Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

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Top 10 from 2014

As in past years, with the coming of the New Year I decided to take a look back at all the photos I took in 2014 and select some of my favorites to share with you here on the blog. Between finishing graduate school (yippee!) and making a permanent (for now) move from the Pacific Northwest to Colorado, I had less time to devote to photography than in previous years. Nevertheless, picking out my favorite photos was difficult as usual and a good reminder that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience and photograph a a number of new places in the past year, from the coasts of Olympic National Park to remote alpine basins in the Rocky Mountains.

Without further ado, here are my ten favorite photos from 2014 in chronological order. Here’s wishing you all a healthy and happy new year!

1. Tulip Fields at Sunset, Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, Washington

Filed at Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Held annually in April, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is a must see for any spring visitor to NW Washington, photography buff or not. On weekends, especially sunny ones, the tulip fields that spread out across the Skagit Valley about an hour north of Seattle are overrun, making photography difficult. Fortunately, I lived only about a half hour away and was able to visit on a less-busy weekday evening in order to photograph the picture-perfect bulbs in their prime and without the crowds.

2. American Bison, Yellowstone National Park

A solitary bison in Yellowstone National Park

I’m going to come clean: this is the only photo on this list taken from the confines of my car! I was departing Yellowstone at the end of an impromptu day-trip to the park while attending a geology conference in Bozeman when I spotted this solitary bison along the road. Fortunately, no vehicles were coming up behind me so I was able to grab my camera and capture the glow of the late afternoon sunlight and the diffuse reflection of the bison in a pool of late-season snow melt.

3. Milky Way, Airglow, and Light Pollution from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

Milky Way and airglow from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Living near Seattle doesn’t exactly do wonders for one’s chances of observing rare celestial events. What’s one to do? Get above the clouds of course! I was thrilled to be visiting Olympic National Park during the peak of the Cameleopardalids meteor shower in May. In order to get an unobstructed view, we made the drive up to Hurricane Ridge just before midnight in hopes of catching some meteors. As you may recall, the meteor shower fizzled spectacularly but all was not lost: I was able to capture this panorama of the summer Milky Way emerging from the disgusting Seattle light dome (over 50 miles away as the crow flies) as it rose in the west. Despite the light pollution, I also managed to capture the ghostly green glow of an atmospheric phenomenon known as “airglow” (which I’ve written about previously) and the low lying clouds smothering the Elwah River Valley several thousand feet below.

4. Giant Green Anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), Olympic National Park

Close-up of a Giant Green Anemone in Olympic National Park

I developed a slight infatuation with seeking out and photographing marine life during my two years in Western Washington. Timing trips to the coast with some of the lowest tides of the year helped me discover a wide variety of anemones, nudibranchs, sea stars, urchins, and much more. Anemones were perhaps my favorite group to photograph, their neon-colored and delicate tentacles waving back and forth in the surf.

5. Panorama from Hole-in-the-Wall, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park

Panorama from top of Hole-in-the-Wall, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park

Rialto Beach is one of the most popular spots in Olympic National Park…for obvious reasons. The short 2-mile hike to Hole-in-the-Wall was one of my favorite experiences this year. Once reaching the famous rock formation, we found an nearly entirely overgrown path that led us up to a viewpoint on the crest of Hole-in-the-Wall, getting us away from the surprisingly scant Memorial Day crowds and immersing us in expansive views of sea stacks, rocks, and islands along the Olympic coast.

6. Summer Wildflowers at Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Wildflowers at Ice Lake

Despite my ravings about Rialto Beach in the previous photo, our trek to Ice Lake in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado was hands down my favorite hike of the year, and one of my most memorable ever. My only regret about this day was that we weren’t prepared for an overnight (or at least a hike back to the car in the dark!), which means I missed out on what was surely a epic sunset from the basin. Click the link above for more photos of this spectacular place.

7. Ice Lake Panorama, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains

Did I mention Ice Lake was spectacular? It snagged two of the coveted spots on the top 10 list. That means you have to go.

8. Circumpolar Star Trails from Escalante Canyon, Colorado

Star Trails from Escalante Canyon

Photographing star trails is a bit more complex in the digital age than it was with film. This was only my second legitimate attempt, but I was happy with how it turned out. Extremely long single exposures suffer from a variety of maladies so this photo is actually a composite of over 100 consecutive 30″ exposures (for the stars), and one 3″ exposure for the foreground juniper which I illuminated with a headlamp. In post-processing, I had the pleasure of removing more than a dozen aircraft which passed overhead during the hour or so it took to gather the series of exposures. I elected not to remove the two meteors (astronomical objects flashing through the frame are fine by me) but I’m looking forward to doing some more star trail photography from places not on major transcontinental flight paths.

9. Exclamation Point, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

Black Canyon of the Gunnison from Excalmation Point

I love this photo because it exemplifies how the canyon got its name. Despite being taken at 10 o’clock in the morning, the narrow gorge carved into dark Precambrian metamorphic rocks remained shrouded in shadow, while its surroundings (and portions of the canyon bottom) are basking in the bright, mid-morning sunshine. This photo was taken from an overlook on the remote and seldom visited North Rim of Black Canyon, which offers the most spectacular views into the narrowest portion of this amazing gorge and is truly worth the effort to visit.

10. Waving Aspen and Grasses, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Waving aspen tree, Rocky Mountain National Park

I didn’t purchase any new camera gear this year, but was the recipient of a 9-stop neutral density filter for my birthday, a filter I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while now. That filter allowed me to take this photo, a 30″ exposure at f/22 in broad daylight, and capture the motion of a colorful aspen and meadow grasses waving in the wind on a autumn day in Rocky Mountain National Park.




Top 10 Images from 2013

So this is a taaaaad late, again, but since my shameless self-promotion retrospective was somewhat popular last year, I figured it was worth making another post highlighting my favorite images from the past year, even if it is now nearly a month into the new one. In honor of 2012, I chose my 12 favorite photos. This year I’ve chosen just ten, so as not to head down a road where this post gets ever so slightly longer and more agonizing to read each year.

As was the case last year, some of these photos you may have seen already if you follow me. Including some new images wasn’t difficult though, considering that I took an average of 1478 photos per month this past year, yet averaged just 1.5 posts per month. That adds up to 17,736 photos in the past year (a 221% increase over last year!). With the end of grad school in sight, hopefully I’ll be able to share photos more frequently this coming year, but for now I now humbly present my favorite (not necessarily for technical quality) 0.05% of the photos I took in 2013:


1. Mt. Baker, Washington.

One of the things I dislike about the Pacific Northwest is that there are so many damn trees everywhere that even hiking to the crest of ridges and mountains in search of an expansive view is often a futile endeavor, especially in the lowlands. Unless that is, your summit has had the pleasure of being clear-cut in the past decade or so, in which case you can see halfway to Alaska (if it’s clear…).  I was surprised to find myself in one of these clearings on a January hike outside Bellingham following one of our biggest snowfalls of the year and took advantage by taking in a nice view (and some photos) of Mt. Baker and the foothills, alas one complete with more of the aforementioned clear cuts in the foreground.

Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly

2. Monarch Butterfly, Pacific Grove, California. 

The town of Pacific Grove, California loves their butterflies. Monarch butterflies specifically. So much so that an image of one can be found on every street sign. In March I visited the official Monarch Grove Sanctuary where thousands of monarchs flock to reproduce each year. While I don’t doubt this claim, on my visit I saw about a dozen butterflies, none of which where in range of my camera. I found this one downtown, along the beach, in a much more accessible location. I’m not sure what this guy is eating but it looks delicious.

Golden Gate Bridge in the fog

3. Golden Gate Bridge Fog and Sunset, San Francisco, CA.

This was one of the few shots on this list that actually had some degree of planning behind it. I had recollections of a good vantage point of the bridge from trips to San Francisco made pre-camera toting days. Fog had been rolling in and out of San Francisco all day but it  seemed to be a thin layer and I surmised that if I could get above the clouds, I might be treated to a dramatic view of the bridge’s towers poking up above the fog where they could intercept the last rays of sunlight.  As you can see, that’s pretty much exactly what happened. It’s incredibly satisfying when hunches work out that perfectly. I only wish I had possessed one of these suckers so that I could have increased my exposure time and smoothed out the rapidly moving fog. If anyone is looking for a belated Christmas present or a donation, hint hint…

Blood Star at low tide

4. Blood Star, somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.

While I like this picture enough to have a 5×7 framed on my bookshelf, it was the experience associated with it that makes it worthy of inclusion on this list. Back on Memorial Day weekend, I headed out to the Olympic Peninsula (oddly enough, not to look at sea stars but rather the Elwah River restoration project) and happened to stumble across some epic tide pools one misty morning. We’re talking sea stars comparable in size to small children, anemones and urchins the size of bowling balls, and masses of gargantuan mussels sufficient in size to keep the aforementioned sea stars fat and happy. Despite it being a holiday weekend and one of the lowest tides of the year, there were only a smattering of people wandering around the tidal zone.  I spent several hours taking photos in a steady rain while balancing the need to keep my camera dry AND myself from slipping on kelp and splitting my skull open on jagged basalt. Several groups approached me during this time and asked me if I was local and how I had found about this place. After responding “Uhh, not really…” and “the Internet”, I proceeded to have a few nice conversations about the incredibly diversity of marine life in front of us. What was interesting was that each and every group urged me to keep this location a secret before continuing on their way. And given that other spectacular tide pools in Washington have suffered from over-popularity, I’m going to honor that request.


5. Snake eat Snake.

Any year in which you get to photograph wildlife eating other wildlife is a darn good year in my book, even if it is only two snakes rather than say, a mountain lion taking down a deer in full stride.

Sunset at Black Canyon on the Eve of the 2013 Supermoon

6. Sunset at Gunnison Point, Black Canyon National Park, Colorado.

If you ever want to visit a National Park in the summer and don’t want to feel like you’re at Disneyland, you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere more spectacular than Black Canyon. Think you could go to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite and have a major overlook all to yourself at sunset in mid-summer? Think again. In case you didn’t notice, lurking just above the far right horizon in this photo is the 2013 Supermoon for an added bonus.

Lightning and the Big Dipper

7. Lightning and the Big Dipper.

I had to include at least one night sky shot in this list (its part of my contract). Neither subject here (lightning and the Big Dipper) is particularly interesting on it’s own, but I think together they make a nice pair. I really would have loved a wider-angle lens on this one; I had to wait about an hour longer than I would have liked for the Big Dipper to rotate into the field of view of the cloud tops, and by then the best of the lightning storm was past. I also wish there was something more interesting in the foreground but achieving that would have meant leaving my front porch, something that I was very loath to do on this particular evening for obvious reasons. As nice as a intriguing foreground would have been, being alive to share this photo is even sweeter.

A colorful Collared Lizard in Dominguez Canyon, Colorado

8. Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon, Colorado.

I’ve come across these flamboyant lizards more than a few times in the southwest. Normally they peace out as soon as you get within 10 yards or attempt to intimidate you from coming closer by launching into their patented push-up routine. This one seemed to want his picture taken though. Almost motionless for several minutes, I reeled off a couple dozen shots trying to get the focus just right.

Sunset from the Box Canyon sign above Ouray, CO

9. Sunset from the Sign, Ouray, Colorado.

Another shot that involved a fair bit of planning. Ouray, CO might be about the most picturesque town this side of the Alps. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, some yahoos thought that a big metal, light-up marquee advertising one of Colorado’s most famous natural wonders (Box Canon) would somehow be a good idea. Thankfully, the lights on this metal monstrosity have since gone dark and nowadays the sign is barely visible from town unless you know where to look. But the sign’s location on a precipice above town makes for a great sunset vantage point, especially following an intense summer thunderstorm which left some wispy clouds hanging around the amphitheater to catch the last rays of sunlight.

Golden Western Larches in the North Cascades

10. (Golden) Western Larches, North Cascades, Washington.
Since I just wrote about this trip a few months ago, I won’t say much here…other than that I hope you enjoyed these photographs, and I would love to hear your comments or criticism in the comments below! Happy (belated) New Year!

A (Belated) Top 12 from 2012

Yes, I know its 2013.  Better late then never I always say. Actually, I don’t really say that often, I just made that up. 2012 was kind of a hectic year for me and as a result my posting frequency has been somewhat erratic over the course of the last year forever. While I may not have had as much free time as I would have liked, the fact that I lived in three different places over the last 12 months has afforded me the opportunity to photograph an incredibly diverse set of landscapes,  from alpine meadows and glaciers, to rainforests and tide pools, to sand dunes and deserts, and even some rare astronomical phenomenon.

Since everyone loves a good “Top 10” list, I’ve decided to take the excitement to the next level and compose a “Top 12” list of my favorite photos from 2012.  I’ll note that “favorite” is most definitely not synonymous with “best”. Some of these photos definitely won’t be winning any awards anytime soon (well, none of them will I suppose…) but nevertheless have a special place in my aortic pump for some reason or another, which I’ve tried to capture in the caption where applicable. Coming up with the list was challenging. Imagine separating wheat from chaff if what you have is mostly chaff. At one point I almost just included three pictures of chubby squirrels to round things out. I also briefly considered posting a dozen paparazzi shots of sunbathing celebrities and seeing if anyone would actually notice. As you can see, I ended up doing neither of these things but if you disagree with my final assessment, feel free to start a flame war in the comments. Or just tell me which ones you like the best…

I should note that many of the photos may look familiar if you follow this blog. If that’s the case, rather that whine about repeats, I suggest you savor them just like you might a re-run of a favorite episode of Friends, Seinfeld, or Cheers. However several of the photos on the list never made it onto the site, sometimes because I didn’t have enough photos to justify a full post, but often simply due to the fact that I am a graduate student and “free time” is a pretty foreign concept to my kind.

Ranking the photos from 1-12 seemed like a waste of time. I’ll let you form your own opinions and so I present them to you here in chronological order:


1. Sunset from Desert View Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park. (I’ll come clean: I actually took this one in the waning days of 2011 but since I didn’t do a Top 11 list from 2011, I decided to include it here. Sue me.) Sadly, particulate matter and smog from major population centers in the southwest (cough cough Las cough Vegas cough cough) is obscuring the view of the canyon on an ever increasing number of days. Perhaps the only positive is that it can make for some spectacular and surreal looking scenes when the smog is backlit by the setting sun.


2. Pond Reflection, Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Walla Walla, WA. Water doesn’t get much smoother than this. Amazing how a picture of a gray and stormy sky is that much more interesting when it’s reflected in a pond. Also amazing that those leaves still have any color left in them considering they would have fallen about 4 months ago…


3. Zeus Visits Walla Walla. There’s nothing quite as thrilling as getting lucky enough to take pictures of a severe thunderstorm from the comfort and (relative) safety of your own front door. I even got the added bonus of having the neighboring hotel/meth lab in the foreground! This is actually a composite of several images that I took over a period of several minutes. Lightning photography is tricky; theoretically the longer an exposure you take, the better change you have of catching a lightning strike. However, a super long exposure would have completely blown out the already extravagantly lit motel so the only way for me to capture multiple lightning strikes in this particular case was to take a time series of shorter images, and then combine them into one using Photoshop.


4. Palouse Falls State Park, Washington. This photo is probably my favorite panorama from this year. You almost need a panorama to truly capture everything there is to see at Palouse Falls.  The powerful waterfall, swelled by snowmelt, combined with the green terraces in between the basalt colonnades (GEOLOGIC TERM ALERT!!!) is unique to spring, since by autumn the waterfall has shriveled to a trickle and all that was once green becomes brown.

Venus_Transit_20125. Transit of Venus, June 6th 2012. A picture of something that won’t happen again for 115 years makes the list by default, even if it’s not of particularly high quality. The red orb is the Sun, as seen through a telescope fitted with a hydrogen-alpha solar filter. The black circle is the silhouette of the planet Venus as it passes directly in-between the Earth and the Sun, something that it only does in pairs about every 120 years. The things that look like dust spots are actually sunspots and the little flame-like wisps around the edge of the Sun are some small solar prominences (small=several times larger than Earth), ginormous eruptions of hot plasma that briefly travel along the Sun’s magnetic field lines before being pulled back in by the Sun’s intense gravitational field.

Sand Dune Sunset

6. Ripples in the sand sea, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Sand dunes come alive at sunset. A surface that burns your feet and looks flat and featureless at noon is revealed to be complex and majestic as the Sun nears the horizon. The geologist in me can’t take my eyes off of the thin layer of saltating sand grains catching the last rays of sunlight as they bounce their way across the dunes.

Delicate Arch Sunset Pano

7. Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches National Park, Utah.  There’s sort of a lot going on in this picture. I like how 99% of the crowd is seemingly oblivious to the gorgeous rainbow rising up from the desert behind them. Delicate Arch is one of those places that pretty much every landscape photographer visits at some point in their life, and for good reason. But I think think photo captures a really interesting aspect of the place, namely the fact that in reality it doesn’t even remotely approach the wild, untrodden wilderness that it is normally made out to be when you see it on glossy magazine covers. Pretty much any evening at sunset, regardless of season, you’ll find a scene more or less the same as this one (well maybe minus the rainbow..), with dozens of people staking out their spot over an hour before sunset.

San Francisco Peaks Sunset

8. Sunset from Bonito Park, Coconino National Forest, Arizona. Looking west towards the San Francisco Peaks in the late afternoon. A few late-season wildflowers hanging on to dear life. Not a whole lot I can add to this one. This is home for me. It’s quite pretty.


9. Self-portrait with Anemones, Larrabee State Park, Washington.  Is it weird to choose a picture of yourself for a list like this? I’m gonna go with “no” because I chose this one not because I’m particularly photogenic, but because the multi-colored anemones really steal the show and distract the viewers from my unsightly visage. Plus they shrivel up when you poke them which is kind of cool.

Larrabee State Park Sunset

10. Late-summer sunset along Samish Bay, Larrabee State Park, Washington.  This photo was a perfect example of an occasion where a little planning went a long ways. I had previously scouted out locations along the coast near Bellingham that would be ideally suited for catching the last rays of sunlight prior to sunset. This seems like one of the best spots so I stood here for about an hour before sundown waiting for the best lighting conditions. I would like to think that I got them. An exposure time of 15 seconds helped smooth out the incoming waves, giving the water its silky, silvery sheen.

Aurora Borealis from Ferndale, WA

11. Aurora Borealis display from Ferndale, Washington. While this photo may not pack the punch of the aurora shots you see coming out of Alaska, the Yukon, or Scandinavia, for me it was just as satisfying. As an avid amateur astronomy who grew up in the Southwest, I had a hard time restraining my excitement when I got to see my first ever auroral show this October. An impressive showing for the lower-48, these pillars cutting through the bowl of the Big Dipper danced around the sky for over an hour and were just a small part of a show that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. The grayish-purple light along the horizon is light pollution from Vancouver, B.C. And my classmates wondered why I was falling asleep in my 8am class the next morning. Also, you should ignore the power lines…

Sleeping Pile of Sea Lions

12. Sleeping Sea Lions, Coast Guard Pier, Monterey, CA. If you want to see a lot of sea lions, forget Pier 39 and San Francisco, go to the Coast Guard Pier in Monterey, CA and you’ll find piles and piles of them, just feet away on the other side of a metal fence. Compared to their San Francisco brethren, they’re a bunch of lazy bums though. I wish I could sleep all day long like that…then again I have a bed of my own and don’t have to sleep beneath multiple rear ends so I guess I don’t get to complain.

Be sure to stay tuned for a 2013 version in just a little more than 10 months!