Big Bend and Bluebonnets

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.

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Wildflower Highway Sunrise 2 : Prints Available

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:

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Bluebonnet Sunrise at Big Bend 1 : Prints Available

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.
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Lost Mine under Moonlight, Big Bend : Prints Available

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.

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Cerro Castellan at Sunset 1 : Prints Available

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!
~ Rob

Texas Sunrise along the River

About 25 minutes before sunrise, if high clouds linger across the sky and an unfettered path for sunlight appears in the east, colors of red, pink, orange and blue can fill the sky. And just after that is about a 10 to 15 minute period when the once vibrant sky’s colors fade and it appears almost washed out until the sun finally rises over the horizon. It is during this fleeting time of quiet that my mind is set free from my daily obligations that often clutter my thoughts.

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Magical Light over the Pedernales River 1 : Prints Available

Sometimes you just get lucky. On this February morning along the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country, the light was magical and lit up the flowing water a little before sunrise. I had to wade through the cold water to reach this point, but it was well worth it. At one point, I just had to step back and take it all in… one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve experienced in many years of working at photography. I didn’t notice my feet were absolutely freezing until the walk back along the trail! Sometimes you just get lucky. On this February morning along the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country, the light was magical and lit up the flowing water a little before sunrise. I had to wade through the cold water to reach this point, but it was well worth it. At one point, I just had to step back and take it all in… one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve experienced in many years of working at photography. I didn’t notice my feet were absolutely freezing until the walk back along the trail!

Moments like this are special. In much of my adult life some of my fondest memories are times spent outdoors. Looking back at the days of my youth, I would spent all the daylight hours playing outside – searching for craw-dads, playing sports, and walking creekbeds. I never noticed how hot it got in Texas in the summer. After college in Austin, I worked a summer job in a Colorado mountain town, escaping every afternoon with my best friends to explore rivers and fly fish high, remote streams in search of cutthroat and rainbow trout. One of those friends is no longer around, though I do miss him. Another has remained and we still spend some time each summer hiking our own bucket list of Rocky peaks, though other duties – my work and family responsibilities in Texas – have cut down that free time considerably.

So in mornings like this when my photographic treks find me alone along these scenic rivers that wind through the Texas Hill Country – in between the early morning colors and the sunrise – the sounds of water bring back memories of my life’s time. The words and conversations of those bygone days – and those times with friends – have faded. But sometimes I can hear the laughter. With a soft gurgling the swirls of the river flow around and over the rocks, and in those sounds I can almost follow behind the laughter and slide into the past. And just as quickly the light, the colors, and the faint emotions slip past my sitting spot and flow with the waters downstream and disappear.

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February Sunrise on the Pedernales River 2 : Prints Available

The waters of the Pedernales River turned gold and orange on this crisp February morning in the Texas Hill Country. The sun had just peeked over the distant ridge, finally bringing warmth to a beautiful beginning of the day. I think there must have been some moisture in the air, as well, because the area seemed to take on a golden hue right after the sun made an appearance.

In those quickly passing moments that seem to last both a few seconds and an hour, I’m reminded of the precious moments we share. But the river brings me round again and soon the brilliant glow on the horizon gives way to a light so bright I can’t look at it directly. After seven clicks of my camera’s shutter and with sunlight spreading across the canyon floor, I know my time in this moment is done and it is time to return home. This beautiful morning I’ll remember, though, and I’ve still a long way to go.

~ Rob

Exploring Palo Duro Canyon and the Texas Panhandle

This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time in the Texas Panhandle, primarily Palo Duro Canyon State Park, as well as a few side trips around Amarillo, Texas. The late November weather turned out to be superb, and I was fortunate to enjoy some amazing sunrises and sunsets while exploring the canyon.

My family came with me on this trip, and that meant no camping. Instead, we stayed in Canyon, just ~ 12 miles from the park entrance. For my gear, I was shooting with the newish Canon 5DSr. I brought a few lenses, as well – the 11-24L, 16-35IIL, 24-105L, and the 70-200ISL. For a majority of the trip, I only used the 11-24 and the 24-105. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express – 4 adults, 2 kiddos. It was not bad at all, though I’m not a fan of their breakfast. However, I was usually gone when breakfast started at 6am and by the time I returned to the hotel, I caught the tail-end of the morning service. So I stuck to my Apricot Kind bars for early morning food.

One thing to know about Palo Duro is that the entrance gates are closed overnight and don’t open until 8:00am. Having done some work for Texas Parks and Wildlife in the past, I was able to obtain permission to enter the park early in order to photograph sunrise. This made a huge difference, allowing me to photograph during the morning magic hour when light is soft and beautiful.

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Palo Duro Canyon Sunrise Panorama 1 : Prints Available

From the rim of the Visitor Center, this is Palo Duro Canyon at Sunrise on a cold November morning. The temperature was in the 20s, and my hands were freezing as I waited for this moment. Finally, the sun peeked over the distant canyon wall. After several images, it was time to go exploring.

* I should add here that I stopped by the Visitor Center to ask a few questions about hikes and such when we first arrived at the park. An older woman who was working seemed to not particularly enjoy her job that much. She questioned all my plans, and even said she didn’t understand why I wanted to come into the park before 8am – the gates were closed for a reason! She went on to add that there was nothing to photograph before sunrise. “Why would you want to get here so early. There’s nothing here worth seeing that early!” I don’t think she should have been a front-person for Palo Duro, as she obviously didn’t appreciate the wonders this place has to offer.

Anyway, the flexibility of the park rangers with allowing me an early entrance each morning made the trip worthwhile. Otherwise, it would been not nearly as productive. The sunrise from the Visitor Center that overlooks the Canyon was colorful – a nice gradient from orange to blue about 40 minutes before sunrise, then transitioning to some nice clouds by the time the sun showed itself for the first time. But during this in-between, my hands were nearly frozen. The temperature was in the upper 20s at this location, and later as I drove through the valley floor, the thermometer read 21 degrees. Yikes!

After finishing up the sunrise shoot, I returned to the hotel to pick up the wife and kids, then came back to take them hiking. We explored the Big Cave (an easy walk for young kids that the Visitor Center Welcome Woman poo-pooed – and my kids loved it), and some other trails. I also came away with some late morning light on Capitol Peak, one of the well-known points in the park. Evening found my wife and me hiking to the Lighthouse. This famous landmark is by far the most popular trail it the park, and for good reason. It provides you a 6-mile round-trip walk on an orange clay path through magnificent and colorful canyon walls and rock formations. You finish the last .3 miles going uphill, scrambling part of the way, to reach the base of the iconic structure. From this vantage point, the views stretch for miles through the distant canyon. And sunset did not disappoint, either. Behind me, to the east, clouds lit up in pink pastels. In front of us, to the west, the sun turned the sky brilliant orange, complementing the orange rock of the Lighthouse itself. We lingered until nearly dark, enjoying the scene and solitude. And I should note that while we passed folks on our walk (all of whom were heading back to the start of the trailhead), we did not encounter another person for the last mile of our walk to the Lighthouse, nor did we see anyone the remainder of the evening. That peace and quiet was pretty special, for sure. Having a place like that all to oneself, even for a few hours, is hard to top.

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Lighthouse Panorama from Palo Duro Canyon 2 : Prints Available

With a nearly-full moon rising in east, the iconic rock formation the Lighthouse at Palo Duro Canyon stands tall in the crisp Autumn air.

But time moves us along, and eventually we were back on the trail, walking in the dark. I paused to shoot the Lighthouse from a distance with the Milky Way behind it, then again at Capitol Peak to take a long exposure of the mountain as the nearly-full moon had risen and was illuminating the red and orange rock in a wonderful soft glow.

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Capitol Peak under a Full Moon : Prints Available

Under the light of a full moon, Capitol Peak at Palo Duro Canyon is lit up in this long exposure. To the naked eye, there was a little light on this evening, but with the camera, the colors came to life.

The next morning found me back at sunrise again, but this time the temperatures rose into the high 20s and low 30s, so I guess it wasn’t too bad. Another glorious sunrise welcomed the day, and soon we were off exploring.

I would like to come back here again in the spring when the flowers are blooming, and perhaps in the fall when the trees are changing colors as they head into winter.

After leaving the Palo Duro Canyon area, we made side trips to the ecclectic Cadillac Ranch just west of Amarillo. This field that is on the old Route 66 has ten old Cadillacs that have been buried nose first into the dirt. Funded by an eccentric millionaire and created by a San Francisco art hippy group called the Ant Farm, this “exhibit” is free and open to the public – and spray-painting the old cars is welcome and even encouraged.

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Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo Texas 2 : Prints Available

From a different angle, this is the Cadillac Ranch, a permanent art exhibit outside of Amarillo, Texas, on Route 66. A group of art hippies from San Francisco created the display at the request of an eccentric Texas millionaire, Stanley Marsh.

Heading east of Amarillo, I paused to photograph a few cotton fields. From the highway, the area looked like snow had fallen, but in reality the cotton was white and ready for harvesting. I met a rancher who welcomed me onto his land, so I spent a little time photographing this uniquely Texas landscape.

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Texas Cotton Field at Harvest 1 : Prints Available

While exploring the Texas Panhandle and Palo Duro Canyon, I came across several large fields that looked like snow had fallen on them. Instead, the fields were full of cotton and ready for harvesting.

From here, another sunset found me shooting bales of hay under some wonderful skies lit up by the half-light of evening.

All in all, it was a fun, relaxing, and successful trip. What’s next?

Safe travels, everyone,

Rob

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The Perseid Meteor Shower over Texas

The second week in August each year is one of the weeks I usually am wanting for more sleep. I love the Perseid Meteor shower and look forward to the challenge of trying to capture this unique annual event. The Perseids of 2015 presented a great opportunity – relatively clear skies and a new moon – meaning no light pollution from the moon so the meteors would show up even brighter. My goal was to bring this amazing event to my audience, and here is the back story to my nighttime adventure…

I ventured out two times this past week to photograph the Perseids – once to Pedernales Falls State Park in the Texas Hill Country and once to the iconic 360 Bridge outside of Austin, Texas. For this short blog, I’ll focus on the Pedernales location. I know Pedernales Falls like the back of my hand. I live close by and am over there for sunrise or sunset several times each month. Still, I wanted to scout out a perfect location that had an interesting foreground and offered a chance to include much of the night sky, as well. Last weekend, I spent sunrise and sunset at the state park with a camera and my gps. The Perseids radiate from the northeast section of the sky – generally from the middle of the Milky Way. After several miles of walking around, I found what I wanted – a portion of a small canyon into which the river flowed that faced northeast. I also took several test images with different lenses to see what look I wanted. After scrutinizing the test images, I decided to go with my super-wide angle – the 11-24L to give me more of the rugged landscape and more of the night sky.

On Thursday morning, I awoke about 1:00am, dragged myself out of bed, drove to the park, and walked to the river and upstream about 20 minutes to my chosen location. The camera was ready to go by 2:00am. I would like to note here a few observations. First, I’ve never seen anyone in the parking lot when I go out before sunrise, but there were 6 or 7 cars there, so it was nice to see other folks out enjoying the light show. To the two college girls trying to find their way down to the river without a flashlight in the complete dark…. hope you made it! I was happy to help guide you if you hadn’t had to go back to your car for your contraband! But I wasn’t waiting for around. Second, I saw more animals here this night than I’ve ever seen at one time before. They included a wild hog, a racoon, an opossum, a jackrabbit, an armadillo that I almost tripped over on the trail, a fox, several deer, and what I think was a porcupine (are there porcupines out there? sure looked like one). I might have even seen a chupacabra, but can’t be 100% sure. It was dark!

Moving along… I aligned my star-tracker to the north star, set up the camera, took a few base images of the milky way, then set everything to run on auto-pilot for the next several hours. For those interested in the technical aspects… the base Milky Way images were shot at f/5.6 ISO 800 for about 3 1/2 minutes. The meteors were shot on f/4, ISO 4000, on a continuous 30 second interval – all using the new Canon 5DS-R. The foreground was shot later in the morning as the sun’s light was just beginning to light up the landscape. I believe that image was a 30 second image at ~ f/16.

After I set up the automatic timer, I laid back on the rock and watched the fireworks, which were quite amazing. Also, my 5-hour energy drink was my friend this night!

Upon returning home, I reviewed the 180+ images, pulling out the ones that contained meteors, then aligned and stacked them in photoshop. After I was happy with that look, I aligned and merged the meteors into the base Milky Way image, then merged that with the foreground, creating what you see below. A lot more went into the final photograph – color balance, some noise reduction, etc., but this was basically my work flow.

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Perseids over the Texas Hill Country : Prints Available

Starting at about 2:00am, I let the camera roll, taking 3 hours of time-lapse images of the Perseid meteor shower over Pedernales Falls in the Texas Hill Country. This final photograph is a compilation of the brightest meteors from this amazing scene. The sky photographs were taken using an astro-tracker, then stacked together using photoshop. The foreground was taken just as first light was beginning to show across the landscape – again a long exposure – and blended into the final scene.

I think when you are alone in the middle of the night under the Milky Way images, you can’t help but question our place in the Universe. We are so small and it is unimaginably big. I won’t soon forget the beauty I experienced that night – time to reflect and time to look ahead, but mostly time to just be in the moment and enjoy God’s creation not seen by many.

And that was my night.

Feel free to follow my photography at www.facebook.com/ImagesfromTexas

Happy Travels!

~ Rob

What Makes Good Landscape Photography?

I was recently asked to help judge a photography exhibition. Some of the work was spectacular, full of emotion and life. Others, not so much. So what makes a good image? I’ve been asked this question many times, and this recent experience gave me pause to think about the topic a little more in-depth. So I figured I’d share my thoughts on the subject and solicit other opinions as well. And for this exercise, I’m primarily referring to landscape and skyline photography.

I think the technical aspects of an image are important:
– correct exposure: no underexposed darks or blown highlights unless intentional
– correct or intended focus and sharpness…. This can include a range in depth of field from a single focal point to a sharpness from the foreground to the far distance.

After the basics, the composition should be considered:
– the subject of the image should be obvious, whether a single object such as a bluebonnet or a vast Texas landscape like the Chisos Mountains.
– leading lines… This is very important for me. I like line, angles, curves, and anything that leads the eye to guide me to the subject. I also want those lines and angles, whenever possible, to intersect with the corners of the image exactly. These lines could be composed of roads, water, buildings, rocks, and anything that allows the eye to flow.

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Pedernales River June Sunset 1 : Prints Available

One of my favorite stretches of river in Pedernales Falls State Park is this small cascade. If rains have fallen recently, the river creates some small and beautiful falls that glide over the limestone rock. This image from the Texas Hill Country is a composite of several photographs. One image was a long exposure using a heavy filter to create the ribbon-like qualities in the flowing river. The other exposures helped control the differences in the light of sunset. All were blended together to create this small moment of a peaceful summer evening.

Within the composition of an image, I look for elements that make up a scene.
– first, unless I’m going for a minimalist approach, a sky with good, if not dramatic clouds, is a must. I shoot mostly at sunrise or sunset and always hope for pleasing colors, but even a nice blue sky with high wispy clouds can be pretty nice and can complement a nice foreground, often making an average image much stronger. I also always know when and where the moon will appear. Often, the appearance of our moon can enhance an otherwise dull sky.
– foreground element(s)… When I photograph a field of bluebonnets, I really like to have a few of the flowers up close to show the detail. For this, I’ll often shoot several images for varying depth from front to back and blend them together on photoshop. Other foreground elements could include rock formations, trees, logs, and even silhouetted people.
– background elements… In most cases, I want a sharpness throughout the scene, especially for those vast Texas landscapes. I want folks to see what I saw and feel the wonder of the scene.

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Wildflowers at the End of the Storm 1 : Prints Available

Between Llano and Mason in the Texas hill country, storm clouds move to the east as the sun sets in the west over this lone Oak tree and a field of mixed wildflowers, including bluebonnets, coreopsis, and paintbrush.

When all of these factors are taken into account, you have potential for a strong image. That being said, the most important aspect of a photograph is the impact it has on the viewer. Does it capture your attention? Does it make you pause or think “wow.” Does it tell a story? It can be technically perfect, but if the image leaves the viewer void of emotion, it loses its impact.

In my recent experience of judging photographs, I saw several images that showed superior planning and execution, but came away feeling nothing. Conversely, some of my highest scoring images had minor technical or compositional issues, but left me gazing longer, wanting to know more about the story being presented. Emotional appeal – or impact – makes or breaks an image.

I like to think I practice what I write. And I know some of my images come up short. But many times what I think are average photographs turn out to be best sellers. The images I like the most barely get a second glance. So no matter what anyone says, if you enjoy photography, keep on shooting. Unless you are utterly daft at the point and shoot, you’re sure to appeal to someone!

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