Land of the Hoodoos: Bryce Canyon National Park

Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce who ranched in the area described the canyon that bears his name as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”.

Bryce Canyon isn’t really a canyon. Rather it is a “break” or series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters carved from the eastern slope of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Bryce Canyon isn’t really a canyon. Rather it is a “break” or series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters carved from the eastern slope of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the rest of the world knows the canyon as a vast wonderland of brilliant-colored spires, rising like sentinels into the clear sky above.

An immigrant from Scotland, Ebenezer Bryce established a homestead in the Paria Valley in 1875. Bryce was sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because his skill as a carpenter would be useful in settling the area. Locals started calling the canyon with the strange rock formations near his home “Bryce’s Canyon.”

Bryce Canyon isn’t really a canyon. Rather it is a “break” or series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters carved from the eastern slope of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah.

The Navajo Loop descends between narrow 200-foot canyon cliffs as it passes two 500- to 700-year-old Douglas firs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Navajo Loop descends between narrow 200-foot canyon cliffs as it passes two 500- to 700-year-old Douglas firs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Erosion has shaped colorful Claron limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into thousands of nature-chiseled spires, fins, pinnacles, and mazes. Collectively called “hoodoos”, these unique formations are whimsically arranged and tinted with colors too numerous and subtle to name.

Bryce Canyon’s warm days and cold nights result in more than 200 days a year in which accumulated rainwater completes a freeze-thaw cycle. During the day, water seeps into cracks in the rocks, and then at night, it freezes and expands. As this process repeats, it breaks apart weak rock, and over time, chisels the unusual formations.

The rim of the canyon is between 8,000 to 9,100 feet above sea level. In summer, daytime temperatures are in the 80s but fall to the 40s by night.

If you’re traveling through southern Utah, you’ll want to visit this land of the hoodoos.

The only access to Bryce Canyon is via Scenic Byway 12 (an All-American Road), which is a winding road that climbs to high elevations in spots. The entire highway is paved, well maintained, and kept open year-round.

The best place to begin a tour of the park is at the visitor center. Located just 1.5 miles inside the park, the visitor center provides maps and directions, plus information regarding weather, ranger activities, and the Junior Ranger program. There’s also a 20-minute orientation film and a museum with exhibits that display facets of the park’s geology, flora, fauna, and history.

Bryce is a compact park—just 56 square miles—which makes it easier to explore than many national parks in the West.

Hiking is the best way to experience the stunning mazes. The park has over 50 miles of hiking trails with a range of distances and elevation change. Most of the park’s trails range from half a mile to 11 miles and take less than a day to complete.

Erosion has shaped colorful Claron limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into thousands of nature-chiseled spires, fins, pinnacles, and mazes.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Erosion has shaped colorful Claron limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into thousands of nature-chiseled spires, fins, pinnacles, and mazes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most trails descend into the canyon and wind around the oddly shaped formations. In just a few hours on the trail, you can experience Bryce Canyon’s spectacular scenery.

But a word of caution: Many trails that descend to the bottom are moderate to steep, making the return part of the hike—which is uphill—the most strenuous. Bryce’s high elevation requires extra exertion, so assess your ability and know your limits. Wear hiking boots with good tread and ankle support and carry plenty of drinking water to avoid dehydration.

A prime viewpoint, Bryce Amphitheater is one of the most spectacular viewing areas in the national park system. Bryce Amphitheater is the park’s largest amphitheater and can be viewed from several points—Bryce, Inspiration, Sunset, and Sunrise points.

Sunset Point begins the trailhead for the popular 1.3-mile Navajo Loop which descends through Wall Street. There, hikers travel between the narrow 200-foot canyon cliffs, and along the way pass by a miracle of nature—two 500- to 700-year-old Douglas firs that have managed to grow from the narrow slot canyon floor to reach the sliver of sunlight at the top.

If you're traveling through southern Utah, you'll want to visit this land of the hoodoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
If you’re traveling through southern Utah, you’ll want to visit this land of the hoodoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular activity is photography. The shutters work overtime at Bryce Canyon and for good reason. While many photos are taken during mid-day hours, the most dramatic images are captured during the early morning and late afternoon.

The late afternoon sun penetrates the narrow gorges, making scenery along the trails come alive. As sunset approaches, colors become muted.

To darken the sky and saturate colors use a polarizing filter.

Worth Pondering…

…a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.

—Zane Grey

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What Is Birding?

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done.

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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Shooting Wildlife With a Camera

Bird and animal photography, especially in the wild, can be quite challenging.

Notice how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Notice the smooth bokeh and how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name of the game in wildlife photography—whether you’re trying to capture an exotic bird in a national wildlife refuge or a giraffe in a city zoo or wildlife park—is patience.

Wild birds and animals will do what they’re going to do and no amount of coaxing will make them turn their head, look your way, open their mouth, do something cute, or move to better light.

You have to be there—and ready—when the photo op occurs. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait some more—it takes a long time to get good wildlife photos, even longer for great ones.

The best time for travel photography is either during the early morning or late afternoons and the same applies for birds and animals. Early morning is typically the best for wildlife photography because birds and animals are actively searching for food.

Maintaining fast shutter speeds, especially for birds in flight and small birds that move very quickly is essential—you cannot fix motion blur in post production. You need to completely freeze the action of the bird. To achieve this, set your shutter speed in a range from 1/800 to 1/1600 or even faster for birds in flight.

Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A tripod or a monopod is highly recommended for early morning and late afternoon photography when slower shutter speeds are required due to less available light.

Always focus on the nearest (to the viewer) eye of the bird. It is acceptable to have a blurred tail or other parts of the bird, but at least one eye always needs to be in focus and sharp. For birds in flight, focus on the bird’s head or chest—whichever provides better contrast for the camera autofocus system.

Choose your background carefully to achieve a smooth bokeh (or boke, a Japanese word meaning blur). Photos with objects behind the bird are not as visually appealing as images with an out-of-focus or blurry background. This is achieved by a shallow depth of field when relatively close to the subject while using a large aperture.

Get up close. Use a photo blind whenever possible. One of the best blinds is your RV or car; you’re able to get relatively close to a bird or animal without departing your vehicle. Birds are generally not scared of cars and you can drive up fairly closely and take some amazing shots.

Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
You have to shoot a lot of photos to manage one or two keepers. Pictured above Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You need a good telephoto lens to get close enough to make the image interesting. Zoom in and focus on the head of the bird or animal.

In general, good photos result from careful attention to some basic elements of composition—the placement of the objects in the photo. Frame your subject carefully, try to put the main point of attraction at 1/3 or 2/3 of the image (remember the rule of thirds).

Shoot from the birds eye level, images from the same level with your subject will look more natural and attractive.

When visiting a bird sanctuary or zoo, you may get the chance for some stunning photographs of birds and animals at close range. With patience and practice, you can really do this nearly anywhere.

When you’re in the wild, and happen across birds or animals, you need to be ready to capture the image—even if it’s at a distance. Have your telephoto lens ready. Nothing shouts louder “boring photo” more than a tiny subject in the frame, so move in closer. With wild animals such as bear or moose be sure to maintain a safe distance.

This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing wildlife requires patience and skill. If you are a beginner, try easier subjects like robins or finches in your backyard or the park and birds in the zoo before heading out into the wild. Experiment with the shutter speed until you know what will give you the effect you want.

Be patient and let the birds come to you. You won’t get the perfect shot every time but with practice your photos will improve.

Worth Pondering…

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject that determines the interest of the photograph.

—Man Ray

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RV Travel Photography Tips

RV travel photography seems so simple.

Compose your photo simply. Remove all nonessential elements. Zoom in or move in. Photo above Fort Edmonton Historic Park, Edmonton, Alberta. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Compose your photo simply. Remove all nonessential elements. Zoom in or move in. Photo above Fort Edmonton Historic Park, Edmonton, Alberta. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What could be easier than traveling to a natural oasis full of majestic and spectacular beauty with a camera and a handful of memory cards and a spare battery and taking some amazing landscape photos?

But, when you arrive at your location, you find that it’s a lot harder to take a decent travel photo than it looks.

You take the RV trip of a lifetime with dreams of capturing those magical experiences. You anticipate a memory card full of captivating images to share with family and friends. But instead, you end up with mostly uninspiring photos that fail to do your adventure justice.

Digital is not difficult to shoot and good results are achievable, but one needs to know the basics of photography. Travel photography is easy once you master some basic techniques and secrets.

The combination of good lighting, the right exposure, and a suitable composition either make an photo outstanding or destroy it altogether.

By standing relatively close to the large rocks in the foreground I was able to accentuate them and lead the viewer’s eye into the middleground and mountains in the background. Also notice how the road in the middleground leads the viewer’s eyes through the image. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve
By standing relatively close to the large rocks in the foreground I was able to accentuate them and lead the viewer’s eye into the middleground and mountains in the background. Also notice how the road in the middleground leads the viewer’s eyes through the image. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The quality of light can make or break even the most carefully composed photo. The best light for landscapes occurs twice a day and is commonly referred to as the Golden Hour or Magic Hour. The Golden Hour is generally about an hour or so after sunrise and an hour or so before sunset.

In general, good photos result from careful attention to some basic elements of composition—the placement of the objects in the photo. It relies heavily on the photographer’s choice.

Photography is about seeing—how we COMPOSE what we see. In the process of making any photo, there are two important decisions to be made:

  • What to include in the frame
  • What to exclude from the frame
When you take a photo and choose where things are placed within the frame, know why you’re doing it. Photo above The Old Wine Truck at Red Rooster Winery in BC (British Columbia) Wine Country (Okanagan Valley). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
When you take a photo and choose where things are placed within the frame, know why you’re doing it. Photo above The Old Wine Truck at Red Rooster Winery in BC (British Columbia) Wine Country (Okanagan Valley). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember that less is more. Compose simply. Remove all nonessential elements.

Move closer. One of the most common mistakes of beginning photographers is to include too much in the photo. Help to draw attention to the most interesting part of a scene by subtracting anything that’s not interesting. Move in closer by getting closer, by getting lower, by whatever means it takes.

The Rule of Thirds is a powerful compositional technique for making photos more interesting and dynamic. The Rule of Thirds is based on the natural tendency of the human eye to be naturally drawn to a point about two-thirds up a page and towards sets of three. The Rule of Thirds states than a photo is most pleasing when its subjects are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds — both vertically and horizontally—so that you have nine parts.

We need to choose our composition carefully to convey the sense of depth that was present in the actual scene. Depth can be created in a photo by including objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground should provide a clear and interesting pathway into the scene and lead the viewer’s eyes into the background.

Rather than only shooting from eye level, also consider photographing from high above, down at ground level, from the side, from the back, from a distance, from close up, and so on.

Notice how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Notice how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try changing your point of view—get lower, get higher—and see how it affects your scene.

You drive up to the scenic lookout, get out of the vehicle, grab your camera, turn it on, walk up to the barrier, raise the camera to your eye, rotate left and right a little, zoom a little and take your shot before rushing off to the next scenic lookout.

However this process rarely leads to the WOW shot that we’re looking for.

Remember, taking digital photos costs nothing; so go out and experiment, shoot a lot, and see what you come up with.

Let’s not forget the most basic rule for shooting great photos: Take your camera with you everywhere you go…and take lots of photos.

You can’t “capture the moment” if you don’t have your camera.

Worth Pondering…

No matter how advanced your camera you still need to be responsible for getting it to the right place at the right time and pointing it in the right direction to get the photo you want.

—Ken Rockwell

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Freelancing & The RV Lifestyle

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars”.

RV Home OfficeThe above Jack Kerouac quote is quite resonant of our approach to RV travel and freelancing on the road. Rather than trying to achieve something by traveling, we look at RV travel as our lifestyle. We look for new experiences—the opportunity to explore the natural and man-made wonders of the US and Canada.

In this world of online magazines, guest posting, and columns, the line between journalist and blogger has become blurred. These days, if you enjoy writing, you can find paid work writing for websites and it’s a great way to support your RV travels.

If you’re going to start looking for paid writing gigs online, you’ll need to know where to look. First, determine what you’re passionate about. Whatever your passion may be, you’ll have more success finding work if you write about something you enjoy, rather than simply searching for the highest profits.

Since you’re reading this site, I’ll assume your passion is RV travel. There are numerous online magazines, websites, blogs and journals that are willing to pay travel writers for their work.

Each website will have its own budget for paying writers, for example: Vogel On The Road’s budget is $0. But most larger publications will pay anywhere from $25-$250 for an article, though the average rate is between $50-$150. Expect to be paid at the lower end of this scale at first, and then as you build up a reputation on the site, the webmaster may be willing to pay you a bit more.

RV Home Office
RV Home Office (Source: fulltimeroadwarriors.com)

Bloggers have a definite advantage when it comes to freelancing. Not only do they have an online portfolio. Freelancing is also great for bloggers because if you have an online presence, you can link back to your site from articles you’ve written elsewhere on the web. Links are valuable; if you’re getting paid to write and getting links back to your site from reputable domains, it’s a win-win.

An essential for your mobile RV office is being able to maintain access to basic office electronics and services like a desktop or laptop computer, external hard drive, Internet, a digital camera, wireless printer, and a smart phone (or flip phone).

There are numerous options for obtaining Internet access while RVing. In fact, you may need to use more than one method when RVing.

Digital cameras and RVing is a natural fit. What could be more natural than keeping a visual record of your RV travels? You can immediately edit and resize images then post them on social media, send them as email attachments, or publish them on your blog.

Find the right smart phone plan. Select a smart phone contract that gives you long-distance and roaming anywhere in the country for one set price.

RV Home Office
RV Home Office (Source: rvweb.com)

For safety’s sake, use a separate external hard drive to backup all of your files and store your photos. That way, if your computer’s hard drive crashes, you’ll still have everything on another drive—and be able to carry on.

Although working as a freelancer sounds tempting, it is not for everyone. Consider the following questions:

  • Are you going to work if nobody is telling you to do so?
  • Can you live with the uncertainty of not earning a steady income?
  • Can you live with not knowing where your income will come from next month?
  • Are you willing to dedicate a substantial amount of time to applying for assignments, customer relations, and following up with clients?
  • Are you willing to meet deadlines even if it means working all night and drinking substantial amounts of coffee?
  • Can you motivate yourself to complete your work assignments?
  • Do you have finely honed time management skills?
RV Home Office
RV Home Office (Source: pinterest.com)

Yes, you can take your life and work wherever your RV takes you.

Worth Pondering…

If you dig deep and keep peeling the onion, artists and freelance writers are the leaders in society—the people who start to get new ideas out.

—Allan Savory

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Family Vacation Photos Subject to Tax & Fines

Taking photos from your phone now poses a serious risk to your pocket book.

National Forest land along the Apache Trail, Arizona).
National Forest land along the Apache Trail, Arizona). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Believe it or not, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is finalizing plans to fine photographers who shoot on federal wild lands without a permit.

Under the measure, still photography and commercial filming in Congress-designated wilderness areas would require a permit, and shoots would also have to be approved and meet certain criteria like not advertising any product or service and being educational.

These policies would require journalists to apply for a $1500 permit to photograph the 36 million acres of designated wilderness area administered by the USFS, reports Oregon Live.

These new rules would also make it illegal for independent photographers to take photos or shoot video (even with a camera phone) and would result in a fine of $1000 per shot. This even includes family vacation pictures! If you uploaded 10 photos to Facebook from a family vacation the government then fines you $10,000.

Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said in a statement the directive has been in place for more than four years and “is a good faith effort to ensure the fullest protection of America’s wild  places.”

National forest lands at Brasstown Bald, North Carolina.
National forest lands at Brasstown Bald, Georgia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Liz Close, the Forest Service’s acting wilderness director, says the restrictions are meant to preserve the untamed character of the country’s wilderness.

Close didn’t cite any real-life examples of why the policy is needed or what problems it’s addressing. She didn’t know whether any media outlets had applied for permits in the last four years.

She said the agency was implementing the Wilderness Act of 1964, which aims to protect wilderness areas from being exploited for commercial gain.

“It’s not a problem, it’s a responsibility,” she said. “We have to follow the statutory requirements.”

Exploiting public lands with a camera? Really?

The Forest Service’s previous rules caused a fuss in 2010, when the agency refused to allow an Idaho Public Television crew into a wilderness area to film student conservation workers. The agency ultimately caved to pressure from Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Critics have characterized the rules as too vague and say it infringes on the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

Cradle of Forestry, North Carolina
Cradle of Forestry, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights

“I am very concerned about the implications this has for Americans’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press,” U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) wrote in a letter to Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell.

“It is also very troubling that journalists could be held to different standards at the discretion of the issuing officer depending on the content of their stories and its relevance to wilderness activity.”

Walden said he worried access might be granted “based on political calculations” and noted a majority of Oregon land is controlled by the federal government.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also voiced concern for the policy.

“The Forest Service needs to rethink any policy that subjects noncommercial photographs and recordings to a burdensome permitting process for something as simple as taking a picture with a cell phone,” he told Oregon Live.

“Especially where reporters and bloggers are concerned, this policy raises troubling questions about inappropriate government limits on activity clearly protected by the First Amendment.”

Most of the country’s wilderness is in the West. Nearly 50 wilderness areas have been designated in Oregon, including wide stretches of land around Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Washington.

National Forest Land enroute to Fish Lake, Utah
National Forest Land enroute to Fish Lake, Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights

The rules allow exceptions only for breaking news coverage of events like fires and rescues. They’re more stringent than similar policies on wilderness areas managed by a different federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM does not require any special permit for newsgathering in wilderness areas.

The Forest Service is currently accepting public comment on its proposal.

Worth Pondering…

Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization.
—Charles Lindbergh

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Bird Photography is What I like to Do

With binoculars, scopes, and gazes turned to the skies, birders are often easier to spot than their feathered friends.

Green jay takes a bath in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters for World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Green jay takes a bath in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters for World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the U.S. and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

According to an U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy.
Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

Getting Started

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Field Guides

Using one or more field guides are also recommended.

The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Sibley Guide to Birds

Eastern and Western editions of The Sibley Field Guide of Birds of North America.
Eastern and Western editions of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder.

The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in Canada and the United States. If you have more than a passing fancy, it’s well worth owning. Its large size makes it generally impractical for use as a field guide. Alternately you may opt to purchase this guide in smaller Eastern and Western editions as we have.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done. Kenn Kaufman took the illustrations from photographs and digitally enhanced them to bring out the species characteristics. This field guide quickly became my reference guide of choice.

Record Keeping

Keep a list of the birds you’ve seen.

A great way for birders to keep track of the species they’ve seen is with a “life list”.

The standard procedure for recording a species you’ve seen for the first time is to include the common name, the date and time, and location. Special notes regarding identification, weather conditions, or unusual plumage are often useful for later reference.

Many birders maintain their list by recording their sightings in their favorite field guide. This is a handy approach, but more than one bird watcher has managed to lose a field guide, and also their life list at the same time.

Some birding websites also make it easy for you to maintain a life list directly on-line.

If you decide to become even more serious about keeping lists of the birds you have seen, there are several PC-based packages that make it easy to create and manage your lists.

Birding with a Camera

Bird Photographers wait in predawn light for the sandhill cranes lift-off at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Bird Photographers wait in predawn light for the sandhill cranes lift-off at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small but increasing number of birders have started to combine photography with their love of birdwatching.

It has been my experience that birding groups aren’t overly photography friendly.

Birdwatching runs at a faster pace and photographers are often considered a slowing threat for the listing expectations of the group. With their high powered scopes birders don’t require the same proximity to birds as do photographers.

As a result of past experiences I now tend to avoid groups of birders or at least maintain a distant presence. However, my encounters with individual birders have been pleasant and meaningful often sharing insights into our particular focus.

Although I deeply enjoy birding, I still consider myself first and foremost a photographer and writer. As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

I now take photos of birds with two purposes in mind.

Identification

The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I rarely carry binoculars with me. I can more quickly find a bird and observe it with the telephoto lens on my Canon D-SLR camera. When photographing a bird species for the first time, I’ll use my photo to help me identify the bird once the image has been downloaded to my computer.

Artistic Expression

Beyond and including simple identification, I want my photos to be artistic paying attention to form and composition, sharpness and exposure. I want to avoid compositions where the background will compete with the foreground for attention.

And that’s what gives me the greatest joy in photography and birding.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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Sharing Photos

The Digital Photography and RVing series will now focus on the final step of digital photography: Sharing photos.

Capture a digital image of your RV travels and experiences with your camera is but half of the fun and enjoyment.

The other half is sharing your images with family and friends. Once an image is the way you want it, there are numerous ways to display and share it:

  • Print your own photos on quality photo paper
  • Have your photos printed at a photo kiosk, or submit your images to an online photo print website; try different photo printing services and see which one you like best and keep your eye out for special offers and deals
  • Email photos to friends or family members
  • Post your photos on a social network site such as Facebook, Pineterest, or Google+
  • Copy photos to a CD or DVD
  • Upload the photos to a Photo Gallery

Photo Galleries

One of the best ways to share digital photos is to upload them to a Photo Gallery.

Photo sharing sites are often free, but some charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. Some subscription sites have a limited free version. Some free sites use photo sharing as a means to get users to order prints or other photo-embellished merchandise such as mouse pads and coffee mugs.

Popular photo sharing sites include: Picasa. If you use Picasa to organize and edit your photos then Picasa Web Albums is an ideal choice.

The site offers 1GB of storage on a free account and you can publish photos from Picasa to your web album with one click of the mouse. I use Picasa as my photo sharing site. It allows you to upload photo albums and determine who can view those albums.

Flickr from Yahoo is the most popular photo-sharing site. Flickr is the big one; everyone’s heard of it and the site has over 3 billion photos.

Think of it as a social-networking site for photo enthusiasts. You can connect with other members and join groups. You’ll also find discussion boards.

Since it’s owned by Yahoo, you’ll first require a Yahoo account. A basic account is free and allows you to upload 2 videos and 100MB of photos per month. A Pro account costs $24.95/year and allows unlimited photo and video uploading and unlimited storage, plus you can upload high-res originals and use Flickr to archive them.

Photobucket. Probably best known for photo gifts and prints, Photobucket has been around since 2003 and boasts 25 million visitors per month in the U.S. alone. It’s free account offers up to 1GB of space for photos and videos combined and up to 25GB of traffic per month. A Pro account costs $24.95/year and provides unlimited storage, plus 10 percent discount on prints and photo products.

Snapfish. Snapfish offers 20 FREE 4×6 mail-order prints with your first upload. Snapfish, a division of HP claims to be the number one online photo service, with more than 90 million members in over 20 countries and 2 billion unique photos stored online.

With Snapfish, you’ll enjoy secure, unlimited online photo sharing and storage, prints for as low as 9 cents each, over 100 customizable photo gifts, from display-quality photo books and posters to photo mugs and jewelry, free online photo editing tools.

Shutterfly. Excellent customer service makes Shutterfly a good choice for new users of online photo services. You can also send invitations to family and friends to look at your images. You can create a customized site with free, unlimited storage.

Shutterfly offers prints, photo books, greeting cards, and dozens of photo gifts suitable for any occasion but it doesn’t require purchases. It says it has never deleted a photo.

Kodak Gallery was a popular site until it closed July 2, 2012 when it announced that Shutterfly would now provide photo services for former Kodak Gallery customers including moving all Kodak Gallery photos to Shutterfly.

Fotolog. Fotolog claims to be the world’s leading photo-blogging site and one of the world’s largest social networking sites. More than 22 million members in over 200 countries use Fotolog as a simple and fun way to express themselves through online photo diaries or photo blogs.

Phanfare. Phanfare, a subscription-based service offers a 14-day free trial.

Worth Pondering…

A photograph that has not been shared or at least printed is almost an unexistent photograph, is almost an untaken picture.

—Sergio Geribay

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Backing Up Digital Photos

If there is a downside to shooting digital, it has to be the need for a reliable backup system.

I use a 3 terabyte Western Digital MyBook external hard drive

Back up your photos on a regular basis—copy them to another location in case of a hard-drive failure. This has to do with your long-term happiness.

We hear a lot about storage in the “cloud” recently. Storing photos and other files on remote servers sounds great in theory. You don’t have to maintain any hardware; just upload your photos to online services and you’re done.

But are you? I say in “theory,” because one backup really isn’t enough. Multiple backups should be a priority for every photographer.

A hard-drive crash is all that’s needed to erase years of memories.

Nobody backs up diligently enough until they lose their first important file.

I learned the hard way, as so many have, and now preach the good news of regular backup.

It’s not a matter of IF your hard drive will fail; it’s a matter of WHEN.

As a general rule, you should make two copies of your backup.

In case of a disaster, such as a fire, flood, or tornado, it’s best to store you photos in two different locations.

At the end of the day, you need to create a strategy that works for you based on price, need, and ease-of-use.

Your back-up options include:

CDs or DVDs

Since it’s hard to predict the future of technology trends, it is possible that DVDs will become obsolete and your data may be safe but unreadable.

External hard drive

The simplest backup method is to use an external hard drive so all your images are in one location. Choose a hard drive that is big enough to keep all your current and future images, or be prepared to upgrade your drive in the future.

I use a 3 terabyte Western Digital MyBook external hard drive. For big-time storage Western Digital has 6TB of storage available (My Book StudioII) and comes with a hefty price tag.

Data Storage Centers

Carbonite is an excellent easy to use online backup service

Data Storage Centers are the kings of backup. They are typically built in buildings that are safe from fire, earthquake, hurricanes, and tornados. The key point here is that they are off-site backup solutions so that even if your system was destroyed or stolen, your data remains safe.

Once it is set up, backups are automatic. You don’t have to think about it. And you never run out of space. On-line backup services include:

Carbonite, 15-day free trial; $54.95/year unlimited backup

Mozy; $6.95/month unlimited backup

IDrive; 5 GB free; 150 GB of storage space $4.95/month or US$49.50/year

Worth Pondering…

Photography is the power of observation, not the application of technology.

—Ken Rockwell.

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Editing Photos

The tweaking you can do to a digital image is almost endless.

GIMP, a free photo editing program, that does the work of Adobe CS. (Source: monsoonhub.org)

You have many choices when it comes to photo editing software but finding the right one for you is not always easy.

Not every photo editing program is right for everybody. Editing images is a skill. It takes time to learn.

Some programs provide a lot of help. These are great for beginners. But they tend to be light on features and tools.

Using more full-featured programs is like diving into the deep end. These are meant for serious enthusiasts.

I also use Picasa to edit my photos. Try it before putting out money for more complicated photo editing software.

Other photo editing software programs to consider follow:

Paint.net is a FREE image and photo editing program for computers that run Windows. This software performs many basic image editing tasks, works quickly, and mimics the tools and functions that are found in other image editors.

Paint.NET is free image editing and photo manipulation software designed to be used on computers that run Windows. It supports layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. (Source: avaxhome.ws)

It started development as an undergraduate college senior design project mentored by Microsoft, and is currently being maintained by some of the alumni that originally worked on it.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a FREE editing program that is very complex and powerful; and is similar to the full version of Photoshop. But be forewarned—it’s not for beginners.

Photobie is a FREE program that has tools for nearly any editing function you can think of. Photobie is image editing software that combines features amateurs can use with advanced tools professionals will appreciate.

Photobie is free for personal use with no Pro upgrade to pay for—all features are free. You can work with layers for more precision. And it can handle tons of file formats. Also, it has many preset filters. You can tweak images with just a few clicks. And the results look really good.

Purchase your own software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 10, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, Adobe Photoshop CS6, or Apple Aperture.

Now, a comment on Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is considered the gold standard in photo-editing software. It is so well known that Photoshop is often used as a verb.

Photoshop is high-end software aimed at professionals and other advanced photo enthusiasts.

You may be tempted to splurge on it. But, Photoshop is overkill for the average user. In fact, I would discourage most from buying the software.

The learning curve is steep. It is packed with all kinds of fancy features. You can use it to transform a photograph completely. Even some professionals struggle to master it.

That said, Photoshop may be the right program for you. It offers plenty of filters and correction tools. You can also work with layers. Layers let you stack different photos or multiple copies of the same photo. You can apply effects and settings on a layer-by-layer basis.

There are no other programs in the same class as Photoshop. However, GIMP comes close. And, GIMP is free!

The first thing to consider is ease of use.

The new Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 software will not work with Microsoft Windows XP or older 32-bit versions of the Apple OS X operating system. The new software requires a very modern operating system.

Before you pay money for a program, download a trial version. You’ll see exactly what you’re getting before you spend a dime. You can also test ease of use.

Try editing some of your photos. As with any program, there will be a learning curve.

If a program is difficult to use, the features don’t matter much. You’ll become frustrated with the program and won’t use it. Pass on any programs you find too difficult.

If a program seems easy to use, experiment with the features. Color balancing and light correction are essential. These will help you correct problems that are typical to digital photos.

Please Note: This is the thirty-fourth in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.

—Imogen Cunningham

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