A Visit to the Forest Cathedral: Cook’s Forest State Park

Reaching (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
― John Muir

 

A good portion of my life has been spent wandering through the woodlands of Pennsylvania. I am privileged to live close to some of the most beautiful and interesting natural areas in the state.

I often write about and photograph places such as Hickory Run, Nescopeck, and Ricketts Glen State Parks, which are a short drive from my home.

But there at many other spectacular destinations in the Keystone State.  At the far  western end of the “Endless Mountains” region of Pennsylvania, just to the south of the Allegheny National Forest, there is a place that I find myself drawn to, time and again.  I’m speaking of the incomparable Cook’s Forest State Park, home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern US, and the largest tract of true old growth forest in the commonwealth.

Stages of Death (Nikkor 28 80mm ATX f2.8)

I have visited this park on multiple occasions either alone or with my children.  The only person in our family that has not visited there is my lovely wife.

Brigid and Gus in the Forest Cathedral 2006 (Canon s 400)

 

Now Cathy is very athletic, and when I suggested a visit the park, she welcomed a chance to hike these beautiful trails. Problem is that when I am in photographic mode, I’m not very much fun to hike with, as I am constantly stopping, setting up, shooting, changing lenses, etc. Now that I am also shooting video, I’ve become even more tedious. For this reason, I usually do photography alone.

Two Giants (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 17-38 f2.8)

From my home, this is a 3 hour journey on route 80 west. It is a scenic drive through an ever changing landscape. Now usually, I would camp while visiting such a place. In this case though, I remembered from past visits that this park has a very aggressive population of raccoons (I think of a tug of war with a large male over a bag of potato chips  at my picnic table some years ago).

Because of this and in deference to my wife, I chose to make reservations at the Gateway Lodge, which is a lovely hotel/spa nestled right in the middle of the park.  The original inn was built in the 1930s, of logs taken from the property, and fits perfectly in the rustic surroundings.

Canoes on the Clarion (Nikon D800E, Tokina 28-80mmATX f2.8

The park sits on the Clarion River.  The Cook family first settled the property, in the 1820s, and built a thriving timbering and sawmill business. The settlement became known as the town of Cooksburg. This is a lovely setting with densely forested hills rising out of the slow, winding river.

By the 1920s, the family was quite prosperous, and desired to preserve the remaining old growth forest on the property.  They along with others, formed the Cook’s Forest Association which in 1927 sold the roughly 6000 acres to the state of Pennsylvania to be preserved as a state park.

Cooks Forest Fountain (Fuji X 100T)

I have written before about the old growth of the park. There are several tracts scattered throughout the, forest. The tallest tree in the  northeastern US, the Longfellow pine, a white pine roughly 184( feet high, grows within the “forest cathedral” portion of the property.   As it is surrounded by other woodland giants, it is difficult to identify.  I visited the park office, and queried one of the officers on its location.  Prudently I think, he would not disclose that information for fear that someone will deface its massive trunk.  It is said to be somewhere along the “Longfellow trail” but he would be no more specific.

Many Old Trees (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

I spent the next two days, roving about with camera gear.  I hiked with my wife, but she grew weary of my snail like progression, and encouraged me to solo.  Both in video and still images, I sought to capture the majesty of these enormous and ancient organisms and of this rare environment. It is challenge I think to convey the scale of this forest in either still, or video images.

Deep in the tract, little light reaches the ground, save for where one of the ancients has succumbed. The songs of a wood thrush, or ovenbird punctuate the stillness. Here and there, wind throw has toppled a massive pine or hemlock, the huge upended root ball maybe 15-20 feet high.

For those of you on the Pacific coast, I get it. These ain’t redwoods. But they’re beautiful nonetheless.

As you walk among the tall trees, I like to imagine the reactions of early colonists to these majestic forests. They were familiar only with the depleted woodlands of Europe and Britain.  Old growth such as this would have been widespread throughout the eastern US.

Looking Up (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

I imagine also, agents of the Crown, marking the tallest and straightest pines, for exclusive use of the shipbuilders in England (the so called “Kings Broad Arrow” trees). This action lead to one of the first rebellions of the colonists against the British. In fact, this forest’s current trees were likely germinated during that period of continent’s history.

At 300-350 year of age, the big pines and many of the deciduous trees are reaching old age (Hemlocks are longer lived). Their crowns are limited to the top 20 percent of their height, at the forest canopy. When they die, there are small trees, some 100 hundred years old, waiting patiently below to grab their piece of the sky.

Old Dead Fall (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8)

 

I shot a short video this time using e D800E which has a more sophisticated video suite than the little Sony RX100 IIII utilized last time. Using interchangeable lenses  facilitated manual focusing. Also I used an Audio-Technica AT8204 auxiliary Microphone. Its directional sound fields made it much less susceptible to picking up my breath sounds than the camera-top mics of the Sony.

The life cycles of forests such as this are difficult for we short-lived humans to grasp. That is because, compared to these ancient pines and hemlocks, our lives are truly ephemeral.

Muir was correct.

 

 

As always, the images can be viewed in larger format by clicking on them, and/or visiting my Smugmug site.

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No Extra Charge: a Foray into Video.

 

Black Eyed Susan in a Field (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

It is easy at my age, to stay within ones comfort zone. Its less trouble to stay with skills which you have already acquired, to maintain the status quo, to embrace the familiar. I feel very much this way. Yet I recognize, that a failure to tackle new hobbies, or new activities is a failure to expand one’s mind, a mind that as we age, tends to contract anyway.

Still photography for me is very familiar. I do try to improve my skills, both in image acquisition and image processing. Towards that end, I was watching on YouTube, tutorials published by Adobe on the various aspects of the Photoshop product. Among those videos, was a lesson on using Photoshop to edit video. Really? I watched with interest and learned that Photoshop, from CS 5 on, has had fairly robust video editing capabilities.

Hmmm.

Currently I have a variety of cameras available to me. Like many cameras these days, they are capable of  shooting very competent video, a capability I have tended to ignore. It occurred to me that maybe it was time I looked into this further, apparently as  all along I have had video editing software on my computer. Hey, its all free.

Looking over my camera collection and doing a little research, I find I have some very capable equipment. First I have a Panasonic GH 1, that I have shot video on before. I don’t use this camera much , but is still quite capable in the video realm. So too is my Sony Rx 100 Mark 3. The Fujifilm cameras in my cabinet are capable of video, but this capability is not really optimized.

My Nikon bodies however, particularly the D800E apparently are capable of more sophisticated  video capture, and have control layouts and menus that offer significant control of the process. The optical view finders also facilitate manual focusing. None of my cameras will shoot “4K” video, but the 1080p video capability of the Nikons and Sony should be more than adequate for most of my uses.

So I went online and availed myself of multiple tutorials online on how to acquire video footage and then how to edit it in Photoshop.

Speaking to fellow still photographers who have not yet dabbled in video, this is what learned from reading various sources on the web..

#1 Explore your cameras video capabilities. Learn about formats, frame rates, “shutter angle” and all of those terms unique to video capture.

#2 Realize that for the first time, sound will accompany your images. When shooting video in the forest, I hope woodland sounds such as birdsong, wind noise, and perhaps leaves rustling will be part of the sonic landscape. Almost invariable as I begin to record, an airliner will invariably fly over, or an open piped Harley will drive past on a nearby road. Such things can obviously be ignored in still photography. By the way, in a camera with the microphone on the top surface, your own breathing noises will be featured prominently in your video, unless you either step away from the camera, or hold your breath. Directional microphones can be a godsend. At the end, if necessary, you can just drown out everything with a musical background.

#3 In video, time is a dimension. Shooting settings can visibly change during the video if they are set on automatic. Thus auto-focus and auto-exposure settings which can be useful during a fraction of a second  capture in still photography, can visibly changes over tens of seconds recorded in video. This occurs particularly if there is any movement in the subject, or change in the lighting. Full manual exposure and focus looks a lot less weird.

#4 Short segments (and short videos) are the key to avoiding boring presentations particularly while you are a novice. If you think your friends get bored looking at a few of what you believe are your best photographs, wait till you try to show them a half hour video.

#5 In the beginning, keep camera movements, as well as zooming to a bare minimum, as you probably lack the equipment to perform these actions smoothly. Photoshop does have some animation’s you can apply to the video while it is playing.

#6 Don’t steal music clips. if your going to post online or otherwise distribute. Would you like someone stealing your photographs? If you want background music either find it on a legitimate free site, or pay for it.

#7 Don’t overdo transition animation between slides. Keep it simple.

Here are the results of my first effort, for simplicity, shot with the Sony RX. I think the video nicely illustrates most of the mistakes I discussed above.

 

 

Look, I’m still an extreme novice at this. The point of the post is to let other crotchety old photographers (like me) know that there are capabilities in our cameras and our software that many of us have not suspected, but  are relatively cheap and easy to exploit.

Try it, and expand your horizons.

Don’t ever contract.

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Laurels and Rhododendrons

Laurels and Oak ( Fujifilm S3 Pro, Nikkor 35mm f2.0)

Here in the Pennsylvania highlands, June offers a unique opportunity for photographers. It is in the 6th month of the year, that
the two signature shrubs in Penn’s Woods, cast open thousands of pink and white flowers in displays that can literally encompass one’s entire field of view. I am alluding of course to the Pennsylvania state flower the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and its later blooming cousin, the rhododendron (Rhododendron groenlandicum).

Both shrubs occur throughout the state, and elsewhere in the eastern US (the rhododendron) occurs throughout much of the northern latitudes globally). Both species are evergreen, they add color to the brown/grey forest of November through April.  Two months later, they are among the last of the spring blooms, before the forest settles in to the dark green monotony of summer.

Laurels in the Forest (Fujifilm S3 Pro, Tokina 12-24mm f4)

I have members of both species in my yard at home. While the rhododendrons on some of my neighbor’s yards bloom in late May, mine conveniently are timed more to those that bloom in nearby wild-lands, in late June.  So in early June, then my laurels are awash in flowers, I know it’s time to pack the car with photo gear, and head to the deep forest.

Early Rhododendron (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f 1.8G)

 

There are many places in the state where there are spectacular displays of Mountain Laurels, which in some sites will crowd out most of the competing underbrush. I have memories of hiking the magnificent West Rim Trail at the Pine Creek Gorge (Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon). We had a miserable 2 day slog through the rain, the magnificent scenery not entirely making up for the challenging terrain, and miserable weather. Cold and tired, we were approaching the trail’s end at Ansonia, when the skies began to clear.

Emerging from deep forest, the trail began to skirt the rim of the canyon which was carpeted in laurel blossoms under a canopy of tall hardwoods and conifers. Wispy clouds hugged the steep canyon slopes. I remember being slightly overwhelmed by the spectacular setting, and the vista beyond. In those days, I was more focused on hiking than photography but I did think to grab a shot or two, with my little Olympus film camera.

Laurels on the West Rim (Little Olympus film camera)

These days, my “go-to” place for laurels and “rhody’s” is nearby Hickory Run State Park. It is a magnificent place, bordering the Lehigh River gorge, with steep Appalachian terrain along the river to the west, and highlands to the east which are part of the glaciated terrain of the Pocono Plateau.  It is the latter area in the park that I patrol when my yard laurels bloom.

Laurels at Boulder Field (Fujifilm S3 Pro, Tokina 12-12mm

During the 1700’s, travelers here beheld the deep virgin forest with dread, imagining the dangers they would face during their passage. They called these woodlands the “shades of death”.

Rhododendrons on the Old Stage Road (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1,8G)

The forest that I visit now are a mix of fairly mature northern hardwoods, with frequent white pine and hemlock stands. Here and there, one sees very large old conifers that one suspects were missed during the timbering that occurred in the mid to late 19th century. On a cloudy days, which I favor, these woods are quite dark. I usually bring a DSLR, with a tripod to cope with the slowish shutter speeds.

Rhododendron and an Old Pine (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8 G)

The laurels bloom tends to be prolific; flowers are everywhere in some spots. The later rhododendron event is much more localized and subtle but in its own way equally beautiful. Very occasionally, you will find the two plant blooming together, but in my experience each seem to occupy their own niche.

Late June Blossoms (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 5omm f1.8G)

Standing in a Hemlock stand, surrounded by blooming rhododendrons, is at least for me the most archetypal experience one can have in the Pennsylvania outdoors. In such a place, one can imagine the fears of the earliest settlers who certainly imagined this wilderness filled with large carnivores, and hostile Indians (they were right).

Now it is just a place of great beauty and peace.

 

As usual these images and more can be viewed on my Smugmug site.

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Living with a Pocket Camera: The Sony RX 100 Mark III

 

Wildflowers at Tannery (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

For years, so-called “pocket cameras” have gotten a bad rap  from so-called “serious photographers”. Admittedly useful in a pinch, their image quality has been impugned relative to larger-sensored devices, such as DSLRs and “mirrorless” cameras. In fact, they have been largely replaced, for better or worse, by camera phones, which as a class; have seen considerable improvement in their imaging capabilities.

I however, tend to keep a pocket camera as part of my arsenal. An actual camera of any size is generally far more versatile than a fixed, wide-angle lens smartphone camera. My current pocket device is the Sony RX 100 Mark III. I tend to use it for casual situations where I want snapshots, or circumstances where I am not anticipating much in the way of photographic opportunities, but feel naked without having something with me.

I have written about this device in past articles, and praised its image qualities, many of which can be attributed to it fine Zeiss branded lens, and its larger-than-average Sony  1″Exmor imager. I took it on a recent trip to London with a Fujifilm X 100s and obtained some interesting images. Still it’s at best a third string player in my camera collection.

International Festival (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

 

I think back to 2001, the year I acquired my first serious digital camera the Olympus E-10, a large built- like-a-rock fixed lens DSLR with a 2/3” sensor and almost 4 mp of resolution good out to maybe ISO 160. I shot a lot of landscape images with it and was generally very satisfied with the quality of the files. Move ahead 14 years and we now have a pocket camera that is a fraction of that camera’s size and weight,  but with a bright Zeiss zoom, and a 1” 20mp sensor good out to iso 1600-3200. Why not mainstream it into the first team? I decided to use it exclusively over the course of 2 weeks of photography to further understand its capabilities and limitations.

Spring is well on its way to summer here in the Moosic Mountains of Pennsylvania. Photography during the warm months tends to happen for me while engaging in several activities namely: hiking, kayaking (flat water) and mountain biking. Then sometimes in the morning and evening, I will just drive around exploring with a camera and tripod at the ready. Then there’s also street/ event photography to consider.

My RX 100 has the accessory grip, and a Lens Mate Quick change adapter which allows me to quickly mount and dismount filters. I keep a Hoya circular polarizer mounted to this, with a 52mm pinch cap to protect it.

The Sony RX 100 Mark III(Panasonic GH1,  Lumix 14-45mm f3.5)

The Sony RX 100 Mark III(Panasonic GH1, Lumix 14-45mm f3.5)

There is definitely something to be said for smaller cameras.The lens is a 24-70mm equivalent f1.8-2.8. Even though the 1” sensor is big for a compact camera, it’s still small enough that the depth of field tends to be fairly expansive.  This can be used to an advantage. Still the F1.8 aperture at 24mm equivalent  can be useful to blur backgrounds.

Because of the danger of a dunking, while kayaking, I have always tended to use my lowest value camera that has image stabilization which in my case currently would be my Panasonic GH1 and its kit lens. I did however take the Sony out on the water. Several issues popped up. to prepare the camera for use, I would have to turn it on, pop up the viewfinder and pull the rear objective out, and then take of the lens cap (filter was in place). This made a little fussy compared to other cameras where you just turn it on and take off the cap. All that moving around in a skinny touring kayak is a recipe for a wetting.

Geese and Goslings ( Sony RX 100 Mark III)

Also, I got the impression that the cameras built-in stabilization did not cope well with the motions of a kayak on the water as images tended to be blurred in situations where I’m pretty sure I have operated more successfully with other equipment. Still, with patience, I was able to obtain some pleasing images. Plus, the cameras diminutive sized body slipped  much more easily in and out of the waterproof deck bag on my cowl than the bigger Panasonic would have.

I attended the first of our regions summer “bazaars” at a local parish. I arrived right at dusk. Much like the  Fuji X100 series cameras I utilize for this work, the little Sony is very discrete and quiet: with its fast lens,  and good sensor, it handled this assignment quite well.

Festival in the Grove (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

 

Walking and hiking with the Rx 100 series has not been something I have generally done. In that situation is a minimal hardship to bring a larger camera bag with more capable equipment. Nonetheless I have taken to using the camera in situations where do not anticipate major photographic wonders. An example might be an evening walk around my neighborhood, where I feel like I have photographed pretty much every square inch already. However, the right combination of light and atmospherics can transform a familiar place into something much more interesting. It is thus a no-brainer to stuff the little camera into a jacket pocket just in case.

On My Evening Walk (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

I did carry the camera with me however on more photographically focused rambles. I tried to use the camera much as I would, for instance my Nikon bodies, I felt kind of self- conscious  mounting the little Sony on one of my large Gitzo tripods (the tripod head probably weighs more than the camera). Actually though in this setting the Sony has some noteworthy features.

I was initially excited about the WiFi connectivity of the Sony, in part for operating remotely on a tripod. Unfortunately, in my hands, connecting to my Galaxy S4 has been at best, unreliable.  In my Fujifilm cameras with this feature, connecting and operating the camera through my cell phone has been fairly easy. Despite watching videos on YouTube and reading the instructions for the Sony, this function still eludes me. Too bad.

Broken (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

Fortunately the camera has convenient access to a 2 second timer for the shutter. This allows me to avoid camera shake, when taking long exposures. Using the timer  along with the built-in neutral density filter and a polarizer, it is fairly easy to get nicely blurred water flow, even in fairly good light.

Flow ( Sony RX 100 Mark III)

The view screen is reasonably visible in outdoor light, and the tilting feature is extremely convenient for low angle shots like this one of a lovelorn snapping turtle I encountered while out and about.

Snapper (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

The third issue in the summer for me is mountain biking. Here I am generally limited to the space within my modest size Camelback, so a small camera has been a must. The RX100 is extremely well suited for this. I even purchased a tiny inexpensive tripod that fits alongside in the Camelback to handle any contingency. Carrying larger and more valuable gear on a mountain bike, is neither convenient nor particularly safe (I do occasionally fall… hard). In this situation, a high quality pocket camera is exactly the solution I have been searching for.

Jimmy Kane Swamp 2015 (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

 

There is not much question my mind, that I own any number of body/lens combinations that can give higher quality results than the small Sony. However as is often observed, good photography favors the prepared; and the ability to keep a high quality lens/imager combination close at hand is extraordinarily valuable to the dedicated photographer. Have no doubt, the images I obtain from this camera, particularly when exposed and shot properly, are sharp, with  very acceptable noise levels.

I would have been ecstatic with them in 2001. Hell, I’m pretty happy in 2015.

If you own one, do not sell it short

 

As always these images can be viewed at:henrysmithscottage.smugmug.com

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The Empty Bedroom, five years on.

 

 

 

Graduates ( Fujifilm XE-2 XF 55-200 f3.5-4.5)

 I am re-posting this article I wrote almost 5 years ago, about the life event of having your first child leave the nest, and attend college.
Now my daughter Brigid has been graduated from Penn State University with a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering.
In a week or so she will head to Seattle for her new career with Amazon.
Two summers ago, she was an intern there, and loved the company, and the city. She already has an apartment, and three friends for roommates. 
Cathy and I could  not be more proud and happy for her.
Seattle though, is a long way from home.
Never been there.
You know what… it looks pretty photogenic. 
From  5 years ago

 

Brigid’s Room (Nikon D-700, Nikkor 50mm f 1.8)

I have been remiss in posting for a little while.

A lot has been going on.

For one thing, a week ago, my wife Cathy and I dropped my daughter off at college for her freshman year.

This went well; the unloading day was very well run, she has a big dorm room and a lovely roommate. They seem to be getting along well, which I am told can be problematic for first year students picked to be “roomies” by the school.

I’m proud of her. She’s quickly landed a job at the school’s computer help desk and seems to be adapting well to college life. I think she is savoring her independence, an attitude which can be slightly nerve racking for college newbie parents. She doesn’t call as much as I would like. Much of what we know comes from texts to her brother.

My wife and I, like innumerable couples before us, are adjusting slowly to the change. It’s a little sad to go into her bedroom at home. Before she left it was an unorganizable mess, jammed with an accumulation of mementoes of her childhood, and more recent artifacts reflecting the “garbage brain” approach to life that I think she inherited from me. My wife always pushed for her to keep it neat, but never recently was that truly accomplished.

Like most teen bedrooms, it was usually a complete mess.

Posters covered the walls, and the carcasses of old computers she had cannibalized for parts, or salvaged when abandoned, were everywhere.  Along with computer gear,  there were piles of CDs and DVDs without sleeves(that drove me nuts) on her desk along  with generations of IPods which she had collected and filled with music. The bed was rarely made. The floor was covered in clothes. Parents, does this sound familiar?

The bookshelves overflowed with diverse reading, some from school, some of her own choosing.  She had a penchant for changing the room layout including the furniture, about every three weeks, an obsession which I never really understood.

Now, with most of the debris gone, her mother’s organizational skills are winning the day. The bed is made and the room is becoming a tidy space. Eventually, it would make a very a nice guest bedroom.

Except I already have one of those.

Happily, Brigid will return for a summer or three, and the room will temporarily devolve once again.

We obviously understand that ultimately, for her as well as her brother to succeed, they will have to leave us permanently… except of course for holidays, and hopefully, visits someday with their spouses and our grandchildren.

I’m cool with this.

I just wasn’t quite ready for it to start happening so soon.

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