Photographing United States’ National Parks with the Irix 15mm – Kevin D. Jordan
After spending a cold Boston winter in photographic hibernation, during which I used much of my free time to catch up on a backlog of post-processing, gear cleaning, and planning for the upcoming year, I recently set out to explore and capture new, ultra wide-angle images of some the grand vistas in the United States’ National Park system. My goal was to photograph sweeping landscapes that show the heart of the parks that I was visiting, both during the day and after dark.
In order to capture the variety of wide-angle scenes I had in mind, I turned to the Blackstone version of the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. Knowing that I planned to capture both daytime images and astrophotos under pitch black skies, the Irix provided both the focal length I needed to capture a huge field of view, as well as the fast aperture required to gather enough of the faint starlight I would be working with under a truly dark night sky. In addition, the Irix 15mm is only about half of the weight of the wide-aperture, wide-angle zoom lenses I’ve used in the past, so I was looking forward to saving some weight in my bag and some stress on my creaky, old-for-their-age knees.
My travels began in early March and initially focused on the deserts of southern California. After being drenched in heavy rains the weeks prior to my visit, the region had begun to dry out, a process that was accompanied by unique conditions I was eager to capture.
I stopped first in Joshua Tree National Park, a predominantly desert landscape a few hours west of Los Angeles. Joshua Tree has long been a mecca for rock climbers but is often overlooked by landscape photographers who tend to favor more dramatic, mountainous landscapes such as Death Valley National Park or Yosemite National Park. However, between the monzogranite boulders, dark skies, and clear, dry air, Joshua Tree continues to be a place that inspires me.
Due to its endless patterns of Joshua trees, yucca plants, and cacti, Joshua Tree National Park has few truly iconic vistas like some of the other United States National Parks. However, after years of erosion that have carved out deep depressions in a roadside rock formation, one spot has become one of the most unique and recognizable locations in the park: Skull Rock.
I passed by Skull Rock during a previous visit to the park and, like most visitors, snapped a few photos and moved on the avoid the crowds. However, my past adventures to other parks have taught me that locations that are overrun with people during the day tend to be deserted after dark. So, after a chilly and somewhat broken 4 hours of sleep, I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag at 2:45 a.m. and made my way to Skull Rock. Based on my planning, I knew that I would have about an hour before astronomical dawn when the core of the Milky Way would be rising behind the iconic rock formation, and I didn’t want to miss the show.
I didn’t see another person during my 40-minute drive to Skull Rock, a theme that continued until well after sunrise. Upon arriving at the rock formation, I set up my camera with the Irix 15mm attached and began taking test shots to find the composition I had in mind. Once I found myself the correct angle, I set my aperture at f/2.8 (stopping down from f/2.4 to increase my depth of field slightly so that the desert shrubs in front of my camera would be sharp), focused the lens using a bright star in the sky, and captured the single 25-second exposure below.
In the days after capturing the Milky Way over Skull Rock, I drove north towards Death Valley, the largest national park in the continental United States. Not only has Death Valley been designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, but its constantly changing landscapes make it a playground for landscape photography.
After a day of exploring the park that took me from sea level to over 8,000 feet above it, I parked my car off a backcountry dirt road in the park and curled up to sleep for a few hours. As it always does for astrophotography, the alarm clock sounded much too soon, and I groggily made my way to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near the center of the park. Mesquite Flat is an expansive set of low, rolling dunes, and one of the more popular destinations in the park. Just like Skull Rock, however, it was devoid of other people at 3:30 a.m. Knowing the popularity of the dunes would mean I would have many footprints to contest with, I strapped on my headlamp and trudged a mile into the dunes, eventually coming across a large section of mud tiles that were likely part of a dried lake bed that the dunes formed atop.
I snapped a few test shots on the mud tiles, trying to use the textures to find a composition I liked. As astronomical dawn approached, however, I took advantage of the more than 180-degree view that the area provided me and set up my camera and Irix 15mm to capture a panorama showing the Milky Way arching over the dunes as the first light of the morning glowed along the horizon. The image below is a stitch of eight 30-second exposures at ISO 6400. I set the aperture to f/2.4, which allowed me to gather enough light to expose the mud tiles in the foreground in each exposure.
After packing up, I crested a nearby dune and waited for the sun to rise, and quickly realized that even though I had walked a mile from my car, I was still surrounded by footprints in the sand. This realization cut my morning of photography short, and I instead drove to nearby Furnace Creek and ate a bacon, egg, and pancake breakfast that was borderline life-changing. I’m not sure that the food was actually that good, but after a few days spent living on bananas and peanut butter sandwiches, my taste buds could not have been happier.
The heavy rains that had moved through southern California shortly before my arrival dumped almost a half years’ worth of precipitation in Death Valley, which lead to flooding and road damage in many areas of the park. In Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, several inches of standing water settled on the iconic salt pan, which meant I had the opportunity for some very unique photography conditions. So, the morning after shooting the Milky Way over Mesquite Flat, I made my way to Badwater Basin hoping to catch reflections of the sunset and the Panamint Range in the flooded basin.
To reach the standing water in Badwater Basin, I had to walk about 1.5 miles from the parking area. After arriving at the edge of the water and looking for a composition, I realized that, in my sleep-deprived state, I had left my tripod in my car, and I proceed to speed-walk another 3 miles through the salt pan to retrieve the tripod and make it back to the water by sunset. Luckily for me, the views were worth the extra walking, and I stood in disbelief as colorful clouds and 10,000-foot peaks reflected in the few inches of standing water around me that extended as far as my eye could see.
Standing in the flooded salt pan was a unique experience, and I wanted to capture a photo that would help the viewer feel like they could step into the scene. To do this, I set up my tripod low to the water, pointing my Irix 15mm at a mostly submerged salt polygon, and used the ultra wide-angle view the lens gives to compose a scene with the salt polygon in the foreground and the distant mountains of the Panamint Range in the background. I stood in the briny liquid for an hour as the scene got better and better, eventually making my way back to the car in salt-caked and waterlogged hiking boots.
After leaving California and catching up on life in Boston, I repacked my camera bag and made my way up the coast of the northeastern United States through rain and dense fog towards Acadia National Park.
Acadia is a stark contrast to the deserts of southern California. The park is situated on the northeastern coast of Maine, the landscapes of which were carved by glaciers during past Ice Ages. Rugged, rocky coastlines comprise the shoreline in the park, and jagged granite peaks shoot up from the edge of the ocean. I knew that if the fog I was met with when I arrived would clear, I would also be met with some of the darkest skies on the eastern coast of the United States.
A day of scouting the coastline for possible compositions was dampened by a constant rain and persistent fog. The sunset that evening was non-existent and the clouds were forecast to continue overnight, so I used the weather as an opportunity to hide in my tent and get a good night’s sleep. There was a potential for the clouds to clear for sunrise, so I set my alarm for one hour before first light.
When my alarm sounded, I poked my head out of my tent and was greeted by a low-hanging fog. I had thought this might be the case, so my plan was to drive up to Cadillac Mountain, a rocky summit which sees the first light in the continental United States during some parts of the year. My goal was to capture a wide angle shot of sunrise breaking through the fog. As I drove towards the mountain, however, I saw a hint of an orange glow appear on the clouds, and I realized that I must have written down the wrong sunrise time. Quickly changing plans, I turned my car around and drove towards the nearest east-facing coastline, and sprinted down the wooded trail towards the ocean.
It was low tide when I reached the rocky coastline, and I could see a gap on the horizon between a fast-moving layer of sea fog and the cloud bank above. As I surveyed the scene, I saw a rocky outcrop above the rest of the coastline a few hundred yards away and scrambled towards it as quickly as I could.
For those who have never tried to run through a rocky intertidal zone before sunrise, I can’t say that I recommend it. The rocks were covered in slippery algae, and I clambered over them as gracefully as a baby giraffe on a frozen lake. I’m still not sure how I didn’t break at least one of my ankles and have to drag myself back up the trail in defeat.
I reached the top of the rocky outcrop just as the first sunlight began to shine through the gap between the sea fog and the clouds. I saw a curtain of fog approaching from my right side, so with barely any time to set up my gear or compose my shot, I relied on the ultra-wide field of view of the Irix 15mm and pointed the camera in the general direction of the sun and the coastline. To focus, I relied on the infinity click of the focus wheel, which gives a subtle, but noticeable click when the focus wheel hits infinity focus. To my delight, in the few short moments when the morning sun was burning through the gap between the fog and the clouds, I managed to capture one of my all-time favorite sunrise images. I made my way back to the car with excitement, clumsily slipping over the rocky shore as I went, wondering if the chocolate bar in my car counted as breakfast.
I checked the forecast for the coming night and saw that, although the cloud cover was predicted to clear slightly, the overnight forecast still called from about 50% clouds. Hopeful that I would get a chance to shoot the Milky Way, I retreated to my tent at about 9 p.m. When my alarm went off at 12:30 a.m., I was considerably less excited about leaving my sleeping back, but eventually convinced myself to poke my head out of the tent to check the cloud cover. After seeing that there was not a cloud in the sky, I excitedly threw on my camera pack and raced towards the ocean, having planned a location earlier in the day to shoot the Milky Way arching over the coastline.
After a short drive, I hiked high along the rocky coastline overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, carefully making my way down to a lookout point I had found the day before. Only a few low clouds hung on the distant horizon, and the Milky Way was in perfect position arching over the cove below me. Due to how little ambient light there was (I could barely see my shoes when I looked down at them), I cranked up my ISO and set the aperture of my Irix 15mm to f/2.8 so that I would be able to exposure the foreground in a single shot. I considered using the widest aperture the lens had to offer, but with a fallen tree and the edge of the rocky cliff only a few feet in front of my lens, I wanted a slightly larger depth of field so I could get the foreground and background sharp in the same exposure.
Once I leveled my tripod and composed my scene, I set my focus and began capturing 30-second exposures, panning across the arch of the Milky Way with each shot. The result was 10 sharp images I could later stitch into a panorama. To my delight, I examined the back of my camera’s LCD to see faint waves of red and green airglow in the sky that I couldn’t see with my eyes. The resulting image shows the Milky Way arching over Newport Cove and iconic Sand Beach in Acadia.
After driving up to Cadillac Mountain as astronomical twilight began, I was clear that not clouds were going to roll in by sunrise, meaning that the sky would be peaceful, but fairly mundane from a photography perspective. Instead of waiting for first light I drove back to camp satisfied with the images I had captured, all while making plans of which national park to capture next.
Author: Kevin D. Jordan