Busing Denali

Denali National Park is simply massive.  The park and preserve spans over 6 million acres.  This means, if you were to explore 1000 acres a day, it would still take you over 16.5 years to see it all.  How can one even hope to do a visit justice, then?  One option is to bus.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

There are two types of buses that service the park along its single 92-mile road: the tour and the shuttle.  The former is designed more for those who wish to sit back for the day (for it is an all-day commitment) and hear the guide narrate the trek.  The latter is as it sounds; it is merely a transport.  The shuttle caters to those who want to jump off for a hike or two along the way, to catch the next bus that comes along.  However, there are only two shuttles that run the entire route in and back, so if you miss that second bus, you’re in for a long walk home.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We aren’t generally ones for the touristy things, and we wanted to shave off a few bucks, so we opted for the shuttle.  However, we also didn’t want to jump off and risk missing our ride back, so we decided to stick it through to the end of the line.  We figured this would be a good way to get a sampling of the park’s main thoroughfare.

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Luck was with us, as we wound up receiving a free upgrade.  The driver assigned to our bus usually had that day off, and he typically ran the tour line, so he was used to chatting up his passengers.  It seems we’d get the tour info along with the ride into the park.  We were also fortunate to have the entire back of the bus to our little troupe.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Our driver was an interesting character.  Ordinarily, I’m terrible with names, but that day, we were introduced to Oh.  Mar.  Omar.  He had an unusual cadence to his speech, taking odd breaks in the middle of his words for over-exaggerated emphasis.  He slowly enunciated each location upon our departure (which I could see being useful), and insisted we wear our “Seat.  Belts.  Seat belts.”  Every time!  We were too amused to be annoyed.

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Only the first 15 miles, to Savage River, are paved, and cars are not permitted beyond this point.  We stopped here to take in the sights, and we marveled at the expansive mountains and the beautiful puffs of fog.  The rivers wound off forever into the distance, ribbons of water decorating the landscape.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Along the road, we kept our eyes peeled for any buses stopped ahead; this was an indicator of a wildlife spotting.  Our first sighting was a russet ptarmigan strolling the side of the road.  Fun fact: there’s an old mining town in Alaska called Chicken.  Apparently, the founders wanted to name it “Ptarmigan,” but they couldn’t agree on how it’s spelled.  They agreed “Chicken” was much easier.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We were also super stoked to spot our very first Alaskan bear!  He looked like he had just come from a refreshing swim, but he was simply magnificent.  We all hung out of the windows excitedly (with regular “keep your elbows inside the windows” from Omar), our giant lenses propped on the open window panes.  The bear paid us no mind; he was just happily munching away at the lush grass.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

It was difficult to get a great shot, because Omar kept creeping the bus forward.. then backward.. and forward again.  Just sit still already!  I gave up after our bear friend was fully obscured by the bushes, and we trudged on.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We stopped at the “Aisle… sun.  Eielson Visitor Center” at mile 66 for a longer respite from the dusty road.  We could stretch our legs and truly marvel at the jaw-dropping vistas, as we nearly tripped over ground squirrels.  We pulled out some lunch from our packs as we once more boarded (“Seat. Belts!  Seat belts.”), knowing we still had hours left to our day’s journey.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

As we continued, some folks departed for hikes here and there, and we espied swans and caribou.  We passed Wonder Lake (which was wonderful) and finally arrived in Kantishna – the end of the line.  There, we found an old cabin and a sign declaring our pitiful accomplishment.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Honestly, there wasn’t much beyond Eielson, but I’m glad to say we confirmed that firsthand.  Unfortunately the famed mountain was obscured by clouds, though we could barely see the base.  The trip back out was much the same as the way in, with a bit less history and far less energy.  We saw more caribou patrolling a distant ridge, an enormous moose blending into the rocks, and the same bear we saw on our way in (still bedraggled).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And we were all too happy to shoot the entire way.

It was such a relief to hit the pavement once more!  We knew we were in the final stretch.  Who knew sitting on a bus all day could be so exhausting?

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

By the time we reached the visitor center at the park entrance, we couldn’t even bring ourselves to take the slight detour the few hundred feet to where a moose was standing on the side of the road, just posing for the cameras.  We were too tired to care (and I’ve seen plenty already).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

It was a long day, for sure, but I don’t regret it.  We got a good sampling of Denali, and we got a fair introduction to Alaska’s wildlife (though one of our fellow photographers reported having seen so much more the last time he was there).  The clouds made for more interesting skies, and I couldn’t get enough of that fog (I’m a sucker for low-lying moisture).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Next time, I probably won’t go as far, unless we’re staying at one of the campgrounds.  I’d also like to do a bit less busing and a bit more hiking, but it was a good introduction nonetheless.

And the photography was only just beginning!


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Review: Sleeklens

There’s no photo challenge this week, so I’m taking this opportunity to sneak this post in.  I don’t sample many products, but I had the opportunity to give a Sleeklens Lightroom workflow a test run, and here’s my take on it.

Full disclosure: I was given the “Through the Woods” workflow free of charge in exchange for an honest review.  I have no affiliation with Sleeklens, I receive no commissions, and I have no incentive to encourage purchases.

What is Sleeklens?

Sleeklens is software designed as an add-on to Photoshop and Lightroom to provide presets and brushes for faster editing.  My workflow lives primarily in Lightroom (I use the static Lightroom 5, not CC), so this is what I sampled.

The “Through the Woods” workflow specifically caters to landscape photography, but they also offer workflows for portraiture, astrophotography, monochrome, and others.

Additionally, they provide a full editing service, if you’d rather not edit your photos yourself.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

First impressions

To be honest, when I first viewed their website and Pinterest and took a look at a few of their videos showcasing the workflows, I didn’t like the look of the results at all.  Most of the landscape photos look horribly over-processed, with garish HDR and comical saturation.  Some folks might desire that look, but as a photographer who strives for realistic images, this would have turned me away immediately.

In fact, because of this, I hesitated in actually trying it out.  With other crazy summer activities, I was far too busy to stray from my known workflow to try something of which I was skeptical.  But I hadn’t spent any money, and I already had it downloaded, so I gave it a whirl.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

The mechanics

The “Through the Woods” workflow comes with 89 presets and 42 adjustment brushes.  The presets are divided into segments: all-in-one, base, exposure, color, tone/tint, polish, and vignette.  They are designed to be isolated presets so that one does not impact the others.  As such, they can be “stacked” by merely applying one and following it with another, starting with 0-All In One or 1-Base and working through to 6-Vignette.  These presets can be used to lend autumn hues, boost contrast, or apply quick HDR, among others.

The brushes are similar, and they apply to all of the local adjustments (brush, radial filter, and graduated filter).  These include settings like “add golden sun” and “cloudy sky definition.”

My rules

For an adequate sampling of this software, I took a few of my previously edited photos, reset them to the SOTC (straight out of the camera) exposure, then reedited using the “Through the Woods” workflow.  I tried to use the presets and brushes as much as possible, with few additional edits.  I tried to spend about the same amount of time on a photo as I ordinarily would (or less), and I wouldn’t reference my originally edited image.  I stopped when I felt the picture looked complete, and I could then compare my old workflow with the new.

Some examples

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

Original

This one surprised me a bit.  Perhaps my tastes have changed somewhat since I originally edited this photo, but I now find my initial edit to be a little oversaturated.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

My Workflow

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

Sleeklens

Out of these two, I prefer the Sleeklens edit, though I know I could go back and correct what I don’t like about the first one.  The first has more color, but the second looks a bit more natural.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

Original

These workflows are supposed to shine with underexposed images, so I threw this one in.  Interestingly, my opinion of the results wound up being the opposite of the above.  I really like how my initial edit turned out; there’s a good balance of color and light.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

My Workflow

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

Sleeklens

The Sleeklens edit appears a bit muddled and drab.  Again, comparing the two side-by-side, I could fix what I don’t like to match what I do.  However, I edited these independently so I could get a good feel for where each would take me.  I wasn’t entirely happy with the Sleeklens edits, but I felt I would need to spend more time to get it where I wanted, which went against the rules I set for this experiment.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

Original

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

My Workflow

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

Sleeklens

These are almost identical, though I think I prefer the Sleeklens edit in this case.  My original looks a little HDR in comparison, and I like the color balance better from the Sleeklens image.  However, they’re admittedly similar, and I really couldn’t notice the differences unless I switched directly between the two within Lightroom.

Experience

Overall, my experience with this workflow has been positive.  However, I found many of the adjustments to simply be far too drastic.  I had to tone them all back quite a bit, desaturating many of the presets and reducing the flow/density of the brushes to a fraction of what they were.  I appreciate subtle changes that I can control without “overcooking” an image.

For example, I took this original image:

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

and applied the all-in-one “Calm Sunset” (without any other adjustments).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

To me, this looks anything but “calm.”  It’s unpleasantly saturated, like a bad Instagram filter.

But it wasn’t without redemption.  Pulling back the saturation and cooling the white balance a bit, I get an acceptable image:

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Sleeklens

This is still more saturated and warmer than my original edit (below), but it no longer hurts my eyes.  In fact, I think I like this edit better than my non-Sleeklens photo.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

My Workflow

Beyond the necessary “toning back,” I still had to apply some adjustments from my workflow, like profile corrections, defringing, and noise reduction.  Overall, I wouldn’t say this alternate workflow saves me any time in editing

My personal tastes tend toward contrast, subtlety, and realistic color, so there are several presets and brushes I don’t see myself using (they make the image very soft or launch the HDR into the stratosphere).  For example, the color preset, “Deep Blue Skies,” sounds like something I’d use all the time, as I frequently do deepen the luminance of the blues for a richer sky.  However, it’s far overdone, and it would need significant adjustment afterwards, making manually correcting skies the faster course.  On the other hand, some presets provide a good starting point for edits, and they make me think a little bit more about different artistic interpretations.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Would I recommend it?

That depends.

If you are just starting out with photo editing, I think this software can supply a lot of options for adjustments you might not otherwise have considered.  It can also give you a taste of what Lightroom (or Photoshop) is capable of without figuring out the manual details of how to achieve those results, a good way to ease into it with some prepackaged settings.

If you prefer more finite control over your workflow, or if you’re well-versed in Lightroom/Photoshop, this might feel like a step backwards (like going to AV mode when you’re used to shooting in full manual).

As one who fits into the latter category, I probably won’t replace my workflow with one of these, and if I didn’t have it already, I don’t think I’d go out of my way to buy it.  However, I do see use in it.  For me, it’s more of a random dial I can toss in at the beginning of my workflow, from which I can spring-board to something different I wouldn’t have otherwise attempted.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

As-is, it doesn’t fully fit my style, but like anything else, it’s another tool in my arsenal that I can employ when I want to try something new.


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TWOI: 9/15/17

This week on Instagram featured another fun set.

This first one is from the eclipse.  Even with most of the sun obscured like this, it was nearly full daylight out.  It just goes to show how bright the sun really is!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Next is a shot from our Alaskan train ride.  Such a wonderful way to take in all that stunning scenery!  And I loved the reflection of the train from this angle.  You can read all about that journey here.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

This next one hits home – literally.  The northwest has been battling a number of wildfires in this dry season, and many of our favorite hiking trails have burned.  We’re all anxious for some rain.  This was from my response to this week’s challenge, “waiting.”

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

This was the view from our secret cliff discovery.  The arches in that area are really interesting to photograph, and it was so cool to have the whole place to ourselves.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Here’s another from Yosemite.  I am in love with this park – the waterfalls, the rainbows, even the snows – and I only saw a small fraction!  I’ll definitely be returning for some proper hiking.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

It was hard to decide which was my favorite between these last two.  I’m sad about the wildfires ravaging our Gorge, but the smoke did make for some fascinating pictures.  I tried for a different crop on this one; what do you think?

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And finally, this was my submission for Leanne Cole’s Monochrome Madness last week.  I love the symmetry of the rows and rows of trees and the asymmetry of the lone tree that didn’t quite grow straight.  It reminds me that it’s beautiful to be unique.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

I post every day on Instagram.  Please say hi in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!


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The Alaskan Railroad

The first 24 hours of our grand adventure north was a tale of trains, planes, and automobiles.  So much distance to travel to reach the beautiful Alaskan wilderness!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

It began with a late night flight into Anchorage.  We managed to find flights at an insanely reasonable rate, but that price came only with one airline, and that airline literally had one flight to Anchorage a day, late at night.  I briefly considered flying in the night prior, as it wouldn’t require any extra days off from work (Friday night instead of Saturday), but I didn’t really care to putter around the city by myself for a day, and in the end, I was grateful for the extra day to finish pulling my things together.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The craziest thing about that flight was the sun.  This far north, the sun sets very late; daylight clings on well past 9pm.  So when we took off around 9, the horizon still held a glow… and that glow just never went away.  When we landed several hours later, it was still dusk – well past midnight.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The next day, we woke to drizzle as we packed our things, called an Uber, and made our way to the train station.  Checking our bags was considerably easier than in an airport (if a bit more wet), and we then waited for our train.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Our accommodations in “Adventure Class” aboard the Denali Star were quite pleasant.  There was no wireless aboard, and we were lucky to even get signal when we passed a town here and there.  However, there was more than enough room to spread out, and some chose to take advantage of that, sleeping away much of the trip.  I, for one, couldn’t fathom sleep when there was so much to photograph.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I wandered back and forth, from the dining car to the car with the viewing bubble, filming clips (Aaron insisted I do a bit of filming in his absence) and snapping interesting vantages.

But my favorite spots, by far, were those between the cars.  These were open air, bare to the cool wind and the crisp air, and with unhindered views of the passing landscapes.  I’d shoot from one side, then dash to the other, then race to the far end of the dining car to get a different view of the cars both forward and back.  And just when I would tire of a view and return to my seat for a bit of a break, I’d notice something new that tickled my fancy.  Or I’d race back to my seat to change out a lens.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And all throughout, our conductor (in an honest-to-goodness train conductor hat) would pop on the intercom to announce a passing site or point out spotted wildlife.  There’s a moose, or here you can espy the “Dr. Seuss Tower.”

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Along the way, we passed lakes, rivers, mountains, and marshlands; the famed Hurricane Gulch Bridge 296 feet above the creek.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We even passed Summit, which is the highest point of the rail and where it claims to cross the Continental Divide.  However, in attempting to verify this, maps of the Great Divide show it actually snakes much farther north through Alaska, so I don’t understand how we could have been anywhere near it south of Denali.  I’m calling baloney on that claim, but if you happen to have any information on this, I would love to hear from you!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We also passed a recreational park where a line of kayakers saw fit to drop their drawers and give the passing train a bit of moonshine.  I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to catch that… but you’re probably thinking that’s a good thing!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

All told, we rolled into the Denali station about 7.5 hours later, tired from the journey, and hungry for some real food.  Fortunately, Healy was more than happy to offer us the 49th State Brewery, where we returned each night for their killer frozen margaritas.

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Day 1: train: achievement unlocked!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Stay tuned next week for Day 2: bus!


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WC: Helpless

It feels somewhat easy to distance myself from the devastation in Texas, and I turn only a concerned brow toward what lies in wait for Florida.  It’s tragic, and my heart aches for all who have lost their homes and livelihoods (and all this month, I am donating 25% of all proceeds from print sales to Harvey relief efforts).  But once the news is turned off, my personal life creeps back in, pushing the drenched scenes, the tears, the pleas for help – back across the miles from whence they came.

But when tragedy strikes so close to home, I can no longer shut it out – intentionally or otherwise.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The Columbia River Gorge is one of my many playgrounds, and I’ve blogged about several hikes in the area.  In fact, I just wrote about the famous Multnomah Falls last week.  The Gorge is lush and green, spidered with tantalizing trails and breathtaking views.  It’s full of waterfalls and moss-covered trees, paths begging to be explored, and hidden nooks just waiting to be photographed.  I love it dearly, and I’ve remarked on more than one occasion how grateful I am to have it in my very own backyard.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

And as I type this, it is being destroyed.

A senseless act of recklessness sparked a massive wildfire that has consumed tens of thousands of acres of this stunning landscape.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

It has threatened homes, and it trapped hikers.  It has closed a major freeway and diverted boat traffic.

Multnomah Falls was on fire.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Visibility dwindled.  Ash sprinkled from the sky and collected on the cars.  And it has darkened the city’s skies for days, forcing residents to remain indoors to take shelter from the harmful air.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The only meager silver lining is that it has made for some powerfully compelling photos.

But documenting this tragedy is all I can do.  The fire is still burning, and it will likely continue to burn until the autumn rains return.  Beautiful trails are being ravaged.  And all I can do is wait for it to stop.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I hike there every summer.  I take visitors out there whenever they’re in town.  Aaron and I got married there.  That historic highway was one of the things that made me first fall in love with the Pacific Northwest.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

And it is forever changed.

I can’t ignore it when I’m surrounded by thousands who are likewise mourning this loss.  I can’t shrug it off with, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me.”  This literally hits home.  And I am utterly heartbroken.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

But I also know that I’ll return.  New trees will sprout, and with enough time, it will be green again.  I’ll do whatever is in my power to restore the grandeur of that beautiful wilderness and ensure this playground is around for future generations.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

A news article quoted a spokesman from Portland Fire and Rescue saying, “The Gorge still looks like the Gorge; it’s not a wasteland.”  That’s heartening amidst this despair, and it’s exactly what I needed to hear.  I may feel somewhat helpless right now, but I’m not without hope that I’ll play there again.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015


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TWOI: 9/8/17

Happy Friday, all!

Boy, this was a really difficult week to sort these.  This set represents so many disparate aspects of my life; it’s crazy to look at sometimes.

This first one was from our eclipse weekend.  We met these pack goats at Olallie Lake, on some training missions.  This sure seems like a smart way to go backpacking!

This was also my submission for last week’s Monochrome Madness from Leanne Cole.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Next, a wildlife shot from Tortuga Island in Costa Rica.  I chased this silly bird all over the island to get a decent shot; it was difficult to stay ahead of it.  I just love those colors!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

From tropical to freezing, this was a beautiful chilly morning in Yosemite.  We were shooting the Three Brothers for sunrise, and I turned around to see this scene: one of our fellow photographers just taking in the peaceful morning along the water’s edge.  The moon was also conveniently placed, so I had to snap a shot.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

This image of the famous Multnomah Falls hails from my most recent photo challenge response to “structure.”  Instead of going for literal interpretations for these challenges, I attempt to find a different interpretation.  This one focused on the many pieces that contribute to the experience of visiting a tourist spot, and my endeavors to find the unique in the over-shot.  You can read it here.

This response is also somewhat ironic.  Little did I know that the very afternoon prior to my posting this – lamenting its mundanity – actions were set in motion that would forever scar this iconic location.  This week’s challenge happened to cater to that topic, so look for that on Sunday.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Next, you knew there’d be another image of the eclipse.  I played with framing and cropping on this one, as well as some slight yellow tinting.  But interestingly, though I love this picture, it wasn’t quite my favorite this week (though millimeters away – seriously, it was so difficult to choose my favorites out of these).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I just love the colors of this one.  That day was spectacular, and the lighting was perfect.  On top of making an incredible coastal discovery, I was in high spirits.  This picture just makes me think of happy things.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Finally, this week, bears rose to the top!  I’m finally getting to my Alaskan stories, and I adore this bear clamming on the beach.  I have so much to tell from that trip, so be sure to follow my blog so you don’t miss out.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I’m on most major social media platforms, obviously including Instagram.  I always welcome comments both here and there; I would love to hear your thoughts on my photography and/or adventures.  Come say hi!


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