A secretive Santa's elf slipped a gray, graduated neutral-density filter into my stocking where I found it on Christmas morning.
It screws onto the end of a camera's lens.
The dark half of it, normally turned to the top, resembles sunglasses.
With this filter in place, a photographer sees the top half of a scene, say a sunset, through the lens darkly. He sees the bottom half of the scene through the lens lightly.
This allows a digital camera to recognize both halves of a contrasting bright-dark scene without over-lighting one half or under-lighting the other. It can balance the scene.
More or less.
Perchance such filters dramatize images. Perchance not.
Santa's elves, of course, do not knowingly condone faking images.
Me neither. Yet, I use Photoshop to crop, darken or lighten images as film processors have used similar darkroom techniques for decades.
Therefore, on New Year's Eve, I belatedly thanked the elf and mumbled, "Let's go test the filter."
Darlene and Nora the Schnauzer concurred.
We had a perfect day for it. With a bright mid-morning sky, an orange-pink-blue-red sunset loomed on the horizon. The view across the Columbia River from Saddle Mountain, west of Othello, should be perfect.
Optimism reigned as we motored westward.
It didn't last.
At 12:37 p.m., as we neared the Saddle Mountain turnoff to the north, hazy clouds shaded the horizon.
With the promise of a colorful sunset darkened, we chose Plan B.
Near Mile Post 63, I turned south onto the Wahluke Unit of the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.
After half an hour (and four miles) on the tooth-knocking road, I turned west at a four-way intersection.
We drove a mile to lonely White Bluffs, at 1860 the busiest transportation center in Washington, with its two blue-green one-holers and one tattered 1890s log cabin.
Nora jumped out to romp, and I followed to watch.
A wire fence surrounds the small SUV-sized cabin and its new historical plaque. As usual, a nearby steel sign that extols the penalties for damaging antiquities, such as the cabin, sports several gunshot punctuation marks.
As we left, Darlene spotted two bald eagles preening in a distant naked tree by the river.
From the intersection, I drove south at eight mph. Off to the left, light reflected on Wahluke Lake, a 1.5-mile walk from the road. Several ponds and marshes from the Wahluke Branch 10 Wasteway, or WB-10, form up the lake.
Then, three mule deer trotted onto a knoll on Darlene's side. She rolled down her window as I braked. Nora crowded into the open window.
I swung the 10-pound lens (unfiltered) at the window and whacked Darlene on the noggin. The whack knocked her glasses askew and her glance askance.
‘Oh, sorry," I managed while clicking the camera.
Darlene made an injured expression.
"Oooops," I added.
We reached road's end 4.5 miles from the intersection at 3:12 p.m. We parked at the overlook. It has a generous parking area, a circular turn-around, a covering over a re-planted area and a rock-wall barrier on the bluff.
I surmised an hour remained before sunset, not that it mattered. The sun pinpointed a faint dot behind the haze.
I armed myself with two lenses, a wide angle one with the gray graduated neutral density filter and an 18-200 mm one with no filter.
Meanwhile, Darlene, with her glasses on straight, opened Harry Potter No. 4 or No. 5 for the second or third time.
Finally, Nora and I hurried onto the bluff. She dashed all over the place while I took photos, alternating lenses and looking north, west and south.
More or less.
Well, by studying the camera's LCD windows, I concluded the filtered images had more color, more drama.
The unfiltered images seemed more natural, perhaps.
At 4:17 p.m., with my fingers stiff from the cold and daylight fading away, I lifted Nora into the truck.
"I've heard the gate at the highway closes automatically at sundown," I mumbled. "I hope we make it."
We did, although I drove the 8.5 miles to the highway in an hour and four minutes.
From there, I drove a circuitous route home. I wanted to treat Santa's elf to dinner. I owed her that much, anyway.
So, we dined at IHOP on North Road 68 to welcome the New Year.
Nora slept all the way home.
Contact Don Davis at email@example.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .
If You Go
The (combined) Hanford National Monument and Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge (including Wahluke Unit) border Highway 24, west of Othello, about 100 miles northwest of Walla Walla.
Mapquest gives several routes from Walla Walla to White Bluffs. The most direct: take Highway 12 west; turn north on Highway 395; turn west near Othello to Highway 24; drive to Mile Post 62.8 (Wahluke Unit) and 61.9 (Saddle Mountain Unit).
For more information, Google Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and/or Hanford Reach National Monument.
Descriptions of the area appear in Best Desert Hikes, Washington, by Alan L. Bauer and Dan A. Nelson published by The Mountaineers Books.