A Perfect Autumn Morning

Great landscape photography opportunity rarely comes to you easily, even in early October in Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, where you are supposed to get gorgeous fall color photos by randomly pointing your lens to anywhere.

I had been thinking about visiting northern Michigan during October for many years and last weekend I finally got a few days to do so. I drove more than five hours from Cincinnati to Chicago to meet my buddies Charlie Zhang and John Fan. The second morning we left Chicago, and drove another ten hours to the Porcupine Mountains area, expecting to see fall colors in their fullest glory.  While this year’s peak season was delayed by a week during to unusual high temperatures, we thought we arrived at the right moment according to the foliage reports.

To say we were disappointed is an understatement.  Contrast to what had been reported online, the entire area, especially the locations near the lake, was still mostly green. We spent a couple of days driving around the west portion of the peninsula and didn’t have any shot that was worth keeping.

Finally we went to the east side of the UP and explored the Hiawatha National Forest.  Although leaf colors were much better here, finding a perfect, photogenic spot was still a very big challenge. We spent many hours driving in the forest, exploring many unpaved roads and scouting potential locations.  I was pre-visualizing a peaceful small pond surrounded by colorful birches, maples and aspens.  However, for whatever reasons, around nine out of ten lakes we checked, the nearby trees are mostly unsightly evergreen conifer,   even though these lakes are inside some broadleaf forests in high colors. Other lakes have beautiful colors along the shorelines, but they are too big.  A big lake poses too problems:  the trees are too far to reach even with a 200mm lens; and it is normally is not as calm as a small pond so it is hard to get perfect reflections, which are essential for the type of shots I want.

Hundreds of miles of travelling and a few days later, on a gorgeous morning we finally had all the right conditions line up perfectly — soft morning light, peak foliage colors, the right mix of colorful trees along the shore of a small lake, mirror-like calm water and beautiful reflections, and chilly morning temperatures (about 37 F) resulting in mists rising from the surface of the lake. I had this image in my mind for many years and I finally nailed it.

This version was shot before sunlight hit the trees (click image for larger photo):

"A Perfect Autumn Morning" Shot before sunlight hit the trees Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm F4 L IS,  RRS L-plate, Markins M-20 Ballhead, Gitzo 3541 Tripod

“A Perfect Autumn Morning”
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm F4 L IS, RRS L-plate, Markins M-20 Ballhead, Gitzo 3541 Tripod


And this version was captured after the sunlight illuminated the top of tree crowns (click image for larger photo):.

"October Glory" Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm F4 L IS,  Hi-tech 2-stop GND,  Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder, RRS L-plate, Markins M-20 Ballhead, Gitzo 3541 Tripod

“October Glory”
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm F4 L IS, Hi-tech 2-stop GND, Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder, RRS L-plate, Markins M-20 Ballhead, Gitzo 3541 Tripod


How to get this type of shots:

  1. Contrary to many photographers who like to wait until sunrise before starting shooting, I prefer to photograph this type of scenes in early morning before the sunlight hit the top of the trees (the first image). The soft morning light renders a very soothing and peaceful mood, exactly what I had envisioned.  The light is very even so you don’t need filters.  When the morning sunshine hits the top of the trees, the colors are more vibrant and dramatic. However the contrast between the upper and lower part of the image can be very high. You either need to use a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) to control the light ratio, or do some serious post editing work. The mood of the photo will also be very different (see the second image “October Glory”).  I am not saying one version is “better” than the other, as it’s a matter of personal taste. However they are just very different images and convoy different feelings.
  2. I favor to use a medium-to-telephoto lens and a very tight composition.  Unless I see some really dramatic clouds that can contribute to the final image, I will crop out the sky to have a cleaner look. Blank sky on top (and its reflection on the bottom) of the image will not do anything good to your photos.
  3. Check the weather forecast! You want a relatively warm day followed by a chilly morning, so the water temperature is much higher than the ambient air temperature in the morning. Mysterious mists will rise from the surface of the water, significantly enhancing the mood of your image.
  4. Early morning light has a very high, bluish, color temperature. I prefer to use “Daylight” white balance to keep some of the cool blue cast, which is pleasant to the eyes of many viewers. If you rely on the “Auto” white balance of the camera, the camera will try to remove the color cast. The result may or may not be what you want. Do some experiments and find your personal preferences.  Of course if you shoot RAW (and you should), you can always change the white balance setting during post processing. However I like to see the results while I am shooting.
  5. This image is a stitch of multiple vertical frames, so I can have a high-res image that can be printed very big.  A Really Right Stuff L-Plate (see my previous blog post “A Case for L-Plates”) and an RRS leveling-base are very helpful in such situations.

A Case for L-Plates

A regular-plate in vertical position

A camera with a regular-plate in vertical position

I have been using “L-Plates (L-brackets)” from over five years. I started using a Really Right Stuff  (RRS) L-Plate on my Canon 5D Mark II and a Manfrotto L-plate for my Pentax P67II medium format camera and loved the convenience that came with these small but indispensable accessories. A few years later I upgraded my digital camera body to a Canon 5D Mark III.  Guess what was the first thing I did after ordering the 5D Mark III online?  I went straight to the RRS website and bought an L-Plate for the new camera.  For landscape/nature/macro photographers, an L-plate is probably the most useful necessary after your tripod and ball-head.
Most “generic” quick release plates are designed to attach to the bottom of the camera body. They are good for shooting horizontal (landscape) orientation. When you try some vertical compositions (AKA the portrait orientation), you have to flop the camera and drop it to the drop notch (see the picture of right). This immediately creates two problems: first, the height of the camera and the horizontal position of the camera are both shifted by 5-6 inches, so you may have to re-adjust your tripod, especially if you are shooting something close. This is very annoying and time-consuming.  Secondly, the load of the camera and lens are not centered on the supporting system anymore, thereby reducing the system stability and creating major problems for long exposures.
Moreover, many generic plates do not have anti-twist/anti-rotational features, so the body may slowly “twist” around the screw under load or after as little as a few hours of regular use.  You can buy regular plates with anti-twist designs, but they are typically more expensive.

An L-plate in vertical position

A camera with an L-plate in vertical position

Enter the L-plate.  It allows you to easily switch between the horizontal position and vertical position. The mass of the camera is always directly atop the tripod’s apex so you don’t need to worry about reducing stability. The position of the camera remains unchanged, so re-composition is much easier.
Moreover, most L-plates are custom-designed for specific camera models. While this means you need to purchase a new plate after getting a new camera, the benefit is that such system-specific plate provides much precise and tight fit comparing to generic plates; and the anti-twist designs of such plates work extremely well. My RRS L plate was on my Canon 5D Mark II for four years, and I never had to re-tight the screw after initial installation, not even once.   Before that, I had to constantly re-tight the screws connecting the generic plates to my other camera bodies.
As of this writing, there are only a handful of companies such as Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises that manufacture this type of plates. Manfrotto also has a few L-plates for using with their ball heads, however they are not compatible with the most popular Arca Swiss-type clamps. I have never tried Kirk plates, although I believe they should be great. I just love my RSS plates. They were extremely well-made and they work well with my other support systems, including RRS nodal slides, RRS pano bases, and Markins ball heads.
There is another trick that is unaware by most people — using an L-plate allows you to put your camera closer to the ground on horizontal orientation, comparing to using a regular plate. Much closer, in fact.

Camera is too high, even when the tripod is in the lowest position

Camera is too high, even when the tripod is in the lowest position

As shown in the picture on the left, with a Gitzo 2541 tripod (center column removed) at the lowest possible position and a Markins M-20 ball head, the bottom of the camera is still 9.5 inches from the ground. You can get the camera much closer to the ground by removing the ball head and screwing the camera directly to the tripod, but you will lose much of your composition freedom. Not to mention all the troubles involved.

Well, with an L-plate, you can first mount the camera in the vertical position, and flop the system to the drop notch of the ball head. Now the camera is only 5 inches from the ground, a reduction of almost 50%! If fact the camera is of the same high of mounting it directly on the tripod without a ball head, but you still have the freedom of using a ball head!

With an L-plate, you can halve the minimal height of the camera

With an L-plate, you can halve the minimal height of the camera

This is very clever, right?  In fact, if you slide the camera down in the dovetail of the ball head clamp (be very careful, though), you can position your camera about one inch closer to the ground than mounting the camera directly on top of the tripod can! In the configuration on the right, the bottom of the camera body is only 4 inch from the ground.
Why in world you want to place your camera with such a small clearance?  For one thing: macro photography.  The subjects are often very small and hiding inside grasses, and you really need to get low, very low.

But wait! You can get even lower! Try that with a regular plate

But wait! You can get even lower! Try that with a regular plate

Even in landscape photography I often have the need to position my camera as close to the ground as possible. Case in point: Nubble Light (Cape Neddick Lighthouse) is a very photogenic location in Maine. Its iconic images have appeared in countless calendars, postcards, magazines and books. When I was shooting the lighthouse, I had to find a very different point of view, something fresh and had not been done before.  I found some small puddles of water on the rock, and decided to capture the reflection of the lighthouse.  Unfortunately, on that particular day even the largest puddle was only 2-3 feet across. The reflection area was so small, I had to put the camera 3-4 inches above the water surface, and otherwise I could not see any reflections at all!


Cape Neddick Lighthouse and Reflection, Main. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100mm L F2.8 IS Macro, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Manfrotto 405 Geared Head, No-brand Macro rail, RRS leveling base.

Cape Neddick Lighthouse and Reflection, Main.
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm F4 L, Gitzo 3541 Tripod,  Markins M20 Ball Head, RRS L-Plate

Drama in the Sky

The most intense colors in the sky often appear before sunrise or long after sunset. I mentioned this phenomenon in the blog post titled “Waiting for the Light”.  Fine particles of dust, such as those of volcano eruption, suspended in the high regions of the atmosphere, scattering sunlight, result in some remarkable colorful afterglow ,  up to one hour or so after sunset.

And it was certainly the case on that unforgettable evening near Mono Lake, California.  A huge wild fire near Mono Lake, California (see my previous blog post “Set Fire To the Sky”)  brought huge amount smoke and ashes to the sky, forming incredible ash clouds and the richest and most vivid afterglow I’ve ever seen.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also the composition was way to tight, even with a 16mm ultra-wide lens.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also the composition was way to tight, even with a 16mm ultra-wide lens.

“F/11 and hold it steady”, Walker Evans would advise.  I arrived at this magic location at the right time. I had some most incredible condition presented in front of me. I had a great camera, a pro-quality lens, and a top-of-the-line tripod/ball-head comb with me.  Taking some beautiful pictures should be easy, right? Just put the camera on the tripod, set to f/11, and fire the shutter.

Not so simple.  The sun had settled behind mountains. The ground was already very dark. The sky was brilliant and on fire. The most difficult challenge here was how to handle the extreme difference of brightness between the sky and the ground, a problem we landscape photographers are all too familiar with. A Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter, hard or soft, would not work, because there was no way to find a transient line or zone to separate the sky from the tufas in the foreground. If I had been still shooting slide films I would have given up.

With digital techniques, however, I just bracketed the exposure, and did some exposure blending (not HDR, though) in post processing. Problem solved. It is important to note that exposure blending is not intent to “cheat” or create something out of nothing. It is simply a mean to overcome the limitation of the existing camera technology, to recreate what can be seen by human eyes. The actual methods of doing exposure blending, such as how to use Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masks, are too complicated to describe here. I will try to write a few more articles on this topic if I have time.

I had another big problem: I was so close the tufas that even with a 16mm lens (which was the widest lens in my arsenal), I could not capture what I wanted (see the photo on the left).  The composition was just way too tight.  I could have moved the lens left and right taking multiple vertical frames, and stitched them together to get a wider view, but the result would be a close-to-square format.

My solution was put the camera body in the horizon position, taking multiple groups of pictures while moving the lens up and down. At each position I shot a group of three pictures with different exposures.  In the post, I first did exposure-blending for each group, generating several photos that have correct exposure for both the sky and the ground.  I then stitched the resulting images to a vertical panorama.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also note the tufas are leaning toward the center. This was caused by tilting the lens upward. ultra-wide lens.

This picture was exposure for the sky, so the ground was too dark. Also note the tufas are leaning toward the center. This was caused by tilting the lens upward. ultra-wide lens.

Finally I applied some vertical perspective correction.  When you tilt a ultra-wide lens upward, the resulting images will show perspective distortion — vertical lines such as trees, buildings and tufas will appear to lean toward the center of the frame (see the image on the right). Although sometimes we can creatively use this effect to make some visual impacts, there are often times when such distortions are simply very distractive.  I did not have my favorite Canon TSE (Tilt and Shift for EOS) lenses with me, so I could only straighten the tufas in software.  Fixing such distortion will require some serious stretching and cropping, therefore it have some major impact to the image quality. Luckily I had a huge stitched image so I could afford to waste some extra pixels.  Even after all these destructive transformation and cropping, I still ended up with a file of more than 34 million pixels.

Despite all the troubles, I really like the final results.   With modern post processing techniques, I could document such once-in-a-life-time experience that was otherwise impossible to capture with traditional means.

Here is the final image :

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II,  Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M20 Ballhead, RRS PCL-1Panning Clamp, RRS L-Plate

Mono Lake Drama

Mono Lake Drama

And here is another shot from the same location.  This is the result of fusing three different exposures together. No panorama stitching or  perspective correction was needed.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II,  Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M20 Ballhead, RRS PCL-1Panning Clamp, RRS L-Plate

Drama in Sky

Drama in Sky

Faking Sunshine

Most people naturally think that flashes are only useful for portrait photography when the ambient light is too dim.  Well, I am a landscape/nature/travel photographer, but I almost always carry a flash in my backpack. It can be invaluable when used creatively.  One of my favorite tricks is to use a flash to emulate sunlight, when the real thing is not available.

Recently I was asked by a magazine editor to write an article on macro photography, and I needed some fresh macro images for the article as well as the magazine cover. While Ohio is not a very exciting place for landscape photography, you can shoot macro pretty much anywhere.  On a cool early morning I drove a few miles to a patch of grass field that I knew I could find many snails.  I like to shoot macro during morning. The light is soft during the morning, and winds are calm and air is still — winds are probably one of the worst enemies of macro-photographers.

Within a few minutes of arrival, I found this tiny white snail — just 7-8 millimeter across. I quickly set up my gears — tripod, three-way geared head, macro-rails, and my Canon 5D Mark III body and the Canon EF 100mm L IS macro lens.  I snapped a few shots while the snail was claiming up the grass blade. The soft ambient light produces some nice colors, but the images lack “punch”, so I reached my camera backpack and took out a Canon 580EX flash.

Macro photographers like to use flash, because they often work under dim light conditions and have to use small apertures to have enough depth of field.  However, in this situation,   I don’t want to setup the light using conventional way – the white light coming from the front of the subject, which is probably the most boring type of light.  I want something differently.  So I pull out my favorite trick:  off-camera flash with color gels.

“On Top of the World”

Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100mm L F2.8 IS Macro, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Manfrotto 405 Geared Head, No-brand Macro rail, RRS leveling base.


And yes, you can compare the sequence of shots with and without  the flash. The differences are day and night, right?  The only Photoshop work on the final image was removing a tiny piece of dirty from the snail, and some very slight cropping.


A few days later, I used the same technique to shot this image of a grasshopper.


Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100mm L F2.8 IS Macro, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Manfrotto 405 Geared Head, No-brand Macro rail, RRS leveling base.


Tips on how to get this type of shots

I almost always have a Pocketwizard  MiniTT1 wireless transmitter mounted on the hot shoe of my camera, and a Pocketwizard FlexTT5 wireless transceiver  connected to the Canon 580EImageX flash.  MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 communicate via radio signals so I can I remotely trigger the flash — the flash can be placed anyway within the radio’s range. It does not have to be on the hot shoe, which produce the most boring front-lit light.My goal was to use the flash to emulate the warm early sunshine coming from the back of the snail. The problem is , flash is daylight-balanced — it always emit white light around 5500-6500K (color temperature).  The sweet, warm, golden early morning sunshine, on the other hand, has a much lower color temperature of 2000-3000K.  To convert the white light to warm color, I put 1.5 stop CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel on the flash head. The picture on the right shows a Canon flash with CTO gel and Pocketwizard FlexTT5.

I hand-held the flash and put it on the other side the snail and grass, facing the camera lens. I pressed the shutter when the snail climbed near the top of the grass blade.  The flash fired when the shutter was triggered, creating the beautiful, and almost-translucent backlit image of the snail on the grass blade. 

Backing up photos On the Road and Traveling Light

In this post, I will share some of my techniques and experiences of backing up photos using a tablet while traveling.

Like most other landscape/nature/travel photographers, when I am on a multi-day or multi-week photo tour, I face the problem of backing up my photos from the memory cards. A laptop computer is a nature choice for most people. With a laptop, we can copy files between the memory cards, laptop disk drive, and external disks. We can even do some limited editing. Many years ago when I was young, I used to lug an 8-lb 17-in monster laptop while traveling.  I just loved the big screen.

Not anymore.  I am now older (and hopefully wiser), I want to travel as light as possible but still get the job done.  “Light” is a relative term, though.  We nature photographers need to carry lots of big and heavy photographic equipment such as lenses, camera bodies, accessories, tripod and ball head, in addition to outdoor equipment such as sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, stove, crampons, etc .   Anyway, to lighten my load, I’ve done lots of research. Basically, I studied the following four options:

(1)    Finding a light and small laptop or netbook computer.  A laptop is the most versatile options. You can run all kinds of programs on it, including favorites like Lightroom and Photoshop, Canon Digital Photo Professional, or Autopano Giga. However, even the “ultra-light” 11-inch MacBook Air still weights a hefty 2.4 pounds and runs only 5-hours on battery. You also need a power supply and maybe a case, with further add weight. In addition, going through airports’ security checkpoints with a laptop is really a pain-in-the-neck, as we all know.

(2)    Buying a bunch of high capacity CF cards. This should work, but it is an expensive solution. Right now, a Lexar 128GB CF card costs as much as a Canon 17-40mm F4 L professional lens. Ouch! Besides, after working with computer storage systems for many years, I know storage devices can fail at any moment.  I always maintain at least two copies of data.  This wills double the cost. Moreover, how to you make copies when you travel? Sure, on some high-end camera bodies you can copy between cards, but most cameras do not support this feature. Many have only a single card slot.

The price of media will drop eventually. However, I am a firm believer that even the most experienced photographers can benefit from reviewing the shots each day.  Checking images on the tiny camera LCD for composition and focusing is never a productive and pleasant endeavor.  This is the situation that you really need and want a big screen.

(3)    Get a special “backup storage and viewer” such as Epson Epson P-7000 Multimedia Storage Viewer (discontinued) or HyperDrive COLORSPACE. These products have a card reader, a small LCD screen and an internal HDD (some are just HDD enclosures so you need to supply your own HDD).  It is in fact a small, single-purpose computer. The problem is that their screens are tiny. Moreover, they are expensive and cannot do anything other than copying files from cards to disks.

(4)    Using a tablet and two external hard disk drives (HDDs). I found this is the best solution for me so far. You probably want to bring a tablet with you anyway so you can check emails (if you are lucky enough to have internet access) or read books when the light is harsh outside in the high noon.

Tablets are much lighter than laptops. My Nexus 7 table weights merely 340g/12 Oz. Their battery life is normally much longer (8-10 hours). They have fairly large screens (Nexus 7 sports a hi-resolution 7-in screen) for us to do some critical reviews of photos. Most importantly, using it, I can copy my photos from a CF card to  two HDDs for backup. I successfully used this system on my recent 10-day trip to the Canadian Rockies.  I brought with me only one 8-GB CF card and another 4GB CF card, and I never worried about running out of memory cards!

During my 10-day trip I never worried about running out of memory cards.


Making the tablet working with your HDDs and card reader is not straightforward, though.  It requires some extra cables and software.  First and foremost, you need to use an Android tablet (or even an Android phone).  An iOS device such as iPad does not work because Apple limits the way it can be used.  Sure you can use the Camera Connect Kit to copy photos into an iPad. However you cannot get the RAW files out of the iPad by copying them to an external disk drive or uploading to a online service such as Dropbox (there are some limited ways of get the JPEG versions of the files out with apps such as Goodreader, but that is not what we want). You have to wait until you get home and plug the ipad to your PC or Mac so you can copy the files from the iPad to your computer.

In the future I might use a Windows-based tablet. However, as of this writing, Windows-based tablets are just not ready for the prime time.

Here is a list of hardware items you need to bring:

(1)    An Android tablet or cell phone.  I am using a 32GB Nexus 7, as shown here. It is a good compromise between screen size (7-in) and portability (340g).  It is so light that I don’t hesitate to put it in my backpack.  I sometimes connect it to my camera in the field and run DSLR Controller so I have a giant external viewfinder. Super cool. However this will be the topic of another article.

I’ve heard that others have successfully used a Samsung Galaxy Note II or other phones for this purpose.  If you are satisfied with the small screen size when reviewing photos, then can even leave the tablet home.  Talking about ultra-light!

Not every Android device can be used in this way, though. You need to do some research first. At minimal, it must support USB OTG (On-The-Go) functionality.

(2)    A micro-USB OTG cable.  They are very inexpensive, so I got a few from monoprice.com and Amazon.com for less than $2/piece and I carry an extra with me. Warning: if your configuration does not work, chances are it is caused by a bad OTG cable.

(3)    A card reader to read your CF/SD card. I am showing a very small and simple CF card reader in the picture. There are other more fancy ones that can act as both a card reader and a USB hub. Note if you use the one with a USB hub, you can copy files directly between your CF/SD card and portable hard disk drive without the need of using the tablet’s storage as an intermediate buffer.

(4)    Two portable external hard disk drives (HDDs).   Although the photo shows only one HDD, I always carry two of them. Always, always, maintain at least two copies of your data!

(5)    A USB-Mini USB Y Cable.  This is for connecting the HDD to the tablet. Most tablets’ USB port cannot supply enough electrical current to power up external HDDs.  The Y cable has an additional USB connector (the red one here) to provide the additional power.  If your HDD does not come with one, you can get it from places like monoprice.com or Amazon.com.

(6)    A 12-DC-to-USB Car charger or other charger. This is for the additional USB connector of the above-mentioned Y-cable when I car camp.  It provides additional power juice needed by the HDD. Of course, if I stay in a hotel/motel, I will use a regular wall-charger with USB port instead.  You need either the wall-charger or this car charger, or both, for your cell-phone and your tablet anyway, so this is not something extra for you to carry.

If you go backpack travel for a prolonged period of time and need to back up your photos, you can use a portable power-bank or a solar charger.  They charge your phone as well.

You might think that these are lots of things to carry. However, keep in mind that when you use the much heavier traditional laptop solution, you still need to carry the HDDs, the card reader, and a mini-USB cable (for connecting the HDD to the laptop), and the USB charger for your phone.  So the only additional item you need to carry with the new tablet solution is the OTG cable, which is tiny and weight next to nothing. You also need to replace the regular mini-USB cable with the Y-cable.



Here is a list of software you need to install before you take your trip:

(1)    First, you need to root the Android system.  Otherwise you cannot connect the external HDD to it.  There are many different ways to root the system.  You can search the web for more information, if you have not already done so, or if you don’t understand the concept.  A standard warning: rooting the device might make “brick” your device or lose the warranty. Do it at your own risk.

(2)    Once the device is rooted, go to Google Play Store to download the free “Stickmount” app.  It will connect (mount) the HDD/CF/SD to the Android file system so that you can access files on these device.

Note: Stickmount supports FAT/EXT file systems. If you HDD is formatted using NTFS or exFAT, you will not be able to see the disk. Luckily, solutions are available. Read the documents of Stickmount for how to download additional programs that support these file systems.

(3)    You also need a file manager/explorer app so you can find/view files. I use ASTRO File Manager / Browser, or the ES File Explorer File Manager.  Both are free as of this writing and both are excellent.  Either will work fine.

Note: by default, Android can only display JPEG files as thumbnails.  You can see the names of RAW files but you cannot see the thumbnails.  You can still copy the RAW files even you cannot see the thumbnails. However, if you want to preview your images on the device, you should shoot RAW+JPEG.

Another solution for RAW shooters (almost all landscape/nature photographers are) is to purchase the Photo Mate Professional app and use it as the file browser/manager.  It’s a useful tool that allows you to browse RAW files and even do some limited editing.



Step 1: Copy image files from the memory card to the tablet

1.       Open the file manager app such as ES File Explorer File Manager. Create a temporal folder, say “Day 1”, somewhere in the internal storage of your tablet.

2.       Put the memory card into the card reader, and connect the reader to the tablet via the OTG cable.

3.       The Stickmount program should automatically mount the CF card and you will see a message.

4.       In the file manager app, navigate to the memory card folder (Stickmount should show its name in its message. If not, the folder is normally under /sdcard/usbStorage/sda1, if you use Nexus 7. Other systems might be different).  You should see your images. Select the images (I normally just use “Select All”), and click “copy”.

5.       You then navigate to the temporal folder you created in Step 1 (“Day 1”), and click “paste”.   The system will start copying files from the memory card to the tablet. This may take a while. You probably want to turn off the auto-sleep function of the tablet.

The following are some screen captures to help you understand how to navigate through these steps.

1) After you insert connect the card and carder,  Stickmount will display where the card folder is mounted in its notification box.

2) In ES File Explorer, go to the folder, you will find the folders on the card. The image files are typically located under “DCIM”.

3) Go to the image folder,you will see image files.  The system cannot display RAW files by default (but you can still copy them).

4) To copy all files, do the following:

(1) Hold the “Select” icon until the popup box appears on the screen

(2) Click “Select All”

(3) Click “Copy”

5) Final, go to the temporal folder, click “Paste”.  Files will be copied from the memory card to here.

Step 2: Copy Files from the tablet to external HDD

1.       Connect the external HDD to the tablet via the Y cable and the OTG cable. Connect the additional USB connector of the Y cable to another USB power source:  a car charger (shown here), a wall-charger, or a portable power bank, etc., depending on your situation.

The Stickmount program should automatically mount the HDD and you will see a message.  If not, unplug the OTG then plug back.

2.       In the file manager app, navigate to the temporal folder (“Day 1”), select all files, and click “copy”.

3.       Go to the HDD folder (again, the folder is normally under /sdcard/usbStorage/sda1, if you use Nexus 7).  If you see files on the HDD, you are in the right place.   If you don’t see any files in the folder, the mounting operation was unsuccessful. Try it again.

Before you leave home, copy one or two small files to the root director of the HDDs using your home PC and remember their names.  Doing so will help you to confirm the HDD has been correctly mounted.

When you confirm the directory, click “paste”.   The system will start to copy files from the tablet to the HDD.  This may take a while, so you probably want to do something more interesting while the disk is busy — like cooking dinner, setting up tent, or reading.

4.       After the copy is done, make sure you unmount the HDD inside Stickmount before unplug the HDD, otherwise you might damage the data on the disk.

5.       Repeat these steps for the 2nd HDD.

6.       After you have two copies of data stored on HDDs, you can format the memory card now.   You can also delete the temporary folder in the tablet or phone if it has limited storage size.

There is no need to post more screen captures, since the operations are very similar to the previous steps.

Finally, if your card reader has a built-in USB hub, you can connect the card reader to the tablet, and connect the HDD to the USB hub, so both the card reader and the HDD will be mounted at the same time.  You can then copies files directly from the memory card to the HDD.

Other Thoughts

In the future, I probably will use two 128-256 SD cards (128GB will be more than enough for me on a 2-4 week trip. Others might need more), or two low-power external SSDs (Solid State Drives), to replace the two HDDS. The solution will be much smaller, lighter, and much more reliable (no moving components). Moreover, it does not need the Y cable since the SD cards consume much less power.  However large capacity SD cards and SSDs are still expensive (although much cheaper than CF cards). I expect their price will drop significantly in the next two years.

Will Android is a good OS and Nexus 7 a good table, it has its limitations.  I have to root the system – no problem for someone like me who knows technology, but it can be a headache for some photographers.  I cannot calibrate its display for accuracy. Finally I cannot run Lightroom or Photoshop for some rudimentary editing while on the road.

I am still waiting for the perfect light-weight, Intel-based tablet running Windows. The newly released Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 looks very promising, but I want something even lighter and smaller, something using a 7 or 8-inch screen instead of a 10-inch one. I guess that I still have to wait at least a year or two, though.

Finally, I said iOS devices will not work. I will probably get some nasty mails form fanboys.   You can actually connect external HDDs to an iPad if you jailbreak it. However, it’s a significantly more complicated process.  Moreover, Apple discourages you from doing this and makes it harder and harder with each new generation of iOS. You don’t know what will happen next.  In addition, I love to use Nexus because of the excellent DSLR Controller. Last time I checked, it still does not run on iOS.

Bad Weather, Good Photography. Really.

Several years ago, I went to Inner Mongolia, China,  to photograph the beautiful rolling hills of the vast grassland.  One day I was calling my mother from the hotel, and she asked:  “How is the weather?”

“Blue sky every day.”  I told her.

“Great! You must be very happy.”  Mom said.

“No! I am very disappointed!”   I replied.

Landscape photography and “good” sunny weather are like oil and water. They normally do not mix well.  For the most part, the featureless blue skies are very boring and do not add much interest to the picture. In addition, the light under such conditions is often flat.

When the weather looks menacing, however, it is often the best time for landscape photography.  The sky is often filled with dramatic clouds. The weather often changes rapidly, creating fast-changing, theatrical light conditions, and landscape photography is all about light.  In fact, “Bad weather means good photography is the slogan of most landscape photographers.

Here is one picture as an example.  I was shooting the legendary Colorado fall colors a few years ago. My trip was not very productive, as most leaves were gone because of an expected early storm.  To pour salt to the wound, the weather was not cooperating. I had cloudless blue sky day after day.

The weather started to change during the last day of my trip.  On that morning, my buddy John and I woke up to a gloomy autumn morning. It was cold and drizzling. However we did not give up. We drove to this previously-scouted location, and waited in the rain. It was way past the sunrise time but the rain did not stop. Then all of sudden this beautiful double rainbow appeared right before our eyes. What an experience!  We managed to capture a few frames before it went away.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 17-40mm F4 L, CPL, soft GND, two images stitched together.
Double Rainbow and Fall Colors

Set Fire to the Sky

Admit it: To a large extend, luck plays an important role in landscape photography.  You can have great artistic vision and superb techniques, and you are in the right place with right equipment. However, if you are not there at the right moment, you will not get your dream images.

The question is:  when opportunity knocks, are you ready? Can you foresee what will come and be prepared?

Mono Lake is an iconic location among North American landscape photographers. It is so popular, in fact, that images from there can be visual clichés, and I’ve heard many people saying that they don’t want to visit there.

Anyway, on one hot, dry summer afternoon last month, I finally was at the shore of the lake, fascinated by those interesting formations of tufas.  This was my first visit to Mono Lake. On a not-to-distant hill, there was a huge bush fire burning, causing by lighting. A thick column of smoke rose up, and there were some extremely dramatic smoke clouds in the sky. It was near sunset time, and people were alarmed or excited to witness such an event. Tripods were up everywhere. Shutters were pressed. The fire was a bad news for the US Forest Service, but it provided a once-in-a-life time opportunity for landscape photographers to record an extremely unusual perspective of this iconic location.

However, although the sun was setting, I knew I had to wait. The best show had not started yet.  I anticipated that if I waited (see Waiting for the Light), the sky might be even more dramatic and the ground would bath in some very rich and saturated light, especially there were so much smoke and dust in the air. I also wanted to capture the warm glowing light from the fire itself, for which I had to wait until dark.

When the sun went down, people started packing their cameras and leaving. Time to work! I went to the parking lot and got my tripod from my car, and went back to the shore and started shooting. What a show!  To say I was not disappointed is an understatement.  I will post some images with dramatic sky next week. Today I am sharing with you the last image I took on that unforgettable evening.

It was getting dark, and I could hardly see anything around me. Maybe it was time to leave, and indeed everyone was gone except for only one photographer.  However, it was actually the best time to shoot such a rare event.  The bush fire was virtually the only light source now. Without the pollution of the cool blue colors of the evening ambient light, the fire projected some very intensive red and orange colors on the sky. To capture the very dime but strong glowing colors, I set the ISO of my Canon 5D Mark II to 320 and started a two-minute long exposure. To better record the details on the foreground tufas, I took out a Canon 580EX flash, mounted a ½ CTO gel on it to warm up the light, and I manually fired the flash multiple times toward different parts of the foreground during the long exposure.

And here is the result, a dramatic and very unusual rendition of the famous Mono Lake tufas, mysterious and hauntingly beautiful. It will probably become one of my favorite images.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II,  Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M20 Ballhead, RRS PCL-1Panning Clamp, RRS L-Plate, Canon 580EX flash

My biggest challenge on that evening? Finding my way back to the parking lot in almost total darkness without getting hurt by the rocks and tufas  — I left my headlight and flashlight in the car in a hurry. And I thank my young daughter for her patiently waiting Daddy doing some boring long exposure stuff in the darkness.

Call of the Wild

This is one of my most popular images and has received many honors, including First Place Award Winner, Outdoor Scenes, 11th Annual New Mexico Magazine Photo Contest; Photo of The Month and Cover Photo, Nature Photographer Online Magazine; and finalist, the 3rd Annual Sony Art of Expression Contest. I will detail the making of this image in this post. The image was taken with my Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 17-40mm F4 L lens.

Bisti Badland is a wildness area located in the high desert of New Mexico. This remote area offers some of the most unique and interesting scenery on the planet.  The strange and haunting beauty of the landscape is beyond description.  Camping under the stars, surrounded by the surreal hoodoos and other rock formations, was such an unforgettable experience.

I wanted to record my experience of this magic location, and my picture should be more than just pretty landscape photograph.  It must tell a story. As a result, the location of the tent is very important, since the environment tells a lot about the unusual geographic features for this area.  My photog buddy John Fan and I carefully selected a camp site. We pre-visualized the result before the camp was set up. Of course the location has to be flat so we could sleep, however, I also wanted the final picture to include some of the representing hoodoos and hills, and our location must have these features.

 (a)     Determining the Exposure values for the sky
Modern digital cameras need a combination of large aperture, high ISO, and long exposure, to properly capture the stars of the night sky.  Because the earth is rotating, if the exposure period is too long, the stars will not be recorded as sharp dots. They become unsightly mini star-trails. To determine my exposure time, I normally rely on the so called 500 rule:

Exposure Time (in seconds)  <=  500 / focal length (in millimeters)

Since I wanted to capture the night sky, the tent, and the surrounding environment at the same time in order to tell the story, I decided to use a 17-mm wide-angle lens.  As a result, my exposure time was set to 500/17 = 30 seconds.

Please note that the rule is just guidance.  If you plan to produce huge, 60-inch fine-art quality prints, than you should use even shorter exposure times.  On the other hand, if your photos are only used for web viewing, you can get away with longer shutter speeds. Moreover, if you point the camera toward North Pole (or South Pole) you can use longer exposure times, as stars near the North Pole and South Pole show less apparent movements than those near the equator do.

My final exposure parameters were 17mm, ISO 4000, F/4 (the maximum aperture of my Canon 17-40L lens) , 30 seconds.

(b)    Capture the features on the ground

The above-mentioned parameters work great for the night sky.  However, the landscape was too dark to be recorded using such an exposure combination.  The area is relatively small, and in theory I could have used a few strategically placed lamps to illuminate the scene so the landscape could be captured with the stars in a single exposure. However, the use of high ISO and a wide-open aperture would have resulted poor image quality.  The ground would have been grainy, noisy, and not as sharp as it should be. While it is relatively easy to reduce the noise in the sky, it is very difficult to clean up the landscape portion without sacrificing the image details. Such single-frame techniques may be OK for a small size magazine picture or web picture, but they are often not adequate for fine-art large prints.

I decided to use the double frame technique by taking two exposures and blending them together in post processing.  The first exposure was taken at night when I could clearly see the Galaxy. I carefully positioned the camera such at the direction and locations of the Milky Way, as well as the position of tent, were ideal.  I made my first exposure, using the parameters mentioned above, to capture the stars.  I then left the camera on the tripod, and went into the tent to sleep — it is such a remote place and nobody was around, so I didn’t have to worry about the safety of the equipment.   My alarm clock woke me up very early the next morning, long before the sunrise. I made the second exposure to capture the landscape. I used ISO 100, F/11 and 4 seconds to ensure the optimal image quality.

 (c)    Lighting the Tent

The key to the success of this picture was the lighting of the tent properly.   If you have a companion, you ask him/her to turn on a warm-colored camp light inside the tent when you make the long exposure. By changing how long the light is on, you can control the brightness of the light.

I used another approach.  I used a Canon 580EX flash with double CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gels. The CTOs changes the bluish light of the flash to lovely, warm light.  The 580EX was placed inside the tent as was remotely triggered by the camera with a pair of PocketWizard MiniTT1/FlexTT5.  The solution works well if you travel alone.


The two exposures were captured in RAW format.  They were opened in Adobe Lightroom. I chose the fluorescent white balance so the night sky and stars have a cool blue tone.  I then exported the two images to TIFF files.

The TIFF files were opened in Photoshop and copied into two layers of a single file. The bottom layer contains the night shot (the first exposure). The top layer contains the second exposure taken at dawn. I then selected the sky of the second exposure, deleted the sky, and merged the two layers.


Most of my work is landscape photography, which emphasize the majestic beauty of nature.  However, in this photo, my goal was to tell a story of our relationship with the nature and our needs for wilderness.  I hope that I have succeeded to some extent, and I am glad that many of my readers, editors, and judges like this photo.


Stars and Milky Way photographs are become incredibly popular recently, and they can become a visual cliché if not done properly.  Remember that in a “starscape” photo, the role of the stars and the Milky Way are just like that of clouds in a regular, daytime landscape image.  Nice clouds are important but not enough. You need beautiful landscape and great composition to make a memorable landscape image.  I often joke with my friends that “Milky Way is the new cloud in landscape photography”.

If you want your image to standout, your picture must be able to evoke our deep feeling about nature.  You must tell a story, or must show some mesmerizing landscape, under the velvet sky and brilliant stars.

Get Your Feet Wet

To get the best angle and perspective for your shot, sometimes you need to put yourself into some pretty inconvenient spot.

On a gorgeous weekend morning of May, I was shooting one of the endless creeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I found this location with beautiful lush green trees and a sweeping open view of the creek itself.  I walked along the bank and tried many different frames, but I was not completely satisfied with what I got.  I realized that  I really need to get into the middle of the creek and shot from a low angle there.

Problems were, the water was running rapidly, and the rocks were slippery.  The creek was not very deep, so a mistake probably won’t cost one’s life.  Still, not photo is worth a broken arm or a leg, in my opinion.  Moreover, we nature and landscape photographers often trek along in the wild, so we need to be especially careful.

Luckily, I was prepared to deal with this situation. I removed my hiking boots and put on a pair of sandals. I then put a pair of my trusted STABILicers ice cleats on the sandals, which provide excellent non-slip traction to keep me from falling on these moss-covered slippery rocks.  I then carefully walked into the keen-deep water.  Boy, the water was so cold that I felt chilled to the bone.  I found a few rocks to securely place my tripod feet, and made a few exposures.  I tried a few different shutter speeds, with and without an ND filter, and I found that for this this particular composition, the 30-second long exposure version taken with a 4-stop ND filter is far more attractive than the one with shorter shutter speeds.

Canon 5D Mark II ,  Canon 16-35 II L,  Cokin Z164 CPL, Lee 4-stop ND,  16mm,  F11,  30 sec.

Waiting for the Light

I was on the Sunset Point at the rim of Bryce Amphitheater of Bryce Canyon National Park, awed by the jaw-dropping view in front of me. Sure, I had seen pictures of these colorful, fantastic hoodoos countless times, but nothing could replace the experience of me really been there, seeing these nature wonders though my own eyes.

This was my first visit to this mesmerizing landscape.  I went straight to the Sunset Point.  The name suggests this must be an ideal location for sunset shots, or so I thought.

So I was here, standing by my camera and tripod, waiting, waiting for the light. The right light.

Light is the most essential element of photography.  Poor light makes the best landscape in the world flat and uninviting.  On the other hand, great light turns an OK scene into something extraordinary.

The arches, pinnacles, and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are indeed extremely impressive — especially in the winter time. The colorful formations contrast beautifully with the white snow on the ground. The soft warm light of the setting winter Sun nicely illuminated these fascinating formations, turning rocks into gold.  It was the so called golden hour — the first and last hour of sun.  Any landscape photographer will tell you in a heartbeat that this is the light you should aim for. The soft, warm, low-angle sunlight can play magic.  This is the light that makes great landscape photographs.

I made a few exposures.  “Not bad”, I told myself.  The light was wonderful.  However, there was another voice coming from the back of my mind: “Where are those magical, intensive red colors that I saw in the pictures of Bryce Canyon?”   To say I was a little bit disappointed is not exaggerating.

Bryce Canyon at Sunset. Canon 5D Mark II, f/11, 1/13 sec, ISO 100, 165mm, Lee 3-stop soft GND.

The sun went down, throwing everything surrounding me into a giant shadow.  The entire landscape appeared dull and lifeless.  Tourists were leaving. I did not pack my gears.  Years of experiences in the field told me that I should wait.  About 30 minutes after sunset, during a period I called the edge of light, the sky often takes rich red and magenta tones, and landscape basks in very soft and super saturated light.   The colors may not so obvious to our naked eyes, but films and digital sensors will record the extremely beautiful light. This is actually one of the best times to shoot landscape, especially for American southwest. The colors and light change rapidly so one has to work very fast during this period of time. Preparation and pre-visualization is the key to success.

An hour had passed. My waiting for the ideal light finally paid off. The clouds in the sky turned into rich, vivid red and purple hues.  The hoodoos radiated with intensive, glowing red. This was a truly magic moment, and the moment was fleeting.  The colors quickly disappeared after I made just a handful of frames.

Bryce Canyon at Dusk. Canon 5D Mark II, f/11, 2 sec, ISO 100, 25mm. Lee 3-stop soft GND.

Both pictures in this post have identical processing settings –— same white balance, same contrast, and same saturation value. And they were from the same location. What a difference an hour made!

And the moral of the story is: Don’t pack your camera when the Sun goes down. The show may have just started.