Cholla at Midday

Yesterday I grabbed a sandwich for lunch and then drove over to the Gateway Trailhead, a small park on the Thompson Peak Parkway near where I work. After I gobbled down my sandwich, I got down to the real business of why I was visiting the park, and that was to take a few practice shots of the desert scenery. There were some beautiful cloud formations about that time yesterday, so I was hoping that I could find a composition that incorporated both the cacti and the clouds.

It turns out that’s a little harder than it sounds when you’re shooting toward the sky on a sunny day, while trying to keep your foreground subject properly exposed. Here’s a case in point–one of my favorite desert cacti is the cholla, sometimes known as the “jumping cactus”. When the sun is just right, the cholla seems to “glow” around the edges from the sunlight captured in the nearly-white spines. In the golden hour, it’s a beautiful thing. In the high-noon sun–not so much.

I played around with this one to try and get as much detail back in to the scene as possible, but it’s still a little blown out. I’m posting it anyway, because I think it’s a good lesson for me to remember–don’t shoot the cholla at High Noon (sounds like a Western movie title, doesn’t it?).

Cholla at Midday
Single image shot with my Nikon D700, 24-300mm zoom @ 28mm, F/16, 1/80s, ISO 100

Oh, and one more lesson–don’t go walking around in the desert in your thin-soled Mootsies Tootsies that you wore to work. The cactus spines will go right through them. Speaking from experience.


The Arabian Library in Copper

Tonight’s post is another image of the Arabian Library in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Its exterior walls are a beautiful copper color which positively glows in the sun, especially against the bright blue of the desert sky:

Arabian Library in Copper

This is a single exposure shot handheld at 85mm, ISO 200, F/6.3, 1/640s. I processed it in PaintShop Photo Pro X3, using Topaz Adjust to bring out some of the details that were lost in the harsh sunlight.

I spent a few hours (and a few bucks) today establishing my new online domain, Over time, I plan to get a website set up to display my best photography, and then eventually start some sort of business from what is now a very expensive hobby. But for now, I just wanted to make sure that I own the domain. It may never amount to anything, but one has to start somewhere.

If you like my work, please subscribe to this blog and feel free to offer comments.  You can also find me on Facebook at ZannWalker Photography.

Copper Entryway

I took my camera to work with me today and at lunchtime I made a quick trip over to the Arabian Library in Scottsdale.  I’ve been there several times before and always thought that those copper walls would make some great photos, especially when contrasted with the deep blue sky.

I got several decent shots today with the 28-300mm zoom, even though the noontime sun was quite harsh.  This particular shot was made on the side of the building where there was an entryway cutout in the wall.  Just inside this entryway there are doors leading to the left and the right, although they aren’t visible here.  What caught my eye were the two pieces of red alarm equipment on the inner wall.

I just liked the geometry of the scene:

Copper Entryway

This is a single exposure shot handheld at 85mm, ISO 200, F/6.3, 1/640s. I processed it in PaintShop Photo Pro X3, using Topaz Adjust to bring out some of the details that were lost in the harsh sunlight. I love the texture and color variations in the copper sheeting, it would have been a shame to lose that!

Desert Green Under Stormy Skies

Central Arizona has been blessed this winter with abundant rainfall, well above our yearly average.  Here in the Valley of the Sun, we don’t complain (well, hardly ever) when it rains, because we know that the summer heat and dryness are just around the corner.  The desert is a miraculous ecosystem.  Just the slightest bit of rain can bring the dried seeds and hidden vegetation to life, attracting the wildlife and birds at the same time.

Today was one of those rainy days when I could see the clouds hanging heavy over the McDowell Mountains from our office windows.  Most of the day it looked like a heavy Pacific coast fog, just absolutely stunning.  But just about 5:00 as I was wrapping up my workday, the clouds began to break in the west as the sun was beginning to set, and the mountains to the east just lit up like huge emerald monoliths against the backdrop of the remaining storm clouds.

When I got to my car on the top floor of the parking deck, I grabbed my camera and took a couple of shots with my normal lens, but wasn’t happy with having the rooftops of the adjoining office buildings in the shot.  By that time, the shadow of the clouds was moving further up the mountain.  So I quickly swapped lenses, mounted my old 75-300 telephoto lens, and zoomed it to the max, capturing the shot below:

I did a little adjusting and masking exercise in PaintShop Pro, but this is pretty much what it looked like.  Normally these mountains are dark brown, rocky slopes with just a smattering of brush, but you can see just how green they are right now.  Perhaps I’ll revisit this photo in August when I’ve forgotten what a little water can do to the desert.

Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other,
thus should we do,
for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.

Black Elk


Tripod Nirvana

I am so excited!  I finally have a decent tripod!  I went to Best Buy after work this evening and purchased the Sunpak Pro 523PX 64″ model with the pistol grip ball head.  It has a lot of features that I really like, including:

  • Pistol grip ball head with trigger control (no more levers!)
  • Quick release plate with a built in screwdriver (no more using a coin to tighten and loosen the screw)
  • 360 degree rotating ball head (no more taking the camera off the tripod and repositioning the not-so-quick release plate to change from landscape to portrait mode)
  • 2 bubble levels
  • Adjustable lift n’ lock center column (with an extra shorter column for tabletop configuration)
  • Neoprene leg grips
  • Center column accessory hook
  • Carbon fiber leg sections
  • Rubber feet with retractable spikes

I love the pistol grip trigger control.  It makes it possible to reposition the camera and have it locked into place for the next shot with just a squeeze.  I can’t wait to take this thing out this weekend and give it a test run!

The only photography that I got to do today was totally by accident.  We had a baby shower for a co-worker in the office today, and the person who was supposed to be taking pictures ran out of memory in their point-and-shoot camera after only a couple of shots.  I happened to have my camera at the office with me, so I grabbed it and started shooting.  I had the telephoto lens already attached, so I went ahead and used it.  All the better to get shots of the action from the far end of the conference room table.  It also gave me some depth-of-field variety:

Since these were just snapshots, I only published them to my Facebook page, but you’re welcome to view them (click here).  The conference room had a ton of natural light, so I only needed the flash when taking pictures of people who had their backs to the windows.  I had the camera on Auto the whole time, and I was pretty pleased with the way the pictures came out.  I haven’t edited any of them, just published them as is (except for some resizing, of course).

I’m hoping to get some good shots this weekend.  They’re predicting a 60% chance of rain tomorrow and 30% on Sunday, so it could be dicey.  But I’m determined to find that window of opportunity so I can get my dose of Zen–I need it!!


Gateway Trailhead – Postlogue

I completely forgot to wear a coat or jacket when I left the house for work this morning, and when I left the office this evening the temperatures were in the mid 50’s and it was cloudy and breezy, so I didn’t stop to take any photos on the way home.  Instead I decided to try and salvage some of the shots from Gateway Trailhead that didn’t work well in HDR.

This first photo is one of the shots that I wound up turning into a black-and-white in HDR (see yesterday’s post):

Gateway Trailhead 60 Non-HDR

I did some tweaking of the shot in Paintshop Pro, and while it doesn’t capture details in the highlights and shadows like an HDR photo does, I still like the way the sun rays show up on the arms of the cholla.  I like this single color shot better than the B&W HDR version.

This next shot is one of about nine consecutive exposures that I took from the same spot in the visitor’s center:

Gateway Trailhead 077 Non-HDR

This one is the under-exposed shot in the bracketed series (-2.0 EV), which produced some gorgeous color in the sky even before any processing in Paintshop Pro.  The “frame” was the interior of the building, and on all three bracketed shots it was completely in silouette…thus the extreme noise in the HDR version.  However, this single shot turned out quite nicely, I thought.

So, I think I’m done with Gateway Trailhead for awhile now.  If all goes according to plan, we’ll be heading to Out of Africa in Camp Verde on Sunday, where I hope to get some good shots of the “wildlife”.  But until then I’ll be on the lookout for spur-of-the-moment things to shoot, and I’ll be sure to remember to take my jacket with me when I head out the door!


More Gateway Trailhead and Less HDR Nirvana

I finished up the HDR processing on the remaining 63 photos (21 series of 3 bracketed shots each), and I came away with 17 more photos that were usable.  As the sun set while I was shooting yesterday, I evidently was pushing the camera to the max of its capabilities to capture what I was imagining in my head.  The low angle of the sun created some deep shadows, but at the same time the areas that were sunlit were extremely bright.  So I ran into some real challenges when trying to get some decent HDR’s tonight.

This first shot didn’t turn out that badly, I don’t think.  I was trying to capture the way the sunlight lit up the dense needles of the cholla almost like a halo.  I didn’t want the sun itself to be in the picture because it would have overexposed it, so I think it works well with the light source just barely appearing on the right.

Gateway Trailhead 037

After this shot, I got a little greedy and started trying to actually capture the setting sun between the arms of the cholla.  And sure enough, when I started trying to process those shots in Photomatix, they were almost impossible to tone-map in a way that satisfied me.  And then I happened to set the Saturation slider to zero (primarily out of frustration), and I came up with this shot:

Gateway Trailhead 058

It almost looks like it was taken at night by moonlight.  While it wasn’t the shot that I had set out to capture, I decided that I kind of liked this treatment, so I kept this one.  Not everything has to have 100% color saturation, right?

The shots after this were a hodge-podge of hits and misses.  Many of them had such intense contrasts between the highlight and shadow areas that they were unusable–the amount of noise in the HDR version was tremendous.  At some point I may invest in some noise-reduction software and go back and see if I can get something usable out of those files, but for now they go to the archive.

Gateway Trailhead 067

The shot above, for instance, was taken inside the visitor’s center where the setting sun was shining through an opening in the wall.  I loved the way it made the wall glow in the deep cedar tones, and the saguaro growing through the opening in the roof was a great touch as well.  After I took this shot, I repositioned my camera so that I could actually see the sun going down….and that turned out to be a mistake.  I took about three bracketed series looking straight at the sun, and when I processed them in HDR, they turned out miserably.  They were just excessively noisy.  But like I said, I may go back to them at some point and see what I can do with them.  Also, I haven’t done anything with any of these photos beyond tone-mapping them in Photomatix.  I may go back to some of them in Paintshop Pro to see what improvments, if any, might be made.

So, what did I get from this hour of shooting, followed by about five hours of processing? I got some good lessons in late afternoon shooting:

  • Be conscious of where your shadow is–several of my photos show my shadow very distinctly.  Several times I remembered and tried to either duck down or move out of the way, but a wired cable release will only let you step away so far.
  • Remember to use a lower ISO setting.  I have my camera set to ISO 200 by default and didn’t even think about changing it.  But as one of my blog readers pointed out (thanks, Martin!), I should use a lower ISO when I’m using a tripod…why not?
  • HDR is good at capturing details in highlights and shadows, but it’s not a miracle worker.  Shots that have very intense, colorful sunlight can be tough to work with when they also contain very dark shadow or silouette.

So I came away with a total of 27 shots that I actually liked, some more than others, and they can all be seen on my Flickr page.  Take a look at the portfolio and let me know what you think!


Gateway Trailhead and HDR Nirvana

Since there was this big football game yesterday (Who Dat!!), I took an entire day off from my new obsession and managed to keep my hands off the camera for an entire day.  But I made up for it this evening.  As soon as the workday was over, I got in the car and headed east on Bell Road, took a left on Thompson Peak Parkway, and pulled in to the Gateway Trailhead, a beautiful spot at the base of the mountains.  There are several trails there along with an unmanned visitor’s center and a small ampitheatre.  Tonight the sunset was gorgeous again, and so me, my Nikon and my tripod spent about an hour taking multiple series of bracketed shots for HDR processing.

I wound up with a total of 93 shots, so tonight I only processed the first thirty into ten HDR photos.  And I have to say that I’m pleased with the first ten.

For once, it seemed like I had my mind in gear and I was able to take my time and compose the shots that I wanted.  I played with the tripod, raising and lowering it so that I could get different angles on the shots (maybe Santa will be good to me this year and bring me a tripod with a ball head!).  There was a great variety of vegetation as well as the structures of the visitor’s center and the bridges so that there was always something to add interest to the photos.

For all these shots, I used my normal lens (18-55mm zoom), set to aperture-priority, ISO 200, and I bracketed +/- 2.0 EV.  I processed and tone-mapped the shots in Photomatix.

I can’t wait to continue processing the rest of these tomorrow night.  Darn it, if I didn’t have to go work…

You can view the entire set on my Flickr page by clicking here.


When you can’t sleep, shoot!

I haven’t been sleeping all that well lately, and so when I woke up at 4:30 this morning I decided to just go ahead and get out of the bed and see what the sunrise might look like.  After showering and getting dressed for work, I gathered up my little camera kit and headed east toward Scottsdale while it was still dark.  I had checked the weather forecast before I left the house, and it didn’t sound promising (cloudy with a 30% chance of rain), but I was hoping I would get lucky and there might be a break in the clouds when the sun came up.

I staked out a spot in the same park where I shot on Tuesday evening.  As the eastern sky began to lighten, I could see that there wasn’t going to be much color this morning, but I thought I might still get some interesting photos with the street lights, car lights (in streaks), and the patterns of the dark clouds.  There’s a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the street, and I got a few shots of that as well, and then a few of the field house near the soccer fields. The clouds were heavy and low this morning, almost like fog, so some of these shots may work better as black-and-whites.

I checked the results in the LCD screen of the camera and I think I got some pretty good stuff, but I won’t know for sure until I get home tonight and start playing around with them.  I shot everything in bracketed series of three so that I can use HDR on them if I want.  I used aperture-priority mode, mostly F/16 so I could get long shutter speeds for the car lights, and ISO 200.

Even though the weather wasn’t what I was hoping for, it was still a great way to start the day.  It was relatively peaceful in the park with just a little traffic noise and a few joggers breathing heavily when they passed.  The cool air was invigorating, and I was able to slow down and play around with each shot, while at the same time enjoying the bird song and subtle changes in the clouds and sky over the mountains as dawn came.

Now, I’m in the office, enjoying my coffee, wishing I could start processing my shots.  I’m sure I’m going to be really sleepy this afternoon, but guess who’s going to be sitting in front of the laptop for awhile tonight??


I’ve had a chance to go through the shots I took this morning.  Some of them turned out quite well, some were disappointing….par for the course.  The gray, gloomy skies didn’t give me much to work with after the sun came up, but with a little HDR processing, I did come up with a couple of things that I was happy with:

The shot above is an HDR of three bracketed shots, the first three shots that I took after getting set up.  I like how the trail of the car taillights was captured, as well as the spiky halo on the streetlight.  At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted the streetlight in the photo, but since there wasn’t a good angle of the bridge without including the light, I just accepted it (very zen-like!), and it grew on me.

The shot below was taken at the field house after the sun came up somewhere behind all those low-hanging clouds. I liked the way the reflection in the windows mirrored the view of the soccer fields off to the left of the camera.  This was my favorite shot of the day.  It’s also an HDR of three different bracketed photos.

Hoping for a little more sunshine this weekend, maybe a trip to Sedona to do some shooting!

HDR Sunset in the Park

Ever notice that you find the best things in life when you’re looking for something else?  When I left work today, I was on my way to north Hayden Road to look for a place to set up for some possible shots of the sunset.  I was headed west on Princess, and before I got to Hayden Road, I spotted a park where there was a cool pedestrian bridge that looked like it might make a good foreground for a sunset picture.  I whipped the car into the parking lot, got out and explored for a few minutes.  I found that there was a little overlook that had a perfect view of the sun setting over the mountains (although it was a bit too cloudy in the west for a lot of great color).

I got my camera out of the car, and for once I had plenty of time to set everything up and think about what I was doing.  I used the tripod and the cable release with the camera set on aperture-priority mode at F/6.3, and took a series of bracketed shots at +/- 2.0.  Once I was sure that the sunset was pretty much over as far as dramatics, I turned around and took some shots toward the east where the “blue hour” was beginning.  For these shots, I changed the aperture to F/16 to increase the depth of field.  My ISO setting on everything was 200 in an attempt to reduce the noise.

I processed the shots in Photomatix, and I was fairly pleased with the results.  Let me know what you think!