Compiled 2013 PCT Posts

Friday, July 18, 2014

Landscape Photography for Hikers – Camera settings

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Cameras and the images they capture have never been more accessible, portable or easier to share.  Within hours of returning from hikes, it’s common to see photo’s on social media posted, tagged and described by friends.  That said, bad photography and poor results have never been more common either. Almost everyone carries a camera in their phone, but the image quality is always lacking when blown up to a size larger than that of a small tablet screen.  Panoramas with smartphone cameras can at first glance be nice as well, but often show striping from slight differences in metering or sensor noise.  Most smartphone cameras have become so automatic that they no longer give the user control over camera settings since most users don’t know how to use them.  Instead, carry a small portable point and shoot camera which allows for better images due to a larger image sensor and control from traditional camera functions. In this post, I hope to give readers some tips for how to take better quality photos with a typical point and shoot camera.
First we need some background on photography and digital photography.  I’ll be brief so if you want more in depth coverage feel free to google terms.  To me, photography consists of two distinct actions – framing the shot and selecting the settings.  This post will focus on camera settings. 

The goal in basic landscape photography is usually to recreate what the photographer sees, maybe with some slight alterations to add drama to the shot.  Advanced landscape photographers look to modify the image to really increase the drama, but that’s beyond this post.  For our purposes, the end goal is to walk away with a picture that accurately portrays what we are looking at. The biggest settings that affect that goal are white balance, exposure, ISO, F-stop and shutter speed. 

Oversimplified, white balance is what color the camera believes is white.  The source of the light fools the camera into believing some other color is white and causes colors to look off.  Blue images in snowy landscapes are common because the wrong white balance was used.  Try playing with your camera’s settings to fix it when your are shooting, there are usually white balance modes for most types of scenes – or you can try automatic white balance and hope for the best. Your computer monitor uses a similar setting.
Exposure refers to how much light we allow the image sensor to record and it’s determined by the combined effect of ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.  Too much light or overexposure makes bright spots such as clouds, sky or distant peaks become washed out but objects in the shadows are well defined.  Too little light and the darker areas of the shot are lost but the clouds look great.  We usually want something in the middle or a “correct” exposure. F-stop, shutter speed and ISO are combined to change the exposure of the shot which is measured by the camera’s light meter.  The light meter looks something like this, which shows a 2/3 reduction in exposure:
Typical light meter

Or in simpler camera’s the symbol to adjust the metering might 
look like this:

The light meter is a measure of how much light the camera settings will let into the sensor.  We can change the metering by adjusting the ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.  The ISO is a measure of image sensor sensitivity to light, the F-stop is a measure of fast the aperture will allow light into the sensor and the shutter speed is how much time the sensor will record light.

To understand these settings let’s imagine a bucket being filled with water from a hose.  The bucket represents the light meter and we will fill it with light or water in this analogy.  The hose is our lens and out of it flows the water or light.   If we want to fill the bucket (get the exposure) more quickly we could use a larger diameter hose, or a wider aperture.  Lens aperture widths decrease exponentially with an increasing number – so an F-stop of F4.0 is 16 times faster than an F-stop of F8.0.  That means we would only have to turn the hose on for one-sixteenth as long with the F4.0 to fill the bucket to the same level.  Finally, we can change the ISO – which is really the size of the bucket.  A smaller bucket will fill faster and a larger will fill slower.  Again, this relationship is backwards since an ISO of 800 represents a much smaller bucket than an ISO of 200.  The 800 ISO bucket will fill 4 times faster than an ISO 200 bucket, since the speed doubles every time the ISO doubles.  How high we fill the bucket is the exposure.  Overfill the bucket and it’s an over exposed image, under fill it and it’s underexposed.   The flow in the hose depends on how much light is in the scene – lots of flow in a bright sunny day, but very little in a shot of the stars.

So why have so many ways of filling a bucket?  Well, each setting has an effect on the image.  A smaller ISO setting, or larger bucket will mean more light (water) is collected.  So we have more detail and more information to work with.  When we increase the size of the image there will be more detail.  At higher ISO’s the image becomes pixelated and fuzzy due to image sensor noise.  Larger image sensors found in bigger camera’s become less pixelated and have less fuzziness or noise and can use higher ISO’s without problems. 

If we change the size of the hose or aperture, it changes how much of the image is in focus.  The part of the image in focus is called the focal plane and the width of it is called depth of field.  A smaller hose, or aperture, such as an F8.0 will give us a deep depth of field with less blurring in the background.  That means our subject and most of what’s behind it will be in focus.  A very large aperture, such as an F-1.8, will give a very narrow depth of field, especially with near subjects, and a lot of blurr in the background. 

 The length of time we leave the hose on, or the shutter speed, will also affect how we fill the bucket.  A very fast shutter speed such as 1/2000 will stop time – water droplets in a water fall are frozen in place or the hair of a running stallion is stopped instantaneously.  A long shutter speed will allow the waterfall to condense into a pleasant blur or for car lights at night to form bright streaks across a highway. 

These three settings effect on the exposure are measured by our camera’s light meter measured in “stops”.  1 “stop” half is the amount of light the camera thinks the image needs since the light meter is just the camera’s educated guess of how much light will give a pleasant image.  So if we lower the exposure by 1 stop, we reduce the amount of light our camera records by 1/2.  On more advanced camera’s we can change how the light meter measures the light in the image.  It can use a broad average of the amount of light in the entire image, concentrate the metering on the amount of light in the center of the image, or concentrate it entirely on a small dot.  In any case, it’s the camera’s best guess as to what combination of settings will work best. 

The problem is, despite all the technology we are still smarter than cameras.  Most cameras will over expose bright landscapes that end up washing out the terrain but depicting the sky perfectly.  A quality point and shoot will have a high definition screen and you’ll be able to see this effect after or even as you take the photo.  Instead, try reducing the exposure by 2/3 of a stop – like the light meter image at the top of this post.  That will lower the amount of water in our bucket and may give a nicer image. 

Another common problem is a blurry image in a dark forest.  A dark forest means the flow in our hose is very low so the camera has to hold the hose, or shutter open too long allowing the movement of our hands to blur the image.   We either need a bigger hose or a smaller bucket!  If we make our hose larger – lower the F-stop – a faster shutter speed is needed and less blur from camera movement will happen.  However, that means the background may be too out of focus.  Instead, we can increase the ISO which will also need a faster shutter speed.  Around an ISO of 800 or so, most cameras will create unpleasant noise and pixilation, so this only works to a point.  In the end, a combination of both may work best. 

The easiest way to adjust these settings quickly is to set the camera for “A” mode or Aperture priority on the large dial at the top of the camera.  This lets us choose the aperture with one camera control and the light meter setting with the other, while the camera decides what shutter speed to use to get that light meter setting.  The ISO is usually held constant and can be adjusted through the camera’s menu.  I keep my camera in this mode about 90% of the time, only occasionally using “S” or shutter priority to get blur on a waterfall. Read your camera’s manual to find out what the other settings mean.
Typical mode dial

Another useful setting is HDR, short for High Dynamic Range.  It’s common to take a picture of a couple in front of a mountain, only to have their faces come out too dark.  If your camera has this setting it will take three photos as quickly as possible and stitch them together.  Each picture is taken at a different exposure – one underexposed, one at the exposure setting and one over exposed.  The couples faces will show up better in an over exposed photo, the mountain better in the “correct” exposure and the sky better in the over exposed image.  Together they will combine to create an image closer to what we see with our eyes.  However, if you set the difference exposure of the 3 images too high, the image will turn out strange looking and seem fake.  This is a common mistake, I recommend sticking to 1 “stop” of difference between images to prevent it.

Hopefully this post has helped your understanding of how digital photography works and can help you take better images, if not feel free to ask in the comments!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Gear Review: Feathered Friends Daybreak Jacket (hooded)

This is a review of an item I plan on taking on my upcoming year of through-hiking to raise money for the Arizona Trail Association,Continental Divide Coalition and Te Araroa Trust.  Please consider donating and sharing it on Facebook!

Feathered friends is mostly known as a small Seattle based sleeping bag maker, but they also make lesser known line of goose down insulated clothing.   I took advantage of a recent sale and picked up their Daybreak hooded jacket.  Their Daybreak series are lightweight, and meant for 3 season use.  I saw a lot of similar Patagonia and Montbell down “sweaters” on the Pacific Crest Trail last year but most lacked much loft for any real warmth unlike the daybreak which has about an 3/4 of an inch of single layer loft mid-baffle.  On the PCTI carried a 20 ounce down parka from Marmot, the Ama Dablam jacket for use with my feathered friends Vireo sleeping bag instead of a much thinner down sweater.  The bag is 25 degrees on your legs and 45 on your chest and is meant for use with a down jacket. Look for a full review soon.

The Feathered Friends Vireo

I liked having the heavy Marmot jacket as piece of mind, even though it was overkill most of the time and relying on it as my only insulation caused some problems.  I didn't carry any other insulation layer other than a sleeping shirt, so when I encountered days of cold rain in Washington State I had to keep hiking to stay warm!  My breaks were limited to about ten minutes before I got cold and could only be taken at the base or partway up a climb.  I didn’t want to get either my long johns or the jacket wet since both were essential for my sleep system, which left me with only a long sleeve hiking shirt and wind jacket for continued wet, cold conditions.   

For my upcoming hikes I want something lighter with more flexibility.  Rather than a single heavy down jacket, I picked the day break and a half-zip 100 weight fleece pullover.  The daybreak weighs just over 7 ounces on my scale and the fleece pullover is 10 ounces on the nose so the total is only only a few ounces lighter than the Marmot jacket.  However, the fleece has the benefit of staying warm when wet, absorbing minimal water and drying quickly.  I can use it as a layer for hiking and since it dries fast and won’t hold much water it can still be used as sleepwear when wet, since my sleeping shirt, daybreak jacket and bag will be dry in my pack.  I recently used this combination on a Presidential Traverse attempt, including hanging out on the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 35 degree temperatures with winds blowing over 50 miles per hour.  Based on my experience so far, I think this combination is at least as warm as, maybe slightly warmer than my Marmot jacket and a much more versatile system.  

The daybreak in action over a fleece - far left.
The Daybreak jackets construction is top notch and I have noticed no down leakage.  The hood is fitted tightly and would not work over a helmet, which is perfect for me.  Instead of a clunky drawstring, it uses elastic around your face which works great and sheds the extra grams to boot.  The bottom of the hood stops at the base of my chin, which helps retain warmth around the neck.  The sleeves have similar elastic cuffs that are tight enough to keep warm air in but not constricting – the same as the adjustment I would have made on a heavier drawstring closure and never touched again.  The bottom of the jacket does have a drawstring, which might be useful occasionally.  The fit of a medium jacket on my averagish 5 foot 8 inch frame is almost perfect.  I have short legs – my pants inseam measures 30-inches – and the jacket is long enough to cover most of the way down my hip bone, which is great and the sleeve length is great for me.  The jacket also packs into a provided stuff sack, though I rarely use stuff sacks since I prefer to use insulation layers to take up dead space in my pack.  This strategy keeps things from rattling around back there, is better for the down loft over time and takes less time to pack and unpack.

A quick note - the fit of this jacket is everything I want for the outdoors but the elastic cuffs mean it looks a fit funny on the street.  I honestly think this is a plus since a lot of outdoors clothing is being fashion-a-fied into looking better but compromising function.  At a typical gear store it can now be hard to tell what's really meant to be used in bad weather versus what's meant to be worn on the street.  I think part of the steadily rising down price trend is due to this as well, since you see 800+ fill down sweaters everywhere on people who's wallets would be better served by synthetic insulation.

The hood looks a bit funny but is much warmer than an open design.

Anyhow, the pockets on the Daybreak jacket are plenty large enough for my hands but not fleece lined, which is not a problem for me.  All the zippers feel very solid and latch easily.  The baffles seem to work well and the shell material on my 2013 jacket is made from Pertex Endurance, a water resistant breathable fabric and filled with regular 900+ fill down.  Feathered friends hasn't bought into hydrophobic coated down like most other cottage retailers and even has a post about it.  It should be noted that my sale jacket must have been the last of these since the feathered friends is now using Schoeller Nanosphere® - a new fabric that is hydrophobic!  From the manufacturers website it sounds like water and dirt should bead right off.  Sounds cool, but I think I’ll live with the older fabric and extra $100 in my pocket. 

In summary I would definitely recommend this jacket if you’re in the market for a top notch, light  weight down jacket.  They work great for camp and can extend the range of a sleep system.   If money were no object I would have probably splurged for the Helios jacket – only 3 or 4 ounces heavier but significantly warmer.  However, this jacket was on sale and will get the job done for me just fine.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Overnight to the Bonds, South Twin and Galehead - aka a Semi-Pemi

This post is part of my training for my upcoming year of through hiking to support the people that help make the AZT, CDT and Te Araroa possible!  Please consider donating or sharing on facebook!

This past weekend AMC friend Chris and I headed up to the White's for a quick and light overnight trip.  On the menu was Bondcliff, Mount Bond, West Bond, South Twin, Galehead, down to thirteen brook tent site and then the bushwack up to Owls Head on the way out.  This would check off five mountains from my NH48 list, and bag South Twin for the second time - the first was on a training hike for the PCT over a year ago.  It's also the second half or so of a Pemigewasset Loop - the #2 hardest day hike in the country according to backpacker magazine (although I don't believe anything else they say so why believe that?).

Unfortunately, last weekend I spent a bit too much time on the mountain bike at Nembafest and triggered an old knee injury since I haven't been riding much.  I took the week off and it felt fine on Friday so I figured what the heck, let's go for it, it's only 20 miles the first day, twelve or so on Sunday and I hate cancelling last minute. Chris wanted to practice ultralight camping too, so I decided just to go for it.

We started out at 8 am at the Lincoln Woods trail head with a full parking lot and quickly made the 2.6 mile former rail bed walk into the Pemigasset Wilderness, crossed the bridge over Franconia Brook and continued our walk, dotted with "wilderness ties" - my name for the rail road ties left by logging crews in the late 1800's that cleared almost all the trees in the Whites - including the now "wilderness" area's.  We even spotted a wilderness bucket!

Bridge over Franconia Brook - which uses 1800's era foundations from a defunct logging railway

I don't mean to hate on wilderness area's, I certainly appreciate the preservation effort but it's a bit silly when trail crews aren't allowed to use chainsaws but reach their trails via former logging roads.

Politics aside, we made great time up to Bondcliff in under four hours and got some obligatory photos:
Bondcliff - appropriately named

Showing off!
We made our way up the ridge in the back of that last photo - Mount Bond and enjoyed the 360 degree views of just about every range in the White's.  My knee was bugging me a bit but not getting any worse, so I didn't worry about it.  Next up was South Twin, where we met four people in a row doing the pemi loop (you could tell by the death stares) and enjoyed the view back to Mt. Bond:

The knee really started bothering me on the rocky 0.8 mile 1,200 foot descent down to Galehead hut, so we took a longish break at the AMC hut, then a quick slack pack four tenths up to Galehead and back - probably a dumb idea just to check a box on a list.  We decided to just camp at the first decent spot on the way down to the Thirteen falls tent site and considered skipping Owl's head.  Meanwhile at the hut a woman doing the AMC Hut Traverse stopped by for some hut food.  The Hut Traverse is a 54 mile hike in under 24 hours to all 7 AMC huts usually done by trail crew members or the hut staff - totally insane!  Not only that, she only had 12 miles to go and it was 5 pm!

After the superwoman left we made our way down the thirteen falls trail.  Around halfway of the 2.6 mile trail I spotted a decent flat spot off trail with a small stream running by.  I hadn't been filtering water all day and gladly continued the practice.  Then we made camp - each with tarps.  My original plan for bug protection was a DIY bug netting supported by my hiking umbrella.  Sadly my tarp pitch was a few inches too short for the umbrella but there were so few bugs I just went without:
In the trees, all you need is a tarp... and maybe DEET
This was actually my first night under an open tarp (the gray one is mine).  The low pitch was pretty annoying, I think the A frame would only be comfortable with an 8 foot wide tarp instead of my 5 footer.  Next time I'll try a different pitch.  Otherwise it was nice to have such a light shelter, mostly for dew in this case.  Finding and breaking the sticks I used for support was a little annoying though.

I keep that tarp in my day pack as an emergency shelter, along with the gossamer gear nightlight pad for pack structure.  It's nice to be able to overnight if needed with only a pound and a half of added weight to an already sub pound daypack (MLD Burn) - lighter than most traditional empty day packs!  For this trip I was using my new-to-me Six Moon Designs swift pack - a smaller version of the Starlight I used on the PCT and sadly out of production.  I really like the pack and the lack of hip belt padding didn't become an issue. I keep my sleeping bag and jacket fluffed inside the pack to take up space, so the pack rode well to boot. I did notice the rear mesh pocket is significantly smaller than the Starlight but it wasn't a problem.  I do need to try it with heavier loads for dry stretches on the AZT and CDT though.

Unsurprisingly after some 1,300 miles on the PCT without a stove I forgot to bring fuel...  My mac and cheese was begging for boiling water but my alcohol stove seemed useless.  I tried to and quickly lost patience with building a small wood fire and then remembered my 2 ounce bottle of hand sanitizer - gelled alcohol! The first inactive ingredient is water but man does that stuff burn!  I squeezed a full ounce onto my stove, lit it up and set the pot on.  Who woulda' thought that it boiled the water and was just enough to perfectly cook my macaroni.  That and a can of salmon made for a filling dinner.  Camping before the designated tent site also meant a quiet night and no bear or critter issues.  That basically sums up ultralight to me - improvise, avoid high use area's and use your noggin.

We slept pretty well, although I did put ear plugs in so Chris's neoair didn't wake me up every time he moved around.  The next morning my knee was really feeling stiff and sore so we decided to just head straight out instead of bagging Owl's head.  That meant 10 long flat miles out back to the trail head after pushing some leaves and brush back over our campsite and mixing the ashes from my pathetic fire attempt into the dirt.  We broke up the walk with some waterfalls and at one point next to a beaver pond were walking through more dragonfly's than I have ever seen - over a hundred of them all taking off around us!  They eat mosquito's and are in my opinion the coolest looking insect, so I was happy to see them.

Thirteen Falls fall waterfall number ??

Franconia Brook Falls up close and person

There were a bunch of water crossings on the way back and Chris got to try out getting his mesh trail runners wet and seeing how fast they dry.  This was his first hike with them instead of heavy waterproof boots and he seemed to love it, tripping less and actually having dry feet for a change.  He didn't realize how sweaty his boots would make his feet until trying the trail runners.  No ankle problems either - I think we've got a convert!

Base weight for the trip was a little under 9 pounds and not much different from what I plan on carrying for my upcoming through hikes aside from shelter choice, which I'm still working out.

All the other pictures are here:

Friday, June 27, 2014

AZT Planning - Resupply!

This is part 2 of the planning posts for the first trail of my year of through hiking for the trails

The last post was water, without which in the desert you might last a few days.  Now that I have some notion of where the water will come from, the next step is food. I like to break food down by distance.  The easy math is simply divide the distance by how many miles you want to hike each day and pack for that many days.  Say the next leg is 115 miles and I want to do 20 miles a day so we can round up to 6 says. You might think if I leave town in the morning for a 6 day stretch, that means I need 6 dinners, 6 lunches, 6 breakfasts' and 6 days of snacks.  If you did, you'll wind up with an extra breakfast and dinner when you get to town!  If I can do 15 miles out of town today (day 1) I need one lunch, dinner and day of snacks.  The last day I won't need dinner since I'l be in town, and I ate day 1's breakfast in town.  Viola! Over a pound of food saved! How's that for ultralight? (yes I know I just wrote the musical instrument, it's a joke, lighten up).

Of course, this only works when you are certain about your pace.  If trail conditions are worse than expected, you were overly optimistic about your conditioning or you become injured and can't make your miles - you have to ration food, which is no fun.  The PCT had incredibly wonderful trail conditions with lots of other hikers. On the two or so occasions where I did start to run low on food, I bummed food from other hikers - I also gave away plenty of extra food.  The AZT is known for being more rugged and there likely won't be many other folks out to help out a hungry but foolish hiker low on food.  So for the AZT, most of the time I'll just carry the extra dinner and breakfast.  I can cut down on this by checking on the passage rating systems, so if a section is predominantly over easy passages I can just carry an extra lunch or snacks.

Notice the trend?  Uncertainty about water - carry more water.  Uncertainty about pace or trail - carry more food.

Here's my itinerary as of today.  Keep in mind I'll start the AZT after hiking the Wonderland Trail and doing a week of trail maintenance in the Goat Rocks Wilderness (more on that later).  Start off in Page, AZ with 4.5 days of food,  hike south, then...

Mile 727.7 - Hitch (illegal in Nat. Parks) or walk 2 miles to North Rim County Store - Pick up a box, spend a few days exploring the Canyon and possible Canyon to Rim to Rim with a friend from AMC (or just canyon to Rim if I'm lazy)
Mile 702 - South Rim - Pick up a box from AMC friend - carry 5 days of food
Mile 589.1 - Hitch to flagstaff via Hwy 89 for a zero and some grocery shopping for 6 days +/-
Mile 537.6 - Pick up some snacks n such at Mormon Lake Lodge, probably a meal
Mile 463 - Walk 1 mile off trail to Pine to buy food for 4 days or pickup a box, not sure
Mile 388 - Hitch 30 miles on Hwy 87 to Payson to buy groceries for 5 days
Mile 301.6 - Walk or hitch 2 miles East on Hwy 60 to Superior to buy for 5 days
Mile 200.8 - Hitch or walk 4 miles west on American Flag Rd to Oracle to buy food for 4 days
Mile 119.6 - Hitch or walk 5 miles on Colossal Cave Road to Vail - pick up a box at the post office for 3 days
Mile 52.8 - Walk into Patagonia, right on trail pick up a box at Mariposa Books and More for the last 3 days on trail

I like this resupply strategy since the hike is essentially book-ended by high quality boxed food, with the typical grocery store choices in the middle ~450 miles.  That means I won't get sick of either grocery store hiker food or boxed food, essential for the first leg of a year of backpacking.  It also means I need a maximum of 4 boxes for the whole trip, which won't take long to prepare.  The problem becomes maps - carrying 800 miles of paper maps kind of sucks - 45 pages in total - so 23 printed double sided.  It's not so much the weight or volume but the wear and tear and risk of loss.  That Brewery and Pub takes packages, so I may end up mailing 300 map miles there and including the last of them with my Vail box.

The next post will be navigation and how to get to/from the trail - stay tuned!