Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gear Review: Clik Elite's Probody Sport Backpack

Photographers, it seems, are forever in search of the perfect backpack to haul around their gear or at least a subset thereof. I know I am, and I've collected quite a few over the years. I've collected so many because I just can't seem to find that one design that does everything I need. Of course, I now realize that no such pack exists, especially when it comes to outdoor photography. This is because of the many different situations that can dictate how much gear one can/should bring along and what non-photographic gear is needed as well. For instance, photographers that shoot near a vehicle can afford to bring along large packs that'll stash most, or all, of their mammoth collection of photographic gear. Meanwhile, day hiking photogs that tend to spend half to a full day in the field will most likely pare down their gear into a smaller pack, unless they are the superhuman sherpa types that enjoy pain and suffering. Backpacking photographers will have different requirements yet. What I've found to be the best approach when buying a backpack is to first identify the specific set of needs that will be required of it. Be careful not to define your criteria too broadly as it will most likely result in a purchase you won't be completely happy with and probably cost you more money in the process...believe me, I've been there!

When I decided to enter the market for yet another backpack (which had my wife rolling her eyes when I proudly proclaimed my intentions), I knew exactly what I was looking for. I had packs to my liking that covered both the near the vehicle and backpacking shooting situations. What I found a glaring need for was something for those longer day hiking expeditions. Camera specific backpacks just don't cut it for me. While they store and protect camera equipment and tripods pretty well, they don't leave much, or any, room for clothing, food, water, etc. Also, their strap systems seem to be designed by kindergarteners as they just never fit right and always get uncomfortable over time. The closest I've come to a usable system for day hiking was with my previously reviewed Think Tank Modular system. However, moving to Arizona has revealed its biggest weakness...the inability to carry enough water for long outings in the desert. I found that I had to also carry a Camelback backpack (for hydration purposes) in addition to the belt and chest pack and strapping on all that stuff became a royal pain. In the end, what I really wanted was some sort of happy medium between a Camelback and a conventional camera backpack. Well, enter Clik Elite and their line of photographer-centric adventure packs. 

Clik Elite packs are designed by photographers who are also avid outdoorsman. They "get" the need to create a comfortable and ergonomic backpack that'll safely and securely store camera equipment, yet still have a separate section for miscellaneous gear. And above all, they "get" the need to have a means of hydration built into the pack by integrating a sleeve compartment to house a water bladder (although a bladder is not included). There's even a mechanism to lash on a small tripod on their newer models. Once I saw these specifications I was hooked. It was just a matter of determining which of their various sized pack offerings would suit my needs best. In the end I settled on their Probody Sport model...thus the topic for this review.

Back View of Clik Elite Probody Sport

The Probody Sport is just the perfect size for me. It will hold my Canon 5D Mark II camera with a 70-200mm f/4 lens attached in the lower camera compartment and still have room for two additional lenses in dedicated compartments (I've been able to fit both a Canon 17-40 f/4 and 24-70 f/2.8 lens into these compartments. This was more than I really needed since I usually carry my camera with a lens attached in a front chestpack for easy access when I day hike. Thus, I have additional room for filters and other miscellaneous camera gear. On a side note, I should mention that Clik also offers a chestpack that nicely integrates with all their backpacks. Had I not already owned one, I would've seriously considered it as well.

View Into Camera Compartment (Canon 5D2 with 70-200 f/4 attached, 17-40 f/4 and 24-70 f/2.8)
The upper compartment is separate from the camera compartment although the separator can be removed...a nice touch that enhances the pack's versatility. It's just a single storage area that's good for stashing food and clothing in. It's large enough to hold a couple of clothing layers (or rain gear) and an assortment of snacks to get you through the day. I've got my rain gear stuffed in there on the pictures above. Then there's the integrated sleeve that runs along the back which houses up to a 100 ounce (3 liter) water bladder. While I really thought Clik should've included a bladder with the pack, it didn't really matter in my case as I already had a 3 liter bladder from a Camelback pack that I could utilize.

Another nice touch in the pack's design is the inclusion of a small zippered pouch on the top of the pack. The pouch is felt lined and perfect for quick access to a cell phone, mp3 player, sunglasses, wallet, etc. It's little details like this which really shows how much thought Clik put into creating an extremely useful pack.

Rounding out the notable feature list for the pack is a mechanism to lash a small tripod (and I emphasize small) to the side of the pack, a small outer mesh pocket to stash small items, and a zippered accessed media organizer where you can securely store memory cards, spare batteries, business cards, etc. The only real comment that I have here concerns the tripod attachment design. Here, the top of the pod is secured via a thin elastic cord that can be cinched down while the bottom of the tripod fits into a mesh pocket. While the mechanism works (as long as it is a small tripod), it is somewhat flimsy and has me questioning it's durability over the long run. Particularly the thin elastic tie down. I really wish Clik would have utilized something more sturdy here like an adjustable buckling strap. So the bottom line here is don't even consider trying to attach even a medium weight tripod and ballhead to this pack. The support just isn't there. My tripods are both lightweight so it isn't a concern for me (I own Feisol and Induro carbon fiber, four section tripods), but it may be for you.

Probody Sport with Feisol CT-3442 Tripod Attached

One last thought concerning this pack involves its overall construction. To me, it is extremely well made with beefy zippers and heavy gauge ballistic nylon. I don't have any doubts that the pack will last a good long time. My only complaint is that Clik didn't really address any real waterproofing issues in the design. While they state that the zippers that access the camera compartment are water-resistant, there's no mention that the pack's nylon material itself is water-resistant in any way. Given that, I really wish that they would have at least included some sort of a rain cover for it. It's inevitable that you'll get caught out in the rain on day long hikes (even in the desert) and protection for its precious camera cargo is a must in my book.

Side View Of Pack
Rear View of Pack


This pack has been a godsend to have with me on the longer day trips I've taken in the Arizona desert. No longer do I have to be concerned with the issue of how to carry enough water to get me through the day. I just fill the bladder and I'm good to go. Combined with my chestpack (or even without), it affords me enough room to carry everything I've needed...both in terms of camera gear and the other stuff. I've also found the strap system to be very comfortable. I'll load down the pack and hardly even feel like I'm wearing it...a good sign that Clik designed it right. My only real complaints involve the tripod carrying design and the waterproofing issues. While there's no current issue carrying my tripod, I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed  that it stays that way. As far as the lack of any type of rain cover goes, I'll have to do a little research to see if I can come up with a workable cover. This pack is just too useful to let that issue drag it down. Hopefully, it's something that Clik will address with the next iteration of this model.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Exploring Sycamore Canyon

I forgot to mention my recent explorations of Sycamore Canyon in my previous blog post so I decided to dedicate a new post exclusively for it. Sycamore Canyon is one of two major canyons that flank the Sedona area in central Arizona. The other is Oak Creek Canyon, by far the more popular and crowded of the two. In comparison, Sycamore Canyon is like the shy little sister that never gets any attention and likes it that way. While steep walled and narrow Oak Creek Canyon has a beautiful perennially flowing stream and a car-choked road leading right up its gut, Sycamore Canyon only has a seasonal stream (with the exception of the southernmost three miles where it is perennial) and no roads whatsoever. It's a designated wilderness and is THE place to be in the Sedona area if solitude in a beautiful red rock canyon is your thing and you don't mind working for it.

Over the last few weeks, I've explored this canyon a few times at various entry points in an attempt to bask in the scenery that few casual visitors to the region will ever see. My first couple of ventures involved day hiking along the only perennially flowing stretch of Sycamore Creek up to Parsons Spring, taking in a gorgeous swimming hole along the way. This hike takes you along a stretch of the creek that is bordered by inner canyon walls, thus you never get to see the entire scope of the outer canyon. Regardless, it's a beautifully riparian canyon hike that is very different from what you see in rest of this wilderness. I did this hike twice because I wanted to photograph it both with green foliage and then again with fall colors lining the creek's banks.

A Swimming Hole Along Sycamore Creek

Autumn View From Parsons Spring Trailhead

My next adventure involved a backpacking trip deep into the heart of this wilderness. My buddy, Greg Rynders, and I originally planned for this to be a three day trip starting at the Dogie trailhead on the east rim of the canyon. From there we planned to backpack the Taylor's Cabin to Casner Mountain loop, some 21 miles that descends down to the creek bed to an out-of-commission (but restored) rancher's cabin and ascends back up via the Taylor Cabin trail to Casner Mountain. However, it being late November and all, the weather usually has the final say on all plans and it turned out to be far too cold (for our liking) to consider camping atop Casner Mountain. As it was, we awoke to a snow covered tent on our overnight at Taylor's Cabin which is nearly 2000 ft below Casner's summit. We opted (wisely, we both agreed) to shorten the trip to a single night out and back from the cabin. To change things up a bit, we did choose to come back a slightly different way by hiking the dry creek bed (instead of the official trail, which followed a bench high above the creek) back to the intersection with the Dogie Trail. While this boulder hopping route was tough on my chronically bad ankles, the new viewing perspective it afforded us definitely made it worth the while.

Taylor's Cabin - Sycamore Canyon Wilderness
The target of my final adventure involved finding some Sinagua Indian ruins that I had read about when researching for the above-described backpacking trip. These spectacularly set ruins were a must see from everything I read and I had really wanted to incorporate them into the backpacking trip, but we decided that was best left for another day. Well "another day" turned out to be a week later. After doing a little research, I discovered that I could actually drive to a trailhead located less than a mile from their location. Of course, this drive would be no walk in the park. While these ruins are located about 25 miles as the crow flies from my house, it took close to three hours to get there. It was a drive that involved 20 miles of washboarded shelf road followed by 12 more miles of bone jarring 4x4 road. In the end, the payoff was worth it though. In my opinion these ruins rate right up there with the False Kiva ruins in Canyonlands National Park for their scenic surroundings. It was a great way to cap off my Sycamore Canyon experience...for now!

Sinagua Indian Ruins - Sycamore Canyon Wilderness

Happy Holidays Everyone

Ok....after a good start, I've been really bad at maintaining this blog. I apologize for this and hope to change. I guess it will be part of my new year's resolutions!

Anyway, a lot has happened in my life since my last blog entry with the most major change being that I relocated from southwest Colorado to Sedona, Arizona. The particulars of this move kept me extremely busy over a large part of last summer. Of course, I still made sure that I found time to start photographing my new surroundings as I need to keep adding to my portfolio to make a living.

View From Brins Mesa - Sedona, AZ
As many of you probably know, Sedona is a photographer's dream that is surrounded by red rock monoliths, canyons and even lush riparan areas. Our move to this paradise corresponded with the beginning of the monsoon season which added stormy skies, rainbows and lightning into the mix. It was definitely a summer to remember!

Rainbow Over The Red Rocks

Monsoon Sky Over Cathedral Rock
Click on the link below to see a sampling of the summertime images I've collected.

Summertime In Sedona

Once the summer wound down and we finally got settled in from the move, I began researching my autumn shooting strategy in the area. Autumn shooting in Arizona??? You bet!

Agassiz Peak - San Francisco Peaks
While maybe not as spectacular as what I've grown accustomed to in the Colorado rockies, there are still many fascinating areas to soak in autumn in Arizona. Because of the vastly different elevations and ecosystems found in the state, there's fall color to be found anytime from September through December. Not many states can boast that!

West Fork Canyon Reflections
Most of my first fall color shooting season was spent in the San Francisco Peaks (near Flagstaff), Oak Creek and West Fork Canyons (near Sedona), and some of the scenic drainages of the Mogollon Rim near Payson.

Oak Creek near Sedona
You can see a collection of images from my wanderings by clicking the link below...

Autumn In Arizona

One other thing to note before I sign off is that I now have my 2011 Desert Southwest scenic calendar available for purchase. You can preview and purchase the calendar here. Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope the upcoming holidays are merry!!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Springtime in the Desert

After what's been a long winter, I had really been looking forward to this trip in which I planned to head for the warmth of the desert. Originally, I figured to spend this entire adventure in search of wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson and Phoenix. However, on my recent winter trip to Moab, I was approached by friend and fellow photographer, Bret Edge, about the possibility of joining him for a three day, four wheel drive trip into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park. He had scored the difficult to obtain permits for two nights of camping along the park's White Rim Road, an approximately 100 mile rugged drive through some spectacular canyon scenery along the Colorado and Green Rivers. His trip dates ran from March 22-24, right when I planned to head to the Sonoran Desert, but there was no way that I was going to pass up this opportunity. So I decided to incorporate both of these destinations into a longer road trip to get the best of both worlds!

 The White Rim in Canyonlands National Park

A couple weeks before this trip was realized, I was also happy to hear that a couple of other Colorado photographer friends, Jim Talaric and Rod Hanna, would also be joining us. The four of us initially met on a fun trip to the Page, AZ area a little over a year ago so I was looking forward to reuniting with everybody. So after meeting up the night before for a little photography and dinner, we embarked on our journey the next morning. The first thing that struck all of us was how slow the going was going to be. While the White Rim Road was far from a technical four wheel drive track, it often required very slow speeds and that made for long days on the road...especially when mixed in with frequent stops to take in (and photograph) the sights along the way.

 Driving Along The White Rim Road

The other thing we quickly realized was that this was going to be more of a scouting trip than a productive photography trip. While our camping areas were located in beautiful settings, they weren't necessarily places that translated to great photography. We encountered what we felt were the best photographic locations during the midday hours while we were making our way along the road. To get back to these locations during more favorable lighting conditions would have involved long, rugged drives under the cover of darkness...which none of us were too keen on doing. Still, I came away with a few decent photographs and now know some excellent locations to return to for an overnight trip or even a quick in and out venture. That knowledge, coupled with the excellent company provided by Bret, Jim and Rod made this a very memorable first leg of my journey.

 Washerwoman Reflection in Canyonlands National Park

Upon parting ways with Bret, Jim and Rod I made my way south towards the area of Bluff, Utah. After a final half day's worth of driving along the White Rim Road, I really didn't feel like doing anything more than the two hours of driving to get there. Besides, this would give me the opportunity to shoot a subject that I've wanted to revisit for some time now...the Goosenecks of the San Juan River. Goosenecks State Park is located in a spectacular setting overlooking the San Juan River some 1000 feet below while it meanders in series of horseshoe shaped loops. While I had visited this state park a few times now, I had never been there at the time of day or had weather conditions conducive to good photography. My plan was to shoot it before sunrise and shoot multiple images that I'd later stitch together to create a single, panoramic image. I arrived that night to scout out the area for the best panoramic vantage point (which turned out to be right at the main overlook), and set up camp for the chilly night ahead.

 Goosenecks of the San Juan River

Upon spending the early morning hours shooting Goosenecks State Park and nearby Valley of the Gods State Park, I made my way to Flagstaff, AZ for a badly needed shower and my next photographic subject....the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. These falls, situated on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Flagstaff, are the largest in the state when flowing. The catch is that for 11 months out of the year, they are reduced to a trickle. Only during spring melt and after the occasional monsoon do these falls show off their awesome grandeur. Fortunately, my timing was good and the water was roaring down the basalt lava cliffs which formed these falls during an ancient eruption. These falls are often dubbed "Chocolate Falls" due to the extremely muddy content from spring runoff.
Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River

While I really enjoyed my time hanging around this awesome display of nature, mother nature tried her best to make life miserable photographically. High winds (you know...the type that'll blow your hat off or tip over your camera and tripod if you don't keep a constant grip on them) and mostly cloudy conditions made for less than stellar photography. Still, I managed to come away with a few worthy images.

I was quite shocked when I woke up the following morning and looked out my hotel window to see snow flying! By the time I packed up and left it was near whiteout conditions and the snow was beginning to accumulate in earnest. Are you kidding me?!? It was definitely time to get the heck out of dodge! It wasn't long before I cleared the storm and by the time I hit my destination for the evening, Picacho Peak State Park near Tucson, it was a balmy 70+ degrees. Now that's more like it!! Unfortunately, clear skies and windy conditions made wildflower photography very problematic. This was compounded by the fact that I wasn't finding any good congregations of wildflowers to begin with. In particular, the wildflower displays on the flanks of Picacho Peak were very disappointing. And I found next to nothing when exploring nearby Saguaro National Park (the west unit) that evening. What did really strike me though, was how green the desert was...even more so than when I first visited in January. It was an incredible sight to see!

 Petroglyphs at Saguaro National Park

The next day I finally got my first good dose of wildflower viewing when I hiked around Catalina State Park just north of Tucson. A side spur of the Sutherland Trail provided the best viewing and I spent the better part of the evening photographing that area. Patience was definitely the name of the game due to the windy conditions. I'd find a composition I'd like and wait anywhere from 15-30 minutes for a sufficient lull in the winds to get one shot. If you weren't paying attention when the lull came, you'd be waiting another 15-30 minutes! It wasn't the most productive photography, but I didn't mind. It was warm and the scenery was breathtaking.

 Poppy Carpet at Catalina State Park

The next day I entered into the final phase of the trip as I headed back north to the Phoenix area. Here, I'd be meeting up with my wife, dog and an old (non photographer) friend from Minnesota, Greg Rynders. My camping for the trip was now done and I entered the cushy world of hotels, flush toilets and restaurants. The windy and clear conditions persisted which caused photography to take a back seat to hanging out, hiking and dining with my new company. The best photographic opportunity at this point came when we all visited Bartlett Lake northeast of Phoenix. The wildflower displays along the roadside of this lake were magnificent in places.

 Mexican Poppies and Lupine at Bartlett Lake

My final photographic attempt of the trip occurred at Lost Dutchman State Park on my final day. Here it was just myself and man's best dog Yoda. The plan was to hike up the Siphon Draw trail and look for anything photographic along the way. Unfortunately, this day the clear sky and windy conditions were accompanied by 90 degree temperatures and poor Yoda quickly wilted in the heat. By this time, so did my aspirations of producing anything decent photographically so we packed it in early and called it a day. Sometimes, the desert just gets the best of you. I was ready to head home!

To see additional images from my springtime desert southwest journey, click on the link below...

Springtime in the Desert Imagery

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gear Review: Think Tank's Modular Component System

One of my major goals last summer was to finally dive into backpacking with the intent to start photographing landscapes that were farther off the beaten path. I had meant to do this in each of my first two summers living out here in Colorado, but nagging injuries of one sort or another prevented that from happening. It wasn't until last summer that I felt the time was right. As experienced backpackers know, there's a lot to learn logistically concerning what one should (and shouldn't) take along on these types of trips. One must consider the weight vs. convenience factor on many of the items that get brought along. Bring too much and you'll suffer with an overweight backpack on the trail. Bringing too little can reduce the fun factor of a trip to the point where you start to wonder why you're doing this. Sometimes you just got to have that extra thick sleeping pad, good book or ipod!

Serious photographers have a couple of other very important much of their suitcase full of camera gear can/should they lug along and how should they carry it? Many "weight weenies" may feel that a simple point in shoot is all they need/want to carry. Not me! Like I stated at the top, backpacking for me is a means to photograph lesser visited scenic places and I wanted the best quality images possible. Therefore bringing my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, at least two lenses, a tripod, and other assorted gear were an absolute prerequisite. I'd gladly make concessions with other gear in order to make this happen. My decision on how to carry my photographic gear is what has provided the fodder for this particular review. I chose to invest in a modular carrying system that would allow me to carry my DSLR camera in a chest pack while on the trail and a belt system which would allow me to carry the remainder of my gear (the lenses and miscellaneous stuff) after I've set up camp and start hiking around looking for photographic subjects. After a long research process, I settled on Think Tank's modular component system and hand picked the following items:
One thing to note is that Think Tank offers many, many other component options besides those that I've listed above. That allows every photographer the flexibility to figure out which best fulfills their needs for the gear they want to carry.

Before getting into the actual review of the items I've identified, first I'd like to give the reasons why I chose the Think Tank modular component system over other manufacturer's systems. It really boiled down to a couple of things...the Digital Holster 20 was the smallest pack I found that held my 5D2 with any of my lenses attached and the belt system was designed in such a way that its accessory packs can slide around the belt. This allows you to keep the packs attached to the belt behind you and out of the way while hiking with the option of swinging them around your waist for easy access while shooting. A very slick and convenient feature IMO.

The Digital Holster 20 and Harness:

This was really the most important part of the system I was investing in. Whether I opted to carry a conventional camera backpack, a full blown backpack, or the belt system, I wanted this chest pack in order to carry my 5D2 or 50D with one of my lenses attached. Why, you ask? Because I've found over the years that if I leave the camera in a backpack, I either don't have enough time or the will to shoot the spur of the moment adventure or wildlife scenes that sometimes present themselves while on the trail. I've simply passed up too many shots of hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, etc. that may have made for sellable stock images. With an easy to access chest pack, I'm far more likely to capture these moments.

Like I stated earlier, I really like the Digital Holster 20 because of it size. It snuggly fits (and I mean snuggly) my 5D2 with its L bracket mounted and any of my lenses attached (more on this in a moment). Any other manufacturer's design involved a substantially larger pack in order to house this combination. The last thing I wanted was a pack that became so large that it blocked out a good portion of the trail in front of me while hiking. The Digital Holster 20 doesn't do that and I can utilize it "as is" with my Canon 17-40 f/4, 24-70 f/2.8, or 70-300 f/4-5.6 lenses (without lens shades). For those times I want my 70-200 f/4 or even 400 f/5.6 lens attached I can unzip the bottom of the pack providing a "pop down" extension section for these larger lenses. A very thoughtful touch!

Other thoughtful features built into this pack are a felt-lined protective flap on the inner top (to protect the camera's LCD from scratches), inner and side zip pockets (good for memory cards and spare batteries), and a see through business card holder on top which has come in handy for handing out cards while on the trail. If you are not interested in carrying it as a chest pack, it can also be mounted to the speed belt or simply carried as a shoulder bag (a shoulder strap is included). All in all, it's a very versatile bag and I've been very pleased with it. It even comes with a seam sealed rain cover. While it's a bit cumbersome to use at first, it became the bag's most important feature while on a 6 day backpacking trip in Colorado's San Juan Mountains during monsoon season! I'm happy to report that the camera came through the trip high and dry!

My only nit involved using the pack with the chest harness as it's not very intuitive to put on. It just seemed like it takes a bit more contorting than necessary. It particularly became troublesome when putting it on over my hooded rain gear as I needed help from my hiking partner to get it situated properly.

The Pro Speed Belt and Accessories:

I've always been a camera backpack user (and still am for many situations), but I've found that I really like using the belt system for longer day hikes when I want to take a minimum of gear. It's lighter weight and easier access to gear is a great selling point. In particular, it's the easier access to gear where this belt system really shines as most such systems require the accessory packs to be attached to a fixed position on the belt. Moving a pack to any other position requires removing it from the belt and reattaching it somewhere else...a very inconvenient process when you have to do it in the field. All the belts offered by Think Tank give you the option to "lock" an accessory pack into a certain position or attach it "unlocked" with the ability to freely rotate it around the belt. It's the latter option that I find to be a compelling feature for reasons already stated above. My only real complaint about the belt so far is that I find it very difficult to readjust its fit. This becomes a real pain when adding or removing bulky clothing while on the trail. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I'd really like to see a better mechanism for tightening and loosening this sucker!

As far as the accessory packs go, they've worked out pretty well for the most part. The lens pouches come with a bungee corded draw string (for easy opening and closing), an outer mesh pocket (handy for storing the lens cap when shooting) and a seam sealed rain cover. Like all of the packs in Think Tank's system, they are lightly padded with an emphasis on being more lightweight and compressible. I found the design to be excellent, but I did have a quality control issue with one of them. The sewed seam around the top (where the draw string is) became unraveled after only a few uses, requiring a repair job on my part (I didn't want to bother with sending it in for such a simple repair). It's been fine ever since.

I've found the Skin Chimp Cage bag to be a very useful accessory pack for my purposes. It's true design is for use in carrying a pro sized SLR camera body and thus it was a bit larger than what I really needed when backpacking. However, I've found it to be a perfect size to store all my miscellaneous equipment  (my filter packs, camera remote, teleconverters, etc) and maybe a snack or two while on day hikes. It's simple in design and utilizes a combination of velcro flap enclosures and a bungee cord draw string for quick access to gear. And like all the other accessory packs, it comes with the ubiquitous seam sealed rain cover.

Below are my completely miserable attempts to model all the gear discussed here. Winter still has its icy grip on the southwest Colorado area so I had on clothing that wasn't all that optimal for showing off the chest pack and belt. Hopefully, it gives you an idea though. Click on either image to see it enlarged.


By this point, you've probably gathered that I've been very pleased with Think Tank's modular component system...and you'd be right. I've been using this solution on and off for almost a year now and have found it to work really well for my needs. It's also nice to know that there are many more add-on options available should those needs grow. It's a well designed (with the exception of its belt resizing mechanism) and thought out system that emphasizes being light in weight over excessive padding. While it isn't a solution that'll have me selling off my camera backpacks, it's a nice gear carrying option to have for certain types of shooting. Whether that makes it worth the cost of its investment is, of course, up to each individual photographer. In my case, the answer was an emphatic "YES".

If you have any questions concerning this review or additional points to make concerning Think Tank's modular component system, I encourage you to leave a comment. Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New Images From Northern Arizona

Mother nature has been pretty tough on the entire country this winter (I know my back is killing me from all the shoveling) and the desert southwest has been no exception. Wave after wave of rain and snowstorms have made their way across the region in an unrelenting procession. Because of this, I felt fortunate that the weather cooperated for two of the four days I recently spent in northern Arizona. It was particularly fortunate that the day spent guiding a client into North Coyote Buttes and the Wave was nothing short of spectacular. Since visitation to this area is only allowed via a hard to obtain permit, one must roll the dice with the weather and hope for the best. Well, we definitely rolled a lucky number seven on this day! The only bummer was that there were no cool reflection pools in the Wave from the previous day's rain. On the positive side, it keeps me motivated to return until I finally get those conditions! Dang...I gotta keep going back to the Wave!!!

An Abstract View Of The Wave

Of course, the Wave is just one of the incredibly interesting features that can be found in North Coyote Buttes. Sandstone teepees, brain rocks, arches, and other whimsical formations are everywhere. It's easy to spend the entire day exploring the area and getting creative with your photography.

Rene About To Take A Bite Of Hamburger Rock
Last, but not least, no day is complete without photographing the incredible sandstone formation known as the Second Wave until its overcome by shadows late in the day. Just make sure you have a gps (or a good map and compass) to help find your way back to the trailhead in the waning light. It can be a little tricky, especially if it's your first time there.

The Second Wave
After spending an entire day in North Coyote Buttes, my plan the next day was to visit a little known canyon deep within the Hopi reservation. While Blue Canyon is definitely what I'd call remote, it's sheer beauty definitely warrants a visit. Its collection of white and red capped hoodoo formations make you wonder what planet you're really on!

Blue Canyon's Fragile Hoodoos

The problem this day was that the weather didn't look like it was going to cooperate. Cloudy morning conditions had me considering an early trip home as the next wave of stormy weather was supposed to arrive in full force the next day. Instead, I kicked myself in the rear and drove to it under the guise that it would be a scouting mission. Funny thing happened on this scouting mission...the weather unexpectedly improved and I was actually forced to pull out my camera and use it! While I lost my light about an hour before sunset, I was able to come away with some respectable, if not spectacular, shots from this otherworldly place. It was a nice introductory experience for many return trips, I'm sure. The other issue hastening my early exit from the area was an approaching rain storm. Blue Canyon is not a place you want to drive in or out of when the roads are wet. Even with four wheel drive, you'll simply slide off the road. Also, flooded wash crossings in either direction will more than likely cut off any chance of escape. Seeing as I had no camping equipment on this trip, it was time to get the heck outta dodge and make my way back home!

Storm Approaching Blue Canyon

On a final note, I want to make mention about the thing that really struck me during my visit to this canyon, and that was the fragility of the place. The caps of several hoodoos were lying on the ground throughout the area (as shown above) and its amazing that others are still intact given the extreme weather this area is subjected to. It's a reminder to please tread lightly when visiting this beautiful creation of nature. We don't need to hasten this process of destruction!

To see more images from this short excursion to North Coyote Buttes and Blue Canyon, click on the link below...

Northern Arizona Image Collection

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Moab's Wintry Magic

When it comes to winter scenery, nothing compares (in my opinion anyway) to the sight of seeing the desert southwest's red rock scenery when dusted with a layer of snowfall. As much as I'm a fan of snowy mountain scenics, I just have to give the nod to the desert southwest. And in this sector of the country, two places jump out at me above all others for winter viewing pleasure....Bryce Canyon National Park and the area surrounding Moab, Utah. After the latest in a series of snowstorms finished sweeping across the southwest section of the country, I finally decided it was time to pay a visit to the Moab area. With it being a mere 3 hour drive from my home, it's pretty easy to time a visit to catch the clearing of most storms. The real big storms can be the exception as it's sometimes foolish to attempt the drive through southwest Colorado, but that wasn't the case this time. As I arrived in Moab, the sky immediately above town and the adjacent national parks (Canyonlands and Arches) were mostly sunny but the La Sal Mountains were still enshrouded in clouds. Perfect! I headed to a favorite place of mine to shoot the otherworldly sandstone formations of the Behind The Rocks Wilderness Study Area against the La Sals and waited for the mountains to clear. Fortunately, the weather obliged and the mountains slowly made their appearance.

Mt. Tukuhnikivatz Behind The Rocks

It was a glorious evening of gazing at the juxtaposition of red rocks against snowy mountains as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky coloring the rocks an ever deeper shade of red. This was exactly what I had come for!

For the following mornings shoot, I found myself in the windows section of Arches National Park. This is one of the more dramatic and popular sections of the park but I only encountered one other photographer in the area during my sunrise shoot. Gotta love the non-existent crowds during the winter season! While the shoot was somewhat unproductive due to cloud cover at the eastern horizon, the peacefulness of the morning more than made the early wakeup call worthwhile.

I usually spend the afternoons on trips like this doing things unrelated to catnapping, eating, exploring town, etc. However, on this afternoon I actually had a photography subject in mind. I wanted to catch the sun as it crossed through Landscape Arch, the largest spanning arch in the world according to what I've read. My plan was to photograph the scene just as the sun intersected with the arch using a very small aperture which would yield a nice sun star effect. I had researched this occurrence before the trip and had obtained the time of day for this intersection from a photographer who shot the scene in early March. The trick was that I was there more than a month ealier so I'd have to extrapolate a time from that. I figured it would probably take 2 or 3 visits to get the timing right, but what else did I have to do anyway?? With an initial guess in hand I drove out to the Devil's Garden trailhead and trudged up the icy trail for less than a mile to the arch. To my amazement, I arrived just moments before the sun intersected the arch. What fortuitous timing!

 Sun Star at Landscape Arch

Shooting sun star images like the one above can be a bit tricky. For the case above, I shot three exposures... one to properly expose the sun star, the sky and finally the arch itself. I then used Photomatix's Exposure Fusion method (Photomatix is a high dynamic range software tool) to blend the three exposures, creating the resulting image. Until now, I've never been a fan of using HDR software when blending as it usually results in images with halos and other funky artifacts. I'd always preferred the "old fashioned" method of blending in photoshop using layer masks where I had far more control of the final result (at the expense of it being a very time consuming effort). Well, Photomatix's relatively new Exposure Fusion feature may change all that. With very little effort, I was able to come up with an image similar to what would have taken me an hour to create using layer masks. Very cool! It has definitely found a home in my post-processing toolkit.

Ok, sorry for the geeky software techno-babble in the above paragraph....this is a trip report so it's time to get back on topic! After shooting Landscape Arch, I had hoped to continue on the Devil's Garden Trail to Double O Arch. Double O is a fantastic arch that I've yet to shoot in the winter and it's a nice late afternoon subject. The problem was I didn't realize how much snow that area of the park had received. It was far more than other lower areas and I was only able to continue on for a half mile or so before the trail disappeared and the snow became too deep to navigate without skis or snowshoes (neither of which I was wearing). As it turned out, it didn't matter as the clouds were thickening from a storm passing well to the south which would pretty much wipe out any photographic opportunities for the next 24 hours.

The highlight of my following evening's venture was attempting to shoot Double Arch (not to be confused with Double O Arch) under cover of a starry sky. Double Arch is another impressive arch located in the windows section that I thought would make an excellent subject for a technique referred to as light painting. Light painting is when you utilize a light source (usually some sort of flashlight) to bathe a subject with light under a night sky. For the scene below, I utilized a Dorcy 2 million candle power spotlight with a halogen bulb. I've found in the past that I get the best results with this light when I bounce the direct light off of other rocks to illuminate the scene, but this arch was too large for that. I quickly discovered when painting the arch that I could not directly light the foreground boulders as they would overpower the scene. In general, I found Double Arch to be a formidable challenge for this technique mostly because it was so large that it was difficult to fairly evenly paint it. It probably took 12-15 tries before I came up with the final image. That is how things work with light usually need several trials to get things right.

Double Arch Illuminated

While the process was time consuming, it wasn't without entertainment. It was really cool being serenaded by a pair of not-so-distant coyotes trading howls while I was doing my thing. The eery echoes in the arch's rock amphitheater provided quite the ambiance!

My final full day in the area saw me photographing Landscape Arch (again) at sunrise and finishing up with a shoot of Balanced Rock (once again in Arches NP) at sunset. I tried to find a somewhat different perspective for shooting Balanced Rock as the La Sal Mountains were shrouded in clouds and I wanted to make them a more prominent part of the composition. After trudging all over the area, I found what I was looking for and was happy with the images I can away with.

Balanced Rock at Sunset

After a final morning's (rather unsuccessful) shoot at Dead Horse State Park I packed up and headed for home with another enjoyable winter trip to the desert in the books! To see a few more images from this trip, click on the following link...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Now Offering Photo Tours / Photoshop Training

Here ye! Here ye! I have now expanded the Explore The Light business model to include customized, private photo tours and photoshop training. The photo tours will concentrate in the San Juan Mountains and the desert areas of the Four Corners region. These are private tours with an itinerary designed to meet the needs of an individual or small group. The mode of transportation can involve driving, hiking or snowshoeing (for those brave winter souls). More specifics are laid out in the workshop page on the Explore The Light website. Either click on the Workshop menu item above or follow this link.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Website and Blog Redesign Complete (mostly)

Anybody that occasionally hops on my blog or site may have noticed the face lift that both have received. I've been doing some redesigning of both so they have the same look and feel, which has allowed me to fairly seamlessly integrate my blog in with the website. Given my minimal web programming skills this was quite the frustrating endeavor that took far longer than it should have. Thank god for Smugmug's helpful Dgrin customizing forum, without which, I would have never been able to accomplish this! Now that it's pretty much complete (I still want to tweak a few things here and there), I'm pretty happy with the end result. If anyone sees any snafus...major or minor...I'd appreciate any comments.

In addition to the face lift, I've also added a bit of content to my site (more on that in an upcoming post) and have added menu options in an attempt to make it easier to navigate around. Check it out!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Winter Break in the Sonoran Desert

My wife and I took a nice break from what's been a colder than average winter here in southwest Colorado by packing up a weeks worth of clothing, supplies and our dog Yoda and heading to the Phoenix area. It was wonderful to trade our -10 to -15 degree mornings for 70+ degree days in the desert! My wife spent the week attending a seminar to help her get her feet off the ground with her new business endeavor. I spent the week chauffeuring her back and forth to her meetings and fitting in some exploration of the surrounding Sonoran Desert whenever possible. Between driving Tami around and the fickle evening weather (4 of the 5 late afternoons that I was able to get out ended up being cloudy), this turned into more of a scouting trip than anything else. This was fine as it was my first trip to the Sonoran Desert anyway and it gave me plenty of opportunity to simply explore and get my bearings. My plan is keep on eye on the area's wildflower reports in the latter half of March and return then on a much more photography-centered trip.

So aside from the warm winter weather, what's so special about the Sonoran Desert? The answer to that, in my mind, is simple...its vegetation. The Sonoran receives more rainfall than any other North American desert. While that still might not be's called a desert for a's enough to support a wide variety of cactus and other plant life. In particular, it is the only desert in the world where the mighty Saguaro cactus grows in the wild. The Saguaro cactus is vital to the Sonoran ecosystem as it provides both food and shelter for many of the creatures that call this desert their home. These giant cacti are slow growing and have a life span of approximately 200 years. It takes almost 75 years before they are able to develop their first side arm! Given their large and statuesque presence in this desert environment, they make for great photographic subjects. What photographer can resist shooting their silhouette against a blazing sky at sunset? Not me!

A Sonoran Desert Sunset
Back to this particular trip report, most of my time was spent wandering around the mountainous areas east of Phoenix since late day shooting was my only option. Thus, the areas adjacent to the Apache Trail (a scenic road which winds through this spectacular desert environment) were some of my main objectives which included the Superstition Mountains along with the picturesque reservoirs (Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt Lakes) along the Salt River. I also spent some time exploring the Goldfield Mountains bordering the last of the major reservoirs along the Salt, Saguaro Lake. Here, I was surprised to see the last remnants of fall colors in the cottonwoods and willows lining the river. Fall colors in January...only in the Sonoran desert!! I was in this area when I saw the only golden light of the trip and was able to come away with the image below.

The Goldfield Mountains Reflected in the Salt River

All in all, it was a rather unproductive trip photography-wise, but a fun (and warm) getaway nonetheless. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a good wildflower bloom this spring for my return trip. Too see a few more images from this venture, click on the link below...


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Photography Tip: Make Use Of Your Camera's Custom Modes

Side note: I plan to make an effort this year to include more photography tips and reviews in my blog entries. I'm beginning with the tip discussed here and have a few ideas for reviews coming up, so stay tuned!
So have you ever wondered what those silly C1, C2, etc. settings on your newer model DSLR camera's mode dial are for and why you'd ever use them? Digging into your camera's manual (for those who actually do that) you find that they're called custom modes and are used to save a variety of your cameras vast settings. Your first thought upon reading this might be "Why is this really necessary? The camera always remembers my current settings after I power it down anyway!"

Before delving into this further, first consider the following scenario. You're about to spend the morning photographing a beautiful alpine lake backdropped by a majestic snow capped peak. You set up your camera and tripod and begin composing the scene when you notice a bald eagle swooping in towards you. Thinking this could be a once in a lifetime shot, you quickly decide to switch lenses to capture the moment. Frantically, you then begin to go through your mental checklist on what camera settings to switch. Let's see...hmmm....increase the the aperture....check....what else? what else??.....oh, switch to continuous focus....check....switch to continuous shooting...check. Whew! You've done it. Only by now the eagle has already swooped down towards the lake, plucked out a fish and begun its journey back to where it came! Still, you figure you at least need to get a shot so you aim the camera, trip the shutter, and see nothing but black in the forgot to disable mirror lock-up!! Doh!

By this point all you do is laugh it off and comfort yourself by thinking that no one else could've gotten the shot either as things just happened too fast. You revert your settings and spend the rest of an enjoyable morning photographing the marvelous scene in front of you. It isn't until later that evening that you realize you forgot to lower your iso! So not only did you miss that stupendously cool shot of the bald eagle, but you're left with noisy, high iso shots of that beautiful mountain scene. Not your finest moment as a photographer, I'm sure!! just what does all of this have to do with your camera's custom modes, you ask? Well, these custom modes are perfect for those of us who have multiple photographic shooting interests, like the nature photographer who shoots both landscape and wildlife. First, you could set up the camera with your basic landscape settings (for example....aperture priority with a base aperture setting of f/11, base iso, single shot and af mode, mirror lock-up, 2 second timer, etc.) and register these settings with custom mode C1. Then set up the camera with your basic wildlife settings (aperture priority with a wide open aperture setting, iso 400, continuous shot and focus, mirror lock-up disabled, etc.) and register these settings with custom mode C2.

Now when your out shooting landscapes all you need to do is power up the camera in C1 mode and the camera is ready to go once you've altered the aperture to suit the scene your shooting. Should that eagle swoop into your scene, all you need to do is switch your lens and click the camera over to C2 and you're ready to fire away! After the eagle has left the vicinity, click back to C1 and your ready to shoot landscapes safe in the knowledge that all your settings (including that pesky iso) are back to your baseline landscape settings. It's darned slick and helps to eliminate that frustrating human error element that's bound to occur when switching between shooting styles.

I've illustrated how this can be helpful for nature photographers mostly because it pertains to my style of shooting, but just about any type of photographer can benefit from this feature. For instance a wedding photographer could save common settings for shooting ceremonies/receptions in both natural light and using flash and quickly switch back and forth during the event. When things are happening quickly, this is of great benefit. It's up to you to figure out how you can get the most from this feature given your different styles of shooting.