On Sunday afternoon I hiked up to a particular dead tree that I think is somewhat photogenic in the Doeskin Ranch section of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. This tree is alone, right next to the trail, catches a lot of afternoon sun, and often has lots of wildflowers and long grass at its base. It was a windy day and my initial thought was to take some long exposures and get the grasses blurred by the wind.
The direction that I took was opposite to the direction that I usually hike this trail, so I was kind of getting a different view than I was used to. This seems to be a good idea as I was noticing several new things. For one, I found a view of the bald hill through some trees that I thought was halfway nice.
I am not sure that this hill is photogenic, but I like to think about how to photograph it. So, this is my point-of-view for this day.
Approaching my dead tree from the opposite direction, I noticed that the trail kind of leads right to it and I get the bald hill off to the right. There were plenty of wild flowers along the path with a lot of warm late afternoon sunlight.
At this point, I stopped and put my gear down and started considering how to photograph the tree. The tree leans over quite a bit and you get a very different view depending on what side of the tree you are on.
In the following picture, the tree is leaning toward the camera. I have gotten down low so that the branches would all be clearly defined by the blue sky in the background. The bare branches are catching a lot of warm sunlight from low on the right, which adds highlights and definition. And we have some nice paintbrush wildflowers in the foreground.
This image was shot with a Nikon D750 and Rokinon 14mm, f.2.4 lens. The camera was set to 14mm, f/3.5, 1/500s, ISO100. I switched to the 14mm lens for this because I really wanted to get close to the wildflowers and still get the entire tree in the frame, which meant getting very low to the ground. This really was an optimal time of day for sunlight.
Experimenting with the other side of the tree, I got down in the tall grass right upon a paintbrush. You can see how the tree leans far back away from the camera. I was also struggling to keep the sun out of the picture on the left. Call this one a bug’s eye view of the tree as it looks up through all the tall grass.
From this vantage point, it is difficult to keep the background clean around the tree without getting the setting sun on the left in the frame. This is a manual focus lens and for this shot the camera was mounted on a tripod and I used live view with 100% zoom to attempt to focus on the flower as it was blowing in the wind. Focusing so close to the lens really limits the depth of focus, so the tree is blurry.
I also tried my long exposure. The wind was gusting quite strongly and I got a lot of movement in the grass. This didn’t really give me the idea that I had about the blurred grass. Perhaps later in the year when the grass is all golden instead of green.
The above photo was shot at 16mm (Nikkor 16-35mm, f/4) with a 10-stop ND filter giving me a 10 second exposure (16mm, f/11, 10s, ISO100). Using an ND filter on a lens this wide results in a lot of vignette in the final image, which I worked on removing in LightRoom.
The sun began to sink low and I began to lose my light, so I took a few more parting photos and headed back up the trail. If you like lens flare, there is plenty for you in this photo shooting directly into the setting sun.
From this point, you have to hike down through some trees, across a dry stream bed, and then up a moderate rocky climb to the top of the ridge and then down to the parking lot from there.
Below is a photo from near the top of the ridge with the trail leading down toward the parking lot. The sun has just slipped below the horizon. This was a single exposure metered off the sky with the shadows brought up in post processing.
As usual, I am mostly alone when I come out to this place. I did see a couple of other hikers, but my car was the last one in the parking lot when I left. There is not a lot of man-made noise out here, so you can enjoy some peaceful solitude with the sounds of the birds and the wind blowing through the grasses and trees. I got to spend plenty of time shooting photos of my favorite dead tree with not another person in sight. It’s not that I don’t like people, it is just also nice on those rare occasions when there is no one else around.
I can’t believe that so few people come out to this place, sitting on the edge of a metro area with a population over a million. Perhaps I should just keep quiet about it.
Thanks for reading, I hope that you enjoyed the pictures, and please leave a comment below.