Tag Archives: PV-photo
February 26, 2011

Tormenta de Uyuni

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What a difference three weeks can make!

After getting sick on our first visit to the world’s largest salt flat, Oksana and I retreated to La Paz and rested up.  We knew we were coming back to the Salar de Uyuni on our way down to Chile, but we worried that the trip wouldn’t be the same without our friends, Dusty and Wendy, along (not to mention that we couldn’t afford a “private” tour without them…)

So, when we arrived at Red Planet Expeditions again, we had plenty of questions for the guides.  The most important of which: How can we see the Salar at night?

The short answer: “You can’t.”  At least not without staying at a $100/night salt hotel.  When pressed, one of the guides admitted there were other options. We could pay $150 for a private, one-day tour which would let us stay out on the flats until about 10pm.  That seemed steep to us, considering the 3-day tour to Chile would still cost us $130.  Another option, he said, would be to try to convince a group to change the normal itinerary on their 3-day/2-night tour to stay out on the flats until just after sunset.  In that case, everyone would have to spend the night in Uyuni again, because there would be no time to drive south after dark.

Most of the tourists with reservations wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, so we resolved to return to the office early to meet them and pitch our idea before committing our own money.

The next morning, nothing went as planned!  The buses from Sucre and La Paz were late (due to the unpredictable road conditions during the rainy season.)  At first, this seemed like a great thing:  The later we got underway, the more likely it seemed we’d be able to convince our guide to stay on the salt flats until dark.  But as time went on and no word from the buses materialized, plans changed.  Oscar, a Red Planet guide, decided to simply merge the people who were waiting, even though not all of us had paid for the same tour.  “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll just tell the others that we’re staying until sunset and they won’t even know that’s not normal!”

Indeed, after hearing that the normal tour only allocated a couple mid-day hours on the flats, the two couples from Argentina and France recognized the opportunity for what it was.  Sunset and star photos on the world’s largest salt flats?  And we don’t miss anything else on the tour?  How did we get so lucky?

Ever since I’d first heard about this tour in Quito, I’d been looking forward to getting some nighttime, starlight photos on the salt flats.  Supposedly, when the stars are reflected in the water below, it looks like you’re floating in space!  The weather on our second tour was cooperating, too.  On our first trip, it rained off and on the whole day, but this time, the sky was blue overhead and the only clouds were on the horizon.  Another difference: the water level on the flats was much higher on our second go-around.  We were excited that the mirrored surface was even better, even though that meant there were very few places where we could attempt the funny perspective shots…

As the sun began to set, a storm developed on the western horizon.  Big black sheets of rain began to fall, far in the distance, and the few people remaining on the flats began to cluster together and start taking photos.  As the storm approached, the lightning grew more intense.  Some of us were actually able to take handheld lightning photos if we were quick enough.

But as the night began to fall, the real show began!  With the darkness, I was able to lengthen my exposures.  I set my camera to shoot in bursts, bracketing all three shots to be slightly darker than normal.  The storm was raging by the end (though we never did get rained on!) and practically every photo captured at least one, big lightning bolt.

Everyone in our group has amazing photos from that evening, but this one is my favorite.

By 7:30pm, the air was whipping around us and I suspect the wind chill was below zero.  I was still in shorts and up to my ankles in icy salt water, shivering uncontrollably.  The storm had literally horseshoed around us and lightning was coming down on all three sides, but I continued to take photos right up until Oscar arrived with our Land Cruiser.  “I’m so sorry, man,” he shouted over the wind, “but I don’t think you’re going to get your starlight photos tonight.”

“Are you kidding me?  After a show like that?  I couldn’t care less!”

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 7:20pm, 23 February 2011
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 8 seconds, -1.7 step bias
Aperture: F/11
ISO: 500
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, cloned out a couple dozen “hot” pixels (chip temperature errors), plus cleaned up the ghosting of one person’s silhouette (because they moved during 8 sec exposure.)

February 4, 2011

Salar de Uyuni

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The Salar de Uyuni has to be one of the most surreal places I have ever been.  Situated high in the Andes, it’s the world’s largest salt flat.  In over 12,000 square kilometers, the elevation varies by less than one meter and the tricks that plays on perspective almost have to be seen to be believed.

We’d raced through Peru to get to the Salar de Uyuni by early February because we’d heard that the best time to visit it was in the rainy season, during a new moon.  This time of year, during the day, water covers the salt flat and reflects the sky, and on a moonless night, the reflection of the stars – supposedly – creates a universe both above and below your feet.

We had also been planning to meet our friends, Dusty and Wendy from Roamthepla.net, at Uyuni since we’d hung out with them in Lima.

Everything was going well the night before.  After much debate, we’d booked a 3-day/ 2-night private tour with the Red Planet tour agency.  We were happy to pay a little extra for the two unused seats in our Land Rover (and pay a little bit less for a Spanish-only guide.)  Come the morning of our visit to the Salar, however, things started going downhill.

Both Oksana and I woke up sick.  If it had been only us, we’d probably have cancelled our tour, but we wanted to hang out with Dusty and Wendy, so we decided to soldier on.

And boy are we glad we did!  We drove onto the Salar in the Land Rover at about 5 miles an hour, pushing 10 inches of water out away from us in every direction. Our guide, Roy, stopped at the first dry island so we could take pictures, but one of the many passing showers caught up to us before we really got started.  We piled back into the SUV and he drove us to the Salt Hotel, farther out on the flats.

From the hotel, you could barely see the horizon in any direction.  Miles and miles of salt was covered by just a few inches of water which created floating mirages out of the mountains in the distance.  Aim your camera towards wet ground and your subjects appeared to be walking on the sky.  Point it at one of the few dry spots and the lack of perspective lent itself to hundreds of humorous opportunities to play with scale (for instance, a person standing 25 meters behind another might appear to be perched on their shoulder.)

Unfortunately, it felt like Oksana and I spent half our time on the flats doubled over with stomach cramps and while I took a few good photos, I wasn’t feeling especially creative with the camera.  We decided over lunch that we would cut our tour short and just go back to the hotel and sleep.  Our biggest regret: Bailing on our friends.

(Three days later, we’re feeling much better.  We’re about to catch a train back north into Bolivia, but I expect we’ll return in a couple weeks, because the agency we used has an easy option for border transfers into Chile and that seems like a fine place to go next!  Maybe next time we’ll find a way to get those night shots!)

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 1:51pm, 02 February 2011
Focal Length: 105mm
Shutter: 1/1600 second, -.7 step bias
Aperture: F/8
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, desaturated SUV after auto color tinted it green.

Because I was well aware of how our sudden sickness was affecting the mood of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I asked Wendy and Dusty to help us stage a photo so we could all remember how our day together felt:

December 17, 2010

Galapagos Hawk

Galapagos Hawk

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We were walking back from a “power hike” up over the flooded crater called Darwin’s Lake on Isabela Island.  The plan was to get back to the pangas for a quick ride around the outer coastline before the captain picked us up with the Evolution for a brief whale watching trip before sunset.  We were sort of in a hurry, spread out along the trail.

A few meters in front of me, someone looked up and said, “Oh!  Wow!”  There, perched on a branch directly over the trail, was a Galapagos Hawk.  He was on the lowest set of branches, low enough that you could reach up and ruffle his feathers.  In fact, he was so low, I have no idea how the first few people in our group, including our naturalist guide, managed to miss him!

The rest of us, of course, clustered around the hawk and started taking pictures.  At first, we moved slowly and stayed a comfortable distance away from him, but then, as it became apparent that he wouldn’t fly away, we stepped closer.  Eventually, we were all arrayed almost directly underneath him.

If a hawk can be said to have a personality, I would label this one “curious.”  As we aimed our lenses at him and clicked away, he peered down at us, rotating his head this way and that.  Toward the end of the encounter, I stood directly underneath him with the long barrel of my lens practically up against his talons.  He never seemed bothered, never even flinched.  I would swear that he was as interested in me as I was in him.

When people ask why the Galapagos is so special, I think of moments like this.  There’s no other place on the planet where the wildlife are so comfortable around human beings.  It’s not just the hawks; it’s the sea lions, the iguanas, the birds, and the tortoises.  In the Galapagos, anyone can be a wildlife photographer and some of their best shots will come from a wide-angle lens!

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 4:55pm, 25 November 2010
Focal Length: 105mm
Shutter: 1/1250 second
Aperture: F/4
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Slight crop, Auto color, dodged shadows very slightly, increased saturation very slightly.

Galapagos Hawk and its photographers

October 22, 2010

Alpha Tortoise

Tortoise Dominance Games at the Darwin Research Station

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One of the featured attractions of the Galapagos Islands is its giant land tortoises.  Charles Darwin noted them 175 years ago when he surveyed the archipelago in 1835.  In his day, the tortoises were known to passing whalers as an excellent food source.  They would haul them onto their ships by the dozen, flip them on their backs, and they would keep for months at sea.  Fortunately for the turtles, today they are known more for the clear evidence their shells present for evolution.

What you may not know is that there are very few places a tourist can go to see these tortoises at all.

There’s a highland ranch on the island of Santa Cruz that lets visitors in to see “wild” tortoises, but other than that, your best bet is to visit the Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.  It’s here that scientists and grad students research and breed the different varieties of Galapagos land tortoises in an attempt to reintroduce them to the wild.

Back in January, when my group passed through the Research Station, our guide gave us a brief tour of the different tortoise pens before he departed and left us on our own.  We had a few hours to kill before we were to meet back on the boat, so I decided to stay put.

There’s one pen in the Station where tourists are invited to mix with these huge animals.  It was early enough in the morning that the five or six tortoises in there were still fairly lethargic.  A gentle rain was starting, so there were very few other tourists with me.  I sat down less than ten feet from a group of three sleeping giants and watched them slowly wake up.  Before long, one ambled over to another and I watched a dominance game play out.

As if in slow motion – well, actually, their motion was slow – two long necks snaked out from their respective shells and climbed straight up.  When neither tortoise’s neck could rise any higher, they both laboriously lifted their shells off the ground as they used their stocky legs to gain a bit more height.  Mouths open, exposing pink tongues behind sharp beaks, the two tortoises hissed at each other… until the one on the right, an inch or two shorter than the other, finally submitted.

Throughout the morning, I saw this display again and again.  While these two turtles never managed to bite one another, I did see one take a chunk out of another’s cheek.  These guys may be slow, but they have some powerful jaws!

Panasonic DMC-TZ5
Date: 10:37pm, 09 January 2010
Focal Length: 5mm (28 at 35mm equivalent)
Shutter: 1/320 second
Aperture: F/3.3
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Heavily cropped, cloned out a coiled garden hose in the background, increased saturation, decreased brightness.

October 8, 2010

Marine Iguana

Marine Iguana

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I went to the Galapagos without an SLR.  There, I said it.

It wasn’t my fault.  When I went to Ecuador with a group of eight college students, I made the decision to concentrate on video.  Then only thing less fun than carrying around an SLR and a camcorder is trying to juggle them both on a shoot by yourself.  Even so, I brought along a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot “just in case” (and because it literally fit in my pocket.)

Halfway through the trip, four of the students decided to spend a week in the Galapagos.  We split the group and I went with them.  While the Lumix proved invaluable for underwater video (with the underwater housing I brought along with it), it was extremely frustrating to use on land.  Not that it can’t take good photos when the conditions are perfect; it has a decent chip and a nice long zoom lens.  My biggest complaint with it (and for that matter, all point-and-shoots) was that I just could not tell if a photo was really in focus until I got it onto a computer screen.

So there I was, at probably one of the best places on the planet for wildlife photography, surrounded by other photographers with 400-600mm lenses, without a decent camera myself.  I did the best I could with what I had.

And I got some good photos, too.  I just lost some great ones while doing it.

They tell you not to use flash photography on the wildlife in the Galapagos, and for good reason.  If every tourist pushed their strobes in front of the semi-tame animals, every iguana, blue-footed boobie, and sea lion on the islands would be stumbling around blind.  I am normally very conscious about rules like that, but I realized, after the fact, that when I took a photo of this little guy, the auto flash had fired.

Granted, the shot really did need a good fill flash – without it he would have been a silhouette against that blue sky – but I felt guilty just the same.  The iguana?  He didn’t seem to mind.  After I moved on, he continued to pose for everyone else in our group, too.

I’m looking forward to going back this November with my new 5D mark II.  I only have a 200mm lens (with a 2x extender, if I need to push it to 400mm), but you can get so close to the animals there that that should be more than good enough.

Panasonic DMC-TZ5
Date: 4:59pm, 12 January 2010
Focal Length: 19mm (112 at 35mm equivalent)
Shutter: 1/640 second (Flash fired)
Aperture: F/4.7
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Auto color and minor cloning to remove a twig from the sky.

September 24, 2010

Pelicans at Sunrise

Pelicans at Sunrise, Nags Head, NC

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When I stay at Nags Head, I attempt a sleeping schedule that allows for early morning walks along the beach.  I always think I’ll be able to get up before sunrise, but in reality, I’d have a much better chance of staying up all night.  At the end of every vacation, I’m so ridden with self-inflicted guilt that I inevitably drag myself out of bed too early on the last morning and spend my day traveling back home in sleep-deprived stupor.

This year was no exception.

We arrived in Nags Head just in time for my grandfather’s 90th birthday at the end of July, but we had plans to push on with our road trip shortly thereafter.  I stayed on the beach for less than a week and true to form, on the last morning, I woke up before my alarm and noticed the sun was just below the horizon.  I dragged Oksana downstairs with me to watch the spectacle, both of us fully intending to be back asleep within 15 minutes.

Oksana swung gently in the hammock while I stood on the porch and took pictures.  At one point, a lone pelican flew over the sand dune in front of the cottage and I kicked myself for not noticing it before it got into frame.  It would have looked great in silhouette against the sunrise.

I’d snapped about 20 shots by that point and the sun was about to get lost behind a bank of clouds.  I was talking with Oksana about going back to sleep, but I keeping my eye on the line of dunes behind her, hoping I’d spot another pelican before it got to us.  Just before we packed it in, I looked back out at the ocean and saw a huge formation of pelicans skimming the waves far out beyond where I had been searching for them.

I’m pretty sure I got out a “Holy sh…!” before I was able to swing the camera up to my eye.  I had time to take one picture – just one! – while they were centered underneath the sun.  Looking at it now, I realize I couldn’t have spread the pelicans out – six on the left, six on the right – any better if I’d tried.

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 6:12am, 31 July 2010
Focal Length: 105mm
Shutter: 1/200 second (-1.3 step)
Aperture: F/5.6
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Rotated for level horizon, cropped to third lines, increased saturation to approximate real colors.


September 10, 2010

Niagara Falls Panorama

Niagara Falls Panorama

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Oksana and I were in North Carolina when we decided to go to Niagara Falls for our honeymoon.  Since we were on our way to Florida at the time, it was a little out of our way, but I was seduced by the lure of an internet add for a 4-star hotel with a “Fallsview” room.

Once we got there, we discovered the Sheraton was about three blocks uphill from the falls themselves.  So, while it was true we had a Fallsview room, we also had a Casinoview room and a ParkingGarageview room… At no extra cost!

We drove into Canada the night before and didn’t see the famous falls until the next morning.  Then we took a wrong turn, walking down the street from our hotel, so we ended up approaching the falls from its headwaters.  I actually enjoyed that, seeing it revealed in bits and pieces, rather than coming up from the downstream side.

We battled our way to the railing, shoulder to shoulder with all the other tourists.  Both of us took some photos and shot some video.  As we continued downstream, I finally found a spot that had a good view in both direction and wasn’t too crowded.  I snapped a quick series of photos, intending to use them as a panorama later.

If I had been more patient, I could have waited for the sun to peek out from behind the clouds.  When the mist was just right, and the sun was just right, rainbows would arc out in front of us.  But if I would have waited for that, I would have also had to wait for one of the Maid of the Mist boats to be perfectly centered under the rainbow and, well, I’d probably still be there now.

This one’ll do me just fine.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Date: 17 August 2010; 1:25pm
Focal Length: 45mm
Shutter: 1/640 second
Aperture: F/8
ISO: 100
Photoshop: 9 images stitched together with Autostitch, increased saturation, cloned in some plants in lower left to allow for long crop, cloned out cement railing on extreme right.