Usually at this time of year I am already extremely busy shooting all of my winter photography projects in Lake Tahoe. However, Mother Nature hasn’t delivered the goods yet. Lake Tahoe is about to have one of the driest Decembers on record and the forecast looks dismal. Everyone in town (including myself) is going stir crazy.
With everything on hold, I decided to get out of town and create some new work for my fine art and stock portfolio. I hadn’t shot any city scenes in awhile and decided that I would point my lens towards Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco.
My first shoot was in Reno. I didn’t have any images of Reno in my portfolio so I thought shooting an overview of the skyline was a good place to start. I drove down in the early afternoon to scout a good location to frame the city. Within a few hours I found a great vantage point on the top of a hill. The sun wasn’t going to set for another couple hours so I used the rest of the time to scout several locations in the city that I would photograph after I had captured the skyline shot. Everything was shaping up great.
The Reno skyline at dusk
After finding several other good shooting locations in the city I drove back out to the hillside location I scouted earlier. The sun was just setting and the buildings were starting to light up.
Dusk is one of my favorite times to photograph city scenes. There is still enough ambient light to give the sky a nice tone and maintain some detail throughout the scene. Additionally, the vantage point I picked was great but it was also a good distance away from the city itself. The longest lens I carry is a Nikon 70-200 2.8mm. The workaround I use a lot when I want to get a little closer to something is simply shoot with my Nikon D7000 instead of my Nikon D3s. The cropped sensor on the D7000 immediately turns my 70-200mm lens into a 105-300mm giving me the extra reach I need.
A detail of the Reno skyline
After about a half an hour of shooting I knew I had what I needed. I quickly packed up my gear and drove back to the downtown area to capture a few more scenes. My main goal was to get a good shot of the famous Reno Arch. I knew that a good shot of the arch would have a lot of salability, especially in stock. I worked the scene down at the arch for awhile and got what I was looking for. I drove back up to Lake Tahoe confident my time was well spent and that I had some great shots in the bag.
The famous Reno Arch
The next day my fiancée and I drove down to wine country where she had some business to take care of. Over the next several days I used my time to scout and shoot different versions of the San Francisco skyline and bridges.
So much of photography, especially landscape and travel photography, is all about scouting. I definitely spend a lot more time scouting locations than I do shooting them. I usually scout everything during the middle of the day when the scenes are less interesting and the light isn’t as dramatic. Then when all of the elements line up I know exactly where I need to be to make a great image. A lot of my creative process is all about pre-visualization and scouting is a huge part of that.
The first shot I was after was a panorama of the San Francisco skyline with the Bay Bridge. The easiest place to shoot that scene is from Treasure Island, which sits just across from the city and is easily accessible by car. The only downside to shooting from Treasure Island is that I have never felt like the scene is very dynamic. In my mind, the best place to shoot the scene was from the top of a hill on adjoining Yerba Buena Island.
The only problem with shooting from Yerba Buena is that all of the good locations are technically off limits to the public. Luckily things like that don’t usually stop me from doing what I need to do. I spent some time on the island prior to sunset finding a good place to set up my shot. After coming up with some good options I went back over to Treasure Island to wait for the light to get good. I didn’t want to hang out at the locations I scouted on Yerba Buena and draw attention to myself possibly getting me kicked out before I could get my shots.
The sun set and I quickly drove back over to Yerba Buena and began shooting. The scene was spectacular! I shot well into the darkness using a variety of lenses and shutter speeds to get different effects. I shot some of the scenes using a low ISO and slow shutter speed to get the cars streaking across the Bay Bridge. I also shot some of the scenes using a very high ISO (up to 4000) to freeze the cars on the bridge giving the shots a different feel. The capability of the Nikon D3s to produce unbelievable files at such high ISOs has never ceased to amaze me. In fact, I don’t even consider 4000 to be that high of an ISO any more. In the last year I have had several photos published that were shot at a whopping 12,800 ISO!
The San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge at night from Yerba Buena Island
With all of the shots in the bag from Yerba Buena I went back over to Treasure Island and captured a few more scenes. There is a new sculpture on the island that is lit up at night that makes for an excellent subject.
The San Francisco skyline at night from Treasure Island
An amazing sculpture on Treasure Island illuminated at night
The next day my efforts were concentrated on the Golden Gate Bridge. I had shot the Golden Gate once before from the Marin Headlands with great results. I wanted to mix things up a bit though. I really wanted to create an image of the Golden Gate that was colorful and moody. I also didn’t want to shoot the bridge from any of the “classic” locations over on the Marin Headlands. It is easy to get great shots of the bridge and the city from the Marin Headlands but all of the locations are overshot and you would be hard pressed to come away with anything original.
After driving around for awhile I found a great location with a different perspective at the Presidio Yacht Club. Not only did the location have a great view but I also noticed that the tide was starting to go out.
Low tide was going to coincide perfectly with dusk which gave me a great tool at my disposal for creating the kind of image I was looking for. I knew the exposed rocks at low tide would make great foreground subjects with excellent texture. The moving water around the rocks during a long exposure would add to the mystic feel that I was going for.
The Golden Gate Bridge
As it began to get dark and the bridge began to light up, I crept down on the slippery rocks and set up my shot. I took some quick tests and after a few adjustments I was happy with the composition. The only thing I didn’t like was how dark the foreground was compared to the bridge and the sky. To correct this problem I used a 2 stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density filter. I adjusted my exposure accordingly and was extremely happy with the result. I stayed down on the rocks and took shot after shot to ensure I had what I was looking for. The motion of the waves hitting the rocks created a slightly different effect with each exposure and I wanted to make sure that I had the best possible version of the image. After about 30 or so shots I knew I had what I was looking for. Ironically, when I processed all of the images the first shot in the batch was my favorite.
The next day I joined back up with my fiancée and we began our drive back to Lake Tahoe. We didn’t leave until later in the afternoon so we could stop in Sacramento and photograph the famous Tower Bridge on our way home. It worked out perfectly. We hit the bridge at just the right time and I had the chance to take some general overview shots of the bridge as well as get a little more creative. It was a wonderful end to a great couple days of shooting.
Cars pass over the famous Tower Bridge in Sacramento at dusk
Now, back in my office in Lake Tahoe, everything is processed and submitted to the agency I shot for, Aurora Photos. Ultimately I was able to put about forty new images into the market. On top of that I have several new shots that will be sold as limited edition fine art prints. I would call that a productive week!
Unfortunately there still isn’t any snow in the forecast. I haven’t figured out what my next short term project will be to get me through this lull in the weather but trust me, the wheels are turning! Stay tuned.
Juan gallops his horse through the Chiapas countryside
Hiking along the Mammoth Crest and descending down into Red’s Meadow in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains, my backpacking partner and I were about to pick up our last resupply on the Sierra High Route. We arrived at Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station in the afternoon, picked up our provisions and secured a cabin for the night. I turned on my phone for the first time in almost two weeks and gave my beautiful fiancée a call.
After catching her up on our trip she informed me that some decisions had been made on my behalf while I was gone. She explained that while I was out hiking I had been awarded the ATTA (Adventure Travel Trade Association) Visual Storytelling Scholarship. Since I hadn’t “applied” for this scholarship I actually had no idea what she was talking about. She explained to me that the scholarship entailed going to Chiapas, Mexico and photographing an adventure trip (on horseback) for the ATTA and also attending the Adventure Travel World Summit. “Sounds great,” I said, “When is it?” “Well, that’s the kicker,” she said, “you leave next week, the travel arrangements are already made. All you need to do is finish the Sierra High Route quickly and safely and then you depart for Mexico straight away." Needless to say, I was stoked!
Immediately after concluding the most epic backpacking trip of my life (more on that here) I was on a plane headed to the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas. Upon arriving at the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport I was met by a very friendly man holding a sign with my name on it. He informed me that he was to drive me out to the hacienda in the countryside where I would meet up with the rest of my group. We loaded the gear and off we went.
The church at the hacienda illuminated in early morning light
After several hours of driving, we pulled onto an unmarked dirt road and in the distance I spotted the hacienda. We drove into the courtyard where we were immediately greeted by Juan and Gloria, our guides for the trip. I then had the pleasure of meeting the rest of the folks in the group that I would be photographing and traveling with. We had a wonderful dinner and turned in for the evening.
Enjoying dinner at the hacienda
The next day I awoke early to begin documenting our adventure. For the next two days we would travel by horseback across the Chiapas countryside. After that, we would drive down to the Pacific coast to explore a mangrove forest and enjoy the comforts of a small beach resort. The mangrove forest and the beach resort sounded great although I was a little unsure about how the horseback section would go.
Photographing a horseback adventure presents several problems. The number one problem for me was that I had virtually no experience riding horses, let alone photographing from the top of a moving one. I knew that things were going to get interesting.
With the horses saddled up and ready to go, we took off riding through the countryside. Since my job was to document this adventure, not just enjoy it, I was already feeling the pressure. Right away I realized the limitations of photographing from a moving horse. You can only bring a limited amount of gear and the constant action of bouncing up and down makes it very difficult to compose shots. Combine all that with learning to ride a horse and you have a recipe for disaster.
Riding my horse on a dirt road through the Chiapas countryside
As we trotted through the stunning scenery I did my best to take what pictures I could. I knew I wasn’t going to get much but I had to get something. About halfway through the day I discovered that I could have, in fact, been in the back of a pickup truck the entire time chasing the group and getting tons of shots. Unfortunately, this wasn’t communicated to me at the beginning of the day so I was stuck on the horse and had to make the best of it.
Riders on a dirt road in the Chiapas countryside
By mid-afternoon we had completed our first day of riding. We sat down to a magnificent lunch with fresh fish and traditional Mexican cuisine. From there we were driven back to the hacienda to relax from the day’s events. As everyone headed into their rooms, Juan and Gloria informed me that they were headed into the nearby town of Cintalapa de Figueroa to pick up some supplies. They also told me it would be a great location for photographs. I jumped at the opportunity.
Two smiling women relax by their snack stand in Cintalapa de Figueroa
Cintalapa de Figueroa was beautiful and quaint. We walked around the square and visited several shops and markets that made for excellent imagery. I started feeling much better knowing I had some shots under my belt.
A traditional hat shop in Cintalapa de Figueroa
After we returned to the hacienda I could tell it was important that I had made the trip with Juan and Gloria to photograph Cintalapa de Figueroa. Juan explained to me that the town was not a tourist destination and he was looking to change all that. It was easy to see why. The friendly people, warm atmosphere and old-world culture created an environment that any traveler would welcome.
The next day I awoke, eager to get out and start shooting. I only had one day left to capture the horseback portion of our adventure and I really needed to nail it. Luckily I had access to a pickup truck that I would be riding around in shooting from the tailgate. The day went much better. We traveled through more amazing countryside passing old hacienda ruins, small villages and spectacular vistas. For any avid equestrian it would be the trip of a lifetime.
Horses and their riders approach a herd of cattle
Two horses looking through a fence
Juan and Gloria ride their horses on a trail through the Chiapas countryside
One of our guides, Oliverio, takes a well deserved swim with his horse
We finished the ride and headed back to the hacienda to grab our belongings and drive down to the coast.
After several hours of driving towards the Pacific Ocean, we pulled into a fairly obscure dirt parking lot in the beginnings of a mangrove forest. We were greeted by several nice young men who loaded us and our gear into a small boat. After a quick ride through the mangrove forest and across a fairly large channel we arrived at a small peninsula of land with a dirt path leading to the ocean. I headed down the path following the sound of the surf. It only took me a second to realize that I was in absolute paradise and life was about to be really good.
The endless beach in beautiful afternoon light in Madresal
After being given a key to my own private bungalow steps away from the beach, I dropped my luggage, grabbed my camera and started shooting. The light was already as close to perfect as it gets and the setting was surreal.
As the sun set, we sat down at a table, literally on the beach, and were treated to yet another amazing meal including fresh fish and exquisite local cuisine. Of course, we also had a few cervesas!
Beach, surf and sky
Dinner progressed and a large well-dressed man approached our table to introduce himself. It turned out he was the mayor of Madresal, the small town that was just across the water from the resort. He and his wife had come over to thank all of us for taking the time to visit his beautiful town and country. It was immediately obvious that he wanted to get the word out to people in the rest of the world that they needed to come experience Madresal and all it has to offer. I couldn’t agree with his sentiment more.
Just when I thought the night was winding down, several of the resort’s staff approached our table to let us know that there was a surprise waiting for us down on the beach. I had no idea what that meant but I did know I probably should have my camera.
We walked in the direction of the crashing surf towards a large group of people. As I came upon the group I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked down to see two large buckets filled with twelve hundred baby sea turtles that we were about to release into the ocean. It was incredible!
Children use flashlights to examine two containers filled with twelve hundred baby sea turtles
A baby sea turtle sits in the palm of someone's hand before it is released into the ocean
After we released all of the turtles into the ocean, I returned to my bungalow and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves and a calm ocean breeze.
Early the next morning we met at the boat dock for the final portion of our adventure. We were traveling by boat through a magnificent mangrove forest to view thousands of birds and hopefully spot some crocodiles. Again, we were not disappointed.
Traveling by boat through the mangrove forest
A flock of Great Egrets soar through the air
Our guides skillfully navigated our small boats through a virtual maze of channels deep into the heart of the mangrove forest. The cries of thousands of birds served as the backdrop to this amazing experience. While we did spot a few crocodiles, they definitely wanted to keep to themselves and we never got close enough to get any good photos of them.
After touring the mangrove forest, we returned to the resort and got to relax for a few hours. With all my shots in the bag I took the opportunity to take a well-deserved nap in the hammock provided in my bungalow. It was the perfect end to the perfect adventure.
Children play soccer on the beach at sunset
Later that day my companions and I were dropped off in San Cristobal where we spent the next four days attending the ATTA’s Adventure Travel World Summit. Over 50 countries were represented and I had the pleasure of meeting and networking with amazing people from all over the world excited about adventure travel. I also had the opportunity to photograph Felipe Calderon (the president of Mexico), sip tequila with a remarkable group of new friends and explore the fantastic cultural hub of San Cristobal. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Next year the summit is in Switzerland and you can bet that I will be there!
The famous Cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas illuminated at dusk, Chiapas, Mexico
To learn more about Enduro Equestre and the trips they offer visit their website at: