experiencing interesting weather increase the longer you stay at Image Lake.

Image lake, unlike Mt. Rainier’s Reflection Lake, actually does not have much of a reflection unless you are  right at the shoreline and then Glacier Peak is not very prominent and is only partially visible above the trees on the distant shore.  The best views can be found by hiking up the way trails on the east side of the lake.  The quality and character of the view will change at different elevations and depending upon if Glacier Peak is centered above the lake or is situated more to the right side.  Both compositions are good.  Going way above the Lake toward the top of Pyramid Peak also offers spectacular views.


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Tda-Ko-buh-ba Sunrise
29MM, F11 focus stacked, 1/5s, ISO 800 (for wind)

In the above image, beautiful pasque flowers gone to seed and Image Lake awaken to a rosy sunrise underneath Washington’s most remote volcano, Glacier Peak.  The quality of the light and how it effects Glacier Peak is much different in the morning than the evening.  In the morning the peak appears more crisp and has better definition.  In the evening it is much more of a softer look as one is looking more directly at the sun and a blue haze that typically covers the peak.  This usually clears up once the sun has actually set.   Both wide angle and normal focal lengths work well, with wide angles emphasizing more foreground details and normal focal lengths emphasizing the peak and the lake itself.  A moderate telephoto perspective of about 90 mm will bring details of the peak to life but you will only be able to include a portion of the lake.  For more on this see my blog post “Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty in the Landscape”.   Although most images of the lake are taken as a horizontal, vertical images carefully framed will offer in a unique layered perspective.  Always take a vertical!

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Image Lake just after Sunset
55MM, F11, 1/13s, ISO 800


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Image Lake at Dawn 90MM


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Image Lake at Sunset
35MM, F11 focus stacked, 1/50s, ISO 800 (for wind)


Day Six and Seven (Layover Day): From Image Lake to Buck Creek Pass

You will want to get an early start because this leg of the trip will be the longest in terms of miles (12.8) and there is also significant elevation loss and gain.  Retrace your route along the Miner’s Ridge trail back to the Pacific Crest Junction.  Take a right heading south at the junction following the Crest trail for 1.5 miles and then turn left on trail 789, dropping about 1,000 feet through beautiful Ancient Forests to a crossing of Miners Creek.  Now it is time to gain all that lost elevation back again as you climb up to the meadows of Middle Ridge, where Glacier Peak in all her splendor is visible once again.  Continue on past the turn off to Flower Dome (we will return here later) and on to the turnoff to the camps at Buck Creek Pass.  The camps furthest out along the camp turnoff trail are excellent and will provide you with the best privacy in this area that can be very busy, especially on weekends.


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Lupine Flower fields along Middle Ridge

Once you setup camp and have an early dinner, it is time to take a sunset hike to Flower Dome.  Head back about a half mile to the turnoff and then  about another mile to Flower Dome.  Flower dome is  relatively flat on top, and as its  name would suggest is covered with flowers.  Beautiful compositions abound in every direction: wide open lupine meadows, the Suiattle River Valley, and majestic peaks including Glacier, Fortress and Helmett Butte.

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Sierra Club hikers arriving at Flower Dome


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Waves of Lupine and Light

Glacier Peak 0539R1Looking toward a cloud covered Fortress Mountain


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Sunset from Flower Dome


On the next day get up well before sunrise and before breakfast make the short trek back to the main trail and large mountain side meadow where there are beautiful views of Glacier Peak and Liberty Cap.  Moderate wide angle compositions will help integrate attractive foreground details with the prominent peaks including Liberty Cap and Glacier Peak.  Telephoto compositions featuring primarily the peaks are also possible.

Glacier Peak 2017 Images2452 copyfinalcroplighten  Liberty Cap around Sunrise from Buck Creek Pass


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Glacier Peak at Sunrise from Buck Creek Pass

After breakfast head out on one of the most spectacular day hikes I have ever taken to Liberty Cap and High Pass.  The trial departs right from the campsite and steadily climbs the slopes of  Liberty Cap and then straddles just below a ridge until eventually arriving at High Pass.  The route goes through some spectacular flower fields when in bloom.  Ideally you will be doing this hike when partial cloud cover provides some filtration of the sun’s harsh rays creating opportunities for mid-day photography.  But if not just be present and enjoy an incredibly awesome experience in the heart of Glacier Peak Wilderness Country.  The hike is about  seven miles round trip so pack a good lunch and perhaps also dinner (enjoy the sunset, and return to camp using headlamps!).

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Wildflowers and Peaks along the trail to High Pass

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Gentium Flowers along the High Pass Trail


Day 8: From Buck Creek Pass back to the Car.

Backpack out from Buck Creek Pass on a long but  steadily downhill  9.6 miles to the Phelps Creek trail head.  Congratulations!  You just completed what undoubtedly will be one of the most memorable, satisfying, and photographically productive trips of your life, having traveled deep into a personal wilderness experience that will help shape the very essence of who you are as a person for years to come.

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Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments

The Enchantments are calling!  This in an enchanted land of beautiful azurite and indigo blue high mountain lakes  with names like Leprechaun, Perfection, Inspiration, and Temple Lakes.  In Autumn, stunningly beautiful larch trees turn bright orange colors that glow in soft luminous light.  Large peaks made up of huge slabs of granite with names like Prusik, McClellan, and Little Annapurna rise high above the lakes and are reflected beautifully into the calm waters as the  sun rises and sets.  The granite rocks around the lakes almost look like they were placed there by the Gods to create leading lines and curves to transport us into the beauty of each lake and the surrounding landscape.  This in short is a photographer’s paradise, as close to heaven on earth as we will get in our mortal lives.

baseline-for-white-balance-changescompLarches in the Enchanted Mists

The Enchantments are located in the northeastern section of Washington State’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, USA, close to the town of Leavenworth.  I consider the Enchantments are one of the wonders of this world and I harbor great memories of these beautiful blue and rock-bound lakes spanning the last four decades of my life. I have made a journey to this iconic site about every ten years since my late teens. When I received an email notice in CY 2015 that I had won the Enchantments Lottery I was totally stoked!  This time the trip felt like a return journey, somewhat like a spiritual pilgrimage to my roots–a pristine wilderness that has helped shape my photographic journey. With permit in hand, I organized a six-day backpacking trip as a photography oriented trip through the Seattle Mountaineers. Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography. This meant frequent stops along the trail and organizing our schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset. I deliberately kept the number of participants at a small number, five, to make sure each of the photographers had a quality experience and were not stepping over each other trying to get the image. Participants were also carefully screened as this is a physically challenging backpack.

I was even more thrilled the following year when a friend, Kris Harken, reached out to me with an invitation to join his team to visit the Enchantments once more in CY 2016.  This time I could capture all those compositions I realized I missed in the previous year!  I think it would take multiple lifetimes of annual trips to fully capture the beauty of the Enchantment, this area abounds in so much nuanced beauty.  On the last trip we were forced to leave early due to heavy and unrelenting snow so I did not shoot all the site I had previsualized.  Hopefully I will return to the Enchantments soon or perhaps in my next life!


Leprechaun Lake

In this post I will discuss visiting and photographing the Enchantments in Autumn including the following topics: Getting a Permit, Route, Conditioning, Cold Weather Preparations, Importance of Packing Light, Camera Gear, Compositions, Light, Wildlife, Larches, and the Magic of the Enchantments.

Getting a Permit

Going to the Enchantments requires a permit for overnight camping.  This requirement is strictly enforced by the Forest Service to reduce the environmental impact that comes with too many people loving this place to death.  From the Okanogan Wenatchee Forest Website: “Due to the overwhelming popularity of this unique area, all overnight visitors must obtain a limited entry FEE permit for trips planned between May 15 and October 31. Demand for overnight permits far exceeds the number available, therefore advance reservations are highly recommended. A pre-season lottery is held in February through early March of each year to allocate the majority of permits.  Following the pre-season lottery, remaining permits are available on a first come, first served basis through the recreation.gov advance reservation system. A small number of permits are available on an unreserved daily walk-in basis.”

Because this area is extremely popular, far more people apply for a permit than there are permits available, especially in Autumn.  Only 60 people are allowed in the Core Enchantment area at any one time.  The good news, however, is that a permit holder can lead a trip that includes as many as eight people.  So even if you are not lucky enough to get a permit, someone you known many be kind enough to invite you on their trip!  There are different Enchantment Lakes permit zones and the most desirable one is the Core Enchantment Zone because it allows you to camp at the lower Enchantment Lakes for up to eight nights.  Keep in mind that the lower Enchantment Lakes are about 7,000 feet high in elevation and offer the best views of large collections of larches.


Leprechaun Lake Sunrise


For my last two trips to the Enchantments, we entered through the Snow Lake trailhead just outside the Washington town of Leavenworth along the Icicle Creek. The first day we climbed approximately 3,500 feet over five miles to the beautiful deep woods Nada Lake. Then on the next day we hiked past Snow Lakes then scrambled up the steep trail to the Enchantments Leprechaun Lake where we camped for three nights before returning through Nada Lake .  Although this route is longer and involves more elevation gain than going over Asgard Pass (the alternative route), generally it involves less steep climbing, traversing through scree and boulder hoping.  I love the sense of a journey that one gets taking the route through the Snow Lake trail entrance.  Camping at beautiful Nada lake offers a great transition zone between the sub-alpine and alpine helping whet the appetite for even greater beauty ahead.

Nada 32 Bit PS16bitNada Lake Outlet

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Many people who are lucky enough to get a permit and very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of three to five thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Enchantments experience.

Cold Weather Preparations

In most years peak season for the larches is the last week of September and the first week of October.  Go any earlier and one risks the larches still being partially green.  Go later and one risks the larch trees being stripped of their orange needles due to fierce wind storms that pass through the area.  Although during this time the Enchantments experience what is known as the Indian Summer with warm days and cool crisp nights under cloudless skies, this is punctuated by storms passing through the area that can bring freezing cold temperatures, dark gray moisture laden clouds, and snow.  It is not uncommon to wake up to 2 to 6 inches of snow and temperatures in the teens.  This happened on both of my recent trips.  So cold weather preparations or in order.  This means a four season tent, a sleeping bag that can go down to 15 degrees or below, multiple layers of warmth, head to toe water proof rain/wind gear, gloves, and a warm beanie type hat.

Winter LayerscompFusion of Fall and Winter at the Enchantments

Importance of Packing Light

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds.  This challenge is doubly hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry extra layers of warm clothing and a four season tent, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod.  One needs to think carefully through what one brings along because every ounce counts.  I strongly recommend to photographers to carry an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, rain gear, clothing etc.  But this does not mean accepting significant compromises in functionality. Three season tents will be crushed under the weight of a heavy snowstorm and a sleeping bag that only goes down to 35 degrees will not keep you warm when temperatures dip down into the teens.  Ultralight gear can be expensive, but there are deals to be  found at the REI Garage, Backcountry.Com and other outlets.

Camera Equipment

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that is most useful at the Enchantments is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a telephoto zoom.  I have never found the need for a standard zoom at the Enchantments except to take candid images of people and an I-phone will work just fine for that.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R2 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, and a Zeiss 70-200 4.0 telephoto zoom.  The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground detail in the grand landscape composition and the telephoto zoom works perfectly for small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  wildlife and even macro.  One may want to supplement this with a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide-angle lens for stars.  I brought the Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 for this purpose.  My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighed in at about seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additonal three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  Bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.


The lower Enchantment Basin consists primarily of boulders and slabs of polished granite. For grand wide-angle landscapes, one of the keys to finding a successful composition involves finding one of these granite slabs or collection of slabs and boulders that provide leading lines and curves that transport the viewer into the larger scene that will often include a lake and a prominent peak.  This is also how to make your composition unique.  There are literally hundreds of these slabs and boulders surrounding each of the lakes.  Out of any one slab, I could make literally hundreds of different compositions simply by getting closer to the lake or moving further away, changing focal length, and rising and lowering the camera and the direction of the lens ,  working with the ever-changing light.  You do not need to worry about stomp comping here if you work the scene as just described and follow your own intentions for the scene in executing your personal style and vision.

0497EnchantmentsAnd8morer2Stepping Stones to Enchanted Autumn

In the above scene notice the stepping-stones in the foreground leading down to the lake. In the next image I decided to follow one of the granite slabs to an area above Leprechaun Lake and this created an optimal viewing platform and foreground that transported my eyes down the mountainside to the lake and McClellan Peak beyond.  There is a strong line going from the right side of the image to the left that also forms a U shape curve in the lower right section of the image.  The key is to make sure the foreground is well-integrated with the larger scene and do not just select the foreground because it is appealing in its own right.  Orienting the scene around foreground will often make the composition look forced rather than bringing a more organic and free flowing feel to the image.  Look at the scene and how it effects your mood and emotions, determine your intentions, and only then start working the technical details of focal length, specific foreground details, tripod placement, ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.

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The classic composition in the Enchantments typically involves one of the prominent peaks reflected beautifully in the water of one of the lakes.  But you can make yours more unique by also including attractive foreground elements and framing of the peak and reflection such as I was able to accomplish in the next image.


A telephoto zoom lens is indispensable for smaller area compositions that feature the lines and patterns of the granite slabs and boulders punctuated by blazing orange larch trees..  It takes some training of the eye to isolate an area of the larger scene that will make a good composition but it is well worth the effort because these compositions will be very unique and help balance out an Enchantment Lakes portfolio that is heavy on lake images.  This is an area I plan to work far more in future visits to the Enchantments.

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0818EnchantmentscompAutumn Larches below Granite Cliffs

A telephoto lens can also be used to capture even smaller subjects and details such as this next image of a snow-covered larch branch.



Most of the featured images I have seen of the Enchantments are taken at sunset which is a great time to capture soft light, and colorful dramatic clouds and skies.  This, however, in my opinion is not the best time to capture well illuminated larches.  I have found the best light to actually be about an hour after sunrise and about an hour  before sunset.  Digital enhancement and painting on light can only go so far if the light was not there in the first place.  The lower Enchantment basin is deeply recessed beneath the towering peak and it is only then the light will penetrate low enough to sufficiently illuminate the larches to get the desired effect.  The lighting will also be far more nuanced in this time period with areas of light and shadow.  If there are clouds and mist in the area and the sun can still get through, the effects will be even more splendid.

Leprechaun Sunset  Leprechaun Lake at Sunset

larches-with-character-compEpiphany (Leprechaun Lake one hour after sunrise)

Tidelands no StackCompLeprechaun Lake Tidelands (One hour after sunrise)

Fish and Wildlife

The lower Enchantment Lakes are teaming with trout, and this area is one of the best in the Alpine Lakes for the sports fisherman.

Caroline Buske Family PhotoKris Harken’s Lucky Day

There are Mountain Goats in abundance at the Lower and Upper Enchantment Lakes.  You can expect them to wander into your campsite in the mornings and evenings creating multiple opportunities for both wide-angle and telephoto capture.

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0270EnchantmentsMama and Kid Goat checking out the intruders!


About one hour  after sunrise and one hour before sunset the Larches are at their best.  In this next image I captured a beautiful collection of side-lit larches reflected in a small tarn.  It is also possible to find single specimens to capture the beauty and character of an ancient larch.


The Magic of the Enchantments

In this post I have  expressed my own perspective about capturing the magic of the Enchantments.  I hope some of what I wrote here will  provide you some helpful guides as you follow your own instincts, personal vision and style in creating your own images that capture the Magic of the Enchantments.   Thanks for looking, sharing and your comments are always greatly appreciated.

Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty

In Landscape Photography today, it seems like the most popular focal length involves the use of an ultra-wide angle lens at its widest focal length.  In full frame photography this means a focal length of either 14mm or 16mm.  With a cropped sensor camera this means about 11mm and with Micro 4/3 this means about  7mm.  It is easy to understand why this is so.  An ultra-wide lens allows one to easily bring in layers of beauty with a prominent foreground such as flowers and or rocks, a pleasing mid ground such as a lake and island, and an attractive background such as distant peaks and dramatic skies.  An ultra-wide angle worked great for the feature image of this blog post titled “The Eye of the Crater” (also shown below) taken at sunset at Oregon’s Crater Lake with a full frame focal length of 16mm.


Eye of the Crater 16mm f-16

But is an ultra-wide angle perspective always the best choice when creating layers of beauty in nature and landscape images?  This blog post will examine some of the factors I consider when choosing the best focal length to fulfill my vision for the image including the creation of layers of beauty.


Elowah Mystery of Autumn 16mm f-11 (focus stacked)

Although ultra-wide angles are great for capturing near far relationships in the landscape, I find that they are not always the best choice.  I always try to achieve a balanced and realistic perspective when rendering near far relationships.  We have all seen the images so popular in social media with the flower on steroids looming large in the image foreground with a gigantic mountain in the background, a perspective achieved through the use of different focal lengths including extreme wide angles, composite imagery and warping.  Although this is sometimes done with believable subtlety, in most cases it is not and at least in my opinion results in an image that only exists in fantasy.  Often the photographer will rationalize this approach by saying it is more consistent with how one sees a image in real life, but I do not buy this.  It is primarily done to create shock value in social media.  But one can also bring attention to ones images in social media by creating photographs that are refreshingly believable.  There is a strong appetite for believable imagery in this age of digital trickery!

mazama-ridge-rock-comp Mazama Moment 28mm f-8 (focus stacked)

In the above image, Mazama Moment, I found that a 28mm moderate wide angle full frame lens was the best choice for balancing foreground, mid-ground and background elements. Had I used instead 16mm lens, Mt. Rainier would have been rendered minuscule, completely out of proportion with the rest of the scene and inconsistent with how one would typically see the scene if at the site.  The foreground still looms reasonably large in this image featuring important details of the red Huckleberries and the granite boulder, but they are not in your face.  The mid-ground featuring the play of light and shadow of the early evening light provides a wonderful transition to the peak and surrounding ridges.

It is best not to set up one’s tripod right away when trying to determine the best focal length because using different focal lengths usually also involves either moving further back or getting closer to achieve the optimal balance.  Typically I do not even use a camera at all when initially determining the best focal length.  I allow my eyes to wander and pay close attention to how they are going wide or going narrow in best taking in the beauty of the scene.   Zooms can make one lazy if one is merely checking out different focal lengths on a tripod at the same location.  One needs to move around!  Sometimes even inches can make the difference.

With the advent of focus stacking one can create tack sharp near far relationships even at the longest end of the wide-angle spectrum.   This next image of Picture Lake was captured at a 35mm  focal length.

picture-sunset-day-2compr1crop  Picture Lake Mountain Ash Purple Mountain Majesty 35mm f-11 (focus stacked)

In this image I wanted to feature the autumn colors of the Mountain Ash and its orange berries but still render Mt. Shuksan reasonably large.  The choice of a 35mm focal length helped me reach by goal of balancing the many layers in the image including the Mountain Ash, grassy areas leading up to the lake, Picture Lake, the distant forest, Mt. Shuksan and the sky.

One of the most common uses of a telephoto lens (I am defining the telephoto perspective as 55mm or above) is to isolate a subject with pleasing bokeh (out of focus areas around the subject).    Such a perspective can be seen in the next couple of images.  This perspective is typically achieved by combining a telephoto focal length with an aperture of f-2.8 to f-5.6 and shooting sufficiently close to the subject to blur the area before and behind the in-focus subject.kubota-easter778

Tulip Tree 170mm f-4.5


Big Horn Sheep 200mm  f-5.6

The just beyond normal to extreme telephoto focal length range and longer telephoto lengths extending up to the extreme, however, can also be used to balance near and far relationships and create layers of beauty.  Maintaining sharp focus throughout the image will require using an aperture typically in the  f-10 to f-16 range or using a focus stacking technique and a more wide open aperture consistent with the peak performance of the lens.  Using apertures in the f-18 and above range is nor recommend because it results in diffraction that can actually cause the loss of sharpness.  This next image titled “Kendall Winter Wonderland” from a recent snowshoeing trip was taken with a 55mm fixed focal length lens.


Kendall Winter Wonderland 55mm f-14

Even at 55mm one can see the definite effect of the slight compression of the various layers of beauty in the image.  At first I attempted to frame the image with my wide angle zoom but it became apparent quickly that this was not the best choice, providing too much emphasis to an uninteresting foreground and rendering the mid-ground and distant peaks insignificant.  55mm was perfect for the effect I was trying to achieve.

In this next image Polychrome River Delta Y going wide would have been absolutely the wrong choice because it would have rendered the distant Alaska range small and uninteresting.  A wide angle like emphasis on the foreground was actually best achieved with an 82mm focal length with two images stitched as a panorama.


Polychrome River Delta Y 82mm f-10 (2 image panorama)

In the next image “Mt Baker Rising” I wanted to include some important foreground detail to provide a better sense of time and place.  This image was taken in Autumn from Table Moutain.


Mt. Baker Rising 94mm f-16

The 94mm focal length at F14 allowed me to capture the layers of meadow, red huckleberries and trees in the foreground offering a transition to the mid-ground ridges and lower fog/clouds, ant the distant mountain and sea of clouds.  In this image I did end up slightly warping the top  of the image to make the mountain somewhat bigger, but this was done with restraint and subtlety always keeping my goal in mind to capture the scene in a manner consistent with how I experienced it.  In this next image I needed to go all the way up to 300mm to capture a similar effect.


Denali Rising 300mm F10

In this next image titled “Tiger Mountain White Forest” I wanted to bring good emphasis to the first layer of deciduous trees covered in snow and ice.

Tiger Mountain 2016057.JPG

Tiger Mountain White Forest 200mm f-14

For this image I found that 200mm was perfect for bringing this lower layer to a prominent position in the foreground and balancing the scene with two other distinctive layers, the snow covered evergreen forest in the mid-ground and the distant dramatic and luminous clouds.

As we go up the focal length scale often we can capture an isolated area of a lot larger more chaotic scene and render the entire scene acceptably sharp by choosing an f-stop between f11 and f14.   Such an image may contain multiple layers of beauty all carrying equal weight thereby establishing a pattern in the layers of beauty.  This can be seen in the next image titled “Secrets of the Forest” taken at 370mm full frame equivalent focal length.


Secrets of the Forest 370mm f-10

In this coming year I am going to challenge myself to use Telephoto focal lengths more often to balance near and far relationships and create layers of beauty in the landscape.  I challenge you to also consider alternative focal lengths when creating your own layers of landscape beauty!


Gold Creek Snowshoe, Photography and Fun

The Gold Creek Basin, located about one hour from Seattle, is a premier location for snowshoeing, photography and fun with friends and family.  The snowshoe route includes multiple beautiful sites along the way including Gold Creek Pond, Creeks and Rivers, Heli’s Pond and Bridge,  and sweeping valley views.  All of this can be done in a round trip snowshoeing trip of less than six miles and an elevation gain of only about 500 feet.


Winter’s Gold

Getting to the Trailhead

Drive Interstate 90 east to Exit 54, 2 miles east of the Snoqualmie summit.  Exit I-90, turn north, crossing under the freeway.  A few hundred feet north of the highway interchange, turn right onto a narrow paved road (FR 4832) and drive east parallel to the freeway for 1 mile.  This section of the road in the winter will have compact snow and ice but can usually be driven with just about any vehicle, but I have seen cars and trucks get stranded in this section.  All or 4 wheel drive vehicles, and front wheel drive vehicles will have no problem.  Later in the Winter the road to the trailhead will be closed at this point and you will need a Sno Park Permit to park along the side of the road.  Before the deep snow falls you can now turn left on Gold Creek Road 142 (all wheel drive advised) and go another .3 miles to the Gold Creek Pond Parking Lot where a US Forest Pass is required for parking.


Helli’s Pond Bridge


Preparations for a snowshoe trip will be quite different than a typical spring, summer or fall hike.  Early in the Winter you may be able to get by with just some Yak Tracks or Micro Spikes for traction.  But as the snow gets deeper snowshoes will be needed to keep from sinking deep into the snow.  The snow, however, in Western Washington is different than many of the areas that the designers had in mind when releasing their products.  Around here one needs a smaller snowshoe that has saw tooth like rails on the underside to pierce the typically frozen crust of snow and ice that forms the top layer of snow.  It is rare that one encounters deep powder snow on western Washington snow trails.  I have found the MSR (located in Seattle) moderately priced EVO snowshoes work excellent at Gold Creek.  Just say no to the great big monster snowshoes, they are hardly ever needed around here!


You will also need to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions, everything from wind, cold, and snow, to warm sunshine, and perhaps even freezing rain.  This means that one must pack layers, rain gear, gaiters, warm hat and gloves.  I  recommend having a map, compass, cell phone, and GPS.  The reason for this is that if it snows your route back will no longer seem quite so straight forward and it is easy to get confused when trails are covered with fresh snow and ones visibility only extends a short distance due to snow and fog.

I also recommend having at least one trekking pole.  A trekking pole comes in handy to see how solid the snow is in an area off trail that one wants check out in hopes of finding a better photo perspective.  One of the most common accidents in the snow is stepping into a hole close to a tree and falling underneath the snow.   Forget using your bladder and a hose for water, it will freeze during the trip.  Just carry conventional plastic bottles and store one of them in your pack.  With all of your gear, you will likely need a somewhat bigger pack than is used for summer day hikes.  Although a luxury, if with kids and family, I recommend taking a small stove and boiling pot for hot drinks, and perhaps even a lightweight plastic cloth to serve as a place for preparing food.  Always bring at least a small first aid kit.


 Gold Creek Early Morning Light


From the trail head and no more than a half mile walk, the first destination you will come to is one of the tributaries of Gold Creek as shown in the above image. I have found this makes an excellent image around sunrise.


 The next destination is Gold Creek Pond as shown on the above image.  By the middle of Winter the pond will likely be frozen creating unique photographic opportunities.  Even if the pond is frozen there will usually be a fairly large section of the pond on the north side close to the inlet that is unfrozen yearlong creating opportunities for images with reflections.  Follow the trail clockwise around the pond until you get to the north side of the pond, about one mile from the trailhead, and you will get to the site of the next image.  Notice the small ducks in the water-they are permanent residents of the pond!


 Winter Impressions at Gold Creek Pond

Keep following the trail around the pond and you will eventually find a sign that says Gold Creek Trail.  Turn left and go up the hill to an access road for cabins.  Follow the road for about another half of mile paying close attention to signs at road junctions that direct you to the Gold Creek Trail.  You will arrive at a major junction with a sign that says Heli’s Pond.  Go left on a short spur path and trail to beautiful Heli’s Pond.


Bridge of Frozen Silence

There is a beautiful curved bridge at the outlet of Heli’s Pond.  Also take the short trail completely around the small pond to find more vistas and potential photo ops looking out to Kendall Peak and Rampart Ridge.  Return to the main trail.  At about two miles you will leave the road and start following the actual Gold Creek trail.  After about a half mile or so  you will come to an opening presenting a beautiful view looking up and across the Gold Creek Valley toward Kendall Peak as shown in the next image.


Gold Creek Basin

This may be a good turn around spot if there is heavy snow because from this point on the trail passes through avalanche shoots that may not be safe.  But earlier in the winter or if there is not much snow, one can go about another half mile to where the trail crosses Gold Creek and there is a beautiful spot next to the creek where one can have lunch next to the snow covered boulders looking out to the creek and mountains beyond.


Snow Covered Boulders

Photography Tips

There is one big problem when it comes to shooting snow: Snow is white.  Your camera’s metering system wants to meter everything as middle gray.  As a result, the pristine white snow becomes dull and dirty snow.  Conventional wisdom says that one should overexpose images that include snow.  The problem with this is that although it leaves the snow looking white, there may be little definition in the snow nor preservation of subtle color tones on the snow.  Especially in the early morning and around sunset, the snow will take on some of the color cast of the sunlight that is coming from low angles.  One may actually wish to accentuate these subtle color tones rather than to just render them white.

My approach typically involves taking several images, about three to five, both under and over exposed.  Typically I will select a slightly underexposed image and work with a raw editor (I use adobe camera raw but the same thing can be done with lightroom), to edit the image with both global and local adjustments.  For global adjustments I will work to get a somewhat neutral image, neither warm no cool, moderate opening of shadows and controlling highlights, moderate contrast, and conservative adding of vibrance and or saturation.  I will work with the HSL panel to enhance subtle color tones that are not represented accurately in the raw image, such as a purple or mauve hue.  With local adjustments I will further adjust white balance in selective parts of the image, this (along with local area exposure adjustments) will help insure the snow is the color you want it to be.  This is necessary because winter images usually include both warm and cool areas and therefore this local adjustment is essential to creating a natural looking image.  Using local adjustments in the raw editor, I will further adjust shadows and highlights to better expose for dynamic range.


Good Night Gold Creek Pond

In the above image notice the subtle mauve/purple hues on the snow in the foreground.  You will notice similar subtle tones in the next image.


Daybreak at Gold Creek


Early Winter Magic

In the above image notice the cooler tones of the shaded areas contrasting with the warmer tones of the areas still illuminated by the setting sun including Kendall Peak and the Clouds.  The transition from cool to warm tones is not abrupt because of the presence of soft magical evening light.  When taking wide angle images always look for interesting foregrounds to help draw the viewer into the image.


Snow Mounds

Once I open the image from the raw editor as a TIFF in Photoshop, I will complete the editing process using luminosity masks for perfecting contrast and adding a slight Orton effect, along with subtle adjustments for micro contrast using an NIK filter.

Fun with Family

Not all of my snowshoeing trips are oriented strictly around landscape photography and I have brought my family up here about once a year as my daughter Caroline was growing up.  This is a great snowshoe for family and friends and because in the winter light is at a low angle all day long, there are many opportunities for capturing some awesome handheld images along the way.   Here are a few of Caroline and I and her friend Emma.  Kids always find a way to have fun playing in the snow and throwing an occasional snow ball at each other!  Happy snowshoe trails everyone!