The Cunningham Cabin north of Jackson, dating (originally) from 1885. It’s easy to imagine what a remote location this must have been back then! According to Wikipedia “the cabin was the scene of a shootout in 1899 between a Montana posse and two horse thieves, who were killed at the scene”.
For those with long memories, the introduction of the Canon 400mm f/4 DO in 2000 occasioned a lot of excitement. It was the first camera lens to use diffractive optical elements, and seemed to presage a future in which the super-telephotos would be significantly lighter and more compact (if not, alas, any less expensive). Early reviews were very positive. Fast forward 14 years and super-telephotos have indeed gotten significantly lighter, due to the use of new materials, but of diffractive optics we’ve heard scarcely a peep. Canon did introduce a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO – which sits uneasily in the lineup as neither the lightest nor sharpest 70-300 – but the expected expansion of green rings elsewhere in the high-end hasn’t happened.
Perhaps we should add, yet. If the 400mm f/4.0 DO I rented for the Tetons (from the always excellent LensRentals) seemed like a bit of a lens design dead-end when I placed the order, by the time it arrived at FedEx it was a dinosaur, courtesy of Canon announcing a version 2 of the lens. Unless you already own one, it’s unlikely that you or I will ever shoot with the original again. Diffractive optics is the future, once more.
How did it perform? In one word, outstandingly! The normal complaints one hears about the 400mm DO are that (1) it’s not as contrasty as the other super-telephotos, (2) it flares more easily, and (3) the bokeh is odd. These may well be valid gripes (and indeed Canon implicitly acknowledged the flare issue in their blurb explaining why the version 2 is better), but in practical use I didn’t find them a problem. And the benefit of the lighter weight is undeniable – this is a pretty fast stabilized super-telephoto that can realistically be hand-held for extended periods of time. I enjoyed using it for both landscape and wildlife shots.
I’m always slightly amused to read internet commentary that seems to implicitly assume that when you buy one of Canon or Nikon’s most expensive lenses, you have the right to expect it’s the best lens they know how to make. Self-evidently it ain’t so. Better lenses could certainly be designed, but actually realizing them in glass and metal would require some combination of heavier optics, more exotic materials, and better manufacturing tolerances, all of which would mean higher prices. Zeiss’ marketing for the Otus line notwithstanding, even the “best” lenses are compromises between cost, weight, maximum aperture and sharpness, and when weight is an important consideration the 400mm DO (and no doubt its successor) may well be the best choice.
Total lunar eclipses aren’t nearly as rare as total Solar eclipses (the Earth is a lot larger than the Moon, and casts a much bigger shadow), but they still don’t come around all that often. After considerable planning – and angsting over what would be the best location – I drove up to Brainard Lake in the Indian Peaks wilderness early Wednesday morning. Make that very early, as I left home at 2:30am! I didn’t get quite what I expected, in part because this was my first time shooting an eclipse so I didn’t know what to expect and in part due to intermittent cloud cover, but I’m pleased with the end result.
The Tetons are perhaps North America’s most iconic mountain range on account of the lack of foothills on the east side, which makes for a dramatically vertical vista as seen from the plains north of Jackson. The west side is less immediately spectacular, but it’s also much less busy and the starting point for several great hikes that access the “back” side of the range. Driggs, Idaho makes for a good base, there are various motels (much more reasonably priced than those in Jackson) and even a surprisingly good Thai restaurant (Teton Thai). Returning from a long day hike at sunset, scenes that strike me as pretty quintessentially Idaho were easy to come by…
A star trail panorama shot at the Scala dei Turchi (literally the “staircase of the Turks”) in southern Sicily this summer. During the day this is an unusual, and unusually popular, white limestone formation, but after sunset it was very peaceful and beautiful. There can’t be much air traffic over this part of the Mediterranean at night as for once no plane lights intruded into the shot.
I’m back from what is always one of the highlights of the year – a trip with my brother hiking, photographing and viewing wildlife in the wild areas of North America. After several years seeking out bears in Alaska, this time we stayed closer to home and visited the Tetons in time for the Fall color. I’ll be posting more about the trip as time permits over the next few weeks, but for now a teaser… a storm at sunrise over the Teton range.
In one of the early issues of the magazine National Geographic Adventure (that I must have read maybe 15 years ago, before I moved to Colorado) there was a story of a hiker who’d gotten hopelessly lost in an ill-advised attempt to hike to the Gorge Lakes via the summit of Mount Ida, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The story – which ended happily with the guy getting rescued – is a reminder that, however touristy Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge may appear on a summer’s day, my local park also has its share of difficult and remote country. Hiking to Mount Ida gives a glimpse of these less trafficked wilds from a lofty perch close to 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide. Needless to say, unless you want to feature in a future magazine article, descending into Forest Canyon and the Gorge Lakes is an altogether more serious endeavor for the experienced only!.
The hike starts at Millner Pass, on the west side of Trail Ridge Road. After about a mile you break through the tree line, and the rest of the hike is a glorious ramble across the tundra, with great views out toward the west. Almost from the start Mount Ida is visible, initially as an indistinct high point along the Continental Divide.
In total it’s 4.75 miles, with a net elevation gain of 2,000 feet, from the trailhead to the summit of Mount Ida. From the top, you look straight down on to the highest of the Gorge Lakes in Forest Canyon. It’s easy to see why people want to visit them. Unfortunately getting to them via the summit of Ida is difficult (even if you don’t get lost), while getting there via the seemingly easier but trail-less route through Forest Canyon is harder still!
This hike is almost entirely above the trees, and you’d want to avoid it on a day when storms threatened. On a good weather day though, which ours was, it’s a hike I highly recommend… just under ten miles of moderate hiking with great scenery and relatively few people.
I spent my summer in Europe, with stays variously for work and pleasure in Liverpool, Kent and Cornwall in the UK, Chamonix, Sicily and Copenhagen. It will take some time to process the images, but in the meantime here’s a summer sampler…
Over the Christmas holidays the thought occurred to me that it might be fun to try shooting some wide star trail panoramas – wide enough perhaps that the stars could be seen rising on one horizon and setting over the other. A minute with google was enough to demonstrate that this was not a new idea – Vincent Brady has been shooting what he calls “planetary panoramas” with four cameras bolted to a custom rig. Nonetheless I haven’t seen that many star trail panoramas, no doubt because it requires multiple cameras and lenses, and it seemed that there might be some interesting images to be made with this technique in Colorado.
Having now tried a few it’s time to collect some tips and lessons learned. There are two parts to creating a stitched star trail image, the image capture and the post processing, and although both are pretty straightforward as always there are things to keep in mind.
The basic workflow here is (1) process individual frames for white balance and noise reduction, (2) stack left and right images independently, (3) stitch together, (4) adjust final image. This is going to involve quite a bit of destructive editing and reprojection of the image, and since you’re starting with long exposures that haven’t had the benefit of dark frame subtraction a bit of care is needed. The good news is that you’ll be ending up with a lot of pixels in the final panorama, so even if it’s not perfect at 100% a large print (never mind a version to stand tall on Facebook) can still look good.
All of the above is pretty obvious, but there are enough steps that I’ve screwed up a fair few times. Hopefully I now have the mechanical part sorted out, so the next step is to find locations where the technique makes for a good image…
Trail Ridge Road, which reaches more than 12,000 feet en route between the east and west sides of Rocky Mountain National Park, has just opened for the season (it usually opens on Memorial Day). There’s still too much snow high up for easy hiking, but I thought it would be interesting to take some photos from the road while the mountains still have their wintery appearance. With various roadworks (US36 from Lyons to Estes Park is being rebuilt this summer after last Fall’s devastating floods) I just made it to the Forest Canyon overlook (elevation 11,700 feet) in time for the sunset.
And then stayed on for an hour of shooting the stars. As usual, this is a two frame panorama of stacked 30s frames, here shot at f/8 and ISO 1600. Stopping down – which was here necessary for depth of field – has the additional benefit of substantially sharpening up the edges of the 10-22mm lens I have mounted on the Canon 7D (the Zeiss 18mm I have on the 5D3, on the other hand, is sharp even wide open). The light on the far left, behind Longs Peak, comes from Denver.