photography from the ground up

Archive for April, 2012

Time, Wind, and Water

If you’ve never been to the desert southwest, you may not be aware of the importance of water to the landscape. Not only is it the source of life for the many hardy species that call this arid environment home, but is also one of the main forces by which the landscape came to be what it is.

These first three images were made in Blue Canyon on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. Over eons, a small stream and countless windstorms have sculpted the soft sandstone leaving a wonderland of deep chasms and etching the stone with amazing textures.

Just in case you have the idea that this small stream doesn’t have its moments of glory, here is an image of a car that was carried away while the rivulet was in flood. It is now wedged firmly between the walls of the water cave.

This is the place where the stream plunges into the chasm it has carved out over the course over millions of years. I had posted this image in a previous blog about my trip to Blue Canyon, but that was a color image. I made this black and white conversion using Silver Efex Pro and put some emphasis on the structure and texture to show the wrinkles time has etched into the face of this desert landscape

And just so you know that we have our fair share of “Erosion Art” in New Mexico, here is an image I made recently in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the northwest corner of the “Land of Enchantment”.

These places can mean different things to different people: Some may look at such a place with a mix of wonder (wonder that anyone could find beauty there) and fear-fear of the unknown, fear of what may be lurking around that next bend, and fear that somehow they may, as I did, develop a deep sense of love and respect for such a harsh, unforgiving environment. One thing is certain if you take the time to look around you and think about how things work in a desert ecosystem, you will come away looking at life a little differently from the way you did before your visit.

Happy wandering! Oh, bring a GPS and plenty of H2O.


A Desert Rat’s Journal

I am a self–proclaimed desert rat; there is something about the harsh, elemental landscape that touches my spirit and makes it soar. It’s little wonder then that I recently found myself back in the Bisti Wilderness loaded down with cameras, lenses, my tripod and my GPS (not to mention plenty of water). I had an agenda: there are several well-known landmarks that, for some reason, I had not yet photographed–at least not to my satisfaction.

Robin and I set out from the parking area with our sights set on the Brown Hoodoos, the first on my list. I had GPS coordinates, but it’s not that easy. It seems a frontal approach was not the way to reach our goal; there were too many obstacles and too much fragile ground to make this route acceptable. So, we made a flanking maneuver, gained the elevation we needed, and approached from the rear. It still took several aborted attempts before we reached the hoodoos, but it was well worth the effort.

I made this image from the place where we first came upon the Brown Hoodoos. I call it “The Valley Of The Earth Gnomes”. I was struck by the implied activity taking place. Even though nothing was actually moving, it seemed we were gazing down upon a small village going about its day to day routine.

After leaving the hoodoos, we headed for the Egg Garden. I had been there many times, but I couldn’t resist stopping by to see what images might be waiting for an enterprising photographer. I found the Queen Bee right where I left her months before, but the atmospheric conditions were much better than any I had encountered there previously.

The next place on my list was the Eagle’s Nest. The Nest is another mile and a half beyond the Egg Garden and as we walked, the clouds began to gather. By the time we got to our destination, it was spitting rain. There was also lightning; I began to worry about our exposed situation and the nearly five mile trek back to the car. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for a lightning strike as I composed this image. I call it “My Inclement Muse”, a nod to the force that sends me off into such places in such weather  searching for beauty.

As we began retracing our steps back to the parking area, the rain stopped and the clouds lifted a bit. I still had one location on my list that I had not been able to find, and I had already decided that the Bisti Arch must have collapsed. I had previously come across a spot that looked like it could have been the arch, but it was nothing more than a pile of rubble when I found it. As we walked past the place where the arch was supposed to be, I turned to have a look back at the way we had come, and there it was. It was much smaller than I had imagined it to be; that’s the reason I had had so much difficulty locating it. As I set up my camera and tripod, everything came together. It was as if the muse was rewarding me for my diligence.

As we packed our gear into the car for the ride home, I was overcome by an emotion not unlike the one you might feel after finishing a good book: satisfaction mixed with melancholy. I had completed my Bisti bucket list. Then I realized that there are still many surprises hidden in a place like the Bisti; I knew then that I could easily spend the rest of my life out there and still not uncover all of the little known treasures stashed away in the washes, slot canyons, and rolling bentonite hills of such a place.


Black and White, Toning, and Split Toning

When you convert an image to black and white, your creative options don’t end there. There are several ways to convey the mood of a black and white image, and strangely they involve color. Anyone who is interested in presenting their photographs in black and white should begin by learning the best way to make the original conversion. Perhaps the most direct method is to convert the image to grayscale using the command in the Image dropdown menu in Photoshop, but easiest is not always best. Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that there are many image editing applications out there, but for the sake of simplicity and because Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are the applications I use, I will limit this discussion to those two.

A much better way to make your conversions is to add a Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop, or if you’re working in Lightroom, use the B&W conversion tab in the Develop module. In either case, you will get a series of sliders which include all the colors in the spectrum from red to magenta. By using these sliders, you can adjust the tone of each color as they appear in black and white. In other words, you have much more control over the contrast and tonal range of your monochrome image.

If you want to take your image a little further, you can tone it by checking the tint check box in the B&W adjustment panel in Photoshop. In Lightroom, you can apply the toning by using the Split Toning panel in the Develop module. The image above has a sepia tone applied to it. I normally use at least a small amount of toning on all of my black and white conversions, but if I want to convey a certain feeling, I will use more saturation in the toning. I normally use either a sepia or a selinium tone, but you are not limited to these; you can choose any hue across the spectrum.

Finally, you have the option of doing a split tone. This is done by choosing a tone for the highlights and one for the shadows. There is no option for split toning in Photoshop. It must be done in either Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. Using the sliders in the Split Toning panel, you can adjust the hue and the saturation for each of the tones you choose. The above image has a very slight yellowish tone in the light areas, and a bluish (selinium) tone in the darker areas. I chose to use a split tone for this portrait to add a little more visual contrast and interest in the horse’s face.

This last image is one that I used in a recent post. I am re-posting this color version for comparison.

I chose to make a sepia toned B&W conversion and I think this does a better job of conveying the feeling of melancholy that I had when I first encountered this scene.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering if your image might look better in monochrome, take some control over the process. You may come away pleasantly surprised.


Shiprock-The Big Plug

New Mexico is a geologic wonderland. Much of the earth is laid bare by erosion, both wind and water sculpt the land removing the softer material and leaving the harder stuff to stand as enormous monuments to a time long past. Shiprock in the northwestern corner of the state is what remains of a volcano that erupted about twenty-seven million years ago. It now stands at a height of nearly sixteen hundred feet above the flatlands which surround it. The monolith is sacred to the Navajo people and it plays a large part in some of their creation stories.

I made this first image as we approached Shiprock from the west. I saw this as a great addition to my byways project; it also puts Shiprock in perspective in relation to its surroundings. The plain stretches for miles in all directions and the great volcanic plug is virtually the only-and certainly the biggest-thing to break the horizon.

As we got a little closer, there was a herd of ponies grazing peacefully with Shiprock in the background. Close by stood a trailer with a small addition. I assume these horses belong to whomever lives there. What a great backyard!

This last image was made after we drove through the breech in the largest lava dike. It is one of six that run for miles in all directions away from the central column. These dikes were underground lava tubes at the time of the eruption, they now stand high above the ground, like Shiprock itself, exposed by time and the elements


Treading On Sacred Ground

Blue Canyon is a very special place. Of course it’s special to landscape photographers because of the incredible sandstone formations. But, beyond that, it holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Hopi people. Blue Canyon sits in the northwestern corner of the Hopi reservation and aside from being a remarkably beautiful place, it also contains the only perennial, riparian ecosystem on Hopi land

I recently spent a day with Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Office of Cultural Preservation for the Hopi tribe. We spent a lot of time exploring the area that contains the sculpted, layered formations which draw thousands of photographers to this place. It has been closed by the tribe because they fear that the fragile area will be harmed by too much traffic. I was there to photograph the canyon for a book about the Hopis’ sacred places Leigh hopes to publish.

Most of the sandstone formations are clustered in one relatively small area just off the main road, but I think I could spend a week there and never have to photograph the same formation twice. As I wandered, I recognized several places I had seen as images on some landscape photographers website. I made the obligatory exposures, but I wasn’t there to copy someone else’s work, so you will not see any of those images here. Instead, I tried to get a feel for the place as seen through the eyes of my guide, the people with whom this landscape resonates on an entirely different level.

I mentioned that this place is sacred to the Hopi because it holds the only perennial, riparian ecosystem on their reservation. That can mean many different things depending on a person’s experience. In this arid land where water is scarce, it means a small trickle that brings life to this otherwise harsh environment.

I made this image at the place where the water collects in a small pool before plunging into the deep sandstone slot that it has carved over the millennia. As the stream moves down the canyon it disappears into its sandy bed in places-never far below the surface-and then reappears farther downstream, a constant reminder of the fragile balance between life and death in this hauntingly beautiful place.


Give Me A Dramatic Sky

If you’re a landscape photographer, there is nothing worse or more boring than a clear blue sky. Don’t get me wrong, I love a crisp autumn day with cerulean skies as well as the next person, but when I’m out making images, I want some drama from above.

Luckily, here in New Mexico, we get nearly as many days with stormy skies as we do with clear ones. I have always been deeply affected by the weather; when the barometer drops and the sky closes in, I get gooseflesh and I’m out the door with my camera and tripod.

The first two images were made in the Rio Puerco Valley which is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to photograph. There are over fifty volcanic plugs, wide vistas, and beautiful stormy skies. The color photograph above is of the Rio Puerco, a (mostly) dry river for which the Valley is named.

This last image was made near the small village of Torreon, NM. I had driven past these ruins many times, but on this day something told me to stop. The result was several good photographs, this being my favorite of the bunch.

So, the next time you see a storm brewing, grab your gear and head out to make some images. Oh, and you might want to bring a raincoat.