Category

How To

Expose to the Right

How To, Wisdom

Are you exposing to the right and using the best in-camera settings for contrast and saturation? If you shoot RAW and expose to the right and think contract and saturation settings don’t affect you, think again. If you judge your exposure settings on whether you are clipping the highlights on your histogram, you may be underexposing unnecessarily. Here’s why.

Note that this post is primarily intended for photographers who shoot RAW. (If you shoot JPEG you may benefit from what follows simply by having a better understanding of what is going on inside your camera, but you probably do not want to use this technique.)

Exposing to the right. Many photographers trying to maximize the amount of data collected in their captures expose to the right, pushing the histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping the highlights. The idea is that by doing this the signal-to-noise ratio in the capture data is maximized. In practice, when determining what the correct exposure is for a given situation, one takes a shot, considers the resulting histogram and then increases exposure until the histogram nears or just touches the right extreme, indicating that pixels are about to be clipped. By shooting to the right one is deliberately increasing the signal (RGB values) as much as possible without clipping them. Since noise is somewhat constant, the resulting signal-to-noise ratio is maximized by exposing to the right in this way. Granted, there are some esoteric reasons for not exposing to the right, but by and large it is an accepted and effective technique for today’s digital cameras.

Clipping highlights. Key to shooting to the right is one’s ability to discern when highlights are being clipped. This is where the in-camera settings for contrast and saturation play a part. Current digital cameras base the histogram on an in-camera JPEG, even when shooting RAW. Typically, the in-camera JPEG has a greater spread in its histogram than is contained in the RAW data, due to the fact that the in-camera JPEG has contrast and saturation enhancement applied to it. Think about it: when you look at your RAW files they have low contrast and saturation, and really don’t come alive until after you have bumped these up a bit. Well, a similar difference occurs between the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — and the underlying RAW data. The default in-camera JPEG has, by design, increased contrast and saturation compared to the RAW file, which translates into (among other things) a histogram that is “more spread out”, with tails reaching further to the left and right.

Now consider this: if the in-camera JPEG has a histogram that is more widely spread than the RAW data, it will show clipped highlights “earlier”. In other words, you won’t push the exposure as far to the right as you might, because the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — is indicating highlights are clipped.

The solution is to turn down the contrast and saturation settings for the JPEGs that are created in-camera. On my Canon cameras I turn them each down two notches below the middle setting. Doing this produces an in-camera JPEG that more closely approximates the distribution of the actual RAW data, resulting in a histogram that is more accurate for my purposes. Since I want to maximize the information in the RAW file, I want a histogram that depicts the RAW data not an in-camera JPEG.

The bottom line is that by using lower settings for contrast and saturation I obtain a histogram that is more representative of the data in my RAW file, I can push that exposure further to the right and be confident that I am not clipping the highlights in my RAW data. If I were to use the default settings for contrast and saturation, the histogram would indicate clipping before it was actually occurring, leading me to unnecessarily underexpose the image.

Don’t guess, don’t approximate: take control of your exposures. As we all know, underexposure with digital cameras leads to noise. If you underexpose your RAW file, and you plan on compensating for it later in the RAW conversion, you’ll get some noise in the shadows. Perhaps not much, but as the ISO increases and the amount of underexposure error increases, the noise just gets worse. Why tolerate this at all? By understanding that the histogram is based on the in-camera JPEG, and taking control of the contrast and saturation settings that are used to create the in-camera JPEG, you can obtain a histogram that is more representative of the RAW data and eliminate a potential source of systematic exposure error.

Give it a try.

Thanks to Master Photographer Charles Glatzer for originally pointing out this important exposure issue in the Naturescapes.net discussion forums.

Keywords: exposing to the right, exposure, highlights, clipping, signal to noise, digital, photography.

Metadata, Photography and Workflow for the Web

GeoBlog, How To, Photography, Wisdom

Metadata (n, pl): data about data. Any questions?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in photography circles about metadata: what is it, how to manage it, what is it good for, etc. Some of the photographers I follow in the blogosphere and more recently on Twitter have interesting things to say on the matter (look to the right for links to some of these guys). I decided to offer some comments about how I use metadata, in the hope these might be useful to other photographers. Who the hell am I and why do my comments matter, you wonder? Good question. I do not have much of a profile among photographers, which is somewhat intentional, but I do have a website that does well with the one search engine that really matters. By way of introduction, here is a short bio about me and about how my website developed over the last 11 years. During that time I have learned how to leverage photographic metadata on a photography website (at least search engines seem to like my site) and am willing to share some of what I have learned. As an aside, other than maintain a website I do no marketing whatsoever, nor do I send out submissions anymore. All of my licensing activity comes either because a client contacted me via my website, or through a couple of old-fashioned photographer-representative-type agencies I am with. Revenues stemming from my website outnumber the agency revenues about 8:1. I attribute this to the effective use of metadata on my website.

If your goal is to develop a stock photography website that shows up in search engine results, metadata about your photographs is crucial. Text, in particular metadata accompanying photos, is all that search engines are able to grab and hold on to as they try to index and spider a website. If your site displays beautiful images with little metadata to accompany them, your site stands a good chance of not appearing in meaningful search engine results. Except for specialized search engines that index image data directly (e.g., Tineye), search engines use the textual information on your site when evaluating it. This goes for images too — search engines will consider the text associated with an image when trying to categorize an image. If you have organized that text information well, and made sure it includes meaningful metadata about the image(s) that are displayed on that web page, that image or page at least has the potential to show up well in search results.

In my workflow there are three types of metadata that I am concerned with:

  • EXIF: shooting parameters, recorded by the camera
  • GEO: geographic data, if I am geocoding the images
  • IPTC: user-supplied information, describing characteristics and business matters related to the image or me.

Following is a description of my photography workflow, from the time the images are downloaded to a computer until my website is updated to include the most recent images. The percentages are the relative time it takes for each step, not including the selections, editing and Photoshop work which take place at the very beginning and which are independent of the metadata side of things.

Step 1: EXIF, The Default Image Metadata (5%)

First I edit the shoot down to keepers. Typically, each keeper is a pair of files: one raw and one “master”. The raw file automatically contains EXIF data about the shooting parameters, copyright information, etc. The master file, usually a 16-bit TIFF or high quality JPEG that is a descendent of the raw file having been processed in a raw converter and or Photoshop, contains the EXIF data as well. At this point nothing special has been done about metadata. The EXIF metadata that is already in the images was placed there by my camera, requiring no work on my part and is what I consider “default metadata”.

I back up my RAW keepers at this point. They have not been touched by any digital management or geocoding software; they are right out of the camera. These go on a harddisk and on DVD disks, and are set aside for safe keeping in case the RAW file is somehow corrupted later in my workflow. It has not happened to me yet, knock on wood, but one never knows…

Step 2: Geographic Metadata, Geocoding (optional) (5%)

If I have geographic location data, it is added now. I often geocode my images, which is the process of associating GPS information, e.g., latitude, longitude and altitude, with the image. I use a small handheld GPS to record the locations as I shoot, and these locations are added to the images by a geocoding program. Conceptually, geocoding gives the image some additional value, since it is now associated with a particular place at a particular time. Sometimes the accuracy of this geocoding is as tight as 20′ (6m). It usually just takes a few minutes to launch the geocoding application, point it to the images and the GPS data, and have it do its thing.

Having GEO data in the image, and later in the database that drives my website, allows me to do some interesting things with my images and blog posts, such as presenting them with Google Earth at the location where they were shot. For example, this photo of the Wave in the North Coyote Buttes is geocoded, and can be viewed in Google Earth by clicking the little blue globe icon. The same goes for most of the blog posts I have: they can be viewed in Google Earth at the right place on the planet. Here is another example. If you have Google Earth installed on your computer, you should be able to click on both of the next two links, which will open into Google Earth. One will display a track and the other will overlay photos, both from a recent aerial shoot around San Diego:

http://www.oceanlight.com/kml.php?file=20090116.kml
http://www.oceanlight.com/22285-22305.kml

Yes, somewhat crude, but we are in the early days of geocoding and there will be more interesting things in the future we can do.

I’ve written a fairly lengthy post describing how I geocode images: How To Geocode Your Photos. At present, I use a free application named “GPicSync” to add GEO data into each image. This application will update the EXIF information in my RAW and master images to include latitude, longitude and altitude.

A bit of opinion: my belief is that having GEO data associated with your image, on your website, is almost certainly a good thing. Even if no person ever looks at it, there are new technologies coming online constantly that look for, index, spider, collate and retrieve images and web pages based on their GEO data. Those images and web pages that are lacking in GEO data will not see any of the advantages that these new technologies offer. I admit I am no expert on this, and the entire geocoding world along with the entities out there that are indexing geocoded webpages, is all rather new to me. However, I am certain that there will be visitors to my site, and probably already have been many, that arrive as a result of the GEO data that is present alongside my images and blog posts. Having the GEO data embedded in the metadata of the photograph is the first step in this process.

Step 3: Import Images into Digital Asset Management Software (5%)

I import the keeper images, both RAW and master, into Expression Media, which is the software I use for “digital asset management” (whee, yet another acronym buzzword: DAM). I’m no fan of Microsoft, but I do like Expression Media and am used to it (I formerly used its predessor, IView). In particular, Expression Media allows programs (scripts) to be written in Visual Basic. The scripting feature alone is worth its weight in gold as I will point out in the last step of my workflow, and is what makes my processing of images so automated now. I’ve written a dozen or so scripts. It’s quite easy. I have had no training, and have never read any manual for the software. I just based my scripts on examples I’ve found on the internet from other Expression Media users, modifying them to meet my own workflow needs. They carry out mundane tasks and really speed the process up, for example:

  • Set baseline IPTC metadata, including copyright notice, name, address, email, website.
  • Set baseline “quality”, based on the camera model information in the EXIF. In this way I can rank certain images higher on the website if they shot on a better camera, other factors being equal. I normally don’t want images shot with a point and shoot to appear before those shot with a 1DsIII. I’ve come up with a baseline ranking scheme to differentiate the following image sources relative to one another in terms of typically quality (not in this order however): Canon 1DsIII, 1DsII, 1DIIn, 5D, 50D, 30D, Nikon D100, Panasonic Lumix LX3, LX2, Nikon Coolscan LS5000, LS4000, various drumscans. I can easily fine tune this later for individual images, increasing or decreasing the “quality” of each image so that certain images appear first when a user views a selection of photos.
  • Determine the aspect ratio (3:2, 4:3, 16:9, custom) and orientation (horizontal, vertical, square, panorama) of the master image, which may be different than that of the raw image(s) from which it is sourced. This is important for cropped images and for panoramas and/or HDR images assembled from multiple raw files. The script recognizes the multiple raw files that are used to generate a single master file.

At this point my images have EXIF metadata, perhaps containing GEO data if a geocoding step was performed, and basic IPTC metadata that identify the image as mine, how to reach me, etc. So far all I have done is run some applications and scripts. I really haven’t done any “manual” keywording or captioning yet. If necessary, the images are now ready to place on the web, since they have a minimal set of metadata in them that at least establishes them as mine (DMCA anyone?). However, the most important step is to come.

Step 4: Keywording and Captioning (80%)

It’s time to add captions, titles, keywords, categories, etc. to the image. With my new images already imported in Expression Media, and already containing full EXIF metadata and baseline IPTC metadata, I am ready to begin.

  • Captions. There is no shortcut for this. Each image needs a decent caption. It is common to group images and assign the same caption to all of them, and then fine tune captions on individual images as needed. The notion of a “template” can be used too, and lots of different DAM applications support this. Whatever application you use to caption your images, there is no alternative but to get your hands dirty and learn how to do it, what approach works best for you. A key concept is to caption well the first time, so you don’t feel a need to return in the future and add more.
  • Keywords (open vocabulary descriptors). In general, the same notion as captioning applies here. However, DAM applications often have special support for keywords, allowing you to draw keywords from a huge database of alternatives, facilitating the use of synonyms, concepts, etc. Expression Media allows the use of custom “vocabularies”. A vocabulary is basically a dictionary. For animal images, I developed a custom vocabulary/dictionary of 26,000 species, including most bird and mammalian species, with complete hierarchical taxonomic detail. So, when keywording, I simply type in the latin (scientific) name for a group of images (all of the same species) and up pops a taxonomic record in the vocabulary, showing kingdom, phylum, family, genus, species, etc and a bunch of important scientific-gobbledygook for the species. Hit return and bingo, all the images I have highlighted are all keyworded with appropriate taxonomic metadata. Similar ideas work for locations. I do not do much keywording for “concepts” (e.g., love, strength, relationships, childhood) since I do not pursue that sort of thematic stock, there is enough of that in the RF and micro stock industries already. Here is a list of keywords I currently have among my images.
  • Categories (closed vocabulary descriptors). This is the third area of captioning that I find important. Images in my stock files are typically assigned one or more “categories”, and these categories are stored in the metadata of the image alongside captions and keywords. Some examples are: Location > Protected Threatened And Significant Places > National Parks > Olympic National Park (Washington) > Sol Duc Falls and Subject > Technique > Aerial Photo > Blue Whale Aerial. Here is a stocklist of categories I currently have among my images.
  • Custom Fields for the website. I have a few other metadata fields that are seen by website visitors that I set via Expression Media scripts. For example, once the captions are created, a script can be used to create “titles” for a group of images, which are really just excerpts of the full captions and can be used for HTML titles, headers, etc. For the most part, these additional metadata fields are secondary in importance to the captions, keywords and categories.
  • Custom Fields for Business Purposes. In addition, I use some metadata fields for recording characteristics of the image that I need to track for business reasons. These include licensing restrictions, past uses that affect exclusivity, etc. These metadata are embedded in the image so they are sure to travel with the image as it moves to a client, but they are not presented to the public on the web site.

Note that I consider keywords to be “open vocabulary”, in the sense that any keyword can be used with an image. In other words, I don’t hesitate to add keywords that I have not yet used, its an open set and grows as needed. This is especially true of synonyms, but one doesn’t want to get too carried away with synonyms or it can dilute the search results that a web visitor sees. I often add keywords to images that are already in my stock files at a later date. However, I treat categories as “closed vocabulary”, in that I have a relatively fixed set of hierarchical categories. I will introduce a new category when it makes sense, but usually only when there is a sufficiently large group of images to which it applies, and there is not already a similar category in use.

Once all the metadata for the keepers in my latest shoot are defined in Expression Media, they need to be written out to the images themselves. In other words, Expression Media is aware of these things, but if one were to open one of the images (RAW or master) in Photoshop the new metadata would not be there. This last step in Expression Media is referred to as “syncing” the annotations. (“Annotations” is Expression Media’s word for metadata. I guess “metadata” is scary to people.) I highlight all the files for which I have been adding metadata, then Action -> Sync Annotations -> Export Annotations To Original Files and click “OK”. All the metadata is now stored in the images themselves, and will flow into any derivative images that are created, such as the thumbnails and watermarked JPGs that go onto my web site. (Think DMCA!).

Step 5. Downsteam, or, “Go Forth My Minions” (5-10%)

If I have defined the metadata once there is no need to do it ever again. The metadata, which is now contained in the DAM application but also in the header of each image, “flows downstream” with no further effort. For my purposes, “downsteam” can mean a submission of selects sent to a client, or a submission of images to an agency, or an update of my website.

Downsteam to Clients

There is not much to say here. Best practices in delivering images to clients include using metadata properly. If you are sending out images to clients, or to stock agencies (the old-fashioned kind that actually represent their photographers) or to, for shame for shame, stock portals (RF, micro, they are all evil), then you should have rich, accurate metadata embedded in your image. It is the only way to ensure that the information travels with the image. I’ve received submission requests from potential clients who simply wanted JPGs submitted as email attachments, with the proviso that if a JPG did not have caption and credit embedded in the metadata it would be immediately discarded without consideration.

Downstream to the Web

For many photographers, the final step in processing a new shoot is to update one’s website. In other words, get the new images along with all their metadata (captions, keywords, GEO locations, categories, etc.) onto the web so that they can be seen by the entire world.

For photographers who are using a “gallery” of some kind to host their web site (such as Smugmug, Flickr, PBase, or any of the freely available installable gallery softwares, etc.), simply uploading the images into a new (or existing) gallery is usually all that is necessary. Provided you have managed your metadata in step 4 properly, the metadata will be present in the headers of your new images. As these images are uploaded to the gallery, the gallery software peeks into the header of each image for metadata and, if it is found, extracts the metadata and prepares it for display alongside the image. The details of what metadata are used (caption, keywords, location, GEO, name, copyright, restrictions, EXIF, etc.) differ somewhat from one gallery provider to another, but the general idea is the same.

However, see the final notes at the end of this post for a few caveats about how gallery software may alter your metadata as it processes your image.

My situation is conceptually the same. My website software is essentially a “gallery” including a pretty extensive search feature. However, the software was hand written by me and does not extract metadata from image files automatically like the big-boy galleries do. (Perhaps someday I’ll figure out how to do that.) As I described a few days ago, my web site evolved to be written entirely in PHP and MySql. Underneath the website there is a database that contains information about all 25000 images in my collection. Basically, this database **is** the metadata for my images, or a summarization of those metadata. The database has one record per image. Each record stores the metadata for that image: caption, keywords, image name, location, GEO data, categories, orientation, etc. etc. That said, the issue for me is: how to create this database? The gallery software in the previous paragraph does this automatically, but my home-brewed web software does not.

The beauty of using Expression Media for DAM in my workflow is that with a single click, Expression Media can create this database for me. (Although I have not used other DAM applications, I am sure they are similar.) Expression Media has a few ways of doing this. I could use Expression Media’s built in export functions (Make -> Text Data File or Make -> XML Data File). But after doing this for a while I decided to write a BASIC script within Expression Media that creates the database while doing some fine tuning and error checking on the metadata fields as it does so. Either way, if I use a script of my own or Expression Media’s built-in export features, the database is easily created. Then it is simply a matter of uploading the database along with the images when it is time for a website update.

The point here is that once the work is done in the DAM application, it should be a very quick process to upload the images and metadata to the web and get the images out there for the world to see. Then, if all goes well, the phone rings.

Afterward

After all that work defining the metadata for your images, and ensuring that it is embedded properly in each image, you would think you are home free, right? Well, there are a few provisos you should know.

Metadata Can Be Stripped By Gallery Software

Some stock portals, gallery hosting services, or install-yourself gallery software (usually written in PHP) will strip metadata from an image. That’s right, they will strip it right out of your image! Why? They claim the reason is to shrink the JPGs that are displayed on the web, in an effort to reduce bandwidth. While this is true, it is a big mistake in my opinion, and is one of the principal reasons I am not involved in any of the stock portal sites or popular photo hosting services. I want my metadata to stay with the image wherever it goes, to all derivative versions of the image. The few extra bytes of storage required for this are trivial compared to the importance of this data being preserved. Think DMCA! Think Orphan Works!

Metadata Can Be Stripped By A Thief

When a thief, or some unwitting schoolkid, makes a copy of your image off the web, the chances are quite good the metadata will be stripped. If the image is taken via a screen shot, the metadata will disappear. If the thief/kid uses “right-click and Save As”, the metadata should remain in the image. But in the end, if the thief/kid alters the image in Photoshop and uses “Save For Web” to save a new copy, the metadata will probably be stripped out. (Yes, Save For Web can optionally preserve metadata, but it is easy to configure Photoshop so that it strips metadata from the image in “Save For Web”, and older versions of Photoshop do not offer the option to override this.)

Too Much Metadata Can Be Displayed

The photo hosting sites seem to display the EXIF fields (shooting data) of your photo’s metadata. This may or may not be what you want. Among hobbyists there is little concern about making the date, time of day, and technique (ISO, shutter speed, aperature) known. Indeed, it is one of the ways that we learn, by understanding what others have done. But often pros have good reason to keep this information to themselves. So, the caveat here is: if you are using a photo hosting service and you don’t want the EXIF data in your image available on the web, you may need to take steps to prevent it.

Optimal Contrast and Saturation Settings for RAW Photographers

How To, Wisdom

Are you using the best in-camera settings for contrast and saturation? If you shoot RAW and think these settings don’t affect you, think again. If you judge your exposure settings on whether you are clipping the highlights on your histogram, you may be underexposing unnecessarily. Here’s why.

Note that this post is primarily intended for photographers who shoot RAW. (If you shoot JPEG you may benefit from what follows simply by having a better understanding of what is going on inside your camera, but you probably do not want to use this technique.)

Exposing to the right. Many photographers trying to maximize the amount of data collected in their captures expose to the right, pushing the histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping the highlights. Essentially, when determining what the correct exposure is for a given situation, one takes a shot, considers the resulting histogram and then increases exposure until the histogram just touches the right extreme, indicating that pixels are about to be clipped. By shooting to the right one gathers as much shadow detail as possible and minimizes noise in the shadows. Granted, there are some esoteric reasons for not exposing to the right, but by and large it is an accepted and effective technique for today’s digital cameras.

Clipping highlights. Key to shooting to the right is one’s ability to discern when highlights are being clipped. This is where the in-camera settings for contrast and saturation play a part. Current digital cameras base the histogram on an in-camera JPEG, even when shooting RAW. Typically, the in-camera JPEG has a greater spread in its histogram than is contained in the RAW data, due to the fact that the in-camera JPEG has contrast and saturation enhancement applied to it. Think about it: when you look at your RAW files they have low contrast and saturation, and really don’t come alive until after you have bumped these up a bit. Well, a similar difference occurs between the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — and the underlying RAW data. The default in-camera JPEG has, by design, increased contrast and saturation compared to the RAW file, which translates into (among other things) a histogram that is “more spread out”, with tails reaching further to the left and right.

Now consider this: if the in-camera JPEG has a histogram that is more widely spread than the RAW data, it will show clipped highlights “earlier”. In other words, you won’t push the exposure as far to the right as you might, because the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — is indicating highlights are clipped.

The solution is to turn down the contrast and saturation settings for the JPEGs that are created in-camera. On my Canon cameras I turn them each down two notches below the middle setting. Doing this produces an in-camera JPEG that more closely approximates the distribution of the actual RAW data, resulting in a histogram that is more accurate for my purposes. Since I want to maximize the information in the RAW file, I want a histogram that depicts the RAW data not an in-camera JPEG.

The bottom line is that by using lower settings for contrast and saturation I obtain a histogram that is more representative of the data in my RAW file, I can push that exposure further to the right and be confident that I am not clipping the highlights in my RAW data. If I were to use the default settings for contrast and saturation, the histogram would indicate clipping before it was actually occurring, leading me to unnecessarily underexpose the image.

Don’t guess, don’t approximate: take control of your exposures. As we all know, underexposure with digital cameras leads to noise. If you underexpose your RAW file, and you plan on compensating for it later in the RAW conversion, you’ll get some noise in the shadows. Perhaps not much, but as the ISO increases and the amount of underexposure error increases, the noise just gets worse. Why tolerate this at all? By understanding that the histogram is based on the in-camera JPEG, and taking control of the contrast and saturation settings that are used to create the in-camera JPEG, you can obtain a histogram that is more representative of the RAW data and eliminate a potential source of systematic exposure error.

Give it a try.

Thanks to Master Photographer Charles Glatzer for originally pointing out this important exposure issue in the Naturescapes.net discussion forums. Want to learn how to control your exposures and take better photos? Take a workshop from Chas…

Post up … Shoot … Score!

How To, Wisdom

I haven’t paid much attention to web site design and optimization for a few years. Recently, however, I have noticed and read a few posts around the internet discussing how to make one’s website rank better, look better, work better, be greener and more politically correct, etc etc. Besides the great tutorial from Photoshelter on how to tailor a photography website intended for editors and photo researchers, I also found WebsiteGrader. This nifty site “grades” a website on its SEO (search engine optimization) using a scale of 0 to 100, relative to the rest of the web, using criteria gathered from Google, Yahoo, Alexa, DMOZ, Zoominfo as well as examining the webpage coding itself.

However, if my experience is any indication, these scores may be just a tad bit inflated. WebsiteGrader gave my website a score of 98.8 and my blog a 98.7, considers the content of my blog appropriate for high school and doctorate-level visitors, and it informs me my website has a Google rank of 6 (of a maximum 10). Mondo Teknospheric! Comon, are these for real? Seriously, these seem like pretty good scores, particularly for an individual photographer shooting stock “when able”, especially in comparison to some large agencies for some of the specialized subjects I shoot. Important to remember that these are just scores and what really matters is how many phone calls come in from buyers wanting to use an image. These scores are transient benchmarks, somewhat arbitrary and could change at any time.

You might find it illuminating to see how WebsiteGrader grades your website. In my case it offered some good feedback. For example, I had no idea the main page on website had NO KEYWORDS in the metadata. Ooops! In spite of having had a website up and running for over 12 years (that’s 583 in www-years) I am still making rookie mistakes. It also said something about making a “301” to redirect “oceanlight.com” to “www.oceanlight.com”. Hello, English please? My initial reaction is that I should figure out how to fix that stuff soon. Upon further thought, I realized that I would likely screw something up and kill my own rating. Better leave it alone!

Photographing Antelope Canyon, The Wave, Buckskin Gulch and Horseshoe Bend

Arizona, How To, Landscape, The Wave, Utah, Wisdom

I have been fortunate to visit and photograph a few of the iconic locations around Page, Arizona: The Wave, Antelope Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley. Recently, I shared some correspondance about these places with UK photographer David Sharp, whom I originally met at Brooks River a few years ago. Since I receive emails from other photographers about the Wave every few weeks, I decided to edit my comments to David and post them here for others to consider. Note that I am not what a true landscape photographer would call a true landscape photographer! I know what I am doing with a camera but do not have the dedication or time that is required to photograph landscapes, and these Southwestern landscapes in particular, properly. However, I do have clear impressions of these places and, not being shy, I am putting them out there. Furthermore, this website currently gets about 5000 visitors a day, so I am reasonably certain at least a few people would read this even if it was composed by a monkey at a typewriter which, in a sense, it is. On all of my trips through the American Southwest, visiting the places mentioned above plus Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, and Arches, I was pedal to the metal, flying, booking, jamming, screaming, etc. In other words, I had too little time and too far to drive, was all hopped up on caffeine, and tried to see it all. Naturally, that is not the best way to visit such special and serene places but it is how I, and many others, approach such a trip, especially those coming from far away to see the American Southwest for perhaps the only time in their lives. To photograph and experience these locations properly requires a more relaxed, contemplative and deliberate pace, one that I shall be sure to adopt when I turn 80.

Note that virtually all of photos on this website have GPS coordinates as well as links to Google Earth, taking you to the exact spot where they were taken, so there is no mystery where to go.

Rental Car: Assuming you are arriving in Las Vegas (NV) or Salt Lake City (UT), you will probably rent a car. Although none of these destinations requires one, I suggest that you rent a nice cushy SUV (the kind Americans love) when you arrive. It will make the little bit of off-roading you do more comfortable. Since some of the drives are quite long, having room in the back for your kids to spread out is helpful. Yes, you will burn gas — a lot of it. I realize that I am politically incorrect just mentioning the word “SUV”. Note that House Rock Valley Road, which is the dirt road that takes you to the Wave and Buckskin Gulch, can be a bit rough (but should not actually require 4WD) and having a larger SUV-type vehicle, with high clearance, makes the drive more pleasant. If there are long or deep muddy parts on the road, an SUV might actually make it possible to get to the trailhead whereas in a passenger (sedan) vehicle it could be more dicey. It all depends on the road conditions when you get there, there is no predicting those. If the conditions are truly bad, the road may simply be closed. Opting for the satellite radio on your rental SUV is important, since the variety of radio stations in this part of the country is quite slim with country/western and western/country being the only two choices.

Hiker in Buckskin Gulch.  A hiker considers the towering walls and narrow passageway of Buckskin Gulch, a dramatic slot canyon forged by centuries of erosion through sandstone.  Buckskin Gulch is the worlds longest accessible slot canyon, running from the Paria River toward the Colorado River.  Flash flooding is a serious danger in the narrows where there is no escape, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona

Hiker in Buckskin Gulch. A hiker considers the towering walls and narrow passageway of Buckskin Gulch, a dramatic slot canyon forged by centuries of erosion through sandstone. Buckskin Gulch is the worlds longest accessible slot canyon, running from the Paria River toward the Colorado River. Flash flooding is a serious danger in the narrows where there is no escape.
Image ID: 20716
Location: Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, USA

Buckskin Gulch: Buckskin Gulch is easily accessed from the same trailhead that one uses to hike to the Wave: the “Wire Pass trailhead”. For this reason, if you are in the area to visit the Wave it makes perfect sense to visit Buckskin the day before or the day after you visit the Wave. Consider staying in Kanab, and just drive out to the Wire Pass trailhead each day for the two hikes. Kanab is quiet, simple and has a few good restaurants and plenty of hotels and motels. Watch your speed driving through Kanab or Officer Dummy may catch you in his speed trap. Camping at the Wire Pass trailhead is an option. However, since I do not like dirt and do not camp, I cannot advise about the camping there from personal experience. The drive from Kanab to Wire Pass trailhead, via Hwy 89 and House Rock Valley Road is, as I recall, about 30-45 minutes or so, quite easy except for perhaps a bit of the dirt House Rock Valley Road which may be muddy or a bit rough in some places. A half day, especially if you get started reasonably early (7am comes to mind) is enough for you to hike into the “upper reaches” of Buckskin Gulch, get into a few deep and really fun sections, and then return back out the way you came. A full day gives you further reach into the gulch. The alternative is to make a one-way trip down through Buckskin and Paria Canyon, but that requires overnights, permits, and arranging a pick up at the far end, and so the time investment is considerably more. Note that flash floods in Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass Narrows are a real danger, and it is good to know where the exits to the gulch are as well as the weather forecast for the wider area (flash floods can be created by rain many miles away). It is possible to visit both Buckskin and the Wave in the same day. I did it last May. It was about a 15-17 mile day and tiring but I was in good shape and able to do it without problems. I even had time to catch a one-hour nap at the Second Wave waiting for sunset light. Do not underestimate the need for hydration on a day such as this. I drank about 10 liters of fluids and sweated out all of it (I think I peed only twice all day). Buckskin Gulch blog posts, Buckskin Gulch stock photos.

The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah.  The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only

The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah. The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only.
Image ID: 20608
Location: North Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, USA

The Wave: There is no denying the appeal of a sunrise hike to the Wave. At that hour the air is cool with perhaps a hint of dew, the surrounding hills and canyons are quiet and still, and within minutes of setting out one is alone. However, while you may be eager to get to the Wave early in the day, the photography at the Wave formation itself seems to me to be best in mid- to late-morning. By that time the sun has risen enough to fill the deeper parts around the main Wave formation for evenly lit photos. That said, during late spring, summer and fall, the cooler it is walking out to the Wave, the more comfortable you will be. The hike is about 3 miles one way, so plan on two hours at a easy but constant pace. The last part going up a sand hill is the most tiring. There is little shade once you are there, so be prepared for sun! Do not forget the Second Wave, which is only about a 5-10 minute walk from the main wave. You do not actually see the Second Wave until you round a knob of rock at which point you suddenly realize you are are practically on top of it. Although the spot is no secret, the GPS coordinates and Google Earth links alongside my photos will put you right on it. The light on the Second Wave is best just before the sun goes down at the end of the day, so if you stay for that photo it makes for a long day. In that instance you will hike out as the sky is growing dark but that’s ok, there is still plenty of light and, if you feel unsure of how to return, you can use your GPS to revisit your waypoints in reverse on the way back out. I should mention that both times I visited the Wave, I stayed until dark. As the day went on, there were fewer people around so that by 3pm I was alone, which was very nice. Blog posts about The Wave. Stock Photos of the Wave.

A hiker admiring the striated walls and dramatic light within Antelope Canyon, a deep narrow slot canyon formed by water and wind erosion, Navajo Tribal Lands, Page, Arizona

A hiker admiring the striated walls and dramatic light within Antelope Canyon, a deep narrow slot canyon formed by water and wind erosion.
Image ID: 18009
Location: Navajo Tribal Lands, Page, Arizona, USA

Antelope Canyon Slots: These are just outside the town of Page and require virtually no effort to visit. They are on Navaho tribal lands, so accessing these slot canyons requires that you be on a tour or with a guide. The Upper Antelope canyon, which is the most iconic and photogenic, is the one that gets most crowded. If it is crowded when you are there just be patient and wait for the chamber(s) that you are photographing to clear out and then bang out your exposures before someone else walks in front of you. It can help to carry an electric cattle prod or pocket Taser to ensure the area where you are photographing remains clear of New Yorkers and Nikon photographers. OK, my bad on that last part. I highly recommend that you do not change lenses, there is simply too much dust. In fact, do not be surprised if you encounter another photographer tossing dust in the air to better define the light beams in his composition. If his forward technique does not balance harmoniously with your chi, you can rebalance the moment by tossing sand into his eyes to better define your opinion of his method. If I had to choose one lens to use to use at Antelope Canyon, it would be 16-35 (or either of Nikon’s 14-24 or 17-35) on a full-frame camera. On a second body I carry a 24-70 or similar. Those two should cover 95% of my needs in terms of focal lengths at Antelope. The LOWER canyon is, I hear, far less crowded and has very good photography as well. There are two types of “tours” to visit Upper Antelope Canyon: a normal tour (about 30-60 minutes) and “photo” or extended tour, the latter being more suitable for photographers who feel a need for more time in the slot. I went on an “extended” tour and had about 90 minutes at the canyon, with a 15 minute ride in a van from Page (we met the tour at a small storefront in Page). That was in winter. I understand that during much of the year the Navaho Indian tribe offers guide services (for a fee) right at the entrance to the Antelope Canyon area on the main highway, in which case you might save a little money over the tours that are arranged in the town of Page itself. However, all visits require some Navaho guide presence. If you are coming from far away I suggest that you just reserve a photo tour ahead of time to ensure that you have the time you need. It may cost a little more but at least you know you will be in the canyon at the right time of day, with enough time to relax and take photos. The only unknowns are weather and how crowded it will be on the day of your visit. Kids might get bored after half hour, so families might arrange for the shorter tour while the lone photographer in the family goes on a longer tour. I went to the Upper Antelope Canyon with Antelope Canyon Tours when I was there in Jan 2007. At that time we literally had the entire Upper Canyon to ourselves (a group of 5 people) for 90 minutes, with one 20 minute exception when another small group came by for a brief visit. However, in the winter the dramatic light shafts do not reach the floor of the slots. Those appear in summer, principally June and July, coincidental with the crowds. So if you want solitude in Antelope Canyon (or something approaching it), try it winter. If you want the cool beams, battle the crowds.

Horseshoe Bend. The Colorado River makes a 180-degree turn at Horseshoe Bend. Here the river has eroded the Navajo sandstone for eons, digging a canyon 1100-feet deep, Page, Arizona

Horseshoe Bend. The Colorado River makes a 180-degree turn at Horseshoe Bend. Here the river has eroded the Navajo sandstone for eons, digging a canyon 1100-feet deep.
Image ID: 26602
Location: Horseshoe Bend, Page, Arizona, USA

Horseshoe Bend: If you are in Page, Arizona, you must find a bit of time for Horseshoe Bend. From a pulloff on the side of the highway just a few minutes outside town, an easy 10 minute walk takes one to the edge of the chasm that is Horseshoe Bend. It is so easy it would be a shame to miss it. Just be careful that Fido and the kids are paying attention since there are no rails or anything keeping you from falling in. (Give the personal injury lawyers time, I am sure there will be a fence and a “viewing area” that we are required to use eventually). If you stay in Page for the night, you might want to go photograph Horseshoe Bend at sunset, late morning and/or sunrise to see what you can get. I took this the above shot with a 16-35 at its widest.

Monument Valley panorama, a composite of four individual photographs

Monument Valley panorama, a composite of four individual photographs.
Image ID: 20902
Location: Monument Valley, Arizona, USA

Monument Valley: OK, in spite of how little experience I have in Monument Valley, I will add some words about it, since it is likely others travelling to Page will visit Monument Valley the same way that I did. I blew through there one day by myself on my way to Page, spending about 1 hour at one of the main viewpoints (where I think I paid $5 to the Navaho tribe at the gate and then drove my own car about 2-3 miles on an easy dirt road into the area and then back out, looking for view points, until I found the one above). The timing was good, I was there in the final hour of light, although having clouds would have helped. If you want to just make a quick stop in Monument Valley and visit only one of the easily-accessed viewpoints, I suggest you make it sunrise or sunset. (If you want to spend a full day at Monument Valley, you can arrange private guides that will take you deep into the area and show you views that are better and different, but I believe it will require most of a day to accomplish.)

Tech: For any of these locations, my photography equipment is quite simple and light, no need for any heavy stuff. Landscape shooting is simple compared to all the gear needed for underwater and/or wildlife shooting!

  • Two full-frame bodies (currently Canon 1DsII & 1DsIII)
  • Canon 16-35 II f/2.8 lens
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 lens
  • Canon 70-200 f/4 lens
  • Tripod with ball head, cable release, polarizers

If you found this information useful, please post the link to it and let others know. Cheers!

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 Sample Images

How To

I just picked up a Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3, after having used its previous incarnation (Lumix DMC-LX2) for about a year for our family snapshots and as a general grab-and-go camera. There is plenty of information about the Panasonic LX3 on the web already, so I won’t get into a detailed review. Instead I’ll simply offer my positive recommendation and some sample images. Here is a particularly accurate review.

If you don’t want to read any more, the sample images are here. (Update: the raw files are now removed, they’ve been there for a few weeks and I don’t want them eating up storage space on my server.)

Here are a few more, not available in high res but you can get an idea of how I use this camera and what images I think are “keepable” out of it. These are straight out of the camera, no postprocessing.

As I expected based on my experience with the LX2, for a point and shoot camera (P&S) the Panasonic Lumix LX3 is, in my opinion, a pretty darn good camera. I really like its small size, wide angle lens (24mm equivalent), 16:9, 4:3 and 3:2 aspect ratios, and good exposure and flash capabilities. At the wide end, the LX3’s Leica 24mm-equivalent lens is great for landscape images as well as any “forced perspective” image in which the foreground subject takes on a larger-than-life importance in relation to the rest of the image. For me this is a big plus, since I shoot the LX3 as wide as possible 95% of the time, and 24mm is noticably wider than the 28mm or 35mm focal lengths offered in most other P&S cameras. (The LX2 had a 28mm equivalent lens). As far as exposure goes, I generally leave the camera in its “P” mode (program exposure) and just dial the exposure compensation up or down. Occasionally, if I am shooting a landscape with the camera on a tripod, I will use aperature-priority mode with the aperature set at f/8. Once in a while I will shoot deliberately blurred images, for which case aperature priority mode is again useful (f/8, ISO 100). When shooting flash-lit images, one can dial the exposure compensation on the flash up and down independently of the compensation used for the available light exposure. And like most P&S cameras these days, the LX3 has a video feature which allows us to get some grab videos on our vacations.

A note on RAW. Like the LX2 before it, the LX3 can produce a RAW file in addition to JPG. However, my experience with the RAW converter provided with the LX3 — Silkypix — has not been pleasant. Frankly, I couldn’t stand it. The interface seemed awkward and slow, and I found it difficult to batch process a group of images that all required slight variations of RAW adjustment from one another.

Note: as of March 2009, Lightroom supports LX3 raw files, so I use that when I feel the need to shoot RAW with the Lumix LX3.

I’ve posted a selection of sample images taken with the Panasonic Lumix LX3 over the past few days. I may revise this group of sample images in the coming weeks if I have a chance to shoot more. The JPGs shown are all straight out of the camera, the only adjustment being that they have been resized and sharpened for display as a web gallery by Expression Media. They all used auto-white-balance, some form of auto exposure (P or A). Most were shot with ISO 100 although some were shot at ISO 200. I’ve linked the full res JPG and, where available, the RAW file as well so you can see what detail or lack thereof is found in the original. However, if you get into pixel-peeping, consider that you are probably getting too critical and may be loosing sight of how P&S cameras such as the LX3 fit into the quiver of a photographer. I consider my LX3 to be the camera to use when I would otherwise not have a camera. I do not expect anywhere near the same degree of sharpness, color fidelity and shadow detail that I get from my dSLRs! In my opinion this camera, when properly used including careful technique and exposure control, produces images that are acceptable for press, web, and small to medium-size print use.

Some of the images I shot with my LX2 are now in the stock files of myself and at least one agency, and I expect selected future images from the LX3 will be as well.

Update: the raw files are now removed, they’ve been there for a few weeks and I don’t want them eating up storage space on my server.

How To Geotag Your Photos

GeoBlog, How To, Photography, Wisdom

Recently I’ve had some correspondance with other photographers about geotagging, what it is and how I am using it. I was encouraged to put my remarks on my blog. While I do not pretend to be an expert, I am happy to share what I am doing — my workflow if you will. I’ll probably revise this post as I give the matter further thought.

GEOTAGGING DIGITAL PHOTOS is the process of tagging (i.e., merging, joining) digital photos with information about the location where they were taken. So, geotagging (v) is a process in which digital photos are modified. Geotagged (adj) describes a digital photograph as having location information embedded in it. Wikipedia has a good article about geotagging.

1. Digital Photos and Metadata. Digital photos exist as computer files. Two common file types (formats) are JPEG, TIFF, but there are many others. Many of these file formats store not only the image itself (the pixels) but also metadata about the image. Metadata means “data about data”. In this case, the primary data are the pixels in your digital image, and the metadata are other pieces of information the describe the photo or the circumstances under which it was taken. Some examples of metadata are the date and time at which the photo was recorded, the camera exposure settings, the camera brand and model, lens focal length and even the version of the camera’s firmware. These metadata are organized into a bundle and stored in the file header of your digital file. In other words, this stuff is in your TIFF, JPEG or raw file. It happens to be stored at the beginning of the file, before the pixels. Maintaining these metadata inside your digital photo file is, in theory, a good thing since this information then remains with its associated image. As long as you have the photo, the data about how, when and where it was taken are in your possession as well. Furthermore, if you make derivative copies of the digital file, such as a smaller version for display on the internet or a version to send to an editor at a magazine, the metadata are in that version of the image too. Ideally, the metadata stay with the photo wherever it goes. (Naturally there are exceptions to this which I won’t get into, but you get the idea.)

2. EXIF Metadata. An industry group (e.g., a group of computer geeks with decision making power) developed a standard, or group of widely accepted rules, for organizing these metadata. They named the standard EXIF. Each piece of information in this bundle of EXIF metadata is known as an “EXIF field”. For example, date, time, lens, camera model, shutter speed, etc. are all “EXIF fields”. So, when you hear mention of “the EXIF data”, or “EXIF header”, just know that this refers to the metadata describing when and how the photograph was taken. EXIF metadata are generally considered readonly in the sense that they should not be altered. Indeed, most image editing programs such as Photoshop will allow you to see what the EXIF fields are but do not allow you to alter the EXIF fields. This readonly restriction is really just an industry practice — there is no physical reason why the EXIF fields cannot be altered. Indeed, there are software programs out there that allow you to fiddle with and change the EXIF fields, such as time, date, camera model, etc., but I don’t have any experience with them. For the most part EXIF data are created at the moment the image is taken and there is no reason to change them later — with the exception of latitude, longitude and altitude.

It should be mentioned that there are some other bundles of metadata that may be found in the header of your digital photo and which can be viewed with image management and editing software. XMP and IPTC are two of them. XMP is a more recent standard that, in the long run, may prove to be more flexible and useful than EXIF which has some shortcomings. IPTC is another group of metadata fields, developed for press photographers to store descriptive information about their news photographs. IPTC is the place where you would enter a caption, keywords and copyright restrictions about the photo. While XMP and IPTC are important groups of metadata for digital photographers to understand, I will only be describing the EXIF metadata since that is where latitude and longitude fields are.

3. The Latitude, Longitude and Altitude Fields in the EXIF Metadata. There are three EXIF fields of interest for geocoding: latitude, longitude and altitude. While there are some recent cameras that support communication with GPS equipment in real time and fill these EXIF fields when the photograph is taken, most of us will find that these fields are empty or do not exist in the EXIF metadata of our photographs. Essentially this is because the camera is unaware of your latitude, longitude and altitude. Sure, the camera probably knows the date and time (you set these when you first get your camera) and it sure knows what lens is being used and what the shutter speed is. But in general, your camera does not know where you are. The EXIF standard includes fields (spaces) for latitude, longitude and altitude. But since the camera does not know your location when the photo is taken, these fields are left empty. Its up to you to fill them in later by geotagging the photo after it has been downloaded to your computer.

4. Recording GPS Data. There’s not much to say here. Simply purchase a GPS that supports tracking latitude/longitude to data files, then carry the GPS with you and make sure it is tracking your location while you while you shoot photos. I use the relatively small Garmin 60CSX model, which is capable of determining latitude, longitude and altitude to within about 20′. That is accurate enough for my purposes. I installed a 4GB micro-SD memory card in the Garmin 60CSX and set up the tracking options so that when I turn it on it automatically records latitude, longitude, altitude and time to a file on the memory card. There are various spatial and/or temporal intervals at which points on the track can be recorded; I have chosen 10-second intervals. (On one flight I made I chose a mode in which a location point was recorded to the track whenever the plane had travelled more than about 20 yds so it recorded many points during the flight. The result was a big GPS data file but very accurate geotagging later when the location data were stored in the photos.) On a recent 10-day trip, during which I had the unit recording about half of all daylight hours, I found that less than 1% of the 4GB micro-SD memory card was used to store tracking data. I have a few multi-week trips planned in 2009 and 2010, and this setup should record the GPS data for every moment of the trip with no trouble. I do find that I have to change batteries at least once a day if the unit is continuously operating, so rechargeable AA batteries are the way to go. The files that are created on the memory card are “GPX” files; GPX is simply a form of XML text file that geotagging programs understand. On my Garmin 60CSX, one file per day is created containing all the GPS tracking data for that day (even if I have turned the GPS on and off several times during the day). When I return from a photo outing, I can either connect the GPS to my computer and transfer the GPX files from the GPS to the computer, or I can remove the memory card from the GPS and plug the card into my computer and access the GPX files that way. Ultimately, I put all of them into the same folder on my computer, a growing pile of GPS files that just sit there until I need them for geotagging. Here are two examples of GPS tracks. You will need Google Earth installed to view these. The first is a trip around Vancouver Island. The second is a bike ride around UCSD in La Jolla. Note no photos are shown with these tracks, that will come later.

5. Geotagging: Merging GPS Data Into Your Digital Photos. You have finished the shoot and you carried your GPS with you the whole time, tracking your location while you took photos. You are back in your office and its time to do the geotagging! This is the point in your workflow where latitude and longitude metadata are transferred from your GPS into the EXIF fields within your digital photos.

Everyone shooting digital photos understands that photos must be “downloaded” to one’s computer, right? Well, the same goes for the GPS data: you must download the data files from your GPS unit as well. The actual geotagging, where the photos and GPS data are combined, can occur at two points in the process: either while the images are being downloaded (i.e., copied) from your camera to the computer, or after all the files have been downloaded and are sitting on the computer in separate folders.

I use the latter approach, and here is how I do it. I use a nifty little program named GPicSync, available free from Google. I make no claim as to its performance, but I have found that it works well for me.

  • Download the GPX tracking files (i.e., files with extension .gpx) from the GPS unit’s memory card to a folder on my computer. The Garmin 60CSX happens to make one GPX tracking file per day with names like 20080811.gpx; other GPS units may be different in this regard. I place all the GPX files in a single folder; mine happens to be named “c:/gpx” but you can put them wherever you wish.
  • Download the files from my camera’s memory card(s) to another folder on my computer. Let’s say the folder is named “c:/pics”. The files produced by my camera are raw files, but they could just as well be JPGs.
  • Launch GPicSync. I first specify the folder where the GPX files are located. I just point it at the entire group of GPX files and it figures out which ones it needs. Then I specify the folder where the digital photos are located. Lastly, I specify the “UTC Offset”. This is the number of hours between the location where the images were shot and Greenwich Mean Time. This is needed because my camera’s internal time zone is local to me, but the GPS records time using Greenwich Mean Time. If the photos were taken in my neck of the woods (Pacific Time Zone) then the appropriate difference is -7 hours, so I enter -7 for the UTC offset. Then I press “start”.
  • What happens? GPicSync looks at the time at which each photo was taken, compares that to all possible GPS tracking points that it finds in the GPX tracking files and finds the closest match. In other words, it determines which GPS point was recorded closest in time to when the photo was taken. The latitude, longitude and altitude are extracted from that GPS point and inserted into the appropriate EXIF fields in the digital photo. Nothing else is altered (hopefully!) and the digital photo is written back to the computer disk. In essence all that is changed is three EXIF fields in the digital photo, all the other information including the image pixels themselves are unchanged. At least this is how it is supposed to work, and so far I have encountered no problems.
  • I am now free to continue on with my workflow and raw files, converting them into JPEGs and preparing them for display on the web and delivery to clients. They are now geotagged so (again, hopefully) the software that I use to manage my photo collection, make JPEG versions for the web and high res TIFFs for clients ensures that the location information in the EXIF metadata is passed along from one generation of the photo to the next.

There are other software programs that can do this geotagging step. I chose GPicSync primarily because it supports tagging Canon raw files. In other words, it will go ahead and permanently alter the EXIF data (adding latitude, longitude, altitude) in my Canon raw files. This is a requirement for me, since I want as much metadata in the source image (my raw file) as possible. However, if you shoot JPEG then you have other options. Notably, I should mention a program named Downloader Pro, made by the developer of Breezebrowser Pro. I have been a longtime user of Breezebrowser and love it, it is perhaps the fastest and easiest image browsing program out there. When I set out to geotag my photos I planned to use Downloader Pro (a companian program to Breezebrowser Pro), but I soon found that it has a limitation that I cannot work around: it will not geotag Canon raw files (.cr2). I shoot exclusively raw files. I generate JPG and TIFF files from the raw files, but the “master” file is a raw file and the master file is the one I want geotagged. I emailed Chris Breeze (the maker of Breezebrowser and Downloader) about this and asked him why his program does not support geotagging Canon raw files. His reply was that by altering the EXIF header in the proprietary raw file one can damage the raw file, thereby making it unreadable by other software. (I understand that this is a risk, but since I can always save an unaltered copy of the raw file before it is tagged, I can work around that issue easily.) In any event, at the time of this writing Downloader Pro does not geotag Canon raw files, so I don’t use it. If and when that changes, I will immediately reconsider and probably start using Downloader Pro.

One further note on this step: consider backing up your original digital photos before proceeding with the geotagging. The geotagging that I describe alters the EXIF information in your digital photo. In the event that the geotagging software you are using has a flaw, it could corrupt the digital photo beyond repair. GPicSync, and probably most other geotagging programs, allows you to make a backup copy of each photo while the geotagging is being done, ensuring that you have a safe copy in case something bad happens to the altered copy. Needless to say, its probably a good idea to use this option if it is available, at least with shoots that are important.

6) Geo Data Flows To The Web. OK, you have geotagged your photos. Now what the heck do you do with them? Good question. I honestly don’t know all that is possible with the software that is out there. I use Expression Media to manage my collection of 22,000 images, most having 3-5 versions apiece, including keywording, cataloging, captioning, ranking, etc. Since Expression Media allows me to view the EXIF fields of my photos, I can check that the geotagging worked and that the correct latitude, longitude and altitude appear in the EXIF metadata. Great, but that is merely an exercise and does not really move me or my photos forward.

Importantly, I exploit the lat/long (latitude, longitude) data on my web site. Each photo in my collection has a corresponding record in a big database on my web server. The database has entries for location, species, keywords and a bunch of other database stuff. This database is created by Expression Media and then uploaded to the web server. This means that if Expression Media sees that an image has been geotagged, that lat/long information will flow from Expression Media to the web database. In other words, images that have been geotagged have lat/long entries in the database record, while images that have not been geotagged are missing entries lat/long entries in the database. When my website software (written by me using PHP and MySql) displays information about a geotagged image, it will notice the lat/long entry in the database and pass that information along to the display that the website visitor see. For instance, take a look at the summary information for this image of the Wave in southern Utah:

The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah. The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only

The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah. The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only.
Image ID: 20608
Location: North Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, USA

You will see not only the coordinates of the location where this image was shot, but a few links related to the coordinates and some small blue ball icons as well. What are those? Read on for the most interesting part of this whole process.

7) Geotagged Images In Google Earth. Google Earth is an amazing world visualization product from Google. At present it is available in a free version and a commercial version. I have only used the free version. I am sometimes blown away by what can be done with it. For starters, it allows one to visually fly around the world and then zoom in close, seeing Earth features from a birds eye view. That alone is pretty fun. But it gets better for photographers.

I should mention that if you do not have Google Earth installed on your computer, the discussion below will be merely academic. You won’t be able to check out the examples I mention without first installing Google Earth. Instead, click the “Google Maps” version of each link, but know that Google Maps is the lesser sibling to Google Earth when it comes to presenting geospatial stuff.

It is possible to generate Google Earth “overlays” that allow one to display almost anything in concert with Google Earth. These Google Earth overlays are similar in some ways to web pages that you view in a web browser but they are instead viewed in Google Earth, which is like a browser but for viewing the globe rather than text. For web visitors that have Google Earth installed on their computers, clicking on one of these Google Earth “overlay links” allows them to view things within Google Earth, usually in a meaningful spatial context. For instance, here are two overlays that together summarize the keepers we got in Tofino a few weeks ago. The first link presents the tracks, showing where we hiked (green), boated (purple) and flew (orange). The second link superimposes some photos above the sites where they were taken. Load both of these links in Google Earth:

Tofino tracks (view in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)
Tofino photos (view in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)

One of most oft-mentioned examples of a “GeoBlog” — a blog that is customized for Google Earth — is that of noted primatologist Jane Goodall’s Gombe Chimp research group, which publishes a blog about their ongoing activities. The blog is “geo-enabled”, meaning that not only can it be viewed as a traditional web page but it can also be viewed in an enhanced form within Google Earth at the exact location where the research is being conducted in Africa. Look for the little blue ball icons on the blog, indicating Google Earth-enabled links.

I’ve done a similar thing with most of the major parts of my web site, including the blog and the individual images. For instance, most pages on my blog are now geo-enabled. Here’s an example of an individual post of mine that is geo-enabled. The first link below just shows the blog post, while the second link displays it in Google Earth at the proper location on Granville Island in Vancouver:

http://www.oceanlight.com/log/granville-island-public-market-vancouver.html (web page)
http://www.oceanlight.com/log/granville-island-public-market-vancouver.kml (view in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)

(Also, the entire blog is available as a “KML Feed”, meaning that it is a feed accessible by Google Earth. The KML 2.0 link for this is at the bottom right of the blog, under “Meta”.)

Each individual image of mine that is geotagged can be viewed in geospatial context in Google Earth, at the exact point on the globe where the photo was taken. The first of the two links below shows a detailed view of the photo on a boring web page, while the second link displays the image in Google Earth at the point in the Paria Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness where the Wave is situated and the photo was taken:

http://www.oceanlight.com/spotlight.php?img=20608 (web page)
http://www.oceanlight.com/20608.kml (view in Google Earth, Google Mapsor Live Search Maps)

Lastly, you can view an entire collection of my images altogether in Google Earth. This was the hardest part for me to figure out, and required some geeky programming to get it right. But its now pretty powerful (at least I think so). In one fell swoop I can show you all of my images from, say, San Clemente Island, superimposed on the spots where they were taken. Or I can do this with all my blue whale images. Or those from the Galapagos, or Guadalupe Island. You get the idea. If you have Google Earth installed, check out these links and let me know what you think! Warning: each of these links displays dozens or hundreds of photos at once on Google Earth. You will need Google Earth installed to use these links.

San Clemente Island underwater photos on Google Earth (View in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)
Galapagos Islands photos on Google Earth (View in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)
Blue Whale photos on Google Earth (View in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)
Guadalupe Island photos on Google Earth (View in Google Earth, Google Maps or Live Search Maps)

Comments? Errors? Please let me know by email and I’ll try to amend this post. Thanks.

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Alaska, Brown Bear, How To, Lake Clark, National Parks, Wildlife

In 2005 I received a recommendation to visit Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to see bears. I already had a trip planned to Brooks Camp so I didn’t look into SSCL for a while. A week at Brooks in July 2006, with superb weather, company and bears, helped me to realize that I enjoyed the “Alaska thing” much more than I had anticipated. I was eager to do it again. About the same time we were put on notice that we might be making a family trip in Alaska in 2008, complete with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. If indeed we were making the effort of taking the kids to Alaska, it was inconceivable to me that we would not include a good close look at coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos) in the wild. Brooks Camp was a known quantity at this point, and while it would be ok for my family it was not ideal; the younger kids would get bored waiting on the viewing platforms and the crowds that Brooks Camp attracts (lodge, campers and day visitors alike) conflicted with the quieter experience I wanted Tracy and the kids to have their first time in Alaska. I needed to find an alternative place to take them. I got in touch with David Coray, longtime owner of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, and arranged to spend a week there in July 2007. I had a great time.

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, spruce trees and Chigmit Range, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, spruce trees and Chigmit Range.
Image ID: 19064
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, part of a private parcel of 160 acres in Lake Clark National Park, lies at the edge of a spruce forest and is fronted by broad flat sedge grass meadows. The view from the lodge is wonderful: the meadows stretch left and right several miles and out about a half mile, beyond which are the sandy beaches and tide flats of Cook Inlet. Tidal sloughs slice across the meadows in many places. About a mile to the south lies Silver Salmon Creek, while three miles to the north is Johnson River. Both of the rivers open directly to Cook Inlet and are host to runs of spawning salmon in late summer. Bears constantly stroll about the meadows while bald eagles can be seen often flying or perched on trees. A short distance behind the lodge, through the trees, is a large pond covered with lilies and surrounded by green peaks with patches of snow. Access to Silver Salmon Creek Lodge is by plane or boat only, and the vast majority of visitors come by air. Those arriving on float planes will land on the pond while those coming on wheeled planes land on the beach.

Brown bears graze among sedge grass meadows at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Brown bears graze among sedge grass meadows at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge.
Image ID: 19067
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

On a clear Sunday morning I met our pilot Mark Madura at Lake Hood, along with five fellow guests also spending the week at the lodge: John, Kent and Jenny, father, son and daughter who were set to fish Silver Salmon Creek and Copper River, and Dennis and Denny, father and son who were planning to shoot photos like myself. After an hour in the air Mark announced we would be waylaid by thick clouds over the lodge and could not land, so he landed on a pond at Homer, told us to cross our fingers for a change in the weather and set us free onshore to kill some time at the local brewery while he topped off the fuel and waited for word from David that all was clear to land. This turned out to be a fortunate diversion as we got a chance to get to know another a bit and buy a bunch of growlers of Homer Brewing Company’s finest to take with us. After a lunch of bratwurst and onion rings, we squeezed the beer in the few remaining bits of room on the plane and took off again, spotted a few whales crossing Cook Inlet, had a magnificent view of Mt. Redoubt rising above the clouds, and finally landed on the lily-covered pond behind the lodge.

Float plane, water lilies and pond lie beneath the Chigmit Range near Silver Salmon Creek, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Float plane, water lilies and pond lie beneath the Chigmit Range near Silver Salmon Creek.
Image ID: 19092
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Naturally, before bothering to see if my cameras, clothes and money had arrived on the other plane, I had to check out the kitchen and dining room. I’ve learned from many liveaboard boat trips that the cook and his menu are crucial to the success of the trip! As luck would have it chef Steve had saved some lunch for us latecomers. I will state without reservation that mealtime at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge is superb. The view from the dining room is beautiful. David’s daughter Dorian makes her baked treats fresh daily, the veggies come from the lodge’s own garden and the fish that is served is from the river and ocean one sees right out the window. The clams are the same ones the bears are after! It is all delicious and served in generous quantities. I ate really well and put on a few well-earned pounds. OK, enough said.

Kitchen and chef Steve, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Kitchen and chef Steve, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge.
Image ID: 19070
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

While bear viewing has in recent years been the major draw at SSCL, historically fishing is the pursuit of choice. Guests at the lodge can spend time fishing the rivers for salmon, sea kayaking, canoeing on the pond, or halibut fishing on the ocean. Or chilling at the lodge, napping or just enjoying the fresh air and fantastic views. One of the days at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge involved a boat trip up the coast a ways to a small island loaded with seabirds. Murres, puffins, gulls, and I think some terns and a hawk were all spotted there. I am not a bird photographer — I don’t have the patience or skill for it — so I just napped and watched the flocks of birds wheeling about above us. For the most part I chose to spend my time in the sedge grass meadows and on the beach and tide flats watching the bears and photographing them. My guide, Dawn, not only has guided in the area for years but has a formal biology education so she was able to keep me appraised of the natural history around us and answer my many questions. Dawn was willing to get out early and stay out late to give us ample opportunities to photograph the bears in the best light. Her husband John has worked even longer at SSCL and has some outstanding photographs to show for it, ones that would make the pros visiting the lodge envious. The staff at SSCL are both professional and personable (i.e., fun!), and are an important part of the success of SSCL.

Johnson River, side waters and tidal sloughs, flowing among sedge grass meadows before emptying into Cook Inlet, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Johnson River, side waters and tidal sloughs, flowing among sedge grass meadows before emptying into Cook Inlet.
Image ID: 19063
Location: Johnson River, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Summer days are quite long in Alaska, and there was plenty of time to shoot. Granted, I was blessed with nearly perfect weather: lots of sun with high overcast to soften it punctuated by two days of darker skies and a tad of light rain. We (my fellow photographers, Dawn and I) would make several outings each day to see bears. Sometimes we would head north, with three miles of beaches and meadows to explore before reaching Johnson River. Other times we would head out to the beach at low tide, hoping to see bears digging for clams on the broad tide flats. A mile to the south is Silver Salmon Creek, with a tidal slough and grass meadows along the way. Bears were found throughout these areas, at nearly all times, while I was there. Getting around was done almost entirely by ATV, with a rugged and simple trailer on the back. When I first learned we would get around by ATV I was confused (why not just walk?) but given the distances involved using an ATV really allows one to make the most of one’s time. We found large male boars, juveniles alone and in pairs, solitary sows as well as mothers with one, two and even three cubs. Some cubs were “spring cubs”, quite small and born just months earlier, who are totally dependent on their mother for survival. Others were born the previous winter and are now a year and a half old, much more gregarious and able to venture further from their mother and act more independently.

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams on mud flats at extreme low tide, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams on mud flats at extreme low tide.
Image ID: 19221
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

The lodge itself and its operations are just the right size: large enough to be comfortable while small enough to feel private and uncrowded. About 12 to 16 guests were present while I was there, a handful coming or going every few days. We had three different parties from Switzerland (two fishing, one bear viewing) during just the week I was there — the Swiss love Alaska it seems. Professional photographer David Cardinal was conducting one of his two annual tours at SSCL, leading a group of five serious photographers. David has been photographing the bears and leading tours to SSCL for eight years, and has some fine images on his web site to show for it. Occasionally we would see David and his group while out in the field, but the area is so large that everyone has plenty of space. Other tour groups led by Charles Glatzer and Jess Lee were coming soon after or had left before I arrived. Another lodge, Alaska Homestead Lodge, lies a short distance from SSCL and hosts primarily day fly-in visitors whom we would see on the trails once in a while.

Photographers and brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Photographers and brown bear.
Image ID: 19075
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

At low tide we went out to the tide flats to watch the bears digging for clams. We saw up to about 9 or 10 bears at once, spread widely over the flats. Each bear worked alone and had its own technique for shelling the clams once they were pulled from the sand. Some bears were clearly less skilled than others as their clams would be essentially destroyed as the bear tried to shell them. These bears would also end up covered with more sand and mud than their more skiller counterparts. A couple old pros we saw were able to lay the razor clam on the back of one paw and slide the claws of its other paw between the shells, opening the clam with little damage. Their dexterity is surprising.

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams in sand flats at extreme low tide.  Grizzly bear, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Coastal brown bear forages for razor clams in sand flats at extreme low tide. Grizzly bear.
Image ID: 19140
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

My goal visiting Silver Salmon Creek Lodge was to shoot simple portraits of large brown bears. Coastal brown bears are considerably larger than brown bears living in the interior of North America because they have access to salmon coming in from the ocean to spawn in the rivers and lakes. I am told by bear experts that interior brown bears are often referred to as grizzly bears or grizzlies, while it is generally agreed that coastal brown bears are not grizzlies. This distinction seems silly to me, however. Coastal brown bears are the largest bears in the world, surpassing polar bears and peaking in size with the Kodiak Island race. The best opportunities for portraits were in the meadows, with bears eating sedge grass. Being essentially pure fiber, sedge grass is not very nutritious for the bears but they are hungry as they wait for the salmon to arrive and so will eat lots of it. I even tried a little of it, and didn’t get sick, ok. The bears can eat up to 30 lbs of sedge grass each day and will spend hours in the meadows resting and grazing. Below are a couple of portraits of the bear that I thought was most impressive of those I saw during my stay. His eyes appear beady small because his head has grown so large and thick over the years, his shoulders were monstrously broad and thick and he walked with a swagger that suggested there was nothing that concerned him. He bears a recent scar over his right eye presumably from a fight with another male for territory or mating rights. I hope my kids get a chance to see him next year.

Full grown, mature male coastal brown bear boar (grizzly bear) in sedge grass meadows, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Full grown, mature male coastal brown bear boar (grizzly bear) in sedge grass meadows.
Image ID: 19134
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Mature male coastal brown bear boar waits on the tide flats at the mouth of Silver Salmon Creek for salmon to arrive.  Grizzly bear, Ursus arctos, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Mature male coastal brown bear boar waits on the tide flats at the mouth of Silver Salmon Creek for salmon to arrive. Grizzly bear.
Image ID: 19149
Species: Brown bear, Ursus arctos
Location: Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

Brooks Lodge Bear Viewing, Katmai, Alaska

Alaska, Brown Bear, How To, Katmai

Some Thoughts on Visiting Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska to See Coastal Brown Bears (Ursus arctos)



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), near the bridge, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Camp is located in the heart of Katmai National Park, Alaska. Long famous for its world-class fishing, spectacular volcanic and geologic features and beautiful countryside, Brooks Camp is now widely known for its remarkable bear viewing. Each July, during the height of the salmon run upriver, and again in September when the “spawned-out” salmon return downriver, dozens of brown bears (grizzly bears, Ursus arctos) congregate in the Brooks River, its surrounding forests and meadows, and along the shores of Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake to feast on the salmon. Brooks Camp is one of the finest places in the world to view wild brown bears. I spent a week at Brooks Camp in July 2006 with Keith Grundy and his wife and two sons. We had a great time watching and photographing the bears, walking around the woods and wondering if we would stumble across one of Timothy Treadwell‘s favorites, and just enjoying this wonderful Alaska setting. We even awoke one morning to a bat buzzing around inside our cabin room, that was cool, four men hiding under their covers from a 4-oz. flying vampiric squirrel.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), catching a spawning salmon atom Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Arrangements. We made arrangements to stay at Brooks Lodge, which included flights from Anchorage to King Salmon (by turboprop) and King Salmon on to Brooks Camp (by float plane) through Katmailand, the concessionaire operating Brooks Lodge. In particular, the float plane rides are really fun. The Katmailand folks were pleasant to deal with. Since stays at Brooks Lodge during the prime bear viewing weeks are limited to three nights, and I wanted additional time there, I made further arrangements to stay in the campground at Brooks Camp through the National Park Service. Brooks Lodge may seem expensive but it isn’t by Alaskan lodge standards, and the campground is dirt cheap. There are many tour companies and individual tour group organizers that will get you to Brooks Lodge for a multi-night stay, or just to Brooks Camp for the day. Many of these tours will offer some sort of photography instruction. You will pay a bit of a premium for this, but many visitors feel its worth it as the tour groups I encountered there were full and quite satisfied. I remember Natural Habitat had a group there, and I spoke with their tour guide a few times, and it seemed like a top-notch operation. I rarely join tour groups, preferring to have more control over my itinerary and spend less money by making my own arrangements. If you do too then Brooks Camp will be straightforward for you to arrange on your own. If you are pursuing photography, I definitely recommend that you stay at Brooks Camp, either in the lodge or campground, rather than visiting for the day by float plane, since you will forego precious morning and evening photography opportunites if you choose to visit only for the day.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), spring cub, stands to see above the tall grass near the bridge, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Camp. Visitors to the Brooks Camp area, after arriving by float plane, walk to Brooks Lodge and the ranger station to check in (if staying overnight) and to receive a brief, manditory lesson on how to behave around brown bears, especially when hiking or camping in the area and particularly when handling food or scented gear. Brooks Lodge itself is relatively small and simple, offering a fireplace and comfortable sitting chairs for relaxing and a dining room with simple yet satisfying buffet-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. I particularly took advantage of the bar at the end of the day, toasting my good fortune to be in such a great place before retiring for the evening. Cabins at the Lodge are spread over several acres, are spartan but comfortable, and offer bunk-style sleeping arrangements for a maximum of four per cabin. I am told the lodge manager tries to organize guests in such a way as to leave at least one bunk empty in each cabin but it may not be possible in July, especially for single travellers or odd-sized groups. The campground, an inexpensive alternative to the lodge, is a half-mile walk from the lodge on the shore of Naknek Lake. An electric “fence”, which looks like two lines of bungy cord with an electric conductor woven in each, is stretched around the perimeter of the campground. I camped in the center of the campground to ensure that any hungry bears that were not put off by a little shock would encounter someone else’s tent before mine. Some campers brought cooking gear with them and made fires and all that stuff each night. I choose instead to go light, relying on the lodge for meals and the lodge’s bar for entertainment, bringing only a tent, sleeping bag and some beef jerky.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), lifts its head from the water after snorkeling for salmon, near the Riffles section of Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska

The Experience. Brooks Camp is about bear viewing, salmon fishing and visiting the nearby and spectacular Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Brooks Camp is a simple, no frills place. During my brief week-long stay I experienced weather ranging from warm, blue sky days with pleasant breezes to overcast days so windy the day-visitor float planes could not land on Naknek Lake, to cold and rainy weather. I did not experience much of a problem with mosquitoes, gnats or other bugs, although you are well advised to prepare for that anywhere in Alaska. You will NOT be alone at Brooks Camp in July, unless you choose to go hiking. Most visitors to the lodge and campground during that time are there to see bears and/or go fishing, so if you are too then you will see one another at meals in the lodge and out on the trails to and from the places where the bears gather or the fishing takes place. However, in mid-summer the days are long and, if you rise and leave the lodge/campground areas early in the morning, you can find solitude easily enough. There are no distractions from television, radio or any of that crap offered at the Brooks Lodge, which is great and helps one to reset the mindset and really absorb the smells and sights that the lakes, river, meadows and forest have to offer. Your cell phone won’t work but your satellite phone will. It should be noted that it is stupid to hike there with an iPod jammed in your earholes, for obvious reasons. Also, leave your computer at home. Don’t bring the damn thing to Brooks Camp, its just plain wrong not to mention tasteless, we must maintain some limits on technology in the outdoors.



Two coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos), fight after one attempted to steal the other’s salmon, in the pools below Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Brooks Falls. Once visitors have been briefed on the bears and checked in to the lodge or campground, it’s off to the falls … Brooks Falls that is. Brooks Falls, roughly midway on the Brooks River between Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake, is the most popular spot in the Brooks Camp area for viewing bears, and with good reason. It is at Brooks Falls that salmon swimming upriver must navigate their only significant vertical challenge on their way to spawn in Brooks Lake. And it is at Brooks Falls that brown bears wait, both below and above the falls, to catch and eat the salmon. I spent six full days and two partial days at Brooks Camp, and allocated 3-7 hours each day to being at the falls, just to enjoy the show and try to shoot some photographs of the bears catching the salmon in midair and ripping them apart sashimi-style. The National Park Service has built an enormous, sturdy 10-foot elevated boardwalk, originating in the woods about 150 yards from the falls, and ending in two large viewing platforms where visitors can hang out and watch the bears in safety and without distracting them from their feeding, resting needs and socialization. The first platform overlooks the Riffles, a stretch of the very mild rapids about 100 yard below the falls. If a group of bears is occupying the falls, some of the smaller or less aggressive bears may move down into the Riffles stretch to fish. We found the Riffles was the best place to observe mothers and cubs and yearling bears, since it was dangerous for these younger bears to spend time around the large males (who might kill them). The Riffles platform tended to be the less crowded of the two platforms, by far, and on occasion actually offered the better opportunities for viewing — it all depends on the vagueries of the bears and the numbers of salmon passing through on any given day.



This large, mature male coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), moved slowly around the Brooks Falls area. It was apparently atop the hierarchy of bears at the falls, to the extent that it did not even need to expend energy on posturing or threatening the other bears at the falls. It would simply walk out to the prime spot in the middle of the river above the falls when it was ready to catch salmon, and any other bears in its way would move aside at its approach. Katmai National Park, Alaska

Falls Platform. The primary viewing platform is the Falls Platform, naturally situated alongside Brooks Falls itself. This is the best place in the world to capture the classic bear catching salmon photograph, such as the one made famous by the superb photographer Thomas Mangelsen. All you need is a bear or two atop the falls, a school of salmon moving through with individuals periodically attempting to leap up the falls, and a quick trigger finger on the camera. I managed to get a few shots of this myself, and look forward to trying it again sometime. It should be noted that the Falls Platform can get crowded, to the point where the park service will institute a waiting list and limit stays on the platform to an hour per person. I had heard horror stories about visitors being very frustrated by crowds at the Falls Platform and not feeling that they were able to spend enough time there, so I deliberately scheduled twice as many days at Brooks Camp as I thought I would need to account for this possibility. In my experience the crowds were not a great problem, and I only observed a waiting list in the afternoons, when day visitors (those who fly in by float plane to view bears and fly out again the same day) were present. By about 6pm all day visitors have left, and the crowds are no longer an issue. I found that there was plenty of light for viewing bears at the falls and shooting photos until at least 8pm in the evening unless it was really overcast or raining, and as a consequence I returned home with many more frames that I expected. I found that, on a full frame camera (Canon 1DsII) that a 500mm f/4 was my most used lens, followed by 100-400mm and 70-200mm lenses. I think a 600mm lens would have been too limiting, although I did see a few guys using them, perhaps framing up tight portrait shots. I think I broke out a 24-70mm lens just once on the platform.



Coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), waits motionless for salmon to leap up the falls, long shutter speed blurs the water movement, Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Etiquette. It should be mentioned that there is some etiquette required for the platforms, particularly the Falls Platform, for photographers. The platform is well suited for 40-50 visitors but is standing room only. Once photographers, with their bulky tripods and ginormous telephoto lenses, start occupying spots on the platform it starts feeling crowded in a hurry. It is important for photographers to remember that, regardless of how awesome their gear is or how much money their tour group cost, they are no more entitled to a spot on the platform than Aunt Bessie from Wisconsin with her point-and-shoot instamatic. Indeed, for Aunt Bessie, time spent on the platform is likely even more of a thrill than it is for the travel-hardened, experienced photographer. Photographers, go ahead and spend time on the front row of the platform — for you will naturally weasel your way up there, you’ll see — and then voluntarily back off and allow others (especially kids) to have your spot, even if they care nothing for photos. You will find that shooting from the rear of the platform will give you somewhat different angles on the bears on the falls. I know, its hard to do, and I was as tempted as any other photographer to hog the front of the platform with my megacamera setup, but I realized moving around and shooting from the back of the platform actually allowed me to shot compositions I would have missed up front. I found during my stay that, in spite of afternoon waiting lists at the Falls Platform, everyone on the platforms was quite polite and pleasant — indeed very happy just to be in such a wonderful place. Even the most serious photographers eventually smiled and gave up their prime shooting spots for others who had been waiting a while. Only one notable incident involving platform crowding took place while I was there, on the Riffles platform. One of the National Park Service rangers, who pursues photography (apparently professionally) as well, was off-duty and shooting from the rear of the empty Riffles platform as a group of others, myself included, arrived. He asked us to stay out of his line of sight, stating that since he was shooting with a prime (fixed focal length) lens he did not have freedom to move from his position at the rear of the platform for his chosen composition. This request effectively made the entire platform inaccessible to the rest of us, until he was finished with his shot. Now, while his request would have been reasonable in a situation where everyone had reasonable freedom of movement, on the platform such a request was ridiculous, especially so coming from a ranger who we assume spends weeks, if not seasons, at Brooks Camp. We allowed him to have a few more minutes to his shot, but since his request kept the rest of the visitors from even using the platform we eventually had to tell him so and step on to the platform so that we could have a look at the bears ourselves. The moral of the story, which this experienced ranger certainly must have known, is: bring a zoom when shooting from the platforms. This is stating the obvious: you are on a platform with limited ability to move about. While primes are sharper and faster, on a platform you may (will) find yourself constrained in ways that only a zoom can solve.



A float plane, having just landed on Naknek Lake, taxies to the shoreline in front of Brooks Camp, while a young coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), walks near the mouth of Brooks River near the bridge, Katmai National Park, Alaska

Bridge. The platforms are on the opposite side of the Brooks River from the lodge and campground. A floating bridge exists, near the mouth of the Brooks River at Naknek Lake. A raised platform has been built on one side of the bridge which is a great spot for viewing bears in the surrounding meadow and along the banks of the Brooks River. The bridge is a natural pinch point, since anyone staying at the lodge or campground really must cross the bridge during the course of a typical day of bear viewing. Therein lies the rub. If a bear is hanging around either end of the bridge, or has chosen to lay down for a nap near the bridge, the rangers may close the bridge until the bear has left, a closure that could last for hours resulting in the famous Brooks Camp “bear jam”. Bears have right of way through the park, and visitors are limited in how close to a bear they may be. Bear jams can occur anywhere in the park that a narrowing exists (road, trail, bridge, etc.). Since the brush underneath the bridge platform happens to be a natural place for bears to bed down (especially sows with cubs), bear jams at the bridge occur fairly often. I was lucky and not subjected to any that lasted more than a few minutes. Anyone with a flight out of Brooks Camp is advised to factor the possibility of a bear jam into their schedule and return early to the camp so as not to miss their flight. On our final day at Brooks, we were in a sense beneficiaries of a long bear jam. We hit the trail immediately after breakfast and spent the entire morning on the Falls Platform. For several hours the platform was nearly empty and very quiet with just a small group of us there, and we felt as if we had the falls to ourselves, a rarity in July. We all had lots of space to move about the platform. Just as we were leaving, many more people began to arrive — people who had been held up at the bridge for nearly the entire morning due to a napping bear, one we had missed by just a few minutes on our way out after breakfast.



“Spa bear”, a mature male coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos), has an intriguing technique for catching salmon. He waits motionless in the bubble-filled pools below Brooks Falls until a salmon happens to bump against him. More quickly than the fish can flee, spa bear snags the fish between his forepaws and his body. Only then does he bother to get his head wet, leaning down to grasp the doomed salmon in his mouth, and slowly exits the water to eat it. Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska

See: grizzly bear photos.

Photographing Pelicans at the La Jolla Cliffs

California, How To, Pelicans

Revised December 2010, now in PDF form: 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. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

A morning visit to the cliffs of La Jolla to photograph seabirds is on the list of many California photographers. Note I did not say “bird photographers”. This location is appealing because good seabird photographs are easily achieved here, to the extent that shooters like myself with modest bird photography skills can have really productive sessions and in a single visit can generate a variety of strong images to add to their collections. Bird photographers come from throughout the country to train their lenses on these special birds and the scenic coastline of La Jolla, and for good reason. I was reminded of this recently when I happened to share the cliff top with a large workshop group led by one of the world’s top bird photographers. The intensity of their efforts was apparent, as was their satisfaction with the photographic opportunities before them. I photograph primarily ocean subjects, including coastal birds. Among seabirds I find the California race of the brown pelican particularly attractive and fun to watch, so when I am in La Jolla shooting it is the pelican that gets most of my attention.

Brown pelican in flight.  The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.  In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 15371
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The best time to visit the La Jolla cliffs is during the winter months, sunrise through mid-morning. The California brown pelican displays it most colorful plumage from late December through February, punctuated by a dramatic red throat pouch. Typically, winter mornings in San Diego offer clear skies and good sunlight conditions for photography, and if you are fortunate the wind will also be in your favor (i.e., offshore) when you are there. If you can manage to time your visit during the week you will probably share the small cliff top area with fewer people than if you visit on the weekend. As you will see, the fewer photographers occupying the limited space on the cliffs, the better. Upon arriving you may not find many pelicans on the cliffs, or none at all, or a whole crowd of them. Regardless, move slowly so that the birds that are there can become used to your presence and are not shocked into taking flight. Pelicans that are on the cliffs are there to rest, and if they are flushed they will likely settle down on another cliff and not return for quite a while, if at all.

Brown pelican.  This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning.  In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican. This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 15123
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The waxing light before sunrise can offer pleasing pastel-colored backgrounds again which to frame up gulls and pelicans. I often see photographers combining pastel-colored ambient light with a bit of strobe fill. This is a delicate balance of light and is made difficult by the need for high ISO (e.g., 400) to freeze the wings with shutter speed. However, the high ISO means you must not underexpose to avoid excessive shadow noise. Don’t be afraid to meter so that the clear dawn sky, with the sun at your back, is at +2 or more stops, decreasing gradually as the sun rises. A Better Beamer can be helpful to increase the throw (distance) of your flash, and a bracket serves to position the flash off the axis of the lens to avoid.

Direct sun will light the reach cliffs and birds about 30 minutes after sunrise proper, being blocked for a while by La Jolla’s Mount Soledad behind you. You will find that you can frame up the resting and preening pelicans that are standing on the cliff edges with attractive frontlighting – the type of lighting I prefer – by ensuring that your shadow is pointed directly at the birds. As in portrait photography, front lighting with a long lens serves to flatten and simplify the subject in a flattering way. Pelicans are contrasty, with coloration ranging from pure white and hot yellow and red to deep gray and black; side lighting is just too harsh for my taste.

A brown pelican preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland (preen gland) near the base of its tail.  Preen oil from the uropygial gland is spread by the pelican's beak and back of its head to all other feathers on the pelican, helping to keep them water resistant and dry.  Adult winter non-breeding plumage showing white hindneck and red gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

A brown pelican preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland (preen gland) near the base of its tail. Preen oil from the uropygial gland is spread by the pelican’s beak and back of its head to all other feathers on the pelican, helping to keep them water resistant and dry. Adult winter non-breeding plumage showing white hindneck and red gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 18209
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Framing individual birds against a distant, out of focus, pleasing blue or green ocean backdrop is dead easy. The key to creating a defocused background is to place a relatively uncomplicated background at a great distance relative to the subject. In La Jolla the pelicans are 15-50′ (5-15m) from you while the background cliffs, waves or blue ocean range from a hundred yards to a mile away or more. With distance ratios like that it is possible to stop down to f/8 or f/11 to hold depth of field on the subject with a 500mm lens and still achieve a defocused background, making the subject’s edges appear especially sharp. Take advantage of soft background and leave negative space in some of your vertical compositions to allow for that cover shot that will allow you to retire early. Before the sun climbs too high it is possible to put a catchlight from the sun in your pelican’s eye, or to maximize the visibility of water droplets on a pelican that has just returned from the water. To do this, position your subject so that the sun is directly behind you and low. If the shadow of your lens lies just to the side of your subject, you are in the right spot.

Focus on the eye! I try to put critical focus on my subject’s eye in all of my wildlife photographs, and pelicans are no exception. The eye of an animal, especially in a portrait composition, is an anchor for the viewer. Invariably and naturally, when first viewing a photograph a viewer’s glance is immediately drawn to the subject’s eye. For this reason the eye must be tack sharp and well-placed. Once that is achieved, use what depth of field is available (given the available light and choice of shutter speed and ISO) to try for sharp chest, head and neck details, knowing that depth of field with super-telephotos is notoriously small and that some near or far detail may be a bit soft.

Brown pelican in flight.  The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.  In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 15122
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

For best flight shots I hope for a clear horizon and offshore morning breezes, so that the pelicans approach the cliffs upwind and are frontlit as they fly directly toward the lens. In this way their faces and undersides are illuminated as they spread those huge wings to soar and land. It is tempting to shoot frames as they fly past, and I have certainly shot my share of those. But back at the editing table I find that in nearly every case side lighting produces an image that is too harsh and gets tossed. If you do not have offshores don’t despair; often upon approach to the cliffs the pelicans will wheel and make a second pass before deciding where to set down, especially if the cliff is already crowded with pelicans or people. Take advantage of these loops to obtain the angle you need.

When shooting pelicans in flight in La Jolla the background will quickly change from bright sky to deep blue ocean water, whitewash and waves to brown sandstone cliffs. These situations will fool your light meter and, if you are shooting in one of the automatic modes, will often produce blown head and wing highlights or an underexposed bird. Metering with a handheld incident meter, or using your in-camera spot meter on a neutral area such as a grey guana-covered rock, is recommended. In a pinch I will set my exposure so that the palm of my (caucasian) hand is at +1.

California brown pelican spreads its wings wide as it slows before landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican spreads its wings wide as it slows before landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 18228
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Pelicans brake dramatically as they land, comically so. If you are standing back on the top of the cliffs and hoping to get a shot of a pelican with wings spread wide coming straight at you, you may want to step forward a bit and aim for the lower cliffs. I find the vantage point shooting down at the lower cliffs works better, since the pelicans landing there are rising up off the water at an angle that takes them straight at you and with undersides well illuminated. Also, compared to the pelicans that just suddenly appear from below the edge of the top cliffs, those landing on the lower cliffs are easier to track and focus as they approach over the water.

Brown pelican in flight.  The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. Long exposure shows motion as a blur. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.  In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with dark brown hindneck and bright red gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. Long exposure shows motion as a blur. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with dark brown hindneck and bright red gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 15134
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

I have had a few mornings where the light is terrible. Overcast, spotty, drab. This is more typical of San Diego coastal mornings in May, June and July but it does happen in winter too. Don’t let it spoil your shooting. Just drop the ISO, set your aperature to f/16 or f/22 and shoot pan-blurs. Hopefully you will get a few where the head of the pelican is sharp and the wings and ocean background are blurry. The keeper rate is low but the results can be worth it.

Brown pelican head throw.  During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch.
Image ID: 15124
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Head throws, where your pelican stretches its throat and lifts it bill straight up in the air, are the most distinctive and amusing behaviors among these birds. It seems that most of the photographers I’ve talked with at the cliffs are keen to get a good shot of a pelican’s head throw. It’s not too hard, you’ll get it if you are willing to put in some time and stand ready. Any pelican that is standing and has its eyes open is a good candidate to throw its head back. I’ve seen a single individual do it five or six times in the course of just a few minutes. Head throws are as contagious as sneezes among a group of pelicans. If you see one do it be ready for his neighbor to do it too. Take a few test frames and check your histograms for blinkies ahead of time, so that it is simply a matter of framing it up when you see the pelican’s head drop down and back first, before being swung straight up in the air. Heck, with today’s ultra-fast motor drives and focusing systems, the camera practically takes the photo for you. Think about the right focal length for where you are standing. You’ll need to be wide enough to contain about twice the height of a standing pelican to include the entire bird when it is tossing its bill up.

Brown pelican head throw.  During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch.
Image ID: 18044
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelican, showing bright red gular pouch and breeding plumage with brown neck.  This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican, showing bright red gular pouch and breeding plumage with brown neck. This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning.
Image ID: 15153
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Don’t forget to shoot some details of the birds, but don’t approach them so closely that you spook them off to do so …

California brown pelicans fly in formation, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelicans fly in formation.
Image ID: 18232
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelicans rest and preen on seacliffs above the ocean.   In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red-orange gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelicans rest and preen on seacliffs above the ocean. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red-orange gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 18261
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

… and get some frames of the groups, if you can line them up.

Brown pelican in flight.  The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.  In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 15125
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The cliffs are increasingly crowded with photographers (and visitors) each winter. When I would visit the cliffs after swimming the cove in the 80’s, I never saw another photographer there. In the 90’s there would be a few, and now it seems photographers, alone or in groups, are there most weekend mornings December through March. This is probably a good thing, as these birds are deserving of our appreciation, and for the most part the behavior of photographers alongside whom I have shot at the cliffs has been exemplary and respectful of these special birds. However, if the birds are disturbed and fly off, the photo opportunities for everyone are lessened (not to mention the the disruption that the birds experience). I’ve seen a few people flush the entire flock, only to watch as all the departing birds settled on another cliff for the rest of the morning. If you flush the flock you are certain to raise the ire of the others sharing the cliff with you!

You’ll want the longest lens you own for portraits and head throws. Some prefer to use shorter focal lengths and zooms (70-200, 100-400) for flight shots. Most of the better photos I have made the last two years at the cliffs were taken with a Canon 1Ds Mark II and 500 f/4 IS, on a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley II head. The perspective-crunching nature of a 500mm or 600mm, combined with the defocused background, is a combination I just love. A 70-200 f/2.8 or 300 f/2.8 with a 1DIIN is a good combo too, but I just don’t want to give up the pixels of the 1DsII or the crazy sharpness of the Canon 500 f/4. Keep in mind that if there are onshore breezes and surf, you may get some spray on your gear even while you are well atop the cliffs. Consider bringing a towel in your hip sack just in case. Since I often shoot around surf I carry a full-length Aquatech spray cover for my camera and lens.

Had enough after a few hours at the cliffs? I should mention that in addition to brown pelicans I have photographed gray whales, several species of cormorant, gull and tern, at least one osprey and a few great blue herons at the La Jolla cliffs. If you have seen enough of them too and you are ready to move on, there are a few fun places nearby you might want to consider. If there are waves, walking down the hill to the large grass park at La Jolla Cove may give you opportunities to shoot pelicans at water level flying above and in front of the waves, a composition that would be difficult to line up at the cliffs. You’ll want to shoot from the sidewalk at the edge of the park, on the low bluff just above the waves. Children’s Pool (a pocket cove with seawall) is only a half mile south, just a two-minute drive, and your longer lens is perfect to photograph the harbor seals there. Walk down to the sand and shoot low for the most appealing perspective of the seals. The sun reaches the seals at Children’s Pool later in the morning than it does the pelicans at the cliffs, so you can generally shoot both spots in good light in winter months. To the north, close enough that you can see both from the cliffs, lie Stephen Birch SIO Aquarium (10 minutes) and Torrey Pines State Reserve (20 minutes).

A few handy links:

La Jolla Shores web cam (cliffs visible in the distance), courtesy Beach and Tennis Club

Google map showing cliffs, Prospect Blvd. and Coast Blvd.

Scripps Pier web cam (not very helpful)

Surfline.com’s Scripps Pier surf cam, including tides, sunrise/set — to see what the skies are like at the cliffs.