Never Trust the Devil

The Devils’ Golf Course, Death Valley

Devils Golf Course (Jul 2009) 0005

This is a place I won’t forget too easily as it was ‘nearly’ the site of one of my photographic disasters. I’d been up since before 4:00 am that day and had driven down from our hotel at Furnace Creek for a dawn shoot at Badwater. Unfortunately the dawn sky colour failed to really materialise and the desired reflections in the sparse salt pools were a bit meek to say the least. Never-the-less

Read More»

A Windy Day in Derbyshire

Photographic Location & WORKSHOP

Derbyshire (Sep 2010) 1060

Last week I was a budding participant on one of Doug Chinnery’s landscape photographic workshops. Doug is a professional photographer that just so happens to live not far from where I live and whom I met at my local photographic club in Worksop last year. I was much impressed by Doug, not just his superb photography, but with his down-to-earth approach and willingness to share his knowledge with fellow photographers, something that many other expert photographers’ seem almost reluctant to do.Derbyshire (Sep 2010) 1005

Sadly for our foray into the Hathersage area of Derbyshire that day we weren’t blessed with good weather and my 5:00am pickup in the dark for sunrise seemed somewhat in vain. Our rendezvous with two other fellow photographers just below Higger Tor ended up in a rather hasty retreat to Grindleford station for some shelter from the rain and wind, and chat about photography and a welcome cup of coffee. With no abate in the weather one member decided to call Derbyshire (Sep 2010) 1028it a day. However after fuelling up with a hearty, full English breakfast in Hathersage a second attempt was made at Higger Tor, but high winds prevented any photography on the top and grey skies and eventual rain brought that sessions to a close.

Doug then took us down to an area of birch trees above Lawrence Field well away from the windy tops and by now patches of dappled sunlight were starting to appear. This was quite different photography from what I’d normally attempt and to beDerbyshire (Sep 2010) 1036 honest I was well out of my comfort zone here. However Doug encouraged us to shoot tree trunks, grassy tussocks and I even and a few (albeit unsuccessful) attempts at some macro photography.

After a lengthy spell there it was off back down to the rather quirky, but excellent Grindleford Station Cafe for some hot chocolate and cake. Whilst gorging ourselves on some inordinately well proportioned slabs of date and walnut cake, Doug took the opportunity to download our CF cards direct to his iPad and proceeded to present us slideshows of our efforts. This was really useful as we got to see each others work and discussed what worked and what didn’t. The iPad is a really neat device, has a great screen and is ideally suited for viewing and backing up RAW files in the field. It beats devices like the Epson P-7000 viewer hands down in my opinion, and there are already RAW editing apps around too (that’s another gadget to add to my wish list). It’s a pity they don’t make one with more than 64Gb memory, but I guess that will come eventually.

Derbyshire (Sep 2010) 1139 By that time the weather was beginning to look quite sunny so we went to Padley Gorge and spent a couple of hours trying out all sorts of shots. What a great place it is and believe it or not it was the first time I’d been there. The leaves are just starting to turn, so it’s not quite the best time, yet but there’s not doubt I’ll be returning here soon. One of the classic shots is off a large old mill stone underneath an oak tree. I tried many compositions of but none that really worked when viewed on my monitor back home. The sunlight was quite strong and I ended up with many many shots with burned out highlights. I should have waited till the the sun was hidden by the clouds. If you want to see how it should be shot check out Doug’s version here. I did however get a rather nice but querky shot of a curtain of moss/weed behind a small water fall which made an almost abstract image.

Derbyshire (Sep 2010) 1162We decided to set off for Stanage Edge for sunset, but spotted some fantastic light and sunbeams (Crepuscular rays as Dough pointed out!) over the hope Valley on our way. We stopped on Fiddlers Elbow road off the A6187 about 3/4 of the way up to Higger Tor but sadly the sunbeams and gorgeous light did not reappear.

My favourite image of the day is the one at the top of this blog of a small gap in the wall and out of focus trees behind. Nothing spectacular or compositionally great but juts one I like. Maybe I’ll attempt it again well the autumn leave are in full colour and use a slightly wider aperture blur the background even more.

View Derbyshire Photo Workshop in a larger map

I can’t say I came away with any memorable images, but I certainly came back with many new locations to try, an improved compositional knowledge and a list of new subjects to try. If you’re a budding photographer and want to take your skills to the next level and learn more then workshops are a great way forward, and fun too.

A Snapshot of Uganda

Field Location Article

Uganda (Apr 2010) 016

I’ve not done this before so don’t expect too much, but all of my photographic location articles been penned post event, back at home in front of my desktop computer, complied at leisure. This one however, is from the field. As I write I’m at a camp based in North West Uganda along the Eastern shores of Lake Albert. I’m sat in my cabin looking out over thatched mud huts of the local village, situated on a grassy flood plane, about 600 yards inland of the shoreline, with the blue mountains of the Congo in the distance on the western shore shrouded in early morning mist. The morning sunlight is golden, the frogs are still croaking in the ponds from last nights downpour, the village is quiet and the scene is tranquil. It’s just before eight in the morning.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 003

Actually I’m at work, my day job so to speak, employed as a geologist during the drilling of an exploration well looking for oil. The well is nearing completion, my tasks are almost done and I’m winding down, getting things in order before my departure and a well earned rest in a few days time. I’ve done this sort of thing most of my working life, spending several weeks at a time away from my family and home, followed by several weeks at home. It may seem odd to some, but to me and my family this is our normal life.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 012

I digress however. The reason I write is that this location is quite beautiful and I thought I’d like to share a few pictures with you. This is not because they are of any particular photographic merit, but just to render a brief snapshot of this small part of Africa and let you see why I’m so lucky to be able to work in a place like this. A glimpse into an area where the tourist will never see; a glimpse into the lives of real Africans.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 006

It’s been a rather busy trip for me this time and the long hours had taken their toll. Although I always tend to bring a bag of camera gear along, for the first 3 weeks or so I was unable to find time nor the energy to even leave the compound never mind get my camera out. It remained firmly in the bag. The locations I’d worked on my last few trips had been in thick bush and forest and none had provided anything of significant photographic interest from a landscape and wildlife point of view. I had expected this location, which not far from the last one, to be the same. I was wrong, and sadly I didn’t bring a tripod nor any ND grads this time, something I now regret. It’s very easy to get blasé, just do your job, and want to get on that plane home sometimes. So, photography here was going to be very much of the tourist kind, just snapshots.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 014

Over the last 2 or 3 days, my workload has reduced somewhat and I have had time for several walks through the village and down to the lake and to explored the shorelines and small lagoons in between. At the moment most of the small lagoons and ponds are full of water hyacinth and each one is a resplendent carpet of pink blooms. In places the blooms skirt the shoreline too. Heron, Egret, Open-billed Stork and Cormorant occupy the braches of one of the sparse trees in the late afternoon sunlight by the ponds. Marabou stalks and Squacco Herons are often to be seen wading the ponds hunting for frogs, and African Jacana can be seen flitting flimsily across the waters vegetation. On one occasion a couple of resplendent Grey-crowned Cranes were spotted dancing a courtship ritual in the late evening light. The mornings and evenings bring squadrons of birds travelling to and from their perch to the Victoria Nile delta just a few miles north of our location, a place of plenty and a haven for wildlife.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 013

The beach is narrow and none existent in places, but still provides a place of fun for the local boys, a party of which decided to follow me and a co-worker on one of my walks. My camera provoked interest and a source of great amusement especially when shown their pictures on the display. The villagers here are predominantly fisherman, as there is little sign of cultivation and small wooden fishing boats are scattered here and there, in twos and threes along the sandier sections of the shoreline. Some fishermen can be seen at work in the late afternoon, not far from the shore, but by far the greatest activity happens at night, especially around the new moon, when the black of night is littered by polka dots of yellow oil lamps on hundreds of fishing boats scattered across the lake. The fish is good too, as it often ends up on our plates.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 009

Village life is very simple here, and to be honest the villagers have quite a meagre existence. There is no running water or electricity, no modern luxuries, and every morning and evening we see the women and children carrying huge plastic jerry cans of water on their heads from the nearby well. One evening a child, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than about five years old, and particularly small, dropped her jerry can. She was all alone. It was so heavy she couldn’t even lift it off the ground. I watched from a distance as she struggled several times trying before she ran off leaving the jerry can on the ground. She returned a few minutes later with an older girl, who was probably only two or three years older, and not much taller. But between the two of them they lifted the heavy, water laden, jerry can back on to the little girls head and off she waddled as best she could. No western child could do this, but here it’s part of life.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 021

Home for the locals is a simple one room mud hut with a thatch roof, dirt floor and a small mud shed or outhouse which serves as the toilet. Food is cooked on a small clay oven or an open fire. Some I believe may have gas stoves but I see little evidence of that in the village nearby. Most of the children run around in ragged clothes, the very young ones are often naked, and some unfortunately display distended stomachs, a sign of malnourishment. Many infants seem very small , especially short and under developed for their age, although the older children seem happy and much healthier than the young ones. There’s obviously no nutritious baby food available here. Uganda (Apr 2010) 005Compared to western standards of any order this is a harsh existence, yet the people seem happy, good mannered and only inquisitive of their new temporary neighbours. We have experienced only happy smiles and no animosity; something I doubt would happen in our world should you find a drilling rig at the end of your garden!

On Sundays the women and children (didn’t see any of the men) can be seen wearing their finest walking off to church in an adjacent village. The majority of children are barefoot even then and I guess for many (if not all) they probably only have one Sunday outfit. The women are colourful, with brightly coloured wraps and dresses, some adorned with bangles and beads, one with a blue and white checked hat. Sometimes the women can be seen washing clothes in a large metal basin, others go down to the lake. The clothes are then scattered on the thatch roof or bushes to dry. A few of the huts are adorned with some simple wall paintings, one which caught my eye, with two white hearts. A love nest for someone perhaps?

Uganda (Apr 2010) 020

It’s the rainy season here and nothing provides more drama than stormy skies in Africa, especially at sunrise, just after a night storm. We have experienced some incredible sunrises here on this trip. Unfortunately, I’m often very busy at that time of the morning as the oil industry has a peculiar habit of having to produce daily reports at six am. Bonkers I know, but that’s how it’s always been done and it doesn’t look set to ever change. Consequently, although I get to see the sunrise, I seldom get photograph it. On top of top that we also have a daily meeting at 7:30am too.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 001

The storms, which can occur at any time of the day, most frequently seem occur in late afternoon or evening, and can bring torrential downpours. They don’t last long but in that brief time the ground rapidly becomes water logged and floods, leaving a muddy mess. It at this time I’m pretty glad I’m not in a mud hut.

Uganda (Apr 2010) 017

In other places I been in Uganda you’re often asked for water bottles or quite often money, but there’s little evidence I see of that here. All the boys asked of us was a football. I so wish I had one to give to them.

Snow, Fog an Accident and a New Lens

Latest Picture

It’s funny how things come about. Last week I was out with a group of photographers down on the rocks at Robin Hoods Bay on the Yorkshire coast. It was an awful day, extremely blustery, with rain, hail sleet and snow. Unfortunately for me, whilst briefly turning to get something out of my camera bag a huge gust of wind blew my tripod over and my Canon 5D Mark-II complete with my 24-105 f/4.0 lens ended up face down in a rock pool. Luckily neither got fully submerged as the kit was covered with an Op/tech rain sleeve (highly recommended at 2 for just over a fiver!) which probably saved my bacon. I retrieved the equipment in a flash (well as fast as this old frame can move in a blizzard) and dried everything off the best I could. Thank god for weather sealing on the 5D MII, I think my old 5D M-I would have been done-for had the same happened to that.

The camera seem to work OK but the LCD didn’t come back on for a few minutes. A small amount of water seemed to have got in past the rubber stop on the Extension System terminal on the base of the camera, but after cleaning and drying this out all seemed OK. However, I had been about to attach my Hitech filter holder adapter ring to the lens, which I continued to try to do but it wouldn’t attach. On close inspection I saw the outer threaded rim of the lens was cracked in two places. Dam, that was a blow (or words to that effect!).

Tree in Winter Fog

Alright accidents happen, I’m insured, I can get it repaired I thought. But I’ve booked a holiday at Staithes in a couple of weeks, and have a photo trip down to Dorset at the end of the month. This is my work-horse lens…what I’m going do if it’s not repaired on time?

Well I guess you know the answer, yep I bought a new lens. I’d always fancied trying one of those cheap Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 primes that get pretty good reviews. They used to be really really cheap but now have crept up to eighty odd quid. Still worth as punt perhaps at that price. However, after several hours reading many online reviews I decided that forking out an extra couple of hundred for the EF 50mm f/1.4 was perhaps a better investment and Amazon duly got some more of my money.

The lens arrived yesterday just after I’d taken the kids to school, complete with UV filter and lens hood (all extras of course). It had snowed the night before and was really foggy, but I had to go out and try it. Above is one of my first efforts (converted to monochrome), rather minimalist I know, but I thought the tree, especially with the broken branch made a good subject against an almost totally white background. As for sharpness, it seems ok, a little too early to tell, but not bad. Contrast, well not the best subject to tell with either. But you can be sure I’ll let you know how this lens performs real soon.


Canon EF 50mm f/1.5 USM Les Review
Op/tech Rain Sleeve
Op/tech Rain Sleve from Crooked Imaging

Shooting the Antelope

Photographing a Classic Arizona Location

Despite the title this article has nothing to do with wildlife; quite the contrary in fact for this is about my visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, the beautiful, atmospheric and most famous slot canyon, situated near Page in Northern Arizona.

Spirit of the Navajo

Spirit of the Navajo – Ghostly light beans in Upper Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon (Upper Antelope Canyon especially) is one of those classic photographic locations that has become extremely popular over the last 15 to 20 years or so, and to some almost a bit of a photo cliché, but there’s no denying that it produces some wonderful photographic opportunities.

Read More»

False Kiva, Canyonlands

A Classic Photographic Location – False Kiva

I first became aware of False Kiva location from the excellent Canyonlands and Arches DVD by photographer Steve Kossack from his series Photographing The Great American Landscape. My purchase at the time was more out of curiosity and to gain further insight to landscape photographic technique rather than a specific interest in the locations covered. At that time I only had dreams of visiting locations like those and False Kiva.
False Kiva

False Kiva, a hidden gem in Canyonlands – © John R. Birch 2009

However that changed in the summer of 2009 when I took my family on a fly-drive holiday in the USA. Whilst researching possible photographic locations for our trip I came across a picture of False Kiva by the photographer Stephen Oachs. His is entitled “The Tribunal” and to be quite honest I was simply blown away,
Read More»

The Magic of Mono

Photographic Location

You’d be forgiven if you thought I was going to discuss the benefits of black & white photography or something to that effect. I’m referring of course, to Mono lake in California, one of the oldest lakes in North America. Mono Lake is located in the Mono basin, flanked to the north by the Bodie Hills, to the west by Sierra Nevada Mountain range, and to the east by Crowtack Mountain of Nevada, and adjacent to the town of Lee Vining almost 6,800 ft above sea level. The scenery is a stark contrast from the pine forests and alpine meadows of nearby Yosemite Valley 75 miles over the Tioga mountain pass, comprising a semi-arid, desert-like landscape, dominated by distinctive igneous geology with many volcanic craters.

It is a lake that is not without controversy either. Back in 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began water extraction which was to eventually exceeded inflow and as a result the lake level began to drop. By 1982 the lake surface area had been reduced by over 30 percent. This also began to expose submerged tufa towers; large limestone spires formed by calcium waters transported to lake bed by geothermal springs, reacting with the salt-rich lake waters and depositing layer-upon-layer of calcium carbonate over time. It also drastically effected the salinity of the lake, exposing salt rich deposits to erosion and now the lake is 2½ times more salty than the ocean. Not much can survive in that, and not much does (there are no fish), however the lake is home to Artemia monica, a tiny species of brine shrimp, no bigger than a thumbnail, that are entirely unique to Mono Lake.
Local inhabitants formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 and many years of legal proceedings and representations followed which have eventually resulted in a directive to reduce water extraction and (hopefully) eventually return the lake to it’s former levels. However the battle still continues on.

Mono Lake and the surrounding area provide a truly unique and interesting landscape but it is the tufa towers that provide great interest to photographers. I’d past through Lee Vining briefly back in 1984, but never visited the tufa areas, now designated as a California State Reserve Park. The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Centre, just off Highway 395 to the north of Lee Vining, includes a variety of exhibits about the natural and human history of the Mono Basin and is a good place to research your photographic location if you have time beforehand. The best area for photographers is South Tufa, on the southern shoreline, where are tufa spires up to 30-ft high and ranging in age from 200-700 years old are exposed, providing a surreal landscape. I didn’t have the luxury of a reconnaissance trip before my dawn shoot, so it was up at 4:30 am and a drive out in the dark for me during my summer 2009 visit.

As I drove out from Lee Vining and turned onto highway-120, there was a beautiful pre-dawn red glow reflected in the lake that made it seem like it was on fire and I began to wonder if my 4:30am alarm call had been early enough. There were other cars in the car park too, so I set off briskly down the wooded walkway in the dim, pre-dawn light with my head torch lighting the way. It’s quite strange visiting a location for the first time in the dark (not the best thing to do), but I didn’t have the opportunity to explore the day before and I could just about make out the shadows of the eerie tufa spires all around. I found three other photographers with tripods already set-up at the beach at the end of the boardwalk, so I set up beside them and began to chat. Luckily for me one turned out to be Ralph Nortstom, a delightful chap, and professional photographer conducting a small workshop. Ralph was kind enough to give me some pointers and shortly I was snapping away with the rest of them. You can smell the salt at Mono lake and as it got lighter I became aware of the millions of lake flies floating on the water and along the shore line which ripple away in vast waves as you walk towards them. Thankfully they don’t bother or bite. As the light gradually increased I became aware of many other photographers arriving and others scattered amongst the tufas. I must have counted over 30, so this is definitely a very popular spot. I went for a walk eastwards through the large shore bound accumulation of tufas and tried several other spots, but soon the good light had gone, but I found exactly the right location for my shot for the following day.

The next morning I was first to arrive, but the pre-dawn glow didn’t seem anywhere near as intense as the day before. The sky was cloudless again too. It was so much easier to find my location this time; it certainly pays to investigate your location beforehand if you can. I had envisaged catching silhouettes and shadowy reflections of a tufa island just offshore looking eastward into a red dawn glow. Despite the lack of brilliance, stopping down increases the saturation and as the light increased I used graduated ND filters to hold back the sky and balance it with the reflections within the lake. I also tried additional ND filters to lengthen my exposure time to smooth out the surface of the lake, an effect I quite like. Soon the golden light had faded and I tried other shots. There are so many unusual shapes within the tufa you can spend ages here. It’s a wonderful spot and I was really pleased with my shot. I hope you agree.


How to Get There

Head south from Lee Vining on US-395 for approximately 5½ miles. Get into the left hand lane and take a sharp left onto Hwy-120, which is signposted Benton 46 and Mono Lake South Tufa 5 miles. After a further 4.7 miles you’ll see a sign to Mono Lake South Tufa. Make a left onto Test Station Road, just where Hwy-120 turns begins to turn sharply to the right. The road is paved but not for long. Take the left hand road where the road forks; the right goes to Navy Beach. This is the end of the paved section but the gravel track down to the car park is fine for most vehicles. From the car park it’s a 5 minute walk down a boardwalk to the beach. The end of this path is a good location, but better locations can be had by heading off to the right (eastwards) and following one of the several paths through the large tufas to the beach beyond where your will be able to photographs tufas offshore silhouetted into the dawn or rising sun.  

Recommended Links

Photographic Locations nearby

Bodie State Park – quite probably the best ghost town of all.
Sand Tufas near Navy Beach

The Eagle and the Snake

Snake Eagle Cloaks Prey

I’ve been lucky enough to work in Uganda over the last couple of years and this has given me the fantastic opportunity to photograph some of Uganda’s amazing wildlife.

I certainly don’t profess to be any sort of bird or wildlife expert, far from it in fact, and before working in East Africa I could hardly tell one bird species from another. However, when it comes to birds of prey, even they generally grab the attention of many a non-ornithologist.

The best photographs require a high degree of luck and this one was no exception

As they generally say, the best photographs require a high degree of luck and this one was no exception. A friend and I had gone for a drive within the Kabyoya Game Reserve, a small region around Kaiso on the eastern shore of Lake Albert in Albertine Rift valley of north west Uganda. We were not far from the Lake Albert Safari Lodge and much of the surrounding high savannah grass had been burnt to the ground in the annual burnings. This is a good time for the raptors, as their normally hidden prey is revealed and less well camouflaged against the blackish brown, scorched earth and stubble. Prey is on the move too, trying to escape the encroaching fire. The Brown Snake Eagle was spotted perched upon a tree top and we pulled over to take some photos. My fellow photographer sported a Pentax with 50-500mm Sigma zoom lens, me with my trusty Canon 5D and my EF 100-400mm, f4.5-5.6 Zoom. Contrary to most wildlife blogs we don’t have time for tripods and hours of waiting, with just an hour or two to catch what we can. Everything is shot hand-held from the vehicle window. Image stabilisation (IS) is invaluable.


A Fleeting Glimpse

I only managed to fire off a couple of frames (being on the passenger side) before the eagle took flight. Another disappointment. We drove on, just passed the tree, when suddenly we were aware of a faint flash of something light coloured off to the drivers side, the next thing I hear is “It’s got a snake!“. The eagle had swooped down the other side of the tree and caught a cobra; the flash being the underbelly of the snake as it writhed around the Eagles talons, one talon firmly fixed upon the cobras head. We pulled up as close as we dare and started shooting as fast as possible. I had to shoot across the driver so there was no time for even thinking about composition, just grab the photo. I managed to bag 18 frames during which the eagle bit off end of the snakes tail, cloaked it’s prey, then flew off back to the top of tree grasping the wriggling cobra. I kept my camera set on AV (aperture priority), aperture wide open at f/5.6, with only the centre focus point enabled. I tried to focus on the eye and quickly re-frame. It usually works .. some of the time.

Initial Disappointment 

Snake Eagle with Prey

Original RAW capture

I was pretty sure I’d bagged a decent shot but joy turned to bitter disappointed when I viewed the frames in Lightroom later on. A long blade of dry, parched, unburned grass, arched over and blurred, appeared in the foreground of every frame, passing right across the eagle. Of course I didn’t even notice that when shooting, my eyes and lens just focused upon the eagle. The burnt stubble in the background was almost as dark and a similar colour to the bird, so the frames lacked contrast. Several frames were too blurred and beyond redemption and none of the snake parts were in sharp focus. They seemed like a lost cause. 

Re-processing worth the Effort 

Several months later however, I took another look at the images. They really they weren’t that bad. Perhaps I’d been too critical at the time. It was OK that the snake wasn’t that sharp, as long as the eagle was. Now I’m not usually one for spending time attempting photo-manipulation in Photoshop; I’m not particularly great at it, and more often than not it never quite come out looking right. However, this was one time to try. I patiently cloned out the offending blade of grass, together with a distracting leaf in the foreground, adjusted the contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation to make the bird’s colours stand out as much as I could against the brown background. To finish off I applied a gradual blur to the background to accentuate the lens Bokeh, sharpened the eagle and cropped the frame. This did the trick. Now I had an exciting wildlife photograph, one that I was more than pleased with.

Mesa Arch – The Photographers Holy Grail

An Iconic Location of the American Southwest

Mesa Arch Sunrise

We’ve all seen hundreds of pictures of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. It’s an iconic image and a location that is hugely popular with photographers from all over the world. You may well think it’s been over-photographed, but the temptation to add this to your portfolio if you get the chance is just too good to an oportunity to miss. It’s almost the holy grail for photographers and besides, for amatuers like myself it’s a chance to compair your own results with the big boys and see

Read More»
© Copyright johnbirchphotography - Designed by Pexeto