Arches National Park, January 2020, part 2

Arches National Park, January 2020, part 2

No matter what time of year you visit Utah’s Arches National Park you know you’re in for a treat. Having visited frequently over the past 30 years I’ve seen the Park in many different weather conditions – but mostly some variation of hot and sunny with bluebird skies above. This past January, however, changed that.

frame 01-Arches N.P. Entrance, Moab, Utah [Portra 400]

I had the privilege of seeing Arches in some icy cold fog which – though wasn’t what I’d initially intended – turned out to be a uniquely beautiful time to see and photograph something different than what we might typically think of when Arches comes to mind. In hind site I count it as a blessing, a gift given me I didn’t know to ask for.

Utah Juniper, Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah. A wonderful thing about photographing in the fog – neutralizing the background. On a clear, hot sunny day there’s so much visible distraction beyond the subject. This day presented unique opportunities to explore isolation – in isolation. [Ilford Delta100]
While photographing in Arches National Park, I left the F6 outside for an hour while I waited in the car – complete with heated seats. Upon getting out to check on the camera, frost had begun to develop on the strap. I’m having fun creating impromptu videos while out shooting to bring a little more of the experience to the story.
Garden of Eden Viewpoint, Arches National Park, Utah [Ilford FP4+]

Most of the work done with the F6 this trip was in the “Garden of Eden,” an area of the park lesser traveled (I find it curious that at least three areas of the park carry biblical overtones in their names: “The Garden of Eden,” “Devil’s Garden” towards the top of the one-way road and the “Fiery Furnace.” Are there more…?) The first morning out I came across this scene reminding me a little of Lord of the Rings, which lodged in my mind creating a curiosity and desire to return often through the trip to see how the fog and light were interacting with these elements.

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah. The level of detail held in the frozen boughs combined with beautiful wood grain of Utah Junipers provided endless interesting compositions.
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah. The level of detail held in the frozen boughs combined with beautiful wood grain of Utah Junipers provided endless interesting compositions.
frame 16 – Close Up Crop, Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah. Though it was plenty bright enough – especially shooting ISo100 Delta – A tripod and Mirror-Up were used to assure as sharp and clean an image as possible. As always, Delta 100 developed in Ilford DDX does not disappoint. I can’t wait to wet print these negatives in the darkroom.

To see more imagery from the trip, including the frames made with medium format film, please visit bluehourjournal.com

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah.
Utah Juniper, Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah. Through the various times visiting the Garden of Eden, the rock pillars would emerge then recede coinciding with density of the fog.
frame 19 – Garden of Eden Area, Arches National Park, Utah. Each time the icy fog lifted, fine, delicate crystals adorned everything. Kodak’s new Ektachrome 100 was superb for recording fine, accurate colored detail. [Ektachrome 100]
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah. Much time was spent examining this scene. Large areas of wood grain, contrasted with fine frost and frozen juniper berries produced delicate detail and unbelievably intricate negatives.
Frozen cottonwood tree near Windows Area, Arches National Park, Utah. Arches’ average annual precipitation is 8.7”, 221mm. Not much. So when it happens it’s a pretty cool thing to see. Something else noteworthy about this image is that it was made with a plain, old 50mm lens. Nothing fancy or exotic – just a normal focal length lens you can pick up very inexpensively. In fact, this 50mm lens is perhaps the most used lens in my bag. It’s small and sharp – easy to have on the camera most of the time. Further proof you don’t need to spend a fortune on exotic camera gear to enjoy photography. OK, the F6 is pretty exotic, but still… [Ilford Delta 100]
Nikon F6 and NIKKOR 50mm ƒ1.4D, a match made in heaven.
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, Utah
Near Windows Area, Arches National Park, Utah. The depth of fog changed often during 4 days, sometimes completely hiding distant rock formations – other times allowing just barely visible hints. A down side to this is the dust appearing in otherwise perfectly smooth areas of beautiful tone. Time to brush up on the spotting skills.
Arches National Park, Utah. Something about the swirling, organic patterns in Arches sandstone came to life in the day’s flat light.
Winter on the rim of Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
Utah Juniper, Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah.
I debated whether to include this photograph or not, but decided to. This was made with the Mamiya 645 on Delta 100 and honestly, is the reason I shoot medium format film along side 35mm. While I love 35mm film and my Nikons, nothing compares to the larger frame and tone of the larger piece of film. Glad I shot both 35mm and 645 this trip, and have this image on the larger neg. It’s going to make a great wet print in the dark room.
The F6 and Nikkor 50mm f1.4D. 12 years old and going strong.
frame 15 – Self Portrait, Dead Horse Point, Utah (January, 2020). I might look grumpy in this photo but believe it or not I’m as happy as a guy can be… just a little cold.
Arches National Park, January 2020 – part I

Arches National Park, January 2020 – part I

Arches National Park, January 2020.

Having just returned from a long weekend to Arches National Park, I’m beginning to work through my film. Shot a good bit of 35mm and 120, both color and monochrome this trip, keeping with my New Year’s ‘goals’: shoot more film, drink more whiskey. Did both, it turns out – but shot more film than whiskey, largely dividing time evenly between 4 cameras: 2 x medium formats and 2 x 35mm. Since retiring my D3s I’ve added the F5 back into heavy rotation and am loving working with it again.

frame 22 – Night cap, Moab, Utah

If you want to see one of America’s true treasures, visit Arches National Park in Utah. If you want to see it at a special time of year, and when there are (far) fewer people – try visiting in January. In much of the Park I was alone, and it was wonderful.

Utah's Arches National Park isn't just beautiful when the sun shines (and a million people are crawling all over). A recent January visit revealed another side to this iconic National treasure.
frame 09 – Garden of Eden Viewpoint, Arches National Park, Utah

The F6 saw heavy use. I continue to be pleased with its performance (after more than 10 years), even in the cold. Of all my cameras it’s still the king of metering and perfect exposure. Having just replaced the batteries with fresh AA’s (went with Duracell’s new “Optimum’s” (“Extra Life. Extra Power” is the slogan). In 20° temps they registered down 1 tick on the top plate indicator so I slipped out the MS-40 and kept it in an inner jacket pocket until ready to shoot. No problems after that.

frame 33 – Arches National Park, Utah

For 35mm, ran some FP4+, of course Delta 100 as well as some new Ektachrome and expired Provia. Ran mostly E-6 through the F5 this trip, largely relegating the F6 to monochrome. Both use Kirk L-brackets so getting them on and off the tripod is fast and easy. The color medium format work can be seen on Blue Hour Journal soon.

frame 31 – Hikers make their way from a fog obscured parking area toward Double Arch, Arches National Park, Utah.

The vast scale of the land is hard enough to communicate through small photographs on the internet. But everyone knows a human figure when they see it.

frame 29 – Double Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

As is evident – there was no sky the whole trip. Just a huge, grey wall behind every horizon line for 4 straight days. This made shooting wide difficult, and encouraged tunneling in more, cutting the horizon completely out of most images. There were times just enough depth showed through to indicate something in the background, and in that case it stayed. But largely, this was a horizonless shooting experience.

frame 11 – Garden of Eden Viewpoint, Arches National Park, Utah

I found this tree fascinating, and the small, frozen berries against the gnarled, twisted trunk communicated delicacy against a tortured harshness unique to Arches. I do think, however, this image will wet print better than it scanned/displayed digitally. There’s a lot of detail/information here and controlling contrast is going to be important. One of the great things about FP4+ is slightly less contrast than Delta, allowing contrast to be built up slowly using multi-grade filters.

frame 14 – Windows Area, Arches National Park, Utah.

Sometimes the fog lifted just enough to make background features barely visible, adding depth to the mysterious scenes.

frame 07 – Fog introduced an element of mystery to the landscape, near Garden of Eden Viewpoint, Arches National Park, Utah

Next up is the color work. Thanks to Denver Digital Imaging for processing my color films. Couldn’t do it without you guys.

When You’re Really Trying…

When You’re Really Trying…

Sunset, Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

OK, so maybe I jumped the gun a little. Maybe I still do have something to say regarding the F6. Allow me to explain.

Over the past several years I’ve enjoyed shooting with a variety of cameras, including all the Nikon single-digits F-series, as well as a few medium format Mamiyas. Anyone who has more than one or two cameras can surely identify with the conundrum of which camera to grab when you’re heading out the door. You can only carry and shoot so much in any given outing, so you need to make some decisions. Whether the decisions are made at home before heading out – or – while standing at the back of the car on site plowing through all your junk (because you wouldn’t or couldn’t make that decision at home). So in a very democratic way I decided to use them all for a while, just to spread the love.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

I’ve also been shooting a good bit of black and white over the past several years – for reasons previously laid out here, and enjoying the heck out of it. Process your own film, printing in the darkroom, working with filters, the smell of fixer on your fingers… all wonderful stuff. Because of that – I’ve grown accustomed to, let’s say – alternative metering solutions to what the F6 employs. Sunny 16, early Nikon center-weighted metering heads, iPhone app’s, totally winging it see how close I can guess… anything goes. After all, with film, as long as you’re within a stop or so things are pretty flexible. And until you have comparison data points, it’s sometimes tough to evaluate just how well something else performs.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

So last month I was heading home from Illinois to Colorado the long way, through South Dakota. Before leaving for this trip a few weeks prior I was disciplined enough to make decisions regarding kit. It would be all F6, with a new F3T thrown in for some black and white work. I gathered the remaining rolls of Velvia 50 from the fridge along with a smattering of C-41 and called it good. I’d always wanted to visit Badlands National Park and hoped timing allowed on the return leg. If so I’d be prepared.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

As things worked out, by the time I hit Badlands Junction, South Dakota the day was shaping up nicely for some photography. Light was superb after a bit of recent rain refreshed and cleared the sky. Autumn grasses were bright green and played nicely against the ochres and crimsons of natural Badlands coloring. There was an active sky – plenty of cloud cover mixed with plenty of a beautiful cobalt blue. When the time came to shoot I loaded one of the few remaining rolls of Velvia in the F6. The reason this is important is because at nearly $17 a roll, Velvia is pretty pricey stuff, as is the new Kodak Ektachrome at $13/roll. But more importantly, the opportunity before me wasn’t something that came along every day: a beautiful location I’m visiting for the first time (there’s nothing that can match the thrill of discovering a place for the first time), perfect conditions, plenty of time to explore… rolling the dice when it comes time to make the most out of each shutter release isn’t a good approach. Here’s where the F6 really proves superior over all its (charming, old) predecessors. Specifically, it’s metering, features and reliability. No way I’d trust my (wonderful) old cameras to shoot chrome films in changing light on this rare opportunity.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

I almost always use a tripod for work like this. I know some people don’t, but honestly – aside from laziness – can’t understand why one would approach shooting anything they’re really trying to get the most from any other way. Slow film in fading light at f8-f11 means shutter speeds hovering around the 1/2 second mark or slower. A tripod, Mirror-Up and the MC-30 cable release, turning off VR on your lens, even using the DR-5 to aid focusing are standard operating procedure.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (2018)

I won’t drag this out – hoping you get the idea. All these other cameras are wonderful, really. Each has its own personality and allure and I’m happy to have them. But when the time comes to shoot; to really try to get the most from each frame – the Nikon F6 has no equal. As much as I appreciate my other F’s – the F6 is King of the Hill.

The F6 shooting Devils Tower, Wyoming (2018). S.O.P. when I’m really trying to get the most out of a frame of 35mm film. (Nikon F3T, 35mm f1.4 AI-S + Velvia 100).

Nikon F6 + Rokinon 14mm IF ED UMC Lens

Nikon F6 + Rokinon 14mm IF ED UMC Lens

Rokinon 14mm lens

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico. I am on my belly, as close to the front of the skull as I can be without touching the front element to his furry snout. This thing is w-i-d-e.

This past February I returned to New Mexico’s Bisti Wilderness in search of dramatic skies. Armed with the F6, a freshly repaired 645 ProTL (thanks to Dave at Key Camera in Longmont) and lots of Velvia I was in search of drama. Watching the weather for two weeks before had my imagination racing. There was a big system due to hit the Rockies from the Pacific northwest and it looked like either the trip would be scrubbed – or – it was going to be perfect.

Hunter Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

Hunter Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

Enter the iPhone’s numerous weather App’s. My friend Dan turned me on to Dark Sky, and easy-to-use, paid app providing weather and satellite updates through a great UI. According to the satellite it looked like the southern tip of the storm would camp out just north of Farmington, New Mexico. The Bisti is about 40 miles south, making views of the storm great – but hopefully dodging the mud caused by excessive rain. You don’t want to get stuck in the mud in the Bisti Wilderness.

Dramatic skies are even more dramatic with the super wide 14mm Rokinon.

Dramatic skies are even more dramatic with the super wide 14mm Rokinon.

As the weather picture solidified so did my plans and things looked good. At the last minute my buddy Mark offered up his new Rokinon 14mm. Now, you have to understand I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to gear. I’m not proud of that; it’s just the way its been. So my first inclination was to say “thanks but no thanks.” I’d mostly planned on putting the Mamiya through its paces and wasn’t that interested in adding more stuff to the already full bag. Then I reconsidered, remembering one road and one shot in particular that might really benefit from it (the shot atop this page; Rio Chama just below Abiquiu Lake, New Mexico). We were there a few years ago and I just couldn’t get the composition I was trying for with my already wide 17-35 (Nikkor).

Because the weather was rapidly changing the decision was made to push up departure a day early. The Rokinon hadn’t arrived via UPS and I was a little torn… Then – literally at the last minute as I was backing out of the driveway – the big, brown truck turned up the street and I was handed the package. I was all set.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico. As you work with a 14mm lens it's easy to understand how front elements are damaged.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico. As you work with a 14mm lens it’s easy to understand how front elements are damaged.

I didn’t open the box until two days later in the parking area at the Bisti. My first impression of the lens was “holy cow!” I think I even said that out loud. It’s a very impressive piece of engineering. Well built, solid and tight. It’s attractive too – if that means anything to you. But the most impressive feature is the GIGANTIC bulbous front element emerging from the front of the lens. Right away I knew I was fortunate to have it with me, but man – I was little nervous about doing anything to that perfect, HUGE front element. Fortunately the lens has a solid, molded butterfly hood build around it and an equally solid, plastic lens cup (not a cap per say, but more of a cup) which fits snuggly over it all to keep it protected.

Active skies in the Bisti are worth the colder February weather.

Active skies in the Bisti are worth the colder February weather.

Overall I would rank the lens an incredible value at the listed $320. But when you compare it to Nikon’s equivalent 14mm lens at over $1,800 – it’s a no brainer. To be fair, I haven’t shot the Nikon 14mm to do a head-to-head comparison. All I have are the images made with the Rokinon. It’s manual focus and is chipped to indicate when the shot is in focus, as well as pass info through to EXIF. The Rokinon is not a G-style lens, meaning it has an aperture ring so you can use it on film cameras older than the F5, and it does have some vignetting, but it’s easily correctable. I’ve read some reviews indicating sharpness varies copy to copy, but my experience was extremely good. I’ll let the pixel peepers debate things like edge sharpness and let you decide if the image quality is good enough or not. I’m pretty sure of this: when the time comes for me to go ultra wide with 14mm I’m saving the $1,500 and going with the Rokinon.

Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah

Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah

I first visited the northern region of the Escalante Staircase area years ago after reading an article on the Burr Trail -but that’s another story. More recently (back in 2007) I hit it from the south, having come up one night from Flagstaff and checked into a hotel in Page, Arizona just off Hwy 89. There was a large canvas hanging on the wall of the lobby and I asked the woman behind the desk where it was from. “Just up the road,” she said, “about 20 miles. It’s not marked or anything, you just pull over the start walking.” So that next day we did just that and what do you know – we found it.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument signage along Hwy 89 North out of Page, Arizona.

Small, un-obvious ‘Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’ sign marking the trail head along Hwy 89 North out of Page, Arizona.

This past trip to Page we thought we’d try to find it again. One late afternoon we set out armed with just a memory and full tank of gas. Soon the land began to change into what I vaguely remembered from 10 years prior and I was hopeful. Then, there on the right hand side of the road was the parking area and it all came back to me. It’s more developed now; a half dozen cars at the trail head and a sign informing would-be hikers what they’re about to see. It’s the Grand Staircase, part of the enormous Escalante National Monument.

Different than a National Park, National Monuments have different structures, different protocols. The Escalante National Monument is a truly vast, wild expanse of land sweeping through central Utah. There’s no single entry point per say, but numerous portals from which to enter. Camping is allowed and exploration is encouraged. It is a able-bodied photographer’s dream come true.

Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. This was the obvious shot presented at the approach to the area. Light was hitting it beautifully and the features were prominently and nicely presented. I walked by it at first knowing I’d return. Thankfully I did return before the shadows at bottom left of the frame swallowed up the grass – which I thought was a quite beautiful green to compliment the rest of the scene’s earthen colors. Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D + Velvia 50

 

Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah (2016). The “staircase” feature of the Escalante Staircase is series of risers, or elevated plateau regions ranging from the Grand Canyon way south in Arizona to the the 9,000′ edge of Utah’s high plateaus. The ‘steps’ include prominent geologic regions such as Shinarump Cliffs, the Vermilion Cliffs, the White Cliffs, the Gray Cliffs, and the Pink Cliffs. In this shot you can see some of that transition, showing the comparatively whitish layers between the Carmel Formation (in shadow) and the Entrada Sandstone layer ignited by the setting sun. Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D + Velvia 50.

Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. Much of the area seems to be in some transition between dirt and rock. Cryptobiotic soil (organic matter that takes many years to grow) is everywhere. Sadly, boot prints trample these hearty organisms constantly, forcing them to start the regeneration process over regularly.

So what does this have to do with the F6? Nothing, really – other than it’s just another place it was with me to record. Ten years ago before purchasing the F6 I was shooting a D2oo. The difference between the two cameras is startling. My friend Dan looked through the F6’s super bright, clear viewfinder and – in comparison to the D750 he was shooting – commented how he wished the D750 had that viewfinder. Funny how we grow accustomed to things and can take them for granted. The viewfinder is one of the features of the F6 I’ve come to rely on most. I’m  actually able to see well enough for tasks such as manually focusing and low-light shooting. And compared to the F5, because the focus points light up in red instead of remaining a monotone gray when activated makes everything easier and less distracting when shooting. Yet another reason to love the F6.

To read more about Utah’s Escalante National Monument and Grand Staircase, visit the VisitUtah web site.

In 2007 we called this area “Rim Rocks.” I’m not sure why, or where the name came from. Now it’s part of the Escalante National Monument’s Grand Staircase area. Nikon D200.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)

One of the things I’ve looked forward to each year since – forever – is my fall trip. This year it was down to the Four Corners area of the US and covered territory in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah then back in Colorado. We visited a handful of awe-inspiring destinations – some for the first time, others back for another go.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

You can do your best to plan a trip well but at the end of the day the ability to roll with whatever is presented yields a better overall experience. Weather, light, crowds and other unforeseen circumstances – like car trouble – can either crater your objective – or – present opportunities.

When it comes to putting time, money and energy into visiting a specific place with specific goals, there’s one clear choice for me and that’s the F6. In the past I’ve shot a good bit of color at some of these destinations. This year I felt like switching it up a bit and decided to shoot black and white film between rolls of Velvia. Velvia is great stuff – but bright, sun-lit days are not what I’d consider  ideal conditions to get the most from it, even with a warming filter.

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

The first destination on our stop was the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in north western New Mexico. There are two primary washes, or drainages in the Bisti; a north and a south. The northern wash is referred to as Hunter Wash, the southern as the Gateway or Alamo Wash. The main, visible (but primitive) parking area is adjacent to the southern wash. The northern wash takes a little route finding to access but nothing too arduous. Both are fascinating and provide explorers plenty to see with minimal elevation gain. The area is pretty flat – which is a new (and welcome) difference compared to so many other areas requiring a lot of strenuous climbing. It’s almost as if you’re simply going for a walk once you cross the Wilderness Area boundary. To scamper up the hills and ravines is a relatively easy task.

One of the things I realized in my research of the area was how difficult it was to attain a sense of scale while viewing images. I’d see a geological feature and wonder if it were 10 feet tall or a hundred. I’ll leave the mystery to you as well as you view the images. I will say that despite ominous warnings and perceptions that accompany such a remote, designated wilderness such as the Bisti I was pleasantly surprised how accessible and friendly it felt.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Hunter Wash, New Mexico (2016)

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Hunter Wash, New Mexico (2016)

The general layout of the area is these large primary washes run southwest, with many of the interesting features residing in the off-shoot canyons and drainages feeding the main washes. We were a little nervous about getting lost, having read several accounts of people doing so resulting in cold nights spent in the badlands. I found, however, that with basic navigation and orienteering skills getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. We did use the GPS feature of our iPhones as a back up. There’s no cell signal but the GPS functionality of the device works perfectly without it. Yet another reason to love smart phones.

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

It was cold that first night and the next morning before dawn we woke at 5am, donned head lamps and headed into the unknown Alamo Wash in the dark looking for a good place to catch first light. The light is the most difficult part of visiting the Bisti, or other badlands areas blessed (?) with so much sun. Harsh bright light and harsh shadows have the photographer praying for cloud cover. Alas – sometimes there’s simply none to be found.

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

There were nearly a dozen cars at the trail head by the time we returned from the morning hike. After grabbing a quick bite and watering up we headed into the northern wash searching for the Wings. More to come…

Post Scrip: after this first trip I found a great weather resource that will help plan additional trips. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a unique and special place worthy of more time and attention.