Friday, November 20, 2009

False Kiva, Canyonlands

Photographic Location

I first became aware of False Kiva location from the excellent Canyonlands and Arches DVD by photographer Steve Kossack from his series Photographing The Great American Landscape. My purchase at the time was more out of curiosity and to gain further insight to landscape photographic technique rather than a specific interest in the locations covered. At that time I only had dreams of visiting locations like these. However that changed in the summer of 2009 when the Birch family decided on a fly-drive holiday in the USA.
 False Kiva (Jul 2009) 0070
Whilst researching possible photographic locations for our trip I came across a picture of False Kiva by the photographer Stephen Oachs. His is entitled "The Tribunal" and to be quite honest I was simply blown away, not just by his stunning photograph, but by his capture of such a breathtaking location. I decided that this was a place just too good to miss. It is however, the photograph "Ruin in a Cave" by celebrated Moab based photographer Tom Till, that brought notoriety to this location more than any other photograph, so if you get to Moab don't forget to visit his gallery and see his version first hand too.
I soon found out that False Kiva is not the easiest place to find. It's situated in the Island In The Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, about 35 miles from the town of Moab. It's a category II listed archaeological site and is not marked on any maps or guides, nor will you find any signs for the trail. In fact it's almost a secret location. However, if you ask at the park visitor centre the rangers are obliged to give you directions. In my case a young female ranger presented me with a single page summary in a folder for a few minutes and I wasn't allowed to take notes. She didn't say directly but I was left in no doubt that she didn't approve of me visiting the site, especially when I mentioned photography. I was also requested not to divulge it's whereabouts to other people. The details presented were sketchy to say the least. Had I been familiar with the park and the terrain it may have meant more, but I was not, so I knew I wouldn't be able to recall enough detail to get me there. I left the visitor centre with the distinct feeling that the general public are totally discouraged from visiting this site. There is perhaps, good reason for the rangers attitude, as many of the archaeological sites over recent years have been vandalised and treated with disrespect. I was not one of those people however, and can't abide or comprehend what causes any person to commit such an act. It seems photographers around these parts don't always have a good name.
The following day I made an early morning trip to Mesa Arch to photograph the sunrise and had the good fortune to meet two fellow photographers, Jim and Tom. After the glorious red glow beneath the arch had faded our conversation turned to other locations and photography in general and I brought up the subject of False Kiva. Lucky for me (and Jim too), Tom, a Canyonlands regular, had visited the site a few times before. Jim and I were keen to go, and Tom kindly agreed to take us so we agreed to meet at 5pm later that day and hike out to try and catch the late afternoon sun.

You may be wondering why this location is called False Kiva. A kiva is a room used by Puebloan Indians, thought to be used for spiritual ceremonies and communal purposes. Many kivas comprise circular rooms which are often sunken into the ground, bearing a thatch roofs with a central opening and ladder for entry. The ruin at False Kiva simply comprises a low circular wall, so it is not know whether this was a true kiva or not.

The path to False Kiva commences just before the trail head to Aztec Butte on the road to Upheaval Dome and we all met up near the parking spot by the side of the road. The trail heads out across the mesa top and gradually descends over a dry waterfall and down a boulder and scree section which takes you well down below the mesa top where eventually it levels out and crosses directly below False Kiva, before ascending into the alcove from the far side. It's a bit of a scramble and you need to watch your footing, especially when loaded with photographic gear, but it's not as difficult as some web sites make out. Just take care and plenty of water if you go when it's hot. It probably took us the best part of an hour from the road.

When you arrive in the alcove the view (to coin an American phrase) is truly awesome. False Kiva is set in a huge half dome shape alcove set back into the mesa cliff face with stupendous views over the green river canyon and candlestick butte in the distance. You can see for over 50 miles. The stone circle is set in central position toward the front and there's plenty of room for tripods behind. There's an eerie cathedral like silence and presence within the alcove and you can see why the Pueploans thought this a spiritual place. It is indeed a very special place.

The afternoon storms had arrived during our hike and now the skies were dull, grey and full of cloud, and the canyon below overcast and devoid of contrast. Still, one could help shooting off several frames no matter what the weather. We chatted and waited and hoped for break in the weather, but still the clouds persisted. The company was good, lots of banter, both photographic and other topics, and time past. This was still and awesome place and it felt good to be there. Then just when we were beginning to discuss leaving, the clouds abated to the north and golden sunlight lit the canyon floor and walls and shutters snapped to and fro. Dramatic stormy skies, and sun, all we could have hope for.

Eventually the sun light faded and soon it would be getting dark. Time to pack up and head back. By now we could hear voices approaching as a party of 4 made their way across the scree. And guess who it was, no other than the young female ranger who had been so discouraging to me, and yet here she was bringing a party of her friends to the site. Just a tad hypocritical don't you think? We left leaving them in the alcove. The best light had long gone. After about 15 minutes walking, we observed the other party set off back too and to our surprise a couple of their members decide to try a short cut from the wrong side of the alcove down the steep boulders. Very ill advised. We turned out of sight as they struggled with their poor decision.

False Kiva is a fabulous photographic location and for me the high light of my US trip without doubt. Don't be put off by other parties, it's well worth the effort, but do respect the nature of the site, don't disturb anything and leave only footprints.

Photographic Information

The alcove is in shade in the afternoon. If the sun is bright there will be high contrast between the dark alcove, the sky and canyon floor. I found I needed to use ND grads to compensate. I tried from 2 to 5 stops (3+2), but settled on a 3 stop grad for most shots. Unfortunately this really darkens the roof at the right side alcove which appears in the frame, but is needed to hold back the sky (see Tom Till's photo). I did try bracketing in the hope to try some HDR but the clouds were moving too fast and this rendered an unsatisfactory and unnatural looking sky. You'll need a wide angle. I used my canon EF 16 35 mm F2.8 and shot most frames between 18-22mm on a full frame Canon 5D MII. I brightened some of the dark areas with the adjustment brush in Lightroom, and adjusted clarity, vibrance, some minor chromatic aberration and added some sharpening.

Recommended Links

Photographer Stephen Oachs 'The Tribunal'
Photographer Tom Till
Steve Kossack's F8 And Be There
Nation Parks Canyonlands Site
PDF Map of Canyonlands

Photographic Locations Nearby

These are almost too numerous to mention. Mesa Arch, Green River Overlook, Deadhorse Point to mention but a few. Don't forget Arches National Park too.


I stumbled upon this  blog the other day, that of a ranger who obviously detests photographers. Our visit to False Kiva occurred around the same time although she certainly wasn't the ranger I talked to at the visitor centre that day and we certainly didn't stand within the Kiva circle. Maybe Tom or Jim can recall if she was one of the party. Not all rangers are like this however. On the whole I found them to be well informed, courteous and extremely helpful. Kicking over cairns seems a somewhat drastic, stupid and inordinately inane action to take as these provide guidance and safety for hikers. There is a trail to False Kiva there is no denying that, it's just not well marked and if rangers can visit with their entourage then why not anyone else. No doubt this particular ranger would be quite happy if a photographer got lost and walked off the edge of the mesa. What a hypocrite!


And last but not least, a big thanks to Jim and Tom for such good company on an extremely enjoyable late afternoon.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lightroom 3 Beta Release - First Impressions

Software Review

image I was quite surprised, like many others no doubt, to find out last Friday that Adobe had released a beta version of Lightroom 3 just 15 months after the full launch of Lightroom 2. They certainly managed to keep that one quiet! Lightroom has become my software of choice for DAM and RAW processing and I’ve used it from the very first beta release of version 1, so I was very keen to try out the new LR3 beta version. Some of the new features touted by Abobe are as follows:

  • New performance architecture, to allow for growing image libraries
  • Noise reduction for high ISO shots
  • Watermarking tool
  • Portable sharable slideshows with audio—designed to give you more flexibility and impact on how you choose to share your images, you can now save and export your slideshows as videos and include audio
  • Customizable print package for custom print layouts
  • Film grain simulation tool
  • New import handling dialog
  • More flexible online publishing options including ability to post images to sites such as FLICKR

Needless to say, after only a day or two there are already a substantial number of detailed reviews, first looks, videos and blogs (some of which I listed below) out there already. Most of these I suspect, have been posted by members of the Alpha testing group who are able get their hands on new Lightroom versions long before the general public do. Funnily enough I've only seen Michael Reichmann admit to being an alpha tester.


First Impressions

Firstly, I've only had a weekend so far to look at LR 3 beta so these are my very first impressions.  When I first saw the list of improvements and new features from Adobe I can't deny I was a tad disappointed. Where were Soft Proofing, Lens Distortion Correction, Perspective Correction, and a decent Keyword Manager? These were all around the top of my list of improvements, and plenty of others from what I gleaned from the various forum and web postings. I can't say Film Grain Simulation, Exporting to Flickr and Watermarking were anywhere near getting on my list, so I really can't understand why any time has been spent on these rather trivial features. However, this is by far from the finished package, and like the release of LR2, I can only assume they are saving the best till last. At least I truly hope so. Lets take a look at some of the headline changes.


New File Import Dialog

Well it's called a dialog box, but it's long, thin, very dark, has rounded corners, has a horizontal work flow and dims the rest of your screen when it's opened. It's quite unlike any dialog box I've seen before. In fact once expanded, it bears a more resemblance to a Lightroom module rather than a dialog box and has side panels and even a flourish! So just what is going on here?


Well there is more functionality perhaps, but I'm really not sure about the way it's been presented. What's the old adage "If it aint broke , don't fix it". There was absolutely nothing wrong with the old import dialog box in LR2 and I wasn’t aware of any significant proportion of users reporting problems with it. It performed admirably in my book so I have to confess I'm rather surprised time has been spent on developing this. You can however, you can have far more thumbnails visible (albeit with some weird vignette applied) and zoom in on photographs before importing them, which is perhaps a good thing. However, the way this is now presented, it's now surely an Import Module, and is no longer a dialog box. If that’s the case may be we should be seeing it as proper module and listed on the Module Picker.

I can understand why Adobe have gone with the dark colour, so you can judge your colour photographs against a similar background before importing them. However if it's going to be a dialog box, make it look like the others please, remove the stupid corners and make it match the other dialog boxes, lets have some continuity through out LR. As presented here it now looks very much like a bolt-on application and I truly hope the rest of the dialog boxes within LR are not going to end up looking like this.


RAW Processing

We’re promised faster and better RAW processing as the desmosaic engine for LR3 has completely been re-written from the ground up. However, being a PC user it’s not easy to determine, as this version seems optimised for Macs not PC’s. Just read the feedback on the forums already and you’ll see what I mean. Fast on a Mac, slow on a PC. I guess that’s understandable as I’m sure LR3 Beta is probably developed on Macs and then ported to PC’s, and who can blame Adobe when you have the awfully sluggish Windows Vista to deal with. 

My primary catalog has in excess of 100,000 photo files now, and it’s got to the stage where the size of the catalog has effected the speed of my workflow even on a quad-core 64 bit system running at 3.2 gHz, so speeding up my catalog is another key feature I was looking for. Unfortunately you can’t import your existing LR2 catalog into LR3 beta so I can’t test this feature. To import files and preserve your existing LR2 modifications you have to first save your edits as XMP side car files (Save Metadata to File from the Metadata menu in the Library module or via CRTL+S) and then read them back in once you imported the files into LR3 beta (Read Metadata to File from the Metadata menu in the Library module or via CRTL+R). Unfortunately there is a bug that prevents the user importing more than one folder at a time. Thus it’s highly unlikely I’m ever going to import my whole catalog folder by folder to test this feature.

I’ve tried a few side by side comparison of how LR3 beta processes RAW files as compared to LR2 and so far I can’t tell that much difference. On a few it definitely seems better, much smoother, but oddly quite a few of my pictures were rendered noticeably darker but I suspect this is something to do with a change in the way post crop vignetting works. It’s a bit too early to for me tell.


If you import a picture processed in LR2 you will see a little grey alert icon above the histogram on the left-hand side in the Develop Module. To take advantages of the the new LR3 beta process engine and controls such as the new noise control, and new post crop vignetting, you’ll need to click on this to upgrade. You can also choose which process version to use from Settings | Process Version.


Noise Reduction

The Colour Noise Reduction algorithm has been re-written for LR3, but if you elect to use the LR3 beta process engine you’ll find the Luminance Noise Reduction option greyed out. The latter I guess is still work under progress.  The Colour Noise Reduction is supposedly greatly improved, with criticism of the old version being that it tended to soften your image too much.  There is a noticeable improvement with the Colour Noise Reduction but I, like most I suspect, have used well established 3rd party products (in my case Noise Ninja Pro) which have provided sophisticated results and provide the ability to apply selective noise reduction to different parts of the image. Unless the final release of LR3 intends to add noise reduction to the brush tool I see little here to threaten the wide use of the third party products or alter my existing noise reduction workflow.


Custom Print Package

Lightroom 3 allows custom print layouts which gives much more control over your print layout, and you can even add colour backgrounds if you wish. This is some welcome additional functionality, but what we really want is the ability to add custom borders, frames, mattes and text.



Watermarks have been improved..a little. You can apply text or graphic and adjustable size, position, and opacity.


Other Improvements

At long last you can now choose to backup your catalog when you exit Lightroom rather than the next time it starts. You can sort Images by aspect ratio now too. You can also now create a collection directly within a collection set by simply right-clicking on the collection set, and you can now select to have an icon displayed on the grid thumbnails to indicate that image is part of a collection. One other point that pleases me is that filters are no longer ‘sticky’ to a folder or collection. Many’s the time I’ve returned to a folder and wondered where many of my photographs were only to eventually remember I had some filter applied. Catalog file optimisation is now selectable from the File menu rather than been hidden. Some of the more popular print sizes have been added to the crop presets, although I’m sure most of us will have already have created our own. You can also export your slideshows as movie files, even in full HD at 1080p. Post cropping vignetting has been modified ability to select either Highlight Priority or Colour Priority, and can produce a more pleasing effect. You can also now add grain to your pictures, to emulate film grain. I thought this a rather odd function to add as it’s normally the realm of Photoshop or third party plug-ins to provide these type of features. May be this is a sign that Adobe are eventually going to add some of the functionality oh Photoshop to LR. I certainly hope so, the less Photoshop the better as far as I’m concerned. There are also many other minor improvements that I’ve not yet had time to investigate.


What other features can we expect?

I guess I’m really hoping that this is not it, as I suspect there are not nearly enough new features to temp the majority of user to upgrade based on this feature set alone. As with the release of LR2 I’m pretty  sure Adobe will have kept one or two barnstorming features for the final release that will tempt even anti-upgrade stalwarts to relent. As Tom Hogarty stated in his Lightroom Journal blog “We're not even close to finished in terms of features”  and this is reiterated in Michaal Reichmann’s review on the Luminous Landscape. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Lightroom 3 Beta Resources

Download Adobe Lightroom 3 Beta from Adobe Labs
Adobe Lightroom 3 Beta Release notes
Lightroom 3 Beta Learning Centre
Lightroom 3 Beta First Look – Luminous Lightroom
Lightroom 3 Beta Tutorials – Juleanne Kost

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