Sunday, December 7, 2008

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

I first heard about the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park through a friend. He told me about this park, famous for miles and miles of dirt roads (five hundred miles to be precise) and close to the Salton Sea. Over the past weekend, I decided to take a short trip and check it out. Anza-Borrego lies Southeast of LA and is a 3 hour drive along the I-15S and CA-79 routes. The drive along CA-79 is very scenic, and in particular while approaching the park along Montezuma Valley Road.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Unlike most other parks, there is no fee to enter Anza-Borrego. The town of Borrego Springs is located within the park and has a few restaurants and a couple of gas stations. The visitor's center lies to the west of the town along Palm Canyon Road. Incidentally, Borrego Springs is the first town in California, where I have come across a traffic roundabout, known as the Christmas Circle.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The park is beautiful and as mentioned earlier, has a lot of dirt roads that lead to incredible vistas. Fonts Point, probably the most prominent viewpoint, provides a good view of the Borrego Badlands and the valley below and can be reached by a four-mile drive on a primitive (read dirt) road. Park rangers advise not to attempt driving on that road without a four-wheel drive vehicle. Coyote Canyon and Palm Canyon offer great hiking and riding trails. Traveling east along the S22, you can see Truckhaven Rocks which are sandstone slabs inclined at an angle. This seems to be a hot tourist destination too and I saw a lot of people taking pictures. I did not have time to check out the Desert Gardens and the Mud Caves.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Unfortunately, I traveled in my dinky car and was unable to check out most of the touristy destinations which are only accessible via dirt roads. To really appreciate Anza-Borrego, you would need a 4WD. Anza-Borrego is a picturesque park that deserves to be on your list of travel destinations.

Camping at Anza-Borrego

There are a few campgrounds in Anza-Borrego. I chose to stay at Tamarisk Grove which lies to the south of Borrego Springs. The campground has around 27 sites with restrooms and hot showers. It is one of the better campgrounds I have visited and I really enjoyed my stay there. Reservations for this campground can be made at Reserve America.

Tamarisk Grove Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Joshua Tree National Park, CA


Sunset from Keys View
Sunset from Keys View

I first visited Joshua Tree National Park over ten years ago. I was visiting my sister in LA for a few weeks and after watching endless hours of mindless tv, I asked her to take me to Joshua Tree. We left LA around 10am or so and arrived at the park around 2pm (after making the customary stop to grab a Big Mac). We had barely spent 20 minutes in the park- driven a few miles in the park and taken a couple of photos, when we decided to head back to LA. Joshua Tree park, it seemed, did not hold our interest. After all, we had better things to do in LA- like watching mindless tv! Since then, I have always remembered Joshua Tree as this arid, barren park which had not appealed to me.

Moonset from Keys View
Moonset from Keys View

Fast forward a few years. I moved to LA in the fall of 2006 and the travel bug bit me big time. The problem was that the only national park within a couple of hours driving distance was Joshua Tree. Even though I had not so pleasant memories of my previous trip, I decided to go to the park once again. The rationale being that if I did not like the park, I could always swing by Palm Springs or better still, do some mindless shopping at the outlet malls.

Full Moon at Cap Rock
Full Moon at Cap Rock

The park has three main entrances- one each from the West, North and South. Since I was driving from LA, taking the 10E, I decided to enter the park from the West entrance. The drive by the way, is really scenic, especially as one meanders between the windmills on the 10 freeway, just before exiting onto CA62 (which leads to the park).

Sunrise at Joshua Tree
Sunrise at Joshua Tree

At the entrance I was convinced by a very happy park ranger (I was able to count all of her pearly whites) to get an annual pass which would allow me entry into all the national and some state parks (the pass is called 'America the Beautiful' and is probably one of the best purchases I have made. I strongly believe in supporting the national park service and this pass is a bargain at an $80 value). This time around though, I was struck by the stark beauty of the park. I guess the last time I wasn't really 'looking'.

Star Trails at Joshua Tree
Star Trails at Joshua Tree

I think the best way to see this park is to drive from one end of the park to the other. Driving east from the West entrance along Park Boulevard, one can see lots of interesting rock formations and undulating landscapes. After crossing Hidden Valley campground, you can stop by to visit Keys Ranch and Barker Dam. South of Hidden Valley at Cap Rock, the road forks with the south segment leading to the Lost Horse Mine and Keys View, which offers spectacular views of the valley below. I have always obtained great shots from Keys View- whether it be sunrise or sunset. From Keys View one can see the San Jacinto Mountains and Palm Springs. Take it from me- Keys View is a must see and if you can stay on for the sunset or get there for the sunrise, you will be very happy.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park

Traveling east along Park Boulevard, you can check out Jumbo and Skull rocks. Skull rock is a pretty interesting rock formation that looks like- you guessed it- a skull! A lot of people spend some time here hiking or just chilling out (especially in the afternoons and evenings). Past Skull rock you can either go North towards the entrance or choose to go South towards Cottonwood. As you head South towards Cottonwood, the change in the scenery is quite dramatic, especially past the Cholla Cactus Gardens (which are really beautiful). The landscape starts to get pretty barren and flat especially in the Pinto Basin area. Incidentally, Pinto Basin is a great place to photograph wildflowers in the spring.

Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Gardens

While heading towards the park's exit, stop to see Cottonwood Spring and the Lost Palm Oasis. There is also a visitor center at this point with restrooms etc. The park does not have any shops or restaurants, so make sure you come with food supplies and plenty of water (particularly in the summer months).

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park

Since my second visit to Joshua Tree in early 2007, I have been there around six to seven times- the more I visit it, the more I like it. It should definitely be on your must see list should you be in the area (or even LA- it is after all only a three hour drive from LA).

Camping at Joshua Tree

There are nine campgrounds in Joshua Tree. Most of these are on a first-come first-served basis (viz. Belle, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, and White Tank. The Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds are first-come, first-served only during the summer months). I personally really like the Indian Cove campground (the only drawback being that vehicular access is from outside the park). Indian Cove is famous for its rocks and a lot of campers spend time climbing and hiking. Some of the campsites here are HUGE! At under $20 a night for a campsite, it's a great deal.

Rock Climbing at Joshua Tree
Rock Climbing at Indian Cove Campground

Booking for Indian Cove and Black Rock campgrounds can be made either via the phone or the internet. These two campgrounds may be reserved from September through the Memorial Day weekend up to six months in advance of the date you want to reserve.

Camping at Joshua Tree
Camping at Indian Cove Campground

So what are you waiting for? Grab your tent, sleeping bag and camera, and head out to Joshua Tree. Even Bono would approve!
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Monday, December 1, 2008

Photographing Star Trails


Joshua Tree Star Trails

I have always been fascinated with Star Trails. It was only a few months ago that I shot my first star trail at Sequoia National Park. This past week, I decided to head out to Joshua Tree National Park, CA to practice this technique. I arrived at Joshua Tree the morning of Thanksgiving (yeah, yeah, yeah!) and after setting up camp, I headed out to the park around 2:30 pm to scout locations for the evening shoot. I must have spent around two hours driving through the park and came upon a few locations that had great potential for the shoot. Was I a happy camper or what? What could possibly go wrong? I had my locations marked, my camera was raring to go, it was a beautiful new moon night with clear skies- the Gods were with me! Or so it seemed.

Death Valley Star Trails

After eating dinner, I headed back to the park around 9 pm. As I drove through the park, I realized how very different it looked at night and since I had not clearly marked the exact locations that I had scouted earlier that morning, I did not know where to stop my car or position my camera. It was pitch dark and after an hour of driving aimlessly, I gave up and returned to my campsite. Lesson learned. The next morning I headed out to the park- this time though I noted the exact locations that I wanted to use for my shoots (I even noted down the GPS coordinates- okay maybe I went a little overboard). My OCD paid off as I was able to find the locations I wanted and got some decent shots.

Joshua Tree Star Trails

Here is my recipe for shooting star trails:

  • Plan on shooting star trails when the moon has set or during a new moon (you can get the moon phases from sites like Sunrise Sunset). You don't want any moonlight in the sky as that will wash out the star trails and will lead to an overexposed image (considering the length of time we intend to keep the shutter open to capture decent star trails)
  • I always try and shoot after 11 pm or 12 am to avoid interference from planes flying overhead. Post 12 am the frequency of the flights drops and you won't get too much interference in your shot from the navigation lights of the 'birds'
  • Do your homework earlier in the day and mark the spots where you think you want to shoot. I like to shoot star trails with the North Star in the frame. Since the earth's axis points N/S, the north star will appear static while all the other stars will appear to revolve around it (due to the rotation of the earth). That is why we get these awesome circular patterns whenever we have the North Star (Polaris) in the frame
  • If using a digital camera, lower ambient temperature, will result in less noisy images that don't suffer too much from hot pixels. Some photographers suggest that one take multiple shots of short durations (say 40 shots of 30 seconds duration) and then stack them up into one shot of 20 minutes duration. This technique will lead to lower noise. Alternatively, one can shoot a long exposure of say 20 to 40 minutes (or longer) and then use dark frame subtraction to eradicate hot pixels (i.e. take the shot and then immediately take another shot of the same duration, but with the lens cap covering the lens. The idea is that any hot pixels that showed up in the first shot, will now be captured in this second shot too. Using software, one can then map these hot pixels out from the original photograph). Most modern digital SLRs can do this for you (look for a feature called LENR- Long Exposure Noise Reduction). Remember that by enabling this feature, the camera will take a second shot of the same duration
  • Set the camera on a tripod
    Death Valley Star Trails
  • Set the focus to infinity. Sometimes the infinity mark on the lens barrel will not correspond to true infinity, resulting in out of focus shots. There are a couple of ways to get around this. You could focus on a distant object during daytime (you will not be able to focus in the dark) and mark the position of the infinity symbol on the lens. Alternatively you could just focus on a distant object during daytime and then not touch the lens till you shoot the stars in the evening (I prefer the former method as my camera is free to shoot other things. Besides it is very likely that the focus ring might get disturbed before the shoot). Remember to switch the camera to manual focus
  • Keep the ISO at 100 to 200 (I shoot at my camera's base ISO of 200)
  • Set the shutter speed to the 'bulb' mode. You can buy cheap remotes or wired triggers for your camera from ebay (Phottix is a good brand that has served me well). This way you can release the shutter with the remote and keep it open for the duration you want.
  • Set the aperture to say F2.8 or F4. In my experience on a completely dark night, you should get a decently exposed shot using a shutter speed of 20 to 25 minutes and an aperture of F4. Experiment from there and see what works for you. Needless to say, you will get better star trails if you expose for a longer duration
  • If your camera has a viewfinder eyepiece cap, slip that on (to prevent any light leakage- from your torch or a passing vehicle)
    Sentinel Dome Star Trails

I normally will take a quick exposure for around 3 minutes with the aperture at F4 or F5.6 (or whatever aperture you want) and with my ISO at around 3200, just to check if the focus is accurate (you can then zoom in the picture using the LCD to check if it looks sharp). This is also a good way to determine your exposure. Let's say you set the aperture to F4, the ISO to 3200 and shoot for 3 minutes. Check to see if the focus is accurate and also to see if the exposure is correct (the image will be very noisy, but you will get a good idea of the exposure). If it looks underexposed, then shoot again, but this time for 4 minutes. If the exposure is now accurate, then you can determine the correct shutter speed for your base ISO. Let's say your base ISO is 200 (remember that the lower the ISO, the less the noise in long exposures)- the difference between ISO 200 and ISO 3200 is 4 stops (400, 800, 1600, 3200). So if you now set the ISO to 200 for a relatively noise free image, then you must compensate by adjusting the shutter speed 4 stops. If the initial shutter speed (at ISO 3200) was 3 minutes, then you should set the shutter speed to 48 minutes (6m, 12m, 24m, 48m) to get the same exposure at ISO 200.


Joshua Tree Star Trails

That's it! You are all set. Take the photograph and enjoy the results.
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