Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ernesto Santos knows this first visit to the Grand Canyon of Texas won't be his last.

As award-winning photographer Ernesto Santos continues to document the unique geology of his Texas home country, the surprises and frustrations keep testing him. "As soon as we crossed IH-27 east of Canyon, Texas, -- not far from Amarillo -- we entered Palo Duro Canyon State Park. I was startled to see how quickly the flat and endless plain of grass we had been travelling through suddenly gave way to the massive canyon walls of the Palo Duro Canyon.

"Often called the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the U.S. As you move further into the canyon, the wide range of colors in the exposed rock strata soon strikes you. I have never seen red rock so intensely colored, and I’ve been all over the red rock country in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Most beautiful of all are the 'Spanish Skirts,' the lower sections of the walls ending on the canyon floor that are a deep red accented by horizontal bands of white, yellow, and green with deeply eroded crevasses, resembling the billowing skirts of traditional Spanish dancers.

"In the panoramic composite image of the canyon rim that you see above, these formations stand in contrast to the rest of the craggy stone walls. To capture this image, I used two Singh-Ray ND Grad filters -- a 3-stop hard-step and 2-stop hard-step, stacked together and held in place by hand over my Nikkor perspective control shift lens to hold back the sky and bring the canyon floor out of the shadows. As I panned the camera to record the four images making up this panorama, I concentrated on keeping the ND Grads at exactly the same registration against the horizon to ensure even filtration from frame to frame.

"The views from the rim of the Palo Duro seem to change every few hundred yards. The depth of the canyon and the layers of 250-million-year-old rock provide many hues and textures. For any photographer or painter it's a dream come true. Using my 3-stop hard-step ND Grad and my ColorCombo, I captured this shot which shows how different the canyon can look from the first image in this story.

"Once you get your fill of the awesome views from the rim of the canyon, the park has a nice 16-mile loop road that takes you to the bottom of the canyon where there are visitor facilities, camping sites, and a lot of hiking trails. We decided to get out of the SUV and get a better view of the amazing canyon walls with their deeply saturated colors and interesting textures carved by erosion. One the best trails is the Lighthouse Trail that runs through some of the most interesting geology in the canyon. Here is an example of what I'm talking about. This towering wall is deeply eroded and has a knife edge to it that makes it look like something out of the Dakota Badlands. Here I used my Singh-Ray ColorCombo to accentuate the orange-red color and reduce the glare shining off the yucca leaves.

"Driving the loop road at the bottom of the canyon, we encountered several water crossings where the tributary system of the Red River runs through the park. It is this Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River that created the canyon as we know it today. On this cold morning we started out early and as we crossed the fork there was hoarfrost on the water surface that I thought was interesting. It wasn’t a heavy layer of ice but a very fine crust of delicate ice crystals. At first I thought a close up of this frost would make an interesting composition but when I saw the brightly colored canyon wall in the distance and the tall grass glowing in the sun’s light I had to somehow get it all in. Using my wide angle 16-35 mm zoom lens, I set the camera low to the ground and pointing downward to exaggerate the perspective. I used the LB Polarizer in my ColorCombo to remove the glare coming off the water. Since I was shooting at a very wide angle with a full-frame 35mm camera, I was also careful to dial in just enough polarization to keep the sky from becoming uneven in color and density.

"As we rounded the corner passing by the knife-edged wall we came across this spectacular jumble of colored and striated sandstone. I like to call this image 'Rock Candy,' as it reminds me of the striped candy we had as kids. Again, I attached my ColorCombo to reduce the glare from the sun and make the colors pop. I also used a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad rotated diagonally to help control the sky and give me a few additional stops of light to open up the shaded crevasses.

"Finally, while we were on the trail, I wanted to capture a shot that would illustrate the typical view of the canyon wall at ground level. I chose this angle which shows the beautiful colors, the interesting formations and erosion patterns, and the thick stands of juniper, yucca, and grasses. I know for certain I'll be returning soon to this impressive land that painter Georgia O'Keeffe described as 'a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.' The canyon floor, especially on the Lighthouse Rim trail, is full of surprises. Sometimes though, you have to look a little harder than usual.

"We had been on the trail for about two miles when we came to a gentle rise with a deep wash to our left. As I was scanning the scene, an interesting juniper caught my eye. The branches were gnarly and meandered in all directions. I saw this one branch that rose and then dropped to the ground making a great natural frame. I told my wife Gracie that I had to get to that branch on the other side of that deep wash but I couldn’t find a good approach. The ground was very wet from previous rains and the soil there turns into something like wet concrete. It is dangerously slippery and sticks to everything. Gracie quickly pointed out a safe route.

"When I got to the juniper, I immediately found my composition. I felt a sense of serendipity since the ridge in the distance matched the loop in the branch almost perfectly. I set my ColorCombo to boost the color a little and got my pre-visualized shot. When you see the image in your mind and you are able to capture it – that is the most satisfying feeling in nature photography.

"However, I'm convinced I am totally jinxed when it comes to capturing a Texas landscape dusted with snow. As I mentioned in my last article, I timed a visit to Big Bend National Park a few years ago just as a winter storm moved into the area. As luck would have it, Mr. Murphy and his law also rode into the Chihuahua desert that week. The storm turned out to be one of the worst in many years and I ended up holed up in a motel room waiting for the iced up roads leading into the park to re-open. Now, here I was at Palo Duro Canyon -- nowhere near Big Bend -- and the same thing happened! It began snowing Christmas morning; then it snowed all day and all night. The next morning the park was closed and would remain so for the next few days. We had no choice but to turn back and head home. Fortunately, we enjoyed two days in the canyon before the snow storm, and I got a few shots that I could share here."

Ernesto and Gracie have just completed booking their flights to Scotland and Ireland for a 3-week trip later this summer. "It is still 6 months away, but we are already busy formulating an itinerary that includes the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and Lochs, and many of the rural areas of Eire. We hope to storm a few castles as well."

You can stop by Ernesto's website at esartprints.com to see more of his work, and check out his new  professional fine art print services to fellow photographers, using the same process he uses on his own fine art prints. And don't forget to add Ernesto on Facebook, too.