Photographing the wild horses of North Carolina

What is is about the form of a horse that evokes so much emotion? Is it their gentle nature as they gaze in a pasture? Or maybe the power of their muscles visibly flexing as they gallop? We have all seen horses in competition, at the track, maybe have ridden a time or two, and many of us have had the pleasure of being up close and personal. But the wild ones…

With no halter and reins, and their harem and only the open land, wild horses are truly a sight to behold…and to photograph. This past October I spent four days with wild horses on two barrier islands near Beaufort, North Carolina. Each island had two characteristics in common: you could only get there by boat, and there are no people or homes there. The horses are in charge.

On Bird Shoal is the Rachel Carson Reserve, over 2000 acres with a group of horses that tends to stay together, about 30 in total. On Shackleford Banks, the horses prefer to stay in harems, groups of one stallion, perhaps one or two mares, and any recent foals as the family unit. There are about 120 horses on the nine-mile long island.

 Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

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Capturing the Last of the Fall Color in Jackson Hole

Late Season Photographic Opportunities!

Gold LeafFall happens—but not all at one time! Fall is more of a chapter within a book than a specific story in the daily newspaper. Colors don’t begin as wave of spender at one end of the valley that slowly advances across the region. The leaves, even within a single species, don’t change colors at one time. Instead, the phenomenon is more like a Jackson Pollock painting. Constantly changing splashes of color “splattered” across the valley occur over a period of about a month. Credit Mother Nature as the artist at this time of the year!

Leaves on the deciduous trees, like aspens, willows, cottonwoods, and maples, change from their summer green to a wide variety of colorful hues each fall. Large crowds try to time their trips to Jackson Hole to coincide with the “prime” few days, but of course, that’s a moving target each year. During the changes in an area, leaves can advance quickly towards prime, then stall for a few extra days before finally reaching prime. The “window” of time for good photography is actually much larger than people expect.

Late Season Aspens

It’s the 22nd of October as I write this post. The crowds are gone. Unlike most of the summer and fall, you can drive around the valley and see only a couple of wildlife and safari tour busses during the day. It seems many photographers and tourists feel it is “game over”, but actually, fall foliage opportunities can extend well into late October. This page contains photos taken over the past couple of days.

At this time of the year, I think of myself as a “gold miner”—scouring the valley looking for a few glimmers of gold, orange and red. It’s much the same as looking for the first hints of gold and orange leaves in early September. Gone are the large hillsides of brilliant color, but gold can still be mined into late October.

Prime Aspens

If you want to finds some gold, look no farther than the Town of Jackson! Bright trees are common in many areas.

Death Canyon Panorama

This photo was taken on October 21st (yesterday). The aspens there are traditionally some of the last trees to turn in Grand Teton National Park. In fact, these aspens are still on the greenish side—not yet prime! Note: The northern section of the Moose-Wilson Road is currently closed to vehicle traffic until the 31st of October, however, vehicles are still permitted if entering from the South Gate near Teton Village. Photographers can park at the Death Canyon junction and hike out to the grassy fields to access this area. I’d like to get a nice snow storm soon and I would definitely go back. Click this image to view it much larger.

Death Canyon

This is a shot taken from the same area yesterday. I was a bit closer to the Aspens when I took the photo. Notice these trees are still on the green side of prime.

Golden Grasses

I like the idea of taking a photo of “anything of interest”, never knowing how I’ll use the photo. It’s a good way of filling the day—never knowing if “slowing down” will yield unexpected results.

Red Leaf

A single leaf or clump can be a worthy subject, and there are lots of them right now.

Converging Aspens

Converging aspens also make interesting subjects. I kept telling myself to do of a few of this type of image during late September and early October, but didn’t do it. We’ll have a couple of months of brown and gray before snow covers everything. During the winter months, I lament not taking a few shots like this when I had the chance.

Distant Aspens

This is also a good time of the year for me to experiment.

Great Horned Owl

We all like wildlife, but including a few orange or yellow trees more or less “time stamps” a photo.


Common subjects, like a raven, magpie, or even a chipmonk take on a less common appearance if placed in front of a wall of color.

Hardiman Barn

A little color can go a long way!

Ditch Creek Cottonwoods

Some fall images slap you in the face with color. Other ones can be much more subtle—especially when cool colors in the scene compliment the warm hues of the season. This is also a good time to watch for colorful leaves stalled against rocks in the shallow streams. Early morning photos after a very cold night can include leaves captured in ice shelves.

Berry Feast

Wildlife adapt to the changes in the season, too. Remnant bright red berries document the season. They can modify a “just another animal” shot to a more interesting behavioral capture.

Drinking Moose

I look forward to the fall changes all summer, try to cash in on the bounty during the peak periods, and then am saddened to see the first leaves fall from the trees. To be honest, all seasons are that way!


Best of the Tetons Photo Tours

I offer year round photo tours in Grand Teton National Park and winter tours in the National Elk Refuge. A winter trip offers opportunities you won’t find in the other three seasons! Book now! Click the image for additional information.

Client Comments: “As a published and passionate photographer, I recognized Michael Jackson’s extraordinary skills as a photographer. Today I learned more about composition and creative technical ideas than I ever could have imagined.” G.S., Jackson Hole

Old and New Photographic Technology in One Challenging Shoot

A few days ago, I took a quick photo of the T.A. Moulton Barn along Historic Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park. I included it below. Clouds weren’t exactly inspiring, but there were at least a few low clouds in front of the Grand. It wasn’t much of a photo, I readily admit! I think of these kind of images as reconnaissance photos or record photos. I make a mental note of the spot, then plan on going back when conditions are more to my liking.

Over the years, I’ve taken thousands of photos of the Mormon Row Barns. It’s a challenge to photograph them differently than the thousands of photographers that have stood in the same spots over the past 75 years!  I am always looking to photograph them at different distances or different angles. An irrigation ditch runs under the road, through a head gate and then diagonally across the pasture in front of the T.A. Moulton Barn. A few times a year, water in the ditch is high enough to offer unique opportunities if you set up just above water level.

TA Moulton Barn

The photo I took earlier was okay, but it needed some extra time at the point of capture. I focused on the close bank, and even at F/11, the barn was slightly out of focus. If I had focused on the barn, the water, reflections, and close leaves would have been out of focus. Lastly, I was there a little too early in the day. Early morning shadows from the cottonwoods stream across the foreground and across the left half of the barn. Like I said earlier, was a reconnaissance shot.

TA Moulton Barn with Reflections

Return to the Scene

Weather reports are seldom accurate in the Northern Rockies. Such was the case this morning. When the weather report calls for “clear skies” I have a tendency to either stay home or look for wildlife. I stayed home and did some bookkeeping, but when I looked out my window, I saw moody clouds in almost all directions. I saw golden light on the snow covered peaks. Time to go…and I knew exactly where I wanted to go!

Some summer photographers have little use for the mid-day photography. By Mid-October, the sun can stay fairly low in the sky, and if there are a few light clouds, it’s possible to take photos throughout most of the day. A mid-morning shoot at the barns would also mean the shadows would be off the barn. The same shadows can help create a dark zone near the bottom of the image.

It takes me about 30 minutes to get to Mormon Row from my home in town. That’s plenty of time to plan out the shoot. If the conditions remained in my favor, I’d use my 47 mpx Nikon D850 and Nikon 24-70mm lens. I could use a “CamRanger”, but it wouldn’t be needed with that body. I’d want to grab my bean bag and make sure my remote trigger was with the camera. The plan would be to “stack focus” the image—meaning I would focus close on the leaves on one shot and then focus on the barn on the second shot. I didn’t take the time to do that last time.

When I arrived, I was the only photographer at the barn. There were probably dozens of them at the same spot at sunrise. Unfortunately, a cloud was covering the top of the Grand. I call them “clingers”. The rest of the clouds looked great, but my preference is to see most of the tip of the Grand. Mother Nature is great at teasing a photographer. The cloud can appear to be ready to blow off, then fill in again within seconds. I shot away, never knowing if the current set of photos would be the best of the day. I stayed with it for two hours! In doing so, I managed to get quite a few different “looks” or moods. No complaints!

At about 12:15 pm, I finally got light on the barn and light on the mountains, with only part of the tip obscured by the ever changing patch of clouds. Light was hitting the barn and cottonwoods. Within another hour, all clouds cleared. The weatherman got it about half right!

The Shoot

One of the features I like on my Nikon D850 is the flip out rear screen. When in Live View mode, it is possible to open it and look down to compose the scene, even when the camera is on the ground. Without this feature, I’d have to lie on my stomach for a long period of time. A CamRanger would work fine, but I didn’t need it with the D850. Focusing on a D850 in Live View means simply touching the screen where I want it to focus. New technology is great! Note: A CamRanger will allow you to view a potential photo on a cell phone or iPad, then focus on a spot by touching the screen, and it will allow the photographer to actually trigger the shot without ever touching the camera.


My previous attempt at the barn was quick and spontaneous. I simply handheld the camera and pressed the shutter release. On this attempt, I used my trusty Kinesis Safarisack to hold the camera and lens. I assume any brand would work, but I’ve aways liked this bag filled with plastic beads. I used the bag to hold the camera and lens to frame the shot, and an “old school” Three-axis bubble level (AKA spirit level) to let me determine if the camera was level. Most current cameras have a virtual level feature, but I like the bubble level for shoots like this. I triggered my D850 with a Vello FreeWave Micro Wireless Remote Shutter Release (RFN-4S) remote while standing next to the camera. (Note: you can find a wireless remote for most cameras. This is the one I like for my Nikons).

You’ll note in the photo above that the “lake” is actually just a few inches of open water in the ditch. I took this reference photo with a Nikon D500 and Tamron 18-400mm lens.

Bracketed Set

Part of the scene was in shadows, while the barn and mountains were well lit (off and on anyway). I chose to “bracket” the shots, adjusting the over and under captures at two full stops. Each “set” consisted of three captures focused on the barn and three captures focused on the leaves. I spent most of my time watching the tip of the Grand. When it cleared a little, I shot several sets. After taking a few sets with the peak exposed, I touched the screen of the D850 to focus close to take three new bracketed images. I did this over and over for two hours. Tourists and photographers came and went over this period, but none of them caused me to miss any shots.

Post Processing

HDR Merged

Adobe added an HDR feature in Lightroom CC a few versions back. It saves a lot of time and a lot of hard drive space! Simply select the three (or more) bracketed shots, and select the Photo Merge option under the Photo pull down menu. Pick HDR Merge. Note: I seldom make any adjustments to the three images before merging them. The program merges the selected photos into a single DNG. I did the same step for the close and far images. At this point, I made a few adjustments (hue, saturation, dehaze, contrast, lens correction, exposure, color temp, etc) on one of the two images using the sliders in Lightroom, then add the second DNG image to the selection. Clicking the Sync Settings applies the same adjustments to the second DNG.

Photoshop Layers

Currently, Lightroom lacks the option to “stack” images. This step requires Photoshop. With the two DNG images selected, the command is to right mouse click to Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop. Lightroom dutifully passes the two images with the current adjustments to Photoshop. The next step is to Shift-Click the two layers in Photoshop and align the pixels.

Auto Align

Pull down the Edit menu and run the Auto-Align Layers command.

Auto-Blend Layers

Lastly, with the two layers still selected, select the Auto-Blend Layers command under the Edit menu. The defaults under the Stack option usually work fine. Photoshop creates a new merged layer. At this point I usually save the image in Photoshop as either a TIF or PSD file. If you are happy with your original Lightroom adjustments, you’re done!

Topaz Studio

Photoshop is a great program for final adjustments. I typically make a copy of the top layer and do some “housekeeping” on it. That’s where I remove distractions, dust spots, power lines, trash, and so forth. While still in Photoshop, I often check out other possibilities using my third party filters like NIK, On-One, Skylum, Topaz and many others. For this project, ran the Polarizing Filter in NIK and tried out a few filters in Topaz Studio. I could spend all day playing with the hundreds or thousands of creative options. Almost all filters have sliders to pull back on saturation or other effects. Almost all filters work on a new layer, allowing users to dial back an effect as desired when they are returned to Photoshop.

(Bonus: Lightroom Classic CC also introduced a new HDR Pano option. It falls in line with this article, but I didn’t actually need to make panos today. This new feature eliminates the need to create three to six DNGs before assembling them into a HDR Pano. Very cool!)

Moody Skies

Post Processing can be much quicker to do than you might expect! Out of curiosity, I went through the same steps described above with another set of images from the same shoot. It took 7 minutes to create the Stacked composite image, and I spent another 5 minutes cleaning up the distractions and running a Topaz filter for a total of 12 minutes. I’ve been using Photoshop and Lightroom for a long time, so it is easy for me to go into autopilot. If you try some of the techniques described on this page, you should soon be doing them on your own soon.


There weren’t a lot of high-tech elements in this shoot. The D850 (D500 also has the flip screen) makes it easy to look down and touch to select focus points. I took the photos in Aperture Priority, with ISO set to 100 (base ISO for most cameras), and F/11. The resulting shutter speed varied on the bracketed shots between 1/800th second, to 1/200th second for the middle shot, and 1/50th second for the bright shots. The I bubble level made it easy to know my camera was level when nestled into the bean bag. I didn’t have to touch the camera to trigger it using the electronic remote and only had to lightly touch the screen to change focus areas.

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are getting more and more efficient tackling more advanced commands. The third party filters can make complex and creative adjustments a breeze!

750 Line

Best of the Tetons Photo Tours

Most people visit this area during the summer months and into the colorful fall season. As soon as the leaves drop, they often clear out, but the off season months can be equally rewarding. Needless to say, there are fewer tourists and photographers and the Park has a much more relaxed feel. October and November are great months to visit the Tetons!  If you are interested in a custom tour, Click the photo above for more information!