Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Muir Woods 
Trip Date: June 25, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: August 18, 2005

This report is dedicated to the memory of one O.M. Olympus, an old and loyal friend of Gina Anderson. Olympus embarked on the Muir Woods hike but did not return from the woods.

A handful of camera club members and a couple associates made their way to the hillsides of Marin County to visit Muir Woods National Monument early on the morning of Saturday, June 25. Hint: If you arrive before the rangers come to the entrance booth you may park your car for free. (We tried to pay for our parking at the end of the hike, but the rangers were adamant about giving us a break.)

Muir Woods is part of the massive Golden Gate National Recreation Area and includes Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin headlands—all very popular destinations for Bay Area residents.  California conservationist John Muir said this about the grove that bears his name: “This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” I heartily agree with the man who was a Titan of the early environmental movement. When Muir said those words you could find similar old growth forests in valleys all along the northern California costal mountains. Unfortunately almost all of those trees were logged—the factor that saved places like Muir Woods and Big Basin State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains was economics—the steep terrain and remote locations prohibited the trees from being harvested without expending great amounts of money. (A sad commentary on our collective ability to use natural resources wisely.)

Although Muir was a great conservationist, the names that should be on the park signs are those of William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, who bought the 295-acre tract that these trees spring from, in 1905, in order to protect them from eventual encroachment. Kent, a congressman, then donated the land to the federal government and, in 1908; President Theodore Roosevelt declared the area a national monument. My hat is off to those great conservationists who went before us for saving this wonderful park! I wish such wisdom were contagious in our present era.

Muir Woods has been a longtime favorite of Bay Area and Marin residents, as well as visitors from around the world. The area of the park now totals 554 acres and the annual visitor count over the past four years has topped 700,000 persons. In the late 1930s, after the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, the yearly visitation to the park tripled in one year, reaching an annual total of more than 180,000 persons. Since then the numbers have steadily increased and the park has flourished.

In recent memory, on July 8, 1996, visitors in the park witnessed the toppling of an 800-year-old redwood in the Cathedral Grove. About 50 visitors actually saw the tree fall accompanied by a roar that made the valley rumble with its sound. According to reports, the tree toppled “gracefully” upslope and caused no damage to park infrastructure. Our group was unaware of this factoid during our visit, but I’m sure we’ll all look for the toppled 200-foot giant next time we treat ourselves to a walk in this most beautiful of parks.

On a much smaller scale, the only tragedy our small band of day-hikers witnessed was the toppling of club historian, Gina Anderson’s, Olympus OM-1 from its lofty tripod elevation. The crash could be heard several yards down the trail and the familiar sound of a pentaprism pulverizing on the asphalt was an unmistakable and gut-wrenching sound. Who among us has not lost the service of a loyal, old companion to the whims of cruel fate? (Personally, I’ve lost a basketful of workhorses to such tragic accidents.)

Those of us who experienced the horrific event could empathize with poor Gina. I think she bravely held back the tears as she picked up her old friend of thirty years and discovered that the vital organs of her stricken rig would not move the curtain shutter or advance the film. The prognosis? Flat line. The vital signs of her first camera (which she purchased new back in the Disco Days of 1979) were grimly showing a “Nebraska line” on the monitor. We turned away out of respect as she frantically tried to administer MLR (mouth-to-lens-resuscitation) and CPSLRR (Cardio-pulmonary single-lens-reflex-resuscitation). It was all to no avail. We could tell by the nature of the superficial damage that the patient had already crossed over to the realm beyond digital. The shocking event brought back images of my stricken 300-mm telephoto lens reaching out to me for help from the bottom of a tide pool as I helplessly watched it issue its final bubbles of life.

As the harsh realization washed over Gina, those of us who were at her side gave comfort and condolences and we gathered together momentarily for a reverent, impromptu funeral obsequies in memory of her dear, longtime companion. As heads were bowed and kind words uttered over the broken manual body, we transferred the warranty of the beloved camera to a higher user. May the Olympus make perfect exposures in the Elysian Fields and may the very gods of Olympus pose for its disembodied spirit. .
…imagines, spiritus en Requiem.

In spite of her loss, Gina continued down the path of life and carried on through the woods of recovery to the eventual end of our hike. A few days later, when I retrieved my results from the photo finisher, I had to laugh when I realized that my camera might as well have joined hers in freefall for all the good it did me! There’s nothing quite like an old growth forest to test your photography skills! This, of course, gives rise to the need for a few words to those of us who seek to produce forest images.

There are several drawbacks about shooting in a redwood forest: first off, the subject matter is rather limited. You may choose between trees, leaves, ferns, litter on the forest floor and the occasional banana slug—therefore, I’ve found that shooting in a forest is quite a challenge. You have to bring along your creative eyes, otherwise you are destined to sort through a raft of images that look so similar that you eventually want to toss them all away. 
Another disadvantage to the forest photographer is the limited light that reaches the forest floor. (The taller the trees the worse the problem.) I found myself making half-second, quarter-second or longer exposures. If you don’t bring your tripod, well, you're pretty much stuck with motion-blurred images.  (Most shooters can’t handhold a camera for such long exposures.)

To compound the exposure problems even further, there is also a severe contrast problem—on a sunny day your camera is hard pressed to properly record the light of the sky and the deep shadows, in which you are shooting. The disparity between highlights and shadows is too wide to be recorded on film or on a digital matrix without requiring some kind of exposure compensation. Taking a picture of someone posing in shadows (without a fill flash) with a nice blue sky peeking through is a challenge only the best shooters can crack. That's why the overcast weather worked to our advantage on the Muir Woods trip. 
Furthermore, with big trees as your subjects, there are the problems of scale and distortion. How on earth do you record a tall, slender object that rises 50 to 200 feet above you—especially from the vantage point of its base? It’s nearly impossible! All camera lenses distort; and the wider the scope of the lens, the more the distortion factor. If you put on your "normal" lens and try to back away from the subject then you find that other trees are getting in the way. To capture an accurate rendition of a tree you would need to use a view camera in order to control your perspective, shoot your pictures from a 75-foot platform or buy an expensive PC lens for your SLR. (PC=perspective control).

Another drawback of taking photos in the forest is the monotone effect—your choices of hues are usually limited to tree-trunk brown or foliage green. Sometimes the color palette is green, green, and green! (It makes you want to bring a bag of red leaves to seed into your compositions!) In the forest you are generally bogged down on one side of the color wheel with no contrasting colors, other than your clothing. Therefore, when we take our next trip to the forest, we shouldn’t forget to invite at least one attractive young lady in a red kimono and a handsome young stiff in a gold and red toreador uniform! Since they are not shooting they can carry the 75-foot ladder and the view cameras up the steep trails for us. Oh, and don’t forget the makeup artist!  …Be a dear and go ask the park ranger where we can set up the lunch table for the crew?

Thank you for enduring such a "windy" report.

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs