Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Favorites from 2015

A popular thing for photographers to do at the end of the year is to share their best photos of the previous twelve months.  I've done this in the past.  This year I'm not sharing my best photos.  Instead, I'm sharing my favorites.

My favorite photos are not necessarily my best.   The best photos will be well composed, exposed correctly, be sharp where they need to be sharp, have pleasing colors and contrast, and are what other people like.  My favorites are the ones that make me happy when I look at them.

My favorites don't make me happy because they are all that special, but because I remember where I was, who I was with, and the challenges of taking the photo.  They bring back good memories.  Of course, you don't have any of those memories and will probably not be all that impressed with my favorites. 

It doesn't matter if anyone likes these photos.  In this case, they are for me and what makes me happy.

Dark Eyed Junco
My first favorite was taken at Warriors Path State Park on February 21 after one of our better snowfalls. It was only a few miles down the road from home.  I like minimalist style photos where there is little in the photo except the subject.  A minimalist photo will often have large patches of white, black or some other uniform color.  I have not been overly successful making this style photos but in this case, the snow provided a nice white background.

Trillium After A Rain
This was taken at Anna Ruby Falls in Georgia after an early morning rain.  We were walking up the path to the falls and found this beauty right on the side of the path.  The morning light was hitting the flower at just the right angle to show the water drops from the rain.   This flower was not the main attraction of the park, but I found it just as beautiful as the falls.

Texas Sunrise
This photo and the next two were taken on a trip to Texas with  some photographers who are great friends.  They all live in different parts of the country and we don't get to see each other as often as I would like.   These photos bring back memories of a great time.  That alone makes them worthy of being some of my favorites.   I like this one because it is different from anything we have here in East Tennessee.  I like the ranch entrace with the wagon wheels and the Texas star next to the morning sun star.   To me this says "TEXAS".

Standing Apart
While in Texas we saw abundant fields of Bluebonnets and red Indian Paintbrush growing wild.   I came home with many photos of these fields. I like all of them but I like this shot because it is different.   The one yellow wildflower growing above the carpet of Indian Paintbrush seems to be saying "look at me!".     I used a wide aperture of f/2.8 to create the shallow depth of field which made the yellow flowers stand out even more.

Leading Lines
Just to the right of where I was standing when I took this photo is a solid field of Indian Painbrush.   It was beautiful and I got some shots when the orange sun going down in the background.  Although this photo has fewer flowers I like it better. The fence and the path are two lines that draw the viewer's gaze into the photo to the cabin and sunset.

Results of Getting Up At 3 AM
Sometimes landscape photographers have to do crazy things to get "the shot".  In this case June and I got up somewhere around 3:00 AM to drive 2 1/2 hours to get to a good spot for sunrise in the Smokies.   I under estimated how long it would take to get there and we were still a ways away and the sky was already looking great.  We almost stopped earlier figuring the sunrise would be over by the time we got to this overlook but kept going and were rewarded with this really cool sunrise.  The clouds were like cotton balls floating in the sky, making it an unusual sunrise.

My Favorite Smokies Steam
The river around Tremont Institute in the Smokies is one of my favorite places to shoot.   It's just a good place to be in any season.  We've been there in a snow storm and in the summer when we took a nap on boulders in the stream.   This shot was taken while with a group of photographer friends gathering in the park for an annual reunion and bring back nice memories of that time.

Dream Wildlife
Our biggest trip of the year, and one we had been planning for years, was to Alaska.  We had high hopes of seeing and photographing great things, such as mountains, streams, and wildlife.   We have been on a moose hunt through several states over the years and have never seen a big bull with a rack.  On our first day in Denali we were rewarded with a group of several bulls and cows near the side of the road.   We were blessed with plenty of time to enjoy these animals and make many photos until they were scared off by the bark of a small dog.
Abstract From The Air
The above photo is one I really like and no one else seems to care for at all. The gray part is the gravel bar of a braided river and the green part is the tundra.   I like the abstract nature, the flowing lines, the color contrast and the lighting.    Maybe the real reason I like it is because it was taken from a small plane flying over Denali National Park.  The flight was a grand adventure for June and I and this picture brings back great memories.

The Mountain Appears
The photo of Mount Denali is special to me because seeing the highest mountain in North America is actually pretty rare.  Only about 20% of the people who visit Denali National Park actually see the mountain.   We were hiking and the entire mountain range was obscured by clouds for most of the day.  As we were hiking back to the lodge the clouds started to break.  We stayed and waited, as did the group on another hill between us and the mountain.   What a treat seeing the mountain appear from the clouds.

Trumpeter Swans
This is a favorite because it was difficult to take.  It was late in the day, there was not a lot of light and the swans were pretty far away.  I would take a series of photos then walk a little closer after I was sure I had some shots.  I kept repeating this process until I was directly across from these magnificent birds.   I timed my shots to make the most of ripples in the water, positions of the birds, and reflections.  The birds are as big as they are beautiful.  They are North America's biggest native waterfowl, stretching to 6 feet in length and weighing more than 25 pounds.

Head Butting
These four Mountain Goats were part of a group (herd, pack?) that were grazing on a hillside next to the Exit Glacier Trail in Alaska.  I had several shots of groups and individuals but I like this one because of the two preparing to but heads.   I think it tells a story.

Learning To Light Paint
I have to have at least one photo of my sweetie as a favorite.   June and I went out with our friend Ron specifically to take photos of the Milky Way.  While there I tried my hand at light painting.   While taking a photo of the stars I used a flashlight to light June while she gazed into the starry night.  

Close To Home
I started my list with a photo from Warriors Path State Park and this one is from the same park only in a different season.  Some of my favorite photos are taken within a few miles from home.

Not One Of My Strong Skills
My final favorite of 2015 is a portrait, which is something I don't do often and am not very good at.  I was pleased with how this came out.   It was not planned, arranged, or posed.  He was playing by a window in an old church in Cades Cove.   I moved around to the side to make the most of the window light and was able to get something I was happy with.

There's only two days left in 2015 and I'm working both of them.  Given it's dark when I go to work and dark when I get home I will probably not be making any more photos this year.   This is it for 2015.   I like the photos I made in 2015.  I can't wait to see what I get next year.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Being in Awe

How often are you truly in awe of something?  I'm not talking about superficial awe, as in "that's awesome!" I'm talking about stop you in your tracks beauty and spectacular majesty.

Students in a recent study who reported feeling awestruck frequently had the lowest levels of interleukin-six, which is an indicator of inflammation and poor health.  Who knew there are health benefits of being in awe?

There are definitely emotional and spiritual benefits of being awestruck.  In our travels, June and I are often in places where wonderful sights are all around us, such as majestic snow capped mountains.

Mount Denali

Olympic Mountain Range
Or mighty creatures just a few feet away.

Killer Whale

It's not always the huge and majestic but the small and beautiful that bring awe and wonder.   Take time and look closely at all the details of a flower.  They are beautiful creations of tiny intricate elements, each one worthly of awe.

Sometimes all we have to do is walk out on a clear night and look up into the night sky to be awestruck.
Milky Way
If you think about the sky overhead you can't help but be amazed and in awe.  That swipe across the night sky, the Milky Way, is 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter and has over 200 billion stars. It is part of the Virgo Supercluster, at least 100 galaxy groups and clusters that are located within a 110 million light-years diameter.  Try to put your head around that!

We don't have to travel to distant places to become awestruck.  Sometimes a sunset right outside our back door is an awesome wonder.

Sunset From Our Backyard
Let's slow down and check out the awesome wonder that has been created all around us.  It will do our body, soul, sprit and mind good.

"As I stand here in Your presence
Of Your beauty I will always stand in awe
I reach my hands out to the Heavens, yeah
And I lift my voice to You alone"

In Your Presence by Jeremy Camp

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Look Around

Thursday Colors
I just finished a five day landscape photography workshop in the Smokies.   I was lucky enough to be one of over 200 photographers who registered in the first few days and got in.   The instructors at this workshop were the Who's Who of landscape, nature and outdoor photography.  Best of all, I got to catch up with some great friends from around the country and make some new friends.

Fall is my favorite season, but the beautiful part doesn't last nearly long enough. The colors went from brilliant on Wednesday to just about gone by Sunday.
After a couple days of rain most of the leaves were on the ground by Sunday.   The hill sides were no longer brilliant with the reds, yellows and oranges.   The only greens left were the evergreens.

When all the conference programs were over and the car packed up to drive home, I decided to take two more hours and make one more trip down the road past the Tremont Institute hoping to make some photos of the stream with fall colors.  After driving  a couple miles down the road I pulled off at a spot that looked promising for photos of the white water flowing around boulders in the stream.   What I found was I wasn't able to make any photos of the water that were worth posting.   The sky was overcast but bright, making a glare on the surface of the water that I was not able to work around.  It was looking like this last trip was a bust and I should head home.

After I gave up on the water photos I stood on the creek side for a few minutes and looked around.   It wasn't looking promising, until I looked down.

Morning Rain on Leaves

The ground was covered with fallen leaves.  Some of them still had water drops from last night's rain storm.   The same overcast sky that made photographing the stream difficult made perfect considiotns for photographing the fallen leaves.  I was so excited I started taking photos with my 70-200mm zoom lens, which is not really the right lens for close up photography but it certainly worked in this situation.

Maidenhair Fern and Maple Leaf

I walked back across the road to car to switch to my macro lens and discovered a spring wildflower blooming right next to the car!   What a treat to find this beauty this time of year.

Sweet White Violet

There were unlimited photo opportunities with the leaves, moss, and other objects covering the ground .  These last three photos were taken within 10 feet of the car.

Reds and Greens

What looked like a bust turned out to be filled with beautiful subjects that tell a story about the fall season.  I was blessed because I slowed down, stopped and looked around.   If I had only looked for what I expected to find I would have missed out.  

Life is like that.  We have expectations and when life doesn't meet our expectations we are disappointed, unhappy or even depressed or angry.   If we just open our eyes and look around we will find God has blessed us in ways we didn't even imagine before.   Stop and look around, even if it's just around your feet.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


This has been a good weekend.   I got to spend most of it with June and taking pictures.

On Saturday June and I spent a few hours taking sunrise photos in downtown Kingsport, eating breakfast at The Bagel Exchange, and then making photos of the pianos that have been painted and placed around downtown.

Downtown is not a place I would have thought to go for sunrise.  We were there to drop my car off for service while we photographed the pianos.  Wanting to get close to the front of the line we dropped the car off before sunrise.  It was too early to eat so we wandered around trying to find a good vantage spot to see the sunrise.

The sunrise colors were spectacular and we did find some nice shots before breakfast.

The pianos turned out to be more fun that I ever imagined.  I made a lot of shots and spent most of Saturday editing.

I'm planning to take my favorite piano photos and make a slide show.  For now, here's a couple for you to preview.

I almost missed the photo below.  We had seen this piano earlier and passed it up because we were on our way to breakfast.  It was much later when June reminded me we hadn't gone back to this one.   I wasn't real excited because I hadn't seen any compelling compositions the first time around.  It was still a beautiful morning and we were enjoying our time too much to cut it short so why not walk back and see if there were any shots hiding there.

What a shot we found!   The glass panels reflected the brightly painted piano, creating what I call a Pianorama.   This was a fun photo to make.  The hardest thing was finding a composition where I wasn't also reflected in the glass.

Day two of our weekend.   Again we got up before sunrise and this time we headed down the road to Warrior's Path State Park to see if we could catch another sunrise and fall colors.   No sunrise today, but the overcast skies made the fall colors pop right out of the photo.

There were many photo opportunities, such as the Blue Heron across the lake posing among the fall colors.

Near the end of our morning in the park the smooth reflections in the lake were disturbed by a couple fishermen in a big hurry to get to their favorite spot in the lake.   Because I was set up to take long exposure landscape shots from a tripod I wasn't set up to photograph a fast moving boat.  I did the best I could in a couple seconds and got an OK shot.  

I little later another boater arrived and unloaded his boat into the lake about 50 years away.   I was hoping he would come across in front of me like the last guy so I set up my camera for an action shot and waited.   He took his time and I about gave up when he started his motor and took off in the opposite direction!  This time I wanted a boat to come by and disturb the smooth surface and he goes the other way.

In the end my patience paid off and I got a different shot that also tells a story.

No matter how much we plan, there are things out of our control and we end up in situations where we didn't expect to be.   Be patient, make the best of it, know that someone else greater than us is in control, and His plans are even better!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The polls are closed and the results are in!

Thanks to the 41 people who voted on their favorite photos for the 2016 Calendar.  You have made my life easier by narrowing the photos down to 13.  It was close.  There was a 4 way tie for 9th place and one vote could have moved Alaska Range or Old Baylor in to the winners circle.

Forgot what they looked like?  You can return to the same website as before.  The top 13 have been sorted to the top of the list of photos.


I always learn from these fun polls.  Here's some tidbits

  1. You don't have to go far to get a winning photo.  Sometimes no more than 40 feet from your back door.  Peaceful Sunset and God's Painting were taken from by back yard.
  2. You don't have to spend a lot on camera gear.  Seward Harbor (16th place) was taken with my cell phone!
  3. It's hard to beat a beautiful sunrise in the mountains.   Smoky Mountain Sunrise was in the lead the entire time.  It's a good thing you like this one because I had to leave home at 4 AM to be there on time.
  4. People are drawn to warm colors, like red, yellow and orange.   This is something that painters and photographers have known for a long time.
  5. Flowers never do well.  People seem to like them, but not enough to look at them for a month.   
  6. With the exception of a Big Bull Moose, animals typically don't come out on top.
  7. It's a good thing I don't pick the photos.  Some of my favorites didn't make the cut.   The reason I like those more than other people is they remind me of where I was and what I was doing when I took the photo.   I can remember each and every one and get excited thinking about those good times.

Now comes the fun part.  I'll be spending the next several days preparing the calendar to send to the printer.   That includes triple checking for errors.  I don't want to make a mistake like losing a day.  I actually did that on the 2014 calendar.

I've already got orders for almost 100 calendars.  Supplies are limited to 350 so don't wait to the last minute.  Every year there will be a few people that miss out when they're all gone.  Send me an email to r.siggins@charter.net to let me know how many you want to reserve.   They are still only $15 each.   I should have them in mid-November.  Pass the word.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Polls Are Open. Deadline for voting on 2016 calendar photos is Tuesday October 13.

Each year I invite anyone who has bought one of my calendars in the past or intends to buy one this year to help select the 13 photos to be included in the next year's calendar.  It's time for you to start the voting for the 2016 calendar photos.

The fun part is you get to help pick the 13 photos (12 months, plus the front cover).  In the past I have picked some of my favorites before letting you vote on the rest.  This year I'm leaving it wide open and you get to vote on all of them.

Here's how the process will work.

The candidate photos are available online at http://www.thesiggins.com/SpecialProjects/2016-Calendar-Candidates/   These were all taken in the past 12 months and include photos from Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Alaska.  The The best way to browse through the photos is to click on the first small thumbnail to zoom in on that photo.  You can then use the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard to flip through the full size versions.   Send the names of your 13 pics to me at r.siggins@charter.net by midnight Tuesday October 13.  I will total up the votes and announce the winners on Wednesday October 14.

Some people have asked about the price for the calendars this year.   It's the same low low price of $15 each.   The best part is all the profit goes to Hope Haven Ministries in Kingsport.  Remember - the calendars make great Christmas gifts, especially for those hard to buy for people on your list. 

Please forward this note on to anyone who might want a calendar.  I'll even pay the shipping cost for anyone outside the Tri-Cities area who wants one.  Anyone who wants a calendar can vote.  

I can't wait to see which photos make it to the 2016 calendar.      

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop Dehaze Feature

This post is for photographers who edit photos using Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.   In June of this year, Adobe released a new version of Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw that had this cool new feature called Dehaze.  It does exactly what you would expect, remove haze from a photo.  Here's an example.

Unprocessed RAW Image

Contrast Adjusted
In the first version I adjusted the tone curve and contrast slider to add some contrast to what was a pretty flat blah photo.   It was better but still pretty blah.

Contrast and Clarity Adjusted
I then increased the clarity to +45 to see if I could clear it up some more.  It was better but still not worth saving.   In the past I would have passed over this one.

Dehaze Applied
I then started over and only adjusted the Dehaze slider.  No contrast or clarity adjustments.   Pow! This is a photo worth saving.

With the haze removed I then cropped, adjusted the tone curve, contrast, clarity, sharpness and added a slight vignette and had a much better photo.

Final Version

-- Hot Off The Presses --

Adobe just released an update and now you can apply the dehaze filter to local adjustments such as radial filter, graduated filter, and brushes.   Check out this article

The dehaze feature is available in Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC.  I don't know if it is available in the non CC versions or if it ever will be.  Adobe wants people to move over to CC and start paying the monthly fees so I won't be surprised if they don't add this really cool feature.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The End ----

I've reached the end of our trip to a small corner of our largest state.  The last afternoon we drove back along Turnagain Arm toward Anchorage International Airport and a flight home.    As with the rest of the trip, we had a few surprises as we drove the Seward Highway.

Turnagain Arm
Low Tide

The Seward Highway follows the mountainous coastline.  All along the way we were treated to spectacular views of Cook Inlet, where mammoth sloping mountains abruptly rise precipitously from this four-mile-wide bay.

It was low tide when we stopped at one of the many overlooks.  Turnagain Arm boasts the second highest tides in North America after the Bay of Fundy. These tides, which can reach 40 feet, come in so quickly that they produce a wave known as a bore tide. Adventurous kayakers and surfers have taken to riding the tide as an extreme sport.

One of the nice surprises we were treated to that day is we pulled over at the best place to observe the bore tide about 20 minutes before it came it.   We even saw what we think were Mountain Goats high on the side of the mountains.   We think that is what they were, but they were really too far away to be able to know for sure.   This stop and bore tide was completely unplanned, at least by us.   God may have had this in mind for us all along.

Bore Tide
We hung out with several others waiting on the tide to make it's scheduled appearance.  About 5 minutes before it was to arrive people start exclaiming "there it is!".   The tide wave was high enough that we could see it long before it got to where we were waiting.   As it got closer there was no mistaking it.  

The height of the tide is dependent on the phase of the moon.  We were there for a medium high tide that was still very impressive.   It was fun watching it come in.

A little way down the highway we stopped at another roadside pull off.  There was a pretty little creek that flowed through the woods and emptied over a waterfall into a small pool before flowing into Turnagain Arm.

 We knew we were in a good spot when a group of photographers on a tour came down the hillside to their van.  The group was led by a guide that was obviously taking them to some of the best spots to photograph.

Before we got back to our car we looked out across Turnagain Arm and saw the setting sun was painting the clouds into a pleasant warm tone.  The tour group was pulled over at the bottom of the hill doing the same thing.

Sunset Painting The Clouds

We got in the car and headed toward Anchorage thinking that was the end of the day.   Just a few miles down the road we saw many cars pulled over on the left and people out taking pictures out in Turnagain Arm.  As we pulled over I saw some movement about a dozen yards from the shore.  It was a Harbor Seal swimming close in.   But no one was looking at the Seal.  Instead they were looking and pointing at this.

Beluga Whale Breaching

A pod of white Beluga whales were following the tide up Turnagain Arm.   Photographing these whales was a real challenge.  The Beluga lack a dorsal fin, which made them blend in and hard to spot. They are only above the surface for a few seconds before submerging again after grabbing a quick breath. Dusk was fairly far along and there was little light to work with.  My photographic style must of looked like I was shooting popup targets in an circus arcade.  Back and forth, trying to focus and shoot before the whale was gone. In the end I didn't get a great photo, but we have great memories.

Before jumping back in the car I used my long 420mm telephoto lens to shoot down Turnagain Arm to Cooks Inlet, the snow covered Alaska Range and Fire Island.  Fire Island is a 5.5-mile long island near the head of Cook Inlet.  You can see the 11-turbine, 17.6-megawatt wind farm located on the island.  This was the last photo I took on the trip.

We spent 14 days total door to door and only covered a very small area.   If you have stuck with me you have been subjected to 25 blog posts describing what we did on our Alaska vacation.  Even if no one reads these posts, I have enjoyed reliving the trip through photos and stories.   Alaska had been on our bucket list for a while and we wanted to hit it while we can still go on some of the longer more adventurous hikes.  After returning, it's still on our list.  There are many more places to visit and things to do.  We'll be back in a few years.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Crow Creek Gold Mine

OK, I was going to make this my last blog post about Alaska but I have too many photos to share in one post.  This will be the next to last post.

The Crow Creek Mine is just outside the town of Girdwood a few miles up a dirt road.   The Winner Creek flows through and it's not too far from the end of the Winner Creek Trail we hiked the day before.  We got to spend a couple hours there and had a great time meeting the owner and some of the people who worked there.  They were busy taking down a tent, lights, chairs, and tables after a wedding.   Turns out having your wedding at a historic gold mine is pretty popular in Alaska.

We also learned that the owner is a musician and loves bluegrass music.  When he learned where we were from he asked about ETSU and their Bluegrass Degree program.  People all the way in Alaska know about ETSU and bluegrass.

A young lady was there helping take down the lights.  When we got there she told us all about meeting President Obama a couple days before.   Her brother-in-law is in the Secret Service and got her in to the group that greeted The President when he arrived at the Anchorage airport.  She said she shook his hand and started to blubber like a little girl.   It was fun to hear her story and see how excited she was.

Rather than tell you about the mine, I'll use the owners description from their website -

There's gold in that stream!
"Established in 1896, Crow Creek Mine was one of the largest producing hydraulic placer gold mines in South Central Alaska and today is Alaska’s most popular recreational gold mining area. No exact records are known  that tell the true tale of exactly how much gold was taken from this mine, but estimates put it around 700 ounces a month during peak production. When the commercial mining operations came to a standstill around World War II, many believed that more gold remained in the creek than had ever been mined out of it. The Toohey Family, owners/operators since 1969, strive to preserve not only the rich history and beautiful natural scenery of Crow Creek Mine, but also the gold resources within its claims so that many for years to come can experience the same thrill that the prospectors enjoyed when they first arrived at Crow Creek. Nestled among the Chugach Mountains, Crow Creek Mine offers a unique blend of historical buildings, antiques, rare mining equipment, beautiful gardens, amazing wilderness scenery, hiking trails (including the Historic Iditarod Trail), and access to the explore the mines’ original claims. These claims are still producing gold to this very day and with a little work and a bit of luck, you might be quite surprised to find that you too can catch “gold fever”."
Dinner At Crow Creek Mine

This is not your typical tourist "pan for gold" attraction where they might put some small nuggets in a stream.  It is a real working gold mine.   The owner told us about several people who either make a living or supplement their income by panning for gold in the creek.

When the mine was in full swing they used high pressure water to blast away the rock and soil and direct the sediment to a sluice where the gold was separated.  They blasted away whole hillsides and created a man made canyon.   Here's an illustration from wikipedia that will give you an idea of what this looked like. They had one of the old water canons there but I didn't think to get a photo.

We didn't pan for gold, but we did find some fun photographs in this historic site.  I love old rusty, decaying stuff and this place had it in abundance.

The owner loves flowers and decorates the area with a variety of flora. He had already begun winterizing and had taken many of his plants to a greenhouse to live out the winter.   They live here year round, but it does get a bit harsh.  He told us they can get 20 feet of snow!

Old and New

Most of the old building were originals from the end of the 19th century.   They were fun to photograph from the inside and outside.
Reflecting Pond

He had a couple old trucks out on the grounds.  You can see the old Ford pickup reflecting in the pond.

A fun place to stop and visit.  If you go, check them out.