It seems we are again experiencing a disappointing bluebonnet season. What looked like a promising beginning to a wildflower spring has again been thwarted by lack of rain and higher than normal temperatures. I’ve driven across the hill country the last few week, and I’ve received location report from other trusted photographers, and the outlook is grim.
However, there are some stellar displays of bluebonnets and paintbrush along the roadsides, especially on 29 between Llano and Mason, and on 16 north of Llano.
On my first visit to this particular bend in the road along Highway 29 between Mason and Llano, this is the sunset I found. The bluebonnets in the Texas Hill Country were not great in 2017, but roadside displays of these wildflowers and indian paintbrush were quite colorful on this little stretch of highway.
Another nice location is in Marble Falls on 281 heading north out of town. The iconic old stone building has a field of bluebonnets in the front which makes for a great photograph. I was there one morning last week surrounded by many other folks out enjoying the display – and this was at sunrise! Later that morning as I drove by the number of people taking photos had grown by 3 or 4 times.
This week, the Hill Country is forecast to receive some much needed rain. If this comes to pass, there may be a boost in bluebonnet and other wildflower coverage in fields. We’ll wait and see what happens!
Last week, I traveled to one of my favorite locations – Big Bend National Park. I had gone in hopes of capturing bluebonnets with the Chisos Mountains in the distance. However, the only blooms to be found were along the road, and these were pretty sparse. Still, I worked with what I found:
Big Bend National Park has its own bluebonnet, and here the lupines rest silently in the glow of a March sunrise. In the distance, the Chisos Mountains rise in the cool morning air. The colors and cold air didn’t last long, though. Clouds quickly gave way to clear skies and the temperatures soared into the upper 80s… just a typical day in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Some of my go-to locations like drainages around Tuff Canyon and River Road East were barren of any blooms. I did enjoy a night hike under the full moon to the top of the Lost Mine Trail. I enjoy long exposures when the moonlight illuminates the foreground and brings to life an otherwise hidden valley.
Under the light of the full moon, Big Bend National Parks glows softly. In the distance is Juniper Canyon and the Chisos Mountains, and further is Mexico.
I had made the trek up to this point, a relatively easy 2.4 miles (one way) to photograph this location at sunset, then await the full moon as it rose in the east. The lighting was surreal and the hike back to the car was just a bit eerie and mystical.
In the lower elevations west of the Chisos, the prickly pear cacti were just beginning to bloom.
The last light of sunset lights up the rocky ledges high atop Cerro Castellan on the western slope of the Chisos Mountains. This view of Big Bend National Park shows one of the many Prickly Pear Cacti – this one blooming with beautiful floweres – on the desert floor. But don’t get too close – those prickly pear are well armed with long and sharp thorns!
While not technically considered a wildflower, these blooms can still be stunning.
If I find any wildflowers, I’ll be sure to add some information here. In the meantime, enjoy those colorful roadside displays of flowers – they are still very pretty!
Via Con Dios and safe travels!
Well, here we are at the end of 2016. While I look forward to more good things in 2017, I wanted to take a minute or two and reflect on the past year.
In superficial matters, I was able to take some good trips that helped grow my business: Big Bend several times, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Texas coast, Dallas and Fort Worth, and many beautiful locations throughout the hill country. From these little treks, I’ll share my five favorite photographs in just a bit.
First, I’d like to share a few things I learned, personally, this year.
1 – I still prefer to be somewhere outdoors and mostly left alone to my thoughts rather than around a group of people (my family and a few close friends are the exception.) I’ve never been a part of a photography group or club. That just isn’t for me. I don’t like “talking shop” as some do, either. I’d rather enjoy a good hike, do my work, and hike back. If someone is with me, we can talk about other topics – just not photography.
2 – There are two kinds of people – those without kids and those with kids. If you have kids, you know what I mean.
3 – You’ll never love anything or anyone more than your own kids. It wasn’t until I had two girls that I understood how much my own parents loved me.
4 – Photographers are not good at sharing. This seems to be an unfortunate generalization. I’ve interacted with a few established photographers this year, and when it comes down to it, they were not forthcoming (actually quite evasive and selfish) in sharing any sort of locations to shoot (and one did this even after I helped him secure a great location earlier in the year through one of my contacts). I certainly won’t name them here, but I think it is sad how they behaved. Maybe they felt threatened? I know one in Austin who does, and he really shouldn’t. While I won’t put locations online, I don’t mind sharing. I figure if you help out someone, that good will eventually will circle back around.
5 – Drones are not for me – at least just yet. I bought a high end model for work, then sold it several months later. It just couldn’t produce the high quality images that can be made large that I needed. Plus, I just didn’t have enough time to do both standard landscape photography and drone work. Maybe someday… I do have a friend that is quite good at drone work, though, and produces amazing skylines of Austin. They just cannot be printed very large.
6 – Positive affirmations work; a positive attitude and mental mindset do make a difference.
7 – Sometimes people are going to do what they do, and it is fruitless to attempt to understand them. Even logic often fails.
8 – Despite the naysayers, you can support a family of four shooting landscape photography and do quite nicely. Everything you read seems to indicate this is quite difficult. And yes, it does take some perseverance and attention to tedious detail. Yes, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, especially with the behind-the-scenes portion of the business (marketing and getting my name out there). But it can be done.
9 – I have a supportive family.
10 – I really like what I do.
OK… with those random thoughts done, here are some of my favorite images of the year in no particular order:
1 – Amazing light from Big Bend… this has turned out to be one of my best sellers:
The first mile of the Lost Mine Hike in Big Bend National Park is a gradual uphill walk to a nice vantage point overlooking the basin below. Go another 1.5 miles up some relatively easy switchbacks and you reach this point that looks over Juniper Canyon toward the South Rim. I had hoped for a nice sunset, but the amazing light that spread forth from the western horizon suprassed my expecations. The beautiful colors did not last long, but they offered a lingering memory of a magical place amid this rugged Texas landscape.
2 – Bluebonnets at Sunset – I met a local rancher who allowed me access to his land. As I tromped across cacti-filled fields, I found this unforgettable landscape:
Bluebonnets adorn the gentle slopes of the Texas Hill Country in this sunset image taken in early April. Thanks for a local rancher and land manager, I was allowed to visit a few areas of private land that were covered in these favorite wildflowers. The sunset helped the landscape come alive, as well.
3 – Bluebonnets at Sunrise – another bluebonnet image – this time taken at sunrise as the sun dissipated the fog and clouds:
When I set off from my house to photograph this windmill with a foreground of bluebonnets, the sky was overcast and fog made visibility quite limited. I arrived with the sky pretty dark but still had 15 minutes until sunrise. I had just about given up hope when I noticed a little break in some low drifting clouds. Five minutes passed, and suddenly the sky begain to light up in oranges and pinks, and I was escatic with my good fortune. I only had time to capture a few images from that morning. This is my favorite.
4 -Texas Hill Country Waterfall – You couldn’t ask for a better sunset on this perfect evening. I also appreciate a friend and fellow photographer not keeping this beautiful location a secret.
Sometimes you just get lucky. A friend had shown me this location in the Texas Hill Country, but we’d waited to visit until the flow of water was just right. After heavy rains from weeks prior, the river had risen, then dropped. On this night, all elements of the image came together – water, color, wind, and sky. With turquoise falls below me and an amazing sunset peeking through the trees and spreading light rays into the fading thunderheads, I knew this landscape of the Texas landscape of cascading water would be special.
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5 – South Rim, Big Bend National Park – A 13 mile round trip allowed me access to this amazing view in south Texas:
This view of the southern Chisos Mountain Range in Big Bend National Park comes from the South Rim. As one of the best hikes in Texas, the trek to reach this point is a little over 6 miles, and to capture an image at sunset or sunrise at this location means you either camp or hike in the dark. But the effort is worth it as the landscape that stretches from Texas into Mexico is well worth the effort. Here, a prickly pear blooms in late spring as clouds light up with another beautiful Texas sunset.
6 – Sunset at Port Aransas This one is special not only because of the morning light, but one of my little girls had rolled out of bed to accompany me on a pre-dawn stroll along the beach. I photographed the pier and ocean while she chased sand crabs and even found a starfish:
It was a glorious sunrise along the beach at Port Aransas. This is one of Texas’ favorite beach destinations, and this sunrise shows why. In the foreground, Caldwell Pier stretches more than 1000 feet into the warm gulf waters on this October morning. The only company I had this morning were the gulls and sand crabs and my youngest daughter (who shockingly rolled out of bed to accompany on this morning of work. Behind me, chased sand crabs and even found a star fish.) Doesn’t get much better than this!
7 – Two from the Guadalupe Mountains – The first shows the Autumn colors of McKittrick Canyon; the second shows the inconic El Capitan beneath beautiful light:
Following the trail through McKittrick Canyon, there are places of dense maple trees. At one point, you are nearly surrounded by the beautiful leaves, and in Autumn the forest can turn orange and red with some of the most beautiful fall colors in Texas. The main hike is around 4 miles each way, but you can continue up to ‘the Notch,” a climb of about 1500 vertical feet over another mile or so at which point you can look down into a canyon on each side of you. The hike up is a grunt, but the views are incredible. You can look back down and see the colorful maples as they follow the path of the river.
If you actually read this, thanks! I’d love it if you left a message just to say hi and share any thoughts you might have. The year 2016 was a good one for my family and my business. I look forward to growing even more in 2017. Thanks for your support, Texas!
Big Bend National Park is home to some of the most amazing views in Texas. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph this remote Texas landscape along the Rio Grande several times, and at the end of each visit I’m left wanting more time, more sunrises and sunsets, and another day to explore the trails and vistas offered here.
The hike to the South Rim of Big Bend is often referred to as the best hike in Texas. Depending on your route or your curiosity, the round trip can often exceed 13 or more miles. While I’ve explored the Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert, I’d never visited the South Rim until recently. I’d planned to make this hike on other occasions, but poor weather made conditions to photograph the Rim not worth the effort of lugging camera equipment that far. But over the course of a four day visit to Big Bend and using a sunset-conditions predictor program, I finally found a good night to go.
To shoot sunset or sunrise at the South Rim, you either have to camp or hike one direction in the dark. Lugging a camera, several lenses, a tripod, and a star-tracking mount (for Milky Way photographs) took precedence over a tent, so I was left with the only option of hiking back in the dark. So I set out about 4pm on an April afternoon layered in wispy clouds and climbed the 2,000+ vertical feet up to Laguna Meadow. The hike itself isn’t hard. The trail is easy to follow and the uphill isn’t anything daunting. It’s just a long grind with a backpack full of equipment and gatorade. By the time I reached the edge of a 1,500 cliff of the South Rim, I’d only seen hikers going north in the direction of the trailhead. With the remnant of the Chisos stretching out before me and the Rio Grande winding through the desert far below, the landscape that rewarded my efforts inspired a sense of awe and reminded me of how small we are. (I would soon be reminded of this again while shooting the night sky). Finally able to take off the backpack, I set about trying to find the optimal locations for shooting at sunset. Agave, Prickly Pear, Claret Cups, and a view into the desert all clamored for my attention, and choosing was difficult only because of so many options. Ultimately, I decided on four areas – one while the sky was still blue, one for the moment the sun hits the horizon (for the star burst), another to capture the colors of the clouds at sunset, and a last take for the Milky Way finale.
When I shoot at sunset, I usually take 3, 5, or 7 exposures of the same image in order to adjust the foreground and sky accordingly. Some folks do this to create an HDR effect, but I try to bring out the colors while leaving the scene more realistic. I’ll also shoot different focus points in order to make sure the entire image is sharp and consistent. With that said, I was fortunate with the clouds and sunset, as the combination of light and color made the long hike worth it.
This first image is a panorama looking west at the moment the sun fell below the horizon. A path winds along this southwest rim where you can find some amazing panoramic views – even to Santa Elena Canyon on the western edge of the park boundary. This photo is comprised of at least 12 different images, then blended and stitched together to show the true colors of sunset high on this mountain.
The next image comes from the South rim looking south over a portion of ancient remains of the Chisos Mountains. Beyond those peaks, the Rio Grande runs east, serving as a boundary between the Lone Star State and Mexico. Taken about 15-20 minutes after true sunset, this photograph shows a cactus as it hangs onto a cliff 1,500 feet above the desert floor. The foreground was taken as a separate image, then blended with a photograph of the distant mountains to create sharpness throughout. The sky was yet another image in order to bring out the colors of a beautiful Texas sunset.
After this series of photographs, I pulled out the IOptron StarTracker, a device I use to track and shoot the night sky. After aligning the machine with the north star and mounting my camera on top, I set about capturing long exposures of the Milky Way at a relatively low ISO to show points of light as sharp and crisp, just as you’d see if you were standing there. I should note the foreground of this image was taken about 30 minutes after sunset while it was nearly dark, but with still enough light to bring out the definition of the distant peaks. With the foreground and the Milky Way taken at separate times, I then blend the two together back at home and do my best to give it a realistic feel. I feel strongly that a good Milky Way image should contain a strong foreground element. It is a fine line when combining the two (foreground and night sky). I want the viewer to feel the sense of awe with the vastness of the Milky Way while also having a foreground that stabilized the scene. Having the foreground just the right brightness – not too light or to dark – is the conundrum. For these prickly pear cacti, I also used a soft light to slightly increase their illumination.
When you are photographing the Milky Way at Big Bend, you are witness to one of the darkest skies in North America. The stars are truly amazing in this isolated corner of Texas and sparkle with a clarity rarely seen in other places of not only in our state, but the U.S. in general. Underneath a canopy of shimmering light, I embrace that sense of wonder at what the heavens hold and find myself full of ponderings and possibilities.
But then a 7 mile trek in the dark still awaited. The walk back in the wee hours of the morning was uneventful except for the dive-bombing birds and the UFO above a distant ridge. I felt fortunate to have witnessed a beautiful sunset at such a remote and truly Texas landscape. While my time here was brief, I hope to return again one of these days.
If you read this far, thanks!
Happy and Safe Travels.
Vaya con Dios