The PNW Chronicles: The Mountains (Part I)

In Gallery Collection, General, PNW, Show and Tell, Tips and tricks, Travel by jfischer1 Comment

Welcome to the first of a short series of posts I am embarking on to not only re-kick start my activity here on JonPFischer.com, but also to document some of the spectacular places I visited during my 2014 trip to Oregon and Washington state.  Instead of trying to go through the trip from day-to-day, I thought instead I would focus on the various subjects I aimed my camera at and discuss a little about the challenges each brought, the beauty I was able to witness and capture, and probably a little about the post processing work as well.

Mt. St. Helens

With the trip kicking off in Seattle, my first destination was to see Mt. St. Helens for the first time in better than 20 years.  The last time my family and I visited it was still mostly a desolate wasteland from the eruption not too many years earlier.  Today however the life and green have returned to the area, and while it has been no doubt forever changed, the scars are far less obvious to those who are not looking for them.

St. Helens
Mt St. Helens in the distance with the valley it forever changed reaching out before it. – taken from one of the many turn off overlooks along the Spirit Lake Highway leading to Johnston Ridge Observatory

Now anyone who’s done any sort of landscape photography work knows, there are only two times a day to take landscape photos, those are the Golden Hours.  About a half hour before sunrise till about an hour after, and then the same just around sunset.  This photo, as one can probably tell, was most certainly not taken during one of those two times.  Deep dark shadows and high contrast abound within the image.  So why am I bothering to share it at all?  Well first, I was only at St. Helens for an hour or so during the mid afternoon and don’t have any spectacular golden light photos to use instead – and the photo does have other things going for it.  First is a good solid foreground (the trees and shrubs at the bottom), which helps give a sense of scale as the image falls away to the valley floor far below.  Second the valley winds its way in an S-curve up to the crater in the distance, drawing the eye up towards it.  Lastly, I was thankful that St. Helens it self was not in shadow from the clouds, ensuring that it is one of the brightest parts of the photo which also helps draw the eye.

For those considering a visit –  Mt. St. Helens is located in southern Washington State, it’s about a three and a half hour drive down to Mt. St. Helens from the Seattle area, less so from Portland.  I highly recommend budgeting enough time to drive all the way out to the Observatory if you can, or better yet get a hike in. There are pull outs and interpretive signs all along the highway leading from Interstate 5 to the Observatory – in addition to Hoffstadt Creek Bridge that in itself is an interesting photo subject.  Spirit Lake Highway generally travels eastward with lots of twists and bends, and the cratered of the mountain faces north, a morning sunrise would be over the top of the mountain looking down the valley, while an evening shoot with good clouds would yield some great light.

Mt. Hood

Anyone who has seen more than a half-dozen photos from Oregon has probably seen a photo of Mt. Hood.  It is the dominate peak in the northern half of the state, which happens to also be where one of the largest cities is situated – Portland.  Views of Mt. Hood are seen from the city itself, along the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, towering over the small lakes fed by the run-off from the mountain itself, and always playing peak-a-boo with travelers as they wind their way through the region.  That is, if the mountain isn’t completely shrouded by low clouds.  Which it very much often is, just like its northern cousin Mt. Rainier.  My travel plans devoted one late afternoon and evening and then the following morning to shooting in the Mt. Hood area.  I had built a list of various shooting locations I could choose from based on weather and such.  Ultimately 90% of my shots came from around the Trillium Lake area, starting from near the boat ramp and venturing up and down the shoreline from there.

Getting a clear shot of Mt. Hood takes one of two things – incredible luck, or constant effort.  For someone traveling from half way across the country, I was going to have to count on the first of those two if I was to get compelling views of the peak.  Thankfully for me, I did have that luck.  Twice.
Mt. Hood in the morning
Mt. Hood in the morning from Trillium Lake – the fishing dock seen in this photo was too busy for most of the time I was there to use as a shooting location, and I prefer to get down closer to the water to have a stronger foreground.

The photo at the top of this post is from Trillium Lake in the late evening, a hint of aspen glow on the peak, enhanced a tad in Nik Color Efex Pro 4.  See that silky reflection of the mountain on what seems like almost a sheet of frosted glass.  Well let me tell you, that water’s surface wasn’t quite that smooth as I stood there watching the light fade.  That is a 25 second long exposure, without any clouds in the sky to show movement, and the pine trees too far to really show any minor blur, only the water was left to be smoothed out into a nice reflective surface.  If you want a shoot with a perfectly mirror perfect reflection, you’re going to have to be there at dawn or have the kind of luck that is better spent at playing the lottery.  The next morning the water was indeed far calmer, but even as the sun was just starting to rise so was the wind.  The photo above is only a 1.3 second long exposure, enough to take the edge off the ripples, but not enough to blur them away.

Mt. Hood in the morning
Mt. Hood in the morning from Trillium Lake v.2

From almost the exact spot as the evening photo, this shot is from the next morning.  Sunlight is starting to light up the right side of the towering peak and a little patience paid off with a better reflection with only a 1/3″ exposure time.  Look closely and you’ll see a couple of float tubes out on the lake with fisherman hoping to land a trout.

Trillium Lake is one of the iconic spots to get a reflection view of Mt. Hood, being lucky enough to get a clear view of the mountain was only part of the challenge, the other was capturing both the scale of the view as well as not falling completely into the “it’s been shot a million times before” trap.  Ultra wide-angle lenses are great, but you do have to take care with your compositions to ensure that the sense of scale and size is preserved.

Another problem for me was that the weather was almost TOO good.  Nearly perfectly clear skies, especially in the evening were great later when I went up the mountain to photograph the Milky Way, but didn’t produce much in the way of color or interest beyond the peak.  Also caused some color banding in the sky as the wide-angle lens picked up varying amounts of light through the clear skies.  The next morning was a little better, but mixed in with what clouds there were, airliners flying overhead and left a number of contrails which I opted to discretely remove.

Mt. Hood in the evening
“A long way from where they started” – Could have used a gradient ND filter in this shot to get more light down low, or maybe a little light painting on the foreground rocks.  At the end of the day, some lightroom help brought up the exposure enough to pull it out of the shadows.  10-stop ND filters sometimes cause some unexpected results. 

I’d like to think that the two rocks pictured in the foreground once started out up at the top of that peak somewhere.  The truth, who knows.  What I do know is that this shot took a full 75 seconds of shutter time to smooth out the water, and you guessed it, it was from the evening series of shots.  Proof that even really long exposures can’t always produce a reflection if there’s not enough calmness between the waves.

I’ll wrap up this Part I the way it started – with a photo taken outside of those golden hours around dawn and dusk.  Seemed like a fitting end cap.  And there are only so many shots of one mountain from one lake you can throw at a blog post.  I actually turned around and drove back at least a half mile to this spot to get this photo.  So it deserves to be seen.

Mt. Hood
Somewhere on the road from Government Camp up to Hood River.  A few good vantage points along the way, this was the only one I felt compelled to turn around for.  Hopped over the guardrail to get as clear of view to the stream below as I could (or would dare)

Next postPNW: The Mountains (Part II).  I’ll try to keep it a bit more varied than this post.  Appearances by Jefferson, Rainier, and a whole stack of ridges that fade off into the distance.  I might even throw in that shot of the galaxy I mentioned above.