Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Updates to the Northern California Coast

The Virtual Guidebook to the Northern California Coast and North Coast Ranges covers everything between the Sacramento Valley and the coast, from Arcata south to the northern edge of the Bay Area. Its unifying features are the redwood forests and the dramatic coastline.

When I first started arranging my VR panoramas into "guidebooks" (regions) back in 1999, the area covered by each one was much smaller than now. Through a process of gradual amalgamation, this guidebook evolved from earlier separate guidebooks for Eureka, the Redwood Highway, the Lost Coast, the Mendocino Coast, the Sonoma Coast, and the North Coast Ranges. Maybe I have overdone it - there are now 47 localities with 251 panoramas .

In November I made a trip to update the sections on Fort Bragg and Mendocino, and in January/February did the same for Eureka, Shelter Cove, and Sinkyone. There are still some areas up there that I want to fill in or update (notably Arcata), and the stretch of coast from Mendocino to Salt Point needs a lot of new panos. I want to hike the Lost Coast again, both the northern (Mattole River to Shelter Cove) and southern (Sinkyone Wilderness) stretches, and climb King Peak.

The Redwood Highway section needs to be completely redone, and supplemented with Headwaters Forest and Grizzly Creek. I currently have nothing at all from the higher coast ranges (Yolla Bolly, Snow Mountain) or the Clear Lake area, nor from the beautiful vineyard valleys of the upper Russian River. So this guidebook is far from complete.

Here's a review of the new additions to this guidebook.

Samoa is an old company town, formerly the property of the Hammond Lumber Company. Now it is famous mostly for the Samoa Cookhouse (standard size or fullscreen), but most of the old buildings are still in good shape and there are plans for redevelopment. It is located on North Spit, site of some big industrial properties and a long stretch of dunes and beach.

Eureka is one of the under-appreciated small cities of California. There is the commercial port and a newly developed waterfront. The impressive historic section known as Old Town is rivalled only by Port Angeles in Washington and Old Sacramento. Downtown Eureka boasts some fine old buildings and a vibrant arts scene.

Ferndale is a true gem of a small town, a Hollywood favorite (Outbreak, The Majestic). I managed to reshoot it in the last hour of winter daylight.

The Lost Coast Headlands are something new, recently acquired by the BLM and opened to the public. This is a notoriously unstable bit of coast and one stretch of road dropped down 400 feet a few years ago. It could be a new and vital link in the California Coastal Trail, which now goes far inland here.

Shelter Cove is an isolated development in the middle of the Lost Coast. Laid out by real estate developers in the 1960's, it features an airstrip, golf course and campground, a few motels and small stores, and a scattering of houses with more under construction. Its wild and lonely location makes it worth the long winding drive over the coast ridges from Highway 101 at Garberville.

I photographed the old Cape Mendocino Lighthouse ten years ago in its original location by trespassing, so it was nice to see it restored and relocated to the park in Shelter Cove (standard size or fullscreen). Also of note is the Black Sands Beach just north of town.

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is one of my personal favorites. I made a special trip there in February and was blessed with a sunny day followed by a foggy day, both with 15-20 foot waves. The northern section, Whale Gulch, is pictured here in the fog, a very common condition.

The center section of the park features the old Needle Rock Ranch. I was fortunate to be able to walk right through the herd of Roosevelt elk that lives there (standard size or fullscreen) on my hike back from Whale Gulch. I camped at Barn Camp (that's my van parked by the barn, my tent in the trees standard size or fullscreen) and spent an hour shooting the sunset from the clifftops (standard size or fullscreen) and (standard size or fullscreen).

From Needle Rock a dirt road leads south to Bear Harbor. My favorite shot here was taken on a dangerously unstable cliff edge above the roaring surf (standard size or fullscreen).

The last day of that February trip I started to work my south along the Mendocino coast starting at Westport, but the bone-chilling fog quickly discouraged me. I will pick it up again at Cleone and McKerricher, maybe next fall.

The famous and very interesting central Mendocino coast has already been covered in this blog (see Weekend Trip to the Mendocino Coast).

Fort Bragg and its port, Noyo, get better all the time, making a long transition from the old economy of timber and fisheries to a new one of tourism and art. Mendocino itself (properly Mendocino City, but nobody calls it that) is widely recognized from movies and television and well established as a venue for art. Actually, most of the artists now live elsewhere, notably in Fort Bragg.

Back in November I also managed to photograph a few places in the coast ranges inland from Mendocino, the pygmy forest and Albion River, and one of my favorite redwood groves, Montgomery Woods. I used one of the redwood pictures as my entry in Best of 2007 on the World Wide Panorama site.

Though I took them over a year ago, some panos of Sonoma Coast State Park and Bodega Bay have only just been added to the site. And finally, a token few shots of the wine valleys, specifically Boonville and Anderson Valley.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Redwoods in the Fog - the Print

For over two years now I have been making slow deliberate progress towards selling panoramic prints of the images on my Virtual Guidebooks site. My wife has had several of them framed and hung them at home, and I have shown a number at lectures and art fairs. A later blog post will announce availability and give details when my fine art panoramic prints are ready for sale.

Most of the prints I have made so far are straighforward wide-format panoramas, usually the complete 360°. They have an interesting distortion, a unique form factor, and people seem to like them. Since I draw them directly from the 6000+ archive of Virtual Guidebooks images the range of subjects and locations is enormous - something for everyone.

But some of my most dramatic VR panoramas are cubics, which pose special problems for printing as flat media. Here is the story of how I dealt with this challenge for one of these (from the Virtual Guidebook to Redwood National Park) - be sure to look straight up:

Huge trees and chest-high ferns in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. (6-19-04)
Standard Size or Fullscreen Size

The original photos were taken near the dedication site in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park, California. A foggy day was chosen both for the soft even lighting and because of the close ecological relationship between the coastal fog zone of northern California and the geographic range of the redwoods.

Some of the trees here are over 300 feet tall (100 meters) and 10 feet diameter (3 meters). Visitors to old growth redwood groves are struck by the cathedral-like quality of the forest and the majesty of the amazingly tall straight trees. Although over 90% of the original redwood forest has been logged, many of the finest groves are preserved in national and state parks.

Below the massive redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow tanbark oaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus), California rose bay (Rhododendron macrophyllum), salal (Gaultheria shallon), and sword fern (Polystichum californicum).

In its print form I call it simply "Redwoods in the Fog". After printing it a few times at home I made a larger print (60 by 30 inches) on the big Epson 9800 at my computer lab. Here I am posing with the final mounted print on the balcony at the Geography department, UC Berkeley.

This striking image began with a series of 37 separate photographs. They were taken with carefully controlled geometry using a tall tripod and a special camera mount. Because of the shoulder-high sword ferns the camera, a Nikon d100 digital SLR,  was held about seven feet (2.1 meters) above the ground.

Here the original photos are shown arranged in three tiers, plus a zenith (straight up) shot. There is no nadir shot (straight down) because the dense vegetation made it impossible for me to step out of the way.

Using a special computer program (PTGui) the individual frames were warped and overlapped, then blended, to form a continuous image that covers an entire spherical view. Image procesing programs such as Photoshop can only deal with a rectangular matrix of pixels, so the spherical image was reprojected and saved as an equirectangular image – twice as wide as high, equivalent to an unprojected world map (known as plate carĂ©e).

This equirectangular image was then processed into a digital movie file. This uses a cubic imaging model, so the equirectangular image is reprojected to six cube faces.

Viewing software allows the user to direct the view in any direction, unwarping the image in real time for a realistic geometry. This is what you see on the web site.

Note how the equirectangular image completely fails to convey the impression of great height that is so striking in the interactive version, and also when you are there in the redwood forest itself. To approach this ideal on a flat surface a distortion of the spherical image is needed, a problem similar to that of map projections.

First I explored traditional map projections. The Mercator projection results in straight and parallel tree trunks, but it is unable to show the zenith – just as a Mercator world map cannot show the poles.

Other map projections gave interesting results, but my final choice was a filter designed to make fisheye lens images rectilinear. The “de-fished” panorama shows all the way from the photographer’s toes to the zenith high above in the fog, with an interesting outwards bowing of the straight tree trunks.

Another way to display a spherical image is to project it to a series of facets which can then be cut out, folded, and assembled into a three dimensional display. It is shown below as a “philosphere”, with square and triangular faces.

I would like to do this on a large scale so it could be viewed from inside. A philosphere would be simple, but the more facets the closer it would be to reality. The hole at the bottom is where I was standing when taking the pictures (the missing nadir shot).

If this polyhedron were large enough, and lit translucently from outside, the viewer could stand up through the hole and receive a realistic impression of being in the redwood forest.

Updates to Redwood National Park

The Virtual Guidebook to Redwood National Park covers that magical far corner of California from Trinidad north to the Oregon border. It isn't just the national park (which is actually a composite of national and state park lands) as it includes Crescent City, several small towns, a number of state parks and some national forest.

This was one of the first areas that I set out to cover methodically, and hence has a large proportion of older panoramas (before 2000). These were shot on negative film and although the photographic quality is high, the scanning process did not produce true colors and sharp images. Maybe someday I will take the time to re-scan so I can produce first-rate panos, but my immediate plan is to re-photograph these areas whenever I have the opportunity. This is no real hardship, as I love visiting this area.

Starting at the northwest end (my usual way of ordering geographic contents) we come first to Crescent City - and a lot of old panoramas. These will stay until I can get back up there for rephotography. The older film-based panos are instantly recognizable by their smaller thumbnail images, and the absence of a fullscreen version.

The "Redwood National and State Parks" begin just outside Crescent City, with Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park on the Smith River. A major part of this park is on Mill Creek, which can be seen to advantage from the Howland Hill Road, an unpaved one-laner which has hardly changed since stage-coach days. The Boy Scout Tree Trail leads from this road through some of the most magnificent forest on earth, home to a number of world champion trees.

I have a lone pano from the Smith River Recreation Area - a favorite destination of mine in pre-panography days. I need to get back there to document the beautiful South Fork of the Smith River, the historic Kelsey Trail, and the unique geology and botany.

Del Norte Redwoods State Park spills down the high bluffs south of Crescent City. Hiking the Damnation Creek trail down to the coast here has been high on my "to do" list for years. More rephotography is needed at Klamath and the north end of Prairie Creek Park.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is considered one of the crown jewels of the California state park system. Though I visit it almost every year I still don't have a good set of panoramas, partly because I am often with a class (see my blog comments on panography and the field class). But no excuses - I need to make it a high priority to photograph Elk Prairie and its resident elk, plus the amazing redwood forests.

Prairie Creek park spans from the sheltered valley of the creek across low ridges to the coast at Gold Bluffs Beach. The incomparable Fern Canyon is hidden here in the coastal bluffs.

For the second-ever World Wide Panorama event the theme was World Heritage, and Redwood National Park is a UNESCO listed world heritage site. I made a weekend trip and got some great photos. The one I used for the WWP site was taken on the Boy Scout Tree Trail as a full spherical image - but I didn't have time to create it as a cubic pano for the event. I have done so subsequently (standard size or fullscreen). This was also the trip where I captured one of my best panoramas ever (standard size or fullscreen), in the fog and huge ferns of the Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

My memories of Orick and Redwood Creek go back to high school, when I made one of my first solo trips to the newly created Redwood National Park. It was truly an adventure, including three days spent camping alone at the Tall Trees Grove. I repeated the hike a few years later with my sister and a group of college friends - by that time intensive logging was taking place all around the park perimeter. Given that personal history, I really need to produce a better series of panos, retracing my hike up the creek to the Tall Trees. Next summer - I promise.

The Humboldt Lagoons are a lovely string of freshwater lakes, drowned valleys cut off by barrier beaches. With the exception of Big Lagoon I haven't done them justice. I have always wanted to boat across Stone Lagoon to the primitive campsites on the far side.

I did manage to update my Patricks Point panos with a trip this last January - normally the north coast is not a prime destination in winter, but I was very lucky with the weather. I was particularly glad to be able to shoot a new series of the re-created Yurok Indian village of Sumeg, built within the park by Yuroks and park staff. My old panos have been very popular over the years, especially with school kids studying Native Americans.

Finally we come to Trinidad, a delightful little town with a harbor and lighthouse, beach and pier. My panoramas continuing south from here can be found in the Virtual Guidebook to the Northern California Coast (currently being revised).

Another big update to the Redwood National Park guidebook will probably be forthcoming next fall, after my summer trips.