Category Archives: Photography

A Little Ode to Winter

I love winter. Maybe it’s just my New England heritage, but you know, I really enjoy it when the temperature drops below freezing outside and there are eight or ten inches of snow on the ground.

Suited up to ski!

I love when it’s cold enough outside that I can taste the air as I breathe in, and I have to bundle up in layers of sweatshirts, snow pants, parkas, boots, hats, scarves, and gloves to go outside. It adds a sense of adventure to the mundane: the need for extra preparations makes even familiar locales more exotic! It’s like outfitting for a hike in the desert, or (for me, growing up) preparing to explore a strange alien planet.

Wachusett Reservoir

In fact, snow and ice does turn the world into something new – something unpredictable, something different every time, with snowfall determined chaotically, water iced over, and winds sculpting the shape of these temporary surfaces. There can be places to explore that seem like exciting new discoveries which, in summer, might be only the usual woods or paths or buildings. Everyday objects in the snow take on a new aspect. All my senses are affected: the chill of wind on my cheeks, the soft white snow, the utter stillness of places deep in the woods, the muffled crunch of snow under my boots all make an impression.


Extraordinary locations, too, take on a completely new character in winter. That which I enjoy in summer or fall becomes something else, entirely – adding to the value I place on it during the warmer months of the year. When the snow is gone, the rain and mud has washed away, and green things begin to come out again, I can appreciate springtime even more.

Ithaca Falls as an Ice Fortress

Winter brings with it a whole new gamut of things to do: from skiing and skating to just running out to the backyard and shoving, building, or sculpting with snow. These things cannot be done any other time of year, and during winter, they come right to my backyard!

Egyptian Snow-Ruins

Even the chores – the shoveling, the ice-scraping – are cause for me to take a moment outside and enjoy the sights and sounds of winter, savor the process of going out the door and coming back in, or just focus on physical exertion for a time.

And when the outdoor activities are finished, what could be better than to come inside, strip off all the layers, and sit someplace with some hot chocolate or tea? It’s a perfect time for board games or movies or idle chats. Winter drives people together.

Cornell arch and clocktower at night

I love all the seasons – maybe with the sole exception of that time between when the snow starts melting and the flowers come out, when the world consists of rain and mud – but winter always carries a little bit of extra excitement for me. I suspect I may be destined to start my career in California, and a New England winter is one thing I will certainly miss!

NASA went where I’ve gone!

This year’s NASA Desert RATS exercise is taking place near Flagstaff, AZ. Here’s the view from inside one of the rovers after a traverse:

RATS is a program in which NASA engineers, scientists, and astronauts take prototype equipment into remote locations on Earth and practice the procedures and operations that they would use if they were actually on another planet. It’s an opportunity for the engineers to see what their creations are capable of, scientists to see how much work astronauts can get done and teach them basic skills like field geology, and the astronauts to get some experience using the equipment so they can provide feedback.

Not only is RATS showing off the best capabilities of the most successful part of the Constellation Program – the Lunar Electric Rover Concept, or LERC – but they have gone to an especially cool site, a well-preserved but little-known cinder cone volcano known as SP Mountain! As that video played, I kept thinking to myself: “that looks familiar…” Here’s my view of SP and the lava flow coming out of the base of the mountain:

SP Cone
SP flow

When I was there, with a class of planetary geology grad students led by Cornell Mars scientist Jim Bell, I couldn’t help but picture the rugged a’a terrain of SP flow with astronauts picking their way along. What a tremendous place to practice exploration operations!

Grad students exploring the flow

Smoky Mountains Report

I spent the week of the Fourth of July with my girlfriend’s family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have driven through the southeastern United States twice, but never had a chance to get out of the car and look around much, so I was very happy to add a new area of the country to the places I’ve visited and go take a look at my 7th National Park. (Everglades, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, and Petrified Forest were the previous six.) We landed in Nashville Airport, made a valiant attempt to dodge all the country music, picked up our rental car, and then drove though the countryside for four hours before coming in to Gatlinburg, driving up a mountain, and arriving at her family’s swanky rental cabin. (I shall skip over describing the übercheesiness that is Gatlinburg itself.) An impressive view greeted us out the back porch…


They don’t call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing. It was pretty hazy most of the time I was there, so we got a lot of views of faded ridgelines marching off into the distance, covered by lush deciduous forests. Of course, as this was a family event, we spent most of our time in that cabin and generally had a great time. But my girlfriend and I managed to make two highly successful jaunts into Smoky Mountains NP.

The first was a bike around the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road. This loop starts at a visitor center an hour’s drive into the park and circumnavigates a flat expanse of farmland in the middle of the mountains. Even the drive in was fun – it reminded me quite a bit of the drive from my home to Williams on Rt. 2, on the part around the Mohawk Trail. Makes sense – the Berkshires and Appalachians formed in similar orogenies, though the scales were far different. Anyway, a farming community has existed in Cades Cove since the first settlers made it that far west and persists today. The loop road winds along what were – to an Ithaca biker – gentle hills and afforded us a lot of panoramic views as well as some brief visits to historic buildings. (The Park Service calls the Loop Road a “moderately difficult” bike. That was definitely on account of the condition of the rental bikes, and that they tell you not to use the front derailleur – I think the one on my girlfriend’s bike was actually disabled. Fortunately, I had my multitool….)

View from the Cades Cove Loop Road

There were quite a few panoramic views from the road. Cars and cyclists share the road, and despite the many pullouts, traffic was slow as the people in cars paused to take photos. I was happy to be a bit more mobile and flexible!

Cades Cove panorama

At the far end of the loop was another visitor center built near the old farming community’s mill – which looked very picturesque among all the trees! I had a fun time playing with the CDHK high-dynamic-range script on my little Canon point-and-shoot to get a picture of the half-shaded, half-sunlit mill building:

Cades Cove mill

Inside the mill, they sell corn meal ground at the site. Of course, we weren’t going to hump any of that out the remaining 5 miles on our clunker rental bikes! After pausing awhile for lunch – which gave us an opportunity to improve my blood sugar, the water level in our bottles, and the worst of the derailleur problems on our bikes – we set off again. I was most interested in the scenery of Cades Cove, as after seeing one or two of the historic old houses, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. However, there were still interesting historical tidbits to be had. Here’s a pretty cool grave we found in the cemetery around the Primitive Baptist Church:

Murdered by Rebs!

Our bike tour finished with a close encounter. On the way back, all the cars on the road suddenly jammed up, with occasional people pointing out of rolled-down windows. I cast a look off to one side and spotted a BEAR. I skidded to a stop, and it turned out to be a mother black bear with two cubs, rooting around in the shrubbery. They had warned us about bears at the visitor center, but I took those warning in the same way I take any warning about animals in parks – yeah, yeah, okay, if I see a bear I’ll be sure to keep that stuff in mind! Little did I know that they give these warning in the Smoky Mountains because you will probably run into bears. I took some grainy movies before they got too close for us to do anything but get back on the bikes and get going. We had no windows to roll up!

After the Cades Cove bike, we collapsed at the lodge. The next day, though, we were feeling intrepid enough to be looking at hikes in the park, and based on the description alone we picked out Chimney Tops trail. This was a big win.

Chimney Tops is a 2-mile trail to the summit of a mountain right next to LeConte Peak, the highest point in the park. The last mile of the two gets steeper and steeper, ending with a bare-rock climb. I, my girlfriend, and her cousin were very excited as we set off.

One of the first things to strike my about this hike was how lush everything was. I’m used to forests that consist large of trees and ground cover, like those in New England. Whenever I see a different forest ecosystem things seem a little funny to me. So far, the weirdest to me has been the ponderosa pine forest around the Grand Canyon, which consists of huge ponderosas and nothing else. Well, Smoky Mountains National Park is at the other extreme: solid green growing things from ground level up to the canopy.

Chimney Tops Trail

(Other great examples here and here.) We even managed to spot a Jordan’s Red-Cheeked Salamander in all that foliage – a salamander species found only in this National Park! Shortly thereafter, we almost had another encounter with a black bear, as we saw some fellow hikers hoof it down the trail to us and tell us that they were doubling back a bit to avoid a bear that had burst out of the undergrowth right in front of them. We didn’t see the bear – only some wet footprints a few minutes later.

Chimney Tops Trail reminded me a little bit of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park – though the climates, geology, and trails had plenty of differences, of course – in that it ends with hikers climbing out onto a spur of rock that sticks out into a valley. So, as the hike got steeper and steeper, eventually it turned into this!

Scaling the summit

Pausing at a convenient stopping point partway up those rocks, I turned to one side and snapped the following panorama, a preview of what we saw at the very top.

Panorama near the top

Finally, after a bit of exciting scrabbling, we got to wedge ourselves into some crevices at the top and have a good look around. Scenic! (Click to panoramify.)

Chimney Tops summit panorama

Have I mentioned that I love my little Canon SD1000, which fits in my pocket, has a nice panorama mode, and lets me take HDR photos with CHDK? In fact, the HDR tricks I’ve been playing with were wonderful up on Chimney Tops, because they let me combine exposures to get some good shots of the progressively faded mountain ridges staggering off into the distance over the near hills. One such example:

HDR of mountain ridges

And another, capturing the tip of the mountain spur forming the Chimney Tops:

HDR mountain rock spur

Under the shade of the trees it had been nice and cool, but as we came out onto the bare rocks it warmed up. As we snacked, sitting on the mountain, the sun was flirting with the edges of some clouds. Coupled with the haze and humidity, this meant that we got a pretty nice optics show of sunbeams blazing down on the distant mountains. I tried to capture some of that with my camera, too, but found it about as difficult as the one time I was in a position to photograph the aurora borealis. Still, I got a few nice images!

Smoky Mountain sunbeams

I even figured out how to postprocess the living heck out of one panorama to bring out the sunbeams without totally destroying the rest of the image. I quite like the result, below! You’ll want to click on this one.

Smoky Mountains sunbeams

Maybe next time, I’ll have to try and time that hike for sunset or sunrise!

After a good deal of gawking, it was time to head back. Of course, climbing up the rocks and climbing down the rocks are two different problems, and we were a bit slower picking our way down the steep surfaces. This is the best picture I got that gives a real sense of going down. Notice all the deformation in the tilted stratigraphy, with girlfriend and her cousin for scale. (The runner-up is this photo.)

Going down!

I’ve gotta say that the Smoky Mountains were definitely worth a visit, and I’d happily recommend Chimney Tops as a good morning or afternoon hike. I like hiking, and I like our National Parks, so I was happy for the chance to get to see another in an area of the country I haven’t been to.That’s one of the things I like best about the United States: we’ve got so much stuff within our borders, but everyone uses the same money, understands English, and follows the same road signs. And sometimes we even feel like protecting what we have, so we can go into these spectacular places!

Gatlinburg ridges at sunrise

See all my pictures on Picasa – I had fun tweaking them all on the plane back to Ithaca!

Who needs an SLR?

This past Saturday, I biked to upper Robert Treman State Park with some friends. Lots of hills between the lower and upper parks!

I brought along my little Canon PowerShot SD1000 – a pretty simple point-and-shoot – and GorillaPod. This camera is obviously designed for sliding into pockets and taking snapshots with a variety of presets, not for taking really high-quality artsy, landscape, or action photos. Still, this camera has been my personal mainstay for a while. (And given the right subject matter, who cares?!) Along with the GorillaPod and CHDK, it can actually be quite powerful. Most of my pictures on Saturday were high-dynamic-range composite photos that came out quite well in postprocessing. (Okay, still not as well as I could have done trying the same thing with a really good camera. But still: this is a great way to get excellent photos for about $220.)

High-dynamic-range, or HDR, photos are composites of several sub-images with varying exposure times. I followed this article and used Qtpfsgui to composite the images.

Lucifer Falls
Lucifer Falls

HDR images essentially combine the dark areas of overexposed photos with the light areas of underexposed photos. The net effect is an image that seems more like our everyday perception: you can see the details in both lit and shadowed areas of the resulting image. Of course, there are several algorithms that do this, and tweaking the settings can result in various realistic or artistic effects. Continue reading Who needs an SLR?