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1

I am fortunate to live in a place of great natural beauty. While the Pacific Ocean dominates much of the landscape, we are also partially surrounded by mountains. I grew up in the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley, a couple hours' drive from both the sea and the Sierra Nevada but not near enough for either to have any appreciable effect on daily life. When I first moved here from the Sacramento area to start graduate school, I felt claustrophobic because I had been used to looking out in any direction and being able to see for miles around. I've long since grown accustomed to the fact that the only miles-long vistas we get are over the ocean and have come to appreciate the proximity of the mountains.

Here we are ideally situated so that ocean and mountain forest are close enough that both can be explored in a single day. And in fact, I did just that the other day, on Boxing Day. The elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) breeding season has started, and I wanted to go up to Año Nuevo State Park to see them. Alas, this idea didn't occur to me soon enough to purchase tickets for the docent-led tour to the elephant seal reserve area, so we didn't get close to the seals. But it was a gorgeously clear day and the scenery was every bit as spectacular as you'd expect from this part of the coast.

Año Nuevo Island lies a short distance to the southwest off Año Nuevo Point and is reachable only by kayak. The island is a marine wildlife refuge closed to the public, uninhabited by any humans except scientists. Elephant seals, northern fur seals (a type of otariid, or eared seal), rhinoceros auklets, western gulls, and Brandt's cormorants all breed on the island. California sea lions don't breed on the island, but several thousand use it as a haul-out site throughout the year. During the elephant seal pupping season white sharks come to the waters around the island to feed on pups as they learn how to swim.

Año Nuevo Island, viewed from Cove Beach at Año Nuevo State Park.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It is not common for the air to be so clear. Usually there is fog or haze that obscures the buildings. There used to be a lighthouse on the island; the dilapidated tower was pulled down in the early 2000s to safeguard the wildlife. Some of the other buildings--a 19th century residence and foghorn station--are currently used as research facilities.

View to the west from Cove Beach.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Even without a ticket for docent-led tour of the elephant seal reserve area, you can hike to the staging area from where the tours depart. The trail passes a freshwater pond that is home to two endangered California herps: The red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) and the San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia). Years ago I had a colleague in graduate school who studied the elephant seals up at Año Nuevo. I went in the field with him one day and got to wear the special blue research windbreaker. He told me that before being allowed to drive into the reserve area all of the researchers have to take a driving test that involves not running over plastic snakes that are placed in the road. This is to make sure that the endangered snakes won't be inadvertently killed.

Freshwater pond at Año Nuevo State Park.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We ate lunch at a lookout point of the tour staging area. Because the air was so clear we could see quite a way down the coast. Highway 1 as it passes under the cliffs immediately north of the Waddell Beach is visible at the far right edge of the photograph.

View towards Waddell Beach from Año Nuevo.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

After lunch we headed away from the coast and drove up Gazos Creek Road a few miles into the forest. It took all of about 15 minutes to go from beach to redwood forest. How cool is that? Two completely different ecosystems to explore easily within a day. Even the weather was different: sunny and warm at the beach, much cooler and damper among the trees.

Although we were up in the redwoods, this day I was fascinated by all of the moss growing on the trees. We've had a decent amount of rain so far, and the forests are satisfyingly wet and squishy. The creek we followed had washed out a bit of the road in a couple of places, and was closed to all traffic about 5 miles from the highway.

Moss-covered tree along Gazos Creek.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We didn't have a lot of time to poke around in the forest, but since we were in the area we stopped at Rancho del Oso on our way home to visit my favorite tree. Rancho del Oso is at the bottom of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I take my ecology students there for the first field trip of the semester, because there I can introduce them to two of the ecosystems that define the natural history of Santa Cruz.

My favorite tree is a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) that lives just off the trail at Rancho del Oso. I love its gnarled branches that grow horizontally at ground level. It is an old, wise tree. Looking through its branches you see into the redwood forest of Big Basin. I normally photograph this tree at a different angle, looking into the forest away from the trail. This day I decided to shoot it from an angle parallel to the trail. I don't think it's quite as dramatic from this angle but there's no denying the magnificence of the tree.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Rancho del Oso is also the downhill terminus of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. The entire trail is about 30 miles, and most hikers take two or three days to hike the whole thing. I'm not much of a backpacker but one of the things I'd like to do this spring is the day hike from Big Basin down to Rancho del Oso. Doesn't that sound like great fun?

Last week I finished my 30-day personal photography challenge, and I'm finally getting around to putting up a follow-up to this post. These are the photos from the second half of the challenge.

Day 16: Egret on the stack at Younger Lagoon. A high surf warning is in effect through today and the waves are BIG! This rock stack sits at the mouth of Younger Lagoon and gets bashed by waves 24/7/365. Usually on days like today I'll see pelicans and cormorants, true seabirds, hanging out on the stack and getting blasted by salt spray. Today a pair of snowy egrets (Egretta thula) landed on the stack but didn't stick around for more than a few seconds. As birds of wetlands and marshes, they didn't like it out there in these conditions.

Snowy egrets (Egretta thula) at the mouth of Younger Lagoon. 5 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
5 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 17: Sunrise. I know, another sunrise. But this time, instead of the panoramic scale of brilliant colors I wanted to zoom in and capture the chiaroscuro effect of the backlit trees.

6 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
6 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 18: This day showcased one of my favourite marine artefacts. This is the test, or internal skeleton, of the red sea urchin Mesocentrotus (formerly Strongylocentrotus) franciscanus. I took this photo with the 35mm lens.

7 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
7 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 19: Pie makings. This is the first since I started this project that I've not been really happy with any of my photos. Maybe that's because I took a lot of shots of dead stuff at the marine lab this morning. However, this one does have a certain amount of visual interest, I think. As usual, the colors are spot on.

8 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
8 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 20: Jade plant. Day 20 had me playing with depth of field again. I wanted to photograph something green, to remind myself of the resiliency of life. We somehow acquired this jade plant several years ago, and have dragged it with us from house to house. I think it has made three moves with us. I pretty much ignore it, and it had mostly died before last year's El Niño rains brought it back to life. And now it looks lush and green again! And may I just keep singing the praises of this 35mm lens? I feel it is making me a much better photographer.

9 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
9 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 21: Diving grebe. A friend invited me to join her at the harbor for some "therapeutic docking". It took me about 10 minutes to remember that my concussed brain hurts when I lie with my head hanging over the edge of the dock. Oops. So I took pictures above water while my friend hunted for slugs. I really like this particular action shot of a grebe taking a dive from the surface. Bloop!

10 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
10 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 22: Not a sunrise! Looks like another sunrise, doesn't it? But I took this yesterday at 17:00 so it isn't a sunrise even though the view is almost due east. So what is going on here?

11 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
11 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 23: Super moon! I took on the super moon to practice some low light photography. I can see why photographers like those big telephoto lenses! My 18-140mm lens did a good job with details of the moon's surface, which was nice to see. Had to do some digital zooming to get this view.

13 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
13 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 24: Lavender flower. This day saw me experimenting with bokeh. Before I started playing with this camera I didn't really appreciate the aesthetic potential of the non-subject material in a photograph. This study has really changed the way I look at the world. I feel that my artist's eye has developed quite a lot.

14 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
14 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 25: Setting moon. Last night we were fogged in at sea level so we went uphill to get above the marine layer. From that experiment it's clear that I need more practice with night photography and long exposures. None of the pictures I took last night was very good in terms of technique, but one of them is aesthetically interesting and I may share it later. Anyway. This one is the super moon setting behind the trees this morning, at about the same time the sun was rising behind me.

15 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
15 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 26: Gull in flight. I'm learning that photography is about the moment as much as the subject matter. In this case the subject is a western gull, a California Current endemic species, in flight. What do you think of the moment?

16 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
16 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 27: Light through stained glass window. I went down to the church this afternoon to take pictures of the stained glass windows while the organ was getting fixed, then broken, then fixed again. I like the way the late afternoon sun shone through one of the south-facing windows and onto the opposite wall. I find the effect to be kind of spooky and not at all like the pictures I usually take. Maybe I need to play around more with angles as composition. The church dates back to 1864 (old by California standards!) and is the oldest church building still in use in Santa Cruz County. The gas lights, one fixture of which can be seen in the right-hand side of the photo, are part of the original architecture. The hanging electric lamp is not. We still use the gas lamps for evening services, and they are quite lovely when lit.

18 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
18 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 28: San Juan Bautista. We went to San Bautista to meet family and friends for a birthday lunch and spent some time wandering around the mission grounds. This image captures the three elements of every California mission--the Indian supplicant, the cross, and the bell tower--and hints of the tension in these settlements. Like it or not, the missions are an important part of California history despite their record of enslavement of the people who lived here first.

19 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
19 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 29: Chomp! This day was once again all about the moment. Lucie (calico) and Maggie (tortie) were napping together on the couch when Lucie woke up and started grooming Maggie. Usually it goes the other way around. This time Maggie put up with it for a long time before giving Lucie one warning chomp. After this they groomed each other for a while and then continued their nap for another couple of hours.

20 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
20 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 30: Tiny mushrooms. I wanted the last entry to be something special so I waited until we went hiking at Big Basin Redwoods State Park for Green Friday. Hiking through the redwood forest we saw beauty all around us. And mushrooms everywhere! I was messing around with bokeh again and love how these little mushrooms look against the blurred background. My challenge is finished and I've learned a lot about my camera and taking pictures. Mission accomplished!

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I feel that I've learned a lot during this challenge, both about my new camera and about photography in general. And I've developed a whole new appreciation for composition and especially for bokeh. I've completed the challenge, but intend to keep taking pictures as frequently as I can. I still have so much to learn!

1

About three weeks ago I received as an early birthday gift a new camera. I had been thinking for a while now that I should get a "real" grown-up camera with interchangeable lenses; you know, a DSLR. My little Olympus point-and-shoot camera is a fantastic field camera--it takes amazing macro shots and I can dunk it in a tidepool or operate it with wet hands, plus it fits into a pocket--but it's not the best tool for photographing birds from far away. In the past couple of months I rented first a Nikon D7200 and then a Canon 80D and took them up to Lake Tahoe to give them a test-drive. After all was said and done I decided that the Nikon both took better pictures and was easier for me to figure out, and that's the camera I decided to get. It came as a kit with an 18-140mm zoom lens and I also got a 35mm fixed focal length lens.

Cameras these days are complicated affairs. And me with a concussion, trying to figure out all of the bells and whistles was a daunting thing. So I decided to set myself a challenge, to take photos every day and post one to my Instagram feed. This 30-day endeavor has proven to be more challenging than I had anticipated: I knew that I wouldn't always feel inspired to take pictures, but hadn't thought that the real difficulty would be in choosing a single photo to share. For this challenge I wanted to see what this camera and I can achieve together, with no post processing other than cropping and straightening.

Day 1: Lucie, taken with the 35mm lens. This was my first day of experimenting with the 35mm lens. A sleepy Lucie was too lazy not to cooperate.

Lucie 21 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Lucie
21 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 2: Evening lights. When some friends invited us to meet them for dinner at the harbor, I brought the camera along. It has a few settings for nighttime photography. I took this shot with the Night Landscape setting, and the camera was spot-on with the exposure. Unfortunately I took it from a floating dock, and the slight movement was picked up by the long shutter speed.

Evening lights at the Harbor Beach Cafe 22 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Evening lights at the Harbor Beach Cafe
22 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 3: Fire at night. The same evening that I took the above photo, we were sitting around our friends' fire pit. I learned from this that it isn't easy taking still shots of fire. Fortunately for me, the camera is smarter than I am. I cranked up the ISO to its highest setting and let the camera do the rest.

Fire pit at night 22 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Fire pit at night
22 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 4: Pelicans in flight. I was experimenting with the sequential exposure setting on the camera and was happily surprised by this squadron of pelicans. This shot was my favorite, as it captures several of the postures of pelicans in the air. When they're not flying in formation, they get unsynchronized and sort of goofy.

Pelicans in flight over Monterey Bay 24 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pelicans in flight over Monterey Bay
24 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 5: Sunrise. When I got up this morning and saw the high clouds with interesting texture I grabbed the camera and went outside to wait for the sunrise. Patience rewarded! The camera has a setting for sunsets, and it works for sunrises as well. Once again, I am very pleased at how well the camera captures what I see with the naked eye. These colors are exactly true.

Sunrise in Santa Cruz 25 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sunrise in Santa Cruz
25 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 6: Natural Bridges. On a sunny clear day between storms went out to Natural Bridges. I've not had much experience with fixed focal length lenses so making myself practice with the 35mm lens. Using this lens forces me to look at things differently, which I am finding very fulfilling. So far I find this lens to be bright and clear: check out this depth of field! The pelicans and cormorants at Natural Bridges seemed to be enjoying the sun.

View across Natural Bridges towards Terrace Point 26 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
View across Natural Bridges towards Terrace Point
26 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 7: Yarn indoors. What to do when it's raining? Seemed like a good day to find out how well the camera captures colors indoors under artificial light. I just started another lace knitting project and am trying to achieve a gradient effect with these three skeins of yarn. The camera has a "Food" setting but that washed out everything (all three yarns and the aqua blue background). I tried the "Blossom" setting and voila! Perfect color representation of both the cool aqua of the background and the warmer colors of the yarns. Another win!

Three skeins of Malabrigo Silkpaca yarn, all in the colorway Archangel 27 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Three skeins of Malabrigo Silkpaca yarn, all in the colorway Archangel
27 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 8: Pitcher plant. This day had me experimenting with depth of field again. Finally, I captured what I wanted. The subject is a pitcher from a carnivorous plant. I live how the pitcher is in crisp focus, while the background is blurred.

Pitcher plant 28 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pitcher plant
28 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 9: Maggie. Maggie likes to stick her head out between the slats of the deck railing so she can spy on the kitty downstairs. I've been trying for years to catch this moment. The camera has a "Pet portrait" setting. I am not quite sure what it does, but it worked! Take that, iPhone camera!

Maggie 28 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Maggie
28 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 10: Morning sky. Day 10 brought me another fascinating morning sky. I've decided that it must be the constantly changing textures of clouds that make them such a favorite subject of mine.

Morning sky 28 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Morning sky
29 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 11: Waves. A big wave day lured me out to West Cliff Drive to see if I could capture an action shot. The exposure was wrong but I was trying to capture a specific moment. Can anyone guess what that moment was?

One of many large waves 31 October 2016 © Allison J. Gong
One of many large waves
31 October 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 12: Protea. Today I took a tour of Gondwanaland without leaving Santa Cruz! How, you ask? By visiting the UCSC Arboretum and walking through their Australian and South African gardens. Got buzzed by lots of Anna's hummingbirds, and took pictures of plants, including this Protea in the South African garden.

Protea blossom in the South African garden of the UCSC Arboretum 1 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Protea blossom in the South African garden of the UCSC Arboretum
1 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 13: Coot on pond. I went to Antonelli Pond to see what birds were there. There were cormorants, mallards, and a great egret, but it was the coots that caught my attention. When I was little we called these birds mud hens; seems to me now that they deserve a more flattering name. So I go with coots. For this photo I was experimenting with f-stop and manual focus, and succeeded in achieving what I hoped for. The blurred vegetation in the foreground makes me feel like I'm spying on a maiden bathing in a pond.

American coot (Fulica americana) at Antonelli Pond 2 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
American coot (Fulica americana) at Antonelli Pond
2 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 14: Lace shawl. Photographing my knitting has always been a challenge because the colors are difficult to capture. What a test for this new camera, right? I took lots of shots with the 35mm lens, draping the shawl in various ways over my dress form, and this is the shot I like best. The colors are true, including the gradient from light to dark.

Knitted lace shawl 3 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Knitted lace shawl
3 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Day 15: Lucie in a box. I had grandiose plans to find some spectacular outdoor scenery to photograph for today's entry, but then Lucie hopped into the apple box and I can never resist a kitty in a box. I caught her in the middle of a meowyawn, which is what I call it when she yawns in the middle of a meow. It's her signature noise. Once again the camera gets an 'A' for the Pet portrait setting.

Lucie in a box 4 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Lucie in a box
4 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In looking over these photos again, I'm pleased at how many different types of pictures I've taken. The cats have been surprisingly cooperative, too. I'm excited to see what inspires me in the next two weeks!

For the past several years now I've been using various iterations of an Olympus point-and-shoot camera, mostly for field and lab work. My current version, which I've had for over a year now, is the TG-4, in which the 'T' stands for Tough. This camera really stands up to its name. I routinely clamber over slippery rocks in the intertidal with the camera dangling from my wrist, and it is pretty banged up already. Not a problem! It is also completely waterproof so in addition to knowing that it will take fantastic photos underwater, I don't have to dry my hands before using it! Plus, it fits easily into a side pocket of my daypack for hiking, although I usually just leave it looped around my wrist. This little camera also has a microscope setting that takes great macro shots, which I love. The one thing it doesn't do very well is line up with either of my real microscopes, but I have a gadget that aligns the camera on my phone with the microscope objective lenses so even that contingency is covered.

Lately I've been thinking that it's time to graduate up to a real grown-up camera, one that has interchangeable lenses for more versatility. I particularly want a camera that will take photos of the birds and other wildlife that my TG-4 doesn't allow me to get close enough for, as well as one for general use, travel, etc. I asked my Facebook friends for DSLR recommendations and the consensus is that Canon and Nikon have the best selection for photo quality, build quality, and lens options. I started digging through online reviews and quickly became overwhelmed with technical specs and jargon. Given that image quality is comparable for cameras in the same price range I decided that the most useful bits of information are (1) whether or not I can figure out how to make the dang thing do what I want it to do; and (2) will I want to carry it around so I can use it.

In early August I was up at Lake Tahoe for an extended weekend with family. A friend had suggested renting a camera at lensrentals.com, which was a great idea. I rented a Nikon D7200, the new addition to their advanced hobbyist line, and an 18-140mm lens for the weekend. I took a lot of pictures, trying the camera in different outdoor lighting conditions. I gotta say, the images coming out of this camera are really nice. I didn't alter anything about them, except to decrease the overall file size so the photos load more quickly.

First test: Photos of outdoor scenery. The atmosphere was hazy due to smoke from various wildfires in the greater area, so I had to go up to Carson Pass to get some blue sky.

View from area near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
View from area near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Red Lake, near Carson Summit. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Red Lake, near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Tree with scars from chains used to pull wagons up the slope, at Red Lake near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Tree with scars from chains used to pull wagons up the slope, at Red Lake near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Pile of rocks near Carson Pass. 6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pile of rocks near Carson Pass.
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
6 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Meadow at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Meadow at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Aspen trees at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Aspen trees at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Mt. Tallac 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Mt. Tallac
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Taylor Creek
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Second test: Macro. I borrowed a macro lens from a friend who owns the Nikon D7100, just to fool around and see what happens. I took some macro shots of tree bark. Of course, any time you shoot macro you lose depth of field, which can look sort of cool in itself.

DSC_1057 DSC_1054

Test 3: Wildlife photography. I learned that for wildlife photography, the quality of the camera and lens has a HUGE effect on how the pictures look. I found that this Nikon was pretty responsive, which is important when the subject of the photo is active.

I have no idea if these rodents are squirrels or chipmunks.

DSC_1208 DSC_1202

At Taylor Creek I took pictures of birds!

Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And using the digital zoom that the image quality allows, I get this:

Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at Taylor Creek. 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at Taylor Creek.
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

But the best wildlife photo was taken at nightfall. We had gone out to Taylor Creek one evening to look for birds. It was almost full dark and we were about to leave when we saw a large grayish blob in a tree. Looking through binoculars we could see that it was clearly a creature of some kind, but we couldn't tell what. A large owl, getting ready to go out hunting? A roosting raptor?

Surprise! It was a mother porcupine nursing a baby.

Common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) nursing her baby in a tree at Taylor Creek. 7 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) nursing her baby in a tree at Taylor Creek.
7 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This photo was the most impressive shot I got from this camera. Its performance in low light conditions was phenomenal. It was almost completely dark when I took this shot, but the exposure looks like it was taken during the day. Color me very impressed!

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