Natural History Photography Blog - Phillip Colla

Natural History Photography - Best Photos of 2014

Filed under: Best Photographs of the Year — Tags: — on 12/20/2014

My Best Natural History Photographs of 2014

This is the eighth year in a row I have done an annual retrospective. 2014 held less “serious” photography for me than any of the previous 15 years. Life gets in the way, and running a photography business is 60% administrative, 25% photographic and 15% chaotic. Nevertheless I still consider myself a fortunate photographer, and would not trade places with anyone else (OK, perhaps Neil Armstrong in 1969). My creative goal for any one year is, as it always has been, to shoot 3-4 world-class images and 10-15 portfolio-quality images. Thanks to some special opportunities I was able to experience this year — several chances at aerial photography, and a lengthy trip to Kenya — I was able to bring home some images with which I am very happy. Here they are! Note: if you like these feel free to check out previous years’ favorites as well: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007. Also, be sure to check out Jim Goldstein’s blog, where he collects the “best of the year” collections of many talented photographers. Cheers, thanks for looking, and best wishes for 2014!


Elephants, Amboseli National Park, Kenya
 

Lioness and two-week cub, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
 

Wildlife, aerial photograph, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
 

Lioness in tall grass, sunrise, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
 

Leopard at ease, Olare Orok Conservancy, greater Maasai Mara, Kenya
 

Lunar eclipse sequence, October 8, 2014, San Diego
 

Clearing storm at dawn, Torrey Pines State Reserve
 
Palomar Observatory at Night under the Milky Way, Panoramic photograph, Palomar Mountain, California
Palomar Observatory at Night under the Milky Way, Panoramic photograph.
Image ID: 29342  
Location: Palomar Observatory, Palomar Mountain, California, USA
 
Light Painting and the Milky Way and Stars over Delicate Arch, at night, Arches National Park, Utah
Light Painting and the Milky Way and Stars over Delicate Arch, at night, Arches National Park, Utah.
Image ID: 29288  
Location: Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA
 
Full Moon rising over San Diego City Skyline, viewed from Harbor Island
Full Moon rising over San Diego City Skyline, viewed from Harbor Island.
Image ID: 29121  
Location: San Diego, California, USA
 
Torrey Pines cliffs and storm clouds at sunset, Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Diego, California
Torrey Pines cliffs and storm clouds at sunset.
Image ID: 29102  
Location: Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Diego, California, USA
 
Aerial photo of gray whale calf and mother. This baby gray whale was born during the southern migration, far to the north of the Mexican lagoons of Baja California where most gray whale births take place, Eschrichtius robustus, San Clemente
Aerial photo of gray whale calf and mother. This baby gray whale was born during the southern migration, far to the north of the Mexican lagoons of Baja California where most gray whale births take place.
Image ID: 29017  
Species: Gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus
Location: San Clemente, California, USA
 
Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence over Arch Rock, planet Mars above the moon, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014
Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence over Arch Rock, planet Mars above the moon, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.
Image ID: 29201  
Pano dimensions: 5835 x 14655
 
San Clemente Island Pyramid Head, the distinctive pyramid shaped southern end of the island
San Clemente Island Pyramid Head, the distinctive pyramid shaped southern end of the island.
Image ID: 29358  
Location: San Clemente Island, California, USA
 
Balboa Pier, sunrise, Newport Beach, California
Balboa Pier, sunrise.
Image ID: 29138  
Location: Balboa Pier, Newport Beach, California, USA
 
California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis, La Jolla
California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy.
Image ID: 29085  
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA
 
Scripps Pier and moving water, pre-dawn light, La Jolla
Scripps Pier and moving water, pre-dawn light, La Jolla.
Image ID: 28984  
Location: La Jolla, California, USA
 
Stars over Corona Arch at Night, Moab, Utah
Double self-portrait (I am both people in the image) with stars, Corona Arch at Night, Moab, Utah.
Image ID: 29242  
Location: Corona Arch, Moab, Utah, USA
 

Dawn Patrol, Scripps Pier, La Jolla

Filed under: La Jolla, Surf — Tags: , , , , — on 12/14/2014

Three guys head out for a surf, under leaden skies and rain, pre-dawn. Scripps Institute of Oceanography Research Pier, La Jolla, California.

California Brown Pelicans, La Jolla, December 2014

Filed under: La Jolla — Tags: — on 12/10/2014

A PDF guide to photographing these pelicans: Guide to Photographing Pelicans in La Jolla. If you like these photos, you can also see lots more blog posts from past sessions photographing California brown pelicans in La Jolla. Or, I’ve got a gallery of some keepers on my website, but most of the good ones from the last couple years I have not even gotten around to captioning and putting the web yet: California Brown Pelican photo gallery.

Pelicans on Goldfish Point (click to go big). This is what the cliffs should look like on mornings when the pelicans are around (which is most but not all mornings). If you see pelicans on nearby cliffs and/or flying around, and you don’t see pelicans on top of Goldfish Point like this, there is a good chance someone has spooked them.

Thoughts on the Canon 200-400 lens: It’s a little early in December to photograph the pelicans but what the heck. I was able to check the skies at 5am, see that they were clear to the east, and run down to the cliffs to practice my skills with a new lens (see below). Since it is early December I was alone each morning this week; there are none of the crowds or workshops that are often here from Christmas through February. A storm is on the way in from Hawaii, driving a big swell ahead of it that kept the lower rocks wet today, pushing all the birds up to the top area. My guess is that plumage will peak in the first week or two of February, it is still quite early now and only a small fraction of the adults have what I would consider full mating plumage (chestnut brown hindneck, yellow head, deep red and olive throat, etc). The last couple years I have only photographed these birds a few times, having my best luck with a 300mm lens on full frame body. I am now using a Canon 200-400 lens, something I got for safari in Kenya, and now that I have tried it on these birds I can say: it’s the ticket. It is almost as if the Canon 200-400 was invented just for this one location — it’s perfect. Since it is hand-holdable you can dispense with the restrictions and cumbersomeness of a tripod if you wish. All of the following — including the top panorama above which is a stitch of about 20 images, the bottom pano is an iPhone shot — were shot with the Canon 200-400, most handheld, and only a few using the built-in 1.4x teleconverter (which makes the lens a 560mm f/5.6 lens). Note: this lens is sharper and has greater contrast than Nikon’s 200-400; I have owned both and can say this from experience. Both are great but the Canon is the one to get if you can afford it. I select lenses and then get cameras for them (not vica-versa) and this is one lens for which it is worth owning at least one Canon body. I have a 5DIII as dedicated life-support for this one lens. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Lunar Eclipse Photo Sequence, October 8 2014

Lunar Eclipse Sequence October 8 2014

I have made a few photographic sequences of lunar eclipses, including several of the total lunar eclipse of April 15 2014 (version 2, version 3). I wanted to do something similar for the October 8 2014 lunar eclipse, but did not have the freedom to go photograph out in the desert where the air was likely to be clear. On the evening of the eclipse conditions were iffy, and down on the beach the air was heavy and wet so the pier was out — it was on the verge of turning to fog. Up on the mesas above and inland from the beach the air was much clearer and drier but still the shooting looked iffy, I was not sure the eclipse would even be visible. As it turned out I was able to get the images for which I was hoping, although things were not as clear as I probably would have found in the desert.

My planning for the eclipse was something like this: the penumbral phase of eclipse was to begin at 2:15am at 227 degrees on the compass and inclination of 53 degrees. Full eclipse would begin at 3:25 (245 degrees, 41 degree inclination) and end at 4:24am (256 degrees, 30 degree inclination). The penumbral phase would end at 5:34 (266 degrees, 16 degree inclination). This meant the “rectangle” that the path of the eclipse would take through the sky was roughly 40 degrees horizontally (left to right on the compass) and spanned a vertical inclination of about 37 degrees. I figured a lens with about 24mm of focal length, or a little more, held in portrait orientation — which covers approximately 73 degrees vertically and 53 degrees horizontally would work well, since it would allow for some foreground and would cover the entire left-right travel of the moon with room to spare on all sides. Mind you this may sound like some sort of complicated math but in truth a few minutes with The Photographer’s Ephemeris and a few notes on the back of a VISA envelope were all that was required to set up the plan for that night. The “center” of the eclipse would be at a compass angle of about 250 degrees, so I setup my camera in that direction, configured it to shoot periodic bracketed images all night long using an intervalometer, and crossed my fingers the sky would remain clear for the two and a quarter hours that the eclipse would happening.

I also shot individual images of the eclipsing moon with 560mm of focal length — the Canon 200-400 f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x teleconverter turned out to be perfect for this, and I periodically used live focus to ensure the moon was as sharp as possible. That lens, coupled with good focus and a good sensor, can really resolve a lot. I composited these sharp and detailed moon images onto the best single image of the “background” in the location and orientation in which the moon travelled across the sky. They appear about twice as large as the moon actually appeared in the original wide-angle photographs. I was a little surprised to find the path was slightly convex (relative to the ground) as in my previous south-facing sequences the path was strongly concave, but then realized after looking at the star trails of the images from that night that indeed this was the proper path of the stars and moon. I was facing only about 20 degree south of west and Polaris was about 110 degrees to the right. All heavenly objects have an apparent rotation about that one star, leading to the path of the moon you see here. The following image is a huge (12000 x 12000) mosaic of the sequence, with some impressive detail in the moon including some visible lunar mountains when the sun was just skimming the edge of the moon in some of the frames. The frames I found the most interesting, and challenging to expose, are those were there is still direct sunlight case upon the moon while at the same time some of the “blood red moon” coloration is beginning to appear in the shadowed area of the moon. The moon is yellower at the end of the sequence than it is at the beginning — at the beginning it is high in the sky and the optical path passed through relatively little atmosphere, but toward the end of the sequence the moon was nearly setting and the optical path passed through much more atmosphere, affecting the “color temperature” of the moon and rendering it with a yellowish hue. (Hue: does anyone actually use that word in conversation?)

Lunar Eclipse Sequence October 8 2014

Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Sunset over the Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park, Utah

Filed under: Arches, Utah — Tags: , , — on 8/13/2014

The sun sets over the Garden of the Gods in Arches National Park, Utah. Garry McCarthy and I were in Utah for a few days of hiking and night photography. While we shot the sunset from this scenic point we bumped into night photography great Brad Goldpaint, a nice guy and exceptional photographer who was teaching a night photography workshop. It was a fine sunset which we followed it up with some night photography of nearby Balanced Rock and Double Arch. If you like this please check out more photos from Arches National Park. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Sunset over Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park
Sunset over Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park.
Image ID: 29261  
Location: Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park, Utah, USA
Pano dimensions: 4108 x 8190
 

Surfer’s View of Scripps Pier Perfect Sunset, Solar Alignment, La Jolla

Filed under: San Diego — Tags: , , , , — on 8/12/2014

Twice each year, the sun sets perfectly centered in the long thin window of the Scripps Research Pier pilings. Photographing this event is frankly rather formulaic and straightforward, to the point that people pack the narrow space on the shore between the pier pilings well before the sunset to ensure they have a “spot” when the sun lines up. It’s not a secret photo op nor is it spontaneous, but it is a striking and fleeting sight to see. I met a couple photographer buddies for one of the lineup evenings in 2013 and managed to photograph it reasonably well: Scripps Pier Sunset Perfect Solar Alignment, La Jolla, San Diego, California. This year I gave the matter some thought and realized I just couldn’t bring myself to do the same photo over again, especially with the crowd that forms. How to do it differently and with at least a modicum of spontaneity and physical challenge? After pondering it for a while I realized leaving the shore was really the only option. I spent three afternoons recently photographing the pier using one of my water cam setups — a custom-made surf housing for my Canon 5D Mark III — along with a few pieces of simple but secret equipment to make it all possible. Shooting it from the surfline is pretty tough, the pier does not move of course but the water moves and thus so do I. The sun is only centered below the far end of the pier for a short while, perhaps 30 seconds or less, and getting the camera reasonably high up off the water while positioning the pilings where I wanted them and keeping them vertical was tougher than I thought I would be. The nice part was that even though the solar alignment that makes these sunsets special only really occurred one of the three evenings (and was probably not properly aligned had I been shooting from the shore), it was still great to get wet and enjoy the surf and I landed some new views of the pier I have known since 1981 (ok, including the older pier and this new one). This photograph was the image from that effort with which I am happiest; it seems to capture dark shadows that settle under the pier rapidly as the sun disappears, the thin pastel colors in the clouds, and rapidly moving wavelets of water reverberating through the pilings. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Surfer's View of Scripps Pier Perfect Sunset, Solar Alignment, La Jolla

Anacapa Island, Aerial Photo, Channel Islands National Park, California

This is Anacapa Island, viewed from the west with the California coastline visible in the distance. Anacapa Island is composed of three islets stretching about 6 miles long, located 11 miles off the coast. West Anacapa, seen here, is the highest of the three reaching an altitude of 930′ above the sea. Anacapa Island is part of California’s “Channel Islands” and is one of the five islands in Channel Islands National Park. This image was made during an aerial whale survey of the Channel Islands.

Anacapa Island, west end, aerial photo
Anacapa Island, west end, aerial photo.
Image ID: 29400  
Location: Anacapa Island, California, USA
 

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees and the Night Sky Milky Way

If you like this, please see my Gallery of Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree Photos or my Gallery of Milky Way Photos.

These ancient bristlecones are two of the more iconic in the world. They stand on an eastern slope in the White Mountains in a clearing with few other trees nearby. I am fairly certain the foreground tree — which has been photographed by thousands of photographers — is dead. It has a beautiful, gnarled, twisted shape and is quite imposing. The living bristlecone (Pinus longaeva) in the background is my favorite in this area, and one of the most beautiful of the old but living bristlecones anywhere along the White Mountains crest. It was the subject of the first milky way photograph (after many attempts) with which I was really happy, made alongside buddy Garry McCarthy in 2012. The evening I made this particular photographs brought a fast changing mix of light, with clearing storm clouds that alternately moved through the scene and then opened up to reveal stars. I timed my visit specifically for this one night since I knew the lunar phase would balance moonlight with starlight and lend a little bit of detail to the surrounding landscape, something that is more difficult to achieve on the new moon. I’ll post a few more from that night in the coming days. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Stars and the Milky Way over ancient bristlecone pine trees, in the White Mountains at an elevation of 10,000' above sea level. These are some of the oldest trees in the world, some exceeding 4000 years in age, Pinus longaeva, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest
Stars and the Milky Way over ancient bristlecone pine trees, in the White Mountains at an elevation of 10,000′ above sea level. These are some of the oldest trees in the world, some exceeding 4000 years in age.
Image ID: 29407  
Species: Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva
Location: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California, USA
 

Ancient Bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longaeva) live in a relatively restricted area of eastern California, Nevada and Utah, typically at altitudes above 9500′. The ancient bristlecone pine tree is considered to be the world’s oldest species of tree (and indeed the world’s oldest sexually reproducing, nonclonal lifeform). A number of individual bristlecone pine trees are known to exceed 4000 years of age; the “Methuselah tree” in the Schulman grove was estimated to be 4838 years old in 2006. These extraordinarily hardy, gnarled and lonely trees are best seen in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest in California. These photos were taken in the Patriarch Grove and the Schulman Grove, two exemplary groves that can be accessed by car. A few new images below and in my gallery of bristlecone pine tree photos were taken on a clear spring night with the Milky Way spread across the sky — it was a moving and serene experience being around such old trees with the heavens spread so dramatically above.

Ancient bristlecone pine trees live at extremely high altitudes. In some regions, the lower treeline for bristlecone pines exceeds the upper treeline for all other species. Bristlecone forests often occur in areas where there is a strong carbonate content (limestone, dolomite and/or marble). In these barren, remote mountain areas, exposure to constant wind, excessive sun and bitter cold has molded the trees into remarkably gnarled, twisted shapes that have captured the interest of photographers and artists for years.

The trees do not grow tall — 60′ is about the tallest — but tend to be girthy with a wide base and roots that splay outward in all directions. Ancient bristlecone pine trees grow very slowly, and pine needles are infrequently dropped with some living for 30 years. Pinus longaeva has evolved a few strategies that yield such a long lifespan. Their wood is extraordinarily dense, and full of resin, making it nearly impossible for invasive bacteria and insects (what few there are in that inhospitable climate) to bore into and damage the wood. Bristlecone pines also tolerate a gradual dieback of their bark, in such a way that old specimens may have only a small amount of living bark. While the tree may appear dead or nearly so, this is actually an advantage as it lessens the bulk of living material the root system and crown must support. In some old trees, a thin strip of bark a foot or less in size is enough to support a healthy specimen.

Ancient bristlecone wood is so resistant to decay, and occurs in such an arid and cold environment, that fallen pieces dating back 8000+ years have been found in some groves. These pieces have been used in the calibration of the radiocarbon time-dating method, a technique which is employed in a broad range of scientific disciplines.

Please see my gallery of ancient bristlecone pine tree photos. Thanks for looking!

Dusk on Vogelsang Peak, Yosemite National Park, California

Filed under: Sierra Nevada, Yosemite — Tags: , , — on 6/24/2014

The last time I stayed at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, my dad and I took the Rafferty Canyon trail and arrived about 3pm. For some reason I still had some energy so I took off and tried for the summit of Vogelsang Peak, arriving just shortly before sunset. The view was spectacular, an unobstructed view of much of the high country around Yosemite National Park. I got back to camp well after dinner but my dad had saved a plate of food for me, which I scarfed up. I crashed hard that night after covering about 13 miles. It was a good day. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Vogelsang Peak (11516') at sunset, reflected in a small creek near Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in Yosemite's high country, Yosemite National Park, California
Vogelsang Peak (11516′) at sunset, reflected in a small creek near Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in Yosemite’s high country.
Image ID: 23202  
Location: Yosemite National Park, California, USA
 
Panoramic view of the Cathedral Range from the summit of Vogelsang Peak (11500').  The shadow of Vogelsang Peak can be seen in the middle of the picture, Yosemite National Park, California
Panoramic view of the Cathedral Range from the summit of Vogelsang Peak (11500′). The shadow of Vogelsang Peak can be seen in the middle of the picture.
Image ID: 25751  
Location: Yosemite National Park, California, USA
Pano dimensions: 3268 x 15705
 

Townsley Lake and Cathedral Range at Sunrise, Yosemite National Park

Filed under: Sierra Nevada, Yosemite — Tags: , , — on 6/23/2014

One of my favorite lakes in the Sierra Nevada is Townsley Lake, located a bit above and not far from the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in Yosemite National Park. Every time I stay at Vogelsang I make sure to spend at least one sunrise at Townsley, where I have always had quiet solitude and wonderful morning light. Vogelsang means “bird song” in German, and while I made this photograph that was indeed all I could hear: the chirping of small birds and nothing else. Two other beautiful, typical, granite-basin Sierra Nevada lakes are very close to Townsley; Hanging Basket Lake (you can actually see a bit of light bouncing around the hanging valley containing Hanging Basket at the far right of this image, below the sunlit Cathedral Range), and a lake I like to call “Nameless Lake” about 1/2 mile above and to the left of this image. All three can be easily bagged in a half-day hike from Vogelsang High Sierra camp. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Cathedral Range peaks reflected in the still waters of Townsley Lake at sunrise, Yosemite National Park, California
Cathedral Range peaks reflected in the still waters of Townsley Lake at sunrise.
Image ID: 25756  
Location: Yosemite National Park, California, USA
 

Lembert Dome Sunset, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

Filed under: Sierra Nevada, Yosemite — Tags: , , — on 6/22/2014

Nice pastel light hits the clouds and lights up Lembert Dome rising above Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, California. An easy hike takes one to the top of Lembert Dome for expansive views of Tuolumne Meadows and the high Sierra Nevada around the eastern side of Yosemite National Park. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Lembert Dome and late afternoon clouds rise above Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, catching the fading light of sunset, Yosemite National Park, California
Lembert Dome and late afternoon clouds rise above Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, catching the fading light of sunset.
Image ID: 09938  
Location: Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California, USA
 

Lunar Eclipse Sequence, Juniper and Standing Rock, Joshua Tree, 2014

For the eclipse of April 14/15, 2014, I wanted to depict the course of the eclipse across the sky with some recognizable landscape features in the foreground to anchor the composition. As the day of the eclipse went by, I watched the weather reports and decided Joshua Tree National Park would be a good place to shoot, since it was forecast to have clear skies. I have been shooting various spots in JTNP at night in an effort to produce a collection of nice landscape astrophotography images. I knew two locations in particular had orientations that would work well for the eclipse, which was going to occur almost due south. In 2011, Garry McCarthy and I shot original compositions at Arch Rock and the Juniper and Standing Rock incorporating the milky way, at the time something relatively new. Similar images have since become common, and the arch will now often have a crowd of photographers at night around the new moon. But because the next time a full lunar eclipse will occur centered due south is decades away, I knew this eclipse offered an opportunity to produce an astrophotography image at each of these well-known spots that was not likely to be appear in any other photographer’s portfolio anytime soon.

This is the third of the three images I made that night (#1 and #2), with the lunar eclipse depicted from the point in time when the moon entered the shadow of the Earth to when it emerged again, above the small juniper tree and curious standing rock not far from one of the campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence, over Juniper and Standing Rock, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014
Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence, over Juniper and Standing Rock, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.
Image ID: 29204  
 

If you are curious, the other two images I photographed during the eclipse are Lunar Eclipse Sequence over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2014 and Lunar Eclipse Blood Red Moon Sequence over Joshua Tree National Park. The second link explains the planning involved and how I executed the eclipse sequence — I used largely the same camera technique at all three locations but the artificial lighting was different in each, exploiting both hand held light and remote triggered flash depending on what was needed. (The arch rock composition differs from the other two in that not only is it a composite but it is a very wide panorama as well.)

This image is centered due south, which was the point during the eclipse when the moon would be both fully eclipsed and highest in the sky. I lit the juniper and rock with a small handheld light from the right. This image is a composite and the moon is a larger than it appeared to the eye. The moon was exposed separately from the stars in order to control for the fact it was much brighter than the stars and to better present the detail and color of the moon itself. The stars themselves were photographed earlier in the evening, when the full moon was just rising, so that it could illuminate the surrounding landscape not reached by my flashlight. My camera remained fixed on a tripod throughout to ensure the images were aligned perfectly and the moon tracked through the sky in the proper way.

Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Mesa Arch Sunrise and Night under the Milky Way, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Icon alert: this post is about Mesa Arch, a major icon which many now scorn and avoid as a subject of landscape photography, and which is known to have the crowd these days.

I’ve photographed a few icons over the past 30 years, although many of them are underwater and so the landscape buyers probably don’t even think of them as icons, or even think of them at all. Mesa Arch is one of the landscape icons. It’s hard to break new “visionary ground” at a place like Mesa Arch, of which hundreds or thousands of photographs are made each day, almost all of them within a short of period of +/- 20 minutes of sunrise. I first visited Mesa Arch in the 90s, and first made a meaningful photograph of Mesa Arch in 2007. Standing on the arch with arms spread, enjoying the cold winter sunrise in solitude while hovering over a yawning canyon, I made an image that ended up taking a first in a national competition and has since been licensed a number of times, paying for the trip several times over. It has a serious flaw in it that I somehow overlooked at the time I shot it — no, its not the model in the shot — but nobody has really mentioned it when they have looked at the high res. I’m glad I was using the Canon 1DsII for all my photography at the time, since the resolution of that mainly studio and fashion camera has held up well over the years, and the sharpness of the Canon fisheye with which I took the shot will cut fingers if one is not careful.

Mesa Arch, Utah.  An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch, Utah. An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that’s me.
Image ID: 18036  
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
 

When I decided to return to Arches and Canyonlands a few years ago, I wanted to make a different image of Mesa Arch, one that I had thought about for a while: the Milky Way arcing over Mesa Arch. So I did it. Getting the lighting the way I wanted it was a challenge, and stitching the resulting very-wide image without distortion affecting it took some time, but in the end I was very happy with the result. I used a mix of equipment brands in order to produce the highest quality image I could: a Canon 5D Mark III which was new at the time and exhibited great image quality at high ISO settings, combined with the Nikon 14-24 lens, then and still the best all-purpose wide landscape and astrophotography lens available. I believe this image was the first of its kind at Mesa Arch at the time it was made, and the composition has since been repeated a number of times, especially in the last year with its burgeoning interest in astrophotography and the popularity of the online image duplication factories 500px and Flickr.

Panorama of the Milky Way over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Panorama of the Milky Way over Mesa Arch.
Image ID: 27824  
Location: Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
Pano dimensions: 4790 x 7815
 
The Milky Way arching over Mesa Arch at night, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The Milky Way arching over Mesa Arch at night.
Image ID: 27827  
Location: Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
 

During those years I had never seen another person at Mesa Arch. Not at night, not at sunrise, not during the middle of the day. I had heard rumors about the crowd from other photographers, and as pros changed from providing images to providing travel services and workshops in the early 2000’s, I heard the comments more and more: the testy workshop groups and solo photogs with crossed-up tripod legs all hoping to get one for the bucket list, the rock climbing hipsters wanting to walk the span of the arch just when the light was good, and the busloads of foreigners making a 10 day whirlwind tour of the entire southwest while allotting just 30 minutes to see Mesa Arch at the moment of sunrise before running off to Arches for the rest of the morning. I knew someday I would encounter the crowd and kind of wondered about how it would be. My expectation was that the crowd would be a bummer but given these are our public lands — shared lands to which we are all equally entitled — and that we all are tourists (including photogs) at a place like this, I figured it was just something to be endured and hopefully would be fun.

Last month a buddy and I spend 5 days in the Moab area running around with our cameras, shooting some night images, making a few hikes, and seeing the icons. It was great! We did make a few new night images to be proud of, and photographed a couple icons along with everyone else … including Mesa Arch, the classic morning shot which I had never really made before. I do get requests for a sunrise image of Mesa Arch. I’m not sure why I get such requests, since there are many photographers who have this in their stock files and can provide a beautiful print. But I wanted to make sure I could fulfill such requests, so I photographed the arch with two cameras (Nikon 14-24 and Nikon fisheye) in order to provide a couple alternatives.

Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Image ID: 29304  
Location: Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
 

Garry McCarthy and I arrived at the arch first that morning, but my record of having solitude at Mesa Arch was soon broken: about 30 other people eventually arrived to enjoy the spectacular view. So now I’ve experienced the crowd the Mesa Arch, and it was not a bad thing. Everyone wanted to see the same magic light illuminate the underside of the arch, glimpse Washer Woman Arch in the distance, and feel the dizzying vertiginous pull of the cliffs just a few feet in front of us. I heard a number of accents and languages all expressing excitement when the sunlight hit the rocks, and joy when they realized their camera had captured the scene nicely. It was a great morning.

Icon: Sunset over Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Filed under: Arches, Icons, Utah — Tags: , , , , , — on 6/1/2014

I unapologetically photograph a lot of icons and Delicate Arch is one of my favorites. There are few places in the United States that are more iconic than Delicate Arch in Arches National Park — it is depicted on a license plate for crying out loud. Places like this are iconic for good reason: they are beloved by Americans and foreigners alike and in many ways symbolize the spirit and beauty of the outdoors in the United States, the country that gave the idea of the “National Park” to the world. It is tough to break new photographic ground at icons and more than a few contemporary photographers scorn the idea of shooting at such places. I get it, and won’t argue. But I shoot everything and try to value the experience of being on site more than the result (which is usually flawed and falls short of the real thing). And I love National Park icons like Delicate Arch. I love the hike up to the arch (its quick with just enough incline to work up a sweat) and relaxing with the crowd that lingers to catch the end of the day around the arch. Most especially I love the stillness that surrounds Delicate Arch after daylight and the crowd has departed.

Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches National Park
Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches National Park.
Image ID: 29283  
Location: Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA
 

On the evening I shot this image of Delicate Arch, we were on site primarily to shoot the arch after dark. The sunset looked uninspiring and I had my iphone in my hand. Then a wisp of color began to form in the high clouds, catching color from the far western horizon, and I realized I needed a better camera. As dusk matured and the sky took on deeper shades of blue, more color lit the clouds with pastel pinks and purples. It lasted for a few minutes and then, as with the best of sunsets, it was gone quickly. It was a great prelude to the shooting we would do in the hours hence as night took over and myriad stars wheeled overhead, but that is the subject of another blog. If you like this, check out other photos of what I consider iconic photo subjects. Cheers and thanks for looking!

New Work - May 2014

Filed under: Arches, Canyonlands, New Work — Tags: — on 5/30/2014

With the exception of one image, all of my new work in May comes from Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, both in southern Utah. I’ve photographed in these parks a number of times and love them, and will return again and again I’m sure. Both parks lend themselves to iconic compositions and most of the features of Arches National Park are easily accessible (not necessarily true of Canyonlands), so much of these new images will be recognizable. The last time I shot in Arches, four years ago, I was working on landscape astrophotography which, at that time, was still somewhat novel. In other words, there weren’t too many high quality images of, say, Delicate Arch with the Milky Way over it. Shortly after I returned from that shoot, one of my images went sort of viral, accumulating over 16 million views in a very short time. Another one was soon picked up for use by the US Congress. Fast forward to today and the situation is very different: many photographers are picking up the latest dSLRs and trying their hands in night and time-lapse, and it would be a rare night indeed to be alone at Delicate Arch around the new moon. I was accompanying my pal Garry McCarthy who had not been to this part of the Southwest, and so we planned to hit the name arches as well as a few that are less visited by photographers. I got in touch with Brad Goldpaint, one of the top astrophotographers in the world who had been in Arches for some weeks, to ask him how things were looking as far as crowds go. He kindly gave me a quick rundown of what he had seen lately but it was mostly disappointing news — crowds at night and in a few cases, rude and/or drunk photographers were out and about. Dismaying! We resigned ourselves to encountering lots of people in our efforts and just hoped to make the best of it and not have to break out the nunchuks. Well, as luck would have it, Garry and I did have Delicate Arch to ourselves for an entire night, so my streak of being alone at Delicate after dark continues but probably not for much longer. We also had solitude at nearly all the other arches we shot on the trip, with one notable exception. Click here, or on any of the images below, to see a selection of my new May 2014 images. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Milky Way and Stars over Delicate Arch, at night, Arches National Park, Utah
Milky Way and Stars over Delicate Arch, at night, Arches National Park, Utah.
Image ID: 29288  
Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Image ID: 29304  
Arch Rock, Venus and Milky Way at Astronomical Twilight, Morning approaching, Joshua Tree National Park
Arch Rock, Venus and Milky Way at Astronomical Twilight, Morning approaching, Joshua Tree National Park.
Image ID: 29231  
Sunset over Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park
Sunset over Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park.
Image ID: 29261  
Petroglyphs and native American rock art, Moab, Utah
Petroglyphs and native American rock art, Moab, Utah.
Image ID: 29265  

Our one notable exception to being alone on our shooting excursions around Arches and Canyonlands? Mesa Arch of course. Every time I have been to Mesa Arch in the past I was alone. I have heard stories of crowds at Mesa Arch for years. But honestly I had never encountered another person at Mesa Arch — until this trip. Rumors of tour buses taking people to Mesa Arch had reached my ears and indeed it is true. Strangely, most of the visitors, photographers included, left before the sun actually broke through and cast its light upon the cliff and underside of the arch. Mesa Arch is a spectacular spot but I doubt I will return for sunrise again there except perhaps in winter, during a snow storm, when the road is closed.

Searching the Skies - Palomar Observatory at Night

My father took my brother and I camping at Mount Palomar a few times when I was a kid. We would fish at Doane Pond (back then it seemed like a lake but now I realize its little more than a puddle), and always visit the Palomar Observatory just up the road. I was fascinated by the amazing astronomy photographs in the gift shop, and the sheer size of the dome and telescope (200″ diameter, 14-ton glass mirror!) seemed awesome. Fast forward 40 years. I was recently permitted to photograph this telescope at night. The Palomar Observatory, which first collected light in 1948 and is part of the California Institute of Technology, remains one of the most important telescopes in the world. The evening I photographed the observatory, I was fortunate to be accompanied by the observatory’s public relations officer who kindly answered my many questions. One remark of his in particular really stunned me regarding the work that was being done the very evening I was there. I still sort of shake my head thinking about it. I spent years in college and grad school studying some heavy mathematics and science and still have trouble wrapping my mind around this idea: within the last decade and particularly in the last year, scientists at the Palomar Observatory have made direct observations of exoplanets — planets orbiting another star. I don’t mean inferences of other planets by observing the slight periodic dimming of a star, suggesting a planet is crossing in front of the star. I mean direct observations of the exoplanets themselves, through spectroscopy, which allows the composition of the planet to be understood. The distances involved in this science are so great, and the implications so profound, that I find it a little disorienting to ponder for more than a few minutes at a time, my puny intellect is overwhelmed! I’ll have more images of Palomar Observatory to share in the coming weeks. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Palomar Observatory at Night, under the Stars

Panorama of the Full Moon over San Diego City Skyline

I shoot a lot of images of the San Diego City Skyline, to keep them fresh and because I am always looking for a reason to be down along the San Diego Bay at dawn or dusk — it is such a beautiful city. A few months ago I made some nice photos of the full moon rising over downtown San Diego (and this one too!). This is the one I like the best: an enormous panoramic photograph printing up to 3 feet high by over 28 feet long! Here the full moon is seen just after it has risen above the mountains east of San Diego, above the San Diego County Administration building. Photographed with a very sharp telephoto lens and high resolution camera and consisting of over 20 source images, the detail in the final panorama is quite something, with individual people visible in restaurants along the waterfront. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Full Moon rising over San Diego City Skyline, viewed from Harbor Island
Full Moon rising over San Diego City Skyline, viewed from Harbor Island.
Image ID: 29120  
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Pano dimensions: 3562 x 33655
 

The Eyes of Utah - Natural Arches and the Milky Way

The Eyes of Utah? I think these two images look like “eyes”, at least to my eyes they do. The first one sort of looks like an evil serpent’s eye, while the second resembles a whale’s eye. (If you have never seen a whale up close, you’ll just have to trust me on that one.) Both of these arches are in Utah and are depicted here framing the Milky Way galaxy (”our” galaxy). My buddy Garry and I spent a long weekend photographing the night sky around Moab, Utah recently and these were two of my favorite images from the effort. We had to time our photography for when the Milky Way would be in the best position, since it rotates through the sky during the course of the night and can be anywhere from SE early in the evening to SW toward dawn. In each case I lit the surrounding arch with a bit of light to give some relief to the rocks. If you like these, check out my updated gallery of Arches National Park images, or my collection of Landscape Astrophotography. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Milky Way and Stars
Milky Way and Stars through Arch.
Image ID: 29275  
Location: Moab, Utah, USA
 
Milky Way through North Window, Arches National Park
Milky Way through North Window, Arches National Park.
Image ID: 29277  
Location: North Window, Arches National Park, Utah, USA
 

Light Painting Delicate Arch, Utah

The first few times I photographed Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park, most of my compositions were close to the arch. After editing the results of my last visit to the park I resolved to make more distant compositions, for variety’s sake and to put the arch into its surroundings. I got the chance earlier this month. We spent an entire night at Delicate Arch, trying different compositions and light painting techniques, and this was one of my favorites from that effort. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Light Painting Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
Light Painting Delicate Arch with the Milky Way rising above, Arches National Park, Utah

If you like this, please take a look at more Astrophotography Landscape images. Thanks to my friend Garry McCarthy for collaborating on some inventive and impactful light painting.

Delicate Arch, Milky Way and Iridium Flare at Night, Arches National Park, Utah

I have shot Arches National Park a number of times, including a very fruitful trip some years ago to shoot astrophotography landscapes. I returned earlier this month for more, and found that I have reached a point where I need to find alternatives to the usual compositions. This one was forced upon my buddy Garry and me. The clouds obscured some of the sky and blocked the obvious composition of the Milky Way over Delicate Arch, so I wandered about a little looking for different ways to portray the arch before dawn crept in and stole the stars away. The sky to the northeast was clear enough to show the northern, lesser arm of the Milky Way and with a little light painting I was able to juxtapose the arch and the galaxy. I got lucky when the Iridium flare, seen to the left of the arch, arrived in the right spot in the composition during the short, 15 second exposure. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Delicate Arch, Milky Way and Iridium Flare at Night, Arches National Park, Utah

HOME | Online Image Search | Photo of the Day | Contact / Bio | Licensing/Pricing | Prints | Stock List | Image Hierarchy | List of Log Entries | Site Map | Blue Whale | Cetaceans | Pinnipeds | Sharks | Rays | Fishes | Kelp Forest | Sea Birds | Inverts | Man & Animal | Man & Ocean | Ocean & Light | Ocean & Motion | Portraits | About Color and Monitor Calibration | Copyright Statement | All text and photographs copyright © Phillip Colla Natural History Photography   All rights reserved worldwide. The content of this site is made available for purposes of researching images offered for license by Phillip Colla Natural History Photography.  No image is to be copied, duplicated, modified or redistributed in whole or part without the prior written permission of Phillip Colla Natural History Photography.  Whale logo is a trademark of Phillip Colla Natural History Photography, 8021 Paseo Arrayan, Carlsbad, CA 92009, USA.  760.707.7153  Email: photos@oceanlight.com    Web: www.OceanLight.com      Portfolios: www.Gygis.com

Updated: December 22, 2014