photography from the ground up

Archive for March, 2011

Landscape Photography On An Overcast Day

Everyone knows you don’t shoot landscapes on an overcast day. The light is too flat to get any depth in your images. Right? One of the things I learned a long time ago is: Learn the rules, but take them with a grain of salt.

One tool that is available to those of us who dabble in the digital realm is HDR or High Dynamic Range for the uninitiated. Normally, if you expose for the highlights in a contrasty situation, the shadows will be blocked up with little or no detail in them, and vice-versa if you expose for the shadows. By making a number of exposures 1/2 to 1 stop apart, a photographer can then combine those images to expand the dynamic range of the photograph–the dynamic range is the spectrum of tonal variations from pure black to pure white that can be captured by a camera. Another effect that can be achieved by combining multiple images is a heightening of contrast in an otherwise flat image.

On a recent photo excursion to the Ojito Wilderness, I had occasion to test the efficacy of this technique. We had started out on a partly overcast day to hike and photograph in a part of the Ojito known as the Colored Bluffs. The closer we got to our destination, the heavier the overcast grew until it obliterated the sun and the nice puffy clouds that had been there a short time before. We began our walk hoping for some better conditions,

As we reached the top of the mesa, the entire landscape changed and we were rewarded with incredible vistas in every direction. The light was still flat, but the visual cornucopia before us made that seem almost irrelevant. Everywhere I looked, there was an image just waiting to be captured. So, I happily started shooting, all the while telling myself that I would have to return on a better day. I realized right away that I would need to blend exposures to get the most out of the images I was capturing. I bracketed five exposures for each scene I shot.

This first photo was taken near the point where we emerged from the wash on top of the mesa. The colors were more saturated because of the overcast, and this dilapidated fence line seemed to invite me into the canyon.

As we continued along the trail, we came across this small clump of rabbitbrush, which was juxtaposed against the colored bluffs in the background. The plant was a contrast in the stark landscape, but it also provided a harmonious counterpoint to the scene.

We were constantly aware of the overcast and the declining sun, but we couldn’t seem to turn back. We had the “let’s just see what’s over that next rise” syndrome. Finally, we came to a high place on the trail which was our “turn back no matter what” point. This is the view looking northwest with Cabezon visible on the far horizon. A fitting climax to a wonderful journey of discovery.

We slowly made our way back towards the parking area. This is the view looking west where the bike trail heads down off the top of the mesa. I was excited about the images and exhilarated by the possibilities this place holds. I also confirmed my belief that it is possible to make passable, or even great images on an overcast day. All of these photos were shot RAW with initial processing in Adobe Lightroom. They were then blended in Photomatix Pro using the Exposure Fusion tool, and final processing was done in Adobe Photoshop.


The World At Your Feet

There was a time not too long ago when ninety-five percent of my photography was macro/close-up work. I made a conscious change to broader landscapes, and now ninety five percent of my images are landscapes. Go figure! Recently, while doing some research for a photography class I am teaching, I opened a book by John Shaw, one of the premier nature photographers of all time. One of the first things I noticed about John’s work is that he doesn’t just do landscapes, and he doesn’t just do macro/close-ups, he does it all, and he does it extremely well! So, I am now in the process of trying to strike a balance between the two.

Macro/ close-up photography has one big advantage over landscapes: you can do it in your own backyard. There is a world right at your feet. All you have to do is look.

I made this first image early one winter morning on my way to work. I was walking to my truck when I happened to glance down at the ground; there were all these amazing ice forms with some of the gravel showing through. It was just a matter of setting up my tripod and taking the shot.

Winter is a great time for this type of photography. I love the patterns that can be found in ice and snow. The image below was made in a friend’s driveway one winter afternoon. The arrangement of the leaves caught my eye, and again, it was a simple matter to set up the shot. I like the slight depression in the snow around the larger leaf; it adds a little depth to the image.

Sometimes it’s necessary to get down at eye level with your subject in order to find the image you’re looking for. I found this frozen weed stalk in my side yard one morning. The sun hadn’t hit that side yet, so the small plant was still covered with frost. I was kneeling on the frozen, snow covered ground while I framed and composed the shot, but I think it was well worth the effort.

Spring is another great time to find photos at your feet. The world is awakening after it’s long winter sleep, and there’s plenty of new growth which is still fresh, not yet ravaged by the elements or insects.

The above photo was made right next to a road in the Santa Fe National Forest, and the one below in the back yard of some friends. Both were taken with my Nikon 105mm macro lens mounted on a tripod

This last image has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It was made in my yard just after sunrise, again using my macro lens. All of these photographs, except for the second one which is a digital capture, were taken with a Nikon F100, using Fuji Velvia transparency film, and then scanned with a Nikon Coolscan V film scanner.

So, the next time you find yourself looking for subjects to photograph, don’t forget the small world which is as close as a step outside your door.



Pueblo Bonito Re-visited

The first time I visited Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. I felt such a connection to the people who built this amazing place, and I silently thanked them for building it strong enough to withstand the ravages of time so I could stand in awe of their craftsmanship a thousand years later. This first image was made at the southeast corner of the pueblo.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest of a number of Greathouses in Chaco Canyon built by the ancestors of the present-day pueblo people of northern New Mexico. At the time it was built, the Anasazi’s territory covered a large area which spanned the entire Four Corners region. Chaco Canyon contained several pueblos, and is thought to have been a gathering place for religious ceremony and trading. Pueblo Bonito may have been used to house visitors as well as a large population of the local people. It was four to five stories high in some places, contained nearly eight hundred rooms, and was capable of accommodating  several thousand.

This is an image of one of the thirty seven kivas in Pueblo Bonito; two of them, the great kivas, were used for ceremony. The rest were used as gathering places, similar to our present-day family or living rooms. They were, for the most part, constructed underground –the word kiva means “world below”, and had roofs constructed of vigas, latillas, and mud. Access was by means of a ladder through an opening in the roof.

This image shows a section of the long, curving back wall of the complex. The builders who designed Pueblo Bonito used core and veneer architectural techniques, making the walls of the lower levels up to three feet thick.  These massive walls were capable of supporting more levels above as the structure grew in size over the centuries.

This last image was made from the top of the mesa behind the pueblo; it shows the entire complex, and the semi-circular design of the structure. The center wall divided the whole into two symmetrical halves, and was a design element in many of the pueblos of this era.

Sometime around 1150 CE, the ancient people began to migrate away from the area. Their sudden disappearance is attributed to several factors, including: climate change, topsoil degradation, and pressure from other cultures.¹

1. Wikipedia contributors. “Ancient Pueblo Peoples.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.


On Being Freshly Pressed

On Friday I had the honor of being “Freshly Pressed” by the editors of wordpress.com. I am still trying to read through all the comments I’ve been receiving on my blog because of that. I’m not sure I will be able to reply to them all, so I decided to write this post in response. I would like to thank the editors for choosing my blog to be freshly pressed; it is an honor, which I think comes with some responsibility. It’s not that I didn’t take my blog seriously before, but now I feel as though I have some expectations to live up to.

I would also like to thank everyone who has taken the time to view, comment on, tweet, and like, my posts, as well as all of you who have subscribed to my blog. It is quite a humbling experience to be acknowledged by so many from all over the world. I have visited some of your blogs, and I am amazed by the amount of talent and creativity that’s out there.I think this whole experience has made me realize (yet again) that we are all connected, and I don’t mean just through cyberspace.

I hope I can continue to take you to some of the places that you may not have the chance to see otherwise, and perhaps inspire some of you to visit them. Peace!


The Rio Puerco Valley

The Rio Puerco begins its journey to the Rio Grande high in the Nacimiento Mountains of northwestern New Mexico. Its course wanders through San Pedro Parks and the Santa Fe National Forest before leaving public lands near the village of Cuba. From there it follows the western edge of the Jemez Mountains past the village of San Luis, the ghost town of Cabezon, and Cabeon Peak. This first image was made along County Road 279 between San Luis and Cabezon.

The Rio Puerco is an ephemeral flow; most of the time there is no moving water in the deep arroyo that has been carved out over the ages. When there is enough water to fill the stream, it is usually a muddy brown from the sediment being carried by the “ flood”. I made this image after heavy rains transformed the channel at the place where BLM road 1114 crosses the Rio Puerco west of Cabezon Peak. It is my first attempt at HDR imaging; it may be a little over the top for some tastes, but I still like the effect.

A little farther south from this point, the Rio Puerco meanders past Cerro Cuate, and turns to the south. It is here that the river begins its journey through the Cabezon Wilderness Area. As the road begins to drop down to the edge of the wash, there is an expansive view of the valley with Cabezon on the left, and several other mesas and lesser peaks in the distance.

From here the road crosses the Rio Puerco and continues south following the course of the streambed, which, in places is more than a mile across. Several miles beyond the river crossing is the ghost town of Guadalupe, which thrived as a farming and ranching community from the early 1900’s through the 1950s, but drought and overgrazing forced the inhabitants to leave the area. Now all that remains are some dilapidated adobe ruins and some weathered corrals.

About three miles beyond the town, high on a mesa are the Guadalupe Ruins. There are about twenty rooms and three kivas at a location which commands a broad view of the valley to the north and the south. This was an outlier of the Anasazi Chacoan complex which thrived in the area from around 900–1150 CE. Like the people who inhabited the town of Guadalupe, the Chacoan people were also driven out by drought and resource depletion.

If you choose to visit this remarkable place, remember to respect the land and the people who have lived here: take only photographs, leave only footprints.