Feb 062016
Sand dunes at Umpqua Dunes, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Oregon Coast.

Sand dunes at Umpqua Dunes, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

I recently posted this photo on my Facebook page and one of the initial comments was from a photographer wanting to know the location because he was surprised that there were no ATV tracks in my photo.

The federally-designated Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area stretches for many miles along the central Oregon coast. Many visitors just make a brief stop at the Oregon Dunes Day Use Area a little south of Florence. Or they may visit several state and county parks and USFS recreation areas developed primarily for the enjoyment of ATV and OHV users. Those sites can be frustrating for nature photographers and those just interested in enjoying the beauty and quietude of this unique environment.

Fortunately, there is one vast section of Oregon Dunes NRA where motorized recreation is prohibited. Even better, that area includes the tallest and most dramatic of the sand dunes on the Oregon Coast.

This area is covered in my book Photographing Oregon, but here is what you might want to know if you don’t have the book:

The Umpqua Dunes are best accessed via the John Dellenback Dunes Trail. To find the trailhead, travel US Highway 101 on the central Oregon coast and look for the USFS sign near the town of Lakeside. There is a nice picnic and parking area on the west side of the highway.

Alternatively, go to the USFS Eel Creek Campground, and follow the trail connector from the Day Use Area. This is a great option for those who like to travel in RVs or just enjoy camping. It is probably also a bit more secure for leaving your vehicle than in the trailhead parking area.

Starting at the trailhead, you’ll have an easy half-mile hike through coastal forest of shore pines, salal, madrone and manzanita before breaking out into the open sand dunes. At this point, just keep walking west towards the ocean. Depending on recent storms and wind patterns, the best photo ops may found by heading a bit south or north and then west towards the ocean.

Your best photos are going to result from a time when the sun is low on the horizon – sunrise or sunset – and immediately after a day or so of strong winds that will smooth over the footprints of previous visitors.

These conditions can happen at any time of year, but spring and fall are the most reliable. Two considerations for serious photographers: late afternoon through sunset is the best light, but starting the hike a sunrise gives you a better chance at footprint-free dunes and the enjoyment of a quiet, soul-satisfying experience.

For those interested, here’s the data on this photo: Nikon D750, 14mm Rokinon lens at f/11, 1/640″, ISO 400,  Induro tripod, RRS BH40 ballhead, remote electronic release, mirror up mode. Processed with Abobe Lightroom CC, with photo merge of five captures for high dynamic range in recognition of the extreme scene contrast.

More of my Oregon Dunes NRA photos

You are welcome to add links to your own Oregon coast sand dunes photos in the Comments below.


Jan 052016

Looking over the photos we’ve made in the past year is always an interesting and informative exercise. Time to reflect on places we went, what we observed, and what we experienced. Here are 15 of my favorite photographs from 2015.

Sunrise at Mount Pisgah summit on January 1st, with people taking selfies at the Jed Kesey memorial sculpture, Lane County, Oregon.

Sunrise at Mount Pisgah summit on January 1st.

Quite a few people in Eugene, Oregon, celebrate the arrival of a new year with a hike to the summit of Mount Pisgah. The Jed Kesey Memorial sculpture at the top of the mountain is designed so that the sun lines up with slots on the monument at the solstice.

Sea stacks at dawn from Face Rock State Wayside, Bandon, southern Oregon Coast.

Sea stacks at dawn from Face Rock State Wayside, Bandon, Oregon Coast.

Sunsets are frequently spectacular in winter along the Oregon coast, and sunrises can be awesome as well. No better place to record the magic than at Bandon on the southern Oregon coast.

Brittlebush flowers; Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California.

Brittlebush; Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California.

In February, I attended the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Summit in San Diego, and immediately after the meeting I spent a few days enjoying the sun and warmth of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California.

Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, Peru.

Without question, the highlight of my year was visiting Machu Picchu, part of a trip to Peru with the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). At the top of my bucket list for years, Machu Picchu surpassed expectations. It’s still at the top of my list – I want to go back. I also really enjoyed the time I spent in Cusco, a wonderful city to visit and photograph.

Smith Rock and the Crooked River at dawn.

Smith Rock and the Crooked River.

A friend’s request for a print of one of their favorite places sent me to Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon. Dawn glow in early spring beautifully lights this amazing rock formation.

Olas Atlas Beach in Puerto Vallarta Mexico

Playa Olas Atlas, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

I have always enjoyed traveling in Mexico, so was delighted to visit Puerto Vallarta in May for the annual North American Travel Journalists Association conference. I soon discovered why this city has long been a vacation favorite for both Mexicans and international visitors. Beaches, warm weather, great food, friendly locals, plenty of cultural sites and activities – what’s not to like?

Food cart at the Mercado in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico.

Food cart at the Mercado in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico.

Many years ago Penelope and I spent a summer traveling around Mexico in an old van. One of our stops was the little Pacific Coast town of San Blas. After the NATJA conference, I rented a car and spent a few days traveling along the Riviera Nayarit coast. Not much has changed in San Blas, where you can still get great street food and stroll or just sit around the town plaza in the evening.

Wizard Island in Crater Lake at sunrise; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.

Wizard Island in Crater Lake at sunrise.

One of my goals for 2015 was to do some new photography at Crater Lake National Park. I was happy to put a check next to that one on the list with a late spring visit that resulted in this photo.

Palouse wheat fields from Steptoe Butte, Washington.

Palouse wheat fields from Steptoe Butte, Washington.

I had the pleasure of returning to the Palouse in June to lead a photo workshop. The rolling hills of wheat were at their prime and we had beautiful light at both sunrise and sunset for several days.

three friends jumping in the air on the Oregon Coast.

Jumping with joy on Hobbit Beach, Oregon Coast.

In August we hosted Penelope’s brother and wife from Spain, along with three college students from Spain who were visiting as part of a month-long trip to the western USA. They had fun hiking through the forest to the beach on the central Oregon coast.

Vine maple Fall color on the McKenzie River Trail at Clear Lake, Oregon.

Vine maple at Clear Lake, Oregon.

Vine maples are the first trees to show their fall colors in the Cascade Mountains. A rainy day hike on the McKenzie River Trail led me to this scene near Big Spring at Clear Lake.

Upper Mammoth Terrace at dawn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Upper Mammoth Terrace, Yellowstone National Park.

In late September, I had the good fortune to co-lead a photo workshop for the Yellowstone Association with Terry Donnelly. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the workshop participants (and Terry) and am excited to be returning to Yellowstone this summer to co-lead another photography workshop with Tom Kirkendall.

Wildhorse Lake and the Alvord Desert from the summit of Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon.

Wildhorse Lake from the summit of Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.

A slight detour on my return drive from Yellowstone took me to Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon. The view from the summit never fails to amaze, taking in the Alvord Desert, almost a vertical mile below, and stretching south and east to mountains on the borders of Idaho and Nevada.

Storm surf and waves breaking on the rocks at Shore Acres State Park, Oregon Coast.

Storm surf at Shore Acres State Park, Oregon Coast.

Another of my photo goals for 2015 was to capture the power and fury of storm-generated surf crashing on the rocks at Shore Acres State Park. Truly a spectacular sight. For a sense of scale, note the size of the people on the right edge of the photo.

Sand dunes at Umpqua Dunes, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Oregon Coast.

Sand dunes at sunrise, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

A sunrise photo seems about right to finish this recap because a new dawn also expresses my hope for the New Year.

Thanks for looking at my photos, and please let me know which are your favorites by leaving a Comment. If you have compiled your own favorites, feel free to post a link below in Comments. You may also want to check out all the favorites posted on Jim Goldstein’s Best of Photos blog post.

Nov 182015
Cape Arago Lighthouse at dusk

Cape Arago Lighthouse, Oregon Coast.

Last week I went to the southern Oregon coast to photograph the giant waves crashing on the rocks at Shore Acres State Park. Driving through Sunset Bay State Park, I pulled into the viewpoint for Cape Arago Lighthouse and I was reminded of why it’s always important to stop and photograph what you see and not just think “Oh, I’ll come back another time for that photo”.

I’m sure glad I made this photograph when I did several years ago, because it would be impossible to get this image now. The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse, so it’s signal beam no longer shines. The trees on the little rock island on the left side of the photo have all died, leaving bleached white sticks. The State Parks Department erected a fence barrier at the viewpoint and vegetation between the viewing area and this cove has grown to partially obscure the view.

So when you come across a good photo opportunity, or you have a certain location in mind to photograph someday, don’t put it off. Work it right away or get there as soon as you can.

Nov 092015
Vine Maple tree with leaves in fall color

Vine maple Fall color on the McKenzie River Trail at Clear Lake, Oregon.

Earlier this fall a friend posted a photo on Facebook of vine maple trees on the shore of Clear Lake up in the Cascade Mountains. The trees were vibrant with fall color and the wonderful blue-green color of the north end of the lake added to the beauty of the scene.

I knew the area where my friend’s photo was made, so on the next day with suitably overcast weather I headed up to the McKenzie River Trail for the short hike to the lake.

It was a pleasant little hike and the maples were doing their thing. I didn’t want to imitate the photo I’d seen, but I envisioned something along the same lines – looking across the lake to a nice grouping of colorful trees on the opposite shore. But after a couple of hours walking up and down the trail, trying various compositions, I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t seeing well. I just couldn’t find a composition that I liked. So when it started to rain, I decided to pack it in.

And then I saw this one small vine maple right next to the trail. Despite the rain I got the camera out of the backpack, set up the tripod, and started shooting, getting closer and closer with a wide angle lens, trying to make the brilliant leaves a really dominant foreground with the lake and trees on the far shore as the background. But again I became frustrated, just not liking at all what I was seeing on the LCD.

Finally, I stepped back, took a look and suddenly found an image I was happy with. Not a wide angle landscape like I’d planned, but a telephoto close-up, emphasizing the color of both the leaves and the lake. Backing away from the tree and using the 70-200mm lens I was able to frame a nice arrangement of branches and leaves. The shallow depth of field from using the telephoto lens made the water mostly out of focus, although you can see soft white spots all over the background – which are actually the glint of sun on raindrops hitting the water.

Once again I found that my best photos result from really working a scene. The pre-conceived idea doesn’t always work, and I need to be open to seeing in a new way. I need to try different angles, different approaches, and sometimes, both literally and figuratively, step back for another look.

What is your method? How do you work a scene when what you see in person doesn’t match what you thought you would find?


Nov 042015
Lamar Valley and the Absaroka Mountains in autumn; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Greg Vaughn/© Greg Vaughn)

Lamar Valley and the Absaroka Mountains in autumn; Yellowstone National Park

In late September I had the pleasure of co-leading a photo workshop in Yellowstone National Park with Terry Donnelly. One of the areas we took the workshop participants to was Lamar Valley. This part of Yellowstone is more known as one of the best places to view bison and wolves, but it is also a great fall color location thanks to several stands of cottonwood and aspen.

I’ll return to Lamar Valley next summer to lead another photo workshop for the Yellowstone Association. I’ll be co-leading this workshop, with Tom Kirkendall, and we’ll concentrate on wildflowers and waterfalls. The July 3-5, 2016 date is timed for the usual peak of wildflowers in Yellowstone. If you’re interested in this workshop, email me or leave a comment below and I’ll let you know as soon as details are available from the Yellowstone Association.

Oct 092015

I am very excited to announce that I’ve teamed up with SNAPP Guides to produce photographers guides for Oregon on their very innovative app platform. Take a look at this video to see what it’s all about:

These guides, for locations all over the world, are going to be a great resource for photographers. No matter if your interest is nature and landscape photography, travel photography or even street photography, detailed information will be at your fingertips.

I hope you see the potential here, and that you’ll help get the ball rolling by backing the Snapp Guides Kickstarter campaign. Even a $5 contribution will help, but check out the bonus offerings if you kick in a little more (or a lot more!) before the October 22 deadline.


Oct 082015
Aspen trees on Steens Mountain

Aspen trees in fall color at Jackman Park on Steens Mountain, southeastern Oregon.

If you’re looking for a good place to photograph Fall Color, Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon is looking good right now.

Overall, I’d say this is not a great year for fall color in the Pacific Northwest, due to the lack of rain and unusually warm temperatures we’ve had going back to early spring, but on a visit to the Steens earlier this week I found plenty of colorful trees to work with.

Driving the Steens Mountain Loop starting at Page Springs Campground just east of Frenchglen I found multiple groves of aspen, and those from Fish Lake up to Jackman Park are at the peak of color.

This being a somewhat odd year for the leaves, some trees are still green, while others are bright yellow. In a few places, especially near Jackman Park, you’ll see groves where the leaves have turned orange.

My guess is that the color will be good for at least another week, and there are currently no storms in the weather forecast that will blow the leaves away. In fact, the weather is predicted to continue to be unseasonably warm, so a roadtrip to southeastern Oregon will be a delight.

Somewhat surprisingly, the cottonwood trees around Frenchglen have not started to turn color yet, and the aspens over in Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge are just beginning to turn.

Keep in mind that this is hunting season, so be sure to wear bright colors when you’re out in the woods or the sage. On another note, the Steens Mountain Loop Road is in very good condition now; yes there are many places with minor washboarding, but there are no deep ruts and a regular passenger car can make the whole loop.

For more information about photographing Steens Mountain, and the surrounding area, see Chapter 12 in my book Photographing Oregon and the BLM page for Steens.

Roadtrip anyone? If you go, let me know what you find.


Jul 242015

Topaz Labs, makers of photo editing software for Lightroom and Photoshop, announced a few days ago that they’re running a special on the newest version of their Adjust plugin. I’m a fan of plugins in general, and have found other Topaz products to be pretty cool, so I downloaded Adjust and have been exploring and testing. Here are some examples of what the plugin can do, using a photo of an old church from my recent visit to San Blas on the Riviera Nayarit coast of Mexico.

raw image file in Lightroom

RAW file in Lightroom 6, Adobe Standard camera profile.

The photo above shows the image just as imported into Lightroom (v6/CC). The sensor in my Nikon D750 did a great job of handling the contrast in this scene – the histogram shows no clipping in either blacks or whites, just a nice mountain range from shadows to highlights. In Lightroom’s Camera Calibration panel I tried the Camera Standard profile, but chose Adobe Standard instead because the histogram looked a little better in the shadows.

image with adjustments made in Lightroom

Basic Lightroom adjustments applied.

I applied several Lightroom adjustments to bring the image more to my liking. These included light to moderate movement of the sliders on Color Balance, Exposure, Whites, Shadows, Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation. I wanted to bring up the shadows a bit, add a little mid-tone contrast, and bring back the slight amount of warmth from the late afternoon sun.

photo with Topaz Adjust Light Pop Smooth applied

Topaz Adjust Light Pop Smooth.

Next I opened the photo in Topaz Adjust. My first test was to try the presets in the HDR Collection. I’m not really into the heavy HDR look, but I often find that I like what happens when I apply a very small amount of HDR processing. Judging from the quick previews that Adjust provides, the Light Pop Smooth preset looked like it might be suitable. I like what it did with adding a little more definition to the clouds, and also that it opened up the deep shadows in the bell tower a little.

photo with the Simple Pop preset applied

Topaz Adjust Simple Pop.

Then I went back to my basic Lightroom-adjusted image, opened it in Adjust again, and played with some of the presets in the Classic Collection. Most of these are designed to make minor adjustments and improvements, which is what I was looking for. A click on Simple Pop produced an image very similar to the HDR Light Pop Smooth, but on close examination it appeared that mid-tones in the latter were slightly smoothed out and toned down compared to Simple Pop. Both versions added a little bit of punch to my photo, which I think improved it over what I’d produced in Lightroom.

photo with Topaz Adjust preset Warm Tone I applied

Topaz Adjust Warm Tone I.

Going beyond just some improvement in your basic photo, if you want some help in producing an image that will get across your feelings or your interpretation of the scene you were photographing, or if you just want to get, as a photographer friend of mine likes to say, “Artsy-Fartsy”, Topaz Adjust gives you some excellent options.

photo with Topaz Adjust Vintage Grunge IV preset applied

Vintage Grunge IV.

I had fun hitting my basic LR-adusted file with some of the many additional presets in Topaz Adust, just to see what happened. I’m fairly conservative in my image processing, so went Yuck! on some of the previews, but several of the presets generated a Like! A nice feature of Adjust is that you can save the presets you like, and even ones you create yourself, to your personal Favorites collection.

In my tests, I just went with the default slider settings for each preset. Adjust does give you the ability to modify the preset (and save as your own) and fine tune your photo to a very fine degree. I’ll be working on that more in the future.

Some photographers make the argument that it is possible to do anything that apps like Adjust can do in Photoshop or Lightroom. I’m not so sure about that. I think the folks at Topaz know some special voodoo. Okay, expert-level Photoshoppers may be able to produce similar results, but personally I’m a big fan of plugins and presets that quickly and easily improve and enhance my images, especially when I can run my mouse over the preset options for an instant preview.

Topaz Adjust can be used with both Lightroom and Photoshop. In Lightroom, Topaz plugins require a separate little app, Topaz Fusion Express, that generates a TIF for editing. I do most of my processing in Lightroom these days, so I access Adjust by going to Photo > Edit In > Topaz Fusion Express; at that point I select options for working on the original file or a copy (always a copy!), then open in Adjust. It’s a little simpler and quicker working from Photoshop, just go Filter > Topaz Labs > Adjust.

Topaz has a very good intro video on the features and use of Adjust that will get you up to speed with the plugin in no time.

Two things I’d like to see Topaz work on for the next version of this program:

(1) The preview images don’t look sharp if you have the zoom set to Fit and the size is something like 16.7%. Viewing at 50% and 100%, the images were sharp. Depending on your monitor size and resolution, you may be able have your preview at something like 25% and get a sharp image.

(2) Topaz Adjust only works with TIFF files, so if you usually save your files in the PSD format, you’ll have to convert or save a copy in TIF format.

Overall, I’m quite impressed with Topaz Adjust and I’m happy to include it in my set of tools for photo editing. If you’d like to explore the possibilities yourself, download the free trial here: www.topazlabs.com/adjust.

Topaz is running a special promotion on Adjust through July 31, 2o15. They’re offering a discount of 40% off ($20 discount), reducing the price to just $29.99. That’s a darn good deal. Use coupon code: JULYADJUST.

Disclosure: that link just above is an affiliate link, so if you decide to purchase Adjust, Topaz will reward me handsomely. But it won’t cost you a cent more, so go ahead and click the link. 🙂

Jul 182015

Covers of Photographing Oregon and Photographing Washington books

Trying to decide where to go and what to photograph in the Pacific Northwest? Here’s a great deal: through the end of July, I’m selling my award-winning guidebooks with no charge for shipping. That’s the equivalent of more than 20% off for a personally autographed copy of Photographing Oregon and Photographing Washington.

Note:  This deal is only for orders placed via the “Add to Cart” buttons on this page http://www.gregvaughn.com/books.html and it is only good for books to be shipped to U.S. addresses via standard USPS mail.

If you don’t already own both books, now is a great time to get them at a very good price. These guidebooks to the best scenic, landscape and nature photography locations in Oregon and Washington also make great gifts for photographer friends and family members.

Don’t wait – this deal ends on July 31, 2015!