Cat Poop, Tidy Tips and Kit Foxes on Carrizo Plain | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
(408) 483-3782
Curious about how to shoot ruins?(408) 483-3782

Photographers shoot wildflowers for different reasons.

Some love the bright color splashes. Others enjoy crazy-colored carpeting extending into the distance. And some wait for an insect or bird to fly in for a drink of nectar.

Incredible Spring Flowers but No Services
About 90 minutes southeast of Atascadero, Carrizo Plain National Monument has one of the best spring wildflower displays in California. But you shouldn’t expect 5-star hotels and restaurants, or even potable water. What’s there is very alkaline and undrinkable. And for all you texting fanatics, sorry – cellphone coverage is spotty to nonexistent.

Know Your Motel’s Exact Location – The Internet May Lie
Carrizo Plain doesn’t appear on some maps, and when it does, it sometimes looks like there are inhabited towns nearby. When I searched for lodging online for the first night, I found a motel listing for Santa Margarita, which appeared to be close to the northwest entrance to Carrizo. So we booked for Friday night, when we would be arriving late from the San Francisco Bay Area. When we got to Santa Margarita and the last gas before Carrizo, we discovered we had another 45 minutes of driving down a twisty, dark road before we got to the motel’s actual location.

For the first couple nights, we enjoyed(?) that motel room in unincorporated California Valley, with embalmed cat poop in one corner, a stuffed 1/2 size horse, and a bar with carved camel heads at each end (but the room was otherwise clean and fairly comfortable). We had a much better time in a tent at Carrizo’s KCL campground with its nightly owl serenade, migrating cows, and nearby kit fox family.

Enjoy the Main Event
But Nature provided the real entertainment in the flicks of color from God’s own paintbrush in a daisy field extending to the horizon.

And insects enjoyed the display, like the little guy on this hillside Goldfield (daisy).

There were all the bright colors and sky reflections you could wish for.

Locals said 2010 was a much better year for wildflowers, but these looked pretty good to me.

Locals May Direct You to Endangered Wildlife
The unexpected bonus was the San Joaquin kit fox family near KCL campground. Other campers alerted me to their presence, and I slowly approached with 700mm on a tripod. I could see the agitation in the supervising adult fox at one point, so I stopped. I was close enough to see that kangaroo rats were what’s for dinner.

On the way out, we stopped for a purple display of what looked like Perry’s mallow. Once upon a time, marshmallows were made from mallow plants and honey. Nowadays, they’re all corn syrup and food starch.

But the flowers are still pretty.

Shot Notes
This was supposed to be a wildflower shooting trip, but I brought the 500mm f/4 lens, 1.4X and 2X teleconverters, and big Gitzo 1325 Mk II tripod with Wimberley Sidekick just in case. A tripod was useful for shooting wildflowers in otherwise uncomfortable positions, and would have come along anyway. An EOS 5D mark II dSLR provided very vibrant colors and plenty of resolution.

Lens Tilts for Depth of Field Without Stopping Down
I also ended up wishing for my 24mm TS-E lens to get a deep plane of focus without stopping down. Lens tilts allow you to place the plane of sharp focus in a line from near the base of the camera to infinity. The price is that depth of field is quite narrow in the foreground near the camera, and needs to be checked to see that distant subjects still fall within it. The effect is used with the Lensbaby to get a focus ‘sweet spot’ with adjacent areas out of focus. You can find a more complete description of tilt effects here.

My most-used focal lengths were 24mm, 48mm and 70mm on a 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom lens. As it was, I stopped down to f/16 and f/22 for some shots, compromising ultimate sharpness to get some sharpness through depth of field. When you stop down below f/11 with most large-sensor digital cameras, you begin to lose sharpness because of diffraction from the small lens opening.

Hold that Sky
I could also have used a half neutral density filter to hold back the sky for even exposure in many shots. These little gems cut the exposure by 2 or 3 stops over part of their surface, and allow full exposure through the rest. You can slide the filter up and down to place the exposure cut line where you want.

Instead, I used Adobe Lightroom’s 1/2 ND feature in the program’s Develop module. If your image has sufficient dynamic range and you haven’t blown out the highlights, you can darken an upper or lower part of your image in a similar way. You can also use this to selectively enhance contrast or sharpness, something you can’t do with the real filter.

I also used Lightroom’s ability to selectively darken certain colors to darken the blue sky and enhance cloud textures. The combination of these adjustments is like a polarizing filter with the 1/2 ND, but with much more control of what the final image looks like.

The program also allows you to adjust levels of shadow, darkness, light and highlight areas, so you have pretty good control of overall contrast.

Wildlife Approach – Back Off When They’re Bugged
For the kit foxes, I started my approach about 100 yards out. I had the 500mm f/4 and 1.4X teleconverter on an EOS 1D mark II dSLR, with its 1.3X crop factor. As I got closer, I carried the tripod with camera and lens in front of me to avoid the drop-from-the-shoulder move that wildlife always associate with hunters. I captured insurance shots from relatively far away, then moved closer, always at an angle to the foxes. I eventually switched to the 2X teleconverter to get usable shots, since the adult fox made it clear I made him nervous as I got close, and I stopped.

The next morning, I photographed a Say’s phoebe and other birds around the campground. Early morning light was so good that this was mostly a matter of waiting for subjects to look towards the light to give a good catchlight in their eye. I was blessed with some cloud texture to avoid a featureless gray sky. Part of an old barn served as a perch for the phoebe and for an incredibly red house finch, giving a sense of place.