The Big M in the sky

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How many times do we say we are going to do something and it falls by the wayside?

I’ve wanted to shoot the Big M in the sky since the first time I saw it over 5 years ago. It first beckoned me as my flight started it’s descent into Missoula Montana on a visit to the Rocky Mountain School of Photography.  The 125′ x 100′ Giant M rests on the east side of Mt Sentinel and represents the University of Montana but has come to symbolize the spirit of the city as it has loomed over Missoula in one form or another since 1908.

It is accessible via the Big M trailhead that is only 3/4 of a mile hike but quickly ascends 620 feet via 13 switchbacks.

Let’s just say it was a good workout for me – especially after a visit to the Big Dipper!

No moon was up but the path was easily lit by the city lights.  I passed by a man walking his dog, several students, and a few lovers.

The M calls to us all.

When I finally arrived, I was slightly disappointed to realize my 28mm lens wasn’t wide enough to capture the vision I had of the M in the sky.

So I hiked above and around to find a better vantage point but to no avail.  The best angle was below the M or probably back down on campus looking up the mountain.

I wasn’t going to let the mountain get the better of me so I returned to the bottom of the M and resolved to take the best picture I could.

I worked the composition with my Fuji X Pro 1 and 28mm equivalent lens and let it cook for a 30 minute exposure pointing south for the longer/straighter star trails.


In the end I was happy with the image.  Was it what I imagined?  No, but I’ll be back and hike up that mountain with a 14mm lens and get more of that M in the sky.


With that being said, I’d like to share A Week of Art project that I conceived with my good friend and fellow artist Matt Hill.  I’ve been frustrated with too much ingesting and not enough outputting.  It’s been a weird sort of slump as I feel I’m creating lots of good images but can’t seem to get motivated to blog or print.  And sometimes you just need a friend or a loved one to help motivate you to take the next step.  So Matt put together A Week of Art blog for us to share our creations of the week.  It has definitely refocused me and several of our friends.  My submission this week was a totally different interpretation of my hike up Mt Sentinel.


As exciting as it is to compile those notes of all the of places you want to go, things to do, or blogs to write –  remember that life is a great balancing act and it is the “doing” that makes us feel the most alive.


Feel like you need a kickstart as well?  It is an open group dedicated to creating one tangible piece of art a week – Join and Inspire!

Seven Days of Night Part 2 ~ The Abandoned Rock-A-Hoolu Waterpark

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I was in the desert.

I remember climbing up lots of stairs with the unrelenting sun pounding down on my burning skin. There was music blaring, but I could still hear the screaming. And when I finally got to the top, I understood why…you couldn’t see the bottom. And then someone pushed me into the half-pipe. The inch or so of water lessoned the blow and then propelled me down the tube. I joined the screaming until the very end as I shot into the pool.

That was my first waterpark experience and as you can see, I remember it fondly. I’ve never been a strong swimmer, but on a waterslide it is all the fun of watersports crammed into 20 seconds of an exhilarating ride. I remember watching the smaller kids shooting out the tube and skimming across the pool like skipping stones.

So when I heard of an abandoned waterpark halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, I had to pay a visit. I want to thank Joe and Troy for suggesting a stop here. As I enjoyed my last sausage and mushroom frittata from Kristy’s Family Restaurant with Joe, we discussed the Rock-A-Hoola waterpark as our Night 5 locations spot. Both Joe and Troy have some amazing images from their night shoots at the waterpark and it was on our way north, an easy excursion.

We said our goodbyes to the rest of the Peasonville 12, and Barry, Heidger, Tor, and I made our way towards Barstow, California.
Stocked with sandwiches, water, and the everyhandy trail or munchy mix, we made our way towards Rock-A-Hoola. It was strategically placed right off the highway for the tourists of days bygone to take a quick dip.

Water has always flowed in this desert region, but unfortunately it has been flowing underground. In the early 1950s, a local businessman by the name of Bob Byers, purchased this land and turned it into a park/campground for his extended family. In 1962 Lake Dolores became one of the first official waterparks open to the public. Variations of the waterslides had been popular since the turn of the century but this was one of the first water parks in the the USA. It featured super fast stainless steel slides, zip-lines to pools, and a man made lake that had motocross racing around it. This little oasis’ height of popularity peaked from the early 70’s until the mid 80’s but then the water was turned off in the late 80’s. An investment group came in and replaced the stainless steel waterslides with red, white, and blue high density plastic slides. Their idea was to create a 1950’s themed waterpark adding new slides, rides, and taking back the title of the world’s longest Lazy River. Thus, in 1998, Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark was born, with 1950’s music playing from open to close. Maybe that was the writing on the wall. Or more likely it was the kid who severely injured himself on one of the slides during the off hours. The catch pool didn’t have enough water to break his fall and he became a $4.4 million paraplegic.
The investment group filed for bankruptcy two years later, but not before relaesing this awesome advertising campaign.

Two years and $400,000 later, another group attempted to breathe life into Rock-A-Hoola and renamed it Discovery Park. That lasted another two years, mostly open for the weekends before finally closing down for good. And there it sat, a wonderful little blip on the grid for millions of people to see on their way to Vegas.

We arrived on 5:30 pm on September 26th. A huge billboard exclaiming “Family Fun” greeted us in the desolate dirt parking lot.  There were no fences and no signs deterring passage, we didn’t even have to go through the entrance turnstile!  In fact I was shocked to find very little graffiti and vandalism given that it was a stone’s throw from a major highway.

As the sun started to sink…I made my way to the giant Coca Cola water tower standing solo at the top of the hill.
Most of you know that I am definitely drawn to infrastructures, and this was one of the finest examples of a water tower that I have seen. The red coloring of the tank was beaten and pealing off after many cycles of the sun and I just imagined this tank filled with coke instead of water shooting the soda down the slides!

We had about 1 hour and 15 minutes of complete darkness before the moon was to rise, which meant more stars in the sky and longer exposures at the beginning of the night. The first image of the water tank was taken in complete darkness and with an old Nikon 28mm AIS PC lens. A PC, or perspective control lens, allows you to correct for converging lines when pointing your camera up at buildings. Instead of tilting the camera at an angle up towards the subject, which gives it a wide base and skinny on the top look. A PC lens lets you keep the camera level and the lens actually shift up about 11-12 degrees to give a more normal perspective. The PC and Tilt Shift lenses are most commonly used by architectural photographers but there has been a big movement to also use these lens and actually distort the perspective as well.

During the second image, a bit of the Milky Way can be seen at the top of the tower, like the fizz coming off a bubbly coke. I like this shot, looking up the ladder to the sky, but I wanted to amp that feeling even more. So I got into one of the most difficult low angle shooting positions I have attempted and tried to line up the wide Zeiss 21mm lens for the third image, titled Starway. It was a banger. I took two 15 minute exposures of this and was pleasantly surprised to have a star trail fit exactly through the top of the hole. I spent close to 3 hours working the Coca Cola tower, shooting different angles and interpretations of the same subject matter. Barry joined me up at the tower halfway through my shoot and we both began working the angles. And as we waited the 15-30 minutes per exposure we lay down on the cement and stared at the stars. We were all alone at an abandoned waterpark in the middle of the desert. The stars were incredibly bright and we talked, laughed, and felt the earth rotate beneath us.

Draining the coke of all of its images, we made our way down to the slide area. We checked in with Tor and Heidger, who were popping gelled lights and long exposures in the entrance/storefront area. I was fascinated with the slides, or the support structures that supported the now missing slides. They reminded me of the Japanese Shinto Toriis, or Shrine Gates, and I became one with them for the next few hours. Barry ventured along the lazy river, now filled with dust and debris, as he made his way to the kiddie park.
I climbed to the top of the highest slide, I could see the streaks of the car lights zipping along the freeway. I couldn’t see Lake Dolores, but I saw plenty of tracks from recent off-roading, people were still using the land even though the man-made aspect had fallen into ruin.

By the time I finished up with the Shinto Shooting, it was approaching last call. I found Barry over in the kiddie pool and Tor and Heidger were still shooting the retro shops in the entranceway. Rock-A-Hoola was incredibly expansive and I commented that each of us really only explored 1-2 aspects of the park. Luckily they were all different points, so if you look at all of our images you should have a better perspective of the place.

We decided one last exposure before packing up, and I made my way over to the Rock-A-Hoola billboard in the parking lot. I set it up for a 6 minute shot with 6 minutes of noise reduction and then went and hung out with Barry by some other retro billboards he was shooting. It was during this time when I saw a couple cars pull into the lot. We were on the other side of the billboard, so they couldn’t see us but I could see them; and them were cops. Now my camera and tripod were in full view on the same side as the cops were, I wasn’t going to hide and risk losing my gear, and images.

They shined their bright flashlights on me as I slowly approached them. I kept a very positive, non aggressive attitude, and explained that we were just here taking pictures. I was quickly put into handcuffs as they told me I was trespassing, etc etc. Barry came around the corner and started calming reiterating that we were just photographers as he got patted down. It wasn’t until he mentioned that he was a San Francisco City employee and worked with probation officers that they started to listen. A quick check on both of our records came back clean and the cuffs came off. I was only worried for a moment that I would be sleeping on a cement floor. The female cop noted that it was a cool place to shoot but it was dangerous and definitely trespassing, no matter if we saw the sign or not. They asked us to pack our things and leave, so we rounded up the troops and just like little kids, sadly left the waterpark.

It is typical to meet security or police officers while doing night photography. I advise always carrying a small portfolio of your images with you and staying apologetic and non-aggressive, there usually won’t be a problem.

I love the images from this shoot as well as the experience, even including our run in with the authority! I’m glad I went and hope to take a dip in the kiddie pool next time I’m driving through!

Seven Days of Night part 1

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I recently returned from a road trip with a very special twist.
It started with an opportunity to attend The Pearsonville Workshops, a unique night photography experience that takes place in an old-school car junkyard in the southern Mojave Desert.  Hosted by my good friends and night photo gurus, Troy Paiva and Joe Reifer, it was my second opportunity to get access to this incredible location during a full moon.
It also fell right at the beginning of my 10 day vacation.
The Mojave is an amazing place to shoot day or night, and with my father, Barry, and friend, Heidger, already on board to take the workshop, why not extend 3 nights of shooting to a full week?
With our tripods extended over a sacred stone, we pledged to photograph for seven straight nights, exploring what was later to become a very surreal journey from the Mojave to Mono Lake.

This mostly desert area of the now Eastern Sierras of California was once connected by a chain of inland lakes that stretched from Mono Lake to Death Valley.
Now it is connected by the scenic Interstate 395.
But 10,000 to 100,000 years ago calcium-rich groundwater and alkaline lake water combined to grow tufa formations deep beneath the Searles Lake, which encompassed much of the now Southern Mojave Desert.
Today, the Trona Pinnacles has over 500 tufa formations rising from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake Basin.
And so we chose this amazingly surreal geological wonder to be Night 1 of our trip.
Barry, Heidger, Susan and I piled into my car and we drove the 20 miles from Ridgecrest to Trona.  “Watch for the marker signs on the right that will lead you down a dark dirt road to the Pinnacles.” Joe had warned us.   Highbeams lighting the way, we lumbered down the gravel road passing railroad tracks and…signs for Aero Films Company?

When we finally reached our destination, there were two large white storage trucks waiting for us with their motors running.  We approached the driver, who was probably more surprised to see us than we were to see him!   They were with Aero Films and were guarding all the film crew’s gear for a car commercial that was to be shot there early the next morning.   We chatted it up with Steve and told him that were on a photographic mission and would be shooting for the next few hours.  He agreed to turn off his headlights if we agreed not to shoot near his vehicles.  This wasn’t a problem and it was one of the friendliest encounters I had ever had with a security official at a night location. The Trona Pinnacles is part of the BLM and has no rules against photographing or camping at night.

So for the next 4 hours we wandered through the 30′-40′ towers of the “Cathedral City”  letting the moonlight guide our way. The night-light only heightened this surrealscape which reminded me of Turkey’s Capadoccia Region.  The incredible thing about Capadoccia was that people actual carved into these tufa formations and created homes, churches, and an incredible hidden city.  We didn’t get to explore all of the Trona Pinnacles, but we saw no sign of any past human inhabitants!

Nights 2, 3, and 4 were spent under the tutelage of Joe Reifer and Troy Paiva as we explored the expansive Pearsonville Junkyard.
Known as the hubcap capital of the world, Pearsonville features an incredible collection of cars from the 30’s -70’s as well as a race track.  The track hasn’t been used for years, in fact the junkyard as a whole probably has a limited lifespan.  So, if any of these images inspire consider taking the Pearsonville Workshops in 2011, while supplies last!

Now, I’m not really a car guy.  Whenever they ask me what vehicle I’d like to rent I always reply:  “A roomy one with an auxiliary or usb port!”
However, just like the Trona Pinnacles, when the sun goes down, the moon turns this junkyard into a post apocalyptic landscape.
And I do like that!
The Full Moon greeted us on Night 2, which was coincidentally the Autumnal Equinox.  This Super Harvest Moon signals the change of seasons and hasn’t directly fallen on the Autumnal Equinox for 19 years.  It was a beautifully clear night, so a few of us scouted out locations to catch the moonrise.  The days and nights share almost equal time around the equinox, so there was a very good chance to catch the moon rising while there was still a few licks of daylight left in the sky.  This would have been heightened more if there would have been any clouds in the sky to reflect the fading sunlight.  I chose a hollow old car to shoot through as the moon began to rise, see image number 4.

The nights were pretty warm, in the upper 70s, and this actually affected how we captured our long exposures.
For digital capture I prefer to shoot my Nikon D700 at its native ISO of 200 and expose for 6-8 minutes during a full moon.  I also prefer to turn my Long Exposure Noise Reduction filter off.  All SLR cameras have noise reduction filters that can be turned on or off.  If you have it turned on, once your exposure is compete, the camera will take another “picture” of a black frame and stack it onto your previous image.  This stacking of images is called “dark frame subtraction” and is basically a little “in camera photoshop” that minimizes the amount of noise in your image.  Great you say, but in most cameras this dark frame subtraction usually takes the same amount of time that you exposed the original picture.  So an 8 minute exposure is now a 16 minute exposure with noise reduction on.  That’s right, you can’t fire your camera or press any buttons until the dark frame subtraction is complete.  This also drains your camera battery quickly and is definitely not the most productive way to photograph.
A good way to check how your camera is handling the long exposure noise is to take a photo without the NR filter on and then zoom into the image on your LCD screen.  Try to get a portion of the sky in your image as it is easy to find noise there.  If you find red spots in the sky, you’ve got noise.
As it turned out, most of us were experiencing noise at exposures of 4-6 minutes, so we had to make a choice:  shorten our times or sit and wait for our cameras.
I ended up doing a combination of both.  Shorter exposures can lend themselves to being stacked nicely post-process and achieve nice long star trails.  Joe has a great explanation on how to do that on his blog.

Joe and Troy are excellent educators, each sharing their two distinct night visions with our class of 12.   I tried to spend a few hours each night and sponge some of their light painting and other night techniques.  In most of my images I tended to move in close and reinterpret the vehicle.  However I do feel you get a better sense of the space in the images where I stepped back and shot, the RV and abandoned rear end of the car for example.  It is easy to get lost within yourself at Pearsonville.  You walk 2 feet and another cool car or shape takes form before your eyes.  The lot isn’t that big but with close to 600 cars, I’ve barely scratched the surface!
By the end of the Night 4 there was still a large area of the lot that I had not explored.
Troy and Joe have logged in close to 30 nights each at Pearsonville and they are still finding new work.  You have to check out Troy and Joe’s body of work.  Their images will blow your mind and Joe’s blog offers some of the best guidance on night photography on the web.
You can find the Pearsonville 2010 Fall class’ work on Flickr.
I also enjoyed revisiting my images and blog from my last trip out to P-ville back in the spring of 2009.

Orpheus ~ The Open Air Cinema of Kos

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We just got back from 10 days on the Greek Islands that culminated in an amazing Greek Wedding in Crete.  1,762 images were shot during that time, but let’s start with the first adventures on the island of Kos.
Ancient and Modern Greeks love to be entertained.  It is no surprise that the few buildings that have survived from Ancient Greece are either Theaters or Temples.
America has her drive-ins theaters that started in the 1930’s; Greece introduced their first Open Air Cinemas or Therini Kimimatografiin in 1919.  Like the drive-in, they went out of fashion in the 60’s-80’s.  But now, the romance of a movie under the stars, or even under the Acropolis, is back and Greeks and tourists alike are flocking to these nostalgic venues.
Once Nancy and I had checked into Hotel Americana, we strolled towards the city center of Kos and stumbled upon The Orpheus outdoor cinema.  It was early afternoon and a women was struggling to open the front gate.  I excitedly approached, probably too much American coming at her too fast, but she slowly understood that we would like to peak inside the theater if possible.  The gate finally clicked open and she let us slip in.  She was coming in to clean the theater in preparation for tonight’s 9pm show.  It was a mess, typical of any movie theater, people left there garbage everywhere after  the show.
But it was beautiful.
Vines, jasmine, and Bougainvillea grew all over the 2 side walls that enclosed what appeared to be an outdoor cafe.  Approximately 80 chairs and 20 tables where set up in front of the beautifully white screen.
Click Click Click.  I turned to Nancy and we immediately knew what we were doing for our first night in Greece.  Going to see……The Prince of Perisa?
You’ve got to be kidding me?  They’re showing a Hollywood Persian Action film in Greece?!
They’ve been enemies for over 2500 years, oh Alexander the Great is surely spinning in his grave!
We got there early for the 11pm show,  I wanted to find the manager and ask if I could set up two tripods and cameras to capture the theater at night, during a long exposure.
The ticket taker pointed me to a man who was smoking a cigarette and chatting with someone right before we walked into the theater.  I showed him my tripods and explained that I’d like to take some pictures of the theater during the movie.  I’d sit in the back and not use flash and promised not to disrupt anyone.
He really didn’t care, as long as I paid for my admission.
So in we went, and I set up in the last row, in front of the concession stand.
Two tripods, two cameras; one digital, and one film.  Hey, I got permission, so why not go all out!
About 30 people were settling into their seats, no one seemed interested in me until the credits started rolling and then an older gentlemen, in broken English, asked me what I was doing.  I told him that I was documenting the theater.  He told me I couldn’t take pictures during the film but I assured him that I had permission and the ticket taker who was now running the concession also backed me up.  He didn’t want to, but he let me be.
I set the film camera to expose…the exposure which you see below was for half the movie or about an hour long.  The quick digital test shots proved that an 8 minute exposure was adequate at f/11.  It was probably in the high 70’s and the mosquitos were now beginning to attack Nancy.  Another beautiful aspect of the Greek Cinema is that they do not dub non-Greek films.
Though I don’t think a good dubbing would have helped The Prince of Persia.
Another thing typical to the Greek Cinema, there is always a halftime.
Usually it is a mad dash to go out for a smoke, but at the outdoor cinema you are allowed to puff as much as you please.
Our friend, who I know think was the projectionist, came down to see me as the 2nd half started.  He told me I definitely had to stop taking pictures.  He was citing that the movie industry owned the rights to the movie and no recordings were permitted.  I showed him the back of my screen and pointed out there were no images being captured, just the white screen and the theater.  The images kind of threw him, but he was determined that I stop and take down my rig, so I did.  I had captured what I came to capture and was now testing out some new compositions and didn’t want to cause a scene.  As we broke down the tripods, the woman from the concession stand sounded like she was telling our friend to chill out.
No worries, I told her, I appreciated the chance to capture the cinema and gave her one of my cards.
As we pass the halfway mark of the summertime, take a look around; lots of Therini Kimimatografi can be found, not only in Greece, but here in America.  So enjoy the magic under the stars!

Valley of Fire

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If you are in Las Vegas and want a landscape that is far more impressive then the manscape called Las Vegas Boulevard, I highly recommend a trip out to the Valley of Fire.

Less then an hour northeast of Vegas, past the quickly depleting Lake Meade, you’ll find Nevada’s oldest state park.  “Valley of Fire derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago.” Not only have the dinosaurs lived here but the Basket Maker people and the Anasazi Pueblo farmers have also passed through leaving their mark on Atlatl Rock.
The dramatic red rock surrealistscape makes you feel like you are landing on Mars.  No wonder it has been a popular location to shoot many movies, including Total Recall’s Mars.  So with an extra night in Vegas I loaded up the minivan with a group of friends and photographers and we headed out for a sunset/nightshoot.
The plan was to meet dear friend and wedding/fine art photographer David Ziser and his wife Ladawn somewhere in the park.  I’ve toured and worked with the Zisers for several years, but was really looking forward to actually shooting with them!  David just released his first book, Captured by the Light:   The Essential Guide to Creating Extraordinary Wedding Photography, which is quickly climbing the charts of Amazon’s top selling Photo books!
Well, 15 miles before we reached the park we quickly learnt that there is no cell phone reception in Mars.  Luckily the park if fairly small with the main Valley of Fire road connecting the East and West entrances of the park.  And surprisingly within 20 minutes we ran into each other chasing after the last licks of magic hour light.  Click on the wonderful group shot taken by Matt Hill to see who all the players are.
In order to photograph in the Valley of Fire at night you need to have a camp site.  So with the twilight hour now behind us, we headed out to the Arch Rock Campground that we had scouted earlier.  Zoobroker got right to work seasoning up the meat and firing up the grill.  Matt, Sylvester, and I set up our tripods and started popping red gel’d flashes as we went from chasing the light to chasing the stars.
Sebastian in the sky was a 6 minute exposure and then I pulled back to get more of a feeling of the whole campsite.  It was packed, we were lucky enough to get one of the last spots that was right in the front of the entrance.
We definitely felt that we were in the Valley of the Gods.
Thanks to Zoo that was the best camp meal I’ve ever had, pork loin and home-made cheese stakes!
Sorry, no pictures, it was quickly devoured by all of us in record time!
Most of the images you see here were shot at a lower ISO, but the “Elephant Eye” photo at the bottom was shot at 6400 ISO to capture what the night sky actually looked like.  Obviously we were far away from any city lights and the sliver of a moon had not risen yet which meant plenty of stars in the sky.  By keeping your exposures under 30 seconds you’ll get more of the celestial feel of the night which can be just as beautiful as those long star trails.
Sylvester, who I quickly learnt is prone to dancing with fire, was the next subject of our shoot.  The difference between the two photographs is what happens when you twirl light in a continuous pattern as opposed to a chaotic pattern.
Which one do you like more?
Remember any light that is in the frame of your photograph, whether coming from a flash, flashlight, or flame will be permanently exposed in your image.  Sylvester spun the light for approximately 30 seconds and then I popped a red gel’d SB900 on the rocks about 5-8 times at full power to enhance the red rock.  I needed to walk into the image during the exposure in order to get close enough for the flash to “read red” on the rock.
Why is it that you don’t see me in the image?  I was blocking the light, not getting hit by it directly, and I was never in the same place for more than a few seconds during these 8 minute exposures.
I did slip up once in the image Inside the Beehive #2, but luckily it perfectly matches up with some of Sylvester’s sparks.
In the last shot of the night I wanted to go long and get a more atmospheric shot of the Beehive.  I set up for a 15 minute exposure and popped the red gel’d flash at 1/2 power 4 times about 8 feet away and at an angle to add depth to the rock.  This ended up being my favorite shot of the night, though I really liked all the ones you see selected here.
Matt Hill also got some killer shots that you can see in his 3-part blog titled Valley of Fire.

Next up…Night exposures at the Drive-In Theater