In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

The Painted Hills

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, with desert candles, blazing stars, tansy phacelia, and hillside daisies, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, with desert candles, blazing stars, tansy phacelia, and hillside daisies, Carrizo Plain National Monument. I used a wide-angle lens (20mm) to be able to look down into the stand of flowers in the foreground and show more of the orange color (the blazing stars), while also including part of the colorful hillside in the background. 1/6 second at f/16, 800 ISO.

Many years ago – perhaps around 2005 – I saw a striking photograph of flowers in the Temblor Range, bordering the Carrizo Plain. I wanted to go there, and in April of 2006 I did, finding a route up the steep ridges of these mountains to a colorful hillside. The flowers weren’t as abundant that year as they were in the photo I saw, but it was still beautiful, and I was able to make a couple of images I liked.

In 2010, after seeing reports of a great flower bloom in the Carrizo Plain, I returned to the area and hiked up into the Temblors again. It was spectacular – the most amazing flower display I had ever seen. I could only spend one afternoon and one morning there, but it was a wonderful 24 hours. The hills were enveloped in thick fog on my one morning there, and spots of sunlight breaking through the fog created some beautiful light. I could see, however, that the flowers wouldn’t last long, and I wasn’t able to go back that spring, but ever since then I’ve wanted to return.

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The Floweriest Piece of the World

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain National Monument. This was a very contrasty scene, so I bracketed five frames, each two stops apart, and blended them with Lightroom’s HDR Merge. Normally I would try to capture a photograph like this when just the edge of the sun first peeked over the horizon, in order to avoid lens flare. I did that here, but then kept shooting, knowing that the sun needed to get above the horizon to light the foreground flowers. In this image, made about two minutes after the sun first appeared, the sun was high enough to create some beautiful backlight on the flowers, but luckily there was still no flare. 22mm, f/16, 100 ISO

“The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains.” — John Muir

“The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.” — John Muir

The once-vast flower beds of California’s Central Valley that Muir described were paved over and plowed under a long time ago. Yet there is a small corner of California that, in a good year, still resembles Muir’s descriptions: the Carrizo Plain.

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An Elemental Landscape

Sunset from Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sunset from Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

I love the sand dunes in Death Valley. As I wrote in this recent post, they’re like a giant visual playground, with lines, curves, patterns, and textures everywhere.

But there’s more to Death Valley than dunes. It’s a big place (the largest national park in the lower 48 states), and it takes time to explore this vast area, but photogenic landscapes abound.

One of the most striking features of Death Valley is the lack of vegetation. Now don’t get me wrong – Death Valley has a wonderful and diverse array of plants. Some years bring great flower displays, and you can even find limber pines and bristlecone pines at the highest elevations. But there are also vast areas of naked earth. In the badlands, or out on the salt flats, you can see large swaths of ground with scarcely a shrub or blade of grass. This is landscape photography at it’s most elemental, with only bare earth and sky as subjects. You can concentrate on the patterns, textures, forms, and colors of the rocks and minerals themselves, unobscured by vegetation.

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Zodiacal Light

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

On the last night of our Death Valley workshop we went down into Golden Canyon, preparing to capture a star-trail sequence above Manly Beacon. As the skies grew darker we noticed a low cloud in the main valley, behind the Beacon. It looked like fog or mist, but that didn’t make sense, since there hadn’t been any recent rain, and, well, we were in Death Valley, the driest place in North America. So we figured it had to be a dust storm.

It was gusty in Golden Canyon, but not windy enough to create a dust storm. Clearly, however, it was windier in the main valley. And the dust cloud seemed to be moving our way. We debated whether to leave or stick it out. It didn’t seem likely that the dust cloud would reach us, so we decided to wait a bit longer, and then a bit longer again.

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Wildflower Season

Goldfields and monkeyflowers, Red Rock Canyon SP, California, USA

Goldfields and monkeyflowers, Red Rock Canyon SP, California, USA

We just spent a week in Death Valley teaching a workshop, and had a great time, despite some windy conditions. On our way home last Thursday Claudia and I stopped at Red Rock Canyon State Park (just north of Mojave), and found some beautiful patches of flowers. I’ve included my favorite image of the afternoon here, with goldfields and two species of monkeyflowers underneath the rock formations the park is famous for.

This composition is built around the two yellow monkeyflowers about a third of the way up from the bottom of the frame. When I spotted these two flowers I knew they would provide a great focal point – something for the viewer’s eyes to latch onto before roaming through the colorful mass of blossoms behind them to the red rocks beyond.

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