Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When searching for fall colors in Texas, head for Ernesto's hideaway canyon

Even though landscape photographer Ernesto Santos has been busy lately changing employers, he's still living in warm and sunny McAllen, Texas, and he says he's "getting closer and closer to my goal of retirement and pursuing a full-time career in nature photography. That's why I've finally gathered a few of my images from last fall to illustrate why I love my home state.

"Driving through the vast desolation that dominates my native West Texas landscape, the last thing you would ever look for is rich foliage in autumnal shades of red, orange, ochre, and gold. Frankly, most of the scenery is almost monochromatic in tone - a dull buff shade, and yet for me it is certainly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. As a hopelessly devout and fully certified desert rat, I know where to look for blazing fall color in these northern reaches of the vast Chihuahua desert.

Before I reveal that secret, here is my first shot from a trip to West Texas last fall. I spent the better part of my first afternoon at Guadalupe Mountains National Park waiting for the right light to accentuate this field of huge boulders with El Capitan peak in the background. Just when the sun was about to begin its decent over the horizon, I got in position behind these Volkswagen-sized sandstone concretions to capture the sun’s final glow striking the tops of the rocks and the fossilized, sheer marine reef cliffs of the Guadalupe Mountains. Using my Singh-Ray 3-stop Graduated ND filter, I was able to sustain the glow of the sky and cliffs while also exposing for the shaded pockets in the foreground. By adding the Singh-Ray ColorCombo Polarizer, I boosted the sun’s fading glow to perfection. Since the sun was at a 90° angle to the camera lens, the polarizing effect was maximized. I find the desert is a wonderful place to explore and rekindle the creative urges within. At first glance, it can seem like there is nothing out there to romance with the camera lens. But when I look closely and study its secrets I discover its hidden beauty.

And now my secret is revealed. A few weeks each year, if conditions are right -- meaning if we get enough rain, and the cold snaps arrive at just the right time, and if there are no high winds to knock off the leaves, and on and on -- something extraordinary happens in the isolated McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains. Here we see a bigtooth maple struggling to survive by hugging a large granite boulder on the canyon slopes. The sunlight here was shaded by the canyon walls creating a perfect scene in shadow. To keep the shaded image free of any blue color cast, I used the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to great effect. Along with achieving the correct white balance in-camera, the polarizer ensured that I would get a pleasing warm tone to the colors in the leaves.

This worked so well that I decided to continue to use the LB Warming Polarizer for more other shots of the foliage. Here is a shot of the canyon floor covered with fallen leaves. You can see why McKittrick Canyon is truly an idyllic place where 2,000-foot canyon walls rise toward the radiant blue Texas sky protecting the gradual slopes in a rather open canyon that are perfect for easy hiking in the exhilarating weather in the fall months of October and November.

This last shot was taken with a macro lens and the LB Warming Polarizer. It is easy to see how the filter brings out the subtle shades without over-saturating the warm tones. We can see this particularly well in the areas where the leaves still have a bit of chlorophyll. The canyon trails take you through a range of flora that is rarely found anywhere else in the world. Amid the soaring center spikes of the Texas agave and the spiny pads of prickly pear cacti are stands of hardwoods that remain from the last ice age. There are forests of bigtooth maple, Texas madrone, walnut, gray oak, and ponderosa pine to name a few. Each fall the bigtooth maples are the stars of the show. Displaying a full array of fall colors, these trees are a rarity this far south -- not seen in most other areas of the Chihuahuan desert. The canyon's micro-ecosystem provides the perfect place for this species to live and grow, as they have done now for hundreds of thousands of years. And when all the conditions are right, the fall colors are spectacular.

Ernesto's website is also a good place to see more colors and pick up a lot of useful ideas. Visit him soon.

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