: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.
I love my Nikkor 80-400mm lens. On a crop sensor camera like my Nikon D300, I can get the effective reach of a much more expensive 600mm lens–albeit with a stop less light. The 80-400/D300 is my lens/camera combination of choice for photographing wildlife; I rarely use my full frame cameras and wide angle lenses while I’m at Bosque del Apache–at least not while photographing the birds. But, in a deliberate attempt to step out of my box, I have lately been making some wider angle photographs of birds, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the results.
My choice of the longer lens and crop sensor camera is driven by that combination’s ability to get in close and isolate the birds. By stepping back a little and capturing the wider view, I am trading the up close and personal frame for the more inclusive approach, which, I think, makes a more informative image. It puts the action in context.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop photographing these birds in an intimate context, the wider view is just a different way of approaching the subject, of telling the story.
If you were to go through this blog’s archives and read all the posts about Bosque del Apache, I doubt you would find very many, if any, of these kinds of photographs. So, it is my intention to give you a better overall idea of the scope of the experience.
One of my favorite things about a trip to the refuge is standing near a large flock of geese when they suddenly, in unison, explode into flight. The first image is my attempt to convey that feeling of synchronized confusion that accompanies these abrupt incidents. The geese will also land as a flock, but they are more relaxed in their approach so a few may land at one time, followed by a few more, until they have all touched down.
The Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand generally take off and land in pairs or small groups of two or three. Cranes are monogamous and will keep the same mate until one of them dies. They also move from one place to another in pairs or as an extended family group.
Before I began photographing them, I never paid much attention to the habits of birds, but the more I watch them, the more interested I have become in their habits and their lives. Some of these habits can be very useful to a photographer. For instance, when they lean forward with their gaze fixed, it means that take off is imminent, so an informed photographer can be ready when the action begins.
Cranes are gangly creatures. When they approach a landing, they look like marionettes dangling from a string. Their long, spindly legs are improbable supports for their frames and their activities. But there is a certain majestic aplomb and zen-like intensity with which they carry out these movements that negates the clumsiness.
Over the years I have developed a kind of schedule for photographing at the Bosque. I usually get to the pond early, just before sunrise and then spend several hours with the cranes as they awaken and fly off to the fields for the day. Afterwards, I drive around the tour loops in the refuge looking for anything that may catch my eye. This is usually when I catch a heron hunting for his breakfast. I realize that this image is a departure from the subject of this article, but this really is the best way to tell the story about the herons. They do nest in groups at night, but their daytime existence is a solitary one. They wade through the shallows looking for a meal, and then move on in search of the next one.
It’s also during these drives around the refuge that I come across scenes like this: hundreds of geese floating placidly in a pond, drowsing, or grooming themselves. Then suddenly and without warning they explode in a cacophony of sound and motion.
Of course, there are other kinds of wildlife besides birds to be found at the refuge. bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, javelinas, and many others make Bosque del Apache their home. As we were driving toward the exit we came across this young mule deer buck calmly strolling through one of the ponds along the connector road. The two mallards swimming in the opposite direction seemed un-fazed, but stayed on their side of the road.
Bosque del Apache is located about twenty miles south of Socorro, New Mexico along the Rio Grande. I would highly recommend it as a stop on your next visit to New Mexico. If you are a photographer, and you want to isolate the birds, a long telephoto (at least 400mm) is recommend, but as this entry makes clear (I hope), you can make some great images with a shorter lens as well. The best time of year to visit if you want to see the cranes and geese is November through February, but the refuge is open year round and many of the birds and other wildlife make Bosque del Apache their home year-round.
Light can be a funny thing. One minute it’s soft, throwing just the right combination of highlights and shadows across a scene; then the sun comes out of the clouds, the light becomes harsh, and your scene becomes a hodgepodge of extreme contrast. While some photographers prefer harsh light for their landscapes, I have always looked for soft diffuse light in my landscape work. Perhaps my preference has something to do with my earlier close-up/macro work. Whatever the reason, I don’t care for a lot of edgy contrast in my photography.
If you think of your landscapes as portraits, which I do, this makes more sense. Any areas that are in deep shadow are hiding a part of the scene. Not only that, they are distracting and even extraneous. Crafting a fine landscape image can be much like writing an essay or novel: you have to finesse each element until it flows well with the rest of the composition. Of course there are times when you have to just accept the conditions you have and if you’re working in harsh light, you need to be aware of how to use the light to your advantage, and how to make adjustments later in post processing if necessary.
This can be accomplished in several ways. Newer cameras are pretty good at capturing wide dynamic ranges within a photograph. Often, one exposure is enough to get all the information needed to produce a good final image. If you are unable to capture all the tones in the scene, you may need to make a series of bracketed exposures and combine them later in HDR software or by blending the exposures in Photoshop. There was time, not so long ago, when I shot five exposures for every image, and then blended them in Photomatix Pro. Now I try to get it all in one exposure. I only bracket exposures under extreme conditions.
Post processing software is becoming much better at making tonal corrections; the highlights and shadows sliders in Lightroom work wonders on a high contrast image. High ISO and low-light noise reduction are also much better in the newer cameras, and the ability of editing software to deal with these problems in post is advancing quickly. So, the tools are available, making good, even great, images under extreme lighting conditions is becoming easier, and the results look better than was possible just a couple years ago.
On a final note, I use Adobe Lightroom 5 and the latest version of Photoshop CC, but there are quite a few very good options out there. On One Software’s Perfect Photo Suite is just one example.
Check out more of my work on my website: http://www.jimcaffreyimages.com
It’s easy to fall into a rut. It’s not so easy to climb out of one. Often when we find a certain process, or visual framework that works for us, it becomes hard to move on from there. This kind of dependency works against the creative process by stifling our ability to see things in a new way. Sometimes the only way to escape this trap is to be intentional and to actively seek new answers, new ways of seeing or experiencing the world around us.
It matters little if you are famous or unknown, creative growth demands that you evolve. It is the natural order of things. If you find a niche in which you are comfortable, it is important that you keep exploring new ideas and processes, otherwise it is only a matter of time before your niche can become a prison from which escape will become harder and harder the longer you inhabit it.
So, how do we step out of our boxes? How do we change our habits to attain a new level of creativity? It can be as easy as changing a lens to work from a new angle of view, if your work is predominately wide landscapes, you may want to start doing close-up/macro work for a while. Experiment with black and white and learn what it takes to make a successful B&W image. By changing the way you think about and approach your work, you are, in effect, flexing your creative muscles, allowing the juices to flow, and opening new areas of exploration, thereby broadening your creative potential
I’m not saying that we need to totally discard the things that work for us, but we do need to keep the edge sharp. Like anything else in life, creativity suffers from narrow-mindedness. So, don’t be afraid to try something new or different. The results may surprise you.
Photography is greek for painting with light. So, it follows that any kind of light should be fair game. Right? I have never been a shoot-into-the-light kind of guy, but sometimes all it takes is for a scene to jump out and dare me not to capture it. Such was the case with this image of Jemez Pueblo. The distant mesa and buttes were backlit by the evening sun and the cottonwoods in the middle-distance were glowing . The ephemeral balance this created was too good to pass up. What I am trying to say is that if you can successfully overcome your biases, you may find a powerful new way to express your creativity.
The second image is of a scene I pass every day as I drive home. But, on this particular day, the light was exceptional ; the atmospheric conditions created the perfect backdrop, the trees and grasses along the river were aglow and in full regalia. It was as if the entire landscape was shouting “Look at me, look at me”. An everyday, commonplace view had been transformed by the nuances of the light.
In both cases, I could easily have kept driving and missed the opportunity to make these photographs. It is at times such as these that I need to give myself a little shove, to overcome inertia and see what I can see. If I had not taken the time to capture these images under these conditions, the magic would have been lost and the same scenes would not have had the same impact the next time I saw them.
If you click on either of these images, you will be directed to my website. I am offering 20% off on all purchases from now through the end of the year. Just enter the code HOL14 (no spaces) at checkout.
It has been well documented that color steals the show when it comes to viewing a photograph. I have written about this previously, but as I have evolved as an artist, my ideas concerning visualization have also progressed. When you look at the two versions of the image below, what is the thing that grabs your attention? What is it that makes one version better or more visually pleasing to you? Do you have the same emotional response to both, or do they each evoke a different reaction?
I love the shade of green in the color photograph. All the variations of shading change subtly from one tone to the next, the trees in the background are almost an afterthought. It is a relatively peaceful image.
The second version is rendered in black and white. There is more tension between the elements because the background trees are no longer visually less dominant. Their repetitive verticality vies for attention with the more random shapes and lines in the False Hellebore in the foreground. The contrast in tonality is also more obvious in the second version, making the image more visually aggressive.
I don’t mean to say that the black and white image is more successful in portraying the feeling I had when I recorded the scene, I am just pointing out that each version places more emphasis on certain elements in the composition. The result is two separate realities (apologies to Carlos Castaneda) that convey two different emotional responses to the same subject.
Jack London said: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a stick!”. My stick is solitude, or more precisely, a place where solitude is possible. Usually I am with one or more companions, whether they be clients on a tour, or a like minded friend, but the main ingredient, the thing that makes it possible for me to fly off to a world of my own lies not in the absence of company, but rather in the absence of barriers.
If I make an image that portrays the illusion, I have accomplished my goal. In fact, there are times that a human figure is essential to complete the composition. An inanimate object can also serve to convey the feeling of isolation by providing something for the viewer to empathize with:
A weathered fence post in the midst of multi-colored badlands…
or a horse skull perched on the edge of a labyrinthine wash. These anchors add a sense of scale to the image, and allow the viewer to immerse herself in the “splendid isolation” of the environment.
Telling a story about a place using images isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it may seem. There are many layers of information; some need to be added to, others subtracted from. In the case of the badlands of the San Juan Basin, the latter is the case.
The landscape itself is in fact formed by subtraction. It is eroded by the force of wind, and water over time. Things are not always as they appear. The tree trunk in the first image is no longer composed of wood; it has, over time, become transformed by minerals that replaced the dead organic matter, making it a petrified semblance of its former self.
This layered channel sandstone was infused with minerals which leeched into the ground making it harder than the surrounding matrix. As the accumulated sedimentation eroded, the harder stone was left exposed.
Much like the landscape, these photographs were created by removing some of the information, more specifically, the color. A black and white image presents the bare bones of the subject and allows the viewer to see the underlying structure.
Most of us are subconsciously influenced by colors. We make associations between colors and a certain emotion or mood, so removing the color eliminates the preconceived idea, which in turn leaves us free to experience an image in a more visceral way.
The badlands are a visual experience; the textures, shapes, and patterns inherent in the stone and clay are extraordinarily diverse. So, whether the image is one of more intimate proportions as in this photograph of a small alcove in Ah Shi Sle Pah, or of a grander scale like the image of the Bisti Arch shown below, the simplicity of the black and white image allows the landscape to stand on its own merits.
And while the yellows, reds, browns, greens and magentas which paint these amazing places with an astounding palette, play a role in telling the whole story, the absence of those colors conveys the essence of their austere beauty.
This is actually old news; the images in this post were made in November. Other things have come and intervened and gone, so I am catching up with the past. One thing about photographing at Bosque del Apache: you never know what you’ll come away with.
Last year (2012) it was cold at sunrise; it took nearly four hours for all the birds to leave the pond. This year was different, with the temperatures barely below freezing, they were off the pond in less than two hours. So, things were happening pretty fast. These two sandhill cranes are in the process of taking off from the Chupadera Pond.
On the first evening, we photographed the fly in from the Flight Deck Pond. While we were waiting for the birds to arrive, I noticed these trees near the pond being lit by the setting sun. The water was still and smooth as glass. Another rorschach image.
I am a creature of habit I suppose. I have a routine that I follow while at the Bosque. When the morning fly out is over, I take a leisurely drive around both tour loops just to see what I can see. It’s on this drive that I usually find the herons, and this year I was not disappointed. I made this image of one catching his morning meal in the diversion channel on the west side of the refuge.
After crossing to the east side at the southern end of the loop, we came across this idyllic scene. The San Mateo Mountains provided just the right background the heron in the foreground was an added bonus.
These final images pretty much sum up the reasons I make my annual sojourn to Bosque del Apache: sandhill cranes and great blue herons.
They live in the wild, but at places like the Bosque where they are protected, we can rub elbows with them and catch a glimpse into their lives. I can’t imagine a life without a connection to such untamed beauty.
I am a photographer, I consider myself an artist. I don’t want to take pretty pictures. I strive to make moving images. A deep green reservoir and a late winter storm moving across distant mesas,
or a lone tree trapped in its winter slumber while light dances on a faraway butte, I had an emotional response to these encounters. As a photographer and an artist, I want to capture not just the way these things appear, but the way these things feel. For me, the making of an image does not stop after the shutter is released. I am not one of those photographers that proudly proclaim that they only strive to capture the image the way it was; total objectivity and nothing less.
Art is not objective. By its very nature, it must be more than that. The artist attempts to convey a certain feeling to those who view his work. This can only be achieved by making an image that is more than just a representation of a scene. To do this requires what some condescendingly call “manipulation”. I call it creating the image and I will make no apologies for that.
Imagine a watering hole miles from any village or human activity. Now imagine a bovine visitor that plods through the dry, cracked, yet still soft earth that lines the edges of the oasis. The sky is overcast and the light, while soft, still shapes the edges of the cracks and lends a beautiful glow to the surface of the moving water.
In order to make these things tangible within the constraints of a two dimensional photographic image, some work must be done beyond the framing, composition, and exposure that make up the original capture. There must be some intention to the final outcome
There are many circumstances where I am challenged to make an image that is different from those that came before. From an oft viewed roadside scene to a sudden ethereal display of atmospheric magnitude, the real challenge is not just to capture a technically acceptable representation of that scene or phenomena, or to use some cliche template to compose it, the challenge is to render it in a way that is unique to my vision.
By doing so, I hope to evoke some response to my work, to kindle in the viewer an appreciation of the world beyond the pavement where they may never have been, or where they may have been, but have never really seen.
In one of his contributions to Eliot Porter’s book “The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon On The Colorado”, Frank Waters wrote: “We measure minutes, the river ignores millennia.” And, although he was referring to the Colorado River, we can still make the same statement about any river. They carve and shape the lands they flow through not judging or playing favorites, and at times they provide a striking contrast to the arid environment that borders their banks.
The Rio Chama is such a river. It makes its way through north-central New Mexico flowing past some remote, but memorable scenery along the journey to its confluence with the Rio Grande. If you throw in just the right amount of foreboding skies and ethereal light, the scene becomes magical. It is my job to capture that magic and to cause those who view my image to be drawn in by it, to wonder what may lie beyond that bend. I hope I have succeeded.
I live in a wondrous place. The problem I have is that, being surrounded by beauty has made me a little thick-skinned; I guess you could say that I take it all for granted. So, I am putting my thoughts down in words accompanied by images, not so much to convince anyone else, but to remind myself.
Fenton Lake is a small (less than 40 acres) manmade lake which was formed by construction of an earthen dam on the Rio Cebolla. The Cebolla itself is not really a river by most standards; it is, at most, three feet wide along most of its length. But, here in New Mexico, it qualifies. I made this image on a dark day. I was standing amongst the cattails at the north end of the lake. The ridge line to the southeast burned during the Lake Fire in 2002.
One of the most recognizable and well known features in the Jemez Valley is Battleship Rock. It is composed of rhyolite and was formed when the volcano that shaped the present-day Jemez Mountains erupted for the final (hopefully) time, the ash and lava flowed into a box canyon; when it cooled the rock filled the canyon and as the softer earth eroded away, the monolith was left exposed.
Jemez Springs is a small village (population: 250) that lies in the heart of San Antonio Canyon–the canyon formed by the Jemez River. Not much has changed, visually anyway, since I first came here in 1977. This is a typical mid-week, January evening.
New Mexico Highway 4 runs through San Antonio Canyon for about thirty miles before climbing onto the flanks of the Valle Grande and continuing across the mountain to Los Alamos (yes that Los Alamos: home of the atomic bomb). This stretch of the highway is about five miles south of Jemez Springs.
In the early years of the last century, there was an extensive logging operation in the Jemez Mountains. The logging company used a train to haul the logs to a mill in Gilman. They bored two tunnels through the solid granite that transects the Guadalupe Box and when the logging declined, the tracks were replaced by a road–New Mexico SR 485–which provides access to the Santa Fe National Forest. Some may recognize the tunnels from the role they played in the film “3:10 To Yuma”
The Jemez River cuts through Soda Dam, a large, seven thousand year old calcium carbonate formation left behind by a small, unassuming hot-spring next to Highway 4. It is located about three hundred yards from my door and is a huge tourist attraction as well as being the swimming hole for local youngsters.
The second image provides a better view of the river flowing through the “dam”, and of the swimming hole; the kids jump from the sides into the plunge pool. When the New Mexico Highway Department blasted through the formation to improve Highway 4, the building process was interrupted, and the dam has been eroding since then.
Yesterday I cleaned my cameras and lenses…all of them. It took me all of the morning and part of the afternoon. I hadn’t handled my Nikkormat FTN in quite a while, but it felt like an old friend which, in fact, it is. It is the first SLR I ever owned; I bought it in 1971 at the PX while I was overseas. At that time, the FTN was a favorite of photojournalists covering the Vietnam War because of it’s sturdy construction. It is now considered a classic. While I had it out I decided to pose it next to my latest DSLR–a Nikon D800.
The juxtaposition started me thinking about how photography has changed over the forty plus years since I bought that Nikkormat. There have been many upgrades to the Nikon line in that time; I own several of them: two Nikkormat FTNs, an F3, and two F 100s. But, the changes over the past ten years have actually been a paradigm shift. Of course I’m referring to the advent and rapid growth and development of digital photography.
I wanted to do a comparison of the work I was doing then and the work I’m doing now, so I dusted off my collection of old negatives and prints to see what I could find. In those days, I shot primarily Kodak Plus X (ASA/ISO 125) and Kodak Tri X (ASA/ISO 400). I developed and printed all of these early images in a “wet” darkroom, and although I get a bit nostalgic looking at them, I don’t regret my switch to the digital realm. True to form, once I crossed over I never looked back.
This is a self-portrait I made just before I was discharged from the army. I was really into dramatic side-lighting at that time. I made dozens of portraits of friends from my unit and they are all lit the same way. When I shoot portraits now, I usually use at least one flashgun, on camera or off, umbrellas, reflectors…Seeing these simple available light images makes me realize how effective that kind of lighting can be. I do miss the catchlights though.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 50mm f1.4
My friend Kim Bong In and I went to Inchon to do some sight-seeing. I made this portrait of him at the Inchon Memorial Pagoda. Kim was a DJ at one of the clubs in Tongducheon which is the village next to Camp Casey where I was stationed. He and I became friends during the time I was there, and he introduced me to everyday Korean life, the one beyond the clubs and “working girls” which is all most GIs ever saw. I went to his grandfather’s funeral and was invited to the celebration when his son was born.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 135mm f2.8
I caught these four young chin-gus (friends) hanging out on a busy thoroughfare in Inchon. Their expressions were all over the map: unguarded disdain, shy curiosity, nervous apprehension, watchful suspicion. Ours was a brief encounter; they went their way and I went mine. But, looking at this image more than forty years later, I wonder how their lives have played out. I wonder if the expressions they wore that day reflected the men they would become.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 50mm f1.4
Once you made your way beyond the section of the village that tailored to the American servicemen, you found yourself in a different place and time. There were no supermarkets, the people bought their food at small street markets like this one. The woman in the center of the image was obviously in charge. Her produce is arranged rather haphazardly around her, cuts of meat hung in a display window. I was telling a story here. I was in a photojournalistic frame of mind.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 35mm f2.8
I got to know this Korean elder through regular interaction with him in the village. We communicated with pidgin Korean and English. I don’t remember his name, but he was kind enough to pose for this portrait. The one thing I don’t care for in this image is the slight motion blur. Because I was pretty new to shooting with an SLR, my camera technique was not very good. I remember that I usually shot somewhere between 1/125th and 1/200th second, but there were times when I would end up down around 1/60th and this was probably one of those times.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 105mm f2.8
Fast forward to 2014. I have lived in the small village of Jemez Springs, New Mexico for thirty-nine years. Not much has changed as far as the eye can see. It’s a sleepy place, especially on a Wednesday night in January. I handheld my camera while making this image. I dialed the ISO up to where I needed it to get a suitable shutter speed with an aperture of f8. I reduced what noise there was in Lightroom. This would not have been possible with the available technology just a few years ago, let alone in the 1970s.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8
I’m not big on self-portraits. But, there are times when the location demands one. I spent several years trying to find this stone wing which is located deep in the heart of the San Juan Basin. When I finally located it with some help from a photographer from southern California using Google Earth, the actual experience was a bit anti-climactic. I decided to pose Robin and myself under the cantilever with the waxing gibbous moon overhead.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you want to make good portraits, you need to be able to engage your models. It’s not the easiest thing to approach a stranger and, in a short time, make him comfortable enough to open up to you. So, when I saw this fellow at a powwow last year, I went over and started talking to him. Predictably, he was a bit stand-offish at first, but after a while, the walls came down and he agreed to pose for me.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8
My youngest daughter Susan is a natural when it comes to modeling. I made this image of her at a waterfall not far from my home. It was shot RAW as are all of my images; I converted it to black and white and added a sepia split tone in post processing. This kind of control over the ultimate look of an image is only possible by taking advantage of a RAW workflow.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8
At the end of last summer, I travelled to Wisconsin where my daughter and her husband live. We spent part of that time in Bayfield on the coast of Lake Superior. While relaxing on the porch of the house where we stayed, I made this image of them.
In looking back over my development as photographer, I see that I have come full circle. I am technically more proficient than I was when I started, and the visual journey I have made has enabled me to add another layer to my vision. It’s evolution and that’s what it’s all about.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 24-120mm f4
This is a post about gear (particularly lenses) and why I chose it (them) to make a specific image. I teach a digital photography class at a nearby college and one of the things I cover in that class is the effect that the angle of view (the angle of coverage of the lens) can have on how the image is perceived by viewers. There are four categories: broad landscapes (wide angle), intimate landscapes (normal to short telephoto), compressed landscapes (mid-long telephotos) , and macro/close-ups (macro lens).
This image of a small wash full of water was made in the Rio Puerco Valley after a monsoon rain. It is an example of a broad landscape; the depth of the image from foreground to horizon is exaggerated. I used a wide angle zoom with an aperture of f 22 to give me the depth of field I needed to keep everything sharp.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 @ 17mm; 1/30sec, f22, ISO 100, tripod
I made this image in Blue Canyon on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. It is an intimate landscape; the area covered, side to side and front to back, is relatively small compared to the broad landscape. There is a feeling of immediacy or closeness about the image, as if it could fit in your living room. I used a medium telephoto zoom set at an aperture of f 11.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8 @ 35mm; 1/25sec, f11, ISO 100, tripod
Using a telephoto lens causes an image to compress, so distant objects seem closer. A telephoto lens does not exaggerate the depth of the image the way a wide angle lens does. Instead, it causes elements to flatten, making the distance from foreground to horizon appear shorter, and making the elements in between appear more closely grouped.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 @ 200mm; 1/25sec, f8, ISO 100, tripod
There is something about the the world that lies right at our feet that is compelling. Although it is normally common and quite ordinary, given a little attention and a skilled eye it can become extraordinary. This is the world of close-up or macro photography. There is no need to travel to exotic locales when there is an unending source of interesting subjects to be found in your own back yard.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 105mm f2.8 macro; 1/60sec, f8, ISO 200, tripod.
Wow! Another year fades into memory. I have spent the last couple weeks editing the images I’ve made in 2013 with the goal of culling my favorite dozen. Image editing for me is a labor of love; I have a connection to my work, so picking “the best” out of hundreds candidates is not an easy task.
I knew from the time I made this photo of a bull elk in my yard on January 3rd that I was setting a high standard for the rest of the year. Also, not only was it serendipitous, but the image was a departure from my usual wide angle landscapes. I had been feeling for some time that my work had been stagnating, so I resolved then and there to take it in a new direction.
In early February, I ventured into an area along US 550 that I had been looking at as a shooting location for some time. I was drawn by some red sandstone pinnacles that were visible from the highway. As I walked toward them, I came across this old section of road that is slowly eroding, being reclaimed by natural forces. The scene made me realize how impermanent our impact on nature really is. In the end, this is the image that stood out above the others I made that day. Again: serendipity.
As the year progressed, I found myself revisiting some places I had been before. The image of the church on San Ildefonso Pueblo (a scene I had driven past countless times before) is more about the light than the subject matter. It is also a more visually compressed image than is usual for me due to my use of a longer focal length lens.
Every year at the end of May–Memorial Day Weekend to be exact–the Pueblo of Jemez hosts the Starfeather Pow Wow. Hundreds of native dancers from across the country come to dance and compete. I made hundreds of images that weekend, but this portrait of two brothers stood out. They are dressed in “dog soldier” head-dresses, hair-pipe breastplates, and feather bustles, all made by their father. Just before I released the shutter, I told them to give me some attitude. I think they did a pretty good job.
Anyone who is familiar with my work, knows that I spend a great deal of time in the Rio Puerco Valley. It was near the middle of July and the rains had just started after several months of searing heat and cloudless skies when I made this image. There are many possible causes for this animal’s demise, but the location of its desiccated remains along a now rain-filled wash and the rain falling from a heavy sky tells an ironic story about the uncertainty of life in this harsh environment.
And speaking of harsh environments, the Bisti Wilderness in July can be a sobering place. The temperatures can soar to well over 100°F. I usually try to discourage clients from booking a photo tour during this time, but if the monsoons have started, it can be relatively pleasant and the cloudy skies lend a sense of drama to the scene. I made this image of one of my clients pondering the maze in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness.
From a land of parched earth to a place where water is omni-present; my travels took me to Wisconsin in August. On a day-trip to Olbricht Botanical Gardens with my daughter, I made this image of the Thai Pagoda. Normally I steer clear of this kind of symmetry in a photograph, but the structure, and the entire environment seemed to demand it.
Autumn is the best time to be in the badlands, especially if the atmosphere cooperates. Even though the ground was soft and the washes were running from the rain, there were still cracks in the earth. It was as though the soil had a memory of the scorching it normally receives and refused to let go. After processing this image, I realized that it was best to convert it to black and white.
During the months of September and October I spent a great deal of time photographing the trains of the Cumbres-Toltec narrow-gauge railroad which runs from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado. I spent every weekend for nearly a month chasing the trains and the fall colors. In the end, my favorite image had nothing to do with color and everything to do with the train, the track and the trestle.
To most people, in the US anyway, November means thanksgiving. For me it is my annual trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years, I have come to relish my time with the cranes, herons, geese, and other waterfowl that call the Bosque home during the winter months. Even though I have thousands of images of the birds flying, taking wing, landing, wading, eating, and doing whatever else it is that they do, I still managed to make two of my favorites there in 2013.
This first is obvious and familiar: a crane in the process of taking off from one of the ponds to fly to the fields where he will spend the day foraging. The second is a departure from my normal Bosque images, but one that illustrates the reason that I keep returning year after year.
In December I travelled by train to visit my oldest daughter (an adventure I wrote about in my previous blog entry). Chicago’s Union Station was a surprise to me. I made several images inside the station and when I wandered out the doors to Canal Street, I found this scene. I was immediately drawn by the fact that while some of the elements had symmetry–there’s that word again–some didn’t. And of course the cherry-on-top: the wet pavement reflecting the lights and columns.
I recently took the Amtrak Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Chicago. I was excited because it was my first time on a train and the possibilities for meeting people seemed endless.
While I was waiting for the train in Albuquerque, I heard a soft voice say something about standing so close to the tracks, and how dangerous it was. It was Reba the baggage handler. When I assured her that I would move before the train arrived she relaxed and we introduced ourselves. My journey was off to a good start.
Once the train pulled in, the activity on the platform increased: people arriving and departing, hawkers selling southwestern doodads, and the car attendants and conductor directing people to their seats. My excitement about the trip was not because I am provincial; I have travelled quite a lot by plane and by car, but flying is so impersonal and efficient and driving rarely takes me off the beaten path. Taking the train, on the other hand is a mode of transportation that invites interaction with others while affording the opportunity to engage the landscape (even if it is a fleeting engagement).
Along the route, we passed through small towns situated at the edges of the so-called modern world, towns with no big box stores and no motel/restaurant franchise row. The people who live in these places, live life at a slower pace where the most excitement they might have is watching the train come into the station. Lamy, New Mexico is such a place; the last census reported that 237 people lived there. And, even though it is less than twenty miles from Santa Fe, the feel of the place is definitely backroads, small-town.
There are memorable characters to be found just about anywhere, and the train was no exception. Clarence introduced himself to me not more than a minute after we left the Albuquerque station. He noticed my camera and informed me that he had been a photographer for Life magazine. As the trip progressed, I also learned that he was a CIA operative as well as a mortician. It was near the end of the journey when he appeared in this getup and soon had the entire car singing Christmas carols. Clarence didn’t know more than a few words of each song, but that didn’t stop him, he just hummed his way through until he came to a part that he knew.
I was surprised to see a fairly large number of Amish riding the train. I asked one of them about this and was told that they are not allowed to travel by air, so they do their long distance traveling by rail. I photographed this young Amish man along with our train at Union Station in Chicago.
I had never been in Union Station before and as I began making my way up through the bowels of the building to find my connection, I saw a sign that pointed the way to The Great Hall. I followed it and came into this wonderful space. At one time it was the center of activity in the station; now it is used for events and as a tourist attraction: several movies have been filmed there and the architecture is breathtaking.
I was drawn to the stairs that descend from street level. If you have seen the movie “The Untouchables”, you may recognize it as the stairway from the baby carriage scene. As you proceed up the stairs and out onto Canal Street, you will find yourself in this beautiful portico. The lighting was too much to resist.
The next leg of my journey was by bus and I was suddenly back in the rat-race: people plugged into their phones or staring at their computer screens as we crawled through Chicago traffic.
What is it about a black and white image that fires our imagination? How does the removal of color from an image have such profound effect on what that image says to the person viewing it? In this post I am going to look at three of my photographs and discuss how the black and white versions differ from their color counter-parts.
This first image was made at Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. The gibbous moon was riding low in the sky and I captured its transit behind this rock formation. In the color version, while the moon is still center stage, it is overpowered by the strong contrast between the complimentary colors in the sky and the orangish brown rock.
In the black and white image, the moon regains its prominence; even though it is relatively small in the photo, the contrast between it and the dark sky gives it some visual weight in the frame. The foreground is suddenly more about the mudstone supporting the rock, again because of the lighter tones in that part of the image.
Another element that benefits from a black and white conversion is a textured pattern. This image of the cracked earth near the Eagle’s Nest in the Bisti Wilderness does pretty well in color, but when converted to black and white, the texture in the foreground becomes more prominent.
The image is suddenly more about the dry cracked earth which was my intent.
Sometimes it’s more about the overall feel of the image. This last photo of the Cumbres-Toltec was made as the train was crossing the bridge over the Chama River. I like the color version but the mood isn’t quite right. By converting the image to black and white and then adding a sepia split tone, I was able to pull the image together and give it a more somber voice.
There are many ways to accomplish a monotone conversion using Photoshop, Lightroom, or any of the other image editing applications that are available. The most important part of the process, I believe, is having the ability to control the tones as they relate to the colors in the original image. By using the B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop instead of a greyscale conversion (which dumps all of the color information), or the HSL sliders in Lightroom you can adjust these tones individually and your results will have more visual punch.
For the past month I have been learning to play the fascinating sport of train tag. It involves learning the route and the timetable of a certain train that runs between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. After becoming familiar with these elements, the next step is to drive from one point to another along the train’s route; the trick being to arrive at the next place in time to set up a shot before the subject arrives. After several weeks practice, I became pretty adept at getting to the good spots and making the images I wanted.
I made this image the first day I went up to try to get some fall photos of the train . It was mid September, way too early for fall color. I’m glad I went though, because it took several tries to get it right. The more I worked the scenes, the more intimate I became with the environment and the train’s schedule. As a landscape photographer, I rarely need to worry about time restraints, so this was a good experience for me.
The second image was made at the beginning of October. The leaves were just starting their transformation and I noticed that some of the trees were pretty dull, going almost immediately to brown. I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with the greater than usual scarcity of moisture we’ve been experiencing here in the southwest.
Fast forward another week and I finally found what I was looking for; the aspens had reached peak color. Even though some of them were still wearing green, I knew that this was probably the optimal time, so I had to make the best of it. This image shows the train making its way through an aspen grove about five miles north of Chama.
Farther up the route, the color was already gone and the first snow was beginning to cover the ground. I figured the same would be true at the lower altitudes within a few days, so this had to be it. It was also the end of the season for the train so this definitely had to be it.
To finish things off I wanted to capture the train approaching its destination (in this case Chama), so I began looking around and with Robin’s help, managed to find this trestle about a half mile north of the station. We raced the train down through the canyon stopping to photograph at all the good vantages and then made a mad run for the road that brought us close to the trestle. We had to make it in time to run across the trestle ahead of the train to get the image I wanted, but it was well worth the effort.
As the train came closer, I chickened out and moved from the center of the tracks before I made this final image.
I have lived in the desert southwest for nearly forty years. So, when I suddenly find myself in an environment where water is plentiful, I am taken a little by surprise at the seemingly extravagant abundance.
Such was the case when I recently travelled to Wisconsin to visit my daughter and her husband. We spent a great deal of time exploring the natural wonders in and around Madison where they live. While visiting Olbricht Gardens, I was especially impressed by the Thai Garden and Pavilion. There are several reflecting pools and a fountain which has a gravel bottom. The contrast between the smooth surface of the water and the rough texture of the gravel provides a nice touch to the image of the pavilion below.
The Thai Pavilion is constructed of plantation grown teak and finished with gold leaf. It was built in Thailand, then de-constructed, transported to Madison and re-constructed on-site by Thai craftsmen. There are no nails or screws in the entire structure.
Not to be outdone by a fountain, Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world, made a lasting impression on me. It covers over thirty two thousand, eight hundred square miles. We paddled twelve of those miles in kayaks while exploring the sea caves at Apostle Island National Lakeshore.
I made this image from my kayak while my daughter’s friend Karin was paddling through a sea stack about half way through the trip. Lauren and Prasanna, her husband, can be seen to the right of the stack. In the image below, Karin’s kayak rests on a remote beach where we stopped for lunch.
After lunch and a short break, we began the trip back. I made this image of my daughter and her husband paddling their kayak with Karin and the expanse of Lake Superior beyond them. I kept my camera in a water-proof bag, so each time I wanted to make a photograph, I had to take it out of the bag and then put it back in being careful not to drop it in the lake.
Below is one last image of Karin who is an experienced kayaker as she makes her way through the deep waters of the lake with Sand Island, one of twenty-two islands in the Apostle Islands archipelago, in the distance.
I spend a lot of time these days in one of several badlands in the San Juan Basin. These images are from a tour I led recently in the Bisti Wilderness. I normally take a tripod whenever I go out photographing, but recently I have been leaving it at home when I lead tours.
The main reason is that I want to be able to devote my time to my clients and the time involved with setting up my tripod every time I make an image is a distraction.
Also, shooting handheld puts me in another frame of mind, one where I have more freedom to shoot from the hip. I think it also has an an positive effect on my creative vision.
At one point, I saw my client down in the rocks looking around for a shot and was able to capture this image of him processing the scene. If I had to fiddle with my tripod, I doubt the image would be as spontaneous.
I’ve also found that I make images that I would normally pass up. This one is an example; at first glance, I wasn’t really that impressed by this scene, but, I did like the cracks in the foreground. I’m glad I decided to make this photo, after spending time processing the image, it’s grown on me.
This petrified log is half exposed in a small wash in a remote section of the Bisti Wilderness. There are several other relatively large logs in this same area. Actually, I’ve taken this photo before, but I like the light much better in this version.
As we were packing up to leave in the parking area, this group of riders approached us. I called them over and we shared some water with them, then they posed with their horses.
It was a fitting end to the tour and my clients were overjoyed.
The Great San Dunes National Park in southern Colorado is one of those places that take you by surprise, at least it did me. All of the images I had seen of the place did not prepare me for the actual experience. You begin to see the dunes from quite a distance, and they grow ever larger as you draw closer.
With the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as a backdrop, the visual contrast is immediately evident. The rugged peaks of the range make the dunes appear soft and sensual.
But the contrasts don’t stop there. The interface of the sand dunes with the surrounding ecosystems teem with biodiversity. There is sage, and there are ponderosa pines. There is a perennial stream (Medano Creek) which serves to return the sand which is blown off the dunes and into the mountains back to the base of the dune field. And, of course there is an abundance of wildlife, from the small to the large, insects and prairie dogs to deer and mountain lions.
Then there are the dunes themselves which tower as high as six hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. It is an almost surreal scene; imagine part of the Sahara Desert dropped into the middle of the Rocky Mountains.
As you move from one zone to the next, it is a subtle thing. The ecosystems are feathered into one another so there is no definite boundary, but from certain perspectives, the change can seem abrupt.
The Starfeather Pow Wow at Jemez Pueblo is a popular gathering among Native American dancers. They bring with them their songs, drums, dances, and dancing regalia. The result is a sight to behold: whirling, colorful costumes, with feather, bone, and beaded accessories provide a visual symphony for locals and visitors alike.
The Starfeather Pow Wow is held each year on Memorial Day and is considered one of the highlights of the Pow Wow season. The first image shows a dancer’s feather bustle swaying with his movement during an inter-tribal dance. The singing for the dances was performed by fourteen individual drum teams from across the country. The drums provide the rhythm for the dance and the vocalizations describe the basis for interpreting the movements.
These two native beauties are from Utah and Arizona. They are dressed in colorful, traditional jingle dresses, and carry eagle and turkey feather fans. Collecting or possessing eagle feathers is against the law except for American Indians who use them for ceremonies and gatherings. To native people, feathers symbolize freedom, honor and strength.
I have lived near and known Native Americans for close to forty years, but when I saw this guy, I immediately thought: quintessential American Indian. He is Mescalero Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa, and lives in southeastern New Mexico. He told me that he’s been dancing since he was three years old.
A transplanted Lakota Sioux who now makes his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico performs in the “Golden Years” dance competition, a special category for those fifty and over.
These two “Little Warriors” captured the imagination of the crowd in their traditional “dog soldier” costumes and headdresses. Notice the “attitude” in their expressions. The hair-pipe breastplates, feather bustles, and headdresses were made by the boys’ father.
There was a time not so long ago when I would have gone to extraordinary lengths to exclude anything man-made from my images. But I slowly came to realize that I was being narrow-minded and losing some great photo opportunities. After removing the blinders from my artistic vision I suddenly became aware of new possibilities with subjects I would have previously rejected without a second thought.
I first came upon this car about five miles from where it now sits in the Rio Puerco Valley. I had made a second trip to its original location only to find it had been removed. I thought it odd that someone had gone to the trouble of dragging it out of the small side canyon accessible only by a two track dirt road, but then I thought that perhaps the BLM was making an attempt to tidy up the valley. It is, after all, a wilderness study area. Imagine my surprise to find the old, rusted, topless vehicle parked (for lack of a better word) in the “yard” of a tumble down adobe/rock house not far from Cabezon Peak.
I made this second image while driving through the panhandle of Texas. This whimsical installation lies along Interstate 40 east of Amarillo; I had my youngest daughter in mind when I was making the exposures. She loves VWs.
The image of the bus and the car were made along Torreon Wash near the Empedrado Wilderness Study Area near Cabezon Peak in the Rio Puerco Valley. The bus sits on rusted wheels and is full of old insulation and rat droppings suggesting that it is (was) being used as a storage shed for some nearby construction.
The car sits near an adobe/rock ruin. It is sunk to the rims in the clay soil and so its fate appears to be sealed.
This 1950s era Ford is parked in front of one of the rooms at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. There are several other old vehicles parked in front of other rooms. I can’t be positive, but I highly suspect that the creators of the Disney animated movie “Cars” may have used the Wigwam as a model for the motel in the movie.
The last image was the result of accidentally being in the right place at the right time. I was driving from Albuquerque to Los Alamos by way of Santa Fe. I pulled off I-25 at the exit where the AT&SF rails cross beneath the interstate. My plan was to get down on the tracks to make an image for my Road Series (as in rail ROAD). As I was walking across the bridge above the tracks on the frontage road, I heard the whistle and soon after that I saw the Amtrak Southwest Chief come through the cut and approaching the bend in the distance.
I made my annual “pilgrimage” to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge last weekend. I came home with well over fifteen hundred images to work through. I’m not finished, but I do have some “keepers” from the first batch of processing.
The first image was captured early on Saturday morning at the North Chupadera Pond along Highway 1. I was looking for a full wing shot, but was having trouble catching one.
I have a pattern that I follow while at The Bosque in order to optimize my interaction with the birds. After the cranes have all flown off from the ponds where they spend the night, I drive the entire loop looking for whatever might be there. I can usually find a Great Blue Heron along the edge of one of the channels that run through the refuge, and this year was no exception. This one seemed to be dozing off and on while waiting for his breakfast to appear.
There was certainly no shortage of take-off images. The cranes signal their intention to get airborne by leaning forward and stretching their necks as if they are testing the wind (perhaps they are). If you are a photographer waiting for some action, this should be a heads up that things are about to get interesting.
I captured both of these images as the cranes were running to reach the speed they need to take off. The movement in these images is horizontal and normally calls for a landscape orientation, but when I took the second photo, I was looking for something specific which would be better served by a portrait orientation.
My patience was rewarded when this lone crane spread his wings. The reflection was a bonus.
There is no shortage of adobe ruins in the American southwest and there is also no shortage of photographs of those ruins. This poses a dilemma for photographers who want to find fresh ways of capturing an image.
So, how many ways are there to photograph ruins? I decided to share some of my techniques for making eye catching images of an often photographed theme. In the first image, I asked myself: “What drew your attention to this scene in the first place?” The answer: the corrugated tin roof and the color and grain of the door. So, I made a selection of those elements, inverted the selection, converted it to B&W, and added a sepia tint.
I made the second image in the ghost town of Guadalupe, New Mexico in the Rio Puerco Valley. I had photographed the two storey ruin many times, but this time I was looking for something different. I was walking around the small village, in and out of various ruined buildings when I saw this image just waiting for me. By framing the larger building in the doorway, I managed to say more about the entire village while still making a fresh image of the subject.
Here is a more intimate scene. By de-saturating the adobe walls and warming the remaining color, I was able to create the effect of a glow from the inside of this old ruin.
This last image was taken from an overlook several hundred feet above and about an eighth of a mile from the Mummy Cave Ruin in Canyon del Muerto, a side canyon of Canyon de Chelly. I used my 80-200 f2.8 Nikkor lens at 200mm. I thought about putting on my 400mm lens to get a tighter shot, but then realized that this magnification was perfect: it allowed me to show the subject in context; including the towering rock face above the ruin says much more about it than if I would have zoomed in for a tighter crop.