Travel Photographer / Writer
chasing the essence
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5 Photo-Worthy Days
When it comes to landscapes, Arizona has some of the best year-round sights/sites on the planet. Join me as I take my new camera (an Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark II) for a spin along the rim of the Grand Canyon and more. These pictures show what the Oly can do, although this isn't a technical article; it's more about seeing and experimenting. AZ provides the extremes from A to Z.
resorting to dining
Arriving at Mountain Shadows Resort in Paradise Valley, the first item to catch my eye is a mobile in front of a window facing Camelback Mountain. Testing the ART filters on my camera, I chose 3 different versions from the available 30 in-camera instant JPG "art" scenes.
I'm still figuring out the light switches in my room when a knock at the door brings a bowl of fresh fruit. Working quickly, I record the delicate colours and textures using a close-up macro lens and natural window light with its forgiving shadows.
Stepping onto the patio I splash water droplets on a designer thermos bottle and place it on a chair, giving it more moisture than plants in the Valley have received in the past 100 days as a persistent drought continues.
Tatum Luoma, account rep for the resort's public relations firm, meets us in the lobby. She accedes to a momentary portrait session in which a silhouette matches her distinctive black outfit.
John A. Reyes, owner of Reyes Contemporary Art, conducts a tour for us of themed and historic graphics adorning the lobby walls. Included are some black & white prints from the resort's early days, including one of Lucille Ball arriving by helicopter to escape the 1960's paparazzi.
A mix of filtered and normal images made during a tour of the property shows elements that I intended to either contrast with or complement the human and natural landscapes.
Freshly baked flatbread and autumn squash soup introduce lunch. I discover a glass of Arizona Meskeoli 2014 semi-dry white wine goes well with raw tuna and salad. For photography, overhead lights add a slight sparkle and warmth to the cool window light on a cloudy day.
In neighbouring Scottsdale, Christmas at the Princess has begun. The grounds of Fairmont Scottsdale Princess glisten with millions of lights, a 4-story musical tree, fire-heated outdoor lounge and a train ride around a reflective lagoon.
The hotel's La Hacienda Mexican restaurant is noisy and informal with a cheerful staff. I'm persuaded to try the house Margarita made with white tequila and triple sec. I like it. As everyone knows, it's illegal to enjoy Mexican cuisine without guacamole, so we order that too — freshly made at our table.
Our server Francesco says the Tampiqueña skirt steak is photogenic. I take a picture lit by a fireplace filled with candles. He's right.
Offering an after-dinner drink served on a platter adorned with a rattlesnake head and tail named Bob and Bin, beverage server Katie shows me the 3 ingredients made from agave cacti: Soltol, Añejo tequila and mizcal — a potent brew on which I take a pass despite Katie's winning smile. Next time.
flights of fancy
Not everything goes exactly as planned. Tests indicate the wind would send us towards hydroelectric towers and the city. We need a new liftoff spot. We watch in frustration as the sun rises while our anticipated sunrise balloon flight doesn't go up in hot air, yet with the assurance Hot Air Expeditions is practising safety first. We will set sail from a new location.
Captain Al Lescarbeau shouts "We inflate the balloon; we do not blow up the balloon."
As we lift off, Al says "Remember, this is a sport, not a science; the only thing we know is, we'll land." With those words a final whoosh from the propane burner gently unleashes us from the truck and we float upwards in silence.
The Sonoran Desert stretches out below, bisected by roads and subdivisions. In the distance fast-growing Phoenix is surrounded by mountains as the morning haze increases.
The sharp angle of the early morning sun plus my polarizing filter noticeably reduce the aerial haze. The two most useful lenses on the flight are my 12-40mm f2.8 (24 -80mm in full frame format) for general views and 40-150mm f2.8 (80-300mm full frame) for honing in on details.
Coming in for a landing, we graze a cactus — always a thorny issue — bouncing up and over it as the pickup crew scramble to secure what is effectively a 17-person laundry basket. Keeping with an 18th century French tradition to placate angry famers whose crops may have been crushed, Al gently pops bottles of bubbly, recites a Balloonists Prayer of thanks and invites all to breakfast with no farmers in sight.
There are no marriage proposals on our flight, but one passenger (in the red jacket) happily celebrates her birthday.
We mosey on into Scottsdale, an affluent community within greater Phoenix, for lunch at The Mission, a restaurant with French-trained chef Matt Carter and co-owner Brian Raab celebrating Peruvian cuisine and signature cocktails.
The switch from aerial acrobatics to posh dining in a short space of time can make your head spin — hopefully, without affecting your appetite.
Corn and avocado guacamole, some new appetizers and an award-winning potato soup (very Peru) could easily become a habit. And the Andean dessert items look pretty tasty on an antique dresser.
Time for some sightseeing with Kirk and Mona, husband and wife owner/operators of JoyRides AZ, who offer a whirl of a tour on a pair of fancy golf carts through Scottsdale's Historical, Entertainment, 5th Avenue and Waterfront districts. Scottsdale is a place with an expensive tan, an oasis with a penchant for the good life ever since Hollywood stars began arriving in the 1960’s. Monica and Kirk can tell you a story or two.
You could spend weeks in the Sonoran desert viewing plant species or visit the Desert Botanical Garden to save time. 50,000 plants along paved, thematic trails dotted with top-notch artworks. What's not to like? Immense ceramic heads by artist Jun Kaneko immediately follow an introductory glass act of cacti by Dale Chihuli. This is no ordinary garden.
Conservation is emphasized, and it's no laughing matter. A surprising fact: the most serious threat to saguaro cacti, iconic symbol of the American West, are plantnappers who steal the succulents for collectors.
Guiding us on a walkabout is volunteer Dan Saddoris, a transplant himself from Minnesota winters. Critical to this picture is capturing Dan's gesture as he describes how saguaros survive in a harsh climate. I wait for Dan's hand and fingers to replicate the cactus, making a graphic connection between plant and people, and come away from the garden with renewed respect for these plants.
At day's end our group relaxes over dinner at Gertrude's, the garden's outdoor fine dining restaurant where a flight of Arizona red wines strikes my fancy.
from Phoenix to Lake Powell
Breakfast at Phoenix Public Market Café is a social wakeup call. Award winning chef Aaron Chamberlin and local coffee roaster Cartel offer eggcentric southwestern fare and gourmet caffeine. An eclectic crowd comes here to eat, meet and get an early morning sugar fix — or eat healthy (what a concept!). On market days, with farmers' tables just outside the door, the place is packed.
A walking tour with Phoenix Rising Tour Company begins, naturally enough, beneath a mural of that theme in Alley of the Arts. Wall art zooms out of a trash bin to symbolize the city's reawakening. Taking a picture, I trash myself for saying "bin there, done that."
The alley might be held together with spray paint, there's so much of it. Pictured are Jill Johnson (L) and Nikki Armstrong (R), the knowledgable principals of the tour company who are leading the tour.
The Alley opens onto a strikingly modern Theatre District, with design hints of Frank Lloyd Wright. Suspended inside the new Convention Center is the city’s second largest public art work. It’s part of the Percent for Art project which is tastefully artifying the downtown.
Across the street, Saint Mary’s Basilica has been staffed by Franciscan Friars since 1895. A plaque proudly indicates Pope John Paul II knelt there in prayer during his 1987 visit.
Our statuesque walking tour group appropriates 'The Gathering' art installation in front of the Herberger Theater. Am I dreaming or did I just see a Light Rail tram glide though downtown?
Within a compact area, historic San Carlos Hotel was another fav of Hollywood stars (including MM, again!), as was the rehabilitated Hilton Garden Inn and Westward Ho.
Rooseveltrow showcases local artwork and murals between downtown and the 10-minute walk to Roosevelt Arts District. It's lunch time and along the way I have a yak with a couple of guys responsible for the city’s rehab.
On the U. of Phoenix campus I finally spot what Jill and Nikki describe as the largest public art work in Phoenix: 'Her Secret is Patience.' Think about it for a minute and it'll come to you.
With layers of neglect being polished or replaced, Phoenix is a city in transition. Aside from inevitable construction, the city has a new vibe of civic, corporate and personal creativity. Sidewalk art and a cooperative wall of murals in the trendy Roosevelt district are part of that.
Speaking of metamorphosis, Brad and Kat Moore started selling food from a truck and now boast 2 restaurants and 3 trucks for Short Leash, Rollover Doughnuts centered in the Roosevelt area. Using the best ingredients, they've turned mundane into gourmet. Brioche doughnuts and fritters, anyone?
A visit isn't complete until a customer shows up with a dog on a short leash...
We stock up on supplies for a cross country drive we're making to Lake Powell. I munch on a chilli dog and glazed doughnut washed down with a comrade-friendly Leninade while taking in the desert from the back seat of our van.
Brilliant sunshine is interspersed with dark sky as we approach the lake while passing through Navajo Nation land. We pile out of the vehicle to take pictures when an older Navajo woman across the road wants to know what we are doing. Apparently, we're trespassing. We explain our photo stop, after which she approaches us, talking about the beautiful sunset and how she's just tweeted a picture of it. I opt for a series of all the ART filters in my camera. Here's the Dramatic Tone II.
In the gathering haze and increasing shadow I experiment with a Pop Art I filter of rock formations, then a Cross Process II filter of the coal-fired power plant (due to shut down in 2019). It may be a stretch, but the plumes of smoke and puffs in the air remind me of Native American ceremonial feathers and smoke signals.
Dinner is at Lake Powell Resort, where we overnight. The sun sets early in December, allowing photographers time for an evening meal at a decent hour. But it's chilly, which I can confirm while making time exposures (10 seconds @ f1.8, 17mm Zuiko lens) of the Whaweap Marina with the Live Composite setting on my Olympus EM-1 Mark II camera. The shutter remains open while the camera combines optimum highlight and shadow exposures — another technological wonder pushing the image envelope.
Dawn finds Renée, one of my colleagues, and me waiting in vain for a sunrise that never happens. Over coffee in the lobby the woman serving us describes the blazing red sky she photographed one morning from that same location. I think my coffee curdled.
There's no time to waste. Piling into our van we drive into Page where we hop onto a covered panel truck for the 15 minute drive to Upper Antelope Slot Canyon on Navajo tribal lands.
Tours of these semi-subterranean canyons have become very popular and it's not hard to see why. The sandstone rock formations eroded over centuries by powerful flash floods carrying sand and dirt display a wondrous striated flow of colour. The Navajo call the canyons Tsé bighánílíní dóó Hazdistazí. Maybe you've seen pictures of Arizona canyons in some camera ads. They're a natural.
Recording the beauty of Upper Antelope Canyon is a litmus test for my camera's ability to record detail in a dimly lit space with fine gradations of colour, light and texture. With five-axis stability and inherently greater depth of field for the Micro Four Thirds system, my Olympus EM-1 Mark II gives me some nice images. However, absent the steadying mass of a bigger camera, I am careful to press the shutter button slowly and calculate the fastest shutter speed and best f-stop to use for optimum sharpness.
Final results show my best images are shot at a low ISO 250. With that plus a little prayer, I’m successfully shooting High Dynamic Range images handheld. Only on designated photo tours are tripods, monopods and selfie sticks allowed in these 2 canyons; handheld is the rule due to crowds and the possibility of damage to canyon walls. I avoided the temptation to hypersaturate the colours. The gorgeous shaft of sunlight that streams onto the sand floor appears only from March to mid October, so no beam for me.
With no other tours in the canyon, our guide Erwin Tso (Hosteen Tsoh in Navaho) plays a haunting melody on his flute. Erwin knows the picture hot spots, including many with imaginary figures. The heart in my second image is an easy one.
Next iconic geological stop is Horsehoe Bend on the Colorado River where it flows through Glen Canyon southwest of Page. A walking trail leads from a parking lot to the rim overlooking the undeniably spectacular scene. I join the crowd, augmented by a Chinese tour group, as we all earnestly shoot a unique point of view.
Positioning myself on the edge of the ledge, I shoot a passel of pictures ranging from multiple Art filter shots to High Dynamic Range (HDR) composites for highlight and shadow detail stitched into a panoramic view using Adobe's Lightroom imaging program. Without straightening this "pano" into a normal rectangular picture, the uneven shape reminds me of a flexible map on a piece of hide or paper.
Black and white has its own beauty. I've found that converting an original colour picture file to maximize the tonal range of a good B&W image requires an original RAW file which many cameras offer.
But enough about rocks; let's look at some water contained by rocks. In this region that would be Lake Powell, an artificial lake that's part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Lake Powell is larger than most people realize. It borders 96 canyon offshoots, measures186 miles in length and boasts a shoreline longer than the entire western U.S.A. Houseboat tours and rentals can be booked directly through either the Page Chamber of Commerce or the Page Visitor Center at the John Wesley Powell Museum. Summers are crowded while spring, winter and autumn display a glass smooth water surface and absolute silence.
We depart the lake in brilliant sunshine, heading westward to the Grand Canyon. Cloud cover envelopes us at our initial stop of Pipe Creek Vista along Desert View Drive on the South Rim. In the grey light I apply a Pop ART filter to the scene for a painterly pastel effect.
As we reach Mather Point in Grand Canyon Village a full moon peeks faintly through an early evening haze to the east. In the other direction the sky turns brilliant orange red, but without a direct view of the canyon, we can only record a glow reflected off the buttes.
Darkness comes quickly, so we check in to Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn — I know, it's a mouthful! — 6 miles / 9.5 Km south, just outside the park, in Tusayan. Dinner is at the Big E Steakhouse and Saloon, named after owner Elling Halvorson, a prominent businessman in the community. Clayann Cook, General Manager, regales us with tales of the town and the Big E as we tuck into more meat than I can eat beneath Canadian deer antler chandeliers.
wild to wonderful
I have certified genes in my body that rebel against getting up when its cold and dark...unless it's for sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Photographer Glenn Tamblyingson www.canyoncountrytours.net is in our hotel lobby at 6:15 to take us there. The road to Yaki Point, one of Glenn's favourite spots, is blocked, so we drive to Yavapai Point instead. A few early risers are already there. Hardy souls. Could be photographers.
Hauling a Nikon DSLR from an oversize backpack, Glenn shares some shooting secrets applied in a beautiful photo book he's published. The first is a given: vistas like this. In addition to being here/there, he uses a graduating filter to retain the colour in a brightening sky. Mirror lock: check. Cable release: check. Wide angle and telephoto lenses: check. I think his tripod weighs more than me. The stillness is broken only by multiple camera and cellphone clicks.
Through a veil of smoke and haze drifting between these monolithic buttes, a tinge of pink ochre emerges to reveal their crusted grandeur. Hiking paths weave through the canyon.
Here's where technology can be fun as I mimic an Andy Warhol graphic with a cluster of in-camera ART filters. My 40-150mm f2.8 (80-300 f2.8 full-frame 35mm equivalent) tele zoom lens enables me to precisely frame distant elements.
A quick breakfast at Plaza Bonita Restaurant back in Tusayan pops our red eyes with Mexican-inspired colour as we thaw out from the near freezing temperatures at the canyon rim.
Our afternoon drive to Mesa in southeast Phoenix deposits us at the brand new Courtyard Marriott Gateway in time to freshen up before heading over to something quite different: Agritopia, a modern version of earlier rural communities. In a way, it reminds me of the classic Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life.
William Johnston shows us around. His father Joe, an inventive engineer like his father Herbert Johnston who invented the Mixmaster in 1908, is scooting off as we arrive. William says, "We think the idea of having a farm in the center of a community is the way to go." It's semi-sufficient with housing, a farm, gardens, restaurants, boutique shops and work spaces. It even has an orange grove with a glorious sunset.
We finish our tour with a knosh-up at Agritopia's crazy-popular Farm Grill Restaurant, a retro burger place with 'common food done uncommonly well,' then detour through the bakery to Garage-East for a sampling of Arizona wines.
coffee and oil
OK, so I lied. I'm in the zona longer than 5 days if you count a hasty visit next day to Queen Creek Olive Mill. Founded by former Detroiters Perry and Brenda Rea, the Mill is Arizona's only organic olive oil producer. It's also a well-stocked store and indoor/outdoor eatery and picnic ground.
Speaking of food, breakfast orders are freshly prepared with a special touch — Verdura Benedict and Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, for instance.
Bill Moreweis is roasting coffee beans in-store for a tantalizing aroma to accompany those eggs. Bill likes a good conversation and knows his coffee. Note to self: oil and water do mix if the water is with good coffee.
The store has more flavours, types and combinations of olive oil than I can count. I'd like to try them all but I'm a bit pressed for time.