I’ve been digging through my surf archives today for a project I’m working on and came across this great shot from Mavericks in 2012.  I can only imagine what is going through this guy’s mind as he takes on this impossibly hard—and airborne—drop into a monster.

I’ve been digging through my surf archives today for a project I’m working on and came across this great shot from Mavericks in 2012.  I can only imagine what is going through this guy’s mind as he takes on this impossibly hard—and airborne—drop into a monster.

Finding New Energy on the Trail

Beams of light and mist along the PCT near Snoqualmie Pass, Washington.

Where are my batteries?  

I shuffled about, searched and researched the nooks and crannies of my car. Standing at the trailhead, my uncle waited patiently, pack loaded on his body, ready to begin our weeklong walk along the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Reluctantly accepting the possibility that I somehow left them behind, I called the motel where we had spent the night.  The woman at the front desk confirmed my dread.  My camera batteries were at the hotel. 

Last week I traveled to the Washington Cascades and hiked a section of the PCT with my uncle.  Since I was a kid, we’ve been doing trips together each summer, usually backpacks on the PCT that work towards his goal of completing the entire 2,460 mile trail.

The night before we started out, I cleaned and organized my gear, jotted down some ideas and charged four batteries.  I was prepared and excited to comfortably shoot an entire week on the trail.  And I ended up forgetting the most crucial items to make it all happen.  All I could do now was accept it and figure out a way to get the most from what power I had.  I started walking.

After a day on the trail, I began to fall into a different rhythm.   My shots were more deliberate, my connection and understanding of the weather, light and surroundings was keen, quiet and focused.  Each time I saw something of interest, I paused and asked myself, “How does this connect to the greater scene?  The story?  The light?  What do I want to say?”  I learned to use my camera differently.  I composed through the viewfinder before turning on my camera.  I manually focused.  I thought more.  I even used my iPhone to take those must have snapshots of fun vacation moments. By the fourth day on the trail, my battery was half full; I might just make it.

The world of digital makes taking pictures easy.  Technology has pushed the bounds of what cameras and post processing can see and do, so that we can document the world in every imaginable light.  But photography isn’t about passively observing a scene and mindlessly recording it; we can do that with machines.  Rather, it’s about listening, connecting and composing.  Being limited in my capacity to photograph on the trail made me more conscious of my compositions, surroundings and how to best communicate what I felt.  This brought me back to the pure, meditative essence of the art form.   

Enjoying a warm meal in a nearby town after we walked out of the mountains, I reached for my camera to scan some of my trip photos.  I turned it on and the screen illuminated.  I had made it a week with one battery and found new energy in the process.

Final afternoon light streams through the Cascades.  

Starry bed along the PCT.

Morning light breaks through storm clouds at Woptus Lake along the PCT, Washington.

Life anew.  A nurse tree provides a fertile environment for the next generation.

A washed out section of trail along the PCT near Stevens Pass, Washington.

Chasing Meteors

Perseid Meteor, Milky Way and Jeffrey Pine.  Yosemite National Park, 2013.

As a kid growing up on the East Coast, I marveled at summer thunderstorms. Their brilliant lightning and crackling thunder, thick, musty air and fat, cool raindrops fascinated me. I anticipated storms all year and ran about my neighborhood capturing their power with my point and shoot camera. At 13, my dad bought me an SLR, and I finally had the ability to shoot lightning. In high school, I drove around town positioning myself in line with approaching storms, setting up my camera in hopes of capturing lightning bolts for the split second that they streaked across the sky.

Lightning over Lake Murray, South Carolina, 2002.

Since moving out west to San Francisco years ago, I’ve experienced very few thunderstorms, but spent countless nights out in the deserts and mountains where dark skies offer brilliant views of the stars. Just as lightning ignited a passion to photograph in my childhood, meteors streaking across the night sky have inspired me to brave fatigue and cold nights in hopes of capturing their fleeting beauty.

Like a lightning bolt, every meteor is unique. The color, brightness, duration, vapor trail—and even sound—only happen once. Unless captured by a camera, a meteor vanishes as quickly as it appears without a trace of its brief existence.

This is what exhilarates me as a photographer and nature lover. The reward for planning, technique and listening to nature is a tangible, timeless image of the moment when a meteor streaks across the night sky. A few weeks ago as the Perseid Meteor Shower neared, I hatched a plan to head out and shoot those moments.

The day of the predicted peak, I loaded up my car with gear and pointed it away from the lights of San Francisco and towards the Sierra Nevada. I cruised east across the Central Valley in the late afternoon heat and hoards of summertime weekenders streamed westward across the valley back to the Bay Area. I had a spot in mind, the top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite. The valley soon gave way to the rolling Sierra foothills and my excitement elevated.

Four hours after leaving home, I pulled up to an empty, dark trailhead. I stepped out of my car and into the silent night, took a deep breath and filled my lungs with heavy, dusty pine duff-­‐scented air. I lashed tripods to my pack, double checked my mental gear list and set off through the woods. An hour later I emerged from still stands of conifers and climbed up over Sentinel Dome’s cracked granite slabs to its summit. Beneath me lay the Central Valley to the west, Yosemite Valley just below to the north, and the entire expanse of the High Sierra to the east and south. The Milky Way painted the southern skies and countless galaxies and stars pulsated above me.

I tossed down my pack, lay out a sleeping bag and set up the cameras: one pointing to the northwest, another to the northeast. I dialed in my exposures, checked and

rechecked lens focus, set my intervalometers and fired the cameras. I counted the seconds in between each measured click of the shutter, then laid back and turned my gaze to the heavens and waited. Slowly the meteors began falling, one per minute, tiny flecks of light, zipping earthward. And they fell just out of frame.

I lay back watching, hoping to see a meteor blaze in front of my cameras. I debated the merits of changing my compositions and chasing the meteors, but fought the urge. Hours passed, noted by the metronome of my shutter and I dozed off. I awoke hours later to silence and the faintest light of predawn, slowly bleeding out the brilliance of the stars and Milky Way overhead. Yellow light painted the sky over the Sierra to the east and a few more meteors burnt orange and red on the horizon though the gathering dawn. I stuck around on the dome and shot a few frames of the sun crossing the horizon with my old film camera, the same one that my dad gave me to shoot lightning.

The gentle morning light transitioned into harsh midsummer sun. I packed my things and slowly walked down from the dome in silence, wondering if meteors did in fact ignite the sky in front of my cameras as I slept. Maybe I should have angled one of the cameras in another direction, I second-­‐guessed. I arrived at the car, brewed a cup of coffee and nervously reviewed my shots.

A few meteors had indeed streaked across my frame, though not as brilliant as I had hoped or envisioned. But that’s the thing about photographing nature’s moments. Like lightning in a thunderstorm they can be explosive or an unimpressive, faint trace of light in the frame. Yet whether or not I capture one of nature’s brilliant, singular moments, every time I go out, I always create one of my own. 

Lightning Over Bernal on Flickr.Tonight San Francisco lit up like I’ve never seen before.

Lightning Over Bernal on Flickr.

Tonight San Francisco lit up like I’ve never seen before.

I spent the last month teaching photography for National Geographic Student Expeditions in Barcelona and San Francisco, far cries from the desolate landscapes that I traditionally shoot.  Constantly managing crowded places challenged me, but proved a great teacher for honing in on my techniques.  Whether you’re in wilderness or at a crowded spot,  the process for creating a meaningful image is the same. 
In both photo workshops I encouraged students to take a moment and think about the greater narrative of the scene or subjects they are photographing.  “Ask yourselves,” I encouraged them, “how does my subject connect to everything else that is going around us?  First find your subject(s), then connect them.”
Here’s an example from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I could approach this scene and try to shoot what is most appealing: the jellyfish.  To shoot the jellyfish, I’ll have to shoot through glass and the results won’t be perfect: peoples’ fingers will be in the way, odd glares will work into the photos, etc.  As I stepped back from the glass, I noticed what was really happening in the scene.  People were discovering the beauty and grace of the jellies.  With that bit of clarity, I stepped back, found my subjects, waited and shot.

I spent the last month teaching photography for National Geographic Student Expeditions in Barcelona and San Francisco, far cries from the desolate landscapes that I traditionally shoot.  Constantly managing crowded places challenged me, but proved a great teacher for honing in on my techniques.  Whether you’re in wilderness or at a crowded spot,  the process for creating a meaningful image is the same. 

In both photo workshops I encouraged students to take a moment and think about the greater narrative of the scene or subjects they are photographing.  “Ask yourselves,” I encouraged them, “how does my subject connect to everything else that is going around us?  First find your subject(s), then connect them.”

Here’s an example from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I could approach this scene and try to shoot what is most appealing: the jellyfish.  To shoot the jellyfish, I’ll have to shoot through glass and the results won’t be perfect: peoples’ fingers will be in the way, odd glares will work into the photos, etc.  As I stepped back from the glass, I noticed what was really happening in the scene.  People were discovering the beauty and grace of the jellies.  With that bit of clarity, I stepped back, found my subjects, waited and shot.

Streamers of water from Yosemite Creek leap and dance on their journey down to Yosemite Valley.

Streamers of water from Yosemite Creek leap and dance on their journey down to Yosemite Valley.

Monterey Beach, Nightfall on Flickr.Who knew that the light from my hotel would illuminate the beach below so well?

Monterey Beach, Nightfall on Flickr.

Who knew that the light from my hotel would illuminate the beach below so well?

Exploring Eureka Dunes, a set on Flickr.A day at the Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California.
Eureka DunesEureka Dunes and ScrubDrifting Sand and Scrub at the Foot of Eureka DunesDune Dog

Exploring Eureka Dunes, a set on Flickr.

A day at the Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California.
Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park.

Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park.

Airy traverse at dawn.  A climber navigates an airy traverse by headlamp as dawn’s first tendrils paint the eastern horizon.

Airy traverse at dawn.  A climber navigates an airy traverse by headlamp as dawn’s first tendrils paint the eastern horizon.