Photography by Ben Jacobi | Blog

Pic of the Week 8/16/18: Stars Over the Garden

August 16, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Pic of the Week 8/16/18

"Stars Over the Garden"

Location: Garden of the Gods State Park Herod, IL

Date taken: 8/4/18


This week's Pic of the Week was captured at the end of my first full day in southern Illinois. I spent the morning hiking with my cousin James where we covered the Trillium, Stone Fort, Indian Creek, and Giant City Nature trails. After our morning excursion it was time to clean up and get ready for the family luncheon at the Giant City Lodge. Lunch started at 11:30pm and I enjoyed the conversation and family time around a delicious fried chicken meal. Afterwards, the family had some business and I was going to be meeting up with good friend and now Illinois inhabitant, Nathan Ralston. Nathan would be joining me for some hiking and photography in areas of the Shawnee National Forest. We left the hotel in Carbondale and started off towards our first destination--Fern Clyffe State Park. 

One of Fern Clyffe's greatest attractions is the Rocky Bluff Trail a mild 1 mile hike that leads to the impressive sandstone bluffs and large waterfall. Unfortunately the waterfall was dried up and only a trickle was moving in the creek. We still managed to shoot some images and the rock outcroppings made for interesting subjects. After we finished Fern Clyffe, we started off to our next stop. This time we would be heading to the Bell Smith Springs Natural Area and hiking the "Natural Arch" trail. It was supposed to be a moderate 1.5mile hike, but we ended up making it a bit longer. After finishing up at Bell Smith Springs we had just enough time to reach our next destination, Garden of the Gods. Now I know what you're thinking (and believe me, I was thinking the same thing) "Garden of the Gods is in Colorado, not Illinois." But when I started doing research for this trip I came across two places that interested me. One was the "Little Grand Canyon" and the other "Garden of the Gods Recreation Area". Being as how I have been to both of the official locations I had to check out southern Illinois' version. 

The drive to Garden of the Gods was quite easy. We cruised around the local farm lands and watched as stalks of corn and fields of soybeans zip by. We were only about an hour before sunset so we were running a little behind. As we approached closer to our destination I could see a large bluff off to our north. This bluff was the highest point in the vicinity and I guessed that was where Garden of the Gods would be. When I was researching locations for this trip I knew I wanted to be somewhere for sunset. The thing is, southern Illinois is either crop fields, lakes, or forest so finding a unique sunset location would be harder than I thought. But when I discovered GOGRA I knew this would be my sunset location. The view from the Overlook trail looked to be very impressive and easy to access. It also had a great view to the west. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I looked up the light pollution map and learned it was one of the darker skies in the area. Maybe with some clear skies I could shoot more than just sunset at GOGRA. 

We made the turn to state road 10 and quickly began gaining elevation. Soon we turned on to the Garden of the Gods road and a sign out front welcomed us to the Shawnee National Forest and warned up the park closes at 10pm. This would be just enough time to maybe shoot the milky way. We made our way up the bluff and the winding road to the trailhead. I parked the car and saw we had just a little over 30 minutes before the sunset. I knew I would need to quickly find a composition and set up for sunset. We started off towards the trail where signs out front warned up steep vertical cliffs and drop offs. From the trailhead I couldn't see much it was all mostly forest above a stone pathway. But we started to climb a little more up hill and that was when the beech, sycamore, elm, and oak trees of the forest gave way to the wild and unique rock formations that make up the Garden of the Gods. Now I can say, that these rock formations while impressive, were not like the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. But they were certainly unique and served as excellent subjects for photography. 

I made my way through the trail taking mental notes of any composition that would work for sunset. I also scouted out locations for milky way photography. The stacked sandstone formations and hoodoos reminded me of Palo Duro Canyon, although the sandstone in west Texas is much more red. I managed to find a few compositions that I felt could work for sunset and I sat there surveying the Shawnee forest and watching the sun set below the horizon. The sunset wasn't all that impressive, mostly clear skies that turned to the familiar golden-pink color. Lack of clouds did mean one good thing, however. Clear skies would be essential for the last item on the list: Photographing the milky way over Garden of the Gods. In my location scouting I found a spot near a cliff edge that gave a nice view of some of the cliffs and forest below. I carefully set up my tripod at the edge and checked my composition for any distracting tree branches. When I saw it was all clear I backed away from my camera and waited.

During our sunset shoot we met another photographer Cylde and his family who resided in nearby Paducah, KY. Clyde isn't on any social media or website, but he showed me some of his impressive work. We sat and talked for a while waiting for the skies to darken. Slowly the skies transitioned from soft pink, to cobalt blue, and then to black skies littered with thousands of stars. This was no Texas sky like I was used to, but the milky way shone overhead and I couldn't help but be reminded of back home. The clear skies really helped showcase some of the planets in the sky. Venus was hanging low on the western horizon, where as Jupiter was bright and high in the sky. Saturn was found right in the middle of the milky way, but the red-orange planet, and closest neighbor Mars was absolutely radiant. It crept its way above the tree line and entered my composition. This really helped balance the composition and serve as an excellent anchor point for the eye to rest on. I chose this vertical orientation to help bring the elements I thought were important to the scene. This allowed me to get a good portion of the milky way and enough foreground to help you see just how far those cliffs drop.

The milky way shines brilliantly over Illinois' own Garden of the Gods state park.

©Ben Jacobi

I love how the silhouettes of the forest contrast with the bright rocks of the cliffs. While I would've preferred a more interesting foreground, I made do with the time I had. Given the opportunity to spend the night out there I'm sure I could come back with more dynamic and interesting images. Still, I had a good time and came back with a shot I feel represents the area. We said our goodbyes to Clyde and his family and made our way back to the car. We would be returning to Carbondale for a late night poker game with some of my family (which I won by the way) before heading to bed and getting ready for the next adventure. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day. 


Pic of the Week 8/9/18: Sunset in Giant City

August 09, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Pic of the Week 8/9/18

"Sunset in Giant City" 

Location: Giant City State Park Makanda, IL

Date taken: 8/3/18


Earlier this week I returned from a trip to southern Illinois. The trip was for a family reunion on my mother's side and a chance to do some hiking and photography in an area I have never visited before. While I was very excited to see my family from the north, I was also excited to see one of my best friends and fellow photographer Nathan Ralston who lived just a few hours from our hotel. When I fist learned about this trip I wasn't sure what to expect. My mother told us we would be staying near Giant City. This didn't mean much to me until I did some research and learned that Giant City isn't an actual city, but a state park in the Shawnee National Forest.

Giant City gets it name from the maze of large sandstone bluffs right in the heart of the park. It is one of their best attractions and despite having 1.2 million visitors each year I couldn't find all that much information on the place. After scouting around Google Earth and researching the internet, I started to piece together a shot for the area. Pre-visualizing my images keeps my goals focused and my mind on the task. While I love visiting new locations and exploring, I try to prepare myself with at least a few locations that could result in great photographs. This way I'm not scrambling to find a composition when the moment comes. Typically, with places I have never visited I will use Google Earth, Google Maps, and other internet sources to look at photographs and try to envision the area I will be visiting. From there, I will track the suns location and note where I think the light would be most effective. While this is a long process, it helps me achieve a higher success rate with my photographs. Though I can not plan for everything, but I always try to be as prepared as possible. 

The idea for the shot I wanted to capture would include a view of the wild sandstone bluffs in warm reflected light. I didn't know exactly where I would set up, but I figured with a couple of hours of scouting time I could find a working composition. I also noted what appeared to be a gap between bluffs pointing to the west. This could be a good spot for sunset if my initial shot wasn't going to work.  Fast forward a few weeks and we are now arriving into St. Louis International Airport. After meeting up with my cousin James and getting our rental cars, we were on the road heading to Carbondale, IL. We arrived to the hotel in Carbondale and after some short greetings I was out the door and on my way to Giant City State Park. My goal was to leave by 5pm and that would give me plenty of time to find the right composition and maybe scout out more locations for sunrise the next morning. Thankfully, Giant City SP was only a short 15min drive and the trail was only 1.5 miles in length. 

I pulled into the Giant City Nature Trail parking lot and gathered up my gear. It was humid and steamy and my glasses fogged up when I stepped out of my rental car. A few quick wipes from my shirt and I was back to seeing things clearly. The temperature was around 88 degrees and the humidity was above 60% this made for some uncomfortable hiking conditions, but I put on my pack and started off down the trail. For the most part the trail cut through wooded forests with the occasional boulder interrupting the landscape, but as I made my first turn off from the trail I stated to see the sandstone bluffs and rock formations hugging the trail. The gray/brown Makanda sandstone showed signs of erosion and weathering as it took on a porous honeycomb-like formation. It was certainly unique and one couldn't help but ponder how the rock came to be. 

I continued down the trail for a short time and came to the entrance to the Giant City "streets". A single tree grew along the trail and marked the entrance to the bluffs. The wall to my left was similar to the walls I had seen on the trail, the wall to my right was the same as well. But, the wall right in front of me was very smooth and covered in a pelt of soft green moss. I followed the wooden "Nature Trail -->" sign pointing me to the center of the Giant City streets. From this angle I could see the rock cut in an almost perfect 90 degree angle. I stood in amazement at the unique rock formation and contemplated its origin. I followed the signs guiding me through the streets and back onto the trail. I passed over a balanced rock I discovered from my internet researched and went to take a photograph of it. Then I realize a made a huge mistake--I had left my tripod back at the car! The sun was setting in about an hour and I thought I would have just enough time to complete the trail, run back to my car and grab my tripod. Then head back to my sunset location and maybe catch it before the sun set behind the horizon. 

I didn't stop to marvel at the landscape and rock bluffs around me. I did take a mental note when I passed something interesting, but I kept hiking and at a much faster than normal pace. After about 25 minutes I had reached my car and I grabbed my tripod and started off back to the Giant City streets. I arrived just in time to find the sun hanging just above the sandstone bluffs and peering between the trees. The back lighting created dramatic shadows on the bluffs and made the moss gleam in the soft golden light. I set up my camera (this time with my tripod) and found my composition waiting for the sun to get just right. When the light of the sun could be seen through my viewfinder I shot off a series of bracketed exposures. Keeping my aperture nice and small created the sunstar and spikes of light that added a little more drama and magic to the photogenic scene. There's something very inviting about this photograph that makes you want to explore this sandstone maze.


Sunset in  Giant CitySunset in Giant CitySunset breaks through the trees from the "streets" of Giant City. © Ben Jacobi

On the way back to the car (now for the second time) I stopped and made more images of the surrounding bluffs and rocks until dusk. This was an excellent start to my southern Illinois trip. I would get to explore most of Giant City knocking out the Trillium, Stone Fort, Indian Creek, Devil's Standtable, and Giant City Nature Trail with my cousin James the next day. Over this trip I ended up hiking over 17 miles in the Shawnee National Forest and saw some pretty amazing places. I look forward to sharing these new images with y'all in the weeks to come. Enjoy! 

Pic of the Week 7/26/18: Milkyway Panorama: Benjamin, TX

July 26, 2018  •  1 Comment

Pic of the Week: 7/26/18

"Milky Way Panorma: Benjamin, TX"

Date taken: 7/26/15

Location: Benjamin, TX

Milkyway PanoramaMilkyway PanoramaFifty-four images were shot and stitched together to capture this ultra wide view of the milkyway and stars.

© Ben Jacobi

Its a good news/bad news situation so I'll go ahead and give your the bad news first. The bad news is I don't have any new work to share with you all. The good news, however, is that next week I will be leaving for a trip to southern Illinois for a family reunion and during my down time I plan to explore the unique Shawnee Forest wilderness. I already have several locations in mind so I am very excited to be out shooting and hiking again. The weather has just been terrible for photography down here, but I'm hoping a change of scenery will get me back in a creative mode. I will leave Wednesday and be back on Monday. If the weather cooperates I should be back with some nice photographs. So now, back to the bad news.

Since I have nothing new to share I started to look back on past adventures and there is one photo in particular that has a five year anniversary coming up. My Once in a Lifetime Capture was recorded 5 years ago tomorrow. But I did revisit that image last year so I didn't want to retell old stories. So looking back on this particular date I came across a night photography shoot I did with the Red River Photography Club. In fact, we have the same shoot coming up next month. This little park/overlook I've used for several years now to photograph the night sky. Its far enough out of the way there's minimal light pollution and the skies are dark/clear enough to capture some fantastic detail in the milky way. I shot a series of fifty-four images to create this panorama. This is a full 180 degree view of the night sky out there. 

Jim Bob Art Park sits atop the northern edge of the plain just before the ground gives way to the river bottoms the locals call the "narrows" or "cedar breaks". These small but rugged canyons make for a nice foreground during sunset/sunrise photography and the higher elevation gives a fantastic view to the north and west of the park. One time I was out there and I kept seeing bright flashes off in the distance. I didn't have cell phone service, but I knew there were storms somewhere out to our north. It turns out these storms were in the extreme northern TX panhandle over 200 miles away! I've seen meteors streak overhead, watched storms develop over the breaks, and spent hours watching the starry skies. Its a place I feel is therapeutic and good for the soul. Your problems seem awfully small when you're staring up at millions of shimmering stars and all you hear is the cry of a coyote off in the distance. 

Pic of the Week 7/19/18: Molas Pass Overlook

July 19, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Pic of the Week 7/19/18

"Molas Pass Overlook"

Location: Molas Pass near Silverton, CO

Date taken: 6/23/16


It is so hot right now here in Texas. In fact, as I am typing this the National Weather Service has just updated their weekly forecast. Let me share with you some of the expected temperatures. Today high of 109 and a low of 81, 110/80, 110/80, 108/81. There are several Excessive Heat warnings out right now due to the warmer temperatures and high humidity. It is so dangerous to be out in these conditions that the Forest Service has closed the hiking trails to the Wichita Mountains. No hiking is allowed after 10am and considering some of the gates don't open until 9am, you can tell just how serious they are. So to summarize its just too hot to do anything outside! 


When the weather gets like this I have nowhere else to look but back and usually at a place with cooler temperatures. I think about this particular photo quite often. I have a large print of it hanging up in my office at work and each time I look at it I can smell the freshly fallen rain and feel the mountain air. I keep it as a reminder of a great trip and if I close my eyes I can transport myself there. This was an image I captured from my 2016 road trip on the final day of my vacation. Earlier the previous evening I found my shot of the Buck Canyon overlook [Link] to be blocked out by an approaching storm and clouds. When I left Utah driving to Colorado early that next morning it was still raining. It rained until I reached the UT/CO border where the precip finally let up.


Along the way I passed vibrant grass fields and gentle rolling hills of the Colorado plain. But that terrain quickly gave way to towering cliffs and distant mountains. One of my first views of the majestic rocky mountains was near Dallas Divide, CO. I captured a wide panoramic view of this incredible scene.[Link] Before long I was turning onto Highway 550 the "Million Dollar Highway" one of the most scenic drives I've even taken. Around each curve and climb of this snaky one-lane road I would come face to face with massive photogenic mountains. I guess I was so enamored with the scenery I failed to check my radar. 


Just before I reached Silverton, CO I could see a dark cloud top moving over one the large peaks to my west. And as I continued down the road it started to lightly rain. I didn't think much of it, but as I got closer and closer to Silverton more and more rain began to fall. When I arrived to Silverton rain was pouring down and I could only see the roads and buildings in front of me. The mountains that encompass this old mining town were shrouded by thick curtains of rain with just the slightest hint of a silhouette visible. The rain kept coming for what seemed like an eternity and lightning began striking all around me. The ambient temperature dropped to a chilly 46 degrees F and I decided to press on instead of stopping in Silverton. 


I made my way farther south along 550, but this time keeping an eye on the clouds to my southwest and watching for further storm development. After a short while I reached Molas Pass the highest point of Hwy 550 and a 10920ft elevation the view of the mountain range was just incredible. I knew I didn't have much time before the storm came, but I couldn't pass up this photogenic scene. I quickly got my camera out and shot a 4 image panorama of the range. I never actually did anything with the panorama, but one of the shots caught my attention and I liked the composition so much that I kept it as a single photograph. In my foreground you can see Molas Pond that leads your eye to Molas Lake in the background before reaching the awesome mountain range in the distance. There's even just a hint of blue sky in the upper left of the photo. But the more dramatic feature would be the storm clouds hovering above the mountain peaks. This was the storm I had just driven through and it was now making its way out of Silverton.


Molas Pass OverlookMolas Pass OverlookView from the Molas Pass Overlook. Looking at Molas Lake and Molas Pond as summer thunderstorms roll in over the rocky mountains. © Ben Jacobi


The intermittent light on the mountains made for an interesting contrast. Here you can see the foreground is in light, but just a few miles away Molas Lake is in the shadows and the far distant mountain range (left) is now exposed to sunlight. I sat here for several minutes just enjoying the wonderful vista and pleasant temperatures. I bet I wasn't there for a total of ten minutes before a raindrop hit the back of my neck. Seconds later a low rumbling of thunder echoed through the mountains. I don't know if you've ever been on a mountain during a thunderstorm, but the way the sound bounces off the mountains makes it sound much more menacing. It was as if I had awaken a great beast from its slumber and soon it would be near to wreak havoc on my photography. Its kind of ironic, me a storm chaser, complaining about storms. I will say one thing, I would do anything to be back here right now. Sitting on the grass taking in the wonderful landscape and just enjoying the cool mountain air. If I close my eyes... I can just almost picture it. 


Pic of the Week 6/28/18: Caprock Magic

June 28, 2018  •  1 Comment

Pic of the Week 6/28/18

"Caprock Magic"

Location: Caprock Canyon State Park

Date taken: 6/24/18


There are several terms I like to throw around while storm chasing, but one that I haven't said in quite a long time is "Caprock Magic". Caprock Magic refers to supercells that form along the Caprock Escarpment in west Texas. In my experience, these tend to be slow-moving and very photogenic storms. In fact, when I first started chasing I would almost always drive towards the caprock and many times I was rewarded with some beautiful structure and great photography. I haven't done a lot of research in this, but I believe that the Llano Estacado has an effect on the weather. The Llano Estacado or "stacked plain" takes up 37,452 square miles from west Texas to New Mexico. Its hard to imagine this doesn't affect the weather in some way. My old chase partner used to say he believed the Caprock Escarpment created a way for the low level moisture to pack up against the caprock and become a focus area for thunderstorm development. I've seen it enough times to believe it to be true. In fact some of my best storms have been along the Caprock. I'm sure there's more studying and research that could be done, but for now I'll just refer to phenomenon as "magic."

But unfortunately, I haven't seen any Caprock magic in several years. Although, the Carey, TX supercell was a the best I have seen in a long time. Regardless, there's something quite enchanting about that "Island in the Sky" as some call it. The low plains of Texas start to rise in dramatic fashion right about the Clarendon, Turkey, Matador, Dickens, line and the elevation jumps from 1000ft at Wichita Falls, to 1995ft in Childress (some 100 miles away), and towers to 3655ft in Amarillo (another 100 miles). The constant southeasterly wind erosion has worn the eastern side of the Caprock revealing the stunning red rock underneath and the carving of wonderful canyonlands from the Red River makes it one of my favorite locations in all of Texas. And while this place is stunning and amazing, it was not my intention to visit Caprock Canyon last Sunday. A friend of mine said he was interested in storm chasing and I thought we had a good opportunity for severe weather along the Caprock. I was looking for the Caprock magic. 

We left Wichita Falls around 3:30pm, before that I was glued to my laptop going over surface charts and doing analysis on the chase potential. There was one very large and significant problem, however. An overnight Mescoscale Convective System had bulldozed its way through Kansas and Oklahoma. This sinking air could have a major effect on our storm chances later on in the afternoon, but my friend was eager to go so we headed out of town. Along the way I could see the potential for thunder storms as we drove under a fairly large are of cumulus clouds. Our base city would be Childress, TX and when arrived to Childress I could start to see that cumulus field dry up. Looks like that storm in Oklahoma was going to affect our chase after all. I made a decision that if we didn't see any signs of the atmosphere improving we would call the chase. Not wanting to leave empty handed I suggested we make a trip to nearby Caprock Canyon State Park. And after hours of waiting we decided to call it a chase and head towards Caprock Canyon. 

My friend had never been there before and I'm always excited to show people this small state park. We drove past Childress and to Esteline where we turned on Highway 86 heading towards Turkey, TX. This road has nothing but ranch land on both sides of the road and you really understand why everyone believes west Texas is flat and empty. But after reaching Turkey, TX we followed 86 west and reached Quitiaque the gateway to CCSP. Off in the distance we could see the mesas and edge of the Caprock that make up CCSP and after paying our entry fee we were off to explore. There is very little to drive in CCSP one main road starts from the visitor center and ends at the South Prong Camping area. But along the way you really get a good idea of how rugged and unique the terrain is here. Several steep grades and winding roads keep you on edge as you zigzag through the canyonlands. You might have to stop and let some of the local fauna cross the road such as prairie dogs, snakes, and even bison. These 1400lb nomads of the plains remind this is their land by standing in the middle of the road and daring you to just try and tempt them. I introduced my friend to some of the geographic features and landmarks in the area and after some exploring we knew where to set up for sunset. 

I had found this amazing gyspum wall at a dry creek crossing on the Upper Canyon trail where a massive column of rust colored sandstone towered over the dry creek bed. My idea was to photograph the sunset light hitting the edge of the column and using the dramatic gypsum walls as a foreground. We spent about an hour shooting different compositions of the wild rock formations here, but my friend wanted to go back to the start of the trail and the South Prong Overlook to shoot sunset. We made the very short hike back to the trail and found an excellent spot to set up and waited for the sun to sink. As evening drew closer small cumulus clouds started to accumulate to our west. This gave me some high hopes for a nice dramatic sunset. I watched the sun dip behind the jagged canyon walls and edge of the caprock escarpment and I made this exposure. The sun just barely peeked above the top of the canyon sending light spilling onto that sandstone structure and the canyon floor. All these elements came together in such a way that could only be described as Caprock Magic. Sure there were no storms, but an adventure out here always leaves my spirit renewed and my mind refreshed and if I can come home with some great images then nothing else matters. I have several amazing hikes planned for CCSP once the weather cools down. I can't wait to see what other magic I find exploring the area. 


Caprock MagicCaprock MagicLooking into the setting sun at the South Prong campground in Caprock Canyon State Park. © Ben Jacobi


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