the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

American Southwest

How Far Do You Go?

Desert Abstract 1

Desert Abstract 2One of the challenges of shooting in RAW format is deciding what and how much processing to do. (Tangent – why is RAW capitalized? It is not an acronym such as JPEG or TIFF. It simply means unprocessed. In Wikipedia, it isn’t capitalized. But somehow, it doesn’t look right to me. I’m usually a stickler for correct writing – just ask anyone at my day job where I edit everyone’s reports; they may even call me a grammar nazi – but leaving it uncapitalized when every other file format is capitalized seem wrong. So grammar nazi or not, I’m capitalizing it.) When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does the processing for you. You can always tweak it later, but the majority of the work is done. With RAW, you should do the heavy lifting and process the image yourself, at least if the default processing by your RAW converter program (Lightroom in my case) doesn’t do a good job. And it is rare when I find I can’t do a better job processing than the default.

But the question remains, what to do and how much? Some might answer, just enough so that it looks like it did in real life. But what is that? Take, for example, the images presented here. These are shots of water seeping out of sandstone near Moab, Utah. I’ve included both my processed versions and the original RAW versions from Lightroom with zeroed developing (with all the sliders set to zero – realize, however, there still is some processing involved, it is impossible to present true RAW images, some processing must occur to translate the images into something humans can view). I took these images in the shade on a sunny, blue-skied morning. So these were naturally lit by a broad, blue sky, which cast a rather flat, blue light onto the sandstone. Does that flat, blue light truly show what I saw, or do my processed versions show what I saw? The answer is up to me as the maker and you as the viewer. Did I go too far?

Well, what did I do to turn the RAW images into the finished images? They were first processed in Lightroom, correcting for lens distortion and chromatic aberration. Then I set the white point and the black point to add contrast, took a little off the exposure, and adjusted the highlights and shadows to bring detail into the blacks and whites. I added some clarity to add a bit of sharpness and some vibrance to add saturation. I then adjusted the color temperature, increasing it to remove the blue tint. I then added a radial filter to lighten the water patterns and darken the rest. And finally, made minor changes to many of these adjustments to fine tune them.  I then took the images to Photoshop, performed Tony Kuyper’s triple play to add punch to the highlights and shadows, lighten up the orangy-browny vegetation on top, and added a “smart glow” to punch up the color a bit. In total, it took about 10 minutes each to do all this work.

I’d think the most controversial of these changes would be the changes to the color, in particular adding vibrance and the smart glow.  The rest is pretty standard old-school darkroom photography made digital (except perhaps the Kuyper triple play, that doesn’t really change the images that much).  The problem here is deciding what is too much in terms of the color. Because the subjects were in shadow, it is difficult to determine what the colors would look like in the sunshine. And of course, what sunshine are we talking about? Sun at noon? Sun at sunset?

I guess the answer is it depends. Did I take it too far? I don’t think so; you may. But these are close to what I wanted to show when I took the images. So for me, the answer is no; I processed them as I thought proper. For you the answer may be different. If you think so, let me know your thoughts.Desert Abstract 1

Desert Abstract 2 - RAW

RAW image unprocessed


Desert Abstract 1 RAW

RAW image unprocessed


5 Years Ago – Pinnacles National Monument (no make that Park)

Pinnacle Poppies

Pinnacle PoppiesFor various reasons I haven’t picked up my camera in about six weeks and it is driving me crazy. David duChemin recently wrote a blog post about tending the fire that really spoke to me and I promised myself I’d get out this weekend. But life got in the way. My son Brooks, and otherwise healthy 26-year old, had his lung partially collapse without an apparent reason on Thursday and is now in the hospital. He may get out tomorrow (we hope). With this, Tanya and I have been spending a lot of time driving back and forth to Seattle to visit Brooks in the hospital. So, no photography this weekend.

So instead, since it has also been a few weeks since I posted, I give you some shots from five years ago this month, when Tanya and I drove to San Diego to see daughter Janelle when she was going to university. Along the way we stopped for a couple of hours at Pinnacles National Monument, which in 2013 became a National Park. I don’t imagine much changed when it gained park status, except perhaps more visitors. When we were there in 2010, it was rather out-of-the-way and quiet. I hope it still is. I’d like to get back some day and spend more time exploring. When we were there in 2010, the wildflowers were blooming. Spring is such a wonderful time of year. Enjoy these shots from Pinnacles National Monument Park.

Pinnacle LupinePinnacle Poppies and Lupine

North Rim

Point Imperial Sunrise

Sunrise at Point Imperial

During our recent trip, Tanya and I originally planned to visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for three days. I reserved a spot at the North Rim Campground in Grand Canyon National Park back in May. However, life got in the way (at least in a good way), and Tanya was awarded a full-time teaching job 2 days before we left on the trip, and therefore, needed to be back in Tacoma sooner than our original plan. So I cancelled 2 nights of our campground reservation. As it turned out, we did get three days at the North Rim. Torrential rains hit the Utah-Arizona border area when we were staying in Page, Arizona. After Page, we were planning to camp in the Paria area for two nights before going to the North Rim. While we were able to drive to the campground near Paria, all the trails we wanted to hike in the area were inaccessible due to impassable dirt roads. So instead, we went to the North Rim two nights early.Bright Angel View

Now, you may be asking, if Joe had to reserve a camping spot 5 months ahead of time, how could he just show up and expect to set up his tent? Good question. The answer is I didn’t expect it. We called the national park, but were unable to get through the voice mail system to find out if any spots were available. Instead we headed to the national forest, where “dispersed” camping is allowed without reservations – just find a spot and set up your tent (but don’t expect any amenities and bring your own water, toilet paper, and “cat-hole” digging device). Though we have done primitive car camping before, we weren’t prepared for it this time, having left our portable table and shovel at home. So we stopped in Kanab, Utah at the local Ace Hardware and bought a table and shovel ( a nice folding table actually, better than the one we have at home). Somehow we fit this new gear in the already overstuffed car and drove to the Forest Service ranger station in Fredonia, Arizona. There we asked directions to Crazy Jug Point.

When most people think of the Grand Canyon, they think of Grand Canyon National Park. But actually, a large part of the canyon’s north rim is outside the park and inside Kaibab National Forest. National forests are much less restrictive than national parks, including allowing camping almost anywhere. Crazy Jug Point is a great place to camp. It took about 2 1/4 hours to drive the roughly 50 miles from Fredonia to Crazy Jug (mostly on well maintained dirt roads). We arrived in mid-afternoon and found three other groups already camping there. However, we found a very sweet, nicely shaded spot, just 20 feet off the rim, out of sight of the other groups. The view was not quite on par with the view from the Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim in the park, but the lack of a crowd (and the price – free) make up for it. We stayed two nights. After our first night, the other groups left, and Tanya and I had the entire place to ourselves. Imagine, sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, sipping a cold beer (okay, wine for Tanya), watching the sunset without anyone else within miles. That was our experience at Crazy Jug on the second night.

For our 3rd night at the North Rim, we drove to the North Rim Campground in the park, a distance of 36 miles and about 1 3/4 hours. The campground there had all the amenities you’d expect for national park, with the added bonus of showers (which in my experience are not common in national parks). It is a good campground, and with a short walk (1/4 mile or so), you can see the canyon. But it is not a place for solitude. The campground was full (90 sites).

AgavePhotography wise, camping in the park offered more options and better views. There are ten north-rim viewpoints in the main portion of the park. Four of these are accessible by paved road or short trails, the others by day hikes. With only one night in the park, we drove to the four easily accessible viewpoints, only stopping at three, and I made plans to on where to go back to for sunset that night and sunrise the following morning.

That evening, I stayed close to the campground and went to Bright Angel Point, which is directly behind the North Rim Lodge. This is the most popular viewpoint on the North Rim. A 0.4-mile, paved trail leads from the lodge and visitor center out to the viewpoint proper. However, there are many great views along the way; the trail being along the top of a narrow promontory. Being close to the lodge and campground, I was joined by perhaps a 20 other people. Right at sunset, I was out at the end of the trail. With limited flat areas at the viewpoint, it was a bit difficult to find a spot to place the tripod and find a pleasing composition without getting people in the frame. However, I did get a good spot by stepping down a couple of feet off the trail and standing on a flat rock. I would caution those of you with vertigo; you might not want to do the same. The rock I was on was about 5 or 6 feet across, with drop offs on three sides of 50 to 100 feet. The sunset was not anything to write home about, and the crowd dispersed quickly after the sun went down. I stayed for another 45 minutes, bringing home some nice shots from the blue hour.

The following morning, I got up an hour and a half before sunrise and drove to Point Imperial, roughly an hour’s drive from the campground. Here on the last morning of our trip, before we made the quick two-day drive home (later that day, we drove from the North Rim to Mountain Home, Idaho, about 680 miles), I stood alone, just me, my tripod, and one of the best views on planet. It was cold (about 37 degrees F), it was early (about 5:45 am when I got there; sunrise was at 6:09 am), and I was rewarded by the best sunrise or sunset of the entire trip. I shot like a madman for an hour or so, still the only person at the viewpoint, and headed back to pack up camp. While the view is fantastic at Point Imperial, it is more limited, with many fewer vantage points, than Bright Angel Point or Cape Royal. The perfect place for some quick shots before hitting the road.

After years of wanting to see the North Rim and not making it, I found the North Rim did not disappoint. This area is a landscape photographers paradise. I would have liked more time there, but it wasn’t to be. Now, having seen it, I have a big reason to go back. If you want to see the canyon without the huge crowds common on the South Rim, head north. It is well worth it.

Crazy Jug Point

Sunset at Crazy Jug Point

Crazy Jug Sunrise

Sunrise at Crazy Jug Point, taken from a spot just a 2-minute walk from my tent

Bright Angel Tree

I loved the look of this tree near the start of the trail along Bright Angel Point

Sunset at Bright Angel

Sunset, taken from the Bright Angel Viewpoint

Blue Hour Walls

Grand Canyon walls below Bright Angel Point, taken during the blue hour

Bright Angel

View from Bright Angel Viewpoint, taken after sunset during the blue hour

Mount Hayden

Sunrise with Mount Hayden, Point Imperial

Sunrise Glow

Glowing canyon walls at Point Imperial

Mount Hayden

Another shot of Mount Hayden from Point Imperial

Hubbell Trading Post

Hubbell Trading Post

Hubbell Trading PostIf you find yourself in northeastern Arizona and are traveling near Ganado, consider stopping by the Hubbell Trading Post, the oldest continuing operated trading post in the Navajo Nation.  This place oozes history of the American West. John Lorenzo Hubbell purchased the trading post in 1878 shortly after the Navajo people were allowed back onto their land after their forced exile to Bosque Redondo. Hubbell prospered, and he built a trading empire throughout the Navajo Nation including several trading posts and a stage line. The trading post at Ganado was operated by the Hubbell family until 1957 when they sold it to the Park Service. While the site is a National Historic Site, it is still operated as an authentic trading post where you can buy a can of Coke or a jar of pickles; brooms or horse tack; a Navajo blanket, basket, or turquoise jewelry; or many other items. It’s part store and part museum. The Park Service also runs a small visitor center detailing the history of the post.

Outside the main trading post, visitors are free to roam the grounds, viewing historic farm machinery, the bunkhouse and guest hogan, or visiting with the horses and Navajo Churro sheep. The Park Service leads tours of the property five times daily ($2 per person), or you can pick up a self-guided tour booklet. There are separate tours of the interior of the Hubbell family residence.

Hubbell Barn Entrance

Hubbell Horse

Hubbell Guest HoganInside the Trading PostWagonElk and Baskets

Canyon de Chelly

Navajo Fortress

Navajo Fortress (on left) at the junction of Canyon del Muerto (foreground)and Black Rock Canyon (a side canyon, in the middle).

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a bit off the beaten track and missed by many visiting the Southwest. In fact, in my many travels to the Southwest, our trip last month was the first time I had been there. It certainly deserves more visitors than it gets; it is a wonderful place which combines scenery, ancient history, and traditional Navajo culture. First, the canyons are beautiful, and deserving of national monument status without their historical and cultural aspects. But what really makes it special are the many large and small ancestral Indian ruins sprinkled throughout the canyons and the Navajos who to this day make it their home. These canyons have been continually inhabited for nearly 5,000 years.

White House Ruin

White House Ruin

The park is made up of two main canyons that join together near the park entrance. These are Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly itself. There are many other smaller canyons that branch off these main two. The canyons start as a shallow wash and gradually deepen; eventually the walls reach a height of 1,000 feet. The stunning vertical red, yellow and orange sandstone walls contrast with the green cottonwoods and small agricultural fields, tended by resident Navajos, in the flat, canyon bottom.

There are two ways to see the canyons, above from the canyon rims or from below, inside the canyons themselves. The South Rim Road travels 36 miles along the southern side of Canyon de Chelly. There are seven viewpoints along the road, the best (in my opinion) are the White House Overlook and Spider Rock Overlook, but all are worth a stop. The North Rim Road traverses 32 miles along the northwest rim of Canyon del Muerto to three overlooks – all are worth stopping at.

While the views from the rim are good, to really experience the canyons you need to see it from within. To travel inside the canyons, you either need to go with a Navajo guide or hike in yourself on the only trail open without a guide – the White House Trail. This trail takes you from the rim at the White House Viewpoint, down the wall, and into the Canyon de Chelly just up canyon of the White House Ruin – so named because of one of the buildings is painted white. The ruin has two levels, one on the floor of the canyon and one some 30 feet higher on the canyon wall. The hike is well worth doing, but can be brutal in the hot sun of the afternoon. Most of the trail is in the sun throughout the day, expect perhaps late afternoon. You might try going first thing in the morning (which is what Tanya and I did). The ruin will be in the shade in the morning and in full sun in later in the afternoon. Be warned if you take a tripod. The ruin is surrounded by a 5-foot high wire fence. My tripod was too short to extend over the top of the fence, and I ended up shooting images of the ruin by setting the camera on the top of the fence and “hanging” the tripod down like a plumb bob to help steady the camera. This way I was able to get sharp photos with shutter speeds as low as 1/15 seconds. Such fences are also around other ruins in the canyons.

The other way to get into the canyons is to hire a guide. We took a “half day” tour from Changing Woman Tours. In this case, a half day was about three hours, which is barely enough time to start to see the canyons. Be sure to inquire about the length of your tour. Some half day tours are four hours. Full day tours can be six or more hours. In hindsight, I should have picked a longer length trip. There is just too much to see in only a few hours. Our tour guide, Victoria Begay, was quite knowledgeable, and we learned much about the history of the area. Because we had earlier hiked to White House Ruin, Victoria took us up Canyon del Muerto. It is my understanding, however, that most tours go up Canyon de Chelly. If you prefer to go one way or the other, be sure to ask your guide. Most people, us included, opt for a vehicle tour – typically in a 4-wheel drive supplied by the tour company. Hiking and horseback tours are also available. Tour costs vary. Our tour, for just the two of us and the guide, cost $165.

Spider Rock

Spider Rock

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly from Sliding House Overlook

Antelope Pictoglyphs

Antelope and sheep pictoglyphs at the Antelope House Ruin; these drawing are nearly life-size

Antelope House Ruin

Antelope House Ruin in Canyon del Muerto

White House Ruin 2

Another view of the White House Ruin; the “white house” is clearly visible on the upper level

Junction Ruin

Junction Ruin, so named due to its location at the confluence of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly


Snake and Kokopelli

Snake, hands, frog, and Kokopelli petroglyphs

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly near White House, a Navajo hogan is in the middle right in the shade of a cottonwood.


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