California’s Coastal Redwoods

Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast. Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.

A couple of weeks ago I made a trip north to shoot old growth redwoods during the spring rhododendron bloom. It was my first time to the area and was quite an experience. First of all, I found the landscape quite challenging. Once I entered a redwood forest, it was a sensory overload, with subjects to shoot everywhere. The forest was so busy with life that it became difficult to distill each shot down to an individual subject. I could shoot everything from a super wide angle with trees converging into the fog, to macro detail shots of leaves, moss and flowers.

Ferns grow at the base of a large redwood tree, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Ferns grow at the base of a large redwood tree, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

I visited several old growth forests in the vicinity of Redwoods National Park. However, I never visited the park itself, as the oldest forest is preserved in several state parks in the area. These California state parks contain the first trees to be saved from the lumber mills, with the national park encompassing whatever land was left unprotected decades later.

Rhododendron grows throughout a redwood forest shrouded in fog, Del Norte Redwoods State Park
Rhododendron grows throughout a redwood forest shrouded in fog, Del Norte Redwoods State Park

This time of year is very popular for photographers because of the massive rhododendron bloom throughout these forests. The best way to capture the flowering bushes against the giant redwood trunks is to wait for thick fog to permeate the forest, which luckily happens quite often this time of year.

Fog does two things – first, it evens out the lighting in the forest by diffusing sunlight. This prevents the harsh contrast sometimes seen in thick forests when thousands of small light beams spotlight the vegetation. Cameras can’t capture this kind of contrast, and the fog cuts it out completely. Secondly, fog fills in behind the closest trees and greatly simplifies the scene. Instead of seeing a dense forest and all its detail behind the closest redwoods and rhododendrons, you instead see a misty fog. The viewer’s eye can stay focused on the main subject matter.

Intertwining leaves of false lily-of-the-valley form an abstract pattern, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Intertwining leaves of false lily-of-the-valley form an abstract pattern, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

In addition to capturing my main target, the forest provided opportunities for macro shots as well. Walking along the trails, I always kept an eye out for interesting patterns formed naturally. I found the large green leaves of false lily-of-the-valley intertwined and zoomed in to pick out a pattern among the leaves.

Naturally, there were also other interesting subjects, such as this fungus growing on a decaying tree branch.

A fungus grows from the branch of a decaying redwood, Del Norte Redwoods State Park
A fungus grows from the branch of a decaying redwood, Del Norte Redwoods State Park

The last morning I was in town, I was greeted by a light steady rain. Normally this kind of weather would see me rising, checking the window, and then jumping back into bed. However the rain also came with more fog, which actually created ideal conditions for more forest photography. Not necessarily the best conditions for me, but with my camera well protected with its own rain gear, the resulting photos came out just fine.

Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast.  Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.
Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast. Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.

The forest offered more than just lush green vegetation and enormous trees. Some of the older trees had large gashes and burns which lent to more graphical than subjective photographs. Here the negative space formed by the dark burn marks frames and offsets the light window to a distant tree.

Dark burns cut a graphic pattern through the base of giant redwood trees, Del Norte Redwoods State Park
Dark burns cut a graphic pattern through the base of giant redwood trees, Del Norte Redwoods State Park

Once the fog cleared, there were moments of magical, ethereal sunlight filtering through the canopy. I loved finding backlit ferns juxtaposed against a much darker wall of redwood. The photo below contains a bonus element of a double swoop of sorrel framing the bottom of the photo.

Sorrel, fern and redwood trees all contribute to the many shades of green of a redwood forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Sorrel, fern and redwood trees all contribute to the many shades of green of a redwood forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

It was a brief, challenging weekend. I’m not sure if I quite hit my stride in the redwood forest, which is usually an indicator that another visit is in order in the near future. There were difficult shooting conditions with the rain, and the sheer complexity of the forest had me scratching my head more than once. It is times like those that I have to take my hands away from the camera and just sit with the surroundings, listening. More often than not, it will tell me where to point my lens next.

Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast.  Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.
Rhododendrons grow amongst the redwoods along the California coast. Fog regularly permeates the forest, giving these giants the perfect conditions in which to grow.

Sonoma Coast Sunrise

Dawn breaks over the rolling hills of the Sonoma Coast
Dawn breaks over the rolling hills of the Sonoma Coast

A little while ago a friend and I were out near Bodega, shooting sunrise along the Sonoma coast. Because we were getting some morning fog rolling inland, any kind of shoot along the water was a no go, and we headed into the rolling hills just off the ocean. Here we had great views to the south as the sun side-lit the undulating farmland, punctuated by scattered forest.

The early rays of sun peak through a dissipating fog along the Sonoma Coast
The early rays of sun peak through a dissipating fog along the Sonoma Coast

I love opportunities to shoot fog, whether it is filtering through trees, or defining separation between mountains or hills. The added atmosphere can lend a certain drama to the photo.

Once the sun had risen, I chose to shoot directly into it, knowing the fog would help filter the direct light.

The early rays of sun peak through a dissipating fog along the Sonoma Coast
The early rays of sun peak through a dissipating fog along the Sonoma Coast

Here I loved the way the fog helped the trees separate into layers. I worked the composition and exposure, trying to balance the direct sun, low contrast fog, and back-lit grasses so that they could all add elements to the same photo. Once I was satisfied with some of the larger elements of the landscape, I moved into the macro realm to capture detail.

The rising sun backlights the golden grasses of a Sonoma Coast hillside
The rising sun backlights the golden grasses of a Sonoma Coast hillside

The back-lit grass itself captured my attention and demanded further photographic exploration. Moving from a small aperture to a very large one gave me the ability to amplify the fine detail of only the few grasses that remained in focus. The rest of the grass blended into a nice evenly colored backdrop.

Soon the sun had risen higher and the fog began to burn off in the rapidly warming day. I packed up my gear, happy for the fog that forced us up into the hills.

Grand Tetons National Park – The Trees

A row of fir trees grow amongst a thick stand of aspen, all in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park
A row of fir trees grow amongst a thick stand of aspen, all in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

As I said in an earlier post, the trees were the real stars of the show on my recent trip to Grand Teton National Park. Fall colors were bursting from every leaf, and the mixture of coniferous and deciduous gave the changing leaves a nice backdrop from which to pop.

Composing coherent tree photos is not easy. It is the epitome of finding patterns in chaos. In some cases I was able to juxtapose the shapes and colors of tall, white, narrow trunks with the round colorful leaf canopy as seen in the photo below. Given that I wanted to stack the trunks against one another to create a continuous pattern of lines, I shot this one from a distance with a telephoto lens.

A stand of trees in full fall color, Grand Teton National Park
A stand of trees in full fall color, Grand Teton National Park

There are other occasions where I want to be closer to the trees, and seek patterns just in the trunks. In the following photo I was inside an aspen forest, and really liked the character of the boulder that these trees were growing around. But the real thrust of this photo is again a linear pattern created by the trunks.

This photo took quite a while to compose, as I wanted to avoid conjoining trunks in order to maintain that clean linear pattern throughout the photo. As you can see in the background, the distant trunks were carefully placed in between the tree in the foreground, so as to avoid any overlapping.

Fall colors dot a grove of aspen, Grand Teton National Park
Fall colors dot a grove of aspen, Grand Teton National Park

Weather played a part in my tree photographs, as it did with the grand landscapes as well. After a storm passed through, I had a nice rainbow to play with for over an hour. Moving up and down a riverbed, I found this stand of trees that I could compose the rainbow behind. I was careful to run the rainbow up into the right corner of the photo, to create a strong corner.

A rainbow forms in the midst of a moving storm, Grand Teton National Park
A rainbow forms in the midst of a moving storm, Grand Teton National Park

Of course there were those foggy mornings as well. When I took this photo, I was up above the Snake River, and watched for a while as the changing fog moved like a living thing among the trees and distant hills. Landscape features were hidden, revealed, and back again, as if controlled by a grand magician working his craft.

Bright fall colors show through the dense fog that shrouds the landscape, Grand Teton National Park
Bright fall colors show through the dense fog that shrouds the landscape, Grand Teton National Park

I’ll leave you with one of my favorites – Aspen Embrace. There were many things I loved about these two photogenic trees. Not only does the aspen look like it is hugging the lone fir, welcoming it into its grove, but texturally, I love the stark, solid fir needles against the ethereal aspen leaves. Here the composition was straight forward – I only cropped it to a more traditional 4×5 aspect ratio as I felt the subjects’ spacing worked better with that framing. (Careful observers will note that this fir tree also makes an appearance in the first photo above.)

A fiery aspen wraps its branches around a lonely fir, Grand Teton National Park
A fiery aspen wraps its branches around a lonely fir, Grand Teton National Park

Even though the nearby forest fires cause some smoke issues on the first few days of my trip, the timing of the fall colors couldn’t have been better. I’d love to spend more time in this part of the country next fall – there were definitely a lot of great opportunities there.

Grand Tetons National Park – The Mountains

The Tetons glow red as they are front lit by the sun at dawn, Grand Teton National Park
The Tetons glow red as they are front lit by the sun at dawn, Grand Teton National Park

For my second post from my recent trip to Grand Teton National Park, I’ll focus on what I had considered the main attraction before the trip – the mountains. What was not expected however was being greeted by thick smoke from several nearby forest fires. On my first day in the park, the mountains were obscured by a dull gray haze that was so thick, you could barely make out the outline of the peaks.

Storm clouds drift high above the Tetons, Grand Teton National Park
Storm clouds drift high above the Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

Luckily however, some wet weather and (better yet) wind came through the valley, and helped clear things up a bit. In fact, I was excited to see the wet weather move in not just to help in clearing out the smoke, but because storms (and the clouds they bring) really help create drama. One of the worst things a landscape photographer can see in the forecast is clear blue skies.

I managed to visit all of the famous views of the Tetons while I was there. Though I usually shy away from such places, any self-respecting photographer should have these shots in his portfolio. After all, there is a reason they have become famous views!

The Tetons are reflected in the Snake River at Schwabacher's Landing, Grand Teton National Park
The Tetons are reflected in the Snake River at Schwabacher’s Landing, Grand Teton National Park

Even with the wind and weather moving through, we had several very foggy mornings. It was nice to see the smoke dissipating (fog generally looks “cleaner” than smoke), but at times the thick fog obscured both the view and the sun rising behind us. However, as the old saying goes, work with what ya got, and on one morning, I was able to use the fog to my advantage, adding a layer of separation to an otherwise straight forward sunrise shot.

A fog bank moves in front of the Grand Tetons as the rising sun illuminates the sheer peaks, Grand Teton National Park
A fog bank moves in front of the Grand Tetons as the rising sun illuminates the sheer peaks, Grand Teton National Park

Probably the most iconic spot in the park is Oxbow Bend, where the Snake River pools into a large area, allowing for still water and insane reflections. I was there on two mornings, and both times I didn’t even stop the car. The first attempt saw that familiar smoky haze, and in the second we were greeted by dense fog. And yet both times there were close to 100 photographers lined up waiting for sunrise. To this day I still don’t know what they expected to shoot in that weather, but I guess you have to respect their commitment? Meanwhile I was off to better spots for that weather.

Eventually I did get to photograph Oxbow Bend, this time around 10 in the morning. Usually I’m done for the morning by this time, but the fog was just starting the clear out. Luckily the trees along the shoreline were blazing with yellow, which juxtaposed the late morning blue of the mountains beyond. Some day I’ll have to make it back here for sunrise – I’ll be sure to sharpen my elbows first.

The fall colors of Aspen contrast the blue hues of the Tetons, Grand Teton National Park
The fall colors of Aspen contrast the blue hues of the Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

As amazing as the Tetons were to see in person, I began to realize by the mid point in my trip that the real stars of the show (beyond the numerous wildlife) were the fall colors and the trees that wore them. But that will have to remain for another post….