The Great Blue Harbinger of Summer

111015031 rev 4 MAY 13  Great Blue Heron

I received a call the other day from a friend telling me that the resident Great Blue Heron was back at Westlake Park on the west side of Santa Cruz.  I’ve been photographing this heron for several years now and he has been a great model at the right price.  In other words, free.  I’m always happy when this heron returns because he brings with him no doubt that summer is almost here on Monterey Bay.

This particular heron likes to spend much of his time standing on a platform in the middle of the park’s little lake watching for the bluegills and other small fish to come by so that he  can snatch a tasty fish dinner (or breakfast or lunch, etc.).  The heron shares the lake with several breeds of ducks, geese, coots and a relatively uncommon green-backed heron (more on this in another blog).

The nice thing about this particular heron’s favorite place is that it is relatively easy to photograph.  Essentially, he poses, I set up my camera and expose the film (or sensor).  He seems to have endless patience and stands for long periods of time just waiting for that morsel to swim by.  It’s amazing how fast he moves to catch that fish.

The Great Blue Heron is native to a large portion of North and Central America and part of South America.  Besides their seemingly endless patience, one of the most surprising things about them are their nesting habits.  They nest in tall trees like our local cypress.  The colonies can be well over 100 nests and, although the Elkhorn Slough colony is much smaller, it’s still impressive to see such large water birds nesting in the tops of the trees.

Welcome home, heron, and thanks for bringing summer with you.


Aim for the Moon!

120929017 ver 4 Moonrise

“Aiming for the moon and missing it is better than aiming for the ditch and hitting it” – Unknown

The full moon was yesterday afternoon at 12:57 PM and rose last night at 8:09 PM here in Capitola.  I didn’t have a chance to photograph it but it brought back an experience I had this past September in the desert near Mono Lake.

Night photography is one of my favorite forms of image making.  It requires a sense of adventure, thought, calculation, experimentation and a bit of luck.  Many people are afraid to try it, though, because  they fear making mistakes.  Photographing the full moon is even harder than ambient light night photography because you are shooting directly at the source of light rather than at a subject illuminated by that source and your chance of failure is even greater.

Remember, though, the old adage that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes photographing at night and I’ve frozen myself and my equipment in the process of making both.  The results have been worth it.

During the last week of September, I spent almost every night using the light of the waxing and full moon to create images of the desert mountains, rock formations and sand tufa formations.  However, I couldn’t resist taking the chance of photographing the full moon itself knowing that the chance of me succeeding with the equipment I had with me was slim.  If I hadn’t risked aiming and missing I never would have captured the image above.

I headed back to Lee Vining later that evening and went out to the deck to enjoy watching the moon continue its climb into the sky.  I couldn’t help overhearing some tourists nearby complaining about how they would never try photographing at night again because everything they did came out either overexposed or black.  Then one of the people looked up at the moon and stated very loudly that there was no possible way to photograph the full moon anyway and that they shouldn’t waste the effort.

I looked at the image that I had in the can and smiled to myself.  Those poor folks didn’t understand that you have to aim high and take the risk.  I know for myself I would rather aim for the moon, miss and maybe hit a star instead of aiming for the ditch and hitting the ground.

So go ahead and aim for the moon.

The Mono Basin – An Enchanted Land

120928018BW Modified 16APR13 Mono Lake and Dana Plateau from Summit of Mt Dana

This Thursday, the 18th of April 2013, I have the honor of presenting a talk to the Royal Photographic Society, USA Pacific Chapter, entitled “The Mono Basin – An Enchanted Land”.  I will be sharing my images and experiences in a unique portion of California and one of my favorite places in the world.

My talk will take you on a journey to one of the most amazing parts of the American West and it will provide you with the opportunity to experience where the Sierra Nevada meets the Great Basin, the largest desert in North America. You will step into a place where pine trees meet sagebrush and freshwater streams tumble out of the high Sierra to replenish the saltiest lake in North America.  You will experience tufa formations and obsidian domes, beaver ponds and old ranches, stunning sunrises and sunsets, alpine lakes and beautiful storms.  In this place, light and color create a kaleidoscope in nature.

The link to my talk is and it will be held at the Millbrae Recreation Center, 477 Lincoln Circle, Millbrae, CA 94030.  Please join me.

The Alabama Hills

101127011BW Alabama Hills

I grew up with TV westerns like Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger and other fictional heroes of the Old West.  Many scenes of these and others were set in an area of large boulders, arroyos and canyons in which the bad guys and the Indians could lie in wait for opportunities to ambush the guys in the white hats.  If one studied the scenes carefully enough they would notice that they were all identical; the same rocks, canyons and other formations.

I didn’t learn until many years later that the westerns, as well as many other TV shows and movies, including “Gunga Din”, “How the West Was Won”, “Star Wars” and, most recently, “Django Unchained”, were shot in the Alabama Hills.  The Hills are located between Lone Pine, CA and the Sierra Nevada and they are one of the many interesting places in California for me.  Myths exist that have erroneously stated that the Alabama Hills are an ancient formation but the reality is that they are not.  They were uplifted in recent geologic times along with the Sierra  and eroded relatively quickly into the round and odd shapes of today.

The naming of the Alabama Hills is an interesting story.  During the War Between the States, there were both Confederate and Union sympathizers throughout California.  In 1864, Confederate sympathizers discovered gold in the Alabama Hills and named them after the CSS Alabama which had destroyed or captured over 60 Union ships.  However, Union sympathizers from nearby Independence discovered metals in the Inyo Mountains and named Kearsarge Peak, Kearsarge Pass and the town of Kearsarge after the USS Kearsarge which finally sank the Alabama in 1864.

As I’ve hiked in the Alabama Hills, I have found many formations that resemble animals and I find much fun trying to capture these imaginary creatures in my camera.  During my first visit I found a dog in the rocks.  My border collie Pepper wasn’t impressed, though.  Later I found other creatures from a fantasy world.

What do you see?

101127010BW The Shark 121228007 Alabama Hills 101127013BW Mobius Arch and Rock


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.