Looking back on 2009

posted by on 2009.12.27, under Landscape Photography, Tanzania, Travel Photography

In looking back on the 2009, I realize that I’ve been extremely fortunate to travel to so many different locations around the globe. This year alone I took over 6400 photos in Tanzania, Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. I would be thankful for an itinerary like that any year, but the economic turmoil of 2009 has given me a new level of appreciation for a stable job at a great company and the ability to get out and see the world.

Here are some images that I’ve never shown from each of the locations I’ve traveled to this year. Most of these got lost in the digital shuffle of thousands of images on my hard drives or ended up on the cutting room floor because there were better images I wanted to share. In any case, I’m glad I’ve rediscovered them as they help keep the great memories of this year fresh in my mind.

Kalalau Valley, Kauai - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo & grad ND, f/16, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

Kalalau Valley, Kaua'i - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo & grad ND, f/16, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

A Storm Approaches, Utah - Nikon D40 (converted for infrared), Nikon 18-200, f/16, 1/125 sec., ISO 720

A Storm Approaches, Utah - Nikon D40 (converted for infrared), Nikon 18-200, f/16, 1/125 sec., ISO 720

Multnomah Falls, Oregon - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, f/18, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

Multnomah Falls, Oregon - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, f/18, 1/6 sec., ISO 200

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/16, 1/10 sec., ISO 200

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/16, 1/10 sec., ISO 200

Wildebeest Fighting - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR, Nikon TC-14E, f/8, 1/500 sec., ISO 200

Wildebeest Fighting - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR, Nikon TC-14E, f/8, 1/500 sec., ISO 200

Photo of the Day

Kee Beach Trees - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/16, 1.3sec, ISO 200

Ke'e Beach Trees - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/16, 1.3sec, ISO 200

While I was waiting for the sun to go down at Ke’e Beach on Kaua’i, I snapped this before I had to hustle into position to get the sunset. Nothing spectacular, but I couldn’t resist the evening light on the interesting trees. It’s amazing I didn’t get any chickens in this shot because they were everywhere. Apparently, the last hurricane to hit Kaua’i (‘Iniki in 1992), freed all the chickens from their pens, and now they live wild all over the island.

Photo of the Day

Hoopii Falls, Kauai - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, Singh-Ray 2-stop GND, f/18, 1/3 sec. ISO 200

Ho'opi'i Falls, Kaua'i - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, Singh-Ray 2-stop GND, f/18, 1/3 sec. ISO 200

It’s snowing like crazy in Colorado right now, so I thought I’d post a Hawaii image. This is Ho’opi’i Falls on Kaua’i…or is it? There is debate as to whether these falls go by that name, or the next falls up-stream. In either case, it’s a beautiful hike to get in there. This location claimed the life of my brother’s Manfrotto tripod and almost took his D700 with 24-70mm lens too!

Which lenses to take to Africa

posted by on 2009.10.25, under Photography Equipment, Tanzania, Travel Photography
Young Male Lion - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 200

Young Male Lion - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 200

Ever since I returned from Africa earlier this year, I’ve been wanting to analyze the EXIF data of my photos and figure out which lenses I shot most. I’m interested in seeing if it was really necessary to haul the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens on the safari. The 200-400 is truly an excellent lens, but it’s a pig and I grew tired of carrying it. It’s also a little unnerving traveling with a $5500 piece of glass (I rented!). There’s no question that I needed the reach of 400mm, but did I need the constant f/4 aperture? Would a smaller, lighter lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 work just as well? Below is a chart of how many shots I took with each lens I brought on the trip and which apertures I used. I didn’t bother breaking out f-stops below f/5.6 since that’s usually the maximum for most variable aperture lenses like the 80-400mm.

  Total number of shots   f/2 – f/2.8   f/2.8 – f/4   f/4 – f/5.6 Less than f/5.6  
Nikon 35mm f/2D 20 19 0 0 1  
Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G 710 N/A 15 29 666  
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G 575 N/A 80 39 456  
Nikon 200-400mm f/4G 2342 N/A N/A 245 2097  


I am really not surprised that the overwhelming majority of my photos were shot at smaller apertures than f/5.6. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, we really weren’t in that many low light situations. Tanzania’s National Parks typically close around 6 or 7 PM and you must be out by then, or you risk being fined. Secondly, the focus plane of big telephoto lenses is extremely shallow. If you’re taking a picture of a lion at f/4 with a 400mm lens, you’re likely to get his nose in sharp focus, but the rest of his face out of focus. This becomes even more of an issue when there are multiple animals. One afternoon we came upon a pride of 13 lions all sitting together. It was totally impossible to get them all in focus even at the smallest apertures and highest ISOs.

So could a smaller, variable aperture lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 replace the big 200-400mm on a safari? If I was going on an African safari tomorrow (I wish!) I would still take the 200-400. The 80-400′s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t have the internal focusing motor that Nikon’s more modern lenses have. This makes it slow to focus. In Africa, you typically need very fast autofocus to track moving animals. The 200-400mm focuses very quickly because it has the AF-S motor. But there are rumors that Nikon may soon update the 80-400 to include fast autofocus. The current word on the street is that the 80-400 may be replaced with a lens in the 100-500mm range (I have no insider info). If that lens is real and has the excellent optics of the 80-400, I could definitely see it going on my next safari in place of the 200-400. For the time being, though, the best safari lens combo (for Nikon) is the 70-200 and the 200-400.

Lava Boat Tours: Extreme Danger or Fun Adventure?

posted by on 2009.10.12, under Adventure Travel, Travel Photography
Lava Ocean Entry - Nikon D300, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 800

Lava Ocean Entry - Nikon D300, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 800

On my recent trip to Hawai’i, my brother and I stopped off on The Big Island for a few days to explore Volcanoes National Park. Our goal was to photograph flowing lava up close. Since Kilauea is so unpredictable, it’s impossible to know where lava flows will be during your trip or if there will be any at all. One relatively consistent area for lava viewing is the coast line near Kalapana where lava flows from the Pu`u`O`o vent of Kilauea into the ocean. The reaction of 2000 degree lava with sea water is an impressive sight, creating a huge, glowing steam plume that rises into the air. Unfortunately the designated viewing area for the ocean entry is over 2 miles away. If you were to hike all the way out to the ocean entry, you would not only risk a $10,000 fine, but your life as well. The lava is constantly expanding the coast of the Big Island, but the newly created land is extremely unstable and frequently falls off into the water. Many people have been injured and even killed from walking out on the lava bench.

Another option for getting a front row seat to the lava ocean entry point is to sign up for a lava boat tour. Several companies launch boats from Pahoa and take you to within 20-30 feet of the lava…yes, that’s right, 20-30 feet! It was exactly what my brother and I were looking for, so before we left for Hawaii, we booked a sunrise lava boat tour with Lava Ocean Adventures.

Lava ocean entry - Nikon D300, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8, 1/50, ISO 800

Lava ocean entry - Nikon D300, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8, 1/50, ISO 800

Once we arrived at Volcanoes National Park, we stopped by the visitor center to see what Kilauea was up to. We mentioned to the park ranger on duty that we were doing a lava boat tour the next morning. The look that came over his face immediately made it clear that the lava boat “industry” was a major thorn in the side of the National Park Service. He launched into a diatribe about how insanely dangerous it was to be on a boat near the ocean entry. He carefully outlined all of the dangers, including being gassed by the steam cloud which is made up of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid, falling off the boat into near boiling water, and being blown to bits by tephra blasts that are powerful enough to toss boulder-sized rocks 30 feet in the air. Perhaps even more scary than those immediate threats was the possibility we could inhale microscopic glass fragments that are aerosolized in the violent reaction of lava entering water. The long term health risks are similar to breathing asbestos.

Needless to say, I was more than a little worried. I spent much of the evening on my iPhone researching the dangers the park ranger mentioned, but I was unable to find any solid evidence that the situation was as grim as he described. We decided to go through with the boat tour and obviously survived the immediate dangers. To mitigate the glass fragment issue, I tightly tied a folded shirt over my nose and mouth. When the boat went near the steam cloud, I held my breath and closed my eyes. Of course, I was the only person on the boat doing this. The captain and crew who have done these tours multiple times a day for twenty years didn’t bat an eye.

The experience was really quite fun. Being close enough to feel the heat of the lava on my face was thrilling and surreal. Photographically, it was nearly impossible to get any meaningful shots. It was very dark and the boat was constantly being thrown around in the choppy water. The autofocus system on my Nikon D300 was totally confused and most of my shots turned out as abstract blurs–even at f/2.8 and ISO 800. Everyone else on the boat with little point and shoot cameras gave up taking pictures early on. The lava boat crew will tell you to bring a wide-angle lens because they get you so close, but you absolutely need a fast telephoto. The 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is about as good a lens as you could have for this.

Lava bench collapse - Nikon D300, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 800

Lava bench collapse - Nikon D300, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 800

Was it dangerous? Yes, I’m sure it was, although it didn’t seem like it. There were no major explosions during our tour but we did see a partial lava bench collapse (see photo directly above). Unfortunately, it may only be a matter of time until a lava boat tragedy occurs. The collision of lava and sea water is just too unpredictable. Things DO blow up out there. As for the environmental hazards, this report and a few others on the internet suggest that the park ranger we spoke to may have been exaggerating the danger a little. That’s fine, it’s his job to protect people. There’s no doubt that those toxins exist out there, but there is conflicting information about how high the concentrations actually are.

I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to see lava and what level of risk you’re comfortable with. For me, the lava boat tour was at the upper limit of what I’m willing to do for a photo. I’m very glad that I went and I had a great time though. I think what’s most important in these situations is to get all the information you can–carefully weigh the risks, and especially pay attention to your inner voice. If you don’t feel comfortable with something, speak up. You could always go drink Mai Tais on the beach–just don’t forget your sunscreen. UV rays cause skin cancer you know.

Panasonic Lumix TS1 – A Brief Review

posted by on 2009.08.16, under Photography Equipment, Travel Photography
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1

For awhile now I’ve been wishing I had a simple point and shoot camera to take with me on trips so I could capture some of the more typical vacation moments and leave the serious photo work for my Nikon D300. Of course the Nikon would provide much better image quality and features than a compact camera, but who wants to lug a bulky DSLR and lens around if you’re just going out to dinner or documenting some touristy moment?

Since I’m going to Hawaii in September and might be doing some snorkeling…I thought it would be nice to get a compact camera that was waterproof…actually submersible, not just weather sealed.  I didn’t know if such a camera even existed. I also wanted some video capabilities since my D300 was made just before the recent DSLR video feature craze. With these parameters in mind, I quickly discovered the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1. I had already been impressed with the Lumix TZ5 that my family and I got my Dad for his birthday last year, and the TS1 seemed to have all the features I wanted, so I went ahead and ordered one.

Overall, I have been pleased with the TS1. The very first time I took it out was on a whitewater rafting trip with my co-workers down the Poudre River near Fort Collins, Colorado. It was the perfect test for a camera like this. The TS1 got completely submerged in water several times, knocked around in the class 3 & 4 rapids and even smashed between the floor of the raft and the sidewall. It performed very well in this environment. The still photos that we took that day impressed me for their sharpness, low noise and relatively good exposure. Of course, the TS1′s quality is no where near that of a DSLR, especially at ISOs over 400, but I never expected a tiny waterproof camera to blow my socks off with image quality. It does, however, produce more than adequate images for casual snap shots and video clips.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, f/3.3, 1/1000, ISO 80

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, f/3.3, 1/1000, ISO 80

Speaking of video clips, you can see one below. It’s a little choppy, but that might be because I de-interlaced the video when I converted it for the web. Finding a program on the Mac that could open the AVCHD lite video files was a major challenge. Toast Titanium 10 of all programs was able to open and convert the videos.

The most serious flaw I’ve encountered with the TS1 is how easily it is disabled at cooler temperatures. On a recent sunrise hike up to Lake Helene (10,580 feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park, the TS1′s autofocus system became totally confused and would not focus on anything. The temperatures up there were likely in the upper 30s to low 40s which is really nothing as far as cold temperatures go. Granted I was not carrying it close to my body to keep it warm during the hike, but I really think a camera that’s touted as being so rugged should be able to stand a few hours of 40 degrees.

Other gripes about the camera are really very minor. Overall it produces nice images & HD video, is reasonably compact and rugged with regards to water and being knocked around. I’m sure it will serve me very well. Just be warned that it may let you down on those cold alpine mornings!

Photo of the Day

Mt. St. Helens - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/22, 1/5

Mt. St. Helens - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/22, 1/5

Just returned from a great trip to Portland, OR. This shot is one of those that surprises you after being discouraged by weather/light conditions. We had been told by the rangers that the mountain was obscured by clouds and not worth going out of our way to see. Well, good thing we pressed on because this beautiful field of wild flowers was one of the most spectacular I’ve seen. And I kinda like the fact that part of Mt. St. Helens is covered in clouds in this photo…it gives it a more mysterious quality.

Back from the Pacific Southwest

posted by on 2009.05.28, under Landscape Photography, Travel Photography

Bryce Canyon - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/18, 1/20, ISO 200

Bryce Canyon - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo, f/18, 1/20, ISO 200

My brother and I just returned from a Memorial Day weekend photo outing in Southern Utah. From past trips around this time of year, we were expecting the usual weather…hot, dry and sunny during the day and cool at night. Instead, we experienced gray, stormy skies and near constant rain. The sun was seen for only a few rare and fleeting moments during the trip and on each occasion my brother and I scrambled to grab our cameras and capture whatever was being bathed in light. Most of the time, though, the sun was well behind a thunderstorm that was either raining on or threatening to rain on us. It was challenging to find creative ways of capturing the iconic Utah landscape without the low angle sunrise/sunset light that makes it look so stunning. I think I’m glad for the weather we had because we came home with some images that are probably more unique than the many other Utah photos out there. The photo above, however, was taken in one of those few moments where the sun broke through. Stay tuned for more images…

Tanzania: Reviews Part 2

Maasai Woman - Nikon D300, 18-200mm, f/9, 1/250, ISO 200

Maasai Woman - Nikon D300, 18-200mm, f/9, 1/250, ISO 200

Continued from my previous post, here are some more equipment reviews from Africa.

Kirk Window Mount & Wimberley Sidekick (or other gimbal head mounts) – ?
I’m reviewing this even though I never got the setup for my trip. Before I left, I seriously considered, putting together a window mount + ballhead + gimbal head rig that would have allowed me to attach my camera to the safari vehicle roof rails or side windows and have fluid motion around the camera/lens center of gravity. I researched all the parts and pieces and it would’ve been close to $1000 to purchase. Ouch. Good thing I decided to just use bean bags to support my cameras because that’s all we needed. We took our own bean bags but never used them because our excellent guide had bean bags already for us to use. I’m sure the gimbal head rig is very cool, but think about this…how will you switch from one side of the vehicle to the other? The animals are always moving and you certainly don’t want to reposition a complicated window mount rig when a lion crosses from one side of the road to the other. It was enough work moving bean bags with a big camera/lens in one hand. Forget the gimbal head for Tanzania (unless you get two for each side). Other African countries like Botswana will be a different story since they use open safari vehicles.

Better Beamer Flash X-Tender – B+
This device attaches to your flash to extend it’s range. It’s useful for filling in dark shadows on wildlife during harsh midday light. It works…a little too well in my experience. It definitely extends the flash’s reach and greatly magnifies the intensity at close distances. You have to be careful to set your Flash compensation correctly or your subject will have a paparazzi look (I had mine at -3 stops much of the time!)  Also be careful not to leave the Better Beamer out in the sun unattended. It WILL burn a hole in whatever is in the path of it’s fresnel lens :)

Nikon TC-14EII (1.4x) Teleconverter – C-
This one confuses me. From all the reviews I’ve read, I should’ve been able to use this to extend the range of my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens without very much optical degradation. I got mixed results. Some shots, mostly the ones where the subject is closer to the camera, are fine…very sharp. But other shots are hazy and blurry to the point of making the photos totally unacceptable. I can’t seem to find any factor that may have caused this. Do any of you more experienced photographers out there know what the problem might have been? Half-way through the trip I removed the teleconverter and didn’t miss it. With the D300 and 200-400mm, I still had a maximum reach of 600mm which was fine for most things.

Tanzania: Reviews Part 1

Cheetah Cubs

Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/10, 1/250, ISO 720

Before my recent photo trip to Tanzania, I spent months agonizing about what equipment to bring. Not only were there decisions about which cameras and lenses to bring, but there’s a host of other considerations such as whether or not to bring a tripod, what to use to backup my images in the field and how to support my camera while shooting out of a Safari vehicle. I wanted to do some reviews of the various equipment we chose because some things worked and some things didn’t. This is part 1.


Epson P-7000 Multimedia Viewer – A+
This was my primary backup device. I brought enough memory cards on the trip that I wouldn’t have to delete any of them and reuse them. Then each night I would back up my cards to the Epson P-7000. Let me say that the P-7000 is fantastic. One of it’s most useful features is it’s ability to only backup new images on a card. Frequently I would shoot a CF card full, then delete many of the bad images at night and shoot on that card the next day. The Epson can backup only the images that have been added to the card since the last backup. It also has the ability to copy all your backed-up files to another USB hard drive for extra protection. I brought a hard drive to do this, but you have to have both the Epson and your hard drive plugged in to power during transfers. The power at most of the lodges and camps in Tanzania is unreliable, frequently cutting out or fluctuating. This made it impossible to transfer multiple gigabytes to the USB drive.

What makes the Epson P-7000 so nice is it’s fantastic screen. The high resolution Adobe RGB display, shows your images in bright, wonderful, color accurate clarity. Plus the controls make it relatively easy to surf through your images and zoom in instantly to 100% to check sharpness. There’s no question that the P-7000 is the Mercedes of photo backup devices…but it’s biggest disadvantage is it’s price. While it can substitute for a laptop in the feild, you’ll pay darn near low-end laptop prices for that luxury.

Gura Gear Kiboko camera bag from Andy Biggs – A+
My brother and I are big admirers of Andy Biggs and relied a lot on advice from his blog during the planning of our trip. We both carried all of our camera equipment in Gura Gear Kiboko bags. Since the bag is designed so well for international travel it was nice to not have to worry about camera bags during planning. We knew our gear would fit in the bag and that it conformed to airline carry-on size requirements. What was challenging was keeping our bags within KLM’s carry-on weight limit of 26lbs. Both my brother and I’s packs were over that weight limit by a few pounds, but fortunately KLM never even gave us a second look. The Kiboko bag can be made to look low profile when the straps are zipped away which might have kept us from scrutiny by the gate agents. We also shot out of the bags during game drives. I kept my D300 with 200-400mm lens in the bag when not shooting to protect it from the very dusty conditions. It was ready to go whenever I needed it. Despite the bag’s light weight and low profile, it is remarkably sturdy. If, for example, you were forced to put the camera bag in the luggage hold of a bush flight (a scenario that should be avoided by buying an extra seat), I think the Kiboko would provide enough protection for the camera gear.

iPhone for international travel – D-
Normally, I’m a big fan of the iPhone. It’s an amazing device with what seems like unlimited usefulness. I planned on sending out email updates to my family and friends while in Tanzania so I set up an international data plan on my iPhone. The problem was that the iPhone was frequently confused while overseas and had no cellular connection whatsoever for about 90% of the trip. We were in areas where I knew there was plenty of cell coverage but the iPhone would just say “no service” or would show bars but not connect to anything. AT&T also has a lame policy where you have to keep your international data plan active until the overseas phone companies decide to bill for your usage. So instead of only paying for international data for the duration of my trip, I have to keep paying for international data after I return until bills come in to AT&T from the overseas carriers. Apparently AT&T can’t look at your billing history and determine that you had an international data plan when you were overseas. Now thats customer service!

Before the trip I also rented several movies from iTunes to watch on the plane. What didn’t occur to me was that the iPhone needs to connect to iTunes during playback to make sure you’re authorized to play the movies…something that doesn’t work too well when you’re 30,000 ft. above the Atlantic Ocean. Surely I’m not not the first person to rent movies from iTunes to watch on an iPod or iPhone on a plane?