Closeup photography basically requires an observant and discerning eye, as well as a willingness to witness in the commonplace a display of the miraculous.
John Shaw-Closeups in Nature
All of the photographs in this post were made on my property within a quarter mile of my house. That is the wonderful thing about close-up/macro photography: there is a world of subject matter literally at your feet.
Also, all these photographs were made with my thirty-something year old Nikkor 105mm f2.8D macro lens mounted on one of my Nikon Df bodies. I normally don’t mention gear because it seems superfluous, but in this case, I have had a long-standing love affair with this lens and it still makes beautifully sharp images, so it needs to be recognized.
I have spent hours photographing leaves; cottonwood–as in these photos, aspen, willow, oak, birch, etc. You get the picture. I never grow tired of it, and I usually come away feeling fulfilled and happy with the day’s work. The first image encased as it is in ice is a bonus for me; when I’m working in these conditions, I don’t feel the cold. I get so focused that I am unaware of anything going on around me. Not such a good thing if you’re in a crowded city, but working in a field with not another soul within a mile or more, it’s an exhilerating freedom.
The everyday patterns found in the natural world are pretty much perfect. No amount of rearranging can possibly make them better, but rather it will usually leave them looking, well…re-arranged. So I take things as I find them and rarely touch any of the elements. The only caveat is I will sometimes remove a distracting element if it can be done without disturbing the rest of the composition.
This image of a small group of seed pods required a lot of forethought and some delicate maneuvering. It is a 1:1 magnification ratio, so the working distance was about twelve inches. At that distance, depth of field is measured in fractions of an inch; I needed to be sure my camera’s focal plane was parallel to the pods, and that my aperture provided a DOF that was wide enough to keep all the pods in reasonable focus, but was shallow enough to ensure a nice soft background. Add to all that the fact that I was working just a few inches above the ground and if I bumped the fragile pods with my equipment, they would be destoyed. Enough said.
Walking along the river one afternoon I looked down to find this arrangement of cottonwood and willow leaves, twigs, and grass at my feet. I actually shot this handheld (something I usually won’t do when making close-ups), so there was really no set up involved, I just squatted down, composed the image, and released the shutter.
Out again a couple days ago, I found these red birch logs lying near the river behind my house with the leaves tucked in between them. It took a while to set my tripod in the optimal position for this image because there were quite a few downed trees close to the subject and I needed to balance the legs of the tripod on them and get the whole thing close enough to the ground to achieve the right perspective.
It’s been a while since I’ve done any close-up work and I had forgotten how rewarding it can be. Getting out and crawling around in the dirt again brought it all back to me. I hope you enjoy seeing these photographs as much as I enjoyed making them.
As the title suggests, this is the second installment of my favorite images from 2015, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the year was a departure for me in many ways. It is important for me as an artist to feel that my work is progressing. Last year I was able to move my work in new directions while exploring some new territory geographically as well.
As August gave way to September, I was eager to explore the Taos Plateau which I had photographed briefly while driving across it in August. At that time of year, the plateau becomes a sea of yellow due to the chamisa and snakeweed blossoms. The wildflowers, like the mountain asters in this image, accent the scene with bursts of color.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄25 sec., f16, ISO 32
The ultimate goal of this trip was the Rio Grande Gorge which cuts across the plateau to a depth of over a thousand feet. Most people see it from the Gorge Bridge west of Taos on US highway 64. But, there are many places along its length where you can drive to within walking distance.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
I tell the students in my Beginning Digital Photography class that you don’t need to drive to exotic places to make good photographs. Of course, it helps if you live in a beautiful place. I made this image of a mule deer buck in velvet in my yard. The blooming chamisa provided the perfect backdrop.
Nikon D300 with Nikkor 80-400 lens: 1⁄200 sec, f8, ISO 1250
In mid-September, we went to Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument which is located just south of Santa Fe where the Rio Grande finally exits the gorge after enduring the indignity of being impounded in Cochiti Lake. The hike to the top where the best views of the tent rocks are to be had passes through a narrow slot canyon which affords a cool respite from the late summer heat.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄320 sec., f13, ISO 800
My favorite images from that trip were these two of Robin in the slot. The second one became the title image for my show at the Jemez Fine Art Gallery: “The Path Less Travelled”.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄160 sec., f10, ISO 1250
In September, we also made a trip to White Sands. As detailed in a previous post, the main reason for the trip was to photograph the White Sands Balloon Invitational, but Mother Nature had other plans. The lightshow at sundown was spectacular as this image attests.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 6 sec., f16, ISO 32
I love to break the rules. Dividing the frame in half is supposedly bad form, but with this image, I intentionally centered the top of the dune horizontally I think it works pretty well.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄8 sec., f16, ISO 32
The combination of the color and the peaceful quality of the dunes created a dreamlike atmosphere which I think I managed to capture pretty well with these last two images from White Sands.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1.6 sec., f16, ISO 32
Both were captured near twilight; the intensity of the reds in the sky increased as the evening progressed. By reducing the clarity in Lightroom, I was able to enhance the dreamlike quality of both photographs.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 2.5 sec., f16, ISO 32
On the return trip from White Sands, we made a small detour to Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. There are over 21,000 petroglyphs on the rocks which cover the top of a ridge a little over a half mile long. Again, the weather cooperated and the light was perfect. This image of a hand petroglyph is my favorite from that shoot.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄15 sec., f16, ISO 32
In October, we made a journey to to southeastern Utah. The first night we camped at Goosenecks State Park and explored the surrounding area. In the Valley of the Gods, I saw this lone juniper tree perched on a rocky slope below a sandstone fin.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec., f16, ISO 32
On the second day, we drove up the Moki Dugway and then out to Muley Point. This was the surprise of the trip and we spent several hours climbing around the sandstone mounds that lie along the edge of the precipice overlooking the Goosenecks of the San Juan. In this image a small juniper clings precariously to its niche overlooking the serpentine canyons and the monoliths of Monument Valley on the horizon.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄8 sec., f16, ISO 32
Our ultimate destination was Monument Valley. It had been nearly forty years since I was last there, and while there were some changes: notably, the View Hotel, the prospect out over the valley and the sandstone buttes was unspoiled. We camped within view of the Mittens. I made this image of our campsite on our first evening there.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 133 sec., f16, ISO 32
John Ford Point was made famous by the director of the same name in his 1939 movie “Stagecoach”. I did make my own version of the iconic image: a native on horseback gazing into the distance from the point. But, my pick is this image of a rider moving away from the point while clouds hang low over the valley, partially obscuring the mittens.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec., f16, ISO 1600
As we were driving down into the valley on our first day there, I noticed this raven perched in a juniper right by the roadside. I moved slowly at first , not wanting to spook him before I could get the shot, but the more we photographed, the more I realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. As we packed back into the car, he began squawking. I think he was expecting a tip.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec., f16, ISO 32
This image is a replication of a photograph that Ansel Adams made in 1958. I don’t make a habit of shooting from other photographer’s tripod holes, in fact I will go out of my way to avoid doing so. But, hey, he’s Ansel Adams.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec., f16, ISO 32
When we pulled into the North Window parking area, I saw this dead juniper along the roadside and was immediately drawn to it. There is something about the bare bones of a twisted juniper tree in this landscape that just fits together.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec., f16, ISO 32
In November I travelled to Las Cruces to photograph a group of women for a Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math calendar. On the way I took a detour through Lake Valley and came across this stand of cottonwoods still in their autumn colors. I was attracted by the contrast between them and the drab landscape, and the low-hanging wintry sky.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄4 sec., f16, ISO 32
2015 was an exceptional year for me in terms of photography. Not just for the images, but for the experiences as well. I made an effort to be more adventurous, and spontaneous in my choice of subject matter. I also vowed to be more responsive to the images themselves when it came to post processing. In all, there are thirty-seven photographs, so I will present this post in two parts. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed making them.
In late January we had a heavy snowfall which made it impossible for me to drive out of my driveway. So, I walked down to Soda Dam to photograph it in its winter splendor. This image seemed to be a black and white candidate from the start.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1.3 sec., f20, ISO 50
March took me to southern Arizona to photograph desert wildflowers. I didn’t find the showing I had hoped for, so I contented myself by pursuing Teddy Bear Chollas. When photographed in the right light, they have a luminous quality about them. I made this image at sunset in the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Pheonix. The fabled Superstition Mountains lie on the horizon.
Nikon D800 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1.3 sec, f16, ISO 50
I’ve been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash many times over the years, but I seldom explore along the southern edge. In April I decided to change that; I made this image looking northwest from the top of the southern rim. This is the section I call the Yellow Badlands. It’s like taking a look back through time.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1⁄8 sec, f18, ISO 50
In May while exploring a part of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash I had never been to before, I came across this incredible hoodoo hidden in a small ravine along the northern edge of the main wash. I stayed and worked the area for nearly two hours. This is the first of many compositions using what I call the Neural Hoodoo as the main subject.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
This black and white image was made from the opposite side of the Neural Hoodoo. If forced to choose a favorite, this would be it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 50
This final image of the Neural Hoodoo was made from the same general location as the first, but I zoomed in to capture a more intimate portrait.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec, f16, ISO 50
At the same time I was exploring the far reaches of Ah Shi SlePah, I was discovering some of the amazing and convoluted drainages along the southern rim of the wash. I made this image on a stormy evening in late May. I could not have asked for more appropriate light for this scene.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄60 sec, f18, ISO 50
In early June I went out to the Bisti Wilderness. At the far reaches of the southern drainage, I made this image of a multi-colored grouping of hoodoos. I had photographed this same group several times in the past, but I think this is my favorite. The clouds seem to reflect the lines of the caprocks.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄40 sec, f16, ISO 50
One morning in late June I noticed the chollas around my house were blooming. I set out the next morning for the Rio Puerto Valley to capture the splashes of color in that dramatic landscape. I made the first image (above) in the ghost town of Guadalupe. The return of life to the desert seemed coincidental to the ongoing decay of the adobe buildings.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
In this image, a blossoming cholla stands at the head of a deep wash as a rain cloud passes over Cerro Cuate in the distance. Even the slightest precipitation sustains life in this environment.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec, f16, ISO 50
Early on the morning of July 4th, before the road was closed for the parade, I slipped out of town and drove out into the San Juan Basin. I didn’t really have a plan other than to visit the Burnham Badlands, which lies to the west of the Bisti Wilderness, and covers a relatively small area as badlands go (about one mile by two miles). This graceful hoodoo sits smack in the center of it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec, f16, ISO 50
After completing my exploration of the Burnham Badlands, I drove west through the heart of the Navajo Reservation and arrived at Shiprock in the early evening. I drove one of the dirt roads that runs along the lava dike until I found a spot I liked. I set up my camera and tripod then waited for the light. Over the next two and a half hours, I made almost a hundred exposures as the light changed and the sun crept toward the horizon. This is my pick.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
Hidden in plain sight, just a few miles north of Ah Shi Sle Pah is the Fossil Forest. At the end of a low ridge which runs east to west, you can just make out the telltale signs from the county road: the striated color, and the deep cut drainages where geologic treasures lie exposed. I went there with an agenda: to find a fossilized tree stump. I’ve related the whole story in an earlier post, so I’ll just say here that we were able to locate the stump after some scrambling and sleuthing.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 100
In July, I made a trip to visit my daughter Lauren in Madison, Wisconsin. She accompanied me on the return trip. Early on the second morning, somewhere in central Kansas, she mentioned the large birds roosting on the fence. I had driven past and hadn’t noticed them, so I backtracked until we found them. The birds turned out to be a committee of turkey vultures sunning themselves and drying their wings. I was able to get pretty close to them without distressing them, and I managed to capture quite a few exposures. This is my favorite.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f9, ISO 500
In August we set out on the high road to Taos. The way passes through many small villages: Chimayo, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Picuris Pueblo to name but a few. At Picuris, we visited the plaza, and there, I noticed the shapes and texture of the adobe walls of a small church. This is the result of my efforts there.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄400 sec, f14, ISO 1600
Farther up the road, we took a fork to visit the village of Tres Ritos. There, in a meadow by the side of the road, was a spray of mountain asters with a small wetland full of cattails just beyond it. The dark foreboding sky intensified the saturation of the colors and was the perfect backdrop for the scene.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f16, ISO 1600
In late August on a trip to Denver, I drove up highway 285 instead of using the interstate. Late in the day, the clouds were hanging in tatters from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The grasses were just beginning to turn and the colors filled the spectrum. When I came across the trees, it all came together.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄5 sec, f11, ISO 50
On my return from Denver, I was driving across the Taos Plateau and the nearly full moon was climbing through the clouds above the Sangres. The Chamisa was in bloom and all I needed to do was find the right combination.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f13, ISO 800
Still on the Taos Plateau. The texture and colors in the grasses and sage, along with the rays of sunlight piercing the dark clouds caused me to pull over again (at this rate, I would never get home). The lonesome Ponderosa Pine anchors this image, but the thing that really ties it all together is the thin strip of light colored ground below the mountains.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f11, ISO 800
The last time I was at White Sands was three years ago for the White Sands Balloon Invitational. Since then, they have been launching the balloons from a park in Alamogordo; somehow, it’s not quite the same. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered that the balloons would be launching from the monument again this year.
We arrived in Alamogordo in the late afternoon, made a quick stop at the motel, and drove to White Sands. There were storms over the San Andreas Mountains to the west and the cloud cover resulted in a soft, glowing light, as well as a dramatic sky (right up my alley!)
One of the first things I noticed about the dunes was the softness of the texture. Usually, the ripples are sharply accentuated, and side lighting makes them stand out. But, now they were softer, probably from the effects of wind and rain. The whole feel of the place was different from other times I have visited.
The result was a calm and peaceful energy that found it’s way into my photographs. A distant figure walking on the dunes became a dream-like vision. The rain falling on the San Andreas Mountains twenty miles away was transformed into a sheer curtain partially obscuring the mountains. And all of it was lit by a soft, gauzy light.
As the sun began to set, the sky was ablaze, and the dunes were dressed in evening blue. it’s rare that I am so excited by a scene that I can feel my pulse quicken.
It was well past sunset when we had to leave for the night. But, I was quite satisfied with the images I had made, and I was looking forward to the balloons the next day.
The next morning, we awoke at 4:30 in order to be at the gate in time for the 5:30 opening. After driving to the parking area near the picnic areas, we set out onto the dunes to find a good spot from which to photograph the mass ascension. But the sky to the east was dark and the winds aloft delayed the 7 AM launch time. We meandered around the dune field making images and soon lost track of time. By about 9:30 we began to realize that the launch was not going to happen. It was somewhat disappointing, but we were having such a good time with our cameras, we soon got over it.
Once again, the atmospheric display made a stunning backdrop for the never-ending story playing out on the dunes. The dark sky provided a stark contrast to the white sand, and the soft glow rendered by the overcast made a fitting palette for the dunes and the soaptree yuccas.
My previous post: Roaming The San Juan Basin-Part 1, was about the first day of a two-day road trip through the expanse of a great bowl shaped depression in the middle of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. I spent Saturday night in Farmington and awoke early on Sunday. I had planned to head straight home from there, but as I prepared to leave, I thought better of it and decided to do some more exploring. As I drove up the road that leads from Farmington to the edge of the basin, I began to formulate a plan. I decided that I would avoid any of my normal haunts: the Bisti Wilderness, Ah Shi Sle Pah, etc. and that I would try to stay on dirt or gravel roads as much as possible. With this blog post in mind, I also decided to take a photojournalistic approach to making my images as opposed to my usual process.
I left the paved road about forty miles south of Farmington and immersed myself in the rolling, broken landscape. The San Juan Basin has numerous drainages of all sizes that carve the washes and valleys that form the irregular surface and expose the long buried geological features. I turned south on a road I knew would take me past Ah Shi Sle Pah…forbidden territory on this trip. I noticed three abandoned dwellings off to the west. The walls were of rock; the roofs, non-existent or barely there. They had a melancholy look to them; it was as though they were being swallowed by the great expanse that surrounded them.
A few miles further along the road, I saw a band of horses; one group of seven animals, and a mare and foal off by themselves. I stopped the car and walked to the side of the road to set up my tripod and the larger cluster immediately moved farther away from me. I made a few exposures and decided I would try to get closer, but the horses ran to the edge of the wash while the closest one–a stallion and probably the alpha–stood his ground and began to snort and pound the ground with his hoof. From this behavior, I surmised that this was a wild band; the tame horses I have encountered are typically friendly and will even approach to within an arm’s length.
I took the hint and returned to the car. I didn’t want to alarm the animals any more than I already had. I didn’t make it more than a half mile further when I spotted a smaller group of three white horses on the south side of the road. These were more friendly, but still more stand-offish than usual. They continued their grazing, but were wary of my presence.
Now I dropped down into Kimbeto Wash, a key drainage for this part of the San Juan Basin. I came to a tee in the road; to the left, Ah Shi Sle Pah, to the right, unknown territory. I turned right and crossed Kimbeto Wash. Less than a quarter mile further along was a road to the left and a sign: Chaco Canyon miles. The mileage was illegible. Onward.
I was excited to find a back way into Chaco; connecting the dots on a map has always been satisfying for me. The road crossed a grassy plain with a low mesa on the southern horizon. The only other visible feature was a lone hogan about a hundred yards off the road to the west. After about ten miles there was a sharp left turn and the track dipped down and crossed Chaco Wash before continuing up to the top of a high plateau.
By now, I was firmly into a spontaneous wandering frame of mind; I took a turn onto a two-track that seemed to lead to the plateau’s edge, but the road curved back and dead-ended at an abandoned homestead, complete with old cars and trash burn barrels. I’ve seen hundreds of these forlorn dwellings scattered across the remote desert areas I frequent. They always put me in a pensive mood.
Back on the main road, I soon came to an intersection that put me on the main road into Chaco Canyon. I decided to make a quick tour of the loop.
One of the most interesting elements of the ancient pueblo culture for me is the kiva. There are different kinds of kivas: many were used as places for social gathering, but most of them were ceremonial in nature. These adjacent kivas at Chetro Ketl–the second largest pueblo complex in Chaco Canyon–were used for religious ceremonies. Standing near these centuries-old subterranean enclosures made me feel connected to the ones who contrived and built these amazing communities.
Chaco Canyon is actually comprised of many pueblo complexes which were built over a span of four centuries and housed thousands of permanent residents and visitors from outlying sites. Of these complexes, Pueblo Bonito is the largest with more than eight hundred rooms. Like most of the pueblos in Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito is built close against the wall of the mesa.
A little further along the loop road from Pueblo Bonito is Pueblo del Arroyo. It is situated along the edge of Chaco Wash and had three hundred rooms; it is thought to have been built by residents of Pueblo Bonito who moved due to overcrowding in the larger site.
I had already spent more time at Chaco Canyon than I wanted to, so I made for the exit that brought me to Hwy 57 heading south. As I passed the boundary I stopped to make a photograph of Fajada Butte which rises 440 feet above the canyon floor and is home to the most famous of all the Chaco sites: The Sun Dagger site. Three slabs of rock are set up and arranged in such a way that shafts of sunlight shine through them and onto specific parts of a petroglyph carved on the rock wall of the butte on each of the solstices and eqinoxes. More proof that these early Americans were far more advanced than the “savages” they have been depicted to be.
So, with these thoughts bouncing around in my head, I left Chaco behind and continued my exploration of the San Juan Basin. New Mexico State Road 57 is not what you might expect from the designation. Soon after it starts at US 550 between Huerfano and Nageezi, it sheds its asphalt coat and becomes a dirt road in the truest sense of the word. A good rain will quickly turn it into a quagmire of greasy clay, the kind that will defeat even the most serious four-wheel drive vehicle.
So, although I truly enjoy a good thunderstorm, I couldn’t help but hope that the building thunderheads would hold their water at least until I made it to the pavement of Indian Rte. 9 twenty-five miles to the south. I was about half way between Chaco and the paved road when over a rise in the road came two beautiful horses. One of them, a mare, turned sideways in the road and seemed to be bowing to me. I was enchanted; I spent over half an hour with them and when I finally left them behind, it was with some reluctance.
The remainder of the drive on NM 57 was relatively uneventful. There were a few small clusters of hoodoos and several small herds of livestock and then, suddenly I was at the intersection with the paved road. I looked back the way I had come, again with some reluctance, and then turned onto Indian Rte. 9. Almost immediately I came across three horses drinking from a water barrel. The scene seemed to say a good deal about the nature of this remote area, so I made a photograph of it.
After its intersection with NM 57, Indian Rte. 9 climbs onto a low mesa and emerges at Pueblo Pintado, an outlier of the pueblos at Chaco Canyon. This area is still inhabited by the descendants of the anasazi people, but now they live in houses scattered across the mesa in the shadow of the ruin that was their ancestral home. Another thirty miles brought me to Torreon. It is here that IR 9 becomes New Mexico 197 and turns northeast towards Cuba, NM. I turned onto an un-numbered, but paved road that runs from Torreon to the small village of San Luis in the Rio Puerco Valley. I passed a rock ruin that I had photographed before, but I stopped to make several exposures before continuing on towards San Luis.
As I drew near San Luis and the Rio Puerco Valley, a heavy thunderstorm passed ahead of me, nearly obscuring the volcanic monolith of Cabezon Peak. It seemed a fitting end to my adventure. Even as I neared home my mind began wandering and wondering about another dirt road I had noticed meandering into the vastness of the San Juan Basin…
The Rio Puerco Valley is an arid place. The colors are usually limited to browns and sparse, muted greens. But, in a good year, when there are generous spring rains and a healthy monsoon, the desert comes alive; late spring, and early summer will see an abundance of colorful blossoms on the cacti, and the shrubs that grow and cover the landscape as far as the eye can see.
Since we are currently experiencing those very conditions here in the high desert of northern New Mexico, I was excited to see a cane cholla covered with reddish-purple blossoms as I was driving home a few days ago. The next day I packed my gear and headed into the expanse of the Rio Puerco Valley, certain that I would find it full of blooming chollas.
My expectations were confirmed as soon as I turned onto the county road that leads into the valley. The rolling plains on both sides of the road were covered with cane chollas and flowering plants in bloom. As I made my way through the small village of San Luis and deeper into the broad valley, my excitement grew. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, were colorful blossoms–mostly reddish/purple or yellow.
The day was pregnant with possibilities; the weather was stormy, and as I watched from deep in the wilderness, a cloud opened and began dropping virga over the landscape. Virga is an observable precipitation that drops from a cloud, but evaporates before it reaches the ground. I managed to make several good images that contained the event before it dissipated.
By the time I reached the ghost town of Guadalupe, I had already made over two hundred images and there was still plenty more to do. I parked the car and walked through the familiar landscape. I had photographed in Guadalupe many times before, but never with the desert in bloom the way it was now. This was a remarkable contraposition between the hope of prolific reproduction and the disappointment of broken dreams.
When you have photographed an area as much as I have photographed Guadalupe, it can be difficult to remain fresh, to create something new, but the chollas, which I usually see as just another part of the landscape, were now transformed into something more. I was able to see and use them as elements of counterpoint in my compositions. I think that made a big difference in how I saw the scene, and created the images.
One image in particular required that I step out of the box. There is a section of wall that remains standing while totally separated from the rest of the building it had been part of. Several years ago, I made an image of the wall with a crumbling two-storey building visible through the door opening. Being a creature of habit, it tried (unsuccessfully) to frame both the building and a blooming cholla in the opening. I finally gave up, and as I was walking away, I turned and saw what became the above image. I love it when failure leads to success.
After spending several hours working the location, I decided to pack up and head home. I made one last photograph before getting to the car to the drive back to the highway. But, before leaving I decided that I had to see inside an abandoned dwelling that I had (again) photographed several years previously. I wanted to see if any of the things that made the scene seem melancholy to me were still intact. The place had since been boarded up, but one of the doors was still ajar, and sure enough there was the shirt and hat hanging on the pegs above the turned down bed in the ruined bedroom of a two room shack. It made the setting seem, somehow, even more wistful than it had been when Robin and I first stumbled upon it.
So, I drove back toward the paved road promising myself that I would return again soon to photograph this place that I have come to love as much for the associations that it has as for the scenery. As anyone who knows me will tell you there is no such thing as a last photograph. Just south of San Luis I saw this image right along the edge of the road. For me, this says it all, while beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, I can’t imagine anyone seeing a sight like this and not being filled at least to a small degree with awe .
I have been planning a trip to southern Arizona to capture the spring wildflowers in bloom for several years. Something else always seemed to take priority. This year I finally just packed the car and started driving. I went first to Tucson where I lived for a short time in the late 70s. I was looking forward to seeing the place again.
The town has changed a great deal in the ensuing years. The places I could recognize were lost in a miasma of new construction, freeway signs, and traffic that bore little resemblance the place I remembered. I fled to the desert, which was really the point of the trip after all. Getting out of town took way longer than it should have, but I finally made it to Saguaro National Park where I spent the remainder of my first day lost in the healing process of making images.
I spent ten hours driving, walking, and making photographs. I wasn’t as excited as I should have been. The clear blue Arizona sky was boring, as was the light, especially at mid-day. As the sun moved lower in the sky, I noticed some clouds building on the western horizon; they were infused with a magnificent orange glow. I pulled over at a likely spot, parked the car and wandered into the desert. I had a specific image in mind and, as I walked through the cactus forest, I found what I was looking for. Teddy Bear Chollas have a kind of ephemeral quality about them, especially when they are backlit. The light shining through the clustered spines creates a halo of luminescence around them. Their soft, fuzzy appearance belies the reality, Those spines are barbed, and if you are unlucky enough to come too close, the result can be quite painful.
After a day shooting in Saguaro National Park, followed by another long drive back into Tucson (long due to traffic, not distance), I decided to head north towards Phoenix in hopes of finding more wildflowers. It was not a lack of quantity, or quality that fueled my decision; there was plenty of brittlebush blooming in the Tucson area, but I was really hoping to find some Mexican Poppies.
I took the back roads through Oracle, Arizona–one of my favorite writers, Ed Abbey, spent some time there in his later years. On the way I spent part of the day visiting Biosphere 2, before continuing on my way in search of photographs. I eventually arrived at Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction a couple of hours before sunset. Once again, I found myself wandering through stands of cholla and Saguaros waiting for the sun to fall below the horizon. Besides the thrill of the pursuit of images, the experience of solitude in a remarkable landscape is one of the most rewarding aspects of a trip like this.
I never did find the poppies, but all in all, it was a worthwhile trip. I managed to make some nice photographs, and to visit some old friends who live in Phoenix. On the way home, I stopped at a corner in Winslow made famous in song. The statue and “park” are the most noteworthy things I saw in the town, although friends have informed me that there is a good restaurant in one of the old hotels. Maybe I’ll check it out when I return in search of the poppies next year.
We have had two major wildfires here in the Jemez Mountains over the last four years. Each destroyed well over 100,000 acres leaving large tracts of forest scarred with the burned skeletons of once majestic conifer trees. After a while, you get used to the desolation. It can even have its own kind of harsh beauty.
Winter can be especially beautiful in a burn. The tonal contrast between the white snow and the black, charred trees is striking. The textural contrast between the trees on a burned ridge and a lowering storm cloud provide strong elements and tell a story of loss reconciled by time and weather. We can use such conditions to make more compelling images.
When conditions are right, the bones of the dead trees become coated with hoarfrost and are transformed into fragile, crystalline structures. You can almost hear the tinkling of their branches as they sag under the weight of the frost.
When the sun breaks through a low-hanging bank of clouds, the light is transformed; it becomes, in a way, magical. The shadows and the mist of the clouds create a kind of frame that surround and isolate the area which is lit, making it the focal point of the composition.
Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.
They come front and center when the rest of the scene is obscured by cloud cover. Such conditions reduce the clutter that would, under normal conditions, draw our attention away from them.
The last two images are successful only because of the low clouds which block the view of a conifer covered hillside. If we could see the entire scene, the trees in the foreground would become lost in the background of similar shapes and patterns. By using the softness and the simplicity of winter conditions, we can imbue otherwise unattractive or unworkable scenes with qualities that make them stand out, and render them more recognizable and appealing to the eye of a viewer.
:to be different especially in a way that is obvious
:to compare (two people or things) to show how they are different
:the difference in visual properties that makes an object (or its representation in an image) distinguishable from other objects and the background.
That is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of contrast. As a photographer, I can choose to use contrast in a literal or a symbolic sense, I have the ability to increase literal (visual or tonal) contrast within a scene in my post processing workflow. But, if I want to use contrast in a symbolic way, I must have that in mind as I’m making the photograph.
I think it’s important to point out that this article assumes the use of RAW capture. By shooting RAW, I have the full extent of the information that the camera captures, a digital negative, which provides me with many options I can use in my post-processing workflow to reach the final image that I visualized when I released the shutter.
There are several ways to work with tonal contrast in a post-processing workflow. My usual choice is the tone curve, which affords more precise control over the tones in an image. In my experience, small, subtle adjustments are best; it’s easy to go too far; a gentle s-curve is usually sufficient. Of course there are many other ways to adjust the tonal contrast of a photograph: levels adjustments, brightness/contrast adjustments, and gamma adjustments to name just a few.
Another way to use contrast is color. By finding hues that are opposite each other on the color wheel, I can achieve a pleasing palette. In both images, the blues in the sky, the subtle yellows in the geologic features, and the more vibrant yellows in the plants provide a visual contrast that doesn’t try to steal the show; instead it creates a unity bringing several elements of the scenes together.
I often make use of textures and patterns to create contrast in my work. The rough texture of rocks or plants against the smoother texture of sand, snow or certain kinds of clouds can provide visual contrast. A rough texture that is side lit will also increase tonal contrast, so it can be a double edged sword. In the second photograph, there is texture in the clouds, which reflects that of the distant hillside, while the Chamisa in the foreground provides both a color and a textural contrast to the blue areas of the sky, and the smoother areas of the ground.
By now it should be clear that most of the design elements can be used to create contrast within an image. But let’s not forget conceptual contrast. The concept or idea behind the image can also provide contrast. The first image shows a human figure nestled in a harsh landscape; it’s not the kind of place most of us think of as a comfortable environment for humans, so there is a contrast between the frailty of the figure and the hard reality of the landscape. In the second image, I used the contrast between the obviously arid environment and the blooming Chamisa to make a statement about the plant’s fragility and it’s ability to thrive in the harshest of circumstances.
So, the next time you are making or processing a photograph, remember that contrast is more than just an adjustment layer in Photoshop, or a slider in Lightroom. It is a multifaceted tool that can take your images to a whole new level.
Here we are again (already) celebrating another year and renewing the circle. In looking back on 2014, I realize that I didn’t spend as much time in the field as I would have liked to. If I made resolutions, which I don’t, I would resolve to get out with my cameras more in the coming year. That being said, I did manage a few keepers over the past twelve months, so here they are.
In March I made a drive up to Abiquiu in search of nesting eagles. I didn’t see a one. But, I did find this scene of the Chama River just north of the village of Abiquiu. The light was amazing and the way it lit the distant peaks was icing on the cake.
Regina, New Mexico is a small village north of Cuba. It has a sleepy feel to it even though New Mexico highway 97 passes through the middle of the town. This old cottonwood, barn, and Chevy flatbed were watching what little traffic was moving by on the road. It seemed a bit nostalgic to me so I made this image.
In May I made several trips to the Bisti Wilderness, but I concentrated my efforts on the northern area off Hunter Wash instead of the more popular southern section off Alamo Wash. I found this nest of emerging hoodoos in a small hollow in the surrounding hills. The skyline is populated with small stone wings which are more prevalent in the north section than in the south.
A little further along on the same day I made this image of Robin making her way across the rolling bentonite hills near the highest point in the wilderness. When these soft hills erode, the incipient hoodoos buried beneath them will be revealed–as illustrated in the preceding photograph. The process is slow, but relentless.
In August we returned to the Bisti Wilderness on my birthday and I made this portrait of Robin and me on a small sandstone throne. We were actually within fifty yards of the highway which cuts through a rocky outcrop downstream from where Hunter and Alamo Wash converge.
This image is a bit of a cliché, but I think it does a pretty good job of telling the story: these places should not be taken lightly. The badlands of the San Juan Basin, or any wilderness for that matter, can be deadly. I never venture forth without enough water and a GPS receiver.
When you shoot into the light as I did in this image, it is called contre-jour lighting. Actually this is not contra-jour in the strictest sense of the word; the sun was not directly behind the scene. But, the effect is pretty much the same. In this case, the backlighting lends a feeling of ephemeral mystery to the image.
This image was made one day after the previous one. In this case I was driving past a place that I see every day on the way home. I was struck by the intensity of the colors and by the uncertainty of the sky.
The last two images were both made at Bosque del Apache NWR. The landscape is a view looking northeast along the south tour loop. It is a peaceful image and the colors are a bit of an emotional contrast.
I hope you enjoyed viewing my images as much as I enjoyed making them, and I wish you all a happy and healthy new year.
Sometimes the best thing about Autumn is the anticipation of the first snowfall, which often happens in early October. Well, no snow yet this year, but we have had some intense skies, and along with the falling temperatures, it sure looks and feels like we could have an early winter.
Fast forward a couple days and the temperature is back up in the 70s, normal for this time of year. I took a drive through Lake Fork Canyon to capture the aspens in their autumn coats. I made the second image at the entrance to Fogon Canyon which is a side canyon from Lake Fork. There is an old abandoned corral built up against the rock walls. I think the weathered wood compliments the color in the trees nicely.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, I reached the head of the canyon. There, on a small side road that winds through the aspen groves, I made this image of the setting sun shining through the red/yellow leaves creating a soft golden glow.
Autumn in the high country is a fleeting thing. Peak color only last for a day or two, but that’s one of the things that make it special.
When I go on a photo expedition or lead a tour, I take two cameras and all the lenses I could possibly need, all packed into my Lowepro AW 300 Trekker backpack with my tripod strapped to the outside. It’s a load and can sometimes become a bit much after trekking through the desert all day. But, I do it because I know I’ll have whatever I need to capture the images that I see.
Recently, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my lovely daughter Lauren. The baggage and carry-on restrictions prevented me from bringing along all of my gear, so I made the trip with one camera, two lenses, and a flash packed into a shoulder bag. As a result, I was forced to look at my photography in a whole new way, and I am quite pleased with the images I brought home.
I made this portrait of Lauren on one of our early morning dog walks. If you knew Lauren as I do, you would also know that this is the perfect setting for a portrait of her.
I made this image at Lake Mendota, the bigger of the two lakes which border Madison on the north and south. This gull was walking up and down the pier like a miniature Charley Chaplin. It was pretty comical and I made close to forty exposures of him, but when he stopped and looked over the edge, he provided the perfect counterpoint to the fisherman.
Believe it or not, this image was made in one of Madison’s many dog parks. This one has its own wetlands complete with a green heron. Luckily, I spotted the bird before Lauren’s dog did.
This last image is of a lotus flower and lily pads in the Japanese Garden at House On The Rock in southwestern Wisconsin. House On The Rock is an amazing place and deserves more than just a nod in a photography blog. If you’re ever in that part of the world, I highly recommend the tour.
So, aside from spending a wonderful week with one of my favorite people, this trip also forced me to look at my work in a different way. Art, like anything else in life, needs to evolve; otherwise it stagnates and looses its appeal.
White Sands National Monument in south–central New Mexico is unique in many ways, but, by far, the most striking difference from the surrounding landscape is the sand from which the monument gets its name. It is actually gypsum that has washed down from the nearby San Andres Mountains. The gypsum, mixed with water flows on to a large playa (seasonal lake). As the water evaporates, the gypsum sand is left behind, and is then carried by the wind to become part of the dune field.
The White Sands dune field covers approximately 275 square miles of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. A little over half of it is part of White Sands Missle Range; the remainder (approx. 115 square miles) comprises the monument. It is an amazing place where the vegetation, and the wildlife cling to life by the most tenuous of threads.
In the summer, daytime temperatures can reach over 100° F., and in the winter, they can plunge to below freezing. If you plan to visit, be sure to come prepared for any kind of weather, and carry plenty of water.
No matter what time of year you visit White Sands, you will be treated to an amazing landscape, and the opportunity to find solitude in the dunes.
An aspen grove in the snow! An iconic photographic scene captured by the greats: Ansel Adams, John Shaw, Art Wolfe to name but a few. This is my humble contribution.
I made this image while driving home from Los Alamos. Coyote Call is a trail on the “open” side of the Valles Caldera NP. This stand of aspens is just a short distance from the trailhead. Normally, I would avoid making this type of photograph in this kind of light, but I think the long shadows in this case give the image more depth.
I captured this photo in color, but did a B&W conversion in Adobe Camera Raw, and I like the result better than the color version.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 17–35 mm zoom lens, Bogen tripod
Camera Settings: f 36, 1/15th sec., ISO 100
This image was made in my front yard just as the sun was clearing the mesa–hence the name. I like the way the sunlight illuminates the tiny hairs on the stems, and backlights the petals so the flower seems to glow from within.
I used the rule of thirds to position the main subject in the upper right of the frame, and let the stem and bud fall across the center. This creates more visual interest than if I had centered the flower.
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 105 mm f2.8 macro lens, Bogen tripod, Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Camera Settings: f8, 1/15th sec., film ISO 50.
Processing: Scanned to digital with Nikon Coolscan V, levels, curves, saturation adjustments, and sharpening in Photoshop.
Sunset at White Sands National Monument. A lone yucca silhouetted against the darkening sky with the San Andres Mountains in the background. This is the last image I made on my last trip to White Sands. Soon afterward, the light was gone, and I began the walk back to my car.
The white sand that makes up the dunes is actually gypsum crystals that are left when gypsum is eroded from the nearby San Andres Mountains. Over millions of years the dunes have grown into a moving ecosystem–the more active dunes can advance more than 30 feet per year! Plant and animal life must be able to adapt to this movement or perish.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 17–35 mm f 2.8 zoom lens, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 20, 1/25th sec., ISO 250
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, curves adjustment, and RAW conversion in Photoshop.
I made this image a couple days ago. I was just past the Valles Caldera when I spied this pair of aspen tress growing side by side, and knee deep in snow. Aspens are like an extended family in that they share a common root system with other aspens that are nearby. So, these two really are siblings.
I was striving for simplicity in this image, so I framed it tight to exclude any other extraneous physical features. I had visualized it as a black and white image when I was setting up the shot, so one of the first things I did after importing it into Lightroom was convert it to greyscale.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 80–200 mm f 2.8 lens, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 6.3, 1/400th sec., ISO 100
Processing: Greyscale conversion, contrast, and clarity adjustments in Lightroom, curves adjustments in Photoshop.
This image was made in the Ojitos Wilderness, which is less than a one hour drive from my front door. It is an extraordinary place: hoodoos, petroglyphs, incredible vistas, and a forest of dwarf Ponderosa Pines at the lowest altitude they can be found…anywhere. There is also an abundance of piñon and juniper trees. I found this juniper just begging to be photographed on our last hike in Ojitos.
We had passed it on the way into what’s called The Hoodoo Pines hike, and i made a couple of exposures, but the light wasn’t right. On our way out, the sun was low, and the light much better, so I made one more exposure, and this is the result. Sometimes being patient and waiting for the light to change can reward you with a much stronger image.
Equipment: Nikon D300, Nikkor 17–35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 16, 1/80th sec., ISO 400
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, curves adjustment and RAW conversion in Photoshop.
Another one from my archives. This photo was made while I was visiting my daughter Susan in Las Cruces. The clouds looked as though they were crawling over the Organ Mountains. I drove out into the desert East of town until I found a good spot, and set up my camera and tripod, and made six exposures.
I also made a landscape (horizontal) version.
I’m still trying to decide which one I like best. Any thoughts?
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikkor 17–35 mm zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod
Camera settings: f13, 1/125th sec., ISO 400
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Lightroom, Levels adjustments in Photoshop.
We were mountain biking on San Juan Mesa, and stopped for a break, so I grabbed my camera and we walked along a game trail. There were bluebells growing everywhere we looked, but it took a while to find the right ones. I was taken by the graceful curve of the stems, and the placement of the blossoms on this pair.
I only had my “all-in-one” lens with me, and no tripod, but I was able to get close enough, and open the aperture wide enough to isolate the flowers against a nice bokeh background. Luckily, there was hardly any wind, so movement was not a problem. This was the best out of five exposures. Again, processing was limited to curves, clarity, vibrance, and contrast adjustments in lightroom and photoshop.