Boots

By Vicki Uthe

As a kid I was a collector. You name it, I collected it. In hindsight I’m not positive how much the collections were because of things I was interested in or because I inherited them from family members. I also think I collected a couple of things that my mom got me into like dolls from foreign lands and glass blown figurines. These things cost money and required dusting. I look at my minimalist lifestyle now and think YUCK! I also collected postcards, matchbook covers, coins, stamps, and of course rocks. All required management of STUFF.
As I was going through images the other day hoping to be inspired for my next blog post it occurred to me that I still collect. But now I collect images. My taste is eclectic, I’ll shoot anything in front of me. I love people and details but am not lost on grand landscapes.
In my archive diving I discovered I apparently have an affinity for cowboy/girl boots. They are a work of art and as it turns out I’ve acquired quite a collection. The other thing I love about boots is the stories they could tell. They have such character. And the beauty of it all? I don’t have to store them or manage the care of the leather! Ha!

This is a great image of boots with chaps and spurs. I was a trip leader on an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop a couple of years ago in Sedona and we went on a jeep tour into the backcountry. The guides were fully dressed in old western wear.

This pair of boots was line dancing on the floor of a school gymnasium. Boots come in all sizes and these little ones were adorable. I love the scuff marks on the toes.

I captured these boots on a high school senior photo shoot. I love that even the bottoms of the boot are red, white and blue.

On a trip to Santa Fe we found a boot shop where there were walls of boots on shelves much like you’d find books on shelves in a book store. Even brand new they have amazing character.

This example, for me, highlights the fact that the artistry goes beyond the color of the material. That even in black and white the details of the boots shine through.

Maybe some day I’ll narrow my scope down to what I’m truly passionate about shooting but right now…it’s EVERYTHING!

Last summer, just north of Flagstaff, I went to the Babbitt Ranches colt sale. This was a GREAT place to capture real” cowboy/girl boots that have seen some real action.

Another pair of flag boots and the ones on the right, I love the teal color.

Black and white or color, the boots on the corral fence are a classic.

I never realized how popular the flag pattern is for boots. Who knew?

Checkout the bottom of that right boot, there’s a HOLE in it! I’d love to hear the stories…

On another trip to White Sands National Monument with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops I spent an afternoon in El Paso. These boots were for sale on the street.
So there you go, still collecting. I encourage you to go through your photo archives and see if any themes” emerge of things you are collecting but maybe never even realized. It’s kinda fun!
Happy Shooting!
Vicki Uthe is a Volunteer Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes

Eye-Catchers

By Hal Tretbar

The other day I was having lunch at the Velvet Elvis in Patagonia when I had an Eye-catcher moment. There it was: a shaft of light hitting the table next to us. It grabbed my eye and before I could look away I had my cell phone out to record the interesting light and composition.

Random House Dictionary defines an eye-catcher as a thing or person that attracts attention. For me it has to be something unusual to get my attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was a very difficult exposure because it was so high contrast. The brilliant back light was illuminating the silver colored utensils on a dark table. If I exposed for the bright light I would have no detail in the shadows, so I just under exposed one stop and played with the image in Photoshop.

Nokia  Lumina   ISO 100   f2.2   1/701 second

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I returned to my car in the parking lot, I saw the mid day sun bouncing off of this wheel’s shiny rim. The reflection hit the shadow between the cars and illuminated the parking stripes. Interesting lighting and composition, I thought, and out came the cell phone.

Nokia    ISO 100   f2.2   1/370 second

It was late in a winter afternoon in Flagstaff. I came out of the door and my eye caught the setting sun peeking through the trees to spotlight the melting ice pile. My Nikon was handy so I set a small aperture for depth of field and to make the sun’s rays radiate.

Nikon  600  ISO 160   f22   1/150 second

Most eye-catchers for me have to do with unusual lighting but not always. One day I was sitting in the patio with nothing on my mind.  Then I looked at the sky. The interesting clouds caught both my eye and my brain. Wow, I thought, that really is a mare’s tail. The cell phone was ready to get the best shot of the wispy patterns.

A mare’s tail is defined as a long narrow cirrus cloud whose flowing appearance somewhat resembles a horse’s tail.

Nokia    ISO 100   f.2.2   1/935 second

So be ready for that moment when your eye catches something really interesting and dramatic. Grab your camera or cell phone and have some fun.

Hal Tretbar is a trip leader with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.

Using Photography to Help Others

By Lisa Hanard

Whether you are new to photography or a seasoned veteran, you are probably looking for ways to improve your skill level. If you are new to photography and looking to build your portfolio or resume, volunteer work has additional benefits. Volunteering not only builds your resume but is great for networking and making new friends. Here are some ways that you can use your photographic talents to help enrich the lives of others.

Volunteermatch.org is a searchable internet database. https://www.volunteermatch.org/  Once you build your profile you can search for volunteer opportunities all over the world. You can narrow your search to specific causes that you have interest in helping, such as animals, human rights, or sports. You can also narrow your search to specific skillsets such as photography or graphic design. Photographers are generally needed for photographing fund-raising events for charities such as running races, or fund-raising dinners.

If you are a portrait photographer, Portraits of Love might be a great opportunity. The PhotoImaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association (PMDA), and The USO have joined forces to send 10,000 free family portraits to active military families around the globe this holiday season. http://www.pmdaportraitsoflove.com/ .

Reach out to your local organizations and clubs. Churches, Schools, and even dog parks can benefit from what you have to offer. If you love to run, volunteer with your local running club to take free photos at a race. Offer to take photos of school events such as football games or musical performances. Most local animal shelters or pet rescues need talented people to photograph pets that are available for adoption. Your photography can save a furry life.

Photography is a way to bring people together by giving them a common experience. Sharing photos can help create a sense of

community, bring members closer by engaging them, and encourage people to interact with others. I volunteer my time taking photos of dogs playing at my local dog park. By posting them and sharing them on our dog park social media page, our dog park family has grown closer together and many friendships have come from it. Whatever you choose to do, good luck and happy shooting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisa Hanard is a Volunteer Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes

Traveling and Photographing in Japan

By Meng Tay

Photographers are always looking for new subjects or scenes.  If you are tired of the same old, same old, why not consider traveling to Japan?  First, let me give you the reasons why you want to travel to Japan.  Next, I will give you some ideas on what to photograph.

  1. It’s very safe – guns are illegal here and the crime rate is very low.  Never once was I threatened or scolded in any way, even when I accidentally bump someone.  Such a contrast to the US when anything can cause a confrontation.  As a matter of fact, most Asian countries are very safe, contrary to what most Americans think.
  2. It’s very clean – the Japanese are fastidious about their cleanliness.  Every restroom I went to was clean (and free).  This includes public restrooms in busy tourist areas, shopping centers, etc.  The streets, parks, buildings are all clean.  I even had a hard time finding trash cans.
  3. Japanese are helpful and polite – I’ve heard stories of Japanese actually walking a tourist to his or her destination instead of just pointing and giving directions on how to get to a place.  Most of the signs have an English version but Japan’s twisty streets are sometimes hard to navigate.  Unless you ask someone local, sometimes it’s almost impossible to find it on your own, but ask.
  4. At today’s exchange rate (US$1 = ¥112) it’s a bargain to travel in Japan.  Yes, hotels and certain things are still expensive but it’s less expensive than some of the European countries like Norway, Iceland or Switzerland.
  5. Public transportation is very convenient and easily accessible.  Ironically, one of the biggest car manufacturing countries also has one of the best train networks.  Learn how the train system works and you will love riding the shinkansens (bullet trains).  If you have a big group, perhaps 4 or more, maybe it’s better for you to rent a car but trains can get you almost anywhere in Japan.
  6. Japan has a long history.  If you want to understand how it went from a sheltered country to an international economic powerhouse, an Oriental culture to an International culture, this is the place to learn.  The blending of east and west is everywhere.
  7. Food – you will love the food.  Be open-minded about sushi.  The Japanese eat a lot of things raw.  They have been doing this for centuries.  It’s healthy and after you’ve acquired a taste for it, you will love it.  You will never want to eat sushi or sashimi anywhere else.

What would discourage you from traveling to Japan?  Language may be the biggest challenge.  Very few Japanese speak English.  But this is no different than some European countries.  With today’s travel aids like Phrase Books, Google Translate, etc, this should not be a big hurdle.  I find that most Japanese studied English in school but because they are shy, they don’t get to practice it a lot.  Speak slowly and with a little bit of gesture, you should have no trouble getting around.

If you don’t feel comfortable traveling on your own, why not join a tour?  Tours will get you to many places where you have excellent photo opportunities but may not offer you the freedom of going where you want to go and for longer than you want.

What are some subjects that you may want to photograph in Japan?

Temples:  Because of its long history with Buddhism, temples are everywhere.  You find them in villages or big cities.  They are intriguing because their architecture is so different from churches or cathedrals in Europe.  The predominantly red color of Japanese temples make them stand out.  Here are some examples:

Food:  Food is the essence of a culture.  If you look at what they eat and how they eat, you can tell a lot about a culture.  That’s why I love going to markets when I am in a foreign country.  Japanese food is a contrast to American food.  That’s why it’s always an interesting subject matter for photography.

Landscape:  There is more to Japan than Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or other big cities.  What is not known to most tourists is that Japan has a beautiful countryside.  Hokkaido is arguably, most beautiful of all rural areas..  Go there in the fall, when the leaves are changing color.  If you are lucky enough to go during the cherry blossom season (sakura in Japanese), they will be everywhere.  They start in late March to the middle of April, depending on which part of Japan you go to.

Other topics of interest may be people, traditional buildings, castles, etc.  Japanese ladies in kimonos is a good topic.  If you happen on a geisha (very rare nowadays), that’d be the ultimate photo shoot.  Towering castles that were built during the shogun days are also good subjects.

If you want to read more about my travels in Japan, here is my blog:

http://mengineurope.blogspot.com

It’s in reverse chronological order.  Click on the year 2017 on the right.  It will drop down a menu of months.  Click on March, April or May.  You will see my posts on different places in Japan that I traveled to.

You can find out more about travel in Japan at the following sites:

https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/

http://www.japanvisitor.com

Meng Tay is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Super Moon and a Streaking Airplane

Author: Jeff Insel

I’ve had several people inquire as to the settings and lens I used for my “Moon Shot”, so I thought I’d try answering in blog form.  I had planned to photograph this event for a while, as many others.  I know from previous experience that a long lens is very handy, and I happen to have a Sigma 50-500mm that does a good job, mated with my Sony A65 – giving me a total of 750mm available.  Next, I made sure to bring my tripod and camp chair, plenty of water and snacks, and made sure my batteries were charged up.

Once on site, I set up my chair, tripod, remote shutter release and camera.  I also set my camera for manual focus and in aperture priority.  At this point I also plugged in my earphones for my iPhone and set my music to shuffle, I was all set and waiting for the event to start – about 40 minutes away.  I had decided to set up at the Fountain Park in Fountain Hills and there were a lot of folks walking their dogs and enjoying the quiet evening; a few photographers were also set up scattered all along the walkway around the lake. We also enjoyed the fountain going off on the hour for it’s 15 minutes of duration.

When the moon began to make its presence known (it was already in its early eclipse mode) I began to test out different exposures and focus points. The Moon was still fairly bright though. Once the eclipse got to about a third of the way through we began to see the “blood” color effect. Of course the Moon is moving, so every couple of minutes I had to adjust the focus point and angle of the lens. I varied from about 300mm to 500mm and tried ISO’s from 100 – 1600.  I settled on an ISO 0f 800 and f6.3 for most of my shots. This resulted in a shutter speed of about 3.2 sec. once the Moon was in full eclipse. While making another angle and focus point adjustment I noticed the lights of an airplane that looked like it might transit in front of the Moon so I moved quickly with my adjustments and clicked my remote shutter when the plane appeared (by my eye) about 6” away from the Moon.  The result is the photo above, and I consider it my most unique and best Blood Moon photo.

Jeff Insel is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

The Phantom of the Himalayas

by Nathaniel Smalley

“A shadow veiled by the mountain steep, or winter’s descending fleece of white.
Like its tracks the ghost cat vanishes, as a phantom fading into the night.”
~ from: THE PHANTOM

Few animals have captured our imagination like the snow leopard. This iconic cat’s habitat is known to be one of the harshest environments in the world. It ranges throughout the alpine areas of Central Asia and is rarely ever seen in the wild, much less photographed. This is due in part to its elusive nature and also because there are so few left in the world. In fact, most exceptional images of these animals are taken with camera traps in the wild, or more likely in captivity. As of 2014 the population of this endangered species was estimated between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals (*visit The Snow Leopard Trust for conservation info). In the snow leopard we find the untamable spirit of the raw wilderness and the grace of a large feline combined in a way that is duplicated nowhere else in the animal kingdom. I refer to them with great admiration as, The Phantom of the Himalayas.

When BigAnimals first contacted me and asked if I’d lead the 2015 Snow Leopard Expedition I eagerly accepted the job. Few things define adventure like pursuing an evasive, endangered cat through India’s Himalayan Mountain region for two weeks. I was very excited about the trip and went about making my preparations.

Part I: Arrival in India

Old Delhi at Dusk | India

Old Delhi at Dusk | India

I departed from Arizona in the evening on February 18th and after traveling for over thirty-six hours I finally arrived in India on February 20th. As the plane began its descent into the New Delhi airport the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, casting beautiful patterns on the clouds. I was met there by my contact, Sanjay, and taken directly to the hotel. If you’ve never visited India, it is best described as a smorgasbord for the senses. The vibrant colors, intoxicating smells and varied sounds are overwhelming. India ranks second out of all countries in the world for population with nearly 1,268,000,000 people. There are over sixty different dialects, which effectively means that one could hear a new dialect spoken here every fifty kilometers. One of the most fascinating things for me coming from the United States, was the seemingly baffling traffic system. While I was pondering aloud what looked like organized chaos on the streets of Delhi, Sanjay said that in India you need three things to drive a car; a good horn, good breaks and good luck. I chuckled at this, but there was a lot of truth to his statement.

The Clearing Storm

Clouds breaking up over the city of Leh, India

The day after my arrival I was joined by the rest of our group back at the airport for our morning departure to Leh, the capital of the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Located in the northern region of India at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet (3,524 meters), Leh has a noticeable Tibetan influence and boasts a population of nearly 30,000. Due to its proximity to Kashmir, and the tensions between India and Pakistan over that region, the Indian military ban the use of any satellite radios as a matter of national security and will in fact confiscate them should you attempt to bring one with you. We were in Leh two days allowing our bodies to acclimate to the increased elevation and to watch for signs of altitude sickness. Precautions must be taken at this point with the group, even a mild case of altitude sickness can lead to symptoms like headache, dizziness and nausea, or in severe cases include double vision, convulsions or even deranged behavior. Thankfully everyone seemed to adapt to this new climate well. We spent these days taking in some of the local markets and visiting a number of the regions Buddhist monasteries that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, including Hemis, Thiksay and Shey monasteries.

While visiting the 15th century Thiksay Monastery our group was invited to share lunch with the Buddhist Monks. I took no pictures with them, choosing instead to live in that moment, sitting cross legged in the shadow of the Himalayas, eating rice and vegetables together. It was an experience I’ll never forget. A photograph is often the end of the story, but there are times it’s best to forget the camera and capture in your mind and soul what might otherwise be missed, and could never be documented in an image.

During our trip Gyalson (one of our guides) accompanied us to his home village of Matho to witness the annual Oracle Matho Nagrang Festival. This event is held on the 14th and 15th days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar at Matho Monastery. Matho Monastery is the only Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh. It sees fewer visitors than Hemis, Thiksay or Shey monasteries due to its location, however, it is renowned throughout the region for its Festival of the Oracles, which attracts thousands of visitors.

Crowds line the balconies of Matho Monastery for the ‘Festival of the Oracles’.

Crowds line the balconies of Matho Monastery for the ‘Festival of the Oracles’.

Detail from a giant statue of Buddha.

Detail from a giant statue of Buddha.

During this festival the oracles are said to inhabit the bodies of two monks for a few hours. The purpose of these oracles is to attempt to predict the fortunes of the local village communities for the coming year. Tables of food, tea, and hand crafts can be found as you make the climb up the hill to the monastery courtyard where the celebration occurs. A strong police presence can be seen which helps to maintain order of the large crowds that have gathered. Matho Monastery is also home to a large collection of ancient, Buddhist artifacts dating back as far as the 14th century. These items are displayed behind large, glass cases in guarded, upper rooms. Here above the monastery courtyard Gyalson secured fantastic seats for our group in front of the open windows so that we would have a birds eye view of the festival, and more importantly, so that we were not at risk of being squished by the throng of people below us. Photographs of the oracles were strictly forbidden during the ceremony, however pictures of the other portions of the event were allowed. We stayed for a few hours enjoying the spectacle, but elected to depart before the conclusion of the festival. Soon the one lane road that led back from Matho to Leh would be a chaotic mess from the traffic leaving this small village, thankfully we beat the rush and returned to our hotel for the evening.

Part II: Into the Wild

Crossing above the Indus River on our way into Hemis National Park.

Crossing above the Indus River on our way into Hemis National Park.

On the morning of February 23rd we departed Leh by car for the tiny village of Zingchen located on the perimeter of our destination, Hemis National Park. Only two families call Zingchen home. Thus began our odyssey in search of the snow leopards. Arriving at our destination we set out trekking on foot with our expert local guides, Gyalson Shangku and Tsering Gurmet, making our way up into the Himalayas. Each member of the group was assigned an assistant that helped carry their camera gear anytime needed. My helper’s name was Stanzin, he and the other assistants worked tirelessly for the duration of our expedition. Our travels would now take us anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 feet in elevation (3,658 to 4,572 meters). For me this is where I experienced one of the most refreshing aspects of the trip as we officially left the ‘grid’. There was no longer a cell signal or an internet connection anywhere. It changed the tone of our trip from one of international travel, to a wilderness adventure. Large, loose stones covered the surface of the trail most of the way. Admittedly I’m no road construction expert, but the road (as it was called), that led from the tiny village of Zingchen to Rumbak, was a highway engineer’s worst nightmare. Large boulders as big as a mid-sized car were perched precariously at various points along the route, looking like they might tumble down at any moment. Over time patches of loose shale collapsed into the road below making obstacles in our path. Nearly a mile past where the pavement ended and the rough terrain began, a long abandoned motorized scooter sat decaying off to one side of the trail.

As you trek through the overwhelming presence of this raw wilderness one quickly becomes aware of the frailty of our human existence. Without all our ‘expedition gear’ we are in fact incredibly weak when compared to the intelligence of the snow leopard on the ridge line, the agility of the blue sheep on the mountain cliffs or the strength of the golden eagle soaring in the sky. In this extreme climate we would assuredly falter without the assistance of our modern ‘advancements’. This realization brings with it an even more profound respect for the relatively few species of wildlife that call this land their home. Eventually we reached the base camp site where different expedition groups pitched their tents, and from there moved on to Rumbak Village.

In Rumbak we were given accommodations at a home stay by a kind, elderly man named Younton. The local people in Rumbak Village take turns providing accommodations and food to the tourists, receiving payment for their hospitality to help supplement their limited income in this remote region. There’s no running water in Rumbak. After sundown the entire village is powered from a single generator which one of the local villagers starts each day at dusk. Following a traditional Ladakhi meal sleep came easily to our group exhausted from the day’s long hike.

Part III: Call of the Ghost Cat

Perhaps due to the change in climate or the drastic jet lag (I’m honestly not sure), at this point I’d begun to lose track of what day of the month it was. According to the calendar it was February 24th, but the days had all started to blend into one. We awakened while it was still dark and got in position long before sunrise, scanning the mountain slope for any sign of the big cats.

Rocky Road | Chukar Partridge

A lone Chukar Partridge makes its way across the shale covered ground.

In the mornings we searched for the leopards on the ridge line, returning to their place of rest for the day after a long night of hunting. The frigid air on your face drives away any lingering hint of drowsiness and the adrenaline of our search made me feel alive in a way that I’ve not often experienced. A large flock of chukar partridge fly by us, but remain invisible in the pre-dawn light. The rush of air whistling through their wings is reminiscent to the sound of an F-16 Fighter Jet passing overhead at a very low altitude. Oddly the towering, majestic mountain peaks here are not named, but rather the valleys in each region. This area is appropriately named Rumbak Valley, due to its proximity the village by the same name. We search the surrounding mountain slopes all morning without any evidence of a snow leopard, but are pleased to find a flock of almost two dozen blue sheep. As the leopard’s primary source of food in this area, locating blue sheep in the valley is a good omen.

A Blue Sheep Ram teaching a yearling the virtues of camouflage.

A Blue Sheep Ram teaching a yearling the virtues of camouflage.

About mid-day we gathered our belongings and make the trek from Rumbak back to our base camp on the banks of a frozen stream in Husing Valley. As our group arrives back to base camp the afternoon shadows stretched out, lengthening as the sun begins its decent and dips behind the western peaks. After settling into the campsite we make the 200 meter climb up one of the mountain sides, to a level place above camp known as the observation platform. There we set up our scopes and long lenses, watching for any sign of movement on the mountain tops. Snow leopards tend to live alone and regularly patrol their territory, which often covers hundreds of square miles. To communicate across such vast areas, these cats leave markings on the landscape by scraping the ground with their paws and spraying urine on the rocks. They’ll also rub up against these rocks leaving behind bits of hair. The snow leopard’s breeding season occurs during the coldest months of the year from December to March, making the timing of our trip perfect. This is the one time that a snow leopard will allow another to enter its range. We searched without success from the observation platform for some time. My eyes were drawn to a large group of boulders almost 400 meters above us at the summit above the observation platform.

On the observation platform searching for snow leopards.

On the observation platform searching for snow leopards.

For some unknown reason I felt a strong impulse to climb there. With the permission of the guides I set out making my way up the slope. My body was still acclimating to the elevation, so I found myself stopping often in the thin air to catch my breath. The loose stones beneath my feet made progress incredibly difficult, and portions of the climb felt almost vertical. Few things can prepare one for the majestic sight that’s found at the top of a mountain in the Himalayas.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak that I climbed to. You can see the small peak at the back of this image in the top/left third of the frame.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak that I climbed to. You can see the small peak at the back of this image in the top/left third of the frame.

Arriving at the peak I stared in awe at the untamed, rugged beauty surrounding me in every direction. Though the light was poor, I took a couple images to remember it by and rested there until darkness began to fall. I stood up to make my way back down the mountain and froze, rooted in my tracks from the sound that fell upon my ears. From across the Husing Valley was the clear, unmistakable cry of a snow leopard! In that moment I discovered the answer to why I’d made the arduous climb to this place. In delirious excitement I radioed down to the group to tell them what I’d heard. Initially I believe my report may have been met with some skepticism. However, once I made my way back down to the observation platform and imitated the sound I’d heard, the guides agreed it was indeed the call of a snow leopard. They’d been listening attentively all winter for the male and female snow leopards to begin calling to one another, but silence had reigned over this alpine region up until that moment. The snow leopard is the only big cat that cannot roar. During the mating season a pair will call back and forth to each other. Their cries are best described as a very loud snarl more than anything else. We climbed back down to camp excitedly discussing the close proximity of the snow leopard and the potential of soon capturing a glimpse of one.

One of the dominant Blue Sheep rams that we encountered during our trip.

One of the dominant Blue Sheep rams that we encountered during our trip.

Part VI: Through the Shadows

Snow Leopard paw prints.

Snow Leopard paw prints.

It was windy overnight, our group awoke on the 25th of February to find snow falling lightly at dawn. We set out early and as we hiked up to the observation platform were delighted to find snow leopard paw prints just outside of camp along the trail. We had just reached our destination when a call came over the radio saying that a snow leopard had been spotted from the road below the camp in Tarbung Valley. With those words everyone set off at a rapid pace carrying long range lenses and tripods, hoping to catch sight of the elusive cat. The wind pushed snowflakes against my face like tiny darts. Their sting was muted by the stunning scenery surrounding me, and the anticipation of seeing a snow leopard in the wild for the first time. We climbed a few miles up into the mountains above Tarbung Valley without finding a trace of the leopard. The sun, hidden behind snow clouds for most of the morning, suddenly broke through and illuminated the rocky mountain side. Rather than feel dejected after the long hike our group took advantage of the scenery and captured some beautiful light shining on the cliffs above. Lobzung (our cook) followed us up the mountain and served breakfast there, soon afterwards we returned to camp.

Towards the end of the day we heard the snow leopard call five consecutive times from our campsite, further confirming the cry that I heard the previous day above the observation platform. That evening as darkness settled over the camp, a soft snow began to fall from the heavens. With no wind to push the storm away from us the snow rapidly began to accumulate on the ground. Our group was resting before the evening meal and I was outside capturing a photograph of our campsite. Not long after nightfall, Gyalson and Gurmet were walking just beyond our campsite discussing the day’s events. At one point Gurmet turned and glanced over his shoulder at the cliff above the road. In utter disbelief he stared into the darkness at what was unmistakably an adult snow leopard walking on the cliff directly above our camp site, a mere 80 meters away! He came running over to me whispering excitedly “Nathaniel, hurry with your camera! Come quick, we’ve seen a snow leopard very close!” My initial reaction was to run to join the group already there attempting to capture a photograph in the semi-darkness, but something in the back of my mind told me that I wasn’t going to capture an image of the leopard this time. I finished taking my photograph of our campsite and proceeded to switch the ball head on my tripod to a gimbal head to accommodate my super-telephoto lens. I don’t know if it was the cold, the age of my tripod or perhaps a combination of factors, but when I went to switch heads the threaded center post spun freely down into the tripod base. I tried unsuccessfully in the dark three times, but I wasn’t able to attach my gimbal head. I stared in disbelief at my plight, the snow leopard now a mere 60 meters away.

As a general rule the wildlife officials don’t allow the photographers to get closer than 300 meters to the snow leopards. Seeing one at a distance this close was almost unheard of. All around me camera shutters were firing off in rapid succession seeming to only further mock my situation. At first the snow leopard just sat silently watching us and then like a true ghost cat it slowly walked away, fading into the darkness. I congratulated all the photographers who had managed to capture images of the leopard and admired their photos. An exceptional opportunity had eluded me due to the failure of my equipment. However, something told me that it wouldn’t be our last encounter with this leopard. That night I met with Gyalson and Gurmet and told them that I wanted our entire group to get up while it was still dark to search for paw prints before the rest of the groups awoke and trampled on whatever tracks might have been left by the leopard overnight.

Part V: The Phantom Revealed

I didn’t need an alarm the morning of February 26th. I was out of my tent with all my gear long before dawn. The snow ceased and skies had cleared overnight. The moon aided us, its light reflecting off of the snow. We set out from camp towards Husing Valley in search of tracks, looking where we’d seen them the previous day, but there was no evidence of the big cat there. Scanning the side of the mountain we saw what looked to be a pair of eyes reflecting back at us. I tried to tell myself that it was only a blue sheep, however the eyes looked too close together and faced forward… much like a snow leopards. Once it moved there was no mistake, we’d located our phantom! Leaving a cleft in the rocks where it had most likely waited out the evening storm, the leopard walked gracefully along the face of the mountain. Soon it disappeared from view between a gap in the rocks and we lost track of it. Part of our group went with Gyalson up the face of the mountain we were on, while I elected to climb with Gurmet and Stanzin up to the observation platform to search that area. Arriving we set up a scope and my 600mm lens and began scanning the mountains. We found nothing for the first few moments, then suddenly Gurmet exclaimed, “Nathaniel! There’s the snow leopard!” Where?! I asked excitedly. Looking in the direction Gurmet was pointing I saw the snow leopard near the summit. The big cat was climbing directly towards the rocks above the observation platform where I’d made my solitary hike a little more than a day before! The distance was nearly 400 meters and it was still mostly dark, so I pushed my ISO to 6400 and quickly took a couple shots. I stared in dumbfounded silence as the snow leopard walked and sat down directly below the large rock that I’d rested on at the top of the mountain.

Snow Leopard near the summit of mountain in Hemis National Park, India.

Snow Leopard near the summit of mountain in Hemis National Park, India.

I managed to capture another couple images before it disappeared from view over the crest of the summit. I was the only photographer on the platform, and though my images were far from exceptional, I was the happiest man alive. There were plenty of hi-fives and fist bumps there on the mountain that morning. I marveled at the fact that I’d stood on the exact same ground as this snow leopard a mere day before.

The heart of the mountains.

The heart of the mountains.

In many ways the beginning of the expedition played out as though it were scripted, we were just here acting out our roles in this unbelievable story. Many travelers come from every corner of the world to the Himalayas in search of snow leopards, spending days or even weeks here, but leave without even catching so much as a glimpse of one. I was humbled and incredibly thankful for the success we’d experienced in such a short time.

We saw the snow leopard again on February 27th, the third consecutive day in a row. This sighting was atop a ridge line at a distance well over 500 meters. While the rest of our group was resting I had elected to walk up the surface of the frozen stream with Stanzin in search of some unique images. We slowly made our way, eventually nearing an area called Pika Point, (named by the locals after the community of pikas living under the rocks there). While setting up my camera for a landscape composition I heard excited conversation nearby from someone’s two-way radio. Due to the conversation being in Ladakhi I turned to Stanzin and asked him what they were saying. After listening for a moment his face lit up and he said that someone had found a snow leopard just up the trail from where I was shooting. I could have easily walked to the location and been set up to photograph the leopard within minutes, but as the photographer leading the expedition I felt it my responsibility to ensure that our group knew about the sighting. As you can imagine it was incredibly difficult to maneuver back downstream on the ice at a rapid pace without falling. We finally reached the campsite and I roused our group.

Everyone quickly took off up the trail and arriving at the location set about photographing the cat on the ridge line. I was pretty winded after racing back to alert the others. As a result I ended up being one of the last to make it up the road to where the snow leopard was visible.

Just as I drew close to the group the leopard stood up and started leaping downhill from one boulder to another and disappeared. I was disappointed to have missed another opportunity, but comforted recalling the incredible experience I’d had with this leopard the day before. We would hear the snow leopard call one more time during the remainder of our stay in Hemis National Park, but never saw it again after that day. It occurred to me that the snow leopard is only seen when it wants to be. Our clumsy movements are no match for their exceptionally keen senses. During each encounter these incredible animals seemed well aware of our presence long before we ever located them, and they disappeared without a trace whenever they chose to.

Part VI: Saying Goodbye

The remainder of our expedition was spent photographing blue sheep, pikas, bearded vultures golden eagles and even some urial sheep. The sky was dominated by shades of solid gray during much of our stay, making landscape photos a challenge. Of the time I was in India I believe we saw blue sky on only three different days. Due to the sky being shrouded in clouds we didn’t experience much nice light for sunrise or sunset. We focused a lot on the more subtle patterns and textures of the mountains, as opposed to the grand landscape.

On our final, full day in Hemis National Park I spent a lot of time with the expedition team. Sitting with them in the kitchen tent I thought to myself how remarkable it was that after just two short weeks with these wonderful people I’d already begun to understand elements of their conversations in the Ladakhi dialect, though I knew few of the words. Often I could sense inflection in their voices or read the expressions on their faces to learn what the conversation was about. Perhaps the best was when I detected humor in their speech and knew when to laugh with them. We shared many a good laugh together, but perhaps none as hearty as when we discovered that one of Lobzung’s favorite ways to pass time during the day was playing Candy Crush on his phone. After our final meal Lobzung prepared a surprise cake and presented it to our group, inscribed with icing were the words ‘Snow Leopard Trek – We Did It!’.

That afternoon Gurmet and I climbed a good distance up the mountain face beyond where the snow leopard had been seen walking on the cliff above our camp at night. Having explored the area we took in the view one last time before making our descent. Walking back along the edge of the stream I found an old blue sheep horn hidden among the rocks and bushes. With the permission of our guides I placed it carefully in my tent. This horn now sits prominently on the desk in my office, a gift from these majestic mountains and a reminder of this incredible journey. The following morning we departed from Hemis National Park. As I hiked out I recalled many of the experiences from our eventful snow leopard expedition. My heart was full of gratitude for the various memories that I would carry for a lifetime of this vast, alpine kingdom and the cat I call, The Phantom of the Himalayas.

Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

Get off the trail and into the water!

 By Rick Sprain

Taking your camera on a nice trail is fun and good exercise but how about seeing the world from a entirely new perspective?  On the water. With all the rain we’ve had this winter it’s the perfect time to hit the lakes. Here in Prescott as with many of the lakes and  reservoirs around the state the rain has filled the lakes to the brim.

Since most of the small lakes prohibit motor powered boats, canoes and kayaks are a perfect remedy. If you don’t own one, many locations have concessions that will rent a canoe or kayak by the hour. By now you’re thinking there’s no way I’m taking my $3000 camera or smart phone anywhere near the water. If you just want to go out and enjoy the sites and tranquility that’s fine, but  you’re missing a perfect opportunity to photograph something that most people won’t be able to see.

To help with this problem, I have a number of items that can help you keep your camera safe and dry while still able to capture that perfect picture. You don’t have to spend $3,000 or even $300 on a waterproof housing for your camera. Most remedies range from about $15 to about $50. For you phone and point and shoot  photographers out there, there are a number of products that are available for under $15. The bag shown here is a perfect example. The cost is only about $15 and it lets you shoot right through the bag. There are similar products for phones. Even a tightly sealed freezer bag may protect your camera or phone  from a quick dunk or splash of water from an ore.

Personally I use a water proof bags shown here. There are many styles and sizes available that will accommodate just about any camera. Most range from $15 to $50. These are the same type of bags used by rafters in their boats as they go down the Colorado River. When used correctly they are totally water proof and will float if they end up in the water.

I also take along a towel to set the camera on along with a lens cleaning kit just in case a few drops get on my lens. I’ll take the camera out of bag, check it for water spots and to make sure the setting haven’t changed and take the picture. I then place it back in the bag and paddle to the next spot. Warmer weather will be here soon so get out and get on the water.

Rick Sprain is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.