Category Archives: USA 2012

Travel blog from my 2012 trip to New Mexico and Colorado

Capturing the Setting Sun

Angel Peak, New Mexico. HDR panorama from 15 originals.
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 04-10-2012 18:48 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: -4 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I’ve been catching up with some of the outstanding shots from our USA trip in 2012. One of the most successful days of the whole trip in photographic terms started in the fascinating Bisti Badlands, and ended on a short rim drive opposite Angel Peak. The scenery there would be stunning in many conditions, but we were treated to a dramatic sunset, with the sky on fire in certain directions.

Unfortunately, however, the best sky colour was opposite to the most dramatic scenery, which raised a dilemma about what to capture, and how. Most of the shots of the sunset itself are very nice, but have a relatively boring foreground. I’ve ended up favouring a couple of compromises.

The top shot is composed from 15 original frames, processed first in Capture One, then converted in Photomatix to 5 HDR images which were in turn stitched together in Pano Tools Assembler. The dynamic range across the scene was very high, and unfortunately the most interesting areas of the scene, the sunset and Angel Peak itself, are quite widely separated with the intermediate area somewhat less interesting. Although I’ve gone for a fairly “natural” look I’m not sure it doesn’t still look a bit “processed”.

The other compromise is a more traditional one. I call the image below “Tree on Fire”. It’s lit by the setting sun, but there’s not much colour in the sky. My first attempt at this, immediately after the trip, wasn’t very satisfactory as I ended up with a very oversaturated image which had insufficient detail and areas of blank colour. Re-processing in Capture One with its excellent highlight recovery I’ve managed to keep the deep red colour but get the detail of the tree back. A tighter crop than my first go has also improved matters. I’m now quite fond of this one.

Let me know what you think.

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USA 2012 – Technical Review

Fireworks at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2012. (Genuine single exposure - only slight crop and exposure adjustments applied.)
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 13-10-2012 20:05 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 8.0s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 22.0mm (~35.6mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Or, “What Worked and What Didn’t”

As usual, I tried to take a few notes regarding the more “technical” aspects of our holiday, which may be useful to others planning a similar trip.

One spectacular success was having Laurent Matres’ Photographing the Southwest in Kindle format, with a synced copy on my Galaxy Note phone. On our previous Arizona/Utah trip I missed a couple of the “best shots” because I didn’t refer to Matres’ notes, and at other times we did follow his directions but it was a bit painful lugging quite a heavy book around. The Kindle version solved both those problems, and the Galaxy Note is sufficiently large to be quickly readable, and to render the book’s images clearly and attractively.

It was definitely the right decision for us to hire a convertible. I drive a drop-top in the UK, and we both loved buzzing around with the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair (well, OK, that’s maybe more one for Frances to comment on… :)). However, we seemed to be in a tiny minority driving a soft-top in New Mexico and Colorado, and the rental choice was not good. I’m not sure of the reason, whether the locals are afraid of getting too much sun in the Summer or insufficient weather protection in the Winter, but of course that doesn’t stop us in wet, windy Britain…

We eventually went to Dollar (whereas my first choice would usually be Hertz), and got a Ford Mustang. I can’t fault Dollar’s friendly, efficient service, and would use them again. I can find some fault with the latest-model Mustang, which seems to have definitely regressed compared with the versions I previously drove in the mid-naughties. In particular luggage space seemed to be smaller than I remember, there was very little in-cabin storage, and the CD player wouldn’t play files in WMA format, which put paid to a lot of our music. However, the worst failing was a weird speedometer display cramming an optimistically large speed range into the top half of a small dial, with the result that it can’t be read to an accuracy better than about 5 mph. That doesn’t fit well in a country where a 5 mph error is often enough to earn a speeding ticket. Useless.

Complaints aside, the Mustang did the job, and helped bring us back with a decent tan.

Another trick which worked again was raiding a Radio Shack on the first day and purchasing a can of compressed air. The worst equipment challenge in the American SouthWest is dust, and being able to blow everything clean each day is a real boon. Now all I have to do is find out if I can do the same in Morocco this year…


Including our phones we took five cameras this year, which may seem excessive, but each found a genuine use playing to its strengths, and justified its place in the luggage. As usual, the real workhorse was the Canon 7D. Out of a total of about 2050 exposures,1652 (or over 80%) were on the big beast. I have eventually mastered its ergonomic shortcomings, and extensive practice means that its operation is now quite intuitive. I know and can confidently predict its results, which are still better than those from the Panasonic GH2. OK, it’s still an enormous lump and the 15-85mm lens is not the sharpest optical tool, but it works.

The Canon 550D’s main role is as a backup body, offering the same sensor and lens compatibility as the 7D for half the price and weight. However, it came into its own for our balloon trip, where I wanted to carry a lightweight kit which still supported my beloved 70-300mm IS lens. The 550D, 70-300 and 17-85 did the job beautifully. As a result the 550D took 221 shots.

We also carried the Panasonic GH2 and its three lenses. Its main role was as Frances’ camera when she wanted to take her own shots, but I also used it as a lightweight “carry and forget” camera to have with me during shopping trips, evening sorties and similar. It has to be admitted that the 550D and a single zoom lens could also do this, but with less ultimate flexibility and at a higher weight. Having the GH2 along also provided further redundancy should my Canon long or wide zooms pack up, always a consideration given last year’s two lens failures. We took 172 shots on the GH2.

On a less positive note GH2 battery life is not good. A charge is genuinely only good for about 100 shots, and to add injury to insult Panasonic now effectively prevent the use of anything other than their own full price batteries, at £50 a pop or higher. Neither Canon suffers either limitation. It’s not a critical problem, but does place some boundaries on the Panasonic’s role.

We both took a few shots on our phones as well (I took 4 on the Galaxy Note), mainly of things we wanted to share immediately with specific friends. However, I certainly wouldn’t advocate one practice I saw – a lady whose husband was having the “trip of a lifetime” in the cab of the Silverton-Durango railroad, and she was trying to capture his arrival using just the camera on an iPad!

The Gitzo tripod paid its fare with the low light photography at the balloon fiesta, but otherwise saw very little action. I rely more and more on the combination of modern cameras’ performance at medium-high ISO, and the effective combination of my steady hand and Image Stabilisation. As the Americans say, “your mileage may vary”, but I now just assume that I will work hand-held if the sun is up or I need to move around.

Given the extremely photogenic subjects, and a lot of fairly friendly lighting, my hit rate was pretty high, especially for the more static subjects. After an initial edit I still have about 1200 frames worth processing, and I expect to end up with about 200 worth showing to someone else. Cutting this down to about 100 which find their way to my blog and tablet may be a challenge.

Overall a wonderful trip, and very successful source for photography. Roll on the next one!


A very Happy New Year, and all the best for 2013!


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Bye, Bye, Albuquerque

Up, Up and Away! (Photo from
Resolution: 4501 x 3001

Day 15

Cold night. Perfect storm of badly fitted hotel windows, unusably noisy heater and no spare blanket. I haven’t been that cold since a night in the lodge at the top of the Tioga Pass. The Best Western Rio Grande Inn is definitely a notch down from the others on this trip.
However everything was forgiven when we drove to the airport with the sky full of balloons again.

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Evening Glow

Evening Glow
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 13-10-2012 19:15 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 0.6s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 38.0mm (~61.6mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM
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Up, Up and Away!

Balloons above Albuquerque
Camera: Canon EOS 550D | Lens: EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 13-10-2012 07:45 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 80.0mm (~129.6mm) | Lens: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM

Day 13

4.30 start for the Balloon Fiesta! Sleep punctuated by police sirens (understandable in a large city) and train whistles (nope).

We’d just got settled at the park, and Albuquerque had the most dramatic thunderstorm. Balloons and wind don’t mix well, and lightning and propane are worse. No ballooning today. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Went to see Taken 2 in the afternoon – great film, but shades of wet holidays in Brighton.

To compensate for lack of balloons, had dinner at posh restaurant including Saganaki, a Greek dish which involves pouring Bacardi over Kasseri cheese and setting fire to it at the table. Excellent.

Photography 0/10
Ballooning 0/10
Shopping 2/10 (had to buy a case for all the other shopping)
Food 8/10

Day 14

Finally, the weather was in our favour, and today was a great success. Our balloon flight got airborne as part of the “mass ascension”. At the risk of using tired superlatives this was simply magical. I have done balloon flights before, and they are always fun, but nothing can compare with being part of over 500 hot air balloons lifting off together.

The Albuquerque setting is wonderful, with mountains and desert around as well as the town and river below you, and the photography opportunities were almost unlimited. The other great thing about Albuquerque is that when you land the locals all know the drill and are only too keen to help.

We have, however, discovered the nadir of New Mexican cuisine. The donut burger is a four-layered concoction of donut, burger, cheese and another donut. Neither of us was brave enough to try one.

Come the evening, come the evening glow, where the balloons are all inflated on the ground and lit from within using their burners, with a moderate degree of synchronisation. We were also entertained by a very good rock covers band, and the evening was capped off by an excellent firework display which had all 100,000 attendees ooh-ing and ah-ing like children.

We were impressed by the traffic management coming out, the Albuquerque police using all available roads inventively and getting us from car park to the other side of the city in 25 minutes.

Balloons 11/10
Photography 9/10
Food 4/10


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Back to Albuquerque

The Church of St. Francis at Rachos do Taos
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 11-10-2012 11:49 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 24.0mm (~38.9mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Day 12

Looking for hairdryer in Taos hotel found secret stash of MORE pillows!!!

After a couple of hours browsing in Taos we set off for Santa Fe via the famous “High Road to Taos”. First stop, the church of San Francisco di Asis in Ranchos do Taos. This is just as pretty as in the photos of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe, a natural target for artists of all persuasions.

The drive along the High Road was very enjoyable in bright sunshine. However our lunch target of Truchas turned out to be a bit disappointing with about 50 art galleries and no diner. The next town down the road, Chimayo, is only slightly better. They say that “man cannot live by bread alone”, but “art alone” doesn’t do it for me either.

We were also rather disappointed by a sign to “watch for roadside activity”, but apparently the artists can’t stretch to a bit of performance art.

The Santuario de Chimayo is a bit odd. At the risk of being slightly offensive the term “Catholic Voodoo” came to mind. I suspect this is best reserved for devout Catholics, but left us feeling a bit uncomfortable.

We also managed a quick stop in Santa Fe, but the historic centre is very busy and very expensive, and a bit of an anti-climax after the much more accessible towns we’d visited earlier.

Photography 7/10
Shopping 5/10
No large animals, despite promising “Elk Crossing” signs…

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The Road to Taos

Taos Pueblo
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 10-10-2012 15:56 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 24.0mm (~38.9mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Day 11

Up at dawn to try and get golden hour light on the dunes – they are in shadow themselves in the evening. Lodge has world’s most powerful tap in world’s smallest basin. Oh well…

Irish contingent dressed in balaclava got it right – photography OK but it was bloody cold! However it does have to be admitted that walking on sand-dunes at 8,000 ft is not ideal exercise for an overweight bloke with dodgy knees.

Boring drive down to Taos, but the town and especially the Indian Pueblo really make up for it. The Pueblo is still lived in, but they also allow visitors and photography for personal use.

Nice dinner at Taos’ posh fine dining restaurant.

Note re Fonda Hotel Taos – to double size of room simply remove 4 super-sized leopard print cushions and 6 spare pillows!

Photography 8/10
Food 8/10
Large animal count 26 (by 10 am)

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… And Sand Dunes!

Sunset at the Great Sand Dunes National Park
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 09-10-2012 18:13 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 31.0mm (~50.2mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Day 10

Drove East from Durango through the Rockies. Another almost 11,000 ft pass, but roads not as interesting as yesterday . At coffee stop we were almost forced to purchase two enormous slices of pie, of which more later.

We ended up at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This is an amazing enclave of 40 square miles of full-on Arabian sand dunes, right in the middle of the Rockies. It’s pure photographic gold, with aforesaid sand dunes, mountains, trees in fall colour, dramatic dead trees and very much alive deer available in all required combinations.

Food slightly more of a challenge as the only eatery for about 30 miles has closed for the season. However sub sandwiches from the shop were not too bad, and aforementioned coconut and peach pies turned out to be absolutely superb, rescuing us from potential 3/10 danger.

Early start tomorrow to catch dawn on the dunes.

Photography 9/10
Food 7/10
Large animal count 20+

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Master, Master, Give Us A Sign

'Nuff Said...
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 07-10-2012 13:33 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 85.0mm (~137.7mm) | Location: Durango and Silverton Narrow Gau | State/Province: Colorado | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Apparently this goes back to the notorious spare poultry dumping incident of ’06… 😀

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The “Aztec Highland Games”

Bale throwing at the wonderfully name "Aztec Highland Games 2012", Aztec, New Mexico
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 07-10-2012 14:36 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 42.0mm (~68.0mm) | Location: Durango and Silverton Narrow Gau | State/Province: Colorado | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Day 8

Spent the morning wandering around Durango, then set off for Aztec, 30 miles south, which hosts what must be the world’s most unlikely Highland games. Spent the afternoon watching very large Americans with some Celtic heritage throwing tree trunks while dressed in skirts:-) Excellent.

The event also featured a display of Scottish country dancing by some very Hispanic young ladies – we now know what the Gomez tartan looks like – a Jethro Tull sound-alike band, the local IRA supporters club, and the oddest sign yet… (see below)

Moderately disgusting fish meal in Durango – I should stick to the beef.

Photography 7/10
Food 5/10
Large Animals 3 (excluding strongmen)

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Another Shot of Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde - A more traditional view of Cliff Palace (Photo by Frances)
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GH2 | Date: 05-10-2012 22:26 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 14.0mm | Location: Cliff Palace | State/Province: Colorado | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 14-42/F3.5-5.6

Just in case you can’t picture Mesa Verde, here’s a more traditional shot of Cliff Palace, with Frances behind the lens this time!

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Mesa Verde

Interior detail, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM | Date: 05-10-2012 15:58 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/15s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 13.0mm (~21.1mm) | Location: Peterson Reservoir | State/Province: Colorado | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

Day 6

We started today with a visit to Shiprock, basically a big lump of rock jutting up out of the plain. This is sacred to the Navajo, and can look very dramatic in the right light, but was a bit boring in the mid-morning light we found. However, I was very impressed by the long “blade” of rock which leads up to it from the South, which must be two miles long and only a few feet thick.

After that we set off for one of the highlights of the trip – Mesa Verde National Park. This is where the Puebloan Indians built dramatic villages into rock alcoves on the cliff sides of the mesas. Very inspiring, and stunning photography, particularly with the sun setting on Cliff Palace.

First Prime Rib of the trip, at the diner next to the hotel in Durango.

Photography 9/10
Food 9/10
Large animal count 8 (2 wild horses, 2×3 deer)

Day 7

Not much to write about, but very much the photographic core of the trip. We spent the day in Mesa Verde, exploring all the sites. In the evening we went into the historic centre of Durango (absolutely heaving!) and had a very good meal.

Photography 8/10
Food 9/10


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