Spring has Sprung!

141-28 Almaden Spring

Welcome to spring!  Here on the California coast winter is becoming summer. The rainy season is pretty much over and the sky is blue, the air is warm, the summer fog is still a couple of months away, the hiking season is in full swing and the top is down on my car. The wildflowers are coming out and the California Poppy, one of my favorite flowers, is showing up everywhere. I’ve been photographing them every year since I came to California and I still enjoy looking for the perfect poppy to make into an image.

The California Poppy is our state flower and it can be found throughout the state. One of my favorite places to photograph poppies is at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve near Lancaster, CA.  Access is easy and the reserve is full of many different species of flowers in addition to the poppies.  Only a few miles to the west is the Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park which highlights Joshua Trees.  The Joshua Trees and poppies are in bloom at this time of year and both parks are worth a visit.

I find the poppy to be the most photogenic flower of all. When the poppies first open, they are somewhat parabolic in shape as if they are focusing the sun’s light and energy. After a few days, they open wide to the sun. My favorite poppy image is the one above and it is one of my first. I call it “Almaden Spring” because it was on a hillside near my old house in Almaden Valley. One day there were no flowers on the hillside and the next the hill was covered in poppies. Within a couple of days, the hill was an explosion of orange and yellow as all of the poppies opened to the sun. I crawled all over the hill, camera and tripod in hand, looking for one that inspired me and there it was. The air was still and the sun was shining through the petals. I was able to get below the flower and shoot upwards into it.

This particular hill was home to several rattlesnakes that my beagle, Critter, managed to find on another occasion and, as a result, I didn’t want to lay in the dirt too long. As it turned out, I didn’t need to. Everything was right and I made the exposure. After that day, my spring focus (sorry, I can’t help it!) has been poppies. Future blogs will talk more about my poppy adventures.

Now open yourself to spring like the poppy. Get outdoors, wherever you are. Hike, work in the yard, get on a horse, paddle a kayak. Do whatever takes you into the great outdoors. Spring has sprung!


Happy Birthday, Pepper!

080322020 Pepper w Bandanna rev 15 NOV 09

Yesterday was a bittersweet day. It was Pepper’s birthday. Pepper is gone now but her many stories are wonderful and worth sharing. In January 2000 I had a near fatal car accident on my way home from work. I was hit by a double tractor trailer that had lost control and jack-knifed on a hairpin turn on a mountain road. The truck was going sideways down the mountain, hit my car and tore off the windshield and roof as well as a little bit of my head. For some reason, I not only survived but thrived.

To celebrate, I decided that I needed to rescue a dog. Off I went to the San Martin Animal Shelter to find a border collie. There was Pepper. She was playing with a frisbee by herself and I decided to join her. The folks at the shelter let Pepper into the play area and she and I played for a while. We became pals instantly. She came home with me the following week and became the ranch dog for Willow Ranch.

In no time, Pepper and I became inseparable. We went everywhere together and the ranch became hers. She herded the goats, horses, chickens, ducks and even our tortoise. Pepper never succeeded in convincing the tortoise to go anywhere but it was always interesting to watch.

Everyone that met Pepper loved her and they all have their own Pepper stories. She was inspiring and showed people what it was like to experience the unconditional love of a dog. Perhaps the best stories, though, revolve around the love between Pepper and our friend Lisa. Their love for each other was boundless.

Pepper came with me to the Mono Basin and proved herself to be an unbelievable hiking dog and partner in exploration. She made the Basin her own, becoming part of the old ranches, the desert and the mountains. The Mono Basin is where she remains.

There are so many Pepper stories to tell that it would take a book. One day I’ll write it.

Happy birthday, Pepper, and thank you for letting me share life with you.

070812030 Pepper and John

Dive Photography – Or Is It?

100326035 Fish

Underwater photography provides a view of the world that most people don’t ever get to see. It’s expensive. You need to buy a lot of gear, take diving lessons, get certified, buy more equipment, buy camera equipment, pay for airfare, pay for a dive boat and much more. You get the picture (sorry).

On the other hand, imagine all the time I must have spent traveling and diving just to photograph. The exotic places, the fascinating people, the beautifully colored fish. Imagine the incredible investment I’ve obviously made to dive and photograph in beautiful, warm, tropical and exotic places. Well, guess what… I made this image just 40 miles from my home. Instead of diving, I simply go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA to do my underwater photography.

First of all, I need to provide a plug for the Aquarium. I’m a member of the Aquarium and they are a significant beneficiary of my estate when I go to the great darkroom in the sky. I encourage you to visit. The work that they do to provide educational programs for children and adults is extremely important in helping to protect the oceans and the exhibits are among the best I’ve seen at any aquarium in the United States.

The best way to photograph at the aquarium is to arrive when it opens in order to avoid school groups and other visitors. You may not be able to use a tripod so use a monopod instead. Set your ISO at 800-1000 and don’t use a flash. It’s prohibited in many exhibits and, in any case, it will reflect off the glass right into your lens.

Now you know how to be an underwater photographer.  All you need to do is visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s worth the trip and it’s a lot less expensive than going to the Coral Sea.

One last thing: my friend and colleague Vic Smith recently began his own blog at Vic Smith Photo.  Please visit his  site.

The Tallest Lighthouse

091-21BW Pigeon Point Lighthouse

We’ve had some fog here on the Monterey Bay coast over the last few days which got me thinking about our California lighthouses. Pigeon Point Lighthouse is one of my favorite, located about halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast at 115 feet high. It was built in 1871 with a first order Fresnel lens that, believe it or not, burned lard. The lamp was later converted to burn mineral oil and it wasn’t until 1926 that an electric lamp was installed. An aerobeacon was installed in 1972 thus ending the use of the Fresnel lens.

There is usually a story behind the names of places here on the coast. Pigeon Point was named after an American built clipper ship, the Carrier Pigeon, launched in Maine in 1852. Her life was short. On 6 June 1853, during her maiden voyage, the ship sailed past Santa Cruz on her way to San Francisco, got caught in the fog at night and tore a hole in her hull. The wreck occurred only 500 feet from shore and all of the crew made it to safety. Unfortunately, though, the ship was a total loss. Nineteen years later the new lighthouse was named after the Carrier Pigeon.

It was a rainy, foggy day when I first saw the lighthouse in 1985. I greatly enjoy photographing in fog, haze and even smoke because they diffuse light and can create a silvery and unearthly glow. The light that day was perfect for making an image of a lonely, old lighthouse. To add to the ambiance, it was cold and a little blustery.  The rain, wind and cold all combined to make finding a good spot to set up my tripod a bit challenging. I didn’t really want to fall off of the cliff so I took my time getting set up. The spot where I decided to work was at the very edge of the cliff and not too stable, to say the least. In the end, the image was worth it although I may have shortened my lifespan by 10 years.

Come to the coast on a foggy day, explore and visit Pigeon Point, the tallest lighthouse in the west.  As an added bonus, remember that you are seeing not only the tallest lighthouse but the only one named after a pigeon.

It’s Nap Time!

258-18 Elephant Seal Bull

Living on the Monterey Bay provides me with a wonderful opportunity to capture images of many migrating animals from monarch butterflies to elephant seals. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with both these species and several others.

This is the season of the northern elephant seal. They began arriving at the colony locations ranging from Southern California to Northern California in December and now we are at the tail end of the breeding season. The males will be leaving soon to begin their journey north and the weaners will stick around for another couple of months. It’s a good time to see and photograph them. My favorite location is San Simeon on the Central Coast, not too far from San Luis Obispo.

The adult males are rather odd looking with that big proboscis that they develop. They look fat and lazy when on the beach but don’t kid yourself. Although the males can get as big as 15 feet long and 5000 lbs., they can still outrun a human for a short burst. The alphas will protect their harems by fighting and those fights are violent. Don’t press your luck by approaching them. Besides being dangerous, they are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Stay at least 100 yards away.

Photographing them presents a challenge. Use a tripod and a long lens on a stable surface. Viewing platforms are often wood and will vibrate substantially. Use an ISO 400 or faster film or set your ISO speed on a digital camera 400 up to 1250.  Be sure to check for noise at the higher ISO settings. 

Then it’s nap time for both you and the elephant seal.