Photo Journal, Issue 24, October 30, 2018

That was an interesting trip. I went caving with nine others. The basic plan was to enter the cave by a 40-foot pit, then do an instrument survey of the cave in order to produce a cave map. While I was in the bottom of the pit waiting for the next person to rappel down the rope, I looked around for wildlife. One lonely millipede was hanging on the ceiling looking for a meal. The others tossed my cave pack down the rope, and it hit a ledge and then hit me in the helmet. That’s why helmets are mandatory. An hour or two later, I returned to my pack to fish out some extra lighting for photography. This was a 10,000 lumen LED continuous light. Apparently in the fall and the ledge hit, the on/off switch was hit, so the darn thing had been burning on maximum intensity for that time. It was very hot, and it had already used up over half of the battery charge. I’ll never need to worry about hypothermia in a cave as long as I have that bright light.

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Photo Journal, Issue 23, June 2018

I was going caving in the longest cave in California. I realized in advance that some of the narrow passageways might be tough to squeeze through, so I knew I wouldn’t want to carry a full size DSLR camera with full size strobe flash. Besides, that gear might get banged around a lot or dribbled in water and mud. After giving this some thought, I decided to take my very smallest camera of the Canon Powershot family. However, the range on its internal flash was minimal, so I packed an external Powershot slave flash in order to augment what the camera had. So far, so good. Some of us entered the cave one morning after donning hard hats, bright lights, boots, and protective clothing. I had pounds and pounds of hardware for rope work. First we had to descend into a 43-foot vertical pit. Later, we returned to the pit and had to ascend the rope to get out. As I was crawling out the last few feet to the sunlight, the cutest little salamander was there squinting at my bright light. I think that it might have been a Sierra Nevada Ensatina, but I wasn’t sure. I was hanging onto a rope right then, and I didn’t want to take any chances by juggling a camera too. Wildlife photography has its limits.

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Photo Journal, Issue 22, August 2017

Cameras for backpacking
For some time now I have combined backpacking with photography. Sometimes that means scenery. Sometimes wildlife. Sometimes wildflowers. As time has gone by, it has become more difficult to handle the extra weight of a full DSLR camera with lenses. In fact, for far-off wildlife it has become more practical to use a lighter super zoom bridge camera, so that has been my standard for several years now. As the summer of 2017 approached, I had to take another step to lighten the load. For my trip on the High Sierra Trail across Sequoia National Park, my load permitted very little for a camera. I used a Canon ELPH 180, which is best described as a shirt pocket-size compact. At less than 7 ounces, that did the trick. Additionally, I was going to be out for as much as nine days, so I felt that I needed extra batteries (which are tiny, so I had low expectations for life). When I started the HST trip, I had the primary battery in the camera, and then I carried four spare batteries. I finished the trip in six days with the primary battery still going strong.

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Photo Journal, Issue 21, August 2017

Total Solar Eclipse.
I had to drive around 600 miles to reach Madras Oregon, which was along the path of totality. I found a good position 36 hours in advance. On Eclipse Day, I arranged three cameras on tripods and shot. Various camera gremlins crept into the mix, but the best shot is now on my web site [ ]. Unfortunately, the return drive home was awful due to heavy traffic. It took me 12 hours just to cover the first 100 miles and another 12 hours to return home.

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Photo Journal, Issue 20, August 2016

This was a good photo experience on the wildlife trail. One long backpacker trail in Yosemite National Park does not see a large number of people. I was descending this trail early one morning, and I was just quietly covering some miles. All of a sudden, there was a deer family to my left, and they were headed in the direction of crossing the trail to the right. As soon as the mother deer saw me, I froze in my tracks and fumbled to get my camera powered up and ready. The mother deer headed for the trail where she had room to maneuver and run if necessary. There were two tiny spotted fawns. The smart fawn initially froze, then ducked behind a tree, and then ran in the direction of the mother deer where the human could be watched from a safe distance. The stupid fawn initially ran in the wrong direction away from the mother deer. Then it started running around in a big circle, actually with a stotting hop. It saw that it was getting too close to me, so it ran the wrong way again and continued away from the mother deer. With behavior like that, I’m not sure that the stupid fawn has a good life expectancy. After pausing on the trail, the mother deer and the smart fawn slowly ambled off, hoping that the stupid fawn would somehow catch up before the human did.

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Photo Journal, Issue 19, July 2016

In late June I was backpacking along a segment of the John Muir Trail in northern Kings Canyon National park. In order to get a practical compromise with camera gear and weight, I was carrying a compact super-zoom bridge camera. I reached one campsite around 10,000 feet elevation to stay for the night. After sunset, I was sealing up my bear canister when I saw some movement behind trees about 40 yards away. With poor light and distance working against me, I grabbed my camera and started shooting at what seemed to be a black-colored black bear. When I looked at the camera’s rear display, I saw a brown-colored black bear. That’s odd. I took a few more shots and the movement continued uphill away from me. When I got home to the computer, the image files were transferred to the computer, and then I could see what I had.

There were two bears, one following the other. One was brown and one was black. I’ve never before photographed or even seen two adult bears together like that. Fortunately, they paid no attention to my food or to me.

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Photo Journal, Issue 18, March 2016

It was a cool and rainy weekend in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of the Los Angeles Basin. About one hundred volunteers had gathered to help conduct the annual bighorn sheep survey. Since the bighorn sheep is an endangered species (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), the National Forest Service, California Fish & Wildlife Service, and some other agencies and conservation groups had organized the survey on the ground, and the helicopter survey had been done the day before to avoid cloudy weather. Some of the local streams were running high as a result of the overnight storm, so a number of survey teams moved up into the steep terrain early on March 6.

Over the last twenty years, bighorns have been making a comeback from the previous thin populations. Diseases from domestic sheep, predation by mountain lions, and limited range have kept the population numbers low. But the annual survey is necessary to gather actual counts of the wooly animals. Our team of nine people moved out carrying long lens cameras, spotting scopes, and binoculars.

The first sheep group had spent the stormy night at lower elevation, but then to avoid predators they were moving quickly up through the higher escape terrain to the safety of the mountain tops. Three animals started crossing our trail, so we were busy with cameras and lenses as they paused on one cliff. One ewe ran on ahead, while the second ewe paused halfway. The ram came up and stood beside the ewe until she was ready to continue. It’s always nice to see altruistic behavior in animals.

A couple of hours later, the second sheep group with a lamb was observed, and it was also moving up into the higher cliffs. By noon, we had surveyed what we came for, so the observation data was completed.

New photos may be found at the Online Photo Gallery (follow the link in the home page banner).

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Photo Journal, Issue 17, August 2015

Following a long hiatus, the Photo Journal has returned. Some recent camera equipment acquisitions have required lots of field testing.

August 2015

It was a cool, overcast day in Denali National Park, Alaska. Hundreds of visitors had ridden shuttle buses out to Eielson Visitor Center, about 66 miles out on the park road. The standard advice to visitors is that if they want to see lots of wildlife, they should spend time riding the green shuttle buses. However, this means shooting through the windows of old Bluebird school buses, and the wildlife target might be some blurry/fuzzy thing 300 yards out on a hillside. Instead of hanging around inside the visitor center, it seemed much more logical to get out and walk on the trails. The wildflower season had been unusually early and short due to the dry winter, so now just a very few flower species were visible. The alpine trail goes up to Thorofare Ridge, so that seemed like the place to go in case the flowers were still out. Upon reaching the ridge, I could see over to the north side. However, photographers simply wanted the clouds to part and permit a clean shot at Mount McKinley. Eight of us were lined up with our camera lenses pointed south, so we were not paying much attention to anything north.

All of a sudden, somebody was shouting, “Bear! Bear!” In an instant, we turned around to see a small grizzly bear approaching us from behind. I believe that I was the only visitor there armed with bear spray, and I was taking a second or two to assess the situation. The bear was 35-40 yards away.

Right then, the bear realized that there were eight humans, and it really did not want to tangle with that much trouble, so the bear took off running away to the east. The photographers had their cameras clicking away at ten frames per second as the bear departed.

Just a few days prior to Denali, the venue was Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. Toward the end of a busy day, I was making my second return walk to the campground completely loaded down with cameras and lenses. I had made my way from the waterfall back to the Brooks River pontoon bridge where I looked around for brown bears, but I guess most of them were still at the waterfall in pursuit of salmon. I crossed the bridge and headed up the trail toward Brooks Lodge. As I paused to wipe the sweat off my brow, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the vegetation underneath one trailside spruce tree had a remarkable similarity in texture to that of brown bear fur. In the next seconds, I kept walking quietly to exit the area. Later I learned from a ranger that, in fact, it had been a sow bear sleeping underneath the tree and only a few feet from the trail. Yikes!

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Photo Journal, Issue 16, June 2014

The End of an Era

I have to admit carrying my first film SLR camera into the field back in 1970 and then my first digital SLR into the field in 2002. At first, I was a generalist, and I would shoot wildflowers, scenery, or whatever popped up into my vision. As time passed by, I found myself attracted to many of the challenges of wildlife photography. However, as any wildlife shooter will tell you, you can almost never have a long enough lens. Upon returning from an Alaskan brown bear trip one time, I commented, “You know when you have a long enough lens when you look through it and all you see is fur.”

So, over the last ten years or so, I have lusted after longer and longer lenses, and it gave me pause when I discovered how heavy these lenses were becoming. Therefore, the weight was going to limit my walking range considerably. Couple that with the fact that most of us are not getting any younger, so our walking range is getting limited day by day.

After the recent acquisition of another long lens, I stopped to reflect on this. Although the “big rigs” had great optics and image quality, maybe it was time to consider a small solution for the next long-distance backpacking trip. You see, my backpacker friends consider me to be a photographer, and my photographer friends consider me to be a backpacker. As a result, I purchased a new lightweight superzoom camera with a small sensor. It would beat the camera gear weight problem that I had been struggling with, and maybe it would be adequate for wildlife. Unlike previous lightweight point&shoot cameras that I had dealt with, I selected one with a RAW file capability. The super zoom range was astonishing, since it goes out to an equivalent of 1200mm. Actually, the reported focal length is about one fifth of that, but that is due to the sensor dimensions.

In my first week with the new superzoom, I wasn’t sure if I liked all of the fancy new “intelligent” features and automation. Now, having used the Canon SX50HS for a couple of months, it is growing on me. The user must learn a little in advance, just to know when and how to activate these fancy features. Maybe it will become more instinctive to me, but I am just too used to a standard DSLR and its buttons and dials.

As with most new cameras, there is good and bad. Good is the lower weight. I have the new camera in a small bump-proof case with a tripod, extra batteries, and similar accessories, and still the total weight stops short of three pounds. With my DSLR rig and similar add-ons, I would have been hovering around ten pounds, or twenty-five pounds if I grab the monster lens. If you are standing around in a studio, it doesn’t matter, but if you are out in the high peaks, it surely does matter. With such a small sensor, I can’t control my depth of field so accurately, but for wildlife shooting, I can deal with that. I’m used to a DSLR rig that uses phase detection autofocus, and this new camera does contrast detection autofocus. That is not as fast or as accurate, but it seems OK within the bounds of normal lighting.

Just ten days ago, I was traveling up a well-known mountain trail and breathing pretty heavily in the thin air. I heard a loud squeak in front of me. As my hearing started to lock in on the sound location, my hands were rapidly removing the camera from its case. My vision searched the general area and then the second squeak allowed me to spot the animal. It was a tiny tan and gray American Pika, squeaking its little lungs out, probably calling for a mate. It was facing ninety degrees to my left, but still I did not want to approach very closely for fear of chasing it off. My hands had hit the right camera controls to prepare for shooting, and a three-shot burst got it perfectly. The focus was good, the exposure was good, the color was good, and there was no motion blur. Excellent.

All of a sudden, I am thinking more of these small cameras.

Maybe I should first go publish the American Pika photo to my online gallery.

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Photo Journal, Issue 15, March 2014

Bighorn Sheep
Basically, there are many herds of bighorn sheep in California mountains and deserts. The Desert Bighorn lives mostly south of the Sierra Nevada Range, and it has a thinner wool coat and is a smaller animal. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn tends to be found higher up in the mountains, so it has a thicker wool coat. Some of the big rams can weigh 200 pounds, but an adult female is more like 110-120 pounds. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn has been an endangered species (Ovis canadensis) for a while, but careful protection and management has brought them back from the brink of near-extinction.

The San Gabriel Mountains is one range just north of the Los Angeles Basin, and about 400 sheep live there. Since so many tax dollars have gone into protecting and managing sheep in the mountains, there are several agencies that manage the bighorn sheep survey each year. California Fish and Wildlife takes an interest in this, because if too many sheep are present, it will have to issue more hunting permits. The various National Forest people take interest, because sheep live in the national forests. The Bureau of Land Management gets involved a little out in the desert, because it sets up some water sources for the animals.

Each year around March, they have a bighorn sheep survey in the San Gabriels. This is since April is the right season for baby lambs to be born, so they want to survey adults in March. When the lambs are tiny, the ewes tend to keep them up very high and out of sight of predators and away from domestic sheep disease. Not too much different from humans, I suppose. Volunteers make up the survey teams, and the teams are led by representatives of the various agencies plus various bighorn sheep foundations and clubs. So, that’s why I was in the San Gabriel Mountains running around in bad weather and over slippery terrain, carrying heavy telescopes and lenses. Our team counted and identified about 13 animals, and the statistics were turned in. One ram was identified by our team, but I think the ram was surveying the humans. Photo in the online photo gallery, shot with a 150-600mm lens on a Canon 7D body.

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