Posted on April 26, 2018
In January Don Smith and I flew to Oregon to get eyes on the damage caused by the Eagle Creek fire in advance of our (now just completed) annual Columbia River Gorge photo workshops. Not knowing what we’d find there, we allowed lots of time to scout new locations to replace the ones we lost. Fortunately the fire damage, while tragic and extensive, was limited to a very small part of our workshop area and we were easily able to find suitable substitutes for the two waterfalls we lost.
With a few extra days on our hands, Don and I beelined to the Oregon Coast to see for ourselves what we’d been seeing in beautiful images for years. And in the back of both of our minds was the opportunity to check out the area’s potential for a photo workshop. The scenery didn’t disappoint, and workshop plans began to take shape.
After a great, albeit wet (waves to my waist), sunset shoot at Cannon Beach, we headed down the coast the following morning, photographing in a light, intermittent rain along the way. As the day progressed, so did the rain. By the time we made it to Face Rock Beach, an hour or so before sunset, visibility was just a couple hundred yards in sideways rain. Rain and wind is not usually enough to deter us (wind is worse), but everyone we ran into in Bandon urged us to head inland before the incoming storm hit, or risk being stuck there. Not knowing the area and with a flight to catch the next day, we heeded the advice and evacuated to Eugene without a single Bandon image. But by then we had a workshop framework in mind and knew that we’d be back to Bandon for multiple scouting trips.
We returned to the Oregon Coast a few weeks ago, about a week before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops. In addition to general feet-on-the ground quality time on and near the coast, we were especially anxious for a second shot at the spectacular sea stacks of Bandon. This time we took a couple of days to make the trip from Cannon Beach to Bandon, encountering occasional rain that diffused the light and made for wonderful photography along the way. (It’s easy to see why the Oregon Coast is so lush.) But pulling into Bandon, the sideways rain was (still?) falling—does the sun ever shine here?
Despite the conditions, Don and I were so determined to photograph Bandon that nothing short of a tsunami would have kept us off the beach. Donning our rain gear, we trekked out to a strip of sand separating the violent surf from the rocky cliffs and set up, thankful for low tide. The rain and wind made photography difficult, but it gave me time to familiarize myself with this spectacular beach. At one point it started hailing, but brightness near the western horizon gave me hope that conditions would improve before the sun set. The rain stopped about 30 minutes before sunset. Benefiting from my newly gained insights, I was prepared to take full advantage of the remaining light and went right to work.
The photography was spectacular, but I hadn’t fully accounted for ramifications of the incoming tide—shots that had looked so promising earlier were now a bit more dicey. I found that I could make tenuous positions work most of the time, but every dozen or so waves included at least one that sent me scurrying for higher ground. So far none had made it all the way up to the cliffs, but as a native Californian, I’ve been around the beach enough to know that you should always anticipate a wave that’s at least twice the size of the biggest wave you’ve seen so far. So while I knew even the biggest waves to that point would have at worst soaked me, I knew the potential existed for a life-threatening “sneaker” wave.
Photographing Cannon Beach in January, I’d been quickly soaked to my ankles by an unexpected wave, and figured what the heck and just stayed out until the surf regularly washed up to my waist. But the surf there was more gentle, and behind me was gently sloping sand—and I only felt cold there, never in danger. But pinned by cliffs at Bandon, prudent decision making would have driven me to more open sand with an easy exit to high ground. But that’s not where the pictures were. So I continued photographing with a wary eye on the surf.
It soon became clear that the frequency of my wave dodging was increasing with time. At one point I left my tripod and camera to rescue my camera bag, once believed to be safely stashed atop a rock. I return to find my tripod on its side and my camera face down in the sand. There was no water damage, and the landing was soft enough to avoid impact damage, but a veneer of sand rendered it unusable until I could clean it off.
With my 16-35 and a renewed vow to be more careful, I went back to work. Every two or three waves forced me to race to higher ground (I’d ruined a pair of shoes at Cannon Beach in January, and didn’t want to double my loss with their replacements), but as the sky started to color, I soon realized that these big waves also left a reflective sheen in their wake. I captured this image just as the sunset color peaked. Just a few minutes later the advancing ocean took over the beach and drove Don and me to higher ground.
Posted on January 19, 2018
I just returned from a trip to Oregon with Don Smith. The prime purpose of our trip was to check out the fire damage in the Columbia River Gorge in advance of our annual spring workshop there. Because the damage in the areas where we take our groups wasn’t as severe as we’d feared, we didn’t need to spend a lot of time scouting alternate locations, leaving us with some extra time on our hands. And what do photographers do when they have extra time? That’s right—they take pictures.
In our case, we drove down the Oregon Coast as far as Bandon. Though Bandon was a complete washout photographically—wind, rain, minimal visibility, and an incoming storm that chased us inland on our final night—we saw enough of the coast that we decided to add a workshop there. (More on that later.) The photographic highlight of the coast trip was Cannon Beach, where we found the conditions much more favorable for photography.
If it looks like I got wet capturing these images, it’s because I did. Really, really wet. I started just trying to keep the water out of my shoes; by the time I finished, the surf was coming up to my waist and it no longer mattered because I knew I wasn’t going to get any wetter (as long as I stayed upright).
I did this entire shoot with a body and two lenses I didn’t have a year ago, which make me realize how new gear I added in 2017. Since I get asked so frequently about my gear, it occurs to me that I should just add my inventory to a blog post. So here goes…
I photograph nothing but landscapes, but the content of my bag varies with the location, whether I’m driving or flying, the amount of hiking/scrambling the trip will entail, and my overall objective for the shoot (conventional landscape, moon, stars, lightning, macro, or whatever). I have a core set of equipment that’s always with me, and an assortment of specialty gear that I add or subtract as the situation dictates.
Core gear (almost) always with me
My Sony mirrorless system is the lightest, most compact core gear I’ve ever carried. The a7RIII is my primary body. A always carry a backup body; that used to be the a6300, but I like the a7rII so much that I couldn’t part with it when I got the a7RIII. But I do like having a backup body with a crop sensor, so the a6300 is rarely far away. It’s very compact, and I’m so happy with the image quality that I don’t hesitate to use it as my primary body when I want the extra reach its 1.5-crop sensor provides.
As a 100 percent landscape shooter (nothing that moves), I’m always on a tripod. That means f/4 glass is usually all I need, and Sony’s f/4 glass provides a great combination of compactness and image quality. In a moment of weakness I replaced my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 with the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM and like it so much that I can’t go back. It’s quite compact for an f/2.8 lens, and fast enough for most of my night photography. And the sharpness is off the charts.
My primary tripod/ball-head choice is the RRS TVC-24L and BH-40 for its combination sturdiness and height in a relatively light configuration. When weight is a concern, such as when I’ll be flying or plan some serious hiking, I opt for the RRS TQC-14 with the BH-30. While not quite as tall as I’d like, this combo is much lighter and plenty sturdy enough for all my body/lens combinations.
Specialty gear (with me as needs dictate)
My specialty gear comes with me when I have a specific objective outside the typical landscape scenes I encounter (and that are well handled by my core gear). Whether I’ve planned a moon rising above Half Dome, the Milky Way above the bristlecone pines, lightning on the rim of Grand Canyon, or wildflower or fall color creative selective focus, I have the body, lens, and accessory combination to handle it.
To capture a huge moon in my moon rise/set shoots, I use the 100-400 with the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Even with a teleconverter, this combination is sharper than any long lens I’ve ever used. Adding it to my a6300 gives me 1200mm full-frame-equivalent.
For my creative selective focus photography, I add extension tubes to this my telephoto lenses or Sony 90mm macro. Though extension tubes cut light, I don’t hesitate pushing the ISO of any of my Sony bodies as far as I need to.
Night photography is another personal joy. While the a7RIII gives me all the high ISO performance I need for most of my night photography, the a7SII’s ability to virtually see in the dark is ideal for the darkest nights photographing the Milky Way. Paired with the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens, this combination finds usable detail in impossible darkness. Equally important, using focus peaking with the a7SII/Rokinon combination, I can focus effortlessly on the stars, in seconds.
As a long-time daylight lightning shooter, both on my own and leading photo workshops, I have accumulated many years of lightning photography trial and error (not necessarily in that order) experience. More than enough experience, in fact, to know that shutter lag is death to lightning photography. Though I was fully committed to Sony before I had a chance to try it for lightning, I was thrilled to discover that the electronic front curtain shutter on Sony mirrorless bodies has the fastest (best) shutter lag of any camera available. Any of my Sony bodies paired with the Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I trust) provide the best chance for lightning success.
I like the F-Stop bags because they’re the perfect combination of roomy comfortable (for long hikes), and durable, yet compact enough for an airline overhead bin. In the field, I can fit virtually all of my core and most of my specialty gear in my Tilopa, plus a down jacket, gloves, and hat. When I fly, my tripod goes in my suitcase, but the rest of my camera gear never leaves me because I can fit a fully packed Tilopa into any overhead bin I’ve ever encountered (including the puddle-jumpers). When I want to travel light (my Grand Canyon raft trip, for example), I opt for the Guru, which handles all of my core gear and some of my specialty gear.
Since I always want my bodies and lenses with me (not in my checked luggage), sometimes I fly with the Tilopa stuffed with gear and the empty Guru packed in my large suitcase; at my destination I load the Guru with whatever gear I need for the next shoot. And if limited overhead space ever forces me to check my bag at the gate (which has never happened, fingers crossed), I can remove the bag’s ICU (Internal Camera Unit) and store it at my feet, leaving the mostly empty bag for the flight attendants to store.
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