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NEXT:  Page 5   Arroyo Seco ; Point Reyes ; SF Bay lands
2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

Big Basin State Park 3/15
Antelope Valley 3/20
Antelope Valley 3/21
Salinas River Valley 3/28

Spring 2015 Trip Chronicles:  Page 4

flowers beneath redwoods at Big Basin State Park

The Saturday after returning from the Antelope Valley trip on March 15, I made use of a NWS weekend forecast for overcast conditions by hiking in Big Basin State Park within the Santa Cruz Mountains that is only about 35 miles distant. The only reasonable time to photograph beneath forest understories is on days with diffuse light from overcast, storm, or fog as sunny days are much too contrasty. Mid March is the best time to hike these redwood forests because not only are streams likely to still be flowing but also it is the greenest time of year with several forest understory wildflowers at peak. With temperature a cool 48F degrees, left the parking lot on the The Skyline to Sea Trail carrying both landscape and close-up gear, two tripods, warm clothing, and food for a full day. This is the most popular trail in the park and one I've hiked in the past with a destination of beautiful Lower Berry Creek Falls. However my interest was not in the falls but rather with wildflowers along the trail.


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The trail climbs up 300 feet over a minor ridge then drops 900 feet gradually along Kelly Creek that joins West Waddel Creek a total of about 9 miles round trip. Once reaching Kelly Creek, flowers began to appear and soon took this image above of western trillium, trillium ovatum, that are common all along the trail. Before long other groups began passing by me on the trail as I would often be set up for subjects on the steep north facing slope. Some people seeing all my equipment would ask me about my work, what my subjects were? Then I would give them a little natural history information like species names, and often let them look at a couple images through my viewfinder. Many were amazed at the zoomed in detail. Very few knew species names and those that did were always gals.


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This next image above is the most common species in our redwood forest understories, redwood sorrel, oxalis oregana, that has particularly beautiful tri-heart shaped leaves. The flower itself is a beauty too with magenta veins on 5 white petals and an inner orange ring in the throat. Ten white anthers provide pollen at center. And here is a secret to surprise others since they all appear green looking downward, the underside of the mature leaves are a surprising red.

My objective while photographing wildflower images is not to make images of representitive plants that might be used for species identification or taking pictures of every different species I come across much like a botanist might do but rather concentrate on our most beautiful species and locate their most aesthetic specimens. That can result in selecting unusually saturated or large or uncommonly shaped specimens. In many situations there are dozens, hundreds, and thousands of same species plants to choose from so a key skill that only comes from long years of experience is being able to visually filter out the few from the many by using a right brain inner ability to recognize beauty on sight.


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Of course ferns are one of the most common species in redwood forest and this one at image above, a coastal wood fern, dryopteris arguta, laid neatly atop a large fallen redwood trunk covered in moss and dried redwood needles. Note at frame right the furrowed bark of the old redwood trunk with some cyan whitish hued fungi. I also imaged several mushrooms and other fungi on the day.

Old Ridge Route...a fine place for close-up work

A week later the notion of returning to Antelope Valley to work northern areas of Portal Ridge rose to the top of a short queue of possibilities. Reality was given the droughty conditions there was not going to be much in the way of wildflower landscapes anywhere in the central and southern regions of the state so my focus changed to working wildflower close-ups. And my recent trip had kindled desires to image some of the species in Mojave regions which I only see infrequently during those distant road trips. I knew some would still be blooming at Portal Ridge and would not be a possibility again for at least a year. When the wind forecast appeared to show light breezes for Friday, committed to another long drive but this time would fit that into a 3-day weekend. However forecasts did show winds increasing Friday evening so I might just get one morning in? Thus left Thursday afternoon March 19 and again drove south on I5 the 300 plus miles.

Reached Lebec at Tejon Pass about 10pm then after stopping for drinking supplies continued on into Antelope Valley and quickly exited up onto the Old Ridge Route Road. A few miles further left the maintained road to overnight at the Sanberg Inn ruins that was peaceful. When dawn rose on Friday March 20, I had several visitors. Free ranging horses were enjoying areas of grass beneath oaks in that area. When I got out of my car for an early walk, they took notice and then went about their breakfast. After moving gear around in the Forester for the coming day, slowly drove off further down the decaying asphalt road a mile to a location with many interesting wildflower species. A road one can expect not to see any others.


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My first subject above was this pair of sweet fragrance grape soda lupine, lupinus excubitus. For any species, one may find many nice looking flowers however most will not work as camera subjects. A good flower subject needs be reasonably capable of being isolated in order to stand out without other distracting elements. And one must be able to position a camera to frame the subject which is often not practical for a list of reasons. For instance if the camera position is close to an adjacent teddy bear cactus or poison oak is below on the ground or the subject is on a steep slope without a reasonable way to tripod and many other reasons. The way the above lupine were isolated was that elements behind were at a far enough distance that they were well out of focus or bokeh. As someone with conservative attitudes towards photographing natural subjects, my own personal rules of the game do not allow manipulating any elements within a frame thus never touch a subject or other elements within view including pushing other flowers out of view that are near or behind. However anything in front of a subject like blades of grass or other flowers I may bend away. With this species one often finds lupine with less aesthetic dried gone to seed flowers at the bottom of peduncles. Here found a good dual stalk subject that I could position my lens so that similar height elements of each remained equidistant from my lens to minimize necessary depth of field. And peduncles were fresh containing only new flowers. Note a few petals showing pollination have changed to purple. Subject was in shadows so used flash that also helps darken the out of focus background because light falls off with distance at a square factor.


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Next worked the above Cooper's jewelflower, caulanthus cooperi, that was isolated in a favorite way of placing it against blue sky. Of course finding a situation for putting a flower up against the sky is uncommon and if something possible is found, one ends up awkwardly pointing a camera up from low on the ground where just looking into a viewfinder may be difficult. Additionally any flower stalk that is sticking up high will be unusually tall so is more liable to bob back and forth with even a slightest breeze. This subject was in shadows so used flash. In fact when putting a flower into the sky, being in shadows is an advantage because sunlight on flower close-ups usually produces mediocre images due to harshness. When I do work a sun lit subject, will use my opaque 32 inch diameter silver reflector disk as a sun block with flash in fill mode. By working in shadows, I don't have to deal with also hand holding a disk. And that works into a morning strategy when breezes are more often minimum, of looking for these type of shaded subjects in sun blocked terrain. For focus stack blended sets, an initial shot needs to set exposure lock. Then typically set exposure compensation to -1 1/3 to -2 with fill flash at -1/3 or -2/3 and that may require a test flash to ensure exposure results as intended.

mistakes at Portola Ridge Wildlife Area

After working some other subjects, drove back down to highway SR138 and continued east into Antelope Valley surveying areas to the south where north facing Portal Ridge still had areas green with vegetation and some large expanses of poppies. The areas I would focus on were at Desert Pines Wildlife Sanctuary and nearby Portola Ridge Wildlife Area that are a few miles west along Lancaster Road on the south side of the California Aqueduct. Mid morning at the latter, crawled under a barbed wire fence where a wash came through then hiked a half mile up the canyon until trees choked further progress. The area was full of wildflowers, more species than one finds in the valley areas below which is generally the case on Portal Ridge, a 30 mile long west-northwest to east-southeast trending ridge south of the west end of Antelope Valley. On the south side of the ridge lies the trench of the San Andreas Fault. However flowers had the same droughty dry often stunted look of plants on my trip two weeks earlier. Filaree and fiddleneck in the area though still showing flowers had already gone to seed turning stems and leaves an unaesthetic yellow-green and brown.

I climbed out of the canyon then onto a hill at the area boundary that had an especially dense patch of what appeared to be perennial poppy plants, setting up the robotic head for a 3x2 panel image. A growing intermittent breeze was making taking multiple shots tedious. My camera battery became exhausted half way through so had to start over. By time I left, an hour had passed. Three other vehicles had parked at the area's gate with groups now moving about in the area. Then worked three other images in a less exposed to breeze north facing ravine with many more species but it was obvious the dense dry filaree made these subjects mediocre and in fact resulting images after the trip were indeed so per crop at right. The landscape work was wasting precious time. I needed to get back to my vehicle and grab close-up gear that includes changing tripods and leaving the heavy robotic head. These subjects had looked interesting from distance but had no chance of approaching the aesthetics of what I worked at Broad Canyon two weeks before. In any case it was not the reason I had made the long drive back down to AV.

However lower down where the canyon slope met the wide level wash bottom, there, was an area of particularly large robust plants dense with poppies, bigelow coreopsis, coreopsis bigelovii, and tansy phacelia, phacilia cryptanta, that were too tall for any filaree that might be underneath. So took this last token image below that though rather impressive is well down on the list of other similar 4x5 transparency images from past years in my body of work.


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Back at the Forester put landscape gear away, drank some cold orange juice, grabbed close-up equipment and was soon walking back up the sandy wash looking for close-up subjects. Set up on a few but the breeze kept getting stronger making multi shots for focus stacking impossible. Although it may appear that flowers, stems, and leaves return to the same position after a small breeze ruffles plants, at the highly magnified detail my A6000 sensor captures, that is usually not the case. When a digital camera mounted say on a stable tripod takes an image say 4 times of the same subject from the same fixed position, there is still likely to be small shifts at the pixel level between each image. Focus stacking software first re-adjusts all images back into overall alignment without any graphic warping. It then starts comparing micro locations for focus sharpness, one location at a time, selecting the layer showing highest focus say layer 2 while removing other layers, for instance layers 1, 3, and 4 for that location. It then adds layer 2 for that location to a building composite image before moving onto the next location. If say an element in layer 3 moves a little while the rest of layer 3 remains in relative alignment with layers 1,2, and 4, the software will show both layer 2 and 3 for that element since it could be something different and thus shows multiple images for that element as a blur. Zerene Stacker focus stacking software allows manually fixing minor edge misalignment issues when multiple layers all add up together by providing the ability to select just one layer by using a circular brush of variable size. However any complex subject like the image at page top can quickly become hopeless unless the movements are very minor.

wind arrives...photographer leaves with just a few crumbs

On the way back, a good sized rattlesnake got my attention in an area of small boulders. During the cool of early morning, I didn't have to worry about them but it was now later morning so paid more attention to where I stepped. Returned to the car and contemplated on how I had managed to put much of the morning while breezes were still calm to poor use. Per weather forecast it was likely to be breezier Saturday morning. Drove off to the nearby Desert Pines Wildlife Sanctuary by the California Aqueduct in order to find a specimen of scarlet bugler, penstemon centranthifolius, that were in the flats. After a long time looking at dozens of plants walking around in circles finally got down to business putting this nicely curving specimen below up in the sky. And that took about an hour because the intermittent breeze was becoming continuous. But after setting up the image knew this was a very good subject so I stuck with it. Used a diffusion disk with fill flash.


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An SUV drove up to where I was parked at a dirt road intersection. Driver got out and recognized me. It was Pez an acquaintance from the Yahoo calphoto group that I had met 8 years before out in the fields north of Neenach. So we talked for half an hour. He and gal friend Bridget had just arrived in the region so were strategizing what to do over a couple days. The rest of my afternoon didn't amount to much as the breeze was now wind. Back at my 150th St W dispersed camping area at sunset, set up for the night and clouds above cooperated for some nice color.


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All during the night winds increased so became resigned to just going through the motions early in the morning and then escaping. By sunrise Saturday March 21 the wind had slacked a bit but was still rather continuous. Drove back to PRWA where the more protected slopes offered some hope for close to the ground subjects. Then rambled about some but it was obvious my time in Antelope Valley was over and once again as in years past, windy conditions left me with just 3 nice close-up images for all the effort. However I didn't feel too bad because during the earlier trip when flowers were peaking I received two rare days with light morning breezes. My road home was interesting as I visited some familiar areas though plants were drought starved except about the southern Salinas Valley where I was surprised how green landscapes were. And that would influence my next day trip.

secrets in the southern Salinas River basin

The following Saturday on March 28, rose at 4:30am then drove 120 miles south on US101 to an area within the southern Salinas River basin that I had explored in the past. Many visitors to the nearby Mission San Antonio on the Fort Hunter Liggett army base enjoy views of flower fields in spring. However one can only view those flower fields while driving as civilian cars are not allowed to stop along roads on the military base. I arrived in the area a bit after sunrise, left US101, then drove out on a lonely rural paved road into a canyon area that had good numbers of flowers right along road banks. A slight intermittent breeze was active that required use of my collapsible diffusion and reflection disks to help block moving air.


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This first subject above is Booth's suncup aka bottle brush, camissonia boothii, that is more common in Mojave Desert regions. In fact many of the region's species also occur in a band of arid low mountains from the north side of Tejon Pass northwest across the Temblor Range and further northwest across relatively low Coast Range mountains. Note the flower stalk makes a U-turn downward so buds ended up hanging downward. Also how older petals at top have aged to more pinkish hues while newer petals at bottom above buds are whiter? And notice how mushroom-shaped yellow stigma, a female element of a flower, extends out on a reddish style above groups of red-green male anthers that extend out on shorter filaments so each plant is less likely to self pollinate? This species has 4 petals and 8 anthers and as usual just one female part. On the right are isolated flowers where individual flower stalks called a peduncle are visible. Notice how they are not thin skinny stalks as is more common with flowers but rather thick and sturdy? And that feature is why sans flowers when dried, pioneers shoved some down inside bottles as a natural cleaning tool. This brush was in shadows so used fill flash.


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The next image above is one of the most common wildflowers in our state and generally considered one step above a weed. The common fiddleneck, amsinckia intermedia, does indeed have a beautiful side as captured above against nice blue sky with flash as it was in shadows. However more often it overwhelms other species covering areas densely, has unpleasant itchy bristles, and its stems, leaves and later flowers turn unaesthetic hues. Not many of our wildflower species are orange and in some places dense swaths of fresh fiddleneck fool people at a distance into thinking they may be seeing poppies. Well the orange lasts just a few days before bleaching in sunshine to increasingly lighter yellows.


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The next species above against blue sky is very widespread over western North America, western wallflower, erysimum capitatum, that is yet another uncommonly orange wildflower though a muddy orange, with flappy petals. And yes I will be showing a poppy a bit down the page haha. This flower shows a giant crane fly enjoying its nectar breakfast. This specimen was already in shadows so used flash as well as a lens extension tube. If it had been in the sun, would have had to block the sun with my opaque silver reflector because direct sun on flower close-ups is usually too harsh. That can complicate taking a shot because not only am I laying down on the ground to look through the electronic viewfinder while holding a remote infrared shutter release in one hand, but also must somehow hold up the reflector or diffuser with the other. And do so repeatedly through several shots while manually moving the focus point between each shot by either adjusting the Auto-focus position with the camera's multi-button or adjusting the lens barrel if in Manual Focus mode. During such, bumping the camera or tripod causing movement will ruin the whole series. So the process is a rather involved and delicate.


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Drove on to a more obscure dirt road in an arid canyon with tall dense chaparral and found an abundance of dense wildflowers just like I'd seen years before. Enough to keep me busy with close-ups for hours so went to work. Obviously the same localized heavier rains that left the Paso Robles area a bit south rather green had also visited these areas. A bit of poison oak was here and there I kept a distance from. More seriously with vegetation and cover to feed a fair population of rodents, it was prime rattlesnake terrain so moved around slowly with visual awareness. Above is a duo of one of our several California yellow violet species, stream violet, viola glabella. Yes that is a bug on the right petal end of the lower flower that one can take a better look at with the vertical slice. Used a lens extension tube and diffusion disk with fill flash.


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Driving along the wide recently bulldozed dusty dirt road, noticed these onions growing up on a slope across a very old deteriorating barbed wire fence. Cattle had obviously not visited the area in months and there were not any NO TRESPASSING or PRIVATE PROPERTY signs anywhere for a mile so I had a legal right to wander on the other side as long as someone didn't come along asking me to leave. Such is often the situation in remote rural areas where people rarely have visitors thus don't worry about keeping the rare person or local neighbors or kids off their lands. Took quite some time choosing this subject above of, crinkled onion, allium crispum, and once I set this up in my viewfinder knew it was a rather special beauty. Although the A6000 has a large tiltable LCD, I almost always turn that off and instead use the electronic viewfinder that doesn't have usual sunny ambient light issues. The viewfinder also requires less battery power. This specimen of is also an example of the careful effort I take isolating individual flowers elements against a background working the flexible Trekker tripod slightly up down right left even when having to lie prone on the ground on my right side, looking into the eyepiece semi-sideways.


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So here is the California poppy, eschscholtzia californica, with a creamcups, platystemon californicus, mentioned above. Orange simply does not get any more perfect. Notice how the whole poppy bowl is a deep gorgeous orange. Now compare that to the inferior orange of the two other species above and that leaves little wonder why early European explorers spoke so highly of these flowers. Further north and about many areas of the state, the outside petal poppy bowls are a less saturated yellowish-orange while only the center inner petals have the deeper orange color. Notice the tiny pile of pollen below the poppy anthers. Used lens extension tube with diffusion disk.


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At the base of a shady north facing slope with dense scrub oak and chaparral was a small meadow the shaded edge of which was absolutely dense with tangles of blue fiesta flower, pholistoma auritum. And here and there were a few dainty wind poppy, papaver heterophyllum, to add some variety. Yet another orange species all in one day! Do you see those little white 5 petal flowers? Its close relative that often grow together, white fiesta flower, pholistoma membranaceum. Used lens extension tube with fill flash.

Also in the meadow were areas of favorite baby blue eyes, nemophila menziesii var menziesii, and Chinese houses, collinsia heterophylla . In image at page top, they are joined in a dense bee wonderland with miner's lettuce, blue fiesta flower, and filaree. The light blue flowers are baby blue eyes while the darker blue it's close relative blue fiesta flower. Skies were sunny so used a 32 inch diameter collapsible diffusion disk to provide more even lighting. Such disks also importantly at other times can serve as a breeze block. Although this image appears fine at this downsized scale, it is not really ready for public display or printing so serves some purpose herein. It still needs a couple hours of tedious Photoshop work mostly with the Stamp Cloning Tool in Aligned mode to remove digital artifacts that are the result of focus stack blending images. To see this open the vertical slice link and note the double edges around flower and plant elements at top. That is caused by slight changes in positions after each small breeze ruffled the subject between shots. Unless these movements were very slight, the result is more often impossible to fix.


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Midday with a breeze picking up, drove out to Jolon Road and then into Fort Hunter Liggett. Along the way were a couple of roadside vernal pool areas with beautiful downingia but none of the images were successful primarily because I didn't take enough focus stack shots for enough depth of field because of the breeze. Into the military lands, wildflowers were noticeably less impressive than during other visits. I drove west out to The Indians in the San Antonio River headwaters working a few flowers but conditions were rather dry. Then late in the afternoon I continued north on US101 and out back west along Arroyo Seco. Just beyond the junction of Carmel River Road is a patch of an uncommon plant tacky phacelia, phacelia viscida with deeply saturated blue flowers. Made the above image using lens extension tubes and diffusion disk. This interesting species is related to canterbury bells one finds in arid Southern California areas. The dot patterns down in the flower throat are unique to this species.


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A bit before sunset had reached the heavily used campground at the end of the road and immediately saw lots of hummingbird sage, salvia spathacea, as expected. Areas near the campground is a dense coastal live oak, California bay woodland so conditions were calmer than out in the main canyon. After getting out of the car didn't walk more than a hundred feet before scampering back due to swarms of small mosquitoes, the first that bothered me this year. Back out with nylon shell and hat with major neck drape went to work locating the best subject from hundreds below oaks. Found the one above and carefully set up this spectacular image of this species. Took 10 focus stack blended shots, using lens extension tube and flash.


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Went back to my nearby car and got out the robotic head for the above landscape in sunset sky light. Completing the one landscape, looking up in the sky I figured there was about 20 minutes of time to ramble up the gated off road that precariously routes up the canyon beside impressive cliffs and which large numbers of visitors take from the road end. So grabbed my powerful Fenix HP11 headlamp and ventured up canyon where I quickly found lots of wildflowers especially Indian paintbrush and conditions were reasonably green for this late date on this driest winter of my lifetime. Numbers of late returning groups, many in swimming wear from their fun in the river a couple miles further, passed by. I had been wondering if there was anywhere in California worth taking a trip to the following weekend and had just found it.

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2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac

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